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    Rising: Alessia Cara: Antisocial Optimist

    "i herd your covers and i just wish you never change cuz you are going to the top i love your stile and i am hoping you do more of amy winehouse she is my favorite :)" 

    For much of her recording life, the reviews cast upon 18-year-old Alessia Caracciolo’s soulful voice have read like this—thousands upon thousands of comments filled with unfettered praise and premonitions of fame piled below the pop covers she’s been posting in a diaristic YouTube stream since age 13. Altogether, these notes read like a collection of yearbook entries for the most popular kid in high school history. This is somewhat ironic, because Alessia’s only officially-released original song to date, “Here”, is a side-eyeing, anti-party anthem that doubles as an ode to discerning wallflowers. The track rolls on a sleek beat descended from Portishead and Isaac Hayes while recalling Lorde’s wise teen spirit as well as the searing autonomy of early Fiona Apple. It’s a song about shyness and self-assurance and social skepticism that feels genuine. We don’t get enough of those. 

    The daughter of Italian-Canadian parents, Alessia grew up in the Toronto suburb of Brampton and spent her high school years recording that trove of covers with her laptop while hiding away in her closet (as to not bother her little brother) and, at times, her bathroom. Best among them are her expressive homages to her beloved Amy Winehouse (“my fave artist ever”), especially a stunning acoustic take of “Valerie” filmed in front of various hung garments of clothing. There was also an acoustic Drake medley performed at a school talent show, along with her takes on Lorde, Taylor, and Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” (all of which are more graceful than they might sound on paper). Even her celebrity impressions are pretty impressive.

    But it was her intimate 2013 cover of an otherwise faceless song called “Sweater Weather” by alt-rock band the Neighborhood that became the most popular clip on her channel, amassing nearly 800,000 views. It also caught the attention of the daughter of Tony Perez, founder of production company EP Entertainment, which initially contacted Alessia through Twitter two years ago. “I thought it was spam,” the singer/songwriter tells me. “I made sure that my dad talked to them, and as they talked more and more, I realized, ‘OK, it’s legit—not spam.’” Soon enough, she was on a flight to the company’s headquarters in New York City and then headed into a professional studio, where she attempted penning songs of her own for the very first time.

    Her forthcoming album Know It All, out this fall via Def Jam, was co-produced and co-written by Motown-affiliated songwriter Sebastian Kole, and features production by Pop & Oak (Nicki Minaj, Usher) and Malay (Frank Ocean, tUnE-yArDs). “I was always told that music isn't a 'realistic' path to take, and like a normal human being, I doubted myself over and over because I was afraid of failure,” Alessia writes in a candid video chronicling her signing. “As cheesy as it sounds: I actually started from nothing.”

    That open-book honesty is all over Know It All. And though she appears to be on the brink of greater heights, you can still hear Alessia—the quietly excited, out-of-step teen from The 6—in its songs. Though the visual for “Here” is a bit more high-budget than her home videos, she’s not straying from YouTube anytime soon. “I have not forgotten about this channel,” she said in a self-described “awkward, unedited” upload from an Orlando hotel last month. “YouTube is my first love.” 

    I spoke to Alessia over the phone during her recent nationwide radio promo tour. Positive and apologetic, the singer struggled to locate a quiet place to chat, at one point retreating (once again) to the inside of a bathroom, this time in a New York cafe.

    “I told myself that if I was going to be given a voice, I might as well say something worth listening to and not just feed people stupidity.”


    —Alessia Cara

    Pitchfork: You mention in one YouTube video that you’re a Cancer, which is interesting because Cancers are typically people who like to stay home, hide in their shells, and retreat from the world. Have you always been that type of person?

    Alessia Cara: I am very much a Cancer in that sense, where I like to be at home and cuddle in my bed, or be with my family and friends. I’ve always been in my room a lot. That’s why this has all been—[knock on bathroom door] someone’s in here! [laughs]—it’s definitely an adjustment.

    I was never allowed to go out a lot; I came from a family that was kind of different, and I wasn’t allowed to do certain things, so I was yearning to leave. And I’m from Canada, so I haven’t really seen this part of the world before. I’m not used to all these cities. It's really cool, but my mental space is attracted to home. I'm just weird: When I'm at home, I want to be out. When I'm out, I want to be home.

    Pitchfork: When you were first beginning to write songs in the studio, one of the topics you chose to focus on was alienation. Have you experienced that a lot?

    AC: It was something I really felt growing up. It wasn’t even necessarily that I was bullied or that other people made me feel alienated—it was just myself, in a way. I was so mentally away from everyone else, and that inspired a lot of my songs, which have this common theme of being on your own.

    Pitchfork: On “Here” you call yourself an “antisocial pessimist”—a lot of people feel like that sometimes, and it’s cool to hear someone sing it back to you. Now that you’re out of high school and entering this other world, do you feel more optimistic?

    AC: I mean, I’m not really a pessimist all the time. It’s just in social situations like that where I’m so negative. [laughs] “I don’t want to be here, blah blah blah.” I am antisocial, but coming into this industry, I’m a new person. I’ve been forced to be more social—I have to do interviews and things, like right now. And interacting with people is helping me, in a way. At the same time, I’m not getting invited to the parties or anything like that yet. [laughs] For now it’s been really positive and I’m being really optimistic with things. The success of “Here” proves that it’s cool to be optimistic, because anything can literally happen. In a couple of days, things can really change for you.

    Pitchfork: Did you have to defeat your own shyness before you could do all of this?

    AC: I’ve always been really shy, especially with singing. The first time I sang in front of an audience, I was about 14—it was at my guitar school’s showcase and there were about 30 people there. I was so nervous, but I did it. I really had to push myself to get used to singing in front of people. Now I’m a lot better, but if you would have asked me to pick up a guitar and sing in front of people two or three years ago, I don’t even think I could do it.

    Pitchfork: What have you learned about yourself as an artist and singer from working with all of these new people?

    AC: I didn’t start writing songs, honestly, until I started making my album. I was always doing poetry, but I never thought I could write songs. I discouraged myself and thought it was so hard. But starting this process and learning just what it is to be a songwriter and performer taught me that you don’t have to feel discouraged about anything. You don’t even have to follow any rules. As a songwriter, you can just do whatever, you can touch upon any subject you want. It’s so big and wide.

    Pitchfork: Was your poetry similar to the songs you’re writing now?

    AC: There’s a lot of similarities. I used to write poems about how I hated high school—opinionated stuff. It floated into my music. I did spoken word a couple times. I took writer’s craft in high school and really loved that course, and we would have to present our poems. I entered one competition spontaneously because I wanted to watch my friend who had entered, but the only way you could go and watch it was to write a poem, too. So I wrote the one about how I hated high school just so I could get in, and I performed it at my high school, and the teachers were the judges—and I ended up winning, which was really weird. [laughs]

    Pitchfork: There’s another line in “Here” where you say you want to leave this party and go listen to “music with a message.” What does that encompass for you right now?

    AC: Artists like Lorde and Raury, who really speak for young people. That music resonates with me, and it puts a positive light on teens; I love teen anthems. But when I say “message,” I mean all kinds of messages—not only music that touches upon a specific subject. I really look up to songwriters like Drake or Ed Sheeran; they might not say things with a powerful political message, but they bring out a different kind of message about things like love.

    Pitchfork: Does the idea of “conscious pop” direct your writing?

    AC: For sure. I'd never make something pointless that I don't believe in, I don't think I could do it. I always told myself that if I was going to be given a voice, I might as well say something worth listening to, and not something that’s just going to feed people stupidity.

    “I want to be a voice for young women and say, ‘You don’t have to follow these standards, you should love yourself.’ I want to give them a reminder.”

    Pitchfork: Your song “Scars” talks a lot about body image. In what ways do you want your music to be empowering?

    AC: I want to empower people with my whole album, and all the music I make in the future. Even if it sounds vulnerable, or not as uplifting, I still want to share a message that’s going to help people. “Scars” is one of my favorites. I feel like young women especially are so pressured to look and act a certain way. We see it everywhere. It’s a constant thing that we’re all aware of. I want to touch upon that and be a voice for young women and say, “You don’t have to follow these standards, you should love yourself.” That’s so important. I want to give them a reminder.

    Pitchfork: Another new song, “Seventeen”, sounds like a page out of your diary—was that intentional?

    AC: That’s a good way of looking at it. It’s me talking to myself, reminiscing on childhood and things I was told as a kid. Just wanting to stay a certain age and not have to grow up—that’s something I’ve always been afraid of. 

    My album is called Know It All because there's a line in “Seventeen” where I say, “I'm a know it all/ I don't know enough.” That really sums up the entire album. All the songs have such a strong opinion and feeling, but even though it seems I'm this girl who has everything figured out, I really don't. I'm still trying to figure things out as I go. I guess you could say it's a sarcastic title.

    Pitchfork: You’ve talked a lot about being inspired by Amy Winehouse. Do you remember the first time you heard her voice?

    AC: Yeah. I was in my kitchen and my mom was watching MTV in the living room and she called me in, like, “Come listen to this girl, her songs are so good.” So I went, and it was the “Rehab” video. I was like, “Oh my gosh.” It sounded amazing. I loved her hair, everything. I just fell in love with her and her music. I was 9 or 10 at the time and I didn’t know that current music could sound like it was old. That’s when I started falling in love with soul and jazzy-sounding stuff: Michael Bublé, Frank Sinatra. As a kid, my parents would always listen to a lot of Beatles, Queen, Elvis. My mom was born and raised in Italy, and my dad was born in Canada and moved back and forth between Canada and Italy, so they would also listen to all the big Italian stars like Eros Ramazzotti, Gigi D'Alessio, Tiziano Ferro, Laura Pausini. I knew all the current music from Italy, for sure.

    Pitchfork: Is Amy Winehouse the reason that you got a guitar?

    AC: I always wanted to play guitar when I was little, and she made me want to do it even more—seeing a girl playing guitar on her own and singing was like getting approval: “If she does it, then it's OK for me to do it.”


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    Staff Lists: Overlooked Records 2015

    Once again we're taking this space over the holiday weekend to highlight some very good records you might have missed. None of these releases received a Best New Music designation and not all were rated above an 8.0 but all are records worth revisiting. Read, listen, and we'll be back with album reviews on Monday.

    Bell Witch

    Four Phantoms

    Profound Lore

    On their second album, Seattle duo Bell Witch breathe new life into the crushing expanses of funeral doom. Offering up metal at its most morose, bassist Dylan Desmond and drummer Adrian Guerra write songs about fire, water, earth and air from the point of view of ghosts. Bleak post-rock soundscapes reckon with brutal doom slabs, primal drum rhythms, and the occasional glammed-out melody; though the run-times may seem imposing (two of the four tracks stretch well past the 20-minute mark) Four Phantoms makes for a surprisingly compact trip, full of crossover thrills and existential chills. Like Pallbearer’s similarly strident Foundations of Burden, Bell Witch’s latest crafts a compelling crucible through which the listener may peer into the void, and just maybe see a glimmer of light amidst all the darkness and dread. —Zoe Camp

    Bell Witch: "Judgement, In Fire: I – Garden (Of Blooming Ash)"

    Jeff Bridges

    Sleeping Tapes

    self-released

    During a Super Bowl commercial break earlier this year, Jeff Bridges appeared on the screen. His eyes were closed, he was letting out a deep "om" and playing a singing bowl while people slept nearby. It’s an effective advertising method amid the beer commercials and action movie trailers—the absence of sound in an otherwise cacophonous space is jarring. The album he was advertising (a partnership with the website design company Squarespace) makes a similar impact—it’s meant to put you to sleep, but it’s still engaging. Bridges isn’t just playing the role of the trained sleep coach speaking gently about breathing patterns. Instead, he's a warm, absurdist mystic who's not overly precious with his concept. You hear him wake his wife by shoving a microphone in front of her face and telling her he's working on his tapes. As he hikes around Temescal Canyon, he's your buddy, encouraging you to drift off as he engages with nature and waves at a stranger who he's arbitrarily dubbed "Neil." "If you want, we can pretend to be crows," he says at one point. After a pause, he responds, "No? OK."

    Composer Keefus Ciancia ("True Detective") provides an ambient hum to linger beneath Bridges' smiling musings, and the formula works. Some of his backing tracks invoke the haunted ballroom vibes of the Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. Elsewhere, Ciancia's music is sweeping and ethereal while Bridges offers some words of encouragement. ("You are a positive addition to this world. ... You order well at restaurants.") Naturally, the most powerful instrument on the record is Bridges' relaxed, deep, authoritative voice. Whether it's run through effects to sound like a chorus of frogs ("Sleep, Dream, Wake Up") or sitting at the front of the mix as he drifts off ("Seeing With My Eyes Closed"), he's the exact sort of person you want talking to you as you fall asleep or process an ambient album—a guy with actual empathy (he's talked about how the biggest selling point for doing the album and ad was that proceeds would go to No Kid Hungry) and a genuine fascination with the gurgling sounds his toilet makes. It's part comedy album, part benefit album, part ambient record, part sleep aid, part "the Dude is my life coach" fanfiction—an album you never knew you needed, but one that strangely packs a lot of utility. —Evan Minsker

    Jeff Bridges: "The Sea"

    Hop Along

    Painted Shut

    Saddle Creek

    If you are in any way aware of Painted Shut's existence, you almost certainly have witnessed writers one-upping each other to describe the inimitability of Frances Quinlan's voice—chain-smoking toddler, sweet and sour rasp, bourbon howl, or, taken to its logical extreme, "the best in rock music today." It's all accurate, just as it was on their 2012 debut Get Disowned, a record eventually spoken of in hushed tones by Philly scene kids and Mark Hoppus. Make no mistake, Quinlan's vocals are challenging and their immediacy betrays the patience it takes to untangle her knotty narratives. But the quartet have taken advantage of a lineage-establishing leap to Saddle Creek and the production of John Agnello to shear down the convolutions of Get Disowned and offer the same lyrical complexities within a satisfying, big-hearted indie rock album. Quinlan draws on her experience as a mortified waitress, imagining her twin working at a Waffle House or evoking Jackson C. Frank, but they're all expressed as intimate emotional confessions whether placed within soaring hooks, a desperate mid-album solo performance, or a big group-hug of a closer. It's an album full of stealth and obsessive desires for an intense connection—as Quinlan put it herself, Hop Along are still creepin' on you so hard. —Ian Cohen

    Hop Along: "Waitress"

    Joey Bada$$

    B4.DA.$$

    Cinematic / Pro Era

    From the outside, Joey Bada$$'s career looked like a rap-recession cautionary tale; kid with a jones for '90s rap gets signed to a label and begins a long, slow trip up the industry's dead middle. Every achievement—working with a legend like DJ Premier; having Roc Nation sniff around—had an ominous aftertaste, like it was also a harbinger of a flailing industry smothering a young talent who still lacked a distinctive voice. It looked, in short, like he was Diggy Simmons.

    But Joey Bada$$, modest though his profile might be, is steelier than that. His album, B4.Da.$$, surprised onlookers, selling 58,000 copies in its first week and trumping Lupe Fiasco and many other, much-higher-profile Billboard rap debuts of recent years. He has amassed a devoted following of young listeners, not least among them Malia Obama, whose Pro Era selfie on IG alarmed the Secret Service

    Bada$$’s music isn’t rooted in the past; it lives there. But there's nothing wrong with that. Recreation, when it's loving enough, can be a pleasure in itself, and Joey Bada$$ treats the mid-90s like JJ Abrams treats Star Wars: Everything from his frantic, plugged-nose delivery, which instantly recalls Redman, to the scratched hooks and looped samples, gazes into 1994 NYC as if it were a snow globe, a world living in records that Bada$$ is determined to recall. The surprising fact of his album is that he does this act of recreation so completely that it starts to feel strangely seamless, and by the end, his dream world starts to feel real enough to live in. —Jayson Greene

    Joey Bada$$: "Run Up On Ya" [ft. Action Bronson and Elle Varner] (via SoundCloud)

    Johnny Jewel

    Lost River OST (Deluxe Edition)

    Italians Do It Better

    Ryan Gosling’s debut directorial feature Lost River may have been an erratically heavy-handed, art-house fever dream, but Johnny Jewel’s swooning soundtrack made it one worth wading through. Jewel’s work bounds between serrated synth pop (courtesy of Italians Do It Better’s reliable stable of artists), amniotic electronic interludes, and the occasional curveball, like Billy Ward and His Dominoes’ 1957 doo-wop single “Deep Purple” and actress Saoirse Ronan's vocal turn on standout "Tell Me". Lost River’s soundtrack is another characteristic free fall into Jewel’s nocturnal, dreamy universe, whether set to Gosling’s hallucinatory visuals or just the passing cars of your morning commute. It’s also an ideal placeholder to keep your attention until Dear Tommy finally, finally drops. —Eric Torres

    Johnny Jewel: "Bullytown" [from Lost River] (via SoundCloud)

    Lakker

    Tundra

    R&S

    Electronic duo Lakker describe their role as "storytellers," but listening to their latest, Tundra, "landscapers" feels more accurate. The album title gets it right: Dara Smith and Ian McDonnell sculpt vast, frozen vistas, mossy, marshy greens and mountainous crags into orderly, habitable tracts. The complicated rhythms and inky ambience put Lakker in league with dark electronic peers such as Burial and Haxan Cloak. They often filter their voice through diaphanous choral melodies, proving that even the most forbidding real estate can be capable of supporting life. Human vocals, strings and field recordings pop up on Tundra, but on highlights such as "Pylon" and "Three Songs", they're subject to avalanches of harsh noise and plunging into echoing caverns--anything human is put in its proper place, subject to the unpredictable whims of Mother Nature and Father Time. –Ian Cohen

    Lakker: "Mountain Divide" (via SoundCloud)

    Mbongwana Star

    From Kinshasa

    Nonesuch

    Mbongwana Star’s debut album From Kinshasa offers a mix of traditional likembes, echoey feedback, and left-field electronic touches like distorted vocal frays and reverb-laced rhythms. The lyrics here are chant-sung in Lingala, a Bantu language native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Mbongwana Star’s Coco Ngambali and Theo Nsituvuidi recruited young Irish producer Liam Farrell to oversee their particular blend of central African rumba, reggae, and R&B. The experimental bent that belies Mbongwana Star’s approach to traditional syncopation gives From Kinshasa a distinct crossover feel—see, for example, lead single “Malukayi” and it’s vibrating, ethereal pulse. Much like the album itself, it’s a chaotic but catchy fusion of cultural reference points—a genre-bending approach to sound. —Molly Beauchemin

    Mbongwana Star: "Malukayi" [ft. Konono No.1] (via SoundCloud)

    Mumdance / Logos

    Proto

    Tectonic

    Mumdance and Logos are two British producers young enough to see that nostalgia for its own sake is square but seasoned enough to know that there's no shame in reckoning with the past. Proto is their collaborative album—released on fellow collaborator Pinch's formative Tectonic label—and as its knowing title implies, it's a nod toward the UK rave music that inspired the styles (grime, dubstep) with which the two producers are more often associated.

    If Proto is a trip through the past, it's a bad trip, echoing a time in the early and mid '90s when both the music and the drugs got harder. The duo take this harsh realm and outfit it with a modern chassis of inky techno grooves and deep, starless bass. When they stir in a vocal sample—"Dance Energy (89 Mix)" or "Move Your Body"—their recitations are almost too on-the-nose, but long, elegant passages like "Border Drone" and "Bagleys" offer up plenty of doomy expanse. "Room 2 Lazer" and "Legion" prove the duo haven't abandoned the banging malfeasance of early collaborations like "In Reverse". Clammy and tough, Proto is proof that we have plenty to learn from the past about having a real bad time. —Andrew Gaerig

    Mumdance and Logos: "Move Your Body" (via SoundCloud)

    Anthony Naples

    Body Pill

    Text / Proibito

    Anthony NaplesBody Pill is a small album (eight tracks, 29 minutes) in love with the emotional possibilities of electronic music. The producer—raised in Florida, once based in New York, currently residing in Berlin—has been kicking around for a few years now, releasing 12"s and gigging with the likes of Four Tet, whose Text imprint is responsible for this record. His geographic restlessness is mirrored in his music. Body Pill never veers too close to any particular genre, but rather seems to hover in place in the spaces between them. Misty drones give way to mid-tempo breakbeats that sound like Boards of Canada interstitials; sweeping string samples that bring to mind the modern classical bent of Arca are crumpled into tightly packed spheres and used as punctuation for a crisp 4/4 techno pulse. You can’t necessarily guess what Naples will do yet, which is an exciting idea on its own; despite its brief runtime, Body Pill never stays in one place for long. —Mark Richardson

    Anthony Naples: "Abrazo" (via SoundCloud)

    Pearson Sound

    Pearson Sound

    Hessle

    Pearson Sound cut his teeth in the UK's dubstep scene, where space was as important as sound, and where bass was measured mainly by the size of the crater that it left. Those lessons stayed with him when he turned his attention to the cadences and tempos of classic house and techno. Many of his peers made a similar move, but few came anywhere near the restraint he showed on skeletal drum tracks like 2012's "Footloose". With his self-titled debut, he took his aesthetic to severe new extremes. Made primarily with analog gear, it favors the sizzle of the signal chain over clever sound effects; much of the time, he mutes half the drum channels and cranks the emptiness to 11. "Gristle" is a blackened tribute to industrial music's originators; "Swill" is a hypnotic descent into haywire drum programming; and "Asphalt Sparkle" is more death march than club track. In its distrust of conventional pleasure, the album is practically Spartan. It's not entirely humorless, though; just see "Crank Call", which opens with the telltale buzz of a vibrating cell phone. —Philip Sherburne

    Pearson Sound: "Starburst" (via SoundCloud)

    Petite Noir

    The King of Anxiety EP

    Domino

    For years, white artists like David Byrne, Paul Simon, and Brian Eno have combined their own progressive Western sensibilities with the rhythms of the African continent. While the outcome of these cultural combinations can be stunning, they can’t help but be shadowed by long histories of colonization and appropriation. Cape Town-raised Yannick Ilunga, on the other hand, doesn't need an outsider to translate his sensitivity and heartbreak for him. He’s at the forefront of a self-described “noirwave” movement aiming to recognize Africa as an all-inclusive force that’s able to pull from Western art while retaining an identity of its own. His debut EP, The King of Anxiety, makes a fine case for his cause as it juggles lilting African instrumentation with post-punk clangor and the emotional drama of Morrissey or Dev Hynes (there's even a small, sincere nod to Milli Vanilli thrown in for good measure). On the simmering peak “Chess”, Ilunga plays multiple roles, using both his falsetto and rich baritone to tell of a relationship on the brink; it’s a conversation rendered in full by just one man. —Ryan Dombal

    Petite Noir: "Chess" (via SoundCloud)

    Jessica Pratt

    On Your Own Love Again

    Drag City

    A virtuosic guitar player with an warm, insistent voice that tunnels through you like an earwig, Jessica Pratt sounds like the stately composite of Nick Drake and Joanna Newsom. She’s too thoughtful to be waved off as another folk singer with feelings and a guitar, too weird to be forgettable. On Your Own Love Again is a record unstuck in time—it could’ve come out yesterday, or 40 years ago. It’s as lyrically composed and evocative as an Emily Dickinson collection, guided by Pratt’s intuitive ability for weaving memorable melodies around her beating emotions. “It's really just about being at the mercy of those waves,” she told Pitchfork, discussing how inspiration strikes when you least expect it. This record seeks deep mercy from life, as faces fade into watercolors and lovers turn into strangers; it’s waiting for the rain to come, even if it isn’t ready for its world to be washed away. —Jeremy Gordon

    Jessica Pratt: "Back, Baby" (via SoundCloud)

    Sam Prekop

    The Republic

    Thrill Jockey

    Sam Prekop's first foray into modular synthesis, the 2010 album Old Punch Card, sounded vastly different from his band the Sea and Cake's music and even his own solo material—a fact that surprised no one perhaps as much as it surprised Prekop himself. Delving into his instrument's quirks, he found it liberating, he has said, to realize that he could write music that didn't conform to traditional song forms.

