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Articles on this Page
- 05/27/13--10:25: _Articles: Primavera...
- 05/28/13--11:35: _Guest Lists: Majica...
- 05/29/13--11:35: _Show No Mercy: Deaf...
- 05/30/13--09:25: _Overtones: Rap Game...
- 05/31/13--08:15: _Update: A$AP Ferg
- 06/03/13--08:05: _Rising: Airhead
- 06/04/13--07:45: _Guest Lists: Mount ...
- 06/05/13--08:15: _Interviews: The Lon...
- 06/06/13--10:35: _Situation Critical:...
- 06/07/13--09:20: _Update: Fuck Buttons
- 06/10/13--10:15: _Update: Julia Holter
- 06/11/13--09:35: _Rising: John Wizards
- 06/11/13--23:50: _Situation Critical:...
- 06/13/13--11:20: _Paper Trail: Mo' Me...
- 06/14/13--10:50: _Articles: Fear of M...
- 06/18/13--07:40: _Interviews: Sofia C...
- 06/19/13--12:00: _Update: Zola Jesus
- 06/20/13--07:20: _The Out Door: The L...
- 06/21/13--09:25: _Overtones: Kanye's ...
- 06/24/13--12:25: _Articles: The Yeezu...
- 05/27/13--10:25: Articles: Primavera Sound 2013
- 05/28/13--11:35: Guest Lists: Majical Cloudz
- 05/29/13--11:35: Show No Mercy: Deafheaven
- 05/30/13--09:25: Overtones: Rap Game Pikachu
- 05/31/13--08:15: Update: A$AP Ferg
- 06/03/13--08:05: Rising: Airhead
- 06/04/13--07:45: Guest Lists: Mount Kimbie
- 06/05/13--08:15: Interviews: The Lonely Island
- 06/06/13--10:35: Situation Critical: Eleanor Friedberger
- 06/07/13--09:20: Update: Fuck Buttons
- 06/10/13--10:15: Update: Julia Holter
- 06/11/13--09:35: Rising: John Wizards
- 06/11/13--23:50: Situation Critical: Thundercat
- 06/13/13--11:20: Paper Trail: Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
- 06/14/13--10:50: Articles: Fear of Music: Pussy Riot in New York
- 06/18/13--07:40: Interviews: Sofia Coppola and Brian Reitzell
- 06/19/13--12:00: Update: Zola Jesus
- 06/20/13--07:20: The Out Door: The Legacy of Loren Connors
- 06/21/13--09:25: Overtones: Kanye's Sold Soul
- 06/24/13--12:25: Articles: The Yeezus Sessions
It's not always a given that festivals act as an extension of their locale's identity, but this year it was especially unclear whether Barcelona's Primavera Sound wanted to be known more as a Spanish music festival or a music festival that happens to take place in Spain. The booking of Spanish acts that possess a lower profile to the many travellers that come through for the festival suggested a sort of national allegiance; on the other hand, the low attendance that went along with these acts' somewhat-buried sets suggested that representing a musical heritage is not the festival's highest priority.
This wishy-washy attitude towards booking Spanish acts isn't a new issue for Primavera, though it seemed more pronounced given the festival's otherwise expanded scope and size. Because, as modern festival logic seemingly dictates, more people usually equals more velvet ropes and more confusion. For example, in addition to the modest, open-field VIP area that's existed for several years, there was a second, glitzier section across the grounds for those who wanted to pay more simply to pay more, with reflecting pools, hammocks, elevated viewing areas, and a sushi bar. Accordingly, the security detail was more aggressive about where people could and could not stand (I was accosted by a guard for standing in an area that another guard allowed me access to-- and led to yet another area with the security's hands firmly on my shoulders). A now-cliched ferris wheel was added. And Primavera's small, insufficient trash receptacles were apparently not upgraded to go along with increased attendance, leaving the ground covered with trash throughout the weekend.
But still, there was just too much music to see to truly get bogged down in these details. The Prima lineup has always been pure candy for music nerds, and this year was no different, as comparatively niche acts like slow-metal auteurs Om, Baltimore grunge revivalists Dope Body, and antagonistic electro-noise duo Ghostdigital shared lineup space with 2013 fest mainstays like the Postal Service and Blur. It's impossible for someone to see everything they'd want to see at Primavera Sound, but we tried to take in as much of this year's impressive lineup-- and European-crowd quirks-- as humanly possible. --Larry Fitzmaurice
Best screensaver utilization: Listening to Tame Impala's sky-destroying psych-pop can conjure some seriously heady images (have you ever looked at the cover of Innerspeaker... on weed?!?), so it was fitting that their early-evening set was backed by an assault of imagery equivalent to what you might see when your MacBook screen's left open for too long. --LF
Fucking with my clique: Throughout the fest, I saw a number of audience members patrolling the grounds with 11-foot-tall palm tree stalks in hand. They belonged to a group of Brits that found it easier to just carry these sticks rather than have to go through the trouble of texting-- not really into the park-destruction aspect of this teamwork, but I admire the spirit. --Corban Goble
Bonus points to... the guy who shouted "Ibiza!" at the top of his lungs as Hot Chip launched into "Boy From School". --LF
Best comedy routine: The guy who tried to sell me cocaine during Kurt Vile's set. --LF
Number of drug dealers encountered in the crowd: 5 --LF
Number of drug dealers that wore purple rhinestone cowboy jackets: 1 --LF
Fashion watch: Novelty t-shirts based on American TV shows are very hot right now ("Los Pollos Hermanos," a black shirt with an image of "Simpsons" bit character Poochie, an improbable "I Shot J.R." graphic tee). --CG
You know you're in Europe when... you see someone wearing a T-shirt from Liam Gallagher's clothing line. --LF
You do you, man: If the Postal Service's sole album to date, 2003's Give Up, was a shy retirer of a missive in terms of pure exuberance, then the project's live return this year is practically the video for Ciara's "Body Party". Ben Gibbard, who appears to have shaken off the slow-handed weariness that marked 2011's disappointing Death Cab for Cutie record Codes and Keys, spent much of Thursday night's set dancing like no one was watching, frequently hopping behind a drumset and grooving with occasional co-vocalist Jenny Lewis. In terms of headliners, the crowd wasn't the biggest of the weekend, but they were certainly one of the most passionate, singing along with nearly every song like they were 17 again. --LF
Over-enthusiastic audience member award: The guy who shouted "I love this song!" during the Postal Service's set, when the band wasn't actually playing anything. --LF
Of course... the crane camera would zero-in on a girl holding a hand-drawn heart on a piece of paper during the Postal Service's set. --LF
Totally imagined Savages reaction to a beach ball going up in the crowd during their set: The band would stop playing until somebody caught it, then deflate it, then folded it and hand it to the nearest security guard. --CG
Best impromptu vocal bassline: The guy behind me at the Breeders unleashing his own version of the opening notes to "Cannonball" that sounded like someone trying to do their own "Seinfeld" slap-bass rendition. --LF
Would Primavera's Parc du Forum locale, with its varying surfaces and hidden corners, make a great Halo level? Yes, it would. --CG
How long it took RZA to make the Wu-Tang's set entirely about himself: 20 seconds --CG
Possible reasons why Method Man and Raekwon were absent during the Wu-Tang set: missed flight or "bad negotiations," according to RZA --CG
Rowdiest crowd: All of the punters chugging from fifths of Beefeater, light sabers, bubble machines, bouquets of birthday balloons, over-aggressive pogoing, impassioned make-out sessions, and unnecessary shoving that greeted Blur's set. --LF
What the Knife's bonkers dance-along set reminded me of: The replacement afternoon matinee Wiggles performing at an open mic night at Mos Eisley Cantina, though that's probably disrespectful to the Wiggles as well as the Mos Eisley band (one love, blue anteater organ guy). --CG
Greatest sense of catharsis: Over the past five years, Crystal Castles have transitioned from a mere blog concern to something much greater-- a project that emphasizes catharsis and attaining a level of pure emotional release. So when Ethan Kath and Alice Glass triggered "Baptism"'s massive, decaying rush in front of an absolutely gigantic audience late Saturday night, the already-rowdy crowd around me experienced a torrent of energy, screaming at the top of their lungs and flailing about as if they were possessed. Before the set started, a girl behind me was falling asleep standing up; just 10 minutes later, she was swaying back and forth, eyes closed, as if she were possessed. Music will do that to you sometimes. --LF
Most unnerving offer for potential group sex: During John Talabot's hypnotic, encouragingly boozy set, a boisterous European grabbed my shoulder, gestured to what appeared to be an extremely intoxicated female partner of his, and said excitedly that they were looking for "an American boy" for, uh, something. I graciously declined. --LF
Shit didn't get real in Doldrums' set until... Doldrums dude ripped off his cape. --CG
Number of men wearing leggings: 2 --LF
Fashion watch pt. II: Animal masks, animal hats, animal visors-- so much animosity! Some people wore cow-themed headgear, others opted for pigs and elephants. This guy went with the obvious and most winning choice-- a chicken. --LF
Alternative to the alternative: Though performances from Spanish bands like the hard-charging rock trio Bertunizer and the shape-shifting indie collective Extraperlo were marginalized by early set times and bad placement, a few locals told me those interested in seeing relatively local talent should check out Murcia’s SOS Festival, which features 90% Spanish bands and is more popular with young locals invested in the scene. --CG
Number of people I saw passionately air-guitaring: 4 --LF
How many seconds an audience member wearing an Unsane T-shirt showed his nipple ring to two girls who were taking a picture of said nipple ring: 16 --LF
Pro tip: If the guy at the burrito stand says that the sauce he's adding to your burrito is "kickass," said sauce is most likely not kickass. --LF
Unexpected show of force: James Blake's new LP, Overgrown, continued the boy wonder's foray into more explicitly singer/songwriter territory and away from his knottier, earlier work, but live, he still possesses the capacity to surprise. His backing band (which includes the increasingly impressive producer Airhead on guitar) have frequently excelled at translating Blake's off-kilter tunes through more organic arrangements, but the midway point of "CMYK" proved to be something else, as the tune's jagged lope broke into a big, bashing 2-step-resembling beat. --LF
Most humblebrag-y dedication: "This one's for Brian," said James Blake, nonchalantly, before launching into the Brian Eno collaboration "Digital Lion". --LF
Biggest crowd for a Spanish band that I saw: Electronic pop outfit Hidrogenesse, whose mix of chintzy synth-pop tunes and conversational stage banter had the crowd dancing as much as they did giggling. Their stylistic stage show-- lead singer wearing gold headgear that looked like a crown of thorns as well as tight gold shorts-- reminded me a bit of the kind of idea-heavy engagement that bewildering Swedish indie Sincerely Yours engages in. --LF
Nineties reunion you probably didn't know about: A quick scan of this year's Primavera Sound lineup shows at least a dozen acts whose creative peak occurred between the late 1980s and mid 90s-- including El Inquilino Comunista (that's "The Communist Tenant" in Spanish). Their frontman, Álvaro Heras Groh, is credited as an originator of the guitar-heavy "Getxo Sound" style of indie music that bubbled over in Spain during the mid-90s. The band hasn't been an active concern in over 15 years, but if you closed your eyes during their open-hearted opening-slot set, you might've mistaken their muscular hooks for Pixies in their prime and the slackened vocals for a damn-near-perfect Stephen Malkmus imitation. --LF
Most incredible stage design: The giant floor-set disco ball right behind Fuck Buttons' setup, as well as a visual projection that showed the mighty duo of Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power as psychedelic shadows, triggering waves of sugared noise at a decibel level set to incite potential cardiac arrest for anyone who came near it. --LF
Nicest surprise: Melody's Echo Chamber, whose live performance pleasantly pushed frontwoman Melody Prochet's vocals out of the reverb-y status quo of her debut album. --CG
Best Japandroids substitute: Catalan outfit L'Hereu Escampa share some striking similarities with Vancouver's life-affirming rockers-- they're a duo, their sound represents a melodic, impassioned take on post-hardcore's angsty burn, and their maniacal drummer was clad in a plain white T-shirt-- practically the Official Japandroids Uniform. And with only one EP under their belt thus far, they're a rare find in the seen-it-before nature of festival culture. --LF
Most surprising gearheads: Camera Obscura multi-instrumentalist Carey Lander performs with a MacBook. The last thing I ever imagined as a necessity in Camera Obscura's live show is a MacBook, but there you go. Meanwhile, the band performed a pristine set to a sizable crowd that confirmed for me, in one of multiple instances over the past three days, that the Spanish festival crowd really, really likes indie-pop. --LF
Mad professors at work: For their set, Jas Shaw and James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco threw on some business gear, with Ford looking especially snazzy in a grey suit that, paired with his grown-out Afro, made him resemble a physics teacher (if your physics teacher was more tolerant toward students taking drugs and dancing all night). SMD's live show is accruing legendary status in certain circles, and their purely crowd-pleasing attitude is only made more impressive when witnessing them working their analog equipment on stage, plugging and unplugging cords like old-style telephone operators on a mission to make people dance. --LF
Most adorably impractical backpack:
Bloody frustrating: Beleaguered by sludgy sound, it was hard to feel emotionally connected to My Bloody Valentine's Saturday set, especially since the band's characteristic guitar interplay and hooks were buried underneath a wall of poor mixing. A front loaded set delivered on m b v highlights and Loveless cuts, but many of those-- like myself-- who had camped out early to get a center-stage spot vacated these valuable positions before the set had concluded (it sounded better in the back, anyway). Kevin Shields didn't look pleased, but those who came to be flattened by the sheer force of My Bloody Valentine's barrage didn't leave totally disappointed, as exemplified by the orgasmic expressions beamed from the stage-flanking Jumbotrons. --CG
Most "aw shucks" moment: The Pitchfork stage's crowd singing "Happy Birthday" to Disclosure younger bro Howard Lawrence, who is now 19. --CG
The shapeshifters: It's not exactly breaking news when Liars head in a different direction, and the band threw some new material into their set, which showcased a more robust, explicitly dancier sound with bass that absolutely pummeled everything around it. --LF
Most surprising banality:Animal Collective are notoriously unstable live performers, loading sets with tons of unreleased material and incorporating noise-muddled between-song transitions. For some people, including me, that's what makes them so fascinating as a live entity. But their super-late Thursday-night set left me cold in a different way from the weekend's low temperatures. The set, which leaned hard on material from last year's polarizing Centipede Hz, as well as a few stray cuts from 2009's Merriweather Post Pavilion and Fall Be Kind EP, was largely clean and crowd-pleasing in a way that the many performances I've previously seen by them weren't-- and that was precisely the problem. I understand that since their profile has increased tenfold since the Feels days, there's a need to act like the festival headliners that they've become, but I do wish that this particular transition carried a few more surprises. --LF
Photo by Denis Nazarov
Two years ago, having just completed a degree in religious studies, Devon Welsh was living in the basement of his father's Ontario home. Like so many transient college grads, he was wondering how long he'd be there. At Montreal's McGill University, Welsh had found kindred spirits in the city's blog-friendly underground music scene, releasing instrumentally explorative LPs as Majical Cloudz. But it was a dead end. "I completely lost focus and took no pleasure from it," Welsh says, talking about his musical rebirth at Brooklyn's Williamsburg waterfront in April. Struggling to find a language that felt vital, he set music aside, putting up barriers and falling into an extended rut of personal anguish and artistic frustration.
"As my personal emotional life was shutting down, I felt this need to make music based around expressing personal emotions clearly," he continues. "I can't help but think that, for myself and probably a lot of other musicians, it's a stand-in for doing that in your real life." Welsh references Elliott Smith, whose dejected confessionals have left a mark on his own writing. "I wonder whether he was actually a very emotionally closed-off person," he says. "Sometimes music becomes a way to live out things you're too afraid to do on your own."
Realizing his own capacity to create word-driven, existential meta-pop-- exceedingly direct in its message and humanity-- he used an old synth and wrote songs to defeat fear. He called the first one "This Is Magic", and it appears on his stunning, lyrical recent Matador debut, Impersonator. "When you're trying to communicate and the phone is breaking up, you need to say it simple," Welsh says, describing his music as well as the project's hyper-minimal visual aesthetic, from streamlined album art to his daily uniform of black pants and a white T-shirt.
Last month Welsh was still in the basement. But this one was hidden under a sleek Bleecker St. bar in Manhattan, where rent costs about 10 times as much as the 24-year-old's own windowless, $200/month crash pad in Montreal. Along with producer and live partner Matthew Otto, Welsh opened the private show with "This Is Magic". That was before two girls near the front began to weep-- an increasingly frequent occurence at Majical Cloudz's shows. "Sometimes I have difficulty reacting, but I'm not scared of the fact that people are crying," Welsh tells me, the next day. "When you play a show, you want people to feel something. It's strange to have that power over someone's emotions, but it's much better to communicate something than for people to just be like, 'Oh, this is cool.'"
"Before a show, I take everything out of my pockets because my phone and wallet are reminders of who I am when I'm just living my life. When I go onstage, I don't want anything to do with that."
Favorite Place to Sing
I probably got more confidence about my own singing voice from being in the car than from practicing or writing my own music. Once I was driving home from a job at a provincial park, singing along to Pixies and speeding. There were a bunch of cars lined up in the right lane as I approached a set of train tracks, and I just shrugged and passed them all. As I drove over the tracks I looked to my left and realized a train was a few meters away. Right as my back tires bumped over the tracks, the train shot past. It's probably a good warning to not get too involved in singing while driving.
Favorite Songs of All Time
"Angeles" by Elliott Smith, "Arm Around You" by Arthur Russell, "Look Back & Laugh" by Minor Threat, "Dead Alive" by Kurt Vile, "Julius Caesar (Memento Hodie)" by Nico, and "Un-thinkable (I'm Ready)" by Alicia Keys. My favorite songs are the ones that are impressed with the most memory, that open a certain door in my head because of what they meant to me at a certain time and place. That’s the feeling that makes me love music.
In 2009, I got an earth [outline, on his forearm]. I have really shaky hands, something called an essential tremor, so I can't give myself tattoos. So all of them were done by my friend Claire. This one [crescent moon outline on opposite forearm] was from 2008, when we decided we wanted to figure out what stick-and-poke was. It took so long to do, like an hour, because she didn't know what she was doing and was stabbing me so deep. [laughs] And this one [heart outline on shoulder] is super cheesy, we got the same tattoo when we were dating. After we broke up, for a minute I was like, "Damn, I'm covered in tattoos that this one person gave me, I'm a total fool." Now I like it; we're friends. I look back and these are all important moments in my life, these memories that I can look back on. I can wear my own experiences.
Arthur Russell wrote some of the most loving and moving lyrics I know. They describe the little details of an emotional thought process so well.
Last Great Film I Saw
I remember green intuitively being my favorite color as a little kid. When I think of that color, it's comforting, while other colors have varying ranges of discomfort associated with them.
I came into a routine of being utterly diligent about warming up my voice. We'll do normal vocal warmups and then we'll do this Gregorian chant thing, where one of us will hold a note and the other will do scales on top, and then switch. I also stretch. Then I take everything out of my pockets because my phone and wallet are reminders of who I am when I'm just living my life. When I go onstage, I don't want anything to do with that.
Band That Changed My Life
At the risk of a cliché answer, probably Radiohead. Before I started listening to them, I listened to metal, screamo, or stuff like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. The first album of theirs I had was Kid A, which I probably heard about from my friend's sister-- the only way I heard about music back then was through older people. I didn't really use the internet for things like that, and I didn't read any music magazines.
Near the end of high school, I was this weird, obsessed person, and listening to Radiohead opened me up to all kinds of different music that was more exploratory. I thought, "Oh, this is sophisticated and mature, it's tasteful." I still like their music a lot, but I recognize it more for its place in that context. In those days, it was as if I had found a new life.
I liked Robert Creeley for a long time. He wrote this poetry that's minimal, and I really connected to it. I like how utterly simple every poem looks on the page, but how complicated it is when you unpack it and start to figure out what it means.
Favorite Montreal Venue
My friend Matthew Duffy's apartment. Since last summer, it has become this late-night party/show space; all kinds of completely weird things have happened there. They use whatever home stereo speakers are around, and Duffy does his own spoken-word ranting and sells alcohol out of his own bar setup. He sleeps in a chair in another room, which is covered in gold wallpaper with all these little eyeballs. There's a fridge that's not been plugged in for months and is rotting. The entire place was designed as this B-movie horror set. There's almost blood coming out of the walls. You're playing in a tiny room, 20 people can fit, but people pack into the hallway. It's in an apartment building, but, strangely enough, no one has ever complained about the noise.
A main part of why spaces like that are so important is that anybody can play there, and it isn't premised on having some special status. That's when people can actually feel like they're sharing a moment with you, instead of like they're coming to see a traveling attraction.
Weirdest Show I've Played
Last year for Pop Montreal, I organized a show at Duffy's and by the time we played I was in a crazed, stressed-out headspace. I decided I would just take my clothes off because I wanted to get things going-- make people feel something different. I was playing in my underwear. Then I was lying on the ground and a bunch of my friends laid down on top of me as I was singing in this tiny, garbage-filled room. It was weird but in a good way.
Last Record I Listened To
Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. This girl I hung out with in high school was really into Smashing Pumpkins, but I always thought it was alien music. I never knew anything about them until a year ago-- driving around, singing along. My favorite is either Mellon Collie or Adore.
First Record I Bought With My Own Money
The first music I was ever into was Sarah McLachlan and Mariah Carey, then I segued into boy bands and nu metal simultaneously, so it was either Backstreet's Back or [Limp Bizkit]'s Significant Other.
Last Great Book I Read
Energy Flash by Simon Reynolds. It's about the entire history of dance music, more or less, because it starts in Detroit and then focuses on the UK. I didn't know anything about dance music and I like reading any music history.
Book That Changed My Life
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe is a book I first read when I was 13 and then read obsessively throughout high school. I had it by my bed and read it 20 or 30 times. It's like a fantasy book. It's a world of magic.
Favorite Swans Record
Favorite Clothing Store
Wherever fine white T-shirts are sold. [laughs] I used to wear different colored clothes. I used to have hair. I slowly transitioned into this outfit around November 2011. I could lie and say it was a conscious decision, but it's mostly just because my wardrobe completely shrunk. I had black jeans and started getting less and less comfortable wearing anything else. I got a pack of white shirts because I wanted to wear something plain. I was retreating into myself. It's easier to wear a uniform everyday. It's more comfortable to wear something that indicates nothing.
I first saw Deafheaven live at SXSW in March 2011, a month before their debut LP Road to Judah’s release. They were part of a Profound Lore showcase at the tiny bar Lovejoys, and while they were clearly a band with good ideas, their ambition was hinted at rather than truly experienced. Still, Judah, especially the brilliant “Violet”, stuck with me, so I booked the band-- led by singer George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy-- for the following SXSW, and then again last June as part of Show No Mercy’s Northside Showcase, where they delivered an especially compelling set. Each time, Clarke and McCoy-- who have been best friends for a decade-- were backed by different players, something that didn’t connote stability, but they were clearly getting closer to realizing the huge push and pull of what I’d initially witnessed in sketchier form.
