The last thing I expected to see crop up in accounts of WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning's ongoing trial was mention of our petty problems in the music business.
But lo and behold, when the defense called an expert to testify on the relationship between WikiLeaks and the traditional media-- in order to introduce the idea that the controversial site might deserve protection of free speech, just like the newspapers that published its revelations-- the witness began by comparing the current situation in journalism to “what we saw in music in the early 2000s.” Yochai Benkler, professor of law at Harvard and author of an influential paper about journalism called “A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate” argues that, in the 21st century, the function of the press has expanded beyond 20th-century media outlets of print, radio, and television, to a “cluster of practices and technologies and organizations that fill that role,” which he calls “the network Fourth Estate.”
Follow that link to Creative Commons, and you’ll find yourself enmeshed with music yet again: The Freedom of the Press Foundation is using a license developed with music so much in mind that one of its three terms is the right “to Remix.” Indeed, diligent readers of Pitchfork might remember that, among others, Nine Inch Nails used a Creative Commons license instead of Copyright for their 2008 album Ghosts I-IV (it didn’t help reviewer Tom Breihan like it any better, though). How did musicians and music fans end up entangled with momentous problems like the leaking of government secrets, freedom of the press, and the potential prosecution of whistleblowers as traitors?
What’s missing from current music business models is decentralized physical and human capital, i.e., musicians and music fans. Somehow, we keep being left out of the equation.
As Benkler indicates in his testimony, music was the canary in the digital coal mine. In its original free, peer-to-peer form, Napster lasted only two years, from June 1999 to July 2001, but left a changed industry in its wake, and all the many legal and financial and creative ideas since cannot turn back the century. But if music preceded movies, television, books, and journalism down the rabbit hole of peer-to-peer exchange, Benkler reminds us that it wasn’t the first industry to be shaken by fast and cheap digital communication. That distinction belongs to software, which lost its original way of doing business even earlier.
In his article, Benkler looks to developments in the software industry to point the way for journalism in its new, networked form, and it might serve the music business to do the same. As Benkler puts it, “The defining characteristic of the Net was the decentralization of physical and human capital that it enabled.” In programming, that decentralization led not only to the creation of open-source software, but to its rapid development in ways that centralized, hierarchical businesses could not necessarily match. Their solution? Software companies developed ways of using and complementing open-source material, rather than playing whack-a-mole and trying to shut it down. As Benkler puts it, what has emerged in computing is a “collaboration across the boundary between traditional organizational models and new networked models.”
Though many have tried, we haven't really seen this strategy employed in the realm of music. Instead, what seems to have emerged most powerfully for the industry is cooperation between major labels-- the epitome of centralized, hierarchical business models-- and the computing industry (Apple, Spotify, Pandora). What’s missing from that is the very element that Benkler identifies as the defining characteristic of the Net: decentralized physical and human capital, i.e., musicians and music fans. Somehow, we keep being left out of the equation.
As others have commented-- most recently Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich-- these new models are adept at wringing profits from existing music catalogs, but they don’t do much, if anything, for the financing of new recordings. And it doesn’t take an MBA to see how that doesn’t bode well for the future of the industry. But it must be said: Major labels don’t exactly have a great track record for planning ahead. (Is it something about the personalities drawn to work in our moment-to-moment world of music? If you get a thrill from Jonathan Richman’s “one-two-three-four-five-six!” are you more likely to be someone who saves carefully for retirement, or someone who hopes they die before they get old?)
Musicians and fans shouldn't trade their collective abilities for anything less than transforming the industry in their own image.
What might be keeping the music industry from developing successful new networked models is the centralized holding of a majority of existing music rights in the hands of a very few. Apple, Spotify, Pandora, and all those to come in their wake have only to negotiate with the major labels before launching products that the rest of us have to accept or reject. Using Benkler’s terminology, the “networked models” in music have been relegated to a put-up-or-shut-up role, while the “traditional organizational models” explore their options with partners from outside music altogether.
A true 21st-century partnership for the music business would include musicians and music fans in a far more substantive role. “Creating these collaborations is feasible but not trivial,” Benkler acknowledges-- there are entrenched interests that resist open-source sharing, and on the networked side there might be resistance to cooperating with what can seem like the enemy. But he points out the advantages to both sides:
“The major incumbents will continue to play an important role as highly visible, relatively closed organizations capable of delivering much wider attention to any given revelation, and to carry on their operations under relatively controlled conditions. The networked entrants, not individually, but as a network of diverse individuals and organizations, will have an agility, scope, and diversity of sources and pathways such that they will, collectively, be able to collect and capture information on a global scale that would be impossible for any single traditional organization to replicate by itself.”
Benkler is addressing journalism in this statement, but it is easy to map the players in music onto this scenario. The “major incumbents” know who they are. The “network of diverse individuals and organizations” is the rest of us, and our collective abilities in music are tremendous. Musicians and fans shouldn't trade those abilities for anything less than transforming the industry in their own image, because if there is to be a 21st-century music business, it will be a networked one.
One way we could start is to collectively acknowledge that nobody can really claim digital streams as exclusive property. So let them flow freely-- from everyone, fans included-- instead of only from companies that have cut deals with the copyright holders. Services like Spotify might continue to operate as they are, with their pittance of revenue sharing, but they would have to compete in an open market of free streaming by musicians and fans. What I am envisioning is something like what has developed for music posting via YouTube, but allowed to proliferate throughout the network, without corporate control over context or quality. Perhaps that kind of competition would spark newly cooperative ideas, and take us away from the antagonistic relationship between much of the music business on one hand, and the network of musicians and fans on the other. The century is still young.
Damon Krukowski is one half of the folk-rock duo Damon & Naomi. He previously wrote "Making Cents", about how much money artists earn from streaming services like Spotify; he is on Twitter and Tumblr.
5-10-15-20 features artists talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This edition features selections from 53-year-old Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Seattle stalwart Sub Pop Records, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Listen along to Poneman's picks with this Spotify playlist.
When I was five, around 1964, I was living in Toledo, Ohio, which is about eight miles south of Detroit. My father was a physician, and I would go along with him to the farm country outside of Toledo on house calls. One time, on our way back, we stopped by the airport. I used to watch the jets and hang out-- I was a little kid and didn’t have any juvenile delinquent habits, at least not yet. So my father walks over to these two people there and starts having a conversation. One of them is this tall guy with curly hair, and the other was considerably shorter, but still taller than me. I remember the shorter guy saying, “Hey John, you have one hip dad.” I asked my father who it was when we were walking away, and it turned out to be Simon & Garfunkel, who had just played at the University of Toledo the night before.
From that moment on, I was so intrigued by them because they told me I had a hip dad-- though I didn’t really know what that meant. But I’d stay up night after night listening for a Simon & Garfunkel song on the radio and, in doing so, I became familiar with a lot of what was being played on AM Top 40 at the time. That jump-started an interest in music for me.
Steppenwolf: "Magic Carpet Ride"
I went to a Bar Mitzvah with my cousin, who was a few years older than me. I was at the age where I wasn’t quite ready to be social, so I was just counting out time, waiting until my parents were ready to leave. Suddenly, this crazy sound unlike anything I had ever experienced happens over the stereo. It kind of frightened me at first, and then it began to get really loud, and then it suddenly kicked into a song. I loved it. So I went back to the disc jockey and asked what that song was, and he said it was a song called “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf. It begins with a pretty classic distorted guitar intro-- a sound that was pivotal to my musical interests later in life.
That was also around the time that Led Zeppelin II came out. I was in fifth grade, and for show and tell I played “Moby Dick”. We got halfway through the drum solo and my teacher went over and pulled the needle off the record. Half of my classmates gave me a look of total disgust, and the other half gave me a look of blatant admiration. I was dogged with being a people-pleaser most of my life-- I still am-- but that was an act of overt rebellion. It didn’t win me many friends, but I was sure it’d sound good in that classroom.
When I was growing up in Toledo, they played Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith on the radio, classic AOR fare. But, you know, I always thought Aerosmith were meathead, lowest common denominator music. I've liked plenty of dumb shit in my time-- still do-- but you could see that band's true colors all the way back then. It doesn’t surprise me that [Steven Tyler] ended up being on ["American Idol"]. Fucking clown.
Fifteen was a golden age for me. I went to a private school called Cranbrook for about a year and a half, which was where former presidential candidate Mitt Romney went to school, unfortunately. I ended up getting kicked out for disciplinary problems.
Cranbrook was located roughly 20 miles outside of Detroit, which was a hub of activity in the 70s. You had Kill City-era Stooges, Creem Magazine, the best radio stations in the country that would play Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople-- very credible and interesting music. So, being a teenager of reasonable privilege-- I worked, but let’s face it, I was going to a private school and had a lot of disposable income-- I was able to buy records and watch rock shows.
In the mid 70s, the Ramones were starting to play, and you had Mink DeVille, Blondie, Patti Smith, Richard Hell. Television's Marquee Moon was a pivotal record for me. You have Tom Verlaine, who is a poet, and these stripped-down arrangements, but also this soaring guitar-- I’m starting to sound like a bad, 70s rock critic. But that was a gateway for me.
Around then, rock kept getting more and more complicated. In time, you begin to understand that the primal impulses that makes rock rock can’t be too ladled in shit, because it collapses under its own weight. But you’d hear something in the right place in the right circumstances and you felt, “Yes, this is what I need!” For me, that’s what happened with Marquee Moon. It had attitude and humor and what a Midwestern kid would perceive as this smart, New York-artist attitude. I worshipped it. But I also used to listen to all sorts of garbage back then.
I loved Alice Cooper. I found the sense of humor to be kind of stupid, but they sang it with such panache that I loved seeing them play. There was one time I saw them at the Toledo Sports Arena where there were a lot of cranky, horse-tranquilized, doped, acid-taking juvenile delinquents in the audience. Two songs in, somebody threw a cherry bomb on the stage, and the band walked off stage, never to return. There was a little riot in the arena, and there’s actually a book called Billion Dollar Baby written about the event.
I was 19 years old when I moved to Seattle. Me and a buddy of mine named Mike lived in an apartment two blocks away from Tower Records, and I would dutifully go there every couple of weeks to fill out an application. They’d always go, “We’re not hiring now, but we’ll let you know.” But Mike got a job there instantly. He would work the closing shift and, every night, he'd take out the garbage. And in the trash, he'd dump between 15 and 30 records per night that he had managed to stash away. Then he'd go back, get the records out of the dumpster, and walk back to our apartment. By the time they had caught on to him, he had literally stolen 8,000 records. I later found out that he would shit-talk me to the boss and that he basically prevented me from getting hired at that Tower.
But the great thing was all these great records that he’d bring home: The Durutti Column, Crispy Ambulance, Stinky Toys, the Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette, Honi Soit by John Cale, Drums and Wires and Go 2 by XTC, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Juju. Because Tower was such a vast store, he would cut a swath through different sections each day; one day, he’d come home with the Slits, the next day, Throbbing Gristle. So I was a pig in shit. He’d go to work and I’d stay back and listen to records.
Now, everything is overly documented-- everything has a YouTube or a SoundCloud. Back in the mid-80s, though, it was underdocumented, and those were the circumstances that lead to Sub Pop coming together. It basically started right around the time I was 25, when I started working at KCMU, where [Sub Pop co-founder] Bruce [Pavitt] was doing a show, too. I learned about a lot of bands that were coming up there, like Green River and Melvins. We did Screaming Trees' first radio show, if you want to call it that. It was basically drunken shenanigans.
Then, Bruce and I decided to go into business together because we both had the same ideas with complementary strengths: I was able to jawbone people out of money, and Bruce had a good logo, a good name, and a great eye for design. But you didn’t need to be a genius to know the greatness that was in your midst in Seattle during that time. You just had to go to shows. I mean, the U-Men were colossal. In 1987, I was working at a small venue and we put on the record release party for Green River's Dry as a Bone-- to this day, that show is one of the best I’ve ever seen in my life. If any event signaled the beginning of everything that was to come, it was that show. Those of us who do what we do live for events like this, where you walk in expecting one thing and you walk out with your mind blown and your life changed. It doesn’t happen enough, but it happened to me at that show.
Bruce and I went to a Nirvana show at the Covered Wagon [in San Francisco]. They were going to open for Mudhoney the next night in San Jose, so we hitched a ride with them. All the way down, they were playing N.W.A. We had read about it but we hadn’t heard it. Kurt and Krist rapped every lyric. It was not simply because we were with the Nirvana guys-- they were frankly just another Sub Pop band at that time-- but we respected our bands because they were clued in. Bruce and I hadn’t heard anything like that before. We were both hip-hop fans, but N.W.A. was the beginning of gangster rap, and so many careers, attitudes, and mindsets came out of that record.
It wasn’t like we were looking for something else but, at their best, record labels are supposed to be about exploration of music. We felt like that was our responsibility. Once you establish yourself, then you continue listening and react accordingly. To this day, some people go, “What happened to the days when you put out Soundgarden and Nirvana and Babes in Toyland? You suck now!” But culture is supposed to move, it’s supposed to be dynamic.
Bruce and I were having trouble in the wake of Kurt’s death. It all came down to a classic tale of being in the moment, and then suddenly there’s all this expectation-- from paychecks to major-label contracts-- all this rigmarole that has nothing to do with your initial impulse. When colliding agendas and dubious expectations are thrown into the mix, it transmogrifies something that starts as a relatively pure experience and turns it into an opaque, corrupted mess.
I hate getting Biblical, but there was the whole idea of being in this Eden. You have all this beauty of people hanging together, partying, putting the records out, being happy to be able to keep a roof over our heads. Then, suddenly, the big business moves in and everything changes. Life is full of change and I embrace it for better or for worse, but the nature of the change in the case of Seattle affected Bruce and I spiritually more than anything.
It comes down to the fact that we're both accidental entrepreneurs. In the mid-to-late 90s, we put out a lot of really good records, but the whole experience of listening to music was defined by this albatross around my neck that was Sub Pop. We had done a deal with Warner Music and we were spending too much money. As a business, we were going up against these well-funded major labels, who were vying for the same artists that we were. I ended up irresponsibly spending crazy amounts of money on a band like the Grifters, who made great records and were a wonderful band, because my fear was that either I ante-up or I fall off the cliff, which ended up being an enormous mistake on my part and a huge misconception.
I had heard about the Shins some years before, when they were Flake [Music], James [Mercer]’s project. We went about signing them in the old-fashioned way that we used to do it: inexpensively. There was not a dog and pony show. By the time we got to the Shins, we had scaled back as a company and started applying a common sense business strategy from top to bottom. We were looking more locally in terms of the artists we were working with, not just to Seattle in particular but the broader musical community that we’re a part of championing.
In my early 40s, we also got involved with Sam Beam and eventually got involved with Band of Horses. We were working with Ugly Casanova and Isaac [Brock], which led to our involvement with Wolf Parade.Postal Service. I’m grateful for all the acknowledgement that people make of Sub Pop in its early days, but for me, ages 40-50 [laughs]-- it’s weird framing it that way-- were a golden age for Sub Pop.
Nowadays, I listen to a lot of demos. But I also listen to other things. I’m in Poland now and I was listening to this record by a Polish band from Gdynia last night, trying to figure out if I liked it or not. I listen to stuff that we’re going to put out, like the new Dum Dum Girls album, which is breathtakingly amazing-- and I’m not saying that as a hype master. And I'm listening to the new Jacuzzi Boys record [on Sub Pop companion label Hardly Art], which is totally off the hook.
When I talk about listening to demos, it’s not only just going on SoundCloud and listening to random music. Oftentimes, it’s listening to things I’m really intrigued by, but I don’t know how the relationship is going to be struck, and whether or not something is going to make sense. This is new to me because my reaction has historically been: If I like the music enough, I’m going to want to put out the record. But it comes back to the idea of there being so much music and information thrown at you that it clouds the intuitive process. Which is strange. I’m not necessarily saying that it’s good or bad, but I’ve been all heart and intuition in the way that I’ve approached things. It’s a different world now.
Because of streaming technology, it’s so easy to jump around and listen to a little of this and a little of that. It used to be that buying a record was a significant undertaking: You go to the store, you play the record, you give them the money, you come back, you unwrap it. I still do this, but you don’t have to do it. That’s a crucial distinction. It changes the way we listen to music, and it kinda scares me. The sheer amount of music that’s being marketed and served up to people-- this is something I think a lot about because, for somebody who’s in their early 20s, it's just the way it is.
The older I get, the more of a dinosaur I become. It’s not something I choose to be, but we’re all prisoners of our circumstance and our history, to a certain degree. When you think of things in terms of analytics: You have all the tools to zero-in on what people like and what people don’t like, and that’s the way a lot of people are listening to music, reading about music, shopping for music. For me, it was more accidental, and there’s nothing that says I need to abandon that in a world where we have so much information at our fingertips. [Technology] is exciting, and I’m intrigued and I love messing around with it. I love change. But your adaptability is oftentimes challenged, whether you want it to be or not.
A$AP Ferg’s recent tune “Shabba” celebrates the man born Rexton Gordon: “Eight gold rings like I’m Sha-Shabba Ranks,” goes the chorus, “Four gold chains like I’m Sha-Shabba Ranks.” Kanye West, for his part, insists that he’s “the new Shabba” on Yeezus’ “Guilt Trip”, but it’d be tough to top the original.
Though rising to fame in Jamaica and then the rest of the world more than 25 years ago, Shabba Ranks is a quintessential dancehall artist: infectious, upbeat, entertaining. And perhaps that’s what Kanye is trying to channel through the pile of Jamaican samples on his latest. Perhaps Jay-Z is trying to do so, too, with his use of a sample from a Sizzla song, “Solid as a Rock”, on Magna Carta Holy Grail.
Dancehall and hip-hop are indeed related: The chatting over rhythmic tracks that was going on in 1960s Jamaica was brought to New York by Kingstonian immigrants, namely DJ Kool Herc, placing dancehall as the parent and hip-hop the prodigious child. And Kanye isn't the first to mention Shabba, as there have been numerous hip-hop songs that shout out Mr. Loverman from his heyday in the early 90s to today.
The sound of Shabba is, outside of Jamaica, synonymous with the sound of dancehall. An artist who was originally dubbed Co-Pilot, he thankfully changed this less-than-memorable moniker to a name that can also be a verb (one can, for example, engage in “Shabba Ranking”). His ladies-man image, signature Gumby haircut, flowing suits, manicured eyebrows, and the aforementioned gold jewelry, made him stand out. But it was his deep, gravelly, staccato vocals alongside some terrifically danceable rhythms and contagious hooks that led to a major label record deal in the States.
Shabba’s vocal style is that of a “deejay,” the Jamaican term for what in hip-hop is the MC, stemming from the late 1950s, when Jamaica’s mobile sound system selectors would imitate American radio DJs as they introduced songs. These intros eventually bled into the songs themselves. Shabba was not the first deejay to be signed to a U.S. major-- Yellowman, Lieutenant Stitchie, and Super Cat had all been picked up previously-- but he is arguably the definitive artist of the genre, regardless of the fact that he basically disappeared from the spotlight after the early 90s.
Even after having virtually no hits for almost 20 years, it’s amazing how much of a response a Shabba tune still gets in Jamaica.
Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon was born in 1966 in the countryside of Jamaica-- hailing from St. Ann, the same parish as Bob Marley and Burning Spear. Moving to the capital at the age of eight, he was raised in Trenchtown and remembers getting involved in music from the ground up: He apparently worked collecting discarded bottles at street dances when he was 14. He started performing with legendary artist Admiral Bailey on the Roots Melody sound system in the early 80s, and fellow deejay Josey Wales introduced the young talent to then-super-producer King Jammy. By the end of the decade, Shabba Ranks was a bona fide superstar in Jamaica, and Epic took notice, signing him in 1989. In a 2012 interview, Shabba said that he was a troublemaker as a young man-- in his words, “me not a soft soap inna wata.” And he certainly got himself in trouble just as his star was rising worldwide.
With hit after hit, Shabba won back-to-back Best Reggae Album Grammys in 1991 and 1992 (for X-Tra Naked and As Raw as Ever, respectively). But it was the end of the line when, on the December 4, 1993, broadcast of UK show "The Word", Shabba revealed his support for the virulently homophobic views many Jamaican dancehall artists have since become infamous for. Shabba issued an apology, but his career really never recovered-- and saying sorry, along with his focus on the crossover market, meant that he was viewed as a watered-down apologist in Jamaica. He eventually moved from Kingston to New York.
Though his offensive views caused Shabba to disappear from the public eye, his music has had staying power. Because of the sheer number and popularity of his songs, no reggae set anywhere-- from nightclub to wedding-- seems to happen without at least a little bit of “Mr. Loverman” or “Twice My Age”. Even after having virtually no hits in almost 20 years, it’s also amazing how much of a response a Shabba tune still gets in Jamaica. It’s not surprising to hear four, five, or even six Shabba Ranks songs played in a row to an appreciative crowd.
Beenie Man and Yellowman may contest each other for the title of King of the Dancehall, but, in a Napoleonic move, Shabba has crowned himself Emperor. Last summer, there was quite a hullabaloo in Jamaica surrounding his prodigal return for a performance at the country’s annual reggae and dancehall music showcase, SumFest-- his first Jamaican gig in more than a decade; as part of his extensive introduction, veteran Jamaican radio DJ Barry G reminded the crowd that a whole generation had not witnessed the stage-stylings of Shabba. Along with a catalogue of hits, Shabba also possesses stage presence that puts contemporary deejays to shame. He easily put on the best show of Sumfest (and left out any offensive lyrics).
