Within the first minute of our phone conversation, Moses Sumney issues an apology which quickly escalates to a humblebrag and then tops out at straight-up stunting: He’s sorry to have to reschedule our interview… because he just flew into New Orleans and is rushing to prepare for his gig opening for Sufjan Stevens… and, oh yeah, he’s about to get a po’ boy with Solange.
Ask fellow artists, industry types, and scene lurkers who have witnessed his ascent in Los Angeles over the past couple of years, and this is what they likely predicted for Sumney: a constant buzz of people battling for a piece of his time. Because voices like his don’t come around all that often. Sumney attributes his mellifluous cadences and melodies to a youth spent memorizing songs by Usher, Beyoncé, and Ella Fitzgerald—but the inputs are far different than the output. His vocals are often reverbed and looped, ethereal and haunting in the manner of avant-folk acts like Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear; imagine spirituals sung by ghosts, the literal personification of “lost soul.”
Though he’ll assemble a full band for his upcoming Hollywood Bowl performance with St. Vincent and Erykah Badu, Sumney typically performs with just a guitar and a looping pedal—the kind of setup that has allowed the milquetoast likes of Howie Day and Keller Williams to lord over campus quads for the past decade. But Sumney’s simmering intensity, imposing physical presence, and unorthodox songwriting ensured that he never could fill that role. The 25-year-old developed his sound while attending UCLA, though he considered the college’s music scene to be something of an artistic dead zone. “There were a lot of bands trying to make music that would get them into the coolest competition at school as opposed to people who were really interrogating what they had to offer,” he says.
That internal investigation is still an ongoing process for Sumney, whose recorded output is scant thus far. His only official release is 2014’s self-recorded Mid-City Island EP, primarily composed of first-takes and improvisation; the music is stirring but purposefully incomplete. Recent single “Seeds” is the A-side of his forthcoming debut 7” on Terrible Records, the imprint of Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor (who also mixed the track). Though both the EP and the 7” were written, performed, and produced by Sumney himself, they benefit from the tangential starpower he seems to accumulate just by existing—Mid-City Island was recorded on a 4-track lent to him by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, and his relationship with Taylor began with an introduction by Solange at Fashion Week.
And yet, this linked-in natural, who started writing songs at age 12, thinks of himself as an awkward late bloomer. “None of my friends knew that I could sing until I was 20,” he says. Creativity wasn’t encouraged during a strict, practical upbringing with his Ghanaian-born parents, who are both pastors. The family lived in San Bernadino, California until Sumney was 10, at which point they returned to Ghana’s capital of Accra, where Sumney morphed into a typical, sullen teenager. He was bullied constantly, and rather than engaging with local music, he had his father buy him CDs by Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors—the kind of bands Americans give other Americans grief for over their supposed appropriation of African music.
Though things seem to be going his way now, Sumney’s future as a musician was touch-and-go for a while, and his first paid gig after graduating college was hardly glamorous. He created a PR position responsible for California Pizza Kitchen’s social media accounts, which means that Brands Saying Bae—famed skewerer of companies that employ shameless Internet slang on Twitter—exists because of people like Moses Sumney. “As I was trying to write things on [CPK's] Twitter, on mine I would be like, ‘Does anyone know a good place where I can drown myself?’” he recalls. (He quit when the Swedish folk band Junip asked him to open a few West Coast shows two years ago.)
Despite his growing list of bold-name supporters, Sumney still refers to his career with scare-quotes: His Twitter bio reads “Performer | Poor Person.” And when I ask him how it feels to warm-up a crowd for Sufjan, whose current set features songs almost exclusively about his deceased mother, he is not only undaunted but actually excited by the prospect of such dourness. He says that when he previously opened for effervescent headliners like Dirty Projectors, he felt “pressured to be a little more jokey and upbeat, and win the crowd over with my personality. [Sufjan] makes it easier for me. That's generally the space that I dwell in, where I can just be more somber and downbeat.”
Pitchfork: Of all the artists you’ve played with, which ones have you found to have the most surprising off-stage personality?
Moses Sumney: Solange is very, very chill. She's just so real, so human. Karen O, who I toured with last fall, is this badass persona on stage—and she is a badass—but in person she's very quiet and shy and soft spoken. You can't judge someone based on their onstage persona. No matter how big the production, or how famous somebody is, nobody has their shit together. [laughs] Everyone is still trying to figure it out.
Pitchfork: How has your onstage persona started to evolve?
MS: I'm currently really into the idea of being as non-human as possible. I think being human is second-guessing yourself and being unsure and just not going for it a lot of the time. I want to be this presence that just is, so when I get on stage I try to be as free and open as possible and let the performance go anywhere that it wants to go. I wanna go further into dressing more dramatically and being this otherworldly presence.
Pitchfork: You mentioned being bullied while you were in school in Ghana; did that take on a different form than it might in America?
MS: It's just a common adolescent thing: People don't like you because you're different, and I was an American citizen and I had an American accent. They also found me to be uppity, like, "Oh, you're from America, so you must think that you're better than everyone." So people would just beat me up, hit me, push me around, take my stuff. Also, corporal punishment is totally legal in Ghana. So teachers had things that are cut from bamboo sticks that they would beat you with if you misbehaved or didn’t get good grades. I found out a lot of teachers really didn't like me because I was American, so I would get beat for really dumb things like not doing well on my homework that was in the local language, which I didn't speak.
Pitchfork: How did that affect your relationship with American culture at the time?
MS: I rebelled against the local culture because I hated living there and embraced American culture even more than I would have if I lived here. Being in Ghana didn't explicitly affect how I make music now because I rejected listening to any local music when I lived there. My dad would go to California, and I would ask him to bring me all these CDs. I was just determined to be very American. I've since grown out of that mentality, but that's how it affected me.
Pitchfork: With all of these accolades and opportunities coming your way, do you feel pressure to “capitalize” and complete an album?
MS: There's something about being a Los Angeles-based artist that is uniquely weird. Even if you’re playing a small show, all of a sudden there can be A&Rs and managers and label people there. It's not healthy for artistry. It stressed me out. It was like, "Oh my God, why am I getting on all these lists? Why are so many people talking about me? I don't even know who I am musically." It's something that makes me want to disappear off the face of the Earth.
People would say, "Oh, the songwriting is not there yet," which really bothered me because, like, yeah, I'm working on it. It also bothered me that a lot of big industry people were interested, because when I was formulating the idea of what kind of artist I would be, I was listening to so much indie music that I thought, “Oh gosh, if big industry people like me, it must mean my music is shit.”
At the end of the Julie Ruin’s recent set at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, frontwoman Kathleen Hanna makes for the wings, as if she’s about to let the rest of the band play out the final minutes. It seems like a strange end to her first performance on the continent in a decade, but it’s a feint: She suddenly turns, cartwheels back into the center of the stage, and lands in a perfect split. Within a few hours, a GIF of the moment is circulating online.
Not only is Hanna 46 years old (who among us can truly say they’ve ever been able to do that?), but this time last year, she was in bed, struck down again by a side-effect of Lyme disease. She’s been battling the chronic illness for years—her struggle can be seen up-close in the candid 2013 documentary The Punk Singer—and that latest relapse forced her to cancel what would have been the Julie Ruin’s debut European dates. “There was a period where I could barely do anything except paint watercolors in my journal,” she told me over the phone two weeks before the festival.
So Hanna’s Primavera performance is a powerful reclamation of the physical expression her illness denied her. She dances all elbows and knees, defiantly sings face-up at the sky, and repeatedly shouts out next year’s inaugural Ladyfest Barcelona. It’s as exciting for the rapturous crowd as it is for Hanna, who says that even while sick, she resumed performing and giving lectures because, “As soon as the lights go on, I'm Kathleen again—and I really missed that person.”
According to one of the most reliable tests going in a severely underfunded field, Hanna is now officially Lyme-free. “They never know if it'll come back, but I did so much IV antibiotics that I'm pretty certain it's gone,” she says. “I call it remission so that I'm not overly optimistic, but it looks like I'm in the clear in terms of the Lyme and the co-infections.”
The disease has had a profound emotional fallout—essentially a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder—and prompted Hanna, who confesses to workaholic tendencies, to redress her work/life balance. But she promises we’ll be seeing a lot more of her from now on. She plans to pull back on the lectures and all other side projects to focus on recording the follow-up to the Julie Ruin’s 2013 album Run Fast this summer because, 24 years after Bikini Kill’s Revolution Girl Style Now!, music is still what gives her life. “I thought all my happy memories were in the past,” she says, “and it's almost like having a second chance at life to find out that they’re not.”
"I started to forget who I was aside from being sick. But when I'm performing, it's like I'm myself again, and that was a really amazing discovery."
Pitchfork: The Julie Ruin’s first European dates were due to take place last May, but then you got sick again. What happened, and how did it affect the ensuing 12 months?
Kathleen Hanna: I had a relapse of a secondary infection to Lyme disease called Babesia, which is very similar to malaria. It’s in the medication that you take to try to desensitize your body from [Lyme], so you're basically taking medication that's giving you malaria. And I couldn't tour with malaria!
It was a really awful process—you take it for three weeks and then you're off for a week and a half, but you're still sick the whole time, and then you do it again. It took months and months to get through my three cycles. It was quite a harrowing process and really a bummer because I started feeling bad right before we left, and I didn't know what it was, and I went to my doctor and he was like, “You can't go on this tour, you're relapsing.” It was the worst news possible. How do you cancel a whole tour like that? It's not something I'm used to doing—I'm the person who's 20 minutes early. But a lot has changed because of the illness.
Pitchfork: It’s had a permanent effect?
KH: Yeah, it's had a very traumatic effect on me. For the most part, I'm Lyme-free and now dealing with the psychological stuff and getting off all the medication safely. I thought I'd be dancing in the street, totally happy, like, “Yay! I'll be fine! It worked!” But really, after going through an illness that involves a lot of pain you have no control over, there's a lot of trauma that gets left over in your body. You can't really face it at the time because you're just trying to get your basic, physical needs met. It's almost like post-traumatic stress syndrome. I'm really trying to face up to some of the scarier things that happened during my illness and work through those so that I can move on from it, not only physically but psychologically, because the mind and the body are so connected. Who knew?!
Pitchfork: How has being sick affected your creative identity?
KH: Creating now is really the therapy of working through the feelings of this illness, and all of the different things it implies—being a woman and having a male caregiver, and watching so many people say, “Oh, he's the best husband in the world, he's so great, he totally took care of you!” Of course I love my husband [Adam Horovitz] and I thank him every day for what he's done for me, but if the situation was reversed, everybody would assume that I would be his caregiver and help him out. When a man does it he gets a parade, but when a woman does it, it's par for the course. That's been an interesting thing to watch. Nobody's really commenting on my suffering, they're all commenting on what a great person my husband is. And it pisses him off too!
Pitchfork: Do you think it’s changed how people respond to you?
KH: No, not at all. The one difference has been so many people on Facebook or Twitter being like, “Hey, I'm rooting for you.” And people who have Lyme and other invisible illnesses writing me a lot of letters and emails, giving me advice but also asking for advice. Otherwise, the thing that's weird is that people don't understand how long this illness stretches out for: I'm still gonna be dealing with the fallout for at least the next year, even though I'm gonna be able to tour and be functional and I'm fine. People still ask me for so much, constantly. And even when it was publicized that I had canceled all these shows and was sick, I was still getting tons of requests. You'd think people would be like, “You know what? That person's really sick and they're going through this hard time, I'm not gonna ask them to blurb my book right now,” you know what I mean?
Pitchfork: Like the assumption is that the woman is the caregiver, and you’ll still be able to do these things for people.
KH: Exactly! It's constant unpaid labor. So I made postcards and paid someone to come over and address them all—like, “I'm not well, I can't return your letters right now.” And I tried to come up with strategies for being a little bit less accessible. [The illness] has changed me—I've always thought “life is short and I wanna make as much of it as I can,” but I really don't have time to mess around. This has really been a wake-up call in terms of what's important, and I'm working hard to figure that out. I need to get better at not doing favors for people all the time. It's hard because there's so many people who have helped me get to the point where I'm in a band that people wanna come see, or where people pay money to see me lecture.
"I realized that I really enjoy writing comedy and how important comedy is when you feel like total crap."
Pitchfork: What role do the live shows play in your recovery?
KH: One of the reasons I went back to music even though I was extremely ill was because I started to forget who I was aside from being sick. And when I'm performing, or even lecturing, it's like I'm myself again, and that was a really amazing discovery—that, all of a sudden, I have a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It's frustrating: I feel like I'm supposed to be smiling all the time and so happy and thankful. It's something a lot of people with chronic illness go through when they have a good day or they find out that they may be in remission. We're supposed to feel like all the colors are so much more beautiful than before, and we appreciate life more than other people. But I just wanna take shit for granted sometimes, and be a jerk, and not care, and waste my day! But I also wanna be outside more than I did before, I wanna take long walks and enjoy living in New York. I'm not as work-obsessed as I used to be. I don't care as much about doing the proper things for my career or whatever. Not like I ever did—I just started to feel like I was gonna do that, but then I was like, “No, I'd actually rather take a walk.”
Pitchfork: In an interview last year, you said you want more people to hear your work and you're raring to go—has that changed?
KH: No, I still want more people to hear what we do, and I still wanna put that work in. But I'm gonna pull back on the lectures and all other side things and really focus in on the music. Spending time with my friends has become a lot more important. It's not how it used to be where it was like, “going out tonight is taking away from work.” I need to see my friends or I'm gonna go crazy. I'm not gonna stay home and work.
Pitchfork: What happens to your creativity when you're sick?
KH: There were some times when it was impossible for me to put language together, or I was having migraines and couldn't put headphones on. There was a time when I couldn't really make music, but I wrote a TV show for my friend Bridget Everett, who's a really amazing cabaret artist, a musician and a humorist. When I was feeling really crappy, I would go and see her perform. She's so funny, and I relate to a lot of her humor—it's usually pretty tragic and about dysfunctional family—and her voice is so beautiful so, since I couldn't sing, I felt so thankful that I got to hear her sing. I really wanted to do something about her, not about me, so my husband and I started writing a television vehicle for her. When I couldn't type, my husband would, but I could still have ideas. It was a way to keep my mind off of the pain or the discomfort or how tired I was. I was able to still be creative, and I realized that I really enjoy writing comedy, and how important comedy is when you feel like total crap. Laughing really was the only way to get through it.
Pitchfork: Did that translate into the new Julie Ruin record?
KH: It’s funny because the first song we finished is totally depressing! And I was like, “Oh god, it's happening.” There's upbeat stuff, but a lot of the lyrics are about things I've learned through the illness. It amplifies things in your life. Whatever your personality was before, it makes it that plus a thousand. I'm a very binary person in a bad way where it's like everything is either totally great or totally awful. I don't understand grey area that well, and I’ve been working at that. This record is a lot of me dealing with things like getting rid of people in my life who were dragging me down. It's so hard to do that when you're well. I found out who my real friends are, because they stuck around and helped me. There's a lot of that on this record—thankfulness for my friends, and processing my ability not to let in vampires. People can relate to those concepts whether they’re sick or not.
Pitchfork: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be creative but has a chronic illness?
KH: Think of something that you can do as opposed to all the things you can't do—and do that. It's just like gardening: What can grow in this soil? There's some soil you can grow roses in and some soil you can only grow cactuses in, so if you can only grow cactuses, become the best cactus grower in the whole world. Taking care of yourself is the most important thing. Find something that makes you happy, like looking at beautiful pictures, or, if you're able, listening to beautiful music, or sitting by the window and looking outside—small things like that can be absolutely huge. Don’t get down on yourself that you can't run a 4K or dance all night long at a fun club. Give yourself a break.
Kamasi Washington is a common link between two of this year’s most necessary records, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard one of them. The L.A. musician arranged strings and played saxophone on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which has sold around 600,000 copies in three months—not bad for a 79-minute opus that blends hot jazz, atomic funk, spoken word, West Coast hip-hop, militant politics, and Afrocentric positivity. But the other record might have pulled off an even more impressive feat.
Washington’s de facto debut, The Epic, has achieved consensus acclaim from the notoriously New York-centric jazz community while also crossing over to some non-jazz listeners, despite having no EDM fusions, no guest rappers, and nothing that would pacify a quaint cocktail hour. Granted, the 34-year-old’s association with Lamar and Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has helped him become a topic of interest outside of his genre, but there’s no getting around the fact that The Epic is filled with three hours of music very much steeped in the jazz canon. Washington’s excitement over his new ambassadorship is especially crucial right now, when jazz has been deemed the least popular genre of American music.
“I’ve had experiences where people say, ‘I hated jazz before I heard you guys!’” Washington notes. “I’m like, ‘You didn’t hate jazz before you heard us, you hated the idea of jazz.’” In particular, the musician points to his gigs at Hollywood goth club Bar Sinister, where he would soundtrack fanged patrons “getting strapped in and beat with whips—and they would go nuts for us.”
It’s a Friday afternoon in May when I meet with Washington at his Inglewood home. His wardrobe is decidedly mystic: turquoise dashiki, knitted hat, and a medallion with the circumference of a Coke can. Walking through his backyard, we’re greeted by his two dogs, Mecca and Mi’raj, named after the birthplace of Muhammad and a spiritual journey outlined in the Quran. Now, I’d hate to describe the personal conservatory of a modern jazz visionary as a “man cave”... but that’s more or less the vibe. The converted shed houses a barely organized array of drums, computers, a light recording rig, Rhodes keyboards—basically everything but his main instrument, the tenor sax. It’s also filled with books including A Marriage Manual—A Practical Guide to Sex and Marriage and the weight-loss handbook Thin for Life, though Washington is currently single and proudly stout, sturdily built but not gigantic, similar to an offensive lineman from a Division III school.
When he gets into the narrative guiding The Epic, things can get a little out-of-hand (once again, it is a three-hour record). Its penultimate track reworks Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X into a melody, and there are a few vocal numbers that outline an impressionistic story detailing a warrior’s struggle to find himself, but The Epic is a rare political album that’s mostly instrumental. Just on the basis of its resolute existence, Washington feels the record is part of a societal push back to what he repeatedly calls “the dimming of the mind,” where our brains are flooded with so much information that they just give up rather than trying to absorb anything.
“People have been starving for intellectual fodder, but the best way to get people to close their eyes and not say anything is to tell them that they’re not smart enough to comprehend,” Washington surmises, and he believes that can entail anything from the awful roots of poverty and police brutality, to jazz itself. “And if they believe it, then they’ll listen to whatever you say. Frederick Douglass talked about it: Before he learned how to read, he could be a slave, but as soon as his mind opened, he could never go back.”
Photo by Mike Park
The hero’s quest in The Epic can be traced onto Washington’s own life. He was raised in Inglewood, not too far from where he currently lives, in a quiet, residential stretch of the city that would bring in a good deal of drive-through visitors when Christmas decorations started to go up each year. He was born into a family of musicians: His mother Valerie was a flutist who became a science teacher, and his saxophonist father Rickey played in a fusion gospel group when he wasn’t doing sessions with the Temptations or Diana Ross.
But Washington’s memories of Inglewood’s gang culture—which still thrives mere blocks away from his current home—are vivid, too. Though many of his friends were Bloods, he grew up near a Crip neighborhood that was run by the infamous Rollin 60s. “It was a little surreal,” he says, recalling his own in-betweenness, “but maybe it broke me of that [gang] mentality because it was like, ‘Y’all are so similar.’ Neither side knew that I was cool with the other.”
Washington’s own musical skills were readily evident early on, and his growing obsession helped him avoid getting caught up in the violence outside his own front door. “People gave you a pass when you were doing something,” Washington explains. “But if you aren’t doing anything, there is a lot of pressure to be involved [with gangs], because you can't just be like ‘I don't wanna get involved.’ That's weird.”
He was also academically inclined, a hobbyist of physics and math, which resulted in admission to the prestigious Academy of Music at Hamilton High School in L.A.’s tony Beverlywood neighborhood. Washington embraced the opportunity, while still feeling guilt for contributing to the so-called “brain drain” that occurs when top students are drawn away from lower income areas by magnet and private schools.
