The man standing in line at the Lamplighter coffee shop in Richmond, Va., doesn’t seem to mind that the woman making his drink is wearing a Dropdead shirt.
He is the picture of young Southern gentility on a hot summer day. He’s holding a toddler in his right arm, wearing plaid shorts, sandals, and sunglasses. “Virginia is for Lovers,” his blue t-shirt reads, with the v in the final word replaced famously by a shiny red heart. He doesn’t pay notice to the curly-haired guy in the Municipal Waste t-shirt, either, or the blonde woman perched at the espresso bar in a black Iron Reagan cutoff. He doesn’t balk at the bagel sandwich named “Slayer”-- that is, cream cheese and a pork sausage patty.
He lives, after all, in Richmond.
“To me, Richmond is a blend of a small town and a big city. If you go to a coffee shop, there will be kids in their Disrupt t-shirts and kids talking about Belle & Sebastian. It’s because the city’s not that big,” says Trey Dalton, who plays guitar in the polyglot psychedelic metal band Inter Arma. “There are plenty of places to go and eat and venues, too, but it’s not big enough to where you can have an indie bar or a metal bar or whatever you want. Everything mixes.”
Dalton moved to Richmond in 2009. For years, the city had served as a de facto second home for him; he’d often drive from his hometown-- the city of Roanoke, ensconced just at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains three hours away-- to catch concerts in houses or the city’s long-running rock club at 929 West Grace Street, known now as Strange Matter after several stints under names like Twister and Nancy Raygun.
Roanoke is a third of the size of Richmond, which, though it’s Virginia’s capital, a massive college town and an American historical locus, falls far short of being the state’s most populous city. But for Dalton, the amount of culture and music (particularly of the heavier variety) in Richmond made it Virginia’s artistic epicenter. He’d grown up with Inter Arma singer Mike Paparo back near the mountains. When Inter Arma asked him to join the band just as his lease back home conveniently ended, he didn’t hesitate.
“Richmond is not a ton bigger than my hometown, but seeing how much more stuff was being produced here was mindblowing,” Dalton says. “You show up and see Battlemaster, and those dudes are ridiculous, and then there’s Cough and Windhand and a billion other bands starting up now. There are plenty of places that have a population that quadruples Richmond, but there’s an anomalous amount of stuff happening here.”
From Inter Arma’s pan-everything gyre to Pig Destroyer’s electronics-abetted savagery, and from the thick-toned stoner metal of Cough and Windhand to the popular bruises of Lamb of God, a lot of that stuff is very heavy. A cauldron of brittle and brutal, doomy, and disorienting, Richmond is a crossover city, where even the slowest bands seem to espouse an old punk’s attitude.
“It’s got a pretty extensive punk history. You met other people into that kind of stuff, and it all mixes,” says Parker Chandler. He plays in Windhand and Cough. “And it’s dirty. There’s a lot of trash. I personally don’t litter, but I don’t go out of my way to pick up someone else’s trash.”
Not long after the man in the plaid shorts nodded as he lifted his drink from the hands of the barista in the Dropdead t-shirt, the first of a dozen bands hit the stage at Gwar-B-Q. Located about seven miles outside of Richmond, Gwar-B-Q-- named for, produced by, and branded with Richmond’s archetypal putrid pranksters, Gwar-- has commandeered a meager waterpark for one summer day every year since 2011.
Hadad’s Lake is surrounded by a maze of subdivisions and soybean fields, with churches of the Baptist and Methodist sort seemingly dotting the country landscape every fraction of a mile. Consisting of a reservoir for paddleboats and a separate trifurcated pool with a tiny slide lubricated by a sprinkler, an intimidating rope swing up a large wooden ramp and a massive annelid-like inflatable called The Blob, Hadad’s Lake feels comfortably second-class as amusements go. The facilities are faded and dirty. The water glows in some flux of pallid brown and green.
But Gwar turns the park into a bona fide adult party, at least for an afternoon. One large stage sits with its back toward the crusty clay cliffs that surround the park; its speakers looming like overhead cannons. Another, much smaller stage is crowded into a nearby communal picnic area, with mosh pits flashing out on the same concrete floor where it’s easy to imagine a buffet of Cheetos and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches on most weekends. Gwar ships its own beer in and bastes the beef stuffed in barbeque sandwiches with its own thick sauce. There’s a sizable merchandise row and a roving Gwar-kart, a BMX ramp and an ad hoc tattoo parlor-- only $80 for a Gwar portrait, but legs and arms only, please.
By 3PM, more than 3,000 people have arrived for Gwar-B-Q. In the thick summer air, they stretch in a thick single-file line for hand-labeled cans of Gwar beer and wait patiently on asphalt for the Gwar Meat-and-Meet, where the costumed band signs t-shirts and skate decks and body parts for an hour. Mostly, though, the crowd congregates around the two stages, greeting the slew of Richmond bands-- thrash party animals Municipal Waste, grindcore lords Pig Destroyer, metal classicists Volture, death-by-weed dudes Cannabis Corpse, the requisitely headlining Gwar-- like touring favorites. Yes, there are out-of-town bands, including North Carolina crossover kings Corrosion of Conformity and Michigan belligerents Battlecross, but the locals get the most attention.
“This really is the best city in the world for fucking metal, isn’t it?” Municipal Waste frontman Tony Foresta says from the stage, pausing early in the band’s set to half-boast and half-ask the crowd. For a moment, it’s hard not to agree.
Municipal pride runs strong in Richmond. Every third car, police cruisers included, seems to sport a sticker that reeds simply "RVA." Since 2011, the city has printed more than 100,000 of these black and white totems and put them on most every available surface.
Those stickers are emblematic of the Richmond music scene itself: Dalton opines that local openers often draw better than touring headliners in Richmond. Bobby Egger, who owns the record store Vinyl Conflict, says that records by young area bands rising to national prominence-- including Cough, Windhand, and Inter Arma-- are among his shop’s bestsellers. Windhand’s self-titled debut, released last year by Richmond label Forcefield, sold loads at Vinyl Conflict. Relapse Records will release Soma, Windhand’s second album, in September.
“There will always be that older group who is always going to say it’s not like it used to be, but the kids who believe in it really love it,” says Egger. “The scene down here is just so intense. The kids are mega-dedicated, and there’s such a heavy involvement from so many people.”
The musicians seem to exist in a perpetual mutual admiration society, too. Though they’re uniformly eager to warn that plenty of bad music comes from their town, too, many of them seem more excited to tell you about what’s new and exciting in town-- or, alternately, what’s old, important, and overlooked. Dalton, for instance, raves about Unsacred, a foreboding blackened hardcore band that he thinks will soon warrant wider-than-Richmond support; Foresta, meanwhile, praises Kilara, a restless band that split the unlikely difference between sludge metal guitars and pinball hardcore rhythms. He admits that they’re even the band that pushed him from punk toward metal. “Shit,” he thought the first time he saw them, “what is this?”
Dave Witte, the drummer from Municipal Waste, moved to Richmond in 2001. He grew up in New Jersey and co-founded Discordance Axis before heading south for a relationship. Sitting backstage at Gwar-B-Q, Witte won’t stop gushing about Inter Arma, former roommates of his in a four-bedroom house. They’re in Tennessee today recording one 40-minute song, he says, and they’re ready to show the world what they have. “They’ve been holding back,” Witte reckons, smiling. “But they’re going to be one of the best.”
Witte wears a tie-dye shirt from the last Best Friends Day, the pool-and-music party that Foresta and some pals started 13 years ago. Best Friends Day was Richmond’s great all-inclusive party, featuring brass bands and indie rock and heavy metal at Hadad’s Lake. When it simply got too popular to continue in the location, they ended the event and passed the plans over to Gwar, who relocated their own soiree to the waterpark. Witte likes how it works. In fact, today, he raves about most everything in Richmond, from the food and beer scenes to the hordes of heavy bands and fans to the fact that the city helped launch the career of Dave Matthews. He’s a Richmond transplant who wishes he’d been here his entire life.
Erik Larson hasn’t been in Richmond his entire life, either. He grew up in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., after Revolution Summer-- the hardcore groundswell that galvanized that scene. He got a drumset and, within a month, was in his first band. He played a lot in high school and noticed that people like him-- punks, artists, metal kids-- consistently moved to Richmond to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. He did the same thing, and five months after arriving, he enlisted as the drummer in Avail. Not long after that, Born Against, then on tour from New York, stopped in Richmond to spend the night at 1640 Grace St., a house where bands lived. Born Against eventually moved there, too. They told Avail how to tour and how get in touch with booking agents; three months later, Avail hit the road, and Larson spent seven months a year for the next nine years touring. That was the blueprint, he says, for every touring band to come out of Richmond since.
“Nobody in this town was doing shit. The bands here before didn’t tour. They didn’t get out of here,” he says. Larson formed Alabama Thunderpussy and a dozen other bands, including Kilara, since leaving Avail. “Born Against brought that shit down here. They taught everyone how to tour. All the people now who are on tour, whether it’s Street Pizza or Inter Arma or Windhand, they owe everything to Born Against.”
Well, maybe not quite everything: Larson wasn’t at Gwar-B-Q, but he admits that the extravagant and eccentric act is an essential reason that he’s been in Richmond since 1990. Over and over again, musicians in Richmond talk about VCU as a magnet, constantly pulling a new crew of energetic, vibrant, and creative people to the city’s core. In the early 80s, some of those students became the first iteration of Gwar.
“It’s where the punks came to school. It’s where people came to congregate,” Larson says. “Gwar is essentially just people coming to college and meeting each other. Dave Brockie went to art school here, and now he’s Oderus. Ten years later, I was there, too.”
Back at Gwar-B-Q, Brockie is sporting his muscle-bound Oderus Urungus outfit, with his extended phallus swinging free in the Southern sun and the stench of his thick, fake black beard sour and potent from a distance of three feet. Breaking character ever so slightly, Brockie says that people in Richmond start bands for the same reason he started Gwar: There’s nothing else to do, but there are people who want to do things.
“You have to create your own fun here,” he says, dripping sweat backstage at his summer madhouse. “People say Richmond is the next Seattle, but I hope that’s not true. Then it would be trendy and bougie, and there would be stupid fucking overpriced coffee shops everywhere. And it would be on a different coast.”