At the end of the night, Shabba brought his wife and sons up on stage.“Not only gunshot can come out of the ghetto,” he said, “I’m a natural proof of ghetto progress.” In the 90s, Shabba Ranks introduced dancehall to the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s just taken a couple of decades for American music to get fully acquainted.
Produced by King Jammy, this tune is representative of a whole range of what are called “slack”-- sexually explicit-- lyrics in Jamaica. But the slackness didn’t seem to stop this tune from being included on the Grammy-winning Xtra-Naked. “Wicked in Bed” and “Needle Eye Pum Pum” are other examples of Shabba’s talent for what some might deem tasteless. It's not the first track Shabba ever did, but it's certainly representative of the majority of his oeuvre.
Regardless of the title, this King Jammy-produced tune isn’t about the same thing Bob Marley sang about. This is a straight celebration of the dancehall-- a space where women wine, music plays, and people dance until the morning. The China Town riddim bounces along as Shabba celebrates celebrating.
A standard of any respectable DJ’s reggae set, “Twice My Age” has a hook that hangs around. Performed by Krystal and Shabba, this hit could be a companion to JC Lodge's 1989 track “Telephone Love”-- both tunes were produced by Gussie Clarke-- which is not quite as legendary as “Twice”, but still quite nice.
Steely and Clevie produced many of the top riddims throughout the 90s. Given that the Jamaican music industry is fueled by multiple songs on the same riddim, it’s no surprise that this one became the basis for a whole genre of music, alternately called Reggaeton or simply Dembow. When stripped of its homophobic lyrics, the boom-cha-boom-chick of “Dem Bow” took on a life of its own.
Again, a Steely and Clevie production, this track has some of the most memorable lines in dancehall: “Ting-a-ling-a-ling, dancehall in swing, deejay ears cock up when dem hear boom riddim/ Ting-a-ling-a-ling, schoolbell a ring, knife and fork ah fight fidumpling.” The song is also one of the best uses of “booyaka, booyaka” (the best, of course, being M-Beat and General Levy’s “Incredible”).
Before there was “Mr. Loverman”, there was “Champion Lover” by British-Guyanese lovers rock singer Deborahe Glasgow. It became Shabba’s most recognizable song, complete with the telltale cries of “Shabba!” Due to illness caused by the cancer that eventually took Glasgow’s life in 1994, the song was rerecorded with Chevelle Franklyn, who has been the voice of the tune's chorus ever since. The Clifton Dillon and Mikey Bennett-produced track was, however, parodied by Marlon Wayans on "In Living Color" as “Mr. Uglyman”. Not that this would have bothered Shabba: He calls himself “Big Dutty Stinking Shabba” in his stage intros, justifying it by saying that since he’s already dealt himself an insult, no one can do worse.
The many combination tunes that Shabba has done with conscious roots and culture artist Cocoa Tea demonstrate that there is more than one side to the man who “love punnany bad.” Along with the sweet “Love Me Truly”, there is the fun “Which One She Love”, the hymn to pan-Africanism and Rastafari, “Flag Flown High”, and “Pirates Anthem” with Home-T, on the same riddim as “Telephone Love”.
Here, Shabba demands respect for those who came before. This Bobby Digital and Clifton Dillon-produced tune may feature some excellent deejaying on the same riddim as Barrington Levy’s classic “Murderer”, but this song didn’t reach the heights of Shabba’s previous work. He was already on a downward spiral both in and out of Jamaica, so the quality of this tune and the demand of its title wasn’t greeted with the respect he wished for.
Before his triumphant return in 2012 for Sumfest, Shabba recorded a tune with contemporary dancehall hit maker Stephen “di Genius” McGregor. Much like the lyrical content of “Respect”, Shabba demands reverence for those who have paid their dues. “None a Dem” did not reach past peaks, but it demonstrates that there’s probably more that Shabba has to offer.
"Austin, laid-back and somewhat indulgent as it is, might be a terrible place for a New Yorker or anyone who wants to move and shake culture or corporations, but it's undeniably a great place to start a band," wrote Lester Bangs of his visit to the city in his essay "Notes on Austin". He scribbled the piece in November, 1980, but his words are still mostly true in 2013.
Austin remains a lusted-after destination for musicians, but Bangs was right-- it isn't New York. It's smaller, there's only one train (the laughable Red Line), $1,000 a month will net you a pretty nice apartment, beautiful swimming holes with beautiful tattooed people are just a short drive away, and, well, the Mexican food is simply better. There is one similarity: most people you meet in Austin aren't really from there. Like New York, Austin is a city filled with transients, mostly from the state, but also from all over the country. And whatever adversities are outweighed by Texas' no bullshit spirit.
"Austin-- Texas as a whole-- is an ideal place because the weather is awful, the governor is a poster boy for horseshit, and people in Texas don't seem to compromise creatively, even things as simple as a perfect riff," says Mike Sharp, who plays in the Impalers, Sungod, and Hatred Surge.
Take Timmy Hefner, for instance. He was born in Winchester, Virginia, a small town an hour and a half from Washington D.C. (population: about 26,000) but has made his impact in Austin as the organizer of the annual punk, hardcore, metal, and “whatever else Timmy listens to” festival, Chaos in Tejas. His booking experience began in Winchester, bringing over punk bands no one else would, like Pig Destroyer, Pg. 99, Choking Victim, and Enemy Soil. “I wanted bands to come to where I lived because I was young and didn't have a car,” he said.
Winchester didn't have much of a punk scene-- Hefner bringing bands was pretty much it-- but he was still able to convince people to see Triac in a flea market. “All those shows had like 10 people that knew who the bands were, but a lot of them were successful-- 200-300 people would come because it was the only thing going on. In Austin, a lot of popular bands wouldn't draw 200-300 people. Austin's so spoiled,” he said.
Chaos had humble beginnings as a three-day fest hosted inside Emo's, and now it takes over downtown and various bars east of I-35 every June. Hefner's influence has not gone unnoticed. “Timmy has done a lot for punk and metal not only in Austin, but for the country as a whole. Maybe I'm pinchin' his dick on that one a little, but it feels like Chaos in Tejas goes above and beyond all of the punk and metal fests of equal or greater caliber in the U.S.,” says Sharp.
Hefner's a little more humble: “It's funny because so many people across the country think Austin is this punk mecca because of the fest-- it's like any other city when there's not thousands of people in town,” he said. “But I think it's helped bands maybe go out of their way to play here more.”
This year featured UK death metal legends Bolt Thrower, punk pioneers the Damned, reunited powerviolence cornerstone Infest, and Japanese hardcore kingpins Framtid as headlining acts. Past editions have featured Autopsy, Converge, Amebix, Inquisition, Nasum (who played a hectic farewell show), Eyehategod, Antisect, Los Crudos, Dillinger Four, and numerous heavyweights and up-and-comers.
Despite the fest's growth, especially with the bookings of non-punk/metal artists like the Field, Best Coast, Bushwick Bill, and Andy Stott (Hefner referred to Stott's Luxury Problems as one of his favorite 2012 albums), Chaos is still a punk fest at heart. “I try to stay away from sponsors. Friends here and there help me. It definitely comes from a punk mindset, but it's not a punk fest,” Hefner said. “It's more about appreciating underground music than necessarily punk.”
There are a lot of hustlers putting in work in Austin, but there isn't a “center” of action, per se. The closest thing would be Red 7, so named because it's at the intersection of Red River and 7th St. It was a hip-hop joint before 2006, when co-owner Jared Cannon came in and turned it into a punk bar following the previous owner being robbed at gunpoint by an act he booked. Red 7 was the new kid in town, while the established Emo's, which is now east of 35 on Riverside Dr., was the main spot for touring bands of all stripes. Tyson Swindell, general manager and co-owner, said that “we were the step-child that nobody wanted” and “from that angst and bitterness is where Red 7 was birthed” as a place for the fast and loud, but Cannon saw Red 7 more as “Emo's retarded little brother.”
Still, while Swindell and Cannon have diversified the club, Red 7 continues to help local metal and hardcore bands gain a following, and many bigger touring packages still hit Red 7. Around 2007, Graham Williams, who was the chief booker at Emo's, left and formed Transmission Entertainment, which books many of Red 7's shows and is now one of the chief bookers in town. He also bought a stake in the club, heightening its profile. Cannon saw this as the turning point for the venue, especially given troubles in the club's infancy.
“Three skinheads hang out here one night for a show, next thing you know, someone's asking a guy who works here 'hey, heard you guys had a skinhead really the other night',” said Cannon.
Red 7 may be the new Emo's, but the owners are still most excited to bring metal and hardcore in the club. They recognize what built the venue into what it is now. “The shows that mean the most to us and stick out in our calendar are the ones that are more along those veins, the stuff that we listen to in our personal lives,” said Swindell. “We worked a long time to build this rapport with the Texas scene and with the national scene, we worked long and hard at it, and I think it's come to pay off.”
While the influx of outsiders hoping that they'll forge the next Sword creates a glut of bands that would make Tony Iommi sick of his own riffs, it wouldn't be a music town without some straight killers.
Unmothered's sound is deceptive. On a cursory glance, you hear sludge riffs and think, “This is just another Crowbar ripoff. Carry on.” Listen deeper, and you'll come to find they separate themselves from the pack in some crucial ways. There's an air of noise rock dissonance in Matt Walker's riffs. He brings a pinch of black metal to the brew, giving faster parts the real drive they need. Matt Mouils's drumming is among the tightest in the city. He's almost the Texan John Stainer in a way-- the precision of somebody who could play in a formal setting, but with the desire to bring that talent to heavier territories.
Walker has a story about a friend that went to Mexico City that not only gave Unmothered its name, but the inspiration for their sound. “Upon hailing a cab out of the airport, he was asking the driver about the city, and how he would best describe it. The driver used a Spanish word, 'desmadre', translating to 'without mother' or 'unmothered' and went on to say the city had become lost, as there was no one to care for it, all were on their own to face the poverty, crime, and danger that was present there,” Walker said. “The word stuck, as I thought those feelings were reflected through the material we were writing at the time.”
Pushmen, a fusion of metal, noise rock, and hardcore, have opened for both Exhumed and Deafheaven in the past year. No, that's not a factual error. They really have played both bills. (Exhumed probably gets tired of Suffocation clones anyhow.) Pushmen's sound is flexible-- heavy enough for more serious bills, catchy enough to make most blackshirts loosen themselves up, psych enough to where you'll get a contact high, and with enough skronk to mesh in with the punks. The Sun Will Rise Soon on the False and the Fair, released earlier this year on the End, showcases their sound to a larger national audience.
“We’ve always been music obsessives, we make music for other music obsessives, and if you’ve got metal, punk, hardcore, noise, rock n’ roll - we basically try to work in the gutters of all of that shit,” said vocalist Craig Moore.
They've also got plenty of experience as local warriors, with members previously playing in Ratking and Employer Employee. Moore explains how the close-knitness of the Austin scene, odd for a city of its size, nourished the metal and hardcore scenes, especially back when they were straight-edge kids.
“We're all gonna go eat at this vegan restaurant, then we're gonna go to the show, then we're gonna go swimming. If you've think you've found the right people with the shit you want to be into-- fuck yeah, I'm in,” he said.
“Herd mentality,” guitarist Joey Cortez butted in, with laughs.
Cortez and Moore grew up around southeast Houston before coming to Austin. Moore, in particular, was driven by the need to escape the rote lives led by many people in Pasadena, which Moore refers to as "a shitty petrol-chemical suburb."
“The trap down there is you can take an entrance exam right out of high school and get a base-level petrol-chemical job working at the plants," he continued. "You'll be making 35 bucks an hour right out of high school, and you'll look at your watch and you're like, 'Holy shit, I weigh 400 pounds and I have three children. There's no way I'm going to dig myself out of this hole.'"
Chris Ulsh, though, is the man about town. For now, he's far from Dan Swano, but he’s among the most prolific of metal and hardcore musicians in Austin. There's his main band, Mammoth Grinder, which fuses Swedish death metal, hardcore, and power groove. They recently released Underworlds on 20 Buck Spin, which sees the band refining their savage approach. He also plays guitar in Hatred Surge, a powerviolence trio that has incorporated death metal more and more into its sound in recent times. Human Overdose, which we reviewed recently, is more grotesque and focused than their previous work. Power Trip, for whom Ulsh drums for, put out one of the best thrash albums in recent memory, Manifest Decimation, this year, and are known for their live shows that feature a lot of, well, foot traffic. Also, they have the greatest shirt of all time.
Ulsh is originally from Houston, but moved to Austin following a frustrating stint in Nashville. Finding musicians to play in Austin was easier. “I could have just gone on Terminal Boredom and been like 'who lives here?' But I didn't. I met one kid who was into punk and stuff, but he didn't play instruments,” he said. “That was all I used to do in high school, it drove me crazy.”
Interestingly enough, his main projects feature members not living in Austin. Power Trip, save for him, is largely based in Dallas. Alex Hughes, who plays bass in Hatred Surge and Mammoth Grinder, lives in Houston, as does Mammoth Grinder drummer Brian Boeckman. To keep busy, he's formed punkier projects will all locals-- Criaturas, the Impalers, and Vaaska. Ulsh admits it's a challenge to have bandmates living in different cities, even if Houston and Dallas are each only about three hours away. When there's many musicians in town, though, you gotta hustle, and Ulsh certainly does.
“It's annoying to not have that thing where you're a band and practice once a week, and you can drink beer and fuck around. And then you become tight that way,” he said. “We [Vaaska] can have that thing where we can just fuck around and practice.”
We could go on with the notable bands. Birth A.D. bring an irreverent snarkiness lacking in most crossover, Communion's doom is both meditative and suffocating, Sweat Lodge's hooky stoner rock has swagger for eons, the Fleshlights are a trio of young punk upstarts looking to make trouble, Mindless grind like Hobbes said we shouldn't-- nasty, brutish, and short-- and Skycrawler layer their doom with trippy synths.
Austin's changing-- the city broke over 800,000 people recently, there's condos going up seemingly everywhere downtown, Californians are bringing their problems to the city, and some of the sleepy ways are going by the wayside. On the other hand, it's still one of the most vibrant cities for musicians, especially in metal, punk, and hardcore. Compared to the rest of Texas, it's a haven for people who want to turn up the volume. There's simply no place like it. Ignore the surly bartenders who wear "don't move here" shirts. You need the noise, and they need your money.
Raspberry Bulbs frontman Marco del Rio is probably best known under a darker alias: He Who Crushes Teeth. For more than a decade, he's gone by the ominous moniker as the drummer and lyricist for California black metal purists Bone Awl. With that knack for rhythm, philosophical writerly approach, and no proper guitar experience whatsoever, his unique skill set has served him well in making the mutant lo-fi raw punk of Raspberry Bulbs, which he began five years ago surrounding a move to New York City.
Growing from a solo project to a quintet, the band now scratch and scream while waxing existential and perhaps even getting stuck in your head. In New York, they've played out off-and-on, becoming underground favorites across formidable corners of punk, hardcore, and noise. (The project's 2011 debut, Nature Tries Again, was released via Hospital Productions, run by Dominick Fernow of Prurient and Vatican Shadow.) And while Raspberry Bulbs do not identify as black metal, they do draw from the genre's atmosphere and grim themes. "When I start writing, I want to be on that level of thinking," del Rio says, sitting at a bar in Bushwick, "because the same things are at stake-- it's kind of a life or death situation."
Considering such quotes, it may be reasonable to assume that a conversation with del Rio and the band's drummer, who goes by Ning Nong, could make a pretension barometer explode. But while del Rio, a visual artist who also designs all of Raspberry Bulbs' covers, was slightly guarded, he was also thoughtful and unassuming. And I immediately recognized Ning Nong from his job at Heaven Street, a record shop down the street run by their friend Sean Ragon of Cult of Youth.
Del Rio prefaces our talk by admitting that he and Ning Nong don't know how "these sorts of interviews" work; they've never done one. Only later did he reveal he'd brought along a "cheat sheet" of talking points, something I'd never expect from a punk band (many of whom, especially in the hyper-skeptical NYC scene, may not have agreed to this interview at all). Their inspiration comes from ideas more than sound itself, and inside the artwork for new album Deformed Worship is a survey of intellectual interests: an image of Einstein sticking his tongue out, along with quotes on art, writing, and isolation by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, painter Jean Francois Millet, and pop singer Annie Lennox. The cover is pink.
We spoke about the deformed worship of pop music and America, the essence of black metal, transcending genre boundaries, pink printer paper, and more.
"You have to treat everything the same way-- there's not really high and low art. When you are legitimately inspired by something, it happens regardless of where it's coming from."
Pitchfork: You guys clearly have a strong black metal background, but you've been adament about Raspberry Bulbs not getting pegged as a black metal band.
Marco del Rio: Musically, in black metal, there are a lot of standards and expectations. When you try to exist in that world, you're trying to satisfy what people demand from a black metal band. So this band is about not having to deal with the limitations that type of situation puts on you-- I don't want people trying to place it. Coming from black metal has informed the way I write music, but this band is about acknowledging the existence of those serious, heavy feelings usually found in black metal in other types of music.
Ning Nong: We identify with a quality of lo-fi, atmospheric music across genres more than we identify with music made under the banner of black metal, or the banner of raw punk, or the banner of anything. You can do more than genre exercises. One of the most important things about this project is that it's expressed in a lo-fi way but doesn't shy from proper songwriting.
Pitchfork: I was excited to see lyrics from Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" inside the album art: "Some of them want to use you/ Some of them want to get used by you." How does that relate to Raspberry Bulbs?
MDR: It's a confusing combination of references [in the album art], which is the point. You have to treat everything the same way-- there's not really higher and lower art. When you are legitimately inspired by something, it happens regardless of where it's coming from. It's about consciously not adhering to what a genre is supposed to be. You should just let it happen.
That Annie Lennox quote is not underground at all. Regardless, it's totally true, and it's something I agree with. It's also acknowledging a sort of worship of pop music. There's something that is very heavy and dark about that quote, and yet it's presented in the most poppy, radio-friendly way.
NN: It relates to the project more than something stylistically might, and it's an important facet of what we're trying to do: all of art history and history itself is fair game. That's where we're coming from-- recognizing ideas over style or genre.
MDR: A band has the entire world to work through and decide, "What is it that inspires me?" Everybody's doing that. It's not like people say, "I only listen to this." Well, maybe they do. But my understanding of art or music or anything right now is like: I'll take whatever you've got.
Pitchfork: The title of the new LP is Deformed Worship. Does that have to do with how you relate to the things that influence and inspire you?
MDR: It does. It relates to the Annie Lennox quote, too: Essentially, this is pop music, but once it gets put through the filter of our band, you get this other ugly, abject thing.
Pitchfork: Your new label Blackest Ever Black has mostly released music by dark electronic projects. How did you end up working with them?
NN: We found it more appealing to work with them than to try fitting into a genre-based label. One of the most interesting things about underground or independent music in 2013 is the willingness of labels to sign on with somebody with a personal vision, regardless of genre. Labels are willing to take a chance on things outside of their scope of sound. You can only go so far with a genre-based outlook on music. Whereas with a vision-based outlook, you start seeing correlations between things like Annie Lennox and metal. So we can exist on a label that's mostly put out things that sound electronic but, in essence, are similar to what we do; we feel a closer affinity to some of these dark electronic bands than we feel with anything in our local punk community.
Pitchfork: There's a very active punk and hardcore scene in New York right now, and most of the bands you guys play with come from there and the noise scene. Are you inspired by this environment?
MDR: We don't really fit in. That's understood. But we try to play with bands we respect, and that tends to be hardcore, metal, or noise bands. That's the world we come from. If we're gonna fit in anywhere, it's going to be underground. It's a good environment, and the fact that people are motivated and pushing forward in their own direction is inspiring. But stylistically, I don't find a lot of the stuff going on in New York right now inspiring.
"You can only go so far with a genre-based outlook on music. Whereas with a vision-based outlook, you start seeing correlations between things like Annie Lennox and metal."
Pitchfork: The words and images on the album can be abstract and repurpose cryptic biblical imagery, like "wielding a holy blade" or "Groping the Angel's Face". What do you want to convey with this stuff?
MDR: You hear the title "Groping the Angel's Face" and don't exactly know what it means. That's how I want it to be. The song is about dealing with your own mortality and constantly being confronted by the idea of dying. "When a Lie Becomes the Truth" is about suicide. In life, you're trying to become other things, but you're not ever sure if you get there. Those are two absolutes we can understand-- existence, or not.
Pitchfork: As an artist, do you finding yourself mostly wrapping your head around the big-picture questions?
MDR: Definitely. Obviously, there are smaller things people deal with everyday: personal problems, relationships, socializing. You can get so caught up in the minute. But if you have a band and are trying to write songs, you can make an effort to focus on things that are broader and more significant. You can have a wider vantage point. I need my band because I need a moment to try to understand things on a bigger scale.
Pitchfork: The visual element of the band is striking. How did you decide to make the album cover pink?
MDR: I was spending a lot of time in the copy center, where there's so many different colors of paper. I found this one shade and wanted to work with it, which is seemingly random, but it was an instinctual attraction. Later, you're trying to figure out: What did that represent? What does it symbolize in a greater context? What does pink or violet mean? If you think about the spectrum of colors that people see, some are more difficult to register. There's the term "ultraviolet," which is the beginning of the color spectrum that you can't see. So a wavelength of light that's invisible is pink. It's hidden beyond. And that has a lot of application to the band-- going after something you don't necessarily understand.
Pitchfork: What are you trying to say with the American flag on the cover?
