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- 02/13/15--10:50: _Photo Galleries: Ka...
- 02/16/15--05:00: _Interviews: True My...
- 02/18/15--11:30: _Rising: Mumdance
- 02/20/15--12:00: _5-10-15-20: Canniba...
- 02/23/15--10:20: _Guest Lists: Alvvays
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- 03/02/15--08:55: _Interviews: Pop Sov...
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- 03/05/15--09:55: _Articles: Views Fro...
- 03/10/15--11:00: _Articles: The Litur...
- 03/12/15--08:00: _Update: The Mountai...
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- 03/16/15--10:30: _Articles: Tired and...
- 03/18/15--09:50: _Interviews: Passion...
- 03/19/15--10:05: _Op-Ed: Plagiarize T...
- 03/20/15--10:50: _Rising: Bully
- 02/13/15--10:50: Photo Galleries: Kanye West x Adidas Originals / Roc City Classic
- 02/16/15--05:00: Interviews: True Myth: A Conversation With Sufjan Stevens
- 02/18/15--11:30: Rising: Mumdance
- 02/20/15--12:00: 5-10-15-20: Cannibal Ox
- 02/23/15--10:20: Guest Lists: Alvvays
- 02/24/15--08:00: Show No Mercy: No Words: Sannhet’s Uncategorizable Squall
- 02/26/15--08:00: Paper Trail: Unconventional Idol: Kim Gordon's Girl in a Band
- 02/26/15--11:40: Articles: The Connection Is Made: Elastica Goes M.I.A.
- 03/02/15--08:55: Interviews: Pop Sovereign: A Conversation With Madonna
- 03/04/15--09:55: Guest Lists: Tobias Jesso Jr.
- 03/05/15--09:55: Articles: Views From the 6: Inside Drake's Toronto
- 03/10/15--11:00: Articles: The Liturgy Manifesto
- 03/12/15--08:00: Update: The Mountain Goats
- 03/12/15--12:40: Articles: Playing House
- 03/16/15--10:30: Articles: Tired and Hungry and Alive: 36 Hours with Courtney Barnett
- 03/18/15--09:50: Interviews: Passion Pit’s Path Through the Darkness
- 03/20/15--10:50: Rising: Bully
Hanging from scaffolding on an in-progress luxury condo near Sufjan Stevens’ office studio in Brooklyn, a huge sign promises to “preserve the history but change the meaning.” The phrase is a euphemism for gentrification at its highest levels—an advertisement meant to appeal to the delirious grandeur of those willing and able to spend $5 million on an apartment. But in a different context, those same words can take on an odd profundity. When I relay the sign’s message to Stevens, he lets out a little laugh. “That could be the title of my autobiography,” he says.
For the last 15 years, Stevens has mixed his own life history with fantastical images and stories of the ages—from the Bible, from Greek mythology, from American fables—inventing a new sort of 21st-century folklore along the way. But while this creative strategy has led to him being regarded as one of the finest songwriters on the planet, it’s also taken a personal toll. “My imagination can be a problem,” he says. “I'm prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often it's not fair to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest. But it's all an attempt to extract meaning, and ultimately that's what I'm in pursuit of, like: What's the significance of these experiences?”
Named after his mother and stepfather, Stevens’ seventh studio album, Carrie & Lowell, once again combines fact and fiction, though it finds the ambitious artist's more fanciful tendencies drastically pared-down. Musically, it’s easily his most bare album, with most songs offering only crystalline acoustic guitar or piano along with Stevens’ ghostly whisper of a singing voice. There are no orchestral crescendos, no electronic freakouts, no drums. Stevens jokingly describes the album’s sound as “easy listening,” though it’s more akin to the harrowing moodiness of Nick Drake or early Elliott Smith than James Taylor. And there’s nothing smooth or simple about its subject matter, which revolves around the death of Stevens’ mother in December 2012.
Stevens in his office studio in Brooklyn. Photo by Emmanuel Afolabi.
“I've grown up a lot in the past few years,” says the 39-year-old singer/songwriter, sitting in his modest office overlooking the East River on a sunny-yet-frigid day earlier this month. While somber life events and the stark new album certainly back this up, his look today does not; still boyish in a blue beanie, red sneakers, and a bright camouflage jacket, he could comfortably pass for a man 10 years younger. Instruments and gear are scattered around—Stevens recorded parts of Carrie & Lowell by himself here during the summer as his small air conditioner whirred in the background—along with random kitsch like a copy of Christian pop icon Amy Grant’s 1977 debut LP hanging on the wall, a gold-fringed hula hoop taken from a recent multimedia project he completed for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a book filled with pictures of gross-out Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. A dry-erase board hosts a crude drawing of a figure with the letters “I” and “U” on either side of it and a heart in its mouth. At one point, he offers to show me his childhood stamp collection; I think he might be kidding, but he’s not.
Above his computer are dozens of black binders filled with his own photos. A sampling of shots from a recent trip to Oregon shows naturescapes marked by mist and skewed tree branches and the occasional outline of a couple in the distance. “There are basically thousands and thousands of the same photograph,” he says self-consciously. “They're photos your grandmother could appreciate.”
There are several references to places within Oregon throughout Carrie & Lowell; it’s where Stevens spent three summers, between ages 5 and 8, with his mother and stepfather. These early memories are not just important because they came at a formative point in Stevens’ life—they’re actually some of the only recollections he has of his mother, who abandoned his family when he was just a year old. Her five-year marriage to Lowell Brams in the early ‘80s seemingly marked a high-point in a life struck by hardship; Carrie suffered from depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism, and her contact with Stevens and his siblings, who grew up in Michigan with their dad and stepmother, was intermittent up until her death.
But there were those summers. “A lot of the best times we had while we were married were when the kids were with us,” remembers the 63-year-old Brams, who made a point to keep in touch with Stevens’ family even after he and Carrie were divorced and is now the director of Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty. “The kids were like little puppies around her, they just loved her.”
Carrie & Lowell is not a sentimental affair, though. Stevens brings out all of the hurt and confusion of his relationship with his mother, as well as the debilitating aftermath of her passing, with lyrics that are poetic and unflinching. He sings of suicidal thoughts, regret, violence, brushfires, hospitals, shadows, recklessness, blood. “I just wanted to be near you,” he pleads on the album, exposing the core of his own history.
“With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” he says, pulling at his sneaker’s red tongue. “It's something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother's death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It's not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”
Pitchfork: How would you describe your relationship with your mother growing up?
Sufjan Stevens: She left when I was 1, so I have no memory of her and my father being married. She just wandered off. She felt that she wasn't equipped to raise us, so she gave us to our father. It wasn't until I was 5 that Carrie married Lowell. He worked in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, and we spent three summers out there—that's when we actually saw our mother the most.
But after she and Lowell split up, we didn't have that much contact with Carrie. Sometimes she'd be at our grandparents' house, and we'd see her during the holidays for a few days. There was the occasional letter here and there. She was off the grid for a while, she was homeless sometimes, she lived in assisted housing. There was always speculation too, like, "Where is she? What is she doing?" As a kid, of course, I had to construct some kind of narrative, so I've always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie, because I have such few lived memories of my experience with her. There's such a discrepancy between my time and relationship with her, and my desire to know her and be with her.
Pitchfork: Did you ever call her “mom” or was it always “Carrie”?
SS: We always called our parents by their first names: Carrie and Rasjid. I'm not quite sure why.
Pitchfork: What was Carrie like as a person?
SS: She was evidently a great mother, according to Lowell and my father. But she suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.
Pitchfork: Since she wasn’t around that much, how did you perceive of her as a kid?
SS: There was an awareness early on that she had schizophrenia, suffered from depression, and that she was an alcoholic. And because both my mother and father were alcoholics and substance abuse ran in our family, when my dad got sober and started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, we all went to 12-step meetings so we could participate in his recovery. So we had very concrete, responsible language to describe a person's struggle with addiction. We could talk about Carrie in those environments, and there was a healthy camaraderie in that culture. But I remember being a little bit embarrassed about having to go to Alateen meetings, and I didn't start drinking until I was at least of age. It was so stigmatized.
Pitchfork: Were you there when Carrie passed away?
SS: Yeah. She had stomach cancer, and it was a quick demise. We flew to see her in the ICU before she died. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, but she was aware. It was so terrifying to encounter death and have to reconcile that, and express love, for someone so unfamiliar. Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable. There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who've hurt you. It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn't capable of.
Pitchfork: That’s a very Zen outlook.
SS: Well, love is unconditional and incomprehensible. And I believe it's possible to love absent of mutual respect.
Pitchfork: Did you feel any closure at the end—did you get to have a conversation?
SS: For sure. At that point, I was only interested in communicating my love for her, unconditionally. There was a reciprocal deep love and care for each other in that moment. It was very profound and healing. But it's the aftermath that sucks—the emotional ramifications and repercussions that occurred for months and months following her death. It nearly destroyed me, because I still couldn't make sense out of it. In writing about it on this album, I was in pursuit of meaning, of justice, of reconciliation. It wasn't very fun.
Pitchfork: Considering you had a distant relationship, were you at all surprised that her death hit you so hard?
SS: Yeah. In the moment, I was stoic and phlegmatic and practical, but in the months following I was manic and frantic and disparaging and angry. They always talk about the science of bereavement, and how there is a measurable pattern and cycle of grief, but my experience was lacking in any kind of natural trajectory. It felt really sporadic and convoluted. I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public. It's weird.
I was so emotionally lost and desperate for what I could no longer pursue in regard to my mother, so I was looking for that in other places. At the time, part of me felt that I was possessed by her spirit and that there were certain destructive behaviors that were manifestations of her possession.
Pitchfork: How so?
SS: Oh man, it's so hard to describe what was going on. It's almost like the force, or the matrix, or something: I started to believe that I was genetically, habitually, chemically predisposed to her pattern of destruction. I think a lot of the acting-out was rebellion, or maybe it was a way for me to… ah, this is so fucked up, I should probably go to therapy.
In lieu of her death, I felt a desire to be with her, so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and fucking around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her. But I quickly learned that you don't have to be incarcerated by suffering, and that, in spite of the dysfunctional nature of your family, you are an individual in full possession of your life. I came to realize that I wasn't possessed by her, or incarcerated by her mental illness. We blame our parents for a lot of shit, for better and for worse, but it's symbiotic. Parenthood is a profound sacrifice.
Pitchfork: The sort of rebellion you’re talking about almost sounds like more of a teen-angst sort of thing.
SS: Fun, flirty, and 40! [laughs] I do feel like I'm 40 going on 14 sometimes. I wasn't rebellious as a kid. I was so dignified and well-behaved. But that kind of [destructive] behavior at my age is inexcusable.
Pitchfork: If your mother wasn’t there, what was your relationship with your dad like as a kid?
SS: Well, my siblings and I were raised like tenants, to be honest. There was a total absence of intimacy in my family, though there was still a great deal of camaraderie among the kids. Things were set up almost like a business, and it had to be managed that way because we were really poor, and there were a lot of mouths to feed. My dad and stepmom never had real, consistent careers. They were just always making ends meet. There were rules and regulations and chores, but very little time for casual enjoyment of each other's company. I don't know if that sort of ideological approach to parenting was intentional, but it's a little ironic that my closest fatherly companion is Lowell, a man who has no blood relation.
Pitchfork: Is your dad still alive?
SS: Yeah, but we’re not that close.
Pitchfork: Did your dad and stepmom impose Christianity onto you when you were young?
SS: No, they weren't that religious at that time. We would go to Methodist church, because that's what my great grandmother attended. I was the acolyte in charge of lighting the candles, which was really exciting to me. I had this childhood fantasy of becoming a priest or a preacher, so I would read and study the bible and then make my family listen to me read a passage from the New Testament before meals—and they very begrudgingly accommodated that for a while. I was just fascinated; some of my most profound spiritual and sexual experiences were at a Methodist summer camp.
Pitchfork: As in much of your work, there are references to Christianity and mythology on this album. What does faith mean to you at this point?
SS: I still describe myself as a Christian, and my love of God and my relationship with God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith. Yes, the kingdom of Christianity and the Church has been one of the most destructive forces in history, and there are levels of bastardization of religious beliefs. But the unique thing about Christianity is that it is so amorphous and not reductive to culture or place or anything. It's extremely malleable.
Pitchfork: Couldn't you say that about most religions though?
SS: Yeah, but some of them are cultural and require an allegiance to a place and a code. We live in a post-God society anyway—embrace it! [laughs]
Photo by Emmanuel Afolabi
Pitchfork: A lot of people make the kind of folky music that’s on this record, but so little of it actually feels meaningful; with music this spare, emotional extremity can seem like a requirement.
SS: Yeah. Like: Don't listen to this record if you can't digest the reality of it. I'm being explicit about really horrifying experiences in my life, but my hope has always been to be responsible as an artist and to avoid indulging in my misery, or to come off as an exhibitionist. I don't want to make the listener complicit in my vulnerable prose poem of depression, I just want to honor the experience. I'm not the victim here, and I'm not seeking other peoples' sympathy. I don't blame my parents, they did the best they could.
At worst, these songs probably seem really indulgent. At their best, they should act as a testament to an experience that's universal: Everyone suffers; life is pain; and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence, so deal with it. I really think you can manage pain and suffering by living in fullness and being true to yourself and all those seemingly vapid platitudes.
Pitchfork: Do you think your upbringing would make you not want to have kids yourself?
SS: Definitely. I mean, I have nieces and nephews, and there's a very clear intentionality in how they are being raised. My brother has a daughter, and she’s an only child, and she’s very social and outgoing and beautiful. She has lots of spirit and she knows how to use an iPad and an iPhone—she's more Internet savvy than I am and she's 4 years old. She's surrounded by people who love her. There's just so much intimacy.
Photos by Jimmy Mould
"It was just weird noises for an hour," Jack Adams says excitedly over a Skype feed from London. That may not sound like much of a selling point to most, but for Adams, better known as the grime producer Mumdance, it absolutely is. He’s talking about a project appropriately dubbed The Sprawl—a drone-heavy, improvisational free-for-all featuring Adams and two other electronic musicians, Logos and Shapednoise—that recently debuted at Berlin's famously forbidding CTM Festival.
And while an extended noise jam might seem like a stretch for an artist with roots in London's populist grime scene, one of Adams’ innovations as Mumdance has been to broker a truce between streetwise beats and headier textures. In fact, his upcoming mix CD for London's famed Fabric nightclub kicks off with some 15 minutes of drum-free drones, and at several points along the mix's journey to a pounding climax of piano-laced breakbeat hardcore, the momentum slows to a crawl, as though our selector has stepped in quicksand.
That kind of cognitive dissonance is a big part of what initially attracted Adams to grime. “It was the first time I heard music that was just really awkward,” says the 31-year-old. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ That's something I really like: When you're on the dancefloor, and something confuses the shit out of you—that's a beautiful thing.”
Proto, Mumdance and Logos' new collaborative album, is intended as a tribute to the moments in British dance music history where less-is-more meets what-the-fuck. Touching upon bygone styles like the bleep techno of Warp's early years and the tech-step of late '90s drum'n'bass, the album revisits the head-scratching moments where established genres trembled on the cusp of mutating into something completely unrecognizable. And the duo make good on the latter promise by lacing their tracks with a heavy dose of seasick synthesizers, gut-punching bass blasts, and reversed hi-hats—elements that seem aimed at sweeping bleary-eyed ravers off their feet. Naturally, the name they've assigned to their particular brand of gale-force club music is "weightless."
Growing up in Brighton, Adams discovered breakbeat hardcore and jungle via a friend's older brother and, soon enough, he was spending all of his paper-route money on records. At 12, he was hanging around a local record shop called Happy Vibes, trying to figure out the lay of the land. He eventually ingratiated himself with the owner of a recording studio upstairs—doing odd jobs, sweeping up, flyering, "trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible."
He ended up promoting his own parties by 17, moved to London to take a job as an events manager for Vice, and in 2010, through a chance encounter with Diplo via MySpace, he put out a record on Mad Decent, traveled the world, and recorded some 15 remixes in the space of a year, along with a slew of original beats. It was a “trial by fire,” as he puts it, for which he wasn’t really prepared—just as he wasn’t prepared to find himself suddenly out of favor, unable to get decent DJ gigs or even choice promos to play.
Adams ended up leaving London and returning home to move in with his parents; in the mornings, he’d wake up at five in the morning to work construction jobs with his father's firm. "It was quite a dark period, to be honest," he says. "I was just like, ‘fuck my life.’ But I'm glad it happened, because it's made me all the more hungry. I've put in the work and I feel like this time ‘round I deserve it more. This time it feels right to me."
Pitchfork: Do you remember your first encounter with grime?
Mumdance: I wasn't there for the first wave, because I'm from Brighton, so I'm kind of an outsider. I've worked on the peripheries of the grime scene for a long time. One thing I like about grime is you get accepted on your merit. And if you're good, then they'll rate you; if you're not, they will cut you down.
[Wiley's] "Eskimo" was the first grime tune I heard and it struck me. The space in the music was a big factor; the silence was as important as the sounds. That's something I carry to my own productions—stripping things back as far as they can go before it's not music anymore.
Pitchfork: The concept behind Proto, your new album with Logos, is to capture that sense of confusion in pivotal UK sounds—bleep, tech-step, grime—just before they assumed their established forms.
M: What we found so interesting is the idea that before a genre gets established and fit into a pre-existing rule set, people just do all sorts of weird stuff. All the early grime stuff is big on ideas, but the mixdowns are terrible. Then, as things get more concrete, it's more about getting the sounds as good as possible within this idiom and paradigm. So jungle moved into drum'n'bass and it became about getting the loudest bass and snare within this rule set. Look at the footwork thing—it's punk! They bang out tunes in five minutes. They're not worried about mixing, they're just worrying about the vibe. That's what we try to capture.
M: Me and Logos are kindred spirits, but we come at things from a very different angle; he has always been big into ambient and weird electronica, whereas I was listening to hardcore, gabber, metal, shit like that. The idea of weightless is just trying to open up what could be considered club music. On paper, Weightless Volume One is ambient, but it's produced with club sensibilities. There's lots of sub-bass. Just because it hasn't got any drums, it doesn't mean that it hasn't got its place on the dancefloor.
Another thing I'm big into is all this musique concrètestuff, like Pierre Schaeffer and GRM. Because again, it's like, “What is this? How did they make this acousmatic experience, where you don't know what a sound is?” So I was using a lot of the GRM stuff on my Rinse show, and people were saying, "What is all this?" And I was just like, “Weightless!” The concept was there but it needed a name. Everything's so banging these days, so what I was trying to do is use ambient music as a breakdown and a segue, as a DJ tool. You need these peaks and these troughs to make things interesting!
Cannibal Ox: Vast Aire and Vordul Mega. Photo by Lucas Farrar.
5-10-15-20 features artists talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. For this edition, we spoke with New York City hip-hop duo Cannibal Ox: Vast Aire, 37, and Vordul Mega, 35. Blade of the Ronin, their first album since 2001’s excellent The Cold Vein, is out March 3 via IGC/iHipHop.
Vast Aire: I was born in Mount Vernon, New York, and by the time I was 3, I was in the Bronx. There was music being played constantly in my household—soul, old funk, jazz. It was a spiritual place; a lot of incense, and the hallways were divided by beads. My parents are weirdos. My dad is like the thug from the Bronx and my mom is like the well-brought-up Mount Vernon girl—but her father was a gangsta. I guess that’s what attracted them to each other, because my mom had an idea of what my grandmother had experienced—that power, that ability to be able to make a decision. My father is the Islamic side of me, and my mother is the Christian side of me—and that right there should show you the open-mindedness that I grew up around. The Quran was open, the Bible was open.
I remember “The Message” being played in boomboxes and at houses and on ball courts, and I tell Mega that [the Cannibal Ox track] “Iron Galaxy” is like our “Message”, where we’re like, “Is anyone paying attention?” We’re just an extension of that same futuristic sound.
Vordul Mega: My life was pretty much about cereal and cartoons when I was 5: "Transformers", "G.I. Joe". I started getting into comic books a lot, and that was where a lot of my creative inspirations came from—I got interested in making characters. My folks were hard workers and we were always changing location, going from borough to borough in New York, always trying to get settled in somewhere. When I was little, I just listened to what my folks listened to, soulful R&B like Loose Ends, Cameo, Luther Vandross, and Patti LaBelle.
Vast Aire: After hearing “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” at 10, I knew I wanted to rhyme. I have to give Big Daddy Kane credit, because that’s a defining moment. It woke something up in me. I was gonna be writing in tags after that. My birth name is Theodore, and my first rhymes were just breaking down who I am: [raps] “T to the H to the E to the O, that’s my name, don’t wear it out/ So sit back, relax, I’m about to drop funky lyrics on this track.”
Around this time in the late ‘80s, strange, beautiful things started to happen: styles. Big Daddy Kane does not sound like KRS-One. KRS-One does not sound like LL Cool J. Nas does not sound like Wu-Tang. I don’t understand this garbage right now where everyone sounds the same and they don’t feel no way about it. I come from a hip-hop where you had to have your own sound. It was like a kung-fu movie: He had tiger, you had crane. Everyone had a unique thing to bring. And that uniqueness pushed everybody.
Vordul Mega: The first music I actually listened to was definitely rock. The instrumentation was so intriguing and intricate, and then I started understanding the lyrics. I felt bands like Guns N’ Roses were exposing certain levels of vulnerability, just being a human, evoking human emotions. I got into groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest afterwards.
Vast Aire: The early ‘90s were crazy years for hip-hop—there was Hieroglyphics and everything they brought to the table, EPMD, D.I.T.C., the Boot Camp Clik—I could go on and on. But if I I had to single out one album for me at 15, it would be 93 'til Infinity. Souls of Mischief were like the West Coast Tribe for me. They came out of that lane. They had their own slangs. The way they approached funk records was slightly different. That was a huge record for the time, not just the single. People need to realize the single is good, but you go back to that album, and they were doing some inspiring stuff. "That's When Ya Lost" is one of my favorite joints. Very inspiring dudes.
Vordul Mega: Smashing Pumpkins is one my favorite bands to this day. When Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out, oh man. That album was so eclectic and it evoked so many emotions. It was also about the lyrics of Billy Corgan and his voice. Certain artists speak to certain issues people go through. He had a very poetic way of describing feelings you might go through. Smashing Pumpkins was serious to me. And Beck! Beck was ill, man.
I went to Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, which had an art program, so I was drawing and reading comics, making characters and creating abilities for them. At lunchtime, I would meet kids and we would pull out our drawings of characters and what we was into. We'd talk about comic books, and that's how I met Vast, and that's how I started to rhyme. I started getting in these cyphers, saying a little something. And then we formed a group of MCs called Atoms Family. We would stay at each other's houses writing rhymes and recording little sessions on my first Casio recorder.
