Photographers Tom Spray, Kristina Pedersen, and Matt Lief Anderson capture moments with Caribou, St. Vincent, Belle & Sebastian, James Blake, Four Tet, and more at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival Paris at Grande Halle de la Villette.
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Articles on this Page
- 11/03/14--09:05: _Rising: bo en
- 11/03/14--13:05: _Photo Galleries: Pi...
- 11/04/14--12:10: _Electric Fling: Cap...
- 11/05/14--07:35: _Photo Galleries: Pi...
- 11/06/14--11:00: _5-10-15-20: Todd Ed...
- 11/07/14--12:25: _Starter: Kim Fowley...
- 11/10/14--09:40: _Update: Azealia Banks
- 11/11/14--09:00: _Articles: Der Klang...
- 11/12/14--09:30: _Interviews: Charli XCX
- 11/13/14--10:20: _Articles: Pipers at...
- 11/14/14--11:35: _Interviews: Robert ...
- 11/17/14--12:05: _Rising: Mourn
- 11/19/14--13:10: _5-10-15-20: Alex Zh...
- 11/21/14--09:30: _Interviews: Jarvis ...
- 11/24/14--09:10: _Paper Trail: Top 40...
- 11/25/14--11:35: _Staff Lists: Holida...
- 12/01/14--10:20: _The Out Door: Sonic...
- 12/02/14--10:35: _Rising: Natalie Prass
- 12/02/14--12:30: _Pitchfork TV: Basil...
- 12/03/14--14:05: _Starter: 10 Essenti...
- 11/03/14--09:05: Rising: bo en
- 11/03/14--13:05: Photo Galleries: Pitchfork Music Festival Paris 2014
- 11/04/14--12:10: Electric Fling: Capital Sound
- 11/05/14--07:35: Photo Galleries: Pitchfork Music Festival Paris 2014: Portraits
- 11/06/14--11:00: 5-10-15-20: Todd Edwards
- 11/07/14--12:25: Starter: Kim Fowley: 10 Essential Tracks
- 11/10/14--09:40: Update: Azealia Banks
- 11/12/14--09:30: Interviews: Charli XCX
- 11/13/14--10:20: Articles: Pipers at the Gates of Punk
- 11/14/14--11:35: Interviews: Robert Wyatt
- 11/17/14--12:05: Rising: Mourn
- 11/19/14--13:10: 5-10-15-20: Alex Zhang Hungtai
- 11/21/14--09:30: Interviews: Jarvis Cocker
- 11/24/14--09:10: Paper Trail: Top 40 Democracy
- 11/25/14--11:35: Staff Lists: Holiday Gift Guide 2014
- 12/01/14--10:20: The Out Door: Sonic Rebirth
- 12/02/14--10:35: Rising: Natalie Prass
- 12/02/14--12:30: Pitchfork TV: Basilica SoundScape Documentary
- 12/03/14--14:05: Starter: 10 Essential Japanese Netlabels
Photo by Brydie Perkins
In the video game “Lovely Planet”, your gun fires tiny purple cubes. When you kill an enemy (though the notion of actually killing anything seems too severe for “Lovely Planet”), the gun exhales a cloud of multi-colored stars. Everything in “Lovely Planet”’s world—even the bad guys—looks like something you might give an infant to teethe on.
The game’s soundtrack is zippy and optimistic too. Sometimes it feels like a 1960s ad jingle, sometimes like elevator jazz played at maniac speed. Its texture is brittle, but the actual compositions are intricate and romantic, lit by the kind of old-Hollywood harmonies you might hear in The Sound of Music or on a Harry Nilsson record—the fantasia of a 100-person orchestra rendered in the primary colors of a dial tone.
Its composer is a guy named Calum Bowen, who also records little, eccentric pop songs as bo en. Bowen is 23 and lives in London, where he has just blown the better part of Sunday in bed with “Super Smash Bros.” (“day of rest,” he says). A few days earlier, he’d been in Paris, in part for a bachelor party and in part to play a bo en show for Jack댄스, a bimonthly party affiliated with contorted electronic pop collective PC Music.
“It was pretty good,” he says. “Kinda strange, because I was the only person not doing a one-tempo, no-stopping DJ set kind of thing.” Bowen, whose music is fizzy and electronic but not dancey per se, says he’s often in that position—a square peg, a weird sell. “I think people enjoyed it,” he says, “but it cleared the dancefloor a little bit.” He laughs—a wordless sign that he understands why.
The PC Music connection makes sense, but is also a red herring—bo en’s sound is less obscure, less impersonal. His debut, 2013’s Pale Machine, has the bright, supersaturated atmosphere of a Michel Gondry movie, alien on the surface but homespun at heart. He describes his songs as “diary entries” and “deeply earnest,” set in the context of music “that people might think is stupid, or has no merit.”
There’s an argument here, a minor posture—a postmodern “trash-as-treasure” stance—but Bowen seems to wear it naturally. “It came through liking a lot of music which I felt was really great that a lot of people didn’t like because of the associations of the sounds,” he says. A goal for a song called “Money Won’t Pay”, described in passing: “Let’s try and make something that’s really fucking good that uses a lot of MIDI banjo.”
Bowen makes money composing music for games, a small business he got off the ground after college at the University of Sussex, near Brighton. He’d studied classical composition, but his hobbies never formally crossed with his schooling. “I was always thinking about video games in the back of my head,” he says. Bo en arose naturally—an interest in wanting to compress his soundtrack work down into more digestible forms.
For the moment, there is no master plan, no brand strategy other than to take his time, try to write and produce for other people, and keep bo en his darling. In February, he re-released Pale Machine as an “expansion pack” that included mini games for every song on the album (at least one of which, a surreal morning time adventure by a designer named Ben Esposito, is delightful), as well as a physical release: a pink felt case, “hand-sewn, really nicely, by my girlfriend,” Bowen says, “who wasn’t at all annoyed to do it.” We agree to stress that last part.
"People shouldn’t dislike music just because
it has a certain sound or association."
Pitchfork: You say there are certain styles of music that you think have bad cultural associations. Can you be more specific?
Calum Bowen: Well, I had a clash between the content that I liked and was interested in—which was mostly influenced by jazz and soul—and the broad associations that those came with.For example, funk and soul are so often this swaggering, hugely self-confident, “I’m gonna shag her” music. So if you don’t feel like that’s particularly representative of your character, but you want to engage with the content of funk, you’re in a bit of a sticky situation. That’s what interests me, really—trying to pick apart the way people identify with genres and sounds and things I see as superficial. I realize that it sort of comes down to, [assumes deep professorial voice] “Oh, well I care about the actual music.” That’s not how I want to be seen, of course, but there’s a little bit of that—people shouldn’t dislike music just because it has a certain sound or association.
Pitchfork: Did you have an epiphany moment with video game music?
CB: It’s not very hard to be into game music if you play games, just by the repetition of it. It’s really the best marketing ploy. That makes me sound like I think video game music is crap—I love it, obviously. I do remember a moment of being in our loft and having this tiny keyboard and thinking I was going to learn how to play the songs from “The Legend of Zelda”. Then, when I was a teenager, I was in a video game cover band. It was just me and my friend and a keyboard, with him on the top end and me on the bottom end, because I wasn’t very good so I just had to play the bass notes. We were called Atomic Face and we played one gig at a “festival” in someone’s backyard.
Pitchfork: You’re starting to produce artists in Japan as well, right?
CB: Bo en started with me getting into Japanese electronic music through various blogs. Eventually I came across [Japanese label] Maltine Records, which I later released [Pale Machine] through. I was just really into the imaginative creativity and elaborate approach to production. My main inspiration was Avec Avec, who I later did a song with.
I’d wanted to get into songwriting for other people for ages, so I just sent [Japanese pop singer] Yun*chi a Twitter message and she was surprisingly open. I was expecting to have to write out a long email saying, “This is why you should let me do it and this is how I will do it and it’ll be great!” But she just said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I met up with her when she came to London for an event. She was very keen to be taken out clubbing, and I thought, “Oh God, I’m the worst person to be asked to do that.” In the end we just went to a super-duper old-man English pub. It was, surprisingly, a lot of fun.
Pitchfork: Do you have a fascination with Japan that goes beyond music?
CB: People often assume I’m a big Japanophile, but it’s not really the case. Most people who are my age who grew up playing video games or watching Studio Ghibli films have this romanticized image of Japan, so there’s that, but it was about finding music that seemed to be taking a similar approach to what I was really excited by.
Pitchfork: What do you parents think about your music?
CB: They’re extremely enthusiastic: [cheerful parental voice] “Oh, play us that battle theme, please!” So I have to be the ungrateful subject: “Go away Mom, stop being so interested in my life!” It’s lovely but I get a bit embarrassed, with my parents listening to all my [deep professorial voice again] personal, emotional music. But they don’t have any particular musical background.
Pitchfork: Do they enjoy listening to music?
CB: As much as anyone, I guess. They’re big Bruce Springsteen fans.
Pitchfork: I’ve actually met two or three people in the wild who profess to not enjoy music.
CB: I’ll look for them. Or, maybe I don’t want to find them.
A1 “Ebola’s Coming, Don’t Touch Your Friend”
It’s the first weekend in October and, upon arrival at Union Station in Washington, D.C., the news is focused on two people in the city who were isolated due to fears of a possible Ebola outbreak. D.C. resident Sami Yenigun remains level-headed amid all the panic, though, and for good reason: He just got back from 10 days spent in Monrovia, Liberia, reporting on the outbreak for National Public Radio. Yenigun is 26, with dark-rimmed glasses and dark stubble. He greets me at a row house in the Columbia Heights neighborhood with King Sunny Adé blaring on the stereo. Yenigun also writes about dance music for NPR and, along with his two mid-20s roommates Joyce Lim and Dawit Eklund, runs the nascent dance music imprint 1432 R, which has three releases to date.
Yenigun offers me green tea served in a repurposed glass jar and tells me about his time on the ground in Africa. “Liberians are awesome, super-chill people, but the city is grieving,” he says. “There’s a curfew and death is everywhere. It’s bleak.” He says information about the virus is spread through an “Ebola awareness group that goes around the slums singing about how Ebola’s a real thing that’s killing people, and that you shouldn’t touch your friends.”
That’s right: singing.
“There’s been a ton of songs on the radio that are all about Ebola,” he says. “Just shouting out ways to keep yourself safe in a pop song.”
Yenigun, Lim, and Eklund then shift the conversation to the label, which they started because of a shared idea “that music is the highest art,” as Lim puts it. Yenigun and Eklund (who is from Ethiopia), met when they began throwing warehouse parties while both were students at George Washington University, before meeting Lim through friends. All three are also musicians: Yenigun was a flautist in the New Jersey New Symphony as a kid, Lim is a classically-trained pianist who also teaches, and Eklund is an adept guitarist, drummer, and drum programmer. Eklund’s off-kilter Larry Heard-esque deep house track “Psycho Animus” made up the second release on 1432 R, along with the eerie and haunting “Tuff Ruff” from Ethiopian producer Mikael Seifu, which sounds like Burial if he hailed from Addis Ababa rather than London, using a snatch of Masenqo lute and disembodied Ethiopian chant to achieve an eerie sense of ambience.
I email Mikael Seifu in Addis Ababa to ask him about the state of house music there. “There’s an emerging electronic music scene here,” he writes. “But the elements considered to be of the house genre found in my compositions are elements found in Ethiopian folk—so what you are actually listening to is a variation on Ethiopian folk.” Seifu also name checks fellow Ethiopian producer Endeguena Mulu, who goes by the handle E.R. and just released his Qen Sew ቅንሰዉ EP on 1432 R. Mulu’s tracks hint at an autonomy from whatever else might be happening in Ethiopia at the moment—his peculiar take on electronic music shows a new world of sound. “All this stuff coming from Ethiopia really floored us,” Yenigun says, talking about the label’s initial inspirations, “but it’s by no means the rule or all that we’re trying to do.”
A2 “Imaginary Boogie”
On a brilliant sunny day, I’m walking through the D.C. neighborhood of 16th Street Heights, in search of the suburban home of both the label Peoples Potential Unlimited and Earcave, a one-stop online shop for almost any kind of rare ‘80s boogie, Baltimore club, $100 D.C. go-go, modern soul, vocoder gospel, or Estonian funk as laid to tape at Herbie Hancock’s house. I knock and find myself introduced to Andrew Morgan, the collector behind both enterprises.
Everyone I talk to in D.C. credits Morgan for help with production, pressing, and distributing their music. And Morgan’s distro is behind an array of singular and strange dance music: spacy funk rendered by Mickey de Grand IV in Miami on the Cosmic Chronic label; Tom Noble’s Superior Elevation disco edits; Delroy Edwards’ crunk hip-hop and house on L.A. Club Resource; boogie reissues from San Francisco; the modern funk of Chicago’s Cherries Records, to name just a few. On his own imprint, Peoples Potential Unlimited, Morgan presents a parallel universe of ‘80s boogie and funk, what the soul landscape would have been if 1982’s biggest record was neither 1999 nor Thriller but rather Gap Band IV, right down to the Gap Band’s country regalia (one single features a guy in a black cowboy get-up, another a six-piece funk band from Oklahoma singing about a “Country Cowboy”).
“I thought I was gonna run out of stuff to sell on eBay, so I just started making some reissues,” Morgan says of the start of his label. “I like things in that raw form. For me, the demo is always gonna sound better than the full-blown studio production.”
PPU’s is a world similar to that of California throwback Dâm-Funk, re-imagining funk as outsider art—what it would be like if your school janitor made rap music or if someone in middle management still nursed a dream of being an electro star. The label’s roster includes Robbie M., Dwight Sykes, Evans Pyramid, George Franklin Smallwood—names found on demo tapes abandoned to time, or else unearthed online. One of Morgan’s first releases came from tracking down a $900 copy of Midnight Express’ privately-pressed "Danger Zone" 45 and reissuing it: “It's one of the best '80s tracks that nobody's ever really heard.”
“Andrew’s curation is very thoughtful and specific,” says Luke Wyatt, aka Torn Hawk, who made two DVDs of “video mulch” for the imprint. “He’s one of the best hosts on the planet, with good conversation sense as he picks the next subtly life-changing record to play.”
The passage of time is inherent in Morgan’s aesthetic: mounted on one wall is a series of SelectaVision Video Discs, a discarded format with grooves that play movies. Recently though, he’s focused on releasing new dance singles. One was a collaborative 45 between Angelenos Delroy Edwards and Benedek. Another is one of my favorite 12”s this year, from Vancouver’s Pender Street Steppers. Up next is a new single from fellow D.C. act Beautiful Swimmers. “People are more interested in new things, which is sad,” he says with a shrug.
I suddenly hear some music cranked loud coming from upstairs in his house. But it’s not some strange Caribbean soul cut or a sickle cell synth boogie track. Instead it’s Morgan’s young son playing “Blue Suede Shoes” over a dozen times, stomping around with glee.
Andrew Field-Pickering aka Maxmillion Dunbar. Photo by Shawn Brackbill.
B1 “The Socket”
A house beat is bouncing off the side of the U.S. Treasury building. As I make my way to the rooftop of the W Hotel, a formidable figure lords over the decks: Andrew Field-Pickering, the bearded, bespectacled man also known as Maxmillion Dunbar, one half of D.C.’s Beautiful Swimmers, who is playing a set of sleek deep house. In a fancy hotel on a weekend night, the crowd can seem self-important and oblivious, but Field-Pickering only scans the room in the hope that a real D.C. celebrity might appear; last week, Marcin Gortat from the Washington Wizards showed up, though the 6’11” center however is nowhere to be seen tonight. From this vantage, I count least eight American flags fluttering in the distance. And there's a chance Sasha and Malia can also hear Max D’s set, as the White House is in full view, one street away.
“The manager just came by and told me to play to 60-year-olds and African-Americans,” Field-Pickering says to me, shaking his head at such a request. Instead, he plays a recent Theo Parrish track and Moodymann’s deep house classic “Shades of Jae”. As the set moves into a Joe Smooth classic, an older black couple to nod their heads in approval.
The next day, I go to Field-Pickering’s basement apartment in Mt. Pleasant, a wall of disorganized records on one side. Nearby, he points out the old Dischord House and says that another house once served as the home for another D.C. punk imprint, Simple Machines. It’s not hard to see that folks such as Field-Pickering, with his Future Times imprint, as well as the trio behind 1432 R and Morgan’s PPU, all continue the city’s tradition of fiercely independent music. He plays me a new Beautiful Swimmers track, the drums as tightly wound as a go-go beat. “The socket,” he explains to me. “It’s what the go-go guys call their groove, because it’s tighter than ‘the pocket.’”
The community-oriented vibe that characterized D.C. indie music in the ‘80s and ‘90s still seems to permeate the scene here and now. Yenigun, Lim, and Eklund from 1432 R walk over and listen to a few records at Field-Pickering’s house. Mike Petillo, who is half of Future Times’ duo Protect-U, hangs out that day as well. The other half of Beautiful Swimmers, Ari Goldman, works for PPU and gives me a lift to the 1432 R house. And the other Protect-U member, Aaron Leitko (a Pitchfork contributor), now works for Dischord.
That sense of community carries on to the music itself. Beautiful Swimmers have a forthcoming remix set for release on 1432 R as well as a new PPU single due later this month. Everyone digs everyone’s records and tastes. Later on, Field-Pickering will play me a new project of his featuring former Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman along with Eklund on keys.
“Comparing what we do to punk, I think any sort of underground expression uses the same mechanism,” Field-Pickering says of the DIY ethos that powers what he and his friends do. “I feel strongly about the music we make, and it represents D.C. in a cool-ass way. It always comes from wanting to do our own thing.”
Photographer Tom Spray captures portraits of Caribou, Son Lux, Mø, How to Dress Well, James Blake, Kelela, and more at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival Paris.
Photo by Michael Mendoza
5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This time, we spoke with 41-year-old dance music great Todd "the God" Edwards, who has been spreading his ecstatic gospel of house and garage for more than 20 years via gigs, remixes, and his own productions, as well as his collaborations with Daft Punk. He's set to play Output in Williamsburg tomorrow, November 7, as part of this year's Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival.
I grew up in Bloomfield, New Jersey. My father was a good, honest man, and a passionate wholesale carpet salesman. He was at the top of his industry and won a lot of awards. My mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was in seventh grade, then she started at Lincoln Technical Institute as a receptionist. She still works there. She might have been a receptionist, but she does a hell of a lot more than that. I'm very proud of my mother. I started playing her old white Baldwin piano at 3; my father surprised her with it as a gift. Her favorite song to play was "Roll Out the Barrel".
My father would exercise in the house at seven in the morning to Neil Diamond albums—it wasn't a morning without "Sweet Caroline". It was fun being a kid, man—granted, I was a little, fearful kid. I had the “crazy artist” personality from the beginning. It's the most innocent time, though. You're you're just interested in playing and watching cartoons and imagining things and being with your family. When you think about what invigorates you as a child, it's all creativity. I was into science fiction: Star Wars, “The Six Million Dollar Man”. It all pushed the future wide open—especially in the 1970s, when the computer age was coming. I feel even more inspired when I look back to that time, since we're immersed in this technology now. I miss those times.
My older sister’s listening habits were a major influence on me; everything she was into, I was into. And she definitely favored disco over rock. The first record I bought was Peter Brown’s “Dance With Me”. I loved the funkiness of it. My favorite part is when it just breaks down to the kick drum and the bassline and the female vocal rounds start up like, [sings] "You gotta keep on making me high."
"You could spend the rest of your life trying to outlive the scars that are left by what you go through in your formative years."
Grammar school was wonderful, but from middle school on… good lord, man, I wouldn't want to relive those years ever again. In the first few days of seventh grade, I got such negative comments thrown at me from girls in my homeroom class—and I wasn't even saying anything! It was not an enjoyable time. When you're an adult, you get hit with pains and you can heal pretty quickly, but you could spend the rest of your life trying to outlive the scars that are left by what you go through in your formative years. It's almost like your greatest insecurities and goals are based on these seeds of negativity that are planted in your mind by the hostilities of the people around you.
I was a big Prince fan, and 1999 had just come out that year. I watched the video for “1999” on MTV and there was a dimly lit stage, flashing lights, and Prince sliding down the pole to the stage. There was Wendy and Lisa rubbing up against each other, almost in an erotic lesbian way—before I even knew what those words meant. Wendy had a ship captain's hat on, and even as a young kid I could tell it was hot. There was a guy dressed as a doctor in greenish scrubs, too—it was a pretty crazy first impression of a music video. I saw it once and then just waited for it to come back on.
Honestly, sophomore year was the first time I ever made out with a girl; I was a late bloomer and I wasn't cool. I was all over the place junior year, dealing with my lack of popularity, not knowing where I fit in. I spent a lot of time alone writing music—cheesy pop songs, love songs—and I had a couple of friends. But senior year I made friends with everyone and was starting to feel carefree—I was almost done with school, got my license. It's funny, I always knocked the popular kids for being so cliquey and judgmental, and then I realized I was guilty of the same thing in a different way. But I was very resentful of popular kids regardless, because, you know, "They're so shallow." If you gave me $10 million to relive those years, I don't know if I'd be able to do it. I'm glad to leave them behind.
I'm a little embarrassed to say I loved George Michael's "I Want Your Sex". The whole album was brilliant: great songwriting, great voice, and a lot of catchy hooks. I used to love singing along to "Father Figure"—that raspiness in his voice was very sexy. The song “I Want Your Sex” was a guilty pleasure: part catchy, part corny. I don't want to say 1987 was the Puritanical Age, but this was before Madonna led the way in terms of bringing the sexual revolution to the radio with stuff like Erotica, so “I Want Your Sex” was racy. Now, when you think about what gets said in songs, you don't bat an eye. Maybe you want to say it’s moral degradation, or maybe it's better that people are not afraid to be open about things now. But it definitely was a more conservative time back then.
My friend was a DJ in high school and he got me into house music. Like a lot of young people at the time, I thought, "House music sounds easy enough to make and it’s an easy way to break into the music industry." In reality, it’s not that easy to make, but it was an easier way to break into music. It forever changed my perspective on music, for the better. I went from wanting to be a pop star—delusions of grandeur—to putting that aside to make house music, and that opened my mind to independent music and things that weren't being played on regular radio.
When I was in college I took a part-time job doing custodial work at a middle school that I went to when I was younger. I would practice on the pianos in the music room, and things started to click—it was like dissecting the English language, when you're finally able to take letters and put words together and understand what those words mean. After a while, I realized that I'm a true artist, and what I mean by that is I'm kind of crazy. I'm always in the mood to create something. At first, true artists don't have the drive to be popular or famous—I think that goes along with not being popular when I was younger—so once those urges fade away, what remains is a drive to make music and connect with people. So there was this passion and pursuit of growth behind what I was doing, because even when I was in Montclair State University for marketing, I barely went to school. It's a great school! Don't get me wrong. But it was just there in case music didn't work out. I kind of feel bad, because you're supposed to have a good education, but it was not on my mind.
"After a while, I realized that I'm a true artist,
and what I mean by that is I'm kind of crazy."
The first record I put out is one I'd like to bury. [laughs] There was a music store one town over from Bloomfield called Face the Music, and a guy that worked there introduced me to this Italian guy named Francesco, who wanted me to work with him. He had this song called "Come to Me" by Marisha Jones—some Italian woman singing the type of Eurodance that you hear on the radio today. He heard my original material and he wanted me to do a remix of this song. This was before I developed my own style, so I emulated Steve "Silk" Hurley, who used fake-sax-sounding noises, a lot of pianos, and strings.
I was always in my studio and listening to the radio, too. There were a lot of house shows on WBLS, and I became a big Masters at Work fan. They took styles from Roy Ayers and George Benson and combined it with innovative programming. Their remixes were amazing—Lisa Stansfield's "Set Your Loving Free", Neneh Cherry's "Buddy X"—but my favorite was the Masters at Work dub of Trey Lorenz's "Photograph of Mary". It starts out with just a bass drum and this hi-hat, which sounds like an industrial, metallic low note, like they sampled someone scratching or doing tricks on a turntable. It's just so swingy and shuffly. They were emulating Talking Heads "Once in a Lifetime", so I was like, "I recognize that!”
Masters at Work are partially responsible for my style. A lot of people consider me one of the innovators of the UK garage scene—the cut-up vocals and the shuffly beats—but I was trying to emulate [Masters at Work's] Kenny Dope with sounds I sampled. If any of that shuffle in garage came from my inspiration, my inspiration came from Masters at Work.
My first big DJ gig was around this time at the Winter Music Conference in Miami—it was before Daft Punk's Homework dropped, and they were down there as well. The funny thing is, I started DJing when I was 17, but then I decided I was branching off in too many different directions. I just wanted to focus on production. Also, I started to develop a sense of stage fright, which first reared its head when I was in seventh grade in a church play—thanks, Dad, for putting me through that—and I choked on the lines because I really didn't want to be in the play. I remember DJing at the Metropolitan Hotel in England and calling up my friend almost in tears because I was doing it alone. When I remixed St. Germain [in 1995], I was asked to perform with them, but I couldn't do it! I lacked confidence. I probably could've cleaned house and made a lot of money off of DJing, though.
I was going through a dark period at this time in my life—musically, I was doing great, but on a personal level, I was a mess! I was depressed. When you see artists that get into drugs or go to rehab or take their lives—God forbid—you wonder, "Why did they do that?" It's because, unfortunately, if you have unresolved personal issues, success is not going to change that.
So I was dealing with my first wave of success, and I was a little bit dormant creatively. I had met with [Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel Christo] before Homework was released, and they wanted to collaborate. And then Homework came out, and I was like, "I guess they changed their mind." But then, around '99, my manager got a phone call from them saying that they wanted to work with me. At the time, I hadn't put out music for a year, my funds were running low, and I was bottoming out, so working with them restimulated things. I'm eternally grateful for their friendship and their desire to collaborate.
"I've often manipulated my vocals because I've felt unconfident—
it's amazing how much of an impact a few friends
making fun of you along the way has on you."
I was a big Björk fan. She put out Homogenic around that time and it was much different from Post, which I had listened to inside and out. What was so amazing about that album is that she used extremely odd drum programs—crunching sounds, none of which sounded like synthesized drums. Her rhythmic patterns were so unique to her, and the songwriting was perfect. It all inspired me to think outside the box, especially "5 Years".
Björk has such an incredible voice. I've often manipulated my vocals because I've felt unconfident—it's amazing how much of an impact a few friends making fun of you along the way has on you. I sang all through high school, but then I put singing on the side. Last year, I started working on my own solo album, and I was going to get guest vocalists. But then I was having dinner with [Thomas Bangalter] one night and he said I have a very good voice. He suggested that my vocals should be the center of attention and said, "Your voice can be the connection to your past, your present, and future. Just focus on really good songwriting." And it's funny, because that's what I've always loved about Björk—she wrote these great songs and then everything revolved around her vocals. I'm glad Thomas, as a friend, has been involved with overseeing [my solo album]. It isn't 100-percent clear as to what he wants to do on it, but I know that he's interested in seeing my work succeed.
Even now, I completely forget that [my contribution to Daft Punk's Discovery, "Face to Face"] topped the U.S. dance chart. At the time, I had a distorted relationship with my manager, and I don't even think I knew that it went to #1. There was a lot of manipulation going on, a lot of unanswered questions. The things that went on are almost a tragedy. I tried to bring out the best in my former manager, but it was a warped sense of friendship. Some people don't realize how selfish and self-absorbed they are. They're not even like, "I'm stealing from you," they're like, "I deserve this." My mother was like, "You've been loyal to the end and you have nothing to show for it." But the bottom line is that I'm still benefitting from ["Face to Face"]'s success. People have come up to me over the last couple of years and said, "You sang 'Face to Face'? That's my favorite song."