The fact that they continued getting better still didn’t prepare me for their stunning sophomore album, Sunbather, out June 11 on Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish Inc. label and streaming in its entirely right now via Pitchfork Advance. The collection folds something brighter and more melodic into their approach: something like Explosions in the Sky’s star-melting sweep combined with rabid vocals influenced by Emperor’s 1994 black metal classic, In the Nightside Eclipse. It’s gorgeous, moving music for vast spaces that will go over with fans of metal as well as those who usually stay away from heavier stuff. I spoke with Clarke about it via Skype last week.
George Clarke and Kerry McCoy
Pitchfork: When we talked last year, you said your new music was looking to be "a lot darker" than your previous material. Do you think Sunbather ended up being darker than Roads to Judah?
George Clarke: To a degree, I still feel that way, but I think we ended up painting a bigger picture-- but, to me, the last half of the record is the darkest thing we’ve ever done. I loved Loss' [2011 album Despond] and other doom things that were coming out at the time, but there was all this focus on death and darkness. The goal for this band has always been to be as honest as we possibly can, and I feel that the spectrum of human emotion is not all sad all the time. There are other things that should be celebrated as well. So we thought that if we could express the full realm of emotion while retaining our sound, we should try to do that.
Pitchfork: When we spoke about Judah, you talked a bit about its themes of addiction and self-medication. On Sunbather, there’s a more romantic feel; the setup of the title track reminds me of The Outsiders or John Hughes-- this rich girl sunbathing and this guy from the wrong side of the tracks. What inspired it?
GC: That song just came to me when I was driving around. I grew up in an apartment my whole life. It was just me, my mom, and my brother-- she supported us. And we've always liked driving through rich neighborhoods, especially around Christmas. We would always admire the wealth. I always had this strange feeling with it.
After Roads was completed, I moved in with my mom to go to school for a bit and just chill out because life was really hectic. She lives in such a beautiful town-- she moved there a few years after I moved out-- but I got really depressed in this bourgeois, all-white seaside community. So one day I skipped class drove around and I just saw this girl in the nicest house, and she was just laying there, and I was totally overcome with immense depression. It looked so nice, and I was in that “what the fuck am I doing with my life?” mood at the time. I had a notepad with me, and the first half of that song was jotted down right then.
Pitchfork: Does “Dream House” deal with similar themes?
GC: Yeah, it's about the obsession with wealth, and the idea of a "dream house"-- everyone has one, whether or not it's a priority. I’ll walk down the street in San Francisco and think, “I love that house." It’s a symbol of everything I don’t have.
Pitchfork: Would you consider this a concept album?
GC: No, there’s just these bits and pieces I threw together. Like, on "Dream House", that conversation is really a conversation I had with this girl I was totally in love with. I was really hammered one night and was texting her, like, “How are you?” She’s like, “I’m dying.” And I was like, “Is it blissful?” She said, “like a dream.” And I said, “I want to dream." It sounded nice at the time. So I wrote that text conversation down, and two years later, when I was working on that song, I thought it fit because it sums up the contrast between this big, beautiful ending and this big, tragic ending.
Pitchfork: The record has this pinkish cover art, and the songs have this uplifting feel. Is the color supposed to demarcate the overall feel?
GC: The color scheme is what it looks like when you’re laying in the park and your eyes are closed and you’re looking at the sun. The cover is so simple and elegant and modern, but its classic, too, and the typography is gorgeous. It definitely coincides with a lush guitar sound. But the most annoying thing is that writers want to point it out as being purposefully controversial, like, “Oh, they made the most un-black metal record [cover] they could.” But we just like the way it looks. That’s all I care about.
Pitchfork: At this point, do you guys still consider Deafheaven a black metal band or are you just a band?
GC: We’re just a band. The black metal thing makes my hair curl, because we get the question all the time, like, “How do you feel about being alienated from the metal community?” I’m like, “Are we, really?” I mean, we have other stuff going on, but anyone that hears Sunbather can clearly see that it’s extremely metal. I still listen to black metal all the time-- that’s obviously one of my favorite kinds of music-- but I steer from it very strongly these days. Are we even a metal band? I don’t know. I just want to ask people if they like it. If you don’t like it, that’s fine-- get the fuck out of my way. If you did, thank you, let’s hang out.
"I was honest on the last record, but Sunbather
is like ripping pages out of my journal."
Pitchfork: As far as words, you released lyrics for certain songs before the record leaked.
GC: I posted the lyrics so people are able to go back and read along. A big part of making and selling music is delivery, and doing little things like that creates excitement, so that by the time you finally send your record out, people are like, “Fuck, I just want to hear it." Some bands, like Converge, are so good at that. A lot of people hate on Kanye, but I think he’s a fucking genius. He is so insane and knows exactly how to get people going, and they feed into it.It’s pretentious in a way, but it also shows that you really know your audience and how people are going to react to things. I love seeing people get excited.
Pitchfork: Who's that on the spoken-word part of “Please Remember”?
GC: That’s [Stéphane Paut] from Alcest. We did a tour together and I wanted him to do a vocal part on the album, and I wanted it to be from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is one of my favorite books ever. That passage is really important to me. It just screams insecurity, which I have huge faults with.
Pitchfork: Is the lineup solidified for the new record? When you guys tour, is that the new Deafheaven, or is it still just you and Kerry?
GC: The revolving lineup is definitely not by choice. Touring as much as we do is hard. It’s so expensive, and we have bills to pay, and it's hard to keep people around. Kerry and I demand a really strong work ethic and it's hard to keep up with those demands sometimes. This lineup that we have right now is fucking awesome, though. On the record it's just me and Kerry and [drummer] Dan [Tracy], who is an enormous improvement in this band. And our bass player, Stephen, actually lives with us as well, so it's easy to write with him. And we have this other guy, Shiv, who's a phenomenal guitar player-- he’s really into psychedelia, so he brings a strange new element to the band, and I hope it sticks around. It's definitely the strongest live lineup that we’ve had.
Pitchfork: There’s piano and different elements on the album, but they fold into the whole rather than being forced. For some reason, when I think of Kerry I always think of the Smiths-- his guitar playing is weirdly Johnny Marr-esque.
GC: He’s a big Smiths fan. Actually, Kerry bought me my first Smiths record on my 16th birthday. That whole side of things has always been with us, and he’s married to jangly tones, so I can see it peeking through a bit.
Photo by Samantha Marble
Pitchfork: What’s been the biggest influence on your vocal approach?
GC: Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse. That record is so fucking good, and his tones are so good, and there are not really that many effects on them. It’s never really been about vocal tone for me. Let's cut the shit: most screaming is just screaming. With Roads, I wanted a more gnarly thing, which we totally didn’t pull off, but that was the idea. With this album, we just wanted slight reverb and for it to be clean and for us to have an emphasis on the actual vocals. I wanted people to connect with the lyrics, even if it's in some weird way, because they’re all personal. Plus, after years of touring, my voice has gotten a lot stronger. I used to just blow out after two or three shows, so I’ve definitely trained my voice, because I can now hit notes that I couldn’t hit before.
Pitchfork: The album ends with the lines: “I am my fathers son/ I am no one/ I cannot love/ It’s in my blood.” You mentioned you and your sibling were raised by your mother-- is this a reference to your father specifically?
GC: It’s definitely a direct thing to my actual dad. We actually got back in touch and have a better relationship now, but I’ve always had this thing where I’ve always seen my parents as people, from a very young age. My mom really instilled in me this idea that parents are not perfect and they make mistakes. My dad is happy, but there’s something deep down that's discontent with him. After my mom and him split up-- and they had a very short marriage-- he never remarried, and he lives at home alone-- he always has. Our family took a few big blows in the last couple of years, and a lot of it was weighed on him.
Again, it’s not a single story, but these different pieces that come together form a feeling of disappointment and sadness, and I saw a lot of that in me, and it really got me down. I had the idea to become really emotionally detached, and a lot of the time I’ve treated people that I’ve cared about a lot really unfairly. So I wanted to share his identity because I felt like we were so similar. So that song is more about my empathy with him. I was honest on the last record, but Sunbather is like ripping pages out of my journal. And those are maybe the most soul-bearing lines on the record-- when we recorded them, I was shaking. When I listen to it now, I question whether or not I should have done it.
If you were a gangsta rap fan who spoke no English, you might mistakenly believe that the genre has gotten strangely happy as of late. Lyrics remain rooted in the hard stuff-- chopping bricks, stacking drug money, building empires-- but within the production, a revolution is taking place. "Karate Chop", by the Atlanta singer/warbler Future, is one of the year's most omnipresent street singles, and the beat, by 19-year-old producer Metro Boomin', sounds as suited to Nicktoons as a subwoofer-stacked SUV. The low end blares, but above it, the hiccuping synth and neener-neener siren blow raspberries: If this is fight music, it's the BIFF-BANG-POW of the 1960s Batman TV show.
Future: "Karate Chop" [ft. Casino] on SoundCloud.
In Atlanta, the producers surrounding Future and his Free Bandz Gang have turned their search for brightly colored sounds into a kind of arms race as Future mutates his own voice into ever-odder shapes. Lex Luger, the Atlanta-via-Virginia producer whose crisply quantized ticking snares and massed minor-key horns have defined gangsta rap for the past few years, is a primary influence, but this time around, there's a distinctly Hanna Barbera feel to the proceedings. Luger’s huge, booming beats had a whiff of absurdity buried in them, and these instrumentals make it explicit: Metro Boomin' marks his tracks with a variation on the upward synth sweep Lex Luger uses to stamp his production, which you can hear rippling just before the beat drops on "Karate Chop". In his hands, it resembles nothing so much as the Scooby Doo bongo run sound.
But you don't have to stick to Future's music to hear this giddiness slowly crowding the frame; Chicago native Young Chop has perfected a sound with Chief Keef that is built out of a thousand squiggly, perpetual-motion earworms. Keef's entire persona is built upon joylessness-- he doesn't love getting drunk, he hates being sober-- and yet on "Diamonds", from last year's Finally Rich, Chop sends five or six different glistening synthesizers leaping and pinwheeling around each other behind him, each one tinny and tiny and folding into a swarming texture of other similar-sized noises. Build enough of these small interlocking elements up, and you get an assembly-line-gone-mad effect, an endless horizon of brightly colored pellets running in rows.
Chief Keef: "Diamonds" [ft. French Montana] (snippet) on SoundCloud.
This is, by and large, is the current sound of street-level gangsta rap production-- it's like someone rescued the squealing baby from the bottom of Timbaland's "Are You That Somebody" beat and put him in front of an MPC. The reactions rappers have to this madness varies. Sometimes, they make a show of staying unmoved, like Keef, who wants no part of the beat's party. Other times, they join in on the fun: There's a song off Young Thug's recent 1017 Thug mixtape, for instance, named after the Pokémon character Pikachu, and the chorus goes: "My diamonds they say Pikachu/ They gon' wink at you." The beat around him, by Jaye Neutron, also says "Pikachu," the bright major-key synthesizers splitting the difference between bright crinkle and wet squelch, like sticky jelly on tinfoil. Young Thug isn't exactly a Pikachu figure-- he threatens to shoot you constantly. But within the larger canvas of the music, his voice is another brightly colored moving dot.
Young Thug: "Picacho" [ft. Maceo] on SoundCloud.
Rap fans might not like thinking of the music this way. Through all of its violent stylistic shifts, hip-hop has usually held onto the simple primacy of the voice. But as rap, electronic music, and ringtones have circled closer to one another over the years, the role of vocals in hip-hop has shifted and grown blurrier. Built on repurposed materials, the genre has always been swift at adapting to the demands of its medium. If New York City rap was tailor-made for underground dwellers familiar with a complicated, dense environment, and L.A. rap was for kids tooling around in cars with huge systems, the current wave meets the demands of its preferred medium: It sounds good enough to be enjoyed in a YouTube window playing in someone's bedroom.
The low-end still blares, but there's a distinctly Hanna Barbera
feel to the current sound of street-level gangsta rap production.
When I reach "Karate Chop" producer Metro Boomin' by phone, I tell him his beats often remind me of the dissolving platforms in Mega Man, or the pills thrown up by Dr. Mario. "I appreciate that," he says. "I came up playing the same games, and the thing about that music is that it was real simple, but intricate. I try to find sounds that are crazy and different to bounce off of the basic elements-- strings, keys, loud horns-- to set myself apart. I'm trying to stop somebody who’s listening-- rappers hear a lot of beats, you know?"
When I ask him who his influences are, Metro lists Shawty Redd, whose epic synth-based production gave Young Jeezy's first album it's heft, and his colleague Sonny Digital. But he singles out Atlanta-via-San Francisco producer Zaytoven most: "The thing I respect about Zay is that he sounds like nothing else," he says. "A lot of it’s similar, but it’s all got that certain bounce to it. It all sounds simple to people who don’t produce, but it’s not."
Zaytoven, aka Xavier Dotson, might be the pioneer of today's giggly wave of hip-hop beats. He's originally from San Francisco, another place where colorful rap production is the norm, but has lived in Atlanta for years, and is most known for working with Gucci Mane-- pick up any Gucci mixtape from the last five years, and he will have at least one beat on it. Like Metro, he works with an MPC, MIDI keys, and some minimal effects, building his beats one small, hooky layer at a time. Dotson's musical roots are in church-- he still plays organ-- but his rap production resembles the ice-cream truck rolling around outside of the cathedral more than anything happening inside it.
Gucci Mane: "Baby Wipes" [ft. Waka Flocka Flame] on SoundCloud.
Dotson works fast and cheap, and he's incredibly productive (many of his beats are barely-retooled versions of themselves). A lot of his material is conveniently collected on the Zaytown mixtape series, which offer generous samplings of his beats for Gucci, JT the Bigga Figga, Shawty Lo, Future, and many others. He’s boiled his approach down to a science, and doesn’t mince words about it. "It usually takes me all of five minutes to make a beat," he tells me. Each beat is "10 or 12 sounds, including all the instruments and drums," and once he's determined the mix of sounds, the beat falls together like Tetris blocks. His approach is rinky-dink, but purposefully so, and he says it was a perfect suit for Gucci, in particular.
"When we first started doing music together, his raps reminded me of nursery rhymes," says Zay. "Just the words he put together, the way he said them, it was something that a kid would want to say right back, because it's just so catchy and easy-sounding."
"People associate street music with hardness, but my key in making music was trying to give that trap sound a happy feel." -- Zaytoven
Zaytoven has some surprising idols of his own-- he frequently name-checks DJ Quik, a producer known for working with rich live instrumentation. “I came from the West Coast, and Quik’s music always stuck out to me more than Dr. Dre, or anybody else’s. I buy every single DJ Quik album, and on every single one there’s a song called ‘Quik’s Groove,’ and that’s where he’s just playing an instrument. It’s just a groove. There ain’t no rapping or nothing like that. I’m like, 'For a guy that makes street music, how do you make such quality music?'"
Zaytoven’s style might seem like the polar opposite of Quik’s. And yet there is a certain irrepressibility to Quik’s music that you can hear in Zay’s easy laugh, and in his beats. Quik’s productions, even when the lyrics detail harrowing personal demons, exude a carefree positivity. "I know all of the guys that I work with try to appeal to the streets and that's the way they want to come across, but at the same time, these guys are artists," Zaytoven continues. "When you look at them, they dress a certain way, their hair is cut a certain way, they color-coordinate in certain ways. When I'm around these guys, they joke a lot. They do a lot of different things that are colorful and put me in this music-making mind frame where it can be hard, but it’s still got to have some lightness to it." Zaytoven hears his influence in producers like Metro Boomin' and he’s happy about it. "It’s sort of their sound now," he says.
He continues: "People associate trap music or street music with hardness, but my key in making my music was trying to give a happy feel to that trap sound, just to make it more interesting and exciting. I'm just naturally a very happy person-- I try to make gloomy music, but it just don’t get that dark."
A$AP Ferg is looking over a selection of sushi at Whole Foods in downtown Manhattan. I suggest the crispy crab roll, but he balks. He's been a pescataerian for a year, and he's still figuring out a balance. Eventually, he goes with spicy tuna. "I’m slowly moving toward being a vegetarian, because I’m getting sick of fish," the Harlem rapper says. "I told my girl that I could live off grilled cheese for the rest of my life, and I’d be good."
Over the last couple of years, Ferg has proven himself to be the most exciting artist within A$AP Mob, aside from crew leader (and fellow pescatarian) A$AP Rocky. He broke through on the strength of his drop-in on “Kissin’ Pink”, a vivid cut that easily stood out on his Rocky’s debut mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP. There, Ferg unbottled a free-flowing, sing-song-y verse that teetered between unhinged, delirious, funny, hammy, and catchy all at once. Now he's prepping his solo debut, Trap Lord, due out in July. Stocky, warm, and collected, he gave me a preview of the tape, playing it over his SUV's stereo via his own busted laptop. Along with tracks that lined-up with this solo songs from A$AP Mob's 2012 release Lords Never Worry was more experimental fare, like "Cocaine Castle", a lush drug epic.
Born Darold Ferguson, Jr., the rapper comes from a Harlem hip-hop lineage, as his father designed the famed Bad Boy Entertainment logo. And like Rocky, Ferg's artistic worldview isn't limited to hip-hop-- a graduate of NYC's High School of Art and Design (which counts Mobb Deep and Fabolous among its alumni), he's studied fashion and fine arts, and cites Salvador Dali, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons as his favorite visual artists. "There’s never been kids like us that come from Harlem," he says. "We represent Dipset all the way to Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Basquiat."
We spoke about his ambitions for Trap Lord, being as big as Jesus, and his unique style.
Pitchfork: Where was your head at artistically while making Trap Lord?
A$AP Ferg: I wanted it to sound sonically different from everything else. It’s real cloud-like music-- music from my dreams and fantasies. I want to make colossal-type music that you could put on while you’re playing your video games, or music from scores of movies where serious things happen. I didn’t want it to sound like regular trap songs. Not that I have any problem with trap music-- I mean, it’s called Trap Lord. But it didn’t come from creating trap music. I call myself “Trap Lord” because I’m the lord of the trap. And my trap is rap. And I’m really good at it. But I don’t make “trap music.”
Pitchfork: At this point, what are your overall goals as an artist?
AF: I wanna be as known as Jesus. I feel like Michael Jackson reached that pinnacle-- the same amount of people who know who Jesus is know who Michael Jackson is. I want to become an iconic figure. I don’t want to be your average rapper. I want to be considered an artist. I create things with different mediums besides words and lyrics, but right now I want to focus on the music. Once that is potent and people get the hang of what I’m doing, I can move to the next thing.
A$AP Rocky: "Kissin' Pink" [ft. A$AP Ferg] on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: How did your sing-song verse on "Kissin' Pink" come about?
AF: A lot of my friends weren’t fond of my singing, they were like, “What are you doing?” But what they don’t know is that I got split personalities. I’m A$AP Ferg when I’m with the group, but I could turn into the Fergenstein, or the Trap Lord. On “Kissin’ Pink”, I was the Fergenstein, doing whatever was on my mind. I feel like somebody had to be that guy on a track. Rocky took the cool, smooth approach, and he left room for me to do whatever I did on the song. I took advantage of the opportunity.
Watch A$AP Mob's episode of "Selector", featuring a freestyle from Ferg:
Pitchfork: Are there any songs on the tape you're especially excited about?
AF: “Shabba” was the last song that I recorded for the album, and the shit is fucking crazy. Rocky’s going to shoot the video. I feel like that’s going to be the next single. It’s going to be crazier than “Work”, but the “Work” remix is retarded. It’s not even retarded, it’s crazy and retarded-- cra-tarded. And I shouted out Pitchfork in “Shabba”.
Pitchfork: We didn’t clear that! [laughs]
AF: I said, “Short nigga, but my dick tall/ What I told your bitch, dog/ Only thug nigga down at the Pitchfork/ Dirty van bitches want to suck my dick off/ Pop a xany for a penny get to hit floor/ Run up in a shiv raw/ I got a girl, I ain’t never got no fucking condoms/ If she caught me then that bitch would be pissed off/ Real nigga shit.”
Pitchfork: Why did you name that song after Shabba Ranks?
AF: He’s a dope artist, one of those forgotten Jamaican icons. And he had his own style. He had all the rings, all the girls around him, the custom suits with a custom haircut to go with it. Suede shoes with no socks. Ankle bracelets. He was fucking jiggy as shit. He defined jiggy, so I wanted to recapture the moment. I feel like I might be the modern day Shabba Ranks.
Photo by Will Colby
Electronic artists are often a reticent lot, and initially, Rob McAndrews seemed to fit that stereotype. As Airhead, the 24-year-old producer released a few singles over the last couple of years, both on his own and with childhood friend and like-minded sound warper James Blake. For a while, McAndrews' only official press photo showed him hunched over a guitar, face mostly obscured; he didn't give interviews, and the first two years of his Twitter account's existence saw him crafting a grand total of three non-descriptive tweets. "Maybe electronic artists are just used to spending too much time in our bedrooms by ourselves," McAndrews offers as an explanation during our conversation last month. "I always feel awkward in front of a camera, even if I’m on holiday with my girlfriend. She wants to take pictures, and I’m just there going, 'Ahhh!'"
Despite his camera-shy tendencies, when I meet McAndrews at the Standard Hotel in Manhattan's East Village, he offers an eager, sincere smile. Which is understandable, because he's got a lot to be happy about these days: He's currently touring the world as the guitarist in Blake's band, and his debut full-length as Airhead, For Years, is out June 25 via R&S. The album's title possesses a clever double-meaning, referring to how long it took McAndrews to amass the material; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs-sampling "Wait", which came out as a single last year, has existed in finished form since 2009. "I’m not very good at forcing my music into people's hands," he says.
Airhead: "Milkola Bottle" on SoundCloud.
During our hour-long chat in the barren hotel bar, the weather outside toggles between storm clouds and sunny skies, and McAndrews' music shares those unstable elemental tendencies. For Years transitions from distorted samples of Cat Power and Karen O, to molecular techno, to contemplative ambience-- sometimes, all within the same track.
A teenage classic rock acolyte who would spend days watching Woodstock DVDs, McAndrews became interested in electronic music when a friend's older cousin introduced him to the oddly shaped hip-hop of L.A.'s Anticon label, especially the now-defunct avant-rap outfit cLOUDDEAD. Eventually, post-rock groups like Do Make Say Think and Godspeed You! Black Emperor entered his headspace as well. "I used to love listening to that stuff while sitting in front of a computer," he says. "It fits well in that environment, which I’m sure it wasn’t intended for."