    Writing music for modular synthesizer is largely a matter of learning which cables to connect and which knobs to twist—a process that turns out to be a lot more arcane than you might expect. So it makes sense that, five years down the line, Prekop's second album made on his modular rig turns out to be more refined. The R2-D2 bleeps have turned into dulcet leads, loosely knotted harmonies, and carefully controlled buzz. Nine short sketches titled "The Republic" are bestowed with the sort of ambient use value you might expect, given that they were created to accompany an art exhibition; wherever you may hear them, they subtly color the air around you with a powdery glow. Tracks like "Weather Vane" and "The Loom", meanwhile, take a half-step back towards traditional musical tropes like chords and even beats. Mostly, though, the album is a testament to the expressive potential of electronic sound. —Philip Sherburne

    Sam Prekop: "Weather Vane"

    Dawn Richard

    Blackheart

    Our Dawn Entertainment

    “I thought I lost it all,” stripped to a capella, is the first thing we hear on Dawn Richard’s second and best solo full-length, Blackheart. And then we plunge headfirst into the former Danity Kane and Dirty Money member’s mythological universe, where drum’n’bass, calypso, and “The Percolator” braid into tight-knit polyrhythms and lonely warrior-queens bingeing on Adderall. There will be no other R&B album that sounds like this in 2015, because it’s not really an R&B album anyway. Richard makes heaving, apocalyptic dance-pop, somewhere between Björk and Brandy, that re-imagines Joan of Arc as an Afrofuturist and recontextualizes MJ’s Billie Jean as a Diddy-bopping hustler. Speaking of Diddy: here, Richard elevates the art of self-made mythos to levels of grandeur even her former mentor couldn’t have conceived. —Meaghan Garvey

    Dawn Richard: "Phoenix" [ft. Aundrea Fimbres] (via SoundCloud)

    Sannhet

    Revisionist

    The Flenser

    The Brooklyn-based instrumental outfit Sannhet operate near metal, but are not quite of it. Their compositions are thick and operatic, full of blast beats and pummeling guitars.  But the sound is spacey, drifting, and rich with intangible emotions, like sadness and regret and awe. Revisionist has enough sweep, uplift, and embedded textures to appeal to fans of Explosions in the Sky, but feels driven by a strange, brittle urgency—something you hear in the unstable, shifting meters, the mournful, unsettled, minor-key melodies, and in the  concision that keeps their songs from ever outlasting five or six minutes. They offer post-rock grandeur tinged with faint existential nausea, which is a hard feeling to shake once they’ve given it to you. —Jayson Greene

    Sannhet: "Lost Crown" (via SoundCloud)

    Sheer Mag

    II EP

    Katorga Works / Wilsuns RC

    Sheer Mag's style brings to mind the loose, glam-inflected garage rock of the '70s, but their music never sounds like it actually comes from that decade. Unlike T. Rex, Big Star, or the Bay City Rollers, the Philly band records crudely and (one hopes) cheaply, capturing the essential details of their sound without sweating the fidelity. They are lo-fi in the purest sense and their quick-and-dirty 7"/Bandcamp M.O. is firmly in the punk tradition, as are lyrics about hard times and making your way in a corrupt capitalist world. But the most impressive thing about their two 7"s so far is that they are pure ear candy, with relentlessly catchy guitar parts and an undercurrent of sleaze in the swinging rhythms. This turns out to be the ideal accompaniment to Christina Halladay's voice, which sounds pissed off and vulnerable simultaneously, a fuck-you sneer that is at least 40% yearning. Even if, unlike their forebears, Sheer Mag have no illusions about ever hitting the Top 40, their music calls back to a time when grimy, riff-mad rock'n'roll still had currency in the pop world and at any given time might be found leaking out of an AM radio somewhere in the vicinity. —Mark Richardson

    Sheer Mag: "Fan the Flames" (via Bandcamp)

    Sicko Mobb

    Super Saiyan Vol. 2

    self-released

    I’ll spare you the taxonomic breakdown, but: In the world of Dragon Ball Z, “going Super Saiyan” is the point when you break through one already ecstatic level to the previously-unimaginable next. That next is where Sicko Mobb reside on Super Saiyan Vol. 2, the first of two mixtapes the Chicago outfit released this year. Over 20 tracks, Lil Ceno and Lil Trav, West Side natives and lifelong friends, rap about girls, drugs, and the pleasures of the turn-up in dizzyingly melodic fashion, flowing over rapid-fire bop rhythms that sound like they’ve been deep-fried in glow-stick fluid. It’s shiny, happy music—a treasure trove of unceasing hooks, saccharine textures, Auto-Tuned vocals, a record your cat could definitely not handle at high volumes. All of this is overwhelming by design. In an interview with Pitchfork, they referred to it as turnt up music, club music, party music, and mentioned how they write their verses and choruses in under 20 minutes combined. If that sounds too casually thrown together to consider, well: Consider how effective it is at pitch-shifting the mood to a fervor. You can get it all from this GIF, too. —Jeremy Gordon

    Sicko Mobb: "Major League" (via SoundCloud)

    Smurphy

    A Shapeless Pool of Lovely Pale Colours Suspended in the Darkness

    Leaving

    There’s been a lot of talk of psychedelia lately, trickling into some of the year’s biggest releases (Miguel’s Wildheart, A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP). But very little has matched the disorienting sensory experience that is A Shapeless Pool of Lovely Pale Colours Suspended in the Darkness from Mexico City’s Jessica Smurphy. That title is a lot, but there’s a lot here: a gently shifting mass of dub, footwork, ambient noise, earthy hand drums, ghostly whispers, bird chirps. At times, it feels structurally impossible—an Escher drawing scribbled with the non-dominant hand, with no discernable point of entry—but never accidental. —Meaghan Garvey

    Smurphy: "Wicked" (via Bandcamp)

    Jazmine Sullivan

    Reality Show

    RCA

    Arriving after a four-year hiatus, Reality Show marks the Philadelphia singer and songwriter Jazmine Sullivan’s triumphant return to form. Playfully referential and perfectly sequenced, Reality Show flaunts her musical dexterity, most often in her skills for intimate storytelling, sharp observations, and masterly songwriting. Still, her voice, a sturdy, expressive instrument capable of intense emotional range, remains the album’s bedrock. Sullivan can attune it to just about any genre she wants, dipping effortlessly into disco revival (“Stanley”), dynamic hip-hop (“HoodLove”), and sweltering R&B balladry (“Veins”). Inspired by the housewives, starlets, and quacks who inhabit reality TV, the album weaves familiar tropes into relatable, compelling tales, making for a fine collection of soul-stirring R&B that reveals one of the year’s most formidable artists in her prime. —Eric Torres

    Jazmine Sullivan: "Dumb" [ft. Meek Mill] (via SoundCloud)

    THEESatisfaction

    EarthEE

    Sub Pop

    You could imagine THEESatisfaction—the Seattle boho rap duo of Cat Harris-White and Stasia Irons—recording in accordance with the phases of the moon. Their second album, EarthEE, is alluringly cosmic, no doubt, but their neo-soul has more resonance given its powerful sociopolitical critique. “With our first album we wanted to sound like we were grounded and walking among the people of the earth,” Irons said of 2012’s awE naturalE in an interview this year. “With this one, we wanted to step outside of it as like aliens or creatures looking down on earth.” They position themselves as the ultimate outsiders, and from that proverbial higher plane, the journey of modern society is ripe for comment, from the green-washing that is making for a toxic world (“Planet for Sale”) to the commodification of art and cultural appropriation (“Blandland”, featuring Ishmael Butler, their comrade from Shabazz Palaces and spiritual jazz-rap forebears Digable Planets). Crucially, “Post Black, Anyway” is a shadowy, hypnotic meditation inspired by Black Twitter. “When we used to give a fuck it was a rad thing/ And now it’s idgaf to mad things,” Irons raps on “Planet for Sale”, but this mystical, immersive record seems to dream of a more radical future. Unbound by genre or modes of thinking, EarthEE keeps tugging at the shapes of music and minds to come. —Jenn Pelly

    THEESatisfaction: "Recognition" (via SoundCloud)


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    Interviews: Miguel’s Righteous Path

    I’m trying to play it cool as I call up the guy responsible for the year’s most seductive album, but my heart is pounding with the reality that I’ve almost certainly never spoken with someone who radiates sex as confidently as Miguel Pimentel. Presumably, he gets this a lot, and his presence over the phone is pure zen master—a patient, thorough thinker who rhapsodizes about his love of meditation and is fond of declaring things “righteous.”

    Wildheart, the 29-year-old’s latest and best album, comes nearly three years after Kaleidoscope Dream, a record that shifted the perception of Miguel from capable hitmaker to ambitious soul auteur. When that album came out, the term “alternative R&B” was often being used to signify sounds that deviated from the perceived norm of the genre’s bump and grind. These days, there is increasingly less need to make those distinctions: Listeners are willing to accept a broader idea of what R&B can mean. It’s hard to understate Miguel’s role in this shift; he is the guy who lands vulnerable, poetic soul songs on the radio, coexisting with music that sounds very little like it. “I was one of a few people that represented music that was more soulful,” he says. “We were tired of the kitschiness and the clichés, and it’s cool to be able to represent for kids just like us, who want to hear music the way we want to hear it.”

    Wildheart moves that conversation forward even more: It’s a dense, muggy, and, in parts, pointedly anti-pop record, one that seems to defiantly skirt the subject of genre entirely. If Kaleidoscope Dream tended to use sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll symbolically, applying them to tight pop singles, Wildheart is fully immersed in all of the above, though never at the expense of purposeful songwriting. A self-professed hoarder of sounds and ideas, he references musical touchstones that bubbled up from his Los Angeles childhood and into the record: Bowie, Queen, the Beatles, the Stones, Phil Collins, Hall and Oates, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson.

    And while much of the early response has centered around the album’s obvious carnality, a focus on straight-up fucking paints an incomplete picture of Wildheart’s themes. Yes, there are the id-driven sex jams like “The Valley”—“I’m your pastor, baby/ Confess your sins to me while you masturbate”—but more often, there are moments of pure intimacy that color even his freakiest tales. “Comfortability is underrated,” he says as we talk about “Coffee”, the record’s radiant lead single, which zeroes in on morning-after bliss. “It takes the ego out.”

    Miguel is sure with his words, describing his most revealing work yet to me with methodical care. The only thing he can’t quite describe is his thirst to play this album live, in front of real people. Forget speaking through headphones and a screen—he wants to connect to you directly. “I can explain a lot of my experiences, like the first time I smoked weed, but I don’t know how to give someone that feeling of being onstage,” he says. “To be completely in the moment, and to be in control, and to have a tangible way of knowing what people feel about what you’re doing—it’s, like, spiritual. And that’s how you know it’s real.”


    Pitchfork: A lot of the conversation about Wildheart has been about purely physical sex, but I hear a lot of intimacy in the album, too.

    Miguel: I shroud a lot of my songs in love and lust because I know those things are relatable, and people can take them at face value, and that’s OK. But more often than not, my conversations about love and lust are directly related to my dreams. So in that sense, even when I’m singing, “I wanna fuck you like we’re filming in the Valley,” it is a little vulnerable. Because when you’re talking about your dreams, what else can you be but vulnerable?

    Pitchfork: On the opposite tip, it took me by surprise to hear you lay out your insecurities in such a bare fashion on “What’s Normal Anyway”. Part of me was like: Wait, this guy feels alone?

    M: In reality we all feel like an outsider in some way at some point in time. That song is an anchor in the album, because even if people listen to my music and are like, “OK cool, this is like some sex shit,” that song will bring everyone back to what the real purpose is. It’s a harness for myself, too—a reminder of why we do this shit.

    Pitchfork: Being alone is underrated, too. 

    M: There’s something special about solitude; solitude and loneliness aren’t really synonymous. You can feel real loneliness even when you’re in a crowd, but solitude is when you feel at home, because you’re with yourself. 

    Pitchfork: What was your vision for the album art?

    M: More than anything, I wanted to paint a picture of confidence and power, because any wild heart has freed themselves from a certain degree of care about others’ opinions—they have to!

    Pitchfork: What does being a wild heart mean to you exactly?

    M: It means taking the time to know yourself enough to trust your gut. Because when you know who you are and what you stand for, then you’re no longer trying to measure up your decisions with the way they’re perceived by the outside world. Other people may think you’re wild, or unconventional, or foolish, but to you it doesn’t matter, because your belief is deeper. It’s rooted. When you’re wild-hearted, you have to lose sight of yourself at times. And as rewarding as that may be, it can be misunderstood, and your path might take you in a direction where maybe other people can’t go with you. But I just don’t care to do something that doesn’t resonate with who I really am.

    Pitchfork: Do you still consider yourself to be an R&B artist? Wildheart feels very much like a statement about moving past genre.

    M: I just look at myself as an artist. Categories and genres are what businesses use to help put my music in the places where people can find it, but I’m not creating and thinking that way. It’s funny because, if we were going by sonics alone, then a lot of the music people are putting on pop radio right now would really be rap or R&B, but we’re actually categorized by—and I hate to say it but—ethnicity. But I just make the music I want to hear, and wherever they want to put it, that’s cool with me.

    Pitchfork: Los Angeles feels like its own character on the record, what is it about that particular place that speaks to you?

    M: Man, L.A. is the perfect symbol for the conversation of Wildheart, in that everywhere you go in L.A., there’s a juxtaposition of hope and desperation. So the journey of any wild heart is riddled with those two dynamics. And in the desperation, you reaffirm what you stand for, and then you have hope, faith, belief, and a more finite sense of direction. So as you move in that direction, you change, and then a new adversity becomes your desperation. It’s like a pendulum that swings from one end to the other. That’s life.


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    Interviews: Running on Instinct: How the Chemical Brothers Stay Vital

    The Chemical Brothers' last major outing was 2012's Don't Think, an unusual concert film collaged together from the perspectives of multiple gobsmacked audience members—a strobe-lit, jump-cutting jolt that put a point on the duo's ecstatic two-decade career. "It felt like the culmination of a lot of years' work," says Tom Rowlands. "I suppose, after we made the film, you could have said, 'That's it, they've done their thing.'"

    But calling it quits wasn't in the cards, even though fellow Brother Ed Simons is now increasingly occupied with his academic career, the details of which he prefers not to divulge. ("'Non-specific academic work' is the phrase he's very keen on," says Rowlands.) In fact, Simons will sit out the group's upcoming live shows, in which Rowlands will be accompanied by Adam Smith, their longtime visuals partner. But the pair still DJ together on a fairly regular basis, and Rowlands can be found in his London studio pretty much daily. That's where he and Simons spent the better part of the last three years working on their eighth album, Born in the Echoes—not just woodshopping their sound, but rethinking the purpose of the entire project.

    "When you first start out, you make a record and you go on tour, and you're just in that cycle," says Rowlands. "But at this point, we have to make something that feels vital, something that we couldn't not make. A lot of time was spent experimenting and finding a vibe."

    They got their first intimations of that vibe as they began perfecting "Sometimes I Feel So Deserted", a white-knuckled, peak-time anthem that does pretty much none of the things that peak-time anthems are supposed to do: There's hardly any kick drum, there's no real bassline, and the drops are actually anticlimactic, building to a frenzy and then pulling the rug out, leaving the listener hanging in midair. Nevertheless, the exhilaratingly uneasy track became a staple of their DJ sets, in part because it sounded so different.

    "It was a conscious decision not to make that track so pumped-up—it felt more like a like band playing techno music, but with their instruments not quite plugged in," says Rowlands. "It's exciting for us when we can make a record that doesn't sound like another club record but still gives you that response when we play it in the club."

    Fittingly, Born in the Echoes contains some of the duo's most effective club cuts in years: "Just Bang", a gnarly house bruiser that sounds like the bastard child of Ron Hardy and the Bomb Squad; "EML Ritual", a seasick acid-house burner featuring the high-strung crooner Ali Love and a battery of rushing 909 snares; and "Reflexion", a pitch-bending instrumental that wails like a five-alarm fire in a synthesizer factory. Rowlands calls the album's tougher cuts "instinct records—they're not trying to be everything to everyone." 

    These subwoofer-stretchers are just part of the album, though. Elsewhere, St. Vincent plays an ice princess on the shuddering "Under Neon Lights", and Beck drops his guard on the melancholy "Wide Open". There are '60s-inspired psychedelic rave-ups and odd, radiophonic sketches; in my estimation, the spooky and slippery title track, featuring Cate Le Bon, is one of the best things they've ever written.

    And then there's "Go", the album's first big single, complete with a quirky Michel Gondry video. The song's a quick-stepping hip-house joint that finds Q-Tip riding a boisterous, Technicolor-soul chorus. It's not my favorite song on the album, but I can imagine hearing it on a car stereo 10 years from now and being supremely stoked. Rowlands laughs when I tell him this.

    "It's one of those things that some people love, and other people just go, 'Ugh, that doesn't sound like the Chemical Brothers,'" he says. "But to me it really sounds like where we started, mixing hip-hop and synthesizers together. If I were going to a friend's house and there was going to be dancing and fun, I'd want that record in my bag."

    He imitates the beat, singing the hook through the phone. "Some people don't want to go down that road—whoa-oh, ba da da da da da da da—but that's the bit I always sing. This record is about trusting what you feel, going with what makes you feel good, and not worrying what people will make of it."

    Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons. Photo by Hamish Brown.

    Pitchfork: How is making music different for you guys now compared to when you were starting out 20 years ago?

    Tom Rowlands: When we started making music, it's almost like we had no choice about what we made. There was only one thing that came out of me; I was trying to copy a Public Enemy record, but I wasn't up to it, so it came out like it did. But the more skillful you become, the more choices you have, like, "Oh, I could do it like this, and I could do it like that…" It's a curse, really.

    For this record, it's almost like we were trying to unlearn our skills and do everything on a more instinctive level. A couple of years ago, we were listening to a lot of these old Ron Hardy edits, and it was all so strange and primal and wrong and raw—exactly what excites me about dance music. A lot of big, maximalized electronic music now is kind of easy to make, and we were trying to find a different sound.

    Pitchfork: How did that decision play out as far as instrumentation and decisions on how the album would actually sound?

    TR: We used a lot of the stuff that we used on our first couple of records: sequencers, Akai samplers, MPCs, old E-Mu drum machines. And there's a lot of samples of ourselves playing guitar or bass; creative sampling still really excites me. I love the idea of, like, a hi-hat from some old jazz record next to some sample you've made of dropping a piece of concrete into water next to the sound of playing a cymbal with a bow—all these weird things together. We're just really into making funny sounds and putting them into some kind of order that makes sense.

    There's a lot of strange, half-broken old synthesizers all over the record, too. "Born in the Echoes" was made with antiquated technology, and that's another song that feels simple and clear, and when an interesting sound comes in, it's just the right sound. It feels like one of those strange records that you hear, and you're like, "What is that? Where is that from?"

    Pitchfork: Another synthesizer track that stands out is "Taste of Honey", which sounds almost like ‘60s electronic pioneers Perrey and Kingsley with its buzzing bees, and then that guitar solo at the end. Was that a studio experiment that just—

    TR: That went wrong.

    Pitchfork: Or went right!

    TR: It reminded us of things we put on some of our early records that weren't fully formed, ideas that took you on strange trips to some other place—I love it when that bee comes through my brain. There's obviously some humor in it. Not every song has to be the meaning of life.

    Pitchfork: How did you decide upon the featured vocalists for the album?

    TR: When we collaborate with people, it's always from a perspective of us being a fan of what they do, and them having some kind of unique voice or approach to making music as well as being open to experiment. I love the process of collaboration, where you have an idea and someone else has an idea that you'd never have imagined, and the music moves on from that.

    Being in the studio with St. Vincent, you feel like you're in the presence of someone who is an artist, who can just conjure things up. She's amazing. And as far as track that we made with Beck, we'd been working on the music for a while, and it always felt like we needed something that really connects emotionally, so it was a joy for him to bring that to the record.

    Pitchfork: You were pioneers of live electronic music. In the days before Ableton, was it difficult to take what you did in the studio and translate it to the stage?

    TR: In 1993, we were DJing tiny parties in London, but when people asked us to DJ at big events, we'd be like, "Oh no, we're not proper DJs. We'll come and play live!" We would set up in the club with an MPC and some analog synthesizers and everything would get very sweaty and break. Now, the idea terrifies me, but it was a different time, really.

    One of the first places we played live for a lot of people was in Orlando, in 1994. We were just amazed that someone knew who we were and got in touch and paid for a plane ticket to America to play. And then we turn up, and it's a massive, full-on rave. We had this track, "Chemical Beats", and we'd show up with an MPC and a Juno-106 and some distortion pedals and just make it up.

    Pitchfork: Was there a sense of culture shock in those first trips to America, before you had any idea of what was happening in the States?

    TR: Yeah. No one was asking us to come and play that kind of thing in England then. We'd turn up in the States and play records like "Song to the Siren" and people would know them. It was mind-blowing, really. We'd made this record in our bedroom, and suddenly we were in America, which for us was an exotic place to go—even though, I must admit, Orlando is maybe not the most exotic place in the world. But for us, at that time, we couldn't believe it! And then we'd go off to San Francisco and New York.

    Someone the other day was saying they were surprised at the massive EDM-ification of American music, but we used to go there in 1994 and play these big raves that were all separated by scenes and miles. And now they're all being joined up.

    Pitchfork: Even though Ed isn't touring with you now, you guys still DJ together, right?

    TR: Yeah, we always DJ together, and it definitely feeds into our music and stops us from disconnecting. It makes you excited about making music, which I think is something that a lot of people in more traditional bands kind of lose that as they play live less. But in general we just like to play small DJ events.

    Pitchfork: You started out in a world of intimate clubs, yet the music you make feels better suited to festivals. It's almost like the current festival format grew up around electronic artists like you, whose music is too big to be contained by a dance club.

    TR: Well, I don't know. From our initial experience of dance music, it was this dual thing of being in small local nightclubs and then going to massive raves, where you'd have 20,000 people dancing to a Renegade Soundwave record. It's always seemed to us like dance music does work on that scale. People were amazed that Orbital could play a big stage at Glastonbury in 1994, and I was like, "of course!" because we had seen Orbital play in a massive field outside London to the same amount of people. It always felt like this music was made to be shared. I remember playing "Leave Home" in the basement of a pub in 1994, and you can play that same piece of music on a stage at Woodstock. That's what I like about music. You make it, and it goes off and becomes something else, or it doesn't. You don't really control what it means.


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    Photo Galleries: New Traditions and Old Ways: A Visual Guide to Turkey’s Thriving DIY Scene

    Growing up in Turkey in the 1990s, the whole live music scene was dominated by cover bands that played hits from the United States and Europe. It was not cool to like Turkish music then, and I was part of a generation that took pride in not listening to any of it. 

    But when I moved to New York and started doing music photography at the beginning of 2000s, some of the musicians I met were thrilled to hear I was from Turkey and they kept asking me about artists I barely knew. At first, I was surprised by their enthusiasm, but then I started feeling embarrassed, because everyone seemed to be more familiar with these Turkish musicians than I was. So I went back and listened to them—and was blown away.

    Listen to a playlist featuring Turkish artists covered in this story:

    In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the music scene in Turkey flourished, producing local legends including Erkin Koray and Selda Bağcan. But a military coup in 1980 put a definite hold on the arts. There was not much happening besides pop music for a while, but a strong metal scene appeared in the ‘90s, including bands which formed the base for long running acts like Replikas, Nekropsi, and Daire 2: General Gramafon.

    Daire 2: General Gramofon at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul


    The Internet then spurred on a new wave of vibrancy within the country's music scene, and underground musicians started to embrace their own roots and write their lyrics in Turkish. Peyote, a music venue located in the heart of Beyoğlu, Istanbul, became the first venue to exclusively book bands with original music, giving way to a healthy artistic community.

    Musicians in Turkey still face drawbacks on a daily basis: There are still only a handful of venues that host non-cover bands, with bigger venues only booking foreign acts (and not offering local groups support slots), and lots of music festivals have been cancelled due to new government regulations that prevent alcohol sponsorships. But these obstacles have brought bands together as they collectively work to book shows, open DIY venues, and do their own street festivals. 

    Members of Istanbul’s music scene outside Roxy, one of the city's oldest venues for rock shows


    There are only a few cities in Turkey with music venues, and getting visas to play shows in Europe can be difficult, so touring is not really an option for most underground bands. But the economic inviability of making a living entirely from music—as well as the diminished chances of any type of rock stardom—has effectively eliminated certain types of musicians, leaving behind only the ones who are 100% dedicated to what they do.

