In the bookish, sugar-sweet corner of punk-inspired guitar music that we call indie pop-- a scrappy subculture where amateurism is heralded, charm goes a long way, and crushworthy hooks go miles further-- the Pastels are legends. But time has shown that icon status does not necessarily guarantee the ability to endure through new records, nor the power to gracefully evolve. With three decades behind them, the Pastels have done both, developing slowly from early pop rippers (1989's Sittin' Pretty is essential) to more subdued sophistication on Slow Summits-- a work-in-progess since 2007 that was finally released last month on Domino. It's their first album since 1997's Illumination, and one of their best, a dimlit collage of strings and flutes featuring moments of poptimism and jazzy textures inspired by Arthur Russell's 1970s Instrumentals series. Still,Slow Summits doesn't totally forsake a character of off-kilter abandon as much as it's just the latest progression in Pastelism.
When I dial Stephen McRobbie (aka Stephen Pastel) to discuss the record, it's 10 p.m. Glasgow time on a Friday night (at his request). He'd been out with his friend Norman Blake, of Teenage Fanclub. The day before he took part in a weekly ritual: "I always play table tennis on Thursday," McRobbie notes casually. At first, the activity strikes me as comical, opening the door to a host of cardigan-clad jokes about twee culture. But the idea of McRobbie and his bandmates Katrina Mitchell (his co-songwriter and partner) and Gerard Love (also of Teenage Fanclub) gathering at a day center to unwind is telling-- our conversation often hits on McRobbie's socialism and how that factors into the group's community-focused convictions. "We just kind of turn up and play," he says. "You should try it."
In the time since Illumination, the Pastels have also worked on commissioned theater music, a film soundtrack (2002's The Last Great Wilderness) and a collaborative LP with Japanese act Tenniscoats (2009's Two Sunsets), the latter two released via Stephen and Katrina's own Geographic label. (They're now planning a series of reissues from Strawberry Switchblade, the undersung Scottish bubblegum-pop duo.) Since 2002, McRobbie has also co-owned a Glasgow record shop called Monorail with a couple of friends, where he typically works three or four days a week. "It was one of those times when you're quietly confident about something and quite pleased when it works out," he says, talking about the store, though the statment holds true for many of his musical ventures.
It would seem that a new generation has recently discovered the Pastels-- downloading their albums from blogs, Tumbling zine articles, reveling in 90s inter-band trivia. (I'll never forget the stunned feeling of learning, a few years ago, that Black Tambourine's 1992 track "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge" was a reference to Pastels' Annabell Wright.) In spirit, though, their audience never went anywhere at all.
"What makes us different is what makes us strong."
Pitchfork: Do you still feel like you’re an outsider by nature?
Stephen McRobbie: When we started in Glasgow, Orange Juice was really exciting. They moved to London and never really put their roots down in this city, but people who loved them did. We were part of that, but we were outside of prevailing trends within the city, too. A sense of community is a really important part of the Pastels, but it's good not to feel that anyone within the community could make the music that you could. We always feel slightly outside of things-- we don’t rehearse where all the other groups rehearse. We try to keep it apart, even though I feel so much love for the city and the music that comes from it. But I want to be a distinct voice within that. What makes us different is what makes us strong.
We've made records for much longer than I could have ever imagined when we started. I thought we existed in some place after punk, that we could find something distinctive and make records for three or four years. I look at groups like Yo La Tengo and the Fall, and I think, "Maybe this is a good generation of groups that could keep going." We're these voices that are trying to be strong and say something new. That's what the group is: being truthful, but also trying to imagine something up ahead.
Pitchfork: There's a generation of young fans excited about your music, too.
SM: Music really can burn out. It’s very specific to periods. But there’s a tendency to wonder what came before. Society’s changing, music’s changing. The way we listen to music is becoming something that none of us quite understand. When I listen to Animal Collective, sometimes I would think, "Ah, things are becoming so complicated now." It’s almost too much for me to listen to. Something like the new My Bloody Valentine record is just as complicated, but somehow I can understand the sounds or voices. Trying to engage with the different ways that older things and newer things come across... it’s such an interesting time.
Pitchfork: What sort of influence would you want the Pastels to have on younger indie pop bands that look up to the group?
SM: I would like the work to inspire people in terms of how it was often the best thing that we could do in the moment. As a group, we loved other music and never felt sealed. We embraced our own flaws and tried to make something spectacular but very human.
In the 1980s, the music we were making was odd. We should have been making synth music. The idea of guitars was all over, but we ended up in a group with people that enjoyed guitars. I like the idea of people not being afraid of failure, just documenting what you are as a group, but also trying to find the good elements and glamorizing those, to an extent.
"Sometimes I wonder: Maybe money would be better spent on a kidney dialysis machine rather than in supporting artists."
Pitchfork: I read an interview you recently posted on Facebook about the "anti-twee" sentiment. It reminded me of how, for an indie pop band, the Pastels always felt subversive or punk to me.
SM: Being subversive is not a natural state for me. But I always feel horrified at certain things. For instance, we’re all in our 30s and 40s, so we’re all connected to each other’s families. We have that strong sense of community, and I like the idea of people doing well in a kind of equal society. As a socialist, I’m always into that. So I feel angry at people calling a lot of these ideas we have twee because I can’t think of anything less twee.
Tonight, I was out with Norman from Teenage Fanclub, one of my good friends. We were talking about this music award in Scotland, which we both basically support. Generally speaking, it's a good thing, and the people who run it have gotten funding for it. But it creates certain contradictions. Should there be a prize for coming "first" in music? Or is it more democratic and personal? Scotland’s a very small country, and I very much support some arts funding, but I sometimes just wonder: Maybe that money would be better spent on a kidney dialysis machine rather than in supporting artists.
Pitchfork: A monetary reward for music could project an idea of it being about an end to something, not a means.
SM: There's not always a prize. Where’s the prize for all the early Modern Lovers recordings that set the blueprint for so many years of music, you know? In a way, once you start giving out prizes, where do you stop?
Pitchfork: You’ve spoken before about how you never wanted the Pastels to be what you earned your living from.
SM: Yeah. It’s not something I feel super moral about-- we have our new record, and I'm starting to think it would probably be good for me to give more time to this, because if we play shows we can generate money. Art in our society is really integral, but it's not integral in the way of people staying alive. Well, I think music's really one of the most important things, but a lot of the best music finds its own way to be made.
A lot of great records were made by people who had decadent lifestyles and sat around for ages, and then, in the last moment, went into the studio and did something really good. But I also see people who work hard and think it would be great if they had a bit more time to spend with their music. Other times, I see people who would be better off having less time to spend with their music. It’s a constant dilemma. As a socialist, I want to create a situation where brilliant art can arise, but brilliant art often arises out of terrible situations. You don’t want things to be terrible, but in the UK a lot of the best music was made in the Thatcherist era, which was horrible. It’s not simple, but the outsider voice is always really interesting-- something oppositional that isn’t immediately embraced by the prevalent body.
Pitchfork: At this point, is it important to you to create a sound that is new or different from what you have done in the past? Or is it more about having parameters and writing the best songs you can within them?
SM: We don’t feel like we have parameters. We always feel new when we do something, and it always seems to connect in some way with what we’ve done before. But there’s always a freshness for us when we play together. It never feels like we’re trying to play a new version of “Nothing to Be Done” or “Crawl Babies”. We have a certain group sound but we’re always trying to expand the parameters of that sound.
Pitchfork: I was recently listening to an early Pastels interview where you spoke about rejecting the idea of sophistication. But the new material has horns, cellos, and other strings, which are very sophisticated. How do you see that concept of sophistication factoring in nowadays?
SM: In the 80s, we were very suspicious, but everyone that plays in the Pastels is always very ambitious. I love pop music with string arrangements, like the Left Banke and the Beatles and all the 60s things. But also, I like a particular sound that’s arrived at-- I don’t like bringing in people who can just do that for music instantly. It’s been a process for us. I’m really proud of a lot of those early records, they were very ambitious. In terms of how we sounded when we were in the rehearsal room, they were really fabulous creations, and I don’t know how we managed to make them in some instances. Now, sometimes we sound really good in the rehearsal room, but we’re still trying to do something more. I don’t know what the epitome of sound is, but it’s something we’re always reaching for.
Pitchfork: Something that stuck out for me with Slow Summits was the potential influence of Arthur Russell's 1975 Instrumentals series.
SM: I'm excited that you said that. Arthur Russell is one of my heroes. I came across him about eight years ago. I thought he was a disco pioneer and then was really freaked out when I heard all this other stuff. I love the sound of him playing in a room-- the negotiated sounds of a room. When we were making our record, we'd come to the end of the song in the rehearsal room, and there'd be quite a nice chord turnaround. Suddenly, we'd just keep playing, and people in the band would feel like they could express themselves. A lot of that music was absolutely the best stuff we were doing-- the rolling outros-- and that was the music I was really passionate about. I tried to make those into the main parts of the songs.
Pitchfork: A song like "Summer Rain" definitely has the Instrumentals feel.
SM: "Summer Rain" was my favorite song that I carried around for two or three years. You carry a song like it's your main hope-- not like it's the most important piece of music you'll ever make, but the most important music you think about in your life. I had this idea for a song that would be quite melodic and simple, with a really short, Kinks-style outro, that would just die off after 20 seconds, but [multi-instrumentalist] Tom [Crossley] had all these flute ideas. Then it became like a lot of the music we love-- like the Ralf und Florian album, or Arthur Russell's Instrumentals.
"I don’t know what the epitome of sound is, but it’s something we’re always reaching for."
Pitchfork: You played the 20th anniversary show for the influential zine chickfactor last year, why do you think that publication and scene has endured?
SM: There was a really nice aesthetic that [chickfactor co-founders] Gail [O'Hara] and Pam [Berry] were able to bring to chickfactor. It was very subtle and emphasized groups where females were the leader, or doing something key within the group, but it was an understated polemic. They just noticed things with longevity. They were right on things very early, when people weren't so interested. Things have longevity when they are personal and intense.
Pitchfork: The Pastels also had the Pastelism zine. Nowadays, do you feel content to communicate with people online, through Facebook and Twitter, or did you place more value on things you used to do in print?
SM: I don’t place more value in print, but sometimes if I see a beautiful book I think it's best to step back from the screen. You have a sense of something having real worth. There are fantastic blogs and great writing on the internet, and the speed of communication is exciting. But also I love something beautiful. I love records and fanzines and books and great photos that I can see the print of. That’s not about to die. It’s important for everyone.
Pitchfork: Would you ever reproduce the Pastels zine, or do you think it had its time and place?
SM: It had its time and place, but we’ve been speaking to a publisher about the idea of doing some sort of Pastels book that would be a mixture of works we’ve produced and photographs and writing, too.
Pitchfork: In the recent video for "Check My Heart" there are a lot of children. It made me wonder, are you and Katrina married and do you have kids?
SM: We’re not married. But I can’t imagine being with anyone else. I imagine we will get married at some point. Allison, who plays trumpet, is Katrina’s little sister; she’s got two little children. Aggi and Tom have got a girl. And John, who plays guitar, has a girl called Astrid. It’s kind of a family, but Katrina and I don’t have any children.
A central part of the video is the idea that music’s such a big part of our lives, but our lives are changing because our friends are parents. We tried to make something that’s a cool pop video, but also an accurate summation of where we are now. We’re still in love with the pop moment-- with the idea that you can make a record you can dance to-- but we also love just being around our friends’ children and everything.
"Things have longevity when they are personal and intense."
Pitchfork: Sixteen years passed between the last Pastels record and Slow Summits. What differences in your life stand out, other than being older?
SM: I can certainly say that our lives have changed dramatically. We try to not glamorize every moment, but to also make something that’s hopeful, that’s got a belief in humanity, that’s really quietly triumphant. The main thing that happened in my life is that my dad died. It’s already marked a song like “Night Time Made Us”. During the latter part of making the record, the sessions became tighter, because we felt that we had less available time. In a way, I think life’s one thing, and what you do is something different. I don’t always go to a film and expect to experience everything the director has experienced during the time he was making it. But you also want a sense of truth. And I do have a sense that our record is truthful.
Alas, it's not quite so simple. I wake up the next morning with an apologetic text from Smith and a request asking if we could set this interview up directly. He's recently been having trouble communicating with some people in his inner circle, mostly because he's planning on firing them. When we finally connect, the self-described "control freak" explains, "When you're an artist-- especially a successful or moderately-successful artist-- there's just a lot of people in the music industry who want a piece of that, and I've become a little bit wise to the kind of stuff to be careful of." Apparently, his rocky experiences following the release of last year's debut album Oshin have taught him a huge lesson: Treat the music industry like a game and you're going to get played.
Whenever an indie rock artist speaks candidly about their financial realities, there's a tendency to blame the victim: "They knew what they were getting into, and seriously, how much money is there to be squeezed out of a band at DIIV's level anyway?" But what emerges from speaking with Smith is that his words and actions aren't out of greed, nor are they an extension of outmoded punk principles about the commodification of art. It's about fairness and making sure some of the money changing hands thanks to his music actually ends up in his own. "Between booking agents, management, and lawyers, I pay-out about 40% of all the money before I even see it," he says. "All these people work on commissions, and they're not in it for the art because they're not artists." And when you consider how thin the profit margins are for a band like DIIV as opposed to an act that might get their own "Behind The Music", you start to realize what's at stake when shaky accounting or a haphazardly-booked tour causes a few thousand dollars to go missing.
So what does this have to do with DIIV's second album? Pretty much everything. Smith repeatedly describes the music on Oshin as"deliberate," and the lyrics as "impersonal." He's written 40-50 new songs this time around, and he claims, "I really want to make a record about the current state of guitar bands. I feel like there really aren't people in indie rock right now, there's just all these faceless bands that live in clichés. They're going through the motions." He promises that the turmoil he's experienced as of late has inspired him to recognize his own part in the problem, too. "In the past, I've been guilty of not really taking my task seriously, too."
When we spoke earlier this month, Smith was back in his "no-frills" apartment after finishing another exhausting run of shows. "It's just a room with a bed in it. There's no kitchen or bathroom. There's a shared bathroom in the hall," he says without any real sense of resignation. Smith doesn't consider himself to be a social person ("I don't really 'hang out' with anybody") and admits to being a "person of routine" who disdains touring on account of it fucking up breakfast ("I have my things I like to eat and my little walk that I like to do in the morning"). His troubles with depression and repression immediately come to the fore; the moment we get started, he speaks for about six consecutive minutes, and this repeats over the next hour. He airs out a year's worth of thoughts about how he's been affected by success, expectations, failed recording sessions with former Girls member Chet "JR" White, shady industry types, and drugs. "The band's given me a lot of cool opportunities, but it's also put me in a lot of situations that I never would've been exposed to before, and put me through a lot of stress and crazy stuff. But I can now put those sentiments into the songs, which I like."
"Drugs are fine for you alone at home, but when it comes to being a family, which a band is, it just messes everything up."
Pitchfork: Are you planning on getting out on the road again any time soon?
Zachary Cole Smith: No, fucking thank god. We've been on tour since the band started. I stole some time to work on this record, because it's kind of the only thing I care about. It's this funny thing now: You sign up to be a musician because you want to write music, but you don't spend your time writing music. Instead, you go around the world selling the music you've already made. There's all these people involved, and it becomes this huge machine-- it stops being just me making my own little songs for myself, or for the world. And it's hard to stop the machine. If you want to take time to write a record, they're like, "OK, tour through March, April, and June, then you can take a few weeks off to record in July before getting back on the road for the European festival circuit." After a while, I had to put my foot down.
Pitchfork: Was there any specific situation that made you put your foot down?
ZCS: No. It's not like I had a breakdown, though it kind of felt like it at the time. I agreed to everything that happened. You can't really be at work and be like, "That's it. I've had too much. I'm going home." I spent my life working before I started this band. I worked construction, landscaping. I worked in kitchens, cleaned dishes. I worked demolition.
Canceling the European tour was more about balance. A record is worth 10,000 live shows. Some kid can say, "Hey, I really want you to play my town in Switzerland, or Sweden, or Latvia," and they could have a fun night at the show. On the other hand, all those kids could have a record that means something to them in a more personal way a couple months down the road. The live band is a really important thing for us, but my focus is on the album now.
Pitchfork: Does your touring band have any input in the songwriting?
ZCS: The touring band is DIIV, and the songs are always written with them in mind. But the new record is going to be more "me." Even if you take "Oshin (Subsume)", from the first record, though I play every instrument on that song, I wouldn't say that you can see my DNA all over it. It's meant to be democratic. All the different parts in that song are equally weighted: the bass, drums, vocals, and guitars are all the same exact volume. I've checked if the band wants to be a part of the songwriting, and it seems like they're not really interested. None of them are songwriters. They just prefer to live in New York City, live their regular lives, and maybe work a side job or just live off the band, and then go on tour. I don't think they're really into the creative side of things.
Pitchfork: If they're living off DIIV, were they mad when you canceled the tour?
ZCS: No. Nobody really wanted to do that one European tour. For one, it was budgeted to lose money. They would've made something, but I would've lost a lot of money.
Pitchfork: Why does a tour that's going to lose money get booked to begin with?
ZCS: The idea is: You played to 100 people this week in Europe, and then next week you can play to 200. It's an investment in that territory. But it can lose money because it's very expensive to go to Europe. You can't really just say, like, "Oh, we're gonna take our van and drive to California tomorrow." It's more like, "Oh, we have to fly to London and rent three guitar amps, a bass amp, drums; buy all these flights for four people; hire a driver." It's pretty easy to lose money on tour-- most bands do on their first couple of tours. We're more established, but I think it was just poorly booked. It was a mess from the get-go.
Watch DIIV play a new song called "Dust" in their practice space:
Pitchfork: Can you talk about your experience at SXSW this year? The general backlash to your statements seemed to find hypocrisy in criticizing something you willfully participated in.
ZCS: People were like, "This artist is anti-corporate, he looks like Kurt Cobain, he has long hair. OK, I get it: This is the zeitgeist anti-corporate punk rock." Fucking whatever. That wasn't my intention at all. Our fucking government is owned by corporations, and other companies get money from the government. If you live in Germany, you get money from the government if you're an artist. So since our government is corporations, it makes sense that we should be taking money from corporations to pay for our art.
If I play Coachella, it's sponsored by a company-- that's corporate, too. But we're playing it because we're getting paid and we want to be a part of the festival. At SXSW, there's all this corporate money changing hands, but none of it goes to the artists. It's fucking bullshit. But I didn't want it to be like, "DIIV-- the band that hates SXSW," because that's not my main tenet as an artist. Some people were like, "DIIV is not having fun at SXSW." I was having a blast. All my friends were there. But I lost $8,000. We were participants in it, but kind of blindly. Our booking agent was just like, "These are the shows you're playing in Austin. Here. You're going." So then we bought the flights and went.
At the time, I thought of it as part of a game. I'd been twice before, and it was never that bad. I've always been going as a band that was trying to break; I went with Beach Fossils and we played 40 shows because we wanted people to see us. And then it got to this year, and, in some ways, we were one of the larger bands playing. We weren't desperate for attention. We were a commodity used by corporations to make their brand look fashionable, but then they used us to keep kids out of venues. We'd play in a 150 capacity room for 20 minutes with no sound check, and all the kids are outside, because they're like, "Sorry, you're not cool enough to go in the fucking Red Bull Vans Fort over here." I participated in it partially because I didn't really think it through before I went, and also because, you know, everybody goes. But when we got there, I realized what a fucked up thing it is. It seems to get worse every year.
Pitchfork: What's your advice for a band who's just getting started and wants to use SXSW as a way of getting their name out there?
ZCS: If I had my way, SXSW wouldn't happen in 2014. I don't think it deserves to exist.
"At SXSW, there's all this corporate money changing hands, but none of it goes to the artists. It's fucking bullshit. I lost $8,000."
Pitchfork: How did the opportunity arise to model for Saint Laurent Paris?
ZCS: [YSL creative director] Hedi [Slimane] is a music-obsessed guy. I might've originally met him through Sky. If you look at his work, he has this prototypical look that he wants. I was at Ariel Pink's show the other day at Webster Hall and [Ariel] commented on my Saint Laurent haircut. It's totally true: Ariel, Christopher Owens, me, and Courtney Love, all in Saint Laurent ads, all with the same haircut.
Pitchfork: How is the fashion world different than the music world?
ZCS: I grew up around fashion-- my mom was an editor for Vogue. Compared to the music industry, though, I'd say [fashion] is a little bit more disorganized. But it's exciting for me because, when you're a performer, there is a fashion element. Music is much more of a multimedia sort of thing than I expected. It's about your music, but it's also about the cover art, or what you're wearing on stage, or a video that you make.
Pitchfork: Do you sometimes think, "This modeling life would be way easier than being on tour 10 months a year"?
ZCS: I wouldn't say music is my passion, or my calling, or anything like that. I mean, I don't really believe in that kind of stuff. Life is a series of chance happenings, so I just fell into it. But music is an opportunity to say every single thing that you want to say. People will pore over whatever you say and however you say it and, for me, it represents complete freedom of speech. You can't show somebody what it's like to experience loss, but you can soundtrack it and help them experience their own loss. I am so lucky to have this venue to be able to say and talk about all the stuff I've been through.
Pitchfork: DIIV was originally named after a Nirvana song, and there's always been a visual similarity between yourself and Kurt Cobain. How has your relationship with his music changed since DIIV started taking off?
ZCS: He was a spirit guide in the beginning. I knew what all the fame would feel like already because I read about it in his journals. And I saw the angry letters that he would write to Lynn [Hirschberg], who wrote a shitty article [in Vanity Fair] about Courtney Love-- there's a copy of the fax he hand-wrote to her saying that he's going to kill her. So I had a sense of what it was like to be a couple who has exposure. But again: Kurt is completely different.
To be told that you're the voice of your generation is such an incredible amount of pressure, and I haven't faced that. Maybe by the time our third record rolls around, I will. My goals are to be a band like that in five years. At the moment, though, I can't really relate in any sense to the scale that his fame has reached. But I've already had a hard time dealing with some of the trappings of success and turned to some pretty stereotypical escape routes-- ways of escaping my own reality and falling into some pretty clichéd situations.
Pitchfork: Are drugs a problem?
ZCS: Yeah, they're a huge problem. [laughs] Definitely on tour, at least. We had one tour particularly where it was really bad, and a bunch of us-- not everybody-- were all just lying to each other. There's a lot of deception and bad blood. Drugs are fine for you alone at home, but when it comes to being a family, which a band is, it just messes everything up.
Photos by Pooneh Ghana
Pitchfork: After the reviews for Oshin came out last year, you posted the lyrics and claimed not enough critics paid attention to them. Do you feel like you weren't being taken seriously?
ZCS: The lyrics from the first record are kind of secondary; it wasn't a record where I wanted to draw much attention to the lyrics. On this new record, though, the lyrics are the centerpiece. If you're a brand new band making your first record, it's just easier to get people to listen if you have simple pop songs. It's way less controversial. We paid our dues on that first record, and people are going to be way more patient listening to what I have to say now. I don't have five seconds to get their attention, I have five minutes. That's a huge window.
"There's so much nostalgia in rock music. The Rolling Stones are on the cover of Rolling Stone. How fucking cheesy is that?"
Pitchfork: You recently did a recording session with former Girls member JR White in San Francisco. How'd that come about?
ZCS: He's a friend. But in some ways, I was totally misguided. I had these glorified ideas about San Francisco and its drug culture-- I thought inspiration would just hit me and I would get these San Francisco drugs in my system and all of a sudden an amazing record would come out. But that's not really what happened at all. We sat down in a studio and, instead of picking up a guitar and having some beautiful thing come out, I just had no idea what the fuck I was doing there and gave up before I even started. Anything that we recorded was a great learning experience, and it was really cool to work with JR. I consider him to be a musical big brother. But that particular session was completely misguided. I was desperate and I went out there for the wrong reasons.
Pitchfork: So JR won't be involved with the second record?
ZCS: I want to produce the record myself. We've had every modern-day producer flying at me like, "Oh, this guy produced this band," and it's some fucking band that I read about on Pitchfork two years ago. It's cool to get attention but, in the end, I'm a control freak and I have a very clear vision. I'm the only person who I can trust to produce this record.
Watch DIIV play an untitled new song at a recent show:
Pitchfork: Who are you looking towards for songwriting inspiration?
ZCS: There's a huge influence that I really wanna establish on the record: Elliott Smith. On the first record, we kind of eschewed pop structure-- it was much more influenced by German psychedelic bands like Kluster, La Düsseldorf, Neu!, or Can. But listening to Elliott has brought me into pop structure-- verses and choruses and pre-choruses-- stuff that I never really found interesting before. Also, I'm inspired by Royal Trux's Accelerator and their self-titled record-- there's something so chaotic about it.
But generally, I think people are just going through the motions now. There's so much stuff that people are doing today that has already been done. I kind of like that new Savages record, but I don't know why they take themselves so seriously. There's this manifesto, it's pure throwback. I'm not interested in that. There's so much nostalgia in rock music. The Rolling Stones are on the cover of Rolling Stone. How fucking cheesy is that?
Pitchfork: Now that you're trying to put more of your personality into your songwriting, are you worried about people getting to know the "real" you?
ZCS: I don't know if there's anything that would surprise people, because I don't think that anybody knows anything about me at all. There's not much out there. I think I'm going to come out with a pretty dark and troubled record, and it might upset some people. There's a lot of stuff that I've been through in my life in the past couple of months that I don't really want to share with people who are close to me, but I have no option if it's my art.
Pitchfork: Has your relationship with Sky helped you sort through these things?
ZCS: She's definitely been there for me through a lot of fucked up personal shit. But also in terms of being a kind of popular artist figure and knowing how isolating that is, and knowing what it feels like to be skeptical of people, and to be taken advantage of, especially by your friends. That's a hard to pill to swallow, and we've been through that together, or watched each other go through it. It helps to have somebody that close to you who can relate. I can say with some confidence that I feel like Sky saved my life.
From left: Jason Caddell, Travis Morrison, Eric Axelson, Joe Easley. Photo by Shervin Lainez.
At some point in our two-and-a-half hour conversation, Travis Morrison compares listening to an early Dismemberment Plan song to being hit with “a confetti cannon of words,” which, coincidentally, is also what it feels like to have a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with Travis Morrison. Before I even get a chance to ask him about Uncanney Valley, the reunited Plan’s first new album in over a decade, we’ve ambled down a leisurely path of other pressing topics: animal husbandry, Yeezus, Noel Gallagher, the gentrification of his (and my) former home of Washington, D.C., and Morrison’s lifelong fear of snapping turtles ("They're basically like zombies. They don't have a mind.") The first pause comes about an hour in, and his publicist, who’s been looking on the whole time as she does work on the other side of the café (“it’s like an Orthodox Jewish date,” Morrison jokes at the beginning of the interview), assumes, very incorrectly, that we must be finishing up. She walks up just as Morrison asks me, with a laugh, “So, I think you have some questions?”
The fact that Morrison likes to talk will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever heard a single Dismemberment Plan song, all of which are anchored by his vivid language and chatty, spitfire delivery. The Plan emerged from D.C.’s punk scene in the mid-90s, but they sounded like nobody else in town (or anywhere else on the planet, for that matter), merging spazzy funk grooves courtesy of one of indie rock’s all-time most inventive rhythm sections (bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley), Jason Caddell’s jittery guitar riffs, and Morrison’s anxious, empathic poetry. Their music-- which by my measure includes two legitimate masterpieces, the much-beloved twentysomething survival manual Emergency & I and the more mature though equally evocative Change-- hit a near-impossible bull’s-eye: jammy but with a knack for pop concision, at times jarringly compassionate but never sentimental, sometimes funny but always after something deeper than a punch line.