McAndrews grew up in the Wood Green district of north London, attending school with Blake and Blake's live drummer Ben Assiter in the nearby borough of Enfield, where the trio spent time bashing out Nirvana covers and the usual 12-bar riffage. At one point, the trio considered themselves a band ("we were called the Scene, which was pretty embarrassing-- although if I had my way, it would have been a lot worse"), performing covers of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for the Man". "It was right before James' voice broke," he says, grinning at the thought.
Airhead: "Autumn" on SoundCloud.
While attending university, McAndrews and Blake would send each other songs they were working on, a process that resulted in the happy accident of McAndrews contributing the pivotal guitar lick to the centerpiece of Blake's 2011 self-titled debut, "Lindisfarne". During a summer holiday, the pair worked on music together, which resulted in 2010's collaborative single "Pembroke" as well as "Knives", For Years' rustling closer. "It feels very natural," McAndrews says about working with his long-time chum. "We sit in a room and we don’t necessarily have to say too much to each other. It’s nice."
"It took a few years before I realized that I could
bring electronic drum beats and live guitar together--
that’s when I started enjoying making music on a computer."
Pitchfork: Do you come from a musical family?
Rob McAndrews: My father grew up obsessed with Eric Clapton and Cream, and my mother was a piano teacher. When I was five, she was training to become a teacher, so she needed someone to practice on, and I was that someone. So every time I sat down to practice on my own, she would come in and it would turn into a lesson. We ended up getting into so many fights. So I picked up the cello and the guitar and carried on playing those instead. When I first played my father my music, he had no idea what it was, but both my parents have started coming to James' shows. They're starting to understand what it's all about.
Pitchfork: What was the first concert you ever attended?
RM: The Vines, around the time that [2002's Highly Evolved] came out. My sister took me-- she's nine years older than me, so it was practically babysitting for her. She only went because I wanted to go. I don't know what that says about me.
Pitchfork: For someone who works within dance music's confines, guitars appear on your tracks quite frequently.
RM: The guitar's always felt natural to me. When I was younger, it was amazing to listen to something on a CD and then recreate how it sounded. I didn’t really get that with listening to a Bach cello suite. When I first started making music on a computer, I’d make an electronic drum beat and it wouldn’t sound very good, but then I’d play guitar and be like, “Oh, that’s really nice.” It took a few years before I realized that I could bring the two together. That’s when I started enjoying making music on a computer.
Pitchfork: Dance music moves pretty quickly in terms of stylistic trends. Given that the music you're releasing is similar to what you and James were doing several years ago, are you worried about appearing out-of-step?
RM: It’s never been a concern. I just write the music I want to hear, and when it comes out, it comes out. I’m in a very fortunate position to be doing stuff with James, because it means that, in terms of my own music, I’m not under pressure to release stuff and go touring. I’m not sure how out-of-sync my music is with current trends, because it’s hard to keep up nowadays. But the music I've been working on at the moment is more club-friendly, just because I've been DJing more.
James Blake: "Digital Lion" on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: You contributed to "Digital Lion", from Blake's new album, which also featured Brian Eno. What was it like working with him?
RM: It was crazy. Beforehand, I was like, “God, I can’t believe this is happening.” Then, we walked in and [Eno] said, "Fancy a cup of tea?" He’s just the nicest person. Really friendly and calm, laid back. He guides things in such an amazing way that you don’t even know what’s going on. He'd bring out instruments and be like, “Why don’t you try playing on this?” He had this crazy Moog guitar that made a lot of the sounds on “Digital Lion”. As I was playing it, I had no idea how to control it, but somehow, sound was coming out of it. Through knowing James and being on tour with him, I've realized that the people who are at the top of their game are normal people, which has been really reassuring to see.
Photo by Chris Rhodes
Mount Kimbie: "You Took Your Time" [ft. King Krule] on SoundCloud.
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. For this edition, we spoke with UK production duo Mount Kimbie, whose new album Cold Spring Fault Less Youth is out now via Warp.
Last Great Film I Saw
Dominic Maker: Glengarry Glen Ross, particularly the notorious Alec Baldwin scene. There's something about that film-- it’s very closed off and you don’t get a sense of what time of day it is, so it draws you into the desperation.
DM: We both lost our phones recently, at exactly the same time. This well-dressed, 50-year-old guy nicked mine on Friday in the studio. It was crazy. He just walked in and was talking to us-- he used a little distraction technique and waved goodbye. I said, "Have a good weekend," and then the fucker had my phone. Not much I could do about it.
Last Book I Read
Kai Campos: While we were working on the album, I started reading a lot of very cheesy self-help books, like Steven Pressfield's The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. The writing's awful, but they were really useful.
Best Purchase I Made This Year
KC: A memory foam mattress. It makes it difficult to get out of bed. I'm pretty fussy.
KC: Elephant & Castle's Corsica Studios in London. It doesn't have the best sound system in the world, but it’s a no-bullshit place. I don't really like many venues in London.
Dream Merch Table Item
DM: Fridge magnets with words on them that you can rearrange-- that's where the album title came from.
KC: I’ve got friends that collect fridge magnets, so I try to pick up really disgusting ones when we’re on the road. We’ve got really shitty ones from Japan with national stereotypes on them.
Favorite Song of All Time
DM: Talking Heads' "Animals". I’ve always been an animal lover, and I love the comedic lyrics in that song. You can tell they think of animals as evaluating beings. It really gets to me.
Favorite Video Game
DM: I recently went from being in a relationship to being single and decided that I couldn’t bring the Xbox with me. It wasn’t a good look. Before that, we played a lot of FIFA, and now we got our manager into it. I made a bet with him that if he started playing it, he wouldn’t be able to beat me for an entire year. I’ve never seen anyone dedicate themselves to something in such a short period of time-- he has a Japanese sensibility about dedication and discipline. Now he’s just one level below us. He beat me in the first game we played, which was crushing.
Favorite Day of the Week
KC: I'm not into weekends, because everyone’s off work, but since we don’t normally work on a regular schedule, we're busier. I’m more into weekdays. I like getting stuff done.
DM: I really like Monday, because for the past four weeks now I've been getting up, making a coffee, having some breakfast, and having a cigarette with a guy who lives a couple of doors down from me. He does dialogue for films, he’s quite interesting.
KC: I like this ale company down near my parents' place in south England called Harveys. It’s a dark ale. You can only have one, but it tastes really good.
Favorite Radio Program
KC: NTS Radio, which is a station based in East London that you can listen to online, has a show called Morning Marauders with a DJ called MarshmeLLo, who's wicked. Someone should give her a break on a bigger network.
Most Enthusiastic Crowd
DM: Boulder, Colorado. The dressing room was underneath the floor in front of the stage, and we could hear the crowd stomping on the floor like, “We want more! We want more!”
KC: We don’t do encores at all, but they kept going to the point where we had to do one. We didn't have any more material to play, so we just came out and played one of the songs that we played already. Everyone went crazy.
Favorite Songs from the Last Year
KC: I’m into Christmas. It’s a chance to go out and see my family, which is probably the only time of the year I get to do that.
DM: Yeah, being near family for a prolonged amount of time is quite rare these days.
KC: All the swag, too-- the merchandise.
DM: Yes, all the merch. All the gifts.
Chicken or Shrimp?
KC: Shrimp. It's got more to it.
DM: Yeah, you get a lot of bad chicken in London, too.
Photo by F. Scott Schafer
"We were doing fart jokes when you was sucking your mama's tit," boasts the Lonely Island's Akiva Schaffer at the close of the trio's third star-studded, pop-puncturing musical comedy opus, The Wack Album. And considering the group's first music video-- a goofball sendup of Black Rob's "Whoa" called "Ka-Blamo!"-- came out 12 years ago, the gas-passing statement of longevity is actually very realistic. All in their mid-30s, longtime friends and collaborators Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Schaffer are a veritable spoof institution: easily the most beloved "fake" rapper/singers since "Weird Al."
And while their brand of absurdity often veers into scatalogical and/or utterly asinine territory (one Wack Album cut is called "I Fucked My Aunt"... and it is not a metaphor) the Lonely Island are utterly serious about their music fandom-- especially their love of hip-hop. The Berkeley-raised trio cite teenage favorites including the Fat Boys, N.W.A., Biz Markie, Beastie Boys, U.M.C.'s, and Brand Nubian, along with fellow Bay Area acts including Hieroglyphics, Del the Funky Homosapien, E-40, and Too $hort, who guests on the new LP. When Taccone's phone goes off in the middle of our interview, his ringtone chirps out obscure San Francisco MC Rappin' 4-Tay's "Players Club".
Sitting around a long table at their publicist's office a few blocks south of Madison Square Garden in Manhattan last week, the guys have an easy, down-to-earth rapport-- the result of about 20 years of shared experiences. They don't go out of their way to be funny with the recorder on, but the jokes still come pretty naturally. Talking about the making of the new album, Taccone says, "We're still in a room just trying to make ourselves laugh."
Pitchfork: You're all in your mid 30s now and still making this ridiculous music about each others' dicks and having sex with pigs. Do you ever worry about getting aged out of this sort of thing?
Taccone: We haven't changed a whole lot since we met in junior high.
Akiva Schaffer: Even from the first album, we were like, "We'd better do this soon." You can't fake rap when you're too old. Then again, rappers keep getting older, too, and they don't stop rapping. So maybe, as the rap game matures, so can the fake rap game.
Taccone: The frap game. [deadpan] Plus, this is our most mature album.
Samberg: We've got things like "Diaper Money" on there-- an honest song about the inevitability of your own death and the let downs of life. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Speaking of maturity, you seem to be commenting on the gay marriage issue on "Spring Break Anthem"... in your own way.
Schaffer: We wanted to show just how ridiculous it is that spring break behavior is considered normal and gay marriage is insane when it's actually the opposite.
Samberg: That song ended up having multiple points. The original one was about how acceptable spring break has become, and how it's so terrible for young people, especially girls, to deal with it. But once we were actually watching the video, it became clear that there was another layer, and it was pointing out how so many of the macho, aggro dudes who have such a problem with gay marriage have no problems with acting like fucking animals on spring break. Meanwhile, gay marriage is about people who just want to be civilized and have rights and care for each other.
Pitchfork: There's also a relatively dark moment on the album at the end of the "YOLO" video, where you're toothless and crazily paranoid about everything wrong that could happen to a person in life.
Schaffer: It's preaching caution-- but if you're too cautious, you're going to go insane.
Samberg: I have no problem with the idea behind YOLO-- that you should live your life and do things you want to do. But it got so co-opted and homogenized and boring. People were like, "Hey, I'm gonna go take a shit in that driveway-- YOLO!" It's like, "Well, no, you're just shitting on a person's driveway." That's not really seizing the day. [laughs] There's YOLO and then there's being a dick.
Pitchfork: Kendrick Lamar's verse on that song is particularly on point-- funny and technically impressive at the same time. How did that collaboration work?
Samberg: Whenever we work with a rapper, we always assume they'll write the verse themselves because it's weird to hand a rapper a verse and, of course, our verse is never going to be better than theirs. But we will explain the song's premise and suggest things they may want to hit on. And sometimes they take those notes and shape the verse based on that, and sometimes they don't.
With Kendrick, it was really cool because he came into the studio and sat in the corner with his iPhone for a while and was like, "Let the beat play?" So he was clicking on his iPhone for 15 or 20 minutes-- we weren't sure if he was writing or like texting. [laughs] Then he was like, "OK, I'm ready." And he went into the booth and just slaughtered.
Schaffer: But 90% of the time, we've written the whole song and Andy's done a temp vocal and then the singer comes in and replaces it. They add melodies and harmonies. Our one note to everybody is: "We want it to sound like you're singing one of your hits." Because some people come in and think, "Oh, this is a joke thing, I'll just spit it out and be done." But we want it to really be like one of their songs.
Taccone: We want their personal engineer there, too, so someone like Rihanna sounds as much like Rihanna as possible.
Pitchfork: Some of your lines, beats, and flows call back to past hip-hop eras, do you ever worry about those references not coming through to some fans?
Taccone: Not really, but we definitely do some stuff just for us. Like, on this album, the song "We Need Love" has a Digital Underground reference. And on "We'll Kill U", there's a reference to East Flatbush Project's "Tried by 12" that zero percent of people would ever get. And we did a "Superthug" reference on "We Like Sportz". If you had to know something to get the joke, we'd pull back, but that's not the case with those references.
Samberg: And, on the whole, we like to have different sounds and genres on the albums so it doesn't get redundant. We have some trap-style stuff on this record and pop-rap stuff-- "YOLO" is super-poppy and kind of white-rap-- and then there's "The Compliments", which is like the crunkiest, dirtiest, snare-heavy stuff. If it was all modern, it'd start to feel boring. If you're Jeezy, you can have an album where the beats are all in the same style, but if you're us you need to keep people on their toes and laughing.
Pitchfork: A lot of the superstar guests on your songs are puncturing their public image. Do you ever feel like you're showing off a more accurate version of a guest's personality in your music than they do in their own?
Samberg: It depends who it is. Somebody like Michael Bolton is actually really funny, but nobody would've guessed it because he's thought of as this adult contemporary guy. So that was a case of puncturing what people thought of him in a way that we were really proud of, and he was very happy with it. It was the same thing with Natalie Portman. Generally, we try to make fun of ourselves and how we're trying to take part in this culture that we don't belong to. We always draw that line so people know that it's comedy and not us trying to actually be musicians or rappers. If we were going to puncture the image of an artist that we thought would affect them negatively, we would try to bail on it.
Taccone: Like, I'm a huge fan of Scarface and I'd love to do a song with him, but in a way I don't really want his image to change.
Samberg: There are people you look up to, and you don't want to ruin their thing. We talked about it when we asked Julian Casablancas to do ["Boombox"] with us because we're friends with him, but we also think of the Strokes as the coolest band ever. In the video, we wanted to make sure we depicted him in a way that still let him be cool because we didn't want to mess that up. But I think we pulled it off because I'm the idiot in the song and he's still cool.
Pitchfork: When one of your songs becomes really popular or acclaimed-- like how the T-Pain collaboration "I'm a Boat" was nominated for a Best Rap/Sung Collaboration Grammy, or how some reviewers claimed that Justin Timberlake's "SNL" songs were better than his new album-- do you ever feel like your music is overshadowing an artist's actual music?
Samberg: If I believed that was actually the public's perception about Justin's music, I would be bummed, but I don't think it is. And in regard to the T-Pain Grammy thing, we were all surprised. When we saw him at the Grammys, we were all like, "What the fuck is this?"
It was flattering, but it was also like a reverse point of pride because most people were like, "Dude, you got nominated for a real-song Grammy!" And we were like, "We're making comedy, we want the comedy nomination!" We're not complaining-- Pink did her circus show above us during the show and dropped glitter on us. [laughs]
Schaffer: It was the fucking best, but it was silly. We also didn't have to worry about winning because we were up against "Run This Town". I've never been less nervous at an awards show, as opposed to a couple of years later, where we could've won for Best Comedy Album. I was like, "We might have to give a speech."
Samberg: In retrospect, though, we couldn't have won because we were against Louie [C.K.], who's the best comedian in the world.
Photo by Roger Kisby
Eleanor Friedberger: "Stare at the Sun" on SoundCloud.
Once a piece of music is etched onto vinyl or encoded into a stream of ones and zeros, it doesn't change. But everything and everyone around it is in a constant state of flux. And more than ever, we have the access and technology to use music to soundtrack what's going on in our lives at any particular time-- it can match our mood, snap us out of a mood, increase our heart rate, turn a long walk into something epic, or excite someone riding along with us on a road trip. No two people use music the exactly the same way.
With the new interview feature Situation Critical, we present artists with various life situations-- some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre-- to find out which songs, albums, or bands they would turn to under those specific circumstances.
I call Eleanor Friedberger in May, a day after the passing of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. “I have a bunch of Doors on vinyl but not digitally,” she says. “So I started downloading their albums and cranking up ‘Light My Fire’ and thinking, ‘This sounds so fucking great.’”
“But it’s all about the frame of mind,” she continues, sniffling and coughing thanks to some late-spring allergies and a cold. “With a band like the Doors, especially, sometimes it sounds like garbage-- but there are other moments where it sounds incredible, like this morning.”
You’ve been asked to choose the first song at your best friend’s wedding...
I actually performed Buddy Holly's "Dearest" at a wedding once. I was in Marfa, Texas, doing a little residency and recording, and there was a wedding going on the same day as my show. The guy who I was recording with was also the AV guy at this wedding, so he had to take a break to go. I was like, "Well, if you’re going, then shouldn’t I go? Maybe they’ll let me sing a song."
I was going to start singing as soon as they made their walk down the aisle together as husband and wife, but I did not know that they were going to stop and greet each and every one of their guests as they walked back. It took them so long. It's only a two-minute-long song, so I just sang it over and over and over again-- probably around 10 times.
You’re only able to listen to music through YouTube...
Something from the show "The Midnight Special". I always see the infomercial for it on television when I’m at hotels. It just runs continuously on certain channels. There’s an amazing one of Fleetwood Mac playing "Rhiannon".
You’re driving with someone you want to impress...
"Atomic Bomb", a Nigerian recording from the 70s by William Onyeabor. It’s very long and repetitive, which makes it good for driving. And it’s slightly obscure-- you know, chances are whoever I’m driving around won’t have heard it, but it’s super catchy and, especially at nighttime, I think it would get you going.
You’re in the middle of a long walk...
I went on a long walk on a beach in Jamaica once, and when you do that, a lot of people try to talk to you. So my technique was putting headphones on and listening to Grace Jones.
Your pet was hit by a car...
Karen Dalton's "Something on Your Mind" is not necessarily sad, but it sounds monumental. I remember when my dog was actually hit by a car-- I was away and when I came back, he was just in the basement. I thought, "This isn’t our dog." His personality was so different.
You’re waiting for the results of an important medical test...
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks
It’s four in the morning and you can’t sleep...
I'm a person who struggles with sleep, so someone with a very low speaking voice, like Leonard Cohen, would be perfect.
You just lost your keys...
"Looking for the Magic" by Dwight Twilley. He’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I’m looking for my keys, I could also be looking for the magic. This song is fantastic, it should be one of those songs that every American knows.
You’re scrubbing your fridge...
That’s an activity I enjoy. I have a mix on my iPod called "In the Kitchen" that has the Led Zeppelin song "Hots on for Nowhere", from Presence. I have one of those big first-generation iPods that doesn’t work unless it’s in this [speaker]-- it’s very adult.
You win $100 on a scratch-off lottery ticket...
"New York Groove" by Ace Frehley. I heard this last year at the U.S. Open, and it makes for great arena rock, but also for general celebration: "With a fistful of dollars, I'm back!"
You’re in the car with your grandma...
I took a trip from Florida to Chicago with my grandmother, and we had four cassettes. One of them was Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, and David Byrne makes monkey noises on the song "Perfect World", and my grandmother was mimicking that.
You just drank several cans of some neon green energy drink...
Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same"
You’re on a long airplane ride next to a gross, smelly person...
Any Sparks record, because I’d be paying attention to the music closely. It might get my mind off what was going on next to me.
Someone close to you gives you a shitty gift for your birthday...
Ronnie Lane’s version of "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down (And Write Myself a Letter)"-- a great song of disappointment from the 1930s.
You’re trudging through a snowstorm...
In the winter of 2010, I busted my cross-country skis out and I skied around in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I wasn’t listening to music at the time. But if I was, Duncan Browne’s entire self-titled album would have been the perfect thing.
You realize your significant other unfollowed you on Twitter...
"Walk a Thin Line" by Fleetwood Mac. It sounds sad, but it’s actually not that sad.
Fuck Buttons: "The Red Wing"  on SoundCloud.
Man, give a band one taste of the Olympics and all of a sudden it's only working in four-year intervals. Next month's Slow Focus is the third album from Fuck Buttons-- their first since 2009’s noise-gone-rave landmark Tarot Sport-- and it comes fresh off of their inclusion in the soundtrack to last year's Opening Ceremonies in London. Even though all mainstream breakthroughs are unusual for a band named Fuck Buttons, the London games were a particularly mind-blowing way for the general public to hear them for the first time, right alongside classics by David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and the Clash.
Granted, one of the two Fuck Buttons songs played was called “Olympians”, but even beyond that serendipitous title, their involvement was as earned as it was bizarre. Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger” could just as easily be Fuck Buttons’ artistic mission statement, as their expansive, propulsive productions have an inherent optimism about the possibility of human achievement: Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power make tracks tailored to accompany visuals showing feats of strength, speed trials and tests of endurance, vast undertakings that require years worth of training and fine-tuning to perform.
Lazing around his house after debuting Slow Focus material at this year’s Primavera Sound Festvial, Hung is soft-spoken and hesitant to give himself too much credit, even when describing his music as peerless (“we’re really anal about being self-driven”). But he does acknowledge the connection between Fuck Buttons and Olympian ideals, claiming “the physicality comes across while we’re playing shows-- a lot of electronic music tends to be constructed and then played live later, but ours was designed to be played live.”
He’s wearing a vintage T-shirt emblazoned with the cover of Ice Cube's ruthless 1992 album The Predator. “I went back to it recently," he says, "and the production’s pretty crazy.” The fashion statement seems to fit with harder, hip-hop edge of Slow Focus, an album Hung describes as darker and more personal that what we're used to from Fuck Buttons.
"Words are not useful to the music that we make."
Pitchfork: Describe getting that “hey, we want to use your music in the Opening Ceremony?” phone call.
Andrew Hung: Some bloke just rings you up, you know? I mean, he happens to be Rick Smith from [Opening Ceremony musical directors] Underworld, but it’s still a guy who calls you up and says, “Do you wanna do this?” It didn't feel substantial at the time, but when we saw it on TV and my phone went crazy with text messages-- that's when it hit me in the face.
Pitchfork: It certainly worked to your advantage to have a track named “Olympians”, too. Did that song have any other working titles?
AH: We normally name the songs after we’ve written them, just thinking about what it does for us. That one felt very victorious, so the title was an obvious choice.
Pitchfork: Is there ever a temptation for you guys to use lyrics rather than naming a song after the fact?
AH: Not really. It’s not useful to the music that we make. What excites me is how our music is able to transport us somewhere without lyrics. It goes against that grain to use words.
Watch Fuck Buttons perform on Pitchfork.tv's "Tunnel Vision":
Pitchfork: Street Horrrsing was produced with Mogwai's John Cummings and on Tarot Sport you worked with Andy Weatherall, who’s best known for Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. Comparisons for those records were often framedwithin the past work of their producers, so did the need to firmly establish a Fuck Buttons identity prompt the decision to self-produce Slow Focus?
