Photo by: Ebru Yildiz; makeup by Jenn Streicher; hair by Noah Hatton
There was supposed to be someone else, some other band that blazed through the path Sleater-Kinney made, some fiery young upstarts who took up that banner and made us true believers, set the awful world right, stamping and railing under those stage lights, loosing that feminist fury, and earning the right to rule upon us in hot waves of punk pummel. Instead, we were left with a Sleater-Kinney-shaped hole in our musical cosmos for nearly a decade. Like Fugazi, Nirvana, or Bad Brains before them—so singular a force, so powerfully perfect—there was no replicating what or who they were.
They ghosted as America's last truly great punk band, the last bridge out of Something Pure—an indomitable, baleful force, born of pre-Internet Riot Grrrl polemics and Olympia DIY as much as a refusal to be hemmed by the dogmatic rules of those schools. They were the girl rock stars that boys respected, too, as they legitimized everyone's lives, peacocking their ambition with solos and stage moves. Their existence was political as much as their band was fun; they served as a revivifying re-enforcement of resistance, pissed dissenters in an era pocked by war, corporate creep, and high irony. They cared.
Their early discography was stripped of blandishment and filled with songs that had the cause of duty. Their music was their way to argue, to assert one’s right to exist, to coalesce an insurgency, to give the girls and the queer kids and the weirdos the language and anthems they needed. Their shows were ecstatic, sure, but they were serious, purposed—when this band came unhinged in a song or onstage, it was torrential, an act of abandon; explosion as an expression of power.
So now that they’re back, the question becomes: Are they still that band?
Listen to their first new album in a decade, and the difference between Sleater-Kinney then and S-K 2.0 is fairly obvious. While No Cities to Love is suffused with that familiar intensity borne of the trio’s dynamic, the record breathes with pleasure—there is a tenacious sheen covering these renegade blues, more melodic indelibility, and more engagement of the same pop forms the band previously subverted. Singer/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and drummer Janet Weiss have coaxed the best of their abilities into refined songs that may be less wild, but are no less intense. They know the rules now, which means they can break them that much better. After a staggering run of albums that scrapped to prove this trio’s truth and demanded the world to give their spectacular motion its rightful berth, No Cities is a return imbued with canonical confidence. Sleater-Kinney’s truth now has more beauty.
To get the revolutionary weight of that beauty, there must be some discussion of the painful reasons of Why Sleater-Kinney Matter So Much. The band began as a way of recording obscured lives, with Riot Grrrl serving a catalytic boost. They were women speaking to other women with their songs. They were making art for us. Their records showed that we mattered. Their success was emblematic, their critical validation totemic; Sleater-Kinney became a front line. Waging a war for a right to be, they pulled us out from the margins as they moved into the light. The hysteria in Tucker’s voice, the caustic edges in a Brownstein phrase—each word was an act of refusal: to be quiet, to be the good girl, to play a game set up for us to lose. Their sound illuminated what it was to be alive, be queer, be feminist, be disgusted by America, to lust for a dignity denied, to want to dance and revel in love and resist death. Sleater-Kinney didn’t mean something; they meant everything.
Their return is not a victory lap. It is a re-declaration of all they were, all they built. It is a claim of glory after all that toil. We still need Sleater-Kinney. And so do they.
“The band was such an intense commitment, so we knew if we stopped it would be a full stop.”
“It was sad. It was real. I was crying pretty hard.”
Corin Tucker turns solemn sitting in a Portland bar late last year as she explains the moments that followed the band’s final encore in 2006.
“Did you stay sad?” I ask.
On No Cities closer “Fade”, Tucker glances back at the tidal pull of the stage and weighs the last gasp of Sleater-Kinney’s inaugural run, which still rings in her ears. It may seem like a strange place to lament the band’s end—to leave it like a postscript to this glorious comeback album, one that revels in all they have staked since those Olympia basement days. Yet, it has to be aired. What happened in the intervening years informs the new record as much as their six albums of shared history.
During the months leading up to that farewell show, the band had discussed the need for a hiatus. Tucker was anxious to have a second child; mothering her young son amid the widely successful tour for 2005 breakthrough The Woods was taxing to her family. Brownstein was similarly exhausted and hoping to pursue her comedy project—which would eventually become “Portlandia”, her hit sketch show with Fred Armisen—or get a job at the Humane Society.
“It was bittersweet,” explains Brownstein, smiling. “It was the end of a chapter, but there was a sense of accomplishment to have not skidded to a halt—we beat [Gwyneth] Paltrow on ‘conscious uncoupling’ by about 10 years.” She doesn’t seem to have Tucker’s melancholy on the subject. Yet, after spending the intervening years fulfilling her ambitions as a writer, performer, and musician, Sleater-Kinney’s return is clearly the cherry on top of it all for Brownstein.
“The band was such an intense commitment, so we knew if we stopped it would be a full stop,” adds Tucker—though, in her mind, she envisioned the hiatus lasting only two years. The door was not shut all the way.
Tucker began pursuing a career (that she still enjoys) in website development and made solo records; sometimes, she would start to write a song and then stop, realizing it was more like a Sleater-Kinney song. Weiss, meanwhile, was occupied by touring and recording with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Bright Eyes, and Wild Flag; the drummer also got a job as the permitting manager on “Portlandia”.
“We’re all friends, so we respected that we had other things going on in our lives,” Tucker says. “We really waited until it was like, ‘Is the opportunity going to pass us by if we don’t do it again?’”
“We can get in a room and start making songs that sound like Sleater-Kinney pretty fast, but that’s not necessarily good enough. We had to find a new approach to the band.”
There is some disagreement about the moment when the idea of getting the band back together was first floated. Sitting across the table from one another at friend’s bar near downtown, Brownstein and Tucker debate their new origin story.
“We were watching the debates,” says Tucker. “And I said something about Sleater-Kinney and then asked, ‘Are we ever going to do that again?’”
Brownstein corrects: “We were sitting around on the couch, showing you new episodes of ‘Portlandia’, and Lance [Bangs, Tucker’s husband] and Fred [Armisen] were like, ‘Yeah, you should do it.’”
Weiss says the choice was simple: “We had no reason not to.”
The band nixed the idea of a quick go-round—a few shows, rolling out the hits. (“That would have been hard given that we had no hits,” laughs Brownstein.) They were in for a proper album or nothing at all. Easy nostalgia wasn’t an option. They wouldn’t do it unless they were sure they could build something worthy of their own legacy. They wanted to get it perfect.
“We didn’t want to put out something where people were like, ‘Wow, they really fucked this up!’” says Brownstein. “On your third record, there is a next time. But there would not be a next time if we fucked this record up. We did a ton of work on the songs—we would throw away a song we had been practicing for two weeks. The three of us can get in a room and start making songs that sound like Sleater-Kinney pretty fast, but that’s not necessarily good enough. We had to find a new approach to the band.”
Photo by Ebru Yildiz
Starting in May 2012, Sleater-Kinney began tuning back up, bit by bit, in Tucker’s basement, cadging together hours between everyone’s hectic schedules. While the songs “No Cities” and “Hey Darling” came right away, the rest of the album was as much a process of winnowing and editing as it was creating. They recorded hundreds of ideas; anything that endured on the merit of being catchy and succinct was subject to multiple rewrites. After years of being on what Brownstein calls “the hamster wheel of touring and putting out albums,” this was the first time the trio had so much time and space to deliberate and woodshed, with the only pressure to get it right coming from within the band.
“We had to push ourselves,” says Brownstein. “It was painful.”
Somehow, through two years of writing and practicing and recording, news of their reunion never leaked. They laugh about it now. “I was shocked the word didn’t get out, I was blabbing about it left and right to friends,” says Tucker. “At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, [The New Yorker editor] David Remnick was like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I told him!” admits Brownstein, though she quickly qualifies, laughing, “That’s not a name-drop, just an idea of how loose I was about it.”
This aside is one of the small-but-constant reminders that while Brownstein is still as committed to Sleater-Kinney as she’s ever been, she has another orbit these days. She is the one who gets lingering glances of recognition at the bar where we do our initial interview. She is the one who gets us courtside, under-the-basket seats for a Portland Trail Blazers game later that night, from her friend (and team owner) Paul Allen. (I ask her how close she is to the billionaire Microsoft co-founder. “We email.” Do they text? “No. We’re not text-level friends.”) At halftime, Allen (avec body man) ventures over to talk to her about how things are going with the Sleater-Kinney reunion; he high fives us roundly when the Blazers win.
It’s not just that Brownstein is breathing the rarefied air of magnates and pro ballers (she occasionally goes record shopping with Blazers center Robin Lopez)—she’s actually famous now. It’s new enough that she alternately seems giddy and unfazed. As she guides us through the labyrinth of the basketball arena’s VIP concourse, she’s greeted with gasps and gamely poses for selfies with fans. She gets an expectant “hey, Carrie!” from a particularly thirsty local singer, who, after singing the national anthem, circles us like a shark, trying to get a moment or shoehorn in on the cypher with Allen.
Brownstein is, historically speaking, one of punk’s biggest pop-culture exports; when you Google her, red-carpet pics come up before images of her onstage with a guitar. While she has transformed some—it’s hard to imagine her posing sans makeup, T-shirt sleeves pushed up, giving the camera her tough-Patti sneer, as she did in an earlier Sleater-Kinney publicity photo—the non-musical work she puts into the world now is a natural extension. Nothing is lost in translation. It all calls to mind the famous Life Magazine cover featuring Female Eunuch author Germaine Greer and the words “Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like.” For Brownstein, going to comedy and acting was a relief. “On a personal level, I wanted to be judged by what I am doing now, not everything from my 20s,” she says. “That’s an intense reality.”
“Being adults with lives, families, and careers forces us into the moment. We have a lot to say in a short amount of time, and that plays to our intensity.”
Sleater-Kinney’s story has often been, for better or worse, lensed by their gender—their myriad successes never fully real until mainstream indie (and male) audiences set aside the gee-whiz of low expectations and recognized them as a canonical act. Which makes the recent box set collecting their first seven albums, Start Together, especially important: Its feminist significance cannot be understated when so few other female punk bands (under half a dozen by my count, and that’s including Lydia Lunch’s spoken-word set) have gotten such treatment. Even now, we are still at the nascence of marginalized participants in underground music having their contributions and perspectives properly documented; it’s fitting that Sleater-Kinney help claim that ground. As Weiss explains it, the making of the box set deeply informed the new album, “Being connected to the past and going through the catalog together—that was a big part of being a band again.”
At the center of No Cities is the theme of power—economic, political, personal, musical. It begins with “Price Tag”, which examines the lure of American capitalism and its toll on working families, and ends with “Fade”, Tucker’s lament about the price of being an artist driven by the need to perform. “Gimme Love” and “Fangless” are sung from perspectives of people refusing to feel small and actualizing their anguish; “Bury Our Friends” goes with a literal “We won’t give in!” It’s all post-recession Spartacus vibes and feminist resistance.
Brownstein jokes that she’d suggested calling the album Power—“It’d be the hardcore thing to do,” she laughs. All three admit that their understanding of power and the true shape of it has changed dramatically since the band began, and Tucker says that the recession threw this into high relief. “I understand the weight of power, as an older person, especially economic power,” she says. “The reality of making a living and keeping a family together carries a much greater weight for me than it did at 20.”
For Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney’s rebellion has evolved: “When the band first started, it was so much about carving out some space for myself and our audience and our songs. I felt like power meant that you had to be engaged in a certain kind of struggle, by force of movement and battle—and that’s very exhausting. Now, power is more about certainty and stillness, and realizing that the infrastructures that we gather around and worship are the least powerful things.”
“It’s different when you are a young band,” says Weiss. “We are much more aware. Being adults with lives and families and careers forces us into the moment. We have a lot to say in a short amount of time, and that plays to our intensity. We’re not building—we want it to be big, now.”
Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Viet Cong singer/bassist Matt Flegel on the morning after he moved from his longtime home of Calgary to Nanaimo, British Columbia. His band’s self-titled full-length debut album is out January 20 on Jagjaguwar.
Artist I Would Pay a Million Dollars for a Private Concert
It would be cool to have Elton John play your living room and invite one of your buddies but not tell them that Elton John was going to play.
My Biggest Pet Peeve
I hate frosted glass. It reminds me of going to my Mormon grandparents' house when I was young, and they had this dish set that was all frosted glass. It’s rough on the fingers. Glass is supposed to be the smoothest thing possible. I hated that feeling. I still hate it. It’s one of my most hated things. It makes me angry.
My Favorite New Songs
I got this Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff record, and some of the recordings are old-old—like, 1928-old. They’re not new songs [laughs], but new for me. I didn’t realize he’d been alive in the time that you could record things. He died in the '40s, but there are recordings of him playing everything he wrote. I have always [been a fan of classical music], but this one’s really kicking my ass lately. It’s all dark, minor-key, which is more my style—dark Russian music.
It’s a cool way to listen to classical music, because you can’t listen to Beethoven play the Moonlight Sonata—they didn’t have the ability to record him doing that back in the day. It’s kind of a broken-telephone game where [the music] just gets fucked up the more it gets bumped down through generations.
My Favorite Venue
The Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, England. It’s pub-style, but people actually have memberships. It’s the kind of place where there’s war veterans at one table, a lesbian couple at the next table, some 16-year-olds with a dog at another table, some construction workers over there. It’s totally diverse and amazing. I always feel comfortable there.
My Bad Habits
Oh man, you got half an hour? Smoking is one. Drinking excessive amounts of beer is another. And driving like an asshole.
The First Record I Bought for Myself
I bought my first Sony Sport Walkman when I was 9 years old and I got two free tapes: MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt 'Em and Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin'. I don’t really listen to hip-hop now at all, but when I was 9, I was more hip than I am now.
My Role Model
My grandpa. He died three years ago—he was very old, almost 90. He influenced my don’t-give-a-fuck-attitude and taught me how to behave like a grandpa as a 28-year-old.
Easiest Money I've Ever Made
I remember flying back to Calgary once, and seeing if I had any money in my bank account [at the airport ATM], which I didn’t at all. But then I looked in the bill dispenser, and there was $180. If I find someone’s wallet on the ground, obviously I will try to contact them or drop it off at a police station. But if there’s cash just sitting there, you look over your shoulder… and then what? Are you going to go up to every stranger and be like, "Did you lose $180?" No!
My Favorite Comedian
Bill Hicks. He was the original. Maybe Richard Pryor did that style of comedy way back when, but Hicks did it in a more pissed-off fashion.
My Worst Nightmare
Going insane is my most realistic answer. But I’ve been having weird dreams lately where someone I know is in the vehicle and I’m controlling it remote-style, like "F-Zero" or one of those shitty video games from the '90s. I can’t see the vehicle, but people that I love are in it, and I’m not at the wheel. I can see it from a distance… and things always go completely awry.
Strangest Display of Affection From a Fan
The first time Viet Cong played in New Orleans, this dude drove out from Baton Rouge and was literally the only person at the show. It was us, the opening band, the sound guy, the bartender, and him. He did a YouTube video of one of the songs that we played terribly and awkwardly—it was us playing to no one—and then he sent me the link to it, like I would really appreciate it and would want to thank him for it. Those kind of shows are like band practice; it was kind of embarrassing. But I guess it was affectionate.
My Favorite TV Shows
Have you ever watched "Fringe"? It’s like a shitty 2010s version of "X-Files", with worse actors, but I love it. And the last season of "Louie" blew my mind. And it wasn’t funny at all. It’s heartbreakingly real; it actually makes you feel severe human emotions.
We played in Amsterdam a month ago, and we went out and did karaoke afterward and we all did Bowie. I did "Heroes", but it was the short version—I don’t think it had the "dolphins can swim" verse, which I was pissed off about, because that’s the one I really wanted to sing passionately. I half-pulled it off. I didn’t blow my voice out during the show we played, but post-show I blew my voice out trying to sing "Heroes" at karaoke, to no one.
A$AP Ferg came to work, but work is proving to be a problem. An unknown mechanical error has damaged the power at his label’s office in the Bronx, shrouding half the rooms in darkness and rendering the in-house studio inert. As employees run around trying to manage the problem, Ferg is simply hanging out. Amidst the chaos, he’s still an affable, free-wheeling charmer—the guy who’s friendly with everyone from Ariana Grande to Macklemore to Haim, and inspired enough to rhyme “Pikachu” with “Yeezus do.” If he’s annoyed by the electrical setback, he doesn’t show it.
I catch him in December during a rare pause in a life that has picked up steam since the release of 2013’s Trap Lord, which established Ferg as a stand-alone rapper worthy of his own Wikipedia destination. (For a while, his page automatically redirected to A$AP Rocky’s.) “The days to myself aren’t really days to myself because I don’t really sleep,” he says when I ask him what he does with his free time. “I love what I do so I don't stop when I’m supposed to stop.”
