5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. In this edition, we spoke with 70-year-old actor, writer, comedy icon, bluegrass musician, and American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame inductee Steve Martin. His new collaborative album with Edie Brickell, So Familiar, is out October 30 on Rounder Records.
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- 10/27/15--09:35: _5-10-15-20: Steve M...
- 10/29/15--13:55: _Show No Mercy: Beau...
- 11/02/15--15:00: _Photo Galleries: Pi...
- 11/04/15--07:00: _Articles: The Sad a...
- 11/05/15--09:45: _Photo Galleries: Gr...
- 11/09/15--12:05: _Articles: What Your...
- 11/10/15--11:00: _5-10-15-20: Ty Doll...
- 11/11/15--10:55: _Afterword: Allen To...
- 11/11/15--21:00: _Podcasts: This Is H...
- 11/17/15--10:10: _Rising: DJ Paypal’s...
- 11/19/15--09:55: _Interviews: Arca's ...
- 11/20/15--11:00: _Articles: Let’s Bui...
- 11/25/15--09:25: _Staff Lists: Holida...
- 12/01/15--12:55: _Rolling on Dubs: An...
- 12/03/15--08:10: _Articles: The Geniu...
- 12/04/15--08:40: _Rising: D.R.A.M.: G...
- 12/04/15--14:15: _Afterword: Scott We...
- 12/07/15--09:10: _Staff Lists: The Be...
- 12/08/15--06:00: _Staff Lists: Guest ...
- 12/09/15--08:00: _Staff Lists: The Be...
- 10/27/15--09:35: 5-10-15-20: Steve Martin
- 11/02/15--15:00: Photo Galleries: Pitchfork Music Festival Paris 2015
- 11/04/15--07:00: Articles: The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous
- 11/05/15--09:45: Photo Galleries: Grimes at the Guggenheim Museum
- 11/09/15--12:05: Articles: What Your Music Format Says About You
- 11/10/15--11:00: 5-10-15-20: Ty Dolla $ign
- 11/11/15--10:55: Afterword: Allen Toussaint
- 11/11/15--21:00: Podcasts: This Is How We Do It: Wolf Eyes
- 11/17/15--10:10: Rising: DJ Paypal’s Footwork of the Absurd
- 11/19/15--09:55: Interviews: Arca's Warped Beauty
- 11/20/15--11:00: Articles: Let’s Build a Home: Third Man Records Returns to Detroit
- 11/25/15--09:25: Staff Lists: Holiday Gift Guide 2015
- 12/01/15--12:55: Rolling on Dubs: Angelic Wars: Revisiting Goodie Mob’s Soul Food
- 12/03/15--08:10: Articles: The Genius and Jazz of A Charlie Brown Christmas
- 12/04/15--08:40: Rising: D.R.A.M.: Going Beyond Viral
- 12/04/15--14:15: Afterword: Scott Weiland
- 12/07/15--09:10: Staff Lists: The Best Music Videos of 2015
- 12/08/15--06:00: Staff Lists: Guest List: Best of 2015
- 12/09/15--08:00: Staff Lists: The Best of Pitchfork.tv 2015
“The Great Foodini” Theme Song
It was a kids’ TV show, but I also had a record of the theme. They sang this song: “Oh there’s nothing he can’t do/ He’s the one and only Foo-DINI.” I listened to it a million times. It was my introduction to music.
Chuck Berry: “School Day”
In 1954 or ’55, the world was transitioning away from songs like “Old Cape Cod” and “How Much Is That Doggy In the Window?”—music that was very much rooted in the ’40s. Then, all of a sudden, there was this explosion: When I heard “School Days” by Chuck Berry I thought a miracle had happened. As a 12-year-old, the lyrics perfectly described what was going on in my life: “Up in the morning and out to school/ The teacher’s teaching the Golden Rule/ American History and classical math/ You study ‘em hard, hoping to pass/ Working your fingers right down to the bone/ The guy behind you won’t leave you alone.” It was very hard to find this music in Orange County, California around that time, and the only way we could get it was by listening to this AM radio station from San Diego late at night. I used to fall asleep listening to the music.
I also started working at Disneyland at age 10, which was legal back then.
Flatt & Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Banjo
I really enjoyed working at Disneyland, and by the time I matured to age 15, I was working there until 2 a.m. doing magic. My introduction to bluegrass was really through my friend John McEuen and, on record, through the Dillards and Flatt & Scruggs—but for live music, at that age, [Disney’s house bluegrass band] the Mad Mountain Ramblers were the only nearby bluegrass band. This girl I worked with at the magic shop always wanted to take long breaks to see her boyfriend, and I wanted to take long breaks to see the Mad Mountain Ramblers, so we made a deal: Don’t tell anybody. [laughs]
The Mad Mountain Ramblers did not do comedy, but the Dillards certainly did and they were fantastic at it. You would be laughing your head off, then they would start a song going at 90 miles an hour. It was thrilling to see. But comedy was not an essential part of the banjo for me; Flatt & Scruggs never did comedy and they were my heroes too.
When I got interested in the banjo, I just went to a record store and found Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Banjo; when you’re interested in an instrument as aggressively as I was, you do everything you can to find out about it. Orange County was a big home for folk music back then, and a lot of clubs and coffee houses sprung up. There were so many varieties of music being played on banjo at the time, including folk and bluegrass, which are two different things. Folk is very Kingston Trio and strumming the banjo, while bluegrass music is picking the banjo. And then I got into clawhammer banjo, which is more American and English—Appalachian, we call it, but the Appalachian music really came over from the British Isles.
When I was 20, my friend John McEuen and I drove down to La Jolla, California, and met Earl Scruggs. He was very generous and taught me how to play “Sally Goodin’” his way—in fact, there’s a recording of me playing that song on the back of the “King Tut” 7”.
I shifted into college and got very interested in classical guitar, especially Spanish classical guitar. I don’t mean flamenco. It was by the composers: Joaquín Rodrigo, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and especially Andrés Segovia. I was in a philosophy class once, and everybody had to describe something aesthetic. The smartest guy in class described listening to Segovia. He said—remember, this is a philosophy class—“It’s like the perfect circle floated into the room.” And that’s what it was: beautiful, perfect, emotional music. I think that guy got an A for the course.
Even though it was the mid-'60s, I really didn’t find the Beatles for a couple of years because I was busy listening to classical music, which I loved—Bach, Händel, and others. I listened to them over and over and I’m really glad I did, because they influenced the structure of my music today.
Then I became a writer on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and we had all these groups on the show like the Doors, the Who, and the Beatles. Being there when George Harrison came into the room, you understood the excitement of those screaming girls—these guys changed the world, and when you were in the presence of one of them it was an eerie feeling.
I love Joni Mitchell, especially during that period in the early ’70s. But I never met her—it was always a near miss. She lived in Laurel Canyon; I lived in Laurel Canyon. As a comedian, I was a little bit of an outsider to the music scene. I was friendly with Glenn Frey from the Eagles and I worked at the Troubadour, where everybody worked. Linda Ronstadt played there—we had a few dates actually, Linda Ronstadt and I. She was a very street smart person and a really good talker. But I didn’t meet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Joni Mitchell, whom I would have loved to meet. And I’m sorry that she’s having health issues now.
Nineteen seventy-five would be very much the beginning of the Celtic rush for me. It wasn’t as easy to listen to music if you were on the road, which is where I was—there was no way to listen to it except the radio. We had cassette players, so I could make mix tapes [laughs], but it was a very elaborate process to make a cassette back then. I’d mix it up a lot between classical guitar, bluegrass, and Celtic.
That year, Buckingham Nicks and I both found ourselves at this tiny club in Greenwich Village, where everything was happening. I didn’t know who they were, they didn’t know who I was. I think they were opening for me. The first night there was nobody there. I was making $300 a week, which seemed like a fortune, and I said to the owner, “Look, I don’t expect to get paid if no one comes in.” And he said, “No, no, it’s going good.” Then nobody came again on the second night, and I said, “Look, let’s stop.” And he said, “OK.” And I left. You can’t play to nobody, although I’ve done it before.
The Bothy Band: “Maid of Coolmore”
I was touring as a comedian, which is very isolated and lonely. I loved the dark poetry of Celtic music—especially the Bothy Band and the Chieftains. The Bothy Band’s “The Maid of Coolmore” affected the writing of the screenplay I did called L.A. Story—if you look at the lyrics to the Bothy Band song and the story of L.A. Story, it’s identical.
I was also very interested in '30s music around that time because I did the movie Pennies From Heaven. I thought the BBC series [from which the movie was adapted] was absolutely fantastic and very moving—just the kind of emotional project I needed after 18 years of doing standup comedy. At that point, I still owed the record company [Warner Bros.] another comedy album but I really didn’t have enough material; I was pulling out of standup, so I only had enough for half a side. Nobody was interested in Steve Martin banjo music, but we had these songs that we recorded nine years earlier, so we put them on the B-side of [1981 album The Steve Martin Brothers]. It was a little bit of a cheat on my part.
I was shooting The Three Amigos and I got tinnitus. I blamed it on gunfire at the time but since then I realized it was just my destiny after listening to music too loud my whole life and playing live concerts with 28,000 screaming people—it was like being in a football stadium. Tinnitus becomes easier to live with. It becomes your natural background noise.
The early-'90s was a time when I was very introspective. I liked the blank quality of new age music, though some is better than others. It gave me a chance to lie down and think; it’s truly the background music to your mind. It was enjoyable for a while, but then I got out of that period.
Enya actually wrote a tune called “Angeles” for L.A. Story, though we ended up using two or three pre-existing songs of hers in the movie and she released that song later. Looking back, it’s the perfect music for that movie, and for that era too.
I did not listen to music around this time. I was short on devices; it was a transitional period. I did have CDs, but I was traveling and I don’t have a real recollection of what kind of music I listened to.
I picked up the banjo again when I was about 55. There was a fantastic period of the revitalization of music. This software program, I think it was called Netscape? Napster! It revitalized my music listening. I could search for oldies, bluegrass, anything—and find it. I think it actually helped music sales at first, because I would then go out and buy the CD. And then I realized—and everybody else realized—it was illegal. [laughs]
At some point, all the bluegrass radio stations died out or weren’t available in L.A.—it wasn’t like it is today where you can call up any radio station in the world. But then I got Sirius radio, which deeply affected my re-entry into bluegrass: I could hear contemporary artists and I really admired the way they were playing. I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to sound like.” And then I discovered some other artists who would send me their CDs and I loved them. There was a couple of really significant CDs that dropped into my lap by Tony Ellis and Mark Johnson, both clawhammer banjo players.
In 1965, if Earl Scruggs’ quality of banjo playing was at 10, the quality for the average player was more like five. But when I came back into the bluegrass world in 2000, I realized that the quality of the average player was closer to eight: The whole genre had risen to another level of excellence, and bluegrass musicians were playing at the level of high-quality classical musicians. Yet it’s still hard to earn a living: These fantastic players were still working and trying to pay off their banjos.
I talked to my wife and we both established this fund, [The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass], which would just give people money, essentially. It was a way to bring attention to the player and the music in general and help people out. Noam Pikelny, the first winner, was and still is an innovative player, but he also played the old way. He could play any style, and he’s a very charming guy in person. He has a great wit.
I don’t know how I listen to music anymore. I used to have it on my iPod and my computer, then everything changed to streaming and all my playlists vanished. It was like starting over.
But I’ll still put on the bluegrass channel. And my wife is much hipper about music than I am, so I coincidentally hear a lot of music that she plays that’s more contemporary in that sort of Americana world. I can’t really tell you the names. I don’t really ask. I like Mumford & Sons but I’m not really keeping up with it. I’m really very busy.
The third and best album from Pinkish Black, Bottom of the Morning, finds the Fort Worth, Texas duo mixing deathrock with krautrock, analog drone with glimmering melody, and the solitary atmosphere of horror movie soundtracks with the welcoming voice of Daron Beck. Think Christian Death morphing with Tortoise, or Ian Curtis guesting with Goblin. Beck may also bring to mind a goth Mike Patton, Peter Murphy, or Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman: At times he snarls and howls like he’s in hell, but he mostly croons, chants, and pushes his crystalline baritone skyward. All these elements come together in a dense, seven-song collection that’s about as majestic as it is creepy.
At a Pinkish Black show I put on a few years ago, Beck carefully set up his keyboards and synths like a cocoon, while his lifelong friend and drummer Jon Teague bashed things beside him. It was visually intense, and the obvious connection between the two was moving. As they told me over the phone recently, Pinkish Black is a band that rose from tragedy, and their music is inspired by some of the darkest aspects of humanity—but it’s also animated by the joy that comes from making music together and sharing a history.
Pitchfork: Listening to Bottom of the Morning, which has some very heavy subject matter, I couldn’t help but think of how the name Pinkish Black is a reference to the blood-spattered bathroom walls where your friend and former bandmate Tommy Atkins committed suicide. Though it’s been five years since that happened, do you think it’s something that stays with you and sets the tone for the band in a way?
Daron Beck: We downplay where the band name comes from now, because it is pretty morbid. We respect our friend Tommy and we only want his memory to be respected. It’s one thing we’re never gonna forget, I can tell you that.
We’re not harkening back to any of that with the new album. We’ve lost a lot more since Tommy died: My dad committed suicide since the last album [2013’s Razed to the Ground], and my sister died of a drug overdose. I’ve been in the hospital a ton of times in the past two years, and Jon’s had his own trials and tribulations. It was horrible for a while after the last album was done, but it’s gotten better in the past year.
Pitchfork: The reason I ask about the subject matter of the songs is because when a lot of metal bands try to write “dark” lyrics they don’t feel very dark: A band will say they had some tough times, but their lyrics are so vague that it’s hard to feel anything much about them. The lyrics on your new record, in contrast, very much sound like they come from actual experience. The song “Burn My Body”, for instance, struck me as super-specific—what inspired that track?
DB: [laughs] A lot of these songs do come from a really specific personal place, but “Burn My Body” was inspired by this cruise ship that had been abandoned at sea and taken over by cannibalistic rats. The song is from the perspective of the last man on board that they forgot to get off the ship, and it’s basically the letter that he’s leaving behind: “When you find me, burn my body.” A lot of the album is very much end-of-the-world-and-you’re-left-to-watch-it-all-crumble kind of vibe. That’s how we both felt as individuals through a lot of the writing process of this album. [laughs]
Pitchfork: There also seems to be a subtle sense of humor, too. For instance, the title Bottom of the Morning as a reference to the phrase “top of the morning,” or how “Everything Must Go” kind of sounds like a store having a sale.
DB: Yeah. “Everything Must Go” was inspired by how my family business, which had been open since ‘88, was closing down, so you’re right on the head there. We’ve always had an underlying sense of humor because, I mean, we’re fun guys. [laughs] It all harkens back to comedians like Bill Hicks and Doug Stanhope: Life is dark and if you don’t learn to laugh at it you are gonna die.
Pitchfork: When I read the album’s lyrics all together, the idea of how everything is always ending seemed to come up often.
DB: Yeah: Endings happening all the time. But as much as they end, they keep going on. It’s very much about how we’ve seen a lot of shit end but then we’ve stuck around to see what else would happen. That’s just life.
Pitchfork: The last song on the album, “The Master Is Away”, is an instrumental. Where did that song title come from?
DB: “The Master is Away” is kind of like saying “God is dead.” There’s a lot of beauty in endings because there’s going to be something after it. I like this feeling of nothingness, but there’s still beauty.
Jon Teague: It’s a happy and sad feeling. With “The Master is Away”, there’s nothing there to comfort you or to keep you secure, and that’s sad, but then there’s freedom in the fact that there’s nothing there to disturb you, too.
Pitchfork: How does the cover art tie in? It made me think of artwork for a psychedelic record.
DB: Yeah, we probably consider it more a psychedelic record than a metal album. But it came about because we were watching a lot of reruns of “The Price Is Right” from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and Bob Barker’s outfit is always every shade of brown you could imagine all stuck together. So Jon said, “It’s a brown rainbow.” And I was just like, “Oh, that’s brilliant!” We were thinking about this brown apocalypse where everything goes brown.
JT: Also, just thinking about growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, every environment that you were in—a school or somebody’s house or office—was just covered in brown. Everyone was still smoking, so it was all probably nicotine and disgusting velour panels. Just so much brown everywhere. But it really describes how gross and mediocre things are.
Pitchfork: When I looked at the cover, it struck me as a rainbow viewed through post-nuclear dust.
JT: Exactly—everything looks happy and shit, but it’s still killing you.
Pitchfork: Listening to this album in October, I had to wonder: Are you guys into Halloween?
DB: Oh, yeah. I have Halloween decorations up all year round. We know what we do has a spooky element to it, but we hope it’s not goofy-spooky. We don’t like Marilyn Manson or anything like that.
Pitchfork: It strikes me more as psychological horror.
DB: Yeah, we’re more Susperia than Nightmare on Elm Street.
Pitchfork: Have you ever thought about soundtracking a horror film?
DB: That’s all we want to do. That would make this more sustainable since it’s kind of a hard sell to put us on the road for a lot of people, but it makes perfect sense to put our music in different types of movies. I would love nothing more than to do the next James Bond theme song and make it sound like [Tom Jones’ 1965 Bond theme] “Thunderball”.
Pitchfork: One thing that sets you apart is that you can actually sing.
DB: I come from a goth background from my teen years, back in the ‘90s. My favorite kind of singers are Scott Walker, Arthur Brown, Tom Jones, and Dionne Warwick—big voice singers. That’s what I spend my time driving around practicing with. I can scream like crazy but I just prefer to sing. It’s more challenging and I have more fun doing it. It moves the music more than just the same screaming over and over. No one’s really using Dionne Warwick in our world at this point, but they should! It’s just music and all of it’s up for grabs when it comes to influence. We’ll reference Magma as much as we reference the Beach Boys. It can go anywhere.
Pitchfork: Have you noticed that goth is kind of having a comeback in some spaces where it didn’t circulate before?
JT: Yeah, I have. In the ‘80s, when it was big, people were scared of all kinds of shit and now people are terrified again, so it’s appealing to hear something like that.
DB: And with the Internet, anybody can get into anything now. When we were kids, you didn’t hear about Bauhaus or anything like that unless you had a friend tell you about it. Now you just type on your computer and it tells you what the top ten goth bands are. Ten years ago, when I opened up for Interpol, it was like, “Who’s this Joy Division rip-off band?” There’s a lot of rehash stuff in every genre, I guess, but it’s funny that goth is making the comeback.
JT: Especially because one of the things that made so many of those bands great was it was an aesthetic. It wasn’t just the music they were playing, it was the whole thing. And it was obviously very personal. So sometimes it doesn’t have the same power in a newer context.
DB: And a lot of those goth bands started out as punk bands. They weren’t thinking, “We’re gonna start a goth band.” Peter Murphy was just trying to be David Bowie.
JT: You get pissed off and then you get depressed.
DB: [laughs] Exactly.
On the morning of March 6, 2010, Mark Linkous woke up late inside the yellow two-story house on Irwin Street. The 47-year-old songwriter was finishing up a move from rural North Carolina to a spare bedroom at his bandmate Scott Minor’s place in Knoxville, Tennessee. He brought the essentials first—a sunburst Gibson guitar, brown Yamaha keyboard, an assortment of amps, some clothes—and planned to make one last trip to collect the rest of his belongings later that day.
The Sparklehorse founder, a composer of pop songs that whispered and roared through a sea of static, was on the verge of a new chapter in a life pocked with addiction, chronic pain, and depression. Hope stood on the horizon in the form of a forthcoming album, a supportive new label, and acclaimed collaborators backing up his genius. But a nagging woe still lingered: His relocation from the Blue Ridge Mountains signaled that his marriage was disintegrating, leaving the songwriter in an uncertain place without his partner of more than two decades by his side.
With his move almost finished, the six-foot-one Virginian, dressed in black and wearing thick-rimmed glasses, received a string of texts that left him distraught. Before his friends realized, Linkous walked out of the house with an assault rifle in hand, headed back toward an alley, and took his own life.
In the wake of his death, Linkous left behind a poignant songbook as remarkable as the company he kept, which included world-renowned artists like PJ Harvey and David Lynch, as well as more esoteric musicians including Vic Chesnutt, Christian Fennesz, and Daniel Johnston. A self-taught perfectionist with a penchant for eccentricity, as heard through his unorthodox studio recordings and otherworldly lyrics, he found solace in life’s simple pleasures even as he struggled to fend off his inner demons. His distorted murmurs commanded listeners to heed the beauty of darkness.
“There was a fragility in Mark’s music, and his vocals were so small,” says Linkous admirer and collaborator Nina Persson of the Cardigans. “It sounded so brittle, like it could just fall over and break any second.”
Over the decades, Linkous learned to rely upon noise as a mirror for his own complexities. He was a wistful wordsmith with a silly sense of humor; a bibliophile with a love of junk food; a masterful songwriter with an informal musical pedigree. He felt at home roaring down backwoods Virginia roads with friends on vintage motorcycles like his cherished Moto Guzzi 1000S. They would ride past dilapidated historic buildings masked by overgrown weeds, getting lost in the forgotten remainders of a bygone era. As they went, hours passed without a spoken word.
Linkous was most comfortable in silence, though he would also break that calm to pursue his musical ambitions, overcoming shyness to approach artists he admired. By simply asking, he forged friendships with bandmates like Minor—the two began playing together after an impromptu conversation that started with motorcycles and ended with the Velvet Underground.
And upon hearing that Tom Waits liked Sparklehorse, Linkous worked up the courage to cold-call his hero, knocking back a few Wild Turkey shots to calm his nerves. His unsolicited outreach sparked a regular correspondence between the songwriters, leading to an exchange of four-track tapes through the mail and eventually a more traditional recording session. “We seem to share a love of pawnshop hi-fi,” Waits once said, going on to describe the murky allure of Linkous’ music: “It’s like opening your eyes underwater at the bottom of a stream. You go, ‘Jesus, look what's down here.’”
Linkous with one of his vintage motorcycles in 1995. Photo by Danny Clinch.
