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    Afterword: Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White

    I first saw Earth, Wind & Fire live in 1987 at Radio City Music Hall. I came down from the Bronx with Rene, a friend I went to school with. For us—kids from a not-so-nice place, in a not-so-nice time—EW&F managed to project cool while remaining squeaky clean. Their 1972 album, Last Days and Time, even had a song called “Mom.”

    But by the late ’80s, the band wasn’t what it had been. The tour wasn’t a comeback, per se, but something was different. A lot was different, in fact. Many of the original members were gone, and the clothes changed: out were the capes and platform shoes; in were loose-fitting blazers with rolled-up sleeves. The vibe wasn’t the same, but the message was—and Maurice White was that message. White, who passed away yesterday at 74, was Earth, Wind & Fire. He was the reason we were all at Radio City in the first place.

    After working as a session drummer for Chess Records, White started the band in Chicago as the Salty Peppers in 1969 before moving them to Los Angeles and going onto effortlessly—and joyously—fuse a variety of African-American musical forms: jazz, blues, gospel, soul, funk, R&B, disco. Their music was a celebration, and everyone was invited. White was inclusive, but the band was often derided by white rock fans and smarty-pants critics as “crossover.” Not that it mattered; people listened, sang along, danced.

    As a vocalist, White was good, but not in the category of the great soul and R&B singers of the ’60s and ’70s golden era; he wasn’t Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Teddy Pendergrass, Bobby Womack, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye. (The famous, soaring falsetto long-associated with EW&F belongs to Philip Bailey.) But beyond being the architect of the band, White excelled as a lyricist, composer, and arranger. The group’s ballads, often at least co-written by White, were emotionally rich and memorable, as were their covers of songs like Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.”

    In the early ’70s, White’s band veered toward a flower-child aesthetic, somewhere between Sly and the Family Stone and the Fifth Dimension (see: the cover of 1973’s Head to The Sky). Those records didn’t churn out the super hits EW&F became best-known for, but they are grittier, more soulful. Then came the breakout in 1975: That’s The Way of the World. It was a soundtrack for a movie no one saw starring Harvey Keitel as a record producer, and the band members themselves, who barely had any dialogue, as “The Group.” But it gave us the title track, along with “Shining Star” and Philip Bailey’s opus “Reasons,” which Charles Burnett used to memorable effect in his great film Killer of Sheep three years later. (EW&F also performed the music for Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking 1971 movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.)

    White recognized the importance of the sound of brass—a mainstay in black American music—and the EW&F horn section was legendary. This was a big band, though not in the Ellington sense. White used two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, multiple percussionists, and those horns. He used strings on a couple of albums, too. 

    EW&F explored their African roots: White played the kalimba, an African thumb piano, and started a production company named after the instrument; the thunderous opening number of the 1975 live album Gratitude was called “Africano”; they did a 13-minute instrumental entitled “Zanzibar” in 1973; Egyptology was an ongoing interest. White also looked to Brazil, doing on a short version of Milton Nascimento’s “Ponta De Areia” (a wink to Wayne Shorter, who did his own version of the song).

    Fitting their global curiosity and welcoming sweep, the band’s world tours were epic by the late ’70s. Magician Doug Henning was an advisor; Verdine White, the bassist and Maurice’s brother, would levitate. Black bands had toured the world before, but rarely in stadiums, and none with a stage show as conceived by Maurice White.

    The cover of the 1980 double album Faces—featuring visages from all over the world, of all different backgrounds—was White’s homage to inclusiveness. On the eve of Reaganomics, his message was one of hope, brotherhood, and humanity. It always was.

    By 1987, fascinations with Egypt and the intergalactic were no longer, replaced with songs with titles like “Money Tight” and “System of Survival.” The band fell out of favor, though younger musicians—Common, OutKast, D’Angelo, so many others—would eventually pay tribute. They knew what trends and prissy critics didn’t: That EW&F created something timeless.

    So that 1987 concert was my first chance to see what Maurice White built. It wasn’t the most memorable show, but I’ll never forget it.


    Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Bookmaker and The Soccer Diaries.


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    Interviews: The Strangest Trip: Animal Collective on the Legacy of Animal Collective

    Is it easier to predict a legacy or define one? When Animal Collective formed nearly 20 years ago, there was little sign they would become the festival-headlining behemoth they are today. How did that happen? On the occasion of their 10th album, Painting With, I sat down with Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Brian Weitz (Geologist), and Josh Dibb (Deakin) to look back at songs and moments from throughout their career to understand who they were and who they became.

    Pitchfork: I've always loved the playful side of Animal Collective, like on the song "College," from 2004’s Sung Tongs, which features just one line: “You don’t have to go to college.” What was happening in your lives that you thought, “Let's put this on a record and tell people that”?

    Dave Portner: Well, three of us dropped out of college. And when I was writing those acoustic songs, I was just sitting on the floor of my apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the middle of the day. Stoned. I definitely didn't have a lot of money. I had been fired from a record store. I was just trying to get by. I was on unemployment. I didn't have anything going full-time. 

    I also remember thinking that the Beach Boys had a school pride-type song called "Be True to Your School," so I wanted to make the antithesis of that. I always thought it was important for my lyrics to come from a really honest place. Somebody came up to me recently in New Orleans and said, “Thank you for that song—but I don't want you to think that I dropped out because of your song.” But I think it's cool to give people encouragement. I didn't really know why I wanted to go to college. I didn't really have a reason to go there other than the fact that everybody else was doing it.

    Josh Dibb: That era of the band was cool too because of the humor. There were other songs that actually evoked laughter from the audience at gigs, like "Prospect Hummer." There was one show at [shuttered NYC venue] Tonic where people started laughing multiple times throughout the set but they weren't sure if that was OK. Then Dave was like, “It’s cool, you can laugh.”

    Animal Collective circa 2005: Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz, Dave Portner, and Josh Dibb. Photo by Joe Dilworth / Photoshot / Getty Images.

    Pitchfork: Some of your songs, like “Fireworks,” also contain surreal narratives—how has the idea of making a story, or having a point, been something that's become important to you?

    DP: Around the time I dropped out of college, I decided to start taking what I liked about short stories and apply it to writing songs—to make these things that would change and keep going. The melody and the structure of a song always comes first for me, so the emotions behind it can sometimes be a challenge: What am I feeling about this song? Where did the melody come from? I want it to be heartfelt. Sometimes I have the idea right away, like, “Oh, this is what this song's about. This is how I'm feeling.” That was the case with “Fireworks.”

    But for some newer songs, I wasn't coming from a very introspective kind of place. The last three records that I've been involved in came from a place of inner turmoil, and it's taken me a long time to work through that stuff. So the songs on the new record are about other interesting topics that I care about a lot. They’re heartfelt in that they involve how I feel about the world and what's going on rather than if I broke up with my girlfriend; all of our music comes from the heart more than anywhere else in terms of the body.

    Pitchfork: When you think about your setlists now, are there any older songs that you may not want to sing about some years later?

    DP: Yeah, I would have a hard time playing "Banshee Beat" now. There are certain emotions that I just don't feel are relevant and are just hard to revisit.

    Brian Weitz: Sometimes we try to adapt songs so they fit with what's happening at that moment. We did that with some Sung Tongs stuff, like “Leaf House” or “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” when we were touring for Merriweather Post Pavilion. We have to make it sound like it could be on the new record, even though it's not.

    Pitchfork: "What Would I Want? Sky," from 2009, includes a sample of the Grateful Dead, which is the first and only time they’ve allowed their music to be used in that way. Are you big fans? 

    BW: I'm a big fan. The Dead’s "Dark Star" is a huge song for me. I remember hearing it in my friend's brother's car around the time I was getting into Pink Floyd’s "Interstellar Overdrive." Within a year or two we were into the longer Pavement songs, or at least their live versions, like "Fight This Generation." There was a time when I thought a good song was supposed to be 20 minutes long and exploratory and amorphous. It was the main thing I wanted to hear.

    DP: An important meeting point for me was realizing the similarity between a DJ set and a Grateful Dead set: I grew up listening to how the Dead would take a song and just jam on it, and then transition into another song. But I don't play guitar like Jerry Garcia plays guitar. So we started thinking about how that crossed over with electronic music and how it's kind of the same thing. There was a time period when we were practicing in our apartments where we would try to make up a song on the spot and then slowly turn it into another improvised song. 

    BW: Where the Dead would use scales and their chops in solos, we would use tools like rhythm or ambience or noise. We still do that live. 

    Noah Lennox: Sometimes better than others.

    BW: But that's part of the point. It's not supposed to be rehearsed. When our live set starts to feel stale to us, it's because we know how to get from A to B too well, which is why we stopped doing “Fireworks.” We played that song for a long time, and by the end I knew how it was going to go.

    NL: I hope what makes it exciting is that sometimes it does fall on its face. Without the the danger, it’s not as interesting.

    DP: Some people would look at what we would think as some of our worst shows, and say, “That was awesome and crazy!”

    JD: And we’ll be like, “Were you in the same room?” But who am I to say to them that that wasn’t what they experienced?

    Pitchfork: With the success of “My Girls,” how did it feel to have such a big song out in the world? Did you expect it? 

    DP: We definitely didn't expect it. 

    BW: We almost left it off the record. 

    DP: No, we didn't almost leave it off the record, but we had difficulty recording it in the studio.

    NL: The first version just didn't feel great.

    DP: I mean, when Noah sent us the demo, I instantly felt it was an incredible song that you just want to listen to over and over over again.

    BW: It was undeniable.

    DP: There was definitely an excitement about it, but there had been a lot of songs that Noah has written that we've been equally psyched on.

    BW: When that song was coming out, I remember discussions with people at the BBC, where they were like, “Could you cut off the first minute?” because it just took too long to get going. So it still felt like a bit of an uphill thing for what people were calling our “biggest pop song.” People were telling us it was too weird for the mainstream unless we altered it in some way.

    Animal Collective circa 2009. Photo by Takahiro Imamura.

    Pitchfork: And then you made 2012’s Centipede Hz, which was definitely too weird for the mainstream. Was making such a busy record a conscious choice?

    NL: We wanted to make something full-on and frenetic... 

    BW: … and bring a lot of live energy to it. I don't know if it sounded like that in the end when we recorded and mixed it, but it was supposed to be a live kind of a thing.

    JD: We wrote it literally as a garage band: We set up in a garage and were writing and playing at the same time. So it just felt like four dudes wanting to sweat. 

    BW: "Moonjock" is one of my favorite songs to play because of the physicality of it. I never have a break in that song, and that's funny, especially for a person who just triggers samples and plays keyboards and bass pedals.

    Pitchfork: Would you mind listening back to an old song, 2003’s "Infant Dressing Table," from Here Comes the Indian?

    BW: That's a long one, right?

    Pitchfork: We don't have to listen to the whole thing.

    NL: I always though the title was "Infinite Dressing Table."

    BW: It was. And then we changed it. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I wonder what the title really is.

    BW: Me and Dave had to re-approve a new test pressing for this record in 2010, so we had to listen to the whole thing from beginning to end on vinyl. It had been years since I'd heard it, and we both almost just couldn't. We were like, “Who is this?” There were all these layers that I had forgotten about. It was just a really crazy experience.

    Pitchfork: Do you feel a throughline from this to Animal Collective now? 

    DP: That record is a lot more improv-based than our last couple, especially the new one or Merriweather Post Pavilion. It feels less grounded. More chaotic. Very much more New York.

    BW: More druggy. I mean, I haven't gotten high in the studio for a long time, but I was high during that whole recording. We did that album right after we came back from a really stressful tour, and I remember a friend who was working at the studio where we were recording saying, “I thought you guys were lunatics. You didn't speak, you were just such weirdos.”

    JD: I don't really remember it being like that. I generally think of it as a positive experience. I wanted to be there.

    BW: It just felt like life. We were used to always being exhausted and stoned, but apparently it looked weird to other people. 

    Pitchfork: Are you guys exhausted now?

    All: No.


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    Articles: Living Rooms: Visiting New York DIY Space Trans-Pecos

    In the final installment of Living Rooms: Global Punk & DIY Venues, a series that looks at DIY clubs around the world, writer Andy Beta and photographer Erez Avissar visit Trans-Pecos, a venue in Ridgewood, New York.

    Depending on which direction you approach Trans-Pecos, the do-it-yourself venue nestled on the east side of Wyckoff Avenue on the dividing line between the counties of Kings and Queens, it's hard to gauge the neighborhood of Ridgewood. Stroll down one street and it's charming, the blocks featuring a string of two-family brownstones gleaming with Christmas lights. From another direction, the neighborhood more closely resembles the warehouse purgatory of deep Bushwick, bereft of human life. It's a chicken-rendering factory facing one way, but turn away from that nauseating scent and you see a sun yellow building called Smiles N Styles, offering face-painting services to young children for a buck. Look across the street from Trans-Pecos and you can just make out the stacked metal carcasses of an automobile graveyard.

    "As recently as 15 years ago, this was the dumping zone…the whole area consisted of chop shops for the mob," says Todd Patrick, Executive Director and Founder of Trans-Pecos. "Our back area where we have the wood shop and the patio now used to be a mob chop shop." For those who have spent years living either amid the bustle of Manhattan or in the increasingly cramped borough of Brooklyn, Ridgewood is a curious urban space in New York City.

    "It's an area that's more desolate and empty then you'd usually find in New York," says Patrick, who lives an eight-minute walk away. That desolation led Patrick—known to almost everyone throughout the New York City underground as Todd P—to name the venue after a particularly windswept stretch of West Texas. "It’s a lot of people living the American Dream, not to get super poetic or cliché. It’s a kind of eclectic neighborhood. It kind of looks like Brooklyn in a Neil Simon play except rather than speaking in Yiddish people are speaking in Spanish or Polish. It’s a healthy neighborhood without being a rich neighborhood." Together with Sam Hillmer, who is co-founder and programming director for Trans-Pecos, Todd Patrick opened the space in December 2013, in part to make a break with his DIY venues of the past and offer up a different kind of cultural and community experience for a new generation of New Yorkers, native or otherwise.

    The door to the two-year-old spot couldn’t be more inconspicuous, the entrance unmarked, save for the green light that oozes from behind the metal and glass door. "It's chill vibes upstairs, live techno downstairs til 4 a.m.," the door guy tells me one blustery night in December. It’s true in that the electronics that soundtrack the bar and lounge area upstairs are chill if squelchy, the mood mellowed by magenta and purple lights that amplify the frond shadows of some potted palms. It’s too cold now to stand outside longer than the duration of a cigarette, but in the summertime, Trans-Pecos’ backyard is a crowded and raucous affair.

    Descend a set of rickety black stairs and you’re in a subterranean room with seven-foot ceilings, exposed pipes, the scent of old dust permeating. "Trans-Pecos has a pure feeling, boiling clubbing down to its purest elements," said Suze Webb of the roving dance party Mixpak, who has booked the likes of Popcaan, Michael Watts, and 69 Boyz around the city and thrown numerous events at T-P since its inception (and even further back when the space used to house Silent Barn). "The basement room is just you, the DJ, and a speaker stack, so you’re there to dance, that’s it, and I think it really informs how you hear music by being in a space like that."

    It's a basement familiar to anyone who’s attended a DIY show in the last 20 years in NYC, be it at subTonic, Cake Shop, the old Rubulad dance parties that transpired in S. Williamsburg, or any other venues that sprung up seemingly overnight, only to wither and vanish once the NYPD swung flashlights over them. When Todd P first began throwing shows in the borough of Brooklyn in the early '00s, the challenge was simple: "Getting people to come and getting anyone to give a shit." But over the years, his venues have hosted a range of musicians, providing early stages for the likes of Dirty Projectors, Dan Deacon, Matt & Kim, and more. With Trans-Pecos, Todd P sees a new challenge: "It’s hard to get people to actually open their mind a bit and appreciate this other stuff that people are doing as being as valid as the stuff their scene is producing."

    "I consider Trans-Pecos to be a legit space with a DIY heart, in that it’s established itself, obtained permits, legalized the bar, and that seems like one way to survive the city," said Eric Copeland, who’s played solo as well as with his infamous noise band, Black Dice, at numerous Todd P spaces over the years. Copeland came of age at the legendary Fort Thunder in Providence, R.I., as well as NYC punk venues like ABC No Rio and early '00s outposts like Mighty Robot (now morphed into Secret Project Robot). "I appreciate the humanity behind these idea-oriented venues more than the business of music as it’s more in line with why I play music."

    "A lot of the places we’ve done parties in in the past have closed down or changed irreparably," said Webb. "It’s a relatively natural thing for a city to go through, but there seems to often be a lack of good mid-size spaces that have the right feel. The key to a good party or show isn’t strictly the legal status of the venue. It’s a combination of the ethos of the people running the space, the qualities of the physical space and ultimately how people feel when they’re in it. When it comes together right, it can really make a night special."

    Like the surrounding neighborhood, Trans-Pecos reflects the melting pot it’s situated in, and depending on the time and day you dip in, you might experience a modern classical recital, a festive meringue concert, a DJ set from Afrika Bambaataa, or a night of bruising techno. "I think Trans-Pecos' strongest point is the variety in music, yet it still totally maintains a standard of quality, which can be really challenging," said composer/DJ Nicky Mao, one of the curators on rotation at Trans-Pecos. "I think the idea of a network of curators is a really valuable part of that. I worry sometimes that places won't have the time and space to grow like they might have done when I first arrived here, but I think Trans-Pecos is the first place in a while—since the southside of Williamsburg really shut down—to have a fighting chance."

    Reflecting the neighborhood and situating itself within the community it inhabits to have that "fighting chance" is by design. Hillmer, who has over 10 years of experience in community arts activism and organizing, was conscientious from the outset of the problem that such DIY spaces entail in large U.S. urban centers. If you are a touring band driving from city to city, the DIY space is inevitably in the poorer parts of town, to where "whatever spot you are playing becomes this avant fortress of white people in the middle of a ghetto," as Hillmer puts it. "That's been the elephant in the room with the whole DIY scene from its inception. Here you have these folks who self define as socially and politically progressive, setting up shop in the illest ghettos of America and no one can manage to cross the color line."

    "Cultural outposts like DIY clubs seem to sit somewhere on the spectrum between gentrifier and gentrified, though they do all seem to eventually close because neighborhoods change," said Gavin Russom, the onetime LCD Soundsystem synth wizard who—along with Lauren Flax—throws the monthly C//TY Club parties at Trans-Pecos. "Sadly, the DIY venue model was absorbed into the gentrification process. These days, real estate developers understand that DIY parties can be a useful tool in the whole process. At a certain time a lot of people didn’t want to go to an underground club, but things are turned-on their heads and many status quo-affirming folks think it’s cool to venture out into an industrial zone and have a wild night of partying."

    To offset a club’s unintentional role in gentrifying the neighborhood it’s housed in, Patrick and Hillmer have been mindful of the venue’s role in Ridgewood. "Most music venues are just dark windowless caverns for 18 or so hours of the day and it's always struck me as so much wasted utility," said Patrick. So five days a week, T-P opens its doors during the day to a host of non-profit groups, schools, churches, the local precinct, and AHRC, an organization that serves developmentally disabled adults. "There is a more generous, more aware, more real way for people who open spaces like ours to be where we are and acknowledge and respect that," said Hillmer.

