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    Photo Gallery: Perfume Genius: The Queen of Shanghai

    Mike Hadreas is sitting in a restaurant in Shanghai, happily eating a dish called “Beijing Heaving”—so named due to dodgy Mandarin-to-English menu translation and not because it tastes like puke. It’s December and the singer/songwriter known as Perfume Genius is wrapping up more than a year’s worth of touring behind his third album, Too Bright, with two dates in China, far away from his current home of Tacoma, Washington both geographically and culturally. 

    The following night, the 34-year-old puts on lipstick and wedge heels before swaggering in front of his four-piece band at Shanghai’s QSW Culture Center. Armed with the beefed-up songwriting and sound shown on his latest record, Hadreas’ performances provide a platform to exorcise his long-standing anxiousness, which was fostered by the homophobic abuse that permeated his life as a young gay man growing up in America. 

    Walking around The Bund, Shanghai’s iconic waterfront, he fidgets and hunches while posing for photographs in front of skyscrapers that are barely visible through lung-busting smog. He shrinks into his pink patterned sweater as camera-toting tourists mill nearby.

    As a singer, Hadreas doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve as much as he places it on a platter and passes it around. Too Bright saw his songwriting clout increase considerably, most memorably on the single “Queen,” in which he sarcastically lambasts homophobic stereotyping with the declaration: “No family is safe when I sashay!” In recent years, an increasing amount of prominent gay musicians have felt comfortable enough to be open about their sexuality in the public sphere, but few channel the issue as a source of lyrical inspiration as directly as Hadreas.

    As we walk up The Bund, he asks me if homosexuality is legal in China. It’s surely a vexing prospect for him to come to countries such as this, where homosexuality was criminalized until 1997 and listed as a mental illness until 2001. Even now, clinics offering supposed “cures” for homosexuality involving electroshock therapy are rife across the country. While the government has made strides to promote equality here recently—a Chinese court recently agreed to hear a same-sex marriage case—much of society here still holds negative views towards gay people and it is believed that the vast majority never come out.

    “That makes me want to come to these places even more, though it makes it more nerve-wracking,” he says. “In Singapore, the gay sex act is criminalized, so I knew that being who I am there could have got me sent me to jail.”

    Hadreas’ music gains even more gravitas when he performs alongside his long-term boyfriend, keyboardist Alan Wyffels; during a typical encore, they sit together sweetly, shoulder to shoulder. “It feels so intimate,” says Hadreas. “We’re never really apart. It’s like we’re the same person—recently I got a booking wrong because I counted us as one person instead of two.”

    His songwriting honesty has made Hadreas an underground icon for those on the receiving end of homophobic abuse, and he feels it’s important not to suppress his urge to write about the issues that dominate his life, even if a more ambiguous style might reap greater commercial success.

    “Writing about this stuff can cut out insecure people who think it means something about them to like a gay artist,” he says. “[Many gay musicians] don’t want their gayness to be such a big part of their identity, but I want to be purposeful and specific. When I was young, it would have been so helpful for me to have someone be hyper-specific, because I would have related to them much more.”

    As a high school student, Hadreas suffered extreme homophobic bullying that compounded his isolation. A group of peers once sent him a joint letter promising that they wouldn’t “treat me like a human being until I stop sucking dick.” That teenage abuse has made him feel like he needs to steel himself to face the public whenever he leaves his house to this day.

    "Some people act like it’s a drag show and yell 'fierce!' I am fierce, yes, but I'm serious about music. I have a sense of humor but I don't want to turn this into some novelty."

    —Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas

    Through the years, he has been attacked both physically and verbally. “There are all kinds of different things people do, from tiny little wound marks to straight up getting punched in the face,” he says. “Something like that hasn’t happened in a long time, though. It’s more getting called a faggot on the street. Or people laughing. The laughing really bugs me. It depends a lot on what I’m wearing.” 

    Hadreas’ outlet for the anger and fear that comes with such ridicule is performing as Perfume Genius. It used to be drink and drugs: He spent his early 20s bingeing in New York before going to rehab and getting sober about a decade ago. “Going out and being a dickhead was what made me feel completely whole,” he says, looking back. “I met people similar to me—gay people, weirdos—and for the first time I felt part of something.”

    He liked party drugs (“speedy stuff—I wanted to feel everything and have it feel really good”) and admits he still misses them. Having always been an outsider, he valued the acceptance the party scene gave him. “It was really fun and it did save me for a few years,” he says. “But I realized I was gonna die if I kept doing it. I would never say I’ll never have a drink again, but I can say I’m not drinking now.”

    So, in Shanghai, instead of hitting the bars, Hadreas hits the stores. We head to a pet market stacked with panicky caged birds, glass bowls overflowing with terrapins, and piles of wicker balls housing clicking crickets. After inquiring about the legalities of importing pets from China to the U.S. (not a good idea), he buys an outfit for his Chihuahua, who recently recovered from illness after eating marijuana (that Hadreas says did not belong to him). These days, Hadreas’ dog is doing more drugs than he is.

    Canine clothes shopping done, evening arrives, and Hadreas puts his makeup on, changes outfits, and gets ready to hit the stage. During “Queen,” he seems to grow a foot taller, smiling and swaying with a confidence not hinted at during our stroll around Shanghai’s neon-slick streets. “I want to bang you!” yells a slurring male American voice from the crowd. “Get in line,” Hadreas sassily replies. 

    After the show, vaping as he winds down in the dressing room (as well as drink and drugs, he’s quit smoking), Hadreas reflects on his onstage transformation. He does it simply because it feels natural to him, but he’s aware that many onlookers not plugged into the subtleties of his songwriting can misinterpret such flamboyance.

    “Some people act like it’s a drag show and yell ‘fierce!’” he says. “I am fierce, yes, but I’m serious about music. I have a sense of humor but I don’t want to turn this into some novelty. That guy shouting ‘I want to bang you!’—of course I want everyone to want to bang me, but that’s not why I’m up there.”

    As he steps out the back door after the show, a gaggle of mostly male Chinese Perfume Genius obsessives are waiting for him, asking to kiss him on the cheek. “That’s a good review,” he quips.

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    Article: Living Rooms: Breaking Bread at Paris' Les Instants Chavirés

    In the fourth installment of Living Rooms: Global Punk & DIY Venues, a series that looks at DIY clubs around the world, writer Philip Bloomfield and photographer Johann Bouché-Pillon visit Les Instants Chavirés, a venue in Paris.

    Read in:
    Read in EnglishRead in French

    From the outside, there's not much to see. A scruffy door hidden down a back road, a weather-beaten blackboard with a chalked listing for the night’s gig, a few dozen nondescript smokers braced against the cold. As I enter, the dimly-lit room still carries the smell of fresh paint from the renovations carried out after the New Year. The stage is low and the sound desk perched beside the door to the toilets. But there’s a word that comes up frequently when talking about this quietly iconic venue, nestled in the eastern Parisian suburb of Montreuil: Les Instants Chavirés might just be an institution.

    As Stephen O’Malley, a Paris resident when he’s not touring with Sunn O))), reflects via email: "Venues like this are critical and rare. If you're lucky you may have one in your town. The word institution goes against the ethics, but the common use of 'an institution' is a compliment." Jean-Francois ‘JF’ Pichard, the artistic director of Les Instants Chavirés, is visibly uncomfortable with the word. "We’re not an institution." He pauses, his gaze settling somewhere in the middle distance as he rolls a cigarette. "We don’t have that formality, that rigidity."

    His reticence to validate my use of the word may have something to do with the perception of cultural institutions in the heavily centralized French state. Since the end of World War II, the state has invested in spaces to push creative boundaries and explore new frontiers. In music and sound, the twin behemoths of French music research, l’IRCAM and l’INA GRM, are two of the most famous laboratories of their kind in the world. Stepping into the metro to take Ligne 9 east, I’m confronted by the piercing gaze of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the famed German avant-garde composer, staring out at me from a poster at the station entrance. It’s advertising a series of concerts celebrating his work at La Philharmonie, the steel-and-glass concert hall that rose out of the ground in Parc de La Villette. They are already sold out.

    Since the beginning, Les Instants Chavirés has existed somewhere on the boundaries of this formalized world. It was founded in 1991, under a socialist government intent on supporting a more localized French music scene to combat the dominance of international, predominantly Anglo-Saxon artists that were booked by private venues. Thierry Schaeffer and Philippe Bacchetta, who had been working together organizing jazz concerts in Montreuil, secured a public grant for start-up costs and subsidies to cover salaries, and Les Instants was born. "We were among the first to position and align ourselves with public policy. Outside of the market economy, this is one of the key things about Les Instants, and it’s still the case today," says Schaeffer, who is the current Director. (Bacchetta left amicably in 2002.)

    Yet even with these subsidies, Schaeffer is candid about the venue’s struggles. "It would be much more complicated today," he says, when asked whether he could envisage starting a similar venture from scratch. The access to public funding provides for five full-time employees, and it allows the venue to take risks that others can’t. Yet the subsidies, which would be unheard of outside of France, belie a financial fragility. Not for nothing, Schaeffer notes wryly, does the name (taken from an album of a French jazz trio) translate as "capsized moments." "You’re navigating by sight, because nothing says that there won’t be another economic crash and then we don’t have [the subsidies] anymore, or a right-wing government which cuts the funding." He ruffles his tousled grey hair, and smiles gently as we sit in his office, shared with his staff. "In France we are the only ones. You have [not-for-profit] associations, you have festivals, but still, we are the only ones doing this."

    By "this," he means putting on upwards of 80 concerts every year since 1991: noise, electroacoustic, free jazz, pyschedelic rock of all shades, electronic, black metal, and increasing amounts of ‘outernational’ non-Western sounds. International artists as diverse as Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Sunn O))) have played their first French shows here. Others, such as legendary free jazz saxophonists Joe McPhee or Peter Brötzmann, return every time they play in Paris. Above and beyond that, the venue has been a breeding pool for local French acts: electronic producer Low Jack’s fledgling label Editions Gravats held its first showcase here last year, experimental jazz pianist Sophie Agnel will play a two-set residency this February, and the venue also organizes a series of monthly free-entry nights entitled Q# which serve to showcase young Parisian and French performers of a variety of noisy, freeform, and experimental disciplines.

    Arno Bruil and Jo Tanz, playing tonight together as Femme, a circuit board mangling duo of rhythmic, bleeping drone, stress how different the venue is from others they play in France. "It’s the only place I know in France that provides the environment to present what you want to present," says Bruil, who is a regular performer here with multiple projects, including France Sauvage. "That’s to say, a sound engineer who’s engaged, who knows what’s going on, who understands the aesthetic of our music." Tanz, who runs DIY noise label Tanzprocesz as well as performing as Fusiller (amongst other projects), and has a long history with Les Instants, remembers his reaction the first time he was invited to play. "They invited me with a project which was just…chaotic," he laughs. "I was like…Is this a joke?! And they said no, please come, we’ll pay your transport, we’ll pay you a fee." Every artist or promoter I speak to underlines this aspect of Les Instants: the respect they show to their artists; the commitment not only to paying them properly, but also to housing them; to feeding them; and above all to ensuring that they’re in an environment conducive to performing. "Les Instants is also a reflection on what it is to be a musician, economically, socially, artistically…" opines JF, voicing what the artists he books have already told me.

    The idea of going beyond being "just" a concert venue for off-grid music has always been there, but in recent years Les Instants has become increasingly active in the community via outreach programs. In 2015, Les Instants organized over 350 hours of artist-led workshops in local schools and youth care homes, not to mention four or five exhibitions hosted in the abandoned brewery annex across the road from the venue. Nina Garcia, the youngest member of the team, has taken charge of the venue’s ever growing cultural outreach and community engagement projects for the last four years. She’s at once intense and jovial, and like all members of the team, entirely sincere in her infectious enthusiasm. Summing up her work, she says that it’s focused on broad ideas and principles rather than doctrine. "The idea is to put in place a whole load of tools for transmission of our ideas and teaching around the disciplines of that we support: improvised music, noise music, visual arts, and sound art." The idea is to encourage openness and intelligence rather than trying to format the next wave of free jazz or noise musicians. "We don’t seek to make good ‘French people’ or ‘good citizens,’ but instead to make individuals who think for themselves," says Schaeffer. "You need to have a vision of the world that is your own."

    Arnaud Rivière, a veteran Parisian improv musician and a former artistic director at Les Instants, now helps run Paris’ biggest experimental music festival Sonic Protest. He tells me that it’s Thierry’s openness to new ideas and fresh ears and eyes which has ensured Les Instants' survival for 25 years. "That’s the richness of Thierry, both in how he organizes his team, which is very varied, with people of all ages, from all different backgrounds, and aesthetically as well—this is a guy who doesn't come from an educated musical background." He also makes it clear that Sonic Protest, which has become the highlight of the experimental calendar in France, hosting the Dead C, Brigitte Fontaine, and Thurston Moore, simply wouldn’t exist today without the support of Les Instants on a variety of levels.

