A few months ago, Odd Future frontman, sock dealer, and professional internet troll Tyler, the Creator took to Twitter to vent about the sound quality of his forthcoming album Wolf: "THIS WAS MY FIRST TIME MIXING AND IT MADE ME HATE MIXING CAUSE IT CHANGES THE WAY A SONG SOUNDS. I LIKE IT SHITTY AND DISTORTED FUCK SONICS." Later, he told Fader that he "had to" get it mixed properly "because of sonics and some other stupid shit that they explained."
The rant reminded me of an interview I read with electronic musician Terre "DJ Sprinkles" Thaemlitz earlier that week, which expressed a similar sentiment-- albeit in less personal and more thoughtful terms: "Low-quality is where it's at… It's important to place value within the 'low' in order to counter conventional associations between the terms 'good,' 'high quality,' and 'upper class.' I'm not talking about celebrating kitsch, or that kind of petit-bourgeois trivialization of the 'low.' I'm talking about finding other values in the 'low' that cannot find expression within a language developed to express everything in terms of 'low vs. high.' This is ultimately about the identification of other values amidst class struggle."
Thaemlitz was talking about house music, early Chicago house in particular, but the theory can directly be applied to rap as well . SHITTY AND DISTORTED FUCK SONICS are the backbone of hip-hop: four-tracks and dubs and dudes who don't know how to hold their mics and DJs who get their levels wrong and low bit rate samplers. Rap didn't start sounding "good" until about 20 years into its existence and even then the genre's sonic integrity continued to ping-pong from one artist to the next. Dr. Dre raised the bar with The Chronic then RZA let it rot out from the inside with 36 Chambers. Timbaland and the Neptunes elevated the hip-hop mix to accommodate their spacecraft-sleek stutters, while Mannie Fresh and Beats By the Pound made B-movie facsimiles of similar ships crashing.
As we saw with DJ Screw, the mediums of hip-hop trampled fidelity, too. And to a comforting effect. In the 80s and 90s, it was tape hiss from dubs of dubs. In the 00s, it was 96 kbps mp3s ripped to and from Imeem, YouTube, or Myspace-- the circumstances that likely defined Tyler's preference for unmixed or poorly-mixed music.
Some of hip-hop's greatest moments were borne out of mistakes or accommodations-- the things that the rest of the world saw and heard as ugly became the norm for rap fans.
It's not just a question of sonic fidelity, either. Hip-hop thrived under a "take what you can and make something out of it" ethos. Don't have drums? Take them off your parents records or, later, find a machine that'll do the work for you. Labels won't listen to your demo? Press up your own records or, later, dub a tape. Nobody's giving you a video budget? Tape yourself on a camcorder and send it to local access. In hip-hop, this DIY approach was never as explicitly politicized as it was in punk or indie, it was mostly circumstantial and evolutionary. But that relative obliviousness made it all the more subversive. Hip-hop tore down all class norms without even thinking about it. Singing was beautiful; rappers spoke. "Real" instruments were sophisticated; producers abandoned them. Some of the greatest moments in the genre have been borne out of mistakes or accommodations . The things that the rest of the world saw and heard as ugly became the norm for rap fans.
When recording their oft-overlooked lo-fi rap classic Straight Out the Jungle, Native Tongues founders the Jungle Brothers had become so accustomed to two-turntable-and-a-mic live shows and daisy-chained pause tapes that they refused to record through any high-end gear once they finally did get into a big-kid studio. They plugged their mixer directly into the tape and rocked. "We wanted to vibe, we didn't want machines getting in the way," member Baby Bam told the Preserving the Culture podcast.
Tyler seemingly doesn't have that option today. His crew's rapid ascension from underground darlings to underground darlings with an enormous budget behind them might represent a tipping point for fidelity standards within their particular corner of the hip-hop community. Odd Future got on by playing the lo-fi game well. They wore the influence of undeniable masters like Eminem and the Neptunes and MF Doom quite blatantly, but notably filtered them through limited resources and the sprawling imagination of warped teenaged minds. Even when they fell short of their predecessors in terms of craft, they compensated by twisting everything about these reference points into something messy and personal and distinctive.
Strip them of that corroding effect, and we're left with stuff like "Domo 23", Wolf's hideously bright lead single. In terms of composition and overall demeanor, the track and its respective video aren't all that different from the old days of Odd Future. Tyler bounces around and makes dumb jokes, his friends act wild and crazy in the video. But there's this insufferable plasticine cleanness to both the sound and visuals. Nothing much has changed but the fidelity and yet it's one of the least enjoyable songs of his career .
But certainly a record that bleeds like, say, Domo Genesis' Rolling Papers, could never sit on the shelves at Best Buy. Well, it could, but it won't. Because the industry now possesses the force to smooth-out the mistakes that have historically made rap so interesting. This divide is more easily outlined in terms of visual fidelity. It's the difference between a Lil B video and a Trinidad James video. It's the difference between Main Attrakionz and A$AP Rocky.
High-brow and pseudo-high-brow aesthetics have begun to eclipse content in underground rap , leaving a trail of hollow pretty things in their path. There's a whole chain of dominos affecting this change, from the over-valued buzz cycle that's dictated by rap-slash-fashion and fashion-slash-rap magazines, to the increased visualization and pace of the rap internet, to fucking Kanye West, to that old-fashioned rap-game class divide that seems to hover perpetually over this column . The long and short of it is that shitty and distorted rap records can't be expected to cut their way through the fray anymore, and uglier rap videos are relegated to the WorldStar slums, where they rack up views but are never are given a chance to cross over. So when the option of not letting machines get in the way of this perceived ugliness arises, artists have no choice but to take it.
Whereas artists once worked blindly in their individual bubbles, they're now equipped with the same instruction manuals and a uniform set of tools.
Another internet-bred underground rapper, Spaceghostpurrp, recently expressed his own frustrations about the recording of his own well-polished and mostly-ignored 4AD debut from last year, Mysterious Phonk. "It came out sounding watered-down," he recently told MTV Hive. "If I could go back, I’d make it more raw." Purrp's circumstances are a little different than Tyler's though, as he made his name less on his own great mistakes than on his ability to perfectly duplicate those of a bygone era.
Purrp's output seems especially emblematic of modern digital trends. Creative technology has slowed while social and information distribution technology has swelled. Everyone is making music on similar devices and pirated software at this point (the days of scrounging up whatever drum machines that fell off of the back of a truck are behind us). And everyone is studying the same YouTube tutorials to achieve the same tone of high-brow refinement. Whereas artists once worked blindly in their individual bubbles, they're now equipped with the same instruction manuals and a uniform set of tools. Thus, replication and refinement are the mottos of the day, at the expense of all the amazing mistakes that used to come with the act of simply getting in there and figuring it out. Now that it's theoretically as easy to make something that's pretty as it is to make something that's not, how will rap ever be ugly again?
 Which makes sense, given that the two genres came out of roughly the same era, subject to many overlapping social circumstances and technological developments.
 Two of many enduring rap tropes that were borne of legendary accidents: Milk Dee butchering the "Impeach the President" break to create the now-equally-revered "Top Billin'" drum sequence or Pow Wow from the Soul Sonic Force forgetting his lyrics while recording "Planet Rock" and vamping the surely superior gibberish of "zuh-zuh zuh-zuh zuh" in their place.
 To its credit, much of the rest of Wolf is more musical and empirically prettier in terms of composition than much of Tyler's earlier efforts, in a way that should theoretically warrant a greater emphasis on recording quality. The rough mixes might actually sound as superior as Tyler seems to believe, but it's understandable as to why the powers behind the record would've preferred to roll the dice on an actual mix and master job.
 It's no coincidence either that all of these acts have emerged from media and/or tech hubs-- Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, the Bay Area. Places where finding a friend with a Pro Tools rig and a home studio, or a nice DSLR camera and a steady hand, or an aspiring manager tapped into a popular blog are all well within reach. Artists from Memphis or St. Louis or Baltimore are less likely to have the the resources or framework necessary to strive for the level of refinement required for them to even eat at the same table as a Trinidad or a Rocky. That's digital democracy for you.
 Just to be clear, this isn't some sort of conscious hip-hop head's cry for integrity of subject matter or whatever. When I say content I just mean songs that rest on something tangible-- songs that are catchy, songs that are effective, songs that have ideas, songs that make you feel things, songs that you will not purge in under 10 minutes even as you reblog a screencap from the video.
Richard Hell is central to discussions about the early punk scene in Lower Manhattan, though he’s also transcended that space. In 1972, he founded the Neon Boys with childhood friend Tom Verlaine. They went on to expand the band and rename it Television in 1973 and, along with Patti Smith, were one of the first acts from the scene to play CBGB. After Hell quit Television over creative differences in 1975, he formed the Heartbreakers with Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders, shortly after the two had left the New York Dolls. Hell was a handsome, magnetic figure and, a year later, he formed his own band, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, releasing a couple of Lester Bangs-approved records that included two certifiable punk classics, “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts”.
Hell was never an especially technical musician, but he had a great aesthetic sense and smarts: Outside of his bass playing, arranging, and singing, his legacy includes the spiked hair, ripped t-shirts, and safety pins Malcolm McLaren spotted while managing the Dolls-- and eventually brought back to England for his protegees, the Sex Pistols.
Unlike a lot of musicians from the scene surrounding CBGB, Hell hasn’t continued playing. In fact, besides the Dim Stars, his project with Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, and Don Fleming that lasted a month in 1992, he retired from music in 1984. The move was a way to separate himself from the lifestyle that got him into drugs, but also offered him a chance to focus entirely on writing. When Hell and Verlaine originally ditched boarding school and relocated to New York City in 1966, they wanted to be poets; it’s just that their music took off first. (Between 1971 and 1973, the two collaborated on the gender-bending Theresa Stern project, where they published poems as the Jewish/Puerto Rican prostitute, accompanied by a photo of their overlapping faces, complete with makeup and wig.)
Photo from the poster for the first Television show, circa 1974
Hell-- a devoted fan of Rimbaud, the French Symbolists, the New York School of Ted Berrigan and Frank O’Hara, and others-- had a regular column in the East Village Eye called “Slum Journals” and ran the literary journal/press, Cuz, where he published his own work along with that of Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles, René Ricard, Nick Tosches, NY School poet Ron Padgett, and more. Raymond Foye’s Hanuman Books imprint published Artifact: Notebooks from Hell 1974-1980in 1992, and Hell's novella, The Voidoid, was released in 1993. Hot and Cold, a collection of writings, drawings, and ephemera came out in 2001. Really, it’s felt like Hell never took a break from scribbling: In 2006, when I published an anthology of downtown NYC literature from 1973-1992, his name and work popped up most frequently.
In 1996, long after the old downtown was dead, Hell published his first novel, Go Now. People mistook it for memoir. His second novel, 2005’s Godlike, riffed on the affair between Paul Verlaine and Rimbaud, among other things-- and people mistook that for memoir, too. I wrote a review of Godlike for The Village Voice at the time, saying “the text's a literary treatise... an attempt to locate a geometry verifying love's reality... and proof again that Hell would have carved a smashing oeuvre even if he'd opted to remain plain old Richard Meyers.” I also said it was his strongest piece of writing to date. That’s no longer true. The honor now goes to I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, a detailed autobiography that takes us from Hell’s youth in Lexington, Kentucky, through to his retirement from music in 1984.
Hell’s lived a life worthy of his punk image, including long bouts with drug addiction, a healthy libido (he refers to himself as a slut, and his descriptions of breasts add up to some of his most vivid writing), and plenty of shit talking about the players within the scene and outside of it. But it’s never that simple. He has issues with one-time best friend Tom Verlaine, but also explains how much he loves him. He takes shots at Patti Smith, though he has a lot of nice things to say about her as well, some of them rather lusty: “She was a natural born sex waif and a pretty-assed comedian.” (He really has nothing bad to say about Dee Dee Ramone, or the Voidoids’ genius guitarist Bob Quine, or his mother.)
And Hell doesn’t sugarcoat his own shortcomings: “I am not cool. I’m cranky under pressure, I’m a mediocre athlete, I get obsessed with women, I usually want to be liked, and I’m not especially street-smart.” We get his track marks, his neuroses, his bad decisions, but he’s always charismatic, even while telling us how “being a rock and roll musician was like being a pimp. It was about making young girls want to pay money to be near you.” And later explaining how, while in his mid-30s, he had sex with a “foul-mouthed, speed-loving” 16-year-old named Ava: “I put my granite hard-on into Ava and watched her face and watched her lips as she said something snotty and grateful to me.”
His reading of why critics liked the less popular second Voidoids album, Destiny Street, is telling: “I figured that was because they were predisposed to favor noise, intellect, and failure.” He never doubts his own intelligence, though the scene at the end of the book, the one that finally gets Hell to quit smack, shows that he also knows drugs (being “chemically oppressed”) could make him do dumb things.
I met with Hell on Valentine’s Day in his Manhattan apartment, the place where he’s lived since 1975. Hell, who looks much younger than his 63 years, was in good spirits, often punctuating his answers with belly laughs. He sat in front of shelves packed with books.
Pitchfork: You’ve been writing for a number of years, why did you decide to do an autobiography now?
Richard Hell: Well, I’ve come to think of myself as a writer of books. [laughs] And I like writing non-fiction, too-- and when you pick a [non-fiction] subject, it saves you the hassle of coming up with a plot. [laughs] But I never thought I would write an autobiography, probably because my first novel, Go Now, is really all drawn from my life, even though it’s more about the psychology going on. The problem with an autobiography is that all these extra factors make it difficult. You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. You don’t know how much you can trust your memory. You don’t want it to be self-serving. And you have all these issues about how to present yourself. All these factors make it harder to do than a novel.
But I started getting intrigued by the idea, probably because I was getting older wondering what my life had been. [laughs] You’re always thinking, “What does that add up to?” You can’t really get a handle on it. I was curious. I felt like it would be an interesting challenge for me to write down what I’d seen and done and learned-- all the convolutions captured in one item that I could look at and get some grip on what the hell happened. [laughs]
Pitchfork: And you said a problem with autobiography is that you don’t want to hurt feelings, but you’re pretty no-holds-barred here.
RH: I knew that I couldn’t write it any other way. Also, a fair number of the people are dead. And I did change a few names of briefly-appearing characters. If it was dicey, I wrote to the person, like, “Do you mind?” And if they had a big problem, I’d change their name.
Pitchfork: You say a lot of good things about Patti Smith, but you also say her band was generic and that she was calculated.
RH: Well, I couldn’t write this thing without being frank.
Pitchfork: Is she somebody you’ve kept contact with?
RH: We run into each other now and then. It might be less comfortable next time. She’s not the only one. Well, as long as they’re unarmed... [laughs]
Hell in Gardenside, Kentucky, circa 1956
Pitchfork: In the book, you describe going to Debbie Harry’s and seeing a copy of a magazine with the Sex Pistols on it and realizing they’ve adopted your look. What is a moment like that like?
RH: It was funny, like, “Wow, this thing is really catching on.” I was surprised, but then I saw Malcolm [McLaren]’s name, and it was obvious how it had happened. There wasn’t any resentment. And there’s no question that, for me, the Sex Pistols were the essence of that moment. They took all the impulses, purposes, and attitudes, and purely personified them.
Pitchfork: Having been there at the start, what are your thoughts about the idea of punk today?
RH: Frankly, there’s a lot about the concept of punk that I don’t like. For instance, I believe in people treating each other with respect. And there’s a whole side of punk that just has to do with, like: “I’m within my rights to offend everybody, make them uncomfortable, and disrupt whatever they’re doing because I’m asserting myself.” It reminds me of when I was a little kid going to movies, and there’s always somebody in the audience who’d be yelling at the screen and throwing popcorn at people. Fuck that person! I would be completely in favor of gagging and handcuffing them. [laughs]
Hell at Deleware's Sanford School, circa 1966
Pitchfork: You’re not easy on yourself in the book. Was it hard going back and remembering all of your drug problems?
RH: No. Another thing that’s good about writing to describe a situation or a state of consciousness is that you can finally get it right. That was my intention, and that’s always interesting. For me, a whole lot of what writing is trying to put your finger on that. I will not deny that I am moved by the book [laughs], but it doesn't make me sad.
Pitchfork: Often when people are associated with music or art and they write autobiographies, people consider it a memoir. Was it a conscious decision to call this an autobiography and not a memoir?
RH: You know who wrote a good memoir: Pasternak, the Russian poet. And, of course, there’s Rilke’s great Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which is technically not an autobiography either. But I’m not into this memoir craze that’s been going on for 20 years now and doesn’t seem to ever let up. People just indiscriminately say "memoir" now when it’s a person writing about their own life. But it’s a useful distinction: a memoir is a book about some particular thread or theme or moment in a person’s life, whereas an autobiography is the entire life. Patti Smith’s book is a memoir; it’s about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. But this book is not just about being a rock'n’roll musician, or being an addict, or a love affair. I’m trying to nail down what my life was.
Pitchfork: When you first started writing I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, did you know that you were going to stop in 1984?
RH: No, though I had this nagging feeling about getting close enough to the present where it’s going to be about people that I’m close to now. I couldn’t see how to deal with that. So as I went along, 1984 became this natural place to end it. It’s funny. One of the promotional readings that I’m giving is at the Marc Jacobs bookstore, and they designed a t-shirt to commemorate the reading and to sell in the store. The front of the t-shirt says “Clean Tramp," and the back says “Richard Fucking Hell," and then underneath that, in parentheses, are the dates, “1949 to 1984." It's like a tombstone. [laughs] In fact, maybe I’ll make my tombstone like that: “Richard Fucking Hell.” Ted Berrigan had a great idea for one: “Out to Lunch.” I had this very cool idea for one: “Out of Control.” [laughs]
Photo by Inez & Vinoodh
Pitchfork: A lot of female characters in the book play big roles. Women often show up for sex, but also for friendship and love. One of these characters, an archetypal figure from that period, is writer and actress Cookie Mueller. What did you take from your experiences with her?
RH: We just really enjoyed each other’s company, but if you’re looking at it conceptually, she was the personification of everything I had come to New York for. I came to New York in 1967 when I was a teenager but I didn’t meet her until 1978. She personified this society of fun and pleasure and laughter and art; this atmosphere of goodwill and happiness completely outside of established conventional values and society.
You know, I spoke at her funeral, which was really embarrassing. I’m someone who’s really susceptible to tears. Did you pick that up in the book at all? I only noticed later myself, but I actually cry four or five times in the book. And I usually don’t think of anyone ever suspecting that I might be someone who’d cry at stuff. I cry at movies all the time. And sometimes it really pisses me off because I hate it when they’re just jerking my chain and it’s just like completely manipulative. But I still can’t help it. And I remember what I said at the funeral. There were four people speaking, including John Waters, and they were all just so casual and funny and full of love. And I just had to go up there and fucking start crying.
Pitchfork: Did writing the book make you miss something like CBGB, or the old New York in general?
RH: No. I don’t spend that much time outside of my apartment. And around the time [CBGB] shut down, it didn’t have any effect on me, so how am I going to miss it? I moved on from that decades ago. And gentrification has been so steady from the beginning. That’s the definition of New York: it’s continuously new. That’s something that’s different about it than most cities in the world. Nothing lasts in New York. Everything’s always changing in really obvious ways. You can hope that you’d be able to put a little restraint on it-- like I’m glad they saved Grand Central, and I wish I could have seen what Penn Station looked like, though I’ve seen pictures of it and it didn’t look that great. And we still have the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building and the Woolworth Building, but it just seems like part of the nature of New York, that it’s always shifting.
The thing that’s more concerning is how the whole country becomes generic. All the things are the same everywhere. There’s nothing left of my hometown in Kentucky. All those small and mid-sized towns and cities in the U.S. are just about malls around the edges and suburbs. That was definitely a loss, because everything just gets marginalized. You can’t tell where you are, it’s all the same.
Pitchfork: I’ve always thought the idea of “Blank Generation” felt prophetic in that sense, that it expanded from a generation to a larger thing: You travel in expanses of emptiness that don’t add up to much. It's all a void.
RH: Yeah, it’s even blanker on the inside of your skin.
Like most 20 year olds, psych-pop songwriter Jackson Scott doesn’t have a sterling employment history. His resume includes the typical short-lived, low-paying gigs of one’s youth: retail work, making ice cream, and most recently, a job at a college bookstore where ditching a shift to see a Ty Segall show proved to be a fireable offense. Though his future as a musician appears promising ever since a few of his SoundCloud tracks started making the rounds, if he ever needed a desk job, he’d be an incredible addition to the Asheville, North Carolina, tourism bureau. A transplant from a “stoner, middle-class suburb” of Pittsburgh, Scott describes the college town in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a paradise for creative types who still cherish a literal breath of fresh air: “The skies are always really beautiful, and everyone is into being weird and not really giving a fuck about anyone else being weird.”
You can hear traces of the city’s cozy artistic community and laid-back pace on his upcoming debut, Melbourne, a collection of charming, lo-fi pop songs and eerie instrumentals named after the Asheville street where Scott currently lives. Though he accepts comparisons to Southern icons of self-recorded indie rock like Bradford Cox and Jeff Mangum, he’s also honest about his mainstream tastes. “I’m really into early Weezer and I’ve never really listened to Elephant 6 at all," says Scott. "I mean, there’s tons of kids in Asheville that are absolutely obsessed with Neutral Milk Hotel, so I’m actually in the minority.”
With Melbourne due for release early this summer via Fat Possum, Scott is currently working on mundane issues like booking tours and making himself an internet presence. “I just made a Facebook today because I guess that’s what you have to do," he says, shrugging through the phone. "I wanted to go without it, but I don’t really know how else I would post important shit.” As he takes a break from drawing Melbourne’s artwork (“it’s some real subliminal, dark, weird, sexual shit”), he holds forth on getting confused with a different Jackson Scott, his methods of vocal pitch-shifting, and loving a college town after giving up on college.
"I’m not a fan of most indie sounds-- I didn’t even know what indie was until Napoleon Dynamite came out."
Pitchfork: Is Jackson Scott your real name?
Jackson Scott: Yeah. I was driving myself nuts trying to come up with a cool project name but everything is already used. So it seemed natural to use my actual name. Usually, I fucking don’t like singer/songwriters at all-- I just think of some lame dude with an acoustic guitar whining about shit-- so I thought it was funny to just turn myself into a singer/songwriter [by using my own name]. But I would hope that’s not how my music comes across.
I know that there’s a gay porn star named Jackson Scott because if you try to look it up on Tumblr, there’s some really gruesome images. I thought it would be funny if people started listening to my music, and then some young hipster girls stumbled across that and got their minds blown.
Pitchfork: What brought you to Asheville?
JS: I got into school [UNC-Asheville] and the second I got here, I loved it. I was looking for a place similar to the [Pittsburgh suburb] I was in, but a lot cooler. I really got into Syd Barrett in my senior year of high school, and took some mythology classes, and I just wanted to pretend I was in some kind of William Blake poem. I always dug just trying to forget about everything else and doing whatever I wanted to do. There are tons of musicians I’m in love with, but my biggest musical icon ever is Syd Barrett.
Pitchfork: Do you collaborate with anyone in Asheville or do you record solo?
JS: I pretty much always have [recorded solo]. I’ve been recording stuff since high school. I record straight to tape on the four-track first, then I play that back into GarageBand, so that all the takes are actually cassette-based. The cool thing about it is we have infinite tracks, as opposed to four, so it leaves a lot of room for messing around.
Pitchfork: What's your earliest musical memory?
JS: I remember riding in the baby seat listening to Nevermind-- maybe listening to a junkie sing pop songs subconsciously influenced me as a four year old. The bands I’m nostalgic for are 90s bands: Nirvana, Pixies. A lot of people say I sound like the Elephant 6 bands; I listened to a little bit of Neutral Milk Hotel and I liked some of the guitar stuff.
Pitchfork: It doesn’t sound like you had much of an indie rock upbringing.
JS: I’m not a fan of most indie sounds-- I didn’t even know what indie was until Napoleon Dynamite came out. Now when I think of indie, I think of the Juno soundtrack and kids with big glasses and tight pants. But I’ll just be attracted to some really random pop song, like “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey, and try to figure out why. I’m a sucker for really catchy melodies.
Pitchfork: There’s a prevalence of female names in your song titles, are they inspired by people you know in Asheville or more fantasy archetypes?
JS: “Evie” is called that because it’s supposed to be about Adam and Eve. One of my friends asked if “Sandy” was about Sandy from Grease, but that's very, very far from the actual meaning of the song. It's actually about Sandy Hook. It’s a dark one. A lot of the songs are just about random, metaphysical, weird thoughts that go through my head. The idea of infinity and eternity is pretty huge for me, and if you look at the lyrics and the repetitive nature of the songs, that comes through.
Pitchfork: What attracts you to pitch-shifting your natural voice?
JS: I’ll do weird things with my voice when I sing-- like make it more nasally-- just because I think that’s fun. Doing this album, I was making an effort to sing normally at first, so, on some songs, like “That Awful Sound”, I'm singing in my conversational voice. But I like how [pitch-shifting] sounds otherworldly, it doesn’t sound quite real. It adds a sweetness or sheen to it that is really cool.
Pitchfork: Have you given up the whole student thing at this point?
JS: From the second I got down here, I was only concerned with recording and making music. I suppose the money I’ve been using to live is what I would be spending on college, but I’ve always got that in the back of my mind. If I were to graduate college, I don’t think I would actually use it for anything practical.
When we first interviewedSmith Westerns back in 2009, they were carefree kids in their late teens who described their band name thusly: "It's like a know-nothing name. It's born of ignorance, man." At that point, frontman Cullen Omori, his brother/bassist Cameron, and guitarist Max Kakacek were releasing their sloppy and irrepressibly melodic self-titled debut of shambling glam-rock on Hozac. Then they lept to indie powerhouse Fat Possum for 2011’s slicker, fully realized Dye It Blonde. And though they skipped college for a life of rock'n'roll the last few years, their current concerns are basically the same as those of peers who spent their post-high school days boozing in frat houses rather than touring clubs. They've finally settled into apartments in Logan Square. They know they have a career now.
Their third LP, Soft Will, is due in June on Mom + Pop and reflects their steadier lifestyle. The band decamped to Sonic Ranch in El Paso with Dye It Blonde producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), added drummer Julien Ehrlich to the mix as a full-time member and the result is a gentler and more lyrically reflective record. Likewise, they’ve toned down the enfant terrible act considerably; while once known as notorious partiers locally, these days, they’re more focused on passing the time writing songs, watching hockey, or shooting hoops. Kakacek claims a killer teardrop shot and Cullen boasts, “We’re all six feet or taller, so we’re pretty good at pick-up games, not going to lie,” before admitting they didn’t bring their A-game against Yeasayer when the two toured together.
I catch the trio on an unseasonably warm March day in Chicago-- Cameron says he's wearing shorts in spite of highs around 55 degrees. Listen to snippets of a few new songs in the following album teaser and read the interview below:
Pitchfork: Considering how young you were when you started, how do you see yourself as being different people this time out?
Cameron Omori: Looking back, when we were making the self-titled and Dye It Blonde, it was like soundtracking [our lives]. For Dye It Blonde, we had a bunch of tongue-in-cheek love songs as a means to talk about other things. We’ve become more and more confident in ourselves and we can share more now. When you are older, it’s a lot easier to be personal. [pause] I also think we just got way better at playing music. [everyone laughs in agreement] When we started, we were just learning how to play.
Pitchfork: In terms of getting more personal on these songs, which ones strike you in particular as being directly pulled from your life?
Cullen Omori: Lyrically, I try to make sure that it’s never super personal, but I guess “3am Spiritual” is. A lot of songs are almost like mantras-- a way of dealing with things going on in my life-- or very reactionary. We had just come back from playing 140 shows in a year, and while you’re super grateful to be doing what you’re doing, you’re also exhausted. The new songs help you re-center yourself and find your identity. We haven’t really lived back in Chicago since 2009. The idea of coming back from this idea of being in the microcosm of “a band” and trying to re-identify yourself with everything is a big part of the album.
Pitchfork: Having come back to settle in Chicago after four years, how do you find yourself relating to your peers?
Cullen: We left in 2009, when we were 19 years old, and when we got back from touring, we could all drink beer. In the meantime, there are lots of bands that have broken up, and people who have graduated, so it’s always weird coming back and trying to find your friends when all that stuff has changed. There’s all these new, cool bands, and all these new faces. So you try to figure out where your niche is again. This record deals with that. The fact that we’ve chosen to do music while all of my friends are graduating college and becoming “young professionals,” or whatever, is something I talk about the song “Fool Proof”.
Pitchfork: Where did the phrase Soft Will come from?
Cullen: We chose Soft Will because it was something that affected every part of the record. It was that idea of the short-term conditions that help you get through the day and achieve things. There may be something that you believe very firmly, and then it changes the next week. We’d be so fixated on a band or a theme for just one week while writing this record, and those things became a fraction of [the whole].
Pitchfork: How have your ambitions as a band shifted with time?
Cullen: The main goal for us was to have an audience and that we’d grow, and that people who liked the last record would still like this record. We don’t have any specific formula for writing songs. I love bands that have a platform, but I don’t think we really have one. And, you know, we want to make sure that our parents still like us.
Badlands, Alex Zhang Hungtai's 2011 effort as Dirty Beaches, was a record steeped in reference points, right down to its Terrence Malick-evoking title. Split between distant 1950s slow-rock vignettes and howling Suicide-style missives of antagonism, it's a record that's utterly fixated in its own version of the past, by design. "That album was meticulously researched," Hungtai says. "I was trying to create this universe that doesn't exist."