Ferg is currently on tour with YG and hoping to release his sophomore album early this year, but in the meantime, he’s put out a new mixtape called Ferg Forever. It’s a dense, disparate piece of work that flips between dancehall sex fantasy, earnest hood parable, and dada braggadocio. (The symptoms of “Fergsomnia” remain unspecified.) He’ll rap poetically about his complex relationship with his uncle, then speak-sing a laughably trivial account of performing at Bonnaroo for the first time. He also sings on “Real Thing”, but he doesn’t plan to hire a vocal coach anytime soon: “I’m not trying to be like Mariah Carey or nothing.” Ferg Forever is mixtape as stream-of-consciousness, an appetizer for Ferg fans who really care about his inner life—and the fact that those people exist at all is a testament to the niche he’s carving out for himself.
“My whole thing is to be an individual and not really respect history to the point where you won't want to create your own history,” he says, “to be bigger than the marvels you look at.” There are no meek rappers, of course, but I’ve seen his ability to deliver on such promises firsthand. Before Trap Lord was out, I interviewed Ferg and asked him about his aspirations for the coming year. “I will be in everybody’s iPod, everybody’s computer, everybody’s iTunes,” he said then. Within a few months, he proved his point with songs like “Shabba” and “Hood Pope”. So where is he going in 2015? “To the stars and probably Mars.”
"The new generation is not even down with that racism and classism shit. They just want to have fun. It’s the older people who can't get over the past and need to be left alone."
Pitchfork: You’ve toured with Skrillex and Diplo, and guested on songs by Haim and Ariana Grande. What do you think makes you so versatile?
A$AP Ferg: It’s just the type of person I am—everybody loves my energy and wants to hang out with me. In school, I was even cool with the uncool guys. It got me far in life because now I’m able to collaborate with a bunch of big, dope artists that are not a part of hip-hop. The Internet made it so that everything is blended-in anyway because all these pop kids—Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber—are inspired by hip-hop, dress like hip-hop, dance like hip-hop, so it’s a real thin line. And I’m open-minded enough to go across that line and then jump back into my world, or just be in the middle. I’m not boxed in at all.
Pitchfork: Within A$AP Mob, is it harder to stick together now that you and Rocky have attained individual success?
AF: You gotta understand that you got A$AP Rocky fans, and A$AP Ferg fans who just fuck with my shit, and A$AP Twelvyy fans who probably just fuck with his shit. But then you got A$AP fans who love to see us as a group together. It’s like Wu-Tang—you love Method Man, Ghostface, and Raekwon the Chef separately, but when they get together, that’s a force to be reckoned with. You only experience that shit a couple of times in your life. That group energy is what started everything, that’s the energy that the world saw first.
Pitchfork: “Talk It” is the new tape’s most explicitly political song, and there’s a line about driving around blasting N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”. Recently, there was a story where someone was actually pulled over for doing that.
AF: Oh, shit. See, that’s why words are powerful; you can speak shit into fruition. You gotta watch what you do and what you say. But this is nothing new, with Ferguson and all that shit. But I feel like the new generation is not even down with that racism and classism shit. They just want to have fun. That’s what I love about us. It’s the older people who can't get over the past and need to be left alone. There’s a bunch of evils in the world that want to separate people, and I’m not with that. I believe we can live in a society together and enjoy each other.
Pitchfork: Do you consider yourself to be weirder than other rappers?
AF: Not weird, because nothing I talk about or do is weird. Honestly, I don’t think anything in this world is weird. I really can’t relate to that. I feel like I’m a different rapper, and not afraid to express myself. Different is what makes superstars. Michael Jackson was mad different, Jimi Hendrix was mad different. All of the big-ass uber superstars were different and never had to go with what was happening at the time.
At 24, Yannick Ilunga has already lived several musical lives, leaping over perceived racial and genre confines along the way. Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, he started out singing and playing guitar in church. Then he joined a double-bass-drum-addled metalcore band called Fallen Within. “Most people who would go to metal shows were white,” he says. “I went to a black school, but I had a circle that was into this other kind of music.” Then, around age 16, he heard Kanye West’s raw Auto-Tune touchstone 808s & Heartbreak, which profoundly altered his perspective. “I was like, ‘Wow, here's a black guy just breaking all boundaries.’ I will always respect Kanye. He literally changed my life.” From there, he delved into electronic music, fronting the chillwave duo Popskarr and locating his dynamic singing voice, which ranges from an airy falsetto to a rumbling baritone.
Thankfully, his current solo project, Petite Noir, is not some kind of slapdash musical Frankenstein of his past—chill metal with robot vocals, anyone?—but rather a mature internalization of his musical life thus far that sound completely fresh. His stellar recent single “Chess”, for example, is a slowly bubbling swirl that mixes in early TV on the Radio, the sweep of U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, and the rhythmic emotionality of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”. Ilunga wrote the song during a breakup, but it’s no lament—it’s regenerative, as he sings, “I can smile again, it’s possible—with or without you.”
Similarly, the name of his forthcoming debut EP, The King of Anxiety, is a triumph of contradiction. “It’s meant to be positive,” he says, talking about the title. “In a lot of cases in life, you need to be the king—even during the bad times, you need to overcome.” Though he alludes to the still-present racial separation within his hometown, he’s also able to see the locale's bright side. “It has a really good beach, it's really chill, and everyone smokes weed,” he says, speaking from Cape Town over Skype last month. “Weed isn’t legal here, but people aren't gonna put you in jail for five years for smoking it.”
Two years after his debut single as Petite Noir, “Till We Ghosts”, dropped, Ilunga is heading to London to work on his debut album for Domino in the coming months. This deliberate pace makes sense given his ever-evolving sensibilities, and its allowed him to gather a host of enviable opportunities like opening for Solange in 2013 and even having musical hero Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, jump on a remix of "Ghosts". Clearly, Ilunga is on his own schedule, his own path. So far, it’s working.
Pitchfork: How did you originally get into metal as a kid?
Yannick Ilunga: If you were a teenager in [the mid-2000s] and you were playing guitar, then you were into that kind of music—Senses Fail, From First to Last, stuff like that. Music is music. Some people would be like, "Aw man, that's just screaming,” but those things really helped me in my musical journey.
Pitchfork: When did you change your artistic trajectory from metalcore to what eventually became Petite Noir?
YI: I started getting into electronic music and going to clubs when I was 16. Before that, I didn't know how to record by myself, just chilling and sitting and writing music. I started to realize that I'm not actually able to be in a band, because there was arguing all the time. Then 808s & Heartbreak came out, which was mindblowing.
Pitchfork: It’s very rare to get Yasiin Bey on a track these days, how did your collaboration come about?
YI: I was walking past his hotel one night and bumped into him and a mutual friend chilling in the lobby. I didn’t really know what to say when I saw him, I was starstruck. He was really chill, though. He even knew the lyrics to “Till We Ghosts”. He is the boogeyman for real.
I first heard of Yasiin when the "Travellin’ Man" single with DJ Honda came out. I still have the physical copy of that single in a sleeve somewhere. It was one of those songs I would sing as a kid all the time, even though I didn't really know what I was singing. But it stuck with me until this day. Black on Both Sides is a groundbreaking album, and my brothers and sisters used to play it all the time. The more I grew up, the more I started to actually realize what it’s about—that album will always be relevant because the struggle continues.
Pitchfork: What's the worst show you ever played?
YI: It was in France and there were a group of really, really, really drunk kids in the front. As we got towards the end of the show, this girl just threw her beer directly in my face. But shit happens. I don't want to go at it like a race thing because you always get racial bullshit. The last show I did in Paris, I finished the show and was like, "fuck racism!" Then I got back to the hotel and there was a message saying, "You fucking nigger." That's just what you need to expect nowadays. You just need to be ready for it because that is what's gonna happen. You just need to be strong.
I got all my music from the charts; there was nothing I got from big sisters or parents or cool friends. We have a show called "Top of the Pops" in Britain—Thursday night, the whole nation pretty much watched it, because it was the only pop music on TV. And then, on Sunday night, we had the chart rundown of singles for that week. Music was all-prevailing in the early '70s—I remember gathering a little group and singing the pop songs of the day in the playground at school. There wasn’t so much to do then; it wasn’t like people were standing around playing computer games on phones. I had a swing in my back garden when I was little, and I used to go up and down while singing the chart rundown myself, the best I could, from 10 to 1. The first hit I became aware of was "Young Love" by Donny Osmond, which was a #1 hit in 1973. He was singing about young love and, being 5, I could relate! I saw him on "Top of the Pops" and thought to myself, "He’s obviously a nice, clean handsome young man—he sings for me!"
Nineteen seventy-eight was an amazing time for unbridled pop music. I hadn’t affiliated myself with heavy rock—I hadn’t really given into peer pressure—so it was still about the charts. We had disco and soft American soul music all through the '70s, and that was OK, but around '78, suddenly some great music came in and I clung to it immediately. Blondie were the best. They were just perfect: You had a proper pop star [in Debbie Harry] that everyone loved, but they were kind of punky as well. The song I loved then was "Denis", which I still love and listen to all the time.
The early '80s were a totally lost period for me, and it was a little bit of a lost period for music. It’s meant to be a classic pop era, but for some reason, for me, it seemed a bit undefined, but that’s probably because I hadn’t found the underground yet. I worked all the time because I didn’t have a social life—I was at that awkward age where I couldn’t relate to anybody. I was working on a farm, driving a tractor, and the radio was on at all times. It was the summer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who I loved—they were #1 and #2 for the whole summer.
I also worked in a delivery van, and they always played the American charts. I hated it. I thought the American charts were so lame compared to the British charts, because you never had anything punky or avant-garde. But they played so much Lionel Richie and Hall and Oates that I developed a passing admiration for them. "All Night Long" is tremendous! Somebody [at the Belle and Sebastian show] in Los Angeles the other night shouted, "all night long!", and we had this big dialogue about how it would be great if we could just launch into the song and play it right. The fellow came up to me after the show and said, "You know, I wanted you to play your own songs all night long—I didn’t want you to play Lionel Richie!"
This is smack dab in the middle of the best music period for me. By '88-'89, I was completely obsessed and absorbed in the world of indie, to the extent that I was failing university and couldn’t even speak to my parents because I had nothing in common with them. They thought I was crazy—I was giving up the careers they wanted for me. I was DJing and roadie-ing for bands, and every month, a new track came out that felt like a revelation. I remember the first time I heard Public Enemy’s "Bring the Noise", probably on John Peel’s show. I liked some rap, but this seemed to be an entirely different beast. You had to give into it.
My big change happened in 1990—I got burned out on music. I sold most of my records and stopped DJing and started embracing books and films and a quieter life. That’s when I started to write myself; when you have a big clearing of the mind, that’s when the opportunity to write comes in.
I had an obsession with Felt, an indie band that stayed with me all the way through the '90s. I was also really looking back at the '60s and '70s for the first time. I had a friend who was my rival DJ at the club—I was always Mr. Contemporary and he was Mr. '60s Psychedelia—and he’d dig up all the best music and play it at this club called Divine in Glasgow. He’d make great compilations—he introduced me to the Left Banke, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and also the idea of Northern soul music. People assumed Belle and Sebastian were an '80s[-inspired] indie group, but the fact is even '80s indie groups came from somewhere else. It was a combination of post-punk and embracing the beauty of the '60s and '70s: the Velvets, the Monkees, the Byrds, Love. That was in the blood. By this time, I had all these ingredients that were all mixed up. Even more so, I had a side of me that was really into middle-of-the-road cheesy pop—I loved '70s radio smashes. I took that all with me. By 1994, I was percolating with all these private obsessions about what great pop music was—which I didn’t seem to share with many people around me.
By this point, [Belle and Sebastian] were producing the equivalent of two albums a year, breaking new ground for ourselves with songs and arrangements, and trying to play concerts. Especially around '99, it became a very difficult time for the band; a couple of people had better things to do, so the process was a bit fraught. I was acting like a Glaswegian Brian Wilson, always in the studio and looking for the sound. It was a shitstorm. We weren’t geared up for it. The records actually got weaker around Fold Your Hands—we were trying to be ambitious, but we didn’t have the group consensus. We were always fighting. I wasn’t listening to much music.
I remember going to a club and this group Camera Obscura came on and right away I fell in love with Tracyanne Campbell’s voice. We started chatting, and I said, "You should come and rehearse in the church hall," which was our house at the time. It was such a pleasure to get away from our group and watch this fledgling band who were much more innocent. Their sound was really clean, and they hadn’t been cluttered by loads of arrangements. The songs were just simple and real pretty. I remember sitting in on all their rehearsals and pretending to mix their sound, because the grass seemed so much greener in their world than in our own. I remember one track in particular, "Park and Ride", which was perfect. They were a real guide and made me think, "We need to get back to playing simple music again."
Things had been going better with the band, and I was back in love with pop music. It coincided with a nice period in Glasgow where there was a little indie-club revival, and they had good catholic taste. Suddenly, everybody from the indie scene was there, but listening to soul, the Clash, and Roxy Music, even middle-of-the-road classics like "(Don’t Fear) the Reaper", which I approved of! That stuff sounds great in clubs. Occasionally, something [contemporary] would get my attention, like a Sugababes hit I would immediately be obsessed with and listen to over and over and put in my own mental canon of classic hits. But they were few and far between.
I had taken a break to do God Help the Girl and I went off into the wilderness, but I was having a great time writing and watching a lot of films. I had this playlist of 30 what-I-would-consider-classic tracks that I’d play every day, and it would put me in a trance. I was going back to more intimate music. The key bands were the Cocteau Twins—I always listened to the Cocteaus, but I kept loving them more and more—and there’s always Felt, the Sundays, the Blue Nile, the Railway Children. I can make a playlist for you in 10 minutes now; it used to take hours to make a good compilation tape. But there’s still a skill to roping things together. Whenever we make a new album, we’re still desperately trying to make a so-called compilation that people will listen to all the way through. But, in a sense, we’re contradicting ourselves: I can’t remember the last time I listened to a whole album by a contemporary band. So why would I expect other people to listen to our music all the way through? But I still do!
At this stage, I like what I like. In the past, I would try to like something, or try to fit in with something, or play records so that people would dance to them. I’m still in love with Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell; I still listen to Everything But the Girl and 10,000 Maniacs. I love unusual female voices that are intimate, that communicate a particular feeling.
I’m still looking for that. There’s a song by A Camp called "Love Has Left the Room". It’s one of those songs where you don’t know where it came from, you don’t know if it was a single, you can’t remember where you heard it, but you’re looking around and thinking, "This is the greatest thing that’s ever been recorded! Why wasn’t it a hit?" And they’re probably thinking the same thing. It doesn’t sound like anything new; it’s completely soulful.
I don’t hear that kind of honesty so much in pop nowadays, because it’s so processed. When I used to listen to records in the '80s as a teenager—by Morrissey or the Slits or the Raincoats—they were singing to you and telling you stuff about life you didn’t know. It was in the lyrics and it was in the feeling. I don’t mean to sound like an old fuddy duddy, but when you have your headphones on and you’re away for a long walk on the countryside, you want to be controlled by Nina Simone—you don’t want to be controlled so much by Beyoncé.
Lightning Bolt: Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson. Photos by Natalja Kent.
The story is familiar: A band used to cheap, DIY recording makes the leap to a professional studio to add new dimensions to their sound. But for veteran Rhode Island noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt, that move was less a step up than a shake-up. "It was a desperate act," admits drummer Brian Chippendale. He and bassist Brian Gibson initially recorded Fantasy Empire—their sixth album and first for Thrill Jockey, due March 24—the way they always have, in their practice space with longtime engineer Dave Auchenbach. But this time it didn’t work. "We just couldn’t make headway with our old process," Chippendale explains. "We kept thinking, 'This sounds like the last record.'"
The band appreciated Auchenbach's ability to document "this authentic thing… an attitude," Gibson says, "but we’d done that so many times." So Lightning Bolt started over at Providence’s Machines With Magnets studio. The resulting nine-song album finds this already hyper-driven band re-energized. The live feel of previous albums remains, but it’s as if they converted that vibe to 3D. The hi-res detail, especially in the fiery repetitions of Gibson’s bass, is as bracing as a face-slap. And the duo’s energy is so tangible you can practically see their sweat dripping. Even Chippendale’s trademark cover art has been made over, with his previous neon pastiches replaced by a darker swirl.
All of which makes Fantasy Empire a thorough Lightning Bolt reboot, one the duo craved after 20 years together. "It’s hard to age in a band. What are you supposed to do?" Chippendale says. "Some bands are like, 'We’re finally making the music we wanted to make,' and you think, 'God, it’s so bad now.' Going into a fancy studio can contribute to that, but it kind of didn’t even matter what the outcome was—we just needed a new process."
I recently spoke via phone to Chippendale and Gibson about that new process, the liberty of a limited musical vocabulary, and whether they are a rock band, a metal group, or an art project—or all three at once.