    Schaeffer’s easygoing attentiveness and his gentle kindness permeates his team, who are disarmingly positive about what they do. "I’ve had bad days," says JF, "but I’ve never woken up not wanting to go to work." It’s easy to see why. I’m invited to dinner at Les Instants’ "offices" (housed in the disused brewery procured for them in 2001 by the local council and currently used for exhibitions) before the night of the first concert of the year. When I arrive, all eight members of Les Instants’ paid staff and the two groups who’ll be playing that night are smoking, drinking, and talking animatedly amongst themselves around the large wooden table piled high with homemade vegan food and carafes of organic red wine. It’s an almost too perfect tableau of a stereotypically French "grande famille" at dinner. "It’s like we’re all in the same boat, it’s something very friendly, and familial," says Garcia.

    After the dinner, the team goes to work. Impressively-bearded soundman Benjamin Pagier heads across the road to the venue with Femme and JF, who will be on the door tonight, whilst the rest of the team busy themselves with clearing up after the meal. Each concert starts at 9:00 sharp, preceded at 8:30 by a program of short experimental films, roguishly titled "Rien a Voir" ("Nothing to See"). Behind the bar, Régis Darthez, the beaming, moustachioed barman, serves strong Belgian beer by the bottle and organic wine by the loosely poured glass. It’s a good sign if he’s got his earplugs in: it means tonight will be loud, or not, as the case may be. This is the first concert of the year and the bar is packed. Jo from Femme shoots me a look as the crowd start to press around his table of pedals, synthesizers, and wires as he’s setting up. "Our concerts are never this busy," he exclaims. Femme are playing first, followed by the repetitive, Loop-tinged garage rock of duo Spectraal, from Metz. What’s astounding from the start is the quality of sound in such a small, unassuming space. Even if those chatting loudly at the bar sometimes cut above the quieter moments of Femme’s set, there’s no echo and little distortion.

    Everyone has a story or three of a concert at Les Instants. Promoter Les Sons Paranormaux retell via email the time they put on legendary power electronics group Sutcliffe Jügend and a young goth turned up to carry out his first public sacrifice. Bernard Ducrayon from Parisian record shop and label Souffle Continu remembers seeing Japanese noise guitarist KK Null of Zeni Geva deal with an overenthusiastic punk repeatedly knocking over the speakers, first by warning him and then smashing him over the head with his guitar, leaving the bloodied punk laughing maniacally before storming off stage.

    My own memories from four years of concerts are thankfully less violent: Most of all I remember the beautiful, hushed silence that descended as Australian minimalist trio the Necks played, the audience clustered around the stage as though huddled up around a fire. Even Schaeffer, the 25-year veteran who’s never shocked anymore, admits to a recent minor epiphany watching some very modern punks: "Sleaford Mods, these guys from Nottingham, there you’re like ‘wow’, this music, these objects, these guys, it’s really something." Garcia remembers watching computer musician Marcus Schmickler playing some very particular frequencies over a multiple-speaker surround sound setup at the annual L’Audible festival of electroacoustic music organized by Les Instants. "I remember closing my eyes and not knowing whether the music was coming from the outside or whether my brain was producing it. I was completely disoriented!"

    All these stories paint but a small picture of the variety and diversity of the venue, which is now far more than just a harbor for improvised music and free jazz, as intended on its launch in 1991. Today, Les Instants is home to a variety of scenes on any given night. Besides what JF and Rivière both describe as a hardened "core" of around 200 attendees who come for pretty much everything and anything they put on, there’ll be a distinct flavor to the audience, depending on who’s playing. Turtlenecked, gray-haired jazz aficionados will give way to young, tightly-clad hipsters or longhaired rockers, punks, and metalheads of various ages, from one concert to the next. Tonight, perhaps in a reflection of the noisy bill, the crowd skews youthful and hip, evenly divided between male and female, but predominantly white, in sharp contrast to the Arab and Somali shops that cluster along Montreuil’s main road, Rue de Paris.

    Even if Les Instants is "open" to all, the "difficult" nature of the music means that the archetypal attendee remains more middle class "educated" rather than working class and, for the most part, white. There are exceptions: JF remembers that when Niger-born Sahel Sounds artist Mdou Moctar brought his "desert blues" to Montreuil last year, the audience was filled with Nigeriens from up the road in addition to the more familiar faces. Still, Schaeffer admits that he’s frequently troubled by the divide between the demographics of the area and the audience. "I’m conscious of where I am, a working-class neighborhood, this is my life, I was born here…so I say to myself, perhaps there’s something else to be done."

    Those who really know Les Instants certainly feel that he’s already done enough. The level of admiration and veneration for the place resonates among those who work there, perform there, and spend their evenings there. Everyone had a story to tell, and everyone I approached wanted to share their appreciation of the place. The only criticism to be heard came from an unnamed promoter, loitering around the bar after the concert. "I’ve been coming here for 20 years," he tells me, before confiding that he hates the beer they have on tap.

    De l’extérieur, il n’y a pas grand chose à voir. Une porte délabrée, cachée au bout d’un chemin de traverse, un tableau noir battu par les éléments où les informations sur les concerts du soir sont inscrites à la craie, quelques douzaines de fumeurs bravant le froid et défiant toute catégorisation. Je pénètre dans la pièce faiblement éclairée où flotte encore l’odeur de peinture fraîche des travaux de rénovation du début d’année. La scène est basse et la régie est perchée juste à côté de la porte des toilettes. Un mot revient sans cesse dans les discussions sur cette salle tranquillement emblématique, nichée à Montreuil, ville de la banlieue Est de Paris : il se pourrait bien que Les Instants Chavirés soit une institution.

    Comme l’explique Stephen O’Malley, Parisien lorsqu’il n’est pas en tournée avec Sunn O))) dans une réflexion par mail: « les salles comme celle-ci sont essentielles et rares. Il faut avoir de la chance pour en avoir une dans sa ville. Le terme institution va à l’encontre de l’éthique des Instants, mais l’usage du terme ‘institution’ est dans ce cas un compliment ». Jean-François « JF » Pichard, le directeur artistique des Instants Chavirés n’est clairement pas à l’aise avec ce mot. « On est pas une institution ». Il marque une pause, le regard dans le vide alors qu’il se roule une cigarette, « on n’a pas cette formalité, cette rigidité ».

    Sa réticence à valider mon utilisation du mot a peut-être quelque chose à voir avec la perception des institutions culturelles dans une France fortement centralisée. Depuis la fin de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, l’Etat a investi dans des espaces pour repousser les limites de la créativité et explorer de nouveaux territoires. En ce qui concerne la musique et le son, les deux colosses jumeaux de la recherche musicale française, l’IRCAM et l’INA GRM sont deux des laboratoires dans leur genre les plus connus au monde. Alors que je descend dans le métro pour prendre la ligne 9 en direction de l’Est, une affiche à l’entrée de la station me confronte au regard perçant de Karlheinz Stockhausen, le célèbre compositeur Allemand d’avant-garde. C’est une publicité pour une série de concerts à la Philarmonie qui célèbre son oeuvre dans la gigantesque salle d’acier et de verre sortie de terre dans le Parc de La Villette. Ils sont déjà complets.

    Depuis ses débuts, Les Instants Chavirés existe quelque part en marge de ce monde plus formel. La salle fut fondée en 1991 sous un gouvernement socialiste dont la volonté était de soutenir une scène musicale française en mettant l’accent sur le local pour combattre la domination d’artistes internationaux, à dominance Anglo-Saxonne, dans le circuit des salles privées. Thierry Schaeffer et Philippe Baccheta, qui organisaient ensemble des concerts de jazz à Montreuil, ont obtenu une subvention pour les coûts de lancement ainsi qu’une aide pour couvrir les salaires. Ainsi, « Les Instants » vit le jour. « On était parmi les premiers à se positionner autour de la politique publique et en dehors de l’économie marchande, ça c’est un des premiers trucs à propos des Instants, et ça tient encore maintenant », déclare le directeur Thierry Schaeffer (Bacchetta a quitté le lieu en bons termes en 2002).

    Pourtant, même avec ces subventions, Schaeffer parle avec franchise des défis auxquels est confrontée la salle. « Ce serait bien plus compliqué de nos jours » dit-il, quand je lui demande s’il pourrait envisager de lancer un lieu similaire à partir de zéro. L’accès aux fonds publics finance cinq salariés à temps plein et donne à la salle la possibilité de prendre des risques que d’autres ne peuvent pas se permettre. Pourtant ces subventions, peu répandues en dehors de France, dissimulent une certaine fragilité financière. Comme le note ironiquement Schaeffer, le choix du nom de la salle qui vient d’un album d’un trio Français de jazz n’est pas du tout anodin. « Tu navigues à vue, parce que rien ne dit qu’il n’y aura pas un deuxième crash boursier » qui mettrait les aides en péril, « ou un gouvernement de droite qui coupe les subventions ». Il ébouriffe ses cheveux en pagaille et sourit avec douceur, alors qu’on s’assoit dans le bureau qu’il partage avec son équipe. « En France on est les seuls. Après t’as des assos, t’as des festivals… mais quand-même, on est les seuls qui font ça. »

    Par « ça », il entend l’organisation de plus de 80 concerts par an depuis 1991 : noise, electroacoustique, free jazz, tous les nuances de rock psychédélique, musique électronique, black metal et de plus en plus de musique dite « sans frontières » qui mêle genres et traditions du monde entier. Des artistes internationaux aussi divers que Godspeed You! Black Emperor et Sunn O))) y ont fait leur première date française. D’autres, comme les légendaires saxophonistes de free jazz Joe McPhee ou Peter Brötzmann, retournent aux Instants à chaque fois qu’ils jouent à Paris. En outre, la salle est une véritable pépinière pour les acteurs de la scène locale : le jeune label Editions Gravats du producteur électronique Français Low Jack ( y a tenu son premier showcase l’année dernière, la pianiste expérimentale Sophie Agnel y tiendra une résidence en février et la salle organise Q#, une série de soirées gratuites et plus ou moins mensuelles qui présentent des jeunes artistes français issus d’un éventail de disciplines apparentées au noise, à l’improvisation et à l’expérimentation.

    Arno Bruil et Jo Tanz jouent ce soir en tant que Femme, un duo de drone rythmé et pulsant, armé de circuits imprimés mutilés. Ils soulignent à quel point la salle est différente des autres dans lesquelles ils jouent en France. « C’est le seul endroit que je connaisse en France qui fournisse un tel environnement pour que tu puisses présenter ce que tu as envie de présenter », déclare Arno, qui y joue régulièrement à travers de multiples projets, comme France Sauvage. « C’est-à-dire, avec un ingé son qui est engagé, qui sait ce qu’il se passe, qui comprend l’esthétique de notre musique ». Jo, qui dirige un label DIY nommé Tanzprocesz et qui monte aussi sur scène en tant que Fusiller (entre d’autres projets), vit une longue histoire avec Les Instants et il se souvient de sa réaction la première fois qu’il est venu y jouer. « Ils m’ont invité à travers un projet qui était tout simplement…chaotique », dit-il en riant. « Je me suis demandé…est-ce que c’est une blague ?! Et il m’ont répondu non, venez s’il vous-plaît, on vous défraie et on vous paiera un cachet ». Tous les artistes et organisateurs à qui je parle mettent en exergue cette facette des Instants: le respect voué aux artistes, l’engagement non seulement à les payer correctement mais aussi à les héberger, à les nourrir et par dessus tout, à s’assurer qu’ils sont accueillis dans un environnement propice à la performance. « Les Instants est aussi une réflexion sur ce que ça veut dire d’être musicien, économiquement, socialement, artistiquement… » me fait remarquer JF, en résonance avec ce que les artistes qu’il programme m’ont déjà déclaré.

    L’idée d’aller au-delà d’être « seulement » une salle de concert pour musique hors des sentiers battus a toujours été présente, mais ces dernières années, Les Instants est devenue particulièrement active au sein de la communauté, à travers des programmes de sensibilisation. En 2015, Les Instants à organisé plus de 350 heures d’ateliers, menés par des artistes dans des établissement scolaires et sociaux locaux, sans parler des quatre ou cinq expositions organisées dans la brasserie abandonnée qui se trouve de l’autre côté de la rue. Nina Garcia, plus jeune membre de l’équipe, est responsable depuis quatre ans du nombre croissant de programmes de sensibilisation et des projets d’engagement communautaires. Elle est simultanément intense et joviale et comme tous ses coéquipiers, l’enthousiasme contagieux qu’elle porte à son travail est complètement sincère. En résumant son travail, elle explique qu’elle se concentre sur des idées larges et sur des principes plutôt que sur la doctrine. « L’idée c’est de mettre en place tout un tas d’outils de transmission et de pédagogie autour des disciplines qu’on défend : musiques expérimentales, bruitistes et improvisées, arts visuels et sonores ». L’idée est d’encourager l’ouverture d’esprit et l’intelligence, plutôt que d’essayer de fabriquer la prochaine génération de musiciens de free jazz ou de noise. « Nous ne cherchons pas à faire ‘de bons français’ ou ‘de bons citoyens’, mais plutôt des individus qui peuvent réfléchir pour eux-mêmes » dit Schaeffer, « tu dois avoir une vision du monde qui est la tienne ».