“This notion that I was somehow special and deserving of a more involved education was wrong,” he tells me. “I was smart at taking tests, but I knew how smart some of my friends were; they were just smart in different ways.” If there’s any political cause that resonates with Washington most deeply, it’s leveling the terrible educational stratification that occurs in city public schools. “I have friends who went through all four years of high school and didn't have one book while I had too many books to carry,” he says. “The difference in the resources was flagrant, but we still take the same test to determine whether or not we get more education.”
While at Hamilton, he hooked up with the L.A. Multi School Jazz Band, an all-star team of young musicians mostly hailing from separate communities in West and South Central Los Angeles. During this time, he took part in some friendly competition with his fellow jazz heads as they all tried to put in the most work. “We would practice from 5 to 8 at night, and then take the bus and play the jam session until 1 a.m., come back to my house and play until 4 o'clock in the morning,” he remembers. “My dad would go nuts—he'd scream at us and say the cops are gonna come and break our instruments.”
Still, Washington was concerned about whether the conservatory training was keeping him from feeling jazz the way older generations did. “Music was a little more alive to my neighbors,” he says. “When they gave me their favorite Jazz Crusaders record they would tell me, ‘I got my first girl when I played her this.’ [laughs] At Hamilton, jazz was up on the shelf, this grand thing.”
At 20, he was introduced to Snoop Dogg by his childhood friend, hip-hop producer Terrace Martin (it would not be the last time Martin provided Washington with a golden opportunity), and he went on to play with Raphael Saadiq, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, George Duke, and many other titans of R&B and jazz. And yet, he remembers Snoop as being the most demanding bandleader: “He had a sense of musical detail that just never came up in jazz,” Washington notes. “I was always getting put in these situations where all this stuff I learned in jazz didn't really apply. Jazz is like a telescope, and a lot of other music is like a microscope.”
After a decade of rewarding side roles, Washington was approached by Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder crew about the possibility of taking the lead. He was instantly won over by the prospect of artistic freedom. This was around 2010—and given the specs of The Epic, it’s surprising that it only took four years to create. It wasn’t just about writing for a 20-piece choir and a 32-piece orchestra—it was about getting all of that in-demand talent in the same room.
Along with like-minded collective the West Coast Get Down, Washington holed up in a studio for a month, in December 2011, working 16 hours a day. The group walked away from the sessions with 190 songs to be split up between eight different projects; 45 of those songs were Washington’s.
Then, The Epic underwent an equally epic editing process en route to the 17-track final. There were songs where the feel just wasn’t right, mixes that needed the slightest tweaking, and a few logistical delays. But it all eventually paid off. Thirteen years after introducing Washington to Snoop, Martin heard a finished version of The Epic in 2014 and felt there might be a place for his friend on a record he was helping produce: Lamar’s Fort Knox-secretive follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
The original plan was to have Washington add orchestration to Butterfly’s 2Pac-assisted finale, but in order for him to get an idea of how the track ties the record together, “they literally played the whole album for me three times in a row. They would get to a song, stop it, and be like, ‘We should put strings on here!’” Washington quickly became an indispensable part of the project. “They were like, ‘When can you start? ‘Cause the record’s due in three weeks!’” After weathering through a decade of setbacks—including the demands of being a sideman, an oral cyst that nearly ended his career, and the death of friends in his community—Washington had no problems with the accelerated timeline.
“Kendrick’s album killed this notion that people are stupid and can only understand music that’s extremely simple. Information is too accessible for people to be that shallow. People are smarter than they’ve ever been!”
Photo by Mike Park
Pitchfork: How much control was Kendrick willing to relinquish during the making of To Pimp a Butterfly?
Kamasi Washington: Once he figured out what he was getting from me, he would just sit back and let me do what I would do. He wouldn’t say anything until I was done. He respects people’s abilities, which is rare. They just want this little bitty piece of what you are, and that’s it.
Pitchfork: How secretive were those sessions?
KW: When he pulled me in, he didn’t tell me what I was gonna be doing. He was like, “There’s one thing at the end of the album we want you to do,” and I was like, “What is it?” and he said, “I can’t really tell you.” So I was like, ‘OK cool, can you give me an mp3 or a link or something?”’ And they were like, “Nah! The music never leaves [the studio]. It doesn’t even leave the room!”
Pitchfork: What was your first reaction upon hearing the final album?
KW: When I started working on the Kendrick record, I was like, “Wow, this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.” But the pessimistic [side of me] was like, “I just hope someone doesn’t come along and start hitting the mute buttons.” I’ve had that happen to me when I was working on records: When we were finished, it was something amazing, and then along came the all seeing eye that said all the cool stuff was too musical, that people won’t get it. The Kendrick record is so lush on so many levels: musically, harmonically, rhythmically, lyrically. So over-the-top. When it dropped, it was basically everything I remember it being, so I was jumping for joy, man. Having the big machine behind something that cool? I can’t remember the last time that happened.
Pitchfork: Did you feel more confident about The Epic after witnessing the reception of Kendrick’s album?
KW: Yeah. It just killed this notion that people are stupid and can only understand music that’s extremely simple. Information is too accessible for people to be that shallow. People are smarter than they’ve ever been! Kendrick proved it. That album is opening doors and making people not belittle themselves into this place of thinking that everything has to happen in four bars or they can’t get it. The fact of the matter is that nobody understands what John Coltrane is doing except John Coltrane. And maybe not even him. So we’re all experiencing it on this subconscious level.
Photo by Mike Park
Pitchfork: The modern world of jazz is very much centered in New York: the press, the musicians, the labels. Do you feel like you met any resistance being from Los Angeles?
KW: The high level super cats in New York were always cool. They know about us. We know about them. It's more like the general public. It's not that they think guys in L.A. can't play. It's just overlooked. I'd get a lot of, "Wow, you're from L.A. and you play like that?" I'd be like, "What's that supposed to mean?" We probably had more of a chip than they did because the expectations were always so high.
Pitchfork: Were other jazz labels courting you or were you always dedicated to making a record with a non-jazz imprint like Brainfeeder?
KW: [Blue Note Records President] Don Was came to the studio once, but at that point, I had already committed to doing the record with Brainfeeder. I have to give Flying Lotus credit on that level. We were all in the background doing stuff for a while, and somehow the labels and the media never really saw it—Lotus was the one who had the vision to see how dope it was.
Pitchfork: There’s a strong possibility that The Epic might be the first jazz record a lot of people hear, or even the only one some people listen to in 2015. Are you concerned that the technique and references might go over their heads or do you welcome the idea of being a crossover artist?
KW: We’ve played so many places where, if you asked people, “Do you like jazz?” they would be like, “not at all.” But I think that if you’re really putting yourself out there and really communicating, music can put you beyond people’s preconceptions, beyond their playlist. We play at Piano Bar in Hollywood all the time, and people come up and ask us, “What kind of music is that? I like it!” And I’m like, “I guess we call it jazz.” “Really?!” It’s cool, because I don’t think it’s gonna end there. I feel jealous of them—they’re gonna get to hear [John Coltrane’s] Transition for the first time, and it’s gonna blow their mind!
This year's Nos Primavera Sound Festival took place in Porto, Portugal, last weekend and featured acts such as Babes in Toyland, FKA twigs, HEALTH, Spiritualized, Mac DeMarco, and more. Photographer Maria Louceiro was there to take portraits and snap a few shots of the performances.
Taking place on Randall's Island in New York City, this year's Governors Ball featured acts such as Björk, Drake, Lana Del Rey, Rae Sremmurd, Florence and the Machine, and more. Our photographer Erez Avissar was there to capture onstage moments as well as portraits of the artists.
From the outside of West London’s RAK Studios, it sounds as if the building is collapsing in on itself. Just past the half-open front door, Savages guitarist Gemma Thompson is conjuring a violent squall in Studio 2 as producer Johnny Hostile looks down from the upstairs console. It’s early May, and this is Savages’ third and final week at RAK, where they’ve been recording the follow-up to their ferocious 2013 debut, Silence Yourself.
The band’s initial intention for album two—tentatively due out early next year—was “to write the loudest songs ever,” says frontwoman Jehnny Beth. They convened at a friend’s out-of-the-way studio in north London last year, but quickly realized the space was muzzling their sound. “After two months we had to move because the room was too small and we were writing ballads all the time,” says Beth.
They ended up scrapping most of the material written there (or, “the ones that sounded too happy,” says drummer Fay Milton), with the exception of “Adore”, a grandiose torch song that summons the earth-raising spectre of Savages’ beloved Swans as well as the French-born Beth’s countrywoman Edith Piaf, and even a little Freddie Mercury in the chorus. It was one of the highlights of Savages’ three-week New York residency back in January, where Beth, Thompson, Milton, and bassist Ayşe Hassan workshopped new material in nine shows across several different venues. Every performance was recorded and every audience reaction heeded, with the results influencing what Savages preserved, honed, and ditched.
When it came to recording, Savages rejected several offers from established producers to work again with Beth’s long-term partner, Johnny Hostile. “He knows the band inside out,” says Milton. “You save so much time not having to explain anything when you work with someone who knows you so well.” Where Silence Yourself was recorded almost entirely live, for the new record, each member of the four-piece put down her parts individually. “That was really inspiring as musicians, to have time to work on your own sound and go a bit deeper into the music,” says Beth.
Much of Silence Yourself drew from the antagonistic experiences that Savages had early on, when they worked with a management team that tried to make them compromise their precise vision. Questions posed in “Adore”—“Is it human to ask for more?/ Is it human to adore life?”—suggest that the greatest fuck-you to anyone who tries to get you down is to live life with the utmost joy. “The last one was the problem,” says Beth. “This one’s the solution.” Which, of course, is not to say it’s all fluffy clouds and unicorns. “It’s a mean record,” says Beth. “It’s aggressive. Words of hope in a world of doom.”
"I kept writing things that I felt were not suitable for Savages, because they were too personal or talking about love, and I never really wanted to do that."
Pitchfork: How did the New York residency affect the record?
Jehnny Beth: We’d written most of the record by then, and the songs were great—but they needed the adrenaline element. We all felt New York would be a good home for that. I like American audiences. They like heavy music, and the sounds are quite heavy, so it fit pretty well. I would even ask the audience what they thought sometimes, because that was the whole idea.
Fay Milton: I’m always looking to see if people are moving or nodding their heads, if all of that’s working together—but it’s not necessarily a clap-o-meter.
Pitchfork: Did you change any songs after those shows?
JB: Yeah, we completely rewrote some songs.
FM: We were always a bit unsure about “When in Love”, but listening back to the recordings of our shows, it was actually sounding great.
Pitchfork: I could hear Swans’ influence in a lot of the new songs.
JB: There was a moment when we saw Swans, and it really started to shape what I wanted to say on the record lyrically. There will definitely be things like “I Need Something New”, where you can hear Swans’ influence on the music—and I’m saying that humbly because there’s no way we’re matching that, especially right now. They’re one of the best bands ever. Live, they go beyond any kind of sound you can hear from any band at the moment.
Pitchfork: On that song you sing, “I need something new in my ears.” Is that a response to something?
FM: [deadpan] We’re hoping for a headphone endorsement.
JB: “I Need Something New” started as something I was just reciting onstage, so there was no music at the beginning. And we really needed something; we were repeating the same things live and it felt we needed to incorporate something else. So I was doing that, and then Gemma and Fay started to improvise, and then Ayşe joined in, and it became a song. It was absolutely written onstage, and I think you can feel it, because it has this freedom, if I daresay that word. It has that lightness.
Pitchfork: How did seeing Swans help you figure out what you wanted to say on the album?
JB: When we were on tour, I kept writing things that I felt were not suitable for Savages, because they were maybe too personal or talking about love, and I never really wanted to do that. So I kept writing these things thinking, “This is for something else.” Then it came time to do Savages things, and I was in front of a white page, like, “So now I need to write for Savages.” I didn’t want to acknowledge that I’d already written [songs]. I resisted it for a while.
Pitchfork: So are you singing love songs now?
JB: I wanted to find the right angle. It was a long process, because I didn’t want to fall into clichés. It had to be connected with something bigger, and I think Swans have that when [Michael Gira] talks about his father or God or love in general. It needed to have this universal dimension, and “Adore” was a key for that on the record.
Pitchfork: What informed that song?
JB: The idea came when I was looking at the poetry shelves in a San Francisco bookshop, and I found this book called Crime Against Nature by a poet called Minnie Bruce Pratt. It’s about her specific story about leaving her family and abandoning her children for a woman. It's really touching. The idea of doing something big for love and the guilt that you have to deal with afterwards was really interesting for me. How much love comes with its opposite: fear, jealousy, anxiety, abandon.
And the story touched me because what she realized is that she was a poet. She had a very conventional life—a husband and two kids—and was bored to death. But then she overcame that and realized there was something else in life that could let her be the person she was supposed to become. And I think that’s what you [make art] for, so you can pass that on.
FM: When I first heard those lyrics in rehearsal, I almost cried. To me, it’s related to death as well: not wanting to leave the world and just live and live.
JB: The “live forever” inspiration is something we’ve all experienced as children or teenagers—you hear a piece of music or see an actor in a play or go to the circus and suddenly there’s something telling you: just live forever and don’t let that go. When you’re touched by that thing, that’s when you start writing and wanting to get at something bigger than yourself.
Pitchfork: Jehnny, I spotted an astonishing video of you singing several David Bowie songs at the Parisian opening of the David Bowie Is exhibition earlier this year. How did you approach that performance?
JB: I rewatched a few old Ziggy Stardust live videos before we did that project, and though Bowie is often seen as this pop artist, I actually realized that he’s behind every single word—and the words were actually meaningful. Nothing slips without any intention behind it. I kind of forgot that about him. If he says “you” he looks at the people in the eyes and says it right to them, and I thought that was inspiring.
Pitchfork: At all the Savages gigs I’ve seen, you always seem to engage with the crowd in that way.
JB: Drama. I love the word, and maybe that’s why I was touched by watching Bowie, because I’m quite sensitive to the theatricality of it. I grew up with Jacques Brel and all these French singers who were extremely expressive with their hands, their face. If they described a room, you’d see the whole room. It’s like poetic theater. It stayed with me.
Ornette Coleman was 85 years old when he died from cardiac arrest in New York yesterday. By then, the renegade jazz composer and conceptualist was a highly decorated elder-statesman of American creativity. But that wasn’t always the case. He started out untutored on his saxophone as a young man in Texas, got thrown out of bars (and down country hills) for the tart strangeness of his ecstatic exclamations, but persevered anyway, eventually lighting upon an approach to jazz improvisation and composition that relied on expanded conception of harmony rather than chord changes.
He played the blues, but he played them slant. Like much of the best avant-garde art, Coleman’s soloing taught you how to absorb it, as each new choice piled atop the last one. If the occasional sharp-sounding phrase raises an eyebrow at first, keep listening—you’ll find that Coleman is encouraging your ears to hear melody over melody, unbounded by the expectations we associate with typical hook construction. (The multi-melody group approach was a cornerstone of his mystic, never-fully-explicated personal system, which he called “harmolodics.”)
Though Coleman talked about the equal footing of all musical ideas—and was often observed taking a happy blowtorch to the supposed boundaries between “jazz” and “classical” styles, in addition to exploring funk, rock, and global folk—he also worked tirelessly on his own pieces. Just because Coleman thought “oneness” of musical expression was possible doesn’t mean he thought it happened effortlessly. If you think of “free jazz” (a term imposed upon his music by Atlantic Records) as a synonym for “undisciplined,” you haven’t checked out the sure-footed rapport of Coleman’s classic early quartet, which featured drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Charlie Haden, and trumpeter Don Cherry.
It was with this group that the saxophonist presented his radical forms to New York in 1959. Famously, Coleman’s approach riled the jazz establishment while electrifying others. With enough time and distance from the controversy, Coleman emerged as a grand old man of the experimental scene, guesting with admirers like Lou Reed, as well as Sonny Rollins. In later years, Coleman was awarded his Pulitzer, as well as a MacArthur “genius grant.” At that level, his story is not tragic: Coleman was certainly appreciated in his time. And yet his death still registers as a giant loss because his specific way of channing the American experience through his art will not be replaced.
Like other black artists of his generation, he suffered the burdens of explicit and unchecked racial prejudice. In A. B. Spellman’s essential 1966 book Four Lives in the Bebop Business, Coleman related an early insight that came to him while playing in Forth Worth, Texas in 1948: While soloing on “Stardust”, he heard “all these other notes that I could play to the changes” in his head—and then went ahead and played them, breezing by standard melody and chord guidelines. As you might expect, some patrons exhorted Coleman to “get on the melody.” But even the rare adventurous soul who complimented the saxophonist after the gig suggested some of the difficulties ahead. In the book, Coleman recalled a man coming up to him after the gig and saying, “It's an honor to shake your hand because you're really a saxophone player—but you're still a nigger to me.”
You’d hardly blame someone for coming out cynical—or even militant—after ritually enduring such racism. But part of the beauty of Coleman’s work flows from what can seem like an unending supply of goodwill and generosity. As he once toldThe Chicago Tribune: “At a certain point in my life, I just decided that I would never fight any kind of class, any kind of race, and if someone said, ‘I don’t like you,’ I wouldn’t try to defend myself. I’m not trying to control, change, dominate, kill or be against anyone, or put somebody above another. I think my position is that I’m no more than a speck of dust in the sand, and I’m trying to avoid being stepped on.”
Even as he pursued this large-hearted path, Coleman was also capable of sharp commentary. The titles of various Coleman albums from the late 1950s on through the ‘60s—Tomorrow Is the Question!, Change of the Century, Crisis—clearly reflect the groundswell of Civil Rights consciousness. His controversial 1972 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, Skies of America, reserves some of its greatest volleys of squall for sections that bear titles like “Foreigner in a Free Land” and “The Men Who Live in the White House”. Though for all his experimentalism, Coleman was also in search of connection. The pain in a composition like “Sadness” wasn’t there to bum you out. It was a healing expression of hurt—a cry from someone who wanted to improve the circumstances of a listener’s life.
On cable-news debate shows, or in certain kinds of tech coverage, you’re apt to encounter a fair amount of testimony on behalf of the American spirit—about how this entity longs to be unencumbered by rules and left free to innovate. Often, a speaker’s invocation of rugged, solitary heroism winds up being a pretext for the justification of some narrow political goal, but sometimes this talk isn’t total bullshit. Despite having the nation’s complex history to lug around, some American artists do hold a talent for junking the inherited assumptions of the past in rewarding ways. Ornette Coleman is among their number. Even in death, he retains a claim on the most honest form of American individualism.
Every portion of Coleman’s catalog is worth exploring—he was too busy being soulful to repeat himself, or to become uninteresting—including the 10 highlights in the following chronological guide.
Coleman wrote some important tunes (like “Turnaround”) before the formation of his classic, piano-less quartet. But this band’s first two releases feel like the real place to start. The impact of this pair of LPs cannot be overestimated. Even jazz musicians, who normally sort themselves into feuding camps based on warring perceptions of the avant-garde, virtually all agree on the songful, adventurous qualities of these performances and compositions. Highlights include, well, everything—but perhaps especially the iconically keening balladry of “Lonely Woman”, the bluesy “Ramblin’”, the bebop-referencing freneticism of “Eventually”, the grooves in “Una Muy Bonita”, and the eccentric opening alarm of “Focus on Sanity”.
Free Jazz (1961)
This record found Coleman expanding his group to a “double quartet” that included other vanguards like reed player Eric Dolphy. Despite the title, it’s not a free-for-all. “All that music was written out,” Coleman told journalist Howard Mandel in the valuable book Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, and even in the first half-minute, you can hear group members coalescing around the same written material. The “freeness” here has to do with the improvised routes the musicians take through an LP-length composition. You can also find a first-draft of the piece in the box set compendium of Coleman’s Atlantic releases, the essential Beauty Is a Rare Thing.
Town Hall, 1962 (1962)
Right around the time that some in New York were finally getting used to his quartet music, Coleman upped the ante by presenting an astringent piece for string quartet, “Dedication to Poets and Writers”, at Manhattan’s storied Town Hall. For both that daring choice, as well as the introduction of a new trio, this live recording is an important stop in the catalog.