AH: The way I saw it, we produce at the same time we write the music, which is why that process takes a relatively long time. So when it came down to actually mixing, there’s really not much production to be done, because most of the textures have been written. The sound of the record is not that different from when we finished writing the music. In the past, we used co-producers to help mix it, but also just to provide us with another filter. But now we’ve grown confident enough to attempt it ourselves.
Pitchfork: Compared to Tarot Sport, the beats and tempos of Slow Focus are a lot heavier and more based in hip-hop. Does that reflect your recent listening?
AH: I started listening to a lot of hip-hop in the last 10 years or so, and Ben's been listening to it a lot longer. Certainly the philosophy of hip-hop is quite engaging-- that idea of recycling is very limitless and it's fed into a lot of electronic music.
Slow Focus cover:
Pitchfork: Do you consider your gear or the specifics of your synths and circuit-bending to be Fuck Buttons trade secrets?
AH: Not at all. Our keyboards are so cheap. We don’t care about them. We're able to afford newer keyboards now, but I’ve got 40 or 50 keyboards in my living room-- each one has their own characters that you can manipulate. It’s really important to us that we’re not attached to anything. We need to be able to move on.
Pitchfork: Personally, I find Fuck Buttons to be incredible workout music, but how do you envision people engaging with Slow Focus?
AH: Quite a few people say that, but I don’t go to the gym. I remember when we were in the studio with [Andy] Weatherall, [there were] these little parts that we were thinking of putting between tracks on Tarot Sport, and he said we should leave them out so we can “drive the album into a wall.” At the time it sounded really aggressive, but I understand what he means by that. It’s something that we like: unstoppable momentum.
Photo by Rick Bahto
Julia Holter’s debut album Tragedywas based on the work of ancient Athenian playwright Euripides. Its follow-up, Ekstasis, was informed by an advanced syllabus of Greek classicism and great American poetry.But for her third LP, Loud City Song, due out August 20 on Domino,the 28-year-old explores a more contemporary mindset; the album draws parallels between the title character in Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi and L.A.'s modern celebrity-soaked culture. "It's about someone trying to find love and truth in a superficial society," says Holter.
Given her anachronistic bent, hearing the singer/songwriter steam about reality television (“I don’t understand why people enjoy it, I find it to be really boring and depressing”) is a surprise. But Loud City Song finds Holter stepping outside of herself, working with co-producer (and former member of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti) Cole M. Greif-Neill, as well as a host of outside musicians, giving the album a more expansive feel. "It was great having an actual trombone do something that I never would have been able to do on my Casio," she says. While Holter can speak about her own music with both nonchalant confidence and frustrating secrecy, she’s more open about the ideas of status and how Los Angeles can make someone feel invisible.
On the album's hushed, cathedral-ready opener "World", she sings, "All the hats of the world/ I don't know how I wear a hat so much/ Even when I run/ The city can't see my eyes/ Under the brim." And when we meet in an bookstore-themed coffee shop in Echo Park, she's topped in a large, floppy number her mother acquired in Mexico in the 70s. "In L.A., it's like everyone's invisible," she says. "That's why I like it here."
Pitchfork: How much of Loud City Song is autobiographical or specifically about Los Angeles?
Julia Holter: It’s somewhat of a coming-of-age story. It starts with that central choice of whether to run out in the wild and be free of others, or to be one with the city and embrace it and laugh at it at the same time. All the songs came out of that question, and each one is about this person investigating different approaches. It's also themed around the loudness of society: media, gossip, celebrity obsession.
Pitchfork: Do you think the allusions to Greek literature and your CalArts background make people exaggerate the “academic” part of your music?
JH: I did go to school for music, but I don’t think you have to. I don’t think I had to either. I don’t have an issue if people are going to position me one way or another, they should just listen to the music and form whatever opinion of me they want to. I don’t care if musicians or poets are assholes, I don’t care what their personalities are like. If they make stuff I like, that’s what it’s all about. Just listen to the music.
Pitchfork: This is your first album recorded in a professional environment as opposed to your bedroom, but would you say those early experiences were necessary to prepare you for this record?
JH: Yeah, it was really important for me, because I was able to explore all these things that I wouldn’t have had the guts to do otherwise. I was a very fearful person. I felt restricted and was questioning myself all the time, but being able to just let myself sing gibberish and consider what I can do with it allowed me to take myself seriously. I still record a lot in my bedroom, and I’d be happy to record another record in my bedroom, too.
"I don’t care if musicians are assholes.
If they make stuff I like, that’s what it’s all about."
Pitchfork: How did Ekstasis translate from your bedroom to venues where you were opening for Sigur Rós?
JH: It was really fun playing those huge rooms. A lot of it has to do with having a really nice sound system and professional people; it’s actually nicer than having five people in a brightly-lit room sometimes. That bothers me more. And the Sigur Rós guys were really cool. It could have been awful if it was a crowd that didn’t want anything that they had to listen to carefully.
Pitchfork: Do you find bigger shows troublesome considering your music is often quiet and demands total attention?
JH: I believe in the audience doing whatever they want... except hurting me physically. Maybe I would feel sad if everyone hated it, but I don’t believe it’s my job to care about what the audience is feeling. I don’t really care if they’re talking. They should have the freedom to visibly dislike something if they want to.
John Wizards' John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba
John Withers is a uncannily modern figure. Hailing from Cape Town, South Africa, the 25-year-old is an internet-raised musical sponge, taking in a startling range of global styles-- dub reggae, R&B, classical, jazz, high-speed African dance music, electro-pop, tropicalia, folk, Congolese rumba, Mali meditative music-- and distilling them into his self-titled debut album as John Wizards, out this September via Planet Mu. Armed with a guitar, a condenser microphone, and a few computer programs, Withers composed and recorded the album in his bedroom over the course of two years, working around the schedule of the noisy club next door. The record is spacious, joyous, and wholly refreshing, with the disparate tracks and genres segueing into each other with the unencumbered flow of a swift and clear waterway.
Though Withers has since formed a live John Wizards band for local shows, he's responsible for nearly every sound on the album. He shares vocal duties throughout with Rwandan vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba, who sings in his native Kinyarwanda language on the wobbling single "Lusaka by Night". The pairing also symbolizes a racial progressiveness for South Africa, a country still dealing with the lingering effects of apartheid two decades after its dissolution. On this point, Withers is hopeful, but realistic. "Centuries of segregation and oppression will definitely take a while to change," he says. "It’s a very slow process."
Another only-in-2013 occurrence: Among the current artists he's into, Withers mentions Vampire Weekend, which means that, in just a few years, the New York City band has evolved from so-called pilferers of South African culture to influencing at least one actual South African band. "If you're white and playing an African style, even in Africa, it’s a touchy thing," says Withers. "But I’ve got no real problem with people drawing on anything-- if the music is nice, the music is nice." Thus far, he's met no resistance when it comes to his own attempts at incorporating traditionally black sounds into his own music.
Withers is currently paying his rent for an apartment near Cape Town's City Hall by making music for TV commercials, putting him in a unique position in the current discussion about where music ends and commerce begins, too. The son of an ad man, he grew up playing classical piano, before switching to guitar, and then studying art history at university.
His post-collegiate life has been marked by a series of trips and adventures around southern Africa that work in communion with his music. Several songs on John Wizards take their names from these locales, like "Muizenberg" (a beachside Cape Town suburb), "Limpopo" (the northernmost South African province), "Lushoto" (near the east coast of Tanzania), and the storied South African village of Hogsback. "When I’m naming songs, it’s not so much about anything to do with the place specifically, but more the feeling that the place gives," he says. "I write the song and it reminds me of something-- the experience of being somewhere foreign is very exciting for me." With his music, Withers is passing those feelings on. His album is imbued with a post-tourist mindset where sounds whiz by like scenery from a train window but also make enough of an impression to stick with you once you're back home.
Pitchfork: This album really exists in its own musical universe. Were you an imaginative kid growing up?
John Withers: I think so. I had a reputation for being a bit daydream-y in high school. When we'd play cricket, I would just stand in the field and think about other things. One teacher would always shout at me and make a play off my surname: “Withers, are you with us?”
Pitchfork: How did you meet the Rwandan singer on the album, Emmanuel?
JW: There’s a coffee shop I used to like going to, and he looked after the cars there. One day, he started speaking to me about music and said he’d come to South Africa to be a musician and asked if I could record him. So we did a recording, and then he disappeared for a year. He’s quite hard to contact. I ran into him again when I was living in a different place in the city last year, and it turned out he lived on the same street. So I showed him some of the stuff that I’d been doing, and he grabbed a mic and started to sing.
Pitchfork: The idea of musical appropriation can be a touchy subject, do a lot of bands in Cape Town have both white and black members?
JW: It doesn’t happen much. There isn't very much of a meeting of cultures in that way. It should happen more. But again, it’s sensitive-- you don’t want to use an African singer just because you want something to have an African vibe.
Pitchfork: Were you wary of people seeing your collaboration with Emmanuel in that light?
JW: It concerned me, but I really liked how it was sounding. So once I had a little bit of positive affirmation from other people, that concern diminished.
From left: Geoff Brink, Tom Parker, John Withers, Alex Montgomery, Emmanuel Nzaramba, Raphael Segerman
Pitchfork: You're currently working in a music studio, making music for TV ads. Is that fun for you?
JW: It can be very fun. The second half of the album track "Finally/Jet Up" evolved out of an ad that I was working on. But there are also ads where you have to just get through it, too.
Pitchfork: What’s the most ridiculous jingle you've had to come up with?
JW: I did this one for a petrol company-- I had to do a take off of a Woody Guthrie song and make car noises with my mouth.
Pitchfork: Is it important for you to keep a distance between the music you make for ads and the music you make for yourself?
JW: There's that impulse to separate yourself between being very creative and very practical, but I don’t think it has to be that necessarily. Sometimes I find myself listening to stuff I’ve done for ads over and over again because I actually really like the idea, but it’s not quite the thing I’d want to put out into the world.
Pitchfork: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to emulate another band’s sound when you’re making these commercials?
JW: You have to. Sometimes, that’s exactly what the client wants because they don’t have enough money for the actual track, so you have to try and get it as close as possible without actually writing the same song. You get band references when you're given jobs-- Beach House is one of the bands that pops up a lot. With that kind of work, though, part of me switches off because it seems very easy.
Pitchfork: What if someone came to you a year from now and wanted a commercial to sound like John Wizards. Would you be OK with that?
JW: Maybe I’d feel flattered. I'm not sure. Ask me when it happens-- I don’t know if it will.
Photo by B+
With new feature Situation Critical, we present artists with various life situations-- some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre-- to find out which songs, albums, or bands they would turn to under those specific circumstances. This time, we spoke with bassist extraordinare Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, whose new album Apocalypse is out now.
You're riding in the car with your parents...
Driving around with my dad growing up, he would play everything: Philip Bailey, Manhattan Transfer, Frank Zappa, Cream. I'd be like, “Dad, cut this stuff off!” And he’d say, “No, you’re gonna listen to it.” I didn't understand why he liked it so much. In my mind, I would be thinking about the theme song to "Sonic the Hedgehog". But that's how he introduced me to Jaco Pastorius. The day I finally was like, “I love this song!” he just started laughing and said, “I got you!” He put on "Portrait of Tracy" and I put the video game down.
You're hosting a dinner party...
When I invite people over to my apartment, they usually don’t like it because the music I play confuses the crap out of them-- I’m making people listen to the "Final Fantasy" soundtrack and they’re like, “Why is this happening? Let’s just leave and find somebody who wants us to have fun and not teach us about something.” Sometimes I try to do what my dad did to me in the car-- but in a very twisted way. It usually doesn’t work out.
But listening to a song you heard as a kid later on as an adult can put it in a different light. People will be like, “Is that 'Sonic the Hedgehog?' I used to love that game!” They’ll be listening to the song without the game and be like, “Dang, this is some serious, well-put-together music." Then they'll ask for the album, and I’m like, “No, you go get it yourself.” I spent 20 years looking for the "Sonic the Hedgehog" album.
You're running on a treadmill at the gym...
I would listen to something really, really stupid, like "Living Inside Myself" by Gino Vannelli, because I think running is stupid. [laughs] Reading and exercising are two things in life that are not necessary. They're kind of like telephone poles at this point-- they're just there to scare the shit out of us. We should just start hanging really cool lanterns from telephone poles.
You're playing along to something while practicing bass...
Sometimes I practice to Allan Holdsworth or John McLaughlin, but I don’t just practice to jazz and jazz-fusion albums. I’ll practice to TV theme music-- one of my favorites is "M*A*S*H". I'll just play along with anything on the TV. It's like multi-tasking, but nothing's actually getting accomplished: I’m staring at the TV, so I’m not paying attention to the instrument. But then I’ll be playing what’s on TV, so I’m not paying attention to the show.
It's four in the morning and you can't fall asleep...
I'm a heavy sleeper, and every once in awhile, I have that fear of waking up to someone in my house staring at me, masturbating, with a bag over their head. [laughs] But then I remember that will probably not happen. But if I was awake in the middle of the night, I'd probably listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra. Growing up, that was something that would make me think-- I would always try to understand different parts of what was going on in the music. I still do that. Hearing those cats playing, you don’t know where it’s coming from.
You're rocking a boombox at the beach...
Maybe the soundtrack to "Street Fighter", so people would be really confused as they're trying to enjoy some time with their family-- just to cause a little bit of dissention.
It's your turn to put a song on at the bowling alley's jukebox...
Eagles' "Hotel California"
You're playing "Call of Duty"...
I just discovered that a really good combination is "Call of Duty" and Sade. During our last tour, we were playing that game relentlessly, and everybody’s partying and drinking, and doing their thing, and then Sade came on. I’m literally shooting an M16 with a pistol grip, and I felt like I could die in peace. It was insanity. Very juxtaposed.
A meteor that will destroy all of humanity is heading toward earth...
You're playing something for your six-year-old daughter...
Oh, I’m messing my daughter up. We mostly listen to instrumental music in the car. I like to play her things to see how her brain works. She won’t tell me what she likes-- the relationship between a guy and his daughter is different than a father and son-- but I'll be playing stuff and looking at her reactions in the rearview mirror. I’ll put on George Duke, Herbie Hancock, or J Dilla, and she just sits there and doesn’t say anything. I’ll cut it off and she’s like, “Can you put on Beyoncé?” But then she’ll surprise me and make a reference to something-- she could tell when George Duke was playing, she recognized his chops. It blew my mind.
When Pitchfork ran a career-spanning interview with Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson in 2011 as part of our 15th anniversary, we noted, "One of these days, ?uestlove will write a memoir, and it will be incredible."
Here it is two years later, and that memoir, Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, has arrived. And it is incredible. It's clear that music writers have a special attraction to Thompson because he's one of the more unabashed music geeks to ever walk the earth. In the spheres of the music he loves, which is a very large sphere, he knows all the records, all the tracks, who played on what, what the sleeves looks like. He thinks like a critic and loves reflecting on songs and albums as a listener, ranking records and making lists. He's a student of music and pop culture.
But, as the book demonstrates, Thompson is also a wonderful storyteller. Mo' Meta Blues covers his life from his early days in Philadelphia as a child drummer and stage manager for his parents' band to his immersion in hip-hop and the formative years of the Roots. His resume is daunting, endless: co-producer on D'Angelo's Voodoo, binding force for the influential Soulquarians collective, musical director for "Chappelle's Show", band-leading fixture on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (soon to be "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon"), restaurateur. Along the way, there are encounters with many of his musical heroes, like the time Prince donned a pair of glowing roller skates and dazzled a handful of guests at a Valentine's Day party in Los Angeles.
We spoke at NBC Studios in Manhattan last week. When I arrived at Thompson's small office on the sixth floor of 30 Rock-- a space packed with CDs, DVDs, instruments, a TV-- he was sitting at his computer catching up on Twitter while also looking at texts on his phone. Typical multitasking. The interview took place in the NBC cafeteria, where he ate sushi and a seaweed salad for lunch before heading back to prepare for the next "Late Night" show.
"I'm a music nerd. I grew up in a room with 300 reviews
staring at me from one wall. I'm obsessed with the process."
Pitchfork: You were so immersed in music from an early age, playing and touring with your parents' bands. But at what point did you realize that you were going to make music your life?
Ahmir Thompson: I knew I was going to be a musician. I got my first real drum set at seven, a Vista Light C3 kit that John Bonham had during the Physical Graffiti tour-- one of my dad's drummers got strung out on drugs, and I inherited that set. At that age, I could play drums well enough for an adult to say, "Play my show." I enjoyed it. I liked to travel. I had the knowledge. Technically, I was stage manager at the age of eight.
I should ask my dad: "Why did you teach me how to work the soundboard and place the mic settings and cut gels? Was it because you wanted me to take this path or was it to keep me off the streets?" I think his answer would be more the latter. But it kept me focused on their show, and I was educated. It prepared me. Across the street [gestures out window], at Radio City, when I was 12, the drummer of my father's band got injured. And my dad was confident. He just said, "You know the show. Do it." I became his bandleader at the age of 12.
But my dad did not know about [the Roots' 1993 debut album] Organix. It was only midway through Do You Want More?!!!??! when I finally had to come clean and be like, "All right, I got a record deal and I'm in a group."
Pitchfork: You were afraid to tell him?
AT: Oh, hell yeah.
Pitchfork: It wasn't the kind of music he respected?
AT: The debut of "Yo! MTV Raps" in 1988 was probably the most revolutionary thing to happen to black music since the October '71 debut of "Soul Train". And my dad, just being a surface critic, changing channels and seeing the first four seconds of "Baby Got Back" or "Straight Outta Compton"-- it's not music to him.
He sacrificed everything so that I could go to private school. Sometimes bills weren't paid. Sometimes gas was cut off. But my parents made sure I had the best education and drum lessons no matter what. In his head, he wanted me to follow the path of my schoolmates, who would get pulled out of class to go play with Miles Davis. That was my dad's idea of high art. My father wanted me to be a worker, and I dreamed of being an owner.
By the time Things Fall Apart came out and we had finally managed to go above the surface, he suddenly saw the light. He knew we were legit. Now, he's our biggest champion. I'm sure that How I Got Over and Undun are still in his CD changer in the car. Getting my father's approval was always like this impossible Mount Fuji mission that I just got to the top of two or three years ago. Now that he sees how I've been able to make a living at this for 20 years, at least, he says, "I'm very proud of you. You are the greatest thing that happened to me." That was the greatest thing I've ever heard in my life.
Pitchfork: Your parents must have done a good job of instilling confidence in you. In the book, there are a lot of places along the way where you could have said, "Maybe it's time to do something else."
AT: Everyone has those insecure moments. I mean, I'm cool enough to admit it. I don't feel dweebish because I say I have to check my Metacritic rating and make sure it's still above 80 or whatever. I'm a music nerd. I grew up in a room with 300 reviews staring at me from one wall. I'm obsessed with the process. But as far as the confidence, everyone has insecurities. Kanye says he has insecurities. But being a radical doesn't hurt, [never getting] too comfortable. I've never ever been that in a moment in my life where it's like, [sigh of relief] "This is great." I'm always paranoid. Right now, I'm thinking about my third book. [laughs]
Photo by Ben Watts
Pitchfork: One snapshot of history that I found particularly interesting was the whole Soulquarians period, where you guys were playing music in a house with Common, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, people who were just starting out and sharing ideas. What do you think when you look back at that?
AT: I wish I remember enjoying that period. For me, it's a whole bowl of stress, because my house is the default house for which these events happen. It's like those John Hughes 80s films when there's 200 people in mom and dad's house-- I'm worried about my walls. I'm worried about people going through my mail. I'm worried about people lighting their cigarettes, walking on trash cans. Yeah, I'll do my obligatory two, three-hour jamming thing, but I'm also worried about noise ordinances.
But in hindsight, that's when [Roots manager] Rich [Nichols] taught us the lesson that you get to contextualize, establish a movement. Besides the one-hit wonder, there's never ever been success in music without the contextualization of being associated with someone else. I don't think it's a coincidence that all these previous hard-to-sell, underground, ignored, not-media-savvy artists were all of a sudden selling one million, two million units during that period of 1998 to 2004: D'Angelo, us, Erykah [Badu], Common, Mos [Def] and [Talib] Kweli. I consider Kanye and Alicia [Keys] to be the steroids version, to the point where they're mainstream artists but they have a left-of-center sense mentality. And now they finish the race and are their own empire.
But that's one of the things I'm proud of. The initial nucleus in my circle, the guys that I dubbed the Illadelphonics when I was first doing shows for Jay-Z, all of those guys have split off and now have their own bands. Adam Blackstone basically just runs the world now: he is [musical director for] Jay-Z, Justin [Timberlake], Selena Gomez, Ne-Yo, he runs at least 15 acts. My keyboard player Omar [Edwards] has got seven: Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Kanye, Timbaland. Pretty much if you are at stadium status and you're touring, your band has to come through that circle. Those same frickin' 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds that used to abuse my PlayStation when I came home off tour and left my house smelling like corn chips with their socks are now running empires, which is amazing to me.
"I have like nine UFO stories, which is basically
a story that no one's ever going to believe."
Pitchfork: You have some great stories in there about Prince-- especially the roller rink party on Valentine's Day.
AT: That was the coolest, safest Prince story I could tell. Ninety-five percent of the other times was us playing music, and there's no story in that. He's insanely private. I figured since he already has those boots that light up when he walks, then there's no revelation if you have a pair of roller skates that make you look like an extra in Xanadu!
Here's the funniest thing about that story: Eddie Murphy's [at "Late Night"] last November to promote that movie he did with Ben Stiller, Tower Heist. When some real A-list stars come in, all the hallways are quiet and you can hear a pin drop. It's real tension. Usually, when the Megan Foxes of the world-- or anybody in that top half of the Maxim list-- are here, all of a sudden it's quiet as a mouse. Other cats, like Springsteen, just come here and pop in our room without knocking, sit down, talk to us. That's regular.
So when Eddie was here, he was in the hallway-- and there's at least 80 people in that hallway-- and it was deadly silent. He's just standing there and it's a real awkward moment. I said, "Can I talk to him for a second?" Then: "Hey, it's such an honor for you to be here. I gotta ask you a question. I don't know if you remember, but Valenti..." And I swear I did not even get the entire word "Valentine's" out of my mouth, and he says, "roller skates!" [laughs] The recapping of the story was almost better than the experience, because that made me look like the coolest person at 30 Rock. All of a sudden it was just he and I in our own world, and we were laughing so hard that everyone else started laughing.
I have like nine UFO stories, which is basically a story that no one's ever going to believe. Like if my ex wasn't with me on Valentine's Day, I would tell the story to no one, because they would just say, "You're making it up." It was like [Eddie] and I were Vietnam veterans or something, like we were in the same platoon. I was like, "Yo, man, do you realize how hard it is to get people to believe that story? How many times I've had to call my ex to verify that, like, 'Yes, we were there. And, yes, Prince had on the roller skates.'"