It was near the end of Phoenix's headlining set at this year's Coachella when the opening lines of "Bump N' Grind" started ringing from the big speakers, a cappella: "My mind's telling me no, but my body's telling me yes." The lyric was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as those in attendance began to wrap their brains around the night's unlikely guest star before easily giving into the effervescent live mashups that followed. It was a ridiculous moment that made sense in part because of its senselessness-- and offered a truly unpredictable change up amidst the workaday world of summer music festivals.
The onstage meetup led to R. Kelly's recent remix of Phoenix's "Trying to Be Cool", and when I caught up with Kelly and Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars on a conference call yesterday, they couldn't help but heap praise on each other. Mars was at home in New York City; Kelly was in Atlanta, where he's recording. In typical R. Kelly fashion, he's currently in the middle of making two very different albums, the libidinous Black Panties as well as a country record. "I have always been infatuated with country music," he says. "Country music tells stories, and I’ve always loved to tell stories. I said that when I establish myself as an artist that can do pretty much anything I want to do in music, I’m going to make a country album." Unexpected? Sure. But it's also just the latest left turn in a career built on them.
"My music has shaken hands with the world somehow-- it’s a beautiful disease, and I’m glad I got it." -- R. Kelly
Pitchfork: Robert, what are you up to right now?
R. Kelly: Eating a Subway sandwich, man!
Pitchfork: What kind of sandwich?
RK: It’s got turkey, lettuce, tomatoes, and extra oil and vinegar.
Thomas Mars: What is better, Subway or Quiznos?
RK: Oh, I love Quiznos. They’re good, too.
TM: I heard that one of them is not as healthy, but I couldn’t figure out which one.
Pitchfork: Thomas, how long have you been an R. Kelly fan?
TM: I remember being in my apartment in Paris and watching “Trapped in the Closet”-- it was the best TV experience of my life. It just came out of nowhere. I’d never seen anything like it before. I watched it again and again. I remember dreaming about the water drop-- it stayed with me for a while. I watched it with my father-in-law [Francis Ford Coppola] once and I remember him sitting there in silence for 10 minutes and then saying, “This is incredible.”
Pitchfork: Have you told Robert that story before?
RK: [laughs] I’m sitting here smiling from cheek to cheek, seriously. I didn’t know [Thomas] cared that much! I really didn’t. I’ve always wanted to write movies-- I always used to tell my mom that I wanted to be a director. So when I did “Trapped in the Closet”, I was like, “I’ll show them!" because I couldn't get a movie deal. That was me saying, “Take this!” I was just having fun and I ended up doing a bunch of rhyming and making sense out of it somehow. I never knew people would get it like that, though.
Pitchfork: I was at Coachella when you guys performed together-- you definitely caught everyone by surprise. What was it like being on that stage?
RK: That that was one of the most magical nights of my life. It was like going to Walt Disney World, but I was one of the characters rather than just being one of the people walking around the park trying to get on the rides. I felt like I owned the place playing with those guys. Their energy level was ridiculously high. I felt like I finally met other aliens.
Pitchfork: Robert, you’ve collaborated with a lot of incredible artists over the course of your career. What was different about playing with Phoenix?
RK: Well, you’re right: There's the Michael Jacksons and the Ronald Isleys and all the other people that I’ve collaborated with. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve worked with a lot of talent out there. But when you have a gift, it’s different than just having talent. [Phoenix] are gifted-- they’ve got that Beatles thing going on. You can’t explain it.
Pitchfork: What was different about a gig like Coachella compared to one of your own shows?
RK: Well, besides there being a whole lot more people than I’m used to performing for, it was a shock to me because I really didn’t know what I was in for-- as I’m rolling up, I’m hearing all of these people screaming. It sounded biblical! Then as I walked backstage, I saw Phoenix performing out to this sea of people. I almost fainted. I became immediately nervous for real. There were just so many people.
Pitchfork: Really? You regularly perform to pretty big crowds.
RK: But I'm going to tell you something, man, I get nervous even when I’m in front of my own fans because I’m looking for a certain level of screams, and that’s what's going to give me the confidence to go out there and do what I need to do. But [Coachella] was a different scene for me, and when I saw all of those people-- so many that I couldn’t see the end-- I started to pack up and run back to the bus. [laughs]
Pitchfork: How familiar were you with Phoenix’s music beforehand?
RK: Not that familiar, but I heard the name so much; I stay so buried in the studio, just like I’m sure those guys do. My manager told me, “The group Phoenix really love your music and would love for you to come out as a surprise guest out of nowhere and perform." I’m like, “Huh? I don’t get it. What do you mean?” An hour later, I’m still saying, “I really don’t get it.” Then they sent me their song and showed me how they put my song “Ignition” in there with it, and I just started trying to gather my ears around it. I played it about 10 times and then I got it. I was like, “Wow! This is going to be real interesting, let’s do it!”
Pitchfork: Were you surprised that your vocal fit on top of their music?
RK: Now there I wasn’t surprised, because I’m a lover of all sorts of music, which makes me a chameleon when it comes to performing anything, whether it’s opera or whatever. As long as it’s good and it feels good, I’m going to cling to it. But what shocked me was the fact that they wanted me on their record. I was honored!
Pitchfork: Thomas, I read that you didn't get to practice the Coachella performance before it went down, were you nervous about it?
TM: I was nervous, but the fact that we met onstage-- that pressure-- makes it, and the thing that comes out of that is incredibly powerful. Just looking at the setlist during the show and seeing “1901/Ignition” gave me goosebumps. I couldn’t believe it.
We've been mixing genres since we started to make music; when we grew up, there were a lot of people listening to one particular style of music, and that was something we couldn’t really relate to. [R. Kelly's] music is appreciated by so many and yet there’s also a whole cult around it, like a secret society of people in music and other creative fields that know about it. I knew that he’s such a chameleon, and that his music could match with ours even though there are so many things that are seemingly opposite. It totally worked.
Pitchfork: Another unique element about this collaboration is the meeting of French and American cultures. Robert, do you have a big fan base in France?
RK: I heard I do, but I've never been there. I'd love to go. My music has shaken hands with the world somehow-- it’s a beautiful disease, and I’m glad I got it. But I hear about so many places that I haven’t gone because I don’t fly much. I’ve started flying now, though, so we’re going to be going a lot of places.
Pitchfork: Why didn’t you like to fly before?
RK: I was scared.
Pitchfork: That’s real.
RK: It’s truly real. When I first came in the business, I had a couple of close calls on planes going to London for shows. There was one time where the plane had to fly around until a storm ended, and then we started having a question about fuel, so we had to go through the storm. It was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. That really messed me up. I’ve flown since then, but I don’t fly all the time. I go on my tour bus when I can.
Pitchfork: As far as the “Trying to Be Cool” remix, it's funny because when I think of the concept of “trying to be cool,” R. Kelly is like the last person I’d think of-- it doesn't seem like something you've ever had to worry about.
RK: You know, I’m almost agreeing with you here, but I know how to transform my music and channel it. When you have the gift, you’re able to tap into the secrets of that gift. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but when two great entities in two genres meet, it’s powerful and it can’t be denied. People are going to recognize the realness and go along with it.
Pitchfork: Do you remember the last time you had to try to be cool?
RK: Those were my high school days, and it didn’t work. But I wasn’t singing then. Once I started singing, I didn’t have to try to be cool. I was just one of the coolest guys around.
Pitchfork: What kind of reactions have you gotten to this collaboration?
TM: The first time I told a few friends that we were going to be playing Coachella together, their faces were confused. And when I saw that confusion, I knew it was perfect. It felt like we were breaking some rules. There were a lot of "whys"-- I don’t think there’s enough whys today in music. Since then, there’s never been a question. Every friend that I played that song to just thinks that it should’ve been written 10 years ago.
RK: I’ll just keep it real like he just did: I was in the studio with my homies, and before I played it, I was scared because I’m used to playing them some hip-hop or R&B joint. But then I put the ["Trying to Be Cool" remix] on and they actually loved it because it has that feel of “Play That Funky Music” and Hall and Oates. That disco music of back in the day, but upgraded to now. They started grooving to it, saying, “Man, what the hell is that?” “It’s Phoenix, man. It’s Phoenix.” Then I was trying to act like I knew all of their music and I grew up listening to them and everything. You know, I was frontin’! But they were loving it.
I wasn't hearing the most promising things about the mood of Poland. "Holy fucking depressing," a fellow journalist wrote me. "Bleakest place ever." Her grim outlook was echoed by others, including Kerry McCoy of post-metal band Deafheaven. "I will second the 'Poland sucks really fucking bad' sentiment," he said. "Driving through rural Poland was all weird Stars of David and swastikas and Cold War era farming equipment." Everyone I spoke with seemed to have the same reaction: "Why are you going to... Poland?"
It was mid-July, and I'd been researching the Polish metal scene as I prepared for a trip to Katowice for the OFF Festival, a small, seven-year-old fest with a dark, brutal lineup boasting My Bloody Valentine and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a whole stage curated by prolific doom metal artist Stephen O'Malley (headlined by legendary Japanese noise duo Zeni Geva), and room for cultish Western acts like Dope Body, Julia Holter, and Merchandise. Most intriguing of all, though, was that each day at OFF was set to a feature a ton of Polish bands.
My knowledge of Polish music was limited and incoherent, and I wanted to learn more. I knew Joy Division originally called themselves Warsaw to convey something gloomy, adapted from the solemn 1977 David Bowie and Brian Eno song "Warszawa", which conjured the desolate nature of the war-ridden Polish capital Bowie experienced in the 1970s. I'd seen plenty of flyers for Polska hip-hop nights in my neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and had a sense that Polish punk history was interesting and overlooked in America-- communist-era anarcho-punks Dezerter were one of the first bands to break past the Iron Curtain with their 1987 album Underground Out of Poland. But researching Poland is not the same as experiencing its musical climate firsthand.
Unsettling reminders of the country's history are unavoidable. When I take my seat on the plane, for instance, the woman next to me explains that her parents were Holocaust survivors; she is going to visit the concentration camp where much of her family was killed. I tell her I was warned that Poland is bleak. She laughs. "Poland was always in trouble," she says. "Someone's always poking at us." When I page through the Polish in-flight magazine, its opening essay reflects on the country's break from communism in 1989. The biggest tourist attraction I'm encouraged to visit is Auschwitz; later on, a musician performing at OFF tells me he and his bandmates were planning to visit, noting his astonishment in discovering that suicide rates were greatest among violinists at Auschwitz who were forced to perform psychotically calming music as people walked towards death.
