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    Rising: Ash Koosha: Conducting Destruction

    Ash Koosha: "Harbour" (via SoundCloud)

    As first gigs go, it could have gone worse. Burgeoning rock group Font had never played in public before, but lead guitarist Ashkan Kooshanejad and his bandmates still managed to draw a crowd of 600 to a private suburban villa. Then again, it could have gone a lot better, too: As their set ended, the band heard audience members screaming—not in approval—and caught sight of police officers coming over the villa's walls on ropes, ninja-style. A helicopter hovered overhead.

    It sounds like something out of an ‘80s action movie, but no; this was Iran in 2007, and concerts featuring rock music and a mixed audience were strictly forbidden. More than 200 people were arrested that night, and Kooshanejad and the rest of his band were sentenced to three weeks in jail. "Usually when you get arrested in Iran you go to jail for one night and your parents come to take you out and it's fine," he says. “But this was crazy.”

    Not long after that first fateful concert, though, Kooshanejad and his friend Negar Shaghaghi were already at work on a new project, the electro-pop-leaning Take It Easy Hospital. In what seems now like an equally fateful series of events, Manchester's In the City Festival invited the pair to play, and around the same time, the Kurdish Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi invited Kooshanejad and Shaghaghi to collaborate with him on a film about Iran's underground music scene, loosely based on their own experiences. 

    The film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, ended up winning the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes. But not long after that, as a wave of protests following Iran’s 2009 elections swept the country, the authorities once again began cracking down on musicians and young people at home. Take It Easy Hospital’s drummer was arrested and beaten, and an Iranian-American co-writer of the film, Roxana Saberi, was charged with espionage and sentenced to an eight-year prison term (that was later overturned). Kooshanejad and Shaghaghi decided to remain in the UK, where they eventually received asylum.

    Given all this turmoil, one might expect Kooshanejad, like so many exiles before him, to be making protest music. Instead, he's delving excitedly into technologies that test the limits of representation itself. He began experimenting with electronic music when he was still studying classical composition at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, dropping samples into Cool Edit Pro, a rudimentary piece of sound-editing software; five years ago, he began working with Logic and resumed his experiments. He was drawn to samples for their real-world qualities, he says, because they seemed to capture something essential about life and the world. And that, in turn, opened up a curious acoustic rabbit-hole. 

    "I was reading a lot about quantum physics and nanotechnology—particles and matter, basically," he says. "And I started to treat sounds as physical objects." He began to imagine his sound-objects under electron microscopes, and the jagged landscapes they might yield. "It opens up a whole other geometry that we don't see normally," he says. Those shapes became the models for his new compositions.

    Today, the 30-year-old producer lives in London, where he records mind-bending electronic music as Ash Koosha. From listening to his debut album, GUUD, recently released on Olde English Spelling Bee, you wouldn't guess that he had a past as a rebel rocker—much less as a student of Persian classical music. The opening song's lurching beats and beatific vocals suggest the influence of Flying Lotus, but the album quickly turns idiosyncratic, full of granulated tones and dissolving rhythms. Its closest point of comparison might be Gobby or Arca, electronic musicians with a similarly deconstructive—or maybe just plain destructive—approach to genre and the fabric of sound. It's heady music, and on tracks like the stumbling "Bo Bo Bones", it can be tough to detect any kind of solid form at all beneath the chaos.

    Interestingly, Kooshanejad mostly listened to classical music while recording GUUD—Vivaldi, Wagner, and Chopin. Vivaldi's Winter, in particular, influenced his thinking. "It was like I was composing classical music, but there were no violins, no piano, no brass—just weird, unknown sounds that I can't put a name to. But it's still the classical structure."

    As a composer, Kooshanejad thinks on a grand scale. One of his next projects is to transform the first 12 minutes of GUUD into a virtual-reality experience for the Oculus Rift headset. "I had this idea to turn electronic music albums into more accessible forms, with visuals," he says. "Imagine if you buy an album, put the Oculus Rift on, and go inside the album—and the sounds move around you. I've tried it out a few times, and believe me, it's amazing."

    Photo by Pooya Koosha

    Pitchfork: Do you foresee going back to live in Tehran at any point?

    Ashkan Kooshanejad: I miss that country, but I wouldn't want to stay in any place for longer than 10 years, honestly. It's good to travel and see what's happening in the world. As an artist, environment has a lot of impact on choices, and these choices can change by changing your location.

    Pitchfork: Do you know where you'd go after London?

    AK: Probably New York because I've never been to America.

    Pitchfork: When you began making electronic music did you have any inspirations for what you wanted to do?

    AK: I didn’t have any idea about electronic musicians. [laughs] I knew something about Aphex Twin, but I didn’t know what the name was. I was just listening to random CDs that people gave me. And I heard some Mogwai at some point, Portishead, Massive Attack. But I found out about the names about five years after that.

    Pitchfork: When you studied at Tehran's conservatory, did you have access to electronic or electro-acoustic music?

    AK: Not really. We didn’t learn much about computer music. But we had a lot of things going on with the physical side of sound. So that's when I thought, “Maybe I should work with frequency more, rather than just playing the cello or piano.” I wanted to explore sound, rather than composition and form.

    Pitchfork: You've said that you treat samples as though they are physical objects. What does that mean?

    AK: I stretch them like objects to see what’s happening, which opens up a whole other world of sound. So then I thought to myself, “OK, I have these objects, I have to make something out of them.” So I tried to use my classical compositional knowledge to give them some sort of musical meaning.

    Pitchfork: So you're zooming in on the waveform, and then structuring the composition according to its contours?

    AK: Exactly. I use a lot of visual software that gives you the ability to see sound when you zoom in. It's like I have these abstract band members in a Logic project, and they come together as a harmony. I’m only the conductor. I’m just telling them where to stand.

    Pitchfork: Are you using any elements of Persian classical music?

    AK: In some parts I used a lot of the groove from the south of Iran, and "Harbour" is my attempt to make southern Iranian music. The name translates to Bandar, which is what they call the "harbor music" of southern Iran. 

    Pitchfork: I understand that you recently wrote and directed a film.

    AK: Yeah, I did. It was my first attempt. I wrote the story with Negar, and my brother is the cinematographer and producer. It's called Fermata. It's a classical musical term—a grand pause, basically, where the conductor holds the note for a long time. The film is about a guy who is about to die, and his brain is on a grand pause—on hold. So the whole film is showing that grand pause, where he's thinking about life and death. He's asking questions, seeing people from the past. It's in black and white and shot with £12,000, which was a great experience for managing funds.

    Pitchfork: It seems like you're interested in bringing a wide range of media together in your work.

    AK: At some point in my life I thought it was good to specialize, but now I think it’s good to build a bigger product than just music.


    0 0

    Profiles: Hate It or Love It: The Return of Deafheaven—Metal’s Most Divisive Band

    Deafheaven: "Brought to the Water" (via SoundCloud)

    “I mean, let’s talk about it.

    Deafheaven frontman George Clarke sounds like man in need of some serious unburdening. It’s no wonder: In the last two years, his band has been lambasted by the notoriously cloistered metal community, routinely derided as frauds, poseurs, and hipster rich kids. All of it is a result of the exposure that came with their 2013 album Sunbather, a total gamechanger that brought black metal perilously close to mainstream acceptance by merging it with shoegaze beauty, post-rock expanse, and, to the chagrin of many, a pretty face. The album left such a big impact that directly ripping it off can now double as a career-stoking publicity stunt: The California quintet are none too pleased with a new band called Ghost Bath that named their recent album Moonlover and its lead single “Happyhouse”—a title suspiciously similar to Deafheaven’s own “Dreamhouse”. “They stole everything about their whole shit from us,” says guitarist Kerry McCoy, grousing about the downside of disruption in a copy-and-paste culture.

    Deafheaven’s mere presence here at L.A.’s Hyperion Public could potentially constitute a “gotcha” moment for metal watch dogs: We’re two and a half hours into a light dinner and some heavy drinking at the country-chic gastropub in Silver Lake, where our server is mustachioed and wearing suspenders. Clarke frankly doesn’t look out of place, downing scotch and sporting a fresh, band-collar button down—a haute couture version of his typical, all-black stage attire. McCoy, who tends to be Deafheaven’s anchor in the metal world, is staying true in a Metallica Master of Puppets T-shirt; he shows up late and proceeds to rapidly consume four whiskey-and-beer combinations. McCoy doesn’t believe the accusations that have been aimed at Deafheaven are worth dignifying with a response, but Clarke is game, if only in hope that he can offer some final words and move on.

    Because Deafheaven are ready to be done with Sunbather; Clarke describes next month’s follow-up, New Bermuda, as the polar opposite in every way. And while there are similarities between the two LPs—the churning chords of the new song “Luna” hearken back to “Dreamhouse”, for example—the differences are indeed striking. The languorous drone of “Baby Blue” makes good on the band’s purported influences of slowcore heavies like Low and Red House Painters; drummer Dan Tracy is no longer relied upon to play just blast beats. They refer to “Come Back” as “death metal Wilco” due to its prominent slide guitars. “Gifts for the Earth”, meanwhile, begins with a down-stroked riff Interpol could love and ends with a regal procession that resembles Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova”. (McCoy proudly notes that New Bermuda is set to drop on the 20th anniversary of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?)

    Deafheaven: "Come Back"

    While Sunbather was split between epics and interludes, New Bermuda sounds more relentless and intense even before taking into account Clarke’s newly harrowing narrative: “Not even in dreams could I imagine my escape,” he sings at a key moment. While Sunbather was often described as shoegaze or indie rock as a way of foregrounding its basic appeal, its lyrical themes actually involved classic hip-hop tropes: lower-class kids visualizing success as a self-fulfilling prophecy. That album’s eponymous central character embodied the crass ways of signifying a good life: the beautiful woman, the house, the ability to do fuck all in the afternoon. Rather than being an indictment of the American Dream, though, Clarke actually wanted all of those things when he wrote those songs.

    “This new album is more rooted in the reality of being a 26-year-old adult with adult fears—I’m not a shitty kid living on a living room floor...” Clarke starts, before McCoy finishes the thought, “... wishing that I was rich.” 

    Considering their trajectory, it’s probably no surprise that Deafheaven’s favorite MC is Drake—another guy who’s upended a genre amidst accusations of not being real or hard enough. (McCoy recently dropped $300 at the rapper’s OVO Store on a phone case and two shirts.) But despite actually starting from the bottom, Deafheaven became wrongly stereotyped as privileged hipsters the usual way, through insecurity and projection. Sunbather encompassed a vast emotional scale—drugs, the pathology passed through generations, depression, ecstasy, along with what their new label boss, Anti- owner Brett Gurewitz, describes as a “profound yearning” akin to U2 or Sigur Ros. The album was clearly about being poor and fatherless and without hope—it’s final lyrics are “I am my father’s son/ I am no one/ I cannot love/ It’s in my blood”—and just about every major event in Deafheaven’s early career was the result of ingenuity and blind luck in the face of financial desperation.

    Clarke and McCoy both grew up in Modesto, California, a town that essentially translates to “modest upbringing.” For previous generations, it might have been best known as the setting for George Lucas’ iconic American Graffiti, a quaint outpost between L.A. and the Bay. While its agricultural economy and general isolation led to it being tagged as the Midwest of California, these days, it’s more likely known by another, more damning nickname: Methdesto.

    It was a shitty place for guys like McCoy and Clarke to grow up, because they mostly had shitty attitudes. They met in ninth grade and shared both a proclivity for bratty metal and a dislike for everyone else. Clarke describes his predominant mindset back then thusly: “I’m a loser and I hate everyone.” McCoy was even more combative: “I was the 14-year-old in an Anti-Flag shirt just going, You’re a poser, you’re a poser, you’re a poser, fuck you, you’re a poser.”

    Their prospects for the future were bleak. Obsessed with music, McCoy figured he would toil in a tiny band while working terrible jobs. He still doesn’t have a high school diploma. “Senior year, I wound up partying so hard I kinda accidentally dropped out,” he says. Clarke had ideas about becoming a teacher, but there was one problem: He hated school. “I didn’t know what the fuck I was gonna do,” the singer admits. For much of their teens, the only times the two weren’t hanging out were when either of them was grounded, either for grades, catching a misdemeanor for vandalism, or getting caught smoking weed and drinking in the park. “I put my parents through hell,” McCoy says, “and they essentially gave up.” As high school drew to a close, they both became homeless, crashing in friends’ houses and cars. “Sleeping in the same car can bring people closer together,” notes McCoy.

    They got their first apartment together soon thereafter, but were booted after McCoy got fired from his job and “almost charged with embezzlement.” It was white-collar crime in a no-collar situation, as he was skimming money off the top while selling booze and cigarettes as a gas station clerk. The upside: They lived rent-free for the next few months as their eviction paperwork was being processed. Clarke and McCoy started Deafheaven shortly thereafter. 

    Deafheaven: "Dream House"

    In 2009, Clarke was the first to leave Modesto and head out to San Francisco, an experience he equates to “trying to fly out of a black hole.” After hitching a ride for an agreed (and still-unpaid) fee of $50, McCoy soon joined him with $30 worth of food stamps and a willingness to do whatever paid the bills. At the time, McCoy was in a “dark situation” he’s not eager to revisit, but the Sunbather interlude “Windows” does feature a recording of the guitarist completing a deal for opiates on the streets of San Francisco. (Later on, at the behest of their management, the band removed all drug references from their personal Twitter and Instagram accounts as they applied for visas to tour overseas.) Bassist Stephen Clark simply attributes Deafheaven’s beginnings to a “willingness to accept to a lower standard of living.”

    McCoy and Clarke continued to move in lockstep by taking part-time jobs at a call center, each making about $400 a month. Luckily, their combined rent was just $500; today, an average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco will run you roughly seven times that amount. “If we had to pay real San Francisco rent, we never would’ve made it,” Clarke says. It’s not that they were living outside of the city but that their living situation was likely illegal in any number of ways. Clarke and McCoy were two of 14 people housed in a converted 12-room nunnery within the Mission District. And even then, they weren’t trustworthy enough to be relied upon for rent. “I printed out fake bank statements that we gave to the realtor,” Clarke smirks. “I don’t think the landlord did thorough background checks.” In reality, Clarke’s only collateral was his EBT card, which he would sell for cash upfront.

    It was in that packed house where the original Deafheaven demo was written, McCoy sketching the music on acoustic guitars and Macbook drums. Otherwise, everything was borrowed, from the gear, to the time, to the money. The demo cost $500 to make and it took the band eight months to repay its producer. By 2011, when the demo started generating attention from labels, they had been evicted from the nunnery. Even still, McCoy calls this run-and-gun era “some of the most fun times of my life.”

    "I was the 14-year-old in an Anti-Flag shirt just going, 'You’re a poser, you’re a poser, fuck you, you’re a poser.'"


    —Deafheaven's Kerry McCoy

    Back then, they were plucky, ambitious, and generally clueless about how touring worked. They also smelled and looked awful. In an act of mercy on their first major tour, dark instrumental headliners Russian Circles began buying them cheap hotel rooms so they could at least shower on occasion. Deafheaven’s current manager Cathy Pellow took a chance on the band after Russian Circles’ drummer Dave Turncrantz did some begging on their behalf. She had doubts as to whether Deafheaven could make any sort of headway, but she was impressed by their energy and motivated by what she feels like was maternal instinct. “People don’t understand how poor these guys really were,” she tells me. “I had to help them.”

    Upon seeing them live for the first time, Pellow remembers thinking, “I can’t believe this band is this band—that guy [Clarke] is way too beautiful to be this intense.” Image is a touchy subject in the metal community, which very well might be more obsessed with outside appearances than other genres and is particularly enamored with the idea of sonic and visual ugliness as an indicator of authenticity. Which is to say: Deafheaven’s non-neanderthal haircuts quickly became the most scrutinized metal ‘dos since Metallica chopped their manes circa Load. Though, as McCoy’s girlfriend Kim Galdamez, who organizes the Born for Burning underground metal night in Los Angeles, notes, “I’d say most of the dudes involved in the first wave of black metal were good looking, does that make them false?” It’s a rhetorical question that still gets answers on both sides. 

    Still, the relative approachability of Deafheaven’s image has helped them far more than it could ever hurt them. In fact,Pellow pushed Clarke to consider modeling when they first started working together, telling him, “I could get you a Calvin Klein campaign in five minutes—you’d never have to worry about money again.” The offer became something of a running joke, though she still thinks Clarke could be an actor in the future. At this prospect, the frontman demurs; he feels like he’s gotten too fat for the modeling biz in the past year anyway. To illustrate this point, he pulls up his shirt and does a slow-motion belly roll.

    As the 2010 demo started to catch on, Clarke remembers skipping a math class at the City College of San Francisco to take a call from Deathwish Records co-founder Tre McCarthy. He pantomimes McCarthy’s gruff Boston accent while remembering the call: “I gotta tell you, man, I’m so relieved that you guys don’t look like real weirdos—you look like normal people, and I like that, so let’s do something.”

    Deafheaven: "From the Kettle Onto the Coil" (via SoundCloud)

    Deafheaven may not wear corpse paint—and their crowds may include a significant number of people who otherwise have no interest in metal—but they still put on a very real metal show in terms of volume, energy, and theatricality. Clarke describes his stage presence as a combination of Freddie Mercury and onetime Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo; he’s constantly prowling and gesticulating, conducting the audience with his arms in a way that occasionally gives people the wrong impression. Naturally, opinions on the Deafheaven live experience are intense on both sides. The punk parody site The Hard Times once wrote an article entitled “Deafheaven Bassist Falls Asleep On Stage” that naysayers truly wanted to believe was legit. But the gigs I’ve seen tend to be more like one in Moscow that drove a particularly rabid fan to climb on stage to lick Clarke’s boots.

    After seeing them numerous times, Anti-’s Gurewitz admits he was afraid to meet Deafheaven in person. “I was a little intimidated by them,” he says. “I thought they were going to be these super intense, cult-like personalities.” If the band was truly concerned about how they would be viewed by the metal community, signing with Anti- is a wonderful way of telling it to fuck off. Anti- is a sister label of punk rock institution Epitaph Records, and both have recently been rebranding themselves as strongholds for ambitious rock due to recent signees like Title Fight, Desaparecidos, and The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die. But for most people, it’s known as the house the Offspring built and sustained by long-running NPR faves like Tom Waits, Neko Case, and, most recently, Wilco.

    “If you're truly a metal guy, the label is probably not even on your radar,” Gurewitz admits. It’s worth noting that Anti- came into the picture after talks between Deafheaven and indie stalwart Sub Pop came to a standstill; Clarke and McCoy were troubled by what they felt was a lack of urgency from that label, and were also concerned about the band’s fit on their roster. (A representative from Sub Pop writes in an email: “Though we don’t publicly discuss contract negotiations, we’re great fans of Deafheaven and wish them all the success in the world.”) “George didn't want to be pigeonholed as just merely heavy music,” according to Gurewitz. “But he also told me that part of what was appealing to him about Anti- was that it was an indie-rock label that had an experience of heavy music because of Epitaph—he wasn’t really interested in being on an indie-rock label in the first place.” 

    Sunbather was an expression of Deafheaven’s base desires, and really, most of them came true. Clarke has even repaired his relationship with his estranged father, while McCoy says he’s “best friends with my parents now because I stopped being an asshole.” Everyone in Deafheaven has been able to quit their menial day jobs. (McCoy, Clarke, and Clark had worked most recently at Whole Foods, where their customer base may have included hipsters, but, once again, that doesn’t mean they were.) They were also able to get out of their squat house living. Pellow kindly notes how Clarke and McCoy’s friendship has evolved: “They grew up and don’t have to sleep on the floor anymore—they spend a little less time with each other now because they have hot girlfriends who are both rad.”

    And yet New Bermuda still heaves under the new weight of adulthood, expectations, and existential grief. Clarke says the title of the album popped into his head when he and his girlfriend, Alex Venegas, were having trouble getting acclimated to the disillusioning details of their new home of Los Angeles. The singer couldn’t help but think of L.A. as a “paradise that comes with all this treachery,” a void in which the success and happiness of the past two years have vanished, unaccounted for. Venegas told him the whole Bermuda Triangle metaphor was a little too on-the-nose and borderline cheesy. “But, you know, it’s good to be that way sometimes,” Clarke responded—a preemptive strike to make sure that Deafheaven aren’t misunderstood for much longer.


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    Pitchfork Essentials: Way Past Pleasant: A Guide to Psychedelic Folk

    British folk great Bert Jansch never really stopped making records during his half-century career, always testing the boundaries of pastoral folk with carefully considered parts that pushed beyond mere pleasantries. Still, when a cadre of young musicians connected with Jansch for his 2006 album The Black Swan, the moment felt like an instant renaissance. Many from that collaborative group, including Devendra Banhart and producer Noah Georgeson, had inched into popular favor as part of a trend loosely termed “freak-folk” or “New Weird America.” And with the collaborative record, they were doing what their music had tacitly done all along—announcing Jansch and a regimen of related pickers, balladeers, singers, and dreamers as clear stylistic antecedents.

    That concept of absorbing, acknowledging, and updating the past serves as a constant through most folk music, no matter the culture or society in which it thrives. Whether via the oral traditions that Harry Smith, Alan Lomax, and their ilk eventually captured, or the Grateful Dead’s ability to turn countless listeners onto old traditional numbers, folk music functions best when it uses the past to feed the present and inspire the future.

    The term “psychedelic folk,” then, represents those most progressive edges, when an old idea gets a new twist, whether it’s an electric guitar slicing through a standard or a coffee-shop singer adding prurient images of necrophilia to open-tuned beauties. Psychedelic folk is a perpetually self-expanding term, too, where each successive experiment widens its reach but loosens its grip.

    It has infiltrated the mainstream thanks to acts like the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, the Band, as well as the enchanting work of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It has folded in the extremely obscure through the improvisational risks of Michael Cooper and Dredd Foole. And it has often lurked in pockets of near-anonymity, where overlooked records by Lal and Mike Waterson or Gary Higgins languished only to be discovered and championed by younger musicians decades later. And it has bloomed internationally, spreading far away from the British Isles and the Americas.

    Above all, though, psychedelic folk has inherited the basics and turned them in unexpected ways, aiming not to be content with the past but instead intent on repurposing it for modern needs. 

    Advertisement

    Karen Dalton

    “Are You Leaving for the Country?”

    1971

    Listen on Apple Music

    The last song on the last album that the tragic and captivating singer Karen Dalton released before she died two decades later, “Are You Leaving for the Country?” lingers now as a thesis statement for the idea of psychedelic folk. In the best sense possible, Dalton was a freak, with a voice that curled like that of some backwoods jazz prodigy and a guitar style that echoed Wes Montgomery and Chet Atkins. On this song, she uses both to dream of emancipation from the rush of city life, the rigors of social expectations, and the restrictions of timely trends. “Do you feel like something's not real?” she asks. “Let the spirit move you again.” This song is that very spirit.

