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    Interview: Hard Feelings: A Conversation With Feist


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    Festival Report: Coachella 2017: Winners and Losers

    Halfway through his Coachella-closing set, Kendrick Lamar started levitating. First, the Compton rapper retreated into a sheer box, sitting hunched over to recite “LUST.,” a slow creep from his just-released album DAMN. Then, verse by verse, the floor started to move skyward. By the song’s end, he was sitting on top of a giant cube; then he stood up and launched into a furious performance of “Money Trees.” The image—Kendrick alone on a dark, glowing box, surrounded by a sea of people, by darkness, by the desert—was impossible to shake, a visual reminder that he is, for the moment, peerless.

    All told, Kendrick’s first turn headlining Coachella was something of a victory lap. He’s at the point in his career where songs from a three-day-old album can send a sea of arms flailing, where tracks as hard as “DNA.” or as heartfelt as “GOD.” inspire remarkably adept sing-alongs, where recent single “HUMBLE.” can raucously cap off a main set like a tried-and-true greatest hit. But there was more than DAMN. for Kendrick to celebrate. He circled back to 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly for the massive “Alright” and the slinking “King Kunta,” and even tapped last year’s untitled unmastered. for “untitled 07 | 2014-2016,” better known as “levitate,” which lived up to its promise as a sneering, swaggering, sprawling eight-minute odyssey. Old favorites like “m.A.A.d. City,” “Backseat Freestyle,” and the “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix underscored the fact that the man’s reign atop hip-hop’s critical food chain has now stretched out to half a decade.

    He didn’t do it completely alone. Bold name guest rappers were one of the weekend’s prevailing themes, and Kendrick called up his TDE labelmate Schoolboy Q for a Kanye-less rendition of “THat Part,” as well as Travis Scott, for the Kendrick-featuring “Goosebumps.” But the most surprising guest appearance came courtesy of Future, who was given carte blanche to play his solo hit “Mask Off,” which will be entirely unavoidable this summer. At the end of the song, the rappers were visibly ecstatic to be sharing the stage with one another. It was, as the kids here say, a movie.

    Kendrick Lamar and Future photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

    Speaking of film, imagine the following as a classically dystopian Radiohead video: The band is playing to one of the largest captive audiences in the world, only to have their sound malfunction and be left in silence, effectively pantomiming. The British group—along with everyone in the desert and those watching the livestream at home—lived through that nightmare scenario during their Friday night set, which was marred by sound difficulties from the beginning. At two different points, they left the stage altogether, and fans were left wondering whether they’d return at all.

    Ultimately, the set stretched well over two hours, with the “Karma Police” closer everyone undoubtedly hoped for. Bright spots included the tortured “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which started the longest uninterrupted run of the night, and most of the cuts from last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which were met as enthusiastically as the band’s older, more well-trod material. But the technical hangups were uniquely detrimental to Radiohead, considering the band’s sets rely on long, drawn-out tug-of-wars with tension, style, and mood; breaking that rhythm and bringing listeners back down to earth ruined the illusion.

    On Saturday, Lady Gaga debuted her new single, “The Cure,” which skews closer to her pop roots than most of the songs on last year’s Joanne. Though there were certainly attendees disappointed to see her instead of Beyoncé, who was originally slated to anchor Saturday night, Gaga did play the pair’s duet, “Telephone,” to perhaps the biggest reaction of the evening. It wasn’t as tight or virtuosic as her Super Bowl halftime show, and it lacked the total sensory control of her famous arena concerts, but Gaga was a capable pinch hitter.

    There were fewer headline-grabbing acts of political protest than some expected in this first Coachella of the Trump era, but the burgeoning R&B star Kehlani wore overalls emblazoned with “Find Our Girls,” a rallying cry for the young, predominately black women who have recently been kidnapped in the Washington, D.C. area.

    Mitski enjoyed a turnout usually reserved for much later time slots during her early Saturday afternoon set, and went onto prove that she is one of the most magnetic young talents working today. The same can be said about Thundercat, who ambled up to the Mojave stage a couple of hours later and proceeded to put on a bass clinic before bringing out yacht-rock icon Michael McDonald.

    While we’re talking about young talents: Lorde used her time on the main stage Sunday night to debut a song called “Homemade Dynamite,” and to properly unveil “Sober,” which she played for the first time at an intimate show the night before. Though “Green Light,” the lead single from her upcoming second album, Melodrama, doesn’t quite stick like “Royals,” “Dynamite” comes awfully close.

    Lorde photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella

    Elsewhere, Father John Misty and Travis Scott came in at opposite ends of the analog-digital spectrum; Misty performed with the help of a small orchestra while Scott relied on competing layers of distortion so intricate as to render his songs almost unrecognizable. However different, each artist came out ahead, adding a layer of technical intrigue to his recorded work.

    Coachella has become so big that it’s easy to forget how it exists in a very specific ecosystem. (The tents, after all, are named after deserts: Mojave, Sahara, Gobi, Yuma.) It’s difficult to dream up an artist better suited for the climate than Nicolas Jaar, who took over the Mojave at 10:40 p.m. on Saturday. His set, which was muggy, cavernous, and then suddenly cold, mirrored the desert night perfectly. If you wanted something searingly hot, you could duck inside the Yuma tent where, at separate points, the veteran DJ Solomun and the three-headed monster of Four Tet, Daphni, and Floating Points drenched a rotating cast of guests in sweat and adrenaline.

    On Friday night, the Avalanches were the first act to have fans spilling out of the Mojave tent, causing a dancing, docile traffic jam for those attempting to pass by. Two days later, Lil Uzi Vert enjoyed the same sort of overflow love, filling the Sahara far past capacity and leading a deafening rendition of “XO Tour Llif3.”

    Bon Iver’s time on the main stage Saturday night was helpful to those who found last year’s 22, A Million an unwelcoming work; blown up to this size, the component parts were easier to trace. Tove Lo, who was joined on stage by Wiz Khalifa for “Influence,” caused a minor ruckus by briefly removing her top during her performance, but it’s also worth noting that the Mojave crowd called her back for an encore at the end of her performance, too. Justice ran through a supremely crowd-pleasing show of their own on the outdoor stage, just as time was running out on Sunday evening.

    Migos and DJ Khaled photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella

    Now, about those previously mentioned rapper cameos. With all due respect to James Brown, the Migos might be the hardest working men in the music festival business right now. Despite not being booked to play at Coachella, they popped up not once, not twice or even three times—there were four separate Migos spottings, at sets by Future, DJ Khaled, Gucci Mane, and DJ Snake. Each time, they played their monstrous “Bad & Boujee”; when time allowed, they ran through “T-Shirt” or “Slippery,” all from their excellent album Culture.

    In fact, their energy during Future’s main stage slot was sorely needed. After a start that was sometimes too laconic for its own good, Future’s set sprang to life with “Bad & Boujee,” allowing for an inspired run through four cuts from his maddeningly underappreciated HNDRXX. Future also brought out Ty Dolla $ign and then Drake, who ran through “Jumpman,” “Gyalchester,” and “Fake Love,” all in an orange vest that could have likely saved him from drowning, oncoming traffic, or anything else life might throw at him.

    Popular Snapchatter DJ Khaled unsurprisingly packed his Sahara tent gig with guests, including Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, A$AP Ferg, and Migos. (Khaled also played an endless array of rap hits, though usually only for six or eight seconds at a time, with gaps twice that long in between; when he wasn’t doing that, he was requesting the crowd chant his newborn son’s name.) Schoolboy Q, who graced the outdoor stage on Saturday night, welcomed A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator, and boasted one of the festival’s most formidable sets. And even Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff would admit that they were DJ Snake’s second-most interesting surprise, after Ms. Lauryn Hill, who ran through “Ready or Not,” “Killing Me Softly,” and “Lost Ones,” just like you’ve always dreamed.

    Gucci Mane photo by Natt Lim/Getty Images for Coachella

    But the most jubilant moment of Coachella was Gucci Mane’s time in the Sahara tent on Saturday night. In between new songs like “Back on Road” and “Pussy Print,” the newly free Atlantan played time-honored classics like “Bricks,” “Lemonade,” and “Wasted.” He was joined by the Migos, as well as Lil Yachty, and Rae Sremmurd, with whom Gucci scored his first No. 1 hit, “Black Beatles.” And then there was Diddy. The toothpicked wonder came out to perform “I Need a Girl,” “All About the Benjamins,” and “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” one of the most joyous songs in the entire rap canon. The only thing that could top it? “First Day Out,” performed by a man who’s finally out for good.


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    Festival Report: Are Music Festival Lineups Getting Worse?

    There’s no more predictable pile-on in music fandom than the backlash to festival lineup announcements. Within minutes of any given festival poster’s release, critics are comparing font sizes to make the usual criticisms: too similar to other festivals, too predictable, too many reunions, not enough diversity, weak headliners, who the hell are these bands in the fine print?, and so forth.

    But those same festival posters actually provide the data to confirm or rebut some of those accusations. Compiled together in one spreadsheet, they provide a snapshot of the music industry and the festival business, revealing this summer’s biggest draws, hardest workers, the homogeneity of the American and Canadian festival scene, and a whole lot more. As the flower crown and glowstick industries ramp up production for the start of 2017 festival season this weekend at Coachella, we broke down the data on 23 of this year’s biggest fests (see appendix for criteria) and the nearly 1000 acts playing them to put a little science behind the ceremonial cynicism.

    Who Dominates the 2017 Festival Season?

    The font-size hierarchy of festival posters provides a convenient ranking system, with most announcements following a template from (literal) big-name headliners down to locals and unknowns in vision-test type. But there are a couple different ways to calculate the “winners” of a given festival season. Is it the musician popular enough to sign an exclusive and presumably very lucrative contract to headline just one festival this year? Or is it the act who turns up again and again near the top of posters throughout festival season?

    We came up with scores for both definitions. CLOUT is based on an act’s average placement on a poster, with more weight assigned for bigger festivals. OMNI assigns points for every festival a band plays, based on how high they rank on each poster, then adds them up. Here, you can sort an interactive visualization by either measure (or simply by # of festivals or highest/lowest billing, if you wish), and make your own meta-poster for the 2017 season.


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    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: What Do You Call Father John Misty?

    1. The New Pornographers, Fox Theatre, Oakland (April 13) It’s wonderful to see this band age: Neko Case, looking as if she’s lived in the wind for the last five years, there from the time of the band’s first album, exploding out of Mass Romantic in 2000 with “Letter from an Occupant”; synthesizer player Blaine Thurier, always a presence, a rock; Kathryn Calder at keyboards since the mid-2000s; Simi Stone, occasionally picking her violin like a guitar, over the last two years; drummer Joseph Seiders; guitarist Todd Fancey; bassist John Collins; and founding songwriter and guitarist A.C. Newman, the Clark Kent behind the sometimes superhuman sound the band can make. Thurer’s and Collins’s beards were gray; by comparison Seiders looked like a teenager. The whole sight folded into a sense of common purpose, commitment, community: at their best they’re one big pump organ, as if everybody is playing everybody else’s instrument. Their last albums have been flat, and this night they seemed tired, but with the second number they were flying: one of those moments when you cannot fully connect what you’re seeing to what you’re hearing. If a hurricane could smile, “The Laws Have Changed” would be it.

    They never reached those heights again. Despite the joy and authority in Stone’s singing, I’ve never seen them less exuberant—at times, even a step away from going through the motions of a song, with no will to take it past itself. No, you can’t make it happen every night, and you never know when it will or it won’t, why it was or it wasn’t. I didn’t see anyone there who looked as if he or she wouldn’t be back the next chance they had.


    2. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy (Sub Pop) If a smooth croon with perfectly rounded syllables from a penitent wandering through our valleys of error is what you’re looking for, this is for you. Of course there’s an out: Father John Misty is a persona, one of those people, like St. Vincent, who you’re supposed to know is really Annie Clark, who perform as—who perform as artists of such pretentiousness you couldn’t possibly figure out how to talk to them. “Uh Ms., ah, Saint—” No, there’s no way to address a saint: to be a saint you have to be dead. “Father—Father John”—already, you’ve ceded all authority, even if the Lone Pilgrim says you can call him Josh Tillman. Such characters allow themselves to appear as if touched by God, which is what they’re selling, and laugh at you if you’re so square not to know who they really are: to join their club.


    3. Bob Dylan, “Q&A with Bill Flanagan” (bobdylan.com, March 22) After Chuck Berry died, it seemed web sites popped up like mushrooms to show where he’d taken the guitar introduction to “Johnny B. Goode” from to prove that his music was nothing new, that it was only ignorance, or vanity, that led his listeners to think that not only was the music different, they might be, too. The argument for real history will never be made better: “Rock and roll was indeed an extension of what was going on—the big swinging bands—Ray Noble, Will Bradley, Glenn Miller, I listened to that music before I heard Elvis Presley. But rock and roll ... was skeleton music, came out of the darkness and rode in on the atom bomb and the artists were star headed like mystical Gods. Rhythm and blues, country and western, bluegrass and gospel were always there—but it was compartmentalized—it was great but it wasn’t dangerous. Rock and roll was a dangerous weapon, chrome plated, it exploded like the speed of light, it reflected the times, especially the presence of the atomic bomb which had preceded it by several years. Back then people feared the end of time. The big showdown between capitalism and communism was on the horizon. Rock and roll made you oblivious to the fear, busted down the barriers that race and religion, ideologies put up. We lived under a death cloud; the air was radioactive. There was no tomorrow, any day it could all be over, life was cheap. That was the feeling at the time and I’m not exaggerating. Doo-wop was the counterpart to rock and roll. Songs like ‘In the Still of the Night,’ ‘Earth Angel,’ ‘Thousand Miles Away,’ those songs balanced things out, they were heartfelt and melancholy for a world that didn’t seem to have a heart. The doo-wop groups might have been an extension, too, of the Ink Spots and gospel music, but it didn’t matter; that was brand new too. Groups like the Five Satins and the Meadowlarks seemed to be singing from some imaginary street corner down the block.”


    4. Deadmen, The Deadmen (Gang Switch) Justin Jones doesn’t have a strong enough voice to sustain his band over heavy airplay, which they probably won’t get, which means their music may hold its shape. It’s marvelously insinuating stuff, if you’re a sucker for songs inspired by Once Upon a Time in the West—and not just Ennio Morricone’s dreamy soundtrack, but the hesitations behind every move Charles Bronson makes: the music of them. As the band opens up, you can hear so many others who’ve touched their toes in this desert: the Vulgar Boatmen, Alison Krauss, the odd conviction, the convincingness, behind Bad Company’s “Bad Company,” Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” as rescued by Billy Bragg. Put this on as background music, do anything but listen to it, and then wonder why you’re not doing anything else.


    5. Devlin, “Watchtower,” in “The Young Pope” (HBO) Most episodes of this irresistibly cruel drama by Paolo Sorrentino—and absolutely of a piece with his movies The Great Beauty (2013) and Youth (2015)—opened with Jude Law’s forty-something pope strolling through a Vatican corridor decorated with paintings that trace the history of the church. The paintings were so vivid that, when Law passed them, and the people in them began to move, it seemed only natural—or that, when they went back to their mandated positions, still and fixed, it seemed unnatural, as if something real was being taken away. But that impression was because of the coiling tension in the music that was playing as Law walked on down the hall—not strolling, actually, but really high-stepping to a displacing version of “All Along the Watchtower.”

    It was displacing because it wasn’t immediately apparent what it was. Sooner or later you heard it: an instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s version—in this world, the term original meant nothing. But what was it, and where did it come from?  It turned out to be the backing track of the London rapper Devlin’s 2012 “Watchtower.” It’s some record: the performance video shows Devlin flanked by the singer and producer Labrinth and the now all-world superstar Ed Sheeran, here looking precisely as if he wandered in after sleeping off a drunk in an alley. Sheeran strums his guitar and sings Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” without missing a slip, which is to say he sings all of Hendrix’s slips with the lyrics as if they are the original. It’s a weirdly thrilling thing to watch. Devlin unloads, furiously, attacking all the conceits of the song, its claims to knowledge, irony, smashing himself against Sheeran’s heartfelt singing, the way he communicates that it’s a privilege to sing the song—there’s no sense of privilege in anything Devlin does, it’s all filth and sin and corruption and nothingness, the treasures he’s won are water in his hands. In certain shots you see another guitarist, a drummer. You don’t see Labrinth’s hands at the controls, which are what made it happen.


    6. Dwight Garner, “From Camille Paglia, ‘Free Women, Free Men,’ and No Sacred Cows,” The New York Times (March 24)“She repeats the same arguments and anecdotes over and over again. Reading this book is like being stranded in a bar where the jukebox has only two songs, both by Pat Benatar.”


    7. “Big Little Lies,” “You Get What You Need” (HBO, April 2) For the big school fundraiser, the women are in cocktail dresses, the men in Elvis costumes—wildly inventive, from the expected straight jumpsuits and ’68 Comeback black leather to a floppy Hawaiian shirt and the black and white stripes from the big production number in Jailhouse Rock. Everyone gets up to sing the Elvis songbook, and as the night played the choices could not have been less obvious: “How’s the World Treating You,” “The Wonder of You.” The killer was “Treat Me Nice” as pantomimed in a curling crouch by the the actor Larry Bates but sung by series director Jean-Marc Vallée (credited as Jimmy Valley—there’s a name for a ’50s rock’n’roll singer who never made it), and Zoë Kravitz’s “Don’t.” Vallée slowed his song down so drastically, and Bates moved through it so coolly, that it felt as if the bouncing little ditty was actually about something. “Don’t” was already slow, but Kravitz too brought it almost to a stop between every word, so that you heard fear, dread, portent, a life out of control. You heard “Don’t”—please, please, don’t—instead of what the song pretends it’s about: “Baby, don’t say don’t.” You could hardly bear for her to leave one word behind and go on to the next, because the first word as she paused over it was so deep, and you could feel that the second would be even more intense. The song was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Leiber is dead, but I hope Stoller didn’t miss it.


    8. Patti Smith on “The Current,” Minnesota Public Radio, Minneapolis (89.3 FM, March 8) On being in the Nobel breakfast room the day after: “I mean, some of the greatest scientists in the world, past laureates and present laureates, telling me how he got them through medical school, he got them through tough times when they were trying to prove a certain theorem, or looking for a cure for some horrible disease, or trying to break down biochemistry, and what were they listening to, Bob Dylan.”


    9. Hari Kunzru, White Tears (Knopf)“He was just a vehicle for his obsession,” one collector of blues 78s from the ’20s and ’30s says of another—and the strangeness of the notion, that the urge to acquire, to accumulate, to own a tiny piece of the world and thus feel like the ruler of all of it, can turn a person into his own host, subject to the whims of his haunting, powers this novel. You’re as trapped by the obsession as Kunzru’s characters. And then, at the crucial moment, when everything is about to explode—well, maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, and for the rest of the book, that’s all there is, and you stop caring long before you finish it, hoping that somehow Kunzru will pull it off.


    10. Marvin Gershowitz, comment on YouTube album “Moby Grape—Live (Historic Live Moby Grape Performances 1966-1969),” posted by 67Psych:“Did the devil loan you his record collection?”


    Thanks to Cecily Marcus. And thanks to Ryan Dombal for fine editing. This is the last installment of this column in Pitchfork.  Beginning in May it will appear in the Village Voice.


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    Longform: Soundtrack to Salvation: How Elevation Church Uses Rock’N’Roll to Get Closer to God


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    Interview: Finished Business: An Exit Interview with Chairlift

    When Chairliftannounced their breakup late last year, it came as something of a surprise. Why a group that’s shapeshifted and grown with each of itsthreealbums would call it quits when there seems to be no acrimony among its members remains a bit puzzling. Plus, the Brooklyn music scene that incubated Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly over the last decade seems more primed than ever to understand their post-genre mix of pop, experimental, electronic, R&B, and rock.

    But right before I leave Polachek’s homey, top-floor walk-up in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood earlier this week, it clicks. “There’s an indie ghetto,” she laments. Though the band has been signed to major label Columbia since 2009, she means that no matter how manycertified bangersthey write, Chairlift, as an idea, will always be perceived as being a product of peak indie rock. And Polachek and Wimberly don’t have small-time aspirations.

    “Up until this point, it’s made sense to combine what we do into one thing,” Polachek tells me, more diplomatically, over coffee, ginger snaps, and cat cuddles around her kitchen table. But with Wimberly’s production work for artists including Solange and Kelsey Lu, along with Polachek’s flourishing songwriting skills—she co-wrote and co-produced Beyoncé’s “No Angel”—the singer says, “Having a single-collaborator format doesn’t make sense for either of us right now.”

    The duo’s short goodbye tour culminates with their biggest show to date in Brooklyn on April 22. Wimberly and Polachek still plan to call each other up when they get stuck on their own projects, but Polachek admits there’s a rattly, metallic, “quintessentially Chairlift” synth sound she’s going to need to retire at this point. Short of that, though, don’t expect these two to slow down anytime soon. 


    Check out a batch of candid Chairlift photos from across the last eight years, courtesy of the band:

    Pitchfork: How do you think technology has changed the music world across the past decade of Chairlift’s existence?

    Caroline Polachek: More than anything, I think social media had the biggest impact. When we first started, Myspace was peaking, but it still didn’t feel like it was at the center of the way people consumed music. In those early social media days, at least in the underground pop scene that was happening in Brooklyn, there was still this idea of total humility that was left over from experimental and indie rock—it was extremely uncool to brag about yourself, or to be confident. Some of the bands that you saw blowing up at that time, like MGMT and Grizzly Bear, were confident, but it was part of the concept to be self-effacing.

    I’ve been unpacking that [idea] recently, because the opposite is the case now. The people who are 17 years old and present themselves as gods of the world right out of the gate have this huge advantage and aren’t looked down on. That would not have flown at all in the world that we came up in. There was something ingrained in that entire scene that was generational. Sometimes I look at it as kind of a disadvantage because I have to remind myself: How much of that are you still carrying around?

    Between your first and second albums, Does You Inspire You and Something, founding Chairlift member Aaron Pfenning left the band. What changed when you went from a trio to just the two of you?

    Patrick Wimberly: We set out on a clear path and got rid of an obstacle.

    CP: Burn. [both laugh]

    PW: Love him to death, but it wasn’t working.

    CP:The communication lines were not open. But also, everything changed in our lives around that time. Patrick and I both entered into serious relationships with people that completely changed who we were. It felt like we were both becoming New Yorkers for the first time after spending a pretty grueling year and a half on the road. And it felt really good to put down some roots and to see ourselves as music professionals, because the whole first album was a whirlwind. I was in college when we were making it—I mean, I was in the computer lab at NYU checking my email between finals when I got a text that “Bruises” was in an iPod commercial.

    We were also dealing with legal shit for a year and a half with Aaron leaving. So there was this undertone of passive aggressiveness that went into that second album. I was digging really heavily into obscure ’80s music then and part of what I love about that stuff is the mixing of the super sweet with the really aggressive. We felt very caught in the middle, too. We’re a major label band, but we like so much weird stuff.

    In those early Columbia days, was there ever a sense that they wanted you to be more of a commercial pop act?

    CP: There definitely was a tug of war at first. They wanted an album full of “Bruises,” and we wanted to become a new band.

    PW: But once we turned in Something, nobody fought us. They went with it.

    CP: That was our first time working with the amazing Maureen Kenny, who signed us to Columbia. She had a much more pragmatic outlook than we did. As we were still in the writing phase, she was very matter-of-fact about saying, “Keep writing.” We wrote about 40 songs for that record, and at one point she gave me a Bruce Springsteen documentary about how he wrote 300 songs for Darkness at the Edge of Town and that he would play them until he figured out which ones were the best. At the time, coming from music just being a hobby, being told to keep writing was a brutal thing. It’s funny because now that seems not only par for the course, but I think we should have written more. Both of us have a new appreciation for the process of writing—it’s actually my favorite part of the whole album life cycle now.

    What’s something you wish you’d known when Chairlift started?

    CP: I’ve got two things, and they’re sort of opposites of each other. One is to not be precious about your music within your own world. Try everything you want to try; just because it exists doesn’t mean it’s done. But also: Don’t say yes to everything. Learn how to say no, because people respect a no. We were surrounded by people who were telling us, “This is how it works—you just say yes to things and you do the things.” I look back on the first album cycle and I’m proud of the music we made but, man, there was a whole trail of garbage generated by promo stuff we did that I would never do now. There’s a garbage machine out there, and you can say no to it, and it will be OK. Because that’s not what’s going to make your career—your music and your good ideas are what make your career.

    PW: And you have to trust yourself when the answer is no. Because there’s often somebody very close to you telling you the opposite.

    CP: Yeah, you have to remember that you are the artist, and the people around you are not the artist. I’ll keep expecting managers or labels to be like, “OK, I’ve got this good idea about how to frame who you are,” but no one is going to do that for you. It’s intense and scary, but that’s the real shit right there—when you realize that the good ideas are going to come from you. No one else is in your dream world.

    Was there ever anything you said no to that you regret now?

    CP: No.

    PW: No.

    What’s something you said yes to that you wish you hadn’t?

    CP:All sorts of things, but they’re all on the same level of inconsequential small shit. It’s just the ground hum of it. Video interviews. Branded stuff. Over-playing to the point that we were exhausted and couldn’t do a good show. Wearing stupid clothes for stupid magazines.

    Hopefully I can be someone’s big sister and be like, “You don’t have to do that.” I wish I’d had a mentor. Especially for women in the music industry, there’s a lack of mentorship.

    In the time since you started Chairlift, do you think the sense of community among women musicians has grown?

    CP: Well, we’ve always been really lucky that we had a close community, but it keeps shifting for many reasons. People drop in and out of music, in and out of New York City. It’s just natural. In a lot of ways, I credit Chairlift’s success—if you could call it that—to the community we’ve been part of. That’s been a really important thing for us too—giving artists that we believe in a hand up, collaborating and sharing shows, swapping demos. That’s why we came to this city. Patrick’s even more that way than I am—he’s extremely loyal to his crew.

    PW: I stayed very close to the MGMT guys ever since we shared a rehearsal space with them in 2008. They were the first ones to have us open for them, and now I’m working with them on their fourth record.

    Besides community, how do you think being in New York changed the band?

    PW: That first year that I was in the band [in 2007], we were such hustlers. Once we decided to take the band seriously, all three of us were working so hard and booking our own tours. There was a certain grind that I don’t know would have happened anywhere else.

    CP: It affected us more in terms of motivation than musically, but it definitely fed the sense of mania in the music, too. When Aaron and I were living in Colorado, I was part of a small DIY noise scene there—we were in a place that was so calm and wholesome, you would really seek out violence in the music. I remember going to shows with the hopes that there would be something really physical about it—even just moshing—because in a place so spread out, that’s what you look for in a scene. But then in New York I was so physically overwhelmed by the crowds in the subways and just how much it takes out of you that I started listening to new age music and really soft pop. You would have thought moving to a city like this would make you make harsher music, but actually it did the opposite.

    At the same time, New York is a place where you can have so many identities. You know how some trees have those ear mushrooms that just grow off, and you could live on one of those mushrooms and not realize that there was stacks and stacks of others? That’s how I describe music scenes in New York.That’s one of the trippiest things about living here—just how many parallel universes there are that you can be completely unaware of. That definitely fanned the flames of our collage-y tendencies. I think if we lived in a place like Paris or London or Berlin, we’d feel more like we needed to define ourselves with a monolithic sound.

    Can you think of a New York moment that changed the music Chairlift was making?

    PW: I went to see Das Racist for the first time, at Galapagos [in Brooklyn], and heard them play that song “Combination Pizza Hut Taco Bell,” and I was like, “You guys gotta come over to my studio this weekend and record it.” I had never worked with rappers before, so I went and bought an MPC and spent the next day learning how to make beats. And that became a huge part of my production—just from that one show.

    Can we talk about highs and lows, in terms of personal memories?