At that point, I was starting to listen to a little pop, and Darkchild was making his way into the R&B scene. I loved Brandy's Full Moon and the track "What About Us?" I love female vocals and the textures of Brandy's voice, and Darkchild is an excellent R&B producer. Sometimes it gets difficult to get motivated about making music, but Full Moon is a perfect example of something I'd listen to if I wanted to get pumped up on the keyboard and start working again.
From 2000 to 2005, I was a homeowner, but the music industry changed. Piracy became the norm and it put a lot of record labels out of business. Artists suffered as well. There wasn't that much work coming in. Tastes were changing in the UK and people were saying UK garage was dead. It's always been dead, though—it was big and then it went back underground, but it never got small. It was disheartening to buy a house and have to re-sell it. I wasn't good at managing money. I was very young in my mentality. I didn't flaunt money, but I didn't know how to conserve, either. I had too much confidence that things were going to keep going the way they were going.
I was bottoming out, so I decided to take a hiatus. I didn't know if I was going to go back to music—it's very stressful when you have financial issues and are trying to be creative. The pressure to make something to make money is not good. So I took a step back and decided to do some temp work, which turned out to be a customer service job at Verizon.
I thought after having such a negative manager, nothing would phase me, but working for a phone company is a little like boot camp. They're like, "If you're more than a minute late, you get a demerit, and if you get two demerits, you're fired." It was controlling, but it was also one of the most stable and best-paying jobs you could ask for. Because I had a marketing degree and I was self-employed in my old business, I was able to get paid the top amount at this place—which was good, because if I had to start at the bottom I would've quit the minute I started working there. It was terrible. Part of what I couldn't get past was the stuff I couldn't numb myself to. Customers get lied to. They get stuff added to their accounts, or appointments set up that they never ask for. There's a lot of unethical behavior that goes on, and the company turns a blind eye. I worked in retention, which was keeping people from leaving the company. I was always cleaning up someone else's mistake—I'd get negativity from people on the phone, and then from my boss. I was always on edge. I worked there for two years, saved up some money, and then I was ready to jump back in and start making music.
Robyn's "With Every Heartbeat" was definitely the theme song for me in 2007. I'm really happy to tell you that when I moved to L.A., I got to meet Robyn through a mutual friend, Kindness' Adam Bainbridge, and talk to her. I listened to "With Every Heartbeat" and "Girl and the Robot" at Verizon to help me get through the day, so it was amazing to actually meet the person who made that song in real life.
There were two things that made me completely lose my sense of stage fright. After my hiatus from music, DJ EZ asked me to come to play a gig at the O2 Arena in London. I was so ecstatic to be back in the scene, going out to the audience and grabbing hands. I was just so thankful and appreciative. That gig was the beginning of the new Todd. Before, I was doing nervous head-down DJing—but now, it's all flamboyantly bouncing on stage, working up a sweat, just trying to get the audience into it as much as possible.
And what really put the final nail in the coffin of my stage fright was when I played Bestival's Arcadia stage, which looks like a giant metallic spider with fire shooting out of the top. I needed to wear a harness attached to a rope, and a security guy had to walk me to the stage—up a ladder, across a small plank, into this DJ booth that only fits one person. It's crazy! I was a little terrified—you're hundreds of feet above the audience, and it was the biggest crowd I'd played for at that point. But after that, every other gig seemed like a breeze.
When I moved out out of my parents' house and to L.A., my mother told me, "We're going to have to sell the white Baldwin piano." I was almost in tears. That was what I wanted to inherit after, God forbid, they pass away. So I brought the piano with me—I put it on the truck that I drove across the country and fit it into my studio out here. I mean, that's my inheritance. That represents my mom, my past. I'm keeping that thing forever. They don't make 'em like that anymore. It's a Baldwin, you know?
As you get older, it takes more to inspire you. There's so little music that moves me to the point that I want it on auto-repeat now. I don't know if I'm growing or changing or what, but one of the things that I wanted to do when I was a lot younger was film scores. I've listened to Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy soundtrack continuously; a lot of people were expecting a Daft Punk album and didn't get what they wanted, but it's as important as their other records to me.
At that point, I hadn't been in contact with Daft Punk for quite a bit of time—life had been busy, with all the ups and downs I'd been through, so the timing wasn't right. So when the soundtrack came out, I emailed them to congratulate them. They both wrote back and I ended up Skype-ing with Thomas, and then they told me about Random Access Memories and invited me to collaborate with them. At some point over the following six months, Thomas told me that it was that email that spawned the whole idea for me to come onto the project. Isn't that crazy? I was just being sincere with an email to a friend I hadn't spoken to in a while, just to say, "Great job! Love it beginning to end." I didn't expect anything out of it. I have to write more emails! [laughs]
"Putting others before yourself is a great virtue
and I encourage it, but I did it to such a degree that
I was almost out of the equation, which is not healthy."
I’ve always been a devout Christian, but when I moved out to L.A. I started to question a lot of things about my faith. I had to detox from the things that I've believed. And they're very simple things—putting others before yourself is a great virtue and I encourage it, but I did it to such a degree that I was almost out of the equation, which is not healthy. You can't put others before yourself to the detriment of yourself as a human being. It's good to be humble, but you have to allow yourself to be who you are.
I haven't abandoned my faith but I've lightened up in the sense that I've learned what to focus on: treating people with kindness, loving, appreciating what I have. I do believe in God and that something epic happened a couple thousand years ago, but I've taken a step back to breathe. It's good to question everything. Blind faith is very powerful, but if you blindly believe in something that's going to put you off a cliff, that's not the way to do it. Being around people who are Buddhist or Atheist has given me a chance to walk in their shoes and understand them. Faith doesn't determine whether you're an asshole or not, and some people who don't have faith might be a hell of a lot more fun to be around than people who do. I know plenty of Christians that I would never want to spend a day with. All of this has been a very powerful part of the last two years of my life. I'm still growing.
Infamous Los Angeles rock’n’roll lifer Kim Fowley wrote his 2012 autobiography Lord of Garbage during long hospital stays, and the book describes his battles with bladder cancer in an unflinching tone. “My diet included morphine, IV drips, and bladder bags,” goes one passage. “No wife. No child. No friends. Just blood and thunder, puke, piss, scabs, and teardrops. Death is my next long-term project.”
It’s that sort of grotesque honesty that perhaps drew Ariel Pink—another artist known for packing his work with the chaotic and crass—to Fowley’s bedside late last year, while working on his upcoming record pom pom. Their meeting, in a way, was the gonzo musician’s equivalent of Bob Dylan’s legendary visit with an ailing Woody Guthrie—like-minded artists separated by generations. But while Guthrie directed Dylan to find his pile of unrecorded songs, the 75-year-old Fowley actually got his hands dirty right then and there with Pink, co-writing some of pom pom’s kitschiesttracks, with titles like "Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade", "Jell-O", and "Nude Beach a Go-Go". And Pink wasn’t the only California weirdo with Fowley on his mind this year, either: Foxygen’s recent track “Cold Winter/Freedom” was dedicated to the offbeat guru. (They invited Fowley to contribute to their latest album, too, but he declined due to his declining health.)
Watch Fowley discuss his struggles with cancer as only he can in this 2013 video:
It makes sense why, in our oversaturated age, artists would turn to Fowley. The lifelong rock’n’roll hustler made a name for himself by doing just about anything to grab people’s attention. His 1968 garage rock masterwork Outrageous includes simulated sex (“it’s too dirty, it’ll be banned,” he laughs at the end of “Animal Man”), death threats, druggy paranoia, assertions like “I’m the devil”, belches, dry heaving, references to Hitler’s dead body, and gibberish blathering. It is provocation at its most overt and intentional. With that album, he was positioning himself as a licentious garbage man, the pied piper who would guide kids away from the safe, watchful eye of their parents and into the filth-caked streets.
Fowley is the child of two minor actors, Doug Fowley (who Kim called “the worst actor” in Singing in the Rain) and Shelby Payne (“a Dorothy Lamour/Natalie Wood type with no talent for acting”). His book describes being abandoned by his parents, scrapping with other kids in a foster home, having polio, and witnessing the seedy, druggy, sexually depraved underbelly of Tinseltown. Apparently, he was a male prostitute; he was also, at various points, in a gang andthe armed forces. Consistently faced with obstacles, he fought and scrapped, always with one eye out for the next buck. He learned how to orchestrate, arrange, and write music by watching his step-father. He became a poet.
Bit by bit, he found work wherever he could get it. He was Thelonious Monk’s food runner, a music magazine reporter, and famed disc jockey Alan Freed’s protégé. Going through Fowley’s story, you don’t get the sense that he was ever driven as much by artistic passion as he was by the possibility that he’d break into the mainstream and land on a pile of money. He seemingly held every job in the business: producer, album cover designer, songwriter, studio janitor, Mother of Invention, and so on. He worked with the Soft Machine, the Seeds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Gene Vincent, Warren Zevon, Cat Stevens, and dozens of others. His cover of a Louis XIV novelty song charted in New Zealand and Denmark. He's a strategist, though it’d be just as easy to call him a con artist or a huckster. Why did he manage and produce trailblazing late-‘70s act the Runaways? Because there was money to be found in an all-female rock’n’roll band, of course.
Watch a clip from a 1977 episode of “Tomorrow Show” featuring Fowley:
Thanks to the great outsider label Norton Records, now is a fantastic time to learn about Fowley’s massive output. Their Kicks Books imprint plans to put out two more volumes of his autobiography, and the label just released their fourth Fowley compilation. Like the playlist below, the comps are far from comprehensive—he recorded mountains of material with tons of artists under several pseudonyms—but they’re a good first glance into the odd body of work from rock’n’roll’s strangest survivor, the self-proclaimed Outlaw King of America.
The Hollywood Argyles: “Alley Oop” (1960)
Fowley was 20 years old when he helped to produce this #1 hit in 1960. Three years earlier, “Alley Oop” had been recorded as a country tune; Fowley apparently met the song’s writer, Dallas Frazier, at the gas station where he was living at the time, and somehow, this meeting led to him putting a band together. Briefly, the song outsold Elvis Presley, and it was even featured on Dick Clark’s Saturday night TV show. Unfortunately, it didn’t mark the beginning of an enduring success story for Fowley. After receiving $27,000 in royalties, all parties involved blew through the money when they couldn’t produce another hit. They sold the publishing rights to Bobby Darin’s company, and Fowley continued hustling, putting together more bands and trying to find more hits.
Kim Fowley: “The Trip” (1965)
While Fowley had been working on records that were potentially marketable hitmakers, “The Trip”—one of his earliest statements as a solo recording artist—suggested he was ready to journey into druggier, more menacing territory as a wild-eyed frontman. On the song, he tells us that the world is sad and boring. What should we do about it? Try drugs. “Just close your eyes, it’s groovy now,” he insists, before conjuring images of green fountains, flying dogs, emerald rats, and purple clouds. He wasn’t quite ready to shock the way he would later, but “The Trip” gave listeners a glimpse into his crooked, ugly, and potentially exciting universe.
The Rogues: “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (1966)
There was an early rock’n’roll tradition that’s pretty much evaporated in recent decades: answer records. Artists would take popular hits and write sequels, continuations, or flips on that theme. (Here’s a good list of them.) Before they started a psychedelic outfit called the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, Shaun Harris and Michael Lloyd were in a band called the Rogues. And in the mid-1960s, they teamed up with Fowley to create a rollicking garage rock answer to “Hey Joe”. That’s one hypothesis behind the song, anyway, which seems logical given that its title addresses a criminal (perhaps Joe, who shot his woman down), and that it shares a chord progression with its purported inspiration.
The N’ Betweens: “Evil Witchman” (1966)
Before they were influential glam rockers Slade, they were the N’ Betweens, and early on in their career, they caught Kim Fowley’s attention at a show in England. The N’ Betweens went on early in the morning and by the time they took the stage, most of the audience was asleep on the floor. “WAKE UP,” screamed frontman Noddy Holder. They did. When the band was finished, Fowley went backstage and insisted that he produce them. The N' Betweens and Fowley only had one session together, which produced one single, “You Better Run”, a cover of the Young Rascals song. It was backed by “Evil Witchman”, a track co-written by Fowley. Neither was a hit, but the latter is an essential, somewhat forgotten entry in Slade's discography.
Kim Fowley: “Bubble Gum” (1968)
Outrageous arrived the same year as Barbarella, and while neither Fowley’s album nor Jane Fonda’s film were hits, they were both documents of a campy, celebratory sexual revolution. But after listening to 40 minutes of “shock value”—complete with dated phrases and hard-to-hear racial stereotypes—it suddenly becomes clear that the most important thing about Outrageous isn’t the pseudo-offensive lyrics but the quality of the songs themselves. There isn’t anything better than “Bubble Gum”, which is led by Steppenwolf-style guitars and an urgent horn hook. It’s a slinky, spooky track—the music and lyrics together form one of the catchiest encapsulations of Fowley’s ultra-creepy “let’s have some fun” schtick. Almost 20 years later, Sonic Youth would cover the song and include it as a bonus cut on Evol.
The Modern Lovers were on the come-up in the early ‘70s. They’d recorded sessions with John Cale, and labels were showing interest. While their early demos and recordings were floating around, Fowley heard them, traveled to Boston, and produced a handful of their songs. Stacked next to the band’s Cale-produced classic first album, the Fowley sessions are markedly more raw and in line with the records Fowley helmed in the early ‘60s. “Walk Up the Street” and “Government Center”, for example, are fun, driving rock’n’roll songs. The Fowley sessions were shelved for nearly a decade, but the producer released them on his short-lived label Mohawk Records in 1981—seven years after Jonathan Richman and the band’s original lineup had parted ways.
Kim Fowley: “International Heroes” (1973)
By the ‘70s, Fowley had delivered a pretty wide scattershot of work—songs for flower children, singer/songwriter ballads, and sexually charged stuff. He appears on the original cover of International Heroes with eyeshadow and lipstick. On the back, he’s wearing platform shoes, a T-shirt that says “Space Age”, and a fur coat. By all accounts, it seemed like Fowley’s time to make a glam rock statement. Sonically, though, he didn’t approach that genre at all. “Ugly Stories About Rock Stars and the War” boasts a banjo, while “Born Dancer” is backed by accordion. In the year of Bowie's Aladdin Sane and Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure, nobody was making records that sounded quite like this one. The undeniable highlight is the album’s title track, a power ballad about being bored with adolescence. “We’ve got the teenage blues,” he sings, backed by soulful voices, “change has gotta come soon.”
The Hollywood Stars: “King of the Night Time World” (1974)
“King of the Night Time World” is one of the best songs on Kiss’ 1976 album Destroyer, but it isn’t a Kiss original. It was written by Fowley and originally recorded two years earlier by the Hollywood Stars, a band created by Fowley as the West Coast’s answer to the New York Dolls. In his mind, the Stars could be the rock’n’roll band that made electric guitar music that “little girls could understand.” It didn’t work. Their first record was a flop, the second one went unreleased, and the band broke up in short order. Last year, Light in the Attic unearthed, remastered, and released the original tapes as Shine Like a Radio, which includes their excellent original version of “King of the Night Time World” as well as “Escape”, which was later re-recorded by Alice Cooper. Their version of “King” even got an updated music video featuring the still-living Stars.
The Runaways: “Cherry Bomb” (1976)
There’s no two ways about it: Fowley treated the Runaways like shit. For a primer on how much of an asshole he was to them, it’s worth watching the not-great 2010 biopic The Runaways, in which Fowley is portrayed, brilliantly and melodramatically, by “Boardwalk Empire” star Michael Shannon. For most of the movie, he’s exactly as crass as you’d believe him to be, screaming obscenities at the band to motivate them or make them tougher in the face of violent audiences. In her memoir Neon Angel, frontwoman Cherie Currie recounts how often he’d use the term “dog” as an insult. Still, for all his terrible behavior, Fowley also co-wrote their most iconic song alongside Joan Jett. It’s still an iconic, explosive, lascivious rock’n’roll statement.
Kim Fowley: “Kim Vincent Fowley” (2012)
While the majority of his most iconic work was made in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Fowley hasn’t exactly slowed down. Perhaps his most defining personal statement is from a self-released 2012 album called Death City. (It also appeared on a 2013 Burger Records tape called Let’s Get Blasted.) “Kim Vincent Fowley” is a self-portrait marked by the odd murmurings of an old man—but still, they’re predictably entertaining. “I’m not Brad Pitt, I’m not John Travolta, and I’m not Miley Cyrus,” he says. He details his sickness, his aversion to computers, and his low credit score. He discusses his sex life and reveals some facts about his discography. He may not be long for this Earth, but before he goes, he wants to make sure you know exactly who he is.
Further listening: AllfourNortoncompilations, Impossible But True: The Kim Fowley Story,B. Bumble & the Stingers’ “Nut Rocker”, Cat Stevens’ “Portobello Road”, “Flower Drum Drum”, the Soft Machine’s “Feelin’ Reelin’ Squeelin’”, Them Belfast Gypsies, the Seeds’ “Fallin’ Off the Edge of My Mind”, “Hollywood Nites”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Fluffy Turkeys”, “California Swamp Dance”, “Motor Boat”, “I’m Bad”
Photos by Rankin
Azealia Banks, limber and relaxed in blue jeans covered with the faces of dead white men and a neon-yellow tank top emblazoned with the word “WITCH,” is feeling lighter. It’s been less than 24 hours since the surprise release of her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, which was delayed for at least two years amidst reports of behind-the-scenes turmoil with Interscope, the label that she says invested $2 million into making her a mainstream star, and then let her out of her contract earlier this year with little to show for it. For the first time in a long time, she has a real opportunity to stop and appreciate what she’s accomplished.
But after having her career put on hold for so long, she’s not relaxing too much. “I was on the phone with my manager last night, like, ‘What are we going to do next? I need to start working on the next album,’” she tells me as we sit inside her room at the W Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. “He was like, ‘You should just enjoy this!’ And I'm like, ‘Noooo!’”
In three years, Banks went from toast of the town—a seemingly can’t-miss star whose breakout hit, “212”, galvanized clubs and year-end lists alike in 2011—to what she calls “untouchable” following an acrimonious relationship with Interscope. After a protracted legal battle with the label, she was able to walk away with all the rights to the songs that would make up Broke With Expensive Taste, which allowed her and her team to hunt around for another label to release the album—but they weren’t able to find any takers. “Everyone loved the record, but they were just like, ‘Well, you know, you're kinda crazy,’” the 23-year-old says with a laugh. “And rightfully so.”
During that process, she met her current manager, Jeff Kwatinetz, who suggested that after all the hard work that went into making the album, she should just put it out. Broke With Expensive Taste, released in conjunction with Kwatinetz’s Prospect Park imprint, is, for better and worse, the album Banks wanted to make, showcasing a variety of styles and moods without sticking to any one persona. She’s dark and seductive on “Heavy Metal and Reflective”; caffeinated and confident on “Desperado”; wistful and lonesome on “Miss Camaraderie”, which sports production from Lone. She even duets with professional pop troll Ariel Pink on “Nude Beach-a-Go-Go”, a version of which will also appear on Pink’s forthcoming record pom pom. “It’s real old school,” she says, talking about the track. “When we were recording it, we were like, ‘This is the 60's, and you're the corny white dude and I'm the soulful black girl!’”
Aside from “212”, there is nothing resembling a conventional, radio-ready hit—a point of contention with Interscope, who pushed for a collaboration with Pharrell that produced “ATM Jam”, a chart flop that was eventually excised from the album. The label didn’t want her beefing with half the music world, too, but she couldn’thelpherself.
“If you give a 19-year-old a couple million dollars and a hot record… just think about it,” she says, alluding to her many Twitter indiscretions. “If it was in the 80's and you were on your fucking coke binge—fucking prostitutes and whatever—and you had a little machine where you could just light shit up instantly, imagine what would have happened.” Besides, it’s rap. She restrains herself from turning this into “a whole interview about feminism,” but let it be said: You’d be hard-pressed to find a male rapper who was as publicly tsked for taking it to their competitors.
Now that the album’s out, she hopes to go on tour early next year. Then, there’s the long-promised Fantasea II EP to finish, along with a long-gestating “fable” she’s written to accompany Broke With Expensive Taste. “I wanted everyone to hear the music before I gave them all of that,” she says, “because I don’t want them to be like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with this bitch?’” As far as the people who may have given up on her as she suffered setback after setback—many of them self-inflicted—over the years, she’s making no apologies. “I’m not interested in people who aren’t interested in me,” she says. “What’s the fucking point in that?”
Pitchfork: Two years ago, you told Spin that signing to a major label would be your one chance.
Azealia Banks: At that point, I was really young and surrounded by a lot of older men who were working with me, that I was dating—a lot of older people I had to deal with. And having the male co-sign is something that people talk about a lot, especially with female rappers. Having been rejected by so many different people, I was just like, "Oh my God, I'm back in with these guys, this is my last chance." But now I know how much it costs to go in the studio—I could make a thousand dollars and record for 12 hours and do whatever I need to fucking do. I don't need these major label guys. These people are not my last shot. I know how to do this. I can do this. And thanks to Twitter, I can do it my own way, too.
Pitchfork: When did you realize it might not be working out with Interscope?
AB: After I [self-]released the Fantasea mixtape [in 2012], and saw all this Internet success. I went on tour with a mixtape! With costumes! And it was being completely ignored by the label. They were almost trying to pretend that what I was doing wasn't happening. It was confusing. And you know, I was young and having a real good time bugging out. Around that time, I was like, "OK, they don't really get this." And then once I started turning in Broke With Expensive Taste tracks, I was like, "Oh, they really don't get this."
I don't know what the source of the conflict was because, to my understanding, I thought it was cool with everyone. I would always send them my songs and feel as if they liked me, even if they didn't get it. But it got to a point where they were like, "Azealia, we get it, you’re cool, but we've spent $2 million on this record, can you just give us one [hit]?” So then I did "Chasing Time", and I was just like, “You know, this isn't gonna work out.” It was like that awkward point in a relationship where you're forcing yourself to have sex because you're like, "We live here, we're sleeping in bed, it’s awkward if we don't.”
Pitchfork: Can you see yourself ever signing to another major label?
AB: No. You know what my ideal situation would be? Just to make money from touring and record sales, fund my own album, and then sell it back to the label. That would be ideal for me. Because I don't wanna work with people. I don't want your opinion, I'm not interested.
Pitchfork: How do you explain the three years between your breakout moment with “212” and then being here?
AB: It's really psychedelic, but not in the colorful, Scooby-Doo sense. It was scary. Sometimes I was like, "Oh my God, what the fuck have I gotten myself into? Why'd I take the red pill? I should have taken the blue pill.” It was like I took some medicine that made me really sick at first but ultimately made me better. I made it out. Now, I know what to say and what not to say. I know how to move. I've learned a lot about tact.
Pitchfork: It doesn’t help having to learn all of this while you’re in the public eye, especially with the Internet, which can make people insane.
AB: It’s making me insane. It also does bad things for the art world, because it puts every single artist into this one big virtual room. Everything gets really fucking homogenized, and all this shit just sounds the same, and everyone looks the same. It’s like you’re listening to one long song. I always think of the music industry as this weird human commodity game. It’s almost like slavery, where these people become popular for awhile, and then it’s done.
It’ll be like, “For a couple of years, we’re gonna fuck with blue-eyed soul, and here’s Duffy, here’s Adele”—who’s great—but now we’ve got a thousand white girls singing blue-eyed soul. It’s so regurgitated and corny. You have it in everything. You have it in indie rock. You’ll have Interpol, and then the National, and it’s just like, “Really, dude? Really?”
Or it’ll be like, “We’re gonna pop off the white-girl rapper,” so we’ll have Gwen Stefani and Fergie, and then it’ll get worse and worse and worse. And you’re just like, “What the fuck is this?” The whole trend of white girls appropriating black culture was so corny—it was more corny than it was offensive. Trust me, I’m not offended: All the things I’m trying to run away from in my black American experience are all the things that they’re celebrating. So if they fuckin’ want them, have them; if they want to be considered oversexualized and ignorant every time they open their fucking mouth, then fucking take it. But more than that, the art is not good. These songs are not good. It’s like, “Oh my God, you’re doing this black woman impression, is that what the fuck you think of me, bitch? I need to meet the black woman that you’re imitating because I’ve never met any black woman who acts that bizarre.” It’s crazy that this becomes mainstream culture. All of America is celebrating shit like that. It’s so weird.
Pitchfork: You’ve said “Miss Camaraderie” is your favorite song on your album.
AB: When I was 17 and first started rapping, I had this manager who was always doubting me and telling me I'd never make an album. They were like a lover, and it was really strange; I had a lot of issues with my love life over the course of everything, up until a year ago. "Miss Camaraderie" is the song that I wrote about this perfect relationship I would be in. I was born to write that song.
I don't think I'll ever write a better song than "Miss Camaraderie", ever. It's better than "212". It's the most meaningful song to me. When you're an artist and you write songs, they play in your head all the time, and "Miss Camaraderie" plays in my head when I sleep, when I wake up. When I'm on my deathbed, that's going to be what's ringing in my head. That horn section is what it's going to sound like when I'm leaving the world.
Photos by Oliver Wia
Last weekend, Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the world celebrated with them. In addition to the obvious world-historical repercussions of the event, the Mauerfall, as it's known in Germany, also had an enormous impact on the state of popular music. The fall of the Wall and the subsequent reunification of the two Berlins (and, moreover, the sudden availability of so much abandoned real estate) set the stage for the emergence of Berlin's techno culture: lawless parties in dank basements with minimal décor and punishingly loud systems. The empathic qualities of MDMA, meanwhile, helped smooth the frictions of reunification, as East partied with West for the first time.
That aesthetic and that ethic, DIY to the core, continue to inspire techno's vanguard the world over, providing a crucial counterbalance to corporate EDM. In fact, Berlin techno has also proved to be very good business. From underground spaces like ://about blank to celebrated temples like Tresor and Berghain, Berlin's array of clubs has contributed to the city's status as Europe's nightlife capital. Tresor founder Dimitri Hegemann is even considering buying the abandoned Fisher Body plant in Detroit, techno's spiritual home, and developing a multi-story club there.
The causal relationship between the Wall coming down and the explosion of techno culture is at the heart of 2012’s Der Klang der Familie, Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen's oral history of Berlin's techno scene, which is now available in English.
"It was basically pure coincidence," they write in the book's preface. "This new, raw, stark machine music appeared—and then the Wall came down. In East Berlin, the administration collapsed; the former GDR capital became a 'temporary autonomous zone.' Suddenly, there were all these spaces to discover: a panzer chamber in the dusty no man’s land of the former death strip, a World War II bunker, a decommissioned soap factory on the Spree, a transformer station opposite the erstwhile Reich Ministry of Aviation. People were dancing at all these sites rejected by recent history, to a music virtually reinvented from week to week."
Piecing together interviews with a wide range of party promoters, DJs, musicians, and scenesters, Denk and von Thülen—editors at Zitty and De:Bug, respectively—recount the story of Berlin techno from the 1980s through the late 1990s: Ufo, E-Werk, Tresor, the Berlin-Detroit connection, Loveparade, and more.
In the chapter excerpted here, those who were there recount the origins of Tresor—Europe's most iconic techno club, hidden behind meter-thick walls in the basement vault of a disused department store in the former East Berlin. —Philip Sherburne
Listen to 30 tracks that got heavy play at Tresor during its early years with this YouTube playlist from Berlin's DJ Rok:
Party at the End of the World
DIMITRI HEGEMANN [Tresor co-founder]: The original UFO [club] had been in a dingy basement. That's where we'd come from and that's where we wanted to return.
JOHNNIE STIELER [Tresor co-founder]: [Co-founder] Achim [Kohlberger] and Dimitri put the idea of starting a club together in my head. That was the dream. I was manic and threw myself into it full throttle, which wasn't easy with those two. They were suffering from the Berlin disease, a kind of particularly absurd punk that could also be electronic—something like Die Tödliche Doris. But it also denoted a particular way of life. Mostly, it consisted of never getting anything done, sitting around somewhere with dirty fingernails and no money hoping that someone would come along with another joint. Complete lethargy. Achim and Dimitri's office—insofar as you could call it that—consisted of two army desks littered with papers. Achim crouched on an old swivel chair on which only he could sit. You had to sit in a very specific position, otherwise you'd fall off. He sat there for years without moving—the epitome of the Berlin disease. Take the fall of the Wall, for example: Dimitri opened the door, saw the Trabbis, closed the door again and lay down in bed, coat and all.