OFF Festival crowd
Artur Rojek, OFF's founder, says Poland has made considerable cultural strides since joining the European Union in 2004, and 2009 was a landmark year for alternative music there, a culmination of work that'd begun five years prior. The EU accession minimized "hoops Polish promoters and festival organizers had to jump through," he says. The number of artists traveling to Poland has steadily risen. "It was a big step forward that gave us the feeling we had suddenly become a part of Europe as a whole, and not some isolated country," Rojek says. Though a few music festivals have popped up in Poland since 2006, OFF is unique in that its set at a small park, an hour from Krakow, with four stages. It's absolutely manageable to see all 90 bands on the lineup, which is curated to mix legends (the Pop Group, Brutal Truth, Girls Against Boys), established acts (Japandroids, Cloud Nothings, Deerhunter), and younger artists (AlunaGeorge, Autre Ne Veut, Metz).
Along with government funding through the Ministry of Culture, the City of Katowice began making significant investments in the arts in 2010, when it decided to try for the prestigious "European Capital of Culture" title-- increasing investment in cultural development through festivals, exhibitions, and concerts. "Heavy industry, mines, and steel mills are what people usually thought of when they heard the name Katowice," Rojek says. "A lot has changed in a short period. You could feel the energy in the city." Along with monetary sources that would never exist in America come unexpected festival laws-- at Polish mass events, for instance, attendees can only drink alcohol in designated areas, so you can't roam the festival grounds or walk near the stage with a cup of beer. (Imagine these restrictions at Lollapalooza.) "You drink in one place and listen to music in another," Rojek says. "At a festival like OFF, where the music often requires greater involvement and concentration, that’s really important."
Of prevailing music trends in Poland, Rojek notes the country's thriving jazz scene and the popularity of hip-hop-- one of OFF's focal attractions this year was rap crew Molesta, who performed their 1998 debut Skandal, widely regarded as a milestone for Polish hip-hop. Still, Rojek says metal is the most recognizable Polish genre, with internationally recognized bands like Vader and Behemoth. Of the many Polish bands Rojek recommends are the great post-rock band Kristen, who began in the late 90s, the psych-rock group UL/KR, and abrasive one-man-band Stara Rzeka, which ended up being one of my favorite acts at OFF.
"Magical brutalism" is what Kuba Ziołek goes for as Stara Rzeka, an art form that draws less inspiration from sound as it does science and philosophers like Martin Heidegger. Recording alone for three years, his moniker translates to Old River and is named after a village in Poland's Bory Tucholskie forest. At OFF's experimental stage, Ziołek fused elements of black metal, neo-folk, and epic, entrancing drones cut with the occasional bright rings of a chime. It sounded apocalyptic at times, like the end of something, and it was impressive to see a fully crowded tent of people willing to begin their day there. Ziołek's small, Krakow-based label Instant Classic is currently selling the second pressing of his popular 2013 album, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. They've released Polish music from ambient and garage to death metal and noise, including a Katowice live album from Japanese noise icon Merzbow.
Given Ziołek's cerebral approach, I'm not surprised to encounter his deeply skeptical persona. He quickly asserts resentment of how Polish bands are treated at OFF, playing early for "lousy money" sans food or drink while foreign bands are put on pedestals. "We have some kind of servile mentality," Ziołek says. "It makes us think bands from U.S. or England are lords." He airs frustration that reviews of Polish bands typically rely on comparisons to Western artists. "There is no way of thinking about Polish music," Ziołek says. "People in Poland don't think music can be intellectual, they don't think philosophy can be part of music creativity. Polish mentality is very emotional. People feel suspicious of intellect in any form. That's why Polish science is so bad-- Polish universities are like 345th place in the world."
I later recognize Ziołek as a member of the intense, mathy group Hokei. (He's highly active, I learn, working mostly in the sphere of improvised music with Alameda Trio, Ed Wood, and Innercity Ensemble, among others.) Ziołek plays bass and contributes post-hardcore vocals in Hokei, while two synchronized drummers pound away. Guitarist Piotr Bukowski describes the band as a "machine" that negotiates chaos and discipline. He name-checks Acid Mothers Temple, but other bits of inspiration are conceptual-- Jackson Pollock, architecture, modern physics-- and the band's name comes from a dance-like martial art invented by a kamikaze during the Second World War, who used hokei to cope with stress while awaiting an order. "It's emotional tension while waiting for something catastrophic," Bukowski says. "We are not trained musicians, there's always a chance something goes wrong."
Both artists say it's a unique moment for musicians in Poland as artists increasingly question the value of grant money from the European Union. "Artists in Poland would in one week transform themselves into workers at gas stations if there was no public money," Bukowski says. But that dependence creates a dangerous artistic energy, they say, and it's not always stimulating for young musicians. "Artists think, 'We don't have to do much work because it's just public money, so it's nobody's money,'" says Ziołek. He mentions his time spent in poor villages in the countryside. "They really need that money to live and build infrastructure and schools," he says. "So I don't agree with this way of transferring money in the country."
Their recordings are simple, but Teenagers, a goth-tinged lo-fi rock trio, are one of the most interesting Polish groups at OFF. As outspoken members of the political Warsaw punk scene, they'd never done a festival like OFF and typically play small shows at bars and squats. "In Warsaw we cannot complain about not having places to play," says singer Daria Bogdańska, a sentiment echoed by drummer Karol Czerniakiewicz, who calls the spirit of the punk scene "optimistic." "And there's good squat infrastructure," Bogdańska adds, laughing. "Squats in Poland are very organized." Throughout Europe, squats are social centers with room for activities and meetings; most have a P.A., stage, amps, and sleeping rooms for bands. There are currently three running squats in Warsaw, a record for the city. "There's new blood coming to the scene," Bogdańska says, "lots of new people who want to start something." She compares it to Berlin 10 years ago.
On Teenagers' two demos, Bogdańska sings about disappointment and frustration in a style that could recall American girl group/garage rock-hybrids, but with subtle political undertones. The band had zero experience playing when they began. "No one wants to release us and no wonder, we're really bad," Bogdańska says in earnest. "We don't play complicated things and we want to keep it this way." Their entertaining, no-fucks-given approach is clear as they play, laughing off all errors. "Our friends were like, 'This is the biggest festival in Poland, are you nervous to play?'" she says. "I really don't give a shit." Despite the attitude, she says they are "pretty unorthodox" compared to the neo-crust phase other Polish punks are stuck in.
Bogdańska and Czerniakiewicz enthusiastically praise the punk scenes in America and Barcelona (where Bogdańska lived for a year, and currently home to the best punk and hardcore scene in Europe). They also draw influence from Poland's rich punk history, describing the massive 1980s Jarocin Festival, where many young communist-era rock bands began-- they recommend the famous 1986 Polish punk comp Jak Punk to Punk, which has beeps where curses were censored; the bands Arbo Critis and Post Regiment; and Siekiera's raw Demo Summer 84 LP and colder 1986 post-punk classic Nowa Aleksandria.
Teenagers; photo by Jenn Pelly
"NO PASARAN! FASZYSCI, NACJONALISCI, RASISCI. WYNOCHA!" A massive banner broadcasts this message throughout Teenagers set, asserting the band's fierce opposition to the fascists, nationalists, and racists they say are still rampant in Poland. "If we have a once in a lifetime possibility to say something that will be heard, it's a good opportunity to say something important," Bogdańska says. OFF did not permit them to hang the banner when they asked; Teenagers laugh describing how they tricked the sound guys into putting it up anyway. "This is important right now," Czerniakiewicz continues, "in Poland there's a lot of right wing extremists." They describe a situation a month ago where a contemporary art museum director was beaten for being left-wing and queer, and another, at a university in Warsaw, when neo-Nazis raided a feminist lecture in Warsaw "attacking everyone, shouting 'kill the fags,'" Czerniakiewicz says. In general, Warsaw is safe compared to smaller towns, the band says.
"In Poland punks are usually very political," Bogdańska says. "The scene is not only music." Punks get involved with Anti-Fa (the anti-fascist movement) and organizing squats. (During our interview, Czerniakiewicz hands me a sticker resisting the nationalist front that has become popular in Poland.) Today this strong Anti-Fa presence in the punk scene keeps trouble away from the squats (as opposed to the metal scene, they tell me, which still attracts neo-Nazis.) "Poland is such a fucked up place-- mentally, economically, we're still very poor compared to Western Europe," Bogdańska says. The day after the festival, she is moving to Malma, Sweden, while her bandmates remain in Warsaw. "But if you want to live here, you cannot concentrate on negatives. You try to make something positive."
Teenagers' mention of neo-Nazis confirm what I've heard about Polish metal, though Kuba Ziołek, from Stara Rzeka, says there are strong exceptions, especially in sub genres like post-metal, drone metal, and doom metal. "They are very wise people who don't get into this kind of bullshit," he says. Rojek, the festival founder, likens these negative Polish stereotypes to the idea that all Americans have artificial personalities and eat fast food. "Every country has its pretty and ugly faces," he says.
Huge Polish metal bands like Behemoth or Vader play to crowds of thousands; the underground functions distinct of that. In Katowice and the surrounding Silesia region, black metal is massive, documented on the 2012 Silesian Black Attack compilation. For Stephen O'Malley's stage, the 10-year-old Furia, a band signed to 21-year-old Polish metal label Pagan Records, was chosen to rep the local scene. Furia perform droning, brutal metal-- faces painted white, eyes black, blank stares, with a wolfish, death-screaming singer, Michał Kuźniak (who is very friendly, I learn later, through a friend who translates). Kuźniak does not deny the issue of neo-Nazis in metal. Two years ago, Furia was kicked off a Polish metal festival when someone erroneously told the organizer the band had Nazi connections. "As a band not connected with it, we can still feel the pressure that people think so," he says.
Furia's white face paint was adopted from Scandinavian bands like Darkthrone and Immortal, who they listened to when they formed the band as teenagers; it's fitting of their recurring lyrical themes on death, so they kept it. ("I am a very sad man," Kuźniak says.) At one point during their set, the band stared at the enthusiastic crowd for two minutes almost completely silently-- a fear-inducing moment. Behind them was a banner of Earth inside of a flame illustrating their primal motto: "Let the world burn."