"It’s not so bad to spend a long period time focusing on a simple set of constraints."
Pitchfork: How did recording in a real studio change the way you worked?
Brian Gibson: We had to have a different type of discipline. On previous records, a lot of the music was mixed on the spot, so stupid little things could screw everything up.
Brian Chippendale: We’re actually sitting in the practice space where we recorded Hypermagic Mountain right now. Take the song "Mega Ghost" on that album: We recorded it 15 times, and it wasn’t because we messed up, it was because we couldn’t get the bass drum to cut through. So we’d play things over and over trying to get the technical side down. This process was the opposite, like, "Let’s just nail it, and then we can mess with it."
BG: It was much faster. All you need to do is play each song well, and the record’s done. You’ve captured everything you need to capture.
BC: It’s funny that that’s a revelation to us—that you can go into the studio and just record a record. After 20 years, we’re like, "Wait a minute, you can do overdubs?" [laughs] I want to stress that our old process with Dave got us some amazing takes of songs, and there’s definitely a win-some/lose-some aspect to the change. I’d never played with Brian with headphones on, so that was not comfortable. There’s a weird collision of events when you play live that’s really hard to replicate in the studio, and our songs are very much based in the energy of a live experience.
Pitchfork: Do you usually play songs live a lot before recording?
BG: Yeah, and typically we record at the end of tours because we’re fired up and really good at our songs at that point. We didn’t record all of these songs at the end of a tour, though, so that was a bit of an experiment. The crazy tour energy has pros and cons. It’s really hyper-intense, but sometimes we’re too far over the edge.
BC: I start playing too fast.
BG: Touring takes us to this level that’s great for some things, but another side of us gets underrepresented.
BC: Like with the new song "Horsepower"—after the tour, the drums became so fast. We had to walk away from it, and a month later we played it at a more grooving speed.
Pitchfork: Was it challenging to make a coherent record that way?
BC: Well, our vocabulary is so limited, and the coherence is there because of that. Even on our shittiest days, we’re still a very specific-sounding band.
BG: None of our songs are made thinking about any other songs, but our records do end up coherent. Our process has always been the same; we play for a few years and eventually a set of songs rise to the top out of everything we’ve written. We probably write three times as many songs as what ends up on the record over that period of time, so I think what holds the records together is that the songs have stood the test of time for us.
Pitchfork: Is it liberating to accept that you have a limited vocabulary?
BG: Well, I’ve tried to not to do what I do many times, and I always end up coming back to the bass with distortion, using the same pedals. Playing with Brian, I’ve nailed something that I haven’t figured out how to do any other way. I definitely search all the time. There have been times when I’ve brought in different things…
BC: ... Lightning Bolt: The Thumb Piano Sessions [laughs]. I’m not even kidding.
BG: Maybe it’s not so bad to spend a long period time focusing on a simple set of constraints.
Pitchfork: Do you discuss songs much as you’re making them?
BC: It’s pretty intuitive. The basic building blocks come from jamming, recording, listening back and then thinking. But you can destroy a song that way. You start with something very primal and then you process it and lose track of it. You forget what the initial impetus was.
BG: Sometimes we’ll listen to the first time we jammed a riff and realize we’ve completely destroyed the magic of the original idea. There’s more to a song than just the riff and the beat; there’s a deeper attitude that’s hard to quantify or repeat. Sometimes you play something together that’s magical and you get a great recording, but you’ll never do it again.
Pitchfork: How did you come up with the title Fantasy Empire?
BC: The album’s about playing really hard and getting lost in it. There are limitations on the sounds that we make, and so it feels like there are limitations on the words that can be aligned with that sound. We have like six words we can pick from.
BG: We want our body of work as a whole to melt together, but we’ve put ourselves in a weird spot with album titles—they’re sort of demented and playful. So when we’re thinking of something that fits the new record but also is cohesive with what we’ve done in the past, there’s very little that fits all those requirements.
BC: You can read it in different ways: as naïve, or as dark and critical about the state of things.
Pitchfork: I hear some metal in Fantasy Empire, maybe even more than previous albums. Is that an influence?
BC: We’re influenced in the way that if you play bass super-distorted and you ring out a dark, deep-sounding note, it sounds kind of metal and cool. We have all the ingredients of metal and we have the attitude to some extent, the energy and repetition. But we’re not a metal band, somehow.
BG: In the early days of Lightning Bolt, I was conscious of trying not to be dark or angsty or metal. I got bored of that and wanted to try different moods. But making a song that's dark and aggressive at the same time is pretty satisfying.
BC: I’m a big metal fan, but my drumming isn’t metal. I don’t use the same set of tricks that metal drummers do. It’s always interesting to know if metal fans like us. I feel like certain metal fans have a little compass that directs them to true metal, and we fall outside of that. We’re just some kind of art-damaged rock band. We’re something else.
Pitchfork: How much do you think of Lightning Bolt as an art project?
BG: We're always thinking in terms of art, but when we’re playing together a whole different set of rules appears. I guess framing it as art is a weird thing in the first place, because I think of music and art as the same thing.
BC: We were borne out of this very specific art scene [in Providence], and early on we were really lost in this world that we had created. And musically, we were so limited that we had to speak in abstract terms even to make songs. But as we’ve evolved, we have become very much a rock band, and I’m excited about that. I miss some arty aspects of us, but times change.
BG: A lot of our artiness came out of us being musically naïve about what a song is. Over time we’ve figured out how to make songs. Originally we wanted to be a rock band but we didn’t know how.
BC: We wanted to be like Les Savy Fav [laughs]. Early on, we both saw them play, and we literally ran back to the practice space and wrote a song. Now it’s just like, "Write a cool riff and let’s go!" [laughs] But the same search for solutions continues.
Pitchfork: Is it surreal to realize you’ve been together for 20 years?
BC: I’ve had the same kick drum from day one.
BG: I don’t feel like we’ve grown up and everything’s polished now. I still feel that I’m barely keeping up with it, and it never quite sounds the way I want it to. That constant feeling that it’s never quite right is what keeps me interested.
BC: The surreal part isn’t that we’ve been playing 20 years, it’s that we’re 20 years older. Playing in Lightning Bolt is the one easy thing about aging. It’s ageless, in a weird way.
Photo by: Andrew Thomas Huang courtesy of One Little Indian
With each album she makes, Björk immerses us in a fantastical universe of her own design. Now, on Vulnicura, she’s letting us in to her world—though it is not necessarily one of her own choosing. The album outlines the dissolution of Björk’s relationship with her longtime partner, the artist Matthew Barney. She confesses the devastation with candor. By the third song, “History of Touches”, she’s lying awake in bed, indexing the past with startling intimacy: “Every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time-lapse with us here at this moment,” she laments over glistening synths. She details her struggle to keep her family intact, limning distance, rejection, and the death of their covenant. The blunt force of her words is striking. And damning.
The cast of Vulnicura is limited to a “you” that is only Barney, Björk, and their child; the “we” of it is fleeting. There is a joyous, striving before, which only makes the familial fragmenting that plays across these long, dramatic songs even more wrenching. She tries to staunch the ruin with love, but it’s no use. The album ends with Björk’s reclamation of herself, her voice, and her music, turning Vulnicura into a document of salvation, albeit a fraught one. “When I’m broken I am whole,” she sings on closer “Quicksand”, “and when I'm whole I'm broken.”
Sitting in a hotel room in London’s East End on Halloween, Björk, casually clad in a flamingo-pink kimono, red tights, and platform high tops, is as eager to talk about Vulnicura as she is reticent to talk about what inspired it. The love, struggle, and dissolution are all plain in the lyrics, which are uncharacteristically diaristic; singing about a desire for “emotional respect” is more what you’d expect from Mary J. Blige than an artist whose previous album considered the world atomically. The few metaphors that do arise involve natural, immovable objects like stones, a lake, quicksand—dark forces, being consumed, certain destruction. The album’s centerpiece, the 10-minute “Black Lake”, is the relational post-mortem, a litany of incompatibilities over rising strings, before Björk spits the rhetorical “Did I love you too much?” as if the question curdled in her mouth as she conjured the words.
As much as this record is about him, it is also about Björk returning to herself. In motherhood, one quite literally becomes a vessel—a role that often continues postpartum. The young family takes precedence, and ambition takes a back seat; a mother can become the net around her loved ones, their needs veiling her own. It is the natural exile of domestic life. And it is a strange and powerful thing to imagine that one of the most singular vocalists in modern music could lose the tether, just like any of us. But here, Björk opens up about coming back to music from such a scene, filling her house and her days with loud songs.
Over the few hours that we talked, she became emotional whenever we broached the album’s core themes. The pall would lift immediately, though, whenever she touched on the music that had pulled her back into the light: befriending and exchanging ideas with the album’s Venezuelan co-producer, Arca, waking up to mixes by anarchic DJ Total Freedom, her lifelong love of Chaka Khan, Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush, her desire to stand up for her female peers. Vulnicura may be the most tender-hearted work Björk has ever issued, but it also finds her most sure of her power as a woman, a producer, and an artist; all of her invisible work made clear.
An extended version of this interview will be featured in the next issue of The Pitchfork Review, due out at the end of February—subscribe here.
Pitchfork: How does it feel to be putting out a record this personal?
Björk: I’m a little nervous. Definitely. Especially coming from an album like Biophilia, which was about the universe. This is more of a traditional singer/songwriter thing. When I started writing, I fought against it. I thought it was way too boring and predictable. But most of the time, it just happens; there’s nothing you can do. You have to let it be what it is.
Pitchfork: Did you know this was the record that was going to come out of you?
B: No, no. With most of my albums, I don’t really know what I’m doing for the first year or so. It’s afterwards, when it’s almost ready and I start mixing and doing the photographs, that I can see it for what it is. With this album, it was a big surprise. When I listened to the songs, it is almost like a diary.
Pitchfork: It sounds like an album about partnership, motherhood, and family—things that bond us—and your worst fears about them...
B: [chokes up] I’m sorry.
Pitchfork: The minute your children are born, underneath every thought is: How do I protect them? How do I keep this family surrounded in love? Then you quickly figure out that you can’t always protect them. All of that is on this album, very nakedly.
B: That’s why I was nervous. I’ve never done an album like this. With Biophilia, I was being like Kofi Annan—I had to be the pacifist to try to unite the impossible. Maybe that was a strange, personal job between me and myself, to show how overreaching I was being as a woman. The only way I could express that was by comparing it to the universe. If you can make nature and technology friends, then you can make everyone friends; you can make everyone intact. That’s what women do a lot—they’re the glue between a lot of things. Not only artists, but whatever job they do: in the office, or homemakers. Biophilia was like my own personal slapstick joke, showing I had to reach so long—between solar systems—to connect everything. It’s like the end scene in Mary Poppins, when she’s made everyone friends, and the father realizes that kids are more important than money—and [then] she has to leave. [chokes up] It’s a strange moment. Women are the glue. It’s invisible, what women do. It’s not rewarded as much.
When I did this album—it all just collapsed. I didn’t have anything. It was the most painful thing I ever experienced in my life. The only way I could deal with that was to start writing for strings; I decided to become a violin nerd and arrange everything for 15 strings and take a step further than what I’ve done before. I had like 20 technological threads of things I could have done, but the album couldn’t be futuristic. It had to be singer/songwriter. Old-school. It had to be blunt. I was sort of going into the Bergman movies with Liv Ullmann when it gets really self-pitying and psychological, where you’re kind of performing surgery on yourself, like, What went wrong?
Then I got really lucky. I’m not religious but I must have earned some good karma at some point, because as one thing got taken away from me, Alejandro [Ghersi, aka Arca] came. [smiles, tears up] I don’t want to brag, but I get a lot of requests to work with musicians and a lot of time I say, "I’m very flattered, but it’s not right.” But he approached me almost two years ago, and it was just the most perfect timing ever. I’d just written like a scrillion songs and done these string arrangements, and the subject matter was so difficult that I wanted to move away from it. Then he came on a visit to Iceland, and we just had the best time ever. He’s the most generous, funny person I’ve ever met. It was such a contrast, the most fun music-making I’ve ever had, with the most tragic subject matter. Somehow, he could just take it on.
Usually I do half of the beats and then I will get someone like Matthew Herbert to help me with the chorus of the song, or another guy to help me do other bits. But this time around, maybe because it’s a relationship album about the duality between you and that person, doing a whole album with just one person made perfect sense. Towards the end, we needed someone to mix it, so the only other person who came into it was a guy called Haxan Cloak. Literally, just the three of us. Really simple. That’s been really fun.
Alejandro knew all of my albums from his childhood—apparently, I’m big in Venezuela. [laughs] He knew my songs better than me. I would say, "Oh, can you make that third beat like…" And he’d say, "Oh, you mean like the third break of song five of album two?" He was like a library of my music. At first, I was really defensive; I’m not good with people who are fans. But it just wasn’t that energy at all. It was a really healthy energy, like a student. Suddenly, I got to be a strange kind of teacher. I would literally sit next to him and, for the first few songs, the heartbreak songs, I would be the backseat driver. I would describe all the beats, and then he would do them and add stuff. We did it together. I’ve never done that before. So I just sat next to him for weeks, and we did the whole album. It’s the quickest I’ve ever worked. He’s so incredibly talented and so eager to learn. It’s one of those crazy things in life where people from opposite ends meet, and you’ve got so much to teach each other. It’s really equal, what you’ve got to give to each other. It’s been a strange album—the most painful one I’ve done, but also the most magic one.
Pitchfork: In the first two songs on the record, you’re singing about wanting to find clarity. Does writing a song about something that has happened bring you clarity on the other end?
B: Yeah, I think so. When it works. I go for a lot of walks and I sing. That’s when you find an angle on things, where it makes sense for that particular moment. It’s more that feeling. In a way, I also rediscovered music, because [chokes up]—I’m sorry—it’s so miraculous what it can do to you; when you are in a really fucked situation, it's the only thing that can save you. Nothing else will. And it does, it really does. I’m hoping the album will document the journey through. It is liberation in the end. It comes out as a healing process, because that’s how I experienced it myself.
Pitchfork: It very much does. Towards the end of the record, there is a Buddhist sentiment about the obstacle being the path. You sing, "Don’t remove my pain, it’s my chance to heal." That’s how we figure things out, isn’t it? That the only way out is through, that having things be easier is not helpful in the long run.
B: When I say that, it might come across that I’m incredibly wise. But it’s the other way around. I’m fucked and I’m trying to talk myself into it, like, "Go, girl! You can do it!" It’s me advising myself. It’s not me knowing it all—not at all. It’s just a certain route you just have to go; I went through it.
It’s really hard for me to talk about it. It really is in the lyrics. I’ve never really done lyrics like this, because they’re so teenage, so simple. I wrote them really quickly. But I also spent a long time on them to get them just right. It’s so hard to talk about the subject matter; it’s impossible—I’m sorry. [tears up] There’s so many songs about [heartbreak] that exist this in the world, because music is somehow the perfect medium to express something like this. When I did the interviews about Biophilia, I could talk for four hours about tech and education and science and instruments and pendulums—all the things we did. This one, I couldn’t put any of that stuff on top of it, because it has to be what it is. And I can’t talk about it. It’s not that I don’t want to, I’m not trying to be difficult. It really is all in there.
Pitchfork: The song “Black Lake” illuminates these parts of partnership, or marriage, that you don’t even want to give voice to, the stuff that you never want to think or say, because it feels too worst-case-scenario, too charged, too deep—because it’s so unmooring to consider.
B: I was really embarrassed about that song. I can still hardly listen to it.
Pitchfork: How will you perform these songs, then?
B: I have no idea. But it’s like you were saying, there’s no easy exit through. I wish. I would have taken it if I could. [long pause] It’ll be emotional. I’m just going to have to cry and be a mess and do it. Right now, my life is not getting any discount, as we say in Iceland. There’s no easy access. I have to go through that to get to the next bit.
I’m blessed that Alejandro is going to do the gigs with me. That’s gonna be fun. It’s going to be concert halls, because I’m going to have a 15-piece orchestra: five violins, five violas, and five cellos, so the sound is really dark. It’s very muddy. Earthy. We’re going to start in Carnegie Hall; I’ve never played there, but it’s perfect for this. It doesn’t really have an orchestra pit, so the string players have to be on the stage. Carnegie Hall is also good for beats. It’s no coincidence that Duke Ellington played there.
Pitchfork: Who are confessional singer/songwriters that you like?
B: Funnily enough, with my favorite music like that, I don’t understand the words. I really like fado singers like Amália Rodrigues, but I don’t speak Portuguese. [laughs] I really like Abida Parveen from Pakistan, but I don’t understand a word she sings either. As for American singers, you know who I’ve loved almost since my childhood? Chaka Khan. I love Chaka Khan. I’ve totally fallen in love with a remix album of hers from the ‘80s. I don’t know if it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s just pleasure. Obviously, I really love Joni Mitchell. I think it was that accidental thing in Iceland, where the wrong albums arrive to shore, because I was obsessed with Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Hejira as a teenager. I hear much more of her in those albums. She almost made her own type of music style with those, it’s more a woman’s world.