    Cul de Sac

    “Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California”

    1991

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    A quarter-century after Boston’s Cul de Sac debuted with Ecim, the band’s guitarist, Glenn Jones, is now known as a preeminent scholar of John Fahey’s music. (See his excellent work for the box set Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You.) In 1991, Cul de Sac made those roots clear even as they wrestled with them on a half-reverent, half-revisionist cover of Fahey’s “Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California”. The quartet twists and lilts like the original, but they add shocks of noise and layers of mystery to the interpretation, too. Fahey bent folk and country forms to his will; Cul de Sac took one of his strange shapes and sailed skyward with it.

    Devendra Banhart

    “A Sight to Behold”

    2004

    Listen on Apple Music

    The anthem of Devendra Banhart’s breakthrough album Rejoicing in the Hands, “A Sight to Behold” discovers the singer connecting his idiosyncratic vision—in 2004, positioned at the most popular edge of the freak-folk scene—to a larger tradition and narrative. In the first two verses, he treats creativity as a precious burden and gift, where an individual must shape and exude ideas in withering solitude. But in the final verse, he realizes he’s got company and context, that this moment is “like finding home in an old folk song.”

    Mirel Wagner

    “No Death”

    2012

    Listen on Apple Music

    Born in Ethiopia and reared in Finland, Mirel Wagner masters the international concept of morbid folk ballads on “No Death”. During this love song lined with tragedy, Wagner first describes her paramour’s corpse—rotten tongue, stiff limbs, swollen face and all. But that forestalls neither her devotion nor attraction, delivered with the temperance of a lullaby and an air of eternal seduction. “I move my hips, in her I am home/ I will keep on loving, ‘til the marrow dries from her bones,” sings Wagner, who somehow turns necrophilia into venerable devotion. 

    Sandy Denny

    “Bushes and Briars”

    1972

    Listen on Apple Music

    Between stints with Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny cut a pair of excellent solo LPs that suggested her unapologetic approach to folk re-contextualization did not require a bigger band. To wit, “Bushes and Briars”, from 1972’s excellent Sandy, swipes the name of a halcyon British traditional and offers up several ghastly, possibly heretic images over a country-rock clatter, all led by Richard Thompson’s incisive electric guitar. She walks through a graveyard to question the weather, her mortality and her country’s chosen religion as the wind blows cold. “The sound of music, it comes to me from every place I go,” Denny sings, offering up one creed meant to fend off the rest.

    Hiss Golden Messenger

    “Jesus Shot Me in the Head”

    2012

    Listen on Apple Music

    “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” emerges from the sound of a thunderstorm, the sound setting the scene for a spiritual dirge in which the protagonist never beats back his real-world problems but hopes for something better in the afterlife. His voice traced by a beat that marches as if to the gallows, Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor pronounces his problems in a deadpan delivery. Folk music has long been a vehicle for suffering the world and questioning the point. Taylor does both at once against an ominous backdrop, suggesting these worries actually know no end.     

    Vashti Bunyan

    “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind”

    1967

    Listen on Apple Music

    During the first phase of her career, soft-voiced English songwriter Vashti Bunyan released one album, 1970’s exquisite and sentimental masterpiece Just Another Diamond Day. But she never offered one of her best tracks, “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind”, until that record’s reissue 30 years later. Backed by elliptical electrical guitar and bittersweet harmonica, Bunyan delivers a surrealistic confession to her sweetie, saying she’d like to analyze (and possibly improve) him by being surrounded by his thoughts. In the end, though, she chooses not to tamper with his mind but instead to bask “in the sun of things I like about you.” Only in her 20s, Bunyan captured the essence of successful relationship forbearance.  

    Pelt

    “Calais to Dover”

    2006

    Listen on Apple Music

    One long-standing tenet of folk music involves the ability of a song to move between sources, to be shared and reinterpreted by a string of performers. Jack Rose originally cut “Calais to Dover” for his 2005 solo LP, Kensington Blues. Two months after its release, though, his acoustic drone ensemble Pelt reconfigured it as an engrossing 21-minute wonder at New York’s Knitting Factory. Between Mike Gangloff’s slow-motion fiddle sweeps and Rose’s own hyper-kinetic guitar runs, it’s an absorbing merger of Indian and Appalachian folk interests, like a raga delivered on the back porch. 

    Buffy Sainte-Marie

    “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”

    1969

    Listen on Apple Music

    In 1969, Buffy Sainte-Marie used her recent star power as a plaintive Canadian folk singer to take a pioneering chance and stretch her acoustic numbers with electronics rather than a simple backing band. Though the strange Illuminations flopped upon release, its mix of the organic and inorganic proved prescient. Written by Leonard Cohen, opener “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” is very much a folk song, its gentle guitar part tracing a call for human empowerment beyond any one deity or belief system. But Sainte-Marie’s voice is granulated and refracted; she sounds like a mirror of herself, giving her plea a strange and alluring power.  

    Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice

    “Spear of Destiny”

    2005

    Listen on Apple Music

    Wooden Wand (aka James Jackson Toth) and the Vanishing Voice's Jessica Bowen were two principal enablers of what became, rather reductively, New Weird America. With a wide network of collaborators, the couple made some of the most open-ended records of that strange, mid-2000s moment, using roots forms as the basis for vivid experiments. “Spear of Destiny” epitomizes their approach. Together, they bend a basic blues structure and Bowen’s pastoral images of mountains and springs with a second guitar washed in acid and an overall atmosphere of eerie premonition. This song seems to stare out from behind a cloak of sylvan camouflage. 

    Bobby Charles

    “All the Money”

    1972

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    Backed by pieces of the Band and Dr. John, Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles reflected his region on his brilliant 1972 debut. He folded R&B, jazz, country, and rock into most every song, and “All the Money” is a classic working person’s folk lament, where the powerless ask no one in particular for a little help while expecting none. The lazy shuffle of the drums and the sighs of the reeds suggest some late-afternoon jam in a stiflingly humid barn, where the feeling of small-time desperation is shared like faith.  

    Pentangle

    “Lord Franklin”

    1970

    Listen on Apple Music

    By the time the British folk constellation Pentangle got to “Lord Franklin” for their 1970 LP Cruel Sister, the tune had been around for more than a century and even served as the framework for “Bob Dylan’s Dream” a few years earlier. But Pentangle added flourishes to the tale of nautical woe that still feel modern. Bert Jansch’s concertina line stretches beneath John Renbourn’s carefully rendered narrative, underscoring the tune’s mournful quality along with Jacqui McShee’s wordless wail. Most surprising of all, though, is Renbourn’s screaming electric solos, which add an unabashed rock flair to this aged fare.

    Six Organs of Admittance

    “The Six Stations”

    2004

    Listen on Apple Music

    As Six Organs of Admittance, Ben Chasny has contributed a bevy of incredible songs to this field, all pairing his articulate acoustic guitar phrases with a modest, approachable voice. Chasny doesn’t really sing on this sidelong saga, but his playing does move between tender, syncopated blues and restive knots, as though conjuring John Fahey and Bert Jansch in the same sitting. What’s more, it connects him to an extended esoteric lineage, as Current 93 leader and freak-folk impresario David Tibet recites a bucolic poem in the middle. This feels like a demented fever dream, somehow strange and soothing. 

    Terry Callier

    “Occasional Rain”

    1972

    Listen on Apple Music

    The title of Terry Callier’s late ‘60s debut, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, was a bit of a feint. Though he played six-string guitar and sang plainly, there was always some soul to the Chicago singer’s songs. (See, for his instance, his velveteen take on “Cotton Eyed Joe”.) By the end of the ‘70s, though, he’d fully embraced R&B, funk, and even disco, a long step from those meager beginnings. His 1972 album Occasional Rain—and, in particular, its beguiling title track—represent the best possible nexus of those phases. Accompanied by an acoustic guitar that suggests rain scattering on a tin roof and electric effects that bring sudden gusts, Callier forgoes rhythm for the blues as he searches for brighter horizons. In an instant, he located a hidden border between the seemingly disconnected spheres of psychedelic soul and folk in a way that few have since.

    Incredible String Band

    “The Half-Remarkable Question”

    1968

    Listen on Apple Music

    About one minute into “The Half-Remarkable Question”, the guitar chords ease into a canter, the sitar line stretches slightly, and Robin Williamson’s voice turns skyward: “It’s the old forgotten question,” he sings. “What is it that we are a part of? And what is it that we are?” With their interest in incorporating far-flung ideas and instruments into their disjointed song structures and addressing the major topics and ideologies of the world, the Incredible String Band spent a rather incredible decade attempting to tease out individual answers to such queries. In many ways, they still represent the very essence of psychedelic folk itself: They took the familiar to somewhere different with the goal of, eventually, making it familiar again.


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    Overtones: The Coldest Story Ever Told: The Influence of Kanye West’s <i>808s & Heartbreak</i>

    Kanye West arrived at Auckland’s Westin Hotel in December 2008 looking exhausted, at the end of every possible rope. He was in New Zealand to promote—or perhaps explain—808s & Heartbreak, the new album he recorded in an ungodly rush amidst his continent-hopping Glow in the Dark tour. Sporting Tom Ford shades so dark that they seemed to obscure half his face, he waded through a 40-minute press conference in seeming slow-motion. Still reeling from the death of his mother as well as a breakup with his fiancée, he explained how “808s came from suffering multitude losses at the same time—it’s like losing an arm and a leg and having to find a way to keep walking through it.” When a reporter asked what he planned to see during his visit to New Zealand, he replied dryly: “The back of my eyelids."

    In the time leading up to the album’s November release, West gave the impression of a man running on fumes, flooring the pedal through the most nightmarish moment in his life. There was a manic quality to his promo tour: Just one week before his New Zealand press conference, he was in New York performing 808’s lead single, “Love Lockdown”, on “Letterman”. The song called for him to sing alone, and he botched the first take in front of the studio audience. On take two, he still sounded shaky, badly missing a note even with real-time pitch correction software. But his body was twanging with effort as he gripped the mic stand for balance while heaving himself into the music. Kanye West had always been audacious, but this was a new kind of wire-walk.

    808s & Heartbreak was West’s great pivot: He had promised since 2005 that his fourth album would be called Good Ass Job, the capper to his premeditated hip-hop takeover. But then he evidently threw out this life script. “Hip-hop is over for me now,” he started saying, dismissively, in interviews. “From now on, I want to be seen alongside only the musicians you see in the old black-and-white photographs—Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles.”

    This was the moment, just after his iconic shutter shades, when all of his vague ideas about fashion, design, and pop art streamlined with his sharper notions about pop music. The project was surprisingly elegant in presentation for something thrown together in less than a month, its minimalist artwork—a lone deflated heart surrounded by grey—acting as a perfect introduction to the bare sounds within. 808s might have been his most complete zeitgeist achievement to date, a crack in time when he was truly, as he once put it, “on the freeway in a fucking plane, in all lanes at all times.”

    808s & Heartbreak artwork. Photo by Willy Vanderperre. Illustration by Kaws.

    Kanye is performing the entirety of 808s this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, perhaps as a well-timed reminder, after a somewhat flat year, of what his peculiar brand of bravery can accomplish at its best. Looking back, it’s easy to see how many point-of-no-return qualities the album had. He was required to stretch far, far beyond his abilities to make it. Technically, he was (and is) a bad singer, as he readily acknowledged. So he made his voice more palatable and melodic with Auto-Tune, a piece of software that was loathed at the time for its association with T-Pain, a true innovator who became seen, in hindsight, as a happy jester running a fad into the ground. But after collaborating with T-Pain on the Top 10 hit “Good Life”—and then experimenting with Auto-Tune while playing that song live—West recruited him to help with 808s, essentially making that sound cool again.

    Tallahassee Pain was only one of the ghosts in Kanye’s machine: Kid CuDi, an art-student dropout, was also brought in to help with the chilly synths and mournful air West was chasing. And 808s marked the birth and flowering of West’s “creative CEO” method of album-making. Late Registration boasted four co-producers, while Graduation had eight, but on 808s, the liner notes exploded: There were at least five co-writers on nearly every song. To hear producer Jeff Bhasker tell it, there were eight writers in the room when West was turning mumbles into what would become “Love Lockdown” while zoning for hours on that simple, thump-thump-THUMP, boom pattern.

    That boom is a bedrock sound of hip-hop, but West saw it as a way to propel himself beyond the genre’s walls. “I’m trying to put on those Phil Collins melodies,” West told Miss Info, naming the most elusive and least-explored influence on 808s. He was talking about Collins’ synth-like, proto-Auto-Tuned voice, but there’s also a sonic kinship between the hard, sharp, and dry drums that Collins popularized on his earliest solo records and the uncanny explosions in dead space that make up 808s’ beats. Collins first came upon this “gated reverb” drum sound while working on Peter Gabriel’s 1980 track “Intruder”, when the song’s engineer, Hugh Padgham, used a microphone normally used for in-studio communication—something closer to an intercom—and then trapped and snuffed out any overtones with a signal processor called a noise gate. It made the drum hits both vivid and lifeless, loud sounds that confused our sense of how loud sounds travel. The technique was famously employed on Collins’ signature hit “In the Air Tonight”, which Kanye has covered live.

    West’s reinterpretation of this effect came from the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Created by Ikutaro Kakehashi and Don Lewis and meant to retail for a consumer-friendly price in the early ‘80s, this microwave-shaped piece of hardware made drum sounds that were laughably simple, at least to the professional drummers who feared that robots were going to replace them. Who would listen to this tinny little boomp and blish and not yearn for the presence of a real drummer? Compared to the much more expensive LinnDrum machine, which struck fear into the bones of session players everywhere, the 808 seemed merely cute.

    And yet, because it could never replicate drums, it was free to serve other purposes. It made an elemental shudder when you turned it up loud, sending vibrations up and down packed city blocks. It provided a rough sound that was perfect for an enclosed space with lots of loose rattling parts, like a car. Its brute force and widespread availability in pawn shops helped the 808 to rewrite the rules of hip-hop from the ground up. It is rap’s bedrock boom, and West savvily turned to it the moment he seemed to turn his back on rap completely. He had one eye on the chilly European pop that had once dominated radio formats and MTV playlists as rap music languished on late-night programming blocks and local stations, but he kept the 808s hits: They were souvenirs from home as well as strewn pebbles that might lead him back. He was quick to point out the implications of these aesthetic choices, name-checking Gary Numan in interviews while observing that “even if I’m harmonizing, it’s still from a nigga perspective."

    808s & Heartbreak artwork. Photo by Willy Vanderperre. Illustration by Kaws.

    Rap music has since absorbed the importance of this distinction into its DNA. The 808s template has seeped into the street-rap groundwater—a realm that West’s music has always had an arms-length relationship to—as a new generation of local artists emerges. Listen to “Say You Will”, the two forlorn specs of sound positioned at either channel like the world’s loneliest game of Pong, and then listen to the late South Carolina rapper Speaker Knockerz’ “Lonely”, a street hit from 2014 that has racked up more than 37 million YouTube views based largely on his popularity with high school kids. Knockerz’ fan base couldn’t have been further from the New Zealand arenas West was courting with 808s, but in “Lonely”’s four piano notes you hear the youth taking West’s 808s template as gospel. Young Thug would not exist as we know him without this album; Future’s deserted-astronaut image would not exist without this album. It is impossible to close your eyes when listening to Dej Loaf’s “Try Me” and not hear Kanye’s piping vocal from “Heartless”. For Lil Durk, Chief Keef, Soulja Boy, and countless others, showing up on a track sounding like you are drowning in the sound of your own voice is now as natural as an introductory ad-lib.

    Similarly, contemporary R&B would not glower at us from beneath a cloud of discontent and painkillers if not for 808s. The Weeknd made “I Can’t Feel My Face”, a song about the uneasy comfort of numbness, the biggest hit of the summer, and in doing so credited 808s as his spiritual guide, saying it is “one of the most important bodies of work of my generation.” It has also resonated in artier, post-graduate environs; How to Dress Well has said, "I can't fucking believe that that wasn't the most universally praised record of the decade.”

    The only thing more influential than the album’s sound might be its tone: bitter, confused, self-pitying, defensive, and accusatory. West, then as now the most fascinating, celebrated, and scrutinized egomaniac in pop culture, managed to perform emotional vulnerability without necessarily demonstrating it. In fact, the lyrical content of 808s remains the least forward-thinking, least transgressive element of the album: For all his talk in interviews about how the record broke down “the ABCs of relationships” and offered a male perspective on the devastation of breakups, it stands as West’s least introspective project. It is a seething mountain of hurt projected at a villainous “you” who has broken Our Hero. There is some self-loathing, but self-loathing, after all, is just egomania with heartburn. 

    In this way, 808s made sullen solitude fashionable again: Most male R&B stars want to be taken seriously as a misunderstood anti-hero now, and in this they are reenacting the public breakdown that West staged without a net. The bloodied mumbling that stumbled forth from the release of this record is unbroken—whenever a high-profile rapper suffers some sort of titanic emotional loss, we now expect them to respond with open wounds translated through warbling vocal filters. For example, after the public disgrace of his fallout with Ciara and the commercial disappointment of 2014’s Honest, Future revitalized his career with a three-mixtape series this year that felt like his own 808s. Like Kanye, he sounded dejected, but more angry than insular; his bad feelings were personal insults, career setbacks he didn’t deserve.

    And of course, there is Drake, who emerged near-whole from 808s. There is a line to trace here, and it’s intriguingly irregular: Just as West stumbled upon the 808s sound palette during the long live breakdowns of “Good Life”, where he was called upon to sing T-Pain’s part, Drake hit on his own foggy aesthetic by rapping over 808s’ “Say You Will” on his breakout So Far Gone mixtape. Drake’s creative consigliere Noah “40” Shebib remembered being thunderstruck in the studio when that recording went down: “That shit was so impactful to hear him spilling his heart over that kind of production,” he told XXL. "I was like, 'Yo, fuck it, that shit crazy,' and I ran with that sound.”

    In retrospect, going from relatively affable T-Pain, to convulsive Kanye, to polished Drake is like watching the evolution of one disruptive idea about what can happen to rappers’ voices when they pass through the center of the genre. The innovation has shuddered open new spaces, and now artists of all stripes live there. Kanye West has spent the duration of his career attempting to establish his brand as an exacting tastemaker, thought leader, and trendsetter, but it’s possible he made his most impactful statement the moment he fully let his guard down.


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    Interviews: The Pleasure of Peaches

    Listening to Rub, Peaches first new album in six years, there is a sense that perhaps we are just catching up to her. While the multimedia artist born Merrill Nisker has maintained a sizable and loyal fanbase in the 15 years since The Teaches of Peaches turned her into an international electroclashing queer icon, she’s also dipped on and off the wider cultural radar—but Rub arrives at a moment when the world needs Peaches most. Like much of the 46-year-old’s work, the album is about pleasure, power, and pain while also being explicitly feminist. Given that right now, in America, the G.O.P. is once again working overtime to deny women the right to control their bodies, the existence of a record that pulls its power from the female body, genderfucks its way to liberation, and demands respect in the sheets, the streets, and the dancefloor seems especially necessary. And while Peaches’ art may often be seen as sexual (or sexualized), there are few things as political and seditious in 2015 as a woman publicly declaring who makes her cum—and how. After all, what’s more powerful than making people dance to a radical agenda?

    Pitchfork: What’s your relationship to pleasure?

    Peaches: I think it’s as important as intellectual stimulation. It’s a part of treating yourself well, and being able to give off that feeling makes it so that you can also feel comfortable with other people. 

    Pitchfork: That also sounds like an explanation for why you make art.

    P: It’s within everything I do. I’m not a person who has a secret life; I want it to be open. I’m not afraid to express that pleasure, but it’s also really misunderstood. People are like, “Oh, Peaches is just obsessed with sex.” But why is that what you’re getting out of me expressing pleasure, need, desire, or a twisted version of what I’ve heard in a patriarchal framework?

    Pitchfork: Are you interested in being understood at this point?

    P: Not really. But I find all the different perceptions of what I do fascinating. I love that some people can think, “This is completely transgressive,” while others think, “This is just complete pandering to the idea that sex sells.” Or how people hear my songs and believe that I am in certain worlds that I’m not necessarily involved in, like BDSM or stuff like that. I don’t understand how people are getting that, but it’s still fascinating to me.

    Pitchfork: What was it you wanted to do with this new record?

    P: I always feel like I’m still reintroducing myself. There’s definitely people who have been converted, but then there’s the other people who are like, “What is that again? Is that Peaches Geldof? Didn’t she die?” Really. So with Rub I really just wanted to make a classic, back-to-the-roots, me album. That’s why I didn’t make it right away after the last record; I knew I needed to take a break and get my yayas out withotherprojects, so that they wouldn’t cloud a pure idea of what a Peaches album would be. 

    Pitchfork: What is in a pure Peaches album?

    P: I didn’t come in with any lyrics except for the line “Who’s jizz is this?”—that one was following me around for a while. It was one of those lines that sticks in your head that you don’t write down. They present themselves. So while writing “Dick in the Air”, I was like, “Oh my God, here it is!”

    Pitchfork: How was it trying to work in the here-and-now like that, rather than relying on a backlog?

    P: Totally exhilarating, but it was definitely work. It was frustrating. In the middle of it, a whole big breakup happened and shit just got even more real. I was like, “This is actually what’s going on in my life now, I need to put it in.”

    Pitchfork: Did that change what you thought Rub was going to be?

    P: On certain songs, definitely. It was bizarre because I was talking to Björk about what happened with her right before I knew it was happening to me, and also finding out about Kim [Gordon] and, you know, the same shit. Before all of that went down, there was a feeling where I was wondering whether I was getting enough out of the lyrics, like they were almost about something else, something deeper. So when the breakup happened, it was like, “Oh, I can see why I was starting to get angry during this album.”

    Pitchfork: How much of a role does pain play in your work? Is there a space for it?

    P: Yeah, more than ever. Teaches of Peaches was a really heavy breakup album—I’ve actually never told anybody about this, but right before that album, I found out I had thyroid cancer. It fucked with my head. I was like, “What do I want to do with my life? I want to make music. Oh my God, I’m in a relationship that I don’t think is going to give me what I need.” It was all about reevaluating my whole life. But I didn’t want to say those things when making the album or in interviews. I didn’t want to be a victim. I didn’t want that to be the focus. In the same way, I decided not to sing a lot on Teaches of Peaches because I didn’t want to be “the female singer.” I didn’t want people to just hear my voice and say, “She’s a good singer.” I wanted them to really hear what I had to say. I was thinking about it like Lydia Lunch, and Karen Finley, and riot grrrl, and how I love how they go so hardcore—but I wanted a little more humor. Not in a Primus-type way but more like hip-hop humor, through wordplay. So that was all there, but I masked it. And then I wrote “Fuck the Pain Away”—and that’s totally where that comes from. 