Vast Aire: By the time I was 20, I was very open-minded. I was studying Buddhism—hardcore, raw conceptuals. Musically, I was getting ready to embark on The Cold Vein. I was just going off of pure spontaneity at that moment because I knew I was about to go to a new realm where you don't quite know the rules yet. You have to experience it. I was probably running around with BMS, Mr. Lif, and El-P in Japan, getting people ready for this new movement.
The Busta Rhymes joint "Everything Remains Raw" was inspirational at the time. Especially coming from an older Leader of the New School, it stood out. It was one of those songs that was defining, like, “There are new rules.”
Vordul Mega: Before The Cold Vein, we had demos that we recorded at this kid Cryptic's house on some four-track. We met El while going to parties in Brooklyn where there were cyphers, and people in a circle in the front of the party just rhyming. We passed him along that demo, just on tape, and that's when he was like, "Oh, I like this stuff." When we got to talking, he was like, "Yo, would y'all be interested in doing music together?" That same day me and Vast were on the phone throwing names in the air, and that's when we came out with Cannibal Ox.
I was listening to a lot of underground stuff then, listening to [radio DJ] Bobbito every time he came on. I was all about staying up to tape songs. That's when you had A-Butta, Natural Elements, Wordsworth, and Punchline. It was about metaphors and punchlines.
Vast Aire: Around this time, [my solo album] Look Mom... No Hands is out, so I'm touring the world and having the time of my life. I'm entering a new realm creatively and feeling out certain things that I like to do. Meanwhile, Nas and Jay Z battled, which was huge. And they did it like gentlemen, too, which I must commend, because we were coming out of that East Coast/West Coast bullshit where, if you battled someone, you didn’t know if it was gonna get physical or not. So I respect that they were able to have one of the biggest battles, keep it real, and let the music speak for itself.
Vordul Mega: I can remember recording material but not releasing anything. That was when rapping went back to being more of a hobby rather than something that was expressed and displayed. One of my friends introduced me to girl named Brooke, who happened to live just a few blocks away. I would go over and visit her, and she would be typing out poetry on a typewriter. She listened to, like, Jack Kerouac—a lot of stuff that I never had a chance to hear.
Vast Aire: I was probably jamming some crazy Devin the Dude in 2008! I love Devin!
Vordul Mega: Around 30, I was living with a cousin and a friend in a two-bedroom crib in Jersey where the rent was like $900, but I didn't want to keep up with it because I felt like I could hold on to the little bit of money I was making at that time and find something a little more decent. I decided to come back home to live with my folks until I could put some money to the side to really get on my feet. So I’ve just been in my parents' crib for the past five years. It's been challenging, but decent because my parents have always supported what I was doing. It's never been a thought to make [music] a career. So five years ago, I was more about getting little off-the-books jobs. I wasn't even rhyming so seriously or consistently at that time.
Around then, I wasn't even really buying albums. I was just hearing whatever was playing in the store, whatever was poppin'. When I started getting back into listening to music, I started listening to pop. Lady Gaga was one of the first artists I started listening to again. I was like, "Oh, she sound like Madonna!" And I always was into Madonna.
Vast Aire: We did the Kickstarter, which brought awareness that we were trying to do a full-length. Then we put out the "Gotham" single and it made a lot of noise. It let us know that we didn't fall off, that they fell off. And now we're here two years later with a bomb-ass album.
As far as what’s happening now, I like Mike WiLL and Rae Sremmurd. They're bringing something innovative to the game. Big K.R.I.T. is retarded to me—I wanna do an album with him tomorrow. There's a lot of good, innovative stuff coming out. But on the real, Blade of the Ronin is gonna shut everything down.
Vordul Mega: Working with Vast on new Cannibal Ox songs has been exceptional. I have my solo efforts and I've recorded a few things, but I always feel good being a part of something.
I have recently been listening to Lorde. I really like the music behind her, and she has a beautiful voice. She speaks. I first saw her on last year’s Billboard Awards, where she was getting awards left and right, and I didn't even know who this person was. Then she's talking about songs she wrote when she was 13, which are the hit songs on the album. She was like, "Yeah, I'm 17 now." 17! I was like, "This girl is wild young! What does she have to say?" And I listened to her whole album on YouTube, and ever since then I haven't stopped listening.
Photo by Gavin Keen
Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Celtic-fiddler-prodigy-turned-indie-rocker Molly Rankin, whose band Alvvays released their very good debut album last year. The Canadian quintet will support the Decemberists on an upcoming spring tour starting next month.
The First Record I Bought for Myself
I was not allowed to own the Alanis Morissette record Jagged Little Pill due to its sexually explicit language, which I wouldn’t have understood—"going down on you in a theater" sounded completely normal to me! So my mom and I compromised on Falling Into You by Celine Dion. I also bought Let’s Talk About Love. Celine was my idol. I still defend her.
Favorite Cheap Hotel
There’s this stretch of purgatory between Quebec and New Brunswick, and somewhere in the middle is this place called Cabano, where there is this place we’ve learned to love over the years called Motel-Camping Caldwell. It’s terrifying. Last time, we checked in at two in the morning, and the guy was wearing a neon-green Speedo, no shirt, and a sailor’s cap, and he was holding a chihuahua that had a pink tutu on. And this seemed completely normal for him. It’s really disgusting and awful, but cheap. And we know that it’s always there.
What I'm Reading Now
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. She basically says that we’ve blown it as far as coming to terms with the climate crisis and that we can’t do anything in small increments anymore—that changes have to be super-drastic. She also talks about the sacrifices people don’t want to make, especially for the environment, even though we’ve made all these sacrifices for the economy. I feel like a useless blob reading it—it's good for those bleak winter months.
The Dumbest Thing I've Bought in the Past Year
I take part in brunch, I’m embarrassed to say. It’s such a waste of money. And if you’re having booze, it’s even worse. I mean, you can make breakfast in 45 seconds at home.
Favorite Day of the Week
Probably Monday, because it’s a fresh start for productivity—you can convince yourself it will be a week of change.
Least Favorite Day of the Week
Saturday. Walking down the street at night, I always wonder, "Why am I so irritable right now? Oh right, because it’s Saturday night. Why have I seen three couples break up on this walk to the grocery store? Because it’s Saturday night."
Bob Odenkirk. He’s great on "Breaking Bad", but I loved "Mr. Show". His personality is just so lovable, but he does dark very well, too.
My Dream Collaboration
We tried to cover a couple of Dolly Mixture songs and failed. I’d really love to do something with them. They make everything sound so simple and easy, but their [vocal] range is insane.
The Last Thing I Googled
Our moms all live on the East Coast [of Canada], and they’re just getting destroyed by snow, so I Google the weather maybe 10 times a day. My mom said she took a blow dryer to her car door the other day. I feel bad for our moms.
My Favorite Cereal
I had a huge thing for Corn Pops when I was young. My mom was one of those sweet moms where, if you liked something, she would just buy it all the time. But lately I’ve been doing oatmeal with banana and peanut butter.
Worst Thing About Being on the Road
Not having an escape. And not having any control over what you eat. Seeing a Subway is like a mirage—you think you’ve struck gold.
My Biggest Regret
I wish I had a proper education. I’m pretty sensitive about it. I did a year and a half in theater but never finished my degree because I didn’t like what I was doing. If I went back I would do something way more practical.
The Last Terrible Movie I Saw
I really love David Wain—everything he does is terrible in the best way. I loved They Came Together, which is terrible, and Wet Hot American Summer—anything with Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black. Their sense of humor is just so awful!
My Favorite Song of All Time
Favorite TV Show
I had severe conjunctivitis one year in Halifax, and my eyes were basically swollen shut and the blood vessel burst, so I had blood-red eyeballs, and I watched the whole series of "Freaks and Geeks" in a couple of days. I have some sort of weird closeness to that show.
Favorite Recent Music
The First Song I Learned How to Play
Jerry Holland is the most beautiful Cape Breton fiddler—he’s like the holy composer. There’s a tune that you learn when you start to play the fiddle no matter what called "Stan Chapman’s Jig". But the first guitar song I ever learned was [Oasis’] "Don’t Look Back in Anger". I was pretty obsessed with Noel Gallagher.
A couple of weeks after publishing my Best Metal Albums of 2014 list, I looked back on it and realized how many smaller bands were included. And judging from reader responses, people wanted to know more about such lesser-known acts. So in the coming months, I plan to use this column to focus on more up-and-coming bands that folks might not be aware of just yet. With that in mind, meet Sannhet, the instrumental Brooklyn trio of bassist AJ Annunziata, drummer Christopher Todd, and guitarist John Refano. Onstage they’re a marvel; with Annunziata manning an intense light show, they’re one of my favorite live acts. When you listen to their excellent second album, Revisionist, out March 3 on Flenser, you'll wonder how all this noise could come from just three guys.
Sannhet have been labelled, among other things, “post-back metal,” “math rock,” “instru-metal,” and “experimental,” though none of those are quite right. With the new record, which can be heard in its entirety below, the sounds are bigger, harsher, more melodic, and just flat-out better than their 2013 debut album, Known Flood. It gives goosebumps. You’ll punch the air. It may make you cry. It’s like if Godspeed You! Black Emperor sat down to make an album of soaring-but-concise post-punk anthems.
I spoke with the band about the beauty of avoiding classification, the idea of endless revision, and what it means to be making music in New York when nobody else sounds like you.
Pitchfork: Do you think it's more difficult to get noticed as an instrumental band without a traditional frontperson?
AJ Annunziata: When I joined the band, it was just three dudes onstage, and we didn't really have a focal point. So we moved [drummer] Chris [Todd] up to the front and introduced our light show, which replaces the singer and drives home the conceptual shit we're trying to put across—it makes the show more interesting without having a guy running around screaming. When you have a singer, the songs are committed to the emotions or ideas that the lyrics carry. But if there's anything that Chris and John don't like to do, it's to subscribe to any one particular idea.
John Refano: Having no singer allows you to give the music your own meaning. Hopefully people aren't thinking: "Oh, this is missing something." Instead, it's one big immersive experience live. On the record, we make up for it by the sheer amount of things going on.
Pitchfork: How choreographed is the light show?
AA: It's meant to be as choreographed as possible—I trigger the flood lights and the strobe lights with my foot—but it does still have a little bit of openness and responsiveness to the set. John and Chris were apprehensive about the lights because, again, it was like defining a theme or idea to the songs, and they're very much about keeping that ambiguous and interpretative. So they made a rule for me when I was making the projections: They cannot be tied to any one realistic physical thing or idea. So I did a lot of animations akin to animation experiments from the early part of the 20th century.
JR: Maybe not so much musically, but more in terms of the ideas behind the band. Liturgy was “sort of” a metal band, and, similarly, we use a lot of the aesthetics that may come from metal—extreme volume and noise—but we try to put it in a different context. We're all bands using heavy music but doing something different. With the guitar, for example, there's riffs here and there, but in general my main interest is building up drones like a Wall of Sound—lots of textures and layers where it's more like a big wash rather than tight metal riffing.
Pitchfork: All three groups—you, Liturgy, and Lightning Bolt—also obviously have very good drummers.
JR: Yeah, especially with the way we present Chris drumming up front, he's right there in your face. He's not just some dude that's in the back keeping it together. He's a focal point. He's right in the middle of the stage. People connect with that a lot.
Christopher Todd: Drummers don't get to do that too often, and I love it. I'm always trying to challenge myself to not do the same thing. I take pride in being the backbone of the band.
JR: And since there’s no singer and the guitar parts are textural, the drums and bass have a lot of room to have their own voice.
AA: The interesting thing about the way we write music is that it’s like an interpersonal argument between all of us. The way Chris structures a song is considerably different from the way I would construct a song or the way John does and these different approaches all complement each other. I'm always trying to make a song sound more like something you can bite into, something more understated or even poppy. Chris is trying to make it as technical as he can while still making it delicate and interesting. John is trying to take everything that we're doing and make it as dissonant and strange and unrecognizable as possible.
Pitchfork: When you named the album Revisionist, what did you have in mind?
JR: We play around with our aesthetic and our name and our image a lot, and the album involves this idea of how you can change things to mean whatever you want at whatever time by revising them, and then that becomes the new proof. It could also be a nod to our progression as a band, and as we move forward as a group, we make it seem like that's what we've always done.
AA: Nobody in the band wants to commit to a specific idea, but when John suggested the name Revisionist, I was immediately able to make all these connections to all the other creative movements we've had within the band, the artwork, the videos, just the iterative process that it takes to write some of these songs. It really is an internal struggle with all of us to birth a song. I'm not saying that to sound like we're a bunch of kids fighting all the time, but everybody cares so much about so many details. There's nothing that is not completely deliberate. We recorded two or three versions of demos for each of these new songs a year and a half ago, and they sound almost nothing like some of the finished versions. Chris and John are very much particular in the way they work and it's really challenging working with them, but they always want it to be a little bit better and that can definitely be seen in our studio time. We spent a lot of money making the album.
JR: It’s this process of infinite revisionism. When we went to the studio to mix the album, it was kind of ironic going in there and finishing an album called Revisionist because once we cut the mix our ability to revise it was basically gone. So Revisionist was birthed when the ability to revise it was finally removed.
AA: Also, some fans have taken the songs and done their own lyrics to them and uploaded them to YouTube, and that’s the kind of involvement we want to foster with our fanbase. I like that people have taken a thing that we've created and then made it their own.
Pitchfork: You're not an easy band to pigeonhole genre-wise, which seems to go with everything we’ve discussed so far—you escape easy categorization.
JR: That's ultimately a triumph, in my opinion, especially because it's almost impossible to make something that's unique and original in this day and age. I hope it stays that way because if somebody can say, "Sannhet is this type of music," we're not really doing what we're trying to do.
When you hear somebody describe us, it's almost like you hear what they are into and what they grew up with and the things they think are cool, which I think is great. Metal writers will compare us to all these metal genres. People who are into spacier music will find connections there, and people who are into more experimental music might attach it to other things.
Pitchfork: Do you feel any connections to New York City or do you think your music is coming from different places and exists outside of a certain scene?
JR: I'm influenced by living in the city and being a part of the city, but I don't know about being influenced by the other bands that are quote-unquote "in the scene" because I always struggle to try to find bands that are related to our sound, aside from just being loud or noisy or heavy. New York is an amazing place to live, but there's also a darkness to it. I almost feel like our music could be the perfect soundtrack to being in New York City because it's everything and it's nothing, and you can do with it whatever you want.
AA: We’re often the weird guys out in conversations with our friends that have bands in the area because we're either too soft for metal or too hard for indie. We just kind of float around. We're the weird angry guys in black post-rock outfits.
Nick Kroll as the Bret Michaels-type metal washout Nash Rickey on "Kroll Show". Photo by Danny Feld.
The strange and wonderful sketch-comedy world of "Kroll Show" is inhabited by some of the most endearing assholes, freaks, and dickheads on TV. There’s hair-metal has-been Nash Rickey and his band Sloppy Secondz, quintessential Jersey Shore derelicts Bobby Bottleservice and Peter Paparazzo, Justin Bieber-style Canadian pop idol Bryan La Croix, and amazingly deadpan dog plastic surgeon Dr. Armond, to name a select few. The show offers bizarro twists on the soul-deadening reality shows we’ve all wasted countless hours watching, using the genre’s standard beats and tics to mine comedy that is brilliantly inane. It also uses music—often in the form of parody videos—as connecting tissue to tie all of the various weirdos and plots together.
Compared to the work of fellow musical comedians like "Weird Al" or the Lonely Island, the songs on "Kroll Show" are a bit more character-based and subtle. So while the recent Bieber-goes-Migos-type video for "Ottowanna Go to Bed" is funny on its own, it takes on another level of hilarity for fans familiar with star Bryan La Croix’s particular brand of Canadian rebellion. These songs and sketches reward close viewing and listening, which is why "Kroll Show", currently in its third and final season, will likely enjoy a growing cult audience for years to come.
I spoke with creator and star Nick Kroll, his usual "Kroll Show" sidekick Jon Daly, and music directors Mark Rivers and Cyrus Ghahremani about some of their greatest hits.
Pitchfork: My favorite song from "Kroll Show" is the hair-metal parody "L.A. Deli". How did that one come about?
Nick Kroll: Guns N' Roses all used to actually hang out at Canter’s Deli in L.A., so we thought it would be so funny and innocuous to do a song about that. I went to Mark and was like, "It's all about L.A. delis and it should be in the vein of the David Lee Roth’s ‘California Girls.’"
Mark Rivers: We talked about how there could be some awkward references to things like pastrami—stuff like that wouldn't normally be in a heavy metal song. And from that I went into my home studio and wrote and recorded a classic '80s metal pop song. That's a pretty easy genre to parody, though I hated it in the late '80s. Back then, I was into indie rock bands, but I remember coming out to L.A. toward the end of that metal scene and realizing it was pretty inescapable and fascinating. And it's so specific—it's easy to dial into those attitudes.
Pitchfork: Nick, do you stay up on music enough to know exactly what you're looking for in a parody?
NK: Well, the key to my comedic cache is not based on music.
Jon Daly: You're no Wayne Brady is what you're saying.
NK: That is the true. I wish I were. I'd be a triple threat! But it's always been important to me to have music integrated into the show because it's such a big part of popular culture. So when Mark or Cyrus go off and make something, even if they're making a jokey version of a "bad song," they end up being really great songs. "L.A. Deli" is a great song—it becomes peoples' ringtones. "Ottawanna Go to Bed" is a fun pop song that I genuinely like, and when we were shooting the video, I was like, “I wanna fucking get down to this song.” It really works for me.
MR: That's what put Spinal Tap over the edge, too. The songs are really good.
Cyrus Ghahremani: If you didn't know it was a joke, it would sound totally real to you.
NK: Our show lives and dies on specificity, whether it’s the specificity of how someone in Philadelphia talks, or how a Poison song is structured, or what beats Pitbull uses. As an average listener, there's stuff that's happening in the music that I’m not even hearing, but I know it's all adding up to the right thing.
Pitchfork: As far as musical references, I thought the recent song "Broin’ Country" was like Bobby Bottleservice becoming Florida Georgia Line.
JD: It's exactly Florida Georgia Line.
NK: Vibe-wise, we were just looking at pop country and thinking, "Oh my God, Florida Georgia Line dresses exactly like Bobby." There's really not that much of a difference between a Jersey Shore douchebag and Florida Georgia Line.
JD: They're all about dap, like, "What's up? High five! You're the man! Bring it in, bring it in. We're the best." So going country was just a logical step.
NK: "Broin’ Country" is also like the Pitbull and Kesha song "Timber", which I fucking hated at first. But by the time we actually shot the video and it’s on the show, I kind of didn't mind "Timber" anymore. With music in general, if you listen to a song enough you just grow to like it, and we try to make the show like that, too.
Pitchfork: Jon, what’s your favorite song from the series?
JD: My favorite thing hasn't aired yet, we did this "apology" song...
NK: I'm unfortunately going to tell you right now: I don't think that's going to air.
JD: Oh no, that's too bad.
NK: The idea came up to have Bryan La Croix do an apology song, because it was right around when Bieber was getting in a lot of trouble. So it started with an apology, and then it went into this whole sorry-not-sorry thing, and then it ended as a full on banger, like, "I'm not apologizing." Like going from this Robin Thicke approach, to Charli XCX, to Drake. We’ve made a few great songs that just didn’t work for us story-wise. So it’s just like, "Fuck, that song was awesome but we're not exploring that version of Bryan's arc anymore."
Pitchfork: In this new season, more and more of the characters’ timelines are bleeding together, and the music is often the link between the worlds.
NK: One of the great things about having music on the show is how useful it is as the glue that can tie things together. So when Liz from PubLIZity shows up, she's humming "L.A. Deli". And in the "Karaoke Bullies" sketch, Niece Denice is singing "Ottowanna Go to Bed". Or Dr. Armond is listening to Young Billy Joel on his stereo.
JD: I've got a real weakness for Young Billy Joel personally because I think it's the stupidest idea. It's just so ridiculous. I love it so much.
Pitchfork: Is there something you regret not getting to do?
NK: I'm personally a big James Brown fan, so I would have loved to celebrate him a little, but it's somewhat difficult for a white Jewish kid to do blackface these days.
"KILL YOUR IDOLS," Sonic Youth violently declared, and over 30 years, the band regularly traversed the chameleonic space between idolatry and irony. "I was totally into hero-worshipping male guitarists," Kim Gordon once said, with indecipherable dryness, talking about her youth in the 1987 film Put More Blood Into the Music, a funny, avant-garde portrait of the group. Five years later, when she appeared on MTV promoting Hole's Pretty On the Inside, which she produced, the VJ asked, "Is producing something you've done a lot of?" to which Gordon deadpanned, "Yes, I try and do it at least once a week." Her approach to talking about herself always seemed to be sarcastic, distanced, Warholian.
In Girl in a Band, Gordon's new memoir, she takes the Ray-Bans off the story of her life, so to speak. Like last year's essay collection Is It My Body?, Gordon's prose is as tonally conversational and idea-driven as her speak-singing style (which itself was informed, she writes, by spacious jazz phrasing and ‘60s girl group the Shangri-Las). Girl in a Band chronicles Gordon's "faux-hippie" adolescence in California, Hawaii, and Hong Kong—as she smoked pot, listened to Joni Mitchell, and channeled Françoise Hardy—and her subsequent penniless move to New York City in the early-‘80s era of No Wave noise and Basquiat. (She could only afford her first apartment due to a huge insurance check following a car accident.) While in the city, she wrote magazine articles about "male bonding" in the context of the downtown scene, unlocking her life as a musician. As in Gordon's art itself, the book's appeal is often in its subtleties: Her favorite color is turquoise; she thinks Emily Dickinson is corny; her dog is named Merzbow.
Listen to a playlist of Sonic Youth songs with Gordon on lead vocals:
Girl in a Band also discusses the end of Gordon’s marriage to Thurston Moore in excruciating detail; she writes of feeling more alone than ever at Sonic Youth's last show, of taking Xanax to make it through the band's final practices, of not having it in her to actually say goodbye. But the most interesting relationships Gordon describes are those with her daughter, Coco, and her artist friends Dan Graham and the late Mike Kelley (who, in one great passage, fervently argue over the origins of punk). Gordon gives many pages to her troubled relationship with her "brilliant, manipulative, sadistic" brother, Keller, a paranoid schizophrenic who was the cause of her lifelong "incommunicative" ways: "The image a lot of people have of me as detached, impassive, or remote is a persona that comes from years of being teased for every feeling I ever expressed," she writes. That, combined with the non-linear ideas culled from French New Wave cinema, Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts, and acid lead her towards abstraction, never feeling comfortable with "bold, definitive statements." Gordon's final words in Girl in Band are "I guess I am"—a conclusion that is telling in its ambiguity.