    CP:We were reminiscing a couple of days ago about maybe the worst 24 hours Chairlift had, back in 2012. We almost missed a flight from Singapore to Stockholm. We were all sick. They lost my synthesizer, and we had to play a show without my synth, on Valentine’s Day. It was just one of those points when we were just dragging ourselves along the floor from place to place, completely jet-lagged. But the next day in Copenhagen, when my synth arrived, we were all just so irrationally happy. I look back a lot on those moments of surprise—when things are out of your control but working out the way they should.

    PW: That show in Copenhagen was one of our fondest moments, ever. It was a great audience. There are certain audiences that I can remember very vividly.

    Do you remember their faces?

    PW:No.

    CP:I can.

    PW:It’s a feeling for me, like you’ve actually made a connection.

    Do you remember a crowd that was the exact opposite of that feeling?

    PW and CP:Liverpool.

    PW: It was our first tour in the UK [in late 2008]. We were about to get signed [to Columbia] so we were in between record labels and really tired and sick and broke.

    CP:It was a packed show but people only knew “Bruises” and they were talking loudly and not paying attention at all. We stopped playing in the middle of a song, and I threw my wine glass into the crowd and walked off stage. And the sound guy, who only had about half his teeth and reeked of alcohol, referred to me only as “baby” during soundcheck. He touched my butt during soundcheck, too. So I was an angry woman. When show was done, the promoter came out and said they weren’t paying us—and that we should pay them.

    PW:It was one of those things where our manager was like, “You guys gotta pack up real fast and get the fuck out of here.”

    CP:And then in the middle of packing, Aaron said something to the effect of, “If we don’t get paid, it’s going to be your fault.” I took his beer and poured it over his head. It was really all about the beverages that night.

    You were part of the convergence of the underground and the mainstream when you worked on Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album, and now you see other people from your world, like Rostam and Father John Misty writing for big pop stars, too. How did that Beyoncé collaboration come about?

    PW: We met Solange in 2009 when she came to one of our SXSW shows and introduced herself.

    CP:She not only introduced herself—she asked if she could get on stage and dance to “Planet Health” because she had choreography all worked out for it!

    PW: We ended up hanging out with her all weekend and became best friends. Later on, after she had finished [2012’s] True, she asked me if I would play drums for her live and help her with her show. She was using our rehearsal space for a hot second.

    CP:She was rehearsing there one day, years before the actual Beyoncé track happened, and she texted me saying, “I think you should write for my sister.” I texted her back like, “Uh, anytime. You’ve got my phone number.” And that was it. It was like she’d had a brain fart.

    PW:I had worked with Solange for a month or two but had to stop because we were starting to write Moth. She was playing a gig at MoMA, and they called me up to help with something. I was watching at the side of the stage with her sister and her brother-in-law [Jay Z], and afterwards all three of us were talking when Beyoncé was like, “You guys should totally come to the studio.” We were like, “Great, when?” We went the next Monday.

    CP:They gave us our own studio there, in this compound at Jungle City [in Manhattan]. It was like a hive of people—you could hear different songs coming out of different studios. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that or had any sense of how much music gets generated for an album like that. It was intimidating but also exciting because it made me want to write fast. So Patrick and I made five songs in about two weeks, with lyrics, that we gave them. Patrick had two instrumentals he threw into the folder, and I had a song from a year prior that I had done for [solo project] Ramona Lisa, but I changed the lyrics to make them more Beyoncé.

    We didn’t hear anything back for like six months, and then I get call from the engineer at three o’clock in the morning, coming back from an Ariel Pink show, being like, “I need [song] stems right now.” I ran home and sent them, but didn’t hear anything back for another four months. Then I got a call from her A&R asking if I could come in to approve her vocal on “No Angel.”

    Part of the structure of that song was that it’s supposed to build dynamically: enter really high vocally, octave wise, then drop down for chorus one, stay down really sultry for verse two, then shoot up for chorus two. But she had done the whole thing high. I turned to her A&R and was like, “I’m sure Beyoncé doesn’t take notes, but I’m going to say this anyway, just in case: The song is meant to surprise you at every turn, start high, drop low, stay low, jump up high.” And she’s like, “Beyoncé doesn’t take notes. This is the take.” I said, “OK, it sounds incredible, you have approval.”

    A month and a half later, I get a congrats text from a friend. I was so confused. He sends me a screencap of iTunes, and “No Angel” was track five. I went over to his place, and we watched the video, and I couldn’t believe it—she had changed the fucking vocal to be the way that it was on the demo, with the octave jumps.

    And I think we can finally confess this now: “Ch-Ching” was one of the songs we wrote for Beyoncé. Which is funny because it feels very full circle for us: That song just got an Apple Watch ad last week.

    What if “Ch-Ching” blows up huge now—are you going to pull an LCD Soundsystem and come back in a few years?

    PW: I don’t think so. As soon as we announced the breakup and the farewell tour, everybody that we’re close with was like, “Oh, you’re doing that LCD thing.” Whatever. That’s not the idea at all.

    CP:We had considered going on a hiatus for a while, but it really didn’t make sense to have a project that we’ve put this much work and love into become just become a part-time thing.

    What’s next for each of you?

    PW:Our last show is on Saturday, on Tuesday I go into sessions with Soko for three weeks, and one more week with MGMT, then I go out to L.A. for some writing and mixing. That’s only the next two months. It doesn’t look like I’m gonna be working any less than I have for the last 10 years.

    CP:I’m making a point not to talk about what’s next, but I will say it’s exciting to be fully in control and to have a full tool kit—I feel like everything up until now has been a form of training.

    Training for what, exactly? Do you want to be a pop star?

    CP: If you mean pop star in the sense of playing ball with radio formats, no. But if you mean it in the sense of building a compelling world that I’m at the center of, that a lot of people are tuned into, then yes. Radio is so cutthroat, but I do feel like the music industry is structured so differently than it used to be. I’m amazed and in awe of artists who can build a parallel universe that’s so big and clearly defined that the mainstream finally has to pay attention. Lana Del Rey is a perfect example.

    Success will come. Or it won’t. But I think you can only make a go at it in a big way by fully being yourself and taking risks. People can feel risks.


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    5-10-15-20: William Basinski on the Music That Made Him

    It was August 29, 1983, and William Basinski somehow found himself opening for David Bowie. Basinski was playing saxophone with a British rockabilly band called the Rockats, and he distinctly remembers being pelted with random objects by the crowd at Pennsylvania’s Hersheypark Stadium. “Nobody wants to see an opening act for Bowie,” he tells me, chuckling. It was only after Basinski let loose a shredding saxophone solo that the audience started to cheer.

    That night, he was able to meet Bowie, his idol, for just a second, and give him a cassette tape he made of slowed-down, droning Muzak samples mixed with shortwave radio blasts. He never knew if Bowie listened to the tape, but those same sounds eventually turned into Basinski’s debut album, Shortwave Music, 15 years later. 

    Basinski’s career, much like his music, has never followed a linear path, or even felt tethered to the standard rules of time and space. In more ways than one, his creative presence has felt almost apparitional, and before he became known for his own music, he was an artistic figure of secret, almost invisible prominence.

    Starting in the late ’70s, while living in San Francisco, he began recording the detritus of his day: errant traffic, random radio broadcasts, freezer buzz. He would then loop and manipulate such recordings, and they became the backbone of his work. His process of composition—cutting up, stitching together, and collaging little pieces of magnetic tape—was closer to painting, or even alchemy.

    He later moved to a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—dubbed Arcadia—which became a mecca for the city’s most influential eccentrics and bon vivants. The cover for Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut Grace was shot in his living room. ANOHNI and Diamanda Galás played a Halloween show in the loft at one point, and Basinski was even an early member of ANOHNI’s band. During this period, Basinski would sit in his thrift store, Lady Bird, and continue to record the ephemera of his life.

    After years on the fringe, one morning in 2002, this proud outsider woke up to find out he was suddenly an artist of great acclaim. The reception to his inimitable 9/11 elegy, The Disintegration Loops, was ecstatic. The story behind that work has become something of a legend: an attempt to digitize a portion of his archive of loops was serendipitously disastrous—the magnetic tape decayed and crumbled as it passed through the digital recorder—producing eerie, unforgettable sounds in the process. Not long after, the planes hit the Twin Towers, and from the roof of his building in Brooklyn, the tragedy and spectacle was burned into his retinas forever. The music he made on that day was unimaginably melancholic, aware of how time turns everything into dust.

    Despite the seriousness of his most renowned work, Basinski speaks warmly, and often hilariously, of his childhood in Texas and Florida—he once touched Neil Armstrong’s butt!—as well as the New York of his past, and the circuitous, almost accidental journey that took him from obscurity to notoriety. He’s nearing 60 now, and in the last decade and a half he’s travelled the world restlessly, sharing his music like never before. Speaking from the Los Angeles home he shares with his life partner, the artist James Elaine, he tells me about the musicians, songs, and albums that have stuck with him most, five years at a time.


    The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show”

    I was born in what I call “The Year of the Diamond Dogs,” 1958. It’s the year of the Earth Dog in Chinese astrology, but some of the people born that year were Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna—and I’m in that group. At age 5, I had the big explosion that was my first memory of music: We were allowed to stay up and watch “The Ed Sullivan Show” when the Beatles came on, and our minds were blown. It completely ruined the next 10 years. It was just pandemonium, the girls with the cat glasses screaming and carrying on, and the Beatles were so cute and jangly with their sound and their voices and their haircuts.

    Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass: “The Lonely Bull (El Solo Toro)

    1968 was a big year for music, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass was big with my parents. By that time, we had moved to Florida, where my dad was working for a contractor that was doing some work on NASA’s lunar module. But a few years before that we were in this brand new ’60s utopian suburban neighborhood in Houston called Clear Lake City; new schools and a golf course and all the astronauts and the scientists lived there. My dad was working for General Electric on the Mercury and Apollo programs there, and we went to church with the astronauts and we went to school with their kids. I was in the communion line with my dad once when he whispered to me to touch the man in front of me. I just kept my hands by my side, but my dad grabbed my hand and made me touch Neil Armstrong’s butt. He turned around and said “hello” and shook my hand.

    The Edgar Winter Group: “Frankenstein”

    We were in Dallas, and I started high school there. We went to Richardson High School, which was very large, 3,000 students. Very fine music program: 300-piece marching band, two symphonic bands, two orchestras, and a jazz band. I played clarinet in the symphonic band. At home, though, me and my friends were listening to Ziggy Stardust and Led Zeppelin and all this prog-rock. My brother was a guitar player and he was really interested in Johnny Winter; he kind of looked like a negative image of Johnny Winter with his long black hair. I was really into Johnny’s brother, Edgar, because he was such a great sax player and singer. I would listen to his records and slow them down and try to learn how to play the solos. 

    Brian Eno: Discreet Music

    That was a big jump. By 1978, I was going to North Texas State University and trying to get into one of the jazz bands there. I was never a good auditioner, though, and I always got very nervous and tripped-out and usually screwed it up. So I didn’t get into the jazz band and switched my major to composition and started doing weird shit.

    That’s also around the time I met Jamie [Elaine], and we fell in love. I saved up all my money from nude modeling and used it to get a plane ticket and take my little suitcase and saxophone to San Francisco, where he moved after school. When I got there, I started to realize every city has its own ambient sound, but San Francisco was really something special with the bay and the gulls and the ocean. You have these crickety electric buses, screeching streetcars reverberating around, foghorns. It was really rich.

    And there was encouragement there. Jamie would play records, I would just listen. He’d put something on, and we’d talk about it. Very soon after I got there, looking at the diagram on the back of Brian Eno’sDiscreet Music, where they show the Frippertronics tape delay with the two tape decks, I went around the corner to a junk shop. I found two big old giant 40-pound Philips flatbed reel-to-reel decks and a bunch of used tapes for $10, took it all home, and just started trying things. Shortly after that, I rented a piano. Using the saxophone, the refrigerator, old black-and-white televisions, all this shit I was recording, I went to work like crazy. Jamie was a painter. All my friends were painting. I was painting with sound.

    101 Strings: “Autumn Leaves

    In 1980 we moved to New York. I had had a really prolific period with my work for those first few years in the city: Shortwavemusic, The River, the Variations pieces. My neighbor downstairs was the rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theater, so I’d go down there with a tape recorder, working on these bad piano compositions. But then I would just use the Burroughs-esque cut-up techniques and see what happened. I started to get some really cool results, particularly with pulling the loops out of little snippets of music off the radio. The most powerful station in New York was at the top of the Empire State Building; it was the American popular standards station, and they played these versions with the syncopation stripped out and it was all just strings.

    We had all these wires running around the loft for speakers, and you could pick up these little snippets of Muzak. I wanted a Mellotron but I couldn't afford one, so I thought I could make a sort of Mellotron by taking little snippets of these 101 Strings songs, which were like musical anesthesia, the Prozac of the ’70s. But when you’d slow it down and look at it under a microscope, there’s this well of melancholy down there. So I started getting into the idea of pulling things out of thin air, making something from nothing.

    It’s hard to remember my 30s. I made music that I liked to listen to and I listened to it; I would just leave it on for days.

    The Murmurs: “Echoing”

    We were in Arcadia. It was early days in the re-birth of industrial Williamsburg, and the developers had bought up all the property and were just doing the usual thing: renting out ruins to artists for fairly cheap to get them to come and do all the work to renovate, live illegally in the commercial spaces and try to get away with it. We’d host and curate shows, and it was almost like a company. We would stick with people we liked and help them develop.

    I fell in love with this very young two-girl folk-pop duo called the Murmurs that I saw playing down at down on South 1st Street in Williamsburg at this place called the Open Window Theaters. Heather and Leisha, the girls from the Murmurs, were actresses at the American Academy of Drama, but they had this amazing thing going on. Something had to be done, so I gave them my card, told them, “I have a studio, I’d like to talk to you. Come over and let’s hear what you’re doing.” So we started working together and became very close. I worked with them for three years, and they eventually got signed to MCA, but everything went downhill from there, unfortunately. I produced their first record, Who Are We. They had this little gay anthem called “Echoing.” It was pretty fucking brave. Because nobody in the record industry wanted anybody to be out and gay [in the early ’90s].

    The Spencer Davis Group: “Gimme Some Loving”

    I had my thrift shop, Lady Bird, around the corner from my loft. My album Shortwavemusic finally came out around ’98, only 600 clear vinyl copies were made—I would play it in the shop in the evenings during the fall, the weather was perfect. I spent a lot of time at the store, and we had this big old stereo console there. One day I found a whole bunch of cutouts in a dumpster of The Very Best of the Spencer Davis Group: “Gimme Some Loving,” “Keep on Running.” This is a great record; it really rocks.

    Antonio Carlos Jobim: “One Note Samba”

    This was 2003, when the final Disintegration Loop came out. Then everything changed, because of Pitchfork and The Wire. The Wire did a great little feature when the first one came out. I had never even heard of Pitchfork, but one day I was out here in California visiting Jamie in the little house in Venice, and all of a sudden my inbox was just slammed with orders, and boy, did that [review] make a difference. I was going to the post office twice a day for weeks shipping orders. It eventually got me out of $30,000 worth of debt. And then everything broke open.

    The record I can remember from that period was Antonio Carlos Jobim’s The Composer of Desafinado, Plays. It just makes me really happy. I always thought of it as the soundtrack to California.

    Amy Winehouse: “Rehab”

    At 50, we’d been in the loft for almost 20 years. The rent was going through the roof. That summer, when the rent went up again, I had five people living in the loft. So we sadly had to leave our beautiful Arcadia in the summer of 2008. I had a 4,000 square foot loft full of shit, and tons of paintings and sculptures and furniture and equipment. Oh my god. My friend came over and photographed everything and put it all up on Craigslist, made a blog; we had Jeff Buckley’s chair. We had two weekends of sales, and this was right before the economy crashed; all these kids had their parents’ black cards, and there was PayPal. We made $15,000, so that paid for half the move. We were listening to Amy Winehouse that whole time, and going on about how incredible she was—her voice, her phrasing, and the way she laid back. Amy Winehouse was the real thing.

    Jlin: “Nyakinyua Rise

    It’s been real busy touring around the world and coming back here to L.A. and collapsing in my little rental house. We have a beautiful garden with a 60-year-old orange tree and flowers and hummingbirds and butterflies. It’s a place of solace. I’m in exile, in a way. I don’t go out all that much, except to see friends’ shows or perform or get beer and cigarettes.

    I have a great assistant, Preston Wendel, who’s a terrific young beat-maker, composer, Ableton Live whiz, engineer. He helps me with everything. In the last year and a half, I’ve started to get Preston to show me what he’s into and what he’s doing. He’s really into avant-garde L.A. hip-hop and footwork. He’s shown me Kendrick and Kamasi Washington. Preston and I did a live show at the Broad Museum together last summer, and Jlin was also on the bill, and we got to meet her. She is an absolute doll, and we just hit it off. I don’t know what I’d do without Preston. He’s like my son.


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    Listening Diary: “SNL” Star Sasheer Zamata on How Kanye’s Music Forces Us to Forgive Him

    Listening Diary features artists of all kinds talking about the music they listen to in their day-to-day lives.

    Sasheer Zamata is a special kind of quadruple threat: She can sing like a pop diva, dance like a Broadway star, act with utmost conviction—and make you laugh while doing all of the above. For the last three years, she has expertly embodied the larger-than-life essences—and dramatic vocal ranges—of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Diana Ross on “Saturday Night Live.” Meanwhile, some of the other characters she plays on the show, like Janelle, a teenage dance vlogger with a lewd fanbase, are so full they could jump out of the screen and start talking to you. Whether it’s her excellent impressions, the musical guests she brings to her monthly NYC variety show, Party Time, or lending her voice to a Standing Rock benefit track, Zamata makes sure to incorporate music into nearly everything she does. Sitting in a sunlit cafe in Brooklyn, she cheerfully reminisces about one of her first loves—singing—as she details a week’s worth of listening last month.

    Illustrations by Noelle Roth

    Thursday, March 2, 8 a.m.

    Childish Gambino: “Riot

    I was just thinking about how I should start waking up to a song because I was just using a beep on my phone before, and that wasn’t working—I figured if I put a song that I like on, it’ll motivate me to get up. So this is my wake-up alarm. I like how it starts off so clamorous, like all the instruments are playing at the same time on the very first note. It puts me in a “ready to go” kind of mood instead of like an “ugh, I have to go” kind of mood.

    I’m a big fan of Donald Glover in general. He was performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater when I first moved to New York, so I’ve kind of been shadowing him step-by-step. He’s a great example of how you don’t have to stick to one thing; when you have a vision, you can’t wait for someone to allow you to do it. I want to take over everything, too—comedy, acting, singing, dancing, all kinds of stuff. I mean, I want an empire. I’ve been singing since I was 9. I was in church choirs and show choir in high school. I studied theater in college and thought I was going to do that when I moved here, but the process wasn’t for me. I just fell in love with comedy.

     

    Thursday, March 2, 11:15 a.m.

    D.R.A.M.: Big Baby D.R.A.M.

    This is when I got home from a chiropractic appointment and started getting ready for work. I was late to the game on D.R.A.M.; I knew of “Cha Cha,” but then I saw his Tiny Desk Concert and I was hooked. I love how happy he is. And “Cute” is such a good song! It sounds cute, and sometimes I listen to it when I feel cute. When I listen to D.R.A.M., I definitely relate. Like “Get It Myself”—that’s how I feel. And that’s how most things in my career have gone. I didn’t wait for someone’s permission, I just got it. Some of his songs are for fun, but there’s truth in all of them. Like, “Cash Machine” could be like, “I’m obsessed with cash and rich now,” but it is more like, “No, I’m big-timing you. I made it and I don’t have to have whatever lifestyle that I had before, because all I listen to is the cash.”

    Saturday, March 4, 11:10 a.m.

    Lady Gaga: “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi” (Live at Capital FM)

    I had just went to pilates and was watching this Lady Gaga performance on the subway on the way to work. She killed it at the Superbowl. She didn’t have any features; no one else helped her out. I love that she did it all by herself. I have never seen her live, so I instantly bought tickets for her tour.

    The last music video that I can remember being in jaw-dropped awe over was “Bad Romance.” Everything is so perfect in it. One day I want to direct music videos. I’d like to do one for Warpaint—when I listen to their music I feel like I visually understand it. There are a lot of videos that are obviously for the male gaze, and I would love to shift that a little bit.

     

    Sunday, March 5, 5:15 p.m.

    Kehlani: “The Way” [ft. Chance the Rapper]

    I was just listening to Kehlani while chillin’ in my house and putting on a face mask and doing chores. There’s this Aztec clay mask that’s a powder and comes in a jar. I got it off of Amazon and it has thousands of reviews—all positive. You just mix a teaspoon with apple cider vinegar and leave it on your face for 20 minutes. When you take it off,  it just feels so fresh and smooth. It’s a game-changer.

     

    Monday, March 6, 11 a.m.

    Alt country mix with Neko Case and Leon Bridges

    My boyfriend was in charge of the music while he was making breakfast. We alternate who chooses the music in the apartment, but sometimes he’ll show me people I don’t know. He got me into Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. I did not know who Sturgill was, but then I told my boyfriend he was coming onto “SNL,” and he was like, “Oh my god, I have to come to this show, he’s so amazing.” And he was.

    Wednesday, March 8, 12:45 p.m.

    Solange: A Seat at the Table

    I was making a smoothie and eggs while getting ready to leave the house for work. I’ve liked Solange’s work before, because she’s always had themes of black power and self-love in her music—I’ve always really admired her freedom in being undeniably herself. But A Seat at the Table is the strongest and most explicit she has been. I was like, “Wow, I am eating all of this up.”I also love how she always reaches into the past and pulls it into what she’s doing today. At her “SNL” performance, she had this braid crown, like this halo that was behind her head with these jewels coming out. We were about to go onstage to say goodnight, and I couldn’t help myself, I was like, “You’re an angel.” And she’s like, “Thank you.” And then I said, “Were the circles and the halo that you have on your hair kind of an homage to Lena Horne from The Wiz?” And she said, “Yes!”

     

    Thursday, March 9, 1 p.m.

    Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

    I was getting ready to leave the house to eat in the park, and it was interesting to listen to the lyrics of this album, which I had never heard all the way through, because Kanye is surprisingly revealing with his emotions and talking about people who’ve done him wrong, people in his family who’ve stole from him. My heart wants to reach out to him. People don’t realize that the individuals who exist in the public eye are humans who go through turmoil, and he’s going through it in front of everybody. I can’t imagine that’s an easy position to be in when you’re trying to support yourself and have a family. But it is really telling of his talent that despite anything he has done in the news that may have been viewed as negative, he still makes really good music. That’s like an undeniable fact—that no matter how we feel about him, his music will make us forgive whatever things he’s done.

    I’m really impressed every time Kanye comes to perform at “SNL” because he finds a new way to make that space work for him. That stage is not an easy one to perform on as a musician, I would imagine, because the audience is so far away, and then you have cameras right in your face. The space is like a weird box, so you’re like limited in certain directions as far as movement and sound. But he always finds a way to reshape it. Like for the 40th anniversary show, he brought this light panel so low to the ground and just crawled underneath it—that’s the only thing they did to change the space, but it made a huge difference.

    My favorite Kanye album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I remember watching the “Runaway” video by myself drinking a bottle of wine with my laptop in my lap. By the end I was just sobbing—when the Selita Ebanks character flew away, something about it just really hit a chord with me.


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    Longform: The Definitive Oral History of Jawbreaker’s <i> 24 Hour Revenge Therapy</i>

    In February 1994, Jawbreaker released their third album,24 Hour Revenge Therapy. It was the trio’s high water mark and a milestone for contemporary American punk rock, creating a new template of hyper-literate heartbreak. The story of the album, and the success it brought to the band, maps the twilight of an era as well as the beginning of the end of the band. During this time, Jawbreaker recorded with Steve Albini, toured with Nirvana, were pegged as the “next Green Day,” and signed to a major label—only to be disowned by their fanbase at a time when “selling out” was a transgression, not merely a fact of survival. This sprawling oral history tells the tale of Jawbreaker from the recording and conception of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, through a scene war and on to a bidding war, to the death of an icon and the death knell of an era.

    Part One: Early Days in San Francisco

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH [Jawbreaker singer/guitarist]: That whole record is a three-year blur for me.

    ADAM PFAHLER [Jawbreaker drummer]: We moved to San Francisco in summer of 1991.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER [Jawbreaker bassist]: I shared an apartment with Lance Hahn [J Church] and our roadie Raul Reyes. Across the hallway was Blake and Adam. “West Bay Invitational” happens there.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I think of “The Boat Dreams From the Hill” as the first song. I’d actually seen a boat on a hill during a drive. We were going down to play a show somewhere in Santa Cruz—it was a vivid image and the song came together around that.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We’d been playing probably “Boat” and “Jinx Removing” out on tour for a while.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I had written “In Sadding Around” when we lived in the Mission and I remember playing that over the phone for Adam. He was hospitalized briefly in L.A.

    ADAM PFAHLER: Blake played something that had the line “my friend’s sick,” and then he played me “In Sadding Around.” The other one went away, ’cause I got better pretty quick.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH:“West Bay Invitational” and “Indictment” were written on acoustic guitar in the Mission as well. So it was a long time coming together, and a long time coming out.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We would embark on those trips to Europe from the East Coast just for the cheaper ticket and end it with these other Stateside tours. Thinking about it now seems crazy. I really don’t know what we were thinking. We were absolutely out of our fuckin’ minds.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: We realized there was a problem in Michigan somewhere.

    ADAM PFAHLER: Five songs into the set, Blake turns to me and mouths the words “I quit.” He apologized to the crowd and took off. The next day, he comes back from the doctor and tells us he has a polyp the size of a grape on his vocal chords. It’s a $2,500 surgery and two-week silent recovery. So we have a meeting at Bob’s Big Boy and make the decision that we’re gonna have our roadie Raul sing for the rest of the U.S. tour and possibly first couple weeks of Europe.

    RAUL REYES [Jawbreaker roadie]: They started toying with the idea of, “Hey, we can have Raul sing.” And I just thought, “Whoa, this is my dream, of course I’d love to do it.” I didn’t know the lyrics to the songs—I mean, I could sing them if they were played, but I never practiced.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We wrote out the lyrics for Raul in the van on the way to a house party in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

    RAUL REYES: I’m sitting diligently in the back of the van trying to remember all these lyrics that I’d been singing to for a year or so, but never in a public forum. They started playing and I started singing “Parable.” I can’t remember any of the words and I didn’t want to hold the lyrics sheet up there, the timing’s all off. I’m basically yelling the lyrics. Blake just started singing after that.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It was kind of too late to turn back, so we kind of just went ahead.

    The party from “West Bay Invitational.”

    Part Two: European Tour

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I wrote “Boxcar” on the side of the road in France. We were having the van searched and we had to bring all our stuff out. It is a very American song, but it came from living in that van and the culture of the van. Christie and Mary Jane were from Lookout! London, so we were hearing stories about Green Day. I felt that claustrophobia of our home scene, abroad. I was pissed off and just did this little ditty, which was the germ of that song. It happened in a few minutes, just the verse, the “you’re not punk and I’m telling everyone.”

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: I remember standing out on the sidewalk in Dublin and [Blake] just coughed up a huge glob of blood and was like, “I think I should go to the hospital.”

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It was clear that we couldn’t keep going.

    CHRISTY COLCORD [former Lookout! London co-owner and Cahn-Man music management tour coordinator]: He was coughing up giant blood clots the size of the palm of your hand onstage. It was pretty dire. Blake and I went to the airport, and then the airport was fogged in so we couldn’t fly out, so we ended up having to spend the night sleeping on the floor of the airport in Dublin. They got us on a flight when it reopened at 5 in the morning, so we ended up having to go directly to the hospital. 

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: Basically, they disappeared. And then we were in Dublin and then the van broke down, so we got towed onto the ferry.

    CHRISTY COLCORD: It took them a few days to get to London while Blake was recovering, and then they hung out at my place in London until he was able to go again. [Blake] wasn’t supposed to talk or drink or smoke for five days; he gave it a gallant effort. 