The Dismemberment Plan broke up in 2003 but got back together in 2011, ostensibly to play a few shows celebrating the reissue of Emergency & I. But things went even better than planned. Thanks to a new, internet-savvy generation of listeners who’d belatedly fallen in love with their back catalog, the Plan were playing to the biggest audiences of their career, winning over new fans as they went (including a certain high-profile bandleader), and prompting a frenzy of nostalgia in old ones. (Full disclosure: like most of the other people in the front row, I was compelled to climb onto the stage at one of these shows and scream myself hoarse when the band played fan favorite “Ice of Boston”.)
Morrison says Uncanney Valley wasn’t planned as much as it just happened, but the finished product reflects a newfound confidence, cohesion, and openness in the band. “It’s a step I wish we would have taken a long time ago,” Morrison says. “A lot of it has to do with the songwriting sharpening and getting off of the confetti-cannon approach and being more confident in what I have to say.” Of course, the Dismemberment Plan still sound like nobody else, but this time around they're also aiming for something a little more universal. “With the new record, I find myself dreaming of people actually covering our songs,” he says. “Our old songs weren’t very coverable. They were kind of yoked to us. Which is fine, I mean, you can’t cover a John Coltrane performance either.”
"There’s a lot of color to the new album. I thought the old stuff could be a little dry, like we were a little afraid of music. We sounded like very worried young men."
Pitchfork: Did you always want to be a frontman?
Travis Morrison: I wanted to be a writer when I was a little kid. Then I wanted to be Pete Townshend-- the songwriting guitarist who occasionally sang. The first six months [after forming Dismemberment Plan], I was trying to find another singer. The original idea was that we’d have some pretty boy, and I’d occasionally do the “Feeeel meee, touchhhh meeee.” Then, when we were about 20, [bassist] Eric [Axelson] sat me down and said, “I know you’re not very good at it, but you’re going to have to sing.” [laughs] And look what happened.
Pitchfork: Back then, did you ever think you'd still be together 20 years later?
TM: Yeah. You know, it was a different era. Now, expectations are more muted, but at the time, you would think, “I want to be Sonic Youth. I want to do it.” You would think of it as a career. So we had dreams about being a fairly long-lived band. When we broke up, I was like, “Oh, we only got to [album] four.”
There are bands, like R.E.M., who want to have 17 records, and some are terrible and some are great. I don’t know if people think like that anymore. Things are more atomized now. I’m fascinated with the attitude of younger rock bands, even ones that are making money at it. I don’t ever hear them talk about it as a “career.” It almost makes me think there isn’t even a music industry anymore, like an atom bomb fell and it was just eradicated forever. But at certain point, you realize it’s easy to play music for the rest of your life: just don’t sell your guitar. Maybe you get a day job, but as long as you have a guitar, you can play.
Pitchfork: You guys broke up in 2003, went on with your lives, and then reunited for some shows in 2011. Did you know you’d make another album?
TM: I can’t speak for the other guys, but for me: no expectations. No plans. No vision.
Pitchfork: So how did the record come about?
TM: I changed my mind. [laughs] As we rehearsed for those shows, we started getting jams. We were always a very collaborative band. People tend to have a perception that I was the songwriter and the music leader, but not really. All our jams were generally like the Led Zeppelin model: collective creation. So as we rehearsed, improvisational nuggets came out. That really is the lifeline of any band. If a band isn’t coming up with two to four of those when they pick up their instruments, then they have problems-- even if none of them turn into a song. If that’s not happening in a band, it’s time for therapy or breaking up.
So those things started happening, and by the time we broke camp after the shows were over, there was a lot of them. It was intense. So we made the decision. But it took some willpower to stay in that [improvised] mode as opposed to, “And now we’re making a record!” It was more like: We’ll keep getting together, make a bunch of weird noises-- not try to write an album, not try to write new songs-- but keep that formlessness going and see what comes out of it. Maybe it’ll dry up. So we did it one month at a time and songs started to come out that we really liked. And then we had a record. [laughs]
Pitchfork: At what point in the writing process are you working on lyrics?
TM: I’m weird about that. I don’t have a set working style. Some lyrics come really slow, others come in 10 minutes while I'm watching basketball. They're always a surprise to me.
Pitchfork: So you haven’t developed any kind of writing rituals over time?
TM: Well, yeah. I like to write early in the morning, like, 5 a.m. If I’m really on my game, I don’t have any coffee or stimulants. I’m kind of in a dream state. I try to be patient. I feel like the point of art is to go down within yourself and to pop up into other people. If you’re lucky, all of a sudden you’re like, “whoop!” You’re in other people.
It doesn’t always work, though, so I’m a total ho for any writing workshop, any technique from anyone. I saw an interview with Jay-Z where he said he didn’t write down any of his lyrics, so I tried that on Change. I’ll do anything. Langston Hughes would write a poem and put it in a drawer and forget about it. And then once a week he would look through the drawer-- it was almost like the poems were written by somebody else. Sometimes [when you’re writing] you get excited and think, “That’s the best!” It’s not. [laughs] So I sometimes try a variance of the drawer trick-- [I write it] and then come back to it and see if it blows. Your ego gets activated real quick, you really want to impress yourself. But when you come back to it, sometimes you’re like, “Yeah, this part? I don’t know. This guy needs a lot of help.”
"I saw an interview with Jay-Z where he said he didn’t write down any of his lyrics, so I tried that on Change."
Pitchfork: Does Uncanney Valley feel like a big departure?
TM: I’m very proud of it. We did a lot of things we’ve never done before without making a big show of it. We used to be very uptight emotionally. Really, really uptight. I don’t know what our problem was. Well, I do, but... [laughs] Just going through our old stuff, I thought we were extremely clenched, which is OK, but there’s an openness to the new record that is a real achievement for us. I don’t think it’s unrigorous or sloppy, but when I actually listened to it next to our older stuff, I was like, “Whoa!” That was satisfying. There’s a lot of color to it. I thought the old stuff could be a little dry, like we were a little afraid of music. We sounded like very worried young men.
Pitchfork: I made it out to three of the reunion shows, and the energy was insane. It seemed like you were playing for much larger crowds than before. What were those shows like for you?
TM: It was crazy. I guess [what happened in the past decade] was there’s an infrastructure now for discovering [older music]. It’s really peculiar. The rules are so different now.
Pitchfork: What was the biggest change you noticed?
TM: When you wrote a song way back in the day, you were writing material to play live. Some of the songs we wrote for shows actually were pretty terrible songs, but they would have a certain impact live. And you would buy the CD at the shows if you like the show. You may not listen to the CD, you might just throw it in the back of your car and let it warp in the sun. The main thing was you saw the song at the show.
Now, by and large, people are recording material to put on YouTube. I have a theory that YouTube is, in the end, the #1 media for musicians. Which is strange, because there’s a visual associated with it. Maybe Soundcloud and Spotify are up there, too. But you’re writing music for internet delivery, not shows. I think that affects artists sometimes. Like, there’s a lot of griping and groaning about wanting to play half-baked new songs live, but you don’t want it to just end up on YouTube with like 74 thumbs down: “This is the worst!” But [at the reunion shows] we just did it like we used to, just played our half-baked songs live anyway, and some of them have changed a lot since then.
I also feel like bands make much better-sounding and well-put-together records now. There was no indie rock band in the 90s at the level of, like, Grizzly Bear. I listen to their records and it’s crazy how good they sound. That really freaks me out. And it's actually kind of appealing. It’s a challenge. It's like, "Well, you’ve got to get your shit together."
Pitchfork: How do you feel about bands banning cell phones at their shows?
TM: I’d like to do that, but come on. I’m a grown-ass man. I can’t be, like, ordering people to put down their phones. I saw Elliott Smith play solo years ago at a bar. It was really loud, and then it started getting louder because all these people started howling like raging freaks to be quiet-- “shut up motherfucker!”-- which made it louder. And Elliott Smith was like, “Yo...” Well, he didn’t say “Yo, baby, it’s cool.” Elliott Smith did not say that. But he was like, “Listen, in a bar, people will buy alcohol and talk loudly and it’d be nice if everyone was quieter, but that’s not how it is. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it.” And everyone was just like [blank stare]. It was the craziest Jedi mind trick I’ve ever seen. Both sides were like, “He’s right,” and then just watched the show.
I like to go play shows just to see people, so I’m not in the game of like, “You’re at my show, you’re gonna listen to it like this, blah blah blah.” Then you just end up with a clip on YouTube of you ranting about putting away your phone. I like being a musician that’s also a fly on the wall. I like people coming in the room and doing what they do and then leaving. I like attention, but it actually gives me a little less to work with as a performer if people are editing themselves and not being them.
Pitchfork: Do you have any advice for bands just starting out?
TM: I don’t know. Advice is not really very useful. People gave me terrible advice, and I guess I was just smart enough to ignore some of it. Like, we just did the first Dismemberment Plan release independently, and some of the DC punk rock people were like, “Why are you putting it on cassette, those things won't sell. Just do a 7”.” But we were playing in, like, Virginia, and nobody had a turntable anymore. Everybody’s got a cassette deck in their Ford Focus or whatever, their Ford Escalade. And it was good we didn’t listen to that, even though it came from very smart people who knew exactly what they were talking about. So if I had any advice for young musicians, it would be to use your own ears, your own common fucking sense, and pay attention to what’s going on around you before you listen to douchebags like me.
We lived in South London in a place called Peckham. My dad worked in the aviation industry, while my mom worked in a primary school, helping children with learning difficulties. We didn’t have a car, so I mainly heard music at home, which is how my interest in vinyl began. My dad would listen to rock'n'roll compilations like the American Graffiti soundtrack. I remember listening to classical music and making up stories to go along with it, and then acting the stories out in front of my parents: An evil guy would tie up a beautiful woman to the train tracks, and I would rescue her. Embarrassing stuff.
Soul II Soul: "Get a Life" 7"
South London was a rough place to grow up in the 1990s. Lots of drugs and violence, and there was always the possibility of being mugged or beaten up by a gang. It was just something you had to avoid. Going home from school, I had to plan my route so I didn’t run into a gang of guys who were going to fuck me up. And I wasn’t a tough person, either. I cried easily, which made me more vulnerable to any kind of insult. I couldn’t deal with it. And there were people getting shot in the head at point-blank range on the street. When I was really young, someone smashed up our neighbor's motorbike, so the guy went in his house, put a balaclava on, held a gun sideways-- like in a film-- and shot at a car that was driving by his house. It was completely scary.
When I was about 12, jungle was happening. My friend’s dad used to bring rave records home, and me and my friend would play with Legos and tape things off [pirate radio station] Choice FM, which played a lot of reggae and dance. I wanted to get Soul II Soul's "Get a Life"7”, but they only had chart stuff at the local Woolworths, so I knew it wouldn’t be in there, because it was too cool. But there was a record shop on Peckham High St., so I went in and there were all these guys with dreadlocks, and a big dub system playing all these brilliant records. My dad’s with me, and he goes [high voice], "Oi, mate, do you have Soul II Soul?" "Yeah, man, we got that." That was my first record. I still have it.
When I was 15, we moved to Chelmsford, in Essex, where Squarepusher is from. When I got there, the biggest shock was that all my classmates were white-- whereas in South London, it was me and maybe three other [white] people. Everyone was listening to Pulp, Oasis, and Blur. Where I was from, that was referred to as "batty man" music, gay music. No one listened to that rubbish-- no one even talked about guitar music around me before I was in Chelmsford. But people were openly racist in Essex, too, which I rebelled against by getting into hip-hop.
I’d escape by taking a train down to London and going record shopping. But at the same time, I kind of enjoyed living in Essex. There was no danger of being mugged-- I mean, there probably was, but I felt less threatened. And when I got to Essex, I was like, “I’m not going to let anyone fuck with me.” I didn’t get any tougher, though. Well, maybe mentally.
I hated school. Being told what to do always seemed like a weird concept to me. I always feel restricted by authority figures, I can never work it out. Unless your home life is really shitty, who wants to go to school? As I got older, I told my parents, “I don’t see the point of going to school. It’s stupid.” They were like, “Yeah, we agree. Unfortunately, you should probably go. You need to be educated, and we can’t afford to do it any other way."
"People were openly racist in Essex, which I rebelled against by getting into hip-hop."
I eventually stopped going to school and started smoking weed, which I didn’t really like. But at that time, no one could tell me what to do. When the exams came, I wrote something really stupid and rebellious on the written test, like, “I can’t be bothered.” When the results came out, you had a week to pick them up, but I didn’t bother going. I don’t know what I got, and no one ever asked me. I would tell people that I got a C, though. I could've said I got an A, but I've never been that kind of person.
Around this time, my uncle was producing music at the Strongroom in Shoreditch, which is now a famous studio. Soul II Soul did some stuff there. I went there to hang out with my uncle. I saw KRS-One there. This was when I found out you could make beats. My friend Rob was already chopping up beats from the radio and tape and vinyl on his Commodore Amiga, making his own jungle at age 15. I didn’t know how he did it, but I watched him. Then, my uncle gave me a S950 soundboard and an Atari with a cracked version of Cubase. I still have the Atari, and I used the S950 on my new album.
The first show I can remember going to was Aphex Twin and Squarepusher at the Chelmsford YMCA, they were both completely under camouflage in a DJ booth. You couldn’t see them. There were about 50 people there. I got very drunk, so I probably didn’t really care about the music. It was only until later that I found out who they were. And I was like, “Fuck, well I saw Aphex Twin at the Chelmsford YMCA.”
I stayed in Essex for a while and then moved around and took some odd jobs. I lived with another guy in a studio room filled with pornos instead of music. We were drinking, smoking, going out-- not doing much. I was making music for fun, too, but I never considered doing anything with it. I made it under some stupid names: Shit Bat, DJ On a Thursday, DJ Punish Your Child Badly.
I worked at a nearby shop called Andy's Records-- a mini-chain, kind of a local version of HMV. The people who owned it were really greedy, and that was their downfall. Then I went to work at HMV, and that was equally as bad. I got fired for calling the manager a cunt.
I worked at a hospital car park where people would shout at me because it was my job to give them a ticket when their dad’s just died and they’ve forgotten to pay off their parking. So instead, I sat in a room eating crisps and watching television. I used to pass my day by putting crisps in a fan and blowing them over the floor, and then vacuuming it all up. My boss found me doing that and was like, “You’re fired.” I worked at Stansted Airport, where I helped people coming back from Spain get on the bus and take them to a car park. They had just gotten off their flight, and they were mental. They’d say to me, “Your mom’s a fucking cunt.” I was actually in tears after one night on the job, so I didn’t bother going back.
I was into hip-hop, but I couldn’t make hip-hop very well and I couldn’t rap, which really got me down. I wanted to be a rapper. You think you're going to bust a rhyme, and then you realize you have nothing to rap about. There’s one hip-hop record that I never get bored of, which is Mobb Deep's Hell on Earth. I don’t think people liked it as much as their first record, but I loved it. It's so bleak and dark. There's nothing happy about it at all.
I don't know if I should mention this or not, but fuck it. I was sick of life, and I didn’t know what to do. I had a friend who was making techno who was like, “You should do music, you’d be really good at it.” But I wanted to go to Japan and teach English. I thought I’d go there, get a job, make lots of money, and wear a suit, which was enough. But I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t want to work, so I had to find a way of getting to Japan. I found out that I could get a credit card with a £3,000 limit without any questions, and I could take cash out of this card. They were just giving these cards to anyone, so I had two.
I went to the local library in Tempsford to learn about debts, then I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and pretended I was in a debt problem. I found out that, legally, the only debts you have to pay off are to the government, and if you don't pay off your cards for six years, the debt is void and you don’t have to pay it back. You get a bad credit rating, but you can start again. It was fraud, but I was like, “Fuck it, it’s not illegal.” All I had to do was wait out the time until the debt disappeared and never reply to a phone call or an email from any debt collectors. I knew how to do it, so I did it, and it worked. So I was in Japan with £10,000 pounds, which is terrible, really. Morally, it’s awful.
I enjoyed Japan, and when I got back, I wanted to learn Japanese. I was in a worse place though, because I had people chasing me for money and I didn’t want to get a job because I hated all my jobs. I was like, “I’m gonna go to uni and study Japanese." So I found a good course in London. Problem was, it cost £7,000, which was the exact amount I owed at that time, so I sold all my records on eBay and paid for my course with that.
I got a diploma in Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and after a year, I was really good at speaking, reading, and writing the language. I went back to Japan and tried to get a job over there. I wore a suit. I went to banks. I went to marketing companies. I was better than everyone else; the other people's Japanese wasn’t as good as mine. Because I experienced Japanese culture so much, I could hear it so easily. But I never wanted the jobs, because I’d had enough of doing shit jobs. So I went back to England.
"The best thing about working in a sex shop was selling vibrators to attractive girls; the worst thing was seeing how many men were worried about their penis size."
I moved in with my parents again, and then my friend-- the one who was telling me I should do music-- had a stroke and died. That's when I realized that maybe I should do music. So I moved to London, set up my Myspace, and got a job at a sex shop. Then, Wichita Records sent me an email through Myspace and asked if I’d do a Bloc Party remix. Because my uncle was working in music, I asked him, “What do I say?” He said, “Don’t undersell yourself, ask for £500.” So I did, and they were like, “Yeah, sure. We really like your music.” So I went and met them, had bloody marys at 11 a.m., and was like, “Wow, this is rock'n'roll.” I told them I was working in a sex shop and wanted to quit. They were like, “Well, don’t quit just yet.”
By that point, I’d moved to another branch of the sex shop in Soho, which was more grotty and pervy. Crackheads would come in and try to steal stuff, and the company wasn’t paying for security, so you kind of had to be a security guard as well. I have arms like Ren from "Ren and Stimpy", so I am the least intimidating security guard ever. I worked with other people who were like, “It’s not worth it. You don’t want to be stabbed by a crackhead over a fake latex vagina. That’s not the way you want to go.”
Working there didn’t make me any more interested in sex, though. It was just funny. The best thing was selling vibrators to attractive girls, and the worst thing was seeing how many men were worried about their penis size. Why does anyone care? I just wanted to go up to people and tell them, “Don’t worry, girls don’t really care. Just be a nice guy.” But they'd say, “I’m using the cream every day and I'm not seeing any change.” So I'd say, "You’ve got to use the pump and the cream and take the pills.” You make people feel good about themselves. This old couple came in with a book of all the pornos they owned so they could make sure they weren’t buying the same one again. They were like, “We had so much fun with these, we have our mates around and watch 'em. You wanna come over, love?” I was like, “That's all right.”
The best performance I saw around this time was Lichens at the Explosions in the Sky ATP in 2008. He did a 30-minute improv set. It was during the day, so there weren’t many people watching him because they were smashed from the night before. He rolled out a carpet, sat on a chair, made some bird sounds, and as his guitar got louder, his eyes rolled back into his head like he was possessed. His voice was fucking amazing, unlike anything I’d heard before.
Suddenly, my exposure to music is massive. I buy everything on vinyl-- one time, I spent $400 on records in Toronto. Lots of jazz, especially, the brilliant stuff where a lot of guys converted to Islam and started doing improvised, spiritual stuff. I've got John Coltrane's Live in Japan, which has a brilliant cover. Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders are on that one, too.
I met my girlfriend Sophia when she didn’t want to book me but was forced to because I was supporting Caribou. So I moved in with her in Hamburg-- typical musician thing, sponging off a woman. Hamburg was good, but I didn’t feel any real connection with anyone there. I had friends who were in Berlin who were like, “You should come here, it's brilliant for dance music.” So I went there. Now I live in a nice area that I never thought I’d be able to afford to live in. There's a lot of families, the total opposite of what I grew up with in South London. I wanted to live in the posh part of Berlin and see what it was like. I’m really enjoying it-- guiltily.
Zomby might be one of dance music's biggest social-media loudmouths-- "it's great to be good at something... but it's even better to have style," went a typical recent tweet-- but as far as interviews are concerned, the producer is notoriously enigmatic, largely preferring to speak to journalists exclusively via iChat. To put his mysteriousness into perspective: Even now, five years after his debut, his real name remains unknown. So when I initially reached out to wrangle a face-to-face meet-up with the UK expat in New York City to talk about his impressionistic new album, With Love, I was surprised to hear that he was, in fact, receptive.
Still, there were complications. "Do you use a tape recorder? If so, is it necessary?" Zomby's publicist asked me in an e-mail. I gamely agreed to "obscure" my digital recorder so that it wouldn't be in his line of sight, a satisfactory concession. His rep went on to warn me that punctuality isn't Zomby's strong suit. As it turns out, I spend nearly a month scheduling and unscheduling interviews with the producer in the NYC area-- at least a dozen times, by my count. At one point, it's suggested that I accompany him to a tattoo parlor while he gets some new ink, while another blown appointment carried the promise of catching up with him at Manhattan fad-dining spot The Meatball Shop.
Finally, a date is nailed down in early June, and I head to Manhattan's Bowery Hotel to meet with Zomby and his publicist-- but, naturally, only one of them shows up. After an hour waiting in the lobby, we learn that Zomby wants us to meet him at a spiffy-looking burger joint. We hoof over... to find that the place doesn't open for another hour. Another text from Zomby tells us to head to a bar across the street. We do. Nobody's there.
We're in the middle of ordering conciliatory drinks when a tall, slightly skulking figure walks in. It's him. Sporting a pristine high fade and a baggy array of dark-colored clothing (including, as he's eager to tell me later, Marc Jacobs Margiela sweatpants), he shakes my hand and orders a drink. As the two of us walk to a sunlit area of the bar, he's already attempting to cover his tracks in the name of elusiveness, asking that I not mention where the interview is taking place in my article. "Manhattan" is about as close as he wants me to get. He says this with a conditional seriousness, as if there are great matters at stake.
Zomby moved to NYC shortly after the release of 2011's elegiac Dedication, starting in Brooklyn before moving to the Lower East Side, and then gradually making his way uptown. He claims that he's enjoyed exploring the city over the last 18 months, but when pressed on his favorite locales, his answer-- upscale fashion mainstays Bergdorf Goodman and Barney's-- befits the style-obsessed side of himself he's allowed to trickle out online. "As you get older, your taste gets more expensive, so to accommodate that, you enter a bit of a vicious cycle," he explains. "I joked on Twitter that I bought a new Lambo to drive up to another Lambo. Just one’s good, though-- I’d be happy with just the one I needed."
After meeting him in person, one of the most concrete things I can say about Zomby is that he's very committed to keeping his aura as foggy as possible. He can be talkative if you go at him enough, but he's also not the brazen wiseguy he makes himself out to be on the internet. He describes the title of With Love as "an open gesture," but his speech patterns are anything but. He swallows the end of sentences by mumbling, and occasionally covers his face with his hand so that it's hard to hear what he's saying over the medium-volume bar stereo. When I ask him questions that veer away from his preferred topics-- music, his new 3D-printed mask made by visual designer Ben Drury, Twitter-- and more towards his personal ideologies, he laughs heartily and doesn't say anything for a few minutes before waving his hand: "next."
In certain circles of musical culture, playing with notions of identity is now clichéd, but the practice of anonymity has strong roots in dance music's history, another facet of Zomby's frequently retro-fitted artistic outlook. So, essentially, it's a pose. Which is fine. But the level of Zomby's forced inscrutability can seem excessive: His bristling against simple questions regarding almost anything personal can make it seem less like he's hiding something and more like he's got nothing to hide.
"I always wished that fashion magazines would cover the faces of all the models."
Pitchfork: Around the time of Dedication, you said you wanted to take your sound in a more pop direction, but that's not the case with this new record.
Zomby: Yeah, I just made it for myself. There comes a point when you’re arranging and writing stuff where you realize you’ve shifted the palette into something completely different. Like, there's Linkin Park or whatever the fuck, where the arrangements are all the fucking same. And once you naturally come to that point yourself, you’re like, "Fucking hell, I can actually have a quite cheesy tune." That’s not a good thing to do. I decided to go the other way and ended up with music that sounded fucking different. I don’t want to be known for having one or two huge tracks that I could push as hits.
Pitchfork: With Love's "Isis" is the closest you've come to making a straight house track, a genre that quite a few producers are turning to again lately.
Z: In England there's a big house revival. Disco, too, which is partly coming from progressions in software that make it easier to make "authentic" disco-- an achievement in itself, and well-timed with the Daft Punk record. That stuff's lost on me, though. I’m not a big disco fan. I grew up with jungle and hip-hop and garage and grime. Also, I'm not a big nostalgist. I don’t want to end up in an antique shop for music. We should try to keep it moving forward.
Pitchfork: You say you're not a nostalgist, but a lot of your work draws heavily from sounds of the past.
Z: Yeah, well, that's from my life. That's not nostalgia. Nostalgia, to me, is a poster of George Best holding up the World Cup. It's really good seeing nostalgia though, like, Wu-Tang to American kids. They love it, don't they? Walking around in shell-toes and Wu Wear T-shirts.
Pitchfork: The second disc of With Love sounds very sad to me.
Z: I'd say it sounds thoughtful. It does have an emotive quality that a lot of things don’t. If you make a club track, it immediately doesn’t have that quality. If you free yourself from all intentions, you're left with this lost sound from when someone gave a fuck about music. Some shit on the radio sounds so bright, like a light bulb that's constantly on. The shit’s flickering-- and, fucking hell, you really notice it.
Pitchfork: Do you consider yourself a happy person?
Z: I do, but I don’t think people around me would say the same. [laughs] Obviously, shit happens in life. Music’s a bitch, because when you’re thinking about working-- or even when you’re not working-- you seem ignorant and half-asleep as soon as you walk through the door. You're hardly the guy cracking jokes, so you seem sad, but you’re just lost in music.
Pitchfork: As an artist, you're consumed with maintaining anonymity as an image, but on Twitter you're very much the opposite of that ethos.
Z: Twitter is hilarious. It’s just funny to broadcast whatever the fuck, or actually engage with people. But not really-- you don’t want to engage with some nutcase. That’s my only interaction with anything online. I don’t use the internet. I’m not on Facebook. But Twitter is just a little window for updates, shit to post. It’s sweet, because now my online representation is just a very easily maintained box for me to type some shit in.
I’d like to not have to deal with any of that stuff, but if it's a matter of somebody else dealing with it instead, I will deal with it. I don’t feel all that shit is important. I do realize that some people feel that everything you say on the internet is factual, like a documentary-- but it’s the internet, it’s whatever. You can get yourself into some shit and find yourself talking about all kinds of stupid things. I’m social, but not to the point where I’m updating all my friends constantly on all this shit. I don’t have a problem with those kind of people-- I get it, there's a big group of friends chatting up and having a great time and everyone has cameras-- I'm just not that kind of person. Really, I’m the only one mad enough to be on Twitter all the time blasting all this shit. You don’t see many of my peers doing that.
Pitchfork: You've established yourself as style-conscious in terms of fashion, but you're equally interested in mostly obscuring your physical appearance-- those two ideas seemingly don't go hand-in-hand, either.
Z: I always wished that fashion magazines would cover the faces of all the models. If I wasn't covering my face with a mask, it’d probably be some kind of Hermes scarf instead.
Pitchfork: Are you afraid that your online persona detracts people from listening to your music?
Z: There’s a big chance of alienating people. But there was a point where I realized genres are changing really fast, and I’d see people slamming things that I liked or I’ve been a part of. Someone’s gotta say something. I keep trying to quit Twitter. Obviously, at the moment it’s a bit difficult, since I'm putting the record out. Maybe I’ll just stop, though.
Pitchfork: You're a dance artist on 4AD, which is historically more of an indie rock label. Are there any benefits or drawbacks to being signed with them as opposed to a more traditional dance imprint?
Z: It’s very healthy. I don’t have to adhere to any dance or electronic structures. I can compose anything and pass it off, and they’ll listen to it. The last thing you want to do is be on a label where every track you send in needs to have two-minute drum intros for DJs, remixes, no samples, this and that. I’m lucky to have such freedom. I can definitely do two-minute tracks, eight-minute tracks, tracks with vocals, no vocal features, whatever I want. I’m lucky, too, because other artists on the label are different-- if you’re on a label where all the music is very similar, you end up with labelmates where everybody’s playing the violin or some shit.