Conversely, his forthcoming double album, Drifters/Love Is the Devil, is all too real. "Trying to hide behind this traveling lone-wolf image with the leather jacket and cool hair-- that’s a fucking character I made up," he says, talking about his Badlands look. "That’s not me." Hungtai describes Drifters and the nearly all-instrumental Love Is the Devil as "me from the core, based on the last two years of my life." Love Is the Devil is especially personal, dealing with the recent dissolution of a romantic relationship. When I ask him for further details, his reply is simultaneously succinct and satisfactory: "Nothing is forever."
The more experimental release, which is due out May 21 via Zoo Music, has Hungtai taking detours towards cracked blues motifs, brittle techno, field-recording ambience, and guitar-led pieces not unlike Neil Young's soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch's 1995 existentalist Western Dead Man. The lonely, sax-strangled "Landscapes in the Mist", above, sounds like an Ornette Coleman solo lost somewhere within Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers. The whole thing is a risky departure that has already confused some Badlands fans. After a YouTube commenter hastily dismissed the contemplative instrumental "Love Is the Devil" when it was released in January, Hungtai couldn't help but respond. "i don't care about pleasing your expectations," he wrote, "I was crying my fucking eyes out when i wrote this and punching myself in the face. This is why I'm doing this record. its for myself and my life."
He has since apologized for the outburst, but he stands by the sentiment. "If I feel like what I put out there is being trivialized or treated disrespectfully, I will react to it," he tells me. "You just have to say, 'Thanks for supporting me on the last record, but if you want the old stuff, it’s over, man.'" Talking via Skype from his friend's apartment in Berlin, Hungtai is soft-spoken but nakedly passionate about his own pursuits, artistically and otherwise. He doesn't take things lightly.
"Over the past two years, I was trying to find a balance between commerce and art-- but I failed, completely."
Pitchfork: Both of these records are quite different than Badlands-- you went in a more inaccessible direction, rather than cleaning up your sound.
Alex Zhang Hungtai: Drifters is actually more pop than I intended it to be. It originally sounded way more experimental. Over the past two years, I was making a lot of music, trying to find a balance between commerce and art-- but I failed, completely. So I threw away all of those songs and started anew, and that was the birth of Drifters.
I wanted to summarize these past two years, covering the surface of living this dream life and not having to be responsible. And then there's the internet world-- failed relationships, not seeing your family, being surrounded by strangers all the time, fixing yourself while not wanting to confront these very ugly aspects of who you are. And then coming to terms with it, accepting it, and trying to move on from it. I didn't want to play any characters with hair this time around, so I shaved my hair and went back to high-school mode.
Pitchfork: In high school, did you have a good grasp of yourself as a person?
AZH: I was more pure. For me, high school was playing basketball in Hawaii, going to the beach, listening to Wu-Tang. I didn't have a sense of taste. I just hung out with friends and listened to whatever they listen to. It’s not cool, but it didn’t matter back then.
I draw inspiration from specific sounds and genres because they’re just aesthetics. They’re disposable. What’s important is the core of who you really are. That’s why I’m trying to go back and find myself-- reading Bukowski, who I was attached to as a teenager. That, along with the 80s dance music my sisters were listening to, hip-hop, and all this stuff I know now is a summarization of where I am in my life.
Pitchfork: Bukowski talked quite a bit about hard living through his work, too.
AZH: I don’t think he wanted to live that hard, he just glamorized himself through his literature. You write yourself into your work to justify any kind of shitty behavior you're capable of. I don’t think Bukowski ever wanted to suffer. If he could have succeeded in his 20s or 30s, he would've loved it. That’s why, at the end, he wrote, “The young blondes with the tight pussies came too late.” He’s fucking old and shriveled up. Of course he’s going to be bitter. I’m only 32. I’m nowhere as near bitter as he is.
Pitchfork: On Twitter, when you posted "Love Is the Devil", you referred to yourself as "a rotten piece of shit."
AZH: I was just being honest and trying to confront myself. Unlike most people, I take social media very seriously. If I say something on social media, it’s fucking true. So, with that post, I’m accepting what I’ve done and who I am, and now I’m ready to move on and just try to be a better person.
Pitchfork: Do you regret responding to that YouTube commenter after posting "Love Is the Devil"?
AZH: The way I look at it, this is my job. I’m making a living now, and I’m really happy. Before all this, I was fucking washing dishes. It’s not like I’m a fucking rich boy who does music in my free time. So I don’t give a fuck what people type on the internet. If they want to say something, they can say it to my face, and then I’ll decide if I should take them seriously or not, in person. But on the internet, I respond really strongly because it’s my heart and soul that I put out there. I mean, I love Twitter. It's like your own radio program in text form.
Pitchfork: Did you listen to the radio a lot when you were younger?
AZH: Yeah, I loved the radio. I really like white noise, so I used to listen to the news and fall asleep to it as a child. When the internet first started to grow, I listened to foreign radio, which I loved because it made me dream about places I’d never dreamed about going to. I'd listen to Egyptian radio and have weird dreams about it at night. I'd listen to Japanese and Korean radio too, which is awesome now that I’ve actually been to those countries and played there. When you dream about things as a kid, those dreams plant a seed, and then somewhere later in life you fulfill them in some way.
Pitchfork: Did you have any fears as a kid?
AZH: I was afraid of being forgotten. I was moving around so much, and when I'd move to a new city, the friend that I used to play with every day-- my best friend-- didn't exist in my world anymore. This was before the internet, so I would actually write my friends letters. But when you’re kids, after a while, you just fucking forget. I don’t blame them [for not writing back], because I forgot some of my friends, too.
What percentage of contemporary culture writers grew up watching Roger Ebert on television? How many lived in towns where the local newspaper didn’t employ a single professional critic of anything, and only learned that such a job existed after stumbling upon a heavyset nerd named Roger and a bald nerd named Gene bickering about something called Santa Sangre while flipping around the dial one fateful Saturday afternoon? How many discovered at that very moment how much fun it could be to experience art that challenged everything you ever thought you knew about yourself-- or better, point toward something you didn’t know was inside you-- and discuss it afterward with your best friend/worst enemy? How many moved on to Ebert’s books, and then books by other film critics, and then books by critics writing about music, television, theater, visual arts, and so on? And, by the way, how about that Santa Sangre? Did you see it? Roger loved it, Gene hated it-- who was right? Isn’t it amazing that these guys can still start a conversation, even though they’re both gone now?
If the sum total of all the people affected by the life and career of Roger Ebert could somehow be quantified-- his fellow writers were just a tiny sliver of a large and loyal readership, mind you-- we might begin the process of wrapping our arms around the legacy of perhaps the most celebrated film critic who ever lived. In lieu of that, let’s just say: It’s a whole hell of a lot of people.
If you are perplexed by the outpouring of affection for Ebert in the wake of his death Thursday-- because you didn’t share his centrist sensibilities, or you believe his iconic “thumb” shtick demeaned the movies he was reviewing, or simply because it seems strange that a critic of all people could engender so much love-- just know that whoever you do enjoy reading on the highs and lows of popular culture (including many of the writers for this very site) were touched in ways big and small by who Roger Ebert was and what he stood for. He’s the closest thing that this profession has to an Elvis Presley or an Orson Welles-- people can disagree on the quality of the work, but the breadth of his influence isn’t up for debate. Roger Ebert changed people’s lives.
Ebert understood there was an audience for a film like Beethoven, and that it was his job to fairly assess how well it performed the duties of a dog-centric family flick starring Charles Grodin.
The tributes written for Ebert in the past 24 hours have focused mainly on the seismic impact he had on film criticism, and the bravery he displayed in his public battle against cancer in the final years of his life. As well they should. Writing at the A.V. Club, my friend Scott Tobias spoke for many film writers of his generation when he credited Ebert’s role as a celebrity ambassador for cinema-- which he also performed as a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times-- with providing his “first gateway into paradise.”
“If you lived in Des Moines or Missoula-- or the Toledo suburb where I grew up-- there was a likelihood that you wouldn’t have known films like My Dinner With André or Hoop Dreams existed were it not for [Siskel and Ebert’s] advocacy,” Tobias wrote. “Cinema is a river with many tributaries, and I’m sure I’m not alone among movie-crazy teenagers in the ‘80s in using Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion as the boat downstream.”
But Ebert’s influence wasn’t limited to just film critics. Many of us lucky enough to make a living (or just chump change) as music writers also had formative experiences with those annual editions of the Movie Home Companion back in the pre-internet era. Starting around age 11,I would check out Roger Ebert books from the library and read them, over and over again, while listening to the radio. And I did this for hours , way longer than I spent studying any subject in school, that’s for sure. (I know it sounds trite-- Ebert plus radio equals music critic-- but that’s how it happened, and I know I’m not the only one.) I loved movies almost as much as I loved music, and I made sure to see the stuff Roger liked, and sometimes the stuff he didn’t like but made me want to see because he wrote about it so well. Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Sidney Lumet, Shoah -- because of Roger Ebert, there was at least one Lutheran tween from northeastern Wisconsin interested in seeing a 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust. (I think I made it through the first 37 minutes.)
The idea that the most interesting part of a movie happens after you see it was something that carried over easily to the songs and albums I was discovering at the time.
But as much as he was teaching me about movies, Roger Ebert was also showing me how to write-- I became a student of clean and concise sentences that emphasized clarity and the right balance of humor, thoughtfulness, and accessibility, as well as how to shapemy raw impressions into well-rounded opinions that cohered on the page into narratives. The idea that the most interesting part of a movie happens after you see it-- during the post-mortems you have with others and with yourself in your own head-- was something that carried over easily to the songs and albums I was discovering at the time.
There were other lessons that a budding music critic could learn by following the Roger Ebert way, starting with the idea that art should be judged on its own terms. Ebert understood that there was an audience for a movie like Beethoven, and that it was his job to honestly and fairly assess how well it performed the duties of a dog-centric family film starring Charles Grodin. For Ebert, being a critic didn’t make you some kind of remote, ivory-tower aesthete-- you had a place in people’s lives as a trusted advisor and friend. As respected as Ebert was, he wasn’t an intellectually vain person. For much of his career he reviewed pretty much everything, good and bad, and if he saw something worthwhile in a film that snobs automatically dismissed as dreck, he wasn’t afraid to praise it. (He wound up giving Beethoven two and a half stars.)
Above all, Ebert was perpetually curious, right up until the day he died. No matter how many Beethovens he had to sit through over the course of his 7,202 published reviews, it never diluted his enthusiasm for the next Do the Right Thing or Fargo or City of God. And that curiosity was contagious-- he set an example where only fools were threatened by what they didn’t already know about, and each new film could potentially be a life-changing masterpiece. Talk about valuable insight for a person trying to cover something as infinitely wide-ranging as music.
I think there’s another reason why so many music critics-- including Rob Sheffield, Jim DeRogatis, Ann Powers, and many others-- were moved to cite Ebert as an inspiration on various social media channels yesterday. He was what we all want to be, a writer who was trusted by readers even when they didn’t agree with him, because they knew he was on their side. BuzzFeed music editor Matthew Perpetua put it best on Twitter: “I hope it's not lost on my peers that people care SO MUCH about Ebert cos he was the rare critic who wrote smart stuff for normal people.” So many music critics fall prey to the temptation to speak only to people like themselves. They lard their writing with obscure references, and harangue those who don’t have the luxury to think about records all day for their lack of adventurousness and know-how. And then they wonder why nobody cares to read them.
Ebert never set out to have the final word; he was a facilitator of first steps, a guy pointing you in the right direction but otherwise leaving the exploring up to you. He never lorded his knowledge over people; he shared it generously but judiciously, giving you just enough to make you want to find out more on your own. And this worked more times than Ebert or anyone else will ever know. He was part teacher, part cheerleader, part curator, part fan thrilled at the prospect of being wowed, yet again, because there’s no such thing as “enough” when it comes to truly moving artistic experiences. Roger Ebert understood his audience because he was his audience. We should all be so humble, and so wise.
In person, Kurt Vile comes off like a laid-back guy who doesn't sweat the small stuff-- like remembering where he parked his own car. After getting lunch at Philadelphia's Green Eggs Cafe, the singer spends a few minutes scanning a quiet nearby block to no avail. He looks concerned, but hardly panicked. He knows the thing's around here. Somewhere. So when it turns out we were standing a mere 15 feet away from his Subaru Forester the entire time, he doesn't dwell on it. These things happen.
We drive to Philly's Fishtown area to check out the mural that appears on the cover of Vile's latest batch of guitar-picking zen koans, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. He pulls out a copy of the album to note that a contribution he himself made to artist Steve Powers' wide-scale painting-- a man shooting a needle into his head-- was recently painted over when mistaken for vandalism. I glance at the striped shirt Vile sports on the cover and then look over at the driver's seat to see another, very-similar-looking striped shirt. Maybe it's the same exact one. Maybe he just likes stripes. Either way, we roll on.
Vile was raised along with his nine siblings in Lansdowne, a tiny suburb right outside of West Philadelphia. He moved to the city proper right after graduating high school and rejecting the art-school path many of his friends took. "I barely got my application in on time-- my heart wasn't really into it," he says. "I knew I wanted to do music, I just had a long way to go." After spending two years in Boston so his then-girlfriend, now-wife could finish college, they moved to the city's Northern Liberties neighborhood in 2003; they've lived at their current residence with their two kids for just about four years. At 33, Vile's a family man, and as he drives me around the area, pointing out interesting architecture and describing various aspects of the Philly he's known throughout the years, it becomes clear: the guy is a homebody, for good reason. I think back to "On Tour", from 2011's Smoke Ring For My Halo. It's among his most bitter, paranoid, and personal songs, one that likens the road to Lord of the Flies. "I don’t exactly look forward to touring, because I'm a family man and it’s sad," he says. "But once I play a gig, I get high as shit off adrenaline."
Written largely between gigs, Wakin on a Pretty Daze was recorded in Philly, upstate New York, and Los Angeles, a locale-less process that undoubtedly contributes to the album's man-alone vibe. And at this point, Vile's attained a certain peace with his in-between existence. While making the new album, he says his "head was definitely wide open. There were the struggles, but I could see for miles. The road became my temple."
On record, Vile's voice can sound exhausted (or exhaustively stoned), possessing the kind of lackadaisical swagger you'd expect from Otto the Bus Driver. In conversation, though, he talks rapidly and in a medium-high tone, unleashing a flurry of stop-start vocal tics when struggling to form a complete thought. His laugh is loud and punctuated with a thousand inflections, and it usually goes on a few seconds longer than you expect it to. An unshowy music nerd who resists pretentiousness, Vile sometimes becomes reticent when the conversation turns to his own work. Ask him about a specific lyric, and he will most likely stammer a little, laugh, and say that he just liked the way it sounded. If he feels like he's reached the logical conclusion of his own utterances, or if he has nothing else to say, he'll punctuate his train of thought with a shrugging "whatever, moving on."
But despite his slackerly demeanor, he's no slouch. Later on, he's planning to make the considerable drive to New York after 10 p.m.-- when his kids go to bed-- to rehearse with his band for their upcoming tour. And he's quick to point out that his lackadaisical side mostly comes out when he's back at home. "[Producer] John Agnello told me, 'I've never associated you with being laid-back whatsoever,'" he says. "He has to deal with me being obsessive when we're working in the studio. Things bother me, I get stressed. Right now, though, I'm talking to you with my KV charm."
"You can’t help being nostalgic, but you can’t turn things back. You've got to be in your own moment."
Pitchfork: How much of your songwriting is autobiographical at this point?
Kurt Vile: It’s all autobiographical, but I always leave enough distance so that it’s relatable. It’s what I feel in the moment, so it’s a little abstract, a little psychedelic-- like looking out the window, or when folks travel at the speed of sound. I write a lot when I’m feeling bummed, but other times you get locked-in and its totally personal. If you’re really low and writing, you’re not thinking about anybody at all.
Pitchfork: Would you say you're a positive person?
KV: I go back and forth. I try to stay positive, but I get stressed. I’m not cynical, but the reality is that life is mortal. Terrible, sad things happen. Everybody loses friends and family. I’ll be on tour and get really scared if my wife won’t answer her phone within one minute. I’m sensitive.
Pitchfork: You're 33, and you've been married for 10 years. Do you think finding contentment at such an early age plays into your worldview?
KV: It’s rare, but I’m lucky. I’ve got an amazing family. My wife is really smart. She's guided me the whole way. With children, you see them grow up, so it’s like you’re forever young. They are totally innocent and so unjaded. Watching them grow up makes you go through it again yourself. Music is my love, but now I have a family and it’s bittersweet, because you can’t always do them at the same time. But I have so much meaning now. I get to come home to my family. It’s awesome, just constant adventure, never a dull moment. So much life.
Pitchfork: Do you think you'll ever leave Philadelphia?
KV: I mean, I like the idea of owning multiple houses. [laughs] But this is the city where my family is-- this is where we thrive. Living in the suburbs would get old fast. But our house is really small, so you’re always working to move something around. It's so cute that I wouldn’t want to sell it, though. If we did find another place, I wish I could keep this house, but that’s obviously not possible right now.
Pitchfork: How often do you think about your own success as a musician and what it means?
KV: I definitely think about success and I crave making more money. It's funny, the difference is so drastic between "now" and "then"-- people used to get filthy rich and live on a ranch at 24, and now it’s just like, “It’d be nice just to get enough money to get a big house.” Bands like the Black Keys do really well, and it's just the two of them. That’s amazing. In my own terms, success is making a living playing music, touring, getting critical acclaim, being recognized, and being able to put out records at a rapid pace. I want my family to not have to work, and at the moment, my wife isn't working, since our kids are so young. That’s success to me.
Pitchfork: On Twitter, you once replied to Titus Andronicus' Pat Stickles when he raised an issue about you licensing "Baby's Arms" to Bank of America. You said you did that to support your family.
KV: First of all, that kid is just hanging out with his friends talking a rapid amount of smack on his Twitter account. I don’t have that kind of time. Is it hard to support your family as a musician? I don’t know. It probably is. But I have a really good manager, good booking agents, and a really smart wife. You have to know how to make decisions and where to put your money. In this day and age, "punk ideals" are totally irrelevant. Not that it isn’t cool to have them, but times have changed, man.
Pitchfork: How important is a sense of humor to your songwriting?
KV: It’s big, and some people don’t even get it. On [Smoke Ring for My Halo], people thought I was so dark and depressed, but there was so much black humor, satire, amusement. Everyone’s funny. Bob Dylan can be funny. Townes van Zandt can be funny, but he can also break your fucking heart. Ween are funny, but the hopeless indie victims don't get them. They've got way too much of a stick up their asses. Ween have songs that make me want to fucking cry, too, like "Lullaby", on La Cucaracha. It sounds like a John Lennon song and it's sung in a funny voice, but it's serious. Ween’s good at that.
Pitchfork: As someone who's read a lot of biographies about musicians, does it frustrate you that we're living in an era where one's legacy doesn't have proper time to breathe before it's analyzed?
KV: I've accepted that. It bums me out, but what are you gonna do? Cry about the times changing? They're always changing. Someone can just make up some shit and post it now, but even with all those books, you’re just listening to people retell history the way they remember it when they’re older, so they're not exactly true, either. I mean, magazines are becoming extinct, and I'm finally eligible to be on the cover of a magazine now. But that's just a white man's complaint. In the past, musicians had massive budgets, too-- I would love to have that opportunity. You can’t help being nostalgic, but you can’t turn things back. You've got to be in your own moment.
Pitchfork: On the new album, you sing, "Sometimes when I get in my zone/ You'd think I was stoned/ But I never, as they say/ Touch that stuff." Do you still smoke weed?
KV: Not usually. I’ve smoked it in the past, but I find it funny that people consider weed a pretty normal, go-to drug, when it’s the one that can make you paranoid and want to hide in your closet. I’m not a heavy drug user. I’m a family guy. Sometimes you go on tour, and every once in a while it gets exhausting and you want to take the edge off, but I’m a grown man.
Photo by Todd Cole; in-studio photos below courtesy of No Age
Bad news if you’re planning to preface your next No Age story with the same old shpiel about the Los Angeles duo being at the forefront of the Smell’s DIY/noise-art scene or the “ambient punk” sound they created on 2007’s embryonic Weirdo Rippers, polished on the following year’s Nouns, and mastered on 2010’s Everything in Between. For one thing, guitarist Randy Randall doesn’t even live in L.A. anymore. Well, technically he doesn’t: The newlywed bought a house about a half hour north of the city in Sunland, which Randall describes as “the outer reaches of the suburban sprawl.” And don’t expect to find the next hot West Coast punk band amongst his neighbors either. “There’s a dude that has a pretty sick Led Zeppelin cover band on weekends,” Randall says, joking by simply telling the truth. “Another guy’s got a saxophone thing going on on Sunday mornings-- we’ve got smooth jazz coming down the street.”
Likewise, he and drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt have taken the past three years unlearning old habits and creating new compositional methods for their as-yet-untitled new album. They’ve recorded 27 tracks thus far and are currently “trying to make sense of it.” Randall explains, “After playing in a band for a while, you develop a shortcut, or it becomes easy. So we wanted to swoop our legs from underneath us and learn to walk again.”
Sunland lives up to its name on a gorgeous Friday afternoon as Randall enjoys some time in his front yard and talks about No Age changing their sound with amps filled with change, trying not to rip off J Mascis, and awkward Thanksgiving dinners with the family.
"If my sole purpose in playing music was just to make money, I definitely would not be in a guitar rock band in 2013."
Pitchfork: Having worked as a duo for all this time, how do you and Dean keep things from getting repetitive?
Randy Randall: When we started, Dean didn’t really know how to play drums, so it was a challenge for him to learn this new instrument, and we approached everything in a similar sort of way [this time]. Dean moved away from a traditional drum kit and came up with ways of making percussion sounds using contact mics, and we’d run those through really distorted bass amps. At one point, he flipped a bass amp upside down and filled the speaker with change, and we mic'd the change rattling as this percussive element. It was similar to those videos where you see the sound of a speaker make patterns with sand.
Pitchfork: How has your approach on guitar changed?
RR: Over the past couple of albums and years I was getting into these traditional pop structures of playing. But in confrontations between Dean and I, he wanted to circumvent all notions of pop music and break it down into something else. It was a challenge to me. I found myself trying to tie my hand behind my back by using these really small practice amps and working on guitars that weren’t really in tune, so it became more atonal and more like when I was first learning to play guitar.
Pitchfork: After releasing music so quickly in the beginning, did you expect to take this long of a break after Everything in Between?
RR: Once we got into writing, we would take time and scrutinize things a little bit more. Like, “Am I connecting or am I just unplugging and letting it go on autopilot?” We're trying to be conscious of that. Especially coming from my side: I have so many guitar heroes, people I really look up to like J Mascis, and at the end of the day I’d come back and go, “Am I just ripping on a J Mascis vibe? Is this me, or is this just my best impersonation of something else?” So I beat myself up pretty good to get to something more honest-- there were no gloves. It took time to do that, and it’s uncomfortable, but hopefully it’s something that feels a lot more raw. That was a big thing for us, calling stuff out as being too “on the nose.”
Pitchfork: How did the unconventional releases and shows you’ve done since Everything in Between affect your songwriting process for a proper album?
RR: It makes us aware of different opportunities and ways of performing and presenting music and art. Our intention from the beginning was to not just show up in a room, load in, and give you "the rock show" for an hour and 20 minutes. If you try to do a lot of shows in a short period of time, you start to limit your areas of inventiveness-- you have to pick 46 venues for 50 days and, after a certain point, you realize everything is right there in the middle. The outliers are the first things to get cut once you get pushed for time. For us, it felt like we needed to give ourselves that extra time to fully chase down any idea musically.
Pitchfork: No Age doesn't make particularly commercial-sounding music, but you've made three acclaimed albums, started your own label, played Coachella, bought a house. Do you consider yourself successful?
RR: I always have that awkward conversation at Thanksgiving, like, “Why aren’t you guys on 'American Idol'?” If my sole purpose in playing music or in life was just to make money, I would have made a lot of different career choices-- I definitely would not be in a guitar rock band in 2013. No one’s here to get rich. At least, not me.
Every once in a while, a sound will stop you in your tracks. You don't know why, but it rings in your ears so privately that it feels like a childhood friend just walked up to you and spoke your name. It becomes a thread in the fabric of your daily existence, to the point where you start hearing it everywhere you go-- when strangers around you open their mouths, you half-expect that sound to come out.
Like many of us, I have dozens-- hundreds-- of these sounds swarming my mind. Together, they form the neural map of who I am as a listener and critic. They follow me around and sometimes I feel less like a discerning, thinking person, and more like a collector who simply jars and bottles interesting specimens. A sharp snare crack that feels like a toothache; a ghostly, leached-out string sample; an alien blob of synth. For me, when the albums and surrounding context have faded, the sounds are what remain.
I came across one recently on Wondrous Bughouse, the new record by Youth Lagoon. Midway through song “Mute”-- right at the three-minute mark-- a wobbling Japanese lantern of a guitar line floats by, and it occurs throughout the album, guarding over frontman Trevor Powers' fragile voice in a protective, My Neighbor Totoro sort of way. It seems imported directly from Built to Spill’s 1997 classic Perfect From Now On, and it's a sound that's kept me good company for years.
Rounded and warm and ingratiating, it helped me understand, when I first heard it, that electric guitars could soothe and comfort-- that a rock record could be bracing, but it could also be a crackling fireplace. It's there on the very first seconds of "Velvet Waltz", as the tones weightlessly hover and swirl. Built to Spill singer and guitarist Doug Martsch often deepened it with a backing of cello, which highlighted something else: This sound was liquid, with almost no attack. There was a guitar pick hitting a string somewhere in there, but trying to find it would be like finding a bay leaf in a ten-gallon stockpot.
I was 17 the year I bought Perfect From Now On and became obsessed with it. I was by no means a rebellious or angry teenager. For one, I’d been blessed with an upbringing so infuriatingly open and even-handed that there was almost nothing solid to thrash against; I instinctually shied away from messy, dramatic displays. Approving adults around me would occasionally mistake this reserve for discipline, but truthfully, dry-mouthed fear held me in check. Then and now, the fear of looking foolish-- to myself, to others, in the moment, in hindsight-- has lingered in my daily life. I’ve always known if I truly loved something if I felt willing to risk that foolishness.
Martsch’s on-record demeanor connected with this side of me. He didn’t cut a terribly dramatic figure. He was measured, intuitive, and thoughtful, and seemed more interested in observing others than himself. His lyrics were usually directed outward: at the cosmos, the meanings of words, or the complexities of human interactions. He was not above confessing small qualms of human anxiety: “That net does not/ Make me feel safe/ All those holes make me nervous,” he sang-- a weak-kneed sentiment, for sure, but I related to it.
When paired with the majestic throb of guitar, however, Martsch was no longer the wimp recoiling from unsafe ground; he was the wimp transfigured, soaring from miles above. Teenagers cherish musical superheroes, and I fixated on Martsch because he’d found a way to make you pay attention without raising his voice, to make the most mundane gestures-- a shrug, a smile-- fill a room. His secret identity and alter ego were both Mild-Mannered Everyman.
Moved by sentimentality and curiosity, I reach out to Martsch to ask him about the sounds in his head during the making of Perfect. His story, it turns out, is about failure. The development of Perfect’s sound is inextricable from his technical limitations. "I wanted it to sound like the Beatles-- albums like The White Album or Abbey Road, where every instrument is pristine, and you can hear exactly what everyone’s doing," he says. “But I don’t know how to do that, and we didn’t have Paul McCartney.”
Martsch worries about the end of his career with an audible shrug in his voice, gesturing towards his existential doubts like they’re beers in his fridge that I’m welcome to.
And he doesn't hold his guitar tone in any special light; rather, it was a simple result of trial and error. "I was going back and forth endlessly with our producer, Phil Ek, saying, ‘Maybe this guitar sound?’ and he’d be like, 'That’s not it; nope, that’s not it.’” He stops: “So when that record was done and I totally failed miserably at what I was trying to do, I was just like, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’ I still pursue a tone that I hear in my head sometimes, but I always try to temper my expectations.”
This self-effacement seems to be a sort of religion for Martsch: The only way he can tell you that he was driven by a consuming obsession to emulate the Beatles is to couch it in his own utter failure to sound like the Beatles. When I ask him about his melodic, wandering leads, he tells me that he likes to double and triple his lines and then pan them to extreme opposites-- “like a guitar wrapped around your head”-- but he's also careful to note that "there’s a very, very significant limit to my abilities, and I have to work within that.” He doesn’t sound compulsive or neurotic when he circles back to his perceived inadequacies. Just... careful.
He also shares with me, without prompting, that Built to Spill is on a bit of a hiatus. Their last record, the sweetly wry and surprisingly personal There Is No Enemy, is now four full years behind him. He spent some time recording material with his old rhythm section last year, but “wasn’t having a very good time,” he confesses. “The songs were pretty good and I thought those guys did a great job, but I had zero eureka moments. I had no just even happy moments. I was a little bit worried about myself-- it’s harder getting older, thinking maybe I’ve run my course. I was happy to bag that record.”
Martsch’s undemonstrative openness in relaying this to a total stranger is touching. He's worrying about the end of his career with an audible shrug in his voice, gesturing towards his existential doubts like they’re beers in his fridge that I’m welcome to. It reminds me of a line from Perfect’s “Made-Up Dreams”: “No one wants to hear what you dreamt about, unless you dreamt about them.” When I was a self-pitying 17 year old, this felt like the resigned sigh of someone accustomed to being ignored and unlikely to press the point. Now, it reads like self-admonishment, a reminder to yourself that there are bigger forces in the universe than you and your dreams. When I tell Martsch how much Perfect meant to me, he simply says “Aw, thanks.” After a pause, he allows, “If I had made it as conventionally perfect as I wanted, you might not have found what you find in it.”