    This time around, with Rub, there was another huge breakup, but now I could just write something like “Free Drink Ticket”, which I would have never ever written or found a place for before. To me, that song is the most poetic thing I’ve ever written. Even though there are very specific things that refer to whatever happened between me and this person in the song, there’s a relatability. It fascinates me that, when something hurtful happens, you hate the person you love the most so much that you want to kill them. You really do. And then, of course, it’s not a good look. But everybody has that feeling, and it’s very real, so I went there. 

    Pitchfork: Were you a writer before you started writing lyrics?

    P: I was playwriting [laughs]—existential playwriting.

    Pitchfork: That is basically what you’re still doing.

    P: [laughs] Yeah! In high school, I was not letting my deep side out at all. Then I went to Israel with a bunch of my friends on a Birthright trip. I was reading Siddhartha and didn’t talk to anybody for days on this trip. We went down the Jordan River in inner tubes, and I was like, “I’m not gonna paddle, I’m gonna let the river take me.” [laughs] So I would do all these things like climb up Masada and not use the stairs. It was great in terms of it being the first time I was out of my own suburban life in Canada, and I learned a lot about myself. When I came back, I was writing existential plays. On the way to school, I would stop, sit down, and write plays. Friends would drive by in their car and laugh at me, like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I even turned essays for school into plays.

    Pitchfork: Did that mark your awakening as a creative person?

    P: Yeah. I had really nice parents, and a very smart mother, but they weren’t into art or anything. I didn’t know what art school was—I didn’t know there was such a thing. So I didn’t really know about contemporary artists. All I knew was theater, because we would go see musicals and I would get up in the aisle and start trying to mimic things. I wanted to be a theater director but there was so much bullshit dealing with actors and other people’s politics. I just wanted to do my thing. With music, I realized I could do what I wanted without any restrictions. 

    Pitchfork: How did you originally get into music?

    P: I had a girlfriend who was into acoustic guitar and played her own music, and then we got a weekly gig together. We had this one song about two young, gay boys whose moms didn’t know they were gay and found them in bed together. Then one of the boys runs out of the house and gets on his motorcycle and drives away and a truck comes—but you don’t know if he got hit by the truck. It’s a very dramatic song. And there would be girls in the front row crying over this song. They’d be weeping in front of us. [laughs]

    Pitchfork: What an auspicious beginning! 

    P: Yeah, it was this whole folk scene and I was like, “I’m not into this.” But I definitely also saw performances that I was wowed by growing up, like Jim Carroll and Lou Reed during the Blue Mask tour.

    Pitchfork: Oh, that’s heavy. A lotta death right there.

    P: Hold on—[answers phone, to caller] Hey, is there any way I can call you in an hour? So good to hear from you. OK, bye. [hangs up] That was Feist. We’ve been trying to talk to each other for weeks.

    But yeah, Jim Carroll opened up and told this story about a girl who wanted to have a date with him, and she said, “Meet me at this corner at this time.” So he went and there were 10 men standing there, and he was like, “Why are we all standing here? Does everyone have a date with this girl?” And they were all like, “Yeah.” And then she fucking jumped out the building so they could all watch her kill herself.

    Pitchfork: Oh my God.

    P: While he was telling this story he was peaking on whatever he was on and he was like, “I can’t fucking do this,” and walked off the stage. I had never seen someone be so real on stage. I was like, “What is going on?!”

    I also remember seeing Cirque du Soleil and this other circus that started around the same time called Archaos; Cirque du Soleil was obviously “the pretty one.” At Archaos, they had these seven-foot-tall women who would just drink lighter fluid and blow fire way too close to your face, and I was like, “Wow! This is dangerous.” These same women would playact scenes where they were raping men in the back of cars while they were crashing them. Rape is never good in any situation, but that reversal really fucked with my brain in the same way that Liquid Sky did. And then, of course, Archaos went bankrupt, and Cirque du Soleil got huge.

    Pitchfork: What allows you to be real in your own art?

    P: Letting down my guard—but being vulnerable doesn’t mean crying in front of people, it means taking away that veneer and saying, “This is it.”

    Pitchfork: Where does your desire to be so honest come from?

    P: Growing up in the ‘80s and being so sick of how music—such a pure form of expression—was so watered down all the time when it got to certain levels. It’s happening now too. What is the point of that? What are we protecting ourselves from? 

    Pitchfork: How much ego is in play when you’re creating, if any?

    P: Of course there’s an ego involved: I want it to be great. I want it to mean something. I want people to enjoy it. I want them to say I made something good. But it’s not just about people liking what I did as much as it’s about them saying, “I like what you did because it made me feel this way,” or “It made me feel like I belong,” or “It made me feel like there’s another way to live in this world.” That happens a lot, and it’s a very satisfying feeling to know that people are getting something out of it and it’s making them want to be creative too.


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    Pitchfork Essentials: Astral Traveling: The Ecstasy of Spiritual Jazz

    In the summer of 1965, in the midst of the civil rights movement, simmering racial tensions erupted in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, leading to 34 deaths, hundreds of destroyed buildings, and thousands of arrests. In the aftermath of the Watts riots, nearby UCLA student Maulana Karenga envisioned a holiday called Kwanzaa that would incorporate African, Arabic, and Swahili traditions and “give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” It wasn’t the only alternative to arise in opposition to America’s dominant Christianity of the time, as Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam was ascendant, along with ideas of Eastern mysticism. During the tumultuous '60s, there was a religious revolution to accompany the grand societal, sexual, racial, and cultural shifts already afoot.

    Concurrently, the era’s primary African-American art form reflected such upheaval in its music, too: Jazz began to push against all constraints, be it chord changes, predetermined tempos, or melodies, so as to best reflect the pursuit of freedom in all of its forms. Rather than the Tin Pan Alley standards, modal explorations, and cool poses that previously defined the genre, there was now chaos, noise, and tumult to be found. And amid the disorder out on the street and on the bandstand was also a quest for a spiritual center, a search for communion with the divine. 

    This musical exploration was epitomized by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, whose 1965 album A Love Supreme was conceived as “a humble offering to Him, an attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ through our work.” Coltrane soon began to break through the boundaries of jazz even further on albums like OM, Meditations, and especially 1966’s Ascension, which featured a collective improvisation by an 11-piece band that included many leading luminaries of what would be called “The New Thing” in jazz.

    In that record’s wake, there arose a crop of jazz artists who strove for the transcendent in their work. Some embraced the sacred sound of the Southern Baptist church in all its ecstatic shouts and yells, while others envisioned a Pan-African sound or sought enlightenment from Southeastern Asian esoteric practices like transcendental meditation and yoga. It’s a sound that has recently come back to the fore thanks to the horn work of Kamasi Washington as well as in the electronic productions of artists like Four Tet and Caribou.

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    John Coltrane

    “Welcome”

    1967

    Listen on Apple Music

    After Coltrane released A Love Supreme, the saxophonist continued to seek out new vistas with his Classic Quartet, which featured pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and formidable drummer Elvin Jones. Originally appearing on Kulu Sé Mama, the last album released in Coltrane’s lifetime, “Welcome” offers one of the last glimpses of the Classic Quartet in all of its elegance and might, before Coltrane added a fiery young saxophonist named Pharoah Sanders and free percussionist Rashied Ali to the mix, leading to Tyner and Jones’ departure. As Coltrane explained in the album's liner notes, this song expresses “that feeling you have when you finally do reach an awareness, an understanding which you have earned through struggle. It is a welcome feeling of peace.”

    Albert Ayler

    “Our Prayer”

    1967

    Listen on Apple Music

    Coltrane served as a mentor to the young saxophonist Albert Ayler in the late ‘60s, and Ayler’s playing greatly influenced the elder statesman, inspiring him to move further from the notion of notes and more toward pure sound. Ayler’s music could touch upon children’s songs and Dixieland while also shooting out the sharpest noise. One of the brightest proponents of “fire jazz,” Ayler inhaled the old jazz tradition and exhaled something uncanny, visceral, and startlingly new through his horn. Take “Our Prayer”, which sounds solemn as an old spiritual, drunk as a night on Bourbon Street, and as ecstatic as a prayer meeting all at once. Ayler’s horn—in conversation with two basses, his brother’s trumpet, and a violin—traces the outline of the melody before inserting all manners of shouts, growls, and cries en route to a feeling of unfettered joy.

    Sonny Sharrock

    “Black Woman”

    1969

    Listen on Apple Music

    During the ‘60s, the sound and fury of free jazz primarily arose through screeching, wailing, testifying horns. But thanks to his asthma, Warren “Sonny” Sharrock was forced to pick up the guitar instead. Using an array of furious strums, heavy chording, and gales of feedback, Sharrock presaged the deafening likes of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. His debut album, Black Woman, recorded with his then-wife Linda, is as wild, wooly, and moving as any music of the era. While percussionist/herbalist/healer Milford Graves conjures dust storms, Linda’s hair-raising shrieks place her between gospel belter and banshee, the sound of feminism screaming to be heard.

    Tony Scott

    “Kundalini-Serpent Power”

    1972

    Listen on Apple Music

    A clarinetist who worked with the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday in the ‘50s, Tony Scott left the United States in the ‘60s and traveled through Southeast Asia as bebop took over and the clarinet fell forever out of fashion. His studies of Buddhism and Eastern folk informed 1964’s Music for Zen Meditation, which is often considered the first New Age album. Eight years later, Scott released Music for Yoga Meditation, finding common ground between his horn and the sitar of Collin Walcott, whose buzzing strings could be heard on albums from the likes of Miles Davis and Don Cherry.

    Alice Coltrane

    “Journey in Satchidananda”

    1971

    Listen on Apple Music

    When John Coltrane died from liver cancer in 1967, his wife and pianist Alice was left to continue his pursuit of a universal form of music. While scorned by much of the jazz establishment, with each successive solo album, Alice Coltrane soared into uncharted territory. She began to perform using harp and, for her fourth album, Journey in Satchidananda, she fused the standard rhythm section of jazz with the timbres of Indian classical music. Here, shaker bells, oud, and tambura mingle with Pharoah Sanders’s soprano saxophone and Alice’s harp glissandi to create a mesmerizing sound that’s transportive—not just to exotic new worlds but also to inner realms.

    Don Cherry

    “Malkauns”

    1975

    Listen on Apple Music

    Known for his trumpet playing in Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking ‘50s quartet, at the start of the ‘70s, Don Cherry began to fuse his pocket trumpet lines to a wide array of world music. He worked with Indonesian gamelan ensembles, experimental composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and South African pianist Dollar Brand. Drawing on African, Arabic, and rock music, the title track of 1975’s Brown Rice espouses the benefits of the macrobiotic diet while “Malkauns” nods to an Indian raga meant to placate the god Shiva. Built from the sinuous drone of a tambura played by his wife Moki, Cherry teams up with his old Coleman quartet bandmates bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins to show a new shape of jazz to come.

    Sun Ra and His Solar-Myth Arkestra

    “Pyramids”

    1972

    Listen on Apple Music

    While some jazz musicians rediscovered their gospel roots or else embraced exotic world religions, pianist-bandleader Sonny “Sun Ra” Blount was a cosmology unto himself. His massive discography—around 500 albums—touches upon ancient Egyptology and anticipates Afro-futurism while fusing the stride piano playing of early 20th century jazz with modern noise music and more. He released his music primarily on his own El Saturn imprint, but in the early ‘70s, he released a few albums on the free jazz French label BYG that showcased his ability to move from large ensemble improvisations to heavily percussive pieces that hearkened to the drums of Africa. This electric piano miniature shows his sense of melody and rhythmic play.

    Kelan Phil Cohran and Legacy

    “The Dogon”

    1993

    Listen on Apple Music

    A trumpeter on Sun Ra’s early ‘60s recordings, Phil Cohran also showed an aptitude for more exotic instruments like the zither before striking out on his own as a composer and bandleader. A mainstay of adventurous jazz music in Chicago, Cohran was involved in the foundation of the non-profit Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians alongside other artists like Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, and Anthony Braxton. For much of the 20th century his music was only known via proxy: former bandmates formed Earth, Wind & Fire, and his sons comprise Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. More recently, some of Cohran’s crucial work has been reissued, none more stunning than this composition from 1993’s African Skies. The small excerpt, rendered on mbira and hand percussion, is named after the Malian tribe who documented their encounters with an alien race via striking sculpture.

    Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes

    “Astral Traveling”

    1973

    Listen on Apple Music

    A pianist for the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, when Lonnie Liston Smith joined Pharoah Sanders’ band in the wake of John Coltrane’s death, he clarified his sound. During the recording of Sanders’ 1971 album Thembi, Smith came upon the Fender Rhodes electric piano in a corner of the studio. Playing around with the new instrument, he wrote “Astral Traveling”, a song inspired by his recent reading about astral projections. His sustained keys evoke the sensation of floating in space, adding a sense of contemplative calm to the tempestuous horns around him.

    Michael White

    “The Blessing Song”

    1972

    Listen on Apple Music

    In addition to being a member of Pharoah Sanders’ band, violinist Michael White lent his talents to the likes of fusion group the Fourth Way, blues guitarists like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and, more recently, to Bill Frisell and Eyvind Kang. While his debut album, 1971’s Spirit Dance, paid tribute to the late John Coltrane and his mother, his second album, Pneuma, features an Afro-jazz symphony on one half and more soul and R&B structures on the other. Four female vocalists coo and buoy White’s lithe violin accompaniment on “The Blessing Song”, which recently appeared on an Erykah Badu mixtape.

    McCoy Tyner

    “His Blessings”

    1970

    Listen on Apple Music

    Lost in the increasingly cacophonous din swirling around him on the bandstand, McCoy Tyner felt lost in his final days as a member John Coltrane’s band. "All I could hear was a lot of noise,” he once said of the experience. “I didn't have any feeling for the music." He left in 1965 and set out on his own career as a bandleader. But for his 1970 album Extensions, he teamed with drummer Elvin Jones (who also left Coltrane’s band in ‘65) as well the person who replaced him on the piano bench, Alice Coltrane. She plays harp here, weaving through Tyner’s gorgeous piano chords, the horns of Gary Bartz and Wayne Shorter, the bowed bass of Ron Carter, and Jones’ restrained drum work. The album offers a glimpse of what might have been had their mentor lived.

    Pharoah Sanders

    “Summun Bukmun Umyun”

    1970

    Listen on Apple Music

    In the wake of Coltrane’s death, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ run of solo albums on Impulse!—spanning 1967’s Tauhid through 1974’s Love in Us All—remains the pinnacle of spiritual jazz, showing how the caustic fire music that he once embodied could be sublimated into a sound of exquisite beauty. Sanders brought Coltrane’s vision of a universalist sound to fruition, drawing on free jazz as well as African highlife, Arabic folk music, Afro-Cuban, Indian classical, gospel, and R&B. There may be no better summation than on his 1970 album Summun Bukmun Umyun, which quotes the Quran in its title as it delivers a vibrant sound for 20 glorious minutes.

    Charlie Haden

    “We Shall Overcome”

    1970

    Listen on Apple Music

    Bassist Charlie Haden provided the steady foundation for Ornette Coleman’s wild improvisations in the ‘50s. But as the ‘60s continued to roil, Haden formed his own ensemble, taking inspiration from both the songs of the Spanish Civil War and a moment during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, when the California and New York delegations began to sing “We Shall Overcome” from the floor as the convention band attempted to drown them out. With his 13-strong group, he reprised that protest song on his debut album, Liberation Music Orchestra.


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    Overtones: Chaos Theory: The Glorious Unpredictability of Young Thug

    Atlanta producer Dun Deal remembers when he first met a 16-year-old kid named Jeffrey Williams, now better known the rapper Young Thug. "He was always a cool person; he always dressed weird," says Deal, who helped craft Thug's first true viral hit, "Stoner". "And the way he used to write his music was pretty crazy. He would just draw what he wanted to do on paper. That's how he used to record; he would draw, like, a picture."

    What kind of picture? "Weird signs and shapes," Deal says. "He'd be in the booth looking at the paper, and one day I went in there and looked at it and said, 'You didn't write any words down.' He looked at me and said: ‘I don't need no words.'"

    How unpredictable can an artist be, and for how long? Widen the time frame—three minutes, a few months, years—and then consider who falls into that circle: This is as solid a measuring stick as you'll get for creative vision. Unpredictability over the long-term is almost impossible; the numbers relentlessly revert to mean. Watching Lil Wayne's career prospects dwindle over the last six years has been like watching an unpredictability graph shoot downward: Thrilling flights of imagination started to organize themselves into observable patterns, and when they did, Wayne promptly ceased being fascinating.

    Young Thug has been an object of intrigue in the hip-hop community for about four straight years, and he isn't predictable yet. The possibilities of his art still multiply whenever he opens his mouth. Behavioral scientists have a word for this kind of prolonged unpredictability—chaos—and they apply it to weather systems, dripping faucets, boats rocking in high seas. Chaos isn't the absence of a pattern; it's a pattern too complex to discern—a math problem you cannot solve even when each step in the equation is right in front of you. So even when Young Thug would scribble out his theorems on a piece of paper using shapes and signs, his collaborators could only stare at it and scratch their heads.

    Big innovations in in rap tend to occur one seismic heave at a time, surfacing with a single new sound—Lex Luger's crisp trap drums, Mike WiLL Made It's aquamarine low-pass filters—before burying it. Young Thug has danced along this perilous wave for an impossibly long time. His music has shifted as nimbly as the details of his recording contracts, and while watching a series of industry heavy hitters try and fail to assimilate him into the mainstream over the last few years, I felt a certain pang of recognition: This is how it feels to listen to Young Thug, too.

    In 2013, the year he released his breakout mixtape 1017 Thug, he was a four-color blur: "L-E-A-N-I-N-G! LEAN! LEAN! LEAN! LEAN!" he yelped on "2 Cups Stuffed", sounding uncannily like Mario jumping and hitting his head against a block for multiple coins. A year later, on Rich Gang's Tha Tour Part 1he downshifted slightly, matching the polished and glistening sounds of producer London on Da Track's pianos. His lyrics were more legible, and that twist in focus yielded a real-life pop hit with "Lifestyle". But on April's Barter 6, he morphed yet again: The hook to "With That" is nearly subliminal—listening to it is like squinting at a distant figure you think is waving only to realize they're drowning. On "Constantly Hating", he frames his voice in near-silence, singing in smooth, rounded four-bar phrases that feel directly informed by dancehall toasting. 

    His newest mixtape, Slime Season, pulls from various corners of his leaked catalog and is filled with jagged exclamations that pop up in the middle of two-bar phrases. Odd, funny, crass images like "put some rims on the waterbed," or "you a wiener in a Beemer," or "her booty fat like she eat asses" feel like scraps of confetti that just happened to light on a beat. From "2 Cups Stuffed" to this point, a dozen or so skins have already been shed.

    According to Young Thug's collaborators, he works quickly, often immediately. "Thug came up with the chorus melody to 'Lifestyle' the very first time he heard the beat, while we sat at our the kitchen making music," remembers London on Da Track. "He always knows what he wants: 'Them chords, right there. That clap, right there. With other people, they are still writing in the studio, still figuring things out. With Thug, the melody's just in him."

    "When Thug hears a song, he knows how the whole shape of the thing goes," says Metro Boomin who has worked extensively with Thug. "He can nudge the whole frame to the left to make it offbeat and sound how he wants it to sound." 

    "Thug will go in there and hum a whole song," says Dun Deal. "Honestly, 'Stoner' probably took about 15 minutes to record. I had the beat partially done, and when he heard it, he was like, 'That's a hit. Let's do it. What should the song be about?' When he came up with the hook, it was over. It probably took two or three [takes] to get the whole song."

    The idea that Young Thug's songs begin as muttering shapes, with melodies and peaks and valleys developing before words surface, comes up again and again in stories about him, though the reality seems more complicated than that. Because if you poke at the comet stream of his voice, it actually separates into particles of thick wordplay and slang: "If a nigga base loaded, we Red Sock ‘em," he raps, indelibly, on 1017 Thug's "Murder".

    "This is the truth: Thug, more than anything, is a lyrical genius," says Dun Deal. "He can really just rap. But my favorite lines of his are the simplest ones, the details no one else thinks of focusing on or pointing out. Sometimes it's something so small, like that line from ‘Stoner': 'We don't stand in line, foreign shoes hurt your feet.' You know, you can't be standing around in those damn Gucci shoes—that shit hurt! He raps about what's around him, and he actually kills it just by looking at stuff. If he's wearing a snake on his T-shirt, he'll probably rap about that."

    "Working with Thug and working with Future feels the same," says Metro Boomin, whose signature tag—Thug yelling "Metro Boomin want some more, nigga!"—comes from a song with both Future on Thug on it. "They don't sound like each other, but their creative process and their level of talent is the same. Anybody who knows both of them would agree."

    The comparison is telling, especially since Future has recently shrugged off the weight of pop-star expectation and become unpredictable again. Though the fellow Atlantan has tread a more earthbound path through the industry than Thug, a trio of mixtapes leading to this summer's Dirty Sprite 2 shook him free of the grid.

    From their separate corners, these two artists are working with some similar tools and ideas. Both give the very strong initial impression that they are, quite literally, making up their music in real time, and rap listeners who gaze blankly at Thug and Future are usually reacting negatively to that idea: "What kind of gibberish is this?"

    But the only thing that separates gibberish from language is, after all, understanding, and both Future and Thug sneak in lyricism under the cover of unintelligibility, one of hip-hop's oldest tricks. In Future's work, like Thug's, the hard walls that usually separate verses from choruses and make rap songs easily diagrammed are all vacated. "Fuck Up Some Commas", the street hit that reignited Future's career, takes place in what feels like a big empty room, just like Thug's "Constantly Hating".

    When I interviewed Earl Sweatshirt, maybe hip-hop's preeminent writerly rapper, in February, he spoke of Future with reverence. "His one-liners are the craziest shit ever," he marveled. There are many ways to innovate in rap, but Thug and Future have chosen one of the most basic and upsetting methods: They are bending recognizable material into unrecognizable shapes, which might be the most basic hip-hop impulse. In fact, it might be the animating impulse of all pop art. If a piece of music makes you feel strange and confused, it's probably somebody else's pop.


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    Articles: Democracy of Sound: Is GarageBand Good for Music?

    Over the last decade, GarageBand has become the Starbucks of digital recording studios: consumer-friendly, global, omnipresent. Pre-programmed into every Apple device, anyone with an iPhone, iPad, or Mac can open the program and record something amazing (or, perhaps more likely, something totally embarrassing). And with Apple selling nearly 300 million devices in the last year alone, it's no wonder that GarageBand has engendered praise for its egalitarian simplicity as well as some ire for its creative limitations.