Pitchfork: How much attention are you paying to the UK dance scene while living in New York?
Z: I buy the records, but apart from making my own stuff and sending it back there, I can't really take part in it. I mean, I could fly over there, but I choose not to. I live here now. I'm not in a rush to board a seven-hour flight and go back. I once stood in passport control for three hours, which was pretty frustrating. I’ve not caught a plane for about six months.
Pitchfork: Some say that New York City is a good place for loners.
Z: When I work a lot here, I disappear, which is nice. People are really social in New York, though. I’ve never been anywhere else where people just talk to each other in the street. You'll be getting your coffee and having a conversation about some shit that’s happening in Syria. But there’s a lot of places to disappear off to for work, too, so there's less distractions.
Pitchfork: Are you constantly creating music?
Z: Off and on. When I'm writing stuff, I realize that I'm self-employed, and it sinks in: "I'm working now." Sometimes I get bored and do nothing that's really exciting, just fuck around.
Pitchfork: How much material did you have to choose from while putting together With Love?
Z: Loads. My whole game is to try to hold everything off until the last minute-- until the day it's mastered, I'm sending in new tracks. When you think that way, you always have the mind of a 15-year-old child.
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. For this edition, we spoke with London-based electronic producer Jon Hopkins, whose new album Immunitywas recently named Best New Music.
Favorite Song of All Time
"I Believe in You" by Talk Talk. The first time I heard it, I was transported. The world stopped. There’s a moment where the choir comes in-- it’s just the most unexpected instrument in any song. It changes key like an M.C. Escher staircase, leading back into the beginning and then suddenly there’s this angelic voice and an incredible sadness.
Dream Merch Table Item
I’d like something edible, maybe a cake that has some sort of embedded musical content. And we can put my face on the front of the cake! I need to think this through a bit more.
I take breakfast quite seriously... and I don’t believe cereal features in a serious breakfast. [laughs] I’m a bit snobbish about breakfast: eggs benedict, or eggs royale, or something like that. Or just some really amazing, proper brown toast with smoked salmon, lemon, and black pepper. That’s a great start to the day. Cereal feels like scrapings of something, you know? It doesn’t taste unpleasant, but I find it insubstantial. It doesn’t do the job.
Last Album I Downloaded
Boards of Canada's Tomorrow's Harvest. When I first heard it, I was underwhelmed-- it’s just been such an enormous gap between albums. But my mind wants to keep going back to it. And that’s what they’ve always done: They have this way of communicating with the subconscious, and that’s what really interests me about them. The inquisitive part of my mind goes, "What is it about this?" I don’t even know the answer, but I just know that I want to keep going back to it.
I always liked the idea of shaving the back of my head and getting a tattoo of my own face there so that, whichever way I was looking, I could freak people out. I could grow a beard on the back and the front of my head. The possibilities are endless! [laughs]
Best Thing I’ve Bought in the Past Year
I got this pretend grass stuff called LazyLawn on my roof. Now I can go out on my terrace in bare feet, and it looks exactly like a lawn. This is what science should be for.
Dumbest Thing I’ve Bought in the Past Year
This expensive maroon shirt. It looked beautiful in the shop, but when I put it on later, I realized it’s made out of this ridiculous material that creases immediately. By the end of the first night wearing it, I looked like a bright-red Michelin Man. It’s not being worn again.
Biggest Pet Peeve
I was introduced to this idea of live record reviews-- someone did one for me on Twitter-- and the idea of listening to an album and tweeting about it as you go through it on your first listen offends me on so many levels. This is not how music is supposed to be listened to. Nobody wrote an album with that in mind. I’m not a huge internet person in that I find the sheer speed and updating of everything not good for the attention span. I don’t think it’s natural.
Last Great Book I Read
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. It’s a surreal journey about the search for the missing note in a fragrance that will open consciousness. It also sums up this guy’s views on humanity and religion and sex-- he just has completely different angle on the world.
Brian Eno. And not just with his music, but in the way he lives his life. He has a great approach, just making sure everything stays fun and not allowing things to get boring. Varying activities hugely from week to week. I’ve always been really into that.
He’s a funny person to work with. He always gets a white board out and starts writing things on it and pointing at them when you’re playing-- he quite often writes "stop playing." When me, him, and Leo Abrahams made Small Craft on a Milk Sea, he would have us all playing and then he would have certain instructions written down, and that's how he would direct the improvisations. It introduces accidents and forces the music to be open to things that weren't going to be done if the musicians were playing on their own free will.
On my first meeting with him-- when I was 23 and very nervous over lunch-- I asked him, "Where do you record when you record with U2?" He’s just like, "Oh, I don’t want to talk about that." He keeps these other things completely separate in his mind. I understand that now that I’m doing lots of different types of projects myself. You have to keep barriers in your head, otherwise everything’s just going on all the time. I didn’t really ask him a question like that again. Occasionally, he’ll let something slip about David Bowie. He talks about his email communications with Bowie, which are read out sometimes, and they’re the funniest things I’ve ever heard. Very, very surreal. I can’t really go into any details, though.
Last Great Film I Saw
I watched Groundhog Day again. People always laugh when I tell them how much I love it, but I genuinely think it’s profoundly brilliant. It’s the most warm and welcoming film, and it's got quite a philosophical story: The idea of waking up with the same behavior everyday for 10,000 years--there’s depth to it.
I have the inability to stop thinking and switch off from work at night, which causes a lot of sleeplessness. It can be seen as a bad habit because, if I take some days off, I become a much nicer person. But I definitely work too hard even when I’m not making music-- part of my brain is always ticking away with something. That’s not the way to live. It gets you out of the present because you're always thinking ahead or behind.
Favorite Video Game
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the N64. I remember playing that when I was 18 and didn’t have a job. I’d been in Imogen Heap’s band and we lost funding, so I was unemployed. I spent about six months playing it in such depth. I was wandering around those fields looking for those fucking spiders. It was like my whole world. I was obsessed with the detail of it. It also was before graphics were so incredible, so you still had to imagine a bit yourself. I didn’t feel the need to play anything after that.
It's a thing that might actually be happening: The world warming up due to exponentially increasing CO2 levels. I don’t want to make some huge point about it, but it’s being ignored at such an amazing level. We’re worrying about the most trivial things when the actual life-support systems we depend on are being disrupted. Either science is going to come to the rescue or we’re going to see some pretty interesting times. It was part of the inspiration for certain tracks on my album. If you travel a lot, you can’t help but think about it sometimes. It can’t all continue to grow forever. There isn’t enough.
I cooked a very nice red lentil dahl with Indian curry spices and pilau rice for lunch. Very simple, but good. I’m very seriously into food and I don’t like to waste any meals.
Best Birthday I Ever Had
When I was six years old, I went to this random, rusty theme park called Thorpe Park. They had two roller coasters, one of which was called Space Station Zero, which was very transparently a rubbish version of Space Mountain. But as a kid, I was so excited by it-- to the point that I was nearly sick. I don’t remember ever being as excited about anything in my life since that day. You know how it is.
First Record I Bought for Myself
Wet Wet Wet’s Sweet Little Mystery. I can explain. I was about seven years old and I’d saved up a little pocket money and went into the Woolworths, where I used to get records. I didn’t really know what to buy, but on the front cover of the Wet Wet Wet album there was a guy with a synth, and I thought: "This'll sound great." It wasn’t the case.
Strangest Display of Affection from a Fan
I did a gig in St. Petersburg, and this girl had hand-drawn an enormous poster of my face. She was just holding it up in front of me, and my reaction was to start laughing. The whole thing was just so strange. I always find hand-drawn pictures or photos of me to be hilarious. I’m not into that as a whole concept, really.
Mark Hollis from Talk Talk is probably my favorite vocalist of all time. I would love to collaborate with him. Also Jónsi from Sigur Rós. I think that’s something that a lot of people would say, but I really mean it. [laughs] But if it’s in terms of artists living or dead, then John Martyn at his late 70s, early 80s peak would probably be my #1.
Easiest Money I’ve Ever Made
There isn’t much easy money making in music. There was a point a few years ago where I did a commercial for Honda, and it was an artistically beautiful thing to work on, so it was quite easy to agree to. I spent maybe two days on it and it paid off my entire record-deal debt. I don’t get involved in that kind of thing very often, but sometimes it’s for the artistic good.
Favorite Music Video
It’s actually Aiofe McArdle’s video that was done for my last single, "Open Eye Signal". I was wondering whether that was arrogant or not and then I realized I didn’t have anything to do with it, so I think I can say that. I’ve never seen such a good representation of a piece of music. He completely nailed it, with the skateboarder that just skates to be nowhere.
Stewart Lee. I don’t know if he ever leaves the UK, but he is incredible. Incredibly hostile. He deconstructs the whole idea of standup comedy whilst he’s doing it. He has this habit of repeating things endlessly-- you’re almost hypnotized by it. You leave one of his shows feeling somehow transformed, not necessarily in a good way, but it’s an amazing experience.
Chicken or Shrimp
Probably the toughest question so far. I was in New York recently and I got really addicted to these amazing shrimp tacos. But it’s gonna have to be chicken. Something about the perfect roast chicken actually makes your entire world feel better for the time that you’re eating it.
It seems clear that 2013 has been an exceptional year for new music. The months of May and June in particular saw an astounding run of great records, some of which arrived on a huge crest of hype (Daft Punk, Kanye West), some of which bubbled up from the underground (Deafheaven, Dirty Beaches, After Dark 2). But there are always excellent records that you miss, releases that for one reason or another don't get around as much. Here are some of our favorites in that vein. None of these releases received a Best New Music designation and not all were rated above an 8.0, but they're all worth revisiting. Read, listen, and click through for the full reviews. We'll be back with album reviews on Monday.
Pop punk has generally been considered the province of teenagers (or at least adults in a state of arrested development). But lately the genre seems to be having its twentysomething moment, as a generation of bands who grew up on Drive-Thru Records comps, studded belts, and VFW-hall all-ages shows bring their power chords to (ever so slightly) more mature concerns. In the same spirit of the prolific Don Giovanni roster or Swearin's shambolic 2012 self-titled LP comes Unleash Yourself, the charmingly scrappy debut from Brooklyn four-piece Aye Nako. On tunes like "Molasses" and "Cut It Off", the band specializes in the kind of rumbling, ramshackle guitar pop that always sounds one step away from utter chaos-- which is a perfect vibe for songs about that youthful art of trying (and more often failing) to get your shit together. "Watch me hit snooze again and again," singer/guitarist Mars Ganito sings on the overcast "In Sickness, Pt. 1", his voice warbling in all the right places. Hopeful, disillusioned, and occasionally sharply funny ("The Bible Belt gave you a rash, too," he howls on "For the Inverted") Unleash Yourself turns the growing pains of its members and its chosen genre into gold. --Lindsay Zoladz
L.A. producers Tyler Blake and Michael David ride the momentum established by some choice remixes into the low-frills Hanging Gardens, a straightforward dance record that's easy to love. Contributors like LCD Soundsystem's Nancy Whang, Kisses' Jesse Kivel, Active Child's Pat Grossi, and Sarah Chernoff give the proceedings a warm, friendly feel, resulting in swirling jams like the Chernoff-featuring "A Stranger Love" and bouncing, squealing songs like "Holding On". The best example of the album's joyful nature is probably "I'll Get You", a shimmering cut that features Junior Senior's Jeppe Laursen chanting "Do you like bass? Do you, do you like bass?" As mentioned in our review, it's the kind of moment that could easily come off as cloying or silly, but Classixx find a way to make it work. That's a snapshot of Hanging Gardens as a whole, a modest record that sneakily transcends its limitations. --Corban Goble
Despite the consistently vast and overwhelming nature of the music that Colin Stetson has released over the last 11 years, it can be easy to forget him when it comes to listing what could be termed “big records,” the ones that come out of nowhere and shake you until you’re dumbstruck and limp. In the past 12 months, that list includes releases like Swans’ The Seer, the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, and Deafhaven’s Sunbather. The final part of the Montreal saxophonist’s New History Warfare trilogy deserves to stand alongside any of those for its vanguard approach. To See More Light uses the same tools as 2011’s Judges, though switching the voices of Shara Worden and Laurie Anderson for Justin Vernon (on his best non-Bon Iver turn yet), but somehow pushes Stetson’s harrowing sound somewhere far more heartbreaking and desperate.
The two things I admire most about Stetson are his willingness to eschew external narratives and imagery from his music and his ability to wring something profoundly moving and meditative from a bludgeoning palette. His torrent of howled vocals and steaming saxophone lines are couched within the percussion of his instrument’s keys, constructing a desperate vista something like a landmass broken apart by an earthquake. And although Stetson’s performance style would bust anyone else’s lungs for the sheer force of it, on To See More Light, he’s flexing more musical muscle; there are mercilessly manic attacks, elephantine bellows, yanked-away, bungee-tethered teases of catharsis, courtly, complex mournful filigrees. Listen to feel cleansed, and awed. --Laura Snapes
On multiple levels (including the cover art), we're viewing Doldrums frontman Airick Woodhead through the prism of a broken computer screen on his full-length debut. The majority of Lesser Evil was recorded on a laptop borrowed from friend, collaborator, and fellow Montreal scene fixture Claire Boucher of Grimes, a narrative-establishing factoid that you're obligated to mention in 2013. But it's also an apt visual metaphor for Woodhead's sonic approach. Singles "Egypt" and "She Is the Wave" could've been straight-up electro-pop at one point, but they end up cracked, warped, and spiderwebbed as Woodhead throws in that one extra beat before the hook, an unexpected chord change or a yell that initially throws the entire thing off balance. To call it pop deconstruction sells it short; there are some masterfully crafted melodies underneath the yelping, while "Holographic Sandcastles" and "Sunrise" serve as gorgeous near-interludes that balance out the caffeinated, teeth-chattering highs. Doldrumsis more of a pop contortionist that establishes a link to a decade prior when Black Dice and Animal Collective were starting to emerge from their noisy origins into something that could convey the forward-thinking excitability of their local scene to the world at large. But while Woodhead may owe them a debt of gratitude, the truth is, from the sounds of Centipede Hzand Mr. Impossible, those bands would've loved to call Lesser Evil their own. --Ian Cohen
Among the worshippers gathered outside the temple of Sade is Inc., Los Angeles-based brothers who have piloted away from earlier, more formative experimenting (for a while, they operated under the name Teen Inc) and into no world, their full-length debut for 4AD. While it doesn't pop in the same places as the more heralded releases from like-minded artists Rhye or How to Dress Well, no world creates and sustains its own deliberately-downstated-but-also-somehow-kind-of-muscular sound. Opener "the place" helps render the placid pulse, a groove that never quite overpowers Andrew and Daniel Aged's whispery vocals but sometimes comes close, creating an interesting tension. Not every album is designed to knock you over; no world would rather sneak up on you. Notorious for being the studio equivalent of gym rats, the duo's layering and nuance pays off, revealing more on each listen. It'll take a few of those to get there, but it's worth the investment. --Corban Goble
Australian duo Jagwar Ma have, along with Temples, recently earned the (not always reputable) endorsement of nascent Oasis man Noel Gallagher, and listening to their debut LP, Howlin, it's easy to understand why. Gabriel Winterfield and Jono Ma's heady mix of gauzy psychedelia and baggy beats are ear-candy for anyone who's ever gotten higher than the sun while listening to "Higher Than the Sun". The sound works so well, it's surprising it took a group this long to bring it back to the present day. But pegging Howlin as a pure nostalgia trip overlooks the more distinctive elements Jagwar Ma bring to the table. The record plays like a series of crashing waves, as the murkiness of every rolling tide ("Four", "Uncertainty") gives way to moments of simple psych-pop radiance ("That Loneliness", "Let Her Go"). At its best, this push-and-pull is reminiscent of last year's big-ticket candy-psych blowout, Tame Impala's expansive Lonerism. --Larry Fitzmaurice
Jai Paul Jai Paul [self-released]
Since we heard first his breakout demo "BTSTU" in 2010, London-area producer/singer/songwriter Jai Paul has kept an impeccably low profile. The mystifying circumstances surrounding a collection of his songs that leaked this spring have only made his case murkier: late on a Saturday night in April, an album was offered for sale on BandCamp, containing 16 untitled tracks. By Monday, the album had been removed (it was said to be a collection of unfinished demos uploaded from a stolen laptop), and those who paid were to be offered a refund. We've not heard a word from Jai Paul since, but the music, whatever its source, has left us much to explore.
After many listens, I started to think that Jai Paul had woven secret messages into these songs-- small, abstract clues meant to provide listeners with a scavenger hunt of insights into his unorthodox approach to releasing music. "In the company of thieves, will I stay or will I leave?" he asks, almost pleading, through the muted percolation of the bass on the third track (none were given titles). "Will they steal away my life? Will I go down without a fight? I might." On one of the many sampled interstitial pieces, an unspecified woman explains that something "could almost melt in the mouth if cooked properly… but I like it raw." Could it be a reference to the jagged and unfinished nature of Jai Paul's songs, which sound like the seedlings of fuller-bodied hits? Is this a big conceptual art project for the producer, who might be winking at us the whole way through his virtuoso-recluse narrative?
It's a melodramatic proposal, but you can't put it past someone with Jai Paul's level of savvy. He's someone who grabbed a big handful of contemporary sounds and talking points-- lo-fi laptop production, sample collages, appropriation of global music, outré R&B, a shadowy online identity-- and spun them into one of the most spellbinding collection of songs (or non-songs) that's been released (or not released) this year. Who's to say he didn't calculate the whole thing? --Carrie Battan
How did anyone overlook an album that begins with the whispered line "That night, I watched people fucking on my computer?" Perhaps it was more that we looked away; on Innocence is Kinky, Jenny Hval went to great lengths to disturb herself, and you. Produced by longtime PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, Innocence Is Kinky bristles with provocations: Hval's lyrics roll around gleefully in tangles of body, mind, sexuality, gender. "My work is not meant to keep people happy or give them an escape," Hval stated flatly in a Pitchfork interview. That may be true, but she also didn't set out to make an alienating record: the music on Innocence Is Kinky is beckoning and beautiful, one that takes full advantage of Hval's striking voice, which can be operatic or childlike or gothic depending on the song. "The voice is a second flesh that cannot be seen," she sings, gorgeously, on the album's closer and emotional peak "The Seer", and on Innocence Hval is furiously shedding skins. --Jayson Greene
KEN mode's name is an acronym for "Kill Everyone Now", frontman Jesse Matthewson has one of the most frightening glares you'll ever witness, and the Winnipeg trio's adamantium alloy of post-hardcore, punk, and metal could slice your head clean off like their fellow countryman Wolverine. But let's talk about brains for a second; not just in the context of the math-rock song structures or the surgical precision of their rhythm section. Pay close attention to the words underneath Matthewson's screech and you'll hear Entrench for what it is: one of the most lyrically righteous albums in any genre this year.
Entrench can definitely help you get through whatever shitty day you're having, but KEN mode ain't gonna hold your hand through it. "Counter Culture Complex" shouts down the condescension of liberal guilt with careening hooks, "Figure Your Life Out" and "Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick" shout down the condescension encoded in society's expectation of upward mobility, while "Romeo Must Never Know" finds KEN mode internally bruised from all that shouting, a defeated tour diary entry where Matthewson spends another night sleeping next to litter boxes, wondering if things will ever be different. That might not be the case anymore - their fifth album did get longlisted for Canada's Polaris Prize. But listen to "The Terror Pulse" if you ever want to remember what it feels like when being ignored and overlooked dehumanizes you into a living weapon. --Ian Cohen
"I don’t really have a writing process any more. I don’t know, If I was to tell you [how I come up with my material], I’d be lying." This is what Kevin Gatestold a Complex interviewer in March, one month after releasing his mixtape The Luca Brasi Story. Few rappers step this carefully around the threat of "lying," especially with such an innocuous question, but this fierce dedication to emotional honesty is part of why people have chosen to care deeply about Gates. The Baton Rouge rapper has developed a warm, fluid style that relies equally on singing as it does on rapping-- he has a wonderful ear for both. And either way, he always says exactly what he means: "What the fuck is up with these A&Rs criticizing music they can't make?/ Poking fun at my struggle, I don't find shit funny, I live in places that ain't safe/ 2008, I got my leg blown off/ Any given day could get my head blow off," goes a typically bracing passage on "I Need It". Gates' career has some hard-luck vet notches in it-- there was some YMCMB time, some jail time-- but Brasi got him an Atlantic Records deal, which means exponentially more people will be given the chance to care about Gates in the near future. --Jayson Greene
On the surface, British singer/songwriter Laura Mvula's debut Sing to the Moon sounds like the soundtrack to a modern fairytale-- soulful, impeccably arranged pop dotted with a bright, harp-dappled twinkle. But squint hard enough at the mist and these 12 songs start to feel less like fantasies than studies in hard-won realism; Mvula has a knack for capturing the precise moment when her down-but-not-out characters realize that the prince is a jerk and the fairy godmother is a no-show. But no matter: "I don't need love to rescue me," she sings on the sighing but resiliently punchy ballad "Make Me Lovely," which, like the album's other standouts "She", "Like the Morning Dew", and "Green Garden", showcases Mvula's signature trick of gracefully pivoting between between wistfulness and defiance. Moon is a multi-dimensional tour through the full range of Mvula's voice, which calls to mind the punchy grit of Amy Winehouse, the smoky poise of Nina Simone and the fleet-footed cool of Janelle Monáe, while still retaining an idiosyncratic personality of its own. "Is there anybody out there?" she hollers into the void during one sparsely arranged number-- a fair question from a promising new talent who's wasted no time carving out her own lane. --Lindsay Zoladz
Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself finds Detroit native Omar S doing his usual, highly enjoyable thing with the sounds of acid and techno, his hometown's pride and joy. But there are detours towards smoother, more easily accessible territories, too: there's the contemplative keys of closer "It's Money in the D" and "This Shit Baby"'s jazzy piano flourishes, while "Rewind" is as close as Omar S has come to pop-oriented vocal house in recent memory. These gorgeous melodic passages temper Thank You's rougher fare to make for a well-rounded full-album experience, not a given in the world of dance music.
The occasional vulnerability of Thank You is a different look for a producer who has always seemed incredibly sure of himself. For 2009's Fabric 45, he notoriously turned in a mix entirely comprised of his own material, one of only five people in the history of the series to do so; his last album was called It Can Be Done But Only I Can Do It, and its big highlight was titled "Here's Your Trance Now Dance". Given his history, Omar S has earned a certain stodginess, but the relative open-heartedness of Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself suggests there are more sides to his music than we imagined.
Light Up Gold, the whip-smart debut from Brooklyn-via-Texas jangle-punks Parquet Courts, saw initial release in late 2012 but gained a wider audience when it was reissued by NYC lo-fi institution What's Yr Rupture? For many, the record was the first exposure to the songwriting talents of co-bandleader Andrew Savage, who's also one-half of Denton wiseacres Fergus & Geronimo. Over the last three years, F&G have released two full-lengths that place them squarely in the lineage of humor-heavy nerd-rock aesthetes like Ween and Sparks; Parquet Courts are similarly indebted to the past, with wiry guitar lines and sing-speak vocals that evoke 1970s NYC post-punk's stop-start tendencies.
Parquet Courts are a funny band, too (check the oft-quoted line "Socrates died in the fucking gutter!"), but their sense of humor is less explicit and rooted in rock's backpages than Fergus & Geronimo's über-referential joke-cracking. "Stoned and Starving", for instance, is exactly what you'd expect given the title, with references to nervously scanning nutritional labels in an altered state. The ability to laugh at yourself has always been an indicator of a good sense of humor, and Light Up Gold's mid-20s-pathos-as-comedy shows that Parquet Courts can hang with the best of them. --Larry Fitzmaurice
Whitehouse, Swans, Prurient-- you needn't be familiar with any entry into the abrasive trajectory of power electronics and noise to understand Pharmakon. The project is helmed by 23-year-old New Yorker Margaret Chardiet, and her Abandon LP is hellish, unnerving electronic noise that looks you in the eye, the brutal vulnerability of Chardiet exorcising what's boiled inside her. There is terror and despair and an engrossing industrial pulse to this deeply confrontational music-- an alarm that summons you to move, tied by skyward death screams that are punishing like Michael Gira. "It is human connection," Chardiet says of Pharmakon's core. "Inspiration is not just the music I listen to or literature I read. What inspires you to think? Why are you a human and not an ape? That is inspiration."
Recently a friend told me that while he'd enjoyed Pharmakon's intense live show, he couldn't imagine a specific context in everyday life when it would seem natural to play Abandon through headphones. But there is no one place. I've made a habit of putting Abandon on while traveling to Manhattan during rush hour. Amidst the chaos, I am made so acutely present and connected to my surroundings while simultaneously feeling as though I exist in another dimension of Chardiet's doing. "Bound to/ A vision/ I have not yet/ Created," she screams as the record closes, but Abandon helps you better see things as they really are. --Jenn Pelly
Dallas thrash/hardcore band Power Trip had been together for a while prior to making Manifest Decimation, and they had a few practical reasons to hold off on making an album right away. (They had some drummer changes and Blake Ibanez spent a year away at school.) But before they got in the studio for their first proper full-length, frontman Riley Gale and guitarist Ibanez kept busy by compiling potential sounds for their first album. “He and I literally have folders full of riffs,” Gale said. That definitely shows on Manifest Decimation, an eight-song LP that overflows with guitar heroics. They string together solos and hooks that could’ve been ripped from Pantera, Van Halen, Bad Brains, Metallica, Motorhead, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, or Discharge. With its blistering speed metal, it’s an awesomely treacherous record. And it offers a lot more than just thrown horns, gang vocals, and pit fodder. It’s thoughtfully arranged, too, with bleak spoken word samples from films like Blood Simple (“what I know about is Texas, and down here, you’re on your own”) and an ambient, ethereal outro on “The Hammer of Doubt”. After all the screaming and ripping guitar solos, the quieter moments are a pleasant surprise. --Evan Minsker
Longtime followers of Dominic Fernow like to point out how the sprawling, unwieldy discography of Prurient has no definitive document or easy entry point. Through the Window might not be either of those, but it's certainly the most accessible thing Fernow's done outside of his former band Cold Cave, following in the path pointed out by 2011's Time's Arrowfor a half hour where his noise past and electronic future reach a fascinating, unsettling armistice. Bookended by 10-minute masterworks of mesmeric rhythms and charred textures, Through the Window grants Prurient some timely peers - you could safely recommend this to someone who wished Haxan Cloak had beats or that Burial conveyed terror more than dread. But it's hard not to think of "Terracotta Spine" as a definitive Prurient moment after all, as Fernow bisects Through the Window with a screeching assault of splattered noise and blood on the dance floor. --Ian Cohen
Over the last decade, the darkly shaded techno collective Sandwell District picked up where key member Regis' 1990s label Downwards left off. Their music has drawn heavily from post-punk and industrial's bracing din and dub techno's tunnel-vision atmosphere while techno as a whole veered toward more minimal concerns. Sandwell District released the kind of dance music that would sound at home soundtracking a horror film as well as it worked on the dance floor, and the intricate, exquisitely produced Fabric 69 is a summation of that aesthetic.