    Right now, despite all the roadblocks in the way, there is an incredibly lively DIY music scene in Turkey, filled with talented musicians. I asked nearly 20 of these artists to take me where they feel at home in Istanbul and talked to them about the current state of the music scene. The journey led me through rehearsal spaces and tea gardens, alleyways and festive feasts.


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    Articles: The Influencer: A Decade of Soulja Boy

    Soulja Boy: "First Day of School" (via SoundCloud)

    Influence is a strange and powerful thing in 2015. As it’s become one of our foremost cultural ideals, it now functions as something of a protective shield against critique. While criticism continues to evolve towards an approach that considers a work’s sociocultural impact alongside its perceived artistry, influence has become inherently valuable in its own right—regardless of what that influence actually entails, more is self-evidently better. So artists of great influence feel increasingly immune to criticism on moral or aesthetic terms; in the same way that clickbait almost always commands the most traffic, being “influential” tends to wield far more power than being “good.” Whether this is democratic or soul-crushing depends on where you’re standing.

    One recent example of influence as the ultimate 21st century ideal involved the art world clamoring over Kim Kardashian’s selfie anthology with a fervency that often rang fake-deep. Thing is, there’s no need to paint Kim as an artistic genius to acknowledge her very real cultural contributions. The past decade has seen a slow, begrudging acceptance of Kim as more than a sexual object or harbinger of the death of culture, but instead, as someone who is savvy, self-starting, and able to direct the collective dialogue—someone who just gets it, whatever “it” may be. Uncoincidentally, that shift lines up with the rise of social media and our expanding obsession with DIY networking, branding, and self-actualization.

    But back when the Kardashian multimedia empire was barely a blip, Soulja Boy represented this idea of untouchable influence—of virality above all else—more than any other working artist. Fittingly enough, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”’ first season hit the air in 2007, the same year “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”, the debut single from the 16-year-old born DeAndre Cortez Way, spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100. Kim’s infamous sex tape leaked that year, too, and while people hated her back then, Soulja Boy seemed to incite a particularly intense ire within certain listeners and critics. 

    Soulja Boy: "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" (via SoundCloud)

    “If you’re seeking a circle of hell lower than the one in which ‘Crank That’ is ubiquitous, listen to his entire album,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Willman in a list that ranked Soulja’s full-length debut, souljaboytellem.com, as the worst album of 2007. On his Urban Legend mixtape the following year, then-50-year-old “Cop Killer” provocateur turned “Law & Order” stooge Ice-T noted: “Fuck Soulja Boy. Eat a dick. You singlehandedly ruined hip-hop.” He also threatened to punch Soulja in the face.

    Soulja’s response, uploaded straight to YouTube, was the first major indication that he was more than some random kid who could turn a thinly-veiled metaphor about ejaculative strategy into a nationwide smash. He landed some well-placed jabs: “You was born before the Internet was created! How the fuck did you even find me?” Then his face grew serious. “Think about it in my shoes. This time last year I was poor as fuck. I was in the ghetto. Nigga, I worked to get this—I’m 17 years old! You should be congratulating me!” It was a watershed moment, an unofficial-but-official changing of the guard. Even Kanye, another guy who leveraged the power of the Internet early on, weighed in on the dust-up on his blog: “He came from the hood, made his own beats, made up a new saying, new sound and a new dance with one song… If that ain’t Hip Hop then what is?”

    Soulja’s meteoric rise, from a bored teen in Batesville, Mississippi to the most relevant rapper alive, represented not just the first wholly Internet-bred megastar, but the first time the transition from nobody to hip-hop star was publicly documented every step of the way. We are numb to this phenomenon now, having watched it play out time and time again: Lil B, Odd Future, Chief Keef, Mac Miller, Bobby Shmurda. (Often, these DIY all-stars have relied on direct assists from Soulja himself.)

    But Soulja wasn’t just facilitated by the Internet—he was the Internet. His was the ultimate representation of a brain that had grown up and found solace online: restless, resourceful, chameleonic, quick-witted, with zero patience for anyone unable to keep up. His digital strategy a decade ago, back when he uploaded his first song in the summer of 2005, is our often frustrating current reality: flood the system, prioritize brand recognition and scalability, don’t sweat the details. Ours is not the age of the virtuoso; it is the age of the hustler, the finesser, the strategist. So while Soulja may not be exceptionally “gifted” in a traditional sense, his unflappable self-possession (often verging on shamelessness) and digital self-actualization requires both working hard and working smart—a very real kind of 21st century genius. And though his reign of influence has faded significantly in the past few years, it’s only because culture finally caught up to him.

    Soulja Boy was a master of resourceful virality, turning seemingly inconsequential bursts of creativity into something inescapable. It’s practically impossible to think about a platform like Vine existing at all without his influence.

    Photo by Dan Monick

    Even before “Crank That”—before the digital and ringtone sales records, the Grammy nomination, the conversations everyone hoped to avoid with their parents as to what “Superman that ho” really meant—Soulja was building a minor DIY empire on networks like SoundClick, MySpace, and Bebo (aka Blog Early, Blog Often). He’d often upload his own music to P2P programs like LimeWire tagged with huge names like Michael Jackson, gate-crashing unsuspecting desktops like the crunkest of Trojan horses. Though much of his early web presence has been wiped, his original SoundClick account, registered on July 11, 2005, remains preserved in digital amber, complete with 109 songs still streaming. The music-based social network, which was launched in 1997 and is somehow chugging along today, offered streaming and downloads, and had a profit-sharing margin that would make Tidal’s founders weep from spite: Track downloads cost a dollar apiece and were split 50/50 between the site and the artists. At one point, according to a 2010 interview with The Wall St. Journal, Soulja was averaging 19,000 downloads—$9,500—a day. Four tracks are still available for sale, including the Travis Barker remix of “Crank That”, via an ancient-looking PayPal setup that I am currently too afraid to investigate further.

    The earliest track on Soulja’s SoundClick was “Leap Frog”, a chintzy but promising dance instructional, made at his dad’s house with a bootlegged demo version of Fruity Loops. He then uploaded some Three 6 Mafia homages and lots of snap tracks—a style he absorbed while visiting his mom in Atlanta in 2005—including web hits “Booty Meat” and “Doo Doo Head”. (According to 15-year-old Soulja’s own edits of his Wikipedia page in 2006, this was around the time he met an Atlanta musician named Young Kwon, who would become Soulja’s first victim of what can be oversimplified as swagger-jacking—more on that later.)

    Soulja Boy: "Booty Meat" (via SoundCloud)

    The SoundClick profile also introduced Soulja’s integrated, multi-platform branding strategy. Listed plainly at the top of his artist page is his cell phone number, Blackberry, Sidekick LX, iChat, and Xbox Live GamerTag information. There are links to his merch site, YouTube, Wikipedia, and of course, to souljaboytellem.com, taking Houston self-promoter Mike Jones’ approach and sprinting with it. Each track is prefaced with instructions for purchasing ringtones (“Text SB21 to 30303 for Soulja Girl Ringtone!!!”) along with a GIF of a tiny, 3D-rendered Soulja, bedecked in his own T-shirt and signature glasses, thrusting the souljaboytellem.com CD towards you—it channels the Dancing Baby, by some accounts the first-ever Internet meme.

    The central tenet of meme culture is participation. Silly or not, memes are communal creative outlets that are shared, reproduced, and riffed on. Soulja’s trademark dances created a similar network (as did his eagerness to engage with fans in a nascent Twitter era). The different variations of “Crank That” that emerged on YouTube as essentially viral remixes—Crank That Batman, Spongebob, Jump Rope, Robocop—allowed his audience to participate in his self-made mythos and created a real community. The official “Crank That” video is a self-contained representation of the whole phenomenon. Much of the video is viewed through the lens of a laptop or phone screen—a viral video about the process of virality. It’s got it all: brand recognition via Soulja’s trademark glasses; interactive dance moves; slapstick humor; and demonstration of its own popularity, showing us exactly what we are missing out on if we do not get behind this juggernaut. It’s brilliant.

    One of the most common tropes among popular memes is an aesthetic or subject matter that is flawed, goofy, purposefully amateur. Soulja’s homemade material, and even some of his album cuts, were pointedly simple and charming in the same way. He was a regular dude from the hood who worked at Burger King until it conflicted with his MySpace-organized tour schedule, and his songs centered around the mundane: inside jokes with friends, idiosyncratic catchphrases, high school drama, or just, “Hey, watch me do this thing!” Like the thousands of regular kids who’ve parlayed a few seconds of small-town boredom into Vine or Instagram fame, Soulja was a master of resourceful virality, turning seemingly inconsequential bursts of creativity into something inescapable—something you loved even if you couldn’t articulate why. It’s practically impossible to think about a platform like Vine, and the many rap and dance micro-trends it’s facilitated, existing at all without Soulja’s influence. (Naturally, his own Vine account remains a goldmine.)

    Soulja harnessed the power of hate early, too, capitalizing gleefully off the culture of digital reaction that has become today’s thinkpiece economy. He wasn’t coy about it, either. One of my personal favorite Soulja tracks is “I Know You Hate Me”, a snotty but realistic crunk anthem from 2008’s The Teen of the South. That tape opens with a sampled conversation between the hosts of MTV’s Mixtape Monday show as they engage in a heated debate as to whether Soulja deserves the final spot on their list of the 10 hottest rappers in the game. They uniformly laugh off his lyrics, but cannot deny his influence. Ultimately, he doesn’t make the cut, but Soulja still includes the exchange in full, insults and all, as if to say: “I do not care why I’m in the conversation. I’m in the conversation, and thus, I win.”

    Often, when we talk about Soulja Boy, we are not talking about his music at all (though I still hear “Crank That” and “Turn My Swag On” playing in public on an improbably regular basis). It’s not because his music is lacking in quality, though there is a daunting amount to sift through: around 40 mixtapes, three major-label albums, a handful of EPs, and countless loosies. But there’s a fluidity to his massive discography, an essential formlessness that makes it difficult to consider en masse. It’s easier to break it down into miniature eras, each with their own self-contained set of influences.

    The “Crank That” era was clearly indebted to Atlanta’s crunk and snap movements and paralleled the rise and fall of the ringtone industry, which peaked in the U.S. in 2007 with $714 million in sales. The following year, Soulja’s sophomore album iSouljaBoyTellem took the steel-drum snap of his debut in a poppier direction, spawning his second and third million-selling singles. The DeAndre Way, his third and best album, perfected this pop formula but sold poorly upon its release in 2010—only moving 13,360 copies in its first week—as the record industry steadily tanked.

    The balance was beginning to shift: For the first time in his career, Soulja’s power of influence wavered. But on the mixtape circuit, he had already found a fresh angle in the form of his new best friend and creative soul mate, Lil B. The Based God was the clear inspiration for The DeAndre Way’s biggest hit, “Pretty Boy Swag”, but the overt mimicry started earlier in 2010, on the Cookin Soulja Boy tape. Months later, the two dropped a joint tape, Pretty Boy Millionaires; the project remains a standout in both of their catalogs and kicked off a phase in which Soulja released some of the best music of his career. (It also spawned a straight-to-Tumblr loosie, “Kim Kardashian,” in honor of his kindred spirit.)

    From Pretty Boy Millionaires to early 2012’s Mario & Domo Vs The World with the Pack’s Young L, Soulja ripped off Lil B wholesale. But it worked, occasionally better than Lil B’s own projects of that time. The 2011 tape Juice introduced “Zan With That Lean”, laying the foundation for Chicago’s hypercolor bop movement. The Bernard Arnault EP, 21 EP, and his most consistent tape, Skate Boy, remain wildly underrated, while mainstream rap is still catching up to the blown-out electronic experiments of Mario & Domo.

    Soulja Boy and Young L: "All Gold Everything" (via SoundCloud)

    There’s an argument to be made that Lil B’s influence has been just as powerful as Soulja’s—maybe even more. And oddly enough, B is currently permeating culture like never before. For one week in May, he was the most powerful rapper in the world, for entirely non-musical reasons. After he imposed a curse on Houston Rockets star James Harden for allegedly stealing his signature cooking dance, the cultural response was surreal—the most bizarre intersection of sports, rap, and meme culture I can remember. But though Lil B’s legacy has indelibly altered underground rap over the last few years, his altruistic value system departs significantly from America’s, whereas Soulja’s mirrors it exactly. Lil B may have been the hero we needed, but Soulja is the one we deserve.

    The most persistent critique of Soulja has involved his habit of shamelessly pilfering ideas and styles from less-established peers. He’s absorbed the Atlanta trap stylings of Gucci Mane and Shawty Lo, the West Coast DIY of Lil B and Tyler, the Creator, and most recently cycled back to Atlanta to court the affections of Migos. He briefly corralled Chief Keef and Riff Raff into his SODMG label, before they wisely saw the light. Lately, he’s been getting cozy with Houston’s Sauce Walka, a rising star who has rejected similar advances from Houston fetishist Drake. 

    Yet while Soulja is belittled for such swag absorption, Drake is praised for leveraging his almighty co-sign to become rap’s most important A&R—a practice that lies somewhere between commendable and parasitic. Sure, it provides opportunities for lesser-known artists, but it’s ultimately self-serving: collecting cool points for being ahead of the curve and establishing a hierarchy of power. In fact, Drake’s done this to Soulja himself. In late 2013, Drizzy uploaded a triumphant loosie entitled “We Made It Freestyle”, featuring Soulja, to SoundCloud. The song exploded, and rap blogs claimed it put Soulja back on the map. But really, this was Drake using Soulja to get ahead, not the other way around; the original had appeared on Soulja’s The King mixtape earlier that year. It wasn’t the first time he had borrowed from Soulja, either: “Miss Me”, off Drake’s debut album, recycled a full two-bar intro from “Whas Hannenin”, one of Soulja’s earliest hits. 

    Drake: "We Made It Freestyle" [ft. Soulja Boy] (via SoundCloud)

    Soulja’s relationship with Migos’ “Versace” represents an even more convoluted cycle of influence. The song’s Zaytoven beat was originally for a Lil B-inspired Soulja Boy song called “Teach Me How To Cook: OMG Part 2” that appeared online as early as summer 2011 and went largely unnoticed amist the online churn. By the time “Versace” appeared on Migos’ YRN tape in 2013, Soulja’s version may as well have never existed. Perhaps even Soulja himself forgot about it, as he went on to release his own “Versace (Remix)”, making no mention of his original. Which is fair enough: “Ain’t no fuckin’ rules to this shit,” Kanye emphasized in his defense of Soulja seven years ago, and as such, whoever’s got the juice has the freedom to call the shots. But this peculiar chain of influence shows how Soulja is more than a mere copy-cat. At his core, he’s a cultural conduit—a lightning rod through which trends and ideas pass. It is a perpetual current that never rests within him for too long, forever on its way in or out.

    Soulja’s cycle rarely grew static until late 2012, when his mixtape output began to grind into dull monotony. The increasing ubiquity of social media allowed other artists to latch onto his incessant, multi-platform digital hustle, and the Lil B act had worn out its welcome. He seemed to be dealing with some glaring substance abuse issues to boot, mostly regarding lean. His music grew sloppy, even by his own loose standards, and his web presence became visibly desperate. He began selling Twitter interactions on his website: $2 for a follow, $3 for a shout-out, $10 to appear on the front page. Today, he’s selling $1,500 Soulja Boy-branded hoverboards—the same ones you can catch him riding all throughout his Instagram.

    There’s something strange about Soulja’s Instagram presence I’ve been stuck on for years. It’s mostly filled with self-portraits—usually in his L.A. mansion, lounging poolside, or posing by some expensive new toy—which in itself isn’t too unusual. But while many of these photos seem to be taken by an assistant, they often feel uncannily solitary—a king surveying his domain from some lofty turret, triumphant yet unshakably melancholy, wondering why he feels so alone. Over the years, Soulja has made his home in Chicago, Atlanta, Mississippi, and now L.A., but he never really felt like he was from those locales. He’s always seemed most comfortable on the Internet, a place as expansive and potentially lonely as outer space. 

    Soulja Boy: "Turn My Swag On (A Cappella)" (via SoundCloud)

    Around 2011, Soulja got a tiny white puppy, the kind of precious, nervous creature a Real Housewife of Wherever might collect. For weeks, the pet became the focal point of his Instagram. Soulja would refer to him as “lil bro,” and they were instantly attached at the hip. Then, the dog disappeared. I would regularly check in, hoping for a return; maybe one of Soulja’s friends was taking care of him for a bit. But, no puppy. I began to wonder not just about the dog’s well-being, but about Soulja’s infinitely variable existence. A guy who is formless by nature could never sustain anything forever, could he? Three days ago, Soulja posted a photo of a brand new puppy—black, this time—taken from high atop his glowing hoverboard.


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    Profiles: Cosmic Neurotic: The Heady Perfectionism of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker

    Tame Impala: "Let It Happen"

    I’m making my way through the backstage catacombs of Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre, a stately concert hall that often hosts classic rockers like the Allman Brothers when they want to charge more than $100 for nosebleed seats. While climbing up endless Escher-style stairs, I get lost and find myself staring blankly at a bunch of the venue’s grizzled employees cradling out-of-date computers. I tell them I’m here to interview Tame Impala; they have never heard of the psychedelic rock band, but one stout lifer offers an anecdote about that time he had to fetch Eric Clapton an emergency sandwich.

    Eventually, I find frontman Kevin Parker, swaddled up and nursing a hangover in a space that looks like a tastefully carpeted broom closet. Though he’s surrounded by the ghosts of rock’n’roll legend, he seems somewhat weightless and without expectation; he’s most concerned about getting the night’s lights right. It’s late last year, and he talks about the solitary mindset that he’s trying to inhabit while creating Tame Impala’s third album, Currents. The meeting is brief and somewhat shapeless, though one thing seems clear: The guy is very much in his own head. After a while, he picks up a call from his girlfriend, and I leave.

    About six months later, I meet Parker again on the other side of America, in the California desert. He’s getting ready to play Coachella with the rest of his band, though, offstage, Tame Impala is essentially a solo project. “For us, it's a big joke that we're playing these big shows,” Parker says, alluding to the somewhat seat-of-the-pants approach the quintet takes on tour. “It's completely absurd because we're just us; I'm just fuckin' Kevin. We're just these fuckin' idiots onstage.”

    “But recording is different,” he clarifies. “Because, for me, recording music couldn't be further from a joke.” At this point, he has just wrapped Currents, an album that he recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered himself while holed up in a beachside shack in his hometown of Perth, Australia. He’s still reeling from the obsessive undertaking days after sending in the final cuts. Sitting across from me in a hotel bar shopped up to look like something out of a Rat Pack movie, he doesn’t look particularly well-rested, or well-nourished, or well-anything.

    “I didn't realize it would add a completely extra dimension of absolute nervous breakdowns,” Parker says, talking about the new album’s one-man recording process. “I was just sitting in my studio going, ‘Fuck. How am I going to do this?’”

    Though many artists Do It Themselves, the fact that Parker’s end product sounds as deep and textured as it does is unusual. In some ways, it barely seems possible. What start as simple recordings in his studio—and sometimes even voicemails to himself—become fully rendered songs that encompass both tie-dyed headiness and an ambiguous, self-scouring ache. During the making of an album, the 29-year-old generally likes to rise around midday and then work, slowly and methodically, late into the night while drinking and smoking. He says that having a home studio means he doesn’t have to drive home intoxicated; he’s not a lush, but he doesn’t mind taking the edge off.

    Currents takes Tame Impala’s core formula—old-school headphone psych with enough modern rhythmic oomph to thrill young women in bell-bottoms, greybearded Deadheads, and tucked-in business dudes—and molds it into a hybrid of classic rock, classic soul, and yacht-ready groove worthy of The Very Best of 10cc. While listening to it, the words “tie-dye hot air balloon” often find their way to the front of my skull.

    The album marks the first time Parker didn’t employ an outsider to help translate his trippy musings. (Both previous Tame Impala albums, 2010’s Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism, were mixed by Dave Fridmann—the studio guru who has steered MGMT and the Flaming Lips toward many of their best moments.) Parker tells me how, while listening to his own mixes, he couldn’t help fixating on imperfections. “Is the drumming in time?” he would ask himself. “Does every note of this vocal fit the song’s underlying tone?”

    Though Parker is on his own crusade to stretch listeners’ minds, he can at times seem so deep into the music that he can’t enjoy it. This obsessiveness extends all the way down to album artwork—he tells me he once sunk 30 grand into a cover concept he never ended up using. While making Currents, Parker would try to quell his neuroses with four words of advice Fridmann often used to give him: “It doesn't fucking matter.”

    Despite the positive reception to Currents’ advance tracks—which have already been collectively streamed nearly 15 million times on Spotify—Parker himself isn’t buying into the attention, anticipation, acclaim, and money he has received in recent years. He knows these accolades mean little when he’s trying to stretch his vision in a new, starker dimension.

    “I still think this album is completely unlistenable,” he says.

    “When you start out, you have this very black-and-white idea that people who are playing down-to-earth music are keeping it real, and the ones making music for the masses are fake. But the longer you're in it, you realize it's nothing like that at all.”


    —Kevin Parker

    Currents maintains a different mood than the echoing moonage daydreams that made up Tame Impala’s first two LPs. While Parker made his name off of recordings that you could float in and out of—such was the beauty of their surfaces—this one invites a closer listen. On the whole, it’s a more heartfelt exercise, incorporating both the measure of Parker’s inward-looking examinations, and the pains they may have caused him.

    On the album’s emotional core, “Eventually”, big drums drop out and shimmering synth washes put a spotlight on Parker as he sings: “I know that I’ll be happier, and I know you will too—eventually.” I suggest that this is his breakup record—after all, since his last album, he parted ways with French singer/songwriter Melody Prochet—but he shoots the idea down. Kind of.

    “I wouldn’t say it’s a breakup record in the literal sense,” he half-dodges, before getting a little cosmic. “It's more about this idea that you're being pulled into another place that’s not better or worse. It's just different. And you can’t control it. There are these currents within you.” Perched in a chintzy bar while a 60-year-old man in a tuxedo vest shakes two margaritas nearby, Parker is hesitant to clarify who or what his songs are about, exactly.

    But he’s more than willing to elaborate on the notion of transition, of breaking up with old ideas, of how being inside the music industry has given him a new perspective on how strange and fucked up that world can be. “Your morals on things change,” he explains. “When you start out you have this very black-and-white idea that people who are playing down-to-earth music are the ones that are keeping it real, and the ones making music for the masses—those ‘commercial pop sellouts’—are fake, so you pick a side. But the longer you're in it, the more disappointed you get meeting people you had these high expectations of, and you realize it's nothing like that at all.”

    Perhaps this moral realignment is in part due to plagiarism charges levied against Tame Impala last year, or issues involving missing royalties, or the fact that he was able to set up his home studio thanks to the money he made from placing a song in a Blackberry commercial. It’s all made Parker more willing to embrace making music for the masses: “If I could've had more conventional pop songs on this album, I would've.”

    While Parker can talk equipment or studio tactics for hours, he’s much more reserved about his personal life. His father and mother divorced when he was 3, and Parker grew up with his dad and stepmother in Perth, the fourth biggest city in Australia. While his father dabbled in music—and was gifted with a Lennon-style singing voice—he also discouraged his son from doing it as a career, which led Parker to an unsuccessful and unfulfilling college stint studying engineering and astronomy. While his father passed away before he began recording Innerspeaker, Parker says he admired the inherently ‘60s feel of the first Tame Impala EP. 

    As far as siblings, Parker says, “I have a full brother, a half sister, a half brother on the other side, a pretend sister, and…” I stop him right there—pretend sister? “My dad had a daughter in a marriage previous to my mom,” he explains. “But he went to war in Africa for a few months and when he got back his wife was pregnant. Five years later, my dad started getting ransom-style notes at work saying, 'That's my daughter.' We got it checked out, and it turns out his wife had an affair while he was away at war, and it wasn’t really his daughter.” He pauses. “And my dad only told me when I was a teenager, so that's why she's a pretend sister.”

    Tame Impala. Photo by Matt Sav.