    "Most of the DIY venues I’ve enjoyed going to in my lifetime have disappeared and I think people have come to accept it," said Russom. "But it doesn’t have to be like that. Imagine if we could have DIY venues that would stay around for 10-20 years and even pass through multiple generations? Very deep and creative community building could happen through those spaces." By creating a music venue that also addresses its neighborhood’s broader concerns, Trans-Pecos hopes to remain vital to Ridgewood in the years—and perhaps even generations—ahead.


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    Interviews: Flesh to Dust: LUH’S Anthems of Disillusionment

    LUH: "I&I" (via SoundCloud)

    The origin story of Ellery James Roberts and Ebony Hoorn’s romantic and artistic partnership is too bloody to be a meet-cute. They first crossed paths in October 2012 at a party in the sketchy part of Manchester, where Roberts was living at the time. As Hoorn tells it: “I was just sitting in the kitchen watching a movie and Ellery came in, having just cut his wrist.” Roberts laughs. “Not on purpose,” he clarifies.

    Turns out Roberts had just taken part in a fight that involved the other guy smashing a wine bottle across his arm. “It gave me a nice scar there that was a bit of a mess for a while,” Roberts says. It also led to him running into Hoorn, a Dutch artist with a background in photography and film, and starting a new project with her called LUH. Best known as the impossibly craggy voice behind short-lived indie rockers WU LYF, Roberts describes that first encounter with Hoorn in characteristically dramatic terms: “Suddenly all that was once so concrete fell to sand again.”

    The 25-year-old singer seems partial to entropy; he warmly reflects on WU LYF as “always being in a state of free fall.” While that band’s lone album, 2011’s Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, was a fully realized work of cavernous, cathartic riffs and howls that made good on the feverish UK-mag hype, their litany of inscrutable proclamations, PR hijinks, incomprehensible lyrics, and combative live performances made them seem built to flame out in a flash. (And for those who always thought Roberts voice veered dangerously close to overwrought Scott Stapp territory, you’re not alone. “I hadn't listened to [Go Tell Fire to the Mountain] for 18 months and I was really surprised because the vocals are fucking brutal,” Roberts tells me. “It's ridiculous.”)

    Following WU LYF’s dissolution in 2012, Roberts emerged the following year with the bombastic, Clams Casino-sampling “Kerou’s Lament” (later renamed “Lament”). He describes the solo record he was working on at the time as a caustic statement inspired by Death Grips and hefty political tomes—which probably explains why he decided to shelve it. “I basically got to a point where it was giving me no joy,” he says.

    LUH: "Lament (V01/2013)" (via SoundCloud)

    Then, in 2014, while trying to figure the chorus of a new track with the working title “LUH Song #1,” Roberts enlisted Hoorn to sing it. Her lush tone offered a perfect complement to his inimitable growl, completely transforming the song. “That was a moment where the whole ‘thing’ of LUH started to become clear,” says Roberts, who put up that track, retitled “Unites,” on SoundCloud in the fall of that year.

    LUH: "Unites (V01/2014)" (via SoundCloud)

    It’s around that time when I first spoke with Roberts and Hoorn via Skype. LUH stands for Lost Under Heaven, which sounds like a Young Adult Fiction novel title waiting to happen—you can instantly picture the film adaptation’s two star-crossed, gorgeous idealists fighting for their hopes and dreams against a world that is crumbling around them. Which pretty much sums up LUH in real life; when we connected, the strikingly attractive, young European couple were sitting in a Manchester flat that looked to be stuffed with books and art and little else.

    At that point, near the end of 2014, LUH was in its free-form start-up phase: Hoorn and James were researching DIY and Kickstarter funding, dreaming of having their own label, and imagining expanding LUH to a seven-piece band that combined elements of Spiritualized and Fugazi. “We've got no money so we need assistance with the creative process,” Roberts admitted. To get by, Hoorn simultaneously tended bar and moved forward with her audio-visual degree as Roberts worked odd construction jobs for his father. They were staying with their friend in order to save up some money… to move back into the attic of Roberts’ childhood home, which is where they were living when they began recording their debut album last year. 

    The record, due out on Mute later this year, shows that their message has gotten much more loud and clear since those early demos, partly thanks to the deep, dark production of Bobby Krlic, aka the Haxan Cloak. LUH and Krlic became fast friends after a trial session and then decamped for two weeks to a cottage on Osea Island, off England’s southeastern coast, working 24/7 in a secluded studio. The producer and duo turn out to be a perfectly strange pairing, as they both have grand ambitions that go in equal and opposite directions; whereas Haxan Cloak made his name on plumbing the depths with unprecedented sub-bass, the LUH LP bursts through arena ceilings to let the heavens in, as heard on first single “I&I” as well as upgraded versions of “Lament” and “Unites.” Simply put, the whole thing sounds fucking colossal.

    The couple moved to Amsterdam after completing the record, though they’ve made it a point to be just as isolated as they were on Osea as they plot their upcoming LUH tour as a four piece including DJ/multi-instrumentalist Oliver Cooper and drummer Steven Hermitt. When I catch up with them again recently, their Skype picture features Hoorn with a raised middle finger obscuring her face. They currently spend most of their time in a recouped practice space with no wireless access. “The Internet is far too wild to keep at home,” Roberts says. This decision also helps Hoorn, 24, focus on her thesis, which she says explores “solitude and times of hyper-connectivity.”

    As for the thesis behind LUH, Roberts makes his case in typically lofty language, saying the band speaks to the desire “to sustain a self-sufficient culture and be able to reject the status quo, because we've got a more fulfilling thing going on away from it.” (The following Q&A is culled from both interviews with Roberts and Hoorn.)

    Pitchfork: When WU LYF imploded, were you tired of the traditional rock band setup?

    Ellery James Roberts: There was always a split [in WU LYF]. When we were starting, I was really inspired by the KLF and Situationists—this whole wayward troublemaker [ideal]. And then it was also just a simple band making good time rock’n’roll, like the Replacements. When we were touring, there was a conflict between those two sides, and it became a stagnant and negative relationship that was quite harmful. It made me disillusioned with the whole creative process and the power and joy music can give. 

    Pitchfork: Was there a specific low point?

    EJR: We finished playing shows, and I went to Spain with with two old friends. We were living on a remote beach, which was really freeing, but the nearest place we could drink or do anything was an hour's walk along a cliff and through a forest. So I'm in a small shop in a provincial town along the coast of Barcelona and I hear this song. And I'm like, “Fuck, why do they play this annoying indie music?” It sounded so familiar, though—and then my vocals started. That was really the point where I was like, “This isn't what I want.” I love so much that is on the [WU LYF] record, but that just took away the momentum. It wasn't the sound of the feeling that I loved, you know?

    Pitchfork: How did the idea of LUH originally come to be?

    EJR: Me and Ebony went to southeast Asia for two months [in 2013], where we had no connection to the world around us, in a desire to be away from it all. When we were in Thailand, she said to me, “LUH.”

    Ebony Hoorn: There was this big thunderstorm outside, and the name just popped into my head.

    EJR: We made this tongue-in-cheek conceptual lifestyle brand and had this manifesto that was picking up on the cheesy spirituality in Thailand, where all these people [like us] try to find themselves and feel like they're buying the package of a spiritual journey.

    Pitchfork: When you describe "Unites" as being a love song for modern times, how do you think the disillusion of now differs from the past?

    EJR: What's interesting about disillusionment now is that we genuinely live in an environment where, in 30 years time, there is going to have to be significant cultural change to the social, political, and economic systems because you’ll need 70 planets or something to sustain the current lifestyles. The endgame for me is getting a house in the mountains and being able to live and create without having to take part of something. I don't enjoy making entertainment for hedonists.

    Pitchfork: But after having played festivals like Coachella with WU LYF, do you see any upside to having that kind of mass outreach to spread your message?

    EJR: If you look at the way Fugazi existed, for instance, that's incredibly inspiring to me.

    EH: That's what you see more in hardcore.

    EJR: Ebony was much more involved in hardcore growing up. That's what I aspire to: Self-sufficiency that’s not self-reliant. You're in a greater community.

    "I don't enjoy making entertainment for hedonists."
    Ellery James Roberts

    Pitchfork: Do you think the world is in a better place now than it was a couple of years ago, when you started LUH?

    EH: No. And it's only becoming worse. We're very lucky to have our own platform to express ourselves and talk about things and make people aware and hand out information.

    EJR: Protest music is relevant but it’s not always constructive in a sympathetic way. I feel like a constructive output is just bringing this shared experience with a community and people, like, “These are my experiences. This is what I've felt and seen in the world.” If everybody expressed what they believed in and made a conscious effort, there would be a lot more positive things in the world. Be mindful of what your belief is. Challenge it. Why do you think that? I challenged myself about going into an intellectual hole rather than being really naked and disclosed emotionally. We get in fights, and sometimes I feel like I'm turning into Woody Allen. 

    Pitchfork: A lot of last year’s most prominent records could double as protest music, and most of it came from hip-hop. Do you consider those records to be constructive as well as sympathetic? 

    EJR: The Kendrick record is incredible; Saul Williams is saying interesting things. People are angry. The majority of pop music comes from the lower classes of society—there are very few oligarch pop stars. You've got the Taylor Swift bullshit on the surface, but the real American culture is hip-hop. 

    Pitchfork: Do you feel Europe has a musical voice that expresses its culture the way hip-hop does in America?

    EJR: I don't know because I'm not really connected with a lot of music in general. I’m sure there is something—damn it, that is what we're here for. 


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    Photo Galleries: Pitchfork Radio NYC 2016

    Broadcasting live from New York Men's Fashion Week, Pitchfork Radio recently hosted an all-star roster of DJs and guests including Hannibal Buress, Ted Leo, DJ Premier, Flatbush Zombies, Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves, Joey Bada$$, Frankie Cosmos, and more. Photographer Ebru Yildiz was there to shoot portraits and in-studio photos from the station's four-day run, which was presented by Shinola and powered by TuneIn.


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    Rising: Jimi Tents' Rap Gospel

    Jimi Tents: "Landslide" (via SoundCloud)

    “I’ve always felt like I have an old soul,” 19-year-old Jimi Tents says, sitting in the dim basement studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he recorded his recent debut mixtape, 5 O’Clock Shadow. Accessible only by a narrow, winding staircase in the back of a shared apartment, the studio feels like a well-kept secret. “Compared to a lot of my friends I don’t really go out much,” he continues. “I like to have fun, but my fun is really making music and serving a greater purpose.”

    That purpose seems rooted in a desire to reach people who may be going through the same ups and downs as Tents, to create music that’s novel and relatable at the same time. The young rapper is thoughtful and forthcoming in conversation; clear-eyed in his assertions about music, religion, and education; and perpetually motivated by what’s next rather than what he’s already accomplished. That focus fuels much of 5 O’Clock Shadow, which began as a five-song EP before being extended into a full mixtape last fall. It’s a galvanizing statement that draws from a number of sources—the smoothness of soul, the dexterous stars of Kendrick’s TDE crew, the bravado of early 50 Cent—and shoots them through with Tents’ own unpredictable flow and a wide breadth of live instrumentation. “For me, music is all about feeling,” Tents explains. “Live instruments evoke the emotion of the person playing it, and you can feel that. So why would I have a synthetic bass when someone could play the bass and feel that shit?”

    Tents, who is of Guyanese and Jamaican descent, grew up among eight other siblings in East New York, one of Brooklyn’s roughest neighborhoods. “There’s a shit ton of violence, a lot of people getting killed, fucked over, and doing the wrong thing,” he says. “But there’s also a lot of people trying to do the right thing.” 5 O’Clock Shadow was written from that observational point of view, whether Tents is digging into police brutality (“Elmer Fudd”) and mental illness (“Panic Attack”) on one end, or heady victory (“Landslide”) and heated romance (“Jazzy”) on the other.

    Jimi Tents: "Panic Attack" (via SoundCloud)

    Tents succeeds in all of these fields because of his ingenuity—his bars are particular but palatable, confronting innermost demons over smooth, jazz-inflected backdrops provided by a stable of producer friends and collaborators including young Philly rapper Tunji Ige and Social Experiment trombonist J.P. Floyd. Still, it’s Tents’ deftness at the mic that keeps the project afloat. “They say my music isn't sellable, they're sailing on that bullshit,” he raps on early standout “Should’ve Called.” “I rather sell ‘em syllables instead.” 

    Jimi Tents: "Shoud've Called" [ft. Jay Bel] (via SoundCloud)  

    During his time at Medgar Evers, a college prep school in Crown Heights, Tents found the “knucklehead kids” who would go on to form the growing artistic collective, SleeperCamp. After hearing one of his peers rap in the middle of French class, they turned the class into a cipher room for ideas. “We decided to make something that was gonna impact the culture,” he says of the group, which includes rappers Jay Bel and SEDROC in addition to a close-knit network of producers, merch distributors, social media managers, and more.

    While SleeperCamp’s artists have their own individual style, there’s a jazzy through line that links the music together, to say nothing of their combined ambition: This summer, the collective will put on their third annual SleeperCamp Water Fight and Cookout, a tradition that brings kids across New York City to Prospect Park for games, food, and fun. Tents hopes the event will grow into a full-fledged festival in the next few years. “I try to be as spearheaded as possible,” he says with unmissable confidence. “I’m young, so I may get distracted and make mistakes. But my eye is on the prize.”

    Pitchfork: Do you remember the first time you heard rap music?

    Jimi Tents: When I was a kid, my mom used to feed me these dreams of being a doctor and buy me doctor toys to make me want to pursue that as I grew up. But, when I was two or three, I dropped all those toys when my grandmother played Tupac on her little jukebox. My grandmother loved Tupac.

    Jimi Tents: "Elmer Fudd" [ft. Moxie Raia] (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Where were you in your life when you started to work on 5 O’Clock Shadow?

    JT: I was transitioning from leaving high school, just facing the world head-on. I didn’t necessarily feel like I knew what I wanted to do; it was more that I didn’t want to go to college. Not because I didn’t want to pursue education, but I wanted to spend my youth making the necessary risk and pursuing my dream as opposed to thinking, Aw shit, I wish I could’ve done that. I can always still go back to school, but why not take the risk? 

    Pitchfork: Since you are a young artist, do you feel aware of your age when dealing with the music industry or your peers in New York?

    JT: Hell yeah. These people will try to fuck you just ‘cause you’re young. I’m not for that, especially the way I was brought up. I’m grateful to have great people around me, even down to my management team, my collective. I feel like I’m special, and if there are people around me who are bad for me and I’m not able to see that, a higher power will shed them from my situation.

    Pitchfork: Are you religious? 

    JT: I went to Catholic school, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself religious. Growing up, I became more of a spiritual person. I do believe in a God or a higher power, but I feel like it’s all the same message ultimately: Do you understand there’s good and bad at the end of the day?

    Pitchfork: Does your spirituality factor into your music?

    JT: Definitely. It’s one thing to listen to something because somebody tells you or because the public and mass majority believes it. But it’s another thing to be like, “OK, this is why they believe it, because it makes sense.” I feel like everybody should search for answers. 

    Pitchfork: Do you write with a certain audience or listener in mind?

    JT: Subconsciously. I don’t go into it thinking I’m gonna affect this 8-year-old kid in my neighborhood, or some guy in Manchester that’s going through some shit. But I know that there’s something bigger than me that I’m trying to accomplish here.


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    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: The First Time

    For the past three decades, Greil Marcus has written a monthly column, Real Life Rock Top 10, in which he offers incisive commentary on what he’s called everyday culture and found objects—including songs, albums, movies, novels, commercials, TV shows, overheard remarks, and more—making connections across time and circumstance. All of those columns through 2014 were collected in a book last year, and we are now happy to host new editions of Real Life Rock Top 10 on Pitchfork.


    1. The Platters, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh (The Bureau) Sometimes you can listen to a song all your life without hearing it. That’s what happens to Charlotte Rampling. When we first see her in the film, she’s thinking about the 45th anniversary party she and her husband, played by Tom Courtenay, are planning. Almost idly, she’s humming the Platters’ huge 1958 hit. It was already an old song, then; here, the orchestration of their version—its quiet, calm statement of the theme, then the music taking on body and heat—produced a romantic sweep that locked it into her heart when she was a girl and it’s never left it. Yes, the song was a warning from its first verse—“They said some day you'll find/ All who love are blind/ When you heart's on fire/ You must realize/ Smoke gets in your eyes”—but the passion of the Platters frontman Tony Williams’singing left the fire burning, the smoke giving off the most luscious warmth, and everything else fell away.

    Later we see Rampling putting together a playlist for the party—“And the Platters, of course,” she says after naming half a dozen other songs, almost an afterthought, because it goes without saying it would have to be there. But by now, over the course of a few days, her marriage has begun to come apart; watching, you can feel her pulling away as inexorably as Williams climbs the steps of the melody. She can feel it, but she doesn’t know it, not yet.

    At the party, with all of their friends gathered—barely anyone too young to have heard the Platters on the radio in their time is even glimpsed on the screen through the whole course of the film—there’s a sense that Rampling and Courtenay might get through it, and come out the other side. Then the Platters sing, and the lines she has always ignored, which she’s never really heard—because when you love a song, the words say what they say to you, not what any songwriter might have meant you to hear, you rewrite the song according to what you want it to say, the feeling it produces in you may cut absolutely against any literal reading of the words, what you keep is the promise in the music, not the judgment of its moral lesson—rise up out of the stupendous finale of the record. Each word of the last line is like a star exploding, and each one slams her in the face: “When that lovely flame dies/ Smoke/ Gets/ In/ Your/ Eyes,” the last word hanging in the air as the music swirls around her. Dancing with her husband, Rampling slams her hand down and out of his in the most violent ending to a movie about love you’ll ever want to see. For 45 years, the song saved the marriage; now it saves her. Will she ever listen to it again?


    2. Eleanor Friedberger, New View (Frenchkiss) With her brother Matt in the Fiery Furnaces and on her own solo albums, Friedberger’s singing has always created a world of nervousness, anxiety, a sardonic sense of fate, of life as a joke she wishes she didn’t get. As music, that meant someone walking down the street with someone behind her and instantly turning to face the other person: Who do you think you’re kidding? It meant wild humor, rampant noise, songs breaking out in all directions just when you were settling into what seemed to be a steady beat. On New View the songs—“Open Season,” “Because I Asked You,” “Two Versions of Tomorrow,” “A Long Walk”—can seem like throwaways. Everything is in a minor mode. No one is making trouble. But the record takes time to open up. The situations in the songs don’t yield to laughter; they are impervious to tears. You can put on your usual act and no one pays attention. So the people in the songs begin to draw on reserves of patience, bitterness, and desirefor an end to small talk, for a moment when nothing needs to be said, for an admission that can’t be taken back—that they didn’t know were there. Friedberger’s songs used to answer their own questions, even if all it took was a grin. These don’t.


    3. Cole Coffee, Oakland, California (January 20)“I’m really enjoying this Republican game show,” said regular Matthew Shoemaker, standing in line. “You know how Ted Cruz looks like Joe McCarthy? If you listen closely, he sounds just like Truman Capote.”


    4. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, directed by Evgeny Afineevsky (Netflix)“Having to decide who was already dead, that was the hardest thing.” — Dr. Katya Koriyka, on the last days of the Maidan Square insurrection in 2014.


    5. Sarah Vowell, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Riverhead), publisher’s disclaimer On the copyright page: “While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher or the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication.” I asked Vowell what this meant. She had no idea. I asked literary agents. They didn’t have a clue.