Science Fiction (1972)
Here we find Coleman in a new group situation that includes tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman. Science Fiction opens with a song that includes the soul-adjacent vocals of Asha Puthli on “What Reason Could I Give” before launching into the hot-music intensity of “Civilization Day” (which features some prominent bass shredding by Charlie Haden). This album looks ahead to some of Coleman’s future designs on fusion, but is a standout even when considered on its own terms.
Skies of America (1972)
Coleman’s big orchestral piece generated controversy among the London Symphony Orchestra players, who didn’t much appreciate the composer’s disregard for typical symphonic arrangements. The recording was also troubled by the fact that union rules prevented Coleman’s band from accompanying the orchestra, as Coleman had envisioned. And yet it’s still a classic. As pianist Ethan Iverson wrote in an extraordinary series of blog posts on Coleman, “I have heard hours and hours of orchestral music in my life and most of it hasn’t stayed with me. Skies of America—that scorched-earth, post-apocalyptic mayhem—I’ll never forget that sound.”
Dancing in Your Head (1976)
“Theme From a Symphony” is our recorded introduction to the electric Prime Time band, which would dominate Coleman’s output for the rest of the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s. Strangely rocking and funking, the harmolodic two-guitar attack of Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee illustrates the interpretive flexibility of Coleman’s melodic gift. (How different this “theme” sounds, versus the way Coleman presented it during Skies of America!) On the B-side of the LP, Coleman’s world-music impulses are given an outlet on “Midnight Sunrise”, his collaboration with Morocco’s Master Musicians of Jajouka.
Of Human Feelings (1982)
Recorded in 1979, this is the fiercest distillation of Coleman’s late-‘70s funk investigations. The whole thing smokes—from the ripping opener “Sleep Talk” through the insistent theme that anchors finale “Times Square”, which Coleman once used to burn down the “Saturday Night Live” stage. The album is hard to find, but very much worth finding.
Tone Dialing (1995)
By moving into Coleman’s ‘90s catalog, we’re not slighting his activity in the prior decade: 1986’s Song X, with Pat Metheny, and 1988’s Virgin Beauty, which included guest strumming from Jerry Garcia, are both worthy projects. And the 1987 double-album set In All Languages—which featured Coleman’s reunited classic quartet—is another classic. But Tone Dialing shows how disinclined Coleman was to rest on his laurels. Here, he checks in with hip-hop (not disastrously!) on “Search for Life”, uses Baroque style for his own harmolodic ends on “Bach Prelude”, and even invites a keyboardist to play the opening of his composition “Kathelin Gray”.
Sound Grammar (2006)
The album for which he won the Pulitzer, and on which he debuted the first recordings of some fresh compositions. His last official album.
Jenny Hval: "That Battle Is Over" (via SoundCloud)
Thirty minutes after we first meet, Jenny Hval and I are jumping around in a bouncy castle with walls resembling six-foot-tall breasts. And the 34-year-old Norwegian artist is really going for it—bending her knees into a miniature catapult and then landing face down with arms stretched across an enormous inflated plastic boob. We’re at the ongoing erotic carnival installation inside Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, and, according to a little card in the gallery, this spectacle is designed to “increase physical awareness of the body.” Elsewhere, we take part in a match of Foreplay Derby, which is like a classic amusement park horse race, except with crawling penis shapes instead of horses. After Hval wins the game, she is given a small paddle by an employee of the museum, who instructs her to spank me (she obliges). At the museum’s exhibition on 1970s porn star Linda Lovelace, we take in a looping, floor-to-ceiling projection of the extremely graphic doctor scene of her hallmark film Deep Throat. With a great sense of ease, Hval tells me that once, for a project, she watched the scene about 50 times.
Porn, the body, and an inclination for the unknown are some of Hval’s affirmed interests, as proven by the gorgeous provocations of her 2013 breakthrough, Innocence Is Kinky, which begins with this spoken word cool-talk: “At night, I watch people fucking on my computer.” Kinky is startlingly explicit in its discussions of sexuality, with Hval’s streams-of-confrontational lyrics backed by surreal electronica and noise. Her huge, elastic voice is always stretching into new emotional shapes, and her intellectual avant-gardism has earned comparisons to the wide-open pop experiments of Laurie Anderson and Björk. But Hval never quite sounds like anyone exactly but herself, especially on her new record, Apocalypse, girl.
Amid swatches of dreamstate noise, the album includes some of her truest sky-scraping pop moments yet. Though recorded in Norway, Apocalypse, girl was informed by Hval’s unlikely revelations in America, where she’s spent considerable time since the success of Kinky. In the U.S., she connected most with people from the South, having herself grown up out-of-step as an atheist in Norway’s Bible Belt. (“The classic story was finding porn magazines in the forest,” she tells me at the sex museum.) It all makes for her most vulnerable, autobiographical, and truthful record to date.
In Norway, Hval found a producer in local noise expert Lasse Marhaug, who has worked with Japanese icon Merzbow as well as drone-metal greats Sunn O))). Hval says that 70 percent of their collaboration involved discussions of visual art and film, especially sci-fi and horror movies, as well as Todd Haynes’ Safe and Ingmar Bergman’s psychological drama masterpiece, Persona. Apocalypse also features Thor Harris, drummer for Hval’s one-time tourmates Swans, who contributed to the sublimely empowering single “That Battle Is Over” and eerie 10-minute experiment “Holy Land”. “I am trying to bring congas back into pop music and to my surprise she wanted congas on a track,” Harris writes in an email. “She is brave like that.” Swans leader Michael Gira adds, “I appreciate Jenny’s incisive and frank approach to lyrics”—which is saying something from a guy who named an album Public Castration Is a Good Idea.
Within the first two minutes of Apocalypse, girl, Hval swiftly swats away any female stereotypes that are still clinging to society. Capitalism and Christianity, beauty standards and baking, the need to bear children, self-doubt and liberation and struggle—her critique takes it all on. “Think big, girl,” she starts on sci-fi spoken word opener “Kingsize”, and by the album’s end, Hval could give Kanye a run for his money in terms of extreme, transgressive albums by iconoclasts who openly compare themselves to Jesus. “You have to think big for feminism,” she tells me. “You can be Jesus.”
It’s apparent that Hval sees the world in her own beautifully strange way no matter where she goes. When I call her to follow up a few weeks after our museum outing, she’s at home in Oslo, practicing with her effects pedals. “It’s a ghost in a box,” she says of the pedal. “I keep thinking, ‘Who’s that ghost singing along with me?’” But it’s her.
Pitchfork: Listening to your music, I can’t help but wonder what kind of relationship you’ve had with your own body throughout your life.
Jenny Hval: I am old enough to have grown up not thinking too much about it compared to what is happening to the kids now. I’ve been asked to do interviews about body image—like this “I’m happy in my normal body” quasi-feminist interview situation—and I really hate it. The body should not just be something you see. It’s also the inside of it. It’s frightening and abstract and much more than pretty or not pretty. The shape of it is boring. There’s a great relationship between pop music and the way the body could be seen from the inside—when I was singing or listening to music I would change shape in my head, becoming all kinds of things and people. Music is a way of making your body.
Pitchfork: The collection of photos inside the album all show weird close-ups of various body parts. They’re not conventionally pretty.
JH: A lot of them were between religious ecstasy and convulsion. On the shoot for those pictures, all the girls were watching a lot of [stadium-filling televangelist] Benny Hinn videos. This guy’s preaching to thousands and thousands of people and he keeps pushing out his hand and all these people fall over and convulse on the ground. There’s this kind of sexuality in Christian devotion, especially speaking in tongues and becoming unconscious. You can’t separate the spirit and the body. There is no divide.
Pitchfork: The album’s cover art also has this image of a girl passed out on an exercise ball, and the art for “That Battle Is Over” shows a girl passed out on a treadmill.
JH: [sarcasm] The gym is a center of capitalist breakdown, and everything is focused on the individual, yet the gym machines are the system. [end sarcasm] No. I just love those images. Is she exhausted by the elliptical? Is she humping it? Is she humping the system? Is she giving the yoga ball a hug? Is she having sex with it? Or is she just dead? To me, it’s unknown. There’s an element of pleasure in it that I very much like.
Pitchfork: What is “soft dick rock”? You use the phrase on Apocalypse, girl and you have also been selling T-shirts with it.
JH: I didn’t say it because I wanted to define anything. It’s just pleasurable to say. It’s some kind of poetry. I was commissioned to do a piece with a musician friend, Jessica Sligter, for the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Rights movement in Norway. It was like—“women! voices!”—so we thought, “We’ve got to have guys singing.” Anything that has to do with sexuality is always female, unless it’s about gaze, so we wanted to have a male-specific, gender-oriented singing project.It was pretty crazy.
The guys that we invited to the group were all musicians, but none of them were singers, and we had to make them sing. The project was to make these guys feel very uncomfortable. We started having a lot of conversations about all the vulnerable themes of male sexuality—feeling weak, losing one’s hair, the soft dick. It’s not even really a metaphor for anything. If you do an image search on Google for “soft dick”—don’t do it—you’ll just get diseases. Because soft things are terrifying. They’re the real signals of death. Images of strength can never be that terrifying. It’s the images of weakness that are a real apocalypse.
Pitchfork: Part of the reason the phrase “soft dick rock” was so interesting to me is because I’ve been doing a lot of reading on cock rock, as a genre. I feel like your music is the inverse of cock rock.
JH: For obvious reasons, I've never been able to identify with cock rock. I've always found it quite upsetting, but also funny. “Soft dick rock” was a genuine attempt to actually soften something that is usually seen as hard. Like, soften the apocalypse. I find that soft rock is also very macho. During Christmas, I had nothing to do and ended up watching that three-hour documentary on the Eagles, which was my least favorite band from growing up. They were soft-rock kings. I’ve always been thinking, “Is this what you define as soft?”
I was recently talking about Melancholia, the film, and how it’s really terrifying. It’s about the oncoming of the apocalypse, but it’s just there, coming close very slowly. There’s no war, there’s nobody fighting, and the only man in the film takes his own life. But the title Apocalypse, girl didn’t come until way after I wrote all the songs. I felt like I needed a title that was just big, something cock rock-y, but inverted. Being from Norway, I grew up with a lot of metal imagery—why do they get all the dark stuff?
Pitchfork: Take it back!
JH: Reclaim the apocalypse!
"If you do an image search on Google for 'soft dick'—don’t do it—you’ll just get diseases, because soft things are terrifying. They’re the real signals of death."
Pitchfork: The record starts and ends with these lyrically explicit impressions of America on “Kingsize” and “Holy Land”. What were your feelings about America going into this album?
JH: What surprised me was that I really connected with people from the various Bible Belts. I’m from a nonreligious family, but I spent so much time in the Norwegian Bible Belt with people who are very religious, with “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets, big wooden crosses, speaking in tongues. So I was reconnecting with a part of my upbringing that I was very afraid of. In high school, I was a goth and tried to distance myself from the religion around me, but last year I realized that it probably had an impact. I probably envied those people for the devotion they could show. They had such incredible emotional outlets, even if they were all connected to their church and very formalized. They could go wild in that way. Very devoted religious people are so extroverted, but at the same time, they’re so repressed sexually and so conservative. I’ve never been able to understand that combination, but I’m fascinated by it.
Pitchfork: This album seems more confessional or autobiographical. There is one song, “Angels and Anaemia”, where you’re singing directly about self-doubt and questioning what you’re doing as an artist.
JH: Originally I wanted the album to start with that song; I loved the idea of an album starting with the words “self-doubt.” Is self-doubt a way of being that’s actually positive? Self-doubt can be about feeling belittled, or just like you’re not even existing. It can be about refusing to accept the self as we know it—refusing to be owned by people who look at you, or to be pigeonholed. I guess in that song, the self-consciousness is replaced by the unconscious.
An early working title of the project was Ruining My Reputation. I kind of wanted to perform a suicide, an apocalypse of the artist that I’ve seen myself as. An exorcism. [laughs] And one of the ways of “ruining my reputation” was to be very personal. Then again, everything you do is so personal. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much if you write about your own life or not. It’s going to be as much artifice when it comes out as a piece of music. Everything is in character in a way. But that’s a great thing. In the end, I was trying to make this pop album that didn’t work. The apocalypse is a failure.
Photo by Jenny Berger Myhre
Pitchfork: I read that you were inspired by Fiona Apple on this album.
JH: I always find Fiona Apple inspiring. First of all, it’s her aggression. I don’t mean that I find her angry—that would overlook her outstanding lyrical power and switched-on performances. She really takes great care when she writes about these all-consuming emotional moments. And she isn’t shy about it. She isn’t afraid to come across as bitter or frightening. Actually, she doesn’t seem afraid of coming across as anything. Her work is so intense, so detailed, so fierce, and yet there’s nothing labored about it. Secondly, she has this amazing ability to reflect upon something as it is happening, right there and then. She goes through things in her music with clarity, and respects—and scrutinizes, until it hurts—her emotional reactions.
Pitchfork: I was reading the credits for the record, and the cover design was credited to Lisbet Volger, which is the name of the main character in the film Persona.
JH: And Sister Alma [the other main character of Persona] is credited with doing the samples for the album. I’ve seen Persona at least 10 times, and only recently have I began to really enjoy the narrative and the psychology of it beyond being quite surrealist. When I was working on the album, I reached that point where I was really interested in the conversations in the movie and the way they are as intimate as the pictures. Before, I saw it as a sublime monologue, some kind of detachment. I find it very different now.
Pitchfork: A lot of that film centers on the blurring of identity between the two main characters. Was that narrative about identity something you were interested in?
JH: I started writing music because I got this recording device that had a delay effect. There is this interplay with the abstract, the sound of yourself not being quite yourself, this slightly distorted image of yourself in the mirror. That was an obsession for a long time, to see myself from the outside. That is very much how I see Persona as well. Working with art, in general, is exploring identity and being angry at it—can you ever say anything true? Does whatever you’re doing even matter to you? It’s this constant interplay.
Pitchfork: “Take Care of Yourself” and “That Battle Is Over” feel like two parts of a piece—you discuss age and conventional ideas about happiness and success.
JH: I wrote them as opposites using part of the same vocabulary. “Take Care of Yourself” goes for a delicate intimacy that you can’t really get when everything becomes about sexual success, and this frightening idea that sexuality is not something that leads to something and then climaxes and it’s over; it’s this endless thing that you can never satisfy. You can see it very cynically—just floating on the sea not doing anything, just wallowing. It’s like the Internet: click click click. I also wanted to make the genitals something very ordinary, very mundane objects, and also something about safety more than the sex act.
Pitchfork: You also sing a line on “That Battle Is Over” about the likelihood that you might get breast cancer, which is startling to hear.
JH: I was watching this documentary about previous waves of feminism. One of the famous American feminists was saying that as soon as women were granted a soul in the media in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were all these news stories about how feminists are depressed. Every now and again, you see these stories. I saw a story some years ago that was warning: “Please have kids because you’ll get breast cancer if you don’t have kids early in your 20s.” These stories are so depressing. There is always somebody saying, “Conform, the battle is over, feminism is over, go back to the kitchen and have some babies, you’ll be healthy.” Health is so important now, it’s ridiculous—the body has become frightening, this thing that will kill you if you don’t keep really healthy. The body is the enemy now.
Pitchfork: On “That Battle Is Over”, you also sing about being “on the edge of history.” What does it mean to you to be on the edge of history with your music?
JH: In that line, it’s negative, and something I don’t believe in. I grew up in a peaceful time; we always wanted world peace for Christmas. It was very Norwegian—a safe upbringing in a safe world. My generation thought: “The Second World War was horrible and Norway was in it. There are conflicts in the world, but when they’re over, there will be no more conflicts.” And that’s a terrible illusion. It’s creating an extremely passive generation of young people. If you believe that you have nothing to fight for, that just means the people in power, and the people with money, can sneak anything into your life. Everything can be taken away from you.
I disagree very strongly with people saying “that battle is over.” If you’ve started a battle, I don’t think it ever ends. The illusion that it’s ended can reverse any good results that have come from it. I’m constantly reading and trying to enlighten myself to how the world works in its silent ways to make everything seem normal when it’s actually incredibly discriminating. Everybody needs to read a lot of revolutionary stuff, because the revolution is a big part of our will to live.
"If you believe that you have nothing to fight for, that just means the people in power can sneak anything into your life."
Pitchfork: What else have you learned about yourself as a musician the past few years?
JH: I’ve always seen myself as the person listening to alternative music and all that—generic indie person. I always tried to be the least pretty I could be. When I was growing up, I would try to sing out of key very consciously. I was probably afraid of trying too hard to do something beautiful, and then I just wasn’t good enough. But I’ve learned that I was also on the outside—wanting more challenge by living in that more conventional world.
I’ve learned something about trying to express desires. Now I play with two Americans onstage, and we wear really long wigs and makeup. It makes me have to live through a different way of being female. It feels very different to have long, thick, brightly colored hair. It makes me feel so conflicted to wear, and I believe showing a conflicted person onstage is actually really interesting and emotionally engaging. I’m trying to not just be the person standing on the outside and looking at something, but to actually be it, in a way. That’s actually bringing me closer to the intimacy of the album. I’ve also learned from playing with a lot more girls onstage with me. I don’t think I realized how much in a man’s world I had grown up in musically.
Pitchfork: In the U.S. right now, a kind of feminism has infiltrated pop culture. Is the same thing happening in Norway?
JH: Norway is kind of incomparable because it’s so small. We don’t have a Beyoncé—we don’t have anyone who is huge to put feminism behind her on stage. Norway is pretty forward thinking in terms of gender equality, but we don’t seem to practice it as well as we think. I’m constantly thinking: How much power have we really gained? We have to keep fighting to even keep what we’ve fought for already.
The Out Door: Coffee, Weed, and Prison: Six Recent Experimental Records Worth Hearing
by Marc Masters and Grayson Haver Currin
June 16, 2015
This edition of The Out Door introduces a new format: a selection of records we love by artists on all sides of avant-garde, experimental, and outsider music. We’ve chosen six releases worthy of your attention, with some words from the artists themselves. And make sure to follow The Out Door on Twitter and Tumblr for more experimental music news and info.
Shit and Shine 54 Synth-brass, 38 Metal guitar, 65 Cathedral (Rocket)
Lots of bands talk about never repeating themselves, but Shit and Shine really live it. Very few of the many records they’ve made in the past decade sound like each other, or like anyone else. The group has delved into so many styles that it’s tempting to call them genre-hoppers, except that none of their music fits into any category—it’s more like each album is a genre unto itself.
One person disagrees with this assessment, though: Craig Clouse, the main man behind Shit and Shine. “I’m completely absolutely 100% setting out to make DANCE MUSIC,” he tells me via email. “Do I want to make music for mostly record-collecting shy dudes with black hoodies to scuttle home so they can carefully place my new record on their expensive turntables and then blog about it? FUCK NO! I want to make music for people to get stupid with!”
Shit and Shine: "Denim Do's And Don'ts" (via SoundCloud)
Clouse’s claims may seem hyperbolic, but Shit and Shine’s recent releases bear them out. The organ-driven instrumentals on the cassette Chakin’, released in February by Astral Spirits, feel like some kind of lost 60’s bachelor-pad record, albeit one more interested in zoned-out repetition than suave seduction. By comparison, 54 Synth-brass, 38 Metal guitar, 65 Cathedral is practically a hip-hop record, filled with funky, looping beats that sometimes feel like early Flying Lotus filtered through a cartoon effects library.
Though these tracks could fit into some contemporary rap mixtapes, something about them feels dislodged from any particular time or place. “I like rinsing the shit out of the very, very basic gear I have (samplers, synth, drum machine, old version of Garageband) and still being able to come up with new crazy sounds and ideas,” Clouse writes. “That whole building process is endlessly engrossing and fascinating and rewarding and addictive!”