Pitchfork: Hejira is one the most feminist albums ever.
B: Right? The lyrics! And The Hissing of Summer Lawns as well. I love “The Jungle Line”, it sounds like something somebody would make now, it’s crazy. Maybe it’s because it’s not my generation, but when I hear the folk stuff that she did before that, I hear it as a lot of people and not just her. It’s a zeitgeist.
Pitchfork: When it was originally misreported that Vulnicura was produced by Arca, instead of co-produced by you and Arca, it reminded me of the Joni Mitchell quote from the height of her fame about how whichever man was in the room with her got credit for her genius.
B: Yeah, I didn’t want to talk about that kind of thing for 10 years, but then I thought, “You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” So around 2006, I put something on my website where I cleared something up, because it’d been online so many times that it was becoming a fact. It wasn’t just one journalist getting it wrong, everybody was getting it wrong. I’ve done music for, what, 30 years? I’ve been in the studio since I was 11; Alejandro had never done an album when I worked with him. He wanted to put something on his own Twitter, just to say it’s co-produced. I said, “No, we’re never going to win this battle. Let’s just leave it.” But he insisted. I’ve sometimes thought about releasing a map of all my albums and just making it clear who did what. But it always comes across as so defensive that, like, it’s pathetic. I could obviously talk about this for a long time.
Pitchfork: The world has a difficult time with the female auteur.
B: I have nothing against Kanye West. Help me with this—I’m not dissing him—this is about how people talk about him. With the last album he did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second. If whatever I’m saying to you now helps women, I’m up for saying it. For example, I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats—it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album. [Matmos’] Drew [Daniel] is a close friend of mine, and in every single interview he did, he corrected it. And they don’t even listen to him. It really is strange.
Pitchfork: How does it make you feel when this happens now?
B: I have to say—I got a feeling I am going to win in the long run, but I want to be part of the zeitgeist, too. I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times. Girls now are also faced with different problems. I’ve been guilty of one thing: After being the only girl in bands for 10 years, I learned—the hard way—that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they—men—had the ideas. I became really good at this and I don’t even notice it myself. I don’t really have an ego. I’m not that bothered. I just want the whole thing to be good. And I’m not saying one bad thing about the guys who were with me in the bands, because they’re all amazing and creative, and they’re doing incredible things now. But I come from a generation where that was the only way to get things done. So I have to play stupid and just do everything with five times the amount of energy, and then it will come through.
When people don’t credit me for the stuff I’ve done, it’s for several reasons. I’m going to get very methodical now! [laughs] One! I learned what a lot of women have to do is make the guys in the room think it was their idea, and then you back them up. Two! I spend 80% of the writing process of my albums on my own. I write the melodies. I’m by the computer. I edit a lot. That for me is very solitary. I don’t want to be photographed when I’m doing that. I don’t invite people around. The 20% of the album process when I bring in the string orchestras, the extras, that’s documented more. That’s the side people see. When I met M.I.A., she was moaning about this, and I told her, “Just photograph yourself in front of the mixing desk in the studio, and people will go, ‘Oh, OK! A woman with a tool, like a man with a guitar.’” Not that I’ve done that much myself, but sometimes you’re better at giving people advice than doing it yourself. I remember seeing a photo of Missy Elliott at the mixing desk in the studio and being like, a-ha!
It’s a lot of what people see. During a show, because there are people onstage doing the other bits, I’m just a singer. For example, I asked Matmos to play all the beats for the Vespertine tour, so maybe that’s kind of understandable that people think they made them. So maybe it’s not all sexist evil. [laughs] But it’s an ongoing battle. I hope it doesn’t come across as too defensive, but it is the truth. I definitely can feel the third or fourth feminist wave in the air, so maybe this is a good time to open that Pandora’s box a little bit and air it out.
Anecdotally speaking, I can think of few singers whose voices are hated with the comfort and clarity with which people hate the voice of John Darnielle. Several of my friends have barred it from car trips, and my wife usually responds to the sound of it by sticking her tongue out and mock-barfing.
I concede that I understand her frustration even if I don’t share it. Darnielle, who has fronted the Mountain Goats for the past 24 years, has the kind of flat, insistent voice that makes everything sound like an emergency. At times it reminds me of some 19th-century plains preacher, powerful and shaking and possessed by spirits beyond all mortal control; at times it reminds me of my grandmother Harriet, who was deaf and would regularly announce cocktail hour as though she was yelling “fire.” To my knowledge, Harriet did not sing, and I’m not sure she would have been encouraged had she tried.
Between 1991 and 2001, Darnielle recorded his songs on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox, which in Mountain Goats lore has taken on the talismanic aura of Excalibur. According to the device’s operating instructions, its frequency range is between 50 and 12,000hz, which is another way of saying that the RX-FT500 was not built to make recordings most people would buy or sell. Early Mountain Goats albums sound as monochromatic as Xeroxes: no shadow, no nuance, just hard black lines and clean white space. In his liner notes for 2002’s All Hail West Texas—the last of the band’s Panasonic albums—Darnielle notes that the gears of the tape player were so close to the microphone that recordings were accompanied by a constant, hypnotic whir, a stamp that has become as comforting to me as the hiss of the ocean in a seaside town. One fan has gone so far as to make a three-minute and thirty-three-second loop of the whir, “to help Mountain Goats fans sleep at night.”
Darnielle has often been described as a “literary” songwriter, which I take to mean that the words he sings are more important than the way in which he sings them. I like Darnielle’s writing a lot. It is sad, tender, smart, and above all, funny. His stories—and more pointedly, the humility with which he tells them—have pulled me through some seriously miserable times and made me think twice about certain hard drugs.
He recently wrote a novel called Wolf in White Van. Anyone who is a Mountain Goats fan should read it, and probably will, but I also think it handily transcends whatever expectations you might have for novels written by cult indie singer/songwriters. I ended up experiencing most of it as an audiobook, on a drive between Los Angeles and Tucson. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be read by Darnielle himself. I enjoyed the story, which is knotty and intriguing and written in the slow and sometimes-breathtaking language of revelation, but I mostly got lost in the sound of his voice.
Which is to say: I take the “literary” classification with a raised eyebrow. On a simpler level, the reason I listen to the Mountain Goats is because I like to hear Darnielle sing. As someone who believes that most of life is spent grabbing around in the dark for a light switch that turns out to actually be a snake, it is a force I have felt an almost-umbilical connection to. The power in it is all adrenaline, the vulnerability a function of exhaustion. It is the sound of a fighter who goes down swinging seconds after the bell has rung. It tells me what I want to hear and what I think I already know.
I got married last summer, and my wife is now seven months pregnant. I mention this in part because I’m proud and in part because we’re at the moment in the pregnancy where literature says that the baby can understand our voices. Growing up, I didn’t care about singers the way I didn’t care about actors. It was about the hook, the structure, the story. Performances were like tasting notes in coffee: Everyone who talked about them sounded vaguely pretentious, especially to someone who was only in it for caffeine. I sensed that John Darnielle was a “bad” singer, at least compared to “good” singers like Mariah Carey. But over time, “good” or “bad” has just become “distinctive” or “not distinctive.” (Mariah Carey is good and distinctive.) I do not like the sound of my own voice, at least on recordings—I find it nasal and wishy-washy. But when I speak to my unborn child I know that they won’t be able to mistake the sound for anything else.
I recently went to São Paulo, Brazil, where I had a chance to see one of my favorite musicians, Tom Zé. Zé started making music in the late 1960s, at the crest of the Tropicália movement, which was more or less a streetwise, youthful branch of the avant-garde. He has put out some of the best records of his career since turning 60. Last October, he turned 78.
Zé’s music is spiky and oddly shaped, as though cobbled together using things he found in the dumpster that afternoon. I know from reading about his life that he is a satirist, though I could never assess that for myself—I don’t speak Portuguese. Still, I have the feeling that I know what he means without knowing what he’s saying. It’s his voice, which jabs and pokes at certain syllables like a playground tease, curdling into baby talk or mock-romance.
Listening to Zé—or any other non-English-speaking musician I like, really—animates a kind of elemental processing mechanism in me. Deprived of language as a way to understand what someone means, I have to focus on other, more subterranean, less logical things. Personally, this is kind of a blessing—there’s nowhere I’d rather be than somewhere where I have no idea what’s going on. Hearing without understanding is like knowing without judging: a small step toward real, raw experience.
For his encore, Zé played “Augusta, Angélica e Consolação”, a song from his 1973 album, Todos os Olhos. (The album’s cover depicts what looks like an eye, but is actually a marble stuck in someone’s butthole—a visual pun that handily evokes the spirit of Zé’s music: funny, bodily, clever, rude.)Earlier that week, my friend Nate had pointed out that the song’s name came from three arterial roads that ran through São Paulo. In the middle of the performance, Zé stopped the band and had them repeat a section of the song two or three times, then said something that made the audience laugh.
At the time, I’d declined translation from my friend Lara, but after the show, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked another friend what was so important that Zé had to stop the music to say. She explained that it was a pun about how the Largo de São Francisco, another street in São Paulo’s city center, wasn’t largo—wide—enough to contain Zé’s afflictions. He wanted everyone to pay close attention, she said, because he thought it was the best line he’d ever written. It was an interesting explanation, but I immediately regretted asking.
Jessica Pratt's self-titled 2012 debut was a quiet hit—a collection of warm and enigmatic acoustic folk tunes that found a cult following—but the 27-year-old songwriter winces at the thought of people enjoying that material now. "It's really old shit," she says, explaining that the songs on Jessica Pratt were recorded in 2007, when she was just 19. "Having something that's so old be presented as your contemporary self is really confusing—it's like being haunted by your teen journal."
Nonetheless, the album earned glowing comparisons to the likes of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell—which Pratt promptly rejected. "This straightforward, traditional folk shit can be beautiful in and of itself, but I was just a little embittered and chagrined," she says now. "I didn’t want people to think I was just a basic bitch, you know?"
While 2012 marked a turning point for Pratt's career, it was also a tumultuous period—the "Mayan apocalypse bloodletting" for her and nearly everyone she knew. A month before her debut album was released, her mom died. Her years-long relationship ("basically a marriage") ended. Her friends started leaving San Francisco—where she had lived for almost a decade—in droves. So she packed up and moved down to Los Angeles, hoping for a clean slate. But first she had some work to do.
With a guitar and a Tascam multitrack recorder in her tiny room, her emotional baggage got "spewed out" in the songs that comprise her new album, On Your Own Love Again. Structurally, it doesn't stray far from the voice-and-guitar blueprint of Jessica Pratt, but she sounds more confident this time around, and the album's details make it a richer and occasionally surreal listen. Pratt spent the majority of two months working on the record in self-imposed isolation, living off money she scrounged together before she moved. (She would eventually get a job at a local music store.) Since Jessica Pratt's sessions partially took place in a studio, it was her first time focusing on an entire album by herself, and the solitude was crucial to her process. "I need to be able to do something over and over until I get it right," she says.
There were certainly drawbacks to the writing and recording process—she hurt her hands from repeated playing, avoided exploring her new city for months, and she says her mind started "eating itself" after a while. But the exile also resulted in some of her best work to date. "If you can take advantage of that little mental space when you totally shut yourself off from the world," she says, "you can produce a lot of good things."
Pitchfork: Do you prefer the solitude of recording at home?
Jessica Pratt: Yeah, and not even in an emotional sense. I like to get things perfect. It's difficult for me to imagine being in the right mental state to produce the sounds I want coming out of my body when I'm on a time constraint and there's people watching; I would be aware of their judgments or worrying about how I should attack something, while they're probably thinking about the roast beef sandwich that they want to have for lunch.
Conceiving these songs and then recording them all in one space was really important because it's just more of a solid flow—one gesture. Doing shit at your leisure is the ideal setup because that mental freedom allows you to experiment with things maybe that you wouldn't otherwise. A lot of people talk about their process in a similar way—Keith Richards and Panda Bear have said that you’re like this vessel for something that's just floating in the air. There’s no way to predict when it’s going to strike you, but it happens, and then you have to take advantage of it as much as you can—it's this current running through you. Eventually, it will dissipate and you wish it could stay longer. But it's really just about being at the mercy of those waves.
Pitchfork: Has your process changed in terms of songwriting and recording?
JP: Definitely. I didn't really think about all the stuff I used to do very much. It was kind of a knee-jerk thing. That's how a lot of people do things—just because it feels good. And then, when anyone noticed it, I started taking it more seriously, and because of that I've put a lot more effort and time into thinking about it. Recording at home, you get better by leaps and bounds. And I feel a lot older now, literally and figuratively.
Pitchfork: It's been about 8 years since you recorded your first album. Does it feel like it's been that long?
JP: You lose your grasp on time. The older you get, the more aware you are of the transitory nature of time and how easy it is to waste. I have all these friends that just sit in their house and work on music—they pump the shit out. But I don't think I'll ever be able to deliver things that I like in that quantity.
I'd like to aim to be a hermit and I don't care if I have to be really anti-social and introverted to make it happen. It's a life goal, I guess. All I want to do is be at home and make music, but a lot of people can't afford that. The only way you can do it is if you move to Minnesota or something and live in a fucking shit shack and you're OK with not having any other stimulating experiences in your life. It's been a consideration; I've thought about it. I've daydreamed of moving to a small, horrible place to just be alone and try to get shit done.
Pitchfork: You dream of the Minnesota shit shack?
JP: Yeah! In all reality, though, I would probably lose my mind. I need to get some sort of situation where I can have a shit shack timeshare so I can just go there for, like, five months.
John Carpenter's scores are just as iconic and influential as his films. In Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, and They Live, his ominous synthesizers portented the monster hiding in the shadows, or the terrifying truth that hides in plain sight. Next week, the master finally emerges from his Hollywood home to deliver his first non-soundtrack album, Lost Themes, via Sacred Bones—a label well-versed in the dark arts, having released music by David Lynch, Zola Jesus, and Pharmakon. So how long has Carpenter considered transitioning from films to records? "I've never considered it," he tells me.
And he's not kidding. Carpenter didn't make music with the idea of releasing it to the world—it was just something he did during ritual hang sessions with his 30-year-old son Cody, a musician who makes prog records under the name Ludrium. "He'd come over to my place, and we'd play video games for a couple hours, and then we'd go downstairs to my Logic Pro setup and improvise music for a couple hours, and then back to video games, and then back to music," the elder Carpenter explains. "This album developed out of that."
An inquiry came from Sacred Bones founder Caleb Braaten. "I was curious if there were some things he had tinkered with in the past that didn't make the cut to a film," Braaten writes in an email. He was pleasantly surprised when Carpenter's lawyer told him that the director had, indeed, been working on new music. "When I heard it I thought, 'Jesus, these could be the themes to lost Carpenter films.'" As they planned the album, Carpenter worked on some additional material with his godson Daniel Davies; Lost Themes truly is a family record.
While the album undeniably recalls the synth-heavy work of Carpenter's early scores, there are also nods to his more recent guitar-based soundtracks—1998's Vampires had Carpenter collaborating with Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn (of Booker T. & the MG's), and 2001's Ghosts of Mars soundtrack featured work with Anthrax, Steve Vai, and Buckethead. The greatest difference between the Lost Themes sessions and his score work was in his approach—it was a rare instance where he created music without looking at images. "It was a new adventure and it was just absolutely freeing and fabulous," he says. "I loved not having to worry about the image, but to conjure up the image through the way we play our themes."
I talked to John Carpenter—who finished our conversation by saying "I need to meet my drug dealer, so let's get your last questions in"—and Cody Carpenter separately and then edited the conversations together.
"I think of this album as a soundtrack for the movies that you have in your mind."
Pitchfork: This album was created from improvised sessions—did one of you have to encourage the other to jam, or were these sessions planned mutually?
John Carpenter: It was mutual. We both love music.[Cody's] an accomplished synth player, drummer, and guitar player. I could get him to play things I can't. I just have minimal chops, and he is a virtuoso.
Cody Carpenter: The impetus was that he got a new computer and a pretty good recording setup, so we thought we might as well use it.
Pitchfork: Was the Carpenter house a music-friendly environment growing up?
CC: My dad always encouraged music around the house, and we always had instruments— pianos and guitars and such. So from a very young age I've been surrounded by music. He loves the Beatles, the Beach Boys, things like that. He used to play all that stuff for me.
Pitchfork: The title Lost Themes may have given people the idea that it was unreleased music—like forgotten snippets of soundtracks.
JC: I think of this album as a soundtrack for the movies that you have in your mind. Everybody walks around with a movie playing in their head—just imagine this is the soundtrack for you.
Pitchfork: Were you consciously attempting to make music that sounds ominous, or do you feel like, as a musician and songwriter, you're naturally inclined to create music that sounds like this?