    Arnaud Rivière, musicien Parisien vétéran de l’improvisation et ancien directeur artistique des Instants dirige aujourd’hui le plus grand festival de musique expérimentale de la capitale, Sonic Protest. Il me confie que c’est l’ouverture de Thierry aux nouvelles idées ainsi qu’un regard et une ouïe sans cesse renouvelés qui ont assuré la survie des Instants au cours des 25 dernières années. « Ça c’est la richesse de Thierry, à la fois comment il organise son équipe, l’équipe est assez variée, il y tous les âges, des territoires très différents, et puis esthétiquement, c’est un mec qui ne vient pas de la musique savante ». Il met l’accent sur le fait que Sonic Protest, devenu un évènement incontournable du calendrier expérimental en France en accueillant The Dead C, Brigitte Fontaine et Thurston Moore, n’existerait tout simplement pas aujourd’hui sans le soutien, à bien des égards, des Instants Chavirés.

    La bienveillance attentive de Schaeffer ainsi que sa douce amabilité imprègne toute son équipe dont l’enthousiasme pour le travail qu’elle accomplit est désarmant. « J’ai eu des mauvaises journées » dit-il, « mais je ne me suis jamais réveillé genre je n’ai pas envie d’aller au travail ». Pas compliqué de comprendre pourquoi. Je suis invité à dîner dans « les bureaux » des Instants (qui se trouvent dans la brasserie désaffectée que leur a octroyé le conseil local et qui est actuellement utilisée pour les expositions) lors de la première soirée de concerts de l’année. Quand j’arrive, les huit salariés des Instants et les deux groupes qui joueront ce soir là fument, boivent et discutent tous ensemble, avec entrain, autour d’une grande table en bois où s’empile nourriture végétalienne faite maison accompagnée de carafes d’un vin rouge et biologique. C’est un tableau presque trop parfait du cliché qu’on pourrait se faire d’un dîner de famille nombreuse en France. « Pour moi [c’est] de l’ordre d’un bateau entre amis, un truc très amical et très familial » déclare Garcia.

    Après le dîner, l’équipe se met au travail. Benjamin Pagier, l’ingénieur du son à l’impressionnante barbe traverse la rue avec Femme et JF, qui sera à la porte ce soir, pendant que le reste de l’équipe s’affaire à débarrasser la table à l’issue du repas. Chaque concert débute précisément à 21h, précédé à 20h30 par une sélection de courts métrages expérimentaux, baptisée non sans espièglerie « Rien à Voir ». Derrière le bar, Régis Darthez, le resplendissant barman moustachu, sert de la puissante bière belge à la bouteille et du vin biologique au verre généreusement rempli. S’il porte ses bouchons d’oreille, c’est bon signe : le volume sera élevé ce soir. C’est le premier concert de l’année et le bar est plein à craquer. Jo du groupe Femme me lance un regard tandis que la foule s’agglutine autour de la table où il raccorde pédales, synthétiseurs et câbles. « Il n’y a JAMAIS autant de monde à nos concerts », s’exclame-il. Femme joueront en premier, suivi par le garage rock répétitif d’un duo venu de Metz et inspiré par Loop, Spectraal. Ce qui est étonnant d’emblée, c’est la qualité du son dans un espace si petit et modeste. Même si ceux qui parlent bruyamment au bar parviennent parfois à couvrir les passages plus calmes du set de Femme, il n’y a pas d’écho et très peu de distorsion dans la salle, sauf quand c’est voulu.

    Tout le monde a une ou trois histoires à propos d’un concert aux Instants. Les Sons Paranormaux, organisateurs de concerts, se souviennent de la fois où ils y ont fait jouer le mythique group de power electronics nommé Sutcliffe Jügend et de l’arrivée d’un jeune gothique, tout équipé pour mener à bien son tout premier sacrifice rituel en public. Bernard Ducrayon du magasin et label parisien Le Souffle Continu se souvient avoir vu le guitariste de noise japonaise KK Null du groupe Zeni Geva s’occuper d’un punk un peu trop enthousiaste qui renversait les hauts parleurs de façon répétée, d’abord en l’avertissant puis en lui fracassant sa propre guitare sur la tête, laissant le punk ensanglanté rire frénétiquement avant de quitter la scène en trombe.

    Heureusement, mes propres souvenirs après quatre ans de concerts sont moins violents : par dessus tout, le beau silence étouffé qui s’est installé pendant le concert du trio minimaliste Autrichien The Necks me vient en tête, le public rassemblé autour de la scène comme autour d’un feu de cheminée. Même Schaeffer, le vétéran que rien ne choque après 25 ans de service, me confie avoir vécu une petite révélation face à de bien modernes punks : « Sleaford Mods, ces gars de Nottingham, c’est ‘wow’, d’où vient cette musique, ces objets, ces mecs, c’est super! ». Garcia se souvient des fréquences très particulières jouées par le musicien sur ordinateur Marcus Schmickler sur un système son immersif à plusieurs points de diffusion installé pour l’Audible, festival annuel de musique electroacoustique organisé par Les Instants. « Je me souviens avoir fermé les yeux et de ne plus savoir si le son venait de l’extérieur ou si c’était mon cerveau qui le produisait. J’étais complètement désorientée ! ».

    Tous ces témoignages dressent un beau tableau de la variété et de la diversité de cette salle, à ce stade bien plus que le havre pour la musique improvisée et le free jazz envisagé lors de son lancement en 1991. De nos jours, Les Instants accueille tous les soirs une variété de scènes différentes. Hormis ce que JF et Rivière décrivent comme le noyau dur, fort d’environ 200 personnes qui se déplacent pour à peu près tout et n’importe quoi, le public aura chaque soir une saveur particulière, déterminée par ceux qui jouent. D’un concert à un autre, les aficionados grisonnants du jazz arborant cols roulés laisseront la place à de jeunes hipsters aux vêtements serrés ou à des rockers aux cheveux longs, à des punks et à des métalleux de tout âges. Ce soir, peut-être en reflet de l’affiche d’obédience noise, le public est plutôt jeune, branché, équitablement partagé entre hommes et femmes, mais majoritairement blanc, en contraste flagrant avec les échoppes Maghrébines et Somaliennes qui peuplent la rue de Paris, l’artère principale de Montreuil.

    Même si Les Instants sont « ouverts » à tous, la nature « difficile d’accès » de la musique qui y est jouée est telle que le spectateur lambda demeure blanc et « éduqué », issu de la classe moyenne plutôt que de la classe ouvrière. Il y a des exceptions : JF se souvient de quand Mdou Moctar, artiste signé sur Sahel Sounds et né au Niger est venu jouer son « blues du désert » à Montreuil l’année dernière. Le public était composé en majorité de Nigériens du quartier en plus des habitués. Cependant, Schaeffer admet qu’il est fréquemment perturbé par le fossé entre la composition socio-économique locale et celle du public. « Je suis conscient de là où je suis, le territoire populaire, c’est ma vie, je suis né ici, et donc je me dis qu’il y peut-être autre chose à faire ».

    Parmi ceux qui connaissent vraiment Les Instants, il n’y a aucun doute que personne ne pense qu’il n’en a pas fait assez. Le niveau d’admiration et de vénération pour ce lieu est élevé en ceux qui y travaillent, ceux qui y jouent et ceux qui y passent leurs soirées. Tout le monde a une histoire à raconter et tous les gens que j’aborde veulent partager leur engouement pour cet endroit. La seule critique que j’ai pu entendre est venue d’un organisateur qui restera anonyme et qui zonait autour du bar après le concert: « Ça fait vingt ans que je viens ici » me dit-il, avant de m’avouer qu’il déteste la marque de bière à la pression qui est servie.

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    Interview: 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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    Article: 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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    Interview: 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 Gallery: 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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    Article: 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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    Podcast: 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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    Podcast: 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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    Profile: 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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    Interview: 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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    Afterword: 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: Everybody Is a Star: How the Rock Club First Avenue Made Minneapolis the Center of Music in the ’80s

    The grassroots touring circuit for independent American rock bands was just beginning to cohere in 1981. “Booking was like being an explorer,” says Jefferson Holt, who managed R.E.M. at the time. “Punk” of whatever stripe was still viewed with extreme suspicion by middle America. “The people who were running discos and blues clubs just didn't get it,” says Holt. “I remember us playing this cavernous place in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. [The promoter], a young Italian-American guy, took me back to this room, and there were all these older guys. I felt like I had walked into a Scorsese movie. There was nothing to be afraid of, really, but we were the aliens.”

    “Alien” is precisely how R.E.M. felt when they pulled into Minneapolis on the freezing afternoon of Thursday, November 26, 1981. Holt was behind the wheel; the gig paid $300, a kingly sum for a group whose members were on a strict $2 per diem. A blizzard was underway, and the venue where R.E.M. was to play—the 7th Street Entry, the 225-capacity side room of a disco called Sam’s, located at 701 First Avenue North, smack in the middle of downtown—was still closed when they arrived. So was nearly everything else—it was Thanksgiving. “The only place open was a Greek restaurant,” says Holt. “There was a Greyhound sign spinning around. It was like an Edward Hopper painting. We were… concerned is an understatement. We didn't know who was going to turn up for an unknown band on Thanksgiving night.” 

    Steve McClellan, the general manager of Sam’s and the Entry, wasn’t sure, either. Though R.E.M. had made some national noise that July when they released the 7" “Radio Free Europe” on the small Hib-Tone label, they were barely known outside their hometown of Athens, Georgia. That night, the Sam’s Mainroom headliner cancelled, and McClellan moved R.E.M. into the bigger room. “They didn’t want to do it,” says McClellan. “And they were right: We should’ve kept it in the Entry.” McClellan later estimated the night’s attendance as 88 people—in a room that held 1,200. “It was pretty sparse,” says Paul Spangrud, one of the club’s DJs, who was working that night. “But everybody was on the ground floor, right in front of the stage—everybody who was there wanted to be there.”

    That included Peter Jesperson, a pivotal figure in the local indie rock scene who co-founded Twin/Tone Records and manned the counter of south Minneapolis record store Oar Folkjokeopus, hawking indies and imports as pop radio drowned in REO Speedwagon and Air Supply. He also managed a fledgling group of punks called the Replacements, whose teenage bassist, Tommy Stinson, attended the show with him. “[R.E.M.] were every bit as great as we'd hoped they'd be,” recalls Jesperson.

    “Bands don't like playing to that emptiness,” says Holt. “But because of the enthusiasm of the people that came out, it was one of the best shows that they ever did. When we showed up to disasters, their attitude, especially [guitarist] Peter [Buck]'s, was, ‘Fuck it. If eight people are going to show up, they’re going to leave and say: We saw the best band in the world.’” 

    R.E.M. would appear at the venue two more times the following year: On April 26 they drew 347 people, and then 942 came out to see them on September 22, a month after the release of their first EP, Chronic Town. By then the club was no longer Sam’s. “On New Year's Eve of 1981 we changed the name to First Avenue,” says McClellan. “Everybody had a million ideas [for a name]. First Avenue was a default.” Thirty-five years later, it remains one of the longest-running rock venues in the country—birthed, more or less, by accident.

    Sam's circa 1980, before the venue's name was changed to First Avenue. Photo by Stephen Cysewski.

    You didn’t have to play music to be in the business in the Twin Cities of the ’60s and ’70s. Minneapolis-St. Paul was the record-distribution capital of the U.S., handling roughly one-third of the nation’s vinyl and cassette trade, and local musicians made regular, if fleeting, appearances on the Billboard charts, from ’60s garage-rockers the Trashmen and the Castaways (“Liar, Liar”), to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (half-recorded in Minneapolis), to Lipps Inc.’s 1980 #1 hit “Funkytown.” 

    But a music scene was something else. For most of the ’70s, cover bands were the rule in Twin Cities clubs. That began to change mid-decade, when groups like the Suicide Commandos, the Suburbs, and Curtiss A found places to play. In particular, Jay’s Longhorn opened in 1977 and immediately became Minneapolis’ pit stop for new wave touring acts, from Elvis Costello to the B-52’s. Peter Jesperson was that club’s DJ—a lightning rod for all things punk.

    Steve McClellan wasn’t punk. The first time he stepped foot into 701 First Avenue North, when it was still a Greyhound depot, he was a teenage runaway hightailing it to San Francisco during the summer of 1967 because, he says, “My dad was going to make me cut my hair.” The Nebraska Highway Patrol sent him back. “I could see my dad glaring at me across the lot,” says McClellan. In 1968 he enrolled at the University of Minnesota during a heady period of social change: The American Indian Movement was founded on campus that year, and in 1971 Jack Baker became the first openly gay president of the U of M’s Student Association. McClellan took to the atmosphere like a loon to a lake. “I’ve only voted for two major-party candidates in the last 40 years: George McGovern [in 1972] and Obama [in 2008],” he says. “I was third party all the way.” 

    McClellan loved rock’n’roll in high school, having seen the Yardbirds on the eighth floor of the downtown Dayton’s department store, but gave his records to a neighbor upon entering college. Readying himself for a lifetime of public service—he worked for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and nursed ambitions to join Ralph Nader’s organization—he recalls thinking, “I was no longer going to waste money or time on music.”