Clouse was born in Florida, spend some of his youth in England, then moved to Texas at age 18. He’s gone back and forth since, but Austin is his primary home (he also has a band there with King Coffey of Butthole Surfers called USA/Mexico). Shit and Shine persists with members spread around the globe, and continues to churn out records (a double LP is due on Editions Mego in August, with two reissues and two more new LPs also in the works). Though this prolific ouevre dodges expectations and obscures information in a way that could be considered arty, Clouse insists it’s all much more basic than that. “I dont want to project the idea that I take this shit too seriously. That would be ridiculous, embarrassing,” he writes. “I just think about smoking weed… It’s the only reason we tour, so we can get baked and listen to ourselves play really loud.” –Marc Masters
J.B. Smith No More Good Time in the World For Me (Dust-to-Digital)
Johnnie B. Smith deserved the time he got in the Texas prison system. After a string of robbery and assault charges, Smith murdered his wife in the early 1950s and nabbed nearly a half-century sentence for the crime. A decade later, the young folklorist Bruce Jackson was trawling those prisons, looking to continue the the Lomax family’s legendary work in capturing the primitive blues laments and rhythmic work chants of the inmates. He found Smith, tagged as Prisoner #130196, who sang the numbers he knew (mostly without accompaniment) for hours on end.
J.B. Smith: "I Got Too Much Time for the Crime I Done" (via SoundCloud)
As haunting as the hardest Delta stuff you’ve ever heard, and as rich with backwater references and Jim Crow-era woe as those treasured Lomax tapes, Smith’s songs and voice eked into circulation in the ‘60s and ‘70s. John Fahey’s Takoma imprint issued the long-out-of-print collector’s item Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown in 1965, and thanks to this haunting and hard two-disc Dust-to-Digital set, Smith can be heard once again, offering echoes of an important and obsolete African-American tradition.
J.B. Smith with R.P. Williams and Muddy Waters in 1967
Smith alternates between roles as a badass and a sadass here. On “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad”, he worries that his irreprehensible nature drove his mom to her death, but boasts about his back-home beauty and his getaway smarts on “I Heard the Reports of a Pistol”. He talks about enacting vengeance on his captors when they meet in hell—but soon recognizes that, should he get out, he’ll need to work hard to stay that way. He worries about money and genuflects to God, leads a harmonizing quartet, and warbles solo, like a wounded soul singer, as he recognizes the insecurity of his own station.
These topics come bound by a voice that seems driven by existential confusion: Be rough and escape the riders, or do your time and live right? The prison laments and crime tales offer an unflinching look into a hard time, place, and life, driven by doubt and the need to express it. Smith landed back in prison after earning parole not long after these sessions. These two hours or so of tape, annotated by Jackson and archivist Nathan Salsburg, are his unnerving legacy—as beautiful as they are damned. —Grayson Haver Currin
Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Mertin Aksak (Staubgold)
You create the beat, and I’ll contort it: That seems to be the mutual mantra for Aksak, a roving and mad collaboration between trans-generational drummers Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Mertin. Separated by nearly 40 years of age and experience, the two are bound by what seems to be an abiding interest in what can be done with a groove—how it can be bent, filled, broken, and otherwise made to be more than a mere rhythm. With an arsenal of drums and accessories, they suggest dub and psychedelic rock, flirt with North African tonalities, incorporate gamelan vibrations, and even touch on IDM for a finale. Mostly, though, they treat percussion sets as both keepers-of-time and builders-of-texture, blurring the boundary between meter and everything around it.
A co-founder of Can, Liebezeit has also lent his pulse to Depeche Mode, Michael Rother, and Brian Eno. His drumming seems to mechanize feeling, so that his rhythmic insistence sports a certain soul, too. Mertin, meanwhile, is an explorer, playing all kinds of instruments in all kinds of situations. While Liebezeit sticks mostly to the traditional trap kit here, Mertin hopscotches between a few dozen tools—spoons and gongs, sundry cymbals and singing bowls, snares and waterphones. It’s a perfect pairing, with the push between pulse and ornamentation creating a compelling frisson. Imagine those Steve Reid and Kieran Hebden collaborations exploring and mastering more territory, or Brian Blade earning a MacArthur fellowship and bounding around the world, his kit and a tape machine in tow.
Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Mertin: "Yallametal" (via SoundCloud)
Only three of these tracks break the five-minute mark, and many of the rest are much shorter—like rhythm experiments of the restless. That constant shifting keeps Aksak from becoming tedious. Instead, the jubilant pops and pings of “Jackpool” soon yield to the almost-incidental atmosphere of “Asiawaters” and the breakbeat suggestions of “Yallametal”. Love drums but love to see them stretch even more? Aksak is a superb trip. —GHC
French sound artist Bérangère Maximin’s work is bustling, full of undulations and oscillations and heavy atmospheres, but on first listen there seems to be a hole in the middle of it all—that is, if you try to immediately locate Maximin inside all the intoxicating sound. She’s like a ghost in her own machine, conjuring images, setting scenes, and painting sonic pictures while always dodging out of view, hiding in the dark behind the curtain on the side of her own stage.
The five tracks on Dangerous Orbits are scintillating in their ability to construct a fully-formed world—a kind of living, breathing sound-forest that, like the earth itself, doesn’t need an obvious creator to shine and fascinate. But dig deeper into each piece—all of which last at least 12 minutes—and you start to see the shape of Maximin inside these dense musical landscapes. She’s most recognizable in the way she orders her compositions, and how they unfold with an organic growth that becomes more logical the more you listen. Her last album, Infinitesimal, had a very similar effect, but Dangerous Orbits is bigger, more ambitious, more consequential. It feels like the world is turning inside Maximin’s songs now, and the resulting gravity has the weight of nature on its side. –MM
Many Arms & Toshimaru Nakamura Many Arms & Toshimaru Nakamura (Public Eyesore)
The phrase “free rock” has always been a little suspect. Jazz’s evolution into sound untethered to beat, structure, or melody was so natural it seemed inevitable, but the concept of rock breaking apart from one-two-three-four seems a bit oxymoronic: Without rhythm, is it really rock? Luckily, every era of the form has been dotted with exceptions that demolish the rule, from Träd, Gräs och Stenar to Blue Humans to Dead C.
Many Arms & Toshimaru Nakamura: "II" (via SoundCloud)
The last two albums by Philadelphia trio Many Arms took strides toward joining that idiosyncratic pantheon, but their new collaboration with Japanese sound artist Toshimaru Nakamura blasts them onto the free-rock front lines. Where Many Arms previously toyed with planned compositions—some of their songs were dizzyingly tight—here they abandon all semblance of pre-arrangement, spurred by Nakamura to hurtle full-bore into the pursuit of chaotic epiphanies. Flying guitar, epileptic bass, shattering drums, and the unclassifiable noise of Nakamura’s “no-input” setup (he wires his mixer in a loop so that it’s only sound source is itself) all congeal into neck-breaking hyperactivity. It’s music that seeks the sun by exploding toward it. –MM
Ufomammut Ecate (Neurot)
A good espresso.
That’s what Urlo—the bassist and singer of Italian psychedelic doom syndicate Ufomammut—misses most three weeks into a month-long North American tour. For more than a decade, Ufomammut have built an enthusiastic Stateside fanbase, with sprawling albums capable of seeming simultaneously heavy and ascendant, like some colossal dinosaur preparing for a first flight.
But Urlo’s decaffeinated confession actually comes amid the band’s first full North American tour, following short runs along the West Coast and in Canada years ago. The wait seems somehow worth it, as fans along the tour route have treated the arrival of Ufomammut as an incredibly rare spectacle, not unlike the early Stateside treks of Japanese kin Boris. During a weekend set at a mid-sized North Carolina rock club, fans pressed close to the stage and mostly stayed that way until the end of the extended set, as Ufomammut reached deep into its catalog. They didn’t waiver during a long encore, either.
The tour comes at the right time for Ufomammut, as they issued Ecate, the most compelling album of their career, in late March. After a string of several contiguous records, where tracks blurred into one another or where one uninterrupted song shaped the whole LP, Ufomammut opted to build an album of discrete and somewhat disconnected songs. The surging “Plouton”, for instance, might be the closest they’ve ever come to a modern rock single, even if its sharp melody comes offset by reverb and beleaguered by crunching distortion. Still, it’s the kind of hook-heavy concession that they’ve seemed too high-minded to pursue in the past. Opener “Somnium” moves from roiling waves of drums and oscillating electronics into a head-down march, with the entire band continually repeating and revising one central riff. In this context, the late-album instrumental “Revelation”, built on sighing synths and patient acoustic guitar strums, feels less like a necessary interlude and more like its own orchestration.
“Ecate is an evolution, a new path in our sonic adventure,” explains Urlo. “It’s shorter and more dense compared to our previous works. It’s made of different songs, but it’s more focused.”
Alternately, Ecate feels like a compendium for Ufomammut, a 46-minute digest to 15 years of music and movement, made available at the most geographically and sonically accessible point in the band’s career. After they have had the chance to refuel back home, perhaps the return trip won’t take quite so long. —GHC
Last weekend, Pitchfork held two showcases during Brooklyn's Northside Festival featuring Prurient, Mitski, Bell Witch, Fred Thomas, and more. In addition, Pitchfork's Show No Mercy and Blackened Music have teamed up for the ongoing Tinnitus music series, showcasing composers of extreme sound such as Holly Herndon, Ben Frost, and Container. Photographer Samantha Marble captured moments at both.
My first band, Galaxie 500, may have had something of its own take on rock music, but in the late 1980s our lineup was standard for the day: guitar, bass, drums. When we showed up at clubs, no one ever seemed confused by our choice of instruments, just the way we played them. But when Naomi and I started touring as a duo in the mid-‘90s, traveling with an acoustic guitar and an Indian harmonium, we hit resistance as soon as we unpacked. The house sound guys (and they were always guys) at indie rock venues were so accustomed to chasing maximum volume that our instruments seemed to present them with an unsolvable zen riddle: How am I supposed to blast this club with whispers? During soundcheck, we would tell them that one way to fix the shrieks of feedback would be to turn everything down—but our voices must have been too quiet to be heard, because it almost never happened.
The century turned, and the rise of freak folk made things easier; as beards grew longer, volumes grew quieter, and our soundchecks became almost chill. More women started popping up behind soundboards, too. But then, probably around the time Joanna Newsom got together with Andy Samberg, everything started feeding back again. Only now it was at a lower pitch.
Between the wane of freak folk and the rise of EDM, it seems every rock club in the indie universe decided to install subwoofers—often directly under the stage, where they rumble back into acoustic instruments. Our live show is now being pumped through speakers designed to amplify sounds below the notes we play. We’re not alone.
“Maybe it’s the subwoofers,” I’ve learned to suggest, while politely fiddling with my gear during soundchecks. The inevitable answer: “Nah, we always have them on.”
Subwoofers are speakers designed to amplify low frequency vibrations. Their first widespread commercial use was in movie theaters for the 1974 disaster film Earthquake. Dubbed “sensurround,” this new technology consisted of carting subwoofers into theaters and feeding them frequencies low and loud enough to make seats shake. “Please be aware that you will feel as well as see and hear realistic effects such as might be experienced in an actual earthquake,” the poster warned. “The management assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual viewer.” At the time, New York magazine critic Judith Crist dismissed the rumbling gimmick as having “all the effectiveness of a drop-a-quarter-in-the-slot motel massage bed.” But audiences flocked to it.
Physical and emotional reactions to extremely low frequencies, or infrasound, have long fascinated military researchers as well as Hollywood special effects departments. In the book Extremely Loud: Sound as a Weapon, Juliette Volcler asserts that much of that military research is, like the warning on those Earthquake posters, probably bunk: Theories about how certain low frequencies could make eyeballs explode or the existence of a “brown note” which would reduce enemies to “quivering diarrhoeic messes” proved to be no more than twisted fantasies. (Sound weapons do exist—witness the Long Range Acoustic Devices deployed by police departments on both Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protestors—but operate under different principles than infrasound, chiefly volume.)
There is a medium where twisted fantasies need be no more than that: video games. The gaming industry’s use of low frequencies combines the cheap Hollywood effect of shaking your seat with the military’s dreams of violence, and its tremendous popularity is one of the reasons there are now so many subwoofers in American homes.
Still, none of this explains how subwoofers came to be seen as important to music. In the ‘70s, apart from an audio engineer who claims he built one to help mix the Steely Dan album Pretzel Logic (more twisted fantasies), subwoofers seem to have barely made an impression on the broad commercial music industry, via neither producers nor consumers.
One simple explanation for that is the LP. Long-playing vinyl records don’t do a good job of reproducing the loud, low frequencies that subwoofers are made to amplify, frequencies that can bounce the needle out of an LP’s microgrooves. Which meant that even Pretzel Logic—mastered and pressed as an LP—couldn’t benefit from the sound system it had been mixed on.
Twelve-inch vinyl singles, with their wider grooves, allow for more bass volume, and starting in the mid-‘70s they began to be used for disco, reggae, dub, and then hip-hop and bass-driven rock bands like New Order. Originally pressed expressly for dance clubs, these records—unlike the LP, or the 7" 45—can (and do) play to effect on systems with subwoofers, and it’s in those clubs that the intended “the physical or emotional reactions” of such equipment first crossed with the world of music. At New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, the custom designed “sub-bass” speakers were even named for DJ Larry Levan: the Levan Horn.
Outside a disco, though, you wouldn’t find music playing on anything like a Levan Horn. The analog era ended with no one but Steely Dan hearing Steely Dan on a subwoofer.
Digital music files have a radically different sound profile than the LP—the tonal range is essentially limitless. As soon as the CD brought a version of those files into homes and cars in the mid-‘80s, the low end started to expand in consumer electronics. Once the DVD linked those files to video, stereo itself ceded to 5.1 “surround sound” (not so far from “sensurround,” is it?) as a standard for the new consumer ideal of a “home theater.”
The “.1” of that typical setup is the subwoofer. There’s only one because the tones it amplifies are so low that we are unable to locate them—they seem to come from everywhere at once, like the roar of an earthquake. We sense direction in sound by using our two ears in tandem, but lower tones have longer wave forms than higher ones, and there’s a point on that spectrum where the space between our ears stops making enough of a difference in the way we perceive left and right. Which is why merely one subwoofer can make it feel like we’re surrounded by bass.
Nevertheless, some people install many—like movie theaters did for Earthquake, and the Paradise Garage did with their Levan Horns. It’s not because additional subwoofers add to the quality of the low sounds they generate for our ears, but because more power driving more air through more subwoofers generates more sound pressure on our bodies. The effect may not have been weaponized, but it can be extreme.
Guitarist Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) is known for low tunings, high volumes, and blocks of physical sound—even his band’s name is like an emoticon for soundwaves. When I ask him about the use of subwoofers, he mentions a UK metal festival that recently ordered 32 of them for Sunn O))) as part of the speaker system. “Some of the stage security were getting nosebleeds from so much sound pressure!” he recalls. “We are actually not trying to create a violent situation, but more of a total immersion of energy.”
Nosebleeds at festivals, trance states at dance clubs, intimidation by car audio—multiple subwoofers have their place in the various physical experiences people seek from music. As O’Malley points out, sound pressure is energy, and communicating energy can be a large part of what music is about.
Which is why it might surprise you that even a master of the low frequency universe like O’Malley doesn’t use subwoofers for his own listening. “Not in my home,” he says. “A properly set up hi-fi doesn’t need a separate sub. If you have well-designed speaker stacks and adequate headroom on the amplifier, it should cover everything. Usually this culture of bass boosting is at the cost of clarity in the rest of the spectrum.”
This matches my own experience, but I’m at the other end of the wimpiness scale. So I checked in with another planetary band I think of when I think of sound pressure: Earth. In the early ‘90s, guitarist Dylan Carlson and the two-bass lineup of Earth broke new low ground in ways that influenced multiple genres of music—yet it turns out he considers subwoofers among “the worst inventions of all time… rock’n’roll is about the mids.” Further questioning revealed an anti-subwoofer position as tight as a well-defined bass sound:
Are subwoofers important to you as a musical tool?
Have you always used them in your live setup?
Do you use them when you listen to recorded music at home?
Do you feel subs add an additional musical quality to the low end?
Are there other artists you look to for creative use of subs?
If certified low-end experts like O’Malley and Carlson don’t use subwoofers to listen to music, why does anyone?
Well, for one, they’re there. The dominance of video and video games in entertainment means that audio in homes is increasingly designed for those experiences, rather than music. As more of us have come to rely on tinny computer speakers, subs have been added to boost the low end of desktop systems. And even though subs can’t be incorporated into headphones, Beats by Dr. Dre mimic the effect for portable devices—and they haven’t exactly gone broke doing so.
From the moment Beats headphones hit the market, audiophiles have derided them. “They are absolutely, extraordinarily bad,” the editor-in-chief of Inner Fidelity told The New York Times in 2011, an opinion you can find repeated ad infinitum by tech reviewers across the web (one YouTube slam called “The Truth About Beats by Dre!” has 3.7 million views). The problem these critics find with Beats is the same described by O’Malley—bass boosting doesn’t add to the sound spectrum so much as mask certain frequencies. And Beats accomplish their boost in the low end not with clarity but volume, much like the multiple subwoofers of a system aimed at the body more than the ears.
That same New York Times piece reports that when Jimmy Iovine, the veteran music exec who founded Beats with Dre, was asked about his headphones’ sound-fidelity issues, he shrugged off the expert naysayers, saying, “The way we hear music is almost the opposite of the way these sound companies hear music.” With the subsequent purchase of Beats by Apple, that “opposite” way of hearing music has become the de facto new norm.
To my ears, the bass boosting of Beats and of home theater systems designed to mimic reality for movies and games doesn’t translate to a “real” experience of music. But my idea of real is based on the experience of physical instruments, acoustic and electric. And perhaps the reality of music itself has undergone a change.
Which brings me back to my soundcheck problem. The venues Naomi and I play don’t host gaming or screenings in surround sound. But they do now regularly feature music played on computers, and MacBooks seem to be on stage as often as any instrument. No audio format is transparent—each colors music in a particular way and influences the sounds we create to put through it. In the current technological moment, digital sound files have put even the extremely low spectrum within reach, and there is a huge and growing body of music made on computers, and made for playback by computers. For that music, maybe subwoofers do add more reality to the experience.
But as Dylan Carlson says, rock’n’roll—guitar, bass, drums—is about the mids. That goes double for acoustic duos who don’t even use a bass. So turn off the subs and swap out the Beats if the music you’re listening to was recorded pre-computer; or if it was recorded since but is focused on reproducing the sounds of physical instruments. Without that bass boost, you’ll hear the low end with greater clarity. And you’ll have a better chance at feeling the music’s intended physical and emotional reactions.
June 18, 2015 Photo by: Spiral Stairs Archive. Pavement in the early '90s: Stephen Malkmus, Gary Young, and Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg.
Stephen Malkmus is talking to me about a band he doesn’t really want to record with again while promoting a record he doesn’t really know too much about. Most musician interviews involve a writer asking an artist questions about their new release but, in this case, I’m the one fielding inquiries—the 49-year-old singer isn't sure what songs are actually on The Secret History Vol. 1, the upcoming reissue of a reissue from 1990s indie rock icons Pavement.
But the very fact that Malkmus—now fully committed to his current band, the Jicks—has even agreed to talk about his former group in 2015 shows that he respects the fact that Pavement has a life beyond his own. And the cult surrounding it will continue to march apace even if its former leader is completely disengaged.
This summer heralds the dawn of a new chapter in Pavement’s legacy—or, more accurately, a redrafting of old ones. TheSecret History vinyl series repackages the many rarities featured on the deluxe 10th-anniversary CD reissues that their label Matador released throughout the 2000s, liberating the tracks from bonus-disc purgatory and promoting them to marquee status in stand-alone album form. Not only does this mark the first time many of these songs have appeared on vinyl (the format of choice for presumably 98 percent of the band’s fanbase), the tracks have been purposefully re-sequenced to form “lost albums” to complement each of the band’s official releases. For a group that so wantonly worshipped the Velvet Underground, Pavement are effectively getting their own versions of that band’s famed outtake collections, VU and Another View.