TANITH [Resident DJ, Ufo and Tresor]: When Ufo closed, it was clear that any new club would have to be in East Berlin. Tacheles and Obst und Gemüse had opened right after the Wall came down. Everything was slowly migrating. No one was interested in the West anymore.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: There wasn't a square meter free in West Berlin.
JOHNNIE STIELER: Achim and Dimitri couldn't really get their asses in gear. It took a huge amount of effort to get them out of the office or even just out of bed before noon. “If we're gonna find something, we have to look,” I always told them. I usually headed out with Achim. We were the first to scour the East for locations. The others intended to, maybe, but they had to watch a little more TV first or explore East Berlin more generally. They had no guide, after all, and when they got out at Friedrichstraβe [subway station], they had no idea where to go. And the way West Berlin scenesters dressed back then, no East Berliner would dream of helping them. They'd take one look at them in their bomber jackets and feign muteness. But from the summer of 1990 on, we were searching systematically. There were plenty of spaces. Old public buildings, former ministries in Stalinist architecture. We wanted to go in everywhere, but there was always some custodian with a Saxon accent. Everything was caught in this tension between reunification and new beginning. There was the D-mark, but otherwise nothing. Nobody knew what was going on. But in Mitte, I noticed even back then, there were these Stasi-type notaries everywhere trading in real estate. They were all sitting around there, selling stuff under the table. They, for their part, knew exactly what was going on.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: Leipziger Straβe was a single-lane street back then, and there was always traffic. Johnnie and Achim stood there, stuck in their Mercedes on the way to Alexanderplatz, bored stiff until Johnnie pointed to an old storefront and asked, “What about that place?” So they pulled over to take a closer look.
JOHNNIE STIELER: I had to go see a Stasi superintendent for the key. He worked at the East German diplomatic services agency. The old boss wasn't working anymore, so instead, there was this young administrator. From North Rhine-Westphalia, I think. A mid-level pencil pusher in the mood for adventure. I had more than enough self-confidence back then and told him up front that we wanted to rent the place. He sat there at his desk with a look that just said, “Excuse me?” Once he'd recovered, he gave it to us straight: no water, no electricity, no gas, no nothing. What did we want to do there anyway? “A gallery with a bar area,” I said—an elastic gastronomy term convenient for such places. They used it in West Berlin too.
ALEXANDRA DROENER [Tresor manager; E-werk bouncer and booker]: Everyone used that trick. Every phone booth back then was a gallery with bar.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: The office where we could have applied for a permit didn't exist. It was simply not occupied.
JOHNNIE STIELER: So the administrator guy called the superintendent, and we went right over and checked the place out. When we said we wanted to come back with friends for another look, he just left us his enormous key ring. He'd already checked out. For him, as for so many others, it felt like everything was over. He'd have given me his shoes if I had asked. And so there we were.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: We'd actually been looking for something above ground. But the basement was the big surprise.
JOHNNIE STIELER: There was a door that had been closed off and painted over and a bookcase standing in front of it. We moved the bookcase aside, jiggled at the door, which was unlocked, and looked down the stairs. I thought, “Well this looks promising.”
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: The stairs led down to the basement.
JOHNNIE STIELER: Then we went down into this slippery stalactite cave with our lighters and after fumbling around in the dark for a bit, we eventually found the door to the vault. It was incredible.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: When we came through the open steel door into the vault with those rusty safe deposit boxes, it was immediately clear to all of us: The search is over!
JOHNNIE STIELER: That must be what it feels like to find an Aztec treasure. None of us said a word. We just walked around in silence with our lighters. Then, very slowly, we made our way back up the stairs. It wasn't until we were back in the car that we started talking again.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: That night, we went back with Rok.
ROK [Resident DJ, Ufo and Tresor]:We drove over, and it was really just a hole in the ground. And then we were standing down there with just a halogen lamp, and he said, “This is it.” Then he asked me what we should call the club. “Tresor [Vault],” I said. Because that's exactly what it looked like. No great flash of inspiration.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: Johnnie took one of the door bolts with him and used it to create the logo on our computer at the Fischlabor.
JOHNNIE STIELER: We got a lease pretty quickly. The guy from the agency had got hold of a kind of standard contract. It said it was valid until any sort of construction project began. Outstanding. But then he came with the news that we'd need a security deposit. Achim, Dimitri and I just stood there. We must have looked like the Marx Brothers. None of us had any money. So I asked my mother. She's a professor, and she went straight to her bank and told them that she was Professor So-and-So and that she needed a bank guarantee. And the guy sitting there—he'd probably been there maybe eight weeks—just looked at her and said, “A bank guarantee? Where do we keep that form?” Without my mother, there would never have been any club. They wanted three months' rent for the deposit, a huge amount of money back then. But the guy at the bank set up a guarantee for my mother without batting an eyelid. And so we signed the lease. Rent was 1,600 marks [$1,020, based on current exchange rate].
REGINA BAER [Tresor manager]:When Dimitri showed me the place for the first time, I almost fell over. You weren't expecting anything, and you really had to use your imagination to envision the space as a club. I mean, there wasn't even electricity. We were standing there on the ground floor, and Dimitri pressed a lighter into my hand. Then we went down into the basement, where everything was damp and nasty, and Dimitri was all, “This is the bar, and back there is the dance floor.” I just kept saying, “Leave everything as it is, leave everything as it is. You just have to clear out all the rubble.”
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: Regina was put in charge of the renovation, though she didn't have any more idea than I did how it all worked with building permits and stuff like that. We had these guerilla tactics: just open the door, turn on the lamp, and off you go.
REGINA BAER: Dimitri had wanted to impress me with the space. And he succeeded. After that, we were together.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: When I came onboard, the renovations were already underway. They recruited me because I'd proven myself as a barkeeper at the Fischlabor. My bookkeeping was always right. Or usually right. And I never lost the key. Aside from my reliability, there was a second reason: I was the team raver. Dimitri and Achim knew I'd do everything there anyway because I loved the music so much. At some point, I drove to Tresor with Achim. They all had these RAF Mercedes with a couch up front. When we got there, there were these people standing around with masks and hard hats, totally covered in dust. Someone came out of a hole with a wheelbarrow. It looked like they were undertaking a mission to Mars.
Dancers at Tresor
TANITH: The walls were over a meter [3.3 feet] thick. Nothing got through them. The world could have ended, an atomic bomb could have been dropped, and you'd still be partying down there.
CLÉ [Resident DJ, E-werk]: Achim and Dimitri had been firing up Terrible and me the whole time with their euphoric talk. When we went over to take a look during the renovation, we were immediately ignited. The space was just screaming to be turned into a club. There was something dark about it, forbidden.
TERRIBLE [Resident DJ, Tresor/Globus]: At the beginning, there were always these jokes like, “Dimitri, we found a tunnel here. It leads to the Führerbunker.”
TANITH: And ridiculous rumors like, “I left that place with a cough. During the War, they stored poison down there. There's fungus inside, it being so damp and all.”
ALEXANDRA DROENER: The Treuhand was across the street, and there were always security guards around. It was a dump. Leipziger Platz was one big wasteland. There was nothing there. Absolutely nothing. Rocks, debris, a fence here and there. You can't imagine it today. The buildings were derelict. The odd tower block built in the '80s. Like a ghost town. Like after World War II. A real zerohour atmosphere.
ROK: It was a desert in the middle of the city. The Wall was right there, and you still felt the division.
TANITH: Achim thought it was well-located businesswise. In the East, but right on the border to the West. Easy to get to.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: Coming to this place from the aseptic Ufo at Kleistpark with its illuminated dance floor—a real disco, you know—was just crazy. It wasn't a question of if but when: When can we start and how loud can we turn up the music? You knew you were underground, in a vault, surrounded by steel walls—it was the greatest. It was a hell of a thrill to be dancing in the ruins of this bank.
REGINA BAER: In the vault, there were these lockers for suitcases. I checked in old phone books at the library to find out what had been located at Leipziger Straβe 126a before the Wall went up.
JOHNNIE STIELER: It was a strange building with a very strange history. Before the War, it was the Wertheim department store. That went all the way to house number 126a, where there was a travel agency. Globus Bank belonged to that travel agency. We even found some Globus Bank stuff lying around. And then those safe deposit boxes where various things were stored. After the War, the aboveground rooms housed the first duty-free shop. As such, it came pretty quickly under the administration of the service office for foreign missions. In other words, it had Stasi written all over it.
REGINA BAER: Next door was this company called Intourist. It was supposedly an East German travel agency, but really it was more of a Russian import-export thing. You could watch as they established themselves and became successful. At first, it was Russian army jeeps and soldiers in uniform—in and out all the time, like clockwork. You always had the feeling you didn't want to know what kind of deals were being made in there or what all was being sold. Later, you'd see the same jeeps, but the guys sitting in them were more casual, dressed in shell suits. Before long, the jeeps were repainted, and you could no longer tell they'd once been military vehicles. And suddenly, the guys were all wearing suits.
JOHNNIE STIELER: Then at some point, they shut up shop. But they must have still been doing something in there because they had an intact phone. It was connected to the so-called S-net, a special tap-proof network, and it worked, too. We used to make calls on it. There were also bags with customs seals, and the attic was littered with bank notes. I discovered them when I went up to check out the roof—1,600 East German marks strewn all over the floor as though someone had simply thrown them away.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: When we started renovations in December of 1990, we always made sure Regina had enough workers. Whoever happened to be available. The Space Cowboys, for example, Danielle de Picciotto's band. They were coming from their rehearsal room and wanted to know what we were up to. So we put them to work.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: When I arrived with Achim, they put me in some protective gear. Wrap a kerchief, put on a mask, and down we went. The old deposit boxes were covered in a layer of rust as thick as your finger. We cleaned out each one with a steel brush.
JOHNNIE STIELER: I basically never left. Running around the whole time, doing one thing or the other, overseeing the workers. It was freezing down there, sure. But when you're as manic as I was, it doesn't matter. I spent days going over all the rooms again and digging through the debris. The renovations lasted three months. We didn't even have water because the pipes were always frozen.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: I had this theory that since we were in East Berlin, we also had to contract a company from East Berlin.
REGINA BAER: We thought West Berlin electricians would take one look at the cables and installations and throw up their hands. The power lines were old East German lines; they couldn't handle anything. They fried often—a real fire hazard. You could sit there and watch the sparks fly.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: So we hired Hummel, this company from Köpenick [in East Berlin], to build our bathroom facilities. We figured they'd just install a water pipe and that would be that. But it wasn't so simple. And Hummel always knocked off early. Very early.
REGINA BAER: What we didn't know was that plumbers in the East were worth their weight in gold. They were even worse than the ones in the West. They promised us they'd finish the job, then secretly cleared out and called it a day around two p.m.—it was Friday, after all. They didn't give a shit that the toilets still didn't work on opening night. And there was no way to reach them either since they didn't have a phone. Neither did we. Everything else worked, more or less, but there was no water.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: So then we got a check for 150 marks and picked up a hydrant. In the basement, there was a pipe that connected to the main line on Leipziger Straβe. So we tried to hook it up. It was completely hopeless. We desperately needed a pipe wrench, but none of us had one. Tresor almost didn't open because of that pipe wrench. But then I improvised, jamming one pipe into the other to make some sort of construction, then wrapping the whole thing over and over with duct tape. Finally I shouted, “Let it run!” It was leaking everywhere and I looked like hell, but eventually I heard the shouts from above: “Water!”
JOHNNIE STIELER: We were literally tightening the last screw when the doors opened. I think the electrician worked 72 hours straight before the opening. The bar had to be built. We brought in the booze at the end. And finally, the sound system.
Detroit DJ Jeff Mills, Dimitri Hegemann, and French DJ Laurent Garnier at Tresor
TANITH: We DJs tested it immediately, of course. And it sounded exactly the way I wanted techno to sound. Back then, I wanted to play as hard as possible. Dimitri and Achim wanted it a bit softer; they tried to get me to play house. That's how it had been at Ufo. Rok also played hard when he was allowed to do what he wanted. So for both of us, it was clear right away: house? Here? Forget it. It was hard techno all the way. I played “Little Fluffy Clouds” by the Orb as a test. It sounded like a drone symphony. Nothing fluffy about it.
JONZON [Resident DJ, Ufo, Planet, Tresor]: The first time I dropped the needle on a record there at full volume, I was immediately impressed by the cracking. It was almost scary. We were pretty loud. But that's the way it had to be. The space dictated the brutal sound.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: Later on, there were all sorts of clubs, but none of them had the rawness that became so intertwined with this music.
JOHNNIE STIELER: The sound seemed completely normal and reasonable to me the way it was. But that probably had to do with the fact that I'd spent so much time down there. I practically lived there. When you furnish your apartment, you're not surprised by how it looks in the end. I'd been there from the very first cable and observed every step of the way. It didn't seem all that brutal to me. In fact, I always thought there wasn't nearly enough bass.
REGINA BAER: There's this nice story about Tanith, how he stood on the dance floor and cranked up the system full blast. When his jeans started flapping, he called it 1T.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: The space was immediately approved. It clicked right away. The music, the intensity, the sweat, the shouting. It was exactly how I'd always imagined the Blue Note in the early jazz days.
JOHNNIE STIELER: We weren't really nervous before the opening. But after a certain point, my anticipation could not have been higher.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: Those were the days when there was nothing. No Internet, no cellphones. Andreas Rossmann alone always had one of those big portable car phones with him. So of course the channels were different. You always had to spread the word. The Fischlabor was Facebook—the bar you went to if you were cool.
TANITH: There were no posters. Monika Dietl announced on her show that something big was coming, but she didn't reveal an address. And then there was the Party Line. Wolle had organized it after Ufo closed. But he didn't have a phone connection in East Berlin, so he abused Roland 128 bpm's phone and connected an answering machine to it. All the dates and times were announced on it.
WOLLE XDP [East German breakdance champion]: The Party Line was supposed to replace flyer distribution. But it wasn't enough if it was just for Tekknozid, which is why anyone throwing a party could use it. The hardest part was recording the message. Submission deadline was Thursday by one p.m.. I would go to a phone booth in West Berlin and listen to the messages, then record one remotely myself. I was always terrified of making a mistake and having to start all over again. Starting at three p.m., the new announcement was available. After that, the line was always busy.
MIJK VAN DIJK [DJ]: When the second Ufo closed, I had no idea where to go anymore. Then Johnnie Stieler hinted that a new place would be opening in two or three weeks.
JOHNNIE STIELER: Every day, there were 20 people who wanted to see the place. Musicians, DJs, their friends. Right away, it was making waves. There was an unbelievable amount of interest. We didn't need to advertise at all, word just got around.
TANITH: For me, the period around '89/'90 was a bit of a leaden time. Aside from Tekknozid, I found it pretty depressing. There were no clubs, the scene was stagnating and stewing in its own juices. I didn't have much hope for the future. But that all changed with Tresor—overnight.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: On opening night, we worked right up to the last minute, painting walls, mounting lights. We opened at around 11 p.m.. Walls wet, black paint on the ceiling. Downstairs, we hadn't even painted at all. I'd wanted to go home first, but I lived in Schöneberg, and that was too far. So we said “fuck it” and didn't change, just stayed in our silly painter's overalls, which you could buy for five marks.
REGINA BAER: We all looked like shit. And Alexandra and I didn't have any clean clothes to change into, just our overalls. So we put them on over our dirty clothes. The next week, people showed up wearing overalls just like those.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: We probably painted each other as well. We were just kids, and we were excited. Achim and Dimitri were grown-ups; they played it cool. I was jumping up and down, hyper. Totally stressed out, happy, raving mad—all at the same time.
REGINA BAER: When we finally finished, much too late, we went out into the dark. Outside, there was just a single light bulb, a dim little thing above the door, and there were all these people standing there waiting. The entire parking lot was full of people, all just standing there politely, waiting for us to let them in.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: There were people in cowboy boots, in sneakers, in suits.
REGINA BAER: Some women had missed the mark and turned up in heels.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: There were some industrial types like Paul Browse. Gabi Delgado from D.A.F. It was a strange West Berlin mix, a pre-reunification mix. And then there were the East Berliners, too. But no casual clubbers. It was eccentrics only. A crazy personality show.
REGINA BAER: The first ones there, I'd have liked to throw right back out. They were Johnnie's friends, East Berlin hooligans, or at least that's how I immediately rated them. Real bruisers. When I saw them I thought, “If this is my clientele, I'm quitting right now.”
ALEXANDRA DROENER: Johnnie had a lot of legacies we knew nothing about. He'd been very active in East Berlin, something to do with the punk scene. Somehow, we also knew he was a hooligan.
REGINA BAER: I went up to the guys and told them to leave, which of course they didn't appreciate. They got pretty fresh right away—“who did I think I was?” and so on. There was a brief verbal altercation, and then they left.
JOHNNIE STIELER: Some of them, given their political views, would not necessarily have joined the socialist student association in which I was active at university. But they were friends of mine and they were happy when they were at Tresor and didn't cause any trouble.
UWE REINEKE [Raver, EFA Distribution staffer]: I got there very early. Jonzon was supposed to DJ, and I'd given him a lift. There were maybe three other people inside. We were standing around downstairs, and it was freezing cold. No need for a fog machine. I was surprised. What is this place? It looked really grim. Still damp, too.
KATI SCHWIND [Love Parade organizer, EFA Distribution staffer]: I went right downstairs, through the puddles, past the wooden wall, and arrived at this room that glittered with rust. My jaw just hung open. It was at least as great as walking into the control room at the e-werk. You could feel the history of the building.
STEFAN SCHVANKE [Promoter, rave activist]: The space seemed as big to me as an underground garage at first. I thought, “They'll never get this full. They'll put up curtains next weekend so it doesn't seem so vast.”
ALEXANDRA DROENER: At first, there was a lot of standing around, a lot of looking around and a whole lot of talking. And on top of that, the music at full blast. Some people didn't even realize that the actual club was down in the basement. They were in the Globus Bar the whole time, nothing but a boombox up among the glasses behind the bar. A lot of them were part of that lean-against-the-bar generation. Long-haired men in leather jackets, groupies, people in bands, rock‘n'roll people. There were a few ravers too, but not that many yet. The core from Ufo. People who were way ahead in terms of style. They looked like the '90s people in London—flats, Mercedes-logo necklaces, vests, crop tops.
TILMAN BREMBS [Tresor cleaner, photographer]: As West Berlin kids, we were always hanging out at Cha Cha. At some point, a guy came along and said there was a new club at Potsdamer Platz. We took a taxi over, and then there we were in the Globus Bar. Alright. New club—not bad. Then out of nowhere, a sweat-soaked person came along, glowing with heat, and said, “Hey, have you been downstairs yet?” We went down and were completely blown away. And it's not like we were from the boonies. We weren't so easily impressed.
MARK ERNESTUS [Basic Channel/Hard Wax cofounder]: At Tresor, it was immediately clear: This is our place, this is where the music belongs, and everything is defined purely by the music.
TILMAN BREMBS: This unconditional surrender to the music, the soundscape—that's what made the difference. Before, you were always a bystander at clubs. If you listened to hip-hop or downbeat, maybe you were on the dance floor every now and then, but you were worrying about it more the whole time. At Tresor, that simply wasn't possible. You came in and were right in the middle of the inferno. It had a very different intensity. You had to participate—or go home. We went dutifully back to the others at Cha Cha and raved about it. They had no idea what we were on about. In typical West Berlin style, they acted unimpressed and didn't believe a word. Then slowly, one after the other, they came with us. Inevitably, you grew apart from the ones who weren't into it.
Loveparade founder Dr. Motte at Tresor
JOHNNIE STIELER: After the opening, I took the subway back to Lichtenberg. Quite honestly, I was glad it was over and that we'd managed to pull it off. Everything at my place stunk of Tresor. A very specific musty smell. It only existed at Tresor, nowhere else. It was because of the thickness of the walls. I mean, we're talking five-foot-thick concrete. The air was unbelievable. Despite the ventilation, it was always the same. It was just the Tresor smell.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: The first night was really, really great. But afterwards, there was a slump. After an opening, you first start to realize everything that still needs to be done. Everything that's not working. The toilets were devastated, of course. That was the everlasting issue.
JOHNNIE STIELER: At the beginning, it was like spinning plates. We ran around trying to make sure the whole thing kept running. A week was like a year. A day was a month. Every day we were open was somehow a different universe. We had our DJ crew together right from the start: Rok, Jonzon, Tanith and Roland 128 bpm. That part was obvious—they had the sound.
REGINA BAER: It was basically just disaster management. Tresor was forever a construction site. Always. We did what we could. The Wasserwerke Ost [GDR waterworks] no longer existed. There was just one waterworks for all of Berlin now, so I had to go to the West German water authority. They said I could definitely get hooked up to the water supply, I just needed to bring them blueprints showing where the pipes ran. I could get the documents at the former East German waterworks.
It was somewhere behind Wuhlheide [park in East Berlin]. Bleak. Nothing but a few GDR trailers standing around. A big open space. I knocked on the door of each trailer—they were all open, but not a soul was inside. Eventually, I found someone who could help me. He led me to yet another trailer and handed me a tube with a big plan of the site. I was over the moon—that is, until I tried to take some pictures of it. There was nothing on it. Completely blank. I thought they were jerking me around. But the place was right on the border strip; not even the GDR waterworks had blueprints. Of course, at the West German water authority, they thought I was jerking them around.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: We had a burst water pipe once a month. I'd stand there with Regina, who liked to come in heels, and we'd mop up. Regina and I basically kept the place running. But I also had a lot to learn. I was 22 and wet behind the ears. I had to go to the wholesaler, get bar supplies. Horribly boring. Warehouses full of glasses, spoons and so on. Achim taught me what you need—which glasses should have measuring lines, which shouldn't. Measures, ice cube trays, plastic cups. Doing inventory, how you calculate drinks. It takes a minute to work that stuff out. At the same time, I was dancing til morning.
JOHNNIE STIELER: I was completely out of order. I basically never slept —and yet, I was happy. If I'd had any obligations, it wouldn't have worked. It was like waging war: You have to focus 100 percent or nothing comes of it.
ALEXANDRA DROENER: Of course there were palpable differences in mentality. At first, we didn't know how to deal with each other at all. Johnnie was an outrageous character with a big mouth and a ton of enthusiasm. We spoke different languages. We Wessis [West Germans] had a kind of unconscious arrogance, and Johnnie wasn't the sort of guy who'd let himself be steamrolled by the Coca Cola thing. He really supported his people, brought in Zappa, Felsen and Arne. Some of them had been friends since childhood.
JOHNNIE STIELER: I'd known Felsen, our bouncer, since I was 14. Everyone respected him. He had no problem with the police or with the tough guys. And he had a unique gift for pedagogy. He would explain to everyone why they weren't getting in. He'd start with their clothes and justify everything on the basis of their outfits. He really educated them. There were these red-light-district types from Hamburg, for example. They turned up dressed in raver gear. Or at least what they thought was raver gear. Bandanas and that sort of thing. One of them was even packing a piece under his leather vest. And Felsen just told them, “Boys, quite honestly, you look ridiculous in those getups. Besides, with that pimped-out car over there, it's obvious where you're from, there's no point trying to hide it. Where do you think you are?” The guys listened, went back to Hamburg and showed up again the next week, this time without the gun and get-ups. And Felsen let them in, too. After that, they were regulars. They were there every weekend because they liked the place so much. Inside, they were perfectly well behaved and also tipped generously. Always with a different chick on their arm. At any other club, they'd just have been turned away. But with Felsen, it was different. And as a result, this incredible social circus evolved.
DIMITRI HEGEMANN: Tresor was like an open street project. All sorts of different people washed ashore there. You'd hang around a while and then sooner or later, you had a job.
TILMAN BREMBS: After a few months, I started cleaning up after the parties. It was good, under-the-table money. Plus you always found things. Keys, pagers, glow sticks, flashlights, water guns, even a bible. Drugs, not so much—they were consumed, after all. And money, of course. Notes of all different denominations that had fallen out of peoples' pockets. That was my tip money. The worst were the beer bottles in all the deposit boxes. It was a really dirty job. Afterwards, you were just covered in dust and grime. Since then, I can clean absolutely anything. I've been immunized. Nothing could be worse than Tresor.
REGINA BAER: Tilman really wanted to spend a night at Tresor. He cleaned. And apparently, that was his greatest fulfillment. That was all he wanted to do. You shouldn't stop people like that; it's best to just let them do their thing. Otto was another castaway. In fact, he was a medical student. He was there a couple times, and then I asked him if he wanted to work as a runner. He wasn't interested. Said he'd do everything else, just not collect bottles. So then he got “everything else” as a job.
ZAPPA [Resident DJ, Walfisch]: At the very beginning, I was the maintenance guy at Tresor. Johnnie brought me in. I installed the first toilets there. During the day, I was the maintenance guy at an elementary school. I was incredibly proud to be part of this thing. I even brought my mother to Tresor, and we danced together. Johnnie proved that with a little tenacity, you could really accomplish something. You just have to do it. For me, that's still a symbol of the reunification.
TILMAN BREMBS: I didn't clean because I liked it so much, but because it was the ticket to the whole thing. Free entry, free drinks, meeting everyone. It wasn't just a job; it was more about self-discovery. Being part of a close-knit community. During the week, we were there often. We'd crack open a beer and solder something out in the courtyard with music on in the background. It was like building our own world. Like in Pippi Longstocking. Dimitri was always telling me that someday, he'd build the Techno Tower. But then you'd also need a Techno Farm where techno chickens could run around freely. And I'd really picture it there on Leipziger Straβe with that big field. It sounded so visionary. I liked that.
Photos by Bella Howard
Charli XCX seems eager to get to work on the “1970s porn pad” redecoration she has planned for her new converted mansion in the English countryside, but right now she’s a bit busy. “I bought the house in June and I’ve been there four times,” the 22-year-old born Charlotte Aitchison tells me late one Saturday night in October, Skyping in from San Francisco before a sold-out show. “The first proper time I’ll spend there will be Christmas.”
She’s not exaggerating: For the next two months, up until the mid-December Stateside release of her sophomore album, Sucker, Charli will have just three days off. She’s not complaining, either. “That feels like a fucking lifetime to me,” she says, considering the free time. “I wanna get the nicest fucking hotel room in New York, and spend loads of money on ordering pizza and watching movies in bed, and just sit on a cloud with my phone off.”
When we talk, Charli’s in the midst of wrapping up a North American club tour that wasinitiallyplanned to coincide with Sucker’s original October release. Then “Boom Clap”, her borderline bubblegum song for The Fault in Our Stars soundtrack, ticked its way to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it the pop singer/songwriter’s most successful solo single by a long shot—and putting more pressure on the album, and Charli, to achieve similar heights.
All of this—the mansion, the big soundtrack hit, the beyond-hectic schedule—comes after “that whole ‘Fancy’ thing” began this spring; Iggy Azalea’s inescapable smash, held together by Charli’s teflon hook, quickly elevated the singer from a savvy pop underdog to a bona fide star. Her 2013 debut album, True Romance, seems a distant memory now, though hardly a messy mistake of youth. That record’s glittery goth-pop felt fresh in its pre-Lorde era, but that’s three Charli XCXs ago at this point.
Since then, she’s gone from the cheerleader chants of “SuperLove”, to a punk phase spent rage-recording in Sweden, to the smart, decade-spanning pop found on Sucker. Of course, that’s not counting the work Charli’s churning out for others—like Iggy and other pop stars she can’t reveal at the moment—in the songwriting camps she continues to frequent with her cabal of A-list collaborators including Norwegian pop savants Stargate.