S-D main men Regis and Function, who have toured under the name since the label's shuttering at the end of 2011, stitched together 30 tracks over 75 minutes, and the result is a harrowing yet deeply luxurious work that, like all great mixes, begs to be heard from start to finish. As they've said on the collective's website for a while now, Sandwell District is dead, and a recent Resident Advisor feature painted the pair's current working relationship as strained, suggesting that this very may well be the end for the foreseeable future; Regis himself has already moved on with James Ruskin and fellow S-D associate Silent Servant in the form of a new label, Jealous God. As the noisier areas of experimental music continue to turn their ears towards the dancefloor, then, Fabric 69 ties a bow around the past while pointing towards the future of all things that go "thump" in the night. --Larry Fitzmaurice
Anyone can smear danger out of aggression, but teasing it from weary silence takes a rare talent. Torres, the debut album from 22-year-old Nashville resident Mackenzie Scott, wreaks its devastation with just her voice and electric guitar, with occasional backing from a slight band. “Fool me once and I won’t make a sound/ Fool me twice, there’s shame to go around,” she sings on “Chains”, a song with the menacing grace of a match being skimmed over a barrel of oil. It ends with her scratching down her instrument’s fretboard as if snapping someone’s spine one vertebrae at a time, before the whole thing implodes with a jerk, Scott seemingly noosed from behind with her own amp cable. The circular, disturbed acoustic rush of “Come to Terms” feels like standing in the middle of a dusty, rumbling freeway, tempting fate; the subdued static warp on closer, suicide ballad “Waterfall”, smuggles a feeling of utterly crushed hopelessness into your gut.
One of Torres’ most spellbinding qualities is the way these songs live with extremes-- of heartbreak, regret, revenge-- but exercise control so convincing that they seem like manageable, everyday emotional states. On the first couple of listens, Torres may sound guileless and raw; yet listen harder to a song like “Jealousy and I”, where her low, tangled guitar line pools with reverb, echoes of the original performance lapping against one another. “Jealousy and I, we’re two of a kind,” Scott sings, accepting the destructive emotion as part of her loving manner, her voice taking on the same refracted, swimmy quality as her guitar. It’s Scott’s gimlet eye that makes Torres so captivating. “I wanna tell you everything,” she sings on “Don’t Run Away, Emilie”. “I’ll be the truest one you know, if you stay a while.” Like all the best psychological thrillers, it’s hard to look away. --Laura Snapes
In his Pitchfork review, Miles Raymer smartly tagged Tree as "something like the David Banner of the Midwest." It's a perfect reference point for the Chicago rapper/producer: Imagine a David Banner who was never torn to pieces in vain pursuit of a pop crossover, one who was always as confident and impassioned as the guy on "Cadillacs on 22's", and you're in Tree's neighborhood.
Sunday School II is the self-described "soul-trap" artist's high-water mark so far, as musical and accomplished a rap mixtape as has been released this year. Tree is an incredible producer, adept at warping recognizable samples into unfamiliar, startling shapes-- hear what he does to Elvis's "Can't Help Fallin In Love" on Sunday School II's "King" and marvel at it-- and at manipulating tension with unpredictable drum-pad rhythms. His voice has a ragged edge and a hint of a wry smile in it, which softens his harder lyrics and deepens his thoughtful ones. Calling him "soulful" feels pat, but there's no other word for music this sincere and personal. --Jayson Greene
If someone listens to only one instrumental guitar record in 2013, there's a good chance it's going to be Impossible Truth -- being on the same label as Arcade Fire and Spoon gets you an unusual amount of exposure in this realm. But unlike most crossover records functioning outside of pop, William Tyler's second album doesn't capitalize on some ineffable star quality or serve as a substitute for the entirety of the genre. Tyler's prodigious skills impress the connoisseur and welcome the newcomer, reverential and idiosyncratic in equal measure. This isn't outre stuff-- in fact, if you've heard Led Zeppelin's "Bron-Yr-Aur", the fluid fingerpicking, sprightly melodies and open-tuned drones will ring familiar.
A gorgeously recorded album, Impossible Truth's pure sound is immaculate, rightfully putting the focus on Tyler's fingers, which evoke a lyricism and emotional evocativeness that escapes most bands with vocals. There's a sweet, searching playfulness to Impossible Truth, as Tyler sets scenes ("Cadillac Desert", "Hotel Catatonia") and lets you tell the story. Have you ever come up with poetry, lyrics or just a warm sentiment to a loved one you wanted to express, but couldn't find the right musical vessel for them? There's a good chance you'll find it on Impossible Truth. --Ian Cohen
Last August, Anna Meredith released her debut single, the mighty “Nautilus”. If J.J. Abrams is looking for new walk-on music for Darth Vader in his Star Wars reboot, John Williams can cash his severance check right now: Meredith’s opus rallies a tangle of brass fanfares before introducing a sound barrier-bending wub that feels like it could vaporize a human body at the right volume. As far as making an entrance goes, the imperial track is a monogrammed red carpet, a dozen footmen, and a billowing velvet cape-- a hell of an introduction to the London-based, Edinburgh-raised musician.
“Nautilus” actually heralds the start of Meredith’s second act-- the 35-year-old is already a renowned, groundbreaking force in more rarefied fields. After several years as composer in residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the rising classical star had an original piece performed at the BBC’s prestigious Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall last August as well. During the concert, Meredith's “HandsFree” saw 160 members of the National Youth Orchestra lay down their instruments to click, clap, and cluck in unison, using Reichian body percussion to conjure a sound akin to waves crashing through a jungle-- a great antidote to the stuffy surroundings. “The Proms is such a weird, nationalistic thing-- I had actual proper, physical hate mail,” Meredith explains, half-impressed by the sender’s outrage. She's sitting in the tiny room where she composes at home in Camberwell, South London, coming through via Skype.
An hour in Meredith’s company proves her to be tremendously cool-headed and game for anything: She’s scored music for MRI scanners, concertos for beatboxers, and a piece for five symphony orchestras in different corners of the country, connected by satellite. “I have a gung-ho attitude, which has been a curse and a blessing,” she says. “Like with ‘Nautilus’, I came up with a bit of it, and thought, ‘Well, that’s a bit ridiculous, but let’s just roll with it!’” The song (which Foals have been using as their live entrance music) headed up her debut electronic EP, Black Prince Fury, released on Moshi Moshi last October, a spiky, squirming set that married sci-fi soundtracking with Queen-worthy bombast.
On August 19, she’ll follow it with Jet Black Raider, an EP pitched somewhere between the respective maximalist strains of Planningtorock and Fatima Al Qadiri-- check out lead single "Orlok", above. Although several of her song titles sound like levels in a gothic MMPORG (some are actually named after her mum’s childhood imaginary horses), Meredith doesn’t start from a point of visual inspiration, but conviction. “I might have some adjectives-- oily, gritty, ‘like seals at a disco’ was one idea-- but essentially you need to write strong. There’s so much over-saturation of music that making something memorable or characterful is more important than originality.”
Pitchfork: How did the process of making Jet Black Raider differ from Black Prince Fury? What’s the ratio of physical to synthesized instruments?
Anna Meredith: The actual writing process is very similar: I start on paper, a graphic sketch to set out contours and pacing. Black Prince Fury had no real sounds at all, though some of them are trying to be real, which some people got very upset about. This time, the instruments are still mostly fake, but there’s clarinets, singing, glocks, drums, lots of cello. That made it a lot more time-consuming, and a lot less me-in-my-room-alone. It’s taken a ridiculously long time to do this, but I wanted to make sure I got it right.
Pitchfork: Who got annoyed about Black Prince Fury being synthesized? Are electronic purists as protective as classical ones?
AM: I think Oneohtrix Point Never was sent it, and he was really nice about the material, but had problems with the kinds of synthesized sounds I was using. I had thought everyone in the electronic world would be so laid back, but there’s as many cliques and prejudices as any other world. Other friends have said, "I don’t understand why you’ve used this trumpet-style sound rather than a real one when you know you can write for trumpet." But it’s most important to get the energy right. With the classical stuff, I’ve always been better at the big brushstrokes and broad textures than spending ages honing a chord, or tweaking a sample. I’ve never been really interested in music, classical or otherwise, where the craft is more important than the result. I realized quickly that I’d never be a technical electronic musician.
Pitchfork: When you compose in the classical realm, there’s hundreds of years of music in that vein. Is it harder to be original in that context than in electronic music, a much younger idiom? Is originality something you’re concerned with?
AM: I used to think it was very important. But now I’m less interested in uniqueness than in goodness. I see so many concerts where the program notes are more interesting than the music. I remember talking to one composer who went through the most complicated mathematical algorithm to generate some material from scratch. It took weeks and weeks, and he came up with a C major chord. For me, honesty is more interesting than originality.
Pitchfork: How did you develop your skills for electronic music?
AM: The very first thing I did was a piece called “Axeman”, which is for a bassoon that you wire up like an electric guitar, through pedals. I wanted it to sound like a Slash solo. That was the first time I thought about transforming sound through distortion. I did a few courses introducing technology, and I did find it quite daunting-- for years, I liked the idea but felt I could never do it, I felt like a fraud. It’s only in the last four or five years that I’ve thought: "just do it." For me, it’s all about confidence. If I’m feeling confident, then I write confident, happy, or assured music. I can hear some early electronic sketches I did where I’m clearly not confident and everything’s a bit mid-range, nothing really pushes through.
When I look through old sketches, I can tell where I’ve thought, “What if I wrote something like James Blake, or Outkast?” It’s never as good. I try to listen to stuff that makes me happy for other reasons, rather than being musically inspiring. I feel happier knowing a starting point came from me. And I like stuff that gives you a physical reaction. I went to a performance where the composer put speakers under every chair in the audience. Performances are so defined by their venues-- it’d be nice for the music to dictate more of the reaction. Quite often, when I describe to people what I want, I’ll say “overwhelming”-- I want it to feel like it’s physically taking you over.
Pitchfork: In another interview, you said you’d love to play London nightclub Plastic People one day. How would you make that work?
AM: I’ve never really played a club, but I think it could suit the music quite well-- at least, I’d love to hear it on a really massive system. I want to become less and less about the laptop. That’s what’s lovely about an orchestra-- the physicality, the way every gesture relates to something you’re hearing. There’s something strange about a laptop, how you can make the tiniest gesture and make the biggest sound. I don’t feel I’ve resolved working a sense of performance into a piece yet.
Also, if the power went out in a venue, is there still something to what you’re doing? “Bubblegum” is mostly played on boomwhackers, to a beat. Last time we did it live, the computer crashed halfway through. We were shitting ourselves, but the music carried on. It’s the balance between wanting the power of electronics and having something real happening-- if you want people to engage in what you’re doing, I think that’s important. I want to have fun with people, but that’s hard to do with a laptop.
Pitchfork: She’s always somehow tethered to her table of equipment. There’s this amazing photo of her playing a festival where she’s moved around the front of the stage, but her hand’s reaching up behind her, triggering something else.
AM: She’s an amazing role model. She’s strong, she loves it. It’d be brilliant to see what she does from behind the table. Maybe she’s not the strongest singer, but it was partly how she sings that made me think, "Fuck it, I’ll do it too." It took an unbelievable amount of stress to make myself sing on Jet Black Raider, I was absolutely shitting myself, so I don’t know whether that means I’ll never do it again or not!
Pitchfork: Are these EPs building up to an album?
AM: I want to do an album next, hopefully next year. I’ve already got a few tracks. I like the idea of it feeling like going for a journey through the whole thing, that’d be fun to plot out.
Pitchfork: Do you have a big dream project?
AM: I’m up for a massive, bombastic tour with hydraulics, robots, lasers, 15 costume changes, projecting on a power station, big impact, big visuals. I’d love to realize the theatricality of the whole thing. To be overwhelming, to surprise you, maybe to play in hidden spaces.
Sampha Sisay has a quiet way about him, the sort of soft, hesitant speaking voice that calls for a patient ear. It’s what makes the raw emotion that spills out of him when he sings all the more startling. When he was a little kid, the youngest of five brothers growing up in South London, his dad would buy a CD every week on his way home from work. One week it would be Pavarotti, the next the Spice Girls. One of those CDs was Worotan by the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré: "I listen to it now and it’s a big influence on the way I view melodies and scales," he says over an early lunch in Brixton Market. "That immediacy of melody, those rhythms, and the production awakened something in me."
"Awakened" is a word that speaks volumes of Sampha. And after years of collaborative projects and behind-the-scenes work, the 24-year-old is now, as he puts it, "more comfortable with the idea of showing the world what I do by myself." While he provided vocal hooks to the frenetic beats of SBTRKT’s 2010 12"s, it was his 2011 duet with Jessie Ware, "Valentine", that first showcased the full potential of his voice: warm, worn, and seemingly born from a place of pain. (The track's silk-spun production was his, too.)
He went on to have a key supporting role on SBTRKT’s debut album that same year-- writing lyrics for and singing "Hold On", amongst others-- and was the masked performer’s keys-and-percussion sidekick for an intensive period of touring that swallowed up most of 2012. The more playful side of Sampha’s sonic palette got an airing earlier this year with his Short Stories side project with Koreless. Then, out of the blue last week, he popped up on Drake's new single "The Motion", for which Sampha contributed both the suspended-emotion production and vocals.
That Drake saw him as a producer clearly means a lot to Sampha as he talks disbelievingly about traveling to the rapper's studio in Toronto. Yet, like Drake, it's the trials and tribulations of family life-- Sampha’s father passed away when he was nine and he is very close to his mother and brothers-- that have shaped his approach to music above all else. Dual, his forthcoming solo EP due out July 29 via Young Turks, teems with such moments. At one point, he addresses his absent father; at another, the stomp of his mother’s feet is audible beneath his piano playing. It’s a deeply personal record that Sampha says was partly inspired by "the duality of telling someone 'I’m fine' but feeling different internally-- that performance aspect of your life, creating this person for other people."
"You have to be quite brave to write about something that you honestly feel and think."
Pitchfork: There’s a lot of love and a lot of pain on Dual. Can you recall the moment you wrote "Indecision"?
S: I wrote it around the time of Amy Winehouse’s death. It's slightly about myself but more about someone who has problems; fundamental issues. That thing of trying to have the courage to work through your problems. "Let it all work out" is kind of a mantra in itself but it's also saying you can’t always let it all work out-- you have to have the courage to do something about it: the courage to have a relationship with someone, to tell people how you feel without those feelings being reciprocated, to analyze yourself-- all those things.
Pitchfork: What was the impetus behind "Without"?
S: I wrote it a few nights after I met someone I liked. I was just thinking about my own natural way of one-night stands: always wanting to be more attached to something. I’m not very good at detaching myself. Maybe I was being a little bit over the top, [sings] "without you, life is going to be this and that." [laughs]
Pitchfork: When did you start producing?
S: I must’ve been 13. I started at my brother’s because he had [music program] Cubase, and then I went into Reason. I had friends around the area who were MCs, and I’d try and produce for them, but they wouldn’t take the beats. It was a struggle: "Trust me, you should spit on this." I really got into the Lord of the Mics DVDs, just watching crews like Ruff Sqwad and Roll Deep. I have a cousin called Flirta D who was big in the grime world, which made me really cool at school. "Flirta D’s your cousin?" "Yeah, buddy." "He must be a millionaire!"
Pitchfork: What drives your production choices and the sounds you go for?
S: Sometimes I listen to music and I wonder how did they got certain sounds. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Streets' Original Pirate Material recently. The fact he did it all from an estate, and most of it from his bedroom, and was able to capture the feeling of listening to something on pirate radio-- with that piano sound and the nostalgic feel it brings-- is incredible. There’s a purity to those beats and an awareness he has in his storytelling and where he’s from. I’m sort of jealous of his ability to express what he actually goes through.
Photo by Tyrone Lebon
Pitchfork: What’s the story with the Drake collaboration?
S: I met him in Toronto when he did a surprise guest appearance at a SBTRKT show. He invited me to Canada to come and do some writing with him. It’s weird because he sees me as a producer as well as a singer. We worked together for a couple of days. He’s a really nice guy, really open. I think he’s an incredible songwriter, somewhat similar to the Streets in his ability to articulate fine details.
Pitchfork: Were you singing or producing with Drake?
S: I was producing and I did a bit of singing, too. There was a backwards piano loop sample, which [Drake’s producer] 40 gave to me, and I worked a production around it. I started playing and singing, and Drake liked the bounce of it and started writing lyrics on his BlackBerry. It was a really surreal thing, watching him go into the booth and then start to record his vocals. I was like, "This sounds like a record."
Pitchfork: It makes me think about what you said about courage: being able to name a feeling and being OK with that being out there.
S: That’s exactly what Drake did-- he was talking about something extremely personal, and I was like, "wow." When it’s so real and raw, it’s not even, like, pleasurable. For me, when I’m writing something really personal, I don’t feel good about it. It’s weird that people can connect to it and like something that came from a really crap place. You have to be quite brave to write about something that you honestly feel and think. Sometimes you think certain details are things that only you would notice, so it’s a great thing to feel like you’re not by yourself and people understand where you’re coming from. When you feel totally alone in your thoughts and feelings, there’s someone out there who is going through what you went through, even if it’s the strangest, weirdest thing you could think of.
In 2009, the English band the Raincoats, like a lot of bands that formed in the 1970s and 80s, started playing shows again. I saw them at the Knitting Factory, which had just moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn after 22 years: A newly relocated space hosting a newly revived band.
Situations like this tend to be zero-sum games: The excitement of seeing a band you’ve never had the opportunity to see before gets leveraged not only against your own high expectations, but against the idea that you were never supposed to see them-- that you had come to love them as something distant and finite, part of a past that felt more precious because you assumed it would never happen again. I had been listening to their music on record for so long that it had become impossible for me to imagine it being played by human beings with instruments in their hands. I kept telling myself the women onstage were not the Raincoats, but actors hired to play them.
Then I remembered the liner notes Kurt Cobain had written for a reissue of the band’s self-titled debut: “Rather than listening to them, I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear my spying from above, and if I get caught, everything will be ruined.”
For the purposes of historical record, the Raincoats are a punk band, but little of what makes punk stereotypically “punk” applies to them.
Something about the spirit of the their sound-- which between 1979 and 1984 shifted from folksy, amateurish punk to something like art-school world music-- seemed inherently private. When they formed in 1977, bassist Gina Birch was living in an East London squat so gnarly that mushrooms grew out of the walls, and in some respects, this is how I’ve always thought of them: Wild growth in a domestic space, strange and untamed but off to the side, between the cracks, in places where nobody bothers to look.
I call Birch the Raincoats’ bassist, but it might be premature. At the time the band formed, she was an art student, and until about two weeks before their first show, did not actually own a bass guitar. The inspiration to start playing music came, in true punk fashion, from watching other people who didn’t know how to play music get in front of an audience and play it anyway-- in this case, the Slits, a mischievous punk-reggae trio whose frontwoman, Ari Up, was only 15 years old.
Birch had seen the show with a Portuguese doctorate student named Ana da Silva, who became the Raincoats’ guitarist. (In several interviews, Birch-- who has described herself as “whiter than white”-- recalls, almost wonderstruck, da Silva’s tan.) Eventually, the Slits’ drummer, a Spanish journeywoman who Clash bassist Paul Siminon nicknamed “Palmolive” because he found it difficult to say “Paloma,” joined, then turned around and recruited a violinist named Vicky Aspinall through an ad pasted on the wall of a bookstore. “Female musician wanted,” the ad read. “No style but strength.”
Punk, especially in its infancy-- and especially in England-- was built on loud, confrontational statements. A sampling of early English punk lyrics include the lines, “I wanna riot,” “I wanna be anarchy,” “Oh bondage, up yours,” and “AHHHHHHHHHHHH.” Disciples of punk wore mohawks, safety pins, brightly colored hair, and whatever else they hoped might get the attention of a society they simultaneously hated and yet desperately wanted to be acknowledged by.
For the purposes of historical record, the Raincoats are a punk band, or an early post-punk band, but little of what makes punk stereotypically “punk” applies to them. They had a violinist. They wore dresses. They were all women but, despite being part of a male-centric scene, never overcompensated by making a circus of either sex or personal politics. Several writers before me have pointed out that their 1979 debut, The Raincoats, sounds less like punk and more like folk song and nursery rhyme played at high volumes.
In a lot of ways, they prefigured an aesthetic that didn’t really take hold until the 80s and 90s with labels like K and Kill Rock Stars: The librarian-punk; radical, educated, but domestic in nature and more interested in building a new world through book clubs and farm shares than tearing down what’s already there. Without them, there are no riot grrrl knitting circles; without them, there is no punk-minded re-evaluation of the cardigan sweater.
While Birch says she learned to play her instrument onstage, the music of the Raincoats is haphazard and intimate, as though the band existed less to perform for their audience and more to be witnessed by them. If the band had to be summed up in a single moment, it’s the joyful opening seconds of “No Side to Fall In”, in which a gang chorus shouts the words, “I am the music inside”-- a moment that applies the catalyzing energy of punk to private discovery instead of public protest.
Between 1979 and 1983, they recorded three studio albums: The Raincoats, Odyshape, and Moving. They also released a live album called The Kitchen Tapes, which I had always assumed was called The Kitchen Tapes because the kitchen-- contrary to, say, the garage-- is a space where I imagine the music of the Raincoats taking place: between the oven and the counter, maybe, like an admirably bold mouse. In 1993, Geffen reissued their early albums in part at the insistence of Kurt Cobain, who adored them, which prompted another studio album, Looking in the Shadows.
The Raincoats is still their best. Only about half of its songs keep a steady beat from start to finish. The rest speed up, slow down, start, stop, and sputter like haywire wind-up toys. Most of the time it doesn’t seem like the band is controlling the music as much as chasing it down and tackling it. It’s the work of children or, if not children, adults who discovered a space of judgment-free exuberance through music-- a space that doesn't make room for command and expertise. “We rehearsed for hours,” Ana da Silva told Simon Reynolds in his book Rip It Up and Start Again, “but we always fell apart.”
But falling apart, or at least the threat of falling apart, is what makes The Raincoats exciting. With every tempo change and precariously structured arrangement, the thread holding the music together frays. As a listener, I feel an almost physiological need to hear Palmolive play one drumbeat at some regular interval after the preceding drumbeat, but this is not what Palmolive-- or anyone else in the band-- does. Instead, they gallop ahead with no clear indication that they will make it to the next chorus, let alone the end of the song. I root for them for the same reasons I reflexively root for underdogs: If you think they might not make it, it’s even more gratifying when they do.
There are times that the album feels less like premeditated music and more like séance captured on tape. And yet few albums are so determinedly planted in the real world. Palmolive’s drums sound like cardboard boxes; Vicky Aspinall’s violin resembles the siren on a battery-powered ambulance. “Fairytale in the Supermarket” is about the supermarket; “No Looking” takes place between two lovers over morning coffee. “Went to fight dragons in the land of concrete,” goes a line on “Adventures Close to Home”-- a line that finds mythical import in someone’s daily commute.
Odyshape is so skeletal and mysterious by comparison that it almost sounds like the work of a different band. Palmolive had quit, and most of the songs were written without a drummer in mind. Birch, da Silva, and Aspinall had professedly started listening to Ornette Coleman and the outer reaches of jazz. The songs have a haunted, spectral quality-- as loose and collective feeling as the music on The Raincoats but to different and more overtly spiritual ends. Scratching noises, howls, and tempests of violin intrude suddenly, then fade away.
Despite the album’s idiosyncrasies, it’s probably more in-step with what other bands were doing at the time than The Raincoats was. By 1981, punk at its crudest and most formulaic was being left behind by its creators for sounds that were, in short, weirder and less white. Like Public Image Ltd.’s The Flowers of Romance, This Heat’s Deceit, Swell Maps’ mysterious collages, or even some of art-rock singer Robert Wyatt’s music for the Rough Trade label, Odyshape is part of a moment where punk energy shifted to what basically sounds like avant-garde world music, cribbing from reggae, North African and Arabian scales, and free improv. It thrashes and wails, but at no point does it rock.
Whether Odyshape is better than The Raincoats or not is something I can’t comment on without bias: There are almost no albums that are better than The Raincoats in my mind. But as a complement to The Raincoats, Odyshape is evidence of how quietly fearless the band was, how capable they were not of bucking convention but of avoiding convention without having to buck, shuck, blast, or perform any other kind of violent verb to it in order to get their point across. Modesty is an irrelevant virtue in punk, but that only makes the Raincoats seem more powerful.
Moving has its highlights, particularly “The Body”, “Animal Rhapsody”, and the seriously catchy but a little one-dimensional “No One’s Little Girl”, the title of which should let you know that they eventually reached a point where they dragged the implicit politics of their music above-ground. Looking in the Shadows is OK, but I often forget it exists; and the Kitchen Tapes is good, too, though unnecessary, especially for a band whose studio recordings have the charms of first takes. But none have the sense of purpose of The Raincoats or Odyshape, which can sound not just like a band playing music but of a band laying out an entirely new blueprint for how music can be made.
Before leaving the Knitting Factory that night in 2009, I bought a button. It is light brown and says THE RAINCOATS on it in shaky lettering. When I got home, I fastened it to my backpack. I don’t carry the backpack often, and even when I do, the button is still too small for anyone to read. It makes more sense to me that way.
"I got a boy in a hardcore band/ I got a boy likes to fuck to Can/ Then there's the boy sings those sad songs I like/ I got too many boyfriends to see you tonight."
Thus goes the chorus to last year's debut single by Speedy Ortiz, a band working in the angular, abrasive tradition of independent rock'n'roll with a gender-blurring poet of a frontwoman. The track is sarcastically titled "Taylor Swift". "You hear so many songs about dudes who brag about how many different women they can pull," explains the quartet's 25-year-old singer and songwriter Sadie Dupuis. "So here's my response to that. Winky face." While the band's subject matter and lexicon have expanded to a smart array of emotional, empowering narratives, it's that core-- wry wit that's both funny and sharp-- that makes up of the essence of Speedy Ortiz.
I'd first met Dupuis a few years ago through her old grungy Brooklyn band Quilty; a Manhattan native, she studied poetry at M.I.T. and Barnard before heading to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she's currently finishing her MFA. It's there that she joined up with drummer Mike Falcone (who studies library science in New Haven), guitarist Matt Robidoux (a guitar teacher who runs the label Hidden Temple), and Polvo-worshipping bassist Darl Ferm at the beginning of last year, quickly releasing "Taylor Swift" and the five-track Sports EP.
While those records showed promise, their debut LP, Major Arcana, out this week via Carpark, is an exciting dive forward. It offers nods at legendary 90s alt rock wordsmiths like Liz Phair and Pavement-- Dupuis once fronted an all-female Pavement cover band called Babement-- while igniting its own anti-cool persona, and gesturing towards something singular. Her lyrics are clever and literary, offering so much to latch onto and explore that they all but demand a strong cult following.
Speedy wears its basement roots proudly-- while the dudes and I are waiting for Sadie to finish a massive vocal take of album highlight "No Below" during a video shoot in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, we discuss the obscure intricacies of the Brattleboro, Vermont, freak scene. Though the band hasn't played Boston much recently due to the city's crackdown on house shows, their favorite venue in their tight-knit Northampton scene is Robidoux's house, which has hosted shows for eight years. It's also near Feeding Tube Records, started in part by local Thurston Moore, with whom they toured in 2012.
I spoke with all four members of the group about the Massachusetts rock scene, reclaiming rap stereotypes, gender neutral voices, LiveJournal, and more.
"Our biggest connection to 90s bands is that they had tons of personality. Over the last decade, there have been so many boring, dime-a-dozen bands. We don't relate to them."
Pitchfork: There seem to be some pretty undeniable reference points to music from the 90s on your album: Liz Phair, Stephen Malkmus, Helium, Polvo.
Sadie Dupuis: I grew up listening to those things over and over.
Matt Robidoux: I don't listen to those bands now though.
Darl Ferm: I haven't listened to Pavement in a while.
SD: I still do-- and we all listened to Pavement on the way here today.
Pitchfork: We're all around the same age, and we were little kids when this stuff was first coming out. How did you get into these bands from the 90s?
SD: I would steal my dad's CDs. He would go to the Virgin Megastore-- R.I.P.-- and buy a bunch of stuff he would never open, because the clerk told him it was cool. I definitely stole Sebadoh when I was maybe 12, and Liz Phair. Unwound is a big thing I still listen to.