At this point, no idea seems too out-there for the Flaming Lips. And while some have groused that their more outlandish notions-- human skulls for sale, anyone?-- reek of gimmickry, it's important to remember that Wayne Coyne and his merry pranksters have been toying with sensational stunting for three decades. From early forays into certainly-dangerous amateur pyrotechnics, to the "parking lot experiments" that gave birth to 1997's four-CDs-playing-simultaneously opus Zaireeka, to the crowd-surfing hamster ball, these guys can't step away from the circus.
"It goes without saying that we are about making music," reiterates Coyne during an extensive phone conversation last month, "but gimmicks are always a part of it. Nowadays, it’d be boring to just put out three songs on the internet every month. Who gives a shit? We have these opportunities to create things that aren’t just music, but that doesn’t diminish the music-- it just says that the whole world is interesting."
True to form, there's a Zaireeka vinyl reissue set for release on Record Store Day (note that the liner notes for this release contain excerpts from the 33 1/3 book on the album by Pitchfork's Mark Richardson), and plans to press their 24-hour song "7 Skies H3" on wax (albeit at a more manageable 80-minute runtime), as well as the still-in-the-works musical adaptation of the 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and some film-scoring work.
At this point, releases like last year's goofy collab-fest The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends act as a cosmic balancing force against their increasingly dark proper albums. This month's The Terror leaves little room for levity, instead focusing on droning noise and harrowing loss. It's the latest chapter in one of the most unique musical success stories of the last 30 years, one that Coyne largely attributes to "sheer dumb luck."
Coyne's extroverted personality is one of the few constants throughout the history of the Flaming Lips. As Jim DeRogatis details in his Lips bio Staring at Sound, some early band members would dread sitting in the passenger seat next to him, since his penchant for exploratory conversation was intense and relentless. Times change, but Wayne hasn't: A friendly and warm conversationalist, he's still susceptible to giving long answers to short questions, talking for more than five minutes at a time without interruption. During our 90-minute chat, he covered plenty of ground with minimal prompting, and no topic was seemingly off-limits-- except, that is, his reported split from his partner of 25 years, Michelle. "We’re not allowed to talk about that," Coyne told me, in a tone that was colored with frustration as well as the sting of real personal pain. "We'll talk about it someday, for sure-- but when I say stuff, it can be painful for people." Even Wayne Coyne has his limits.
"People started saying, 'How long do you think that you can walk in the space bubble and all that?' And I'd say, 'Til I die!' That’s like saying to Santa Claus, 'How long are you going to wear the fucking red suit?'"
Pitchfork: In The Terror's press materials, you say that while making the album, "We wanted to believe that without love we would disappear."
Wayne Coyne: I truly believe that when you’re young, you should think that the world is yours and you can do whatever the fuck you want with it, and people should get out of your way. As you get older, though, you realize-- and this is good news, but it’s also devastating-- that there will be love that will die and love that you can’t understand anymore. I don’t think I would disappear or die or kill myself if this love disappeared-- I may wish I did, but life would just go on. That’s the bleakness in this album, and it's the nature of reality. It’s a motherfucker. The more joy we feel, the more we know that there’s suffering and pain in the world. You can’t know one without having a realization of the other.
Pitchfork: How much love do you have in your own life right now?
WC: More than I will ever deserve. [laughs] People are drawn to me, and I’m drawn to them. It isn’t always just a matter of desire and attraction-- there’s this big family of people that I am hopefully forever connected to. If you believe in the Flaming Lips, you are not getting bullshit. We may make bullshit, but we’re not trying to. We’re not faking you. If we’re stupid, we’re trying to be smart. If we look like we’re wrong, we’re trying to be right.
Pitchfork: You recently performed The Terror in full at SXSW, but the album doesn't sound like it will necessarily fit within the live show the band's developed over the past few years.
WC: When we made the record, we weren't thinking about that at all. The way you record and the way you play live have nothing to do with each other. We’ve always known that. But even a couple years ago, people started saying, “How long do you think that you can walk in the space bubble and have dancers on stage and all that?” And I’d say, “‘Til I die!" Fuck it, this is who I am. You can’t say that to me-- that’s like saying to Santa Claus, "How long are you going to wear the fucking red suit and use the reindeer?" He’d say, ‘‘Who the fuck are you? This isn’t a show, this is who I am.” Of course I can walk around in a space bubble-- I’m me!
That said, the very first time we rehearsed this time around, I said, “What do we want to do with some of these songs off The Terror?” We started to play the first couple of songs and I saw how much the fellas loved it. That really dictated everything. With SXSW, we knew we were going to be playing to a bunch of drunk weirdos, Flaming Lips fans, and die-hard music fans. We may not be their favorite band, but we knew they were going to come out-- it was that sort of show. So we thought, “Let’s do a fucking complete freak out." Once you do that, though, you gotta keep doing that, so we are. I feel a little sorry about it, because a third of our audience, no matter where we go, are coming to get fucked up and party. We’re not doing all those things anymore, but in time, what we do now can be just as intense and entertaining. We love to play this music more than the other music right now. So we did, and we are.
"When I’m surrounded by normal people, I think, 'I’ve made a great effort not to fall into that.'"
Pitchfork: In Staring at Sound, [multi-instrumentalist] Michael Ivins talks about how before the two of you met, he'd spend his time in college feeling like an outcast and wondering if anyone out there was into the same weird music he was into. Today, the internet makes finding those people with similar interests easier. Do you think these days it's harder to be truly "weird"?
WC: As a member of the Flaming Lips, most days I think, “This is normal.” I'm still involved with normal people that work 9-to-5 and watch football games-- I don’t dislike those people, it's just not my thing. When I’m surrounded by normal people, I think, “I’ve made a great effort not to fall into that.” I like being around people that talk about art, music, ideas, ways of living. I think the notion of being weird is still a big internal dilemma for most people. We've been in San Diego working on the Yoshimi musical, and we know a gal there who’s, like, 20 years old. Whenever she’s with us, you get this sense that she's thinking, “Now I’m finally alive. I’m around people that understand me and do what I like to do.” Whenever we leave, she texts us about how she loves her family and wants to be part of their thing, but it’s just not her thing. That’s the time when you say, “I’m going to be this person that I want to be, now how do I do it?”
The reason I worked at Long John Silver's was because my older brother worked there. Then, my older brothers all worked for my dad, and part of me wanted to do that. I wanted to do my music and my art, but I just didn’t know how that could ever happen. Every day you’re surrounded by people that go to their job, come home, drink some beer, get stoned, and wake up and do it the next day. I love my family-- they made me who I am-- but thinking I wasn’t going to work with them somewhere made me think I was going against them. But after the Long John Silver's was robbed and I thought I was going to die, I didn’t feel that way. I thought, “I can still love them. I don’t have to work with them. Who gives a shit?"
Pitchfork: Growing up, your relationship with your parents was stable and loving. You're 52 now, but you don't have any kids of your own.
WC: The Flaming Lips is my family. Without that, I probably would have said, “I want to have more kids and dogs and things.” All along, that’s always been an understanding: This is our cool, weird family. I’m really lucky that I didn’t have any of my own children when I was in my 20s-- they would have grown up and killed me, I’m sure: “All my dad wants to do is sit around, draw pictures, and make music all day. Why doesn’t he do something constructive with his fucking life?"
I was very lucky that I didn’t have any real responsibilities beyond what I wanted to do. Mostly, it comes down to money. It’s one thing to pursue art when it’s just you that goes hungry, but it’s a much different thing when your family needs you. If I had children, I probably wouldn’t even be in the Flaming Lips. I would have thought, “Well, that doesn’t make me that much money,” and I’d probably become a drug dealer or something. Art is just a stupid obsession, but nothing gets the job done like an obsessed person.
Pitchfork: You've collaborated with so many artists over the last few years, but was there anyone else who said no to working with you guys?
WC: We did something with Ariel Pink, but he didn’t like the results and didn’t want us to use it. We were going to work with Bradford Cox, but his mom got sick. There was a collaboration with Jimmy Page in the works, too, but it simply didn't work. A lot of the collaborations were done in a fucking panic-- it’s not like we were sitting around getting drunk and making music, the way you picture Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan doing. It's a fuck-load of work, so I don't think we'd call what we've been doing “masturbation music,” where you just sit in a corner and do what you want without thinking. When we worked with Nick Cave, we never wanted it to sound like just a Flaming Lips record. So when we retreated into the masturbation corner again, we wanted to just sound like the Flaming Lips. That’s why The Terror is so powerful, to us. We're like, “Wow, why did we sing about that shit?” That’s what happens when you’re just making music for your own self-indulgent, bullshit pleasure.
WC: We made an absurd video, and when we went into it, we both agreed on what we were going to do. We knew there was no reason for us to make a video unless it was going to be a mind-fuck. People don’t need to see me up there singing a song and her looking glamorous. She was like, “Wayne, we got to fucking blow their minds.” Erykah's a freak, and she told me she’s a freak. The first night I met her, she said, “Wayne, if you have to, I want you to Ike Turner my ass. I’m out of control, I want you to slap me.” I said, “You really want me to slap you?” She’s like, “Yeah, I’m crazy, so if you gotta get your shit done, you gotta Ike Turner my ass.” I thought it was insane.
Everybody I’d run into would be like, “You know that she's gonna shoot and kill you at the end of this, that’s what happens when you work with Erykah Badu.” I was like, “That sounds like an interesting way to spend an evening.” If Erykah Badu is badass, if she's her own woman and is doing whatever the fuck she wants, how does some white dork from Oklahoma trick her into being naked in a video? How could I possibly do that? Part of me still believes that [the fight] was Erykah’s way of drawing attention to it-- and the more we fought about the video, the more it got seen. I didn’t really care at the time, and I still think it was all funny. But if I run into her, I don't think it'll be funny, so I don’t plan on running into her. But I don’t have anything against her. I love her, and I loved working with her, and I loved the people around her.
Pitchfork: Afterwards, you got Amanda Palmer to record a new version of the song and make a new version of the video.
WC: We were talking on the phone previous to making [Palmer's video for "Do It With a Rock Star" that Coyne directed], and she said, “I did my own version of ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'. Can I remake the video?” I said, “Yeah, but that means you’ve got to get naked in a bathtub.” And she said “Well, that’s what I meant.” We didn’t do it as a response to the Erykah situation, we just did it because we were already making videos and she was interested. Here I was again, gladly filming Amanda Palmer, and that was awesome.
Pitchfork: Some think that she has a reputation for being overly opportunistic in situations like the one you're describing.
WC: I understand why people might say that, because she is crazy. But she’s full of love. Those people just don’t know her, or they have some vendetta against her, because it’s not true. And I would tell you if she was.
Pitchfork: This year marks the Flaming Lips' 30th anniversary. Are there any of your records you look back on and wish were better?
WC: After we made Hit to Death in the Future Head, we were like, “Geez, some of this just doesn't sound like us anymore.” Now we look at it and the things that we hated back then we love now because they’re so fucking weird. I look at our older records as a bunch of weird, young dudes making records that are fucking retarded. With At War With the Mystics, we kind of made two records and put them together, so it would have been better if there were five fewer songs.
We’re insecure and we’re not satisfied and we have a little bit of attention deficit disorder. We have the same dilemmas that people have in their lives. But I think that’s what makes us such a cool group to follow. At the end of the day, we don’t have someone with a checklist saying, “Gee fellas, are you sure you want to do this?” There is no filter-- it's just us. When we were collaborating with Nick Cave, he said, “Who is going to make sure that we’re doing something at the end of this thing?” I said, “Nobody. It’s me and you.” And he was like “Fuck that!” He was probably more used to doing his thing and then having some more level-headed person making sure that he wiped his ass when he was done. We don’t. If our ass ain’t wiped, we show up anyway.
The Swedish band Ghost formed in 2008 and released their studio debut, Opus Eponymous, two years later. It was a collection of vintage “Satanic” heavy rock that evoked bands like Mercyful Fate, Witchfinder General, and Blue Oyster Cult. If you were going by appearances-- the highly theatrical group dresses in hooded robes with vocalist Papa Emeritus II decked out like a skeleton wearing a Pope's cap-- you might suspect they’d sound more extreme, but Ghost basically play occult pop music featuring chirpy hooks about things like human sacrifice, Elizabeth Bathory, and the Dark Lord. (For what it’s worth, the Japanese edition included a cover of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”.)
Due in part to that pop appeal, as well as the curiosity surrounding their anonymity and aesthetic, they gained high-profile fans like Dave Grohl and James Hetfield, signed a reportedly lucrative deal with Universal, recorded an ABBA cover with Grohl, and found themselves on the losing end of a lawsuit that forced them to change their name to Ghost B.C. in the U.S. You don’t see this happening everyday in underground metal.
It all leads up to their anticipated second album, Infestissumam, out April 16 via UMG’s Loma Vista. (You can currently stream the album on Pitchfork Advance.) They recorded the 10-song collection with the Grammy-winning producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, QOTSA, Alice in Chains) in his Nashville studio.
You can, of course, do research online and figure out the band member’s identities, and it’s easy to poke holes in their philosophies, but it’s more fun having a conversation on the phone with a guy named Nameless Ghoul on his own terms. (Everyone in the group is a “Nameless Ghoul,” outside of Papa.) Even if you’re not a fan of the music, the push for this cloaked, theatrical sort of rock music on such a large scale, is appreciated.
I caught up with a Nameless Ghoul via telephone, his kid crying in the background. Papa answered questions later via email.
Pitchfork: You recorded the new album with a Grammy-award winning producer in Tennessee. On paper, that seems like a strange choice. How’d you decide to go that route?
Nameless Ghoul: I don’t think it’s so weird, because we’ve always made a thing out of our band having the intention to go forward. And it comes with the territory. If you do a record with a bit more means, it might be a good move to bring in someone to work with you. Obviously there are producers and there are producers. Labels usually want to work with that kind of producer, because they know that artists they throw their way will end up in a certain package. Whereas we were open to working with a producer that goes another way.
Nick just happens to be one of those that, regardless of the band that he works with, he always ends up making that band’s record. I mean, when he works with Rush he makes a really good Rush album, if he works with Alice in Chains, he makes a good Alice in Chains record. And that’s what I think the case with our record is. That was the reason why we wanted to work with him, and that probably goes hand-in-hand with the surprise that you were talking about. Obviously we didn’t want to change anything with our sound, but we didn’t want to miss out on any potential that we might have that we might be missing out on, because it’s always easy to lose track of what you’re doing, when you don’t have anybody coming in with an objective view.
Pitchfork: You’ve said you wanted to make an album that sounds like an expensive record that came out in 1978. Do you think you succeeded here?
NG: I think that we did so even more than on the first, because there are so many things that we did on the first record that-- I’m not gonna slag it, because I like it, and it is what it is. But I think that a lot of the things that Nick brought in, in the form of expertise that we knew half of, he brought in the last piece of the puzzle, like, “I was listening to your first record, and I think the kind of snare that you are looking for is actually this, because if you wanted it to sound like this you need to do it like that.” It’s like, “Ohhh, that’s why we never really got there.”
What we’re doing is semi-archeological and in that sense we are going backwards, because we wanted it to sound classical, and that goes hand-in-hand with collecting records, that goes hand-in-hand with listening to stuff in earphones. And the whole idea of how sordid, polluted, the music had seemed in the last 10 years. “Everybody can record for nothing at home,” that is just total bullshit. You can make music at home, yes, but there’s always a better sound that you can accomplish when you go to a real studio, when you have real microphones, when you have a real mixing table, and expertise most of all. You can give the most expensive guitar to an asshole and he will make it sound like pure crap. But being in a real studio with a really accomplished engineer and a producer that’s willing to make the best of what you are, that feels very comforting. We were given a chance to do that, we wanted to.
Pitchfork: Ghost are the first high profile “Satanic” band on a major label in a long time. It makes me think of the heyday of hair metal. How’d you hook up with Universal?
NG: Well, first off it was Tom Whalley who was interested in the band. I’m not really sure if there was someone in like, proper Universal that was interested in us, but Tom Whalley used to be the head honcho of Warner Bros. and was looking to start his own label, which ended up being an imprint of Universal. I think he has an ear for bands, he was on Interscope back in the days when they were really sort of eclectic and they found new acts that nowadays are big, of course. I mean, he signed Primus at the time, Helmet, and back then he also signed bands like Marilyn Manson and Tupac Shakur.
He basically approached us saying that he wanted to work with the band, but that we were basically going to be the first band on his imprint, and that seemed like a good challenge. Obviously we are in a band that, because of the content of what we’re doing and the context, is not really associated with what usually goes on within the confines of a major label. We felt that we might be self-conscious about making that move, but knowing his background, having someone like that, having him be an advocate for our band, within a big organization like Universal, felt like the closest thing you can get to being on an independent without being on an independent.
I know it’s a weird thing and we questioned it several times, like “Do you know what we’re doing? Have you taken that into consideration?” And that is one of the things that is so weird when you’re on a major label, because a major label is so big, whereas if you’re an independent label, they just branch out to distributors. Distributors themselves can be opinionated, to some extent. But when you’re on a major label, they have to internally reach out to every internal office. Where obviously the regional offices of each country might specialize in something different. I mean, Universal in Sweden have always been sort of rock- and pop-oriented, while the one in Hungary might be completely oriented by their national folk music, so they know nothing about a band like us. But I think that one reason why we were able to make that change is that we have achieved a certain degree of some sort of success already. They knew beforehand that it was not going to be starting over from scratch. We’re not big, but at least we don’t have to start from scratch.
Pitchfork: Right. It’s interesting you mention Helmet. I remember years ago when Helmet signed with Interscope, and there was all this talk about them getting a million dollars or something. People in the “underground” were taken aback by it or had issues with it. I don’t know if you can disclose it, but is it true that you guys got $750,000 to sign? Either way, is it something you’ve gotten backlash for? I think it’s different in 2013, but at one point, it’s something people would get up in arms about.
NG: Well, I can tell you this much: We didn’t get $750,000. And what that cost us, people knowing that, felt that they knew that was a truth, and that is what eventually ended up being the addition of the awful “B” in the “B.C.,” you know? Because up until then there was never an issue or anything, but as soon as that came it was like “Oh, they have money, hmm.” And obviously that was something that was spread out by one of the other competitors. That sort of were there for the so-called bidding war, and when they lost it, they spread that rumour to cause a little trouble.
I think that one of the reasons we haven’t seen a total backlash from our fans is that we have never, ever painted a picture of our band being anything other than interested in moving forward. And we’ve been very, very clear about this from day one. That we want to be a big band, in the aspect that we’re able to do a huge production. And in order to do so we need to make certain moves, because it goes without saying that if you want to fill a big room, you need to have a certain pull, you need to have a certain draw. And in order to achieve that draw you need to be commercially successful to some extent. That’s why, I believe, that when that rumor got out, when we did sign to a major, it wasn’t really such a big deal, because we have never really manifested any moral codes to live by that we broke. Whereas I guess a Helmet, from an underground circuit, would have been judged differently, because it’s sort of a betrayal of the moral codes of their background scene or something.
But I’m underground-rooted, so I completely understand the whole thing. I’ve been 18 years old, I’ve hated bands. So much. I’ve been extremely judgmental, and the younger-me still believes in those things sometimes, but the older self sort of looks back of that and is like, “Come on.” But I know instinctively what it means.
Pitchfork: Is reaching non-metal fans a goal?
NG: We never really saw ourselves as a clean metal band. Obviously we are a hard rock band, but we never tried to be part of the scene. The idea was never really a matter of contributing to a scene as it was contributing to entertainment, if that makes sense. We set out to be an entertainment act. Whereas in other bands, and especially bands from when I was younger, seemed to be part of a movement. And that’s why I feel that there’s a clear difference. Then it turned out that there was a movement that was regarded contemporary and was labeled “The Rise of Occult Rock,” which we weren’t really aware of at that point. It might have helped us, and we might have helped the wave, but that was never the idea.
For us, being able to reach people over the boundaries of a metal crowd, that’s just a necessary thing that you need to do and that doesn’t bother us. Our home turf is the metal crowd or the hardcore crowd. So, from a personal aspect, we had to get used to people not moving so much when they saw us in the beginning. Because people were confused. Especially when we played proper metal festivals where, as a sign of devotion to the band, the crowd move in a violent way. When we play, it causes some sort of meltdown because they don’t know how to act. We’re not headbanging music, and these guys cannot really dance. So it’s some sort of drunken three o’clock headbang-dancing going on. And for us as band members, being used to having a very vivid crowd, that sometimes felt weird in the beginning, because it felt like, “Why are they just staring at us? Oh yeah, we’re dressed up, yeah, we look kinda weird.” But that was the point, but that took some time getting used to, that we’re an entertainment thing now, and we’re not there to say “Fuck yeah!” between songs. We’re not there to tongue-kiss the crowd, or throw our t-shirts out, or throw ourselves into the crowd.
But there was more discussion about this a few years ago when we went from being super-underground to actually being recognized for anything, where we were questioned: “What? Do you want to get into the mainstream?” “Yeah.” “Okay.” And everybody seemed kind of fine with it. Even the most anal of metal-peddlers were quite okay with us doing so. But I think it goes back to what I was saying in the first place, because we never set out to be anything else than just a big entertainment thing, an entity. And in order to do so we need to appeal.
Pitchfork: In a way, Dave Grohl, who you’ve worked with, is the mainstream version of [Darkthrone’s] Fenriz. This guy who’s supportive of other bands, and champions them. Fenriz, who championed Ghost early on, is doing it for the underground. Grohl, the mainstream. How did you guys end up hooking up with Grohl, and how did he end up on the ABBA cover?
NG: The whole thing began with when we were facing the schedule of going to Nashville in October last year. We also had a bunch of covers demoed. We know that we wanted to specialize in “funny covers,” like we did with “Here Comes the Sun”. And everything was kind of set: We knew when we were going to Nashville, we knew when the album is done, we knew exactly what we were doing, we knew we were going to do it with Nick, and there was this issue where we have these other five songs, and were wondering, "Are we going to try and squeeze that into the record?" You know you’re supposed to record the album and then some extra stuff, there’s always something that is going to end up being not so well treated, just because you don’t have enough time and you’re in the studio the last day with one, full, more song to record. And sometimes that makes miracles, and sometimes that makes complete “crap-acles,” you know?
Those the real B-sides, and you end up releasing them in the end anyways just because you have them and there’s the issue of somebody owning a recording that they want to have exploited. So we thought “Why don’t we try to do something special with them?” And whilst we were thinking this we were at a festival in Europe and Foo Fighters was playing, and we knew that Dave was a fan, and we made the arrangements of going over to talk to him. And when we met him, after a few handshakes and a few laughs, we were like “Okay, so you liked the band? So do you want to do something?” And he said yeah, and one month later we were in L.A. doing that. So that way we sort of found a way to treat those songs a little bit better, and it turned into something more special, that session. And it also worked in the way that we recorded all the cover stuff first and got our rocks off, so to speak, before going to the other studio, the other week after that to begin recording the album.
Pitchfork: The ABBA cover makes sense to me-- you guys are Swedish-- but how did you guys decide to do“Here Comes the Sun”?
NG: Because we are big fans of the Beatles [laughs]. Most metal bands pay tribute and it’s in accordance with their heritage that they need to play songs of bands that they try to sound like. And it would be so boring if we started doing Alice Cooper, and Black Sabbath and Pentagram and Candlemass and all those songs that would be deemed as “Godfathers of Doom Rock.” We leave that to the others, because as much as we love bands like that, and have their records, we wanted to bring forth something else. We want to find songs that we can adopt into our own. And Beatles, I’ve been a fan of Beatles even longer than I’ve been listening to hard rock, so it made a lot of sense. We sort of found the angle of taking that so and inverting it. And that’s something that’s sort of the Ghost recipe for doing covers, it has to be a song that has some sort of tongue-in-cheek inversion quality to it. And that song just screamed “cover.”
Pitchfork: The theme of Satanism, tongue-in-cheek or not, has a long tradition in heavy metal. How important is it to what you guys are doing?
NG: Well thematically, obviously, it’s alpha to omega, that’s what we’re doing. The sort of Satanism, or devil-worship, that we want to portray in the confines of Ghost, a very biblical version of goat worship, the sort of things that you see in a Satanic Panic movie. And obviously in the theater that is Ghost, everything is supposed to feel like it’s orthodox devil-worshipping. As an audience member, you can choose to believe whatever you want to. And you can choose to partake, or you can choose not to.
That’s also one of the things that makes us different from most metal bands that have some sort of Satanic agenda. That most of them have a very high demand on their listener, where most of the time they’re preaching for priests and they demand of their fans to be as devoted as they are. And there’s always some sort of “kill yourself” message in there. Whereas we are, in many ways, like a mirror reflection, where we’re trying to reflect on, basically “religiosity." We’re basically doing the Catholic Church, we just have drawn a little on the painting. And we’re doing so because it’s such a powerful way of making you guys, and ourselves, aware of the solemn, and the seriousness to it, because it’s the priest and the clergy, and the Church, is something that most people in the Western world associate with authority. Even atheists sort of throw out their gum before going into a church, just because there is something within the confines of a church, there is something in the walls, most people can feel that power. Some people call it “God,” but there are many words for it.
And that is one of the aspects that we’re trying to touch and we’re playing with the idea of divinity, and we’re using the diabolical symbolisms to set a mindset, and this is where it becomes non-intellectual. Because Ghost derives from a pop-cultural world where rock n’ roll, vinyl, and horror movies is a religion. And that’s why it’s so hard to speak of all the ingredients for a grown-up person’s point of view. Because Ghost comes from the sort of devotion only a 13 year-old can have to goat, God, man. And it’s a sort of devotion that only youngsters can have of horror and rock. Does that make sense?
Pitchfork: Yeah. Leading up to the release of this new record, the real Pope stepped down. When that happened, I thought, “Ghost couldn’t have asked for better timing.”
NG: [Laughs] I know, had we only gotten the press release before everybody else, then we would have made a real big thing about it. No, it’s very ironic, especially since most people didn’t know what “Emeritus” meant until recently. So people didn’t really realize what our pope's name was. You know they didn’t understand the joke, because there is no such thing, you cannot be a “Pope Emeritus.” And now there is one.
But it’s interesting times, and that is basically what this band is about. So what he’s doing, and the reasons why, sort of goes hand in hand with our entire idea of the band and what we’re talking about on the record. What we’re also trying to create, what we’re trying to do, is create an alternative, especially where what we’re doing is escapism.
Most bands nowadays, especially the modern metalcore, emo, screamo, yada, they always insist about singing about “real stuff.” Divorce, alcoholism, “You’re like me, I’m like you." That whole Hot Topic crap. Nothing against Hot Topic, but the bands in there, the temporary music scene is a lot about being real, about being out there, and being street, being this and that. And as much as we’re trying to create something that’s an alternative to that, escapism, we try to reflect on things that are real. What the new record is, it’s about man and his relationship to the divine, the darker divine, and how people treat each other, basically. So a lot of these themes that we’re singing about, however fantasy-oriented they might seem, and unrealistic, and things you can see for show, there’s still some sort of substance to it. And that’s why I’m saying that you can take it very literal or you can choose to indulge.
Pitchfork: You say that the first record is kind of building up to the Antichrist in a way and then the new record is the Antichrist or Satan in the every day. Is that the idea?
NG: Yes. That’s basically what I’m talking about. Everything on the first record was about a coming darkness, an impending doom. Whereas the new record is about something present, and literally, the new record deals with the presence of the Anti-Christ, the Devil. But subliminally, the meaning of it is more how mankind-- predominantly men-- what they have deemed to be the presence of the Devil, throughout history and even nowadays. And that’s why the record is so fueled with sexual themes and females. That’s basically it, the Inquisition was basically men accusing women of being the Devil just because they had a hard-on for them. That was basically that.
Pitchfork: Via the Decibel piece I was led to that Tumblr page, Ghoulish Perversions, featuring sexualized Ghost drawings and images. Pretty interesting fan art.
NG: Yeah, absolutely, it’s amazing. At first we were a little bit appalled by the fact that we had this sort of female attraction when we played, because regardless of how broad the mass that we wanted to reach out to, somehow we still though that we were going to be a dudes' band. And we ended up having not a predominant, but a steady stream of females coming to our shows and being very keen on being in the front row and sort of suggestive, to Papa mostly. And we were like “What the fuck? Why?” He’s an old codger, and we sort of looked past the whole idea of obviously somewhere underneath all that stuff there’s someone else, he can be whatever you want him to be. We never really thought about that. Now we know that, obviously, especially after seeing that page of smut [laughs], but we’re glad. That’s what we’re doing, we want to influence people. It’s pretentious, but isn’t that what defines art? A piece of something that inspires other people to carry on living or carry on doing something, that intrigues them to act in some way. So people doing drawings like that about what they want to do with the band, I think that is a great compliment. And it gives us the approval knowing that we’re doing something right. And it’s fun.
After speaking with a Nameless Ghoul, I sent Papa Emeritus II some questions via email. Answers dictated to personal assistant by Papa Emeritus II:
Pitchfork: When I spoke to one of the Nameless Ghouls, he talked about Ghost as an "entertainment" band. Do you agree?
Papa Emeritus II: Yes.
Pitchfork: You signed to a major label, upped the production, etc. Is reaching non-metal fans an active goal?
Papa: As much as we like to physically walk and talk backwards, we wish to go forward career-wise.
Pitchfork: I'm curious about how you initially came up with, and then developed, the band's concept and sound.
Papa: I did not.
Pitchfork: On the new album, the songs/lyrics are credited to "A Ghoul Writer." Are you this "Ghoul Writer"? If so, what inspired the words?
Papa: I am not the Ghoul Writer.
Pitchfork: Satan is obviously the major theme here. When I talk to Satanic bands, I'm always curious: How do you honor Satan in your daily life?
Papa: My mere existence is a dishonor for the Church, thus being in favor of "the old one."