Although the members of Furia grew up listening to Polish metal, Kuźniak says he now listens more to American and Western European bands. When I ask about his favorite new American black metal bands, his response is slightly unexpected, as he breaks into English (after using the translator all along) to explain his favorite: singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. "The music is of course different, but when I listen to her I feel this is black metal," Kuźniak says. She was meant to perform at OFF but cancelled. "I was so fucking disappointed," he says, "like a little child."
Most of the bands I meet are from Warsaw; when I ask if Furia considered relocating, I'm met with a direct "fuck no" through laughter. Silesia has a strong, important sense of self-identity, which differs from the rest of Poland. "Their noses are up with pretension," Kuźniak says of people in Warsaw. "We feel very connected to this region; there is absolutely no way to leave the roots." He says Furia's music is distinctly Silesian and couldn't be created anywhere else; the region is a mixture of industrial parks and nature, grit, and life, "which is exactly what Furia is." The industrial landscape impacts the way people think. "People from here are simple-- not like rednecks-- but straightforward," Kuźniak says. "It's about being direct and having purer relationships with people in general."
When I first meet Artur Rojek, the festival founder, he is wearing a "Loser" hat recently acquired at the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee in Seattle. His first visit to the Sub Pop store was in 1997, when it was still impossible to find records by foreign artists in Poland. "A trip abroad was like a journey to paradise," says Rojek, who grew up in a small mining town called Mysłowice before forming his own popular Polish band, Myslovitz, inspired by UK bands like Ride and Stone Roses. "Just standing in front of the Sub Pop sign was so overwhelming that I was nervous about even going in." Rojek considers Sub Pop maybe the most important record label in the world, though he admits he couldn't get into grunge during its heyday as he was an orthodox follower of the Jesus and Mary Chain and Creation Records at the time.
Across the board, Polish artists I speak with say labels in the country are split between very tiny ones and majors, without mid-level "indies" like Sub Pop. An exception comes with the collectively-run Warsaw label Lado ABC, which I'm told is one of Poland's most respected and eclectic labels, founded in 2004 to foster community and document experimental strains of punk, hip hop, metal, hardcore, jazz, and more. One of its founders is Macio Moretti of the Zappa-esque ensemble Mitch & Mitch. At OFF, they performed with Zbigniew Wodecki, a Polish baroque pop composer famous for singing a children's cartoon theme, but also with a cult following among music fans. His 1976 self-titled album was rejected by critics at the time, but he performed it at OFF, with Mitch & Mitch, for the first time, a celebrated performance.
Moretti says Lado ABC originally looked to Dischord and Ipecac as genre-less, D.I.Y. labels dedicated to a local scene, curated by artists. The six individuals who run Lado ABC don't earn money from the label, but most do music full-time. Moretti says the Polish scene's visibility has been growing; he mentions a letter Lado ABC recently received from a prominent German zinester. "He said getting our compilation was like discovering a parallel universe," Moretti wrote, "rich and completely unknown."
One Lado ABC roster act is Semantik Punk, an experimental punk band who traveled to L.A. to recorded their 2012 LP. They cite heavy avant-garde Polish groups from the 1990s like Kinsky and Kobong as inspiring for how they experimented with poly rhythms, harmonies, and language. Working on the recent record with Ross Robinson-- who produced one of Semantik Punk's favorite albums, Glassjaw's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence-- they titled it abcdefghijklmnoprstuwxyz, a commentary on language in how it's both universally understood and seemingly meaningless. The band's singer Adam Adamczyk is also a poet and his lyrics are Polish-sung-- "abstract, really Dada, beyond language"-- which I'm told is rare, though more people do it today. "We are a small country, we have a lot of complexes," Karol Ludew, the band's drummer, says. "We feel smaller than others, but we are finding our roots. Now is a time people are not ashamed to say that they are from Poland."
It's still popular for Polish bands to sing in English because it's easier to make melodies-- there are more vowels-- but the most exciting sets I see at OFF are sung in Polish. The glammy, reunited Super Girl & Romantic Boys (who are much better than their name suggests) are a late 1990s/early 2000s synth pop act comprising members of various Polish punk and hardcore bands. Despite their 1980s New Romantic stylings, I learn from Teenagers' Daria Bogdańska that they're "classic for punks in Poland" who "know their songs by heart." In very broken English, the band explains to me they began playing their galactic pop in squats, and until this year, with the Miłość Z Tamtych Lat compilation,they'd never had an official release.
Super Girl & Romantic Boys
But this thrashy coldwave provoked the most massive eruption of a dance party I witnessed at OFF, with the whole crowd shouting wildly along as the band performed in front of grey images of old industrial buildings in Warsaw, a connection to their roots. The band sings about love but also things like ironic fetishization of war and nostalgia for Warsaw-- inspired by New Order and Flock of Seagulls but also mainstream Polish synth pop from the 80s, which they say had strong, modern, political lyrics. Although the band rejected pop music as young punk kids, they understood it as they got older. "There is no conflict between these styles," the singer, Ewa Malinowska, says. "A lot of pop music is really punk rock."
The energy of that crowd was matched by Polish rap crew Molesta, performing their Skandal LPas the sun set and ecstatic kids lost their shit. From my American perspective, the set fused the oddest combination-- punk behaviors (crowd surfing, pogoing), jazz instrumentals (smooth piano leads, horn flecks, a grooving drummer clad in dark shades), and rap from three MCs. Many Polish artists seemed connected to the nation's jazz tradition-- the 15-year-old electronic duo Skalpel, who are from Wrocław and signed to the UK label Ninja Tune, have sampled Polish jazz recordings on their productions, with additional samples intentionally culled from other former communist Eastern European countries. "Polish music is kind of melancholic," they explain. "It's our DNA, we're introverted in Poland." Considering this, it makes sense that Julia Holter, whose OFF set marked her sixth time playing Poland, is so popular there; her music can be similarly emotional and her live band had the effect of an explosively loud free jazz group.
I return to the experimental stage for Warsaw-based electronic artist Piotr Kurek, whose dense synth explorations remind me of Laurie Spiegel, but dissonant, loud, and swarming. (It wouldn't have seemed out of place on the Olde English Spelling Bee label.) Kurek calls himself an outsider and says he's not slept in days due to terrible insomnia. His recent tape, Edena, was released by Polish label Sangoplasmo, following a tape he did for the American label Digitalis. He recommends other Polish labels including Oficyna Biedota and Mik Music, the latter of which began in the 90s, as well as the "very Polish-sounding dark fairy tales" of neo-folk band Księżyc. Since last year Kurek's received more offers from record labels in America, which he says is not a huge concern; he'd prefer to work slowly without a deadline. "It doesn't really matter where you release your music anymore," Kurek says. "People will find it, even if it's a small Polish label."
Kurek, a full-time musician, also composes for contemporary dance and puppet theater, a big tradition in Poland. (He admits it's funny and says he was hesitant at first, but the director gives him freedom.) Where electronic music is concerned, however, Kurek says there is not a huge history, due to difficulty of getting equipment until the 90s. There were not many Polish companies making synthesizers or pedals, and what you could get with Polish money from foreign companies was disproportionate. "We're always a little behind," Kurek says. Like many others, Kurek comments on how the grey cloud of communism inhibited art through the 80s. "It's still the beginning of things and where they could go," he says. "The DIY spirit is pretty young in Poland. People are still learning, but after a while it might be very interesting. The future is bright. Or dark. I don't know, whatever you prefer."
Since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2011, Canada's face-painted Yamantaka // Sonic Titan have been met with some confusion. "Is it performance art? Is it music? Post-punk? Prog-rock?" people wonder. Led by drummer Alaska B and singer Ruby Kato Attwood, the group isn't offering any easy answers; last fall, they unveiled a new rock opera about murderous rival drag queens called 33, and they're also working on a video game with the phenomenal title YOUR TASK // SHOOT THINGS.
But at the moment they're concentrating on something a bit more traditional: their second album. UZU-- out October 29 via Suicide Squeeze/Paper Bag-- features an extension of their previously coined “Noh-wave” sound, a loose combination of metal and theatrics, as heard on first single "One". On the record, they do operatic piano ballads along with sludgy tracks about death. And once again, they cull influences from mythology, cosmology, and various spiritual and religious stories. But while they invoke deities and write epic stories of destruction and heartbreak, they’re also creating allegories inspired by the band’s real lives. “This record is a lot more poignant and human than the first one,” says Alaska. “It deals with internal conflicts like love, hate-- the whole damn thing.”
UZU is also partially about the two characters Ruby and Alaska portray in the group, the Monk and the Monkey, references to the 16th century Chinese text Journey to the West. The Monk represents reflection, and the Monkey represents chaos. “We definitely take part in both roles at some points,” says Ruby, and it's easy to hear the two sides over the phone: After discussing Buddhist cosmology and how “you can’t take it with you” in the end, they fall into a bit about bringing their extensive collections of Pogs and Pokémon cards into the afterlife.
But of course, they take what they do very seriously, swiftly objecting to my use of the word “escapism” in reference to prog rock. “You can’t escape,” Ruby says; Alaska adds, “You can only paint pretty pictures.”
"I think of our work as world music for a new generation."
Pitchfork: Since the songs on the album are partially inspired by actual events, is it hard to navigate the balance between reality and fiction?
Alaska B: What people often forget is that every time someone writes a narrative and it’s about their life, that’s the most over-processed, fake-ass version of their life.
Ruby Kato Attwood: It’s like taking a selfie. You think it’s just like, “I woke up and looked like this.” No! You can’t cut your heart out and lay it out on a platter for someone to eat.
AB: There’s definitely an aspect of [real life] that could get lost in [the songs] because we don’t name names, but if that’s what you’re expecting, then you’re in love with the delusion of reality rather than a purposeful illusion of fantasy. I like the covers of Yes records. I like imagining things outside of the norm. I like that aspect of prog more than the noodle-y parts.
Pitchfork: What’s the unifying concept behind UZU?
RA: This record has a lot of references to the characters that are in the band and from the previous record-- all of our work exists in this universe with different planets, but the characters travel between those worlds. For this record, we were traversing the interior worlds of the characters.