DF: My guitar teacher showed me them around that same age. He was like: "Listen to Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr., all the stuff from that book Our Band Could Be Your Life."
Mike Falcone: Those were 80s bands, though, and I consider them a bigger influence than a lot of the 90s stuff. We're influenced by a lot of guitar rock from 1970 to present, not one specific era.
MR: I remember seeing a Pavement sticker at the burrito place in town and thinking it was cool, and then downloading them on Napster.
Pitchfork: A lot of bands from the past couple of years who are reminiscent of the 90s seemed to miss something in terms of having their own voice.
SD: Are you talking about Yuck? I heard a Yuck song on the radio the other day and was like, "Is this a Dinosaur Jr. song I can't remember?" I remember being bummed when they were doing really hot. I thought they were doing a similar thing to [our friends] Ovlov, but less well.
MF: I like Yuck.
DF: I hate Yuck.
Pitchfork: Something that appeals to me about Speedy Ortiz is the band has real attitude, personality, character. Is it something you consider intentionally?
MF: You just nailed it-- that's our biggest 90s connection. Those bands had tons of personality. Over the last decade, there have been so many boring, dime-a-dozen bands. We don't relate to those types of bands. Should I name names?
MF: I've seen the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Surfer Blood, and I felt like I'd seen them eight billion times before. I knew the songs; they were good songs. But they just stood there. I don't think we're boring on stage. When we played Detroit, Matt fucking left the building and stood in the middle of the street and played a guitar solo while we were playing a song.
SD: We played WBAR-BQ, and Matt walked over to a gate during the set and put his guitar through the fence. There was a queer theory blog that did a reading of what that meant.
Pitchfork: Sadie, you wrote the song "Ka-Prow" while teaching a songwriting class at a summer camp. Did that experience influence your own work?
SD: I was at that arts camp for 10 years, it's called Buck's Rock, in Connecticut. I went to it as a kid and it's where I learned to play guitar. I ended up working there, teaching teens ages 13-17. They would write a song in an hour, and then we all share. Now, I don't labor over things as much as some songwriters I know, because I've gotten used to writing something in 40 minutes, which has led to a songwriting style that is more automatic.
Pitchfork: You have one more year working on your MFA in poetry at Amherst. How does your work as a poet differ from the writing you do as a musician?
SD: Poetry is a lot more serious. I have more legroom with this band, and it's mostly writing to fit the music. Poetry's got to stand on its own. I do readings, but I don't like to, and have terrible stage fright with it. Anytime I have to be in front of anybody without a guitar, it's horrible for me. Sometimes, it's easier to communicate certain emotions without words.
Pitchfork: Are there any specific poets who have influenced your lyrics?
SD: I've been reading Dorothea Lasky, who's very good at being funny and also sad and really strange in one poem. Her lines take terms I would like to emulate in my songwriting. Other than that, I wouldn't say there's anyone in particular whose universe inspires mine.
"I don't think people at a punk show in Iowa, where there's shit and blood on the floor, want to walk away with a poetry chapbook."
Pitchfork: Did you want to study poetry because of your interest in music?
SD: It was separate. I went to M.I.T. for two years, for math, then switched to writing. Then I dropped out and moved to Texas and worked at a record store called Waterloo, and as a waitress, for a few months. Then I got this internship at SPIN, so I came back to New York. [SPIN music editor] Charles Aaron let me transcribe everything he's ever written in print. I got into music journalism because I play music-- I didn't expect to have much of a go at that, and I'm not really involved now-- but close listening and having to articulate fine details has helped me know small things I like and small things that would bother me.
I wound up studying poetry at Barnard. After that, I applied to some grad schools thinking I wanted to be a journalist, but I wasn't finding steady work. So when I got into [Amherst] to teach writing and study poetry, it seemed like I should take a few years and figure things out. I know I’ll continute to write, but I’m not working hard to publish a book right now because this band takes up so much time. Sadly, my free education is on the back burner.
Pitchfork: I read that you bring poetry chapbooks to distribute at shows.
SD: Yeah, we made some for our tour with Thurston Moore, but aside from that, we haven't really had them. I don't think there's a ton of crossover with people who like chapbooks and also want to come to a show by a band that sounds like us. Well, maybe in Western Mass, but not in a basement punk show in Iowa where there's shit and blood on the floor. I don't think they want to walk away with a chapbook.
Pitchfork: To me, songs like "Pioneer Spine" and "Tiger Tank" sound like they're about being strong in the face of something empty, or self-reliance against certain situations. Are those feelings you go for when you're writing?
SD: I like those interpretations, but both of those songs come more from places of insecurity, and trying to document that as a way to coach myself out of it. I don't know if I'd think about those songs as places of strength as much as just trying to get there. They're kind of downers. I'm not the most fun guy.
Pitchfork: There's a great gender-blurring line on "Fun" where you sing: "Now I'm getting my dick sucked on the regular."
SD: I try to write from a gender-neutral voice. In rap music, it's a symbol of success-- you got all these girls on your dick. So that was my flippant way of saying that I'm having some success in my life. There was someone who I maybe wanted to show-up a little bit, too-- to be like, "Life's working out for me. I'm getting my dick sucked." At one point, I got really embarassed and thought about changing it.
Pitchfork: Do you listen to much rap?
MF: We all listen to [NYC hip-hop station] Hot 97 as soon as we can get it.
SD: I don’t think Hot 97 is very good.
Pitchfork: "No Below" is a pretty literal song. But I think the central idea-- of being a cold, depressed loner as a kid, and then realizing when you're older that most of your friends were probably like that, too-- is very relatable.
SD: That is one I wrote when I wasn't really bummed out. It was more to cheer someone else up. I didn’t think we would play that song at all. I thought it was gonna be a demo. I didn’t want to seem too sappy.
Pitchfork: The line on "Tiger Tank"-- "I've limped before, I could limp again"-- is especially resonant.
SD: I have a hard time writing when I'm happy. The point is for me to have something to occupy my thoughts. That song was about coping with depression and having people not believe you because you can put on a good face and pretend it's not an issue. It's frustrating to not be believed.
Pitchfork: I read about the Speedy Curse on your LiveJournal, how a lot of spaces shut down after you played them. Why do you have a band LiveJournal?
MF: Because it's funny. We thought it was absurd to have it as our offical website. It's our TMI blog, for the die-hards.
SD: You see all these punk bands whose only website is a Blogspot-- like that's the punk thing to do now. And it's so ridiculious. Blogspot is a corporate, Google-owned thing. Then you see bands with slick Tumblrs and they're like: "Help us get to 600 likes!" We try to not take ourselves seriously with that kind of stuff, I think it's pretty lame.
SD: I'd always felt drawn to the Boston music scene. There are fewer shows per night than there would be in New York, so you're not competing so much. Everyone supports each other.
DF: There are a lot of bands in Boston that sound heavily influenced by other bands making music in Boston right now, too.
SD: We've played with Pile a bajillion times-- I don't think there's a way you can play with a band that many times and not have something rub off.
DF: Another common thread is not taking yourself too seriously. Krill has the most incomprehensible web presence and they released their album in a ball of mozzarella. Fat History Month just stop playing before their songs are finished.
Pitchfork: Do you find Western Massachusetts creatively inspiring in a different way than New York? Do you think the area's history seeps into peoples' heads?
SD: There's a different sense of community in smaller scenes; it can be more insular. Maybe because Boston has a New York inferiority complex, there's a real tight-knit closeness to the rock scene. I don't think we're intentionally trying to sound like bands from Massachusetts, but maybe there's something in the water. And college kids love college rock.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like there's a connecting attitude among these bands?
DF: They’re really hard working. I’ve been in bands that don’t really do anything, which is a totally different vibe from playing lots of shows constantly.
SD: The fact that we came up in basement scenes reinforces a certain approach. And it's cool that everyone's into what they're calling "1990s-inspired rock"-- I would quiver at the term-- but a lot of these people were playing in other guitar bands when artists and critics didn't necessarily care about rock music. In 2009, nobody was going to point to a 90s-sounding band and expect anyone to care. It was more about synth-punk, like Dan Deacon. So maybe the shared ideology is about not expecting anyone to care about rock music anymore. And it doesn't matter if they do care, because we're playing music that we like.
A couple of years ago, when I had one of those desk jobs where you have time to sit around and read the internet all day, I had two favorite pastimes: reading articles about "millennials," and cringing at them. Like a lot of my peers, I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the M-word, and even now my fingers cramp up when I try to type it without a protective force field of scare quotes. I don't think I've ever met anyone who self-identifies as a "millennial," and when people my age (26) hear that word, it generally strikes us as a story being written without our consent-- like a cheesy made-for-TV movie about our lives. But, with or without our approval, it seems like a new one of these articles crops up every other day, an endless series of jabs at the pause button, each one trying to capture a more perfectly composed freeze-frame of right now. They are usually written by people from previous generations and published in places like The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times and Time; I even have a recollection of one in Amtrak’s seatback magazine, illustrated by a dynamic photo of a Cool Millennial Dude in sneakers and a business suit, breakdancing on a conference table.
I remember this last one vividly, because I read it on a momentous occasion: the first business trip of my “adult” life. In this case, the scare quotes are there to indicate that I had to sheepishly phone home and borrow money from my parents to front the cost of the train ticket until my office reimbursed me. And yet, even as I sat there acting out a real-life Lena Dunham punchline, I still remember coming to the end of this Amtrak article about “millennials in the workplace” and thinking: “This isn’t me, exactly.”
This was the year, let's call it 2010, that I first felt my sense of time breaking down completely. It was, not coincidentally, the first year I had a desk job and thus the first year I spent eight-plus hours a day in front of a screen. The days lapsed in disorienting flickers in the bottom right hand of my screen: 9:51 a.m. turning to 12:33 p.m. and how did it get to be 5:36 p.m. in what seemed like a couple of blinks. But even when I looked up from my monitor, a shift seemed to be happening on a larger scale, too. For one thing, the nostalgia cycle was all out of whack. The 90s were back, but simultaneously so were the 80s, and the 70s, and the 60s-- and the 1890s. Mythic records and out-of-print cult movies I'd spent half my life searching for were now available in a single, anticlimactic click, and the Willy Wonka-brite buffet of the internet meant that everybody was gorging on the recent past, but perhaps at the expense of the now. The wheels of time started to resemble a jammed cassette: The past was coiling over on itself in such a tangle that it didn’t feel like there was much room for the present. And maybe that was part of the reason why I found the vague idea of “millennials” so difficult to identify with, to claim as my own.
Accordingly, as a music fan, 2010 was the year I really started to worry that we were losing the thread. It was easy to say what 1991 or 1994 or even 1999 “sounded like,” but what did 2010 sound like? Even in retrospect, would it have any solid identity? Did it need to? In time, would the expectation of “progress” become an outdated relic? Music critic Simon Reynolds’ 2011 book Retromania thoughtfully took up these and plenty of related questions, and though his tone was encouragingly hopeful (spoiler-- the last line of the book: “I still believe the future is out there”), I just as often found myself mulling over a quote he included from the computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s polemic You Are Not a Gadget: “Play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s.” I constantly updated a mental list of things I’d play Lanier to prove him wrong-- Nicki Minaj! Flying Lotus! The Weeknd! Rustie! Frank Ocean! Grimes!-- but the truth is that deep down, exhausted by unimaginative revivalists and photocopied nostalgia, a skeptical voice nagged in my head almost constantly: Maybe it’s true. Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun anymore. Until 2013, which is when, rather abruptly, I once again started believing in right now.
“I’m a senior at Yale, graduating in May, and I’m terrified,” a student named Bijan Stephen wrote in an op-ed published on Quartz this past spring-- but it was a sentiment representative of countless, decidedly less publicized Tumblr rants, too. The article’s title was a play on a song he proposed as a kind of generational anthem, a track off Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut album, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”.
The term “millennial” was around when Vampire Weekend put out that first record (it actually goes all the way back to 2000, when Neil Howe and William Strauss published the book Millennials Rising), but it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous or exhaustively debated as it is right now. In this moment of SEO-crazed “content creation” and clickbait contrarianism, millennials have become the new milk: one minute their iconoclasm and disillusionment and dogged self-aggrandizement is good for society, the next they’re said to be corroding its very skeleton with their selfies and parents’-basement apartments and inextinguishable sense of entitlement. (Somehow the exclamatory title of this recent Salon op-ed speaks volumes about thinkpiece fatigue:“I Don’t Hate Millennials Anymore!”) So earlier this year when Vampire Weekend put out their third album Modern Vampires of the City-- a record that dares not only to take the Lord’s name in vain but to pitch-shift it, and to deliver such shruggingly anthemic lines as “I’m not excited, but should I be?/ Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?”-- it’s no wonder that fans and critics alike were going to try to make the M-word stick to it.
And I’m not sure which surprises me more: the fact that the band hasn’t really tried to shake the word off (when faced with the term “millennial unease” in a recent Pitchfork interview, frontman Ezra Koenig replied with a laugh: “I like that phrase. It’s a concise way to describe a lot of the feelings on the album.”), or the fact that talking about this record has marked one of the first times in my life that I don’t feel entirely icky using it. Maybe that’s because-- although it’s obviously meticulously crafted-- Modern Vampires' aphorisms feel so nonchalant that their resonance comes off like a happy accident. It’s not a political record, but it specifically captures something elusive about what it feels like to come of age in an era that is simultaneously hopeful and post-HOPE, and when the limitlessness of the internet has become so thoroughly internalized that any direct talk about it runs the risk of being unforgivably cheesy (Koenig: “Even the word blog sounds a little grandma-y”).
So the slyest-- and maybe smartest-- thing about the omnivorously referential Modern Vampires is that it manages to be earnest but never too on the nose. Chief arranger Rostam Batmanglij envelops the music in a dense-yet-airy fog, which provides the perfect foundation for Koenig's lyrics, which are at once hyper-articulate and playfully evasive. “The perfect tone is halfway between deeply serious and totally fucking around,” Koenig said, pointing specifically to the single “Diane Young”. The band thought about calling the song “Dying Young”, but quickly decided to go with a cheeky homophone instead; “Dying Young” sounded “so heavy and self-serious.” And maybe that seemingly tiny pivot is the most profoundly millennial thing about it. How do you make a record about post-ironic characters who cringe at the phrase “post-irony,” a record that sneakily defines a generation that’s always going to approach something generation-defining with an air of "this isn’t me, exactly?" The answer may exist somewhere in the space between dying young and “Diane Young”.
Both sonically and lyrically, the album is richly panoramic, but one particular thing that strikes me every time I listen is how often it references time. From the persistent second hand tick in “Don’t Lie” to the way the refrain “there’s a lifetime right in front of you” becomes, in a flicker as unceremoniously devastating as a lost afternoon lapsed on a digital clock, “there’s a headstone right in front of you.” There’s something strange, illogical, and uneasy about the way time passes on this record; you could definitely say it’s on some Benjamin Button shit. Koenig’s characters age erratically (“young hips shouldn’t break on the ice”) or live, stubbornly, forever (“hold me in your everlasting arms”), but it’s a testament to Batmanglij’s vision that you feel this tug-of-war between past and future on a wordless, gut level too. We’re living, as the writer Michelle Orange observes in her very good new essay collection This Is Running for Your Life, “in a time that is no time and only time and all times, all the time.” Modern Vampires renders exactly what that sounds like and acknowledges it as a perfectly good reason for an identity crisis. Somewhere between the lines, though, it also reassures-- "oh, sweet thing"-- that this is not the end of the world: to some extent, things have always been this way. Time marches on.
The album's centerpiece (and my favorite song of the year so far), “Hannah Hunt”, feels simultaneously hyper-modern and timeless. It’s about the allure of going off the clock and off the grid, which might seem like a distinctly 2013 concern to somebody who’s never read Walden or heard “Born to Run”. So maybe the only new thing about “Hannah Hunt” is its context-- that it sees human connection as a potential relief from today's no time and only time and all times, all the time. It’s a break-up song, and a devastating one at that, but in this four-minute world, love is both a freeze frame amidst the rush and a belief in the primacy of the present: “You and me, we got our own sense of time.”
Last month, two of my friends got married and, as everyone moved from an antiquarian, marble-surfaced atrium to the adjacent reception hall, one of the first songs they played was Vampire Weekend's "Step". “Wedding DJs playing Vampire Weekend!” seems like a detail someone might include, with outsized anthropological significance, in an article about millennials getting married-- though, if I were to read something like it now, my response would be, “Well yeah. And... ?” Sometimes it takes a record to clarify something very obvious, and in this case it's something young people have been allowed to believe since the beginning of time: Our present is just as good as your past.
Ari Marcopoulos' artistic philosophy is sneakily simple. "If you show interest in something somebody does, most people are quite open," the 56-year-old tells me over the phone from his Brooklyn home. This is how he's managed to capture endless reams of candid, off-the-cuff photos of hip-hop legends, athletes, his own family, and complete strangers for more than three decades. Listening to the Holland native speak in a series of excitable jags over the course of an hour, it becomes clear how he's able to get people to let their guard down: It's easy to trust someone who deeply cares about their work.
After moving to New York in 1979, he became fascinated with the city's burgeoning rap scene, from the fat laces he saw on the 6 train, to the hypnotic bass making its way downtown. "There was nothing cooler than going to the Roxy and seeing Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, or Fantasy Three," he recalls. "It was the best music I’d ever heard." That passion led to impromptu meetings with LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C., Schoolly D, the Beastie Boys, and others. (A book of his Beasties shots, Pass the Mic, was published in 2001.) But how did this tiny white guy from across the Atlantic ingratiate himself to the kings of 80s rap? Simple: talking to people, making connections, showing interest. "I studied and learned," he says. "Before I met Public Enemy, I had read Malcolm X’s biography and knew about Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. I was able to talk about those things."
Pitchfork: What was it like working with Jay-Z on this project?
Ari Marcopoulos: When dealing in advertising, or commercial work, or album-cover work, my experience is that you’re not really involved in the decision process. But this felt more like a commission, a true collaboration. He wasn’t overbearing. I wasn't just filling in the squares. It was one artist asking another artist to help him, to create something for him. The cover image was a result of the conversations I had with him about the record and its lyrics. He sat down across from me and basically explained the album, song by song, then he rapped each one a cappella-- that was definitely something to remember for me. But it was also a dialogue. I’m comfortable speaking my mind, I don’t care who I’m with. So I listened to the music, created a list, and then went around for a week shooting.
Pitchfork: How did you end up taking the cover shot at the Met?
AM: The Met is a classic New York institution. Almost all the pictures in the booklet were shot in New York. That was important. We just wanted to represent the city. I love New York. I live in Brooklyn. I’m a Knicks fan. And if you’re really a New Yorker, you know you can get into the Met by just paying a penny-- even though the suggested donation is $25. And the idea that you can go to that place and see such rich culture basically for free makes it much more open and much more New York. I’m always surprised when I go with people and they say, “How much is it to get into the Met?” I’m like, “Dude, you can pay what you want.” It’s a little bit of a litmus test. [laughs]
Pitchfork: What drew you to that one sculpture in particular?
AM: Thinking of the album title and issues of power, passion, and duality-- he talks about how people that love you can also hurt you most-- I first went to the Greco-Roman section at the Met. But there wasn’t much drama to those sculptures, they were more straightforward. So I went to the later periods in European sculpture and saw that sculpture from Florence called Alpheus Arethusa by Battista di Domenico Lorenzi.
I like how one person is turning away, but he has his arm reaching around-- even though they’re together, they’re also going away from each other. For me, the album is about this duality: being rich and figuring out how you can help others in a good way, and not just handing money out. Like: If you give a bum five dollars and he gets drugs or beer, did you actually do him right? Or do you find a more structural way of helping people with the money that you have? I had a hard time because I don’t really work with visual puns or metaphors in my work, but I tried to get at that with the cover. It's an ambiguous image.
Pitchfork: It invites many different interpretations, like a Rorschach test.
AM: Exactly. It’s open-ended, but it has drama to it. And I photographed it in the same way I usually take pictures-- I react very quickly to things. I didn’t go up there and take a whole roll of film of this sculpture. I took one picture of it. I didn’t spend hours at the Met either. I was there for maybe 30 minutes. I just looked around, saw the sculpture, looked up at it, boom, picture. Done. Very fast.
But it wasn’t like I took that picture and was like, “This is the cover.” I worked on the selection process with [graphic designer] Brian Roettinger-- he does graphics for No Age-- and Willo Perron, the album's creative director. In the end, I felt that was the image that should be on the front. When we presented it to Jay, he immediately was like, “Yes.” He loved it. And then he took another image of a different sculpture and said, "Maybe this is better." But within minutes he was like, “Naw, naw, naw-- the cover is the original image that you put there.” For me, that affirmed that this truly was a collaboration, a two-way street.
Pitchfork: Do you think Samsung's involvement with the roll-out of this album somehow lessens the art therein?
AM: No. For me, I’ve never done anything on this scale before. Trust me, whether it's Samsung, Apple, Nokia, or whatever, all these huge companies-- I don’t prefer one or the other. Some of them do great things, some of them do not-so-great things. But in the end, when I went down to Times Square and saw my giant photo of Jay-Z on the NASDAQ building, it didn’t look like a product that Samsung made, it looked like my product. I was proud and happy and excited to see my picture there. And if some people consider that selling out, that’s fine by me. I know what I did.
There is no sign above the door of the studio where Archy Marshall, aka King Krule, is recording his debut album, the upcoming 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. The place is tucked away on a backstreet in South London and, thanks to that blank exterior, looks more like an abandoned storeroom. Inside is a different story: It’s compact but full of gear, including an old upright organ in the hallway that Marshall heads straight for after strolling in a little late, banging out an abrupt melody before nodding a hello.
The night before our interview in late April, Marshall hosted a show on Rinse FM, introducing tracks by Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, "Back in the Day" 90s rapper Ahmad, UK post-punk act The The, and his own "casual" hip-hop side project Edgar the Beatmaker in that yawning London drawl of his. There’s a humble eloquence to the lines that Marshall traces between the times with his music selections, a respectful stance that resounds throughout his own productions including his breakout 2011 EP and last year's "Rock Bottom"/"Octopus" single.
In conversation, he seems older than his 18 years. (Marshall turns 19 on August 24, the same day his album will be released.) There are no monosyllabic answers or any of the sentence buffers that pepper his contemporaries’ speech. While he’s way too laid-back to be overly earnest, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon has clearly been a very serious pursuit. After spending time pursuing a variety of one-offs-- mixtapes from his beat-driven project DJ JD Sports, Edgar the Beatmaker, a support gig for retro NYC rap act Ratking for which he provided breezy 90s beats for his friend Rago Foot to spit over, a collaboration with electronic duo Mount Kimbie-- he's buckling down, even canceling a string of UK gigs to focus on the record.
The bits of it that I get to hear peel back the bruised teenage portrait that his 2011 EP painted to reveal the alert and engaged young man at the helm of those Rinse shows. Sauntering through jazz, hip-hop, and post-punk, he whips up stinging personal stories with startling lyrical dexterity, as heard on first single "Easy Easy", below. “I like the quick satisfaction of getting your point across in two lines,” he says, calling himself a poet and dismissing his early lyrics as “shit.” Marshall knows he’s stepped up and he hopes everyone else will realize it, too.
Pitchfork: What sort of sounds have you been working with for this album?
King Krule: I’ve mainly been sampling jazz because the tone of the chords are expressive in itself, so it’s quite nice to write over. It’s got interpretations of a lot of different genres, too, a lot of dubby-ness and experimental stuff. Just fucking around with a lot of weird equipment: an organ, a synth by EMF which is some crazy thing that you can run vocals through and make it sound like you’re in a tiny box, Moogs, Moog Phasers, Wasp distorters. Tape delays and super-echoes to get that get that more dubby, live feel. I’ve just been recording a lot of stuff and seeing what works.
Pitchfork: Based on your music as well as your radio selections, you seem to have a knack for making connections between disparate genres and eras.
KK: It’s just me being into sampling and seeing how a lot of really good producers have made some of their best work from a 10-second sample. When I was younger I used to do that a lot: I would hear a part of a song that would really relax me and then put it on repeat. That would send me to sleep. It was quite obvious classical music, people like Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel.
Pitchfork: Lyrically, you often pick away at the struggle of living. Is that something you're consciously trying to do?
KK: Definitely. All the issues I address are within myself, it’s what comes naturally. It’s a reaction to something that’s just happened; it’s good to write down your opinion on it. I like setting scenes and then delving in and concluding it somehow. All the subject matter comes from something that has happened. It’s a very nice release.
I just like documenting my perspective as well, because then if something else happens in the situation that changes your perspective, it’s good to have something there to remind you of that period in time. Documentation’s cool; I like that.
Pitchfork: How did your recent Mount Kimbie collaboration come about?
KK: I met them once in their studio and listened to some of their new album, and then I’d see them about. It was really good to build that relationship. Then they introduced me to [this studio]-- they started recording stuff down here. They did all the music to this one track, which really inspired me to write something quite dark over the top, because I was going through some dark things during that period of time. It was good to have that release, especially because I wanted to work on that album. I’ve loved their stuff for such a long time. I really liked having an input on it, lyrically. I want to do it live as well.
Pitchfork: Your songwriting is so strong and of its own mind, do you feel connected to songwriters from other eras?
KK: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll listen to a lyric and I’ll be so pissed off that I didn’t write it. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Like what?
KK: Like every OutKast track. That’s the shit. And there’s this one track, “When Your Lover Has Gone”-- I think it comes from a musical-- but the Four Freshman did it in 1959. That version of the song is really something I wish I’d wrote.
With Situation Critical, we present artists with various life situations-- some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre-- to find out which songs, albums, or bands they would turn to under those specific circumstances. This time, we spoke with eclectic singer/songwriter Father John Misty, who is currently on tour in support of his 2012 album Fear Fun.
You're in the car with your grandparents...
My grandparents are dead, so I'd probably put on "Monster Mash".
You're DJ'ing your best friend's wedding...
Justin Bieber's "That Should Be Me". None of my friends have gotten married, though. I’m 32 and I haven’t attended a single wedding. My own wedding will be the first wedding I’ve attended in my adult life. Everybody’s just so progressive in terms of marriage these days. Dating for 25 years is like a new middle-class value.
You're in the middle of a 16-hour plane ride...
Christopher Tignor's “Cathedral, Pt. 2”, which is a five-minute drone that I listen to on repeat. When you’re on a flight, things start to get very existential very quickly: “Why the fuck am I doing this?” Sometimes, the most counterintuitively comforting thought on a long plane ride is that I have a lot more plane rides to take in my life before it’s all done.
The worst part of any flight is going through customs-- like when you reach into your backpack in Australia and realize you’ve brought a glass pipe from home with you. The worst flight that I’ve ever been on was when I was flying into Chicago in a snowstorm three years ago to make a record with Steve Albini. There was a power outage, all the lights went out, the plane dipped really quickly, and everyone screamed, “We’re dying now.” When the lights came back on, it was one of those collective human moments where everyone was taking stock of whether or not they wanted to keep living. The worst part was that, around this time, I was having this really disturbing peace about dying, so that was an undesired moment of staring into the mirror. I always respond to trauma like that by eating, so when the flight landed, I had a cab take me straight to [deep-dish pizza chain] Giordano’s. I sat in a booth soaking wet, staring into the distance, joylessly consuming an entire pizza.
You're using your parents' computer and can only listen to music via YouTube...
I'm still not allowed to use the computer at my parents' house due to the pornography I looked at in high school. I still have to ask them for the password and then deal with their sigh of consternation. But I would probably show them clips of myself, to convince them that I’m doing something worthwhile with my life.
You're sick with the flu...
It's tough for me to find something to focus on when I'm in that nauseous state. I was profoundly hung over the other morning, and there were all of these books by my bed that I had to turn around, because I can’t even read words when I’m nauseous. Maybe I'd listen to side B of Neil Young's On the Beach.