MDR: It's about being inspired by imagery and trying to come to a deeper understanding. You have a basic reaction to something-- "oh my god, I like this"-- but you have to ask yourself, why? It was an opportunity to think about what it means to be American, which completely informs who I am, what I do, and how I think. It's another way that I think of the title Deformed Worship-- I have no choice, I live under this system that exists in this country, so I have to acknowledge it. It's forcing a situation where you have to confront these things that define your culture. It's not really something you're asked to do very often.
Twigs is someone who grew up with a lot of quiet, surrounded by valleys, cows, and sheep in Gloucestershire, a largely rural county in southwest England. "The hardest part of the day would be if you got stuck behind a tractor on the way to school," recalls the 25-year-old. And though she moved to London to pursue dancing and singing about eight years ago, she's still managed to carve out calm amidst the buildings, sirens, and chatter. "I definitely keep myself to myself; I don't really go out," she says during our Skype video call. "If my friends want to see me, they know to come around to my house." She tends bar on the weekends-- "so I can afford to pay for the extra things I want as an artist"-- but even inside a noisy pub, she creates her own silenced shorthand. "My friend bought me a 'Twigs' nameplate necklace as a joke one Christmas," she says, "so when people would ask my name in a loud bar, I'd always just point to the necklace."
That understatedness runs through to her music, a serene style that pairs the xx's unflinching intimacy with a menacing undertow reminiscent of Massive Attack's Mezzanine. On her unassuming 2012 debut EP, she used negative space in a powerful way, her high-pitched whisper drifting in and out to narrate eerily charged scenes. A forthcoming four-track follow-up, dubbed EP 2 and out on September 9 via XL/Young Turks, finds her even more gloriously weightless. Her voice now brings to mind Janet Jackson at her most delicate on tracks like the devastating first single, "Water Me", which features production from the young breakout producer-- and Yeezus collaborator-- Arca.
Perched on the floor of her label's London office in a pair of plastic overalls and hoop earrings, twigs engages gamely throughout our entire webcam interview, holding up photos of her mother at a young age and showing off her gaudy iPhone case. When we talk about her moniker-- which is now affixed to the acronym FKA, at the request of another artist called Twigs-- she explains that it’s a long-running nickname that refers to the way her bones crack... and proceeds to demonstrate by contorting her hands and arms. Her joints snap so loudly and quickly that it sounds like a bag of marbles spilling onto a wood floor-- popping exclamation points from an artist who doesn't need to shout to be heard.
Pitchfork: How did you begin singing?
Twigs: I started writing seriously when I was 16. I grew up in a place called Gloucestershire; my dad is Jamaican, and it had quite a large Jamaican community. There was a youth club there with a low-key studio, and they'd have guys rapping, and I'd put the chorus down on the track. Eventually, people started saying, "You've got a really nice voice, you should start doing your own stuff." I realized that's all I wanted to do for a career by the time I was 18.
Gloucestershire is kind of in the middle of nowhere. I started getting interested in dancing and music because there isn't very much else to do. If you're from a small town, you have to be imaginative, especially if you’re an only child like me-- you make up games in your head.
Pitchfork: Did you ever train as a dancer?
T: I moved to London to go to dance school when I was about 17, but then I realized that I didn't want to be a dancer anymore, so I dropped out after five or six weeks. All I wanted to do was sing and make music. But I still train every single week-- it’s just a part of my life. I do ballet at least once or twice a week, along with contemporary and hip-hop. I’m training with a UK krump group called Wet Wipez. My mom used to be a dancer and a gymnast, she’s part Spanish. When I was younger, she was a salsa dance teacher, and she'd sneak me into salsa nightclubs and put me under the DJ desk.
Pitchfork: It seems like there's a lot of exciting music being made in London right now. Do you feel part of an artistic community?
T: No. I honestly have no idea what's going on. [laughs] I'm a quiet person. During the week, I’m quite simple. I wake up in the morning; I go to ballet; I come back; I maybe make a beat. This year, I’ve just been in the studio a lot. Whenever a new music artist comes out, everyone's always so curious and wants to interview you and put you in this magazine or that magazine, but I didn't want to get distracted. I've been writing for almost 10 years and I just wanted that process to continue where I'm in the studio every single week.
T: I feel confident that the work I've put in will make people see me as a music artist before anything else. With Young Turks and XL, the music always comes first. But, of course, all these other things are exciting. I was never the pretty girl at school. I'm tiny and mixed-race. I grew up in a white area. I was always the loner. I was always kind of off-- a little weird, wanting to be a ballet dancer or have opera lessons. So being on the cover of i-D is really exciting, but ultimately, the reason why I moved to London and the reason why I've been on this journey is because I really love making music. I can't imagine doing anything else.
Julianna Barwick's cathedral-ready songs have always seemed to exist in the same ghostly realm as Sigur Rós', give or take a few bombastic demons. So when Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers emailed Barwick last year, asking if she’d like to come and record with him in Iceland, she was quick to respond. Very quick. “That was the fastest reply I’ve ever written,” Barwick recalls. “I was just like, Yes! Send!” But after the initial excitement of the moment evaporated, she began to have her doubts. Though she’s done collaborative projects with avant-garde percussionist Ikue Mori (for RVNG’s FRKWYS series) and experimental-pop artist Helado Negro (the pair released an album last year under the name OMBRE), Barwick’s gorgeous and inventive solo work has all been a product of intense, prolonged solitude. Recorded alone and comprised mostly of wordless, wispy loops of her own voice, her best album yet, 2011’s The Magic Place, sounded like the internal soundtrack of somebody lost in her own private reverie. The invitation to make a record with Somers posed an interesting challenge: What happens when an artist whose process is so based in privacy suddenly decides to let other people in?
“I’ve never shared that before,” Barwick admits, sipping a wheat beer at a quiet bar she’s recommended in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, “I never thought I'd want someone telling me what to do [in the studio].” But as she now recalls, working on her forthcoming album Nepenthe with Somers-- as well as members of Múm and the string quartet Amiina-- pushed her past her own self-imposed limits. Thinking back to a day spent recording live strings at Sundlaugin Studio (aka "the Sigur Rós swimming pool studio"), she still sounds in awe: “I couldn't believe it was really happening. I wasn't in my bedroom. I was with Amiina and Alex in this amazing studio in this country. It was something to behold.”
As ever, Nepenthe, due August 20 via Dead Oceans, still sounds like nobody else-- however accidentally. “It’s not like I’m going, ‘Hm, how can I make weird music that no one else is making?’” she laughs, “There was no master plan.” But the new record does offer a shift in tone. Recorded while she was grieving over a death in the family that she’s still not quite comfortable talking about on the record, there’s a palpable ache to Nepenthe (the title refers to an Ancient Greek medicine thought to chase away sorrow). The ominous “Pyrrhic” and vaporous opener “Offing” feel like some of the darkest music Barwick’s released to date. The Magic Place and her 2009 EP Florine sometimes sounded like music on a radio station broadcast directly from Eden. Nepenthe feels, decidedly, like it was recorded after the Fall.
Pitchfork: Your music is very intimate but also anonymous in some ways.
Julianna Barwick: I do love that about [my records]-- the music I make is pretty interpretive. I would never be like, “This song is called ‘Cancun’ and it’s about Cancun, so think about Cancun while you listen to it.” And the way I’ve always recorded my vocals is all about the idea of just being lost. When I was a kid, I would constantly make songs up, just like [wordless coos], where I would sing to myself and get so lost in it that I would cry. It sounds kinda psycho, I know, but I’ve always loved music-- not planning anything, just feeling it.
I’ve been musical my whole life, but I really did just kind of stumble onto the way I make music now. It’s one of the reasons why, even after years of voice lessons and being in choirs and everything, I didn’t want to do music in college-- I never wanted to be super frustrated that I had to write a piece I didn’t care about that was due on Monday morning.
Pitchfork: Are you a big fan of ambient music?
JB: I get a lot of people being like: “You must be the biggest Eno fan; you must just adore Steve Reich.” And I know who they are, but I honestly don’t really know their music very well. It’s not to say that I don’t like any ambient music. I definitely love some of Aphex Twin’s softer stuff and I’ve always loved [Eno's] Music for Airports. But I’m not an ambient music enthusiast, dare I say it. [laughs] I like all kinds of different music. I love classical music and soundtrack music. I love vocal music. I love pop music. I think people are surprised when I say that I listen to Drake on a pretty regular basis.
Pitchfork: I read that your sister wanted you to try out for “American Idol”.
JB: Yes, she did. When I was making Florine, she would send me the website link and the deadlines and be like, “I’m really serious. You need to go this time. You are almost too old.” You know how sometimes you think your family doesn’t really know you at all? [laughs] It’s just funny she thought that that might be the kickstart to my career: Close it out with a Kelly Clarkson song, win “American Idol”. But I do love to sing like that, with the riffs and everything. I love to sing R&B for karaoke.
Pitchfork: Wow. If you can pull that one off that’s seriously impressive.
JB: Yeah. I can do it pretty well. I can be kind of painfully loud.
Pitchfork: Maybe you should try out for “American Idol”.
JB: I’m way too old now. The dream has died. I’m never going to be an American Idol.
Pitchfork: You’ve mentioned that titling songs is the last thing that happens when you're making records. Are you ever singing actual lyrics when you’re recording, or just wordless sounds?
JB: It’s almost always just sound. On the song “One Half”, you can hear some actual tangible lyrics, but I didn’t write them ahead of time. They just popped into my head. My father has been driving me crazy. This whole time, he’s been like, “When are you going to write a song with words in it?” And with that one I finally was like, “There it is. You can stop pestering me now.” And he was like, “I probably won’t.” [laughs]
Pitchfork: You didn’t collaborate with anyone on the records you made before this one. Was it hard to let people into that process?
JB: I wondered-- even though this was Alex Somers and I can’t wait to work with him-- is this gonna be tough? Because I’ve never had someone looking or listening or advising or saying, “That’s not good.” But Alex and I just had whatever chemistry it took to work.
One day he was like, “I think I want to have Robbie from Múm [Róbert Sturla Reynisson] do some guitar stuff for fun.” And I was thinking, guitar? Like, [makes guitar solo noise]? But he ended up coming in with these crazy pedals he made himself and added all these sounds that you would never know are guitar-- weird whispery sounds and beeps and boops. I was just like: “Oh! I get it.” The whole experience was a total dream come true.
I also got initiated into the “champagne-on-your-butt club” when I opened for [Sigur Rós].
Pitchfork: I'm unfamiliar with this club... [laughs]
JB: At the end of a show, Jónsi was like, “Hey, Julianna, bend over.” I was like, “Huh?” “Bend over! Take off anything you don’t want wet!” I was like, “What?” It’s a tradition for openers or newcomers: He popped [the cork] at my ass. I got my ass champagned.
Three-day passes to Lollapalooza 2013 were gone well before any lineup was announced; each individual day, up for grabs the week the bill finally surfaced, sold out in about an hour. This run on tickets isn't unique to Lolla; Coachella goes much the same way, ditto Glastonbury. But the idea that so many thousands of people are willing to roll the dice on a gigantic music festival without much clue as to what the music will actually be tells you plenty about Lolla's place in the festival world circa 2013. There's no denying people came out in the thousands for the Cure. But for just as many, it might as well be anybody up there; they came to be at Lollapalooza.
And being at Lollapalooza isn't quite what it used to be. This was Lolla's ninth year at Chicago's Grant Park, a lovely spot, but a far cry from its rep-making early days as a whistle-stop showcase for the alt-rock vanguard. In 2011, sensing an uptick in Stateside interest in dance music, Lolla smartly moved the Perry's dance stage from the main concourse to the softball fields across Columbus Dr. Ever since, Lolla's felt almost like two festivals operating half a block away. Despite the minimal distance, Perry's and Lolla proper have never felt quite as separate as they did this year.
On average, Lolla's six headliners-- the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Phoenix, the Killers, the Postal Service, and Mumford & Sons-- have been around some 17 years. Clearly, landing on the big stage at a festival Lolla's size means you've got to put some time in. But both the Cure and the Killers are well past their respective heydays. The Postal Service's lone album is 10 years old. Phoenix are coming off of this year's knotty Bankrupt!, and while Nine Inch Nails are maybe the last band of the alt-rock era with an eye still trained on the future, their stellar Friday-night set was as poorly-attended as any I've seen for a Lolla headliner. But when the youngest band at the top of your bill goes around dressing like it's 1920, you know rock'n'roll is in a curious place. Lolla's not immune to innovation on the main stage: In the last five years, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Daft Punk, and Deadmau5 have all headlined. But this year, almost anything resembling innovation seemed to be scuttled off to the sides, leaving the main stages open for varying degrees of nostalgia.
On the other hand, Perry's was a constant blur of neon, its persistent wubba beckoning the stoned immaculate. Even in passing, the feeling was intoxicating; there were few times all weekend when the deep bass pouring out of Perry's speakers didn't sound a hell of a lot more exciting than whatever was going on elsewhere. Nevermind that I'd barely heard-- let alone heard of-- 80% of the Perry's bill. Whether it was the molly, the Lime-a-Ritas, or the drop-laden "Love Sosa" remixes, the mood was free, jubilant, something you couldn't help but want to be part of. Kids who'd been standing listlessly by the main stages skipped their way towards Perry's like it was water in a desert. Groups of threes and fours would hurdle over the blanket dwellers toward the back of the lawn in anticipation of each looming dubstep drop, even though the next one would be coming along in no more than 45 seconds.
There's a certain restlessness to being at Lolla, a feeling that no matter what you're doing, you could be doing something better somewhere else. With a strict 10 p.m. cut-off, and up to six stages going at once, this feeling's more than understandable; unlike Coachella, which goes past midnight, or Bonnaroo, which pushes on until the wee hours, Lolla just packs more music into less time. If you want to see everything you'd hoped to, you've got to hustle.
It doesn't seem like that big of a stretch to chalk some of this year's harried feelings to the current fragmentation of music culture. With YouTube, Spotify and the like, a lot of the kids at Lolla have grown up scanning through music, skipping to the next song whenever the current one loses their interest. This manifests itself not only in the constant movement from stage to stage, but the quick-hit nature of the stuff coming from the speakers at Perry's: 30 seconds of a popular song, 15 seconds of bass armageddon, rinse, repeat. This is why Perry's held a crowd when so many other stages couldn't: American dubstep manages to be deeply familiar (you know "Ruff Ryders Anthem") and wildly unpredictable (but you don't know what the drop's going to sound like) all at once, a combination that works wonders on the pleasure centers while wreaking a pleasant havoc on the attention span.
At the main stages, this level of excitement was hard to come by. And when it happened, it was the up-and-comers earning the adulation. The sharp, self-effacing Ellie Goulding is a proper pop star, and it's no coincidence that her music shares quite a bit with dubstep: the loud-quiet-loud dynamics, ethereal vocals offset by deep bass hits. Elsewhere, it was a little weird seeing Kendrick Lamar's sad-eyed introspection mistaken for turn-up anthems, but the songs work almost as well stripped of their nuance as they do on the miles-deep good kid, MAAD city, and when Kendrick himself starts playing the "livest side" game with the crowd, you can't begrudge anybody hoisting their Bud Light to "Swimming Pools". L.A. sisters Haim made good on every ounce of their ballooning hype; they're funny, too, letting a "motherfucker" go every third word, then turning around and saying hello to their parents.
Checking the schedule for this year's Lolla, I kept thinking of a comment my colleague Steven Hyden made on Twitter a few weeks back: "Nobody knows how popular anything is anymore." That never felt more true than on Sunday night, when a steady stream poured out of Vampire Weekend's very good mainstage set to catch 2 Chainz at the tucked-away Grove stage. Not that Vampire Weekend don't deserve the spotlight; they're the smartest rock band going, better all the time. But if 2 Chainz, one of the three or four most popular rappers in the world right now, isn't mainstage material, I'm not entirely sure who is. Friday afternoon, local hero Chance the Rapper was scuttled off onto the narrower BMI stage, but 20 minutes before his set, fans had absolutely swarmed the place; by the time it started, between the proximity and the pot smoke, breathing became a challenge. By all the old metrics, Chance is a nobody; he's never sold an album (intentionally, anyway), never done a big feature. But, to Chicago's 17-to-21 stoner set, he's a bona-fide star.
It seems pretty clear that, somewhere between the collapse of record sales and the advent of private listening on Spotify, it's gotten a lot trickier to gauge just how big an artist really is. A smorgasbord-style festival like Lolla's a bit deceptive, too; ads for the fest tout its low-low price per act, but when you buy your ticket, there's no telling who you're actually paying to see. Having instant access to most of the music ever made has fragmented people's taste in ways Lolla's still catching up with; there's nothing strange at all about a Vampire Weekend fan hauling ass over to Tity Boi, or a local rapper grabbing one of the festival's biggest crowds, or a bunch of DJs you mostly know from other festival posters outdrawing Nine Inch Nails. Still, it's a transition, and Lolla's only concession is excess: There's so much to see, so you'll probably like something.
Before “Feel It All Around” defined the visual and sonic aesthetic of chillwave (and was integrated into the theme song for the proudly self-aware hipster burlesque "Portlandia"),it was Ernest Greene’s Rebel Yell. Explaining the motivation that fueled his earliest recordings, the 30-year-old songwriter/producer behind Washed Out says, “It was very much a reaction against Southern music. I grew up in Macon, Georgia, where the Allman Brothers came from, and I was always the kid rebelling against [them].” Greene’s contrarianism is doubly surprising when conveyed in a low, hangover-aided Bibb County accent that bears absolutely no similarity to the yawning vocals he uses on his records. But while his drawl hasn’t dissipated, his earliest biases have. Speaking on his second album, Paracosm, he admits “it’s come full circle, because a lot of the sounds on this record have more of a rock vibe.”
Along with the integration of guitars and live drums, Paracosm's lead single "It All Feels Right" includes lyrics that wouldn't sound out of place at a barbecue, frat party, or even on an Allmans greatest hits CD: “Meet up with the old crowd/ Music’s playing so loud/ It all feels right." Greene seems content knowing that Paracosm will serve as “good time” music for people who rock Urban Outfitters, and it’s that way by design. And even if the album is twang-free, its humid, reverb-soaked production is taken straight from a sticky Dixie summer. When I reach Greene, he’s milling about in his house just outside of Athens, Georgia, figuring out how he’s going to endure a day that’s nearly cracked 90 before noon.
"I’ve struggled with depression, and music was always a positive way to will myself out of it.
Pitchfork: What’s your reaction when people still call you a “chillwave artist”?
Ernest Greene: I really don’t think much about it, though I've seen a lot of people saying [“It All Feels Right”] is a reaction against chillwave. In some ways, I’m grateful for it, because it defined me apart from millions of other kids in their bedroom making electronic music.
Pitchfork: Why do you think there was such a backlash against it?
EG: On some levels, it’s simple music with straightforward pop arrangements, so it’s fairly easy to copy. There were a ton of imitators, or just people doing it better than me, a year or two afterwards. A backlash was inevitable. I’m sure the lo-fi quality might’ve rubbed people the wrong way, too. I feel like I don’t hear as much really lo-fi sounding stuff these days.
Pitchfork: Are there times where you feel like the kindness in your music is taken for weakness?
EG: I think so. There are definitely a lot of cynical people out there, especially when it comes to indie rock. A line talking about “the sun shining,” is always gonna rub some people the wrong way. To me, [“It All Feels Right”] is about simple moments when you have a very deep sense that something special is happening, and that it’s fleeting and beautiful, and that it might not happen again. These moments are just as profound and worthy of writing about as depression or death or whatever other weighty ideas; there’s value in writing happy songs.
Pitchfork: What experiences do you draw on to write a song like “Feel It All Around” or “It All Feels Right”?
EG: I just turned 30 and, in some ways, I think my golden years are past me. You can call it nostalgia, but things were just more fresh when I was younger and more naive. It’s not even the actual moment of what happened, but the realization in that moment that it's beautiful. I know I’m probably coming across like a hippie by saying that, but that’s what the record’s about. Love it or hate it. I see a lot of beautiful things around me in the world and I consciously chose to write about it, because I’ve struggled with depression before. You can choose to fixate on that, or you can will yourself out of it. For me, music was always a very positive way to will myself out of that situation. In your imagination you can perfect things in a way you can’t do in your everyday life.
Pitchfork: Your music has become this aural shorthand for being laid-back, but does anything make you angry?
EG: I’m a real hardcore perfectionist, and it’s developed much more strongly the more I’ve gotten into doing this full-time. I get really frustrated because right now, for instance, there’s a million fucking things floating around. We’re working on a couple of different music videos, we’re working on the tour. I get pretty mad at my manager and the record labels, and they can probably give you an entirely different version of the person you probably think I am.
Pitchfork: Washed Out has gained a reputation as make-out music, do you consider yourself a particularly sensual person?
EG: The songs are constructed around an initial feeling, so it’s never anything super-specific. The Within and Without artwork pushed me more in that direction. But then again, since I'm a little naive, it wasn’t this sensual kind of make-out music to me. It was simpler than that: just seeing each other eye-to-eye.
Pitchfork: Do you feel your music fills a void in indie music in that regard?
EG: In the last year and a half there’s been a ton of great, interesting R&B happening that has a sensual quality about it. That Frank Ocean record was one of my favorites. In indie rock, it seems like bolder, weightier ideas reign supreme.
Pitchfork: Do you think that Washed Out serves as a bridge between indie listeners and R&B?