At an early age, Linkous began to follow his curiosities in a similar fashion, letting his guard down to a select few who became privy to his creative brilliance. Raised in Clintwood, a small city in bucolic southwest Virginia, he rode on his dirt bike through the area, exploring fire roads and abandoned strip mines with his younger brother, Matt. After his parents separated when Linkous was in his early teens, he started hanging out with a motorcycle gang called the Pagans.
“The Hells Angels guys wouldn’t fuck around with the Pagans,” he once recalled. “They were just ruthless. The guy that I hung out with the most, Chico, got thrown out of a car going 60 or 80 miles an hour for fucking up a meth deal.” Linkous’ mother eventually sent her delinquent teenager to Charlottesville to live with his grandfather, a retired coal miner, in an attempt to set him straight.
Though Linkous was intelligent, he showed disinterest in his classes at Albemarle High School. “We were the misfits,” says high school friend Paul Lorenzton. “He wasn't a dropout, but he couldn't have cared less,” adds Cathryn Low, who grew up down the road from Linkous and remembers him as a class clown who intentionally ran into doors to make people think he had broken his nose. During that period, Linkous’ grandfather was strict but he also showed affection where needed, giving his grandson a leather jacket and a Gibson guitar.
As Linkous learned his way around the six-string in the ‘70s, he started to emulate his idols, playing Black Sabbath, Ramones, and Blondie covers. His musical obsessions further emerged as he grew his hair to mimic Alice Cooper, wore occult-inspired outfits tailored by his grandmother to imitate Jimmy Page, and crafted homemade flash pots to emulate KISS’ pyrotechnics.
Linkous through the years. 1 and 5: circa 2002; 2 and 7: riding a Rokon off-road motorcycle in Hayesville, North Carolina in the 2000s; 3, 4, and 9: at friends Cathryn Low and Paul Lorenzton’s wedding in 1985; 6 and 11: working on motorcycles with friends and family in 2002; 8: with his Moto Guzzi 1000S; 10: with wife Teresa in 2002. Photos courtesy of Cathryn Low and Paul Lorenzton.
After graduating high school in the early ‘80s, Linkous moved to New York and was enlisted as a guitarist for a power-pop group called the Dancing Hoods. He became entrenched in the city’s club circuit, where he befriended members of the Damned and Psychedelic Furs. Soon, heroin took hold of him. He was using the drug when the Dancing Hoods moved to L.A. in search of a record contract in 1986. They became a local fixture, opening gigs for touring bands like Camper Van Beethoven and performing on MTV’s “120 Minutes”.
“Mark had a great stage presence with the Dancing Hoods,” says one-time Sparklehorse drummer Johnny Hott. “He was not the frontman, so he could maintain an air of mystery with relative ease.”
But the Dancing Hoods’ contract never came; the band’s lead singer landed a job with a record label, the bassist wound up in prison, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter. Linkous, still addicted to heroin, started living in his van near the coast. "I was close to just giving up and walking into the ocean,” he later said in 2001. But before that happened, he heard a radio DJ play a breathtaking version of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”, English minimalist composer Gavin Bryars’ 19-minute loop of a homeless man warbling the six-word phrase over a string ensemble featuring vocal accompaniment from Tom Waits. The song convinced him to carry on.
Following that revelation, Linkous reached out to his parents, asked for help with his addiction, and returned home to Virginia. He checked into a hospital for a month followed by a rehab stint. Once released, he moved to Richmond with close friends Bryan Harvey and Hott of the duo House of Freaks. He drank coffee and smoked Camels at the Main Street Grill; picked up odd jobs painting homes and washing dishes; and created folk art from whirligigs that he blasted with shotgun shells. Every now and then, he played in a few local bands like an old-time Gaelic folk group called the Flaming Cicadas.
“I gave up on wanting to be a pop star and came back home to just make great music without caring about the rest,” Linkoussaid in 1999.
When Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery moved to Richmond, he reconnected with Linkous and the two grew close fast. While on tour as a roadie for Lowery’s band Cracker, Linkous occasionally joined the group during encores, where they sang Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up”. During one such performance at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, Linkous tossed a tub of ice into a crowd comprised of indifferent New Yorkers, damaging part of the sound system.
“We were never allowed to play there again,” Lowery says. “It’s a legendary place but it’s also kind of a shit hole. It didn’t really break our heart.”
Lowery lent Linkous his Tascam 688, a basic eight-track with only seven working channels, and the songwriter started recording new songs at his rural home outside Richmond. Dave Ayers, Sparklehorse’s first manager, says Linkous would send him cassette tapes of his tracks—some made at home and others recorded at a professional studio with Lowery—and they would discuss what did and didn’t work over the phone. "Whenever he would make something pretty, his first instinct would be to run over it with a truck,” Ayers says. As part of that effort, Linkous muddied his songs with distortion to mask the sound of his voice—sometimes even using a dirty microphone he salvaged from a landfill.
After countless conversations with Lowery and Ayers, Linkous’ recordings evolved into his full-length debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, a title that came from a dream involving Confederate General Robert E. Lee, old-time musicians performing inside a submarine, and swimming. After Capitol Records President Gary Gersh—the executive responsible for signing Nirvana—offered Linkous a six-figure contract, the label released the album in August 1995. Sparklehorse’s debut spanned from lonesome acoustic melodies to raucous rock anthems like the single “Someday I’ll Treat You Good”, as Linkous drew from a wide range of cultural inspirations and sources, including William Shakespeare, cult filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, and his own voicemails (one message from his mother appeared as an interlude).
The debut garnered modest sales at best. But it landed the band, which included Hott and Minor, opening gigs for respected, rootsy acts Chesnutt and Son Volt. More importantly, Sparklehorse caught the ear of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, who heard his music half a world away during a Middle East tour following the release of The Bends.
In the fall of 1995, Radiohead invited Sparklehorse to open a weeklong UK tour, thrusting Linkous onto stages in front of thousands of fans—a daunting task for a group with about a dozen shows under its belt. “They're a huge majestic rock band,” Linkous once said, talking about the Radiohead tour. “And we would just get up and sort of be squeaky and pathetic and on the edge.” Hott, who played keyboards on the tour, says Linkous seemed uncomfortable throughout those opening gigs, though the frontman was also unwilling to pass up such an opportunity early in his career.
“[Sparklehorse] sound like Radiohead in their more low-key moments, only marooned in the middle of a Nevada desert,” Raw critic Robin Morley wrote in a review of a Leeds gig. “Mildly grungy when they can muster up energy (not often). Polite. Unassumingly punctual.”
Between tour legs, Linkous’ psychiatrist switched his medication in an attempt to get his troubles with depression, which the singer had dealt with for years, under control—but Linkous didn’t let anyone else know about the change. Sparklehorse returned to the UK for a second string of Radiohead dates in January 1996, and after playing a warm-up gig in London, Linkous passed out in his hotel bathroom as the result of an adverse interaction between his antidepressants and the Rohypnol—aka Mexican Valium—he took to help with his insomnia. The following morning, a hotel maid found him in a position where the circulation to his legs had been cut off overnight.
When paramedics untangled his limbs, built-up potassium shot from his lower body upward, triggering a harmful chain reaction that caused a heart attack and kidney failure. Linkous flatlined for several minutes. Paul Monahan, his tour manager, rode with the songwriter in the ambulance, uncertain of whether he would survive the trip to the hospital.
“They put me in the grieving room, set aside for people who were told that someone had passed,” Monahan says.
When Linkous regained consciousness weeks later, he saw tubes coming out of his body as he lay inside London’s St. Mary’s Hospital. His wife Teresa, who he first met in L.A. in the ‘80s, stayed at his bedside, occasionally renting Mr. Bean videos that made him laugh until it hurt. Lowery snuck him small sips of Coca-Cola despite nurses’ orders. Over a three-month stay, Linkous underwent more than seven surgeries, endured continual rounds of kidney dialysis, and received treatment for infections. Doctors initially feared amputation, but he was discharged in a wheelchair and leg braces, which he wore for the rest of his life. Linkous blamed himself for an accident that was out of his control.
“The pain was so bad and it was constant,” Linkoussaid in a 1998 Dutch television documentary. “A person who has their arm amputated can have what they call phantom pain. That was what was happening—my nerves, freaking out.”
Back home in Virginia, doctors prescribed him morphine to quell the chronic pain, a necessary evil that exposed him once again to an addictive drug. “That was really cruel, and ultimately fatal, irony,” Ayers says. “There was just no escaping that. For him to regain the use of his legs, and survive the accident at all, opiate addiction was a necessary step to recovery.” Linkous miraculously returned to music in just three months, touring in a wheelchair as Sparklehorse opened for Cracker. He grew close with Chesnutt, an Athens, Georgia-based, wheelchair-bound folk songwriter, who became a confidant at a time when Linkous was struggling with his partial paralysis.
“He walked with a cane sometimes,” says former Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz, who backed Linkous onstage in 1999. “Physically, [touring] was just tough for him given the condition he was in.”
Sparklehorse performing "Rainmaker" on French TV in November 1996, mere months after Linkous was released from a London hospital in a wheelchair.
Around that time, Linkous released the second Sparklehorse LP, Good Morning Spider, which was shaped by his long hospital stay. The album, a further foray into experimental pop, captured moments of anger and loneliness, along with songs of compassion and love. During that album cycle, the press paid attention to Linkous’ survivor songs with morbid fascination, which unnerved the songwriter and made him feel self-conscious in his fragile state: “For a long time I felt the only reason journalists wanted to talk to me was because I was the guy who nearly died,” Linkous said in 2001.
Resisting pressure from his label to cut straightforward radio edits of potential singles, Linkous didn’t sell many Sparklehorse records, particularly by ’90s major-label standards. For example, Good Morning Spider contains the song “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man”—a four-and-a-half minute sonic journey that starts as an eerie instrumental medley before unexpectedly shifting at the staticy sound of a turning radio dial and finally blowing out into a grunge anthem ripe for rock airplay. Do away with the somber intro and the obfuscating noise, it seems, and the song could be a legitimate hit. But Linkous initially bristled at the thought of re-recording for commercial purposes, attempting to sabotage the commodification of his work.
“He told the label the masters had gotten burnt in a bonfire, which was complete bullshit,” former tour manager Matt Johnson says. “He still had to get paid to eat, but at the end of the day, whatever his music was, that was what was going to be out.”
The money made was enough for Linkous and Teresa to live modestly in a rented Virginia farmhouse that was 90 minutes outside Richmond, but felt even further away from society. Linkous engrossed himself in his natural surroundings—water running down a stream, dogs racing around his farm, bears roaming in the wild—and removed the clocks from his house. He set up a practice space dubbed Static King, which was home to a 16-track recording console, an arsenal of synths, and an assortment of other instruments including a German violin he claimed to have purchased from a crack dealer for $20 during a blizzard. Static King became his refuge between tours and it was there that he first found inspiration for his most ambitious record.
To record his third album, It's a Wonderful Life, Linkous decided to leave behind the comforts of home, venturing to several cities and scheduling sessions with a host of different collaborators. He traveled to Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York to lay down “Gold Day” with the Cardigans’ Persson; traded those tapes with Waits, who growled and played “metal things” on the swampy “Dog Door”; and went to Barcelona to record “Piano Fire” with PJ Harvey, producer John Parish, and Portishead’s Adrian Utley.
“He was happy to try anything that you would throw at him in the studio,” says Parish, who produced the Spanish session, recording some vocals through a $25 box called a Whisper 2000—a spy device typically used for listening in on quiet conversations—to once again distort the singer’s vocals.
Linkous circa 1998. Photo by Danny Clinch.
“Every track was under a microscope,” Linkous said of the album in 2008. “There was never really intentionally supposed to be famous people on it, but there just was. But I did really have specific ideas for how it should sound or how it should be mixed and the vibe that the whole record should have.”
Joel Hamilton, a recording engineer at Mission Sound in Brooklyn, watched Linkous’ penchant for experimentation unfold up close. He remembers how the songwriter used archaic instruments like the Optigan—a 1970s Mattel toy organ that plays sounds from 12” plastic film discs, including a jovial pre-recorded sample called “Guitar in 3/4 Time” that is heard in It’s a Wonderful Life’s opening bars. Elsewhere, Linkous’ insistence on the obsolete led to irreplicable moments on “Morning Hollow”; while recording the track, he replaced a harmonium’s foot pump with a vacuum motor to keep the sound’s ebb and flow going.
“If you sit down at a piano, there's a particular noise that it makes that anyone on Earth knows, but Mark would use it as some alien button box that had just arrived on the planet to make music,” says Hamilton. “It wasn't in the service of being weird or different. It served his vision.”
Linkous devoted the sanguine collection to the family, friends, and fans that helped him survive in the aftermath of his near-death experience. "If the whole record is about anything, it's to remind yourself that it was a good day to be alive today—not getting eaten by a bear, or seeing a deer drink out of a creek," he said in 2001. As his personal storm passed, his gratitude for the world around him grew, something seen in the evocative everyday moments he chose to capture in his lyrics: dogs eating birthday cake, sun beams touching his skin, skinny wolves being held at bay.
“I was lucky enough to have been told how much my music meant to people,” Linkous said in 2001. “Maybe something about my music will inspire one person to tell another person how much they mean to them today before it's [too] late.”
When the planes destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers one month after the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, the optimism that Linkous had worked so hard to gain vanished. “I really thought it was the end of the world—Revelation—and no one else knew it but me,” Linkoussaid in 2006. Personal tragedies and tribulations followed: Loved ones died, his depression worsened, a relapse occurred.
To help free Linkous from heroin’s grip, his friend Paul Lorenzton let him crash at his isolated cabin in the tiny town of Hayesville, North Carolina. “Heroin's one of the easiest drugs to get and it's cheap,” Lorenzton says. “He had to get the heck out of that.” In 2002, Linkous moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains, more than 400 miles away from his home in Virginia, where he grappled with debilitating migraines and malaise. Even sleep felt like a luxury.
“[I just looked] forward to being unconscious again and sleeping, with the possibility of having happy dreams,” Linkous later said, describing that period of his life. “You can stay in bed all day, until you can’t pay your rent and don’t even eat food: You eat crackers, just enough to subsist on.”
At Teresa’s behest, Linkous traveled to Florida during the early part of 2003 to receive treatment for his depression. Later that year, Sparklehorse was back on the road with the Flaming Lips, followed by an arena tour supporting R.E.M.—another uncomfortable experience for the reserved frontman.
“I remember talking to one of the guys in R.E.M., and they were like, ‘One day you’ll have this,’” Linkous said. “I don’t want that at all.” When he returned to North Carolina, he set up a recording space in a nearby warehouse that became home to his rare 1969 Flickinger recording console, a temperamental board that became a source of great joy—and frustration.
“They're really enigmatic and interesting pieces of equipment,” says Steve Albini, the Chicago-based recording engineer who has worked with everyone from Joanna Newsom to Nirvana. Linkous had called Albini for advice about the console, which was rumored to have recorded parts of the Ohio Players’ catalog along with an one-off T. Rex rehearsal. “It was a bit much for a person to try to build a home studio around one,” Albini adds.
During that time, Linkous also struggled to create music due to writer’s block. His fourth record, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, became a laborious process because he was attempting to write songs in a sober state of mind. His frustrations poured over at Tarbox, where, after working a 12-hour shift with Fridmann and Flaming Lips drummer Steven Drozd, he dismissed their collaborative work, going so far as to try and erase an entire session, much to the ire of his label, which had originally signed him for an alt-rock sound that had long fallen out of fashion.
“He was a real purist. His tenderness separated him from others and it came through in his music.”
—David Lynch on Mark Linkous
In the midst of his creative rut, Linkous stumbled upon Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, a full-length mashup of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album that helped the Athens, Georgia, producer born Brian Burton find a wider audience. “I had no idea at all about the story behind it or anything, and I just loved it,” Linkous said. In 2005, the two musicians eventually got in touch, which led to Burton flying out to North Carolina. For Burton, the collaboration became not only about making music, but also getting Linkous out of bed each morning, in hopes of helping the songwriter break through his artistic roadblocks.
“There were days we worked and others we didn’t,” Burton says. “He just didn’t think anybody cared if he put out another record.”
Burton convinced Linkous to work on several creative efforts—tracking a bass part for a collaborative track with rapper MF DOOM; shaping new Sparklehorse songs; and devising a project that would feature their instrumentals but would not require Linkous to sing (much to his relief). The latter proved most fruitful, prompting Linkous and Burton to work through another half-dozen sessions in North Carolina and California to further shape the music that became part of a project called Dark Night of the Soul. As they finished recording, they each reached out to their friends—Burton with Iggy Pop, Julian Casablancas, and Frank Black; Linkous with Wayne Coyne, Chesnutt, and Persson—requesting lyric and vocal contributions.
Later on, Burton asked David Lynch to shoot cinematic stills to accompany the record, initially doing so without telling Linkous, who deeply admired the filmmaker. “David was into it,” Burton recalls. “[Mark] lost his shit. His outward happiness was minimal a lot of times, but that was probably the happiest I had ever heard him.” When they later staged the photo shoots, Lynch says, he drew inspiration from watching Linkous smoke unfiltered cigarettes until they were an eighth-inch long—the nicotine turning his fingers yellow-orange—and soaking in the Southern musician’s sounds, which the director describes as “Piney Woods grunge.”
“He was a real purist,” Lynch adds. “His tenderness separated him from others and it came through in his music.”
As a legal dispute between Burton and EMI delayed Dark Night of the Soul, Linkous returned his focus to Sparklehorse. On September 25, 2006, he released Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, a collection of pensive ballads and pop anthems stitched together from old outtakes and new recordings. Linkous devoted the release to his friend and old roommate Bryan Harvey, who was brutally killed along with his wife and two daughters inside their home on New Year’s Day in 2006, during a weeklong murder spree in Richmond. The tragedy sent the entire city into shock, including Linkous, prompting him to stock up on more guns for his own protection.
To promote the record, Linkous assembled a touring outfit that doubled as a safety net, including a grieving Hott, still reeling from Harvey’s death. “Mark and I let some tears fall, especially in the beginning of that tour,” says Hott. “We comforted each other with hugs and reminiscing about Bryan.” Before hitting the road, Linkous grabbed coffee with former Go-Go’s bassist Paula Jean Brown, a recovering addict, to gauge her interest in not just touring, but helping him stay sober during his first shows since 2003. His initial anxiety eased during a successful European tour that lasted for two months. But in February 2007, on the night of Sparklehorse’s show at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, Linkous’ longtime label informed him that they would no longer be doing business together. The news sucked the life out of the room backstage. On the heels of sold-out shows overseas, dismal sales from his American gigs placed the remainder of the tour in doubt.
“He had the feeling where your heart’s been broken, like you’re de-animated,” says songwriter Jesse Sykes, whose band the Sweet Hereafter had opened for Sparklehorse that tour. “I’m sure it felt like he had been kicked in the throat. From that night on, he would come out to play and then disappear onto the bus, and that was that. He was just gone.”
Despite the circumstances, the tour went on, even though Linkous came down with flu-like symptoms. Around his bandmates, he maintained his sense of humor—equal parts dry and goofy—though it couldn’t fully mask the fact that he was struggling. After a Coachella performance gone awry, one of the final full-band Sparklehorse shows, Brown chatted with Linkous about whether life as a musician—lugging gear to gigs without a label’s support, battling the pain in his legs while performing in the sweltering sun, seeking to stay sober at festivals with free-flowing drugs—was worth it.
“You know, sometimes it’s all I can do not to just walk out of the house and into the woods and not come back—go follow the foxes and the critters out there and just curl up and die,” he told Brown after the show.
For the next two years, Linkous pursued different kinds of gigs—he played guitar on tour with Austin lo-fi legend Daniel Johnston; collaborated with electronic composer Christian Fennesz on the ambient record In the Fishtank 15; and scored an instrumental piece for a David Lynch documentary. Sparklehorse was set aside.
Linkous and Fennesz collaborate live onstage at a 2009 performance in Paris.
Then, Anti- Records, home to acts like Waits, Kate Bush, and Daniel Lanois—artists whose mainstream popularity never matched their critical influence—gave Linkous a chance to release his music with a label invested in his art. In the fall of 2009, days after flying back from playing three shows in France and Belgium with Fennesz, Linkous and Minor drove to Chicago, where Sparklehorse’s management had booked studio time with Albini for two weeks at his Electrical Audio studio. Unlike past sessions—which had been recorded only to be deconstructed and meticulously rebuilt, almost to a fault—Linkous wanted to make an album filled with simpler pop songs that were “not unlike Buddy Holly songs.” He compared the new material to "suicide probes that send back as much information as they can before crashing into the sun." To break out of his comfort zone, Linkous put together a live band that included Minor; bassist Paul Dillon, Linkous’ longtime guitar tech; and Steve Nistor, a studio drummer who worked with Linkous during the Dark Night of the Soul sessions.
"I always thought that I was just a conduit, that something was coming through me and I was making music out of it," Linkous said in 2009. "It seems like that got harder and harder to do, so I'm trying to do that again by simplifying things. The songs are not quite as clever, and I'm not laboring forever over every lyric."
On most days during the session, Nistor recalls, Linkous got off to a late start in the afternoon, as the sun was already setting. “It was a darker, slower, whiskey-soaked kind of mood, for sure,” he says. “That was the first time I felt that he was struggling with some severe depression.” In between writing last-minute lyrics, Linkous captured his own sparse downtempo arrangements along with straightforward rockers like "Listening to the Higsons" by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, whom he once opened for as a member of the Dancing Hoods.
“It was back to basics,” Minor says. “It was very electric, very all over the map, from jam-type of stuff to more barely-hanging-by-a-thread stuff.”
More than half a dozen songs were tracked by the end of the session, including nearly all of the instrumental parts. But Linkous was unable to finish his vocals because of a scratchy throat. No one was worried about that, though, as the singer planned to return to Electrical Audio to complete the vocals and then mix down those tracks.
“[Mark] was animated about wanting to finish the record,” Albini says. “I didn't get the impression that he was distracted.”