Charli, whose first Top 10 hit came as the songwriter behind Icona Pop’s 2013 anthem “I Love It”, says her ambitions are larger than mere success for herself, though she straight-up tells me she has no interest in fame whatsoever. “I want to have a publishing company and a record label,” she says, “and I want to manage five artists… eventually.”
For now, there’s a lot to parse within Sucker. With a sense of rebellion permeating its lyrics and nods to everything from 1990s alt-rock like Garbage and Weezer, to 1960s girl groups, to classic punk, to Charli contemporaries like Haim, it’s one of those pop albums that inspires instant nostalgia for teenagedom and all of the joy and angst that comes with it.
Pitchfork: Between Sucker’s abrasive title track and “Break the Rules”, you seem to be saying there’s more than one way to find success in the music business.
Charli XCX: I wrote “Sucker” when I was really angry, and it’s about my very cynical view of the music industry. When True Romance came out, some people still doubted me as an artist and a songwriter. But once “I Love It” appeared, and later “Fancy” and “Boom Clap”, people began to really pay attention. I find it difficult to deal with someone who rejects me and then kisses my ass later—even though I know that’s what the whole music industry is. One of the lines in “Sucker” goes, “You joined my club/ Luke loves your stuff.” People would always come up to me and say, “Oh, [Dr.] Luke loves your stuff, well done”—as if that means, “You’ve made it.” That's fucking weird to me.
As for “Break the Rules”, I actually wrote that whilst I was at a writing camp and I never expected to write anything for myself while I was there. I went to go have a cigarette in the car park at Westlake Studios, where Quincy Jones recorded a lot of Michael Jackson’s records, and sang this idea in my phone—I still have it on there—for the chorus. Stargate and [songwriter/producer] Steve Mac were working on a beat that it fit over top, and it came together really fast. A lot of people think that single is really calculated, because it’s like a record label’s wet dream; I handed it in in June, and they were like, “This is perfect, school starts in September.” But it came so naturally and it’s very tongue-in-cheek. I’m very aware of what I’m doing. This record is very self-aware, whereas True Romance was not.
Pitchfork: You wrote parts of True Romance when you were 16, and it’s harder to be completely self-aware while you’re still growing into who you are.
XCX: I’m still so proud of True Romance, but I definitely felt like I was afraid when I wrote that record—and you can hear it. I felt nervous and was definitely worried what people would think about me. I wanted to make a pop record, but I wanted to make it “cool.” Now I couldn’t give a fuck if people don’t think I made a “cool” album.
Pitchfork: It’s funny to hear you say that because one thing you really excel at on Sucker is bridging the gap between the mainstream pop world and the “cool” pop world—you’re mixing big Top 40 producers and songwriters, like Stargate and Benny Blanco, with critical darlings like Robyn producer Patrik Berger, Cashmere Cat, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij.
XCX: That’s what I aim to do as an artist. I hate the idea of people thinking that I’m just a little girl who goes into studios with pop producers, and they work their magic. I executive-produced this record myself and I put those people in a room together because I thought it would be right. A lot of artists in my position, particularly before “Fancy”, would be very afraid to work with Stargate for fear of what people would say about them. But I don’t give a fuck because I think Stargate are tight and I work really well with them—they can sit in a studio and write seven songs in a day. And Cashmere and Benny have worked together forever, they live in the same house. I want to bring those people together because I think I can make it work. I’ve always been good at never being the same thing twice, and it’s partially because I like collaboration.
Pitchfork: You also worked with Weezer's Rivers Cuomo on the track “Hanging Around”. What was that like?
XCX: We went to the studio and he was like, “What’s your favorite Weezer song?” I said, “Beverly Hills”, and he was like, “OK, I have an idea,” and wrote the song. He sings and plays guitar on it, too. I’m very happy with how it came out.
Pitchfork: There was almost lore around Sucker before it was even announced: how you went to Sweden to make a punk record to get out your anger and then abandoned that album in favor of a more traditional pop record. But I still hear the punk bits in some of these songs.
XCX: Some of the poppier songs on the punk record are now the most punk songs on the pop record. There were some full-on, two-minute-long, me-screaming songs. There was one called “Mow That Lawn”, which is so sick. It goes, “Oooh! Baby mow that lawn/ Oooh! Really turns me on/ Oooh! Got no mobile phone/ Oooh! ‘Cause the signal’s gone.” It’s about me moving to the countryside and being bored of taking too many drugs and drinking too much, and just wanting to have a cat and mow the lawn.
That experience was therapeutic for me, because I was bored of being the girl who didn’t sing “I Love It”, even though I do fucking sing all through that song—I’m pretty audible on it. I was bored of getting requests to rewrite that song for other people. I had lost myself in the music industry and in the idea of being “the best” songwriter; I was going down a Dr. Luke road with my competitive mentality. I didn’t like it. That’s not who I am. So I went to Sweden and spoke with Patrik [Berger] and Pontus [Winnberg, aka Avant of production duo Bloodshy & Avant] about it. Pontus worked on a lot of the Britney [Spears] stuff back in the day, and I asked him, “What do you think about how I’m feeling?” He said he felt like that, like the pop world is this weird competitive environment that he wanted to get out of. Everyone in Sweden is cool, it’s not like L.A.; I got all my shit out and felt better about myself belonging in the music world.
Pitchfork: Even just based on how much you shout-out your peers on social media—Bleachers and Ryn Weaver most recently—it seems like you value a non-competitive creative community.
XCX: I don’t have time to be a bitch to people, it’s so unproductive. I know there are so many people out there—fans and artists—who think it’s cool to be a cunt, but you’re so fucking dumb if you think that’s cool. I like befriending my collaborators because I’d rather make music with people I like than people I pretend to like. I’m really at this point right now where I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks about me: what I wear, if they think I’m too nice, if I look weird. I’m so over that. If someone is an aloof dick with me, I’ll straight-up tell them: “It doesn’t make you cool, man. Loosen up a little bit, bro.”
I’m also not embarrassed to say I’m a fan of my peers. Someone I continuously get asked about is Lorde. People love to pin us up against each other. I don’t give a fuck. I admire her greatly: She is so prolific and so kind, and is such a talent for the younger generation, and it’s so cool that she has such a platform. I hate it when I see people take that away from her, or try to get people to say bad things about her in the press. My philosophy is to treat people how you want to be treated. This whole element of competition is not on my radar.
Pitchfork: Speaking of Lorde, you recently collaborated with her on The Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack, which she curated, for a song called “Kingdom” with Simon Le Bon. Are you a big Duran Duran fan?
XCX: If I’m being honest, I’m a fan, but not the world’s #1 fan. It was definitely exciting to be working with someone who’s iconic and from a different time than me, though. That was something Ella [Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde] felt really strong about—bringing in another time period. We spoke about a lot of different people, and Simon seemed like the right one, so we were excited when he said yes.
I also worked with Rostam [Batmanglij] on that song. We went to the Miley Cyrus show in L.A. and got really wasted. Then we went back to his house and I sat on top of his piano, and we wrote “Kingdom”. We sung it into his phone. I remember thinking in the morning, “Ugh, this is going to be the worst thing ever,” but it was really good. So when Ella reached out to me about the soundtrack, I decided to send her that song even though it’s really different than my usual shit. She was really complimentary about it.
"I know there are so many people out there—fans and artists—
who think it’s cool to be a cunt, but you’re so fucking
dumb if you think that’s cool."
Pitchfork: Do you find that it’s gotten harder to stay private as you’ve gotten more popular? It seems like there’s this expectation among pop stars who write their own lyrics to reflect their personal lives in a way that can be voyeuristic, and ultimately feed into the cult-of-personality cycle of fame.
XCX: The thing that differentiates me from someone like Taylor Swift is that I don’t live in gossip magazines. I don’t want that. It’s not a slight on Taylor—she’s a genius—but I’m not about to date a boy-band member. I don’t have interest in fame, at all. I have an interest in people listening to my music. That’s it. I don’t want to go to a fucking fashion party. It’s hard for people to be truly voyeuristic about me because they don’t know that much about me. I’m not getting chased while buying eggs, like Iggy was the other week. I don’t even buy eggs, I can’t fucking cook! Maybe I’m being naïve, expecting that I’m going to be able to stay like that if I continue to do what I’m doing. But I’m very conscious to keep it like that.
Also, I’m very selfish when I write songs and I don’t really think about my audience. My subject matters are broad, and I’m very much a blunt songwriter. So it’s quite easy for people to apply my shit to their life. That takes the pressure off me a little bit.
Pitchfork: “Fancy” kicked off a hot streak of female collaborations at the top of the charts that’s still continuing on the Hot 100. How do you feel about that?
XCX: When Iggy’s people approached me to write the hook on “Fancy”, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to do an Eve and Gwen Stefani thing—a strong female collaboration. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome that the Top 10 on Billboard is controlled by females and female collaborations, from Jessie J, Nicki, and Ariana [“Bang Bang”], to Meghan Trainor [“All About That Bass”], to Iggy and Rita [“Black Widow”]. But what was different about me and Iggy’s collaboration was that there was no expectation. There was no record label plot. At that point, people still saw me and Iggy as underdogs. Neither of us had real big shit popping off, we were just doing our thing. That’s why “Fancy” worked so well: It was so genuine.
But I do think it’s cool that there are so many female collaborations right now, because the media always want to pit us against each other and make us fight for the pop crown. I’m just waiting for the next Moulin Rouge!-level collaboration—I wanna try to make that happen.
Pitchfork: Who would you cast in a “Lady Marmalade” redux circa 2014?
XCX: Me, Iggy, Gwen, Missy—she should be in it again—and maybe Rihanna. You know what I have always thought would be really cool? If Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Nicki did a song together. Everyone would fucking love it. Why won’t someone make it happen? If I were the head of a record label, that would be my priority.
When John Lydon scrawled the words “I HATE” overtop a Pink Floyd T-shirt in mid-1970s, the future Sex Pistols frontman was engaging in more than just an act of wearable music criticism—he was defining punk in both its aggressively regressive musical aesthetic and anti-establishment ideology. While the raw sound of punk could be easily traced back to snotty mid-‘60s garage bands, and its torn ‘n’ frayed fashion to Richard Hell’s naturally decayed attire, no gesture summed up the emergent movement’s malcontent and DIY spirit so succinctly as Lydon’s two-word magic-markered manifesto.
At the time, Pink Floyd represented everything punk was not: musically skilled, conceptually ambitious, filthy rich, tastefully bearded. But if Pink Floyd were an easy target for punks, they were also an odd one—the two camps were a lot more spiritually in tune than either may have cared to admit. Long before punk waged its war on rock-star posturing, Pink Floyd had set the template for how a band could become popular without encouraging their own celebrity; while Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Rick Wright, and Nick Mason weren’t exactly anonymous figures, their public image was certainly secondary to the music they created. Musically, they refused to conform to prevailing pop convention; lyrically, their songs avoided the goblin-populated fantasias commonly associated with prog-rock in favor of pointed critiques on British institutions and classism. And compared to their more flamboyant peers—like the outrageously costumed Peter Gabriel, or the cape-shrouded Rick Wakeman—Floyd’s standard jerseys-‘n’-jeans look was practically Ramones-like in its self-effacing simplicity.
But while Pink Floyd may not have been the most egregious example of excess, for many punks, they were the greatest disappointment. In their earliest, Syd Barrett-fronted iteration, they were practically a proto-punk band, the sinister, serrated riffs of “Lucifer Sam” and “Interstellar Overdrive” serving as a mainline to future avant-rock outfits like Can, Hawkwind, and Pere Ubu. But with Barrett’s increasingly unstable psychological state prompting his ousting in 1968, Pink Floyd became a dramatically different band, with Waters and Gilmour gradually refashioning the group into art-rock sophisticates. To punks, Pink Floyd were the poster boys for rock‘n’roll’s transformation from misfit music into a posh lifestyle soundtrack for the sort of middlebrow amusement-seekers who could afford top-of-the-line stereos. (Even Lydon would later admit his infamous T-shirt treatise was motivated less by a distaste for Pink Floyd’s music than for their perceived air of superiority.)
Among fans of punk and its myriad subgenre offshoots (post-punk, goth, industrial, indie rock, etc.), it’s been customary to lionize the Syd Barrett end of the Floyd canon while writing off the band’s subsequent, star-making output as pretentious pap. But where Barrett has served as a constant figurehead for eccentric rock acts over the past 40 years—from the Soft Boys and Jesus and Mary Chain, to Neutral Milk Hotel and MGMT—the influence of ‘70s-era Floyd has been absorbed into the underground at a much slower rate, and yet has manifested itself in more surprising ways. With remaining members Gilmour and Mason releasing a new (and by all accounts final) Pink Floyd album, The Endless River, this week here’s a chronological look at some of the key artists who, over the past four decades, have helped promote the post-Barrett Floyd from punk-loathed pariahs to alt-rock patriarchs.
Wire: 154 (1979)
Wire weren’t the first punk band to flirt with Floyd—the Damned actually enlisted drummer Nick Mason to produce their polished, power-poppin’ 1977 sophomore album, Music for Pleasure—but they were the first to sign to the band’s longtime home base of Harvest Records. (The title of Wire’s debut album, Pink Flag, has variously been interpreted as both a tribute and affront to their labelmates.) And while frontman Colin Newman’s vocal mannerisms and musings are clearly cast from the Syd Barrett mold, Wire’s evolution more closely mirrored Floyd’s post-Syd path, channeling their formative aggression into the frost-covered terrain of 154. If the influence was ultimately more spiritual than directly sonic, Wire at least turned the frequent label of “the Punk Floyd” from a pejorative into an ideal, transforming punk’s edict of “no future” into a boundless one.
The Flaming Lips: “One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning” (1987)
Twenty-five years before they wrangled the likes of Peaches and Henry Rollins for an all-star full-album cover of Dark Side of the Moon, the Lips were pissing off Jesus and Mary Chain fans in San Francisco by capping their opening set for the Scottish miscreants with a straight-faced cover of “Wish You Were Here”. (As Coyne reminisced to Pitchfork in 2009, “If we’re thinking of punk rock as pissing in the face of whatever the established cool is supposed to be, playing that Pink Floyd song on that night was the most punk rock thing we could have done.”) But on the band’s 1987 sophomore full-length, Oh My Gawd!!!... The Flaming Lips, that Floyd fixation became a crucial ingredient in the band’s formative acid-punk stew—no more so than on this nightmarish nine-minute tour de force, which sounds like a trio of wastoids trying to figure out how to play “Echoes” before saying “fuck it” and setting fire to the garage.
Jane’s Addiction: “Mountain Song” (1988)
Jane’s Addiction’s carnivalesque clamor was the result of a collision between two seemingly oppositional forces: classic FM-radio rock and goth. Mediating between the two worlds was Eric Avery’s omnipresent basslines, which bear the deep, dub-inspired texture endemic in post-punk, but also the muscular, propulsive playing Roger Waters brought to Floyd classics like “One of These Days” and “Sheep”. (Not to be outdone, goth O.G.s the Cure would flex a distinctly Waters-like groove on their 1989 single “Fascination Street”—which isn’t so surprising given that Robert Smith has cited Pink Floyd: At Pompeii as his favorite rock doc.)
The Orb: “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Universe” (1989)
At the turn of the ‘90s, Pink Floyd was becoming an evermore audible touchstone for American metal acts attempting a crossover, be it Metallica’s “Hey You”-modeled power ballad “Nothing Else Matters”, or Queensryche’s “Mother”-fudging “Silent Lucidity”. But in the UK, a decidedly different aspect of the band’s legacy was beginning to take root. The primitive electronic oscillations, synth-sculpted soundscapes, random sampled chatter, barnyard sounds, and metronomic precision that defined mid-‘70s Floyd served as the template for emergent acid-house producers venturing into more ambient realms. Alex Paterson made no secret of his Floyd fandom, sampling David Gilmour’s guitar line from “Shine On Your Crazy Diamond” on the Orb’s debut 20-minute dub-house odyssey, while paying tribute to Animals with not one, but two album covers. The admiration worked both ways: In 2010, Gilmour teamed up with the Orb for the double-album collaboration Metallic Spheres.
Ween: “Birthday Boy” (1990)
The spirit of Syd Barrett was a guiding force throughout the early ‘90s lo-fi boom that turned home-taping hermits like Lou Barlow and Robert Pollard into indie-rock deities. However, on their first proper album, GodWeenSatan, four-track freaks Gene and Dean Ween pledged allegiance to ‘70s Floyd—if only by accident. For the purposes of this discussion, what’s interesting about “Birthday Boy” is not the song itself—a poignant fuzzed-out lullaby that bears zero aesthetic relation to Pink Floyd—but in the moments before and after. The track opens with a mutated organ drone and piano tap that sounds uncannily like a snippet of “Echoes” sped up; our suspicions are confirmed in its dying seconds, when Dean’s guitar cuts out and you can hear Rick Wright sing the Floyd epic’s final verse. All in all, a cautionary tale of what happens when Floyd fans run out of shrooms and start huffing Scotch Guard—i.e., they’re liable to record over their favorite albums. (Fortunately, the dudes had a backup copy of Meddle on vinyl—and rightfully positioned it to guard their booze-‘n’-pills stash in the video for 1993 hit single “Push Th’ Little Daisies”. And yet that would prove be only the second-most clever visual tribute to Pink Floyd on "120 Minutes" that year.)
Nine Inch Nails: “Ruiner” (1994)
While Nirvana were credited with breaking punk into the mainstream, many of the alternative-rock acts that followed in their wake (Tool, Primus, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins) more closely resembled the prog progeny of Pink Floyd. However, among his fellow Lollapalooza nationalists, Trent Reznor was the only one to recognize Floyd’s unsung role as machine-welcoming proto-industrial visionaries. This Downward Spiral deep cut comes on like a club remix of “Run Like Hell”, but makes a cold stop mid-song to indulge in the sort of comfortably-numbing guitar solo David Gilmour routinely used to kindle a hockey arena full of cigarette lighters.
The Beta Band: “Dry the Rain” (1997)
Comparing Radiohead to Pink Floyd had become a favorite rock-critic pastime by 1997, but Thom Yorke and co. never really embraced the association. Though the two bands may have shared an exploratory sensibility, bleak lyrical outlook, and a desire to disappear completely from the limelight, Radiohead never displayed a Floydian flair for high-concept, multi-sectional art-rock movements, ultimately favoring a more deconstructive tack. Radiohead contemporaries the Beta Band proved more faithful Floyd loyalists, even as their irreverent collage-rock accommodated folk, hip-hop, house, and musique concrète influences. But grounding the whole enterprise was Steve Mason’s unerringly calm croon, which suggests many teenaged nights spent zoning out on the bedroom floor to Floyd’s “Fearless”—a song that, like the Betas’ calling-card single “Dry the Rain”, begins as a sunbaked front-porch strum before acquiring a soccer-stadium-sized grandeur.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor: F♯ A♯∞ (1998)
Spotlight-shunning band with a deep distrust of media and government produces side-long orchestral-rock suites featuring Western-soundtrack overtones, wordless choral vocals, and dramatic crescendos. Sound familiar?
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: “Up From Redemption”/“Aged Dolls”/“The Day The Air Turned Blue” (1999)
Though they were developing a reputation as the last band you’d want to share your backline with, Trail of Dead were already plotting their grand designs even before Interscope granted them the budget to hire a second drummer. On this side-two suite from 1999’s underrated Madonna, the Austin outfit tries to condense the entirety of The Wall—the goose-stepped megaphoned barking, the “In the Flesh?”-sized fanfares, “The Trial”-style theatricality—into 10 minutes, while Jason Reece’s climactic chorus cry locates the heretofore untapped sweet spot uniting Roger Waters and Ian Mackaye.
Air: The Virgin Suicides (2000)
Air’s emergence was perfectly timed to herald a shift away from the kitschy exotica that permeated so much ‘90s alterna-culture toward more sophisticated attempts at recapturing the feel-good sounds of bygone golden eras (a quality shared with fellow upstart French acts like Daft Punk and Phoenix). While their early work was awash in an ELO afterglow and Gainsbourgian boudoir funk, Air’s ominous soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides—in keeping with the film’s soft-focus, mid-‘70s setting—aimed straight for the darkest side of the moon, producing a vivid Floydian flashback, whose rainbow-prism rays eventually extended to the progged-out set pieces featured on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
LCD Soundsystem: “Never as Tired as When I’m Waking Up” (2005)
“Losing My Edge”, James Murphy’s debut single as LCD Soundsystem, famously skewered the futile sport of hipster trend-spotting, but also served as a pocket syllabus of the various underground innovators—from Can and Beefheart to the Slits and This Heat—often excluded from the dominant music-history narrative that favors bands like Pink Floyd. So it was rather surprising when, smack dab in the middle of LCD’s debut album, Murphy traded in his crate-digger credentials for this delightfully dazed, laser-show-ready reverie. But what at first seems like a WTF anomaly in the LCD canon proves to be the peaceful denouement to the existential meltdown heard on “Losing My Edge”. This is the sound of a retired scenester who’s lost his edge and doesn’t give a shit anymore—so he’s just going throw on his worn-out copy of Meddle and zone out in his easy chair.
Swans: “Avatar” (2012)
Swans’ Michael Gira has been into Floyd since before you were born (provided you’re younger than 45). As he told Clash magazine in 2012: “I was fortunate enough to be at a Pink Floyd concert in 1969. In that era, post-Syd, they were still a supremely great band. Even better, in many ways. The music was more Wagnerian, more monolithic, these big crescendo-ing pieces, like ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’.” But it really wasn’t until the Swans’ post-2010 reformation that such Pink Floyd-scaled pomp became a prominent feature of the sludge-punk pioneers’ increasingly expansive sound—particularly on this standout from The Seer, where, atop an unrelenting “One of These Days”-style hypno-bass-throb, Gira gravely intones “your life is in my hand” like someone who’s really going to cut you into little pieces.
Darkside: “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen” (2013)
Though beatmaker Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrigton have said the name of their project is not an intentional Dark Side of the Moon tribute, their 2013 album Psychic does little to dissuade that theory. But beyond Jaar’s Rick Wright-worthy synth vistas and Harrington’s atmospheric guitar shimmer, Psychic centerpiece “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen” taps into an oft-overlooked aspect of Pink Floyd’s legacy—that, when you strip away its kiddie-choir-delivered dystopian diatribe, “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” is an ace disco track. Once that unmistakably Gilmourian liquid-funk riff emerges at the four-minute mark, Darkside couldn’t make their affections more obvious if they had bought a Pink Floyd T-shirt and scrawled the words “I LOVE” on top.
Robert Wyatt is sitting in his English cottage near the picturesque Lincolnshire Wolds, recovering. The 69-year-old recently broke his foot, though he’s not looking for sympathy. “It doesn't bother me,” shrugs Wyatt, who lost feeling in his lower half after falling out of a four-story window 41 years ago. “I don't use these things anyway!”
This no-bullshit humility—along with a discography that combines jazz, pop, and experimental sounds into something completely singular—is at the core of Wyatt’s appeal. He’s certainly the only human to have recorded with Jimi Hendrix and Björk, for instance, but he’s not exactly going to yell such factoids from the mountaintops. Luckily, writer Marcus O’Dair is doing that for him with the new authorized biography, Different Every Time. Though Wyatt approves of the book, he’s quick to point out that he “didn't have much to do with it.”
“I thought, ‘Well, it's none of my business,’” he says of his own life story. “If I were going to write a book, it wouldn't be about me. I have many interests, but I am not one of them.” One of those preoccupations is left-wing politics—he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s and told O’Dair that he still thinks Marxism is the “least silly way of analyzing world events.” For Wyatt, these ideological beliefs are strongly tied-in with his love of the working class, as he explains in the book: “How about the rewards for the masses’ toil and suffering come during their own lives, instead of just investors and owners of things getting all the rewards?”
His political side has sometimes mixed with his music, producing tracks like “The Age of Self”, which was originally released to support UK miners’ unions in 1982 and is featured on a new career-spanning Wyatt compilation also called Different Every Time. “Culture is pudding. It’s lovely and I’ll always eat one,” he says in the biography, talking about his take on the worlds of art and politics. “But on its own, it’s not a full life’s diet for the brain. And the politics, to me, is indeed the protein.”
So when I ask him what sort of book he would write if given the chance, the answer makes sense. “It would be an amateur attempt at a Chomsky-type analysis of news broadcasting and how the entire Western press seems to be embedded with the NATO armies,” he says, before offering a qualifier—“nothing that anybody would actually want to read, so maybe I shouldn't do it.” While we may never get any kind of Wyatt Manifesto, the still-inquisitive and playful grandfather of four has many thoughts about current world events, including the prospect of another Cold War with Russia, the ironic rise of Communist China in a capitalist era, and the beautiful potential of America. The following interview touches on all of that, as well as a musical career built upon a staggeringly complete, yet egoless, sense of self.
"I have to call it like I see it, even if it's not
what we're told we ought to be thinking."
Pitchfork: Your 1972 track "Signed Curtain", which is on the new compilation, deconstructs the very idea of a pop song with lyrics like, “This is the chorus/ Or perhaps it's a bridge/ Or just another part of the song that I'm singing.” It’s indicative of the way you’ve upended traditional ideas, forms, and structures throughout your career.
Robert Wyatt: People have these habits about what they think songs should be like. There's the folky thing of: "Poor me, I'm a sensitive person in a cruel world." Or the pop thing of: "Hey, look at me, I'm sexy." I did that myself for a while; we sang a lot of pop songs live in the mid-‘60s in a group called the Wilde Flowers. But then I thought, “I'd never sing ‘hey baby’ to my girlfriend, because she'd just laugh at me and think I was a complete idiot. I've got to start again and try to be honest with this.” And that's what I was doing with "Signed Curtain".
Pitchfork: You and your wife Alfie's lyrics can often be abstract, yet many of the songs you’ve covered over the years—like Chic’s “At Last I Am Free” or the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”—are more straightforward. Do you feel like you're unable to write songs like that yourself or are you just not interested?
RW: I'm interested. Because I'm associated with an avant-garde sensibility, people think I'm looking down on popular culture, but I don't want to be part of a new elitism. We had enough of that in classical music, jazz, art, and so on. What I like about popular culture is its accessibility, and I’ve covered popular songs because they are amazing things. There are a lot of composers who were fantastic, but I challenge them to write a record that you could play five times a day for two months on the radio, songs that people will want to dance to on a Saturday night. That's an enormous skill! I don't have it. I like to inhabit those songs and see what it feels like inside, but I have to alter them to fit. It's a bit like if you buy a secondhand jacket at a thrift store: It's good to try on, but you may have to shorten the arms or, in my case, shorten the legs a little to get them to be comfortable. I feel happy to do that.
I particularly like taking on people that have no hip credibility whatsoever—they just write these things that people really love. When I did "I'm a Believer", I shifted the chords to sound a bit more influenced by McCoy Tyner, who played piano with John Coltrane. And then I sang in my own accent, of course. It's about being comfortable with your own voice and your own way of doing things, and it's been a difficult journey. From the start, the people who interested me were women, and I'm not one. To me, the perfect pop singer was Dionne Warwick. But I thought, "OK Robert, you're not Dionne Warwick." So I thought, "Well, Ray Charles." Then I looked in the mirror and I thought, "Robert, you're not Ray Charles either. You'd better stick to being Robert. Just get what you can out of that."
Pitchfork: The book details a few very serious moments in your life—an attempted suicide at age 16, the accident that left you paralyzed at 27—but it seems like you always maintained an intellectual distance from these things.
RW: It may be an English thing, in a way, laughing it off at a distance and using that as self-protection. I mean, I don't want to be a professional cripple. And I don't see the suicide stuff as tragic. Basically, at that age, I looked at what adults were doing and how they wanted to earn money, and I really didn't want to do that. I wanted to go away. I have my moods like that a lot. I'm not a fighter in that sense at all.