But even after reading these 288 pages, it's still hard to imagine Gordon actually talking about herself for more than 20 minutes. At her Girl in a Band launch event on Monday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she instead commentated a series of videos as context for the book—scenes from 1966's Blow Up, the 1970 Rolling Stones film Gimme Shelter, and the Dylan documentary No Direction Home, as well as live footage of Joni Mitchell, CSNY, Sex Pistols, the Stooges, Nirvana, and Bikini Kill. The clips showed examples of live music experiences gone awry—made great due to their total chaos, rupturing of expectation, and unconventional transfer of power—as the "sacred barrier" between the crowd and the spectacle was broken. "It's not a seamless idea of entertainment," Gordon said of these spontaneous moments, "I like when something falls apart." Gordon's book, and life, too, has taken unlikely turns that make her an even more dynamic and relatable emblem of poised cool in the history of American rock'n'roll.
Pitchfork: Early in Girl in a Band, you write that performing had a lot to do with being fearless. What was your most recent act of fearlessness?
Kim Gordon: Writing the book, pretty much. It's something I never thought I would do. I guess I naturally would have been more cautious, but sometimes, when life gets in front of you, you just go with it. But I also held back—there's a lot of read-between-the-lines stuff, which is how I am anyway. There's lots of subtext. I'm basically trying not to think about the fact that so many people now know a lot about me.
Pitchfork: Did you keep diaries over the years or were you writing from memory? I read a 2012 issue of the German publication Mono Kultur where you said you'd spent more time thinking about the future than the past.
KG: I wrote primarily from memory. As far as projects I've done, I don't think about them so much—I'm just not into archiving things. I'm always looking forward to the next thing. There were things I'd written about at length before—I had a book of art writing that came out last spring, which also included a Village Voice diary about touring—but I'm more of a believer that important things come back. You can't write about everything, so you put in what tells a cool story. I'm more of a minimalist.
Pitchfork: Did you interview any family members?
KG: Not really. I hardly have any family.
People who sometimes come across as really confident or
strong are actually just not letting themselves be vulnerable,
in a way—they're never really going to make great work.
Pitchfork: Is there anything you learned about yourself from the process of writing this book?
KG: There was one thing—like, maybe I ended up playing music with a bunch of guys because I was searching for some better brotherly relationship, since I had such a shitty one with my own brother.
Pitchfork: One thing you explore in the book is the foundation of your own shyness. It was interesting to learn about how your brother's behavior impacted that. Did your shyness—and being a generally quieter, more cautious rockstar—make it difficult to write the more opinionated parts of the book?
KG: Writing is different from talking. I feel like a different person when I'm writing. I look back at things I wrote a long time ago and I'm like, "Did I write that?" It's a different process. It's like having a medium in front of you that somehow allows you to have some distance. I was aware of how [my brother] affected me growing up, but it was only recently that I realized how, when you're onstage, or doing something creative, that it's this free space.
Pitchfork: While reading these parts about your shyness, I thought about something you once said about how passiveness can be its own form of rebellion. Was there a specific point in your life that you realized you could harness that and turn it into a form of power?
KG: At some point I became more accepting about who I was. People who sometimes come across as really confident or strong are actually just not letting themselves be vulnerable, in a way—they're never really going to make great work. You have to allow yourself into the work somehow, and be honest about who you are. But that's hard to do. If you don't take risks, you don't get as much back.
Pitchfork: At this point in your life, do you feel like you're less shy than when you first started making music?
KG: [laughs] It depends on who I'm talking to. I can be incredibly shy. It's just a mood.
Watch footage from a 1985 Sonic Youth performance in the Mojave Desert that Gordon picks out as one of her favorite shows ever in Girl in a Band:
Pitchfork: Another line from the book that stuck out for me was when you were talking about your divorce. You call it "the most conventional story ever." Throughout the book, the idea of convention is revisited often, like it's the most awful thing.
KG: Well, convention isn't awful, it's just not something that I really aspire to. I certainly admire other people who do more conventional work, whether it be music or writing. It's just not who I am. I have actually walked around with this feeling for most of my life, that I'm this very conventional person from a middle-class upbringing, and that other people are more eccentric or weird. I walk around thinking to myself, "Yes, I'm that, but I'm also totally not that." It's funny—it's just a blind spot about myself. But I realize that there's not a lot conventional about my life or anything that I make, except that I have a child and was in a marriage and had a family. Because of our lifestyle of being in a band, I maybe overcompensated and wanted [Coco] to have this really solid foundation.
Pitchfork: What is the most unconventional thing about your life now?
KG: Just the kind of work that I make. My art career has not been conventional. I don't do one kind of painting, or have a focus. The music I make is experimental. I travel a lot. I'm drawn to people who are unconventional. I feel a bit like a teenager right now. My daughter's in college, and I feel very free and independent. At my age, I never thought I would be, like, dating. I'm not sure exactly where I'm moving to. There are a lot of question marks.
Pitchfork: It sounds pretty exciting to me.
KG: It is! Actually. It is. I mean, I'm really grateful for the opportunities that have happened in the last couple of years. I had this survey show at White Columns [in 2013] that was really great, and I have a show at 303 Gallery in June. And putting out an experimental double record with Body/Head and having it be well-received was just shocking. It was really gratifying. There have been a lot of positives.
If you don't fit into a certain type, there's
a lot of strength in just being who you are.
Pitchfork: You said that you feel like a teenager, which reminded me of something you posted on Twitter a while ago: "Better to be a young older person than an old young person." As someone in my 20s, that really stuck with me. How do you channel that energy? What does age mean to you now, if anything?
KG: I feel like a lot of people can relate to not exactly feeling whatever age they are; everyone carries around some age inside of them that's way younger than what they actually are. It's shocking to realize, "Oh, I'm actually kinda old." It's a slippery thing. There's so much pressure to be young. There are certain areas of culture, on TV and in the media and movies, where you get the impression that everyone is only 20. You can also be young and wish you were old. There are certain subcultures that are interesting, like surfing, where people from different generations seem more intertwined, but I don't see that as much in the music world.
I have a lot of responsibilities now, but I feel a certain lightness from opening up. I'm a really slow developer. I realized that there is an aspect of myself that's kind of arrested from how my brother affected me, which makes feeling like a teenager seem more positive, but it's also probably horrible in ways. I just feel unstrung, a little bit disoriented in my life. I do have a very strong sense of who I am, but where I'm located in the world is a little bit unsure.
Pitchfork: What would you want younger people to learn from the book?
KG: It's important to find a thread in your life and have the confidence to follow it, if it's leading you somewhere interesting. And if you don't fit into a certain type, there's a lot of strength in just being who you are.
How one era-defining classic—Elastica’s Britpop-bombing 1995 debut—spawned another: M.I.A.’s Arular, which turns 10 this year.
Elastica died without incident—no dramatic onstage announcement, no tearful farewell tour, no public blow-up. After spending the better part of five years struggling through drug addiction, failed intraband romances, and personnel disorder while trying to follow up one of the biggest British rock records of the 1990s, frontwoman Justine Frischmann swiftly, silently put her beleaguered band to bed in December 2000, mere months after the release of their soon-forgotten second album. When a middle-fingered parting shot of a single, "The Bitch Don't Work", appeared in the fall of 2001, it was like the unveiling of a tombstone for a funeral we didn't know had already happened. But if there was no proper send-off for Elastica, then the events of September 29, 2000, were as fitting an epitaph as any.
Following their gig at Toronto’s Guvernment nightclub, the band decamped to an afterparty at the more intimate Barcode, where local electro-rap pranksters Peaches and Chilly Gonzales—Frischmann’s hand-picked opening acts for Elastica’s fall tour—were headlining. As expected, the Peaches show was a highly sexualized spectacle, with several scantily clad friends—including a pre-fame Leslie Feist in her short-lived MC guise, Bitch Lap Lap—swarming the floor and grinding their bodies to her salacious synth-punk. On this night, Frischmann and crew were all too happy to join the fray, and, while it was hard to see amid all the chaos transpiring on the floor, a baton was being passed. During the climactic expulsion of Peaches’ then-nascent anthem "Fuck the Pain Away", the mic wound up in the hands of Elastica’s tour documentarian (that’s her arm you see holding the camera in this pic), who seized the opportunity to shout out the song’s profane chorus.
So as one pop star in the room was pondering her retreat from public life, another one was born: That filmmaker yelling into the mic was Maya Arulpragasam, and, while no one in the room realized it at the time, they had just witnessed the first public performance of M.I.A.
Twenty years ago, in March 1995, Elastica released its self-titled debut. Ten years later, almost to the date, M.I.A. issued her first proper album, Arular. On the surface the two records—and the women at the helm of each—couldn’t be more dissimilar. Elastica unabashedly mined Britain’s glam- and punk-rock past; Arular presented a shortwave-radio spin through hip-hop and digital street music spanning Kingston to Mumbai. Frischmann was a Jewish upper-class Londoner born to a renowned structural engineer; the British-born Arulpragasam was uprooted from her childhood home in war-torn Sri Lanka in 1986, separated from her father—who stayed behind to support the Tamil-rebel movement—and raised by an impoverished single-mother seamstress in the London suburbs. The biggest social maladies addressed on Elastica were hangovers and, ahem, performance anxiety; Arular stumped for third-world poverty and the PLO. And yet, not only would Arular not exist without Elastica, the albums actually represent two sides of the same coin.
Elastica was a swift cock-punch thrown in the midst of the dick-swinging contest that was '90s Britpop. While Oasis and Blur played enemies in the NME, Frischmann and co. looked on from the sidelines with upward rolled eyes and finger-flicked fags. (And the fact that Frischmann was dating Damon Albarn at the time didn’t necessarily make her his eager cheerleader; she would later tell The Guardian she thought Blur’s 1995 Battle-of-Britpop entry The Great Escape was a "truly awful album.") Elastica answered the bloat of Britpop with lean, mean, lipstick-smeared kiss-offs along with a refreshing lack of preening and pretension. Next to the classic-rock reverence and Wembley-baiting ambitions of Oasis, Blur, and Frischmann’s former band Suede, Elastica came off more like crafty hip-hop producers, less concerned with honoring their post-punk forbears than digging up their favorite riffs and building more fun, dancefloor-friendly songs out of the bones.
While that sort of sacrilegious swiping didn’t endear Elastica to Wire and the Stranglers’ legal teams, it’s the sort of blasphemous attitude that made the band especially attractive to indie fans turned off by Britpop’s football-lad leanings. Female-fronted alt-rock acts were common by the mid-'90s, but compared to the fiercely provocative personae of Courtney Love and PJ Harvey, Frischmann wielded her sexuality in an equally frank but far more playful fashion, her coy androgyny and suggestive lip twitches making her a matron saint for misfit girls and queer kids alike. Britpop had, of course, toyed withgender-bending before, but the video for Elastica’s breakthrough single "Connection" heralded a new world order, forcefully flipping the script of the standard bikini-babed rock visual by having the band perform amid a gaggle of subservient male nudes.
If Elastica sounds dated at all today, it’s less in sound—the record’s stylish scrappiness anticipated post-millennial rock groups from the Strokes to Savages—than in its carefree spirit. Its lusty songs sound like dispatches from a far less complicated time, when you could simply enjoy "Car Song" as a cheeky shaggin’-wagon anthem, rather than ponder the environmental impact and geopolitical consequences of our auto-erotic fixations. But then Elastica was already something of a time capsule by 1996, the dawn of a four-year, heroin-hazy period that saw Frischmann saying goodbye to two of her bandmates as well as her boyfriend, who aired-out the couple’s dirty laundry on Blur’s 1999 break-up opus, 13. All the while, the singer’s barely-together band squandered hundreds of thousands of pounds in aborted recording sessions, with just a patchwork six-track EP to show for it. Even the most committed fan sites gave up on tracking their progress.
Elastica’s proper follow-up, The Menace, finally surfaced in April 2000. Where its predecessor skyrocketed to the top of the British album charts and set a sales record for UK debuts, The Menace stalled out at No. 24 and slid off the charts after only two weeks. Compared to the newsstand-toppling hype that greeted their debut, The Menace was met with indifference; even the band’s boosters at NME could barely feign enough enthusiasm for a 6/10 review. It appeared to be a textbook case of the sophomore slump, the pained last gasp that prefigured Elastica’s ultimate demise.
But the passage of time has been kind to The Menace for many reasons—not the least of which is the fact the album served as the crucial connective tissue between two big-bang moments in British pop.
Despite its agonizingly long incubation period, The Menace was recorded in the fall of 1999 in a relatively quick six weeks and for a relatively cheap £10,000. And it totally sounds like it.
On the surface, Elastica had merely progressed from ripping off Wire to becoming the Fall, whose snarling mouthpiece Mark E. Smith turns up on the cheeky tribute track "How He Wrote Elastica Man", and whose caustic, shambling essence was reflected in the album’s patchwork quality (not to mention Elastica’s own revolving-door, six-piece line-up, which at this point included one-time Fall keyboardist David Bush). True to Frischmann’s stated desire to simplify her life post-Albarn, The Menace tore apart Elastica’s tightly wound sound to expose its core elements in their rawest state: The sneering rockers saw Frischmann curl her upper lip a few inches higher ("Love Like Ours"), the naughty suggestiveness of old gave way to crass come-ons ("Your Arse My Place"), the danceable undercurrents of the band’s bouncy hit singles were laid bare in twitchy electronic interstitials ("Miami Nice"), while the poppiest melodies were left to float into the ether ("Nothing Stays the Same"). In essence, the deconstruction job that Elastica pulled off on The Menace was not all that that different from what Radiohead would undertake a few months later with Kid A—but where that album was universally lauded as a visionary masterwork, The Menace was largely written off as an aimless mess. In a 2013 interview, Frischmann herself further degenerated the album’s worth by claiming Elastica should’ve been a "one-album project."
And yet The Menace has aged spectacularly well, arguably even better than Elastica’s more celebrated debut, which can feel as tethered to its mid-'90s origin as a "This Life" rerun. Boasting a genre-hopping pastiche playlist that embraced the idea of "shuffle" years before the word was trademarked, The Menace also aligned Frischmann with a new wave of female synth-punk artists cropping up everywhere from New York (Le Tigre) and Toronto (Peaches) to France (Miss Kittin) and Germany (Chicks on Speed). At the time, these artists were often lumped together under the newly minted genre of electroclash, a term that quickly became derisive shorthand for emphasizing style over substance. But electroclash’s cross-wiring of minimalist presentation and maximal provocation proved far more enduring and influential than its detractors could have imagined, initiating a post-millennial dance/rock crossover whose effects are still being felt today, while spurring many fearlessly outspoken, sex-positive amateur female musicians into action—including the woman who designed The Menace’s cover.
Prior to first meeting Frischmann in the late-'90s, Maya Arulpragasam had pretty much done everything except play music, subsidizing her ventures into visual art, photography, and filmmaking at the prestigious Central Saint Martins art school by working as a call-center cubicle slave. But it was her stenciled graffiti depictions of civil unrest in Sri Lanka that first caught Frischmann’s eye, leading to Arulpragasam’s recruitment as Elastica’s de facto visual director (and, for a spell, Frischmann’s couch-surfing roommate). The combative personality Arulpragasam would later assert through her music was already perceptible in her artwork for The Menace, which recasts Frischmann’s most alluring feature—that mouth—as a weapon; her lower teeth create a fissure in the middle of the image like a magazine cover about to eat itself, a visual manifestation of Frischmann’s emancipation from tabloid-celebrity life. And the Arulpragasam-shot video for The Menace’s lead single, "Mad Dog God Dam", feels like a blueprint for the musical and visual aesthetics she would develop as M.I.A., a frenetic, hip-hop-inspired, VHS-grainy montage of Elastica performances and b-girls dancing on sidewalks intercut with shots of a basketball-geared Frischmann singing to the camera, mediating between rock-star bustle and street-level hustle.
Footage for that clip was compiled by Arulpragasam as she documented Elastica’s final tours, including that one prophetic Toronto afterparty. Inspired by a brief beat-making tutorial she received from Peaches, whose spartan set-up—just a Roland MC-505 Groovebox and a whole lotta attitude—was a musical representation of the DIY spirit that fueled her own guerrilla art projects, Arulpragasam began playing around with Frischmann’s own newly acquired 505 during a Caribbean getaway. She would later claim her initial intent was to produce tracks for local island girls to sing overtop, or to collaborate with Frischmann in hope of goading Elastica back into action.
Instead, Frischmann insisted Arulpragasam develop those beat experiments into songs of her own and, in 2003, one of the tracks they worked on together—the delirious, dancehall-inspired "Galang"—became the first single issued by M.I.A. By summer 2004, "Galang" and its follow-up, "Sunshowers", had become Exhibits A and B in proving the effectiveness of a novel new music-transmission medium—the mp3 blog. Parlaying online notoriety into IRL record deals, M.I.A. signed with XL Recordings in the UK and Interscope in the U.S. for the eventual release of Arular, a debut album that would crystallize its era as perfectly as Elastica’s did 10 years previous.
Through the fractured lens of The Menace, the similarities between Frischmann and Arulpragasam become as pronounced as the differences. Both artists are, at heart, samplers: Elastica pillaged from the glam-rock and punk of their youth just as M.I.A. did from her childhood soundtrack of '80s pop, hip-hop, and dancehall. (As Frischmann was fond of saying on The Menace press circuit, "I’m a music lover first and a music maker second.") In The Menace’s opening seconds, as a shock of video game-generated machine-gun blasts kicks "Mad Dog" into gear, we receive a distant early warning of the blitzkrieg beats, pirate-radio patina, and militaristic themes that would become M.I.A.’s signatures. (And while Elastica shied away from political statements, it’s worth noting that, as of 2000, Frischmann was showing up for interviews in army jackets.) Had Elastica continued to indulge their burgeoning interests in hip-hop and electronica into the chaos of the mid-2000s, it’s quite possible they could have produced a third album that sounded something like Arular. In effect, M.I.A.’s ascent mirrored that of Elastica’s: an insurrectionary, feminist force shaking up the established pop order of the day. But in a post-9/11, post-WiFi world, the soundtrack to Cool Britannia would be replaced by a sonic analogue to the War on Terror, with Frischmann’s sneer transmogrifying into M.I.A.’s flipped bird.
M.I.A. wasn’t the first artist to break out through the web, but she felt like the first cast in its image. Her music sounded like what broadband felt like: digitally driven, frantically paced, globally encompassing, and sensory overloaded; her contentious conflation of war-machine imagery and MC braggadocio ("I’ve got the bombs to make you blow/ I’ve got the beats to make you bang") fused the political with the playful like a Facebook feed spitting out ISIS execution videos and Buzzfeed quizzes right on top of one another. The cover of Arular, meanwhile, is practically a proto-Tumblr, its crazy-quilt collage of loud colors, repeated patterns, military iconography, and cartoon weaponry exuding all the convulsive energy of a GIF, even in static form. M.I.A.’s emergence was also perfectly timed to punctuate a moment when the Return-of-Rock narrative of the early 2000s was—again, thanks to the Internet—ceding to a more poptimist, internationalist outlook; instead of centering on the next garage-rock savior, the conversation shifted to grime and reggaeton and Congotronics and baile funk.
Some of those sounds came into vogue largely thanks to Hollertronix mash-up master Diplo, who provided American clubbers with vicarious visits to Rio shantytown throwdowns via his Favela on Blast mix series—and who would eventually usurp Frischmann as M.I.A.’s chief sounding board (en route to a brief romantic relationship between the two). Inspired by the Internet’s lawless nature and frustrated by the sample-clearance issues that would delay the release of Arular until early 2005, M.I.A. practically upstaged her major-label debut by dropping Piracy Funds Terrorism, a mixtape collaboration with Diplo, in late 2004. Naturally, with its faux-fear-mongering title doubling as a dare, the mix spread like wildfire online. Beyond serving as the movie trailer to Arular’s main attraction, Piracy placed M.I.A. in her proper context, filtering various Arular-bound tracks through everything from baile funk and the Bangles to reggaeton and "Big Pimpin’", portending both artists’ future underground-to-mainstream crossovers.
The M.I.A./Diplo match-up on Piracy proved so potent, in fact, that the two remain inextricably linked, even though Diplo’s production credits across M.I.A.’s four official records to date have amounted to just seven tracks. No matter how dramatically the pop-music landscape transformed between 1995 and 2005, M.I.A. would go on to find herself in the same position Frischmann was in during Elastica’s heyday—having to prove her worth to skeptics who assumed she was riding the coattails of a famous boyfriend. Frischmann’s eventual response to dealing with a meddlesome, presumptuous media was to turn her back on stardom completely; M.I.A., meanwhile, embraced, shall we say, more colorful methods of fact-checking. Thanks to that never-surrendo spirit, M.I.A. has stuck in the game long enough to enter the realm of Madonna-approved, Super Bowl-level celebrity; Frischmann, by contrast, currently enjoys a quiet life in suburban San Francisco as an abstract painter. The aspiring visual artist is now a pop star, and the pop star is now an aspiring visual artist. The correction is made.
A1 “Boom Boom Boom”
It’s a school night in 1987, sometime after dinner but before bed, and I’m crouched over my cassette deck, ready to record songs from 103.7 Kiss-FM’s “Top 8 at 8” pop countdown. I’ve already dubbed the likes of the Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi, and U2 onto my young tween mind, in addition to Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and Club Nouveau—and my fingers are hovering over the record and pause buttons in anticipation. It’s that peculiar moment as a nascent music fan, before sounds begin to stratify, when there’s little to differentiate hip-hop from hair metal, or synth-pop from college rock. There’s but one criterion: Does this song sound “cool”? Or maybe more accurately: Will the very act of listening to this song make me feel “cool” the next day on the basketball courts?
Slotted somewhere amid such hits one night was a song featuring the chintziest of keyboards, the most tuna-can-like drum machines, and a chorus so idiotic that it made my prepubescent mind think: “If this is about sex, sex sounds stupid.” This song was so not cool. In the deepest, most dramatic register imaginable, singer Paul Lekakis intoned: “Boom boom boom/ Let’s go back to my room/ So we can do it all night/ And you can make me feel right.” It was as dumb as chewing gum and it stuck to my mind every time I came in contact with it on the radio, its tackiness inescapable.
Only some years later did I even see the single's cover and glimpse this Lothario: Chiseled and sporting an asymmetrical haircut, there stood Lekakis with a pink fluorescent shaft in his hands. Despite being Greek, Lekakis was my first encounter with the musical genre known as Italo, that oft-maligned bastard child of Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone, and Patrick Cowley, a Mediterranean mélange of disco, new wave, hi-NRG, and ESL-pop. So while Italo was a reflection of the pop music of its era, it was also a little cracked. “It felt like it was coming out of some mirror world where everything was slightly off-kilter, especially with its mangled English,” says producer and Italo enthusiast Eddie Ruscha, who records as Secret Circuit.