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I have to say that surgeon was masterful. I wrote him a letter when we got back to the states begging that he forgive the bill. And he did. I started writing [“Outpatient”] at home once we got back, but it was really shocking. We were in Norway for our first show after surgery and I was singing before I was supposed to—they said give it 10 days and I think we gave it five or six days. It was two octaves higher, I just had like no grit, it was a pretty unwieldy instrument, and I had to break it back into what I knew is my voice.

    Jawbreaker at Jabberjaw, August 7, 1993. The band asked Don Lewis to shoot this show for their forthcoming album.

    Part Three: Portrait of the San Francisco Scene

    ADAM PFAHLER: We moved to Albion Street, which is just a stone’s throw from where I was living on Sycamore with Blake. And then Blake took off —he moved to Oakland, to one of those gnarly warehouses. Living behind a curtain in some punk house. He did that for a while, until he finally found a place with Bill and Cassandra.

    ZAK SALLY [band friend, former bassist for Low]: The first place I was able to crash was this warehouse in west Oakland. I got that space just as Blake was moving out.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I liked to stay alone and write in my room. I was a librarian. I would commute to the city and work at a library, and then we would just practice and play shows.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: I worked at this place called the Imaginarium, I was a certified toyologist.

    ADAM PFAHLER: I was working at a video store called Leather Tongue on Valencia Street for like five bucks an hour, that’s where I was for the majority of this time.

    JASON WHITE [Green Day and Pinhead Gunpowder guitarist]: It was a little bit like Mecca, it just seemed like a big playground for punk-rock kids. All the people you’ve read about in Maximum RockNRoll or through little fanzines, you’d see at shows or wandering around Telegraph Avenue or at Epicenter.

    “They were their own thing, and their whole persona was kind of mysterious: ‘I heard they all went to college. I heard they all have degrees. Isn’t that weird?’”
    Green Day touring guitarist Jason White

    MIKE MORASKY [Steel Pole Bath Tub singer-guitarist, Bivouac producer and engineer]: If you look at Gilman, the core of that concept wasn’t just Tim Yohannan and Maximum RockNRoll. Sure, it created a center in a way, but it was the people, the bands. Jawbreaker totally fit.

    JASON WHITE: What made them unique was they weren’t just a Gilman band, they weren’t just a San Francisco band, they could appeal to a lot of different people, and people were very fiercely protective of them. Jawbreaker were unique to themselves, they were their own thing, and their whole persona was kind of mysterious: “I heard they all went to college. I heard they all have degrees. Isn’t that weird?” They’re really smart and I think people were sometimes scared to approach them because they seemed like this sort of smart-guy band or whatever, and they weren’t like overly punk rock, aesthetically. They had their own style.

    ZAK SALLY: In the East Bay there was that scene that had just grown in a way that was completely unfamiliar to me. MaximumRockNRoll was there, and punk wasn’t dead, it was a real thing. Punk was like a standard or a flag that people rallied under.

    ADAM PFAHLER: In our neighborhood there were so many people that were playing in bands and working at Maximum RockNRoll—or I should say volunteering or writing for Maximum RockNRoll—[who were also] working at Epicenter or at Mordam Distribution or just working in the clubs or writing fanzines. It was a huge community of people. Everyone was up to something, and there was always somewhere to go, there was always a show.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: Berkeley had a very fierce sense of identity. It was much younger, so people were more vigilant about kind of protecting the sanctity of that scene. I respect that more in hindsight; at the time I thought it was a little cliquish, but they were very protective. So Gilman had a certain set of principles and rules, and shows just tended to be younger there.

    BRIAN ZERO [Maximum RockNRoll columnist]: [Gilman] was the center. It was something that had magnetic pull on people and brought people together. If it weren’t for that venue, a lot of these bands that made it big would’ve never had a chance because a lot of the other venues that were around certainly weren’t all ages, and certainly weren’t into charging low prices for people.

    DAN SINKER [Punk Planet founder]: That Bay Area scene, especially in the mid-’90s, was really the heart of the kind of punk-purity movement, which was a direct result of the money that was coming into the scene from that Wild West period between Nirvana and Green Day, and the flood that came in after Green Day.

    ALICIA ROSE [The Chameleon booker, friend]: Sometimes, scenes have an epicenter for two to three years—’91 to ’94 was a hotspot. We were all living there and we were having fun. It was cheap and things hadn’t started going to hell yet.

    ADAM PFAHLER: One of the reasons why we came to San Francisco [was] ’cause it already had a very well defined scene. There was a thing going on here we enjoyed that embraced us. Where in L.A. we couldn’t get a show without having to really hustle or stoop down to pay-to-play, we could always play here.

    Part Four: The Band Begins Writing 24 Hour Revenge Therapy

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: After we came back from the European tour, we were practicing in the basement of a club on Valencia Street called the Chameleon.

    ALICIA ROSE: [Jawbreaker] took over every night they played there, it was great. Bivouac was a really popular record locally—but the fact that they kept playing the Chameleon was really the most weird thing because it had a capacity of 49. It went from it being normal for them playing there to it being not normal for them playing there.

    ADAM PFAHLER:24 Hour Revenge Therapy was probably weighted more toward Blake’s songs than the more collaborative ones that we came up with on Bivouac. It was definitely a fertile time for Blake’s writing.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: Blake was hitting his stride as a songwriter. Bivouac had songs that I’d written lyrics to entirely or songs that I wrote the main riff to, but 24 is all Blake.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I would bring in what I had, and Chris is so quick and is such a great bass player that I would never have to tell either of them anything, they would just jump in. All those songs were realized pretty quickly as a band.

    ADAM PFAHLER: When Blake played us “Boxcar” for the first time we were driving back over from a show in Oakland, and I knew immediately that it would be the third song on the first side of our next record because it was so catchy. It wasn’t on a tape, he didn’t demo it or something, he just busted out his guitar and he was sitting in the back seat and he played it for us.

    Part Five: Recording With Steve Albini 

    ADAM PFAHLER: When we left San Francisco we had that record written—it was done, we had it sequenced. I remember we'd invited Gary Held, who put our records out, to a practice before we went out to Chicago. We were like, “OK, here, sit down, this is our record.” And we literally played him that record in sequence, down to the point where after the last song we thought was gonna be on side one we said, “OK now we’re gonna take a break,’cause this is the part where you would get up and you’d walk over and you’d ip the record over.” We really had it dialed in. So that’s why we didn’t think it would take too long with Steve [Albini].

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I think Adam made it happen. He kind of made everything in the band happen.

    ADAM PFAHLER: I just called [Albini] up one day, I might’ve even just called information and got his number, and just cold-called. He picked up and it was as simple as just booking the time. He was totally gracious and just said, “Yeah, well I have time here, I’ll pencil you in.” 

    STEVE ALBINI [24 Hour Revenge Therapy engineer]: I was doing up to 100 records a year. That was a particularly hectic period for me. I had expanded the studio in my house from eight-track to 24-track, and so there was a flurry of activity. Sessions that I had to previously schedule at outside studios I could now do at my house, and so I was rather furiously booking bands nose-to-tail so that I could earn as much money as possible and pay for all this equipment I just bought.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I know he listened to us, and we reminded him of something pretty surprising to me. I can’t think of what the band was, but it was like Silkworm, or something like that. He had his own kind of take on our sound based on whatever he’d heard.

    STEVE ALBINI: I wasn’t that familiar with the band before they showed up. At the time there was a kind of a shift underway. There was a sort of a furious Detroit and D.C.-style hardcore that was the dominant motif of punk bands in the early ’80s—and then there were the non-punk bands that were quite abstract. I remember Jawbreaker being one of the few punk bands I had run across at that point that had a more melodic sensibility. They were less furious than the hardcore bands but they weren’t as abstract as—I don’t know what you would call them—the more head-case and freak-out bands.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: There was a little bit of intimidation when we showed up. It was like, “Wow, we’re at his house.” It was kind of shocking to us. The day we moved in, the Jesus Lizard was practicing in the basement. That was a double whammy: not only were we meeting Steve Albini, but the Lizard was flexing down in the basement.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: I was a huge Big Black fan so I was slightly star-struck about being there; I was an even bigger Scratch Acid fan and Dave Sims was also working there at the time. I don’t think I said anything to Dave Sims except for “Pass that bagel, please” the whole time I was there, even though he’s one of my bass icons.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We put all our crap in the basement, which had pretty low ceilings, but with a lot of weird angles down there and a lot of structural stuff that probably made it sound awesome. I set up my drums and Steve started bringing out the weird Russian tube mics and taping up PZM mics in weird places and just doing whatever kind of wizard shit that he does. We got sound and we made sure everything was plugged in and on and we just went for it.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: Of all the recordings, I like 24 Hour the most because I think it sounds the most like we sounded live. That was really how we did it. The basics were recorded just with mic placement—we did the three of us playing together to do the basic tracks. Then Blake did vocals and guitar overdubs on top of that.

    ADAM PFAHLER:“Ache,” the first song on side two, we had tried to record on Bivouac, and we didn’t end up going with it.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: That song really came together in the studio. I think we tried a pretty outrageous trick where we used a very anthemic guitar and I had a little RadioShack amp. We thought it would be at least a funny experiment to make that kind of soaring guitar come out of little RadioShack transistor amp.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We would get through a song and then have to run up a couple flights of stairs to hear how it sounded. We’d get up there and we’d kind of go, “Did that sound OK?” And he’d go, “Yeah, sounded great.” And we’d go, “OK, moving on ...” Cassandra Millspaugh was with us on that tour and that recording session. Cassandra was in the booth with Steve at all times, being our extra set of ears.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: Albini is kind of a hands-on producer—or he wasn’t producing us, he was engineering us. It was really important for us to have our act together, because he was basically just facilitating.

    STEVE ALBINI: My preference is not to be named because I feel like my role on the record is not that important, ultimately. The band wrote all the songs and performed everything and made the decisions, then they went out on the road and developed an audience willing to buy it. So the band is doing all the work, I’m sort of part of the equipment.

    ADAM PFAHLER: When he said that, we were like, “Oh, we’ll one-up you: we won’t even give you credit then.” It’s produced by Jawbreaker, recorded in Chicago, engineered by Fluss. We didn’t even write Steve’s name on it. We just figured that that would come out in interviews and everyone would know.

    Part Six: Post-production 

    ADAM PFAHLER: We go on our tour, which began in Chicago, so maybe we didn’t have that far to drive. But at a certain point when we were listening back to the cassettes of the work we had just done, we were like, “We can’t listen to this anymore, this is gonna drive us fucking crazy.” And so Blake took the cassette and just threw it out the window. He was like, “We can’t do this to ourselves.”

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I don’t like to listen to mixes immediately afterwards. There’s always that point where you can really freak yourself out, and we did. We had that period for like seven months of having test pressings but no record out, which was kind of crazy.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: Upon returning to San Francisco I think Blake was unhappy with some of the vocal mixes and we weren’t too pleased with some of the mixes overall. We decided to do some other takes of those particular songs, so we went back in with Billy, who we’d worked with on Bivouac.

    ADAM PFAHLER: Blake had figured out we had to do “Boat” again because we didn’t leave enough time in the breaks for him to sing. There were a couple of things that we had wanted to do that were different—and then Blake had also come up with “Condition Oakland.”

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It seemed like a good summation of the record in a weird way, to come after the fact. Somehow it tied up a lot of ideas from the record in one song ... it addressed those ideas of loneliness and struggling to be an artist in a kind of rough environment. It has a lot of immediate truth to it.

    BILLY ANDERSON [24 Hour Revenge Therapy engineer, Bivouac producer and engineer]: We got some time at a studio called Brilliant and tracked three songs. The recording room was about the size of a gymnasium. There’s, like, trees growing in it and skylights. You could literally play a full-court game of basketball in there.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: That made it pretty perfect for “Condition Oakland,” ’cause it’s kind of a cavernous song.

    ADAM PFAHLER: That’s the Kerouac sample with him reading that came out of Kerouac’s box.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It’s “October in the Rail Earth,” which he recorded with Steve Allen; it’s in that Rhino collection. Steve Allen’s playing piano and Kerouac’s reading. It had so much of San Francisco in it—the melancholy of San Francisco. It seemed really appropriate.

    ADAM PFAHLER:“Boxcar” got a little bit faster, and I changed the intro to “The Boat Dreams from the Hill.” That was just from playing live every night for several weeks—we sort of figured out those songs.

    BILLY ANDERSON: I remember thinking, “Wow, this is Jawbreaker deluxe.” It sounded like Jawbreaker, but it had little twists and turns that were maybe a little more advanced. You could tell they’d been playing nightly, and maybe when they were writing those songs they felt a little more confident.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We still use [mastering engineer] John [Golden] for all the remasters actually. We did 24 Hour Revenge Therapy at K Disc Hollywood when he was still [there].

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: The thing I remember most about mastering is walking down to Oki Dog and getting an Oki dog.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It’s like a legendary punk rock junkie hangout in Hollywood. The Oki dog was like two hotdogs wrapped in I think it was pastrami or corned beef in a tortilla with beans.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: The meat was bluish.

    ADAM PFAHLER: On the [vinyl] etching it says something like, “It takes a great [sic: starving] man to bite into a blue wiener” or something.

    Part Seven: Nirvana Tour

    ZAK SALLY: I called up Blake and he was totally freaked out. I’m like, “Is everything OK? What’s going on?” He’s just like, “I just got a call from Nirvana’s manager, and they want us to go on tour with them.” And I was like, “Do you think it’s real?” He’s like, “That guy sounded like he was real.” I’m like, “Somebody’s fucking with you, right?” He’s like, “No, that guy sounded like he was for real.” And I was like, “Jesus, man, you better call your bandmates.” He’s like, “Yeah, I gotta go.” So they went on tour with Nirvana.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I just got a call one day and I didn’t believe it, so I hung up. Then they called back and said, “No, really, this is Gold Mountain Management,” or whatever the company was, “and they’ve asked if you wanted to do shows with them.” So I just called Adam and Chris and said, “Do you guys want to do this?”

    ADAM PFAHLER: Cali DeWitt, who is an artist out in L.A., was Kurt and Courtney’s nanny. He was looking after Frances, who was just a baby at the time. Cali had seen us a bunch at Jabberjaw and we knew him from around. He had suggested to Kurt that we go on that tour when The Wipers had to bow out.

    CALI DEWITT [Frances Cobain's nanny, member of Cobain-Love household; later, DGC A&R]: I had moved to Seattle and I was living with Kurt and Courtney ’cause I got a job babysitting Frances, and he heard me listening to Bivouac a lot. When it came time for picking bands to go on the In Utero tour, I was very vocal that they should choose Jawbreaker. I think that’s really how my relationship with Jawbreaker started. I was 20 and they were one of my favorite bands.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It was all very quick from our end, because we weren’t really prepared to play stadiums or anything. But it happened in short order after that.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We knew that there was gonna be backlash, that people would sketch on it, that they would not be into it. We knew that we were gonna get shit-talked, we knew that they were gonna write about us in Maximum for doing that, and we did it anyway.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: We did some of our own shows going out, and we played the night before [the tour started] with NoMeansNo. Then, the next day, we drove up to whatever larger community hall—it wasn’t like a full auditorium. I think that tour they were trying to play smaller halls, like 3,000–6,000. There was tour bus, tour bus, tour bus—these huge things pulled up to the back of this giant loading dock. And then there’s our van, whose roof barely reaches the lip of the loading dock.

    ADAM PFAHLER: It was such a circus to us and it was really all we could do to even just find the venue in our little van. Those guys were touring in big busses. And because they had Frances in tow, I think Kurt and Courtney were sort of just watching, just hanging out with the baby a lot of the time. It was a surreal experience: we would just kind of turn up after a long drive and there would be this beautiful buffet of food that the caterers made and then we would eat and then we would soundcheck, play our show, watch them do their thing, and then go back to wherever we were staying.

    CALI DEWITT: Punk bands at the time never got to play at venues that big, so it felt fun to be part of sneaking that in, and I think that felt the same to members of Nirvana. It felt good to bring bands like that to a bigger audience who normally wouldn’t know about them.

    ADAM PFAHLER: I think the first time that we got up on a stage with them, it was in Albuquerque and we had never been in front of that many people. It was thrilling.

    “I read the lyrics and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll be damned, you actually can write a song about a boat and it’s actually an amazing song about a boat.’”
    Dan Vapid

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: We were so nervous, too. We were really determined to exonerate ourselves as the opening band. It was a lot of nerves. Our set was very short, it was 30 minutes. I rarely felt like we got across what we were supposed to be as a band. We would play before Mudhoney, so it was kind of bright lights and screaming. It just felt like it was much bigger than we were.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We met Mark Kates on that tour and that kind of begat us starting to get seriously courted by those bigger labels—’cause Mark was Sonic Youth and Nirvana’s A&R guy. All Mark ever said to us was, “I think you guys are a great band, I’d really love to work with you.” That was kind of his pitch, he never really said more than that.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: Nirvana was really friendly. Kurt wasn’t really present at that point. He came out and introduced himself the first night we were there and we’d only see him kind of intermittently after that. I got the feeling he was being handled or kind of guarded, so there was a lot of security around their part of the building, and we would usually be next to Mudhoney, who kind of had a more rockist vibe. It still felt like we were alone, where it definitely was like we were the little band. We kind of kept to ourselves throughout.

    ADAM PFAHLER: Kurt was [at the] right-side stage watching us play, it was amazing. Afterward, he came up to us and said, “I really think you guys did great, I think you really went over.” He’s like, “I’m glad you came.”

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: Kurt really liked “Bivouac” the song, and I know we did that a couple times because he’d requested it. I felt like we were just kind of this cartoon punk band that opened. It was really fast, that’s all I remember. We’d be starting and almost within minutes we were finishing.

    CALI DEWITT: I was there for Chicago. What was really memorable was seeing them play, and really to me at that point they were kind of heroes, just because I liked their records so much. When you’re 20 and you really love a band, you really love a band. It’s a bigger deal maybe than the ones I love now.

    MARK KATES [former Geffen Records A&R representative]: I was only at two of those Nirvana/Jawbreaker shows, but I remember them very well, especially the show in Chicago; Bobcat [Goldthwait] was also on the bill. I’ve had a lot of laughs with those guys since that time about just how surreal that whole thing was.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I didn’t really know who Bobcat Goldthwait was. Maybe just in an ambient sense, but Adam definitely knew who he was, and was pretty keen on it.

    ADAM PFAHLER: Bobcat Goldthwait was there to introduce Mudhoney and Nirvana.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I think Adam wanted him to introduce us.

    Adam Pfahler, playing the Jabberjaw show on August 7, 1993, shot by Don Lewis.

    ADAM PFAHLER: He didn’t know us, so he didn’t want to.

    CALI DEWITT: Ben Weasel was there, and that was sort of exciting. You know, all these people who wrote for Maximum RockNRoll or whatever that I’d been reading since I was 13. Those people were like stars to me.

    ADAM PFAHLER: So we were like, “Why don’t we just get Ben Weasel to [introduce us]? That’ll be funny.” ’Cause we knew Ben would get out there and say something to piss the crowd off.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: He went out and kind of insulted the crowd, “You’re not good enough for this band.”

    CALI DEWITT: I think [Ben] wrote a story about the show in his zine Panic Button that mentioned me and that was pretty exciting. To me, that was a bigger deal than being on tour with all that—that punk stuff was a bigger deal than being on tour with Nirvana. 

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: We were a well-oiled machine, because, among other things, we practiced all the time. I think eventually we were getting to the point where I was not allowed to drink before we played anymore. It was, in part, my own decision because I realized, among other things, I just fuck things up or things just become too foggy and I don’t do too well.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We did two nights [in Chicago], and by then, we’d sort of gotten used to playing in front of people.

    MARK KATES: It’s the only time Nirvana ever played “You Know You’re Right,” which is what I remember most about the gig.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I always enjoyed watching them. They were in a pretty precarious place, like the feeling backstage was very tense, but the level of destruction onstage was pretty excellent. A lot of wreckage was going on.

    ADAM PFAHLER: I reckon we just came back home and suffered some slings and arrows and then just got right back at it.

    DAN SINKER: That was a thing in the scene, ’cause Nirvana was definitely, outside of the Pacific Northwest, generally thought of as being sellouts, and so that was worrisome.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: There was some pushback on that. I was really shocked, I mean I understood that you can’t sign to a major label, but that you couldn’t play shows with a band that was on a major label seemed to me so restrictive and prohibitive.

    ADAM PFAHLER: At that point, no one was working— we were just constantly touring. We would go tour for a month or whatever, come back home, and then book another tour, write a bunch more songs and practice and maybe play locally or drive down to L.A. And then we’d just do the whole thing again. We just were in the cycle: we didn’t have jobs not because we were wealthy, we didn’t have jobs because we were never home long enough to hold down a real job.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I was bummed that I got negative feedback from friends that that was a sellout move. Nirvana were a great band and they asked us to play with them, so it wasn’t something that we needed to think about at all. People got over that pretty quickly— once we signed to a major label, they had bigger things to worry about.

    Part Eight: The Dookie Hits the Fans

    JOHN YATES [24 Hour Revenge Therapy art director, friend]: With Green Day, they were the first ones [from Gilman Street] who went to a major and were successful. So you definitely had two factions: those who thought they had sold out and those who didn’t really care. It’s like, they’re still making the same music, what does it matter what label they’re on, ultimately? It was a weird time. I think nobody really knew how big that record was gonna be, and how things were gonna change after that.

    ADAM PFAHLER: Green Day happened, and all of a sudden everyone was getting courted by the majors. Everyone was looking for the next Green Day, so things got a little crazy for everyone, not just us. A lot of our friends signed— Steel Pole signed, Samiam signed, Jawbox signed.

    MIKE MORASKY: All of the sudden, all the new bands kind of sounded like that because there was this real genuine opportunity to succeed. It opened the floodgates for the liars, you now what I mean? It was sort of like, “Here, come to the Bay Area and be a big fat liar and you might become rich.” Seattle, same thing: “Here, come play heavy grunge rock and you might be rich.” In that regard, it’s just kind of a natural progression: when people have a good thing, it tends to attract people to it, and eventually that just ruins it because this core good thing can’t just necessarily support all those people. At the end of the day it is a little bit of a bummer, like, “Ah, shit, we don’t have this great influx of really interesting new, different bands that are trying to do their own thing that can fit into this accepting universe, it’s just everybody’s trying to be Green Day.”

    BRIAN ZERO: [Dookie] was our community’s Nevermind. So, as soon as that happened, everybody knew that the money was gonna come. There had been movement in that direction for a while; there had been currents and places had been named as the next big thing and, on some levels, there’s a truth to it. If not Green Day then somebody else. That’s when everybody knew the shit was gonna hit the fan. Like, “OK, are we really over now?” Because the stuff that follows, a lot of the time, is just really kind of a joke. There’s still lots of bands that existed through that time, and Maximum still exists. At the very least, it was a lesson, and maybe the end of that era. Because you knew from that point forward, every Greg Brady that wants to make it is going to start a band that sounds like Green Day. At that point you had people who start looking at it as a career and not as a community.

    ZAK SALLY: As an outsider, to me it was all just fucking bonkers. I was working at [Cinder Block] at the time—the owners of that were in a band called Tilt, and they were part of that scene, and they ended up going out on part of the Dookie tour with Green Day. We made all of Green Day’s T-shirts, we did all of Lookout!’s T-shirts, we did Jawbreaker’s shirts, we did Rancid’s shirts. A lot of people there had really, really strong feelings about how that was going and what that meant. Not unlike Nirvana, it was like, “Wow, look at this entire world being fucking decimated..” It was nuts.

    CALI DEWITT: At the time it just seemed sort of weird. The thing I remember most about Dookie was I was excited that Jesse Michaels from Operation Ivy did the cover art—so many people were seeing his drawings. But you have to remember it was very unusual—when those records got big, it took awhile to digest, even though now they’re just like pop records. Not Jawbreaker as much, but Green Day and stuff, they’re like pop music records, so it’s not surprising, looking back, that they were big albums.

    Jawbreaker at Jabberjaw, January 15, 1994. Photo by Don Lewis.

    ANTHONY NEWMAN [Dear You Tour road manager]: There was major-label interest in Jawbreaker, so there was a lot of talk within the sort of punk community about,“Are these guys gonna sign?” And Blake was really adamant about how they weren’t gonna do that. I remember thinking that was such a strange thing to me: that people cared so much. At the same time, it made you realize,“This band is really important to people.”

    ADAM PFAHLER: There’s a misconception of how popular Jawbreaker was. We did not sell that many records, but we were beloved. I know of a lot of bands that started because of our band, of our influence, or our effect on people. But we weren’t selling records like NOFX or even Lagwagon, or any of those kind of quote “pop-punk” bands. We were selling in the tens of thousands of records whereas in ’93, ’94, after Nirvana and then Green Day broke, there were punk bands that were selling way more. We made an impact, but we weren’t as popular as people believe now.

    JASON WHITE: Jawbreaker fans could be very fanatic. With Jawbreaker, people really swore an allegiance to them.

    JEFF SPIEGEL [Skene! Records founder]: You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who was interested in independent music in the early ’90s who wouldn’t cite Jawbreaker as one of the more significant bands around. If you didn’t make out to a Jawbreaker song or wallow in self-pity after breaking up with somebody to a Jawbreaker song, then I don’t know what you were doing.

    DAN SINKER: They were big. They had really started to end up in the same breath as the bigger bands in the scene at the time.

    MARK KATES: I think Jawbreaker, even to the Green Day guys, were a very important band.

    JASON WHITE: I remember being at Billie [Joe Armstrong]’s house right when Dookie was about to come out—or maybe it had already come out, literally like a week before or after, I think. He had a copy of 24 Hour and was like, “Have you heard this yet? It’s really great! I kind of didn’t expect this from Jawbreaker.”

    Part Nine: 24 Hour Released 

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: When our album came out, it was just a relief. It was a real slow burn, but people who knew us liked it pretty immediately and felt like it was a genuine portrait of our band. That was satisfying and I got real good feedback from just people I knew, like real fans of the band.

    ADAM PFAHLER: The release of a record, to me, never felt like a benchmark. It never felt like a moment where the load was off. There was so much going on at that time, and we were writing so many songs and practicing and playing so much, that it wasn’t like when the thing came out you would sort of let a breath out and be like, “OK, we did it, it’s done.” It was more like, “How come this didn’t happen three months earlier?”

    ANTHONY NEWMAN: I remember when the album came out, thinking, “This is really super cool to look at.” It’s almost like a patchwork of different images.

    MARK KATES: As someone whose job it was to help people make and deliver albums with virtually unlimited resources—at least in comparison to their situation—it was just impressive and it was very real. What they did was so real to the people who could appreciate them. They could relate.

    JEFF SPIEGEL: It’s a great album. Come 1995 or 1996 there were an awful lot of completely worn out copies of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy littering peoples’ bedrooms and glove compartments.

    “As spot-on as ‘Boxcar’ was when we wrote it and played it and recorded it, it became more so later when we took such heat for quote ‘selling out’ and going out on tour with Nirvana and then eventually signing to a major label. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.”
    Jawbreaker drummer Adam Pfahler

    JOSH CATERER [Smoking Popes singer-guitarist, Dear You Tour-mate]: I’ll always remember the first time I listened to that album, it’s burned into my memory. There are a few musical moments that are like that for me, where something hits me so hard the first time I hear it that it burns itself forever into my psyche. It was over at our drummer Mike Felumlee’s parents’ house in Crystal Lake, Illinois. He had gone out and gotten a copy of this album the first day that it came out, so he comes home from the record store and puts it in, and as soon as “The Boat Dreams from the Hill” starts, like, it was like this rush of adrenaline.