    Tame Impala bursted out from relative obscurity with Innerspeaker, a vivid debut LP that built the bridge to the festival stages from which they now dispatch their wavy roar. That album brought about all of the touchpoints that a revivalist rock record could hope for: strong melody mixed with Blue Album Beatles psychedelia, tugging basslines that gave the floaty music a little more weight, and a distinctly sharp drumming style that lent the music unexpected definition.

    In an era of anonymous rock frontmen, Innerspeaker established Parker as an unlikely star, the type of musician who inspires imagination. His gear is cataloged and fawned over. His romantic life is tracked on a fairly lively SubReddit. He’s sometimes heralded as the closest thing 2015 has to Jim Morrison, but, in real life, he’s a sheepish dude who could probably be a case study in next week’s “Rise of the Beta Males” thinkpiece—a chill rock guy who is actually pretty stressed out about stuff he’s not going to die from. Though his approach is studied and proprietary, he does not exactly radiate the sex-soaked intensity of a Rock God.

    His second album, Lonerism, increased Tame Impala’s scope without diminishing its returns and made it clear that Parker was gaining a better sense of himself as a producer and engineer. These songs felt deeper, thicker, and more assertive, even if the lyrics could be hopelessly vague. Parker sometimes likes to think of himself as more of an electronic producer and arranger than a rock musician, which makes sense given his trajectory thus far as well as the less riff-hungry sounds of Currents.

    The new album feels more insular and personal while exuding a newfound sexiness, typified by the slow fingersnap funk of “‘Cause I’m a Man”. While Parker won’t admit what he’s made is good, per se—it’s part humility on his part, part pathos of a serial perfectionist—he admits that his horizons stretched in ways that feel like gigantic leaps executed on a specific scale.

    “I'm aware that there will be fans of my previous stuff for whom [Currents] doesn't resonate with as much, because they've got their values set,” he says diplomatically. “But if I can convince a few die-hard rock fans that ‘80s synths can fit over a ‘70s drum beat—if I can help them to look outside the square of traditional psych rock—then at least one mission is accomplished.”

    At a Coachella warm-up show in the artsy enclave of Pomona, Tame Impala’s typically unusual crowd shows up: college girls, old dudes with ponytails, a guy who works at a warehouse and is still wearing his Carhartts overalls. A teenager screams, “We need help! Someone just passed out!” and security guards reluctantly roll to the aid of some underage kids who got too fucked up, presumably on excitement and mushrooms. There’s a lot of people wearing face glitter.

    Everyone is revved up for the band, abandoning the conversations they performed during the opening acts. The crowd loses its mind as a pitched-down version of Elton John’s Lion King ode “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” blasts from the PA, and Tame Impala crawls onto the stage. Parker manages a “who me?” wave as he unhinges his guitar from its stand. For a guy who’s about to scorch the ceiling of a ballroom, he’s loosey-goosey.

    At one point, a bra floats up to the stage. Parker hangs it on a drum mic, and then, a few moments later, a thought hits him. “I almost forgot!” he calls out. “There was something written on it!” He nabs the bra. “There’s a phone number!” he exclaims. The entire room can feel him blush.


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    Interviews: The Punk Director: Penelope Spheeris Revisits Her <i>Decline of Western Civilization</i> Trilogy

    Later this year, Penelope Spheeris will turn 70 years old. “You get to a certain age and you go, ‘OK, what is my identity?’” the director says, speaking from her Hollywood home, where she’s hiding in a closet to get some peace from her dogs. “My identity is The Decline of Western Civilization. It’s not Wayne’s World or any of those other movies I did.” A new box set collection of her iconic Decline films—which chronicle L.A.’s punk scene in three distinct eras—puts a point on this fact while highlighting some of the best rock’n’roll filmmaking ever captured.

    Spheeris was well suited to document such chaos: Her father ran a carnival where he also played the strong man, until he was killed in a knife fight when Spheeris was seven. Her mother married seven different men, some abusive drunks, so Spheeris turned to loud music to block out the noise of them shouting. On her wages from IHOP and Denny’s, she put herself through film school at UCLA. There, she met Lorne Michaels, which led to her producing Albert Brooks’ 1979 directorial debut, Real Life. She also established what may be the first music video production company, Rock ‘n Reel, and made promos throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.

    Her second film was 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part I, which showcased the likes of the Germs, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks­ with technically brilliant footage of shows and mosh pits; critic Pauline Kael compared it to watching Kennedy’s assassination. “Steve Conant, the guy I got to shoot the main camera, was a shooter for the L.A. Lakers basketball team,” Spheeris explains. “My logic was that if he could follow the ball, he could follow the kids in the pit. Meanwhile, I would be up on a platform so I wouldn’t get hurt, like a pussy.” After hundreds of punks descended on Hollywood Boulevard for the film’s premiere, the LAPD dispatched 300 motorcycle cops, and then-police chief Daryl Gates wrote a letter demanding it never be shown in the city again.

    The documentary earned Spheeris the opportunity to direct This is Spinal Tap, which she turned down because she didn’t want to mock her beloved heavy metal. She chose to make Decline II: The Metal Years instead, though the grotesque egos of Sunset Strip stalwarts like Kiss, Aerosmith, and Poison—coupled with pressure from producers—turned it into an unintentional comedy of excess. Although the movie has been officially unavailable for years, certain scenes have become legendary in their own right: A frazzled post-rehab Ozzy preparing the world’s least appetizing fried breakfast; Wasp’s Chris Holmes floating in a pool chair and dowsing himself in vodka while his disapproving mom looks on. Reveling in their imperial period, the protagonists of the 1988 film are cruelly unaware that Nirvana’s debut single is just months away, heralding the scene’s death knell at the hands of grunge

    Key to Decline I and II were the punk and metal fans: drawling deadbeats in the first; horny, poodle-haired egomaniacs in the second. Spheeris’ eye for teen hubris led Lorne Michaels to ask her to direct 1992’s Wayne’s World, which remains her most successful film to date, but it came with its own repercussions. After the first two Decline films, studios didn’t think she could make comedy; after Wayne’s World, they wouldn’t give her serious material. A rift with Mike Myers meant she didn’t get offered Wayne’s World 2, and she ended up in a low-rent commercial cul-de-sac, directing the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Little Rascals. “If I could go back, I would probably not have done Wayne’s World,” Spheeris admits.

    After a revelation at Burning Man—essentially, fuck studios—Spheeris returned to the Decline series in 1996, hoping to make a movie about punk, now commercialized, 20 years on. “But it turned out to be about the social disaster L.A. is in, with people treating children so bad,” she says. The focus became the city’s gutter punks: Abused runaways living on the street in makeshift families, panhandling and making the odd dollar by “spanging”—posing for photos with tourists. At the end of the film, a screen flashes up saying that all profits from the movie would go to organizations supporting these kids. Tragically, Decline III never received any kind of release. There was little demand to see such a depressing movie, and the few distribution offers that Spheeris got required her to hand over the rights to the first two movies, which she refused to do.

    Now, all three are compiled for the first time in a handsome DVD release. Included among the extensive extras is a commentary of Decline I by Dave Grohl, who credits that film’s soundtrack with making him want to be in bands. Viewed together, the trilogy's title seems even more appropriate, as the arc mirrors mankind’s journey from the dark ages, to classical Rome, and back to barbarianism. The project would never have come together without Spheeris’ daughter, Anna Fox, who “forced” her mom to re-release these films and is also on our call from her L.A. home.

    Pitchfork: When you set out to make Decline I, did you see any precedent for it in terms of films about punk?

    Penelope Spheeris: No. At that time, punk was so fresh in L.A. They may have been making films in England or New York, but there was really nothing here. I didn’t have a research bank I could tap into, but I had a film company, and I always had equipment checked out on the record company’s account. So I would go do my job and shoot the Staples Singers or Fleetwood Mac or the Doobie Brothers, and then I would go to a punk club at night and use the same equipment there. I tried to shoot as many shows as I could.

    Pitchfork: Did you anticipate L.A. punk becoming culturally significant, or was it more about the excitement of the here and now?

    PS: It was both. I did know that I’d never seen anything like that in rock‘n’roll before, and I felt that it was important to capture the moment. I’m still rather astounded that [Decline] got so much interest.

    Pitchfork: Were you a regular presence in the scene back then?

    PS: I had been going to the shows. But the exact moment it occurred to me that I needed to make a movie was when a businessman out in the Valley asked if I would direct a porno movie, and I said, “Hell no, but I’ll do a punk rock movie.” I took the guy to a Germs show and he was like, “This is pretty freaky—maybe we should do it.”

    Pitchfork: Decline I seems like a pretty ethically solid scene, but by Decline II, the music became self-interested and motivated by fame and money. What do you attribute that to?

    PS: I like to think about society as being a flock of birds: There seems to be a common consciousness in different time periods, and the new common consciousness reacts to the old standards. Punk rock was tearing down traditional rock’n’roll and totally pissing on disco, then heavy metal came in and squashed the punk rock, and then grunge came in and squashed the heavy metal. It’s an organic way of making our musical society evolve. 

    Pitchfork: You turned down the opportunity to direct Spinal Tap because you didn’t want to take the piss out of heavy metal, but then a lot of the bands that are documented in Decline II are utterly grotesque. Was mocking them unavoidable?

    PS: I wanted to use more serious bands—that’s why I thought to have Megadeth in the end. But the producers saw the humor in the scenes much better that I did, so that’s why the film turned out to be as funny as it was. It’s to their credit, or blame, whichever way you look it at.

    Pitchfork: During Decline II, the male musicians never shut up about their dicks, and the objectification and chauvinism is unrelenting. How did you feel as a woman in that environment?

    PS: My mother was a barmaid and I was raised in a trailer park. I’m used to that language. I put it on the screen so that people could interpret it as they wish. As a filmmaker, I try to stay objective. I was just preserving it for history to let people know that that was a cool way to be back in 1987. Now we can look at it and go, “Oh, that ain’t cool.”

    Pitchfork: Unlike in Decline I and III, there’s little vulnerability among the bands in Decline II. Do you think there was that side to them?

    PS: They were not so much vulnerable as subject to disappointment. The whole posture of the scene then was confidence and arrogance. As someone older than they were, I knew they weren’t all gonna make it. I also knew that for them to have that as a goal was so superficial. Even if they did get all the money and glamor and glory and fame, that wasn’t gonna make them happy.

    Poison's Bret Michaels and Spheeris circa Decline II

    Pitchfork: The sexual identity of the men in Decline II is really interesting. There's a huge drag aspect to their attire, but they're so aggressively masculine and predatory.

    PS: I believe the reason that they dressed so feminine is so that so that they didn't intimidate the young girls; the guys with the makeup and the fluffy hair were going to get laid a little quicker. And the key there is young girls. When Anna was working on Decline II, she was going out with Nikki Sixx—it was one of the worst times of my life! All my rock’n’roll lifestyle had come back to bite me in the ass because—how old were you, darling?

    Anna Fox: 17.

    PS: And from the story I heard, he might have bragged that you were younger.

    AF: Yeah, he told everybody I was 15.

    Pitchfork: I can’t imagine the stress of your child going out with Nikki Sixx. 

    PS: I made him come over to the house to meet me because that was the rule. So he came over and that was, you know, [sarcastically] fun. 

    Pitchfork: Did he behave himself? 

    PS: No. [laughs]

    AF: He was all done up because he had just done a photoshoot: full make-up, full costume, hair teased out. What did he say to you?

    PS: “You said that you didn’t want your daughter going out with a 40-year-heroin addict, and I don’t like that.” I told him, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to insult you. How old are you?" He couldn’t dispute the heroin addict aspect.

    Pitchfork: I love that he had the brass balls to get offended by that. 

    PS: I think the black rubber suit he was wearing and his charged-up hair gave him a little more confidence. 

    Pitchfork: Anna, how long did you go out with him for?

    AF: Probably six months. But when you’re 17, six months seems like forever.

    Pitchfork: Did you break up with him?

    AF: He was going on tour for the Girls, Girls, Girls album, so it really didn’t make much sense for us to continue going out.

    Pitchfork: Let’s get onto Decline III. How were the gutter punks perceived by people in the scene who weren’t homeless? 

    PS : They were given a certain kind of respect because of their situation. What I found interesting is that it’s human nature to have a family, so they formed new families. They were very protective of each other and still, to this day, so many of them are just as close.

    Pitchfork: By the time you made Decline III, the world wasn’t as up in arms about punk corrupting kids—but the film makes the point that they were actually corrupted by forces much closer to home.

    PS: In 2013, I got my license to be a foster parent, just as a way to try and help these kids. I feel like you have to do something. My cross to bear at this point is how the mentally ill are treated in the United States. It is horrible. I’d love to do a movie on it, but you can’t because of privacy issues.

    I was going to try and direct a film about mental illness once. I remember standing in Patton State Hospital for the Criminally Insane doing research and then getting on a phone there and calling my agent and saying, “Where does that movie at Paramount stand?” He said that I got the job. That was Wayne’s World. So I was either going to do a movie on the criminally insane or Wayne’s World. It was a critical turning point in my life.

    Pitchfork: Do you think you might revisit that project?

    PS: If I could do that documentary, I really would. The reason I’ve become so interested in it is because when I did Decline III, I met my boyfriend of 18 years. He is a wonderful person and extremely brilliant. He was homeless for 10 years before I met him and unfortunately he’s affected with schizophrenia. As brilliant as he is, he’s been in a mental hospital for a year. I have learned the ins and outs of that system and how those people are treated, and it is horrible. I’ve been struggling for about 10 days now to get him a blanket.

    Pitchfork: Was that a strange dynamic to start a relationship from? 

    PS: There’s a 20-year difference in our age—he’s 50 now. It was pretty incredible, I guess, for him to go from totally homeless to living in a $2 million home on three acres in glamour city. But he’s truly a punk at heart and he doesn’t give a shit about all that stuff. There’s plenty of star-studded dinners that I’ve invited him to go with me to and he just won’t. He’s like, “Why would I wanna go to a fucking Bradley Cooper party?” [laughs]

    Pitchfork: How did you fall for each other? 

    PS: While I was cutting the movie, I was driving down the street and I saw him sitting on a bus bench. I pulled up and asked if he remembered me. Turned out he had been looking for me. We had dinner one night, and he was fucking filthy, man. I thought I was just being nice and buying the guy dinner, and then when he got out of the car he kissed me! [laughs] He said, “If you ever want to see me, I hang out at Borders and I’m usually in the physics or philosophy aisle.” I was scared of him at first, but then I kept going back every day to take him to lunch. I was with him for 19 years. If you know that movie A Beautiful Mind—that’s him. He’s a genius. Unfortunately, now he’s in a mental hospital, but we’re trying to get him out.

    The '90s punks of Decline III

    Pitchfork: Turning to future projects, I heard you were directing a Johnny Rotten biopic?

    PS: I was dealing with him for a while and I don't believe it's gonna happen. But somebody should make that movie because it's such an important story. I just don't know if he's got the mindset to do it. I love him, and I think he changed the world, especially the world of music, but he was suffering from the same thing I was—you get to a certain age and you go, "What is my identity?" What's Johnny Rotten's identity? The birth of punk, the Sex Pistols. You want to get it right, and I think John is afraid to get it right. 

    Pitchfork: A few years ago you said there was a fourth Decline project in the works. Is that still happening?

    PS: We’ve started working on it, but I’m not allowed to say [what it focuses on] because it would make us vulnerable to people doing something similar. 

    Pitchfork: Is it about music? 

    PS: It’s about music. That’s the nature of The Decline.


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    Articles: Up Next: How Playlists Are Curating the Future of Music

    Out of the more than 10,000 playlists on the new Apple Music is one called “Artists John Peel Helped Make Famous”. A longtime BBC Radio 1 DJ who died in 2004, Peel embodied the ideal of a music curator long before that phrase was buzzworthy. From Pink Floyd to PJ Harvey, he offered airtime to bands that he believed in. With his eclectic combination of knowledge, passion, and curiosity, Peel provided a model for what playlists could be.

    Ordered lists of songs are as old as radio itself, but the idea of the playlist has gained particular currency in the past few years. As on-demand streaming services such as Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Deezer, Google Play Music, YouTube Music Key, SoundCloud, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal, and now Apple Music have proliferated, each with vast and roughly similar music libraries, they’re now working to differentiate themselves by how well they help listeners sift through all that choice.

    As simple as the concept might appear, approaches to today’s playlists are varied in a way that’s reminiscent of music itself. Computer algorithms or human curators? Editorial professionals or amateur compilers? Lesser-known upstarts or major-label stars? “The new radio,” as some have gushed, or just the latest repackaging of old formats? How it all shakes out could have long-term ramifications for the music-listening and music-making alike.

    Embers of sunlight glint over downtown Des Moines’ modest skyline as I walk toward the YMCA at the end of instructor Sara Kapfer-Croskey’s early-bird 5 a.m. step class. The 44-year-old also leads spinning and body pump workouts, and she knows how music can make or break an exercise session. “If a bad song comes on that’s not the right beats per minute, it just feels like your whole class falls,” she tells me.

    Kapfer-Croskey puts great care into her song selections, compiling them from her CD collection as well as the thousands of MP3s her husband has dropped into her iTunes. When making a playlist for a class, she tries to span all genres and decades while making connections between lyrics and specific exercise moves. “If we’re doing squats, I like a song that says something about your booty in it,” she says. Not everything is so intuitive, though, and certain workout music that she herself enjoys might not translate to a group. “I tend to lean toward the heavy metal side of things when I’m exercising,” she adds.

    The strong connection between music and the gym isn’t lost on streaming companies. Working out and playlists are joined, if not at the hip, then at the foot, and the link between the two is emblematic of playlists’ importance more broadly. In May, Spotify introduced its Running feature, which is designed to detect and complement a user’s running pace. Google Play Music offers a Working Out category of playlists, with subcategories from “Hillbilly Bodybuilding” to “Girl Hold My Earrings”. For a while, Kapfer-Croskey tried Pandora, “but I got annoyed because there were so many songs that I didn’t like,” she says.

    Kapfer-Croskey isn’t alone in standing on both sides of the streaming-versus-buying divide. On-demand streaming by U.S. listeners was up 92% through the first half of 2015, with more than 135 billion streams, according to Nielsen Music. Still, in 2014, streaming made up just 27% of industry revenues, compared with 37% for digital downloads and 32% for physical sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. So while streaming is most definitely the future, the future hasn’t quite gotten here yet.

    Within streaming, there’s a similar crossover between playlists and traditional albums. “We are absolutely in a world where two consumption patterns are coexisting,” says Mark Mulligan, founder of London-based MIDiA Research, a digital-music market research firm. In early June, Mulligan surveyed 1,500 U.S., UK, and French respondents. Overall, 29% said they mainly listen to albums, while 31% said they mainly listen to playlists. Among the generally younger and more pop-oriented participants who listen to free streaming music, 45% said they mainly listen to playlists, and 31% said they mainly listen to albums. As for paid subscribers, 60% said they mainly listen to albums, while 68% said they mainly listen to playlists (participants could choose more than one answer). 

    “This is a generational change,” Mulligan says. “We’re at a crossroads, but it’s not a crossroads where any direction is going to be taken immediately. It’s like the emergence of the car—the railroad business didn’t disappear overnight.”

    Playlists, too, are hurtling into the future without completely losing sight of the past. The seeds for playlists as they exist now were sown by the likes of Napster and then iTunes, which liberated songs from albums and made it easier to enjoy a broader array of music. When streaming services came along, the divide was initially between the “lean back” method of online radio provider Pandora and the “lean forward” tack of Spotify and its ilk, but the lean-forward players eventually added their own radio-like features, too. 

    More recently, the pendulum swung toward adding a human touch to the process of music discovery. Now, one vision of playlists’ future has moved beyond recommending music based on what people like already and toward songs tailored to each user’s exact present circumstances. And I mean exact: “Songs to Sing in the Shower”. “Country Songs About Fishin’”. “Coffee-Break Songs for People Who Are Deep-House Fans on Wednesdays But Prefer Grindcore on Thursdays.” (OK, I made up that last one, but it doesn’t seem that hard to imagine at this point.)

    Doug Ford, director of music programming at Spotify, talks excitedly about “surfacing the best content for the right moment.” According to Google Play Music product manager Elias Roman, the current state of the art is “less about personalizing existing tastes and more about, ‘What would a DJ that was following me do?’” At Apple Music, Trent Reznor channels his employer’s best-not-first branding. “Ultimate mixtapes by people who know how to make them,” he summarizes. “You can sense the quality.” Former Pitchfork editor-in-chief Scott Plagenhoef, who runs music programming and editorial across Apple Music, says of the service’s own set of activity-based playlists, “The experience of curating around what you’re doing is what’s important, the way a club DJ would.”

    Each streaming service emphasizes a slightly different relationship between human and artificial intelligence. Spotify’s Ford takes pride in how his team combines algorithms and human oversight, filtering through billions of hours of listening data to deliver the right “moods and moments” from more than 1.5 billion playlists, many of which are user-generated. “Sometimes it feels like ‘algorithm’ is a nasty word, and it’s not,” he tells me. “It’s an incredibly powerful word.”

    Jessica Suarez, Google’s lead streaming music editor (and a former Pitchfork associate editor), stresses that the service is editorial-driven and that algorithms come into play in how playlists reach people, but not in choosing songs. Apple’s Plagenhoef similarly says no algorithms are used until the distribution, rather than the construction, of the service’s playlists. “Both our radio product and our playlists are all completely hand-picked,” he tells me. (Pitchfork is one of Apple Music’s curation partners.)

    There’s little doubt that when it comes to playlists, companies are putting their money where the pundits’ mouths are. Google’s Roman and Suarez joined the online search giant after it bought Songza, the playlist-making startup he co-founded; Apple Music stems from its parent company’s $3 billion purchase of Beats Electronics; Warner Music Group bought Playlists.net, an aggregator of Spotify playlists; Rdio acquired music recommendation platform TastemakerX; and 8tracks, a site that has been streaming user-curated playlists since 2008, recently announced $2.5 million in debt financing from Silicon Valley Bank.

    Companies have also been betting big on startups that analyze data about people’s listening habits. This year, Pandora bought Next Big Sound and Apple bought Semetric, while in 2014, Spotify bought The Echo Nest. Financial terms of the deals aren’t disclosed, but the pattern—investment in services meant to help listeners find music they might like—is clear.

    “I can see a time coming when the playlist creator becomes just as important an element in the process as the artists being featured.”
    Spotify user and playlist maker Jonathan Good

    It’s not quite dark yet at the outdoor bar adjacent to Vaudeville Mews, a 230-capacity venue near my home in Des Moines. T.J. Wood, who tends bar here and a couple of doors down at The Lift, is blasting Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1999 release Xtra-Acme USA, which he calls “my idea of a summer record.” Later, at my suggestion, we’ll listen to a few songs from retro soul singer Leon Bridges’ new debut, Coming Home, before Wood puts on a crowdsourced two-hour mix of summer songs from a group he’s part of on the streaming site Mixcloud. “I love hearing someone’s playlists,” he says.

    If there’s anyone I trust to tell me about the usefulness of playlists, it’s Wood—my phone’s Notes app tends to add a band name or two with each of our conversations. When he’s really busy at the bar, Wood creates artist-based custom radio stations using his Microsoft Xbox Music subscription. On slow days, he seeks out new music, maybe spending time listening to a college radio station.

    He is perhaps the most musically evangelical of The Lift’s staff of bartenders, each of whom brings a distinctive soundtrack on the nights they’re working. “When they started The Lift, they didn’t want to have a jukebox—you just had a bartender playing cool music, and that’s it,” the 32-year-old says. “Playlists aren’t a new thing. It’s just what they’ve been called now because it’s in the user’s hands so much more than it ever was.”

    Along with professional curation, user-generated playlists are another central feature of the current streaming landscape. Half of Spotify users stream from other users’ playlists at least monthly, according to the company. To get a sense for what makes these amateur playlist makers tick, I got in touch with a few of the Swedish streaming giant’s power users, who ended up being as different and similar as any music fans.

    There’s Jonathan Good, a 37-year-old business manager near Glasgow who has about 2,000 followers on Spotify and says his “obsession” started after a positive review for one of his playlists on another site. One of his most successful playlists, “If Darth Was a DJ”, is based on what he imagined the Star Wars villain would play behind the decks. “I’ve always enjoyed sharing my musical discoveries, and Spotify gives me the ability to do that on a larger scale,” Good tells me in an email. “Playlists are now the way we listen to music, and I can see a time coming when the playlist creator becomes just as important an element in the process as the artists being featured.”