As both Dark Night of the Soul and his fifth Sparklehorse record neared release, Linkous began living in Knoxville. He had visited months earlier when he played at Big Ears Festival and returned after a short tour with Minor and Fennesz in Europe. He fell for the city and its residents, and it seemed like a place ripe for a fresh start, which was necessary as the possibility of a divorce with Teresa loomed. (Teresa, who declined to talk on the record for this story, later told Knoxville police no divorce paperwork was ever filed. But others close to Linkous, including his manager, have stated that the process had started.) Minor, who himself had already relocated to the east Tennessee city, let Linkous crash at his place as the songwriter figured out his next steps.
“That was part of his survival plan,” North Carolina songwriter Angela Faye Martin, who enlisted Linkous to producer her 2009 album Pictures From Home, once said. “I think the hermitage part of his life was over and he was transitioning into learning how to be a part of a group.”
At first, Linkous reveled in his newfound independence, becoming surprisingly social with Knoxville locals, and even discussing plans of opening a studio in Tennessee. However, for the first time as an adult, he no longer had Teresa to lean on. She had not only been his partner but also his caretaker, watching over his health in times of need.
“She kept Mark alive through many periods,” Minor says. “She'd always grab him in the knick of time and save him. I didn't realize how important it was for someone to be there in that role. No one picked it up.”
On Christmas Day 2009, Vic Chesnutt ended his own life, causing Linkous to fall further into a deep depression. He was grieving not only the loss of his friend, but a fellow tortured artist with a morbid streak rooted in disability and a bleak outlook on life. “He looked up to Vic so much,” early Sparklehorse manager Dave Ayers says. “From that moment forward, I was afraid.”
Though family and friends offered support—his brother, Matt, was hopeful that he’d make it through the rough patch—Linkous appeared to have lost his way when he lost Chesnutt. In an email exchange with Linkous, Hott offered words of encouragement to his friend, urging him to “hang in there and find his armor,” which the songwriter had donned during his past trials.
In response, Linkous told Hott he “didn’t know where it was anymore.”
Linkous circa 1999. Photo by Danny Clinch.
At Chesnutt’s funeral, R.E.M.’s production manager DeWitt Burton offered to help Linkous make the permanent move from Hayesville to Knoxville. Months later, on the first Friday in March 2010, DeWitt and Linkous loaded up the songwriter’s belongings and made the 120-mile trip from the mountains to the city, where they joined Minor for a celebratory meal.
On his first morning in Knoxville as a permanent resident—an unseasonably warm winter day—Linkous, not a fan of the locally-sourced eggs or fresh arugula at the table, was treated to a decadent breakfast of bacon, dark chocolate, and espresso.
“A symphony of brown,” Minor says. “He clearly loved it.”
That day, Linkous got an early start, drinking a fair share of a fifth of Kentucky bourbon. He then received several unnerving texts on his Blackberry and became upset. “It’s not good,” he told Minor and DeWitt without further explanation, according to a police report.
Not long after, he headed up to his room where, unbeknownst to his friends, he had stored a black ITM Arms assault rifle. When he came downstairs, he had on his black baseball cap, flannel shirt, and jacket—underneath was a Sparklehorse T-shirt—and went for a walk. Around 1:15 p.m., Linkous flicked his red lighter, puffed one more cigarette, and sat down on the ground in the winding alley behind Minor’s house. According to a neighbor, Linkous held up the assault rifle with both hands and pressed it against his heart. He clenched the trigger. A single shot rang through the quiet Knoxville neighborhood. He let go of the gun in silence.
“I ran out there and, sure enough, he's sitting on the ground, having shot himself,” Minor says. “It wasn't gruesome. It wasn't even that scary. I was like, ‘Hang in there buddy, you're going to be fine.’”
But the harsh reality of what happened sank in minutes later, when paramedics found Linkous slumped against the foot of a pink door with the gun atop his body and the bullet casing a few feet away. Over a half-dozen Knoxville Police Department officers roped off the alley with yellow caution tape, questioned his friends, and later notified Teresa. According to his toxicology report, Linkous’ blood alcohol content was recorded at 0.43, over five times Tennessee’s legal driving limit. Benzodiazepines and antidepressants were detected in his system. The final police report simply described his motive: “To satisfy personal need or desire.”
“May his journey be peaceful, happy, and free,” his family said in a statement after his death. “There's a heaven and there's a star for you."
Two weeks later, Linkous’ memorial drew people from around the world to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond—the same building where Bryan Harvey’s life was honored—reconnecting his family, musicians, and friends from different parts of his life. In lieu of flowers, contributions made in the songwriter’s name were sent to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a nonprofit that offers assistance to musicians in need of medical care. Persson, attempting to hold back tears, performed one of Linkous’ most optimistic numbers, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The ceremony was filled with people whose lives Linkous had touched—even if he couldn’t see it himself.
“That's the sad thing about Mark,” Persson says. “He apologized for his presence all the time, in every way. He doubted himself. Most people tried to help him get that he was fantastic, and that was something that was very clear in the funeral.” Stars of the Lid founder Adam Wiltzie—a one-time sound engineer for Sparklehorse who also backed Linkous onstage in 2007—flew from Belgium to attend the funeral. He remembers drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon with Minor in the parking lot and reflecting on the surreal moment he and his friends suspected could happen someday but never fully prepared for.
“I don’t remember any anger at all,” Wiltzie says. “Just sadness.”
That same month, EMI finally settled its Dark Night of the Soul legal dispute with Brian Burton, and the collaboration officially arrived in record stores to positive reviews in July 2010. Artists indebted to Linkous’ influence hosted tribute shows in his honor across the globe, from Asheville to Australia. Persson, backed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, performed an elegant rendition of Linkous’ song “St. Mary” in front of thousands. Meanwhile, the Linkous family refused to authorize documentary films or tribute albums. Box of Stars, a nonprofit promoting awareness about mental health, was forced to cancel a crowd-funded Sparklehorse covers compilation set to feature the Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr. despite raising over $46,000 for the charitable cause.
Eventually, Albini handed over the final Sparklehorse session tapes to Linkous’ estate (through an attorney, members of the estate declined multiple requests for comment for this story). Because Linkous only recorded scratch vocals and didn’t finish his lyrics during the Albini session, the album may never be released. Hamilton wonders if those rough takes could be combined with the microcassettes on which Linkous frequently captured sonic snippets. Minor agrees such an effort isn’t out of the question, though, he adds, “It wouldn’t be a Sparklehorse record.”
In the years since his death, Linkous’ most cherished belongings have made their way into the hands of his closest friends. Lorenzton purchased the motorcycles, including Linkous’ beloved Moto Guzzi. Brian Burton’s studio is now home to three of Linkous’ old guitars, including a 1960s Gibson ES-330 that has made appearances on subsequent records including Broken Bells’ After the Disco. Two years ago, Teresa gave Linkous’ Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard to the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd. “I just started fucking crying,” says Drozd. “It’s my most cherished musical possession.” And the old Flickinger console, which Linkous had struggled to restore, is fully functioning at yet another old friend’s studio in Richmond, capturing the sounds of songs awaiting to be heard.
Last night, Grimes played the International Gala pre-party at New York City's Guggenheim Museum, performing on a circular stage—designed by a company called Ccontender—that made it look like she might be zoomed-up into an alien spacecraft at any moment. Photographer Erez Avissar was there to capture the show.
If specialization is your thing, there’s never been a better time to be a music fan. If you want to create your own radio station based on your favorite genre or artist, you can. If you’d like to listen exclusively to chillwave all day, every day, you can. But that’s just the beginning. In the last several years, music formats have begun to mirror the personalized path music has trod in the Internet age. Even within each medium, segmentation abounds: the options for vinyl vary by size, color, and weight; downloaded music can take the form of an MP3 (with its own range of bit rates) or some type of lossless format; and in the realm of streaming, there seems to be a new service—offering even more meta-preferences—popping up every month. More than ever, how we listen to music can seem just as revealing as what we’re listening to.
Each format has its own cheerleaders and naysayers, of course. For example, vinyl is seen by some as the reclamation of listening in its purest, most immersive, and tangible form; for others, it is utter snobbery. But it’s not that simple or binary. In fact, the BBC broke vinyl collectors down into eight separate tribes last year: the nostalgic collector, the new buyer, the audiophile, the young enthusiast, the romantic musician, the digger-turned-DJ, the digger-turned-dealer, and the sighing skeptic. (Not to mention the countless permutations between those tribes.)
There’s no typical downloader, either—and this goes for fans and artists alike. Twenty-five-year-old Yannick Ilunga of eclectic R&B act Petite Noir tells me he prefers MP3s because he’s tethered to his laptop all the time, while my 65-year-old father-in-law used his first iTunes gift card to buy Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” because it’s over eight minutes long and he wanted to get the most song for his money. Or perhaps you got a download code after buying an album on vinyl, and you want to be able to listen on your computer, too. And then there’s grumpy-old-man audiophiles like Neil Young, who swears only his Pono player and files can provide the high-resolution experience we need to truly appreciate music (even if a scientific study determined the difference between CD-standard recordings and high-resolution recordings is virtually undetectable).
Apple's first-ever iPod television ad, from 2001
Not long ago, the act of buying an album in the iTunes store was to embrace the convenience and portability of the iPod and to reject the CD. Today, it’s still a rejection of CDs, but iPhones have mostly replaced iPods, which means that if you’re buying digital files, you’re also rejecting streaming—you want to own the music, even if it’s not something you can hold in your hand. Maybe you buy singles digitally, embracing the fact that you don’t have to purchase an entire album just to get one song. Or you get all the files for free from a torrent site—you want to own it, but you don’t want to pay for it.
Let’s not forget the dogged CD, a format that has refused to exit gracefully or quietly while ceding the throne to digital (CD sales were down 10 percent in the first half of 2015 but they still count for about 20 percent of all album purchases, according to SoundScan). Some listeners are hanging on to CDs just to have something to listen to in the car other than the radio, in the same way that listeners with old cars hung on to their cassettes 20 years ago. Others have been happy to dispatch their cracked jewel cases to the land of yard sales and bargain bins. Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, 27, did away with CDs, but she had a hard time letting go. “I had a gnarly, massive CD collection that I’ve recently downsized now that my car has an auxiliary input,” she says. “It sorta broke my heart to get rid of them. RIP: ‘Say My Name’ CD single featuring Kobe Bryant remix.”
“All streaming sites are the devil—asking which one you prefer is like asking which head of the hydra you like best.”
—Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab
Perhaps the trickiest format to parse, in terms of common associations, is streaming. For a lot of listeners, streaming has become the go-to format when you don’t care about format at all. You want music on-demand, all the time. With streaming, there’s usually no desire to have a deep, romanticized listening experience (real or imagined), and preferences within each program tend to be based more on differences in software than the music itself. In an ad-based model like Spotify’s free version or YouTube, there’s no act of exchanging money for music, which may lead to listeners having a less concrete attachment with their favorite artists. Even for someone who pays for an ad-free experience, that monthly fee covers all your listening, from The Ultimate Christmas Playlist to Silentó. In that way, it’s perfect for listeners with commitment issues who like music but want an open, undefined relationship with bands.
But the culture’s sea change toward streaming means that some people are getting caught up in the tide. When Ahmed Gallab, 32, of Afropop-inspired funk-rock actSinkane, is on tour, he streams music out of convenience—but that doesn’t mean he likes it. “Streaming sites make listening to music very boring,” he says. “I'll hardly listen to a record or song completely because I know that I can change to something else right away. They’ve almost ruined the experience for me. I feel like all streaming sites are the devil—asking which one you prefer is like asking which head of the hydra you like best.”
With streaming on the rise, is passionate fandom is doomed?
In a recentNew Yorker profile of Grimes, Kelefa Sanneh made a distinction between listeners and fans. “In the modern, low-friction music industry, listeners are easy to reach but hard to retain,” he wrote. “Clicking on a song doesn’t necessarily inspire a listener to do any biographical research.” So if we define a fan as someone who is in a committed relationship with a band, then the act of choosing a format is now another way fans can separate themselves from listeners. And with streaming on the rise—the number of tracks streamed through the first half of 2015 nearly doubled 2014’s numbers—does that mean passionate fandom is doomed?
Maybe, but those categories and characterizations are unstable. They break down. While streaming ruins the listening experience of Sinkane’s Gallab, 37-year-old indie rocker Dan Boeckner—currently of Divine Fits andOperators; formerly ofHandsome Furs and Wolf Parade—has the opposite experience. Boeckner likes vinyl, but streaming, which he does primarily throughBandcamp andSoundCloud, opens up worlds of music that were once inaccessible. It makes him more of a fan.
“Being able to listen to whatever I want, whenever I want, is amazing,” Boeckner says. “I like cross referencing songs, going from Ash Ra Tempel toCluster to Conny Plank toJames Holden toBlawan. It’s like being in the world’s biggest library. Growing up in a small town, I would read about esoteric releases that would never make it into the skate shop where I bought most of my music, so there’s a sense of wonder and excitement with streaming that has never really gone away for me.”
“Lower-commitment formats like cassettes or even digital allow for more freedom and expressiveness. You don’t have to [press to vinyl] to make your music valid. Those symbols of validation don’t exist anymore.”
—Helado Negro’s Roberto Carlos Lange
When Iwrote about the vinyl industry last year, I talked about the format’s badge status, how it offers a way for listeners to identify as true music fans. But badges aren’t static. Vinyl is for someone who loves the experience of holding a physical object and listening to an album sequentially just as much as it’s for a totemist who doesn’t even own a record player. Listening to music on vinyl 15 years ago meant you were a DJ, or that you listened to older music or limited releases of punk, hardcore, and indie rock. Now, listening to vinyl doesn’t mean a thing. You could be listening tothe Velvet Underground or Ed Sheeran. Twangy storytellersDrive-By Truckers or Australian metalcore manicas Parkway Drive. Fleetwood Mac’sTango in the Night or songs from Disney’sTangled.
Roberto Carlos Lange, aka atmospheric singer/songwriter Helado Negro, is “not anti-anything,” but after going through the lengthy, imprecise process of pressing his own music on wax, the tangible benefits of vinyl don’t give him the same warm and fuzzies. Lange, 35, likes to record in a pristine environment with a computer, and he didn’t like the noise that ended up on his last LP, Double Youth.
“Vinyl feels like it’s some kind of crazy-ass commitment with thousands and thousands of dollars spent, and you’re trying to hire these audio scientists to capture your stuff,” Lange says. “I think lower-commitment formats like cassettes or even digital allow for more freedom and expressiveness. You don’t have to [press to vinyl] to make your music valid. Those symbols of validation don’t exist anymore.”
In that way, cassettes have recently become what vinyl was before its recent revival: If someone listens to a cassette, the music is typically from the ’80s or early-’90s, or from modern-daycassette labels and artists like Helado Negro. “People associate cassettes with low quality, but that’s not true. If you pay the money to get cassettes done well, they sound good,” says Lange, who also likes the format’s low cost, quick turnaround, and associations with mixtape culture. “The idea of a mixtape still exists. Some people put out their best music in that idea, separate from an album cycle.”
Regardless of the advantages of the cassette, its status as “the new vinyl” won’t last. Now thatCassette Store Day and limited-edition Blink-182 cassette reissues exist, the backlash is inevitable. (And nothing foreshadows authenticity negation like anNBC Nightly News segment.) Contradictions exist within each medium, making the quest for a format that delineates casual listeners from real music fans endless—and pointless. The mere idea of format-as-badge-status is as superficial as it is fickle.
“For anyone building their fortresses around mediums—history has shown that all that shit collapses,” Lange says.
A Sony commercial from 1985 that describes cassettes as "the closest you can get to music."
All these feelings artists and listeners and fans associate with certain formats are snapshots of a particular moment. They’re all subject to change; nostalgia has a way of making modernity feel passé, even wrong. It’s hard to romanticize the past without condemning the present, which partially explains the Luddite tendencies of some music-fan subcultures. Sure, we can talk about the hands-on, ritualistic experience of playing vinyl records (guilty)—dropping the needle, staring at the big artwork, reading the liner notes—but is there much to fetishize about the cassette experience other than, “Hey, remember these? This is how we used to listen to music, but we don’t anymore, and I kind of miss that.”
Given our culture’s obsession with nostalgia, format has the potential to branch even further into cobwebbed corners of the past. Perhaps more people will discover the 8-track obsessives atKTS Productions, who are trying to keep the ’70s format alive. Pirates Press, a middle man between artists, labels, and manufacturers, already offers flexi discs—thin, flexible records that were once inserted into books and magazines during a brief period in the ’60s. The company can even stamp the grooves directly onto postcards, just like the old days. “They are a great way to hand out a physical product that will NOT be discarded, but instead bragged about and flaunted heavily,” Pirates Press says.
If fans or artists—or, more likely, cash-strapped labels—become thirsty for not just dated formats but more obscure, here-and-gone technology, the well goes deep. Maybe Jack White will tire of his Voice-O-Graph booth and champion the little-known Elcaset, a king-size cassette that briefly appealed to audiophiles and home-recording enthusiasts but never took off. Or there’s Digital Audio Tape (DAT), which can record at a higher sampling rate than a CD; the RIAA never liked the format, and, with the help of Al Gore’s Digital Audio Recorder Act of 1987, it tried (and failed) to require that DAT machines include a scanner that could detect if someone tried to make a copy of copyrighted material. (Wire’s 1988 album The Ideal Copy was the first and one of the only commercial releases on DAT.)
A breakdown of the short-lived Elcaset format, which came and went in the mid '70s.
Maybe fans will indulge in more recent history and come back around on regular-old CDs. After all, the sound quality is better than most streaming services and MP3s. They’re portable, shiny. “The more I think about it, the more I love that format,” Dan Boeckner says of the CD.
Or perhaps streaming’s popularity will continue to rise and eventually quash everything else, making talk of MP3s (or any other digital file you own) seem particularly quaint. Maybe others will join the chorus of Damon Krukowski,Mike Doughty, and Taylor Swift, asking for better payments to artists for streaming. And if the current services don’t respond, maybe we’ll see tech-savvy fans Kickstart a new kind of fair-trade streaming service—and maybe some of those fans will then brag about how they only stream music from services that pay artists fairly. The tagline writes itself: “Music fans who care stream with StreamFair™.”
Formats used to be purely utilitarian. In the early ’60s, vinyl didn’t signify anything. Same with CDs in the mid ’90s. In those eras, limited options meant format was largely irrelevant: I listen to music, therefore I buy CDs. Now, with a panoply of choices, we’ve come full circle, reaching a point when formats don’t have any agreed-upon meanings. An audiophile could be someone who listens to only vinyl—or only FLAC files. So as we stand at the edge of a post-format world, one thing is certain: Things will keep changing, and quickly.
Ty Dolla $ign: "L.A." [ft. Kendrick Lamark, Brandy, and James Fauntleroy] (via SoundCloud)
5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. In this edition, we spoke with 30-year-old rapper, singer, producer, and songwriter Tyrone William Griffin, Jr., aka Ty Dolla $ign. His major-label debut album, Free TC, is out November 13 via Atlantic.
Michael Jackson: Bad
You’re gonna ask a man who smokes at least an ounce of weed a day what he was listening to at age five?! [laughs] There was this one song, but I can’t… if I hear it I would know it… it was by—fuck—I can’t remember it. Let’s just say some fucking Michael Jackson, either Bad or the shit after that with "Remember the Time" [Dangerous]. It was all about how Michael used to experiment with sounds: breaking glass, just crazy shit. And his music videos and performances definitely caught me: He was the best person at every awards show. He’s the greatest to ever do it, to this day.
Nirvana: "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Fifth grade was when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; it was the energy, and his voice. I liked 311 and Sublime too, though that might have been a little after that. But I wasn’t fuckin’ with all the other rock music at the time.
2Pac: "Drunken Freestyle"
Fifteen is around the time when my parents broke up, and all I was listening to was 2Pac. With Pac, it was just his lyrics: All his songs were about shit that I was going through at the time with my family. He would always have a song that would talk about how his pops wasn’t fuckin’ with him, or about his moms. They hit home for sure. There was a lot of Pac haters, but I definitely love Pac. I wish I got to do a song with him.
Nicole Wray: "Make It Hot" [ft. Missy Elliott]
I was making music at that point and listening to J Dilla, Kanye, Lil Jon, and Pharrell. I liked Pharrell’s sound and how he would experiment with shit. Everything he did was fucking incredible. I learned from him that it’s OK to do your own shit—and that after you go hard enough at it, everybody else is gonna be on the same sound.
Timbaland and his whole crew had it, too: Missy, Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Playa, Static [Major], even down to the fucking girl who sang “I got what you want, got what you need”—Nicole Wray! Everything Timbaland was doing was the hottest shit in the world. He might be the best producer to ever do it, not gonna lie. A lot of people argue between Timbaland and Pharrell, but they’re probably equal.
That’s right when I was meeting YG, and we started doing our shit. I had to start listening to all the shit that was out to figure out a sound. I was listening to D4L hella much, fucking [sings], “I’m starting to see spaceships on Bankhead.” The Jerk movement was poppin’ at that time, so I checked it out. But since we were trying to find our own sound, I was also not listening to other people. The sound at that time was all about the South and the whole snap shit; there was no West or East Coast. The South had it sewn up. So for the sound that we did, I took the down South drums they were using, the 808s, and then sped up the tempo and added live instruments to it. It worked out.
Hiatus Kaiyote: Choose Your Weapon
I like Future, Young Thug, Mike WiLL, DJ Spinz, Metro Boomin, Drake, Kendrick. But Hiatus Kaiyote is my favorite group right now. They have the most incredible music out there. They’re from Australia, and this girl is the lead singer, and it’s kind of Jill Scott-ish, but not. It's real music, bro. It’s live instruments and they’re not afraid to do chord changes and be the best at it, so I fuck with ‘em. I tweeted about them the other day, I just put “Hiatus Kaiyote” with the smiley face. They hit me back. They’re chill people.
Like a lot of white suburban punks growing up in the mid-1990s, I first heard of the R&B songwriter Allen Toussaint through a lyric in the Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot” that referenced a song called “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)”. Originally written in 1969 for singer Lee Dorsey, the song—whose title is repeated mantra-like throughout—embodies the persistent but low-key optimism found in all of Toussaint’s music.