Though most actual Italians disowned the genre—“I have friends who grew up in Italy at that time, and it was forbidden to like the stuff,” adds Ruscha—and Italo songs rarely charted in the States or in the UK, its influence can still be felt far away from Europe.
“Chicago House music, Detroit Techno, and Miami Freestyle were all influenced by Italo,” says Josh Cheon, whose Dark Entries imprint has reissued classic Italo tracks like Charlie’s “Spacer Woman” and Helen’s “Witch”. Metro Area co-founder Morgan Geist concurs: “Jamie Principle’s ‘Your Love’ is cited as a seminal house music track, but it clearly jacks ‘Feels Good’ by Electra, one of my favorite Italo tracks ever.”
A2 “Feel Italo Round”
Like chest hair poking through a silk shirt, you can see Italo almost anywhere. That’s Gary Low’s speedy “I Want You” slowed down to a chillwave crawl on Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around”, now best known as the “Portlandia” theme song. In 2013, you could hear Umberto Tozzi’s hammy “Gloria” both in the Chilean drama Gloria and in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The likes of New Order, Erasure, and Pet Shop Boys have always been shameless fans of the form, and Italo’s paternity extends to the mannequin incantations of Glass Candy and Chromatics, as well as any new coldwave act. It’s in the cheesy synth progressions of Todd Terje, the wiggling productions of Metro Area and LCD Soundsystem, and even the by-turns giddy and melancholic sides of Daft Punk—which is no surprise, since their Chicago forebears like DJ Pierre loved Italo, too.
In the past year, a handful of labels have been reissuing some of Italo’s most precious and pricey singles. In addition to Dark Entries, there’s also Italian DJ Manu Dall'Erba’s Archeo Recordings, which has re-released rarities like Tony Esposito’s Balearic classic “Je-Na’” and the Ron Hardy-approved “Radio Rap”. The perhaps not-legal Archivio Fonografico Moderno pressed up some of Italo’s most beguiling oddities, from Mr. Master’s fidgety “A Dog in the Night” to the stunning “Stop” by B.W.H. In a few months, Anthology Recordings will reissue Black Devil's 1978 maniacal Italo masterpiece Disco Club, an EP so ageless that when Richard D. James first reissued it on his Rephlex label in 2004, people assumed it was yet another Aphex Twin pseudonym.
B1 “La Voce”
In the 21st century, Italo began to make inroads from pariah to acceptability, thanks to a few crucial compilations like Dutch DJ Ferenc E. van der Sluijs’ epochal Mixed Up in the Hague as I-F, which connected the dots between disco, electro, and techno via Italo. “I have to give credit to Mixed Up in the Hague being a gateway,” says Morgan Geist, who would release his own mix of Italo guilty pleasures, Unclassics, in 2005. “But it’s frustrating, because I heard Ferenc got most of his stuff from a distro in Chicago that I used to buy from. Why couldn’t have I made Mixed Up in the Hague? Because I’m not as cool as Ferenc.”
Dark Entries’ Cheon credits another turn-of-the-century Italo comp for introducing him to the Marzipan-flavored pleasures of the genre. “I was the music director at my college radio station and I reviewed the I-Robots compilation in 2004,” he says. “It contained mostly instrumental versions of many Italo Disco classics and I loved them. Little did I know I was missing a key element to the genre: The vocals.”
And where would Italo be without those vocals? Operatic, halting, and cardboard-like, sexy to the point of being creepy, bizarre, robotic, histrionic, sleazy, utterly baffling. Any DJ can find gold on those instrumentals, with their dizzying Korg lines, busy arpeggios, and flanged drums, but it takes a certain level of tolerance to get into those vocals. “At first I would pretty much just play the instrumentals because the vocals were so cheesy and wrong,” Ruscha says. “But when you start to get into Italo, you start accepting the vocals more, and then you actually want to listen to them.”
No matter the Italo track, there’s always a veil of mystery that might never be pierced. Even after hearing “Stop” more than a hundred times, I still don’t believe I’ve ever made out a single coherent word beyond “don’t be thinking about me.” Is the singer of Evo’s “Din-Don” mocking Chinese, or just a doorbell? And what the fuck is going on in Blackway’s “New Life”?
More questions abound: Why would Big Ben Tribe decide that the world needed to know what Tarzan’s favorite season was? Who knew Italians were keen on rap from the start, as on Plastic Mode’s “Baja Imperial”, Marzio Dance D.J.’s “Rap-O-Hush”, and Radio Band’s “Radio Rap”? When multiple voices enter into the Italo equation, they become exponentially stranger. Expansives’ flanged-out “Life With You...” seems to offer a duet between a parallel-dimension Bee Gees’ falsetto and a vocoder. On Gaznevada’s “I.C. Love Affair,” there’s the sexiest utterance possible of the number “77”, but then it’s conjoined with a jerky guy’s voice that sounds like an Italian rip-off of “Two Wild & Crazy Guys”.
Who on earth ever thought that these were good ideas for songs, or that they could become a hits? And why, ill-fitting as it is, do I still find some of these strange songs stuck in my head? There will always be something a bit off about Italo but that might be what makes it so pliant, so resilient. It’s failures become its strengths. Its sexiness is like a mannequin posed for a hug, its futurism like a cyborg soaked in seawater, trying to pass as human.
B2 “Medley Mega-Mix” (DJs Select Their Favorite Italo Tracks)
Capricorn: “I Need Love (Instrumental)”
Archeo Recordings’ DJ Manu
Gazebo: "Lunatic (12" mix)"
Clio: "Faces (extended 12" version)"
RAF: "Self Control (12" mix)"
Cube: "Somebody Told Me"
Gaznevada: "Special Agent Man (12" female version)"
Listen to a playlist of Italo Disco classics:
There’s an approximate 100% probability that any living human over the age of, say, 25 has some sort of specific Madonna-related memory. Perhaps you slow danced to “Crazy for You” at a high school prom, memorized the “Vogue” choreography in your dorm room, warbled out “Express Yourself” at a bachelorette party, had a dancefloor epiphany to “Ray of Light”, or fumbled through some sexual experimentation with Erotica throbbing in the background. Perhaps, like me, you grew up worshipping at the altar of “Into the Groove”-era Madonna and quietly contemplated your own burgeoning sexuality after obsessively viewing Truth or Dare around five million times. Even if you aren’t a super fan—or even a fan at all—there’s no escaping Madonna. She is everywhere.
It is not hyperbole to say that Madonna profoundly influenced the ways in which an entire generation of young people thought about music, fashion, and—in particular—sex. She was one of the first celebrities of her time to advocate on behalf of gay people and speak openly about AIDS. She was a provocateur of the highest order, even when it wasn’t necessarily in her best interest. (Go back and watch some of the now quaint-seeming news coverage regarding the release of her 1992 Sex book just to have a laugh at how radically the cultural landscape has—and hasn’t—changed). She has also sold over 300 million records. These are all good reasons to talk about Madonna, but they still aren’t the most important reason: She essentially built the house that everyone else—Britney, Beyoncé, Nicki, Gaga, Sky, Rihanna, Katy, Ariana, even Kanye—all now get to call home. She devised the archetype of pop stardom as we know and understand it today. And, with the exception of Michael Jackson—the King of Pop to her Queen—Madonna’s enduring impact on popular culture remains pretty much unequaled.
But what does Madonna mean in 2015? And what does being Madonna mean in 2015? It’s not an easy subject to unpack. It’s also a question that Madonna herself seems to struggle with. On her forthcoming 13th studio album, Rebel Heart, the 56-year-old pop paragon chooses to re-examine rather than simply reinvent. As a result, the 19-track opus is, in many ways, the entire Madonna mythology writ large—a record that vacillates between empowerment anthems, romantic missives, and the now-requisite assertions of complete and total dominance (see: “Bitch I’m Madonna”), with stops along the way to revisit her lifelong obsessions with sex and Catholicism.
As usual, Madonna’s knack for choosing of-the-moment collaborators remains in full-effect, and this time around the long list includes Diplo, Kanye, Avicii, DJ Dahi, Blood Diamonds, Ryan Tedder, Ariel Rechtshaid, Nicki Minaj, Nas, Chance the Rapper, and Mike Tyson. While this roster of talent makes for what is arguably the most all-over-the-place thing Madonna has ever released, it doesn’t stop her from also getting surprisingly personal. Tracks like “Joan of Arc”—in which she examines just how much being Madonna has cost her—and the title track are some of the most vulnerable self-examinations she has ever committed to record. Elsewhere, she swaps life stories with Nas on “Veni Vidi Vici”—a song in which she recalls her time as a “baby on the street” running wild on New York City's Lower East Side in the early ‘80s. For a record that is trying so hard to sound of-the-moment, Rebel Heart’s most interesting moments tend to be the ones where she drops the braggadocio and sex talk, and pauses to examine her own identity. For Madonna—an artist who has famously thrived on radical evolution—perhaps the most radical thing she can be at this point is herself.
Given her experience as one of the world’s most talked about human beings for the past 30 years or so, Madonna is—as one might imagine—a formidable interview subject. Sitting down to chat with her on a cold recent Friday night in Midtown Manhattan is both intimidating and surreal. It’s also really fun. Corseted, camera ready, and sporting a bejeweled Chanel whistle around her neck, Madonna is both friendly and forthcoming—just as happy to talk about art and poets like Anne Sexton and Mary Oliver as she is to talk about pop music. One might imagine that a sit-down with a celebrity of Madonna’s stature would involve a lot of preemptive stipulations, but the only real caveat I’m given regarding our discussion comes from Madonna herself. “If you ask me a question I think is stupid then you have to take a shot of this tequila,” she says, producing a bottle. “And if you ask me an amazing question, something that really sets me on fire, then I have to take a shot of tequila. Don’t worry though, this is really good tequila.” In the end, we both drink.
“When I think about popular culture now, I can’t help but think that we’re living in the age of loneliness. There’s this illusion that we all have instant access to each other, but we actually have no real connection.”
Pitchfork: You have worked in lots of different mediums—acting, directing, theater, philanthropy—but always come back to pop music as your primary means of expression.
Madonna: Yes, my home base—pop music and the Catholic Church.
Pitchfork: And sex.
M: [laughs] Yes. Why not? All three together, if possible.
Pitchfork: What makes pop music such a powerful medium for you?
M: It’s very primal. It’s also like poetry, when it’s good. I like that you have four minutes to zero in on something and evoke a specific feeling and take people on some sort of journey. When I discovered that I could write music, it felt like the most natural way for me to connect with people and tell my stories. I’ve always thought of that as what I do: I tell stories.
Pitchfork: I was really surprised by this new record. To be honest, I was also kind of relieved…
M: That you didn’t hate it? [laughs]
Pitchfork: Yes, actually. I mean, you never know…
M: Totally. That’s to be expected.
Pitchfork: This is your 13th studio album. Do you tend to go into the making of a record with a sense of what you want the record to be, or does that reveal itself as things unfold?
M: Generally I start by choosing producers to work with, which determines the direction the overall sound is going to go in. But this time around, my goal from the very beginning was just to write good songs that don’t require any production to be felt or understood. I wanted to be able to sit in a room with a guitar and play the song from beginning to end and have it be as impactful as if you heard the studio version with all the bells and whistles. In the beginning I was writing songs with Avicii, whom everyone associates with EDM, but I worked with his team of writers and everything was very simple—vocals and piano, vocals and guitar. It almost had a folk feeling to it.
It wasn’t until I got about halfway through the album that I started thinking about sounds, and that’s where Diplo came in. He started adding these monster beats and punch-you-in-the-stomach bass sounds and 808s like you’ve never heard before, and that pushed me in a certain direction. Then I looked at the songs I had that still didn’t have producers and started asking around for people I thought it would be fun to work with.
I wanted to work with a hip-hop producer, but not a conventional hip-hop producer, and DJ Dahi had worked on a Kendrick Lamar record that I really liked. Then [Diplo] brought Blood Diamonds into the picture, and I’d never heard of him before. It was like a train that started moving: Along the way, new people would get on while other people would get off for a while only to return again later. So not only was I the primary songwriter, but I was also the schedule keeper trying to manage the comings and goings of crazy DJs who all have ADD. [laughs]
Pitchfork: When I was listening to the record I started to make a division between the “party” songs and the “personal” songs—the party versus the personal…
M: Party versus funeral. [laughs]
Pitchfork: I found myself much more drawn to the personal songs.
M: Which song in particular?
Pitchfork: “Joan of Arc”, for example. Maybe it’s just because…
M: You feel like a martyred saint? [laughs]
Pitchfork: I was gonna say because I’m a 40-something gay dude—same thing. I was just drawn to the songs that seem to deal with getting older, making sense of things.
M: I can understand that.
Pitchfork: You’ve never been afraid to put yourself out there in terms of talking about provocative topics like sex or religion, but is it somehow scarier to talk about your personal, intimate feelings?
M: Hm. I think “scary” is probably the wrong word. You just have to be ready. You know, I just don’t ever want to sound like a victim, or like a person that is feeling sorry for themselves. However, I did want to share some aspects of my life experiences that were painful that I think people can relate to—especially in this age of social media where people can hide behind the Internet to say a lot of disparaging, hateful, discriminatory things to other people. It’s not that people got crazier or more hateful, it’s just that now people have the courage to say stuff without any fear. As much good as it does, social media can also encourage stupidity and degradation.
Do you know [‘60s poet] Anne Sexton? I worship her. She came up in a tough time, and she definitely wasn’t encouraged to be a poet or to speak her mind or reveal anything personal. When I made Truth or Dare, I got so much shit from people for everything, for allowing cameras to follow me around all the time. Can you imagine, in this day and age?
Pitchfork: Now everyone has a camera following them at all times.
M: When that movie came out I was constantly referencing this Anne Sexton poem called “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further”. She was given so much shit for being too personal in her work, but that poem is her way of saying, “Look, I don’t know how to do anything else.” That poem always gave me solace, especially at a time when everyone told me I was being crazy.
Pitchfork: I’ve talked to pop artists, like Miley or Sky Ferreira, who have clearly benefited from the doors that you opened during your career. But I’m always amazed by how many of the same battles you fought are still being fought by women in the music industry, whether it’s the shaming women receive from talking about their sexuality, or the lengths that critics will go to in order to not give women credit for their own work.
M: Sexism; you can’t be sexy and intelligent. It’s not allowed. Nothing has changed. I mean, it’s fine if you just wanna go out there and twerk, but the landscape is limited. If you try to embody too many different human aspects in your work, or if you have too many references, people get confused. I see a lot of people getting really pissed off at Miley because she kind of just acts like a dude—but if she were a dude, no one would say anything.
Pitchfork: The language people use is fascinating. For example, when people talk about your knack for collaborating with people at just the right time, it’s almost always described as "vampiric" or "calculated". But if you were a man, they would just describe it is as "savvy."
M: Oh yes. But if I were a man… oh, if I were a man. [laughs]
Pitchfork: “Veni Vidi Vici”—the new track with Nas—is also one of the most self-referential things you’ve recorded. How did that come to be?
M: Diplo was like, “You’ve had such a long career, you’ve been around so many decades, you should kind of do a rap—but not really rap—and talk about all of the things that you’ve done.” So I was like, “OK, good idea! I’ll try that.” Then I wanted to have a guest on the song, and I’ve always been a fan of Nas. I feel like he’s had a super interesting journey. Obviously, we have very different backgrounds—I’m from Michigan and he’s from Queens—but he’s survived a lot, too. I also just love the sound of his voice.
He was incredibly gracious when I asked him to do it. He just turned up one day all by himself—no bodyguards, no assistants, nothing—and listened to the track before saying, “Yes, I’m in. I’ll do it.” And now we’re friends and I really like him. He also came up at a time when I felt like rap music was peaking, back when the bulk of rappers were still talking about their real lives and reflecting on what was going on in society.
Pitchfork: It’s cool to hear you talk about your days in New York City in the early ‘80s on that song. I was thinking about you and that era when I saw a recent show of artist Greer Lankton’s work here in the city and there were these photos of people like David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, all of these major downtown people.
M: All of whom are no longer with us. [sighs] Don’t even get me started…
Pitchfork: It’s interesting to see how often you pop up as part of that scene—in Danceteria flyers, in David Wojnarowicz’s biography, photos of you and Keith. Do you feel nostalgia for that time?
M: Yes, I do, especially now. I think about Keith coming over and saying, “I heard you are doing a show at the Paradise Garage, I want to paint a costume for you. What are you wearing? Can I just paint on it?” And I’m like “Yes! For sure!” Or then to have Basquiat and Warhol come to the show and then everyone goes out afterwards and just talks about art. Or to go to Basquiat’s gallery and see his work and talk about it. I can’t even explain what an amazing time that was for all of us. We were all excited about each other’s work and jealous of each other’s work and cheering each other on. It was the beginning of something truly amazing—and then suddenly everyone died. All these amazing people just wiped out almost all at once.
Now I think about how artists come up and, well, there is no community, really. There’s social networking, but it’s not real connection between people. It just feels like pop culture is very separate from the art world now, whereas before they used to be one and the same.
Pitchfork: You don’t strike me as someone who trades in nostalgia.
M: No, but it feels like the right time to look back. You know, I got to hang out with William Burroughs. It’s crazy. I got to meet some amazing people, and those kinds of characters—that kind of art—just don’t exist anymore. Well, I’m sure it does, but it just doesn’t seem to be a part of youth culture. When I think about popular culture now, I can’t help but think that we’re living in the age of loneliness. There’s this illusion that we all have instant access to each other, but we actually have no real connection. You’re just…
Pitchfork: …alone at home staring at your phone.
M: Yes! Just think about a time when you actually had to leave your house and go get on the train and see somebody in person to interact with them. You had to go to their studio. You had these visceral experiences with people that actually involved a certain amount of planning and physical interaction, and those interactions have so much to do with the building of one’s character. I fear that we are getting further and further away from that. Also, I have teenaged children and I’m really seeing the world through their eyes. I’m thinking, “What a drag that they don’t really get to experience that.”
“I might be responsible for as
many gay marriages as I am
for heterosexual divorces.”
Pitchfork: What has inspired you recently in the realm of pop music?
M: To be honest, pop music isn’t exciting me too much right now. I mean, do you consider James Blake pop music? I love his music, some of his songs just kill me. He’s a great songwriter. It’s the kind of thing that makes me jealous, like, “Oh! I wish I’d made that!”
Pitchfork: You've talked about how having kids is like the best A&R, because they keep you up to date on what’s happening in the world.
M: Oh yeah, they’ve certainly turned me on to lots of great music.
Pitchfork: Are they harsh critics as well?
M: Yes. They’re like, “Please, Mom, no. Please stop. Oh, here she goes again…” And then I say, “Shut up, this is paying the bills!” [laughs]
Pitchfork: Two of your children are from Malawi, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the work you continue to do there.
M: Yes. My work there gives me a sense of purpose that I never really had before—it gives me a lot of joy, and it would be wonderful to invite other people to get involved. You witness extreme suffering but also extreme joy. I know it’s a cliche, but it really puts everything else in perspective. You just have to pour yourself a great big glass of “shut the fuck up” because you realize that you literally can’t complain about anything.
I love taking my kids there because not only does it stop them from ever complaining, it lets them become adults and takes them out of their comfort zone and they get to do this amazing work to help people. Being able to step outside of yourself in order to help someone else is why we’re all here, it’s what we should all be doing if we can. I don’t talk about this too much because I’m not in it so people can pat me on the back. Even when the former president there was trying to run me out of the country when we were trying to build schools and hospitals, it never stopped me, because I do this for love. It’s as important as anything I have ever done.
Pitchfork: You also really advocated for gay people—and talked openly about AIDS—at a time when not a lot of people were willing to do so.
Pitchfork: I appreciate that you’ve been so supportive of my people.
M: [laughs] Your people? My people.
Pitchfork: Are you surprised by how radically things have changed, particularly in respect to things like gay marriage?
M: Well, it’s about time. I’m not surprised really. There are too many powerful, intelligent voices in the gay community for things not to change. So, I’m happy and I’m relieved. I feel vindicated.
Watch a performance of "Vogue" from the 1990 VMAs:
Pitchfork: In preparation for this interview, I spent a lot of time watching lots of YouTube videos of your past performances…
M: Oh god, you must be so sick of me.
Pitchfork: Are you still excited about being on stage in front of people?
M: Yeah. I like coming up with these spectacular extravaganzas that will, hopefully, totally blow people away. But I also like the intimacy of stopping it all and sitting at the edge of the stage and connecting with individual people in the audience. Actually, I quite like the idea doing a different kind of tour—and don’t get any ideas because this is not gonna happen right now—where I would sing songs and play guitar and just have maybe one other musician out there with me; it’s just me and a guitar and a good bottle of wine. I could talk in between each song and tell stories, or do some of my stand-up comedy, which I’m actually quite good at. I love it when I see a stand-up comedian have some amazing back-and-forth dealing with a heckler in the audience. I could really have a field day with something like that. I don’t think you understand how funny I am—I mean, maybe not right now, but in general. I do some of my best stand-up comedy during sound checks.
Pitchfork: I always thought it might be frustrating how big stadium shows don’t allow for much spontaneity.
M: I actually always try to have a moment in my show where I can just lay down on stage and talk to people for a little while. Also, I like to fuck with people sometimes. [laughs] I might be responsible for as many gay marriages as I am for heterosexual divorces, because there have been circumstances where see couples in the audience and there is a husband sitting there with his arms crossed, looking bored out of his brain, while his wife is up on her feet dancing and having such a good time. I’ll stop the show and point them out and say, “Who’s that guy sitting down right now?” And she’ll reply, “Oh, he’s my husband.” And I say, “Divorce him—right now.” And then they do! Just kidding. I hope they don’t, really.
Pitchfork: Could you imagine a time when you wouldn’t want to tour or make records anymore?
M: This might be verging on a stupid question. [laughs] You might need to take a drink for that one. You know what, I’ll have a drink too. [pours tequila shots] Cheers! Here’s to a stupid question!
Pitchfork: Here’s to apparently never retiring!
M: Here’s to never retiring!
Photo by Tom Spray
Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with up-and-coming singer/songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr., whose debut album Goon is out March 17 via True Panther.
The Dumbest Thing I Bought Recently
I recently went to England to do some press and then I had to fly back to L.A. because I was a groomsman at an ex-girlfriend's wedding. And I needed a suit. And it’s almost impossible to find a suit that's not fitted when you're 6'7", like me. So I bought one that went just past my elbows for $300. People were like, "Where's the flood?" It was this ultra-skinny suit, too, so it was kinda like wearing a pair of tights. I'm not comfortable in really tight pants.