    Then there’s Soundofus, aka Gerard, a retired school director from the suburbs of Paris with almost 20,000 Spotify followers who asks me not to publish his age or full name (but says he has seen the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Who all perform live). He runs a music review website and got a big break when a playlist he researched and compiled with songs from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London ended up going viral.

    Diestro, aka Cristian Garcia, an unemployed 25-year-old from southern Spain with 18,000 followers, says he made his first playlist to organize music that he likes, such as Dire Straits and Queen, but since then has made more than 200 more across different genres and styles. He tells me in an email that while Apple and others hire paid playlist makers, it’s amateurs like him that are often more effective. He hopes more services will take Spotify’s lead in empowering its users and, at the same time, hopes to one day work in a job “related with music, something that I enjoy every minute of my life.”

    The line between amateurs and professionals is another area of overlap where playlists are concerned. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor for pop music at AllMusic, has more than 1,000 followers on Spotify in his own right, and I’ve heard nothing but high praise for his “STE Ultimate Yacht Rock” playlist, which itself has around 400 followers. He points out that plenty of user-generated playlists are simply the tracklists from an album, further blurring distinctions. “It’s a seemingly simple subject that’s actually quite complex,” Erlewine says of playlists.

    For all the nuance required in talking about playlists, their rise also brings up an important question for the future of music culture. For one, artists will have more of an incentive to experiment with other formats beyond the conventional album, though hardly anyone expects the album itself to fade away as a promotional or artistic statement anytime soon. Diplo may have hinted in that direction in discussing the brief, 32-minute length of Major Lazer’s new album Peace Is the Mission, which USA Today reported was geared toward young fans’ attention spans. MIDiA Research’s Mulligan says, “There’s a huge amount that can be done that hasn’t even started yet in filling the album-shaped hole that will evolve in the future of streaming.”

    From a listening standpoint, if fans develop fewer strong attachments to individual artists, the shift toward playlisting could eventually lead to what Mulligan has called“a collapse in arena and stadium-sized heritage live acts.” Already, the average age of UK festival headliners is going up, according to a Spotify analysis reported by The Economist.

    Then again, if playlist-ification means fewer traditional superstars, advocates have an inkling it could also help shed light on artists who weren’t previously famous. Two of the biggest success stories from Spotify’s playlists so far are Lorde, who famously appeared on Napster co-founder Sean Parker’s Hipster International playlist before she became an international sensation, and Hozier, who garnered 46% of his first plays on Spotify from the service’s curated playlists last year. A still more serendipitous example may be Jamaican singer OMI’s “Cheerleader”, a three-year-old reggae song that recently hit #1 on the U.S. Hot 100 as a trumpet-sprinkled tropical-house remix. Its improbable, Spotify-aided invasion followed a trail blazed by Dutch singer Mr Probz’s “Waves”, a self-released track that was a hit in Europe before an uptempo remix helped it to reach #14 on the Hot 100. For all of these songs, playlists were crucial: Spotify director of economics Will Page has written that “curated playlists carried Mr Probz across borders that he otherwise would not have crossed.”

    Spotify’s Ford says, “The beautiful thing for me is that every song stands a chance to make its way onto a playlist and stand on its own merit.” Google’s Jessica Suarez tells me about a playlist called “Sun-Streaming”, which includes songs by both indie faves Atlas Sound as well as goliaths like Arcade Fire: “There’s bands on there that had trouble building up a physical audience, but they do just as well on that playlist as bands that sell out stadiums, because we picked out the best song from their album.” Another widely discussed risk is that playlists could just be pushing what the labels want us to hear. But as with any editorial venture, credibility comes down to keeping an audience’s trust. Google’s Roman tells me, “If Jessica doesn’t like it, it’s not happening.”

    The promise is that, in this library of infinite playlists, we all, looking together, might find those particular records that mean so much.

    Going forward, one question mark will be how well playlists a user makes for personal use on one service can be transferred to another, especially if competition between the services increases. Tidal’s website offers a link to Soundiiz, one of the third-party sites that converts playlists from one streaming company to another. “We are like a bank—not for money, but for playlists,” says Thomas Magnano, who co-founded the French startup. As Magnano tells it, streaming music is like renting a house, and exporting playlists is like changing homes—meaning that some huge furniture can’t always survive the trip.

    Also on the user-constructed side, a potential benefit of playlists could turn out to be their use in advocacy. Feminist Music Geek blogger Alyxandra Vesey, a University of Wisconsin-Madison media scholar, tells me playlists allow feminist communities to promote their work but also bring that work into meaningful context. “When you put TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ and Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bugaboo’ in dialogue with other songs that may not explicitly be dealing with harassment, they can be contextualized,” she says. Outside of feminism, playlists have also popped up around causes such as the Black Lives Matter civil-rights protests after last summer’s police-involved killings of African-Americans.

    Tech and music are two business hardly known for being immune to trends, and the playlist push has been met with mixed responses from the news media. “I worry I’m hiking into an unhappy valley of music streaming, where I like more, but love less,” noted The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey A. Fowler recently. Pitchfork contributor Jill Mapes wrote for NPR: “I find myself constantly fighting the inclination to switch the song when I’m using one of these recommenders, be it Pandora, Spotify Radio, Beats Music, or Rdio’s You FM. It all sounds so … same-y.” The New York Times Ben Ratliff, after praising playlists created for Tidal by artists including Beyoncé and Usher, called for streaming services to hire “a single person of distinction” and empower that person to pick songs. “That’s where discovery will always lie: In the suggestions of actual human beings,” Ratliff wrote. “Divisions by genre, format, or mood may be arbitrary. Individual people never are.”

    Like many music lovers, I’m of two minds when it comes to today’s prominence of playlists. On one hand, I feel like streaming playlists have been a part of my life since the middle-school mixtapes that I can no longer find but still attempt to reassemble virtually. On the other hand, I’m less excited about trying new technology than I am about trying new music, so I’m more likely to trust in a friend or a college radio DJ: “a single person of distinction.”

    I’ve been listening more to playlists lately though, partly in a professional capacity and partly because listening to a list of familiar songs as my wife steers our family home on a sweltering Friday night seems like a good idea for keeping everyone awake (even if that means staying awake to a familiar song I thought I never wanted to hear again… OK, fine, it was Matchbox Twenty’s “Push”). For playlists, for curation, it seems not only natural, but essential to take my time deciding if there’s really wheat within all this chaff.

    “Each user is also curating the entire history of music,” Apple’s Plagenhoef tells me. “They’re naturally doing that through the limitlessness of choice and the limitlessness of being able to manipulate that choice. Some kind of notion of a playlist is the natural organizing principle and delivery system for it.”

    If playlists are how the entire history of music can most naturally be organized, then that history, too, appears to be at a stage of transition. According to Nielsen report released in June, 93% of adults still listen to traditional AM/FM radio at least once a week, and a slightly earlier report found that “radio remains the top source for music discovery.” Is the “new radio” still just radio?

    Terrestrial broadcasters and the new online playlisters will no doubt continue to coexist, but the industry is wagering that younger listeners will increasingly curate music’s history more directly. They’ll pick from among the manifold variety of playlists, some curated by professionals, others selected by users like themselves. And they’ll listen both in the places long home to older types of playlists, such as gyms and bars, as well as newer locales enabled by the mobility of smartphones.

    But there will be access to more “ultimate mixtapes,” to use Reznor’s phrase, than before, with input from more people: exercise instructors and amateur streamers a world away, along with college radio DJs, Top 40 playlisters, and, yes, Beyoncé. The promise is that, in this new pocket library of nearly infinite playlists, we all, looking together, might find those particular records that mean so much.

    And what if most listeners end up finding a bunch of music they “like” rather than “love”—the same old musical comfort food in snazzy new packages? Albums might change their shape, a good festival headliner might get harder to find, but that still wouldn’t be the worst possibility—for music as mass culture, in fact, it might be the same as it ever was. Either way, while “the unhappy valley of music streaming” sure sounds like a bummer of a place, it doesn’t have to be real.

    A Google search for “songs about playlists” still comes up empty for me as of press time, but there are countless tracks about predecessors like radio, DJs, and mixtapes. One from a band on Apple Music’s “Artists John Peel Helped Make Famous” playlist is the Smiths’ 1986 indie-pop classic “Panic”, with its sneering refrain, “Hang the blessed DJ, because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” But today’s DJs know much more about our lives—including our tastes, activities, and circumstances—than ever before. Their necks ought to be a bit more precious now.


    Additional reporting by Evan Minsker


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    Photo Galleries: Pitchfork Music Festival 2015

    This past weekend, tens of thousands of music fans once again gathered at Chicago's Union Park for the 10th annual Pitchfork Music Festival. This year's edition featured sets from Chance the Rapper, Sleater-Kinney, Wilco, Run the Jewels, Chvrches, A$AP Ferg, and many more. Photographers Kristina Pedersen, Matt Lief Anderson, Erez Avissar, and Ellie Pritts were there to capture all the action onstage.


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    Rising: Mikael Seifu Searches for the Lost Beat

    Mikael Seifu: "The Lost Drum Beat" (via SoundCloud)

    Mikael Seifu was once tempted by the gleam of the West. Born and raised in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the producer spent his adolescence downloading 2Pac and Master P songs, one at a time, using Napster and a spotty 28.8 kbps connection. Then, spurred on by his businessman father as well as a naive drive for mainstream musical success, he enrolled in New Jersey’s Ramapo College having never even visited the States before. He was soon dismayed by what he calls “the fierceness of the American machine.”

    “There’s just a massive pressure, dude,” the 27-year-old says over Skype from his small villa in Addis Ababa. “What I felt and saw there was this lack of purpose being accepted as the norm—people just working their way through as a cog.” The realization came in the midst of his music business, history, and performance studies, when he ended up at a conference in Manhattan featuring panels full of songwriters, producers, and lawyers who were working with the biggest names in pop. “It felt weird to see the specialization of the different sub-sectors of the music industry,” he says, thinking back. “For too long, I was caught up looking towards the exterior, the superpowers, the most-written-about cultures. I let my attention veer off course—but my displaced heart has now shifted its allegiance back with Ethiopia.”

    After taking a life-changing, ear-opening class taught by the experimental composer Ben Neill, Seifu dropped out of school following his junior year, headed back to his hometown, and continued to hone his style. His SoundCloud tracks piqued the interest of old friend and fellow producer Dawit Eklund, who also grew up in Addis Ababa before going to college in the U.S. “His stuff was all super experimental with a zero-fucks-given attitude in terms of marketability,” says Eklund in an email. “Totally in his own lane.” When Eklund co-founded the Washington, D.C.-based 1432 R label last year, Seifu’s Yarada Lij EP was its first release. 

    Mikael Seifu: "Drkness Iz" (via SoundCloud)

    The four-track 12” established Seifu’s unique musical perspective: a blend of sampled Ethiopian folk music, freewheeling improvised instrumentation, and skittering rhythms reminiscent of UK producers like Jamie xx, Four Tet, and Burial. He’s since followed it up with a few more increasingly mesmerizing tracks, including last month’s “The Lost Drum Beat”, which has Seifu putting the repetitions of traditional Ethiopian music in hyperspeed in a quest to merge the modern with the deep, eternal spirit of his birthplace. He will release a second EP, Zelalem, on Brooklyn’s RVNG Intl. label this fall, with tentative plans for a full-length next year.

    Eklund considers Seifu’s music a continuation of the wide-ranging sounds of Ethio-jazz, a beloved genre that peaked in the 1960s and ‘70s, before a brutal Communist regime took hold of Ethiopia, crippling artistic expression. Technically a democratic state since 1991, the country is now home to rapid economic growth along with a questionable human rights record. On a day-to-day level, Seifu tells me that water outages are common, and, just as we begin our interview, the power in his neighborhood goes down. But such inconveniences don’t seem to bother this laid-back musician too much; speaking in a patient baritone and sitting in front of a yin and yang poster, Seifu gives off an air of mysticism as he talks of intangible energies and pressures that surround us at all times. At one point, describing his spiritual beliefs, he says, “I just vibe in my inner world.”

    Mikael Seifu: "Yarada Lij" (via SoundCloud)

    While his work is currently being released on American labels, and a recent round of European tour dates had him playing to larger and more enthusiastic crowds than what he’s used to in Addis Ababa, he’s still most interested in delving into the music of his own country. He dreams of starting his own label and helping other local artists to follow his lead. He hopes for the day when more people in his city recognize experimental electronic music as a valid path to ego-flattening enlightenment. As we speak of these potential futures, schoolchildren can be heard playing right outside of Seifu’s window.

    Pitchfork: What is the electronic scene like in Addis Ababa?

    Mikael Seifu: The idea that a producer can also be an artist in their own right and not just produce for vocalists has not taken root here yet. There are so many great musicians here, and it would be brilliant for them to understand the potential of the electronic medium as a very expressive art form; I’m really tired of trying to explain that to people locally. Right now, there’s me and [fellow 1432 R producer] Ethiopian Records, and then there are producers with massive intellects who are caught in the side effects of today’s market-oriented way of living. I see legendary producers stuck in this way of looking at themselves, and, slowly but surely, they’re ultimate potential dwindles for the sake of financial rewards.

    There’s also the younger generation who’ve had the chance to grow up with whatever technology they could get their hands on, who actually believe in the democratization of production and journey along that path. But again, they’re still caught in that mainstream way of dreaming that I was before I thankfully got to myself; their hearts and minds are gripped by the American or the European machine. The mainstream media is what creates the void. It’s something that one can only realize by oneself. You can tell somebody they’re living in an illusion, but suddenly you’re the illusion to them, because you pointed out that illusion.

    Pitchfork: How did you break out of that illusion yourself?

    MS: It was a gradual process. Just asking myself basic questions like, “Why do I feel some type of divide from my own culture?” It’s not a locally-induced situation. It’s caused by letting kids grow up watching MTV, which will destroy the mind. It made me realize I was perhaps not doing myself, or my potential, justice. The brain-drain phenomenon is happening everywhere, and America is one of the biggest contributors in mutating minds and spirits.

    Mikael Seifu: "Brass" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Why did you originally decide to go to America for college?

    MS: My dad had done some post-graduate work there when he was younger, and he hinted that an American undergraduate education could be a better fit for me. His generation was a special generation. Back when he went to America, Ethiopians were known to not desert their country. They were all into getting back to the motherland and helping out everybody with their newly acquired knowledge and using it to the best of their capacity to solve problems. I grew up looking at how my father works, how he’s still working. He embodies this idea that you can never work too much.

    Pitchfork: How was your idea of the U.S. different from the reality of it?

    MS: That’s a very long conversation. [laughs] Youth is deceivable; it’s not all glitz and glamour. Some basic things were better than I had imagined, like transportation, commerce, access to information. But at the same time, in America, you’re either a cog and you don’t know it, or you’re a cog and you’re cool with that, or you’re living off the grid. It was just too much for a little African like me to handle. I was not meant for that world. On the other hand, Ethiopia is way, way more spiritual than any place I’ve been on Earth.

    Mikael Seifu: "Dropleton" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: What are you currently doing to pay rent?

    MS: I DJ weekly at this little lounge called Absinthe every Friday, where I mainly play more UK and UK-ish stuff. That’s actually the only thing that I’m doing to pay my bills right now. [laughs]

    Pitchfork: Earlier this year, you played your first European shows. What was that like?

    MS: London was definitely my favorite. I was actually performing then, not just DJing—I was way deeper into the sound. I don’t normally perform here that much, so it’s hard to compare.

    Pitchfork: Is it disappointing to you that more people would show up to see you perform in London than in your hometown?

    MS: It just shows me that there’s more work to be done.


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    Interviews: Monsters of Mock: David Cross on the Music of “Mr. Show”

    Sketch-comedy troupes are essentially rock bands that deal in jokes instead of songs—so it follows that the most skilled practitioners of the form have aligned with key musical movements over the years. The absurdist vignettes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” bore the influence of early-‘70s madcap psychedelia and byzantine prog-rock. The wild contrast between The Kids in the Hall’s clean-cut appearances and their outrageous gender-bending provocation embodied the buttoned-down, pent-up nature of college rock’s golden age. In the first half of ‘90s, “In Living Color” brought hip-hop culture to prime time, packaging its skits in spray-paint splashes, breakbeats, and B-girl chorus lines. And if the sly humour and sardonic alterna-culture commentaries of a Pavement song could be channeled into a comedy program, the result would resemble something like “Mr. Show”.

    Founded by David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, ”Mr. Show” debuted on HBO in November 1995 and yielded meager ratings over the course of its 30-episode, four-season run. Its impact, however, continues to reverberate across contemporary pop culture—and not just through obvious sketch-com successors like “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “The Birthday Boys”. Cross is a prolific character and voice actor whose credits include everything from “Arrested Development” to the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies; Odenkirk has parlayed a scene-stealing supporting role on “Breaking Bad” into his own flagship AMC series, “Better Call Saul”. And if you turn on your TV right now, it won’t be long until you encounter a member of the show’s extended supporting cast, be it in major motion pictures (Sarah Silverman, Jack Black), or on “24” (Mary Lynn Rajskub), “30 Rock” (Scott Adsit), “Community” (Dino Stamatopoulos), “New Girl” (Brian Posehn), “Comedy Bang Bang” (Scott Aukerman), “@midnight” (Paul F. Tompkins), and even “SpongeBob Square Pants” (voiced by Tom Kenny).

    But “Mr. Show”’s legacy amounts to so much more than just a career springboard. Its cult endures over generations because, for the most part, it avoided the very things that date so much sketch comedy: celebrity impersonations, faddish catchphrases, and recurring one-note characters. Each overstuffed episode bears both the chaotic, collage-like quality of a cherished mixtape and the fluidity of a classic concept album, stitching its segments together in seamless, suite-like fashion with overarching themes and ribbon-tying reprises. And its merciless attacks on corporate greed, media trend spotting, and inane advertising have only become more trenchant as those forces have become increasingly pervasive and desperate. To wit, couponing is now a form of entertainment. Mustard-mayonnaise is now a thing. And today’s hipsters really do dress like old people.

    But while their cultural targets were always shifting, Cross and Odenkirk’s obvious music fandom—and their indie rock-schooled contempt for pop-star posturing—served as the program’s most reliable source of comedic fodder. As Cross explains to me, his interests in underground music and stand-up blossomed in tandem, and his ascent from open-mic amateur to cable-TV comedy kingpin ran parallel to American indie rock’s mainstream incursion over the course of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

    “I was really lucky in that, when I started doing stand-up in Atlanta in the early ‘80s, the whole Athens scene was happening,” he says over the phone from L.A. during his morning commute to work. (At the time, he was not able to divulge the exact nature of that work, though I can now safely assume it had to do with Cross and Odenkirk’s since-announced upcoming reunion series for Netflix, “With Bob and David”.) “Then, when I moved to Boston a few years later, that scene started to really break as well. So I had all this great, new, interesting music around me wherever I went. A lot of comedians worked with bands, because they were your friends—comedy shows would have bands, bands would have comedy. That was constant.

    After moving to L.A. to work on “The Ben Stiller Show” in the early ‘90s, he fell in with a new set of musicians—including Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, Grant Lee Buffalo, Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels, Aimee Mann, and Michael Penn—as all of their careers started to rise. “Mr. Show”’s connections to the alt-rock world went beyond the odd Maynard cameo, though. Cross and Odenkirk’s regular gig-going also lead to friendships with acts like Pavement, Cat Power, and Yo La Tengo, and the “Mr. Show” crew even starred in YLT’s eternally awesome “Sugarcube” video. That sort of cross-pollination prefigured an indie-rock/comedy conversation that’s only become more pronounced over the past two decades, through Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s music-nerd satire on “The Best Show”, Sub Pop’s now-regular signings of comedians (Cross included), and punks-turned-pranksters Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s hipster-baiting “Portlandia”.

    On the eve of “Mr. Show”’s 20th anniversary, I spoke to Cross about the inspirations behind some of the program’s greatest music-themed sketches, and how their cabal of made-up musicians have directly influenced—or anticipated—real ones. 


    Titannica

    Synopsis: A popular thrash band visits their #1 fan, Adam, in the hospital following an attempted suicide inspired by one of their songs. The encounter leaves the band so traumatized, they write a follow-up single to encourage Adam to finish the job.

    Pitchfork: Metalheads are a recurring presence throughout “Mr. Show”—was that a reflection of what you were seeing around you when you moved to L.A.?

    David Cross: Yeah, hair metal was big here, but that was more about pop culture in the United States in general, and not simply what we were seeing on Sunset Boulevard. It was the loudest and noisiest style of music, and it was driving MTV at the time. It didn’t matter if you were in L.A. or Boulder, Colorado or Grand Rapids, Michigan—you’re going to see hair-metal guys.

    Pitchfork: As a punk kid, were you picked on by metal dudes?

    DC: Not really. I’m a little old for that, my era was pre-metal. So the bullying I got… well, you can use your imagination: I was a poor Jewish kid with thick glasses and a big fro living in suburban Atlanta, which was very Baptist and rural back then. So it was mostly jocks and guys who were hanging out listening to Skynyrd, AC/DC, and Zeppelin picking on me.

    Pitchfork: The song Titannica performs at the end of this bit is subtitled “Adam’s Song”, which became the name of a Blink 182 song—ironically, their first “serious” single, about an actual fan suicide.

    DC: They were fans of the show and that was a knowing tribute that I thought was pretty cool. I remember going to some house party in Athens and meeting Summer Hymns, which was an Elephant 6 band, and they were like “we named our album—A Celebratory Arm Gestureafter a “Mr. Show” sketch.” And there was a band called Professor Murder, which was taken from the Rap Battles sketch. I think that’s pretty awesome—it’s flattering.


    Three Times One Minus One

    Pootie T and Wolfgang Amadeus Thelonius von Funkenmeister the 19th and Three Quarters—aka Three Times One Minus One—are a white R&B duo dripping with so much shameless cultural appropriation, their songs don’t even require actual lyrics.

    Pitchfork: Was there a particular artist that inspired TTOMO?

    DC: Yeah, there was an old video that we had seen of R. Kelly that was just him in a soundstage with a bunch of women extras who are listening to him, and most of the song was just him going “wooo wooo,” and that was funny to me. Then Bob and I had the idea that all these bands have that guy who’s like their Bez, or like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones guy, who’s just up there dicking around. So Bob’s character was inspired by that, and by Bushwick Bill, who had that ridiculously long name.

    Pitchfork: You still see a lot of that vocalese these days on shows like “The Voice”, which inevitably devolve into a grand finale where contestants just try to out-emote one another in the dying seconds to rack up extra points from the judges.

    DC: I went to a school of the arts when I was 15 in Atlanta, in 1980, and the people there were truly talented—like, they blew me away, they were so fucking good. But almost every person who sang did that thing you’d see on “The Voice”. That’s been around for a while. It’s very churchy. You see it sometimes when people sing “The Star Spangled Banner” before sporting events: “Oh so proudly we haaaaaiiiiiillllllll.” Shit like that.


    Smoosh

    An MTV-style interview doubles as a therapy session for a surly Britpop band.

    Pitchfork: Were you a fan of Oasis?

    DC: Slightly, but Bob was fucking obsessed. He fucking loved them. He loved their attitude, too. He would just gobble up anything Oasis-related: He loved the music, he loved the band, he loved reading their interviews, and especially loved hearing about the brotherly dysfunction within the band. Any Q magazine or NME that came out with Oasis in it, he would buy it. And while the Smoosh thing was evocative of Oasis—when you watch it, Bob is actually doing more of a John Lydon type of guy.


    Wyckyd Sceptre

    A hair-metal act is embroiled in a scandal when a videotape leaks showing band members having sex—with each other.

    Pitchfork: This was inspired by the Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson sex tape that was making the rounds then. But you gave it a twist...

    DC: I was driving cross-country with my friend Mark Rivers, who did the theme song for “Mr. Show”, when he was moving to L.A., and we just riffed on this idea about the Pam and Tommy tape: What if it was actually Tommy Lee and Vince Neil on the tape, and they had no idea that what they were doing was gay? “Just having a good time, bro!”