I don't think losing things—in my case, the use of my legs—really damages or hurts you. What hurts people a lot is taking humiliation. A lot of the wars going on right now in the Middle East aren't about poverty and exploitation. They’re about humiliation. For a long time, certainly the British and French have been humiliating and dismissing the people of the Middle East, and encouraging people like Israel to do the same. Israel started out as a socialist state, but we always encouraged them to become rather racist and look down on the local inhabitants, which they now do. It's sad that's happened.
Wyatt in the '60s
Pitchfork: As somebody who's seen so much political strife and was once a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the ‘80s, are you still engaged with happenings around the world?
RW: Yeah, I am. But I was a latecomer to politics. In fact, I wasn't that interested during the '60s. Maybe I'm just very slow. I got to everything when everyone else had left. Maybe it's some kind of perverse thing, but I have to respond, though I'm not naturally a rebel. I'm not against things. I'm not even naturally political, but I have to call it like I see it, even if it's not what we're told we ought to be thinking.
Pitchfork: Have you always been suspicious of the status quo?
RW: Not necessarily. That would be the anarchist point of view, that everything is a threat in some way. I get slightly irritated by people who say they're natural rebels because it just means that they’re going to be against whatever anybody does, which is almost like saying you might as well leave it as it is. I'm naturally quite conformist, really. If I go to a country and they say, “You've got to drive on the right,” I'm not going to drive on the left to show that I'm different. I'm able to stick to the law. I'm not a soldier for anything, either. I'm only a singer and I don't think it makes a difference what we sing.
But I do think there are deep structural things that are wrong in the world. The United States is the Western empire of the 19th century regrouping in the 20th, not out of wickedness, but because everybody else in Eurasia was so completely destroyed by the Second World War. Economically, that was quite a useful time for the United States, so they, of course, ended up in the position of enormous power. And like any great power, they're going to act in their own interests. The problem is due to what the business community wants, which is to make as much money as they can out of what other people do and pay as little as possible for it. When you have a country with trade unions where the workers want more than the basic minimums, you just move operations to somewhere where they're too weak to fight back, whether it's China, or Africa, or anywhere else. The constant pressure to push down the quality of life of the people at the other end of our empire is built into our system.
Although the alternatives I have supported have failed, I still think the problem is there. The gap between rich and poor is, in fact, widening enormously. This idea of building up the powers of people who are already powerful and keeping everyone else back is a recipe for endless misery and conflict.
Pitchfork: You mentioned that, although you have written political music, you don't think it could actually change things, which is a different perspective from artists of the heyday of political music in the ‘60s in America, who did foster some cultural change.
RW: They did. And I respect that. God bless the brave people who did it, inspired by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson. I was in America in 1968, on tour with the Soft Machine. It was inspiring, that's for sure. In New York, I saw things I'd never seen before, like gay couples wearing outrageous clothes and going around hand-in-hand. That's quite common now, but it wasn't then.
At that time, what really shocked me was the atmosphere of cultural civil war. We were just outside of it, being ferried around in airlines from one state to another, but I saw some police violence that really shocked me. The press claimed that it was always police trying to control savage mobs, but in fact, my impression was it was the other way around. The alternative culture, with the hair and the dope, was amicable. But the establishment hated them; the anger and disgust came from what we used to call “the straights.” The hippies, with their giant spliffs for breakfast, were never going to be a revolutionary force. But they were nice people. They didn't look like any trouble, not that I could see.
But anyway, I just don't think I write the kind of music that I can see crowds of people singing in football stadiums. Some of us are simply witnesses, and I hope there's a value in that.
Pitchfork: Do you also think that passive viewpoint is symbolic of the character of America versus England in the '60s and '70s? This idea of England being a witness to the main events of culture, which were happening in America.
RW: That's the truth. I just saw a recent television program about art, and it was saying how from the end of the Second World War, so much of what our culture is comes from not just the United States in general, but New York in particular. In my case, I can't imagine my life without the extraordinary bebop jazz revolution in New York in late '40s and '50s.
Because of my politics, people think I'm anti-American. But I was quite the reverse. What I don't like about the United States is when the government acts like an old, imperial 18th- or 19th-century European power. What I like about the United States is when you did stuff that nobody had ever done before, like those extraordinary cultural explosions. The United States is a country where everybody can start again. The cultural mix that's happened in the United States is wonderful! Funny enough, one of the most wonderful things about it is that there is no American race. There's no such thing! I mean, there's the first immigrants from Asia, which are called Native Americans. But America reinvented how to be a group, a people, that hasn't got a race, but nevertheless has a national identity. Potentially, America is really the greatest, but it's not yet, I don't think. It's still too much like an old-fashioned empire, waving the stick and dropping too many bombs on too many people.
Pitchfork: At this point, it seems like America is beyond its most prosperous moment, though, and as it goes downhill, it will likely become more desperate.
RW: I think that's absolutely right and quite likely, but it won't be the first empire that that has happened to. In fact, when the fires of empire get hidden, they still stay burning underneath the moss, seething away. This is true with a lot of the countries with really difficult, impenetrable nationalist movements—countries that once had a big empire, like Turkey, England, or even in Italy, with the fascists in the middle of the last century. People who had empires, unfortunately, want them back eventually, somehow, someway.
Pitchfork: Speaking of former empires and power, what is your take on the current conflict between the Ukraine and Russia?
RW: Well, I'll probably lose every friend I've got, but I think the Russians are about the only people who have behaved decently. All the evidence to the contrary seems a bit bogus to me. NATO is trying to use Ukraine to isolate and cripple Russia, and that's completely crazy and very cruel. It seems to me that our side, the English and American people, really want it to go bad there. But there's no need for it to have done so. At least that's what I think. [laughs] You won't hear a lot of that on Fox News.
Pitchfork: What do you think about Vladimir Putin at this point?
RW: We don't like him a lot, but I understand why he's very popular in Russia—he’s probably the first Russian leader to not apologize for being Russian. People always pin it down to one man, but there's hundreds of millions of Russians of various sorts. Putin does seem to be very popular in Russia, if only because he stands up for Russians wherever they are, which is exactly what Americans do with Americans, of course.
Russia abandoned the Communist ideology that our governments hated so much and they want to get a capitalist economy. They're doing a lot of work with European countries, and there's so much trade and cultural exchange so that the old enmity can disappear, rather like what happened with Germany after the Second World War. It's not in the European interest for that to be messed up. It's not in Putin's interest, either.
Pitchfork: What do you think of China’s current political system, then? Is it in line with the Communist ideals you originally connected with at all?
RW: No, it never caught my imagination. It's funny that Chairman Mao's great hero was Napoleon, because Napoleon started out as a revolutionary for the underdogs and then made himself an emperor. In fact, a lot of revolutionary leaders do that, and you think, “Well, that's spoiling your argument. What are you doing?” But on the other hand, the people themselves are really enjoying trying out all these different ways to be. I hope that, like the Japanese, the Chinese hang on to their own traditions as well as try out Western ones. I hate it when people just lose so much confidence in who they are that they abandon their own culture. I don't want an entire world full of people just drinking Coca-Cola and eating McDonald's hamburgers and listening to American pop records. That would be a lesser world. I hope the cultural diversity is rich and is able to survive the Westernization of their economies.
I also think it's hypocritical to complain about the rise of China. For 50 years, we were telling everybody in the world that the big threat was Communism, so now the countries that were Communists are now rampant capitalists—and they're doing very well, in some ways much better than us. Well, we asked for it. We told them that's what you have to do, and they're doing it, buying up your biggest hotels in New York. You have to laugh.
Pitchfork: You mentioned this idea of Napoleon going from an underdog to an emperor, but—not to compare you to Napoleon—your career is a good example of how being an underdog isn’t necessarily something to overcome.
RW: Well, that's about the nicest thing anybody's said to me in years. I hope that's the truth. It's not even a moral question. It's a question of pride. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror, and I don't know how some people do that. God knows I've been so wicked and selfish in the past, but nevertheless, I do really think the things I think and support the people I support. I would encourage people to realize that you don't have to panic if you're not part of a mainstream or if you find yourself outside the flow. If it doesn't suit you, don't go along with it. Just sit it out and get your stuff done. Don't just sit moaning or getting drunk—I spent some years doing that. But if you can just come up with something of your own, however minor it is, that's going to be easier to live with when you're at the end of your life.
Pitchfork: Are you working on any new music right now?
RW: No. There's other stuff going on in my own life here with me and Alfie, partly health stuff, getting older. We've got problems that are taking up all our attention. Also, I've been in the saddle now for 50 years, and honestly, I'm a bit saddlesore. So I've got off my horse and have just been wandering around in our little paddock here.
I'm spending a lot of time with Alfie, and I hope we have a long time, but this is kind of the end run. And I haven't been a particularly good husband, not very attentive. I'm trying to make that right. I really like her company. She makes me laugh. We watch things together, a lot of DVD box sets of shows like “The Good Wife” and “Mad Men”.
I stopped drinking a few years ago, and drinking was a big help with me making music, because drinking gives you courage. But it also makes you reckless, and that's the trouble. You can get away with that your 20s, but not in your 60s, and I'll be 70 next year. Life is a small space now, much more intimate. I'm not out there in the world anymore, but I'm watching.
Mourn, from left: Carla Pérez Vas, Leia Rodríguez Bueno, Jazz Rodríguez Bueno, and Antonio Postius Echeverría. Photo by Albert Manau.
Mourn frontwoman Jazz Rodríguez Bueno doesn’t need to think long and hard about the most hurtful thing anyone has ever said to her. Three years ago, when she was 15, a boy she was seeing broke things off by telling her: “When we started dating, I knew you were very immature—I thought you would change, but you haven't, so I leave you.”
It’s telling that “immature” stung, because Mourn will probably have to get used to people fixating on whether they act their age for at least a little while. Three of the quartet’s members, Bueno, guitarist/vocalist Carla Pérez Vas, and drummer Antonio Postius Echeverría, are 18, and their bassist, Bueno’s sister Leia, is 15. The Catalonian band’s self-titled debut was originally released by Barcelona’s Sones Records in September, and Brooklyn indie powerhouse Captured Tracks has since signed on to further distribute the record, which is out now digitally and will get a vinyl release on February 17.
The album is a chiseled mass of stoic punk and muscular indie rock, but for all of its sonic austerity, Mourn is still very much a product of impatient youth: Its 10 songs were recorded straight to tape in a two-day stretch in an attempt to recreate the group's live spontaneity. (Vas simply calls this process “more sincere.”) The songs themselves owe their creation to the wandering of teenage minds—the zombie fantasy “Your Brain Is Made of Candy” was written while Bueno was “bored and angry” in class, while their first-ever song, “Boys Are Cunts”, was thought-up in the shower.
Growing up, Bueno’s father Ramón, who records tasteful, melodic rock as the New Raemon, provided her with a musical homeschooling, introducing her to the likes of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith. “A lot of people know him, but he's not a superstar,” says Bueno of her dad. “I saw him playing a lot of concerts and wanted to be like him—since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to do that.”
Regardless of their precocity, Mourn’s youth instantly distinguishes them. On one hand, you want to respect this group of teens by holding them up to the same standards that you would for any band. Then again, it’s hard not to bring up their age, which informs just about every logistic of our interview, which requires a break from their Sunday night activities of homework procrastination and alleviating boredom by making panellets, a Catalan staple they fumble to describe as “potato balls with sugar.” Vas and Bueno are in the pre-collegiate, two-year portion of the Spanish school system, where Bueno studies animation and Vas is taking on photography. Their goals are modest and very achievable: “If we can live making music and having fun, that would be nice,” “I want to meet the lead singer of [Captured Tracks label mates] DIIV—I don't know his name, but he reminds me of Kurt Cobain.”
Most of all, they still live with their parents, have never toured outside their city, have never been to the United States, and this is their first press interview in English.
Pitchfork: Who was the first artist that made you identify with punk rock?
Jazz Rodríguez Bueno and Carla Pérez Vas: [in unison] PJ Harvey.
JRB: When I was 14, my father was listening to her and he said, "You'd like this!" And I did.
Pitchfork: Why do you think he said that?
JRB: She was what I wanted to be because she doesn't sing like, [high pitched pop voice] "Oh yeah, la la la!" She screams when she has to scream and she plays very well. I just love the power of what she does.
Pitchfork: While the two of you bonded over ‘90s indie rock, what were most of your schoolmates listening to?
JRB: Here in Catalan, there's a lot of bands who play cumbia and ska, and most of the people listen to that kind of music.
CPV: They listen to music that doesn't make you think about anything. But in the underground scene, there are a lot of people listening to local bands, which is very cool.
JRB: There's a lot of garage and hardcore bands here in Catalan, and they are all connected. So we started playing shows and meeting people.
CPV: You start going to concerts because a friend tells you the band is cool, and then you discover two more bands there. It's awesome.
Pitchfork: Do you think English is more effective than Spanish when it comes to writing in this style of music?
JRB: We started writing in English because we listened to a lot of music in English. Here, if you write in English, people will listen to you, but they won't understand what you're saying. People have the image that if you sing in English, it's more professional and cooler, but I don't think it's the only language you can express yourself in.
Pitchfork: “Boys Are Cunts” is the first song you wrote together—is that based on a true story?
JRB: More or less.
Pitchfork: There are also songs on the record called “Marshall” and “Jack”, are they based on people you know?
CPV: "Marshall" is based on a boy called Marcel, who’s an ex-boyfriend of our friend.
JRB: He was an asshole. "Jack" is based on a mix of people...
CPV: ... that we hate.
Pitchfork: Are these people aware that these songs are about them?
JRB: Marshall knows. He hated us before that, so now he hates us more.
Pitchfork: When did you sense that Mourn was generating interest overseas?
CPV: [Sones Records] passed the record onto [Captured Tracks owner] Mike [Sniper], who loved it. Then Mike wrote an email to us, and we were like, “What? This cannot be possible.”
JRB: I thought it was a joke. I didn't know about Captured Tracks so I had to look them up on the Internet.
CPV: And we saw that Mac DeMarco was on that label.
JRB: And it was like, “Whoa.”
Pitchfork: How have your friends in the local scene reacted to all of this?
JRB: They are more excited than us, because we don't even believe it’s real yet.
Photo by Nikita Ponomarev
5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This time, we spoke with confrontational 34-year-old experimental rocker Alex Zhang Hungtai, who recently released his third album as Dirty Beaches, Stateless, and also retired the project. The restless artist is hardly done with music, though—he already has a new moniker, Last Lizard, and is working on new material.
I lived in Taiwan until I was 8 years old. After my generation, Taiwan banned physical punishment in school, but I still remember when I got caught cheating during an exam. The teachers had this humiliation tactic: They'd shame you in front of the entire class, asking you, "Why did you do that?" And then she had this long vine stick, which was frightening, because when she whipped it you could hear the sound—whoosh whoosh whoosh. I had to stick out my hands, palms up, and she just whipped 'em five or 10 times. I would pull my hands away with every hit, and she kept saying "stick your hands out" in this very menacing way.
In 1988, my family moved to Canada. My dad was at the peak of his real estate career and he wanted to get us out of Taiwan to give us a better education. He was also concerned about the military service that I'd have to do in Taiwan—he almost foresaw what would happen when I turned 18, when China took back Hong Kong and Macau and aimed for Taiwan next. He was afraid I would be in the army, get sent to war, fight the Communists, and get killed.
The journey to Canada was quite bizarre. We made a stop in New York first, to visit my uncle in Queens. I remember playing at a park there, and some ghetto-ass kid just pushed me off the monkey bars, and we just stared at each other for a really long time. I didn't know how to speak English at the time. It was the first time I experienced racial tension.
But when I was 5, my sister was really crazy about Madonna. She loved "Material Girl", and I remember dancing to it in my underwear, not knowing what the song was about. After we immigrated to Canada, she really got into the Cure and the Smiths and Depeche Mode. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have liked those bands.
Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation was the first CD I ever bought with my own money, and the video for "Rhythm Nation" really blew my mind as a kid. I was like, "Wow, that's America." I didn't even know what I was watching, I was just impressed. She was saying stuff like, "No racism! No bigotry! No illiteracy!" and I stared at the TV and was like, "Whoa."
At 14, my parents went back to Taiwan with my oldest sister, while my middle sister went to Hawaii for college. I could either stay in Toronto with my uncles or go somewhere else, and for whatever reason, I chose to live with a cousin in Queens. That didn't turn out too well—my mother freaked out because my cousin was working in gangs and selling dope. I was immediately taken out of there. At that age, you're not gonna appreciate New York for the arts and culture—it's just grim, rough neighborhoods. I got mugged two times. I only had $2.15, and the guy still took it from me.
I was this naïve kid who never really ran into serious trouble, but when someone pulls a gun on you, it's something else. You just freeze. At that time, I categorized obnoxious people in two categories: people who've never had an ass-whooping, and the ones who are doing the ass-whooping. It was easy to be humbled in these experiences—you don't walk around shooting your mouth off, you become more careful in the environment you're in. Moving around so much also forced me to get used to judging people. Whereas usually you'd take your time and get to know someone, I'd judge them immediately and see if we could be friends. A lot of it is based on unspoken chemistry. I didn't have too many friends that lasted throughout my entire childhood but I remember the people that I bonded with immediately.
I moved in with my sister in Hawaii, which was really trippy, because people in Hawaii speak Pidgin, and I had just came from Queens. I was all like, "No one can fuck with me, I've seen everything," and then these three 300-pound-plus, 6'3" guys corner me outside the cafeteria, and I wasn't able to communicate with them. They were like, "Nah, I see you, you get 'im five dollas." I was like, "You want five dollars?" They're like, "Yeah." And I'm like, "Well, I'm not gonna give it to you." They were all smiling at me, which was terrifying—really slow and relaxed, very different from New York. They wouldn't punch you and try to rob you, they just cornered you, these three massive meat walls. I punched one of them in the neck, and it didn't even faze him. I punched him in the chest—and then I got pummeled. I wasn't small either—in high school I was already 5'10", 150 pounds—but I still got the shit kicked out of me. I didn't give them the money, though, and they tried to fuck with me everyday until they gave up and went on to pick on some other guy that was 10 times smaller than me.
To this day, I feel really bad about the time I spent in Hawaii, because I was entering the full-blown rebellious stage of my life and it caused so much fucking pain for my sister. I was a nuisance, but she was really cool. I've made her cry so many times because of all the stupid dumb shit that I did. She was only 5 years older than me and she had to take care of this stupid little kid who was getting into trouble all the time.
At this point, all my friends were getting into Wu-Tang. Most minorities lean toward black American culture in general. There were a lot of Vietnamese or Filipino kids onto gangster rap, and only the white kids were listening to Nirvana. I wasn't into that stuff at all.
I went to college [in Hawaii] when I was 18. In high school, there weren't that many white kids, but in college there were a lot of kids from California and other places from the mainland, as well as foreign exchange students. I had a Swedish roommate, and a writer from Brooklyn whose mom was from Haiti and whose father was French. And at 19, I joined my first band, which was made up of these hardcore Muslim-Indonesian dudes that were really into Sepultura. They asked me to join the band, and I did, and then they kicked me out.
Around 2003, I dropped out of college. I was studying psychology, which I had some vague interest in, but my heart wasn't in the academics. I think learning should come from a place where you have a strong, genuine curiosity towards something, and I realized that I could do that outside of school, on my own terms. My English drastically improved after I dropped out because I started to read more because I wasn’t being forced to read all these stupid books I didn't want to read. I was working all these odd jobs—my friend was a contractor, and I was basically his sidekick, fixing up houses with him. It was all right. I made 10 bucks an hour.
The Strokes got big around this time, and everyone in Hawaii suddenly started wearing blazers—which was retarded, because it's fucking hot in Hawaii. I started wearing blazers too though. I'd just walk down the street and sweat my ass off. [laughs] I was in an indie rock band called Julius at the time, and we actually opened for the Strokes when they first played in Hawaii. It was the first time I'd played to 2,000 people, and I was shitting my pants. When Julian Casablancas walked into the club while we were soundchecking, it was the first time I felt starstruck. He looked like he owned the whole damn place. He had this star power that I've never seen anyone in person have, and it was very special to witness. He was glowing. Now that I've done the whole touring thing, I know that they were just loading in, and he was probably looking for coffee and trying to find out where the green room was so he could go check his e-mail or something. [laughs]
I was in another band, Manor, and we decided to move to San Francisco. We were like, "We're moving to the big city, man, we're gonna tour across America!"—like every other fucking band on the planet. [laughs] But all that fell apart as soon as I moved there. Because I had dropped out of college, I lost my status in America. All my friends in the U.S. were telling me, "Dude, you're Canadian, you can just cross the border and you'll have another six months here." And that's what I did, but then I got caught at the border going back to Canada. So I went from being this happy guy in my mid-20s living in San Francisco and playing in a band, to having nothing and not knowing where to go or what to do. I was homeless in Vancouver for two months, trying to find any possible way to get back into the States. I applied to an art college, submitted my portfolio, got a student visa, and was still denied at the airport.
That was when I really just gave up on everything and called home for help. I hadn't called home for help since I was 16, so that was a big deal. My mom was really sad. She said, "We moved to Shanghai, and you can come stay with us." So I went to Shanghai. That was a really dark year for me. I had a lot of close friends, but not as many as I thought, because a lot of them were like, "Well, fuck, dude, you're in China? Good luck with everything." They just didn't know what to say, but at the time I really resented those friends, because they were being so cold. The guitarist for Manor passed away in 2005, too, and I couldn't even go to his funeral because I couldn't get into the States.
I was working in real estate in Shanghai, feeling very suicidal and not playing any music. That's when I solidified who I wanted to be, and how different I was with the rest of my family—even though I love them very much and they mean the world to me. So I became my own person. I realized I could no longer fulfill their expectations—as an Asian son, the only son in the family—and I couldn't stand up to the plate and knock it out of the park. So I saved money for a year, quit my job, and moved to Montreal. That was the beginning of Dirty Beaches.
"I remember loving indie rock so much when I was younger, but it turned into something else, and I couldn't identify with it anymore."
Musically, I was really out of the loop around this time, because I lost faith in indie rock. When I was still in Hawaii, I loved Interpol's first two albums, before they got sucked dry by the industry template. If you look at a lot of the bands from that era—Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Hives—they all just got sucked dry. The ones that survived from that era have clear plans of who they are and who they wanna be in their career—Jack White is one example, he created his own monopoly. So I got into the Sublime Frequencies label, and that music really filled a void. I was so tired of listening to guitar-based rock.
I remember loving indie rock so much when I was younger because it was independent and you did everything yourself because you didn't want anyone to fuck with you. But it completely got turned into something else, and I couldn't identify with it anymore. All of a sudden, the clothes that we used to wear didn't mean anything. Now you have a 15-year-old girl wearing a "Love Will Tear Us Apart" T-shirt and she doesn't know what that means—not to be judgmental, but it's just disheartening to find a teenager listening to Joy Division and Katy Perry on their iPod. When we were younger, there was a very distinct "us" versus "them," whereas now it's so blurry that we don't even know what we're rebelling against. The independent scene is not rebelling against the mainstream. The independent scene has turned into a market itself, so it's just a snake eating its own tail. It makes me angry when people try to package and resell my youth back to me—it's like someone pissed all over my 20s and then tried to sell it back to me at Urban Outfitters.
I moved to Berlin two years ago. It was at the end of a relationship, and after living in Montreal for 7 years, I got fed up with suffering the consequences of still not being able to fully speak French. When you're paying taxes and dealing with social services, the language really becomes an issue. I tried to get my health care card again after I moved there and the lady didn't wanna help me and basically denied my application because I was speaking English. It was really ridiculous. That definitely made me want to leave.
When I first moved to Berlin, I was going insane—took too much drugs, partied way too hard. I fell in the typical North American-dude-moving-to-Berlin category and I was really ashamed of it. I was really lucky that I finished [2013's Drifters/Love Is the Devil] after I moved here, because the whole year after that I didn't write anything. My mind was gone. That's why I had to leave for a bit, because Berlin was just sucking me in into this dark void and I couldn't get out of it. I mellowed out in Lisbon this past year and then returned to Berlin, and it feels really strange now! I'm like a dad walking in Berlin, getting my coffee and meeting friends for a picnic. I take a stroll by the river and I'm like, "I love this city! There's so much sun and it's great." And then the nighttime comes and people are like, "What are you doing? Wanna go clubbing? What are your plans?" Last night, I was over at a friend's place for dinner and went to a bar for a drink, and the next thing I know, it's 5 a.m. and people are still asking, "Where do you guys wanna go next?" And I'm like, "I'm going to sleep! Fuck. You guys never stop!" There's always somewhere that's open, so people just keep going.
"Around this age you're really in touch with who you are,
even if it's embarrassing."
I was recently in Beirut, Lebanon for a show and I got to stay for a week, which was really awesome. I really like the idea that the city has been occupied by so many different people. The people there have this really strange, multilayered sense of identity; they speak Arabic, French, and English very fluently. So, automatically, you get this really bizarre sense of displacement within the population—I met filmmakers who couldn't decide what language they wanted to film in. The language you use reveals your socioeconomic background.
The last night I was there, there was a memorial service for a Shiite leader who passed away a while ago. There was a speech on TV while I was living in a Muslim area, and everyone on their rooftops started firing their AKs and pistols. Immediately after that, this group of Sunni supporters drove into the neighborhood on scooters with these giant flags and banners, rushing through the neighborhood, fucking with the Shiites immediately after the memorial service. It was really tense. I'm glad I got to see that side of Beirut, because that's part of their daily existence, but it was really shocking. A wonderful week and then guns blazing everywhere. It's almost like a war zone.
Around this age you're really in touch with who you are, even if it's embarrassing. It's when you really rise above and realize that all aesthetics are just the surface. It's your experiences, your mileage, everything that you've collected along the way, that is the testament of who you really are. Everything that you've lived through shines out from the inside. That's what I strive to be, and when I see the two brothers from Tonstartssbandht, they're the the perfect example of that. They just ooze freedom. They don't care about how people look at them. It's so inspiring to watch them play and to be their friend.
“You've caught me at an exceptional time,” says Jarvis Cocker, on the phone from London earlier this month. The iconic frontman just wrapped up a day of lyric writing at his label Rough Trade’s offices and he’s feeling particularly inspired. “I think of myself as a volcano,” he muses, “most of the time, there is no real discernible sign of life as I sit on a couch or walk down the street. But underneath the surface, the magma is bubbling, and eventually, it produces a record, or a song, or whatever. I'm trying to make that happen now.”
He declines to elaborate on the in-progress material or how it will be released—“when it’s done, I'll decide what to do with it”—but as we wait for the lava, as it were, to flow, it’s a good time to look back on the 51-year-old’s legacy as the leader of Pulp. After breaking up in 2002, the band reconvened in 2011 for a host of ebullient gigs that showed little signs of the rust and desperation that commonly come along with such reunions. Thankfully, New Zealand director Florian Habicht decided to mark the occasion by filming their triumphant homecoming gig at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena on December 8, 2012. The resulting feature, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (which is now available digitally and playing in select theaters across America), is not merely a concert movie, but instead a chronicle of the group’s history as well as a brilliant character study of Sheffield itself.
Along with interviews with Pulp's five members, Life, Death and Supermarkets sees Habicht talking with fans from around town, who offer casual profundity on the band’s music and simple, everyday life. There’s a heavily-accented newsstand man who loves to sing “We Are the Champions”, a grey-haired, wheelchair-bound woman who prefers Pulp over Blur, a soft-spoken American mom who flew across an ocean to see her heroes in their hometown. These are the sorts of beautifully real people Cocker often sings about in his sly-yet-heartfelt songs, and Habicht captures their humble charm perfectly.
Though the Sheffield show provided a fine capper for Pulp’s career, Cocker doesn’t rule out more gigs down the line—at this point, he’s wise enough not to rule out anything, really. “There are no plans to play again for the foreseeable future,” he says, “but then again, I can't strictly say that it will never happen. I wouldn't advise people to hold their breath, though.”
