Chance the Rapper: "Good Ass Intro" [ft. BJ the Chicago Kid] on SoundCloud.
Though much of the hip-hop currently coming out of Chicago largely disregards the city's soul-sampling rap past in favor of more exquisitely destructive sounds, 20-year-old Chance Bennett-- aka Chance the Rapper-- is something of a throwback. His 2012 mixtape 10 Day, which was partially recorded while he was on a 10-day suspension from Chicago's prestigious Jones College Prep High School, features the type of soothing, jazzy textures, and narrative, open-hearted wordplay of pre-superstar Kanye West or Common mixed with the zooted spontaneity of vintage Eminem. He describes the tape as a "coming out-- this is what it's like to go to a gifted school, to be addicted to drugs, and to be 18 in Chicago."
Since 10 Day, he's collaborated with fellow classicist Joey Bada$$ on the memorable "Wendy N Becky" and teased tracks from his forthcoming Acid Rap tape, which is due out April 30. In classic puffed-chest Kanye mode, he calls the new release "my best work so far."
"Sonically, this'll be that tape that people look back on for forever," he continues, "like when Kanye came out with the pink polos and the soul samples, and niggas was like, 'This is completely different.' When artists come out and do some shit that's different and it's accepted, it can be huge."
Part of his sonic gambit involves lacing another homegrown style-- fast-moving juke music-- into his repertoire on the tape's first single, "Good Ass Intro" (another 'Ye reference). "I'm just making really dope music and experimenting with a lot of sounds and a lot of drugs," he says on the phone from the back of a car driving through East Lansing, Michigan.
Pitchfork: At this point, when people say, "young Chicago rapper," most would think of Chief Keef and the drill scene. Where do you see yourself in relation to those artists and that style?
Chance the Rapper: Chicago is a music capital right now. It's gonna be even bigger, too. Keef came out in March of last year and put at least 20 or 30 other Chicago acts in the major limelight. He created something that the city is proud of. There's a lot of shit that the city isn't proud of, which kind of connects with the music and the violence-- I can't really argue that it's not connected-- but I can argue that the music scene as a whole in Chicago is something that's striving. For me, it's all one and the same. I make my music and artists of different genres make their kind of music, but we all live in the same city. We all see it, we all feel it.
Pitchfork: Like Keef, you're from the South Side of Chicago, but the high school that you were suspended from, Jones College Prep, isn't in that neighborhood.
CTR: Jones is downtown. It's a really good school. My parents always wanted me to go to college. I got suspended a lot, but senior year I got suspended for smoking weed right before spring break, which was sick because I had three weeks in a row off. I wasn't really good at high school or getting good grades and shit, and at that point, I wasn't going to graduate. I was looking at my life and just like, "Who am I supposed to be?"
I had already been making music for my whole high school life, and 10 Day, which took me a whole year to finish, was about working with a lot of different producers and learning all of the aspects about being a rapper, from shows, to recording, to studio etiquette, to marketing. By the time I had finished learning most of that shit around April of last year, I dropped the tape I started working on Acid Rap, and I just haven't been able to stop.
Pitchfork: You've talked about how your parents were really pissed that you were suspended for smoking weed-- how did they feel about your YouTube video, "Chance Does Acid In Mexico"?
CTR: They're not really fans of Mexico. [laughs] They're not fans of acid. But they've kind of grown to understand what I'm doing, and they're super supportive of everything-- not necessarily the acid aspect of it, though.
Pitchfork: They're not buying you tabs or anything.
CTR: Definitely not. My parents are super cheap.
Pitchfork: Is the title Acid Rap a reference to anything else?
CTR: There are a lot of different acid jazz sounds I'm playing with on there, too. There's a lot of Jamiroquai, and all the influences for acid jazz, like disco and funk and soul, trying to put all of that into this new acid rap shit that I'm making. It sounds so damn good.
Pitchfork: Did you say Jamiroquai? That's not a reference I hear a lot of rappers make in interviews.
CTR: That's just because I'm a weird nigga that went to high school with a bunch of white kids-- that's some shit that I can say out loud and not really care about.
Pitchfork: What's your take on the rappers you've been compared to thus far?
CTR: I like all the comparisons a lot of people make to Kendrick and Eminem and Kanye and [Andre 3000]-- those are all people I listen to everyday. And I try to put little shit in my music so people can realize there's a very heavy Chicago and midwest influence. And a lot of the funk and soul comes from listening to the Dungeon Family, OutKast, and Goodie Mob. I just listen to a lot of good shit.
Every song on 10 Day is a completely different sound-- the cadence, the flow, even the production-- because I like so many different types of music and because my taste is so refined. Acid Rap is another tape where every song sounds different. But there's still a certain sound, not just my voice, that flows through it, so people can make that connection. This time, niggas will be able to hear a new song from me and be like, "Oh, that's Chance."
The week that three members of Portland’s Exploding Hearts died in a car crash, I had planned to pick up two Stiff Records t-shirts at Norman’s Sound and Vision in New York: one for myself, and one for Hearts singer Adam “Baby” Cox. I grew up obsessively listening to my dad’s copy of the Stiff compilation Heroes & Cowards, and I saw that shirt in the window of Norman’s hundreds of times. But it wasn’t until I met Adam in the spring of 2003 that I put those two things together and got really excited about it.
I always feel a little weird mentioning that, as if I’m overstating my proximity to tragedy, or turning a simple coincidence of timing into “it really makes you think” faux-synchronicity. But what I remember about the Exploding Hearts is how excited they made me, both about their music and about the music that they loved. The Exploding Hearts fundamentally got both the artistry and the energy behind the best pop and punk music of the last half-century. They channeled it so well that it was easy to miss just how much was actually going on, how many perfect little decisions were made in each of their songs.
At first glance, Adam, bassist Matt Fitzgerald, drummer Jeremy Gage and guitarist Terry Six, could have been characters on a Saturday morning cartoon show about a punk band: all white jeans, leather jackets, bleached hair, and weather-agnostic sunglasses. It was easy to write them off. They were almost daring you to write them off. And, by all accounts, plenty of folks in their native Portland were initially more than happy to do so.
That is, of course, until those people actually heard the Exploding Hearts. MP3s ripped from a limited German vinyl release had already been making the rounds among punk and power-pop aficionados when Dirtnap Records officially put out the band’s debut, Guitar Romantic, in March of 2003. That momentum only seemed to multiply in the following months, and before long it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Exploding Hearts were going to be big. In a logical next step that would, in fact, have made perfect sense on a Saturday morning cartoon show about a punk band, the Exploding Hearts set out for San Francisco that July to meet with Lookout! Records, the Berkeley-based label that had launched Green Day’s career a decade earlier. On their way back to Portland, the band’s van flipped over on I-5, killing Adam, Matt, and Jeremy. Adam was 23, Matt was 20, and Jeremy was 21.
For all the complicated feelings attached to it, Guitar Romantic still makes me more excited than sad. When the posthumous singles compilation Shattered was released in 2006, I hadn’t stopped listening to Guitar Romantic. Seven years later, I haven’t stopped listening to either. For all the ostensible simplicity of the band’s music I am still discovering new things to love about these songs. In that spirit, I’d like to share my 10 favorite moments from the Exploding Hearts’ all-too-brief body of work. (Listen along to Guitar Romantic on Spotify.)
01. The opening chords of “Modern Kicks”
The first seconds of Guitar Romantic set the stage for an album that is both humble and hubristic. Even if you’ve never heard “Modern Kicks”, those opening chords sound familiar. If you’ve ever picked up an electric guitar, you’ve probably played these chords in this order, hit that slide up from an open E chord to a barred B chord and felt like you’re suddenly driving a top-down convertible to somewhere unspeakably awesome. But you didn’t turn it into a song. And you certainly didn’t turn it into this song.
02. The little guitar riff after the line “it didn’t hurt you told all my friends I’m a retard” in “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades”
The Exploding Hearts were a generous band. It’s easy to take up the “bratty” signifiers of punk as an excuse to be perpetually obnoxious and disaffected, but this band valued earnestness and good humor over irony and distance. They weren’t afraid to look dumb or sound ridiculous. This little guitar lick sounds like it could be part of an old radio jingle. It’s absurd. Every time I hear it, I scrunch up my face and do a little air-guitar dance. And then I smile for a long time.
The riff works particularly well because the band has actually trained you to expect it with a call-and-response vocal in the previous line. There are lots of subtle vocal doubling and arrangement cues on Guitar Romantic that help create exactly the right place for every line to land. The Exploding Hearts could certainly be over-the-top in both appearance and approach, there’s a lot of strategy in these songs. You sometimes can’t hear it over the exuberance of their performance. That is what makes it strategy.
03. The line “I’ve been missing from home since the age of 10/ $100 reward, I think I’ll turn myself in” in “Boulevard Trash”
The reward is only $100... for a dude who’s been missing from home since the age of 10! These are smart lyrics that sound dumb, and I’m still catching up with them. The instruments for Guitar Romantic were all recorded separately, and the drum fill around 1:14 is one of very, very few places on the record where you can actually hear it. This may be the only part of the whole album where the guitar feels even remotely tentative, where you can tell that Terry is trying to play along with the drums while keeping his own part consistent. The whole thing almost flies apart... which only makes it more powerful when the song promptly snaps right back into place.
Every time I hear the little riff in "Sleeping Aides and Razorblaes", I scrunch up my face and do a little air-guitar dance. And then I smile for a long time.
04. The impossible-to-pinpoint moment towards the end of “I’m a Pretender” when the song hits its stride
“I’m a Pretender” is one of the songs that Louisiana musician and former Hearts member “King” Louie Bankston brought to the band, and they approach it almost like a cover. The initial guitar part is perfectly executed, but after that the band can’t quite seem to get a handle on the song’s feel. Those snare hits blankly accelerate forward, and then the whole band just lays into it because what else are you going to do if you’re the Exploding Hearts? “I’m a Pretender” is the song on the record that probably calls for the most self-aware nuance, and the band just bulldozes it: no looking back, no hedging. By the time that last “I’m a pretender/ Said love pretender!” comes around, the band has transformed the song through sheer force of will. You can’t imagine it existing apart from these exact people playing it this exact way.
05. The acoustic guitar intro of “Jailbird”
Depending on how you read its opening pronouns, this song is either written from the perspective of a guy who’s sniffing a ton of glue to keep up with a girl he likes, or a dude who had to sniff a lot of glue because he saw the girl he likes with another guy. At one point, the girl in question apparently gets so high that she talks to-- and then kisses-- a squirrel. As if to emphasize that he is talking about an actual squirrel, not a squirrelly dude, Adam implores, “kissing its lips -- why not mine?”
I picked the acoustic guitar intro here because it’s still one of the first things I play whenever I pick up a new guitar. Sometimes it will take me a few minutes to remember what song it is; at this point, it’s all muscle memory. It was years before I noticed that the opening acoustic guitar theme comes back later in the song, played on a bell-clear 12-string electric guitar. That same 12-string guitar plays the most expertly constructed solo on the whole album... which is immediately followed by gross, exaggerated glue sniffing noises.
06. The fact that the intro to “Busy Signals” sounds a lot like Joe Jackson's “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”
I had the enormous pleasure of seeing the Exploding Hearts play a show at the basement of the Harvard Lampoon a few months after Guitar Romantic came out. Towards the end of their set, Adam asked, “OK, do you guys want to hear a Stiff Little Fingers song or a Nick Lowe song?” That was the moment when it really clicked for me that these guys knew exactly what they were doing.
07. The call-and-response guitars in the break of “Thorns in Roses”
Mixing a record with hard-panned rhythm and lead guitars is risky business. It is so easy for things to fall out of balance, for the whole mix to feel like it’s teetering over to one side. When it’s done well, though, you can actually see two guys standing next to each other. When it’s done really well, you can see which guy is also singing, and which guy is not singing but is probably a little bit better at playing guitar. Terry recorded most of the guitars on Guitar Romantic, but when I hear this volley of call-and-response chords, I see Terry and Adam standing next to each other, having the most fun two people can have playing music together.
08. The ascending coda of “Rumours in Town”
There are loads of tricky, energetic moves in this song. The intro is deceptively smooth, held together by Louie’s organ-as-song-glue. Before you can get too comfortable, though, things cut off abruptly and careen into a verse. The coda twists the song’s chorus into an ever-ascending M.C. Escher staircase that leads, apparently, to a sped-up Chuck Berry solo. It is no small feat that this all seems totally obvious when you’re actually listening to it.
Adam Cox's voice was equal parts needy and knowing, a balance more often struck by female pop singers than by dudes in punk rock bands.
09. The guitar line throughout “Throwaway Style”
There’s a whole cycle of tension and release packed into this little guitar line, to the point where you actually miss it when it’s gone. Which is a pretty good trick for a song about heartbreak and loss. This guitar part repeats through the song’s narrative verse, and departs just in time for the lead-in to the more metaphorical chorus. And then, there it is again, just in time for the second half of the chorus: “I know our love is over/ Unless you come over/ And make it right.”
When Cox was laying down vocals for Guitar Romantic, producer Pat Kearns told him, “less punk, more Diana!” Sure enough, Adam was able to find a voice that’s equal parts needy and knowing, a balance more often struck by female pop singers than by dudes in punk rock bands. On this song, Adam’s voice is particularly sweet and expressive, all raw and exposed nerves amidst finger snaps and Stray Cats bass. It’s melodramatic but irresistible, like Jeff Buckley mediating a fight between the Sharks and the Jets, where everybody just winds up crying and making out.
10. The bass line in “(Making) Teenage Faces”
One of the worst questions you ask when reevaluating an album like Guitar Romantic is, “Would this album seem as big a deal if most of the band were still alive?” It mega-sucks to admit that the answer is usually “no”; this band was just starting out, their best work was probably ahead of them, and this is all we have to stand in for what they were and what they could have been.
To my ears, “(Making) Teenage Faces” sounds like the band the Exploding Hearts were ready to become. This is their crispest recording, and the one where Matt’s bass is given the most room to propel the mix forward. When I think back to when I saw the band play live, this is what I hear. It is their smartest and their dumbest song. It has the world’s most gratuitous modulation, and completely rips-off the ending of Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio”. It is their most instructive song as well as a day-glo rewrite of Alice Cooper's “School’s Out”. Perfect.
At The Village Voice in the 1960s, pop music criticism was born as a self-consciously intellectual pursuit. Influential early critics Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau were given wide latitude to blend their enthusiasm for rock music with their desire to critique it as art. As Drexel University professor Devon Powers shows in her book Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism, Goldstein and Christgau navigated the quickly developing rock music industry with a passion that fit with those heady literary times, when writers like Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, Ellen Willis, Truman Capote, Pauline Kael, and others were stretching the boundaries of what counted as journalism, fiction, and arts criticism.
Powers’ book focuses on Goldstein and Christgau’s divergent approaches to the late-60s music promotion hype machine-- which happens to be very similar to the 21st century version. Goldstein started off as a Warhol-indebted believer in the transformative power of Pop, though his quick spiral into absolute disillusionment with critics’ and publicists’ roles in the overexposure of young artists led to his valorization of a self-consciously politicized "underground." Christgau, on the other hand, reacted to the pop machine by breaking the fourth wall, freely admitting to his readers that though he tried hard, he could only get through so many vinyl promos in a single week. This led to his trailblazing Consumer Guide format and letter grade system, which he designed to simultaneously negotiate and critique the glut of new releases.
I talked on the phone with Powers about Goldstein and Christgau, the development of "hype," critics’ struggles with late-60s identity politics, and the current state of the form.
"We need music criticism because people like writing it and people like reading it. It’s as simple as that."
Pitchfork: You open your book talking about how The Voice initially grew out of a bona fide bohemian culture, and balanced a stylistic sense of anti-professionalism and radicalism with clear commercial aims.
Devin Powers: The Voice was born in a moment in the 50s where there was a lot of iconoclastic intellectual fulfillment going on. There was a desire to remake what journalism could be and to see different kinds of writing emerge. At the same time, though, the desire among Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, the editor and the publisher of The Voice, was to make it commercially viable. Over the early 20th century, you see a lot of publications crop up and disappear, or publications that were not able to pay their writers very much. It’s difficult to balance that, and that's an issue you continue to see, particularly among radical publications that want to both do something really new but also do it in a viable way.
Pitchfork: One of the threads of the last half-century has been how capitalism has been able to efficiently feed off of the counterculture.
DP: Yeah. But, looking at The Voice, it's interesting to see how capitalism can be a really, really good engine for distributing and circulating all kinds of stuff. Whether that’s pop music or movies, or very niche cultural production, all of it circulates through a money system. The smaller entrepreneurial forms of capitalism feel more intimate to some, but it’s still capitalism. And I still think there’s a little hesitancy in saying, "Yes, this is a commercial enterprise, we’re here to make money."
Pitchfork: As part of The Voice’s mission, it became known as a "writer’s paper," where editors didn’t get in the way of people who wanted to freely express themselves in different styles.
DP: Absolutely. This was a moment where people like Truman Capote were writing book-length non-fiction, and it’s just before people like Tom Wolfe start capitalizing on what was being called "new journalism." The boundaries of writing were stretching, in terms of language, form, and length. And The Voice was really pushing those margins. They were revolutionary in imagining writing that didn’t have to look like a traditional news story, writing that could have first-person perspectives, or make-up words, or curse. All of these things were really new in this period.
Pitchfork: The first column at The Voice to do this with music was Richard Goldstein’s "Pop Eye". He wasn’t there for very long, but he developed a unique way to approach music intellectually and enthusiastically at the same time.
DP: Goldstein started writing at The Village Voice in 1966, after finishing his masters in journalism at Columbia. He wanted to write about pop with a capital P: It’s mass culture, it’s democratic, but at the same time, it can be cunning, smart, tongue-in-cheek. At this point, no one else was taking that approach. You can see a juxtaposition with Crawdaddy, which was Paul Williams’ publication. Where Williams really just wanted to be serious, Goldstein wanted to be meta. He was friends with Bob Christgau and Ellen Willis, and they’re starting to figure out, "How do we develop a new language for talking about music?"
Pitchfork: One of the fascinating and, in a way, tragic things about Goldstein's story is the identity crisis that he developed in public through his writing. At first, he embraced pop. But he quickly started resenting its commercialization and valorizing the underground.
DP: The "underground" is an idea that Goldstein is key in developing. Not to say that there weren’t people covering things out of the limelight before, but he's central to the use of the word "underground" and this idea that there is a submerged culture happening on its own terms. At first, Richard gets very fired up about the possibilities of pop to radically reinvent society. Remember, it’s the 1960s, so we’re talking about the beliefs of the counterculture for world change. All of this infuses him and his writing. Very quickly, though, he gets jaded, as I think many people in their late 20s can relate to. But also, when we think about rock in the 60s getting completely commercialized, we don’t realize that it happened in the span of 28 months, really. The big money started falling in, which has an ironic relationship to the music. It helps the music to spread but at the same time, especially for somebody who was on the ground observing it, it could be a very depressing change.
Pitchfork: You write about Goldstein using the hippie scene in the Bay Area as a case study for these changes.
DP: He’s paying a lot of attention to San Francisco at that moment, to the Haight-Ashbury, with the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane. He’s seeing what’s happening to those bands that, in a very short period of time, start to see the wider knowledge of that subculture exploding. This starts to change his beliefs about what his writing and music criticism can actually do. It’s the first moment when rock critics start to become very aware of their promotional role. They’re not just writing about music that they love, but they’re also promoting it, no matter what they say. It was an unsettling proposition: Media could not only shine a light on something, but could also quickly overexpose it.
"When we think about rock in the 60s getting completely commercialized, we don’t realize that it happened very quickly, in the span of 28 months, really."
Pitchfork: And from here, the book gets into the idea of hype.
DP: Hype is one of my favorite topics. Hype is a word that gets attached to pop music right around 1968, in the wake of the Monterey Pop Festival and the signing of Big Brother and the Holding Company. All of this is happening against the backdrop of the increasing power and clout and size of the popular music industry. People like Richard Goldstein started to see a direct connection between those things, and the idea that this cycle could spiral out of control was incredibly unsettling. Critics started to backlash against the cycle, trying to stem the tide that they participated in creating. That’s where "hype" emerges.
Pitchfork: An interesting thing you discuss is Goldstein developing a defense mechanism against hype by embracing artists who he can define as "authentic" and who exemplify an idea of "community."
DP: The thing that’s consistent about Goldstein is that he believes very strongly in the possibilities for radical change based out of a 60s ethos. What starts to happen very quickly over the final years of the 1960s is that it balloons out of control. You start to see a lot of people who maybe dress or talk in a particular way, but aren’t aligned to the political and philosophical sensibilities of the counterculture.
Pitchfork: In a way, you talk about how Goldstein’s ideas of authenticity and community were positioning rock as a new "folk" music.
DP: Yeah, that’s the irony of rock music. On the one hand, rock is commercial music, and on the other hand, rock music is community music. It has to be both, although those two things are contradictory: The more commercial the music became, the less it was linked to a particular place, scene, or kind of person. We can see parallels of that with any musical movement that starts out in a very small place. Hip-hop started in the South Bronx, but what happens after people who aren’t in the South Bronx are listening to it-- when kids who live in the suburbs are listening to this music. What does that mean? That’s the same thing that was happening with rock music at that particular time. And talking about something in folk terms is just a way of saying it belongs to a particular kind of people.
Pitchfork: A type of people that critics positioned themselves as part of.
DP: Yeah, critics were these kinds of people and spokespeople for them as well.
Pitchfork: Goldstein is gone from The Voice by early ‘69, and his exit corresponds with Robert Christgau signing on. His chapters in this book are fascinating, because he had a different way of dealing with hype and the critical and commercial imperatives of being a rock critic.
DP: Christgau is a workhorse, and that’s an identity he wears on his sleeve. He is very self-conscious about the fact that he is a critic and his own biases. He focuses on the process and labor of being a critic as a way of getting out of the problem that Goldstein had. It was Christgau’s way of thinking about the impact and the effect of his words on what he was writing about. He thought his way out of the problem.
Pitchfork: He develops the Consumer Guide format, which you describe as a "management strategy" for the flow of music he was receiving, as well as a "commentary" on criticism itself.
DP: Again, Christgau is hyper-aware. When he creates the Consumer Guide, he’s trying to figure out how to manage the workload of being a rock critic, which at that moment paled in comparison to the amount of music being produced today, but it’s still an incredible amount of music. You have to remember, he’s getting this music on record. He’s not skipping through tracks and listening to the first five seconds and then going to the next thing, as we’ve all done. He can, and does, listen to music for eight hours a day and still not listen to the entire stack of music. So, writing these short reviews and giving them letter grades was a way of saying, "How can I condense this workload and comment on what it means to be a critic?"
Pitchfork: Something that crystallizes in your book is how little has changed in terms of being a full-time critic and being part of a big promotional machine. Christgau’s first Consumer Guide came out in 1969. In 2013, the only real difference is the scope, not the process.
DP: The difference is the scope and also that people are a little more comfortable with it. There’s no assumption that there is even a choice that you might be able to do something different. Many critics probably experienced that awakening when they first started doing criticism. At first, it’s just awesome because they can go to shows and get music for free which, again, now everyone can do. But then they start to realize, "Huh, OK, anything that I do is serving the publicist." Another thing that’s different today is that everybody has to hustle in a way you didn’t quite have to when Christgau was coming up. People see that writing is a promotional tool for themselves also, so it’s part of the same game.
Pitchfork: You see Christgau’s "meta" approach to music criticism start to solidify the idea of a critical identity. And in the late 60s, identity politics was quickly on the rise with certain groups, along with the segmentation of listening audiences on the marketing end.
DP: Yes, and this all happens very quickly. With identity politics, the most prominent movement in the late 60s and early 70s is Black Power. There’s also feminism, the American Indian Movement, and the very first inklings of the gay rights movement. We can still see the fallout of these changes. At the same time, from a different perspective, marketers are getting wise to the fact that rock’s singular, unified "monoculture," for a lack of a better word, is not going to sustain itself for very long. Subgenres are emerging, and audiences are getting older and younger at the same time. People in their mid-20s and 30s are still listening to the same rock music that 11, 12, 13-year-olds are. How do you address all of these audiences at once? You have all these different kinds of people who may listen to the same thing, but not for the same reasons, and for the music industry, maybe shouldn’t have the same advertising.
Pitchfork: And in the late 60s, for all of its supposed progressive leanings and liberal leanings, The Village Voice was still a very straight, white, male-dominated publication.
DP: Yeah, and you have critics starting to think about their relationship as white males to the music that they were listening to. Another thing that happens in the late 60s that throws this in the face of critics is the blues revival. So not only do you have people like Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix drawing audiences of white hippies, but you also have Johnny Winters, a white albino blues guitarist, who’s getting a lot of attention. That raises a lot of questions for critics: What does it mean for white people to be playing this music? What does it mean for white audiences going to performances by black performers who are singing about racial oppression? There’s all these potential tensions happening between performer and audience, and between critics as a proxy for the audience.