    He was wrong. In the early ’70s he took a part-time bartending job at Uncle Sam’s, the downtown club located in the old Greyhound station at First Avenue and 7th Street. Originally opened in 1970 as the Depot, the venue hosted a number of major acts—the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, Ike & Tina Turner—before excessive police attention shut it down a year later. It reopened in 1972 when the building’s owner, Allan Fingerhut, sold controlling interest to American Events, a disco chain headquartered in Cincinnati. The emphasis was on DJs playing current hits; live bands were an afterthought.

    McClellan got the job alongside an old friend from De La Salle High School, the straitlaced Jack Meyers, and soon dropped out of college to join the club’s management, earning the company’s Rookie of the Year award in 1974. Four years later, McClellan booked Nick Gilder and Starbuck, figuring they would be easy draws since each had #1 hits that year (“Hot Child in the City” and “Moonlight Feels Right,” respectively). Both tanked. “I paid too much and lost money,” says McClellan.

    He had better luck a year later when, back-to-back, he booked Pat Benatar and the Ramones. Both were rousing successes, and American Events noticed. “They let me do whatever I wanted after that, ’cause I sold out two shows like I knew what I was doing,” says McClellan, who was nevertheless surprised by the Ramones’ sellout. “I thought, They don't even have a [hit] record out. How come people are buying these tickets? There was something exciting going on.”

    First Avenue general manager Steve McClellan sits and smokes with Minneapolis band Têtes Noires in the mid-'80s.

    On March 21, 1979, Curtiss A and openers Wilma and the Wilburs played the first show at the 7th Street Entry, which had previously been Uncle Sam’s coat-check room. McClellan cold-called Jesperson and introduced himself. “He invited me down to see [the Entry] before they opened,” says Jesperson. “He and I clicked instantly.” The core Longhorn crowd, about 250 people, followed suit. 

    There was a marked contrast between the Mainroom and Entry crowds—punk versus disco, basically. When McClellan hired DJ Kevin Cole, who wore peg-leg jeans with holes, T-shirts, and a black leather jacket, Uncle Sam’s employees signed a petition insisting that he start sporting polyester. “You only really went [into the Mainroom] to use the better bathroom,” says Chrissie Dunlap, McClellan’s onetime assistant, whose husband Bob, aka Slim, played guitar with Curtiss A. “The Entry people hated the Mainroom and the Mainroom people hated the Entry,” says McClellan. “But the Entry was packing out all the time and the Mainroom kept sliding. So the writing was on the wall.”

    The exterior of First Avenue is adorned with silver stars featuring the names of marquee artists who have played there.

    By the end of the ’70s, disco was “dead,” and suddenly Minneapolis didn’t look so good to American Events. Fingerhut bought back the corporation’s half of the venue and began plotting a new course with McClellan, who brought in Jack Meyers to run the club’s business end. The entire staff took pay cuts to keep the place afloat. The mainstays included DJs Cole and Roy Freedom. Cole was a punk with radio experience who picked up a taste for disco and funk on the job; Freedom had done stints at both hardcore discos and alongside Jesperson at the Longhorn.

    In January 1981, Paul Spangrud joined them after management at the nearby Saloon didn’t like him spinning Devo and Madness alongside disco—which was exactly what Sam’s wanted. Like Cole and Freedom, he became an Entry stage manager as well as a Mainroom DJ. “First Avenue was open every night, and the Entry was closed on Sundays,” says Cole. “We would work 13 nights in a row, alternating between the two rooms, and then have a night off. We were driven.”

    With American Events out, the club went dark, literally. “We took out the neon dance floor,” says McCellan. They painted the whole place black, inside and out; the exterior would eventually accommodate silver stars with the names of the venue’s top draws. And they tossed the “Uncle” out of the name to become just Sam’s. But McClellan wouldn’t cut costs on bands. “I wasn't looking at it in terms of a business plan. I was coming out of ’60s radicalism,” he says. “The only reason you exist is to make change. That's why I was so hard on pure pop bands: I had no time for bands that didn't have a message.”

    One of the Longhorn bands that moved into the Entry was a trio that had formed in St. Paul in 1979. Pure fury surrounded by Minnesota Nice, Hüsker Dü immediately impressed everyone who heard them. The group became a favorite of the blooming national hardcore scene, but it didn’t take long for them to outgrow it. “I didn't enjoy playing hardcore,” drummer/singer Grant Hart told The A.V. Club. “I’ve never really enjoyed that macho, ‘Here are the rules, here's how you conform’ stuff.”

    Over the course of 1980 and 1981, Hüsker Dü played the 7th Street Entry nearly 60 times total (along with three shots in the Mainroom). Singer/guitarist Bob Mould became tight with McClellan, whom he would credit with helping him learn the business. Even numbers guy Jack Meyers noticed the young punk’s acumen, though he usually had no engagement with the talent side. He would say to McClellan: “Steve, I don't want to know the name of the band. Just tell me ‘band.’”

    Hüsker Dü at the 7th Street Entry in 1981. Photo by Greg Helgeson.

    Three nights, three shows in March of 1981: On the eighth, the influential NYC no wave trio DNA; two nights later in the Entry, Jesperson’s charges, the Replacements; right in the middle, on the ninth, playing his first gig in the building, a young black artist from Minneapolis’ north side named Prince. The 22-year-old had landed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1977 and nearly reached the Top Ten two years later with “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” He began his first extensive tour in 1980, beginning with a date at the Orpheum Theater, near Sam’s, which held 2,300—but only sold 1,000. “They were giving away tickets to try and get people in there,” says Cole. “He hadn't really found his audience yet.” 

    Prince was not unknown at Sam’s. Fingerhut used to allow him in as a teenager to see shows featuring black bands, which were unusual for the time: “If you were a black band in the 1970s… you couldn't play the downtown clubs,”Jimmy Jam once told City Pages. “It was never said, but we knew what the score was.” But McClellan was game to have the kid at his club in ’81 and paid Prince $2,500 plus a sliver of the gross. “That first Prince show was one of the best shows I ever saw,” says Cole, who mixed sound that night. “You could see him connecting. I got a sense that he felt like, ‘This is my audience.’”

    Prince had hardly come out of a vacuum. A number of black bands that orbited him in north Minneapolis were making decent bread on the local circuit, such as Flyte Tyme, featuring vocalist Alexander O’Neal, drummer Jellybean Johnson, keyboardists Monte Moir and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III, and bassist Terry Lewis, among others. “Flyte Tyme were a huge suburban cover band,” says Rod Smith, a First Avenue employee for two decades. “That was a time when you could get two G’s a night [playing covers], so they were comfortable.” But Chrissie Dunlap encouraged them out of that comfort zone: “Those guys were all top-notch musicians, but it was like, ‘No, you’ve got to write your own material,’” she says. When they did, she booked them in the Entry; ditto Enterprise, featuring bassist Sonny Thompson, whom Prince later tapped for his early-’90s band the New Power Generation.

    In addition to playing in Flyte Time, Jimmy Jam was also a DJ at the Fox Trap, a black club downtown, and worked alongside Kevin Cole at Hot Licks, a nearby record store. Jam was one of the Twin Cities’ most plugged-in and well-liked musical figures, and became part of McClellan’s informal advisory board. One Friday afternoon at Hot Licks in April 1981, Jam told Cole, “Prince is having us over to the studio to record some demos.” That weekend, Jam and most of his Flyte Tyme bandmates, minus O’Neal, cut the Time’s self-titled debut with former Prince drummer Morris Day on lead vocals. Warner Bros. released it on July 29.

    The Time’s tightly choreographed show was unveiled at Sam’s on October 7, 1981; the near-sellout earned the band $1,500, with 75 percent of the tickets purchased at door. First Avenue’s eclectic musical approach can be seen in the pair of videos Roy Freedom played before the headliners: OMD’s “Enola Gay” and Grace Jones’ “Pull Up to the Bumper.”

    Jimmy Jam was now in one of the biggest bands in town. But he and Terry Lewis were already looking beyond that. They began writing and producing their own songs in 1982, starting with Klymaxx’s “Wild Girls.” By early 1983, when Prince fired the pair for missing a Time concert due to a snowstorm while working with the S.O.S. Band, they quickly became R&B’s most in-demand writer-producer duo, making hits for Cherrelle, Janet Jackson, and their old Flyte Tyme bandmate Alexander O’Neal.

    Flyte Tyme in Halloween costumes circa 1980. Photo by Charles Chamblis / Minnesota Historical Society.

    Most American bands playing Sam’s in 1981 were on independent labels and had only seen bits and pieces of the rest of the country. But the headliners on April 9 were a couple months from finishing a 157-date world tour. “Everybody was working hundred-hour weeks just to push the rock up the hill,” Bono once said of that early U2 tour. After a March show in Portland, Oregon, the singer left behind a briefcase containing a number of papers, including a notebook of lyrics intended for the band’s second album. (He finally got them back in 2004.) Cobbling the songs together from memory, the band worked them out during sound checks—including a three-hour marathon the afternoon of their Sam’s show.

    “I was up in the mezzanine pretending to be busy, listening and watching the whole thing,” says Cole. “And they ended up writing three or four of the songs that ended up on October”—notably “I Threw a Brick Through a Window.” Paul Spangrud had a rare night off, but came as a fan. He brought company: Several members of the Harlem Globetrotters and their opponents, the Washington Generals, who had played downtown that afternoon. “Of course, the black guys didn't know what to think of U2,” he says. “But it was fun.” 

    At that show, a local musician watched U2 run through its biggest hit, “I Will Follow,” twice. With a mixture of inspiration and bemusement that would become his calling card, Paul Westerberg then went off and wrote an answer song. Soon his band, the Replacements, were performing “Kids Don’t Follow” along with a torrent of other similarly snotty material.

    Westerberg had handed Jesperson a tape at Oar Folk two years earlier, hoping to get a Longhorn gig. Jesperson flipped; he was telling friends, quite seriously, that they were “the greatest thing since the Rolling Stones.” Not everyone agreed: “With the Replacements, one out of 10 shows—maybe one out of 20—was good,” says McClellan. Daniel Corrigan, a longtime club photographer who still works for First Avenue, adds, “I remember watching one of their drunken shows where I just thought, This isn't artistic; this is stupid.”

    Jesperson’s immediate and intensive championing of the Replacements put the band on a lot of local side-eye lists, but even when they got shit-faced and played joke covers—which they did a lot—their cocky exuberance was hard to resist. Even Corrigan admired it at times; he recalls seeing guitarist Bob Stinson hock a loogie onto the ceiling of the Entry dressing room and then just walk away. “It's going to come down eventually, right?” Corrigan says with a laugh.  “Whenever I was in the room [with Bob] I'd always check the ceiling, just to see what was up there.”

    A 7th Street Entry/First Avenue show calendar from March 1982 via Old Minneapolis.

    As an eclectic New York jazz trombonist who played in both rock and jazz venues for a decade, Joseph Bowie had heard everything. In 1982 he visited Minneapolis twice with his band Defunkt, and their van pulled in the first time on a wintry day in March. “This was the last part of my drug-use period, so I was stoned, driving out there in the middle of the snow,” he says over the phone from his Netherlands home. Following sound check, Bowie got word from club management that another band had asked for the stage after the headliners’ set. Could Defunkt finish early? No problem. Their truncated set was well received; the club brought them back that October. “We really kicked some sand and the people loved it,” says Bowie.

    One guy apparently didn’t—the bandleader curtailing Defunkt’s performance. It was the first time, but not last, that Prince would take to the First Avenue Mainroom stage in spite of a prior billing. The night before, he headlined the Met Center, in suburban Bloomington, on the Controversy tour, and as word got out, the half-full crowd for Defunkt quickly ballooned.

    “I never actually met Prince that night because he had a huge bouncer by the [backstage] door and I didn’t feel like begging to get in to say hello,” says Bowie. But he still got a greeting of sorts once Prince took the stage. “The first thing he did as he opened his show was say: ‘Jazz is dead!’” recalls Bowie with a huge laugh. “I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” 

    Prince became a regular presence at First Avenue, hiring Kevin Cole to play private events and bringing him test pressings of new songs to try out. “He would run down and dance in the middle of the floor,” says Cole. “He was hearing how it sounded on a big PA, mixed with other music.”

    On May 16, 1983, while touring behind 1999, Prince heisted the Mainroom for yet another impromptu gig. By then, he had been collecting ideas in a purple notebook for a film—not a video, a movie, for a performer with only one Top Ten hit to his credit at the time. His managers were charged with getting him a motion picture deal or else he wouldn’t re-sign with them. Eventually, against long odds, they did.

    That summer, the Time, and another new Prince-sired act, Vanity 6, led by the singer’s real-life girlfriend Vanity, began learning new songs for the movie at a warehouse on Highway 7. They also took acting and dance lessons, the latter courtesy of the Minnesota Dance Theatre, led by Loyce Houlton. Prince agreed to play a benefit show for them at First Avenue on August 3, where the dance troupe performed four numbers, including a dance to Prince’s “DMSR,” choreographed by Houlton—the first time for ballet on the First Avenue stage. Tickets were $25, and the show sold out well in advance, raising some $23,000 for Houlton’s group.

    Two incidental expenses from the benefit’s paperwork stand out: A dozen tambourines for Prince to toss to the audience, totaling $127; and $35 to the City of Minneapolis to use “the curb lane of the street, 200 lineal feet in front of Sam’s [sic]... for filming purposes.” There sat a recording truck from New York studio the Record Plant. “They had everything set up,” recalls Spangrud. “They were there at 8 a.m., loading in. They brought in tons of extra PA. Prince spent a lot of time on sound checks.”