    Pitchfork: The Strokes named their 2002 tour in honor of Wyckyd Sceptre—did you know them at the time?

    DC: I met those guys at this bar we used to go to all the time in New York, 7B, and they were kind of shy, and one of them came over with a girlfriend and said, “My friends want to meet you, they’re in a band,” and I was like, “Sure.” So we ended up hanging out, talking, and getting high, and they asked me if it was cool if they could call it the Wyckyd Sceptre tour. They became a big deal really quickly, and I think they had just come out with their first album, so I knew the name and the hype, but I don’t think I had heard the CD. It was all just happening—like, that week.


    The Fad Three

    A documentary retrospective of the British pop phenomenon that pre-dated the Beatles, but never quite achieved the same status—because they weren’t actually a band, but rather three mop-topped guys in suits who simply photographed well. 

    Pitchfork: It’s obvious from watching this that you’re Beatles fans, but their history presents a lot of opportunities for parody.

    DC: That was not a statement in any way on the Beatles at all. I think it was [Bob’s brother and “Mr. Show” writer] Bill Odenkirk who had this idea of people being famous just for their pictures. 

    Pitchfork: It really anticipates this modern era of celebrities who are famous for being famous, and the idea that you don’t really have to do anything to become a star.

    DC: That was not the reason for the piece, but if you see that, God bless you.


    The Teardrop Awards (sketch starts at 21:27 mark)

    Cold sore-afflicted Brian Wilson-type pop genius Willips Brighton and Clapton-style grieving guitar god Horace Loeb square off at an awards ceremony honoring the saddest song of the year—with tragic results.

    Pitchfork: I take it you're not a big Eric Clapton fan?

    DC: Well, he was really flogging his son with that song [“Tears in Heaven”]! It was a huge hit, and everyone wanted to hear it, and he just kept playing it. It was on his Unplugged, his Greatest Hits... at some point, you lose me, and the song just doesn’t have the same resonance anymore. We were exploring the idea of exploiting death.  


    Special thanks to Henry Owings for his help with this story.


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    Rising: Rolling Deep: Galcher Lustwerk’s Hypnotic House

    Galcher Lustwerk: "Parlay" (via SoundCloud)

    Galcher Lustwerk made his name by simply rapping over beats. Well, speaking over beats, anyway, and sometimes kind of singing over them. Oh, and his aren't hip-hop beats, by the way; the Cleveland-born, New York-based producer makes house music. But also not, like, festival house, which is the context in which we're used to hearing rapping over dance music nowadays. Lustwerk's elegant, melancholy take on deep house is part of a tradition stretching from Larry Heard and '80s Chicago through 21st-century German labels like Dial and Smallville; it makes Disclosure's take on "deep house" sound like David Guetta in comparison.

    The producer’s rise within the underground has been remarkably frictionless thus far: In the spring of 2013, before he had any official releases, he put out a mixtape of all original productions, 100% Galcher, on a blog called Blowing Up the Workshop. Moving like a midsummer river, the set wended its way through drowsy house cuts, watery synths, and beatless reveries, with Lustwerk’s own baritone providing hypnotic hooks and sketch-like vignettes. He rapped about the pleasure of the party, the pleasure of taking drugs, and the pleasure of the open road. Even teetotalers would have trouble denying the power of huskily muttered lines like, "Poppin' pills, rollin' bills, rollin' blunts, poppin' seals/ Rollin' trees, rollin' deep, takin' E, LSD"—repetition, like assonant rhyme, is a hell of a drug.

    Not long afterwards, Lustwerk released his debut EP, Tape 22, on White Material, a Brooklyn-based label run by a couple of friends he met while studying at RISD, in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as a track called "Put On"—still one of his best—on a compilation EP credited simply to White Material. Aided by the buzz around those blink-and-you-missed-'em, limited-vinyl records, 100% Galcher ended up on a number of 2013 year-end lists, and he toured Europe a handful of times. But aside from a 12” for a UK label and a digital-only EP under a new alias, Road Hog, he has since kept a low profile, almost as though he was trying to slink back into the woodwork. 

    Galcher Lustwerk: "Put On" (via SoundCloud)

    Speaking via Skype from his apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, he says that, suddenly faced with the possibility that he could actually make music "for real," he decided to step back and think about what he wanted and how to focus his energy, rather than promoting himself simply for the sake of capitalizing on hype. "It's like a wave, but it's a shallow wave, so I can still ride it easily without losing any momentum," he reasons. "In the long run, all I care about is making good music and not wasting time being in the public eye."

    Lustwerk—who prefers not to reveal his real name—started making music on his parents' computer in the late '90s, when he was 12 or 13, using a program called Acid Music. He was far too young to go out, and Internet portals like Napster, YouTube, and MySpace were still a ways off. Instead, he discovered electronic music from Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain. "I used to go there all the time and look at the magazines and read the reviews, and then go to the CD section and try to find the ones they were talking about," he says. He slowly built up a small collection of '90s staples—the Prodigy, DJ Shadow, the Crystal Method, Fatboy Slim—each of which he would pore over for months on end.

    Galcher Lustwerk: 100% Galcher Mixtape (via SoundCloud)

    It was in Providence that he hooked up with DJ Richard and Young Male, who would go on to found White Material, and discovered dancefloor-oriented electronic music through Morgan Louis, a local DJ. After a few years of playing house parties and bars, the crew eventually scattered—a few to Berlin, and the rest, including Lustwerk, to New York.

    He still considers White Material his home, but last month he announced the launch of Lustwerk Music—not so much a label, he says, as a "formality" required by his distributor. The not-really-a-label's first two releases, the Parlay and I Neva Seen EPs, gather the bulk of the tracks from his 100% Galcher mix. But for Lustwerk, the records themselves are, in some sense, a formality as well. "It's more just so I could forget about these songs, because I've gotten tired of them," he says. There were other labels that came calling, but most of them wanted new material, and that's reserved for White Material.

    He's currently trying to finish his latest batch of material—which is turning out to be much harder than it was when he was putting together the 100% Galcher tracks. "It's different when you're making music that you know no one's listening to," he says.

    Photo by Greg Fong


    Pitchfork: How did you hit upon your style of rapping over house tracks?

    Galcher Lustwerk: I've been trying to do vocals on top of tracks since high school, but it kind of sucked at first. I've always been trying to integrate hip-hop and raw vocals into techno, and I finally figured out how to do it well enough for people to enjoy. If you have an idea in your head and you work at it hard enough, you can make it good eventually.

    Pitchfork: Did it take you a long time to learn to record vocals?

    GL: I've just used this $80 microphone for so long that I now know how to manipulate my voice in order to get a good-sounding vocal through it. I went to Red Bull Studios once and tried to record a vocal on their $2,000 microphone, and it sounded like shit. I was just like, “Damn—maybe I only know how to do this one thing because that's just what I'm used to.”

    Galcher Lustwerk: "In the Place" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Cars turn up in your music a lot. Are you a car person?

    GL: It’s funny you mention that. I miss driving. I grew up in Cleveland, you drive everywhere; living in New York, you don't drive. I get anxiety from not driving. Driving was my form of meditation. And I also miss listening to music and driving—that's the best way to listen to music. You just kind of zone out. Driving's so futuristic—you're barely putting in any effort, and this huge machine is pummeling down a strip of concrete.

    Pitchfork: A lot of Detroit techno is about that idea, like Cybotron's "Cosmic Cars" and Carl Craig's "Landcruising".

    GL: Yeah, Cleveland's not far from Detroit. We share a similarity in that way. Being in a car-dependent city, it's just a crazy thing that you do every day without even realizing it.

    Pitchfork: Your EP under your Road Hog alias is called D.W.B. (Driving While Black). Did that title come from a specific personal experience?

    GL: I've been pulled over before—I don't know if it was for any racial reasons, but I thought it was an interesting concept. It was around the time of the Eric Garner situation, and with all the current events that are going on in America right now, I thought it would be an interesting take on that. But I'm not trying to be political. It's more framing a scene.

    Pitchfork: That EP seems to use driving as a metaphor for a number of different ideas. There's racism, obviously, but there's also a sense of freedom implied in the open road.

    GL: Yeah totally. That's the thing about driving: You're alone but you're everywhere. You're standing still but moving really fast. It's just like perspectives constantly changing. It's also really American, too. Essentially, though, they're just tracks to drive around to. That's the main concept.

    Pitchfork: What's the process of writing lyrics like for you?

    GL: It’s pretty challenging for me, because they've got to be simple and catchy. A hook is more important than an overall concept or story. It's gotta be like a lick. I used to play saxophone when I was younger, and since it's a monophonic instrument, you can't do chords, you have to make do with just one tone. But when you're doing a solo, like a blues solo, you can come up with some catchy lick, and it doesn't even matter what notes you're playing—it can just be the rhythm plus a weird little legato or trill. It's kind of the same thing with vocals, if you just think of the vocal physically, as a sound.

    I think that’s one reason people are gravitating towards Drake or Young Thug. Their subject matter is really derivative—it's not anything new—but the execution is super catchy. It's something that anyone could mimic in their own way, and it just feels good to say.

    Galcher Lustwerk: "Kaint" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: I noticed that you hide your face in most of your photos.

    GL: That's why I was nervous about this stuff. I'm camera shy. I don't necessarily like being front and center. I'd rather not have my face all up in everything. I'm not trying to be some mysterious producer or anything like that. But I am into, like, spies.

    Pitchfork: Speaking of spies and pseudonyms—how is your alias working out for you? How do people respond to it?

    GL: It's a weird-ass name, but I think it's helped. It's such an odd name that it sticks around. It's in that category of weird made-up names that techno producers use; someone was saying Legowelt's Clendon Toblerone alias was a reference to my name and how ridiculous it is. I'm certainly glad I'm not using my real name, which would be the most boring producer name ever.


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    Podcasts: A Conversation With Jeff Tweedy at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

    On July 16, the night before Wilco’s headlining set at the 10th annual Pitchfork Music Festival, Jeff Tweedy sat down for a conversation with Pitchfork Editor-in-Chief Mark Richardson at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The interview kicked off the MCA’s In Sight Out, a collaborative series exploring new perspectives on music, art, and culture, and it came at a pivotal moment for Tweedy and Wilco. It’s been 20 years since the group launched their recording career with 1995’s A.M., so the talk provided an opportunity to discuss their formative years and Chicago’s mid-‘90s music scene, as well as the band’s brand new album, Star Wars, which was actually surprise-released as the event was taking place.

    In Sight Out is presented by MailChimp


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    Photo Galleries: Pitchfork Music Festival 2015: Portraits

    In addition to capturing all the onstage action that took place at this month's Pitchfork Music Festival, our photographers also snapped some behind-the-scenes stills and GIFs of this year's performers including: Run the Jewels, the Julie Ruin, Vic Mensa, Panda Bear, Perfume Genius, Mac DeMarco, Waxahatchee, How to Dress Well, the New Pornographers, and more.


    Shamir

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    Photo by Erik Sanchez


    Mourn

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    Photo by Erik Sanchez


    Ought

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    Photo by Erik Sanchez


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    Profiles: All the Feels: Beach House’s Intangible Truth

    Work, bitch.

    This is the unofficial motto of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally as of late. As in, doing things they don’t feel like doing. As in, spending nine days painstakingly loading organ sounds into a synth they’ll take on an upcoming tour. As in, dealing with confused equipment delivery men in a liquor store parking lot. As in, still having to tell interviewers that they’re not a couple. As in, randomly quoting the Britney Spears single of the same name.

    "I like the part where she's like, ‘par-tee in Fraaance,’” Legrand says, articulating Britney’s lack of swagger. “I'd party in France with you, Britney Spears. She reminds me of girls I grew up with in Maryland. We're around the same age. In another life…” The Paris-born, 34-year-old singer and keyboardist trails off. “Britney’s a homegirl.”

    Dressed like a modest goth on this June evening, Legrand lingers on her cosmic connection to pop’s living, breathing PSA against fame. But then Scally, 33, gleefully interrupts us with a Betty Boop falsetto, singing along to the bar playlist at New York’s Tribeca Grand Hotel: “When I think about you, I touch myself.” At first it’s hard to believe this particular noise is coming out of the mop-topped vibe lord, until I come to realize that he has precisely zero interest in appearing cool. While his sudden break into song seems incidental, it's a telling representation of the duo's interpersonal dynamic, something they've built up over the course of the last decade. Sometimes Legrand’s intensity can send her wandering—and that’s when Scally will jump in with a joke, parallel thought, or even an organ ditty that attempts to refocus the attention. It’s one notch more intimate than finishing each other’s sentences.

    At its best, this strategy highlights how Legrand and Scally have worked together seamlessly to become one of indie rock’s most consistent bands. “We so closely share an aesthetic, if one of us finds a song we like, there's a 99% chance the other person's gonna like it too,” Scally says. At its worst, well, what do you expect from people who travel multiple continents together on tour half the year while collaborating on songwriting for the other half? Their longtime co-producer Chris Coady compares their arguments to the kind he has with his brother at Thanksgiving; niceties need not apply between family.

    The next day, the duo premiere their latest single, “Sparks”, live on SiriusXMU. It’s a moment of celebration, so shots of Patron feel more than appropriate in the studio. A taped interview follows, during which Legrand and I kill a bottle of white. Nursing an Amstel, Scally watches his bandmate struggle to articulate the overarching themes of Depression Cherry, their forthcoming fifth album. As she grasps for more concrete language, it’s as if the words to describe her creative state of mind simply do not exist. If they did, she’d use them—Legrand isn’t trying to be aloof or mysterious, qualities often attributed to Beach House’s music and members—and she admits as much. Legrand is, perhaps above all, a warm and wise person, in a mother nature kind of way. She’s the type who will squeeze your shoulders or call you sweetheart after a single conversation. Scally, in comparison, is defined by his genuine curiosity: He often counters questions with more questions in an effort to find common ground.

    Scally earnestly backs up his bandmate as she struggles to come up with soundbite-ready explanations of Beach House’s music in the Sirius studio, but a week later, over lunch at a Baltimore pub called The Dizz, he brings up the awkward moment again out of the blue.

    “Was that interview insane?” he asks. “I was wasted because I was so stressed out all day. I felt like we were veering off into nonsense.” We start retracing one anecdote about the genesis of a new song called “10:37”, a stretched-tape homage to toy soldier drum beats and a subject who casts no shadow. 

    “How do you describe that in language without sounding completely abstract and out-of-your-mind?” Legrand asks. “That’s how most moments of creativity feel—you almost can’t not use far-out language.”

    “When you try to describe your creative moments, you veer off into a very unintelligible place of nonsense,” Scally says to her. “Because describing a moment of creativity is impossible.”

    “Well, what am I supposed to say? I really don’t give a shit.” Legrand says this like she does, in fact, give a substantial shit.

    “I almost think it’s not worth talking about because it’s so hard to articulate,” Scally offers in a consoling tone.

    “All right, then I just won’t answer questions,” Legrand shoots back. “You can answer them.” 

    “That’s not what I was saying.”

    “I know it’s not.”

    Legrand then turns to me and adds, “He basically said I was unintelligible. I could be mildly offended by that—it doesn’t feel good when your partner tells you that you’re nonsense, but it’s the truth.”

    “It’s not that,” Scally says, trying to dig himself out. “It’s just that I watch you go down these roads in your brain trying to be truthful, but there’s no concise answer.”

    “It’s a lot easier to just feel it,” Legrand decides, already over it.

    Consider this approach Beach House’s overall philosophy—and perhaps why their music taps into the subconscious so well. Over the course of several interviews, Scally repeatedly talks about how he believes musicians serve as mediums; Legrand poses questions like, “Are artists fearless hunter-gatherers of the energy that people need?” But for all the vibe talk, they definitely don’t take themselves too seriously. Minutes after emphasizing words like “clairvoyance” and “fate” when discussing their bond, they’ll start arguing over the validity of Burning Man’s lore of Jiffy Lube sex tents.

    However, they are dead serious when they tell me they have little reason to speak to each other while writing music, and that’s been the case since they penned their first song together, “Saltwater”, 10 years ago. “Trance is a big part of our thing,” Scally says. “A trance-y energy is how we write, and it's not a drug thing. We'll repeat a part for three hours while we wait for the next piece to fall into place.”

    Beach House: "Saltwater" (via SoundCloud)

    “Every song is going on this trip: What does it want?” Legrand adds. “It is mystical, but it's such a part of our existence.”

    I straight-up ask Legrand if she’s into hippie shit. “I don’t know what I’m into, man,” she shrugs, before adding that a friend gave her five crystals, which she keeps in a velvet pouch and cherishes dearly. Scally and I can’t help but laugh, and you know, neither can Legrand.

    “I feel fatigued by the concept that no art is safe from commercialism. Can’t I just experience something? I don’t want it to be sold to me or branded. The thing that I crave is authenticity.”


    —Alex Scally

    Not far from downtown Baltimore, in a formerly industrial neighborhood called Fell’s Point, Beach House’s practice space is situated in a warehouse that also houses a small tie factory. As we walk the couple blocks from Legrand’s car, they note the future high-rises that were abandoned warehouses when they moved in six years ago. There’s an urban rustic BBQ chain in construction next door and a Whole Foods moving in down the block. They groan, wondering how long it'll be until they're pushed out of the most ideal home they've ever known. We step over a heap of broken glass on the sidewalk. "That's one thing in Baltimore,” Legrand says, “people still smash car windows.” Later, she points out where the riots over Freddie Gray’s wrongful death took place a few months ago.

    Touring Beach House’s practice space is not only a history lesson of the band but of indie culture over the last decade. Legrand's striped sequin ball gown from the cover of their 2008 album Devotion is there, along with her thrifted finds from the world over, which she hopes to someday sell at her own vintage shop. There are the Teen Dream-era outfits you may recognize from panting posts on Hipster Runoff, the defunct indie arbiter that both Legrand and Scally consider “brilliant.” Old tour set pieces and at least 20 vintage organs—they call them “grandma organs”—line one half of the large room. There’s a giant pink teddy-bear candle, busted 4-Tracks they can’t stand to part with for sentimental reasons, a 100-year-old piano they got for free off Craigslist in 2009, and a couple of standing fans to make the space more comfortable during 70-hour work weeks. 

    As Scally moves from one organ to another, playing notable beats from across the band’s discography, I start to feel my own history bubble to the surface. I remember the college-radio friend who first turned me onto Beach House through the song “Gila”, as well as the minor regret of losing touch with her once we graduated. A sense of dread comes over me as soon as he starts playing the opening of “Lazuli”, off 2012’s Bloom, an album that once eased the walls-closing-in anxiety of a new job. By “Walk in the Park”, I find myself wondering what happened to that hapless boyfriend who thought Teen Dream was an acceptable soundtrack for intimacies.

    Anyone who grows up alongside a band can claim this kind of milestone-making. It's the highest form of fandom, giving a band the privilege of soundtracking your life. But with Beach House this feels particularly true, because the music can so easily become an emotional canvas onto which one can project. One of their best songs, “Silver Soul”, is built around Legrand repeating the phrase, “It is happening again.” The “it” is whatever you need it to be. Her cryptic second-person poetry adds as much to the band’s mood-making as her minor-tonality keyboard, or Scally’s slide guitar, eternally tuned to E-flat.

    If anything, their songs’ subject matter has grown less conventional over time, even as their albums continue to creep up the charts (Bloom debuted at #7). My heart is full of love, but I don't have an interest in love songs that much anymore,” Scally says. “What we need are love and break-up songs for people living with war and disease,” Legrand adds. “We need giant love songs.”

    For the most part, Depression Cherry backs down from the weightier, live-drum take on dream pop that comprised Bloom. Still, it’s the most cinematic work they’ve ever made—both in sound and lyrical imagery—so much so that it borders on sci-fi at times, which makes sense considering one of the band’s only concrete professional ambitions at this point. “Basically, we’re showing our boobs and saying, ‘Give us the Mardi Gras beads of film soundtracks,’” says Legrand, a cinephile (along with Scally) who watches a different movie every night when her schedule allows. “It’s really weird that we haven’t been asked to do one. I’d do a sci-fi film, but I’d also do a sci-fi soundtrack for a film that wasn’t sci-fi.”

    On Depression Cherry, Legrand not only possesses more range in her vocals, she experiments with spoken-word mind control on Lennon-tinged highlight “PPP” and employs eight singers from Hattiesburg, Mississippi’s Pearl River Community College for a 24-part harmony that makes album closer “Days of Candy” the most dramatic Beach House song to date. The co-ed choir was just one example of local charm felt by the band while recording last winter at the Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where they also “stalked” an otter who lived on the wooded grounds.

    Though the album was partly inspired by growing older and changing priorities, Depression Cherry doesn’t feel like it has much to do with the passage of time. Scally and Legrand’s subtle shifts in sound remain noticeable to diehards, but generally speaking, Beach House is not a band that has much of an interest in fundamentally changing from album to album. Ultimately, they’re going to be one of those low-key journey-bands like Yo La Tengo, who keep releasing albums with little-to-no dip in quality while a dedicated fanbase comes and goes how it pleases. Not every great band is trying to be the biggest band in the world.

    Even in the early days, the duo had a keen sense of which noises “turn them on,” and they’re content to stick within the parameters they set back then. Staying true is a big part of their identities, both on and offstage in Baltimore.


    Scally was raised in the Baltimore’s Mt. Washington neighborhood by parents who encouraged a musical fascination in both him and his older brother. High school heralded a trifecta of musical gateway drugs—Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan—that resulted in him playing around in a few projects, including a reggae band. After studying geology and running cross-country at Ohio’s Oberlin College, he returned home and started working alongside his father, a professional carpenter. 

    The bar where Scally is recounting most of this, the Curb Shoppe, is one he’s been frequenting for nearly half his life, initially as an underage kid trying to buy beer for parties. The same bartender serving us now sold it to him from time to time back then; she smiles and passes warm popcorn our way. Legrand requests the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” on the jukebox, and I can see why they like this place, with its constant rotating cast of unpretentious locals. Men in camo baseball caps place friendly wagers on their pool games while Metallica soundalikes blare. It’s a real dive, not one of those big-city joints masquerading as one.

    Beach House: "Zebra" (via SoundCloud)

    Legrand describes her life as nomadic from the start. After her parents split up in the mid-‘80s, when Legrand was five, she and her mother, a doctor, left Paris and stayed with family in Baltimore for several months before moving to Rising Sun, Maryland. (Her mother’s family actually knew Scally’s family—a coincidence the two were unaware of for years and still find sorta cosmic.) Eventually, Legrand moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, where she attended punk shows in church basements and covered Zeppelin in a coffee shop with her high school band. Despite her stoner bandmates, Legrand was the sort who didn’t sneak home past curfew too often.

    College at Vassar and theater school in Paris followed, but a longing for American subculture made a return to the States inevitable. She emailed a friend who used to play music with Scally in high school, asking if she could crash with him in Baltimore. “There was a voice in my head that said not to let music go,” she says. Legrand’s introduction to Scally came soon thereafter, on the front porch of his house; all other collaborators quickly fell away.

    During Beach House’s early years, Legrand worked at the local Mexican restaurant Holy Frijoles, which employed other Baltimore music-scene fixtures including Future Islands bassist William Cashion. Both Legrand and Scally look back on that scrappy era fondly; they’re grateful they had time to play bad shows when no one was watching. Umpteen major festival appearances later, there is still little ego to be found between the two. They joke about mailing out T-shirts again by hand “on the way down” from indie fame, lament New York City’s competitive spirit, and praise the baked-in imperfections of Baltimore traditions like duckpin bowling as we chuck tiny balls down a lane and sip cheap champagne out of even cheaper plastic flutes. 

    “You don't have to compare yourself with other people here,” Legrand says. “That's worth a lot more than ambition.” Baltimore, Scally explains, is a “town of accountability” where “it’s harder to be a dick” in the art and music scenes.

    “Baltimore is the last place you can afford to be a bohemian—it’s still cheap, and it probably just got cheaper,” says John Waters, iconic filmmaker, one of Baltimore’s most beloved cultural exports, and the self-described oldest person at Beach House concerts.

    “People always compare Victoria to Nico, but I think she’s Nico and Janis—completely original, off heroin, and on good, pure LSD,” the director jokes, calling from his very own beach house. “She’s vaguely depressing, but only to stupid people; she’s very sexy and smart—and so is he! They hold their cards close to their chest, which I like too. But what I love about her best: She spits when she sings.”