    CRAIG FINN [The Hold Steady singer-guitarist]: “Indictment” and “Boxcar” obviously spoke to scene stuff that was important to me at the time. But the song that really killed me was “West Bay Invitational” as it talked about real people having a party. That’s pretty much what I was doing at the time: trying to get together some beer and a place to drink it with my friends. 24 Hour Revenge was just the best record for being that age, early 20s. Frustrated, tons of coffee, tons of cigs, cheap beer, regret, more frustration. I loved it and it spoke to me. They were the biggest thing to us but they still existed on an underground level.

    DAN VAPID: When I got the record, I read the lyrics and I was like, “Well, I’ll be damned, you actually can write a song about a boat and it’s actually an amazing song about a boat.”

    JOSH CATERER: It brought an intelligence to punk rock that had never been expressed in quite that way. The metaphor that he was using in the lyrics of “The Boat Dreams from the Hill,” it immediately had this profound quality to it.

    CHRISTY COLCORD: It’s about missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential, but it’s still optimistic, you know? I like that contrast about it: it’s kind of melancholy but there’s still sort of an optimism to it. It’s less straightforward of a scene-politics song or a romance song.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I like singing [“Condition Oakland”], it’s got a good reach to it, and I was really obsessed with the Treepeople for a couple years. Swervedriver and the Treepeople were my constant cassettes. I felt like I got to sing like Doug Martsch on that song, although I don’t think it sounds anything like him—but that was part of my inspiration.

    MIKE MORASKY: At that time the Mission was kind of hectic, super-high-energy kind of madness, whereas Oakland was way more kind of loose and punk and just a little more sad somehow. And not like tragically sad, but more like sitting on the railroad tracks, smoking a cigarette with your mohawk, that kind of sad. Almost self-imposed sadness. To me, [“Condition Oakland”] has that in it, somehow. Blake’s songs all kind of have a bit of that, that kind of background of melancholy.

    JASON WHITE: People still talk about “Condition Oakland.” That was the time and place they remember, and it speaks to them in volumes. There was a buzz in the air and then it hit at the right time.

    ADAM PFAHLER: It was our most popular record for a reason. It was the closest approximation to what we sounded like as a band and people loved the songs, people loved “Boxcar.”

    MARK KATES: It’s really hard to avoid “Boxcar,” and it’s such an important song. It’s really the song that epitomizes their career for their fans. This whole thing went down where the Alternative promotion guy at Geffen saw the band and they played “Boxcar” and he freaked out that it wasn’t on [Dear You]. When your job is to get a band played and you hear a song that’s bigger than anything that’s on the record you have, you have to ask a question like that. If “Boxcar” had come out on Dear You the whole polarization of their fan base would’ve been a lot worse because that was their signature song.

    JOSH CATERER: In “Boxcar,” Blake was speaking so directly to the state of the punk scene and sort of pointing a finger at the finger-pointers within it. There was almost a legalism which was present in the punk scene at that time. He was pushing back against it, and I really appreciated that. It was something that we were feeling a little bit of when we signed to Capitol in ’95. This seems like a very distant thing now when you think about it, there’s almost no such thing as selling out. If a band has a song in a commercial, nobody gives them a hard time anymore. I think for the most part that line has been erased.

    ADAM PFAHLER: As spot-on as “Boxcar” was when we wrote it and played it and recorded it, it became more so later when we took such heat for quote “selling out” and going out on tour with Nirvana and then eventually signing to a major label. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.

    STEVE ALBINI: [24 Hour] aged a lot better than its contemporaries.

    ADAM PFAHLER: The letters start to come from all around the world. They were earnest and some of them were really intense because Blake’s writing from a very personal place in a lot of our music.

    JASON WHITE: It wasn’t the casual, like, “These guys are good!” People were deeply moved by this band and it was like they were speaking a language that was explaining what they couldn’t explain about their own lives.

    ELLIOT CAHN [Cahn-Man Management co-founder, Jawbreaker's attorney]: There are some bands that have a following because they have a hit single or something, and you get the impression that their audience may come and go; Jawbreaker’s wasn’t like that at all.

    DAN SINKER: People that loved Jawbreaker connected to Jawbreaker on a really emotional level. Blake was able to say things that people were thinking and that made you love them more, and that made you really feel like they were yours. And that’s the most wonderful and the most dangerous thing about the music, because they’re not yours. That can feel really limiting as an artist to be like, “Oh my God, we can’t do anything because everyone has laid claim to what we are and how we operate.” And I think that was really true. Also, the Jawbreaker guys were just folks in the scene. They were struggling and they were putting in the work and the time and they were inviting and friendly and helped everyone along—and that was also not always true back then. But I think the biggest part of it was just Blake is a fucking good writer and people would notice.

    MIKE MORASKY: They were such a cornerstone to the San Francisco Bay Area scene. Nothing they could’ve done would’ve damaged that for me.

    DAN SINKER: It was a one-two punch. You had a record that changed everything in the punk scene in Dookie, in a way that Nirvana’s success did not. That record hit and that record hit fast, and suddenly everyone was paying attention. And then Jawbreaker comes out with this incredible record, a record that was of that scene—in terms of sound and in terms of everything else—but also transcended it, and it was still independent. “Oh man, we can still do this, we can do this by our terms, we can create real art and things that are lasting.” I think that was unreasonably put on them. A lot of this was externality, but, definitely, the proximity of those two things had a real impact.

    JOHN YATES: That’s when I think there first started to be grumblings—certainly of Blake’s change in vocal stylings and stuff like that. It just seemed kind of silly, but the discussions about any kind of change used to be put under a microscope back then. It used to get pretty ridiculous, especially in a place like Maximum RockNRoll when I was there. They very much set themselves up as the lead commentator on any changes that happened with any band or music or scene.

    ADAM PFAHLER: After 24 Hour Revenge Therapy came out, we really got rolling. We weren’t playing at little bars or just warehouse shows or house parties—we did that stuff for fun, but Robin Taylor would book us at Slim’s, which is like a 500-capacity place, or she’d book us at the Great American Music Hall, or we could go and play at the Roxy down in L.A. Basically, we were playing these rooms that held maybe 500 people now. Which was huge for us.

    ANTHONY NEWMAN: I was helping them with their merchandise table, so I was sitting out on the lobby and you sort of have a keyhole view into the main room—I think the Roxy’s probably maybe like 500 people. I remember I could see them performing through a doorway and thinking in that moment that they’d made a jump from being this smaller band with a rabid fan base to a band that could go further.

    ADAM PFAHLER: The van was in the shop somewhere in Idaho, and we had to go get a rental in order to get to our hotel room. The guy at the car-rental place said something really flippant, in a real cavalier, shitty, cold way. [The news] was playing on the TV behind him saying Kurt Cobain had died, and he was like, “Oh yeah, that guy killed himself.” And I just looked at him and said, “We knew him, don’t talk like that.” I was just offended. We went to the hotel and we had the TV on and we were watching it. At a certain point we were like, “We can’t do this, this is morbid.”

    ZAK SALLY: [Blake] moved into the city, into San Francisco, and I remember going to his apartment and hanging out once or twice after he moved into the city—that was shortly after Cobain had killed himself. And I think Cali or whoever the Cobains’ nanny was had sent Blake some photographs or some Polaroids of Kurt sitting on his bed and wearing a Jawbreaker shirt and pulling out the shirt sorta like, “I’m wearing a Jawbreaker shirt.” I think Cali sent it to him ’cause Blake would wanna have that, and I was like, “I made that shirt.” It was just fucked. It was just certainly all too surreal to make sense of at the time, and in retrospect I don’t know if I can do that yet.

    Blake, Adam, and their friend Rich in high school, circa 1982. Their band was called Red Harvest.

    Part Eleven: San Francisco Scene Co-opted 

    ADAM PFAHLER: I have a couple of letters from major labels from probably right after Nirvana broke, people kind of fishing around: “So and so from major conglomerate here writing to see if you want to have a meeting or send us a demo.” We just thought those were funny, we never really took them seriously, never ended up taking any of those meetings or sending demos. If you have to ask my band for a demo, if you don’t already know us from the records that we already have out or the touring that we’re doing, you don’t know what you’re up to. We didn’t take it very seriously. It got more serious after Green Day broke: everyone was getting courted and taking meetings and getting dinners and lunches and we started to think there might be something to it.

    MIKE MORASKY: [Steel Pole Bath Tub] were signing to a major label, believe it or not, around that same era, and if we were signing to a fuckin’ major label they certainly should be, right?

    ANTHONY NEWMAN: I remember when all of the major-label hoo-ha started really swirling, I know that a lot of labels were approaching them kind of with this idea of, “OK, it’s a three-piece band from the Bay Area, we’ve found our new Green Day.” Which obviously is absurd, because those bands sound nothing alike. For Jawbreaker, that was a real bummer. That was part of that process of choosing a label to go with, and ultimately one of the reasons they went with Geffen was because maybe they didn’t treat them like, “Hey, you guys are the next Green Day” as opposed to “Well, you’re the first Jawbreaker.”

    CALI DEWITT: I knew people at Geffen Records just because of living with Kurt and Courtney. Mark Kates, who has good music taste and is a good guy, called me and wanted their contact info. He was like, “I wanna sign that band.” And I remember laughing at him and saying, “They will never sign to a major label.”

    CHRISTY COLCORD:“Is Jawbreaker gonna sign?” I wasin Europe, so I was separated from it. People in the U.K. would ask me about it all the time, but people over there were less broken up about that; in the East Bay, the battle was really raging.

    BRIAN ZERO: There’s a history of people looking for what is new, in terms of what is marketable. That was the ’93- ’94 period, the period that Jawbreaker was in, to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. It was swamped—we were swamped with it, Jawbreaker was swamped with it, everybody was swamped with it. I mean everybody could see that there was money, and things were changing. A lot of us just kind of gave up at some point. “It’s OK, we can’t stop this, it’s just the way it is.” So, now when you go into the mall, you can hear the style and hear the music, and you look around and see everybody’s got tattoos.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: I think it’s just protectiveness. People guard their bands and there was really a feeling at that time that labels were vultures. They were going to lots of shows and trying to swoop up bands.

    BRIAN ZERO: I was one of those people who was like, “Fuck punk rock.” I was one of those people who was like, “These people deserve every fucking thing they get, they just sold out, they fucked our community up, and they’re not gonna have anything.” But on another level it’s kind of like, well, that was also my tribe—I was a teenager and I grew up in that, so you’re always kind of gonna be there. Even in life you’re gonna be doing something that’s connected with the experiences that probably on some level were positive learning experiences, even the dark ones.

    CHRISTY COLCORD: After Green Day it was not just punk being co-opted, but it was like their scene in particular was being taken. People were a lot touchier about it. I have a T-shirt that’s an anti-Samiam shirt. It says on it,“Samiam demands a $500 guarantee, they’re ruining the scene, fuckin’ sellouts” or whatever. It’s so funny to think it was worth making a T-shirt about somebody wanting $500 to play, but that was the atmosphere at the time.

    “Blake and I were at 20th and Valencia, in front of La Randia on the corner. We just kinda stopped and stood there for a second and I go, ‘What do you think? Do you wanna sign?’”
    Adam Pfahler

    BRIAN ZERO: Punk rock has always had a business side, but if it becomes nothing but a business then it’s going to lose the vitality that keeps it really a community, because what really kept it a community was the sense of trust that came—the idea that you knew the people around you and you could trust them.

    DAN SINKER: Very, very few bands found success from the post–Green Day money. Most of them released a record and broke up. All that money and that attention made an incredible amount of people have amazing opportunities for a very short amount of time. I mean, the indie labels sold more as a result of the attention. But it hurt.

    JASON WHITE: I found it exciting once bands started to [go], “Hey, this might catch on.” They were gonna shoot for the stars or whatever, they were gonna try and become something more than just the band you saw every month around here, and you start seeing them in a little more popular culture. I just thought, “Woah, this is crazy, ’cause it will never last.” I used to have a VCR cassette tape of all the bands of the time on MTV. Like, “They’re gonna show a Jawbreaker video, this is so funny, I’ll tape it” because this will never last, it’ll just be a flash in the pan and then they’ll move on to something else. So it’s funny that it ended up just changing everything and it didn’t go away.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: When you’re selling tens of thousands of records, you don’t know who [they are]. I don’t know tens of thousands of people, I can’t know tens of thousands of people, I know a handful of representative people who are pretty cool people who were involved in what I would call punk rock at the time. And a lot of those people had strong beliefs, which selling out to a major record label violated. So, yeah, I don’t blame ‘em in some ways, if they were looking to us. But another thing is, by that point we were not overtly political in any way, so, I don’t know. But then again I didn’t write the song. I never had to go back on words I said before.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We had been very vocal about not signing in the years prior, ’cause labels came after us before and we didn’t think anything of it. This time it seemed a little bit more serious because they weren’t just sending a generic letter asking for a demo tape of our band. You could tell that they meant business.

    Part Twelve: Jawbreaker Field Label Offers 

    MIKE MORASKY: With Jawbreaker we kind of all thought that somebody would help get them over that hurdle and that it would take off; to have all those kids turning their backs on them at shows and shit-talking, I just never got it. I always thought there was a certain element of jealousy there—who doesn’t want to have some success and have the world tell them that they’re great ... Having already watched Nirvana do their thing and then Green Day, it was kind of like, “Don’t we want the purveyors of mass culture to be Blake Schwarzenbach?” I fuckin’ do! I would much rather have him be a superstar than some idiot who just lied his way there.

    DAVE JONES [Roadie, high school friend]: Adam would probably scoff at this, but it seemed like these guys were gonna be like The Clash. They could appeal to a larger audience. To me it was kind of a no-brainer that they would keep growing and growing.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It started by us talking to management, ’cause we had no idea how to do that process, it was a real education. Jeff Saltzman [and] Elliot Cahn at Cahn-Man, they agreed to see what the offers were like.

    ELLIOT CAHN: At the time, my partner Jeff Saltzman and I were representing Green Day and The Offspring and Rancid and Jawbreaker and a lot of other punk bands that were all getting big at the same time.

    ADAM PFAHLER: They had a lot of people’s ears, they could get their phone calls returned. They very matter-of-factly told us, “Well, if you guys wanna do this, this could happen very easily and it’d be pretty painless. We’re already in people’s ears so we could make it very smooth to make this happen for you if you wanna do it.” That was our first meeting. We didn’t say yes, we just went home and thought about it and talked about it. After we decided we’d start to look into it, we got back to them and said,“OK, whatever you gotta do to start this ball rolling, make it happen.” And so they said, “OK,” and they looked at just a handful of labels. They didn’t cast a very wide net at all, they just looked at the few labels that they were familiar with through their other bands and their business—so that was mainly Capitol Records, Warner Brothers, DGC, and MCA.

    MARK KATES: I had some appreciation for how dramatic it was that they were even open to it. I remember sitting at my desk and getting a call from Jeff Saltzman saying they wanted to talk to labels.

    ADAM PFAHLER: It got rolling like that pretty quickly, but there was enough time in there that I did a shitload of research. I read the Passman book [All You Need to Know About the Music Business] cover-to-cover and took notes and really tried to figure out why these deals end up destroying bands. I made a list of what we wanted from the thing. We said we wouldn’t do it unless everything was exactly the way we wanted to do it.

    This group shot is the last photo of the band. It was taken by Elliott Smith.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: They set up a whole bunch of meetings for us with various record executives and stuff, and we did that weird junket down to Los Angeles, which is a thoroughly strange experience. It’s like entering the belly of the beast. I remember meeting some real assholes, executives from record companies who, to me, were so alien from the type of people who I’d been dealing with up to that point. They were so wrapped up in music as a commodity. And it was miles and miles away from the sort of independent, DIY kind of stuff that we had been involved in up to that point.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It was hard to meet people who you just weren’t sure they had actually heard your band ’cause there was so much of an appetite for Bay Area bands at that moment. Just having to go to L.A. and go out to lunch with people who you didn’t know... I don’t like eating with strangers. Everything was kind of free and, “Oh yeah, of course, this is going to work out perfectly.” That’s not where we were at; we were a little more dubious. That was challenging to meet that artificial optimism.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: There’s exceptions, like Mark. He was really cool, ’cause he had been involved with Mission of Burma and all that stuff down in Boston early on. So he was very cool and very nice, and part of the reason we ended up with Geffen.

    ADAM PFAHLER: He had taste and he wasn’t pushy.

    MARK KATES: I always try to treat people on their own terms, I don’t think it’s hard. And yet, there are a lot of people who work in the entertainment industry who think it’s all about them and how other people fit into their life. But to me it was very natural and really very much unforced.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: It was a kind of frightening process. You really got a sense of how fast that business was and how artificial it could be.

    MARK KATES: One day they were in L.A. and I couldn’t find them. We’d brought them down, and they were definitely going to be meeting with other labels, too. It turns out that they’d seen Andrew Dice Clay on the street and gotten really freaked out, at which point they called me.

    BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH: Mark was the most consistent, genuine person who actually had seen our band and knew our music really well, and that was the deciding factor for going to Geffen.

    ADAM PFAHLER: In July of ’94 we did 10 days with Jawbox playing the West Coast. We must’ve been talking to them about their experience—they had already signed to Atlantic at that point I believe. We were talking to our people about it, kind of putting our feelers out there, and seeing if it was possible—could we do this?

    CHRISTY COLCORD: They felt like they had maxed out the amount of money they could get to make the record and for what they wanted to do. To grow as a band, they needed money, they needed help for that. So there was never a discussion of like, “I want to be rich and famous.” It was more like, “This is the record I want to make, I can’t make it now. I want to make the record that I have in my head and then I want people to hear it, and then I want to be able to go see those people.”

    ADAM PFAHLER: Late ’94, I remember talking with Blake and being back in the van with Christy.

    CHRISTY COLCORD: On the ’94 tour they were in the middle of the debate about whether they should sign or not. I was like, “If you sign for a million dollars you have to give me a job,” and Blake was like, “If we sign for a million dollars I’ll give you 10 percent of a million dollars.” So I have a check that he wrote me that says, “Christy Colcord, 10 percent of one million dollars, Blake Schwarzenbach.” They didn’t quite get a million so I didn’t get to cash it; it’s probably not legal tender. 

    “I remember a Ben Weasel column saying he would eat his hat if Jawbreaker ever signed to a major label. And then of course they did, and there’s a Maximum RockNRoll column with him sitting at a table with a hat and a knife and fork.”
    Dan Sinker

    ADAM PFAHLER: We were together for so long by the time we signed that we thought, [in regards to] any troubles we were having within the band, “Well, we’ve been doing it this way for so long, let’s try it another way, maybe it’ll afford us a little bit more space.”

    ANTHONY NEWMAN: People just totally identify with things Blake was expressing through his lyrics. I just remember being like, “God, if these guys sign to a major label why would people care so much? Why would a fan of Jawbreaker be so opposed to that?”

    MARK KATES: I think that kids in the Bay Area for whom that scene was really important were already a little bit disillusioned by what had happened to Green Day, and I think Jawbreaker signing to Geffen was far more culturally traumatic than we ever could have imagined. I’m not saying that that necessarily makes sense, but it was very real.

    DAN SINKER: I think by the fact that [24 Hour Revenge Therapy] was so good, that made the expectations that were a result of what was happening externally that much higher. But there were any number of big bands at that moment that it suddenly was like, “You are our hope,” for lack of a better term. God, what a fucking awful thing to put on a band.

    Part Thirteen: The Geffen Experience 

    ADAM PFAHLER: I remember me and Blake were at 20th and Valencia, in front of La Randia on the corner. We just kinda stopped and stood there for a second and I go, “What do you think? Do you wanna sign?” We were like,“Yeah, we’ll go to Geffen.” And then we just continued walking.

    ADAM PFAHLER: Then it was just done. Then all there was to do was call somebody up and tell them to send the paperwork. I remember the biggest pain in the ass about the whole thing was driving down to Menlo Park to sign the thing with our lawyer. I remember falling asleep in some of those meetings, bored to tears.

    DAN SINKER: I remember a Ben Weasel column saying he would eat his hat if Jawbreaker ever signed to a major label. And then of course they did, and there’s a Maximum RockNRoll column with him sitting at a table with a hat and a knife and fork.

    JASON WHITE: To some people they were turning into something they didn’t want—they wanted them to stay the same forever, or what they thought was forever.

    KEVIN MCCRACKEN [Siren guitarist, DIY booker]: I know for myself it was a little bit of a bummer when ticket prices went up and they signed to Geffen. There was a lot of people that were like, “They deserve it, they worked hard.” And then there were people that were more like,“This is inexcusable.”

    JEFF SPIEGEL: In terms of signing to DGC, anybody who took offense at that or felt slighted or thought that that was negative, I don’t think they really understood the band. Because of a need to categorize things and because of the demographic they came out of and the people that were their peers, they got lumped in with being a punk-rock band. I think it’s more accurate to say they were a band, they were a great one. So the shame isn’t that they signed with a major label, but the shame is that millions and millions of people didn’t get exposed to them when they signed to that major label.

    ADAM PFAHLER: It wasn’t like we were careerists. We knew that the reason why they were coming after us so aggressively is ’cause they wanted another Green Day, and we knew we weren’t gonna be another Green Day. It takes a Jawbreaker song a minute to get to the chorus. Blake has been quoted as saying that it was almost like a whimsical decision to sign to a major and I’m not sure that he’s that far off. It was just sort of like, “Ah, what the fuck, this could be interesting, we’ve never done this before. Maybe it’ll be fun, maybe it’ll be glamorous.” We knew we were gonna get a new practice space out of it, we knew we were gonna get a new van out of it, we knew that we were gonna be able to live for at least for a year on whatever advance they gave us, and we knew that we could afford to spend a little bit more time in the studio, which we had never done. So it was just sort of like, “Let’s do something different, let’s see where it takes us.”

    CALI DEWITT: They signed, and I was excited to be there [at Geffen] when the record [Dear You] came out. It was when I really felt the truth that I had already been told about that world—like the whole company was so excited about that record, everyone was talking about it. But because it wasn’t an explosive success, it took like less than a week until everyone in the company never uttered their name again.

    ADAM PFAHLER: We knew what we were getting into. We knew it could be disastrous. But by the time we did it we were ready to do it just to do it because it was there, just to see what it was like.

    CHRIS BAUERMEISTER: In hindsight I’m not sure it was necessarily the best move, but that’s 20/20 hindsight. Nothing came of it, so of course it wasn’t the best move. We lost a lot of our existing fanbase and didn’t really gain a new one. Eventually that’s what killed it for me.

    DAN SINKER: Had that Green Day money not shown up, had Jawbreaker not signed, had none of that happened, would they still be around churning out records? Would the punk scene still exist the way it was then?


    This story originally appeared in our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review. Buy back issues of the magazine here.


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    Family Matters: Mac DeMarco and His Mom Talk Love and Fearlessness

    Family Matters features conversations with artists and their relatives about the bonds that tie them together.


    “His songs always make me cry.”

    This is not the typical reaction to smirking indie goofball Mac DeMarco’s music. But then, Agnes DeMarco is not a typical Mac DeMarco fan. “You’re beautiful, you know?” she says, turning to her son. Moms will be moms, but there’s something deeper to her understanding of Mac’s ambling tracks, and the sadness that’s often muddled beneath all that smeared reverb.

    Walking around Mac’s freshly christened new home in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, it’s clear the two have a strong bond. Agnes raised Mac and his brother Hank on her own in Edmonton, Alberta, after their father left when Mac was just 4. Over the years, she held a handful of jobs, including stints at furniture stores and restaurants, as she supported Mac’s burgeoning love of music, eventually driving him to some of his early local gigs.

    By now, Mac’s onstage antics have spanned from hoisting his longtime girlfriend Kiera onto his shoulders mid-song to performing a U2 cover nude with a drumstick up his butt. On this sunny February afternoon, the vibe is much more subdued: Kiera is doing dishes in the kitchen, while Mac brushes his teeth and makes his way through a pack of Marlboro Reds, blowing smoke out of the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street.

    “He does OK for himself,” says a beaming Agnes on a tour of the pale blue house. It’s spacious, cluttered with broken and working instruments kept in the foyer as well as in a separate garage that’s currently being converted into a studio. The expansive backyard is suitable for a dog, and it’s a little surprising Mac doesn’t have one given his canine proclivity—in the self-helmed video for the title track from his upcoming album This Old Dog, he and several bystanders hang out in various L.A. locales, wearing dog masks. Agnes puts it simply: “He tours too much for dogs.”

    The new record breaks through Mac’s trademark levity with ruminations on growing older, and the hindsight that comes with it. On the bleary “Dreams from Yesterday,” he mourns the loss of would-be aspirations and the time you can never get back, while “My Old Man” has him grappling with the inevitability and fear of becoming your parents, particularly his dad. As Mac discusses his music and how he got here, Agnes listens intently on the sofa beside him, hanging on his every word.

    Pitchfork: Mac, on “My Old Man,” you talk about how you “see my old man in me.” What was your thought process behind that song?

    Mac DeMarco: Well, I have a strange relationship with my dad. He’s kind of a piece of shit. But he’s my dad, so god bless him.

    Agnes, what do you make of the song?

    Agnes DeMarco: I liked it...

    MD: You’re going, “Oh boy.”

    AD: Yeah, OK, how do I approach this? I think you do see your parents in yourself, and it’s good to recognize certain elements of somebody else that perhaps you don’t want to carry on. Nobody can get away from who they are or where they’ve come from, and you have to love your parents for who they are and forgive them for what they’ve done and move on and be the best person you can.

    MD: Amen, sister!

    What was it like raising Mac and his brother Hank on your own?

    AD: It was a challenge. I moved [Mac’s dad] out one day and I had no money. But we had a great house, and I just did whatever job, and we had a lot of fun. We lived low-key. We had our little routines. We’d do milkshake and hamburger Fridays and watch “Power Rangers” together. It was a simple life, but good. We’d get the wagon and go through the alleys, or go treasure hunting. We had a great backyard and a little kiddie pool, lots of family around, lots of barbecues. Both of the guys were really creative.

    MD: Who, us?

    AD: Yeah, you and Hank. Don’t you remember “Giraffe News”?

    MD: I don’t.

    AD: It was so awesome. They were just little and I was working at a restaurant called Normand’s in Edmonton—fabulous restaurant if you ever go there—and one of the guys who worked there agreed to be their big brother, because of course I was absolutely loaded with guilt: They have no male influence, oh my god! So this guy would come over, and one day we had an empty Doritos box and these guys had it set up like a theater. Mac had a giraffe toy, and they were doing “Giraffe News.”

    Mac, did you ever think about not having that male influence when you were growing up?

    MD: When you’re growing up, you just take what you’ve got. So not really. I think I turned out OK.

    AD: He turned out just great. I was dating a Harley-Davidson guy one time, and he had a garage that was all tricked-out. I took the boys over to his house one day, and I remember you said to him, “Do all dads have garages like this?” I didn’t cry, so that’s good. But yeah, that just wasn’t something that he saw or knew.

    MD: Like I said, you don’t really know—I think it was for the better in some cases.

    AD: Well, I didn’t have to fight anybody about child raising and what was right or wrong—it was my way or all the way.

    Would you consider your mom a strict disciplinarian?

    MD: When I was pretty young, yeah. I was a little bit of a shit-stirrer then, I did some things. But by the time I was 13, she was kind of like, “Go ahead, who cares.” Well, not “Who cares…”

    AD: I just said to them, “You’re smart and you know what? I trust you.”

    MD: For better or for worse.

    AD: “If you get in trouble, call me. I’ll come get you.”

    When did you take notice that Mac had a flair for music?

    AD: My mom got both boys music lessons at Alberta College, because she was a music teacher. Mac picked up guitar and never put it down. It was just natural for him. Then he started writing. When I heard this one song he did, “Heat Wave,” I was like, “That’s it. He’s going to be a star.” I did!

    MD: I don’t know about that...

    AD: I knew!

    MD: I didn’t want to play music because the whole family did it. I wanted to work in a cubicle. I saw Office Space as a young tween and missed the point of the movie. I was like, “This looks good!” I liked computers and video games. I was a little nerd kid. But in junior high, you want to become more social. I started hanging out with other dudes who played guitar, so I took lessons on-and-off for a while. When I started, it wasn’t like, [whispers] “I’m a real guitar guy!” But then I was meeting older kids and singing in local shows and it was like, “OK, this is cool. Fuck high school, let’s do this.”