Eddie added to the story. Everyone pretty much knows that Prince's Jehovah's Witness conviction is strong. So at one point, Eddie says that Prince [skated] past him going backwards and said [making the two-fingers-across-eyes Prince sign], "When are you going to give your life to Jehovah, Eddie Murphy?" [laughs]
Pitchfork: And Prince was just a figure of grace in those skates, right?
AT: Amazing. I heard he has a near-200 bowling game, too. Prince let us take over Paisley Park for about two weeks-- he gave Common free use of the studio while he was on the road. It was the most surreal thing. There's so many gnomes and busts and over-the-top illustrations of his face alone. And I swear to God, if you're walking in the dark and there's white walls with black paintings, it's like the eyes are following you. There was a point where I was feeling the wall to see if there were hidden cameras.
Pitchfork: You've had a chance to work with a lot of people who you grew up idolizing. Was there a point along the way when you became unfazed by that?
AT: Well, I had one regret about this book coming out so soon-- the lesson that I learned doing Al Green's Lay It Down record. He's an eccentric genius, and I think that if you are this supremely gifted artist, then there will checks and balances-- something else will be missing.
So there's this point where my whole thing was to go kind of nouveau retro and take him back to a more natural, soulful place, closer to Willie Mitchell, below the Mason-Dixon Line kind of thing. And we had a really good groove going for the first three months of creating and writing the music. Then Al gets on this tangent, he says, "Stevie wrote us a song." Instantly, I'm like, "Even if I were to do a Stevie Wonder song, it's not gonna sound like it's a Memphis song. There's a certain groove we have. This record's coherent this way and now you're talking about a Stevie Wonder song?" He said, "Yeah, man! Stevie Wonder's 'I Love You Too Much'-- that was my song!" Now I'm thinking, "Wait a minute! That's the second song on In Square Circle, from 1985. I don't wanna cover that song! That song has nothing to do with what we're doing texture-wise." We kinda shrugged it off. Then later, we needed a cover song. [Al said], "Hey! I've got a cover song! Stevie Wonder wrote me a song called 'I Love You Too Much'." And I said, "Yeah, we know, we know!" So I think, "Well, we can try it out and he'll forget about it." And he forgets about it.
Three months later, we've got 10 songs. [Al says], "What about Stevie? I wanna do that." Basically, Al became the little boy that cried "I Love You Too Much". For three years, from 2003 to early 2006, that's all he kept talking about, to the point where it just became the running joke behind his back. [The cover did not end up on Lay It Down.]
Now, cut to like two months ago. A friend of mine [who works at a label] gets a call from a storage facility in Philadelphia that alerts him to the fact that payments on a storage unit are long overdue and that they're gonna shut it down and trash all these reels they had in there. And there's a lot of reels! They said, "We know that some of these artists are on your label, so you might want to see about this." And they run off names like Bowie and Stevie Wonder. So I tell my friend, like, "Yeah, send the Stevie reel." There are seven songs on there, and the date on one of the songs is September 11, 1977. It's a duet with Al Green-- "I Love You Too Much"! And this shit sounded like a Memphis song! I call Rich up, I'm like, "Yo! He was telling the truth!" Oh, man! I was so sick, like, all the time we was clowning him about this non-existent thing: "Suuuure you did a song with Stevie."
Pitchfork: Are there other music memoirs that inspired you for this book?
AT: The two I loved the most also broke my heart the most. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye was extremely haunting. And Brian Wilson's book [Wouldn't It Be Nice] was really heartbreaking. After reading that, I didn't know if I had a story that was interesting enough. I thought, "Did I suffer for my art enough? What am I gonna do when I get to chapter eight?"
I'm neurotic about it, but somehow, I managed to read my book. It's one thing when you write it and email stuff in and they send you the drafts back with corrections and all that stuff. But then I'm reading it and I'm almost at the end. For a few moments, I actually kinda read it third-person. I was like, "OK. This guy is interesting."
It's 10:30 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday morning in June, and I'm in a dim room on the fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum with two members of the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, staring down a porcelain sculpture of Georgia O'Keeffe's vagina. Curator Catherine Morris is giving us a private tour of the museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the only permanent collection of its kind in any major American museum. We eventually arrive at its centerpiece: American artist Judy Chicago's seminal and wildly controversial 1979 installation The Dinner Party. The visually imposing work is comprised of a giant, triangular table for 39, each place set for an important woman in (or, in most cases, written out of) history: unnamed Amazon goddesses, Sacajawea, Sojourner Truth. Except for a few overhead lights that dot the ceiling like distant stars, the room is reverently dark. Morris explains it's so the hand-embroidered runners on each place setting don't fade over time, but it also gives the room an uncanny arts-and-crafts-in-outer-space vibe. Taking in The Dinner Party from afar, I feel like I'm looking at a radical feminist Starship Enterprise.
As we get closer, the most controversial part of the piece becomes clear: The design on each plate is abstractly yet unmistakably vaginal. "It might be hard to believe now," Morris says, gesturing towards O'Keeffe's plate, an impressionistic swirl of sky-blues and lilacs that looks a little bit like one of her paintings, "but 40 years ago, this was deemed obscene." The taller of the two members of Pussy Riot, who goes by the name Headlight, lifts her teal digital camera and snaps a picture.
They've chosen seemingly random nicknames for their trip to America (the other one is Puck), and when we meet outside the museum half an hour earlier, they tell me, with the help of a translator, that it doesn't matter who's who or who’s saying what. In Pussy Riot, individuals are subsumed by the goals and identity of the collective as a whole.
In small talk, Puck and Headlight are friendly but guarded. As we walk up to the fourth floor, I ask how long they've been in the New York, and they politely decline to answer. They've come to the U.S.-- on the heels of a similar whirlwind tour in Europe-- to make connections with musicians, human rights groups, and like-minded activists, but they’re also constantly aware of the potential danger they'll face when they go back to Russia. Before we enter the Sackler Center, they remind me one last time of the ground rules we’ve agreed upon for this article: no real names, no physical descriptions, and absolutely no photographs.
But after we spend some time taking in The Dinner Party (which they both love), they’re faced with a predicament. Judy Chicago is apparently ecstatic that the girls have come to see her piece, but bummed that she couldn’t be there to meet them in person. A museum photographer and his assistant have shown up, gear in hand, to ask for a photo of the girls to give to the artist. Puck and Headlight are hesitant at first, but after chatting among themselves, they reach a compromise. “Only if we can change first.”
The museum opens in 10 minutes, and just to be safe, Rob Lieber, an American who helps run the website freepussyriot.org and is acting as Puck and Headlight’s de facto press liaison, wants to make sure we leave before the general public starts filing in. There’s no time to make it down to the restroom a couple of floors below, so Morris apologetically ushers the pair-- who are wearing a variation on the standard New York summer-tourist uniform-- into a nearby closet to change. Two minutes later, the unassuming girls I’ve been talking to for the past hour dart out in a blur of bold colors-- those already-iconic tights, dresses, and balaclavas. I can tell from their body language that the uniform, or perhaps the familiar comfort of anonymity, gives them a jolt of almost-superhuman confidence. I get chills as they breeze past me to take their place before The Dinner Party. It’s like seeing Superman bust out of a phone booth.
It’s now against the law for a Russian citizen to speak ill
of the government to the foreign press-- which is what
Puck and Headlight are doing at this very moment.
Pussy Riot formed on September 24, 2011, the same day Vladimir Putin made the controversial announcement that he'd seek a third term as President of Russia. "At that point," a member of the group recalled in a 2012 interview with Vice, "We realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist street band that will rip through Moscow's streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition." Citing oi!-punk and the riot grrrl movement as inspiration, they wrote fast, furious protest songs with titles like "Putin Has Pissed Himself" and staged guerilla-style performances in increasingly daring locations: outside a subway station, in a boutique, and later in the heart of Red Square. On February 21, 2012, intending to protest the entanglement of church and state in Putin's Russia, five members participated in the group's most audacious performance yet. They entered Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, stormed the altar, and began to perform to a recording of a new song, "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away". They were detained after about 40 seconds, and a few days later three members-- Nadezhda "Nadia" Tolokonnikova, Maria "Masha" Alyokhina and Yekaterina "Katya" Samutsevich-- were taken into custody.
Last summer, people all over the world were captivated by Pussy Riot's chillingly theatrical trial. As Nadia, Masha, and Katya sat in a glass box and shot looks of defiance and eye-rolling disbelief to the assembled media circus (Nadia: "I still can't shake the feeling that I've spent the last six months acting in a big-budget movie"), Western artists and activists voiced solidarity and demanded their release. Videos of their performances went viral. People donned balaclavas and organized rallies all over the world, Amnesty International declared them "prisoners of conscience," and a long list of musicians including Madonna, Björk, Paul McCartney, Green Day, and Patti Smith spoke out in support. The overwhelming global attention surprised people in Russia (where the public opinion of them wasn’t terribly high), but even in America, it felt like an oddity: At a time when every other week seems to bring an article pronouncing the death of either feminism or punk rock, to see a madcap, menacingly articulate all-female punk group making headline news was nothing short of a revelation. Still, pressure from the rest of the world didn't affect the verdict. All three were found guilty of the vague charge of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." After the appeal, Katya was set free (her lawyer pointed out that she hadn't had time to plug in her guitar and reach the altar before she was detained), but Nadia and Masha were sent to serve two-year sentences in penal colonies, where they remain today. At the time of Puck and Headlight’s visit, Masha had just ended an 11-day hunger strike, protesting the prison’s conditions.
Puck and Headlight-- who, for their own safety, won't reveal whether or not they played a part in the Christ the Saviour performance-- have come to the U.S. ostensibly to promote Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner's festival-favorite documentary that premiered this week on HBO. But judging by their New York itinerary (which includes meetings with activists from Occupy Wall Street, the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, and culture jammers the Yes Men), they're not interested in the PR cycle so much as having intimate conversations with like-minded people.
Photo courtesy of the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
On Monday night, two days before our museum tour, they're at Bluestockings, a radical bookstore on the Lower East Side, for an unannounced Q&A. "We're very excited, and a little bit nervous," the moderator says to the assembled group of about 50. The girls have agreed to appear before us without their masks (wisely: the balmy June air feels extra thick in the un-air conditioned space), but before they speak, the moderator makes us raise our hands and take an oath that we won't record, take pictures, or tweet about the event for at least two days.
The reason for all the secrecy and nervousness soon becomes clear. Puck tells the crowd that, in the past month, Russian legislators have passed a series of laws informally known as "Pussy Riot laws"-- basically because they preemptively make any behavior the group might engage in illegal. It's now a crime to cover your face in Russia (whether it's a balaclava or an herbal face mask, Puck quips) or offend a believer of the Russian Orthodox Church. But perhaps most disturbingly, it’s now against the law for a Russian citizen to speak ill of the government to the foreign press. Which is what Puck and Headlight are doing at that very moment.
When the floor opens up for questions, attendees are curious to know if this is the girls' first time in America (it is), what sort of contact they've had with Nadia and Masha (minimal, though the free members are able to write them letters), and if Pussy Riot are planning any upcoming performances (it's too risky in Russia at the moment).
"In Russia, they're much more afraid of the word ‘riot,’" Puck says, adding with a laugh, "In America, they seem to be more afraid of the other word." For the most part, Headlight is quiet, but-- like almost every other time I’ll see her that week-- her camera is pointed unwaveringly at us, with the red light on.
"It seems like most Americans believe some stereotypical notion that feminism was just a fight for women to be worse-looking."
Puck and Headlight are a little more laid back on Wednesday afternoon, when we sit down to talk at a corner table at the Brooklyn Museum's cafe. Puck leisurely spoons the foam off the top of her cappuccino; Headlight offers me a bite of her Hershey bar-- she's been dying to try one since they've arrived. "In Russia," she says, in an uncharacteristic moment of levity, "We don't have such a variety of chocolate."
They say their trip to America has been "unforgettable," but you can tell they're a little fatigued. They're scheduled to make a surprise appearance at the HBO-hosted Punk Prayer premiere later that night (this time with balaclavas on), and midway through our conversation, Rob cuts in to let them know that the few hours of downtime they've built into their day are now on the chopping block; more journalists keep calling. They're good sports about it, though. Speaking freely to the press is a luxury they don't have right now in Russia, where most media is state-sponsored. Four of Pussy Riot's five videos have now been banned as "extremist" in their home country, which means that Russian journalists who so much as quote their lyrics or link to one of their songs can be sued.
Even so, when I ask what's surprised them most about America so far, Puck quickly answers, "How many problems we have in common-- there's still a very negative portrayal of feminists [in America], too." She’s been inspired by the other young women she’s met here, but a little dismayed to find that, as in Russia, the movement’s essential message of equality has been bogged down by misconceptions. As our translator relays Puck's next observation, she shakes her head and laughs in consensus. "It seems like most Americans believe some stereotypical notion that feminism was just a fight for women to be worse-looking."
The girls both agree that Pussy Riot couldn't have formed or had global influence without the internet. Embracing the viral music video as a form of protest has helped them break barriers like ticket prices and geography, letting an unprecedentedly large audience be “present” for Pussy Riot’s performances. But what they call the "open source" goal of the leaderless, horizontally-structured group presents its own challenges, too.
In November, Samutsevich spoke out against her former lawyer, Mark Feygin, who allegedly tried to trademark the Pussy Riot name without the group's consent. (They're strictly against making a profit off of anything Pussy Riot-related and make an effort to "distance themselves from any attempts to exploit [their] brand.") There was also a controversial, decidedly Pussy Riot-esque photo in an online Russian IKEA ad (later removed).
And let's not forget that other group of girls who gained recent notoriety for crimes they committed while wearing neon balaclavas: At Bluestockings, amidst questions about Putin, Chechnya, and Ukrainian protest group FEMEN, someone asks Pussy Riot if they've seen Spring Breakers. Headlight has. She calls it a "horrible film" that "exploits" Pussy Riot's imagery to spread a message that goes against everything that the group stands for. (Many of viewers have pointed out the resemblance, but director Harmony Korine claims it's just "an awesome coincidence.") Interestingly enough, it's not the film's sex and violence that bothers her; the particular scene she lashes out against is the one in which the girls aren't paying attention in history class. As Nadia, Masha, and Katya's literate and well-informed closing statements (which also went viral) attest, Pussy Riot advocate an in-depth knowledge of history, if only to know how to fight against it in a meaningful way.
Still, they understand that when your image is so iconic, reappropriation is the nature of the beast-- or maybe even the whole point. “The way we do our activism is open-source,” Puck says. “So we understand that other artists will come and make their own take on it. That’s OK-- that’s actually a crucial part of it… even with the image of the balaclava, it’s not about us per se, but it’s about the ideology, spreading that idea along.”
Headlight jumps in and suggests a metaphor that the translator doesn’t understand. Instead she turns to me, and the universal language of punk: “Like… straight edge?” I nod in recognition, and she goes on. “Straight edge is no longer about who started it, it’s about everyone’s individual interpretation, and the people who uphold it [as a lifestyle.]”
Pussy Riot give us is a new model-- proof that, like feminism
and punk rock, the protest song is alive and high-kicking.
Pussy Riot are not a band. They make a point of clearing up that popular misconception at almost every stop on their trip: They’re an arts collective that “chose the language of music” (and of punk in particular) to express themselves. But the more time I spend with them, the less I think the semantics matter. Band or not, Pussy Riot have reminded people something essential-- so simple that it’s all to easy to dismiss it as cheesy, or take it for granted-- about music’s primacy, its power to provoke, its potential to facilitate change. “It’s one of your competitive advantages,” says Hunter Heaney, founder of the nonprofit The Voice Project, who has also helped set up a Pussy Riot Support Fund. “When you’re going up against whatever you’re going against-- whether it’s corporations or authoritarianism, it’s the protester, the individual, the artist who can always make better music than the other side.”
As I watch them make their way around New York, it’s impossible not to feel grateful to live in a country where (in theory, at least) free expression is not feared, and where I won’t be sued for simply linking to one of the band’s videos. But most of the Americans I talk with throughout the week agree that their presence here (not to mention the unblinking gaze of Headlight’s camera) brings into focus something lacking in American music right now. For all the good that the Occupy movement did, plenty of people rightly wondered why-- unlike the countercultural movements of the 60s-- music hadn’t played a more central role. “Where’s Occupy’s Woody Guthrie?” one website wondered. Has music in the 21st century outlived its revolutionary potential? What Pussy Riot give us is a new, viral-ready model for the digital age-- proof that, like feminism and punk rock, the protest song is alive and high-kicking.
Headlight and Puck exit New York in the same haze of mystery and privacy in which they arrived: No one will say exactly when they’re leaving, how they’re getting there, where they’ll go. Before their secret departure, I follow them to a few more events around the city that suggest something about the impossibly wide appeal of the group. At the HBO premiere, they inform a celeb-studded audience about the Russian government’s latest violation of their rights: “We do not have freedom of speech. We do not feel safe now anywhere.” At the decidedly less glitzy academic conference Left Forum, they play videos of their punk songs to an assembled crowd of progressive scholars and intellectuals. Something about it all feels elusive, powerfully contradictory, hard to pin down-- which, I’m guessing, is exactly what they want. By the end of the week, I can’t decide if I’ve been in the presence of a group of real-life superheroes, or just getting to know a couple of down-to-earth Clark Kents.
In 2010, Vanity Fair published a story that practically begged for a film adaptation. “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” gave the true account of a crew of wealth and fame-obsessed teenagers who burglarized the Hollywood homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton and “The Hills” cast member Audrina Patridge, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash and luxury goods for months on end without anyone realizing it. The tale, a juicy constellation of fame, wealth, and crime, seemed perfectly suited to become a big-budget pop thriller a la Ocean's Eleven. Instead, it got a muted interpretation from Sofia Coppola, who tells the story through her characteristically eerie, vacant lens. In what’s been pegged as an indictment of celebrity culture, Coppola bypassed the original article's potential for Hollywood hoopla with her fifth feature film, The Bling Ring.
The visceral zing of the story, then, is carried largely on the shoulders of the film’s soundtrack, a glittering, ultra-hip collection of highlights of the last three years of pop-oriented rap and rap-oriented pop, with some krautrock and ambient arrangements sprinkled in for atmosphere. The Bling Ring's madcap high-schoolers rap along to Rick Ross’ “9 Piece” as they drive to the beach; they squeeze into short skirts and light cigarettes in their bedrooms with Reema Major’s “Gucci Bag” blasting in the background. The underage thieves dance at the sorts of clubs that play Azealia Banks’ “212” and drunk-drive while mouthing the immortal words of M.I.A.: “Live fast, die young/ Bad girls do it well.” Their chains hit their chests when they’re banging on the dashboard.
The Bling Ringers also listen to quite a bit of Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye West, an artist who’s now in the midst of his own complicated campaign against celebrity obsession and consumerism. When I ring up Coppola and her long-time music supervisor Brian Reitzell to chat about the soundtrack, they explain that West’s involvement in the film went beyond the appearance of “POWER” and “All of the Lights”: The two approached him in the film’s early stages in the hopes that he’d record original music and help orchestrate the score. Due to conflicting schedules, the full-blown collaboration was not to be. But Kanye did offer to license material from Twisted Fantasy for the film... and mentioned a little song he knew of, long before its official release, that sounded appropriate given the themes at hand: Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids”. And once other artists realized Kanye had cosigned the project, the difficult licensing process began to loosen and flow, resulting in one of the most lively soundtracks of the year, and proving the power of celebrity moves in all sorts of directions.
"I’ve had to use bad music in movies because I needed it to reflect the character, but I can’t do that with Sofia’s movies." -- Brian Reitzell
Pitchfork: This is the first Sofia Coppola movie that uses rap music.
Brian Reitzell: We knew we needed music that the kids would listen to-- we had to do hip-hop. Neither of us listen to tons of current music, so I had to catch up. Originally, we wanted to bring Kanye West on to work with us. I haven’t worked with a lot of hip-hop artists, and it’s kind of its own universe, in some ways-- but not so much with Kanye. Sofia had met him, and he likes Phoenix [which is fronted by Coppola's husband Thomas Mars], so I was trying to connect Phoenix and Kanye together to do a track. The scheduling was too difficult, though.
Sofia Coppola: I also remember the blonde girl from the story kind of being the fake thug, so she had to be listening to Rick Ross. I asked my friend’s 12-year-old what would be the most hardcore Rick Ross song and he picked “9 Piece”. When the DJ was playing music for us in the club to dance to, Emma [Watson] really liked Azealia Banks’ “212”. That’s how it ended up in the movie. She had some of her friends join her in the scene as extras; she likes to dance. I was impressed that she busted out those moves out there.
Emma Watson in The Bling Ring
Pitchfork: What did you personally listen to in high school? Did the characters’ rebellion resonate with you at all?
SC: I listened to things like the Clash and Elvis Costello. I lived in Napa, so we would go see bands in San Francisco. It was kind of the beginning Sub Pop, and it was exciting to go and see Mudhoney and fIREHOSE. I had my teen behavior, but nothing too out of control. Oh! In the movie, a character sneaks into her boyfriend’s house holding a gun; I remember sneaking into my boyfriend’s window back then. I didn’t have a gun, but yeah.
Pitchfork: You wanted to pick stuff that teens would be into, but the soundtrack is hip in a way that’s probably not representative of too many 16-year-olds.
SC: I wanted the soundtrack to be in that world, but I also wanted good music that we would want to hear.
BR: I guarantee you those kids weren’t listening to Can and Klaus Schulze, or even M.I.A. You’ve just got to use your ears and put in music that’s good, because good music is really kind of timeless. Shitty music is just shitty music, and a lot of it is really popular. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with a bad song. At times, I’ve had to use bad music in movies because I needed it to reflect the character, but I can’t do that with Sofia’s movies.
There’s a club scene where they get a bottle of Grey Goose with sparklers. There’s electronic club music blasting-- it’s a huge Avicii hit. You probably don’t recognize it because once it gets to the hook-- this cheesy sort of techno riff-- I time-stretched the piece of music and it became this piece of atmospheric music. I did that with a Bassnectar song, too.
Pitchfork: How did Sleigh Bells become the centerpiece of the tracklist? Their music has been in a number of films recently.
SC: I wanted it to just be obnoxious and hyper, like you’re along for the ride with these characters. Thomas [Hedlund], Phoenix's drummer, knew Sleigh Bells, and that’s how I knew about “Crown on the Ground”. I wrote the opening scene to that song and played it on set.
BR: That song has so much digital clipping and distortion because of the way that it’s made, so I talked to [Sleigh Bells’] Derek Miller pretty early on about trying to clean it up a little bit. But we couldn’t fix it, because that’s the charm of the song-- the sound of that digital distortion really epitomizes the movie.