Cynical knee-jerk logic dictates this is all just an opportunistic resale of material that is already readily available (and which old-school fans have been living with ever since widely circulated bootlegs like Stray Slack and Stuff Up the Cracks started making the rounds in the mid-‘90s). But the “lost album” presentation is consistent with Pavement’s meta-historical tradition, where releases were presented as fake compilations, grafted onto other bands’ album artwork, or loaded with visual clues begging to peeled away for further investigation (like the “Altamont 1959” bandstand shot featured in Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s cover collage). Likewise, the static that permeated the band’s early recordings acted like dust you had to scrape away to get to the shiny-diamond hooks buried underneath.
The first volume of The Secret History series compiles spillover tracks from 1992’s exceedingly prolific Slanted and Enchanted period: the songs presumably left off the album due to a self-imposed moratorium on how many homages to the Fall’s “Hip Priest” they could get away with (“So Stark (You’re a Skyscraper)”), the moments of off-the-cuff pop brilliance that lasted for but a single Peel Session (“Circa 1762”), and those perfectly formed, seemingly effortless Pavement songs whose only plausible reason for exclusion was that the band just didn’t want to seem like they were showing off (“Greenlander”).
The album also zeroes in on a crucial turning point in the band’s trajectory, when Malkmus, co-founder Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, and their eccentric, aging-hippie drummer Gary Young were evolving out of a hermetic, experimental studio project into a proper band, fleshed out by bassist Mark Ibold and utility player Bob Nastanovich. (The band’s raucous, BBC-recorded live set at London’s Brixton Academy in December 1992—also included on Vol. 1 in its entirety—provides a still-vivid snapshot of the band mediating between post-hardcore amateurism and going-pro ambition.) Within a year, the increasingly untamed Young would be ousted and replaced by the steady-handed Steve West. The release of Crooked Rain in 1994 would usher in a period of late-night television appearances, MTV rotation, and Lollapalooza slots, but, for a certain kind of Pavement purist, the band would never sound as good—or special—forevermore.
I spoke to Malkmus and Kannberg in separate phone interviews—the former from his home in Portland, the latter from Los Angeles—about going back to those gold soundz. Again.
Photo courtesy of Spiral Stairs Archive
Pitchfork: There seemed to be a real finality to the Pavement story in 2010: You had put out thedeluxeCDreissues over the previous decade, you got the double-album retrospective treatment, and then did the reunion tour. Yet here we are in 2015, talking about new Pavement product—the reissues of the reissues.
Stephen Malkmus: I know—it’s ridiculous, right? [laughs]
Pitchfork: Whose idea was it to go back and repackage these songs?
SM: Not mine. As far as I knew, there was maybe going to be a reissue for [1999 swan song] Terror Twilight—the accidental child of the Pavement catalog. That still hasn’t been re-celebrated as a masterpiece. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Is the fact that Terror Twilight never got reissued a comment on how the band felt about that album?
Scott Kannberg: No, no, no. That was a great record—I still love it. We put a version of the Terror Twilight reissue together [in 2009], but maybe Matador felt it wasn’t right to put it out then. And now with this new vinyl series, I don’t even know if they’ll put out a CD [of the Terror Twilight reissue], so I think it might just come out on vinyl. Originally, we wanted all the reissues to come out on vinyl, but when Matador put out the Brighten the Corners one on LP, it was like four records and it cost so much, so they were like, “We’re not doing that again.” So years went by, and I never thought we’d put [the older outtakes] out on vinyl. But Matador approached me recently and said, “There’s a lot of people who want that stuff, and now that vinyl’s come back again, we feel like this could be a really cool thing.”
SM: So now we have this mystery album—the album that could have been between Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain. A crucial time.
Pitchfork: Were the stray tracks compiled on The Secret History Vol. 1 actually ever envisioned as a proper album?
SM: No way. That’s just fuck-around shit, off-the-top-of-the-head stuff, and B-sides. The B-sides from Slanted could’ve been on that album easily—they were not made to be B-sides. The whole album was all just one big B-side in a way, so this stuff is equal to the album tracks.
SK: We really thought any of those songs could be on [Slanted]. Unfortunately, you have to pare it down to the 10 or 12 that sound the best together. Calling something a B-side or a rarity—that’s not really correct. And not making the cut doesn’t mean they’re not good enough; they just didn’t fit with the other songs. That’s kind of why Wowee Zowee is so out there, I guess—we just put everything together. This guy Jesper [Eklow] used to be the person at Matador who did all the production design, and they’ve re-hired him to do all these packages. He moved some of the songs around to breathe fresh life into it—they flow together a bit better than on the CD reissues, where I tried to group songs together from the same recording sessions.
Pitchfork: While it may be just a savvy repackaging gambit, the “lost album” concept stays true to how Pavement initially presented itself, as this mysterious entity. Those old records both looked and sounded like these archival artifacts you had to dig into.
SK: That’s what I love about music, when you can look at something and be like, “Wow, what’s this all about?” You can’t really picture what these people look like—is it one guy, or a band making music in a garage? We didn’t try to be completely mysterious back then, it just kind of came out that way. That was the landscape—all you had were fanzines.
SM: I liked all these bands in the ‘80s, and finding their weird extra songs—like R.E.M.’s B-sides—was a big part of being a fan. It builds the mystery. I think that’s why, in the early days of Pavement, I was like, “Let’s leave that song and move onto the next moment.” I think Jesper and some of the old-school Matador people want to make [the Secret History series] a special part of not only Pavement’s but Matador’s legacy. Because the reissue world is getting tight—all the holy grails have been reissued. All the good ‘60s psychedelic albums are pretty much dried up, so there’s not really huge money in it. You’re just releasing 2,000 beautifully made Relatively Clean Rivers albums out of love. And now we’re seeing ‘90s indie rock records getting reissued with the same care as those old psychedelic records.
Pitchfork: The Secret History Vol. 1 also features the oft-bootlegged 1992 Brixton academy set, a special moment in early Pavemania.
SM: That was toward the end of a tour with Sonic Youth, who had just put out Dirty, and they had the red carpet rolled out for them at that time—like, “next Nirvana” hype. We were a little band on this big tour, so we were trying really hard, too. We wanted to impress them.
Pitchfork: It’s the most punk rock Pavement ever sounded. And you can hear that the crowd is really amped up to see you.
SM: Yeah, man! In England, people really knew who we were already, because of John Peel. You don’t realize that when you’re young, and you’re surprised there’s a lot of people at your gig—you just think it’s general British-press hype. But in retrospect, I realize that Peel was the one playing us and saying, “This is a great band.” We didn’t even take those Peel Sessions seriously; we didn’t realize it was that special an opportunity. We just thought, “Oh, this is what young bands do, and we’re just going to fuck around in here and make new material.”
But everyone loved Peel and listened to him, and if he liked you, you’d get 300 people at your gig. In those early times, that space from being a nobody to being something is so vast and then, after that, you’re just kind of there—it’s up to you to carry on the fight and have something to say. But still, to get your foot in the door, Peel was massive. We were hyped! I don’t have hype anymore, but I remember what that was like! [laughs]
SK: We were a pretty good band around that time. But then when Gary started believing all the hype, things just started really going downhill. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Have you kept in touch with Gary?
SK: No, I haven’t. After the reunion shows we did with him, I moved to Australia for a few years, so I lost track of him. We didn’t really leave it too well at the end, because I was kind of upset with him about still being drunk Gary. [laughs] But I’ve heard he’s doing good. He’s still living out in the country near Stockton, probably growing vegetables and listening to Frank Zappa. But he was a big part of those early years. If it wasn’t for Gary, it would’ve been a completely different band—not only in recording all the stuff, which he did a great job at, but he was also a big source of entertainment for us! [laughs]
Pitchfork: The great irony of Pavement is that you mellowed out after the hippie left.
SK: Yeah, right! We became more R.E.M., less Replacements.
Photo courtesy of Spiral Stairs Archive
Pitchfork: The most important part of keeping a band’s legacy alive is attracting new generations of fans. It felt like the audiences at your reunion shows had a respectably young median age.
SM: Yeah, that’s true. There really was a nice mix. And obviously there are new young bands in the guitar world that still dig us and mention it. That’s cool. I see it happen with some bands, like Dinosaur. [The Jicks] were recording in Amsterdam, and I went to see Dino play there, and there were a lot of kids just, like, in the squall. I was like, “Wow, that’s crazy.” Their name and image are very child-like, with the funny purple creatures and stuff, and the music has a child-like appeal—not that there’s, like, 8-year-olds at their show, but it’s like: “I’ve got a big guitar and I’m going to rip on it!” Pavement might be a little more mind-detached than that for really young people.
Pitchfork: But ultimately, this reissue series exists for those kids who may have come out to the reunion shows to hear the hits, but might not realize how primitive and strange Pavement sounded in its early days.
SM: Yeah, it was a weird band at the time, and we were definitely unafraid of playing wrong notes and singing wrong things. We could be fearlessly bad!
Pitchfork: Does seeing bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Sleater-Kinney release well-received comeback records make you think Pavement could do the same?
SK: I don’t know. We did that reunion in 2010, and we all had a great time, and I think we all agreed that we’ll get back together one day and do some more shows. But it’s going to be based around our catalog. I go to shows of old bands, and I don’t really want to hear new songs, I want to hear the hits!
We’ve done a good job of keeping the catalog interesting, at least. The vaults are almost depleted at this point, but there’s a few more really early rarities I’d like to release one day, like the very first radio session that we did in Davis, California. And then along the way, there’s some weird things we’ve done that pop up. I was watching [an old set] on YouTube and I was like, “Wow, I totally forgot about that song.” There are songs out there that we’ve played live that have never been on a record. But I don’t think making a new record would ever be in the cards.
SM: I’m just sort of into Pavement being a ‘90s thing. I don’t really feel like making another record with those dudes. What we have is great.
On any given night in Brooklyn, someone is throwing a dance party. This particular NYC borough seems to attract a constant stream of promoters, DJs, organizers, label heads, venue owners, and artists breathing life into their local music scenes. Hotbed neighborhoods like Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bed-Stuy have seen an especially dense influx of house and techno culture in recent years, as new labels and clubs look to make their mark on the shifting landscape.
Erez Avissar has been capturing of the activity around Brooklyn's underground nightlife, snapping photos at choice events for the last three years. His images outline a portrait of the ever-changing local electronic music scene and highlight some of its most active supporters. Travelling from Bossa Nova Civic Club to Verboten to Cameo Gallery to Good Room to any number of unknown warehouses, Avissar uncovers the hidden spaces between massive night clubs and close-knit DIY loft parties. These are the spaces where the Brooklyn dance music underground thrives.
The atmosphere inside Chvrches’ studio is a little dazed. Moments before I arrive at their front door on a typically cold early June afternoon in Glasgow, the trio finally finished recording their second album. After five months cooped up here, they seem at a loss to know what to do with themselves.
The last song on their slate eluded them for weeks; they kept adding layer upon layer of synths before eventually realizing that they should strip it all back to just Lauren Mayberry’s vocals and a glowing organ. The revelation came from multi-instrumentalist Martin Doherty’s newfound obsession with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson’s powerfully lean arrangements. “At the start, we built up these [songs] with 80 tracks, but then you put on fucking ‘Smooth Criminal’ or ‘Billie Jean’ and you’re just like, ‘Whoa, those only have eight tracks per song—how do we get to that?’” he says. “There’s way less in those songs than you would ever imagine, because they sound fucking huge.”
Doherty’s fellow synth wiz Iain Cook fires up Cubase and plays the song they just completed, which will likely close the as-yet-untitled record. “It’s pretty emosh,” says Mayberry. The spare track feels like an appropriate epilogue to the other four new songs I hear, which grapple for dignity and definition in a relationship’s gray spaces: “All of your words and mine, they keep returning,” Mayberry sings in a cracked tone. “I’ll find my own way back, back to the silence.” The organ-like synth part that starts the song as a pinprick of light slowly turns into an overwhelming supernova, bursting and dimming as she repeats the line, “I’ve given up all I can.”
Their studio is really just a basement flat—the same space where Chvrches have recorded nearly all of their music since forming in late 2011. As the trio lead me through a tour, they point out how few elements actually forged the heart-soaring maximalism of their 2013 debut album, The Bones of What You Believe: just three keyboards and a microphone, preserved for posterity. “Someone made the point that our first album is probably one of the very few self-written, self-recorded, self-produced records to make it into the UK Top 10,” says Mayberry. “That was recorded on this thing, y’know?” She hits the mic stand. “That made me feel pretty good.”
The band was craving home comforts when they got back into their digs in January, just six weeks after wrapping up the marathon tour for Bones, which spanned 365 gigs across two years. Chvrches started touring as an unsigned act with a little online buzz 10 months before releasing their universally acclaimed debut, and grinding away on the road helped them secure their future on their own terms. The intense hard work paid off: Bones went gold in the UK and sold 182,000 copies in the States, while the video for “The Mother We Share” has racked up more than 10 million views on YouTube. Their celestial synth-pop crushed together defiance and vulnerability while exuding a welcoming queerness, earning them an unusually rabid fanbase for an indie band.
But the gruelling tour schedule allowed little time to create new music together; while on the road, Doherty took to recording one song or idea every day as a coping mechanism, to make him “at least feel like a musician.” So getting back into their own space to write and record was crucial to Chvrches’ proud sense of themselves as a proper band. Going into album two, they had no concrete plan beyond pushing everything to be “20 percent different, bigger, better,” says Cook.
Having eschewed costly studio fees to work in their own studio at their own speed—only restricted by their upstairs neighbors’ sleeping schedules—they spent their advance on “all the synthesizers I’ve wanted since I knew what synthesizers were,” says Doherty. The walls of one room are flanked by more than a dozen flashing keyboards, including a rare, military-looking Moog that none of them actually know how to work. “There are no live drums,” says Cook. “Keeping it real—or unreal.” Another room houses Mayberry’s vocal booth, a flimsy purple foam thing that looks liable to collapse.
We take seats in the very warm live room, and Cook cues up a few more finished tracks. As with the rest of the album, these songs were mixed by famed studio guru Spike Stent—whose résumé features the likes of U2, Beyoncé, and Björk—and they all sound massive. “Never-Ending Circles” is hooked around a bright, repeatedly stumbling synth part and features a middle-eight that evokes the more sparkling moments from Taylor Swift’s 1989. Mayberry describes the R&B-inflected “Leave a Trace” as “the nastiest, snidest tune” on the record: Her voice sounds deeper and more soulful than ever as she sings of a lover who “took far too much for someone so unkind.” “Make Them Gold”, meanwhile, might be the most anthemic Chvrches song yet, somewhere between Starship and Erasure with its racing drums, gaudy synth dazzle, and message of anxious empowerment: “We are made of our mistakes/ We are falling but not alone.”
“I had somebody say to me once, ‘You can’t make the kind of music you’re making and call yourself a feminist.’ The door was slammed on them swiftly after that.”
Pitchfork: What were you thinking going into the making of this album?
Martin Doherty: After making one record that people really like, some bands reject the things that everyone liked about them and make some really deep, thoughtful, dark record—but I wanted to avoid making a “mature” album. That said, it’s not like we’re making saccharine shite. There’s important lyrical content, and we’re still pushing the same emotional boundaries, but also trying to make it as accessible as possible.
Pitchfork: Do you ever try and push against accessibility?
Iain Cook: In our musical backgrounds before this band, we did stuff that was quite willfully obscure. With this band, though, we allowed ourselves to write the kind of music we wanted to write. We all love pop music, we love great melodies, classic songwriting. It's fucking great fun to play music and see people actually dancing and losing their shit. I'm sick and tired of being at gigs where it's just a bunch of bearded guys.
MD: We're never actively trying to make radio pop, or music to get massive. I spent half my 20s trying to make weird music immediate, like, "Why can't I make a post-rock record that sounds like Whitney Houston?" But now we're trying to make immediate music a little bit weirder.
I remember one day when I realized that our band had the chance of achieving what we'd set out to do: We did a BBC Radio 2 session in the afternoon and a Boiler Room one that night. That was probably one of my proudest achievements—the idea that you can make music that people can stick on the radio that can also be relevant and interesting to people who are more discerning.
Pitchfork: The first record was full of defiant lyrics. Some of the new songs seem a little more devotional, but there’s still anger there.
Lauren Mayberry: I thought I had legitimately written a happy love song for this album, and I asked [engineer] Dave [Simpson] about it—and he wasn’t sure. Because the album was written over such a long period of time, it’s about the goods and the bads, the beginnings and ends. Personally, I’m in a good place right now, but there’s definitely anti-love songs on there as well. “Leave a Trace” is the middle finger mic-drop. It’s about that point where you’re like, “There’s no point having this conversation anyways: There will be no resolve, I won’t feel better about it, you won’t feel better about it, no outcome from this will actually change my reality.” It makes me feel better to write about that—I’ve done something constructive with it. You don’t put that on other people, you put that into what you do. That’s always the way I’ve written lyrics. My ex-partners are not friends with me, but I’m OK with that.
LM: Not specifically, but there’s scenes in a couple of songs that are about relationships where people try to decide what you should be doing for you. I had somebody say to me once, “You can’t make the kind of music you’re making and call yourself a feminist.” The door was slammed on them swiftly after that. Nothing gets my hackles up like being told I can’t do something.
Pitchfork: What did they say was incompatible?
LM: Making pop music and not playing an instrument; horrible, discriminatory stereotype shit. We’ve never made a decision that we didn’t want to make. Life’s too short to be shoehorned into a box that isn’t for you.
Pitchfork: As a band, you’ve always had very precise ideas about how you’re portrayed—no singling Lauren out for interviews or photos. Has that been easy to stick to?
LM: Sometimes constantly being on the offensive did feel pretty tiring, but now we’re lucky enough to practice what we preach all the time. The band has an identity that people are aware of, and we don’t have to fight that fight every single day. Maybe every second day…
MD: The stuff that people perceived as potential weaknesses in the beginning—a bunch of random folk, different ages, different backgrounds, that we weren't all skinny 19-year-olds—ended up becoming our biggest strength. People could see that it was real.
Pitchfork: Have you been asked to work with other people?
MD: You get those offers, and some of them you’re like, “Oh my god, that person?!” We’re open to it, but not at the moment. I’m over this whole fucking co-write thing that’s going on right now. Is no one making records for themselves anymore? Is it not about a band anymore? It’s only about putting a voice in a room with the hottest writer. As we were making this album, a bunch of people offered to write with us, but we wanted to be an actual band.
In 1972, Cameroon hosted the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament, and when the home team reached the quarterfinals, Paris-based Cameroonian saxophonist Emmanual “Manu” Dibango cut a 45 championing that success entitled “Hymne De La 8e Coupe D’Afrique Des Nations”. The two-minute song’s cultural relevance was short-lived (Cameroon ended up placing third). But the single wound up in a record shop in Brooklyn, where the father of all moderns DJs, the Loft’s David Mancuso, pulled it out of the stacks. What enchanted Mancuso—and soon an entire generation of disco dancers and DJs alike—wasn’t the football chant, though. It was what he heard on the flipside.
With its tough stomp and incessant hi-hats—not to mention Dibango’s batcave-rattling baritone—“Soul Makossa” took New York dancefloors by storm. “People went wild trying to find that record,” Studio 54 DJ Nicky Siano recalls in the book Love Saves the Day. That scarcity led to upwards of 23 different bootleg recordings, flooding the market. In July 1973, it became the first disco record to enter the Billboard Top 40—an early instance of Western pop experiencing a paradigm shift thanks to Africa. The song’s chant of “ma-mako ma-ma-sa mako-mako sa” echoes through the greatest-selling pop album of all-time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and it’s in the DNA of the music of Kanye West, Rihanna, A Tribe Called Quest, and even “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”.
African music from all regions of the continent remains a touchstone for up-and-coming producers as well as more established figures in electronic music. London-based producer Esa has released choice dancefloor edits of music from his native South Africa; Berlin-based producers Africaine 808 suggest an amalgam between Europe and Western Africa; and when Awesome Tapes From Africa recently unearthed the strange hip-hop of Ata Kak, it made DJs around the world rejoice.