Of course, by then I’d already heard Toussaint without realizing it, through Dorsey’s version of “Working in the Coal Mine”, while listening to oldies radio in the passenger seat of my mother’s car. That song managed to make backbreaking labor sound… well, “fun” isn’t the right word, but picture a pubescent boy who takes just about everything as an occasion to get angry: Here was music that didn’t rage against its circumstances so much as turn its cheek, wink, and shuffle ahead with impossible coolness. At the time, nothing could’ve been more over my head.
Toussaint was born—and spent most of his 77 years—in New Orleans, a city with a complex, almost hermetic musical language that more people recognize than actually speak. Artists in New Orleans that ring faint bells to national audiences—the pianist James Booker, for example, or Toussaint’s stylistic progenitor Professor Longhair, or any of the dozens of brass bands that play around the city—are beyond household names. They’re more like some weird combination of superheroes and milkmen: Remarkable but accessible, people everyone seems to have a story about. One of Toussaint’s first writing credits was for an Ernie K-Doe song called “Mother in Law”, which became fairly famous in 1961 and later inspired K-Doe to open a bar called the Mother-in-Law Lounge with his wife, Antoinette, where he often sang, unprompted and to whomever, until his death in 2001. The city always generally seemed like that kind of place.
Toussaint brought what might’ve been considered regional music—New Orleans R&B—to a broader audience without diluting its essence. I remember a high-school girlfriend’s dad playing the first album by the Mardi Gras Indian tribe the Wild Tchoupitoulas (which Toussaint produced) at a holiday party and thinking it had been imported directly from space, like funk played by boys in a treehouse who had been told what funk was but had never actually heard it before. (This was an outsider’s perspective, of course, and I expect that the joy I get from the Wild Tchoupitoulas’ music will always have something to do with the fact that I am a tourist to it. Even saying the group’s name—chop-it-too-luss—remains a low-level outsider’s thrill.)
That album—The Wild Tchoupitoulas—came out in 1976. It still feels like a specific, densely localized sound in a way that most music doesn’t, with passing but effortless allusions to Cuban and Afro-Cuban music, Calypso, and reggae. (A friend from New Orleans always liked to tell me that it isn’t one of the southernmost cities in the United States but one of the northernmost in the Caribbean.) The year before, Toussaint produced an album by Paul McCartney and Wings, and the year before that, a Labelle album featuring the inescapable “Lady Marmalade”, i.e. the song that taught people who didn’t know a single other word of French how to solicit sex. Later, he wrote horn arrangements for the Band’s The Last Waltz. All of which is to say that he stood among a tableau of musicians who helped make up what, in modern terms, would be called the rock’n’roll canon. Toussaint didn’t just play New Orleans R&B, he was the New Orleans R&B guy—an avatar for regional culture that skirted the mainstream but never really became it.
Though associated in part with funk, the most carnal and effortlessly raunchy of genres, Toussaint always seemed like a mild presence. My favorite recording of his is still “Southern Nights”, a sweet, front-porch ballad that trades on old images of the rural South—a place that anyone would be careful to remember too sweetly—spun through Toussaint’s weird, humid production. You can almost see Disney birds fluttering in the haze. As a solo performer, his style was closer to someone like Bill Withers than most funk singers: A steady hand and a wry smile. With the exception of a very strange 1996 song called “Computer Lady” (“I don’t know if you’re real, but until I do/ Keep my modem hot, Computer Lady”), whatever nasty lived in Toussaint’s music seemed mostly outsourced.
During Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint left for Baton Rouge, then to Houston and later, New York, where he played with some regularity at a quiet, handsome room on Lafayette Street called Joe’s Pub. In 2009, he released an album called The Bright Mississippi, exploring the roots of New Orleans jazz. It’s a graceful, late-period piece of music that cemented his transition from the architect of a certain sound to a kind of anthropologist for it; the past has a way of setting in.
His last album, a live set called Songbook, came out in 2013. During an introduction to a song called “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed”, Toussaint says, “There’s a song that I wrote that is normally only applicable when I’m in the city of New Orleans, but the world is small these days, wherever we are.” This is a nice thought but it is not exactly true. The world is small, or at least smaller than it was, but listening to Toussaint sing about po-boys isn’t the same as being in New Orleans and eating one. And being in New Orleans and eating a po-boy isn’t the same as growing up in New Orleans and eating them in general, just the same way that listening to 10-year-anniversary reports about Hurricane Katrina on my radio will only give me the illusion that I am any closer to its heat or despair.
New Orleans is a resilient and fiercely self-protective city, which is probably one of the reasons why everything about being there—the food, the music—feels like it belongs there and nowhere else, and why everyone enjoys getting their piece of it, however temporary. Friends of mine who have been living there for years—some having come before Katrina, some after—say that it is still a city where people figure out who you are by asking where you went to high school. I have been there about 10 times in about as many years and still do not understand it, which is one of the reasons I like going back.
So when Toussaint sang about po-boys to a New York audience, it could seem corny. But he was just doing his ambassadorial thing. I don’t imagine it was an easy job, though he seemed to take it well. Those who knew him remember him as a quiet, vaguely princely person who wore brightly colored suits and fisherman’s sandals and drove a Rolls-Royce with the license plate “PIANO” but otherwise tried to shift the spotlight off of himself as quickly as possible.
Listen to an Apple Music playlist featuring highlights from across Allen Toussaint’s career chosen by writer Mike Powell.
Our podcast series This Is How We Do It features artists talking about the secrets behind their creative process and is presented in partnership with WeTransfer.
As we walk into Wolf Eyes’ studio and practice space in Detroit, band members Nate Young, John Olson, and Crazy Jim Baljo are entrenched in their weekly jam session: Olson is blowing two horns at once, while Young plays with his new sampler. Even though they have built up a massive and often abrasive discography over the last two decades, the trio show no signs of slowing down. Case in point: Their personal new album for Jack White’s Third Man Records, I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces. As we sit down to chat, things frequently veer into the realm of absurdity, which only makes sense in light of their years of irreverent noise-making.
Click the button below to download our interview with Wolf Eyes along with exclusive photos of the band and an excerpt from their jam session that night:
DJ Paypal: "Awakening" (via SoundCloud)
DJ Paypal’s apartment in Berlin hasn’t had Wi-Fi in weeks. For this young artist, the impact of such a loss is especially acute—akin to Samson getting a haircut or Rick Ross developing a life-threatening shellfish allergy. The elusive footwork and juke producer, affiliated with Chicago’s Teklife crew, his own Mall Music collective, and most recently, Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint, has built a career and a family through online footwork forums, SoulSeek mining, and countless tracks shared across the globe. He met the late DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, and the rest of his future Teklife brothers through a Facebook group. He once dumped 30 footwork edits of Drake songs into the void. Without the Internet, there is no DJ Paypal.
Born in North Carolina but a Berlin resident for the past few years, he has no interest in disclosing his real name due to a combination of guardedness, fame-apathy, and strategy for finessing potential visa issues. Up until recently, he hadn’t played in public without his face completely obscured by way of sunglasses, Bulls flat-brim, and a Teklife T-shirt. He connects to me over Skype from his friend’s place, but the camera is off. “I just don’t want pictures of my face posted everywhere, I’m opting out,” he explains. “I don’t wear the mask anymore, though. It got too hot and I have too much hair.” As far as autobiographical details, he says he’s 22 and “not white,” and that’s about it.
Stumbling down some endless Bandcamp rabbit hole circa 2012, my first response to Paypal was: This guy’s trolling, right? First off, there’s the name—either a deep, post-ironic statement on capitalism’s embroilment with art, or pure stoner joke. The moniker started off as the latter, Paypal says, adding, “It’s funny to say it’s a metaphorical statement—it’s honestly more of a troll when we tell people to take it seriously.” He’s fond of glossy, hyper-commercial imagery jacked from mega-corporations like his namesake. “I think they’ll sponsor me,” he deadpans.
DJ Paypal: "Why" (via SoundCloud)
The cover of Sold Out, his new eight-song mini-album, splashes his own name across a billboard lit by campy lens flares and melodramatic pastels; that soft breeze you feel is the flutter of sarcastic jazzhands. But once you hit play, it clicks: His playful but undeniably sincere music holds everything together. His first EP, Why, self-released in 2012 through Mall Music, was a breathless, beaming five-song spin through disco samples on speed, Escher-esque drum mazes, and the transcendent chipmunk-juke remix of Drake’s “Over My Dead Body” I didn’t know I needed in my life. But Sold Out, Brainfeeder’s first footwork release, is clearly Paypal’s opus. Manic, joyful, and confounding, the record flits from heady jazzercise juke, to vertigo-inducing African polyrhythms, to the poignant closing power ballad “Say Goodbye”, a strong contender for this year’s most beautiful footwork track. If this is the sound of Paypal selling out, the world should lavish him in endorsements.
But while Sold Out may be his most serious release, Paypal is not looking to stiffen up anytime soon. “Humor is the yin and yang that’s missing from a lot of music,” he says. “Either people take themselves way too seriously, or it’s entirely a joke. I don’t see it mixed together very often. But something I heard in Teklife music, and in a lot of music coming out of Chicago, was the humor.” It’s one of the more underlooked aspects of footwork’s appeal, from Rashad and Freshmoon’s “Everybody”, with its slapstick sample of the “Best Cry Ever” meme, to Traxman’s dizzying kitsch. Paypal adopts that spirit of mischievousness as a zen mantra, then stretches it to its most opulent, batshit extreme. Through it all beams an emotional clarity he can only reach through absurdity: “I can’t cry without laughing.”
Pitchfork: How does a guy from North Carolina come to fall in love with footwork?
DJ Paypal: I first heard it around 2009 through a combination of SoulSeek and some weird blog I can’t even remember the name of, and it was instantly the dopest thing. At the time, I was playing drums in bands and listening to electronic music on the side, and then I started playing footwork at high school house parties—people would go insane even though they didn’t know what was going on. We would have some crazy shows; usually there would be some shit kid playing bro-step and trap, but then we would go on and get the place shut down by the cops. So I was playing footwork out so much in college I figured I may as well start making it myself in 2011, when I got my first computer for school. And now they’re now doing even more footwork in Raleigh—there were like four new footwork producers the last time me and [DJ Earl] were there.
DJ Paypal: "Slim Trak" (via SoundCloud)
Pitchfork: Do you feel uncomfortable in the spotlight?
DJP: A little bit, I can’t lie. I’d rather other people take the spotlight right now; everybody in Chicago needs to be having more spotlight than me.
Pitchfork: It’s obviously great that footwork culture has been embraced outside of Chicago, but then you get into questions of ownership.
DJP: It comes down to appropriation, in a sense, and I don’t want to do anything but support the homies in Chicago. My goal with Teklife is to get everybody else up on their branding so they can be successful. One or two people can’t do it by themselves, but as a team, we can.
Pitchfork: Sometimes I sense that footwork is appreciated on a larger scale overseas and even in New York than it is in Chicago.
DJP: That’s the truth—I think Chicago fucks with footwork the least. Now they’re on drill and basically just rap music, which in itself isn’t bad—I like Chicago rap. But Rash and Chi Boogie had tracks on the radio, you know? Now that whole thing is gone, and that really ruins the dynamic, because radio reaches the public, the youth.
Pitchfork: As someone who had to approach footwork from the outside, would you say there’s a “right way” to participate in that culture?
DJP: To make it, you first need to know thousands and thousands of tracks. You need to have a database. A lot of kids hear like five tracks and start making footwork, and that’s not respectful. And as a listener, I would suggest not approaching it as “electronic music.” I’ve heard people say, “Well, this is just shitty electronic music, it sounds like FruityLoops.” They don’t focus on the actual rhythms and how complicated it is. And you gotta have a sub.
Pitchfork: Despite the fact that you like to fuck with people a little, it’s obvious you are taking the music itself quite seriously.
DJP: It’s definitely not ironic. But there is a way to take trolling seriously too and be really educated on meme musicians of the 1990s and 2000s. That kind of knowledge allows you to be a troll. It seems almost scientific. Really informed trolls are like theorists.
Pitchfork: What is the secret to being a good troll?
DJP: Pissing people off but making them feel good. When someone posts on a forum and they’re angry about getting trolled, it’s because the typing makes their fingers feel good. People get enjoyment out of getting offended.
Pitchfork: That said, Sold Out is sophisticated and quite emotional; do you feel like you toned down the humor this time around?
DJP: Oh, this one’s fucking hilarious to me. The track with Taye and Nangdo, “On a Cloud”, kind of sounds like Willy Wonka and munchkins doing the Oompa Loompa dance.
Pitchfork: What was your relationship with DJ Rashad like?
DJP: In 2012 he asked me to send him some tracks. And when we met in Berlin, he and Spinn were the special guests at my girlfriend’s party. We all went back to my house and had a crazy time, making tracks, talking all this shit. There was something about Rashad. He was talking about the future, and it seemed really, really important. He was a takeover kind of guy.
My favorite memory with him was just making tracks. I had this tiny keyboard with these tiny MIDI keys and he was just banging out this crazy Mortal Kombat synth on it. We all just started laughing really hard. And then we used an ice-pick to take off a bit of this huge rock of MDMA my roommate had. We did that, we smoked a bong, and we kept on working. That was probably the highest I’ve ever been.
Pitchfork: What went through your head the day he passed?
DJP: I was in Madrid, and the promoter came to me halfway through my set and told me. I just left the club in the middle of my set and tried to call Taye and Earl, just freaking out. And then the promoter came out and slapped me in the face kind of hard and told me: “What would Rashad do if this happened?” So I went back in the club and told them: “Nobody else goes on.” I just played Rash’s tracks for four more hours. After that I went over to this dude’s house and we did this weird Spanish speed, listening to “Rollin” over and over again.
There was nobody doing as much as he did. And that’s a hard thing to put on anybody, especially as a father, a touring musician, and a person who has to lead a whole crew and company, basically. His role is not going to be filled by anybody else. It can’t be. So we're gonna work harder, because it’s not going to be easy.
Arca: "Vanity" (via SoundCloud)
Not two minutes into our conversation, Alejandro Ghersi is already talking about labyrinths. There’s one in Barcelona he says I must visit, where a topiary maze is pocked with ruined-looking neoclassical sculptures. "It's overgrown and mossy and green,” he says. “A really special place.”
His enthusiasm for such a locale is fitting. The music he records as Arca often feels both fungal, like a post-apocalyptic future as seen from a spore's point of view, and labyrinthine. It’s this evocative and spontaneous quality that has attracted collaborators like Kanye West, Björk, and FKA twigs, and some of his most exciting work so far has taken the form of long, undulating solo compositions full of sidewinding synthesizer melodies and beats that fold in upon themselves. His 2013 mini-album &&&&& stuffed 14 movements into an unbroken, 25-minute stretch; then there was this year’s Sheep, a seesawing runway score that shape-shifted across African chants, European choral music, slow-motion car-crash beats, and the wailing of wooly livestock.
Arca: Sheep (via SoundCloud)
His new album, Mutant, follows a similar logic. Unlike his more piecemeal full-length debut from last year, Xen, many of the new record’s 20 tracks flow together almost imperceptibly, one song springing out of the tail end of another like taffy being pulled. "That's one of the few things on the album that doesn't happen unconsciously,” says Ghersi. "There was something about the way &&&&& flowed that I really loved, but there was also an autonomy to each of the songs on Xen that I loved." Mutant, true to its title, offers a hybrid approach. "I guess you could say I prefer the word 'and' to 'or,'" he continues. "It's this and this and this—but every unit is its own little universe."
Like all of his solo offerings so far, Mutant can be hard to wrap your head around. The album's melodies are slippery, elusive things. They bob like eye floaters, refusing to come into focus; around them surges a riot of colors, textures, and shuddering rhythms. At any given moment some sound or another is either coming into being or in the process of disintegration. The music's organizing principles feel almost biological—if you could amplify the sounds of proteins going about their biochemical business, you suspect it might sound something like this—so it is appropriate that Jesse Kanda, Ghersi's friend since both were young teenagers, complements his music with imagery depicting strange, waxy bodies that seem to wear their organs on the outside. Kanda's imagery suggests what humanoid forms might look like after another 100,000 years of evolution—an entirely appropriate accompaniment for music so fearlessly and bewilderingly futuristic.
Mutant cover art by Jesse Kanda
Even more than Xen, which Ghersi now calls a "fragile" album, Mutant is made up of great extremes—the crushing bass of "Mutant" versus the viscous bliss of "Vanity", or the metal chug of "Anger" versus the neo-classical strings of "Extent". And one of the things that is so exhilarating about the record is how it’s constantly negotiating between two opposing poles. Tension is the air that Mutant breathes, and that is because Ghersi himself thrives on what he calls "those in-between states where you can talk to people about things that maybe aren't OK to talk about otherwise—things that are taboo or repressed within us, things that we would never admit to ourselves."
Pitchfork: You've said that you were surprised by how vulnerable you let yourself be with Xen. Do you feel the same way about Mutant?
Arca: When I sit down to make music, I try to enter a flow; I always open a blank session and just make something that I feel like making. Only after a piece of music is done does my frontal cortex allow me to organize what might be trying to come out of my subconscious. When I was making Xen, I was surprised at how introverted some of the songs were. I wasn’t deliberately trying to go quieter, but I had to embrace it.
I try to get my subconscious to puke out as much stuff as I can because I'm really not judging myself while making music. Arthur Russell is very important to me on many levels, and when I read Tim Lawrence's biography on him, Hold on to Your Dreams, one of the things I took away was: first thought, best thought. I live by that when I make my own music. If I crave a frequency in the mid, I'll just drag in a sound and try to mold it into what feels right. It happens very quickly. And if I've been making a piece of music for five hours and it sucks, I'll just throw it away. There has to be an entry point to learn about myself, or an idea I've never tried, because then I can try on a new skin and see the world through a different perspective. If I have that spark, then I'll save the file.
Pitchfork: Something that stands out on the album is your sense of structure, both within individual tracks and across the album as a whole. Even when the music is very chaotic, it feels very composed.
A: A few years ago, I had an interest in making things that felt more like "pieces." That was when I was making a lot of stuff that you could call beats, and it dawned on me that I could say much more nuanced, precise things if I tried to make them more composed. It sounds a bit corny, but I do love the idea that something can make you forget that you're listening and just transport you to somewhere else in your head. I try to have things change before I get bored, and I figure other people might enjoy that too; I try not to let anything repeat for long enough that you can get used to it. You become more animalistic when you don't know what's coming next—you have to be on guard, but at the same time you're also more receptive.
Something I keep coming back to is the tension between two extremes: healing and chaos, hope and anxiety—these big themes are inside us, flickering, all day. You might be raised as a boy in a very conservative environment and then somehow, at some point, there was a side of me that felt really powerful and sensual in a way that was more feminine. For me, it's not about living my life as a boy or a girl—but I'm also not trans—it's just that one day you wake up feeling masculine, and one day you wake up feeling feminine. The flickering in between those two states is what's most fertile for me. It yields ways for me to relate to people that are different from myself and opportunities for me to turn shame into something healing. It's very human to try to put things into boxes, and it's hard for us to reconcile with grey areas, and yet somehow that's the area I find the most poetic, the juiciest.
Self-portrait by Arca
Pitchfork: It seems like there's a new aesthetic being developed by artists like you, Lotic, Rabit, Elysia Crampton, and Total Freedom that's heavy on stretched and plasticized sounds, explosions, breaking glass. Most of the artists affiliated with this sound are also queer. Do you think that's a coincidence, or is there a conscious attempt to create a new, experimental queer aesthetic in electronic music?
A: I attribute that explosive cacophony—that soul-baring quality—to Total Freedom and Shayne Oliver and Venus X’s GHE20G0TH1K parties in New York, which was the complete birthplace for that style. I always call Shayne my gay mother. When I moved from Venezuela to New York when I was 17 and went to that party—it was like a modular synth patching all this energy into a route that could be catalyzed and harmonized and amplified. Meeting all these individuals who were so free and comfortable with themselves was an important part of my musical journey. I remember going alone for my first GHE20G0TH1K. It was in some basement, the cover was like $3, and I was there too early because I was really nerdy. I was blown the fuck away. They were playing, like, slowed down hardstyle with a Rihanna a capella over it. It was about exploding highbrow and lowbrow.
Shayne was playing the CDJs like an instrument. He was using cue points and cutting up the tracks and using it like a drum machine before anyone ever did that. Shayne invented a style of DJing that was so confrontational and aggressive and euphoric, like clashing up an industrial song with a Three 6 Mafia track. This completely punk energy—Shayne is the king of that.
And then Total Freedom is the king of painting through chaos. He pioneered a way of saying something really quiet in the middle of a thunderstorm. He's exploding people's eardrums, and what comes after that is sweet and tender. One of the most magical moments I've had in a club was when he played glass crashing for five minutes. Everyone stopped dancing. And then he played a YouTube rip of Beyoncé singing the national anthem, drowning the whole room in echo. Everyone lost their minds. It was so insanely free. That was a miracle to witness. That's why he's so magical to me. Just being himself, Total Freedom taught me a whole vocabulary of chaos.
Total Freedom: Rinse FM Mix (via SoundCloud)
Pitchfork: You use a lot of voices on the album, but they're rarely distinguishable as voices.
A: I have an interesting relationship with my voice. When I was 14 or 15, I was making pop music and singing over all of it. I had an unspoken treaty with myself to never lie in my lyrics, so, for a long time, when I wrote love songs, I would use genderless pronouns, like "dear" and "darling"—like some kind of granny! At some point, to get more popular in high school, I started pretending that I was straight, and saying "girl" or "chica." When I went to college, I pulled the plug on all of it, because I didn't want to lie to myself, and I went into a cocoon. When I came out of that cocoon, interestingly enough, I came back with instrumental music. And then I slowly added vocals again—and that became Stretch 2. I had a whole record after Stretch 2 that was more hip-hop-based, with tons of vocal manipulation, but it felt like it wasn't something that only I could say, so I pulled the plug again. I give myself tons of freedom in how to engage with my voice because I respect it a lot.