    Former First Avenue VJ Spot was involved with Jack Meyers’ video-making side enterprise, AVE Productions, which filmed a number of the club’s shows—including the benefit. A lot of AVE footage did not survive a major club cleanup around 2010: “It was all down in the basement, basically moldering,” says Corrigan. “We needed the space.” At least one thing did survive: the performance of the full, unedited version of “Purple Rain,” which pops up on YouTube every few months. (First Avenue’s DJs also recorded several concerts: “We had microphones hung from the ceiling in the Mainroom that you couldn't see unless you specifically looked for them,” says Spangrud.)

    “Purple Rain” was one of several new songs premiered at the benefit. Along with a medley of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star,” the show on August 3, 1983, would provide the source recordings for the final three songs on Prince’s next album, the soundtrack to the movie he was about to start filming in his hometown—and at his home club.

    Prince at First Avenue in 1983. Photo by Jim Steinfeldt / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images.

    A letter of intent dated September 22, 1983, was sent from management firm Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli to First Avenue. It offered $100,000 to use the Mainroom between November 26 and December 20, “for dressing, filming, and strike during our filming of Purple Rain.” The Entry would stay open. “Every effort will be made by my company to employ as many of your personnel as may wish to work in our film, so as to ease their fears of employment,” wrote the production manager. 

    “Almost every single person that worked [at the club], even up in the office, was in it,” says Dunlap. VJ Spot, who stands at five-foot-two and had worked with Prince in other capacities, became the star’s stand-in after the first one violated the set’s strict confidentiality by talking to City Pages. Prince went even further with Daniel Corrigan. “I was not allowed in the building,” says the photographer. “I was the only one specifically banned from First Avenue for the entire filming of Purple Rain. There was a no-photograph rule. He’s always been twitchy about photos.”

    In her living room, Dunlap pulls out Albert Magnoli’s shooting script for Purple Rain, dated Nov. 30-Dec. 1. “[It was] on one of the bar tables, so I took it. It’s early, too—with Vanity. Then she and Prince broke up, so that was the end of that.”

    Cole, who missed the job call and wasn’t in the picture, hung out regularly nonetheless. “I recall them filming concert scenes at eight in the morning, full volume, with the room packed out with [extras],” he says. “It was so loud and so powerful, and to see Prince looking like he's playing along, and it seeming like a real live performance, the emotional quality behind songs like ‘Purple Rain’ was just stunning. Nothing about it felt like he was lip-synching or air-guitaring. They were feeling it, and the audience was feeling it.” The staff was abuzz. “I remember hearing stories about getting paid $100 to go buy a sandwich,” says Cole.

    Maggie MacPherson, an ’80s staffer, told Seattle’s EMP Museum, “Almost every night when they would get done filming they would have these little cast parties, and Prince would jump up onstage and play acoustic, and everyone else would grab an instrument.” The stage also received a parting gift. “First Avenue had shitty lighting prior to Purple Rain,” says Rod Smith. “They actually put in the patch bay and the dimmer packs.”

    Though any film set can be full of tedium, the club was essentially going 24/7, and it was well-fueled. “There was a lot of cocaine being done during that movie,” says Spangrud. “Morris Day did most of it, I think.” This was hardly a new development at First Avenue: Rod Smith quips that AVE Productions, unlike many such companies, “wasn’t a front for a coke dealer; it was more like a front for a coke den.”

    Soon after filming stopped, on December 28, the Mainroom hosted the Minneapolis debut of Run-D.M.C., whose self-titled debut album came out the following March. The trio received $1,150 to appear on a Wednesday night. Their to-the-point rider indicated either inexperience or the awfulness of venues they had already played: “Professional sound system, including voice monitoring equipment. Professional lighting with at least one spotlight for center stage... Liquid refreshment made available and readily accessible.”

    “I had to leave town that night, but I did sound check with them,” says Spangrud. “A lot of feedback came through that hollow stage. You had to tippy-toe when you had DJs up there—the records would skip all the time.” Just to be safe, Jam Master Jay spun the show with his turntables hung from the ceiling. Dunlap recalls a mere 64 people showing up. “Rap music was a new thing,” she says. “We bombed on that show, and we should not have, because that was a great fucking show.”

    A First Avenue calendar from September 1983 featuring the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum.

    Over in St. Paul, a couple of Grant Hart’s friends had purchased a deconsecrated church where the Hüsker Dü drummer slept in a tent, and his band began to rehearse. Though guitarist/singer Bob Mould was a speed-head for much of this period, Hart and bassist Greg Norton were ingesting far more colorful substances—psilocybin and LSD. “After a while, I felt a contact high—I could see it in the air,” Mould wrote in his memoir. At the church, Mould and Hart had always written new material at a furious pace, and over the course of 1983 they shaped a number of these songs into an arc. Wouldn’t a concept double-LP with incursions from acoustic guitars and backward tapes get up the noses of the hardcore punks Hüsker Dü were leaving behind?

    In late October 1983, the trio headed to Redondo Beach, California, the home of their label, SST Records. The session started late, and the band, who had been sipping meth-laced coffee for hours, attacked their first song, a warm-up cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” like a rabid timber wolf. Then they recorded and mixed their 23-song opus in three days. When their labelmates the Minutemen heard about it, they too decided to make a double-LP, and SST opted to issue them simultaneously. In April 1984, Hüsker Dü put out a 7” of “Eight Miles High” and blew a hole in the universe. The album that followed, Zen Arcade, would be just as overwhelming—and 17 times as long.

    Their crosstown rivals were feeling nearly as ambitious. “We were grooming [the Replacements] and hoping they would go to a major label,” Twin/Tone co-founder Chris Osgood once told Magnet. “We saw ourselves as a minor league, trying to develop talent.” There was certainly a groundswell: The ’Mats now handily outdrew Hüsker Dü. Between 1982 and 1986, the latter’s average show attendance hovered between 400 and 600. By contrast, on December 26, 1984, the Replacements brought in over 1,500.

    “We’re more conscious of trying to become a national label instead of a little regional independent,” Jesperson told City Pages as 1984 dawned. The Replacements, he promised, had the goods: “We’re making a hit right now, boy. That sucker’s gonna be a monster! We might actually have a hit single!” The title of Westerberg’s song summed up the tenor of things: “I Will Dare.”

    The flyer for a set of Hüsker Dü shows in 1985.

    On the evening of July 28, 1984, Kevin Cole was loading a band into the 7th Street Entry’s stage door when a man from Detroit pulled up in a Cadillac. “I’m the first guy he sees,” says Cole. “He pops out, holding a cassette in his hand, and goes, ‘Where’s Billy Sparks?’” He was looking for the “manager” of the club, as depicted in Purple Rain, which had opened the night before in 900 theaters. “He saw the movie and drove to First Ave. the next day,” says Cole. (The movie’s “Billy Sparks” was actually played by a concert promoter named Billy Sparks—who, ironically, was from Detroit.) 

    The film’s impact was forecast when its first single, “When Doves Cry,” reached #1 a few weeks earlier. It would become the year’s biggest hit, while the Purple Rain soundtrack topped the album chart for six months. A young audience that had already made hits of music-driven movies from Flashdance to Footloose to Breakin’ to Talking Heads’ art-house smash Stop Making Sense, ran to see the most head-turning pop star this side of Michael Jackson do his thing on a big screen. “People really resonated with the story,” says Cole. “And the time was right for a new sound.”

    Prince had kept his visibility high at the club all summer. One hot night, his enormous bodyguard, Big Chick Huntsberry, tapped Cole’s shoulder and handed him the acetate of a new duet with Sheila E. called “Erotic City.” Cole put it on immediately; the room went berserk. “He was still there at the end of the night and he asked me if I thought it needed anything,” recalls Cole. “‘No. It was incredible.’”

    Prince at a First Avenue show on June 6, 1984. Photo by Paul Natkin / WireImage.

    On June 7, his 26th birthday, Prince played an exclusive concert for First Avenue members only, the set full of rare and unissued material. “I brought him a strawberry shortcake, his favorite thing,” says Dunlap. “Somebody ate it, but probably not Prince. I don’t think he really eats.” He came back on August 14, in the midst of Purple Rain fever, when 1,616 fans got an embryonic tour set: 1999’s three biggest singles plus seven from Purple Rain.

    That September, a young woman in D.C. sent the club a letter addressed to “Mr. Stark”—i.e., Billy Sparks. “I plan to move to Minneapolis in the near future but would like to secure a job before moving,” it begins. “Would you consider interviewing me for a position?” Soon she reveals her hand: “I'm sure that you realize I am definitely a PRINCE fan. I know you and he are very close friends and I hoped you would convey my message to him... Is it possible that he needs someone to answer his mail?”

    “Prince was getting all the credit for what Steve felt he had built,” says Dunlap. “The rumors were, ‘That’s Prince’s club.’ And Steve would be like—[imitates steam coming out of ears]—because that was his whole identity.” McClellan had particular scorn for the William Morris agents suddenly leaving him messages. “Purple Rain had to come out before they finally decided I was an OK venue,” he says. “It changed the club from a real music crowd to a lot of tourists.” On the other hand, after five years of just scraping by, the boost in revenue was more than welcome. “Jack [Meyers] said up until Purple Rain, he didn’t think we were gonna make it,” says McClellan.

    The Replacements at First Avenue in 1987. Photo by Jim Steinfeldt / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images.

    Minneapolis music peaked in the middle of 1984: Purple Rain in theaters, the release of Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and the 12" of the Replacements’ “I Will Dare”—featuring a sandpapery Paul Westerberg flirting shamelessly over a bright beat, bouncy riff, and a zippy solo played by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the song hit college radio like a pipe bomb. 

    On October 25th, Prince made his final First Avenue takeover of that year—in the 7th Street Entry, where he led his bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z. “We had to shut the door to the Mainroom—like, ‘If you’re in the Entry, you’re in the Entry and you get to see this. If you’re not, you’re not. Tough shit,’” says Dunlap. (The policy extended to a frustrated Paul Spangrud, who had to keep DJing in the Mainroom.) Two weeks earlier, the Replacements released Let It Be, and suddenly their onstage screwing around and offstage insolence cohered into something like a worldview: Few albums ever got the knowing-but-still-agitated teenage blues so right.

    By 1987, that crazy peak had subsided. Hüsker Dü released another double LP in January, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, but broke up shortly after their manager David Savoy’s suicide. On May 27, the Replacements played First Avenue for the last time. By then, Slim Dunlap had replaced Bob Stinson: The two worked together as part of First Avenue’s daytime cleaning crew, and Stinson had urged Dunlap to take the gig. It was a first-rate fiasco: “We’re shit and we know it,” Westerberg taunted the crowd at one point. And in September, Prince opened Paisley Park Studios way out in Chanhassen, where he could throw impromptu concerts to his heart’s content.

    Since then, the club’s mission has remained intact even as its foundational employees have moved on; McClellan left in 2004. Looking back, he says, “I never really booked shows as moneymakers. Sometimes we’d cross over to a new audience, just ’cause it was good music. I was serious about that.”

    Special thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection of First Avenue/7th Street Entry band files for invaluable data.

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    Rising: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Existential Synthesizer Music

    Rising highlights the most interesting new artists of the moment.

    Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: "Arthropoda" (via SoundCloud)

    With their infinite possibilities, certain synthesizers can attract a type of obsession—perhaps none more so than the rare Buchla 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System. Created by Don Buchla in the early 1960s, the instrument’s colorful, cord-laced interface reflects how it tends to rewire the brains of its custodians. When Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith discovered one fresh out of college, she promptly ditched her folk band and dedicated herself to mastering the machine. Now 29, the Los Angeles-based singer and producer has perfected some programming “recipes,” but she says part of the Buchla’s magic is how it captures something unexplored—an approach reflected in Smith’s own music, as she forges tactile new worlds with every record. “It's taught me a lot of patience,” she says of the instrument.

    Smith’s latest album, EARS, is her first to pair the Buchla’s beautiful undulations with traditional instrumentation. The record’s opener, “First Flight,” initially evokes spacier climes while harking back to proto-synth forebears such as Laurie Spiegel before settling in a fertile, bubbling soundscape that sets the tone for what’s to come. At the record’s heart is a bright and lively primordial pulse, which Smith shapes with mellow woodwind motifs and soothing vocal chants (though what might sound like a flute is actually a tone distilled from her voice, using granular synthesis). It’s meditative, but more indebted to the avant-jazz of Alice Coltrane than, say, Enya. In combining organic and electronic sounds, Smith’s aim was to make listeners “feel like they were in a lush, outdoor environment.”

    Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith playing the portable Buchla Music Easel, which she uses during live shows.

    Calling from her home at 7 a.m., before her daily yoga class, Smith says nature is her “main source of curiosity outside of music.” She definitely comes across as quite a hippie—albeit a very grounded one with designs on composing for film and mastering 3D sound. Prior to making music her full-time gig, she worked in landscaping and homesteading. When I suggest that her music is somewhat psychedelic, she instead suggests the term “existential,” explaining that she sees its potential for broad themes and intricate minutiae as being “kind of like the Golden Ratio.” Unsurprisingly, she’s found kindred spirits in Animal Collective; last fall, Panda Bear asked her to open for him, and she’ll tour with the full band this spring.