JC: These are dark themes, I'll put it that way. Some of the most beautiful music ever made is dark, so I felt like I was in good company.
Pitchfork: Do you have plans to continue making records?
CC: Yes, we're doing some stuff right now. A lot of different stuff. I don't know what's going to come of it but we're messing around again.
JC: We're hard at work on more music as we speak. We're working on a dark blues album.
Pitchfork: John, since you're on the musician circuit now, are you thinking about going on tour?
JC: [laughs] We will absolutely do a tour—all you gotta do is pay us a million dollars and we'll play for you.
CC: I would love to. We were talking about it the other day, actually.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like there's more pressure when you're working on a film as opposed to making a record?
JC: Dude, you have no clue! Directing is just unbelievably hard. It's the worst. Well, no, it's not the worst. Working in a coal mine is worst. But music is fun! There's absolutely no pressure, so I'm just having a blast.
That's J'Kerian Morgan's motto for the club night he plays at Berlin's Ficken 3000. His choice of words is kind of funny, because Ficken 3000 is a sex club. (The name translates as "Fuck 3000.") But while the locale may be risqué, its music policy sticks to scene-setting R&B and hip-hop. “The music isn't important, really—obviously, people are there for other things,” he says. “I would never play a Lotic set there. They would have me burned at the stake!” So it is official: The music Morgan makes as Lotic is too wild for sex clubs.
A typical Lotic track balances on the edge between agony and ecstasy, sweetness and malevolence; its rhythms lurch and shudder like dope-sick automata across a landscape strewn with jagged metal and broken glass. Echoes of ball culture's heady version of house music collide with melancholy strains reminiscent of mid-'90s IDM, while Morgan's mixes throw in shards of contemporary R&B, as though pointing a way through the chaos, back to the known world.
The producer grew up in Houston, Texas, and studied computer music and composition in Austin, but the real catalyst for Lotic was his move to Berlin in 2012. "After I graduated, I realized that I hated Austin, and also that I didn't want to come of age in the United States," he says. "So I convinced my then-boyfriend to look for a job in another country." Amazingly, the plan worked: His partner got a gig at the Berlin-based music software company Ableton, paving the way for the move. "I'm like the luckiest man on the planet," says Morgan.
Berlin is best known for its house and techno scenes, but Morgan's arrival coincided with a growing dissatisfaction with the prevailing four-to-the-floor hegemony, and he soon fell in with the crew behind the Janus collective: promoters Dan DeNorch and Michael Ladner, and the producer M.E.S.H. (Jamie Whipple), all American expats whose primary nightlife reference points were parties like the genre-flipping, resolutely futuristic GHE20 G0TH1K rather than the Panorama Bar’s minimal-house stapleGet Perlonized. After two years of sweaty shindigs at the tiny Kreuzberg club Chesters, Janus recently gave up its monthlies in favor of more ambitious undertakings, including partnerships with the CTM Festival's Berlin Current program at Berghain. Morgan is gaining momentum as well—after releasing twoEPs on New York's Sci-Fi & Fantasy label, he recently signed to Tri Angle, which will release his Heterocetera EP March 3.
The 25-year-old had just shaken off his hangover from his DJ set the previous night when I reach him on Skype one December afternoon.
"I like writing music that I think is beautiful, but perfection isn't beautiful to me. I like men with scars; beauty is a lived thing."
Pitchfork: One of the defining features of your music is a sense of tension—between hard and soft, angry and sweet.
Lotic: I want every track to be a little bit of a battle. I really focused on song structure a lot this year—making sure that it's not just a crazy track, but a crazy track that makes sense. I like for both elements to be there. I like writing music that I think is beautiful, but perfection isn't really beautiful to me. I'm attracted to Berlin and how ugly and destroyed it is. I like men with scars. To me, beauty is a lived thing. Yes, a hand-carved wooden table is beautiful, but to me it's much more beautiful if it's a table that has been passed down for generations and can barely stand up on its own.
Pitchfork: Did you know many people when you arrived in Berlin?
L: We didn't know anyone here. We just ran away. It was very tough. I was depressed for six months straight, basically. Everyone knows the idea of moving to another country is really hard, but when you're actually in the situation—and you don't know the language and you don't know anyone—it's like you don't even know what questions to ask. But it leveled out. Janus started in June of 2012, so I had something to hold onto, but it was just me and my then-boyfriend.
Pitchfork: What was it that made you choose Berlin?
L: Neither of us had ever been to Europe, but we had heard about the music scene here. I really don't know why we came here, actually. It was really stupid, and I will never do that again. When I started looking up Berlin, I was a little scared to come here, because I was like, "Oh, there really isn't that much going on that I can jump into right now." I was worried about the scene here and if I would fit in at all.
But then I got here, and it's a huge city, and people are tired of techno. There wasn't a strong scene; AraabMuzik would come, and then you’d have to wait six months for the next interesting American club person. That was ultimately why we started the [Janus] party, to hire our friends and also just hear the music that we want to hear on a regular basis.
Pitchfork: How did the Janus crew come together?
L: Some strange alignment of the planets put us in touch at exactly the right time. I told Jamie [Whipple, aka M.E.S.H.] that I was coming to Berlin, and he was like, "Oh, you should play this little thing I have at this little bar." And I was like, "Yes! Cool! Sure!" It was at this place called Times, which was like the artists' bar at the time and doesn’t exist anymore. That's where I met Dan [DeNorch] and Michael [Ladner], who are the two that run Janus.
We bounced around for the first two or three Janus nights, and then we found this magical place called Chesters that didn't make us pay rent. It became really easy to do parties there, and then they brought Dan on full time. He made them buy CDJs and upgrade their sound, and then it was our home in a very literal way. We did that for two years, every month. It was really special. It's actually hard to go back there now. In my heart it's this wonderful thing that made me and Jamie much better DJs and producers, and gave our friends a place to dance. It's a moment I don't want to ruin by going back.
Pitchfork: Your upcoming Heterocetera EP feels like a big step forward for you, production-wise.
L: With Janus ending [its monthly parties at Chesters], I had a lot more free time and wanted to push myself to write the best music I could. This time last year I was in a dark place, realizing that I was falling out of love with my husband and in love with this new guy. I was just asking so many questions, like, “Wait, what have I been doing? Who am I?” I didn't really have an answer. I was really depressed and hopeless, and then, suddenly, around the end of January [of 2014], I wrote "Damsel in Distress" in two weeks, and I was so, so happy with it—so glad I was able to physically do it, do something, do anything. I was finally out of this dark hole. That was a fresh slate for me.
In the summer, after I dropped "Damsel", I was thinking about an EP that was supposed to come out on Fade to Mind, but it didn't work out. I told myself, “OK, you don't really need them. You just need to write the best music you can write and then send it out and someone will release it.” So last fall, I started sending it out, and Robin [Carolan] from Tri Angle was interested right away. I'm really glad I just took the time to write music. I didn't do anything else this summer.
Pitchfork: The song "Heterocetera" samples that swirly sound from Masters at Work’s "The Ha Dance". What can you tell me about the history of that sound? I know that it turns up in a lot of different places.
L: For some random reason that no one actually knows, it became one of the staple samples of New York ballroom culture. So when I was getting into dance music and looking for music specifically made by people like me—black gay people—that was one of the first things I found. I always wanted to play with the sound, but I always wanted to do it in a respectful way, because I never lived in New York and I don't have a real connection to that scene.
I've been trying to work it into a usable track on-and-off for like two years, and I was only good enough at producing to make it work this year. For a while, I kept adding stuff, but then I realized: Stop adding stuff! That's the track. At the minute-and-a-half marker it goes to double speed, and I was like, “Oh my god, I figured it out.”
When Will Butler thought about making his own album, he had a few variables to consider. Chiefly: the routine timetable for his other music gig. “Arcade Fire albums come out every three years,” he explains. “So once the tour ends, you usually get a year of life, and then the next album starts.” So with the band's Reflektor trek slowing to a halt last summer, the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist knew his window was approaching. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, I gotta do this before I don't have any time to do it.’" Equipped with a few songs built from fragments he’d been toying with for years, he booked time at Manhattan’s famed Electric Lady Studios—though he’s quick to downplay the weight behind the studio's name, clarifying that he was in the smaller Studio C, not the hallowed Studio A, where the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix recorded classic albums. "I was where U2 mixed Songs of Innocence," he says.
The resulting record, Policy, isn’t easily pinned down. After he’s done playing synthesizers and flirting with new wave on one track, he’s delivering a funk tune with big digital bleats and a spoken-word chorus, or doing his best Buddy Holly rockabilly melodies, or desperately emoting over a piano in melancholic singer/songwriter mode. “I'm drawn to every genre,” Butler says over Skype from Montreal. Sure, he could have gone full rockabilly over 10 songs a la Neil Young’s Everybody’s Rockin’, or made an all-instrumental ambient record, but he’s not interested in limiting himself. “It's just the modern musical world,” he says, “people are listening to Steve Reich and Ghostface and 1940s Trinidadian music all the time.”
Though he’s had the idea of a solo album in the back of his mind “forever,” Butler’s Oscar nomination alongside Owen Pallett for their work on the soundtrack for Spike Jonze's Her moved things to the fore. Even though the score was another group project with Arcade Fire, Butler’s name was thrust forward on the nominations list. “Suddenly, in the eyes of the world, I'd already done a solo album,” he says. They lost the trophy to Gravity, but the experience encouraged him to put more “just-Will Butler” music out there. He’s not thinking short-term, either. At one point in our conversation, he compares Policy to Neil Young’s debut self-titled album, saying that it’s just the first of many statements to come. “Part of the goal of this record is to make people excited enough to pay attention when I'm 80,” he says.
Will Butler: A little bit, but I do so many embarrassing things in public that I wasn't that worried. At the Barclays Center [with the Arcade Fire], I took off my shirt and put on a bobble head and pretended to dance like David Byrne while rubbing my tummy.
Pitchfork: How would you compare working on this project to being in Arcade Fire or doing the Her score?
WB: In Arcade Fire and with Her, a large portion of my role was compromise—I sit at the table and work things out. Particularly with the Her score, because you have the director, Spike [Jonze], who was very opinionated, but with no [musical] vocabulary. He’d say, "Can we put a different melody there?" And I was like, "There is no melody there. It's just… what do you mean by melody?"
Pitchfork: This is the part of the interview where you throw Spike Jonze under the bus.
WB: He made a very good movie, though. He managed to communicate his point of view enough for us to make a good score, so I'm not worried about his feelings.
Pitchfork: When this album was announced, it was described as “American music.” Why is that distinction important to you?
WB: Because I can only think of art in a local, parochial kind of way—the only thing I've spent time developing is my English, and it's American English. Deep down, that’s all I have. And the album is responding to music that's rooted in America; a lot of our music that's been so wildly influential around the world—rock’n’roll, hip-hop, jazz—has been made by young, excited people doing crazy things. So I wanted to tap into that adolescent energy a bit, while I'm no longer an adolescent.
Pitchfork: When you look at other artists making records by themselves, do you feel aware of the benefits that come from being in a very popular band?
WB: It's extremely luxurious, both because people will pay some attention to it regardless of the quality [laughs], and also because I'm working with a safety net. I'd love to work without a safety net, but it's also nice to have one. It's like, “OK, if this fails, I've still got other irons in the fire.” It's not a vanity thing, like, "I'm gonna make an album now!" It's driven by an artistic drive. But I definitely have a sense of how luxurious it is.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like you're setting expectations with this record and that you’ll be expected to make another record with Policy’s template next time?
WB: I feel that I could do anything. There’s this Marc Maron interview with Louis C.K. where [Louis] talks about how he does his material for a year and then he throws it all away and does his next thing. He also talked about doing comedy in front of a live studio audience. I don't want to be driven by what people say or think, but in a certain sense, I want to respond to how people respond to the record. If people love this record, maybe I'll put out Metal Machine Music next. There is an element of audience response determining how I move forward. I have songs that I'll be playing on tour that I'd record in an instant and put out—but I want to see how I dance with the lady before I marry her.
Pitchfork: Are you planning on making more records?
WB: My goal as an artist is to have a career like Yeats—you get better, you win the Nobel Prize, and then you keep doing good stuff after you win the Nobel Prize. He's the only person who's ever done that, but that's my goal.
"I’m up at 6, but I try to hold out until at least 8:45, 9 o’clock," says Action Bronson, discussing his routine for getting high while scraping marijuana wax out of a tinfoil pouch, a motion he repeats a few more times throughout our interview. “It's so habitual, man. It's just like: wake up, go there, light it. Just keep it moving. I feel nothing, kind of. You smoke so goddamn much you're asleep by 8 o'clock at night.”
Bronson and I are sitting in the Manhattan office of Goliath Artist Management—the firm run by longtime Eminem manager Paul Rosenberg—which added the rapper to its roster a few years ago. The place is undergoing renovations. Discarded mementos of the past fill up the lounge, most notably an oil painting of Dr. Dre, Eminem, and 50 Cent that’s probably only 10 years old but feels like an ancient relic. The present is represented by an Etsy-caliber painting of fellow Goliath artist Danny Brown and, of course, Bronson, who’s laid up in a recliner, his specialized wax bong and a butane lighter at arms length on a nearby coffee table.
But while he may merely come off like an extremely NSFW stoner, the father of two is admirably hard-working—all those globe-trotting YouTube videos don't make themselves—and slyly ambitious, too. He dreams of one day combining his love of cooking and music into a business involving a food truck that doubles as a stage. “Pull up, do a show, sell shit,” he explains. “I'd be cooking, but I'd have a staff, and while I'm rapping, they could cook. It's a fucking mobile gold mine.”
Until then, there’s the matter of his forthcoming major-label debut, Mr. Wonderful, due out March 24. The album gives his trademark Golden-Era-NYC-meets-fantastical-fan-fiction style a bit of polish in an attempt to reach beyond his current web-crazed fanbase. It’s also his most musical and melodic project, featuring guests including Chance the Rapper, and production from longtime co-conspirator Party Supplies, as well as Alchemist, Noah "40" Shebib, 88 Keys, and even current chart-topper Mark Ronson, who wrote a letter to Billy Joel to help clear a sample of the pop legend’s 1978 track “Zanzibar” for a song called “Brand New Car”. “[Billy Joel] was feeling it,” says Bronson, “so we were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s use it.’”
"Not all women are perfect. It's a fact of life. Nobody's perfect. A woman or man could be a piece of fucking shit."
Pitchfork: If someone is coming to your music for the first time, how do you expect them to approach it? There’s lots of far-out elements that blur the line between reality and fantasy, and some of your lyrics disparage women.
Action Bronson: Let me clarify: I don't talk about women in a crazier manner than any other rapper. Let's take Billy Joel—he just talked about realism. Like, not all women are perfect. It's a fact of life. Nobody's perfect. A woman or man could be a piece of fucking shit. At the end of the day, this is equal play. I deal with disparaging men as much as I deal with disparaging women. And I don't glorify disparaging women.
I grew up fat, OK? I'm a fat fuck. I had a lot of fantasies about women that I couldn't achieve—that’s the type of repressed mindframe I grew up with. I write about it in such an out-of-this-world way that it becomes comical; it's more comedy to me than it is trying to put anybody down. Because I'm not that type of person. I don't put people down. I build people up. That's how I always wanna be looked at. Sometimes I don't have the best taste with words, but sometimes it's needed to get my point across. I don't like things being too real because that’s boring, and it's going to be depressing. It's all about getting a rise, like, "Oh fuck, I can't believe he just said that, you kidding?" It ain't about making people feel bad or being distasteful with women. That's just not me.
I feel like I've been dealt a little bit of a bad hand with that type of shit just for that early Instagram picture [which he captioned: “Close up of Drunk Mexican Tranny after Bes poured a Bottle of water on its head”], which was just me writing something stupid. It didn't really depict what was actually going on. And just growing up in the type of situations I grew up in, in Queens, being on the streets all the time, you see crazy things, and it's not always gonna be glamorous. I have to depict that as well.
Pitchfork: As a rapper, are you totally spontaneous or more of a writer?
AB: I love writing: legal pads, those fucking binder books, spiral notebooks. I like the actual act of writing. I bet a lot of kids’ penmanship is shit these days, because everyone's [mimes typing]. Penmanship means a lot to me. I don't have cursive penmanship, though. I've created my own penmanship. It's very clear. Everyone can read it. I write things down all day long.
Pitchfork: Do you need to get high to write?
AB: My life consists of smoking constantly, so it's not like I need to smoke to do this. I'm already in the zone. It's not the drugs, though they’re definitely a heightener—it makes all your senses go off. You're tingling. For real. There's something about smoking something and listening to some crazy beat that does something to me, and that translates onto the track. I'm not the type of guy to go so deep with the concept songs, but there's deep thought in everything. Maybe it's not just a repetitive hook telling you what the song is about—you have to use your brain a little bit.