And at the wedding, the bride made me play a couple of covers, so I pulled "This Year’s Love" by David Gray out of my hat. I played another one with her husband, and then a house band played "Dancing in the Moonlight" and I took a verse: [sings] "We get it almost every night..." Everyone was probably just thinking, "Who does this guy in the tiny suit think he is?"
[instantly] Adele. Come on now. I haven’t met her but she tweeted the video for "How Could You, Babe". When I saw she did that, my hands got a little shaky and then I ran around my house like a 14-year-old girl. The video shot up at least 30,000 hits; I was used to getting 200 a year ago. If we ever did a duet of one of her songs, I’d take the verse, because there's no way I'd sing one of those choruses. It would just be disrespectful to anyone listening.
Favorite Cartoon Character
Porky Pig, for sure. I used to wear a t-shirt in the shower, which is kind of his look, too.
I was into "Serial" until it didn't get solved. I wanted it to be better than real life. And yeah, he fucking did it.
Dream Merch Table Item
I'd go with mint toothpicks, because I've been on those things for a while. It has nothing to do with being cool. They just taste good. You get used to having them. I'm addicted. I think the toothpick thing is maybe a little bit owned by Ryan Gosling, but he's probably chewing that flavorless recycled wood bullshit. I got the mint bamboo.
My dream tattoo is no tattoo. But I've given tattoos before. Actually, the first time I did a stick-and-poke, I did 13 in one night, and six of them were on the same guy. I started with a goat, because he already had a box on his leg and he was like, "What would stand on the box? What about a goat? They like to stand on things." I said, "OK, well let me draw it first with a pen." But he was like, "Don't draw it, just wing it." And man, this goat was jumping off his leg. It looked great. Then I progressed to a palm tree, some UFOs, a cutlery set. There was definitely alcohol involved.
My Karaoke Jam
Right now my jam is Sia’s "Chandelier", and if they had it at karaoke I'd go for it. It’s a hard one, but you’re not trying to sound the best you can with karaoke—you’re shooting for the moon. Those are the real memorable ones. The guys who go there every week and sing the same songs—that's the sad part of karaoke.
I had a dream I was serving coffee to a bunch of zoo animals and I was running out of coffee and they were all gonna kill me.
Easiest Money I've Ever Made
I was biking down the street and this woman cut me off real bad—it wasn't really an accident, but she rolled down her window a few inches and handed me $40 and said, "I'm sorry, I'm late for work!" and drove off.
Favorite Music Video
D'Angelo's "How Does It Feel"—but not in a sexual way. It was just one of those "oh my god" moments in culture. When I saw it I was like, "That's a real thing."
Bowling. I remember I went bowling one time when I was 18, and there was a sign that said, "Anyone who gets over 200 gets a free 24-pack of Coca-Cola." So I was like, "What, really?" And I swear to God I bowled a 212. I was on fire. So then I went up told the people at the desk, and they were like, "That's not possible." And I was like, "No, look!" So they came and checked it out and they were like, "We’ve never seen someone bowl over 200 with a house ball and shoes." It was my night. And I'm still talking about it.
Favorite Board Game
I was with the girls from Haim the other day, and they were telling me about a board game called Don't Wake Daddy. And based off the name alone, it sounds kinda wild. Apparently you roll a dice and then push a little button and Daddy might wake up at any point in time. And if he does, you're sent back to square one. Daddy don't like being woken up.
My Morning Routine
I usually get woken up by my managers, who I live with, around 8 a.m. I've always been a pretty early riser, but I really wanna be one of those people who wakes up at 4 a.m. and watches the sun rise—that would be the most productive way to work. History tells you all the greats, like Mozart and Beethoven, did that, but I can’t wake up that early, so I’m not a great.
What I'm Reading Right Now
My friend gave me a collection of Richard Brautigan’s novels, and I think he took some acid while writing some of them, because he sounds like a crazy fucking guy. But it's cool. I was sold by the back of the book, where one critic says, "Perhaps, when we're very old, people will write Brautigans, just as we now write novels." I was like, "Oh, OK."
Ewan McGregor. He’s got this reality show called "Long Way Round" with him and his buddies motorcycling around. I'm not interested in motorcycling or traveling, really, but I am interested in Ewan McGregor. He seems like a really cool dude.
Era of History I Would Want to Live In
I don't think I'd survive in any of them. And I'd get bored. And I couldn't deal with pre-antibiotic times.
It's gonna get me in trouble, but I've been on a Moscow Mule thing. I always wake up with the worst hangover, and I think I’m allergic to ginger beer because my cheeks and lips light up like a fucking Christmas tree. When I drink Moscow Mules I look like a drag queen, but it's delicious as hell!
Most Useful YouTube Tutorial
I learned how to peel a mango without getting my hands sticky. It requires one glass and a mango and a knife, and I swear to God, my hands were dry.
Toronto contains multitudes: rivers of asphalt underneath a rapidly expanding skyline, old neighborhoods increasingly run over by latte peddlers and yoga studios, an immense shoreline studded with beaches and bluffs, leafy avenues and massive suburban manors—all lit by a harmonious orange sodium glow. These are all views from the 6—a reference to two of the city’s area codes, 416 and 647—and scenes from a place that’s shaped the music and lyrics of Aubrey Drake Graham ever since he started rapping. For Drake, Toronto is more than a hometown. It’s a battleground, a kingdom, something worth fighting for and celebrating. With last month’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the 28-year-old takes his unofficial Toronto ambassadorship to unprecedented levels, offering ever-finer details on the characters, roads, and language that define his worldview.
His intense civic boosterism isn’t particularly novel in itself: Rappers have been writing love letters to their cities and building rose-colored landscapes in their music for decades, from Dr. Dre’s dispatches from the streets of Compton, to OutKast’s sketches of a colorful, creatively vibrant Atlanta. No MC has ever attempted to play tourism director on such a grand scale for Toronto, a city more renowned for its hockey players and indie rock collectives, but Drake’s mission is proving to be a success. Rappers and producers from the 6 are getting more attention, and a new generation of artists now have a career to emulate and a legend to chase. His mythological Toronto is a metropolis where everyone knows your name and exes are always lurking around the corner, a forest of penthouses with a panoramic view, a park-studded playground where the skies are free of ambient light and the highways are always clear. Like many hip-hop locales, it’s a city closer to the realm of theory—and fantasy—than reality.
That’s an important distinction, because the real Toronto has problems just like any other city: rising inequality, a budget that’s tougher to wrangle every year, infrastructure deficits and transit planning woes, and an identity crisis that’s bubbled beneath its surface for almost two decades. But Drake’s music puts forth a version of Toronto that transcends these headaches—a version of the city at its best.
Drake’s lyrical relationship with his city has shifted and grown over the years. On mixtapes like 2009’s So Far Gone and his debut album, Thank Me Later, his interactions with Toronto were vague and distant; any references to the city were typically oblique, and couched in either regret or nostalgia. On the woozy “Karaoke”, he tells a possible girlfriend back home, “Things have been so crazy and hectic/ I should’ve gotten back by now/ But you know how much I wanted to make it.” At the time, Drake was fighting for credibility and clout, spending time away from Toronto and working to achieve some semblance of legitimacy as a nakedly emotional and insecure lover in a genre full of street-wise fighters. He was willing to proclaim himself the city’s savior and leading light, but those proclamations were risky; had his early releases failed to impact the industry in any considerable way, lines like, “Shout out to my city, though I hardly be in town/ I’m the black sheep, but Chris Farley wears the crown” would have seemed laughable—or, perhaps more accurately, even more laughable. He didn’t yet have the power or profile to turn Toronto into his full-time base of operations, and he was still in his early 20s, drunk on experience, soaking up the rest of the world.
His approach to the city hadn’t changed much by 2011’s Take Care, an album intent on making a grand statement; it still didn’t make sense to look back on his roots when there was still so much work to be done. He was more reflective and nuanced when evaluating old relationships and ties to his family, but that newfound subtlety didn’t show up in any geographical sense until the album’s closing valedictorian speech, “The Ride”. But even then, the only locales that merited a mention were producer Noah “40” Shebib’s West End studio and Toronto Pearson International Airport, the gateway to his quest to reach a new, more rarefied level.
Drake’s shift towards more overt self-mythologizing began in earnest with Nothing Was the Same, which found the rapper reckoning with the ramifications of being on top. His incredible success inspired some real reflection, and you can hear him looking back at the path it took to get there; the writing is more autobiographical than aspirational. The record opens with “Tuscan Leather”, which tucks in a reference to a “shorty up on Glengrove who love when I catch my tempo”—a tiny detail (and a relatively tiny Toronto avenue) that adds another piece to his world of sound. The album ends up rich with callouts to cities all over North America—from Houston to Atlanta, Miami to Memphis, cities that shaped his sound and served as home, if only for a little while—but it’s rich enough with Toronto-specific content to make clear which neighborhoods matter most: his midtown Forest Hill home, his stomping grounds in the suburban wilds of eastern Scarborough, the downtown restaurants he frequented once he had some money to spend.
This trend toward more intense rumination continues with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, itself a spiritual sequel to Nothing Was the Same: Drake is still on top, but he’s been rendered increasingly hardened and paranoid by the altitude. He’s more interested in looking back than ever. The tape is full of non-geographic Toronto-isms—characters like his before-fame friends and ominous heavies, accents ripped from the city’s Caribbean and African communities, reigning Raptors fan favorites like unrepentant gunner Lou Williams, dozens of references to “the 6”—but specific places show up along the way too. There were those hard times in the diverse, sprawling suburbs of Etobicoke, more friends in Scarborough, new haunts downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods like condo paradise CityPlace. More than a half-decade removed from So Far Gone, Drake has experienced a considerable amount of maturation, and you can hear it in his increased nostalgia, his wearier self-examination, his greater focus on building a personal narrative. Think about how your hometown seems to change as you get older, even as the buildings and streets stay the same. Those sudden shifts in perspective are tough to render musically, but they’re right there in Drake’s tale of what it feels like to leave a city a pauper and return a conquering king.
The Toronto that exists in Drake’s discography has significance that transcends the personal. It’s a version of the city that’s truly unified under one banner, something its political and cultural leaders have struggled to accomplish. And to fully understanding the importance of Drake’s vision of his hometown, a little bit of background regarding the city’s political and urban history is necessary.
The gargantuan municipality now known as Toronto was once a collection of six greatly varied smaller cities: Toronto, the three Yorks (York, North York, and East York), Etobicoke, and Scarborough. Each of these municipalities was radically different and unique, from the old city of Toronto’s hyper-density and signature streetcar network, to the bucolic suburban landscapes and car-based planning of Etobicoke and Scarborough. And despite tremendous opposition from the residents and politicians who represented these separate municipalities, they were fused into one—the new Toronto, now the fourth most populous city in North America—on the first day of 1998.
If the city’s residents were so opposed to coming together, why did it happen? The answer lies with the reigning provincial government of the time, a fiscally conservative regime that pushed through a series of divisive amalgamations across Ontario in an attempt to shave costs. This had a major effect on Toronto’s governance: Whereas some decisions were once made by individual municipalities, they now had to be agreed upon by a massive council of representatives, many of whom had drastically different ideas about how the new city should be run.
Drake grew up in Forest Hill, a boundary zone in the upper corner of the old city of Toronto bordering York and North York; the skyline wasn’t far away, but the suburb was downright pastoral compared to gritty inner-city neighborhoods like Regent Park. He was 11 when the old cities were forced together, and within his movement patterns you can see the paths of a post-amalgamation life: A childhood split between Etobicoke and midtown, a group of friends halfway across the city in Scarborough, a move to downtown’s hot spots and condos once he was old enough to get into clubs.
While he was beginning to bounce between municipalities as a teenager, years of rapid, sprawling expansion were beginning to yield cracks and crevices in the city’s infrastructure and planning, and Toronto started to invert. After years of middle-class and wealthy migration to increasingly far-flung suburbs, the city’s center of wealth began to move back downtown, with gentrifiers recolonizing its core. Corresponding rises in land values pushed lower-class residents into the inner suburbs like Etobicoke and Scarborough and North York, while the middle-class moved further out to bedroom communities like Vaughan and Mississauga.
Unfortunately, those inner suburbs now occupied by droves of lower-class Torontonians—many of whom were, and are, recent immigrants and/or people of color—were originally designed for use by a car-owning middle class. (This trend towards outward migration was already beginning to develop when the city was amalgamated, and has only accelerated since.) To make matters worse, the new residents of these areas were hit especially hard by poor transit and connectivity; they lacked the essential tools for which their neighborhoods were designed. Combined with the increasing money and power held downtown and the expanding inequality that’s affected every other North American city this century, class- and geographically-based resentment started to take root throughout Toronto.
People living downtown couldn't fathom the difficulties of living anywhere north of Bloor Street, a longstanding separation marker, and found themselves struggling with their own traffic and density problems; people living anywhere else cursed the rich, latte-sipping elite who were demanding new condos and downtown transit lines while they waited for packed, irregular buses. This wave of urban/suburban division has been the not-so-hidden dynamic powering the last few Toronto civic elections, and was in fact the very force that propelled international laughingstock Rob Ford to victory in 2010: He was able to amplify the anger of people living in the suburbs and give voice to their frustration with the so-called downtown elite.
Tackling issues of widening inequality and crumbling infrastructure while trying to keep the city united in the face of a neighborhood-based resentment that’s becoming generational are all real problems for Toronto that will affect many of the biggest decisions the city will face over the next few decades. But the version of Toronto that lives in Drake’s music and lyrics is a city divorced from these quandaries—it’s a city where the boundaries separating each former municipality, and resident from resident, are blurring into non-existence. This is why Drake is the ideal ambassador for a new Toronto: He’s a reflection of its idealized form—a form that has yet to truly bloom in any meaningful political or sociological way yet. Kids from all over the city can find a piece of themselves in his music, or a location they recognize, and his songs express a love for the city as a unified whole, rather than discrete parts. When he celebrates the power of the 6, he’s talking about more than a specific neighborhood: From Rexdale to the Bluffs, from the Zoo to Long Branch, that one number encompasses nearly every inch of Toronto. The purity of his affection for the city can touch anyone who’s ever known what it’s meant to call somewhere home.
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is not happy with our conversation. On an overcast January day in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, where the snow is piled in mountains of stained white and the sidewalks are caked in rutted slicks of ice, we sit on a couch in his unadorned apartment for an hour and a half, mostly talking about his personal history.
We speak about his childhood, which was split between New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico. We discuss his parents, who attended seminary before becoming renowned marriage counselors and best-selling self-help authors. And we explore how his band, Liturgy, went from a depressive, Ivy League dorm-room solo project, to the lightning rod of the heavy metal community, to a group that broke up after two albums only to reappear with this month’s confrontational, confounding The Ark Work.
He has been generally forthcoming, too. He tells me that it was painful to be called “faggot,” “hipster faggot,” “hipster scum,” and “scum” because of the music he made. He was sad when Greg Fox—Liturgy’s drummer and one of Hunt-Hendrix’s best friends since middle school—bailed on the group soon after the release of their 2011 breakthrough, Aesthethica. But after an hour, his voice starts to soften mid-sentence, as if he’s revealed too much. He then springs from the couch and paces near the entrance to his kitchen.
“That got kind of like ‘Behind the Music’, didn’t it?” he says. He glances up furtively, his pronounced, arching eyebrows pointing like arrows toward his ears. His left hand fidgets near the corner of his mouth. He pulls a sheet of paper from the refrigerator, strides across the room, and yanks another from above his stereo: “This is the stuff that I really like to talk about,” he pronounces, delivering both to me.
The pages contain dual diagrams that are also included in The Ark Work’s liner notes. The first is an elongated pentagon populated by rays and lines, arches and pyramids. The topmost side of the shield blares “Sovereign Hierarchico-Emancipatory Individuation Municipality” in all capital letters. The second diagram surrounds a shape that suggests the directional pad of a Super Nintendo controller with a triangle made of arrows—philosophy feeds into art, which feeds into music, which feeds back into philosophy, ad infinitum. I tell him to text me the images so we can talk about them the following day.
He says OK and smiles.
This is the duality of Liturgy, a gripping rock band with a contentious history and a frontman who mostly wants to talk about philosophy. They emerged as a nominal black metal band from Brooklyn around the turn of the decade, eventually becoming both the bête noire of and boon for the scene into which they were shoved. They have been labeled complete posers, pretentious assholes, and powerful musicians—sometimes all in the same breath. They played at Metallica’s gargantuan Orion Festival in 2012 while fielding threats of violence from heavy-metal lifer Jeff Tandy, who went so far as to start a Facebook group called “Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, come fight me.”
That polarizing nature eventually split the band at its seams; mere months after releasing Aesthethica, the quartet that made it broke up, with Hunt-Hendrix and guitarist Bernard Gann continuing as Liturgy while drummer Greg Fox and bassist Tyler Dusenbury pursued projects of their own.
But after Hunt-Hendrix, 30, worked to “grow up and be more right with the world”—and the rest of the band learned to cope with the singer/guitarist/theorist getting most of the hate and love for Liturgy—the foursome reunited last year to record The Ark Work. If the first two Liturgy albums were flash points, this one is an open flame. A dense mix of breathing blast beats, triumphant horns, mallet-driven percussion, incantatory singing, piercing bagpipes, and rapid-fire rapping, the album attempts to answer questions about a genre that no one really thought to ask.
“There is an ethic to this: I want to make people uncomfortable,” Hunt-Hendrix admits. “And I believe I have a task to make people question their identifications with a culture.”
This habit became apparent several months after Liturgy issued its debut LP, Renihilation, in 2009, when the frontman delivered a nebulous philosophical treatise on the failures and promises of black metal, titled “Transcendental Black Metal”, at a symposium of theories about the genre. “Transcendental Black Metal is the reanimation of the form of black metal with a new soul, a soul full of chaos, frenzy and ecstasy,” read the essay, which disparaged the nihilism of the genre’s forebears and looked for techniques to overcome it.
As the young band built momentum during the next two years, the paper seemed only to accrete infamy: Veteran musicians penned open letters; message boards became Liturgy stomping grounds; anonymous commenters turned blog posts into virtual gallows. By the time Aesthethica arrived, liking Liturgy equated either to endorsing Hunt-Hendrix’s ideas or apologizing in advance for enjoying the quartet’s music.
“I was taken aback that it existed,” says Tyler Dusenbury, thinking back to the manifesto. At 28, the bassist is Liturgy’s youngest member. “I’ve always been of the admittedly juvenile mindset of ‘shut up and play.’ I wasn’t eager to process more about this band at that point—I just wanted to play this killer fucking music.”
Dusenbury epitomizes Liturgy’s contradictions. Sitting on the patio of Williamsburg bar and rock club Union Pool as the winter wind whips a temporary plastic roof overhead, he speaks of tea, being Jewish, and reading the new-age bible Prometheus Rising. He is the band’s most conversational and candid member, someone who talks about his fiancée as if you’ve known her for years.
After Dusenbury graduated from Bard College in Upstate New York, where he’d studied religion and played in bands with Fox and Gann, Fox asked him to join a new black metal act in Brooklyn. The bassist had listened to a little Burzum and Bathory, read (and laughed) at the scene’s history in Lords of Chaos, and even participated in college art projects that involved the application of corpse paint, so the role sounded like fun.
But as the band’s musical chemistry began to earn wider attention, the external focus on the quartet started to shift from the music they made to the manifesto and the fair-faced frontman who wrote it.
“Suddenly, it was like there was a fifth member, which was everything else around us—so when I interacted with anyone else in the band, I became so aware of the shit-talkers, the trolls, and the stuff that I assumed would happen,” Dusenbury says. “But now, I very much appreciate that there is someone who is thinking about this as more than a rock band, and I would like to be part of that for as long as we can make it happen.”
“I wanted to make the most
important thing possible—
to invent a new philosophy
that goes with a new music
and a new way of making
art and living life.”
Sitting in a quiet hallway just outside of a coffee shop near his apartment the day after our first interview, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix looks cheerful. We’re digging into the philosophy behind Liturgy, and his voice is louder, his cadence quicker. Where he was pushing back into couch cushions yesterday, he now leans across the table toward me. He talks about the overload and confusion of modernity, how infinite access can be paralyzing.
“I wanted to make this record that I was very scared to make,” he says. That led him to intertwining music, art, and philosophy more intensely. It’s an attempt, he insists, to authentically create, or follow an impulse. “It’s kind of like living in faith,” he says. To that end, the first two Liturgy albums were equivocal half-measures. The Ark Work is not.
“It does not backpedal,” he continues. “I was never happy with any other Liturgy release. I didn’t want to release them. But the aim with this one was to take that musical vibe and execute it all the way—and I love it.”
For Hunt-Hendrix, this newfound confidence begins with those diagrams, where each vertex of a triangle, for instance, enables the other: Music shatters expectations to push a listener out of a shell, like a butterfly drawn from a chrysalis. People are then open to alien ideas and philosophical notions that they never considered, paving the way for new frameworks of thinking and creating; then, in an effort to enact and defend those thoughts in the real world, they make art, aiming to weave these concepts into culture at large. He calls this scheme The Perichoresis of Music, Art, and Philosophy. The second diagram offers a self-contained world populated by characters and systems, a self-made mythology full of imagined words and phrases from all three Liturgy records: The Prismatic City of Aesthethica, Kel Valhaal, Reign Array.
“The album is not about this cosmology, but by developing this cosmology, I was able to make the album,” he says. “I didn’t make a record that tells a story; it’s a story that tells a record. I wanted to make the most important thing possible—to invent a new philosophy that goes with a new music and a new way of making art and living life.”
I ask him if he ever talks to his band about these ideas, acting as Liturgy’s professor-at-large.
“Dr. Hunt-Hendrix? No, no, it’s not that,” he says, looking up from the table and doubling over with laughter. “They’ve seen the diagrams, but what I talk to the band about is the music. I’m not representing the point of view of anyone in the band. They play the music, and I’m very grateful that they’re such great musicians.”
But until early last year, Hunt-Hendrix didn’t know if he’d record with this four-piece iteration of Liturgy ever again. In late 2011, after Fox and Dusenbury left the band, he started writing, developing the philosophical schematics that he likes to talk about while building new songs. He wasn’t sure that they would shape an album, necessarily; at one point, he thought they could turn into a film or an opera.
In the past, he wrote songs with guitars and keyboards and steadily built structures that he would deliver to the band. But when he began writing The Ark Work, he didn’t concern himself with how he would recreate this music live, or if he would even need to. In the hiatus that followed Aesthethica, he learned the production program Ableton Live, allowing him to manipulate arrangements wholesale, from tempo to texture. On Liturgy’s previous records, digital electronics and pitched percussion appeared mostly in introductions and interludes, but this time Hunt-Hendrix set out to integrate those elements into the songs themselves.