    AD: After grade 12, he said, “Mom, should I go to university or do this music thing?”

    MD: I asked you?

    AD: Yeah. I said, “Do the music thing. You’re young. If it doesn’t work out, you can go to university when you’re 30, and you’ll be credible by the time you get out. This is something you’ve got, run with it.”

    How would you describe Mac in his teenage years?

    AD: He was a good kid. Basically good. He was! [laughs] He didn’t get into too much trouble that I knew about. He got into a little bit of trouble, like that time you guys got busted for sitting on top of the High Level Bridge. It was stupid. But he was never a tough, fighting, bad kid like that. He was just full of energy.

    MD: I never got into fights with anybody.

    AD: He wasn’t a scrappy boy. [laughs]

    MD: I was a shrimp.

    AD: It’s true, you were little.

    MD: I was a scrawny dude. I just kind of played shows.

    AD: I’d drive Mac to shows sometimes. I remember driving him up to one he wasn’t playing at on 118th Avenue, which was not the best area in town, and then when I came back to pick him up, and he was up on stage. I just thought, This kid is fearless.

    Do you remember the first show you saw of his?

    AD: Well, he was playing keyboards for his friend Michael Rault, it was at West Edmonton Mall, and my sister and I stood up on the upper level and watched.

    MD: It was so strange. At one point West Edmonton Mall was the biggest mall in the world. We had sharks, flamingos, full-scale pirate ships, an indoor water park and theme park, whatever you need. A really fucked up place. It sounded fucking awful because it was this huge echo chamber. We played in front of an audience of people who were doing an exercise bike marathon.

    AD: Everybody was doing their thing, but I could see Mac’s energy just wanting to bust open.

    What was your relationship like with your brother Hank growing up?

    MD: There was a thing in him, I think—especially when we were younger—where if I was doing something, he wanted nothing to do with it. It was just different strokes. I was going out to shows and I would say, “Do you want to come?” He’d be like, “Fuck no!” To each his own.

    Hank is now a professional ballet dancer. Agnes, are you surprised they went in such different directions?

    AD: No. I was a ballet dancer when I was young. They were just different personalities and they each found something they loved. What more could a mother want for her kids to do something that makes them happy?

    Dancing has such a different sort of discipline than what you do, Mac.

    MD: What I do has no discipline.

    Did you ever think about trying to do ballet?

    MD: No, afraid not. It never crossed my mind.

    So not a dancer.

    MD: No. Well, I have some moves, just no plié-ing. It’s crazy, Hank is shredded as fuck. He looks like Michael Phelps. All of his homies, his whole crew, are all shredded too. I’ve actually never seen him dance, which is probably bad. I will eventually.

    What do you hope for Mac to achieve?

    AD: I hope he has a good life. That’s what I want. The rest is totally up to him. I hope that we stay connected.

    MD: After this, Ma, I’m cutting you off!


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    Rising: Sacred Paws Are Having the Most Fun

    Sacred Paws are a long-distance proposition. When the duo convene on the terrace of a South London takeout restaurant one sunny Thursday morning in March, drummer Eilidh Rogers, 32, is laden with bags, ready to catch a train back to her hometown of Glasgow, where she works at an independent record shop owned by indie-pop great Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels. Guitarist and lead singer Rachel Aggs, 29, lives here in Brixton, and the two manage to get together about once a month to practice and occasionally write new material. They’ve been a band for about five years and blame the 400-mile separation for their relatively slim output: one EP (2015’s Six Songs), one single (last year’s “Everyday”), and one album (this year’s Strike a Match).

    Yet Sacred Paws’ sound spreads far beyond the length of the UK, putting sunny Ghanaian highlife guitar through a laid-back filter, while their call-and-response vocals echo early Sleater-Kinney, and Rogers’ antic percussion channels post-punk originators the Raincoats, who they recently supported. Named in partial tribute to Rogers’ cats, Sacred Paws are by far the most colorful band on Mogwai’s otherwise pleasingly dour label, Rock Action. When their casual signing offer came in, Aggs went on the imprint’s website and noticed “that they don’t have any women in any of their bands!” she says with the good-natured laugh that ends most of her sentences. “I wasn’t dissing them, but I was like, It’s cool that they’ve signed us, because they need some women!

    The other reason for Sacred Paws’ scant productivity is the sheer number of other acts and enterprises they’re involved in. The duo’s story reads like a micro-history of UK DIY this decade. In 2010, Rogers first saw Aggs play with her funky, complex punk band Trash Kit in Glasgow when they found themselves on the same bill. “I thought I’d say hi,” remembers Rogers, who was playing with the twee-pop group Golden Grrrls at the time, “but Rachel was so shy that we practically imploded when we tried to talk to each other.” A few months later, Golden Grrrls were booked to play one of the first shows at now-defunct East London DIY hub Power Lunches, where Aggs worked throughout its four-year existence. But when that space flooded, they ended up playing in the flat of venue co-founder Andrew Mïlk—who also happens to be Aggs’ bandmate in the acclaimed post-punk band Shopping.

    “I remember watching you play drums like, Whoa!” Aggs recalls of that night, before turning back to me. “She’s really good, it’s loose and fun, and she looks like she’s not really trying.” Rogers pretends to be affronted—“I’m trying really hard!”—then returns the compliment. “The minute Rachel starts playing, I feel really calm,” she says, exhaling dramatically for effect.

    When two Golden Grrrls moved away, Aggs briefly joined, and the pair bonded over their love of folk, jazz, folk-jazz, Yo La Tengo, and pop, trading mixtapes in the mail. “We got on really well, so we were like, Let’s do another band!” says Rogers. Forming bands is Aggs’ favorite way to hang out with another person and establish a connection, allowing her to communicate through music rather than conversation (though she’s by no means socially awkward in the hour we spend at the cafe).

    There’s no agenda behind Sacred Paws beyond spending time together, no designated themes to keep the duo’s different bands from overlapping. “I’m not like, Ooh, shall we do a post-punk band? It’s never premeditated,” says Aggs. “We just have specific types of music that we like in common. We never discuss... anything!” Still, Aggs sees some distinction between the way she writes for her various projects. Where Shopping’s songs are more polemical and pointed, offering spirited critiques of consumerism, Sacred Paws’ tracks unpick anxieties and self-doubt. “When stuff goes wrong/It makes me feel useless,” Aggs admits on “Empty Body.” These are “more emotional and abstract” songs, she says. “Trying to act on a bit of your brain that’s more subconscious.”

    Life in Sacred Paws is both efficient and unhurried. When Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite booked them four days in their Castle of Doom studio to record Six Songs, the pair were taken aback. “Four days?!” Rogers laughs. “Last time we recorded we did 12 songs in two days.” They appreciate Rock Action’s casual vibe, but have found their ambitions leveling up as more doors open up to them.

    “As you get older, you get more comfortable about that,” Aggs says of their expanding horizons. “When we were recording Strike a Match, we told the guy who was engineering and producing, ‘We kinda want brass, we’re gonna see if our friends can play,’ and he was like, ‘Nah, get a brass section.’ It seemed like a wild idea and really extravagant, but having people say ‘you can do this’ opens up more possibilities and gives you confidence in the future like, Yeah, why not? What else can we add on the next record? We'll have a string section!” She laughs again and reconsiders.“I don’t think so!”

    How did you both get started in music and find out about the DIY scene?

    Rachel Aggs: If I hadn’t gone to see certain shows when I was younger, I wouldn’t have started a band, because they were predominantly female, queer musicians making really weird music. I thought, If they can do that, I can definitely do a band! That’d be fun! I just wouldn’t have fit into music any other way. I can’t imagine starting a band like, Oh, we better get a manager. It just wouldn’t work for me. I wouldn’t have been able to learn guitar in that situation. I learnt guitar on stage! Those DIY communities and scenes allow you to learn, and make a mess and a noise. In more mainstream scenes, you wouldn’t even try to do that.

    Eilidh Rogers: The whole idea behind making music for us is that it’s fun. I can’t really imagine doing it any other way. It’d be funny to have an agenda. None of it was planned!

    Rachel, running out of time is a recurring theme in your songs, and I wondered if “Getting Old” is about a generational divide between punks.

    RA: There’s so many older people that really inspire me, like the Raincoats, because they’re still doing what they love and it hasn’t changed at all since they first started—their passion for it, and the way that they approach music. So it’s more about how how it’s a bit heartbreaking when people are old before their time.

    People giving up on their creativity, feeling that they have to professionalize or grow up?

    RA: Definitely. That is something that you experience when you’re making music in a DIY scene. Everything’s really fun, and then people hit 30 and you’re like, Where’s my friends gone?! Everyone’s stopped doing this fun thing now and they’re having children. It’s something you have to deal with when you’re an old punk.

    Has your relationship with the music you make, and the way you want to make music, changed with age?

    ER: I don’t think it has. I mean, maybe we have less energy! But it feels the same to me. It’s just a continuation of our friendship. It’s what comes out!

    RA: Yeah. We’ve added more stuff—we have a live band now. It’s really nice playing with different people, but then you have the different aspect of constantly worrying that they’re all having fun. We’ve become a bit more ambitious.

    ER: I don’t know if we have become more ambitious, it’s just more feasible now. We’re in a better position to ask people to do it with us.

    Which other experiences have pushed you forward?

    ER: Just the way people respond really helps, because it makes you feel like, Wow, people enjoy it, and we’re not as crippled with piercing self-doubt as we probably were initially.

    It seems like you both find people dancing to be the ultimate validation of your music.

    RA: Completely.

    ER: We enjoy playing, so it feels at odds if we’re having fun and we look out and everyone's bored, you know?!

    Sacred Paws: "Vince" (via SoundCloud)

    Rachel, you’re also part of the organizing group behind the upcoming Decolonise Fest, which was started it in response to last year’s London Afropunk Fest and how un-punk it turned out to be. What are you hoping to accomplish?

    RA: We came together through Stephanie Phillips who plays in Big Joanie. She posted on Facebook saying, “Shall I do a festival for punks of color?” We arranged a meeting, and it was just amazing—a bunch of people I’d never met before who had this shared goal. Everyone came from really different backgrounds, some of them were like, “What is punk?” And it was like, Oh, okay! Let’s talk about it!

    It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for ages. I thought about starting a band with all people of color, just because I find myself in situations where I’m the only person of color in a room at my own gig so often. It can be a bit lonely and disheartening, because you think, What’s wrong? What is it about our scene that’s not inclusive? So it’s an effort to include people, and I hope that out of it some amazing bands will be formed. That’s what our generation took from bands like the Raincoats and X-Ray Spex—this sense of seeing yourself reflected in the music that you listen to, and punk being something that opens up space for people who feel marginalized or discouraged from giving it a go. You see more people of color onstage and you feel like you could start a band.


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: This Is What You Get: An Oral History of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” Video

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    Radiohead could have stopped making videos. With their music growing stranger and more critical of the capitalist enterprise around OK Computer, they could have simply opted out of such glorified television commercials and their attendant pomp and flash. But instead of scoffing at the worst of MTV, they took advantage of the channel’s reach to challenge, warp, and fundamentally reorganize millions of impressionable teenage minds.

    There was the animated insanity of the “Paranoid Android” video, which imagined a surreal dimension filled with politicians in barbed thongs, humping rats, and a drunk dude with a head coming out of his stomach. And the one-shot stunner “No Surprises,” in which Thom Yorke nearly drowns for our voyeuristic pleasure. But perhaps the most trenchant visual to come from OK Computer is director Jonathan Glazer’s menacing parable for “Karma Police.” In it, a grizzled man is slowly stalked by a 1976 Chrysler New Yorker, before fortunes are flipped amid a blaze of fire. Along for the ride is Yorke himself, who plays the angel—or devil—singing from the blood-red backseat; most of the video is shot from the driver’s point of view, making each and every viewer complicit in the unfolding terror. Filmed on a desolate road in Cambridgeshire, England, the video’s ambiguity—it begins in medias res, and it’s impossible to know who to root for—lends itself to endless interpretation, and to timelessness.

    Making its debut on MTV’s “120 Minutes” on September 21, 1997, the “Karma Police” video came along in an era when vanguard bands and directors were encouraging each other to push at the format’s limits on a regular basis. (An influx of industry cash thanks to the CD boom did not hurt—the clip’s budget was around $200,000 at the time, a generally unheard-of sum for a video nowadays.) And Glazer was among a generation of music video auteurs, including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Mark Romanek, who helped to turn an inherently craven medium into something genuinely inventive.

    Twenty years later, the “Karma Police” video still feels frighteningly up-to-date; as long as there are big guys and little guys and unexpected twists of fate, its power will endure. Here’s the story behind the video from those who were there.

    It feels like Radiohead were music video geniuses from the dawn of time—but that wasn’t the case.

    DILLY GENT [Radiohead’s video commissioner, 1992-2008]: When I first met Radiohead, they were all living in a house in Oxford together, just like any other young band. I got a job as a video commissioner at Parlophone Records in ’92, and they joined the label that same week. So I was due to start on the Monday but I was told, “Oh, can you just zip up to Oxford on Saturday? You’ve got to meet this band, and we’ve got to shoot a video.” That was “Creep.”

    At first, they were really just making the videos they wanted to make. “Pop Is Dead” is literally a treatment that Thom wrote, down to every frame—we had the entire Radiohead fan club carrying him across the Oxford Downs in a glass coffin. I was doing a terrible job, but I wasn’t really concerned because we would just go off and make something. In the early ’90s, we probably thought those videos were all right, but looking back at them now, we all just want to die.

    I remember an early gig in Amsterdam where there were six people in the audience. The band was still kind of working out how to play their instruments. I just thought, They’re really nice, sweet, low-key boys. The singer’s got a phenomenal voice, and they’re kind of good. But then they worked so hard and really flourished. By the time the second album came along, it was leaps and bounds ahead. And then, third album, another leap. And at the same time I was getting more confident and trusting my taste more. And since me and Thom have very similar taste, the process of making videos became very easy.

    MATT PINFIELD [former MTV VJ and host of “120 Minutes”]: When I was at MTV, the industry was trying to write off the band as a one-hit wonder with “Creep,” but I absolutely loved The Bends as well. We would get heat from other record companies, they would say to us, “Our record sold 20,000 more than Radiohead this week, why do you keep promoting their record?” And we said, “Because it’s great!” We stood our ground, and it was something that the band really appreciated.

    When Thom handed me a gold record for The Bends, he was actually in tears. He said, “I know you guys took a lot of shit for standing behind this album and these videos and the band, and I just want to tell you how much I appreciate it.” That’s what this is really all about. And of course, we were right there with OK Computer as well. I’m very proud of having a gold record for OK Computer and for The Bends. It’s not just about material things, I believe in the records and the band so much.

    [1] Source: The Independent, September 14, 2006

    THOM YORKE: [“Karma Police”] is for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management! [1]

     [2] Melody Maker, May 31, 1997

    JONNY GREENWOOD: It was a band catchphrase for a while on tour—whenever someone was behaving in a particular shitty way, we’d say, “The karma police will catch up with him sooner or later.” [2]

    [3] Q Magazine, October 1997

    THOM YORKE: “Karma police, arrest this man.” That’s not entirely serious, I hope people will realize that. [3]

    DILLY GENT: I did not know there was any humor attached to the song. The great thing about Radiohead is I never had a clue what their songs meant; I never asked, Thom never said. When I present a treatment to a lot of bands now, they’ll say, “Oh, but the song’s not about that.” And you go, “Well, we’re not making a documentary here.” With Radiohead, I could barely pick out the words, so the videos are made from the feeling of the music and what it conjures up.

    MATT PINFIELD: Radiohead were a band that showed you how music videos could be art, that it didn’t just have to be somebody spending $3 million on a Meatloaf video that looks like an action film—nothing against Meatloaf personally.

    The idea for the “Karma Police” video was originally pitched to another visually astute artist of the era: Marilyn Manson.

    JONATHAN GLAZER: I was flown over to New York to see a private screening of David Lynch’s then new film Lost Highway because Mr. Manson wanted the video to relate to it somehow. Anyway, all I remember from that screening were the opening credits of a rushing road beneath the camera. Next thing I knew it was the closing credits—I’d had a big night, no sleep, and nodded off. So yes, that scene must have entered my subconscious, and the idea for “Karma Police” came out of it. It’s the only time I’ve written something for one artist and ended up making it for another.

    RANDY SOSIN [former video commissioner at A&M and Interscope]: I remember having dinner with Manson’s manager right as the “Karma Police” video came out, and he told me that Jonathan Glazer had pitched a similar idea for a video with Manson for his song “Long Hard Road Out of Hell,” which would make sense with the car on fire at the end and everything. I had a similar thing happen once, when Michel Gondry pitched an idea for Soundgarden’s “Burden in My Hand” that later became a Cibo Matto video called “Sugar Water.”

    As far as why Manson passed, I just feel like he didn’t necessarily want to be a piece of another artist’s work. I don’t remember him ever saying, “Oh, why didn’t I make that video?” It’s just that music video directors in particular tend to have a very specific vision and they see which artists are willing to go there.

    Watch a video featuring fun facts about the "Karma Police" clip drawn from this oral history.


    DILLY GENT: After he directed the video for “Street Spirit,” from The Bends, Glazer and I became really good friends, mainly because we fought a lot about that video—but in a good way. So we would meet up, and he said, “I’ve got this great short film idea.” It was exactly the idea that you see in the video, and I absolutely loved it. Though I didn’t even know we were going to do it with Radiohead at that point. Then “Karma Police” came along as a track, and I sent it to Jon, and he wrote it out, and I said to the band, “You need to do this, it’s a piece of perfection.”

    JONATHAN GLAZER: I was interested in trying to shoot something very simple, short story-ish. Where the whole narrative could be contained within a single sentence.

    DILLY GENT: Jon’s a great storyteller. I remember being in his house when he was telling me about a scene from [Glazer’s 2013 film] Under the Skin before it was made. It was a bright sunny day, kids running around the kitchen table, couldn’t have been a more cozy environment—but I swear to god I thought I was going to die from horror, because he described it so vividly. There were just chills going down my back. I was like, “I am never going to see this damn movie if I can’t even handle you describing it to me in your kitchen.”

    SEAN BROUGHTON [“Karma Police” visual effects supervisor]: I might have stared blankly at Jonathan for a moment when he first told me the idea for the video. It is a really simple idea: A guy in a car is chasing someone, then you’re now being chased by that guy. When you’re given something like that, there is such an element of trust in it, and the execution of it is everything. You could have a different director shoot that same piece and it could be terrible. But by the time Jonathan is telling the story to someone, he already has pretty much the finished edit in his head. “Story is king” is the mantra that we always used to chant in those days.

    DILLY GENT: When Jon told me the idea in the café, I was going, “This might be your first cheap video!” I thought you could just attach a camera to the bonnet of the car, get a guy running, some petrol, fire. But no. The idea was really straightforward, but the production was a monster.

    The running actor was flown in from Hungary. He wasn’t local. And he kept getting a cramp and having to have some horrible injections put into his leg so he could keep running.

    SEAN BROUGHTON: The actor burned his thumb quite badly having done many, many takes of lighting that book of matches with one hand behind his back. He walked out with a fairly disfigured thumb by the end of the shoot.

    DILLY GENT: The car looked like a futuristic robot. That in itself was probably half the budget. And then Thom wore a little khaki-green T-shirt under a leather jacket—and we had a whole truck full of khaki-green T-shirts for him to choose from.

    [4] Details, September 1997

    THOM YORKE: This video alone would cost us a really nice house somewhere. [4]

    SEAN BROUGHTON: Jon wanted to have the fire chase the car at the end of the video, and as effects supervisor, I had to figure out a way for that to happen. We couldn’t really have a quarter mile of fire chasing this car because you’d light one end and it would burn the full distance in a few seconds and probably set fire to the car and blow it up.

    So we actually shot the fire in a dark shed with a locked-off camera during the shoot, about a half mile away from where Thom was. Then we had to actually track that fire into the shot. We had about 100 cones that were covered with a reflective tape, and we put two down on each side of the road for a quarter of a mile. The angle of the cones were such that when the car headlights shone onto them, the tape would glow, and we used those cones in order to track each section of fire into the roadway. There were people looking at us like we were mad: “Why are there people struggling to carry 30 boxes of cones into the countryside? What the hell are you doing? Why can’t you do it another way?”

    We worked all night on it. At about one o’clock in the morning, Jon turned up, having not seen any part of the fire, and sat there in silence and watched it for the first time. He just went, “Nailed it.” That was it. It was a good feeling.

    DILLY GENT: At the time, Thom really looked a bit like an alien. He was just changing his hair; you can see his scalp. And the lighting was beautiful. With anyone else directing, it would have just been a bloke in the back of the car, but they made him look like this otherworldly human being. With Glazer’s work, you just want to grab each frame and put it on your wall. Nothing will ever be dated about that video.

    Watch a visual effects breakdown of the fire sequence in the "Karma Police" video, courtesy of Sean Broughton.

    But what does it all mean?!

    SEAN BROUGHTON: Any piece of good art is something where everyone sees something different in it, and to have a story that is so simple does lend itself to you reading into it.

    JONATHAN GLAZER: I’d say the ‘driver,’ the presence at the wheel, is more like a robot. Thom’s the storyteller. In my mind, he’s not even there.

    SEAN BROUGHTON: There is the lyric: “This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.” It could be applied to bullying—the kid that got sand kicked in his face suddenly turns and is a bodybuilder made of muscles. When you’re young, you’re certainly full of teenage angst, and this song and video offers a very easy translation for anyone’s feelings of unfairness, which is one of the earliest and strongest emotions that we have. When you see it acted out with a successful turning of the tide, that’s always appealing.

    It would be nearly impossible to make a video like “Karma Police” today.

    DILLY GENT: Back then you had curated platforms like “120 Minutes,” and the labels could see the direct line from the video being seen and album sales going through the roof.

    SEAN BROUGHTON: That time in the ’90s really was the golden era. It was when people could use the full breadth of talent that was available in the industry purely for artistic reasons. We weren’t necessarily trying to sell toothpaste to the millions. It was something that was really a work of the heart, that people really believed in, and it spurred people on to do bigger and better things. And most of it was done with no expectation of monetary reward. It was done purely for the love of it. That’s hard to find.

    That ilk certainly disappeared around the time that the Spice Girls all broke up. The money left the industry. People weren’t buying that many records. It all changed. People wanted green screen videos. The bubble had burst.

    DILLY GENT: Once there was no longer a focused place where people could see videos, there was no direct line from a video being made to albums being sold. And that’s when all of the video budgets plummeted. I mean, I remember having £50,000 to make a Radiohead video and thinking, God, I've only got £50,000, I’ve no idea what we’re going to do. Now I’m trying to make two videos for $10,000.

    RANDY SOSIN: Videos aren’t bad now, but I just feel like the world has changed and videos have stayed the same. I wish it would evolve as a medium because it is a powerful tool. Opportunity is there, I just don’t see a lot of people taking advantage of it.

    DILLY GENT: It’s very hard to make that level of music video now, because there’s so much fear attached to the creative process. Everything has been diluted now, video-wise. It’s a massive challenge for me to make a creative video. I don’t even know if it’s possible anymore.


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: What It Felt Like to Review <i>OK Computer</i> When It First Came Out

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    Having been a professional critic for several decades, I’ve reviewed something like a thousand records and concerts. Many are a blur. But I’ll always remember writing about Radiohead’s OK Computer for SPIN 20 years ago.

    First, a little background. I saw Radiohead open for college radio faves Belly the same week Pearl Jam’s Vs. sold nearly a million copies in 1993—a record-breaking achievement. Grunge was making every kind of rock heavier, often to a fault. Slacker bands were suddenly aspiring to be rock stars like Nirvana, who hated being rock stars, and that contradiction made many—including Radiohead at this early stage—conflicted and awkward. I’d heard “Creep” as a perfect piece of outsider pop, an anthem for all of us who were told we “don’t belong here.” But Thom Yorke’s then-bleached Cobain-esque hair and the belabored dread of their other early songs suggested Radiohead secretly aspired to be insiders, which didn’t suit them. There were plenty of second-hand, third-tier, fake-Seattle bands canvassing the U.S.; we didn’t need these Brits stumbling about as if they too were shooting smack. Their clothes were godawful; Yorke’s dancing was worse. I gladly and mercilessly panned them.

    Their second album, 1995’s The Bends, completely reversed my dismissal. It came out amid the Britpop explosion, which brought out dodgy imitators just like grunge. For every Suede, Blur, Pulp, or Elastica, there were many lesser, reactionary Oasis clones reviving the sullen, laddish classic rock stances new wave rightly rendered cornball. In the space of one album, though, Radiohead circumvented all that. This time they sustained the tunes that supported their seriousness, and put the “Creep”-enabled money being thrown at them to good use: The album’s emphatically cinematic videos, particularly “Just,” confirmed that this was a band that was nailing the sweet spot between accessibility and mystery.

    But although the UK press proclaimed that Radiohead joined the big leagues with The Bends, the band’s sweepingly positive critical consensus hadn’t yet spread to most Yanks: My SPIN cohort Chuck Eddy ended his largely negative Bends review grousing, “Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion.” But sales and radio play snowballed regardless: The album’s fifth UK single, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” was its most successful; a No. 5 pop hit nearly a year after the album’s release. In America, The Bends soon fell off the chart after initially peaking at No. 147, but eventually returned to it and went gold a year later when the deceptively conventional single “High and Dry” was similarly promoted late in the game. Something was happening, and I wanted to write about it.

    Back in 1997, critics still often reviewed albums in advance of their release date off of promo cassettes. If it was a bigtime record, you’d generally get the tape only if you were on assignment, as bootleg CDs made from them proliferated. Security further tightened that year, when internet use increased exponentially and Winamp came along, allowing non-geeks to play new-fangled MP3s. As usual, I pitched SPIN a review of OK Computer based on my love for the previous album, and got the assignment without actually having heard it. The unanticipated wrinkle was that the tape arrived in a portable cassette player—a cheap Walkman knockoff—that had been Krazy Glued shut.

    I’d grown accustomed to security restrictions: Shortly after my career began, I reviewed David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down based solely on hearing it one afternoon at his record company’s office, and its soul-crushing blandness gave me no choice but to thoroughly lambast my childhood hero; there was no time for subtlety. But this OK Computer Walkman meant I couldn’t experience the album vibrating through my body via quality home equipment like usual; I had to experience it via compromised audio, and only through headphones. After decades of computer speakers, iPods, cell phones, and tinny MP3s, that distinction may seem minor, but at the time it was challenging, and particularly in this instance: Among many other things, OK Computer celebrates the sensuality of high-tech as it critiques it; this much was obvious, even on that dime-store Walkman.

    It’s important to remember that throughout the ’90s, rock stopped being futuristic—that was electronic music’s job. While techno, progressive house, jungle, trance, trip-hop, and other post-disco genres ruled European pop charts and U.S. clubs, rock had grown regressive and retro. America’s grunge yielded downturned, distorted guitars drawing almost exclusively from ’70s punk and metal, while Britpop, although stylistically broader, typically tapped even earlier guitar bands. Synths were usually verboten; the rare alt-rock acts of the era that featured them, like Stereolab, favored vintage analog exotica. It was as if ’90s rock willfully turned its back on contemporary sounds and equipment.

    As its title telegraphed, OK Computer wasn’t like that, and its break from nearly all other concurrent rock gave me the same thrill of the new that dance music of the time did. Its attitude wasn’t nostalgic, but dystopian, and it embraced pre-millennial anxieties exactly when many people—myself included—had just bought their first home computer. My review was one of the first I’d composed on a laptop and submitted via email; before that, I’d use an office computer, printer, and fax machine. 1997 was the first year I took in new music at home while surfing the web, seemingly linked to the entire world, but more isolated than ever. As I mentioned in the review, I couldn’t at this early stage comprehend most of the album’s words—there was no pre-release lyric sheet—but I felt their sadness and longing for connection nevertheless. It was my own.