    6. “The Final Countdown,” Geico commercial featuring “the band Europe” The bottom. Not a dive bar that advertises “Europe—‘The Final Countdown,’” since they know you might remember the song (1986, #1 all over Europe, #8 in the U.S.) even if you don’t remember who did it. Not a car dealership opening. Not a 1990 Sweet Sixteen party. A bottom beyond any band’s imagining: a grimy lunchroom where the band has to be introduced as “the band” since the band Europe has so completely vanished into obscurity people might think someone’s announcing the place. The band is shooting off pyrotechnics and bending over and shooting back up as if they’re still playing stadiums, and the already-tired lower-level employees can’t be bothered to pay attention to anything but the microwave counting down until the burrito is hot. Nobody makes the connection between the machine and the song. Lead singer Joey Tempest hasn’t changed his stage clothes for 30 years even if the real countdown is imprinted on his face and he’s emoting as if he’s describing the end of the world.


    7. Tacocat, Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco (December 9, 2015) Doug Kroll, former proprietor of Rather Ripped, Berkeley’s original punk record store, reports on a night I would have made if I hadn’t been 3000 miles away: “A highlight of the ’50s TV show ‘American Bandstand’ was when a couple of kids were asked to rate a song an act had just lip-synced; the better the song was to dance to, the higher the score. But to really understand Tacocat’s performance you’d need a rating system that goes beyond the dance question. Take Tacocat’s ‘Crimson Wave,’ a surf anthem about having your period, which closed the show. Under the new rating system, we could hope for a comment from Sally: ‘I give it a 98 because you can dance to it, and it makes me less ashamed about having my period,’ and from Billy: ‘I give it a 95 because you can dance to it, and it made me realize that I have periods too.’ (This being a show in San Francisco, when the Seattle band introduced the song by asking those on their period to raise their hands, both girls and guys raised them high.) ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ from Tacocat’s upcoming album Lost Time, features a chorus that spotlights a litany of known male transgressions, ‘Explain it to me,’ or ‘Tell me to calm down,’ each phrase repeated three times, followed by a pointed pause before singer Emily Nokes delivers a weary ‘again.’ Figure a Sally rating of 96, because she can dance to it and it speaks to why she gave up on men years ago, and figure Billy for a 78 because although he can dance to it, he really doesn’t understand what this has to do with him. This would be a great Hillary Clinton campaign song.  It would definitely get out a big chunk of the woman’s vote.  I’ll bet Tacocat would play it at the inauguration. I’d go.”


    8. “Jimmie Rodgers . . . He used to sing ‘Hoo da lay dee,’ you know what I mean?” Howlin’ Wolf interviewed by Chris Strachwitz, San Francisco, 1967 (arhoolie.org)  In 1931 the Father of Country Music visited the Carter Family. “Yea hey, howdy folks, yodel-ay hee he,” he sang as he drove up to their house on the novelty record Victor put out. About the same time he met Howlin’ Wolf. “That was my friend,” the blues singer said one afternoon in a San Francisco music club, remembering Mississippi nearly 50 years before. “On some of those plantations, he had some friends. While he’d been down there, he’d just taken up with me. It seemed like I had good, sound sense. I was a good boy. When I’d sit down, he’d be out there on the porch playing to the white people. When he’d get through playing, he said, ‘You seem like you’re innocent.’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say. ‘I am.’  He’d sit down and yodel to me.” “You two were making history,” someone says—why can’t there be a record of this?“Yeah,” Howlin’ Wolf says: Suddenly you hear Jimmie Rodgers in “Smokestack Lightning,” and you hear Howlin’ Wolf in “Waiting for a Train.” “He’d sit down and yodel to me and then I’d get out in the field and yodel. I wouldn’t yodel just like him. I brought mine down more different. You know.”


    9. Jarett Kobek, I Hate the Internet (We Heard You Like It Books) Forget the knee-jerk title. This book has nothing in common with Sunday think pieces about how personal technology may be eroding our ability to communicate in a meaningful way, or the dystopia of Dave Eggers’ The Circle, where every Invasion of the Body Snatchers horror is telegraphed in the first 10 pages. This is a relentless, cruel, hilariously inflamed satire of a loop of economic mystification and the reemergence of the credibility of the notion of Original Sin in the technological utopia of the present-day Bay Area and the world being remade in its image. The book is an adventure of the translation of the given into a reality almost too blunt to credit: “governance, an organizing principle used by societies to determine which individuals were granted homes on high ground and which individuals were forcibly executed.” Commonplace takedowns are shot into the sky with eruptions of fury: “The many forms and shapes of The One True God”—already defined in terms of “In God We Trust” appearing “on each piece of paper of American money”—“did not come close to describing the actual God. The actual God was wonderful and useless. The actual God was nothing more and nothing less than the sound of Etta James singing ‘I’d Rather Go Blind.’” Jarett is most lucid deconstructing the meaning of fame as a symbolic acting out of political economics in the relationship between Beyoncé, Rihanna, and their fans, and most painful, in a manner you might find yourself impossible to dig out from under your skin, in a few brief pages on the transmission of supposedly deleted sex photos to everyone in the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico: “Ellen was twenty-two years old and her life was over.”

    My favorite moment may be on the parable of racism in a story concerning how and why the first side of Son House’s 1930 78 “My Black Mama,” about sex, was, in generations to come, ignored, while the second side, about death, was, in small part due to people like me, celebrated all over the world, but almost anyone reading this book will be telling everyone they know about something else.


    10. Blythe Danner, “Cry Me a River” in I’ll See You in My Dreams, directed by Brett Haley (Bleecker Street) At 73 Danner has lost nothing of the script girl Trouty she played in Hearts of the West 40 years ago. The name she carried like a badge summed up her whole personality: You couldn’t push her over with a bulldozer. Here her pool boy brings her to a karaoke bar; she used to be in a band. As opposed to the half-dozen formal-gown costume changes Julie London went through when she sang the original “Cry Me a River” in The Girl Can’t Help It in 1956—up against Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, the Platters, and Little Richard, she didn’t flinch—Danner wears a film-noir trench coat, curling the lines of the song like smoke from an invisible film-noir cigarette.

    Thanks to Tom Luddy and Reenee Gregg.


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    Articles: Sahel Sounds: Music From 21st-Century West Africa

    Sahel Sounds’ Christopher Kirkley is a label owner like many before him, tapped into the music and creative energies of a particular territory and on a mission to bring its ear-bending sounds to the rest of the world. Unlike nearly any label owner before him, though, Kirkley's territory covers the Sahel region of northwestern Africa, which spans Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, along with dozens of languages and dialects. It is an ambitious and very 21st-century undertaking for a 35-year-old from Portland, Oregon who knew very little about the territory he was visiting when he first touched down in 2009. In fact, he picked the Sahel in part because it was so hard to find English-language information about it.

    Seven years later, the label's 30-plus releases stretch far beyond the timeless desert blues of better-known exponents like Tinariwen and into the truly contemporary, highlighting the chaotic balafon-inflected Balani street parties of Bamako, the Auto-Tuned, Bollywood-influenced Hausa soundtrack scene in northern Niger, sci-fi teenage hip-hop from Mali, and more. Like much English-language pop music, it is the sound of the present crashing into the future, new technologies applied to old ideas by young minds. It is the sound of now sung in African modes over African grooves.

    The video for rapper Pheno S.'s "Mouché Aroukourou" was shot in his hometown of Gao, Mali.


    Though he was originally inspired by famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and the vast Smithsonian Folkways archive, Kirkley is a more informal recordist with less grandiose visions of documentation; he’s more of a fan than a historian. “I was a typical backpacker-tourist, except I had a small field recorder,” he says of his first Sahel trip. “So as I was traveling, I was looking for music." When he arrived, he didn't even speak French, the common language of the region. And unlike Lomax, Kirkley had a guitar with him—on some of the early casual recordings posted on his Sahel Sounds blog before he launched his label proper, Kirkley even jammed along, not sounding out of place. He soon stopped, preferring to stay out of the way.

    While Kirkley started out by looking for musicians themselves, he quickly found a more efficient method of discovery: Cell phones had arrived in the region not long before him, transforming the creative landscape. (Until the advent of file-based audio, cassettes were the medium of choice in the desert, being cheaper and more sand-friendly than easily-fried CD players.) While there was little proper Internet access at first—and rarely any actual cell phone service—music and media exploded as fans played music for each other over cell speakers and traded their favorites phone-to-phone through Bluetooth, SIM cards, and FM-enabled USB sticks, sometimes stocked with MP3s at street bazaars by vendors selling files from racks of hard drives.

    Once Kirkley came upon this trading network, it wasn’t long before he found Mdou Moctar. A guitarist from Agadez, in central Niger, Moctar had scored big hits on the region’s hard-to-quantify phone-to-phone hit parade after traveling to Kano, the Nigerian cradle of the Hausa film industry. There, he recorded a handful of Auto-Tuned originals in the nomadic Tuareg tradition, which is marked by its pentatonic scales and mournful vibe; seemingly rooted in the same sources as American blues, the style went electric in the early '80s, infamously influenced by Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler.

    A trailer for the compilation Harafin So, which features Bollywood-inspired music from Nigeria.


    Staying in Africa for almost two years after his 2009 arrival, Kirkley lived in various cities for up to six months at a time, learning French and doing his best to absorb as much as he could. He has returned frequently since. By the time he started releasing music at the end of 2010—on Bandcamp, vinyl, and eventually cassette—he developed a guiding philosophy behind Sahel Sounds to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation.

    “When I'm recording people and taking this music from one culture and sharing it with another, I'm mediating between cultures that are not only very different, but have big power differences in the ability to express themselves,” he explains. “A Tuareg musician in a village somewhere doesn't really have the ability to say, 'This is who I am,' so they're sort of entrusting me to say that. I'm very careful and I try to present things in a way that isn't demeaning or exoticizing to the person on the record."

    "We're coming to a time when cultural distances are really breaking down," Kirkley continues. "And people like myself who are existing between cultures are held accountable for our actions in a way that older ethnomusicologists weren’t, because when they were doing field recordings in the '50s, the artists on those recordings never saw those records. But people today are going to see them: I can record a musician and we can immediately friend each other on Facebook. They see pictures of where I live. Over the past few years, we've bridged this chasm and [the cultures] don’t seem so far away anymore."

    Since Kirkley launched his one-man label, centralized Internet arrived across the Sahel region, but MP3 trading is still prevalent. Practical boundaries continue to exist, though, even beyond language. African musicians, for example, still can't sell their music on DIY standard-bearer Bandcamp. But once such technical issues are resolved, there will be nothing stopping African artists from releasing their music into the world themselves. “Being a label that works with artists in Africa is maybe what it was like to be a label in the U.S. in the late '80s or early '90s, when the indies were coming and everything was about to change and everybody could be their own producer and launch their own music,” Kirkley acknowledges with some combination of resignation and pragmatism.

    So far, the label is best known for the musical film Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red In it), a "docu-fiction" non-remake of Prince’s Purple Rain starring Moctar, and Kirkley has more ambitious plans than to simply put out records and MP3s. After returning from his most recent trip to Africa in September, he is preparing to return the week after we speak in early January, hoping to continue his collaboration on a new film project, which he describes as a “surreal fiction about the search for a lost city in the desert." Kirkley is also working with a filmmaker in Bamako to help realize the 3D film that combines local folklore with big action-movie concepts. "It's super-punk, but with such a big dream," he says.

    The songs and artists below represent some of the best material in the Sahel Sounds catalog thus far. 

    A sampling of Sahel Sounds album covers

    Abba Gargando: "Inor In Tadalat"

    The man known as Abba from the village of Gargando is the first artist on Sahel Sounds’ first-ever release, 2010’s Ishilan n-Tenerecompilation. "He's in the military and his post is central to the ongoing battle with the mysterious Al-Qaedi that haunts the deserts,"Kirkley wrote on his blog in 2011, just before Abba embarked on a "mission."

    "In West Africa, life is violent, and mortality is present all the time," Kirkley tells me. "I never knew people who died before I started traveling to West Africa. Now I know people who've died in the rebellion, but also from disease and easily preventable things." Abba, thankfully, is not among them. Like the label itself, Abba's recent full-length contains a constantly surprising and rewarding breadth. Recorded on the artist's phone and produced via WhatsApp, the electric guitars go digitally fuzzy, the acoustics gain some weird shimmer, and the Casio beats combine with droning grooves to transform into a kind of motorik electro-boogie. When Abba performs, his fans toss their cell phones on the floor in front of him—the rituals of a homegrown taping scene excited to exchange the freshest live recordings.


    Mdou Moctar: "Anar"

    With a drum machine, gentle acoustic guitar, and Auto-Tuned vocals, Mdou Moctar's "Anar" rocketed the Agadez guitarist to success regionally—via cell phones—and then globally. His music eventually turned up in U.S. record stores and scored him European tour dates, including a spot on the Primavera Sound festival bill. This success cemented cell phones’ status as a combination radio network and distribution system, exposing Sahel artists to new listeners. The success of the two Music From Saharan Cell Phones albums "changed my relationship" with the region, Kirkley says. "I don't have to fight to record an artist, especially if I'm with Mdou. When we go to see a band, Mdou will explain how I work, what my philosophy is, how I'm not going to pay them up front but I won't release their music without paying them."


    Mai Dawayya: "Oloflufemi"

    Kano is where to go when trying to make it big in the Bollywood-influenced movies that come out of Nigeria's northern Hausa-speaking region. "The music scenes [in the films] are amazing," says Kirkley of the local films that began to spring up in the ’90s. But the music grabbed him the most. It represents some of the most global-sounding pop the label has documented: Auto-Tuned and cartoon-colored, filled with quick-cut changes, skittering e-drums, and melodramatic fun. The label's 2013 compilation Harafin So: Bollywood Inspired Film Music from Hausa Nigeria provides an overview of the genre, which offers an infectious sound world that seems likely to eventually spawn a global superstar-producer, or at least exert its influence on pop. "Oloflufemi" has a lighter-than-air bounce as it engenders the willingly over-the-top fantasies of Bollywood at its most bonkers. 


    DJ Sandji: "Side A"

    The most sheer overload on Sahel Sounds' releases comes with their documentation of the street party scene in the residential neighborhoods of Bamako, Mali's capital. A modernized offshoot of rural gatherings featuring balafon orchestras and percussionists, the urban sound systems turned to CDJs in the late '90s and, more recently, straight-up digital production. A confusion of songs and beats with clattering digital balafons, MCs, and refrains, the Balani Show is a medium as much as a genre. The parties themselves, Kirkley says, are often wild and drunken affairs. Issued on cassette and distributed in part in Africa as well as on Bandcamp, DJ Sandji's 100% Balani Show is two half-hour sides of unceasing choruses, responses, joyous synths, and fuck-you, lo-fi drop-outs, nothing short of a dizzying party.


    Mariam Ahmed and Fatou Seidi Ghali

    "My label has been fairly male-dominated because I tend to record who I can hang out with, and the cultural norm is not to hang out with a lot of women,” says Kirkley. But perhaps the most beautiful music anywhere in the work Kirkley has broadcast through his Sahel Sounds platforms comes from the three tracks he has posted by what he claims are "the only two female Tuareg guitarists in Niger," Mariam Ahmed and Fatou Seidi Ghali. "The Tuareg guitar is a fairly male-dominated musical genre, so when I heard that there were women that played, I wanted to meet them,” Kirkley says. “I can't really speak to if there are social pressures or why more women don't play the guitar, but they are quite well-known for that now." This month, Sahel will release a full-length featuring Ghali; one side will feature her solo acoustic playing and singing, and the other will feature traditional tinde drumming.


    Selections from a cyber cafe in Senegal

    When the centralized Internet began to arrive in West Africa in the two years after Kirkley’s arrival, cyber cafes sprang up to provide access. Like the eclectic Napster "mic-in" folders of the early '00s, where users accidentally exposed certain audio files on their computers to curious seekers, the desktops in these cafes became strewn with stray files—a perfect source for a certain kind of digital collection. The cafes represented "a local chain of hard drives and memory sticks where traffic is not metaphoric, but represents real physical movement," wrote Kirkley in 2011. In one harvest, he presented ESL hip-hop and a long track of an English-to-Farsi language instruction tape that uses news stories to teach Persian vocabulary (with a side of exotic piano). At this point, with home and phone Internet access becoming more prevalent, "there are a lot of abandoned cafes, which is kind of surreal," Kirkley says. "They're still a great place to find a smattering of digital ephemera, but, increasingly, YouTube is a really good place for digging. Musicians often refer me to a YouTube now, which I could've just looked at from Portland—I didn't have to go to Africa, in some ways, to even hear the music."


    Pheno S.: "Waihidjo" 

    CDJs hit Mali around the turn of the century, and, according to Kirkley, "There is now an entire generation of kids that grew up with this remix culture and [Balani Show] music, and now they're making this music. Similarly, we're in the second generation of rappers [in the region] at this point." Sahel Sounds' first foray into local hip-hop came with Pheno S., a teenage rapper who rose to viral fame after using a barely-coded song to angrily call out his school director for sleeping with female students. The fallout involved scandal and suspension, but Pheno’s beats only got tighter. “These young kids [are] making the strangest, spacey lo-fi beats,” says Kirkley.


    Mamman Sani: "Salamatu"

    Perhaps the most left-field releases in the Sahel Sounds catalog come from Mamman Sami, who composed and performed keyboard interstitials for television and radio in Niger in the ’70s, popular and mysterious African library music. He clarifies, though, that Sahel Sounds isn't keen to do reissues—partly because a lot of music from the region was never released in the first place. “In Niger, they didn't have a record industry, so they didn't get to make these records,” Kirkley says. Mamman and Kirkley and crew have now embarked on several European tours, though they haven't made it to the States yet. "Sahel Sounds is just me, so it's a lot of work, and I haven't been approached by [an American] booking agency,” he says. “It's a process with a steep learning curve."


    Brainstorm: "Vanessa"

    The Sahel Sounds influence has spread far, stretching through various remix and cover projects back in the United States, including Portland band Brainstorm's phonetic cover of Mdou Moctar's "Anar," re-dubbed "Vanessa." Like the French tradition of artists covering American pop with different lyrics, the new words suit Moctar's song just fine, especially when leveled into the international language of Auto-Tune. And, like some of Sahel Sounds' cassettes, Kirkley brought the recording back to the Sahel, where it migrated into the cell network. Later, Kirkley says, "I heard it in Nouakchott, which means it jumped over from Niger all the way to Mauritania. I found it on a phone and got really excited, and nobody could understand why." 


    Uchronia—Field Recordings From Alternate Realities: "Bambara Affirmations, Relaxation Cassette"

    The most conceptual record in the Sahel Sounds pile is easily Uchronia: Field Records From Alternate Realities, in which Kirkley co-produced tracks with African artists with no thought towards authenticity other than collaboration. On "Bambara Affirmations, Relaxation Cassette," the Bamako producer Luka—the subject of one of the label's latest releases—tackled the idea of a new age jam. "We sat him down with his friends and explained what a new age affirmation cassette is,” says Kirley. “We had his girlfriend do these translations of like, 'You're a butterfly flying through the sky, your worries are melting away,' and sort of conceptualized what it would be like if taxi drivers were listening to relaxation cassettes." Kirkley is increasingly open to finding paths between independent African producers and their American counterparts. "I try to bring over some really esoteric stuff [to play for African musicians], and a lot of times it just doesn't go over that well." But many of the musicians are keen to collaborate, and Kirkley is excited about yet another form of exchange.