The idea was to apply the customary techniques of black metal—explosive blast beats, sprinting tremolo guitars, tidal momentum surges—to a new toolkit. He downloaded a set of bagpipe fragments (“It was perfect,” he says, laughing as if still surprised) and started experimenting with sampling and re-sampling whole tracks at a time, producing frantic electronic glitches. Influenced by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Three 6 Mafia, and even a childhood fascination with Korn, he had also been recording raps at home by himself since 2010. With The Ark Work, he finally wanted to make all those unlikely elements yield to one another, to create something that showed no concern for who might hate it or how it might clash with what fans considered cool.
“There were so many judgments of the band flying around, and just remembering what we were trying to do was almost a spiritual practice,” he says. “So I thought, ‘What if we could find a way to join rap and metal together on different terms, to recombine them in a new way?’ I was interested in how crazy that idea sounded.”
As he continued to write, Hunt-Hendrix also started collaborating with potential rhythm section replacements, but the thought of letting new people into Liturgy’s sphere made the admitted introvert uncomfortable, especially given the external pressures surrounding the group. “We had unfinished business as a band,” Hunt-Hendrix says. “In a way, I wasn’t surprised when it fell back together. We’re like a family.”
The historic divides in Liturgy stem, in large part, from the force of Hunt-Hendrix’s ideas, not their content. Every member recognizes that the theories of his manifesto and the hubbub that ensued worked both ways for the band, generating attention and notice while harboring negativity and personal attacks. But no one disagrees vehemently with the ideas themselves, if they have an opinion on them at all. Instead, the conflict came from the way they crowded out discourse about the actual music, as if Hunt-Hendrix were an intellectual frontman who had simply built some heavy metal automaton.
Although the principles that governed the band were Hunt-Hendrix’s own, and though he wrote most of the music, he understood he could only go so far by himself. Hunt-Hendrix admits that, then and now, the rapport he found with the quartet became essential to giving his philosophical arguments musical conviction. The rhythmic language he worked to develop with drummer Greg Fox in particular became one of the group’s trademarks. Still, for years, he struggled to make that point clear to everyone else.
“Hunter had all that stuff written, but we made those parts our own,” explains Fox. “It’s not like I’m just playing a backbeat. With this situation, by trying to achieve what the person is telling me they have in mind, I am co-creating.”
Fox, 29, possesses a carefully cultivated system of what he likes and demands from art. A true musical polyglot, he grew up in New York, shuttling between his divorced parents’ homes on opposite sides of Central Park. He took advantage of the city’s abundant culture by checking out jam bands at The Wetlands and, in 2002, being awed by Lightning Bolt’s combination of power and precision at a Brooklyn show.
Between high school and college, he took a job at the late Manny’s Music, a massive instrument store in Manhattan. He met drummers who introduced him to playing jungle and drum‘n’bass, which changed his technique and his commitment to rhythm; after heading off to Bard, he’d commute back to New York just to play in a band that did the stuff live, even opening for the rappers DMX and Styles P.
“I was really into that, but it seemed like a stylistic dead end,” Fox says. “There was nowhere to go with it—you couldn’t use it as a gesture to extend beyond itself.”
That lesson was an imperative one. Fox has been in at least a dozen bands since, and almost all of them share a dogged pursuit of fresh expressions using familiar tropes. After studying with free jazz legend Milford Graves, for instance, he began to use heart monitors to help plan drum patterns. And his instrumental trio Zs defy boundaries between electronic and acoustic, improvisation and composition, order and chaos.
For a few years, he found similar freedom in Liturgy; they made metal that was unexpected. But as Aesthethica thrust Hunt-Hendrix into a new cycle of debate that seemed to downplay the actual band’s involvement, the music’s excitement failed to counterbalance the situation’s increasing irritation. Liturgy’s momentum climbed, reaching a point of success about which Fox had only daydreamed—there was talk of shows with Diplo and a new music video—but he knew he had to make his exit before the schedule became too busy for him to back out. He wrote an email, played another tour, and left: “It was one of the most confounding experiences of my entire life, to finally make it in a band that I was stoked about but also feel like I needed to quit to preserve my sanity.”
Bernard Gann does not remember many details of his concussion. It might have happened in Tampa, Florida. He might have fallen flat onto the floor while partying late into the night with Diplo and Sleigh Bells. He does know, at least, that he had too much to drink.
“I woke up the next day with a skinned face,” he says, smiling about it now. “Two days later, we were playing, but I couldn’t physically play. I had a brain problem onstage.”
The accident came during what Gann refers to as an “unhinged” period—for himself, for Hunt-Hendrix, for Liturgy. It was early 2012, and this was their first tour as a duo, built largely around the Diplo shows that helped prompt Fox’s exit. But most of those crowds—some of the biggest he had ever seen—had no interest in the music Liturgy made.
With long, wavy brown hair and small, round glasses that seem to vanish into his long face, Gann is a calming, near-monastic presence. The son of composer and critic Kyle Gann, he, too, is a classically educated musician who grew up in rural Pennsylvania. When the guitarist was a kid, his parents divorced but remained in the same home, so he was used to acting as the neutral party. After Fox and Dusenbury left Liturgy, Gann played in separate bands with each of them before becoming the de facto anchor around which the whole group resurrected itself.
“It was a little awkward at first,” he admits. “There were a few sit-downs that needed to happen. A lot of the conversations were about how the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, and remembering that this thing is larger than all of us.”
The one time that I see all four bandmates together, they are in swimming trunks and toting long, white towels. They wander through the schvitzes and ice pools of the Wall Street Bath & Spa, an indulgent multi-floor facility in Manhattan’s Financial District. (Dusenbury introduced the band to this concept several years ago, and they’re now all avowed fans.) Each member moves at his own pace throughout the space, bumping into one another from time to time.
Though people are accustomed to Hunt-Hendrix speaking for Liturgy, he is the most reserved in the spa, choosing to listen and ask questions only when he feels like important information has gone missing. Watching them interact in this context, I begin to understand why no one member of Liturgy is content to let anyone else speak for the entire band: They each have distinct personalities, which are elicited—and perhaps exaggerated—by the extreme conditions of the surrounding furnaces and faucets.
Dusenbury, for instance, likes to sit still in a schvitz until he grows uncomfortable. He’ll grab a bucket of cold water, dump it over his head, whoop like a victorious athlete, and sit down again. “It’s truly my favorite place in the world,” he tells me. Gann, however, moves methodically between the chambers after mid-length stays in each. He exhales once, maybe twice, and then shuffles outside. Fox, meanwhile, flits between every room, as though he might miss the next opportunity for invigoration. He occasionally stands up, paces, and plops back down, restlessness slowly ceding to relaxation. “There is really something very important and essential to humanity that comes from sweating your ass off with friends [and] feeling like you might die from overheating,” he recently wrote in a love letter to schvitzes for The Talkhouse.
But then there is Hunt-Hendrix, who often sits upright with his eyes closed, breathing slowly and steadily. He pushes himself up from a bench and silently goes to another room, very rarely announcing his next move. Later, he intellectualizes the experience, telling me places like this play into his plan to be healthier and more agreeable in the future. In the last few years, he’s given up drugs, drinking, cigarettes—he even stopped drinking coffee in January. These spas, he suggests, are a way for Liturgy to go a little less crazy. “I’m older now,” he says. “I can go to a schvitz instead of staying up and partying until 6 a.m.”
After four hours sweating, shivering, and soaking, we all shower, bundle up, and head back out to New York’s ice-caked sidewalks. As we part ways, I remind Hunt-Hendrix to send me his diagrams once more.
He says OK, smiles, and walks off with his band.
The Mountain Goats, from left: Peter Hughes, John Darnielle, and Jon Wurster. Photo by Lissa Gotwals.
On its face, professional wrestling is fiction: When a guy in tights steps into the ring, he’s in character, and his actions are largely predetermined. But behind the choreography and the scripts, there’s a real person with real emotions. “One of the great things about wrestling is how it interrogates this silly idea that you have one authentic self,” says John Darnielle, whose new Mountain Goats album Beat the Champis entirely set in the world of headlocks and submission holds. “If you’re playacting, and somebody says something mean to you, that's gonna land on you. You don’t just sit there and go, ‘Oh, he wasn't actually talking to me.’”
Darnielle takes on a similar kind of duality in his role as songwriter. Even though his songs are works of fiction, the line between “character” and “author” can be blurry. “When I was younger I really resisted the idea that [songwriting] was autobiographical,” he says, “but now I think that no matter what you write, there's something of yourself in it.” So when he sings “I try to remember to write in the diary that my son gave me” on Champ’s “Southwestern Territory”, he’s in character as a wrestler—but peel back the facade and you’ll find some of Darnielle’s perspective, too. It’s a lot like how you can probably hear Roderick Toombs’ real-life emotions if you listen carefully to a “Rowdy” Roddy Piper monologue. “If I tell you a story about a man who plants some magic beans, you'll probably still get what my hopes and dreams would be out of that,” Darnielle says.
None of the characters on Beat the Champ hail from today’s modern wrestling climate, and Darnielle doesn’t actively follow the sport these days. ("I follow children around the house," he quips.) The album is largely set in wrestling’s territorial days—the pre-WWF period in the 1970s and ‘80s when professional wrestling was a local operation. "It was a glorious era, like before the major labels all consolidated," he says.
Darnielle grew up in Southern California, and when he flipped through Saturday morning and late-night TV, he would find wrestling broadcasts in both English and Spanish. There were local heroes and villains, along with guys like Andre the Giant, who would roll through town every now and then to leave fans like Darnielle in awe. "[Andre] comes walking in, and people just flock to him like he was a Messianic creature," he remembers of one live event. He actually shook the icon’s hand, too. "I remember this feeling, like my hand was vanishing in his—so cool."
A few of the album’s tracks are about specific people, like its lead single, "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero", which is an ode to Darnielle’s childhood hero. Meanwhile, "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan" tells the tragic story about Bruiser Brody’s murder, and "Luna" is about the 2010 fire that destroyed many of veteran female wrestler Luna Vachon’s possessions. But Beat the Champ isn't just filled with historical accounts of noteworthy wrestlers and uncomplicated glorification of spilled blood and broken bones. It’s an album that details the quiet moments before the fans pile into the arena, the late nights on the road, and the emotional wear that comes from getting heckled by strangers. "I loved you before I even ever knew what love was like," Darnielle sings in a song called "Hair Match". These are wrestling stories, for sure, but they’re also human stories.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like there's a level of autobiography in these songs?
John Darnielle: That's a complicated question. I think all writing is necessarily autobiographical to a greater or lesser extent, and the less it tries to be confessional, the more likely it is that you’re somehow sneaking the things you need to say in there. It's based on a method of dream interpretation: You can get really good reads on your dreams if you think of every character in them as actually being you.
Pitchfork: You mentioned that wrestling challenges the notion that a person has “one authentic self,” but the wrestling audience is only expected to be invested in the character that’s presented on TV.
JD: It’s like fiction—the fact that somebody's telling you a story about people who didn't exist doesn't make the experience of the story any less real in your heart and mind. You go through heavy emotional responses to these stories, and wrestling is a similar thing—but it's happening in real space. You're agreeing to this fiction for the purpose of living some very high emotions. It's a lot like old drama—the way drama was in Rome.
Do you know what the word "kayfabe" means?
Pitchfork: It’s presenting something that’s scripted or staged as though it’s real.
JD: Kayfabe is kind of a code. To break kayfabe is to let people know that the punch was not real and that the match was scripted. At this point, kayfabe is dead and everybody knows that this is dance more than contact. But back in the day, wrestlers were expected to keep up their character if they were seen in public. It was to the point where ["The Million Dollar Man"]Ted DiBiase was spending lots of money in public to keep up this appearance of a rich guy.
The song “Fire Editorial” is based on Ed Farhat, who had this character called the Sheik that was a crazed rich oil baron and he never once broke kayfabe. When you would talk to him, he would pretend he didn't speak English. He was in fact the son of Lebanese immigrants and the boss of the whole Michigan territory, but he pioneered this hardcore style—this brutal, knife-wielding, fire-throwing assault style. The wrestling magazines would print these editorials, like, "Somebody's gotta stop this guy!"
Pitchfork: There are parts of this record that focus on the quiet moments where kayfabe doesn't really matter because there aren't fans around.
JD: Yeah, but these wrestlers’ character informs the way they look at things; it's like they learn about the decisions they make through their characters. "Heel Turn 2" is about a person who's in a match and he's playing as though the match were real. But it is real! If you're standing in the middle of a ring and you're playing the villain, and everyone is booing and throwing things at you, that’s real.
Pitchfork: What was it about Chavo Guerrero that made you feel invested in him as a kid?
JD: Chavo was my hero. I never really felt anything like what I felt for wanting him to win and vanquish the evil villain. Every territory had its own belt, and he held the belt called “America's Title.” He was a local guy and he was greatly loved. He and his brother Hector would often tag team. Hector was the dreamboat of the two, but Chavo was the hero. He was the guy who would stand up and speak out. He would often rush the ring to attack a bad guy “off-script.” He really just seemed passionate about justice to me. [laughs] A very simple character who believed in what was right. Very anti-bullshit. He had an everyman feel. You felt like he was on your side. I didn't like the bad guys—I wanted them to get punished.
Pitchfork: "Foreign Object" is one of the more violent songs on the album, but musically, it sounds very joyful. Is that meant to mirror how bloodshed and weapons make a crowd go nuts?
JD: It's happy, but there’s also outrage. It's totally the case where as soon as the blood spills, something happens in the room, and you go [satisfied voice] "oh yeah." There's something primal about it. It's the same as the good feeling of getting hit. If you get into a fight and somebody punches you, you get two feelings. One: That really hurts. Two: That relief in the realness of, like, Wow, this is what it is. It's not an intellectual process. But in wrestling, people just throw each other around, possibly actually bleed, and are still friends in the locker room afterwards. But there’s a real glee—a feeling goes up in the arena, especially on non-TV days. If it's just people in a room and somebody starts to bleed, that's very exciting.
Pitchfork: Have you been in a fight?
JD: Sure. [pause] Look, when I talk about being hit—and I'm not trying to take this interview in this direction—I'm talking about being abused. There's this feeling when that happens. It is terrible, but the dread and anticipation and all that stuff goes away. It's like going through a bottleneck. It’s like, “Well, it sucks to be in the bottleneck, but on the other side of this, there’s quiet.” Not everybody relates to pain, but if you can watch other people playacting it, you can absorb some of that vibe. It's like watching horror movies—you want to have the experience, but in a safe environment.
Pitchfork: It seems like a lot of these lyrics and stories can be read a lot more broadly than being just about wrestling.
JD: Absolutely not! This is about wrestling! Man, you guys. [laughs] Nah, I'm kidding. What's funny is that people think, "Well there has to be something more than wrestling, because wrestling has such an absurd quality to it." But if you tell a love story, people don't ask what else is in there. They say, "Oh, it's just a love story." All stories have many levels, but these ones show their hand and say, "You might want to look a little deeper."
Why more and more artists are moving their shows away from sweaty clubs and into cozy living rooms
Damien Jurado leans back in a wooden chair, eyes closed, in the berber-carpeted basement of a ranch duplex in the Westwood neighborhood of Cincinnati. To his left, a swirly peace-sign banner covers part of the white cinderblock wall. To his right, beer-bellied friends of the homeowner teeter on stools next to a built-in bar. Red-and-green ceiling lights give the room a holiday glow even though it’s February. Occasionally, water flowing through the pipes overhead sounds like rain, but it’s too cold outside for that. And while the orange electronic flickers coming from the fireplace behind Jurado don’t provide any warmth, it’s a cozy spot nonetheless.
Jurado, who has released a mix of solemn and psych-tinged albums on Sub Pop and Secretly Canadian since the late ‘90s, is playing an unadorned tune called “Medication”. The song involves a narrator’s mentally ill brother, and he prefaces it by offering insight on how the recording came to be. “I would sit in a chair, like I am now, but with a microphone in front of me,” he tells the 50 or so people seated in front of him. “I never play this song live, by the way. If I’m in a crowded club, and it’s super noisy, and someone’s like, ‘Hey! Play that song “Medication”!’ I’m like, ‘This is not the right setting.’”
But as Jurado plays tonight, the only noises other than his voice and guitar are the occasional crack-pop of a beer can and the fussing of a baby girl who will not be appeased by breastfeeding. “Lord, do me a favor/ It’s wrong but I ask you/ Take my brother’s life,” he softly sings. “‘Cause he’s sick of the suffering/ The pills he’s inhaling/ The cross he is bearing/ That is his troubled mind.” There’s applause, prompting barks from the homeowner’s tiny dog, Jacque. When the clapping subsides, a fan sitting near the front wants to know more.
“Is it all autobiographical?” he asks Jurado.
“No, it’s fiction,” says the singer. “Every song I write is pretty much fiction.”
“There’s so much feeling to it…” the fan trails off, sounding a little disappointed. Jurado tries to reassure him. “They’re not my shoes, but I’m really trying to fit into those shoes,” he says. “I think that’s the feeling and emotion you hear.”
“When that record came out,” the fan responds, “my dad was like the brother in that song, and that was kind of my thought—take away his pain. I still don’t listen to that song very often.” The fan chuckles nervously, catching himself in some undefined nether region between public and private. “I didn’t expect to pay $25 and get a therapy session,” he says. “This is the cheapest therapy I’ve ever had!”
The audience laughs, releasing some of the emotional tension. “Thanks for sharing that,” Jurado says. “That’s really cool to hear.” The basement bursts into applause, completing the group-therapy circle.
It’s rare to witness this kind of interaction at a rock club, but it’s not unusual at house shows like these. The lack of barriers between artist and audience is a main reason more and more musicians—many of whom, like Jurado, could sell out larger venues—are choosing to play in living rooms and basements. The economics aren’t bad, either. Without venue and promoter fees or other band members to pay, most of the money goes directly to the artist.
Fans, too, love the direct access to their favorite songwriters, not to mention the early start times and lack of sticky floors. Perhaps emboldened by the sharing-economy business models of Airbnb, Uber, and other companies built on trust, these concertgoers are fine with walking into unknown homes or even hosting strangers themselves. Some fans have become so smitten by the concept they’ve turned their homes into regular venues. Others have been inspired to turn the alt-venue model into businesses like Fanswell, Sofar, and Concerts in Your Home.
In one sense, house shows are as old as music itself, from orchestras playing in opulent parlors to Appalachian bluegrass jams on porches. And networks of DIY venues with names like Legion of Doom have provided literal homes for the hardcore, noise, and punk-rock scenes for decades. But the fastest-growing segment is at the more genteel end of the spectrum, with singer/songwriters and their followers taking the underground concept of loud, sweaty house shows and bringing it into a calm, carpeted environment.
“For people who’ve been playing shows in basements for decades, it seems like, ‘What’s everybody so excited about?’” says K Records alum Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn. “But at the same time, I have met a number of people at [house] shows for whom it’s the most awesome new thing in their life.”
Most of the money from house shows goes directly to the artist. Photo by Michael Wilson.
Toward the end of 2008, David Bazan—best known as the former frontman of Seattle indie rockers Pedro the Lion—learned that the release date for his first solo record, Curse Your Branches, was getting pushed back. That wouldn’t have been a huge deal, except that his label, Barsuk, didn’t want him to do a club tour until the record came out. “It was going to be about 11 months with no income,” Bazan says.
Aided by some beer, the singer and his manager, Bob Andrews of Undertow Music, started brainstorming in the basement of Andrews’ home in Champaign, Illinois. Andrews was in a tight spot, too. “At that point, [Bazan] was my primary source of income,” he says. “We were both like, ‘What do we do now?’”
Bazan told Andrews he was up for anything that involved playing his music for money—even house shows. Andrews was hesitant at first. He wondered if a house tour would look bad for an artist who was previously playing for hundreds of fans in rock clubs, but Bazan quickly sold him on the idea. Andrews first tried to tap into a network of people who host house shows regularly, but few were interested; they were more into rootsy, Americana songwriters. So Andrews and Bazan went directly to the fans.
“We put an email out to do 30 shows, and we had 300 offers back in two days,” Andrews says. “So we put those together, and they all sold out in two days. It was crazy.”
Even with the great response, there was some trepidation. Would the model work? Would it be awkward? Would a crazy fan kidnap Bazan?“For the first few shows, I was waiting for the phone call: ‘I’m in the basement, somebody send the cops,’” Andrews says. “But it worked out fine.” Bazan’s booking agent and former Pedro the Lion bandmate, Trey Many, suggested early on that Undertow brand the gigs “Living Room Shows” to communicate the difference between these low-key acoustic performances and a typical rock gig. “You don’t want people to think there’s a keg and you bring a cup,” Andrews says.
Bazan enjoyed the shows so much he became an ambassador for the concept, inspiring his friend Will Johnson of Centro-matic to try it. Undertow has since added more artists to its Living Room roster each year: Califone, Mirah, Laura Gibson, Tim Kasher of Cursive, S. Carey, Richard Buckner, Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, John Vanderslice, and others. The list includes a lot of musicians who’ve been touring with indie-rock acts since the ‘90s, and these Living Room gigs allow them to age gracefully while getting a break from neverending bar shows; they’ve grown up, but they don’t want to stop—or, even worse, devolve. Their fans are often of the same generation. They rocked out to Clem Snide in bars back in the day, but now that they’re married with children, it’s more appealing and convenient to see that band’s frontman, Eef Barzelay, at 8 p.m. in someone’s house—possibly with their kids—before hitting the sack a couple of hours later (see also: Netflix vs. movie theaters).
Andrews has tweaked the process over the years, but he still runs the tours in much the same way as those first Bazan shows: Undertow and the band request hosts near certain cities, vet the hosts over email, and look at photos of the spaces. Once the tickets go on sale, only attendees receive the address of a house. All the other relevant info for hosts and guests is on Undertow’s website (e.g. “Put on some background music at moderate to low volume so people can meet each other and chat before the show”).
It’s a replicable model. Jurado, also an Undertow alum, put together his most recent house tour with his booking agent, Seth Fein, who credits Andrews and Bazan for blazing the trail. Jurado rarely tours with a full band, but even when touring solo, he says rock clubs make things more complicated and costly than they need to be. The sound and lighting crews, promoter, venue owner, door guy—they all take a cut. These days, even a percentage of the band’s merchandise often goes to the club.
In the Undertow system, PayPal gets 4%, the booking agent gets 10%, and Undertow gets 15%, meaning an artist goes home with about 70% of the ticket sales, plus merch money. At the very beginning, some fans objected to the ticket prices, which range from $15-$25. “People were like, ‘20 bucks? It’s a house show! It’s supposed to be $5!’” Andrews says. “But once we called them ‘Living Room Shows,’ nobody complained about the price.” Bazan says he recently increased ticket prices from $20 to $25 without any gripes from fans.