AB: The first album is a lot about cities at war; the second one is more about people in the cities. Instead of looking at a city of buildings, it’s about looking inside of those buildings. There are stories of people rising up to the level of gods and falling, stories of people having loved and lost, people having never had. It’s way more about individual experience.
RA: We focused on this record on a goddess called Mazu, who’s pictured on the cover.
AB: She’s a little girl who has to come to terms with having this calling of greater power of a relationship with the ocean. She is unable to save both her brother and her father from drowning, and after her father dies, she decides that she’s not meant to be in the human world and chooses to leave. It’s an undercurrent that runs throughout the entire record-- the feeling of loss and finding your place within a structure, even if that place is somewhere else.
RA: It's also about the Buddhist concept of the waves of consciousness, and how that creates suffering. The movement of the waves and their relationship to the moon has been considered a source of delusion for a long time, but also a great source of power in life, so it’s this deep paradox. For example, [Yoga deity] Patañjali considers our observance of the sun and the moon-- the passage of time of day and night-- as one of the keystones to our suffering and our disillusion to the concept of the world as a whole. Within that tradition, they think that the soul is drawn away from its true connection with the divine-- through the movement of the sun and moon, you’re distracted from your own spiritual or personal path. For us as Buddhists, it’s about getting enveloped in the movement of life and the push and pull of the tides and surges of emotion and voids that are often left in their wake.
AB: Some people just want to fill this world with silly love songs-- Paul McCartney said that.
Pitchfork: Your work seems to fold in elements from different cultures, which is interesting because UZU literally has lyrics about worlds colliding.
AB: We live in a globalized world, but we’ve always been critical of trapping this concept of world music. It’s actually kind of embarrassing: When you look at the history of world music, you’ll look at members of the Grateful Dead pulling in [Indian musician] Zakir Hussain. But you have a whole bunch of jazz musicians like Yusef Lateef in the 50s and 60s, or Sun Ra Arkestra, or Thelonious Monk, who are playing with the concepts of world music. They were considering what it’s like to be black in America by removing America from the equation and looking at the worlds of Islam and its more sufi-esque, mystical fantasy elements.
Now you have a band like Goat, who are from Sweden, which is as far from Africa as it gets, and they've got this pseudo-African-style face paint. I think they’re a pretty good band, but we’re now in the era where you don’t need a National Geographic subscription. You can go to the library or the internet and you can just take it with zero conversation.
I think of our work as world music for a new generation, where there really is exchange. I’ve been to China, but that doesn’t really inform who I am as being Chinese. My identity is more formed by who I am in America growing up in the prairies. Same with all the other people we meet, they're all coming to terms with what their culture has become. When we’re connecting [different cultures], there’s a voyeuristic aspect. People question it. But there really isn’t any reason why except this is what we’re making. There’s an extreme authenticity to it. There’s no pretension. We’re not like, “Oh yeah, this world music is so cool.” It's just what we’re influenced by. It’s around. We think it’s important to have representation because that’s really what’s missing.
Bands like Indian Handcrafts and Indian Jewelry are nothing more than Fake Indian Handcrafts and Fake Indian Jewelry, because you’ve got the name of the concept, but where are the Native people involved? It becomes completely placed in this position of not being Native, not being Asian, not being a minority, and the engagement is with trivial capitalist objects. Like, “Look, we’re wearing the headdress.” These are all spoils of war, in a way. When we’re doing it, it’s more about people who have learned from each other and have formed our own version of community. It's not really cerebral as much as it's a no-brainer.
Pitchfork: Do you think your work can be daunting to people who are new to it?
RA: It can be unexpected-- which can be daunting for the faint of heart. But we just like to have fun with our friends and do our music because we want to. It’s not necessarily about the depth of it. We have a personal relationship with it and we participate with that depth, but at the end of the day it’s pretty goofy.
AB: It’s serious!
RA: It’s serious and goofy at the same time, but what isn’t?
The Replacements’ legacy as indie-rock innovators isn’t so much musical. Hindsight positions them as the missing link between R.E.M. and Nirvana, but in essence, they were a bi-polar bar band, capable of infamously inebriated indulgence one moment and disarmingly empathetic balladry the next. Their true triumph was more ideological, their disavowal of prevailing pop trends (and the music-industry machinations used to prop them up) best summarized by the lone lyric of their 1984 song “Seen Your Video”: “Seen your video!/ That phony rock'n'roll!/ We don’t wanna know!” So it’s all-too fitting that the first Replacements show in 22 years should occur on the same night as MTV’s annual Video Music Awards, a world they still don’t want to and, at this point, will never know.
Of course, the terms of war have changed-- MTV barely plays videos anymore, let alone ones by phony rock'n'roll bands. And where it seemed like every alt-rock band coming up in the 90s was copping the Replacements’ lovable-loser act, today their influence is more diffuse and random, turning up in everything from Superchunk album titles to 16-year-old pop phenoms from New Zealand. Even if they’re now following so many of their 80s indie-rock peers down the reunion route, the Replacements are as confounding as ever. For a band never known as a crowd-pleasing powerhouse even in their heyday-- and notorious for self-sabotaging sets of half-assed covers-- it’s rather bewildering that they opted to mark their comeback by headlining the Toronto edition of Riot Fest, and having to follow up such seasoned heavy hitters as Iggy and the Stooges, Rocket From the Crypt, and Dinosaur Jr. And like their heroes Big Star before them, theirs is a reunion predicated on only two founding members-- frontman Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson-- getting back in touch.
But up until mere days ago, no one was really sure exactly who would be onstage. Drummer Chris Mars long ago gave up music for a successful career in visual art; Tommy’s brother Bob, the band’s charismatic but troubled original lead guitarist, was unceremoniously ousted from the group in 1986 and passed away in 1995, while his successor Slim Dunlap suffered a debilitating stroke last year. (Songs for Slim, a benefit project organized by original Mats manager Peter Jesperson and New West Records, with help from Tommy Stinson and his manager Ben Perlstein, was the catalyst for resurrecting the Replacements name). Even when guitarist David Minehan and drummer Josh Freese-- both veterans of Westerberg’s 90s-era solo-tour backing bands-- were named last week as the Replacements’, er, replacements, the big question remained as to what exactly this band would bring to the stage. Pick up where they left off in 1991 and focus on their more rootsy and refined latter-day material? Get in the Riot Fest spirit and perform their 1981 drunk-punk classic Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash in its entirety? Do a set of KISS covers? Play “Hootenanny” for two hours straight?
But the Replacements’ messy reputation serves them well at their Riot Fest return: When no one expects you to have your shit together, you can easily get away with things like forgetting roughly 30 percent of the lyrics to your most beloved songs. But it also lets you come out looking like heroes when you rise to the occasion, which the Replacements thoroughly do.
For 75 minutes, the Replacements are every kind of Replacements you want them to be: the punk-rock pranksters, the encyclopedic human jukeboxes, the last-call balladeers, and the greatest stadium act that never was. Westerberg begins with an apology for the band’s extended absence: “For 25 years [sic], we were having a wardrobe debate,” he cracks, his plaid jacket clashing with Tommy’s white suit. “Unresolved.” But that’s one of the only indications that we’re watching a band with decades of history behind it; from my vantage point about 20 rows back, the Westerberg belting out the Sorry Ma standard “Takin’ a Ride” onstage looks and sounds no different than the one performing it at the album’s 1981 release show in this immaculately preserved video.
Given that Freese and Minehan know how to play these songs better than the guys who wrote them, Westerberg and Stinson are free to regress to their shit-disturbin’ 80s ways, taking shots at their own repertoire (following a feverishly received “Favorite Thing”, Westerberg quips, “If you liked that, we’ve got a lot more songs exactly like that”) and the inherent absurdity of working a festival crowd. (After admitting he tried practicing some stage banter, Westerberg put his platitudes to the test: “Everybody put their hands in their pockets! Everybody feeling uptight and worthless?”) The joking extends to the performances themselves. Improbably, the nitrous oxide-huffing hardcore stomp of “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” simmers down into a passage of Jimi Hendrix’s stoner reverie “Third Stone From the Sun”-- just so Westerberg can get Minehan to recite the song’s famous incantation of “you’ll never hear surf music again,” and answer it with “that’s bullshit!” before kicking into the twangy “Kiss Me on the Bus”.
Altruism is the operative word of the night, from the band’s willingness to honor a shouted-out request for “Androgynous” even in the absence of a piano (or Westerberg's memory of the words), to the sheer breadth of the die-hard-appeasing 22-song set, which burrows deep enough to excavate Don’t Tell a Soul outtakes (“Wake Up”) and berserker Sham 69 covers (“Borstal Breakout”) alike. At times, the extreme polarities of the Replacements’ personality collide with particularly jarring results-- like a torqued-up medley of Sorry Ma’s “Love You Till Friday” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” that barrels into the band’s plaintive 1991 last-gasp single “Merry Go Round”. But starting with the swooning power-pop of “Little Mascara”, the band lock into a spectacular six-song closing suite of their greatest misses. And with thousands singing along to every Westerbergian proverb, we get a glimpse of an alternate 80s where the Replacements shot for the stars instead of their feet, where “Left of the Dial” was an arena-conquering anthem instead of a lonely cry into the void, where children by the millions really were waiting for “Alex Chilton”, where “Swingin’ Party” actually played at swingin’ parties, where “Can’t Hardly Wait” didn’t require the assistance of a Jennifer Love Hewitt dramedy to hit the mainstream, where “Bastards of Young” supplanted “Born in the U.S.A.” as the fist-pumped theme song of Reagan-era disillusionment.
But going out on top is just not the Replacements’ style. For the encore, Westerberg emerges sporting the jersey of Montreal Canadiens forward Georges Laraque, fully aware that wearing a Habs shirt in Toronto is an offence punishable by death. And while there are still many Replacements classics yet to be aired out, he instead opts to croon the hoary Ethel Merman show tune “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”. It’s a curious move, but one that’s more explicitly explained by the next and final number: “I.O.U.”, a song Westerberg reveals was inspired by a long-ago autograph-seeking encounter with fellow Riot Fest attraction Iggy Pop, who, in response, scrawled the song’s chorus line/mission statement:“I owe you nothing.” (The band’s one stage-show splurge-- a bunch of spotlights arranged in middle-finger formation above Freese’s drum riser-- drives the point home.) But if that seems like a suitably contrarian, suitably Replacements way to cap off an otherwise generous night of 80s college-rock nostalgia, the rapturous crowd response throughout the set presents the band with the undeniable truism of life on the reunion-tour circuit: It beats waiting to be forgotten.