    Uchronia—Field Recordings From Alternate Realities: "Bambara Affirmations, Relaxation Cassette" (via SoundCloud)


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    Podcasts: In Sight Out: Neko Case

    In December, Pitchfork Senior Editor Amy Phillips sat down with Neko Case for a conversation in front of an audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. It was the latest installment of In Sight Out, a collaborative series between Pitchfork and the MCA that explores new perspectives on music, art, and culture. A few weeks earlier, Case had released a discography-spanning box set, Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule. Over the course of an hour, Case reflected on her career so far, including her songwriting and recording process, her work with the New Pornographers, her life on the road and on her farm in Vermont, and more. She also wanted to make one thing very clear: Just because she released a box set, it doesn’t mean she’s finished putting out new music.

    In Sight Out is presented by MailChimp.


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    Rising: Stormzy: Grime Heavyweight

    Sixty-one seconds into Stormzy’s recent "One Take Freestyle" video, the 22-year-old south London MC flashes a smile that contains many of his multitudes: cheek, charm, poise, cunning, triumph. But just as soon as you spot it, it’s gone; he quickly hides his mouth, screws up his face, and fires up a soliloquy on the themes of inexorable pride and violated supremacy.

    It’s a Tuesday afternoon when I meet Stormzy in his skeletally furnished flat. Showing me in, he carries himself in the way of the nouveau-famous, swinging between rooms and surveying them with sunken eyes, somehow hunted yet irrepressibly chipper. If he isn’t the loudest voice in grime, he’s probably the most charismatic, and that magnetism paid dividends late last year when his unlikely hit “Shut Up” sallied into the UK Top 10. On record, he sounds at once bewildered and furious, as if bearing down on a man half his size who, fancying his luck after a few pints, took a swing and missed, then tripped over his heels on the way out. When rivals call Stormzy’s name, he fires back, if at all, with an air of pitying disgust, like an emperor sending petty thieves to their death. Opening his first verse on "Hear Dis," he drops in so hard the rest of the song seems to stop and take notice: "Errrrrrrm, you cunt!"

    Born Michael Omari in 1993, Stormzy was raised Christian to a single mom in Croydon, the capital’s furthest south borough. In conversation, he pays dues to his warm-spirited household and waxes lyrical about his Ghanaian heritage as if its vastness has only just dawned on him. To his horror, he’s recently faced up to being the only member of his family who doesn’t speak the native tongue—"I’m the oddball who didn’t catch on," he sighs. In school, while hardly a model student, Stormzy was effortlessly prodigious, routinely breezing exams. After the bell he would rush home, change clothes, and congregate with friends around the block, blasting Limewire-cribbed grime tracks through tinny cell phone speakers. Returning home, he tested his own bars on his sister. “She’d tell me, 'work on your flow,'" he recalls, smiling.

    Where his peers covet old-school integrity, Stormzy is eclectic and ambitious, unashamed to mix R&B, chart-pop, road rap, and UK hip-hop into a body of work broad and palatable enough to alienate grime purists. There’s also vulnerability in his music–notably on "Storm Trooper," about counselling a friend through an abusive relationship–which emerges not through autobiography but sensitivity to his characters. To disciples of grime as working-class futurism—the anarchic punk spirit refracted through decades of rave culture, technological innovation, and the black British experience—Stormzy's music may prove frustratingly well-measured; when he pictures progress, he sees grime expanding outward, rather than charging forward.

    He’s set to conquer new ground, whether within or apart from the pack. “Please take it where we couldn’t my brother,” read an early co-sign from Wiley, the scene godfather whose trajectory mirrors that of grime itself—UK garage, pirate radio, East London MC battles, a crossover single, and a questionable major label dalliance. But Stormzy is charting his own course. He’s unsigned, for one thing, despite his focus on recorded output rather than radio spots. Yet he still won the coveted MOBO Award for Best Grime Act two years running, joined Kanye West onstage at the Brits, played rock-oriented TV show "Later... with Jools Holland" in a tracksuit, rapped for the victor of a heavyweight boxing title fight, charted a grime single without a chorus (then topped it with the same track’s B-side), and landed a role in the upcoming feature film Brotherhood. He was also tapped by Beats 1 to present his own radio show, the UK underground spotlight "#Merky"; he had just returned from recording episode 11 when we met at his flat.

    "Behind the mic, I’m fully confident. That's where I need to be."


    —Stormzy

    Pitchfork: There’s a lyric in your song "Not That Deep" where you describe yourself as the "boy in da corner," referencing Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album. But you’ve always seemingly had more swagger than early-period Dizzee, when he was the outsider looking in.

    Stormzy: On the microphone, I’m not scared to step up and say, "This is my ability, this is how good I am." In other areas of life, I’m not so confident; I’m still adjusting to the photo shoots, all that stuff. But behind the mic, I’m fully confident. That's where I need to be. 

    Pitchfork: When did you first see that confidence in yourself? 

    S: It’s something that’s been in me from a young age. Before the mic, I was confident in my academic abilities. When I’m good at something, I always try to be the best at it and claim that throne. Even in school, I never let anyone say anything to me, I would always be the smartest. Back then I was properly bubbly, the class clown, but then quite a little bit of a shit as well. 

    Pitchfork: How so? 

    S: I remember me and my best friend, who got kicked out, were two little cocky shits that would just cuss the teachers. So blasé. It was more cheeky than malicious. We saw this one teacher and we’d just start cussing his shoes out, like, “Your shoes, sir,” and he’d be like, “What’s wrong with my shoes?” “Your shoes are fucking shit!” We proper wound him up, got under his skin. And then he got quite upset and started saying stuff back, and it became a full blown fucking cussing match between a teacher and two students. Looking back, it was ridiculous: He was ridiculous for arguing back and I was ridiculous for starting it. I got excluded for that because they got a screenshot, when we were arguing, where I was literally coming at him, my face all screwed up. That was a bad one.

    Pitchfork: Were you quite good at winding people up, generally?

    S: Yeah, I had loads of raw emotions. I was always quite angry or over the top. So if I was happy I was very energetic, and if I was angry I’d mash up the classroom. I just couldn’t control it.

    Pitchfork: After quitting college, you moved away to do a project engineering apprenticeship. Was it a shock to leave London?

    S: Yeah. I remember not hearing the sirens for six months and thinking that was so crazy. No one knew who I was back home or what I used to get up to. I was two different people: one good professional who did all his assignments—and then, on the weekends, I was back in London being Stormzy. Not even Stormzy the rapper, just Stormzy the hoodlum. But coming back just made me realize how distant I was becoming from my life [in London]. It didn’t make sense for me to be a criminal on the weekends. But when I was working in the oil refinery, it became apparent to me that I wasn’t a project engineer.

    Pitchfork: You have explained why you don’t vote. Do politics and grime overlap for you—jobs, tuition fees, the housing crisis?

    S: It’s more of a knock-on effect: When it’s in your area, you’re gonna hear the frustrations. During the time of the riots [in 2011], you’re gonna hear the direct effect of it, because our people are getting killed, our people are out there rioting. The hood’s always been like that: What’s going on over there doesn't affect me, and that’s cool. Maybe you’ll hear lyrics where people are talking about student loans; I could imagine me putting that in a lyric. [In fact, he already did: "I wanna go uni but they went and raised tuition," he rapped on early track "The Beginning of the End," "so if I go on a killing spree, blame the politicians."]

    Pitchfork: You recently travelled to Ghana and South Africa for documentaries, and visited Nigeria to perform. How connected do you feel with Ghana and West Africa? 

    S: One-hundred percent. My mum was born and raised in Ghana and has a lot of Ghanaian values and traditions and morals. All that rubbed off on me, and that’s why I have a lot of love and good energy in me—that universal energy is a Ghanaian thing. That’s why I’ve fallen in love with my country again.

    Pitchfork: There’s a line in the intro to Dreamers Disease: “You don’t even ever hear me rap about pain.” Does that relate to how you were brought up? 

    S: Yeah, exactly. For me, it’s like, “What are you gonna decide to speak on?” I went through all this pain, but my mom was still strong—always smiling, providing for me, not moping around. It must have been so difficult for her but she didn’t say, “This is shit, fuck the kids.” Growing up, things were probably a lot more difficult than I knew or understood. But because of how she carried on championing through, I didn’t really notice.

    Pitchfork: Is Ghana shaping your identity as an artist as well?

    S: I grew up as a British kid—I went to school in London, roamed the streets of London—but having these interactions with my roots and going back to Ghana, I’m like, “Yeah this is sick.” I love my country and my people, and the energy and vibes that they bring back. So I want to rep that and be a part of it. I need people to know that is where I’m from.


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    Rising: Anderson .Paak and The Power of Positive R&B

    Anderson .Paak: "Come Down" (via SoundCloud)

    Before he was Anderson .Paak, Brandon Anderson Paak was Breezy Lovejoy—a ridiculous name, particularly for a modern-day singer and rapper, but there’s also something beautifully old-fashioned to it. The moniker speaks to the basic philosophy that music should heal, that it is rooted in kindness. This belief seems to still be central to the 30-year-old’s character now that he’s Anderson .Paak, recent Aftermath signee. When he shows up to breakfast in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hungover after performing on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” he relates a horrifying story about his upbringing, the kind that might engulf another person’s life in darkness entirely, but there is no self-pity or rancor in his voice whatsoever.

    “My dad went to prison for drug abuse and domestic abuse for beating my mom,” he says, casually, slipping an Alka-Seltzer into his water glass. “The last time I saw him he was on top of her, blood in the streets. I was, like, 7 years old. He did 14 and a half years in prison. The next time I saw him, he was being buried.” His father was a Navy man who was honorably discharged for marijuana and spiraled downward upon his return home: “My mom tried to get into him to rehab, but that didn't work out. Before we knew it, he felt some type of way about my mom, and eventually decided he wanted to kill her.” He pauses. “My mom says he was an amazing dad, but once the drugs got ahold, he went haywire.” 

    This story is harrowing, but Paak alludes to it on “The Bird,” from his breakout album Malibu, in the gentlest and most forgiving language possible. “Mama was a farmer/ Papa was a goner,” he sings. (His mother ran a produce business after his father went to jail; she also spent some time in prison for tax-related issues.) Paak, who plugged away quietly for years as a solo artist before Dr. Dre enlisted him to work on his 2015 comeback album Compton, seems preternaturally gifted at extracting positivity from pain.

    Anderson .Paak: "The Bird" (via SoundCloud)

    “My mom has all the reason to be bitter, but she's not,” he says. “Even with my pops, she never talked down to me. She just said to watch out for the drugs, because it’s in my blood—my grandfather had the same situation.”

    Years of eking out an existence on the margins seems to have steadied him internally. He has prepared for this moment. Years ago, he made a vision board laying out his future accomplishments. “I wanted to be a part of a #1 album, to get record and publishing deals, a car, health insurance, a new place to stay. I wanted to sell 10,000 units. Simple stuff.”

    Now he’s done all of the above and more, but he doesn’t seem to be impressed with himself, just relieved. “There was a time where I thought it might not happen, and I was figuring out what I would do instead,” he confides. “I was seeing other people get on, thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’” As a father and a husband, Paak now has an acute sense of his responsibilities. “I really didn’t want to be one of those cynical dudes in L.A. who just hates everything,” he says. “I was not going to be a deadbeat musician; maybe I would just be a dad, eat what I want and get fat, be domesticated Brandon.” It didn’t come to that, but it’s clear his family never leaves his mind. There is a wolf ring on his left ring finger, a substitution for a wedding band that speaks to his essence. “I'm still a wolf,” he deadpans, “but a tame wolf.”

    "Don't talk to anyone like they're lower than you, because you never know when you need help."


    —Anderson .Paak

    Pitchfork: You worked odd jobs for years before you were picked up by Dr. Dre—were there any especially memorable ones? 

    Anderson .Paak: I used to work with mentally disabled people when I was 18 or 19, changing diapers and catheters. I was working like 16 hour night shifts, having to distribute meds and go capture people who would break out of the house. Sometimes they'd have seizures, and we'd have to rush them to the hospital. That was an interesting time, very humbling. I was there for two years, off and on. It taught me to really appreciate the things you take for granted: You have all your limbs, you can see and breathe.

    You find out the subtle little things you can relate to, like having conversations without words. There was one couple who had been married for 30 or 40 years; they were both paraplegic and suffered from multiple sclerosis. They both could barely talk. Everything was completely fine with their mental capacity, but their body and muscle functions were not right. They were in their 50s, so not even that old. When I was first working for them, I couldn't understand anything that they were saying, but after a couple months we had full conversations. The lady was really cool; I'd be coming in late and she wouldn't snitch on me. My car was this shitty little ‘89 Honda that would never start. They would always call Triple AAA and help me out.

    Pitchfork: Did that experience teach you anything about your approach to music?

    AP: A little bit. It’s just important to treat everybody the same, even when you're having a bad time. Everyone is important. Don’t talk to anyone like they're lower than you, because you never know when you need help. You don't have to be an asshole. 

    Anderson .Paak: "Am I Wrong" [ft. Schoolboy Q] (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: What was your earliest musical memory?

    AP: Riding in my mom’s truck, listening to stuff like Frankie Beverly and Maze, Stevie Wonder. My mom had a produce business in in Oxnard, and we used to take these long trips to talk to farmers and different distributors. She’d take us with her after picking us up from school and she'd be blasting all this old soul music and R&B. I knew all those O’Jays songs before I knew Snoop or Dre or Tupac.

    Pitchfork: How old were you when you first got excited about rap?

    AP: I was probably like 6 years old, around first grade. The Chronic was out, and so was Snoop, plus all these big movies: Juice, Poetic Justice, Above the Rim. I loved the dancing, the art, the video, the presentation. I was an MTV kid. My parents worked a lot, and my sisters were older than me so I didn't really kick it with them, so a lot of times  I was in front of the MTV watching Kriss Kross and Another Bad Creation. When Snoop and Dre came out, I wanted to learn every word so I could be the kid that knew all the lyrics at school and could show that off for Show and Tell. I performed all of "Gin and Juice" and "Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang" and was sent to the principal's office for cursing. I thought I was a little thug.

    Pitchfork: Your first instrument was the drums. When did you start?

    AP: I didn't start playing drums until I was 12, for school band; they didn’t have any saxophones left. My step-pops had a kit at the house, and I had never done anything that I understood so quick, it was so natural. It was the most fun and consistent thing in my life. I remember my mom coming inside, and she was like, “Oh shit, you already know how to play!” and she was dancing. I never saw her dance before, and that really sparked something.

    Then one time my god sister saw me playing a beat and told me I needed to come to church. It was one of the few Baptist black churches in the county, Evangelistic Baptist Church. And I get there, and the choir and everyone is shouting, and I was like, “This is sick.” I had never experienced anything like it. My mom was adopted, and her father was a preacher, but she never pushed it on us.I was just going for the music. At church, I was around some of the most amazing singers and musicians I could even imagine. That’s where I was exposed to a lot of singing and, subconsciously, I was absorbing all of it. When you hear my style now you can hear a lot of church in my music. 

    Pitchfork: You have a choir on the Malibu track "The Dreamer" right?

    AP: Yeah, those are my nieces. I have four girl nieces and they all love to sing and I'm always looking for ways to get them in the studio. 

    Anderson .Paak: "The Dreamer" [ft. Talib Kweli and Timan Family Choir] (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Your style reminds me of Dungeon Family-era Cee-Lo, is that just a coincidence or did he influence you?

    AP: One of my favorite albums is [Goodie Mob’s] Soul Food, and I loved [OutKast’s] ATLiens, and I feel like that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was one of the most influential albums ever. The Love Below showed me where hip-hop can go. That album really inspired the generation of R&B that's going out right now, and how people like Kanye West and Frank Ocean came to a level of hip-hop that’s outside of rapping.

    Anderson .Paak: "The Season / Carry Me" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: On “Carry Me” you rap, “I was sleeping on the floor, newborn baby boy/ Tryna get my money pot so wifey wouldn’t get deported.” What’s the full story behind those lines?

    AP: My wife was born in Korea, and we met in music college; she was there for vocal, and I was there for drums. We hit it off. She went back to Korea and when she came back that's when she got pregnant. I had already been married when I was 21—a shotgun marriage—but we got an annulment right away and I vowed never to get married again. But my [current] wife never pressured me and always let me be who I am. I love it. She's a musician too, plays keys. I’d never been around anyone whose first language is not English, and just watching her grow and get better at that—she's just a genius. She came here with no family, and I was helping her with that. I saw her being so trustworthy. So when she got pregnant, I was like, “We'll make it work.” I was making pennies at the time and had no clue how I was going to muster up all these thousands of dollars to get her residency permit and try to take care of a kid. I was just a bum who only cared about having enough for our weed and that’s it. So that's when I started selling weed. I was eventually making $5000 every few days, in cash.

    Pitchfork: That’s a lot.

    AP: I never had that much money in my life. But as quick as it came, it was gone. I didn't know how to manage money. The [immigration] deadlines were getting close, and I didn't want to have to force her to get a job, because who would watch our son? But I was able to go through that process with her, pay for the kid, keep everyone together. By the time my son was born, I had stopped doing the whole weed thing and I was trying to get back into music, put out my tape, and get legit. I was playing with [“American Idol” contestant] Haley Reinhart and made one of my first big checks with that. And that's how I got a place for my fam. Then we went on tour and everything got better every year after that.


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    From the Pitchfork Review: Lizzy Mercier Descloux: Behind the Muse

    The following story was originally published in our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, last year. Subscribe to the magazine here.


    Lizzy Mercier Descloux died in obscurity in April 2004, 20 years after what was ostensibly her musical heyday. A Lyon-born art school dropout and devotee of Rimbaud and Godard, she was every bit the romantic French archetype, as well as an innovator and witness to numerous pivotal moments in musical and cultural history.

    She saw Patti Smith and Television at CBGBs and Basquiat at the Kitchen. She recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau while Grace Jones made Nightclubbing next door. She collaborated with Soweto musicians in apartheid-era South Africa years before Graceland. She persuaded Chet Baker to play trumpet on her penultimate album, which turned out to be one of his final recordings. Though expert archivists Light in the Attic recently reissued her discography, she has mostly remained a footnote to other people’s careers.

    In his 2013 autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Descloux’s former lover Richard Hell invokes her memory with grim fetishization: “She was an intellectual sex-kitten chanteuse adventuress little girl.” Most of her old paramours still bitch about their rivals’ dreadful influences on Descloux’s career, each claiming a different account of how she truly felt and how much control she wielded. Stories abound of various collaborators pushing her in this direction and that while she griped about being worked so hard, yet she freely made five albums and one EP, followed her whims across the globe, and never conveyed anything less than a steely sense of autonomy, engagement, and intent in the many interviews she did during that period.

    If there is a conclusive riposte to whether she was mused and used by the men around her, it’s in the consistency of her work over that decade—as suitors came and went—which defines her as a visionary, forging unconventional marriages of sound and attempting to push her singing to non-verbal transcendence. When examining Descloux’s unique voice, her strong and ever-shifting image, and her considerable achievements, one question becomes immediate: How could such a person possibly have been forgotten by history?

    For one night in Paris, on July 8, 2004, Patti Smith elevated Descloux to her rightful stature as a French musical institution. Smith’s name was above the door at the venue Le Bataclan in the 11th arrondissement, but her stage backdrop bore Descloux’s name and the dates of her life: “1956–2004.” During the concert, Smith dedicated “Easter” to her old friend, who had died a few months before, after being diagnosed with cancer the previous year.