I got real sick in Paris one time, to the point where I had to drop off a tour and stay there for three days. That was pretty brutal, especially because there are so many alien smells in Paris. Especially in grocery stores-- they’re not as addicted to the smell of antibacterial goo in Europe as we are here. One time, I gave myself alcohol poisoning a couple of days in a row, and I completely wiped all the sodium out of my body. I had to go to the hospital, and they brought in four different people to take my blood because they couldn’t believe it. They were like, "You have the blood sodium level of a sick 80-year-old woman." That was definitely the worst I’ve ever felt-- even crying in pain took too much energy.
You're about to play music for your newborn child for the first time...
I'd play some Plastic Ono Band and be like, “This is what you’re in for, motherfucker. This is what you’re going to feel about me in about 30 years." [laughs]
You're walking through a snow storm...
Leon Russell's “Manhattan Island Serenade” is a great desolate-walking song. When I was 20, I dropped out of school, moved to Octavia, New York-- which is in the middle of nowhere-- and worked at a Pizza Hut for six months. I ended up giving away 100 free pizzas because I refused to ask people if they wanted to take advantage of whatever promotions they were offering at the time. I was also a session drummer in Buffalo-- just these terrible session gigs where people would come in with their demos and me and this guy played bass for them. I was like, “Why did I drop out of college?” [laughs]
So I had this mile-long walk home through snowy farmland in a Pizza Hut outfit. This was in the time of the Discman, when you'd have one album at your disposal and you'd shoehorn all of your experiences into the aesthetic of that album, which could be very satisfying.
You're settling down for some light reading...
I don’t do any light reading. I only do heavy reading, and I don’t like to listen to music when I’m reading. But if I was reading Lord of the Rings, I might listen to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. I remember when I was reading Miles Davis' autobiography, I was more or less listening to his discography chronologically as I was going along with the book. I would play a game where, any time in the book that Miles did heroin, I'd do heroin. [laughs]
You're working at a shitty data-entry job...
I would just open YouPorn in a separate browser window and listen to porn sounds.
You're at a bowling alley...
Gerry Rafferty's “Baker Street”. I like watching people when that one's on, because when they hear the saxophone solo, they assume that they know exactly what they’re in for. But that tune has this really bizarre way of sneaking up on you. I like to coerce people into liking things before they’re prepared to.
My best game at bowling was upwards of... 70. Without bumpers. My first game is always incredible, and then I start playing head games with myself and lose. When I worked construction, I used to bowl all the time. That was when you could smoke in the bowling alley. There are few joys quite like bowling after work.
Your girlfriend just broke up with you via Twitter...
Captain Beefheart's “Dirty Blue Gene”, because it's anti-female and anti-technology at the same time. I’d probably put that one on, break something, and cry-- or I'd ask myself why on earth I’m dating anyone who would break up with someone via Twitter. Then I'd take a nap.
You're kicking back on a Sunday afternoon smoking pot...
Dirty Three's Cinderis a big weed album for me. The first time I smoked weed, I was 19 and in this band called Saxon Shore that was very solidly in line with the post-rock zeitgeist at the time. We were all very self-congratulatory about our musical progressiveness, but then I realized that, if you put vocals to our music, it more or less sounded like Creed. [laughs] That was right around the time that I quit the band... and started smoking a lot of weed.
It's 4 a.m. and you can't fall asleep...
I had this problem two nights ago because I had some amphetamines in me, so I just sang the Beatles' “Across the Universe” to myself until I dozed off. It worked.
You're about to clean your fridge for the first time in two years...
Neil Young's "A Man Needs a Maid", even though I hate [producer] Jack Nitzsche's arrangement. The guy’s a genius, but I pretty much hate everything he did with Neil Young other than playing piano on the backing tracks of Harvest. I actually own this crazy coat that belonged to Jack Nitzsche. He died a junkie’s death, where his junkie friends raided his apartment the day after he died and pawned everything. The coat has such evil voodoo in it.
My parents fucking loved that Mannheim Steamroller shit, so I basically want to hear anything that’s not that. My folks used to send me a $25 gift card to Starbucks every year for Christmas, so, a day or two before, I'd walk to a Starbucks and buy Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. On Christmas morning, I’d walk around listening to that on my Discman. And then I would go try to find an Arabic establishment to get coffee.
You're drunk on a Friday night and you just got home...
Cass McCombs' “Nobody’s Nixon” is a major drunken tune for me. If I’m really drunk, I’ll put on Phosphorescent's “Cocaine Lights”, which is great when you are dying from cocaine, too.
Sometimes it's about a song. But sometimes it's about just that one part of a song, the moment when it all breaks down, when the chorus snaps in, when the solo erupts, when the singer hits the note or screams out that line. A lot of life can be captured in these moments-- these snapshots-- of songs. We asked our staff to write about parts of songs that have made an impact on them in some way over the years, and here's what they came up with.
Growing up in southern Connecticut, I played rhythm guitar in a traditional ska band called the Radiation Kings. One thing you may know about southern Connecticut is that there are some fancy towns there. One thing you may not know about southern Connecticut is that there are some not-so-fancy towns there, too.
I was from a fancy town; my bandmates were not. Most of them were in their late teens; a couple of them were high-school dropouts; some were record-store clerks; some were just loud, friendly guys of indeterminate station who had soul patches and told dick jokes. I adored them. I think they adored me too, primarily because I was a decent guitar player, always had a ride somewhere, and was very resilient when it came to being picked on.
Before joining the band, most of my relationship to music was solitary: I listened to it alone, watched MTV alone, read magazines like SPIN in my room alone. Anyone who lives mostly in books and magazines knows that they are at best a blurry facsimile of life in the real world, and by that point I had become extremely fussy about the relative merits of certain reggae sidemen and where Chocolate and Cheese belonged in the hierarchy of the Ween catalog. It turned out that nobody else-- especially my bandmates-- cared about so-called shit like that. However stringent the local punk and ska scene was, and it was fairly stringent, they seemed to live in a liberated, un-hierarchical world when it came to being entertained.
In some ways, I figure it had to do with our backgrounds: I was taught, however implicitly, that certain things were on your level and other things might be beneath you; they seemed to operate on the principle that fun should be had wherever you find it because fun turns out to be really hard to find in South Norwalk.
One afternoon before a show, I was dropped off in the parking lot of Coconuts, a music store where our bass player, Justin “Slim Jim the Ruler” English, worked. At 14, I only had a dim understanding of why anyone would ever want anything more than to work a job that gave you discounts on cassettes. I was wearing a suit and a golf hat, with a Fender telecaster slung around my shoulder and an amp at my feet. The other cars pulled in a few minutes later and we strategized packing. I ended up in the backseat of a Honda. Justin was in the front. At the end of his shift, he had purchased a cassette entitled ELO’S Greatest Hits by the band the Electric Light Orchestra, who I had never come across in my reading. (These are the perversities of becoming a music snob at a really young age: You understand the career trajectory of bands like Pussy Galore but have never heard Electric Light Orchestra and have probably mistaken them for Grand Funk Railroad, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Kansas, Boston, or any number of ultra-popular bands with absolutely no critical credibility.)
As we pulled out of the lot, Justin turned around and began shaking the tape in my direction. “Fucking ‘Mr. Blue Sky,’” he said. I sat quietly with my little golf hat in my lap. He inserted the cassette. The song began. Nobody sang. Nobody smiled. What ensued was a kind of coordinated, almost telepathic understanding between equals: Everyone-- besides me, of course-- started bouncing up and down, slapping the dashboard or the back of the seat in front of them, their heads bumping against the drooping felt ceiling. When the song came to its chorus, they unleashed their most awful falsettos. They were a pack of dogs. They had been down this road before.
The song was one of the dumbest things I had ever heard. It was also one of the best. Being in the car with the band constituted some of my earliest memories of listening to music with people other than my parents.
“What did you think?” Justin asked excitedly when it was over.
“It’s really good,” I said, looking into my lap.
He rewound the tape to the beginning and played it again. I didn’t bounce. I didn’t smile. But when the chorus came, I looked out the window at I-95 disappearing behind us and quietly started to sing along.
In 1994, at the age of 13, I became obsessed with Hole’s album Live Through This. At the end of the chorus to the third track, “Plump”, Courtney Love growls, "Your milk's in my mouth/ It makes me sick." But my Live Through This CD (purchased with Bat Mitzvah money at Wee Three Records in the Plymouth Meeting Mall) didn’t come with a lyric sheet. And back then, there was no Google, no Rap Genius, no pop-up-addled random lyric websites cluttering up the internet. (Not that my family even owned a modem.) So all I had to go on was my ears. And I was convinced that the line was: "It melts in my mouth/ It makes me feel."
I got into a heated argument about this with the girl I considered to be my best friend at the time. She insisted it was “milk/sick”; I insisted it was “melts/feel.” At a sleepover party, after a viewing of The Princess Bride, we brought our argument to a larger group of friends. Unanimously, they agreed with my BFF. And they all laughed at me. Thus began a steep downward spiral in which this group of girls, over the course of less than one school year, went from my best friends to my worst enemies. In that peculiar fashion known only to teenage females, they systematically destroyed my life-- by the time they were done with me, the whole school thought I was weird and lame.
Why? Because I was a poseur. And being a poseur was a fate worse than leprosy. According to them, I didn't really like Hole. In fact, I didn't really like any of the bands I said I liked. I was just pretending so that everybody would think I was cool, when in actuality, I probably only truly liked Color Me Badd or Paula Abdul. And they had to get away from me, lest my loser dust rub off on them.
Once I realized what had happened, I vowed to myself that I would learn everything I possibly could about Hole, and any other “cool” band that had ever existed. I would buy every CD (or, more frequently, dub a cassette tape from someone else’s CD). I would read every music magazine and every rock biography. I would go to every show that my mom would let me go to. I would become so knowledgeable that nobody could ever call me a poseur again. So, thank you, misheard lyric to Hole’s “Plump”! You lead me down the path to who I am today: a person who gets paid to know stuff about music. I am a professional non-poseur.
When I was a little bit younger, I was going to tattoo the Great Bear on my arm. (Ursa Major, yes, though I admittedly had to Google it to confirm the Latin name after I got the idea.) It was not about the stars; it was about a song.
There used to be a band from Olympia called Kickball who played manically gleeful, stutteringly off-kilter indie rock. Though they broke up only a few years ago, the way I and a couple of my friends loved them now seems like a relic from another era. A few cases in point: I first made a Myspace account solely to send Kickball a lengthy private message to tell them how much I liked one of their records. Around this time I also lied elaborately to my boss so I could cut out of work one night and see them in somebody's living room; "OLD SHIT!" my friend yelled at the stage-- which was actually just this slab of carpet in front of a long-dormant fireplace-- and the lead singer seemed humbled and genuinely confused about how somebody from D.C. could know the old shit, let alone love it enough to request it by name. I raved about this show for years. At the merch table that night, I bought their best record, Everything Is a Miracle Nothing Is a Miracle Everything Is, and I loved it quietly, privately, fiercely. With each year that passed I got a little bit older and became more and more afraid that it signified the end of something, that I (or-- as the internet began to make the whole notion of "privately loved" things feel like an anachronism-- anybody else) might never love a record exactly like that again.
There's this violently beautiful moment at the thirty-seventh second of their song "Orion", when the modestly amplified ditty explodes into something unexpectedly cosmic. It would catch me by surprise even when I knew it was coming. Maybe it's because the beauty in that moment sounds palpably labored: singer Jacob Wilson stammers each word like a butterfly wrestling its way out of a cocoon: "I did all that I could to protect you from harm/ Tattooed the Great Bear on your arm/ Blue stars tipping out the blood (was that really what he was saying? I'd never met anyone who knew for sure)/ So you would know where North was."
"Well that solves it," I thought one day, listening to this song and worrying about the sort of person I'd be when I got older. I would tattoo the Great Bear on the inside of my forearm, and it'd be like my younger self was watching over my older self, to make sure I didn't become an asshole. I'd ask the artist to give the Bear a face so he could glare at me for all of eternity, taunting, "I sure hope you haven't gone and become someone who listens to boring, shitty music now."
I didn't get the tattoo. (Or any others, for that matter.) But when I play this song I still treat that part with a quiet reverence, like you might walk on the lawn of a house where you used to live. And that first transitional chord at 0:37 grills me with its beady bear eyes: Do you still like things? Isn't Kickball rad? Does this part of the song still knock the breath right out of you? It is always with great relief that I still say yes.
It was hard being a Flaming Lips fan in Toronto during the 1990s. Even as "She Don't Use Jelly" turned them into MTV darlings, the Lips’ headlining tours never seemed to come our way-- which meant paying package-tour prices to see them. So instead of a proper club show, I had to make do with a short mid-afternoon Lollapalooza side-stage set (3 p.m. = not the best time for strobe lights) or an opening slot for Tool before a hockey arena full of hostile heshers. (Best way to kill a mosh pit? Open with a cover of Flocking Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song”.) Alas, Canadian radio’s surprising resistance to Candlebox meant the most mismatched alt-rock tour of 1994 didn’t extend north of the border, but I totally would’ve forked out for that one, too.
The Lips’ first Toronto date to promote the release of 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic promised even more dispiriting conditions, as they were scheduled to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the SkyDome. But, a day before the gig, Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith broke his elbow, forcing a cancellation of the show, and since the Lips had already crossed into Canada, they booked a last-minute local headlining gig, for a walk-up cover of $5. (I’ve never arrived earlier to a show in my life.)
The venue was the Opera House, a historic 800-capacity room with a glorious archway looming 35-feet above the stage. The Lips started their set in near-darkness with “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”, the melancholic ballad that opens Clouds: Steven Drozd tapped out the melody on a little piano set up adjacent to his drum kit, Coyne crooned the song’s first and only verse, and guitarist Ronald Jones squeezed his strings until they shed teardrops. Two minutes in, the singing stopped, Coyne and Jones churned out a gnarlier version of the main riff, and Drozd hopped onto his kit to get his Bonham on. And then this happened. The entire 35-foot-high back wall of the stage: covered in Christmas lights. The archway hanging over the stage: covered in Christmas lights. The side walls of the venue: covered in Christmas lights. I’m Jewish, but even I started to believe in Santa.
Since then, The Flaming Lips have written many songs about the perseverance of joy over sadness and hope over despair (and lord knows their stage shows have become more involved than merely turning on a lot of little lights at once). But that moment in “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” instills the same spirit in less explicit, but no less profound, terms. To this day, it remains my personal benchmark for experiencing pure, unbridled, spine-tingling ecstasy through music, the high that I’m chasing with each new song that I hear. Every time I hear those drums come crashing in, I see 800 sets of arms thrust into the air in unison, and I feel the heat of 10,000 light bulbs searing a smile into my face.
Dipset reminds me of law school, and I suppose that statement explains why winning “Most Likely to Find a Fulfilling Career Outside the Law” at a post-grad superlatives party remains the highest accolade I received from my peers. (I've got a sash and everything to prove it.) The Harlem rap crew infiltrated my life in many everyday ways in 2004, like how I internalized Diplomatic Immunity’s “My Love” (“If your man act dumb, I’ma shut him down!”) while distinguishing myself from a chumpy rival suitor from the (ugh) Public Administrationgrad program.
So with a couple of hours to kill before a Trusts & Estates final on the Tuesday afternoon of December 7, 2004, stopping by Circuit City to pick up Cam’ron’s Purple Haze was a no-brainer. Now, I’d been on the receiving end of Juelz Santana’s yelling sprees dozens of times, but the first 20 seconds of “More Gangsta Music” is the sort of thing you hear recovered drug addicts and bitter divorcees talk about in retrospect: that small break in time, the flashpoint where you think, “I know this is wrong, but I need to have it.” I pulled over into a stripmall on the shoulder of Atlanta Highway wondering if I lost my goddamn mind. I was about to take some of the most important tests of my life. I couldn't be distracted. But the track would not be ignored. "This could end up very poorly," I thought.I had a lot of arbitrary rules during finals: no drinking, no studying after midnight, staying off Blogspot, and no Purple Haze. I had to. My future was on the line.
That said, I spent the rest of 2005 making up for those four days of lost time. “More Gangsta Music” became an inexhaustible, rejuvenating pep talk I needed to face any huge undertaking: watching an Eagles playoff game, Mock Trial, a daunting shopping excursion at Kroger, meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. And Purple Haze crystallized a similarly fevered yet deadpan, heavily referential, smart-dumb writing style that connected a lot of overeducated and overstimulated Dipset nerds who ended up becoming my bosses, peers, and colleagues. (You’re probably reading some of them on this very website.) But that only came after years of falling down Lexis-Nexis rabbit holes, redlining contracts, or, if we’re being real, suppressing and denying what I originally faced in that stripmall parking lot, something that Juelz was imposing on me in his bug-eyed, unblinking intensity: “You’re gonna write about this, not fiduciary administration.” The joke is true: Purple Haze is the album that launched a thousand rap blogs. But it also may have created more music-writing careers than any journalism school.
About halfway through eighth grade, I accidentally discovered indie rock. One fateful afternoon, I happened upon CDNow.com’s “album advisor” feature, and entered the name of a band I had seen on a poster that day: Jonathan Fire*Eater. I soon found myself staring down a list of entirely unfamiliar bands with really cool names like Pavement and Guided by Voices. And, hey, all the 10-second RealAudio sound clips sounded awesome over my parents’ dial-up connection. I saved up my allowance for a couple of months, and sent away for a dozen or so CDs.
When the package arrived a week later, I wasn’t so convinced. With a few exceptions, I primarily identified as a classic rock kid who listened to Cream albums on purpose and sneered at “amateurish” musicians like, uh, Kurt Cobain. To my naively overconfident ears, Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West seemed too dark and disjointed, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out too wiry and shrill. But there, in the midst of Guided by Voices’ mid-fi masterpiece Mag Earwhig!, was the best guitar solo I had ever heard. Its technical virtuosity was undeniable, but it also hinted at something a little bit more direct and emotive, a little bit smarter, a little bit less stuffy and more conversational than, say, a Stevie Ray Vaughan solo.
There’s a sense of knowing, weathered defiance to Mag Earwhig! that resonated all too well with me as a frustrated teenager. But Doug Gillard’s solo is a moment of near-acrobatic exuberance. I spent the better part of that year learning how to play it (a challenge made all the more difficult by my not knowing that Gillard played it with a capo on the 7th fret). Taking on that solo everyday after school rewired the connection between my hands and my ears; it got me off the grid a little bit, away from the “right” notes and towards the notes that felt right to me. Suddenly, Modest Mouse and Sleater-Kinney started to make more sense.
Amidst my self-imposed teenage cultural myopia, I initially assumed that I was the only person on earth who had ever heard of these really weird bands. But in the coming years, I discovered that many of the slightly older people in my life-- camp counselors, seniors at my high school-- actually knew about them, too. This music, which I had initially taken as proof positive that I would forever be a solitary weirdo, wound up forming the basis for most of my friendships over the next decade and a half. But the solo from “I Am a Tree” still sounds like a private promise that a strange, bookish, introverted kid can rip a fucking killer solo.
I first heard Debussy’s only string quartet when I was 18 years old, while enduring a two-week long camp for chamber music located somewhere remote in Southern Ontario, Canada. I was struggling in the shallow end of the camp’s talent pool, and was reduced to the indignity of working-- and reworking, and reworking, and reworking-- the same rudimentary Mozart string quartet in a closed room with three other strugglers for up to six hours a day. It was the sort of piece the composer dashed off on the equivalent of a cocktail napkin when he was a preteen, and we were being forced to live in it. Worse, we couldn’t even play it the same way twice.
Meanwhile, down the hall, a far-more-skilled group of kids (most a few years younger than me, of course) were demonstrating what actual progress looked and felt like. When the four of us were bored or frustrated by our own fumbling efforts, which was most of the time, one of us would wander two doors down and watch them rehearse. There was an unspoken acknowledgement among the other members of my little Bad-News-Bears troupe that watching these other guys actually build a performance of a piece that was formidably complex and colored with vague harmonies that we could never hope to play in tune was far more invigorating than sawing away at our own assigned work.
It was under the influence of this potent cocktail-- one part impersonal awe, one part exquisitely private self-disgust-- that I first encountered Claude Debussy. The French composer’s music is misty, erotic, and insinuating, exactly the sort of thing to quietly but firmly wrap its tendrils around helplessly young imaginative minds.
The string quartet's third movement, in particular, seemed to open onto someplace entirely new: a damp, shaded, tiny clearing in the center of an enormous thicket. A violin, muted and husky, sings out a longing, tentative question, leaning into the last note and letting it trail off. The viola answers. Slowly, the question in the music dissolves, as everyone finds their way into a bright spot and the longing of the opening relaxes into a fragile, beautiful melody. Something decisive dislodged for me, then. I realized that this was my role: enraptured listener, reporter of my own sensations. If I had a performance to impress anyone with, it was on the page. The piece, being workshopped into transcendence in front of me, was a siren song and a gentle discouragement, at once.
But the nice thing about music, particularly wordless music, is how quickly this sort of autobiography shifts around it. The line floated through most of my twenties, suggesting how I would come to believe in things: provisionally, carefully, strongly, one-by-one. It expresses the quiet exhilaration that comes with hard-won certainty. Now that I am in my thirties, it has taken on an entirely new role in my life: It was the piece I decided to play, after little more than a moment’s thought, to my unborn daughter in the womb. If she’s anything like me, she’ll be able to use what it gives her for awhile.
There's something liberating about hearing music that breaks your own personal rules before you've even realized what those rules are supposed to be. My stepdad's an old jazz head, and by the time I met him as a kid, he'd accumulated several crate loads of vinyl that held this mysterious talismanic power over me: They sounded like nothing that was happening on the radio. Not to say these records were necessarily better than what was happening on the radio-- this was mid-80s Minneapolis, after all-- but this music was several orders weirder, and I was one of those kids who tended to equate “weird” with “good.” There was a lot to internalize.
Some of it introduced me to the classic canon (Coltrane's Giant Steps), some of it pushed me towards more esoteric reaches (The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra), and some of it I'm still trying to figure out (Anthony Braxton's 3 Compositions of New Jazz). But a lot of it stuck with me, even as I learned to recognize what made jazz work, and how individual artists differentiated themselves.
As I'd eventually discover, nobody set himself apart quite like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind genius who customized instruments like some kind of horn-splicing Frankenstein and made his fame by playing several of them simultaneously. If that seems like a gimmicky stunt, well, maybe it was. But considering the harmonies he'd coax out of them and the ways he could mold his playing to fit anything on the jazz continuum, from Dixieland to R&B crossover and all points of bop in between, he put that supposed gimmick to beautiful use. The title track to his 1968 LP The Inflated Tear got regular spins around the house because it was the first cut on Side 2. And while the fluttery chiming intro that opened the song didn't leave the most memorable impression, the horns that pierce the veil at around the 44-second mark were enough to put dents on my eardrums. These were wailing, honking, moaning leviathans of sound, foghorns crossed with electrical shocks crossed with rubber stretched to the point where it starts ripping-- and then wrangled into this oddly gentle melodic flourish that carries an abstract melancholy. It slips so seamlessly between harmony and discord that it shocked my younger self into recognizing what those things actually were.
When Dinosaur Jr.'s cover of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" appeared as the A-Side of a three-song 7" in 1989, I was just starting high school and coming out of junior high days that included a lot of Minor Threat, Youth of Today, and 7 Seconds. I was a vegetarian.
But I don’t want to make it sound like I was a completely humorless hardcore guy. My older sister (and New Jersey) made sure I was an expert on hair metal. And my childhood friend Moss and I listened to Metallica, Queensrÿche, Megadeth, and (wait) King's X. I'd also met a bunch of kids, including a girl I was interested in, who loved the Cure, Joy Division, New Order, and the like. But coming from a background in hardcore and punk, I definitely took music a little too seriously, and I tended to be dogmatic in the way teenagers who don't know anything about anything tend to be dogmatic. I didn't really find any room for humor or playfulness in my music at that point because I mostly saw it as a place for revolution and aggression.
The Cure's "Just like Heaven" came out in 1987 and was a song this group of goth kids in my junior high school went crazy for-- I remember a bunch of them shrieking and losing their shit when someone played it at a school dance. (Yes, goths still went to dances back then.) Dinosaur do the cover fairly faithfully at first-- it’s a warped SST take on Robert Smith and Co.-- but once we get that psychedelic doubled vocals droning "kiss her hair" at half-speed, things get weirder faster, all the way to the end of the song, where it eventually cuts out.
The ferocious, shouted "YOU!" at the 1:47 mark, and the distorted metal guitars that surrounded it, is the big moment. It finds J. Mascis and Lou Barlow showcasing their background in the hardcore band Deep Wound (the ridiculous video for the song features a puppet wearing a Deep Wound t-shirt) and, of course, reminded me of music I'd been listening to, and seeing live, before high school. More importantly, though, this forceful "YOU!" was connected to my favorite band’s cover of the most romantic song for outsiders I knew at that time. Very simply, and kind of goofily, it showed me that the beautiful and the terrifying could coexist in the same breath. From the noise and grindcore I discovered in college to the Dennis Cooper I studied in grad school to the recent Paul McCarthy installation I want to check out and the Peter Sotos books I’m reading, this is something that went on to inform my listening habits and life in profound ways. It also helped me lighten up a little.
I'm the only one standing in front of a roomful of parents and kids, and I'm playing Jimmy Page's "Stairway to Heaven" solo. On tenor saxophone. I'm 13 and generally terrified of the lines and dots-- so many dots-- on the sheet music in front of me. The big jazz band recital is happening, and I can't play this solo. I know I can't play this solo. It's too fast. There are too many notes. I haven't practiced nearly enough. And this is a long fucking solo. My blood pumps double-time, the band vamps around me, and my horn makes noises. Somehow. I hit some notes, flub some, completely disregard others. Eventually, I sit back down. Parents and kids clap, because that is what happens when a 13-year-old sits down at a jazz band recital. I'm relieved but embarrassed: I wasn't able to connect the dots in front of me. At all.
Up until that point, my experience with musical education was based on accuracy. I looked at the notes, played the notes as closely as possible, and that was OK. But jazz band was different. It was about improvising-- making up parts within a specific scale-- and I had no idea how to do that. I did not come from a musical family; my father's favorite song was Chris de Burgh's "The Lady in Red". And my jazz band teacher, Mr. Romeo, was a small bear of a man with an open-minded view of jazz (hence Zeppelin, along with Kansas and Steely Dan), but he couldn't quite help me unlearn years of playing the notes.
By the time I was 16, I'd gotten into Zeppelin (I was more of a Guns N' Roses guy at 13), and I bought their BBC Sessions compilation when it came out just in time for Christmas in 1997. It included recordings from the late 60s and early 70s, but this was about the closest I'd ever get to purchasing a "new" Led Zeppelin album upon its release. The whole thing was-- and is-- incredible, but the last track, a take on Led Zeppelin II's "Thank You" changed how I listened to and understood music. The BBC Sessions version was extremely different than the album version. It was longer, for one. And instead of a calm acoustic guitar interlude, Page detonates an electric solo that gleefully obliterates the entire blues tradition while paying tribute to it at the same time. He wasn't reading notes, or simply redoing what he'd done in the past. He was making it up right then. It was shocking. Later on, I'd read about how Page never played his "Stairway" solo the same exact way live. Now, I realize my bumbling, panicked jazz band spotlight almost 20 years ago was, in a way, true to the essence of improvisation. I just wish I knew that before I stood up.
The song as edifice, one you see built brick-by-brick: “Super Shine” comes at the end of a very loud, beautiful, and funny album. Super Ae found Boredoms taking threads from their history-- dada sonic trickery, punk rock, drawn-out psychedelia, pounding rhythms-- and focusing and intensifying them. And in “Super Shine” that focus narrows further into a diamond-hard point until the 5:58 mark, when the group’s many voices come in for a mystical sun-worshiping chant, a kind of self-shattering musical ecstasy. The appeal of this moment is that it draws on a power of music that goes back 10,000 years; it feels participatory rather than performative. This is music you live inside rather than admire.