Taissa Farmiga, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Katie Chang and Claire Julien in The Bling Ring
Pitchfork: There's a lot of singing-while-driving in this movie-- did the actors choose any of those songs that they sang along with, or did you write them in?
SC: We had to pick songs before we shot them, and I’m really grateful that we got permission to use those songs.
BR: There’s a scene in the movie where they’re in the car singing along to Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”. That’s a song with, like, 14 side artists-- huge people like Alicia Keys, John Legend, Drake. The label told us it was unclearable: “You cannot clear this song, there are too many people.” But I felt that if Kanye said yes, then the rest of the artists would. With the hip-hop world, when people like Rick Ross were made aware that Kanye was saying yes, then maybe it was cool with them, too. It certainly wasn’t a big paycheck. But these things are snowballs. So we took a leap of faith and shot the scene before we cleared the track.
Pitchfork: Do you feel it’s important for the musicians to approve of the films they’re featured in?
BR: I’m not a lawyer, so I always approach the music as somebody’s child, you know? You’ve got to respect it. You can’t just use it as wallpaper, unless it’s a certain kind of room you need to decorate. With our movies, I always try to be sure the artists know, and I even try to show them the scene. But because of the scheduling with this one, I couldn’t show it to anyone.
Frank Ocean had denied the use of “Super Rich Kids”-- he just has a blanket denial on anybody licensing his music for films. The label said no, and I had to go through a friend to get to his managers. Sofia cut up a trailer-like video from the movie to send to him, and he agreed. It’s cool because we’re putting the soundtrack out on vinyl, and I don’t think “Super Rich Kids”, and many of these tracks, have ever been released on vinyl before.
SC: I have a feeling Kanye put in a good word for us.
Pitchfork: Why do you think Frank Ocean doesn't want his music used in films?
BR: For the same reasons Kanye’s on his whole anti-corporate, no-logo thing. Music as a business is a dirty thing. I feel like Frank is this unpretentious, straight-up guy with a great voice who is creative-- he’s real, across the board. It’s who he is as a human being. He just doesn’t want to be exploited in that way, and I don’t blame him.
Pitchfork: There’s a lot of music, but there’s also a lot of silence in this film.
BR: I really don’t like the way most movies and TV shows are supervised-- I hate when there’s someone singing over dialogue, songs just thrown in there. It’s out of control and it’s getting worse. The library companies have made it so that music is so cheap to license. They do sound-alikes of every band, and it makes it harder for the actual bands to get any decent paychecks for licensing. It’s just a very excessive time. Hopefully we’ll inspire some people to use music with a little more respect. There’s never anything gratuitous in Sofia’s movies.
Photo by Angel Ceballos
Over the last four years, Zola Jesus' Nika Roza Danilova has relentlessly chiseled away at her own sound. To observe the evolution up-close, consider the three versions of her ballad "Sea Talk". The first, from 2009's Tsar Bomba EP, is caked in noise, her voice bellowing out of a crackling phone line. Next was Stridulum II's smoothed-out remake from 2010, with heavenly synths replacing the distortion. And now we get the clearest take yet from her forthcoming album Versions-- out August 20 on Sacred Bones-- which offers tasteful orchestral re-imaginings of her songs arranged by experimental vet JG Thirlwell. On this latest "Sea Talk", her siren blare of a voice is toned down, exposing an understated vulnerability.
Versions began with a collaborative show with Thirlwell at New York's Guggenheim Museum last year, which Danilova calls "the most defining performance in my career" thus far. "I realized I didn’t have to bark, scream, or turn myself inside out," she continues. "I could express the songs dynamically, which was something I was afraid to do before. I thought being quiet was like being afraid but, in fact, it’s screaming all the time that's being afraid."
The 24-year-old is calling from a small island near Seattle, where she's currently writing music for her fourth album, due out next year. While the record is still in a nebulous stage, Danilova's planning to record it in a proper studio, unlike her previous, home-recorded LPs. And though she's still deciding the exact direction the music will take (for now, she describes it as "kinetic" and "very big" and "forward-moving") one thing is certain: It will not sound like anything she's done before.
"If I were to make a record like Stridulum again, it would be artifice," she says, talking about her breakthrough 2010 release. "The record I’m working on right now is completely different, and that’s fine, because I’m a different person now. I can do whatever I want. I don’t have a band or a contract. It's exciting, but it's also daunting."
"I envy those people who make a debut album, and it's
like: bam! Everything is there. For me, it’s been
a slow process. But it’s getting there."
Pitchfork: What attracted you to redoing your songs for Versions?
ZJ: I’ve always felt like I let the songs fall short, like they were never able to become final. And working in an orchestral world is fun because the songs don't have to be reliant on production tricks. It's just the essence. I take pride in having the ability to communicate my songs with just a piano, or a string quartet, or my voice. If I could do an a cappella album, I would. All I care about is the vocal melody, everything else seems like dressing.
Pitchfork: Are you generally hard on yourself when it comes to your music?
ZJ: I feel like I haven't gotten to that point where there’s this universal feeling that I've done my defining work-- and that’s really stressful! [laughs] I’ve endured this feeling from people, like, “Wow! You had something that was pretty good-- can't wait to see what you do next!” Even if you don’t want to think about it, as a musician, I’m like, “Well, what do you want from me? I’ve given you everything I have.” I envy those people who make a debut album, and it's like: bam! Everything is there. For me, it’s been a slow process. But it’s getting there.
But the more music you make, the more you struggle, because your instincts become tired, in a way. So I’ll sit down at the piano and play [mimics heavy chords] and I’m like, “Oh, that’s ‘Run Me Out’, can’t do that.” I’ve spent those instincts. So now it’s time to experiment with sevenths and diminished chords and try to find myself in those things instead.
Pitchfork: You wrote your early material in Wisconsin, where you grew up, and then you wrote Conatus in L.A. Now you're writing on an island in the Pacific Northwest-- do you feel like you're especially influenced or inspired by place?
ZJ: Definitely. But being here is so peaceful-- I almost feel this sense of completeness, which is not good for writing. If you feel complete, there’s nothing you could possibly want to say in a song. It’s actually starting to make me go insane. I’m moving out next week and I feel very ready because I can only be a domesticated hermit for so long.
Pitchfork: You also got married a couple years ago, do you feel like that’s affected your writing at all?
ZJ: Not being concerned with love-- because I’ve already got that handled-- makes break-up songs hard. And, I mean, musicians love to write break-up songs. It’s an endless well of creativity. But I don’t want to write love songs anyway. I’m a highly self-deprecating person, so I get inspiration from self-loathing-- no need to find drama from the outside. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Where are you thinking about going lyrically for the new album?
ZJ: That’s the one thing that I’ve struggled with the most, because, on Conatus, it was all about an inward sense of awkwardness and anxiety. But I cannot write another song like that, because having to tour on those songs gets really tiresome. It makes you not enjoy anything. For instance, “Collapse” is one of my favorite songs on Conatus because it's the most forthright. The lyrics are “hurts to let you in,” and I’m singing that about the people listening to the record. I want to offer everything I have, but at the same time, I’m so scared of peeling the layers back. So while that record is very cathartic, it was also very destructive. And from that comes progression. So, on this new record, I'm making a conscious decision to sing songs about overcoming, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Pitchfork: You studied philosophy in college, are you still interested in it now that you've graduated?
ZJ: For my past couple of records, philosophy has been really important because, to me, it's the study of people, being, life, why we’re here-- not in a theological way, but in a more practical way. And that’s spilled over into my lyrics. I have my shelf with all my mainstay books that I go to when I feel like I need to consult someone: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, all the bleak men. They’re like my therapists. But right now, I look at them and think, “I can’t go down that road.” I want to feel hopeful, and while they do give me hope, the idea of nihilism frustrates me, too. Like, if there’s no point in doing anything, I won’t do anything. And I’m at such a fragile moment in my creativity that I can’t seek those writers at the moment.
Pitchfork: There must be more positive philosophers out there, too.
ZJ: There probably are, but they aren't on my bookshelf.
In this edition of The Out Door, we delve into the legacy of one of the most inspiring underground musicians of the past 40 years, the guitarist known variously as Guitar Roberts, Loren Mazzacane, and, for the past decade or so, Loren Connors. He's a man of many ideas-- and many records-- but few words. In a sense, his speech matches his music: He talks in short, efficient phrases, almost always with a smile, but rarely with any unnecessary verbiage.
So we've chosen to explore his work through the eyes of those who've played with and listened to him. We chat with his long-time creative partner and wife Suzanne Langille; gather testimonials from devoted collaborators such as Jandek, Jim O'Rourke, Alan Licht, and David Grubbs; and offer our own take on some memorable Connors releases. But first, we assess this unique artist with the help of historian and friend William R. Ferris (and a few choice words from the man himself).
Photo by Hans van der Linden
I:Loren Connors: The Narrative Never Stops
Listening to the music of Loren Connors feels like reading a stranger's diary. He's released reams of records on tiny independent labels and by himself, steadily amassing a mountain of quietly confident and confessional instrumentals that, taken together, shape a rich and detailed portrait of one of the world's most singular and distinctive guitarists.
By one estimate included in the liner notes to Night Through,a 2005 three-disc retrospective that collected many of Connors' early singles and suites, he had by then recorded more than 9,000 hours of music. He named many of his pieces for places he'd been, heroes he'd had, and instruments he loved, galvanizing that quality of a personal and perseverant journal. His music has documented periods of break-up and new love, absolute penury and, now, his domestic life in Brooklyn. Without words, Connors' pieces conjure romance and sadness, anger and anxiety, and, most importantly, the spaces between all those feelings, where emotions hang ambiguous and unresolved.
His friends are also his collaborators, folks such as Keiji Haino,Thurston Moore, and his wife, Suzanne Langille. And his work is all improvised, a momentary feeling turned into an immortal document-- a running musical journal, if you will. "It's not an adrenaline rush," notes Jeff Hunt, the founder of erstwhile American experimental vanguard Table of the Elements, a label responsible for a number of Connors' most notable releases. "It's immediate and personal, but it's not about showmanship."
"I connect to the blues more than anything, even though
I don't sound real bluesy. It's where I come from
and it's who I am." -- Loren Connors
Indeed, if you've never heard the music of Loren Connors, you've never heard anything quite like it, either. Though his particular techniques have sometimes shifted, and though he long ago left the acoustic for the electric, Connors' pieces have consistently etched slight but strong melodies into atmospheres of hum and hiss. Sometimes he bangs against the strings, creating crowded clouds of texture; at other points, he's plucked long, snarled leads from his strings.
In the early 1990s, doctors diagnosed Connors with Parkinson's Disease, something that he's said has not only energized his playing but focused it, too, forcing him to get to work before he can no longer play guitar. Some of his most vital material has come since the diagnosis, the peril giving even his quietest recordings a sense of absolute urgency.
If that scenario sounds like the premise of a blues song, it's an appropriate reference for the 63-year-old Connors, who delved deep into the blues after the British invasion brought the sound back to America. "I connect to the blues more than anything, even though I don't sound real bluesy. It's where I come from, and it's who I am," Connors says from his Brooklyn apartment. "I heard it when I was a teenager, with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Every kid knew about them. Then I got into the more esoteric blues, like Robert Johnson."
While Connors' sound is certainly distinctive, to call him a complete original or some sui generis icon is to overlook the rich blues patchwork that forms the foundation of his oeuvre. That's a notion underlined by his lengthy relationship with Southern historian and cultural critic William R. Ferris. In the mid 70s, just as Connors was releasing his first albums while living in New Haven, CT, Ferris taught at Yale, exploring American heritage and bringing blues artists to campus. As Connors recalls, he cleaned Ferris' office while working as a janitor and noticed the professor's wealth of blues ephemera and archives-- posters on the walls, books on the shelves.
"His music is this extended, stretched form of expression--
sound waves that never stop." -- William R. Ferris
Years later, Ferris had relocated to Mississippi to teach in Oxford; Connors wrote to the professor, introduced himself and asked if Ferris could listen to his music and pen some liner notes for a release. They'd never met, and Ferris didn't specialize in so-called experimental music, but he recognized several familiar qualities in the tape Connors had sent. "I felt inadequate to do the liner notes because it was different than anything I'd ever encountered," Ferris says. "But there was a clear influence from the blues, which I could appreciate, and also classical music, Irish music, and Jewish klezmer music. I found it very exciting and very different from any music I'd ever heard."
Ferris gushes about Connors, comparing the guitarist to Stephen Foster and William Faulkner in the matter of a few breathless sentences. Late last year, that enthusiasm inspired another young Connors fan-- Harrison Lee, then a senior taking Ferris' "Southern Music" class at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill-- to explore Connors' music at length. "Students will also write a term paper on any topic related to Southern music," the syllabus noted. "The paper is due at the end of the course."
When Lee told Ferris that he wanted to explore intersections of Southern music and the avant-garde, Ferris asked if he'd ever heard of his old friend, Loren Connors. A DJ at the school's student-run radio station WXYC, Lee had long been listening to Connors' music, using the impressionistic and eclectic guitar pieces to serve as segues between other acts. For Lee, Connors' music works much as it does for Ferris-- connecting disparate styles in a way that no one else has. Connors has always admitted to a heavy influence from Mark Rothko, who produced canvasses of color that could swallow the viewer. In turn, Connors' syntheses of sound-- each piece and the massive web of material at large-- have that same sort of magnetism for Lee.
"That wall of sound quality makes it really engulfing, and it's difficult to extricate yourself from it," he says. "It's almost like being in the ocean and overpowered by waves. There's a massiveness to it." Ferris, a blues scholar who hears that antediluvian American form in every note he's ever heard, keys on that same sense of personal grandeur: "His music is this extended, stretched form of expression-- sound waves that never stop. The narrative never stops."
II: A Selected Loren Connors Discography
Loren Connors' catalog is so deep and highlight-filled that recommending particular titles seems almost silly. But it's also a lot of fun. Below is a list of some of our favorites, divided into three categories-- proper solo releases, compilations of solo work, and collaborative albums-- and listed chronologically. Think of this not as a best-of list, but the bait that will hopefully hook you into the rest of Connors' endless sea of wonderful music. (All links courtesy of Family Vineyard's excellent Connors website.)
In Pittsburgh (St. Joan, 1989; Dexter's Cigar, 1996)
Released on Connors' own St. Joan Label (originally under the moniker of Guitar Roberts), this is a standard-bearing example of his blues-deconstructing style. It's centered around two versions of the slow, deliberate "Trouble in Mind", and also features a stellar collaboration with Suzanne Langille, who sings a soulful take on Lonnie Johnson's "Blue Ghost Blues".
Hell's Kitchen Park (Black Label, 1993; P-Vine, 1998; Family Vineyard, 2007)
A mix of simple, direct songs and murkier sound essays makes Hell's Kitchen Park one of Connors' more diverse solo efforts (on another of his own imprints, the New York-based Black Label). Best are the tracks where he seems to converse with himself, such as the melancholy but assertive "Sorrow in the House".
Long Nights(Table of the Elements, 1995)
At first, Long Nights feels like a standard Connors album,opening with a sparse, gradual melody. But it soon turns denser and noisier. There's more distortion and feedback than usual here, and some of Connors' note patterns nearly drown in the surrounding fuzz. But the tone is never desperate or stressed; in fact, the calmness of Connors' guitar waves makes Long Nights a tantalizing listen.
Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! (The Lotus Sound, 1997)
Now here's a tenser version of what Long Nights started. There's distortion and feedback again in these short, untitled pieces (12 of them in less than a half hour), but this time-- in keeping with the album's title-- they're angrier and more strident. Connors' trademark patience is still intact, but Hell!'s dark energy offers a different kind of excitement.
The Departing of a Dream (Family Vineyard, 2002)
Most notable for two tracks recorded on (and dedicated to) 9/11, The Departing of a Dream doles out beauty in careful, lonely doses. Nearly all of Connors' work exudes solitude, but this album extends that mode into a kind of perfect vacuum. As Pitchfork's Mark Richardson put it, "it almost seems obscene that this might be listened to by more than one person at a time."
Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations Vol. 1-9 1979-1980 (Ecstatic Peace/Father Yod, 1999)
This 4-CD box contains all nine acoustic guitar LPs that Connors released on his first label, Daggett, named after the street he lived on in New Haven, CT. Raw and direct, the music centers on his abrupt, sometimes tuneless string plucks. His sporadic progressions are unpredictable, and often accompanied by his wordless hums and moans, which he claimed were an involuntary mimicking of the dogs that often howled outside his window.
Night Through: Singles and Collected Works, 1976-2004 (Family Vineyard, 2006)
Easily the most diverse Connors release, this collection spans pretty much all of his styles-- blues-based hymns, jazz-like improvisations, reverb-heavy suites-- and adds a rich selection of experiments and oft-unheard pieces. It even includes a 1959 recording of his mother, classical singer Mary Mazzacane, who had a huge influence on Connors; he said in a 2007 Wire interview, "I listen to her voice and the way I play, and it's the same thing."
Connors with his mother Mary Mazzacane in his Daggett Street loft, 1970
1981-1984 with Kath Bloom (Megalon, 2000)
A selection from the many excellent duo LPs made by Connors and singer/guitarist Kath Bloom in the 80s, and released on Loren's Daggett and St. Joan labels. (See below for a description of one of our favorite Bloom/Connors LPs.)
1987-1989 with Suzanne Langille (Secretly Canadian, 2000)
A selection from the tracks on the St. Joan LPs Bluesmaster 1, Bluesmaster 2, and In Pittsburgh to which Langille contributes. (See below for a description of one of our favorite Connors/Langille LPs.)
As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002 (Family Vineyard, 2007)
On many of his records, Connors includes what he calls "airs"-- short, simple tunes meant as a tribute to the traditional Irish songform of the same name. He made a full album of them in 1999; As Roses Bow collects those and every other air he's recorded, 43 in all. Taken together, this represents perhaps his most beautiful work, filled with patient emotion that pours from each note like fresh paint dripping from a canvas.
Moonlight with Kath Bloom (St. Joan, 1984; Chapter Music, 2009)
Though it was their last album together, Moonlight might be the best example of how Connors' guitar style meshes with Bloom's intoxicating warble. At times, it feels as if she's translating his notes into words. Though these songs have a more standard folk shape than most of Connors' solo work, the essential personality in his playing shines through, and finds new avenues in this context.
Crucible with Suzanne Langille (Black Label, 1996; Family Vineyard, 2007)
Connors has made many great records with his wife Suzanne, both as a duo and part of larger ensembles (specifically their group Haunted House). This one stands out for the way the pair find separate spaces to occupy. Often, Langille offers a moving a capella track, and Connors follows it with an instrumental guitar piece that echoes her phrasing and intonation-- as if the couple are conversing across spaces between the record's grooves.
Two Nights with Alan Licht (Road Cone, 1996; Family Vineyard, 2010)
Licht has been Connors' most frequent guitar collaborator in the past two decades, leading Connors to claim the two have a telepathic connection. That seems accurate, judging by their dialogue on these two tracks, both half-hour-plus recordings from performances in New York. Often when two musical partners mesh it's hard to tell the difference between them; that's almost never the case here, which makes their complementary moods and intersecting lines all the more impressive.
Hoffman Estates with Alan Licht (Drag City, 1998)
In an homage to producer Teo Macero's work on the 1970's albums of Miles Davis, Jim O'Rourke grouped Licht and Connors with an array of other experimental stalwarts (including Kevin Drumm, Ken Vandermark, and Joshua Abrams) to craft a varied, free-form avant rock record. The group works like a collective, with no single voice dominating for any long stretch of time. But you can always locate Connors in the mix, calmly moving forward as all kinds of sound swirls around him.
The Lost Mariner with Darin Gray (Family Vineyard, 1999)
The two full-length albums Connors made with Darin Gray are unique simply because, while Connors usually works with a guitarist or singer, Gray plays bass. But it's not just the sonic surface that's different; Gray's single-note style brings out a distinct kind of patience in Connors. The result is minimalist music that doesn't feel small; each sound fills the space that the others leave behind. --Marc Masters
III: Suzanne Langille: Non-Silent Partner
Connors and Langille at Counterflows Festival, Scotland, 2013. Photo by Alex Woodward / Crimson Glow
Last fall, Jason Gross sat with Loren Connors and Suzanne Langille in the Brooklyn apartment the couple of 30 years shares. Gross was speaking with the pair for "Invisible Jukebox", the long-running feature of the experimental music magazine The Wire, in which musicians listen to a set of unidentified (if sometimes familiar) recordings and talk about what they hear.
It was the first mutual interview that Langille and Connors-- who've been collaborating on music, writing, art, and life at large since they met in 1984-- have ever given, and it was a revealing one. Whether it's a Connors solo album, a product of the two, an LP from their band Haunted House or any one of myriad collaborations with others they've issued, there's an intimate magnetism to the music of Connors and Langille, as though a curtain's been lifted for an hour or so on a private and guarded world. They talked about ferocity and energy, composition and influences. Their responses to music from Lester Young, Skip James, and Sandy Bull revealed their dovetailing outlooks and how they'd influenced one another, encouraging each other to reach further, to pursue the emotion or experience they wanted to convey harder.
"It's been a decades-long interaction where we just get more
and more free. We're stripping things away and getting
more and more to the essence of pieces."
But it was when Gross played "Welcome Welcome Emigrante", an old tune from songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, that the personal gravity of Langille and Connors' work became clear: "This song in particular I don't like that much, because it sounds like an essay that was put to music," Langille said. "Essays are not music. Don't write an essay!" That reflects how the best of their music feels-- not a statement so much as a feeling, shared between partners and then with the rest of us.
We spoke with Langille by phone late on a weeknight. Connors had played a show earlier in the evening, and he was asleep in another room. "Now I can say whatever I want," Langille said, laughing.
Pitchfork: You've said before that you and Loren had to adjust to each other musically after you first met, to figure out how to work together. Your music as a pair seems so natural to hear now, what was the challenge in starting?
Suzanne Langille: I was a very bad musician. I was the world's worst guitar player, so when I was performing solo with a guitar, I had to keep things very simple. Working with Loren really freed me up, and the more abstract he got, the more freedom I had. It's been a decades-long interaction where we just get more and more free. We're stripping things away and getting more and more to the essence of pieces, which is what I like to do. I like spoken-word as much as the singing word. In our Haunted House band, I've done more with the spoken-word than the singing.
Pitchfork: What different feelings do singing words and speaking words in music elicit for you?
SL: When I'm speaking, I'm more focused on the words as meaning. When I'm singing, I'm more focused on the words as sound. The emotion is more targeted when I'm speaking, more flowing when I'm singing.
Pitchfork: Do those different treatments affect your musical relationship with Loren? Does he respond differently to those two modes?
SL: He pays more attention when I'm speaking, which may be one of the reasons I speak more these days. [Laughs.] He likes it when I talk. He says I'm a shouter!