Pitchfork: How do the covers of ABBA and the Beatles tie into this Satanism? Is Dave Grohl devoted to the Satanic cause?
Papa: Anybody devoted to rock music is, per Christian definition, a promoter of devil worship.
Pitchfork: How does the new album connect to the last one? Can you discuss the title and the other Latin phrases?
Papa: The first album was about an impending doom, whereas the new album is about the presence of the Devil. The title, Infestissumam, means "the biggest threat" and refers literally to the arrival of the Antichrist, but what it is also is about is what man has traditionally regarded as diabolical presence-- namely female form and swagger.
Pitchfork: It's interesting how many women are referenced in the lyrics. Can you discuss?
Papa: Yes, but we aim not only to disgust, but also to arouse and enlighten.
Pitchfork: When you started Ghost, did you envision becoming a sex symbol?
Papa: I didn't start Ghost, but I have always had my way with women. This because of my nice figure and my sharp tongue.
Pitchfork: You guys had a big moment when the Pope stepped down. Good timing with the new record. What were you thoughts when this happened?
Papa: Gawddammit, why did I sign up with this rock gig for a year and a half?
In this moment of fast-forwarding microtrends, reissues, and revivals, what a difference a year can make. Coachella 2012’s two most buzzed-about sets came from Frank Ocean (12 months ago, a promising guy out of the Odd Future camp whose backing band suffered sound problems but got it together in time to play that song about Coachella that everybody loves) and Azealia Banks (who played a closely watched, widely praised set that felt like confirmation she’d spend 2013 dominating the charts, not trolling her Twitter feed). Remember April 2012? You had probably not even heard your first hologram joke yet.
The Stone Roses
But think back to recall a time two decades ago, when Blur, New Order, Stone Roses, Wu-Tang Clan and Red Hot Chili Peppers were all equally popular in America-- a cultural moment that this year’s Coachella seemed intent on recreating, with decidedly mixed results. Some of the weekend’s big, nostalgia-grabbing names coasted on their own signature brand of charisma. Take the Stone Roses, who headlined Friday night and had the demeanor of four men who have spent the past couple of decades not liking each other. Still, somehow, the entertainment value of Ian Brown’s oblivious self-absorption and self-aggrandizement made up for his even-flatter-than-usual singing and the fact that empty water bottles outnumbered people in the audience.
Other headliners felt less interested in meeting the crowd halfway. Blur frontman Damon Albarn has now headlined Coachella in two different acts (Gorillaz played in 2010). But Blur’s Coachella set bore a similarity to that of their late-90s heroes Pavement in 2010: they didn’t seem particularly happy to be there or all that excited to see each other. Set opener “Boys & Girls” had a fun energy, but later in the set they made you wonder how much it pains them to still have to play “Song 2”. Maybe so much that they felt the need to satiate the diehards by leaning on atmospheric deep cuts such as “Trimm Trabb”, “Caramel”, and “Sing”.
Blur's draw, unfortunately, distracted from one of the weekend’s truly powerful sets. Grinderman were lodged in an uncomfortable spot-- you figure Nick Cave and Blur have a lot of crossover fans-- and the crowd in the Mojave Tent was sparse. (Many curious onlookers simply covered their ears and walked away.) But for those who stuck around it was a revelation, psychosexual drama of four uncomfortably virile men in their 50s rendered as loud and punishing as biblical proclamation.
Phoenix proved far more capable of handling a big stage than they were in 2010, when their sound was battered by heavy winds. But prior to R. Kelly showing up for a couple of mashup-type medleys, they played a role similar to Black Keys and (in theory) Kings of Leon, i.e, the constant hitmaker of a headliner who seemed forced into the role. For better or worse, their live show is fully predicated on the reaction you get from hearing “Lizstomania” or “1901” or “Long Distance Call” performed as tight as it is on record.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have the opposite effect; they’re a visual spectacle even if the source material from their latest, Mosquito, is subpar.
Another intriguing inclusion was Modest Mouse, who have been quiet since We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank in 2007, but when you hear songs like “Dramamine” and “Cowboy Dan” live you realize theirs is still a uniquely potent sound. It might’ve seemed like a Super Bowl moment to have the power go out right in the middle of their last song-- but at least it was during their anthem about overcoming supernatural forces and shit luck. We all floated on OK.
Sigur Rós released the all-but-forgotten Valtari just last year, but the two tracks of aggressive, metallic clangor they previewed from Kveikur had an inverse halo effect;even the prettiest Takk… and ( ) inclusions snarled and built to Godspeed You! Black Emperor crescendos.
While Wu-Tang Clan could’ve been expected to turn out their usual festival set of hits, crowd-pleasers and the unfortunate inclusion of “Gravel Pit” and Iron Flag material, a full orchestra made them Sunday night’s biggest talking point.
For me, though, the weekend's biggest revelations were the ones with the smallest back catalogs. Savages and TNGHT both have very little music available to the public thus far-- an EP, some singles, YouTube traffic and a hell of a lot of hype. But it also helps that both traffic in visceral sounds that overcome the lack of familiarity. Savages were all peaks-- every one of the four band members stayed in attack mode playing cuts from their upcoming LP, a strange display where the music and the physicality were combustible and yet so on point you start to wonder just how long this has been in the works.
Savages’ searing punk and TNGHT’s Lex-Luger in-IMAX-bangers have little in common-- the former could’ve happened in 1981, it’s impossible for TNGHT to exist before 2010. And yet, both feels like what’s needed right now. TNGHT understands how festivals work. They've got enough bass and squelching for EDM, enough sheer loudness for rock fans. TNGHT effectively bridged the gap between the dance tents and the rock ones and also proved just how much of an appetite there is for hip-hop enjoyed in real, populist ways as opposed to the scare-quotes “real” hip-hop. While Coachella has taken steps to integrate rap that’s a little more chart-oriented than say, Jurassic 5 (whose set was packed, never underestimate the power of real hip-hop, son), for the most part, it’s been the likes of El-P, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Pusha T who have been clearly embraced on a critical level.
2 Chainz was…um, different. For one thing, Coachella’s rockist bias was made clear when 2 Chainz, who may well have had the best-selling record in 2012 of any act on Saturday, was given an absurd 4 p.m. time slot at the Mojave tent. Needless to say, Chainz’s undeniable street-level popularity and a lack of compelling alternatives made for a dangerous spillover in the tent. Which was not abetted by a distinct feeling that he might not even show up, or at least pull off one of those R. Kelly-style “appearances” rather than performance (his band tapped at an instrumental of “I’m Different” for five minutes while rumors circulated that he wasn’t even on site yet.) Another rumor: he was waiting until 4:20. Another: we were just going to shout our favorite 2 Chainz lyrics at each other, and 2 Chainz was just booked “in spirit.” After some fairly ravenous booing, he did manage to show up and do his verse from “Mercy” (which clearly won the weekend) and all was forgiven.
“Last time we were on that stage," Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos said during their set, "Now we’re on this one. It’s amazing." Like many of the acts at the fest, it’s conceivable they got a taste for it in the past and reconfigured their sound accordingly. In 2010, Angelakos’ crowd-hyping tactics came off as awkward, the band’s synth assault thin, whereas now it has force and muscle.
Other artists could have benefitted from a larger stage. Grimes is an undeniable star-- visually, sonically and in every other aspect, you saw her set and realized it’s a cult act on a quasi-mass level. But if you saw just how much bigger the crowd was for Mumford & Stepsons folk-pop act Lumineers, it’d break your heart. Coachella is an impressive display of how wide-ranging a lot of people’s tastes have become, but it's also a relatively traditional confirmation of the power of radio and old school marketing.
And yet, unquestionably, the definitive moment of Coachella 2013 involved a band that wasn’t even there. Preceding the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' set, a one minute clip of a new Daft Punk song-- with Pharrell and Niles Rodgers, to boot-- played to rapturous response as rumors circulated they would join their fellow countrymen Phoenix on stage a night later. (They didn't.) Everything about this record’s marketing is expertly timed, especially the window where it’s not so recent to mute interest and it’s not so far that it’s easy to forget why they were so exciting in the first place. While Daft Punk may have co-opted Coachella as a publicity ploy, don’t forget that the rumor-mongering starting right this minute is the best possible PR for Coachella 2014. If Daft Punk is indeed already slotted in as 2014’s headliner, hopefully, Random Access Memories won’t make us look back on our wild anticipation of a year prior and feel like it was ancient history.
Forget OKCupid or Match.com. For Brittany Frankso and her boyfriend Jebriel Teague, it was the obsessively prolific Bay-Area rapper known as Lil B-- and his thriving online community of fans-- that brought them true love. What began as a casual online friendship over shared affection for the rapper on Facebook blossomed into a deep romantic bond. Frankso, 21, recalls a period after a storm last summer when the electricity at her parents' home in New Jersey went out for days. She endured the dark, powerless nights in her car, talking to Teague over the phone. "I was hot and upset and scared and by myself in the pitch black," she says. "That's when we really started connecting."
She soon booked a trip to visit the 19-year-old Teague, and within three months she'd packed up and moved in with him and his brother in their Atlanta home. It's a decision that may seem rash to some (her mother has since disowned her for dating a black man), but Fransko is committed to Teague. "I wouldn't have moved my entire life if I didn't think it could be forever," she tells me. And their shared devotion to Lil B and the lifestyle he endorses-- his music, his positivity, his "Top Chef"-ready cooking dance-- continues to strengthen their connection. Frankso even dreams about the rapper playing officiant at their wedding. "Lil B can say, 'And you may now cook with the bride,'" she says, giggling.
What Lil B lacks in notoriety he makes up for with an all-encompassing worldview-- becoming a serious fan often accompanies a mentality makeover.
Lady Gaga has her Little Monsters, Nicki Minaj has her army of Barbz, Justin Bieber has his squealing Beliebers, Chris Brown has his perpetually misguided Team Breezy. And Lil B has his sprawling BasedWorld, a virtual-reality home to some of contemporary music's most fiercely loyal, spirited, interconnected, mobilized, internet-savvy fans. There is no single hub or message board-- instead, the community thrives primarily as a decentralized network of Facebook pages. The most dedicated devotees sometimes become members of a subdivision called the Task Force, a group that expresses itself through video game-like geekery and military vocabulary. Their primary goal is to stamp out the fires of anyone who speaks ill of Lil B online, and they take their duties very seriously-- within a few minutes of posting, any negative comment about the rapper on YouTube, WorldStarHipHop, Facebook, or Twitter is killed with kindness, buried in positivity.
I had been aware of Lil B's army of followers and their online presence for some time, but I didn't fully grasp their reach and intensity until January. The rapper was nominated for the voter-determined Gig of a Lifetime challenge, a contest designed to bring new talent to perform at a Grammys-affiliated event. After he lost in an early round to a Los Angeles pop-punk band with a comparatively negligible online following, I received a flood of emails from his energized fans. "CARRIE THEY DONE FUCKED LIL B," one wrote. A petition quickly went up on WhiteHouse.gov to "Boycott the CBS Grammy Awards show for unethically purging Lil B."
At first glance, Lil B's fans can seem as off-center as the controversial artist himself, who is still unsigned, still releasing hundreds of songs a year, and still doing things like creating a persona for his cat Keke or taping himself crying in a pet store. The rapper's fame remains modest, but what he lacks in notoriety he makes up for with an all-encompassing worldview-- becoming a serious fan often accompanies a mentality makeover. Lil B and his followers abide by an ideology that's both grand and simplistic, a kind of back-to-basics guide for living based on the principled tenets of both old-fashioned parents and hippies.
"How can you possibly have anything bad to say about a guy who devotes himself to helping others be happy?" wonders Brandon Skipper, who goes by the nickname Skip in BasedWorld. He's a 24-year-old who used Lil B's music as a way to lift himself out of a deep rut. After graduating high school in 2007, Skipper turned away offers from Duke and various art programs to join the Navy, with the hopes that he could earn enough money to pay for school. But once he wrapped up his time in the military, where he'd earned high-level security clearance within the Office of Naval Intelligence, he began to flail, using drugs regularly and even considering suicide.
At some point, a friend played him the deeply introspective, new age-toned Lil B song "I'm God", which initiated a gradual shift. "I started to apply what Lil B was saying in his more serious songs to my life," he says. I can practically hear a faithful joy radiating through the phone as he explains his new perspective. Skipper is living at his parents' home in Baxley, Georgia, folding Lil B's philosophies into his daily routine as he tries to return to his artwork. "I don't have a job. I ain't in school right now. I'm single. But every day I get up, go outside, look at the sky, feel the breeze on my skin," he says, "and I'm happy."
Brittany Frankso's "based" tattoo
At the center of Lil B's philosophy lives the word based, a term once used as an insult that's been flipped to mean something profound. Based is an intuitive notion that signifies a constellation of desirable qualities-- positivity, sincerity, groundedness. It is not easy to pinpoint exactly what based means on paper, but if you orbit BasedWorld for even a short period of time, spotting examples of the virtue in the real world becomes second nature. (Some guy walking tall while sporting a hot pink fisherman's cap? Extremely based.) The five letters carry so much weight for Frankso, who's known as Brittany BasedPrincess online, that she has them tattooed in large black letters down her forearm. In talking with Lil B's motley crew of fans, I found that the based ideology can forge more common ground between people than upbringing, location, age, race.
"A lot of people I've known for six months through BasedWorld are closer to me than friends I've had my whole life," says Frankso. "That's why I'm glad my boyfriend is based." (They're not alone, either-- a 22-year-old Lil B fanatic named Nancy Rodriguez met her boyfriend the same way, and he eventually moved from St. Louis to live with her in Chicago.) Once Frankso relocated to Atlanta, she and Teague reached out to Skipper to meet up in person, and the three spent a day together riding scooters, smoking weed, and watching movies. They've since become close friends. While Lil B's community is a ramshackle network of pages and people online, there's a sense of intimacy among its members. The rapper himself keeps watch over all that happens in his kingdom, sometimes forging personal friendships with its inhabitants.
Monica Howard, a fan in Columbus, Georgia, sometimes communicates directly with him about personal problems. The 32-year-old single mother tells me that she reached out to him at the end of last year. "The holidays are a rough time for me," she says, "because my mom passed away in 2004, and Christmas was her favorite time." She posted a note on Facebook about her troubles, and Lil B noticed. "He thanked me for sharing my experience, and said that these are the things that remind him to stay humble," she says.
The interpersonal nature of BasedWorld can translate to a real-world connection with the man himself, too. "He knew exactly who I was," says 17-year-old Joey Greene, describing the time he met Lil B in person at one of the rapper's shows. "He was as happy to meet me as I was to meet him. His face lit up and he was like, 'I fuck with you, man.'" Lil B undoubtedly recognized the 11th grader from a series of videos Greene posted online, where he's pictured in his bedroom, the red wall behind him scrawled with tags like, "#SWAG", "Joey," and "#based." He's doing a version of Lil B's cooking dance, but with the volume and adrenaline dialed all the way up. "When I'm not recording," he says, "I go even more insane with it."
Greene is a reminder that, in spite of the heavy-handed spiritual component, BasedWorld is, above all, a wildly fun place. It might seem sacrilegious or mean-spirited to laugh at an artist who spends his days tirelessly spreading hippy'd-out visions of peace and love, but each fan I spoke with agreed: Lil B is nothing if not a brilliant comedian, a skilled and knowing provocateur. To take him entirely with a straight face would mean selling Lil B short and underestimating his self-awareness. "He's a master troll, and people don't understand that," Skipper says. "He's so smart and such a good rapper that he tries not to rap well." For many fans, the juxtaposition of goofy and serious-- and the tension between those two elements-- is what drew them to his music to begin with.
"Before I got into Lil B, I was super uptight," says Emmett Tyler, a 20-year-old who lives in Burlington, New Jersey, with his parents. "He helped me realize that you don't have to be so hard on yourself." Tyler, who's dubbed himself the Task Force Hitta, dropped out of a pricy Philadelphia art school and now works in retail while taking classes at a community college. "I don't want to put Lil B on too much of a pedestal, but he's a martyr of some sort-- he's emotionally sacrificing himself." He takes pains to point out that Lil B must have submitted himself to a surge of harsh judgment in order to experiment with his brand and philosophy. "I know I'm weird," Tyler says, "but I look at some of the stuff he's done and wonder if I could ever sacrifice that much."
Task Force artwork
Speaking of sacrifice: Joel Gonzalez, an 18-year-old from West Palm Beach, Florida, says he spends an average of 12 hours per day in his home, monitoring various BasedWorld pages. He's been done with high school for two years now and hasn't quite mapped out what the next step is, but he's got tunnel vision when it comes to his BasedWorld trajectory: He's a Task Force administrator now, and he intends to serve and protect.
But being a Lil B fan is not an all-or-nothing experience exclusive to passionate teens and twentysomethings with a healthy amount of free time to kill. One BasedWorld stalwart who goes by Task Force Chip describes himself as "Lil B's oldest fan over 60." He's the cool uncle (or grandfather) who knows what the kids are into, and truly understands it. Chip was exposed to Lil B's music by some younger co-workers at a consulting job and was initially struck by the profanity. But, like many who first greet the BasedGod with confusion or skepticism, he eventually "started listening to the music and really hearing what he had to say," Chip tells me. "It reminded me of Frank Zappa, whose music was profound, but a lot of people didn't appreciate it because of the words he said."
Chip and his co-workers eventually made a home video set to Lil B's introspective song "White House" and put it on YouTube. Pictured in the video is Chip's pottery studio-- he currently owns a ceramics company that designs and manufactures special dinnerware for high-end restaurants. "I work with some of the most successful chefs in the country," Chip says, "and they're very based people."
He's encountered little opposition to his online alter-ego. People in his line of work either think it's funny or they get it. Even his wife, to whom he's been married for 30 years, is dipping her toes into BasedWorld-- she's a member of the Task Force now. "I told her, 'You need to be able to look beyond the profanity and see the message. This is something incredibly positive that our grandkids are going to be listening to, and you need to know what's going on so that you can relate to them.'" Similarly, single mom Howard says she's passing down the tenets of BasedWorld to her seven-year-old daughter Regina, who already knows how to do the cooking dance.
Task Force artwork
Despite the best efforts of Lil B's legions, a nu-metal band called Within Reason won the Gig of a Lifetime contest and took the stage at the Grammy Museum earlier this year. Lil B and his fans were left in the dust without explanation as to why he'd been prematurely removed from the contest. Still, the BasedWorld mobilization seemed to overshadow CBS's contest altogether. It didn't really matter why Lil B lost, only that his fans came to life in great numbers to support him.
That is, until the BasedGod spoke. "Thank you to cbs and the grammys.forgive me for reading my emails late, thats why i didnt perform i missed grammys email crazy", he tweeted, long after the contest had passed. I emailed him for more information, and he responded immediately: "cbs personally emailed me about the grammys... I read my emails late." Like anything that Lil B touches, the Gig of a Lifetime Contest was at once immensely complicated and delightfully simple. I tried to use the brief email exchange as a way to spark a discourse about his fans, only to lose the elusive rapper once again, as he slipped back into BasedWorld.
Coachella has invaded Indio, California, kicking off the 2013 festival season. We’ve made it through the winter, we’re shedding layers of clothing and stocking up on sunscreen, and we’re ready to enjoy lots of live music in the warm air.
Once again, we’ve gathered together a list of our favorite music festivals from around the globe, to help guide you through the coming months. We’ve chosen fests big and small, in big cities and out in the countryside, in fields and clubs and parks. The only thing they all have in common? Lots of great bands.
And, of course, don’t forget about Pitchfork Music Festival 2013, taking place July 19-21 in Union Park in Chicago and featuring Bjork, R. Kelly, Belle & Sebastian, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, Solange, the Breeders, Yo La Tengo, Lil B, Swans, Toro Y Moi, Savages, Rustie, TNGHT, Low, El-P, Killer Mike, Wire, ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Chairlift, Foxygen, Phosphorescent, Sky Ferreira, Glass Candy, Woods, Andy Stott, Waxahatchee, and many, more. We hope you’ll join us.
Photo credit: Mitch Manzella
April 12-14, April 19-21 Indio, California
Blur, The Stone Roses, Phoenix, Grizzly Bear, New Order, The xx, Sigur Ros, Beach House, the Postal Service, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wu-Tang Clan, How to Destroy Angels, Local Natives, Japandroids, TNGHT, Danny Brown, Purity Ring, Youth Lagoon, Franz Ferdinand, Spiritualized, Major Lazer, Bat for Lashes, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Grinderman, Vampire Weekend, Earl Sweatshirt, Hot Chip, Tame Impala, Modest Mouse, Grimes, James Blake, Kurt Vile and the Violators, Jurassic 5, Passion Pit, Janelle Monae, Jessie Ware, Savages, more.
To give you an idea of what Coachella means to people: Lindsay Lohan allegedly scheduled a stint in rehab around the dates of this year’s fest to ensure that she’d be able to attend. It’s where Rihanna is pictured rolling a blunt from atop some guy’s shoulders. It’s where Frank Ocean meets his love interest in “Novacane”. It’s where reunions by bands like the Pixies, Iggy and the Stooges, At the Drive-In, Refused, Pulp, and Rage Against the Machine have launched. Since it began in 1999, Coachella has become such a big deal that fake lineup announcements are bigger news than most things in the music industry.
A big part of the fun of the festival, which is now spread out over two weekends, is waiting to see which rumors come to life and which don’t, and what inevitable surprises unfold. For instance, last year we didn’t get a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion, but we did get to see Tupac come to life as a hologram. The festival takes place in the middle of the desert, so it’s always amazingly hot, but the sweeping mountain vistas surrounding the festival site on Empire Polo Field serve as a welcome distraction.
If you can’t get your hands on one of the coveted Coachella tickets for this year, don’t worry-- the city of Indio has approved the event through 2030, so there’s plenty of time.
Read our report from last year’s Coachella here and from 2011 here.
Death Grips, !!!, Biosphere, Beak>, Demdike Stare, Andy Stott, How to Dress Well, Girls Against Boys with David Yow, Holly Herndon, Actress, Evian Christ, Co La, Gatekeeper, Jenny Hval, Buke and Gase, Darkstar, Laurel Halo, Omar Souleyman, Simian Mobile Disco, the Haxan Cloak, William Basinski, more.
Donaufestival-- in the beautiful, historic riverside city of Krems in northeast Austria-- is one of the most progressive arts festivals in Europe. (It runs with the full support of Kultur Niederösterreich, Austria's Department for Education, Art, and Culture, in case you needed further evidence that living as an artist in Europe means basically living the dream.)
Donau was founded in 1988, but since 2005 it has incorporated what the organizers describe as "performative art forms that operate beyond the boundaries of theatre, in realms of visual arts and actionism, between installation and media art, between daring assertions and camouflage-- driven by a deep craving for an art that has impact on society and politics." But you don’t need a cultural studies MA to enjoy the music. And a live, participatory remix installation mean there's as much potential for enriching your mind as there is for losing it.
Deerhunter, the Moving Sidewalks, the Raveonettes, Warpaint, King Khan & BBQ Show, GOAT, Tinariwen, Clinic, Black Mountain, the Soft Moon, the Black Angels, Boris, Os Mutantes, DIIV, Silver Apples, Roky Erickson, OM, Man... or Astroman?, Acid Mothers Temple, White Fence, Besnard Lakes, No Joy, Black Bananas, more.
Founded in 2008, the scope of Austin Psych Fest now reaches further than its name suggests. This year, the three-day event’s lineup includes Os Mutantes (from Brazil), Holydrug Couple (from Chile), Tinariwen (from Mali), Boris and Acid Mothers Temple (from Japan), plus one of only a handful of reunion dates by the Moving Sidewalks, the 60s Texas band that featured ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
The festival is produced by a group called The Reverberation Appreciation Society, who also run a record label under the same name. For the first time, festivalgoers will have the option to camp at the nearby riverside Carson Creek Ranch this year. In addition to the music, the fest offers local food, shopping, record store vendors, multimedia installations, and art exhibitions. (There will also be a pre-party on April 25 with A Place to Bury Strangers and Metz at Mohawk.)
ATP I'll Be Your Mirror (Curated by Yeah Yeah Yeahs)/ ATP Curated by TV on the Radio / ATP Curated by Deerhunter / ATP Iceland
May 4 London, England — May 10-12 and June 21-23 Camber Sands, England — June 28-29 Keflavik, Iceland
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On the Radio, Deerhunter, Atlas Sound, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, No Age, the Breeders, Nicolas Jaar, Black Lips, DOOM, El-P, De La Soul, Death Grips, James Murphy, The Field, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Dirty Beaches, Shabazz Palaces, Thee Oh Sees, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Fall, and Chelsea Light Moving, more.
Since 2000, the promoters behind All Tomorrow’s Parties and their sister festival I’ll Be Your Mirror have let headlining bands pick not only the supporting acts on their brilliant bills but also the films at the festival, the books at the reading group, and sometimes much more. (Kelley Deal taught knitting classes when the Breeders ran the show in 2009; in 2011, Caribou actually curated a smell.) Held at a holiday park in Camber Sands, an hour south of London, ATP festivals feature bands and fans living and hanging out in the same complex for the duration of the fest. This year’s ATP is split between two weekends: the first curated by TV on the Radio, the second by Deerhunter. At the latter, Deerhunter will perform their albums Cryptograms, Microcastle& Halcyon Digest in full.
In May, ATP will also stage its I’ll Be Your Mirror festival, a non-residential weekend at London’s beautiful Alexandra Palace, curated by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (A second day of I'll Be Your Mirror, curated by Grizzly Bear, has been moved to November.) And in June, for the first time, ATP will host an event in Iceland with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Fall, and Chelsea Light Moving.
This year, NYC’s Downtown Records-- home to the likes of Major Lazer, Santigold, Spank Rock, and more-- is expanding its recurring Downtown Music Festival. Along with a two-day blowout at venues across Lower Manhattan, the festival broadens its reach to various cities in North America this year, including Philadelphia, Toronto, Boston, Los Angeles, Denver, and Las Vegas, each with a unique lineup.
Venues at the NYC stop will include clubs like Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge, plus smaller fixtures like Pianos and Cake Shop. The fest will also bring shows to places that even the most frequent New York concert-goers don’t get to very often, including the ornate Angel Orensanz Center, which is housed in an old synagogue, as well as a “tri-level nightlife playground” called Element.
Looking at the recent news coming out of Greece, you’d assume it’s a difficult location to hold a music festival. The country is currently beset by extreme economic problems, and ongoing fallout from mass violent rioting in the capital. Still, Plisskën-- a small but growing festival based around the Building 56 venue-- has been soldiering through since 2010 in the hope of making a small difference. A spokesman for the festival tells us that they understand that the “intense political, social and financial turmoil of the last five years in Greece” mean that for most people-- who have lost their jobs, houses, and friends-- spending money on seeing a group of underground acts won’t exactly be a priority. But in spite of having zero support from public institutions, they keep the entry price low to attract locals-- 30€-- and have begun to notice an uptake in foreign visitors, who then spend money on accommodation and in local businesses.
Plisskën doesn’t have an overt political stance with regard to what’s going on in Greece, but its spirit is inherently punk. Anyone can join the “open community” that organizes the festival. They’re extremely environmentally conscious and proud of it, and the festival itself takes place in an urban industrial area in the east of the city to compensate for Athens’ lack of music infrastructure.
Plisskën also hosts “The Lab”, a workshop for young people interested in learning how to put on their own events. “Whether they come out of it wanting to be production managers or the next Death Grips or firemen makes little difference to us,” they told us. Perhaps it seems odd that there’s only one Greek act on the bill-- DFA electronic artist Larry Gus-- but the organizers say that the local scene doesn’t need Plisskën to “expose itself,” and that permanent local punk venues such as Katarameno Syndromo are doing a brilliant job.
My Bloody Valentine, Blur, Grizzly Bear, The Knife, Animal Collective, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Phoenix, Wu-Tang Clan, Death Grips, Swans, Christopher Owens, Tame Impala, Camera Obscura, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Postal Service, Solange, Four Tet, Deerhunter, Crystal Castles, Dinosaur Jr., Hot Chip, Disclosure, Merchandise, the Breeders, Daniel Johnston, Savages, Dead Can Dance, Glass Candy, DIIV, James Blake, Jessie Ware, Kurt Vile, Nurse With Wound, Phosphorescent, more.
Barcelona’s Primavera Sound is kind of like the European Coachella: A massive, well-respected, hugely anticipated festival that occurs early in the season, setting the tone for what comes after. Established in 2001, it takes place in Parc del Fòrum, a set of concrete plazas and fields right on the shores of the Mediterranean in downtown Barcelona. In addition to an exceptional, wide-ranging lineup of international artists, Primavera also hosts a plethora of homegrown artists. (Read our feature from last year’s festival about the Spanish DIY scene here.)
Along with all the music, Primavera also hosts film screenings and Primavera Pro, a music industry meeting.
Primavera now also holds a sister fest in Porto, Portugal, with some of the same acts, taking place the following weekend. Pitchfork has curated a stage at the Barcelona festival for several years; this year, for the first time, we’re curating a stage at the Porto fest as well.
Sigur Ros, the Postal Service, Vampire Weekend, The xx, Arctic Monkeys, Empire of the Sun, Grimes, Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown, Disclosure, Tame Impala, The Tallest Man on Earth, Youth Lagoon, Devendra Banhart, Built to Spill, Azealia Banks, Death Grips, Dirty Projectors, Japandroids, Ariel Pink, Toro Y Moi, Dirty Projectors, Baths, Schoolboy Q & Ab-Soul, Twin Shadow, Divine Fits, Baauer, DIIV, John Talabot, CHVRCHES, more.