    This affinity for the natural world stems back to Smith’s childhood on Orcas, the largest of the San Juan Islands (population: around 5,000), located just off the northwestern coast of Washington State; her song “Wetlands” mimics the birdcall of the island’s native Swainson’s Thrush. Smith was home-schooled on Orcas, and her mom ran a chapel, where Smith used the piano to write original material from a young age—she regularly annoyed music teachers by focusing on her own compositions instead of assigned recitations. At 13, Smith went through a phase of writing rock anthems. “At that time I was also really into Loreena McKennitt and opera,” she recalls, “so it was this horrible mixture of opera singing over terrible rock samples.” While these early experiments may not have been completely successful, they served a purpose, kick-starting her relationship with synthesizers.

    Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: "Existence in the Unfurling" (via SoundCloud)

    Orcas maintains a culture of mentorships between its older and younger residents, and at 16, Smith was paired with a local film composer, who lent her some Kurzweil samplers and gave her a copy of ProTools. It was her first proper schooling in synthetic instruments and soundscapes. “My mind was blown by just how many textures you could get and how much control you could have,” she says. (Ever since, Smith has always sought out mentors for her work.) She discovered Philip Glass and Brian Eno, and went on to study composition and sound engineering with classical guitar and piano at Berklee, where she started a folk duo, Ever Isles. 

    But that project was swiftly curtailed after Smith returned to Orcas following graduation, and a neighbor introduced her to the Buchla. “He lent me his system for a year, and I haven’t really touched a guitar since,” she explains. The instrument’s unpredictable quality matched her longstanding subconscious approach to music making, which she discovered in college, learning long pieces by falling asleep to them. Years later, she’s still learning about the Buchla’s endless permutations. Smith is now part of the close-knit Buchla community—she’s currently working on a full-length collaboration with synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani—which evangelizes the synth’s consciousness-expanding properties with cultish enthusiasm. “When I hear any sound in the entire world, I end up thinking, How would I have made that?” she says. “It’s a really fun thought process to go through all the time.”

    Pitchfork: The Buchla inspires a particular fervor in its users.

    Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: It’s really respected for its interface design—which is what Don Buchla focused on the most. At that time, it was mostly [Bob] Moog and Buchla, and Moog was more [geared] towards trying to create a synth that you could easily translate from the piano. Don was the opposite. He was trying to create something that would help you access the part of your brain that separates what you’re used to with a keyboard. Morton Subotnik, who commissioned him to make the Buchla, wanted an instrument that brought a novelty to composition.

    Pitchfork: Do you still have that first Buchla that your Orcas neighbor lent you?

    KAS: I don’t, but whenever I move somewhere I always put feelers out for who’s gonna be my Buchla fairy. I’ve just found my Buchla fairy for L.A. so I have another Buchla 100 entering into my life, as well as lots of other synths that I’m exploring.

    Pitchfork: Is your L.A. Buchla fairy also your current mentor?

    KAS: Yeah. He is a film-audio supervisor who does 5.1 sound systems, which is something I’m really interested in right now. I want to explore the 3D sound environment. He’s my mentor in that area, but he happens to have a really large synth collection that he’s not using right now, so I’m helping him organize that stuff and I set up the Buchla system in exchange for me getting to use it.

    Pitchfork: Is there a narrative to EARS? The track titles—“First Flight,” “Rare Things Grow”—imply life springing from a kind of primordial state. 

    KAS: It was intended to feel like this life-death cycle. I have my own personal narrative to go with it but I didn't want to share that with people because I wanted it to be their own visual journey. My hope was to create a synthesia journey. My visual brain and my auditory brain are very much connected. They feed and trade off one another when it comes to my composition process.

    Pitchfork: Visually, you are also inspired by the French artist Moebius and Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. What strikes you about their work?

    KAS: I was trying to figure out the visual of this natural world I wanted to create. I kept getting this color palette that was similar to the sea creature nudibranch—they’re this incredible palette of neon colors. And both Moebius and Miyazaki have that natural world where it feels like there’s chaos and balance at the same time. The [Miyazaki] movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is set in this time in the future where there are all of these toxins, so certain plants can’t grow outside. It also has this one character who goes out into the world and collects all these seeds and creates an underground garden. That was an inspiration.

    Pitchfork: You’ve said that your favorite musician is D’Angelo.

    KAS: I have a lot of favorite musicians. Al Green is another one that’s in that similar realm. I just have a soft spot for really amazing grooves and the male falsetto. And I love barbershop harmonies where they’re really close together—whenever I hear someone using those, my ear gets really excited. I’m always wondering what new intervals I haven’t explored.

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    Interview: <i>I Want You</i> Still: Celebrating 40 Years of Marvin Gaye’s Sensual Classic

    Marvin Gaye’s I Want You was originally released 40 years ago this month, and the timing feels somewhat fitting given today’s essential dialogue about the existential value of black life. You can’t make a convincing argument that black lives matter if you’re not also willing to acknowledge that black sexuality, romance, and love—aspects that have been historically threatened, circumscribed, and limited by the horrors of slavery and legally enforced systems of segregation and brutality—matter too. So as we join in the #blacklivesmatter fight, we would do well to recall that #blackerotics have always been an indispensable tool of community recalcitrance and survival.

    Like no other record before or since, I Want You captures the distilled feeling and aesthetics of black sensuality, sex, and simmering erotic desire—right down to the seductive bump ‘n’ grind cover art by the late great Ernie Barnes. With its ambient soundscapes, yearning melodies, experimental tempos, elegant chord changes, and haunting lyrics, the album is, for my money, the sexiest rhythm and blues record ever made. Sure, pheromone-inducing records like Sade’s Diamond Life, Maxwell’s Embrya, and D’Angelo’s Voodoo are worthy contenders to that throne—but all those albums were directly influenced by I Want You’s languid flow. Anchored by melancholic tracks like “After the Dance” and “Come Live with Me Angel,” I Want You is a gorgeous and delicate ballet of adult romantic desire, featuring a Latin-influenced early-disco-meets-slow-jam sound that remains a staple of Quiet Storm radio playlists everywhere.

    Gaye hardly scaled this sensual avant-garde pinnacle by himself: I Want You’s artistic success had everything to do with the outsize genius of the album’s co-songwriter and producer Leon Ware, an underappreciated R&B journeyman. In 2009, when I was the Artistic Director of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, I curated a series of events to celebrate Motown’s 50th anniversary and asked Ware to fly into New York to spend a week in residence at the school. He gracefully obliged. As part of his brief tenure, he appeared at a special event at the Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention, where he spoke about the making of I Want You. With my colleague Harry Weinger, Grammy-winning reissue producer and Vice President of A&R at Universal Music Enterprises, sitting in as co-moderator, the three of us chatted about the album’s genesis, the difference between sex and making love, Gaye’s unique recording process, and more. Thanks to the generosity of AES, we’re reprinting an edited version of that 90-minute interview; outside of the AES convention room in which it happened, this conversation has never surfaced in print before. I hope publishing it here adds to our collective appreciation of an unparalleled model of musicalized sensuality.

    "People like me and Marvin were bringing to the forefront a love that is natural. It is not prefabricated. It is not nasty. That’s why I can tell my granddaughter [about this music] without being ashamed and having her think that her grandfather is a dirty old man."

    I Want You producer Leon Ware
    Marvin Gaye onstage in London following the release of I Want You in 1976. Photo by David Redfern / Redferns.

    Jason King: By the time I Want You was released in 1976, it had been three years since Marvin's last studio album, Let's Get It On. How did you get involved in the project?

    Leon Ware: Marvin was on a religious sabbatical. He had sworn off ever doing another commercial record again. Berry Gordy changed his mind. It started with my co-writer of [the early Michael Jackson hit] "I Wanna Be Where You Are," which was Diana Ross' brother "T-Boy"—we were doing a demo of some songs to get him an album deal. And in the process I had a song called "I Want You" that I wrote completely myself and put on the demo. Berry came into the studio as we were doing the demo for "T-Boy" and heard this song, got very excited, and took it to Marvin, who fell in love with it.

    When we finished the "I Want You" single, I was at Marvin's house late one night, and he was in a room listening to some music, and I was in another room playing a record that was never really released that had three duets I did with Minnie Riperton. Marvin heard it through the wall and came into the room and asked, “What's that you're playing?” We listened to it three times, and as the sun was coming up, Marvin walked towards his bedroom, turned around, looked at me, and said, “If you give me that album, I'll do the whole thing.” I said, “That's a good idea, but Berry will never go for it.” In Motown's history, there had been only a few albums with one producer and one writer who did everything. But I kept thinking to myself, Wow, this would be great if it came out.

    Motown was known for quality control—the world could use a little bit of that right now—and when we played them the album at a meeting after we finished it, the room was so quiet. Berry stood up and turned around to the 30 people there, looking for me. He said, “Leon, I don't know how you did this.” Everybody knew what he was talking about. I did too. I turned to Berry and said, “Look, it wasn't me.” I brought the music, but the magic that Marvin brought with his vocals made it a classic; I had a body, but Marvin and me dressed it together. Being two men sincerely dedicated to sensuality, that was all we ever discussed. All that happened on that project was so innate, so natural. It deserves to be timeless. The aroma that anybody gets from it is real, and you should be feeling it.

    JK: Where was Marvin at mentally while making this record? Is it right that his second wife, Janis Hunter, is the subject of the album?

    LW: Very much so. The time when we did I Want You had to be the most happy time in Marvin's life, because he was freshly in love, and the album exhibits that atmosphere. When I'm told by different people all over the world how many babies that album has made—the record stands so high in my life. I could not be a prouder man.

    Harry Weinger: Did you direct Marvin in any of the album’s vocals or did he really do them all himself?

    LW: He did them all himself. I would be singing something or he would sing something, and it would be like we were telepathically communicating—it was the most effortless collaboration I've ever had. It was uncanny how we would wind up with the same thing. For “I Want You,” Marvin did the background, the lead, and the ad lib in one night. It’s three songs in one. That's all Marvin Gaye. He was a genius when it came to backgrounds, what he did with rhythms, and how he would use his voice like an instrument. He was a purist who wouldn't let a phrase or a riff go until he loved it. He would wear you out. Because everything Marvin sung was right to the studio, and he would say, “I could do that better.” And we would say, “Marvin, please don't touch that, because we don't have anymore tracks.”

    Marvin is also the only man I have ever seen lay down and sing. I first saw that happen when he was singing a part of "After the Dance." I walked into the studio and could hear his voice, but he wasn’t in the vocal booth. I looked at [engineer] Art Stewart and said, “Where is he at?” Art said, “Right there.” And there was Marvin, with one hand with one thing—I won't tell you what it was, you can imagine—and the other hand with a mic. Believe me, I’ve tried to sing laying down, it's almost impossible. Marvin was singing as though he was on his feet, with as full delivery as possible, but he was as relaxed as I've ever seen anybody.

    Gaye sings “I Want You” while lying down on a couch during a band rehearsal.

    HW: One of the production details we should note is that Motown had a studio in Los Angeles, but Marvin built his own studio as a real flag for independence—that's why there was no clock. There was a guest room upstairs, and he could go there and take a nap. He really had autonomy.

    LW: Out of the 13 months we took to make the album, there was six months of partying. Seriously. We would come into the studio, and Marvin would say, “Let's go play basketball.” And we would play basketball half the day, on studio time. There was no pressure.

    I Want You is a testament to people just getting together and doing something. One of the most important things to me, from a professional point of view, is the fact that we could do a project like this and never ever ever speak about percentages; in my whole life in the music business, that was the only collaboration where we never approached “who did what?” or whatever. And it turned out to be my most appreciated work, the nucleus of my life as a producer. When people are working together, especially now, [percentages] are the first thing that's talked about, even before they make the record. And that clouds the issue, which is to write a piece of work that you and the world will love. Me and Marvin understood that a song is not a percentage, and it's important for people in the business to realize the percentage you want is 100 percent acceptance from the world, no matter how many people it takes to do it.

    Leon Ware circa 1972. Photo by GAB Archive / Redferns.

    JK: The record was controversial for critics in a lot of ways, because whereas What’s Going On had Marvin using his overlapping voices to offer a prescription for the social ills of the time, he was doing the same thing for the bedroom here.

    LW: There’s a very intentional allure; the young artists of today who approach the idea of being sensual have forgotten that there's a process called foreplay which plays a large part of making love. In our approach, me and Marvin were very respectful to the women that we love in our life, and having that respect makes you wanna say and do things that make the final—if you wanna say—climax.

    JK: I actually found a review of I Want You from 1976 that read: “I must confess, I’m not a fan on Marvin Gaye. His music has always struck me as being horny without any musical or artistic talent. So… it’s safe to say that there are at least three utilitarian purposes of this horny Marvin Gaye record: You can dance to it, masturbate, or make love to it.” Part of that is a misunderstanding of black erotics and what slow jams are about: the relationship between the sensual and the spiritual and the political, and how being human is to acknowledge the sensual as part of who we are.