Connors and Langille at Issue Project Room, 2012. Photo by Peter Gannushkin
Pitchfork: Your personal and musical relationships are obviously so intimate and intertwined. What's it like watching him collaborating with others?
SL: He's done a lot of duets over the years with a lot of different people-- Jim O'Rourke, Alan Licht. One of the pairings that I actually liked a lot was when, during his birthday celebration, he played with Chan Marshall. Loren just came up with this: [hums pretty melody] I don't remember the song she was singing, but it was a beautiful pairing. That was when he turned 50, in 1999. It was at Tonic, and Thurston Moore put that together. He let Loren play four nights a week with all sorts of people he'd never met before. It was amazing. I said, "This is great, Loren. For your birthday, he's trying to kill you." [Laughs.]
A person I love with Loren, but now she's back in Lisbon, is Margarida Garcia, the bass player. The first time those two played together, I told him I didn't think he should ever play again without her.
"We met in February of 1984, and by May we were living together. It just happened really fast. We kicked people and things
out of our life to make room for each other."
Pitchfork: As you and Loren got freer, as you put it, did you discuss the shift, or did it simply happen by continuing to play?
SL:It had to do with getting a Tascam [4-track tape recorder]. He was able to record against himself. It made everything a lot more flexible, and he was able to be a lot more true to himself. Some people have said, "Well, he's done this, and he's done that, and he's done folk music." Loren was never really a folk musician. But getting the Tascam and being able to play against himself in whatever way he wanted rather than depending on some other guitar to provide chords and things was very freeing for him. Eventually he got to the point where he didn't need to do that layering. He could do it all with his guitar.
Any time you give him a new technology, a new toy, he starts doing something new. He gets a bigger amp, and we have Hell's Kitchen Park. He gets a Vox amp, and you get A Fire and the things that he's doing now. Whatever you put in his hands, he finds a way to use it.
Pitchfork: How did you meet, and what was the attraction?
SL: We had a mutual friend who had done sound for one of my concerts, and then asked me if I could help out at one of his. That's when I met Loren. He was also playing that night. It was at The Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. What drew me to him that night was not his playing on the guitar. He did some playing on the piano, and at that time, he was more compositional when he was playing piano. It was the composition that caught my ear and drew me in. I have this thing for geniuses. We met in February of 1984, and by May we were living together. It just happened really fast. We kicked people and things out of our life to make room for each other.
Pitchfork: Does experiencing his creativity inspire your own?
SL: Absolutely. It's a really terrific experience. The main thing for me is the compositional quality of the music. When I got together with Loren, he was playing the guitar in an unusual way, and it was very improvisational. But when we did the Bluesmaster 2 record, I was doing the chords to "Amazing Grace", very simple chords, and he came up with this amazing tune. That's when I started talking to him about how he should stop thinking of himself as a guitarist and start thinking of himself as a composer. That's what he is. He's a composer.
I started being a little more engaged in helping him listen to his music. He would record a lot of stuff, and I would do a little star system and say what I thought were the best pieces. Eventually, I didn't have to do that anymore because he got into it himself. He started paying a lot more attention to how strong the compositional quality was. That was the role I played, I think, in his musical development. He played a role in my development, and I played that role in his.
"I'm not the friend that you go and party and get drunk with. I'm the one that you go and take a long walk with if you've got
something on your mind and you need to talk."
Pitchfork: When did you first recognize that symbiosis?
SL: [When] Loren took a break from music. He did some writing. I had a background in literature, so he started asking for my advice. I started editing his writing, and it got to the point where he would look at something and say, "Now, did I write that, or is that something you did?" He couldn't tell. That was where that composition and editing relationship started. He started out writing longer things and then he got into shorter things and then he went into haikus, really great haikus. The compositions just got more and more pristine. When he got back into music, it just transferred right into it. That was a very good aesthetic exercise for him.
Pitchfork: You said that Loren was never a folk musician, and he's scoffed at that word, too. But it's true that there have been major shifts in your output and his. What unites those phases?
SL: Truth. Honesty-- not trying to manipulate. Being a channel for the spirit of music and not letting yourself get in the way or letting your desires or wishes get in the way. I find that when I listen to a lot of music, especially singers, I can tell what they want me to think of them. They may want me to think that they're passionate, or they may want me to think that they're beautiful or that they're sensitive or in pain or whatever. There's often a desire to create an impact on the audience and to make them feel or think a certain thing. To me, that's not art. That's manipulation. Having the self-discipline not to want anything for yourself when you perform or when you play or when you sing is a real challenge.
Pitchfork: But music seems to sell well when it tells people how to feel, not when it leaves room for ambiguity and so much interpretation. Do you ever wish this sort of music did find more people?
SL: One person's music can't be for everybody. The music that we do is for the people who need it, the people who want it. It's for the people that will be nurtured by it, maybe healed by it. It's not for everybody because it's not entertainment. When music is for entertainment, that's a different reason for music. I like music that's entertaining sometimes, too, but that's not what I do. I'm not the friend that you go and party and get drunk with. I'm the one that you go and take a long walk with if you've got something on your mind and you need to talk.
Pitchfork: That's a luxury of not necessarily using music as your primary income source, correct? Tell me about your job.
SL: I have two lives. I even have two names. During my day job, I'm Suzanne Mattei. I'm a public interest lawyer. I do environmental and health advocacy work. I've been doing that pretty much all my life. I go to war with people like Michael Bloomberg. Sometimes rather powerful people get mad at me-- Waste Management, Inc., and other people that want to do nasty things like build garbage incinerators and turn the air into hazardous waste dumps. I don't like that. I do that by day, and that's how I live. I've never had a lot, but I've had enough to get by. Loren used to work part time, but when he got hit with Parkinson's he couldn't do it anymore.
Most musicians today can't just be musicians. They have to have some other source of income. That's a shame. The economy is different than it was. You used to be able to live on a lot less than you're able to live on now, and I think it does make it a lot more challenging for people. The music industry became more centralized, too, so that it's a superstar system. There used to be a lot more people on record labels, a lot more diversity in the music scene on commercial record labels. That's gone. But we've all benefited from the internet and the ability to do things online. It's freed a lot of people to get their music out there and not have to worry about pleasing some label A&R person.
The world has changed a lot, and some people think, "It's too easy to make music. There are too many people out there. How can you find what's good?" I'm thinking that decades and decades and decades ago, people lived in itty-bitty villages, and every village had its own musicians. They never heard about each other, but they made music in their own little village. That's how it was done. Now we have an internet village with lots of little alcoves here and there, people making music. That's okay. I like the changes, where there's more access, more freedom. People find each other.
Pitchfork: You said the fact that more musicians need day jobs now is unfortunate, but it seems in your own life that has also inspired you. It's made you put more into your music because time is limited.
SL: It works for me. It would be a lot harder if I weren't living with Loren. I come home everyday, and Loren has something new up on the computer screen. Or he's found some book or some record or some film. He's always presenting me with art of different types, and that's in my life every single day. I am cheating, because I'm not spending all those hours finding the stuff that Loren finds. I've got someone in my life on a daily basis who is always bringing me things to look at and listen to and think about. It makes it easier for me to keep the art side of my life vibrant. --Grayson Currin
IV: The Sound is in Loren's Hands: Connors' Collaborators, Part One
Since it often sounds so solitary, Loren Connors' music might seem ill-equipped for collaboration. But some of his best work has come in creative partnerships, some stretching over decades and some lasting for just a single session. The cast of characters is diverse, from Chan Marshall to Keiji Haino to Jandek. To hear them tell it, Connors leaves an indelible mark on the minds of everyone he plays with. We asked some of his comrades to describe what makes him such a special artist to work with-- and to listen to. –Marc Masters
Loren Connors and Alan Licht at the time of recording Hoffman Estates
The first record I was ever on was a 3-LP compilation that came out in 1990 called Breathe on the Living. I submitted a solo guitar track, and Loren had a piece on the same side of the record as me. Before that I had read a couple of reviews of his albums in Forced Exposure, but then when I looked him up in the New Music Distribution Service catalog they described his stuff as "New Age-y bottleneck guitar," so I was confused. The track on Breathe did sound like slide, but it wasn't New Age. That's the 80s for you.
"I think he is an artist who happens to use guitar, like I often joke that Herzog is a poet who happens to use a camera." -- Jim O'Rourke
Then I went to see him play live in Downtown Music Gallery in 90 or 91 and it turned out he wasn't playing slide-- he was just down-tuning the guitar and doing a lot of extreme string-bending. It blew me away to see that, and his personal aura was very strong-- this quality of being fragile but kind of intense at the same time. Even just looking at him sitting there with his guitar before he started to play, you knew this guy was the real deal. We played live for the first time at Downtown Music Gallery in January 1993. We did shows together relatively frequently for a while after that.
Often when you listen to someone's music and then you look at something they've done in another medium it's hard to see a through-line, or connection. But if you see Loren's drawings and paintings, or his haiku poetry, the relationship to the music is immediately apparent. There are patterns in the way he works that are evident in all of his output. His aesthetic is consistent, even though the music itself has gone through many phases over the decades.
[In 2005] we were playing the Instal festival in Glasgow, and at the soundcheck the amp Loren was using, a Fender Twin, sort of died, so a tech guy wheeled over a Roland JC 120. Now, the Roland is a solid state amp, not a tube amp like the Twin, so it's a pretty different animal. Loren plugged into the Roland, didn't touch a knob or make any adjustments, and he sounded exactly like he did through the Twin. It was uncanny. Most other guitarists, myself included, would have to struggle to get some equability with two amps that divergent. But it shows that like most of the greats, the sound is in Loren's hands, not an amp or a pedal. It's going to sound like him no matter what.
I first heard about Loren from Henry Kaiser in 1990 or so, when I went out to Oakland to help organize his records [laughs]. I saw these Guitar Roberts records and Henry told me that I should check them out. I had never heard anything quite like it, especially as I was in the frame of mind that he was a "blues player" when I first dropped the needle. Henry was trying to get me to listen to more and more blues guitarists, which I wasn't really interested in, because it was so "guitar-istic" to me at the time. That was important for how Loren's music struck me-- it was really not guitar music, although of course it was, but it really occupied that place that music rarely does, where there's a sense of direct transference. Pretty amazing.
[Loren's music] isn't really about the guitar as an instrument at all, although obviously I think he is a spectacular guitarist. But I think he is an artist who happens to use guitar, like I often joke that Herzog is a poet who happens to use a camera. He's one of those rare people who can play one note, and you know who it is immediately, and know who they are as a person.
"Like most of the greats, the sound is in Loren's hands, not an amp or a pedal. It's going to sound like him no matter what."-- Alan Licht
Loren is in many ways the toughest person I've played with because he will blindside you with just one note, or lack of it, and throw you to you-don't-know-where. But of course I love that, and I usually am trying to do that myself in improvised situations (okay, almost everything). But I'm on the receiving end when it comes to Loren. But I love it.
For the concert on our Hat Art CD, In Bern, we were playing in a museum. We're setting up and Loren asks me something, and I turn to him and the neck of my guitar goes to the left, and Loren sort of casually raises his hand and purses his lips in the way that he does, and I simultaneously see everyone around him with their mouths agape and eyes bulging out. I look to my left and the neck of my guitar is about one centimeter away from a giant Picasso. But Loren just went ahead and asked me his question anyways. That's Loren, cool as everything.
Haunted House: Loren Connors, Neel Murgai, Suzanne Langille, Andrew Burnes. Photo by Lena Adesheva
AB: I met Loren back in the mid-90s at a Table of the Elements festival in Chicago. David, Bryan Fielden [also of San Agustin] and I went up from Atlanta, and we took some San Agustin tapes and records with us in case we ran into someone who might listen to us. Loren and John Fahey were sitting at the bar at the Empty Bottle, drinking non-alcoholic beers and talking about Parkinson's disease, and we were star-struck. We chatted them up, getting a grunted dismissal from Fahey, but Loren was friendly and talked for a bit.
DD: I had been buying Loren's records for a while at that point-- there was a guy at the record shop (Wax'n'Facts) who would save me copies of any of Loren's records that came through-- in particular the 7-inches. I wound up with a pretty big collection of those.
AB: Suzanne called me up a couple weeks later and asked if we could come up and play with them. That was the beginning of several permutations of the five of us (Loren, Suzanne, David, Bryan, and me) over the next couple years. Haunted House came soon after, when I moved to New York.
"There was a period of time when I was flying to New York
(and maxing out my credit cards to do so) nearly monthly
to play with Loren." -- Darin Gray
My admiration for Loren is based primarily on his commitment to his own music-- his willingness to play what he hears inside regardless of external pressures. That creates an interesting dynamic in Haunted House, when the rest of us are pushing and pulling, and sometimes Loren will only go so far to meet us. That tension is an important element in how we improvise and how we ultimately sound. I have become more patient playing with Loren.
DD: To collaborate with Loren-- especially in a duo-- requires making a choice as to whether you want to follow his lead, or to play independently of him. He's a very assertive partner and playing one-on-one with him can often be uncomfortable, in the good way that pushes me to go places that I otherwise wouldn't.
AB: One sunny spring day when I didn't yet know him very well, I needed to talk to Loren about something, and Suzanne told me to go to such-and-such address in Hell's Kitchen and he would be there. It was just a narrow, empty little space with a painted concrete floor and pipes running in and out of the walls. Over by the high little street-facing window was a wooden crate holding an old turntable and headphones, an amp, and a chair with Loren's Stratocaster laying on it-- nothing else in the room. I talked to Loren for a minute about whatever I needed, and he quietly picked up his guitar, sat down, put on his headphones, and put the needle on the record. He started playing soft blues licks to a beat I couldn't hear. I watched the record spinning around and figured out it was Blind Faith. I walked out and went about my business, but that place and how he was in it have always stuck in my mind.
V: Straight to the Core: Connors' Collaborators, Part Two
Jandek and Loren Connors' first performance together in Manhattan, 2005
JANDEK(The legendary, once-reclusive singer/guitarist has performed three times with Connors. This is only his fourth known interview in a nearly 40-year musical career.)
I didn't know Loren Connors before I first played with him. Barry Essen invited us to play a show in New York in 2005 [at Anthology Film Archives], and he selected who he thought would be the best players to play with-- Matthew Heyner [of No-Neck Blues Band] on bass and Chris Corsano on drums. But then I wanted to add someone on guitar, kind of spacey guitar, and Barry recommended Loren. I had seen Loren's name as Loren Mazzacane many years ago in OPmagazine, so I had heard of him.
We didn't talk a whole lot [before the show]. I do remember he went out and looked at the audience, and came back to the green room beaming and saying, "It's full! There are no seats available!" He was like a kid when he saw that.
I thought what Loren brought to the picture was perfect. I could not have asked for better. I liked his stage presence-- how he came out and just nailed the guitar, in a way that fit in with everything else but in no way was soft. It was present, but in a way that I have never heard the guitar come out before. There was no riff involved. Everything was unique. Just the whole picture of the way he is, what he projects from his persona, and the way he draws that into the guitar and produces the sound is overwhelming.
"Nothing that Loren does reminds me of other people. He's a great man-- everybody knows that. And a great artist too."-- Jandek
I played with him again in Glasgow in 2006. He played guitar and I played harmonica and sang. [Compared to the Manhattan show], his dynamism was different. It was a unique projection of sound from the guitar, with less volume. It was a quieter kind of performance for both of us, and it told a story. The line of vocals was from a dream, and he augmented that in a much different way.
I also visited Loren and Suzanne at their home in Brooklyn. That's the only time I played guitar with him-- we played for about 45 minutes. That was ethereal. I think this was particularly sparse guitar playing. Loren was cutting out things from newspapers and making collages and had some on his walls. He was really excited by those collages.
There's no way that I could not be influenced by Loren's playing. Once you hear it you can't take it out of your mind. I never thought of this before, but occasionally now I tap the strings over the pickups with my fingers. He does a lot of that, and I don't think I did it before [I played with him]. So it might have been a natural evolution on my part, or maybe I had a unconscious image of him doing that.
I wouldn't say that Loren speaks abruptly... though I guess I'm kind of that way myself. He never talks about Parkinson's-- he never indicates that it interferes with anything. I wouldn't say he denies it, but he just sails right past it and does what he wants to do, and that's a beautiful aspect in life. To know your shortcomings and not care-- you do what you can, you do what you want to. You get up there and you play guitar and you perform in an exhilarating manner even if your hands don't work the way they used to. He finds another way to do it which goes beyond any debilitation, [where] so many people get stuck in their problems.
Nothing that Loren does reminds me of other people. He's a great man-- everybody knows that. And a great artist too.
To read the full transcript of our interview with Jandek, visit our Tumblr page.
I met Loren in Chicago through Jim O'Rourke. It is difficult for me to express just how important and life-changing Loren's music is for me. His music goes straight to the core and I feel like I am experiencing the root of something rather than a branch. There is just something magical about the way he shapes a single note, how he shapes a phrase, how he ties those notes and phrases together to create this unique narrative.
The Hoffman Estates album was a real turning point for me-- just an incredible line up of great musicians and friends. The last track where Loren and I are playing duo a bunch was really the spark for us continuing to play together.
"We started rolling the tape at 10 a.m. and we were finished by lunch time. He'd said what he needed to say by then." -- David Grubbs
The Lost Mariner was the first time I had spearheaded a recording on my own, outside of a band context. I was nervous and intimidated, but Loren was so encouraging and really in a way like a father figure. There was a period of time when I was flying to New York (and maxing out my credit cards to do so) nearly monthly to play with Loren. I really cherish that time. He was so encouraging and so giving.
I would stay with him and Suzanne; we would go to art galleries and museums by day and play at night. Loren turned me on to so many artists that I had never heard of. I still have notes from that period that I refer to. He was throwing so much at me that I still haven't absorbed it all. He is always "on," always growing, always absorbing. Everything around him goes in and comes out the other side through his unique filter and vision.
I first became aware of Loren's music in 1990 when I took a chance and spent $3 on a used copy of Guitar Roberts' In Pittsburgh. I found it in the stacks in Dr. Wax's Hyde Park store in Chicago. I knew nothing about it except the handmade cover, with a gauzy, haunting photo glued to a white sleeve.
For me, In Pittsburgh was an inspiration to turn down and play at a more human volume, and to be aware of and responsive to the space around the music. Something of what people learn intellectually from John Cage, I learned intuitively from spending time listening to Loren. I love the pacing of his playing. Coming out of a post-punk power music scene myself, the unaccompanied and undistorted guitar of Guitar Roberts hit me as a wild and brave way to be. Really, no one else sounded like that.
A couple of years later, I played In Pittsburgh for Jim O'Rourke, who loved it and got in touch with Loren. By then he was making records under the name Loren Mazzacane and was easier to find. Gastr del Sol asked Loren to share a bill with us at Bard College, and we first met him at Grand Central Station (he was the guy with the guitar standing at the foot of one of the staircases) and got to know him a bit better on the train. [Grubbs and O'Rourke would later reissue In Pittsburgh on their label Dexter's Cigar.]
[When we recorded together] Loren's preference was to record first thing in the morning. I think we started rolling the tape on Arborvitae, our duo album on Häpna, at 10 a.m. and we were finished by lunch time. He'd said what he needed to say by then, and I was all eyes and ears. The one time we played live as a duo was at the funeral chapel at Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. I played harmonium for part of the set. When we were playing for a bit prior to the show, Loren asked me if I could turn down the harmonium. Too good!
I first met Loren right before we started recording. The session was arranged by Keith Connolly and Jason Meagher [both of No-Neck Blues Band]. I didn't know Loren prior to playing with him and didn't get to know him too well in our short time together, but I liked his records and was interested in playing with him. He's original. All my favorite guitar players-- Hendrix, Ulmer, Bailey, Fred McDowell, etc-- have a sound that feels "lived-in" and authentic to who they are, and I think that's true of Loren too.
[The session] was a challenge for me because I'm uptight-- I like to tune, set the levels, sound check, etc-- and with Loren there was no prep, no discussion. He walked in, plugged in his guitar and that was it-- we were recording. Straight through, no breaks. I had to run over to my guitar. Loren had a tiny Vox amp cranked up with a bunch of pedals and he was just conjuring up these incredible clouds of distortion. Meanwhile, I had my Telecaster plugged into this giant Fender amp [with] no master volume, so I couldn't turn it up past one-- just a completely clean sound. I learned something about letting go and just reacting to what's happening.
Loren showed up at the session in a New York Jets Mark Sanchez jersey, and then stripped it off in mid-improvisation without breaking his stride. It's the kind of move I wish I could pull off.
Loren Connors and Jozef Van Wissem
JOZEF VAN WISSEM (The lute player has recently performed a number of times with Connors)
What led me to play with Loren is his economic use of the electric guitar. I like that it's hard to figure out how he gets his sound. Other musicians usually try to impress you with technique which is rather boring. What I learned from him is not to play at times.
We met when I was curating the New Music for Old Instruments festival at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. The day before the festival we set up in this marble temple with huge ceilings. The room has a six-second echo so everything you do gets magnified. We played this 40-minute arc in which he started from silence to almost loud rock. At the end of the piece, I hit the fragile surface of my lute a few times-- I almost destroyed it.
My favorite Loren Connors moment was at Our Lady of Lebanon church in Brooklyn last year. It was almost silence, just the sound signal coming from his amp for a long stretch of time-- like the end of music. One time I went to see him at Printed Matter, an art book store in Chelsea. The place was packed and the people were quite loud which annoyed me. I would have turned up my amp but Loren reacted by playing even more quietly.
Once, he came to a show of mine and showed up in full football gear, all decked out in red. Or maybe it was baseball. I am no good at sports.
Loren Connors and Kath Bloom
KATH BLOOM (The singer/songwriter collaborated with Connors on at least 12 records in the 1970s and 80s)
On this strange day, the sun is blaring out from behind the dark rainy clouds that have plagued us all week. Now we step down from the porch and see how happy and vital all the green things are; the flowers are robust and bursting! That is how it was to know Loren and his music. A dark storm that feeds you even if you don't know it. He showed me a way into myself when I desperately needed a road. It was not an easy road: rocky, and narrow, and so hot it burnt my feet! It was the road to art, to expressiveness... which we all need. Primal and exacting.
I was much more the difficult person when we played music, I am sure. Loren was not casual but tremendously focused. Hard to keep up with, he taught me so much. His energy, his direction, and fierce devotion changed me forever. When I wrote a simple song in those days, whatever compelled it, it was always for him and his guitar. All the longing, stillness, doubt, and fortitude is in his playing. Open yourself and wake up!
To find out what these collaborators think are Connors' best records, visit our Tumblr page.