Takin’ a Ride I’m in Trouble Favorite Thing Hangin’ Downtown Color Me Impressed Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out/Third Stone From the Sun (Jimi Hendrix cover) Kiss Me on the Bus Androgynous Achin’ to Be I Will Dare Love You Till Friday/Maybelline (Chuck Berry cover) Merry Go Round Wake Up Borstal Breakout (Sham 69 cover) Little Mascara Left of the Dial Alex Chilton Swinging Party Can’t Hardly Wait Bastards of Young ------------------ Everything’s Coming Up Roses (Ethel Merman cover) I.O.U.
With Situation Critical, we present artists with various life situations-- some joyous, some terrible, some bizarre-- to find out which songs, albums, or bands they would turn to under those specific circumstances. This time, we spoke with prolific rocker Ty Segall, who has two new albums: the just-released Sleeperand the debut self-titled record from his band Fuzz, due out October 1 via In the Red.
You’re on your parents’ computer and can only listen to music on YouTube...
“Hocus Pocus” by Focus is my current YouTube jam. It’s this insane prog band from the early 70s. This dude is just riffing super hard, and then there’s a break where the lead singer/organist yodels. It happens every 40 seconds, and at the very end, he whistles and plays the flute. It’s one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever seen.
You just beat your four-year-old niece at Scrabble...
You’re at a bowling alley and it's your turn to pick a song on the jukebox...
Something classic, like the Steve Miller Band-- their hits are so good. I went surfing once and there was a music festival happening on the beach in Orange County at Dana Point. One of the coolest moments of my life was when, right as I stood up to take a wave, fucking Steve Miller Band went into “Fly Like an Eagle”. I swear to God, it was intense. I was on there for “doot-doot-doo-doo!” and then fell off.
Your girlfriend just broke up with you via Twitter...
You’re building a piece of furniture with your own bare hands...
Howlin’ Wolf. He the best, man. In my hometown, Laguna Beach, there’s this record store; in the 60s and 70s, there were insane trippy artist people in Laguna Beach with great music taste, so you go into this store and find these crazy-ass records. But the dude who owns the store now has one of those record books with the supposed prices of records. It’s pretty fucking wack. I went in there and found The White Album, which is usually a $3-5 record if it’s beat to shit, right? The dude was asking for $40. I was like “It’s scratched to fucking shit, man. What the hell?” But the thing is about this guy is that he's clueless about blues or punk or psych. So I went in there and found a stack of 15 insane old blues records from the 50s and 60s: pristine Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He sold them all to me for $7 each. Those are the records that are worth $40. He’s such a moron, man.
Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I think it might be the heaviest one.
You’re driving through the middle of America on a tour bus...
“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, and that's completely, 100% related to [Almost Famous]. I know it’s completely ridiculous, but I like that movie; I love Led Zeppelin and ‘70s rock’n’roll. I know it’s absurd music, and that whole "baby, baby, baby" style is wacky with lyrical content and sexual misogyny, but dude, I like it. It sounds good. They’re great records. I look at Led Zeppelin and I look at Almost Famous and I feel something.
I had a conversation with some person at a coffee shop who was like, “Elvis Presley was a racist and he’s the reason why racism is in music today.” I was like, “So let me guess, you don’t like Led Zeppelin either, huh?” She’s like, “I fucking hate Led Zeppelin.” I was like “Alright, I’ll take my coffee to go please. Thank you.” What the fuck. You can’t dissect it like you would in college. You’ve got to just enjoy it.
You are playing your child music for the first time...
I’d probably start with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “Love Me Do”. Then during their development, I'd keep it going with later Beatles, eventually Plastic Ono Band, go into a little Ram. The first cassette tape I ever got was Abbey Road when I was like nine. I remember being like, “Whoa! This is weird.”
You’re in the car with your grandmother...
The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, keep it light but awesome. Nothing too scary.
You’re having a dinner party...
Ziggy Stardust because it's mature yet rockin’. I’ve gone the route of Teengenerate or Guitar Wolf or fucking Black Flag, and everybody’s like [yells] “How are you?” “What?” “How are you doing?” “Oh I’m fine.” “What?”
You are DJing your best friend’s wedding...
The first Sabbath album-- I feel like my friends would be there with me. And for the first dance, I'd do the Ramones' "Oh Oh I Love Her So": [sings] “I met her at the Burger King/ We fell in love by the soda machine.”
You’re working a shitty data entry job that allows you to wear headphones...
I’d start off with the Wipers or the Urinals or a Killed By Death comp and then get a headache after three hours and switch to something else. I’ve done that at a couple of my jobs. I’d be like, “Cool, I can listen to music, man.” Two hours go by and I’m like, “Holy shit, it’s only been two hours? I don’t want to listen to music right now.”
It’s the same principle when you are driving a car on tour. Tim Presley from White Fence says not listening to records in the car makes the time go by faster because you’re just talking and thinking and relating. So if you’re working, listening to fast music might actually make the time go by slower.
You are at the beach with a boombox in tow...
Surf jams, man. The Astronauts and The Surf Creature are radical. Either that or I would play Beach Blvd., a comp of all Orange County punk bands from the late 70s. For me, surf music is a daily thing, and that’s not even because I surf. I just love that shit.
You just got back home after a date...
That depends on how the date goes. Not like that-- I’m flying solo. But it’s either that they were rad and there’s a second date or it went shitty and I’m fucking bummed. If it went well, I’ll probably go with the Buzzcocks, be like “yeah yeah yeah!” pogoing by myself in my living room. If the date went bad, I’d throw on the Les Rallizes Dénudés' Heavier Than a Death in the Family. Just like [makes white noise sound] kind of shit, just get a six pack and sit there.
Your iPod is broken and you have to use your old discman...
I don’t have any CDs except for a fucking burned copy of Enter the 36 Chambers, so that’s what it would be. I fucking love that record to the core of my person, it's one of my favorites. I eventually lost all of my old CDs because I got a tape deck in my car. I just buy records now.
"There were times while making this album when we lost the motherfucking plot big time-- I think people actually said those words out loud," admits multi-instrumentalist Thomas Wincek. "It was just getting so convoluted." And while Repave was recorded over two-and-half-years-- with many songs changing drastically as more members of the six-man band deconstructed and reconstructed them-- it rolls over the listener with a crashing force that their more insular 2009 debut Unmapdidn't explore. Only one track on the album surpasses five minutes, but nearly every song is packed with enough ideas, instruments, and words to make them feel akin to the epic anthems of Bruce Springsteen, Broken Social Scene, or even U2. And while the songs run with the most bombastic aspects of each member's other bands-- including Bon Iver, Collections of Colonies of Bees, and All Tiny Creatures-- they're still dripping with detail; they feel straightforward without actually being straightforward.
"We're not just sitting down at a piano and putting chords together," explains guitarist Chris Rosenau, who spearheaded much of the album's music. "We're cutting up a sample for the verse and then processing some weird sound for the chorus-- and then getting it to sound like a song." Though the instrumental scope and warmth of Repave comes close to matching that of Bon Iver's self-titled 2011 album, Vernon doesn't play anything on the record. "I wrote one guitar riff," he says, "but it didn’t make it." So the singer got to concentrate on his voice and lyrics, both of which he takes to newfound levels of depth and variation, cycling between his upper and lower registers, and even coming off a bit like Robert Plant on closer "Almanac".
Talking about the vocal sessions, Rosenau says Vernon "basically sang on fully fleshed-out songs, but we got to be there and bounce ideas off each other and laugh and cry and all this shit while he was doing these bananas vocal things that no one had ever heard before!"
"The miracle of Volcano Choir is we all trust each other," he continues. "We have no idea what the hell is going to happen when these people get in front of an instrument or microphone, but we know it’s going to blow us away."
Read on for our interview with Vernon, who we caught during a vacation with his family at Lake Tahoe. Topics include: sexuality in indie rock, finding happiness without a partner, what's next for Bon Iver, and his still-strong ties to his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
"The term 'indie rock' is dead and uninteresting; indie rock is just as susceptible to all the gross things about people becoming total ass clowns in music, and I’m not interested in being a part of that."
Pitchfork: You've said that the Repave track “Alaskans” really set the tone for the album, and near the end of that song there's a scratchy recording of someone talking about death and dying-- who is that?
Justin Vernon: It’s Charles Bukowski doing a reading of a poem on French television. I first saw it on this great documentary called Born Into This and I never forgot it. The poem starts out with him talking about showering with this woman and washing his ballsack-- all this crude Bukowskian stuff-- but by the end he's extremely drunk and crying and he can’t get through it. He's like, “Make it so that I die in my sleep and not in my life.” It’s this incredibly powerful and manly man completely giving into the fact that he is weak and small.
So I was very stoned one night by myself, half-watching "SportsCenter" and listening back to “Alaskans” and, all of a sudden, I was like, “Oh my god, this whole outro section has to have this specific poem playing in the background." We almost went to production without it on there, though. We had to call his wife and get all this permission that took months and months-- but I love that moment. There’s a Bukowski feel to some of the lyrics on the record, pretty sexual things. I’m a pretty shy guy when it comes to girls and sex, but the way that he isn’t afraid of it is good, because everybody has those sorts of animal feelings. Bukowski was like the rap guy when it came to talking about that stuff, and it freed up a lot of what you’d call normal people into making it not such a big deal.
Pitchfork: Within the world of indie rock, sexuality can be stunted, whereas a genre like hip-hop is often overly sexualized; in both instances, I feel like there could be a better balance struck when it comes to talking about sex.
JV: I know what you’re saying. I am generalizing, of course, but in hip-hop, it’s like you get this shine for using the word "pussy" a billion times, and I think that that’s weirdly healthier than not doing it at all-- even though I really hope it ends soon because, you know, how many decades can we do that? And with white dudes in indie rock-- generally speaking, once again-- there’s this guilt: “Oh, we’re not going to talk about that.” There are plenty of people who don’t talk about those things and end up having really unhealthy relationships with sex; there are decent people that I know who don’t know how to treat their partner. It’s been built up so hard and so high that people are afraid. There’s all the tits and ass over every magazine, of course, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how what happens between people is so misunderstood even between the people who are having the sex. Maybe some of the lyrics on this record are my way of cracking that egg.