    In 1978 Smith released “Easter” and the album of the same name, both of which heavily referenced the life of Arthur Rimbaud. A year earlier, she and Descloux had made a more lighthearted tribute to the French poet: A set of photos from 1977 depict Descloux suited up as Rimbaud and Smith in a white dress playing his sister, Isabelle. They dangle off one another like besotted young female friends do, capering around the Soho loft decorated with Soviet flags and Sex Pistols iconography that they shared when Descloux moved from Paris to New York in 1977 to start her musical career.

    Descloux with Patti Smith in 1976. Photo by Michel Esteban.

    Smith had arguably introduced Rimbaud to New York’s burgeoning punk scene a few years earlier—his dissolute artistic self-sacrifice making him a natural punk godfather—and in Descloux, Smith found someone equally interested in, as Greil Marcus put it in Lipstick Traces, “[destroying] the line in favor of the word.” At the end of 1977, Descloux made her first release, a book of poetry and collage called Desiderata, in which she began pursuing her delight in the rhythmic, nonsensical potential of sound. “I will not stay in one place,” she wrote in the untitled French poem that opens the collection. Then, several lines later: “The ‘bourgeoisie’ is an invention/ To kill the weapon of my soul.”

    Descloux’s final recorded output was a bilingual recitation of Rimbaud’s “Matinée d’Ivresse” (“Morning High”) with Smith in 1995 for composer Bill Laswell. Both women sound notably older: Smith’s voice is a scathing scrape, while lifelong chainsmoker Descloux has dropped several octaves and smoulders seductively. Although they had lost touch in the intervening years, one line felt like the perfect summation of their late-’70s friendship: “We know how to give our life fully every day,” they intone, palimpsest-style.

    Descloux got her cultural awakening thanks to another forgotten French musical institution. In 1972, 21-year-old Michel Esteban rented a store for his mail-order rock merchandising company Harry Cover at 12 Rue des Halles, in a working-class neighborhood of Paris. It became the place to go: Kids would convene around the free jukebox, while Malcolm McLaren would visit to keep up with les branchés.

    Across the road at 11 Rue des Halles lived Descloux with her aunt and uncle. (Her mother wasn’t interested in children; her father didn’t know she existed until she found him online and met him a few months before her death.)

    In spring 1975, Esteban spotted the 18-year-old Descloux on the balcony of her aunt and uncle’s apartment. Enchanted, he left a note tied to her bike, and she came into his shop. Disillusioned with school and barely showing up for her classes at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, she dropped out completely after falling in love and moving in with Esteban. 

    The success of Harry Cover had enabled Esteban to start visiting America, and on a trip to New York in 1974 he befriended the Ramones, Television, and Patti Smith. “I knew something was really happening there,” he says. “Nobody was saying anything in the French press, so I thought, why not make a magazine?” He and Descloux started Rock News in January 1976; the first issue featured Iggy Pop on the cover, and they distributed 10,000 copies nationwide. After the magazine’s launch, the pair continued to make frequent reporting trips to the United States.

    Although Descloux described her journalistic endeavors as “completely crap” to a Belgian weekly in 1984, her observations and prose in Rock News were unquestionably sharp. On Patti Smith: “Women are usually groupies or the silent circle of photographers, managers, or the soul sister of rock’n’roll. The myth of the sexy pin-up, unthinkable regarding Patti, has been crushed beneath the foot of this strange, neurotic person, who is possessed of a sexual power as unknowable as it is vast.” Describing the Sex Pistols: “My kingdom for a vibrator! What is bad taste? That’s what the Sex Pistols are asking you. Alors! The hugeness of their destitution and the coldness of their boredom freeze our bones in the prime of life.”

    A mere six months after starting Rock News, Esteban and Descloux had already appeared in Amos Poe’s documentary Blank Generation and commissioned Kim Fowley to interview the Runaways—but then they declared punk dead and closed the magazine. A year later, the couple moved to New York, where Esteban partnered with Michael Zilkha to start the pivotal no wave label ZE Records, and Descloux acquired a Fender Jazzmaster. The couple split up, pledging to keep things strictly business.

    Descloux in 1980. Photo by Seth Tillet.

    Descloux explained, “Once I found myself with a guitar in my hands it was inevitable—I was committed to singing [...] It’s easier for me to convey something in song than in writing.” Having never played a note before, she embraced her amateur aesthetic (perhaps especially its Rimbaudian rejection of convention?) but remained acutely aware of rock’s transcendent potential hidden beneath the prevailing hoary old tropes. Similarly, she told Creem, “Very often now when a woman plays guitar they really try to be equal to men, so they’re just gonna practice so they sound like Jimmy Page. I think women have a certain sensibility that could make them approach guitar in a very, very different way, in a beautiful way.”

    “Beautiful” is not quite the word for the approach she took in Rosa Yemen, the duo she formed with Esteban’s brother Didier in 1978. She explained the band’s two-guitar lineup in an interview with New York Rocker: “We couldn’t get a drummer—all the drummers we were auditioning, they were almost scared of the music [...] It was just too weird.” They started playing ferocious shows at clubs like the Kitchen, the murderous intent of their namesakes (European anarchists like Rosa Luxembourg and Germany’s Baader Meinhof Group) echoed in their vitriolic and discomfiting performances. Harrowing vignettes were needled out on guitar while Descloux yelped fragmented declarations in French and English. 

    Rosa Yemen recorded a single, self-titled EP at Bob Blank’s Blank Tapes studio. In July 1978 it became ZE’s fifth release. Descloux rejoiced, saying: “ZE knew [the EP] wouldn’t go anywhere, that nobody would buy it, and they were just doing it and paying for it and it was great.”

    In February 1979, Descloux returned to Blank Tapes for 10 days to record her solo debut, Press Color. The record’s fusion of no wave and disco was notably more melodic than Rosa Yemen, and the change in direction was partially the result of ZE’s “vision of what their artists should be and how they should do things.” Descloux’s labelmate James Chance avers that the label was pushing disco on their artists but letting them interpret it however they wanted. In Descloux’s case, this meant yoking her newfound love of African and funk music to disco’s strong rhythmic foundations, while she pursued guitar tones that sounded nothing like rock.

    Press Color was released as Descloux’s first solo album, but it was originally intended to be a group effort. “It felt natural to put her name on it,” says Esteban. “She was the main character.” But she told a Belgian paper that there were songs on the record she didn’t like, including her cover of Arthur Brown’s “Fire.” It’s at this point that questions begin arise as to who was making the decisions. “Michel, from the very beginning, always saw her as his ticket to stardom, as his big star,” says Seth Tillett, a former boyfriend. “She always didn’t really give a fuck. If anyone was a reluctant singer, that was Lizzy. There’s that famous photo of her in black and white, practically strangling herself with her guitar amp cord on stage—it’s the perfect image for me about Lizzy’s ambivalence.”

    Descloux with Lydia Lunch at a show in New York City in 1980. Photo by Lisa Genet.

    Yet Descloux was adamant when a Creem journalist asked whether she felt exploited: “No, not at all. I mean, I write the music that I’m doing, I’m not only performing… I mean—I’m not just used by some male musician who’s going to dress me up and have me to dance just to look sexy on stage and just be a support for some kind of music.” But Esteban admits to pushing her so hard in the studio that they fought frequently. He wanted her to sing rather than yelp, imagining that he was encouraging her to reach her full capabilities, but Press Color shows her revelling in the potential of her naïve approach. “I’ll never have a golden throat!” she whoops, leaping between high and low notes on every opposing syllable of “No Golden Throat.”

    “Right now I’m not at all a writer of words,” she explained. “I’m using the words completely for what they sound like, how they fit with the rhythms. I’m not interested in writing a love song, or a political statement about what’s happening with Ireland, like people are gonna listen to my lyrics and it’s gonna change the youth of the world… What’s beautiful is that I don’t speak perfect English but I can get lost in the dictionary and just discover the words.”

    After Press Color was released, Descloux says she “did all the clubs in New York,” first as support, then as headliner. Despite the practice, a feature in New York Rocker from July 1980 indicates that her performances of this material were hesitant in comparison to the unhinged Rosa Yemen shows that she had relished. Sally Dricks wrote: “It’s frustrating to want to goad a performer as talented as Lizzy Mercier Descloux toward what only time, experience and confidence will make possible, but it won’t be long before she learns to command that space before a crowd by pushing herself just a little bit further than she thinks she’s able to do, further than she knows will make an easy return.”

    It’s hard to find any indication that Descloux craved attention or adoration; she left Paris in order to escape the stultifying working-class life lived by her aunt and uncle, the latter of whom worked in the Renault factory by day and played boules at the Jardin des Tuileries after hours. By 1980, Descloux had become bored of New York’s self-limiting attitude: “You get exhausted very quickly because there’s no way of getting out of the club scene [...] You can be huge there and nothing in the rest of the world. Thousands of groups never get out, they try to play Boston and California but it’s a disaster. Look at the Lounge Lizards, no label wants to sign them and they get the best crowds, sell the most tickets, it’s been nearly two years. They said to me the other day that they reckon they earn $30 a week, so they are going to stop.”

    Likewise, she railed against indifferent audiences: “They stand there holding a beer. It’s young Americans who come out on Saturday night because they’re bored. You’re just an attraction.” 

    A chance to move on came when Island Records licensed ZE’s catalog and label head Chris Blackwell invited Descloux to record in Compass Point Studios in Nassau on his dime. She readily accepted, having become a big fan of the African and Caribbean music she’d heard on compilations released by French label Ocora. Esteban assembled a band (including producer Steve Stanley and French synthesizer giant Wally Badarou), and recording began. Badarou describes the sessions as largely improvisation-based, with Descloux functioning as a “one-of-a-kind catalyst, enabling creative forces to blossom without any preconceived ideas. She had the kind of drive and charisma that would make anyone involved more focused on trespassing boundaries.”

    Released in 1981, the tightly wound Mambo Nassau is Descloux’s greatest record: It bounces on the same kind of pancultural groove with which M.I.A. would make a name for herself decades later, blaring with the sound of city sirens reinterpreted by lusty brass. She yips in a kind of pidgin Franglais, unleashing joyous trills and impish taunts. And for the first time, the vivid music on the record matches the exuberance of her live performance. Talking Heads’ Fear of Music was talked up for its Afro-beat credentials, but the music was fundamentally recognizable as New York art rock. As potentially commercial as it seems now, Mambo Nassau is an uncontainable masterpiece that genuinely sounds like little else that was around at the time.

    Despite the record’s promise, its release was marred by chronic distribution problems and Esteban’s departure from ZE (though he remained Descloux’s de facto manager). “You spend eight months of your life making something, then at the end you realise it will never come out because three bankers are arguing over a bit of vinyl,”  Descloux said.

    With no distribution deal and two poorly selling albums, it was difficult for Descloux to secure another contract, but Alain Levy, then at CBS, liked her records and offered a deal. The move to CBS led journalists to ask pointedly whether she had sold out. Descloux refuted the accusations, reasoning that ZE was an imprint of the major-owned Island. For her, the very notion of selling out vindicated everything she thought about the underground: “The underground—that so often means that you just lack means [...] It was good at the time when I was doing my musical apprenticeship, but it doesn’t interest me any more. Those who refuse to get out of the underground are often bitter and stubborn.”

    Descloux wanted to record in South Africa with black mbaqanga musicians in the midst of apartheid, despite the UN’s cultural boycott: “It all came from one day when a friend played me some South African records that knocked me over [...] Straight away I said I wanted to work with these people. And voilà: it’s a record of a meeting between different worlds, not just the story of a European woman who goes to Africa. I wasn’t there to find the sound of tam-tams or the hissing of snakes, or, like an anthropologist, resuscitate ancient cave rhythms. Their music is very alive.”

    Uncertain, CBS funded demo sessions in Paris with producer Adam Kidron, but he and Descloux were unable to find the sound they wanted. Determined to get to South Africa, Mercier found reduced plane tickets and a cheap studio; CBS signed the check, and Descloux, Esteban, and Kidron—whom she was now dating—toured Africa before arriving in Soweto to record. 

    Initially, the mbaqanga musicians regarded her suspiciously. This was the aftermath of Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock, on which he had sampled music from South Africa, South America, and the Caribbean without crediting some of the musicians—which landed him in court. However, after a week the musicians decided that Descloux’s intentions were honorable and began to jam with her, though their collaboration had to remain within the studio. Descloux was shocked by the realities of apartheid: “You can’t go to the cinema with a black person, sleep at their house, embrace them, dance with them in clubs [...] Racism exists everywhere. In New York, I have black friends who can’t get a cab in the evening. But the terrible thing in South Africa is that racism is part of the system. There are white people, then Indians, then the Métis, and finally black people.”

    Descloux in South Africa circa 1983. Photo by Michel Esteban.

    The resulting album, Zulu Rock, earned Descloux the Bus d’Acier award for Best French Rock Album of the Year (an accolade she found hilarious given how unlike French rock the album actually was) and spawned a hit single, “Mais Où Sont Passés Les Gazelles,” an impressionistic protest song about apartheid based on her band’s re-recording of the music of Obed Ngobeni and Kurhula Sisters’ “Ku Hluvukile Eka Zete.” She used the song’s video shoot as an excuse to spend eight hours interviewing Soweto locals about their experiences of apartheid, intending to release it along with a book on her return home, though it never came out.

    “I’ve always been aware of racism and intolerance, but the project very quickly became political,” she said. “But I think being subtle is better than barbed wire and a black fist on the cover. The fact that the record exists is significant enough.” She is more unequivocal on “Sun’s Jive,” however, singing of the Afrikaners,“They should go back and disappear forever/ Where? The middle of nowhere/ The bottom of the sea.”

    Unfortunately, her good intentions unravelled when it became clear that some of the South African source material had not been credited. “We listened to the top records in South Africa at the time, took the melodies, re-recorded them with a bunch of musicians and she just put French lyrics on top of them,” says Kidron. Esteban refutes his claims: “Some songs are covers. The rest were studio jams. I made the deal with the musicians there and did the publishing there, everything was normal.”

    French monthly Actuel gave Zulu Rock a rave review one month, but on learning of the controversy, retracted it the next. Descloux said, “They accused me of having stolen traditional songs like Malcolm McLaren. It’s not true—half of the music on this album is credited to its authors, and the other half is made up of popular music that I rearranged and re-adapted to such an extent that nobody has the right to put their name to it. Nobody would be able to recognize them, the songs have changed.” (In this way, perhaps, she is as much the original Diplo as she is the original M.I.A.)

    The incident tarnished the only small success of Descloux’s career. She had gone to Soweto with good intentions and wanted to take the South African musicians on tour and then to New Orleans, to record an album fusing mbaqanga and Cajun music. CBS put up the money, but the Praetorian government wouldn’t let the musicians leave. The project was shelved. Exhausted by the amount of promotion CBS made her do, Descloux disappeared for a while to Asia, where she was popular.

    Alain Levy, Descloux’s champion at CBS, left the company, which put her at the mercy of a major. Before he left, he gave her the money to go to Rio de Janeiro to record One for the Soul in 1986. It’s a total sea change from the bright rhythms of her first three records; instead, “Lizzy sings the blues” says Kidron, who once again produced. A drug-ravaged Chet Baker gave one of his last recorded performances, imbuing the record with a mournful tone. Unlike its predecessors, One for the Soul has aged badly; Descloux is drowned out by the overblown ’80s production. “I thought she could have sung better on this album,” says Esteban, who stopped managing her after its release.

    Descloux with Chet Baker in 1985. Photo by Michel Esteban.

    There are few interviews from this period, so it’s hard to tell how Descloux felt about the record: fairly annoyed, one assumes, given that it went nowhere. But “she wasn’t fed up musically,” insists Mars’ Mark Cunningham, who joined her for her final record, 1988’s Suspense, which they recorded in England with producer John Brand. “She put herself into it 100 percent, with no distractions from boyfriends or managers.” 

    Where One for the Soul was unrecognizable as the same artist who once shrieked on stage with Rosa Yemen, there was more of Descloux in Suspense, which proved to be a happy marriage between her unconventional rhythms and the gated synths and snares of ’80s production. The first single, “Gueules d’Amour,” was another flop. “As soon as the label saw they didn’t have a hit, they withdrew the promotion to reduce losses,” says Cunningham. “They destroyed her career, in a sense, by burying the album.”

    It’s almost incomprehensible that Descloux was allowed to release as many unsuccessful major label albums as she was. Nonetheless, she had grown accustomed to handsome recording budgets and label heads who were willing to finance her exotic excursions, so after Suspense was DOA, it’s little surprise that slinking back to the underground held no appeal. She threw herself into painting, briefly coming out of musical retirement for 1995’s “Matinée d’Ivresse” with Patti Smith. That same year she recorded an album for EMI, which was never released. 

    It’s difficult to piece together Descloux’s movements during the last nine years of her life. One friend reports that she worked on a tourist boat on a tropical island and dated a stockbroker whom she didn’t particularly like. She lived in Guadeloupe and later in Happonvilliers, France. In 2003 she was diagnosed with stage-three ovarian and colon cancer but refused conventional treatment. Determined not to die in a hospital, she spent time with Esteban at his home in the south of France, had a brief spell in a Parisian hospital, where she and Esteban said goodbye, and lived out her last weeks in Corsica, passing on April 20, 2004.

    “The public were unmoved by her death and French newspapers barely mentioned it,” says French journalist Simon Clair, who is writing a book on Descloux. France is not exactly rich with great musical exports (as John Lennon once put it, “French rock is like English wine”), so one would have expected the press to deify her. However, she and the French press perceived each other as being snobbish, and deserters never fare well. If her legacy wasn’t recognized, her wake—which took place in CBGBs, organized by Richard Hell—demonstrated her influence. “It was really funny to see how many people felt they were totally possessed by Lizzy, how she was capable of making everyone feel that way,” says Seth Tillett.

    “Lizzy never thought she had something to prove,” says Esteban. “I don’t think she was ambitious in the pejorative sense. She didn’t have that big ego to become a superstar.”

    Descloux was never jaded about her lack of recognition. For her, music was not about success but rather a refusal to accept the limitations of genre, geography, or any other convention. She chose to live like an endless seed of mystery on the breeze. “I don’t work in terms of fashions,” she once said. “At the very limit I might contribute to creating them. But that isn’t intentional.”


    Works cited: Télémoustique, June 28, 1984. Rock News, May 1976. La Dépêche, March 1984. Creem, May 1980. New York Rocker, July/August 1980. Undated clip from Invitation Rock & Folk, August 1980. Télépro, 1984. Chanson, 1984. Le Soir, April 27, 1984. Le Quotidien, August 1984. Nice Matin, April 1984.


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    Podcasts: In Sight Out: Run the Jewels

    In January, Pitchfork Senior Editor Jayson Greene sat down with Run the Jewels for a conversation in front of an audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The interview is part of In Sight Out, a collaborative series between Pitchfork and the MCA that explores new perspectives on music, art, and culture. Over the course of an hour, Killer Mike and El-P discussed collaboration, Bernie Sanders, political corruption in Chicago, and more.

    In Sight Out is presented by MailChimp.


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    Profiles: M83: Nostalgia at the End of the World

    Anthony Gonzalez did not care for the new Star Wars movie.

    “I really loved the first 15 minutes, but then it just started to look like a modern action film,” he says, his French accent worn with disappointment. His grievances are substantial. On returning heroes Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher: "too old." On Darth Vader disciple Kylo Ren: “just ridiculous.” According to the 35-year-old mastermind behind M83, The Force Awakens relied too heavily on computer-generated tricks instead of the original trilogy's more tangible and soulful models and miniatures. It didn't live up to his childhood memories of the space saga; maybe it never had a chance.