Still, just as Andrews was initially skeptical of house tours, others in the industry remain resistant. For one, Undertow bands are playing primarily to their core fan bases, while labels and managers want to see a band growing its base. Plus, there’s the stigma: Doing a tour of only houses can be seen as a fall from grace. “There seems to be this weird misconception that if you play a private house show you’re downgrading yourself,” Jurado says. “But what’s the upgrade? Playing a giant venue where they’re taking your money?”
Much of the appeal of these shows is, of course, the intimacy—for both the fans and the artist. “It’s a special experience to these people, but it’s also a special experience for me,” says singer/songwriter Zeitlyn. “It’s not scene-y at all. All the people gathered here tonight, they like listening to my music, and that’s the thing they have in common. It’s not because they’re the same age, or go to the same school, or have the same fashion sense or political ideas.”
The ticketed, fan-hosted model works best for artists who have a fan base large enough to support a tour but not so rabid that things could get weird. “If Sufjan Stevens or Justin Vernon did a tour, word might get out,” Fein says. “They might be too famous.” Lesser-known artists would likely have trouble using Undertow’s model, too. But that isn’t the only way to do living room shows. In the last several years, entrepreneurs have tried to capitalize on the trend by launching house-show companies, each with overlapping goals but different emphases.
Musician Fran Snyder fell in love with hosting and playing house concerts around 2006, but there wasn’t a good website to promote the idea at the time. To solve that problem, he launched Concerts in Your Home, a network of 250-300 artists and about twice as many hosts; artists pay $45 to apply and, if accepted, pay another $300 annually to access the website’s network of hosts. The site’s artists tend to be of the folk/singer-songwriter variety (nothing with a full drum kit), and all are paid through suggested donations at the gigs. Attendance ranges from 10 to 50, with the occasional larger concert.
While both Undertow and Snyder rely heavily on the generosity of hosts, Snyder’s concept differs quite a bit. An Undertow artist doesn’t usually stay the night at a host’s home (“You need an exit strategy,” Andrews says), but Snyder estimates that more than 90% of his network’s musicians crash at a host’s place. “For a lot of our hosts, it’s their favorite part,” Snyder says.
Snyder and his team screen potential hosts by making phone calls part of the activation process. Like other businesses partaking in the sharing economy, trust is a prerequisite in these transactions, which means liability issues could arise. Undertow includes a disclaimer with all tickets (categorized as “donations”) and sees its living room shows as private events; no money changes hands at the door. Concerts in Your Home takes it a step further and makes the events invite-only. “It’s one thing to invite a friend who brings a friend you don’t know,” Snyder says. “But to have complete strangers buying tickets online and going to your living room, that’s a liability.”
Snyder says most of his site’s artists wouldn’t be able to tour if it weren’t for house concerts, which can serve as weekday stopovers between weekend shows at larger clubs. But the network has been transformative for hosts, too. “It often turns a bored, middle-aged couple into the talk of the town,” Snyder says. “We had one host in Arkansas who said, ‘My wife was gravely ill, and when the doctors let her come back home, they said to keep things interesting for her or she’s not gonna be with you long.’ So he started a house concert series and invited the neighborhood over, and she sits at the door when everybody comes in. It’s her social event of the month.”
“This is like bringing the punk ethic into the acoustic form,” says Jurado. Photo by Michael Wilson.
Musician Graham Colton felt the touring industry change in recent years. To play the right club in the right city on a weekend, he had to book the date six months in advance. And weeknight gigs were stressful; he never knew if he could sell enough tickets. So he started playing more nontraditional gigs to fill out his schedule.
“The more I started to embrace going directly to my fans, I had these magical shows,” Colton says. But as more and more requests came in, working out the details was uncharted territory. “Do you tell them how much it costs? Do you send it to your agent? Do you tell your manager and let him work it out? It got very sticky,” he says.
Colton and his team built Fanswell to help both artists and fans make one-of-a-kind events possible, whether it’s in a living room, backyard, or the backstage area of a larger venue. In less than a year, about 500 artists have signed up. Creating an account is free; all the shows are booked by credit card, and the site takes 7.5% of the artist’s cut.
Fanswell does a lot of the same things Undertow does, but in a streamlined, contractually binding online platform, and usually for artists who might not have a fan base as large as someone like Jurado. But in this model, Colton says an artist only needs one motivated fan in a city to make a show happen.
“People think that if they play a show in Columbus, they need to get 30 of their superfans all under one roof, but that’s exactly the opposite of what we want to do,” he says. “I would rather have 30 shows in Columbus, all of which are hosted by one superfan, and have that fan invite friends and family.”
“Artists have to connect with their core fans,” he continues. “Those are the people that are gonna support you forever. If you don’t engage those people, you’re not going to survive.”
The genesis of Sofar came not from a beleaguered musician but a frustrated fan. “A friend and I were at a gig, and half the room was talking,” says Sofar originator Rafe Offer, who’s based in London. “Other people were buried in their phones, and you could hear the clanging of beer bottles in the background. We launched into a long discussion: Why do people pay to go hear bands and talk so much? There’s gotta be a better way.”
Offer decided to organize a small show at a friend’s house, and it was everything he wanted live music to be. “It was so quiet you could hear the clock ticking in the background,” he says. Once Offer began organizing monthly house shows in London, the lines were out the door. Before long, Offer secured investor money and expanded Sofar to 110 cities worldwide.
Like the other hosting services, the location of Sofar’s shows are secret. But so are the lineups. Showgoers have to trust that the artists Sofar chose will be worthwhile. A concert typically has several artists on the bill, and while Offer says there’s no headliner, the shows have attracted a few big names, including Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hozier, and Bastille. Offer prides himself on the teams who curate Sofar lineups in each city. “We became really obsessive about selecting good music,” he says.
Unlike the other house-show business models, Sofar artists don’t necessarily walk away with money in their pockets. They have to choose whether they’d rather pass a hat around and get a cut of the donations or have Sofar create a professionally recorded video of the performance. Offer says most of them go for the video. “It’s really about getting unknown or less-known artists and giving them more exposure,” Offer says. “If you have 50 people sitting in a living room, that’s great. But if you can have 5,000 more watching it [online], you’re gonna give them more of a boost.”
Of course, artists and fans don’t need a network or a website to do a house show. Some fans are hosting islands, operating on their own terms. Doug Hacker lives in southern Vermont and found it hard to travel to larger, nearby cities for shows after he had kids, so he started the Billsville House Concert series in 2011, hosting bands like Strand of Oaks, Field Report, Anais Mitchell, and Zammuto in his living room for about 65 people. Hacker’s 15-year-old son runs the sound (a full PA with monitors and 16-channel mixer) and his other son works the door. Tickets run about $15, and the band gets 100% of the door, minus $75.
Then there’s the vibrant house-show scene in Indianapolis’ Fountain Square neighborhood, which has just the right mix of artists, cheap rent, and cops who overlook loud volumes. If you crack a window on a weekend night in the summer, you’ll often hear multiple house shows—usually of the raucous, basement/garage variety. But it’s not limited to just punk rock and hardcore. Local rapper Oreo Jones has played houses alongside touring acts like Cave and the Soft Moon. Bands like Jimmy Whispers, Meatbodies, and Obnox come through town to play Debbie’s Palace of Noise and Laundry, the home of Indy house-show guru Jake Gardner, who used to put on a music festival consisting of 40 bands all playing house shows.
Those sweaty, feedback-laden, DIY shows may seem far removed from hushed, acoustic living room shows, but the idea is essentially the same. “My greatest teachers in music were people like Beat Happening and Fugazi,” Jurado says. “I remember going to see Fugazi multiple times when either Guy [Picciotto] or Ian [MacKaye] were working the door as people came in. Five minutes later they were on the stage, and you saw them after the show! So for me, this is almost like bringing the punk-rock ethic into the acoustic form.”
Back in the Cincinnati basement, Jurado closes his set with “Ohio” (naturally) and mingles with the crowd, just like his Fugazi forebears. Showgoers chit-chat and finish their beers. John Lee, one of a handful of fans who drove hours for the concert, says the evening started awkwardly—“It’s kind of weird walking into someone’s house”—but now he wants to host shows himself.
I make my way into the tiny upstairs kitchen of homeowner John Maddux, a 65-year-old English professor at the University of Cincinnati. This was his first time hosting a show—his friend, a longtime Jurado fan, helped him put it together with the booking agent. “I was nervous,” Maddux says. “I didn’t know what to expect!”
Dick Smith, 58, rents one side of the duplex from Maddux. He was initially rattled, too. “It’s a bunch of strangers!” he says. But the housemates were more than pleased with how the evening went and would love to host again. “I’m going to work on Conor Oberst next,” Maddux says.
Jurado is sold on the idea, too—so much that he has no desire to book a full-band club tour any time soon. He remembers one of his more traditional tours from a few years ago, where he was playing with some of the best musicians he’d ever shared a stage with. “But at the end of the night,” he says, “the crowd couldn’t wait for the encore, when it was just me and my guitar.”
“This has just gotten more intimate,” Courtney Barnett announces. I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of her dressing room, pawing through a sizable mound of freshly laundered clothes, pairing socks. Barnett and her band travel with a lot of novelty socks, which makes this work fairly straightforward, and I am glad to have found some utility here, backstage at the Upstate Concert Hall, a cavernous music venue and bar in a grim strip mall in Clifton Park, New York, a few miles outside Albany. Earlier, someone had gathered the clean clothes from the Hall’s dryer and left them on a black leather couch; I helped myself to the pile. Barnett, for her part, doesn’t really seem to care that I’ve gotten myself up to my elbows in their underthings. That’s her vibe: amiable indifference. It makes her oddly intoxicating to be around, a kind of aspirational embodiment of the stupid word “chill”—funny, preternaturally relaxed, needless.
It’s the middle of October and Barnett is finishing the year on tour in support of The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, the release that’s earned her a flurry of attention outside of her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The collection is anchored by a spacy and undeniable guitar jam called “Avant Gardener”, a deadpan recounting of an allergic reaction, or maybe a panic attack. “I’m having trouble breathing in,” Barnett repeats in the chorus. “I’m having trouble breathing in.” It’s convenient that “Avant Gardener” is how most people first heard Barnett, because it neatly encapsulates her entire aesthetic agenda: the calm narration of a deeply hysterical reality.
Courtney Barnett: "Avant Gardener" (via SoundCloud)
Barnett’s first proper full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, only reiterates just how good she is at rendering the quotidian profound, and vice-versa. She writes lyrics with such frankness and clarity that I routinely find myself exhaling in the middle of her songs, as though she has articulated and in turn alleviated some burden I didn’t even know I’d been dragging around. Like in “An Illustration of Loneliness”, a song about insomnia and being very far away from the person you love: “I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling/ It’s a kind of off-white/ Maybe it’s a cream,” the 27-year-old sings. “I think I’m hungry… I’m thinking of you, too.” That’s about as concise a summary of being alive and alert as I’ve ever heard, in song or otherwise: I’m overtired. I’m hungry. I’m remembering I need you.
I meet Barnett for the first time the night before, in New York City, where she manages to shush one of those extraordinarily talky, heavy-drinking, phone-clutching CMJ crowds—a genuine coup. The singer/guitarist assembled an ace band of Australian musicians to back her for this tour (guitarist Dan Luscombe, bassist Bones Sloane, and drummer Dave Mudie) and watching them slam through The Double EP is surprisingly cathartic. Live, the quartet are scrappy and loose and nearly recall late-era Nirvana, although what I like most about them is how unapologetically slack and exuberant the whole routine is: It’s music you can sing along with, at indecent volumes and in a put-on Australian accent, and unless you are half-dead, you will have a pretty fucking good time.
When I rejoin the band at their Airbnb in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, the morning after the show, Barnett’s bandmates are chasing a terrified-looking squirrel as it zigzags down the sidewalk, in hot pursuit of a photograph. (Australia does not host squirrels, merely endless opossums.) Tony Hook, the band’s driver and tour manager, bears the stone-faced calm of someone who has borne witness to shenanigans; he stacks bits of gear into the back of the van, snapping each case into place like a puzzle piece. During a pre-departure stop for bagels and coffee, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” comes on the bodega’s in-store stereo, and Barnett—in black skinny jeans, Doc Martens, and a denim jacket—immediately starts playing air drums. Although she cites Pavement and the Modern Lovers as influences, there is a clear affinity for ageless, guitar-driven pop in her songwriting, and she knows how to craft a melody fit for the radio, the kind of hook that could linger for decades.
Barnett’s lyrics, though, are staunchly idiosyncratic; she rarely goes in for the big, wind-swept declaration. Instead, she’s incredibly adept at distilling complex domestic quandaries into funny little couplets, like in “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”, a new song where she offers up a canny encapsulation of what might be the defining tension of adult life: “I wanna go out/ But I wanna stay home.”
Luscombe, whose main gig is playing lead guitar in the excellent garage-rock band the Drones, first met Barnett when she was working at the pub across the street from his apartment. A co-worker put her first EP on, he inquired about it, and he and Barnett became friends and eventually collaborators (“Avant Gardener” was recorded in his apartment; “There are sounds of trams going past my window on that recording,” he admits). Later, when I ask him about Barnett’s songwriting style and what might have drawn him so immediately to her work, he acknowledges a hidden complexity. “Some people are fond of attaching the word ‘naïve’ to what Courtney does, and I suppose one could describe her style as unadorned, conversational, and direct,” he says. “But there’s also something that’s a little more difficult to define going on under all of that. Courtney’s an old soul, so maybe it's the push and pull of those things that help give her songs a unique quality.”
Indeed, much of Sometimes I Sit and Think is about transitioning into adulthood, and the risks of overthinking it—like the kid quivering at the top of the waterslide, a little too smart to just blindly hurl his body down the chute. Barnett is a welcome, charming Virgil, in part because she’s so honest about everything she sees and feels, even when those things are vaguely unflattering (“I’m fake, I’m phony, I’m awake, I’m lonely, I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio,” she bellows in “Pedestrian at Best”). Later, when I ask her if she ever feels the need to hold back or equivocate a bit—especially now, when she’s engaging with a bigger, global audience—she’s thoughtful. “A lot of the time, it still doesn’t really stop me from sharing things that some people might consider to be private,” she finally answers. “But it’s not really about other people, it’s about me. Sometimes I might accidentally say more than I wanted to, but it’s kind of necessary for me to work through whatever the moment is. Maybe that’s a bit selfish.”
Sometimes those revelations are profound. “Depreston”, in which Barnett goes house-hunting with her partner (she’s been in a relationship with the Australian musician Jen Cloher for almost four years) in a not-quite-gentrified Melbourne neighborhood, is so heavy with ennui it feels like climbing into bed under a wet sheet. “If you’ve got a spare half a million/ You could knock it down and start rebuilding,” she sings, her voice affectless, cool. While it’s clear she’s talking about real estate—and the hubris of ownership, and the slow-but-inevitable slink toward grown-up-ness that for whatever reason is also littered with big, material transactions—there is some sense that her advice could be applied expansively: If you’ve got the resources, emotional or otherwise, you can knock anything down and start rebuilding. That’s an optimistic idea with a major caveat, and her melancholy-but-hopeful guitar is a perfect reflection of the lyric “I can’t think of floorboards anymore”—a lyric that could, in fact, become a rallying cry for reluctant adults everywhere, screamed right before they pour a stiff drink into a plastic cup and swallow it all at once.
The drive from Brooklyn to Clifton Park takes about three and a half hours, and the atmosphere in the van is jovial. “Are there any foods you won’t eat?” Barnett asks almost immediately. (“Eggplant,” she says, when I return the question.) We discuss Scientology (Luscombe recounts, over guffaws, taking the Church’s infamous stress test), the curiousness of Lou Reed’s “Women” (“A woman's love can lift you up, and women can inspire/ I feel like buying flowers and hiring a celestial choir!”), what a marmot is and does (lives in a burrow, eats grasses and roots, whistles at other marmots), “Dark Side”-flavor Skittles, the present headline of The New York Post (“HO-LEX: ‘Masseuse’ Snatches Client’s $25G Watch, Hides It In Her Privates”), road kill, and how when Barnett tells interviewers she’s been deeply inspired by Paul Kelly, a singer and guitarist from Adelaide, they frequently mishear it as R. Kelly.
Luscombe manages the stereo, for the most part—he’s riding shotgun—and when Elvis’s “Blue Moon” comes up on his iPod (the version from 1976’s The Sun Sessions, the one that features Presley’s ghostly, transparent falsetto, careening over a few barely-plucked guitar chords) Barnett gets especially quiet. “He makes me cry when he sings like that,” she finally says. “Singing is so vulnerable. Playing any kind of instrument is an expression of self, but the voice is a super different one. If it’s not, then you’re doing it wrong.”
Courtney Barnett: "Bein' Around" (Lemonheads cover) (via SoundCloud)
Barnett has been making music since she was small; an older brother played her Jeff Buckley records, Guns N’ Roses. “When I was about 10, I started playing guitar, and I started writing shitty songs soon thereafter,” she recalls. “When I was 18, I played my first original solo shows, open mic nights: super, super awkward.” I ask her what the origin of the pivot was—what made her decide to give music a shot, publicly. “It was just like, ‘Why the fuck not? What have you got to lose?’” she says. “You either do it and totally fail or don’t do it and continue to dwell on it.”
She’s right—you have to, as James Baldwin once said, “go the way your blood beats.” But that doesn’t mean the transition to public commodity is always smooth. The refrain of the slumping “Kim’s Caravan” (“Don’t ask me what I really mean/ I am just a reflection/ Of what you really wanna see / So take what you want from me”) seems like a reaction to what happens to an artist when people start interpreting the work in ways that make sense to them, but might not be in sync with the creator’s intent. Of course, that’s the nature of the transaction; that’s how performance functions. It’s a gassy idea, maybe—that music really lives outside of its maker—but that divestment is paramount and necessary, and I am often wary of artists who can’t understand what their own work means once it’s out in the world, the ones who punt on the “What’s this song about?” question, as if answering it might somehow tarnish the listener’s experience—as if they are not just a listener themselves now.
Barnett doesn’t do that, and I believe her when she says, with characteristic good-naturedness, that she also welcomes divergent readings of her stuff. Still, one of her most extraordinary talents as a writer is her specificity. She describes things that you maybe weren’t entirely sure other people feel or see, but you sort of suspected they might, and having it affirmed feels good—whole-making. That particular bit in “Kim’s Caravan” is anomalous in its vagueness; because so little is opaque in Barnett’s songs, I presume listeners are only recognizing things in her words, not inventing them.
“Artists are supposed to be a reflection of the audience, so when people interpret my songs in different ways, that’s how it’s supposed to work,” she says. “That line in ‘Kim’s Caravan’ covers everything.”
And it does—it’s all in there. We exist as we are beholden, an amalgamation of other people’s presumptions and hopes and anxieties and fears and ambitions. Barnett, at least, has made her peace with it.
“I have spent so long lying around in bed being miserable and hoping for something interesting to happen, and then when interesting things do happen, I get freaked out and wish for that quiet place again.”
By the time we arrive at the Upstate Concert Hall, it’s raining—the kind of bone-chilling, early-autumn mist that saturates your clothes before you realize you would probably do well to put on a raincoat, or maybe just to stay inside. After load-in, we decamp to a nearby Italian restaurant and receive and consume some of the biggest bowls of pasta I’ve ever seen. By the time we get back to the venue and start drinking, I am feeling sorta ready for a nap, but Barnett and crew are energized, excited to play.
As I admire the purity of their rider—chips, local beer, a lone bottle of Irish whiskey—Barnett and I sit on the couch and talk. Despite the candor of her lyrics—or perhaps because of it; her songs often answer their own questions—she seems constitutionally averse to discussing herself at length with near-strangers. I still find myself rambling about what it takes for a person to be happy. “I was having a discussion about depression and thought patterns recently, and the fact that we have the same thoughts everyday—everyday,” she says. “That’s why we get stuck in those cycles. You’ve actually got to make an effort to either think about different things, or to change your emotions when you feel a certain thing. Otherwise, you’re just always saying ‘A bad thing happened to me, the world’s against me, the world sucks…’ It’s easier to be angry. It’s harder to be positive and happy, I reckon.”
Courtney Barnett: "Anonymous Club" (via SoundCloud)
In her songs, happiness comes from little things: “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables, and I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first/ A little pesticide can’t hurt,” she sings in “Dead Fox”. It recalls, in a way, the ethos and oeuvre of Andy Warhol: “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” I wonder if the demands of touring—she’ll spend a good chunk of 2015 on the road—are at odds with those smaller pleasures, the ones that animate her songs. “I think the grass is always greener,” she acknowledges. “I have spent so long just lying around in bed being miserable and hoping for something interesting to happen. And then when interesting things do happen, I get freaked out and wish for that quiet place again. Sometimes you hate those things because they’re so boring, but then when you’re traveling the world, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I miss hanging up the washing in my backyard.’”
It is tempting to link Barnett’s restlessness to our present cultural moment (“We’re all bored/ We’re all so tired of everything,” millennial mouthpiece/poetess Taylor Swift sings), but I suspect it is just a fact of being in one’s 20s, no matter the era or circumstance: You are both terrified of and drawn to action of any kind. Those dueling impulses are present in almost all of Barnett’s new songs, and the friction between them gives her writing much of its dynamism: I want this; no, I don’t.
The venue has filled nearly to capacity, and there are a lot of faux-leather jackets and dyed hair. Around 10:30 p.m., Barnett and crew charge the stage and storm through a tight, hour-long set of songs from The Double EP, finally encoring with “Depreston”, but not after dropping their guitars on the floor of the stage for a while and conjuring peals of feedback. After the show, the band huddles outside for a smoke, and the crowd slowly dissipates, looking a little dazed, a little thrilled.
Six months later, when Barnett’s back in Melbourne, and we’re talking on the phone —she calls from bed, sleepy—she describes that fall tour, in which she faced down a new, giddy audience, as “disarming.” She sounds optimistic about the impending release of the new record; she sees it as an evolution. “You would hope that with everything you write, you progress, because it’s a reflection of your life! With every year, you’d hope that you fucking learn something,” she laughs.
One of my favorite lyrics from Sometimes I Sit and Think is delivered in “Elevator Operator”, the opening cut. It’s a song about the monotony of office work, and what happens when a person becomes so suffocated and disillusioned by the entire routine, he cracks: “He screams ‘I’m not going to work today!’/ Gonna count the minutes that the trains run late/ Sit on the grass, building pyramids out of Coke cans.” The flush of temporary defiance isn’t remotely unfamiliar to anyone who has ever had a job, but what Barnett hones in on isn’t so much the dramatic overture, but the puniness of the gesture. Here, witness Barnett’s singular skill as a chronicler of humanity: “I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly,” she shouts. This, she suggests, is the real agony of being alive: paralysis, apathy, suspension. It is the thing Barnett fights against more than anything else, in her life and in her work, and it is as hard to capture as it is to overcome.