Maalem Mahmoud Guinia and Floating Points: "Mimoun Marhaba" (via SoundCloud)
Rather than sampling African rhythms, some producers now directly interact with these centuries-old musical traditions, as when Floating Points and James Holden recently collaborated on an EP called Marhaba with Morocco's Maâlem Mahmoud Guinia. The release's clattering, mesmeric tracks—some of which near the 12-minute mark—sound like an electronic update of the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones’ sonic explorations with the Master Musicians of Joujouka. It’s a magic sound, a wormhole wherein prehistoric tradition can be modern and analog electronics can become ancient.
Mark Ernestus is an early voice in Der Klang der Familie, Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen’s oral history about the rise of techno in post-Berlin Wall Germany. In 1989, he founded the record mecca Hard Wax, which would be seen as a prime mover on the rise of techno music throughout Europe. With Moritz Von Oswald, Ernestus also co-founded the Basic Channel and Chain Reaction labels, and the duo rendered seminal minimal dub techno as Maurizio, Phylyps, and Basic Channel. By the time of their Rhythm & Sound project (which spanned from 1996-2006), they emphasized dub over all else, making hypnotic, bass-heavy tracks with reggae icons like Cornel Campbell, Tikiman, and Sugar Minott; it was the sound of warm benevolence emanating from the deepest abyss.
“Maybe hearing reggae lyrics for most of my life had me brainwashed that Africa is my home,” Ernestus jokes when I contact him in Berlin to ask him about his latest project, Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force. “I had a lurking interest in African music for a long time, but that door had never quite opened for me.”
But while doing festival performances with Tikiman in 2007, Ernestus encountered a DJ crew from Gambia, and the doors opened wide. “They were mostly playing [popular Gambian dance style] Mbalax, and I listened to the whole two or three hours, so I got a good dose of it,” he recalls. “I was hooked on the spot. It was clear to me that these were not just a few interesting tunes and that there was more where this came from.”
Entranced by the rolling thunder of polyrhythms created by the nder, sabar, and tama drums that underpin Senegalese music, the minimal techno master sought out more examples of this music over the next few years. Along the way, Ernestus also remixed the likes of Konono N°1, Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen, and Ben Zabo, but his attention was focused on the heavy percussion of Senegal. (No doubt his longtime partner is similarly entranced with African rhythms, as the most recent Moritz Von Oswald Trio release, Sounding Lines, features the drumming of Tony Allen.)
In 2012, a few singles featuring Ernestus in collaboration with Senegalese singers, musicians, and percussionists from the band Jeri-Jeri were released and eventually collected as the 2013 album, 800% Ndagga. I ask what connects all this music for him, though he corrects my question: “It always feels wrong to me to talk about African music in the singular because it only says something about our ignorance towards the width of the spectrum.”
Earlier this year, a variant of his ongoing exploration of Senegalese music emerged with a single called “Yermande”—a Wolof word that roughly translates to "compassion"—and the streamlined group prominently features sabar drums. “What I consider more important than the playing of the actual sabar drum is the understanding of sabar rhythms,” he says. Again, the relentless yet nuanced percussion is foregrounded, a difficult sound to capture on tape. “It’s very physical,” Ernestus says of the recording. “Just the the loudness level of the direct sound from the sabar drums with no amplification must be technically illegal in some countries.”
It might seem odd for a European techno originator to immerse himself wholly in a project that to some club kids might scan as ethnography, but the music is powerful and as rib-rattling as any club track. “I took it as a challenge to try and find—or eventually produce—stuff that brings out some of the killer aspects and avoids elements that I find annoying,” Ernestus says, noting that the group is always evolving and clarifying its sound. “I am taking greater freedom to further change elements in the mix, but I feel it’s also a challenge failed when you don’t get to the bottom of the material, or just use it as a decorative element.”
New York City’s Washington Square Park teems with people on the first sunny day of 2015. In the shadow of the arch, there’s a walking tour gathered and a vendor selling pigeon plushies as real ones strut past obliviously. The park is a din of intermixed music: busking folk duos, classical jazz trios, a battery of plastic bucket drummers. And yet even amid all the bustle, bursts of purple, lemon, and lime stand out in the crowd; three dancers are quivering at an unimaginable speed, accompanied by a dizzying electronic sound coming from a nearby speaker.
It’s the music crafted in the home studio of South African producer Nozinja, who stands nearby, round as Buddha, crowned with an animal tail atop his bald head, his gap-toothed grin beaming as bright as the spring sun overhead. The man born Richard Mthetwa takes it all in as locals pause to feel the rush of music and movement.
“I always believed in my talent as a producer, but I am surprised that people go with the speed of my music,” he says. Nozinja’s style is an update on the rural South African township sound of shangaan, the guitar and bass replaced with synthesized marimba, sped up to the point of cartoon chaos and deemed shangaan electro. Nozinja’s background in the cell phone repair business seems to inform his productions, which at times resemble chirpy R&B ringtones, but overlaid with the chimes of a thousand Japanese teens sending emoji texts all at once.
The night before, Nozinja kicked off the monthlong Red Bull Music Academy in New York City, headlining a night of programming under the banner Electronic Africa. “Baby Do U Feel Me”, one of the highlights of his recent Warp release, Nozinja Lodge, sounded like a lovers rock song spun back at 78 rpm. His hi-hats brought to mind Bugs Bunny chases rather than human-played rhythms. Throughout the night, Nozinja chanted the ideal velocity for his music: “1! 8! 9!” It’s a speed more closely associated with West Indian soca and punk rock, and the crowd pogoed furiously trying to keep pace with it. But the giddy joy of shangaan electro was infectious. At one point, I watched as Björk maneuvered through the crowd, pushing her way to the front, a gleeful smile on her face. She then bounced up and down to Nozinja’s beats until she was a blur.
Like many, I first discovered Sparks by accident. In the summer of 1981, when I was 6, I got my first hit of Beatlemania—partly due to the pervasive residual mourning of John Lennon’s death, but largely on account of “Stars on 45”, a chart-topping Dutch novelty record that stitched together spot-on, re-recorded snippets of various Fab Four hits to a discofied backbeat. However, the first song quoted in the side-long medley wasn’t a Beatles song—it was Sparks’ 1979 Giorgio Moroder-produced single “Beat the Clock”, whose chorus doubled as an inspirational mantra for the task of cramming 30 Beatles songs into 16 minutes. It would be a few years before I discovered the source of that hook, and a few more before realizing that the unlisted inclusion was actually the perfect introduction to Sparks’ curious career. Over the past 45 years, brothers Russell and Ron Mael have made a sport of party-crashing the zeitgeist, producing brilliantly byzantine pop songs that deserve to stand alongside the greats—even though they often don’t get enough credit, and are ever-reliant on Europeans for recognition.
Sparks are rock’s perennial outsiders, coming of age as ardent Anglophiles in hippy-dippy late-‘60s L.A. before finding an audience for their erudite art-pop overseas. Of all the preening glam rockers beamed into British living rooms during the early ‘70s, Sparks undoubtedly cast the strangest figures, even if they shirked the gender-bending costumery flaunted by peers like Bowie and Roxy Music. Though Russell boasted de rigueur Bolan curls and a glass-shattering voice that made Freddie Mercury sound timid, his pop-idol visage was undercut by a disarming bug-eyed intensity. The buttoned-up Ron, meanwhile, was the ultimate anti-rock-star, perched behind his keyboard like a schoolmaster at his desk, his creepy toothbrush moustache and disinterested scowls oozing an authoritarian disdain for the kids in the crowd. Exhibiting a performance style more in tune with vaudeville tradition than pop-star posturing, the Maels seemed less like leaders of a rock band than a 1940s comedy double act who were teleported three decades into the future, thrust onto a soundstage and forced to perform their idea of rock‘n’roll on the spot. (The band’s very name evinces their fondness for old-school slapstick—after releasing their debut album in 1970 as Halfnelson, they switched to Sparks as a sly nod to another band of brothers.)
But for all their raging irreverence, Sparks have managed to remain novel without lapsing into novelty. They’re not so much trendsetters as trend upsetters, continually adopting au courant styles to both emphasize their pleasure points and highlight their inherent ridiculousness through intra-song meta-commentary and scathing high-society satire. When it comes to pop songcraft, Sparks are the hackers who know their way around security systems better than the people who designed them; they’re the hecklers who come up with better punchlines than the comedians onstage.
Sparks’ fierce intellect and absurdist showmanship would make childhood fans out of future iconoclasts from Morrissey to Björk; more recently, their influence has permeated everything from the New Pornographers’ maximal power pop, to LCD Soundsystem’s self-analytical electro, to the glitter-speckled freakery of Foxygen. Their tradition of perfectly of-the-moment soundtrack appearances—‘70s disaster flick Rollercoaster, ‘80s new-wave time capsule Valley Girl, and millennials perennial “Gilmore Girls” among them—also continues apace, with 1977 track “Those Mysteries” serving as the theme song for the popular new podcast Mystery Show. But while they’ve been known to answer their famous fans’ adoration with good-natured mockery, this month sees Sparks communing with some of their most notable successors—debonair Scottish post-punk popsters Franz Ferdinand—as equals for a jointly billed recording; as Sparks have never been ones to squander an opportunity for a crass pun, the project has been dubbed FFS.
The album marks the 23rd addition to a forbiddingly dense, four-decade discography—these are the most accessible entry points.
Sparks circa 1976
“Girl From Germany” (1973)
After their Todd Rundgren-produced debut album as Halfnelson flopped in America, the newly rebranded five-piece found more sympathetic audiences overseas while touring their second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. Following their British television debut in November 1972 on “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, word began to spread on the Isles of this weird band from Los Angeles with a keyboardist that looked like Hitler. Ron Mael claims he grew his infamous mini-moustache in tribute to silent-film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy, however, the waters were muddied by Woofer’s opening track. An outrageous but incisive satire of the post-war prejudices that still lingered in America three decades after WWII, “Girl From Germany” depicts the awkwardness of bringing a German girlfriend home to meet your Jewish parents, whose disapproval is matched only by the hypocrisy of having a Benz in the driveway. (“Well, the car I drive is parked outside/ It's German-made/ They resent that less than the people/ Who are German-made.”) It’s a prime early example of Sparks’ eagerness to toy with taboos rarely addressed in pop songs, let alone exceedingly cheery ones.
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974)
To capitalize on overseas interest, the Maels moved to England in 1973 and rebuilt Sparks with British players for their breakthrough album, Kimono My House. For a certain generation of Brits, Sparks’ performance of the album’s lead single—a #2 hit in the UK—on “The Top of the Pops” was as transformative as the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on “Ed Sullivan” was for a previous generation of Americans. But even if it’s been bouncing around your brain for 40 years, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” remains resolutely unkaraokeable—its zig-zagging melody, rollercoaster pitch shifts, and overstuffed stanzas still feel as difficult to grasp as flapping fish.
“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” (1974)
Sparks’ urbane sarcasm is the aesthetic opposite of tree-hugging hippie earnestness. However, this resplendent piano ballad from 1974’s Propaganda adroitly addressed our planet’s fragile nature—and our collective duty to protect it—long before “global warming” became a catchphrase. Its undiminished topical currency has made it a popular cover choice over the years for everyone from Martin Gore (who recorded separate versions within and without Depeche Mode) to Neko Case (whose reverential reading forms the thematic centerpiece of her eco-conscious 2009 album, Middle Cyclone).
“Get in the Swing” (1975)
Sparks’ transgressive presence and provocative lyricism made them heroes to first-wave punks like the Ramones and Siouxsie Sioux. However, just as their influence was taking root underground in mid-‘70s London and New York, Sparks’ music was turning ever more fanciful, flitting from ragtime-inspired romps, to grinding arena rock, to unabashed Beach Boys homage. The circus-like “Get in the Swing”, from 1975’s appropriately titled Indiscreet, typifies the excess of this period, though its pomped-up parade proved to be more a funeral march for the band’s commercial prospects, precipitating a late-‘70s slide down the UK charts that would necessitate a dramatic shift in course.
“Tryouts for the Human Race” (1979)
By 1979, it had become customary for even the hoariest rock bands to dabbleindisco for a track or two. But Sparks rightfully saw the music as more than just a quickie cash-in trend—in hypnotic dancefloor clarion calls like Donna Summers’ “I Feel Love”, they heard the music of the future, one that inspired a wholesale reboot of their band. Enlisting Summers’ go-to producer Giorgio Moroder, Sparks emerged as Italo-disco aesthetes on No. 1 in Heaven, an album that, alongside Kimono My House, forms one of the twin peaks of the band’s discography. The LP would restore the band’s celebrity in the UK to the point of Ron getting lampooned in a Paul McCartney video, and would also enjoy a (still-lingering) renaissance during the post-millennial ascent of electroclash and DFA Records. On the album’s exhilarating opener, “Tryouts for the Human Race”, Sparks map out the sort of slow-building, electro-rock epic that would later become James Murphy’s signature.
“Angst in My Pants” (1982)
After their dalliances with disco, Sparks reverted back to standard rock-band formation, reportedly because touring with (then extremely cumbersome) beat-making equipment proved to be a logistical nightmare. Ironically, with a flesh-and-blood group behind them once again, the Maels’ music turned even more mechanistic. Their new-wavedearly‘80ssingles pretty much all locked into the same zippy 4/4 snare beat, but the formula worked, resulting in respectable showings on the stateside charts for the first time in their career. The best of the bunch is the title track of 1982’s Angst in My Pants, where that omnipresent rhythm forms the ticking-time-bomb soundtrack to some yacht-riding yuppie bastard’s impotence-induced midlife crisis.
“When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” (1994)
The 1990s were Sparks’ lost years. The group had become so proficient at absorbing contemporary synth-pop sounds that, by the late ‘80s, their own peculiar personality was becoming harder to parse from the production sheen, with Russell’s parade of perms rendering him indistinguishable from the other big-haired chancers on MTV. Following 1988’s Interior Design, they took an extended break from recording, focussing instead on (ultimately aborted) plans to adapt a Japanese comic book into a musical directed by Tim Burton.
In 1994, they reemerged in a vastly different musical landscape. Grunge had come and gone, but alternative rock culture was still peaking, and prompting a renewed appreciation for left-field trailblazers. In England, the weeklies paraded a new crop of bands schooled by the Maels’ arch lyricism and fearless flamboyance, like Pulp and Suede. But if the conditions were favorable for a Sparks comeback, the Maels refused to peddle ‘70s glam nostalgia to Britpop enthusiasts—their 1994 album Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins instead channeled the strobe-lit euphoria of house. On the elating but self-deprecating “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’”, Russell grapples with Sparks’ eternal existential quandary, being neither as famous as Sinatra nor as notorious as Sid Vicious. But the song returned the band to the charts in Europe, providing a brief glimmer of light during an otherwise fallow decade that saw Sparks release just one other album, a self-covers collection.
“Your Call's Very Important to Us. Please Hold” (2002)
With 2000’s Balls notable only for providing the theme song a Jean Claude Van Damme flick, the Maels embarked upon yet another radical, career-reviving reinvention. For 2002’s Lil Beethoven, they abandoned rock convention yet again, offsetting elaborate, classical-inspired arrangements with brutally minimalist lyricism (which often just amounted to the song title repeated to hypnotic and hysterical extremes). The aesthetic overhaul proved especially complementary to Sparks’ long-time penchant for blowing up mundane minutiae into over-the-top melodrama. “Your Call’s Very Important to Us. Please Hold” is an operator exchange rendered as a tragic opera, each choral utterance of the title lyric and synthesized string stab compounding its oppressive banality. The song is absolutely maddening, and feels like it’s liable to go on forever—not unlike the experience of phoning a customer-service line and waiting to get a human voice on the other end of the line.
"I Can't Believe You Would Fall for All The Crap in This Song" (2008)
This schaffel-swung track from 2008’s Exotic Creatures of the Deep belongs to a storied tradition of Sparks songs about Sparks songs, wherein the lyrics amount to itemized responses to a titular premise. It’s a tack that’s yielded some of the best in-jokes in the Maels’ songbook (like the classic closing line of 1982’s “I Predict”, wherein Russell repeats “this song will fade out”—just before it comes to a dead stop). Here, it transforms some of the most sentimental lines Russell’s ever sung— “I want you and only you and only you, my love,” “I’ll be true, forever true, forever true, my love”—into something deviously disingenuous.
“Police Encounters” (2015)
In self-referential Sparks fashion, the band’s foray with Franz Ferdinand climaxes with a multi-sectional suite called “Collaborations Don’t Work”. But the best tracks on FFS feel less like collaborations than full-on genetic fusions. On jaunty highlight “Police Encounters”, Russell and Alex Kapranos bound through the song’s brisk verses and call-back choruses with a finish-each-others-sentences sense of intuition, while Ron’s electric-piano taps and synth textures get hardwired into Franz’s vacuum-sealed rhythm section. Despite the seemingly topical title, don’t expect any political analysis here—the song is a cheeky romp about catching a soft-focus glimpse of a lawman’s fetching wife while getting thrown in the drunk tank. But, coming on the heels of the Maels’ stripped-down Two Hands One Mouth duo tours, FFS heralds Sparks’ resounding return to frantic, futurist rock‘n’roll.
Contours, a new feature where we take you on tour with some of our favorite artists, kicked off earlier this month with Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett. Photographer Charlotte Zoller followed along on Barnett's recent U.S. tour as she ventured through wine-soaked Napa, took the Southern route through Los Angeles and San Diego, got weird in Austin, and finally ended up in New Orleans.
Majical Cloudz: Devon Welsh and Matthew Otto. Photos by Tonje Thilesen.
I am staring into the light. It's a weekday afternoon toward the end of last summer, and I'm standing onstage at Le Belmont, a small dance club in Montreal. I can hardly see them, but singer Devon Welsh and his Majical Cloudz co-conspirator Matthew Otto are down on the floor a few feet away, looking up. Today is practice and, for the moment, my body is something of a placeholder as the duo test out lighting for their imminent arena tour opening for pop's reigning anti-material girl, Lorde. In just over a week, the four dizzying beams being cast my way will fill the 14,000-capacity Mann Center in Philadelphia. But here, the lights hurt. My ability to see anything is cut, leaving a pummeling whiteness. As I give the stage back to Welsh, little red molecular spots scurry across my eyes. I ask the frontman if he would like to borrow my sunglasses for the rest of the day. "No," he says, matter-of-factly. "I have to get used to it."
The whole situation is comically unlikely. Three years ago, when I first heard about this minimalist synth-pop act born of Montreal's DIY scene thanks to a tiny living-room gig, I hardly believed that a band with such a goofy name could actually be good—let alone great, let alone capable of moving me to tears, let alone arena-ready. But here we were.
At Le Belmont, I bear witness to Majical Cloudz's considerable learning curve. I also experience Welsh and Otto's unyielding ability to turn their anxieties into one never-ending, self-defeating joke. "At least if we bomb, we'll have bombed in front of the most people we could have ever bombed in front of," Welsh reminds himself.
Otto maps the lights, tapping away at his computer with nails painted black as bulbs pulse, pan, boom, swing, fade down, creep up, and oscillate on high. Welsh punches the air to the beat as if he’s conducting raw electricity. It's just him up there: a man and his microphone. He warms up with the Canadian national anthem, hitting every note, before digging into a deep croon: "Someone died/ Gunshot right outside/ Your father/ He is dead." As he delivers these lines from a radically sparse song called "Childhood's End", flashes of brightness syncopate around him. "When someone is trying to seduce you lyrically, it's weird to have a crazy light show," Welsh considers out loud.
There are only so many hours booked here, and the duo are powering through, racing the clock with a faltering computer. The day’s tension is heightened by the fact that, as Majical Cloudz rush to get ready for the upcoming shows, they are also attempting to mix an impressionistic new album for which they recorded booming organ and piano sounds at both Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s local studios. As practice wears on, the coffee goes cold, lunch is half-eaten. At some point, Otto stares into his screen, and I hear him murmur, "Don't fuck up your tour." It quickly becomes clear that, when it comes to arena-fit light shows, Otto and Welsh are essentially at a loss. "If you have any ideas, let us know," Otto tells me. "You'd be as good as any of us."