"On Sight", the first song on Kanye West's Yeezus, is a vengefully ugly piece of music. The snarling pile of synths that jump-start the song are so corroded that it's difficult to discern where the beat is, or if Kanye's voice falls on it. It is the most bracingly amusical moment of the rapper’s career-- it hits like a blast from a riot hose. But then, a minute and sixteen seconds in, something even more interesting happens: a soul sample crashes in.
Well, it isn't a soul song, strictly speaking. It's a soulful gospel number, called "(Sermon) He’ll Give Us What We Really Need", recorded by the South Side Chicago choir the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family. And it isn't technically a sample, either-- according to Yeezus lore, it's a painstaking studio recreation of the original, commissioned by panicked label executives as a backup plan while Kanye reportedly spent the dwindling hours before the album's release tracking down the choir director for permission instead of finishing the record.
But these details don't change the impact of the hymn: in the suggestion of popping vinyl, wobbly pitch center, and faded-world poignance, there is no mistaking how Kanye wants it to perceived: It is a Soul Sample on a Kanye West Record, no matter how it got there. Of all the rich discussion fodder West dumped in our laps this week with the proudly unfinished-sounding Yeezus, I found myself increasingly drawn to these little moments where he gestured, however faintly, towards his earlier self. They felt like dropped clues.
There's something taunting and mean about the soul samples on Yeezus; they are like nightmare versions of West’s earliest work.
Few rappers or producers this millennium, after all, have a more intimate relationship with soul music than Kanye West. And on a record about forcibly severing all ties, the one tangled thread Kanye can't bring himself to cut completely is this one, linking him to the most universally beloved black music of the last 50 years. But the relationship has changed, or curdled: The voices rip through like unwelcome memories, dropping rudely into the evil din and then cutting right back out again, like a needle knocked off a turntable. The snippet of "What We Really Need" on "On Sight" plays uninterrupted, like tears streaming down a face, for 13 seconds, before it is snuffed out. West echoed this gesture in his recent New York Times Q&A with Jon Caramanica, summoning his beloved early soul-rap beats and dismissing them in the same breath: "Jay-Z was an amazing communicator that made the soul sound extremely popular," he said. "And because I could make the soul sound in my sleep, it finally gave me a platform."
It was Caramanica, in that interview, who first called Yeezus "the anti-College Dropout." Back in those early days, when West was sporting the "pink Polo and a fucking backpack," he sampled Nina Simone for "Get By", a song about desperation that used Simone's music as a ray of hope and determination. On Yeezus, Simone is once again sampled. A loop of her voice from "Strange Fruit" is the Angel of Death on "Blood on the Leaves", balefully cataloging the "black bodies swinging in the summer breeze." There is no hope here, only horrors. There's something taunting, and mean, about these moments; they are like nightmare versions of West’s earliest work.
Hip-hop and soul music have always maintained a volatile, uneasy symbiosis. In his 2010 memoir Decoded, Jay-Z wrote about the potent mix of emotions soul music inspired in him. “The music from that era was incredible, full of emotion," he writes. "[It] was beautiful in part because it was keeping a kind of torch lit in a dark time. I feel like we-- rappers, DJs, producers-- were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization out in our music and use it to build a new world. We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift: We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves."
The generations of rappers who fell in love with that grand, burnished soul sound loved it, in part, for the vanished world of their parents it represented. Soul music could be lots of things-- anguished, driven, consumed by lust or spiritual torment-- but even at its darkest, it was always lit with at least a faint ray hope. Rap is not hopeful music; it is music predicated on the understanding that determination can be hope's viable substitute.
The dance between hip-hop and soul has always been on either side of this lens, and rappers who tapped into it found ways to tag it, make it their own. When Ghostface Killah screams about beat-downs and the squalor of his early-80s childhood, for example, over the Delfonics’ sunlit hymn of pure devotion “La-La Means I Love You" on "Holla", he makes a devastating point-- about worlds gone, about cherished memories clutched to through dark times, about not-quite-extinguished hopes, and how the glowing embers they become so often take the form of cherished old songs. The juxtaposition is so rich with poetic contrasts that it opens up little seams. It's like getting three songs for the price of one: Ghostface’s finely-observed street story, the amber-hued soul classic playing the background, and then the shadow song that opens in up in the tragic gulf between the Delfonics' "you are the one for me" and Ghostface pointing guns at your head.
Within Yeezus' sonic landscape, the hopeful music of previous
eras is more like gall rising in the throat than anything else.
You can hear a lot of this painful relationship with soul music on Yeezus: The samples are fleeting, improperly EQ'd, sort of unreal-sounding, and often mocking. They seem to evoke previous eras more as a taunt than a balm. West perverts lots of civil rights imagery in his lyrics, too: "I put my fist in her like a civil rights sign" is the most viscerally sickening thing he's ever said. On the same song, he turns "free at last" into "show me your tits." The jaundice on the record sounds like the 70s, or at least a version of that decade that lives on in our cultural memory-- burnt up tenements, curdled dreams. In this landscape, the hopeful music of previous eras is more like gall rising in the throat than anything else.
There is one relatively undefiled soul sample on Yeezus, and it comes with closer "Bound 2". The sample is by the Ponderosa Twins Plus One, a Cleveland group made up of two groups of identical twins and a school friend of theirs named Ricky Spicer. "Bound" was part of a two-sided single put out by Sylvia Robinson on All Platinum Records, the imprint that would eventually be reborn-- after Fed investigations, bankruptcy, and a fateful visit to the Harlem World nightclub, where Lovebug Starski was performing-- as Sugar Hill Records, hip-hop's first hit label. This is a tiny piece of the genre's sacred text, a background detail in its origin story, and West treats it with a tenderness that feels touching after the brutalizations of the previous 36 minutes. It plays out, untouched and flowing, while West gives us as much of a devotional pledge as he feels capable of: "Ayo, we made it to Thanksgiving/ So ay, maybe we could make it to Christmas." This isn't hope, exactly, but it is a viable substitute.
Kanye West is one of the very few artists out there who can generate headlines with his album's credits. While the liners to Yeezus don't feature quite as many big names as previous Kanye productions, they're still extensive, filled with longtime collaborators and upstart young producers alike. In an effort to shed some light on the making of this vibrant and polarizing album, we spoke with seven guys who helped put it together: veteran producer/engineer/ mixers Mike Dean and Anthony Kilhoffer, who have both been working with 'Ye since the College Dropout days; Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who returns to the Kanye fold after taking part in 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (his experimental pop outfit Volcano Choir releases its second album, Repave, in September); producer and TNGHT member Hudson Mohawke, who began working with Kanye on last year's Cruel Summer and now has a production deal with G.O.O.D. Music; up-and-coming UK beatmaker Evian Christ; 21-year-old rapper/producer Travi$ Scott, who recently released his debut mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, and is currently working with Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and Jay-Z; and producer/engineer/mixer Noah Goldstein, who's had a hand in albums by Arcade Fire and Interpol, and has worked with Kanye since Twisted Fantasy-- he's the guy Jay shouts out on Watch the Throne's "Who Gon Stop Me" ("extend the beat, Noah!").
Read on for stories about what it means to be summoned by Kanye West, Yeezus' sculpture-like recording process, how the experience very nearly killed one collaborator, "oh shit!" moments in the studio, and how this crew managed to avoid obviousness at every turn. (All artwork below courtesy of the Yeezus fan-art Tumblr Yeezy Graffiti.)
"There's no pedestrian fuckery on this album. People are
working their asses off to make the best shit, and
Kanye's leading the pack." -- Justin Vernon
GETTING THE CALL
Justin Vernon: After Twisted Fantasy, I kind of assumed that I'd get the call again at some point. I get along with Kanye really well and I think his musical decisions are exquisite. He feels otherworldly-- he talks about being a god and shit, and his confidence in himself is inspiring. But at the end of the day, he's a musician working in the lab. We have fun. So when the call came for this album, I was like, "Shit yeah!"
Noah Goldstein: When I was 17, I saw Dr. Dre's episode of "Behind the Music", and he was sitting at the console, looking through the glass. I was like, “That’s the dude I want to be!” Then, a few years later, I was working on hip-hop mixtapes at this studio in West Philadelphia, and it was a terrible situation, a really bad neighborhood. I almost got in numerous altercations there. So I quit there after a year and a half, and said, "The only way I’m ever working in hip-hop again is if I work for Jay-Z and Kanye West.” It was super tongue-in-cheek. Then, almost exactly 10 years later, Kanye hired me to work on Dark Fantasy. And four months after that, we were working on Watch the Throne with Jay.
Travi$ Scott: My manager Anthony Kilhoffer has been Kanye's engineer/producer from the beginning, and he showed him my "Lights (Love Sick)" video during the Cruel Summer sessions. I was pretty much homeless when Kanye first flew me to New York. Later on, I was in Miami with 'Ye and Will Smith-- I was playing Will my album, he fucks with it. He's like my homey now. Then 'Ye's like, "You gotta come to Paris." I got a passport and went. It was just me, 'Ye, and Noah Goldstein at first. We weren't even doing actual studio shit. We were just chilling, running around A.P.C.'s offices, making music on my laptop.
Evian Christ: When Kanye's camp was working on Cruel Summer, they were apparently listening to my mixtape Kings and Them a lot. So when they decided to come out with this industrial, electronic, dark vision for Yeezus, they hit me up. In January, they told us, “Kanye’s in the studio on Sunday, it’d be good if we could have some stuff to play him.” That was on the Friday before, so I had two days to make some tracks that were specifically tailored to Kanye West. I don’t think I went to bed that night. I just made track after track after track-- nine altogether-- and sent them over. A couple of days later, they were like, “This is great, we’ve started working on one.” That track eventually became "I'm in It".
Image by Leighton McDonald
"I'M IN IT"
Anthony Kilhoffer: "I'm in It" started out with a different sample and melody. Then Kanye removed the sample, and it lived as a six-minute arrangement for a while. Then Rick Rubin got ahold of it and structured it to flow as a three-minute piece. Oftentimes, songs start out at six minutes, then they get whittled down to the best parts over the course of months.
Mike Dean: We're all trying to push things to be weirder. I sometimes push for stuff to be more musical, and then Kanye pulls it back to hip-hop. "I'm In It", for instance, had these crazy guitar parts and all this stadium stuff, and then Rick, Noah, and Kanye pulled it back. I wasn't very happy with that at first, but it came out really well.
Evian Christ: That track is obviously very overtly sexual, and the production mirrors that. When I first sent it, I had some breathy sex sounds laid on the snares, and by the time Kanye was rapping over it, it definitely went into overdrive as far as emphasizing the sexuality. The first time I heard it with Kanye's vocals, I had to do a double-take on a couple of the lines. But if you’re gonna do a song like that, you may as well go all the way; if you’re gonna do a sex song, you may as well talk about fisting. To me, it was very definite-- he absolutely knew what he wanted to do on that track.
"Kanye's talking about a bunch of really stunningly visual sex shit
on 'I'm in It', but it's not like he's saying stuff like that to
his friends 24 hours a day." -- Justin Vernon
Mike Dean: Justin Vernon is one of the collaborators Kanye will always go to. He doesn't fit in with any genres-- you never know if he's gonna sing like the Bee Gees or some crazy distorted thing. And you don't know what he's saying half the time. He's kind of like Michael McDonald, like he's got marbles in his mouth. It's about the emotion.
Justin Vernon: I don't even know what I'm singing on "I'm in It"-- I'd have to look at it. Kanye's talking about a bunch of really violently and stunningly visual sex shit in there, but it's not like he's saying stuff like that to his friends 24 hours a day. I mean, sitting around the studio, we all have intelligent conversations about the state of women in the world-- I wouldn't say we had a conversation about feminism, necessarily, but we're sensitive to it.
The imagery of the song is definitely intense, but so is American Psycho. I loved that little American Psycho clip he did-- it puts things into context, because Kanye feels like a director, and I don't think everything he's saying in the songs is actually him saying it every time. It's like a movie, or a concept. On "I'm in It", it seems like I'm playing a character in the song, but I'm not necessarily guiding who that character is-- Kanye's editing creates the character. I definitely remember the "star fucker" section in the middle, though, just calling somebody out. That's my favorite lyrical content that I've gotten to do on a Kanye record so far.
Evian Christ: I love Assassin’s part in that song, too, he absolutely killed it.
Justin Vernon: I have no idea what the Jamaican dude [Assassin] is saying. At all. But it's fucking awesome as hell.
Noah Goldstein: Kanye figured out all those reggae voices on the album. Everything is him, to be real. Regardless of who additionally produced things, it's his curation. And this idea that he's not as hands-on in the studio now is bullshit. He is the consummate producer.
Image by Connor Tingley
THE KANYE WAY
Anthony Kilhoffer: Everyone’s given a song and asked to go produce on it and bring it back the next day, then we’ll all sit around and critique it. It’s kind of like an art class [laughs]: “This is what we did this afternoon, what do you think?”
Evian Christ: The atmosphere in the studio is very focused. It’s a room full of people who are working towards the same idea, and you just know that when you hand something over to Kanye, it’s gonna come back even better. That makes for a very easy working experience.
Anthony Kilhoffer: We get to the studio at about two in the afternoon, and then work until maybe 11 p.m., go back to Kanye’s house, play what we worked on, then maybe go back to the studio around midnight and work until three in the morning. A lot of people think, “Oh, it’s a Kanye project-- spend a couple of days in the studio and then go out and party in Paris.” But it’s serious work.
Evian Christ: Logic would seemingly state that an album with so many people working on it would sound disjointed, but what Kanye manages to do is get the best out of everyone working towards one sound. You can’t really overstate how difficult it is to do that.
"To work well with Kanye, you’ve got to be able to take direction,
and if you’re told your idea’s not good, you can’t
take it personally." -- Anthony Kilhoffer
Mike Dean: There's always some competitiveness. During the mixing process, people can get edgy. Like, me and Anthony Kilhoffer will be working on the same thing, trying to beat each other, but we're still good friends.
Noah Goldstein: If Kanye says "go," you just go. You have to be fast. Especially with people like Kanye and Jay, they’re really good at what they do. The best. You have to be as good as them at what you do.
Anthony Kilhoffer: To work well with Kanye, you’ve got to be able to take direction, and if you’re told your idea’s not good, you can’t take it personally. Because it is art, a lot of people do get upset, but nothing goes through 100% without some comments or critiques.
Justin Vernon: Kanye's a world-famous star, but it's just like working on music with friends: You're trying to do the coolest shit. Just being around motherfuckers who have been doing this for a long time and are getting better-- like, there actually aren't that many of them in the world. There's no pedestrian fuckery on this album. People are working their asses off to make the best shit, and Kanye's leading the pack.
Image by Pathetic Pixels
UNDERMINE THE COMMERCIAL
Travi$ Scott: When 'Ye opened up that Maybach laptop and hit play on "Black Skinhead", I jumped off the stairs onto the couch. I was going HAM. That was when I heard the "na na na na" part for the first time, I lost my fucking mind. That's some soccer anthem-type shit.
Mike Dean: "Black Skinhead" almost got deaded because it was too much like a soccer song.
Travi$ Scott: We always undermine the commercial.
Travi$ Scott: That was too much of a smash, though.
Hudson Mohawke: There are a lot of amazing songs that were left off [Yeezus]-- stuff that you might consider to be more melodic or in-line with Kanye's previous material-- purely because they didn't necessarily fit this rough-edged, 90s-industrial-type vibe. A lot of the record is trying to avoid obviousness. Through the entire process of putting it together, there were tons of easy slam dunks, but rather than just going for the hits and having an album that nobody's going to give a fuck about in a month or two, he intentionally sidestepped the obvious route each time. I think that's what going to give it more longevity and put it in a category of records that you'll go back to in 10 years time.
"Through the process of putting the album together, there were tons of slam dunks, but rather than going for the hits, he intentionally sidestepped the obvious route each time." -- Hudson Mohawke
Noah Goldstein: "On Sight" sets a new bar. Nobody's doing that. There's no chance in hell that anybody's gonna put that on and be like, "Oh, that's J. Cole"-- not to diss J. Cole. But there's only one person who can do that kind of shit.
Travi$ Scott: You gotta be really dialed in to understand something like "On Sight".
Hudson Mohawke: In the first incarnation of the tracklist, "Blood on the Leaves" was the intro to the album-- Nina Simone's voice was going to be the first one you hear. But that was changed at the last minute, probably for the best, because "On Sight" puts a message across that this is a very different record. "On Sight" is my favorite song on the whole album, but I felt like people weren't gonna fucking know what they're listening to when that distorted acid instrumental comes in-- even as the opener for one of my records, it would be pushing it. [laughs] But Kanye went ahead with it, and good on him for sticking to his guns, because that song really sets the tone.
THE SOUND OF YEEZUS
Justin Vernon: I assumed that he was gonna do the maximalist thing again with this album, but it's more like: "Boom! We just made a song, and it bangs, so fuck you." It's such an awesome contrast.
Mike Dean: For Twisted Fantasy, I probably spent 180 days in the studio. For this album, I only spent 30 or 40.
Anthony Kilhoffer: It was probably the fastest record we ever made. And instead of doing 30 songs altogether, we only did 20. Still, we would explore all kinds of options: different tempos or drums, whether a song should be synth-based on real-instrument based. A lot of younger producers just get a beat, put a rap on it, and that’s the song. There's no dissecting, or recreating, or considering the relevance in contemporary music.
Noah Goldstein: Part of my job is to be up on pop culture, but also keep track of what's going on in the depths of the music scene. I pride myself on my music library, which is so geeky, but it's true. I'm always thinking, "Are we doing something that's already being done?" If so, we should stop. One of my friends said the album sounded like Death Grips, and I was like, "I don't know what you're talking about, but OK." I know of them, but I can definitely say that we did not listen to Death Grips once the entire time we were making this album.
"I can definitely say that we did not listen to Death Grips once the entire time we were making this album." -- Noah Goldstein
Anthony Kilhoffer: We want to set ourselves apart from what is currently in rotation. A lot of times, Kanye sets parameters of sounds and styles that we can and can't use. For instance: You’ll find there’s no bass wobbles on this album. Dubstep is really big right now, but it’s not something we could use in our production styles. He’s always trying to not take the easy way out. So it's about achieving clubby, contemporary sounds while setting yourself apart from Skrillex or RedOne. We don’t want to follow, we want to lead.
Mike Dean: We met up with Skrillex, but he never made any contributions to the album. Actually, there's one song that's sitting around that's pretty good-- it'll be on something eventually. It had been in the running since last year. It's a work in progress.
Image by The Barrington
"I AM A GOD"
Noah Goldstein: The very first time I heard Kanye say "I am a God," we all were like, "OK, that's where we're going-- let's go all the way there."
Hudson Mohawke: "I Am a God" was one of the first songs he had for the record. It was like the blueprint. The original version was even more directly in-your-face and aggressive than the final, but given the song's title, it didn't need this fucking apocalyptic, earth-shatteringly massive production to get its point across.
Noah Goldstein: If you watch LeBron dunk in the middle of a game, you’re gonna get up and freak out. And it was like that when Kanye spit the first verse of “I Am a God”. It was really fucking early in the morning, and he just came downstairs, and was like, “Yo, let’s go.” It was the most emphatic performance. I was like, “Holy shit!” [laughs] I stopped and hit save really quick and thought, “Fuck, I gotta back up the drive right now, man. That was crazy.”
He does that shit a lot. He did it on “New Day” as well, from Watch the Throne. We were set up at the SoHo Grand, and he came in at fucking 9:30 in the morning and was like, “Yo, I got the ‘New Day’ verse, bring it up.” Then he spit it. I looked at him, like, “For real, man? That just happened? You just did that shit?” He just smiled at me.
"One of my favorite things about Kanye is that there's always some personal flaws in his lyrics. He's not trying to portray himself as some squeaky clean, perfect person." -- Hudson Mohawke
"HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS" AND SUCH
Noah Goldstein: Sometimes I don’t realize which lines are going to really resonate, but Kanye always does. Actually, "hurry up with my damn croissants" was one where I was like, “Are you really sure you want to say that?” [laughs] And he’s like, “Yes! That’s staying in!” He literally has the best gut instincts of anybody I’ve ever worked with, as far as what music should be. So when he says a line has to stay in, I’m like, "OK!" I will not argue with the god.
Hudson Mohawke: There are so many classic lines. I tweeted this one yesterday: "Do you remember when we first met?/ OK, I don't remember when we first met." [laughs] They creep up on you, they're not obvious punchlines. And one of my favorite things about Kanye is that there's always some personal flaws in his lyrics. He's honest. He's not trying to portray himself as some squeaky clean, perfect person. It takes him out of the realm of so many other mainstream rap artists who only focus on the bragging side of things; you don't necessarily feel like you have any personal connection with a lot of those artists, whereas Kanye puts so much of his own personality into his music.
Image by Pathetic Pixels
"BLOOD ON THE LEAVES"
Travi$ Scott: "Blood on the Leaves" is a crazy-ass song, bro. That's the Kanye West genius right there: Only he would think that "Strange Fruit" was missing a HudMo beat, and that the HudMo beat was missing "Strange Fruit". [laughs] When I heard that, I was jumping on niggas' backs and shit, like, "Ahhhh!"
Hudson Mohawke: ["R U Ready"] was either the first or second TNGHT track me and Lunice ever did together, and that happened to be one of the first things we sent over to [Kanye's camp]. So about a month after we made it, in the summer of 2011, they first got in touch with me. And while that entire original beat is still there on "Blood on the Leaves", the finished version-- with the Nina Simone part and everything-- is completely different. It's really become a fucking proper song. I think Kanye had wanted to use that "Strange Fruit" sample for a while, but it was like, "How in the hell are you going to get that to fit?" But it miraculously came together. Obviously, "Strange Fruit" carries so much political weight, and "Blood on the Leaves" is more about past relationships, but you can draw some parallels between the two. There's not an overtly political message in the final lyrics, but in some ways that would've been too easy.
LOVE AND HATE AND (NEAR) DEATH
Noah Goldstein: I really like the fact that people are loving this album or they're like, "This is trash!" I don't really like up-the-middle music, because where's the opinion in that? I'd rather have people hate it than be in the middle.
Mike Dean: Jake Tapper did a three-minute story on Kanye on CNN about the New York Times interview, and he said everything pulling a face, like smirking. So, on Twitter, I was like, "Fuck Jake Tapper." He answered back. He was like, "I actually like the album."
Hudson Mohawke: The last four months have been the hardest-going of my life. Actually, in the middle of the whole process, I died and was resuscitated-- I almost joined the 27 Club. [laughs] I just had a few silly nights out and overdid it with various things. So I spent a week in intensive care in the middle of making the record, next to people who were literally on their deathbeds. Then I got out of the hospital and got right on a plane to New York-- I was like, "I've gotta get on with this fucking record." It's character building stuff-- to get thrown into the deep end can be the best way to approach things. I wouldn't change any of it.