    “I feel like we're losing this culture of making things, everything is digital, even in music,” Gonzalez tells me, sounding twice his age. He often longingly dreams of what it would have been like if he had started his career in the 1970s or '80s: "There were so many new horizons then, so many ways to come up with a really strong and original identity. Nowadays, everything has already been done before. I truly believe that. It's impossible to come up with something new.”

    He’s still doing what he can, though. Gonzalez has spent the last 15 years capturing his own nostalgia on record, trying to make it breathe and soar and thrill. After building a following across five studio albums, his own exuberant dreaminess struck a chord with the culture at large, producing a platinum single in "Midnight City." Its accompanying 2011 double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, made an artistic case for longform ambition in an era of bite-sized consumption. The record was also licensed within an inch of its life, its songs used to soundtrack everything from movie trailers and reality shows to commercials for Victoria's Secret and Costa Rica tourism. Gonzalez’s ability to make vintage sounds feel fresh while simultaneously indulging in the most unbridled nostalgia imaginable finally made him very successful on nearly every conceivable level. His wistful fantasies came to life. Then he had to come up with something new once again.

    Gonzalez and his co-producer of the last half decade, veteran session and touring instrumentalist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, are sitting across from one another in a studio at Swing House Recordings, a massive, anonymous concrete building tucked into the residential L.A. neighborhood of Atwater Village. Gonzalez, who is deceptively unassuming until he gets going on a favorite topic, is on the couch; Meldal-Johnsen, whose wiry jolt of brown hair stands six inches above his scalp, giving him the air of a perpetually hassled mad scientist, leans forward in an office chair. One lumpy candle flickers meekly on a coffee table, which reveals stacks of Tape Op and vintage Playboy magazines underneath its glass surface. It’s not even 10 a.m., but purple mood lights illuminate soundproofed walls stacked halfway to the ceiling with amps and synthesizers plucked from the past 40 years. On a monitor off to one side of the mixing board, scenes from Fritz Lang’s classic dystopian film Metropolis play out on mute.

    The duo, along with the help of a few carefully selected collaborators, have spent the last year and change in this den (and a few others) preparing M83’s seventh record in the only way Gonzalez believes a musician can in this era: “By looking behind and seeing what influenced us when we were kids and trying to make that our own.” But while Hurry Up was born out of the musician's move from France to L.A. and all the bright and ecstatic feelings that came with that six-thousand-mile relocation, at this point, the California shine has worn off.

    Gonzalez parlayed his breakthrough to score a gig soundtracking the 2013 Tom Cruise modern action film Oblivion, though he has said the experience—making music to please everyone else before himself, being told his ideas were “too indie”—left him “on the verge of breaking down.” He had more autonomy working on his brother Yann’s art-house orgy You and the Night a year later, but an extended absence from his home country started to turn his attentions inward. After years of building the most extravagant, hyper-ambitious sonic landscapes he could think of, Gonzalez wanted to shift gears with the new M83 record, to crank down his epic visions into “something more crazy and fun—an organized mess.”

    He’s calling it Junk.

    He says the album title in such a deadpan that he's impelled to confirm its seriousness. (Not that he's really one for making jokes, anyway.) “It’s a statement,” he explains. “This is how people listen to music nowadays: They’re just gonna pick certain songs they like—one, two, if you’re lucky—and trash the rest. All else becomes junk.”

    “We think about it in terms of all the space junk orbiting the planet,” Meldal-Johnsen adds. 

    At this point, Gonzalez can't help but blow-up the self-consciously small title, turning its meaning into an omen for the apocalypse. “I believe we’re gonna [destroy] ourselves very soon," he says with a shrug. "We’ll all have the same fate.” In other words: Once we all become space detritus, what's the difference between a masterpiece and some beautiful junk?

    The cover art for M83's forthcoming album, Junk

    As the conversation progresses, the pair fall into a familiar rhythm. Meldal-Johnsen, an L.A. native, has become something of an all-around translator for his French friend since Gonzalez moved Stateside five years ago, an older brother type who showed him how to pay his American bills while continuing to keep his creative process on track—and his interviews on message. He elaborates on Gonzalez’s explanations, rephrasing when he senses the language barrier is getting in the way of a good quote. He describes his role in M83 as being “the finger on the pulse of logistics and the master plan.”

    And if Gonzalez ever needed organizational help, Junk is the album for it. The record could still soundtrack a movie, of course—M83 wouldn’t be M83 without that neon nostalgia at its core, the romantic stuff that wholeheartedly believes pop music hit a peak with the "Punky Brewster" theme song—but it would probably look more like Robert Altman's disjointed Short Cuts than a more traditional rising narrative like, say, The NeverEnding Story.

    The 15-track record is crammed full of eclectic ideas, from Moroder-esque dance numbers to elegant French chanson; while the artist's previous work dealt in broad, technicolor, expertly interwoven strokes, he spent more effort infusing individual moments with his trademark melancholy this time around. First single "Do It, Try It" feels like an invitation to randomness as it mixes house piano, video game squiggles, and plastic slap bass; the goofy “Moon Crystal” could double as the theme song for a feel-good '80s family sitcom; and the bulbous trifle “Bibi the Dog” locates the unlikely midpoint between Ariel Pink's prankster pop and Air's synthetic sophistication. The most sentimental cut is “For the Kids,” a straightforward ballad sung by Norway's Susanne Sundfør that wouldn't sound out of place on The Very Best of the Carpenters—the song aches to be pasted over a montage of a tween desperately looking for her lost dog. The record might be a grab bag, but there's still some baggage here.

    “The last two years were up and down for me—a little bit of joy with the success of the last album, but a lot of pressure and a little bit of depression as well,” says Gonzalez. “You can feel more struggle in the music, in a way, some sadness that is not on Hurry Up.”

    Junk has also served as a sort of corrective for its maker: Where too much outside input bred frustration with the Oblivion soundtrack, only Gonzalez and Meldal-Johnsen are at the helm; where life in a foreign country left him feeling estranged from his roots—especially considering the harrowing events that have unfolded near his loved ones while he’s been away—he recruited versatile French artist Mai Lan to sing on the album and incorporated more lyrics in his native tongue. And just for fun, Meldal-Johnsen—who has worked with just about everyone, from Garbage to Dixie Chicks to Blood Orange to Drake—dug into his extensive network to see if Beck and Guitar World staple Steve Vai could make cameos as well. Both said yes.

    “It's almost like I can do whatever I want now,” Gonzalez says. “The success of [Hurry Up] really helped me to be more true to myself, and even if there's less of me on this album, it's probably my most personal record yet.” Junk is a risk he’s taking because he wants it for himself, though that doesn’t mean he's interested in being at the center of the world’s attention again. “I didn't really cope well with being the frontman all of a sudden,” he adds. “It gave me a lot of confidence, but [for Junk] I really wanted my voice to go away and for other people to carry the message for me.”

    “I see what kids are watching nowadays, and it makes me sick. It's always about learning and being happy, but life is not about that. Life is way harder.”
    Anthony Gonzalez

    Apart from Meldal-Johnsen, however, consistency in the way of collaborators has often been hard to come by for Gonzalez. M83 has never been a formal band, really; cofounder Nicolas Fromageau is long gone, having left in 2004; keyboardist Morgan Kibby, Gonzalez’s subsequent longtime co-writer and collaborator, parted ways with the act after touring Hurry Up to work on her own project, White Sea. (When reached for comment, Kibby was unavailable; a fan will replace her onstage for the Junk tour.) Talking about their finicky taste in creative co-conspirators, Gonzalez and Meldal-Johnsen explain that quality is simply hard to find, especially in an evermore homogenized industry town like Los Angeles. 

    “What's played in the mainstream is just awful, it makes me want to puke,” says Gonzalez, settling back into his old-man-yells-at-cloud mode. “Whereas what was playing in the ‘80s was actually really good, really thought-out music. Now, you're maybe going to hear 50 songs during the day that were made by 10 producers using the same sounds.”

    Meldal-Johnsen concurs. “This could be construed as so holier-than-thou," he starts, "but I feel that enhancing expressions and giving them the most power that they can have is one of the greatest hopes for humanity. When music is ironic and throwaway, I resist it very much. So anyone that we involve in our sphere needs to feel that kind of energy within them too.” 

    “It's hard for us to work with anyone if we don't feel like they're involved emotionally,” Gonzalez concludes.

    On Junk, French songwriter Mai Lan is the pair’s platonic ideal of a collaborator. When she met Gonzalez a year ago while visiting Los Angeles for an intensive songwriting camp, he heard some of her work and liked her immediately. “She can play so many different characters, like an actress,” he gushes, “but she always does them with a lot of sincerity.”

    “For me, it was just awesome,” Mai Lan says brightly, via Skype, from her apartment in Paris, where she’s preparing to release her own album later this year. As she describes the experience, it’s clear she shares Gonzalez’s earnestness, if not his cynicism. “He was really happy, because I'm independent—I could take the instrumental and go on my computer and pick my favorite melodies, and he can choose which ones he likes best.”

    Ultimately, she sang on four of the album's tracks—more than any other guest artist—including “Atlantique Sud,” a simple, piano-accompanied French duet with Gonzalez that’s perhaps the most unapologetically un-M83 song on the whole record. But for all of the album's left turns and quasi-deflections, it's still clearly coming from the brain of Anthony Gonzalez, a guy whose obsession with tapping into the pure emotion of his youth makes him all but unable to accept the realities of the present. “I see what kids are watching nowadays, and it makes me sick," he says at one point. "It's all 3D, there's no hand-drawn cartoons anymore. It's always about learning and being happy, but life is not about that. Life is way harder.”

    Following the release of Hurry Up, which has sold 273,000 copies to date, Gonzalez moved from his modest apartment in Hollywood to a two-story house in the Echo Park hills. Upon entry, the place looks like a Better Homes and Gardens photoshoot: Everything is brilliant white with crisp wood accents, from the walls to the furniture, and intimidatingly clean (though Gonzalez says he’s not a neat freak). The heads of several small, taxidermied critters adorn one otherwise spotless wall. An open-plan, stainless-steel kitchen practically gleams, its refrigerator containing neat rows of various all-natural bottled beverages. Arranged on a faux-hearth in the living room, a collection of crystal decanters throws iridescent sunbeams across the spotless floors. Not that the house needs the extra light—its massive wraparound windows mean the place is engulfed in sunlight at all hours, with a view that overlooks the Silver Lake Reservoir. Once full and glittering, today the lake looks more like a rained-on construction site.

    On the ground floor is Gonzalez’s small workspace: a self-designed, two-room, soundproofed, recording studio overflowing with synths, electric guitars, mixing boards, mics, and cables. On a ledge by the entryway sits an empty Nintendo 3DS case; he bought the handheld system to play recently rebooted versions of early Legend of Zelda games. As we walk through the door, it's clear that this is his favorite part of the house.

    Back upstairs, the wooden dining table contains the only other signs of actual human inhabitance: Someone has left a Goonies comic book and several clumps of neon-colored baking clay out in the sunshine. After our long conversation at Swing House that morning, Gonzalez uses the comic as a placemat as he painstakingly rolls himself a spliff.

    We relocate to deck seating out on the balcony. He seems almost viscerally relieved to be talking one-on-one, in his own home. Below, the backyard is overgrown or bare for the most part, except for a single, defining feature: an eight-foot-tall, Neverland-style canvas teepee set up in the middle, like a backyard tent. “For skunks and coyotes,” he says in that deadpan that makes it hard to tell if he’s kidding.

    He talks about how he sometimes feels trapped by a lifelong compulsion to keep creating; even while recording an intentionally off-the-cuff record like Junk, he still found himself obsessing over every detail. It all makes him wish he had the guts to do something more important with his life, like “travel to Africa and help some kids.” 

    “I'm trying to put my work in perspective, to say it doesn't really matter,” he continues, lighting up. “But in the end, it always matters, even if you say, 'I'm not gonna care this time.' Because I care too much about it and what people are going to think.”

    He pauses. “I'm not saying that it's destructing me—it doesn't stop me from being happy—but it's just another stress," he says. "In the end, I'm just doing this to leave a trace. Whatever trace it's gonna be, it's gonna be my trace.”


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    Interviews: Esperanza Spalding: Insubordinate by Nature

    Esperanza Spalding is an unlikely figure in the 21st century, a vocalist and bass player who rose to national prominence by singing and performing jazz music. Through four albums, multiple performances at the White House as the guest of President Barack Obama, a Best New Artist win at the Grammys (making her the first jazz artist to ever triumph in that category), and glamorous trips down the red carpet that have made her something of a style star, she has consistently released music that recalls jazz history—especially ’70s fusion—while also being smartly, subtlely contemporary in ambiance and inspiration.

    But now, the 31-year-old is throwing a curveball with the conceptual Emily’s D+Evolution, in which she fully channels Emily, a playful persona who has an interest in physics and staging makeshift plays. While the themes of the album aren’t entirely clear even to her, Spalding thinks of the record as an attempt to get back to a childlike curiosity and freedom in her practice—her version of Picasso’s famous declaration that, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” “Emily knocked on the door of me, and I opened it and said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’” Spalding says of her alter ego. “And she said, ‘I want to move and I want to be loud.’”

    So Emily’s D+Evolution is more dissonant and noisily complex, with something of the clang of a kid banging pots together, but gorgeously so. Her beautiful voice is, at times, twisted into scats and drones. On the cover and in the trippy video for the psych rock-y first single “Good Lava,” her signature afro is tied into long braids as she sports a pair of kitschy eyeglasses on her usually bare face. She toured the new songs for about a year before recording them, and they put forth a woman at the height of her artistic powers seeing how far she can push things—while also seeing how much fun she can have. In conversation at a coffee shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood—hair in Emily’s braids, and eyes behind big frames—Spalding seems most of all like a musician uninterested in the pressure of unwanted expectations.

    Pitchfork: You’re the only jazz musician in history that’s won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

    Esperanza Spalding: I hope I’m wrong but sometimes I wonder if that was a PR move by the Recording Academy, because they were going to cut all of these other categories that non-pop artists usually get nominated in. So it was like giving something to the non-pop community.

    Pitchfork: I don’t think you are giving yourself enough credit.

    ES: I’m awesome! I embrace it. I’m just saying it just felt so weird.

    Pitchfork: Is reaching a large audience something that interests you?

    ES: It doesn’t give me feedback for my work, because there’s so much shit that reaches a lot of people that I don’t like at all. And then there’s the juiciest music that makes me so happy, music that I need on that deserted island when I’m stranded for the rest of my life, and nobody cares that it’s there. 

    Pitchfork: Why do you think there are so many jazz singers who have a hard time resonating in the way that you have?

    ES: Well, they resonate where they resonate. We also live in a time where there is a cult of beauty, and I know that I have the free pass to get into that fucking club.

    Pitchfork: Because you are beautiful?

    ES: Yeah, it’s just the luck of the stars. It’s crazy shit, and I think about it a lot, and it hurts my heart, because it’s stupid. It’s fucking stupid. If my face looked like this granite tabletop, I would still write and sing and play the same way, and it would be fucking hard to get people to pay attention to me. It irks my soul from two sides: One, people I know who are fucking ingenious performers, writers, poets, or philosophers can’t get a gig or a manager because they don’t look great or have the right body or whatever. And on the other side—actually it doesn’t bother me as much as the first—but I know I’m invisible because I’m just a shell that’s seen as “a pretty person that does something.” That’ll change in like 20 years, because I’m a woman, so I’m just milking it while I’m still considered young and pretty. It’s weird sometimes to have people not see me or see what I do.

    Pitchfork: Are you trying to throw a wrench in those expectations with this album, because your voice sounds less outright pretty here than your past releases.

    ES: No. But I am insubordinate by nature. I can't help it. And I don’t know if I was trying to sing pretty before, I think it was just a coincidence. With this record, I had no goal for the sound, no goal for the way I was gonna do it. I was working for this being called Emily, and I really felt like my job was to honor her philosophy or her sound or her art or her moment. So it kind of didn’t feel like it was me. I was going in and singing a song that was, in a way, somebody else’s philosophy.

    Pitchfork: Your success has put you in a unique position to have a relationship with the Obamas. What are they like?

    ES: Tall. They’re so tall.

    Pitchfork: They seem really interested in music—are they?

    ES: Of course. They love jazz, they love creative shit. They’re just interesting creative people. That’s what it seems to me.

    Pitchfork: Are you a Bernie or Hillary person?

    ES: I'm a Bernie girl.

    Pitchfork: When you perform at places like the White House, where you just played “Sunny Side of the Street,” do you feel like you are representing jazz to the nation?

    ES: I shouldn't be. With all the motherfuckers who are still alive today who are the essence of that music, it's bullshit if I am representing jazz. But that's what popular culture will do for you—it will fucking change the narrative and tell you something is that is not.

    Pitchfork: Was it your choice to do "Sunny Side of the Street"?

    ES: Yeah, they asked me to do a classic jazz standard.

    Pitchfork: And you like that song?

    ES: I love that song!

    Pitchfork: Do you like popular jazz standards?

    ES: I like the ones I like.

    Pitchfork: Do you like classic jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald?

    ES: Yeah, and I also like Doris Day and fucking non-jazz vocalists.

    Pitchfork: Who are some of your favorite singers?

    ES: I love Aretha Franklin, Edith Piaf, Blondie.

    Pitchfork: Do all those different artists influence your voice?

    ES: It's like a dictionary. If you're a writer and you write fiction, that's not all you read. I just like people doing good shit.

    Pitchfork: Joni Mitchell is a clear vocal influence on this album. What do you like about her?

    ES: She's so hardcore. It's weird being a pretty woman doing something real now, but for her 50 years ago... I've seen videos of her performing where you can tell the guys are so uncomfortable. They can't even smile right because they don't know what to do because she's singing, writing, and producing them under the table. And it's not just about her voice. It’s the whole thing. It's the sensory experience of the poetry, of the sound, of the harmonies. Whether my brain is on or not, it moves me.

    Pitchfork: She produced everything herself, and you often produce your own work, too.

    ES: She’s just a strong motherfucking artist. I will not generalize on anybody's behalf, but whoever you are, if you know what you're doing, you don’t want other people to overtake the merit of your art.

    Pitchfork: Do you experience that still?

    ES: Of course, anybody in this fucking world experiences that.

    Pitchfork: Jazz can feel generally very male...

    ES: Everything is male, man. Everything is male.

    Pitchfork: Have you experienced being in the studio and someone being like, “Hey, you don’t know how to do this”?

    ES: Yeah, and sometimes I didn't know how, which is cool too. There’s two sides of the coin: One where people don't expect you to do anything and won't let you do anything because they think you don't know how, and then the other side is when you're fucking up but they won't tell you because you're a girl. Then you don’t learn. But ultimately all that is complete bullshit, because if you wanna become better and do whatever it is you're doing, that is the rip of a Band-Aid.

    “There’s so much shit that reaches a lot of people that I don’t like at all. And then there’s the juiciest music that makes me so happy, and nobody cares that it’s there.”

    Pitchfork: Are you generally fearless when you perform?

    ES: You don’t have to be fearless to do anything, you can be scared out of your mind. I fear that I won’t get better and that I won’t have time to practice. To be called a "jazz musician"—it's a big responsibility.

    Pitchfork: Would you say you are living up to that responsibility?

    ES: I'm one of those people that if I don't practice a lot, it goes down really fast. And there’s some videos out there of me sucking, because I was too fucking busy, and I hate that. But fuck it. That was a wake up call.