"Monoculture is a problematic idea insofar as that it assumes people are interpreting things in the same way-- even if there are a limited number of musicians on the radio, that doesn’t mean everybody who is hearing them is hearing the exact same thing."
Pitchfork: A character pops up in your book that I had never been aware of before: Carman Moore, the only black critic at The Voice at the time. He really introduces, for many reasons, an interesting new perspective in discussions of race and appropriation.
DP: Carman Moore is actually a classical music composer. He starts at The Voice as a classical music critic for new classical music-- John Cage and Yoko Ono. Then he starts writing about rock music, and soul, and blues. As the only black music critic, and the first black rock critic in the country, he’s in a really interesting position. On the one hand, coming up through classical music, which is an incredibly white genre, he has a very integrationist perspective on the potential for music to bring people together. What you see in Moore’s writing is what happens to a lot of black people over the course of the mid-to-late 60s, which is a kind of soul consciousness. This directly correlates to people like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and the consciousness-raising in their music.
Pitchfork: At the time, a lot of Moore’s Black Power contemporaries were arguing that terms like "rock," "soul," and "R&B" were racist, to which he pragmatically replied, "as a scribe, I need proper nouns desperately." I think this is a really concise and brilliant way to talk about how genres are formed. Writers need to briefly sum up an idea or link together a group of varied artists.
DP: It magnifies those issues in a very intense way because Moore’s writing about them at a moment when racial politics are so heated, so that to say something is "R&B" is suddenly a political statement. And the thing that’s difficult as well, then and now, is that the things that writers think about are not often the same things that audiences think about. Critics are thinking about things like the economy of language, structure, how to make a complicated argument very brief. Every time you make those choices, you’re making linguistic choices, political choices, and cultural choices that can be interpreted in many different ways.
Pitchfork: Along this line, a part of Christgau’s writing legacy, which he’s dealt with for decades but which has stuck around after the rise of the internet is "monoculture." He admits very frankly that "I don’t think it’s such a bad idea that people learn the same history in school. I think it tends to ground people and give them something to respond to and react against." Your book gives a lot of context to 60s critics developing this idea.
DP: When Christgau talks about monoculture, he’s talking about the idea that there was a period before fragmentation. A period before audiences were segmented, where all kinds of people were listening to the same thing, some of it out of necessity just because there weren’t other options. When you have people who are listening to the same kind of things, they have something in common to talk about that they simply don’t when there is more variance in the media landscape.
But monoculture is a problematic idea insofar as that it assumes that at any given moment, people are interpreting things in the same way. Even if there is a limited number of musicians on the radio, that doesn’t mean that everybody who is hearing that is hearing the exact same thing. And it’s also an idealized way of seeing the world. It’s really an integrationist belief that media can bring people together, that it can create common ground and an understanding among people. That’s a nice idea, and many of us would be sympathetic to that idea. It’s just that we’ve become more disillusioned about those possibilities.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like the idea of monoculture-- that what I’m listening to is what everybody else is listening to-- is necessary for a critic to have in order to justify their position?
DP: I don’t. There’s merit in talking about what is dominant and what is popular. Popularity and monoculture are not exactly the same thing, but when you’re talking about and writing about the artists that are the most common, you are hooking into a wider conversation and a wider perspective. But at the same time, what people who care about popular music and write about popular music have to recognize is that-- and I hate to say this-- not that many people give a shit. [laughs] It’s a very small number of people who not only love music, but love it enough to write about it and read about it in their spare time. Many people just want to listen to music. They don’t want to necessarily think about the music they’re listening to. So this perspective that music is something that’s an intellectual object and fun to argue about with other people is a niche.
Pitchfork: That gets me to the current moment of music writing. A recent article in The Hollywood Reporter asked "Are Music Critics Pointless?" How would you respond to that question?
DP: We need music criticism because people like writing it and people like reading it. It’s as simple as that. Why do we need blogs about World of Warcraft? Why do we need people who want to talk about knitting? There’s a number of things that, if you’re outside of that culture, it seems strange or unnecessary. If you’re in it, though, it feels very necessary. They give meaning to life, they make you happy, they give you something to do. All of these things that people want to do. It’s a ridiculous argument to say, "Why do we need this stuff?" When you see a movie and you want to talk to your friends about it, are you not supposed to? It’s the same thing. I don’t think anyone should necessarily be able to dictate the way in which you talk to a community of your peers about something that you care about.
Pitchfork: In certain ways, the web has facilitated these conversations, but it’s not a monolithic entity. In other ways the web has helped facilitate a perspective on journalism that has dismantled what The Village Voice once was.
DP: The questions about journalism are very difficult questions-- anyone who tells you they know how things are going to end up is lying. There are still radios being produced, there are still player pianos being sold. [laughs] If the book has a mission, it’s the idea that those of us that work in knowledge-centered professions should be having more conversations with one another about what we do. Because in reality, even the people crunching the numbers don’t actually know what they’re doing, either. They’re just better at making up answers than we are. By binding together, we’re going to do a better job at inserting ourselves into these conversations in a proactive, rather than a reactive, way.
Between the ages of 10 and 12, I spent many hours on the living room carpet, watching music videos in a particular contortion: finger hovering expectantly above the stereo's record button, neck straining to see the TV across the room, ears perked up to catch the opening notes of the next song. My dad (an engineer, lifelong gadget guy, and the unlucky collaborator on every "invention" project I was assigned in elementary and middle school) had rigged a set-up so I could record audio from our TV directly onto a cassette tape. "Why would anybody need one of those?" is also a question you asked when the iPad came out.
Until a little before my 10th birthday, my family didn't have cable-- which, let's be honest, is really just to say we didn't have MTV. Prior to that, I binge-watched Nickelodeon whenever we visited my grandparents and maintained certain neighborhood friendships for reasons almost purely SNICK-related. When it came to MTV, I didn't yet know what I was missing. I can remember seeing only one music video before 1996, the one for Genesis' "I Can't Dance", which I caught at age five when I wandered into a room in my grandparents' house where someone was watching VH1. Viewed today, "I Can't Dance" deserves to be mentioned in a conversation about the cheesiest videos ever made-- a grinning, skulletted Phil Collins hitting haplessly on supermodels, strutting around in a neon tank top and (whoops!) his underwear, leading the band in a puzzling, deeply uncool Walk Like an Egyptian Across Abbey Road non-dance. Still, every one of its frames is seared permanently into my brain. Artful or not, a memorable music video does that to you. When someone said the word "rock star" to me between the ages of five and nine, the first image that sprung into my head was of a balding, smirking Phil Collins. So, as you may imagine, MTV came as an absolute revelation.
In the earliest days, though, I spent just as much time watching MTV's shaggy-haired, endearingly Canadian cousin, MuchMusic. (We only picked it up because of an all-powerful satellite dish secured our roof-- thanks, dad.) I'd recently swapped out the pop station for the alt-rock station as my bedroom radio's #1 preset, and preferring Much to MTV seemed like the logical televisual extension of this seemingly seismic change in my life. In the mid- and late-90s in particular, MuchMusic had a scrappy, personable, public access-style charm. In a cultural moment when MTV was hawking Rock 'N' Jock Basketball, Spring Break, and other things that seemed like the adult version of middle school, a channel that hosted an annual countdown of the year's worst videos (called "Fromage") and employed a foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking sock puppet as one of its star VJs felt like more of a kindred spirit.
This is why a lot of my earliest favorite videos are by Canadian bands that never made it big (or at least were never particularly cool) in the States: Sloan, Our Lady Peace, Odds, the Tragically Hip. None of the videos these artists made were particularly innovative, but this was before I had much reference for what a "good" video was. Visuals were obviously important, but the first thing that had to hook me was the song. And by far my favorite song I'd heard on MuchMusic was this twangy power-pop blast called "Outtasite (Outta Mind)". I remember clearly thinking that this was the first "good" video I'd ever seen: a two-and-a-half minute clip of the band (and some very obvious stuntmen) jumping out of a plane and skydiving while playing their instruments. It wasn't exactly “Thriller”, but it was a perfect encapsulation of this particular song’s tumbling, aerodynamic, sorta-goofy energy. And the fact that-- in 1996, at least-- the lead singer was cuter than Phil Collins didn't hurt. And they did, a couple of times. I assumed this band was Canadian because a) look at that hair and b) they didn't play them on MTV. They still don't, for what it’s worth. They were called Wilco.
Like every music fan ever, I have spent at least half of my life bummed that I was the wrong age when all the cool shit happened, but I have only recently begun to realize how lucky I was to be alive and profoundly psychologically impressionable during an indisputable golden age of the music video. Like MTV, MuchMusic was, of course, also big on all of the emerging auteurs of the 90s, the ones who taught me to appreciate the visuals just as much-- an in some cases, more than (sorry, Wax)-- the song. Michel Gondry, Hype Williams, Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, and Stephane Sednaoui are all responsible for blowing my mind in that specific, irrevocable way a film-school-bound mind gets blown at 13. As the years went on, I gorged on music videos and the images became the lingua franca of my imagination: Missy in the “Supa Dupa Fly” trash-bag suit, Björk dancing with a mailbox in “It’s Oh So Quiet”, Dave Grohl’s massive hand in “Everlong”. When I’ve watched the videos of Gondry, Williams, and Jonze in recent years, I’ve been struck by the emphasis all of them placed on dreams; the trope of the musician who dozes off somewhere boring and dreams up a world as singular and surreal as the song itself is now so overdone that it’s ripe for parody. But that feeling of bleary ephemera suited the experience of watching videos during the golden age of MTV, too. A favorite video was different from a favorite record; you couldn’t possess it, you never knew quite when you’d see it again, and if you tried to remember it later, your imagination had to fill in the blanks. That was part of the frustration, and the fun.
I had neither a cool older sibling nor the sort of allowance to support a CD-buying habit, so in those years I made a lot of mix tapes of stuff I taped off of the radio. When I complained one day that I had no way of taping my favorite videos onto a cassette so I could listen to them whenever I wanted to, my dad rigged up the TV-to-tape-deck contraption the way a dad might build another kid a treehouse. This is why, somewhere in my parents’ basement, there's a glittery-sticker-clad cassette tape that contains "Men in Black" fading inelegantly (the first few seconds always got clipped, it was unavoidable) into Sloan's "Everything You’ve Done Wrong" into Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” (complete with talking-dog dialogue). What’s missing from the tape? Wilco. Even in Canada, "Outtasite, Outta Mind" was a minor hit, and it fell pretty quickly out of Much’s rotation. I always wished they’d play it during one of my “recording sessions,” I even went so far as to request it on "MuchOnDemand" (which was sort of like a DIY, proto-"TRL" where people wrote letters-- yes actual, physical letters-- to request old videos), but to no avail. I didn't hear the song or see the video again for years, and of course that made its imagined greatness inflate into something mythic and deeply personal: The one that got away.
The downside of instant access is that it feels like there are too many videos to watch-- and there’s reason to fear that our attention spans are whittling down to something shorter than the music video itself.
The music video, or at least the music video as I once knew it, is currently having its museum moment. In the past decade, the Directors Label series has, with a Criterion-like reverence, released DVD collections highlighting the work of the great MTV auteurs, and music videos now mingle on college syllabi with film history’s most canonical shorts. During my senior year, I took a film studies class where we spent an entire week debating and analyzing the music video; suffice to say these were the most well-attended screenings of the semester.
But the most solid evidence of the music video's recent canonization has got to be Spectacle, an inexpressibly awesome exhibit that's running right now at the Musuem of the Moving Image in Queens. If you were even remotely young at any point between 1985 and 2005, traipsing around the exhibit will feel like walking around in some kind of oversized, crayola-bright sculpture garden of your childhood memories, which is to say it is the closest you might come to actually being inside a Michel Gondry video. There are life-size mock-ups of the cartoon dreamboat from A-ha’s “Take on Me” video and the milk-carton dude from Blur’s “Coffee & TV”. There’s a huge arch from the White Stripes’“Seven Nation Army” video, and Legos aplenty. There’s a mirror installation that makes you feel like you’re inside the Busby-Berkeley-on-VHS reverie for the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be” (by my measure, Gondry’s most underrated masterpiece), and the director’s notes diagramming the timeline of Cibo Matto’s brain-bending “Sugar Water”. I stared at them for five minutes, watched the video three times in a row, and I am still no closer to wrapping my head around it than I was in the 90s. All told, Spectacle features about 300 videos running on small, closed-circuit TVs and projected onto huge gallery walls. I planned to breeze through the highlights in about an hour, but instead I spent an entire afternoon there, staggering around, bowled over with nostalgia for things I didn't even realize I missed.
Spectacle stumbles a bit, and don't we all, when it looks too far ahead. Check your bad “internet killed the video star” puns in the coat room because, as you might expect, the exhibit takes the cheerily optimistic stance that the web has only provided opportunities for even more groundbreaking music-video innovations. I’ll give it this much: The largest crowd I see all day is huddled around a screen that showcases the surreal“without music” remix of “Gangnam Style” and a supercut of “Single Ladies” (hey 'Ye, it’s now museum-official: Beyoncé really did have one of the greatest videos of all time!). Most of the clips curated to show that the music video is still thriving in the digital age are impressive to look at, but none feel like the sort of things that can nudge their way into people’s lives as casually and meaningfully as the videos I loved when I was a kid. There’s a beautifully designed interactive video for the Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” that lets you manipulate Win Butler’s movements with the click of a mouse; a stereoscopic 3-D Björk video for "Wanderlust", which takes my breath away though doesn't seem like the kind of thing you could properly experience outside of a museum or a Best Buy showroom filled with very fancy TVs; there’s that "literal video" spoofing "Total Eclipse of the Heart", which made me laugh when someone emailed me a link to it a few years ago, but I never needed to see it again, let alone on a museum wall.
For better and for worse, what the internet has rendered extinct is that elusive quality the music video experience used to have: the excitement of not knowing what was coming on next, the feeling that you had to fully immerse yourself in a video because you didn’t know when you’d see it again. In the age of YouTube, it’s now the viewer, not the station programmer (or the sock-puppet VJ) calling the shots and deciding what to watch and when to watch it. But isn’t this the sort of breakthrough I was dreaming about back in my home-taping days? Turns out that the downside of instant access to everything all the time is that it often feels like there are too many videos out there to watch-- and there’s reason to fear that our average attention spans are whittling down to something shorter than the music video itself. A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me if I’d seen the new video for Drake’s “Started from the Bottom”. “No, but I’ve seen the GIFs,” I offered. This is what the future of music videos is up against:
And yet, I actually left Spectacle feeling rejuvenated in my conviction that the music video isn’t dead. Far from it. For one thing, the exhibit helpfully reminds us that-- although MTV commemorated its own importance so often that it was easy to believe images had never been put to pop music before that rocket launched in 1981-- the music video actually predated the channel. Early, artful experiments from the likes of the Beatles, David Bowie, and Devo all make me believe that, as it has before, the format will continue to adapt to the changing times and our new ways of seeing.
The early days of MTV were all about epic narratives and the dazzle of rapidfire cuts-- "Miami Vice"-style editing, or so the legend goes. But the more my life and average workday starts to look like something out of Minority Report (or "Pop-Up Video")-- constant cuts from browser tab to browser tab; imploring IMs and Gchats and email prompts-- I have noticed a shift in what I consider to be a good music video. I still want to escape, but escaping looks different now than it did 30 years ago; it looks like X-ing out of my chattering TweetDeck, an inbox with zero unread messages, an opportunity to full-screen something hypnotizingly atmospheric and, for four minutes or so, to stop clicking and just be.
Maybe the most brilliant part of Spectacle is that there are no touch screens where you can pick which videos you want to watch. This is why the exhibit feels like a proper elegy for a particular part of the music video experience that music fans of the future probably won’t know-- the part where you have no idea what’s coming next. My favorite spot in the whole exhibit is a small, dark, cube-shaped room where a collection of videos chosen because of their cinematographic excellence are projected onto a 10-foot wall. I’d just been looking at some gorgeous stills from the set of one of my all-time favorites, Björk’s “Big Time Sensuality”-- thinking about how much I love it, calculating how old I must have been when I first saw it, trying to remember all of the the kindergarten-exuberant expressions Björk makes throughout the video-- and as I walk into the room I catch the tail end of “99 Problems”, the uncensored one, where Jay dies in the end. Then it happens, a feeling I haven’t felt in years-- of all the videos in the entire world, the one they play next is the exact one I’ve been secretly hoping to see: “Big Time Sensuality”. Like “99 Problems”, it’s never looked better than it does on a huge screen, and I’ve never felt more immersed in it. There it was, for five spectacular minutes, bigger than life. Then it was gone.
Guest List features artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Nashville singer/songwriter Mackenzie Scott, aka Torres, whose self-titled debut is out now.
My Morning Routine
I get up whenever and take a disgusting liquid multivitamin... and then a whole lot of other vitamin-type pills. I’m trying to build up my immune system so that I don’t get sick on tour. Then, I walk down the street to a local coffee shop, Bongo Java, and drink an Americano with about four shots of espresso in it.
Last Great Book I Read
No Country for Old Men. Cormac McCarthy is one of those writers where I don’t think I really understand anything I’ve read until it’s over-- I think I hate his books when I’m reading them, then when I finish them I'm like, “Oh! It’s my favorite!” He’s very tricky that way.
First Record I Bought for Myself
Britney Spears' ...Baby One More Time
My Dream Merch Table Item
Torres-themed cat collars. If you buy a cat collar, you get the kitten for free.
Favorite TV Show
"Law and Order: SVU"
Last Meal I Ate
I ordered a turkey sandwich to be delivered to my apartment. I order a sandwich almost every night, because I don’t have to leave my apartment and see people. It makes me sound like such a Scrooge, but I’m not. I’m just an introvert.
Biggest Pet Peeve
I hate when people say expresso instead of espresso. I hate it so much I could punch them.
Photo by Andreas Laszlo Konrath
Last Great Concert I Saw
St. Vincent and David Byrne at the Ryman last October. I was completely star-struck.
My Dream Collaboration
St. Vincent. You can tell she's really smart about the things she's creating. To me, it's almost like she invented a new sort of genre of music. I mean, how often can you say, “This person has created something I’ve never heard before” in 2013?
The Best Thing About Being on the Road
It sounds really trite, but having people come to the shows and actually listen. Coming from Nashville, where not many people would come to shows and the ones who did talked over the set, it was a major major transition to talk to people who would listen and want to talk to me afterward and hang out. That was the coolest thing, to just have people actually care.
The Worst Thing About Being on the Road
The lack of nutritional meal options. I was travelling in a car with four boys and they all wanted fast food, and I made a rule that we were not getting fast food at all. But six hours into the trip, they were all whining, “Can we stop at Burger King?” I was like, “No, I made a rule!” It was really difficult finding healthier options. I have a huge fear of eating bad food and then having my body break down in the middle of a really important tour.
Best Thing I've Bought in the Past Year
A pair of black hand-me-down boots from the local consignment shop. I wear them every day. I’m not a shoe snob by any means, but they’re comfortable and pretty badass.
Dumbest Thing I've Bought in the Past Year
An $80 bottle of Glenlivet 18 scotch. It’s delicious, but I don’t have $80 to spend on a bottle of scotch. I don’t have $80 to spend on anything. [laughs]
On my 14th birthday, my parents surprised me and took me to New York on vacation. It’s probably the best trip that I’ve ever had, and the best memory I have with my parents so far.
Last Record I Played
Sharon Van Etten's Tramp. I’m living inside of it, which is huge because I don’t really get obsessed with artists or records very often.
Strangest Display of Affection from a Fan
I did have my first ever encounter with a crier the other day. It was so sweet and awkward. I was playing in Brooklyn and a girl just broke down in my arms. She was complimenting me and then she was sobbing, then she would talk a little bit more then sob a little bit more. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t think I was ready for it. I just hugged her and said, “Well... thanks for coming.”
Deerhunter, from left: Josh McKay, Lockett Pundt, Bradford Cox, Moses Archuleta, and Frankie Broyles. Photos by Robert Semmer
Even when there isn't an audience, Bradford Cox is performing. It's an hour and a half before "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" is scheduled to tape, and Cox's band Deerhunter is on stage rehearsing the rattling title track from their new album Monomania. I'm standing in a nearby hallway when a cameraman hurriedly asks me to step out of the way. Cox, who's just stepped off the set mid-song, saunters down the corridor and pretends to drink from an empty cup he snatches from his publicist. "There should be some water in that cup," he playfully tells her afterwards, before immediately turning serious: "Not New York City tap water."
The extended outro is a last-minute addition to the performance. Initially, Cox wanted to sing to a live rat on camera-- "like Hamlet"-- but NBC, fearing backlash from animal-rights groups, balked. By showtime, a few more extra-musical elements have been thrown into the mix, including a heap of gauze and fake blood to make it look as if Cox is missing two fingers (a personal message to his father, who had just lost a pair of digits in a table-saw accident the night before) and a shaggy black wig. During rehearsal, though, he's clad in an army jacket, beige pants, and brown loafers-- or, as Cox refers to it, "My Cape Cod uncle outfit."
Much of Cox's work in Deerhunter, as well as in his Atlas Sound solo project, is loaded with callbacks to the past, from the shoegaze textures of 2008's Microcastle, to the dusky 1970s art-rock of Atlas Sound's Parallax, to Monomania's early rock'n'roll clatter. He's as much about style as he is about substance, so when we enter the tiny "Fallon" dressing room, the singer flips open a suitcase packed with clothes and starts rifling through its contents, throwing on the wig and deciding whether drummer Moses Archuleta should wear a faded Cramps T-shirt.
His main concern is dressing guitarist Lockett Pundt, who, along with Archuleta and new band members Frankie Broyles (guitar) and Josh McKay (bass), remains largely silent during the pre-show hullabaloo. They fiddle with phones and make quiet small talk; they're used to Cox's antics. Surveying Pundt's button-down shirt dotted with dog silhouettes, Cox asks no one in particular, "Is it too Vampire Weekend, or is it James Dean?" A few minutes later, he's dressing himself, commanding the room to avert their eyes as he drops trou. "Everybody wants to hang out backstage, but they don't want to see my cock," he mock-complains.
Fully clothed a few minutes later, he kneels in front of me and unzips a large brown carry-on. "Want to see what's in my bag?" There's Hank Williams' Greatest Hits on cassette, a few tapes of field recordings, homeopathic medicine, a bag of pens, "an antibiotic I refuse to take," a pair of glasses with only one lens, a catalog of light fixtures for his recently purchased house in Atlanta's Grant Park. Cox is easily distracted, so it's not long before he's across the room sitting on McKay's lap, demanding that someone in the room play the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flowers" on guitar and proclaiming that his job is to "create beauty."
Pundt walks back into the room wearing the outfit chosen for him, but Cox isn't happy. "This shirt needs to be pressed!" It's a half-hour before taping, and a "Fallon" staffer enters the room to take care of the request. When the shirt returns, Cox says it's too loose, that it looks like "maternity wear." He disappears and returns with safety pins, which are strategically applied to the back of the shirt. The taping's underway now, and as Cox steps out for a cigarette-- "for my voice, otherwise I'll sing an octave higher than I want to"-- he dictates the exact order in which the rest of the band is to receive makeup.
Eventually, it's showtime. Cox's Evian-gulping finale goes off as planned, and the screeching song leaves a few audience members looking confused. Back in the dressing room, the head of Deerhunter's label 4AD pays compliment to the band, saying their performance was "great."
"I don't care if it was great," Cox exclaims. "Was it punk?"
When I turn that question back around on him during a two-hour phone conversation a couple of weeks later, he clarifies his position:
"The entire point of asking 'what is punk' is, like, 'Nevermind if this performance was good or not-- was it undefinable? Was it slightly unsettling? Was it provocative without being political? Did it smell good?' After that performance, lot of people were scratching their heads, like, 'Who's this fucking lunatic?' It's more interesting that way. I'm not interested in punk as an aesthetic and I certainly don't give a shit what some hardcore kid thinks of our record. It's a fucking arm-wrestling match, and it's pathetic. My idea of punk is not being interested in what other people think of punk."
"And I'd rather be Tiny Tim singing 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips' on national TV than just another indie rocker going through the motions of trying to look really detached: 'I was going to go out and get some chicken wings, but I ended up on 'Jimmy Fallon', so I thought I'd play a song, so I'm just gonna show up in a hoodie and some fucking jeans. No big deal, guys!' Actually, fuck it-- it is a big deal. If you told me when I was 19 that I'd be playing on shows like 'Letterman' and 'Fallon', I'd think, 'Man, I hope I don't fuck this up and do something boring or predictable.'"