    The music, however, made overt the alienation Yorke’s elliptical messages only suggested. Deliciously melodramatic with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration, it perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Yorke’s choirboy cry. Radiohead brought the noise of avant-garde rockers like Sonic Youth, but no one else had juxtaposed it against such exquisite singing that suggested mankind’s frailty, much less married it to studio craft that updated the painstaking aural architecture of bygone prog and krautrock. More remarkably, co-producer Nigel Godrich and the band created their own sonic world. OK Computer was enigmatic, but no amount of fractured poetry could stop me from thinking it wasn’t a masterpiece. What was unknowable about it also made it great.

    Of course, Kid A and what followed has often been more extreme, and in reading my review today, I’m struck by how much of it could’ve been applied to Radiohead’s subsequent output. The difference was that there was little precedent; they hadn’t previously released a song like “Paranoid Android,” which lacked any kind of refrain or consistent tempo. Even in the “alternative” ’90s, bands on a monumental upward trajectory rarely rejected convention and commerciality this thoroughly. The most notable exception was Nirvana’s In Utero, but that album was banged out in two weeks and sounded it. OK Computer took a year and a half to make at a time when the recklessness of grunge and the brashness of Britpop made at least the illusion of rawness obligatory, and even its noisiest parts are clearly considered. There’s not a moment in it where you think, Wow, I bet they’d like to do that over again.

    There’s a long history of rock journalism initially razzing radical future classics where meaning isn’t conveyed primarily by lyrics. The Beatles’ now nearly untouchable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band famously received a largely negative review in The New York Times; in its ’70s heyday, Rolling Stone routinely ridiculed early Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, and other acts now central to its canon. Rock writing was then like literary criticism for hippies: That’s why brainy singer-songwriters like Dylan and Springsteen got their props while more physical performers were often shown no mercy. But I loved pop and R&B and disco as well the archest art-rock, so OK Computer’s abstractions made sense to me. It was idiosyncratic soul music made by loners who decried soullessness as much as their heroes like Noam Chomsky; a quality that soon endeared some black musicians to Radiohead the way Miles Davis dug Scritti Politti.

    I raved about OK Computer with an enthusiasm belied by the 8-out-of-10 grade attached to it. Things could’ve been worse, though, and sometimes critics have even less control over album grades now. That aside, there’s nothing in this review that I wouldn’t write today, even with hindsight. OK Computer is still “the most appealingly odd effort by a name rock band in ages.” Radiohead are still making “body music that circumvents the head to reach the spirit.” And I’ve still got my sealed Walkman, which only knows one album.


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    Profile: Jlin: Woman of Steel

    There is just one place that can light my face
    Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana!”
    The Music Man, 1962

    “I’m goin’ back to Indiana!
    ’Cause that’s where my baby’s from, yeah!
    OK Tito, you got it!”
    — The Jackson 5, 1971

    “I’m comin’ live from the G, A-R-Y
    Good or bad, right or wrong
    Where the young boys die”
    —Freddie Gibbs, 2009

    A palpable odor of molten metal announces that you have arrived in Gary, Indiana, which began life 111 years ago as a company town, firmly anchored by U.S. Steel. Elbert H. Gary—the company’s key founder and the city’s namesake—is immortalized in a statue outside City Hall, holding his hat in his hand. In 1960, Gary’s population peaked at around 180,000; just a few years later, as the city’s African-American population climbed, U.S. Steel initiated a series of layoffs.

    Gary elected its first black mayor, Richard Hatcher, in 1968. Decades of white flight followed, and as the city’s numbers plummeted, so did its fortunes. In 1994, after a record spike in homicides, The Chicago Tribune named Gary the murder capital of America. These days, U.S. Steel’s Gary location remains the company’s largest domestic facility, but the 2010 census tallied just 80,000 residents; though the city has seen less violent crime since the “Scary Gary” years, nearly a third of its homes are vacant, and 27 percent of its families live below the poverty line.

    Bordered by Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes to the north, Gary lies 30 miles east of Chicago and 250 miles west of Detroit, to whose decline it draws frequent comparison. Unlike those hubs, Gary never laid claim to a music scene of its own, though it has birthed its share of notable musicians. The Jacksons, undeniably the city’s most famous sons and daughters, left Gary decades ago. In the early aughts, Freddie Gibbs began rapping about his hometown’s corruption and economic despair with the swagger of a born and bred native. And, for nearly a decade, working from her parents’ house, the electronic music producer Jerrilynn Patton, aka Jlin, has been rigorously creating a battery of fiercely original beats that challenge any obvious narrative about where they came from.

    Jlin: “Nyakinyua Rise” (via SoundCloud)

    It’s a sunny day in April when I pull up outside Patton’s home. This quiet, secluded house couldn’t be further from the news headlines that regularly chart Gary’s urban blight, or the chaotic nature of Patton’s music. There’s a well-worn basketball goal by the carport and a path of hosta lilies on the verge of blooming. Signs printed Pence Must Go! are staked into a couple of neighboring lawns—a reminder that we are in the Vice President’s home state.

    The current administration has a dubious past in Gary. In the ’90s, Donald Trump sailed a megayacht dubbed the Trump Princess into the city’s harbor, stuffed with slot machines, card tables, and promises of urban revitalization. He staged the Miss USA pageants in Gary in 2001 and 2002. Trump was later sued by then-Mayor Hatcher for failing to abide by a promise to hire minorities, and in 2006, the Trump name was removed from what is now known as the Majestic Star Casino. In 2010, the casino grounds became a filming location for Transformers: Dark of the Moon—an abandoned cement plant stood in for a reactor in Chernobyl.

    In Patton’s neighborhood there are little kids riding bikes, and every yard looks to be in the throes of early spring. She greets me with a wide smile. She looks younger than her 29 years in a maroon hoodie and matching Jordans, olive pants, and a black headscarf over her braids. I follow her deep in the backyard where a couple willow trees border marshland. Her father is making careful paths over the lawn with a push mower; he pauses, waves. Below the willows, Patton gamely poses for a photo shoot as her neighbors, repairing their chicken coop next door, steal the occasional glance. “I know they'll ask me about this later,” she says with a shy laugh.

    Since her acclaimed 2015 debut, Dark Energy, Patton has come a long way from her childhood home. Just days ago she was performing in Bangalore, India, one of her favorite newfound locales; her India to Indiana commute is now such a frequent one that she stashes a pair of speakers there. India is also where she finished the last songs on her upcoming second album, Black Origami.

    Patton’s music is propelled by the sheer force of her percussion, her ornate, radical progressions, her shape-shifting sounds, an undercurrent of menace. Listening to Jlin tracks is like watching the horror movie heroine open the door into a vast unknown—and yet, she turns out to be completely in control, morphing and bending the rhythm, changing up the narrative again.

    “I want to surprise me as much as I want to surprise you,” she says.“I love when I hit a person like a tornado. There is no easing. We just go straight in.”

    Two years ago, when Dark Energy came out, Patton was working swing shifts at U.S. Steel in East Chicago and then, in Gary. She was in the break room when she found out that album made year-end lists at The New York Times, The Wire, and Pitchfork. “I would be banding together these massive pieces of steel and then I would open Facebook, and everyone’s saying, ‘Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations,’ and I’m just like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

    Within months, Patton, who had never been to a big concert in her entire life, was being flown to perform her own: at a museum in New York City, at a festival in Poland, in Barcelona, Moscow, Australia, India, in Los Angeles. Headlines capitalized on the Flashdance-esque narrative of the steelworker with an inner artistic drive. When famed designer Rick Owens asked her to soundtrack his fall 2014 show, she put in a request for time off to go to Paris Fashion Week. Her supervisors weren’t buying it.

    “But then when I came back and I showed them pictures, they were like, ‘Oh! This is real.Are you serious?!’”Patton says. “My life just started not to make sense.” She quit her day job more than a year ago to focus on music full-time

    Jlin: “Challenge (To Be Continued)” (via SoundCloud) 

    A Panera Bread on a suburban strip is not where I had expected to interview a musician whose work is motivated by confronting her darkest fears,but after Patton’s photo shoot wraps, she steers us away from Gary—there’s nowhere to go downtown, she says, so we wind up in the nearby town of Schererville. James Taylor songs ooze out of the restaurant speakers. We are only 15 miles from downtown Gary, in an atmosphere so generic it could be anywhere. 

    “It would be a lot easier if I lived in Europe, wouldn’t it?” she says, with the acknowledgment that her first move out of her parents’ house might, eventually, be overseas. Nearly all of her collaborators exist in far-flung time zones—her dance collaborator, Avril Stormy Unger, in India; Mike Paradinas, owner of her label, Planet Mu, in London; experimentalist Holly Herndon, who teamed up with Patton on Dark Energy’s “Expand” and Black Origami’s “1 Percent,” in Berlin; the rapper Dope Saint Jude, who contributes vocals on a track from the new record, in South Africa. Right now Patton is busy composing the soundtrack for British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s next work, Autobiography; when it premieres in London in October, the girl from Gary who has forever longed to go to the opera and the ballet will get her wish. “My first ballet will be my own.”

    Patton has hourlong conversations with minimalist composer William Basinski, whom she instantly bonded with at a show in L.A. last year; recently, they collaborated on Black Origami’s “Holy Child.” “Oh, I just love her to death! She’s like my little sister!” Basinski tells me by phone from London. For “Holy Child,” he emailed her a loop of female Baltic folk singers—“I just sent her this potion and, you know, she made magic.”

    Over salads and grilled cheese sandwiches, I tell her how the first time I heard Dark Energy it seemed to strike me from all sides, like I was inside an explosion; but in Black Origami you really feel the energy of distinct, opposing forces.

    Patton nods vigorously. “I wanted to have that duality,” she says. “I used to love hearing Prince do that. Or Frankie Beverly. Sade’s notorious for it—all of her songs, they have that Sade feel, but everything she made was ahead of its time.Dark Energy is chaotic, but I think of Black Origami as a refined bold.”

    Patton references the people she refers to as her ancestors, living and dead—Igor Stravinsky, Eartha Kitt, Marina Abramovíc, Alice Coltrane, Nikola Tesla, Serena Williams, and the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, for whom she wrote a song on Black Origami. She consults these spirit guides as often as she does her contemporaries.

    “I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but I talk to my ancestors a lot,” she says. “I talk to Nina Simone ’cause she said when you have a gift you have a responsibility to create and reflect the times. In this day and age, it’s ridiculous for an artist to make something and not have a reason for it. ‘I made it ’cause it sounds good.’ You made something ’cause it sounds good? For real? You’re not doing enough.”

    When Jerrilynn Patton was 4 years old, growing up in Gary, she went over to a neighbor’s house one day, drawn to the strange sound she heard leaking out of a pair of headphones: dark, twitchy, syncopated rhythms, songs firing at 160 beats per minute. It was her first taste of footwork, the hyperspeed dance music descendant of Chicago’s house scene. “It was like nothing I had ever heard before,” Patton remembers. It would be years before she would encounter footwork again, but that day would make a serious dent, marking a place in her to which she would one day return.

    As a child, Patton was so baby-faced people called her Gaga—“like goo goo, ga ga,” she says. She loved watching documentaries, especially about ancient Egypt or elephants—as an adult, she once skipped her own birthday party because the National Geographic Channel was airing a special about woolly mammoths. She took piano for a while, but it never held her attention the way drums would. On weekends at home with her parents, Roberta Flack, Earth, Wind and Fire, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis records were all in heavy rotation. She was into basketball and played on the school team. Until, abruptly, she stopped.

    When Patton talks now about working from a place of darkness and turmoil, that means a few things, but mostly she means the years of sustained bullying she endured as a teenager, a thorny combination of mean girls, verbal abuse, and shaming. It’s a painful legacy that followed her into adulthood. “They turned everyone against me,” she says. One day, no one on the basketball team would talk to her. Her self-esteem plummeted. Her mother wanted to know why she always seemed sad and withdrawn. The only times the mean girls stopped bullying her, she says, were when they needed help with their math homework.

    “I’m sure you notice when I talk to you, sometimes I don’t look at you,” Patton says, managing to meet my eye most of the time as she says it. “I can spot a kid who’s been bullied just by their body language. For me it was no eye contact. I used to grip the soap bar in the bathroom until you could see my finger marks. I wouldn’t hug my mom. Your whole countenance just changes. You don’t like anything about yourself. And I’m just starting to come out of that.”

    What brought her out, years later, was footwork. For a high school talent show, she reluctantly agreed to take part in a group dance routine based on a footwork track. Though the idea ended up getting shelved, Patton found herself hooked on a sound she’d first encountered as a little girl. “It hit me in that spot again like, oh my god,” she says. Instead of the brightly colored cassettes that had drifted down the road from Chicago into her neighbor’s collection, she downloaded tracks from the song-sharing site Imeem.

    “By the time I was in college, I was listening to footwork heavy,” Patton says. “I started messaging people on Myspace like, ‘Hey, I really like your work.’” Even though she lived at home and didn’t go to clubs or footwork battles, she began chatting with DJ Rashad, the late pioneer of the Chicago scene, who was the first producer to respond to her MySpace queries. Another footwork DJ sent her the music-making software FL Studio. “I just sat there trying to get it to make a noise,” she says. “And when I could finally hear the drums and the high hats and everything, I thought, Man, I’m going to make footwork!

    She was attracted to the style’s percussive qualities. “Being of African descent, you feel it,” she says. “You have rhythm and drums in your blood. My sound is not a bite, it’s a grab—it takes hold of you and it doesn’t let go.” At this, she tightly grips her left wrist in her right hand.

    In recent years, teenage bullying happens online as much as it does in the real world, amplified on social media. But for Patton, in the days “when Facebook was still for college kids,” an online community was first an escape, then a portal into a life as an artist. Sitting at her computer, she discovered a virtual universe of people equally obsessed with this music. They became her mentors.

    “When I was first starting out, DJ Rashad told me not to go out and buy a whole bunch of gear,” Patton says. “He said, ‘I know some of the worst musicians who have the best equipment and I know some of the best musicians who have nothing.’ You have to find your space and what makes you comfortable creatively, and then build from there.”

    Patton was a thriving architectural engineering student enrolled at Purdue when she started skipping class to sit in the library and construct footwork tracks. She loved math—even now, her face lights up when she describes the thrill of learning to solve problems forward and backward, of conquering proofs, of deconstructing formulas. It’s not a stretch to discover the parallels; when Owens asked her to remix her single “Erotic Heat” for his fashion show, she took her song apart and rebuilt it.

    “Math is music,” Patton insists. But math couldn’t take her where music did. And even though she claims not to be proud of her decision to drop out, she is adamant that college was not for her.“I hate the way we’re taught in the United States,” she says. “You go to to school, but do you teach this person how to be a human being? You are taught to feel accomplished just because you work for a big company. You’re making someone else rich. Something felt very wrong about that.”

    It was in discomfort, though, that she had her first breakthrough. She’d just played her mother a track that featured a sample of the 1981 song “Portuguese Love” by soul singer Teena Marie. Patton’s mother looked at her. “Well,” she said, “I know what Teena Marie sounds like. But what do you sound like?”

    Patton was devastated. “I was scared, angry, all these things. Like, Oh, it’s not good enough?” From then on, she vowed to use original samples only. On Dark Energy, the only vocal samples came from films—Bruce Lee; or Faye Dunaway’s famous “No more wire hangers!” line from Mommie Dearest, a film that had terrified Patton since she first watched it with her parents as a child. “If a sound can give me such an eerie feeling that I don’t want to hear it again, that’s a sound I’ll probably use,” Patton says. Her mother’s query, sharp and pointed, triggered a turning point.

    “It meant: You have the skill, you have the gift, lose the crutch,” Patton says. “Taking away that Teena Marie sample meant I was in that dark space, that I had to draw from nothing. Even now, 90 percent of my music is not about sound, it’s about being aligned with myself. Before you even hit the creative spot, you need to deal with the personal. Don’t even worry about the music. That’ll be there. You have to deal with you first. You have to face things about yourself you don’t even want to face. I have to go into a space that makes me cringe every time I go there.”

    Jlin: "Black Origami" (via SoundCloud)

    The next day, while Patton works on her ballet score, I head out to explore Gary alone. For all I thought I knew of the city nothing has prepared me for the sight of its downtown, which feels not just forgotten but absolutely gutted, its heart ripped out.

    On Broadway, the main artery, theaters and storefronts stand empty, near ruined shells of nightclubs and hotels. The newspaper is shuttered. The water tower, painted “Gary”in a 1980s-esque typewriter font, looks like a cartoonish, deflated balloon, held aloft by tall stilts. Lake Michigan, and the Indiana Dunes along its shores, are mostly pristine except for the smoke billowing from the mills to the east and west, and a pregnancy test discarded on the beach. I tune into the city’s talk radio; on 1370 AM, there’s a long, lively discussion about first white flight, and now black flight, to the suburb of Merrillville.

    Back downtown, I pay a visit to Michael Jackson’s birthplace, a house so tiny it is hard to picture how all the Jacksons ever fit inside it. It is easy, though, to picture those early band practices spilling out of the windows. An iron fence surrounds the house, and there’s a granite monument in the startlingly green yard, with tributes chalked and markered on every available surface. Behind the house, a plastic raised emblem of a glove has been affixed to a recycling bin.

    Driving down Jackson Street, I try to count houses and give up. At least half of them are boarded up; at the end of the block stands an abandoned school. I had assumed the street was renamed in honor of Michael, but this is not the case. On the east side of Broadway, the roads are named after states; on the west, for presidents.The president streets end with Taft, who took office in the city’s early days, and who tried, unsuccessfully, to break up U.S. Steel, once the largest mill in the world. The street names only underscore the looming metaphor and irony of this city, deliberately aligned with and conceived in American capitalism, and now living with a legacy of racism so obvious that it cannot be blamed simply on Gary, or even on Indiana, but on America itself.

    It is approaching sunset when Patton and I take a drive to Gary Works, her old U.S. Steel jobsite. We have been sitting outside at Panera Bread—a different one, in Merrillville. It’s the only place Patton claims she can think of, on this balmy, 70-degree day, with outdoor seating. “I have my spots,” she says, laughing. As far as she’s concerned, there is nowhere to go in Gary. If there was, she says, she would go there. “I wish I knew the Gary my mom grew up with,” she says. “You see it in pictures, but I want to know what it felt like. Now it’s like the abandoned child.”

    I make the newcomer’s confession that I visited the Jacksons’ house that morning. “Oh, good!” Patton says. “You know, my first drum teacher was Michael Jackson’s cousin, Johnny Jackson, a drummer in the Jackson 5.” When she was 12 and saw Johnny play in a band with her neighbor, she couldn’t take her eyes off the drums. Later, he agreed to teach her. “He gave me my first set of drumsticks,” Patton says. “If he hadn’t passed on, I might still be taking lessons.” Johnny Jackson was stabbed to death in Gary in 2006, at the age of 54.

    “I’m sorry,” I start to say, but we don’t have time to dwell on it, because we realize we are a little lost. It’s been over a year since Patton worked at the mill and already, she can’t remember the way. “It’ll come back to me,” she promises, though she doesn’t seem terribly sure of this. We drive down wide, mostly empty streets as the sky turns orange. In her rearview, Patton eyes the car behind us.

    “He’s going into work, you can tell,” she says. “The hat, the glasses, that steel mill look. People drive from all over to work at the mill. It’s good money.”

    When she started at the mill, she found instant camaraderie with her coworkers. “Nine times out of ten, if you live here, someone in your family has worked at Gary Works. Michael Jackson’s dad worked here!” she says. “Everybody knew each other somehow, and at nighttime it would completely encompass me. I would think, Did my grandfather set foot in this building?

    We pull up underneath the low railroad bridge and into a vast network of warehouses and mills, a place that feels like its own sprawling city. Factory smoke puffs out over the rows of electric transformers and into the sunset. We aren’t allowed to go in the mills, and it wouldn’t seem right if we did. Looking at Patton, long freed from her steel-toed boots and protective gear, it is clear how far away that life is for her now. Though she’s rooted in both Gary and the mills, she’s no more bound to her hometown or the job she left than her music is to the footwork scene that bred her. Sticking to her creature-of-habit routines grounds her, and allows the kind of wild risk-taking that guides her songs.

    Pulling into her driveway a little later, Patton says, “Doesn’t it feel like a totally different world here?” For a moment after she cuts the ignition, we are both silent, listening to the engine flicker and come to rest. Before we go, she says, she wants to talk about failure. It’s a topic that’s come up repeatedly over the last of couple days—Patton openly acknowledges the slow tedium of her process, the bouts of writer’s block she has suffered.

    “I know every time Serena Williams goes out on that court she’s in an uncomfortable place and I think about Igor Stravinsky being booed out of a symphony because he was ahead of them, because they were expecting something that he didn’t give them, that’s hard,” she says. As someone whose self-confidence was repeatedly shattered, who for years was made to believe she didn’t fit in, Patton is adamant that the only way for any artist to find her own voice is to be willing to fail while trying: “I’m telling people not to follow me, I’m telling you to find you. My path does not diminish your path.”

    Yesterday she’d rattled off a list of some of the major ills in the world—police brutality, discrimination, the environment, “the crazy person in the White House”—none of which are things she speaks to in a literal way in song. If anything, her music strikes me as too abstract to be obviously political. But at the same time, it’s something that can’tstand for anything but the deeply personal act of recognizing and confronting your own fears, summoning your own strengths. Even when she’s operating at the head-spinning velocity of 160 beats per minute, the greatest challenge may be to simply learn to breathe.

    I ask her if she has ever wondered whether bullying is part of what propelled her to become an artist, if she ever lets herself imagine that, if not for that trauma, she might have taken some other path. In the distance a train passes and sounds its whistle as Jlin considers her answer.

    “That’s why I call it Black Origami,” she says finally. “All those folds and bends that you go through in your life, that is what folds you into that piece of origami. You start off as this blank sheet of paper, this innocent thing. And then life starts bending and folding, bending and folding. And you become this beautiful thing. I’m still being bended and folded. We all are.”


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    Listening Diary: Perfume Genius on Crying Along to TLC’s “Unpretty” and Not Singing Like Adele

    Listening Diary features artists of all kinds talking about the music they listen to in their day-to-day lives.

    On his boldly eclectic new album, No Shape, Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas proudly shows off his range, offering his own spin on convulsing epics, slithery R&B odes, skewed chamber pop, and radical balladry. These songs don’t really resolve songs in ways you’d expect—a quality that’s echoed often in the music he listened to over the course of a week in March, as he wrapped up a promo trip to London and headed home to Seattle to rehearse for his current tour.

    Illustrations by Noelle Roth

    Saturday, March 25, 10 a.m.

    Mark Hollis: “The Colour of Spring

    After my last album, a couple people asked me if Talk Talk was an influence—but I hadn’t ever listened to them. So I decided to listen and became really obsessed. Now I totally count [Talk Talk singer Mark Hollis] as a for-real influence. I put his self-titled solo album on my phone before I left for London, and it was the only music I had the whole time; I never had strong enough Wi-Fi anywhere I went, so I was listening to it a lot.

    There’s a lot of push and pull on this record. Somehow, it’s always sort of fucked up. It’s never super satisfying but in an awesome way—it never goes quite where you think it’s going to go. The weird thing is how instantly familiar it is, but then the more you listen to it, the less familiar it is. But my favorite thing is how his voice weaves in and out, like an instrument, and how much he sings behind the music. I have a strange, not very traditional voice—I’m not Adele. I like hearing voices that can be beautiful but not because they’re crystal clear.

     

    Saturday, March 25, 12 p.m.

    Sia: “Alive

    I was listening to this in the car home from the airport. I bought a Honda Fit, but my boyfriend drives it. Right when you get in the car, it automatically plays Beyoncé. We can’t make it stop. I handle the music, but he has a limit with my playlist. I have a British folk thing—that’s where he draws the line; anything that’s very Renaissance, he’s not into. I get a hankering for it in the car, I don’t know why. I need that pan flute.

    Anyway, Sia’s lyrics are much better than most pop music lyrics, I think. She also goes for it to the point where it sounds like she can’t ever sing again. There’s something almost ecstatic about it that I enjoy. You don’t hear that as much in pop music, where everyone is obsessed with having everything seem so easy. It’s cooler to not show how hard it is. I like to hear effort.

     

    Sunday, March 26, 1 p.m.

    Feist: “Pleasure

    I was listening to this around the house, and I feel like she’s drawing from a lot of my favorite albums growing up. I love that it’s just straight-up PJ Harvey—but the phrasing is so completely Feist’s. I like Feist’s music because it’s really smart, but it’s really free and soulful at the same time. Sometimes you only get one or the other.

    If I’m not writing, I can download a newer album everybody’s making a fuss about. But when I’m writing, I keep myself in my own zone—I worry about listening to new music that’ll inform me too much. I’m the kind of person who goes to another country and starts speaking in an accent after three days. I really never want to try to be cool. I just listened to the Frank Ocean album on the plane like a month ago for the first time.

    Monday, March 27, 2 p.m.

    TLC: “Unpretty

    That was a moment. I was still jet lagged and cried while singing along. I didn’t even listen to it—I actually just started singing it randomly. I was walking through my house and got connected to it in a weird way. The chorus is a really basic lyric, but I don’t mean that in a mean way. It’s like that thing when you break up with someone and, no matter how corny the break up song is, it’s for you.

    I was doing a lot of photo shoots and press, and it’s this strange combination of everybody taking your picture and you look really good, but it’s also a really insecure time. Friends will ask me, “What do you think of this picture?” and it’s so obviously a checklist of what they want to have shown in the picture, whatever their insecurities are. But the attractive thing is way more than a chin being just so. That kind of superficial stuff is embarrassing to me to have think about so much. It’s an easy place to put general anxiety.

     

    Tuesday, March 28, 3 p.m.

    Mr. Mister: “Broken Wings

    I was working out on my rowing machine—it’s low impact. I’ve never really had an exercise I do as an adult. I bought it to see if I could start exercising, and I actually really like it. With this song, I do it casually until the chorus and then I really go for it, like sprint-row. I don’t know any of Mr. Mister’s other songs, but I love this one.

     

    Wednesday, March 30, 8 p.m.

    Nina Simone: “Compensation

    I was driving to the grocery store. I’ve been listening to “Compensation” over and over again for months. It’s just so simple and it’s only two minutes long. Even though I’ve been listening to Nina for so long, I can always go find something of hers I’ve never heard before. I like any really defiant live performances where’s she’s ready to tell someone to sit down if they stand up in the crowd, or when she tells the band to slow down or speed up. She’s just so in control. On some of the recordings, she doesn’t even seem to care about the song at all. She’s just sort of talking the lyrics, like, blah blah blah. Somehow, I’m still like, Yes.

    Thursday, March 31, 2 p.m.

    Diamanda Galás: “Let My People Go

    I was listening to Diamanda to get pumped for her show in Seattle that night. I never thought I would get the chance to see her. The show was incredible. It was exactly what you want. There’s no banter. It’s just intense from start to finish. Also, everybody there was so excited, and the music was so fucked up and dark—there’s something really weirdly heartwarming about that. Her whole thing is like being really close to the source. There’s no filter. She just puts her claws in something and then starts fucking freaking out. That’s kind of how I want to be, too.

     

    Friday, March 1, 10 p.m.

    Bobby Darin: “Not for Me

    I was playing this for the band because we were thinking of covering it. I feel like I could sing this and not have it be the way he intended. It sounds more like an outsider-y type thing to me. Like when you go to church and you feel like all the things that people are doing there don’t include you, or how all the love songs are not for the kind of love you have. I don’t think that was what he was intending, but it’s what I heard when I first heard that song.

     

    Saturday, March 2, 11 p.m.

    Miles Davis: “Générique

    I was also playing this song for the band, to show the inspiration behind [“Die 4 You”], from the new album. This song is so heavy with mood, no matter what you’re doing or where you are, you’re just sucked into it. I’ve been obsessed with David Lynch since I was a kid and then hearing this song, it’s almost the root of a lot of the music Lynch uses. There’s a beginning to that.