EG: I see some similarities. There was actually a track I heard this morning that was a really interesting mix of R&B and early Michael Jackson [Dornik’s “Something About You”], but it also had some synth tones that felt a little chillwave. I think electronic pop music in general is leading the way. I felt really lucky with the music I’ve been making; I’d been doing it for three or four years, and it just so happens that right around the time I started to put music out that this newer electronic music was starting to happen. The Drive soundtrack was pretty big, opening up people’s ears to electronic pop structure. And I hear a lot of the new R&B pulling some of those things out, for sure. It was just the right timing.
Pitchfork: The title Within and Without referenced The Great Gatsby and Paracosm is based on the concept of creating imaginary worlds a la C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. With that in mind, do you think the literary and intellectual aspect of Washed Out gets underplayed?
EG: I’ve never really put the lyrics out there very much, which was a pretty conscious decision on my part. Just talking about the “paracosm” thing specifically-- I think it was coined in the late 70s, so it’s a fairly new word, a new idea. And to me, it represented how I saw the record, as a soundtrack to this daydream.
Pitchfork: Does that factor in the decision to make your vocals clearer?
EG: I think so. In the past, I used mainly digital reverbs, and this new record is more analog, which is naturally not as heavy. I also feel more confident as a producer and as a songwriter. For the first time ever, when we were mixing, I was having [producer] Ben [Allen] turn the vocals up. Normally, I have to bring them way down.
Pitchfork: How much time do you spend writing lyrics?
EG: I’m without a doubt a producer first. The lyrics happen towards the tail-end of the process, mainly because they're more stream-of-consciousness. It’s very rare that I’m going to tell a really concrete story. I doubt I’ll ever step outside of myself and write about characters-- that’s not really my thing. Most of the time, the lyrics are pretty simple ideas.
Pitchfork: Paracosm is based around ideas of daydreaming and escape from reality, yet here you are making music with your wife and living a peaceful life in Athens. What inspires your ideas of escape?
EG: Being on tour for the last couple of years, I was constantly surrounded by people. For some, being involved in a scene is a great thing because the social element can drive creativity. For me, though, it’s never really been like that. It’s the opposite. I’ve always had this instinct to escape. And that played into ending up [in Athens]. We lived in Atlanta for a couple of years and had a lot of fun, but my best work happens when I isolate myself. It’s all about turning inward. A lot of the lyrics are talking about that, and being OK with that. Without a doubt, I’m living my ultimate fantasy. Making music is pretty much the only thing I can do.
George Duke died Monday night in Los Angeles at the age of 67. As reported by Billboard, he had been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He leaves behind a body of work that stretches from the deepest trenches of jazz and avant-garde rock to the highest echelons of R&B and pop.
Duke was born in San Rafael, California, in 1946 and began playing piano at the age of seven. He earned a bachelor's degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1967, later getting his master's from San Francisco State University while jumping into the vibrant West Coast jazz scene just as the genre was splintering into free jazz and fusion. Duke chose both. After sharpening his chops by backing hard-bop stars such as Bobby Hutcherson and Kenny Dorham-- not to mention Dizzy Gillespie-- Duke began writing and touring with his own George Duke Trio, eventually hooking up with French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. After he and Ponty recorded a 1970 album of music written by Frank Zappa, King Kong, Zappa poached Duke for his band, the Mothers of Invention. Across numerous albums and tours with Zappa over the course of a decade, Duke sharpened his sense of absurdism, improvisation, and stagecraft, whipping up artful funk that stuck to the Mothers' avant-garde ribs.
At the same time, he pursued a solo career as a fusion artist. His more challenging work with Zappa was counterbalanced by his own albums and side gigs with the likes of Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, and Billy Cobham, which flirted with pop, Latin jazz, and funk. By the time Duke's association with Zappa petered off in the early 80s, he had recorded numerous minor soft-jazz hits-- and he also started to pivot, along with fusion as a whole, toward disco. The culmination of Duke's disco ambition was his integral contribution Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, where his sleek-yet-syncopated synthesizer lines and sequencing helped form the blueprint of pop's future.
Duke had his own hit in 1981 with the breezy, wistful “Sweet Baby”, a crossover jazz/pop jam that was the high point of his many recordings with bassist Stanley Clarke. Throughout the remainder of the 80s, Duke again deftly split his attention between pop-- teaming with chart-topping artist such as Deniece Williams and Phil Collins-- while finding time for fellow jazz stars like Al Jarreau, John Scofield, and Dianne Reeves, as well as a 1983 reunion with his old partner Ponty. One of his earliest heroes and influences, Miles Davis, also enlisted Duke's aid; during his late-80s upswing, Davis tapped Duke to play, arrange, and compose for his albums Tutu and Amandla.
With the advent of the 90s, Duke's cache rose once more-- this time as a staggering source of samples. Crate diggers and producers of hip-hop, pop, and electronic music found many treasures to be salvaged in the smoothly funky, immaculately sculpted grooves of Duke's 70s output. The roll-call of artists and producers who have sampled George Duke over the past three decades includes Ice Cube, MF DOOM, Kanye West, Common, 9th Wonder, Lil Jon, and Thundercat. In 2001, Daft Punk paid homage to Duke as much as sampled him on the group's bubbly Discovery single “Digital Love”.
Following a 1999 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance for his album After Hours, Duke found himself in demand again. One of his most fruitful collaborations in the 21st century was with Jill Scott, as he appeared on “Whenever You're Around”, a single from the R&B singer's 2007 album The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3. The pairing of Duke's vintage warmth with Scott's retro soul was superb-- and a sterling, latter-day showcase of Duke's undimming vitality and relevance.
Duke's final solo album, DreamWeaver, was released in June. It includes two gently melodic tracks, “Missing You” and “You Never Know”, that pay tribute to his wife Corine, who died of cancer last year. On his website, Duke elaborated that “You Never Know” is “a respectful look at what we know and what we don't know about this life.” Judging by his music alone, Duke's own life was richly lived, deeply felt, and deceptively complex.
Duke's trial run for Zappa's band-- although neither knew it at the time-- resulted in a tour-de-force of early jazz-rock fusion. Along with French violinist and composer Jean-Luc Ponty, Duke interprets Zappa's twisty compositions with a jaunty pulse and joyous abandon, throwing down with both chunky soul and virtuosic authority-- and setting the stage for a long association to come.
Flanked by Zappa and Captain Beefheart, Duke and the other Mothers of Invention turned “Inca Roads” into a nine-minute contortion of time-signature calculus and cosmic mythology that still stands up to serious unpacking. The icing on an already overabundant cake: Duke taking turns with Zappa on lead vocals.
Sampled by MF Doom on his 1999 song “I Hear Voices” and covered by Thundercat on his 2011 debut Golden Age of Apocalypse, Duke's “For Love (I Come Your Friend)” bears the faint imprint of Zappa's influence. But the freewheeling funk of the breakdowns-- as well as the shimmering harmonies-- show just as much affinity for early Earth, Wind & Fire, an omen of Duke's imminent new direction.
By the time “Reach For It” came out, it was clear Duke had been doing his P-Funk homework. Relatively stark and downright antediluvian in its grooviness, it's funk music about nothing but funk music-- which was all Ice Cube needed when he sampled it in 1991's “True to the Game”.
Lil Jon got excellent mileage out of “Dukey Stick”, the basis of his uncharacteristically mellow 2002 track “Play No Games”. The original, though, is a teeming wonderland of interlocked beats and hooks, another example of how Duke could make complication seem like a skip down the alleyway. (Adding percussion to the song is a young, pre-Paisley Park Sheila E.)
While it's fortunate that Daft Punk were able to use a sample of “I Love You More” in “Digital Love” in order to bring more attention to Duke's seemingly bottomless well of deep cuts, both tracks are equals in terms of sheer, infectious joy. Not to mention dancefloor fuel.
Off the Wall was a perfect storm of talent and timing, and its title track is proof. Every note and hit is installed with a surgeon's touch without sounding remotely sterile, and Duke's synths are subliminally folded into the mix like sugar. Duke could lay it on thick, but he was also the consummate editor-- and that sense of restraint served him well when the 80s veered minimal.
Reaching the Top 10 is tough for a jazz act, but it would've taken a restraining order to keep “Sweet Baby” off the airwaves. Silky, corny, and irresistible-- thanks in part to a trembling vulnerability and heart-on-sleeve romanticism-- the song hits the syrupy spot between lite jazz and yacht rock. Its utter lack of pretense doesn't hurt.
Although not one of Duke's major works, his production and synthesizer playing on “Let's Hear It for the Boy”-- an upbeat hit best known for its appearance on the Footloose soundtrack-- displays just how much effortless sophistication Duke the jazzman smuggled in under the nose of Duke the pop architect.
“Backyard Ritual”, a Duke composition featured on Davis' 1986 album Tutu, is a strong example of how underrated Davis' R&B-oriented work in the 80s was. But there's more of the classic Miles magic in “Cobra”, a Duke-penned cut from 1989's Amandla. Spacious and haunting, Duke keeps the chords uncluttered while Miles serves up bursts of beauty.
During his lifetime, Duke got to record with some of the greatest artists of the era. There's something about Jill Scott's synergy with Duke, however, that elevates “Whenever You're Around” into something more than just another studio date. It's as if Duke is laying out the shag carpet, and Scott is curling up on it.
Sitting in the makeshift pew of a humble church on Manhattan's Upper West Side earlier this summer, the newly blond Frankie Rose motions an invisible dagger towards her chest, jerks her head back, squeezes her eyes shut, and sticks out her tongue. This is how Rose comically depicts the harrowing nature of her upcoming album for Fat Possum, Herein Wild. Amping the drama, a candlelit string quartet is recording weeping orchestral parts for the record within the sanctuary's nondescript walls. Rose peeks her inked arms up to snap the string players with her iPhone, basking in creative possibility; staring at 12 pages of sheet music for one of her new songs, she casually notes, "This means nothing to me."
While Rose may not be schooled in classical composition, the self-taught musician's ambitions have certainly expanded since her days drumming for garage-rock bands including Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls. Herein Wild goes further, embellishing the synth-pop of her 2012 solo album Interstellar with cinematic flourishes and a newfound focus on dark lyrical content. But it's not the first time she's been backed by strings. Along with starring in musicals including "Annie" and "The Sound of Music" (alongside "Glee" star Matt Morrison) in her youth, Rose also performed operettas in high school. "If somebody asked me to be in a musical now, I would still do it," she says two weeks after the session. "But it can’t be corny."
Pitchfork: Why did you decide to put strings on this album and perhaps go for a more sophisticated sound?
Frankie Rose: I really love orchestrated music, like how Björk used it-- these huge, beautiful musical scenarios that are so amazing. If I had three years [to record], I would like to have something completely cinematic; strings make it feel like you’re in a movie-- everyone wants to be in a movie! It’s something you can’t replace with a synthesizer.
Pitchfork: Were you were inspired by film soundtracks?
FR: Oh, always. I referenced the Blade Runner soundtrack on this record, for sure. It popped into my mind a lot, as did Arvo Pärt, who’s a minimalist composer-- they use his stuff anytime they want a sad scene. It’s really moving. I don’t know what would bring me to tears like Arvo Pärt. To make music like that is my dream. That’s the most moving kind of music. It’s what makes me feel something now.
Pitchfork: It must be cool to finally have the resources to execute these ideas in your head with more intensity.
FR: It comes with a price, in a weird way. I have a little more money to work with, but you do have to think of all the other people involved a little bit more. If I went off and made some musical or soundtrack, nobody would be psyched. Even if that’s my wildest fantasy, I still have to make pop music. Making something truly weird is probably a few records away.
Pitchfork: Is making something that’s “weirder” a definite goal?
FR: The weirdos on this album are my favorites, and I would just love to do a complete, long, weird album that’s not just pop songs at some point. The weirder songs are completely unplayable live, too-- people would just yawn and fall asleep and be like, "What the hell was that?" But that's the stuff I personally love the best on my records.
Pitchfork: You mentioned that this album was unintentionally more centered around lyrics. What are you singing about?
FR: There’s more of a theme to this record than any I’ve made before. I’m definitely not a person who writes lyrics on the train, or writes lyrics before I have a melody. I go into the studio and I write them on the fly-- sometimes they don’t work out and sometimes they do. Two records back, one song was literally “blah blah bloo bloo,” like jiberrish. If you asked me about lyrics then, I’d say, “I don’t care about lyrics, man, they're just a part of the song, it’s how they sound.” But I don’t think that’s true after making this record. It was more real for me this time. I shed a tear, which is crazy, because I’m really not like that. I got upset writing lyrics, so I know they’re honest. They’re pretty dark, even though the songs are light.
Pitchfork: Which song on the record made you shed a tear in the studio?
FR: It's the last song on the record. It feels different from the rest of the album. It's on an acoustic guitar and a 12-string through a Space Echo. In my mind, I was thinking of dark folk, like Death in June-- a simple, sad tale. I don't know if it fits, but it's honest.
Pitchfork: Was there a reason you were more introspective this time?
FR: After I’d finished supporting the last record, I had a deep disappointed feeling. I didn’t know if I was gonna make another record. It wasn’t anywhere on my agenda, to be honest. For me to have written a song then, it was gonna be a forced feeling. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to do what I do. I didn’t think anyone would want the next one. It felt over. Most people have an existential crisis here or there, and I definitely had one; I just wasn't sure if being a musician was for me. I was surprised when I was offered to make another album and have more resources to do it with. Thinking about all that stuff for so long, and then having to make the record in a short amount of time, it all came to the surface.
Pitchfork: Were there any particular reasons you felt like the last record might be the final one?
FR: I felt tired. It’s hard to do a band on your own. I’m definitely not saying “poor me, it’s so hard being a musician,” but I was spent by the time we went on our last tour. Music now is just consumed so fast. If you asked me now what makes something have legs or last through the year and make somebody really care about it, I could not tell you. I have no clue. Which makes me go back to thinking that I just have to make what I wanna make. If people like it, that’s great. If you make a living out of it, that’s even more amazing.
Pitchfork: There’s one song on the album where you're singing about falling from cliffs in dreams. Do you write songs that are inspired by dreams often?
FR: I have a little problem: My dreams are so vivid that I sometimes don’t feel like I slept. It’s a big problem, actually. My subconscious is bananas to the point where it drives me crazy.
Pitchfork: Was that one where you're falling from a cliff a dream or a nightmare-- it could go either way.
FR: A nightmare. Going off a cliff is one of the reccurring bad ones. [laughs] There’s definitely a theme of finality on this album. It’s really nihilistic. Interstellar was about being in another world, sort of dreamy. This one is about being here, about death, loss, sadness, the void. But there’s a love song, too. I’ve never ever written one before.
Pitchfork: Obviously you’ve evolved as an artist going from punk guitar pop bands to making a record like this with strings and horns on it. What qualities do you feel you’ve carried throughout everything?
FR: The only thing that I think I have is my taste. All that I rely on is my instinct: “Would I listen to this? Is this cool?” Like when I’m making a song and it sounds like the soundtrack for "Game of Thrones" for a minute, I’m like, “Wait, this is nothing like what I would listen to; this sounds wack.” Your references and what you like to hear is more important than being a slayer at the guitar. It’s really empowering, too: You can make a record if you have good taste. A good song is a good song, and it doesn’t matter if it was really expensively produced or recorded in the garbage can with one mic.
“Boston is the birthplace of American rebellion. Whether it's dumping a boatload of crappy, overrated British tea in the river or the pummeling garage rock supremacy of the Real Kids, Nervous Eaters, or SS Decontrol, we got it right the first time, and everyone else took notice,” Dan Harrington says. The Fistula vocalist, PATAC label owner, and self-professed “Rock’N’Roll Victim” (he’s got it inked into his forehead) exemplifies that Boston attitude: brash, unflinchingly honest, and wicked proud of where he’s from.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s grown up in or around Beantown that doesn’t have a bit of that edge. Converge vocalist, artist, and Deathwish Records head Jacob Bannon agrees: “The only real commonality we all have is that we subscribe to an underdog mentality that's generationally ingrained into us New Englanders. I feel that tends to make us hungrier and more motivated than people rooted in other places in the country.”
“I don't know if there’s something in the water or if it's the fact that there are just too many people in such a small city, but something breeds negativity here. That negativity in turn inspires some of the most aggressive music I've heard in a while,” says Mike Eleftheratos of black metallers Nachzehrer and Lykaion Cult Productions.
“We're not all dock working leprechauns from Southie!” Keith Bennett, Boston lifer and current bassist/vocalist for Motörhead-worshipping hellraisers PanzerBastard chimes in. The heavily tattooed 43-year-old always sports a wide grin and plenty of leather, and like many others who are still fighting the good fight, has been knocking around the Boston scene for decades.
“The punk and early hardcore scenes in Boston were already well established by the time I really took that leap towards ruining my life,” he adds. “SS Decontrol and Steel Assassin both showed me the power and importance of metal and punk as well as showing me a world outside of Kiss and Sabbath, where the bands were real people and the gigs were at places small enough that you could literally be onstage. I will never forget the affect those bands had on me.”
Much of Boston’s musical mythos depends on those black-and-white photos of headwalking hardcore dudes at Slapshot shows and brawling skinheads with markered X’s slashed across their hands seen in influential zines like Mike Gitter’s xXx and Al Quint’s Suburban Voice. They documented the madness while Newbury Comics fed the vinyl habit that labels like Bridge Nine and Deathwish encouraged. The seminal This is Boston, Not LA compilation provided a window into the frenzied chaos and youthful ambition that early bands like Jerry’s Kidz and Gang Green had in spades, and in doing so sparked the now-classic image of that sometimes violent New England hardcore subculture.
Times change, though. Venues shut, basements flood, newspapers fold, kids graduate and move on. Nowadays, Armageddon Shop keeps record-lovers’ pockets empty and their shelves full of releases from PATAC, Give Praise, Black Market Activities, and Teenage Disco Bloodbath, and Codex Obscurum proves that print zines still have a voice. While things may have changed over the ensuing decades, that era was undoubtedly and undeniably crucial to the area’s history and sonic evolution. It seems like you had to be there to fully understand it, and as Robert Williams of hardcore legends (and inadvertent godfathers of grindcore) Seige can attest, if you weren’t, you truly missed out on something special.
“I was fortunate to be getting into listening to, slamming, and headbanging to, and making music at a very incredible time in heavy music’s history, the so-called ‘original Boston crew,” Williams recalls. “My first live hardcore was at Minor Threat’s first Boston performance at this little art gallery in the South End. It was such a fucking incredible time to be waking up to rock rebellion, social consciousness. I remember buying my first record at Newbury’s, original pressing Meatmen Blud Sausage 7”, and the cashier, who happened to be Aimee Mann, looked at me with absolute disgust. Siege guitarist Kurt Habelt told me to get Motorhead's Iron Fist and after hearing Discharge, this sent my life on a formative trajectory toward an aspiration of real artistry and really wanting to fucking say something revolutionary. Turns out we were from a neighborhood that had given the world some other fast, fast bands; the earliest line up of Gang Green was from the next town, Braintree, and Siege singer Mahoney’s brother-in-law was the singer bassist of Jerry’s Kidz, from the same neighborhood. It was like a whole community of gigging bands were orbiting around the place. Everything was DIY. Everything was word-of-mouth. Punk was erupting and it was so sincere and liberating, it’s like when you hear that loud guitar, and the place just would fucking explode.”
Harrington may have missed that first boat, but he’s dead certain that the dock’s not closed off just yet. “Boston is still a town deeply rooted in punk/hardcore, much more so than metal,” he insists. “Now there are bands like Finisher, Livver, and Lunglust pushing the 'post-hardcore' ideals such as Cursed and Orchid as well as this new wave of black/death metal such as Sexcrement, Blessed Offal, Nachzherer, doom bands such as Obsidian Tongue, Wormwood. It's an exciting time.”
Livver guitarist and show promoter Robin Goodhue adds: “Boston has grown up and gotten heavier. Think about going to band practice in a fucking blizzard, drunk as shit. We all crank each others' bands around here and try to stay friends as much as we can, and we are blessed with having so many skilled production engineers that keep making each band top the next. Also, us guys in bands in Boston are older and take our bands seriously, so there's always a new demo or release to listen to if your ear is to the ground.”
Outside of the jock mosh stereotype, there is one other misconception that Bannon mentions. “That it’s a melting pot where we creative people are aware of one another in some way. It's simply not the case. We all have our own trajectories. Sometimes they meet, most of the time they don't,” the whippet-thin frontman interjects. “There are hundreds of labels and engineers out there that are doing great things. As for newer bands there are countless I'm sure. The latest albums from Boston Strangler and Magic Circle are both great in different ways.”
Longtime resident Mallika Sundaramurthy, an artist and the vocalist for death metal bands Abnormality and Parasitic Extirpation, sees plenty of good in the current scene as well. “The hardcore and punk bands will always be around, but for sure, the heavier styles of music are bigger than ever. The local scene is certainly thriving, and is so vast, you can find great acts here from every subgenre of metal. Death metal, black metal, and thrash are particularly popular here. Ramming Speed is a great example of Boston thrash. There are a lot of good black metal bands in the area like Nachzehrer and Obsidian Tongue. There is a wide variety of sounds even among the death metal bands here; rock and roll infused grove death metallers Sexcrement, thrashy death metallers Scaphism and Soul Remnants, more slammy sounds like Composted and Dysentery, and more technical death sounds like Boarcorpse and my own bands Abnormality and Parasitic Extirpation.”
Bennett vouches for “Hirudinea, Nachzehrer, Deathgod Messiah, Morne, Grue, Blessed Offal, Intheshit, Trash Mop, and Fast Death,” while guitarist and vocalist Dave Davidson of technical death metallers Revocation adds, “ I would say to keep your ears out for Thronehunter, Razormaze, and Sexcrement. All three of those bands are killer in their own way and represent a good mix of what the Boston underground scene has to offer. And Ramming Speed are a band that exemplify what the Boston scene is about since they have a great DIY attitude and their sound is a mixture of metal and punk. There's a lot more cross pollination of genres which is creating further diversity in the underground.”