Pitchfork: Your kids are 8 and 10, do they listen to your music?
AB: My son doesn't like the curses, but my daughter knows every fucking word. She watches all the interviews. It's a little bit much.
Pitchfork: What about your mom?
AB: My mom is a fucking hippie; she’s my fucking everything. That's my rock. I was a terrible child; when kids grow up in a house with just their mother, they’re going to yell at her.
Detroit techno originator Robert Hood made his name on whetting tracks down to their spiritual essence. His music lovingly marks paths back to funk, disco, and gospel—speeding up Sister Sledge to the point of delirium on “The Greatest Dancer”, or incorporating ecstatic group vocals on “Never Grow Old”—and his full career can now be readily explored thanks to the new three-disc, 33-track career overview, M-Print: 20 Years of M-Plant Music. During a recent Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Tokyo, Hood described his productions as “minimal music for catching the Holy Ghost” and he’s no doubt the lone artist on Resident Advisor’s Top DJs of 2014 list who doubles as an ordained minister.
At one point during the RBMA lecture, a video was shown featuring a very young Hood onstage alongside fellow members of the unabashedly political Underground Resistance collective, which set out to influence Detroit’s poor black communities with its uncompromising sound and aesthetic in the late 1980s. Watching the bygone clip of him with Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks (in a menacing in a black ski mask), Hood pinched the bridge of his nose, overcome with tears. “The struggle of black artists that came from nothing, had nothing—[I was] blessed to share this music,” he told the crowd.
Hearing about techno as it was originally conceived—as a reaction to inner-city decay, as byproduct of African-American struggle, as a form of protest—served as a crucial reminder of the roots of this dance music, and that the name Underground Resistance was in no way a euphemism, but a reality. To the outsider—in this writer’s case, a white teen from the suburbs of Texas—it might be hard to conceive of the oft-wordless techno as revolutionary music; by the time I started hearing it in the early ‘90s, it certainly wasn’t the relentless sound of Underground Resistance. At that nascent stage, Detroit techno (and Chicago house) was being packaged and presented as the smiley-face music of Berlin, Madchester, and Belgium—the sound of Europeans and Ecstasy. Rather than Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body”, my generation was instead indoctrinated with its Belgian rewrite, Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam”. Even then, techno’s blunt force was being lightened.
In light of recent comments by Azealia Banks and the conspiratorial charge of “cultural smudging” with regards to hip-hop culture, one need only look at techno and house to see how such blanching can take hold. As Chicago house producer Derrick Carterlamented last month: “Something that started as a gay black/Latino club music is now sold, shuffled, and packaged as having very little to do with either.”
“Struggle” isn’t the descriptor that springs to mind when thinking of the genre in 2015, as techno has since become more commonly known for its hedonism and excesses, and its multi-billion-dollar machinations. Look again at Robert Hood’s rank at #44 on Resident Advisor’s Top DJs of 2014 Readers Poll and then notice the lack of African-American faces that appear higher up the list. Or as Carter put it when he regarded those same lists: “Show me the gay brown faces—Shit! Show me EITHER the gay or brown faces—and then discuss ‘cultural smudging.’”
A2 “A Newness”
Last December, members of Underground Resistance could be found setting up shop in the dome at MoMA PS1 in Queens, with a set from DJ Dex and a Q&A afterward featuring Mike Banks. When someone asked why—in the wake of the ongoing protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—there was silence within the techno community, Banks said “hip-hop was the sound of the now, while techno was concerned with the problems of the future, which was its own kind of agitation,” according to The New York Times.
But UR could also be about the present, and their musical/artistic/political example resonated with generations of Detroit kids. In a mini-doc on YouTube, DJ Mark Flash credits people like Banks for giving him hope in a city that offered little. “Most kids in my neighborhood never even get a chance to get out,” he says. “My friends that I grew up with are still there, they haven’t even left the neighborhood.”
The week before that PS1 performance, Banks took to the stage at Brooklyn club Verboten with another Detroit icon, Carl Craig, while yet another Detroiter, Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann), DJ'd in the side room. For someone who kept his anonymity through much of the ‘90s, it was disarming to see Banks without a bandanna or ski mask hiding his face. And it was exhilarating to see him combine forces with Craig for a set of body-elevating, gravity-escaping techno. There were strange interludes—of everything from Yarbrough & Peoples’s funk classic “Don’t Stop the Music” to Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra”—but for most of the night both men had their heads down, whip-lashing kick drums and heating hi-hats until they felt like white fire. Late into the set, Banks’ keys took on the timbre of a church organ—perfect for Sunday at 4 a.m.
Banks’ band Timeline released a single earlier in 2014, “Light My Fire”, which features a bright beat and needling, looping guitar lick, with a cooed female vocal on the hook. Meanwhile, the luminous, jazz-inflected “Next Step 4wrd” on the B-side opens with a sampled sales pitch: “Yes, Detroit is enjoying its finest hour. There is a renaissance, a rebirth in the city. There’s a newness in Detroit.”
B1 “The Bar City of the Year”
These days, it can seem like Detroit isn’t America’s 18th-largest city as much as it’s a metaphor for that which is dead and bankrupt—and hoping to be born again. It’s the corpse of the country’s auto industry and the hope of urban renewal. It’s the birthplace of techno and the abandoned home of Motown. Detroit cuts off public services for its citizens as it offers tax incentives for small business owners. Earlier this month, Columbia Journalism Review's David Uberti wrote about how Detroit is perceived and presented by the media:
Recent coverage has showcased Detroit’s “booming bike industry” and a luxury watch company, among other vibrant, if relatively small, businesses. Motown was described as a “culinary oasis” and “The Bar City of the Year.” Such monolithic descriptions of Detroit are similar to reporters’ characterization of Brooklyn, where the artisanal doings in a handful of neighborhoods in a borough of 2.6 million people drive the media’s narrative.
Detroit's musical heritage also fuels this odd narrative. As writer Michaelangelo Matos once noted at NPR: “‘Detroit’ is a byword for high-minded purism, a bulwark against ‘commercial’ dance music.” When I interviewed producer Kyle Hall a couple of years ago, he discussed how Europeans fetishize the music (and his own) birthplace: “They think it’s a techno city here and the party scene is thriving. But I wanted to make a reality check and show a juxtaposition between the two worlds—between the concept of Derrick May driving his Porsche down the street and what Detroit is really like.” Hence his debut album’s cover image of him sitting in a dilapidated speedboat dumped somewhere in his hometown. And when Berlin super club Tresor announced plans to open a club in the city that birthed its sound, it brought up arguments of a much needed influx of income for the city versus yet another example of Europeans co-opting Detroit’s story.
In the CJR story, Uberti also quotes Ron Fournier, a National Journal columnist and Motown native, who talks about the differing perspectives of his hometown: “Detroit is undergoing a rebirth, or Detroit will never come back. Life is all about the gray, and journalism is all about the gray. I’ve always seen Detroit just like I try to see politics: It never was as bad as people told me it was. And it’s not as good as they say it is now.”
B2 “Rearranged as Such”
On “Sloppy Cosmic”, Detroit producer Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann) delivers a 12-minute interpretation of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop”. A strange chorus of voices starts the track: There are snippets of newscasts, recitation of statistics about the murder rate in Detroit, Desert Storm veterans reported as being killed on Motown streets. A choir intones the original song’s refrain of “I can hear my mother call.” It’s a line that rises like a ghost from knee-deep funk and drifts back to doo-wop, then moves even further back, to sanctified gospel. But George Clinton twisted the line so that the “mother’s call” comes in the night, when she’s prostituting herself so as to support her kids.
“Cosmic Slop” is one of the most poignant songs in Funkadelic’s catalog, found on their 1973 album of the same name, nestled between odes to cunnilingus and nappy dugouts. When reviewing Moody’s take on it last year, I didn’t quite see how everything added up. But after returning again and again to the song following a most turbulent 2014, I realized how wrong I was in that initial assessment. Kenny Dixon Jr. didn’t deliver a party track, but instead a trenchant social commentary. As an outsider listening in, it’s only in hindsight that I can hear the politics inherent in Moodymann’s cover—it is not so much a protest about the problems of the future but about the problems of the present that draws on the music of the past. Or, as George Clinton sings in a weathered-yet-still-vital voice: “Don’t walk so smooth/ Things don’t seem to have changed that much.”
Late last year, Jana Hunter tweeted, "culturally, our inability to speak and confront honest emotions, no matter how intense, is one of our most problematic issues." Amid the typical over-excited social media onslaught of nonsense, links, and cynicism, it was the kind of simply stated, ruefully reflective sentiment that could practically stop your feed cold. But while Hunter provided no additional context for what triggered that thought at that particular moment—perhaps because Twitter is hardly the ideal platform to engage in the sort of intensive dialogue she’s seeking—after you listen to her band’s upcoming, uncharacteristically frank third album, that Tweet could easily serve as its roll-out marketing slogan.
After twoalbums powered by dreamy guitar drone and blurry motorik motion—a deliberately obfuscating response to Hunter’s formative years as a Devendra Banhart-mentored avant-folk raconteur—Lower Dens’ Escape From Evil sees a new version of the Baltimore band. They’ve reined in their psychedelic sprawl, refashioning it as succinct synth-pop. And despite a painfully protracted, multi-city recording process, the album counts as the band’s most confident, unified, and accessible work to date. It’s a disarmingly direct record, one whose crystalline presentation and anthemic ascensions only accentuate the painful confessions and uncomfortable apologies embedded within. Though it’s placed front-and-center in the mix, Hunter’s voice remains a captivatingly ambiguous instrument, at once optimistic and defeatist, desirous and desperate, vulnerable and vindictive.
Following a year that had Hunter playing a slate of well-received solo guitar/laptop gigs, coaching at the Girls Rock Camp in her former home city of Houston, and transforming what began as a "mess" of a Lower Dens record into a clean machine, the frontwoman was busy making absolutely no plans for the holidays when we spoke in December.
Pitchfork: On social media, you’ve been very outspoken about the issues that are important to you—from Ferguson to LGBT matters—and that seems to dovetail with the more honest mode of expression heard on this new record.
Jana Hunter: There’s no strategic coordination going on but, obviously, they’re going to be parallel. If anything, it’s an indicator that what I’m thinking about is also what I'm writing about in music. It’s a constant process. I started to really get into Twitter in the lead-up to releasing Nootropics [in 2012], and back then I was following a lot of people who were writing about transhumanism and technology. I was tweeting a lot about stuff like that, and that continued into the release of the record and tour. I don’t remember when it changed, but there was an evolution toward more personal issues and beliefs, things close to my heart.
Pitchfork: You tweeted earlier this year that you always lose followers when you write about social-justice issues. Are you surprised by that?
JH: It doesn’t surprise me. There are artists I admire who I sometimes wish I didn’t know as much about.
Pitchfork: The album is called Escape From Evil—is the evil you’re escaping from within you, or is it about external forces that you can’t control?
JH: Both. There are things inside me that I’m working on, which have dogged me for a long time. I’m also thinking about where we’re at in our society, where we’re constantly trying to better ourselves. It seems like we’re only recently begun to be honest with ourselves in a way where we could pull ourselves out of the downward spiral we’ve been in for so long.
"There are artists I admire who I sometimes wish I didn’t know as much about."
Pitchfork: Was there any particular environmental calamity that inspired the new song "I Am the Earth"?
JH: No, that is a personal calamity. The song was originally called "The Apology"—I was trying to summon my own experiences in past relationships where I knew I owed somebody an apology for things I had done that hurt them really badly. When I was working on this record, I was still in a place where it was easy for me to deny my responsibility. I put the ultimate distance between myself and those experiences, like, what if I just experienced this life—and sometimes I do—not as the center of the universe, but as a wholly isolated entity in space. The worst part of me wants to consider other people as fleeting and temporary and debris. So it’s really a song about trying and failing to confront your personal responsibility, and failing to acknowledge that you’re accountable for being part of a community.
Pitchfork: Thematically, the new album makes for an interesting complement to Nootropics, which explored matters of technology. The subject matter here, by contrast, feels more rooted in the natural world.
JH: The subject matter is rooted in real relationships. If there’s a connection between this record and our first two, it’s that there’s still a determination to figure yourself out within a wider context, which is really the experience of being human. I’m just trying to be more honest with myself about the fact that I never really had it figured out enough in my personal life to be able to see what was going on in a much larger context.
"This has been a real winter band the whole time: overcast and dark. But four years of it was just too much."
Pitchfork: You bounced all over the country to make this record—was changing locations part of the master plan?
JH: No. We did writing sessions in Baltimore, and then I took a long time with the songs by myself in other parts of Maryland. For the first recording session, me and our drummer Nate [Nelson] went to Dallas and tried some recordings with [producer] John Congleton. We kept a couple of those things, but I wanted to work with the band and go for a different sound. We ended up going back to the studio in Baltimore where we recorded Twin-Hand Movement, did all the basic tracking there, and then [producer] Chris Coady and I got together in New York, and overdubbed a lot of stuff, and did some initial mixing. Then his studio closed and he moved to Los Angeles. So, for the final mixing, he was in L.A. streaming things to me in Maryland over the Internet and I was typing in GChat, like, "Turn up the bass!" It was like a sitcom/comedy of errors—only everything turned out great.
Pitchfork: Did seeing the crossover success of your Baltimore peers in Beach House and Future Islands make you more open to the idea of crafting a more straight-forward pop album?
JH: I don’t know. It’s always hard to pinpoint what the influences are musically. While I’m working on a record, I try to listen to as little music that could have an influence as possible. We’ve been working on this record for a couple of years, and I mostly I listened to classical music and experimental jazz during that time—things that aren’t going to influence what I’m working on, because I’m incapable of translating elements of those things into our music.
Our first writing sessions for this record were in February 2013, and they were difficult. We hadn’t played together for a while, and we were in a cold, dark space—physically and emotionally. At the end of our two and a half weeks together, we had the work, but we were also miserable. We took a month break, and during that time, [bassist] Geoff Graham and I had been talking a lot about how we didn’t want to try to write about being miserable while being miserable anymore. It sounded awful. We wanted to have a good time and for things to be less complicated. That was the foundation of trying to remove a lot of the philosophical complications—to simplify the songs and make them more honest and direct and vocal-based.
Pitchfork: Based on what you’re saying, it was really just a matter of getting out of the winter.
JH: Probably. With each one of our records, we’ve toured and worked on them a lot in the winter. This has been a real winter band the whole time: overcast and dark. But four years of it was just too much.
“Would you mind bringing me my dancing shoes?” Josh Tillman asks his wife and collaborator, Emma, as she walks into the green room. Tall, with striking eyes and a soothing demeanor, she returns moments later with a sleek pair of ankle-high black leather boots. Tillman eases into them, takes his wife’s hand and kisses her for a long, weightless five seconds. In a backstage area filled with crew, band members, and friends, they manage to have what appears to be a highly focused, private conversation. “Thank you,” he can be heard purring, but little else.
It’s shortly after 8 p.m. on a starlit January night, and Tillman—the 33-year-old singer/songwriter known best as Father John Misty—is minutes from playing the first in a run of three warm-up shows in Northern California, in support of his inspired new full-length, I Love You, Honeybear. Tonight, he is expected to fill Bret Harte Hall, a wooden hangar most frequently used for weddings held at Roaring Camp Railroads, a sort of theme park for locomotive and Wild West enthusiasts nestled amid the redwoods and mountains just seven miles north of Santa Cruz. Old train tracks loop past a covered bridge, the blacksmith’s house, and a fenced-in area dedicated to gold-panning clinics. “Isn’t this romantic, this engineered past-present-now?” Tillman asks, surveying his surroundings. “All that’s missing are the animatronic bears and country bumpkins with banjos—maybe I can ride one of the trains around, jump off, and run up on stage.”
The idea doesn’t seem at all outlandish. Since the release of his 2012 debut as Father John Misty, Fear Fun, Tillman has proven himself to be a personality unlike any other in indie rock. He is a self-described, self-styled satirist, provocateur, philosopher, and culture warrior—unafraid to casually reference Žižek, Kierkegaard, or Saint Francis of Assisi in conversation. He is also a ham-fisted, preternaturally gifted soul singer and equally self-aware sex symbol—some strange hybrid between Harry Nilsson, Tom Jones, and Will Oldham. Where Fear Fun was a wild odyssey through both Los Angeles and his subconscious, I Love You, Honeybear marks his first foray into matters of love, specifically his relationship with Emma. Though no less quixotic and absurd than what we’ve now come to expect—sample song title: “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”—the album is a vulnerable, deeply human affair that finds him grappling with a longtime nemesis: sincerity.