"Indie rock is such a bratty culture, and I don't see a lot of ugly people in it, either. I feel very proud to be hideous. Thank God I don't look like every other fucking dude wearing their girlfriend's fucking jeans out there on stage. That's weak and emasculated-- and I don't think masculinity is equivalent to misogyny. It just seems like everything is like a cat that's been declawed-- it still tries to fight with you, but it's harmless. Nobody wants to get scratched."
Anyone who's heard a lick of Bradford Cox's music knows that he's an extreme personality. At once extroverted and incredibly sensitive, he possesses a canny flair for attracting notoriety that's arguably bolstered his career even as it has negatively affected his band's dynamic, with several members coming and going over the last decade. Attempting to have a linear conversation with him is tough, as he often talks circles around a single topic until you're left exasperatedly trying to remember where you started. Cox possesses a Courtney Love-like ability to craft brilliant bullshit, as well as a tendency to overshare even while claiming to do the exact opposite. And yet, despite his reputation as a diaristic chatterbox, the 30-year-old claims he's misunderstood. "I've come to accept that people have no idea what I'm like," he says. "If they knew, they'd feel like they were being fooled."
Cox is a friendly person-- almost aggressively so-- but his occasional propensity to completely dominate a conversation can leave one feeling drained. There's part of him that clearly relishes being the center of attention, which ironically drove him to recede from the press' eye following the release of 2011's Parallax. (When I spoke with him around that time, his behavior was more erratic than normal, which he now credits to being in a state of "mental and physical illness." He also claims not to remember the interview itself taking place at all.)
The day after "Fallon", I sit down with Cox for a one-on-one interview in person. Overall, his demeanor is lucid-- a near-180 from the previous evening-- as we discuss the dangers of reading too much into his lyrics ("I write under a stream of consciousness-- I don't sit there and think, 'I'm going to express this'") and, despite Monomania's ultra-scuzzed rock vibes, the album's surprising musical inspirations: Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker.
"They're absolute artists," he tells me, taking sips from an oversized bottle of aloe vera water. "I can't hold a match to that stuff and I never will. I'll never be black, I'll never have that experience. That's what's missing from indie culture, though: Bo Diddley and blackness. There's a struggle that exists in black music and hillbilly music from a certain era. Old music resonates with me, new music doesn't."
If it seemed like the "The Bradford Show" went on hiatus during our relatively calm and focused sit-down chat, it comes back on later that day, when a smattering of journalists file into a room at Manhattan's Ace Hotel for a full-band Q&A session. The as-advertised hour-long quasi-press conference will eventually double in length, as Cox holds court on what looks like a therapist's couch. As he goes on, he continually folds his hands and feet between themselves in a fidgety manner, like human origami.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band reclines on a circular couch that lines a corner of the suite. McKay occasionally cracks a joke, while the jean-jacketed Broyles sits stoically. Archuleta and Pundt end up with not much to say at all-- although, to their credit, the few queries directed their way are immediately intercepted by Cox. At several points, they both fall asleep with their heads tilted back to the ceiling.
Cox is sitting several feet in front of the band, at times with his back to them. During the first hour, Cox's performance is intermittently amusing and annoying. (At one point, he asks someone to Google facts about giant rats.) As ever, punchlines come to him quick and easy-- but these outbursts become far less amusing when presented as a never-ending flow of words. As the second hour hits, very few journalists in the room are even attempting to ask him questions of substance. They laugh when he says something audacious, they attempt to engage him in some short-term rapport that he largely rejects, they ask him about his feelings towards Vampire Weekend and Spring Breakers.
Granted, Cox is extremely complicit in this low-stakes chit-chat, and he's clearly having a good time. But as the whole thing trudges on, it's hard to tell if anyone here is interested in taking him-- and, by extension, Deerhunter-- seriously.
Later on, I tell him his amped-up behavior during the press conference came off like a self-defense mechanism. "It wasn't," he argues, talking on the phone from Deerhunter's tour van. "I try to keep myself entertained. Otherwise, I would jump out of the window from boredom. I've always been a cut-up, ever since I was a kid. I just like comedy."
Another recent bit had him complaining about Morrissey and the Smiths for the better part of a Buzzfeed interview. "That was clearly a performance piece-- stand-up comedy," he says. "I don't dislike the Smiths-- I don't even think about them. They're not on my syllabus. The goal of entertainment is to entertain, and the goal of rock'n'roll is to rock. It's cartoonish and silly. Don't we have enough earnest people already? Weren't the 90s filled with people pretending to be precious about everything, and holding everything up to be so sacred? I'm very bored with all of that."
Does he ever think his personality threatens to overshadow his art?
Indeed, Cox's current outlook when it comes to Deerhunter is upbeat. "Since we started working on Monomania, things have been better than they've been in years," he says. "I feel young again." Despite the claims of renewed camaraderie, Monomania began as something of a solo endeavor. The bulk of its songs were conceived around the time Parallax was released, as Cox house-sat for Eleanor Friedberger in Brooklyn for several months to clear his head. "There was some bad, personal shit happening that really set me back," he says, declining to go into specifics. "I learned the lesson that most teenage girls learn in eighth grade, which is that there's a lot of selfish, dishonest, opportunistic people."
While squatting in New York, Cox entered into a routine of drinking heavily (Jamaican rum, mostly), hanging out late into the night with MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, taking a cab back to Friedberger's place before dawn, and recording what he calls "emotionally crippling, drunken late-night stuff. I made a lot of music that year, but I stopped caring if it was ever heard-- I was perfectly ready to hide these songs in a private shoebox labeled 'Shit Era. Do Not Revisit.'"
The songs were shelved for the time being, as Deerhunter spent the better half of 2012 on extended hiatus while Cox toured behind Parallax. Eventually, he put the bottle down. "I have friends who have really battled with the horrors of addiction, but I was just drinking because of depression," he says. "When I was done feeling sorry for myself, I quit. I'm back to my asexual monk lifestyle-- although I take Advil and smoke cigarettes."
Cox continued to write and record back in Atlanta at his personal Notown Sound studio, with little intention of refining the "Shit Era" material. As summer approached, he prepared to reunite with his band to record their next album: "I wanted all of us to be in the same room and make a total rock group album with six really long songs and an American flag floating in the background in slow motion." However, fate had other plans. Bassist Josh Fauver left the band with little warning via an e-mail at the end of the summer. "One day he's talking about how excited he is to make new stuff," remembers Cox, "the next day, he quits."
"There was never a fight, nothing acrimonious," he continues. "He’s a very private person. I've known him for 10 years, and I don't even know where he lives. I respected him for leaving, though, because there’s nothing worse than a half-assed performer. My audience is like the child in a divorce-- whatever’s best for the child is what I want."
Cox played his bandmates some of the "Do Not Revisit" tracks he'd been working on-- "I wouldn't be lying if I said I had about three or four hundred songs"-- and they liked what they heard. Broyles joined the band last September as an intended replacement for Fauver, but Cox was reluctant to make that decision official. "I was still holding out that Josh would reconsider," he says. "I briefly considered playing bass myself, too, since I wrote all the basslines on the album."
Shortly before the band entered producer Nicolas Vernhes' Brooklyn-based Rare Book Room studio at the top of 2013, McKay was added as bassist, and Deerhunter's current incarnation bashed out Monomania over a few weeks, recording straight to Tascam eight-track recorders (hence the album's bruised, brutally lo-fi feel). Although Cox describes the leadup to the record's creation as "stressful," he concedes that recording Monomania was the band's most positive studio experience yet.
And while Cox is quick to point out that he harbors no ill will towards Fauver following his departure, he allows that the band dynamic has been better without him. "The change in the band has been so radical, it’s like being in a real band now," he says. "We call each other after the shows and hang out together. This is the band I’ve always wanted to be in." Near the end of our marathon phone conversation, Cox yells across the tour van and asks Archuleta why he thinks they get along better now. The drummer's answer is succinct: "We grew up."
Archuleta might be onto something. After all, Cox admits that, when he's not onstage while on tour, he's now thinking about lighting fixtures or floor covering for his new house. "You can’t be sitting there focused on one thing, because that would be monomania, which is a terrible disaster," he says. Naturally, the final word is his: "I just wrote the last line of your article."
In late February, Savages play a show at David Lynch’s exclusive Paris nightclub, Silencio. As the red velvet curtains open-- of course there are curtains-- the four-piece peer out into a room of perched and propped Lynchian devotees swirling $20 cocktails. The band stare at them silently for 30 confrontational seconds before drummer Fay Milton eventually breaks the war of attrition.
The following night, the group walk on stage at London’s Electric Ballroom for their biggest hometown show yet. Once again, the music doesn’t start immediately. This time, though, it’s not intentional. The dude manning the monitors, who had been uncooperative and snide during soundcheck, has vanished. He does not reappear. Three awkward minutes pass. Finally, frontwoman Jehnny Beth flashes her gimlet eye and seethes, "I think we’re all fucking ready, right? This is called 'Shut Up'." Ayşe Hassan’s bass and Gemma Thompson’s guitar rumble in, restlessly steering the sound. Beth, a heart-faced woman with a severe Mia Farrow crop, jogs on the spot, circling her fists as if poised to sprint, or brewing a sharp right-hook.
In the café of an artsy east London cinema the next afternoon, the mood is good-humored, though the shrill coffee machine grates against some severe hangovers: Milton went to bed at 7 a.m. after being dragged to a gay club once the band’s own after-party (where they hung the DJ and just played Bowie records) kicked out. A week-old bruise on her left eyelid shows when she rolls her eyes while the band discuss the previous night’s sound issues. They’re certain the venue’s monitor tech didn’t like being told what to do by women. When Savages started performing in early 2012, too many similar experiences persuaded them to employ their own sound team.
"One guy gave us really awful sound, then came and apologized afterwards, saying, ‘Sorry, I didn’t realize you were going to be good,’" says Milton. "‘I didn’t realize you could play like that,’" mocks Thompson, a trilobite tattoo visible on her forearm as she ruffles her ostensibly home-cut hair.
"People tell me, ‘Don’t let the fuckers get you down,'" says Beth, raising her eyebrows. That mantra forms the chorus to the castigating "Fuckers", last night’s abrasive set closer, where she gnashes at the edict like Nick Cave with barbed-wire for teeth. "I’m like, 'No. Don’t let the fuckers get you down... and then give them a lesson!'"
"I’m trying to talk to people about themselves, to just tell the truth, and maybe that’s why people come to see us, as an inspiration for emancipation." -- Jehnny Beth
In the 18 months since Savages formed-- three friends, plus a brutal drummer unearthed via recommendations-- they’ve executed their music, shows, and business with ruthless efficiency. In one of their declarative mission statements, which appear online and are appended to their releases, they call the band a "self-affirming voice to help experience our girlfriends, our husbands, our jobs, our erotic life, and the place music occupies in our lives differently."
Their stealthy music takes influence from post-punk’s aerodynamics, hardcore’s abrasion, and the overdriven plundering of metal, with songs rewritten until they’re reduced to the most essential ideas. And at the quartet's uncompromising heart is a vitriolic refusal of victimization, though they shrug off potential affiliations with riot grrrl, or the dogmatic approach of a band like Fugazi. Instead, their strident lyrics about embracing your creative and erotic pleasures eschew soapboxing in favor of something more instinctive.
Considering all that, Silence Yourself might seem like a strangely bossy title for the debut album of a band so concerned with self-expression. But it’s more about shedding distractions. "We’re submerged by voices, opinions, images," says Beth. "They take us away from who we are. The idea with Savages is to get back to this more focused attention, so you’re harder to reach."
As a child, Jehnny Beth’s theater-director parents wouldn’t let her watch television or do "kid things." Born Camille Berthomier in Poitiers, a small city in western France, on December 24, 1984, one of her earliest memories is of touring Russia with one of her father’s plays. She loved the films her parents showed her by Hitchcock, Truffaut, and John Cassavetes, whose New Wave sensibilities played well in France. Silence Yourself begins with a sample of dialogue from Cassavetes' 1977 drama Opening Night, which deals with an older actress' struggle to pursue her career in accordance with her beliefs. "She doesn’t want to follow the rules, so she’s fighting, and that’s what I like about the film," explains Beth. "She would never give up."
Beth’s parents "emancipated themselves" from their agricultural backgrounds by reading and going to university, and were keen to impress the importance of academic study on Jehnny and her sister. "They were very open intellectually, although still coming from a Catholic background-- an interesting mix!" she says with a yelp.
It’s a cold afternoon in January, and Beth is the last member to present herself for an individual grilling at a central London cafe decorated like a mad aunt’s parlor. The band has insisted on being interviewed separately, in consecutive half-hour sessions, a turn of events made no less odd by the fact that Beth records our conversation on an enormous tape recorder that looks like she stole it from a Cold War museum. "For my memories," she says, in a way that doesn’t suggest something for the grandchildren.
She repeatedly returns to the word "emancipation." When she was in her late teens, she met Nicolas Congé, aka Johnny Hostile, who she calls "a big part in my emancipation as a person, but also as a musician." They remain together, having moved to London in late 2006, adopting new names to form John and Jehn, a Kills-like duo. That band took precedence over Beth’s burgeoning acting career-- she stars in 2005’s A travers la forêt and 2009’s Sodium Babies, two French-made fantasy/horror films. In old interviews, Hostile joked that he kidnapped her.
"Both of us wanted to avoid boredom in a small town in France," Hostile tells me. "We became hyperactive in all aspects of life: how we deal with our job, our sex life, our families, our friends. She emancipated me equally."
"They moved around in a very menacing, jerky fashion," remembers British Sea Power frontman Scott "Yan" Wilkinson, who often had John and Jehn open for his band and gave Savages their first gig in January 2012. "You couldn’t tell if they were going to have a kiss or a fight-- made me think of erotic roosters."
"Pornography has been very important for me, to liberate myself from the pressure of romanticism and the myth of a woman’s pleasure." -- Jehnny Beth
Hostile is always around Savages, his swooping black coat and crooked, Gallic good looks providing no small amount of presence. Although he co-produced their album, his role seems to challenge rather than control; none of the other three members visibly resent his suggestions. He’s aware that he can be domineering, though. Savages was Thompson’s baby, and when she originally asked Hostile to front the band, he declined. "I respect her too much," he says. "I didn’t want to waste her time with me trying to change everything. She deserved someone easier to work with."
Beth says Hostile’s role in her liberation means she can’t call herself a feminist. Although she agrees with the movement’s aims for equality, she has misgivings about its wider motivations and is fascinated when women put a feminist reading on Savages. "They tell me they think pornography is bad for women and assume I’m going to understand," she says. "The thing is, I watch a lot of pornography. It’s been very important for me, to liberate myself from the pressure of romanticism, the myth of a woman’s pleasure."
Towards the end of Silence Yourself is a song called "Hit Me" that was recorded entirely live, making its Meat Puppets-playing-axel-grinders maelstrom even more striking. "I took a beating today/ And that was the best I ever had," Beth moans, adopting the perspective of her favorite porn star, Belladonna, who gained widespread notoriety following a 2003 "Primetime" interview with Diane Sawyer in which she cried about some of her experiences, and subsequently became used as a strawman for porn’s "manipulative evils" by lobbyists. (She spoke out afterwards about how "Primetime"'s editing misrepresented her as a victim.)
Elsewhere on the record, Beth sings about dark sexual liberation, unmasking your soul, vanquishing faceless cowards-- and finding yourself sleeping with them, too. Though the album’s most surprising lyric is also its most domestic. "How come I’ve been doing things with you/ I would never tell my mum?" Beth sings on the swaggering, Suede-worthy "Strife". She describes it as "almost showing your weakness" and "that sense of becoming a child again, when you’re doing these crazy, dirty things."
Savages’ honesty about the complexities of female sexuality places them in an underpopulated but fervent lineage that stretches from Patti Smith through Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and beyond. (At its most aggressive, Beth's wail is a dead-ringer for Karen O’s pixellated yowl.) Women to whom expressing the desire for violent or so-called deviant sexual pleasure is empowering, rather than a cheap signifier of "transgression" or vulnerability.
"I’m trying to talk to people about themselves, to say things as they are, to just tell the truth," Beth ponders. "And maybe that’s why people come to see us, as an inspiration for emancipation." She refers to a trans-woman in the process of gender realignment surgery who recently wrote to the band. "Savages was helping her go through this process, the pain," says Beth. "We were all really moved by it."
Last November, Savages entered the Fish Factory studio in northwest London to begin recording their debut album. They spent three hermetic weeks there with Hostile and co-producer Rodaidh McDonald, who worked on both xx albums, How to Dress Well’s Total Loss, and heaps of others. The band’s debut single was essentially recorded in a tricked-out cupboard in Beth and Hostile’s north London house, where the parts were captured separately. McDonald instigated the opposite approach for the album, setting them up like the live band they are.
Silence Yourself comprises 11 songs that shriek and writhe within a consistently ominous ambience. It’s exhilaratingly aggressive. The guitar work on "I Am Here" sounds like it takes cues from post-hardcore titans Converge, the cymbals on "She Will" from krautrock greats Faust. The groan that opens "Husbands" is sampled from a film Thompson found while working at London’s Natural History Museum that captures the sound of lava solidifying underwater.
Although the band laughs guiltily at how picky they were in the studio, McDonald appreciated it. "It’s unusual to work with a guitar band where each member is as deeply into experimenting within their role, and pushing it to the extreme," he says. "It’s refreshing."
Only the final song of each side, "Dead Nature" and closer "Marshal Dear", are contemplative-- the latter features piano by Beth, who is a trained jazz pianist, and would sound at home in at a sleazy smoker's den. It leaves the album enticingly open-ended.
Still, there's no escaping it: Savages do recall a number of post-punk, no wave, and metal bands. "I call it the 'Old Man’s Disease,' which I had when I was 21," says BBC 6Music DJ Marc Riley, debating whether the band’s originality, or potential lack thereof, matters. Riley was a significant enough early member of the Fall for Mark E. Smith to write at least three overt cuss songs aimed at him, and he gave Savages their first live radio session back in May 2012. "I remember the first time I heard the Jesus and Mary Chain, I thought, I’ve got White Light/White Heat, why bother? But of course you’re wrong to think like that. Savages get compared to Public Image Ltd. and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but the songs are great. That’s all that matters."
"Savages are a band like My Bloody Valentine-- one of those classic bands that you just love. They’re proper." -- Portishead's Geoff Barrow
Savages have found another fervent admirer in Portishead founder Geoff Barrow, whose crush began when they played his hometown, Bristol, last August. They met, and did some non-committal recording later in the summer-- just friends, experimenting, and no, you can’t hear it.
I meet Barrow in Bristol on another bitterly cold night in mid-December, at a dank pub on an out-of-town road where it’s impossible to buy cigarettes, but very easy to get a "special" massage at the Village Sauna. "This is a band like My Bloody Valentine," Barrow says over a beer, smoothing his Earth t-shirt. "One of those classic bands that you just love. They’re proper." Next door at the Exchange, preparations are afoot for Apocatastasis, a Christmas party thrown by Barrow’s Invada Records, where Savages will play their last date of 2012.
One of Barrow’s other bands, Beak>, open Savages’ Electric Ballroom date, and Savages will return the favor by playing before Portishead on their European tour this summer. The mutual admiration is strong. It has to be, as it quickly becomes apparent that Savages aren't wild about playing opening act for anyone when they offer themselves up for interview two at a time before the Apocatastasis gig, putting on a sort of good cop/bad cop act across a corner table in the pub.
Talking about their experience as a support slot for guitar rocking also-rans the Vaccines last May, Beth juts her jaw. "It was shit," she spits unexpectedly. Although Savages’ then-managers didn’t force them into it, it seems to have been at their suggestion. They also wanted the band to sign with a label-- any label-- by June 2012, a notion Beth balked at. (John and Jehn remain in a bind over a previous bad deal.) "It was a bad time for us," she says. "We almost lost the band."
On May 29, Savages released their debut single, "Flying to Berlin" b/w "Husbands", and headed to Salford the following day to play their 6Music session for Marc Riley. It was a pivotal moment. "There was so much tension in the air," Milton says. "We worried that we were going to fuck up live on the radio." They didn't. "The session was amazing," recalls Riley.
In the van on the way back to London the next day, they decided to sack their managers. Thompson and Beth severed ties in person. "It was a good fucking thing to do," Beth says, with no small amount of intensity.
In the end, Savages refused to sign to a label until they had finished making their album, which they say they paid for themselves. It's all about rejecting what they see as severely outdated industry-- and generational-- hierarchies. In short, they don’t take advice easily, though their new manager, John Best, was a Britpop mastermind.
"Even supposedly experienced people don’t know how to do things now because everything is broken down," Beth says. "When people tell you you have to support another band for some reason-- that doesn’t really make sense any more! Our generation doesn’t believe in elites. The filmmaker Adam Curtis said we are an apocalyptic generation. I thought that was great-- that's exactly where our name comes from."
Over our three meetings, the singer regularly talks of her admiration for Michael Gira, and how he chose to end Swans in the late 90s rather than jeopardize his vision. "Some people’s souls are too big and strong to do the compromises constantly asked of you when you play rock music, because it’s not considered an art," she says of him.
Though Beth and Hostile run their own small imprint, Pop Noire, last month it was announced that Silence Yourself will be released through Matador Records. Over email a couple of days later, Beth explains that she doesn’t think the deal merits congratulations. "I have no pride or happiness left in me for these kind of things," she writes. "I came to a point where I absolutely had to demystify the cult surrounding indie labels. I see things differently, I guess-- I believe artists make their own success. No record labels are my heroes today.
Although she’s the most vocal member of the band, Beth was in fact the last to join Savages: After Hostile turned down Thompson’s offer to front the band, Beth sent a tentative email asking if she could try out, to Thompson’s total, delighted surprise. "From the first rehearsal, it was very productive-- we weren't just there to tell each other we're great," remembers Milton, who arrives for her one-on-one grilling carrying a copy of The Fountainhead.
Hassan was Thompson’s original foil: they met through the bassist’s crazy Halloween parties and went on to play in the band Hindley. "It was a kind of My Bloody Valentine noise-fest," Thompson recalls. "We played at every shit-hole in London. We had our own smoke machine, lights, costumes-- no matter where we were, it was about perfecting the performance." Her meticulous presentational streak remains: Savages no longer play "shit-holes" with any desperate regularity, but they curate everything from posters to video trailers, support slots, visuals, and the music between acts. Their show at the Electric Ballroom is a comprehensive display of how maintaining such total control can manifest in something truly uncompromising.
Since the doors opened, a creaking chime-- like midnight sounding over the River Styx-- has been playing over the venue's sound system, though no one really notices. Attentions are piqued, however, when a woman in white suddenly lays on her back near the bar end of the room. Knees bent, she uses her feet to push herself down toward the stage, narrowly avoiding getting stepped on. Another four dancers follow, a space clearing around them. They reach the end of the room and roll onto their fronts, crawling in a circle at a deathly slow pace, as if the air had the consistency of wet cement. Eventually they rise together, heads bowed, shoulders locked, looking like decapitated corpses. The equal parts intimidating, tedious, and awe-inspiring spectacle lasts 35 minutes, making some of the crowd hilariously antsy. "I don’t think they’re about to do the 'Thriller' dance, do you?" an incessantly chattering woman mugs to her friends.
Milton’s friend Fernanda Munoz-Newsome choreographed the piece, titled "Rewind-It". Her motivation was to create "something that would not be easy to sit back and watch." And then some. Smoking in the freezing back alley, Thompson explains that the impetus to stage such a piece came from a performance by Wire at the same venue 33 years prior, captured on 1981’s Document & Eyewitness. Wire antagonized the audience by scrapping the hits and including a bizarre Dadaist cabaret that constantly interrupted their set. The skinhead-heavy crowd bottled them.
"The concept was to challenge the audience," she says, shivering in a long black coat. It certainly shows some gall to subject a Thursday night Camden crowd to an avant-garde dance performance. Upstairs in the dressing room, the band is pleased as punch. "It was like an art space!" a stage-ready Beth crows, hopping from hot pink heel to heel.
"I absolutely had to demystify the cult surrounding indie labels. I believe artists make their own success. No record labels are my heroes today." -- Jehnny Beth
In the cinema arts café the afternoon after the Electric Ballroom gig, the band is considerably loosened-up from the first time we met, repeatedly collapsing in hoots, and listing their ultimate hard-rock hunks (it’s a toss-up between Thor Harris from Swans and Josh Homme, "the modern-day Elvis."). The hangovers may have something to do with it. After some prodding, they admit that their more pointed moves over our meetings for this feature-- being interviewed individually, the imposing tape recorder-- really just represent their lack of experience in press situations.