Pitchfork: Even though Sheffield is Pulp’s hometown, I was surprised by the broad range of your fanbase there—everyone from grandmothers to little kids were familiar with the band and had something to say about it.
Jarvis Cocker: That was a pleasant surprise to me, too. You would expect it to be just hipsters, but it really wasn't. [laughs] When Pulp first started off [in the 1980s], we had this idea of being a pop band. In England, pop is rank now, but up until about 20 years ago, interesting things would happen within that arena—it was a pastime that a lot of the population participated in. You would get things like Laurie Anderson going to #1 with "O Superman", and then the next week it would be ABBA. It was a really mixed thing. So we always wanted our music to connect with a wide body of people, just because that's what pop music meant to me. I was quite into the fact that everybody could participate. It wasn't an elitist thing. Now, there's more stuff, but it's also spread-out more. There's lots of little scenes that operate really intensely in their own world, but aren't that visible to the mainstream. Maybe that's better. I'm still trying to work that one out.
Pitchfork: Do you still feel a responsibility to speak for the everyday sorts of folks who were interviewed as part of this film?
JC: I've never thought, “Oh, I've got to write songs about normal people or real life.” When people set out to write a song aimed at the common man—I mean, I don't even believe that that person exists—that's when you get really horrible, preachy, vague, waffly songs. I hate those songs. If you want to be a creative person, the big thing is to locate your own creative voice, which can be quite difficult. When I went to art college, I would read books about famous artists of years gone by and think, “Oh, well, if I went and lived in Marrakech and ate only oatmeal and bananas for a year, I'd become really artistic,” as if there's some kind of recipe. But instead of looking off into the distance, try and concentrate on your immediate surroundings and you will find that you already have a unique take on the world. It's just that you might not recognize it. The key to locating it is by being specific and writing about the details of situations, because a detail proves that you were actually there and lends authenticity to what you're writing. And the weird thing is that, by being more specific, it opens things up and makes it universal.
Watch a scene from Pulp: Life, Death and Supermarkets:
Pitchfork: How would you describe the general character of Sheffield?
JC: Sheffield is not as outgoing as other northern England cities, like Manchester and Liverpool. If you go up and try to start a conversation with someone in Sheffield, they'll probably hate you or they'll just not talk to you. They're not the friendliest people in the world, so I was quite amazed that [director Florian Habicht] actually managed to get people to trust him and open up and say a little bit about themselves, because in my experience that's quite difficult. I was born there and I'm still waiting for some of the people I know to open up. They probably never ever will.
I have not lived in Sheffield for 25 years so, for me, one of the joys of the film was to see that it still had the same kind of personalities that I remember from when I was there. Like those two old women who were going on about, "I like dancing,” “She can't dance." Just funny. There's a certain attitude of just getting on with life. If you're in a band or think of yourself as a slightly creative person, you can get quite self-indulgent, so sometimes it's nice to have those people who bring you down to earth, but in a pleasant way.
And musically, Sheffield has always punched above its weight, from the Human League to Def Leppard—though they were from a posh part of town, so please don't blame us for them.
Pitchfork: The film features interviews with some young fans from Sheffield, which made me wonder what you were like as a kid growing up in the city.
JC: I was a very shy kid, which is the reason my mother got me a job at a fish market, which they show in the film, because she thought it would make me more sociable and toughen me up a little bit. In a way, she was right. I never would've chosen that job at all. It was smelly and pretty unpleasant, but the people who worked there were funny. That experience did have quite a formative effect on me, because it just showed me a different side to life. And my shyness was probably one of the reasons why I wanted to be in a band. I thought it would help me mix with people. I've got better with social situations as I've got older, but even now, if I know I've got to go out to a place where there's gonna be quite a few people and have to make conversation, I'll start getting nervous.
Pitchfork: Your own son is 11 now, does he have any interest in music yet?
JC: He's been playing the drums since he was about 5, though I never encouraged him to be a drummer. I always told him that was a bad idea because you're at the back and the girls can't see you, and the other members of the band always tell you that you're playing too loud or speeding up all the time. But he didn't seem to be bothered about that.
You just gotta let people decide what they wanna do. That's the main thing that I'm grateful to my own mother about. When it came to the end of school and all my friends went off to university, I said that I wanted to stay behind and try to make music my life, and she allowed me to do that. The best thing you can give someone is the freedom to make their own mind up—and then, if it's not working out 5 years later, you can give your opinion. I would love for my son to do something useful, like be a scientist or a doctor, but in the end it's gonna be up to him to decide what he wants.
Pitchfork: But you of all people should know that musicians can sometimes be as useful to people as scientists.
JC: I don't know about that. It can be entertaining, hopefully. I'm happy with what I decided to do with my life, but I know it's not significant.
Pitchfork: You recently said that the sentiment behind "Common People"—upper-class people envying working-class life—doesn't resonate the way it did when the song came out in the mid-‘90s, because ideas of class have shifted.
JC: Yeah, a more appropriate song now would be "Royals" by Lorde, because the working class isn't the same as it used to be in England and America, as far as people actually making things in factories—all that happens in other countries now. It's more like a consuming class, or just people without much money. In the olden days, there was such a thing as working-class culture and things like music came from that, because it was entertainment made by people in a different sector of society. And that had a vitality to it. Sometimes, people from the upper class or middle class would be jealous of that vitality and want to live in that world a bit. But now, certain sectors of cities in the UK are just very rough places. I can't imagine anybody going, "Wow, I'd really like to live like that." So that thing which existed the '50s, '60s, and '70s, where people would search for this energy in lower class things, is maybe gone.
Pitchfork: Do you lament how it seems like less and less bands are coming from working-class backgrounds?
JC: I don't really care what someone's background is; creativity can come from any background. But there have been certain things that have happened within UK society over the last few years—for instance, art colleges used to be a place where people with not-so-good grades could go, and historically a lot of bands in the UK came from art colleges because you had a bit of freedom to create there. But that's gone now because it's quite expensive to go to art college. No one would ever go just to hang out and vaguely see whether they could form a band. Stuff like that is keeping that sector of society a bit out of the conversation, which I resent because, if that had been the story 30 years ago, then I wouldn't have been able to do what I did with my life. My basic position is that the more mixed the society and the more mobility there is in it, the better. That's what makes things interesting. When you get a homogenous society, it's very, very dull, whether that's all working class or all upper class, because everybody thinks the same, everybody looks the same.
Pitchfork: As someone who’s maintained a creative lifestyle for about 30 years now, what advice would you give to someone who’s considering that path now?
JC: One of the problems of our modern world is that there's a lot of things to work through, but, at some point, everybody should take a pause from that and make something, so that it's not just all one-way traffic. Human beings aren't meant to be solely consumers—eventually, something has to come out. Otherwise, I don't really see what the point of all that consumption is. The idea behind watching things and listening to things is that it stirs something within you, and hopefully that will stimulate you to then create your own thing.
I love the Internet, but it's hard not to get lost in it. It's not like a book where you start and get to the end. It’s like we’ve found a way to encapsulate all of human knowledge within one thing only to learn that you can’t do that. It's an overabundance of information. Ultimately, it must be quite tough to be confronted with that. If you wanted to be a creative person and you are confronted with the sum product of mankind's creativity up to this moment in history, that's pretty daunting, like, “Where can I fit my voice in amongst all that?”
Pitchfork: Yeah, the idea of making something new can seem pointless because you know it's going to be thrown on top of this endless pile of stuff.
JC: What people have to make sure of is that they're not replicating something that already exists. You really have to ask yourself: “Is there a point in me doing this? Has this already been said before? Is this moving things along or is this just adding to the giant pile of junk that's already there?” Social commentators give this kind of idea names like “cultural gridlock,” where things like music don’t seem to be developing so much. It's not like the music of 1994 is that different than the music of 2014—and that's 20 years worth.
But I believe that humans adapt to circumstance. The Internet is quite an unprecedented circumstance, so it's going to take people a while to get their heads around it. You read things about writers, for instance, who get computer programs so that they can't surf the Internet when they're supposed to be writing. People are learning that you've got to find some way of shutting things off in order to give your own mind a chance to produce something. It's interesting that most gadgets are called “iPhone” and “iPod,” with that "i" prefix, which is ego. But most creativity is not ego-led—a lot of it comes from the unconscious. So if you’re always checking your email or updating your Instagram profile, you're not just looking out the window, daydreaming. You've got to let the subconscious in—that's my main message to the world. I sound like I've been reading too many self-help books, don't I?
Pitchfork: How would you gauge the importance the Internet has had on culture in general in the last 20 years?
JC: The Internet and mobile phones are probably the most significant cultural changes that I'll witness in my lifetime. I was born between formats, so I can remember life before and after. In some ways, it's positive. Say you're traveling on the Underground here in London, late at night—before, you would always be pretty nervous that you might get beaten up by somebody. A lot of violence just stems from boredom. People would get on a train and think, "I've got 20 minutes. What should I do? Oh look, there's somebody over there that looks weird. I'll go beat them up." But now, people are just on their phones. They're not bothered about you. They don't even really know that you're there. They'll just check through some emails and play Candy Crush. In a way, it's probably a big reason why there's less violence now. Having said that, the next time I go on the tube, I'll probably get beaten up.
With the release of his latest single “i”, Kendrick Lamar switched from the brooding, conflicted narratives of good kid, m.A.A.d city to a more pop-savvy, optimistic style, seemingly alienating as many fans as he gained. The sudden shift in Lamar’s presentation is typified by his new song’s generous sampling of the Isley Brothers’ 1973 hit “That Lady.” Aside from the track itself, the most compelling thing about “i” is what it says about the Isleys’ own ridiculously durable career (now in its seventh decade), and the continued relevance of their music to yet another generation of listeners.
Watch the Isley Brothers perform “That Lady” on “Soul Train” in 1974:
In his new book Top 40 Democracy, University of Alabama professor Eric Weisbard (also an ex-Spin editor, author of a great 33 1/3 entry on Guns ‘N Roses’Use Your Illusion, and organizer of the yearlyEMP Pop Conference) unpacks the Isley Brothers’ rare longevity through the cultural politics of a rapidly modernizing black America and its awkward dances with white audiences. The group’s breakout 1959 hit “Shout” was drawn straight from the brothers’ experience in the church ritual of ring shouting, he notes, though it’s perhaps best known amongst the broader populace as a white frat anthem in the 1978 comedy classic Animal House. But while the Isleys were keen to reinvent themselves as a rock band in the ‘70s, white rock radio audiences and programmers dismissed them.
The Isleys responded from “That Lady” onward, Weisbard writes, by making R&B-formatted radio their own mainstream. Though radio formatting—the market-research-driven development of playlists to churn the same tunes over and over and produce consistent advertising revenue—has long been derided by purists as crass commercialism prevailing over the chaos of freeform on-air artistry, Weisbard eloquently defends the practice. “The format system has provided a stable means for groups on the margins of public discourse, including oppositional discourse, to sing and feel things together,” he contends, foregrounding their communicative potential far ahead of their consumerist origins. On R&B-formatted radio, the Isleys reached much more sympathetic audiences, and huge ones at that.
Where “Shout” represented the successful modernization of the black church for pop audiences, Weisbard argues, the exquisite “That Lady” later represented a different shade of soul: a purposefully crafted appeal to a black audience increasingly being viewed as a key market for advertisers. As the black middle class expanded, R&B radio audiences from 1973 to 1984 could rely on what Weisbard calls the Isleys’ “almost brutally consistent” approach to record-making: predictably sequenced albums (all of which sold gold or platinum) that helped soundtrack a rapidly changing black American experience.
So: Forty years after the slick sophistication of “That Lady” blew up on R&B radio before crossing over to the pop Top 10, Kendrick Lamar reappropriated that sparkling guitar lead as a soundtrack to his own minor re-branding. After reading Weisbard’s book, it’s impossible to think that the song—or its hip-hop progeny—would have even been possible without the Isleys and their label, Columbia, savvily negotiating R&B radio.
Top 40 Democracy, which is smart but not inaccessibly so thanks to Weisbard’s long tenure as a popular music writer, broadens out after the Isleys chapter to craft an alternate history of the ‘70s and ‘80s through the lens of radio formats. Where the Isleys adapted their creativity to fit R&B format requirements, Dolly Parton not only transcended country’s downhome/cosmopolitan dichotomy, but dragged the country radio format kicking and screaming on her journey to weird pop bliss. In Weisbard’s view, Top 40 isn’t simply the place where Rick Dees and Casey Kasem’s voices oozed from transistors, but a vast virtual stage for Elton John to import a brash British pop sensibility to American rock audiences, queering the top of the pop charts long before he was out of the closet. Radio formats like MOR (“middle-of-the-road”) and Adult Contemporary would create what Weisbard calls “the soft center of American music,” while serving as “its most diverse province” as well, appealing to women as they moved from housewives to office workers.
Formats aren’t to be dismissed as fast-food radio, Weisbard concludes, but as a form of “democratized leisure for a population enjoying a rising, shared prosperity that opened up consumer culture.” If songs are repeated constantly, that isn’t something to be bemoaned, but rather something to be investigated, ultimately giving way to illuminating truths.
Pitchfork: A lot of people talk about “the mainstream” versus “the underground,” but in the book you introduce the idea of multiple mainstreams created by radio formats.
Eric Weisbard: So many people have told the story of mass culture in America as one of segmentation: Mass culture breaks into smaller and smaller niches, and we become atomized as a people. But what I found while thinking about radio formats and the audiences they generate is that it's much more complicated. Any enduring format creates large groups of listeners. Some formats, like Adult Contemporary and Top 40, are crossover spaces that work to bring larger publics together, not apart. When you see the world through formats, it's not just the story of atomization, it's the story of new mainstreams being formed.
Pitchfork: One of the ideas that makes this book gripping is the way you distinguish music “formats” from “genres” by paralleling them to the poptimism vs. rockism debate.
EW: I was looking to visit those concepts of why some people saw pop music as this fertile, eclectic space and attacked people who liked rock music as being kind of biased and small-minded. One thing that immediately occurred to me was that plenty of people that you might think of as rockist are not in any way connected to rock: When Aretha Franklin attacks disco music from the perspective of soul, she's doing something similar to what a rock fan was doing when the rock fan attacked disco. When a country music fan attacks Garth Brooks from the perspective of Hank Williams, that too is something similar to what gets called rockism. So I wanted to think about why, in a world that had clearly achieved so much popular music of different kinds, there was so much antipathy aimed at that diversity. If you think not in terms of pop vs. rock, but in terms of formats vs. genres, you're gonna actually move this conversation forward and people can stop talking about Kelefa Sanneh's New York Times article from 10 years ago. We can move forward, people!
Pitchfork: At one point you say that genres match songs to ideals, while formats match songs to audiences.
EW: Yeah. Television came along and essentially absconded with the mass audience in the 1950s. Radio had to cope, so the reaction was to create Top 40—all the hits, all the time, theoretically aimed at all the people. Many people who've told the story of music stopped there with radio, but the truth is that by the late '60s and into the ‘70s, radio was applying Top 40 concepts to all these different categories. Top 40 was targeting younger, working class, and female audiences. Along came adult contemporary, country, rhythm and blues, and rock, which had a love/hate relationship to radio that is an interesting story unto itself. Radio as a story goes way beyond that first Top 40 moment into decades of what I call multiple mainstreams. Radio formats have the ability to make the world seem normal; if you listen to a radio station, whatever you hear seems completely conventional and normal to you, but the point is there's so many kinds of normal happening side-by-side.
"By the ‘90s, the reason why Garth Brooks or Dr. Dre can have hits as big as any rock group is the radio format system, which funds the mainstreaming of areas of music that had been there all along."
Pitchfork: The Isley Brothers’ negotiation of the ‘70s and ‘80s R&B radio format is particularly fascinating.
EW: The Isley Brothers were such an enduring group. They had their first hit, "Shout", in the late ‘50s, and as late as the early ‘00s they had #1 albums, through the fact that R. Kelly promoted Ronald Isley as a character in his music videos. When I told that story that way—how Ronald Isley was singing with Dinah Washington as a little child at the birth of rhythm and blues and, by the 21st century, is part of a gigantic network of R&B that includes radio stations and BET—it occurred to me that that's a very different story to how we often tell the story of R&B. Sometimes we pretend it just fed into rock'n'roll. Where the baby boomer narrative sees rock as, essentially, a racially-tolerant form, the history says something very different: By the ‘70s, rock fans were pretty hostile to contemporary black music. They preferred older blues, or they simply preferred artists who looked, racially, like themselves. The Isley Brothers were interested in reaching all audiences.
The Isley Brothers are saved because they affiliated with Columbia Records, the biggest mainstream record label of the day, in the early ‘70s. Clive Davis, that manipulative mastermind of music, allowed them to produce their own records, write their own songs, and tour as their own band. He put money behind them and, for about 10 years, every single Isley Brothers album on Columbia looked the same, had the same structure: fast songs on one side and bedroom songs on the other side. And they were all huge sellers, in large part thanks to black-oriented radio formats, which were an institutional bastion of overtly African American expression. Now, you might say that this is formulaic. You might say this is the commercialization of soul. Many people have. But this major label R&B moment of the early '70s, in all of its formatted, racially segregated character, nonetheless was tremendously important in supporting black music. If you make the comparison to movies or television, which rise and fall as far as black participation, black music remains consistent because it's got a place in the radio format system.
Pitchfork: This is a fairly dramatic rethinking of the concept of “selling out.”
EW: Yeah, if you're from a background where you never were privileged to begin with, it's hard to accuse you of selling out. A lot of the story of rhythm and blues, and country music, in particular, is the story of whole groups of people and whole types of musical approaches that use the format system to become competitive with any other category of commercial popular music. By the ‘90s, the reason why a Garth Brooks or a Dr. Dre can have hits as big as any rock group is the radio format system. It essentially funds the mainstreaming of areas of music that had been there all along.
Watch Dolly Parton perform "Two Doors Down" on "Cher... Special" in 1978:
Pitchfork: Speaking of country music, you position Dolly Parton as a very central figure in negotiating its competing impulses between a down-homey authenticity and a forward-thinking, cosmopolitan view.
EW: I love the fact that we're having this Taylor Swift moment where she's theoretically leaving country behind because, of course, Dolly Parton was doing exactly that in a very public fashion in the late ‘70s. She was scandalizing people in Nashville by appearing on the cover of Playboy and writing songs about how Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" had saved her life by getting her out of the hillbilly side of the world, so this is not a new story. What’s interesting with country is how it's women who often use the format system to their advantage, whether they stay in country or flirt with spaces like adult contemporary or pop. And it's the men who take the genre, honky-tonk Hank Williams side of country, and even more recently the men who borrow from rock or hip-hop. All these rowdy male music genres work well for the men, but the women need the format system. They need mediation. They need crossovers. They need a space that allows for a kind of blurring of identity.
What happens is, you see country go through these periods when people say, "Nashville's gotten too slick and we have to get back to the roots of country music." To me, it's fascinating how throughout the history of country it's women who represent the version of country that doesn't necessarily ring true for the most hardcore fans, but so what? [laughs] I mean, when I think about Dolly Parton's journey, I'm as fascinated by her writing a song about checking out an orgy two doors down in the late '70s as I am about her writing a song about the coat of many colors that her mother made for her. It's all an incredible saga, and I love watching. Every time Dolly Parton takes herself to a new place, I love that. It’s the same with Taylor Swift now. It's more fascinating to see how far country music can stretch than worrying about maintaining borders.
Watch Elton John perform "Philadelphia Freedom" on "Soul Train" in 1975:
Pitchfork: Elton John is, of course, an endlessly fascinating character for any number of reasons. In the book, you discuss him as the epitome of “pop modernity.” Can you explain that concept?
EW: Popular music, whenever and wherever it emerges, is like a Big Bang, and it can only happen once in each place. When it happens, tons more people start living lives centered around consumer culture, which means styling themselves via popular culture and enjoying certain freedoms that come with being modern. The United States led the way, of course, and England, very much slowed down by World War II, came in second. But then all of that comes shooting back to us in the mid-‘60s as the British Invasion—that’s the first moment that pop modernity had a big bang moment somewhere else. Americanization becomes British Invasion and eventually becomes global invasion. The Top 40 format is the gateway drug to pop modernity. In the United States, that happens in the 1950s. The British never had Top 40 or commercial radio, but pop modernity forces the BBC to start playing pop music. And along the way, it means there is space for people whose identities are concealed to gradually emerge. So for someone like Elton John, Top 40 is the gateway for queer identity. It’s a gateway for Elton John, a closeted figure in the early 70s, to gradually come out via pop music.
“At this stage in our history, Elton John’s artistic journey is
more intriguing to contemplate [than David Bowie's].”
Pitchfork: I’d never thought about Top 40 as being a hybrid space for identity exploration.
EW: To this day, I think of Top 40 as being an immigrant space. You look at somebody like Bruno Mars—where is his home? His home is Top 40. It’s like the crossroads of identity and it works on several different levels. Elton John had a decision to make in the early ‘70s: He had to choose between staying a regular rock star and becoming a teen idol. And, as he always does, he decided to have it both ways. He went as far as he could to become a teen idol while continuing to keep the rock audience as part of his base as a concert performer. And by becoming a teen idol, suddenly, it opened this place for him to go everywhere. It let him make a song like “Philadelphia Freedom”, that’s disco before disco was really even a term in most people’s consciousness. He was the first white musician on “Soul Train”. He partied in a Bob Mackie outfit with Billie Jean King in front of thousands of bemused hippies at Dodger Stadium. It was fun but, in a weird way, that was a transgression within the system. Some of these radio format mainstreams allow for this kind of expansion of who’s in control, of who gets to be a celebrity.
Pitchfork: The distinction between Elton John and David Bowie on the format/genre axis clears up a lot.
EW: Yeah, one of the ways to see why this book is revisionist is that there had to be a chapter about Elton John and not his arch nemesis, David Bowie. Bowie, who is seen as transgressive and arty, says he’s bisexual long before Elton John says he’s bisexual. But if you take Bowie’s career as a whole, he’s primarily had relationships with women, so this was more of a theatrical queerness, whereas poor Elton is hiding the fact that the very first moment he was having his American breakthrough in 1970, he was having sex with a man for the first time, and spent the next five years figuring out what it all meant. So on the one hand you have this art-school figure representing rock transgression that’s extremely well understood. On the other hand you have this mainstream figure assimilating as rapidly as he can, concealing as much about himself as he can get away with. At this stage in our history, Elton John’s is the more intriguing artistic journey to contemplate.
"One of the weird paradoxes of rock radio is that the dreaded
Clear Channel, with all their corporate might,
made the world safe for Metallica."
Pitchfork: Rock music as a genre has always had a really hard time reconciling itself as a radio format. What happened to rock after the big industry bust of the early 2000s?
EW: In the early ‘70s, rock as a format was trying to make the transition from a Woodstock identity to a blue-collar identity, from hippies to Bruce Springsteen. What ended up happening much later was it became a place to listen to a lot of Metallica. So, something like a Pitchfork audience—educated, not interested in packaged music—leaves commercial radio largely behind. Then, rock radio becomes a bastion of the less educated, of the losers in post-industrial America, of what is sometimes called in the older days in radio, the “earth dogs,” the guys in the black T-shirts. Advertisers don’t love these guys. They don’t really see them as a lucrative audience. One of the weird paradoxes of rock radio is that it actually took the dreaded Clear Channel, with all their corporate might, to make playing Metallica over and over a lucrative rock format; Clear Channel made the world safe for Metallica.
Pitchfork: Something similar happened to R&B as a result of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Corporate consolidation, for a few years at least, actually helped R&B to become, in the early 2000s, not only the most progressive type of popular music but also the most popular.
EW: We don’t think about music’s relationship to the clout of the different audiences it serves as much as we should. When the format system is coming into place, when Harvard Business School report is telling Columbia Records it needs to invest more in black music in the ‘70s, that is a moment of as much economic equality as the United States ever saw. Ten years ago, coming out of the Clinton era, there was much more of a sense of African-Americans as an audience whose economic power is increasing. In the years since, there’s been a real drop off, and it has affected the willingness of advertisers to invest. What kind of sounds cross into Top 40 and what kinds of radio stations get a second or third station in a big city has something to do with the music, but it also has a lot to do with corporate perceptions of the clout of particular groups of Americans. We have to take economics seriously when we think about music. Instead, we think about the relationship of economics to culture in a trivial fashion: the stupid radio person with their stupid taste. We don’t try to understand it from the perspective of why certain cultural groups of people at certain times feel like they matter more. There is a lot more work to be done along those lines.
Pitchfork: So what is particularly democratic about radio formats, then?
EW: One thing to remember is that our democracy was pretty corrupt from the beginning. So when I use the phrase “democracy,” I’m not using it in some romantic, utopian fashion. Our democracy has always been a highly contested space in which different groups of people have different amounts of clout at different times. It’s a political free-for-all. And it has space for elites and ordinary people, and sometimes very corrupt political party bosses can help the prospects of immigrant groups, and so on. When you look at the history of American democracy, it makes the music industry look tame. That’s the kind of democracy I’m talking about, and that’s the kind of world that commercial radio is at home in: a world in which different kinds of groups are trying to represent different kinds of people for the gain of those people and themselves. It’s all about representation. That representation can be partial or corrupt, but the need to represent creates possibilities that wouldn’t be there without battles between different groups of people, enacted through different sets of sounds.
As consumers strive to keep the global economy going in the name of goodwill and cheer over the next few weeks, we have once again compiled a list of items for the music fan on your list. Scroll along to find a punk-rock video game, hip-hop comics, electronic music-inspired perfumes, meme-friendly apparel, memoirs, zines, a rapper-endorsed rum mix to get you through those long family dinners, heavy metal coffee beans, box sets, and even a shower curtain Beyoncé could love. Happy holidays!
As our quarterly print magazine celebrates its first anniversary, now is an excellent time to get up to speed with all of the exclusive long-form pieces, comics, jokes, and photo essays we’ve published in its bright, sturdy pages over the last year—and to look forward to 2015’s issues. In the spirit of the season, we’re offering two specials: a gift-wrapped bundle including the first four editions for $34.99, and a one-year subscription along with the wrapped bundle for $74.99. To take advantage of these discounts, go to The Pitchfork Review subscription page before December 17 and type EARLYELF (for the bundle) or EARLYELFPLUS (for the bundle and subscription) in the Promotion Code box. Looking ahead, the forthcoming fifth issue will feature a sprawling oral history of influential ‘90s punks Jawbreaker, a profile of up-and-coming Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, and a piece that chronicles the intertwined histories of West Coast gangsta rap and the reality show “COPS”.
Will the Beatles reissue project ever be complete? Not likely, as long as new formats and services come into vogue and a potential new audience with new money exists. But while it’s easy to be cynical at how many times the band’s music has been re-packaged, this year’s The Beatles in Mono vinyl box set does have an air of finality about it, if only because it’s designed to serve the hardest of the hardcore fans and those who care most about sound quality.
For your average band, remasters come and go, but the Beatles generally re-work their catalog only when the technology has shifted to a point that makes it worth it and the demands of the marketplace basically require it. And in 2014, interestingly enough, that means working in analog. The Beatles in Mono was also the name of a 2010 CD box set, but this vinyl set is something different, as it was newly remastered, purely in the analog realm, from the original tapes. Mastering LPs without a single digital stage is exceedingly rare in 2014. There is a great deal of debate about what a purely analog master means sonically, and what the human ear can detect. But what is not in debate is that the quality of vinyl pressings in general can vary widely, and these are as high quality as they come—whisper quiet, dynamic, with tremendous attention to detail. They sound amazing. As good as mono LPs of these records will ever sound—and I doubt this specific project will ever be attempted again. — Mark Richardson
The experience of sound in the 21st century has been marked by miniaturization and dematerialization: earbuds, laptop speakers, MP3s, and YouTube, along with all the sacrifices to audio fidelity that each "innovation" frequently implies. The Subpac S1, on the other hand, is intended to embody—literally—the experience of sound. The device, which resembles the padded seat back of an automobile, is essentially a subwoofer that you sit against; it transfers bass frequencies directly to your body, rattling your ribcage in unusually visceral fashion—without disturbing the neighbors. (There's also a wearable version.)