Ramming Speed drummer Jonah Livingston (who also runs Teenage Disco Bloodbath Records and has promoted countless DIY gigs) weighs in. “Boston hardcore is still a huge part of the loud music scene around town. People still ask me about FSU when we're on the road, thinking that our music scene is super violent here, but the reality is the dudes in the thuggy hardcore scene could give a shit what a bunch of longhairs are doing. They have their own venues and bands just like every other subgenre in Boston and it's easy to either find or steer clear of. What's interesting is there's tons of little crews and scenes that exist in the peripherals. We have great stoner metal/doom bands like Phantom Glue, Elder, Finisher, the Proselyte, and Morne. There’s a strong death metal scene that's been growing, led in part by the effort of Blue Spinazola and his bands Sexcrement, Dysentery, and Parasitic Extirpation. Black metal band Nachzehrer have a new album coming out soon and have taken it upon themselves to start not only a metal DJ night but also a booking group-- giving local bands a chance to open for bands like Absu and Inquisition. Thrash metal is always big in the basement beer-chugging circuit and bands like Razormaze and Led to the Grave have definitely put in the work to draw a ton of wasted kids on any given night. Now Denial, Matahari, Gatlin, and Lung Lust all represent the weirder corners of the hardcore scene. I'd be an idiot if I didn't mention the fact that powerviolence, raw punk, and dirty d-beat have exploded around here. Check out Aspects of War, Koward, Bear Trap, G.A.S.H., Draize, and the recently broken-up Brainkiller. The punks also have their own DJ night hosted by Ghost from G.A.S.H. whose also been running Total Fucker records and its related distro. I wish we had more grind bands, but Living Void just dropped a new full length, so that rules.”
According to Williams, “Boston has always been incredibly diverse, musically and otherwise, and that’s our strength, and the beauty of it. It was never just frowning sports fans with their arms folded with brush cuts and ball caps smacking people up front-- that’s become some fucking cliché’d ‘hardcore’ stereotype. There were spiky punks, metalheads, Oi skins sprinkled in, Mr Butch with his dreads, a guy in a sports coat looking like Woody Allen, and one glam guy-- Bob White-- all in the pit, and when someone took a header ‘skanking,’ you picked them up. So that’s a jock myth. But the same macho [attitude] that helped them elbow their way to the front of that scene has rendered them obsolete. I think of us as having the musical stomach of a goat; first you can digest a license plate, then an entire tire. Extreme music fandom’s the same way; your appetite devolves.”
While Boston proper may be home to the legions of college students and academics that populate its ivied center, its surrounding suburbs are where the real action takes place. Towns like Allston are cheaper and less uptight, which is why so many DIY venues and bands spring up across neighborhood lines. Livingston explains, “Boston is constantly going through ups and downs due to the four-year cycle of college kids and a police crackdown that happens at the start of every school year. Sometimes there are tons of great venues and not enough good bands; sometimes there are tons of good bands and not enough venues. Every once in a rare while we have everything working at the same time, but, honestly, right now is kind of a low point. There are good bands, but the cops really fucked up our scene and promoters are still trying to pick up the pieces.” And as Harrington says, “I just plan to sit back and watch this weed of madness choke and destroy every happy, technically admirable groove created by the dorks at Berklee College of Music.”
“Boston is a transient city driven financially by the colleges and universities that populate it. Allston used to be a bit of a wild west, but isn't much different than any other part of the metro area, it's still expensive. Boston and the surrounding areas have succumbed to the gentrification that is happening in most metropolitan cities in the country,” Bannon explains. “When I lived in Kenmore Square and Allston area from 1994-1998 it had an edge to it that has been gone for a long time now.”
“Boston is the ‘college town,’ and art and academia go hand-in-hand, but it seems to me this place hemorrhages bands; they all go to New York or L.A. to seek their fortunes after winning the Rock N Roll Rumble, never to be heard from again. Or they graduate, become domesticated, and evaporate. But underneath there is a subculture of masochistically-devoted sickos, who live for their music, and it’s got to come out of them. So, we’re the eccentric by-product aberration simultaneously warped from, fueled by and in defiance of this world-class academic community,” Williams muses.
“One of the funniest places we've ever played was at Harvard University. Our old bass player went there and we played this battle of the bands with a bunch of wimpy rock bands. A bunchy of our fans came out and got belligerent. We didn't win and never got asked back to play,” Davidson chuckles.
Goodhue adds, “The Boston scene is one [where] you have to work hard for your own band, label, zine to even happen. Things happen fast here and you have to be on top of it. Most of the bands that have made it out of here is because they are fucking smart kids-- Shadows Fall, Converge, Revocation to name a few. If you're an idiot from Boston in a band you're probably in the basement of that new club Radio with a scally cap on crushing PBR's for $5 a can shouting Oi! still.”
As spread out and diverse as it is, Boston’s underground music community still knows how to pull together when it counts. After the Boston Marathon bombing, Bostonians were left bloodied and shaken, but as Sundaramurthy says, “Bostonians are tough, we persevere.” Eleftheratos adds, “There was a strong sense of community after the attacks. There were a slew of excellent benefit shows to aid the victims. It was a proud moment to live in Boston and see metalheads, punks and hardcore kids all unite for a good cause.”
“A week after the Boston Marathon bombing, Converge played a benefit called This Is Boston that me and a few friends got together last minute and raised a ton of money for The One Fund,” Goodhue explains. The event brought together past, present, and undoubtedly future members of iconic Boston-area bands like Slapshot, Dropdead, Doomriders, Insult, Sexcrement, Wrecking Crew, and the Revilers to raise money for the victims and their families, and during the Converge performance, an old-school reunion of sorts unfolded onstage. Williams enthuses, “This was just a fucking honor to come together with so many heavy music fans and bands and familiar faces from down thru the years and just get it out of our system, for something positive, which is especially important to me nowadays. What was really fucking awesome and an honor was playing Siege songs with the guys from Dropdead and the Converge singer. When I saw such young kids stage diving head first, I was just fucking astonished.”
Bannon’s parting words (“All of the tall tales you've heard through the grapevine, or the things we've all denied, are probably all true”) add some heft to the area’s legend, but, having seen Boston grow up, break edge, embrace more evil, and survive the worst of times with heads held high and middle fingers blazing, Williams sums it up best. “I believe our best memories as a rock community are still coming up. So, to any artist with a dream in their heart I say ‘nevah, evah fucking give up,’ and to every headbanger reading this I say ‘Keep the faith, and I’ll see you up front.”
On the night of February 2, as fans around the earth pressed play on the first new My Bloody Valentine album in 22 years, Kevin Shields was fast asleep. The rest was deserved. He was on tour in Korea at the time, and before he hit the pillow, he called his sister-- who helped set up the band's online store, which was rushing through a battery of tests to make sure nothing went awry-- and asked, simply, "Can we release it now?" Then he zonked out.
"I woke up and heard about the website crashing," he says, calling from the Irish countryside a week ago. Even though he was told that "some sort of super-triple-A rated computer bloke" wasn't 100% happy with website trials that night, Shields pushed things through anyway. "I was getting more and more frustrated," he says, thinking back to the time just before the album went up, "I really wanted this to come out." Temporary glitches notwithstanding, mbv arrived, and, perhaps even more impressively, it did not disappoint.
The record's bizarre journey began in 1996, when Shields started recording guitar riffs onto analog tape. "I was purposefully not trying to write songs with a beginning, middle, and end," he says of the album's early days. "I was trying to pull myself away from the part of my brain that makes things linear and toward something more impressionistic." But a year later, with drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, bassist Debbie Googe, and guitarist/vocalist Bilinda Butcher having left the band, the sessions were abandoned and My Bloody Valentine essentially ceased to be.
Those recordings gathered dust for nine years until, in 2006, Shields went back to them while working on remasters of the band's previous material. "I listened to it properly and was like, 'You know what? This is definitely way more than I thought it was,'" he says. The quartet's subsequent reunion shows in 2008 gave him another jolt of energy. "I thought I was going to finish it in 2010, and be making the next record by now," he says. "Then, two years later, I actually finished it." The final album includes recordings from the 90s sessions as well as vocals, bass, drums, and other overdubs that were laid down in 2011 and 2012. "The main reason it got finished properly was because I had all these pieces in my head," says Shields, talking about the unrecorded melodies that lingered in his brain for 15 years. "They didn’t leave." Given the album's open-ended creation-- based on "feel" and extended, repetitive takes rather than traditional song structure-- the mixing and editing process, which took four months toward the end of last year, was particularly crucial. "That's when we began to realize what it really was," says Shields.
Fittingly, our interview went through some twists and turns of its own, as it was originally scheduled for early February and then was set up and nixed about a half dozen times over the last seven months. Offering what might be one of the biggest understatements ever printed on this website, Shields says, "I’m a terrible bet when it comes to time." Even so, he's not apologetic for his unique brand of personal pacing. "No time felt like a good time," he says when pressed on the various cancellations. "But if I want to do something with my heart, then it will always happen at some point-- and it always does."
"I think the album will make more sense in a few years-- that sounds pretentious, but it will."
Pitchfork: Your music sounds blissfully unaware of the musical world around it and exists in its own space. Is that an overarching goal behind what you do?
KS: I don’t feel bound by the ebbs and flows of musical trends, or what’s happening new with music in general. I see what we do out of context. For example, a lot of the musical ideas that we started exploring in ‘88, like the emotional feeling you get through the bending of a note, weren't copied from somewhere, though I remember thinking at the time, "I can’t believe I’m the only person who ever thought of this." I always had a fascination with that sound. It’s a mixture of the idea that something could be going wrong along with the idea of bending constrained, Westernized music out of tune. I eventually found tracks [with a similar sound] by Soft Cell, or Talking Heads, or D.A.F., and thought, "OK, nothing comes from nowhere."
But because I wasn’t copying an idea, and it just came from somewhere inside me, it felt like a birth of something that most people didn’t understand at the time. A lot of what the so-called shoegazing bands that came after us were doing was significantly different in mood, intention, and attitude, with just the superficial common elements of noisy guitars, soft vocals, and slightly rhythmic drums. The real quality of it, which was then expanded and realized with Loveless, was something that felt like it just came through me, like I was completely possessed by something. I still feel that with the stuff we’ve just done, and it's something that takes time to really fall into people’s consciousness.
At this point, with music in general, especially modern dance music like Skrillex or even “Gangnam Style”, there are these bended, twisted synth parts; those feelings that we were exploring has become completely mainstream. I don’t think it came from us, but we explored it first in a lot of ways. It’s a strong element, so because of that I still think we have to make more records and maybe by then a lot more people will get it.
Pitchfork: Do you feel pressure to discover another type of sonic innovation?
KS: No. I’m not looking for it. And I didn’t look for it then, either. It just happens. It’s like most good things: If you happen upon them, to recognize it is enough.
Pitchfork: Were you at all fearful of tarnishing the reputation that built up around Loveless and My Bloody Valentine by releasing another album?
KS: No, no. Since the early 2000s, when I was playing with Primal Scream, I was like, "I've got to get back to doing my own stuff." Making a record always seemed inevitable. From my perspective, [Loveless] developed a life of its own over time. But when it first came out, half of the reviews were like, "This is OK, but it’s not as weird as we thought it would be." I remember doing one interview for a fanzine and the kids were complaining, like, "Why did you make a record that only sounds good on expensive hi-fis?" That was when the whole Britpop thing was beginning, and American grunge was taking off. In the mid 90s, there wasn’t a huge sense that people had really appreciated the record. In time, it seemed like people did, and I was just grateful and relieved for that.
When I started [mbv, in the 90s], people didn’t seem to care about it too much, and that was the spirit I tried to keep when finishing it over the last few years. I knew a lot of people who loved Loveless were going to hate some of this stuff, because it doesn’t bring you to the same place, and that felt quite freeing.
But I have to admit a reality does kick in over time, too. I could've tried to completely overshadow [Loveless] with this huge, expansive, double-album masterpiece, but that seemed really unattractive, because it would mean I wasn't making music for the sake of music but rather making music in the context of other music. At the same time, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to try and do that some day.
Pitchfork: What was the thinking behind releasing the album on your own through your website?
KS: With the internet, it’s a total yin and yang: 50% good and 50% horrible. The good side is that we can release a record ourselves without doing anything-- we just said we were releasing it on Facebook, and that’s what we did, and then people bought it.
The bad thing is most people who heard it didn’t buy it. We knew that was going to happen, so that's why we put it on YouTube. Even I just listen to some bands on YouTube. I'll think, "Oh, I quite like that, I should buy it someday," but I don’t get around to buying half the stuff I liked. You wind up listening to one song that you really like 30 times on YouTube and then you’re done with it. That’s the way it is.
I have to admit we did price our CD a bit high because we really believed that buying the vinyl version with the CD and the download was so much better. The vinyl package was actually a really good value, and guess what, it sold the most. That’s been the great success of all of this: Vinyl is not a marginal format. For us, it was the main format. We had to make a lot more than we thought we would.
Pitchfork: How many copies of the album have you sold?
KS: I’m not going to tell you. It’s a closely-kept secret.
Pitchfork: But you're happy with the number?
KS: I’ll put it this way: If we put it out on a major label, we would’ve had to sell 1.5 million copies to do as well as we will have done by the end of the year-- people can work that [math] out for themselves. It was great to release the record without any industry interaction at all, but it also meant that it was a bit too expensive to buy, so we’re going to try to make it cheaper by working with various record companies in the future. In reality, there’s a limit to putting a record out yourself. When it comes to working with major record companies in the context of them owning anything, though, that will never happen. Ever. In my life.
Pitchfork: What were your emotions like once the album was finally online?
KS: Positive. There was a buzz going around amongst anyone that I played it for before it was out, mostly amused expressions and smiles. It wasn’t people chin-stroking and going, “Yeah, this is a seriously great piece of work.” It was more like: “What the hell is that?” or “That sounds ridiculous” or “That’s really funny” or “That’s beautiful.” It’s from the heart and it’s irreverent in certain ways. It’s got something that’s alive and free, it's not bound down by ideas. It's like the feeling of getting a new puppy-- you love it and then you’re really eager to share it so you tell everyone to come to your house to look at the new dog.
Pitchfork: Many have tried to copy your guitar sound over the years but nobody's gotten it quite right. Why do you think that is?
KS: Well, the Beatles and the Ramones are my two favorite bands of all-time, and when I was a teenager, I learned that in order to play guitar like Johnny Ramone, it takes a huge amount of physical effort. A lot of people at my school could play the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar solo, but they couldn’t play three chords of a Ramones song if their life depended on it because they didn't have the strength or ability to do it. But all I did was practice that, and the style that I eventually fell into is more focused than people would actually imagine. There’s physicality and also nearly a meditative stillness to it. You have to be right there in the moment to do it, otherwise it’s just gratuitous chord-bending that sounds like nothing. And that’s why people who copy it don’t connect with anything. You have to be there to do it, you can’t be somewhere else.
Pitchfork: It feels like guitar music is currently in somewhat of a lull.
KS: Yeah. But everything’s in a lull, in it’s own weird way.
Pitchfork: What about electronic music?
KS: Oh, in America it’s really buzzing. But look at Daft Punk’s new album: They wanted to do something much more soulful, something that captures an element that’s not about what you can do with a machine. I’ll have to admit, I’m one of the few people I know who doesn't go crazy for Kraftwerk, I always found them a bit too mannered. But I like electronic music. I saw Skrillex the other night. The first half wasn’t so great to me, but the second half was really good-- more dubstep-y and broken up and crazy. I love when things bend out of shape. There’s a sense of freedom when you hear music like that. That’s why I love drum and bass music. When it first started, it was still elongated and experimental and always about the DJ blending things rather than focussing around a particular beat.
Pitchfork: Do you feel a kinship with what Daft Punk did with their new album?
KS: Yeah, I can see where they’re coming from big-time. The whole rebirth of feel is wonderful; I know it sounds silly, but the computer is a fool, and feeling is God. I’ve always quite liked Daft Punk. When I first heard them, I thought, "Oh, they’re really into that mid-range sound." The French were always masters at mid-range. And I like the attitude.
There’s a lot to be said for how they marketed the hell out of that album, too. I would never be judgmental against trying to let the maximum number of people know that a record's available. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The way Daft Punk probably did it was cool because they seemed to have an awful lot of control over the situation. It felt like they made the record, and then said [to Columbia], "This is it-- you just pay for the promotion."
Pitchfork: Did you consider a more traditional marketing rollout for this record with more of a build-up?
KS: The whole point of this record was to put it out and that’s that, because it was unusual in the sense that it was started and then stopped and then started. I didn’t want to go on about it very much. I just wanted people to take it for what it was, so to give it its most genuine chance was for me to not be very involved in that process.
Pitchfork: Did you pay attention to the reaction and reviews?
KS: Oh yeah, I’ve read reviews! We didn’t do any press, but we hired a press officer to track everything and let us know what was going on. I buy magazines. I’m not floating around in my own universe. I’m interested in everything.
Pitchfork: Did people understand the album in the way that you intended?
KS: Yes and no. The whole idea that this album could've been made a month after Loveless was completely wrong. But I find it fascinating how people see it in three parts: the first bit’s a continuation from Loveless, the second goes off into something different, and the end is going into the future. But the irony of that is that the first track ["She Found Now"] was the last to be recorded, and it was the only one that was recorded completely from scratch, in 2012.
To be really honest, if we’re lucky, maybe people will eventually see it for what it really is: another really good record in the context of our other two records. When taken altogether, it's the end of something, in a way. Moving forward, I still have an urge to create music that has the power and punch of the Who, and yet another part of me wants to make a pure-music record, where the musicality comes before the attitude and the energy.
Pitchfork: There's so much youth involved in what a band like the Who did in their prime, though.
KS: I know. But even though we’re getting older, we’re tougher and stronger in a strange way. We haven’t crossed that bridge where we’re actually just old. Sometimes the tendonitis in my hands really hurts, and I’m thinking, "OK, I'm definitely old." But then I just play through it and it’s gone. I’ve had tendonitis in my hand since ‘88. That’s half the reason why I wrote songs like "Soon"-- so I could play open-chord versions of things.
Pitchfork: Do you regret how long this album took to come out?
KS: Not really, but what I do regret is not making more records at this point. As I get older, I realize a lot of the things I could have done-- things that I didn’t think were so great at the time-- actually would have been enjoyable. I do need to loosen up a bit, and that usually does come with old age. That’s the intention.
Pitchfork: Are there any older artists that you look to as role models?
KS: I don’t have a role model, but I certainly have always enjoyed Neil Young. I had the great pleasure and opportunity to watch him from the side of the stage on a couple of occasions, and his on-stage sound is incredible. They’ve got these huge speakers facing them, like a giant hi-fi. It’s not like normal monitoring systems. He only uses a relatively small amp, but the sound is everywhere. He’s somebody where my jaw starts to slack when I’m watching him.
Pitchfork: We recently ran a piece about the subjectivity of the listener, and how some people may prefer digital recordings over analog recordings now. Do you feel like that’s a personal thing or that there's a kind of innate humanness that makes analog better?
KS: Well, if someone asked me, “Which is the correct one, the vinyl or the CD?” the real truth is neither, because they both change things in different ways. The very nature of limiting something from an infinite to moments in time creates distortion; analog recording methods create all kinds of distortion, they’re just not digital distortion. Digital might capture the dynamics of what I heard before it went to tape a bit more accurately, but on the other hand, when we'd switch from listening to the digital version to the analog, the change was so profound-- the music would suddenly go three-dimensional, and it felt much more engaging.
Pitchfork: Is it frustrating for you to hear music on a low-quality format?
KS: Oh no, I get into the sound. For example, when I'm listening to stuff on the computer or through a horrible little speaker on my phone, and then I hear the real version with the bass and everything, I sometimes don’t like it as much. I definitely believe that any medium is viable in that respect. Then again, with analog, when you get to hear it, you’re like, "Wow, a lot of people never hear this, it’s a real shame." That’s why I made such a huge deal that the vinyl record was pure analog. Oftentimes, when people cut a record from analog tape to vinyl, they digitize the music first; I did a little investigating and discovered that most vinyl records that I’ve ever heard were digitized before they were put onto vinyl. While that didn’t stop my enjoyment of those records, we made an effort to achieve a true analog cut.
Pitchfork: Do you have a lot of leftover tracks from the mbv sessions?
KS: There’s probably about three more [songs] that will come out sometime. The record could have been much more of a novelty record, in a sense, if I put some of the more chord-based songs on it. I think the album will make more sense in a few years-- that sounds pretentious, but it will-- and in order to have that impending feeling, I had to lose the song that was melodically very nice and pretty. It would have dragged the record toward a much more mid-paced, comfortable direction, and I felt less enthusiasm for that. But that song will be finished someday, because it’s worth finishing. There’s another one that’s more rhythmic-based, but again it just didn’t feel right. And there’s another one that was similar to ["She Found Now"] which didn't make it, but someday it will.
Pitchfork: Are you considering any other releases at the moment?
KS: The next step is to make an EP of all-new material. I’m also going to re-master Loveless and Isn’t Anything and all the EPs in analog to make pure analog cuts, which has never happened before. And I hate to say this because we haven’t set it up yet, but we want to do a site where everyone who bought a record would be able to stream various other things we put up, like an old recording of when I first experimented with pitch-bending back in ‘81. People could get a clearer version of how we wound up where we did. It seems more mysterious based on the records that were released because it seems like we went from a Cramps/Birthday Party band, to a noisy Jesus and Mary Chain indie pop band, to what we became in ‘88. But if you hear what we did before that, you can see how we were just playing around. It’s not what it seems.