For just over a decade, Sasquatch! has been the Northwest’s answer to America’s other huge regional destination festivals-- the Coachella, Bonnaroo, or Lollapalooza of the Pacific Northwest. The fest takes place on the picturesque cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge, at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Quincy, Washington. Many festivalgoers camp out.
In addition to the music, Sasquatch! also hosts a comedy lineup, this year including Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”), Mike Birbiglia, Jenny Slate, Kyle Kinane, and more.
Check out photos from the 2010 Sasquatch! festival here and read a review of the 2008 festival here.
Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch Ambisymphonic, Bobby Womack, Empire of the Sun, Kraftwerk performing eight albums over four nights, Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull Present Sounds of the South (featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Veron), Karl Hyde of Underworld, Matthew E. White, Sepalcure, Tensnake, more.
Vivid is not your typical music festival. For two-and-a-half weeks, Sydney is transformed by exhibitions of light, sound, and ideas. Throughout the city are immersive light installations and projections to accompany a series of performances that take place at the Sydney Opera House from local and international acts.
And these performances aren’t typical festival sets, either. Kraftwerk will perform their entire catalog. Empire of the Sun will debut their new album. There’s also Bish Bosch Ambisymphonic, a multimedia reinterpretation of Scott Walker’s impressively eccentric 2012 record. (It makes use of a geodesic dome with multi directional speakers for an “all-consuming sonic experience.”) The 30-piece Heritage Orchestra will perform music from Blade Runner, as well as orchestral remakes of material from Joy Division’s catalog, and Justin Vernon will team-up with his old band Megafaun for a tribute to the songbook of folklorist Alan Lomax.
Along with music, the festival includes the Vivid Ideas Exchange, with public talks from global creative thinkers.
This one’s for the electronic music obsessives who want something more subtle, tame, and brainy than the blowouts found at post-dubstep EDM events like Electric Daisy Carnival or Ultra. Now in its 14th year, the Montreal festival, which takes place at venues ranging in size all over the city, has grown from an intimate crowd of a couple thousand to a sizable event that draws over 25,000. Mutek has expanded to include events in Germany, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and more, and it also runs a record label.
This year’s festival will feature the world premiere of the Juan Atkins/Moritz von Oswald collaboration Borderland, Pantha Du Prince and the Bell Laboratory performing at the Montreal Symphony House, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Kompakt label, and the premiere of Ghislain Poirier’s new project, Boundary.
Iceage, The Damned, Grouper, Pharmakon, Andy Stott, Baroness, The Men, The Bats, Coliseum, Destruction Unit, Milk Music, Jessica Pratt, Merchandise, Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, Lower, Parquet Courts, more.
Chaos in Tejas takes place at several venues across Austin. You know, like SXSW-- except with thousands fewer people and an extremely specific stable of artists. This year features the festival’s usual set of heavy rock’n’roll (Baroness, Iceage, the Men), a few quieter acts (Grouper, Waxahatchee, Jessica Pratt), metal bands with names like Speedwolf, local punks (Mind Spiders, the Marked Men), and as usual, a few underground bands that haven’t played together in a while. Case in point: Portland punks (and Dead Moon precursors) the Rats. This year they’ll share the stage with Merchandise and Screaming Females-- two bands whose members weren’t yet born when the Rats broke up in the early 80s.
This year marks the sixth annual Roots Picnic, the intimate hometown weekend arranged by Philadelphia’s favorite musical poster-children. The festival, which takes place in the city, on the water at Penn’s Landing’s Festival Pier, has grown in reputation without losing any of its hand-picked eclecticism-- it’s a small event where Grimes, Macklemore, and Gary Clark, Jr. can all sit comfortably near the top of the bill.
In addition to performing their own set, the Roots will also back Naughty by Nature. This continues a Roots Picnic tradition that has also seen the Roots backing Public Enemy in 2009, John Legend in 2010, Nas in 2011, and De La Soul in 2012.
This year, one of New York’s biggest annual hip-hop events turns 20 years old. The legendary Summer Jam, held at a stadium in New Jersey, is often a place where history is made. During his 2001 set alone, Jay-Z infamously dissed Prodigy by projecting photos of the Mobb Deep rapper dressed up as a ballet dancer as a child, ignited his long-simmering feud with Nas, and brought out Michael Jackson. In 2002, Nas wanted to hang an effigy of Jay-Z as part of his headlining set; Hot 97 refused, so Nas didn’t show up. Destiny’s Child got booed in 2001, 50 Cent got booed in 2004. Last year, headliner Nicki Minaj withdrew at the last minute after Hot 97 host Peter Rosenberg derided her and her more pop-leaning fans. 2007 found Kanye West and Swizz Beatz in an adrenaline-pumping (but good-natured) beat battle. The list goes on.
While the lineup has not yet been formally announced for this year’s Summer Jam, we can only hope that the 20th anniversary of the event will uphold these traditions of high drama and utter batshit insanity.
June 7-9 Randall’s Island, New York
Kayne West, Guns N’ Roses, Grizzly Bear, Nas, The xx, Kendrick Lamar, Beach House, Animal Collective, Beirut, Erykah Badu, Divine Fits, Local Natives, Best Coast, Crystal Castles, Dirty Projectors, Feist, Cut Copy, Death From Above 1979, Japandroids, Deerhunter, Holy Ghost!, Fucked Up, Icona Pop, Yeasayer, Azealia Banks, Wild Nothing, Freddie Gibbs, more.
After many, many unsuccessful attempts, it seems like New York City finally has an enormous outdoor summer indie (mostly) rock festival that’s going to be sticking around awhile. (Anybody remember Across the Narrows? Field Day? All Points West?) Governors Ball got started in 2011 as a one-day affair with a handful of DJs and rappers. In 2012, it expanded to two days and included artists like Beck, Fiona Apple, and Modest Mouse. This year the festival clearly popped a whole fistful of steroids-- they’ve not only added an extra day but nabbed a headlining set from Guns N’ Roses. Axl and Kanye West top the stacked lineup, and if somehow you manage to have extra time between all the sets you’ll want to catch, you can keep yourself busy with lawn games and ping pong tables, which will be set up across Randall’s Island. They’re also hosting a silent disco, and of course, they’ll have a photo booth set up. And the food? It looks amazing.
Sónar calls itself a “International Festival Advanced Music and Multimedia Art”. The festival has been around since 1994, focusing primarily on electronic music. The events are divided up into two halves: Daytime at the Fira Montjuic exhibition center, which showcases lesser-known talent, and nighttime at Fira Gran Via de L’Hospital, which showcases the big-ticket names.
Sónar also features Sónar+D, a bit like SXSW in that it’s something of a hub for intersecting industries: music, communications, tech, and visual arts. It includes workshops, lectures, and other activities, like a “Music Hack Day” during which hackers have 24 hours to build a music-related app. In recent years Sónar has expanded to include events in Chicago, Sao Paulo, Japan and Iceland.
Paul McCartney, R. Kelly, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bjork, Wilco, The National, The xx, Grizzly Bear, Beach House, Cat Power, Foals, Nas, Purity Ring, Swans, David Byrne & St. Vince, Wu-Tang Clan, Death Grips, Kendrick Lamar, Japandroids, Earl Sweatshirt, Ariel Pink, Dirty Projectors, Passion Pit, Animal Collective, Tame Impala, Jim James, Baroness, A-Trak, AraabMuzik, Cults, Four Tet, more.
At some point between 2002 and 2013, Bonnaroo became enormous. Though it started out as a modest, jam band- and bluegrass-centric festival in a field in the middle of Tennessee, it soon began to draw marquee names: Radiohead, Jay-Z, and an unannounced D’Angelo, for starters. This year they bagged Paul McCartney and Weird Al. And if that’s not enough to convince you to camp out in absurdly hot weather, their annual “Superjam” will feature Jim James and John Oates (sans Hall, sadly), plus there’s a comedy tent curated by IFC, a cinema tent, a brewery tent, a kids’ stage, a silent disco, and a giant water slide.
Read our review of Bonnaroo 2012 here and photos from 2011 here.
In its fifth year, Northside Festival is a week-long marathon of music and film in in Greenpoint and Williamsburg organized by The L Magazine. It adopts a model similar to CMJ or SXSW-- panels, semi-useful badges, lots of venues-- but smaller in scale, less corporate, more affordable, and generally more fan-friendly. It’s also a good a reason as any to travel to Brooklyn for a weekend, especially considering most events are within walking distance from the new Williamsburg Waterfront park and plenty of great record shops. Northside also includes two free concerts at McCarren Park on Saturday and Sunday and free music programming in the street on Bedford Ave. (Pitchfork is curating two events at this year’s Northside.)
Along with music, there is also a free tech and entrepreneurship expo June 13-14 in McCarren Park, with over 100 booths and presentations, from Brooklyn companies like Windowfarms-- which helps you grow salad in your apartment window-- and a Red Bull Creation 72-hour maker/hacker build competition live in the park.
Check out photos from last year’s Show No Mercy showcase at Northside here.
In addition to its sprawling network of broadcast programming and its growing awards show, Black Entertainment Television has launched its own festival. The inaugural BET Experience will take place at the Staples Center and surrounding venues as a lead-up to the BET Awards on July 1. It’s both huge and manageable at the same time, showcasing a relatively small group of big-name acts from Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar to New Edition and the Jacksons. (Beyonce will kick off the U.S. leg of her Mrs. Carter Show tour there.)
As you might have guessed from a title that includes the word “experience”, the weekend showcases a number of non-musical events, including a film festival, comedy shows and industry seminars on “love, faith, relationships, money, power, and respect.” BET has also teamed up with the Grammy Museum for an interactive exhibit of BET Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, among them Whitney Houston, James Brown, Diana Ross, Al Green, Earth, Wind and Fire and Prince.
Kraftwerk, Animal Collective, Queens of the Stone Age, Rustie, Crystal Castles, Dead Can Dance, Disclosure, Foxygen, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Savages, Danny Brown, The National, Chelsea Light Moving, Sigur Ros, Angel Haze, Action Bronson, Holy Other, Rihanna, King Krule, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, more.
If you’re interested in a huge outdoor European mega-festival, but the idea of 100,000-something people crammed onto a campground is unappealing, consider Roskilde. Launched in the early 1970s, it’s among the the biggest in Europe-- but it’s as friendly and organized as a festival of a much smaller size. While the campsites themselves can be rowdy and dirty, the concert grounds and surrounding areas feel calm, clean and safe. The crowd is primarily made up of a mix of Scandinavians and travellers from surrounding European countries, many of whom arrive early to camp out and enjoy pre-festival festivities.
The festival, located just outside of the capital city of Copenhagen, hosts 150 to 200 bands of pretty much every genre and size you can imagine. This year, for instance, you can catch any number of local Danish bands in a tent that fits hundreds or you can see Rihanna perform on the largest stage for tens of thousands.
One thing that makes Roskilde a unique venture is that it’s non-profit, organized by the Roskilde Festival Charity Society. The non-political organization works to support initiatives for children, as well as other humanitarian work.
Read our report from last year’s Roskilde here and from 2011 here.
Björk, R. Kelly, Belle & Sebastian, MIA, Joanna Newsom, Solange, The Breeders, Yo La Tengo, Lil B, Swans, Toro Y Moi, Savages, Rustie, TNGHT, Low, El-P, Killer Mike, Wire, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Chairlift, Foxygen, Phosphorescent, Sky Ferreira, Glass Candy, Woods, Andy Stott, Mikal Cronin, Mac DeMarco, Autre Ne Veut, Evian Christ, Ryan Hemsworth, Waxahatchee, Parquet Courts, Angel Olsen, Julia Holter, Pissed Jeans, Trash Talk, Merchandise, Metz, Blood Orange, White Lung, KEN Mode, Tree, Daughn Gibson, Frankie Rose, DJ Rashad
Now in its eighth year at Chicago’s Union Park, we’re proud to say that our independently run, three-day event continues to be one of the most inviting, reasonably priced and exciting weekends of music around, offering a cutting edge and thoughtfully curated lineup.
In addition to its musical offerings, the Pitchfork Music Festival also features a wide array of other activities. The fest not only supports local businesses and economy with its 50 individual vendors and specialty fairs, but also promotes the Chicago arts community as a whole to its 60,000 attendees of all ages from all over the world.
Photo credit: Stephan Flad
July 19-21 Ferropolis, Germany
The Knife, Atoms for Peace, James Blake, Purity Ring, Rhye, Mount Kimbie, Local Natives, Flying Lotus, King Krule, Joy Orbison, Everything Everything, Django Django, Disclosure, Chvrches, SBTRKT, DJ Koze, Azealia Banks, Austra, Julio Bashmore, Owen Pallett, Zebra Katz, more.
As far as festival sites go, Melt!’s is pretty imposing. Since 1999, the German festival has taken place in Ferropolis (“the iron city”), Gräfenhainichen, a vast, open-space museum showcasing the imposing industrial equipment that functioned when the site was-- up until 1991-- a working coal mine. But Melt! offsets the site’s steely feel by draping the bucket wheel excavators and whatnot in disco balls, and dotting the campsite-- by a lake, where you can swim freely in the intense July heat-- with foosball tables and trucks billowing out ambient music. If fahren auf der Autobahn isn’t your preferred method of travel, you can book a compartment on the “Melt! MiXery Beds on Wheels Hotel Train” from either Cologne or Munich to the festival. It departs on Thursday, features a compartment containing DJs and a bar, and serves as your hotel during the festival itself. Otherwise, there’s bog-standard tents, or fancy “PodPads”, a sort of luxury shed with a front door that locks, rudimentary lighting and electricity points.
Nine Inch Nails, the xx, Bjork, the Cure, Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips, Tame Impala, Foals, Toro y Moi, Flying Lotus, Sparks, Jurassic 5, Yo La Tengo, DJ Shadow, Rocket From the Crypt, Modeselektor, more.
Fuji Rock takes place in the mountains of Japan’s ridiculously beautiful Naeba Ski Resort, surrounded by woods and streams.The people behind Fuji Rock pride themselves on their use of clean energy and an overall “respect for nature.” They’ve also got an area specifically for drum circles, and there’s a stage called “Rookie a Go-Go” where amateurs can perform. There’s a campsite on location, though you can also get accommodations at a nearby resort or hotel.
Phoenix, The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, New Order, Vampire Weekend, Queens of the Stone Age, the National, the Postal Service, Kendrick Lamar, Grizzly Bear, Death Grips, 2 Chainz, Local Natives, Beach House, Cat Power, Hot Chip, Azealia Banks, Lana Del Rey, Foals, Wavves, Wild Nothing, Crystal Castles, Disclosure, Smith Westerns, Baroness, Major Lazer, more.
Back in 1991, Perry Farrell started Lollapalooza as a valedictory road show, serving as a farewell stint for his band Jane’s Addiction. Throughout the 90s, Lollapalooza served as a flashpoint for alternative culture, its very name becoming synonymous with the more “out-there” aspects of Generation X. Legions of alt-rock legends toured across America as part of its lineups.
After a disastrous, aborted 2004 tour, Lolla regrouped as a site-specific festival in downtown Chicago’s picturesque, lakefront Grant Park in 2005. It’s been wildly successful ever since, consistently selling out and attracting hundreds of thousands of fans over its three days. At this point, Lollapalooza seems unstoppable; even an evacuation due to weather during last year’s festival didn’t slow things down.
This year’s headliners include the resurrected Nine Inch Nails. (Fun fact: NIN were there in 1991. It didn’t go well on the first day.) Try your best to contain your excitement, though-- one time a festival attendee was arrested for punching a police horse in the face. Don’t be that guy.
Read our coverage of Lollapalooza 2012 here and 2011 here.
My Bloody Valentine, Deerhunter, Metz, Thee Oh Sees, Merchandise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Laurel Halo, The Walkmen, Blondes, AlunaGeorge, Jens Lekman, Girls Against Boys, the Haxan Cloak, the Pop Group, more.
Now in its eighth year, OFF is located in the south of Poland in the large, wooded Katowice park Dolina Trzech Stawów, which translates to “Valley of Three Ponds” and is as majestic and picturesque as the name suggests. In addition to the three-day main event, there are also club shows, one day prior to the fest, on August 1. Attendees can camp out on the festival grounds or find a hostel or hotel nearby. There are also exhibitions, workshops, and film screenings in addition to the music.
Phoenix, Vampire Weekend, New Order, Beach House, The Cure, Kendrick Lamar, Explosions in the Sky, Baauer, Wild Nothing, Hot Chip, Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, Big Boi, Father John Misty, Disclosure, Death Grips, Holy Ghost!, Icona Pop, DIIV, Jessie Ware, more.
Since it began in 2006, Osheaga has become the largest music and arts festival in Canada. It takes place at Parc Jean-Drapeau, on an island in the Saint Lawrence River, just east of downtown Montreal. A series of affiliated visual art exhibitions take place in venues across Montreal in the weeks leading up to the event. The festival also puts on shows in the city throughout the summer; this year, they’re hosting the xx, Grizzly Bear, the National, and more.
Kraftwerk, Blur, The Knife, Kendrick Lamar, Beach House, Tame Impala, James Blake, Azealia Banks, Alabama Shakes, Disclosure, Pissed Jeans, Danny Brown, Mount Kimbie, Metz, Goat, Local Natives, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Solange, Slayer, Angel Haze, Parquet Courts, more.
There are prettier Nordic/Scandinavian festivals than Øya, which takes place in Oslo’s Medieval Park. (Though there are some ruins there, it’s not exactly Stonehenge). It’s also one of the most expensive festivals in the world; when someone tells you it’s $15 for a Big Mac in Norway, they’re not pulling your leg. But what Øya (active since 1999) lacks in scenery and cheap thrills, it makes up for with a distinctive, bold line-up that encompasses monstrous headliners (Blur, the Knife, and Kraftwerk), a strong hip-hop showing (Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Angel Haze), and well-curated selections of metal, dance, and indie rock. It’s also a surprisingly intimate festival, with big headliners playing to only about 15,000 at sellout capacity.
The last performance on-site finishes at 11pm, at which point the many venues in town-- from concert halls to warehouses hidden down desolate streets-- host parties and off-program gigs that go into the wee hours.
Though their sites are about an hour apart, Beacons feels worlds away from the Leeds Festival. The small, forward-thinking Beacons makes for the perfect antidote to Leeds’ massive, messy, all-things-to-all-people sprawl. Situated in the Yorkshire Dales, Beacons began just last year, when it hosted Factory Floor, Wild Beasts and Cass McCombs, along with a number of wisely chosen then-upcoming acts like Jessie Ware and Savages. This year’s bill is similarly vanguard. On the dance side of things, there’s Theo Parrish, John Talabot, and Machinedrum, while Solange, Dutch Uncles, and Django Django will all be showcasing their takes on avant-pop. Beacons’ show of local bands isn’t exactly cursory, either: Ben UFO, Bonobo, and Julian Cope-approved psychedelic wonders Hookworms will all perform. And to top it all off, there’s a wicked castle just down the road.
The North Dorset festival End of the Road is advertised as a kind of folk weekender, and they’re not kidding. Set in the beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens, where peacocks roam with abandon, there are pianos hidden within the woods for impromptu gigs, great oak trees repurposed as libraries, an Icelandic grotto, a croquet club, the chance to learn circus skills, and designated “healing areas.” But don’t confuse tranquil with dull. This year, avant-folk acts like Angel Olsen and Matthew E. White push things forward, while Dinosaur Jr. and Merchandise pay little heed to the concept of respectable family fun.
The presence of Jay-Z as curator ensures that this one-year-old festival will bring out the big guns. Last year, President Obama delivered a personalized video message, Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music crew and Jay Electronica played surprise sets, and Jay himself did "99 Problems" with Pearl Jam. Although Jay isn't listed as one of the performers at this year's festival, a headlining set from his wife, Beyoncé, is sure to generate just as much heat.
Made in America takes place in downtown Philadelphia, along the grandiose Ben Franklin Parkway, in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (you know, the steps from Rocky.) Last year's festival also created a non-musical ripple-- Oscar-winning film director Ron Howard (who's done everything fromApollo 13 to A Beautiful Mind) signed on to create a documentary-style film about the festival and its performers "through Jay-Z's perspective". That has yet to officially surface, but maybe he's waiting to gather more interview footage and material at the festival's second year. He'll have no shortage of subject matter to choose from.
Check out our coverage of last year's festival here and here.
September 5-7 Raleigh, North Carolina
John Cale, Matthew Dear, Sleep, The Breeders playing Last Splash, many more to be announced
Now in its fourth year, Hopscotch Festival in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, is organized by the city’s alt weekly, the Independent Weekly, and is co-directed by the paper’s music editor, Pitchfork contributor Grayson Currin. This year the fest will take place September 5-7 with 175 bands in 15 venues. (The city is small enough to making hopping between venues doable.) While the lineup is due to be announced later this month, the organizers have offered a few hints maintaining their track record of booking quality acts from across the spectrum. The festival also features a poster exhibition, charity activities, bills curated by local bands, day parties organized by labels and websites, and a free artist-and-author series where musicians and writers sit for a discussion.
When I last spoke with Anthony Gonzalez about a year and a half ago, he was frustrated with Hollywood. It was the understandable grousing of someone who deserved a break. With the possible exception of "epic," arguably the most common adjective used to describe M83's music is "cinematic," and Gonzalez had come to Los Angeles a few years ago in order get into the movie-making business. At that point, though, his efforts had resulted in a lot of promising meetings and eventual dead ends.
But then came 2011's Hurry Up, We're Dreamingand its old-fashioned, career-making hit "Midnight City", which Gonzalez admits "terrifies" him now. But it's resulted in accolades that hold far more weight in Hollywood than "critically acclaimed." Now he's Grammy-nominated Anthony Gonzalez, though he jokes, "I'm kind of glad I didn't get the Grammy [for Best Alternative Album] because otherwise, I'd be full of myself."
And now with his score to the new Tom Cruise sci-fi epic Oblivion, Gonzalez can finally add "Hollywood movie composer" to his resume. Sounds like a classic happy ending, right? Well, not so much. Looking back on his experience making the score, Gonzalez might be even more disillusioned by the film industry than before. "I started to work on this project with a lot of hope, saying, 'Oh, I'm going to do something super special and original,'" he says. "But you can't really, because there are so many people involved and so much money in the game that it's hard to change things. Hollywood kind of sucks the life out of you very quickly."
Still, he maintains that he's proud of the work he did on the soundtrack with co-composer Joseph Trapanese, who collaborated with Daft Punk on the Tron score and also contributed brass and strings to five songs on Hurry Up. And he knows it's a tremendous opportunity for his career, but it's also the first time since 2003's Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts that he wasn't clearly the guy in charge. He says the bureaucracy and demands of making a big-budget film nearly drove him to quit. (His next soundtrack will be for a French movie made by his older brother.)
He's also concerned about disappointing his fans, which is somewhat justified-- listen to Oblivion in isolation and you're struck by its lack of M83-style neon-lit synthesizers and booming drums. See Oblivion on IMAX, though, and it becomes clear that the film's sensory overload doesn't exactly leave much room for another "Don't Save Us From the Flames".
As far as the next M83 album, he hasn't started writing it, but he's aiming for something "shorter, more direct, and less cinematic." Reflecting on what's transpired since 2011, Gonzalez muses, "It's scary sometimes because I feel like it's almost going too fast and I'm overloaded with work and stressed out. But I can't complain. I hope it's going to continue."
Pitchfork: How much information were you given about the movie before you signed on for the soundtrack?
Anthony Gonzalez: I didn't know much. I read the script. And I knew Tom Cruise would be in it-- you can't say no to Tom Cruise. It was fascinating for me to start with such a big project. I'm a science fiction fan, so I was a bit scared and skeptical at first, but [director] Joseph Kosinski really pushed me to do it.
Pitchfork: Did the work begin after Hurry Up, We're Dreaming came out?
AG: Yeah. I was on tour and they asked me for like three demos. I sent 17. I was working until 6 a.m. in the back of the bus. I put a lot of hard work on this job to get it. So when I got it, I was really moved and also like, "God, this is serious. Now I've got to do this!" With such a big movie, you can't only please yourself. You have to please the director and the studios and tons of people who are involved.
It took us one year to work on Oblivion with Joseph Trapanese, and I've been through all types of emotions. I almost quit. I couldn't sleep. I was so stressed out. I was on the verge of breaking down. We were touring a lot and I had to work on this at the same time.
"If there's no 'Midnight City' on my next album, what are the people gonna think about me? Are they still gonna love me? That's scary."
Pitchfork: How many times have you seen the actual film?
AG: I probably watched it in its entirety maybe seven or eight times. Especially with some cues, you become obsessed-- you're dreaming of the pictures. You can't sleep because there's this music in your head. It was hard, but I learned so much and I feel like I grew up a lot as an artist working on this film. You have to be consistent. You have to do quick turnovers when something is not appealing for the studios or the directors. I quickly realized that all the ideas of the music I had before working on it weren't going to happen because it's Hollywood and because it's a $150 million dollar budget. I'm not the boss. I'm just someone working for them.
Pitchfork: What kind of notes did the studio give you for the soundtrack?
AG: They needed something bigger, more orchestral; it was hard for me to be told that my music was too indie for the film. I was pissed most of the time, but this is how it works. It's like, "Take it or leave it." And I took it. [laughs]
Overall, I'm excited about it. But I'm stressed out because I know people are going to hate the soundtrack so much because it's different. People are going to expect a new album from M83, and that's not the case. But, I'm also super proud of it because Joe Trapanese and I worked so hard on it to make everybody happy at the studio. It's a two-hour movie and it's one hour 45 minutes of music, so it was a challenge.
Pitchfork: On the album cover for the soundtrack, it reads "original music by M83" and then "composition with Joe Trapanese and Anthony Gonzalez." Do you have boundaries set for "Anthony Gonzalez, the composer" and "M83"?
AG: I would have pushed for "Anthony Gonzalez and Joe Trapanese," because for me, this is how the score was done. I didn't want to involve M83 in that, but it's hard because Universal wanted to push M83 because of the success of "Midnight City". It's funny because sometimes big studios don't give a shit about you, but when you're nominated for the Grammys, you start receiving emails like, "Oh, congratulations. We're excited about the soundtrack." I'm like, "You didn't give a shit about me two months ago when I got the job, and now you're just acting like a ..." It makes you feel like there's something wrong with the movie industry-- you can write that, I don't care.
Pitchfork: How do you think people expecting another M83 album out of this soundtrack might react?
AG: That's my problem, not their problem. Now, it's gonna be hard to make an album or a song without having someone talking to me about "Midnight City". The song took up so much space in my life. I'll never complain about its success-- I think it's fantastic to have a hit that people can sing and dance to-- but I'm scared of it. If there's no "Midnight City" on my next album, what are the people gonna think about me? Are they still gonna love me? That's scary. I've been trying to make my career grow little by little, and on this album I took a bigger leap. But we'll see what happens. I'm excited and frightened at the same time.
There's Thomas Mars, bent over the lip of Coachella's main stage, screaming at tens of thousands of people. He's leading a wordless singalong near the end of "Entertainment" and the usually stoic frontman is really pushing his gut-- it looks like a taxi just ran over his big toe. The tanned masses below yell right back at him, naturally, but this sort of textbook festival moment doesn't come naturally to Mars. After emptying his lungs, he steps off of the monitor and caps the scene with a much more characteristic line: "I'd rather be alone."
Considering its big synths, bigger drums, and that all-together-now hook, "Entertainment"-- which jump-starts Phoenix's fifth album, Bankrupt!-- is the most self-consciously crowd-friendly song Phoenix have ever made. At the same time, it takes stock of what it means to please, and if it's possible to stick to your artful principles while being one of the most popular bands on the planet. The big questions. "When we did 'Entertainment', I was thinking of the helmet in Full Metal Jacket that has 'Born to Kill' written on it as well as a peace sign," says Mars. "In that song, there are elements of both; we're not refusing success, but there's still a contradiction." Yes: It's yet another catchy Phoenix tune. But it's more than that, too.
In Phoenix's world, nothing comes easy. Their meticulousness turns the recording process into multi-year marathons. Their smarts turn basic emotions into twisting riddles and arrangements. And their stubbornness is partly why it took them about 15 years and four albums to finally break through with 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It's also why that breakthrough felt so earned. Phoenix-- Mars, along with multi-instrumentalists Deck D'Arcy, Christian Mazzalai, and his half-brother Laurent "Branco" Brancowitz-- made everyone come to them. So now that they've surpassed any and all of their teenage rockstar dreams, the question becomes, as Brancowitz puts it, "What exactly is at stake here?"
The four Frenchmen are crowded around a couple of pushed-together tables in Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dim sum haven hidden away on Chinatown's narrow and bent Doyers Street. After 20 years of friendship, their internal rapport is deeply understood. They fill in each other's blanks and casually translate when necessary. It's the end of February and Mars is in a baby blue sweater with dark blue rings under his eyes. His hair is comically unkempt, almost as if one of his two children with wife Sofia Coppola went rogue on his head with a pair of scissors in the middle of the night. He does the bulk of the talking because he's the singer and most fluent in English, which he partially learned from watching movies and listening to bands like Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. Brancowitz is fashion-spread-ready in a blazer, thick glasses, and stubble; he's the oldest member at 39 (everyone else is 36) and also the slyest and the one most likely to drop a dreamy reference to arthouse idols Éric Rohmer or Henri-Georges Clouzot. Mazzalai is contagiously excitable, often waving his hands for emphasis. D'Arcy doesn't pipe up too much.
Growing up together in the historic, upscale Paris suburb of Versailles, they felt apart from culture and time. "We were outcasts," says Brancowitz. "Versailles is made up of very big, old, Catholic families, lots of children, very little use of contraception. My parents are from Italy and Germany, and we were invisible there." For Phoenix, even the idea of classic teenage rebellion or starry-eyed fanaticism was hopelessly gauche. "Even as kids, we could see the mechanism of fake rebellion, so we went the other way around," adds Brancowitz. Mars thinks back to one of his first shows seeing the Cure during their Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me tour. While he was a fan, he was also "suspicious" of the cult that surrounded Robert Smith. "We were always suspicious at shows, there are many reasons to be," he says. "French culture is very individualisme-- it's good to be suspicious by nature."