Still, their occasionally over-protective hold on precisely what they’re doing is part of what makes them thrillingly distinguished from countless young groups who tend to delight in shambolic guilelessness and caring for precisely naught. Those bands can never be caught out because they never had any beliefs to begin with. Savages may contradict themselves at times, but they're more interesting for it. These imperious, Romantic punks want to be nothing less than a gateway drug to transformative art and ideas. But for now, there are headaches to tend to (Milton’s face is on the table more than once). And true to their most primal desires, Savages are reduced to offering the simplest interpretation of their sound yet.
"It’s music to break shit to!" laughs Thompson.
"And fuck on the floor to!" says Milton, crumpling beneath extreme-hangover hysteria.
Thompson concludes: "It’s music to break shit and fuck on the floor to."
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. For this edition, we spoke with Mikal Cronin, a member of Ty Segall Band whose second solo album, the Best New Music pick MCII, is out next week.
Favorite Game Show
There was this Nickelodeon game show called “Legends of the Hidden Temple”. I was so jealous of all the kids on there. Some girl from my middle school actually got on that show-- she got to the final maze at the end and completely blew it. I was so angry. It should’ve been me! I knew that maze like the back of my hand.
Tom Waits. I really like his musical career arc, starting out with the jazzy, soulful stuff, and then just getting crazier and crazier. I always appreciate it when I hear about a musician who’s stuck around for a long time and is obviously only doing what they want to do.
I actually had a dream that I got a little dinosaur tattooed on my lower back, like an outline of a brontosaurus. In my dream, I was showing this tattoo around and everyone hated it and didn’t understand, but I was really, really excited by it. I loved it. I still don’t understand what that means. I thought about [getting it in real life] for a second, but an abstract dream that I don’t understand probably isn’t a good enough reason to get a tattoo.
Dumbest Thing I Bought Recently
On one of the last tours we were on, in the middle of nowhere, I bought a koozie at a gas station that says: “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to tweet about it, did it really happen?” It’s so stupid and so not funny that I bought it, but it’s kicked off a dumb koozie collection that I’m now amassing.
You know that YouTube video “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit”? That should be the answer.
Most Enthusiastic Crowd
The last couple of years, Toronto is just fucking batshit crazy every time we go up there. When we were touring with Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall Band, there was just constant stagediving, like two people at once for the entire show. There were people lining up and climbing on rafters and doing backflips into the crowd. It’s like being in a warzone trying to defend yourself from getting the microphone smashed into your mouth while trying to play music.
First Record I Bought for Myself
Growing up in Laguna Beach, my siblings and I had a string of lifeguard babysitters for some reason. So there was this one lifeguard whose favorite band was Nirvana, so he would always play that in the car, and my 10-year-old self got really into Nirvana. I remember buying In Utero because I liked the album cover a lot. It’s pretty dark music for a 10-year-old, and I definitely didn’t understand most of it. But I was in love with Nirvana from then on.
Last Great Book I Read
Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, I love him, but I think that’s the best one I’ve read recently-- really psychedelic and dark and funny. Like all of his books, it's mean but funny and depressing and awesome all at the same time.
I’ve been on a big cranberry juice kick for the last couple of years. I’ll often drink it instead of alcohol. Or with alcohol.
Birthdays are always kind of weird for me, because it's the day after Christmas. All my friends are always with their families or traveling, so I’ve always had extremely mellow birthdays. I hate the idea of having some kind of party in my honor, anyway-- that freaks me out.
Last Record You Played
Wizzard's Wizzard Brew. It's Roy Wood’s band when he left ELO. Amazing, insanely lushly orchestrated pop. Not too far off from ELO, but a little weirder and darker.
Biggest Pet Peeve
It drives me fucking crazy when you’re in a line in a coffee shop and somebody in front of you goes up to the clerk talking on their phone or with a fucking Bluetooth in their ear. Treating someone like a robot while somebody who probably hates their job and is just trying to get through the day is trying to help you drives me crazy. There are a lot of assholes around.
My Worst Nightmare
I had this recurring nightmare as a kid where the leprechaun from the Leprechaun movie would chase me. I’d be a prince and he’d be a jester and he'd push me down a hill of thorny leaves into a campground where he follows me into a truck and either kills me or doesn’t. Then I wake up. It’s brutal.
Louis C.K. is definitely the best now. And I just rewatched the Andy Kaufman movie Man on the Moon and it reminded me how much I love him and how he dedicated his life to really fucking weird, ahead-of-its-time, abstract anti-comedy. I respect him a lot.
My Dream Collaboration
I’ve been really into Colin Stetson, the saxophone player. When listening to his music, I always think he doesn’t need anything else, but if he wanted to start a Lightning Bolt-type drum and saxophone band that’s disgustingly loud and elaborate and fast, I’d practice hard just to see that happen. I’m probably not the right drummer to do it with, but I’d be happy to try.
The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. That song always makes me extremely happy, and it’s just longingly beautiful and sad in a lot of ways, too. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, there's the Velvet Underground's “Heroin”, which is really interesting to me because it’s not directly pro or against heroin use-- I’m against it personally.
I’m a big cat guy. I love cats and kittens. I made this really silly tour documentary for the Ty Segall/White Fence tour where probably 60% of the footage is of cats I met along the road.
Best Thing I’ve Done in the Past Year
I got to play on the Conan O’Brien show with Ty Segall Band. It was really surreal and frightening, but also reassuring that trying to play music for a living is a good idea. And getting to meet Conan, who I’ve loved for years and years, was crazy. He actually spent time talking to us and told Ty he’s a big fan of the music. He seemed genuinely excited and stoked.
A couple of years ago, I reveled in broadcasting the smart provocations of Jenny Hval on my college radio show while simultaneously feeling extreme discomfort in knowing that my grandma might be listening. "Not all limbs have e-rec-tions," the Oslo-based Hval sang on the brilliant "Portrait of the young girl as an artist", stretching the last word as if it were three. It eerily struck me like Laurie Anderson's angelic avant-garde speak-sing, Kate Bush's post-punk eccentricities, or Patti Smith's stream-of-conscious skyward appeals. But mostly it sounded like something I'd never heard before.
Hval's 2011 album Viscera-- which starts with the singer letting us know that the humming electric toothbrush pressed against her clitoris has run out of batteries-- was her first under her own name for experimental label Rune Grammofon, but her third record as a solo artist, having released 2006's To Sing You Apple Trees and 2008's Medea under the moniker Rockettothesky. While those two featured a straighter singer-songwriter sound, they were no less sexually frank: "I imagine all your hairs are fingers/ And it makes me cum," Hval sang on Apple Trees, and later, "When you think about me, do you masturbate?"Medea meanwhile was grounded in a concept around Greek tragedy. The influence of literature looms large in all of the 32-year-old's material; she has two degrees and also works as a poet, music journalist, and author, having published two books, 2009's Perlebryggeriet ("The Pearl Brewery") and 2012's Inn i ansiktet ("Sings with her eyes").
While diving into the intellectual footnotes of Hval's work can feel a bit challenging, the music itself is sublimely accessible. Produced by frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, her new LP, Innocence Is Kinky (due in the U.S. May 14 and out now elsewhere), is her loudest and most primally realized album yet. What began as a 25-minute sound and light installation here finds Hval pushing the limits of her voiceover tranquil ambience, skronking experimentalism, and harsh noise, exploring such diverse topics as human nature, Joan of Arc, the 2011 Oslo bombings, and the experience of watching porn on her computer.
Though Hval's only played the U.S. once-- at last year's Unsound Festival in New York alongside Julia Holter-- she hopes to return this year despite discouraging visa issues and difficulty finding appropriate gigs for her sound. She's an exceedingly articulate conversationalist with a good sense of humor and a unique accent that's hard to pin. We spoke via Skpe while she was on tour in Berlin.
"I'm inspired by that rawness in very direct communication. My work is not meant to keep people happy or give them an escape."
Pitchfork: When did you become interested in writing lyrics that are more provocative and sexually frank?
JH: I've always been writing like that. I wrote a speech in high school for a tradition we have in Norway called russ-- a celebration when you finish high school, where everybody wears this red one-piece suit and parties a lot. There's one speech written by a girl, for the guys, and then the other way around. I wrote the men's speech... it was very rude. It was the first time I wrote something that was meant to be performed. I find that what inspires me is that rawness in very direct communication. I've never been good at being nostalgic, and I've never been able to focus on sound without having a voice that's very here-and-now. My work is not meant to keep people happy or give them an escape. I definitely don’t want people to think about that day when they were 15, making out-- I don’t want to use those Instagram effects.
Pitchfork: What other feelings do you want to convey with your lyrics?
JH: On an emotional level, I don’t want to be a guide. I want people to hear things and experience them their own way. But when I write stuff that's provocative, I want people to think about that, too. I’m in between a pop musician and an artist in that way. I want people to be part of the music as they listen, but I also want them to think: What was that?
Pitchfork: You've said that "to put a soft focus on lyrics because of genre, even pop, is to not take the art form seriously." What do you mean by that?
JH: When I was recording my last album, I was interested in having quite sharp lyrics with soft music. Then we started playing these terrible venues, in terms of sound, and this soft music didn’t carry. I got aggressive, and all of a sudden I wanted to be bloody and louder. I’ve always been so interested in the way the body feels when singing or being on stage, or being in the audience for that matter. It doesn’t have to be the typical "rock" experience. It can be so much more. When you’re outside of genre, you can expose more vulnerability.
I’ve definitely been aware of people not listening to lyrics and wanting to cut through. I’m always going back and forth between wanting to do stuff that’s abstract and stuff that’s just telling everybody to listen. I was always interested in listening to lyrics and sounds of words, whether it's Paul Simon or someone like Peaches.
Photo by Anette Schive
Pitchfork: When you were younger, you played in a gothic pop band, Shellyz Raven. Are there things you feel you've carried over from that experience?
JH: Definitely. I was living in a small town during high school, in the thick of the Bible Belt in the south of Norway. For me, the only way to be apart from that was to be involved with the goth community, which was very small. People had to be in it together. When we played, there would be punk kids there, and then one black metal guy standing in a cloak at the back.
I was never really comfortable with black metal. I still find it a peculiar genre. I know a lot of people in noise who are very influenced by it, but I was not very comfortable with the gender roles of the metal community: "Wear this big Victorian dress, sing pretty, then we'll have some guy do the growling." Obviously, my band wasn't like that, but it was an interesting scene.
Pitchfork: How long have you been interested in exploring gender roles?
JH: I’ve always been doing it. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I did it even before I could speak. One of the first memories I have, from when I was two or three, is being really terrified of men, so how could I not think about it? I’m not terrified anymore, but I remember being very, very aware of gender when I was really young. Not necessarily in a bad way. Maybe it’s a little bit because I’m Norwegian and how I’ve been brought up. Norway’s a very gender-aware country, and we’re very liberal. There are lots of women’s voices being heard here compared to many other countries.
Pitchfork: When did you start to record your solo material?
JH: A little more than 10 years ago. I had moved to Australia to study creative writing and I couldn't bring any equipment. I couldn't even have a guitar. But I got a three-track recorder that was so small that I could take it with me. Then I started recording and writing properly. I recorded lots of voices, not just my own. I was interested in people speaking and singing English and trying out words.
Pitchfork: English is your second language. Did that factor into your interest in words and writing in general?
JH: For sure. I started to record at the same time I was learning to speak English in an English-speaking country, which is very different from learning English in school. I really hated being the Norwegian girl in every single conversation in Australia, so I tried to make my Norwegian-ness invisible, speaking like whoever was around me. I went through various phases of different accents-- I get ridiculously obsessed with different accents, different regional ways of using the voice, different types of singing. It's all tied together. Speaking is a kind of singing, as are crying and laughing.
I'm obsessed with voices in film, too. I have this memory of how people say words, even on the most intensely stupid reality TV show. I took interest in Paris Hilton at one point and got fascinated with her voice. In my book, I have this passage where I talk about how I could never sing like Nick Cave, but Paris Hilton was within reach.
Pitchfork: I read that you became fascinated with the Paris Hilton sex tape before recording Innocence Is Kinky. In what ways did you find it influential?
JH: The album was a series of projects. It started as a performance, spoken word, and music project. I was working with a friend who’s a writer, and she was very into trash shows at the time, like the Norwegian version of "Teen Mom", which is really boring, and also Paris Hilton. So I started watching a lot of reality TV, too. It’s an interesting and very problematic genre. The sex tape obviously is a world of its own. It was something I wanted to see because I wanted to know what she’d done. Before the film starts, some words come up on the screen: “In memory of September 11th, we’ll never forget.” And then sex tape. It’s so crazy. I don’t understand you Americans.
Pitchfork: That is completely absurd, even for America.
JH: There are many things about the sex tape that are more about the staging of the whole tape than watching Paris Hilton’s naked body. That quote at the beginning is also a staging. It’s saying something about what kind of people made this film and what kind of people they are making it for.
Pitchfork: Did that directly influence any particular songs on the album?
JH: It’s influenced the title track, which is about the feeling of watching not just porn, but any program that takes advantage of the image of the young girl, with that stereotypical male gaze. I’ve studied film a lot, so I know much more about film than music, but I don’t think I could have made films. I’m very interested in the visual world because I’m also very interested in feminism. I find that the world of watching takes us into the most psychotic state of, like, "You are this one person, but you have to become another person to see these images."
"I’m not trying to be a solution or create a freer, utopian world. I think my music dreams of it, though."
Pitchfork: There's a song called “The Seer” on the LP. Are you a big Swans fan?
JH: I’m a huge Swans fan. When I was working with the material for the album, I was watching this interview with Michael Gira on YouTube over and over. He was talking about the way he wanted the music to feel when he started Swans. It was so nice to hear someone talking about the energy of the music. I did write “The Seer” before I knew their album was coming out, but I'm happy about the connection.
Pitchfork: You've published two books as well, are there any particular poets or authors that have influenced your literary work?
JH: For years I was reading a lot of Anne Carson. She’s been very inspiring. I’m not sure if she’s inspired me in a way she would enjoy. At the moment I’m really into Chris Kraus [author of Aliens & Anorexia and I Love Dick]. I came across one of her books last year and then bought all of them and read them back to back. And then there’s Elfriede Jelinek who’s also very provocative, and into almost-pornographic language. She just won the Nobel Prize. I’ve always been a fan of reading art catalogues from exhibitions, and plays, and I’ve worked with a surrealist German playwright, Heiner Müller.
Pitchfork: You've mentioned many intellectual influences from film and literature as well as "Teen Mom" and Paris Hilton. Was there anything that made you want to draw from high and low culture simultaneously?
JH: What grabbed me with the trash stuff was the staging of a personality. In the Norwegian "Teen Mom" there are all these girls trying to explain who they are. I find it quite endearing, but the TV company is really just putting it all into one character. This is something I find in the whole spectrum of art, from the lowest to the highest of the traditional hierarchy. On the one hand, you have the full human. And on the other hand, you have this eternal image of the innocent young girl, or the stereotypical nymph/slut/Madonna roles. I keep finding things like that everywhere. I got really interested in the language used in blogs written by young girls-- a young person's aggression, which is always lacking from the visual world. There’s this really endearing language in blogs, in between these bikini shots of themselves, where they have all these spelling mistakes. It’s all a bit like vomit. I find it really interesting.
Pitchfork: Do you consider the music you make to be distinctly feminist?
JH: If it’s feminist then it’s with a very human edge to it. It’s not like a manifesto, and I’m not in any way trying to make statements that are not also invaded by emotions and abstract ideas that I don’t really understand myself. It’s more interesting when I can do that. It’s not a theoretical dissertation. It’s feminist because I’m exploring gender and gender roles through my own body and my own voice, but I’m also failing a lot. I’m not trying to be a solution or create a freer, utopian world. I think my music dreams of it, though.
In January, an image purporting to be the cover of Vampire Weekend’s third studio album began circulating online. It was an Instagram-yellowed shot of a woman in a droopy dress standing in front of vintage wallpaper with the title Lemon Sounds overlaid on top in the band's signature bold Futura typeface. It looked vaguely familiar but cartoonishly twee, a crude approximation of the aesthetic Vampire Weekend have become known for. The picture-- which, it turns out, was part of an art-school homework assignment-- fell in line with the tradition of Apple obsessives speculating about what a new product will look like months before its launch: an attempt to imitate that ultimately underscores the strength of a brand's vision.
“No disrespect to the person who made it,” frontman Ezra Koenig says, "but if anyone had ever shown that to me as a possible album title and cover, I would have had a conniption, because it’s everything that I hate.” For their actual third album, Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend are not just collecting ideas and executing a winning artistic strategy, but painstakingly steering that strategy away from possible traps: cliché, redundancy, staleness, excess, ostentation. Sometimes it means guarding themselves against their own instincts.
The story behind the new album’s real cover, which eschews the colorful directness of their previous sleeves, is more complicated. “The image looks old, but also seems like it might be a rendering of some kind of future,” says the band’s musical architect and de-facto aesthetic director, Rostam Batmanglij, talking about the cover's black-and-white, almost dystopian shot of a fog-shrouded New York City. We’re sitting at a table next to a large window in his loft in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, where he’s got a spectacular front-row view of the Manhattan Bridge. “In the 60s, New York had a smog problem, which we subsequently cleaned up. But even though New York is cleaner now, the world’s air is much more polluted,” Batmanglij explains. “What does that say about the future? Where are we going?”
The shot was taken by New York Times photographer Neal Boenzi looking south from the Empire State Building in November 1966, though I have to figure this out by reading the album's liner notes later on. Batmanglij won’t tell me who took the photo, or how he found it. Like Koenig, he’s scrupulous and cautious when he speaks, pausing and smiling in a near-giggle before he answers a question. It's as though each Vampire Weekend song and artifact comes along with its own little puzzle, something to figure out. Fittingly, the album's title was first announced without fanfare in a place completely unknown to many of the band's Craigslist-generation fans: the "Notices & Lost and Found" section of the Times' classified section.
“If you don’t give Vampire Weekend credit for any type of self-awareness or humor, you’re always going to have this crazy impression of us.”
— Ezra Koenig
Alex John Beck
Tucked into a downtown Manhattan cafe in March, Koenig is nearly monochrome in a black sweater and dark jeans. He's got the old-fashioned grace and delicate mannerisms of someone who took etiquette classes as a kid; after a while, I notice his frittata has disappeared, though I never register him taking a single bite throughout our conversation. He's talking about the early stages of the new record, and how the gears turned slowly at first. Just before Vampire Weekend's last album, Contra, was released in 2010, Koenig and his girlfriend broke up. The singer moved out of the apartment they shared in New York, toured relentlessly for a year, and then spent a few months in Los Angeles, still without much of a home base. “Generally, I was feeling weird and aimless,” he says. Batmanglij, meanwhile, spent some time travelling around India with three of his friends before reconvening with Koenig in L.A. to begin writing what would become Modern Vampires.
After settling down back in New York, Koenig and Batmanglij began meeting a few times a week to write songs, some of which they’d eventually scrap altogether (they could’ve put out an album over a year ago if they hadn’t). At one point, the pair took what Koenig calls “a writing retreat” to a friend’s house in Martha’s Vineyard, where they bore down. And last year, Batmanglij brought an outside party into the recording process for the first time in the band's history, calling in his close friend Ariel Rechtshaid, who's recently written and produced for Snoop Dogg, Usher, and Charli XCX.
All four members of the band, including drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, spent time experimenting with Rechtshaid at his Los Angeles home, where they often worked in a back house situated beneath an avocado tree. At Batmanglij’s request, they recruited a group of interns from their respective management companies to get the space in working condition, cleaning it and setting up speakers. There, Koenig recorded the devastating vocals for “Hannah Hunt”, a wobbling ballad named after a girl the singer sat next to in a Buddhism class in college (who also happens to be a vocalist in the San Francisco indie pop group Dominant Legs). "I always thought she had a great name," he says. Though the band had been working on a version of the song since the time of their first album, it wasn't until now that they got it right. The track's homespun ambience is felt throughout Modern Vampires' finer details. “You you can hear the rustling trees if you listen carefully,” Batmanglij says.
“Sometimes we really felt like we had a banger, like, ‘This could be on the radio.’ But it would sound too normal, so it was back to the drawing board. It didn't matter how great it was."
— Producer Ariel Rechtshaid
Kyle Dean Reinford
In some ways, the new record's relaxed aesthetic is a reaction against their first two albums. Koenig, Batmanglij, and Rechtshaid all talk about discarding old habits during our talks-- a task made easier thanks to Rechtshaid's admitted unfamiliarity with the band’s music. “We had a running joke throughout the making of the record-- they would reference their own songs and I’d give them a blank stare,” he tells me. “They’d say, ‘You’re such an asshole, you’ve never even listened to our music.'” Rechtshaid then says something that may make Vampire Weekend diehards scream in frustration: “Sometimes we really felt like we had a banger, like, ‘This could be on the radio.’ But it would sound too normal, so it was back to the drawing board. It didn't matter how great it was."
Another factor drawing away from the festival-ready cheer of their earlier material is the fact that, at 28, Koenig is no longer the post-collegiate wunderkind (though he still looks like he could slip into a lecture or two without drawing a second glance). Spectres of mortality float through the album, and on the wistful "Don't Lie", the singer asks: “I want to know-- does it bother you?/ The low click of a ticking clock/ There’s a headstone right in front of you/ And everyone I know.” Still, there’s a conscious effort to keep the darkness in check. Like how they chose to call the adrenaline-pumping single "Diane Young" instead of "Dying Young". “I had this feeling that the world doesn’t want a song called ‘Dying Young’," says Koenig, "it just sounded so heavy and self-serious, whereas ‘Diane Young’ sounded like a nice person’s name.”
“The perfect tone is halfway between deeply serious and totally fucking around,” he continues. “If you don’t give Vampire Weekend credit for any type of self-awareness or humor, you’re always going to have this crazy impression of us.” He tells me about the lyrics to the song “Unbelievers”, which some have pegged as some kind of atheist anthem. But to Koenig, it’s a more nuanced piece about how confusing it can be to make decisions about what to believe in as a young person today, and how people with conflicting beliefs about the world interact with one another. “Even when you’re pretty confident in some things, like loving somebody,” he says, “there are still a million other things that contribute to anxiety about the future and the choices you’re making.” We settle on an encapsulation: millennial unease. "I like that phrase," he says, with a little exasperated laugh. "It's a concise way to describe a lot of the feelings on the album."
"I truly believe that some of those people [who criticized us] are wearing way more button-down shirts and boat shoes now.”
— Ezra Koenig
Kyle Dean Reinford
For a record with so many moving parts-- cinematic spoken word, yodeling, pitch-shifted vocals, a nod to Oakland hip-hop act Souls of Mischief, oodles of production techniques-- Modern Vampires of the City is Vampire Weekend’s most effortless-sounding work yet. It's also the album that will release them from the rusty chains of enraged chatter that surrounded them when they burst into the the limelight in 2007. From their current vantage as indie-rock upperclassmen, the criticisms they received in those days-- about their Ivy League pedigree, tailored clothing, academic approach to pop, and studied cross-cultural curation-- seem entirely misguided, fleeting strands of vitriol that have organically corrected themselves. In fact, the characteristics that maddened the echo chamber in the beginning are partly responsible for their current elevated status.
“It’s just so off the mark that it’s boring,” Koenig says of the band’s early reception. “Things that seemed controversial or provocative six years ago seem so quaint now. I truly believe that some of those people [who criticized us] are wearing way more button-down shirts and boat shoes now.” We talk about how people discussed the internet six years ago, citing Vampire Weekend as an example of a band whose bloggy buzz bubble was probably doomed to burst. “Even the word blog sounds a little grandma-y,” he says. “This whole concept of buzz feels so dated. It’s really hard to even talk about the internet without seeming instantly corny.”
I ask Koenig if the recent outrage surrounding his friend Lena Dunham’s show “Girls”-- about white privilege, diversity, and the actress' lack of clothes (tailored or otherwise)-- resonates with him. He says the reaction to the show reminds him of how people might react to a band, and points out that people are most critical of art when they can see reflections of themselves in it. I think back to how he hated that fake album cover. But then again, if an artist can give people reason enough to keep staring into a reflection, they may begin to admire it.
With its pounding Taiko drums and battleship-sonorous horns, These New Puritans' second album, 2010's Hidden, took the elements of an aggressive maelstrom and made them more terrifying in crystal clear isolation; the kind of record you'd listen to when walking down a back alley at midnight in order to assume some of its powerful ferocity. But during the press rounds after its release, frontman Jack Barnett and his twin brother/drummer George often said that their next move would find them taking on "Disney pop" and employing a female eastern European singer. A year later, though, Jack told NME that the plan was off: "I've realised I actually hate pop music. Most people don't like good music, so there's no point trying to do something for them."