    LW: I am now an ordained minister, and my ministry is about sensuality, because I feel the first religion should have been sensuality out of the fact that that is how everybody exists. That is what keeps the human race alive. People like me, Marvin, Barry White, Isaac Hayes—voices of the black community that brought to its public an allure that could have been called pornographic—were bringing to the forefront a love that is natural. It is not prefabricated. It is not nasty. It is not wrong to say things that make one want to make love. That’s why I can tell my granddaughter [about this music] without being ashamed and having her think that her grandfather is a dirty old man. I am proud to sit before any group and say, “Embrace where you come from, it’s not a bad place.”

    The only thing I will definitely not be a party to is anything that is superficial. I’ve been asked on a couple of occasions to do soundtracks to certain movies that were pornographic. No. I love seeing people make love—not just sex. Because sex is fun, but if you’re using what God gave you, you’re cheapening that spirit. Some could say, “Sorry Leon, let’s cheapen it a little bit.” But for me, the way we are here on this planet is by way of sensuality. That’s the wonderful thing about black music and black artists from me and Marvin to many others—we made it our business and our life to say things that were intent to put people in the bedroom, or wherever the moment struck. 

    Music is the binding source of humanity. Without music, man would not be here. We would have already destroyed each other. And I’m glad I’m a music person. I like making the music world a richer place, because we need some more love.

    Gaye walks ahead of his Rolls Royce in London while on tour in 1976. Photo by John Minihan / Evening Standard / Getty Images.

    JK: Some people also criticized the album for being “samey”—as far as the rhythms and tempos being similar throughout—but wasn’t that part of the point?

    LW: It was totally intentional. Though some may have called it “samey,” we were lovers of another word: “concept.” The concept is to take a listener on a ride through the last song; all the songs are connected but each one gives you a different attitude or feeling. I come from a world of writers and producers that believe that you’re supposed to learn from each piece and never ever repeat yourself. I have a history of being in the business for nearly 40 years, and I don’t know how many hits I have, but it’s enough for me to know that you cannot sing one of my songs over the other. Me and Marvin practiced that throughout the whole album; we didn’t want the songs to sound the same. The whole beauty of that particular album was a testament to what a concept means.

    JK: Let’s talk about the arranging of the record, because it's so complex and extremely sophisticated, especially on a track like "Since I Had You." 

    LW: Well, I'll tell you a funny story about that song. The original was written by me and Pam Sawyer, and when Marvin was doing the song, he walked into the studio and pulled me to the side and said, "I like the melody, but do you mind if I change the lyric?" I said, “No, what do you feel?" So we went back in the studio and he started singing. Then Pam arrived when Marvin was halfway through the song and she had this look on her face—being white, she got flush. So I’m standing there looking at her and thinking, What’s wrong? There were about 12 of us in the studio, and we were all totally elated. So she pulls me out to the side and says, “That’s not my lyric.” I said “But Pam, it’s Marvin.” And she said, “I don’t care. My lyric’s not being sung.” And I said, “Pam, you have to understand, if I go out there and tell Marvin that you don’t like what he’s singing…” Marvin had a known reputation—if you said anything in the process of him singing, he didn’t argue, he just left the studio. You’d be looking for him. So I told her, “You’ll have to tell Marvin yourself.” She left. She never said anything about it. Then the song came out. Me and Pam laugh about it from time to time; we came to an understanding after it was done, because she happened to fall in love with it.

    As far as the arrangements, I was blessed with some really talented arrangers; there are two songs that I gave the arranger some string lines, but 95 percent of the strings and horns were done by the arrangers. Coleridge Taylor Perkinson was the arranger who brought several people to their knees when we heard the strings on “I Want You.” When people hear something that they love, they close their eyes—and I saw a lot of eyes closed during that session. There were three different arrangers on the whole album: Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, David Blumberg, and Paul Riser. 

    I love giving people their just due, and that’s one thing a lot of young people today should get into. People are called what they are because they go to school and deserve these titles that they get. In today’s world, something about that doesn’t exist; we give people titles but they have not done the homework to deserve them. It’s important because if you don’t do something well yourself, there are people that do do it well. From Ellington to Gershwin to all of the records that you look back on as well-constructed compositions, there were a lot of professionals involved. They were specialists: the singer, the producer, the arranger, the engineer—all of them were separate people who joined together and did a process. They weren’t just beginners. Professionals working together come up with work that can wind up being timeless. I’m only making a point of it because, in looking at records of the past 15 years, there are really talented people making those records, but they’re forgetting something. Combining your talent with other really talented people isn’t a waste.

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    Photo Gallery: Pitchfork SXSW 2016

    Pitchfork is heading to Austin for SXSW. We're hosting day parties on Thursday, March 17 and Friday, March 18 at Barracuda, which is located at 611 E. 7th St. 

    The lineup features Neon Indian, Vince Staples, Chairlift, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals, Waxahatchee, D.R.A.M., D∆WN, Empress Of, Porches, Frankie Cosmos, White Lung, the Range, Mick Jenkins, Teklife with the Era Dancers, Stormzy, Kevin Morby, Car Seat Headrest, DJ Paypal, Protomartyr, Beach Slang, Little Simz, Lavender Country, Kamaiyah, Mitski, KING, and Dilly Dally.

    Both parties are free, 21+, and open to the public. They run from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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    Show No Mercy: Cobalt’s Primal Enlightenment

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    Rising: Africaine 808: One Planet Under a Groove

    Rising highlights the most interesting new artists of the moment.

    Africaine 808: "Balla Balla" (via SoundCloud)

    "It gets so complicated sometimes," Dirk Leyers says ruefully, tucked into a booth at a Berlin restaurant called White Trash while his 4-year-old daughter eats a hamburger beside him. "We fight over notes," agrees Hans Reuschl.

    As the brain trust behind Africaine 808, the duo integrate dance music's electronics with a diverse range of rhythms and textures, resulting in a sound that’s unpredictable and funky in equal measure. But while their grooves seem effortless, the middle-aged musicians themselves are thornier creatures. With decades' worth of experience under their respective belts, both are deeply committed to their chosen aesthetic—and often just as deeply divided as to how they should attain it. An hour into our interview, it becomes painfully clear just how complicated things can get between the two: An argument about how to answer a question—soft-spoken Leyers wants to talk about dynamics, while the more emphatic Reuschl wants to focus on structure—builds to a series of back-and-forth taunts, eventually sending Leyers heading for the exit, daughter in tow. It looks, for a moment, like I may have witnessed the end of Africaine 808.

    But Reuschl goes scurrying after his partner, and after a heads-bowed conversation, Leyers and his daughter return to the table with Reuschl, their partnership apparently intact. "He's a fucking whiny bitch!" teases Reuschl.

    The tension is ironic, because the music they make together is so totally joyful. Basar, their recently released debut album, incorporates cosmic synthesizer fantasias, electro-soul balladry, New Orleans jazz, country blues, gospel, and a host of West African instruments and styles alongside elements of house, techno, and bass music. Reuschl calls it a kind of "global fusion," though he also cringes at the term. "When you say that, everybody thinks of this horrible world music stuff from the '80s," he says. Fortunately, there's no confusing Basar with dodgy white-dudes-with-didgeridoos records, in large part because it doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. Expression and experimentation, rather than authenticity, are the point.

    Throughout the album, on instrumental and vocal songs alike, the underlying message is that of music as an emancipatory force—and a unifying one. They're assisted by a number of collaborators, including the Congolese/German percussionist Dodo N'Kishi, who frequently plays with the duo's studio partners Mouse on Mars, and the Ghanian percussionist Eric Owusu, whom Reuchl encountered idly hand-drumming on a piece of plastic on a Munich bus.

    Unlike many musicians within Berlin's house and techno culture, their sensibilities were formed elsewhere. Reuschl, who comes from Munich, once played drum 'n' bass on pirate radio, though his interest in African and Latin music and cosmic disco dates back to his adolescence, when he and his friends idolized Italian DJs like Beppe Loda and Daniele Baldelli. He also moonlights as a street artist; the illustration that adorns Basar's cover is his work, and a larger version of it can be found sprayed on an alley wall of Berlin's Arena complex, where he runs a small gallery.

    Leyers, who hails from Cologne, used to be one-half of the Kompakt-signed techno duo Closer Musik alongside Matias Aguayo—another artist who, coincidentally, traded techno for a woolier kind of world fusion. Leyers and Reuschl met in Berlin around the turn of the millennium, but both musicians pine for the comparatively anarchic days of the 1990s. 

    "Those were great times," says Reuschl, reminiscing about the days of setting up pirate-radio antennas on the roof. "You had all these illegal bars and clubs, where people would just squat a building and set something up: Monday Bar, Tuesday Bar, Wednesday Bar—they didn't even have names." The crowds then were more mixed, he says, and the music more varied—a single party might host not just house and techno but also jungle, hip-hop, and ragga. "Now everybody has to take drugs, and everything is swarming with tourists and based on making money, not on being creative. You go to clubs in Berlin and you hear the same music everywhere now. I'm not a nostalgic person; I can live with it. But when people talk about this amazing nightlife in Berlin, there was a time when it was a lot more thrilling than it is now." 

    Africaine 808: "Ngoni" (via SoundCloud)

    But Leyers and Reuschl are determined to keep fighting the good fight; their Vulkandance parties, which Reuschl began throwing in 2009, are a gleeful rebuke of techno homogeneity. Instead of the city's omnipresent oonce oonce, you'll hear a rich mixture of African, Latin, and tropical sounds along with all manner of leftfield disco. That musical melting pot was, in turn, the genesis for Africaine 808: It was in the process of making DJ-friendly edits of hard-to-mix tunes for those parties that the two musicians hit upon their unusual brand of fusion, leading to their debut single, "Cobijas," for their own Vulkan Dance label in 2013.

    "We come from this punk rock, do-it-yourself attitude," says Reuschl. "We got inspired by guys like Lee Perry that had nothing. He would just take equipment and use it in the wrong way. That's the spirit of how we started, and that follows you your entire life."

    Africaine 808: "Cobijas" (via SoundCloud)

    But where their early singles remained resolutely focused on the dancefloor, Basar is a far more experimental record, one that reflects the vast range of their listening habits—and elegantly resists what they see as the rote functionalism plaguing contemporary dance music. At the same time, given the duo's gleefully omnivorous tendencies, they also resist any school of thought that would treat world music as a kind of museum piece. 

    "Dirk and I have been collecting and exploring and playing for a long time, and we see the context," says Reuschl. "I don't want to compete with the people that made the original music. I'd rather do something that evolves out of what we both can put on the table and have people say that this isn't authentic African music—because it's not! It's a fucking 808! People get confused with our project name. We are not Africans, we just love African music."

    Africaine 808 in a Berlin alley, next to a graffiti'd version of the illustration that adorns the cover of their debut album, Basar. Photo by Florian Kolmer.

    Pitchfork: Africaine 808 grew out of your Vulkandance parties, how did those come about?

    Hans Reuschl: It basically started as the result of me splitting with [fellow DJ and producer] Hunee. We did a lot of block parties, parties in flats, in leftfield clubs, garages—odd locations—playing disco, Afro, reggae, everything. It was great practice for both of us, because we would DJ back to back for six hours, and when you do that, you have to be flexible and go with the flow. There's no concept; you have to adapt. But when Hunee got more hooked up with the whole house and disco scene, I went more into what I favor: African music. I was like, Why not do a party where I just play that stuff? It was always an experiment; you never knew what would happen. It was a tremendous amount of work. I had to organize everything from scratch. At some point, two years ago, I started doing it in clubs. Now we're doing it at [Neukölln club] Sameheads, and it's going to stay there. This is the perfect place for it.

    Dirk Leyers: It has this basement vibe. Very old-school.

    Reuschl: Sweat dripping from the ceiling.

    Leyers: With affordable drinks, not like this tourist rip-off. 

    Reuschl: It's a family affair. The people who do parties are people I've known for 10 years from the underground cosmic disco scene.

    Africaine 808: "Rhythm Is All You Can Dance 12" Mix" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: I read that you saw the cosmic and Afro-disco DJ Beppe Loda play in the '80s?

    Reuschl: Beppe was our hero. When I was a kid we would trade tapes, and the sound was all crackly and messed up, but it was like, "Hey! I got the new tape from Beppe!" Around '89 was when I got to see him, through a friend of mine in Munich who was into BMX. He brought me to the Alps to these rave parties. He collected African drums, and he gave me a drum and was like, "We're going to get in for free if we carry a drum, but we have to be drumming all night!"

    We went in there, and there were like 40 guys in one corner, drumming to the music. It was this old-school setup, three decks, and [Daniele] Baldelli and DJ Mozart and Beppe were there DJing the most amazing music. On one record player there was always just percussion running, and on the other two decks they would do the regular mix. I was at techno parties before, where it was just fog and strobe. I was not so impressed by that. But that set had a whole spirit of connecting live instruments with electronic music, which brings us back to our project now.

    Pitchfork: Your songs tend to develop very organically. What's the songwriting process like?

    Reuschl: It's a hybrid way of working, because it's in between classic songwriting and modern dance music. What makes it a little bit different to a lot of dance productions is that we have a lot of different influences—jazz and country and folk music, this whole repetitive call-and-response thing, and the polyrhythms that overlap and create a different time frame. So you don't just have a 4/4. Sometimes it's about the threes, or it's about 3/8. Sometimes we have to fight with that.