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    Lists & Guides: Nina Simone: Her Art and Life in 33 Songs

    It's After the End of the World
    by Daphne A. Brooks

    I remember how it ended. A bespectacled, lanky, light-skinned sister sporting two braided pigtails stepped up to the mic. She was rocking garden-green pants and a yellow spaghetti-strap tank top, and she came out late in the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra’s Nina Simone tribute set in New York on June 13, 2003. Armed with a startling mezzo-soprano that dipped into the outer limits of audible desire, she was covering “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” like her life depended on it. Her crooning felt sexy and dangerous and inquisitive as she declared, “I want a little sweetness down in my soul...I want a little steam on my clothes.” The crowd swooned. We were suspended for a moment between the grief of having lost our Nina some three weeks before (April 21, the day that Prince would die 13 years later) and ecstatic remembrance as this then-unknown singer, Alice Smith, summoned the potency of our lost patron saint.

    “Our Nina”—as she is sometimes called by black feminists who feel especially possessive and protective of her—was a musician whose body of work pushed us and challenged us to know more about ourselves, what we longed for, and who we were as women navigating intersectional injuries and negations of mattering in the American body politic. She was beloved as much for the emotional force of her showmanship as she was for the lyrical, instrumental, and political force of her virtuosity. That night (one I remember so vividly, perhaps,because it was the Friday before my father died), Smith was conjuring that revolutionary, climactic Nina feeling—the erotic kind, which women of color historically have rarely been able to claim for their own, and the socially transformative kind, that marginalized peoples have called upon to bring about radical change.

    That revolutionary Nina feeling runs like a high-voltage current from her earliest American Songbook covers through herFrankfurt School battle cries, folk lullabies and eulogies, blues incantations, Black Power anthems, diasporic fever chants, Euro romantic laments, and experimental classical and freestyle jazz odysseys. It is the signal she sends out to tell us that something is turning, that we may be closing in on some new way of being in the world and being with each other, or we are at least reaching the point of breaking something open, tearing down Jim Crow institutions. Often enough, it indicated that we were joining her in tearing up those unspoken rules about how a Bach-loving, Lenin- and Marx-championing, “not-about-to-be-nonviolent-no-more”musician and black freedom struggle activist should sound. 

    Photo by Gilles Petard/Getty Images

    Soothsayer, chastiser, conjurer, philosopher, historian, actor, politician, archivist, ethnographer, black love proselytizer: She showed up on the frontlines of people-powered mass disturbances, delivering the good word (“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day”) or shining discomforting light on the stubborn edifice of Southernwhite power (“Why don’t you see it?/Why don’t you feel it?”). And even when illness set in, and exile didn’t soften her grief for fallen friends and their unfinished revolution, she faltered for a time but ultimately stayed the course. She was fastidiously focused, insouciantly exploratory, and ferociously inventive at her many legendary, marathon concerts—Montreux, Fort Dix—the ones in which her mad skills, honed during her youthful years in late-night supper club jam sessions, returned in full. She was epic, our journey woman, the one who was capable of taking us to the ineffable, joyous elsewhere in that “Feeling Good” vocal improvisation that closes out that track. 

    Today, we return to her more passionately than ever before, looking to her for answers, parables, strategies—not only for how to survive, but how to end this thing called white supremacist patriarchy that some of us had naïvelybelieved was ever-so-excruciatingly self-destructing. Since her death, her iconicity has grown, spreading to the world of hip-hop (which, as the scholar Salamishah Tillet has shown, frequently samples her radicalism), to academia, where studies of Simone—articles and conference papers, seminars and book projects—pile high, making inroads in a segment of university culture previously cornered by Dylanologists. We take her with us to the weekend marches. Our students cue her up, summoning her wisdom and fortitude during the rallies.  

    This massive old-new love for our Nina is a way of being, and her sound encapsulates the pursuit of emotional knowledge and ethical bravery. She forges our awakening.  I said as much a few weeks before Nina passed, when I offered a conference meditation on the late Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Lilac Wine,” a song I had kept on a loop during my grad years and one that had taught me a few things about heartbreak and heroism.  Through the voice of that white, Gen X, alt-rock daring balladeer and ardent fan of Nina’s, I could hear Ms. Simone singing to me, “Leave everything on the floor, and face the end triumphantly.”

    It was a message that she conveyed all on her own when I saw her in 2000 at the Hollywood Bowl—one of her rare, stateside shows in her waning years. That night, she kept a feather duster at the piano, and after each song, she raised it like a conductor’s baton, beckoning an ovation. I remember that it was a gesture thatfelt cold and distant at the time, a sign of her lasting, antagonistic relationship with her audience—all of which is no doubt true. But in hindsight, I think more about the lessons she was bestowing on us, yet again, that evening. At the close of every number, we were invited to recognize the wonder of her artistry and to listen with anticipation for whatever would come next, the next better world she would create for us andwith us—a black space, a women’s space, a free space. All those endings which might lead to new beginnings.

    Daphne A. Brooks is Professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale University.  


    Listen to Nina Simone: Her Art and Life in 33 Songs on Spotify and Apple Music

    “When I first heard her music, I just couldn't breathe. The register of her voice is one thing, but then it's combined with her spiritual depth and intellectual and emotional depth. When Nina sings, she is a conduit. Whether it's pure darkness and shame, or whether it's pure light of love and peace, she can deliver you.”
    Chan Marshall (Cat Power)

    “I Loves You Porgy”

    Little Girl Blue

    1958

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nina Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, was just a run-through of the material she’d been singing in clubs, in the arrangements she’d already made. They were ready to go. “I Loves You Porgy” became a Billboard Top 20 hit in 1959 and established her career in New York. To hear it is to understand how Simone’s critical consciousness began early and never turned off. She approached the ballad from George and Ira Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bessnot as a classical musician, as per her training, or as a jazz or cabaret musician, as she had been called—only as herself. Even on paper, the song is emotionally loaded: a plea for protection to a man the narrator has come to trust. In emotional terms, Billie Holiday’s 1948 version feels optimistic, guardedly bright; Simone’s feels concentrated and gravely serious, almost private, even as she adds trills and rhythmic details to every line. When she sings, “If you can keep me, I want to stay here/With you forever, and I’ll be glad,” there is no way to know what “glad” means to her. –Ben Ratliff

    Listen: “I Loves You Porgy”


    “My Baby Just Cares for Me”

    Little Girl Blue

    1958

    Listen on Apple Music

    When Nina Simone cut Little Girl Blue, she was still smarting from her rejection from a prestigious classical conservatory. Throughout the album, she proved her chops by dropping a reference to Bach in one swinging track and improvising with a fluidity that Mozart would have admired, and also by subtly changing a tune that American listeners thought they knew. The standard “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was first made popular by the 1930 musical Whoopee!, andthrough such lyrics as, “My baby don't care for shows/My baby don't care for clothes,” its singer takes pride in a romantic prowess that can cut across class divisions. The vaudeville star Eddie Cantor performed it onscreen in a brassy, obvious way that fit the era (up to and including his use of blackface makeup). Simone’s reading is more soulful and complex. The tempo has been slowed, but the feel for jazz swing has been powerfully increased. In the middle of the song, over a finger-popping groove, Simone delivers a solo of pellucid elegance. Her vocals draw their power both from blues grit and crisp articulations, and from the way Simone bridges those styles. The way she plays this song, those old “high-tone places” and social codes no longer seem so untouchable—in the presence of such artistry, they only seem embarrassing and ripe for redefinition. –Seth Colter Walls

    Listen: “My Baby Just Cares for Me”


    “Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair”

    Nina Simone At Town Hall

    1959

    Listen on Apple Music

    Recontextualizing an Appalachian folk song, Simone transposed a mournful lament with roots in the Scottish highlands to 1959 America, where “black” was imbued with far greater heft. Coming early in her career, “Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair” promised an increasing political consciousness in her music, the intent clear in the cascade of loving, mournful, minor-key piano in the intro and her ever-profound, trembling contralto. The line “I love the ground on where he goes” held particular meaning in 1959, as the Civil Rights Movement was hitting a fever pitch but the racist laws of the Jim Crow South still held strong. Town Hall, where the album was recorded, was in midtown New York. It was the first concert hall she ever played, a venue where she would be venerated for singing her mind. The song arrived at the beginning of her fame but, more importantly, it was an incubator of her mindset to come. –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

    Listen:“Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair”

    “Her voice is the voice of the black woman; it’s the voice of the black woman's struggle. It's the voice of the black woman standing up for the black man. It's the female civil rights voice. She was one of the most pioneering women with regard to the feminist movement, and she didn't even try. She just was honest and truthful.”
    Maxwell

    “Just in Time”

    At the Village Gate

    1962

    Listen on Apple Music

    Simone's live albums, recorded in clubs or theaters, were fundamental to her work. All of them still feel charged. By 1957, when she was still playing in Atlantic City clubs, she had established a hard line: You paid attention or she stopped playing. By 1959, when she first played at New York’s Town Hall, she graduated in self-definition from club singer to concert-hall singer, which is to say she knew there was a sufficient amount of people who would come to hear her. And in April 1961, when she recorded At the Village Gate, she could bring back that imperial attitude to club dimensions, leading her quartet from the piano.   

    For about one full, intense minute at the start of “Just in Time,” she winds up her quartet with dissonant, percussive chord clusters. Then she settles into the first verse, sung at confidential level, drawing out her vowels into quavers. Her piano solo is as hypnotic and repetitive as what John Lewis made famous doing with the Modern Jazz Quartet, but smudgier and more emphatic. This is comprehensive skill—singing, playing, bandleading—and the song is all zone: nearing it, then staying in it. –Ben Ratliff

    Listen:“Just in Time”


    “The Other Woman/Cotton Eyed Joe”

    At Carnegie Hall

    1963

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nina Simone once dreamed of becoming the first black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, but when she finally made it there on April 12, 1963, she was working in a different idiom. Her set was filled with traditional songs and standards she made her own, including this striking mashup that closes her At Carnegie Hall live album.

    A staple in Simone’s sets, “The Other Woman” is a deceptively nuanced Jessie Mae Robinson tune with immense empathy for the mistress. It was first recorded by Sarah Vaughan, but Simone elevates the song further with her ability to conjure the loneliness of womanhood better than just about anyone, particularly when her accompaniments run slow and sparse. In performances over the years, the emotional burden of “The Other Woman” seemed to weigh heavier on Simone, as she experienced infidelity from both sides. At Carnegie Hall, though, she segues into the most elegant take on “Cotton Eyed Joe” imaginable, merging folk, jazz, and a touch of her beloved classical. –Jillian Mapes

    Listen:“The Other Woman/Cotton Eyed Joe”


    “Mississippi Goddam”

    In Concert

    1964

    Listen on Apple Music

    As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, retaliation from racist whites became more intense, reaching a terrible apex in 1963, when the KKK murdered Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and four children in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Nina Simone’s frustration and desperation is palpable in the biting, cynical way she performed “Mississippi Goddam” at Carnegie Hall—a room full of natty whites, but the rare New York concert hall that was never segregated. Within her voice, unloosed so explicitly for the first time, a sanguine irony formed the tension between its sentiment, the very real possibility of being murdered for her race (“I think every day's gonna be my last”).

    During her set at Carnegie, which was recorded for her album In Concert, Simone referred to this song as a show tune “but the show that hasn't been written for it yet.” Its frantic tempo reflected the urgency of the moment, a template for protest songs to follow, and the piano chords propelled the song's existentialism with the determination of a steam engine train. It was gonna make it on time, but its destination was still unknown. –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

    Listen:“Mississippi Goddam”


    “Pirate Jenny”

    In Concert

    1964

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nina Simone seethes the lyrics to “Pirate Jenny,” taking every ounce of delight in openly threatening her audience. The song, penned in the late 1920sby the German theatrical composer Kurt Weill, is a revenge tale in which a lowly maid fantasizes that she is the Queen of Pirates and that a black ship will soon emerge from the mist to destroy the town in which she has been treated so poorly. In Simone’s hands, it transforms from political metaphor into dark and unchained spiritual catharsis. Her performance devolves from singing to whispering, with raspy venomous verses such as, “They’re chaining up the people and bringing ‘em to me/Asking me kill them now or later.” Accompanied only by piano and timpani, she allows for long pauses, using silence as a psychological weapon. You can all but hear the audience clutching their pearls. –Carvell Wallace

    Listen:“Pirate Jenny”


    “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

    Broadway-Blues-Ballads

    1964

    Listen on Apple Music

    Though the unremarkable Broadway-Blues-Ballads followed “Mississippi Goddam”’s overwhelming reception a few months earlier, its opening number, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” quickly emerged and remains a tentpole of Nina Simone’s identity. (Never mind that its lyrics were written by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott, and Sol Marcus.) After years of “inferior” show tunes and “musically ignorant” popular audiences, as she would later call them in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You, Simone was all too familiar with this song’s themes of lonely remorse, of seeming edgy and taking it outon the people she loved, of “[finding herself] alone regretting/Some little foolish thing...that [she’s] done.”

    Though “Goddam” began a pivotal year in which Simone would refocus her life on civil rights and black revolution, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” would continue to reflect herpersonal struggles to come, including the bipolar disorder and manic depression that went undiagnosed and self-medicated until late in life. White audiences often saw her as the benign entertainer they wanted to; Simone long struggled to be seen as her whole, complex self. –Devon Maloney

    Listen: “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood”

    “To me, she’s the female equivalent to Miles Davis. She was just a walking middle finger; she stood for what she stood for, believed in what she believed in. She was a little dark, a little scary. People were enamored and scared as hell, didn't know what to do with her. She was always telling people what they needed to hear. She was like news to the jazz world.”
    Robert Glasper

    “See-Line Woman”

    Broadway-Blues-Ballads

    1964

    Listen on Apple Music

    In the stretch between 1962 and 1967, Nina Simone was at her most prolific, releasing at least two albums per year—and three in 1964.Broadway-Blues-Ballads premiered several songs that became fixtures of Simone’s live repertoire, including the scintillating call-and-response number “See-Line Woman.” Built on the structure and rhythm of atraditional children's song, it tells the tale of four escorts, dressed in different colors that signify what they’re willing to do. In Simone’s rendering, the “See-Line Woman” is something of a femme fatale, who will “empty [a man’s] pockets” and “wreck his days/And she make him love her, then she sure fly away.”

    Simone’s performance showcases her voice as a powerful instrument, flirtatious and sly, backed by a stuttering hi-hat and flute arrangement that never outshines her vocals. The origins of the tune that inspired “See-Line Woman” remain uncertain, but Simone’s recording leaves little doubt that the song is hers. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

    Listen:“See-Line Woman”


    “Be My Husband”

    Pastel Blues

    1965

    Listen on Apple Music

    The lyrics of “Be My Husband” are attributed to Andrew Stroud, Nina Simone’s second husband and manager—a strong, guiding, sometimes violent hand in her career and her life. (Billie had one. Aretha, too.) The title seems mysterious at first: Is it a proposal, a bargain, or a command? Is she saying “marry me” or “act like a husband is supposed to act”? All of her musical and expressive genius is here. Her breath and guttural sighs seem to say, “This shit is work with an intermittent erotic respite.” Her voice dips, curves, bends, and flies, provides the melody and the rhythm. She demands, she pleads. She is all strength, then absolute vulnerability.  

    The year Simone recorded “Be My Husband,”death came for both her closest friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and Malcolm X. Spring brought Selma, and Nina serenaded the marchers. In this season of mourning and wakefulness, “Be My Husband” revealed itself to have been all these things: a proposition, a bargain, and a command.  Do right by me, Simone sings, and I’ll do right by you. Love for a man, a people, a nation is struggle—it is work. –Farah Jasmine Griffin

    Listen:“Be My Husband”

    “I Put a Spell on You”

    I Put a Spell on You

    1965

    Listen on Apple Music

    History remembers Nina Simone as nothing if not resolute, thanks in significant part to “I Put a Spell on You.” Slinky and confident, with flashes of destructive insecurity, her now-iconic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ blues lament begins matter-of-factly, informative even, then whips itself into the controlled fury of a woman who has made up her mind and is bracing for the inevitable fight. Simone refuses to be taken advantage of throughout, claiming what is rightfully hers: “I don’t care if you don’t want me/I’m yours right now.”

    Personal meaning aside—in 1965, she was halfway through a marriage—“I Put a Spell on You” also evokes Simone’s relationship with her audiences over the years. Its release, after all, came just as she was finding her own magic: As she wrote in her autobiography, “It’s like I was hypnotizing an entire audience to feel a certain way….This was how I got my reputation as a live performer, because I went out from the mid-Sixties onward determined to get every audience to enjoy my concerts the way I wanted them to, and if they resisted at first, I had all the tricks to bewitch them with.” –Devon Maloney

    Listen:“I Put a Spell on You”


    “Feeling Good”

    I Put a Spell on You

    1965

    Listen on Apple Music

    Throughout her life, Nina Simone rebelled against the tendency for her music to be categorized as jazz or blues, as it gave little acknowledgement to her classical training and her fluidity in other genres. I Put aSpell on You cemented her status as a singer at ease with popular music, who could command attention even when her exceptional piano skills played a secondary role. Simone’s version of “Feeling Good” is one of the album’s masterworks, and it became a standard in its own right. From the opening notes of the strictly vocal intro, she looks to nature to describe contentment: birds flying high, the sun in the sky, a breeze drifting on by. When the big band orchestration comes in, the horns and strings transform the song into a sermon of unbridled joy, peaking with a rousing scat solo that can only emerge from the depths of a free soul. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

    Listen:“Feeling Good”


    “Ne Me Quitte Pas”

    I Put a Spell on You

    1965

    Listen on Apple Music

    This song finds Nina Simone’s emotions at their most indulgent, her shivering voice at its most precise. Penned by the Belgian crooner Jacques Brel and originally recorded in 1959, its cloying lyrics “Do not leave me” were meant to poke fun at men who could not keep their hearts in their shirts. On Simone’s recording, however, the work becomes something else entirely: It is an agonizing mediation on the kind of existential desolation that only a broken love can bring. Andrew Stroud, a retired NYPD lieutenant, once held her at gunpoint and raped her; she remained in this relationship for nearly 15 years, during which she recorded most of her defining albums. Here, she expands and contracts, pianissimo to fortissimo, as though the entire song were a series of sighs; when she sings, “Let me be the shadow of your shadow,” in its original French, a cosmic rumble emits from the depths of her heart. The chorus is simply the song’s title repeated, and the fourth one sounds precisely like the last flicker of a candle’s flame. –Carvell Wallace

    Listen:“Ne Me Quitte Pas”

    “In this current political climate, I really turn to her for strength, more than ever. She was a black woman who refused to not shine as bright as she wanted to. Her legacy was on her terms, and she left that behind for all women of color. I watch her and think, “Okay, I can't let the bastards get me down.”
    Alynda Lee Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff)

    “Strange Fruit”

    Pastel Blues

    1965

    Listen on Apple Music

    In 1965, three very important marches took place between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, in protest of laws that prevented black citizens from exercising their right to vote. The third and most successful of these culminated in a concert organized by Harry Belafonte, at which Nina Simone performed. There, Simone—who once declared that she was “not non-violent”—used music as her weapon in the fight for liberty.

    Pastel Blues was not an overt protest record, but “Strange Fruit” was an unequivocal rebuke of the lynchings that claimed so many black lives. The song was originally popularized by Billie Holliday, who often performed it under strict conditions to avoid backlash over its severe message, but Simone was no longer held back by fear, having already put her career on the line with the similarly frank “Mississippi Goddam.” Over somber piano keys, she recounts the horror of seeing black bodies hanging from the trees like fruit, in one of the most startling metaphors ever set to wax. At the song’s apex, when describing how the bodies would be left “for the leaves to drop,” Simone wails the third word with an anguish that’s as unforgettable as the painful history that the song decries. —Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

    Listen:“Strange Fruit”


    “Lilac Wine”

    Wild Is the Wind

    1966

    Listen on Apple Music

    “Lilac Wine,” a woozy torch song, originally appeared in James Shelton’s if-you-blinked-you-missed-it 1950 Broadway musical revue “Dance Me a Song.” In 1953, Eartha Kitt dropped a cover and the song became a standard. Nina Simone’s arch-dramatic reimagining is as exotic and dizzying as the titular intoxicant, veering drunkenly between minor and major keys. Simone slows down the tempo to a dirge-like crawl; her classically inflected piano accompaniment is spare and insistent like a metronome. But it’s her trembling singing that really delivers the devastation: The way she captures crestfallen confusion and inebriated fogginess in her vocal performance is astonishing, and no easy feat. Even more astonishing: The way she balances the song’s damaged gloom with a heaving romantic tenderness. –Jason King

    Listen:“Lilac Wine”


    “Wild Is the Wind”

    Wild Is the Wind

    1966

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nina Simone debuted her elegant take on “Wild Is the Wind” on 1959’s At Town Hall—a year after Johnny Mathis scored an Oscar nod for the standard—though it would be another seven years before Simone introduced her ominous studio version. Wild Is the Wind, one of three albums Simone released in 1966, is filled with songs that yearn for understanding and romantic resolution, but few capture the feeling with as much uneasiness as the title track. One minute she’s completely swept away by love’s rapture with classical-piano opulence; the next her vibrato purrs on its lowest setting. The music cuts out. Nina smirks sharply. “Don’t you know, you’re life itself,” she coos. Some annotations of this line end it with an exclamation point, but Simone sings it more like a question. She knows how she feels, but there’s still something uncertain about it, perhaps a reflection of her own turbulent private life at this moment. –Jillian Mapes

    Listen:“Wild Is the Wind”


    “Four Women”

    Wild Is the Wind

    1966

    Listen on Apple Music

    While most of her records featured interpretations of songs written by others, Wild Is the Wind is special for a composition penned by Simone herself. On “Four Women,” she deconstructs the shameful dual legacies of slavery and racism in America, narrating from the perspective of four black female characters. Aunt Sarah is forced to work hard and be strong, lest a whip be cracked on her back; the biracial Saffronia exists between black and white worlds, shouldering the knowledge that her father “forced [her] mother late one night”; Sweet Thing is the little girl forced to grow up too fast, who has come to understand her body as something that has a cost. The song is set to a simple melody of bass and percussion, with Simone on the piano, but the tension builds with each vignette. By the time she gets to Peaches, the most vengeful character, Simone is yelling with the fury of many generations, and the instruments crescendo. With “Four Women,” Simone took a stand for black women, whose suffering at the nexus of race and gender discrimination is often rendered invisible. Shortly after its release, it was banned by several radio stations for supposedly incendiary content—a possibility that Simone must have anticipated. But she was a fearless fighter, and the song was her affirmation that black womanhood would remain at the heart of her activism. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

    Listen: “Four Women”

    “One of the tenements of jazz performance is you’re supposed to be constantly learning more and constantly presenting at the furthest extreme of your ability. That's one of the great gifts she gave to audiences: She challenged herself and you. She was demanding. She was a revolutionary. She prodded you and said, “Hey, wake up. You think you can sit back and watch? No. We’re working. We’re fighting. We’re striving.”
    Esperanza Spalding

    “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”

    Silk & Soul

    1967

    Listen on Apple Music

    Though urban America was unraveling in 1967, with riots exploding in Detroit and Newark,Simone was being encouraged by RCA Records to go easy on the activism and focus on her career. She released three studio albums that year, the final being Silk & Soul, which was mostly filled with love songs and strings. However, right at the top of Side B was a track that would become an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” written by the jazz pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor.

    The song’s swinging melody and finger-popping performance belies its message, summarized in the yearning ambiguity of its title. The contrast between the emotion of the lyrics (“I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart/Remove all the bars that keep us apart”) and the upbeat, gospel-based arrangement added depth and power. Out of this tension, the song rang out as a hopeful but realistic vision of emancipation. –Alan Light

    Listen:“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”


    “Come Ye”

    High Priestess of Soul

    1967

    Listen on Apple Music

    “Come Ye” is the sparest track on High Priestess of Soul, an albumproduced with a fairly heavy hand by Hal Mooney. By then, Simone was seen widely as not just a musician but as a kind of power station of black consciousness, with the ability to politicize audiences—even white and American ones. In vocals and percussion alone, this is an original African-American folk song: polyrhythmic, in a single tonal center, played with hand drums. In four verses, Simone gradually raises its stakes until it all ends direly: “Ye who would have love,” she sings. “It’s time to take a stand/Don’t mind the dues that must be paid/For the love of your fellow man.” This is the intersection of cultural memory, passion, and action—medicine, warning, and alarm. –Ben Ratliff

    Listen:“Come Ye” 


    “Backlash Blues”

    Nina Simone Sings the Blues

    1967

    Listen on Apple Music

    Simone’s friend Langston Hughes mailed her the lyricsto this song in poem form, and she took immediately to his indictment of “Mr. Backlash,” a personification of white oppression of black America's small gains (and the “black, yellow, beige and brown” among them, equally oppressed). Simone delivered these promises and threats with a slinky blues rasp, forecasting that the person to receive the backlash would be the oppressor himself. Its lyrics also dovetailed with the rise of the Black Panther Party, which had begun exercising their right to open-carry in their efforts to protect the black people of Oakland from police brutality. Simone sang easily, measuredly, with the confidence that one day a score would be settled: “Do you think that all colored folks are just second class fools?” –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

    Listen:“Backlash Blues”


    “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”

    Nina Simone Sings the Blues

    1967

    Listen on Apple Music

    In the 1960s, Simone left her first label, Colpix, ended up at Phillips, and then hopped over to RCA Victor. In 1967, she recorded her debut album for RCA: Nina Simone Sings the Blues, a hard-driving, tough-talking collection of originals and covers. On “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” she borrows the basic blues progressions from “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” a 1920s cautionary standard originally popularized by Bessie Smith. But Simone comes up with an original lyric that bypasses social commentary and conjures up bawdy flirtatiousness and lust instead: “I want a little sugar in my bowl/I want a little sweetness down in my soul/I could stand some lovin’, oh so bad/I feel so funny, I feel so sad.” Impressive in her thematic range, Simone had no problem mixing double entendre lyrics about ribald sex and in-your-face politics on her albums: “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” appears alongside her classic civil rights protest song “Backlash Blues.” Songs like this serve as a reminder that the revolutionary activist who can’t occasionally admit to being horny isn’t really the revolutionary activist we need.–Jason King

    Listen:“I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”

    “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”

    ’Nuff Said

    1968

    Listen on Apple Music

    What and whom are we mourning? How will we mourn, and can we transform the depths of our despair into living in a way that honors what we’ve lost? Nina Simone turns each of these questions over and over from multiple vantage points in this nearly 13-minute performance, recorded on April 7, 1968, at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair, three days after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. She and her band learned the song, written by bassist Gene Taylor, earlier in the day.

    Shaped by the improvisational urgency and rawness of the moment, the live rendition of “Why?” captures many Ninas: the sermonizer accompanying herself on piano and leading her congregation through the wilderness; the Civil Rights dreamer delivering a delicate jazz tale of a nonviolent folk hero; the anguished pallbearer voicing a funeral hymn; and the master of the black freedom struggle jeremiad who laments, “Will the murders never cease?” before slipping fully into her militant “Mississippi” self. She mourns not just for King but for the numerous slain leaders, martyrs, fellow freedom-fighting artists, and “many thousands gone,” as her friend James Baldwin put it—the black subjugated masses who shape the epic sorrow and weariness of her subdued vocals. This dirge-turned-protest-song absorbs the weight of all these bodies but also defiantly affirms the presence of she who remains on the battlefield. “We’ve lost a lot of them in the last two years, but we have remaining Monk, Miles,” Simone reflects slowly, speaking to the audience. From the rafters, a stentorian voice finishes the list: “Nina.” –Daphne A. Brooks

    Listen:“Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”


    “The Desperate Ones”

    Nina Simone and Piano!