While the Subpac may seem most ideally suited to low-end-addled listeners and gamers who wish to sink into a bass-jellied haze—one suspects its sales may be especially strong in Colorado, Washington, and other states where marijuana has been legalized—the device also has its practical dimensions. It's been endorsed as a studio tool by a number DJs and producers, including Richie Hawtin, Flying Lotus, Mala, Adrian Sherwood, and George Clinton. And it even has potential for hearing-impaired listeners. As That Deaf DJ, aka Robbie Wilde puts it, "Finally, a music tool for the deaf. These are our headphones." — Philip Sherburne
For those who love records but don’t necessarily love organizing them, Kate Koeppel’s typographic dividers offer a handy, elegant solution that allows collectors to sort their wares alphabetically or by genre. The tabs are handmade from laser-cut wood, and though they aren’t cheap, they are very useful, super-durable, and go a long way to making your prized black discs look like a Serious Record Collection. — Molly Beauchemin
There are many fine books on the rise of hip-hop, including Jeff Chang’s essential Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. But if you’re pressed for time and looking for a more colorful alternative, Ed Piskor’s Hip-Hop Family Tree comic will do the trick. Originally serialized onBoing Boing, Hip-Hop Family Tree has been collected into two volumes that begin in the late ‘70s and transition to the Reagan era, capturing the exploits of formative figures like the Sugarhill Gang, KRS-One, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, and more. The cartooning is both realistic and vibrant, capturing the feel of the era while telling stories both well-known and obscure. — Jeremy Gordon
It’s been three years since R.E.M. called it a day, and 2014 has been studded with collectible post-mortems including a 7” box set of their ‘80s I.R.S. singles and an enormous digital rarities collection. To cap things off, the band is releasing a six-DVD box set chronicling their televised career, including the band’s 1991 and 2001 appearances on “MTV Unplugged”, their 1998 set on “VH1’s Storytellers” (along with unaired performances), various MTV award show performances, their 2007 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, rare live performances recorded between 1995 and 2008 (totalling 99 songs across three discs), and two full concerts filmed for broadcast. There’s also a brand new feature-length documentary called R.E.M. by MTV, which traces how the band was covered by the network that helped make them unlikely global superstars. — Evan Minsker
Music festivals are not, as a rule, particularly easy on the nose. Whether it's the omnipresent dust, port-a-potty reek, or the spilled beer, there are plenty of reasons that music fans have taken to wearing bandanas over their faces, bank-robber style.
But Unsound, a Polish festival with outposts in New York, Adelaide, and London, is aiming at something far more conceptual—and seductive, albeit in a curious, nerve-jamming way—with its Ephemera series of perfumes. Designed by master perfumer Geza Schoen, of Escentric Molecules, Ephemera's three scents—Bass, Noise, and Drone—were designed in conjunction with the musicians Steve Goodman (aka Hyperdub founder Kode9), Ben Frost, and Tim Hecker, respectively. From inspirations like Goodman's recollection of the smell of a broken vacuum cleaner, Frost's gunpowder and dried blood, and Hecker's invocation of "the smell of music that has somehow gone on too long, but no one cares," Schoen conjured scents redolent of woodsmoke, leather, and castoreum; aldehydes, ozone, and black pepper; and fir, juniper, patchouli, and ambergris. — Philip Sherburne
It was a good year for old music. The continual rise of both streaming abundance and vinyl fetishization means music obsessives spent a lot of time listening to and reading about music from the past. Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records documents a subculture whose focus on old music is taken to an extreme. Pitchfork contributor Amanda Petrusich tells three stories in parallel—of American music as it existed on 78 in the Pre-World War II era, of the collectors and archivists who keep the music alive in the present day, and of her own steady immersion into the culture, as she discovers the thrill of the hunt for rare music in danger of being lost forever. It’s a meditation on how music once circulated that’ll get you thinking about what music means now. — Mark Richardson
So, yes, we have now reached a point in human evolution wherein mass consumption of the Internet has led to a clothing brand called Memes on Clothes (M.O.C. Brand for short). That egregious fact aside, it’s pretty hard not to appreciate a crew neck with a miniature version of Nicki Minaj’s now iconic “Anaconda” cover art stitched into its chest or a beanie with Pharrell in his oversized Vivienne Westwood hat stitched on it. How about a bucket hat with VMA-version Miley Cyrus in perpetual twerk mode? A #kanyeshrug polo? Still not 100% sure these pieces of 2014 ephemera are for you? There’s also a series of “Degrassi”-era Wheelchair Drake pieces dubbed #MAYBESHEWHEEL. If that doesn’t convince you, I’m not sure anything will. —Eric Torres
Do you wake up—flawless? Post up—flawless? Do you enjoy contemplating society's expanding definition of femininity upon rising in the morning? Would you like to? Thanks to the artist Stephanie DuBois, one of Beyoncé’s most memorable mantras can now be a fixed part of your morning routine by way of this 100% polyester, USA-made piece of bathroom decor. — Jenn Pelly
Anyone who believes that punk lived and died between 1977 and 1978 in London or New York is properly deluded—plenty of band and label narratives unravel that myth, and now Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt offers more empirical evidence. Sub Pop USA collects Pavitt's writings from the legendary 1980s fanzine of the same name, as well as the column it spawned in Seattle newspaper The Rocket, all complemented with new musings from K Records founder Calvin Johnson and music critic Ann Powers, among others. Like the Nirvana tour diary Pavitt released last year, Sub Pop USA is a streamlined goldmine: "I hope this compilation of writings about independent recordings serves as a unique anthropological guide for those who are intrigued by the ancient, pre-Internet, pre-Nevermind era of the 1980s," Pavitt writes, and his thesis is on point. But along with Pavitt's fiercely indie-minded reviews—ranging in subject from Neo Boys to ESG to Beastie Boys to Metallica—we get the endearing kinds of things only found in zines: Olympia punks Supreme Cool Beings telling Calvin Johnson about pissing on cop cars, for example, and realizing that "live rock'n'roll was the secret of life," as well as Pavitt's pro-local "New Pop Manifesto", a call for new cultural heroes. Sub Pop USA covers roughly the same era as Michael Azerrad's now-sacred indie history Our Band Could Be Your Life, and its secrets could be similarly transformative. — Jenn Pelly
Earl Stevens had us drinkin' rational. Recognizing vinous trends, the dearth of affordable rapper-endorsed alcohol, and the exorbitant costs of keeping up with his recorded output, E-40 rewarded his fans with Mangoscato white wine in 2013; the headliner of "Earl Stevens Selections" packed a ridiculous 18.0% ABV and was available at Costco, making it borderline eligible for inclusion on Bumwine. After that auspicious entry into the liquor game, 40 introduces Sluricane Hurricane just in time for the holidays... despite the fact that it is not even remotely appropriate for the season. This pre-mixed rum cocktail is more likely to remind you of that Spring Break in New Orleans when you and your friends couldn't stop playing "Tell Me When to Go". But whatever, you'll have plenty of time off to nurse the two-day hangover this sickly sweet concoction is likely to cause, so grab your click and let's get drunk.— Ian Cohen
Created in partnership with Chicago bean purveyor Dark Matter, Mastodon’s Black Blood blend is purportedly composed of “Unicorn Blood” aged in whiskey barrels, and even comes with its own backstory: The year is 2420, and “the cyborg Mastodon” must imbibe the boiling brew in order to muster up the strength to step through a time portal and battle the critters from the cover of the band’s most recent LP, Once More ‘Round the Sun. Silly as it might be, the narrative, like the coffee, marries itself well to the band’s lore-heavy, endearingly over-the-top musical approach. And hey, if this doesn’t wake you up, the video for “The Motherload” certainly will. — Zoe Camp
“Sunset Overdrive” is not a gritty, self-serious video game. Your weapons are explosive teddy bears, acid-spraying robots, and Chinese fireworks and your enemies are monsters created by the ingestion of toxic energy drinks—a physical metaphor for how Monster energy drinks usually make you feel. You play as the hero of a city that’s been infested by these monsters and sealed off from the outside world by the corporation who created the drink. You grind, glide, bounce, and shoot your way around a meticulously detailed environment crafted with a purposely cartoonish aesthetic that encourages you to stay in constant motion, shooting at monsters and robots until you can shoot no more. The point, if there is one, is to have fun.
It’s all pushed along by a soundtrack that features Cheap Time, Bass Drum of Death, Dan Sartain, and other garage bands whose original songs accentuate the game’s hectic pace; for my money, it’s the closest a videogame has come to capturing the rambunctious feel of a punk show. (At one point, King Buzzo of the Melvins shows up as himself, and you end up helping the Melvins play a show. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.) Microsoft was so confident of the game’s success, they made a special white Xbox One to celebrate its release—and if you’re looking to get started with the next generation of gaming, there’s no better place to start. — Jeremy Gordon
As post-punk pop turned bigger and slicker through the ‘80s, Aussie indie outfit the Go-Betweens managed to break overground with their good taste and sense of intimacy intact, engendering a devout international cult that, following the band’s 1989 dissolution, would goad them back into action for a fruitful (if sadly curtailed) 21st-century reunion. So it follows that their box set would be less a tidy career retrospective than an exceedingly generous offering of band ephemera that will require multiple volumes to disseminate.
G Stands for Go-Betweens Volume One—covering the years 1978-1984—boasts an embarrassment of fan-indulging riches: vinyl remasters of the band’s first three albums and a supplementary compilation of non-album singles; four additional CDs of rarities, including a complete live set from ’82; a 112-page book featuring musings from Go-Betweens co-leader Robert Forster and various famous fans; a silkscreen of the promo poster for 1978’s debut single, “Lee Remick”; and, why not, a copy of the band’s first-ever press release. The box set doesn’t actually come out until January 20, but you’d be wise to place an order ASAP—Domino is only issuing a single pressing. Of course, this means that, come December, you won’t yet have an actual physical gift to give your special someone—so, in lieu of that, just make them a handmade zine heralding its imminent arrival in their mailbox. — Stuart Berman
Holiday sweaters may be itchy and unflattering, but they also give us an excuse to dress like frumpy elves. So why opt for a boring tree or snowflake when you can have Morrissey, scrooge incarnate, tearing through your chest, Alien style? After all, it’s a fair visual summation of what the Smiths frontman put his fans through this year, from cutting shows short, to canceling them together, to his deadpan remarks about his own imminent doom. It goes without saying that this gloomy garment is a fantastic conversation-starter at parties, not to mention a smart, sinister riff on the Nativity in knitted form. A portion of the proceeds from each sweater will go to PETA, one of Moz’s favorite charities. — Zoe Camp
Within the world of music journalism, there’s a long tradition of artists joining the cultural conversation with their own written critical contributions—current writer-artists like White Lung's Mish Way and Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves join a lineage that also includes icons like Patti Smith and Kim Gordon. Although Gordon's most widely anticipated literary endeavor is her upcoming memoir, Girl in a Band, this year she also quietly released a simple anthology through the German art book publisher Sternberg Press. Is It My Body? collects Gordon's once hard-to-find writings on art, music, architecture, performance, and identity, originally published in Artforum, The Village Voice, and other magazines.
Like her music, the writing is idea-driven, unflashy, and cool. Among the highlights are a Sonic Youth tour diary called "Boys Are Smelly" and an amusing interview by Gordon's friend, the artist Mike Kelley. Gordon's cultural criticism takes on subjects such as Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, and Raymond Pettibon, and along the way she makes observations on everyone from Neil Young to Andy Warhol to Laurie Anderson to Public Image Ltd—at one point, she compares the anti-consumerist bent of D.C. straight-edge hardcore to "the American tradition of horror" as found in Edgar Allen Poe. The book's greatest achievement is an Artforum essay called "I'm Really Scared When I Kill in My Dreams", which dissects the rock club as a form, grappling with the power dynamic between artist and crowd. "The club is the mediator or frame through which the music is communicated," Gordon writes. "People pay to see others believe in themselves." — Jenn Pelly
We don't claim to be technology experts here at Pitchfork, but when Richard D. James endorses a piece of gear, we're inclined to heed his advice. During our recent interview, Mr. Aphex Twin whipped an Analog Rytm drum machine out of a duffle bag and proceeded to wax ecstatic on the virtues of the machine, which he deemed "a good piece of fucking equipment."
So what is it? The Analog Rytm, made by Swedish company Elektron, features percussion sounds that are generated by analog synthesis, and the overdrive and multimode filters are both analog, as well; additionally, user-supplied samples can be dropped into sequences and run through the Rytm's analog filters. Caveat emptor, however: "They're not that user-friendly," says Aphex. — Philip Sherburne
Viv Albertine’s tell-all is a razor-edged self-portrait that begins in the staunch punk scene of 1970s London and stretches through to the Slits guitarist’s traumatic present-day struggles with IVF treatments, a cancer diagnosis, and an equally painful, ill-fated marriage. Shot through with humor, pathos, and sheer strength of will, Albertine tells of finding early influences in Captain Beefheart and John Lennon, going to art school with on-and-off lover Mick Jones and a nascent Adam Ant, and forming the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious, all before pivotally teaming up with the Slits. Clothes Clothes Clothes further excels as an examination of the gender politics Albertine and many of her female peers were forced to navigate in the music industry of the '70s—from being snubbed by managers, producers, and other bands for simply being an all-female group to enduring actual physical assault both onstage and off. The book is a testament to Albertine's unbending passion for music that’s uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. — Eric Torres
Have you ever wondered what the love child of Biggie Smalls and Ziggy Stardust would look like? Does you or someone you know have a burning desire to adorn their earlobes with the faces of John Wayne and Lil Wayne at the same time? Enter LeRoy’s Place, purveyors of music jewelry for the curious bystander. Try the Pop Royalty earrings featuring Michael Jackson and Prince, or a Madge ring depicting Madonna in her Like a Virgin glory. The line’s look is inspired by Shrinky Dinks, which—depending on your level of nostalgia—could be another gift idea altogether. — Molly Beauchemin
In this edition of The Out Door, we explore why Kim Gordon has proven to be the most adventurous member of Sonic Youth since the band's demise, trace multi-instrumentalist Ashley Paul's journey from studying music to busking in the subway, create new instruments with cellist Hildur Gudnadóttir, and explore the pros and cons of technique with three young guitarists: Matthew Mullane, Cam Deas, and Norberto Lobo. (Follow us on Twitter and Tumblr for more experimental music news and info.)
I: Sonic Rebirth
Body/Head: Kim Gordon and Bill Nace
I could have slept until the morning. Not long after the sun went down on a recent late fall Saturday, I fell asleep on the couch, tired from too much work during the week and too much fun during the weekend. But eventually, I rolled over and saw the time. I knew that if I was going to see Body/Head, who had already played one of the best sets I’d seen all year, I’d better stir sooner rather than later. It was a benefit, after all, for women’s healthcare in politically beleaguered North Carolina, and I’d bought two pricey tickets that afternoon.
Perhaps I should have simply considered the money a donation, though. This set from the typically excellent duo of Kim Gordon and Bill Nace felt perfunctory, as though they too had struggled to rise from an early-evening rest. On the stage of Kings, a mid-sized club in the state’s capital, the pair struggled to lock into a single, unified approach during two short improvisations. At one point, Nace thrashed about at center stage, slinging his guitar against the volume pumping from his amplifier; the action made me think of someone trying to kickstart a particularly cantankerous motorcycle.
And near set’s end, Gordon left the microphone to push her guitar against a wall at the stage’s rear, slowly pushing it toward the ceiling. It seemed in part like an offering or maybe a way to give the thinning crowd something to see more than a very good band trying and failing to find an inroad into this one-off show. They were both good-faith gestures, I suppose, but neither Nace nor Gordon could make the moment anything more than an instance where the risk of improvised music surpassed the reward.
I was disappointed, of course, as that couch certainly felt comfortable. In some way, though, watching Body/Head struggle to cohere or compel was a reassuring feeling, evidence of a group that is working out new definitions of how it sounds, functions, and defines itself every time it plugs in its instruments, whether onstage or in a studio. Only eight months earlier, in a grand auditorium in Knoxville, Tennessee, Nace and Gordon dazzled. Their collective volume locked into daring sculptures and then splintered into a dozen irregular shards. Standing in front of ponderous video projections, the pair moved as if they were trapped inside an amoeboid world of their own, communicating in a language that only they understood but that the listener could at least enjoy. With her voice, Gordon seemed to channel the stories of forever-anxious ghosts.
So, in the last eight months, had Body/Head just gotten bad, somehow slipping out of practice or energy? No, they just tried something that didn’t work. That’s the gamble of experimental music—or at least it should be.
As surprising as it may seem given the avant bona fides of her former bandmates, Gordon has emerged as the true cutting-edge alumna of Sonic Youth, following her split with longtime husband and collaborator Thurston Moore in 2011. Sure, Moore has continued to piss collaborations with other stars of the avant world, but his two big records—the ones with proper label campaigns, full tours and so on—have been fine-but-functional indie rock bores. Chelsea Light Moving was a mess of ideas united by stand-and-deliver songs, while the most powerful moments of his recent The Best Day sounds like Sonic Youth’s Murray Street, minus the ecstasy of urgency. Steve Shelley has become something of a singer-songwriter timekeeper for hire, and Lee Ranaldo’s pair of records with his band the Dust make you wonder where all that roots-rock came from. (The new one, granted, is better than the last.) It’s as if Moore and Ranaldo required the frisson of sharing a band to push past the cores of their songs, while Gordon was simply waiting for a chance to float free.
The natural question, of course, is why Gordon has suddenly outstripped the rest of Sonic Youth. Perhaps she’s found a creative chemistry with Nace and a place where the two can try new approaches without the fear of failure, even when their sets fall apart (or never form at all). But that rationale feels thin for several reasons, not least of which is the implication that Moore and Ranaldo, especially, haven’t worked with interesting musicians in the interim. To the contrary, Moore’s current band features Shelley on the drums and My Bloody Valentine multi-instrumentalist Debbie Googe on bass. In the past three years, he’s issued recordings with Loren Connors, Mats Gustafsson, and John Zorn, and jammed with Merzbow and longtime collaborator John Moloney. Ranaldo’s collaborators have included John Medeski and Alan Licht. Such casts and company don’t exactly make you pity either songwriter.
Rather, in the scattered interviews that she’s given the last few years, Gordon has simply seemed more connected with the currents of the world around her. In a New Yorker feature last year, she dismissed the idea of worrying about studios or equipment configurations, a nod not only to Body/Head’s embrace of the clipped and distorted, but also to more modern and egalitarian modes of making music. A week ahead of that North Carolina show that never took off, she told me that the kind of music Body/Head made mattered now because people’s tastes had broadened due to the technology-aided spread of strange music and art. In an age of instant online access, she added, a stream was no surrogate for high-volume, improvised sound made to suit a certain situation and room. “You can see a clip,” she said, “but it’s not the same as being in the actual place and feeling the sound in your body.” Who has time to stand and deliver folk-rock songs, like Ranaldo, or try to relive past glories, like Moore, when that’s the way you see the world spinning?
And maybe there’s a delightful bit of revolt against the “girl in a band” assumption Gordon faced for so many years, too. In that same New Yorker piece, Gordon spoke about the range of opportunities that Sonic Youth had afforded her. “Sonic Youth, for better or worse, is/was a machine that carried me along through pregnancy, motherhood, and creative opportunities I never would have achieved on my own,” she said. “I’m grateful and surprised that we were listened to, loved, ignored, and overrated.” But now with Body/Head, she’s going places Sonic Youth never did, unbound by the lack of frontmen and faces surrounding her. “Who made up all the rules in the culture?” she told Elle a few months later, tapping into another current involving Pussy Riot, rebellion, and power. “Men—white male corporate society. So why wouldn’t a woman want to rebel against that?” — Grayson Haver Currin
II: Ashley Paul: Personal Space
Photo by Ben Pritchard
“I’m really protective of the feeling I have when I make music,” says songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ashley Paul. “It’s the only time I can tap into just making something purely for myself.” That sense of intimacy resonates on Paul’s new album, Heat Source, a mesmerizing set of sparse, restrained songs. Using primarily guitar, clarinet, and voice, she crafts patient-to-the-point-of-stasis music, with small sounds that seem to contain entire worlds. Perhaps her skeletal melodies could be fleshed into something bigger and busier, but they’d likely lose much of their tantalizing power.
“There’s much more space on this album,” Paul explains. “This was a big year of change for me in general—a lot of life changes and feeling very scared. Perhaps making music was the only place where I was calm, and that could be reflected in the music.”
If music feels like home for Paul—she currently splits time between an apartment in Brooklyn and performances in Europe—that might be because it’s been part of her life for so long. She started playing piano at age 3, then moved to saxophone at 10. “My dad is a really good rhythm guitar player, and I grew up listening to Wes Montgomery and Paul Desmond records with him,” she recalls. “I wanted to play saxophone so I could play with my dad.”
That desire soon turned into an obsession, as Paul spent much of the next decade dreaming of a life devoted to saxophone—“being the next Paul Desmond,” as she puts it. She enrolled in the jazz saxophone performance program at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and though she completed her degree, she was a bit disillusioned by the experience.
“I had a lot of teachers pushing me in many directions. There is an idea of perfection on the instrument—they try to tell you what is the right way or the wrong way,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade my training for anything, but letting go of that pressure was a challenge. Everyone who goes through a conservatory education, if they’re going to continue playing music, has to let go of that stress."
Paul’s initial way of letting go was to quit music entirely, and she spend a year studying jewelry making in North Carolina. What might seem like a radical turn actually had a connection to her previous pursuits. “Construction is something I’ve always been interested in,” she explains. “In jewelry-making you have to visualize the three-dimensional thing happening before you put it together, so that could be an influence on the way I make music.”
Photo by Susanna Bolle
At 22, Paul returned to music by going underground, literally. She moved to New York and busked on sax in the subway, inspired by watching her former classmate Matana Roberts do the same. Camped out at Manhattan's Columbus Circle station, she played two three-hour sets a day, paying her monthly $750 rent with the singles and change she collected. “I used to play a lot of Ornette Coleman songs,” she recalls. “It’s a weird exercise in trying to appeal to people, because no one really wants to be there. But you need them, so that balance of what to play and how to play was a challenge.”
Pauls’s experience in the subway cemented her commitment to music. “After a year of playing six to eight hours a day, I thought, I can’t give up on this,” she remembers. “I need to sort this out, I need to be playing music.” Turning away from jazz, she returned to the NEC to pursue a graduate degree in Contemporary Improvisation. There she studied and collaborated with Anthony Coleman, a mentor who still influences her creative process.
“We almost never talked about music, we just did it,” she recalls. That intuitive vibe has since carried over into Paul’s many subsequent partnerships, which include duos with Joe Maneri, Loren Connors, Eli Keszler, and, most recently, Rashad Becker. “When I have to start talking about things I get kind of anxious,” she admits. “It’s a weird challenge for me to be myself . It’s something that I’ve struggled with. I came to finding what I do late in life, and it was a conscious struggle for many years.”
In the late 2000’s, Paul found a breakthrough in that struggle. Increasingly exposed to more and more types of music, she began picking up new instruments and learned how to record herself. “It all happened at once,” she recalls. “I was trying to make music and I was hearing things, and recording it all on Garage Band. It just opened up a world and I wanted to put it all down myself.”
With her vistas widened, Paul dove headfirst into songwriting, though to her it wasn’t such a leap from improvisation. “I was always drawn to people who improvise melodies rather than sounds,” she says. “That was always important to me, creating music rather than showing chops.” What did take some adjustment was the idea that she was no longer just a saxophone player. “I still get really nervous playing guitar and singing,” she admits. “If it’s just sax I don’t even think about it because I’ve been playing sax for 25 years, so it’s like another limb.”
Paul’s openness to new tools and sounds has led her to create solo music that slips sneakily between categories. Parts of Heat Source sound like abstract sound art; others sound like fractured folk music; and yet other sounds like both. “As long as I’ve been putting myself out there as a musician, I’ve never really fit in,” she says. “I don’t know how to define myself. I don’t really feel bound by genres, so it is probably liberating, but it’s also the hardest thing about what I do."
Such challenges haven’t slowed Paul down. She’s been quite prolific recently; Heat Source is one of three new releases alongside two cassettes, White Night (on Important offshoot Cassauna) and 12,000 Seconds(on Kudos). All three were recorded over the course of the last year, and see her further mastering every phase of her music, particularly her mostly-improvised lyrics, which she describes as “a kind of outpouring—if I sat too much and thought about what I was writing, it wouldn’t quite fit.”
Her singing has a nearly subliminal quality, as if she’s whispering directly into your brain. “I am a very harsh critic, and sometimes I’m terrible at singing,” she says with a laugh. “The voice is the only thing I’ll ever record more than once. That’s why I end up with two [vocal takes] on some songs, because I can’t decide between them.”
Becoming more comfortable with singing and playing other instruments is a work in progress for Paul, but lately she’s embracing it all. She’s now writing songs with an eye toward performing them. Surprisingly, she finds that the personal space she so values when making music is even more accessible when she plays in front of people.
“It’s easier to get to onstage, because you the lights are on you and everything else is in black, and you are forced to get there,” she says. “It's hard sometimes to achieve that in your living room. Life can be so distracting.” – Marc Masters
III: Hildur Guðnadóttir: Body of Cello
At the age of 32, cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir thinks she has found the project that will last her a lifetime. For years, she struggled with the realities of playing her acoustic instrument in an amplified setting. At times, the tone could be brittle or her dynamic range limited by concerns with feedback and audio engineers who simply didn’t understand her aims.
But then she met Ómar, a six-string electric variant on a cello that resembles a modernized viola de gamba and gives her a range of notes that stretch from a violin toward a bass. Like a guitar, it has pickups, making it less prone to unintentional feedback and the whims of live technicians. It’s thin, too, meaning she can strap it to her body and move around the stage, now unbound by the sit-and-bow strictures of her classical upbringing. It’s even small and flexible enough that it no longer needs its own seat on an airplane. It fits in her suitcase. (Hear it from a recent show in Japan here.)
During “Heima”, from her wondrously idyllic and elegiac album Saman for Touch, Guðnadóttir plucks Ómar’s strings and sings softly over the instrument’s rise and fall. The sound suggests a more robust nylon-stringed guitar. Every note refracts into a series of muted reflections, decaying as though being bounced through an echo chamber. Guðnadóttir is actually sending the signal through two grand pianos, ad hoc resonating chambers that give the sounds a phantom feeling.
Indeed, Ómar is designed to be played with a set of small resonating chambers placed throughout whatever room she plays, so that select frequencies create an immersive audio environment from her cello. In effect, one woman and six strings could approximate the swells and near-silence of an orchestra. It’s the start of a project that has no logical end.
“It’s like an electroacoustic, surround-sound cello gamba,” Guðnadóttir says from Berlin, laughing at her own unwieldy description. “It embodies everything that fascinates me the most—acoustics, playing instruments, digital processing, movement of sound. Somehow, everything is combined in Ómar. I feel like I’m just starting my lifelong project.”
Years ago, Guðnadóttir’s friend, the composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, asked her to accompany him live and essentially serve as a one-woman stand-in for a string quartet. The challenges of the task daunted her. She first said it wasn’t possible, but she began working with different ways of replicating and mirroring herself live, including looping pedals but avoiding pre-recorded tracks.
“A string quartet is obviously violins, cello and bass, so how can one cello be all of those things at once?” she asks. “But now, I can actually be a string quartet myself with this instrument.”