If a Jonas Brothers-style record seemed like a bizarre follow-up, then the forthcoming Field of Reeds (due June 10 via Infectious) is almost as much of a curveball. It takes until two minutes into the third song, "The Light in Your Name", for any semblance of propulsive percussion to make an appearance, doing away with what had arguably become These New Puritans' defining trait. (As becomes clear when talking to Jack one afternoon in early May, These New Puritans are not interested in maintaining "defining traits.") Here, they seem more like a modern classical ensemble than the quote-unquote band they once were; composers Hans Ek (who scored the music to the original Swedish version of Let the Right One In), Phillip Sheppard, and Michel van der Aa wrote with Jack on the album, along with an enormous cohort of session musicians largely sourced and conducted by Andre de Ridder, who collaborated with the band on their expanded, orchestral live shows in late 2011.
Produced by Jack and Graham Sutton, Field of Reeds has an eerie, serene melodic purity that recalls Talk Talk arranging a Benjamin Britten piece, though executed with a vanguard approach: its silvery tone comes courtesy of a magnetic resonator piano never before used in commercial recordings, along with a set of 24 chromatically pitched Thai "nipple" gongs, the wings of a real Harris hawk, and the sound of smashing glass. The unsettling feel continues with forlorn singing from Jack, a decidedly non-angelic children's choir, basso profundo vocal tremors from Adrian Peacock (who has the lowest known voice in Britain), and Portuguese Fado vocalist Elisa Rodrigues.
Written in Essex and Amsterdam, recorded in London, Berlin, and Gloucester, it's an unnervingly emotional record that manages to conjure the misty flats off the band's native Essex coast as much as the ominous feel easily associated with traditional "Berlin records." Although Jack says there's no intentional link between Field of Reeds and its predecessor, it seems to make sense as the stilled aftermath of Hidden's battlefields, his lyrical focus moving from vast topics like nature and numerology to a more intimate enclave.
"We drove a lot of people mad making this album."
Pitchfork: The album has a certain conservatorial air about it. What was the atmosphere like during recording?
Jack Barnett: We pissed off a lot of people making this album, and drove a lot of people mad. We worked long hours of the day, every day. I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Maybe some of the musicians thought, "It's some popular music project, we can all relax, put our feet up." But it was a big challenge. But a lot of the musicians enjoyed that. I don’t enjoy pissing people off, but sometimes you have to.
And it was all in service of the music, which was all completely written beforehand. We started off with the ensemble stuff-- classical or orchestral parts can be the kind of thing that people sprinkle onto albums at the end, but we wanted to build the music around that. I love that whole process of writing music, bringing someone in to play it, honing the performance through playing it. I could do that all day.
Pitchfork: I used to get excited when indie rock bands announced performances with orchestras, but the more I saw it, the more I realized that it usually didn’t add anything-- just some syrupy climax on their epic songs.
JB: I couldn’t agree more. I don’t like that whole, horrible, chummy atmosphere when a band plays with an orchestra, it’s a bit toe-curling. I want the absolute opposite of that.
Pitchfork: What memories from the recording process stand out?
JB: There was a time when we were recording a hawk. We wanted to record the sound of a bird’s wings taking flight, and it would have been easier to get a sample from somewhere, but that’s not interesting to me. I’d much rather get our own sound with its own nuances. There was issues with studios-- most of the ones we were trying to work in wouldn’t let us record a hawk. We were contacting conservation people who had animal welfare issues, they didn’t want to let us record a bird, they just thought we were weird. Eventually, we got a pest-control guy who had this hawk. It’s an amazing animal, a Harris hawk-- it’s not a showbird, it’s a predator. The studio engineer was absolutely terrified-- the hawk was trying to get him. Her handler was saying, “He doesn’t like you, stay away from her.” We spent three or four hours with her until she started to get a bit hissy. It seemed best to stop there.
Pitchfork: When you want to record the sound of smashing glass and so on, does that make it hard to find willing studio spaces?
JB: Well, we just did that without asking. That’s the best way to go about it a lot of the time. They were finding shards of glass in the studio for weeks after we’d left.
"We wanted to record the sound of a bird’s wings taking flight. It would have been easier to get a sample from somewhere, but that’s not interesting to me. So we recorded a hawk."
Pitchfork: Have you thought about how you will present this album live yet?
JB: I’m in the middle of doing the arrangements. There’ll be a seven-piece band. With Hidden, a lot of the arrangement had to do with the particular [percussive] forces, and the massed, layered sound, whereas with this album, it’s a lot more melodic and harmonic, so it works better; you can rearrange it for different instruments, and you could play all these songs just on piano, which you couldn’t with Hidden. We’re putting together this group that still has the agility of a band, but it isn’t going to be this ship that’s impossible to turn around.
Pitchfork: Did the other members of the band help to write this album?
JB: I wrote the music on my own, then brought it to George and [multi-instrumentalist] Tom [Hein] to translate it to human beings playing it. Sophie [Sleigh-Johnson]'s slipped out, it's been this sort of gradual and imperceptible process. Maybe she'll come back one day. She’s like a sleeper agent.
Pitchfork: Were you open to suggestions from other band members and musicians on which direction the music could take?
JB: A lot of the time I’ve got quite a good idea of what I want, but it's that point between the music that you’ve written and then the person coming in and playing it in a room that I like. There’s this whole culture of copy-and-pasting with music, editing out any idiosyncrasies. But the irregularities are what makes something moving. I’d much rather play a piece of music 100 times and get it perfect than get out the mouse and keyboard. It feels like you’re working at a call center, or an IT department. I don’t want to feel like that. I love music, it shouldn’t feel like data management.
Pitchfork: The record features a magnetic resonator piano, which hasn’t been used that much before commercially. How did you come to include it?
JB: It was good luck, really. We talked a lot about this sound, but we didn’t know how we were going to make it. We thought we’d have to use a pipe organ and then sound-design some stuff around it to get the sound that these songs demanded. But a friend of Graham [Sutton]’s was studying acoustics in London, he found it. We went along to have a demonstration with it by Andrew [McPherson], an American bloke who’s a professor of digital music. It’s an incredible thing, it’s like a trap that you place over a piano. It takes four or five hours to calibrate. Magnets resonate the strings, making amazing sounds that you might associate with electronic music. There’s no attack, and sounds are sustained indefinitely. It had this 3D-ness and realness to it that’s quite incredible.
"Arms trade, people traffickers-- if anyone wants to give me money for music, I will accept it!"
Pitchfork: At one point, you said you weren't going to sing on this album.
JB: It became really important that it was me singing on it. I really love singing these songs, more than any others that I’ve written. I like having all different voices on it, these different characters coming in and out of the songs. It’s so much a part of me that it couldn’t be sung by anyone else, apart from the bits that are outside perspectives.
With the first album, it felt like there was a bit of a distance between me and the music. It was kind of a construction. On Hidden, the distance closed a bit, it got smaller. With this album, this music, it feels like that gap has closed completely. I’ve lived every second of it.
Pitchfork: What drew you to incorporating Fado singing?
JB: It was obvious to me that there had to be this female voice. I’ve always liked Portuguese music-- I'm a big fan of Portugal. The oldest extant peace treaty is between Portugal and England, we’re extending that. It’s a really interesting culture, their national music is so dark, and Elisa [Rodrigues] reminded me of people like Billie Holiday.
Pitchfork: Field of Reeds sounds like a pretty expensive album. You gave "We Want War" to a Victoria’s Secret advert-- was that a difficult decision to make, and did it fund this record at all?
JB: No, it wasn’t a difficult decision. If someone comes up to me and says, "I’ll give you this money for doing nothing," I’m not personally in a position to say no. Arms trade, people traffickers-- if anyone wants to give me money for music, I will accept it! I’m never averse to that kind of thing, it’s the world we live in. You don’t make music from selling records any more because people don’t buy them. We’re really lucky that we have people who are willing to let us make these albums with no interference.
Pitchfork: Are you at all worried about alienating fans with this record?
JB: Our albums have been very gradual processes, alienating every potential audience that I have. I think our audience expects us to change. So we will change and we’ll do what we think is best, completely regardless of how it might affect us financially and how it might affect our audience. Otherwise we’ll just crash and burn, and find another job.
SurferBlood frontman John Paul Pitts is resigned to the fact that people are going to hate his new record because of his other record. No, not Astro Coast, the Florida band's breakout 2010 debut, but rather his arrest record. In March of 2012, the 26-year-old was arrested for domestic battery after a night with his live-in girlfriend turned ugly and possibly violent. The case was eventually dropped and no charges were filed. However, he is fully aware of the judgment that awaits him as he tries to clear his name.
“People are going to make up their own opinions about this regardless of anything that I really can say,” he confides. "I’m not guilty of these crimes, so it’s just an awful situation, the worst thing I’ve ever been through. The idea that I hit someone is definitely not true. I’ve never been in a fight in my entire life, I’ve never been a violent person." It’s one of the first times he’s spoken publicly on the matter, and yet he already sounds weary of having to explain himself and ask forgiveness despite having been cleared of any wrongdoing.
SurferBlood chose to keep quiet during the fallout, but there have been tangible effects. Though Pitts and guitarist Thomas Fekete, 24, aren’t at liberty to say who, numerous bands have refused to tour with them. "Certain people started looking at us like we were strangers again," says Fekete, "which is obviously a bit heartbreaking, but it was expected as well.” During the interview, Fekete quickly reveals a hair-trigger bullshit detector and a fierce loyalty to “one my best friends.”
But even if they've still got each other's support, Surfer Blood are facing a metric ton of backlash for a record that sounds completely incapable of handling it-- largely because it didn’t prepare itself to do so. Pythons, out June 11 via Warner Bros., just sounds exactly like what we’d expect from Surfer Blood’s major label debut, siphoning out the wiggly, post-Vampire Weekend guitars and Pacific Northwest grizzle of Astro Coast for 10 polished, hook-filled songs that could fit on any modern rock format between 1995 and 2005. The album was produced by Gil Norton, a guy whose work with the Pixies, Foo Fighters, and Jimmy Eat World has made him synonymous with alt-rock slickness. “I think the production, and the fact that it's more glossy, will make people miss some of the emotion and grit that we injected into it,” Pitts admits.
Based on our phone conversation, Pitts' most obvious shortcoming may be a surprising naivety; he worships Modest Mouse but had no idea Isaac Brock confronted a similar situation, facing accusations of date rape in 1999 that were eventually withdrawn. Sometimes, this can manifest in a sort of tone-deafness. You look at the cover art for Pythons, a boy flexing his muscles, playing off the Hulk Hogan reference of the title, and you can understand why Pitts says “it embodies a leap of confidence, of escapism.” But you also wonder why he’d tempt fate using a joke about physical brawn in light of the arrest. He may be innocent in the eyes of the law, but sometimes the court of public opinion can be even harder to sway.
Pitchfork: The police report for your arrest suggests some troubles with substance abuse or mental illness. What were you experiencing at the time?
John Paul Pitts: Well, I was in pain a lot of the time. I don’t think I’m mentally ill or unstable, but I’m definitely a very moody person. I was in a very toxic living situation with someone that I loved, but we didn’t really bring out anything good in each other. And one night we got into a terrible argument. That’s the story. As far as dealing with it, it’s been really hard. I definitely learned a lot about what’s not good for me.
Pitchfork: Did you consider AA or some other kind of rehab?
JPP: No charges were brought against me in this thing. I was remanded to take an anger management course, which I was happy to do. That was helpful. I still drink, but I think I’m a lot better now and I have some control. But there have been times when I haven’t.
Pitchfork: What did you tell your band and your family after you were arrested?
JPP: I couldn’t even process it. I remember the first time I saw Tom and [drummer] TJ [Schwarz] after, it’s just so hard to talk about. We didn’t talk about it for a few days. I was heartbroken and scared to death.
Pitchfork: Tom, when the band heard about this, were you tempted to quit?
Thomas Fekete: If either of us felt that he was a really dangerous person, none of us would be in a band with him. Most importantly, that has to be expressed. This is a relationship that we observed from afar for quite a long time and it was really unhealthy. There wasn’t a second where we thought, “Oh well, this is it.” Of course, it was very possible that it could have broken the band, and we’re grateful that people are still willing to support us. Even the police reports are very telling, you know? I don’t feel comfortable talking about this-- it’s not about me.
"People take take this incident as a reflection on my character, even though it was a mistake and the outcome of a horrible situation. I deeply regret everything that happened that night."
Pitchfork: There was about a three-month lapse between the time that you put in for the plea and pass agreement and when news of the arrest went public. During that period, were you prepared for the story to break?
JPP: I really didn’t know what to expect. I realized pretty soon after it happened that I couldn’t have a relationship with this person for a whole host of reasons. And it was before we had to record [Pythons], so I was focusing on performing, arranging, and setting up songs. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t have done that-- I was doing something that makes me really happy. So in one way it was one of the best times of my life, but it was also really scary and sad. It was something I would think about every hour of every day.
Pitchfork: When the story broke, you guys didn't comment on it. At some point, did you just want to address people on Twitter or Facebook?
TF: We were told to stay quiet about it, which was probably the most difficult thing. The idea of perpetuating the drama really freaks us out.
JPP: And we didn’t want to talk about it in the press, because I was worried about how that would affect the situation. We had a post up on our fan website that maybe three people saw, but for me, it was about not going directly into such a delicate situation that affected a good number of people. So I did stay quiet. I mean, it’s been hard to watch people on the internet speculate about it-- I had to turn off my phone and my computer for a long time afterwards.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like the implication of domestic battery as opposed to some other type of criminal offense led to your arrest being singled out?
JPP: With other types of arrests-- especially drug or alcohol related-- people tend to be more forgiving. Domestic battery is a broad term that covers a wide range of incidents, which can enable people to exaggerate or oversimplify the statements in the police report. Domestic battery implies that someone is a bad person, or that they are morally flawed in some permanent way. Abuse is an awful thing. I deeply regret everything that happened that night. I think people take take this incident as a reflection on my character, even though it was a mistake and the outcome of a horrible situation.
Pitchfork: Did the incident make it more difficult to concentrate on the record?
JPP: The truth is that most of the record had been written before that, and I honestly couldn’t even write for a while afterwards. It’s so weird to look back and see a lot of the lyrics I was writing-- [they] seemed prophetic, like this was a breakup that was going on for months.
Pitchfork: Knowing what the songs led to, is it hard to revisit them every night?
JPP: Even though many of these songs were written about a tumultuous relationship, I don't think it’s fair to reduce them to that. While its incredibly painful to revisit these memories, there is a lot more to these songs than the experiences that informed the lyrics. Writing songs for me is a very creative and cathartic process and brings me a lot of peace in spite of the painful place they can come from. I am very proud of these songs and the memories of recording them are much brighter than the memories of writing them.
Pitchfork: Some of the song titles, like “I Was Wrong”, and lyrics, like “damning allegations have come to light” and “we can’t feel the blowback from yesterday” on “Squeezing Blood”, are likely to be heard as after-the-fact.
JPP: People will definitely see it as a response, but that’s not really what it is, truthfully. I write from a place of pain, longing, and frustration, that’s where I tend to come from.
Pitchfork: Even though the charges were dropped, the police report does bear some implication of violence. How would you respond to a woman who said, “I can’t listen to SurferBlood because there’s no excuse for anything like that.”
JPP: That’s really unfortunate. I understand where people are coming from, but I just want to mention that I never hit anybody, and nothing I did was ever with aggression or malice. I understand why people would think that, but I just want people to know that there is another side to that, and I never acted in anger. Not even then.
Pitchfork: Have you spoken with the accuser since the arrest?
JPP: I haven't seen her since the incident. We spoke on the phone for a period after, and there was a lot of back and forth.
Pitchfork: Have you been in a relationship ever since that previous one ended?
JPP: Yes, I’m in a relationship right now with a girl that I love a lot, and she makes me happy. We’re a really positive influence around each other, and that’s been great. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about myself and what I should or shouldn’t look for in a partner. I’m very lucky that I’ve found someone who makes me a better person. We don't have to try to make each other happy, we just do. There is a level of trust and solidarity that I've never had before.
While known in some 90s-music circles for his work in the post-rock band Fridge, Kieran Hebden began to make more noise under his own project, Four Tet, at the start of the 21st century. His first two albums, Dialogue and Pause, received attention, as did a breakout remix of Aphex Twin for Warp’s 10+3 compilation. But it was when he released Rounds in May of 2003 that Four Tet’s profile soared, signifying the arrival of one of the more intriguing electronic music figures of the last decade. Just two years on from Radiohead’s IDM-embracing Kid A, a new generation of music makers were moving into indie sounds weaned on hip-hop breaks and the likes of Aphex and Boards of Canada. Four Tet’s Rounds showed how-- armed with only a laptop and a penchant for gentle melodic figures-- a stirring type of beat-driven music could be crafted.
This week sees a 10th anniversary edition of Rounds, with bonus material in the form of a live recording from Copenhagen in March 2004 showing just how quickly Hebden was moving from those pastoral sounds towards noise, free jazz, and heavier beats. Against a backdrop of the Ashokan Reservoir on a gray, rainy day, I met with Hebden in a cabin he rented up in Woodstock for the season to discuss how he ended up with his signature sound, possibly producing for RiFF RAFF, spiritual jazz, and the woes of being labeled “folktronica.”
I was listening to Joni Mitchell and trying to make a record like Blue. And no one really seemed to understand my influences at all, which was frustrating.
Pitchfork: How did you start making music?
KH: I was playing guitar first and then I had a four-track. I never had a sampler. I could never ever make a loop off of a record, and it was all I wanted to do-- there were four or five years of wishing and dreaming I could just loop something off a record, but I didn’t have a piece of equipment that could get me to that. And samplers were expensive at the time, so I couldn’t sample anything at all. But I had millions of ideas about it.
In college, one of the first things I did was get a student loan and buy my first ever computer. The guys from Simian Mobile Disco-- way before they were Simian Mobile Disco-- were in my computer science study course and they gave me this software for a program called Cakewalk. I was able to sample records and sequence them for the first time ever. That’s when the whole Four Tet thing started.
Pitchfork: You recently released some of your earliest recordings on the 0181 album. What was it like going back to the root of your music as Four Tet?
KH: I found these old CD-Rs with all these old files from back then, and I had to go online and try to find a pirated copy of Cakewalk that I needed to open them. I went through them and there were lots of bits that I liked, and that’s when I had this idea to make this collage out of it rather than have the music just disappear.
Pitchfork: What was the most cringe-worthy aspect of it?
KH: Just that they were late-90s, cheesy kind of breakdowns. Big beat and Chemical Brothers and all that sort of stuff happened around then and the way people were mixing and doing drums just wasn’t so elegant. I found a lot of it heavy handed. I was so into hip-hop at the time, endlessly listening to DJ Premier or Pete Rock. The first thing I did was [1998's] Thirtysixtwentyfive. It’s crazy that the first thing I made was this 40-minute track, but for me it was made up of like five years of ideas I had in my head. I was just making stuff very, very fast. I didn’t think about its relevance to any music that was going on at the time, didn’t think about anything at all.
When a musician starts out, you’ve got this naive period that you never ever get back again. It’s the reason why people like so many acts' first albums a certain way, because they lose something after that. I definitely got that period really well documented. I’d released three or four albums before I even actually sat there and thought, "What on earth am I even trying to do here? What’s any of this about?"
Pitchfork: So was Rounds the first time you sat down and thought about what you wanted to put forth?
KH: Rounds was the first time I thought, "I want to make something that has some absolute relevance. After Pause, I was quite critical of what I’d done. I’d listen to the stuff I’d put out and my main criticism was that it was just a product of its influences, that this just sounds like I’ve heard some records that are really cool-- a krautrock record, a jazz record, and an Aphex Twin record-- and I’ve just squashed them together. That realization frustrated me. I needed something that was more my own, and that was something I was trying to do with Rounds.
Up until then, I didn’t care remotely about titles: It’d be a day before the album had to be turned in, and I’d just choose a whole bunch of random words and chuck them on everything. So with Rounds, I really connected with the idea that I needed to make something more personal, something real that counted. I started to give the songs titles that were a little more personal to me, and people really responded to that. I realized there were no words or anything in my music, nothing that people would have to draw them in a little bit more. So I saw that that made a massive difference, it gave the music a slightly more magical feel somehow.
Pitchfork: So that people could connect with it?
KH: Yeah. It had to have a lot of me in it for it to be relevant. At that point, I was very wrapped up in this idea that making music was really important, that it was fully intertwined in my day-to-day life. I definitely had no aspirations to go to a studio or anything. It felt more important to me that there was a possibility that I could work on a piece of music while I ate my cereal in the morning because I was more likely to make something intimate and personal doing that than if I was going into a studio.
I was thinking that if I managed to just sit on my own at two in the morning after a night out with my friends, I might come out with something, because all the best things I was making were coming out at the weirdest times. I was living on my own and I’d had a relationship end at the beginning of Rounds. And then there was a big relationship-- with my future wife-- that commenced towards the end of making it. Loads of stuff was happening to me and I was very conscious of it all and really got into the idea that making this music was all part of that. When I listen to the record, I’m never gonna listen to it like anybody else listens to it. I listen to it more like reading an old diary; it’s tied up with a million memories of things that happened.
Pitchfork: Is it linear in that way, with the breakup in the beginning and then by the end you're with someone new.
KH: No, no. It’s all mixed up. I’m into the traditional concept of the album. There are so many albums I love that are 45 minutes long that fit together in this amazing way. I hit a point with the record where I have various pieces of it and I can see how it can form together in a more perfect album, driven by the pacing of it. With Rounds especially, I remember being so happy at the end of it that it was a solid listen, beginning to end. When you got the end of it and you felt like it’d gone by a little quick. That felt good to me.
Pitchfork: Even post-Kid A, the trend at that time was still very IDM: Aphex Twin, Autechre. I remember Boards of Canada being the first ones to be like, "Here’s this music, but now it’s really warm and there’s emotion to it," whereas Aphex was so prolific.
KH: Yeah. I felt like Aphex would do things to wind people up almost. He’d have a very melancholic, beautiful sort of track followed by the most aggressive track he could make. Everything there would unsettle you. That was his whole thing.
But I was listening to Joni Mitchell and trying to make a record like Blue. And no one really seemed to understand my influences at all, which was frustrating. In the UK now, there’s hardly any magazines or anything, and nobody writes long pieces, but there was a lot of that stuff going on at this time. Once the "folktronica" tag was applied, it was a disaster for me. You’d have a magazine like Mojo come to me and-- rather than find out what the record was about-- they’d already decided, like, "We need a folktronica piece, maybe we can get two or three of the acts that we think fit into this mold and write about it." But they were writing about a scene that didn’t exist-- scenes come from the musicians, not from the magazine. So they’d choose a bunch of people who had no common connections at all and squash them together. Looking back now, I’m even more annoyed by it. Ultimately, it had an effect on the music I made afterward. It was like a direct rebellion against "folktronica." I had to move away from it.
Pitchfork: You either end up playing into their expectations or you break them and they despise you for breaking those expectations.
KH: Yeah. There were things where I kept trying to explain to everybody that Rodney Jerkins was the biggest influence on what I was doing with Rounds. Things like Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”. He and Timbaland were like kings of pop music at that time, and these were the people I was looking to for all my guidance. Hip-hop was resonant for me. I never really cared about the MCs, though; it was always about the music. I’d want to know what record they sampled and I’d want to hear the original. I’d tell people this but they would still just write about Fairport Convention. And then Green Man Festival appeared, and one year I headlined-- the lineup was like Joanna Newsom, and then Smog, and then me. The crowd had been listening to acoustic music all day and by the time I came along, everyone wanted to dance.
Pitchfork: Was there an averse reaction to you playing the laptop?
KH: Oh yeah, I was getting a real hard time about that. But then once Prefuse 73 appeared, we did this tour together with Caribou, and it was cool. Everything got a lot of momentum very quickly. We all had very deep knowledge of hip-hop and samples. I met Diplo at the same time and he’d put out those AEIOU compilations, these psych rock compilations before he did Hollertronix. Funny enough, I saw Diplo at Coachella the other day and he introduced me into this dude RiFF RAFF, so it was us three hanging out for a minute. And straight away, Diplo was like, “You should do a beat for RiFF RAFF.” Not like we’re on the same spiritual path with music, but I was just like, “You know, I should send RiFF RAFF a beat.” It’s the most unlikely thing ever.
But Diplo originally was a sample nerd as well and he knew all those things inside-out. And then Stone’s Throw appeared and I met Egon and Madlib and all these people, and then very quickly there were a whole bunch of us who collect free jazz records and know all these breaks. We were traveling around on tour looking for records everywhere. Nobody realizes it, but Rounds is made only from records.
Pitchfork: Wait, what?
KH: It’s all samples, except for the electric guitar on the last track. Everything else is from vinyl bought on the road. I probably sampled 300 records to make it. Pause is all samples. Everything’s Ecstatic is all samples. They all are. But no one has ever caught on to that.