    While GarageBand effects have directly blended into the sound palette of even the most popular music—the beat for Rihanna's "Umbrella", for one, was created using one of the program's loops—it's played a greater role by compressing the space between an expensive studio and a DIY artist's bedroom, between professionalism and amateurism. For many musicians, the rudimentary software acts as their first home recording tool, digital effects pedal, practice space, and, in many cases, their first bandmate. 

    Take Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, who spent years tooling around with GarageBand in Montreal's underground scene while searching for her voice as an artist and producer. Those experiments eventually led to the 27-year-old's breakthrough album, Visions, which was recorded entirely on the digital audio workstation, or DAW. Eventually, though, she realized the software's limitations couldn't keep up with her appetite for digital complexity. "It really can't do anything," Boucher once told Clash magazine. "There's not a lot of stuff in GarageBand that's good." Boucher has since graduated to more advanced DAWs like Ableton Live.

    Grimes: "Oblivion" (via SoundCloud)

    For others, like dream pop singer/songwriter Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls, GarageBand is about as far as they'd like to explore the digital realm. "I open programs like Ableton and sort of stare mouth agape at the screen," says Dee Dee, who began her fuzzed-out girl group project in her Los Angeles bedroom using GarageBand and still turns to the program while demoing her ideas. Along with records by Best Coast and Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls' debut album, I Will Be, helped define indie's lo-fi sound in the late-2000s; Dee Dee created that album's backbeat by manipulating Apple drum loops to simulate an effect similar to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, essentially utilizing digital software to give modern music a vintage feel—a strategy that could make some analog purists' heads spin. 

    Though DDG albums are augmented by professional producers and engineers, the process of transforming Dee Dee's GarageBand demos into studio recordings is never about washing away the digital effect. "It's essentially the backbone of her work, so we just enhance a lot of what she does in GarageBand," says longtime DDG producer and 75-year-old industry lifer Richard Gottehrer, whose 50-year career includes co-writing Brill Building pop hits and manning the boards for Blondie's first two albums. Gottehrer's open-minded approach shows that the acceptance of GarageBand as a legitimate music-making tool isn't solely based on one's age or experience.

    Dum Dum Girls: "Jail La La" (via SoundCloud)

    The idea of using GarageBand in conjunction with more traditional studio methods is seconded by producer Ariel Rechtshaid, 36, who has collaborated with what he calls "GarageBand-ed out" musicians like Blood Orange's Dev Hynes and Haim, as well as more established artists including Madonna and the Killers' Brandon Flowers. While working with Haim a couple of years ago, Rechtshaid discovered one of the trio's GarageBand demos, casually dubbed "My Song 5", which included a horn native to the software. That staggering baritone wobble—which "sounds like a bass because it was set two octaves down by accident," according to Rechtshaid—eventually became the most distinctive sonic earmark off Haim's wildly popular debut album, Days Are Gone. "GarageBand has made anyone who buys an Apple computer a producer," gushes Rechtshaid.

    Andrew Garver, a professor at USC and a Grammy-nominated mastering engineer, agrees that the program has vastly increased the accessibility of music-making, but he's decidedly less enthused about it. "There's been a devaluation of audio engineering because GarageBand makes it look so easy to do," says Garver, whose studio mastering work includes projects for U2 and Madonna. Garver and many others believe that GarageBand has created an entire nation of wannabe musicians as well as a paralyzingglut of new songs constantly being uploaded to the Internet. "Anybody who thinks they can write a song can do it now, and a lot of the time, they're pretty shitty songs," says Garver. "It's hard to find those gems."

    He's got a point: From 2004 to about 2008, MySpace was GarageBand's default aggregator—spreading countless songs of questionable quality across the web—and now even more homemade tracks are being disseminated thanks to successors like Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and Tumblr. But while navigating through the noise can be frustrating for some, for artists, it's simply how music is released in the age of digital DIY.

    Plus, some artists don't have the access to expensive gear or the room to house a dusty Tascam 388 tape machine. And criticizing the Facebook-generation guitarist for exploring more affordable digital methods of recording can seem like a form of classism that draws a defensive line between experts and would-be experts. So while audiophiles and classic rock enthusiasts might sneer at the software's humorously simple design, digital natives simply see it as making something impenetrable now liberatingly accessible.

    Because of this embedded impartiality, GarageBand connects with the punk ethos of music for all—regardless of expertise, race, or gender. "There's an aspect of GarageBand that threatens the status quo," says Drew Schnurr, an L.A.-based electronic music composer and lecturer at UCLA. "So while it might not be good for the studios or the industry, you can make a great record on GarageBand—just look at Grimes."

    "The feminist implication of GarageBand definitely encouraged a lot of my female friends to explore something that had previously seemed out of reach."


    —Dum Dum Girls frontwoman Dee Dee

    "I know a lot of 'real musicians' prefer more advanced programs like Pro Tools or Logic," says Frances McKee, 49, of Scottish alt-rockers the Vaselines, "but I'm a part-time punk." When McKee and her Vaselines partner Eugene Kelly started making music together in the late ‘80s, the two were inseparable during the creative process. But the two were rarely in the same room while working on their 2010 comeback album, Sex With an X; they began to collaborate by sharing GarageBand files over email—a process McKee describes as "black magic." The experience hooked McKee on GarageBand as a songwriting tool, or a digital four-track. "Up until then I hated using computers," she says. "But [GarageBand] changed everything." 

    The Vaselines: "Sex With an X" (via SoundCloud)  

    Carrie Brownstein shares McKee's sentiment. Earlier this year, the Sleater-Kinney guitarist told The Wall Street Journal that GarageBand is a songwriting tool she wishes she had when she was younger. Through the years, the program has become the tech-averse musician's way of crossing a digital divide where Pro Tools certifications, gear-talk at Guitar Center, and the coded gender of technology often blocks their path. 

    "You can feel the silent chuckle from people when you say you've used GarageBand," says Brooklyn-based singer Julianna Barwick, who first began recording her ambient, Brian Eno-tinged arrangements on a Fostex four-track in the mid-2000s. Initially, Barwick was intimidated by digital recording technology. "I actually put an ad on Craigslist that said, 'Please help me learn Logic.' But then this guy came over and tried to teach me—and I needed a whole lesson in gear and audio recording talk." For some artists, the endless range of layering, editing, and audio tinkering offered by advanced DAWs like Apple's Logic can feel like the digital editing equivalent to prog-rock bravado—what UK musician, writer, and GarageBand loyalist Georgina Pringle refers to as "the machismo of software."

    In Barwick's case, GarageBand was a nonjudgmental partner during her entry into the digital realm; she needed just one lesson at an Apple Store in Manhattan to get started. "It opened up a world where people are less intimidated to make stuff on their own," says Barwick. "It felt inviting." Released in 2009, Barwick's second album,Florine, was recorded in her bedroom on GarageBand, and she still creates demos on the program that are then sent to her producer to master into finished recordings.

    Barwick's experience highlights GarageBand's most provocative impact: A digital force for democratization in music. Until the advent of GarageBand and MySpace in the mid-2000s, female musicians were chained to an entire infrastructure designed by men, from recording, to distribution, to marketing. And while the "silent chuckle" Barwick refers to isn't explicitly by men, the fact is that the technical side of music is still largely a boys' club. "The feminist implication of GarageBand definitely encouraged a lot of my female friends to explore something that had previously seemed out of reach," says Dum Dum Girls' Dee Dee.

    For Emily Lazar, the engineer behind Haim's Days Are Gone and Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City—as well as the first female mastering engineer to ever be nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy, for her work on Sia's "Chandelier"—the industry's quiet biases have always been more direct. "I could describe so many awful experiences," says Lazar, "but doing that would give the people that have behaved so offensively more attention than they deserve."

    The rise of the riot grrrl movement in the early ‘90s fortified the resistance against patriarchy in music, but it never targeted the machismo inherent in the medium's technical side. Along with open-source recording software like Audacity, which was originally released in 1999, GarageBand has allowed women to freely explore audio recording without being discriminated against. "As a woman, I was used to being undermined and having my creative abilities doubted and my physical allure pitted against me," says Pringle. "I knew I could make something interesting in GarageBand, so I stuck with it and didn't let the haters get me down."

    By no means has the software shifted the paradigm completely, though. Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis, who used the software along with her PowerBook's built-in microphone to record her band's first demos, believes GarageBand's feminist impact has been minimal: "While it may have introduced a whole lot more people of all genders to an array of options for home recording and self-producing, an overwhelming majority of engineers in studios are still male." Indeed, recent estimates reveal that less than five percent of sound engineers and producers in the music business are women.

    "You can feel the silent chuckle from people when you say you've used GarageBand, but it opened up a world where people are less intimidated to make stuff on their own."


    —Julianna Barwick

    There's a belief that for GarageBand to be a truly nondiscriminatory force for democratization, it needs to be open-source and free for everyone, not just people with Apple devices (though the tech giant has no plans to make such a move in the near future). But at least one intrepid music maker found a way around this financial obstacle: When his computer crashed, 25-year-old Brooklyn rapper and producer Prince Harvey turned a nearby Apple Store into his creative lab. As he was in the process of getting evicted from his Bushwick apartment, Harvey managed to record a full album that he titledPHATASS—aka Prince Harvey at the Apple Store SoHo

    Prince Harvey: "The New Black" (via SoundCloud)

    Harvey's a capella-style recordings are an example of how artists can manipulate GarageBand—as well as the Apple Store's more lenient customer policies—like a hacker trying to crack Apple's musical mainframe. But, according to several musicians, newer versions of GarageBand make it harder to innovate and customize, showing that there's a fine line between a program that's accessible and one that's too accessible. "You feel like you're being told what to do now," says Harvey. "So I just use an old version because I like the control it gives me." In general, advanced users of GarageBand prefer the version of the software they first recorded on, suggesting that these digital natives aren't above the comforts of nostalgia and familiarity.

    As a result of GarageBand's increasing trend towards automation, more artists are ready to move on to more powerful DAWs. "I feel like the new GarageBand is devaluing my intelligence in a way," says Speedy Ortiz's Dupuis. The comment is in line with Grimes' experience, where GarageBand acts as a gateway DAW: The first pill in a journey that leads to more nonlinear interfaces. Looking for complex and manual features, some artists and producers aren't interested in the elementary plug-and-play framework or colorful display of GarageBand, which can stifle their ability to share patches in forums and code their own software instruments. "I know more people who jam with Ableton than GarageBand now," says 23-year-old Cloud Nothings leader Dylan Baldi, whose early GarageBand demos helped him garner interest from record labels, though he no longer uses the program.

    In an attempt to further level the playing field and perhaps win some old fans back, GarageBand's latest update allows users to publish their songs directly to Apple Music Connect, a MySpace-esque social networking site for artists to post updates, including new music, and receive comments from fans. Unfortunately, Apple Music Connect is exclusive only to artists who sell their music on iTunes, and includes a submission process that's been described as"clunky." Even Apple Music head Jimmy Iovine has admitted that, when it comes to Connect, "we still have some work to do." The pathway from GarageBand to Apple Music Connect, currently divided along both status and expertise, seems to diminish the returns on GarageBand's two most revolutionary design points: amusing simplicity and egalitarianism.

    Georgina Pringle believes what made GarageBand so popular in the 2000s has also led to its backlash in recent years: "It's easy to make fun of people for using software that anyone can operate." And for many longtime audio engineers who saw Pro Tools board-up the windows to their analog studios, GarageBand is like a pirate looting their already besieged village, or a lewd teenager engaging in an intellectual debate it doesn't belong in. For professionals, GarageBand is too mass-produced, too consumer-friendly for real recording. The same cynics see GarageBand as just another aspect of Apple's corporate upgrade strategy, where consumers are required to download or purchase their way into more advanced features.

    Georgina Pringle: "Pop Hit" (via SoundCloud)  

    Given the prescience of writer Bill Flanagan's 1989 prediction that the"the next… Beatles may be a technology," GarageBand is probably more like the Monkees—a pure product designed to hit every possible demographic. And like a hit record, it's influenced its competitors as well. Lewin Barringer, the host of Garageband and Beyond, a popular YouTube channel dedicated to the software, believes DAWs like Ableton Live have simplified their design to compete with GarageBand's pop appeal. The result has been a host of musical products designed in "in the key of easy," part of the GarageBand gene pool, like Game Boy-esque pocket synthesizers by Teenage Engineering and portable studios like the soon-to-be-released KDJ-ONE.

    When first introducing GarageBand in 2004, Steve Jobs read a survey stating that "one half of U.S. households have at least one person who currently plays a music instrument." While it sounded like an inflated number at the time, over the last decade, GarageBand has undoubtedly bolstered its veracity. And with mobile versions of the program gaining popularity since their debut in 2011, the software has bred an entirely new category of musician that jams on "Smart Instruments," posts finger-tapping iPad drum solos on YouTube, and creates multi-touch piano melodies on the subway. As a result, GarageBand is the most clickable and widespread DAW in history, a fact that's subsequently added a whole new layer to the modern sound palette. So even if GarageBand is not for everyone, its democratic ideals are universal.


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    Pitchfork Essentials: Dissonant Joy: A Guide to Europe's Punk Foremothers

    Early punk histories tend to focus on New York and London, with hardly any credit given to the movement’s mainland European acts—and even less so when the creative forces behind those bands were women. Additionally, the continental identities of relatively celebrated female UK punk cornerstones like the Slits or the Raincoats are often overlooked. So while many of these European punks didn’t necessarily wield a significant amount of cultural influence, their lack of careerist ambition to appoint themselves as the faces of a scene is actually what distinguishes them.

    A bona fide embrace of amateurism linked many of these groups; for them, punk’s anything-goes ethos wasn’t just a line to tote about while quietly cultivating expertise undercover. For most of their male peers, punk underscored natural freedoms, but the style’s sense of possibility offered these women a sense of liberation that was more radical, and they committed to exploring punk’s limits with dissonant joy.

    It goes without saying that gender doesn’t constitute genre, although there’s a binding embrace of nonsense words as a tool to startle listeners and mock nationalist conventions among many of these artists. France’s Lizzy Mercier Descloux, for example, created her own language from her vibrant trills and splutters, and non-linguistic lyrics were particularly powerful in German-speaking countries, where the language remained politicized post-war.

    The following list features mostly Western European acts since the majority of their Eastern compatriots haven’t been afforded proper reissues, meaning that great bands like Hungary’s Trabant and Poland’s Kontrola W have been overlooked by necessity—as well as Italy’s Kandeggina Gang, Austria’s Plastix, and Holland’s Rakketax. But each band here serves as a stepping-stone to a wider scene deserving of exploration—Spain’s post-Franco Movida movement, or the surprisingly fertile Swiss punk community—and offers ties all the way through to the present day.

    The Slits

    “Spend Spend Spend”

    1979

    Listen on Apple Music

    In 1961, working class Yorkshire couple Viv and Keith Nicholson won big on the lottery-like football pools. When asked what they would do with the money, Viv responded, “Spend, spend, spend!” Four years later, she had become a cautionary tale: a bankrupt widow mired in tabloid scandal.

    As sharp young women of the 1970s, the Slits were wise to the way that women were falsely empowered and ultimately undermined through commerce. Original drummer Palmolive was born and raised in Franco’s Spain, where women were expected to be housewives and prevented from holding certain positions of authority. When she ran away to London and met German-born Ari Up and locals Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt, the trio would listen to advertising jingles for fun. Before the capitalist ‘80s gripped England, their 1979 debut Cut sent up the lies they had been sold: They shoplift like young hungry Robin Hoods in ripped fishnets, mock the idea of what makes a typical girl, and, in a moment of idleness, internalize the pervasive idea of retail as therapy while subtly undermining the language of this “new improved remedy.” Although fierce, the Slits are, as ever, playful and disarmingly light. Critic Jon Savage said Cut was the sound of people discovering their own power; in doing so, the Slits unsettled the foundations of old power structures.

    LiLiPUT/Kleenex

    “Split”

    1980

    Listen on Apple Music

    In the four decades since their formation, Zurich’s LiLiPUT have been loaded up with all kinds of intellectual weight. Greil Marcus connected them with the Dada movement that began in their hometown in 1916. And there are parallels to be drawn between their penchant for nonsense lyrics and the way in which Rimbaud “destroyed the line in favor of the word.” Following a lawsuit from a pharmaceutical company and the departure of a band member, they transitioned from Kleenex to LiLiPUT and released “Split”, their penultimate single for Rough Trade, in 1980. 

    As they were sequestered in a cellar recording the song, their peers protested the lack of government-supported youth culture programs above. They became credited as the voice of the protest, but insisted that what they did wasn’t politically motivated. Guitarist Marlene Marder had even left the city’s feminist scene behind because she “always wanted to be independent, regardless of gender, opinions, politics, whatever.” Instead, “Split” is the sound of self-discovery, of shaking off the city’s straight-laced culture and making noise simply because you can.

    Vulpess

    “Me Gusta Ser una Zorra”

    1983

    Listen on Apple Music

    Despite the antics of the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy’s “Today”, Nina Hagen on “Club 2”, and Grace Jones on “Russell Harty”, show bookers never seemed to learn that inviting punks on TV rarely panned out well. Or perhaps the people at Spain’s “Drum Machine” were banking on controversy when they invited Basque punks Vulpess to perform. Either way, they were bitten firmly in the ass when the four women decided to perform “Me Gusta Ser una Zorra” (translation: “I Like Being a Whore”) to the tune of Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Their song enshrined masturbation and payment for sex, and made plain their desire to get a look down Lou Reed’s pants. The broadcast provoked a scandal: The People’s Democratic Party protested, and Spain’s attorney general complained, leading to the resignation of “Drum Machine”’s creator/presenter and the cancellation of the show. Vulpes split the same year. Job done.

    Nina Hagen Band

    “Pank”

    1978

    Listen on Apple Music

    When Nina Hagen found herself liberated from East Germany, her stepfather advised her to travel in order to get used to her newfound freedoms. She found herself in London as punk was breaking, and was swiftly taken under the Slits’ collective wing. “Pank”, from her eponymous 1978 debut with the Nina Hagen Band, is a co-write with Ari Up—and one of the few chances to hear the Slits’ frontwoman expressing herself in her mother tongue (and with overt loathing). The Nina Hagen Band looked and sounded more akin to L.A.’s glam metal scene than punk, but the spirit is undeniable: Hagen rejects male oppressors, old pigs, and domesticity with snarling fervor.

    The Raincoats

    “Fairytale in the Supermarket”

    1979

    Listen on Apple Music

    The Raincoats’ debut single set out their stall perfectly: two separate pieces of writing by Portuguese guitarist Ana da Silva that combined to accidental perfection. “Fairytale in the Supermarket” starts by evoking the most comforting images: a day measured in cups of tea, “re-reading a book to feel reassured by the life of your favorite hero.” This is the titular fantasy, a commercial construct that you needn’t worry about aspiring to. For anyone still in search of reassurance, the Raincoats make clear that they have no intention of providing it: “When you look at my picture/ Don’t say it’s your mirror,” they command. As ever, their version of domesticity is queered and unsettling (thanks also to Vicky Aspinall’s screeching violin), but no less welcoming for it.

    The Stinky Toys

    “Lonely Lovers”

    1977

    Listen on Apple Music

    Of the hundreds of people who claimed to be at London’s 100 Club Punk Special in 1976—a big bang moment featuring the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees—it’s likely that most of them were fibbing. But even considering the two-day festival’s exalted legend, the glitter that still falls from it didn’t manage to coat openers Stinky Toys, who had made the journey from Paris. They made a hasty appearance on the cover of Melody Maker, which prompted their signing to Polydor, but after their debut single tanked in the UK, the release of their album was abandoned everywhere but France, where they were regarded with suspicion for singing in English. Still, “Lonely Lovers” has a wiry glam punk charm, while singer Elli Medeiros sings of tainted love and dying cities with a barbed humor that Kathleen Hanna fans could love.

    Lucrate Milk

    “Lustiges Tierquartett”

    1981

    Listen on Apple Music

    In the country of les beaux-arts, Paris’ Lucrate Milk pursued their music with vehement ugliness between 1979 and 1983. Formed by two former milk men, the band operated on the proviso that each member play their least favorite instrument; as true art-punks, they focused on mythology before music, leading several of Paris’ cooler customers to claim they’d seen them live before they’d ever played a show. Bass and drums (there was no guitar) stumble away in the background of “Lustiges Tierquartett” (German for “funny animal quartet”), but the title track from their debut EP is essentially a duet between singer Nina Childress and saxophonist Masto Lowcost, who play with the desperation of two people grasping for the last scraps of oxygen in an airless room. They’ve been all but forgotten, but deserve to stand alongside the likes of fellow accidental Dadaist punks This Heat and LiLiPUT.

    Ideal

    “Berlin”

    1980

    Listen on Apple Music

    The debut single by Ideal is an ode to their city, though not the kind of sanitised, sanctioned account of the divided capital that would have been common on the opposing East side of the wall. As singer Annette Humpe fare-dodges her way through the streets, she celebrates the junkies and dilapidated factories, dog shit and overpriced pizza vendors, and clubs where someone buys you a gin as soon as you arrive. In 1974, Nina Hagen sang a sly dig at the German Democratic Republic with “Du Hast den Farbfilm Vergessen”, or “You Forgot the Color Film”, in reference to the locale’s joyless standard of living. Here, though, Ideal offer a version of the city that’s full of grimy glamor.

    Lizzy Mercier Descloux

    “Lady O K’Pele”

    1981

    Listen on Apple Music

    Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s second album did away with all the punk baggage she had acquired after moving from Paris to New York half a decade earlier. On Rosa Yemen, her collaboration with Didier Esteban, and her solo debut Press Color, she squeezed into dark shapes that didn’t suit her naturally effervescent personality. 1981’s Mambo Nassau realized her dream of recording in more exotic lands, namely Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where she breathed a rarefied creative air. Grace Jones was across the street, recording her classic turn-of-the-decade trilogy with turns from Steven Stanley and Wally Badarou, who respectively produced and played synths on Mambo Nassau; meanwhile Stanley was working nearby with Tom Tom Club. The energy bristles through on album opener “Lady O K’Pele”, a storm of impressionistic funk (co-written with Badarou) that barely touches the ground. Somehow it feels as if the whole thing emanated from Descloux’s mouth—how else to explain the agile shifts between meticulous, colorful splutter and lustful vocal cord bounce?

    Desechables

    “El Asesino”

    1982

    Listen on Apple Music

    Hailing from the Barcelona suburb of Vallirana, Desechables started out as a five-piece with three vocalists. Two swiftly departed, leaving 14-year-old Tere Gonzalez to lead the gothic punks, who took inspiration from the Cramps and Iggy and the Stooges. Their lyrics dealt with S&M, Satanism, and general terror—“El Asesino” means “the murderer” and sounds like being dropped into a storm populated by hungry wolves. Their taste for darkness saw them adopted by Madrid’s Movida movement, which sought to tear apart the conservative values of the Franco regime following the dictator’s death.