    1969

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nina Simone never had the widest vocal range or the purest pitch, but she had a once-in-a-generation talent for conveying the meaning of a song through tone and phrasing. With few exceptions, once she sang a song, it was hers, and she was never afraid to make bold choices that could seem downright strange at first listen. Throughout the 1960s, that incomparable voice appeared in many settings, from huge orchestral arrangements to minimal ballads, as she moved confidently from one musical genre to the next. And at the tail end of the decade, she made an album that returned her to the milieu of her first days as a performer.

    Nina Simone and Piano! closes with “The Desperate Ones,” an oblique song by Jacques Brel that depicts, with heavy romantic imagery, the weariness of the ‘60s youth trying to remake the world. It was always a quiet song, both when Brel sang it in 1965 and after it was translated into English for the 1968 off-Broadway show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. But Simone’s performance takes the hushed intensity to an almost frightening level, showcasing her staggering ability to convey feeling with simple elements. She just barely hints at a melody as she reframes the song’s story as something passed between strangers in a darkened alley. Singing in a raspy whisper, her voice is filled with yearning and empathy and wonder, and the starkness of the arrangement highlights its eerie magic. –Mark Richardson

    Listen:“The Desperate Ones”


    “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”

    Black Gold

    1970

    Listen on Apple Music

    Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman to have her work produced on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun), was a friend and mentor to Simone, and a key figure in her political awakening. When Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer in 1965, at age 34, the singer was devastated—and when Malcolm X was killed the next month, her radicalization was complete.

    In 1969, Hansberry’s ex-husband adapted some of her writing into an off-Broadway play called “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” One Sunday, Simone opened the newspaper and saw a story about the production. She called her musical director, Weldon Irvine, to help with the lyrics, and the song—which would be her final contribution to the protest canon—was finished 48 hours later. With its simple, direct message of racial and personal pride and forceful melody, the single was a Top 10 R&B hit and Simone’s biggest crossover success since “I Loves You, Porgy.” It would be covered by Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and Solange, and CORE named it the “Black National Anthem.” Simone even performed the song on “Sesame Street.” –Alan Light

    Listen:“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”


    “Just Like a Woman”

    Here Comes the Sun

    1971

    Listen on Apple Music

    In the early 1960s, as Simone’s star was rising at New York’s Village Gate club, a young Bob Dylan was scratching at the door of the folk scene brewing across the street, doing parody songs between sets by bigger names. Less than a decade later, Simone had five Dylan covers in her discography, none more necessary than “Just Like a Woman.”

    In Simone’s hands, Dylan’shalf-improvised song about watching an ex-girlfriend walk away became a heartfelt paean to all women. Each once-bitter read from Dylan—“she takes just like a woman,” “she breaks just like a little girl”—was now delivered as an affirmation of female resilience and vulnerability, a human frailty that invited empathy rather than contempt.

    Voiced by a woman—especially a famously forthright, tenacious one like Simone—the song got  a first-person adaptation; rather than infantilizing the “woman” in question and separating her from the world, Simone’s interpretation closed the gap. Released near the height of her influence as a political artist, it’s a feminist treatment with an inversion that feels contemporary, even half a century later. –Devon Maloney

    Listen:“Just Like a Woman”


    “22nd Century”

    Here Comes the Sun

    1971

    Listen on Apple Music

    As Nina Simone tells it in her memoir, by the early 1970s, everything was coming undone for her; she had “fled to Barbados pursued by ghosts: Daddy, [sister] Lucille, the movement, Martin, Malcolm, [her] marriage, [her] hopes…” On its surface, “22nd Century” translates this personal moment of peril into big, broad, metaphorical strokes that wed the apocalyptic with cathartic possibility and radical euphoria. “There is no oxygen in the air/Men and women have lost their hair,” she prophesizes, holding steady at the center of an intoxicating swirl of flamenco guitar and calypso steel drums. “When life is taken and there are no more babies born....Tomorrow will be the 22nd century.”

    In the future that is Nina’s, things fall apart so that notions of time, space, and the human can be razed and take on new shape. But in this era in which she sought out Caribbean maroonage, there is perhaps an even deeper connection forged by way of this hypnotic, nearly nine-minute odyssey. Covering Bahamian “Obeah Man” Exuma’s stirring, hybrid mix of junkanoo, carnival, and folk, she sticks close to his original recording from that same year and merges her Afrodiasporic revolutionary vision with his:  “Don’t try to sway me over to your day/On your day,” her reaching vocals insist. “Your day will go away.” –Daphne A. Brooks

    Listen:“22nd Century”

    “I love how she would be at the piano singing and then she would just start speaking, stand up and dance. I love how she would play the piano and arch her spine backwards. I love the costumes that she'd wear, these Afrocentric, imagined versions of what an Egyptian queen or an Ethiopian princess would wear. I love her radical new black identity.”
    Corinne Bailey Rae

    Medley: “My Sweet Lord/Today Is a Killer”

    “Emergency Ward!”

    1972

    Listen on Apple Music

    No artist ever wielded power over an audience as deftly as Nina Simone, but the same can be said of her talent for turning covers into transcendent events. By 1972, she’d perfected—several times over—both delicate alchemies. She used her crowds’ expectations to lure them in before delivering uncomfortable yet necessary truths, all while constructing whatone academic, quoting theorist William Parker, called“inside songs”—covers that dig up the song lying “in the shadows, in-between the sounds and silences and behind the words” of the original.

    That creative electricity is palpable on this gargantuan, 18-minute live jam that takes up an entire side of Emergency Ward!, the record now considered Simone’s major anti-Vietnam War statement. Backed by a gospel choir, she invites the audience in with George Harrison’s then-two-year-old mega-hit, locking into a mesmerizing church sing-along before revealing the Trojans within:David Nelson’s brutal poem about the desperate, decaying hope of the Civil Rights era. Lines like "Today/Pressing his ugly face against mine/Staring at me with lifeless eyes/Crumbling away all memories of yesterday's dreams,” dropped into the rhythm of Harrison’s exaltations, inflate the performance like a hot air balloon, making it the ultimate testament to Simone's ability to turn even a simple interpretation into a political masterpiece. –Devon Maloney

    Listen:Medley: “My Sweet Lord/Today Is a Killer,”


    “Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter”

    Is It Finished

    1974

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nina Simone's palate was always broad, but with this reimagining of a Tina Turner barnburner, she used minimalist funk arrangements as a platform for her unleashed vocals—mewling and crawling at alternate intervals, the disgusted cursing of a woman highly over a dusty dude. The openness of the 1970s served her more adventurous impulses well, though by the time she cut “Funkier,” she was fully spiraling into depression and alcoholism. (Who could blame her, with the serrated knife that had been the late 1960s, from Civil Rights to Vietnam?) Her edge showed in this song: Her voice cracks with exasperation, alluding that the predator she sings about might well be the good ol’ US of A. Spent, she wouldn't record another album for four years. –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

    Listen:“Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter”


    “Sinnerman”

    Live at Montreaux 1976

    1976

    Listen on Apple Music

    One of Nina Simone’s most recognizable recordings, “Sinnerman” has been repurposed by everyone from David Lynch to Kanye West. What remains in its original form, however, is the pure punk of it. This live recording rides hard on a driving 2/4 backbeat, one that accelerates a full 10 bpm over its 10-minute run. Simone’s backing band is sharp, the rimshots and high hats insistent, the piano work both velvety and forceful. It is a song of apocalypse, of bleeding seas and boiling rivers and the inability to escape God’s wrath no matter where you turn.

    As a child, Simone learned “Sinnerman” from her mother, who sang it in revival meetings to help sinners become so overwhelmed as to confess their transgressions. Hellfire, brimstone, and damnation were the lullabies on which she was nursed, and it explains her disdain for the fearful. “Sinnerman” is an attack; its hypnotic repetition is designed to induce you to God or madness, whichever comes first. She unleashes her voice, sharp and wide, like sunlight glinting off the blade of a knife. Here, Simone—whose life was as violent and lawless as her music was transcendent—channels heaven and hell equal measure. –Carvell Wallace

    Listen:“Sinnerman”

    “Nowadays, I have been seeing more of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ shared everywhere online. Same with ‘Backlash Blues,’ talking about war and wages and equal pay. All those topics have not gone away, so her music is still relevant, and I don't think was ever irrelevant. Younger people are discovering Nina Simone in this way. I consider myself part of that group.”
    Lætitia Tamko (Vagabon)

    “Baltimore”

    Baltimore

    1978

    Listen on Apple Music

    Following the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, Simone’s 1978 recording of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore”—“Oh, Baltimore/Ain’t it hard just to live”—was widely circulated on social media, illustrating the continuing endurance and power of her work. The song was the title track from a particularly fraught album that appeared as Simone was living in poverty in Paris and her recordings were getting increasingly rare. She fought so much with Creed Taylor, who had signed her to CTI Records, that she insisted he not only leave the studio, but the country. She finally cut all of her vocals in a single, hourlong session.

    She did acknowledge, however, that she liked this song, which Newman had recorded the year before. The narrator of “Baltimore” is worn down by the American economy and malaise—“hard times in the city, in a hard town by the sea”—and finally decides to pack his family in a “big old wagon” and send them out of town. Having fled the U.S. years earlier, Simone’s reaction to the lyrics was personal. “And it refers to, I’m going to buy a fleet of Cadillacs,”she said, “and take my little sister, Frances, and my brother, and take them to the mountain and never come back here, until the day I die.”–Alan Light

    Listen:“Baltimore”


    “Fodder on Her Wings”

    Fodder on My Wings

    1982

    Listen on Apple Music

    In the early ’80s, Nina Simone was living in France and she was deeply lonely; her family life was strained, and she was suffering from encroaching mental illness. A new song on her 1982 album, Fodder on My Wings, captured with startling intimacy the pain of this period, and she returned to it frequently through the next decade, cutting another studio version three years later (the synth-heavy take on Nina’s Back!) and including it on several live albums, including an awe-inspiring performance on 1987’s Let It Be Me. The title of the song itself is titled “her” wings while the album it appears on uses “my”; the slippery point of view underscores its heavily personal nature, as Simone sings of a bird that traveled the world, from Switzerland to France and England—all places she herself had spent time—and then crashed to earth. “She had dust inside her brain” is the harrowing image the sticks with you, but Simone’s vocal makes a song of weariness and defeat carry an air of defiance, a wise word from someone who survived to tell the tale. –Mark Richardson

    Listen: “Fodder on Her Wings”


    “Stars”

    Let It Be Me

    1987

    Listen on Apple Music

    Simone first covered Janis Ian’s searing, mordant meditation on fame during her infamous set at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival; suffering from bipolar disorder, she goes through something like a mental breakdown during the performance. (The scene is a highlight of Liz Garbus’ Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?) This spine-tingling 1987 version—Simone’s best, most coherent rendition—was recorded live at Hollywood’s intimate Vine Street Bar & Grill for Let It Be Me.

    Written by Ian when she was just 20, “Stars” is a potent critique of star-making machinery: The narrator is both a weary observer of fame, watching faded stars who live their lives in “sad cafés and music halls,” and a tragic figure undone by fame herself. Simone’s embittered, conversational phrasing transforms the song into a cosmically exhausted, stream-of-consciousness rant. She sounds so nakedly weary and afflicted with pathos, you worry she might not even make it to the last verse. But ultimately, Simone’s piano accompaniment builds to a rousing, show-must-go-on climax: “I’ll come up singing for you even though I’m down.” Break out the Kleenex: Few other songs in Simone’s arsenal can make you truly grasp the toll she paid for being alive and giving us her music. –Jason King

    Listen: “Stars”


    “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”

    A Single Woman

    1993

    Listen on Apple Music

    In 1993, Nina Simone recorded and released her last studio album, A Single Woman. Living in Southern France, she was lured back into the booth by Elektra A&R executive Michael Alago, who brought major label marketing dollars and seasoned producers and orchestrators. Taken from the 1983 Barbra Streisand film Yentl and penned by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, and Michel Legrand, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” is a powerhouse musical theater showstopper that no one would mistake for a conventional jazz standard. But Simone—who starts the song with an allusion to the Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—slyly reconstructs it as an interior, howling lament for her father, who passed away in the early 1970s while they were estranged.

    Backed by swelling strings, Simone pulls every ounce of melancholic emotion out of the heart-wrenching lyrics. As the chords ramp up, so does her quivering voice; every time she tackles the song’s falling Middle Eastern vocals runs, it sounds like tears streaming down her face. One of her most dramatic performances captured on record, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” finds Nina Simone working through the despair of her own orphanhood, exorcising her troubled relationship with the men who defined aspects of her complicated life. How fitting that her final album—a musical commentary on what it means to be a mature, single woman living in exile—captures such pure, unadulterated human feeling. –Jason King

    Listen:“Papa, Can You Hear Me?”


    Contributors: Daphne A. Brooks, Farah Griffin, Jason King, Alan Light, Devon Maloney, Jillian Mapes, Vanessa Okoth-Obbo, Ben Ratliff, Mark Richardson, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Carvell Wallace, Seth Colter Walls

    All interviews by Stacey Anderson


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    Rising: The Eclectic Soul Music of Nick Hakim

    It is a miserable day to visit Nick Hakim at his home in Ridgewood, Queens. April showers have extended well into May, and an almost comically torrential rainfall has transformed the charming New York City neighborhood into a giant flood. But inside the 26-year-old’s apartment, which he shares with his partner Naima and two roommates, all is tranquil; the only sign of the storm is an innocent plink-plink tap on a triangular skylight. Hakim’s presence is immediately soothing, though initially guarded. We break the ice by discussing the arduous task of moving from one place to another—his debut album, Green Twins, is his first release since relocating to New York after graduating college,and its emerald-tinted chill shows both a young man and his adopted city in transition.

    As exorbitant rent prices push artists away, many have warned that New York City is increasingly facing the risk of losing its creative class. Before moving to relatively quiet Ridgewood, Hakim struggled to get by financially in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn while waiting tables and also teaching music at a nonprofit in Boston two days a week. Though he considered leaving the city completely, Hakim remained because of the energy and drive of his local peers, including his band, the jazz collective Onyx, singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, and rising filmmaker/musician Terence Nance. In the end, Hakim learned to utilize his precious free time while gradually carving out his own space in the city. “There’s still a hungry, positive, angry community—angry in a good way,” says Hakim, sitting in his light-soaked home studio. “We use music to fuel that passion for creating and playing shows and making art.” Rather than presenting the stereotypical cooler-than-thou attitude that can exist within NYC music circles, Hakim’s spacey soul embraces his diverse community and upbringing.

    Nick Hakim: "Green Twins" (via Bandcamp)

    Hakim’s parents emigrated from Lima, Peru, to New York City in the early ’80s after his father received a Fulbright scholarship to study economicsat the New School in Manhattan. After about eight years, the family moved to Washington D.C., where Hakim was born and raised. His mother founded two daycares in addition to serving as a social worker in local public schools; his dad’s main gig involved analyzing finances for companies that deal with education in at-risk countries.

    Though Hakim would not express an interest in playing music until his late teens, he was surrounded by a diverse array of sounds at home. There was the nueva cancion—political folk music—of his mother’s native Chile; ’60s and ’70s touchstones like the Beatles and Al Green; D.C. hardcore bands like Fugazi that were beloved by Hakim’s older brother—though Nick preferred the reggae-infused Bad Brains, especially since one of his teachers performed regularly with the band’s vocalist, HR; and Latino rappers like Big Pun and Fat Joe.

    In his youth, Hakim was placed into special education classes and often found himself ostracized in school. “I had a lot of learning issues,” he tells me, pouring hot tea into a cup. “When I was in sixth grade I couldn’t tell time and I didn’t know the months in order.” But when he was 17, one of his friends invited him to sing with her church choir, and he began teaching himself to play piano. Everything changed. Suddenly, the kid with the “two-point-something GPA” was accepted at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. While there, he self-released 2014’s two-part EP Where Will We Go, on which he ponders romance’s alluring intoxication, ensuing heartbreak, and eventual death through a dark and frosty lens. Those releases became an unexpected success, racking up millions of SoundCloud plays, leading to opening slots for Maxwell and How to Dress Well, and an eventual signing to indie titan ATO Records, home to Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff.

    Surrounded in his studio by a poster for Thundercat’s Drunk, a rack of earth-tone clothing, stacks of synthesizers, and an overflowing collection of records, Hakim seems like a humble soul. This humility is reflected in Green Twins’ insistence on finding oneself through a positive relationship with others: “She taught me to make love with patience/Not just thinking about myself/To really feel the other person,” he sings on the funky, seductive “Cuffed.” Unlike Where Will We Go, Green Twins flourishes with a playful sexiness that reveals Hakim’s newfound contentment and confidence. The new album’s vibe is encapsulated in its psychedelic artwork, whichshows a lone eyeball peering into a mirror in the midst of a hazy fog.

    “It’s like looking inwards in a very surreal way,” Hakim says of the image. “There’s a lot of songs on this record that have to do with the things that live inside my subconscious but that I can’t really access until I am asleep.” While making Green Twins, he learned to write down his dreams, and the mysteries of the psyche enter into the record immediately on the title-track opener, where Hakim croons about hidden fears over a dusty beat and swirling keys. Minutes later, he combines faith and lust on the hollowed-out gospel of “Bet She Looks Like You,” where he exalts a lover with the swoon-worthy declaration “If there’s a god I wonder what she looks like/I bet she looks like you.”

    Considering how drastically music altered his trajectory as a teenager, it makes sense that Hakim never strays too far from it. Even during our conversation, he casually leans across me a few times to tinker with parts of a song on a Moog synthesizer. And as I emerge from his apartment into a shockingly sunny day, I can faintly hear him up the stairs, playing the complete tune for the first time.

    Pitchfork: How did you end up at Berklee College of Music?

    Nick Hakim: My decision to go was very conscientious—I was really curious about learning specific things about music and technical work. I literally applied to five schools and I got rejected from all of them, except for Berklee. Coming from a background where I didn’t do good in school, it felt good to get accepted from an institution that was supportive. The first two years I was there were fucking amazing for learning, and I met so many people.

    What did you study there?

    Production, composition, advanced harmony. In terms of majors, they had a music therapy major that sounded really interesting to me. I’m all about working with young people. I got a job with the Boys & Girls Club through school, and they gave me money to stay in school because I was a student teacher.

    I was also volunteering at a juvenile detention center for a year, working with music therapy students—we’d go there with a mic and let them record their raps. I had one student, his name is Anthony. There was a week that I missed, and he was like, “Man, why didn’t you come last week? I wanted to record this.” He was depending on my presence and on me bringing the computer. Monday was music day [in the detention center], but the rest of the days were just like a fucking prison for them.

    You had some difficulties in school as a kid too, right?

    Yeah I did. A lot of people do. I was lucky to a certain extent because my mother was always very adamant about dealing with it since she worked in the school system. I was put in special ed in second grade. That means I would take tests in the corner of the class by myself, and I would have to be escorted to the water fountain or nurse’s office to take medication two times a day. I went to three different high schools and I got held back when I left the first—the year I got held back was the year that I started playing and learning music.

    A big reason why I’m interested in working with young people is because I can genuinely relate to feeling rejected and stupid as young person—feeling like you’re not capable and then feeling depressed because of that and projecting that in a way that is negative and violent. I was very fragile, and when I started getting a little older I started fighting a lot more and doing all kinds of dumb shit. I definitely was not a very happy person and I lashed out and I was rebellious at home and everywhere.

    What would you say to a kid who is having a tough time at school or home?

    Everybody has an individualized situation, and just being a consistent and open presence in their life goes a long way. I remember being pressured and not wanting to talk about shit. I look back and I respect and acknowledge the fact that I was lucky, I had a lot of really great teachers. That’s a way of just being a positive presence. I’m trying to learn how to have that kind of space all the time. I don’t know if I can tour and do all this shit and teach all the time, but I wanna teach in spurts. I have a lot of friends who are really involved with their own art and also work with young people, so maybe in the future we can all come together and start a nonprofit organization.


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    Podcast: In Sight Out: Stephin Merritt


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    Interview: Sufjan Stevens: Spokesman for Sanity


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    Afterword: Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell Was More Than Just a Grunge Frontman

    To say that the vocalist and songwriter Chris Cornell, who died late Wednesday at 52, possessed one of the most commanding voices in rock is hardly hyperbolic. His impressive range, which could delve into sub-basement registers and hop-skip octaves with an effortless brio, helped define the otherwise hard-to-categorize music of his main project, Soundgarden, and allowed him to test boundaries—of style, of genre, of notes leapt in a single bound.

    Soundgarden burst from the mid-’80s Seattle underground with commanding, odd songs that stood apart from their peers—the landing-gear whine at the start of “Hunted Down” doesn’t so much open their first EP, 1987’s Screaming Life, as it announces it, and the songs that follow are spiky and turbulent, although there’s ample room for Cornell’s moans amid the chaos.

    The records that followed would hew a little bit more closely to rock’s norm, but that was because they were helping define it; while the manic Screaming Life track “Tears to Forget” would have stuck out on, say, their platinum-selling 1996 album Down on the Upside, connecting it to the latter album’s Mainstream Rock chart-topping sulk “Blow Up the Outside World” isn’t too much of a conceptual stretch. A big part of this was Cornell, whose singular approach to vocals became more controlled over time.

    While he could out-yawp late-’80s “Headbangers Ball”denizens like Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach and Bulletboys’ Marq Torien, he didn’t only fly high; depressives’ anthems like the Louder Than Love dirge “I Awake” and the blues-tinged Superunknown track “Fell on Black Days” deploy his upper register strategically, nodding to the near-numbness depicted in their lyrics.

    But even Soundgarden’s darkest music was leavened by both wit—calling snippets of backward-masked stomach-churners “665” and “667” on their debut full-length Ultramega OK, which came out during the height of PMRC-inspired Satanic panic, and shouting out the electronic child-amuser known as the See ‘n Say on the head-spinning 1991 track “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”—and a willingness to take chances. They brought 7/4 and 9/8 time signatures to rock and, later, pop radio with the pummeling “Spoonman” and the unnervingly dreamy “Black Hole Sun”; they dove into guitar-nerd territory with the pentatonic scales of “Face Pollution” and got political with the crushing, helpless “New Damage,” which might be the Soundgarden song I’ve had in my head the most for the past four months. “The wreck is going down; get out before you drown,” Cornell pleads on its chorus; in 1991 he told Melody Maker that it was “about how the American people have become unbelievably complacent about the way that the U.S. government is eroding more and more basic human rights.”

    Soundgarden straddled the gap between hard rock and modern rock, with their omnivorous appetite and in-on-the-joke nature firmly placing them among college radio’s proto-slackers, and their crushing musical assault garnering approval from hard rock devotees no less demanding than Beavis and Butt-Head.

    “Musically, we were just different than anything else,” Cornell told the Boston Phoenix in 2011. “When it became a genre called grunge, and we were considered part of it, and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were considered to be playing the same genre of music that was stylistically different than the greater world of music—that just didn’t make sense to me. I mean, it didn’t sound to me like it was genre-specific at all, so the only tie-in that I could see was that we were young bands that were roughly in the same area code that were influenced by punk and post-punk music and culture.”

    When I think of Cornell and Soundgarden, I think of doors being thrown open, and at times disintegrating. Seeing them open for Guns N’ Roses during the L.A. rock kings’ imperial Use Your Illusion period, learning about Sub Pop bands like the Fastbacks and Beat Happening because of my fandom growing to obsessive compilation-collecting levels, figuring out what other musicians’ catalogs they were borrowing from—Soundgarden facilitated all of these “aha” moments.

    Combing over their cover choices was like thumbing through a well-worn record collection, complete with slight warps that rendered the platters unique. Their version of Devo’s 1980 freakout “Girl U Want” slows the track down almost imperceptibly, Cornell’s devil-on-the-shoulder vocal adding a last-call gravitas to the new wavers’ depiction of boiling-over lust. On their remake of the Ohio Players’ wordplay-heavy groove “Fopp,” Cornell remains faithful to the growl-to-howl trajectory of the original’s vocals, adding a sinewy soulfulness to his bandmates’ slightly chunkier take on the funk legends’ throwdown.

    Soundgarden didn’t only push outward on their covers; the Cornell composition “Fresh Deadly Roses,” an early B-side, has latticework textures that echoes the Cure’s gauzier moments, while the 2014 rarities compilation Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path brings together a career-spanning collection of found-footage-heavy remixes by the storied Northwest engineer Steve Fisk, whose tape-manipulation exercises and work with the band Pell Mell made him a cult hero.

    When Cornell went solo after Soundgarden’s first breakup in 1996, his palette grew in ways that were barely hinted at by “Seasons,” the quietly meditative solo track he contributed to the 1992 dating travelogue Singles, or by the blues hymn “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” one of the first songs he wrote for the stunning Temple of the Dog album. His 1999 solo debut Euphoria Morning places his voice amidst starker textures, allowing tracks like the stretched-out ballad “Wave Goodbye”—a tribute to his late friend Jeff Buckley—showing that the power in his voice came not only from its octave-leaping range, but from Cornell’s ability to guide it through complex emotions. (A 2015 reissue restored a single letter to the album’s title, altering it to Euphoria Mourning.)

    2007's Carry On is more straightforward and mellowed-out; it also contains his funereal cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which shows off the slightly increased grit in his voice and which would go on to, perhaps improbably, influence the trajectory of singing-competition juggernaut “American Idol.” A year after the album’s release, eventual “Idol” winner David Cook would cover Cornell’s cover, setting up a parade of male hopefuls who would dazzle home viewers with brooding, acoustic-guitar-led versions of past chart-toppers.

    Cornell then decided to expand his remit with the 2009 album Scream, a collaboration with Timbaland. It was fairly derided upon its release, with the combination of the producer’s then-too-ubiquitous beats, Cornell’s at times low-energy vocal delivery, and some terribly rancid lyrics (“that bitch ain’t a paaaart of me,” he spat ad nauseam on the album’s leadoff track) coming off ham-fistedly. While the handclap-heavy coda to “Get Up” and its follow-through, the 9/11 broadside “Ground Zero,” at least allow Cornell’s smoke-plume vibrato to shine, this genre-busting attempt was admirable on paper, but mostly a miss on record.

    Soundgarden’s 2010s reformation came from a band that was older and wiser, yet still willing to fray expectations at their edges; 2012’s King Animal, their most recent release, contains stunning Cornell-penned tracks like the weary “Bones of Birds” and the hard-edged, horn-tinged “Black Saturday,” which show how he worked around his voice’s upper register gaining even more grit. In 2015 Cornell released Higher Truth, where his voice stretched out in its sweet spot—”Misery Chain” shows off his still-potent vibrato, while the harmonica-and-choir-assisted “Bend in the Road” is a loose-limbed rumination that recalls blues-rooted Temple of the Dog tracks like “Times of Trouble” and “Four Walled World” as filtered through the jam-session ideal of ’70s rock.

    On the night before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I went to Madison Square Garden to see Temple of the Dog, and the group’s 24-song set thundered through not only the 10 tracks on their album, but songs by Mother Love Bone, whose lead singer Andrew Wood’s death led to Cornell writing the project’s first two tracks, as well as covers of the Cure (“Fascination Street”), Harry Nilsson (“Jump Into the Fire”), and Led Zeppelin (an absolutely face-melting version of “Achilles’ Last Stand”). Cornell also covered two of his own songs: “Seasons,” with its rolling guitar line causing the arena to seemingly sigh as one; and the gulping “Missing,” which gets an official release today as part of the Singles soundtrack’s 25th-anniversary reissue. “Missing” was part of the Poncier cassette, a collection of tracks written by Cornell in the guise of the film’s slightly dim music-scene hero Cliff Poncier, played by Matt Dillon (director Cameron Crowe said that he’d once envisioned Cornell in the role). Cornell’s voice becomes a guttural plea on the chorus, the lyrics of which sound even more resonant now:

    Have you seen me
    Can you hear me
    Did you think you could win me over
    I’ve been hard to hold
    I’ve been hard to hold
    And I’m missing


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