Pitchfork: I knew there was a Tori Amos sample on Rounds, which didn’t get cleared, but I never realized it was Avalanches-esque. Like when someone like Girl Talk puts out something now, there’s an entire Wikipedia page dissecting every single sample. How has that not happened with you?
KH: If you go on WhoSampled and you put Rounds in, there’s about two samples listed, because I was using the weirdest shit I had. Though I got caught for one of them, off of this Folkways record, Entourage Music and Theatre Ensemble. Everything got a bit heavy for a moment, and I was on tour in Baltimore and they asked if I could meet up. I remember the guy saying to me like, "You used my music without asking, and I lost money by getting the lawyer." And I was like, "You’ve just taken 100% of the publishing on this song away." We kind of called it quits. And then he came to the show and he said he loved everything I’d done with it on “She Moves She”.
Pitchfork: “As Serious as Your Life” name-checks the Valerie Wilmer book about free jazz in New York City in the late 60s and early 70s. Were you a big jazz fan at that time?
KH: I grew up listening to jazz because my dad was a big jazz fan. At home, I remember him playing things like Art Pepper, that mellow, beautiful kind of West Coast jazz. But then he’d take me to the Bracknell Jazz Festival and we’d go watch Don Cherry and Carla Bley. Then Soul Jazz put out this compilation, United Sounds of America, that was a massive turning point for me. It had Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Steve Reid, all these things on it.
Pitchfork: And soon after, you moved more towards jazz, doing spontaneous improvisation and pushing the limits of what the laptop could do in a live setting.
KH: Totally. During Rounds, I started doing some of my big touring and then I really got interested in the jazz influence. I’ve got interest in the idea of improvising with live electronic music. And in 2001, Fennesz put out Endless Summer and Jim O’Rourke put out I’m Happy and I’m Singing and a 1, 2, 3, 4. That was a pivotal record for me. Here was someone into John Fahey and then he suddenly comes out with an improvised electronic laptop album. And it made total sense to me. The idea of live electronic improvisation of free jazz gave me all the direction for where I was going to go next. While touring Rounds, that’s what I was all about, doing it live, in real time, and making it louder and crazier-- that’s why I’ve got the live disc coming out with the reissue. And when I met Steve Reid it was like: “At last I have a chance to really do this.”
I was so into spiritual jazz. It was like music I’d dreamed had existed, like the greatest sound. I knew soul and R&B inside out, so hearing James Brown drums with mad jazz over the top was the absolute business for me. I would just come back to that music and see beyond everything else; it had an intensity and a driven compassion behind it. I called the track “As Serious as Your Life”, because my dad had given me the book and it was like a fun message to him. But I did hope that some kid would get interested and ask what the title was and then check out the book, so it's a bit like leaving little trails for people.
Pitchfork: You talked about this emotional aspect to Rounds and now that you’re making primarily dance tracks, are there still these little personal things that you feel like are expressions of you, even amidst a banging track?
KH: Oh, more than ever. After Rounds I never let go. That’s one of the reasons I’m still quite proud of Rounds: I put a lot of myself into it and I shouldn’t take that lightly at all. I mean, the last record is called Pink because I asked my daughter, “What should the record be called?” and she said, “Pink!”
A lot of the music I loved was so powerful to me because there was so much put in it. Around Everything Ecstatic, I was really interested in thinking about gospel music. Gospel isn’t some ditty to make people enjoy their afternoon-- it's communicating with God. So the idea of putting a lot of yourself into it and making it count means everything to me. The communal aspect of club music is quite a powerful thing. You try to make something that’s takes people as far away from earth as possible, something to be played in a very small room with all the lights off with the loudest sound you ever heard that makes you feel as weird as possible. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.
Daft Punk are standing on a helipad overlooking downtown Los Angeles as fireballs make their sequined suits glisten with hot heat. It's a few days before this year's Coachella, where the duo's shiny new duds will premiere by way of a Jumbotron trailer for their new album, Random Access Memories. But for now, only a very select few have laid eyes on the outfits-- and everyone involved in today's photo shoot desperately wants to keep it that way.
This task proves to be somewhat difficult. The helipad is inside a public park, and there's a pedestrian path right next to it. Errant runners and bikers are all but inevitable, and if one of them decides to whip their phone out, snap a photo, and upload it to Instagram without breaking stride, this important piece of Daft Punk's meticulous rollout strategy will be ruined.
For the first part of the day's shoot, Thomas Bangalter (silver helmet) and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (gold helmet) stand behind a wall of eight-foot flames. Members of the crew, some of whom wear white gloves in order to avoid smudges on the pair's glittering getups, remain vigilant for curious passersby. And as the fireball sequence begins, a guy is seen creeping up from a clearing off to the side of the helipad. He sits in the grass close by, shakily opens his backpack, and takes a sip from a water bottle. "Is that them?" he asks, brandishing his phone.
DJ Falcon, longtime friend of Daft Punk and one of many collaborators on the new album, rushes over. "The guy was in a trance," recalls Falcon a couple of days later. "It's like he was thinking, 'That's the picture of my life-- I'm going to be the one who shows the world.' I could feel the intensity." So as the trembling fan tries to get his shot, Falcon sticks his arms up to block him, "like an NBA defender." A park monitor notices the hubbub and screams, "Assault! Permit revoked! Shut it down!" Daft Punk retreat to their trailer. No more fireballs.
Eventually, the drama dies down enough for everyone to review the would-be paparazzo's camera phone footage. "It was just a video of me trying to protect my friends-- jumping in front of the bullet," says Falcon. "You couldn't see shit."
Zoom out for a second, and this entire scene can seem deeply silly: a group of adults frantically trying to hide the image of two Frenchmen in their late 30s wearing costumes that make them look like C-3PO after a well-tailored disco makeover. But once you spend any time with Daft Punk-- or even just listen to their music, or watch their videos, or gawk at their live show-- such protectiveness suddenly becomes understandable, even necessary. It's an instinct to keep the idea of mystery alive at a time when it seems to be in historically short supply.
The day after the pair's refurbished guises were revealed on Coachella's screens as planned-- causing mad dashes and some of the festival's most excited outbursts-- Bangalter says everything about RAM and its buildup is about the surprise, the magic. "When you know how a magic trick is done, it's so depressing," he explains. "We focus on the illusion because giving away how it's done instantly shuts down the sense of excitement and innocence."
This strategy extends to the album's daunting and ambitious conception, which had Daft Punk recruiting some of the world's most gifted session players-- guys who worked on classics by the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and David Bowie-- to lay down the beats, melodies, and chords bouncing around Bangalter and de Homem-Christo's heads. Not to mention full-on, mind-melding collaborations with a number of their idols and like-minded contemporaries including Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, Pharrell, schmaltzy 70s singer/songwriter Paul Williams, Panda Bear, house deity Todd Edwards, and electro originator Giorgio Moroder. Plus: Everything was recorded onto analog tape in rarified recording palaces like New York's Electric Lady and L.A.'s Capitol Studios. Human spontaneity was coveted; computers, with their tendency toward mindless repetition, were not.
"Technology has made music accessible in a philosophically interesting way, which is great," says Bangalter, talking about the proliferation of home recording and the laptop studio. "But on the other hand, when everybody has the ability to make magic, it's like there's no more magic-- if the audience can just do it themselves, why are they going to bother?"
On the edge of the San Jacinto Mountains in Rancho Mirage, California-- somewhere between Frank Sinatra Dr. and a sunstruck Bentley dealership-- is the Bing Crosby Estate, where Daft Punk are staying while in town for this year's Coachella. The house's name is not a misnomer: The famed crooner had it built in 1957, as he eased into his golden years. Now, anyone with a healthy bank account can enjoy the saltwater pool, valley-wide view, and old-school-celebrity aura-- JFK and Marilyn Monroe supposedly had a fling here in the early 60s-- for just $3,000 a night.
About a dozen friends relax in and around the pool while Jay-Z, Janet Jackson, and Miguel flow from the stereo at a very reasonable volume. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo sit near the fringe of the backyard patio, mountain winds gusting down alongside the single-story abode. Considering their typical full-body attire, it's a bit shocking to see Daft Punk simply lounging in swim trunks.
Bangalter is tall, slim, and bearded in an unbuttoned denim top and straw hat. He does a solid 95 percent of the talking, and while he claims to not know English that well at one point, he probably has a more extensive vocabulary than many Americans. He sometimes takes long pauses-- 10 seconds or more-- before answering a question, but those responses can go on, uninterrupted, for minutes, often peppered with thoughtful stammers. The 38-year-old comes off as quite serious and careful, not interested in pleasantries. He just wants to articulate the ideas and concepts rattling around his big brain; with a reporter and a recorder in front of him, he's well aware of the transaction taking place.
De Homem-Christo, 39, is shirtless with a small gold wishbone hanging from his neck, a sturdy gold band around his wrist, and a gold-cased iPhone on a nearby chair; with his flowing shoulder-length dark hair, he kind of looks like a shorter, wider, French-er Johnny Depp. During the rare instances when he does speak, he's spacier and less guarded. A couple of times, he sums up a two-minute Bangalter soliloquy with a quick, to-the-point sentence or phrase. During our three-hour conversation, there's little interaction between the two, who have been friends for 26 years, but no trace of hostility either. Even with their helmets off, these two give off an even-keeled, low-humming sense of artful efficiency.
"Technology has made music accessible in a philosophically interesting way, but when everybody has the ability to make magic, it's like there's no more magic." -- Thomas Bangalter
About 15 miles away is the Empire Polo Field, where Daft Punk debuted their epochal pyramid show at Coachella in 2006. At that point, the duo hadn't toured since the release of their first album, Homework, in 1997. For those early gigs, they would stand motionless, mixing their own repetitive, intoxicating dance tracks with house classics in front of maybe 2,000 people, tops. "The minimalist music has appealingly peculiar personality; the duo doesn't," chided a live review in Spin at the time. And while they wore an array of masks for photo shoots during the Homework era, they unveiled their robot selves for 2001's Discovery-- but didn't tour at all behind that album. The dreary and monotonous Human After All followed in 2005, causing even the most devout fans to question the duo's motives. But thanks to curiosity, along with the slowly growing cult adoration of Discovery's genre-obliterating genius, tens of thousands turned up to their desert set seven years ago. Bangalter remembers being driven to the stage in a golf cart in full robot regalia and hearing the chants: "Daft Punk! Daft Punk!"
"To jump from 1,800 people to 40,000 was pretty brutal," he says, stretching out the word. "Because of the anonymity, the relationship with our audience until that point was an abstract concept, so to feel this energy was very strange. It felt like we had validated something that had been so abstract-- in French, it's called le concrétisation..."
De Homem-Christo offers a translation: "Make it real."
"We like the idea of trying to be pioneers," continues Bangalter, "but the problem with that is when you're too much ahead, the connection doesn't really happen at the time. At Coachella, we still may have been five years ahead of people, but the connection was happening at that moment. It was the most synched-up we ever felt."
The glowing pyramid became Daft Punk's calling card as it traveled around the world for 18 months, earning its place as one of the most joyful spectacles in pop music history and paving the way for wider acceptance of dance culture, especially in the States. Skrillex, whose blinding live setup has arguably come closest to matching the pyramid's legacy over the last few years, recalls going to see Daft Punk by himself in 2007, buying a ticket from a scalper for $170, and having his mind rearranged-- without the influence of drugs or alcohol. "It was definitely that show for me," he says. Panda Bear has called it the best concert he's ever seen. As the tour's official photographer, DJ Falcon got to experience around 40 shows from an enviable viewpoint. He remembers one in particular, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado: "There were all these handicapped people with their families in the front, and they were so happy," he says, a trace of awe in his voice. "At some point, I was wondering if they were going to stand up and start walking, like a miracle!"
With demand still extremely high, Daft Punk put an end to the trek as 2007 drew to a close. "We wanted to seal it as a special moment," says Bangalter. But would they ever bring the pyramid back? Bangalter considers the question for a moment, flicking a fly away from his nose. "We never want to do something twice... but at the same time, we've never done anything twice, so if we did do something twice, that might be cool." He chuckles at his own circuitous logic; de Homem-Christo lets out a weary groan, sensing a slippery slope. Despite the truckloads of cash that would surely greet them if they were to slip into their sparkling duds and sit atop a giant cube or sphere, they say there are no immediate plans for a new tour of any kind.
The pyramid blowout was akin to your typical rock star extravaganza in scale and scope, but also laced with the more inclusive and diffusive aspects of traditional DJ gigs, where everyone's the star. It put Daft Punk in a unique position within contemporary music's personality-driven ecosystem: legitimately famous and faceless. To this point, Bangalter compares their situation to Batman ("we feel that the pyramid was like our Batmobile"), Cinderella ("after the show is over, we go back to anonymity and normality"), the Wizard of Oz ("we're just guys behind a curtain pushing the knobs and creating the spectacle"), and a dude in a Mickey Mouse costume at Disney World ("if you have 100 kids around you all day long, are you not becoming big-headed?"). Their mechanized identities also act as a buffer for the out-of-control egomania that could result from a sea of people losing their shit in your general direction as you stand over them from the apex of a million-watt triangle.
"Looking at robots is not like looking at an idol," contends de Homem-Christo. "It's not a human being, so it's more like a mirror-- the energy people send to the stage bounces back and everybody has a good time together rather than focusing on us." Also, it turns out those helmets make it pretty hard to, you know, see. "The visors are very, very tinted, and I'm shortsighted, anyway," says Bangalter. "I could hear the clamor, but I have hardly any visual memory of the tour aside from looking at our controllers."
Just as their costumes put up a physical boundary between themselves and their audience, Daft Punk enjoy a "total separation" between their private and public lives, which is precisely what they want. "We don't talk about our private lives because they're private," says Bangalter with a laugh. "Plus, the public image is more fun and entertaining anyway." Instead of desiring traditional fame and worldwide recognition, Bangalter says they're more interested in "changing the world without anybody knowing who we are, which is a very different ego fantasy, and it seems to be the premise for much more exciting developments."
"Usually, the 24-hour, high-maintenance celebrity lifestyle can disconnect people from reality," he continues. "And after a band has been making records for 20 years, they're not doing the most interesting shit because they fall into this bourgeois, successful, settled existence."
Even from an early age, both Bangalter and de Homem-Christo went out of their way to distance themselves from the comforts of normalcy. In fact, they may have never met if Bangalter's music-producer father (who wrote several 70s disco hits) and ballet-dancer mother didn't transfer him into Paris' prestigious Lycée Carnot high school, looking to give their son more of a challenge after he easily vaulted to the top of his class elsewhere. While both grew up with money-- de Homem-Christo's family ran an ad agency-- their parents allowed them a sense of freedom, which was hardly a given among their buttoned-up classmates.
"Even when those kids were 13, social-class weight was already on them," says de Homem-Christo. "They were dressed like their fathers, it was crazy." Bangalter recalls a well-behaved teenage acquaintance who wished to be an accountant because he could "have a cool retirement plan." The pair, who were among only a few in their school who were into the likes of Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Big Star, the Beach Boys, and the Velvet Underground, quickly bonded. And, in their own way, they've been bucking the status quo ever since. It's why Daft Punk are more punk than almost any punk band of the last 20 years: They refuse to take the familiar path, all in the name of keeping themselves-- and their audience-- engaged. Random Access Memories, their first proper album in eight years, takes this impulse to the extreme.
The record also marks something of full-circle moment for the disco movement of the 70s, which began as an open-minded, underground scene, became entangled and homogenized by the corporate music industry, and then promptly crashed. Without major money backing it, disco couldn't afford the studio time and virtuoso players that produced some of its greatest hits, but its progressive spirit lived on through several scrappy electronic strains of the 80s, including house, techno, and hip-hop-- the same sounds that originally inspired Daft Punk on Homework.
As true house disciples, the duo have never been shy about their influences. From Homework's "Teachers", a shout-out track in which they literally lists their heroes, to the many samples and interpolations that make up Discovery, they're often at their best while joyously interacting with the past. And RAM, which shuttles between celebratory disco, moody funk, expansive psychedelia, new wave pop, G-funk, and even minimalist trap music, has the same sort of eclectic reach that would be found at legendary clubs like New York's Paradise Garage, where a normal night could include songs by James Brown, the Police, Steve Miller Band, Talking Heads, and Kraftwerk. To Daft Punk, the album is something of a corrective to a style of music that they believe is caught in a computer-addled rut.
"It's very strange how electronic music formatted itself and forgot that its roots are about freedom and the acceptance of every race, gender, and style of music into this big party," says Bangalter. "Instead, it started to become this electronic lifestyle which also involved the glorification of technology."
To be clear: Daft Punk are not anti-technology, or even anti-computer (they readily admit that RAM could not have been made without them). But they do have a certain amount of ire for the normalizing aspect technology can have upon music, how lines of code are unable to recreate the variables that sprout from relatively organic techniques.
"We were never able to connect with using computers as musical instruments," Bangalter shrugs. "We've always relied on hardware components-- old drum machines, synthesizers-- but it was more like a chaotic electrical lab with wires everywhere. We tried to make music with laptops in the mid 2000s, but it was really hard to create from within the computer without putting things into it. In a computer, everything is recallable all the time, but life is a succession of events that only happen once."
Daft Punk started working on Random Access Memories in 2008, playing almost everything on their own and making loops, just like they had done before. But it didn't feel right. "It became clear that we were limited by our own disability to hold a groove the way we wanted for more than eight or 16 bars," admits Bangalter. "Something we love about disco is the idea of playing the same groove over and over again-- your brain can tell it's not a sample that's being replayed."
So they enlisted technically masterful instrumentalists (the kind of guys who grace the covers of magazines like Modern Drummer and Bass Musician), put different combinations of players together, explained their ideas, laid down sheet music or hummed melodies, and collected tons of original recordings on analog tape. "The idea of working with musicians was way beyond making it sound better," says Bangalter. "It was an opportunity to create something on a very personal level with people that we admire the most."
To that end, they would often meet with these collaborators beforehand to talk about the ideas and inspirations behind the album before even stepping inside of a studio. Chic's Nile Rodgers, the hitmaking funk Zelig behind some of the slickest guitar licks of all-time, recalls breaking out his old-fashioned L5 jazz guitar in his living room during his first meeting with Bangalter and de Homem-Christo last year. "They just got all hyped," he says. The three ended up recording Rodgers' parts over the course of a few days at Manhattan's Electric Lady Studios, the same spot where Chic laid down their first single in 1977. Along with his guitar playing, Rodgers showed Daft Punk some of his trademark recording methods, too. "That's how you did it in the old days-- when a person is paying you top dollar, you want to make sure that they're happy and they don't have to call you back," says Rodgers, laughing. "So I just bombarded them with ideas and said, 'OK, now you guys figure that shit out.'"
Indeed, deciding how to arrange what Bangalter calls "an overwhelming amount of assets" was the most difficult part of putting RAM together, and why it took so long. For instance, even though they recorded orchestra parts for nearly every song on the album, those strings only ended up on three or four tracks. Even a seemingly straightforward tune like first single "Get Lucky" took about 18 months from start to finish, as it slowly mutated from a Wurlitzer-based track to the chugging summer anthem we now know. The album's title, which was settled early on, became a guidepost and a justification for the record's whiplash jump cuts from song to song and guest to guest. "It helped us understand how all of these collaborators could live together," says Bangalter, "because if you look at this bizarre list of people on paper, you could be like, 'Whoa, that's gonna be a big mess.'" While figuring out what direction the album would eventually take, the two considered indexing the whole thing as one big track, like Prince's Lovesexy, or even releasing a quadruple album.
But of all the moving parts that make up Random Access Memories, the most head-scratching section to put together was the album's eight-minute centerpiece, "Touch". The kaleidoscopic track stars 72-year-old Paul Williams, who wrote immense hits for the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand, and more in his 70s heyday, before descending into drug and alcohol abuse in the 80s, and then recovering in the 90s. Daft Punk were obsessed with Williams from an early age, largely due to his role in director Brian De Palma's schlocky 1974 pop opus Phantom of the Paradise, in which he plays a Faustian ghoul who trades his soul in order to become rock'n'roll's preeminent impresario. The movie is ridiculous, funny, entertaining, and endlessly referential-- just like Daft Punk. (At one point during our interview, Bangalter let it slip that he and de Homem-Christo recently had a meeting with De Palma to "discuss some things," though he declined to divulge any specifics.)
For inspiration, Bangalter gave Williams a book of stories about people who had died, came back to life, and remembered parts of past lives. And Williams' lyrics are about an awakening: "I remember touch," he croons, longingly. "As somebody who has been pronounced dead and came back, I could connect to this idea in the song," says Williams, who's now 23 years sober and the subject of the quietly triumphant recent documentary Still Alive." Meanwhile, the song warps and bends, floating through genres, epochs, and emotions with a sense of hallucinatory wonder, recalling nothing less than the Beatles' "A Day in the Life". "It's like the core of the record," says de Homem-Christo, "and the memories of the other tracks are revolving around it."
As Bangalter and de Homem-Christo talk about "Touch", there's still a sense of astonishment in their voices. "It was the most complicated thing we've ever done," says Bangalter. "And it became so exciting because it didn't feel like we took the easy route. With this record, we had the luxury to do things that so many people cannot do, but it doesn't mean that with luxury comes comfort." It's this high-stakes, high-wire mindset that keeps these guys in an enviable position within the collective imagination, no matter how long they take between magic tricks. Because if Daft Punk are still able to amaze themselves, there's still some hope for the rest of us.
It's an early evening in March as I make my way through the narrow corridors of DFA's recording studio, located at the basement level of the large West Village office building that the label calls home. In the control room, Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost! are putting the final touches on their self-produced sophomore album, Dynamics (out later this year on DFA), with producer/engineer Chris Zane (Passion Pit, the Walkmen) lending an able hand. Sitting in front of a gigantic mixing board, they're decked in black leather jackets as they trigger instrumental loops at a wall-shaking volume.
The deep-disco-meets-pop alchemy of Holy Ghost!'s 2011 self-titled debut had a benevolent, starry-eyed glow. At times, it also sounded incredibly intimate, with lyrical ruminations on relationships, death, and getting older. Aging is a particular sticking point for Millhiser, 31, and Frankel, 30; the Upper West Side expats (they've spent the last decade in Williamsburg) have known each other since they were six years old. ("Almost as long as my parents have been together," Millhiser verifies.) "Aging doesn't weigh on my mind, it's just there," Frankel says. "We’ve known each other for so long that it's like going to work with a mirror everyday."
While the attitude of Dynamics' first single, the eight-minute burner "Dumb Disco Ideas", takes a more purely hedonistic form-- references to bodega-basement DIY clubs, Ghostbusters-worthy synth bleeps, gangland vocals, and the like-- other songs hint at something deeper, both thematically and musically. Amidst the dirty guitar and liquid bass of "Dance a Little Closer", there's the awfully specific suggestion to behave "not like a couple fighting/ When they're young and just begun," while rolling fog of "Must Be the Weather" and the glistening synth-pop of "Changing of the Guard" are respectively reminiscent of Depeche Mode and New Order (the latter of which, fittingly, are taking Holy Ghost! on tour this summer.)
Though Dynamics won't feature a repeat appearance from Michael McDonald (who lent his distinctive voice to Holy Ghost!'s incredible closer "Some Children"), Neon Indian's Alan Palomo and ex-LCD Soundsystem player Nancy Whang both contribute backing vocals. James Murphy himself also worked on a song which will most likely see release as a B-side.
Millhiser and Frankel developed under DFA's wing, starting with the short-lived, major-label hip-hop project Automato, which Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy produced. And as with quite a few DFA-situated acts, Murphy's influence as a mentor still looms large for Holy Ghost!."There's a lot of memories in these rooms," Frankel says, wistfully, surveying the recording studio with his eyes. "When we were 18, James would turn the lights off, put a disco ball on, and we'd get drunk, smoke cigarettes, and play Halo. He took us out on our first tour when we were too scared to play live. He was like, 'Get it together.'" "'I'm going to pay you a fair wage, so you literally have no excuse not to do it,'" Milhiser recalls him saying. "'You can sleep on our tour bus.'"
As was suggested in "Too Old to Be New, Too New to Be Classic", Red Bull Music Academy's recent short film chronicling DFA's history, Murphy is no longer a constant presence at the label. But Holy Ghost! dumped their training wheels a while ago anyway, and to hear Millhiser tell it, their overall outlook in regards to Dynamics possesses a refreshing mix of positivity and realism. "As much as I’m proud of our first record, it’s not like it did so well that there's this immense pressure to live up to it. It did just well enough that people are paying attention, so now we're totally free to do whatever the fuck we want."
Pitchfork: Holy Ghost! took almost five years to make following your debut single, 2007's "Hold On". I figured it'd be another five years before you guys made another album.