The album that vaulted Majical Cloudz to such perilous heights, 2013's Impersonator, is made of synth poems hovering in negative space—crystalline pop songs about death that are really above love. Welsh's words stand right in front of you, like text art at the fore of a white canvas, while Otto's aural ambience humbly glows, soars, and contracts underneath. Blankness becomes a virtue, a source of command, not unlike the emptied mystics of fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen. (Indeed, a track on the first handmade Majical Cloudz tape in 2010 featured a slowed-down Cohen sample and the apt title, "Leonard Codeine".) Impersonator manages both a New Age spirit and the intense compositional minimalism of hardcore punk—an ethic of simplicity that Majical Cloudz share with Lorde. It is streamlined and yet complicated in the way that any self-determined path to clarity requires. "We thought, ‘How simple can we make it?’" Welsh says. "How can we take a person's expectation of how a song is supposed to evolve and not do that?"
The evening before practice, I meet Welsh near dusk on a corner in Mile End, Montreal’s gentrifying creative hub. We end up at an empty park surrounded by the low hum of crickets. Those who know Welsh best mention his commitment, onstage and in the theater of life, to not breaking character, and until then I had never seen the singer wear anything but his monochrome uniform of black jeans and boots along with a white T-shirt—a James Dean look made more severe by a shaved head that accentuates his buggish eyes. But in the park he sports a long-sleeved black shirt and New Balance sneakers. Most striking of all, he has hair. Though exceedingly polite, his anxiety is palpable.
The 26-year-old says he has become more positive—almost an adult—over the last three years. He tells me how he quit drinking, qualifying the choice in his carefully rationalized way: “Alcohol puts up a wall between you and sensory stimuli, and I realized how unadjusted I was to living in reality without the comfort of that wall.” Welsh always speaks in logical declarative sentences, monotone and professorial. His ascetic sobriety is unsurprising considering the extreme clarity of his music and mission; in song and show, Majical Cloudz skip the party and go straight to the deep 2 a.m. conversation, where a moment of real connection is possible.
The power of vulnerability is the essence of Majical Cloudz. But vulnerability doesn’t come easy. “I’ve always dealt with revealing myself, and intimacy, and trusting people,” Welsh admits, and the idea of making such sensitive music was terrifying to him at the start of Impersonator. “It’s scary shedding those layers and saying, ‘This is who I am, this is how I feel,’” Welsh tells me. “I’m giving you so much ammunition to hurt me if you want to.”
But it was precisely that fear of being fully seen that also motivated him. He likens it to a fall exercise in a drama class—close your eyes, lean back slow, have faith that someone will catch you. “The outcome of that action is trust and acceptance,” Welsh says. “You can’t build trust if you never fall.”
This strategy plays out most vividly during Majical Cloudz’s austere live shows, which can be startling in their directness. The first time I saw Welsh and Otto play, I was sitting on the floor in a small room, looking up as Welsh locked eyes with various members of the audience for extended periods of time, heightening the mood to hypnotizing, uncanny levels. “Listen to this song,” he emoted, “I want you to know it’s how I feel.” Was this a band, or a conceptual performance of one? Either way, once you enter the domain of a Majical Cloudz show, you are frozen.
"He's a real performer," notes Welsh’s friend Claire Boucher, aka Grimes. "The first few times I saw him live, it seemed so insane that someone could command a stage at such a high level whilst performing for 10 or 20 people, with almost no musical experience at all. People would weep or faint during the shows."
Welsh and Boucher met in 2007, at a first-year dorm party at Montreal's McGill University. Welsh noticed one of Boucher's peculiar drawings hanging on the wall and asked who made it. "Oh, that's Claire—she's weird,” a friend said. Welsh recalls thinking, "I should probably meet this person.”
The two became romantically involved, on-and-off, for three years. In 2008, they made an album together that "no one will ever hear because it's so bad," says Welsh. It was the beginning of a formative musical period—over the next couple of years, for fun and for therapy, Welsh used GarageBand to churn out eight charmingly homemade solo albums inspired by Daniel Johnston, Elliott Smith, and Atlas Sound, selling them as CD-Rs for $1 at house shows or just offering Mediafire links on Facebook. Boucher's voice was laced through most of them, including one called Maximum Empathy. On Boucher's own 2010 record, Halfaxa, there is a gorgeous, melancholy song called "Devon", in which she sings, "You don't love me anymore." The two learned to write pop songs alongside each other.
"More than anyone but my parents, I feel that I owe my life to her," Welsh says of Boucher now. “She’s the person with whom I shared the genesis of the dream of playing music, and her success inspired me to get moving with my life and to stop being afraid to try."
Even just talking in the park, Welsh’s blunt openness can be insightful, embarrassing, funny, or all three. “For some reason, anything to do with bowels and shitting is incredibly shameful,” he tells me, explaining how his break-up with booze was primarily an attempt at curing ongoing digestive problems, which became incredibly severe. “It just seems like the least attractive thing in a human being, to be like, ‘I’m chronically constipated,’” he says, straight-faced. I can’t help but laugh at this; I’m not sure if he wants me to.
Welsh's closest friends speak of his self-discipline and methodical work ethic, and how his intellectual interests range from religion, to politics, to World War II history. But the very first thing anyone who really knows Welsh will tell you is that he is extremely funny. His penchant for comedy reaches back to high school drama classes, where he learned the maxims of improv through quick-thinking games: how to work within a terrible situation, how to be spontaneous, how to impersonate. By the end of 11th grade, he dreamt of being a stand-up comedian.
At this point, Welsh’s sense of humor is dark, academic almost, with a penchant for teasing out absurdities. “Some people are funny because they’re goofy and there’s a lightness to them,” says friend Kyle Jukka. “Devon is not like that. He’s extremely precise with his humor." For his part, Welsh likens his role as a performer to one of a clown. But he’s no sad Pagliacci; when I first saw him play, he compared himself to Bozo. For Welsh, being vulnerable and being a clown are different sides of the same coin, and this is paramount in how he pulls off his incredibly stark performance style, diffusing the self-serious energy with strange banter or unexpected shenanigans. “I’m interested in the serious side of what a clown does,” he says.
His unique sense of humor came out one evening in the summer of 2013, when Majical Cloudz’s tour route brought them to a sports bar in Edmonton. A number of the frontman’s cousins had decided to come to the show and—already anticipating an awful gig due to the not-so-ideal setting—the familial influx left Welsh stressed. So he decided to expel his nervous energy by playing the gig naked. “When I’m really nervous, I’ll do something that will make it even more nerve-racking, therefore defeating the nervousness,” he rationalizes.
So as he sang to a crowd of around 20 people, Welsh held onto the mic clad in nothing but underwear and boots (a self-imposed compromise) and stayed serious throughout (“cracking up would ruin it”). One of Welsh’s best and oldest friends, Neil Corcoran—a tall guy with long hair and a deadpan demeanor who is the subject of Majical Cloudz’s BFF anthem “What That Was”—was with them that night. “The strange thing was, when his family came over afterwards, they didn’t even mention it,” Corcoran says. “They didn’t even seem to notice.”
Perhaps the extended Welsh tribe had become accustomed to theatrics in the family. Welsh’s parents met in New York, on the set of a 1986 made-for-Canadian TV film starring Welsh’s father, Kenneth. (Welsh’s mother was a camera operator.) They split up when Welsh was four, and he moved with his mother from Canada to an ashram in Lake County, California, to join the religious community Adidam—a group rooted in Eastern philosophy and a divine guru worship tradition that has been labeled cultish. Even as a 6-year-old, Welsh felt some discomfort with the “fanatically devoted” Adidam movement. Looking back, he says, “I’ve never identified with putting a lot of faith in something that provides me with certainty that I don’t have to think through on my own.” After two years in California, he returned to his father’s home in the small rural town of Uxbridge, Ontario.
Though Kenneth Welsh is best known for his role as the villain Windom Earle on David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”, he’s also had parts in films by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen and, at 73, he’s still acting. His son acknowledges the profound influence of growing up with a father who was rewarded for the power of his personality, and the unconventional standard of success that came with it.
Welsh got his start performing onstage as a child at Shakespeare Nights, where he read with his dad. He went on to earn the Most Dramatic superlative at his high school senior prom thanks to his drama-class theatrics, as well as dancing and singing roles in Grease and West Side Story. But his father’s renown left him uncomfortable about pursuing acting on his own. Corcoran saw how his friend’s self-consciousness inhibited him back then: “In the small town we’re from, people would only identify him as being the son of this actor.” His father’s influence was undeniable, but Welsh would try to deny it all the same.
His teenage musical palette mostly involved nu-metal and hardcore acts like As I Lay Dying, It Dies Today, and Every Time I Die. He began attending unhinged hardcore shows at makeshift venues, where other people dressed the part—skinny jeans, keys clips, X-ed hands—while Welsh had a more suburban look. He was playing football at the time, primed for aggression. And in his loneliest college years, Welsh was a self-described “gym rat” who dreamt of joining cross-country. But he was eventually drawn back to the stage after starring in a production of Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s Cowboy Mouth, a surrealist one-act play about a couple who transcendentally worship rock’n’roll.
Listening to high school tales from his friends, it sounds like Welsh was always destined to be nothing but a performer. There were those times when he would break up a monotonous lesson by reciting Shakespeare in an incessant clown voice. "People were just like, 'Devon! It's not funny! Would you shut the fuck up!’” Corcoran recalls, “That happened all the time." Once, in the middle of a quiet English class, Welsh—who would go on to major in theater and religion in college—stood on his desk with a copy of the Bible, read some of it aloud, tore out a number of pages, and ate them. Somehow, the teacher didn’t care, but Welsh was punished after a girl ran out of the room crying.
That same unruly combination of sincerity and absurdity (and crying) now plays out in Welsh’s live performances. Dismayed that Majical Cloudz shows were quickly gaining a reputation of unrepentant dourness following the release of Impersonator, Welsh felt compelled to spike the mood. “The best emotional state I could be in at a show is one of pleasant bewilderment,” he says. “When I’m like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting to feel this way,’ that’s good entertainment.”
Welsh, a devout scholar of expectation-exploding comedian Andy Kaufman, describes his onstage antics as “prankish,” and they range from singing behind curtains or speakers to making everyone come onstage and introduce themselves one-by-one. At a Portland show, he once held a push-up contest in between every song. "If he could sing upside down, hanging from the ceiling, I'm sure he would,” Corcoran says. “It’s genuinely him, but it borders on, like, ‘Is he joking? Is he really so weird?’”
I can’t help posing a similar question when it comes to Majical Cloudz's confounding name. It turns out the moniker was originally dreamt up by another lifelong conspirator of Welsh's, Matthew E. Duffy, an eccentric playwright, noise artist, and occasional Grimes dancer who wears Medieval-chic bell-sleeved shirts and acts like Kramer reborn as a Warhol superstar. When I ask Duffy about the unorthodox spelling of Majical Cloudz, his explanation is simple: "Well, I spell ‘magical’ that way." Welsh adds that years of knotty emails from Duffy gave him an appreciation for the history of disorienting linguism: "Alternate spellings were sometimes used because language would be seen as having a power unto itself, and creating new versions of words frees them from past connotations and lets them gather entirely new meanings."
The practice space where Majical Cloudz record is a tiny rear-house, cluttered with keyboards and tangled wires and tape decks. On top of the couch where Otto sometimes sleeps is a wooden panel, flipped upside down, painted with the words: "TRY HARDER." One wall is lined with stuffed teddy bears—Otto's childhood toys repurposed as DIY soundproofing, which, apparently, does not work well, as a note from a neighbor attests. The hand-written complaint (“we can feel the bass in our diaphragms—earplugs just don't work”) is pinned to the wall with a knife. I look around. There are knives thrown into almost every wall in the space—the result of "an LSD activity," according to Otto.
The pair first met at a party in 2009, where Otto was taken aback by Welsh’s nervous energy. "He had very strange aura to him,” Otto remembers. After Welsh left the party, another dude approached Otto. "You know that guy?" he asked, regarding Welsh. "He’s fucking crazy, totally unstable. Don't talk to him."
If Welsh is at the beating heart of Majical Cloudz, Otto is the vital blood. His musical approach is crucially abstract—a foundation set at Concordia University's electro-acoustic music program, where he learned to sculpt sound. And while Welsh is the responsible one who packs a snack (dates) for band practice and has a self-imposed bedtime (midnight), Otto is patient, relaxed, zen (he recently took up mindfulness meditation using an app called Headspace). Welsh goes big-picture, whereas Otto sees the fine details. "I’m like a kite, and Devon is the string,” Otto says.
But that balance became strained during their first headlining tour in the fall of 2013. Both members’ dark sides came out. Otto turned into a depressed insomniac; Welsh became paranoid, sick, broken down. Otto remembers bottoming-out at a Niagara Falls IHOP, where he began bawling in the middle of the restaurant. “I went to the bathroom and got it together,” he says, “but then I came back, and Nickleback was playing, and I just started crying again.”
Throughout this tumultuous period, there was one song looping nonstop on the radio as they traversed North America’s endless highways. Neither of them knew who sang it, but they knew it by heart; according to Otto, Lorde’s “Royals” was “the soundtrack to us going insane.”
A few months later, in January 2014, Welsh was back in his small Montreal apartment feeling bummed and trying to write when he heard from Boucher, who wanted wanted Majical Cloudz to open for her at a Grammys pre-party in Los Angeles. It was there that Welsh first met Lorde. “We were playing, and I looked up, and she was singing the words in the balcony,” Welsh recalls. “I was like, ‘What is happening to my life?’”
The first thing I notice are the uniforms: black dresses, black lips, tattoo chokers. Flower crowns and wavy hair. It's the first week of September at Philadelphia’s Mann Center, at the first date of Lorde's 2014 North American tour. The energy is young, optimistic. Upon entering the outdoor venue I'm given a faux baseball card with a cartoon of Lorde's face on it. In tiny print on the back, it reads "with Majical Cloudz."
As the sun sets, Welsh and Otto take the stage. Otto is on a riser, using an ironing board as a gear stand. Welsh, in his white T-shirt and shaved head, is pacing about the whole stage, howling and jumping; middle schoolers try to find their seats as he stands underneath a stark spotlight and sings about hospital gowns and death. But there are also many heads staring directly at the stage. Instagram video-bars crawl in front of me. Squeaky shrieks of approval hang in the air. "I have never heard such distant screams before," Welsh says methodically. "This is possibly the best day of my whole life."
There is a girl of elementary school age sitting next to me, eating an ice cream cone. At the end of the set, she offers her take to a friend: “Thank god he left. All his songs sounded like one song.” Everyone’s a critic.
Ten days later, I meet Majical Cloudz at an uptown Manhattan park as they take a breather between two NYC shows. At this point, Welsh and Otto estimate they have taken post-show fan selfies in the triple digits. They finally seem happy, reveling in the unusual atmosphere. “We can’t even help ourselves in being weird to these people,” Welsh says.
The pair are learning how to work with the experiential, synergistic energy of a huge crowd—making broad strokes and allowing excitement to snowball—and even if these are the biggest shows Majical Cloudz ever play, wisdom will carry forth. "If you make small drawings in a sketchbook and then make something that's the size of an apartment building wall, you'll go back to your sketchbook and see new possibilities that you didn't see before,” says Welsh.
While most bands would simply take the Lorde tour slot as an opportunity to catapult towards higher reaches of fame, for Majical Cloudz it offered a chance to rethink basically everything. "A small part of me died at the end of the tour," Welsh tells me in the months following their brush with arena stardom. "What I want to accomplish with art suddenly became vastly clear to me."
In a sense, he saw truth in the masses of screaming teenagers and couldn't look back; Welsh saw how Lorde's unguarded fans wanted their enthusiasm to be validated, how his excitement and openness begot more of the same. It began to instill in him a sense of faith—that positivity and energy will be returned, that all crowds are capable of shedding their defenses when given the chance.
Reflecting on that first Philadelphia date, Otto says, "As a kid you're told, 'You can do anything!' and you go through life half-believing that, like, 'Probably not, I should be realistic.’ But at that moment it seemed like choosing the unrealistic thing and keeping the music weird actually worked.” I ask him if that show felt like the very peak for Majical Cloudz. While he agrees that it's one of them, he also has another idea: "I think that's possibly tomorrow."
Trusting the tour’s lessons, the pair decide to scrap most of the record they had spent 2014 working on, starting anew.
Welsh spent last winter holed up at a friend’s place in Detroit writing Majical Cloudz’s forthcoming album, Are You Alone?, which is due later this year. The answer to that titular question seems to be a resounding “no,” as the record’s theme once again involves maximum empathy, with Welsh dialing into what he calls “the electricity connecting humans.”
Pieces of last year’s relatively hi-fi studio experiments are woven into the record, but they do not dominate it. “After all the crazy shit we could get our hands on, we came back to the cheapo organ we’ve been using since day one,” says Otto. The pair have also enlisted indie muso par excellence Owen Pallett to add simple analog drums, viola, and piano. “I think Majical Cloudz are onto something strong and powerful and good and economical,” says Pallett, known for his sweeping string arrangements for Arcade Fire. “I didn't want to add anything superfluous.”
The issue with the lost record was in over-thinking, trying to pin down an unattainable perfection. Instead, Welsh feels the lyrics for Are You Alone? contain hopeful premonitions. When the songwriter wonders about the life the album might have, he laughs, contemplating if art that “intends good things” might be able to make those things real.
One of the few songs on the record that was salvaged from those pre-Lorde sessions is named “Call on Me” and has a soft sway; when they would play it in those endless spaces on tour, it repeatedly provoked a glowing iPhone star-bed. It’s a song about believing in the power of friendship, about surviving together, about a bigger, inclusive love that’s not necessarily romantic. Welsh wrote it one night after spending time with his friends Corcoran and Duffy at his father’s home in Uxbridge, running around through the cornfields.
As the song peaks, he sings, “I’m your friend ‘til I lie in the ground.” The stark beauty reminds me of that moment after walking through a cemetery, when everything, even the air, feels more present and vivid. “I’m into thinking about things in the context of mortality,” says Welsh. “Maybe it’s morbid, but it’s funny to me. It’s an exciting aspect of life.”
When I say that this assignment fell into my lap, I mean it literally. I’ve been piling the more than 100 books in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on top of my desk for the past few months while attempting to read the entire collection sequentially. At some point, the tower of criticism grew too architecturally unsound, and with a slow-motion lurch, more than half of the thin volumes fell on top of me, bouncing off my laptop, cascading onto the floor, spooking the dog, and making an even bigger mess of my already messy office. I carefully re-shelved the books in numerical order and got back to reading.
When the series started assigning one album to one author back in 2003—right around the time the album was rumored to be cooling on a slab in the pop culture morgue, ready to be opened up and autopsied—there was no template for this kind of publication, no prescribed notions to fill. The books could take the shape of an essay, or a work of fiction, or even some odd hybrid of both. But whatever the format, these paperbacks are aggressively accessible: short, pocketsize, easily consumed during a few commutes. Perhaps more crucially, potentially anyone can write a 33 1/3 book: critics, academics, journalists, musicians, poets, assorted armchair commentators.
After that precipitous collapse, while still making my way through the books in order, I noticed the authors grew younger and younger, while their theses became more offbeat and their choices in albums less canonical and more eccentric. Instead of more Beatles and Stones, we get Kanye West, J Dilla, and Ween. The range of the series, especially in its second 50 titles, is not just broader, but bolder, as the writers challenge the accepted Boomer notion of a “rock classic.” There’s something incredibly subversive and compelling about the notion of elevating They Might Be Giants and Dinosaur Jr to the same level as Pink Floyd and the Band. A new title on Koji Kondo’s music for Super Mario Bros. not only expands how we define the concept of an album but reconsiders the very notion of what constitutes pop music itself.
The 33 1/3 series has revealed a way that we can save the album: by dislocating it from history and letting a new generation develop their own canon. Recently announced titles suggest this trend will continue, but while we wait for new editions on Beat Happening, the Raincoats, and the Geto Boys, here are the 33 best 33 1/3 titles in alphabetical order by artist.