But the main plan for next year is to make a new record.
Pitchfork: You must know that people may be skeptical about statements like that from you.
KS: Yep! But they were also skeptical that we would ever release this record, or play another gig. Skepticism is only a time-based reality, and as an ultimate reality, it’s always wrong, because everything always happens. It’s semantics. Musically, I just think in terms of what’s next. There’s a lot of things I’ve always dreamed of doing, and I hope I get to them before I get too deaf.
It’s time again for our annual list of overlooked experimental-leaning releases from the year so far-- records we love but haven’t mentioned in the Out Door or reviewed for Pitchfork due to space or time constraints. There’s been so many great ones this year, so to keep things manageable I’ve excluded artists that we’ve previously profiled (but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t immediately check out Aquarelle’s August Undone, Grant Evans’ Jewels from the House of Worms, Chuck Johnson’s Crows in the Basilica, Lee Noble’s Ruiner, Duane Pitre’s Bridges, and Jozef Van Wissem’s Nihil Obstat).
So, in addition to those excellent releases, here are 10 more records from 2013 that have earned a first, second, or umpteenth look.
Félicia Atkinson: Visions/Voices [Umor Rex]
In the past decade or so, French musician Félicia Atkinson has created reams of interesting music, visual art, and text under her own name and the moniker Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier. But the expansive Visions/Voices might just eclipse all of her previous work. The base of her music is ambient drone, but there’s so much more going on than that description can cover. Using her voice as an instrument among many layers of sound, she joins the calm of an endless stream to the tension of a gathering storm. The album peaks with a 17-minute piece called “Owls” that runs such a gamut of emotion it’s like a sonic autobiography. (Listen to Félicia Atkinson’s “Hooves Drummed” here.)
Mike Gangloff: Poplar Hollow [Klang]
We’ve waited 20 years since Pelt began for one of their most valuable members, Mike Gangloff, to make a solo album. But no one could’ve expected a better one from this fiddle and banjo master. Poplar Hollow (out on CD now on Klang, with an LP edition to come from Blackest Rainbow) draws on all his varied efforts with Pelt and his trad-leaning outfit Black Twig Pickers, while adding an individuality that his collectivist work sometimes subsumes. Despite all the evocative string work on Poplar Hollow, its best moment comes when Gangloff sings, crafting a Eugene Chadbourne-style croon for the swinging "Waiting On My Ride Back From Town".
Hair Police: Mercurial Rites [Type]
Back near the end of winter, the great label Type released the first album in five years by noise veterans Hair Police, with little fanfare-- no pre-release news, no advance streams, just an album actually out the day it was announced. There should’ve been tons of fanfare afterward though, as this rich set of songs easily stands among the Kentucky trio’s best work. In fact, I’d venture it’s their absolute peak. Much as their compatriots Wolf Eyes did this year with their stellar No Answer: Lower Floors, Mike Connelly, Trevor Tremaine, and Robert Beatty have reached a level of depth and precision that’s unprecedented in their catalogue-- and anyone else’s, for that matter. (Listen to Hair Police’s Mercurial Riteshere.)
Hurray: More Opiates and Bike Song [Hurray]
Years ago someone described Brooklyn band Hurray as an “ecstatic slow-jazz sensation,” and nearly a decade later that still fits. But where previous releases leaned toward restraint, More Opiates and Bike Song (a series of improvised variations on two pieces called “More Opiates” and “Bike Song”) is louder, messier, and more rock-damaged. Many of these explorations call to mind the homemade deconstructions of the Dead C. and No-Neck Blues Band, but with the eerie vocal detachment of Jandek. It’s fascinating to hear the band coalesce into clangy climaxes, fall back into shadows, and race back into the frame, all in cycles that feel supremely logical. (Listen to Hurray’s “Bike Song (Marching)” here.)
Ignatz: Can I Go Home Now? [Fonal]
Belgium’s Bram Devens, aka Ignatz, showed up in our Overlooked list in 2011 with his eerie, echoey I Hate This City. "Can I Go Home Now?" continues that album’s ghostly vibe, with a little Dylan-esque folk tossed in. But it also adds a layer of nervous intensity via the wiry sheen of Devens’ guitar, which can evoke the tremble of early Velvet Underground. What impresses most is the way Devens prioritizes mood over technique; even though there’s some pretty tricky playing going on here, it’s all in service of an overwhelming feeling-- the kind of calm-but-creepy aura that only Ignatz can conjure. (Watch the video for Ignatz’s “Abandon the Night” here).
Peter Kolovos: Black Colors [Thin Wrist]
Simply on a visual level, Peter Kolovos’ triple-LP Black Colors is a stunner, with its glossy sleeves graced by Zoe Crosher’s dark, evocative photos of Los Angeles. But the music inside is even more dazzling. Kolovos molds his tactile guitar noise into such an array of shapes, it sounds like some kind of monstrous hybrid of electronics, acoustics, and otherworldly machinery. At first the album title makes sense, as there’s a gravity here that feels as pure and dense as a dying star. But ultimately Black Colors offers so many tones and moods that it’s really a sonic kaleidoscope. (Listen to Peter Kolovos’s “A7” here).
Alan Licht: Four Years Older [Editions Mego]
Guitarist Alan Licht has long moved between the worlds of indie rock (he’s currently in Lee Ranaldo’s band the Dust and recently penned a book-length interview with Will Oldham) and experimental music. At first glance Four Years Older sounds like an example of the latter, but it’s actually a sly mix of abstraction and rock technique. Offering two versions of a solo electric guitar piece recorded four years apart, the album can be bracing, but inside the din lies melodic and harmonic moves that even veer into guitar hero territory. In other words, just because this is Alan Licht’s noisiest album doesn’t mean it’s not also his most musical. (Disclosure: I released a Licht album in 2000). (Listen to Alan Licht’s “Four Years Later” here).
Rambutan: Inverted Summer [Fabrica]
Albany, NY sound sculptor Eric Hardiman has been involved in lots of different kinds of experimental music over the past three decades (disclosure: I’ve known him personally for most of that time). Somehow he’s managed to touch on all of that experience on Inverted Summer, his first official full-length LP after numerous cassette, CD-R, and split vinyl releases. Most of the tracks here have some basis in meditative sonics, and many veer toward drone. But there’s also a pulsing energy to every moment; Haridman makes even calm sounds feel busy and urgent in a way that reminds me of Fennesz’s best work. That’s a lofty comparison, but Hardiman’s long history of thoughtful music deserves it. (Listen to Rambutan’s “Outside the Horizon” here).
Sightings: Terribly Well [Dais]
Much like Hair Police’s Mercurial Rites, the latest by this veteran noise-rock trio was released earlier this year without much fanfare. Too bad, because Terribly Well is the perfect kind of record from a band that’s been around this long-- it oozes experience and wisdom, yet advances their cause by discovering things they somehow hadn’t explored yet. It’s also one of Sightings’ most visceral albums yet-- you can practically see sweat and steam pouring from the speakers during some of the trio’s rhythmic workouts. Considering that they’ve been about physicality their whole career, that’s an impressive feat of age-defiance. (Listen to Sightings’ “Better Fastened” here).
Tsembla: Nouskaa Henget [New Images]
As Tsembla, Finland’s Marja Johansson makes bubbling music that reminds me most of the playful, ingenious work of electronic pioneer Raymond Scott (and his later counterpart, Ursula Bogner). There’s also a Residents-like sense of oddball pranksterish-ness and a squiggly Black Dice feel happening on Nouskaa Henget, but ultimately Johansson’s resourcefulness and ability to surprise helps her music rise above mimicry. It’s also surprisingly emotive-- as funny as her songs can be, Johansson infuses them with moods that last beyond initial cleverness. (Listen to Tsembla’s “Aivojen Pimeydessä” here). --Marc Masters
II: It’s electric: Three recent LPs highlight the diverse roles of the electric guitar
“Circle,” one of the final tracks from the bold new album by French iconoclast and sound destructor Richard Pinhas, is a steady maximalist swell. Across the song’s nine minutes, heavy drums and rampant effects, scowling synthesizers and shrieking noise accrete into a white-hot blur. As the sounds shift and slide, the slight-funk drums that provided the invocation never lose their anchor position, providing a stable center amid the surrounding frenzy.
The drums do get bullied into assorted corners by the various barrages—coiled electronics that suggest grand sheets of tin being rattled next door, digital fragments that herald an alien cicada invasion, cascading whirs that imply a slow slide into the world’s last remaining funhouse. They return again and again, though, regaining position. By track’s end, however, the beat is ripping apart, stumbling into a stutter as it submits to attrition. The song, it seems, is a battle of one force against many, with one clear loser and a coalition of several winners. But the last sound that remains in “Circle” is actually Pinhas’ electric guitar, emitting a gnarled and straining squeal as it gasps for its closing chord. What’s most surprising about the guitar’s survival amid the squalls and rhythm is that guitar exists within the track at all. Listening to “Circle", the drums and the electronics are upfront and immediately apparent, but the electric lingers largely in the background, half-hidden beneath the mess. The guitar is the song’s rudder, then, subtly guiding it from one twist into the turn, though sitting forever at or just beneath the surface.
The persistent background function of Pinhas’ guitar helps make Desolation Row-- in which Pinhas says he and sterling cast of collaborators explore “a certain kind of End of the World” and posit music as “a way to fight”—a fascinating and fantastic record, the sort that’s worth revisiting a dozen times just to understand the mechanics. There’s guitar all over Desolation Row, but it peaks out in the slyest of places, whether winking coolly beneath the synthesizer chill of “Square” or mimicking a great gloaming just behind the irascible circuits of “South.” Desolation Row is not at all a “guitar record”; it is instead a phantasmagorical hybrid of techno and prog rock, jazz and industrial, sound art and sonic oblivion. But the electric guitar constantly threatening to surface is the show’s secret and undeniable star.
Despite the age and familiarity of the old electric guitar, an instrument that’s been eulogized and revived countless times in its 70-year history, it’s having a tellingly strong year. From the return of My Bloody Valentine to the appearance of Black Sabbath atop The Billboard 200, from the swell of good young rock bands gaining purchase by playing the things to the very loud buzz behind a bright-eyed Nashville picker playing a Fender through arrays of effects, the guitar hasn’t retreated meekly in the face of EDM.
Three recent records recapitulate the electric guitar’s diversity in experimental music in thrillingly different ways: Whereas the multi-instrumentalist and ambitious arranger Pinhas uses it as both a textural semaphore and substrate on Desolation Row, Steve Gunn and Cian Nugent treat their six-strings as delicate and precise apparatuses within Desert Heat, an impromptu trio formed with the steadfast drummer John Truscinski in 2011 at a gig in a bowling alley. Bill Orcutt exerts a similar control over his electric guitar on The Raw and The Cooked, a collection of improvisations recorded on a short tour with hyperkinetic drummer Chris Corsano late last year. But Orcutt trades the long, thoughtful lines of Nugent and Gunn for spasmodic shards and instant shrieks, as though he’s punished his guitar to the point that it’s the one yelling out in pain.
Thanks to previous excellent solo LPs and respective inclusion on the long-running Imaginational Anthem series, both Gunn and Nugent are primarily known as acoustic guitarists. They’ve both expanded beyond those roles, however, with Gunn leading a proper folk-rock outfit on this year’s Time Off and Nugent now fronting the distended electric blues trio Cian Nugent and Cosmos.
For “Cat Mask at Huggie Temple,” the title track of Desert Heat’s very-limited-edition and all-too-brief debut, they both go electric, a surprising move that allows them to explore their serpentine melodic lines patiently and without mutual interference. Their tones and styles are distinct but complementary, letting them share lines and harmonies but to push apart from one another, too. If they played the same piece with acoustic instruments, they’d constantly step in front of another, it seems, the simple strum and pick of the strings not providing the separation they get from each other and Truscinski’s gathering clatter. You can hear this come to fruition on the more muted, acoustic-centered B-side “Chimay Blues,” where the trio barley avoids slipping into somnolence by panning the guitars between the speakers and by webbing each through a set of effects.
But the contrasting electrics of “Cat Mask” feel much more fluid, as the distinctions between them are easily blurred and perhaps erased altogether. By the time the trio hits the 10-minute mark, the near-parallel electrics have created a sound akin to moving monkey bars. The listener can only hope to hold on tight, awaiting the end the trio has yet to divine.
There is no time for such guesswork or perseverance on The Raw and the Cooked, an exothermic reaction of a record that violently expends its energy on almost all of its dozen cuts. These drum-and-guitar improvisations provide the illusion of chaos. There’s no way, it seems, that Corsano’s onslaught of drum rolls and cymbal splashes and Orcutt’s barbed knots and strands of pock-marked notes could be under control. But the longer you listen, the more the communication-- and, what’s more, control-- become abundantly clear. During one piece, for instance, Orcutt suddenly locks into a single, few-note phrase and repeats it manically; Corsano fits inside of it, beating at its borders until Orcutt lets it wither into a busted theme that’s much smaller and more uncertain. They both collapse into silence for an instant but then blast ahead in a tantrum that’s so saturated and stormy it suggests all the strength of black metal’s second wave. It’s mean, bordering on frightening.
After founding Harry Pussy more than 20 years ago, Orcutt’s no stranger to playing the electric guitar, of course. His recent output, however, has been centered around the acoustic. But here, an electric gives him the force and volume to be Corsano’s equal, to challenge and coordinate with him at full tilt, four eyes connecting over only six strings and some drums.
No one symbolizes this better than Lamont “Bim” Thomas. Living in Columbus in the 90’s and Cleveland since 1999, he’s drummed for a who’s who of recent Ohio post-punk, including V-3, Bassholes, This Moment In Black History, Puffy Aerolas, and the Unholy Two. Lately, Thomas has also forged an impressive oeuvre with his solo project Obnox. He’s banged out nine releases since 2011, the newest being the double-LP Corrupt Free Enterprise, his second full-length album. It furthers his take on noisy, snarling punk, sifting sneaky melodies through miles of distortion and clamor.
“The whole idea is layers of rhythm,” Thomas explains, speaking on the phone while his five-year-old daughter plays in the background. “I’ll go in, put the drums down, and then just add sheets of rhythm. Later I use the vocals for melodies. Like James Brown-- it was just rhythm, and the next thing you know, Maceo’s blowing, and there’s your melody. But the rhythm is etched. It’s gotta have that rhythm."
Though Obnox is essentially a solo project, Thomas has often included guest contributions, drawing on the many musicians he’s encountered in Ohio over the years. “My guitar leads are more rhythmical accents-- there’s not too much melody when I play a lead,” he explains. “So I’ll bring in someone like [guitarist] Bill Weita from Fuzzhead-- he’s a genius!-- and the whole thing will take off. Anything that can intensify it, hell yeah, I’ll add that-- as long as I don’t spend too long doing it.”
Thomas’s knack for rhythm and melody began at an early age. Growing up in Sandusky, Ohio, he was introduced to music by his grandparents carting him to church every Sunday. “A lot of my family sang in the choir,” he recalls. “That’s where I first saw people tuning guitars. That’s where I first heard harmonies.” The influence of those experiences has lasted-- Obnox records have frequently recorded gospel covers.
Just as big an impression was made by punk rock, which Thomas discovered in high school, hanging out with skateboarding pals and eventually playing in a band. “One guy said, ‘I’m getting an electric guitar’, and another said, ‘I’m going to borrow this dude’s bass, and he’s got drums too, so you’re our drummer,’” he recalls. “They kind of made that decision for me.” After briefly attending Bowling Green State University near Toledo, Thomas migrated to Columbus, and “stumbled onto a great music scene.” Snagging a job at Used Kids Records, he met tons of like-minded punk-rock hounds. “It all jumps off from there, he says. “Tons of records, tons of stuff to listen to, tons of characters in and out.” The most important character was Don Howland, a former member of the Gibson Brothers who had started his own band the Bassholes just a few years earlier. Soon enough, Thomas was drumming with Howland, and absorbing everything he could.
“He’s super smart-- you’ve gotta really open your mind up when you’re running with him,” says Thomas. Their partnership has lasted over a decade, and though Howland currently lives in North Carolina, the pair released a new album Boogieman Stew just this past spring. “I’d really be nowhere without the guy,” Thomas admits. “I try to cover at least one of his songs on each Obnox record, to keep him in the conversation."
In 1999, Thomas moved to Cleveland with his partner Brandy, working at a moving company and not playing much music for a couple years. One night in the early 2000s, he went to a house show and joined an impromptu jam. It went so well, the participants got together again a few days later. Soon they became This Moment In Black History, a band that has made many great, idiosyncratic records in the ensuing decade, while maintaining the low-key nature of that initial jam.
“It’s a brotherhood, a fellowship,” Thomas says of the group. “We used to pal around when we weren’t playing, talk on the phone every day.” Singer Chris Kulscar now lives in New York, and other band members, like Thomas, are now parents. “Everybody’s got a lot more responsibilities, but it’s still family,” explains Thomas. “It’s taught me that there’s always guys wanting to jam, but they don’t necessarily give a rat’s ass about you. In This Moment, it goes beyond that. We do stuff for each other-- we’re brothers.”
That kind of kinship continually inspires Thomas. Asked about his influences, he cites Cheater Slicks, Tim Kerr, Gregg Oblivian, and Ron House, all stalwarts of their local scenes. “It’s basically about music towns and people that are known for shit there,” he says, “Those are the cats that I’m always checking for.” His extended family of musicians in Cleveland is similarly inspiring. “I’m in great company right now,” says Thomas. “I hear something hot across town, and it makes me work harder. I want my shit to impress the people in my community.”
There’s someone else Thomas is trying to impress too-- his daughter, for whom he is a stay-at-home dad. The role has helped focus him creatively. “You start thinking about good versus evil, right versus wrong,” he muses. “You try to make good art, because she’s going to hear that one day. I don’t want to have a bunch of turkey records where she’s like, man, ‘My dad wasn’t shit!’ I want her to be like, ‘My dad was the man! He’s gone now but I still got him with me because of the good art.’”
“I’m also trying to make a record that the average brother with a nice system in his car, when he hears it, he’s not frisbeeing the shit out of his window,” he insists. “Instead he’s like, ‘What the fuck is this? Where do I find more of it?’”
That prompts me to ask Thomas about issues he’s faced as an African-American in rock, something he’s eager to talk about it. “Rock and roll could stand some more brothers right now, some more swagger,” he insists. “Speaking on my own behalf, whatever they’re calling rock and roll right now is trash, it’s bullshit. Put me in the position to rock next to some of these motherfuckers, and you’re not going to be able to sell that bullshit anymore. It’s not cockiness, it’s confidence.”
“It’s never gotten to where somebody’s tried to kick my ass because I was a brother hanging out at a punk show,” he continues. “I'll put it this way: my next record will be the 10th Obnox record in three years. In most cases, a motherfucker makes 10 records that are halfway decent in three years-- shit, we would’ve been talking a long time ago. I do not hate white folks, but I’m not afraid to call someone on their bullshit, you know? If I was a white guy making records this often, more people would give a shit, definitely.”
Just as big an issue for Thomas is the simple idea of musicians getting paid for their work. “I’m sick of rock and rollers enjoying brokenness, like that’s some kind of badge of honor,” he says. “No, they’re ripping you off, dude. The booker, the sound dude, the journalist, the promoter-- they’re all getting paid. But we can’t get shit because everybody’s settling for nothing. It’s time to get some money for playing rock. The rappers get paid. The country dudes don’t settle for that $50 a night shit."
Thomas isn’t letting these issues slow him down. He’s already working on songs for the next Obnox album, to be recorded at the legendary Musicol Studios in Columbus. “It will have a fuller sound, but it’s still going to be crazy,” he explains. “I’m into the recorded arts, but I like to work quickly and effectively. I don’t feel like sitting around trying to be McCartney and Lennon holed up in the studio for a month-- all the feeling goes away.” This refusal to over think is perhaps what gives Thomas’s projects such thrilling immediacy, and he has no plans to change that outlook. “If I make a turkey of a record someday, I guess I’ll go back and ask what went wrong,” he says with a laugh. “But right now everybody seems to be having a good time.”
IV: Slow race: Agarttha’s beautiful Italian transmission
To listen to A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands is to commit to getting lost: The debut album from Italian musician Francesca Marongiu under the name Agarttha, A Water creates a 40-minute slipstream from a dozen different rivulets of sound—bejeweled drones and irascible metal, brooding noise and bewitching vocals, tribal drums and twinkling bells. They run together into a labyrinth so involved and seamless that it’s understood only when the music stops, when the record closes, when the intricacies yield to the album’s end.
The key to Agarttha’s success is the way in which Marongiu layers and wraps her references, bending all these musical ideas toward a center of unified, graceful gloom. The bullying guitars that begin to groan at the close of “Melusine,” for instance, don’t feel distant from the synthesizers that chirp and dissolve at the center of “Visions of Alina.” A Water posits and proves that Earth can sit next door to Dead Can Dance, that Arvo Pärt drifts perfectly away from the Buddhist descendants of Phurpa.
“The album,” explains Marongiu, “was born in a period in which I passed through different phases of musical research.”
One part of that musical research includes Marongiu’s membership in Architeuthis Rex, her long-running collaboration with partner Antonio Galluci. Architeuthis Rex often delves into more dense material, with militant drums bruising industrial textures in long, hulking piece. Marongiu doesn’t forsake such sounds in Agarttha, but she does use them as only one element inside of a wider and much more welcoming gyre.