If you ever see me walking through the city with this on my headphones you will see me joining in-- some hand movements, mouthing the chant, beating the rhythm on my thighs. Music can do an infinite number of things but, for me, its highest calling is to bring you in touch with a feeling of vibrating along with life at its best. And “Super Shine”, when those voices come in, is that moment. When I first heard it in 1999, I thought, “This is the future of rock music.” I hoped that we were moving into an era where technology would crash into the primal and the explosion would produce something that inspired awe. But it was not to be; even Boredoms moved on pretty quickly, as was their wont during this time. But I still have this moment on this record: After all the gear and instrumentation and tape manipulation and musical references, we’re left with the power of human voices massed together, directing their energy back to the sky and the source that brought us all here.
Saint Vitus Bar opened in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in the spring of 2011. I booked one of the first shows there with Liturgy, Lichens, White Ring, and a solo set from Terence Hannum of Locrian. It was an intentionally diverse bill that made it clear that this would not be your typical metal venue. I’ve booked a number of bands there since-- including Converge, Deafheaven, Iceage, and Pinkish Black-- because if you’re into loud music, and you live in New York, it’s where you want to go to see a show. I live in the neighborhood, within walking distance, so it feels especially local.
When I started thinking about the idea of New York City as scene, I came at it in terms of a central meeting ground. Saint Vitus has that feel, much like CBGB did during its more important years, or ABC No Rio and Coney Island High did for other generations. (My favorite parts of the essential punk oral history Please Kill Me are when the bands talk about the venues that housed them.) So, instead of interviewing dozens of bands-- who would probably tell me in one way or another that there is no real codified metal scene in NYC-- I wanted to talk to the guys who run the place where all these bands play. It’s the first club that’s meant a lot to me since I was a teenager trekking out to Maxwell's to watch Fugazi over and over.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I sat in the backyard of a seafood shack with two of the bar’s founders, Arthur “Arty” Shepherd (ex-Mind Over Matter, Gay for Johnny Depp, Primitive Weapons, etc.) and George Souleidis (Polygamist), along with event director David Castillo (Primitive Weapons, White Widows Pact), to discuss Saint Vitus and the scene around it.
Pitchfork: How did you guys decide to start Saint Vitus?
Arthur Shepherd: George and I worked together at [Williamsburg's] Bar Matchless for years and neither of us even knew the other’s last name, it was really weird. But we were friendly with each other. One day, I was fucking around and put on Yngwie Malmsteen, and we both looked at each other because we knew every word and every lick. It was like, "Holy shit, you like metal?"
George Souleidis: We air-guitared every note of the solo.
AS: A wall came down and we just went from there. At Matchless we would get in trouble if we played metal, so we'd wait until the boss left and then play it. We saw trends starting to change, and people started coming around to it. Metal wasn’t such a dirty word anymore.
When the opportunity for Vitus came, we had this space and we were like, "We can do so much with this." I fucking hate booking shows, and George didn't really wanna deal with it either, so we hired Dave. That was a leap of faith, but I had a lot of faith in Dave. At first we weren't gonna do a lot of shows because it's a big hassle, plus neighbors and shit.
David Castillo: It's one of those things where you open anything and you need to see why and how people want to use it. Are you like Motor City or are you more like Coney Island High? There are a lot of things on the scale. So at first it was really like: "Let's do some good shows, but let's also see where the bar and people take it."
AS: The first three months were really busy, but we felt like this was the direction we wanted to go in, and the room sounded incredible. It was one of those things that you had to experience. I remember the first time we built the stage, I had just gotten home from tour in England and I walked onto it and was like, "This fucking rules, I want to play here."
DC: Conceptually, it's so easy to understand: These guys are from New York, I'm from New York. I'm a little bit younger than they are, but it was like, "There's no real cool New York rock club, what happened to that?" As the place continued, you saw that this could be that place. We could go there.
AS: After the first year we saw the potential. We were having people writing about us on an emotional level about what the place meant to them. We saw people enjoying themselves. That was something that we treasured because we worked so hard to make it a comfortable experience for everybody. We try and keep ticket and drink prices low, try and make it a full experience for everybody, and now, after two-some-odd years, it's really become an animal of its own. I want everybody who comes through to play. Dave's had incredible taste, he'd has incredible foresight into seeing stuff. I've used my connections with people that I'm friends with that literally won't play anywhere else but Vitus because they just walk in there and are like, "I have to play here," even though they're a way bigger band. We all play a role. It's a good team.
GS: The place itself became a homebase. There was a void in the scene. It's bigger than all of us. Another thing, is that we all have band backgrounds, so we're very sympathetic to the bands. We definitely love to take care of them.
DC: I do... to a point. [laughs] Take the European rider to Europe!
AS: Yeah, exactly. When people give us attitude I'm the most sensitive to it, and Dave is the most defensive about it. We honestly give so much, for somebody to complain about these little things... But it's never the bands, it's the booking agent, it's the management, and then the band shows up and they're happier than a pig in shit. They're like, "This place is great." We go through all this stress and it has nothing to do with the band, the band doesn't give a shit. Maybe they're bitching and moaning to their manager and their booking agent, but when they show up they have a good experience, and we make sure that that happens.
I know what I want when I play a show. I've been treated like a shithead at shows I've brought 600 people to. It's like, "Really, I can't get an extra case of beer?" Venues in England are notorious for this. It would be amazing to me, like, "I just sold out your club in London and I'm at the bar buying beer."
Pitchfork: I used to do metal shows at Public Assembly, under the old owners. They had me do it Sunday night, because that was when they had nothing else. They wouldn't give the bands free drinks. At Saint Vitus, metal’s treated with respect. At some other spaces, you feel like you’re plugging in a date on the calendar.
DC: Another reason why I wanted to be a big part of Vitus is that there were just so many people who would give their Saturday night to it in a heartbeat if somebody rad’s playing. I wanted a place that I can really be with it; just come here, be a part of it, and just hang.
GS: The shows become events. There's no other place where you can go see Pentagram and then there he is at the merch table signing t-shirts. There’s an intimacy. Most bands that play here hang out all night.
DC: From a fan's point of view, that's the most important.
AS: Wino's a good example. Wino's played here five times, and he's always upstairs hanging out.
GS: He's the coolest-looking guy on the planet.
Pitchfork: When we did the Converge show, those guys never once asked about money. They were just sort of like, "Yeah, we just wanna come play."
DC: Yeah! And it was basically because I honestly felt they just wanted to do it. It was so fucking cool. That's the ultimate respect. For my age group, my timeframe, Converge is the biggest shit in the world. When Jane Doe came out, it was so seismic. It was just like: Boom, this is the new agenda in hardcore. And the fact that they just wanted to go and do this because they needed a tune-up show for Maryland Deathfest, that's awesome! They wanted to do it here. By the way, Ben Koller does a great "Hunger Strike" with Steve Brodsky in karaoke, in case anybody’s wondering. That's a good afterhours hang for anybody that wants to come down to the club.
Pitchfork: Back in the day, there would be certain promoters who would book 12 death metal bands and start really late at night and have these crazy fliers with 75 sponsors on the bottom who never actually did anything. I feel like that was a certain era of metal in New York, and this feels a little bit different.
AS: As a kid back in the day, I used to feel bad for promoters because I was involved heavily with booking shows on Long Island, shows that became fucking legendary. We gave everything to the bands, maybe too much, because we had gotten back from touring in Europe and we were like, “Oh, this is how you do it.” Of course, we didn't realize that the clubs we were playing in Europe were subsidized by the government and that's who was basically paying us-- the taxpayers. But what we felt was that you take care of the bands. Maybe in a situation like you're talking about, the promoter wasn't taking care of the bands. And there's always the sketchy promoter thing that goes on, and that's why you have tour managers, so they can, like in Spinal Tap, bring your cricket bat...
DC: Anytime there's money involved...
AS: Even miniscule amounts of money. The thing is, the club is making money off of liquor. Even if we eat $100 or $200, we want the band to be good. We have the foresight to see down the road that there might be something better that is gonna come from all this. We've paid bands way too much and then made shit. We put our time in. We eat it.
GS: But those are few and far between, honestly.
DC: People are idiots sometimes. Small accoutrements that most bands really need are never gonna make or break your business. In the history of bars, will $100 fuck you up? If you understand that the lifeblood of what you are doing is music, you should invest into the artist. That's never really been something that was done with heavier, darker, more obscure sorts of music because it was always fragmented. Now it's coalescing into new and really interesting things. Now there's a legitimacy to it, which is really cool. Like, if you're some indie band and you go and play Mercury Lounge, they'll try and build you up and then take you to a Bowery Ballroom level. Building bands is good business, and if you realize that you're a place where you can percolate those things, that's amazing.
Pitchfork: You're a metal bar, but you do some shows that aren't metal.
AS: You can't just stay like that. It's pointless. I'm 40 years old. I have three favorite genres of music: metal, early 70s prog rock, and early 90s English shoegaze. I like everything. I've seen Phish 10 times, no joke.
DC: Ten times?
DC: That sucks so bad.
AS: Late night when the doors locked, we're sitting there watching Pink Floyd's Live at Pompeii. This is what we do. Musical tastes have a wide-range. And plus, something like Merzbow brought a lot of people. We were able to do two shows. It was a Monday night. Why wouldn't we do that?
DC: If you think about the greatest clubs, your CBs, your Coney Island Highs, your L'Amours, they'll be known for hardcore and punk, or for whatever, but if you really go back and look at it, there's all sorts of shit happening. I have a pretty eclectic taste in music, but I wanted it to all be under the same banner: There's not too much sunny shit coming through our doors. So all these different things like Merzbow, Chelsea Wolfe, Vector, and Cult of Youth make sense.
AS: Even Marissa Nadler made sense.
DC: All of these things can play in the same sandbox and it's not totally insane.
AS: The internet made it that way, honestly.
DC: Yeah! People are moving into this dark, harsh, interesting center.
AS: It changes as you get older. When I was young, it was all hardcore-- I just fucking knew everything.
GS: When I was that age I was all Touch and Go. I was a total label freak. Anything Killdozer did or Jesus Lizard did. I could listen to nothing else. There's one thing you really identify with and you kind of unravel.
DC: But the paradigm is changing now.
AS: I think it started with the whole iPod shuffle generation. That whole idea of listening to stuff and not knowing what you're hearing. Then you hear stuff like crabcore and it literally sounds like six different songs in one song. I feel that's what kids who were 13, 14 years old listened to and now they're like 17, 18 and writing this crap. I just wanna throw the Beatles catalog at them and be like, "Just fucking listen to music, asshole. Learn the basics before you do this." They're not wrong. They're just not exposed. But it's grown since then. And now everybody listens to music on Spotify and that's gonna change things as well.
DC: In terms of our scenes, it's become very acceptable to listen to certain bands and genres that are different than the core thing.
AS: You see new little crust kids with the Joy Division shirts on, which I find really interesting. And then they get all ripped up about Boyd Rice. It's like: "Hey, guys, do you realize what Joy Division is?" [laughs]
DC: But it's also unpacking artistic intention versus who a person is. It's really hard to do that. I don't think that those conversations will continue to keep going on in general. I think a lot of people let a lot of things pass by them because it's supposedly normal-- that to me is totally fucking crazy. And then somebody will get really riled up about something that I think is so minute. It's really wild.
AS: Unfortunately the internet gives people platforms to be equal in their opinions about things and it can be really unfortunate that somebody who's a total moron can be up there with somebody who's really smart. It just gets to a point where it's all convoluted. Just look at the comments on Brooklyn Vegan.
DC: At the end of the day, running a venue, I wanna give platforms to people with something to say, and ideas that are out of the norm. I wanna take it there. The only reason we talk about CB's or L'Amour's or any of these places when we're talking about that stuff is because they were there and available for people to actually do that with. Through that, there's probably gonna be some things that aren't savory to a lot of folks. Maybe that's also the point. I try to be really strong in the evaluations, and we've argued amongst ourselves. I mean, it's difficult, man. But at the same time, I wouldn't wanna push away from that standard because I think that's really important. There's enough places where you can't say what you want and where censorship lives.
AS: I can't back that shit. No way. I grew up going to ABC from the time I was 17. I felt like those crust punks were just as bad as any fucking Nazi, honestly, in the way that they were like, "Yeah, well, you're not allowed to do this. You're not allowed to do that." It's like, "Fuck you! I'll do anything I fucking want." I've had my life threatened by Nazis numerous times. I'm from Long Island. I lived in fucking fear of leaving my house for fucking six months at one point in my life because I opened my mouth. It's all repressive. I'm all about listening to music and enjoying music for what it is. Peace, love, and the Beatles. Amen.
DC: That's the key. Vitus, to me, is life-affirming. I love going there. When it all comes together, it's fucking sick, and you see it. The craziest thing was that Descendents show, honestly. It was such a mess.
GS: We lost a couple years of ours lives on that one.
DC: But I remember being in there and the whole thing is just a fucking zoo. But I'm just sitting there by the bathroom and I just stopped for a second and watched them play for like one song, "I'm the One". It was so nuts, but everyone was having such a good time. So many people were just so fucking stoked.
AS: They were having the night of their life. It was awesome.
Pitchfork: Their show was cancelled somewhere else?
DC: Yeah. They Tweeted it out. All of a sudden, I was in a cab on my way home and my phone just started shaking like a fucking maraca. I just got all these messages at once. And I'm like, "What the fuck is going on?" I thought something really bad happened. And all I saw was, "Is it true? Is it happening?" And I was like, "What the hell is anybody talking about?"
AS: He texted me and I was like, "The Descendents are playing."
DC: So I walk upstairs, I look at my wife, and I'm like, "I can't go to dinner tonight." She looked at me with the ferocity of a fucking cheetah protecting her cubs. She was gonna fucking kill me. And then I go, "The Descendents are playing Saint Vitus." And she's like, "You gotta get in a car right now!" It was like all was forgiven in [snaps] this fucking instant.
AS: A thousand people showed up!
DC: It was fucking wild.
Pitchfork: What’s been your favorite show at the bar so far?
DC: Whew. The first YOB show was really amazing, to me. It was the first show that we really did with this jacked-up sound.
GS: It was probably one of the best sounding shows we've ever had. The crowd knew it, too! People came out just saying, "I've never heard this band sound so good ever."
DC: A lesser known moment was when Anatomy of Habit played there for the first time, it was so bizarre in the way that they ended their set with just this crazy pounding doom metal riff and this dude with this thick chain just slamming against this metal in unison with it. It was the weirdest, heaviest, fucked-up, awesome thing. That was early on, and I was like, "OK, this is some shit you should see in New York City."
GS: As far as my favorite moment, I once had to work 10 nights in a row at the bar, and it's 12 hours of pummeling music and darkness a day. It was a mild form of torture. Love metal all you want, but by day eight, you're like, "OK. Where's the rope? Just give me some Barry Manilow." But that Sunday was the last day of the 10-day stint and this pretty much unknown band Vector was playing. The last thing I wanted to hear was loud music, let alone be there. But it was just one of those surreal moments for me.
I grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in L'Amour's. Grew up in Limelight. I had certain ideas of what Saint Vitus should be like. The sweet spot I have for that kind of club and venue. And these guys hit the stage and they looked-- I thought I was watching Overkill in '87. They had that look and their sound and they played effortlessly. It was like they could do sci-fi thrash on steroids. I remember George Paul from Mutilation Rites was there with me and he just kept coming out of the live room and saying, "I quit playing guitar. I'm not playing guitar anymore." Here were a bunch of young kids with a new shot in the arm for thrash. I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread.
AS: They're so fucking good.
GS: Sliced metal.
Pitchfork: You guys have been involved in the scene for a long time, growing up being into metal or loud music. How do you think things have changed in New York since you were teenagers?
GS: More wars [laughs] But in the end, it's the death of club culture. When Giuliani started closing all those clubs that were supporting a lot of that outside-the-box music and then he cleaned up Times Square and everything, all the clubs we grew up in closed.
DC: Coney Island High is a Japanese restaurant and condos. It's sad, but true. Manhattan isn't really a place to play music on a smaller scale anymore.
GS: The kids need somewhere to play first and then work their way up.
AS: There were no rules back then. Nowadays, the competition is so much heavier to sell alcohol, and the rents are up. All those old places owned the buildings or they had leases for 25 years. They were able to get away with a lot more. Whereas nowadays, a club has to be either very specific like we are or you have to be really creative because the competition is insane. When we first started, there weren't a lot of places doing shows. Now everybody does shows! Because they have to. It's the only way that they can get people in. They realize that even if the band just brings six friends each, at least that's 30 people in the building. Each of those people has two drinks. You do the math.
And a huge difference is the freedom is gone, especially in these neighborhoods.
GS: A bar can't even have a backyard without the cops shutting them down in five minutes, let alone have them play loud music in a place.
AS: Yeah, the Bloomberg Gestapo is fucking... you can't even ride through a red light on your fucking bike.
GS: It's pretty terrible.
DC: At least for my generation and forward, it's not about living in the suburbs. It's about being out here, but unfortunately, there are certain folks trying to turn it into that and that sucks. That's why we're looking at the end of Manhattan.
AS: When we did shows on Long Island the end result was if you did all ages shows, you couldn't make any money because you couldn't sell alcohol. There's always something. They don't want people to congregate. It's the same shit. It's the same thing as public houses creating revolutions back in the 1700s. They don't want that! They don't want you to have new ideas. They will keep you down anyway they can, so we take what we can with Vitus and we hope that like-minded people come in. Even normal people, I fucking love that. I love when you could see the person that read The New York Times reviews and came in. They're kinda looking around. They feel uncomfortable, and George makes them feel like they're the fucking king of the world within seconds and it's great!
DC: I think a lot of people fucking forget what it's like to get into something: Listen, fucking asshole, you didn't grow up just thinking that you came out of the womb and fucking Burzum and Joy Division were your favorite bands. Get the fuck out of here!
I don't care if you listen to a Metallica song once in your life and you just wanna understand something-- that curiosity is fucking great! That's the only way that things are gonna get bigger and improve. I really despise any sort of elitism. I mean, there are certain parts of heavy metal culture and the scene that I don't really particularly like. I was a Colombian hardcore kid from Long Island and NSBM does not appeal to me. But at the same time, that doesn't really matter to me. I just want it to be like: "Hey, dip your toe in the pool, and if it feels good, jump in, and it'll be fucking awesome."
AS: If years from now people can say something like, "One of the coolest shows I went to was when I was 21 at Vitus... " that would be amazing.
GS: Our greatest joy is just seeing the appreciation of what we're doing-- seeing a couple from Moscow say, "You're the first place on our list to visit."
AS: The European thing is crazy.
Pitchfork: Were you guys written up in some European travel guide?
AS: I guess so. I don't know. We're probably online. We only know they come when it's slow! When it's busy we have no idea they're there. I'm sure they are, but when it's slow that's when you actually get to talk to 'em.
DC: It makes it rewarding.
AS: "This is the greatest metal bar in the world." It's like, "Well, it's a little slow tonight, but have a beer!" Then they get drunk and they're like, "Could you play Darkthrone?" I'm like, "Why? No! I don't wanna play Darkthrone. Listen to Unsane. It's the best fucking drinking music in the world." "Shut up!"
DC: Everybody likes a little bit of harmonica.
Pitchfork: You guys are located a bit off the beaten path and you’re not very close to the subway. Is this good or bad for the bar?
AS: We knew we were a destination from the get-go and that was the idea, so we had to offer something to bring people as a destination.
DC: But then we could also be what we wanted to a little bit more.
AS: And once we had a Tony Iommi in the building, we realized we could do fucking anything.
GS: And Geezer Butler!
DC: Two! Two out of four on the Rushmore.
AS: In two years!
DC: Dude, we wanna put a Mount Rushmore behind the bar and have the faces filled in for Geezer and Tony and then have question marks for Bill and Ozzy. Bill ain't doing much!
AS: We could fill it in with someone and Zach Galifianakis. [laughs]
GS: Actually, I was talking to Jimmy Hubbard and he brought up Phil Anselmo and he was like, "Yeah, I was hanging out with Phil last week. He asked about the bar."
AS: He remembers being there? Get the fuck out of here!
GS: As a reference he was like, "That place was cool."
AS: I figured he didn't even know he was in New York!
DC: Hey, Phil, talk to me at Housecore. I've got big plans for you, buddy.
Pitchfork: A co-worker of mine came out to the Iceage show and he was like, "This place is really nice. I was kind of expecting a dive." When you designed it was the intention to make it is slightly nicer than your standard bar.
AS: We were very specific about what the bar should look like and the fact that it needs to be black. The whole place needs to be black.
DC: Even the toilets.
AS: Everything. And the vestibule where you walk in, that was George's idea: no storefront, no sign, you walk through the vestibule, turn, and it people-feeds to the middle of the bar. So you walk in and it's all dark and then you're like, "Whoa. Holy shit. What the hell is this?"
DC: From outside it looks like you're gonna die. And then the backroom's even bigger.
AS: But yeah, it was a lot of black paint.
DC: My feeling was that you could put this culture in here with a different sort of vibe and maturity. It didn't have to be real schlocky. I thought, “If we play our cards right, we can make this fun but also sexy and cool.”
GS: You used the word sexy a lot.
AS: The word sexy got thrown around a lot. Always. Everything is sexy. But, seriously, in New York, the space dictates your business.
DC: When I first saw it, I was like, "Dude, this could be Mercury Lounge." There weren't even bathrooms in there! There was nothing. And I was like, "Hey, do you guys wanna do shows here? This could be cool."
GS: We were both like, "No! Maybe like three a month." And then when it's like, "Oh, we've got rent to pay. Let's do it to 12."
DC: Everything just revealed itself. It wasn't super planned, like, "Hey, we're gonna open up this fucking venue."
AS: I love that comment that people think it looks nice. We've tried our best to keep it that way. It's very difficult. Granted, the lights are so low that you wouldn't know the fucking difference. For a while we kept the graffiti out of the bathrooms. But they got really cumbersome and then people started finding ways around it where they etch into the glass and they do all this other shit. I fucking hate people who do graffiti. You're all a bunch of fucking children!
GS: I think most people that visit, though, are respectful of the place because we did put a lot of ourselves in it. It's for the scene.
DC: Even the way that people just behave in the space while they watch shows and stuff, they definitely look out for each other. It can get pretty rowdy in there, but overall we've had really good experiences with it. And obviously, we have security. We have presence. I've definitely seen people being like, "Dude, don't do that shit here, that's too much."
GS: They want us to keep our doors open.
DC: We've had a lot of stuff that people have been like, "Holy shit." And we manage to always pull it off. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it's cool. But overall, it's cool. I think it's because people want it to continue. I think it's really amazing what can happen when you don't go for the lowest common denominator all the time.
AS: If there's a day without a show, we're not gonna book something that's crap just to have something. It's quantitative and that's the bottom line. I don't want people to walk in and be like, "What is this crap? It's loud. It sucks." I want them to always have a good time. It's hard! It doesn't always work out that way.
DC: At the same time, I think that people see the level continuing to rise, but I also think that the bands around here and just the overall level of the whole thing is continuing to rise, too. That's what's fucking awesome, too. And that's what we're hoping continues to happen.
Pitchfork: People say that certain cities have a sound, but New York doesn't really have a sound.
AS: Not anymore. Swans to me are the ultimate fucking New York band because it's just miserable. They're the soundtrack for not being able to pay your rent. [laughs]
DC: Struggle. Yeah, absolutely. At this point, everybody is looking at a lot of different sort of music and putting emphasis on that.
AS: That doesn't mean that rap and rock can combine again, though.
DC: Yeah, no. Keep that separate. But I do think that the tone of it is all pretty dark. I look at bands like Hull, Clean Teeth, Batillus, Sannhet, and they're all heavy as fuck, but very different in their approaches. All these bands play together, though, and I think that's actually cool. We're all kind of going up a road together, but we're not doing it the same way, like, I'm in a different car.
AS: But we all get out of the car and go to the same place.
DC: And then you bring like 150 bucks and spend it at the bar!
AS: Then you can't pay your rent and then you make a band that sounds like Swans! Just don't start doing heroin!
Wesley Eisold’s ambitions to be a healthier, more positive person are sincere; the Cold Cave frontman reacted to a difficult past two years of “not leading a meaningful lifestyle” by naming his most recent run of shows after a new song called “Meaningful Life”. However, the extent to which these ambitions are predicated upon avoiding other people is somewhat disconcerting. While the Meaningful Life tour resulted in “a very positive experience” for Eisold, he could’ve just as accurately named it after another new song: “People Are Poison”.
“People are excess, and I made an effort to rid myself of people who were unhealthy," explains the singer with a Zen-like compactness that tempers the caustic disdain. Excess is a word Eisold returns to quite often during our phone conversation. From the sound of things, when he enlists outside help, an already volatile situation can get blown way out of proportion. The songs on 2011’s Cherish the Light Yearswere ambitious and stadium-aspiring on their own, but they were also mastered with obscene, brickwalled loudness. “I invited some friends who had never played on anything Cold Cave-related to come in,” Eisold explains, “and the record quickly changed to this more polished version of the original song ideas.” He’s grateful for the experience, but admits, “at this point, that’s the Cold Cave that I can’t even stand to hear.”
Likewise, a lot of our discussion circles around how the input and subsequent departure of his collaborators has been either exaggerated or completely fabricated; this list includes, but is not limited to, Dominick Fernow of Prurient, Caralee McElroy (formerly of Xiu Xiu), David Scott Stone (Melvins, LCD Soundsystem) as well as assorted members of AFI, Samhain, and Blood Brothers. And in the latest, most unseemly bit of Cold Cave controversy, several recent shows have been cancelled as a reaction to Eisold’s chosen opener, industrial/noise pioneer Boyd Rice, who's notoriously been associated with Nazi and Fascist ideology and imagery in the past. A curious choice for a guy who says he's seeking the sunshine of the spirit.
Currently working without a record deal and hesitant to do interviews over the phone in fear of sounding “pompous and overblown,” Eisold is now taking greater responsibility for his music as well as himself. Cold Cave released this year's Oceans With No End EPon Deathwish, Inc., the label run by Converge’s Jacob Bannon, and subsequent singles on Eisold’s music and literary imprint Heartworm Press. His only confirmed collaborator at the moment is his girlfriend and photographer Amy Lee (no, not that one). And then there’s the matter of Cold Cave’s upcoming third record, tentatively titled Sunflower and due out in 2014. Eisold surmises: “It'll be a mix between some of the bigger sounds on Cherish and more minimal stuff I’m interested in now, like Suicide or 39 Clocks.”
The frontman is also seizing control in the most literal way imaginable; Eisold was born without a left hand and, for years, he’d worked around it, relying on programming during shows and cloaking his handicap. This past year, though, he got a prosthetic limb-- and he insisted it match his all-black-everything attire. “[The doctor] kept trying to convince me to match my skin tone, because that’s what people do-- they get the arms to blend in so people won’t notice," Eisold says. “But I didn’t want that. I want people to notice now.”
Pitchfork: Are you the only member of Cold Cave at the moment?
Wesley Eisold: I struggle with the word “member” because there are no “members” of Cold Cave. It’s just me. I’ve collaborated with many people. Some were extremely worthwhile and others were extremely worthless, and I’ve come to the point where I’m more comfortable doing things by myself. No one’s ever “left” Cold Cave-- one person did and then begged to be back in 20 minutes later.
When I started doing Cold Cave, it was just music that I was doing at home. I wanted to do this fictitious duo, and I pitched my vocals to sound like a female singer. When I met people later on, they could fulfill this idea or contribute to songs the way that I imagined hearing the songs, but it was never a part of them or their personality put into the music. Even on Love Comes Close, people think it’s not me on the album, but there are only actual female vocals on two parts, and all the rest are just my voice pitch-shifted. A lot of people credited to that album aren’t even on it, so its been confusing.