In the few years since his rebirth as Father John Misty, Tillman’s onstage dancing and well-documented taste for psilocybin have helped to cultivate a persona that’s increasingly at odds with who he is offstage. And right now, in this museum gift shop that’s doubling as his green room, he’s mentally preparing to share many of these new songs for the first time, with an audience that, he assumes, has come to watch him gyrate and maybe even lose his mind. It’s also the first time he’ll be singing them in full to Emma. “She and I have created a circumstance in which it’s safe to discuss everything, all this intense, deep-down shit,” he says. “But there’s an anxiety because I don’t know if I trust the world with my intimacies. These songs were written about our experience, now it’s time to universalize them.”
Prowling the lip of the stage in a black velvet blazer, Tillman takes on a leonine sensuality, his shoulders dropping and hips popping as he moves. Women shriek each time he falls to his knees or slowly runs his hand along the neck and waist of his mic stand. Couples of all ages slow-dance in the back of the room, beside a concession stand that’s filling the space with the perfume of popcorn and barbecue. Tillman wags his finger, puckers his lips, cracks jokes, and wipes the sweat from his palms across the foreheads of a few conflicted diehards in the front row. When a stuffed green frog is tossed to the stage early on, he hugs it tightly before punting it back to the audience, nearly clipping a few people in the head with his boot. “That frog,” he says, “broke my goddamned heart.”
The next night, at Veterans Memorial Hall in Sonoma, Emma is sitting in a new green room, dipping rice cakes in hummus while Tillman soundchecks. Bottles of local red wine are arranged on a bar behind her, awaiting the band. For the past several months, the couple have been making a concerted effort to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and caffeine in order to heighten bodily awareness and enhance consciousness. In the hour before this next set, they take to the center of the room to practice a number of yoga poses.
It’s a noticeable deviation from the debauchery that has come to be associated Father John Misty up until this point. No longer supplementing his diet with daily handfuls of psychedelics, Tillman’s writing has recently centered itself around a new form of clarity that he didn’t know existed until now. If he was interested in disorientation and distortion before, he’s firmly into “experimenting with orientation” at the moment. We walk outside to the parking lot so that Tillman can have his once-daily cigarette, and a pair of young women venture over to ask if they could take a photo with him. He agrees with a playful-but-sassy “yes.”
Emma and Tillman met in the parking lot of a country store in Laurel Canyon, not long after he'd left Seattle to live there in 2011. They exchanged niceties; it was not love-at-first-sight. But a few months later, she drove past his house as he was groggily climbing out of his van after a tour. “I was on a bender and asked her if she wanted to come hang out with a crazy person,” he recalls. They made slightly wary plans to meet for a drink at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood later that day. “By the second drink, I realized, ‘I am in love with this person and I want to see the world with this person,’” he says. “We were just speaking the same language.”
From that point forward, they’ve been close to inseparable. Emma accompanied him on 18 months of touring behind Fear Fun, and they’ve been partners in both self-destruction and self-discovery. The experience resulted in I Love You, Honeybear, an unlikely document of naked transformation. Written and recorded over the course of two years, from L.A. to their new home in New Orleans, it began as an assault on the institution of love songs as a whole. But Tillman eventually realized that love and intimacy could be as enlightening as anything he’d experienced before—if not more so.
“It’s like an antibody to narcissism and self-oblivion and not knowing yourself,” he says. “It relentlessly forces you to ask: ‘Why does this person love me? What is it about me that makes this person want to spend their life with me?’ And ideally, you start to see yourself through the eyes of this person instead of your own highly distorted perception of yourself.”
So Tillman set out to craft a worthy monument. But as he progressed, he found himself at war with himself. While working tirelessly on a song called “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, he would come home in the early morning with a freshly recorded CD-R in hand to share with Emma, who was unimpressed. “She could sense that I was not fully committing,” he says. “I was trying to create this just kidding! bluster, trying to make this barter with myself, like, ‘I’ll let you be this exposed if you let me cloak these songs in giant, deranged, impenetrable Disney-orchestra arrangements.’ She told me that I needed to not be afraid to let the songs be beautiful. That that was a realization I needed to have.”
He would go through a few very different versions of the song—from a Phil Spector treatment with four bass lines to a “narcoleptic” country rendition that desperately lifted a string part from “My Girl”—until landing at the spare and guileless final recording. “On an atomic level, there’s this dialectic happening between doubt and faith,” Tillman says. “I had a real sense that there was a clock counting down the time, until I was going to expose this deep, sincere, profoundly excited, and joyful perspective on finding someone.”
Tillman grew up the oldest of four siblings in Rockville, Maryland, a remote suburb of Washington, D.C. His father worked in sales for Hewlett-Packard, and his mother was a homemaker who sang in the church choir. Both were devout Christians who ensured their house was “bursting at the seams with religious product” including family and faith-oriented music like Bullfrogs and Butterflies and Psalty the Singing Songbook. Forced to attend a number of religious schools, Tillman says he felt skeptical and embattled from the beginning. “I have this really vivid memory of my first day of Sunday School,” he says. “I asked the teacher, ‘Who made God?’ and she said, ‘Well, God’s just always been.’ I remember thinking, ‘Well, I don’t know about that.’”
As an adolescent, he found himself unable to relate to classmates speaking in tongues, or play along when teachers attempted to expel their demons—“mine would never come out,” he says. “All of that caused me to withdraw deeper and deeper into my own worldview, like, ‘I just need to put my head down until I’m fucking out of here and I can finally breathe.’” Though he grew up wanting to be a cartoonist (“‘The Far Side’ and ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ are my two biggest influences”) Tillman’s constant, nervous tapping on whatever was available led his parents to buy him a drumset in exchange for quiet and calm, at the suggestion of some concerned teachers.
Years later, after being forced to attend a Christian college in Upstate New York, he left school and the East Coast without saying a word to his family or professors. The destination was Seattle, where he slept on floors, sold plasma to make money, and distributed self-recorded demos to bartenders all over town. Throughout his 20s, he’d record a number of deliberately difficult and downcast folk albums under his own name, J. Tillman, many of which were disregarded outside of Seattle and Europe—particularly by his parents, who told him, “We don’t support this choice. Do not send us your music.” They wouldn’t speak again for nearly a decade.
But in 2008, as local folk-rock outfit Fleet Foxes quickly gained national renown, Tillman, a fan, was asked to join the band as a drummer. The transition—from installing acoustic paneling for a few dollars an hour one week to sitting in front of thousands at a festival the next—provided its own sort of culture shock. “How could you not think, like, ‘I’m saved?’” he says. “When I joined that band, I dreamed that if I could just play music for a living, I could be happy. But I really have to watch my miraculous thinking, because I was so disillusioned that it didn’t end up being this version of it that I had in my head. I didn’t feel enlarged by that experience. I felt diminished.”
What happened next is now the actual stuff of legend. On a solo trip along the Californian coast, Tillman linked up with a French-Canadian shaman and a course-altering dose of ayahuasca near Big Sur. He found himself naked, hallucinating in a large oak tree on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and experiencing what he now describes as the first clear glimpse of himself—pretty good as far as rock’n’roll origin stories go.
“I started to recognize my voice coming through for the first time,” he says. “And all the conflict and the psychotic caveats and disclaimers and messy extraneous bullshit was, ironically, where all the clarity was: My spiritual gift is my skepticism and my cynicism and my sense of humor and my penchant for stirring shit up. That’s what I have to offer the world.” He resolved to pursue a creative vision based not on the prevailing archetype of how a singer/songwriter should look or sound, but one in service of a newfound sense of self: “I realized I’m the hero of my own tale.” He left Fleet Foxes, a decision that, at the time, looked like the equivalent of professional suicide, but one that has since proven to be more in line with quitting your lifeless day job to follow your bliss, a narrative most of us find tantalizing. He was awake.
Three years later, in September of 2013, Tillman married Emma in a ceremony of their own design in front of a small group of friends and family in Big Sur. The day before, he took her on the three-hour hike along the cliffs, to the same oak tree. They climbed up together and sat for a few hours, just talking. “When I was there the first time, there was nothing better in the world than being alone,” he says. “But you transform. Now, if I’m not with her, there’s something lacking. I didn’t see that one coming.”
The final warm-up show takes place in Chico, roughly 90 miles north of Sacramento, and the tour’s booker and promoter Britt Govea has circled it as“the one” thanks to the crowd’s potential freakiness. (The city is home to Cal State-Chico, named the country’s top party school by Playboy in 1987.) As a result, there’s a sense of genuine excitement leading up to the show; later on, Govea notes that Tillman “just has an uninhibited way of sticking a thermometer into the rectum of an audience and gauging its true heat.”
It being a Sunday night, downtown is quiet, save for a growing crowd of eager college students outside the El Rey Theatre, an old movie house-turned-concert venue originally built in 1905. After walking around the block, Tillman and I take a seat in the back of the theater, high above the stage. On either side of the room, there are identical murals of nymphs on tree-swings and meadows filled with giant mushrooms. Tillman had been thinking a lot about a conversation we had the night before, in Sonoma, about the dissonance between his private and public personas.
“I have all of these same questions that you do,” Tillman says to me, in the empty theater. “There are all of these seeming contradictions in my work: the lyrics are kinda brainy, but the execution is very body-oriented. To be really honest, I think a lot of what I do, on a subconscious level…”—he pauses—“I’m so afraid of being misunderstood that I don’t give people a chance to understand me in the first place.”
Last year, he attempted to defuse the dancing and the rampant requests to “take it off” by embarking on a solo tour that featured little more than him and a guitar (and Emma delivering props while disguised as a rabbit). When I ask if his persona on stage ever threatened to eclipse his art, Tillman laughs. “I’m like a beloved cartoon character, like Minnie Mouse, in some respect,” he says. “One part of my brain relishes that. It tickles me. But the irony of this whole enterprise is: I’m going to humanize myself and become larger than life? You’re talking to a guy who does everything in his power to get up onto stages and do this thing. I address questions of identity so openly, but there are different laws of physics onstage. There’s a completely different gravity. If a cop came onstage, I’d probably kick him in the balls.”
He has an idea. “Have you ever been onstage before?” he asks me. I shake my head. “I feel like if you came up and hit a tambourine or something, it’d be great perspective,” he says. “Some real Gorillas in the Mist shit. Because if what happens onstage could be explained, I don’t think it’d be that interesting. You should just see.”
So in the cramped green room at the El Rey, Tillman and his band prep me on how and when I’ll be playing tambourine: not long before the encore, during Fear Fun standout “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”. I spend the entirety of the set nervously wandering the room, observing what was easily the most engaged crowd of the tour, a frenzied collection of beards and dreadlocks and motorcycle jackets. Up in the back of the theater, exactly where Tillman and I had been sitting hours earlier, I see the faint outline of Emma’s face, of her long brown hair. I think back to something she told me the previous night, talking about her husband’s outsized performance guise. “I fucking love when people let go and are completely free in a moment and aren’t thinking self-consciously,” she said. “When I see him do that, it makes me so happy.”
But as the drums kick and I step onto the stage, she’s gone. All I can see is the first four or five rows of the audience, some of them singing to Tillman and some singing to themselves. Beyond that is only black. It feels like he said it might: unpredictable, like the surface of another planet. When technical difficulties force him to quickly abandon his microphone for another at stage left, I space-out completely while watching him, missing my cue to stop playing. And in that blurry, three-and-half minute spread, he is the same, but different. His movements are precise, almost surgical. He slices up the front of the stage, looking out at a void.
After the set ends, Tillman whistles as he walks backstage. “I feel like the crowd got something different than what they were expecting,” he says to his bandmates, who nod in agreement. I ask him what he thought they were expecting. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe some physical manifestation of YouTube videos or something,” he says. “What did you see?” I tell him how it felt unsettling to be so exposed but so blind. “Totally,” he says, excitedly. “It’s like that thing Norman Mailer said: The boxer never really has an opponent, they’re just fighting themselves. But that’s the human condition. It’s impossible to talk about without saying everything at once.”
Cat Stevens' music, voice, and energy made me feel so secure. He sounded different from some of the paternal figures in my life, so gentle and kind. And also you have this sense that he was really seeking to become a better person—not just a tough guy. On "Father and Son", he's addressing a relationship that you don't normally hear in a pop song and singing about it from both sides with so much emotion and sympathy. That hit me in a deep spot and gave me a different kind of role model that I've carried with me ever since.
There's no way I could do this interview without mentioning Kiss. Rock and Roll Over was the first Kiss album I heard, but I was totally oblivious to their whole image and the makeup and all that. I was so out of touch with the wider world. [Cuomo was raised in an ashram in Connecticut.] All I had was the album, and there was just this mandala image on the cover. I had never heard anything like that, and it completely electrified me and my brother. A friend had left the record at our house, and we taped ourselves listening to it and running around on the coffee table in circles, over and over. The friend took the LP back, so all we had was this cassette of us listening to the record and screaming—and that's what I listened to for a year.
I didn't understand the lyrics at all. As a matter fact, I don't think it was until my 20s that I realized, like, "Holy cow, I can't believe I was listening to all this stuff." All the sexual references totally went over my head. It was just the energy in the guitar, the distortion, the projection of power. It was like the flip side to Cat Stevens’ nurturing male figure; so in those first two picks, you’ve got me summed-up.
Metallica's "Ride the Lightning" has that amazing, heavy guitar riff in the middle that’s in the Phrygian mode, and I hadn't heard music in that mode yet. It's so dark and sad and suggestive of something evil. And my buttons for all of those different feelings just hadn't been pressed yet. It opened the door to this whole other world of intense anti-sociability and non-conformity and the desire to really go against society and shock people and take down the man. Me and my friends grew out our hair and wore crazy, torn-up jeans, and we started getting into things like key changes and time changes and complex, 10-minute instrumentals. And moshing.
At 18, I moved to L.A. with my heavy metal band Avant Garde, which was very much influenced by Metallica. At 19, I got a job at Tower Records, and everything started to change very quickly. I started listening to the Velvet Underground, Pixies, early Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and also earlier music like the Beatles. Around that same time, Weezer started. I met them through co-workers at Tower and, one by one, we cut our hair and stopped doing the sweep picking and two-handed tapping. And we came up with The Blue Album.
But if I have to choose one song, it's gonna have to be "Sliver", because this other guy I worked with named Howard said, "Rivers, we're going to play you this song by this new band Nirvana and we think you're gonna like this." It was just one of those things where, by the time it got through the first chorus, I was just running around the store. The music turned me on so much. It had the simplicity of the Velvet Underground in the structure and the chords and the lyrical theme—it was talking about family issues from this very innocent perspective. It had the melody and the major chord progression of the pop music I love, like ABBA, but also this sense of destructiveness that I had in me, and it came out in this new hybrid style.
Pitchfork: Did you ever cross paths with Kurt Cobain?
No, not once. When Weezer was making The Blue Album, that was right around the time In Uterocame out. He died in April , and The Blue Album came out in May. We were on the same label, and it's possible he could've heard it, but he probably had never even heard the name Weezer. It's sad for me, because he's probably my all-time hero, but at the same time, I'm kind of relieved, because he probably would've scorned us.
Since my teens, I'd been very into classical music and had a great ambition to be a classical composer. I felt frustrated by the limitations of rock, and the lifestyle of touring around on a bus and playing the same songs over and over. So I went back to school to study music, and one of the things I got into was the Italian opera composer Puccini. One of my favorite operas by him was Madama Butterfly, specifically when the role was played by Maria Callas. On tour, I would listen to her every night after the show and be so moved by the depth of emotion and sadness and tragedy. It really was calling to me, like, "Come on, Rivers. You can go there. You can go much further with your music than ‘The Sweater Song’ or ‘Buddy Holly’.”
The biggest thing to turn me around [during the making of 2001’s The Green Album] was the all-around failure of Pinkerton and feeling like, "Oh my goodness, how could I have been so deluded? You can't throw out the accepted structure of songs and try to make this operatic masterpiece with all these insanely personal lyrics. You're embarrassing everyone and you let your audience and your band down. Let's do a 180 here." So I got super interested in early pop-rock music like pre-drugs Beatles, Beach Boys, and even going further back to records like Hank Williams. [A Hard Day’s Night] is all like two-minute songs, and they all have the exact same structure, which is, by the way, the same structure used for every song 15 years before that. Each verse has the same melody, each bridge has the same melody, there aren't even choruses, just verse bridges, and you can tell they're not singing about anything remotely personal. And it's incredible! I was very inspired by that record. It's just so structurally perfect—every note complements the note that came just before it. In fact, we did some rehearsals where we did all the early Beatles songs and then, under the name Goat Punishment, we played all-Nirvana sets and all-Oasis sets. I was so interested in studying the structure of these great song forms.
The mid-2000s, through Make Believe and leading up to The Red Album, was a really, really fun time. I started to look back, recognizing that all the different things I'd been into were valid, and I wanted to bring it all together. But there was a new ingredient that came on board around this time: Eminem. I got three of his records at one time, and I just felt [The Slim Shady LP]. I guess I was behind the times; it was the same with listening to the Beatles when I was 30. I just go for whatever I happen to be excited about in the moment. It was such a new sound and a new way to communicate through music. He's able to convey so much information with his lyrics and the rhythm and sound of his voice, but there's next to no melody there. You can really hear me trying to assimilate some of that in "Heart Songs" from The Red Album, which is very much in line with the theme of this interview: going back through my history as a fan of music and trying to make sense of it all.