    I just don't want to get stuck. Anything you do, somebody is going to say something. Fuck that. You have to do it, because it's who you fucking are and you didn't sign any contract that said, “I promise to forever be exactly like A B C D E F and G, yours truly, signed me.”

    When I see anything that I like, what I’m identifying with is the vision or the idea—whatever was the little nugget that started it. Our job is to take those nuggets all the way. And as long as you do that, you’re fine. As long as you don’t wimp out nine tenths of the way there, then you're golden.


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  • 03/09/16--14:21: Afterword: George Martin
  • Afterword: George Martin

    So ideally matched were the Beatles to their producer George Martin that their relationship often seemed written in the stars. The truth is a bit more prosaic. The Beatles did not choose George Martin, and he certainly did not choose them. Like all pop music in the early '60s, it was an arranged marriage, shepherded by the group's manager Brian Epstein and Martin's label, Parlophone. Len Wood, the head of Parlophone's parent company EMI wanted to get his hands on the copyright for John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Like Dreamers Do" because in 1962, the real money lay in publishing. He arranged the deal without consulting Martin, assigning the group to the producer. 

    The Beatles were thrilled and nervous — it was likely their last chance at a recording deal, having been rejected by both Decca and Parlophone once before — but to Martin, it was an obligation. As detailed in Mark Lewisohn's definitive 2013 Beatles biography Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Martin's affair with his secretary Judy Lockhart-Smith came to light within the record company early in 1962. Martin and Lockhart-Smith were no passing fling — they'd later marry and never divorce, having two children along the way, including a son named Giles who has taken over his father's Beatle business — but Wood assigned the Liverpool quartet to George possibly out of spite. 

    Nobody at Parlophone took the Beatles’ session seriously. Wood wanted "Like Dreamers Do" so he could turn it over to a real recording artist, and Martin originally assigned the session to an assistant named Ron Richards. This was standard procedure. George gave anything that skewed pop to Richards or another assistant, preferring to spend his producing hours on jazz or intricately-arranged novelty records. He decided to swing by the studio to take a gander at the group anyway. To this point, Martin assumed he'd be able to shape the Beatles into a unit resembling Cliff Richard & The Shadows: a beat group with a clear leader. To his immense credit, he recognized a spark of originality in the working-class combo, sensing it not so much in their original tunes but in their chemistry: Listening to the musicians play around, Martin realized the Beatles weren't merely a band, but they were a gang

    Martin never attempted to be part of the gang. He was a collaborator and a conspirator, a mentor and a father figure, albeit one who never patronized them. From the outset, he recognized this was a band whose value lay in their originality, so his role lay in developing their vision. He'd edit the band's songs — he told Lennon to add a high, lonesome harmonica to debut single "Love Me Do" and helped stitch together John and Paul’s separate visions for "A Day In The Life" — and he'd certainly arrange the recordings, telling the group to pick up the tempo on "Please Please Me" so it no longer resembled a stately Roy Orbison dirge. Despite all this, he never took a songwriting credit, he never thought of himself as the artist; he was a record producer. 

    Superstar producers simply didn't exist in 1962, when the Beatles released "Love Me Do." Over in America, Phil Spector started to rack up hits with his signature Wall of Sound, but Spector was Martin's opposite: He imposed his style on an artist instead of encouraging musicians to find their own voice. Although this is now generally accepted to be the role of a record producer, back in the early '60s this sensibility was a radical departure. Record producers were not musicians but rather technicians that existed behind the scenes. Great Britain's recording studios functioned almost like research facilities, with all the operators at EMI's Abbey Road Studios wearing lab coats on the job. Martin belonged to this system but he also bent its rules, recognizing that a recording wasn't a replication of a performance but its own artistic entity, capable of suggesting sounds that could never exist in real life. 

    A classically trained pianist and oboist, Martin cut his teeth on classical and middle-of-the-road jazz early in the '50s, but he soon gravitated toward comedy and novelty records because they allowed him a chance to play with the possibilities of sound. His first hit arrived in 1952 with Peter Ustinov's "Mock Mozart,” but a better indication of Martin's studio flair can be heard on his comedy records with Peter Sellers. Perhaps 1959's Songs For Swingin' Sellers is the best showcase for Martin's nascent skills, but the 1957 hit “Any Old Iron” is crucial to the Beatles story, for each of the Fab Four not only adores Sellers' comedy troupe (the Goons) but the single spoofed skiffle, the ragged folk craze that swept through Britain in the late '50s, inspiring legions of teenagers — including Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison — to pick up a guitar and a washboard and just play. 

    As a Parlophone house producer in the '50s, Martin dabbled in both rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle, some of these singles likely making their way to the Beatles’ young ears. He cut “Maggie May” — which the Fabs later dropped onto Let It Be— with the Vipers, one of the tougher and better skiffle groups, but his attempts at rock ‘n’ roll weren't as successful, topping out with the brassy "I'm Comin' Home,” a near-hit for Paul Beattie, who played the same Cavern Club as the Beatles. So, Martin wasn't opposed to teenage music, but he didn't find it as fascinating as the kitchen-sink productions he could cobble together under the guise of novelty records. Martin spent hours crafting recordings as ephemeral as a music hall tour-de-force called "The Hole In The Ground" by actor Bernard Cribbins in 1962, and the utterly bizarre 1958 novelty "Jailbird," a 45 constructed around a talking bird called Sparkie (it reportedly sold in the vicinity of 40 copies).

    With hindsight, Martin channeled his considerable skill into records that benfited from his ears but weren't quite worthy of his talent. These follies now seem like apprenticeship, a training ground for everything he'd later achieve with the Beatles. The band seized this deep reservoir of experience, letting it guide their growth. If the Beatles wanted to dabble in country or jazz, they not only had a producer who knew how to execute such styles but one who knew how to push them ever forward. Even the band's purest, simplest music was bettered from Martin's touch. He made the decision to record the bulk of their 1963 debut Please Please Me in a single session with the idea that it'd replicate the rush of their live set — a decision that demonstrates his savviness just as surely as the multi-song suite that concludes Abbey Road does. So dazzling are those latter-day Beatles records — the albums made between Revolver and Abbey Road, when the group retired from the road with idea that they'd be studio-bound — and so loudly are Martin's studio innovations celebrated that it's often easy to overlook how the records released during the peak of Beatlemania are also peerless productions. With The Beatles carries an intense wallop, while A Hard Day's Night is the first indication of the band envisioning an album as its own tangible thing: witness that opening clang of the title track and its ringing coda, sounds that were only heightened by Martin's willingness to play along with the band.

    Martin also recognized and accentuated the differences between Lennon and McCartney, adjusting his style to accommodate each musician. Lennon would simply throw ideas out to Martin, letting the producer fill in the details. When Lennon left the middle eight of "In My Life" blank, he trusted that Martin would devise the right solo; the producer decided to write a composed Baroque break, mimicking the sound of a harpsichord by speeding up a piano. When Lennon wanted to sound like chanting Tibetan monks on "Tomorrow Never Knows," the producer fed vocals through a rotating amplifier, achieving an unworldly effect. McCartney operated as something of a student, puzzling-out solutions with his mentor Martin, accepting his advice that "Yesterday" would sound best accompanied by a string quartet and learning specific skills from the master. Certainly, Martin and McCartney recognized kindred spirits in each other — both were restless and voracious, interested in technique and broad strokes — but Martin adored all four Beatles equally, calling them "the boys" long after they had become men and left his care.

    As for himself, Martin never devoted the entirety of his time to the Beatles, not even during the '60s. Still under contract with Parlophone, he produced a bunch of other Merseybeat artists: He turned Lennon/McCartney's "Bad To Me" into a No. 1 hit for Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas in 1964, and also worked with Gerry & The Pacemakers and Cilla Black. In 1965, he used his leverage to begin Associated Independent Recording, becoming the first superstar freelance producer who licensed recordings to labels. During the back half of the '60s, AIR didn't do much of note that wasn't involved with the Beatles but once the band split in 1970, Martin started to branch out, dabbling in jazz fusion with Stan Getz, Paul Winter, and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra — all moves that laid the groundwork for a pair of landmark jazz-rock albums he made with Jeff Beck, 1975's Blow By Blow and 1976's Wired. By that point, Martin also demonstrated his facility with sunbleached soft-rock, making the London-based America feel convincingly Californian on the AM staples "Tin Man" and "Sister Golden Hair." He also helmed one of the great unheralded country-rock records of the '70s, the self-titled LP by Eric Kaz and Craig Fuller's American Flyer. Martin got a little harder at the dawn of the '80s, teaming with Beatles fanatics Cheap Trick for All Shook Up— a dream union that turned out just OK — and then inexplicably recording albums with German hard rockers UFO and synth-poppers Ultravox.  

    Martin kept working until the late '90s, eventually settling on superstar projects suiting his senior stature. The Glory of Gershwin, a 1994 album constructed as a salute to Larry Adler's 80th birthday, gave him the opportunity to work with Kate Bush, Sinead O'Connor, and Elvis Costello. It was a tasteful tribute that found a garish counterpart in 1998's In My Life, a misconceived career-capper that found Robin Williams singing "Come Together" with Bobby McFerrin, and Jim Carrey clowning around to "I Am The Walrus" in unwitting call-backs to Martin’s old novelty records of the '50s. In between these two projects came Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana, the revision of "Candle in the Wind" that Martin helped turn into the biggest-selling single of all time in 1997. 

    Despite this record-smashing success, the true coda to Martin's career was his reunion with Paul McCartney in the early '80s. McCartney and Martin once again found that easy chemistry, reviving the majestic pomp of latter-day Beatles on 1982's Tug of War. Martin gave McCartney his last international Top 10 hit in 1984 with the ballad "No More Lonely Nights," but what's more impressive was  "Say Say Say," the 1983 chart-topper that showed how Martin could absorb all the hallmarks of Quincy Jones' productions for Michael Jackson and create something almost indistinguishable from the real thing. It was a feat that reinforced how he was a producer without peer, but it was also a final reminder that George Martin always brought out the best in the Beatles — and that they always brought out the best in him. 


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    Article: Living Rooms: Exploring London's Corsica Studios

    In the third installment of Living Rooms: Global Punk & DIY Venues, a series that looks at DIY clubs around the world, writer Laura Snapes and photographers Toby Keane, Sophie Harris Taylor, and Fresh to Death visit Corsica Studios, a venue in London.

    The overground line from Kings Cross St. Pancras to Elephant and Castle traces the spread of London gentrification from north to south, as well as Corsica Studios’ various homes over the past two decades. The grotty railway arches that the club occupied early on now back onto the glossy Eurostar terminal, from which it takes 15 minutes to get to Corsica's current home; a journey that emerges on a platform adjoined to a shabby shopping center. Incomplete flats tower overhead, an omen of impending change in the borough of Southwark.

    Regeneration has been on the cards for Elephant and Castle since the turn of the millennium. Back in 1965, this shopping center was Europe's first covered mall. Now it houses some chain stores and a bowling alley, along with a shop selling waist trainers, and a Polish delicatessen. The recession saved it from demolition in 2010, but it will soon go the way of its old neighbor the Heygate Estate, the sprawling 1970s housing project that was recently torn down to make way for a more modern development—one with a significantly lower social housing commitment.

    The message is clear. As the Radical Housing Network points out, Fred Manson, formerly of the council, was open in his view that Elephant and Castle needed "a better class of people." According to the 2011 census, the borough is only 39.7 per cent White British; the area has strong Afro-Caribbean and Latin American communities. The regeneration of Elephant and Castle is social cleansing with a £1.5bn budget and a smile. And right in the middle of the council-defined "Core Area" for regeneration, between the shopping center and the Heygate's ruins, are the two railway arches that house Corsica Studios, regarded by lovers of dark sounds played at teeth-trembling volume as the best club in London.

    Corsica founders Amanda Moss and Adrian Jones always knew this moment was coming. They met back in 1995, an art student and a musician in search for cheap studio space to fill with friends’ art and events. Work on the Channel Tunnel had begun in Kings Cross, meaning that properties frozen in preparation for the development were available cheaply. That’s how they spent their first three years experimenting in a former porno studio. "That wasn’t the thing that led us there," Jones clarifies, sitting between Moss and in-house promoter Chris Gold. It’s mid-January. Come Friday, Corsica’s two arches will be filled with the fog of sweaty bodies, but tonight they’re quiet, as the below-stairs HQ is busy preparing for their second weekend of 2016.

    They adapted to instability, spending 18 months in nearby Highbury (on Corsica Street, hence the name), before moving to their first railway arch. That’s where the parties started, around 1999. "People would do quite large productions, but on an intimate scale—200, 300 people," says Moss, describing them as a backlash against the superclub explosion. Jones recalls a friend who created a winter wonderland out of UV lights, a crucified Santa, and mountains of polystyrene balls acting as snow. "It was completely extravagant. He lost loads of money on the invites—stickers on the back of fake ice cubes, which cost half the budget. But that was typical. It was all about doing something really special and extravagant; throwing an event, consequences be damned."

    Giving their friends and collaborators creative license to make their mark would become part of Corsica’s ethos. "It’s a lot more work to reconfigure everything on someone’s whim," says Jones. "But at the same time it was important to us to allow that freedom of expression."

    That there was a steady stream of empty venues for Corsica to move between now seems fantastical, in a London of stratospheric rents and massive gentrification. The short-term capitalist concept of pop-up shops didn’t exist in that way, says Moss, so there was little competition for the derelict buildings. But while London was their playground, Corsica demanded extreme dedication. "We had nothing, no funding, no money from anyone," says Jones. "We had to do parties to survive, to earn the money to do the space up, and before we knew it we would be told that we’d have to move out, and so it would go on again. It wasn’t really by choice that we had such short notice, but actually by having such low rents, we were able to take a few risks."

    After nine months, they were evicted again. They decided to give Corsica one last shot, and spent three months in a moldy arch underneath Waterloo Station. Their landlord took pity, and led them to the Elephant and Castle arches that they’ve occupied since 2002. They knew that their new home might not survive the slated regeneration, but Moss knew that these projects tended to take a long time, so they took a gamble.

    The space wasn’t legal, though it was among the least of Southwark police’s worries. Shootouts were so common, they weren’t even reported. "Once we were holding an event and people wanted to leave, and there was a full-fledged gang war going on in the street," says Moss. "We couldn’t let people leave the building. Every weekend there would be some sort of problem. Once we couldn’t get to our door because there was police tape around it."

    "They’d found a finger," says Jones.

    Having white proprietors in a multi-ethnic area with sometimes-violent nightlife undoubtedly helped Corsica slip under the radar. But community integration was vital to them: They offered local art students and youth programs free use of the space. When resident dance group Bruk Out had their funding cut, Moss and Jones helped them out. Under the name the Movement Factory, they’re now closely linked with Covent Garden’s prestigious Pineapple Studios.

    Then-Camberwell College of Arts design student Chris Gold approached Corsica about using the venue for a second-year project. He got a taste for promoting, and started staging nights that capitalized on the city’s nu-rave and New Cross scenes, scoring early shows from acts like Florence and the Machine and Mystery Jets. When Gold graduated, Moss and Jones asked him to become their first in-house promoter, spawning their longest-running night, Trouble Vision, which started as a bass party, and now specializes in everything from American house to Nordic disco.

    The space was still incredibly fluid, hosting art exhibitions, dance classes, iconic house/disco/balearic night Low Life, and nights that did a bit of everything. The effort required to constantly shift between different purposes made them realize they would have to focus. "You compromise one or the other if you’re trying to do too much," says Jones.

    Streamlining coincided with going above board in 2006, after one too many mid-party visits from police demanding to know if Corsica was selling alcohol. They had been for four years, but they worked around licensing laws by acting as a private club, printing their own currency (which bore a dancing vagina), making sure everyone was in by midnight, not selling tickets on the door, and not putting prices on the tickets. Now legal, Corsica solidified its reputation as a destination club for discerning fans of techno, dubstep, deep house, some grime, and iconoclastic groups like Sunn O))) and Little Dragon (hosted by their in-house gig arm, Baba Yaga’s Hut).

    Their old anything-goes ethos translated into a dedication to making every night as fully realized as possible. "It’s the difference between throwing a party with a venue or simply at it," says Frank Broughton of Low Life, which ran there from 2004-2015. Krautrock provocateurs Faust took the idea too far in 2006, throwing manure over the audience and setting off smoke bombs designed for a significantly bigger venue. The fog blinded everyone and set off the fire alarms in the shopping center. "That was the only time we’ve evacuated the building," says Moss, who nonetheless calls it a standout night.

    Around 2007 Corsica installed a new soundsystem: the deeply heavy Funktion 1. "There was virtually no venue outside the big clubs that had access to equipment of such fidelity," says Toby Frith of South London underground dance night Bleep43, which started its Corsica nights in 2006. "When we did a party that March, Surgeon showed just what a paradigmatic change was possible."

    "It’s the only venue where, when you’re DJing between sets at gigs, the sound man tells you you’re playing too quietly and turns it up so your drink vibrates like the cup does when the t-rex is coming in Jurassic Park," says The Quietus co-founder Luke Turner.

    The club soared. In late 2010 it became Boiler Room’s first proper home. "Back in 2010, 2011, they were booking acts like DJ Rashad and Spinn, Kyle Hall, Objekt, the Haxan Cloak, and countless others years before any of them could be considered surefire draws," says Boiler Room editor-in-chief (and former Pitchfork contributor) Gabriel Szatan. "That quality and foresight has never faltered. It’s our go-to spot when we want to pull off something special." (Like 2011’s launch party for Radiohead’s remix album TKOL RMX 1234567, with Thom Yorke, Jamie xx b2b Caribou, and Lone.)

    Jones’ standout night came in 2012. Not only was it Corsica’s 10th birthday, but Detroit techno icon Jeff Mills asked if he could hold Axis’ 20th anniversary at the club. They limited the event to 200 tickets, and Mills played from 10 p.m. to 6.30 a.m. "Grown men [were] in tears at how awesome it was," says Jones. "He himself was overwhelmed—he said a few words about how it was one of the highlights from his career, which, coming from someone like him..."

    The likes of James Murphy, Hot Chip, Andrew Weatherall, Roedelius, Omar-S, and more helped celebrate Corsica’s first decade with a series of events that autumn. But despite the club’s increased pulling power, they endeavored to keep things intimate. "Once things get beyond a certain size then it changes, and it’s rarely for the better," says Jones. "That’s not the point for us."

    That ethos has engendered a loyal following, and genuine community. Perc often holds his Perc Trax nights there, and praises its "rough, independent feel" in contrast with its professional foundations. "It’s the only venue in the world which I can go to on a night off and someone will come up to me and ask what time I am playing," he says. "It’s really rewarding that people associate me with the venue like that." Kode9, aka Hyperdub founder Steve Goodman, calls it "easily" the best club space in South London. "Room 2 is a very special room—one of the best rooms to dance in London. It’s just a small box with a banging system, goes really dark when you want it really dark, really smoky when you need to be. Shove a laser in there and it’s perfection."

    It’s been going so long that there’s even the makings of a Corsica generation: music journalist Joe Muggs has friends that married and had twins after meeting at the I ♥ Acid night. "Since the closure of Plastic People, it’s without question my favorite venue: the one that cleaves closest to the vital understanding that the music really is paramount," he says. "It is the absolute example that when form follows function, all will be well."

    "The sound is good, but mostly what makes it special is that the security is relaxed and the space feels free, so people feel comfortable and able to have fun when they are there," says Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard.