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    Resonant Frequency: A Glitch in Time: How Oval’s 1995 Ambient Masterpiece Predicted Our Digital Present

    Before Oval, no one heard the CD. They heard the music on CD, but the experimental music project founded by Germans Markus Popp, Frank Metzger, and Sebastian Oschatz first allowed us to listen to the format itself. The compact disc, initially presented as “perfect sound forever,” was also the first commercial audio format that did not exhibit its own audible artifacts in normal usage. Unlike vinyl, with its surface clicks and pops, and tape, with its hiss, healthy CDs had nothing to identify them as CDs. They were designed to be invisible, to slip into the background, to be clean and efficient and error-free. But sometimes, a scratch or a bit of debris would make a CD jump ahead or get stuck looping in place. The glitch, a tiny unit of sound without a natural beginning or end, had an insectile quality, a combination of a click and a chirp. In the early 1990s, Oval transformed this sound and other CD detritus into deeply beautiful and immersive music, but there was more going on underneath the surface; by shining a light on the sound of CD error, Oval showed us that we were no longer just listening to records but interfacing with a new technology that delivered streams of data in binary form—a harbinger of things to come. 

    In 1995, Oval released an album called 94diskont on the small German label Mille Plateaux. I first heard it a couple of years later, after a friend told me the music was like a field recording from the inside of a computer. The record sounded like a landscape, in its own way, but instead of hanging vines in a jungle, I imagined multi-colored cables that connect motherboards to the hard drives, and instead of wind I thought about a tiny fan blowing over radiating microprocessors. It was machine music that also revealed something about the randomness and unknowability of nature.

    In its own way, Oval’s 94diskont was the first sound of a new future, not unlike the moment of distorted guitar in Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88’ that some say ushered in the era of rock’n’roll.

    When 94diskont was more widely heard in 1996, upon its issue in the U.S. via the Chicago imprint Thrill Jockey, the album was already being discussed in some circles as an ambient music classic. The list of records that might meet that classification is not a particularly long one. Part of this is due to the fact that Brian Eno owns the term “ambient” so completely—anything “ambient” must be somewhat “Eno-like.” But Oval’s music seemed like another step in the genre’s evolution. By virtue of being atmospheric, ambient music tends to make the listener aware of the hardware involved in reproducing it, so it’s always, in a sense, about technology. But Oval’s version was a direct engagement with the up-to-the-minute details of sound recording, storage, and reproduction. With Oval, a critique of the entire system of recorded music was built into every gesture. 

    First, though, there was the sound, and if you’re talking about the sound of 94diskont, you have to start with the 24-minute track “Do While”. It ranks with Eno’s “Discreet Music” from 1975 and Steve Reich’s famed 1965 piece “It’s Gonna Rain” as a milestone of extended process music that’s simple on the surface but speaks more deeply with each successive layer. It’s a track that makes me wish I had another ear; the bristly digital textures are so rich and grainy you never quite feel like you can get close enough to them and, for ambient music, “Do While” is unusually bracing and rewarding at extremely high volume. It consists of just a few elements—a sample of a vibraphone, a surging drone that cycles in a loop, a percussive ping that repeats, and a bass tone that comes in and out and sometimes sounds like it’s going to shake the entire piece apart, like an earthquake. It’s hard to tell how much “Do While” changes from one moment to the next: Is it the music that’s evolving or your way of hearing it?

    Oval came together when Popp, Metzger, and Oschatz were teenagers playing music together at Popp’s house in the German countryside. They were more or less a rock band at first; at the time, no one had a computer, and the Internet was basically just a rumor. But an interest in technology was always there. Eventually, Popp moved to Berlin to attend university, and his flat became the center of the group’s activity; they had acquired some gear and were experimenting with samples. Across the street from Popp’s place was a store that rented CDs, and they would take out armloads at a time, generally choosing them more or less at random, leaning a bit more heavily on instrumental music and soundtracks when they could. They would draw on the discs’ undersides with a non-permanent marker, put them in a CD player, and see what happened, recording the results to floppy disk and then indexing the samples. It was a long, drawn-out, painstaking process.

    Oval were not the first artists to make music from skipping CDs. In 1984, fluxus artist Yasunao Tone started performing a piece that made use of what he called “wounded CDs,” where he manipulated the discs with tape and made recordings of the resulting glitches and noise. But Tone didn’t start to commercially release his work until 1993, and the sheer abrasiveness of his approach ensured that it would remain a more niche concern. But of course the idea of making music from shards of existing music and fetishizing the sound of particular kinds of distortion has a long history, from musique concrète up through sound collagist Christian Marclay, not to mention the entire sphere of hip-hop, which took these basic ideas and turned them into a global phenomenon. Oval was not about invention, but rather specialization, of finding a very specific set of aesthetic and political concerns and refining them into something that was so coherent it seemed fresh and new.

    A laser moving across a disc has a few things that set it apart from its analogs on vinyl LPs and tape. Foremost among these is its relationship to time. When you take a record and spin it forward, you still get all the music contained in those grooves, but it all happens in a much smaller temporal window, which raises its pitch. The same goes for tape. But conventional CD players never worked this way. They moved the laser across the surface of the disc at fixed points, more like a record needle would if it jumped ahead a few grooves at a time while the speed remained constant. This jumping is what gives the CD skip its fragmented quality and also its peculiar rhythm. So while Oval may not have been the first sound artists to zero in on this tiny unit of sound, they were the first to make it the whole point. For Oval, the CD skip marks time. Popp almost always used the device as a rhythm element, a combination high-pitch timbale and cymbal tap. It’s not quite the heartbeat of the machine, more like the softer throb of the circulatory system.

    When Oval were living in Berlin in the early ‘90s, I was living in Seattle and keeping in touch with friends in other cities by writing them letters on a Remington manual typewriter. This was considered “retro” only because electric typewriters were more common, not because using a typewriter was in itself unusual; this was a time when computers were big investments and long-distance phone calls were still expensive. If you wanted to stay connected, you wrote a letter. Down the hall from my typewriter were two large racks of CDs, which I thought of as “records” rather than computer data. I knew they were digital but hadn’t yet thought too hard about what that might mean.

    In 1995, only 14% of U.S. adults used the Internet, and, for the first time, I became one of them. But it didn’t change my life appreciably. It was something that happened on a desktop computer in a single room. Yes, there was a certain amount of information at your fingertips, along with online chat and email, but the immobility of it all seriously limited the way the Internet affected one’s day-to-day existence. Every time you stepped away from the computer, you stepped back in time. It was an era of vast potential but very little realization, and everyone knew it. Large and ominous shifts were ahead, but we weren’t quite sure when or how they would occur; culture was oriented to the future, whereas in 2015 we’re always trying to catch up to the present.

    The CD format represented the first time a recording was reduced to data in a commercial sense: The code of ones and zeros found in the pits of a disc’s surface was, at its base level, no different from the ones and zeros that represented the code of a spreadsheet program. This marked a philosophical shift, because data implies flexibility and transportability. By its nature, data is hungry to be integrated into new contexts. It doesn’t want to be tethered to that one room, where that one machine sits on a desk. It wants to move.

    Markus Popp once said that what Oval did was not “art” or “capital-M music” but rather could best described as “file management”—a term so functional that it can’t help but shatter the persistent myth of creativity.

    Oval's Markus Popp

    In the ‘90s, Popp, Oval’s leader and eventually its sole member, became known for the density of his intellect. He was knowledgeable about various strands of post-structural theory related to ideas about information and communication, and he made the connections between Oval’s work and various branches of cultural studies apparent in interviews. Given the context they were often found in—next to drunken tour stories in music magazines—Popp interviews began to take on a hint of parody. It wasn’t so long since the heyday of Mike Myers doing Dieter on “Sprockets”, and the idea of a dour German taking himself deadly seriously was, if you were of a certain mindset, kind of funny.

    Part of the fun of Popp’s interviews was his struggle with terminology. Oval understood that they were being marketed and received in the same way as any other music, but Popp in particular did not want to see his work in that paradigm. That was partly because one of the goals of the project, ironically, was de-mystification. As computers were becoming more powerful, those who mastered them were beginning to be seen as wizards. To take two prominent examples from the time, Richard D. James’ work as the Aphex Twin and Sean Booth and Rob Brown’s work as Autechre were both presented as surpassingly difficult. The listener was never supposed to be able to make sense of was happening behind the curtain, or to be able to apprehend what sort of algorithms were bringing these bizarre sounds into being.

    Popp’s approach, even if he wasn’t necessarily great at explaining it, was different. He once said that what Oval did was not “art” or “capital-M music” but rather could best described as “file management”—a term so functional that it can’t help but shatter the persistent myth of creativity. What we are doing, Popp seemed to say, is sitting in front of computers, opening folders, creating files, and arranging them. The work was, at base level, no different from an administrative functionary in a large office tracking inventory with Microsoft Access: You figure out what needs to be done and engage the software and hardware tools at hand in completion of the task. “It’s just a matter of honesty to say I’m not a composer,”he told Sound on Sound in 2002. “I’m just beta-testing software like everybody else is.”

    In addition to letting some of the air out of the idea of the scientist/genius archetype, Oval’s “file management” approach to music-making also offered a critique of how music-making was being standardized. If we are all using the same tools, the idea goes, then our creative output is circumscribed by the specifications of those tools. The software programmer is ultimately directing what the music of tomorrow is going to sound like, not the musician. All instruments have such limitations, of course—with an acoustic guitar, you can pluck or strum the strings, tune them in different ways, and tap its side, but that’s pretty much the only sound you are ever going to get out of it (an acoustic guitar is never going to sound like a trumpet). While computers were supposed to be tools of infinite possibility, the realities of software told a different story.

    And yet, thanks to their spontaneous approach, Popp and Oval couldn’t help but hint a ghost in the machine. In the wake of 94diskont’s release, a body of music theory built up around the idea of the glitch emerged, and there was a lot of talk about how digital perfection created a yearning for the mistake within listeners—which in turn stoked a fetishization of the moment when the mistake appeared. These ideas were tied into distrust of technology in general and the digital world in particular as the millennium approached. In the back of many minds, somewhere, was the thought that when the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2000, there was great possibility for chaos. In this environment, digital music that was about the music’s digital-ness had an unusually strong pull.

    The millennium came and went without incident, but our immersion in the digital world only deepened. In its own way, 94diskont was the first sound of a new future, not unlike the moment of distorted guitar in Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” that some say ushered in the era of rock’n’roll. In its glitches and drones we could hear the digital world breaking down and re-assembling itself. The album always seemed like it was looking ahead to what the world would become, and now that world is here.

    Sometime in the early 2000s, my wife, a choreographer and performance artist, was working on a new piece with two dancers, and I was tasked to run the CD player during a rehearsal. During one long section, the sound in use was a song called “Twenty” by the post-rock band Labradford. At one point, the dance had stopped to make an adjustment, but instead of hitting the stop button I hit fast-forward, causing the laser to skip through the song. The sound that came out of the speakers was quite loud and incredibly beautiful. Labradford made music with a lot of space, where the pluck and decay of one guitar note had a heightened significance, and hearing the laser micro-sample these tiny moments at fixed increments that were coded into its memory was sublime. This one-time “performance” lasted just a few seconds, but it’s stayed with me since.


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    From the Pitchfork Review: Do It All Night: The Story of Prince's <i>Dirty Mind</i>

    This article appears in the eighth issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, which will be available at stores across America on October 26. Subscribe here.


    It’s not entirely your fault if you don’t quite understand why Prince was such a big deal in the 1980s. In the digital era, the Minneapolis auteur has made his catalog relatively inaccessible, recently removing it from mainstream streaming services in protest of their underpayment. The strategy is principled and laudable even as it contrasts with prevailing realities, which means it’s très Prince—done with the belief that his legacy should be regarded his way. But whereas that same kind of stubborn, altruistic conviction often backfires for him now, it once made Prince the most exciting artist in the world. 

    When Prince signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1977 at age 19, his contract not only called for an unusual degree of creative control—he was to write, produce, and play every instrument on his recordings, à la Stevie Wonder—but also explicitly stated that he be part of the label's pop roster, not its R&B one. This distinction would shape the entirety of his career to come.

    His first album, 1978’s For You, was all falsetto and ambition. His grasp was sure, but the material wasn’t quite there yet. Even so, the song “Soft and Wet” raised a few eyebrows: Stevie may have been a 12-year-old genius, but Prince was a teenage prodigy delivering an ode to pussy. The track’s canny combination of coy lyrics, tricky drumming, and layered harmonies served notice: not only could the kid play and sing, he could hear. 

    A year later, everything changed. Critic Chris Herrington once called 1979’s Prince the greatest teen-pop album ever made, and it’s difficult to argue the point (though “Bambi”, in which a crazed-sounding Prince tells a woman he wants to sleep with to renounce her lesbianism over a heavy guitar solo, is not quite high-school fare). “I Wanna Be Your Lover” crossed him over to pop and led to an infamous “American Bandstand”appearance in which he fucked with host Dick Clark by refusing to speak, instead holding fingers up to indicate numbers and smirking the whole time. Prince’s persona was that of the Avenging Geek—with the proviso that he would be much more capable in bed, since that was pretty much all he sang about.

    Prince circa 1980. Photo by © Deborah Feingold/Corbis.


    For years, Prince had played with junior high and high school classmates from Minneapolis’ North Side. The talent pool was deep, and Prince could have picked anyone. The band’s roster was male, female, black, white—a mixture clearly modeled on Sly and the Family Stone. He also cranked his guitar in concert, not just on “Bambi” but on everything. Reviewing one of his first live outings fronting the band he would later dub the Revolution, Manhattan’s Soho Weekly News wrote in 1980: "Judging by [Prince], you'd never know that Prince is anything but a rock dilettante. In concert, it's clearly his lifeline.”

    This had been the case for some time. Not only had the young tyro bicycled to his local record store in North Minneapolis, where the majority of the Twin Cities’ then-minuscule black population lived, to pick up new James Brown 7”s, he had been playing hard-rock covers in bars since he was a teenager. “I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too. … But you will not do ‘Housequake’”—a JB-indebted funk bomb from 1987’s Sign O’ the Times. 

    Prince’s first dozen headlining club shows began at the Roxy in West Hollywood on November 26, 1979, and served as warm-ups for his real coming out as a live performer: opening 42 dates for Rick James’ Fire It Up Tour in February and March of 1980. On that trek, Prince typically stayed on script: seven songs culled from the first two albums. With one major exception the following year, this was not only the last time Prince would be anybody’s opening act but one of the few times he followed a setlist so exactly for an entire tour. That creative restlessness aligned him more readily with the make-it-new sensibility of ‘60s rock than it did with ‘80s pop’s carefully-laid marketing plans.

    Prince had allegedly been added to Rick James’ tour to bolster the headliner’s waning draw. "It was a rough period for Rick," Prince’s guitarist Dez Dickerson told biographer Dave Hill. "We would go over like gangbusters, because the black audience was just dying for something new.” James himself famously loathed the Minnesota imp, telling Rolling Stone, “I can't believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince's jive records.” James called Prince “a mentally disturbed young man. He's out to lunch. You can't take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest.” James would exact his revenge—as Prince’s 1980 opening act Teena Marie told Alan Light—by allegedly stealing Prince’s programmed synthesizers and using them on his own 1981 album Street Songs, and then sending them back to him “with a thank-you card.” (Prince returned the favor when he persuaded James' date to the American Music Awards, Denise Matthews, to join Vanity 6.) 

    Prince responded to the pressure and tedium of the James tour by working on what would become his third album, Dirty Mind. In the BBC documentary “Hunting For Prince's Vault”, keyboardist Matt “Dr.” Fink said that Prince wrote “When You Were Mine” on the balcony of a Florida hotel room, declining to join the rest of the band on a day trip to Walt Disney World.

    The cover of the upcoming eighth issue of The Pitchfork Review. Photo by Dan Monick.


    Rick James had a lot to say about Prince, most of it bad. In 1983, he told Blues & Soul: “He doesn't want to be black. My job is to keep reality over this little science fiction creep. And if he doesn't like what I'm saying, he can kiss my ass. He's so far out of touch with what's really happening, it makes me angry.”

    Prince was well acquainted with the reality of race in the record business. Crossing over from the commercial exile of R&B—a genre acutely feeling the aftereffects of disco’s backlash—to rock's mainstream was vital to anyone in his situation, especially as a native of lily-white Minneapolis. Writer Steve Perry quoted Jimmy Jam as saying, “Black musicians [in Minneapolis in the ‘70s] were going, ‘We can’t get a job, we better make a demo tape or something and try to get up out of here.’ … Not that we had more talent [than the white musicians]; nothing like that. We just had more initiative, because there was nothing here for us.”

    That situation was writ large at the dawn of the ‘80s—which is to say, Prince knew precisely how fucked he would be if he didn’t stipulate that he be treated as a pop act. This was the dark ages of R&B crossover. Billboard’s year-end 1981 singles list featured only eight black records in the Top 40; in 1979, there had been 16 (and seven black records in the Top 10). The number had halved in two years.

    “The record industry provides probably the strangest example of segregation since South African apartheid—a frequent, unspoken separation of blacks and whites that subtly and insidiously damages our industry,” Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom wrote in an August 1981 commentary piece for Billboard. “If a black act's record is rock & roll and belongs on AOR radio, that's too bad. The black special markets department drops the record because it's not appropriate to black radio. And the white AOR and pop departments generally refuse to touch the record because of the color of the artist who made it.” This also worked in reverse, as Bloom pointed out: Devo's “Whip It” got little play on AOR, Devo’s so-called “natural” constituency, but went gold in part because the record had broken on black radio thanks to black radio legend and Detroit techno forefather The Electrifying Mojo, who was also the first DJ to broadcast Prince’s music to the Motor City.

    Although Prince liked to kid new wave, he also saw its openness as a beacon of the future. In 1981 he told an interviewer, “Tradition at black concerts a lot of times was to wear your best clothes, to come looking really dapper. It’s not like that at our concerts. There are a lot of black kids out there, but they're like open-minded and free, and they want to have a good time.” Guitarist Wendy Melvoin told Spin that when she joined Prince’s band in 1983, “We were still seen as part of the underground. I was proud of that.” 

    Bloom was ready to put his ideals into action, writing in a memo to Prince’s then-manager Steve Fargnoli, “I'd suggest booking him two dates in each market: a date as a second act on the bill to a major black headliner like Cameo, Parliament, etc., and a date at the local new wave dance club … Neither date will conflict with the other.” 

    The reason for all this was Dirty Mind, which Jean Williams—Billboard’s founding R&B editor—tut-tutted over: “The front cover has Prince standing donned in an open jacket with a handkerchief around his neck and in a pair of black briefs. Maybe it's meant to be sexy. The back cover gets better (or worse). Prince is lying down with the same 'outfit,' however, this time you get a look at his legs and what is he wearing? A pair of thigh high stockings. The effect is one of a nude man dressed in a pair of thigh high stockings.”

    Dirty Mind was not just a rock album by a black artist but one that was sold by Warner Bros. as an album, rather than simply as a hit single’s expansion pack. Dirty Mind only yielded one R&B hit (“Uptown” reached #5) and had no success on the pop singles charts. At that time, the album audience was considered very separate than the singles audience—“serious” listeners versus casual—a difference that Warners’ marketing department was particularly adept at exploiting. However, this was a distinction that was creeping toward irrelevance: Within three years, the “tentpole” album, spinning off endless hit singles à la Michael Jackson’s Thriller, would be the major-label norm. But the idea of a crossover from R&B to new wave was both viable and novel in 1980—just ask Rick James, the self-crowned “King of Punk-Funk.”

    Little of James’ music—or Prince’s for that matter—actually resembled new wave’s willful primitivism. “For a lot of black people, the word 'punk' had connotations of homosexuality, and there's always that macho thing with funk,” Dez Dickerson told Dave Hill. Dickerson himself “was put off by people with no intention of knowing how to play. Then, after a while, the spirit and the attitude of it began to appeal to me.” 

    Prince’s new wave leanings weren’t surprising considering that he was a regular attendee as well as an onstage fixture at First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis club that regularly showcased new wave and independent artists. (A former employee once recalled Prince being kicked out of the club one afternoon, prior to opening hours, when he was caught in flagrante with a woman in the men's-room stall.) But even early on, Prince was interested making his own scene rather than joining someone else’s; he’d let himself be marketed as “new wave” while simultaneously disdaining it. To wit: At the end of the first side of the Time’s 1982 LP What Time Is It? (one of many Prince ghost-written and -produced albums from this period) the band sneers, “We don’t like new wave!”

    There’s no mistaking “When You Were Mine” for anything but a new wave song—it has organ from the Blondie/Elvis Costello & the Attractions playbook, a stiff beat, and nervous guitar. The song’s urgency was built into its structure. As the late Paul Williams pointed out, the verses keep retracting: The first verse is 12 lines, the second is eight, the third four. Each verse takes us to the chorus faster, as well as to the song’s central dozen-note riff, which is both keynote and denouement. This was increasingly essential to Prince’s shows, in which, as Dave Hill pointed out, “one song would jump straight into the next with little explanation from the stage—another punk technique.”

    If Dirty Mind is the album that allowed Prince to cross over as a rock’n’roll star, “When You Were Mine” is the song that allowed Prince to cross over as a rock’n’roll songwriter. At San Francisco club The Stone in March 1981, Greil Marcus reported, “‘That was the history of rock’n’roll in one song!’ a friend shouted before the last notes of ‘When You Were Mine’ were out of the air.” The song became an instant standard; the first cover appeared in less than a year, by English power-poppers Bette Bright and the Illuminations on Korova, Echo and the Bunnymen’s label. It was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the duo behind Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” and Madness’ “Our House” (and later, uh, Bush’s Sixteen Stone). Other great versions would come from Detroit garage-rocker Mitch Ryder, Cyndi Lauper, and Crooked Fingers, who performed it as a creaking mountain ballad.

    Bette Bright’s version changes the lyric slightly: Instead of “I know that you’re going with another guy,” it becomes “I’m going with another guy”; instead of “following him whenever he’s with you,” another pronoun switch. Changing the lyric of “When You Were Mine” has happened a lot when people cover the song, and not just because the song’s narrator was a man. The original song wasn’t merely about a love triangle but an ambiguously bisexual one, the interpretation of which focuses on the line, “When he was there sleeping in between the two of us,” as well as end of the final verse: “Now I spend my time following him whenever he’s with you.” Though “Sister” was the Dirty Mind track where Prince spells it out (“She’s the reason for my bisexuality,” often transcribed as “my, uh, sexuality”) the subtle hints in “When You Were Mine” were apparently enough to keep the song off the air. Positioning the song’s narrator as even a little queer was another touchstone with the notably gay-friendly space of new wave. The lyrics’ ambiguities are clearly deliberate.