Alex Frankel: [DFA label manager] Jon Galkin was expecting that, too. It wasn’t like we were in a studio for all that time, though. We both had day jobs. After "Hold On" came out, we were like, “We should make an album.” So we quit our jobs, but that meant we had to tour and DJ to support ourselves. We ended up touring so much that it was very hard to get concentrated blocks of creative time.
Pitchfork: How did making this album compare to the process behind Holy Ghost!?
Nick Millhiser: Most bands record an album and then pick a single. We did it totally backwards. Making that first record was also about figuring out what we wanted to be as a band. We learned how to engineer and produce-- there were songs on that album where we recorded the drums five times. All that stuff was way easier this time around.
AF: In some ways, it was easier to get excited while we were making the first album, like, "Holy shit, this sounds awesome!" This time, it was a bigger hurdle to get to the "songs" part of it.
Pitchfork: Are there any lessons you learned from your beginnings in the music industry that you still keep in mind?
AF: We were really young and stupid. We'd never worked for anything.
NM: We were trying to make this record with a major label over the course of three years, and then we meet James and Tim and see these two guys who have their own label, are making awesome music, and doing whatever the fuck they want. We were like, “We’re doing everything wrong.”
AF: Meanwhile, we were smoking a lot of pot and coming up with musical concepts like, "It's going to be a mix between Pink Floyd and the Roots."
NM: [Laughs] I don't think that idea was ever uttered.
Pitchfork: Both of you recently entered your early thirties. How does that feel?
NM: For most of my adult life, I’ve identified with the person I was when I was a teenager. Now, I have very little in common with that person. I was talking to [Penguin Prison's Chris Glover] the other day about how New York City's changing, and for the first time I felt closer to old age than to my 15-year-old self. It's weird to feel that way when you’re still surrounded by all the same people, the same city, the same home.
Pitchfork: Some have said that New York City and its dance culture has changed, again, since DFA's emergence 12 years ago.
NM: New York is never as good as it was 10 years ago. “You should have been here in 1990, man. Shit was real.” There’s elements of truth and bullshit to that, but it’s not what it used to be. The city will always feel magical, especially to somebody who moves here when they’re 21 years old, but it's a very expensive city to live in now. I feel very disconnected from dance culture in New York.
AF: In 2006, I felt close to dance culture.
NM Yeah, five years ago I felt very close. Then, all of a sudden, I didn’t know where you should go on a Saturday night. I still couldn’t tell you.
AF: I like the stupidity of going out in Manhattan. It’s so shitty that it’s almost easier than going out in Brooklyn, where there's always some cultural agenda to going out-- it's like college, and that freaks me out. There's this pretension of something greater, but you're all just fucking dumb and young-- it's okay to go out and get laid. That's what people your age do. People in Manhattan go out to have sex and spend money, and I feel much more comfortable with that being the agenda for the night.
NM: It's more transparent. There's good music, and you can act like an animal.
AF: Brooklyn's too civilized.
Pitchfork: Have either of you considered moving out of Brooklyn?
AF: I flirt with the idea every six months. Then I look on Craigslist and I’m like, “I'm not moving.”
NM: As much as I feel like an old man in Brooklyn, I really do love my neighborhood. I love Manhattan, but I grew up there. I don’t think I could live there again.
AF: Also, both of us can make music as loud as we want at home. You’re not going to find that in Manhattan anymore.
Pitchfork: Are you guys looking forward to touring behind the new album?
NM: More than I thought I would be. It's not that I dislike touring, but it just totally wears you down. I miss hanging out with the guys in the band all the time, though.
AF: It’s like going back to school. You’re really excited for the first day, but you know the shit storm that’s going to follow. You still can’t help but be excited, though-- even though you’re basically walking into a jail cell.
Scanning Netflix’s documentary section to find a worthwhile music film has become a modern ritual of the 21st century music nerd. Through the database’s recommendations, it’s possible to discover a lost gem, a recent festival-circuit favorite, and of course, hundreds of amateur-hour time-wasters. But many classic, out-of-print, or seldom-seen music documentaries are also available on the web even for those without a monthly streaming subscription. Below, we’ve collected 20 great music documentaries which are currently accessible on either Netflix or YouTube, Vimeo, and other streaming platforms. In an effort to keep them all online, we didn't include links to some films, but they shouldn't be too hard to find.
Cocksucker Blues (1972) Director: Robert Frank
If A Hard Day’s Night invented MTV, Cocksucker Blues invented "Celebrity Rehab". Shot by Robert Frank (the famed photographer best known for The Americans), the Rolling Stones doc was one of the most legendarily out-of-circulation films of any sort for decades. After the notoriety of their prior tour, Frank's film was supposed to re-brand the Stones. Whoops. Instead, Cocksucker manages to embody the garish, junk-shooting 1970s: Mick, Keith, and dozens of hangers-on pass around a few 8mm cameras over the course of the tour, recording wanton coke and smack use, and several extended moments of sheer on-the-road ennui. Somehow, it’s actually very good-- Frank reportedly spent years editing the footage before the brand-conscious band 86’d the film. Several scenes were reportedly staged for dramatic effect, which-- considering the slightly-too-rough groupie orgy on the private plane-- is a relief.
Cracked Actor (1975) Director: Alan Yentob
The key scene comes early in the film: David Bowie, coked out of his gourd in the back of a limo, wonders if he hears a cop as his vehicle courses through a Los Angeles night. Ever the philosopher-passenger, Bowie rightfully notes “an underlying unease” masked by a “superficial charm.” Shot by the BBC in 1974, the documentary opens with footage of Bowie retiring his Ziggy Stardust character (part of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary) and segueing into his Diamond Dogs phase. This is the point where Bowie’s love for American R&B takes center stage: in another limo sequence, Bowie sings along to Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” on the radio. Toward the end, the singer gives some quick pre-performance instructions to his backup vocalists, including a young Luther Vandross. In between, Bowie plays plenty of roles: Master Thespian, Burroughs-influenced cut-up king, and theater historian. There’s never been a better film made about him.
NYU film student Todd Phillips-- who would later go on to make the equally retch-worthy Hangover films-- dropped out of school on the heels of this doc. It casts Allin, the scumbucket scat-fetishist/punk who died of a heroin overdose soon after the film was released, as a put-upon performance artist palling around with John Wayne Gacy and talking in the psychotic “outsider” terms of Charles Manson. Phillips includes plenty of footage from Allin’s concerts-- including one in which the entire crowd leaves at once-- which appear about as safe as a prison riot and as entertaining as a large ape publicly displaying his affection for its excrement. It's about as NSFW as any music doc, and that’s only partially due to extended clips from Allin’s appearance on "The Geraldo Rivera Show".
Hype! (1996) Director: Doug Pray
Hype! is, rightfully, most well-known for revealing the Sub Pop employee who trolled the New York Times with a litany of made-up grunge-speak, thereby ushering “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” into the popular lexicon. But Doug Pray’s film is much more than that: It’s also an on-the-ground deconstruction of 90s music capitalism at its most sinister,as major label executives treat a heterogeneous, geographically-linked network of bands like a cheap buffet, recombining them into a sewn-together Frankenstein of a corporate genre. The most remarkable and enjoyable aspect of Hype! is the fact that the dozens of participants in the documentary rarely display outright contempt, in favor of a bemused resignation that is uniquely 90s-- and wholly Pacific Northwest.
After decades of releasing harrowing folk music from a label (Corwood) only identified through a P.O. Box., the reclusive Texas outsider artist started performing live a few years after this documentary was released. While viewers today can’t share the speculation and wonder of the film’s subject, it stands as one of the best documents of the type of clue-seeking, fannish obsession that arises out of a star’s absence from public life. Jandek himself is an absent presence in the film, so the real stars are his curious fans, who have pieced together details of his life in the pre-Google era from the slightest shards of evidence. Particularly emblematic is the speculation of one fan, who notes that no one’s ever heard Jandek’s name officially uttered. Who knows? Maybe it’s actually pronounced “Yan-dek.”
Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany (2009) Director: Benjamin Whalley
Between 1968 and 1977, Neu!, Can, Faust, and Kraftwerk were linked not by collaboration or even awareness of one another’s existence, but by a shared perspective toward the future, and away from the last 60 or so years of Germany’s cultural and political climate. This outlook was filtered through a fondness for tone generators and analog synths; minimalism, free jazz, and modern classical composition; and occasional leftist politics. But as this BBC4 documentary makes clear from the outset, these bands (and their predecessors Amon Düül, Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, and Cluster) were most linked by the portmanteau “krautrock.” Coined by snarky British music writers reluctant to let go of their war obsession a quarter century later, the term's continued relevance shows that this pioneering avant-garde electronic music's influence has rippled out far beyond Germany.
Two years before Songs of Leonard Cohen, the National Film Board of Canada produced a wonderful study of the artist as young poet and dryly comic raconteur, staying in a $3-a-night hotel in Montreal’s tenderloin district on holiday from his adopted home in Greece. The only live music in the film is a living-room folk-song rendition of his poem “Twelve O’Clock Chant” from the 1961 collection The Spice-Box of Earth, but Ladies and Gentlemen’s draw is Cohen’s quiet, humble magnetism. Looking like a disheveled hipster version of Benjamin Braddock, he circulates amidst stuttering fans at academic cocktail parties and reads the I Ching at an apartment coffee table. When confronted with his fraternity-president past at one point, he sheepishly giggles, “I don’t like the way the evidence is mounting up.” In 45 minutes, it’s a new perspective on Cohen’s still-active, 45-year career.
Lonely Boy (1962) Directors: Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig
Two years before A Hard Day’s Night, and 49 years before Never Say Never, came this study of Paul Anka, the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles 19-year-old teen idol from Ottawa. The first music documentary to use the (at the time, very new) cinéma vérité style of filmmaking, Lonely Boy follows Anka through a couple East Coast shows. The most striking aspect of the film is not the screaming throngs of female fans, but the behind-the-scenes intimacy and image-making revelations. At one point, less than two minutes before he goes on stage, Anka strips down to nothing but his briefs and quickly dons a suit, like he’s been performing for decades. Later, his manager casually admits Anka’s had a nose job, and that’s just part of the game. Late in the film, the filmmakers muting the audience’s screams during the performance of “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” is one of the great moments in any music documentary.
A documentary such as this is always going to be too short, but the function of Music Is the Weapon is in large part contextual and motivational. For those too tentative to dig into Fela Kuti’s remarkable 70s catalog, simply watching the man talk politics, shirtless in his dressing room, or perform on saxophone for even a couple minutes, should serve as a trigger to begin exploring his intimidating discography. Weapon was filmed after Kuti’s most fertile creative period of 1973-1981, but it features invaluable live footage from his Egypt ’80 period, several interviews about a broken Nigerian political state-- Kuti attempted to run for President right before the film was shot-- and a biographical sketch of the man who coined the term “Afrobeat” after trips to Ghana and a Malcolm X-obsessed America during the late 1960s.
Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music (2001) Director: Carl Hindmarch
A sprawling BBC production that synthesizes all the infinite mutations that house music took in the decades after a Chicago record store shortened “Music played at the Warehouse club” to “house music.” Through dozens of interviews with producers, musicians, DJs, and scenesters, as well as extended cuts of countless house classics, Pump up the Volume devotes Part 1 to the transition from disco to house in Chicago and New York-- an underground subculture comprising enterprising DJ/producers based in gay African-American clubs. Parts 2 and 3 are mostly devoted to house crossing the Atlantic, taking countless stylistic off-ramps, and becoming inextricable from acid. Fittingly, for a film that traces how house became the default dance music for millions, Daft Punk plays over the end credits.
For decades relegated to lone VHS copies buried in college libraries, Dan Graham’s dense DIY documentary traces a history of rock‘n’roll in which Patti Smith is, to quote the film itself, “the Mary Magdalene to the fallen rock idols of the 60s.” Graham primarily draws a line between the ecstatic trances of 18th-century Shakers to the performative primitivism of art-punk (via Patti and Sonic Youth) and the ascendant circle-pit culture of hardcore bands Black Flag and Minor Threat. In the film’s second half, however, he branches out to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the hippie counterculture and even Jerry Lee Lewis as part of a mesmerizing thesis on rock as embodied belief system (at one point, an archival recording of a theological conversation between Lewis and Sun Records’ Sam Phillips is revelatory). The VHS aesthetics and crude editing take a second to get used to (they're raw even by 1984’s tape-to-tape standards), but it's all appropriately punk-- collaged together with the seams showing.
Rumours(part of the "Classic Albums” series) (1997) Director: David Heffernan
There’s plenty here about the troubled interpersonal relationships of the rock era’s most over-analyzed recording sessions, but Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is also an immaculately produced album, and the track breakdowns here-- the best parts of the "Classic Albums" series, many episodes of which are on YouTube-- are the film’s most significant component. After Stevie Nicks reveals she wrote the song in Sly Stone’s bed, “Dreams” is slowly pulled apart, revealing John McVie’s coy funk bassline, Lindsey Buckingham’s weeping guitar, and Nicks’ eerie doubled vocal harmonies-- it’s impossible to hear the song the same way again. Same goes for “Secondhand News”, which Buckingham breaks down as an amalgam of Scottish folk, march-time drumming, and the Bee Gees' “Jive Talkin’”, and “Go Your Own Way”, for which Mick Fleetwood isolates his mystical cymbal-and-maraca percussion track.
A pop star at the height of her fame, staging a wedding in front of 25,000 at a baseball stadium (even finding a groom for the occasion), then issuing an album of the recording-- one might say that Sister Rosetta Tharpe (or her PR handlers) predicted the rise of “reality” culture in 1951. This is far from Tharpe’s legacy-- she was a primary influence on Chuck Berry and Elvis-- but an effect of her mid-century fame, which before this 2013 PBS documentary had yet to be explored. Quite nearly a born performer (touring at the age of six with her evangelical mother), she wowed crowds at the Cotton Club, then signed to Decca in 1938 and was one of the biggest pop stars in the world by age 25. Years before Sam Cooke and Ray Charles would do the same, Tharpe was bridging the gap between African-American church music and the secular world of the pop charts.
Part 1: The instrument descends from on high (aka Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and is pieced together from DIY mail order kits by alienated urban proles obsessed with "Dr. Who", Kraftwerk, JG Ballard’s novels, and Wendy Carlos’s A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. The results: Human League, OMD, “Warm Leatherette”, Cabaret Voltaire, Mute Records, and the eventual pop breakthrough, Gary Numan. Part 2: The UK’s ascendant Thatcher-driven yuppie culture reshapes synthesizer music into pure pop and early MTV-fodder. Led by Depeche Mode, “Don’t You Want Me”, Yazoo’s “Don’t Go,” and the rise of “the quiet second bloke on synth” as a performance cliché, resisted and satirized on the fringes via Cab Voltaire’s Red Mecca and Heaven 17’s Penthouse & Pavement. The film ends with either the rise of Howard Jones and what Martyn Ware dubs “the cancerous growth of market-led A&R,” or the synth’s ascendance from what the narrator terms “the fringes of pop experimentation to the center of the pop stage,” depending on your perspective.
Don Van Vliet died in late 2010, but this 1997 documentary about the reclusive avant-gardist is already narrated in the past tense. In a typically reverent voice, John Peel (along with Ry Cooder, Frank Zappa, and several others) traces the Captain Beefheart story from Van Vliet’s blues education in the sun-blistered Mojave through his ascendance in the art world as an abstract expressionist compared by one curator to a rural Willem de Kooning. The transition from Safe as Milk’s pop chart flirtation to Trout Mask Replica’s fractured blues-based Esperanto alone is a great narrative of irritated record executives and a generation of outsider weirdos filling in the other half of the fast-and-bulbous dialogue.
The Cry of Jazz (1959) Director: Ed Bland
A conversation about African-American life through the metaphor of jazz music-- specifically, the tension between freedom and restraint-- produced by composer Ed Bland. Check the date: Historically, the film is very unique. It’s a black perspective on jazz and pop, produced five years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Aesthetically, The Cry of Jazz is a bit strange: The format is most similar to a low-budget educational film with plenty of dubious acting performances, though the soundtrack by Sun Ra makes up for some of the clunkier dialogue. At the same time, though, these are vignettes in which African-Americans lecture white teenagers on the roots of rock‘n’roll music in 1959, which by itself is simply amazing. A bonus: 54 years before “Accidental Racist”, white dudes were already passionately arguing a false equivalence between being black and white in America.
The Filth and the Fury (2000) Director: Julien Temple
After two decades of hearing Malcolm McLaren claim that he was the Lou Pearlman to the Sex Pistols’ Backstreet Boys, John Lydon rewrites his own history with the help of the band’s old mockumentarian Julien Temple. Yet while told from the band’s own perspective (McLaren’s archival interviews are synced to close-ups of a gimp in a bondage mask) The Filth and the Fury is fiction of a different sort. Like Paul McCartney in the Beatles Anthology, Lydon is an auto-hagiographer extraordinaire, unable (or unwilling) to separate the Pistols’ story from its endlessly-flogged mythology. The tale told here is one in which every one of the band’s creative decisions was prescient and wholly inspired, and the mistakes were all on McLaren, but Lydon’s self-aggrandizing bullshit mixed with Temple’s unique visual style is exactly what makes the film so entertaining. Temple mashes together performance footage with archival clips of late 70s UK pop culture and news while threading Laurence Olivier’s Richard III performance throughout. When the band members are shown as talking heads, they’re backlit as if they were in a witness relocation program-- which, in a way, they were.
Transformer(part of the "Classic Albums" series) (2001) Director: Bob Smeaton
Seven months after the failure of Lou Reed’s eponymous debut solo LP revealed that the erstwhile Velvets’ frontman was creatively adrift came Transformer. As this "Classic Albums" series documentary recounts, Reed holed up in London with David Bowie and Mick Ronson (two months after the release of Ziggy Stardust) and a bunch of studio musicians to reinvent himself, more or less, as Bowie. Though packed with wonderful Reed reminiscences and live performances new and old, the best parts are the musicians and engineers breaking the songs down. Watch for Herbie Flowers recalling how he devised the multi-tracked, electric/acoustic “Wild Side” bassline, and Reed isolating Bowie’s magical, elfin falsetto from “Satellite of Love”.
Equal parts Modernist heretic, abstruse theorist, and charming self-help guru, Karlheinz Stockhausen makes a perfect documentary subject. Based around a wide-ranging lecture Stockhausen gave on his musical theories and process, Tuning In highlights his drive to, among other things, end the tyranny of fixed perception in recorded music by recording musicians playing while swinging them around in chairs. Frustrated with passing flashes of intuition, which would inevitably dwindle before they could be properly manifested by the artist, the film shows Stockhausen instructing a group of professional musicians to start playing only at the moment when their minds were absolutely clear. The second a thought entered their minds, they were to stop. A couple decades later, his ego and ideas would combine to thoroughly tarnish his reputation, but here, Stockhausen is fully in his element.
Vinyl (2000) Director: Alan Zweig
Even if it might seem that High Fidelity and Ghost World exhausted the subject, Vinyl is the documentary about how obsessive music collectors (in the film at least, they’re always men) substitute this passion for other forms of social interactions. Filmmaker Alan Zweig partially frames the film as a therapy session for his own collecting addiction and lack of other fulfillment-- there are several scenes where he shoots his camera into a mirror-- but the most interesting (and occasionally, emotionally gutting) parts of the film are when Zweig talks to other collectors. Some are candid about their obsessions, others seem to have no idea why everyone doesn’t have dozens of Miles Davis albums, still others reveal psychoanalytic rationales for their hobby-turned-addiction that date back to childhood. There’s plenty of pathos, but don't worry-- the ending is far from tragic.
Welcome to the Go-Go(1986) Director: Don Coutts
Welcome to the Go-Go is a great primer for the sort of hyper-localized, civic-minded music genre that feels anachronistic in the internet era. Jumpstarted in the mid-1970s by the bandleader Chuck Brown (the “Godfather of Go-Go,” who passed away in 2012), go-go grew up as a reaction to Reaganomics’ negative impact on African-Americans in the Baltimore and D.C. area. As the documentary shows through extensive live footage, go-go is party music first and foremost, driven by large bands featuring multiple brass and percussion parts (the latter drawn from the region’s lengthy history of African-American marching bands), though it quickly incorporated hip-hop influences through Melle Mel-derived rhyme deliveries-- a few scenes feature local performers rhyming with the White House as a backdrop. If all you know of Baltimore is "The Wire" and all you know of go-go music is “Da Butt”, Welcome is a great introduction to one of the city’s cultural crown jewels.
Yūgen is a key aspect of traditional Japanese aesthetics used to reference parts of life, art, and nature that evoke a mysterious yet profound sense of subtlety and grace. Yūgen is also the name of Welsh producer Lewis Roberts’ debut EP as Koreless. Roberts chose it partly because the word itself appealed, but mainly because its elusive meaning rang a bell-- something “not so obvious.” And not being obvious is Koreless’ modus operandi.
While his contemporaries in the Glasgow electronic music scene (he moved there to study naval architecture) have gifted the gothic Scottish city with a reputation for colorful, maximalist beats, Roberts’ has always veered toward ambience. His 2011 singles “4D/MTI” and “Up Down Up Down” were notable for their simple elegance: soft synth lullabies that rolled like water and glistened as beguilingly. While this early music had a forward motion, the beatless compositions largely found their gentle drama in tones that twinned ecstasy with melancholy.
Over the past couple of years, while he finished his degree, there’ve been collaborations with Sampha (as Short Stories) and Jacques Greene (“Arrow” on the Montreal producer’s Concealer EP), plus a handful of excellent remixes (for How to Dress Well and Foals, amongst others) that have hinted at his progression toward something more otherworldly. He talks excitedly about last summer's Worldwide Festival in France, where he played on the beach to a crowd of 4,000 as the sun came up: “Everyone was not so much dancing but just floating around. That’s really what I’m aiming for: not full-on, but take a step back.”
If contemplation is his goal, he finds it with Yūgen. It’s his most substantial work to date-- and his most ominous, sounding at once like a greeting and a goodbye. While listening, I can’t help thinking of director Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, the tense sci-fi movie about a last-chance voyage to save the dying sun-- and the human race. Roberts hasn’t seen it, but the narrative resonates. When I tell him “Last Remnants” is my favorite track because it feels like new life after the apocalypse, he nods.
"I don’t ever want my music to be real-- I don’t want any acoustic or human elements. I want it to be completely artificial and sci-fi."
Pitchfork: How did you get into making music?
Koreless: I like to be in control. If I’m doing something, I like to actually do it. So when I was starting to listen to music, I thought I might as well make it and understand it. That’s how I am with everything. Like, I did a lot of sailing when I was younger and then I thought, "Well, I should probably start making boats if I’m going to be in them all the time."
Pitchfork: With Yūgen, there’s this feeling of arrival and of doom.
K: That’s how it’s supposed to be-- to link from doom through to the nice peaceful bit and then back to the doom. It’s supposed to cycle round and round. It’s represented in the cover art that depicts a planet, which is Yūgen, with two moons, a blue and a red, that cycle around. The sky color would change from red to blue and back again, through the purple shades of uncertainty. The position of the moons corresponds to the track mood and feeling: “Ivana” at 11 o'clock on the verge of the peaceful moon, “Sun” at three o'clock at the height of the darker red moon, “Last Remnants” at five o'clock starting darker and becoming more peaceful through the track, “No Sun” in the uncertain region, then finally “Never” at nine o'clock, completing the cycle. I wanted to create a fictional landscape that I could build on throughout future releases and projects, to make a stage for all the music to live in.
Pitchfork: Are you into sci-fi?
K: Yeah, I was reading a lot around the time of writing the EP-- a lot of Ballard and that-- which is something I’d never done until I discovered audio books. I also bought a load of New Worlds science fiction magazines from the 60s and read the short stories in them. I like how sci-fi isn't real, for a start. When I do my music it’s the same thing: I don’t ever want it to be real. I don’t want any acoustic or human elements. I want it to be completely artificial and sci-fi: completely man-made and rigid and square and quantized. There’s so much more you can do with a computer, there are so many more options.
Pitchfork: On the first track, “Ivana”, there’s a vocal presence but it’s more alien than human. Do you believe in aliens?
K: I don’t think so. My granddad was an exorcist and made me believe in ghosts though. He’s still alive, he’s 98 or something. He was a vicar and then he became an exorcist. He wrote a book: Holy Ghostbuster. There’s a really cool picture of him on the cover-- he looks very Tri Angle Records. He’s wearing a big cloak and all the rest of it.
Pitchfork: Wow-- how did he exorcise the ghosts?