There is also a particular frustration that I have with language. It's so clumsy. There's often two words that are close in meaning, yet what I'm trying to say is in between them, or it might be a little more layered and nuanced. Having this conversation with you is exciting, because I can feel you resonate, even though we're on the phone. That's really beautiful to me. And the reason I'm feeling that is more because on your breathing and your intonation than the actual words. It struck me at some point that the things I wanted to say had to be wordless. I had to renounce words in order to go deep into thepractice of making materials and textures that would express what I'm trying to say more accurately. But I do love voices so much that I will use them and manipulate them. The presence of a human voice in a piece of music is really exciting, even if it's just someone's breathing.
Pitchfork: I thought I heard the sound of a wolf breathing on the album.
A: Totally. I live with a dog named Hank, and he's snarling in there.
Arca: "Soichiro" (via SoundCloud)
Pitchfork: The track "Soichiro" is somehow named after your friend and visual collaborator Jesse Kanda, right?
A: Yeah, that's his Japanese middle name, which I think is really badass. It's like a Yakuza name. And the track "Snakes" is a nod to Björk, because we're both snakes in the Chinese Zodiac. I mention this because I'm keen to be really explicit about howmy way of seeing the world is influencedby the people I love and have around me. If Xen was me sending a letter into the depths of myself, then Mutant is a big celebration. It's more social and open.
Something about the way "Soichiro" quivers, and the way it was really bold, reminded me of Jesse. Jesse and I met when I was 14 and he was 15, so talking about him is like trying to talk about your left leg or something—you have so many memories with your left leg, but where do you start?
Pitchfork: There's a contradiction in some of your work together. On one hand, it celebrates a fluidity between genders, but there's also an element of the grotesque to a lot of it.
A: It's been a growth process for each of us to understand why we find certain things beautiful. And if we do find something beautiful, we'll chase it, because you want to understand yourself and what your psyche is creating. The [“Vanity”] video is like a whole other level of insanity. I'm just preparing for it to be taken off YouTube.
A lot of me figuring out how to love myself more involves finding the things that I'm ashamed of and looking them right in the eye. And something I always find beautiful about Jesse's work is that he finds beauty without any calculation. People say that his work is dark, but he never sees it as such. For him it's all almost about educating people to process why they feel disgust.
Pitchfork: There's a similar contradiction in the video for "EN": Your movements are very bold, but the image is distorted. It's simultaneously revealing and masking.
A: I shot that video myself, and when I showed the footage to Jesse, he was like, "Hm, maybe you could distort it more." That has more to do with mirroring how the audio and video feel, harmonizing how the energy of the song feels slanted or warped. The song sounds like you're listening to it through a fisheye—it's claustrophobic, but there's a vanishing point that you can focus on that makes it feel like there is more space.
The idea of making eye contact has been really important to me throughout this record. It struck me that the only way to do this album justice is to look right into the camera and show my face and not be afraid. To make myself vulnerable and make it possible for people to disagree and lash out or to agree and feel that they're present with me.
Pitchfork: You mentioned how the track “Snakes” is a nod to Björk, did she influence Mutant elsewhere as well?
A: She shaped the album in ways that she's aware of and ways that she's not. When you make music, you have a friend who you share with, and she's that friend. Tracklist, videos, song selection—she was always gracious and joyous to be there during that process. Also, I wouldn’t have had the same confidence to say the things as boldly if I had not met her. When you actually make a new friend, and you make music and laugh really hard together, that can give you a lot of confidence and nourishment and encouragement. It's hard not to get too mushy about it, but if she never put music out, my music would sound totally different. I would listen to her music when I was figuring out how I felt about music, and in that sense it was a profound influence. I've internalized so many ways of feeling by just listening to her music.
A few years ago, a business association in Detroit decided to rebrand their neighborhood. Much of the area that used to be known as the Cass Corridor—infamous for its drug and prostitution problems—became known as Midtown. Now, according to local media, if a hip restaurant opens in the vicinity, it happens in Midtown, but if someone gets mugged in front of that restaurant, it happens in the Cass Corridor.
The old moniker wasn’t just associated with crime, though—it’s where music history was made. It was in that neighborhood where the MC5 played a set that was broadcast live on TV in 1970. Early rock’n’roll magazine Creem had an office there. It’s where the White Stripes performed for the first time, at the Gold Dollar, in 1997. So when Jack White recently announced that his Third Man Records was planning to build a Detroit hub in that very same area, at 441 West Canfield Street, the press release made no mention of Midtown.
But the stretch of Canfield where Third Man Detroit will open its doors on November 27 is far from sketchy. It’s fully developed, a sterling example of rehabilitation or gentrification, depending on who you ask. The store shares a block of real estate with Shinola, a high-end retail outlet that touts the American-made authenticity of its $800 watches while importing some of those watches’ parts. For Third Man co-founder Ben Blackwell, the new endeavor marks a return to the neighborhood where he used to sneak into shows as a teenager. It’s a homecoming—even if that home isn’t exactly how it used to be.
The soon-to-be home of Third Man Detroit. Image courtesy of Third Man Records.
White, who declined to be interviewed for this article, came up in Detroit before moving to Nashville in 2005 and then opening the inaugural Third Man store there in 2009. Last year, he said the White Stripes’ success was originally met with cynicism in Detroit and that he found it difficult to “live and create” in that environment. So while Third Man’s Nashville storefront reads “Established in Detroit”—and while White has definitely helped out his hometown in many ways, including saving its Masonic Temple—Third Man’s public persona is intrinsically linked to its Tennessee home base at this point. Every curiosity and vinyl experiment in Third Man’s catalog—the novelty wonders that defined their aesthetic—happened in Nashville. And for logistical reasons, none of the label’s three co-founders—Blackwell, White, and Ben Swank—are planning to move back to Detroit.
With so much history established in another city, the question becomes whether or not Third Man Detroit will feel pointedly secondary to the company’s Nashville headquarters. Blackwell acknowledges that concern. He says Third Man came up with a plan to do something in Detroit shortly after the Nashville store opened, but they wanted to make sure to build a Detroit presence “under the right circumstances.”
White, Blackwell, and Swank finally found those ideal conditions when they visited the space at 441 West Canfield Street back in April and noticed a big room in the back. White floated an idea: They could put Third Man’s first-ever record pressing plant in there. And now, after months of meetings all over the world and some thwarted attempts to obtain vintage pressing equipment, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Like something out of a triumphant Chrysler commercial, Third Man is bringing real-life manufacturing jobs back to Detroit.
Third Man plans to house at least eight vinyl presses at their new Detroit location.
While this news isn’t unheard of or unprecedented at large—four pressing plants have opened in the United States so far this year—Third Man’s will be the first to open in Detroit since the family-operated Archer Record Pressing started up in 1965. (Soon after Third Man hatched the idea to add record manufacturing to their business model they flat-out offered to buy Archer, but were denied.) Opening a pressing plant is a nice idea, but it takes a wealth of knowledge and something even more elusive: pressing equipment. These machines are a sought-after commodity—rare, and often in disrepair—and a recent New York Times article detailed the “global rush” to find, purchase, and restore existing presses. “It’s very hard to try to get traction in that world,” Blackwell says. “If you don’t know someone who has old presses, good luck knocking on every warehouse door in the Midwest hoping to find some.”
Eventually, Third Man got a line on some presses down in Mexico, so Blackwell flew down in June to inspect them. But the deal fell apart (and the equipment went to the Virginia-based pressing company Furnace). Then, confidentially, he told a friend about Third Man’s intentions to get into the pressing game. That’s how they came into contact with a North American sales representative for a German startup called Newbilt that’s dedicated to building new machines and refurbishing old ones. “You hear people say, ‘Nobody’s making new vinyl presses,’” Blackwell says. “But these guys are making them and they’re selling them.”
While the pressing plant won’t be operational when Third Man opens on Black Friday, they eventually plan to house at least eight working presses. A window in the shop will let customers see the manufacturing floor as part of Third Man’s ongoing initiative to educate the public about vinyl culture and show that, as Blackwell puts it, “all this stuff is alive and well.”
While the manufacturing arm definitely means that Third Man will have quick access to pressings of their own output, Blackwell says the decision to open the plant is a selfless act. He argues that more overall record-pressing capacity eases the pressure on plants like United Record Pressing in Nashville, which continues to press Third Man releases, and Archer—both of which are backed up and reportedly turning away customers. Also, while no plans are currently in place, Third Man hope to press more than just their own records on-site. Potentially, the plant could offer a new option for young artists and DIY labels. “Part of the concern in this world is that vinyl can very easily turn into an exclusionary thing,” Blackwell says. “But this is going to make it easier for a little punk band to make 300 copies of a 7".”
Blackwell is coy about what else the label has planned for Third Man Detroit, but he makes it clear that the new store will be its own animal. “People shouldn’t expect a photocopy of what we’re doing in Nashville,” he says. “There’s a hope that we do things in Detroit that make us up our game in Nashville.” This is not just hype, bluster, and tourist-trap nonsense, as the bins in the new store will be stocked with records, new and old, by Detroit artists—including two new Third Man signees that have been toiling in the city for quite some time.
Timmy's Organism. Photo by Zak Bratto.
Tim Lampinen, better known by his stage name, Timmy Vulgar, is the best showman of Detroit’s current rock’n’roll underground. He’s wild, passionate, spontaneous, and has a penchant for masks, makeup, and on-stage fireworks. When I meet up with him and his band, Timmy’s Organism, they’re practicing at the Outer Limits Lounge, a bar-in-progress on a quiet corner of the Detroit-adjacent town of Hamtramck, working the kinks out of a track from their new Third Man album, Heartless Heathen. The record is full of Lampinen’s signature mutant-fried guitar and songs about “being tough” and “taking on the world fuckin’ head on,” as drummer Blake Hill puts it. It also has flickers of sobering maturity; “Hey Eddie” is Lampinen’s ode to an old bandmate who died two years ago.
That Third Man even heard Heartless Heathen in the first place was a complete fluke. Before the band went to record, Lampinen thought he was emailing demos to Hill—but when he typed “Blake,” his email’s autofill instead sent the files to his old friend, Blackwell, who had released some of Lampinen’s previous bands, including Human Eye and Clone Defects, on other labels. And when Lampinen was awarded the highly competitive Detroit arts Kresge Grant in 2010, it was Blackwell who wrote the letter of recommendation.
Lampinen also has history with White, who produced the first Clone Defects single (credited as The Third Man) and brought the band along on a White Stripes tour in 2000. But as the Stripes, the Hives, and the Strokes blew up, Clone Defects lingered in obscurity. “We were like, ‘Why can’t we be as popular as the Hives?’” remembers Lampinen. “And then we were like, ‘Oh wait, we’re crazy and we all drink way too much and we follow the White Stripes in a little minivan and put our equipment underneath their bus.’”
Fifteen years later, Timmy’s Organism’s contract with Third Man offers Lampinen the most significant support he’s ever received. Though they haven’t changed their sound or become more commercial, they can now stay out on the road for longer, pocket a little more money, and, with Third Man’s co-sign, there’s a chance they’ll reach a wider audience. In every respect, Timmy’s Organism stand to gain more from this relationship than Third Man.
“I’ve seen a lot of Detroit bands that don’t go on the road as much or get the recognition they deserve,” says Lampinen. In March, the frontman was hanging out with another local band, Wolf Eyes, talking about his deal with Third Man. The veteran noise-rock act told him they were having trouble finding a label for their new album. Lampinen texted Blackwell on the spot.
Wolf Eyes’ Nate Young and Jim Baljo are discussing circumcision in the backseat of my car while guiding me through their hometown. “They hacked me,” Baljo reveals mournfully. “Turn right at the next light to get on the expressway.” When we arrive at a venue and cafe in the Eastern Market district called Trinosophes, they’re right at home: Baljo washes dishes there sometimes, and they’re chummy with at least a dozen passersby. They post up in the alley out back with coffee, cigarettes, and a spliff.
“I have my pop-out quote ready,” blurts out Young. “‘After playing the largest public Satanic event in history, it made sense as to why we signed to Third Man.’” This is what it’s like talking to Wolf Eyes on this particular day—completely absurd. Young started Wolf Eyes as a solo project in 1996, and while they’ve changed lineups several times in the past two decades, they’ve made an enormous pile of music. They’re always recording, always hustling, and always maintaining a healthy sense of humor.
When the announcement went out about their new Third Man album I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces, the mismatch was evident—White, whose Lazaretto was one of 2014’s biggest vinyl sellers, had signed a bunch of DIY diehards with a proudly limited appeal along with a massive discography filled with limited-edition Trip Metal experiments. But even as they acknowledge the odd pairing, the band say it was a logical decision.
“We had a couple record labels blow smoke up our ass and we were a little disenchanted with the whole vibe,” says Baljo of shopping around the new album. “They didn’t seem that excited,” adds Young. But Blackwell’s response encouraged them. “We sent him one five-minute song and he wrote back while he was listening to it,” says Young. “That’s fucking great.”
White also sent Young an excited email shortly after they struck the deal—and it wasn’t Wolf Eyes’ first brush with him. Local legend has it that Wolf Eyes and the White Stripes once shared a practice space, and, one day before a gig, band member John Olson grabbed a little combo amp that was lying around. By the end of the show, the amp was in pieces. It was White’s amp. “[Olson] was freaking out,” remembers Young.
As the story goes, Olson replaced the busted 12-inch speaker with a much smaller one, handed it off to White without explaining what had happened, and the White Stripes headed out on tour. “We like to joke about it now, like that’s why we’re doing the record with Third Man,” says Young. “Like, ‘Jack has to pay us back for that tone, man.’”
That hypothetical payback came around in a strange way when Third Man recently bailed Baljo out of jail after he racked up 32 tickets for driving violations. “In Detroit, it’s cheaper to get a ticket than it is to get insurance, so I did this experiment,” he explains. “It got really out of control.” On his way back to the U.S. from Canada, border patrol threw him in jail for four days.
The band explained the situation to Blackwell. “Ben understands,” says Young. Recounting the story, both Young and Baljo are still in disbelief. “That never happens,” says Baljo, adding, “I mean, for rappers, maybe.” Young concurs. “We’re fucking rinky-dink,” he says. “We’re not a big name and it’s not a huge investment to protect us. It was just a nice, classy thing to do.”
To return the favor, Wolf Eyes took over Third Man’s Instagram account for a weekend, terrorizing the label’s fans by sharing multiple images of a scowling White—including one where his head is lodged in the gap between Baljo’s front teeth. Blackwell says everyone at Third Man loved it.
A taste of Wolf Eyes' recent takeover of Third Man's Instagram account
If White, Blackwell, and Swank wanted to offer a love letter to their hometown with their latest initiatives, they’ve covered a lot of ground. And there’s more to come, as Blackwell has expressed interest in working with even more regional artists moving forward. “I feel so enamored with the entirety of Detroit musical history,” he says. “Anyone adding to it or being a part of it—that’s important to me.” And remember: That includes the Insane Clown Posse, who released a Third Man single in 2011. (Apparently, the label has been trying to lock down a collaboration with Bob Seger for years, too.)
Third Man’s desire to give back to Detroit is undeniable, but how do Detroiters feel about their return? Aside from some skepticism about White co-owning the building with Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis, the reactions from the locals I talked to were overwhelmingly positive. Granted, such praise comes with the caveat that any negativity could get back to White—and to his hypothetical shit list—but doesn’t discount people’s genuine enthusiasm.
“If they bring any of the things that the Nashville store does here, how can you not be excited about that?” says Mike McGonigal, former Pitchfork contributor and current Music Editor of the Detroit Metro Times. Greg Baise, Curator of Public Programs at MOCAD, echoes this sentiment. “[Ben Swank] and I were talking about some of the film programs they’re doing in Nashville, and if that model translates to Detroit, then of course I'm really looking forward to seeing what they do.”
Dion Fischer, former member early White Stripes contemporaries the Go and co-owner of the venue UFO Factory, thinks that it’s only a good thing to have a cool new spot in circulation, somewhere to hang out before a show and after dinner. He also agrees that the label’s investment in Detroit bands and “crazy ideas” are good for music discovery on a larger scale. “If you like the Timmy’s Organism record and find out they were influenced by the New York Dolls and Hawkwind, you’re going to go check out those bands,” he says.
Protomartyr, one of the best Detroit bands to have cropped up in the years following White’s departure, set many of their bleak, violent, and wryly funny songs within their hometown’s unique milieu. Does frontman Joe Casey think he’ll be shopping at the Third Man store with any regularity? “No, I don't,” he says, “But if you've got a tourist in town and you want to show them around, that’s a place they can go.”
The label has hired a handful of people so far to help run Third Man Detroit, including at least one name of significance: Dave Buick, who ran the Detroit label Italy Records, released the earliest White Stripes material, and gave Blackwell his start in the music business. With Buick on board, not only is the new store a manufacturing enterprise and a commitment to Detroit’s history—it’s a family affair.
“To have the guy that put out the first two White Stripes singles working in that building—and have those White Stripes singles for sale in there—there’s a beauty to that,” says Blackwell. “And having that happen two blocks from the Gold Dollar, where the deals for those singles were hashed out and those songs were played for the first time, it just feels really, really good.”
In a time of cultural splintering and super-personalized playlists and oh-so-specific microgenres, buying gifts for music fans can be daunting. But this list of 25 items should make things a bit easier—no matter what type of music lover you’re dealing with, you’ll be able to find something to match their unique tastes here. There are books about icons including Grace Jones and John Peel, a T-shirt for those who rep Taylor Swift and Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips-branded hot sauce, tiny synthesizers, customizable headphones, and, for the politically-minded pop fan, a Kanye 2020 baseball hat. Happy holidays!
Five years ago, the Danish audio company AIAIAI set out to build a better pair of headphones. To do that, they consulted with a host of DJs, including Seth Troxler, Matthew Dear, and 2 Many DJs, and the result was the TMA-1. Those headphones offered clear bass and a slightly muted high end—a balance well suited to the needs of club DJs—in a sleek matte-rubber design that made the rest of the marketplace look pretty gauche in comparison.