Without any sort of local scene to draw from, they were forced to figure things out on their own. Mazzalai remembers their first-ever gig in the early 90s at the town's annual street fair. "We were teenagers and we played like it was the concert of our lives," he says. "And no one cared-- no one. My dad videotaped it and you just see people in the street eating sandwiches. It's like we're not even there."
Such a muted response could be a deathblow for many burgeoning bands, but Phoenix reveled in it. "That's what we wanted," says Mars of the early crowd's blasé attitude. Mazzalai concurs: "We didn't feel terrible at all." D'Arcy nods his head. "We were all feeling cool."
For years, they barely played in front of friends or even thought about releasing their music. They were four guys making sounds for each other, and in their minds, at least, that's pretty much still the case. They used France's lackluster rock'n'roll pedigree to their advantage, not falling into constricting trappings of taste. Nobody cared, so there was nothing to lose.
"The fact that we were French gave us a lot of freedom," says Brancowitz. "It's the joy of fresh snow, you can't resist." They became musical omnivores. Mazzalai recalls his first vinyl purchases: the self-titled debut from krautrock originators Neu!, a Neil Diamond record, and Isaac Hayes' Shaft soundtrack. "I bought them based on the covers," he admits with pride. They all realized early on that listening to Madonna could be more adventurous than the Jesus and Mary Chain. And they were attracted to other acts who weren't hindered by genre, like Beck and the Beastie Boys. In fact, Mars remembers receiving a hazy late-night phone call in the late 90s from someone purporting to be involved with the Beasties' Grand Royal imprint. "He said, 'Mike D is here and he wants to sign you, do you want to come?'" recalls Mars. The singer was dozing off, though, and never followed up. "When I sleep, I sleep," he deadpans. "I've missed a few things like that."
In the meantime, they began funneling and filtering their influences into something that was purely them. Starting from their scattershot 2000 debut United, which jumped from style to style-- blue-eyed soul, punk, 70s-style funk-- they screwed down their aesthetic tighter and tighter, eventually scoring with two of the finest pop-rock records of this young century, 2006's It's Never Been Like That and its sleeker cousin, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Then, the career milestones piled up at a quick clip: first French-born act to play "Saturday Night Live", a Grammy win, selling out Madison Square Garden. But rather than a beautiful fantasy come true, Mars describes the Wolfgang explosion as an "awkward collective hallucination."
"Success is boring," says Brancowitz. "Shakespeare didn't write about success, and there's a reason for that. For us, the way to keep it interesting is to leave a lot of room for failure, and I think we did that pretty well on this new record." He lets out a knowing chuckle after that last bit. On paper, Bankrupt! looks a lot like Wolfgang. Same co-producer (Philippe Zdar), same number of tracks (10), and both albums have a multi-part, seven-minute epic at their core. But, for better or worse, Bankrupt! is not Wolfgang II. It's knottier than its predecessor, with more discordancy; whereas Wolfgang flew by, never making a single out-of-place move, Bankrupt! isn't quite as forthcoming.
The band members say they not only didn't want to repeat themselves, but that they simply couldn't. "I tried to replicate one of our songs one day," says Mazzalai. "It was the same but so much worse. Very bad." Mars chimes in: "Also, people do it for you, which is a very strong compliment. It's also a sign that you can't stay there." Of the acts that have aped Phoenix's sound as of late, none did it more blatantly than Sweden's the Royal Concept; Mars says that their song "Gimme Twice" sounded so much like Phoenix that even his own sister was fooled. In an email, Royal Concept singer David Larson wrote, "Thomas Mars is probably the reason why I dared to start singing-- we had another singer in the beginning, but people always said that I sounded like 'that dude in Phoenix' so I felt like if he can do it, I can do it." And so the rip-off-ers are now being ripped off. The circle of influence continues. "We shoplift so much that we recognize the beauty of people stealing from us," says Brancowitz.
The path to Bankrupt! began in 2011 at Beastie Boy Adam Yauch's Oscilloscope Laboratories studio, just across town from where we're having lunch. So while Mars never acted upon that mysterious Grand Royal call 15 years ago, he eventually got to know one of his teenage heroes nonetheless. They wrote at Oscilloscope for about three months before moving the operation to Paris, but all of Phoenix describe their interactions with Yauch, who passed away from cancer in May of last year, in quiet, awestruck terms.
"We were really impressed by his integrity and also the fact that his film company and studio are all about the love of creativity and experimentation," says Mars. "It could be an overwhelming place with trophies and gold records and everything, but it's the opposite." Brancowitz remembers Yauch guiding him through a marathon of films by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. "We had fantastic discussions," adds Mazzalai. "I've never seen a guy like that, at this level, without any compromises."
While Phoenix are cagey when it comes to explaining their own art-- "I will never reveal what the lyrics mean, but they are very personal and make sense to us for sure," says Mars-- the overall feeling of Bankrupt! can be anxious and claustrophobic. The heavy synths and near-militant drums are relentless, and Mars' voice sounds close to angry at points while still managing to retain its signature ennui. And on tracks with titles like "S.O.S. in Bel Air" and "Drakkar Noir", Mars seems to be taking veiled shots at puffed-up celebrity culture. At the very least, he acknowledges that, given the band's vaulted place in pop culture, he feels more culpable when it comes to his inspirations now.
"Today, you can watch an interview with Ingmar Bergman, for instance, and then watch the most trashy thing a minute later," he says. "You can find beauty in both, but at this point, you have to be judgemental because there's so much crap-- it would put everything in danger if you weren't." And when he says everything, he means it. "After the Babylonians, there was 500 years of nothing because some people misbehaved. At this point, I feel like people have to be responsible again, otherwise it's idiocracy."
So what exactly is at stake here? Perhaps the future of meaningful intellectual and emotional discourse as we know it. Phoenix would likely shy away from such world-saving pronouncements, though Mars isn't scared to state his ambitions, however self-consciously. "There's so much music today," he says, "and it's embarrassing to put out another record if we don't have the naive ambition that it's going to change our world or our lives." Somehow, amidst all of their cosmopolitan knowledge and humble weariness, Phoenix have retained a wide-eyed sense of hope in art, and each other. And it's the tension between their brains and their hearts that continues to drive them to, as Brancowitz says, "try to create new forms." He boils down their process to a simple tally of goosebumps. "We have no clue what we're doing," he confesses, "but the more goosebumps we have, the closer we are. It's all about the emotion. It would be pretentious to say the opposite."
The first time I heard Jai Paul, I thought my speakers were broken. My friend had just sent me a YouTube link to the British singer's 2011 single “BTSTU”-- about which this friend had been talking breathlessly, ecstatically, and seemingly hyperbolically-- and I was ready to be knocked out by obvious brilliance. What I heard instead was… disorienting. Undulating waves of distortion and digital interference, and buried somewhere beneath it all a distant, oddly confrontational falsetto (“don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me…”) that seemed like it was coming out of only one channel. I jiggled the input cable. I unplugged and replugged my speakers. I started the song over. Nothing had changed. “Is it supposed to sound like this?” I typed into my Gchat box, but hesitated before hitting send. (On the internet, even your hesitation is visible: “Lindsay has entered text...”) I let it sink in for a minute; the first time you hear something that is good in a new, unfamiliar way, it takes time for the particles to rearrange into some sort of discernible grammar. By the time the second chorus hit, I had deleted the question. Yes, it was supposed to sound like that.
This past weekend, Jai Paul’s music was once again responsible for confusion and disorientation, though this time it was a little more widespread. Last Saturday night, a collection of 16 untitled tracks claiming to be Jai Paul’s mythically-delayed debut album appeared on a Bandcamp page, where you could download them for £7. The internet collectively freaked; inevitable comparisons to My Bloody Valentine’s recent out-of-nowhere release mbv were tweeted and retweeted. But the joyful moment was short-lived. By Monday morning, the files had been pulled from Bandcamp, and journalist Owen Myers tweeted that he'd received an email from Jai calling the leak "illegal" and stating, "I have not released a new record. This is an unofficial release. Official releases are handled by XL." By the afternoon, conspiracy theories were flying. Had someone stolen Jai's laptop and thought they could make a quick buck charging album-price for some unfinished demos? Fearing that Jai's alleged perfectionism would stand in the way of him ever releasing any more material, had a close acquaintance shared the tracks without their creator's consent? Was this all an XL publicity stunt? Had Jai uploaded the songs himself to spite his record company?
Listening to a Jai Paul song sounds like a tuning into a pirate radio station being broadcast directly from someone’s brain.
Jai Paul is about as secretive and enigmatic as Burial and as press-averse and slow-working as Terrence Malick. His story has always been a magnet for words like "allegedly" and "apparently," and conducive to conspiracy theories because so little is known about him for sure. XL signed him in 2010 on the strength of the "BTSTU" demo alone, and since then he's officially released only one other song, the gorgeous, hiccuping slow jam "Jasmine" (which came out, rabid fans are quick to note, in mid-April 2012-- very nearly the same day "BTSTU" was released in 2011 and those 16 tracks were uploaded last week.) Snippets of other songs have been passed covertly on message boards; journalists humble-brag about private listening parties where they've supposedly heard finished tracks (last December, XL sent out a Christmas card to a lucky few with a photo of Jai on the cover; it played a clip of a song known as "Str8 Outta Mumbai" when you opened it). "BTSTU"'s life has been much more public than Jai's-- it's been sampled by such high-profile names as Beyoncé ("End of Time") and Drake ("Dreams Money Can Buy"). Its elusive creator, on the other hand, only just made a public Twitter account on Monday, and at the time of this writing has only issued one message: "To confirm: demos on bandcamp were not uploaded by me, this is not my debut album. Please don't buy. Statement to follow later. Thanks, Jai." It's since been retweeted nearly 2,000 times.
As the Bandcamp refunds begin to trickle in, not much is clear about how these songs went public or how long we'll have to wait before we hear Jai Paul's proper debut. But there is one thing that pretty much everyone who shelled out the £7 cannot shake: these tracks-- brimming with ideas, innovation, and eccentric personality-- are jaw-droppingly good.
Listening to a Jai Paul song sounds like a tuning into a pirate radio station being broadcast directly from someone’s brain. Unexpected sounds interrupt like interference from the next stop on the dial, and the vocals and instruments fade in and out like you're one town over from where the signal comes in clear. Occasionally, a Jai Paul song can also sound like a live DJ set-- kinetic, free-flowing, and a little off-the-cuff. But you often get the feeling that you are the only person listening to this radio station, or the only person at this club. That's probably the most interesting contradiction at the heart of Jai Paul’s music: It's at once distant, unknowable, and somehow feverishly intimate.
Moving from an airy falsetto to a lower, slightly menacing coo, Jai's vocals are nimble-- but his most distinct voice is his production style, which might seem like a strange thing to say about a collection of unmastered demos. But innovation shines through their rough edges. Jai agilely deploys a unique vocabulary of pauses, crossfades, and eclectic samples; J Dilla’s Donuts, the Avalanches' Since I Left You, and Rustie’s Essential Mix all feel like aesthetic touchstones-- music that’s managed to edit the modern world's unending flow of information and voice into something cohesive and rhythmic. Still, all of those other records have a collective feel, like they're tapping into the soundtrack of a universal subconscious. What sets these songs apart is that you are always aware that there's a single human being at the center, one who oscillates between being forthcoming and shy, leaning close and then vanishing. This lends the illusion that his tracks themselves are inhaling and exhaling-- breathing symphonies of digital noise.
Jai Paul's trickle of material and meticulous secrecy projects the image of a tireless tinkerer-- someone who, like Kevin Shields, is perhaps more burdened by his talent than inclined to show it off.
The first true song in this collection, the Christmas-card-teased “Str8 Outta Mumbai”, is not only one of the most immediately exciting things Jai Paul's done, it's also very likely one of the best songs you'll hear this year. A kinetic explosion of beat-driven energy and assorted cultural references, it sounds like joyriding a stretch of Rainbow Road that cuts straight through a Bollywood set. "I don't know what to say, I don't know what to do," Jai warbles atop a sample of Vani Jairam's "Bala main bairagan hoongi". The three-minute "Mumbai" is at once dense but immediate. It gives the impression, as all of Jai’s best songs do, that you could listen a hundred times and there’d still be buried treasure to dig up.
As was the case with "BTSTU", a lot of Jai Paul's slower tracks have a seductive, vaguely sinister vibe. The third track (known to some as "Zion Wolf") opens with a weary vocal: “In the company of wolves, will I make it through the night?/ If I stay with you, I might.” It’s a brooding and passionate song-- until, suddenly, it's not. “Can I make you fall in love?” he asks at the end. A beat later, he casts the song’s intensity off with a cool shrug: “We’ll see.”
In spirit if not necessarily sound, Jai Paul's closest precedent might be Frank Ocean's patchy but explosively promising debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. There's a similarity in the way both artists use clipped interstitials and weave unexpected pop culture samples into the music (the leaked tracks slyly feature snippets from both Harry Potter and "Gossip Girl"), and nod to artists you might not expect (the seventh track is an irresistible cover of Jennifer Page's 1998 bubblegum tune "Crush"). To be sure, though, there are plenty of places where the two artists diverge. In the way Ocean's story has played out, Nostalgia, Ultra now feels like it was meant to be a calling card all along: the mixtape's purpose was to show people inside and outside the industry why they should care about this guy and to promise that something greater and more polished could easily spring from Ocean's abundant font of inspiration. With Jai Paul, you're not so sure. His molasses-trickle of material and meticulous secrecy projects the image of a tireless tinkerer, someone who, like Kevin Shields, is perhaps more burdened by his talent than inclined to show it off.
Whether or not that's a front, this image is what's made his fans unusually protective of him. I've talked to people who feel guilty listening to these songs, or critics who aren't quite sure how to evaluate them. Are these demos or could they actually be the completed product? (Remember: both of Jai's official singles had an intriguingly "unfinished" quality about them.) Does the leak, if you could even call it that, help or hurt our chances of hearing Jai Paul's proper debut within the year (or the decade…)? Did he ever want us to hear this material? Are we dishonoring him by listening to it, by loving it? If the music moves us in a way that nothing else has this year, should it matter?
Nobody can say for sure-- and maybe that's the point. Jai Paul is most like Frank Ocean in that they both understand a crucial paradox about the digital era: even in the age of instant access and input overload, the poets are still the ones who know how to embrace negative space. The romantics are the ones who understand that distance and dissonance are what kindle desire, and-- even in a moment where everyone's clamoring for their 15 seconds of YouTube fame-- the most magnetic stars are the ones who can project an utter disinterest in the spotlight. And just as Ocean's zen-master internet presence has come to define the Tumblr aesthetic, Jai Paul's sound-- full of pauses, glitches, and perfectly placed sonic hyperlinks-- suggests somebody moonwalking through the overcrowded digital world with a mysterious, elegantly curated grace. All the confusion surrounding what may or may not be his debut feels oddly similar to the experience of hearing one of his songs for the first time-- a break from the modern condition that certainty is always a quick Google search away.
Last year, we celebrated Record Store Day by recalling some of our most vivid record-store memories. This time, we asked some of our favorite artists to tell us about their favorite shops and experiences flipping through stacks over the years. So read on to learn about the snarky record pusher who saved Jenny Lewis' life, that time Robert Plant walked in Grimey's in Nashville, A.C. Newman lamenting the myth of the "staff pick," how John Talabot owes his own sound to a mysterious in-store record player, and much more.
I was searching for a Jungle Brothers cassette for the tape player in my '64 Chevy Malibu (painted perfect in a color called Cinnamon Sunset) at the legendary Aron's Records on Highland Blvd. in 1995. That's where I heard Stephen Malkmus' voice for the first time. I asked the guy behind the desk who it was and he rolled his eyes and pointed me towards the Ps. I was almost exclusively listening to hip-hop and jazz at that point in my life, but Pavement's Wowee Zowee permeated my musical tunnel vision. It was like rap music in the lyrical flow, and kind of out-there, like Eric Dolphy. I stood in the aisle staring at the cover.
I had fallen in love with "Rattled by the Rush" and then made my way back though their other records. If not for that snarky fucker who decided to play that record at that exact moment on that day in Los Angeles, I may have never started a band. I probably would have become a shitty white MC Lyte/Monie Love wannabe. So thank you, snarky fucker who worked at Aron's. I love you.
P.S.-- My band got to open for Pavement for a few shows 15 years later. I wouldn't have believed it if you told me that back in '95.
Whites Records used to be located on Ferry Park, which we called The Zone, because of its zip code. (West Grand Blvd. divides the zip codes 48206 and 48208. The Zone is on one side, and my neighborhood, Linwood, is on the other-- they didn't get along too well.) It was the first record store I found that carried a lot of independent rap music and mixtapes. It was the first place I heard 2Pac's "Hit 'Em Up". When Wu-Tang Forever came out, me and my homies skipped school to go buy it from Whites. But, like I said, our neighborhoods don't get along. We pretty much got jumped and had to run home just to purchase the second Wu-Tang album. It was worth it.
When I was 15, I got kicked out of high school and had to start at a new one. It was super tough, but I very quickly and happily made friends with a boy named Jamie. At this point, the records that meant the world to me were Country Grammar by Nelly and Fevers and Mirrors by Bright Eyes. Jamie and I bonded pretty intensely over music, and he pushed me to start playing. We also spent a lot of time at a record store in Boulder, Colorado. The main guy who worked there-- and he must've worked there seven days a week for like 10 years-- was this insanely smug, super-pretentious thirtysomething industrial music guru/weirdo. He wore all black, looked like he never slept, and generally behaved like he hated life. He was so awesome. We loved how much he just hated us-- we would ask for, like, older Alkaline Trio or Further Seems Forever vinyls, and he just thought we were complete wimps and dweebs. Which we were, of course.
One day we got up the courage to ask him for a recommendation. This was unprecedented. He begrudgingly took us to the 7" rack and dug out a split that would change my life forever. He knew what we liked, but he wasn't going to cater to our teen tastes. He told us something super harsh like, "This is like what you guys like... but not stupid." We were embarrassed and excited. He handed me a 7" with a drawing of the moon on it. I had never heard of either Current 93 or Antony and the Johnsons, but we took his advice. We couldn't not.
That day, I bought the Current 93/Antony and the Johnsons' "Immortal Bird"/"Cripple and the Starfish" split 7", went home, and listened in a kind of confused awe. The A-side was wild. The B-side made me cry. I had never heard anything like it. This changed me forever-- two artists doing something completely progressive and free, with an emotional intensity I had never heard before. I still love this record so much. It opened up a whole world for me: Suddenly, I was listening to CocoRosie, Black Dice, and eventually Michael Cashmore. Yes!
One can click around on blogs and go down YouTube wormholes, but my musical life wouldn't be what it is if it hadn't been for the contingent intervention of that one record store bro, whose whole life was dedicated to ordering a few copies of a weird UK 7"s. He broke me out of my teen comfort zone and pointed me to a world of musical expression I had never before imagined. In that human intervention, there is the possibility of a truly fresh start: not the next video that algorithmically follows from the video you're presently watching, not some repost of something trendy, not some banner ad or car commercial or whatever, but a real rupture, a real change effected by a person who lives for and loves music. Love to that dude who sold Jamie and I that 7" and love to real record stores everywhere.
"The main guy who worked at this store was an insanely smug, super-pretentious thirtysomething who generally behaved like he hated life. He was so awesome." -- How to Dress Well
When I was 14, I used to sit on the floor putting on my makeup at Tower Records on Bascom Ave. in San Jose, and the employees would play me Soft Cell's "Non-Stop Exotic Video Show" on repeat on the monitors. All the death rockers and speed freaks worked at Tower and every day they would give me rides and cigarettes. It was the only decent place in the whole city. I stole the first Creatures album from there. You can't do that on iTunes.
My entire education came from working in a record store as a teenager. All I did was drink beer out of coffee cups and sleep on the couch and check out all the cute girls buying Belle & Sebastian records. I learned about rock'n'roll and sex and friendship, and I realized I could do whatever I wanted. I never went to class ever again. It was basically like high school if high school taught you about things you actually wanted to know about.
"If not for that snarky fucker at Aron's Records, I probably would have become a shitty white MC Lyte wannabe." -- Jenny Lewis
Part of the appeal of coming to Grimey's is you never know what you're going to get. As a longtime on-again, off-again employee of the legendary Nashville record store, I've had some noteworthy experiences there over the years, like when Nick Cave got a little too familiar with my girlfriend. Or when I arrived one morning-- probably a few minutes late, a little hung over, and under-caffeinated-- and the ubiquitous early knock came on the door. My manager Anna went to shoo the person away and then I heard her say, "I'm sorry sir, but we don't open until... oh, um, come on in." I thought to myself, "Who the fuck is she letting in already?"
But when I looked up to see a wizened, hooded figure move past, I realized, "Oh shit, that's Robert Plant." He went to the new arrivals and browsed a bit. He hung around, and not a single customer suspected that this older gentleman in a hoodie was the towering monolith of yore. He came to the counter with one of Numero's Eccentric Soul comps. As I'm no stranger to fame, I played it cool and was complimenting him on his purchase when I noticed something catch his eye. "Enter to win a Peter Gabriel signed lithograph?" he said. "That fat bastard! First he beats me at tennis and now this?!"
All that's to say: Enter and support your local record store because you just never know what or who you'll find inside.
Back in 1980, Postcard Records of Scotland was brand new, and [label founder] Alan Horne and I were scratching our heads. How to get "Falling and Laughing", the first Orange Juice single, to the world? We didn't know anything about distribution, business, or finance. So he borrowed his dad's Austin Maxi, and we put the singles in the boot and set off with a list of UK record shops we took from the back pages of NME and Melody Maker. In Glasgow, Listen Records took a few, a very few. Glasgow was never really interested in Orange Juice.
We went to Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool. Shops would take two, three, or sometimes nothing. We were shy and arrogant at the same time. Selling ourselves was nerve-wracking, but I considered that it had to be done. Alan was painfully shy, but could come across as quite... prickly, let's say. Anyway, we finally arrive in London. Rough Trade the shop and the label were the same thing back then. We couldn't believe it. They took 200. Scott Piering, the Rough Trade press guy, who is sadly no longer with us, really liked it. He was the one who made [Rough Trade founder] Geoff Travis get into us. Then we went to Small Wonder in north London and they took 100. We were justified in our endeavours. Elation!
On the drive back, the windscreen blew in and we had no money to fix it. So Alan drove 300 miles with no windscreen, through rain and hail. We had 900 copies and, because of the London support, we soon got rid of them all. We were on our haphazard way. I'm writing this on tour in Spain and I've been to three record shops in two days. They still excite me.
I live in New York and I'm very spoiled for record stores. There are four within about six blocks of my house. (There are probably more I don't even know about.) Two of them sell new records and second-hand records, two only sell second-hand records, and one doesn't put prices on their records-- you just take them up front and the guy behind the counter gives you a price. At that last place, the records are in the basement: stacks and stacks and piles and piles. I've never seen so many records. They're not in any order and they're very dusty. I've seen guys down there wearing gloves and surgical masks looking through records and playing them on their own portable turntables. Nothing about that looks like fun to me.
The one that's closest to my house is the one I've never been to. I don't know why; I have no good reason not to go there. A friend told me he goes there to buy used CDs for something like 50 cents each. "That's cheaper than iTunes!" I said. He puts them in his computer and then tries to sell them back to another store. That doesn't sound like much fun either.
Another store is owned by a friend of a friend. He once gave me a plastic, blue crate for free. That seemed very generous; even more generous than the discount he gave me on the records. I put some of my records in the crate and it sat in my bedroom until I got sick of looking at the blue plastic, and then I moved it down to the basement-- the crate, not the records.
The store that's farthest from my house (I just looked it up: 0.7 miles, or about seven and a half blocks away) is supposed to be the best in the neighborhood. (It was voted "best" by some publication.) I went on a recent Sunday afternoon and the place was packed, like a party but with no alcohol. I bought a reissue of a Silver Apples record just because I was in the mood to buy something, or feel like I was part of the party. Now that was fun. I felt great walking the seven and a half blocks home.
"Working at a record store was basically like high school if high school taught you about things you actually wanted to know about." -- King Tuff
Real Estate's Alex Bleeker Golden Hits; Ridgewood, NJ [closed]
When [Real Estate's] Matt, Martin, and I were in high school, we caught wind of a rumor that a record store would be opening downtown. We did what any sensible suburban music freaks would have done: rode our bikes there and begged the owner for jobs.
The subterranean shop, Golden Hits, was still a few days away from opening, so the young owner Josh put us to work. We were paid in pizza and old cassette tapes. The store's initial inventory consisted mostly of Josh's personal collection. We spent a few days alphabetizing and cataloging, telling Josh what labels we were into, and speculating about whether or not he wanted to smoke weed with us.
The only problem with keeping us on as employees was that we made up a significant percentage of his potential customers. There was not much of a market for a boutique record record store in Ridgewood. So our positions were soon terminated and the shop folded pretty shortly after. Still, it was around long enough to expose me to some great music I hadn't yet heard, including Spacemen 3, Olivia Tremor Control, and the Dukes of the Stratosphear.
My favorite record store is Scratch Records, in particular the first subterranean location on Cambie St. Why? Because I worked there and for years most of my social life revolved around that place. The owner Keith Parry was the drummer in my band Superconductor. It was the classic labor-of-love record store. People used to collect there around 6 p.m. on Friday night in preparation for going to the Cambie Hotel, the dive bar across the street that I felt like we discovered, like we were the first people to ever co-opt a dive bar.
When I got the job there, it felt like validation. Later in life, many friends would tell me that they were intimidated by our asshole record-store-employee ways, that we laughed at their tastes. But I don't recall doing that at all. I remember being hung over most of the time. Excuse me if I don't want to talk to you about the Melvins for an hour. I was tired. I remember listening to Mayo Thompson's Corky's Debt to His Father non-stop for an entire day and not selling one copy of it. What kind of world lets that happen? It made you angry. That scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack plays the Beta Band song and immediately sells a bunch of copies was such bullshit. No one cared about any of our staff picks.
My pay was less than the lowest legal wage, but I understood how little money came in. Keith lived in the store for quite a long time, being a struggling entrepreneur in a cave-like back room that had an even more cave-like sleeping alcove in it. The place was under street level after all, seemingly carved out of the building's foundation, and in my memories that back room was completely made of stone. Like the Flintstones' house. Once, a junkie ran back into the sanctum and frantically offered to blow me if I would help him escape from some unseen pursuer. I recall Keith once had a junkie threaten him with a needle. For reasons like this, he had a metal bar behind the counter. When those frat guys were talking openly in the store about stealing the Dwarves' "Blood Guts and Pussy" poster-- the one with the hot topless girls-- I thought, "Am I going to have to use the metal bar?" The poster stayed on the wall.
One of the funnest gigs of my life happened there, too. There were other great in-stores of note (Unrest, Giant Sand) but the greatest was Mecca Normal and Zip Code Rapists, Gregg Turkington's (aka Neil Hamburger) two-piece band. Near the end of ZCR's set, when things really disintegrated, Jean Smith and Gregg T. did a duet that sounded occasionally like Tuvan throat singing but mostly like two hobos yelling at each other. The whole thing ended in a used LP fight that originated in the Greg Kihn wing of the $1 section. Keith tried to distract everyone from the new records by supplying Nettwerk cut-out vinyl 12"s he had in the back room. He was having fun at the record fight, but he preferred that we break the worthless stuff. A year or two later, when my girlfriend dumped me for him, it seemed like a good time to stop working there.
Grimey's is full of sweet people doing sweet things for the earth. Grimey and Doyle always turn me on to some of the coldest music I ain't never yet heard. I'll walk in there and say, "What's up?" And they'll say, "Here's what's up!" and blow my mind. One time, I bought a rainbow and walked out the door with it. A real live rainbow! Grimey's is a special place for the community-- not only do they deal in great recorded music but they also have a place to showcase great live music in "the basement," one of the greatest clubs on earth. God bless 'em and may they live long and prosper.
Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan Caldor; Peekskill, NY [closed]
Growing up in the suburbs, I did the bulk of my record shopping at department stores. Most of my earliest 45s were purchased on tag-along-with-mom trips to Caldor in Peekskill, including my first multi-single shopping spree ("I Think We're Alone Now", "Penny Lane", and Harpers' Bizarre's "59th Street Bridge Song"). I started making the transition to LPs there, notably when I passed up Surrealistic Pillow (ever discerning, I determined that as the owner of both "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", I already had a third of that one-- as yet unaware of how much I would love "Embryonic Journey" and "Comin' Back to Me") for the brand-new After Bathing at Baxter's-- quite the mind expander, that one.
The Kaplan family switched their allegiance to nearby White's, which, thanks to the adjacent Waldbaum's, was accessible without going outside. By then I was pretty much off the 45, though I made a few (not enough) purchases from their collection of cutouts (Five Americans' "Western Union", not to mention "Happy Jack" complete with the Ralph Steadman picture sleeve). The day after I saw the Kinks for the first time, I made a beeline to White's and picked up The Kinks Kronikles from their regular stock and Kinda Kinks from the $1.99 section. But like most fishermen, it's the one that got away that you can't forget-- I wonder how my life would have changed if I had ever pulled the trigger on the original Elektra edition of Nuggets, which I examined without purchase countless times.
I grew up in a small East Bay suburb near Berkeley, and the tiny record store in it was awful. Most of the music I listened to was handed down to me by my parents, mainly 60s stuff. Oldies. My town's library was also small but it had a decent music selection. I spent a lot of time there having more books than friends.