    Sleeping in between the two of us: This was Prince’s philosophy in a nutshell. “When You Were Mine” set up a career of defying expectations, jostling between sacred and profane, black and white, rock and funk, good or bad—and for the rest of the ‘80s he’d take more chances than anybody in pop. “When I brought it to the record company, it shocked a lot of people,” Prince told Rolling Stone of Dirty Mind. “But they didn't ask me to go back and change anything, and I'm real grateful. Anyway, I wasn't being deliberately provocative. I was being deliberately me.” 


    Michaelangelo Matos is the author of The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America. He lives in Brooklyn.

    This article appears in the eighth issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, which will be available at stores across America on October 26. Subscribe here.


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    Rising: Little Simz: Future Rap King

    Little Simz: "Wings" (via SoundCloud)

    It’s rare to know what you want to do with your life at age 10—but that’s precisely how old Simbi Ajikawo was when she wrote her first song, “Achieve Achieve Achieve”. Sitting in a studio in her native London, the 21-year-old recites those early lyrics: “In 10 years, I want to be a performer that can entertain/ And still remain to do good things in life without having to go through strife.” The artist now known as Little Simz repeats those same words once more in plainspoken awe, struck by her soothsaying gifts. “Back then, none of my friends were thinking as far ahead about what they wanted to be,” she says. “But I’ve always been the forward-thinking type.”

    Simz is well aware of the power of her own story, which forms the backdrop of her triumphant recent debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons: The girl who was denied studio time in her teens, who saved up her Saturday job money to buy her own mic and start honing her craft in her bedroom, keeping her poor neighbor up all night in the process. Finding solace in the music of Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Dizzee Rascal, she taught herself to produce tracks and edit music videos. While other kids spent their summers waging water fights, Simz was recording one song after the other.

    Little Simz: "Lane Switch" (via SoundCloud)

    Over the last couple of years, she’s released a steady flow of mixtapes online, garnering nearly 50,000 SoundCloud followers as well as a co-signs from Mos Def, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar, who said Simz “might be the illest doing it now” earlier this year. Lamar’s appreciation makes sense given the stylistic diversity and intense themes of A Curious Tale, which skips from boho boom-bap to hard-knuckled grime to airless trap as Simz paints a vivid picture of the inner workings of her own brain. The dramatic “Full or Empty” boasts the scope of her artistry, as Simz dodges between anxiety, fury, and frenzy while contemplating a fulfilling creative life; meanwhile, widescreen strings and a whopping guitar solo worthy of Janelle Monáe or Miguel billows like a ragged flag in the background.

    Received wisdom is that millennials know how to frame the best parts of their own narratives thanks to social media, but Simz’s motivation to inspire came from closer to home. She was the youngest sibling, until her mum became a foster parent to kids who were trying to find better lives in the UK. “I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities I have here,” she says. “I'm not one to take things for granted.” In another decade’s time, she wants to open her own school. In the meantime, though, she’s just passed her driving test—the first step to moving out of her mum’s house.

    Even as Simz is still at the beginning of her artistic path, she carries herself with the unshakeable poise of someone who’s already achieved everything she set out to, while nurturing a vast ambition. Her sheer presence is not up for question. The second I turn off my tape, she shakes my hand and gets on her phone, trying to buy a car to make use of her brand new licence.

    Pitchfork: The most striking thing about A Curious Tale is your confidence. Have you always felt so self-assured?

    Little Simz: It was definitely something that my mum instilled in me young. In real life, I'm not the center of attention; I'm in the back and I listen. So when it comes to writing, I just let it all out. That is another me—but it's not a character, either. It's just me expressing myself. And it's always nice to get your things off your chest. I'm not a person who’s that open. I won’t come up to someone and be like, “Yo, I've had a fucked up day,” because I’m aware everyone is dealing with shit and I don't want to put my troubles onto someone else. So the easiest way for me is to do that is to write about it and then have people listen to it and be like, “All right, I experience that too.”

    Pitchfork: You’ve said that your sisters were a big part of inspiring your creativity. How did they encourage you? 

    LS: When I was 10, my sisters used to help me write lyrics and come up with concepts. Even when I thought, “I don't even want to do music like that, can I just focus on school?” they were like, “Yeah, trust us, do school but also do this!” They gave me that confidence, taking me to all my shows, being on hand whenever I needed them. My sisters and my mum taught me how to be a woman: the way they carry themselves, the way they talk to people, the way they know how to put their foot down. They're not having any nonsense from no one. I can see traces of that in me.

    Pitchfork: You released A Curious Tale on your own label, Age 101—do you want to sign other artists?

    LS: Definitely. My beliefs and what I want the label to be about totally contradict where music is today, which might make things a little bit difficult, but that’s good. I've never been the one to like things easy anyway.

    Pitchfork: How does the label contradict what's going on in music?

    LS: Everything is just… boring as fuck. Like: “You have to do three singles, go on tour, and then you might get a month off and go straight into the next record.” It’s just a cycle. I want to do cool shit. For this album, I didn’t wanna release no singles, because it’s not an album where you can just listen to one track and know what I’m doing; you have to listen to it in its entirety, otherwise I would just make a mixtape or go on Spotify and make a playlist. The whole point of an album is to understand the artist and enjoy the music—it’s supposed to make you want to go to a concert to see them in the flesh and get the album on vinyl and be a part of everything. That's what I'm about. I'm an old soul, I like that shit.

    Pitchfork: What does your music give rap fans that they’re not currently getting?

    LS: I think they're not hearing the truth, the realness. Nobody likes being lied to, and I'm not about to add fire to that flame. I'm going to tell you things that are uncomfortable to hear, but it’s because I genuinely care. Especially for young girls. They need to know the power they have, and they're just not told a lot. It frustrates me because I look at my niece: She's young and she's got make-up, and it's like, “Who’s telling you this is what you need to be beautiful?” I don't feel like women have to be secondary to men, and there's not enough people telling young girls that, and that’s why shit happens.

    Pitchfork: Your album starts on a strong statement: “Women can be kings.”

    LS: Of course. People always hit me with this feminist shit, and I'm not a feminist. I believe in equality: guys have rights, women have rights. It should be the same with race, or class, or whatever. I just like balance. I’m the two fishes, I’m the Pisces.

    Pitchfork: Tell me about the song “Tainted”, which tackles the bad side of ambition.

    LS: It’s about you becoming a product of the industry and getting accustomed to the fast lifestyle—not caring about your artistry, or your integrity, or what you used to stand for. People hear it and think I'm talking from my perspective, but I'm talking from the eyes of someone whose soul has been tainted, who’s just ugly. It's meant to be a really shitty rap song, so some of the lyrics are just weak. “Got animals that ride with me, Noah's arc” is a weak line to me, but it's all intentional, because it’s coming from the perspective of someone with no substance. That is the person I never want to become.


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    Articles: Karma Comes Back to You Hard: The Tale of the Strangest Latin Hit in Years and the Dead Man Who Sang It

    So far in 2015, six different songs have topped Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. Five of them involved slick, established stars like Enrique Iglesias singing about love or dancing, but the sixth hit was different. It was a corrido, part of Mexico’s century-old ballad tradition about everyday heroes facing impossible odds; according to Salon’s Alexander Zaitchik, corridos are like “contemporary news reports—a Mexican version of Chuck D’s description of rap as black America’s CNN.” With the rise of Mexican drug cartels over the last few decades, corridos have largely given way to narcocorridos, story songs lauding the exploits of illicit kingpins and their employees. But before last March, no narcocorrido had ever hit #1 on the Hot Latin chart.

    Then came “El Karma”. The song is credited only to a mysterious songwriter named El Diez and its eight short Spanish stanzas tell a tightly coiled story: After moving to a notorious cartel hub, our narrator starts earning money in the trafficking game. Someone envies his profits. They kidnap his daughters and demand a ransom. Instead of paying, the father goes to “collect the debt” with his gun, but his Browning is no match for the kidnappers’ Remington R15s. From beyond the grave comes the moral of the story: Karma comes and goes, but nobody can escape the reaper.

    As though to prove this point, when the song hit #1, the man who sang it, 22-year-old Ariel Camacho, had been dead for a week.

    With the song’s opening lines, Camacho places himself within a dangerous world somewhere between fact and fiction: “I was born in hot water, then I came to Culiacán.” But the Culiacán of myth is not where you usually go to escape hot water—it’s where you go when other options are worse, or when hot water feels like home.

    Culiacán is the capital of Sinaloa state, home to the Sinaloa Cartel, birthplace of legends. Noted drug lord and prison escape artist “El Chapo” Guzmán sprang from its semi-arid land, as did the influential narcocorrido singer/songwriter Chalino Sánchez—although when Sánchez found himself in hot water, having shot the man who had raped his sister, he moved to Los Angeles. In 1992, Sánchez returned to his hometown to play a show. The next day he was found beside a ditch, shot twice in the back of the head.

    Like Sánchez, Camacho died in the night after singing at a show in Sinaloa. He wasn’t shot, though. After spontaneously jumping onstage with the brass banda Clave Azul to sing“El Karma” at the Carnaval Mocorito, a big fair less than an hour from his home, Camacho and four friends packed into a 1994 Honda Accord, itself nearly as old as its occupants. Around 3 a.m. on February 25, the police received a distress call: The Accord had been going too fast and its driver lost control and crashed, killing Camacho along with 24-year-old college student Julio Valverde, and 22-year-old Melina Durán, who left behind a young son.

    Though he worked within a bloody and dangerous milieu, it’s hard to square the image of a “menacing narcosinger” with anything known about Ariel Camacho privately or publicly.

    Ariel Camacho

    Though there was no evidence to suggest the incident was anything other than an accident, suspicions lingered. Following Camacho’s death, the award-winning journalist Sam Quinones, who wrote the definitive essay on Chalino’s legacy, tweeted two indisputable facts, one atop the other: “Dangerous job, singing drug ballads … Ariel Camacho, #narcocorrido singer, dies.” He then linked to a blog post that listed several other artists who had died of decidedly unnatural causes and went on to say Camacho was part of a subgenre of “menacing narcosingers” called the Movimiento Alterado, which titillated a lot of gringos earlier this decade. Everyone from Fox News to the documentary Narco Cultura wrung their hands over the stuff, sparking a characteristically forthright rebuke from OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano: “Yes, Mexican Music Is Violent. Get Over It”.

    When I reached out to Quinones about his blog post, he noted via email that Camacho’s “altered” narcocorridos, some of which praise powerful cartel figures by name, are “a corruption of the corrido’s original intent,” which is to celebrate underdogs. He also clarified his take on the singer’s death: “I don’t imply Ariel Camacho was killed because he was a narcocorrido singer. I simply state it’s a dangerous profession. … [T]he last decade and more has shown that touring on the basis of these corridos is dangerous, particularly as the Mexican drug world has expanded and grown more brazen.” 

    Mere hours after Quinones wrote his original post on February 27, news from Mexico bore him out. That night, an audience member shot the 22-year-old corridero Alfredo Olivas mid-concert; then, in Monterrey on March 15, 20-year-old Rogelio Contreras Rivera was playing timbales with his dance band when several men climbed onstage, kidnapped him, and murdered him outside; a week after that, the 23-year-old narco singer Javier Rosas was riding past a Culiacán mall when assailants fired AK-47s at his SUV, critically injuring Rosas and killing two of his companions. 

    But even amid this bloody milieu, it’s hard to square the image of a “menacing narcosinger” with anything known about Ariel Camacho privately or publicly. Steve Weatherby, the Vice President of DEL Records, which released Camacho’s album El Karma last year, tells me, “He was a very talented but quiet individual, always kept to himself—very smiley, very positive guy.” Of course, the fact that Camacho’s label speaks of him in glowing tones should not surprise us, nor should a gap between private life and public image, since many narcosingers live genteel suburban existences. 

    In Camacho’s case, though, even the public face is at odds with the narco stereotype: One of his videos of a violent narcocorrido, “Entre Platicas y Dudas”, shows us a calm, unsmiling young man with a perpetual squint and a keening voice, as though he’s peering into the distance to locate his story. In the clip, Camacho studies his instrument like he’s solving a puzzle, his elaborate requinto solos replacing the ebullient gritos and shoutouts of other, more gregarious corrideros. It all seems to back the singer’s cultivated image of quiet solemnity; he wasn’t your typical narcosinger, and “El Karma” wasn’t your typical narcocorrido.

    When “El Karma” went to #1 in March, Billboardwrote, it was the first song in a “traditional” Mexican style to top the chart in five years. But even within the world of traditional Mexican music, “El Karma” sounds like the strangest thing on Earth. For a hit song, its combination of instruments had no precedent. The track features two acoustic guitars and a tuba; while one guitar maintains a strolling waltz strum, Camacho’s higher-tuned requinto guitar trades flamboyant gestures with the tuba, which is elevated from its normal role in the bass to a lead instrument, all triple-tongues and syncopated shoves up the scale. 

    The use of rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and lead tuba that Camacho and his band, Los Plebes del Rancho, employed on the song might sound “traditional” to ears in El Norte, but the combo is a fairly recent innovation in Mexico. According to Elijah Wald, author of the book Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, the particular style began as a novelty around 15 years ago but has since managed to stick around. 

    The question remains: Why did that anomalous sound finally top the chart? The death bump helped, no question—“El Karma” had peaked at #16 the month before Camacho died, and you wouldn’t be reading about it here if people hadn’t streamed the heck out of it after his accident. It also scaled the list during a slow week, logging smaller radio audiences and fewer downloads than its neighboring #1s. Even so, during much of 2014 and the early weeks of 2015, this murder ballad with two lead instruments—one of them a tuba—had already found a surprisingly sizeable audience.

    “I listen to a lot of songs in that genre, and whenever a new group comes out, it’s very rare that they stick out,” says Manuel Martinez-Luna, 31, who lives in New York City and makes regional Mexican compilations for The Orchard, a division of Sony Music. “But when I heard ‘El Karma’, I thought, ‘Somebody put some thought into the lyrics and the arrangement.’” Camacho early adopter Juan Carlos Ramirez, a 25-year-old who lives and works mixing chemicals in the Chicago suburbs, puts it plainly: “It sounds better because most of the groups play the same style, and Ariel Camacho plays his style.”

    Los Plebes’ solemnly sinister, tuba-fied take on “El Karma” may be definitive, but theirs was far from the only one; other versions of the song underscore Los Plebes’ originality while pushing the original lyric into new and diverse directions. Released in June 2014, the second best “El Karma” boasts a furious duet between accordion hotshot Noel Torres and the quintet Voz de Mando, and plays like the movie Taken, only with no hope for sequels. Torres’ defiant take is the exception, though. When other small norteño groups cover “El Karma”, they tend to sound jaunty but distracted, as if to say: “This is but one sordid tale from our repertoire.” The banda versions, with their triumphant brass and swanky clarinets, sound upbeat but drunk. Camacho himself got sucked into one such remake with Banda Culiacáncito, which found him lapsing into vibrato crooning at the end of the song: You can picture him winking at a pretty girl in the front row.

    Is “El Karma” a cautionary tale about the perils of joining a cartel or a defiant personal drama about a father’s love for his daughters?

    Just as people disagree on Camacho’s place in the corrido universe, no one hears the story of “El Karma” same way. Is it a cautionary tale about the cosmic perils of joining a cartel or a defiant personal drama about a father’s love for his daughters? After building to its final, violent showdown, does it follow the Alterado playbook, reveling in gunfire and gore? Or is the finale a critique of the narrator’s violent surroundings? Maybe it’s simply a fatalistic retelling of Don DeLillo’s old truism: “All plots tend to move deathward.” The skillful songwriter can pack all these possibilities into eight stanzas, yes—but so can the simple one. What summary could be more obvious than the final line El Diez gave Camacho to sing, the final line Camacho sang onstage: Nobody can escape the reaper.

    So which version of “El Karma” did songwriter El Diez intend? You would have to ask him, though he’s kind of hard to track down.

    The database of the performing rights organization BMI attributes “El Karma” to one Priscilla Ruby Rocha, raising the tantalizing prospect that the composer of this wildly popular narcocorrido is a woman. But no. Both Weatherby and Jennifer Bull, Senior Marketing Manager at Sony Latin, tell me El Diez is a man named Diego, and Weatherby confirms Priscilla Rocha is a relative who collects his royalties. Weatherby also provides a statement: “DEL Melodies, one of many publishers who control songs written by El Diez, appears not to have any working phone numbers for Priscilla Rocha or Diego.” 

    Scrolling through Priscilla Rocha’s BMI catalog reveals narcocorridos credited elsewhere to Diego Rocha and Diego Avendaño, but El Diez gets public credit for the rest—a blood-spattered lot that includes, for example, much of the band Otro Nivel’s 2013 album Prendiendo El Motor, aka Turning on the Motor. The title song begins with a revving chainsaw and goes on to tell an extremely sick story of evisceration and dismemberment. Say this for El Diez: He shows rather than tells.

    Though he is elusive, even having El Diez on speed dial wouldn’t settle all of his songs’ possibilities. The path from author’s pen to listener’s imagination is forever twisted by mishearings and personal obsessions. Take the composer’s biggest release this year, “No Andan Cazando Venados”, a minor airplay hit for Noel Torres. It’s a tribute to a man who was once one of the Mexican drug world’s big shots: Rafael Caro Quintero, now a 63-year-old fugitive. (El Diez likens him to a beast stalking the edge of the Sierra; hence the track’s glowering title, “Don’t Go Hunting Deer”.) Torres augments the song’s banda arrangement with some intricate requinto/tuba interplay, an effect both cheerful and haunting. When I suggest the requinto might be paying tribute to Camacho’s style, Gabriela Lopez, the Head of Marketing and PR at Torres’ label, demurs: “I’m sorry—with all due respect to Ariel Camacho, how do you make a tribute to someone that had one song on the radio?” 

    Well, now he’s got two. In August, Camacho’s finely wrought romantic plea “Te Metiste” made it up to #2 on Billboard’s Hot Latin chart. “Te Metiste” was briefly the most played song on Regional Mexican radio, where it brought to mind nothing but “El Karma”—a song that continues to court listeners by casting a jaundiced eye upon anyone who would try to evade a spectre of death that shows no favoritism.


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    Interviews: Riot Act: Le1f’s Radical Club Communiqués

    Le1f is sitting across from me at a picnic table in front of the Shrine, a restaurant and world music venue a dozen or so blocks from his apartment in Harlem. He’s in a form-fitting camouflage sweater with pink Chinatown sunglasses hanging from his neck, earnestly describing how he wants to punch a hole through the wall of music for himself and others like him: artists who don’t hesitate to weave political and social commentary into their work.

    “If people can make records that are about cars, drugs, women, and money, and that makes sense, then I can make songs that are about misogyny, misandry, homosexuality, transphobia, Black Lives Matter, and all that should makes sense, too,” says the 26-year-old. “I want to be part of that wave of people that is more responsible, you know?”

    Following a triptych of fractured, weed-cloudedmixtapes—“experiments,” he calls them now—this new objective comes through with force on Le1f’s upcoming debut album, Riot Boi, a breakneck set of murky club songs that double as transglobal surveys of everything from clean water availability to internalized homophobia to cultural erasure. Each topic is sieved through the Manhattan rapper’s raspy, elastic flow and a spread of icy production from the likes of Lunice, Evian Christ, and Blood Diamonds. It’s a dark and restive record, assessing the blights of our society amid spitfire boasts and woozy, ruptured backdrops. Though the glossy, #unbothered SOPHIE collaboration “Koi” serves as the album’s lead single, Le1f himself described it as “misleading” on Twitter—“a cute pink button on a heavy black cape.”

    Set for release on Terrible/XL, Riot Boi’s activistic quality makes it a debut in the vein of other sociopolitical, club-ready communiqués, particularly those from XL alumni M.I.A. and Dizzee Rascal, two cultural and critical firebrands who Le1f is quick to cite as influences. M.I.A.’s 2005 debut Arular, with its globally-aware declarations couched in big, sticky hooks and experimental production, was especially resonant on Riot Boi’s melange of message and style. On “Taxi”, Le1f turns observations of casual racism into a clever chorus: “Boys pass me like taxis do/ I don’t care, whatever, it’s cool/ Roll the window up on ‘em.” And later, on the anthemic, Devonté Hynes-featuring closer “Change”, the rapper aims to disrupt millennial malaise on a grand scale: “My generation needs to come up, 'cause it’s out of order.” 

    “There literally is no one aside from M.I.A. who’s making entire records that are both pushing politics lyrically and with production,” he says. “I feel like it probably turns out that way because she’s a woman.”

    The enormous influence of women on Le1f’s life and art functions as another key theme throughout the album: He recruits perennially underrated MCs Junglepussy and House of LaDosha on power-minded interracial sex romp “Swirl”; name-checks paradigm-defying fashion models Alek Wek, Grace Bol, and Naomi Campbell for a celebration of dark-skinned complexion on “Grace, Alek or Naomi”; and sings the praises of trans women on “Umami/Water”, which was inspired by NYC DJ, trans icon, and close friend Juliana Huxtable.

    Meanwhile, “Change” even features Le1f’s opera-trained mother in a rousing closing passage. He owes her presence on the record to the pair’s close-knit relationship. (“I do it for my people and I do it for fun/ Then I do it for the money ‘cause it’s me and my mom,” he raps on “Hi”.) Though she has performed at major NYC institutions like Carnegie Hall, recording with her son took some adjustments. Says Le1f: “She’s used to having to fill up a huge room with her voice, so I was like, you can’t go that hard.”

    Even with all of its loaded missives, Riot Boi is still a project by the same guy who got his start producing the quasi-joke track that put Das Racist on the map back in 2008; who gleefully plops soundbites from video games and anime into his rapid-fire verses; who rapped in the lap of a dude in a Pikachu mask in the video for 2012’s “Wut”, which has tallied more than three million views on YouTube; who brought along a pair of Hood By Air-clad henchmen as synchronized backup dancers for his late-night TV debut on “Letterman” last spring (a performance that Rosie Perez went on to passionately champion on “The View” a few months later). Which is all to say that Le1f is taking society to task on Riot Boi, but he isn’t about to relinquish his club roots in the process. He sums up the album’s politicized ethos with an inimitable, animated laugh: “Overall, every song has something that Desmond Tutu probably has listed on his Wikipedia.”

    “How do you say things that most people don’t care to hear about in music—and how do you say it in a way that they might sing along to?”


    —Le1f
    Photo by Eric Johnson

    Pitchfork: Who do you think is doing a good job of bringing politics into music at the moment?