It’s so welcoming, in fact, that A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands will keep you confused and enchanted in its clutches, at least for about 40 minutes.
Pitchfork: Agarttha is a relatively new project for you. How did it start?
Francesca Marongiu: “Unborn Moray Eels Discover The Light,” the first Agarttha track, rose as an improvisation in winter 2012. I was playing a synth, and then I put a couple of vocal layers on it. In the previous months, I had been working a lot on Crisne, my earlier solo project, playing with quotes and with an ephemeral part of my childhood. The “song” came out really obscure, and I thought it wasn’t Crisne stuff.
I had started to be quite restless, and I felt I needed to express my inner musical world in a more authentic way. I was reading a lot about Carl Jung’s archetypes and alchemy at that time. All that fit with my own spiritual research, so I put it in my music.
Pitchfork: That track isn’t on this album, so how did you begin building A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands?
FM: The first track of the album I wrote was “Storms As He Walks,” inspired by a Joseph L. Henderson essay about ancient myths reflected on the modern man. I’m often very connected to the things I’m listening to, reading, watching. I sat down and started playing these simple wild drums. Since that moment, I felt a connection with that ancestral world I read about and which could help me individuate my own world. While playing the organ and singing these few lines, I was finding the key to arrive in the present. That track is definitely like an obscure awakening.
I made a video using some footage taken from Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Sergei Parajanov. That movie fits in several ways with the Winnebago Cycle stories narrated in Henderson’s essay. They share a sense of tragedy and grotesque often reflected by nature. Mike Genz of [the label] King Of The Monsters contacted me after watching it, telling me he couldn’t stop playing it on YouTube. He asked me for an LP, but I had nothing to give to him. I closed myself in the studio for a few months and sent him the album in November.
Pitchfork: What does the title, A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands, come from?
FM: It comes from a book about the alchemist Michael Sendivogius, which represents a sort of watershed between ancient and modern chemistry. His whole work has been considered a fundamental step in the discovering of oxygen at the end of the 18th century. His alchemy was definitely more practical than the one of Paracelsus. It excluded spiritual involvements.
The choice to use that title could appear as a contradiction because of the huge importance I gave to the spiritual aspects of alchemy in the album. But it perfectly mirrors the “physical” shape of Agarttha, and I think that title perfectly encompasses all the main themes of the album. The water is an unavoidable element in the various stages of the alchemical course.
Pitchfork: The sounds here are disparate but connected-- soft New Age textures, heavy doom tones, singing that recalls the prime of 4AD. What do you hear in music and sounds you like?
FM: At the beginning, I didn’t care too much about the sound, and I totally concentrated on inspiration and writing. Gradually, I started to deal more with sound and slowness. There’s the ghost of the first years I approached music. I was fully absorbed in writing “simple” songs or just drone improvisations with vocal layers. I was studying vocals so I was more dedicated to the sound of the voices and the way they could express their singularity. In this sense I think I learned more from Jarboe, Linda Perhacs or Nico than from my vocal coaches.
Some phantoms of the music I love are traceable, but the sound is something more modern. I wanted an open and present sound, with powerful dynamics and distorted guitars. I’ve listened to a lot of 4AD music in the past; I avoided nostalgia while writing A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands. In the last years, I’ve been listening to a lot of brilliant artists like Oren Ambarchi, James Plotkin, Sunn O))), Guapo. They influenced my idea of heaviness. In some way, I think my 4AD inspiration has been a bit flattened by them.
Pitchfork: These pieces seem so nebulous and broad, letting the listener slip into them. To what extent were they improvised or completely composed?
FM: The album isn’t improvised except for the first and the last track. I worked on them, adding several layers from time to time. Improvisation is stunning because, in the best case, it connects you with your inner world while opening it to the outer. It’s pure stream of consciousness, and so it fit perfectly with Agarttha and its celebration of the unconscious. But this time I needed to tell stories and to be more accurate in the arrangements.
After a first approach that dealt with the substance of inspiration and writing, I reached a level concerning sound and musical matter. “Chimysche Hockzeit,” the last track I recorded [and an improvisation], is quite far from “Storms As He Walks.”
Pitchfork: I get so absorbed by the sounds of the record that I sometimes have trouble sorting through the lyrics and what you’re relating. Can you tell me about the ideas behind the songs?
FM: The entire album concept is about the process of individuation as intended by Carl Jung. It’s strictly connected with the various stages the alchemist has to pass through to connect the conscious to the unconscious.
The first track, “Lambsprinck,” is dedicated to The Book of Lambspring, with its fantastic illustrations of archetypes and the various steps of the initiates. Both “Melusine” and “Visions of Alina” are about an 8-year-old Jung patient who dreamed about death archetypes for a while before dying. Her story captured the attention of Jung because she couldn’t know for real the subjects of her dreams but her unconscious did. “The Sphynx” is an homage to Ted Hughes. Premonition, fatality and death are central in the album and so in some of his greatest poems.
Pitchfork: Aside from the membership, how does this music relate to Architeuthis Rex? Do you hear them as connected, or does one offer you an outlet the other one doesn’t?
FM: From our first encounter, [Antonio Gallucci of Architeuthis Rex and I] had fun listening to Yahowha 13 and talking about odd sects spread around the world. I studied music for a while, but with Architeuthis Rex, I learned how to make my stuff play properly. Antonio is a fantastic sound engineer and a really creative musician.
I put Architeuthis Rex's “author mark” in the first track of the album (“Lambsprinck”) where the percussions mirror [the Architeuthis Rex album] Dark As The Sea. The two projects have much in common: this sense of freedom in walking through different genres in spite of a gloomy main root; this great fascination for esotericism and alchemy; last but not least, this sense of imperative in a track changing a lot in its own course, adding strange and psychedelic arrangements to more straight ideas.
There’re several differences, too. Agarttha’s music often has a song structure and is more personal. Being emotionally involved while I’m writing and recording is essential to me.
Pitchfork: How much of a network of support exists in Italy for what you do, and who do you consider to be your peers there?
FM: There’re good artists here, but I don’t feel like I’m in some sort of “scene.” In the past, I’ve been really closed to that scene which gravitated towards [the Italian label] Supernatural Cat. I think Ufomammut are one of the best Italian bands, but they’ve always been outsiders. I think there’s an interest in Italy for the doom metal and similar genres, but the great part of people is quite conservative.
Me and Antonio, we’ve always been outsiders, too. We find some connections from time to time. Francesco Gregoretti plays drums on several tracks of the new Architeuthis Rex album; he is also in One Starving Day. He’s from Naples, and I’ve noticed there’s been quite an interesting small improv scene there. Pietro Riparbelli’s work seems really interesting to me, because of his interest in recording acoustic phenomenon and the philosophical involvement in his sound researches. He’s just released a new album on Utech Records, which printed both Architeuthis Rex’s Dark As The Sea and Urania.
Pitchfork: What else are you working on musically?
FM: It’s quite a creative moment for us. Here in Italy, things are getting worse day after day. We’re using this limbo-like period to work, and we’re dedicating much time to music and creation in general. I’m in the studio recording voices for the new Architeuthis Rex album. We’ve been working on it a lot in the past months. This time, things have been a bit harder because we’re passing through deep changes-- a brand new real drummer, doom atmospheres, more complicated tracks. I’ve been enjoying making videos and artwork in the last months, so
I think I’m going to work on it too in the next weeks. I’ve started recording some new Agarttha tracks, but it will take quite a long time to do a second chapter.
For the last eight hours, No Age guitarist Randy Randall has been watching video of himself and band mate Dean Spunt fold and stack 5,000 record covers. An ever-restless pair, Randall and Spunt decided that the packaging of their third proper album, An Object, would be handmade and self-assembled-- no matter the resources that their label Sub Pop has for tasks such as this. They filmed the whole process, and Randall’s been up most of the night, nursing his computer as it imports the mountain of data.
No Age needed this: After touring behind 2010’s Everything in Between, the band attempted to push itself through a writing slump the hard way-- writing, discarding, writing again, getting frustrated. Finally, Spunt realized that he wanted to make the record, not simply write and record the music it stored.
In turn, the effort that went into turning An Object into an object fueled the album’s 11 songs, convincing the band to revisit not only their songwriting process but also their instrumental approach. Randall broke down the parts of his tunes, working less to write the technically perfect rock song than simply to write compelling pieces of them; Spunt didn’t quit playing drums, but he began augmenting them with contact microphones and electric bass, using his hands to do something besides hold sticks.
An Object is No Age’s most curious and ponderous album to date. It boasts a handful of the band’s usual forward-facing and unapologetic rock numbers, such as taunting opener “No Ground” and the red-faced tantrum “Circling with Dizzy”. But its more meandering moments-- the beautifully lonely “Running from A-Go-Go” or the slowly unfolding “Commerce, Comment, Commence”-- showcase a band actively working to test its own limits as it nears the end of its first decade.
"If we could, we would go home with you, help you unwrap the record, put it on your stereo, and then cook you dinner and cuddle while you listen to it."
Pitchfork: How has your relationship evolved over the last 10 years, especially in terms of how it impacts the music you make?
Randy Randall: It’s not a very linear relationship-- it waxes and wanes and ebbs and flows. If you had to dance with the same person everyday, you’re not really a dancer. You’re just making it up as you go. We’re that: One person starts ballet dancing, and the other person starts tap dancing. At some points, they work together. At other points, one person is tapping all over the other person’s ballet slippers.
Pitchfork: When did you realize No Age would be together for the long haul?
RR: It was after we had our first fight, and we were still able to talk to each other. I’m always afraid of confrontation, so it was hard for me: “Oh, shit, we just had a fight. I think the band is broken up.” No, that’s just what people do when they care about what they’re working on.
Dean Spunt: The fight happened when we were on tour, so things were a bit tense. We were playing with Mika Miko in Nottingham and we showed up at noon and ended up playing at two in the morning. By the middle of the set, some guitars, mic stands, and fists flew. It was our last fistfight. We learned we weren’t that type of band.
RR: And I was wasted. Around noon that day, some kid from this band Lovvers asked me if I’d ever tried vodka and Diet Coke. I said, “No, that sounds disgusting.” He made one for me, and so 2 a.m. rolls around, and I had no idea what was going on.
DS: Every time we see that kid from Lovvers, he reminds us that was his favorite show.
Pitchfork: Your early EPs contain songs are very explosive and off-the-cuff, as though you were still figuring out your musical relationship. Were you?
DS: Those songs feel urgent because we really wanted to go out and show people what we’d made and meet like-minded people. They were recorded in a way that really showcased how naïve we were without instruments-- we had so much to say, but we weren’t skilled enough to say it all. That’s where the urgency comes from. I was pounding drums or playing samples or singing, but I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
RR: That’s the way you feel when you’re growing up: “Shit, I got a lot to say, but I don’t really know how to say it.” It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it had to be done.
Pitchfork: As songwriters and instrumentalists, how do you fight against complacency at this point?
DS: If you’re in a band, you spend your whole life trying not to work at a day job. I started in the band playing drums and singing, neither of which I knew how to do very well. Fast-forward eight years, and now that’s predominately what I do. I’m a professional rock’n’roll musician. That was never my intention, and I didn’t really think it all the way through.
It can start to feel like the office every day when you know what you’re doing, but I like experimenting and feeling vulnerable. On this record, specifically, I mess around with things other than drums. If all I’m doing is moving my hands on the percussion side of it, I could be doing that with contact microphones or a bass guitar or whatever. Bringing those elements in has made it a lot more interesting than just playing drums and singing.
I always had a love-hate relationship with drums. When I started playing, it was in response to this macho-ness that I felt drums had in hardcore or rock bands. My idea early on was to take someone who had no idea how to play drums and let them have this aggression. If they don’t know how to play, it will feel different because there’s all the intention but no skill at playing drums. As I’ve gotten better, I feel like I play beats that I wouldn’t have liked early on.
Pitchfork: Randy, do you feel the same way about your guitar?
RR: Playing guitar has always been a confusing nightmare; I feel like the more I play guitar, the less I really know about it. The longer I spend with an instrument, there’s stranger and deeper nuance to me. I started playing guitar out of this weird emotional breakdown as a kid. The first 10 years of playing guitar were a good excuse for me to beat myself up with an instrument on, but it wasn’t really musical.
Then I started messing around, making four-track tapes. I thought, “I want to learn how to fingerpick, like John Fahey. I wonder if I could do that?” Eight years later, I’m nowhere closer to knowing how to do anything like that. It’s not my goal to sound like John Fahey, but I just feel like guitar is an open landscape. The only limit is my imagination. I see it as a lifelong experiment. At the same time, I’m just as guilty as anyone else of falling into patterns. I like what I like. I become a cantankerous man at times. It’s not the guitar’s fault that it sounds that way. It’s my fault for playing it that way.
Pitchfork: When you experiment or make yourself vulnerable, you now have the pressure of doing it publicly, as a band many people like. Does that get to you?
DS: There is a bit of a pressure on us. Early on, we talked about the idea of making music that we wanted to hear while maintaining some level of success. I didn’t want to fuck it up too much. At this point, though, I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t make me fulfilled and happy and excited.
Pitchfork: You decided to take this record into your own hands by manufacturing as much of every CD and LP as possible. How did that happen?
DS: I don’t sit around and play music on guitar or drums around my house. To me, music is a medium that I chose-- or chose me, maybe-- to express myself. I After Everything in Between, we were trying to write, and it was going nowhere. I started thinking about how to make a record and why I wasn’t able to make a record and why I wanted to make a record. It was a starting point for me.
RR: I said, “You’re crazy. I don’t want to fold a bunch of fucking records.”
DS: We kept talking about it, and eventually, Randy said, “Hell yeah, let’s do it.” We started writing music a little bit and recording it, and it went a lot faster after that.
Pitchfork: What did Sub Pop say?
RR: “You’re crazy!”
DS: Just like every record we’ve done, at first, they say, “Why do you guys want to make it so difficult?” The original idea was to make an unlimited edition, and we would continue to produce them until the end of time. But that would mean that if we were on tour, or something happened, we wouldn’t be able to produce the record, and it wouldn’t be in stores. But Sub Pop is in the business of selling records, so they’re not really into conceptual ideas of how to fuck with records as an object. So we decided to do a limited edition of 5,000 LPs and 5,000 CDs, which, in any sense, is not that limited. I wanted the number to be absurd, because the point was to see if we were able to do this thing. And we did it.
We physically made everything, cut everything, printed everything, boxed everything and shipped it to the printing plant. We couldn’t press the record ourselves because there is a lot of legal liability, and we’d have to get a job at the pressing plant, basically. We would if we had time, but we weren’t able to. We physically touched them all and stamped them and wrote on them and sweated on them.
RR: And now we will come to your town, and we will play these songs live to you. Then we will sit behind a table and physically sell you this record. We will take your money and put the record in your hand. If we could, we would go home with you, help you unwrap the record, put it on your stereo, and then cook you dinner and cuddle while you listen to it.
DS: What is the relationship with the consumer when they’re buying this thing made by the artist but that was meant to be produced by a factory? If this thing is on the shelf or in a store or online, it’s with thousands of other things that have never been touched by the artist who made it, or were never touched at all.
RR: The reality is that the majority of people who will probably hear this record are streaming it on YouTube or downloading it.
DS: And that’s OK. The process was more for us to work through it, to see what it means. We were writing music for a concept.
RR: The real inspiration was Ray Kroc’s book, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s, which is about a man who pioneered fast food in this country and the world. The title of the book became a battle cry for us in the whole process. If at any point we felt we were doing a lot of work and felt tired, we would invoke the name of Ray Kroc and the title of the book-- how disgusting and inspiring and terrible, Grinding It Out: The No Age Story.
Pitchfork: How did the concept-- designing, manufacturing and building your own packaging-- change the writing and recording of the music?
RR: My response to Randy was, “I don’t know what the sound of making a record is.” Is it a mechanical-sounding thing? No.
With this record, we also broke down the shorthand that we’ve created: What I thought was benefiting us was doing us a disservice because we were fast-forwarding straight through the parts of writing songs. We lost the art of foreplay in our music-writing relationship. We had to get back to teasing things out to the part of an idea that’s not fully formed.
Some of the stuff on Everything in Between was my attempt at creating these parts that I thought advanced that idea of melody and composition. But what we respond to the most in playing and even listening to music is feeling, not theory. And chances are, the majority of people feel similarly. It’s a feeling, not how cool that chord change or progression was-- it’s not a game where you get more points for how many complicated chords you throw in a song. Knowing about chord structure and atonality did nothing for our feelings.
DS: I don’t want to learn about chords; I try to stay in the dark about how music is made.
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with glitchy UK R&B duo AlunaGeorge, aka Aluna Francis and George Reid, whose debut album Body Music is out now.
The Last Great Film I Saw
George Reid: I love things that are terrible, like action films that are vaguely about espionage. I watched Swordfish the other night, with John Travolta, Halle Berry, and Hugh Jackman. It’s one of those turn-of-the-century things that came out just after The Matrix, when everyone was all about the technology. My girlfriend lasted about 15 minutes before she fell asleep, but I watched the whole thing and I enjoyed it.
My Dream Collaboration
Aluna Francis: Pharrell. He could do vocals or production work, anything. We could even design a fashion label together.
GR: I doubt we’d be able to speak or move if we attempted, but it would be fun to work with Thom Yorke.
Favorite Television Show
GR: “Breaking Bad”
AF: “Girls”-- I want them to use our music.
AF: Aged dark rum, straight
GR: I’ve been getting into mojitos. It’s just so hot out and they’re refreshing and delicious.
GR: It would be cool to have an Olympics one, with the rings down the arm... if I had been in the Olympics. But I just can’t see that happening anytime soon. I have no talent, but if I could win any event, it’d be the 200-meter sprint. It’s nearly as exciting as the 100 meters and it lasts twice as long, so there’s more time in the spotlight.
My Morning Routine
AF: I have to eat as soon as my eyes are open, so I quite like it if there’s some leftover cake or dinner from the night before. Then I roll into the shower. Coffee’s not really a big thing in the UK, we still don’t know how to make it at home.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan
Last Great Concert I Went To
GR: We opened for Kendrick Lamar at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and it was the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.
My Role Model
AF: My Auntie Olivia. If you’re in some kind of terrible, terrible disaster mode, you can just go to her and she’ll sit there and be chill. She doesn’t take on all of your hype.
GR: My father. He’s just one of those people, who’s given up everything for his family. He enjoys seeing his family happy.
The Last Great Book I Read
AF: Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. It's freaking me out because it’s all about how this stalker is affecting the mental state of the stalkee-- I’m at the point where I almost don’t believe the stalker exists and it’s all coming from the main characters. I’m very confused.
AF: Picking finger skin
Favorite Actors and Actresses
AF: Samantha Morton, Christina Ricci, and Gael García Bernal
GR: Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage-- where his accent is from no one will ever know.
Overtones is a column by Jayson Greene that examines how certain sounds-- a snare crack, a synth blob, a ghostly string sample-- linger in our minds and lives.
If you've ever spotted me on the street and walked up to say hi, there's a good chance you stopped yourself before reaching me. My mouth is working slightly, you notice, and I have earbuds in. Maybe I'm singing to myself? Then you see my right hand at my side, holding my house keys and twitching spasmodically. Hmm, you think. Maybe now's not the best time.
This happens constantly. Longtime friends and acquaintances are likely used to it. As I smoothly pocket my keys, as if they had stopped me in the middle of doing something normal, there is no acknowledgment between us, no "what are you doing there?" Still, in my more self-conscious moments, I picture a conversation among two coworkers, comparing notes later in the day: What the hell is that?
Well, there are a lot of names for "that." Twitching, spazzing: those aren't the kindest, but they're descriptive. I stumbled across a longer, more official name last year while doing some idle self-diagnosis. "Psychomotor agitation: a series of unintentional, purposeless motions that stem from mental tension and anxiety." Reading it, I felt a small "alternate history" chill run backwards over my childhood. Ah. So that's what that is.
I am exceedingly lucky: Other sufferers bite the flesh off of their fingertips, bang their heads into walls, knock things over. My "purposeless motion" has always been benign. In a word, I shake. I've been shaking things my entire life. When I was old enough to close my baby fist around something, I selected a piece of rubber tubing, broken off from a larger toy, and whipped it around. Eventually, I settled on socks-- pliable, soft, one for each hand, always readily available. I balled one up in each of my little hands, and shook them, furiously. For hours. I paced, I muttered; my socks whirled, mostly noiselessly, around me. When I was seven, my father filmed me doing this, and you can watch the home video here.
So that's what I'm doing. But what the hell am I doing? On the rare occasions when I've mustered the courage to talk about this... thing, or gotten drunk enough, my story tends to leave my listeners looking at me blankly. "Shaking my socks" confounds people's understanding of basic sentence structure: You what your what?
I've asked myself if the music I love shaped my mind or if my mind went looking for congenial shapes, companions that told me something I already knew.
What I do know for certain, however, is that this bizarre behavior is inextricably linked to my relationship to music. My mind is a paint can; music is an automatic mixer. Music that worries away at, or endlessly embroiders, a single nagging thought, like Steve Reich, feels oddly familiar and comfortable to me: There is something pre-cognitive in it, a shape as old and recognizable as my mother's breath rising in her chest.