Aside from the mainstream groups I got into in elementary school (NKOTB, SWV, TLC), I developed a very disjointed take 80s and early-90s stuff through the library catalog and cassette dubs from friends. The best finds were that live Depeche Mode Songs of Faith and Devotion album and the Cure's Disintegration. I would choreograph dances to them on Wednesdays when my parents went out and I babysat my brother. Bad gothic ballets.
Eventually, I got my dad to drive me to the closest Rasputin's in San Lorenzo. My first self-funded purchase there was Radiohead's Pablo Honey. I also recall later trips for Elastica's first record and Bjork's Post. But my first standout record-store memory was getting Patti Smith's Horses from Streetlight Records while visiting my grandmother in Santa Cruz. I listened to it everyday for maybe a year! I was a patron there later on during college, too.
Another notable event occurred years later, when I made my first off-the-wall purchase from Amoeba in San Francisco: Sonic Boom's Spectrum for $60. I felt like the queen of the world. That and of course seeing my first EP on Captured Tracks in a shop somewhere randomly-- a massive rush of pride and self-consciousness. I still feel that way whenever I see a record of mine or a friend's, or almost even more so, a record my own label Zoo Music has put out. I probably took a hundred photos of Dirty Beaches' Badlands in various shops across the world. Viva vinyl.
I wish that I could write about my favorite record stores in San Francisco, but they've all closed. I especially loved walking to Tower Records in North Beach, which is now a Walgreens. The last CD I bought there was Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. I also loved Bay Area Records and Tapes on Polk Street and will never forget walking in there in 1992 and seeing my first record, Down Colorfull Hill, on both CD and cassette. It's been closed forever and it's now a corner store called Blue Fog Market. I don't get over to the Haight much, where Amoeba is, so I have to whittle my favorite indie record stores down to places that I stop at while on tour.
I like Luna Music in Indianapolis. It's run by an amazing guy named Todd Robinson. I've played in-store performances for Todd over the years, because he and his wife Katy invite me over for dinner and treat me with respect. Plus, he gives me great deals and alerts me to any Andres Segovia records that happen to pass through.
I also like Park Avenue CDs in Orlando. It's the coolest record store in Florida. It's run by a great guy named Sandy, and a cool girl named Shelly. I've known both of them since the mid-90s. And the last one that comes to mind is Slow Boat Records in Wellington, New Zealand. I bought an Andres Segovia five-disc set there in 2008, and it changed my life.
Shake It Records has an incredible collection of old and new music, and they release a lot of great and often rare/overlooked stuff on their own imprint. They were one of the stores that made us feel we had a chance when we were self-releasing on Brassland-- they stocked and promoted our records long before most people cared-- though early on it was probably Matt's mom that was buying most of the records we sold there. In 2004, Shake It released a limited-edition vinyl run of our Cherry Tree EP which seems to be quite rare now (we see knock-offs in Eastern Europe especially). And they've been big supporters of Bryce's annual Music Now festival in Cincinnati. We can't thank Darren and Shake It enough for keeping independent music alive in Cincinnati.
I grew up in a small town right at the border of Denmark, and it was hard to find vinyls up there. So me and some friends took the train to Hamburg in once in a while. Back in the mid 80s, there existed this incredible record store called Traktor right on Eppendorfer Landstraße. I remember we felt very insecure every time when we entered this store.
We were haunted by this special atmosphere in the air there. All the older customers seemed to be real specialists and they took plenty of records out of the shelves and listened to them for just seconds, skipping the needle, before deciding which track was good for them and which wasn't. But the real authority were the guys running the shops. They were super cool and they never laughed. You could say they were almost arrogant. Sometimes we asked for a track we had been reading about in a hipster magazine, and they would answer, "You have been reading about this track, it's not out yet-- they wrote that, too." Pure humiliation!
There was this special DJ-only basement where you had to show some proof that you were an actual DJ. Thus we cloned a "DJ passport" from a dancing school in Flensburg that held disco nights each weekend. Once we were in the record shop, we tried to act professional, collected a stash of vinyl, went up to the basement "security" guy, showed our DJ ID and he opened the gate for us so we could go downstairs. We played out all the hard-to-find bootlegs on our own stereo. It was magic. Though we always feared we'd get busted.
One day I was hanging out at Double Decker (as I often did, daily, from ages 18 to 23), and the owner (and my good friend) Jamie Holmes asked me if I'd watch the shop for five minutes while he went down the street to grab a sandwich. I said sure. A minute or two later, another friend of mine came in, and for reasons I cannot remember, we started wrestling, which led to my friend falling backwards into the front door, shattering the glass. He wasn't that hurt, but the window was ruined. We had to wait another few minutes in fearful anxiety, and then watch as Jamie came back up the steps, completely shocked by the smashed glass. Even after this, he still let me hang out all the time, and actually let me burn a couple of CDs for times when I was hard up on buying them. If there's a better record store, it doesn't exist on earth.
Al Green's Let's Stay Together was the first record I copped. It was the first time I had ever really experimented with a record player, so while I was trying to preview a record, I scratched it really badly. The cashier got pissed and started yelling at me and made me buy it.
Somewhere between an Icons of Filth 7" and a Sparklehorse LP, Randall Huth of Pissed Jeans and I found ourselves behind the closed doors of Allentown's pride, Double Decker Records, pre-gaming an Electric Wizard/Warhorse show with the store's owner, Holmsey, a jug of Sutter Home, and bottles of Jack and SoCo. Roaming the racks, not looking for anything in particular, I noted the compatibility of SoCo's Juicy Fruit taste and the vocal harmonies of "The Wizard" by Uriah Heap, which was playing over Double Decker's speakers.
The last memories I have before the show were taking one last slug of Jack in Holmsey's red record convention van and coming-to briefly while standing in line. During the show, I found myself on a couch with barf in my lap. I motioned to Randall that it might be time to leave, and as he made his way towards me, he dropped a nearly drained SoCo bottle to the floor, the sound of it shattering fully absorbed in the war of an Orange full stack.
Out in the street in Allentown's early hours, we hollered down passing cars, asking them "where the goddamn record store was" and finally we were scooped up by Allentown's finest and locked up. I was released at 8 a.m., called my work, lost my job, and proceeded to walk the long mile back to Double Decker for my car. Elementary school children squealed and ran quickly away from me as I threw up over the 8th St. bridge. Randall was still too drunk to be released from jail, but when he was at 11 a.m., we drove home, vomiting out the open windows while listening to Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark CD, which I must have bought at Double Decker the night before.
Record stores are part of my life. Since I was a teenager, I spent the money my mum gave me for lunch on records. Visiting a record store is a really special moment and every time I go to a new record store I feel a mix of feelings: nervous, anxious, happy. Going to record stores and collecting records has helped me to produce and get different approaches to production, too. It was in a record store where I started my idea of how John Talabot music should sound.
There was a moment that I was DJing as a resident in a club in Barcelona, but it was hard for me to find new 12"s that I wanted to play. I was looking for techno or house stuff with a different sound, so I kept going to record stores to try to find special stuff. Once, I went to a store and found a bunch of cheap white label records with no info, so I put them on the store's record player and it sounded really heavy. Everything was distorted and fat, with really live, deep drums. I was amazed. I didn't know what the records were but I just bought them straight away. But when I played them at home, the records sounded really flat, no heavy kickdrums, no distortion, no deep melodies, no alive drums. I checked and double checked the records, the player, headphones. They weren't the records I listened at the store. So I went back and asked the guy why the records sounded so different in the store compared to my home record player. He showed me the record player in the store and told me that it was broken and the output of the amplifier was distorted. I couldn't believe it. I realized that the sound I was trying to get was in that direction. Maybe that same night I made "Sunshine" with the distorted sound of the record player in my mind.
Edgeworld was above a goth/surf shop-- up some narrow creaky stairs-- and had album posters and fliers plastered all over the walls. Colin ran Edgeworld, and he was like the John Peel of Brighton. I would hang out and we'd chat for hours and he'd play me bizarre and wonderful records like Marianne Nowottny and Beck’s really early experimental albums. He was always looking out for things people would like and had impeccable taste. You'd get a biscuit if you were lucky, or be asked to watch the shop while a worker popped to the loo! I sold my first little demos there.
I've worked in a variety of record shops over the years: new ones, old ones, shabby second-hand ones, chain stores, and I currently manage a wee charity shop that is half record shop and half arty/vintage boutique. Coming from that background and being a music fan, I was shocked recently to read a statistic that said the average UK person spends less than £60 a year on new records. Most folk I know would spend that in a week, certainly in a month. I guess spending so much time in record shop environments skews your idea of what's normal, but I still think i'm right, and people who only buy around five or six albums a year are wrong.
The sights you see on an average day at a store make the mind boggle-- record shops tend to have their fair share of colourful characters as regulars. Mad geeks that claimed they could tell a record's pressing plant from the smell of the vinyl. We had one customer that would buy every new album out on Monday, and split their bill into half cash and half card so that if their wife found a receipt, she wouldn't know how much they were actually spending on records every week. I've seen people start singing and dancing round the shop along to the music playing, or shoplifters attempting to get out with 20 CDs stuck down each trouser leg (making their trouser legs rectangular, and eminently suspicious). One shop had a "metal" side and an "indie" side. The metal side always tended to smell odiously (we always assumed it was the metal customers rather than the records), almost conjuring up the dust cloud of Pigpen from Peanuts, whilst the indie side was always odor-free. But more than that, it's a mix of people, a community. You get the students, folk in business suits, folk in bands, people with good jobs, people with shit jobs, people with no jobs, everyone comes in to get their new releases, or a great classic record.
Glasgow used to have so many record shops, the West End alone had seven within a 10-minute walk of each other. Now there is one (Fopp). In the city centre we're lucky to have Monorail, which is a fantastic shop, and Love Music, which is a mix of second-hand and new releases. But other than that there are a couple of second-hand shops (Missing is great) and the two chain stores, HMV and Fopp (owned by HMV) that has just come out of administration. It's a sad state to see these great record shops disappearing one by one. The pull of cheap internet retailers with free delivery and bulk buying power, not to mention the ability of folk to download both legally and illegally from the internet, has taken its toll. Hopefully, we're at a position where the shops that are left have enough of a customer base to be stable and keep going for life, not just for Record Store Day.
A couple of years ago, I played a show in Northampton at The Iron Horse with Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. We went on a walk around the town, came across Feeding Tube Records, and immediately dove in. I remember seeing a Tim Buckley record I've been wanting for a long time and I was in the mood to take a plunge. I asked the man working behind the counter if he had heard anything lately that blew his mind. I wanted to hear something new. He told me about the new Ed Askew record that had just been reissued. I didn't know much about Askew before, but I trusted the man's taste. When I got back from tour, I sorted out my loot and put the record on. It absolutely crushed me. So good. I have had it on heavy rotation ever since. And randomly, not too far after, I got to see him play in Brooklyn. It was one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful performances I have ever seen. And then, soon after that, I was asked to sing on his new record. I couldn't have been more thrilled. I found out later that Ted Lee was the man who turned me on to Ed Askew, and that Byron Coley does the curating at the store. I love how small the world is. Thank you, Ted! Imperfiction will forever be one of my favorite records and moments in time.
It’s been at least 25 years since I shopped there regularly, but Mystic Disc remains one of the biggest influences on my Life in Rock. It was through this store that I had my first exposure to punk, where I picked up my first issues of Flipside and Maximum Rock N Roll, and where, in the space of just a few months toward the end of 1984, that I bought Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, and the Replacements Let It Be. It was a great time to be alive (despite the perceived threat of nuclear war and Ronald Reagan’s ongoing presidency).
The store’s owner, Dan Curland, was an avowed and outspoken product of the 60s, but he kept the store eclectically stocked with all the then-current hardcore, punk, goth, new wave, and indie (which I don’t think was even a common term at the time). I recall listening to him talk on the phone behind the front counter one day, telling someone on the other end of the line that he was fed up with people asking him to play Leonard Cohen on his WCNI radio show. “That guy’s music is too depressing,” he said. “People only want to kill themselves after hearing him.” I remember wondering who the hell this Leonard Cohen dude was, filing the name away for future research, and then debating whether I should buy the record in my hand called Amerika by a band called Stark Raving Mad. This is the store’s 25th year in business. Here’s to 25 more!
One time when I was in high school, my brother and I stopped by Goodwill after a day at the beach. We would always flip through the records there and either leave empty-handed or with some weird children's records to sample. There wasn't a good independent record store very close to where we grew up in Culver City, so the Goodwill on Venice Blvd. and National was always the place to go when we started getting into vinyl. So we started looking through the records and I immediately saw Black Flag's Jealous Again EP. It's a huge rush when you find a record like that sandwiched between Barbra Streisand and Herp Albert's Tijuana Brass records. Once you see one good record at a thrift store, it can go one of two ways: either that's the only good record in the store, which is commonly the case, or it's a piece of somebody's record collection that was donated. Luckily, we experienced the latter and found a handful of awesome records for a dollar each, like the Dead Kennedy's 12" single "Holiday in Cambodia" b/w "Police Truck". My brother picked up Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and The Specials. There were also the Dickies' records Dawn of the Dickies and Stukas Over Disneyland. Right after we cherry-picked through the stacks, a fellow thrifter walked up and saw what we found and started complaining and cussing under his breath-- beating himself up that he hadn't arrived five minutes earlier. To this day, those are the best records I've ever found at a thrift store. Who knows if it will ever happen again.
Alex Edkins: Growing up in the Ottawa suburbs, the closest record store was about an hour drive away and there was no public transit. I used to catch a ride with my Dad at 7:30 a.m. when he was heading to work downtown. I would wait for Record Runner to open and then spend the whole day there until my Dad was done working. I ended up working at Record Runner for several years, too.
Hayden Menzies: Birdman Sound was a full sensory experience. There were classic show posters on every inch of the walls, incense billowing from the door, records of all types playing on the turntable and, of course, the owner, John Westhaver, who was always available for recommendations, history lessons, and rants. I learned a lot of swear words at that store.
Jessie Clavin: The first record store I ever went to was Headline Records. I was living in the Valley but going to Hollywood High School, so it was really easy for me to get to Headline. I remember asking a friend to ditch with me and take the bus down to Headline, where I bought my first Crass record! I ended up working at Amoeba in the warehouse for about two years. I met a lot of really awesome people there, everyone knew so much about music it really blew my mind! The best part about working there was seeing all the new, used, and rare records before they went down to the floor!
Jennifer Clavin: I remember we used to go to Headline Records forever. They even used to have shows there and it would be super bright and some really punk band would be playing, so it would be kinda awkward. But then one day we were walking down Sunset and I saw Amoeba being built and I was like wtf is this place? I was annoyed at first because I just assumed it could never be as cool as Headline. But now it's my favorite place to go.
1. Mississippi Records; Portland, OR: I buy so much from them whenever I'm in Portland that I have to skip dinner that night. A great selection of tasteful old LPs. And then there's the label, which does reissues mostly-- guaranteed a good record for 10 clams. I try to buy all of it, but they release a lot so it's a tough job.
2. Amoeba; San Francisco, CA: I know it can seem like a big overwhelming joint, but they have killer LPs always. They even have a cassette section (oh hell no)-- I'm always leaving there with an armful.
3. Aquarius Records; San Francisco, CA: They seem to lean towards CDs, but it's another joint that has intricate taste-- experimental and metal and reissues abound. And if you're super lucky, you might get to see that little sprite "the Horrocks" jamming some hammer-ons in the back room with a furrowed brow.
4. Armageddon; Providence, RI: All things heavy and heavy are here. A great shop with tons of silk screened posters that scream "Rhode Island."
5. Jerry's; Pittsburgh, PA: It's fucking massive. You have to really dig, but in there are some gems. Bring a dust mask.
6. Explorist International; San Francisco, CA: It's small, and so is the handsome man who runs it, Chris Dixon, who has been in several great SF bands. They have great jazz, experimental, psych, and world music. And Chris just had a baby so go see him and give him your wampum.
Amoeba opened when I was 15, right at the height of my excitement digging through used classical sections. And they had a big one. Also, I remember buying my first John Cage CD at the Wherehouse Records at the Beverly Connection mall.
I worked at In Your Ear from 1990-1991 and loved the job and everyone I worked with and for. It was a hell of a great shop. CDs were still pretty new, and I thought the best, most practical example of the format was the Residents' Commercial Album (which I bought at the shop in hopes of someday getting a CD player). Turned out I was right!
There is something magical about Record Collector, which is stocked in a floor-to-ceiling labyrinth with the rarest in jazz and classical and employed with only those who can maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of the inventory down to the last disc. It's the kind of place where you can't ever look too excited about finding an out-of-print Luciano Berio album since they price the records based on how bad you want it. But it's great to know these gems still exist, where the pride in the vinyl format is still so alive. You can stumble across something that hasn't been pressed since 1960 yet it still plays like it's brand new.
Goner Records has had a huge impact on my life. When I was a teenager I'd go in at least once a week to go through their selection and talk with the staff. I got introduced to tons of new music because the owners, Eric and Zac, would always recommend their current favorites. They also act as a record label and have put out different singles and albums by my former bands. Every year they put on a festival called Gonerfest that gets the best garage-y stuff going around. The first year of Gonerfest, I saw Black Lips and the King Khan and BBQ Show play one of the most memorable shows I've ever been to. I went and bought We Did Not Know the Forest Spirit Made the Flowers Grow and the self-titled King Khan and BBQ Show record the next day at Goner and they're still some of my favorite records today.
Besides some of us having worked at them and the lists of misadventures and schemes born and executed within their walls, what sticks out most to me now is the fact that Liars were born in a record store. I worked at an establishment (which I will leave a mystery) when a mutual friend introduced Angus and I. They were starting a band and needed another person. I was given their list of amazing and impossible influences and reference points and was so excited at the odd combinations they mentioned that we practiced that night. Angus and I bought a four-track and it was the beginning of our newfound focus and love: making songs. We have yet to look up or take a break.
Storm Thorgerson, the co-founder of the UK design firm Hipgnosis who died at the age of 69 yesterday, is most widely known for his “prism” design for Pink Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon. Over the years, that simple image has ascended to a rarefied iconic status known to few commercial trademarks: For millions, that prism refracting white light into seven colors evokes memories of listening to “Us and Them”, or attempting to sync “Speak to Me” up with the exact right point at the start of The Wizard of Oz. Having started in the design field with his cover for Saucerful of Secrets and continuing his affiliation with the band through the 21st century, it’s not understatement to suggest that Thorgerson played a significant role in the visual branding of one of the world’s most successful musical acts. It’s impossible to think of Pink Floyd independently of Thorgerson’s imagery-- Dark Side and Wish You Were Here come to mind most immediately, but then there’s the cow from Atom Heart Mother, as well as the striking covers of Animals and Division Bell, among many others.
Along with Pink Floyd, Thorgerson and Hipgnosis were central figures in the transition from 60s psychedelia to the expansive, million-selling radio rock that defined most of the 70s. More than any single figure, he established intricately composed, surrealist photographic techniques, collages, and pictorial reappropriations as key ingredients of mainstream album art. When you think of the image of a stoned college freshman starting deeply into an album cover image trying to parse a deeper meaning or symbolic connection to the music, you largely have Thorgerson and Hipgnosis to thank. He’s been recognized with gallery retrospectives, but his real legacy is as one of the 20th century’s most widely distributed commercial artists. His covers for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin not only populate tens of millions of living rooms, they’ve been reprinted countless times as dorm-room posters and T-shirts, becoming part of pop culture’s lingua franca.
Though he was not exclusively affiliated with a label, Thorgerson’s cover art ranks with Alex Steinweiss’s pioneering design for Columbia, Reid Miles’ work for Blue Note, 23Envelope’s affiliation with 4AD, and Peter Saville’s designs for Factory, as some of pop music’s most instantly recognizable imagery. Aside from Pink Floyd, he designed iconic covers for Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Genesis and Peter Gabriel, 10cc, Alan Parsons, and many others. This is not to say, however, that there is a uniform quality to Thorgerson’s work. There is a vast chasm between his most potent designs and the ones scream “symbolism!” in the most unsubtle, even tacky ways. After all, the same guy who did Presence and Atom Heart Mother also produced the Cranberries’ ridiculous Bury the Hatchetcover and the Scorpions’ Lovedrive, the latter easily ranking among pop music’s most galling advertisements. Some of his cover commissions are easily the gaudiest entries in classic bands’ discographies-- his imagery for AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds and Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die, for instance, stick out from those acts’ catalogs as advertisements for Hipgnosis as much as the recordings themselves. Though opinions vary widely on the quality of Thorgerson’s designs, they’re some of the most memorable images in rock history. We’ve collected some of his most noteworthy works below.
Pink Floyd: Ummagumma (1969)
Thorgerson hailed from Pink Floyd’s hometown of Cambridge, England, and Hipgnosis formed largely around its connection with the band. Ummagumma’s design is based around a trick known as mise-en-abyme, in which a single image reflects into infinity. The photo hanging on the wall is of the band members as they’re being photographed—though if you look closely, the arrangement of the members changes in each successive recursion, and the last photo features A Saucerful of Secrets, Thorgerson’s first commission, hanging on the wall. Paired with the rear image of the band’s gear arrayed on an airport runway, it’s a perfect visual bridge for the band who would turn UK pastoral psychedelia into arena rock.
Electric Warrior was the album that signaled Marc Bolan’s full-on rebranding from groovy folkie to rock star (just compare this cover to that of his prior album), and a good portion of the image-refashioning was done by Thorgerson’s iconic image of Bolan. Breaking from Hipgnosis’s house style fairly dramatically, the low-angle, high-contrast shot of Bolan in high-heeled boots, standing in front of a Vampower amp stack, more closely resembles the anglular design work of Russian propaganda artists than the firm’s surrealist approach. The “electricity” aura is perfectly applied, creating the impression that Bolan’s been stenciled in gold spraypaint. If any single image from the 1970s signifies “rock,” it’s this.
Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy(1973)
Inspired by the climax of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End and befitting the band’s ramped up fascination with mysticism, the Houses of the Holy cover was collaged from a shoot with two children on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and hand-tinted from a black-and-white master. It’s perhaps the greatest testament to Thorgerson’s influence at this point that he was able to get a new Zeppelin album delayed for months because of color problems with the cover when printed. When it hit stores, the LP came packaged with an obi-style paper ring, to signal the name of the album to consumers and partially obscure some of the nudity.
10cc: The Original Soundtrack (1975)
A soundtrack album for a film that didn’t exist (and created by a band with two future music video producers amongst its ranks) receives an appropriately conceptual treatment. The Steenbeck film editor, which spreads across the gatefold, was drawn in pencil—a rare visual treatment for Hipgnosis—by painter Humphrey Ocean (who added the image of Anthony Perkins from The Lonely Man), from a photograph. Ever fond of hiding Easter eggs in the artwork, the design includes a cleverly hidden upside-down image of the band itself, somewhere—a trick adapted from the Beatles’ faces, visible in the bark of the tree on the cover of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding cover.
Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975)
Yes, Dark Side of the Moon is on the side of more vans, but Wish You Were Here is infinitely trippier. The “handshake” photograph— an icon of the shady 70s music biz mirrored in various ways throughout the packaging— was shot on the backlot of the Warner Brothers studios, where stuntman Ronnie Rondell, Jr. was outfitted in an asbestos suit, doused with gasoline and actually set on fire. It’s one of Thorgerson’s most purely surreal images (think David Lynch a decade or so later)-- a stoic, everyday occurrence rendered slightly alien through a dream logic. The back cover image of a faceless music executive shows the influence of surrealist Rene Magritte on Thorgerson, which will come full flower a quarter-century later, with one of his Mars Volta covers.
Hipgnosis weren’t overly fond of using lots of text, but when they decided to do something, they went for it. The second LP by the nervy, cerebral Swindon band features perhaps the most thoroughly self-reflexive cover design of all time. Even by the bold, pull-back-the-curtains standard of much UK post punk-- the Buzzcocks listing the specific studio takes that made the cut for their 1977 EP Spiral Scratch, the Desperate Bicycles citing production costs as a DIY inducement-- Go 2 was impressively meta. Describing the role of album art in music promotion (front and back cover, even with an altered version for the cassette) with the cold language of a recently fired marketing executive, the cover text also provokes the viewer/consumer/reader: “the more you read on the more you're falling for this simple device of telling you exactly how a good commercial design works. They're TRICKS and this is the worst TRICK of all since it's describing the TRICK whilst trying to TRICK you.”
The striking image for the cover of Peter Gabriel’s third solo album came from a dream one of the Hipgnosis designers had—the firm had designed his prior two covers, as well as the artwork for Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Like Gabriel’s prior twoalbums, it was self-titled, though because of the cover art it’s largely referred to as Melt. The photo came from an enlarged and manipulated Polaroid taken in front of the stairs leading up to the Hipgnosis studios, and the “melting” effect was created by smudging the image as the chemicals combined to “develop” it. The image chosen was one of many Polaroids taken, many of which can be seen in this video.
Hipgnosis ceased operations in 1983, though Thorgerson continued working on his own under the name Storm Studios, designing covers for Muse, Audioslave, Phish, and many others. As for a collaboration with the long-active, drug-addled duo from New Hope, Pennsylvania, the first guess might be that Thorgerson did the art for Chocolate and Cheese, which appears to align more with the firm’s penchant for bold, oft-cheeky imagery. It makes perfect sense, however, that Thorgerson would align with the group for their proggiest album yet, a loosely conceptual work taken with fantastical images of the sea, recorded while the duo were secluded in a beach house in Holgate, New Jersey. The striking cover image is a hybrid of seemingly any and every creature that one might find in the ocean, a grotesque mutation seemingly derived from a Dr. Moreau-style mind or the accidental result of chemicals dumped in the waters of the Atlantic seaboard. Or the perfect evocation of an album with “Mutilated Lips” and “Polka Dot Tail” on it.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s post-At the Drive-In penchant for 32nd-note polyrhythms has not received the kindest notices around these parts, though it can’t be said that the Mars Volta have ever had a shortage of ideas, and the impulse to portray them in the boldest fashion possible. For this cover, Thorgerson stepped back a bit from his bizarre imagery for De-Loused in the Comatorium, opting for a photograph that directly signaled his affinity for Rene Magritte’s iconic 1928 painting The Lovers. The music might not be to everyone’s taste, though it’s hard to argue that Thorgerson’s bold, slightly unsettling cover imagery isn’t memorable—perhaps even more so than what it’s selling.
In this edition of The Out Door, we highlight four acts who all approach music with an omnivorous appetite, hybridizing sounds and genres that don’t often mix. We talk about the intersection of abstract noise and meditative folk with French duo Natural Snow Buildings, explore the meld of doom, dubstep, industrial, and pop in the work of San Diego’s Author & Publisher, and trace the paths of two musicians who have made vital contributions to a wide array of groups and albums in the past decade-- harp virtuoso Mary Lattimore and multi-instrumentalist M. Geddes Gengras. (Remember to follow us on Twitter for updates on underground and experimental music.)
I:M. Geddes Gengras: Modular Musician
M. Geddes Gengras in Jamaica; photo by Tony Lowe
“I just enjoy playing music and I’m not super picky about what kind,” says M. Geddes Gengras. “I’m more picky about the people I’ll play with than the kind of music I’m willing to play.” Gengras’ résumé proves his point: He’s played heavy drones with Robedoor, expansive jams with Pocahaunted, outward-bound reggae with Sun Araw and the Congos, and an array of electronic explorations on his own. And he’s just embarked on a new endeavor that will occupy most of 2013: playing and touring with experimental rock band Akron/Family while simultaneously opening for them solo.
“I didn’t know what a Moog did but I knew Stereolab had a song called 'Moog', and I saw them play one on stage and it seemed like it was making all the swishing noises. So I wanted to try that.”
“Every band that I’ve joined has satisfied something that I was itching to do,” Gengras explains. “They’ve all given me these different outlets for different things. [For example] when I played in Robedoor, I was so excited to be in something that heavy, and I feel like all the doom-y aspects of the other music I was doing got diverted into that.”
Gengras’ penchant for genre-hopping goes back to his earliest musical activity. Growing up in Connecticut, he made experimental sound on his own while simultaneously singing in hardcore bands. It all began in ninth grade, when he bought a Moog synthesizer off eBay. “I didn’t know how to play anything, so I thought, how can I create sound without having to learn how to play any instruments?,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what a Moog did, but I knew Stereolab had a song called 'Moog', and I saw them play one on stage and it seemed like it was making all the swishing noises. So I wanted to try that.”
After spending his high school and college years in the Northeast, Gengras moved with his girlfriend Caitlin to Los Angeles in 2005. Soon they were helping out at now-defunct performance space Echo Curio, where Gengras first encountered Robedoor. They quickly became his favorite band in the city. “I couldn’t believe how sick and heavy they were,” he remembers. “They would put all their amps in a circle pointed at them, and then cover it all with a tarp, so you couldn’t see what was going on. It blew my mind. So I pursued them for like, three years, trying to get them to let me record them. Eventually they came over to my place to make Raiders, and I ended up playing a little bit on it, and then started doing shows with them.”
Gengras primarily played drums in Robedoor; his girlfriend had taught him how after they moved to L.A. because, according to him, “she was tired of being the only one who could.” At the time, Robedoor was moving away from improvised drones towards composition, and Gengras’ drumming gave their massive textures a more defined shape. He also became ensconced in the circle surrounding Not Not Fun, the label run by Robedoor’s Britt Brown and his wife Amanda (of Pocahaunted and L.A. Vampires). “I liked their attention to the aesthetics of every project; all the bands had these very identifiable markers,” he says. “They would want to hear something in the music scene and not hear it, so they would start a band to do it, which is an admirable trait.”