With the TMA-2, AIAIAI have outdone themselves once again. The new line is a modular system comprising four components—headband, speaker units, earpads, and cable—that can be configured according to the user's needs. The speaker units, for instance, include a basic model suited to everyday use, a DJ-friendly version, and two audiophile models, while earpads range from on-ear cups that are great for performance or subway commutes, to over-ear pads better suited for the office or recording studio. Though I've never much liked using headphones outside the DJ booth, after listening to both Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete and the Necks' Vertigo—two of the most dynamic albums to cross my desk recently—on the higher-end TMA-2s, I may never take these things off. —Philip Sherburne
Taken as a piece, Drake’s encyclopedia of one-liners amount to a grand emotional manifesto. On these cropped sweatshirts by NYC artist Grace Miceli, bits of the rapper’s most potent verse—“It ain’t about who did it first, it’s about who did it right” and “I hate sleeping alone” and “I pop bottles because I bottle my emotions”—are given the severe, all-caps renderings they deserve. Miceli’s design is modeled after “Inflammatory Essays”, a series of aphoristic writings by feminist conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, which she began posting around New York City in 1979. Holzer’s anarchic public text installations are legendary now, and their socio-political critique remains piercing (“Fear is the most elegant weapon,” reads one). So perhaps these sweatshirts reveal Drake as the emo ideologue that he is: a depression cherry and an Internet sad girl, just like us. —Jenn Pelly
Operating at the intersection between miniaturization and retro, Swedish tech wizards Teenage Engineering have invented a pocketable synthesizer that looks like a high school calculator. Their Pocket Operator synth/sampler series—including the PO-12 Rhythm (for drums), PO-14 Sub (for bass) or PO-16 Factory (for lead parts)—targets entry-level sequencing nerds. Of the three, the PO-12 Rhythm has the broadest scope, and its 16 samples have self-explanatory picture labels. Granted, there’s limited opportunity to perform stylistic somersaults, but as an addition to a decent programming setup, or just a fun way to spend lazy afternoons, these small machines are plenty effective. —Jazz Monroe
The Wicked + The Divine is a comic in which actual mythological gods walk the Earth in 2015—and, according to creator Kieron Gillen, these deities would be enormous pop stars. Dionysus’ dance parties send every attendant into a drug-like euphoria; people scream and faint in the presence of Amaterasu (essentially a Florence Welch/Natasha Khan/Kate Bush character); Baal seems to take stylistic and emotional cues from Kanye; Sakhmet is basically Rihanna. But The Wicked + The Divine doesn’t simply put these larger-than-life figures on pop’s pedestal—it illustrates the bleak, self-centered nature of fandom and how a celebrity becomes a brand. In issue #12, there’s a two-page spread of the god Tara’s Twitter mentions—a chilling and accurate depiction of the adoration and bile that flows into any public figure’s feed. There are two paperback collections, and a few stray issues beyond those. (Read our interview with the two creators, and check out Grimes’ variant artwork for issue #14 above.) They’re all engaging, funny, occasionally heartbreaking, and thanks to artist Jamie McKelvie, beautifully illustrated. —Evan Minsker
What’s the relationship between taste and parenting? Should music obsessives with children try and turn their kids onto cool music, or should they accept that kids enjoy Raffi and Barney and the Wiggles and just endure it? This Record Belongs To __________ is a children’s music compilation issued by the perennially hip reissue imprint Light in the Attic, so you know where it stands. Put out as part of a package that includes a portable turntable manufactured by Jack White’s Third Man Records, the would-be starter kit is, befitting its source, a retro collection that will invoke different strains of nostalgia for listeners of at least three generations. Grandma and grandpa, who were adults in the 1960s and ’70, will appreciate playful kid-friendly tunes from Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks, Carole King, Jerry Garcia, and Donavan. Young parents who grew up hunting down music obscurities will enjoy the gentle sounds of Vashti Bunyan, Nina Simone, and the much-sampled Pointer Sisters funk jam “Pinball Number Count”. And everyone who is or ever was a child loves Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection”. —Mark Richardson
Grace Jones' returned to the spotlight this year in stellar fashion: The 67-year-old’s topless, hula-hooping Afropunk performances gave you all you needed to know about this contentious and undeniably fabulous music and style icon. But for those who simply can't get enough of Jones' no-holds-barred candor, there's I'll Never Write My Memoirs, the recent autobiography of her eccentric life as told to Paul Morley. Memoirs highlights Jones' outlandish, well-known moments as well as more eye-opening, private segments of her life, such as a stifled childhood in Jamaica and her intense romances with the likes of Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Paul Goude. There's even a tour rider attached to the end, a hilarious coup de grâce to readers after nearly 400 pages of Jonesian revelations. ("Grace does her own shucking," it says regarding a request for two dozen oysters.) I'll Never Write My Memoirs is an excellent reminder that Jones' lust for life is something we should all be aspiring to embody—half-naked hula-hooping included. —Eric Torres
Birthed in the mid-’70s, punk rock is currently in the throes of middle age. So it makes sense that there are suddenly a bunch of kids books focused on the genre, though most of them are pretty terrible. But that is not the case with the breezy, playful What Is Punk?, which features Eric Morse’s fun (and historically accurate!) rhyming couplets about the general tenets of punk alongside colorful clay figures of Television, the Clash, the Stooges, Sex Pistols, Black Flag, Bad Brains, X-Ray Spex, Slits, and others by Anny Yi. When I read this book to my own children, they asked me to sing a song from each band—a good challenge in and of itself—which quickly lead to their obsession with the Misfits and the Ramones. One caveat: Come up with a good alternate answer for how the Circle Jerks got their name beforehand, because your kid will definitely ask. —Brandon Stosuy
Hip-hop moves at an incredibly rapid pace that’s intrinsically connected to the Internet and its ruthless zeitgeist. In that spirit, Pintrill offers wearable rap status updates that gleam as bright as the ring on Rick Ross’ pinky. Naturally, the custom pin company updates its catalog pretty frequently; they have five separate pins dedicated to Kanye’s various shoes, as well as a few selections geared for Mr. West’s upcoming presidential campaign. Advanced followers can throw some subtle shade with the Drake-repping Charged Up pin. Unfortunately, these pins sell out fast (reflecting the Internet's no-looking-back ethos), so the odds of getting that Pharrell hat one are slim. But these tiny avatars are more permanent than any retweet. —Matthew Strauss
From Bad Brains to Patti Labelle to Lynyrd Skynyrd, musician-branded hot sauce is a well-known (and well-stocked) industry. Same goes for the Flaming Lips’ penchant for oddball merchandise (gummy skulls, a fetus Christmas ornament). So it only makes sense for such spicy synergy to align and yield a bottle of Flaming Lips hot sauce. It says “3 Drops of Death” on the container, and the sauce comes wrapped in a label featuring psychedelic alien artwork by Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. —Brandon Stosuy
If anyone deserves their own vanity vaporizer, it’s the Weeknd. He’s pop’s reigning prince of darkness—someone whose hits are defined by sex, drugs, and dulled pain. “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me,” Abel Tesfaye sings on “The Hills”, and if you’re ready to join him in such a quest for realness, Tesfaye’s tour sponsors PAX have you covered. Stare into the engraved XO on the base of the vaporizer, hit the power button, and listen as the device plays—yes—“The Hills”. If you’re concerned that Tesfaye’s voice will boom out of the handheld cylinder while you’re attempting to be discreet, fear not: It’s a MIDI version of the song’s chorus, and it plays very quietly. It’s like a first-generation Game Boy version of the hit single—primitive, stiff, robotic, and just a little silly. For the full Weeknd experience, it might be best if you run Beauty Behind the Madness through some bigger speakers while you indulge. —Evan Minsker
"For many artists, nothing inspires more existential terror than actually making art," writes Dennis DeSantis in the introduction to this handsome hardcover book. (Perhaps that's why so many musicians take to Twitter.) Published earlier this year by the Berlin software company Ableton, Making Music offers a far more productive procrastination method, and not just because it won't get you blocked, mocked, or banned. Organized into three sections—beginning, developing, and finishing a song—the book lays out 74 different creative problems common to anyone who makes music using a computer, from basic issues like knowing which tempo to choose to far more knotty, even existential, dilemmas: "You're happy with the music you make, and other people are as well. But deep down, you don't truly believe it's original, and you feel that you should be working harder to find a sound that is uniquely your own." Each problem is paired with a suggested solution that can be philosophical or practical. Like a slightly more genre-specific version of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies, these creative prompts are meant to facilitate a fresh approach to music-making by wrenching people out of ingrained habits. And while DeSantis' rhetorical style is friendly and reassuring when it needs to be, he's not afraid to bust out the tough love. "The reality is that there are no shortcuts," he writes. "As painful as it is, every project, for everyone, requires real work." —Philip Sherburne
It may not be fashionable to love Lana Del Rey, but dressing her is another story. Crafted from high-quality paper and colored through pencils, inks, and digital tools, artist Iván García’s Lana Del Rey paperdoll kit comes equipped with all the classic outfits we’ve come to associate with the somber singer, including the Red Chucks, flower crown, and flowing white gown featured in her “Born to Die” video. It’s the perfect educational tool for getting youngsters into the singer’s cigarette-smoking, passionately despondent, late-capitalist American aesthetic. —Zoe Camp
For all of its upsides, there's no disputing that vinyl is a fragile medium prone to wear and warping. And stalwart DJs who persist in playing wax in nightclubs can attest that the problems don't end there; poorly serviced turntables and feedback from bass vibrations can make the whole enterprise suddenly seem not worth the lower-back pain and extra luggage fees. It's a situation that Barcelona DJ and producer John Talabot knows all too well, especially given his fondness for vintage disco—and that's where this handy little gizmo comes in.
The vinyl stabilizer applies more than a pound of pressure to your record, tamping down mild warping, correcting for unwanted bass resonance, and delivering improved fidelity, whether at home or in the club. It's decorated with the stylish logo of Talabot's Hivern Discs label, the better to display your great taste in modern house music. And if you're worried about pesky trainspotters jacking your steez, it's also a great way to cover your records' center stickers and keep the booth-peepers scratching their heads. —Philip Sherburne
Cultural appropriation: Sometimes, it ain’t bad! A purist might balk at this reinterpretation of Raymond Pettibon’s parricide-celebrating cover art for Sonic Youth’s Goo; Taylor Swift’s attempt at being cool has always seemed so thirsty, whereas Sonic Youth oozed New York hip with every effortless motion. (They would never write a song called “Welcome to New York”.) But hey, thumbing your nose at punk orthodoxy is always a fun time—just make sure you know all the words to “Shake It Off” when you throw this thing on. No false Swifties allowed! —Jeremy Gordon
Look closely at the cover of Travis Scott’s debut album, Rodeo, and you’ll realize that’s not the real-life Houston rapper but rather a very accurate Travis Scott action figure. And now you can buy that hunk of plastic—though, at $150, it’s a little bit pricier than the He-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of yore. Maybe the figurine is a commentary on how Scott is manipulated by the public as an artist: You can pose him, but can he truly ever… pose himself? Maybe we’re just thinking about this too much. —Matthew Strauss
The radical and true slogan emblazoned across these shirts appears alongside a graphic of a human arm handcuffed to the neck of an electric guitar. The design comes by way of noise musician Heath Moerland (who operates the underground label Fag Tapes) and we discovered the shirts from the inimitable M’Lady’s Records, which has instated a policy offering a discount to all female customers to compensate for the wage gap in the U.S. Per M’Lady’s: “MUSIC IS A ‘NATURAL HIGH’—GET INVOLVED.” —Jenn Pelly
Dave Smith Instruments is one of the most beloved synthesizer companies in operation today, and Smith's previous company, Sequential Circuits, was one of the most beloved synthesizer companies of all-time, even though it only operated for 13 years. Its flagship instrument, the Prophet-5, introduced in 1978, was one of the first polyphonic synthesizers and one of the first analog synths to include patch memory; today, a vintage model might set you back $5,000 or more on eBay.
David Abernethy's The Prophet from Silicon Valley tells the story of Sequential Circuits' groundbreaking but ultimately star-crossed run, from Smith's time as a Lockheed Martin engineer—he built his first contraption, a step sequencer for his Minimoog, on a workbench in the closet of his one-bedroom apartment in Cupertino—to the company's eventual bankruptcy and fire sale to Yamaha in 1987. Drawing from interviews with Smith and other ex-Sequential employees, plus fellow inventor/entrepreneurs Roger Linn and Tom Oberheim, and a host of musicians including Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison, the Cure's Roger O'Donnell, and Terry Riley, the book brings to life not just Smith's pioneering company, but a pivotal era in electronic music—and an oft-overlooked side of Silicon Valley history to boot. It's as close as you'll ever get to the Sequential Circuits shop floor without a time machine and a laminated pass. —Philip Sherburne
Squint your eyes and you can see a lot of parallels between rappers and superheroes: They’re both huge personas who use their special abilities (punchlines, X-ray vision) to combat injustice in a cruel world. “Comics are the literature of outcasts, of pariahs, of Jews, of gays, of blacks,” cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote. “It's really no mistake that we saw ourselves in Doom, Magneto, or Rogue.” These Run the Jewels-inspired alternate covers for Marvel comic books pay tribute to that connection in a delightfully stylized way. —Jeremy Gordon
From the moment he uttered those nine fateful words—“I have decided in 2020 to run for president”—onstage at this year’s VMAs, the world has been feverishly anticipating the start of Kanye West's run for the White House. Yeezy may not have hired any staffers or proposed any policy just yet, but political revolution doesn’t happen overnight: So what better way to herald the political event of the century than by showing your support with a bright pastel baseball cap? It’s just as attention-grabbing and comfy as Donald Trump’s infamous “Make America Great Again” hat, except without all those ugly racist connotations. Join the movement. Wear the hat. —Zoe Camp
Amy isn't exactly cheery holiday fare, yet director Asif Kapadia does bring some hope to his documentary about the late British soul singer. By eschewing on-camera talking heads in favor of voiceovers and collaged footage, he creates a living portrait of Amy Winehouse in all her glory, highlighting her supernatural talent, comprehensive jazz knowledge, and the brilliant wit that got buried beneath her addiction and ensuing callous media jibes. Kapadia's light directorial touch lets the vultures in Winehouse's life indict themselves, but he also exploits the well of paparazzi-shot footage that contributed to Winehouse's destruction, which makes for conflicted viewing—our appetite for these scenes surely implicates us in her death, too. Nevertheless, the film offers a corrective to the dismal image of Winehouse perpetuated by the media towards the end of her life, and to any lingering perceptions of her as an MOR artist. I had only previously heard her albums when my dad hammered them in the car, but after seeing Amy, I immediately bought them both. — Laura Snapes
Though much of Julius Eastman's minimalist work blending elements of classical, pop, and disco in the '70s and '80s hasn't received the same kind of attention as similarly-minded fellow New Yorker Arthur Russell, the new essay collection Gay Guerrilla stands to correct such an oversight. Presenting a frame of reference for his life, music, and the cultural climate in which he tried to earn recognition for his racially- and sexually-charged work, Gay Guerrilla sheds light on an artist whose incendiary art still speaks loudly to a contemporary culture grappling with its own sexual and civil rights issues. The book also describes some of the more sensational moments in Eastman's life, such as an infamous 1975 performance in which he undressed his boyfriend on stage during an interpretation of John Cage's Song Books that subsequently caused Cage to shout, “I’m tired of people who think that they could do whatever they want with my music!” Eastman's ability to rattle one of the most eminent composers of his time is as good an indicator as any that Gay Guerrilla is not to be missed. —Eric Torres
One of the best parts of being a music fan is piecing together wider social histories as you learn about the records you love. David Cavanagh's latest book is an outstanding attempt to unspool 35 years of British history in parallel to John Peel's broadcasting legacy, first on pirate radio, and then on the BBC. Cavanagh sifts through 265 of Peel's key shows and contextualizes them against the news of the day, illustrating the work of a broadcaster who influenced British culture while recognizing the importance of crafting his playlists to complement—and undermine—the national dialogue. At 640 pages long, it's a bit of a doorstop, and the links sometime get tenuous, but Good Night and Good Riddance is one of the most entertaining blitzes through late 20th century British history around—and it definitely has the best soundtrack. —Laura Snapes
Apart from the fact that visual artist Faye Orlove's Celebrity Goddess Tarot Deck features pictures of holy deities such as Courtney Love, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Patti Smith, and Kathleen Hanna, a big part of the appeal has to do with which artist is matched with which card. According to Orlove, Miley Cyrus symbolizes "death," Taylor Swift is "the sun," and Bjork is "the world." These 22 major arcana tarot cards are essential for savvy pop mystics everywhere. —Molly Beauchemin
Given the wealth of in-depth books charting the rise of hip-hop, you might hesitate to reach for Neil Kulkarni’s fairly slender effort, the latest in UK publisher Ebury Press’ Periodic Table series. Yet for a book aimed at relative newcomers, it’s admirably iconoclastic. Kulkarni, a famously prickly firebrand of the ’90s UK music press, rejects hip-hop’s codified narratives—the elevation of "white folk"-approved proto-rap like the Last Poets over revolutionary collective Watts Prophets, or the "cycle of media misreading and misportrayal of b-boying"—and instead charts a multitude of new paths between the Dozens and drill, George Clinton through Kendrick Lamar. The tabulated format ought to grate—each artist gets about a page, so Kulkarni has little room to stretch—but the book does a fine job swirling musical, social, and political histories into one fluid timeline. —Jazz Monroe
With its warm waves of feedback and woozy vocals, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is basically the aural equivalent of a heavy fuchsia quilt. And with this MBV-inspired duvet cover, you can bring that snuggly sound to life in your own home while impressing your guests (and potential bedmates) with your excellent taste in shoegaze. The duvet’s creator, Nicealb, offers a variety of music-related bedding, so if you’d prefer to snuggle beneath the Shins or Sonic Youth, that’s your prerogative. —Zoe Camp
The mid-'90s saw the release of an incredible number of important hip-hop albums—Jeff Weiss' Rolling on Dubs column revisits these records around their 20th anniversary, retracing the past through a contemporary vantage point.
It starts in the Southern Baptist church and the red clay soil. It continues in the Dungeon, part tabernacle, part studio—blending voodoo healing rituals, slithering freestyles, and biblical spoken word. It slinks out the S.W.A.T. (southwest Atlanta), 10 miles to Curtis Mayfield's home studio, where Goodie Mob cooked Soul Food.
Origins can be corporeal or spiritual. In this case, they're inextricable. To understand why Soul Food stands up two decades later is like asking why people still revere sacred revelations. These texts are no less profound or unprovable than they ever were. They question the meaning of "truth" until it's unclear whether the gate was put up to keep crime out or keep your ass in. It's less about whether it's the government or the criminals peeking through your window; it's more about realizing that they're often indistinguishable.
We often mock the notion of "struggle rap," but the best rap emerged from the struggle. Yet the first bars of Soul Food aren't rapped, they're sung: "Lord it's so hard living this life." A weary benediction to the creator, Cee-Lo's screechy rasp is half-angel, half-devil, gifted and damned. This isn't blues, but it draws from the same poisoned well, feverishly trying to purify. Spirituals from the dirt. The Rhodes that belongs to Superfly. Death isn't knocking at the front door, it's in the house, snacking on the macaroni in the fridge, sitting on top of your chest. Freedom is the only goal. Different demons, same outcome.
OutKast was the face of Dungeon Family, but Goodie was the spine. Aquemini is the widely hailed masterpiece, but Soul Food is the vital nerve. The album is everything at once: the feast, the list of secret family recipes, the feeling of standing out in the cold.
Goodie Mob initially referred to T-Mo and Khujo; T-Mo and Cee-Lo had known each other since nursery school. In a 2011 interview, Cee-Lo described his first trip to Organized Noize’s Dungeon headquarters. “I sang and rapped for them and everybody thought it was cool. Then [producer] Rico [Wade] walked in with [OutKast’s] Big and Dré. Dré got real excited like, ‘That’s my man Cee-Lo I told you about, who do them real good story raps.’ Khujo and T-Mo showed up. Khujo was known for being a brawler. Then Gipp pulls up, jumping out a Cadillac, wearing a white lab jacket, because at the time he was attending beauty school, to do hair.”
The arrival came on 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Cee-Lo won The Source’s Hip-Hop Quotable with his debut verse on “Get Up, Git Out”. It established a worldview—trafficking in dualities and skeptical of extremes. (“I get high but I don’t get too high.”) It’s not just the conventional Christian cycle of sin and penitence, but the seeker’s quest for divine revelation. This is faith in its purest form, constantly tested but never abandoned.
Even though the quartet’s chemistry was obvious, the idea to form as one came only after LaFace Records head L.A. Reid dangled the prospect of a deal. They planned to split into separate entities afterwards, but it didn’t happen until 2004’s high water mark of saltiness, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.
Goodie Mob in the mid-'90s, from left: Khujo, Cee-Lo, T-Mo, Big Gipp
The label expected Southernplayalistic II and it got Paradise Lost in East Point. Until OutKast, most rap from Atlanta focused on the booty shake. After MC Shy D and Kilo Ali fell from fame, Jermaine Dupri jacked G-Funk for Kriss Kross and "Funkdafied". Tag Team scored a smash by sanitizing bass music. There was Arrested Development, obsolete even before the Fugees rendered them superfluous. There was the TLC of the condom eye patch era. Then there was Goodie Mob, ancient by the time they were in their early 20s.
All the wisdom is on Soul Food. Maybe it was Dungeon poet Big Rube, bellowing parables in their ear. It could’ve been the spirit of Curtis, still alive, but paralyzed, threatening to barge in on the proceedings at any time.
"We were taught hip-hop from men: Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Dougie Fresh, Kurtis Blow," Big Gipp told NPR a couple of years ago. "I learned more from Chuck D than I learned from school at the time." In a radio interview earlier this year, T-Mo picked up this thought: “We never made little-kid rap, always grown man stuff. We felt like we were chosen to say something."
Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo and Big Gipp, Chuck D, and OutKast circa 1994
When I first heard Soul Food shortly after its release, I loved it, but didn't understand it. It's easy to drown in the humid organ funk, the ecumenical harmonies, the rawness and technical skill of the four voices attacking like a Southern Wu-Tang or Public Enemy. There’s thematic precedence in Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian, and Cee-Lo was a big fan of Busta Rhymes, Onyx, and Slick Rick.
But Goodie Mob betrays no direct ancestor. It's soul music gone to seed, fighting to ascend once again. If they can't make little-kid rap, it's because every song has consequences. You understand it better as an adult, because you've processed loss and tragedy. The genius of Soul Food is its ability to remind you of the damage, but offer the strength to hold on.
There's Cee-Lo starting off his verse about being $20 away from living on the streets and offering an idea that seems radical and alien in our culture 20 years later: "It would be nice to have more, but I kind of like being poor, at least I know what my friends here for."
If you can forget “The Voice” appearances and the damning Twitter comments, we'll always have Soul Food as the still life. Cee-Lo is the son of Baptist preachers, himself named for a minor sin, transvertebrating in the trap, possessed by something that might never return, vision blurry from crime, hounded by his own demise. Other than Biggie and Pac and Scarface, mortality had rarely been so starkly confronted. He's fatalistic but positive. If you're looking for the roots of the last two Kendrick albums, this is probably the most direct analog.
But there's no substitute for the clarity of these proverbs. If K.Dot strove to make his revelations oblique, Goodie opted for equally radical and introspective simplicity, putting the Clampett's and cross burners on the run. They're acutely aware of the cycle they're trapped in, but determined to learn lessons and derive strength from their surroundings.
In this music is the feeling of acid eating away your intestines when you can't afford to eat. It's the salvation and abundance of Sunday feasts, a heaping plate of soul food, chicken rice, and gravy. When these men rapped about food, it's like Henry Miller writing down the meals that he dreams of being able to afford eating.
"Soul food is gut food. It's food that sticks to you,” Bun B told NPR in 2009. “So if you want music that's not just being made to get your money but that’s being made to really inspire you, then Soul Food is that album."
The Dirty South comes from here. The Mob knew Bill Clinton was dirty years before Monica Lewinsky. Cool Breeze and Big Boi breaking down the rules, the warped education, the lies and the ability to correct them. It was originally the East Point native's song, but it was repurposed for the collective mission.
"Thought Process" thumps like a jeep on a dirt road, T-Mo looking for some change to survive. Combing the city streets, trying to get paid and keep his head from swerving. His consciousness doesn’t stem from self-righteousness, but out of pain. He attended too many funerals before he could grow facial hair. Khujo is in the trap, one of the first times the phrase ever appeared on a major record. In this context, it's explicit: trap or die, a decade before.
"Cell Therapy" was their biggest hit, Orwell filtered through William Cooper's Illuminati conspiracy, glockenspiel, and Sega. In the mouths of Goodie Mob, it all makes sense. It’s a record that celebrates community and the exposing of lies. The drug-free signs contradicted by the Bloods hanging out at the store. It's a call to arms and a request for salvation, praying in the shower and then heading out into mud.
Other than arguably The Chronic, no rap album had ever been this organic and musical. The samples are few, the funk is rolling. It’s the feeling of being seized by something intangible and inaccessible. Ancestral spirit, echoing through minor-key pianos and accidental seances. Cee-Lo's verse on "Guess Who" is dedicated to his recently deceased mother. He leads the choir, the first time that singing was ever incorporated so seamlessly. It’s an unofficial sequel to "Dear Mama". No surprise that 2Pac was allegedly obsessed with Goodie Mob, allegedly wanting to join the group.
The album will last forever because it strikes those universal chords. It’s Bob Marley wailing for Zion. 2Pac searching for God and finding the Devil. Son House moaning about his death letter—the ghosts sulking over the burned land and the drugged searchers seeking hope in southwest Atlanta. It's an indictment of the cheating wrought by the government, a call for unity and peace—repentance for the sins and a requiem for those laid to rest. If their peers filled their albums with comic skits and violent schemes, Goodie Mob literally featured funerals. They warned against the New World Order long before it was a #StayWoke hashtag.
The first half of the record gets most of the attention. It has the hits, the most vivid slang, and the material that Goodie Mob actually still plays when Cee-Lo deigns to tour with them. But it's perfectly sequenced to the final curtain calls. T-Mo's verse on "I Didn't Ask to Come" contains opening bars as powerfully conceived as any in rap history: "Every day somebody gets killed/ What the deal/ It's 1995 and a nigga want to live."