Pitchfork: The themes and delivery on this album also sound more steadfast, like how "Acetate" has you standing your ground on the chorus: "I won't beg for you on acetate." Whereas some of the songs that you first gained attention for could sound like you were basically begging for someone through music.
JV: The interesting thing is, with a song like “Skinny Love” [from For Emma, Forever Ago], the thing that nobody knows is that I’m singing from the perspective of someone I hurt-- I’m yelling at myself for being uncourageous and unwilling to step up to the plate in that song. It’s embarrassing, which is why I ended up writing the song and it coming out the way it did. “Acetate” is coming back to myself and saying, “Life is too short, and love is beautiful and it ends and there are much deeper and more complex things to be concerned about.”
That’s just where I’m at these days. I’m not with anybody, I don’t have time for dating. Not to get too personal, but it’s weirdly harder to meet new people now. But for the first time in my life since I was a little kid, I’m not so concerned about it. I’m trying to be like, “Hey, dude, you’re super happy, this is everything you’ve ever dreamed of-- if you don’t have somebody to hold hands with right now, everything’s going to be OK, bro.”
Pitchfork: To me, this album has the sort of unabashedly epic feel of mid-00s bands like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, which has waned recently. Do you care about bringing that sound back to indie rock?
JV: No. I didn’t grow up with indie rock-- I mean, I listened to bands that are considered indie rock, but I think that term is dead and uninteresting; indie rock is just as susceptible-- if not more susceptible-- to all the gross things about people becoming total ass clowns in music, and only worrying about money and image. I’m not interested in being a part of that. I log onto your guys’ website all the time because you guys have news about a lot of the bands I give a shit about, but I don’t think that everyone should only log onto your website-- it’s dangerous when music gets cornered by anything.
Pitchfork: I agree, and I think your openmindedness when it comes to music-- with all the different styles and artists you play with-- is indicative of the times.
JV: Well, I don’t want to get myself in trouble-- and I don’t think I’m super important or anything-- but I think it’s so funny that when you look at the business and the way that people make decisions in their lives, whether they’re in art or music or they’re in industry, they forget that being unique is the answer. Becoming yourself and finding an idea. Like Steve Jobs: “Think different.” Apple is not thinking different anymore, they are getting worse by the day. They’ve become bottom-dollar and you can see that transition easily.
It’s the same with music and people who make a good first record then a shitty second record because they’re scared and they want to have money and security. All the people I look up to are the ones who don’t give a shit about any of that. They just care about the people around them and about searching.
Pitchfork: Would you consider another career and doing music as a hobby?
JV: It is my hobby now, but it gets to be my job, too. The whole point of being happy is not feeling like you have a job. I’m sure there are days where you’re at your job and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is hard.” But hopefully, most days, you’re like, “This is sweet. I wake up and do the things that I do and I’m usually smiling.” That’s how my dad is with his job.
Pitchfork: What does your dad do?
JV: He's an arbitrator, which is like being a judge, in a way. Like if a union has a grievance-- if someone gets fired, for instance-- it will go to arbitration. It could be a players’ union for major league baseball; when Derek Jeter had his first big salary negotiation and the players’ union and the Yankees couldn’t decide on it, they agreed to have my dad decide. He was actually the president of the National Academy of Arbitrators a few years ago. We got to go to San Diego and he gave this moving speech to all these people who are basically paid to be logical. It was pretty cool.
The way I see it is that I grew up with a good set of values, but it was never too strict. I was always encouraged to be a free-thinking individual. I spent the first five years out of high school trying to make it work in Eau Claire, then I had to leave because there wasn’t enough going on in town. By accident, I moved back-- my old band broke up, the whole story-- then I stuck around because I didn’t have anywhere else to be.
Then it just felt like: Well, what a unique opportunity to be in town. I love townies. I value it, so to speak. That being said, I keep thinking about the kids like me who grew up in Eau Claire, and I wish they would’ve had more opportunities to experience culture. This town is so sleepy-- and people have every right to complain about how there's nothing going on-- but some of the people my age have moved back and are digging their heels in. I’ve got a friend who runs a global software company, he’s got like 250 employees. He could have bought a building in Minneapolis, but he decided on Eau Claire instead. He was like, “You know what? Eau Claire made me, I better give something back."
Pitchfork: Do you have any plans for Bon Iver in the near future?
JV: There’s a large opportunity for Bon Iver to be a special thing, even from a business standpoint-- just trying to do cooler things. Every band sells t-shirts and plays certain auditoriums, but I’m sick of being like everyone else, because I’m not. I think I need to take a long time. In the last month or so, I started to get some musical thoughts that agree with the future of what that project can be. I don't want the big flashing lights and red carpet, like, "Here comes another Bon Iver album!" I just want it to be my bedroom-y thing. But that’ll take a while to figure out.
JV: Festivals suck-- there’s no way I would go to almost all of them, with the exception of a couple. Unique experiences are another reason why Eau Claire keeps coming into my mind: Here’s a town that’s a fresh slate, that could completely rewrite stuff because it has almost nothing to offer from a global, cultural standpoint. It would be so random to do crazy shit there because people would come to the fuck out of Eau Claire if we had weird shit going on.
Pitchfork: What kind of event would you want to put on there?
JV: Right now, my favorite idea is doing an all-night tent show starring my friend's band Marijuana Deathsquads, where everyone would wear super-loud headphones, and there would be tons of subs and lights. It’d be really dope. I’m trying to think about stuff like that: How can a show not be just a whining guy with a guitar.
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 51-year-old Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, whose latest album, More Light, came out earlier this year. The band is currently on tour, too. Listen along to Gillespie's picks with this Spotify playlist.
The Jungle Book OST
Glasgow was a big, bustling community. My dad worked in a factory and my mom worked during the day as a secretary and at a bar at night. We would walk ourselves to school, and when we came home at teatime we had to wait outside the front door for my mom to come back from work. We were poor, but when you’re young you just kind of think everyone’s the same as you.
Across the street from our house, there was the Princess Cinema, so I spent a lot of Saturday mornings there. The Guns of Navarone turned me into a real cineaste, and I never recovered from seeing Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. I saw The Jungle Book too, and that soundtrack was always in my parents' house. "I Wan'na Be Like You" is a great song, I can still remember where it is in the movie.
Edison Lighthouse: "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)"
All the families starting leaving my street, and they began demolishing the houses. My whole community was destroyed; they put a highway through it. All these kids that I grew up with were disappearing. Whole streets full of people suddenly became empty. My parents were holding out to get a council house in a nice area-- they didn’t want to go to one of the bad areas, and believe me, there’s a lot of areas in Glasgow with bad shit going down.
The upside was that we had streets full of abandoned houses to play in, which was incredible. We'd break into the houses, take the doors off the hinges, and build gang huts with them. There’d be half the wallpaper stripped off the wall, and you’d see three different types of wallpaper underneath. It definitely had some impact on my visual sensibilities. We eventually moved to another area of Glasgow, which was traumatic. But I loved Edison Lighthouse's “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”, that song made me really happy.
My first interaction with punk came around this time, when I excused myself from a classroom. I said to the teacher, “I need to go to the toilet,” just because I was bored. As I was walking down the stairs, there was a flier on the wall for the debate society with a picture of Johnny Rotten on it. He was on his knees, hanging onto the microphone, and his hair was all red and shredded and cut-up-- he looked demonic. I just stood and looked at it. It said, “Punk rock: What does it mean?” Before I had ever heard the Sex Pistols, I saw this photograph, and I was transfixed.
In 1977, we had the Silver Jubilee and all this crazy patriotism. People wore Union Jacks and worshipped the royal family. As a kid, I fucking hated the royal family-- I still do-- so buying “God Save the Queen” really felt like a real anti-authoritarian gesture. You can laugh at that 35 years later, but at the time it felt fucking powerful. John Lydon got stabbed for that song, and Paul Cook got hit with iron bars. It was quite a volatile time.
Punk did something to my mind. It really spoke to me; it was mine. If punk hadn’t happened, I probably would have just had a job in a factory-- quite a sad fucking life. When I started taking an interest in punk, some of the guys I was playing football with were really threatened by it. They were into Rush.
I was friends with Gerard "Caesar" McNulty, and he started a band called the Wake and travelled to Manchester to give New Order's manager, Rob Gretton, a copy of their tape. Rob called a week later and said, "Would you like to support New Order and make a record on Factory?" Everyone was blown away.
The night before the gig opening for New Order, the band's bassist disappeared. He must've shat himself or something. Caesar asked me if I could play the bass, and I said "yeah." Except the old bassist took his bass and amp with him. I told Rob and he said, “You’re going to have to ask [New Order bassist] Peter Hook.” So I go up to Hooky, who I had never met before and who was a real idol of mine, and he looked at me and said, “Fuck off!” I felt so bad. But then he went, “Of course you can use my bass, just go up on stage.” Peter's bass was a Yamaha, the same one he used in the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” music video. That was incredible.
The Wake eventually threw me out in 1983. We were doing a gig supporting New Order, and I noticed that the songs were getting longer and more boring, so I just put the bass down halfway through the gig, turned it off, and walked offstage. They were mad as hell. But I wanted to play something that had more of a rock dynamic. So they sacked me.
That was the best thing that ever happened to me, though, because I went onto form Primal Scream. At that point, I was already making experimental music with Jim Beattie, and we already had the name of the band, but we didn’t have a band. Around 1983, we went to a friend's club in Glasgow and told him we were looking for other band members that were into psychedelia and punk rock, and he mentioned two guys that had given him a tape a week before. It was a band called the Daisy Chain, who would eventually become the Jesus and Mary Chain. The tape had four songs on it: “Upside Down”, “Never Understand”, “Inside Me”, and “In a Hole”. It sounded incredible, so I called the number on the tape, and [former Jesus and Mary Chain member] Douglas Hart's mother answered and said he was at college, so later that night, I called him back and we spoke for two hours. I sensed a deep connection.
"The first time I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain, it sounded like a junkyard having a nervous breakdown, which was the fucking idea."