While still playing in Robedoor, Gengras joined Pocahaunted, in a lineup that included Amanda and Britt Brown, Bethany Cosentino (later of Best Coast), and Cameron Stallones of Sun Araw. Cosentino and Stallones left soon after, but, as Gengras recalls, “Amanda wanted to keep it going, so we took it as an opportunity to move things around. We got Diva Dompe to play bass, and with her and Amanda singing, I think we got pretty powerful. When things were going well, the songs could last a long time.”
Gengras also continued to work with Stallones, playing drums for Sun Araw on a European tour with Pocahaunted. Not long after the latter broke up, Stallones was asked to collaborate with legendary reggae vocal group the Congos in Jamaica, and invited Gengras to join him. “I was close with Cameron before that, but that Jamaica trip stuck us together in a pretty serious way,” he explains. Stallones and Gengras played most of the music on the resulting record, Icon Give Thank. But for Gengras, it was the Congos’ singing that brought the project to life.
“What I love about the modular synth is that you tell it to do something, and it’s just going to keep doing it, forever.”
“It was so amazing to hear the power of those voices,” he recalls. “Heart of the Congos is a record I’ve been obsessed with forever, and to be in the room there and to hear them sing and realize the power they still have in their 60s and 70s was just unreal. We were nervous about that project up until that point, but when the vocals started to go down, we thought, okay, this is going to be great.”
The thrills continued when the group performed in London, a show documented on the live EP, Icon Give Life. “Being on stage in front of all those people, playing “Fisherman”, and having Ashanti Roy five feet away making funny faces at me... I don’t think I’ve ever had that much fun in my life,” Gengras enthuses. “That’s beyond a dream come true-- that’s just like an obscene fantasy that I could never imagine living out.”
Gengras has since become a frequent contributor to Sun Araw, while he and Stallones have also started the dancehall-influenced project Duppy Gun. I ask Gengras how Stallones has carved out such a distinct sound. “Part of me wants to say I have no idea,” he says, chuckling. “What’s amazing to me is the freedom he affords the people who play with him. The songs are often just a suggestion of a riff. He will be like, ‘Pick three notes, play them.’ It makes for a weird combination of being incredibly laid-back but also agitated. And I like the agitation, the itchiness of it-- that for me is the interesting part.”
M. Geddes Gengras with his modular synth; photo by Aurora Halal
Throughout all this collaboration, Gengras has found time to create a large and varied body of solo work. He began by playing Moog, but lately his primary means of expression is modular synthesizer. “What I love about the modular synth is that you tell it to do something, and it’s just going to keep doing it, forever,” he says. This fascination has led to a series of “Systems” releases that he describes as “performed by the machine.” “The idea was to write pieces that are played with no intervention-- just turn on the synth and walk away,” he says. “Over time, some weird shit happens due to the vagaries of analog technology. If you have enough non-synchronized cycles happening at the same time, you get basically infinite variation, which is really exciting to me.”
Most of Gengras’ modular synth work is more participatory than that, and it has resulted in a number of small-run releases, many of which can be heard at his Bandcamp site. Last winter, Intercoastal Artists put out his first widely-distributed solo album Test Leads, a beat-inflected mix of Komische jams and dissonant sound-scapes. The bulk of the record is based on a modular synth piece Gengras wrote while on tour, consisting of “three simple patches that I would play in sequence with each other.”
“Music is the only thing I’ve ever really felt good at-- something that I’d be happy doing the rest of my life.”
Test Leads’ beats are nearly danceable, a trait Gengras has explored more fully under the name Personable, a project inspired by his obsession with minimal techno. He cites in particular the influence of Jeff Mills. “I love how bone-headedly minimal his stuff is,” he says. “In its way, it isn’t far off from some kind of Steve Reich thing, but with a different texture.” The debut Personable EP was recently released on Brian Foote’s Peak Oil label, and Gengras plans to continue the project down the narrow path he’s set for it. “I have very hard and fast aesthetic rules for what can be a Personable release,” he explains. “Whereas the stuff I do under my own name can verge into those territories but also go other places.”
One of those other places is the Moog. Gengras initially drifted away from the instrument after moving to L.A., but found himself drawn back a few years ago. “Picking up the Moog again, I wanted to make something gentle and soothing,” he says. “I wanted to make this huge, new age music in space kind of vibe.” Some of the results will be released later in July on Umor Rex under the title Collected Works Vol. 1. “Some of the tracks are just Moog through three or four tape echoes,” he says. “You just play a melody and it just becomes this big, swirling thing.”
“I’m interested in ways in which academic technique can meet emotional music,” he continues. “Because in the end I think music is an expression of yourself and your emotions and where you’re at in a time and in a place. So you try to walk that line between something that is more academic and something that hopefully makes you feel something.”
It’s hard to imagine exactly how Gengras finds the time and energy to follow this path through all his musical pursuits, but to hear him tell it, it’s the easiest thing in the world. “I don’t have a job, I don’t have any other hobbies, and there’s only so much Netflix I can watch during the day,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got to work on something, and music is the only thing I’ve ever really felt good at-- something that I’d be happy doing the rest of my life.” --Marc Masters
Mary Lattimore can’t talk about her high school prom without also talking about the harp. In the small Western North Carolina town of Shelby, where she moved when she was 12, Lattimore stopped at a McDonald’s on the way to the teenage soiree. She wasn’t hungry. She’d just been at harp practice so long that she hadn't had time to go home to change.
Lattimore laughs when she tells the story, but it’s indicative of a problem she’s dealt with for years in relation to her mammoth instrument of choice: Playing it tends to be a very solitary activity. Sure, her mother and her pals were harp players, and she’s played in orchestras and symphonies for most of her life. But those relationships didn’t foster the feeling that she wanted-- a creative, communal atmosphere where making music was as much about feeling and familiarity as precision and technique. She admits that had her mother not been so adamant about Lattimore's practice routine, she probably never would have become a professional harpist; its rigorous routine of seclusion and concentration is an ill fit for her ebullience.
And for her, being in a rock band wasn’t really an option, though that’s the kind of music to which she gravitated. There just weren’t many examples of harp being played in an indie rock context.
"When I listen to the Rolling Stones, I think 'Oh, harp would sound great there with that piano.' I think it could fit anywhere."
But over the last decade, Lattimore has become that example through a series of sessions, tours or one off-shows with rather large acts. She played on Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo and Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts. She was a staple of the Valerie Project, a Philadelphia group that used the skills of the band Espers and their friends to create a score for the Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. She’s worked with folk wonder Meg Baird, folk bender Fursaxa, and Pulp frontman (and burgeoning folklorist) Jarvis Cocker. It’s telling that, when she talks about these people, she almost always uses some comparative degree of the word friend-- her collaborators are her best friends, her good friends or her new friends.
And she hopes that’s just the start. “At this point, I don’t really love playing classical music at all,” she says. “I love playing the music that I actually listening to, fitting myself into that premise.”
Her solo debut, the cannily titled The Withdrawing Room, came at the end of one such stint with Thurston Moore. Depressed by the looming decision of what to do next, Lattimore entered the studio with producer and sideman Jeff Zeigler (Kurt Vile, the War on Drugs, Purling Hiss) and just started playing. A few hours later, she had the core of a mesmerizing and provocative debut. These three tracks tease the borders between pretty and painful, with vines of noise and distortion wrapping themselves around Lattimore’s long melodic curlicues. In its liminal approach between respect and irreverence for the instrument as it’s customarily played and presented, Lattimore’s debut recalls the latter work of John Fahey and the more tempestuous pieces of fellow harpist Zeena Parkins.
We spoke with Lattimore about the stepwise process that led to The Withdrawal Room, a record that wears the travels and travails of its maker well.
Learning Harp Alone
"My mom is a professional harpist. She gave me the idea when I was 11. She had a bunch of friends that also played the harp, so it seemed natural that I would play. I went on to music conservatory in Rochester. I studied mainly classical music, but I don’t think I ever got into classical music that didn’t have huge harp solos or wasn’t a solo piece that I was studying or working on intensely in my little practice room.
"Classically trained people spend a lot of time by themselves, and the practice room is a very solitary experience. You spend a lot of time focusing on the tiniest things and being very hard on yourself. I play a lot of gigs, too, like weddings. I have a station wagon, so I drive to the wedding by myself, play it and leave by myself. I was reading an interview with a harpist from England named Serafina Steer, and she said something about the harp being the loneliest instrument. I understand that: It’s so giant, and you don’t need other people to play with you to make it sound beautiful."
"Seeing how Espers lived in Philadelphia was big for me. It was a musical environment, lots of jamming out in the yard."
"I was working at the college radio station, WRUR, 'Your Station for Variation.' I was into different bands, and I thought, 'Harp would sound cool right there.' But I didn’t have the courage to pursue it. There are so many great guitar players that it’s daunting. Being in a band was a dream to me, not a reality. Still, when I listen to the Rolling Stones, I think 'Oh, harp would sound great there with that piano.' I think it could fit anywhere, but people just don’t think to add it."
"In November or December 2005, I met this guy in this band that was coming to Philly, and I was going to move there in January. He said, 'You should sit in with us!' I said okay, and so I did. It was the Arcade Fire, but it was only one show. I was never in that band, but I met Richard Reed Parry and he was very kind and generous. It was the most exciting thing ever, because it was a sold-out show. They called me on the stage for the encore-- me and my giant harp. It was the coolest feeling in the world to have these people looking at you. It was the opposite experience of preparing for a recital and being freaked out and terrified of people saying, 'Wrong note, wrong note.' That opened up things for me."
"They’re basically why I moved to Philly. I visited Philly, and I hung out with Otto Hauser and Greg Weeks. It turns out there was a show that was Espers, Vetiver, Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart, and it was the night I was moving. Seeing how they lived in Philadelphia was big for me. They call their place the Compound-- these three houses that were next to each other and had a huge backyard, with a garden and a bonfire. It was a musical environment, lots of jamming out in the yard. It was a very creative environment to move to.
"Getting to know them and getting to meet a bunch of music people like Jack Rose and Tara Burke [Fursaxa], I think I just fed off of them. They were very unpretentious and un-self-conscious about making music."
"When I played with Kurt Vile, he was like, 'Oh, that sounds beautiful. It’s perfect.' When you hear stuff like that, it makes you want to play more."
The Valerie Project
"It was really fun to write because we would watch Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a Czech new wave movie, and bounce ideas off each other. 'This is what I came up with for this little snippet. Oh, what if we did this and turn it into the major key for this part?' It’s a long movie, so there was a lot of music to write. There were 12 people doing it, so it was very collaborative and exciting.
"Matching things like moods to a movie was really interesting. If you see something terrifying, what do you do? It’s hard making the harp sound really dark or powerful or delicate. You want to play colors that match what you see on the screen.
"Ideally, every classical musician is trying to find the emotion in music that’s been played a jillion times already. That’s the point-- to find a bit of yourself in music that’s already been played and dissected. You want to make it your own, make it malleable. That’s the beauty of playing classical music: really intensely studying something and focusing on a tiny thing that you can make yours. The ideal thing for me was looking at the beautiful saturated colors of that movie and invoking the same feeling you get from watching it."
"Kurt wasn’t part of that improvising, Espers, hippy compound vibe, but he’s just a dude that loves music and loves beautiful sounds. He saw potential in having harp on his songs. When I played with Kurt, he was like, “Oh, that sounds beautiful. It’s perfect. It sounds so beautiful.” When you hear stuff like that, it just wants to make you play more."
Photo by J. L. Kidd
"I wrote out parts for the songs Thurston sent me on Demolished Thoughts, and we recorded them. It was composed, and I was just adding to what he’d written. Then it came time to go on tour, and he wanted to see if it was a good match for playing in the future. I don’t know if that’s how he really felt, but that’s how I saw it. So he asked me, Samara Lubelski, and Bill Nace to do a three-show improvisation tour to see how we matched, just jamming. Jamming with Thurston Moore blew my mind; that’s not something I ever thought I would get to do. But it just kept getting better with each night. By the end, I thought, “Oh, maybe I can do this.” It was a whole new thing, and I had to get over being afraid to try.
"Samara was awesome, too. She is like an older sister figure to me. She was very encouraging and inspiring, just seeing how she played and getting to know her as a person. I feel like the more that Bill, Thurston, Samara, and I got to know each other, the better we improvised together. It became more conversational, and it gets cozier the more you’re hanging out. Improvising gets easier because you know where they’re going to go."
Thurston Moore Band/Chelsea Light Moving
"Those guys were always like, 'We have solo stuff to sell on the merch table. Why don’t you come up with something, Mary?' Especially John Moloney, he was very encouraging: “Whatever you do, people might like it. You never know.” And I never did until after they went on without me. I decided to make something because I didn’t have anything else to do."
"I worked on The Withdrawing Room for one day. It was after I finished playing with Thurston, and I was bummed out because I didn’t have anything to look forward to. So I got together with Jeff Zeigler. He said, “Okay, we’ll record whatever you want.” I didn’t have anything planned out, so I went in there, like an exorcism. I was just playing and improvising with my Line 6 pedal, and he was playing.
"I wanted it to be a little disjointed and unhinged. I was feeling very adrift, so I didn’t want it to be so precious. I just wanted to make something that sounds weird and cool, melancholy and dark and sad. A lot of people listen to it and say, 'It doesn’t sound melancholy. It sounds so happy.' When I listen to it, I feel kind of sad, like my heart is coming out." --Grayson Currin
Few groups combine abstract exploration with hummable songcraft the way Natural Snow Buildings have. Since 1997, the French duo of Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte have stuck gentle, folk-inflected tunes next to dense drones that can frighten with their cacophony. Yet the pair’s ability to keep it all impulsive and organic-- as if every sound sprouted from one natural root-- gives their work a rare cohesion. When Natural Snow Buildings shift from a blast of noise to a subdued melody, the transition feels as logical as juxtaposed scenes in a dream.
Natural Snow Buildings’ approach has produced a wide array of releases, some self-made in tiny editions on CD-R, others pressed on LP by some of the world’s best experimental labels. Many have also contained a lot of music: take 2008’s 5 CD-R box I Dream of Drone, or 2009’s triple LP Shadow Kingdom. Last year Ba Da Bing reissued a 2008 self-release, Night Coercion Into the Company of Witches, in 3-CD and 4-LP sets. It’s one of their most sonically extreme efforts, highlighted by an hour-long piece called “The Great Bull God” that veers from intense feedback to slow beats to near-animalistic howls.
"From the beginning there was this tension between what would be the melodic and the cacophonic, between the song and the noise, and we could build around this tension."
For the unfamiliar, the NSB discography can be daunting to enter. Fortunately, one release serves as a welcoming introduction, and it’s just been reissued by Ba Da Bing. Originally put out by Students of Decay in 2008, The Snowbringer Cultoffers two LP sides by NSB, plus one side each by the duo’s two solo projects: Ameziane’s TwinSisterMoon and Gularte’s Isengrind. That mix could easily have the inconsistent feel of a compilation, but the pair’s unified vision shines through, soldering disparate elements into a whole that ultimately sounds like one long, continuous song.
We recently emailed Ameziane and Gularte questions about their music and how they make it. They answered together from their home in a small French village called Vitre. (Our conversation has been edited and condensed.)
Pitchfork: How did you meet?
Natural Snow Buildings: We happened to be at the same place at the same time-- the library of the university [in Paris] where we were studying, so that was totally random. We were living together for maybe one year and were involved in some other peoples’ band, and at one point making music together became the continuation of our life as a couple.
Pitchfork: What did you like about playing together initially?
NSB: We guess that it was kinda exciting to build our own language. From the beginning there was this tension between what would be the melodic and the cacophonic, between the song and the noise, and we could build around this tension. And those ideas have not changed that much; they have just been reinforced through listening to artists who mastered their art more than we did.
"The songs have always been used as bread crumbs-- something familiar that could mark the way through a very dark journey."
Pitchfork: Solange was classically-trained, while Mehdi knew very little about musical technique when NSB started. Has that created any challenges?
NSB: We had to find a common ground, and it came more from our lectures and studies and the way we conceived the world-- like coexisting layers of alternate reality that you can intertwine through your own art, layers that you can explore through shifting perspectives-- than our heterogeneous musical practices. Those ideas push the music away from the apparent opposition between one musical practice that is amateurish and one that is more institutional, between the oral and the written.
Pitchfork: In 2004 you moved from Paris to Vitre. Why?
NSB: Partly for professional reasons, but we wanted to move from Paris for years, so professional reasons offered us the occasion to do so. There’s always this cliché opposition between the town and the country, but moving really had an effect on our, well, productivity, like it triggered something that’s been already there for a long time. It's hard to put a finger on it-- it's kinda phenomenological. In Innu culture, there was a place called Atiku-Mitshuap, which literally means “the house of the deers.” It’s a gigantic hollow mountain, and every year, as it’s been told in stories, if the bond between human and non-human realm is still strong, the Deer-Master opens some gates, and thousands of deer fly out of the mountain towards the hunting grounds, a cornucopia of deer. That’s the best image for what happened to us.
Pitchfork: How much of your music is written and how much is improvised?
NSB: We try everything we can: from pure improvisations recorded directly to tape, to reconstruction of tracks after improvised segments, to straightforward songs built around three chords. But using the word written is tricky for us. The only things we've ever written were texts and chord progression. We don't write music. Solange knew [how to do] that at some point but forgot, so we consider the rest as improvised in a more or less structured way.
Pitchfork: Do you think of your structured songs and your abstract pieces as different, or as parts of a whole?
NSB: They’re part of the same continuum. But songs have always been used as, well, bread crumbs-- something familiar that could mark the way through a very dark journey. And there's always noise in the background-- something undefined, crawling and submerging the human voice.
Pitchfork: Do you mean bread crumbs for you, or the listener?
NSB: For both, we think. It’s easier to evoke one narrative through words. To use another metaphor, it’s the spot on the map saying you (we) are here.
Pitchfork: How do you go about putting a record together? I’m particularly curious about The Snowbringer Cult and the decision to put NSB and your solo projects on one release.
NSB:Most of the time there's a set of particular ideas behind recording sessions that will at some point form the basis of a record, call it the narrative or the subtext, even if we produce a lot of scrap and there will be choice to be made. But with The Snowbringer Cult, we got straight to the point: it’s probably the record for which we have the least direct-to-the trash sounds. The idea of putting together all of our musical personae came from Alex Cobb of Students of Decay.
Pitchfork: Where did the title come from?
NSB: The title came from some kind of insider joke between the two of us: the fact that through our ever-growing interest in non-Western world visions and idiosyncratic ones, and the fact that those same world views, and disappeared customs, and weird ethos were contaminating the way we saw things in our own culture, we would start to look like some obscure cult members. How ancient cultures can terraform yours was the idea behind The Snowbringer Cult. That was our idea of syncretism at the time-- the music and the artwork as a very personal alternate reality where you can disappear. Solange’s artwork for the record was there to offer a glimpse of the phantasmagorical and raggedy universe behind the music.
"Everything is political, no matter what you’re doing-- it’s hard to escape. Is experimental/noise/drone music from the left or from the right? Is it apolitical?"
Pitchfork: Is the art usually made after the recording?
NSB:It depends. The ideal is when the art is made during the recording period. It’s like the ideas floating around will nurture both music and Solange’s drawings, creating loose strings between the two. The visual side of a record represents for us 50% of the work. We’re fond of graphic novels; the best comparison would be Dan Clowes’ The Yellow Streak-- you’ve got four captions, the music, the titles, try to reconstruct what it is all about. Discontinuity can guide you but it can also be deceptive.
Pitchfork: Why did you start doing solo work? Do those projects influence each other?
NSB:It was the best way not to completely mind-melt with each other-- to keep some sort of sanity, and explore territory that wouldn't interest us while together. And yes, it obviously had influence on our common practice in NSB, stylistically. The influence can be a negative one, like, “We can’t be doing that kind of songs in NSB anymore.” Solo projects are more like personal diaries.
Pitchfork: Since most of your music is made at home, is it challenging to translate it to a live setting?
NSB:At one point, we abandoned the idea of delivering exact versions of songs from the albums. We like to improvise, to construct something that would be recognizable by an audience not because it’s the perfect replica of a recorded song, but because it’s the sound, the atmosphere, the idea of this song. It’s not different from the way we’re playing together at home. The audience, the sound of the venue, and our own mood at the time will change everything.
Pitchfork: When you play music, what effect does it have on you?
NSB: It would be like following foot prints in the snow, and you realize that the footprints are getting bigger and weirder, and that what you are chasing is transforming into something else, shifting its nature with all the emotion and mental states that can come with the discovery.
Pitchfork: Do you think your music is at all political?
NSB:Everything is political, no matter what you’re doing-- it’s hard to escape. Is experimental/noise/drone music from the left or from the right? Is it apolitical? Is our music reactionary? Can the music we made be used to endorse ideas we did not support? If yes, is it an aesthetic failure? Do we have to stylistically evolve to avoid that? Is singing like a girl for a man a statement on gender and masculinity? Is Two Lane Blacktop less political than La Chinoise? Those are questions we can pose ourselves but would never formulate literally through our music. That’s not our goal at the moment we’re making music; we wouldn’t consider it as a direct propaganda instrument for any cause, that’s a fact. We can’t be frontally political. We like ambiguities and humor, so it’s subliminal, but conscious. --Marc Masters
Author & Punisher is Tristan Shone, a scientist, sculptor, designer and musician living in San Diego, CA. Listening to Author & Punisher’s records-- particularly last year’s great Ursus Americanus and the forthcoming Women & Children-- what’s most striking is Shone’s aggressive and agile blend of styles. Traces of doom, dubstep, industrial, noise, and honest-to-goodness pop show up within Shone’s best songs. His music is immediate but mysterious, a chimera that’s recognizable but strange.
But seeing Shone play his music is a much different experience: He renders these songs using massive devices he builds himself to control an onstage laptop. A bit like a cyborg, Shone grapples with and writhes among his machines, making music that’s not necessarily alien with tools that are.
We spoke with Shone about the genesis and challenges of his contraptions-- and where he’s taking them next. Seventh Rule Recordings will release Women & Children June 11. You can hear the first track from it, “In Remorse”, below.
Pitchfork: How did the idea for the machines you use in Author & Punisher first come to mind?
Tristan Shone: I was playing in metal bands and working as a mechanical engineer from about 2000 until 2006. My engineering job wasn’t very fulfilling in terms of what it offered creatively. I’d be working in a clean-room lab all day, and at night I’d go practice with my band and play shows. I was also working for an artist at the time, helping him build his art installations. I would travel with him a bit as his mechanical engineer, and that opened up my eyes a bit to what you could do in terms of sculpture.
"I was thinking about doom, drone, heavy sounds, heavy motion, things that were heavy and had a lot of inertia and felt good in your hands."
I went back to grad school. Within the first year of making sculpture and continuing to play in bands, I started to think, “Why don’t I try to better or solidify the sound into an object?” Basically, I wanted to make a sculpture that really represents what those sounds are. But instead of building a sculpture that stands on its own, I would combine my interest in music with some physical thing I could move.
So I made these two throttles that would make two tones, and move them across one another. You can really feel it because they have motors inside them, so they would push back. It was basically a two-stringed fretless bass, except it was all electronic. I really liked the way they felt.
Pitchfork: Your setup is now much more elaborate than those throttles. What was missing?
TS: It was my second of three years in the MFA program, so I was thinking, what else could I make? I was thinking very sculpturally at the time, so I had to think about things like pedestals or stands. I wasn’t thinking about touring, but I was thinking about doom, drone, heavy sounds, heavy motion, things that were heavy and had a lot of inertia and felt good in your hands.
I built this device for my right hand, because I’m right-handed, that embodied the idea of rhythm for me. I built this thing that would slide back and forth-- in my mind, it was the wheel of a train, so I could keep my right hand moving and keep a drumbeat going.
In my left hand, I had the throttles, and I built a drone wheel. These are all very slow and heavy, so if you could get one thing moving, it would stay there for a while, spinning to keep the pitch. You could turn it on and leave it a little bit. It had this slow-moving nature. That was what drone was for me, and that was the kind of music I was obsessed with for most of my life.
"I made these things called Big Knobs, these big fucking aluminum 15 pound knobs. DJs concentrate so hard on turning one knob in a theatrical way, I thought, 'Well, why don’t you just make the knob bigger so it actually does take effort to turn the knob?'"
Pitchfork: For you, are these primarily instruments or sculptures, or have those terms blurred into one?
TS: They are one in the same. That is one of the reasons I wanted to make instruments. I made a lot of sculpture, and I did shows in museums with things that weren’t necessarily related to sound. There was something about putting your effort into fetishizing a look or a material, working with the machine shop, and handing it off to a museum and being done with it. I felt a disconnect with that as an artist. Maybe that came from being a musician. I wanted to create a relationship like you do with your guitar over time. As you touch an instrument, it wears, and a different personality comes out.
Pitchfork: The look of these machines is so striking: How much do you balance aesthetics versus utility?
TS: Everything on them is functional, even if some people think I may have taken that a little too far. If there’s anything on there, I can tell you why: “Well, that’s there because it protects the electronics,” or “That chain is what the wires are moving through, so when you’re moving things, they don’t get caught up.” That’s what they use in industry, and that’s my palette because that’s where I work.
"I switch my drum set on my right hand four or five times. I don’t know many other bands doing that."
Pitchfork: Who has said you’ve gone too far with making instruments that look only functional?
TS: I made these things called Big Knobs, and they’re these big fucking aluminum knobs. Each one of them probably weighs like, 15 pounds. The reason this became an issue is because, a couple years ago, I decided to sell them. These fucking DJs sit there and concentrate so hard on turning one knob in a theatrical way. I thought, “Well, why don’t you just make the knob bigger so it actually does take effort to turn the knob?” You solve that problem and don’t look like a jackass because you’re only turning one knob.
I realized it would be about $200 per knob because the aluminum, the stainless steel, the processing and the coatings that I put on it cost that much. People would say, “Well, I can buy 40 knobs on an M-Audio device for $30.” Well, that’s not the point.
Pitchfork: People tend to look at a setup like yours and dismiss it as a gimmick, or say that you’re limited by these newfangled instruments. Do you agree?
TS: One of the reasons I like electronic music over, say, being stuck with an acoustic instrument or buying a synthesizer that has a limited electronic sound palette is because I can make mine sound like anything. My keyboard is these two sliding keyboards. I have two octaves and three keys on each arm, so I can have two sounds on each of them. I can make those sounds anything. In a given show, I switch the sounds of those two things three or five times. I switch my drum set on my right hand four or five times. I don’t know many other bands doing that. As an electronic DJ, you can do that. I don’t feel limited.
Pitchfork: Do you consider Author & Punisher a band, a DJ or a producer?
TS: I’m more like a band because I play songs. I don’t go out there and play other people’s stuff or create a dance set. I come from the hardcore and metal thing where you have five songs and you play them in a row. But with the electronic palette that I can pull from, it’s bringing some DJ culture into it.
"If I’m making industrial, it’s industrial industrial-- very raw, and it’s not perfectly timed like electronic music might be."
Pitchfork: Does the tactile nature of these instruments make you more connected with the music on an emotional level?
TS: I think we develop an emotional connection to music when we’re growing up. I’m 35, and for people like me, there’s some sound we heard back in 1996 when we were in high school and you first got turned onto metal or whatever. I heard Sepultura and the Melvins and Godflesh, and between those three bands, there was a tone that stays with you. If you’re into New Order, there’s something about that guy’s voice you’re always trying to recreate. If you’re into the Melvins or Neurosis, there’s this dirge drone that’s a thread throughout your life, and you can’t ever let go of it. For me, that tone is something I’m always chasing. By me making something physical that controls that tone, yeah, it’s an emotional and sentimental connection, even if it’s a devastating sound.
Pitchfork: What is that tone for you?
TS: It used to be this distorted bass tone. I’ve always been involved in industry, working on the heavy machinery you use to machine metal. There’s a crossover there. It’s a very growly, low, bass tone, maybe a square wave or triangle wave. I’m always chasing it, so I’m always downloading these distortion plug-ins or messing around with bit reduction. The new instruments I’m making are trying to create physical effects pedals for digital sounds. I’m trying to take the audio out of the computer and put it through a physical device and bring it back into the computer. I’ve been moving more toward industrial music and things that have a very rhythmic nature.
Pitchfork: You’ve said before that your experience with industrial music is limited, despite how Author & Punisher might sound. Have you been retracing those roots?
TS: I guess I had experience with bands like Ministry and Godflesh. Meeting people that are really into industrial music now and seeing what I’ve missed, they keep saying, “Oh, you sound like you’re into that.” But I’m not. I’m realizing now that a lot of the tones I like can be described as industrial. I really dislike the cliché industrial thing, with a guy sitting at a keyboard and another guy singing. That’s glam industrial. But if I’m making industrial, it’s industrial industrial-- very raw, and it’s not perfectly timed like industrial music or electronic music might be. I want to keep things a little bit out of time and have that organic element of a machine breaking a little bit.
Pitchfork: How does the new Author & Punisher material use the machines differently?
TS: This album, Women & Children, is almost like the second album of that set of machines. I was touring so much that I kept writing songs, and I transitioned into a more industrial feel with those machines. So I decided to do another album with these machines. I won’t do another album with these machines; I’ll build new ones at the end of this year.
Pitchfork: Why are you done with these machines?
TS: I want to feel something different. You find the limitations of the instruments you’re working with in terms of exploring new sounds. I’ve been wanting to create different textures, and with these machines and the way that they slide and move, it’s a very fluid feel. I can’t create the kind of rough, clamoring, quantized stuff that I want to make. I could probably try to fake it, but that’s not what they’re intended for. With my right hand, I want to have something that’s constantly clicking into place. That’s what I am hearing in my head. I wrote a song in my head over the last two years, and I want to make that song. I can’t make that song until I build the machines. --Grayson Currin