The high-speed velocity of thrash metal or hardcore punk was the same. Bad Brains' self-titled album caromed off of its own edges, charging forward through the universe with a liberating urgency I immediately identified with. I had no aggression, no politics. I didn't hate the cops or Ronald Reagan or want a safe place to skate. I loved this music because it felt like shaking, bottled. When I heard that sound, my world doubled in size. It certainly felt that way at the time, but looking back, I've asked myself if the music I love shaped my mind or if my mind went looking for congenial shapes, companions that told me something I already knew.
With rap, it was the pure sensory overload of all the words that first enticed me. Here was all this information, spilling out in a hopeless tumble, all of it urgent and streaming forth faster than anyone could hope to catch it. I have always had a special place in my heart for verbose, excitable rappers-- E-40, or Big Boi. Their words emerged spring-loaded, compressed, thoughts stacking relentlessly on top of each other. (When my parents took me to a counselor, in my teens, it was because they had noticed I was exhibiting "pressured speech," or "a tendency to speak rapidly and frenziedly, as if motivated by an urgency not apparent to the listener." When I was in fifth grade, I spent a few months with a speech therapist, correcting a stutter that I explained to the woman felt like "all the words in my sentence trying to get out the door at the same time.")
In short, I appreciate urgency. There has always been too much to do, too much to take in, at any given moment, from any fixed place in the world. I was much more easily overwhelmed when I was a child. Back then, anything-- a new tape, a new comic book, a cartoon-- would send me into hours of paroxysms. How was I expected to sit still when there was this much energy coursing through the air? The shaking gathered in me like a lightning storm, a neural sneeze. It was impossible to deny.
I am still helpless to this impulse when a piece of music taps into that place in me. If I leave work with a new rap song ringing in my ears, the chain reaction starts. Instantly, I am envisioning the arc of a rapper's career: Their earliest mixtape-and-flyer days, their diligently cultivated local fanbase, their eventual big break. I thumbnail-sketch their moment in the pop-cultural sun, their one or two major label-financed records with their one or two respectably performing pop singles. There are cameo parts for the pop-culture wonks cracking jokes about their catchphrases, the clubs that would play them 10 years later to the cheers of nostalgic college kids. I even imagine their entrepreneurial side businesses-- a food franchise, maybe, with seven locations. By this time, I have made the seven-minute walk from my office to the subway. I look down. My keys are gripped tightly in my hand. I might as well have been deposited on another planet, so far away am I from my starting point.
I keep my keys off of a keychain most of the time now. It doesn't matter if I keep them zipped in the bottom of my bag-- like the dry-drunk alcoholic who eventually goes for the mouthwash, I know I will be scrabbling for these small pieces of metal. It is a humbling, and mortifyingly silly, addiction. Once, reaching for my keys while standing at a subway platform, I accidentally grabbed and flung them onto the train tracks, all in one frantic motion. I locked eyes with an alarmed and uncomprehending fellow commuter as the train passed over them, and could offer him no explanation. As usual, I had earbuds in. In a perfect world, I would have just gestured to them and he would have understood. It's not my fault, I would say. Have you heard this stuff?
Harry Rodrigues is in the middle of moving into a spacious new apartment in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood. "Do you like the carpet?" he asks, motioning toward an immaculate new leopard print. His mother, meanwhile, is hauling in a beautiful antique wooden table recently salvaged from relatives in Connecticut. The producer and DJ known as Baauer gives me a quick tour, pointing out a couple of bedrooms-- two other friends will move in eventually-- as well as the beginning of a makeshift studio where he'll begin work on his debut album, due next year, which he hopes to make a highly collaborative affair. His wishlist for the record includes A$AP Ferg ("I love what he’s doing musically, he’s becoming the New York hero"), along with producers Cashmere Cat, Ryan Hemsworth, and Arca.
And while Rodrigues is excited for his future-- as well as his current single with Just Blaze, "Higher"-- it's impossible to ignore the events that led to him landing on the top of Billboard's Hot 100 earlier this year, changing chart history in the process. Few have ascended to pop culture ubiquity as quickly as this 24-year-old, whose "Harlem Shake" inspired a grassroots meme that eventually exploded into a worldwide phenomenon. Rodrigues still seems a little bewildered by it all, repeatedly referring to the ordeal as a "mindfuck."
"Overall, this song got big for no reason of mine," he says, "but I was also connected with it 100 percent." After all, "Harlem Shake" was originally just a track he pounded out while living in his Williamsburg apartment, just a file he sent to anybody in the industry whose e-mail address he could find. (A little bit of trivia: Before "Harlem Shake" came to the attention of Diplo's Mad Decent imprint, G-Unit was the most interested party.) I joined Rodrigues on his unfinished rooftop to talk about the blessing and curse that is "Harlem Shake".
"I got a taste of what it’s like to have a song in that stratosphere and I can tell you that I’m happy with that being the only time it happens. I don’t want that shit."
Pitchfork: Take me through the "Harlem Shake" experience, how you were feeling and reacting to the phenomenon at the time.
Baauer: Initially, it reached this point where it was in the DJ world-- Skrillex and Bassnectar were playing it-- and I was like, "Wow, this is sick." And then it cooled off a little bit. I was making new shit. Then, in February, these kids in Australia made that video of them humping to the song, and people were sending it to me on Twitter and posting it. I was like, "OK cool, someone made a video to my song." But it didn’t seem that funny.
Pitchfork: So when did it really hit you?
B: When they did a video on "Jimmy Fallon", I was like, "whoa." That was right at the tipping point. That’s when it changed from “wow!” to “uh-oh, what’s going on here?” From there, it became super out of my control.
Pitchfork: What was the impact like on your Gmail, your Twitter...
B: Dude, overwhelming. People started to call my phone, I'm like, "How did you get my number? Who the fuck is this?" People saying, “We’d like to have Baauer on 'Good Morning America' to do the ‘Harlem Shake’.” I’m like, “fuck no!” It felt invasive.
When it was at its peak, I was just watching it happen, trying to be smart. Then people started to get pissed off at it. Huge backlash! It was this mix of "wow this is great," but also "this is fucking awful." I got kinda depressed. I remember I was about to leave for Europe and all this shit was going on and I was feeling so bummed out. It was a good thing that I was in Europe while the backlash was happening. I feel fortunate for that.
Pitchfork: Have you made a lot of money from it?
B: I still don’t know. I haven’t seen any money from it.
Pitchfork: Why is that?
B: I’m meeting with my lawyer tomorrow for lunch, so I’m gonna find that out. I think it’s mostly because of all the legal shit. ["Harlem Shake" contains vocal samples of Plastic Little rapper Jayson Musson and reggaeton artist Hector Delgado.] I didn’t clear the samples because I was in my fucking bedroom on Grand Street. I wasn't going to think to call up [Delgado], I didn’t even know who it was who did that [sample]; I knew the Jayson Musson [sample]. So I found myself in that fucking pickle. Legal letters and shit. Ugh. Lawyers. So exposure-wise it was fantastic, but everything else...
Pitchfork: Do you feel pressure to repeat its success now?
B: No. I genuinely don’t feel that at all. I got a little taste of what it’s like to have a song in that stratosphere and I can truthfully tell you that I’m happy with that being the only time it happens. I don’t want that shit. Of course, I want to be able to get work and for people to like my music-- the best thing I can do is to keep making music I like and, because of "Harlem Shake", maybe people who otherwise would never know about that kinda shit would hear it.
Disclosure: "You & Me [ft. Eliza Doolittle]" (Baauer Remix) on SoundCloud.
Pitchfork: What was your favorite "Harlem Shake" video?
B: I like the army dudes in Norway. That was funny. There were some guys underwater, too. The advertising firm in Portland, Wieden and Kennedy, did one that was funny-- but again, they all had this undertone of like, ugh.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like people are always going to expect you to play it?
B: That's just the way it is. Sometimes, when I don’t play it, people get really mad. I didn’t play it in Amsterdam and I overheard two people who were like, “Oh, did you hear he didn’t play ‘Harlem Shake’?” “Agh, that’s what he’s getting paid for!” But whatever, fuck 'em.
At this point, I’m trying to go from playing the original, to just playing a remix, to maybe putting in one little clip-- sort of weening off of it until I can eventually not play it at all. That would be the perfect thing.
There was a time in the late 80s when I signed up for a gym even though I was very scrawny and a heavy smoker and not in good shape in any way. It was this giant muscle-dude gym, which was awesome, because if you can’t bench anything and you work out at that gym, those dudes treat you like you are one of them. They’ll come up and spot your miserable 80-pound press and sit there going, “It’s all you! One more, man, one more!” But I specifically remember that was the first place I heard “Her Black Wings” by Danzig, and it was so perfect-- this big doomy thing to be pumping iron to.
You’re settling down for some light reading...
I’d go with the first song from the third Danzig record, “Godless,” for contrast. Light reading; blackest of the black, darker than night, come to me my bleeding light.
You find a $20 bill on the sidewalk...
Lean down, light the $20 bill on fire, play Danzig's “Into the Mouth of Abandonement”
You’re waiting for the results of an important medical test...
This happens to me all the time, since I have a lot of medical testing done, so I know that I would listen to “Am I Demon” by Danzig.
You’re home sick with the flu...
“Do You Wear the Mark” by Danzig
You’re throwing a dinner party...
Oak-hewn plates, Waterford crystal, and “See All You Were” by Danzig
You’re working a shitty data entry job that allows you to wear headphones...
“Twist of Cain,” also by Danzig
You just heard that Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez broke up...
The thing is, I didn’t actually know that they were dating, so this news wouldn’t affect me, which means I would probably not interrupt the Danzig that was already playing.
You’re DJing your best friend’s wedding...
This question presupposes that I have friends, which is kind of an unsafe presupposition, but OK-- assuming I’ve got friends and they invite me to their wedding and ask me to DJ, what do I play for them? I thought long and hard about this, because weddings are really special, and the best song to play would be “How the Gods Kill” by Danzig.
You just got home on Friday night and you’re super drunk...
I know a lot of people would go with the Butterfield Blues Band but I'm gonna have to say Danzig's “Pain in the World”.
You show up to what you think is a costume party dressed as Cookie Monster but the party is actually a wake for a police officer...
I have a boombox, and by way of apologizing for my faux pas, I hold it high above my head, Say Anything-style, and, for everyone there to hear, tears streaming down my face but my expression unchanging and stoic, I play “Girl” by Danzig.
You just drank milk that expired, even though you knew it was expired, just to see how bad it really tasted...
The thing is, if you are a seasoned intentional-expired-milk drinker like myself, you want to put the music on first to have the whole experience soundtracked. Otherwise you ruin the moment. So I would go to my office and look through the CDs until I found the first Danzig album and then I would play “The Hunter” loud enough to wake the dead.
You’re at the beach with a boombox...
“A Hint of Her Blood” from Blackacidevil
You’re in the middle of a 16-hour plane ride...
Can you get Spotify on international flights? The whole Danzig discography.
A meteor is about to destroy the earth...
Who else but Danzig?
You’re walking through a snowstorm...
“She Rides”, Danzig
You’re playing your child music for the first time...
Starter offers introductions to artists, scenes, styles, or labels of the past, plus a playlist.
The writing and production partnership of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff started in the mid 1960s, and the musical empire that they built under the name Philadelphia International Records managed to survive through the mid 80s. But there are few labels that significantly defined the specific musical and social developments of the 70s quite like PIR. Arising from a cultural tradition that forged its own regional R&B sound through a hybrid of soul, gospel, jazz, and orchestral arrangements, the Philadelphia Sound was ornate long before it broke internationally. And Gamble and Huff boasted a long string of notable singles in the late 60s with which to hone their sound-- particularly Jerry Butler's 1968 hit “Only the Strong Survive”, a sweetly string-drenched yet rhythmically propulsive #4 pop hit that proved to be a pivotal moment in the development of what would be dubbed “smooth soul.” What started as the signature sound of two producer/songwriters became the signature sound of a label, then a city, then a genre, and finally, of a distinct era in R&B.
To understand the impact of Philadelphia International, it helps to think about crossover-- both between demographics and between genres. Philadelphia's tradition of raising versatile session musicians who were just as handy sitting in on a jazz combo as they were backing up a teen-pop hit meant that players had a lot of not-so-disparate elements to draw from. And when PIR assembled their house band, MFSB, they had something in the neighborhood of three dozen musicians who were professional enough to play whatever was asked of them but varied enough to integrate a host of different influences. Meanwhile, Gamble and Huff's advanced recording techniques were geared towards a living-room/dance-club setting rather than the car-speaker/jukebox high-end of other R&B labels, anticipating the fidelity of FM radio and the popularization of an increasingly middle-class hi-fi listenership. By plugging instruments directly into soundboards rather than running them through amps, they could get cleanly isolated sounds that had more resonance and less interference. And by taking advantage of the up-to-date 24-track recorder technology of their preferred home base, Sigma Sound Studios, Gamble and Huff could use that clean, orchestral, crossover-friendly sound to scrub all the rough edges off of R&B and present its most refined side yet.
And yet a lot of the label's classic voices-- from Eddie Levert to Teddy Pendergrass to the Three Degrees-- aren't so genteel. The big kick to the greatest Philadelphia International hits was the way Gamble and Huff deliberately left that most crucial element-- the voice-- as raw and impassioned and from-the-pulpit as the situation demanded. And all those strings and vibraphones and pianos were there to serve the rhythm, not vice versa; if any element in a composition could credibly bolster the beat, it was put to that very use.
It was in this way that PIR, implicitly and explicitly, used the tension between traditional gospel-rooted soul and forward-looking pop to redefine the idea of R&B music for a post-civil rights era. It was the ideal soundtrack for a time when the hope of finally becoming self-sufficient and free of institutionalized discrimination made the potential strength of a black middle class look within reach for more and more people. By the middle of the 70s, that particular strain of soul had spread out to a wider America looking for some form of cathartic euphoria to wash away the memories of Vietnam and Watergate. And even when the recession days dragged at peoples' heels, the Philadelphia Sound's emergence as the sound of the times drove the 4/4 pulse of a wounded nation back into motion in nightclubs and discos across the country. Here are 10 songs, both hits and deep cuts, that reveal how Philadelphia International Records did it-- listen along to the following tracks with this Spotify playlist.
Aside from being one of PIR's first big hits-- #1 R&B and #3 pop in fall '72-- the O'Jays' classic acted as a strong delineation point between what was going on at Motown and what this relatively new upstart label had in mind. It's inspired by (and interpolates the chorus of) the Whitfield-Strong composition “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, made famous by the Undisputed Truth as a brooding psychedelic-soul number. Huff brought in co-writers Gene McFadden and John Whitehead to pick up the treachery theme and focus it on the threat of romantic infidelity (while retaining the subtext of sociopolitical cynicism), while Gamble came in to co-author one of the most luxurious arrangements to hit pop radio at the time. The combination of a danceable, Latin soul-inflected rhythm and an orchestral backing that swirled around Eddie Levert's powerhouse anxiety was R&B melodrama at its contemporary peak.
The question of the first disco song isn't as contentious as trying to trace the official origin point of rock'n'roll or funk-- at least if you keep drummer Earl Young in mind. Like a lot of PIR's dance tracks, “The Love I Lost” carries the emotional weight of a ballad-- probably because it originally was composed as one, until a dissatisfied Gamble told the band mid-session to try cranking up the tempo. And one of the biggest reasons it clicked-- along with Teddy Pendergrass' ferociously heartbroken lead-- was Young's hi-hat-driven 4/4. The kick boomed strong in time with Ronnie Baker's bass, and the snare shuffled and rolled slickly, but it was the cymbal ride and its prominent, hissing off-beat emphasis that jumped out in the midst of a steady groove and pointed dance music's direction for decades to come.
Crossover hit-maker reputation notwithstanding, Philadelphia International still afforded its artists plenty of opportunity to stretch out and experiment. How else to explain the fact that Billy Paul, who hit pay dirt with the Grammy-winning smooth soul ballad “Me and Mrs. Jones” in 1972, followed it up a year later with a spiritual-minded concept record featuring a 10-minute title track that pushed psychedelic soul into prog territory? The personnel is the same brain trust that made 360 Degrees of Billy Paul a smash-- Gamble and Huff wrote and produced, Bobby Martin arranged, MFSB were the backing band-- but it's a startling break from the label's relatively young tradition, from its synth-siren opening, to its Curtis Mayfield-meets-Roy Ayers structure, to Paul's watery baritone invoking abstract theology (“God is just a title/ It's like calling somebody father/ Preacher, President, or general”) and warning Lucifer that the Almighty, under any number of identities, is ready to throw down.
Offsetting uptempo rhythms with an undercurrent of deep longing and melancholy was one of PIR's trademark tropes. It wasn't anything all that new in R&B, but the Three Degrees took that dynamic to new heights. Like a decade-later update of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” with all the afterglow whittled away in favor of relentless yearning, “When Will I See You Again” is a plea for a short fling to become something more substantial. Lead singer Sheila Ferguson and the harmonies of Valerie Holiday and Fayette Pinkney make the most of a simple melody, building from the wounded ache of the verse to the sweet strength of the second iteration of the bridge (“Are we in love or just friends/ Is this my beginning/ Or is this the end?”) so smoothly that it feels like an ambush. It also did more than any previous single to date to put the “International” into Philadelphia International: It reached #1 on the charts in both the UK and Japan, which first embraced it during the 1973 Tokyo Music Festival and again in a Japanese-language re-recording.
As disco made its first shifts from a DJ style focusing on extended dance grooves to an actual genre in itself, the idea of where to draw the line between disco and funk was still blurry. With some notable precedents in Brooklyn-- namely B.T. Express and Crown Heights Affair-- Gamble and Huff signed up Philadelphia's own People's Choice to their TSOP imprint and let them rip. “Do It Any Way You Wanna” turned out to be one of the biggest R&B and club hits of 1975, thanks to its combination of a straightforward four-on-the-floor stomp and an infectious boomerang of a guitar/bass riff that was almost as slippery around the one as the choppy chant of its titular hook.
Tom Moulton is legendary for pioneering so many pivotal aspects of dance culture-- the continuous-mix album side, the extended dance remix, the institution of the 12” single as industry standard-- that his unique working relationship with PIR is sometimes forgotten. The 2012 compilation Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Remixes collects dozens of them, both decades old and recently assembled, and his 1976 mix of “Love Is the Message” is maybe the most essential. An 11 1/2-minute break-beat workout in the hands of Moulton-- and a New York anthem once Larry Levan got ahold of it-- this mix proved how a song originally recorded in 1973 could stay evergreen through the end of a constantly shifting decade.
As the Philadelphia Sound became a ubiquitous sonic trademark that other musicians were itching to try on, from Elton John's “Philadelphia Freedom” to David Bowie's Young Americans, PIR worked hard to expand its horizons. And while Dexter Wansel's 1976 Life on Mars LP wasn't a blockbuster, it presented a more fusion-friendly, synthesized side to Philly Soul. The #10 disco hit title track and the space-noir jazz-funk of “Rings of Saturn” are powerful highlights, but it's “Theme from the Planets” that really clicks-- maybe because its opening drum break and ensuing prog-soul noodling resurfaced 10 years later on Volume 10 of the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series, right between James Brown's “Funky President” and Rhythm Heritage's “Theme from S.W.A.T.”. You can guess what happened next.
After some seven years of singing under the banner of another man's name, Teddy Pendergrass made his solo move in 1977. Without losing a step, he released an LP worth of songs that were every bit as moving as definitive Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes hits like “If You Don't Know Me By Now” and “Bad Luck”. Pendergrass, whose gospel roots and abrasive-yet-melodious voice made him one of the most devastatingly intense soul singers since Otis Redding, charged through disco's year of mainstream breakouts with a direct address to the self-absorbed, identity crisis-prone hedonists of the day: “Make peace with yourself before you can love another/ Understand who and what you are before you can go any further.”
Even the biggest labels have their cult hits, and Edwin Birdsong minted one with a self-titled 1979 LP that proved to be his only full-length release with Philadelphia International. Up to that point, Birdsong was best known as a keyboardist and member of Roy Ayers Ubiquity with three then-rarely-heard solo LPs-- his PIR debut made it four rarely-heard solo LPs, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Though his sense of funk was a bit too quirky and offbeat for crowd-pleasing crossover, it stands as one of the most provocative and unorthodox LPs in the entire PIR catalog. (Note that this is the record that gave us “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” sample source “Cola Bottle Baby”, and you might get an idea of how far away it is from the old preconceptions of what the “Philly Sound” was.) “Autumn Eyes,” the penultimate track on the LP, is its definitive shoulda-been-a-hit, its juxtaposition of a from-the-gut bass line and the crystalline chimes of Birdsong's keyboard giving it gravitational pull on multiple levels.
By the end of the 70s, Philadelphia International had grown to become one of the biggest black-owned corporations in America, but their presence on the crossover charts had been slowly whittled away by the very disco scene they'd helped to create. Members of MFSB jumped ship to an up-and-coming New York label and became the Salsoul Orchestra, the Three Degrees wound up recording Eurodisco LPs with Giorgio Moroder on Ariola, and the likes of Lou Rawls and the O'Jays were only intermittently making Billboard's Top 10. It's in this twilight that one of the label's last huge unqualified successes took shape. The duo of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead-- the same songwriters who teamed up with Huff to pen “Back Stabbers”-- had a moment in the spotlight with the triumphant 1979 single “Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now”. Championed by New York tastemaker DJ Frankie Crocker and sold in double-platinum numbers, the single belies its origins in two songwriters' long-awaited move from behind the scenes to the front of the stage: the “us” in question expanded outwards from its two finally-liberated business lifers into the upwardly mobile aspirants of the black community, then across a whole nation ready for the hopes of a new decade to come. The reality of the 80s wouldn't live up to that promise, but there's no use denying people just one more dream.