Pitchfork: You’ve gone on record saying your new songs sound more “honest.” Do you think Cherish the Light Years was compromised in some way?
WE: There were a lot of expectations placed on that record, and I was giving into anxiety and drinking a lot of the time. It wasn’t helping that I was surrounded by some people in my band that were actually awful. I’m very grateful for everyone who has helped me, but I’m also more grateful that that time is in the past now.
My world has gotten much smaller since. I don’t really let people in anymore. I’m not interested in it; I don’t understand these friendships [where] people accept these negativities in their lives. People can be so cruel to each other and so undermining and backstabbing and that’s just not something I’m interested in.
Pitchfork: How’s your state of mind right now compared to where it was while you were making Cherish?
WE: It’s definitely been a very creative period for me. I’ve been sitting at home and writing by myself. The past year has been very humbling and cathartic: I took a hit when my friend [former Cold Cave member Justin Benoit] passed away, but that event-- which is extremely heartbreaking-- inspired me to go out and do more. I’ve suffered from extreme depression my whole life, and I’m still dealing with that, but I just don’t want to let time pass me by even more than I’ve already allowed it to.
Pitchfork: People tend to associate Cold Cave with a goth sensibility-- when you played the Pitchfork Music Festival a couple of years ago, the band wore all black and leather jackets in scorching heat. Do you feel like it’s tougher to be a positive person when you have that kind of reputation to live up to?
WE: I don’t think so. Obviously, there’s that darker side to [Cold Cave], but I’ve always thought it’s been about love and light. Everything is so hopeful sounding to me.
Pitchfork: Have you sought anything outside of music to achieve serenity?
WE: I exercise a lot. I had this prosthetic arm built for me where I’m able to lift weights. I have a trainer who is a great person in my life and I spend a lot of time with him. It's been this trial-and-error process of learning what I can and can’t do with weight. Due to technology, there’s a lot I can do with weights that I never thought to try before.
Being born without my left hand has been both a force of inspiration and awful experiences for my entire life-- without me even having a say in the matter. Since I was a child, I’ve been an outsider. It's something I’ve dealt with forever. When I was young, I had prosthetic arms and I was embarrassed by them. But I had the arm built dark black because I am different and I want it to match my personal aesthetic, all around.
Pitchfork: Will the prosthetic change how you perform as Cold Cave?
WE: The whole arm thing has been this ongoing source of confusion in Cold Cave’s music-- on a lot of records that have been influential in my life, there are instruments that I can’t physically play. I play mostly with my one hand. It’s mostly programming. It wasn’t until I got a computer that I realized I could make music. Then I started Cold Cave.
WE: I guess you just can’t say or do anything without opposition. People say art doesn’t need to be explained, but then they demand an explanation. I know Boyd Rice as a kind, intelligent, influential individual, not as any of these things that people are saying about him personally. It’s not my problem that people are ignorant or can’t contextualize his work.
Pitchfork: Were you prepared at all for this sort of backlash?
WE: There’s always a backlash no matter what you do. Of course I’m aware [of his previous statements]. People have always had this misunderstanding with his work, as they do many artists; sometimes people choose to separate someone’s art from their personality and sometimes they can’t. Boyd played New York four times that year and there hadn’t been any issues. If anything, the mistake was assuming people could contextualize it.
Pitchfork: If you had the opportunity to do the tour again, would you still book him as the opener?
WE: Of course! I know him personally and he’s a really great person. I didn’t just do some quick research on the internet and come to a conclusion about who he is.
Pitchfork: Punk and indie rock are commonly associated with liberal politics and protection of free speech-- do you find it hypocritical when the same people cancel a show with Boyd Rice because they find him offensive?
WE: If you’re looking for hypocrisy, you never need to look much further than yourself.
What’s the best way to characterize a group of bands, venues, places, and people that lie several thousand miles away from your base of operations? Go directly to the source, and let them tell you their stories. I’ve spent plenty of time in the Bay Area thanks to friends and touring, and I'm familiar with what’s going on in that vibrant metal/punk community, but it takes a real lifer-- or longtime transplant-- to get to the heart of the mystique enshrouding San Francisco’s best-kept secrets.
To do so, I spoke with a wide range of native musicians, promoters, labels, record stores, and music lovers about their experiences in the long-running California nightmare that’s been dominating American metal for decades. From VON and Weakling to Metallica, from Noothgrush to Ghoul and Death Angel to Scolex, the cult is very much alive in the city by the Bay and its influence has spread far beyond its borders.
Historically, it’s impossible to overstate the impact Metallica and their immediate successors had on the Bay Area’s musical psyche, even if many of our interview subjects had already outgrown the Black Album by the time they first picked up a guitar or bought a record player. The shadow of the Big Four (Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus, Anthrax) has eclipsed so many other bands for too long, and as far as many of today's local bands are concerned, the evolution of the Bay’s metal scene hinged as much upon those four horsemen as it did Neurosis or Autopsy. But, of course, it’s not all high tops and skateboards, either, no matter what the legions of "retro thrash" bands would have you believe.
No scene can survive without its meeting places and artifacts. San Francisco lays claim to some of underground music’s most forward-thinking labels, as well as a handful of record stores like Aquarius, Amoeba, and Rasputin's stocked sky-high with black gold. Some of the most important metal/punk zines, including punk rock bible Maximum Rock'n'Roll, and heavy music venues like 924 Gilman are also rooted in the Bay. Their influence still bleeds into the current sounds of the city, from the hellish racket of Nuclear War Now! Productions to Slap-A-Ham’s powerviolence legacy. But gentrification, changing attitudes, and mutating genres have shifted the center: The slow exodus from San Francisco proper continues to bubble over into Oakland, Berkley, and the rest of the Bay, and a steady stream of heshers, punks, hippies, and crusties have staked their claim, chased out by the astronomical cost of living in the thick of things.
There’s a reason so many creative people flock to the Bay and make their homes among the grime and glitter. The place crackles with electricity, and by the sounds of it, is the perfect spot to forge friendships, soak in killer tunes, and make a few memories. While the Bay remains steeped in history and seminal recordings, it’s bursting with new talent and fresh ideas. Diversity is the name of the game, and now more than ever, its practitioners are reaping that which they have sown.
Chris Brock (Early Graves): My favorite thing about the Bay Area scene is how diverse it is. There are shows where punk, doom, hardcore, crust, grind, and black metal bands all co-exist, and everyone is stoked to hang around and drink beer. What keeps it alive is people's ability to appreciate a little of everything, and there aren't a whole lot of bullshit attitudes going around.
John Gossard(Dispirit, White Phosphorus, Weakling, Asunder, The Gault, Vomitorium): There are a few different scenes going on here, it is not all one unified thing.
Sean Mcgrath(Ghoul, Impaled, live/ex-member of Engorged, Stormcrow, Exhumed, Scolex, Dispirit): There are so many good bands from the Bay Area that it's hard to think of them all. A few good recent bands are Scolex, who have an early 90s Scandinavian sound; Cyanic, who have very intense, very brief songs that mix technical death metal with very violent sounding black metal; Femacoffin, a killer crust band with former members of Stormcrow; Lecherous Gaze, who are more on the rock end of things with a sound that is reminiscent of Black Oak Arkansas and your Molly Hatchets; and, of course, Dispirit, a truly harsh black metal band who single-handedly keep the smoke machine industry afloat. That's indicative of how varied the bands here are, though a lot of times they play on the same bills.
John Gossard: A few current bands I like a lot: Fabricant (extremely technical but strange death metal a bit like Demilich/Timeghoul), Black Fucking Cancer (raw violent black metal ex-Necrite), Odz Manouk (relocated to L.A. but started here and is one of the best US black metal projects going), Worm Ouroboros (Not really metal, but pretty doomy), Mortuous (old school death metal) Scolex (osdm), Necrot (osdm), Hollow Mirrors (psych prog folk with Sam from Weakling), The Witching Hour (simple keyboard heavy raw black metal). There are a couple of atmospheric black metal bands from Santa Cruz Lluvia (formerly The Rain in Endless Fall) and Gloam, some good Oakland punk/metal/d-beat/grind/doom: Negative Standards, Caffa , Kicker (old school anarcho punk a bit like Subhumans), Lycus (funeral doom), Mastery (black metal) Laudanum (sludge/funeral/Godfleshy doom, now with Salvador from Asunder).
Sonny Reinhardt(Saviours, Necrot, sound engineer): Bands to look out for here are Scolex, Rude, Necrot, No Statik, Laudanum, Right, Lecherous Gaze, Hazzard's Cure, Owl, Noothgrush, Wild Eyes, Lycus, Badr Vogu, Hollow Mirrors, Apocryphon, Fema Coffin, Replica, Power, Secrets of the Sky, Pyschosomatic, Dispirit, Fabricant, Kicker, Caffa, Swamp Witch, DHC, Cyanic, Satya Sena, Serpent Crown, Your Enemy, Abrupt, Larvae, Connoisseur, Brainoil, Ghoul, Negative Standards, Permanent Ruin, Conquest for Death, and so many more.
John Gossard: I don't think any underground local extreme metal or punk bands I pay attention to nowadays are anywhere close to as big as the old bands were. [Even contemporary] Metallica, Exodus, and Testament do much better than the new blood. The Possessed reunion seems to be a lot bigger than they ever were back in the day, too. Neurosis is also still doing well, and again not a new band. Sleep's reunion is huge as well. High on Fire is another. Still, I don't think any of this is as big as Metallica when Ride the Lightning was first released.
Chiyo Nukaga(Noothgrush, ex- Graves At Sea, Amber Asylum): I was first introduced to metal shows through my brother John (RIP). He played guitar in a few bands in the 80s as well as booked shows. I was always intrigued by the band names and the gore on the flyers that covered his walls. It wasn't until years later that I fell in love with 924 Gilman St in the late 80s. After seeing local bands like Neurosis and Asbestos Death, I realized how lucky I was to be living in the Bay Area.
My fave Bay Area bands are probably Sleep and Autopsy; their shows here were amazing in the 90s and have influenced me ever since.
Sean McGrath: When I first got involved [in the late 90s], metal was really at a low point in the Bay Area-- it would be impossible for me to overstate this fact-- in terms of popularity, but also in terms of number and quality of the bands, so the gap between a band like Machine Head and a band on the next rung or two down the ladder, like Exhumed, was enormous. Exhumed was one of the only bands I knew who had a record deal with a label that had records in chain stores. All the thrash bands had broken up or turned into funk metal bands and then broken up, and there was almost no interest in death metal or black metal for years. That slowly started to turn around when John Cobbett started promoting a weekly metal and punk night called Lucifer's Hammer at a club in San Francisco called the CW Saloon. Oddly, another Country and Western bar that like its famous cousin in New York ended up being better known for underground music. I guess it was a dark time to local Country and Western here, too.
John Gossard: [In the late 90s] John Cobbett got a club to start allowing him to book metal nights on Tuesdays. A bunch of people were regulars there and the shows were not only one genre, so a lot of the same people were hanging out watching Weakling one week and Slough Feg the next. Impaled, Ludicra, Hammers of Misfortune, the Gault, Amber Asylum, Noothgrush, Morbodisad, Dekapitator, Exhumed, Brainoil, Asunder, Dead and Gone, Black Goat, and tons more as well as tours like the first Bay Area shows with Mayhem, Enslaved, Burning Witch, Warhorse, Immolation, Impaled Nazarene. That spot introduced a lot of people who ended up working together.
Oddly, at the same time, if I went across town to the venue that got bigger death metal tours like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Vader, or old thrash like Rigor Mortis, Metal Church, Destrutcion, Kreator, the Lucifer’s Hammer crowd mostly was not present and a ran into a lot more people from outside of San Francisco at those shows. So there were then (and still are) more than one metal scene going on that does not really hang out with the other.
Sonny Reinhardt: There are spots [to see shows] popping up here and there all the time. Some last and some burn bright only for a short time.
James R.(Swamp Witch, Caffa, promoter, filmmaker): Gilman is and will always be one of the best places to play an all ages show in the Bay Area, but they've fallen onto a lot of bad luck financially. Every year their rent is raised and it's harder for them to keep their doors open. If you are reading this and are in a big band or just have a bunch of money that could help them out financially, please do so!
Gregg Deadface(Your Enemy, xHostagex, ex-Blessing the Hogs, Deathroll, Thousands): 924 Gilman St will always hold a place in most people’s hearts, but it seems like all of us Oakland bands just stay within the community. Also, Gilman has so many inner politics and whatnot, that it has turned a lot of us away, and we have just created our own world. Some of these venues are totally DIY, so I can’t go into detail [about] their addresses. Ask a punk!
Sean McGrath: The Oakland Metro, Gilman, Thee Parkside, The Elbo Room, El Rio, and DNA Lounge are all great, as far as legit clubs. Then there are the places like Burnt Ramen, Ptomaine Temple, the Swamp, Church of the Buzzard, and the now defunct Hazmat, Slaughterhouse, and others that are/were indispensable in the cultivation of the underground scene here.
Chris Brock: At the time [in the late 90s/early 2000s], hardcore, punk and metal were all the same to me. Metal was almost a bad word at the time. It certainly was not “cool” to dress in all black (or camo) and wear long sleeve shirts. People thought you were one of those Marilyn Manson/Tool guys which still sucks. Some of the bands I can recall really having an affect on me from the area, metal or not, were Sworn Vengeance, a hardcore band that were one of the first in the area at least to mix in some of the Swedish death metal stuff going on. I also loved some of the thrash shit like Vio-lence and Machine Head. When I heard The More Things Change and Burn My Eyes, as well as Eternal Nightmare, it was church, man. I didn’t know of them when they were around, but Asunder and Von are two examples of extraordinary heavy bands from the area, as are Noothgrush and Dystopia. When I got my hands on Neurosis thanks to seeing Phil Anselmo wear their shirts all the time, that’s when shit really started to change for me and recognizing that the Bay Area really has a dark sound coming out of it. It wasn’t such as party as it was in years past.
Chiyo Nukaga: These days, the Bay Area is becoming darker. Perhaps the shift just came naturally with all the hype on tone and amp worship? It seems like ambience and dark art has a lot of influence, too.
Sonny Reinhardt: At some point the music just became a lot darker and angrier. I think people here really wanted to push the boundaries of what was considered heavy and started taking the music more seriously. Bands like Asunder, Skaven, Stormcrow, and Laudanum, were embracing more of a darker, doom metal and crust sound. I think it was very influential for a lot of people to want to head in that direction here.
John Gossard: There are a lot of bands playing doom these days, and more black and death metal bands as well, but we also have had a ton of retro-thrash bands recently which I don't find dark at all.
Looking back to the 80's the biggest bands were not that dark really, but we also had things like Flipper, Possessed, Autopsy, Sadus, VON, Neurosis, Sacrilege BC (the first album anyway), and tons of lesser known demo bands that fell by the wayside. When Weakling first began, the initial version when it was me and the guys from Black Goat, there were really only a tiny handful of people who had heard of black metal around here. People I knew into death metal at the time mostly hated it, and there were a few crust punks I knew who liked it, other than that it was mostly unknown. Then even when the later lineup began playing live it was mostly unknown but the dramas of the Norwegian scene had started to become known to commoners, so there was a bit of outside curiosity about it.
Jonathan Tuite (The Flenser label manager): I think there was a bit of a backlash against the thrash thing in the later 90s. It was 10-12 years ago, which is also when things really started to get darker. A lot of people started focusing more on heavier music, and around that time a lot of us started listening to European black metal. Folks that I would see at punk shows started playing in metal bands. For instance, Aesop from Ludicra use to play in the punk band Hickey. Having really great record stores like Amoeba and Aquarius made it possible to get hard-to-find black metal and was responsible for the release and distribution of bands cassette demos and CDrs. Aquarius Records in-house label Tumult released records by Leviathan, Crebain, Hammers of Misfortune, as well as the Weakling album.
Sean McGrath: Good old Tankcrimes Records is my personal favorite [label]. Life Is Abuse is another one that puts out a ton of great records. There was also Necropolis Records out of Fremont, who at one time was the biggest American black metal label, period.
Athena Kautsch (Six Weeks Records label manager, Short, Fast, Loud editor, Voetsek): As far as starting a label goes, Jeff (my husband) and I toured together in 1992. Capitalist Casualties, his band, and my punk band at the time, The Dread, did a six-week U.S. tour. We were inspired by all of the great bands and people we met and decided to start a label. I think the most important Bay Area label for extreme music was Slap A Ham, hands down. They were the label that introduced many to powerviolence and bands like No Comment, Crossed Out, Capitalist Casualties, Man is the Bastard, Infest, Lack of Interest, etc. Six Weeks, 625 Thrashcore, and Prank all were influenced by Slap A Ham.
Jonathan Tuite: Aquarius and Amoeba were very important to building the scene. Aquarius's weekly newsletter was a huge influence on me and on loud music in general. Now there is Nuclear War Now! in the East Bay which is the largest underground label around. Ipecac is around here somewhere and Neurot and 20 Buck Spin both have roots in the area. Aside from the price of real-estate, the Bay Area is good place for a label.
The Future of the Scene
John Gossard: San Francisco is dominated by corporate interests, gentrification, and attracting international visitors. All of this leads to pushing out venues that cater to grittier art/music, make rent unaffordable both in housing and rehearsal spaces. Oakland is a strange place because it has wealthy communities and completely desolate wasteland areas. There are some areas that get gentrified, but many others that are considered a lost cause, so between all this you have some people with cash, some people with no cash willing to live in cheap but sketchy neighborhoods because it’s cheap, and others living in those neighborhoods because it is the only option in this shitty economy.
Gregg Deadface: The Bay Area/Oakland scene to me, especially in Oakland, seems to be a scene that supports its community as opposed to destroying it. I have been witness to a lot of different types of music scenes over the years, and the downfall of them all is usually a lot of infighting amongst bands and the lack of venue/support from the community. That is definitely one thing San Francisco’s is lacking compared to Oakland-- Oakland’s DIY community shows strong support for itself and its artists.
James R.: People realized they don't have to pay more money to live in a superficial town that hardly embraces a DIY lifestyle. The San Francisco scene is built around bar shows, which means you are there to entertain rich drunk people, whereas in Oakland, you play a DIY house/basement/warehouse and people go to shows to enjoy the show and have a good time. Music is always first.
Laurie Sue Shanaman (ex-Ludicra): I live for the nights when I can catch a great metal show in Oakland. There are still a few good spots in SF, but it’s not the same.
John Gossard: I remember seeing Pete from Neurosis bite a chunk of a skinheads ear off at a Skaven (pre-Asunder) show. Having a 14 year old kid smoke me and my friend out at a show in high school only to find out it was laced with what was probably PCP, then watching Blind Illusion play the most amazing shit I ever heard. Seeing Mercyful Fate on The Oath tour. Slayer opening for Laaz Rockit in Berkeley. Opening for Mayhem at their first Bay Area show and having them play at half our volume because they needed the amps quiet enough to hear the triggered drums thought the shitty underpowered PA. Then while being underwhelmed by the sound, seeing the guy next to me get knocked out by pig's head thrown from the stage.
Laurie Sue Shanaman: Many of us in the Bay Area metal scene are getting older. I’m 43. But this has never seemed to stop anyone from enjoying what we love the most-- whether we’re in bands or not, we have a great community of people, and it crosses over between San Francisco and Oakland rather than having any silly rivalry. Although, the Eagle, a mostly gay bar, just reopened in SF. I recently saw Slough Feg there and it really made me happy; it felt encouraging to be in SF for the first time in a long time.
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling on the set of Only God Forgives
Cliff Martinez: "Wanna Fight" (from Only God Forgives OST) on SoundCloud.
When Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the Danish filmmaker's violent, bewildering, Bangkok-based follow-up to 2011's commercial breakthrough Drive was met with both heavy jeering and standing ovations. Such extreme reactions are par for the course at the French fest-- practically the equivalent to heckling a disastrous musical performance-- but they also speak to the movie's provocative divisiveness. Similarly, after the credits started rolling during a recent screening I attended, a well-dressed elderly gentleman sitting behind me stood up and raised his middle finger towards the screen.
When I relay this reaction to Refn over the phone last week, he blows an apathetic raspberry into the receiver: "However [the audience] reacts is the right way to react-- I don't have a specific need or want from them." It's an understandable sentiment from an artist whose uncompromising taste for cinematic gore has made him reviled as much as he is revered, but even those directly involved with the making of Only God Forgives have expressed mixed opinions about the project. Ryan Gosling, who plays American expatriate-turned-Bangkok drug smuggler Julian Thompson, has referred to the original script as "the strangest thing I've ever read," while Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the nihilistic matriarchal figure, told Cannes reporters that the film is "really not my thing."
A few hours after my conversation with Refn, I ask Cliff Martinez, who composed Only God Forgives' sparse, droning score, what he thought of the film after seeing it for the first time. "Nicolas called me right after I finished watching it," the 59-year-old former Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart drummer laughs, with a hint of unease. "He seems to take pride in not listening to anybody, but he's always all over you, like, 'What'd you think?' So I said, 'Where did all the dialogue go?' Nicolas' answer was, 'I never shoot everything on the page. If I did, there'd be no element of surprise, and where's the fun in that?'" Refn then asked Martinez about one of Only God Forgives' most graphic scenes, in which (spoiler alert) Julian plunges his hand into his murdered mother's open stomach wound, apropos of nothing. "I told him it was really weird," remembers Martinez. "He said, 'What do you think it means?' I said, 'If you think it's important that it means something, you might want to tell me.' He never did."
After watching Only God Forgives twice, I too have no idea what Refn's trying to get across with his infuriatingly weird creation. Maybe that's the point-- it's unquestionably the director's most difficult work since 2003's misunderstood, meditative box-office bomb Fear X. While the film is dedicated to surrealist filmmaker (and Refn pal) Alejandro Jodorowsky, Only God Forgives leans more grindhouse than art-house, its neon-soaked environs and gore-blasted sequences providing enough camp to ensure its fate as a cult classic of sorts. And Refn seems totally fine with that. "Camp is a beautiful way of expression," he tells me. "It's heightened reality at its most intriguing moments."
Above all else, though-- and despite the return of Gosling and Martinez-- Only God Forgives is not a reprisal of Drive's wide-reaching aesthetic. Almost totally eschewing that film's emphasis on 80s-redolent pop and glassy-eyed synth work, Martinez employs immense, harrowing sound design inspired by ambient music's darker moments as well as the work of controversial 19th century German composer Richard Wagner (whose work also soundtracked Refn's 2008 gruesome meta-biopic Bronson). "I wanted to draw from Wagner to create an over-the-top love theme," says Martinez, "even though masturbation is as close as you get to a love scene in this film."
Musically, it's not all doom and gloom, as the score's prettier moments take cues from the ornate folk music of Thailand's Isan region. Just as Glass Candy and Kavinsky's music have soundtracked scenes from previous Refn films, Isan ballads were used to accompany Only God Forgives' disruptive scenes in which Vithaya Pansringarm's vengeful, sword-slashing Lt. Chang performs for colleagues in a Bangkok karaoke bar. That musical choice may have been as much an aesthetic decision as it was a cost-cutting tactic. "Nicolas initially wanted the Thai characters to sing country/western songs like Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' and John Denver's 'Country Roads'," says Martinez, "but when he got a whiff of the price tag to license those songs, he thought, 'Let's bring the musical culture of Thailand into the film a little bit more.'"
Karaoke is very much a hallmark of Thai nightlife culture; between Refn's time shooting the film and Martinez's many visits to the country over the years ("I once saw softened ox excrement with placenta on an Isan menu-- all I could think was, 'Does the softening make it taste better?'"), you'd think that either artist would have spent some time warbling some Journey song to a barful of drunks. Not so, though: "One of my pet phobias is anything that involves being in the spotlight," Martinez chuckles. "The only karaoke I do takes place in the shower." Refn's answer is, characteristically, more severe: "Are you kidding me? I don't sing."
Pitchfork: How would you guys describe your creative partnership?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I love Cliff's delicacy and his way of understanding images in music. I like him very much as a person, so when something works, you don't change it.
Cliff Martinez: He wouldn't say this, but I think Nicolas likes to be provocative and controversial. He's an improvisational risk-taker, and that's the way I work with music, too. I try to do things that are out of the ordinary, and Nicolas demands that from me because he demands it from himself. Some directors leave you alone, but he's very hands-on with regards to the music. While working on Only God Forgives, Nicolas and I ended up talking on Skype almost daily. It was like entering somebody's private domain. His wife would walk past the camera, coming out of the shower, drying her hair. The kids would run across the screen and wave hello. Nicolas would be getting up and he'd have his bathrobe on. It was very casual, like being in a locker room. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Cliff, were you ever on set while the film was shooting?
CM: Nicolas invited me to Thailand while they were making the film, but I don't have the patience to sit around shoots. It's like watching paint dry. After I got a rough cut, though, I packed up my portable music rig and barricaded myself in a hotel room in Thailand for five weeks and wrote most of the score. I figured the country might inspire me, but I didn't leave my room once because I was so busy. I had room service three times a day, so maybe the green curry chicken influenced the score, because my surroundings certainly didn't.
Refn and Gosling
Pitchfork: Nicolas, part of Drive's position as a cultural flashpoint stemmed from its soundtrack, but other than Bronson's use of New Order, Pet Shop Boys, and Glass Candy, you haven't explicitly used pop music in your films.
NWR: Bronson was a transition for me-- whereas the Pusher trilogy was all about authenticity, Bronson was conceived as an opera, so music suddenly and extremely became part of the storytelling much more. When I make a film, I try to think to myself, "If this was a piece of music, what would it be?" Then I listen to that music. Music is like a healthy drug. It reconnects you with deeper instincts that have been buried within you.
CM: Originally, Nicolas and [editor Matthew Newman] were cutting the picture to Bernard Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is one of my all-time favorite scores. When I started seeing those scenes, I was like, "Oh, God, I finally get to impersonate Bernard Herrmann."
Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Gosling, and Refn
Pitchfork: Nicolas, you recently told The Guardian that your way of rebelling against your parents' sensible tastes was to immerse yourself in violent art and Ronald Reagan. Was your musical preferences part of this rebellion as well?
NWR: Well, that was hard to do, because my mother photographed every jazz musician in the world and saw Jimi Hendrix live. What was I gonna do? [laughs] When she started liking the Smiths, I was like, "Can't I have anything for myself?"
Pitchfork: What was the first record you ever purchased?
NWR: My mother had the soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West, which I'd listen to a lot, but the first record I ever bought was a gatefold LP of the score to A Clockwork Orange. I was a huge new-wave fan growing up. I love how electronic music evolved during that period of time, and people like Johnny Jewel are reaching back to that era and reinventing it now. My biggest wish is to use Book of Love's "Boy" in one of my movies. I love that band so much. I'm always happy when I discover new music, but I'm not an avid music collector. I just like the constant sound of music around me.
CM: I saw A Fistful of Dollars with my parents at a drive-in in 1964-- not the kind of film that responsible parents would normally take a 10-year-old kid to see. They probably thought I would just fall asleep in the backseat, but I was riveted when I saw those opening credits with the silhouettes of the guys getting shot. The music was so weird and beautiful. I was transfixed. That was the same year the Beatles came to America, so I bugged my parents to buy me the soundtrack to Fistful of Dollars and Meet the Beatles!. That was the year my childhood brain got reupholstered and I really started thinking about music.
Cliff Martinez; photo by Ricardo De Aratanha
Pitchfork: Cliff, you've been making film scores for two decades, but since Drive you've gained a higher profile in the world of popular music at large, which is rare for score composers.
CM: It's been unbelievable. The general public aren't really interested in film music, and they're especially not interested in the personalities that create film music. I can't think of any film composers that have approached anything approximating star status, except for John Williams. I don't know what the secret recipe was for the success of the Drive soundtrack, but if I ever figure it out, I'd definitely like to repeat the experience.