    Leyers: It's not based on mathematics. It's based on feeling.

    Reuschl: It's not one formula. What makes our project different to a lot of these retro African music projects, where producers go to a certain area or country and just extract a style of music, is that we get inspired by a rhythmic structure from one culture and then play a completely different set of music or harmonies on top of that. It's never a linear idea of just, "Let's do a kuduro track," or "Let's do a samba." Where you can see it is "Cosmicumbia": It's a classic cumbia beat but the super spacey, echoey guitars and synths are completely unusual. It's a modern approach of getting a global concept going, instead of just exploiting one certain style of music or one particular sound and reproducing it.

    Pitchfork: You started out making DJ edits of hard-to-DJ music, and now you've made an album that's not really meant for DJs.

    Reuschl: It depends on the DJ. I respect DJs who are not just looking for tools. I love storytelling and structure. I love when there are phases of building and falling down, and even making mistakes and correcting them. It shows the human aspect—which is exactly the opposite of this dead, sequenced, perfectionalized music. Humans are perfect in the sense of being imperfect, random, not able to draw a straight line. We pretend in our modern world that we need to be perfect but we function best when we're thrown into chaos.

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    Photo Gallery: Pitchfork SXSW Parties 2016

    Last week, Pitchfork hosted two day parties at Austin venue Barracuda during SXSW. Check out the gallery below to see portraits and live shots of Neon Indian, Vince Staples, Chairlift, Anderson .Paak, D.R.A.M., Empress Of, Frankie Cosmos, White Lung, the Range, Mick Jenkins, Kevin Morby, Little Simz, Lavender Country, and more by photographer Matt Lief Anderson.

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    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: Stolen Tributes

    With Real Life Rock Top 10, Greil Marcus comments on culture and found objects, making connections across time and circumstance.

    1. Rihanna, Anti (Wesbury Road/Roc Nation) It’s been out for two months, celebrated, analyzed, and it’s at the top of the charts, but the music on this album isn’t likely to reveal itself quickly. There are dramas here that don’t fit the critically constructed pop mind, where all that matters is how a given release will affect a given career, which is to say balancing the long-term bottom line against the short one. There is no pop category, let alone any infinitely gene-sliced genre name, to contain the lead in Rihanna’s voice in “Needed Me.” Part of it is the conviction in the way she shoves out “Fuck your white horse and a carriage”—a verbal match for the look on Kim Hunter’s face in A Streetcar Named Desire as she walks back down the stairs after Marlon Brando has beaten her up. It’s a line that opens up into a dozen directions at once, seven words that in the months and years to come may be under the breath of countless people, just as once men and women of all sorts went through the day muttering “Don’t push me/ ’Cause I’m close to the edge.” The songs have echoes in them. To be heard they need airplay and memory.

    Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire.

    2. Tacocat, Lost Time (Hardly Art) Emily Nokes again delivers a sting inside every laugh (“You can bring a boombox,” she trills in “Night Swimming,” “but you can’t play R.E.M.”). Sometimes you can’t tell the sting from the laugh: In “Leisure Bees,” where people work like bees in a hive, the low croon over “What won’t be on your tombstone?” repeated four times, coming out of a bright, clattering beat, is no fun at all. Hilarious songs from “Dana Katherine Scully” to “Men Explain Things to Me” rest on a conviction that essentials of life—a sense of purpose, a belief in yourself, trust in your friends, work worth doing, free time that actually feels free—are not only missing but out of reach. While all that is present in the words Nokes sings, it’s more alive in her tone: She could be singing in French and you’d come away feeling the same. The music is most undeniable when it’s the least simple, though it always seems simple: All through “Talk,” the least obvious, most unsettling song here, textures shift, the tone darkens, and the song and the singer seem to be hiding from each other, not wanting to hear what the other is saying. The music has force, handclaps drive the sound forward, and the person in the song is quietly, resolutely, very consciously losing her mind. By the end she seems to have found it, but who knows?

    Tacocat: "Talk" (via SoundCloud)

    3. Interview with John McGraw (MSNBC, March 14)“I do find him refreshing,” Keith Richards told Hugo Lindgren of Billboard last year. “He’s cut through a lot of crap, and eventually… well, can you imagine a President Trump? The worst nightmare. But we can’t say that. Because it could happen. This is one of the wonders of this country. Who would have thought Ronald Reagan could be president?” It was one of Richards’ nine lives earlier—26 years earlier—when, at the close of the Rolling Stones’ 1989 American tour, as the promoter Michael Cohl said in a 2015 speech for Pollstar, Richards pulled a knife, laid it on a table, and threatened to cancel the band’s pay-per-view show in Atlantic City if Trump, whose casino was sponsoring the event, didn’t get out of the hall: “One of us is leaving the building, either him or us.”

    And now, just after slamming an unlooking Rakeem Jones in the face at a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 10, a proud and beaming John McGraw, the pony-tailed white gun-rights American to a T, is telling the mike in his face “Next time we see him we might have to kill him” as the London Bach Choir’s gorgeous opening passages of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a staple at Trump events, hung in the air in the distant background. It made no sense: Trump’s message is precisely that if he gets to run the show you can always get what you want. Maybe it was payback for that long-ago insult. But I’d seen the McGraw clip a dozen times in the previous few days, without feeling, as I did now, that I was about to throw up, because before I’d never noticed the music. Maybe it was the smashing contradiction of the ugliness of one voice against the beauty of the others. Maybe it was the elegy for a precious, disappearing idealism that bleeds all through the song in the very process of its replacement by an idealism of a different kind. Maybe it was the new line McGraw and Trump had now crafted into the music: “You can’t always get what you want/ You can’t always get what you want/ You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes, you might find/ You get what you need/ Or deserve.”

    4. Barney Hoskyns, Small Town Talk—Bob Dylan, the Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock (Da Capo) Substitute “Heroin” for “Wild” and you have the real subtitle. The most depressing music book I’ve ever read.

    5. The Americans, “The Right Stuff,” from I'll Be Yours ( From the first rolling guitar notes, carrying sadness and defiance like dust, this sweeps me up: I want to know everything about where that feeling came from, and where it’s going. You’re not surprised when the singer comes in, telling you about how the right stuff is what he doesn’t have, how the place he bet his life on is blowing him out, and as the song careens toward its end he sings louder, the band pushes harder, and what he’s lost seems to cost more with every measure. The Americans are four guys from Los Angeles: This is a tale, somehow steeped in the past, a story that retraces the history of the once ever-advancing, then ever-retreating frontier every time it’s told, that lives up to their name.

    The Americans: "The Right Stuff" (via SoundCloud)

    6. David Phinney, Abstract California Red Wine 2013 (Orin Swift Cellars, Napa) It’s a mouth-filling, coolly satisfying wine, but I bought it for the label: an overwhelmingly complex collage of images that shot out from the swarm around them for their familiarity and their violation of familiarity—the loyalist soldier falling back with his rifle still in his outstretched arm from the Spanish Civil War, a pensive Elvis with the “Nowhere” and “Boredom” busses from Jamie Reid’s sleeve for the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” tattooed on his forehead—until you’re caught, trying to see every picture at once, to read each one, yes, Beckett Lenin Bobby Kennedy dying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel Tilda Swinton King Mob graffiti Patti Smith naked in a Mapplethorpe photo with someone else’s head Lenin again Hemingway the Adverts a Marlboro Man a Situationist poster from 1966 and scores more that someone else could identify and you can’t. You could spend years and never quite get to the end of it.

    “When you’re tired, had a glass of wine, creativity comes out,” said the collagist Phinney, who owns the winery and makes the wine. “After I put my kids to bed I’d spend four or five hours a night working on it. It was much more difficult than I expected. It’s a puzzle.” He collected the images over three years; the piece took three weeks to come together. A passion for Hemingway led to a fascination with the Spanish Civil War; as a Poli Sci major he wrote a lot of papers about communism: “I was a young, idealistic kid.” And “a skateboard rat, a huge punk fan,” and a fashion maven: “I wanted to be just gay enough to understand the female mind.” None of which accounts for the internal gravity of the label—the way it holds together, forming some indecipherable whole. The way it’s a version of the 20th century, shouting at itself.

    7. Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion (Sub Pop) A San Francisco foursome that posits the wah-wah pedal as the answer to all questions. There are a few moments when you can almost believe it.

    8. Eric Alterman, “Interview with Steve Earle,” The Nation (March 19) Earle on the Mississippi blues singer Robert Johnson and Earle’s album Terraplane, named for Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” from his first recording session in 1936: “As far as we know, and it’s the beginning of recording so there wouldn’t be recordings that predated it, but there is tradition and people have done the research and I’ve done the research. There aren’t earlier versions of those Robert Johnson songs that anybody knows about, so as far as we know, the entire genre of the blues as we know it, every bit of it, is based on one Robert Johnson song or another… There’s not one single thing that’s not really based on a Robert Johnson song. I mean the whole 12-bar, 16-bar modern blues thing—it’s all based on Robert Johnson.”

    It’s as if Earle is channeling Donald Trump: I’ve done the research! Robert Johnson was born in 1911; at that time, the blues guitarist Elvie Thomas, who would not record until 1930, had been playing and singing early, shared blues songs for nearly a decade. So had countless others. Blind Lemon Jefferson was recording hit blues records in 1926, and Blind Willie Johnson a year after that. Older Mississippi bluesmen, some of whom shamed Robert Johnson as an incompetent when he first tried to play with them—Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Skip James—were writing the story of the blues on 78s from 1928 to 1931. As Bob Dylan would take phrases and constructions from Johnson, many of Johnson’s songs were derived from records by House, James, Kokomo Arnold, the Mississippi Sheiks, and more, transformed by Johnson’s sense of language and his rhythmic daring. That was how blues artists made blues.

    There is in fact no way to extract meaning from what Earle said. Alterman was taken aback; he tried to throw Earle a lifeline. “Who else would you say contributed fundamentally to the genre?” he asked, and Earle doubled down: “Nobody wrote any songs, everybody just repackaged Robert Johnson songs and used verses from Robert Johnson songs and took one verse from one Robert Johnson song and one verse from another Robert Johnson song...” Did he think this would help sell his record?

    9. Bruce Springsteen, Oracle Arena (Oakland, March 13) It was a big, loud, smiling show, where the almost German severity of “Point Blank,” where a girl grows up to be a junkie hustling on the street, fell right into Jerry Lee Lewis sweeping his fingers across the keys, which is to say “Cadillac Ranch.” In a novel, the lines “She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote, when our love was young and bold/ She said last night she read those letters, and they made her feel 100 years old” would keep you from turning the page, but the key to the way they hang in the poisoned air of “Stolen Car” is in the way Springsteen doesn’t sing to their literary quality, but instead repeats them to himself as if he can’t believe he didn’t even notice when his life ended.

    The highlight of the show came with a request from the crowd: the early tune “Growin’ Up.” It was from a young man named Steven Strauss, pressed up against the stage with his parents at his side, wearing an unmistakable black and white checked shirt. “I sing (hopefully not too loudly for those standing around me), all the words,” he wrote of a show in Albany on February 8 in the Springsteen magazine Backstreets. “I dance to all of the songs, I jump up and down, I cry, I fist-pump, I air guitar, I do things that no one has figured out how to describe in words yet.” Springsteen pulled him onto the stage to sing the song with him, and he was great.

    10. Ricki Lee Jones, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” from God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (Alligator) Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Yes, and even when devoted to one of the great artists of the 20th century. On a set stuffed with two tracks from Tom Waits, who given that his shiver-me-rotting-timbers act was Blind Willie Johnson from the start is doubly redundant, and two from tribute-album queen Lucinda Williams, whose mush-mouthed soulfulness is so affected she makes Taylor Swift sound like Etta James, plus mediocre work from the Cowboy Junkies, Luther Dickinson, Maria McKee, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Jones’ closing number is a door to another world. 

    When the Texas gospel blues singer recorded this song in Dallas in 1927, he used no words: He hummed and he moaned, as if when you spoke to the night and listened to the ground, only a language before language could say what you had to say. But the tune came from a hymnal: “I looked up some lyrics I found from the last century, or the one before,” Jones said before beginning the song in New York last year. With Fairport Convention’s wordless “‘The Lord Is in This Place… How Dreadful Is This Place’” and Bob Dylan’s “Sign on the Cross” swirling around her—and Jones’ performance makes it plain that Dylan’s song was based precisely on Johnson’s—she seems unflinching in the face of eternity, with the sense that no word she speaks, no sound she makes, will be less true a thousand years from now than it was a thousand years ago. She trusts the chords to carry her out of her own petty present. With bare notes abstracted from any melody on her guitar, she seems absolutely alone, and when Lee Thornburg’s horns and other voices come up around her, you feel relief for her, comfort, even if the voices you’re hearing, that she’s now leaving the song to, are the voices of the dead.

    Rickie Lee Jones: "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (Blind Willie Johnson Cover)" (via SoundCloud)

    Thanks to Steve Weinstein, Barbara Carr, Steve Perry, Jon Pont, and Doug Kroll.

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