K: He went round with a medium, and the medium would sit in a chair and call up the spirits. Then he’d chat with them. It wasn’t ever scary, they were all really nice. Most of them were just a bit confused and had unfinished business. He’d talk to them and help them find a way through. It wasn’t all “begone foul spirits” or anything. I’m an engineer and when I started reading the book I was very, like, “no way, this is ridiculous.” But after reading it, there are so many weird coincidences that all line up.
Pitchfork: How do you want people to listen to the EP?
K: Maybe when they’re by themselves. It could be good for club music in the right setting: super late, sun-coming-up late. As long as they approach it openly and don’t try and start slagging it straight away because there aren’t any drums.
Pitchfork: It’s important to have new forms for the dancefloor.
K: That’s something I’m working on now: trying to make really physical music for the club without using any drums-- trying to make it like something really physical is happening to your body that you can’t really describe. Not like any kicks or snares, just a flow through. There are so many possibilities, it seems a bit stupid for everyone to be doing the same thing.
Pitchfork: Are there any musicians that you’ve been particularly inspired by?
K: I’ve been listening to Steve Reich and La Monte Young. It’s more about the process, not writing it from your heart or anything. It’s essentially artificial music because there’s no human element to it, especially with Steve Reich. It’s set: This is how you do it and this is how it works and that’s it. I’ve been working a lot in that sense, writing strict rules and concepts for a track. Not going, “Oh, it would sound nice with a little flourish there.” That’s not how it works. It’s more calculated: This is the pattern. I don’t get any input into it. It runs by itself.
“Vanity pressings are records made by believers,” writes Johan Kugelberg in his introduction to Enjoy the Experience. Judging by the hundreds of album covers reproduced in his book, the obscure artists behind these records-- also know as private pressings, custom LPs, or, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “homemade records”-- believed in a lot of different things. There are religious fanatics, smarmy lounge acts, wholesome family groups, high-school marching bands, funk and disco copycats, aspiring cult leaders, costumed enigmas, and scores of singer/songwriters with all kinds of clothes, hairstyles, and facial expressions. But these artists had one belief in common: that their music was important enough to record and release using their own money.
With such limited resources, vanity pressings are often made in tiny editions with little or no distribution. So for a small group of aficionados, discovering these records in thrift stores, yard sales, and other random locations has become a life-long quest. Kugelberg invited many of those diehards to contribute covers, essays, and highly-informative artist bios to Enjoy the Experience, including Michael P. Daley, Gregg Turkington (aka Neil Hamburger), and, most significantly, Endless Boogie guitarist Paul Major, who Kugelberg calls “the secret master of the vanity press record.” In the 80s and 90s, Major’s staple-bound catalogs were a kind of de facto Bible on vanity pressings.
Such obsession with vanity pressings and the odd figures behind them is motivated not by kitsch, but by an interest in what Kugelberg calls “the human dimension of art that so often gets lost as mid-management gets involved.” Enjoy the Experience’s companion double album proves his point: the music is wide-ranging and earnest, and though it’s often funny, you’re more likely to pull for these dedicated musicians than laugh at them. As Kugelberg puts it, “Enjoying these artists is not an ironic spectator sport.”
Born in Sweden, Kugelberg moved to America in 1988, and spent the 90s as a manager at Matador Records and a marketing executive at Def Jam. In the last decade, he’s turned to writing and curating, publishing 18 books, including one on the Velvet Underground. In 2010 he opened the Manhattan gallery Boo-Hooray and later co-founded Sinecure Books with former Stones Throw manager Eothen Alaplatee (aka Egon). Enjoy the Experience is the imprint's first release.
Pitchfork: Why did you choose such a clean and simple look for the book?
Johan Kugelberg: The more private press covers you look at, the more it becomes a visual language of an American vernacular. When you add this extraordinary, powerful, homemade music, and these staggering stories of American lives, it becomes something that is much greater than the sum of its parts. So we quickly realized that we wanted the presentation to be as transparent as possible. You don’t need a nutty layout or convoluted design to present these fascinating stories and album covers. And when we started putting together the bios, we wanted the reporting to be different from those snarky websites that make fun of idiosyncratic people. I can’t stand that stuff. These people deserve love, not scorn.
Pitchfork: How many album covers did you sort through?
JK: We had access to about 2,500 covers, and we put about 1,200 in the book. We wanted the book to be fun to look at, especially in this day and age where so many techniques are available to make a slick-looking product straight off the bat-- which is part of the reason that idiosyncratic, homemade artwork is so much tastier to look at. You have sleeve art that has nothing to do with graphic design, and then you have art that has too much to do with the graphic design. And then you also get art where the rug certainly doesn’t match the drapes.
All of that is part of what feeds this whole notion that I’m trying to press of an American vernacular. I’m thinking of regional pies, or those episodes of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" where they’ll go eat these twisted regional versions of the hamburger. Even though I don’t particularly want to go to northern New Hampshire and have a hamburger with peanut butter on it, it still makes me happy and proud to be an American. So I quite often feel admiration for the people that chose the most hair-raising graphic solutions for their record cover-- their one and only firm, stationary artistic expression in this life.
Pitchfork: Some sections of the book show covers with the same background image. Did the artists happen to find and use the same stock photos?
JK: No, actually, it’s worse than that. Record labels like Sentry Records would advertise in the back of Reader’s Digest or the National Enquirer, and offer a package where you could send in a check and get choices of generic artwork. You wouldn’t even have to choose the typeface. You send in your copy and they would superimpose your text on the album cover and then send you back your 200 copies. So they are literally readymades without any Warhol or Duchamp fluff attached.
Pitchfork: What do you think vanity press records capture that corporate-sponsored music doesn’t?
JK: A lot of everyday-life art that makes us feel something supersedes mass-produced art. The record business has always been a manufacturing business with such a high failure ratio, which means that mainstream record companies would never take a gamble on idiosyncratic performers. These are people who couldn’t get a record deal to save their lives. Whether it’s a Christian lounge singer performing at a bowling alley, or some strange psychedelic dude utilizing his family fortune to put out his own record, it’s idiosyncrasy that is not filtered to get rid of the lumps or the extremes. To me, as a first generation immigrant, that’s utterly the American way, and part of the reason I love this country so much. This country has always had such a great heritage of idiosyncratic painters, writers, poets, and musicians. It was built by people like that. So there’s a real frontier spirit with this music. You get the sense that you’re in the wilderness following the trails of these weirdos instead of worn-out paths.
Pitchfork: Most of these records took lots of effort to discover. Is that quest part of the appeal of vanity pressings?
JK: Well, [Friederich] Nietzsche talks about the “Don Juan of Knowledge”-- the person who gets drunk off of the chase itself and cannot actually utilize the knowledge that he or she accumulates. I see a ton of that on the internet, where the pursuit of obscurity becomes a way to accentuate your individuality, because everybody can be an instant expert on any genre by listening to the first two seconds of 10,000 different songs. You have all of these blogs where relatively angry white, middle-class males try to trump each other in obscurity. That’s the downside of it.
But when you talk to people like Paul Major or Gregg Turkington, they have such a long and profound instinctive understanding for these American cultural expressions. They’re guiding us through the wilderness. But we have to remember there is a sort of holy war going on between connoisseurs and enthusiasts, and the connoisseurs are the ones who succumb to the dark side of the force. They let their pursuit of obscure culture get overtaken by this one-upmanship and snarkiness. Whereas people like Paul and Gregg show that you can be an enthusiast all your life and try to distribute this information to as many people as possible.
Pitchfork: Paul Major is not just an enthusiast but also a skilled writer. Enjoy the Experience includes excerpts from his catalogs, which are fascinating.
JK: He’s literally the great unsung rock critic of that age. I rank him higher than almost anybody else. He’s such a psychedelic wild man himself, but he’s also a super instinctive cultural commentator. And he will never ever go towards snark. He’s a lover, not a fighter. All of that shines through in the writing. We are going to publish a book of all his record catalogs, so everyone can read this unbelievably enthusiastic music writing.
Pitchfork: Major coined the term “Real People Music” for vanity press records. What do you think he meant by that?
JK: When I was in a band with him for a few years, he would talk about his sense of immediacy with these people that he described as “real people” artists-- this great sense of unfiltered human expression. Too often, so much of the person behind a work is polished off or airbrushed away, even when the artist was somebody that was literally selling the product on their sincerity, like Neil Young, or Joni Mitchell, or Bruce Springsteen. When I grew up in Sweden, critics would write about how honest or authentic Springsteen or Joni Mitchell was, and I would think, "Why don’t they feel authentic? Why do they feel airbrushed?" When you listen to a great private press record, it’s completely obvious why.
Pitchfork: Most of these vanity press artists are only known by collectors, but the Shaggs became relatively famous. Why?
JK: It was a real perfect storm with them, having the monomaniacal father who really couldn’t understand why his daughters weren’t bigger than the Beatles when they were so much better than the Beatles, and then how the record was rediscovered. I think what makes the Shaggs so charming is the same thing that makes the Jackson 5 so charming. It has to do with how we experience that lugubrious joy of reflecting upon childhood innocence through the arts. Most people who hear the Shaggs have a reaction that’s not solely, “Boy this is weird and inept.” They also have a sense of remembering childhood. It’s not that different from looking at drawings or paintings that your kids made when they were small. Primitive, crude, coloring outside of the lines, but also with a charm that is immediate and truly palatable.
Pitchfork: Is there a contemporary equivalent of vanity pressings? Are viral videos similar?
JK: Oh, they absolutely are. But the problem is that it’s easy to upload your video, and it was a super pain in the ass to press up your own record. William Gibson talks about how those kind of cultural filters can actually result in much more greatness. Because the difficulty would scare away most people except for the truly, truly obsessed. This could be part of the reason that private press records are so toothsome.
Pitchfork: Do you consider these vanity press musicians to be outsider artists?
JK: No, they’re insider artists. They’re everyday artists. They’re like the Joes and Janes of every town in America, and if there’s one thing our accumulated years on earth teaches us, it’s that pretty much everybody’s pretty weird.
Pitchfork: But you mention in your introduction that the music can sometimes be too private.
JK: Yes, sometimes you get the sense that you’re eavesdropping. I compare it to reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf-- sometimes you think, "Damn, this is private. Maybe you’re oversharing a little bit, Virginia." And you can certainly get that with some of the vanity pressings. The flip side of that is that this is one of the great, powerful aspects of art. We actually get a sense of closeness with people that lived in different times, or that we would never meet in real life. They actually communicate some of their inner landscape to us, and usually that inner landscape is sublime. One part of the definition of the sublime is you get a slightly frightened, overpowering emotion when you look at it. One should pursue these records by striving toward experiencing the sublime.
One evening late last September, the National were minutes away from pressing record on the first take of what would become their sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, when the sky turned white. Out of nowhere, a tornado scored a path around the converted-barn studio where they were working in upstate New York, smashing into the farmhouse next door, tearing up trees, and bringing down power cables. The electricity zapped out, and stayed out for the next four days.
“We would never do this under other circumstances,” says guitarist/keyboardist Aaron Dessner, who has a perpetually conspiratorial air, “but that night, by candlelight in the total darkness, we got really drunk and played the songs acoustically. It was the kind of scene that has never happened in the history of our band—and will never happen again.”
The following day, the Brooklyn quintet temporarily relocated to Dreamland, a nearby studio within a converted 19th century church. There, they recorded a new song called “Fireproof” entirely live-- another anomaly in the band's 14-year existence. They repeated the feat back at the barn studio, Clubhouse, with start-to-finish takes of single “Sea of Love” and “Heavenfaced”, where singer Matt Berninger negotiates the falls that unfairly follow both euphoria and despondence.
Then, a month after the first storm, another two hit. “We were recording when we found out that Mitt Romney’s campaign had used a remix of ‘Fake Empire’ in Ohio,” recalls Aaron who, like the rest of the band, is a Cincinnati native. As longtime supporters of Barack Obama, the news made them absolutely livid. Aaron remembers watching Berninger pace up and down on a bridge outside of the studio, smoking again for the first time in months. The band were plotting what Aaron calls their “petty revenge” when Hurricane Sandy appeared on the horizon. (Berninger eventually opted for leaving a strongly worded comment on the offending campaign ad’s YouTube page: “The song you’re using was written about the same backward, con game policies Romney is proposing.”)
Sandy forced the band to take cover. “I drove back into the city because I was worried about my family and the potential flooding, and got stuck there for four days,” says Aaron. The separation induced a small crisis in recording, but the time at home let him reflect on what a comparatively great time the band were having up at the studio. “It was actually fun—we were actually functioning as a group of friends playing music.”
Scott Devendorf, the band’s gently spoken bassist, laughs. “Who knew?!”
During the recording of their last two albums, 2010’s High Violet and 2007's Boxer, the storm had been resolutely inside the studio.
“Friction led to good records, frankly. We wouldn’t shy away from the arguments in order to edge closer and closer to something compelling.”
It was easy for the National to make music together in the early days, just after the high school and college friends had all moved to New York City for work at the turn of the millennium; Berninger and Scott took jobs in creative design, Scott's brother/drummer Bryan (who originally learned drums from the Afghan Whigs’ Steve Earle, a fellow Cincinnatian) in book publishing, Aaron and his twin Bryce as personal assistants at a charitable organization. After work, they’d loosen their ties, drink beer, and casually record into each other’s four-tracks without giving any thought as to what the results said about them as a band. It led to their 2001 self-titled debut, which became especially popular in France. Reviews of 2003’s markedly improved Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers made them conscious of escaping the “Americana” tag on 2005’s Alligator, which turned out to be a swarming, weirdly beautiful rock record—equal parts anxious and euphoric—that contains some of their most iconic songs. But its comparative success only destroyed their confidence next time around.
During the creation of Boxer, bristling in-studio fights left the band wondering whether it was worth continuing at all. Eventually, they stopped halfway through recording to cool off, which saved the album and the band. Still, the romantic and forlorn record that came out of that prickly time (captured in Vincent Moon’s fairly painful documentary, A Skin, A Night) ended up being the National's proper breakthrough. They were more respectful of one another when making High Violet, recorded in Aaron’s backyard garage-cum-studio, but still found themselves divided into factions that favored simplicity over complexity.
“The friction led to good records, frankly,” says Aaron today, sitting around an unlit fireplace in an elegantly tatty, wood-paneled central London members’ club. “We wouldn’t shy away from the arguments in order to edge closer and closer to something compelling.” Since High Violet came out, he’s produced records for Sharon Van Etten and Local Natives, a role that made him more aware of the need for “constructive, positive dialog” in the studio. There were no major blow-ups with Trouble Will Find Me-- just one dispute during mixing that he won’t go into-- but even as they were setting up on that fateful day last September, they weren’t really prepared to start another record so soon.
“We felt satisfied at the end of touring High Violet,” says the band’s suited streak of a singer, 42-year-old Matt Berninger, who has started wearing clear-rimmed spectacles, his neat blond forehead-to-chin thatch graying around the ears. “It was the first time ever, or at least in the past 10 years, where we felt like we could put the band on the shelf for a little while, put a record out in three, four years. There wasn’t any sense of, what now?”
Taking the pressure off triggered a rare creative outburst that the band couldn’t understand, but, given their fraught history, didn’t want to second-guess. After the birth of his first child, a daughter, Aaron began writing music that “he thought his kid would like to hear,” Berninger suggests, "and I was reacting to it in a very visceral, immediate, infantile way.”
“Our typical way of working was to send stuff to Matt, then wait a while to get some mumbles back,” says Scott, whose orange-lens aviator spectacles frame a constantly quizzical look, none more so than now. “He seemed really motivated and engaged with the new stuff.” What became album opener “I Should Live in Salt” started as a loose musical idea sent by email, not even intended to spark a song, but returned the next day with near-completed lyrics; a half-apology, half plea for understanding aimed at Berninger’s younger brother Tom, who directed the new documentary about the band and his relationship to Matt, Mistaken for Strangers.
Berninger asked for more music. Aaron admits that he was sending him complex pieces that he expected the singer to reject-- too awkward, too snooty-- but Berninger was writing up several potential songs to fit each one, firing them back as quickly as Aaron was composing them. The National usually chased one version of a song, repeatedly changing its character; High Violet’s “Lemonworld”, for example, went through dozens of iterations. They never had options. Until now.
By late 2011, as they signed off on High Violet with six homecoming shows at NYC’s Beacon Theatre, they were playing new songs live. As the record’s foundations began to settle quickly and without a fight, the National realized they’d be foolish not to follow whatever rare, peaceful muse was leading them. Having accidentally stumbled into the album, their lone initial goal was to preserve the organic quality of the music’s origins, which took them out of the city to Clubhouse. “The impetus to record upstate-- cooking, eating, working, hanging out together-- was to achieve this music-camp feel,” says Scott.
The intimacy translated to Trouble Will Find Me, a calmer, more cohesive LP than the paranoid, unsettled High Violet, where the characters in Berninger’s lyrics were often trying to figure out their place in the world. It’s a warm, comforting record (albeit with some motorik-fueled anxiety) that pulls the drapes closed and hides out, bleary-eyed, medicated, and beautiful in the intimate place where Berninger’s lyrics often reside. “Oh, don’t tell anyone I’m here/ I got Tylenol and beer/ I was thinking that you’d call somebody closer to you,” he sings on standout “This Is the Last Time”.
“There’s this idea of not hiding and accepting some of the awkward, weird things about yourself,” says Bryce, whose slightly less goofy demeanor distinguishes him from his minutes-older twin. “That’s healthier than burying it. On this record, we feel the most comfortable in our own skin.”
“In the past, it’s been hard to enjoy writing-- like getting drops of blood from your forehead-- but I loved the process for this record,” says Berninger, who talks in a speedy, rolling sentence. “I think a lot of it was because I wasn’t worried-- I didn’t care what the songs were going to be about, or if they were going to seem depressing, or cool, or whatever.”
“I don’t want somebody telling my daughter who she can marry, or what she can do with her body. That’s what was at stake.”
— Matt Berninger on campaigning for Barack Obama in 2012
The history of rock music is littered with bad records made by ascendent bands now out of touch with real world problems, and the National are long past the blue-collar struggles that defined their first three albums. But they haven’t succumbed to the unrelatable myopia of rockstar comfort. If anything, their settled, adult home lives have just made them more worried about the prospect of it all coming undone. “You don’t know when shit’s going to hit the fan,” says Bryce of the album’s title.
“I’m prone to like fatalism and pessimism, so I think it speaks to me on that level,” says Bryan from behind his black beard, with characteristic pragmatism. “Termination and loss. It’s part of life.”
Berninger became a father for the first time four years ago, and High Violet is full of lyrics about wanting to protect his infant daughter from the world. While writing Trouble, he was struck by an irrational fear of death—not so much for himself, but the idea that he would no longer be there to take care of his wife and child. Imagined deaths and what comes after crop up all through Trouble, treated with total fear, absurd humor, and curiosity. In an attempt to put off death for as long as possible, the singer quit smoking (a habit he’d kept since his teens) in 2011 and now looks twice when crossing the street in the two cities he calls home, Brooklyn, and more recently, L.A. He describes himself as “a secular humanist” who doesn’t believe in heaven, and is only just becoming an adult, but this newfound responsible behavior is his way of assuring what he sees as his afterlife—the part of you that lives on in other people.
“Having a child made that so much clearer,” he says. “You can’t control everything, whether it’s serotonin, chemicals, whatever-- there's no way you can make sure your child is going to be happy. My parents are wonderful, but I went through some phases of total despair and sadness. But I see afterlife in my daughter. It’ll be better for her if I don’t go anywhere for a long time. I never had that anxiety before.”
Ensuring their kids’ futures prompted the National to rekindle their most famous affiliation, with Barack Obama. The President's staff picked Boxer's “Fake Empire” as the soundtrack to campaign ads in the run-up to the 2008 election, turning the band name the five originally chose for its meaninglessness into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Although they never wanted to be seen as a political act, they skipped out of recording last fall to perform at rallies in Iowa and Ohio, knowing what a difference every vote makes in their home state.
“I don’t want somebody telling my daughter who she can marry, or what she can do with her body,” says Berninger, with palpable disdain. “That’s what was at stake. We said, ‘Who cares? Fuck our rock band.’” But where “Fake Empire” was about closing the blinds to the Bush years, the band’s political affiliations barely manifest on Trouble. “For this record, we wanted to put all that stuff away,” says Berninger. “These songs were coming from a completely different place; a subconscious, non-strategic, non-academic place.”
“Nobody in the band has delusions of being a rockstar, so the fact that people seem to have some emotional connection to the songs is the feeling that sustains us live—the drug of it.”
In early April, in the courtyard of the cleanly bohemian Michelberger Hotel in East Berlin, just up the road from the longest remaining stretch of city’s once-dividing Wall, the National debut 11 out of Trouble’s 13 songs at a concert for press and competition winners. The band are friends with the hotel owners (there are themed cocktails in the bar; the “Blood Buzz” is especially lethal), and small parts of Trouble Will Find Me were recorded and finessed here before Christmas. It’s almost freezing when they appear onstage at 9:30 p.m., and the set goes off without a hitch, other than the on-stage patio heaters dying in the cold, chilling the Dessners’ fingers and thwarting Berninger’s attempt to dramatically light his lyric sheet on fire. Projections glimmer around the high-walled courtyard, a mosaic of green and cream bricks; high windows show lonely televisions flickering. Maybe it’s the scarves and wine, but it feels pretty magical—for everyone but the focal point of all the attention
“I wanted to crawl out of my skin and slither into a hole,” says Berninger back in London. “There’s this weird anxiety inside your own head. It’s hard to relax the first time we play new songs.”
“There’s still a trepidation, like jumping into cold water,” says Aaron of the feeling they experience every time they play a show. “Nobody has delusions of being a rockstar, or a capital-E entertainer, so the fact that people seem to have some emotional connection to the songs, as do we, is the feeling that sustains us live—the drug of it.”
The band keep themselves in the shadow of great records, he says, in order to remain hyper-critical. (Trouble quotes the Beatles or the Replacements—depending on who you ask about the Let it Be reference—along with Nirvana, Morrissey, Elliott Smith, Bobby Vinton, Dylan, and the Violent Femmes.) “We like to retain a sense of sucking so we don’t get too big for our boots,” Scott says, grinning. Toward the end of the record, on the soft piano mumble of “Slipped,” Berninger sings, “I’m having trouble inside my skin, I’ll try to keep my skeletons in/I’ll be a friend and a fuck-up and everything/But I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be.” Gone is their tendency toward aspiration, for worrying about their failure to achieve some socially-established convention, the idea that you could ever decide what to become. In its place is the acceptance of the fact that living in the wake of natural disasters and almost-implosions is all we’ve got.
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. For this edition, we spoke with eclectic German producer DJ Koze, whose recent album Amygdala was named Best New Music.
Green tea and white wine. But not mixed together. Actually, maybe I should try that-- all the best things happen from mistakes.
Favorite Music Video
“Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin. It was so refreshing in every way: the music, humor, weirdness. At the same time, it had this professional look, it was expensive-- I really like when movies burn money. That was an earthquake for the really boring MTV clichés at the time.
Best Thing I've Done in the Last Year
I went to India for Ayurvedic [holistic medicine] treatments in February. I need help. [laughs] I decided that it’s good to care about yourself, which can be hard if you're self-employed because you don’t have weekends-- you’re working and working like a maniac. So I got some connection to my inner voice.
My Morning Routine
I did some yoga this morning. I recorded a yoga guy with my phone while I was in India, and now I always have it. I try to start my mornings slow, but they always end with me standing in front of the laptop and checking emails-- I have to work before I get to shower.
Favorite TV Show
Louis C.K.'s "Louie". It's soulful and funny and serious-- every episode is like a new small planet. I watch it online because I actually don’t have a TV. When I watch TV in the hotel I get depressed after five minutes. It’s poison for the soul. Really disturbing stuff. It’s a pleasure to be free from TV, though you can hardly defend yourself against all this evil information.
It would be interesting to work with some forward-thinking R&B or hip-hop artist, like Missy Elliott or Pharrell or Andre 3000. One of these in-between musicians who has a wider look while also retaining pop appeal.
Best Thing I Bought in the Last Year
My palaphone. It’s a complex instrument from West Africa, and it’s really seldom that people can make them properly, but I found one guy in Germany who was able to build one. It’s made without one screw or nail, only with wood. It’s like magic. It’s a little bit like a marimba, just an unbelievably good sound.
Last Great Concert I Saw
Animal Collective in Tokyo-- I was playing there the same night-- and I was super blown away. It was entertaining without trying to catch so much attention. They just did their thing.
Favorite Day of the Week
Wednesday, because the depression from the weekend disappears, and the fear of the next weekend is not there yet.
Last Great Meal I Ate
Yesterday, I cooked myself fish and salad with chili and lemon sauce. I’m a really good cook.
Favorite Recent Album
Devendra Banhart's Mala because it sucks you in without wanting so much. You can listen to it on repeat and never get bored.