    Journalist and Wild Combination founder Maya Kalev tells a different story. "I wouldn’t say it’s great: Ventilation can be awful, and harassment can be a real problem. All that said—and perhaps this is telling of the scarcity of good spaces in London—it’s one of my favorite venues in the city." (Corsica plan to advertise their anti-harassment codes of conduct more clearly this year, says Moss.)

    There’s a wide range of established nights at Corsica, from Sunday daytime party Jaded to techno/electro/acid/bass night Plex, but Moss and Jones are dedicated to bringing in the new generation of promoters, though they admit that they’re choosy. NVWLS are staging their first night in February, with Kornél Kovács and Shanti Celeste. "We knew we couldn’t approach them until we had plans that were grand enough for Corsica’s high standards," says NVWLS co-founder Eden Cooke. "To say we were nervous was an understatement. It was really refreshing that they placed so much emphasis on the lineup. We told them our plans, and got the green light—this was back in July."

    Which brings us to the future. Moss and Jones are cautiously optimistic about surviving the regeneration, and have established strong relationships with the council in the hope that their local contributions are recognized. Its survival is crucial, says DJ Andrew Weatherall. "As [mayor] Boris [Johnson] and his chums do more damage to London than the Luftwaffe and what’s left becomes a bland investment opportunity, Corsica is an establishment making a stand in the battle against property investment opportunities, luxury flats, and creeping urban homogeny. With a late license."

    The cause is supposedly of strong importance to the mayor’s office, which has mounted a taskforce aimed at protecting London’s music venues, the number of which has declined by 35 per cent in the last eight years. (The figures are worse for the UK’s nightclubs, almost half of which have closed in the last decade.)

    "What we pay may not be what Pret can pay, but what’s the extra value that we give that someone like that may not give?" Jones asks.

    Chris Gold is more cynical. "They’re quite happy to use Corsica in the brochures to demonstrate the area’s ‘thriving social life and vibrant artistic community,’ and then they’ll be the first to bulldoze the space whenever’s convenient."

    It’s important to consider Corsica’s own role in gentrification: Interestingly, their cache hasn’t attracted other cool venues to the area, so much so that it’s hard to get a drink locally before a night there. "I think the crowd who go to Corsica aren’t at the age where they’re buying flats, or even able to afford to rent the flats in the new Elephant Park," says Dan Hancox, who writes on music and gentrification. "So Corsica probably isn’t playing the same role that, say, a branch of Whole Foods would."

    Just in case the worst happens, Corsica’s founders are looking beyond their front door. Last year, they established temporary outdoor space the Paperworks. Their festival Rituals travels around Italy, programmed in collaboration with local promoters. The Raw Power festival, an extension of the Baba Yaga’s Hut nights, started in house, but now in its third year, has moved to a bigger north London venue.

    But the beauty of Corsica Studios is that they all happen under not one, but two dome-shaped roofs. "It’s church for all these disparate musical communities that keep London exciting," says The Quietus’ Luke Turner.

    "You have these two rooms that are the center of the universe for so many Londoners," says Jaded’s Raymundo Rodriguez. "To me, the very walls feel like they are suffused with power from all the magic nights—and days—they’ve held."


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    Podcast: This Is How We Do It: Savages

    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.


    “Maybe I will die, maybe tomorrow, so I need to say: I adore life.” It’s hard to imagine more irreducible lyrics than this. They come from Savages’ vocalist Jehnny Beth, and especially in the wake of a globally shitty year like 2015, they feel utterly vital. “Adore”—the centerpiece of the band’s new album Adore Life—starts with a lone creeping bassline before manifesting into a black, maxed-out assault. The effect is overwhelming.

    “There will be a cost to become the person you want to become, but there’s not really another way,” Beth tells me over the phone from L.A., reflecting on the core of “Adore.” “That’s the only freedom you will find here on Earth.” These are pretty zen notions of inspiration and becoming, and accordingly, our conversation ranges widely. Topics include: Beth’s personal practice of transcendental meditation, hypnotherapy, Savages’ brutal experience working out their new album’s songs live last year in New York, the pure essence of Swans, Allen Ginsberg, and the practical virtues of all-black dress.

    Click the button below to download the podcast interview along with exclusive photos of the band by TIM.


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    Photo Gallery: Searching for an Underground Generation in Karachi, Pakistan

    Home to a staggering 24 million people, Karachi is the biggest city in Pakistan. Partly due to its size and density, the capital of the country's Sindh province can be a violent place, host to its share of murders, kidnappings, extortion, and terrorism. Though recent reports suggest that an influx of paramilitary forces are making things safer, due to a high level of overall corruption, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if the city’s police and politicians are actually on the right side of the law. It is also a conservative place. When I visited last April to photograph and talk to members of Karachi’s independent music scene, I didn’t see many women walking around in the streets; for the most part, they appeared to be hidden from public view. Though the female locals I met did not cover their hair, I was advised to wear a headscarf in certain areas to hide my blondeness and avoid attention. People generally do not discuss politics out in the open in Karachi. 

    Sunrise over Karachi


    But within this cloistered environment is a bastion of progressive thought. The Second Floor, aka T2F, offers a platform for discussion, music performance, and art. When I stopped in one day, grassroots literature and fliers were spread around the café, and old-school feminist posters decorated the walls. In the corner, a group of young women sat around a table in deep discussion, comparing writings in their notebooks. “If there is anyone you should meet while you’re here, it’s Sabeen,” one local musician told me. 

    Sabeen Mahmud earned a godmother status in the eyes of Karachi’s underdogs as a foundational counterculture figure. As a teenager and young adult, she spent her time trying to drop out of school and replacing motherboards on some of the first Mac computers that were available in Pakistan, while simultaneously learning how to master the depths of the Internet. She dreamed of a Karachi that existed during her parents’ youth in the 1960s: tea houses filled with leftist poets and political discussion; long nights of loud music at the local clubs. She opened T2F in 2007, and the space was an instant success amongst Mahmud’s creative circles—a thriving alternative outpost. It also became a destination for Karachi’s musical underground to rehearse and perform.

    As I walked into Mahmud’s office she welcomed me like I was one of her own. “We’ve been under a military rule for most of our history and we haven’t really been able to build democratic movements for a number of reasons,” she explained, discussing her country’s plight. “There is a general distrust of democracy; there is a very military, nationalist agenda.” Her co-worker, Reem Khurshid, continued, “There is definitely a creativity drain in Karachi—you can’t plan any day one hundred percent in advance. But despite all the dangers, people still have the desire and willpower to be creative.” 

    Talking about the purpose of T2F, Mahmud said, “We’ve tried to create a culture where people would feel comfortable to talk to one another, where we could learn each other’s strengths: a multi-purpose space that could host artists, and political and scientific talks. If you’re surrounded by art, music, zines, poetry, and grassroot journalism, maybe you could start thinking.”

    She allowed me to snap a few photos of her during a staff meeting, but when I asked to take some portraits, Mahmud mumbled an excuse and immediately slipped out of the room. One of her co-workers looked at me with a grin. “She doesn’t like to be in the center of attention,” she said.

    Social activist Sabeen Mahmud during a staff meeting at her events space T2F on April 14, 2015.


    Ten days later, on April 24, I was eating dinner at a friend’s house when text messages slowly started coming in on the phones scattered around the room. “It’s Sabeen,” one friend whispered to another. We turned on the TV to see reports confirming her death: While Mahmud was leaving a panel discussion at T2F that involved potential human rights violations and missing people in Pakistan’s poor Balochistan region, armed motorcyclists pulled up to her car and began shooting. The 40-year-old was hit in the neck and chest; one bullet went through her face and struck her mother, who was sitting beside her in the passenger seat and survived. 

    The following day, denial and confusion were still in the air at the funeral, which was held at the ground floor of T2F. Hundreds of people gathered out on the street, waiting to enter. Speaking to the appeal of Mahmud and her message, many of the mourners came from different classes and backgrounds, including fellow activists, creatives, musicians, and journalists. Considering her controversial work, hushed unsolved questions coursed through the crowd. (One of the shooters, a jihadist terrorist, has since confessed to the crime and is currently awaiting trial.)

    The T2F staff came back to work on the Monday following Mahmud’s death. “As difficult as it was, we decided that whoever wanted to stop Sabeen would only have succeeded if we are to give up too,” Sana Nasir, T2F’s illustrator, wrote me in an e-mail after the incident. “Sabeen set the groundwork and created a culture that is larger than one individual. Her legacy will live on.”

    Following Sabeen Mahmud’s memorial service, a woman knelt down beside Mahmud's mother Mahenaz to tend to wounds she suffered during her daughter’s killing. As I paid my condolences, Mahenaz looked me in the eye and said, “You took the last picture of Sabeen, thank you for that.”


    Part of Mahmud’s legacy is related to her support for Karachi’s nascent experimental and electronic music culture, as many of the city’s leftfield artists played their first shows at T2F. Pakistan’s first DIY netlabel, Mooshy Moo, began in 2007, spearheaded by founder and producer Sheryar Hyatt, who records as Dalt Wisney—a knowingly ridiculous moniker he chose in part as a “response to the wack Pakistani music industry.”

    The son of a successful record producer, Hyatt grew up listening to innovators like Radiohead and Aphex Twin, buying pirated albums at a local music store. Zero 7’s 2002 mix CD Another Late Night proved to especially pivotal, turning him onto idiosyncratic hip-hop artists including Madlib and Slum Village. “I had no idea what a sampler was at the time,” he wrote in an email from his current home in Istanbul, Turkey. “I ended up getting a cracked version of FruityLoops and started making shitty, overdubbed cassettes on my Sony hi-fi.” In 2006, while working on his first EP as Dalt Wisney, Hyatt was invited to participate in the Red Bull Music Academy in Melbourne, Australia, which inspired him to launch Mooshy Moo.

    But for the next five years, Karachi’s underground music would linger unnoticably in the shadows. Then, towards the end of 2012, producers and friends Bilal Nasir Khan (aka Rudoh) and Haamid Rahim (aka Dynoman) got together to launch the electronic netlabel and collective Forever South.


    Listen to a playlist featuring various underground Karachi artists:

    The music coming out of these labels is challenging and diverse, from Asfandyar Khan’s ambient drones, to the harmonium-laced electronica Zeerak Ahmed makes as Slowspin, to Dynoman’s worldly techno, to shoegaze quartet //orangenoise. By making art that doesn’t bend beneath the status quo, their very existence doubles as a potent political act.

    As I ate a watermelon with T2F’s Sana Nasir in her bedroom in the days before Mahmud’s slaying, she admitted that leading a creative life in Karachi is not easy. “It becomes discouraging, especially when people get killed,” she said, looking down at her hands. “People have kind of given up on trying to fix things, but I want to see this place become better. I know it can—things might get worse before they get better, but it can get better.”


    The following gallery features scenes from Karachi and portraits of local musicians; commentary and reporting by photographer Tonje Thilesen:


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    Interview: The Range Journeys to the End of YouTube

    The Range: "Florida" (via SoundCloud)

    James Hinton does not use YouTube the same way you use YouTube. While the 27-year-old does spend hours clicking from clip to clip, he’s not just wasting time like the rest of us. There is purpose in his video jags. Hinton is trying to find the clips that YouTube does not want you to see—or, at least, some of the ones that are so far back in the search results that they are virtually impossible to see—in order to sample amateur vocalists for use in the meticulous electronic productions he makes as the Range. For Hinton, it’s all part of breaking away from what he calls the “Justin Bieber narrative” that has defined YouTube talent searching over the last decade, where pop superstardom is the only presumed endpoint.

    Sitting in his small, uncluttered apartment in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, Hinton explains the ways in which he tries to access YouTube’s deepest crannies. “Sometimes I’m convinced that YouTube is hiding and restricting videos,” he says, pulling up a browser on his imposing seven-screen home studio setup. “But there are lots of different games you can play to get at stuff.” To this end, he types in a few of his go-to search terms (which he politely asks me to keep secret) and then starts toying around with the site’s filters and algorithms in order to find the unvarnished humanity he’s looking for. Most of the time, Hinton is seeking simple webcam videos of regular people singing or rapping a capella directly into the lens. Anything with a high amount of views is automatically ruled out, as are slick studio sessions and proper music videos. The way he tells it, Hinton’s search goes beyond whether the voice coming out of the YouTube window fits one of his tracks to something more instinctual and empathetic.

    For his new song “Florida,” Hinton sampled this YouTube of Kai Mars singing in her bedroom.


    “Maybe I’m fooling myself but I do think there’s something about a facial expression and the human ability to read something into it,” he says of his nights spent watching random strangers pour their souls out online. “You can tell when someone’s completely given into the thing.” And since Hinton will ultimately need to listen to any voice that he decides to sample many, many times—as part of manipulating it to fit into his music and then performing those songs live—he also requires that these YouTube vocalists seem like good people IRL. “There was this one video where I liked the way the guy said one word,” he says, “but I couldn't actually use it, because he just came off as a horrible human being [in the video].”

    During the creation of his forthcoming second album Potential, Hinton hit one particular eureka moment when happening across a video of 13-year-old London rapper named Kruddy Zak freestyling in front of a brick wall as a pint-sized hype man stood in the background. In the clip, Zak mixes teenage boasts with a startling, beyond-his-years stoicism. “’09 was emotional,” he raps, paying tribute to a late loved one, “It’s a memory that will never fade, I wish that everything was still the same.” Watching the clip, Hinton was taken aback—the producer had lost his own mother, a music teacher, in 2009.

    “That was a huge moment for me,” he says, marveling at the very real connections wrought from the Internet’s bottomless well of digital ephemera. “It was like, ‘Holy shit, this was meant to be.’” The Kruddy Zak vocals became part of a twinkling Potential highlight called “Copper Wire.” “I still think about my mom all the time,” says Hinton, who grew up as an only child on a Pennsylvania farm and didn’t know his father. “She would have been very proud that I was making music.”

    Potential also manages to fold in the emotions Hinton endured while going through a breakup during the course of the album’s creation—from the wispy what-could-have-been nostalgia of “Florida,” to the helpless “Falling Out of Phase,” to the rejuvenating “Retune,” he comes away with an album that’s both personal and universal, exacting and spontaneous.

    The freestyle in this video was used to make the Potential track “Copper Wire.”


    Wearing thin, circular glasses and a wintry mix of black and grey, Hinton is a cerebral presence. Books about World War II, computer coding, and economics line a shelf in the corner. “I had some weird economic theories going around the Occupy movement,” he says, “so I got really into trying to figure out what all the derivatives were.” Four white boards take up much of one wall, and the former theoretical physics student at Brown University uses them to work out math problems “just to stay sharp.” At one point, he goes on a tangent about black holes and photons and quantum computing that I am definitely not equipped to begin to understand. He sees both physics and music as infinite realms that can never really be solved. “With both art and science, any goal you reach will lead to another three or four things to look for next,” he says. “With this new record, I’ve advanced a lot of the themes that were on my first album, but I only have more questions now.” 

    Though Hinton used a similar YouTube-sourcing process to make his 2013 debut LP, Nonfiction, with the new record, he decided to reach out to the people he was sampling in an effort to shine a light on their talents, get their blessing, and offer a stake in the song’s publishing royalties. While most of the artists were thrilled by the opportunity, there was also some confusion. Kruddy Zak, who originally posted that freestyle video five years ago, was reasonably skeptical when Hinton originally reached out to him on Facebook. “He was like, ‘Wait, are you joking?’” Hinton recalls. “But once he realized it was real, he was just happy his art had gone somewhere, because I don't think he's freestyling anymore.” (To further expose the artists he sampled on Potential, a forthcoming documentary film showing their personal stories will be released this spring.)

    By surrounding his unpolished vocalists with lush sonics and morphing beats, Hinton often manages to lift up his Internet collaborators while retaining their guilelessness—offering a beautifully modern new creative paradigm in the process. And with 300 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every single minute, he won’t be wanting for source material anytime soon.

    Pitchfork: On Potential’s opening track, “Regular,” the vocals sound tentative, with lines like, “Right now, I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it.” You can’t help but feel sympathy for this person rapping into their webcam. Do you ever worry about exploiting these vocalists’ emotions while making your own music?

    James Hinton: Certainly that’s something I wrestle with. But what struck me about the rapper who ended up on “Regular” was this idea of an internal monologue about how, if you really search deep enough in anyone’s life—particularly if they’re in the arts—there’s a lot of shit that can go wrong. It’s incredibly unstable. And I empathized so heavily with that idea. So rather than being exploitive, I just wanted to put that well-articulated emotion forward and say, “It’s OK to feel that way.”

    Hinton sampled Roger “SDotStar” Miller’s vocals from this clip on his track “Regular.”


    Pitchfork: The idea of “making it” also comes up on the last song on the album, “1804,” but on that track it seems to be aligned with spiritual success rather than money—is that where you're trying to end up?

    JH: I feel like “1804” says something about attempting to divorce from that [materialistic] mentality, because it's very toxic to think that way. But what I realized is that the will and drive to continue to make work is the real key to “making it”—if you think that way, you're constantly resetting your goals and opening up the next thing. And that's precisely why those two songs work as bookends. It's a bit of self care. With all the different ways you can go about things as a music producer, you can't help but think about drawing lines in the sand as far as what you will and won’t do.

    Jamaican reggae artist Naturaliss is featured on the final song on Potential, “1804.”


    Pitchfork: I feel like a lot of electronic producers out right now, like Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, are trying to figure out how to incorporate vocals into their music, and that can involve getting brand-name artists—which can sometimes feel more like a business transaction than a creative act. You’ve found a novel way around that dilemma, but were you ever tempted to go that more common route?

    JH: You can’t help but be curious about that kind of process, because it can work incredibly well; it’s also tempting to do that for a single song to just see what happens. But if you include that song, it can wreck a whole album. In the fine arts we give people 40 years to stretch and iterate and do small things but, in music, there’s such a rush to maximize money that it’s very rare for even one record to have any type of continuity. So I had to put my foot down. There’s also a point where that way of working falls down for me, because there’s no narrative: You come in, you have a set of songs, you hand those songs over to someone. And a lot of rappers tour a ton, so their time in the studio is very precious and there’s less opportunity for talkback. For what I’m doing with the Range, [the vocalists’] narratives are so powerful—whether I’m reading into them or whether they actually exist—and that is much more compelling to me. There are flaws in it, but there are gorgeous parts that you would lose if you were forced to capture it in a studio.

    Also think about the life circumstances of a star—the likelihood that they're experiencing emotions that are not in some way related to their circumstance is very low. There's a much wider palette of emotions shown on YouTube, and you end up dealing with much more realistic, interesting things. There are people writing songs to their daughter and all sorts of specific things that would fall down in a popular context. Of course, Drake or Kanye or Beyoncé all write very different songs, but they’re all influenced by their experience.

    Pitchfork: Do you consider watching all of these YouTube videos voyeuristic at all? 

    JH: Well, “voyeur” has so many connotations, and it does correspond in that I’m not on the other side of the webcam. But it’s more like I'm responding—I’m viewing YouTube in a different way than you would when you're just checking something out. My brain switches into this other mode where I’m searching and trying to identify the best parts of people. But you can't get around the fact that I’m sitting in front of a screen late at night. 

    Pitchfork: The way you make music sounds like a solitary pursuit. Do you ever think of your YouTube-ing as a way to have some company?

    JH: Yeah, it’s an interesting form of being cloistered to some degree. But I wouldn't have it any other way. It’s more of an internal dialogue—even if it's just one way. Maybe I just need to go out more.


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