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 By Marc Weidenbaum
Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 was a puzzle when Aphex Twin released it 21 years ago: an anti-album that eschewed track names and introduced a spare sound that was in the process of either dissolving for forming. It was, in other words, an ideal release for the new forums of this thing called the Internet, whose members not only picked apart the music but helped define the album for subsequent generations. Marc Weidenbaum packs a lot into these 130 pages: a mini-biography of a ground-breaking artist, a capsule history of ambient music, and an example of how digital technology determines how we hear and interpret music.
Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace By Aaron Cohen
Daughter of a Baptist minister, Aretha Franklin was chastised when she left the gospel circuit to pursue a pop career. After establishing herself as one of the premiere R&B singers of the 1960s, she made a momentous return to the church on 1972’s double album Amazing Grace, which proved she could still testify mightily. In one of the most thoroughly researched books in the series, Chicago critic Aaron Cohen recounts the album’s creation and reception in great detail, noting that “the popular media rarely present her journey from a gospel perspective, so this album remains frequently overlooked.” His book is a much-needed corrective that restores Amazing Grace to its proper place in Franklin’s catalog.
Big Star: Radio City By Bruce Eaton
Many writers manage to wrangle interviews with their subjects for these books, but few make as much of the opportunity as Bruce Eaton, who got unprecedented access to the “individuals who were actually ‘in the room’ and had a direct and tangible input into the sound and development” of Big Star’s sophomore album. This direct insight from the band members and engineer John Fry steer the book away from the cult mythology that still clings to the Memphis group and creates something much more even-handed and humane. Eaton conducted the interviews in 2007 and 2008, and his book was published in 2009, just a year before frontman Alex Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel both died unexpectedly. Those immense losses, combined with Fry’s passing in 2014, adds poignancy to a powerful story of thwarted dreams.
Black Sabbath: Master of Reality By John Darnielle
There are several 33 1/3 titles that mix fiction and criticism, with varying degrees of success. Of them, John Darnielle’s novella about Master of Reality may be the best. Drawing on his experience as a psychiatric nurse before he found a steady day job with the Mountain Goats, Darnielle approaches the album through a fictional character—a patient who is keeping a journal of his therapy sessions. What could have been a gimmick instead proves both critically engaging and emotionally harrowing, as the lively, angry, intelligent narrator voices his rage and confusion through his love for Ozzy.
Brian Eno: Another Green World By Geeta Dayal
Geeta Dayal opens her book on Another Green World by admitting that she had trouble writing it. She penned and discarded multiple chapter drafts, then found her momentum flagging. Finally, she decided to let Brian Eno’s set of Oblique Strategies cards direct and inspire her work. It’s an apt move, as Eno often foregrounds the creative process himself, and it results in a probing and thoughtful book that never falls into formula. Instead, Dayal portrays her subject as a deft artist embracing studio technology and balancing his past accomplishments with all the endless possibilities of the future.
Celine Dion: Let’s Talk About Love By Carl Wilson
The most unlikely album made the best 33 1/3: Celine Dion isn’t usually afforded the same respect as a Bob Dylan or a Joni Mitchell, but Carl Wilson uses her populist art and personal history to ask questions about class, taste, and race in an effort to figure out how one of the most popular singers in the world could be loved and hated in equal measure. The answers he finds aren’t always comfortable, but that only makes them more important and crucial to criticism in the 21st century.
David Bowie: Low By Hugo Wilcken
No record exists in a vacuum—especially not one of David Bowie’s from the 1970s. Low is the first in his famed Berlin Trilogy (followed by “Heroes” and Lodger), but the Australian novelist Hugo Wilcken links it to Station to Station and its world tour, to the film The Man Who Fell to Earth and its unreleased soundtrack, and to Bowie’s sometimes fawning obsession with Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. Wilcken doesn’t get around to discussing Low until nearly halfway through the book, and while such a lengthy prelude could easily descend into aimlessness or self-indulgence, here it shows the extent that Low works as both a comment on Bowie’s previous records and a guide for his subsequent ones.
Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables By Michael Stewart Foley
In his book on Dead Kennedys' 1980 debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, historian Michael Stewart Foley traces the origins of the radicalized California punk band's political views by chronicling all the turmoil in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, as the hippie ideal curdled into the Me Generation. During this era, San Francisco turns out to be even more fucked up than famously fucked-up New York, roiled by demonstrations, riots, mass murders, serial killings, and even the assassinations of local politicians. "It was not merely that punks in San Francisco were political," Foley observes. "It was also that the city itself made them political, forced them into political contests with those in power, and that was a climate in which Dead Kennedys thrived." But what truly separated the Kennedys from their peers—and what transformed their angst into something powerful and useful—was the humor with which they tackled current events, as singer Jello Biafra in particular understood that a wicked sense of irony was the only weapon against a world that had grown so insane.
Dinosaur Jr.: You’re Living All Over Me By Nick Attfield
Bug may have had the hit, and Where You Beenmay have sold more copies, but 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me is the album where Dinosaur became Dinosaur Jr. In addition to appending a diminutive to their band name, the trio refined their post-punk attack as well as their songwriting to become one of the most revered bands in the alternative-rock movement. Obviously drawing from Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life—which told the trio’s story in more condensed form—Nick Attfield uses the album as an entry point into Dinosaur Jr.’s biography, tracing their suburban punk origins through their bitter demise with writing that’s akin to a J Mascis solo: bold, inventive, and with all sorts of tangents and asides thrown in.
Elvis Costello: Armed Forces By Franklin Bruno
I’m convinced that Franklin Bruno knows more about Armed Forcesthan even Elvis Costello does. His dense interrogation of the album traces its roots through punk back to Ray Charles and Burt Bacharach, examining the nuanced integration of so many different styles into something new, fierce, and idiosyncratic. Yet, this is not hero worship: Bruno closely examines what has become known in Costello lore as “the Columbus incident,” when the frontman described a few African-American musicians in the worst way possible and got decked by singer Bonnie Bramlett. As contradictory and as caustic as his subject can be, Bruno understands that Costello’s shortcomings only make him more fascinating as a human and more compelling as a guy trying to figure out how to rebel against the rock’n’roll establishment.
Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand By Marc Woodworth
Much like the album it chronicles, Marc Woodworth’s book on Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand feels lo-fi, as though it was written in a suburban Ohio garage and cobbled together from spare parts: insightful analysis of themes and lyrics, thoughtful musings on the actual experience of listening, punchy riffs on Robert Pollard’s rock-hero stage presence, lengthy oral-history narratives by band members and unrelated listeners. This barely processed quality—raw, weird, rambling, direct—not only mirrors that of its subject, but also complements it by emphasizing the glorious spontaneity of the record.
Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion I and II By Eric Weisbard
An astute scholar of the pop marketplace as well as of pop music, Eric Weisbard tackles Guns N’ Roses’ 1991 double album Use Your Illusion. In an impressive bit of stuntwork, he admits he didn’t listen to the album before starting the book, instead choosing to write first about how it exists in the pop cultural landscape—both as a conservative inversion of rock’s countercultural aims and as a colossal monument that closed out the 1980s and ushered in the alternative ‘90s. When he does finally spin the albums, Weisbard tries his best to dismiss Axl Rose’s “authoritarian populism that encourages us to put our faith in power chords,” but ultimately and begrudgingly respects the band’s ridiculously outsize ambitions.
Hole: Live Through This By Anwen Crawford
This book made me care about an artist I had long ago written off. Yes, Courtney Love has pretty much retired from making meaningful music, but for Anwen Crawford, an Australian journalist and critic, that only makes Hole’s 1994 album Live Through This all the more compelling. As she chronicles the decisions that produced the band’s grunge-era breakthrough—which was released just days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide—Crawford writes movingly about the effect these songs had on herself and on other women around the world. These female voices enliven the book with personal, often devastating stories of sexual and social confusion, yet each one found a piece of herself in the violent guitars and howled vocals. In that regard, the album’s anger and ferocious self-determination haven’t diminished in two decades.
J Dilla: Donuts By Jordan Ferguson
That such a lively collection of beats and samples—as cerebral as they are physical—was created by a dying man ensures that Jordan Ferguson’s book will be poignant, but his clear storytelling and direct prose allows producer James Yancey to emerge as a complicated, contradictory character. The first half is the most extensive biography we have of the man, from his childhood in Detroit to his death in Los Angeles, just three days after the release of Donuts. The second half grapples with the album as a meditation on mortality, which only shows what an immense talent the world lost.
James Brown: Live at the Apollo By Douglas Wolk
As U.S. planes deployed with nukes flew around the world and John F. Kennedy assessed the Bay of Pigs, James Brown was playing a week of shows at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. According to Pitchfork contributor Douglas Wolk’s careful reconstruction of the making of Live at the Apollo, nuclear annihilation may have been averted by sheer force of Brown’s will. Of course, the hardest-working man in show business had nothing to do with foreign relations, but Wolk shows how those fears of mass obliteration stoked Brown’s showcase, pushing him to give even more to his crowd and prodding his audience to scream and shout as though their lives depended on it. Fortunately, humanity not only survived a nuclear standoff, but we got one of the greatest live albums ever.
Jeff Buckley: Grace By Daphne A. Brooks
“I had been waiting and looking for this sound all of my own life,” writes Daphne Brooks in the introduction to her book on Jeff Buckley’s debut album. She writes about nursing an intense emotional connection to Grace, which she admits is “the most unlikely muse for my American black girl experience.” That is, however, not her conclusion, but a starting point for the book that tries to ascertain the nature of that bond. Partly it’s due to Buckley’s incredibly fluid voice, and Brooks writes especially perceptively about the singer’s debt to Qawwali vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Partly it’s due to Buckley’s integration of so many different styles, from the sophisticated jazz vocals of Billie Holiday to the emotive torch singing of Edith Piaf. She delves deep enough to find new perspectives on the music, but fortunately not so deep that she dissolves the strange power of this mystery white boy.
Led Zeppelin: IV By Erik Davis
Even when Erik Davis published his exegesis on Led Zeppelin’s IV in 2005, there seemed to be little left to say about either the band or its best-selling album. Yet the best 33⅓ titles can make you hear familiar albums with fresh ears. Davis has some fun unpacking the rumors of occultic messages hidden in the packaging and in the music (backmasking! mirrored images! Crowley references!), yet he acknowledges the power of the band’s particular mythology to cast a strong spell over even the most skeptical listener. The result, he writes, is “one of the supreme paradoxes of rock history: an esoteric megahit, a blockbuster arcanum.”
Love: Forever Changes By Andrew Hultkrans
The first great title in the 33⅓ series paints a vivid picture of Los Angeles in the 1960s and Arthur Lee’s place in it—or, more accurately, just outside of it. While writing and recording Forever Changes, the Love frontman rented a house high in the hills above Los Angeles, where he could look down on the city and its music scene. His songs comprise an “ode to paranoia” that reveals the decay afflicting the hippie generation even before the fabled Summer of Love. Andrew Hultkrans paints Lee as an American prophet—not predicting the future but passing judgment on society. It’s perhaps the finest piece of writing on one of the finest psychedelic albums of that tumultuous decade.
My Bloody Valentine: Loveless By Mike McGonigal
During the recording of My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 career-making/-destroying album Loveless, Kevin Shields would reportedly stay up for days on end, attempting to achieve a hypnagogic state without the use of narcotics. That sense of wooziness—as though the world is blurring away from you—is a hallmark of the band’s “clearly bent and disorientating” pop music. Former Pitchfork contributor Mike McGonigal recalls the long sessions that produced the unlikely hit, which lasted upwards of two years and took place in too many studios to count. McGonigal relates a bizarre and often hilarious story (the album, insists one band member, was delayed by heated chicken-eating contests), but never lets the bold personalities obscure the even bolder music.
Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea By Kim Cooper
By the time most people discovered In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel had already disbanded, and Jeff Mangum had disappeared. L.A.-based writer Kim Cooper dispels the mystery of the band without diminishing the power of the album as she retraces the NMH’s short history. At the time of its release in 2005, this title was the only book-length examination of Neutral Milk Hotel, and 10 years later it remains the best and most definitive biography of a band whose mystery only intensified its fans’ loyalty.
Oasis: Definitely Maybe By Alex Niven
Sometimes it can be invigorating and even instructive to disagree with an author. Reading Alex Niven's spirited defense of Oasis' 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, there were moments when I shook my head and devised mental rebuttals against, for instance, his comparison of the band's pop-history scavenging with hip-hop sampling. And yet, he makes his arguments with such insight that for a while I did come to think of Oasis as a bunch of leftist revolutionaries reconceiving pop music as a vehicle for working-class liberation. Perhaps the reason this book succeeds is that Niven's fire is churned by anger toward his subject: Oasis, he argues, traded their populist politics and dole hymns for posh townhouses and cheesy Beatles retreads. It's a tragic fate, but I'm now convinced it makes their debut sound brasher.
Pavement: Wowee Zowee By Bryan Charles
Pavement’s third album isn’t the most obvious choice for a 33 1/3 book. Predecessors Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain are considered to be the band’s best albums, and some fans (OK, me) would even pick Brighten the Corners as a close third. But the series is more concerned with telling new stories than in re-telling old ones, and Bryan Charles relishes the opportunity to argue for a personal favorite. Wowee Zoweemay have been a flop (he even admits a “lack of excitement” when he first heard it), but he shows how the album has gradually revealed a new cohesiveness governing its scattershot aesthetic over the last two decades and how it is now revered by the same listeners who initially shrugged their shoulders.
Prince: Sign o’ the Times By Michaelangelo Matos
In a series heavy with autobiographical reminiscences and statements about the power of music on adolescents, few 33 1/3 books manage to wring so much meaning and critical weight from a life’s story. Michaelangelo Matos describes his upbringing in the Twin Cities during the 1980s and how his love of Prince’s double-album masterpiece was fueled by hometown pride. That is no mere prelude to his account of the album’s creation or his analysis of it as a new hybrid of jazz and funk. Instead, these early pages form the foundation on which his arguments rest, making this the rare book where you get to know both the author and the critic intimately.
Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back By Christopher R. Weingarten
Early in his book on Public Enemy’s career-making second album, Christopher R. Weingarten explains that the Bomb Squad would tap in their samples manually, a technique that heightened the chaos of the music. Each one, Weingarten explains, was picked not only for its sound and architecture, but for its pop-cultural significance as well; if Chuck D rapped about the tension between funk and rock’n’roll, or between black and white forms of popular music, then the Bomb Squad translated those tensions. The book is relentless in tracing these samples back to their sources and expounding on their new contexts, but it reads as something of a tragedy: “Thanks to the diligent work of copyright attorneys,” Weingarten writes with a barely suppressed sneer, Public Enemy’s “cavalier, frontiersman attitude toward samples will never be repeated.” Not even by the band themselves.
Ramones: Ramones By Nicholas Rombes
The Ramones’ 1976 debut is arguably the foundation of punk as we know it, a dud at the time but one of those albums that finds its audience over several generations. In 128 pages, Nicholas Rombes confronts some of our most closely held ideas about punk in general and the Ramones in particular: that they were poor kids from bad neighborhoods, that they rebelled against traditional notions of success in the rock industry, that they invented punk, that their use of swastikas and other questionable imagery can or should be easily explained. That he’s not susceptible to the band’s enduring myths makes his analysis that much more precise and allows him to describe the songs with the verve of a true fan.
R.E.M.: Murmur By J. Niimi
Writing about an album like R.E.M.’s debut can be treacherous. More than 30 years after its release signaled the rise of alternative music, Murmur somehow retains its playful sense of evasion, as though purposefully obscuring its meaning in an attempt to make you listen more closely. Explaining each lyric and riff risks deflating its mystery, yet J. Niimi proceeds with caution. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is finding the right distance from his subject, so that he can explain how the music works without telling us what it’s about. That is, after all, the whole point: “Murmur is a record that needs to be completed by the listener.”
Sigur Rós: ( ) By Ethan Hayden
The Icelandic band Sigur Rós isn’t especially well known for their probing or poetic lyrics; the motivating idea behind the band’s third album, barely titled with a set of parentheses, is that all meaning can be conveyed with orchestral swells and fades, walloping drum fills, and patient crescendos of bowed guitar. Furthermore, frontman Jónsi Birgisson sings in a made-up language called Hopelandic, which makes the lyrics inscrutable beyond their texture as pure sound. Ethan Hayden painstakingly transcribes the eight untitled tracks on ( ) into a series of long vowel sounds and odd clusters of consonants in an attempt to diagram the syntax of this strange new tongue and figure out what the band might be saying (despite their best efforts not to say anything).
Slayer: Reign in Blood By D.X. Ferris
Per D.X. Ferris, Reign in Blood was a pivotal Slayer record even before they recorded it. The band had signed with Rick Rubin, then most famous as “the guy who put Aerosmith in that rap song,” and fans feared he would either dilute the abrasive thrash of Hell Awaits or saddle them with too many gimmicks. But when Ferris describes the album as “twenty-nine minutes of pure hell,” he means it as the utmost compliment. Occasionally he comes across as overly enthusiastic, taking the band’s greatness on faith, but in writing one of the few 33 1/3 books on a metal album, Ferris knows he must argue persuasively for their inclusion. Toward that end, he conducted a raft of original interviews for the book (everyone from Slayer frontman Tom Araya to Tori Amos) to tell their story as clearly and as vividly as possible.
Talking Heads: Fear of Music By Jonathan Lethem
By far the biggest name in the 33 1/3 roster of writers, Jonathan Lethem is no music critic, but an award-winning fiction writer whose novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude indulge long passages about pop music. His take on Talking Heads’ 1979 album forgoes fiction for first-person criticism, in which Lethem’s teenage self acts as a sympathetic protagonist. Even as he plumbs each song on Fear of Music for meaning and significance, he uses the album as a point against which he can measure his own growth as a listener, becoming older and wiser and hungrier for connection with each year and with each listen.
Television: Marquee Moon By Bryan Waterman
The New York punk scene of the 1970s doesn’t lack for documentation, some of it worthwhile (Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire) and some of it worthless (the 2013 film CBGB). That Bryan Waterman still finds something new to say is impressive enough, but he expertly expands the context for Television’s debut album and for the Bowery punk movement within New York’s larger arts scene. At more than 200 pages, it’s one of the longest titles in the series, but each page seems to contain some new idea or discovery. Plus, his meticulous song-for-song analysis locates new connections and implications in these riffs and lyrics, portraying a band that was always in the process of burning it down and starting again.
The Kinks: The Village Green Preservation Society By Andy Miller
One of the hallmarks of the 33 1/3 series is the track-by-track runthrough, during which the author proceeds, often in painstaking detail, to describe each song on a given album in order. Occasionally this can be redundant or tedious, but one of the first great examples is in Andy Miller’s book on the Kinks’ finest hour. The album tells its own story: The first three tracks establish the band as tongue-in-cheek curators of England’s past, at a time when its future looked increasingly murky, while such tracks as “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” and “All of My Friends Were There” pointedly complicate that idea.
Throbbing Gristle: 20 Jazz Funk Greats By Drew Daniel
The title of noise greats Throbbing Gristle’s most famous album always struck me as facetious, but Drew Daniel—one half of Matmos and a former Pitchfork contributor—takes the title more or less at face value and explores how jazz and punk were usefully perverted into something new and explicitly un-punk on the 1979 album. Daniel writes evocatively of his own experience with 20 Jazz Funk Greats, which he discovered as an adolescent looking for more extreme forms of music, but the best passages in the book are his Q&A’s with the band members, who remain as confrontational and confounding as ever.
Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle By Richard Henderson
Before it was released as Song Cycle, Van Dyke Parks toyed with the idea of calling his 1968 debut Looney Tunes, both a reference to the famous Warner Brothers cartoons (Parks was signed by Warner Brother Records) and a fitting description of the manic, shapeshifting, world-devouring music he was making at the time. Song Cycle is an animated mash-up of parlor pop, calypso folk, movie scores, and anything else that struck Parks’s fancy, and Richard Henderson admits its manic nature makes the collection a hard sell for the uninitiated. But he makes a persuasive case, not only detailing Song Cycle’s creation (it was rumored to be the most expensive pop album of its time—which made it the biggest commercial failure of its time) but arguing for it as an unheralded artifact of the psychedelic era.