    Le1f: Mostly XL artists, and that’s why it was a big deal for me [to sign with them]. Also, Mykki Blanco operates in a similar mode. I guess Rihanna’s trying it. And there’s Kanye West’s Yeezus—I mean, the fact that he figured out how to complain on a beat and make it, like, poppin’. There’s definitely an element of that on my album. The worlds of Arular and Yeezus very much influenced Riot Boi.

    Pitchfork: Is this album sonically different from your previous work because it’s so political? Did those aspects inform each other?

    L: I think I just had to become a better vocalist. I have this theory that you can say whatever you want on a song if you say it the right way, so that’s what I’ve been trying to practice. How do you say things that most people don’t care to hear about in music—and how do you say it in a way that they might sing along to? Like, with [M.I.A.’s] “Paper Planes”, I bet there’s some people who will argue against immigration but also totally dance to that song in the club. I want to get to those people.

    This album took me a super long time to make because I wanted to really tailor the songwriting. I made [2013 mixtape] Fly Zone in two and a half weeks, and although a lot of cool things happen when you move that quickly, the process of editing is really important too. With Riot Boi, I wanted every bar and hook to be worth it to me, and not something I’ve already done.

    Pitchfork: What do you want people to come away knowing about you and your art after listening to Riot Boi?

    L: That it’s about my art, and the music, emotions, and progress tied to it. After being poor and underground for so long and then making a splash and going viral with “Wut” and playing shows where I have all this weird lo-fi music but everyone’s waiting for me to play the one big song—I just want it to be about the music. It’s always been that way, but now I’m learning what that means and how to execute it. How to not just make music that satisfies myself, but also simultaneously make songs that will affect how people listen to music and exist in the world.


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    Interviews: A Matter of Mentors: In the Studio With GoldLink and Rick Rubin

    GoldLink: "Dance on Me" (via SoundCloud)

    “If it sounds too new, then tomorrow, it will sound like yesterday,” Rick Rubin tells his mentee GoldLink during a critical listening session for the D.C. rapper’s upcoming debut album, And After That, We Didn’t Talk. “But this has a new, timeless feeling, which is the best of all combinations.” The 52-year-old producer is famous for these types of mystically earnest expressions about music—koans that would not mean much if they didn’t come from a guy who played an essential role in popularizing the artform of hip-hop and has creatively guided the likes of Johnny Cash, Beastie Boys, Adele, and Kanye West over the last three decades. 

    It’s late September and Rubin and GoldLink are sitting inside of a bus that Bob Dylan used to live in; the vehicle has since been converted into a studio and is now parked in the backyard of Shangri La, Rubin’s Malibu studios. “We probably mixed half of Yeezus in this room,” Rubin says, introducing the space. “Good history." It’s a history that Rubin seems to think GoldLink has a place in, and a history that, for the moment, the 22-year-old MC can’t avoid: Tonight, Rubin is taking GoldLink and his crew to see West play his 808s & Heartbreak show at the Hollywood Bowl. And while the art for GoldLink’s breakout 2014 mixtape, The God Complex, referenced Kanye’s famed Margiela masks, the new album’s cover takes cues from Yeezus’ minimalism and idolatry with its line-drawing of head wearing a crown of thorns smeared by a red streak that might be lipstick, or blood.

    The shift to more intimate imagery suits the mood of And After That, We Didn’t Talk, a breakup album about a relationship GoldLink had when he was just 16 and better known by his real name, D'Anthony Carlos. Suitably, there’s more soulful crooning on this record, but GoldLink’s core blend of uptempo raps with his main producer Louie Lastic’s dance beats persists. “Spectrum”, the first single, is most evocative of GoldLink’s self-described “future bounce” sound: A Missy Elliot sample floats over spacey beats as the rapper’s lightspeed rhymes weave through recordings of his ex-girlfriend speaking in Tagalog. It’s a disorienting mix but also energizing and enticing—like you’re embarking on a Virgin Galactic trip to an interstellar club.

    GoldLink: "Spectrum" (via SoundCloud)

    Sitting in the driver’s seat of the bus, Rubin listens intensely, his peaceful smile lending him the air of a zenned out Santa Claus. “It doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever done before,” he declares after listening to “Polarized”, a track featuring winey horns that would blend in at a West African jazz club. Rubin fully engages with each track: eyes closed, his tattered espadrilles kicked off to the side, barefeet tapping, tanned knees bouncing.

    He’s fully feeling himself, but he still manages to couch criticism in between compliments. He calls one song lyrically “throwaway.” Another is merely “ordinary.” “I know exactly what you mean,” GoldLink admits, talking about the relatively pedestrian track. “It was mainly made—not intentionally—for the basic listeners.” GoldLink defers to Rubin’s notes with a politeness reserved for elders and legends, and Rubin is, at times, outright fatherly in return. After hearing “H-H Interlude”, a politically raw but sweetly delivered track that concludes with the sound of gunshots and children laughing, Rubin suggests for GoldLink to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent bestseller about race in America, Between the World and Me. “You’ll like it,” he says.

    GoldLink yells to Louie to write the name of the book down, then sits back in his chair. “Look at me being black and conscious,” he says, before cracking up. This is a rapper who delivers his messages with a mix of seriousness and play, of thoughtfulness and brashness, sometimes at the same time. When I ask him which artists from his generation might be considered timeless, he responds with one word: “me.” Right now, he’s just psyched on the possibility that he’ll end up sitting next to the Kardashians at the Kanye show. “It’s possible,” he says. “We’re in the family section.”

    After the album ends, GoldLink steps out of the bus and eats tacos with his crew as they overlook the Pacific Ocean. Then, while driving along the coast back to L.A., he takes a moment to debrief about his session with the Yoda of music and why he’s sworn to the truth in his raps.

    “I feel like 99% of niggas lie in they raps; I don’t.”


    —GoldLink

    Pitchfork: Was there anything Rick said that was surprising or different from what you expected?

    GoldLink: The fact that he damn near loved it was surprising. Other than that, he didn’t say anything that I didn’t expect. I know what he likes, but I kind of play him shit that he would hate on purpose, just to see what he thinks. He was like, “I kind of hate R&B,” so I was like, “Here’s this R&B track! What do you think?” And he’d be like, “It’s good!” 

    GoldLink: "Movin' On" [ft. Louie Lastic] (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: How has that relationship evolved throughout this project?

    G: When I first met him, I was kind of quiet, but now we’re close. We can talk really freely. I hit him up when I need him, and he’s always responsive. He says stuff for free. He’s always looking out for me, you know?

    Pitchfork: You told Rick you went through “800 intros” while putting this album together, why is the first track so important to get right?

    G: Whatever world you create, that’s what people are going to be stuck in. That’s why I’m really keen on the intro and the tracklist. I don’t want the album to feel like one consistent vibe, but rather that you’re going through a lot of emotions at the same time; I was balancing a lot mentally when I did this album, keeping a lot of things in mind. So if you don’t like dance-y stuff, then you’ll like sing-y stuff; if you hate my fucking voice when I sing, then you’ll like the rap shit; if you hate all that stuff and wanna be basic, then you’ll like another record. So I’m really trying to do that and stay me and then, I don’t know, grow as an artist.

    I also didn’t want to curse as much. Travelling changed that. The more people I encountered, the more I realized what an impact my music has: I can’t say I wanna beat niggas ass all the time, I can’t just say “bitch” for the sake of filling a word in.

    Pitchfork: What made you realize that that was important? A lot of performers still curse a lot when they’re speaking to a bigger audience.

    G: It’s more about the actual human interactions. Somebody would meet me and be like, “You helped me with the death of my father.” And there was another kid at a Dallas show that couldn’t get in, so he stood outside for at least four hours to give me a portrait that he created. Those are the things that make me feel like I have to do better for them. And as I’m getting older, things are changing, my life’s changing. Eventually, I want to become a father. By the time I’m 30, I’m going to look back, and then what? So I thought about all those angles and started to be more honest.

    "Think about it: You’re not just gonna shoot somebody or sell drugs and then everything’s gonna be OK. It’s not like that."


    —GoldLink

    Pitchfork: In one new song, you say that hip-hop will die if people continue to lie in their raps.

    G: I feel like 99% of niggas lie in they raps; I don’t. And the thing is, if niggas gonna lie and say they’re gonna shoot somebody, they should at least tell the facts of the story. Because you likely gonna get caught. Think about it: You’re not just gonna shoot somebody or sell drugs and then everything’s gonna be OK. It’s not like that.

    Rap songs had me start selling drugs, and that shit was not what I thought it was. So if you gonna tell it, just tell the whole truth. There are more negatives than positives, so if people stop lying in their rhymes, they would stop misleading a generation the wrong way. And that pretty much has to do with pure personal experiences about what I seen growing up in my neighborhood, about how my dad’s people sold crack, cocaine. I grew up when all of them got out of jail, on the block with them, and I saw how all their kids grew up just like them and went to jail. One of my friends is serving 33 years. Armed robbery. Those are the things you should rap about. I don’t think you should glorify it at all. I don’t really glorify it. I just talk about it. There’s nothing special about that life.


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    Podcasts: This Is How We Do It: Protomartyr

    Our new podcast series This Is How We Do It features in-depth interviews with artists about the secrets behind their creative process.


    Over the last couple of years, Detroit’s Protomartyr have become an increasingly exciting, heavy, cutthroat guitar band, peaking with their recent third album, The Agent Intellect. The record shows off frontman Joe Casey’s soulful bellow and engrossing poetry—dark, sometimes funny tales full of references to books, athletes, and his hometown. The band recently invited us to their practice space in bassist Scott Davidson’s house in Ferndale, Michigan to discuss how their songwriting process and approach has changed since their first album, 2013’s No Passion All Technique, how they have established a unified visual aesthetic for their artwork, their origins as a band called the Butt Babies, and why Davidson dressed as Austin Powers for Halloween three years in a row. We sat on a sectional in the living room, drinking beers while watching Travis Scott music videos andthat YouTube clip of those Boston dudes spotting “a baby fuckin’ whale, man.”

    Pitchfork’s This is How We Do It is presented in partnership with WeTransfer—click the button below to download the podcast:


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    Photo Galleries: Echo in the Canyon Concert With Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Power, and Jakob Dylan

    Earlier this week, a tribute concert called Echo in the Canyon took place at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. It featured artists including Beck, Fiona Apple, Jakob Dylan, and Cat Power covering classic Southern California songs by the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas & the Papas, the Turtles, the Association, Buffalo Springfield, and more. (A covers album featuring performers from the show will be released next year.) Photographer Piper Ferguson was there to catch all the action onstage and off.


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    Articles: Songs in the Key of Zzz: The History of Sleep Music

    The two-dozen concertgoers spread out their sleeping bags on the ground and settled in for a long night. It was a cold January evening in 1988, but the setting was soothing inside New York City’s Penine Hart Gallery, with incense and lavender wafting through the air. A fireplace crackled on a video monitor, and Bach's Goldberg Variations played quietly. Soon, milk and cookies were passed around, and an artist named R.I.P. Hayman and his assistant, Barbara Pollitt, commenced their performance in earnest.

    As the attendees tucked themselves in, Hayman and Pollitt played minimalist patterns on flute and harp. The room gradually filled with a soft chorus of deep breathing, and eventually a barely-audible tape of what the Village Voice critic Kyle Gann described as "beautiful, wave-patterned organ music." After that, it's hard to know exactly how the performance went, because Gann fell asleep along with the rest of the room, save for Hayman and Pollitt. The musicians were hardly offended, though: This was one of Hayman's Dreamsoundevents, and falling asleep was the point.

    That all-nighter nearly 30 years ago feels particularly relevant today as a number of artists revisit the link between music and sleep. Just consider the British composer Max Richter's new album Sleep,which lasts eight hours and is intended, Richter says, as "my personal lullaby for a frenetic world." Its premiere last month even took the form of an overnight concert in London where the audience members dozed on cots.

    Then there's Jeff Bridges' Sleeping Tapes, from earlier this year, in which the Big Lebowski star murmured genially over a downy ambient backing. Bridges' album was, in many ways, a gag—it was too engaging to function as an efficient means of dropping off. But rest and relaxation are clearly on a lot of people's minds right now.

    For more proof, just take a look at Spotify's front page, where the mood- and activity-themed playlists include at least 16 dedicated to sleep—from "Atmospheric Calm" and "Sleep Tight" (featuring Brian Eno, Nils Frahm, and yoga soundtracks), to "A Sudden Rainstorm" and "White Noise". The most popular of them, simply titled "Sleep", has more than 700,000 followers; all told, Spotify's sleep playlists have accrued nearly three million followers.

    Is there a common thread—or a high-thread-count duvet, in any case—that connects sleep concerts of the past and present with business travelers' atomized white-noise fantasias? Why all this attention to tuning in and passing out, and why now? What does the resurgence in sleep music say about the way we listen, and the way we live?

    Granted, the topic is kind of sexy. The word alone—sleep—is a hell of a word. Just say it aloud, savor the way it slips off your tongue and falls to the floor—fleet as an eyelid closing shut, heavy as a bag of flour hitting the ground. Sleep is by turns ominous, alluring, and reassuring; it mimics death yet offers rejuvenation; it promises flights of fancy and total nothingness. A naturally occurring psychedelic, sleep is the most organic, and economical, narcotic known to humankind.

    In 2009, The Wire's David Keenan coined the term "hypnagogic pop" to describe a particularly woozy strain of contemporary psychedelia espoused by the likes of Ariel Pink—"pop music refracted through the memory of a memory," as he described it. "Hypnagogic realms are the ones between waking and sleeping, liminal zones where mis-hearings and hallucinations feed into the formation of dreams," he explained.

    But whereas Keenan used the concept solely as metaphor, there is a rich musical tradition of engagement with the foggy states that bookend sleep. In Western art music, the history of pieces that tease out some sort of slumber, riding the crest of dreams like a surfer, stretches back more than a century, at least on paper, to Erik Satie's 1893 composition "Vexations". The work consists of a half-page's worth of score—a strange, sidewinding motif lasting some 80 seconds—and the instructions that it is to be repeated 840 times.

    Seventy years later, in 1963, experimental composer John Cage and 11 supporting pianists gave “Vexations” its premiere performance at a dingy theater in New York’s East Village. They took turns unfurling its repetitions, in 20-minute shifts, for about 18 hours, from 6 p.m. until just after noon the next day. "Note succeeded note: implacably, doggedly, swinging back and forth like the windshield wiper of an automobile," wrote the New York Times' Harold C. Schonberg. "Time meant nothing, and the listener floated in a suspended animation as seconds flowed into minutes." After two hours, Schonberg was relieved by seven successive reviewers, one of whom was discovered zonked out in his seat when his colleague arrived. "I couldn't help it," the anonymous reporter said. "The music was positively Zen."

    Sleep is by turns ominous, alluring, and reassuring; it mimics death yet offers rejuvenation.

    That same year, minimalist pioneer La Monte Young and multimedia artist Marian Zazeela moved their live-work residence to a loft in downtown Manhattan, where they regularly hosted all-night concerts and rehearsals, setting the groundwork for the extreme-duration compositions that would become Young's stock-in-trade. In the 1971 essay "Dream Music", Young laid out his idea of the musical drone as an eternal, continuous sound—"it lasts forever and cannot have begun"—kept alive in Dream Houses, where musicians and students lived and worked. Humankind, said Young, was finally coming out of a long quiet period, "and we are only now becoming civilized enough again that we want to hear sounds continuously. It will become easier as we move further into this period of sound. We will become more attached to sound."

    Though sleep wasn’t necessarily an expressed objective, it could certainly accompany, and even enhance, one of Young and Zazeela's marathon performances. The Village Voice's Tom Johnson once wrote of attending a private concert in the couple's loft that began in the afternoon. "Despite the pleasant atmosphere, or perhaps because of it, I dozed off after a while," he admitted. "I don't know how long I was asleep, but when I woke up everything was very different." In particular, he had become aware of a projection of patterned light on one of the loft's walls that he hadn't noticed before. At first, he wondered how he missed it, but then he realized that it had been there all along, and was only revealed when the sun went down. From the collision of a tungsten bulb, a sunset, and a couple of hours of shut-eye, magic arose.

    For some musicians in the late ’60s, sleep became a more overt creative strategy. And it was Terry Riley, whose fusion of classical minimalism and Eastern mysticism would have a profound influence on the counterculture (the Who's "Baba O'Riley" was named in tribute to the bearded visionary), who formalized and popularized the idea of the all-night concert.

    Playing a wheezy harmonium and armed with a reel-to-reel tape machine to help him stretch out his sounds (and, crucially, keep the music going during bathroom breaks), Riley conducted his first all-nighter at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1967. Attendees rolled out sleeping bags, strung up hammocks, and even brought along meals. "It felt like a great alternative to the ordinary concert scene," the composer told The Wire in 1995. In particular, Riley liked the way that the duration and setting defused audience expectations. "You could have long periods where the music could be saying not particularly anything, just waiting for a chance to develop." 

    Riley gave up his dusk-'til-dawn events in the ’70s, when he devoted himself to the study of Indian classical music—"which goes on all night anyway," he told The Wire. In fact, all-night musical events can be found in numerous cultures around the world, from Indonesian gamelan to the never-ending call-and-response chants of Hindu temple ceremonies to the "Dream Music" of Malaysia's indigenous Temiar people, who stay up all night in their longhouses, feasting and dancing while their shamans sing songs relayed to them in their dreams by animist spirits—a direct antecedent to the communal atmosphere and drowsy mysticism that Terry Riley and R.I.P. Hayman’s all-night concerts aimed for.

    "Nobody dreams in silence," Hayman, 65, tells me from his home in New York's Hudson Valley. His aforementioned Dreamsound performances were neither merely musical nor social affairs, but extensions of the artist’s longstanding interest in capturing the actual sound of dreams.

    His quest stretches back to the ’70s, when he spent a year volunteering as a research subject in studies analyzing MEMA (middle ear muscle activity), a phenomenon roughly analogous to the REM (rapid eye movement) states that accompany intense dream activity. In MEMA, which often anticipates and accompanies REM sleep, the tympanic tensor muscles of the eardrum twitch as if in response to actual acoustic input. Hayman, who has always had what he calls a "vivid dream imagination," was in his 20s then, and his stint as a sleeping guinea pig led him to a striking thought: What if the auditory landscape of dreams could be reverse-engineered by tracking the movements of the middle ear muscles?

    Hayman's goal was to eavesdrop on dreams—as though Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation were to meet Christopher Nolan's Inception.

    The idea makes a certain, if audacious, kind of sense. The eye-swivels of REM don't tell us anything about what the brain thinks it sees; they go only up, down, and side to side, like a robotic appendage—directional but senseless. But the vibrations of the inner ear, theoretically, could be an entirely different matter: If the nerve endings were found to fire in response to specific, dreamed sounds—the bark of a dog, say, or the tolling of church bells—then each of those sounds could leave a fingerprint in the form of frequency, wavelength, and amplitude.

    To test his theory, Hayman took his custom-fit sensors—pressure-strain gauges that were inserted into the inner ear, which created encephalograph readings of MEMA phenomena—and outfitted them with microscopic microphones. The goal was to eavesdrop on the dream, essentially—as though Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation were to meet Christopher Nolan's Inception.

    "The techniques were just too crude," Hayman says of his early experiments. "The sound of breathing or blood flowing nearby overwhelmed any reading we got." Though neurologists have told him his theory of recording the sound of dreams is “impossible,” he’s still holding out hope: “I'm waiting for someone to say, 'Now we can do it.'" Considering recent breakthroughs in reconstructing audio from visual information—like the researchers at MIT who managed to decipher a conversation frombehind soundproof glass by watching a video of a bag of potato chips that sat in the same room as the speakers—perhaps that day isn't far away.

    In any case, Hayman, whose biography reads like something out of a Pynchon novel—a former student of John Cage, pipe-organ restorer, licensed sea captain, maritime historian, publisher, and sinologist who once composed a multimedia installation based on his own near-death experience—is no stranger to quixotic undertakings. (One of his early compositions, Bell Roll, involves donning a suit covered with bells and rolling down a hill.) A dedicated preservationist, he is the co-proprietor of a 200-year-old landmark building in Manhattan that currently houses the Ear Inn tavern as well as a WWII yawl that Hayman rescued from the bottom of the Connecticut River. His attraction to projects that seem impossible amounts to "a story of perseverance," he says, laughing. "Folly and perseverance." 

    Not long after taking part in those MEMA experiments and writing his own paper, Listening to Dreams: A Project for Middle Ear Muscle Activity Audio Level Telemetry, Hayman staged his first Dreamsound concert in 1975 at the University of California, Berkeley, and he was soon bringing the concept to galleries and private homes across the country. Over time, he developed a format that encompassed a wide range of practices: chamomile tea, lavender oils, and Bach's Goldberg Variations, which are said to have been composed at the behest of an insomniac count who craved a soundtrack for his sleepless nights. The events were not limited to the merely aesthetic or sensory, either: Attendees were given paper and pens, should they wish to write down the night's visions. Hayman would even come around with a tape recorder, so that each participant could speak a short phrase to be played back to them while they slumbered—the better, went the theory, to help guide their dreaming. 

    Medical research, neurological theories, and what Hayman calls "the spiritual aspects of the long tradition of dream oracles and long-night events" all came together in one potent mix. Still, despite the faintly New Age airs, Hayman's sleep-based art was also imbued with a generous sense of humor—hence his "Snore Sonata", from 1987's Dreamsound cassette, featuring a multi-tracked chorus of snoring, and his Fluxus-like performance piece "Sleep Whistle", in which the performer naps in public with a whistle stuck in his or her mouth.

    R.I.P. Hayman's 1987 cassette Dreamsound features tracks like "Snore Sonata" and "Yawn Quartet"


    Whereas Hayman introduced the idea of the sleep concert as a fusion of ritual and avant-garde performance, it would fall to the California ambient musician Robert Rich to popularize the format. When Hayman pulled off his first all-nighter in Berkeley in 1975, Rich was just 12 years old and living just 39 miles away, in Menlo Park. It was a heady time in the Bay Area. The Grateful Dead practiced just a few doors down from Rich's house, and one of his takeaways from the hippie culture, even as a boy, "was that there was this sense of magic possible," he says, speaking by Skype from his home studio in Silicon Valley, where a massive modular synthesizer looms behind him.

    Rich began building synthesizers when he was 13, around the same time that he began listening to KPFA, a local independent radio station at the far left of the dial, where he discovered experimental music—artists like John Cage, Terry Riley, and Pauline Oliveros. By the late '70s, the punk scene was kicking off in San Francisco, and while it exerted a certain pull—Rich skipped his high school graduation in order to see a Throbbing Gristle show—he was more interested in meditative soundscapes than in racket or confrontation. As a teenager, he wrote a manifesto that read, in part: "I want to create music that causes people to listen to everything but the music, and to eventually go away into complete silence while all you hear is the universe around you."