    “You don't have to compare yourself with other people in Baltimore. That's worth a lot more than ambition.”
    Victoria Legrand

    On our way to lunch, Legrand, Scally, and I get to discussing a recent New York Times op-ed in which Baltimore is stereotyped as unambitious to the point of utter sloth and alcoholic dysfunction. The two are mildly annoyed by the portrayal and they chalk the piece up to a certain kind of New Yorker’s desire to feel better about themselves while ignoring the city’s soulless obsession with obvious success. 

    That sort of thing is really not their bag, in case that wasn’t made clear by their 2012 battle with Volkswagen, who used a Beach House soundalike in a British commercial after the band had turned down multiple offers to license their music to the company. That anti-capitalist streak showed up again recently in a statement announcing Depression Cherry’s release: "Here, we continue to let ourselves evolve while fully ignoring the commercial context in which we exist." So while Beach House may use Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” as their squad anthem, it’s clearly a joke; they may look at each other in crowded elevators and mouth the word “Bu-gatti” in Britney’s dramatic phrasing, but the truth is, neither would be caught dead driving a car like that.

    “I feel fatigued by the concept that no art is safe from commercialism,” Scally says. “Can’t I just experience something? I don’t want it to be sold to me, I don’t want it to be branded, I don’t want to wonder, ‘Is this really this person, or did they just get the tip that they should jump on a trend?’ The thing that I crave is authenticity.”

    Beach House: "Myth" (via SoundCloud)

    However, just because they would prefer to opt out of the social media blasts and corporate back-patting that can seem unavoidable in modern music culture, it doesn’t mean they see the point in protesting all of it carte blanche. “We’ve made compromises, we’ve done a few advertisements, but we’ve never felt artistically compromised by them,” Scally says. “We’ve created our own standard, and we live by that. I don’t think we’re some poster boys for integrity—we’re not Shellac or Drag City. We cut our songs down to radio size because people tell us to even though we hate doing it. We’re not, like, high-road, clear-conscious vegans.”

    Legrand suggests combatting such ills by organizing a conference with like-minded artists to discuss the importance of maintaining the core values of the underground, which she believes will “keep getting weirder and weirder as it searches for how to subvert the mainstream.”

    After coming up with this idea of an indie forum (which Scally tipsily refers to as “Tidal 2”) Legrand laughs to herself—not five minutes earlier, she was clowning industry types who spend their days in meetings. Beach House will never be those people, or concede control to them. A life like that would leave little time for them to disappear into the voices in their heads.


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    Show No Mercy: Locrian’s Ode to Extinction

    Locrian: "An Index of Air" (via SoundCloud)

    Over the last 10 years, the music made by prolific Chicago/Baltimore trio Locrian has always been tough to categorize: Is it noise? Black metal? Dark ambient? Industrial? Drone? Things get more complicated on their most recent outing, Infinite Dissolution, where they manage to be more triumphant and bigger than before (and even a little bit catchy). The nine-song effort, recorded at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio and produced by Greg Norman (Russian Circles, Pelican), is a concept album about the extinction of the human race, but you’ll find yourself pumping your fist as frontman Terence Hannum’s haunting black-metal vocals slither through a mournful, melodic mix of fuzz, hiss, and riffs. Stitched together by woozy instrumentals that feature birds chirping and iron scraping, the album marks a new peak for this creatively restless group.

    I spoke to the band about the bleak concepts behind the collection, capturing field recordings in ghost towns,the importance of Deafheaven to metal-hybridization, 19th-century anti-industrialization tracts, and what it means to be a father focused on the apocalypse.

    Pitchfork: Why did you decide to make an album about the end of mankind as we know it?

    André Foisy: The songs are inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction, which discusses past extinctions on the planet and argues that humans and the Earth are in the midst of a mass extinction event.

    Terence Hannum: We wanted to use what’s actually happening and then gaze into the future and make our own science-fiction story out of it—to think of how we push the Earth to such an extreme with our behavior that it’s pushing back and making our existence impossible.

    Pitchfork: The lyrics read like apocalyptic manifestos.

    TH: Thanks. I spent a lot of time looking at 19th-century anti-industrialization tracts as well as reading some of the science behind Elizabeth Kolbert’s book. That started to set the tone and helped form the vocabulary that the instrumentals needed.

    Pitchfork: What role do the instrumentals play in the story?

    AF: There are layers of meaning behind them. A number of the field recordings I used were taken from places that have regenerated from human impact. For instance, one came from a place that used to be a quarry, but that’s since been transformed into a native prairie. And Terence used a recording from the top of Monk’s Mound at Cohokia, which is an abandoned city near St. Louis. The people that lived there likely destroyed themselves through environmental exploitation.

    Steven Hess: The instrumentals help hold everything together and accentuate the realism of the record. “KXL I” includes field recordings and the sounds of amplified metal grating being struck rhythmically. I wanted to replicate the sound of someone hearing the bashing or destroying of a pipeline from miles away. The field recordings add texture and possibly help transport the listener to a place—either imaginary or real—while they listen to the songs.

    Pitchfork: For an album about the idea of human extinction, it's pretty triumphant. Is this intentional?

    TH: I think there’s the hope that humanity can continue, but I also think that if you love the Earth, realizing the main thing that can hurt it will eventually wipe itself out is also a bit of a triumph.

    AF: For my part, I wanted the album to have some sort of triumphant feeling since I’m hopeful about the future of humanity. The album is deeper than just glorifying the excitement in feelings of terror, or the fear of the end of the world. It’s meant to inspire people to have discussions about themselves. 

    Pitchfork: Terence, how does being a father affect the subject matter of your work? 

    TH: It definitely feeds my lyrics and my dedication—I’m trying to say something about this destruction, to form some ideas. It’s not just three guys playing to be cool. Considering how little time I ultimately have, I want what I create to count. That said, I don’t have a lot of optimism for what the world will look like when my kids are adults, and a lot of what motivates me is shame that we didn’t stop or shift our behavior. Though perhaps kids and teenagers now are way more sophisticated about environmental issues.

    “The album is deeper than just glorifying the excitement in the fear of the end of the world. It’s meant to inspire people to have discussions about themselves.”


    —Photo by André Foisy

    Pitchfork: You've refined and shifted your sound over the last decade, but did you ever think you'd be writing music this catchy?

    AF: We didn’t plan for it to be catchy, but that was different for us, so I didn’t resist. When we went into the studio, “Heavy Water” got catchy all of a sudden, so Steven played some blast beats over it and it got a bit weirder, which we liked.

    TH: We just always want to challenge ourselves. Once you establish something, it’s best to break it.

    Locrian: "Heavy Water" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Does the crossover of a band like Deafheaven affect you at all?

    TH: It's interesting that there is potential for such a broad audience. I’m also fascinated that it can get under the skin of so many who perceive themselves as voices of the metal scene. But it doesn’t affect what we make. 

    AF: Perhaps the broad appeal of a band like Deafheaven might inspire more general listeners to find our music, which is good for us. Maybe a Locrian track would come up on an Internet Deafheaven radio station? They could be a gateway band for listeners to discover more challenging music. I hope so. 

    Pitchfork: Even though Terence has moved to Baltimore, I still think of you as a Chicago band. How important is that city to what you do?

    TH: Chicago is just an important music city. It will always be where Locrian began, and two-thirds of the band live and create there. When we started, the blight on the edges of the city really inspired us, like the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois. However, I must say, I love my adopted city of Baltimore and its music scene is very different, much smaller, but still inspiring. I like how the genres aren’t as important here, and there is more mingling.

    “Any bands that think of themselves as black metal today are merely an anachronism of an anachronism, a reflection of a reflection.”


    —André Foisy

    Pitchfork: What does black metal mean to you in 2015?

    TH: Black metal has always changed for me. The bands I was interested in were always a bit weirder, like Abruptum, even though I really enjoyed Venom, Bathory, Darkthrone, or the more orthodox bands in that genre. So in some ways that era of black metal is an anachronism. A lot of what black metal was founded on has past—and that’s good, that is what happens with time. But I never thought the gambit with any genre was to copy it. To me, bands like Obituary, Dissectionm, or Weakling weren’t saying “follow me and go forth and make sub-par clones in expensive packaging.” They presented challenges to do better and go further.

    AF: It’s a controversial issue because people identify themselves as black metal, but I don’t identify myself like that and I don’t identify our music as black metal. We’re deeper than that.

    Generally, I think people generally agree that black metal started around the time of the church burnings in Scandinavia in the 1990s and with the music scene that supported those acts. Many of those early black metal bands had atavistic themes, and their music and imagery harkened back to a time when the cultures of the area were diluted by outside influences, as if Scandinavia was an isolated land, even though it has never been an isolated land. Remember, the potato—the main ingredient in many traditional Scandinavian dishes—originated in South America, from the Incas, and not from Europe.

    That golden age of black metal was anachronistic, but the era today that harkens back to that period of black metal imagines that era through a warped reflection. Any bands that think of themselves as black metal today are merely an anachronism of an anachronism, a reflection of a reflection.

    That said, my favorite black metal band today is Forteresse, and they play music that harkens back to both the audio aesthetics of some early Scandinavian black metal as well as traditional Quebecois music. Their album Métal Noire Québécois has an image of the turn-of-the century Quebecois fiddler Joseph Allard on it, and it positioned him as an image of Quebec tradition, but Allard played jigs regularly, which originated in England, not Quebec or France, and many Quebecois think of the English as the oppressors. Also, Allard’s music flourished at a time when the Catholic Church was much more powerful in Quebec than today, and the golden age of black metal was staunchly anti-Christian. So Forteresse is an anachronism of an anachronism, but I’m not saying that to be pejorative. I’m a huge fan of theirs, as I’m a huge fan of Allard.

    Pitchfork: If you guys had longer hair, do you think the questions of whether or not you were metal would be moot?

    SH: We’re metal at heart, but “uncategorizable” or “other” by our appearance, and I’m completely fine with that.

    AF: We could write a death metal album, and some people would probably still refuse to call us metal.

    TH: What is metal anyway? I just hope to see a day when Rob Halford, Kerry King, Kirk Windstein, and Phil Anselmo are accepted as metal musicians despite the length of their hair.


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    Profiles: Punk Paradox: The Improbable Legacy of Fucked Up

    Toronto’s Great Hall is one of the few remaining examples of Victorian architecture on the city’s increasingly condo-fied West Queen West nightlife strip, a grand 19th-century banquet space that’s often used to host weddings. But since 2012, the annual Long Winter concert series has facilitated a very different sort of union there.

    On the second Friday of each month, from November through March, Long Winter transforms The Great Hall into a labyrinthine four-story circus. You can ping-pong between lesbian cock-rock cover bands performing in the ballroom and suburban teenage MCs playing their first downtown gigs in the bay-windowed parlor. You can head up to the building’s top floor and relive your high-school house-party days grinding to Amerie’s “One Thing” or descend into its crater-like basement and watch a documentary about Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard. You can take in an interpretive dance from an aboriginal performer as part of a live discussion about the challenges faced by feminist artists of color or you can crush a tallboy and pass out in a TV-equipped art-installation pup tent. And if you’re still bored, just play one of the 3-D video games projected onto the ballroom’s walls.

    In a city where the cost of living has increased dramatically over the past decade and nighttime entertainment options for teens are scarce, Long Winter is a proudly all-ages, pay-what-you-can event. And that egalitarian philosophy is perhaps the only indicator that the series is the brainchild of Mike Haliechuk and Josh Zucker—aka the founding members of Fucked Up.

    Fans outside Toronto know the band as punk rock’s greatest paradox, the hardcore heretics whose surprising ascent has run parallel to their increasingly outsized musical ambitions. This is a group whose dense discography now includes not only a rock opera but an actual opera. Recent tours have seen yet another dramatic reinvention: To mark June’s release of Year of the Hare—the latest addition to their experimental Zodiac EP series—Fucked Up debuted an expanded nine-piece formation that absorbed Toronto dub-funk fusionists Doomsquad, who will also appear on the upcoming Year of the Snake, due later this year. (A separate 12” collaboration with Nunavut throat singer Tanya Tagaq is also in the works.)

    Fucked Up: "Year of the Tiger" (via SoundCloud)

    Though still operating as a club-level headliner and midsize festival act, Fucked Up’s accomplishments are unimaginable for most hardcore-spawned bands: a surprise 2009 victory at Canada’s Polaris Music Prize; arena tours with the Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire; and Fox News punditry for the band’s gregarious frontman, Damian Abraham. 

    What’s not so visible to fans outside Toronto is that Fucked Up are not simply a band—they’re more like a community cooperative, events-production team, charity organization, and mentorship program all rolled into one. The more their profile abroad has risen, the more committed they’ve become to improving the quality of life in their hometown, by reinvesting their rewards back into the city’s cultural stream. While most bands strive to leave behind a musical legacy, Fucked Up are just as busy building a social one.

    “We hit a point where we grew up and thought, ‘What the fuck are we if we’re not saying something?’” Abraham tells me. "When you’re making a living doing this, you can’t just be angry for the sake of being angry. We realized there are ways we can negotiate being a professional band while still doing something interesting and cool.”

    Long Winter’s carnivalesque grandeur may be the furthest thing from the basement shows where the members of Fucked Up first bonded, but it’s a natural outgrowth of the work they began in Toronto’s hardcore trenches nearly two decades ago. Even though the band has since moved far beyond that scene’s musical aesthetics, they’re still applying hardcore’s fundamental principles of DIY determinism to a post-everything world.

    “When we were 20, we only listened to punk music and had punk friends,” Haliechuk observes during a cafe meeting with Zucker. “And now we’re older and we have different kinds of friends. The whole point of Long Winter is: We’re not trying to grow. We’re not going to put on the next Grimes show. We’re not reaching for the most-blogged-about thing. It’s mostly to say: This is our community.”

    For Haliechuk and Zucker, that sense of community was shaped in the late 1990s at Who’s Emma?, a now-defunct anarchist co-operative—part record/bookstore, part all-ages venue—in Toronto’s eternally boho Kensington Market neighborhood. It’s where Haliechuk put on his first show, hosting Dillinger Escape Plan’s debut Toronto performance in 1998. 

    “Mike doesn’t like to bring up the past,” Abraham says during a separate interview at the midtown Toronto house he shares with his wife and two sons. (A third child is on the way.) “But I look at Long Winter as being like a continuation of the punk/squat-shows he used to do, where he cooked food for all the bands and the people working the show.”

    True to his reputation as a human punk-rock encyclopedia, Abraham’s house is a veritable Library of Congress for hardcore ephemera, including entire rooms devoted to plastic-bag-preserved zines and 7”s. A living-room photo of Abraham and his oldest son Holden flanking Iggy Pop serves as a bless-this-house totem. 

    “I’ve become so obsessed with the past because Josh and Mike are just so beyond their past,” Abraham says as he retrieves his only copy of Zucker and Haliechuk’s self-published 2001 political fanzine Quick; amid artist interviews are dense essays on anarcho-primitivism and the benefits of foraging for food and living off the grid.

    “A lot of the songs from the first recordings Mike and Josh did had lyrics taken from this zine,” Abraham explains. “I was asked to join later on, and the band became almost two factions: Josh was really political—he was super-involved in [anti-poverty organization] OCAP—whereas I was at the height of being a reactionary, over-privileged hetero male coming out of the ‘90s.”

    Upon Abraham’s arrival, Fucked Up’s fluid line-up solidified, with Haliechuk and Zucker’s twin-guitar roar anchored by Jonah Falco on drums and Sandy Miranda on bass. But despite their intensely activist hardcore origins, the band’s formative years were defined less by heart-on-sleeve proselytizing than deliberate contrarianism.

    The feral music they released on 7”s between 2002-2004 adhered to a post-Stooges/Germs destructo-punk tradition, but the presentation of those singles more closely resembled that of a Smiths record, with cryptic sleeves displaying ominous historical photographs along with the band’s sigil-inspired logo embossed in the center of each platter. Band members adopted bizarro, inflammatory aliases. (Zucker, who is Jewish, became known as Concentration Camp.) Any interactions with bands outside their immediate circle were often contentious—after seeing a member of popular local alt-rockers Billy Talent get escorted ahead of fans into a packed Fucked Up show in 2006, Haliechuk unleashed a heap of trash talk that culminated in the band recording a diss track.

    “There was an element to their past that was built on this mythologizing and provocation,” says Greg Benedetto, a longtime fan-turned-friend of the band who’s now Toronto’s most active hardcore promoter. “Maybe they got to the point where they were jaded about being punks.”

    “The cynicism of punk music is usually self-directed, and you allow the world to see you as being prickly,” Falco explains during an interview at a West End diner. “But that’s the best thing that punk has delivered: cynicism, which then turns into criticality. Right away, when Fucked Up became established in any way and had a bit of extra money, we decided to take advantage of the fact that we were in a position to do something other than just be a band.”

    That turning point came in the fall of 2006 with the release of the double-LP Hidden World, which not only betrayed Fucked Up’s desire to transcend hardcore’s stylistic trappings, but those of the standard rock show as well. That album’s local release party took the form of a three-night, multi-venue, Halloween-weekend festival showcasing the band’s favourite punk, garage, and avant-rock acts from home and afar, a means of bridging their local peer group with the friends they had made on tour. The format proved so successful, Fucked Up repeated it for the next three years—including a memorable 2010 set of ‘90s-grunge covers with the band clad in flannels, Cobain wigs, and Vedder shorts.

    At the same time, their community-engagement efforts went beyond simply filling their bills with under-the-radar bands who benefited from the exposure. Increasingly, Fucked Up aligned themselves with charitable causes—in particular, ones that don’t usually benefit from celebrity endorsements or feel-good promotional campaigns.

    In June 2007, they staged a front-to-back performance of Hidden World at Toronto’s Tranzac Club that doubled as a fundraiser for the Sex Professionals of Canada. A holiday-themed single issued that December, “David Christmas” (and its accompanying release show), benefited the George Herman House women’s shelter. And with their 2009 Polaris Prize coup for The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up dedicated their $20,000 prize to engineering a star-studded 7” cover of ‘80s charity classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas” that assisted groups raising awareness of Canada’s oft-suppressed national shame—the disturbingly high number of disappearances and murders of aboriginal women, many of which go unreported and uninvestigated.

    Fucked Up: "David Christmas" (via SoundCloud)

    “Fucked Up is never going to be so big to have its own plane, but it’s so easy to do something when you have any sort of profile,” says Falco. “These are very worthy and thoughtful causes; it’s not just like throwing your money at a massive charitable organization. When I went to hand-deliver the money to the George Herman House, they were in tears, they were so happy.”

    “But doing any sort of charity is such a double-edged sword,” Abraham says, “because attaching your name to something can make people hate an issue—Bono should think about that every time he goes on about something.” The trick, the band has learned, is to assert your political will and rally a community without your audience necessarily realizing it.

    To cap a whirlwind 2011 that saw their opus David Comes to Life greeted with widespread acclaim, Fucked Up organized a special December homecoming concert at Toronto’s Great Hall—a two-night co-headlining stint with Canadian power-pop patriarchs Sloan to benefit a local harm-reduction program for drug addicts as well as the Barriere Lake Legal Defence Fund for Algonquin natives opposing government encroachment on their land. After exploring the Great Hall’s four-story expanse, Haliechuk devised the Long Winter concept with Zucker,  who envisioned the event as “a concert that doesn’t feel like a concert.”

    The first series in 2012 played out like a more elaborate version of the old Halloween-weekend festivals, complementing Fucked Up’s headlining appearances with a diverse array of hand-picked opening acts and interactive art installations. But then, thanks in part to an influx of like-minded devotees, the event evolved. 

    “Fucked Up had this intern program a couple of years ago, as sort of a joke,” Haliechuk explains, “but when 15 kids showed up, it became not a joke really fast. So we put all of these kids on this new project, and a couple of them stuck around. One of them, Mick [Brambilla], became one of the main Long Winter curators, and now we have 40 people doing stuff.”

    For this reason, Zucker notes, Long Winter was “de-branded” as a Fucked Up event in its second year, “to respect the people who weren’t members of Fucked Up putting on the show as well as the members of Fucked Up who aren’t part of Long Winter.” (While Abraham remains the most visible, media-savvy member of Fucked Up—hosting everything from Vice documentaries and mayoral debates to podcasts and food shows—he’s not involved in Long Winter, as its increasingly wide-ranging mandate does not align with his admittedly “narrowcast” tastes.)

    With their band no longer serving as the event’s anchor attraction, Zucker, Haliechuk, and their six fellow curators were free to blow their vision wide open. For the past two years, Long Winter has hosted offshoot events in Toronto’s prestigious Art Gallery of Ontario, while the February 2015 edition at The Great Hall shut down a section of Dovercourt Road for an outdoor street market, with programming extending to two neighboring venues. (The festival will return once again this November.)

    The expansion has been aided by various municipal and provincial government grants, but Long Winter remains a shoestring operation. With no official headquarters, the festival braintrust often holds planning meetings over cheap Chinatown dim sum; any profits go toward topping up performers and volunteers.

    “We want to keep [the admission] pay-what-you-can,” says Zucker. “There’s something intangible that happens when you remove that door price—it just changes the vibe of an event. And I like that you get so much for so little.”

    “Running a building full of creative content where the admission is essentially free—it doesn’t add up on paper,” says Falco, who serves as Long Winter’s onsite production manager. “But it works brilliantly. Because the whole design of Fucked Up is from the wrong angle: The band’s music is this way [holds left arm vertical] and Damian’s vocals are like this [holds right arm perpendicular]. So once you’ve created that tension, you have to take inspiration from a place that doesn’t really make sense and smash it into the existing structure.”

    But Long Winter’s welcoming ethos is more than just a way for its organizers to reassert old-school hardcore economics in an inflationary concert market. It’s also helped redress an uncomfortable truth about punk and indie-rock shows: that most of the audience is white.

    Toronto prides itself on being the most multicultural city in the world—with some 140 languages spoken among its three million citizens. But, in light of a 2014 mayoral election that revealed a red-state/blue-state-like socio-economic divide, that can mean it just has more cultures to marginalize.

    According to Haliechuk and Zucker, Long Winter’s eclectic programming boasts no explicit social-unification agenda, and aside from a fundraiser in 2013 for aboriginal-rights movement Idle No More, its events have not been affiliated with any charities. Rather than benefit specific organizations, they opted for a pay-what-you-can policy that benefits all comers.

    “It’s looking bad for Toronto in the way that the city is so stratified geographically and economically,” says Zucker. “But it’s way beyond us to figure out how arts and culture can contribute to fighting that.”

    But even if it’s seemingly apolitical in intent, Long Winter has proven quite radical in execution—in that, unlike most indie-centric music events, the mixed crowds offer fleeting glimpses of the city’s post-racial ideal in action, and genuinely reflect the cultural mosaic Toronto likes to trumpet in its tourism brochures. Black hip-hop heads mosh with white skater kids; gay couples dance and make-out alongside straights; grey-haired scene veterans form the circle-pit barrier around teens young enough to be their drunken college-era mistakes.

    Everyone in the band agrees that a good deal of credit for Long Winter’s musical and social diversity goes to Ben Cook, a fellow Who’s Emma? alum who joined Fucked Up in 2008 as its third guitarist. He’s not an official member of the Long Winter team, but he’s become an exceedingly resourceful talent scout with the recent establishment of his own record label, Bad Actors (a nod to his past as a child thespian). Cook scours SoundCloud to uncover suburban MCs and fledgling R&B acts operating outside the local indie-industrial complex and plugs them into the Long Winter infrastructure.

    “On the Internet, it’s cool for young people to be low-key these days,” says Cook over breakfast at his favorite East Side greasy spoon. “So I have to do a lot of digging [to find these acts] and then establish that I’m not some shady-ass Canadian industry dinosaur-type person who’s going to sign them to some stone-age deal. 

    “I’ve been on bands signed to Warner Brothers, Matador, and Basement Records, so I feel like I have some experience to share,” adds Cook, who’s also amassed song-doctoring credits for the likes of Sum 41. “It’s such a shit show out there for artists now; I just want to help people make a living doing what they do. Everyone I’m surrounded by is so talented, but they hate their lives because they’re working and can barely pay rent. The community aspect of coming up in hardcore has had a lasting impression on all of us—promoters and labels were giving us shows when we were 15, so why wouldn’t I do the same thing?”