Every line slaps like a premonition. They are priests, witchdoctors, ordinary men, virtuosos, trappers, and teachers trying to give the noose under their necks a little slack. Ready to roll up in the White House with an axe until they're ready to give them their shit. Cold and stressed like a man sitting on pavement under a bridge on I-20 West. Struggling and fighting to stay alive, hoping that one day they get a chance to die.
You can see the significance of Goodie Mob in anyone impacted by Dungeon Family, which is essentially everyone. The dark glass divinations of “Cell Therapy” are ubiquitous in our daily lives. But Soul Food taps most deeply into the roots of the past. They carried on the legacy of not just James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, but Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks and Emmett Till and all those who never got the chance to offer testimony. It worships the richness of the culture that blossomed in spite of constant oppression. If the South had something to say, this was its most coherent statement—musically, spiritually, philosophically.
It ends with "The Day After", the only way it could. It's 1995, a year before the New South starts to take root with the Atlanta Olympics. Goodie Mob's debut is there to usher in this new era and remind us of the old corruption. The sins of the past are revisited and recounted. Somehow, the hope for the future is never entirely dimmed.
They saw this dirty world filled with surveillance at every angle, but their desire to transcend refused to be extinguished. If the city is merciless, the harsh realities innate, the good dead over bullshit, T-Mo, Gipp, Khujo, and Cee-Lo reveal the path directly in front of our eyes—the one that we can never clearly see. They offered freedom for the famished, soul for anyone in possession of such a thing.
The legend of A Charlie Brown Christmas is a strange one. Many of us who grew up watching the Peanuts gang attempt to put on a Christmas play are anchored in fond memories of laughing with loved ones as Lucy pulled that football trick on Charlie Brown for the umpteenth time, and, of course, the wild dance scene that's spawned scores of GIFs and YouTube remixes. But the story behind the Coca-Cola funded adaptation of Charles Schulz's comic strip, which was put together in just three months by producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez and originally aired on CBS two weeks before Christmas in 1965, is one filled with a surprising amount of controversy.
Much of the crew fretted over the quality of the product, which was completed just 10 days shy of its air date. Melendez was said to be embarrassed of the final cut, while executives fretted over the cartoon's darker themes of depression, anxiety, alienation, secularism and, perhaps above all, the sharp criticism it expressed about the commercialization of the season.
And then there was the soundtrack, composed by jazz piano impresario Vince Guaraldi along with Fred Marshall on double bass and the great Jerry Granelli on drums. “We did the music in a day and a half, two days,” Granelli tells me. “That’s just how you recorded records back then.” These days, it’s quite possibly the most ubiquitous and universally lauded holiday album out there, not to mention the gateway for generations of children who would go onto explore the bottomless chasm of the jazz idiom. Yet for the network suits expecting some Burl Ives-type maximalism, Guaraldi's quaint score was deemed too weird and dark, even though the soundtrack—released on the Fantasy label right around the time the special aired on TV—received rave reviews by such legendary critics as Nat Hentoff, who in 2010 wrote a beautiful tribute to Guaraldi in JazzTimes.
Yet despite such grumblings within the operation’s corporate infrastructure, A Charlie Brown Christmas was seen by almost half of the American population watching television on the night of its premiere—something like 15 million homes—on its way into the holiday canon. What's more is that in the years following that debut, Schulz saw his little existential comic strip transform into one of the biggest marketing juggernauts in kid culture this side of Disney, making Snoopy one of the most visible and beloved characters in American pop history through an onslaught of lunch boxes, shirts, stuffed animals, posters, key chains, little rubber figurines, Halloween costumes, school supplies and, of course, that classic snow cone machine. Meanwhile, the same soundtrack that was derided by the suits has proven to be durable to this day—its melancholic musings offering a more realistic musical reflection on the mixed emotions this time of year can bring.
To help celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas and its influential score, we spoke with musicians from various genres—from jazz to punk to indie rock—about its low-key poignancy and lasting charms.
“As a Muslim child in the suburbs, I loathed Christmas. Somehow, though, I warmed to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was probably the sense of despair: Charlie comes off as an emotional mess, and I found comfort in his misery.”
—Cold Specks' Ladan Hussein
Vince Guaraldi Trio's Jerry Granelli
Part of the magic of the whole thing is that nobody had any big plans while making the soundtrack, like, “This is it!” We just played, man. It’s a jazz record. It was pretty natural and real. People heard the heart in it. Honestly, I turned left creatively with my career after that and never thought about it for a while; jazz musicians are sometimes not as open as they may seem when it comes to people having hits or things crossing over—everybody gets all uppity. But then I matured enough to realize that it went way beyond music. It was the first entry point to jazz for a lot of people. And now that I’ve got my credentials as an artist, I’m proud and delighted to be a part of it.
I'm Jewish and didn't grow up watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. For this reason, I can say—without the fog of nostalgia—that it is a masterpiece. "Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy—I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel" is such a poignant opening line of dialogue. It is direct and sad as it echoes what so many are often afraid to say. I didn't see the special until early adulthood and was struck by how moving it was. Everything about it is perfect: the style of animation, the decision to have the voice actors played by real children, and, maybe most of all, Vince Gauraldi's soundtrack. One December I was playing a show with Woods, and they asked me to join them on stage for a rendition of "Christmas Time Is Here". It felt so good to sing that song with a band, and it was a big hit with the crowd! I may not have grown up watching this iconic special, but now I watch it every year.
Veruca Salt’s Louise Post
As a kid growing up in the ’70s, seeing a cartoon of children dealing with anxiety and depression was illuminating and liberating. We were all finding our way through those perplexing years, navigating a path through the world of adults—my parents divorced when I was eight after years of unrest—and here was a world made up exclusively of children, expressing their feelings, having their own experience. It was for us. It became sacred. I also felt a closeness with the Peanuts characters, as if they were my childhood friends, and I related to the sibling relationship of Lucy and Linus. I played piano, like Schroeder, and my father was a psychiatrist, so he and Lucy had that in common. Snoopy was my favorite character, and my stuffed Snoopy was with me all throughout childhood and beyond. In college, I got the soundtrack, and it gets played on repeat every Christmas. And now that I have a little girl, we watch the special every year again, too.
Battles’ Ian Williams
I didn't necessarily relate to any of the characters in A Charlie Brown Christmas, unless you accept that the music was a character itself. The ambience it created was fantastic and primitive and lo-fi—that descending piano line sounds like snow falling. It gave the show an alien vibe that I found weird, in a good way. It's simple music that matches the feeling of that dinky little Christmas Tree with some of its pine needles missing. Now, every year when we get a tree, the dinkiest one in the lot is always a serious contender.
Cold Specks’ Ladan Hussein
As a child, I loathed Christmas with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I was a Muslim child in the suburbs driven to madness. Shit was closed, and all of my friends had disappeared only to reappear again with all their wonderful presents. Our television channels were infested with Christmas specials (damn you Miracle on 34th Street). Somehow, though, I warmed to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was probably the sense of despair that's instantly established: Charlie comes off as an emotional mess, and I found comfort in his misery. His friends, for the most part, are a collection of awful children who took pleasure in announcing his weaknesses. "You are hopeless, Charlie Brown. Completely hopeless!" Personally, I thought he was beautifully pathetic. I rarely made it through the entirety of the special. I wasn't interested in happy Christian endings. His gloom was the only thing I found attractive.
Jesus, I watched this the other day—it is a confounding mind-fuck. It is at once sublime and idyllic and very beautiful visually and musically and in terms of intent… and fucking horrific socially and behaviorally. It's basically a case study in social defeat theory and, by extension, bullying. The environment of A Charlie Brown Christmas is totally toxic, full of dismissiveness and judgment, and basically absent of any kind of compassion. No wonder I have such a fucked-up sense of self; it was my favorite thing every year.
I've only seen A Charlie Brown Christmas about four or five times, but I know the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack back and forth. And I know that record so well because I basically was Charlie Brown growing up. I was a nerdy kid who couldn't really do anything right. And I was always a singer in the choir as a kid, all the way up through high school. I was the lead in the musicals in the all-state choir and the all-state jazz choir and in opera competitions. And I was weird and mopey, and shit often went totally awry. So, for me, A Charlie Brown Christmas is very much just about Charlie Brown, who gets shit on by his classmates for being a weirdo. Its soundtrack was my soundtrack.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was for the kids who didn't always get what they wanted every year and were always wondering why their Christmas was not like everybody else's. But it was always a good time watching it with family and food and friends, and it inspired us to enjoy things beyond the material.
“To me, ‘Linus and Lucy’ is the sound of freedom. The freedom that comes with leaving home. The freedom of the open road. The freedom to be a weirdo beagle, strumming a guitar and dancing with a bunch of kids with your snout in the air.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas was released two years before I was born and was one of the few Christmas shows we could look forward to on the three channels of TV we had growing up in the '70s in Ohio. The world stopped when it was on. The melody of "Christmas Time Is Here" dances around in my head every season and warms my heart like no other Christmas song.
Mark Kozelek: "Christmas Time Is Here"
When I hear Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy”, my mind doesn’t flip back to a snowy childhood Christmas memory, it goes to a hot West Philadelphia fraternity house, late one afternoon in July, 1984. I was helping my friends the Dead Milkmen carry their gear through the University of Pennsylvania campus to the Alpha Chi Roe house for that night’s show with Phoenix skate-rock kings Jody Foster’s Army. As we approached the front door, drums and guitars in hand, we heard “Linus and Lucy” coming from inside. We followed the sound to the living room where we discovered JFA singer Brian Brannon hammering out the familiar melody on the frat’s grand piano. As Brannon played, I scanned the room and saw various members of JFA’s touring party running around, having a blast. These guys were my age yet they were out there seeing the country, playing music, and having the kind of adventures I wanted to have. I’d graduated high school just a month before and was living at home and working in a toothpaste packaging plant. Things needed to change, and here was a subtle push in that direction. To me, “Linus and Lucy” is the sound of freedom. The freedom that comes with leaving home. The freedom of the open road. The freedom to be a weirdo beagle, strumming a guitar and dancing onstage with a bunch of kids with your snout in the air.
The Jet Age’s Eric Tischler
As a guy who was raised Jewish and grew up to be pretty staunchly agnostic, I’ve always appreciated that A Charlie Brown Christmas addresses the existentialism inherent in the human experience rather than just dismissing it as silly or unnecessary when viewed under the “light” of religion. Of course, the “voices” of the adults in the special suggest sound design by Kevin Shields, so that’s another plus. And the audio vérité child cast suggests a precursor to the lo-fi movement of the early ’90s. And as a record store clerk who did time during a few holiday seasons, the coolly insistent soundtrack kept me from ripping the ears from the sides of my head.
The song "Leroy and Lanisha" on my album The Epic is really my homage to "Linus and Lucy". I love Vince Guaraldi, and I love how they addressed the issues of society through these kids in the special, and the way they made that band with Schroeder and Pigpen on stand-up bass, and all the kids with their funny dances. That was my favorite cartoon growing up.
Jazz Trumpeter Marquis Hill
It’s interesting reflecting on the show as an adult—its meaning evolves as you get older. As a kid, I remember it being joyful with bright colors and music that matched the Christmas spirit. But now I realize the story is educational and also pretty dark: During the most joyful time of the year, Charlie Brown is depressed. And all his friends and his dog are abandoning him. It’s a heavy story, but I find its message to be universal, especially at the end—that love and hope is always the way to do it.
“If you think about it, it's a cruel story—nobody respects Charlie Brown's role as director of the Christmas play. It's every thespian's nightmare.”
—Low's Alan Sparhawk
Widowspeak’s Molly Hamilton
Most of my bigger memories of Christmas stem from music. My parents' had a lot of Christmas records, like Manheim Steamroller and Julie Andrews, but in the background of that I remember this slow, emotional, cold music that was played on the television when A Charlie Brown Christmas came on. It sounds wintry and spacious, a little empty and sad. It’s so funny how cluttered other Christmas music can feel in comparison, with its bold reds and greens. I honestly don't even remember the plot or what happens in the special—for me, its just so much of a presence, that Christmas jazz sound.
Jazz Pianist Jamie Saft
We used to watch the special all huddled in my great aunt's TV room every year when I was little, and the space Vince Guaraldi created within his music was certainly an influence on the development of my musical language. Jerry Granelli has a particular flow that can be heard perfectly in his brushwork on "Christmas Time Is Here". That lilting, swinging, shuffling feel defined the feeling of swing for me long before I had checked out Monk, Miles, or Bird.
Low’s Alan Sparhawk
If you think about it, it's a cruel story—nobody takes Charlie Brown seriously, even though they signed up for the Christmas play. They don't listen or even respect his role as director (except sappy Linus, of course). It's every thespian's nightmare. Then, when he takes pity on a feeble tree, his friends and dog ridicule him and blame him for ruining everything. The ending scripture quote kind of assumes a Christian audience but it's a message that's universally understood: We can change, forgive, and be better together.
D.R.A.M.: "Signals (Throw It Around)" (via SoundCloud)
It took nine months for D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” to reach Beyoncé. By the time she endorsed it on Instagram in May, the viral track was on its way to becoming a bona-fide hit that would go onto inspire Drake’s “Hotline Bling” as well as Erykah Badu’s “Cel U Lar Device”, and land its creator a major-label deal—not bad for a lark based on a screwy Super Mario sample. An antidote to hip-hop’s self-seriousness, “Cha Cha” is nothing less than a universal party anthem; the music video finds the rapper/singer dancing with both friends and aunties while gatecrashing a white family’s taco night.
“Cha Cha” evokes the side of hip-hop that has long encouraged listeners to dougie, crank that, stanky leg, and, more recently, dab and nae nae. But there’s no barrier to access or dance moves to know—there’s space for the rhythmically-challenged on D.R.A.M.’s dancefloor. Beyond the sonic comparisons between “Cha Cha” and “Hotline Bling”, you might also consider that D.R.A.M.’s carefree ethos served as spiritual inspiration for the video that made a million (more) memes out of Drake.
The song is anchored by D.R.A.M.’s sparkling, supple tenor. This rasp is the 27-year-old’s secret weapon, the signature that suggests he is primed to outlive his viral flash. It’s all over the best moments from his two eclectic 2015 EPs, #1Epic and GahDamn!, and its roots trace back to D.R.A.M.’s years singing in church and community choirs in his native Hampton, Virginia. “Growing up, the music I liked aside from rap was funk and soul—that authentic shit you can’t Auto-Tune or correct on the BPM because it was made naturally,” he explains. “That shit that makes you ball your fist up, close your eyes, raise your head, and shout it out—that's soul.”
Born Shelley Massenburg-Smith, D.R.A.M. describes Hampton as culturally segregated, which made it difficult to connect to a local arts scene. So what really gave him drive was hearing songs by fellow Virginians on the radio. Hampton shares its 757 area code with Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, and Norfolk—cities where culture-shifting artists like Missy Elliott, Timbaland, the Neptunes, and the Clipse got their start. “There’s something in Virginia’s water,” says D.R.A.M. “That 757 shit means no rules.” He remembers rapping his first bars in middle school as his friends banged out the trash-can beat for Clipse’s “Grindin’”. “That song came out and changed the whole country,” he says. “But it was extra special to us because it was really Virginia.”
D.R.A.M.: "I'll Be Back Again" (via SoundCloud)
Now, as D.R.A.M. tries to capitalize on his his surge of virality to find a place amongst music’s mainstays, he’s gaining some valuable support IRL: Chance the Rapper just brought him on a massive North American tour, and Beyoncé met him in the studio. Meanwhile, his tenacity in confronting the “Hotline Bling” comparisons—“Yea, I feel I got jacked for my record… But I’m GOOD,” he tweeted—shows a certain resilience and independence in an era of back-patting co-signs. "You miss all the shots you don't take," he muses.
Pitchfork: Do you think your music would have been received the same way five years ago?
D.R.A.M.: Oh, hell no. Because hype is real. Buzz is real. I’ve stayed in the same vein of music ever since I knew what I could do, but I never really had the tools to put it out to the masses like I do now. I can send you the YouTube link of the music I did then; it’s called “Sexaholic Anthem”! I produced it, recorded it, mixed it, and there’s a picture of me with short hair and a fucking hat cocked back and an ugly-ass graphic that says “Drama J.” Also, in 2010, I was working at Bank of America.
D.R.A.M.: "Caretaker" [ft. SZA] (via SoundCloud)
Pitchfork: After the viral success of "Cha Cha", do you worry about being seen as a gimmick?
D: Absolutely not. It doesn’t define me as an artist, as many have come to find out. “Cha Cha” blew up and it’s still standing because it’s a dope-ass song. It’s that one record that, in its simplicity, became profound in our culture. It's like a phrase, a lifestyle. I have features and more work that’s going to be dropping soon. If you listen to GahDamn! in its totality, you will know it’s lit.
When someone gets passed that mic and they know deep down inside that they wanna say something or sing something or produce something but they don't do that, it's like killing your musical life. It's suicide. That's one thing I definitely have learned in this music shit. As soon as I feel something, I act on it. I gotta stay true to my feelings, you know?
D.R.A.M.: "Gotta Go" (via SoundCloud)
Pitchfork: I’m not sure if a lot of people have that kind of courage in the music industry.
D: I want to inspire people to gain it if they don't have it and to find it again if they lost it. Any form of art is political if you make it that way.
One of the most memorable moments in my young writing career was interviewing Scott Weiland and Daniel Lanois in a limo, cruising around Manhattan. It was for Weiland’s underappreciated 1998 solo album, 12 Bar Blues, which was produced by Lanois, and the singer was funny, insightful, and real. Considering his history of substance abuse, I remember feeling incredibly fortunate to have caught him in a moment of clarity. Two days later, though, he was caught with 10 decks of heroin on the Lower East Side.
Last night, the 48-year-old frontman suffered a heart attack in his sleep while on tour in Indiana with his latest group, the Wildabouts. Police reportedly found cocaine on the band's tour bus and have arrested Wildabouts guitarist Tommy Black; Weiland's wife insists her husband was clean when he died.
I first became a Stone Temple Pilots fan after seeing photos of them dressed as KISS while opening up for the Butthole Surfers, which somehow made their 1992 debut album Core sound so much better to me. There was a sense of romance in Weiland’s delivery that made him stand out from the alt rock radio crowd. In their heyday, Stone Temple Pilots were best when flexing more Smiths than Seattle in their sound, cumulating in the band's unheralded third album, Tiny Music...Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop. That record, with its glam swagger, raw production, and psychedelic flourishes, validated fans who had withstood all the detractors’ rip-off accusations and catcalls.
Speaking of. “Stone Temple Pilots, they’re elegant bachelors,” sneered Stephen Malkmus on “Range Life” back in 1994. “Foxy to me, are they foxy to you?”
Well, yes. I didn’t want to admit it at the time in fear of losing my street cred amongst the record-store crowd, but I listened to STP’s Purple just as much as I did Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Despite their existing on the polar opposite ends of the rock‘n’roll spectrum in ’94, both bands were a lot closer in kin than either gave the other credit for in terms of their razor-sharp abilities to craft a good pop hook. Sure, one band expressed itself through bombastic maximalism, while the other liked to soak its melodies in feedback and delay. But whether you’re talking about “Interstate Love Song” or “Cut Your Hair”, when stripped down to the brass tacks of a voice and an acoustic guitar, it’s those hard-to-come-by melodies that catalyze something in our internal chemistry, forcing us to sing along.
Though it didn’t sell as much as their monstrously successful first two albums, Tiny Music, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in March, was the record that undoubtedly showed the world STP were far more than the grunge-clone scarlet letter people were trying to pin on them. "It was [Tiny Music] that got me hooked, a wizardly mix of glam and post-punk, and I confessed to Scott, as well as the band many times, how wrong I’d been in assessing their native brilliance," admitted Smashing Pumpkins frontman (and fellow "Range Life" target) Billy Corgan this morning in a public eulogy.
All you had to do was watch the video for “Big Bang Baby”, where the group sent up Tattoo You-era Rolling Stones clips, to get the feel that their knowledge and artistry ran deeper than the actual third-wave grunge trash they were often lumped in with, like Candlebox and Collective Soul. Listening to songs like “Lady Picture Show”, with its hollowed-out melancholy and nods to Byrds-type jangle, as well as Tiny Music’s pensive closer “Seven Caged Tigers”, you can hear the quartet transcending into something greater before our very ears. Then, there was the comedown. Just as STP reached their artistic peak, they were undone by Weiland’s taste for hard drugs, which caused the group to split for the first time shortly after Tiny Music’s release in the spring of 1996.
During that time, guitarist Dean DeLeo, bassist Robert DeLeo, and drummer Eric Kretz moved on to form the downright-meh group Talk Show as Weiland attempted to reach that next level of artful quality on his own in the form of 12 Bar Blues. With Lanois behind the boards and a killer ensemble of session musicians that included jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, along with guitarist Peter DiStefano, and Porno for Pyros bassist Martyn LeNoble—and even a turn on the accordion from Sheryl Crow—it was an honest collection of songs that allowed Weiland to explore his love for the stuff he was really listening to at the time, like Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, and ELO.
The album ended up on many year-end lists, but sadly, the momentum from this constructive renaissance was mired in more drug arrests and a halfhearted Stone Temple Pilots reunion that yielded two lukewarm albums in 1999’s 4 and 2001’s Shangri-La-Di-Da. Soon after, Weiland opened up a whole new can of worms in the drama of his time with Velvet Revolver, another group that never quite lived up to the promise of its principle components, before crashing his solo career into a sea of mediocrity with 2008’s “Happy” In Galoshes, 2011’s ill-advised holiday album The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,and this year’s not-good Blaster with his Wildabouts.
When I choose to remember this man, I will always remember that charming guy I rolled with back in 1998 and how we talked about our favorite David Bowie albums and the dark magic of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. That day, I told him how the interview was one of my first big assignments. "Enjoy it before you get jaded," he advised.
There are many ways to make a great music video. You can offer an artful spin on the cultural unrest and political strife of the day, as Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Run the Jewels, M.I.A., and Downtown Boys did this year. You can get a famous Hollywood director to casually follow you around for a while, like Kanye West and Joanna Newsom. You can take Rihanna and Lana Del Rey’s lead and redefine what a lawless badass can be in 2015. Or you can make like Drake and dance like nobody’s watching. Here is a ranked list of the 20 videos that dominated our screens across the last 12 months.