Pitchfork: It's rare to discover Eminem at the age of 35. How did you reconcile being inspired by this artist who was an incredible talent, but often used his lyrics to denigrate his parents, his wife, and homosexuals?
You can listen to it on two levels. A lot of the time I was listening on a technical level and seeing how he accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. And then one could also listen on the level of content and message, and I don't agree with or necessarily like some of what he was saying. But it doesn't prevent me from appreciating how he does it. Sometimes it's unfortunate when an artist goes to places, content-wise, that I think are not in the best interest of the universe. In a lot of cases, artists get deluded into thinking that their art requires them to put on some dark energy or to take some kind of drugs or something, but I don't think that necessarily makes their art better—it just makes it drugged or gross. They could accomplish the same technical feats with more helpful content.
By far, the most influential record of the last four years for me was Pinkerton. It got reissued [in 2010], and we did a show where we played the whole album from beginning to end to celebrate, which turned into a series of shows we called the Memories Tour. The experience of learning those songs again, singing them every night, working on them with the guys, and then being in a relatively small venue with 1,000 of the most hardcore Weezer fans and hearing them sing every syllable, seeing them air drum all the fills—it was such an amazing experience and so different from what we'd been doing the years before that. We were playing mostly arenas and big festivals, a lot of the times for a very general audience that didn't know Pinkerton at all and didn't know much about Weezer. So it was a great feeling of validation from the fans, for this album that was so personal to me and had been such a source of pain for years. To feel loved and accepted for this very honest part of myself was inspiring.
When Purity Ring’s first singles started circulating four years ago, the duo categorized themselves “future pop”—a canny appraisal that was both boastful and evasive, shifting the onus to the listener to frame a genre that doesn’t even exist yet. In actuality, when singer Megan James’ macabre lyrics and acute melodies were set against the metallic clangor of Corin Roddick’s production, it resulted in a fresh combination of scalable synth-pop, hip-hop, and Burial-influenced dubstep—minimally arranged music that still could trigger a festival-ready light show capable of competing with most EDM acts. The pair’s idea of the future eventually came to pass, as their debut Shrinesremains a definitive time capsule for the sound of 2012 (and 2013). When I ask them if they’ve heard blatant Purity Ring ripoffs in the past few years, James is blunt: “Constantly.”
But as they sit in their hotel in the midst of a European press junket at the end of January, they keep circling back to how the band that can least afford to sound like Shrines in 2015 is Purity Ring. As the Strokes or the xx can attest, the downside to having such laser focus on a debut can involve an inability to escape such narrow confines on the follow-up. So the duo spent a good portion of the last three years simultaneously touring Shrines while also trying to distance themselves from it. “We took about a year and a half after the completion of the first record before we even started this one, which was partially because we weren’t really sure what to do next,” Roddick admits. “We didn’t want to be redundant.”
So for their forthcoming second album, Another Eternity, Roddick and James became true collaborators rather than just two musicians with Internet connections; whereas Shrines was the product of trans-Canadian email exchanges, the new record had both members decamping to their home city of Edmonton to workshop new songs in real time.
The two have also become more collaborative outside of the confines of Purity Ring, contributing to avowed superfan Danny Brown’s 2013 track “25 Bucks”—a combination that shouldn’t be so surprising, according to Roddick. “A lot of our drum programming and rhythms are hip-hop-inspired, though some of our fans probably don’t notice that because maybe they don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop,” says the producer, who cites Drake’s right-hand man Noah “40” Shebib and Mike WiLL Made It as inspirations for his beatmaking. “People who are involved in hip-hop don’t really separate [us] that far from what they normally might listen to, and they’re also excited about combining vocals with Megan to create a very strong juxtaposition between the two.”
When describing the process of creating Another Eternity, James offers, “It felt like we were starting a new band.” That said, it is unmistakably the work of Purity Ring, albeit with darker, trap-influenced rhythms and James’ newfound proclivity for emotional revelation. The titles of new songs “Push Pull”, “Repetition”, and “Begin Again” could read as self-aware references to their ability to break through doubts. As Roddick tells me, “It was a bit of a mindfuck thinking about how much you can change and how much you should stay the same.”
Pitchfork: Were there times during the making of this record where you thought, “This is a little too Purity Ring”?
Megan James: I wouldn’t say we attempted to make it less like us. We did a few things that were generally different, but most of it was due to the writing process.
Corin Roddick: It was a tricky place to be in because, with a second album, we’re trying to evolve and we wanna be new and exciting with whatever new music we’re releasing. But we also have a fan base that likes us for the first album we put out.
Pitchfork: Did working in the same studio demystify the artistic process between the two of you?
CR: We just had a better understanding of how we each work. Before, we would do our own things and just smash them together, but there was a lot of back and forth this time, which is great because you know where the person is coming from. But there wasn’t a big reveal. I don’t like to look over Megan’s shoulder as she writes lyrics.
MJ: I feel like I was still really secretive.
Pitchfork: The lyrics on Another Eternity are more in the present tense than those of Shrines.
MJ: There is a huge difference. Shrines was introspective, where I was searching out something inside myself. But this record feels like a representation of my life over the past three years; I made a lot of changes. I left a city and moved back home and changed my entire environment. A lot of times, it had to do with other people rather than my own self-searching shit. There’s a lot more “you” and “she.”
Pitchfork: Was there a point where you started to realize that new acts were trying to sound like Purity Ring?
CR: It’s more flattering than anything.
MJ: You can’t be mad about it.
CR: At the same time, it inspires us to want to keep moving forward, because maybe something that was really exciting at the time doesn’t feel as exciting because a lot of other people are doing it. And that’s just more of a reason to drive ourselves. We need to do something that feels fresh to us.
Pitchfork: Do you still feel “future pop” is an accurate descriptor?
MJ: “Future pop” sounds like a safe thing to call ourselves because it doesn’t mean anything. It just feels comfortable, and that’s nice when you’re defining yourself as an artist, because nothing is going to make sense or feel right. Hopefully it stays without meaning.
The oddball ad is for Internet company Squarespace, which is hosting Bridges’ Sleeping Tapes—a real album designed to help listeners get a good night's rest. The idea seems novel enough—it's almost impossible not to visualize The Dude lying on his rug, blissfully listening to bowling matches on his Walkman—but the record is actually a remarkable collaboration with Keefus Ciancia, a composer for the “True Detective”soundtrack, and Lou Beach, a writer and graphic designer whose collage-heavy work has graced the covers of classic albums by Weather Report, the Flying Burrito Bros, and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Available as a pay-what-you-will download, as well as a cassette, LP, or super-limited-edition box set that includes a sleep mask and a note from Bridges, Sleeping Tapes doubles as a fundraiser for No Kid Hungry, a charity campaign for which the actor serves as spokesperson.
A sleep aid narrated by Bridges would be awesome enough, but Sleeping Tapes turns out to offer far more than that. Flitting between Bridges' gravelly ad-libs and surrealistic short stories, poems, guided meditations, and positive affirmations, it's part comedy album, part Ambien, part conceptual prank. It scores pretty highly as an ambient album, too, full of far-out drones and captivating sound design.
I spoke to Bridges last week after his appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to find out about what it's like to bed down with the dude behind The Dude.
Pitchfork: Where did the idea for Sleeping Tapes come from?
Jeff Bridges: Squarespace, a website design company, hired this advertising house to make a Super Bowl commercial and they approached me on it. They didn't want to make a commercial that promoted Squarespace; they wanted to show a website that they designed, and no idea was too wild or crazy. So they presented me with several quite absurd ideas of what my website might be. Sleeping Tapes appealed to me because of the retro title. Even the word "tapes" is such an archaic kind of thing. It reminded me of Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes. I was a big fan of that.
They encouraged me to make it my own thing and really run with this, so I did exactly that. I thought it would be a great opportunity to work with my dear friend Keefus Ciancia, who worked with T. Bone Burnett to create the soundtrack for "True Detective". Keefus was instrumental in creating all those ambient sounds on the record, and Lou Beach designed the cover with those eyes and also wrote those four stories in the Tapes. We just had a great time playing with each other!
The clincher for me was the fact that all the sales would go to support Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, which is all about ending childhood hunger in America, which is a huge problem. I just read a report a few days ago from the Southern Education Foundation telling us that 51 percent of the children in America who go to public schools are from low-income families, and all of those kids are eligible for free school breakfasts, but only half of those kids are actually getting 'em because they can't get to school a half-hour early and eat in the cafeteria. And also, stigma is a big problem: They don't wanna have that stigma being the poor kid, so they just end up coming to school too hungry to really learn. We've found tremendous success in having test scores improving and kids being able to concentrate because they're well fed when they start the day.
Pitchfork: How much money has been raised from the album so far?
JB: Over $100,000. There are five box-set collections that'll be auctioned off over this year, and I'm hoping we'll raise a lot of money from that, too.
Pitchfork: The album sounds like it was a real ball to record. I particularly like "Goodmorning, Sweetheart", where you try to record your wife first thing in the morning, and she’s not crazy about the idea. Was a lot of it improvised?
JB: For that one track, I was out in the morning at a table on our patio recording humming, and my wife just came out, and that scene transpired. There were several things like that. A lot of it was improvised, and also, the advertising house supplied writers who wrote the "Temescal Canyon" walk and the affirmations ["Feeling Good"]. We've got more material recorded, and I have more material in mind to keep this thing going and make more installments! It's sort of a new genre.
Pitchfork: I can’t stop playing the story track “Ikea”, it’s so surreal.
JB: Lou Beach wrote that, and if you liked those stories, he’s also got a book called 420 Characters, and each one is made up of 420 characters. He's just an incredible writer.
Pitchfork: I can't help but sense the presence of The Dude in certain elements of the Sleeping Tapes. Is there a particular character that you're playing here?
JB: Well, I magnify certain aspects of myself and kick other aspects to the curb for every character that I play in the movies, and this project was no exception. There's a lot of myself in it. It's sort of a new character.
Like a lot of young boys, I was fascinated by Bugs Bunny. He was sly and confident and knew how to get what he wanted. Next to Bugs, everyone else seemed corny, too wrapped up in ego to see the architecture of the game at hand. I had sympathies for other Looney Tunes—I understood Wile E. Coyote’s frustrations and the sweet embarrassments of Porky Pig too well—but Bugs was the one I wanted to be.
One day I was sitting in the basement of my dad’s apartment with my friend Jaime watching an old Bugs cartoon called “Rabbit Seasoning”. This was 1987; I was 5 or 6 maybe. If you’ve ever watched cartoons, either as a child or adult, you probably have dim visions of Bugs dressed as a woman, in wedge heels and lipstick, or with his ears pinned back by a bow. As a kid, this image short-circuited me: Suddenly, my idol was my pinup. (Apparently, I wasn’t the only one for whom Bugs in drag struck a nerve).
Halfway through the cartoon, Jaime and I turned to each other, had a brief discussion whose terms I don’t remember, then walked into the bedroom and decided to get naked. At 5, you have no conception of the difference between gay or straight or anything else, just that sometimes your body tingles like it’s ripe for something. Regardless, I had the good sense to know that whatever we were doing should be done with the door closed. It was the closest I ever came to playing doctor.
Around the same time, I found a bootleg copy of Prince’s Black Album on my dad’s tape rack. I didn’t know who Prince was, and it was only some nascent, inborn idea about the auteur theory that led me to assume that the person on the tape’s cover—a small man dressed in flashy women’s clothing—was the same person who made the music inside. I didn’t listen to the tape; I was afraid that even opening it would set off some secret alarm in my dad’s chambers, or at the very least result in some obscure smiting by an even more obscure god. Still, the image rooted in my imagination and blossomed, and on occasions when I was sure I was alone, I’d tiptoe to the tape rack and look at the Black Album with a fascination reserved for things you aren’t supposed to see.
I first ended up hearing Prince’s music in a movie theater in Lower Manhattan, my dad on one side of me and my kid brother on the other, watching a matinee of Tim Burton’s Batman. Though Prince fans don’t seem to take it seriously, especially at the end of a 1980s run that included Purple Rain and 1999, the Batman soundtrack made perfect sense to me, especially as a kid. Like the movie, it was slick and theatrical, but it also stabbed at an underlying weirdness so deep it couldn’t be spoken about, only gestured to in sputtering guitar riffs and vocal interjections that sounded like someone being tickled, or maybe punched. Batman was the first time I had occasion to think about body modification surgery, or how someone might invent another identity in order to negotiate trauma, or about how violence, comedy, and sex (whatever that was) came from the same primal wellspring.
Both Prince and the Joker loved purple, too, a color that has always connoted mysticism and ambiguity in part because it exists only as a combination of red and blue, somewhere off the spectrum of visible light—because it isn’t, in the strict sense, a color at all. These were men who had not only made peace with their desires but came to celebrate them without shame, which to a shy 7-year-old made them instant heroes. And then there was the matter of seeing Batman in the theater proceeded by, of all things, a Bugs Bunny cartoon—basic marketing synergy on the part of Warner Bros. that touched my young brain as serendipity of the highest, most religious order.
But purple, purple, it all inevitably came back to purple: Not a single thing but a combination, more a fluid state than a fixed identity. Prince could have just as easily called the Black Album the Purple Album, a title that would have hinted at his own playful in-betweenness—that transvestite dream on the cover of my dad’s bootleg tape, or his alter-ego, Camille, voice pitched up to sound not quite like a woman but a little less like a man. More than anything else, it was Prince who taught me the meaning of the word “psychedelic”: A state where the visible and invisible lines barricading different categories blurred to the point that they could be crossed, somewhere where one thing could easily become something else. Psychedelic was Prince in the movie Purple Rain playing a woman a tape of what sounds like laughter only to reveal that it’s crying, played backwards, or Prince on 1987’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, wondering why his lover won't let him pick out her clothes, trying to wriggle out of the three-piece suit heterosexuality puts on him. As a kid, nobody has to teach you to think this way: They shame it out of you as time goes on.
It took me about 15 years to get around to listening to the Black Album, or any of Prince’s other ‘80s records, in part because I had an uncanny sense that I’d already heard them: Like a story about your childhood whose memory is constructed out of hearing your parents tell it, my experience with Prince was secondhand, filled in by flashes of dance-party ecstasy with “When You Were Mine” or “U Got the Look”, or the even more prevalent “1999”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Little Red Corvette”, and so on, but never pursued in any kind of private way. I knew Prince’s music like I knew water.
As someone whose most primal musical affiliation lies with punk, or any other music that shivers with energy it can’t quite control, Dirty Mind is my favorite Prince LP, followed by Controversy. These are eight-song albums that provide flashes of social utopia and sexual liberation so bright it’s no wonder Prince bunkered down in Minnesota and almost never came out—the real world is, generally speaking, a more temperate and disappointing place than the riot of his imagination.
Put another way, the reason there’s only one Prince isn’t because more men don’t dream of being Prince, but because they wouldn’t know what to tell their coworkers. Instead, they ride their own Bruce Wayne/Batman divides, nice guys of the neighborhood, superfreaks of the mind. As for Jaime, the kid who came into the bedroom with me, I think he moved to Mississippi. Seven-year-old boys don’t write letters, not that I had anything to say if they did.
A few weeks ago my wife and I sat down to watch an Al Pacino movie from 1975 called Dog Day Afternoon, which tells the story of a botched bank robbery in Brooklyn that flares out into a hostage situation. One of the movie’s more unexpected plot turns is finding out that Pacino—who plays an angry, alienated guy named Sonny—is robbing the bank in part to get money for his lover’s male-to-female transition surgery. Eventually, the lover appears; her name is Leon, a sympathetic—if simplistic—image of a queen in the era before AIDS even had a name: willowy, nervous, sick with existential heartbreak. She lisps, sighs, and flicks her wrist as though her life was a joke, which for the cops—a ring of guys with Styrofoam cups barely suppressing their rude fascination—it is.
Leon isn’t in the movie for all that long, but she is, in her way, its mysterious center: The engine for a plot the viewer never fully understands. We know Sonny is robbing the bank in part out of love, but what we know of that love is sad and obscure, fraught with telepathic communications between two people used to living in secret.
Leon herself is defined by her non-definition: She’s trying to become on the outside who she thinks she already is on the inside. She broke my heart.
The next morning, I was listening to Prince’s Dirty Mind and doing some writing when I got a text from a woman who, in the parlance of Prince, used to be mine. We’re friends now, and have been for a long time, in that ricocheting, unpredictable way exes can be friends, and still maintain a strong psychic connection—I feel her coming before she reaches out the way you feel moisture in the air before a storm.
“You showed up in my dream in drag,” the text read. “How are you?”