Ómar is the result of a partnership with Hans Johannson, an Icelandic instrument builder who has been crafting his own designs for three decades. He has even worked to create a “21st century violin,” which restructures the architectural principles of the very instrument itself. He’s the father of Guðnadóttir’s best friend, so he’s been mending her broken cellos for years. They ha discussed the idea—this “surround cello,” they called it—off and on for the better part of a decade. Nearly two years ago, he started building it based on a dialogue of how he thought the instrument could work and how Guðnadóttir hoped it would respond. The results, she says, are groundbreaking on several levels, from the physical design (Ómar is now a piece of luggage) to the integrated hardware (Ómar includes a set of onboard custom audio filters).
“There’s a lot of electronic surround-sound music, and I’ve done a lot of work where I write music for other people to move around a space,” she says. “But this way of designing acoustic resonators for a single instrument, that’s pretty new.”
Photo by Rune Kongsro
Ómar stems from a back-and-forth, and Guðnadóttir is an avid collaborator herself, having worked with Ben Frost, Pan Sonic, Hauschka, the Knife, and Valgeir Sigurdsso. She even tours and records with Stars of the Lid outpost A Winged Victory for the Sullen. That’s merely a sample.
But the new instrument gives Guðnadóttir greater versatility as a solo artist. A multiplicity of musical voices has been a consistent touchstone of her own work, and Ómar functions as a package of many instruments. The process to get there, though, was stepwise and slow.
Guðnadóttir began studying cello when she was only six years old, but when she was a teenager, she began joining bands and obsessing over electroacoustic music. When she joined winsome Icelandic art-pop tinkerers múm, she put the cello aside and mostly sang. Later, she relocated to Berlin to study electronic music and programming; for a year, the only sounds she really considered were digital.
“When you’re programming, you spend a week writing code, and then another week to get a ‘bleep,’” she says. “It can be a long and tiring process for unfulfilling sounds. So I picked up the cello again. I was so gratified getting instant sound.”
Guðnadóttir subsequently headed to an isolated cabin in the woods of northern Iceland, where she used a small army of instruments to build her beautiful and filmic solo debut, Mount A. Though the music was remastered and reissued for a 2013 Touch release under her own name, Guðnadóttir originally offered it under the pseudonym “Lost in Hildurness.” She was too timid, she admits, to expose herself and her process in a public setting.
“It was like getting to know yourself in a way that I’d never experienced, very personal,” she remembers. “I view music mostly as communication, so when I record, I’m communicating to the listener in the future. I felt the need to communicate this, but I was still shy about it. It was scary, like when you’ve been walking around in clothes and suddenly you’re naked.”
But she’s since shaken off that shyness, as her solo output has become at once increasingly audacious and intimate. The meditative pieces of 2009's Without Sinking were magnetic, pulling you toward the stable center of Guðnadóttir’s long-tone compositions. Some friends, including Jóhann Jóhannsson, lent assistance, but the relationship between Guðnadóttir and her acoustic cello took center stage.
On Saman, she’s almost completely by herself, though she’s added new tools. There’s the new electric cello, of course, and Guðnadóttir’s own voice, which she intertwines with her instrumental parts as though they’re complementary strands of the same DNA. From the foreboding and deep “Frá” to the mercurially fretful “Torrek,” the moods are deeper. Any hesitation that Guðnadóttir once had with communicating directly has vanished. At once, you see various phases of her past—the cello, the voice, the electronics—colliding into new possibilities. That’s the process that she wants to continue pursuing, likely with the help of her suitcase’s latest necessity, Ómar.
“Singing is something that I have done all my life, but what I did on my first two records was to hide the vocals. They’re there to thicken the web of the cello,” she says. “But the vocals are getting onto an equal level with the cello now. The way it’s built, Ómar is becoming like my spinal cord, because he’s really wrapped onto me. And when you’re playing the cello, you’re hugging it, anyway, so you have the resonance in your body. When you’re sitting and playing at the same time, it’s very connected to you as a musician.” — Grayson Haver Currin
IV: Hands Have Memory: The Technique of Solo Guitar
Technique is a tricky thing in any kind of music, but it seems particularly slippery with solo guitar. The format has such a long, rich tradition that finding a new way to play is daunting. Technique can become a crutch—something to fall back on when ideas aren’t coming—but it can also handcuff, paralyzing with the anxiety of influence. How to find a novel approach to what’s been done so often?
The upside of technique is its power as a springboard. The best players launch from established styles toward uncharted ones, returning to touchstones as needed but never feeling bound to them. This process often includes questioning the term itself. What is technique? Adherence to rules? Expression of personality? Is it creating by overwriting—is it both a pencil and an eraser?
To help answer those questions, I asked three of today’s most interesting solo guitar players for their takes on technique and how it informs the music they make.
Matthew Mullane thinks a lot about technique. For the past four years, while making his new album Hut Variations, “technique and all of its baggage consistently made its way into my working notes,” he says. Mullane sees two meanings in the term technique: What you learn and how you respond to that learning. “I think what is most exciting as a listener, and indeed as a player,” he continues, “is to allow these two techniques to meet—leaving a sonic trace of their incommensurability.”
The concept behind Hut Variations arises from what Mullane calls “this split in realms of technique… the irreconcilable split between self-cultivation and responsibility to the other.” As he explains, “The first technique is represented in the world left by the person who decamps to the hut. There the hut-dweller spends time cultivating style. If achieved, however, the style-seeker must then reckon with the guilt of incommunicable technique.”
Those themes might not be immediately apparent on Hut Variations (released by Vin Du Select Qualitite, the label run by John Fahey biographer Steve Lowenthal).But you can certainly hear the tension between Mullane’s appreciation of traditional forms and his quest to discover something new. He’s capable of dizzyingly quick runs, but what impresses most is his patience—every note sounds purposefully-chosen and drenched in the immediacy of the moment. When Mullane switches from acoustic guitar to electric, his well-considered approach persists, modified to exploit the thickness of amplification.
Mullane had no formal training, but he did grow up in Northeast Ohio in what he calls “a house of guitars, mostly animated by folk-revival music of the 1960’s at the hands of my parents.” He got an electric guitar at age 9 and was immediately attracted to playing and listening on headphones by himself. “It had a worlding quality—the capacity to create a technical and sonic bubble,” he recalls. “That is really evocative for anyone at that age.”
In 2011 he made his first album for VDSQ as part of their solo acoustic series, which he describes as “centered on an extended piece using modular motifs as a launching point for improvisation.” The six pieces on Hut Variation are more composed, honed through “exercises in compositional abstraction.” The result is an album for which guitar technique can sometimes mean not even sounding like a guitar.
“I think the most interesting "techniques" have emerged from trying to use the guitar as an interface channeling dissimilar objects,” Mullane explains. “This doesn't mean making the guitar "sound like" a piano or a saxophone, but rather interpolating guitar moves with the technical constraints of other objects, instruments and playing scenarios. In this way, the guitar has the capacity to be an instrument of thought. Imagining through the guitar, abstracting its seemingly rote mechanisms as having analogical power, keeps me coming back to it.” (Read the full transcript of our chat with Mullane here).
Like Mullane, Cam Deas sees technique as a two-sided coin. One side is simply about speed—the ability to dole out notes quickly and fill the air with sound. Though he once found this an important part of playing, “This holds no interest for me now,” he says. “It's sport, not music. I cringe every time I see a solo guitarist play almost entirely at breakneck [Leo] Kottke speeds.”
For Deas, the true value of technique lies in its other side: “total confidence and comfortableness with your instrument.” Here, the goal is to explore the instrument so that speed and prowess take a backseat to expression. “When you're really confident with your technique, you want those notes to sing out and have the space they deserve,” he explains. “When you listen to something like [Derek] Bailey'sBallads or the early Fahey volumes, every note is so perfectly executed it has to have its own space to breathe.”
Cam Deas: "Quadtych Part One" on Bandcamp
That kind of confidence abounds on Deas’ 2011 album Quadtych, a fascinating four-part, 70-minute suite that began as free improvisation. But over the course of performing it endlessly—Deas guesses he’s played the suite at least 70 times—Quadtych slowly became more structured, to the point of near-total precision.
Such musical immersion has been part of Deas’ life since childhood. Growing up in the suburbs of London, he remembers listening to his dad learn Erik Satie pieces on piano. He took classical guitar lessons in grade school, then studied music at the University of Sheffield. But he found himself often battling his teacher; once, when they argued about an assignment, the instructor snapped, “"If you don't like playing Bach, you don't like playing music!"
Eventually Deas ventured beyond solo guitar to study electronic composition. On his new album, String Studies (released on Alter Stock, the label of Helm’s Luke Younger), he continues that pursuit, processing and manipulating his guitar inside a fascinating, unpredictable sound-field. “I think of it as a musique concrete– the guitar is mainly important in regards to density and pitch, but the actual playing is so minimal as to allow space for the electronics to work appropriately,” he explains. “If you were to hear what I was playing on the guitar on it's own you'd think it was a joke.”
Though String Studies is more abstract than Deas’ previous guitar-only pieces, he considers it his first narrative work. “I was interested in the movement of narrative and it’s approach to time and the universe,” he says, citing the influence of time-scale-based work of Olivier Messaien and Iannis Xenakis. It will be interesting to see if Deas eventually applies this approach to his solo guitar work – though he plans not to return to that form until he’s reckoned a bit more with technique. “When I'm ready to play solo acoustic guitar again,” he concludes, “it will be when I'm more confident in this area.” (Read the full transcript of our chat with Deas here).
Deas and Mullane sound like they could talk about technique forever. By contrast, when I ask Portuguese guitarist Norberto Lobo what the term means to him, he replies with just three sentences: “A set of skills/methods one develops while searching for new possibilities/approaches. New ideas create new techniques, and vice-versa. Hands have memory.”
“Hands have memory”: three short words that suggest a wealth of ideas. Lobo’s music has a similar effect. The six songs on his new album Fornalha are relatively simple in their basic structures. But Lobo constructs a universe of sound from his potent building blocks.
Part of that expansiveness comes from Lobo’s knack for making pieces that feel both controlled and open. You get the sense that some serious forethought has gone into every song, yet it also seems Lobo could go any direction at any moment. It turns out composition and improvisation are equal partners in his creative process. “Compositions are like gateways to improvisation, and the other way around too,” he asserts. “Is improvising composing in real time?”
Like Deas and Mullane, Lobo has been around music since childhood. “One of my earliest memories is my father teaching me how to whistle,” he says. He began playing guitar at age seven, following in the footsteps of older siblings. “I learned from my brothers, some friends, listening to records, seeing lots of gigs,” he says. “I am mostly self-taught, meaning I have a super lazy teacher.”
Lobo’s self-direction produces music that seems utterly boundless. On Fornhala, he shifts effortlessly from a sawing cycle to a finger-picked hop to a halting ballad. Tones and styles morph even within tracks, suggesting the flow of ideas in his head is a constant waterfall. “I guess most of the time the material chooses a sound for me,” he says. “It's hard, but it's also easy; it’s like a muscle that, if regularly exercised, keeps in good shape.”
Framing creativity as a muscle suggests that Lobo prioritizes technique, at least as a vessel for expression. But it also seems that his musical workout regimen is more about the journey than the destination. “I don't know if I have "my" sound just yet,” he admits. “I’m still looking for it.” (Read the full transcript of our chat with Lobo here). — Marc Masters
Photo by Ryan Patterson
Two minutes after sitting down with Natalie Prass in Nashville on a recent Saturday morning, the topic of conversation turns to Punch-Drunk Love. Specifically, the music accompanying the most iconic sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film—Adam Sandler’s panicky beeline toward Emily Watson outside a Hawaiian hotel, where a stupefied handshake is transformed all at once into the silhouette of a swooning kiss. The song playing in the scene is “He Needs Me”, a saccharine epiphany written by Harry Nilsson for Robert Altman’s 1980 Popeye live-action movie musical. Performed by Shelly Duvall’s Olive Oyl, the gently untethered voice that sings is insistent and unabashedly naïve—giddy with the idea that her notion of love (i.e., being needed) is an empirical form of magic.
Prass, who has the voice of an emancipated Disney princess, says she was thinking of that scene in Punch-Drunk Love when she hit upon the idea for “It Is You”, the showstopping finale of her forthcoming eponymous debut LP, due out via Virginia indie Spacebomb in January. A masterfully orchestrated waltz full of swelling strings and aspirational horns, the song performs its own formal magic on the listener, donning all the Cinderella signifiers without sacrificing a jot of its own charming originality. Like the dizzying moment of oddball kismet in Anderson’s film, the artistry of “It Is You” is a decidedly 21st century impulse—the song feels so sublime because of its unyielding earnestness, not in spite of it.
This sort of retro alchemy comes naturally to the 28-year-old, who cites the timeless Dionne Warwick as a primary influence, and it filters throughout her album. On “Christy”, another standout track, Prass converts the love triangle premise of Dolly Parton’s 1973 classic “Jolene” into a baroque, erotic dream fugue; where Dolly’s homespun anxiety is a public plea, Prass pushes the concept inward, creating a narrative voice so enchantingly deranged—so enraptured by the prospect of madness—that you can’t resist following it over the edge: “Does he slide each of his fingers down your back when he puts on a record?/ Oh no no, he comes on strong/ Oh Christy.”
“That song is uncomfortably personal for me,” she says. “But when I co-wrote it three years ago with the guy I had been dating, it wasn’t personal at all. Only later did I have an experience like what’s described in ‘Christy,’ so it ended up being oddly prophetic.”
Like a lot of gifted singer/songwriters living in Nashville today, Prass is from somewhere else. She grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where, as a student at an arts magnet high school in Norfolk during the early aughts, she honed her musical chops while cutting her teeth on the music of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. “She was the first girl I saw and thought, ‘Oh, girls can play electric guitar like that,’” says Prass. “I think discovering Jenny’s music has become a rite of passage for a lot of teenage girls who look for validation in indie rock.” She has earned the right to be wistful: Following a set of serendipitous circumstances—including a super-lo-fi, iPhone-recorded audition video—Prass has spent much of this year touring the country and playing keyboard as part of Lewis’ backing band.
We talk outside the Edgehill Cafe, a mere stone’s throw from Music Row, the epicenter of Nashville’s commercial country industrial complex. Wearing a pale threadbare denim jacket with her hair up, Prass is philosophical about her relationship with Music City. “Nashville has pushed me to improve constantly as few other places could, and I’m grateful for that.”
Pitchfork: How did you wind up in Nashville?
Natalie Prass: Accidentally. Right out of high school, I went to Berklee [College of Music] in Boston. I was only there for one year. I was probably too young to be in a city that size—I never left the practice room or my dorm room. [laughs] It’s funny because, growing up in Virginia, I was always the kid who was like, “One day I’ll leave this beach town and move to New York or Boston.” Of course, once I did, I was terrified.
While I was in Boston, my dad got a job in Nashville, so I’d visit when I came home to see my parents for Christmas and spring break. I had friends there who showed me around town, and I decided to move down there in September of 2006 and attend [Middle Tennessee State University]. I enrolled in a songwriting program that was brand new when I began, and I’m glad I did. MTSU helped me be responsible with my songwriting. It taught me that I need to finish, regardless of whether I feel inspired or bored. Just finish.
Pitchfork: Your upcoming self-titled album has such a lushly orchestrated sound and feel. Can you talk about the production process?
NP: The album was produced by Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard at Spacebomb [Studios] in Richmond. Matt and Trey share a vision for Spacebomb as a label, studio, and aesthetic, and it’s evident in everything they do. They have an incredible house band that could play with anyone, on any record. It’s a rare and genuinely inspiring thing to be a part of.
We’re all from Virginia. Matt and I were in a band together when I was in eighth grade, so I’ve known him for a long time. We had fallen out of touch until a mutual Nashville friend ended up reconnecting me with him years later. Trey was a few years ahead of me at our arts magnet high school in Virginia Beach, and his talent was kind of legendary there. They both attended Virginia Commonwealth University together and were in the jazz program there. Matt is the most thorough, thoughtful person I’ve ever met when it comes to building a cohesive concept for a record. He’s responsible for the sophisticated horn arrangements on the album and got his VCU jazz program friends to play on it, since our budget for the whole thing was virtually nonexistent. Trey ended up doing all the string arrangements, he knows all of the tricks and remembers everything he’s ever listened to. In the studio, he can summon from memory exactly what he wants in order to achieve the desired effect. It’s incredible to witness.
Pitchfork: Your album approaches heartache from many directions, but a common thread involves a hard-won wisdom. What’s behind that theme?
NP: It comes from feeling like a late bloomer. It’s funny, there’s a song on Jenny [Lewis’] new album Voyager called “Late Bloomer”, and every time we play it on tour, I think, “That’s me.” After graduating college in 2010, I got to work—writing and co-writing all the time, playing and touring in bands, playing for other people’s bands, working in coffee shops all over town. I’m definitely someone who’s really picky about who I work with and how I want things to go, because I have a high standard of integrity for my music. I want it to be genuine.
I just finished reading Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up, and it really hit home. At one point he writes about his struggles to make it as a comedian and how he decided to give himself one more year to break through, and that’s when it finally happened for him. I had made that same pact with myself. I don’t think I’m the most talented musician or the best singer, but I work really, really hard. And sometimes these random things happen, and it makes you keep going. Going on tour with Jenny was one of those things, connecting with the guys at Spacebomb was another. The magic is what happens when you keep showing up.
Pitchfork.tv presents a documentary about this year's Basilica SoundScape arts festival, which took place in September in picturesque Hudson, New York. Co-directed by Jim Larson and William Colby, the piece features performances from Swans, Deafheaven, Tim Hecker, Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, White Lung, Emily Reo, Guardian Alien, Gamelan Dharma Swara, Michael Chapman, and Endless Boogie, along with readings by Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves and Swans' Thor Harris—all intercut with gorgeous of footage the fest's surrounding Hudson Valley. Watch the doc below or through our interactive player.
London online label PC Music has become a much-buzzed-about—and divisive—entity over the course of 2014 via their wonky dance-pop releases, Web 1.0 aesthetics, and gratis distribution model. Yet there’s at least one place on Earth where PC Music’s sonic and visual input wouldn’t be jarring, but rather commonplace among an ever-growing community going strong for more than a decade now: Japan’s netlabel scene. A “netlabel” is a music imprint existing primarily on the Internet, where users can download all releases for free in digital format. In most cases, netlabels license all songs under creative commons licenses, encouraging fledgling producers to remix them however they’d like. PC Music is the first Western netlabel to make significant waves in the English media, but the most influential Japanese netlabels have already helped shepherd a new generation of producers to greater awareness while shaping the future of popular Japanese music.
The first Japanese netlabel, Minus N, emerged in 2003, and welcomed submissions from all countries, making it far more popular outside of Japan than within. Subsequently, plenty of Japanese netlabels emerged and continued embracing a no-borders mindset, but the appearance of Maltine Records in 2005 helped birth the country’s contemporary online-music scene. Started by two high school freshmen who just wanted to share their fidgety dance music, Maltine reached out to budding producers sharing tracks on MySpace and the popular image-board 2chan (the inspiration for America’s 4chan), offering them a chance to release EPs and albums via their Internet-only imprint. Maltine embraced all mutations of electronic music—starting out favoring breakbeats and gabber, but soon welcoming house, techno, and sliced-and-diced anime music into the fold—eventually creating a musical universe all their own. Soon enough, others followed their lead, taking advantage of this limitless new realm.
The movement wasn’t necessarily a kickback against popular J-pop—many artists on netlabels support mainstream acts—but rather a chance for amateur producers with no real way into the Japanese music industry to try to be heard. And the digital door isn’t open to just music makers: many young visual artists and graphic designers have had their work used as album covers within the netlabel community, while others have helped design the colorful, attention-monopolizing, and sometimes-browser-crippling websites for certain full-lengths.
The netlabel scene grew larger thanks to the rise of social-networking sites, and the more established outfits started crossing into real life with parties featuring artists who once only shined in .ZIP form. Even live, the Internet isn’t absent—at Maltine’s club nights, there are always designated computer corners where punters can use their devices and charge phones, while more daring attendees clutch their laptops on the dancefloor and livestream themselves enjoying the event… often to people across the floor from them.
Watch footage from a Maltine Records party from earlier this year in Tokyo:
Now, netlabel culture and artists are crossing over to the mainstream. A new generation of producers who got their start through Web-only labels such as Avec Avec, Yoshino Yoshikawa, and Fazerock have earned work producing music for major-label pop stars. Maltine has collaborated with popular J-pop group Tokyo Girls’ Style for the Maltine Girls’ Wave project, while also hosting releases from non-Japanese artists like England’s bo en, Texas’ Xyloid, and Los Angeles’ Meishi Smile. Yusuke Kawai, aka tofubeats, has become the biggest crossover performer to date, joining Warner Bros. Japan as a solo artist, teaming up with Mad Decent singer LIZ, and offering a mix for the BBC’s “Diplo and Friends”show in the process.
Despite these success stories, the Japanese netlabel community tends to be very transient. New labels start all the time and vanish into the digital ether just as quickly; browsing the “links” pages of still-thriving netlabels leads to lots of 404 errors or domain-for-sale pages. Minus N’s site is now riddled with script mistakes. But despite the fleeting nature of these smaller operations, the Japanese netlabel scene has created a welcoming online world where anyone with wi-fi can create a unique aesthetic and then set it free.
The following list runs down the 10 most noteworthy contemporary Japanese netlabels and some of their best tracks:
The biggest and most well-known netlabel in Japan started life as a way for a pair of high school freshmen to share their homemade tracks. Launched in 2005 by Tomohiro Konuta and a friend going by the name Syem, the online imprint served as a way to release dance and pop music made by like-minded artists found online. Today, Maltine boasts over 130 releases —all available here for free download—and has garnered enough clout to collaborate with major-label J-pop singers and put on big IRL events. They’ve become a favorite of various non-Japanese artists as well, including Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth, who regularly features the label’s music in his live sets and mixes. Despite growing attention, the label’s open-minded attitude remains, allowing Maltine to release electronic music blurring all sorts of lines, from 2-step to Jersey Club approximations to indie-pop while weaving in nerdier aspects of Japanese pop culture through video game noises and anime samples.
Alongside Maltine, Bunkai-Kei is the other big-name netlabel going in 2014. In a scene where digital outlets tend to disappear as quickly as they pop up, Bunkai-Kei has lasted for years and also achieved the netlabel milestone of hosting live shows around Tokyo, most notably the Out of Dots show at the capital’s famous club Womb. Unlike Maltine’s cartoon-embracing spirit, though, the artists on Bunkai-Kei give off a slightly more serious air, with most releases leaning towards ambient and glitch. Still, they aren’t afraid to highlight whatever electronic music catches their attention, and they’ve even released an album courtesy of famous Vocaloid producer kz, albeit one where the character’s digi-singing was sliced up. Recently, they’ve also embraced more human voices, ranging from Tokyo singer Smany, to adult-video-actor Yura Sakura, to Brooklyn-based Abigail Press, who appears on Bunkai-Kei’s latest album, courtesy of woozy producer mus.hiba.
Bump Foot boasts the most intimidating catalog of all Japanese netlabels—more than 400 releases appear in their archives, which date back to 2005. The people running the site make it a tiny bit easier to navigate through their stacks, dividing albums up into two types. “Bump Side” uploads are based on techno and house music, though the producers featured in that category aren’t afraid to bend those definitions—as long as someone could dance to it, it’s bumping. “Foot Side,” meanwhile, highlights music meant to be absorbed. Bump Foot resembles early-day netlabels in its sprawling selection, and is the most international of the bunch, with the number of foreign acts well outnumbering the domestic side.
One of the key concepts of Japanese netlabel culture is connecting people who normally wouldn’t have a chance to interact, and Tokyo-based MarginalRec. takes that principle very seriously. They sometimes throw parties, dubbed Another Weekender, at clubs as a way for listeners to come together and hear their take on electronic music. They also stream these nights out live online for those who can’t experience it in person and put on a weekly Ustream show every Monday. The label’s music runs from remixes of popular J-pop songs, to anthemic floor fillers, to fidgety built-for-headphones numbers.
There’s a heavy overlap between Japan’s online music scenes and anime communities, and the art direction many netlabels embrace can sometimes skew a little too moe. For those who still raise an eyebrow at Japanese animation, ALTEMA Records strikes a nice balance between otaku and general-audience serving. Co-founder sir etok doesn’t shy away from his love for anime, and the covers of many of their albums feature cutesy drawings, but the music within takes many shapes. Some are built around nothing but samples from ‘90s programs, while others swerve into brostep territory, or heady IDM.
Few netlabels have shot up the ranks as quickly as Trekkie Trax, a Tokyo-based crew who have gone from cramped clubs to having their own radio show in just two years. Trekkie Trax started as a party held in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood called Under 20, because the DJs hosting the get-together were still in their teens. They soon established an online outpost to release their music, and began recruiting new producers. The artists released by Trekkie Trax embrace contemporary forms of dance music—among their catalog are releases devoted to juke, 2-step, brostep, and grime-descendant war dub. In 2014, they’ve been getting even more attention both at home and abroad, as members of the label now host occasional radio programs on Tokyo’s block.fm, while the Helsinki-based dance label Top Billin released a special compilation of Trekkie Trax songs this spring.
Far and away the most aggressive-sounding Japanese netlabel going, Otherman Records emerged in 2010 as an online stop for breakcore music. Though, even from their very first compilation album, it was never that simple. Otherman highlights all abrasive dance music, from manic chiptune to drum ‘n’ bass freak outs that push the boundaries of what a club goer could actually dance to. (Most extreme of all may be their chiptune Christmas album.) Some of the label’s earliest contributors have gone on to increased attention as of late, including producers Miii and Gigandect (the latter being invited to take part in Maltine’s collaboration with popular J-pop group Tokyo Girls’ Style), as they continue to seek out exciting young track makers who aren’t afraid to get confrontational with their music.
Most netlabels veer towards electronic music, but Ano(t)raks takes the online-label model and applies it to another genre built on the spirit of “let’s just make something and put it out there” indie-pop. Started in 2012 by Dai Ogasawara, Ano(t)raks acts as a curator within a type of guitar-focused pop that never goes out of style across Japan, sifting through the twee masses to find the most interesting young artists around. They achieve this most clearly on their compilation albums, large collections casting the spotlight on all sorts of groups, hailing from Tokyo to tiny corners in the Western-most parts of Japan. Ano(t)raks has also served as a stepping-stone for groups such as Kyoto’s Homecomings and Osaka’s the Paellas en route to larger-label distribution opportunities.
Whereas Ano(t)raks focuses solely on the Japanese indie-pop landscape, Tokyo-based Canata Records expands the boundaries of the genre generously. Founded by Azusa Suga and Yoshiki Iwasawa, the netlabel spotlights indie-pop from all over the world, with releases coming from America (Randy Johnson), England (Along Came December), and Argentina (Aguas Tonicas), among others. Yet the bulk of releases come from Japanese outfits who aren’t afraid to push Sarah-Records-inspired pop into weird directions, like recording a twee album using the synthesized voice of Vocaloid star Hatsune Miku. Co-founder Suga also fancies sub-genres such as chillwave and vaporwave, ignoring the perceptions of “coolness” abroad in favor of playing around with the sonic pillars of each. In the case of vaporwave, he’s taken a niche corner of Internet music populated by Westerners goofing around with Japanese music, samples, and language, and turned it into an achingly nostalgic look back on youth.
Tanukineiri is one of the newest netlabels in Japan and it might point at the future of the scene. While the majority of Japanese netlabels—certainly the long-running ones—have had a central identity that shines through regardless of how wonky the (largely electronic) music gets, Tanukineiri ditches that template and simply releases whatever they fancy. They’ve uploaded dense four-on-the-floor dance music courtesy of Nagoya’s House of Tapes, rapturous folk strumming from Tokyo’s may.e, and lo-fi experimental sketches from Zaiden. They are globally minded, too, somehow becoming the place to go to hear Indonesian indie-pop such as HoneybeaT and Tokyolite, and aren’t afraid to sell CDs of certain releases while giving the rest away for free.