20. Joanna Newsom: “Sapokanikan”
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Saying not much happens in Joanna Newsom's "Sapokanikan" video is the same as saying nothing happens on day when you take a long stroll propelled by the idea that time is yours to use as uselessly as you choose. Which is to say not much happens in the "Sapokanikan" video. But it's a beautiful nothing, with Newsom gliding through Manhattan as Paul Thomas Anderson’s lens hovers around her. When she finally steps into the spotlight, it happens to be the sad and beautiful red glow of a stationary fire truck. —Matthew Schnipper
19. Charli XCX: “Famous”
Director: Eric Wareheim
The hero of this video risks death to charge her phone, entering a fleshy underworld in search of a spare outlet (that turns out to be built into the body of a very scary man). Directed by bizarro comedy kingpin Eric Wareheim, the clip takes Charli’s chirpy meditation on fame and imbues it with psychotic visual excess: blood is replaced by emojis, pristine faces become covered in scabs, and the scene of a teen girl dancing in her room becomes infused with horror. The video wonders if there’s any price we wouldn’t pay to access the content we love on the devices we own, and concludes with some measure of giddy despair: probably not. —Jeremy Gordon
18. Grimes: “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream”
Grimes’ best video, 2012’s ”Oblivion", stood out because of its simplicity and its star. So even while “Flesh Without Blood” is markedly more opulent and over-the-top clip than that breakout clip, it still features Claire Boucher and her ineffable magnetism front-and-center. Here, she wears angel wings, smears herself with blood, stabs a doll, makes it rain, and dresses like "Smooth Criminal"-era Michael Jackson, a punk hacker, and Marie Antoinette, but it’s her palpable energy and exuberant, off-the-cuff dance moves that make the video click. Even amid the wild costumes and colorful L.A. scenery, she’s still the only thing you end up watching. —Brandon Stosuy
17. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: “Sunday Candy” [ft. Chance the Rapper]
Directors: Austin Vesely, Ian Eastwood, and Chance the Rapper
After a show-stopping dance sequence closes out the whimsical, technicolor video for “Sunday Candy”, the camera runs for a few more seconds as the huge cast and crew let out scattered applause. It isn’t a moment of self indulgence, but rather a group of young artists basking in some well-earned pride—and relief. This video pulls off a genuinely difficult feat: a one-take, high-school-play-style production that folds in costumes, choreography, acting, lighting, stage design, and more. It’s the type of endeavor that requires an entire team to hit all of their marks at the exact right time. It requires faith. And here, that faith pays off. —Ryan Dombal
16. M.I.A.: “Borders”
M.I.A.’s latest striking, political visual arrived two weeks after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris—horrific events that sparked troubling, and often xenophobic, conversations regarding the world’s current international immigration crisis. "Borders"' unflinching depiction of the harsh realities of war and the great lengths individuals take to escape it—a struggle that M.I.A. knows firsthand—carries grim connotations. And yet, the clip remains triumphant, a stunning display of humanity's collective spirit to overcome the vastest oceans and tallest fences. —Zoe Camp
15. Thundercat: “Them Changes”
Director: Carlos Lopez Estrada
“Them Changes” is a song about heartbreak, and few things are more heartbreaking than never being able to pursue your passion ever again. In this surreal video, the line "there’s blood on the floor" takes a literal meaning, and Thundercat’s limbs are shed. His armless samurai tragically watches a sword infomercial on his screen; his daughter has to turn the TV off for him. He feels trapped, forced into being a burden at the same time. —Evan Minsker
14. Downtown Boys: “Wave of History”
Director: Faye Orlove
Generally speaking, music videos are escapism—a cavalcade of boobs, butts, drugs, parties, blood, fire, skateboard tricks, explosions, etc. But with their visual for “Wave of History”, Downtown Boys and director Faye Orlove will not let you escape. “Know your enemy, know your context,” read the words at the video’s start, and as infographics roll forward, you’re forced to acknowledge wage disparity, the continued corruption of modern finance corporations, the staggering number of people murdered by police, and other unfortunate truths. Stay woke, and stay angry. —Evan Minsker
13. Nicki Minaj: “Feelin’ Myself” [ft. Beyoncé]
Director: Nicholas Walker
In the Female Friendship Olympics, consider how many attempts it takes some invisible lackey to capture the perfect image of a pop star and her girls Just Hangin' Out, Au Naturel. Flying in the face of a manicured moment, the clip for “Feelin' Myself” is the perfect shot sustained, evidence of a living bond. Even though you could buy every prop in the video for less than $15, Nicki and Bey make burgers, Now & Laters, and water pistols seem like artefacts of imperial decadence. —Laura Snapes (Watch a preview of the clip below; the full video is only available on TIDAL.)
12. Drake: “Energy”
Directors: Fleur & Manu
In his video for “Energy”, Drake makes like Eminem circa “Without Me”, transforming into Oprah, Miley, Bieber, Obama, Kanye, LeBron, and other other one-name icons. But even with all the makeup and FX wizardry, the rapper can’t help but be distinctly himself—prayer hands, emo-tude, well-kept stubble, and all. —Brandon Stosuy
11. David Bowie: “Blackstar”
Director: Johan Renck
I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what happens in this video. Across 10 minutes, there is an astronaut's skull and a woman with a tail and some shivering dancers and scarecrows and a ritual and, oh yeah, David Bowie gesticulating like a haunted marionette puppet. There’s a lot. But while the plot specifics are a mystery, the realm Bowie and director Johan Renck conjure is filled with details that come together to create something that can be just as exciting as a crackerjack story—a dark and tangible mood. This is the type of visual rupture that will light up a hidden part of your subconscious, whether you like it or not. —Ryan Dombal
10. Lana Del Rey: “High by the Beach”
Director: Jake Nava
If Lana Del Rey’s woozy paen to seaside stoners wasn’t already the most LDR©; song she’s ever released, the video seals its fate. Closed off in an immaculate cliffside apartment, our billowing hero sings the song’s disaffected lyrics while flipping through tabloids and throwing herself over furniture, all until we see the true villain hovering above: a paparazzi helicopter, snapping photos. So she does what any unfettered celebrity should do—she retrieves a bazooka and blows that shit to pieces. Del Rey has made an art out of confounding audiences, but here she reaches a new pinnacle as a bored celebutante aimed and ready to blast those who get too close. —Eric Torres
9. Oneohtrix Point Never: “Sticky Drama”
Directors: Jon Rafman and Daniel Lopatin
Ten out of 10 goth teens agree: Suburban living is war. In this two-part clip, Oneohtrix Point Never stages weekend apathy as an epic LARP battle, with dozens of disaffected youths hacking and slashing it out. Faces are scarred, nails are ripped out, wounds ooze, and a fleshy Tamagotchi is used as a bomb. Protesting your place in life never looked so gross. —Jeremy Gordon
8. Run the Jewels: “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”
Director: A.G. Rojas
After a year of unending police brutality, hate crimes, and mass shootings, it’s easy to feel fed up—and flat-out exhausted. No visual captures this sentiment as succinctly as Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”, which details a struggle between a black man and a white cop that rages on long after both men realize the scuffle is pointless. Neither one of them wants to continue the worthless brawl, and yet here they are, grappling, grunting, collapsing, and staggering to their feet in a Sisyphean loop. —Zoe Camp
7. Drake: “Hotline Bling”
Director: Director X
The video that launched a thousand memes features Drake trolling an ex for "wearing less and going out more" while he layers up and dances like he hasn't been to a club since the Reagan administration. It’s goofy and stylish in equal measure—a handy toolbox for GIF makers worldwide. —Molly Beauchemin
6. Kanye West: "Only One" [ft. Paul McCartney]
Director: Spike Jonze
Even for an emotional exhibitionist like Kanye West, the vulnerability portrayed in the “Only One” video is stark. Though he uses Auto-Tune to mask his imperfect singing on the studio version of the song, his natural voice is audible in this visual; it's directed by Oscar winner Spike Jonze, but the clip is little more than a home movie. There are no masks of prestige to hide behind, just a father’s love for his daughter. And the adorable look on her face says it all: She loves him right back. —Matthew Strauss
5. Tame Impala: “The Less I Know the Better”
With its animated interludes, surreal transitions, and cunning cinematography, this loopy tale of gorilla-on-cheerleader action is like an after-school special dipped in psychedelic goo. But it's not all monkey business—look past the fur and fantasy, and the clip emerges as a commentary on toxic masculinity, jealous paranoia, and the ultimate sad-but-truism: Sometimes you can't get the girl, no matter how many jump shots you sink (or how many basketballs you fling at a furry foe). —Zoe Camp
4. Rihanna: “Bitch Better Have My Money”
Directors: Rihanna and MegaForce
This video’s primary narrative—the cartoonishly brutal kidnapping and torture of a rich woman and her husband—led some naysayers to deride it amid cries of misogyny and bad taste. But such interpretations overlook the mini-movie’s true genius: It’s a rare portrayal of a woman of color in a position of unmatched power, striking back against the white, patriarchal, capitalist status quo. And so, Rihanna thumbs through her bills in the buff, with bloodstained fingers, a smile on her face, and a cigarette between her lips. Her quest for supremacy is complete. —Zoe Camp
3. FKA twigs: “Glass & Patron”
Director: FKA twigs
FKA twigs has already proven her avant bona fides so much that it’s somehow not completely unexpected when she pulls a ribbon out of her crotch in this video. But the fact that this highly conceptual artist also gives birth to an entire vogue battle in the "Glass & Patron" visual makes it clearer than ever that she was born to dance. —Molly Beauchemin
2. Vince Staples: "Señorita"
Director: Ian Pons Jewell
This nihilistic clip’s depiction of an urban hellscape led by a tattooed preacher spouting the Future is sinister enough—and that’s before it zooms out to unveil a cheery white family sitting behind glass and watching the carnage ensue. Like everything else Vince Staples did in 2015, the commentary here is brilliantly blunt, unflinching, and impossible to ignore. —Matthew Strauss
1. Kendrick Lamar: "Alright"
Director: Colin Tilley
"Alright" is a song about the promise of salvation, so it's only appropriate that Kendrick Lamar assumes the role of Christ up on that lamppost high above Los Angeles, where he ultimately dies for our sins, just another victim in a war "based on apartheid and discrimination." It’s a heavy and necessary message, especially now, and it’s delivered with gravitas by Colin Tilley's black-and-white video. But there's no shortage of humor, either.
The trickiest punchline of them all comes early: Kendrick and friends driving in a sedan, windows down, brown-bagging a 40. As they bounce back and forth, the camera pans out to reveal four white cops carrying the car on their shoulders. It's unclear who the butt of the joke is supposed to be—the cops, for bearing the load, or the young black men for unwittingly being carried off by The Man? But their bittersweet levitating act is redeemed by Lamar's own flight above the streets of L.A., his inner-city Icarus providing one of the most arresting—and liberating—images of the year. —Philip Sherburne
We invited artists to discuss their favorite music of the year—be it a song, album, event, or otherwise. From Holly Herdon’s time in Poland to Fetty Wap’s graciousness over "Trap Queen"’s success, here is Pitchfork’s 2015 Guest List.
Fetty Wap: "Trap Queen"
It's no surprise that my favorite music this year is none other than my song, "Trap Queen". It's because of this ONE song that my life has changed for the better. The support I received was unexpected and has been a blessing more than I could have imagined. I've been able to provide for my kids and family because of this song. Being able to travel the country with my boys—most never even left our hometown of Paterson or flew on a plane—it's a good feeling coming from where we come from. I don't take for granted the accomplishments I achieved this year and I appreciate them all. From performing with Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Fall Out Boy, to touring with Chris Brown, meeting so many dope people, signing with Lyor Cohen, Todd Moscowitz, and Kevin Liles. I can say I've had a pretty good year because of this song.
I think my favorite song that came out this year (and damn there was a lot of good ones!!) is "Jealous" by Kehlani. Many of the reasons why I love this song come from the experiences I've had while listening to it. I've heard this song all over the world on tour and with all sorts of people. Sometimes I ONLY listen to this song all day. The first time I heard "Jealous" I was on a date and the guy played it for me (I now neverrrrr talk to this guy and maybe even don't like him A LOT now lol). Every time I heard "Jealous", it reminded me of him, but then I realized that there's this confidence in the song and lyrics that are above all that bullshit and I couldn't stop listening to it. I still can't. I really love the way the minimal production helps emphasize the silky vocals and her sick lyrics about not giving a fuck. Whether drunk at 4 a.m. contemplating everything with friends in a hotel room in Miami, or on a bus driving through the Swiss Alps on tour, this song has been the soundtrack to my year and a huge motivator in my life.
Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis
For the first time in my life, it's starting to feel like rock music is a girls' club. And it's refreshing! Alongside the brilliant #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, 2015 has me most impressed with the femmes who are shouting out their everything. Case in point: the expansive, idiosyncratic growls of talented singers like Katie Monks, Victoria Ruiz, Sadie Switchblade, or Alicia Bognanno (of Dilly Dally, Downtown Boys, G.L.O.S.S., and Bully, respectively). Screaming over heavy guitars has for so long signified a male-oriented narrative. It's exciting and radical to hear that sound reclaimed by so many artists this year to tell stories in which women and non-binary people are the protagonists—thereby normalizing our status as songwriters in this genre. Fantastic records by Chastity Belt, Childbirth, and Aye Nako do similar work lyrically, with songs that radically expand and explode what's been deemed a "normal," Guyvillean rock narrative. Cool sluts don't give a fuck what you call them. Fertility preoccupation becomes a comical pissing contest. And those who disbelieve women's allegations of abuse? They're dismissed with a knowing eyeroll—as they should be, cuz those dudes' shouts are sooo 2014.
My favorite song off of my favorite record from this year: "A Blade of Grass" from Explains by Little Wings. I listened to Explains more than anything else that came out this year. I believe this was the first Little Wings album to be recorded live with a band, as opposed to piece by piece, with Kyle playing everything. The funny thing is that is doesn't sound that much different from previous records, he put together the perfect band to capture his sound. It just sounds like a bunch of Kyle Fieldses playing together in a room. Seeing them live at this year's Woodsist fest only strengthened that notion for me, as the band performed incredibly smooth and powerful renditions of songs from this record and others, all clad in matching teal T-shirts and white linen pants. My favorite set at my favorite show of the year.
Lower Dens' Jana Hunter
JPEGMAFIA X :3LON: "0 Missed Calls"
Been going to Kahlon, a party thrown regularly by Abdu Ali and Lawrence Burney, when I'm at home in Baltimore. A few months back, I saw Elon perform there and was mesmerized. He's a very gifted and charismatic performer, has a kind of zen alien thing going on. JPEGMAFIA is largely still an enticing mystery for me but super prolific, lot of space and personality in what he makes. Was Elon's twitter I think where this song first popped into my view. The little message on Soundcloud, "HOOCHIE MUSIK THAT WILL HURT YA BUTT", confirmed that an immediate listen was imperative. Bit of a hippie rave thing to this song, some R&B, psych, and honestly I'm not good at pegging dance genres but this is beautiful and reminds us towards the end that if we haven't come to party, we should get the fuck out the club.
Daniel Lopatin has taken all the potentialities of pop electronic production and applied them to his background in underground composition and theory. While mixing a healthy and even rude sense of youthful melancholy placed onto a bouquet of techncial genius with a sincere nod to Warp’s legacy that is often attempted but rarely achieved.
Garden of Delete is a real piece of what "could be" with what "is" that shows creative courage on a scale not seen since the '90s. Like the best art, Garden of Delete is emotionally uncategorizable.
This is a tough one as 2015 had a lot of great musical moments, but for me it would have to be Thundercat's concert at KOKO in London on November 26th. The concert was supposed to be a joint one with the very dope The Internet, but unfortunately due to the tragic events in Paris they had to cancel their appearance. So Thundercat invited me to join him as his special guest, which was an absolute honour as he is one of my favorite musicians. After my performance I got to witness him and his band deliver one of the most magical performances I have ever witnessed, no exaggeration. He took the crowd on a musical journey and even invited me back on stage to drop some verses on a live version of Kendrick Lamar's "Complexion (Zulu Love)". Definitely one of my favorite musical memories of the year.
My favorite thing in music in 2015 would be Kendrick Lamar’s album because when I heard the musicality of it he was really stepping it up. I could tell he didn’t give a fuck about what anyone else was doing or thinking. He didn’t care about going platinum or what the record label wanted, he was just trying to make the best music possible and it shit on everyone else. It let me know I wasn’t too far off from where I was going with my album.
It was a crazy year. The thing that caught my attention most was the saga that is Young Thug. He has followed the path of a traditional rock star more than he has followed the path of a rapper, and it’s interesting to see people react to the things he says and does outside of his music. Everybody in the hip-hop community is so upset at him for being who he is and dressing like he does, but for the kind of music he makes, he is one of the best. Also: The Young Thug/Lil Wayne beef was hilarious. I don’t take sides in things that have nothing to do with me, but as an onlooker—from the Instagram posts on down—it was very entertaining. Thug is definitely refreshing because you can’t get the type of music that he makes from anyone but him. Music is a full package now, and he’s someone who embodies what a full package should be.
Ge-ology: "Escape on the Lodge Freeway" [ft. Mark De Clive-Lowe]
I love, love, love, love this song! It's about time we as a human race had another hi tek jazz classic to bounce to! And the dude Ge-ology made a serious one, a song that takes us all the way up. Real skyscraper shit, with a Red Planet or two in the GPS. Bonus points for the grandiose, "Oh shit where’s The One?" intro, complete with that actual jazz that’s missing from so many cuts these days. Ge-o knows that it’s about Herbie Flow instead of Looped Rhodes any day of the week (or century), much like his label's boss. Techno would like you to think that every cut in the genre can conjure visions of landcruising thru the metroplex, but really, there's only a couple handfuls of these truly evocative gems in existence, so it's a beautiful thing to get a new one.
One of my highlights of this year was working on the current Roots Manuva album, Bleeds. I'd worked with Rodney [Smith] some years ago when he guested for us on a Lee Perry track, but this was something else. I've always liked his records but working closely I got to realize just how good a vocalist and songwriter he is and I think here he has delivered a really complete album. I've always counted myself a lucky person to have worked with so many great vocalists over the years and this fellow is just that.
Unsound Krakow was definitely one of my highlights of the year. I played with my new band (Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self) and thought that the overall curation was impeccable: Jlin and her choreographic collaborator Avril Unger, Rabit, Matana Roberts, ANGEL-HO, Visionist, Nkisi, Greg Fox, Brutaż Crew, Amnesia Scanner, Lotic, Helm, Fis, Aurora Halal, Nidia Minaj, Elysia Crampton. The mix of sounds and styles created one of the best vibes I’ve ever experienced at a festival. It felt like a community, it felt positive and diverse, people were smiling, alert and dancing, and it sounded alien and incredible. It feels like a transformation is happening.
Okay Kaya's precocious songs first hit me in the middle of a fruitless Spring, and thereafter remained my favorite new discovery of 2015. I'm struck by her stark honesty. In "Damn, Gravity", she is straightforward about her desire to keep a mysterious "him" in her orbit; in "I'm Stupid (But I Love You)", for which she crafted her own sign language, she seems shameless. And in her cover of the Impressions' "Keep On Pushing", which she quietly released on a lo-fi mixtape last year, she turns a civil rights anthem into an introspective, melancholic plea.
She reminds me that songwriting needn't be overwrought or packed with avant-garde ideas. Sometimes, it just is. With a presence both calming and jarring, she's at times reminiscent of a stripped-down Nico—you know, if Nico was a good singer.
My favorite musical experience this year was Thundercat’s concert at The Regent Theater on October 11th. Ironically it was cool for me because I wasn’t playing. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing music especially with my friends—Ronald and Stephen Bruner are my oldest friends in the world! The thing is, I love their music, but I rarely get to just sit and listen to them play. Usually either we’re on the gig together or I’m out of town. If my memory serves me right, this was the first time I’ve seen a Thundercat show with Ronald on drums that I wasn’t performing on. It was beautiful! They have such an amazing connection it was like something that came from God! I was so happy to be able to be there and enjoy my friend’s music as a fan!
"C-ORE" was a compilation project that combined three musicians I really believe in: Yves Tumor, PsychoEgyptian, and Violence. These multidisciplinary artists came together to deliver a cohesive album that could be the soundtrack to our collective friendship. A group of friends who have created a release that represents a slice of what we’re into, our culture and what we want to show the world. To disrupt this singular image of "African American Music". C-ORE, the project was a living, breathing, moving, experience and it spreadin’ wildly in all directions. Incorporating rap, punk, noise, industrial, grime, and many other elements, the compilation evoked a cathartic reaction from the listener, illuminating the diverse influences, imaginations, and hunger that drive the artists.
The Goodbye Party: "Heavenly Blues"
(Buy on Bandcamp)
The Goodbye Party is the project of Michael Cantor who used to be in a band called the Ambulars. I was really into the Ambulars and was super excited to hear this solo record he'd been working on. It turned out to be a favorite that was in heavy rotation all year. He recorded it all himself and it's just so lush and melodic. At moments it feels symphonic and then quickly so minimal and quiet, which is always captivating to me when done delicately. I think the coolest thing about the album is that it would be hard to pin down when it was made if you didn't know. You can hear Big Star as a heavy influence but it still sort of feels modern. I think that's a big goal of mine when making music: To make music that ages well but doesn't completely sound like it was made in the past. I really think this record achieves that.
Loxe is someone who has been a quiet voice as a producer behind both my EPs. He came out of the shadows this year and dropped his own music. I've never heard anything like it; musically he is pushing sonic boundaries that are otherworldly. Sitting in the same world as Burial, SBTRKT, and Arca, this EP has a touch of everything, giving a nod to garage and minimal house whilst projecting soulful melodies with an understated and unique vocal. It's early days for Loxe yet, but I think one to watch.
A wise man once said, "Don't watch me, watch TV." Don't mind if we do! This year, Pitchfork.tv has brought you all kinds of bingeable shows, from our in-depth look at Slowdive's classic album Souvlaki, to the best live footage anywhere, to Vince Staples talking about why having pets is overrated. Tune in below for the best music you can watch in 2015.