    "I guess I was a pretty intense kid," he says now, laughing at the memory. "I really wanted to create a shamanic music." 

    At home, he had already begun devising evolving soundscapes that chirped and bleeped all night long. His inspiration was the time he had spent as a boy living at his grandparents' house, on a wooded plot of land with a creek running through it. There were frogs in the creek, and when it rained, he'd stay up late into the night, listening to the drops splashing off the leaves while the frogs called to each other. "They taught me music," he says. "That was when I realized the ears could take us around corners into places we can't see."

    Like Hayman, Rich was interested in the convergence of avant-garde aesthetics with traditional rituals from around the world, like the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia and the Blessing Way ceremonies of the Navajo. American culture, he felt, sorely lacked these kinds of community rituals—save, perhaps, for rock concerts. But, as an introvert, he sought out a mode of expression that was the exact opposite of rock'n'roll's emphasis on spectacle. "I wanted to create a sense of meditative depth by shifting expectations away from entertainment and into deep listening," he says.

    Rich held his first sleep concert in 1982, in his freshman year at Stanford University—a school he had chosen, in part, for the acclaimed sleep-research unit of its psychiatry department. After he tacked up some flyers around campus—“bring a sleeping bag,” they advised—around 20 people spread out on the blue shag rug of his dorm’s common room, where he had set up his modular synthesizer, a pair of cassette players, and a handful of effects. 

    Rich continued to develop his shamanistic style at sleep concerts throughout the decade, creating complex, perpetually evolving soundscapes designed to trigger, and guide, the imagination. He likens the process to a moving river: "You're going to see things like little insects and leaves and reflections of the sky floating on the surface, but underneath that, there's a slow-moving current that's always changing; it's never going to be the same river twice."

    Robert Rich playing a sleep concert at the Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center earlier this year. Photo by Yann H. Andersen.


    A bout of mononucleosis put an end to Rich's sleep concerts in the late '80s, but he resumed them in the '90s, both in person and as a series of radio events—until the all-nighters finally took their toll on him, and he put the idea to bed for good. He also created two night-long soundtracks for private sleepers: 2001's seven-hour-long Somnium and 2014's eight-hour Perpetual, both of which fuse murky synthesized drones with faintly audible field recordings that quietly prod at the edges of perception. "The musical environment of Somnium can act like a lens to sharpen mental images, a stimulus to help you generate internal realities," explains Rich in the liner notes to the project, which has developed a considerable cult following over the years.

    "A lot of people said they would listen to it every night for years, and I find that really gratifying,” says Rich. “It means I succeeded in making something that’s both interesting enough and also vague enough that you don’t get tired of what you’re hearing.” 

    As contemporary interest in the sleep-concert format has grown in recent years, Rich revived the idea for Krakow's Unsound festival in 2013 as well as last year’s Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo. Still, after all these years, Rich—who, as a college student, majored in psychology with a focus on psycho-physiology and sleep research—has become skeptical about the phenomenon he's credited with popularizing.

    "I'll be really frank with you—I’ve often felt that the concept was better than the actual application,” he admits. “I was never really sure I could feel an understanding of what was going on in the listeners’ minds, and there’s always this unusual sense of 'I can’t tell if it worked or not.'"

    When Rich first released Somnium, he opted to put it out on DVD. At the time, it was the only format that could support seven hours of uninterrupted audio (and even then, he had to make a number of technical compromises in order to fit all the music onto a single disc). But now, streaming services offer infinite, instant access.

    It turns out that streaming, for all the anguish it may cause artists and record labels, is the perfect platform for sleep soundtracks, particularly for listeners in search of long stretches of uninterrupted sound. Fifteen years ago, when I went through a phase of listening to ambient music when I went to sleep, I'd load up a three-disc changer with Aphex Twin, Gas, and Jochem Paap CDs; today, you can simply create a playlist that is as long as you like. 

    And there are a lot of such playlists: In April, Spotify reported that users had created 2.8 million sleep-themed playlists on the service. As it turns out, most of those people aren't looking for psychoacoustic soundtracks or Temiar dream songs; the most-streamed song on sleep-themed playlists was Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud". In fact, seven of his songs made the service’s global sleep top 20, along with songs by Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding, John Legend, and the Weeknd. (If you've ever thought any of those artists were totally snooze-worthy, well, now you can feel vindicated.)

    The most-streamed song on Spotify’s sleep-themed playlists was Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud”.

    More interesting, perhaps, was the list of what they termed "Popular Background Tracks to Aid Sleep"—that is, non-musical sound effects like white noise and rainfall. The top slot belongs to something called "Box Fan Sound", and the fan has a lot of fans. As I write this, nearly 1.9 million people have tuned in to its reassuring whirr.

    The maker of the sound is an app company out of Arlington, Virginia, called TMSOFT that got its start seven years ago making games for mobile devices. "I still do video games, but white noise has been my biggest hit," says Todd Moore, the company's co-founder. When he met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last year, Moore says, he was introduced as “the white noise guy.”

    "That's what I'm best known for—putting people to sleep,” he adds with a chuckle.

    Moore’s White Noise was the first free app of its kind in Apple's App Store and it was an instant hit. It's a simple proposition: Fire the thing up and you get your choice of sound—from white, pink, brown, and other shades of randomized noise, to vacuum cleaner or hair dryer. Seven years later, Moore says that TMSOFT has millions of people using the app and over 100,000 users that regularly log into the website, where they can download new background-noise loops—like radio static, electrical transformers, boiling water, singing birds—and even upload their own recordings. (Among the most unusual sounds in the "White Noise Marketplace": a military truck; sleeping pugs; the whirring of a Wurlitzer juke box.)

    But the box fan remains the app's most popular sound—and it’s actually what inspired Moore to make White Noise in the first place. Moore had always chosen to sleep to the whirl of a real fan, but, in winter, it seemed ridiculous to have one running. So he recorded a fan and a handful of similarly soothing sounds—crickets, ocean waves—and coded a player that would play them on an infinite loop. "I didn't think anybody wanted it," says Moore. Millions of downloads later, he’s happy to be wrong.

    The way that white noise works is fairly simple: It raises the level of ambient background noise so that any unexpected sound—a car alarm down the street, or the garbage truck rolling down the block—is subsumed into the hum. But Moore believes there's an emotional component at work as well, one that helps explain how he has managed to crowdsource such a remarkable array of noises.

    "All the people that I've met feel the most relaxed when they hear the sounds of their childhood," says Moore. "I've gotten thousands of emails: 'Can you please record this sound for me?' It can be anything—rain on a tin roof, or some type of tree frog that's only in Bermuda. Whatever you grew up with, that is the sound that typically relaxes you the most."

    The virtual box fan might be the perfect lullaby for our era: A digital imitation of the sound of an analog machine to which we have become so accustomed that what once was merely noise is now rendered nostalgic.

    "Lullaby" is one of the terms that Max Richter uses to describe his eight-hour composition, Sleep; "pause" is another. "I feel like right now,  we have a lot of information going on," he says, citing usual suspects like Facebook and Twitter. Sleep, with its reassuring tones, repetition, and extreme length, "is an invitation to focus on one thing in a slightly more concentrated way."

    Of course, that concentrated focus kind of goes out the window if you actually sleep through Sleep. So are there unconscious benefits to listening to Richter’s project? It’s possible: When he was writing the composition, Richter learned about recent research focusing on the importance of certain slow-wave phases of sleep and how to artificially induce these states through sound. "This is apparently where learning, memory, and organization happen," says Richter. “And one of the ways you can get there is with low-frequency sounds, and I'm obsessed with low bass. So there's a lot of this pulsing energy in the music. Whether that actually works or not—I mean, we don't really know."

    The unknowability of sleep is contingent to its appeal, and yet, trying to sneak a glimpse at the unconscious is irresistible. That sense of revealing hidden forces became a crucial aspect of a sleep concert organized by Pedro Rocha in Porto, Portugal last year. The event was soundtracked by Christoph Heemann and Timo van Luyck, artists known for the dark, unsettling character of their work, and they had no interest in providing sweet dreams. The atmosphere in the room was tense, a kind of limbo between sleep and wakefulness. At one point in the night, while Rocha was trying to rest, he heard a single shriek ring out. But even then, he had to ask the guards if it had really happened, or if it was just a product of his imagination. 

    "Sleep concerts have a dual nature," says Rocha. "On the one hand, they don't ask for the focused concentration of the audience—which reminds us of what happens in many concerts, where music becomes just one aspect of a social event—and on the other hand, they point towards a very individual musical experience that asks for a certain vulnerability. It has this exotic appeal, and yet it's not an experience you can film with your phone."

    That's not to say it can't be visualized. In an echo of Hayman’s experiments with sleep, after the Porto show was over, one of the audience members shared a drawing inspired by the experience. It features two supine individuals beneath two coiled lines; their bodies, rendered in short, wavy white lines against a black backdrop, seem to be made of pure vibration.

    Illustration by Martirium von Calhau


    Despite his skepticism regarding the therapeutic benefits of sleep concerts, Robert Rich remains convinced that the right music can open up an entirely new world of consciousness. When I ask why it's important to pay attention to our subconscious and our dreams, he fixes me with a look that's at once urgent and sympathetic. "So much of what we experience is in parallel to our sense of self. We have this little script that says, 'me, me, me, me, me,' all day long, and we place ourselves right behind our eyes in this physical world and think that’s all there is. But our organs of perception are constantly processing things in the periphery. If we ignore that, we’re ignoring much of ourselves."

    "I feel that we are becoming really disconnected from our planet and our bodies," he continues, his expression becoming more urgent. "As we get older, we realize what a blink life is, how fast it goes, and the technologies around us conspire to distract us from what really matters—community, the planet, the environment, love, joy. The thing-ness of reality is very important, and if I have a lifelong goal, it’s to try to help people stay aware of being in this world, in a body, for the very short time that we’re here.”

    Forty-five years ago, La Monte Young predicted that we would "become more attached to sound". Perhaps he was right. Today, music is a part of people's everyday lives as never before, and formerly avant-garde attitudes toward sound have become commonplace. This is as true by night as it is by day. We can build a Dream House wherever we lay our heads. Whether we choose to listen to the creaking of the eaves is up to us.


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    Photo Galleries: Kendrick Lamar at the Kennedy Center

    Check out a photo gallery from Kendrick Lamar's show last night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. as well as a review of the concert by Marcus J. Moore.

    With the cover of this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly—featuring a group of black men celebrating in front of the White House—Kendrick Lamar overthrew the system of despair and political greed that birthed his environment. The image is at once provocative and deeply complex, connecting with a potential agenda that the rapper makes clear on a song called “Institutionalized”:

    “If I was the President
    I'd pay my mama's rent

    Free my homies and them
    Bulletproof my Chevy doors
    Lay in the White House and get high, Lord
    Who ever thought?
    Master, take the chains off me!”

    The lines are both damning and freeing, and they held special weight last night as the 28-year-old Compton MC found himself near the epicenter of American power—and corruption—at the renowned Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Along with his own band and the 96-member National Symphony Orchestra, Lamar performed on a stage that is about as close to the infamous Watergate complex as it is to the White House.

    “We did To Pimp a Butterfly for these moments,” he told the capacity crowd, before seizing the spotlight with an electric sort of verve. Butterfly is unapologetically black: It celebrates the culture while addressing the struggles of living with brown skin. The record takes on issues rarely dealt with in mainstream popular music, teasing out the intricacies of color complexes, the pitfalls of fame, and the anger of seeing your people killed without regard.

    Lamar performed Butterfly’s darker tracks at the Kennedy Center, like “Hood Politics” and “The Blacker the Berry”, but the show was a generally festive affair. Shortly before 9 p.m., the rapper—dressed in all black with freshly done cornrows—sauntered onto the stage, dragging a mic stand and seemingly in deep thought. Aided by his own band and the full orchestra, Lamar came out to their version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love”. Staring at the patrons through squinted eyes, Lamar looked like he was about to say something profound. Then the strings swelled and the band revved up for his first words: “This. Dick. Ain’t. Freeeee! 

    That led to a brief, deconstructed version of “Institutionalized” and a raucous version of good kid, m.A.A.d. city standout “Backseat Freestyle”. The already menacing “m.A.A.d. city” sounded especially gigantic with a full string section and live guitars to emphasize its ominous scope. Meanwhile, Lamar’s recent radio hit “Alright” damn near collapsed the symphony hall between the orchestra’s exquisite showing and the fans’ overwhelming elation.

    At certain times throughout the night, Lamar seemed physically connected with the musical overflow around him. When certain tones hit—those drum kicks, the deep bass stabs—the rapper jolted suddenly, as if the music sent euphoric shockwaves through his body. Amid the NSO’s cinematic score, it didn’t necessarily feel like a famous performer was onstage: This was a triumph for hip-hop overall. 

    Toward the end of the show, following the energetic funk of “King Kunta” and the Isleys-sampling “i”, Lamar slowed the procession with “Mortal Man”, Butterfly’s reflective closing track. There, with the beat just above a crawl, the rapper looked inward to assess his fate as a black man and a celebrity. “If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car/ Would you judge me a drug head, or see me as K. Lamar?” These are valid questions for Kendrick, as well as anyone who feels disenfranchised. And in that moment, Lamar was simply one of us: A guy with good intentions, giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s one hell of a campaign slogan.


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    Photo Galleries: Buried Alive: Unlocking the Mysteries of Poland’s Unsound Festival

    Check out a photo gallery from this year's Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland, as well as a review of the event by Philip Sherburne.

    I. A Rumor Exhumed

    Was it really him? That was the question many electronic music fans were asking last weekend while standing inside of a smoke-filled chamber carved out of rock, hundreds of feet beneath the Earth. The "him" in question was Burial, and while the idea would normally be all but unthinkable—as far as I know, he's never played live or even DJed—this was the "Surprise" edition of Krakow, Poland’s annual Unsound Festival, and, with a significant chunk of the lineup kept secret until the moment the artists took the stage, all bets were off. 

    It certainly sounded like Burial, though it was impossible to say who the hooded figure on stage actually was. The 800-capacity hall deep in a former salt mine was already plenty smoky, but when the shadowy, unannounced act began, the lights dimmed further, the dry ice machines went into overdrive, and the atmosphere turned thick as midnight on the moors.

    The set began with what sounded like the squeaking of sneakers on a basketball court; there were rustling noises and soft, backwards strings; shuffling UK garage beats and mournful melodies were threaded with the sound of running water and snippets of dialogue. There were bees, too—swarming, buzzing bees that swelled in volume between tracks. It took me three or four songs to go from thinking, "This sure sounds like Burial," to, "How could this be anyone but Burial?"

    By now you may have read Hyperdub's disavowal that it was Burial on stage; the artist’s longtime home tweeted that it "must be" label head Kode9, which I suppose is a good possibility—although the fact that they didn't disavow the entire thing suggests that it was probably-most-definitely Burial's music we were all listening to. (Also, when I ran into Kode9 later that night and congratulated him on "his" set, he said that he hadn't played, so hey—either he or his label was lying.)

    In the end, it doesn't really matter who filled out the hoodie while they hit the start button on the CD player; the audience was treated to 30 or 40 minutes of what was probably unreleased Burial material, and that's the closest any of us will ever get, most likely, to "seeing" him "play live." And all while literally buried underground.

    By Philip Sherburne

    II. After the Reveal

    Burial-not-Burial may have been the most unexpected of the week's surprises, but there were plenty of other big ones. Down in the salt mine, King Midas Sound and Fennesz whipped up an awesome noise that suggested that salt, in addition to all its other properties, makes a pretty sweet acoustic treatment. Lawrence English played a porous-but-crushing ambient set that felt a little like being flattened by a stack of hay bales. Rrose played James Tenney's "Having Never Written a Note for Percussion" on a gong. Powell and Lorenzo Senni collaborated for the first time, meshing together the former's rave-damaged hardcore detritus and the latter's trance-stab trepanations.

    Even Richie Hawtin turned up to debut a new set in which motion-capture video cameras translated his hands' movements into dancing lines on two screens flanking the stage. Sure, it was a surprise to see Hawtin in a 400-capacity room, a far cry from his usual festival stages and mega-clubs, but his appearance was pretty anticlimactic, with a plodding ambient introduction that sent some clubbers into the main room, where Detroit's DJ Bone was holding court with a masterful set of high-energy house and techno.

    One of the interesting things about the "surprise" conceit was the way the reveal often turned out not to be a big deal at all. In part, that was practical: How many people actually recognized Prurient when he took the stage—how many could even see him, for that matter—and how many could actually distinguish his over-the-top assault from other noise acts? I sure had no idea who synth-noise duo Damien Dubrovnik were, not even by the end of their set, when I saw one of the Danes standing sweaty, dazed, and spattered with his own blood backstage. (They were great, by the way).

    But the injection of uncertainty into the lineups also seemed to make audiences more patient. Had they known that Tuesday night's closing act was going to be a Polish hip-hop duo named SYNY, many in the crowd might have headed for the door. Instead, as the room filled up with dry ice and incense, those of us who stayed were treated to a bizarre and wonderful set that sounded like vintage Mo Wax under the influence of a whole lot of King Tubby, complete with floor-shaking bass synth, crackling homemade spring reverb, and sullen, sing-song rapping in Polish. That they were all but invisible onstage only underscored the perverse nature of the "surprise." But the Polish fans who rapped along weren't the only ones who were stoked; I caught sight of Chicago footwork originator RP Boo whipping out his phone to record a few of SYNY's beats and shouting, "Sick! Sick!"

    By Philip Sherburne

    III. The City in Sound

    This is where I should probably add that I don't pretend to be objective when it comes to Unsound; in eight years of attending the festival, I've become close friends with the organizers, who have often invited me to DJ at the opening or closing parties. (This year, I played a B2B set with Warsaw's Eltron John at the festival's free closing party.) But I also wouldn't keep coming back if I weren't routinely delighted by Unsound.

    Part of the pleasure of the festival is the way it makes use of the city, and this year was no different. The closing party took place in a crumbling cargo warehouse; Tim Hecker's "Ephemera" performance and an improv session with drummer Greg Fox were held in an abandoned tobacco factory. (Events at the gothic Saint Catherine's Church had to be moved at the last minute, though, after a right-wing columnist accused the festival of promoting "authentic, purposeful and very thoughtful Satanism" in an article that has since been taken down.)

    Krakow has been cleaning itself up in the past decade, and many of its formerly ramshackle facades have been fixed up and repainted. But an air of elegant decay still hangs over the city, and that gloom makes for the perfect counterpoint to a lineup that leans heavily toward noise, drones, industrial-tinged techno, and lysergic world musics. At dusk, the ominous chattering of roosting crows sounded like some kind of installation piece. And this year's program threaded itself even more deeply into the fabric of the city via two performances timed alongside the hejnał, a traditional bugler's anthem played hourly from the tower of Saint Mary's Cathedral. In one, Tim Hecker played glinting ambient music for unsuspecting tourists below; in the other, the Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek played melancholy riffs and runs.

    By Philip Sherburne

    IV. Lost in the Fog

    If Tim Hecker's church-tower performance turned a misty city square into a performance space, his Ephemera project did the opposite: It took a room and turned it into a cloud. Entering an abandoned, pre-war industrial building set on a backlot in a part of Krakow not many festival-goers ever explore, you walked up a few flights of stairs, past graffiti-sprayed rooms that had been cordoned off with security barriers, and wandered into what was, in effect, an indoor fogbank, with visibility at about three feet. Strips of LEDs had been hung in a circle around the edges of the room, creating an effect that was both luminous and opaque all at once. Shapes of other people floated past; you were vaguely aware of formless shadows, but never more than four or five at a time—and this in a room that must have held 100 people. The walls and ceiling had, in effect, disappeared. The color, upon entering, was a sort of grapefruit pink; it felt as if you'd tumbled into a 3D recreation of Deafheaven's Sunbather album cover by Olafur Eliasson—and in Smell-o-Vision, too.

    Unsound has been working the scent angle for a while now. Last year they teamed up with the perfumer Geza Schoen to create a line of fragrances designed in collaboration with Hecker, Kode9, and Ben Frost. The perfumes are called Drone, Bass, and Noise, and they are curious things—chemical scents with notes of burnt plastic and hot light bulb that are somehow strangely appealing. Last year, they put together a multimedia installation that combined music by each artist, strobing lights, and an air diffuser blasting the scent into the rooms at regular intervals. It was interesting, but like a lot of contemporary art, "interesting" was about it; it didn't transport you.

    This time, you were transported. Hecker's distorted organs and guitars throbbed and gurgled and glowed; the wooden floors of the place shook beneath your feet. His vivid tone colors seemed a perfect match for the pink-into-red-into-blue play of the lights. Towards the climax, the strobes sped up—overwhelming and calming all at once. If you'd ever wanted to feel like there was nothing around you but sound and light, this was as close as you were going to get.

    By Philip Sherburne

    V. Lightning Round: Highlights

    Gary, Ind.'s Jlin played her first overseas set to a jumping, peak-time main room. Shuddering, footwork-inspired rhythms were braided with staccato vocal chops and vividly layered percussion. Her music has a dark, paranoid cast, but she grinned from ear to ear.

    Nina, one of the resident DJs of Hamburg's Golden Pudel club, opened the main room on Saturday night with a masterful set of steel-wool ambient, weaving tracks from Helm and Wolf Eyes into a seasick succession of drones.

    Nine Inch Nails' Alessandro Cortini held listeners rapt with a meditative set of synthesizer arpeggios run through fuzz and dub delay. It was one of the simplest sets of the week, both sonically and conceptually, but that was part of its charm.

    On Sunday, the powerhouse drummer Greg Fox (Liturgy, Zs, Guardian Alien) played a special "Gregidency" in the old tobacco factory. First was a solo set that wove live-triggered Ethiopian singing into liquid drum fills; then he was accompanied by a succession of previously unannounced (and unknown to him) improvisers, including the Polish reed player Jerzy Mazzoll, Polish bassist Piotr Zabrodszki, and the Australian guitarist and electronic musician Oren Amarchi. Audience members sat on the dusty floor and leaned against crumbling plaster while the afternoon sun carved sharp angles through the windows. It was incredibly loud and incredibly peaceful, leaving you alone, if you wished, with your thoughts and the rumbling of the floorboards below.

    In a surprise 1 a.m. Friday night slot in the main room, Markus Schmickler (aka Pluramon) and Carsten Goertz took a mischievous, brute-force approach to EDM's shock-and-awe tactics, rerouting rave's adrenalized energy through a maddening succession of Shepard tones accompanied by sweeping strobes. It went on like that for 45 elastic minutes or more—all tension, no release, as exhilarating as it was exhausting. Unsound in a nutshell, in other words.


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