As we’re pulling out of the parking lot and toward a Holiday Inn Express—there will be a sports bar open next door, and we will drink many oversize vodka-sodas there, and spend an unusual amount of time discussing musical theater—Hook turns the radio up to an uncouth volume. Collective Soul’s “Shine” is playing. Everyone is hollering along. Hook starts doing donuts; the band smushes to one side, then the other.
“Van tips over while Collective Soul plays!” Barnett deadpans. “There’s your last line.”
Michael Angelakos is willing to admit to uncomfortable truths about himself—get past the sugar coating of Passion Pit’s songs and you’ll find bitter pills that detail the singer’s struggles with depression, bipolar disorder, suicidal ideation, drug abuse, and familial strife. It has to be the darkest music ever expected to sell Tropicana orange juice and Doritos Locos tacos.
That said, a major disclosure at the center of Passion Pit’s forthcoming third album, Kindred, is kind of innocuous by comparison: On “Five Foot Ten (I)”, it’s revealed that Angelakos has been exaggerating his height by one inch this whole time. But that little lie betrays a larger truth for the 27 year old; it’s indicative of the younger version of himself who started Passion Pit nearly a decade ago. “I was scared and wanted to be something bigger and more exciting,” he recalls, “banging my head trying to figure out what the fuck is going on with my life.”
Downsizing is a common theme surrounding Kindred. For one thing, it’s Angelakos’ most concise record by a good measure, distilling the high-fructose melodies and synth glaze into something like Passion Pit concentrate. The hooks are meant to hit instantaneously, inspired by the economic methods of classic songsmiths Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. (“Holy shit, no one gets to the chorus faster than they do,” he beams.) The singer also parted ways with his longtime bandmates after the exhausting process of creating, recording, and touring the last Passion Pit album, 2012’s Gossamer.
But the most important reduction in Angelakos’ approach is directly tied to the reason Gossamer was such a grueling experience to begin with. From the first moment we meet, it’s impossible for either of us to proceed without acknowledging the obvious: The last time Angelakos spoke to Pitchfork, he publicly opened up at length about his bipolar disorder for the first time, and the piece concluded with him checking into a hospital. Shows were cancelled (and, Angelakos notes, later rescheduled). Meanwhile, his worst fears were confirmed as his private pain was subject to public scrutiny and cynics called it all a marketing ploy. It all led to plenty of anger and bitterness for the singer as he spent much of 2013 clearing up misconceptions about his condition and his motives. “I didn't think it was going to be this huge dramatic story that followed me around everywhere,” he says. “I was reacting. And now I'm just done reacting.”
At this point, he says it was ultimately a good decision to be so candid, though the experience’s choppy reverberations play out onKindred’s “Whole Life Story”, where Angelakos uses a giddy two-step beat as a means to apologize to his wife for the immediate fallout. “Sorry darling,” he sings. “How could you forgive me when our life’s some story out for them to buy?”
These days, Angelakos keeps a steady balance by leaning on a close group of supporters, including his wife and his assistant. “These are the people who help me make sure I'm able to record and work while I'm touring and also maintain my mental health,” he says. “I’ve been told I can't do this, but I found a way.”
But for all that growing up and paring down, Angelakos hasn’t entirely done away with his maximalist tendencies—once the reborn Passion Pit hits the road this spring, the touring band will actually increase to a half-dozen members. “There are about twice the amount of keyboards on stage,” Angelakos boasts. “I think we beat out Hot Chip on this one.”
And the fact that our conversation takes place in Los Angeles’ swanky Chateau Marmont cuts against any idea that he is taking some kind of vow of austerity. But this setting brings contrast, not contradictions—the legendary West Hollywood hotel is a fairly common destination for conflicted artists to sort shit out (see: recent guest Father John Misty’s lost weekend of a second honeymoon and Death Gripspissing away Epic’s advance money).
Angelakos proudly speaks of earning his keep as a burgeoning gun-for-hire producer and songwriter, too, citing recent work with pop upstarts Madeon and Ryn Weaver, and aligning himself with au courant producers such as Cashmere Cat, Skrillex, and Benny Blanco. But at the same time, he feels it’s best to opt out of the social aspect of being a part of pop music’s machinery. “I'd like to see what it's like to hang out with those people on a regular basis,” he says, “but at the same time, it sounds terrifying.”
Likewise, the lifelong East Coaster and current Brooklynite is frightened by the fact that he might actually enjoy some of the Hollywood sparkle. “I'm getting used to [Los Angeles] and it scares the shit out of me,” he says. “I just pretend I'm not in L.A. when I'm in L.A.” It’s nearly impossible to do that as we talk, though, because it’s early March and L.A. is roughly 45 degrees warmer than NYC—plus, a glimpse out the Chateau window offers a wide-angled view of the Sunset Strip, and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson is hanging in the lobby.
And yet, despite the sunny disposition of his music, this isn’t Angelakos’ speed. He can’t do calm silence—the songwriter plowed through his schoolwork in college with ambient artists William Basinski and Steve Reich in the background, and at the time we meet, he’s listening to Oval’s 94diskont, a revered IDM album that mostly sounds like a scratched Aphex Twin CD. It’s an appropriate soundtrack for a guy who claims he can only focus on writing when everything around him is in chaos. Talking about the new record, Angelakos sees it as finally finding signal through the noise, as expressed through its direct artwork. “You saw the pixels of Chunk of Change, the murkiness of Manners, the slightly out-of-focus but really hazy color photographs of Gossamer,” he says, chronicling his previous LP covers. “And with Kindred, you see the kid staring right into the fucking camera.”
Pitchfork: While advocating for the understanding of mental illness can create powerful connections with the outside world, were you surprised by how people accused it all of being a stunt or an excuse to back out on shows?
Michael Angelakos: At this point of my life, I feel like I can fight that fight by just shutting up and doing things. I think a lot of artists should probably heed that advice. Social media is essentially a battlefield and it's for publicity, and I'm not interested in that at all. I have so much that I want to make and do and I've got how many years left on this earth? I’m so lucky to get to make music for a living, so I should just be making stuff. There are so many great things going on. People kill themselves trying to get to this point, and if I didn't put 100% into what I'm doing right now, I would feel like I'm spitting on the faces of all these musicians who are trying to do this for a living, too. I don't think most people in my position really understand that. I think they take it for granted, though I don't think they mean to.
Pitchfork: When you mention “doing this for a living,” I think of how Passion Pit has been very open to licensing, syncing, and other corporate tie-ins. Do you feel those things affect the perception of your music?
MA: How do you feel about all the corporate alignment that [Pitchfork] or everyone else does? That [Taco Bell commercial] was for no money, by the way. Taco Bell puts so much money into bands that go on the road because they have an awesome music program. I was like, “OK, their food is whatever.” I don't eat fast food. I told them that. But the program is actually legitimately about music, so I was like, “This is going to end up being like the fuckin' theme song for Taco Bell, but I get people's attention and then they're going to listen to this other stuff that's not associated with Taco Bell.” And by the way, I wasn't so emotionally attached to that song [“Take A Walk”]. I didn't want it to be on the record. It’s my least favorite Passion Pit song—and not because of the Taco Bell thing.
Like any other artist—from the smallest to the biggest—we've all gotta eat just like you guys gotta eat. You guys will take ads from bands that you don't want to cover because that's how you pay for the site. I gotta pay for production and to be able to tour all these places—I can't afford that right now. I will after I play a few shows. But there's nothing wrong with [corporate tie-ins] because it's the new radio. When you're on the radio, there are advertisements on there for car washes and all this other stuff too. I don't even feel like I need to defend it at this point. Everyone does it.
"I just desperately wanted to be
happy again in a way that wasn't forced."
Pitchfork: Looking back on the reviews for Gossamer and Manners, what stands out is how many of them denigrate Passion Pit’s music as “too happy.” Have you gotten used to critics ignoring your lyrics?
MA: With all the records, I intend to to be understood—which is funny because it's never understood. Passion Pit is this character to me; I don't have the guts to be as honest as I am with Passion Pit on my own, as Michael Angelakos. There’s always been this veneer, whether visually or physically, and I've always been hiding behind maximalist overproduction. It’s my way of being brutally honest with myself about what's happening in my life, and the only way I can slip that across is through this seemingly happy music; I can talk about these extraordinarily dark periods in my life as long as I've got this sonic palette that I can tap into.
Pitchfork: Are you worried that your high-pitched vocals might give out on you at some point?
MA: That voice is the easiest thing for me. My muscles are built up in that register because I'm running around screaming like that for a year and a half on tour. People say, "It sounds like Passion Pit." Exactly. If I was to change the sound of this project, I would completely defeat the purpose. Passion Pit has always felt like musical theater to me—and I know everyone has this "eh" reaction to musical theater.
Pitchfork: That's what pop music is, though, right?
MA: I think so. You're singing standards almost. And those hyper-formulaic songs that are on Passion Pit records—that's the point. It's pop. I'm not trying to make any other statements.
Pitchfork: Kindred appears to address many of the people closest to you, is it completely autobiographical?
MA: Everything is autobiographical. Everything is honest. This record was written around the time when I was trying to figure out what constitutes family: who loves you, accepting love, giving love. On Manners, I was like, "I have no idea what's going on and I wish I did but I just don't have the answers." Gossamer was like, "This is what happened, I'm so sorry”—acknowledging what happened but not saying that I'm going to do anything about it. Kindred is like: "I'm really trying to make this work and be better."
I'm actively trying to improve all my relationships and my lifestyle and my way of working and interacting with people. Everything. And that's a really hard thing to talk about because it's embarrassing. I just desperately wanted to be happy again in a way that wasn't forced. I wanted to feel like I accomplished something. I did this. I finished this record. I'm doing all the promo. I'm doing everything that I said I was going to do. I really wanted to be happy and normalized and I was tired of people saying I was volatile. I'm not. I'm a pretty normal person. I have problems like anyone else but I've worked so hard to be OK and I don't think that I gave myself enough credit for that.
Compared to most of my fellow musicians, I've had an opposite reaction to the recent “Blurred Lines” ruling—I think it made sense to find plagiarism there, because the song did borrow without credit. Not that I haven’t done the same. While working on the Damon & Naomi song “Ueno Station”, we took Japanese singer Mikami Kan’s version of “Sendo Kouta” and A/B’d it with our track until we had copied the feel as precisely as our abilities allowed.
Mikami Kan: "Sendo Kouta"
Damon & Naomi: "Ueno Station"
How to credit such a thing? We dedicated our song to Mikami Kan—which isn’t so different from Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams tipping their hat to Marvin Gaye in interviews. But I don’t blame the Gaye family for wanting something more, given the dizzying financial success of “Blurred Lines”. (Alas, we had no such dilemma with “Ueno Station”.)
It seems to me that the real problem with “Blurred Lines” was not its plagiarism, but the lack of a legal structure for acknowledging that musical debt and repaying it in some measured way. No one disputes that “Blurred Lines” owes something to Marvin Gaye. Maybe not as much as the $7.4 million the jury awarded, but how were they to choose a proper amount? There is no standard. And it’s this lack of a standard—not the fact of plagiarism in music—that needs fixing.
Plagiarism is endemic to music: classical composers quote one another, or simply lift melodies for reuse; folk musicians set different lyrics to the same traditional tunes, thus claiming them as their own; jazz players alter changes and invent a new title to mask a pop standard; and rock bands…well, they mostly just don’t apologize.
Take for example singer/songwriter Jake Holmes’s song “Dazed and Confused”, from his 1967 debut album. Holmes opened for the Yardbirds at a gig in Greenwich Village that year. And soon after, in 1968, the Yardbirds performed “Dazed and Confused” on French TV, where the host introduces it as a song “of the Yardbirds, by the Yardbirds.” A year after that, in 1969, ex-Yardbirds’ guitarist Jimmy Page and his new band Led Zeppelin recorded “Dazed and Confused” for their massively successful debut album.
The Led Zeppelin album credits the song to Jimmy Page.
(Jake Holmes, by the way, went on to write a number of jingles you probably know from TV, including “Be All That You Can Be” for the U.S. Army. Which, to complete a circle of sorts, I always thought was a rip of The Village People.)
What to do about these circles of influence/quotation/alteration/reuse? Surely it was wrong of Jimmy Page to take sole credit for “Dazed and Confused”. But it isn’t a cover version—the lyrics are changed. And one of the rules about covers is that you cannot alter the lyric.
That’s right: There are rules about cover versions. In the lawless anarchy that is rock’n’roll, musicians and their managers and record labels follow guidelines about covers that are universally agreed upon and—for the most part—respected and obeyed. This functioning system of rules for cover versions provides musicians with the creative freedom to record any song they like, while guaranteeing songwriters a moderate share of royalties from the sales of that recording—precisely what was missing from the “Blurred Lines” case.
The system is called compulsory licensing, and it is so even-handed it might as well have been designed by King Solomon. Anyone can cover anyone else's song, and its creator cannot say no (that's the compulsory part). But if you do cover a song, you must pay a royalty to the song's creator (that's the licensing part). What's more, the royalty rate is always the same—it’s “statutory,” meaning fixed and not subject to individual negotiation—no matter who covers the song and how many (or few) copies they sell. The statutory rate is set by a board of arbitrators, three “copyright royalty judges” appointed by the Librarian of Congress, and is adjusted from time to time to maintain its relative value.
There’s little room for lawyers or lawsuits in this system, because the rules are clear and universally applied. In fact, these rules are so simple that the major U.S. collector of statutory royalties, the Harry Fox Agency, provides a downloadable PDF that explains them in a single graphic which barely uses language, much less legalese:
So if I covered one of Taylor Swift’s songs, I would pay her the same 9.1 cents per unit sold that she would pay me if she covered one of mine (from my mouth to God’s ear). And neither of us could say no.
To what do we owe this pragmatic, egalitarian, centralized, dare-I-say Socialist system? Player pianos.
At the beginning of the 20th century, after Edison and Berliner’s invention of sound recording but before it took hold as a mass medium, the player piano exploded in popularity. These instruments used rolls of paper with holes punched in them to mechanically reproduce music—a digital system similar to the Jacquard loom, which is often cited as a precursor to modern computers. And much like our contemporary experience with digital music delivery, the player piano was disruptive to the existing system of musician payments.
The manufacturers of piano rolls maintained that they did not need to pay composers for copyright, because they were not in fact making “copies” of sheet music. The piano rolls were not readable by humans—they could only function as a part of the complete player piano, for which they already owned all patents. Piano rolls were not “music,” as it was understood at the time, but a mechanical part of the machines that played them.
The Supreme Court agreed. In 1908 it ruled in favor of a Chicago manufacturer of player pianos and piano rolls, and against a Boston music publisher who had sued over use of their songs “Little Cotton Dolly” and “Kentucky Babe”. The court ruling meant that player piano manufacturers were free to continue knocking out those tunes, and any and all others, without any recompense to composers.
That decision didn’t go over well in Congress, however. The next year, it rewrote copyright law to supercede the Supreme Court’s ruling. Looking to rescue music publishers from the Napster-like chaos of royalty-free piano rolls, yet allow the player piano industry to continue manufacturing without being hamstrung by intellectual property owners, the Copyright Act of 1909 established a compulsory mechanical license. Mechanical reproduction of music (i.e. piano rolls) would continue without permission of the copyright holders, so long as they were paid a statutory royalty for use of their music. Win-win, in today’s parlance.
When records were introduced—and the smart money got out of player pianos—these discs were seen as equivalent to piano rolls since they too were mechanical reproductions of music, unreadable by humans though playable by Victrolas. And so here we are.
Which brings us back to “Blurred Lines”. Had Thicke and Williams decided to cover Marvin Gaye—as Aaliyah did on her 1996 album One in a Million—they would simply owe the Gaye estate a mechanical royalty for each copy sold, same as if they had they made a piano roll of “Got to Give it Up”. (Back-of-the-envelope estimate for earnings by the Gaye estate had the new hit been a cover: $1.4 million, or $6 million less than the jury award.)
But Thicke and Williams didn’t make a mechanical reproduction, they made creative use of Marvin Gaye’s original work. This is an increasingly familiar process in our digital lives. Plagiarism wasn’t invented in the digital era, but computers sure do make it easier, and therefore much, much more common—and perhaps digital has made copying a more creative practice than the term used to imply.
Consider plagiarism where many of us first encounter the idea: in school. Pre-digital, before copy-and-paste, plagiarizing someone else’s work for class meant literally retyping it. And retyping is a pain. It is boring, time-consuming labor. It is mechanical reproduction. But with the advent of command-C, copying has become something we do as an aspect of all our communications. It can hardly still be called a mechanical process—it is closer now to a rhetorical tool, more like a simile than a piano roll.
So Thicke and Williams hit command-C on a Marvin Gaye tune in the course of composing their own song. Under existing rules written in the analog era, that’s plagiarism. Which is why I agree with the ruling, if not the reward. But I believe it would be more accurate to say that Thicke and Williams copied Gaye’s work in a more modern manner, highlighting a part of someone else’s work as an aspect of their own creative process, as we all do now, all the time, in the digital realm.
We need new rules for plagiarism that allow for the creativity of digital copying without making intellectual property valueless. But these new rules need not be freshly invented—the same conflicts exist now as they did in 1909 between (analog) sheet music publishers and (digital) piano roll manufacturers.
Why not return to the Solomon-like wisdom of the 1909 Copyright Act, and extend its concept of compulsory licensing to digital copying? Let anyone make use of existing intellectual property as an aspect of their own work, so long as they pay a statutory royalty to the owner. Thicke and Williams might then borrow from Gaye at a statutory borrower’s rate, just as they could have covered Gaye at the statutory rate for mechanical reproduction.
And while we’re at it, why not take this one more logical step to address the reuse of existing recordings; when sampling first took hold, no one paid recording artists for samples in much the same way that player piano roll manufacturers didn’t pay composers. But when the courts were asked to rule on sampling, they came down in favor of existing intellectual property owners, instead of the innovators. Cases like the 1991 decision against Biz Markie abruptly ended the era of freewheeling sampling, making sample-rich albums like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique well-nigh impossible to produce ever again.
Compulsory licensing for samples would allow artists and producers the creative freedom heard in early hip-hop, and guarantee a statutory royalty to owners of existing recordings. If this sounds pie-in-the-sky, just remember that right now you can sit down and record a song by anyone you like and sell a copy of that recording for any price you can get, so long as you send the original songwriter one thin dime. It’s a system that has been in place for over a hundred years. And it still serves songwriters well.
Rising highlights new artists we are excited about.
Bully: "I Remember" (via SoundCloud)
For Bully leader Alicia Bognanno, singing and songwriting is a cathartic outlet for some of her most personal insecurities—things she wouldn’t be comfortable talking to other people about. But once these candid details about her dirty bedsheets, her body-image issues, her period, or that one time she broke her own sister’s arm when she was six are howled into a microphone, she gains confidence and power. (Though, to be fair, she still feels awful about the arm-breaking thing.)
“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Wow, I can't believe I'm OK with putting this out,’” the 25-year-old admits. “I'm a lot more sensitive than I would like to be, but when I can just take things I'm really self-critical about and write them into a song and sing about them, I'm admitting it to other people and also accepting it myself. And the more I do it, the easier it is.”
With Bognanno’s unflinching honesty at the forefront of her band’s power pop blasts, it’s no wonder Bully grabbed the attention Columbia imprint Startime International, which will release their debut album later this year.
Bully: "Milkman" (via SoundCloud)
Bognanno grew up in Rosemount, Minnesota and moved to Nashville to pursue an education in audio engineering, a career path that her parents didn’t initially support. But over the last few years, she carved a niche for herself as an engineer and musician in Music City; she learned to play guitar, jammed with dudes in basements, was a member of the band King Arthur, engineered at the studio Battle Tapes, and ran sound at local venue The Stone Fox.
Within that Nashville scene, she met Bully drummer (and boyfriend) Stewart Copeland, bassist Reece Lazarus, and guitarist Clayton Parker, who all readily encourage her lyrical frankness. “If I have a weird line, I turn to the guys like, ‘Is that really weird?’ They’ll be like, ‘Dude, you’re fine,’” she says. “They're some of my best friends, and if they're backing me up on it, I don't really care if other people think it’s strange.”
Along with their brashness, another one of Bully’s greatest weapons is Bognanno’s studio expertise. She co-engineered and mixed their forthcoming record on hallowed grounds: Steve Albini’s iconic Chicago studio Electrical Audio. For most artists, the place’s reputation would be intimidating, but for Bognanno, it was familiar turf. A few summers ago, she interned at the studio, learning as much as she could about analog recording. “My whole experience there was fantastic,” she says. During that time, broke and temporarily living in a strange place, she wrote what would become Bully’s first songs. “I thrive in a place with no money and no friends,” she laughs.
Pitchfork: How did you get into making music?
Alicia Bognanno: I was never really that great at school, but there was an artsy alternative school close to my public school that offered an audio engineering class. They had a little studio setup, and most people just took it because the teacher was really cool and you could goof off. But it made me think, "This is a thing that you can do."
Pitchfork: Did you have any rock star aspirations in high school?
AB: Being in a band was so far out of my reach. I wasn't around people who were playing instruments in a rock’n’roll way. I was more set on just wanting to sing, though I've never had a conventionally great voice. But when you're 17 and you tell your parents you want to pursue music and you have pretty much no knowledge of it, they're like, "Right, of course you do." My dad is really supportive, but he would've felt a lot better if I'd said I wanted to study business or math.
Pitchfork: What sort of music were you making before Bully?
AB: I was singing on other people's projects, and then I started playing guitar, so it transformed into, “Hey, I love singing your stuff, but I wanna do my own thing.” It's hard to put emotion into something you didn't write, that you're not really connecting with. The more you write melodies for yourself, the more you find your own voice. When you're singing other people’s melodies, it's a lot more difficult. It's not natural and it can hold you back.
Pitchfork: What was your time interning at Electrical Audio like?
AB: It was literally the most calming, welcoming comfortable environment for me to be in. I went there to intern because they do everything on tape, and I started learning about the studio’s history when I got there. [Steve Albini] is maybe the smartest person I know. He knows everything about recording, and the other engineers there are so smart. If you have any questions, they want to give the answer to you.
Pitchfork: Do you have any sonic touchstones as an engineer?
AB: I love the way that “Tired of Sex” on [Weezer’s] Pinkerton is recorded. Our record doesn’t sound like that—I would love for our record to sound like that—but that’s a recording that comes to mind when I think, “Holy shit, this is awesome.” It’s so good. I love the drums.