    But for the members of Fucked Up, the notion of mentorship goes beyond giving young artists prime performance slots; they school aspiring acts on every aspect of their careers, from songwriting to production to filling out visa applications to deciphering contracts. Cook has been teaching space-hop duo Bizzarh how to build their own tracks on Logic and directing videos for 17-year-old rapper Clairmont the Second. Falco has recorded over 50 albums for various young hardcore bands, often for free. And Haliechuk’s own side label, One Big Silence, played a crucial incubatory role in bringing local phenoms like Diamond Rings, Absolutely Free, and Austra to wider audiences.

    “When Mike ‘discovered’ me, I was a super-awkward young lesbian who had just gotten her braces off, and I hadn’t even really had a proper man-friend before,” says Austra’s Katie Stelmanis, who was still struggling to establish herself as a solo artist when she first met Haliechuk in 2008. “We were a very unlikely pair, but we ended up connecting pretty intensely. Mike’s an anti-capitalist feminist, and I’ve always trusted him to help me find that balance between making money as an artist while still maintaining integrity. It’s the same thing with Long Winter: He’s more concerned with creating a story than making a profit. He wants to create scenes that people will remember years later, and helping local bands get off the ground is a way to immortalize those legacies. It all goes back to what he wants for his own band: creating a narrative. And the culture that surrounds it is just as important to him as the music itself.”

    Fourteen years, six albums, and countless transatlantic tours into their existence, Fucked Up function exactly as they have from day one—as a democratic, self-managed entity, with the offstage grunt work distributed equally among all members. But there’s inevitably someone who must tend to the thankless task of making sure the bills get paid. And in Fucked Up, it’s Sandy Miranda.

    Miranda is something of the odd person out in this story—but not because she’s the only woman in the band. Despite helping out with the first Long Winter, she’s no longer involved with the festival. (“I feel there isn’t really room for me,” she says.) She doesn’t run her own record label on the side. And while Fucked Up boasts several satellite acts—Falco’s hardcore band Career Suicide; Haliechuk and Falco’s “northern Irish punk meets Cheap Trick” power-pop combo Smartboys; Cook’s Yacht Club and Young Guv guises—Miranda’s solo-recording forays have thus far remained a private pursuit.

    “It’s a tough industry to be female in,” she says at her Little Italy apartment. “I feel supported by my band mates, but women in music are judged more for how they look than how they play. I’ve been working on some demos with a friend of mine, but I don’t know if I can deal with that kind of judgment.”

    There’s another good reason why Miranda doesn’t seem as outwardly busy as the rest of the band: The bulk of her Fucked Up workload—primarily bookkeeping and tour planning—kicks in when they are off the road, while everyone else indulges their extracurricular activities.

    “In the early years, I was the only one with an office job and steady income so, for a few tours, I would buy the plane tickets and get paid at the end, interest-free,” she says. “It’s just me thinking, ‘I’m a first-generation Canadian from an immigrant family, and I’ve had to live on so little.’ I’m constantly looking at costs. I’m the nag. I’m the band mom.” (Miranda is thinking about launching a blog to dispense financial advice to rookie bands.)

    Of course, the easiest thing for Fucked Up to do would be to hire a manager, a privilege that many bands with less stature enjoy. It’s a conversation that has been coming up with greater frequency. As Miranda notes, Fucked Up’s tour dates for 2014’s aging-punk address Glass Boys saw them playing to similar-sized rooms as on their previous album, and a well-connected manager could help them make that next-level jump. 

    “But is it worth paying 10% gross for that?” Miranda asks rhetorically. “We’re already making our dollar stretch between six plane tickets, three hotel rooms, and then you’re dividing money six ways. I don’t want to give up that money, especially when we know what we’re doing. People are like, ‘A manager can make you more money.’ How? By playing sponsored events? Those aren’t cool. They don’t make good stories. They aren’t legacy-making.”

    That word “legacy” arises frequently in discussions with the members of Fucked Up and their associates, suggesting that their unpredictable evolution has been part of some premeditated master plan to infiltrate popular culture and reshape it in their image. But legacies are rarely built in real time; they accrue years after a phenomenon has passed, and are often contingent on cultural shifts beyond any artist’s control. And they’re all the more difficult to sustain in hardcore, arguably the most instant and ephemeral of all musical forms. In Fucked Up’s case, the concept of legacy isn’t just about creating a recorded body of work for future generations to discover—it’s also about nurturing scenes and emergent artists.

    As Falco notes, “The greatest gift of hardcore is mobilizing young people to do something and to be taken seriously. Nowhere else can you walk into a room of people and scream and throw a temper tantrum and kick air… and then have somebody applaud you and say, ‘What you just did changed my life.’” 

    The music of Fucked Up may be too conceptual and introspective at this point to incite that sort of instantaneous reaction in a disaffected kid today. But they’ve become ever more adept at engineering those sorts of shocks in different contexts, for more unsuspecting audiences.

    At Long Winter’s incursion into the Art Gallery of Ontario last December, the crowd’s leisurely chit-chat was rudely interrupted by raucous Toronto no-wave quartet New Fries. With lead shrieker Anni Spadafora’s yelp filling up the gallery’s main atrium, Haliechuk looked on from the mixing desk, beaming. Breaking from his usual pensive demeanor, he declared, in proper teen-punk parlance, “Sick. Sosick.”

    “We just brought our shit into the biggest art gallery in Canada,” he reflects later on. “And the amazing thing about it is they’re just like, ‘Have fun!’” 

    The Art Gallery of Ontario is located eight blocks away from the former location of Who’s Emma?, the hardcore haven where Haliechuk booked his first show and where the friendships that led to Fucked Up first took root. As New Fries’ glass-shattering sounds ricocheted off the walls that night, the distance between the two spaces had never felt shorter.


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    Articles: Classics Never Die: What It Means for DJs to Grow Old

    Two years ago, I witnessed legendary dance producer Giorgio Moroder play a comeback DJ set at a festival in Los Angeles. Onstage, the septuagenarian had a younger, more tech savvy assistant next to him, helping control the session like a driving instructor on a separate set of pedals. Right out the gate, the whole thing was a technical mess—a poorly mixed, wall-to-wall mashup of past glories. It was borderline embarrassing. To be fair, Moroder was never really a DJ to begin with, and the appearance was clearly a victory lap following his spoken word guest turn on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Even so, it reinforced every ugly stereotype imaginable about what can happen when artists age out of a culture obsessed with youth.

    But it doesn’t have to be that way. At that same festival, I saw Masters at Work—aka New York stalwarts Little Louie Vega and Kenny Dope Gonzalez, who’ve been active since the early ‘90s—serve the fresh-faced crowd with an effortless set of darker, harder house and garage. They weren’t trying to recover or keep up. There was no flop sweat, no geezer moments. Instead, they seamlessly shuffled through 30 years of dance music history in a way that made it look easy.

    In fact, many club DJs that stick to music long enough actually tend to get better once they’ve entered the thick of middle-age—a generalization that does not hold up for artists working in the more overtly performative, and perhaps less forgiving, realms of rock, pop, or hip-hop. “Trust no DJ under 45” is an adage coined by an older, wiser DJ friend of mine and, as the years go by, its intrinsic truth has become more and more apparent.

    Daniele Baldelli

    One generational divide separating young DJs from their more experienced counterparts involves set lengths: The older the DJ, the more likely they once had to prove themselves with three-hour-plus gigs. For these veterans, a one-hour set is merely a job; the real joy comes from going long.

    Daniele Baldelli, 62, is one of the DJs who helped to make the Adriatic and Balearic coasts the stuff of discotheque legend in the '70s and '80s. He came up playing marathon sets on an almost-daily basis, and his eclectic style of programming was partly a result of having so much time to fill.

    Fresh off a solid LP released earlier this year, Baldelli tells me that even though those extended sets have taken their toll—his hearing isn't what it used to be—he still gets the job done. He's married, has a son, and plays about 130 dates per year. He owns about 65,000 vinyl records, though he's switched to playing CDs so he can incorporate his own unreleased tracks and re-edits into his sets. Baldelli says he managed to avoid the worst nightlife indulgences along the way, and at this point he doesn't really party at all, save for the occasional Italian DOC wine.

    Daniele Baldelli: "Cosmic Particles" (via SoundCloud)

    Drugs and alcohol are unshockingly the number one occupational hazard for DJs, and there is a direct relationship between excessive intake and burnout. But 46-year-old Berlin DJ Daniel Wang knows the other extreme: He has never drank or done drugs, but he says he understands why geniuses like Miles Davis and Nile Rodgers have. “It takes a sensitive soul to dedicate their whole life to the abstract emotions and sensations of making and playing music,” he muses. “Who says that the only correct model of living is abstinence, austerity, and therefore longevity?” 

    DJ Harvey, an influential 51-year-old underground West Coast artist who has been called the Keith Richards of DJs, has gone from swigging a bottle of Jack over the course of one of his eight-hour sets to keeping it clean as a whistle. “Cirrhosis of the liver isn’t a pretty way to go out,” he has said. “It’s really not big or clever to be projectile bleeding from every orifice.”

    Like Harvey, José Padilla, the 59-year-old Spanish DJ, experienced the repercussions of caning it a bit too hard for a bit too long and stopped before it killed his career. Padilla has become synonymous with the old, pre-EDM Ibiza: eclectic, breezy, balearic sundown sets at Café Del Mar. He recently released a very credible LP that found him collaborating with three younger producers. "To keep DJing in this business, you need to keep producing,” he says. “Otherwise you are dead."

    Jose Padilla: "Day One" (via SoundCloud)  

    Padilla explains that too much partying led to some serious disappointments. “I regret not having a family,” he says. “I was very upset in my 40s—looking for a wife and a couple of kids; I always ended up with the wrong girl, the crazy one. You aren't aware when on drugs. I missed a few gigs a long time ago because of the drugs, too, which damaged my credibility. I was not there for the people who were waiting for me. Time goes so fast with drugs that you don't realize—it feels like I came to Ibiza yesterday, but I've been here for 40 years.” He laughs; Padilla is now mostly clean.

    José Padilla

    Bobby Viteritti, a 62-year-old disco vet, had an even worse problem with drugs, so much so that it ended his career. Often cited as one of the first beat matchers, Viteritti became famous for his residency at Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco. His DJ days came to an abrupt halt in 1986 after running into problems with the law stemming from drugs, but he's now in the midst of a comeback and has launched a party, Classics Never Die, in New York.

    Bobby Viteritti: Live at the Copa Pt. 1 (1977) (via SoundCloud)

    “Drugs and alcohol always come into the picture at some point, and they're exciting and creative at first,” Viteritti tells me. “But if you don't keep a running track of your intake, you might go to jail like me. Cocaine made me do a lot of strange things and made it hard to keep track of what was going on. I got busted too many times. I was the #1 DJ two years in a row according to Billboard, and I went down so fast because of cocaine.”

    Now clean, his comeback has been rocky and slow, but promising; he still plays seven-hour sets and is grateful for the second chance. “I can't play like I did when I was 28 because I had vinyl then and now I've got Serato and Traktor, and MP3s are a pain in the ass to work with,” he says. “You don't have the same control like you did over records. In the old days, we used to have rotary knobs. Now everything's a slider.”

    Not only have the knobs evolved out, but the ability for a resident DJ to craft a full living without touring is also a thing of the past. Modern working DJs, like traditional bands and artists, have to travel as much as humanly possible. And they also often play late into the evening, anywhere from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on a given night, a schedule that can quickly turn people into zombies.

    “I did four shows last week and I didn't really get to sleep a couple of the nights—it’s definitely a little harder on me now compared to when I was 20,” says 40-year-old DJ Colette, a house DJ from Chicago who has been spinning records since she was 16. “I can still do it, it's just a little more painful.”

    Brendan Gillen: Live at Honey Soundsystem (via SoundCloud)

    Producer, DJ, and second wave Detroit techno lifer Brendan Gillen, 44, has the unique misfortune of being severely allergic to all the dust particles that float up while digging for vinyl. "That dust, dirt, and mold makes my immune system go crazy, so I can't play vinyl anymore," he says. But he still adds to his massive collection (while wearing protective gear).

    Greg Wilson. Photo by Ian Tilton.

    Nowadays, most younger DJs have to produce to get booked, whereas once upon a time, everything operated on more of local mentor system. “In the mid '70s, you came in through the apprenticeship of mobile discos, going out and doing weddings,” explains 55-five-year-old UK veteran Greg Wilson. “And then, if you got good enough, you might get into a club.”

    Wilson is something of a Rip Van Winkle of the nightclub world, as he retired for 20 years before coming back to DJing in the early ‘00s. "In more recent history, a lot of people got into DJing through going to clubs and getting off their faces and thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” he says. “Now party people are gravitating to DJing, rather than music people gravitating to parties. The access routes are different." Not only are entryways into dance music simpler these days, the technology allows younger DJs to create seamless mixes with ease, leaving us with smoother but less dynamic selections.

    Wilson goes on to pinpoint the key difference between novices and masters: “Whilst the DJs now are more technically gifted, DJs back then had better programming skills. They were more adept at getting the right records at the right moment. They worked more towards the audience, whereas now DJs expect the audience to come to them.”

    Greg Wilson: Glastonbury 2015 Mix (via SoundCloud)

    The idea that DJs are getting booked for their productions regardless of their DJ skills isn’t new. DJ Colette remembers coming into contact with these sorts of inexperienced performers as far back as the ‘90s. “A lot of them would come through Chicago and I'd be like, ‘Wow, you guys need to learn how to mix,’” she says. “If you're not going to learn the art of DJing, you should stick to what you're best at.” Unfortunately, in our current produce-or-perish landscape, DJ skills often take a backseat to production and marketing acumen, especially for the new jacks trying to break through.

    DJ Colette. Photo by Tom Casey.

    On the other hand, after DJing for years, Daniel Wang is now looking to focus more on composing his own music because he says it’s more intellectually stimulating. "If you're a pianist, as you age, you could plunge deeply into the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach, or convince yourself that you are reaching abstract frontiers with recitals of Ligeti or Schoenberg, or retreat into minimalism, electronics, or jazz standards,” he argues, though the bottom line keeps him tied to the decks. “The financial rewards for DJing are huge compared to the little mental effort which you have to invest in it,” he admits, “and that is creepy as hell."

    Daniel Wang: AYLI Live Mix (via SoundCloud)

    Thirtysomethings Francis Englehardt and Paul Nickerson of Slow to Speak, a Catskills-based DJ duo who also own a painstakingly curated record store called Dope Jams, have made their name on not letting DJs and producers slide on the laurels of past achievements. And for every elder statesman aging gracefully—52-year-old techno originator Derrick May, for instance—they cite examples of the opposite.

    François K got lost when he got really caught up in dubstep and commercial techno,” Englehardt and Paul Nickerson write in an email, referencing the 61-year-old house mainstay. “Unfortunately a lot of the music he plays just doesn't have the depth or emotion he says it does—it's all very superficial and you can feel that when he plays now.

    "It happens because calculation takes the place of inspiration,” they continue. “When you first start out, it’s all fresh and that is your driving force, but as time goes on see you see that everything is just someone rehashing something that was done better 15 years earlier. It can make you can become bitter quickly. So people like François K make a calculated decision to try to stay relevant, and that is a big part of why music is so terrible right now. Instead of speaking out against the mediocrity of everything, these ‘legends’ assimilate themselves to the current situation and lie to themselves that these new half finished, do-nothing tracks are what people like these days. Whereas 20 years ago, that same person would have said this shit is wack and pushed themselves to go further.”

    “A lot of younger people won't realize that the generations before them had way the fuck more talent than we're developing now.”
    Brendan Gillen

    While it might come off as grandpa-ish, science backs up the idea that EDM and pop music have become pretty homogenous, namely because today’s technological tools make duplication so easy. José Padilla calls this music “nonsense that intoxicates people's brains,” and none of the older DJs I spoke with for this piece are particularly keen on the EDM style: Half of them seem indifferent, and the others seem offended by its existence. In general, though, these DJs view EDM as something wholly different from what they do.

    Brendan Gillen claims that "a lot of younger people won't realize that the generations before them actually had way the fuck more talent than we're developing now,” and he attributes the disparity to dwindling music-education budgets. “We are not giving musicians what they need to advance."

    But, fortunately, we still have several hundred, if not thousands, of knowledgeable DJs regularly offering informal masterclasses in clubs around the world. "Every DJ that you think is incredible has been doing it for at least 15 years,” says Gillen. “And when you see someone who's been at it for 25 or 35 years, they can ambidextrously go through in a million different eras and rock you with it. Someone like Derrick Carter, who's influenced by great DJs like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles and Jackmaster Funk, does it like only he can. He makes history fresh again."

    Classic DJs are historical storytellers, and they are the ones who will quietly influence a post-EDM world, when the shock of the new finally consumes itself. "I always wanted to be an inspirational schoolteacher at some inner city school,” Daniel Wang says. “But as the old Chic song goes, ‘I'll never have a chance, ‘cause all I do is dance.’”

    With all due respect, Wang is wrong. Great club DJs are some of the best music teachers we have right now. They are breathing encyclopedias of cultural knowledge, social engineers who trade in revelation. These DJs live to reanimate pieces of the past that otherwise might be forgotten.


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    Pitchfork Essentials: Early '80s Disco

    On the night of July 12, 1979, wedged between a double-header between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park, local radio station WLUP staged a stunt called Disco Demolition Night. After a crate of disco records on the field were ceremoniously blown to bits, the event then turned into a proper demolition, with drunk fans starting a riot, tearing up the sod and causing the White Sox to forfeit the game. But just as those records were smoldering in Chicago, the recently opened Paradise Garage was entering its prime in New York City; for the legions of faithful dancers who packed the one-time parking garage each and every weekend to lose themselves in Larry Levan’s now-legendary DJ sets, disco was as big as ever.

    As 1979 turned into the ‘80s, disco as excessive fashion zeitgeist—with its platform pumps, silver spoons, and polyester suits—was extinct. But while no one wanted to do “disco” anymore, everyone wanted to be heard on the dancefloor. Rock bands dabbled in grooves (the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”), country singers added some funk (Dolly Parton’s “Potential New Boyfriend”), punks smoothed things out (the Clash’s “The Magnificent Dance”), R&B bands added synthesizers and drum machines, and new wave acts aimed at the top of the pop and club charts.

    In the underground, the genre was only becoming leaner, stronger, heavier, catchier, and stranger in the early ‘80s. Dance music producers like François Kevorkian, Arthur Baker, Walter Gibbons, Tee Scott, Shep Pettibone, Jellybean Benitez, and more took cues from the mesmerizing sounds of Jamaican dub reggae. In the same way that Lee “Scratch” Perry could find cavernous new spaces in between drum hits, these producers applied dub aesthetics to the clubs with beats shot through with reverb, delay, and echo en route to ecstatic moments on the dancefloor. These harder electronic tones anticipated the sounds of acid, techno, and house music—all of it the offspring of the “disgraced” sound of disco. 

    Advertisement

    Inner Life

    “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (The Garage Version)”

    1981

    Listen on Apple Music

    Inner Life producers Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael gained renown in the disco era with hazy and playful productions like “Dance and Shake Your Tambourine” and “Love Bug”, but this take on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s eternal 1967 hit reconfigures the song into a mountain itself—massive in every sense of the word.

    Sinnamon

    “I Need You Now”

    1983

    Listen on Apple Music

    The trio of Barbara Fowler, Marsha Carter, and Melissa Bell—backed by the array of synths and drum machines of producer Darryl Payne—updated the ‘60s girl group sound for the ‘80s. This single didn’t prove to be a hit, but its “The Fierce Reprise” B-side soon became a staple in UK acid house sets, and a chunk of the original vocal was also resurrected and sampled on the Hot Chip song “Need You Now” earlier this year.

    Chemise

    “She Can’t Love You”

    1982

    Listen on Apple Music

    From just spinning this roller boogie classic, one wouldn’t guess it is the handiwork of a jazz guitarist, Ronald Muldrow, and his singer/wife, Ricki Byars Muldrow (parents of 21st-century funk auteur Georgia Anne). The one-off single is as sugary as cotton candy, as catchy as a double-dutch chant, and as sassy as a playground boast. Maybe it was just a dalliance away from the Muldrows’ jazz and gospel roots, but it remains a playful winner.

    The Clash

    “The Magnificent Dance”

    1981

    Listen on Apple Music

    Part of the first wave of UK punks to break big in the America, the Clash were the snotty upstarts who soon found themselves opening for the Who. But if they were bored with the USA in 1977, four years on, they were also bored with both punk and rock. Instead, they became infatuated with NYC street culture, from early hip-hop to post-disco. This dubbed-out disco remix of the lead track off of Sandinista! was a club hit and the record Larry Levan would use to fine tune the sound system at the Paradise Garage.

    Strafe

    “Set It Off”

    1984

    Listen on Apple Music

    Back in 1984, Steve Standard watched his good friend Ben “Cozmo D” Cenac score a monster hit with “Jam on It” and asked to borrow Cenac’s TR-808 to make his own jam. “Set It Off” caught the ear of legendary disco producer Walter Gibbons, who mixed everyone from Salsoul Orchestra to Arthur Russell, and knew he had something special. Not quite boogie, or breakbeat, or electro, this obscure underground track became an in-between classic. 

    Cybotron

    “Clear”

    1983

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    Juan Atkins’ place in electronic music history is assured as one of the Belleville Three, the group of Detroit suburbanites (including Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson) who created techno in the ‘80s. But a few years before that template was fully established, Atkins lent his keyboards to the duo Cybotron. Taking cues from Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, Atkins and Vietnam vet Rick Davis created this dystopian electro cut.

    Shirley Lites

    “Heat You Up (Melt You Down)”

    1983

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    Shirley Lites made just two singles, including this club track, which exists somewhere between disco, boogie, and hi-NRG—full of giddy synth lines, nervous tom-tom taps, and strange bass lines that slush in the background. The “Melt Down Mix”—as rendered by the duo of Nick Martinelli and David Todd—breaks down the elements further, anticipating the sounds of techno and house in the process.

    David Joseph

    “You Can’t Hide (Your Love from Me)”

    1983

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    UK soul singer David Joseph was a member of British hustle group Hi-Tension, but in 1983 he stepped out on his own for his lone solo album. With his sweet falsetto, Joseph’s early singles were pleasant enough lite-funk, but the mild swing of “You Can’t Hide” didn’t land on the charts until Larry Levan worked his remix magic on it. The background synth squiggle of the original is amplified until it quivers like a javelin in a bulls-eye.

    D Train

    “You’re the One for Me”

    1981

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    Two former Brooklyn high school friends formed electric soul duo D Train, taking their moniker from vocalist James Williams’ old football nickname and featuring the keys and programming of Hubert Eaves III (who had previously played with Mtume). D Train rode to instantaneous success with their first single, an uptempo post-disco track that became a smash. In Williams’ voice one can hear the grit of old soul and gospel, as well as Teddy Pendergrass, but the electro backdrop was shiny and new. 

    Hugh Masekela

    “Don’t Go Lose It Baby (Dub Mix)”

    1984

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    A flugelhorn and cornet player from South Africa, Hugh Masekela was more likely to crop up in jazz settings, or else make guest appearances on albums from Paul Simon and the Byrds. But after a career in Afrobeat, highlife, and jazz-funk, he cut a twitchy, synth-heavy rap single in “Don’t Go Lose It Baby”. The track was a cool fusion-y curio, but the dub was something else entirely. Relentless and pounding, this proto-techno track is full of piano, backwards chants, and hi-hats twisted until they sound like a clash between Optimus Prime and Megatron.

    Loose Joints

    “Tell You (Today)”

    1983

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    In the 21st century, Arthur Russell is seen as a musical polyglot who was able to do quirky electro-pop, modern classical, arty dub, country-folk, and mumbled indie rock. But in the early ‘80s, he was known in the underground as the left-field disco auteur who did undeniably catchy singles filled with atypical club sounds: cellos, whistles, trombones, cartoonish vocals. While his indie fan base might best know him for his contemplative, low-key songs, this disco track is ebullient, bouncy, and joyous.


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