They had sent a demo tape to everybody in Scotland and nobody would give them a gig, so I got a guy to give them a show at a venue called Night Moves. There weren’t many people there, but it was incredible. I don’t think they were on stage longer than 10 minutes. They were so wasted and smashed on booze, just colliding into each other with complete noise, chaos, and carnage. It sounded like a junkyard having a nervous breakdown, which I think was the fucking idea. The bouncers threw them off stage, and we all got thrown out of the venue. I remember going home that night and just feeling really happy inside. I had a very warm glow. I just got to see the best fucking band in the world.
I sent their tape to Alan McGee, who at this point had started a club called The Living Room in London, and he said he would give them some gigs. The band was still so nervous that, at the soundcheck, they got wasted and had an argument before they even played a note. McGee thought they were such extreme characters, and when they did play, they blew him away. He called me up and said, "I’m going to make a record with them.”
Right before their first tour, the band sacked their drummer, and Alan told them that I could play drums. They called me up, and I said, “Oh, I ain’t no fucking drummer.” But I did it. I had never left the country up to that point, so me and Douglas went to the passport office and he said to me, “We’re going to get leather trousers and go to Germany, just like when the Beatles went to Hamburg. And when we come back, we’re going to be rock'n'roll stars.” And you know what? He was right. When we came back, I bought the NME, and they said, “The Jesus and Mary Chain are the new Sex Pistols.” I absolutely loved Jim, William, and Douglas, they were such great guys. I just felt I belonged with them. I had just as much anger as they did. The whole thing felt like like a fairy tale.
In early 1986, Jim called me up one night and said, “We want you to be the full-time Mary Chain drummer, but we want you to leave Primal Scream.” It really upset me, and it was a hard decision to make, because at that point I had a better time with them than I did with the Primal Scream guys. They were a better band, but I thought I was a good songwriter, too, and there would have been no outlet as a songwriter in the Mary Chain, because Jim and William were so great. That was their band.
So I decided to just stay with Primal Scream, which broke my heart. I made the right decision, but I was upset about it for a long time. I went from being on tour to being back in Glasgow, playing to a couple hundred people a night. Back then, the Mary Chain had completely realized their vision. They had the whole package. The Scream didn’t.
Around this time, we liked bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, but generally we were a bit dissatisfied with contemporary rock music. When we discovered acid house, it made rock gigs seem old-fashioned. Also, there weren't any sexy bands-- maybe Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, but they were the only real rock stars. There was a kind of depressed atmosphere at rock gigs around that time, a subdued violence-- the 80s were a violent time in the UK, I thought, even more than the 70s. But acid warehouse parties were illicit, illegal, underground, non-depressed, word-of-mouth, and truly subversive: There was this brand new contemporary electronic music, this new drug ecstasy, and loads of beautiful women. I was like, “Man, this is the real happening scene.”
The first time I took ecstasy was in late 1988. I went to see the Happy Mondays in Brighton with Alan McGee and my ex-girlfriend, Karen Parker, who sang on the Jesus and Mary Chain's “Just Like Honey”. Alan came backstage with some pills, and we took them. We kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did.
We met [producer] Andrew Weatherall in 1989, around the time that [Primal Scream] came out. Alan McGee couldn't get any press to cover the album, but then Andy listed his favorite records of the summer and included “all the ballads on the new Primal Scream record.” Our press agent drew our attention to it and came up with the idea of asking Weatherall to write a live feature on Primal Scream. Andy's pen name was Audrey Witherspoon, so Audrey came to review us in Exeter. We struck up a friendship and asked him to do a remix of “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have”, but he said, “I love the song and I wouldn’t like to ruin it.” We begged him to, though, and out of that came “Loaded”, which was a fucking hit record. We got in the charts, it was amazing.
Alan McGee gave us a publishing advance, so we built a studio in Hackney, very near to where the Creation Records office was. Hackney’s become very trendy recently, but 20 years ago, it was fucking rough. We began writing the songs for Screamadelica, and we learned how to use loops from listening to Public Enemy and house records. When we released it, I honestly thought it was a really cool underground rock record, like Can's Tago Mago. I’m not saying we’re as good as Can, but I finally felt Primal Scream had made a great record that we could hold our heads up about. I didn’t think it was going to be a big record, though. But people just love that fucking album, man.
Primal Scream: Give Out But Don't Give Up
I don’t really remember much about winning the Mercury Prize for Screamadelica [in 1992]-- I didn't go to the ceremony. I thought the award was a load of shit and that it was weird that a telephone company was giving rock bands awards for making music. I thought the real award for making a great record is enriching people's lives. But they gave us a check for £30,000, and we lost it that night partying. We had to get our manager to call them the next day and say, “Um, we’ve lost the check, can you send another one?” Then we spent that one on partying, because why not?
Making Give Out But Don't Give Up was hard. Screamadelica was such a euphoric time that there was bound to be some fallout. By 1992, a lot of the kids in the London club scene had moved to heroin, and the band had gotten into a lot of heroin and cocaine, which affected the creative process. We stopped experimenting and just wrote a bunch of rock songs and soul ballads. The first time we attempted to make that record was at the end of 1992, and we failed because we never had any songs and everybody was doing way too much drugs in the studio. There was just complete carnage at the sessions, so Creation closed the studio down.
This was around the time we were making Vanishing Point. I was listening to a lot of dub reggae and Skip Spence-- music for psychic shipwrecks, frontier music. I thought that Skip Spence lived in a log cabin, because his music has a very old, wooden, creaking sound to it.
I’d just had my first son around that time. A few years before that, I was listening to old American folk music-- Harry Smith, John Fahey, the Carter Family. My wife and I had rented a little house, and we put a lot of stuff in storage, including music, so I can’t remember exactly what I was listening to. I remember watching a lot of MTV, and there was a lot of garage bands from Detroit-- that one band where Jack White beat one of the guys up, the Von Bondies, were alright.
Having my first son was amazing. When you leave the hospital with your baby and it’s you and your wife, that’s a big moment. You get in a taxi and you’re holding this tiny little thing. Throughout pregnancy, it’s a very abstract concept. Other people have kids, but they’re not your children, so you don’t have any responsibility toward them. Suddenly, you walk out of the hospital with this living being that you’ve got to protect and take care of and keep alive. You’re like, “Whoa, here we go!”
So I had to grow up a little bit. When we recorded Evil Heat, we did little bits of touring, so I partied a little on tour, but when I got home I was pretty straight. I’d have a drink now and again and maybe the odd night out, but I pretty much stayed at home with my family. I was trying to learn how to balance that with being in a high-energy rock'n'roll band. It was quite tough, like when astronauts come back to earth-- I know that sounds pompous and dramatic, but it always took a week to get back into the rhythm of family life again.
Around this time, Steven Van Zandt asked Primal Scream to do a tour, but our management kept it from us because of the physical state some of the band members were in-- myself included. We were all holding it together at home, but when we went on tour, it was getting really messy, and our managers felt that sending us on a 20-day tour of the States might mess things up. I’ve never met Steven, but I would like to meet him and clear it up, because I’ve got a lot of respect for the man. In the last five or six years, we’ve straightened out and we’re doing very good work. He cared about us, and I’m quite touched by that. I honestly didn’t know he’d offered us that tour, because we would have done it at the fucking drop of a hat.
I love the new Deerhunter album, there’s a good atmosphere to what they do. Halcyon Digest is more dreamy, but this one’s more in your face. I’ve only listened to it twice, but I really like it. I think Bradford Cox is a good personality. He’s kind of contentious, and I like that. He’s really fucking cool. He’s a character at a time when there are no characters in music anymore. Everyone’s really bland, safe, conservative, and interchangeable. He stands out, and not just because he’s tall.
Secondhands is a new column that examines music of the past through a modern lens.
I am 15 years old and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is the worst music I have ever heard in my life. Worse than Jewel, worse than the soundtrack to Cats, even worse than “Brown-Eyed Girl”, a song our local oldies station plays whenever I get into my mom’s car, where I sink into the passenger seat with shame as she sings along: “Makin’ love in the green, green grass/ Behind the stadium with you.” I only bother listening to Astral Weeks at all because my best friend loves it, and my instinct is to try and feel as much of what he feels as possible. At 15, this is one of the ways we create safety: The more we have in common, the less alone we are.
So he plays Astral Weeks in his busted silver Nissan and the carpeted bedroom on the second floor of his dad’s house, and he gives me that expectant look people give you when they’re trying to use music to communicate something they can’t in their own words; using it to try and build a bridge between you and them. I sit cross-legged on the carpet and listen, waiting for all these terrible lines about ballerinas to resonate in the pit of my horny and frustrated soul-- waiting, in short, to understand. It takes another 15 years.
To a white suburban punk with an almost-puritanical allergy to anything you could call “expressive,” Morrison’s music is a true enemy: earnest, mysterious, and committed to revelation. It’s like the Doors, but harder to make fun of. Every time he wails, I have bad flashbacks to the cantors at my synagogue, with their stale-smelling beards and messages of love, welcoming me into understanding arms.
It’s possible I’m afraid of music as warm as Morrison’s for the same reason I’m afraid to tell the psychologist my school has forced me to see how I “really feel.” But at 15, I think of myself as being acutely able to separate truth from bullshit, which seems to be everywhere.
Morrison recorded Astral Weeks in 1968. He was 23. He was also broke, dejected, just married, and a new resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived in a street-level apartment with no phone and a mattress on the floor. A few months earlier, he’d fulfilled a bad contract for a label called Bang Records by improvising 31 songs in a little over a half hour. One of them is about ringworm; another is about danishes. It insulted everybody involved, especially Van Morrison. At one point, he was legally forbidden from playing or recording in New York; at another, the label-owner’s wife tried to have him deported.
Nobody who played on the sessions for Astral Weeks has anything nice to say about the experience. Morrison reportedly recorded all his parts in one booth, while the rest of the musicians recorded in another. Drummer Connie Kay, a longtime member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, said Morrison told him to play whatever he wanted; Richard Davis, a jazz bassist credited as the de facto bandleader, said Morrison never even introduced himself.
Part of what’s remarkable about Astral Weeks is that you don’t hear any of this. You don’t hear the frustration, the bitterness, or the cynicism that can so easily ferment in people when things don’t go their way. You don’t hear the physical alienation of the players, who seem to circle Van Morrison like a wreath of roses.
Received wisdom about the album is that it dissolved boundaries between soul, R&B, folk and jazz. Its eight songs-- four of which are over seven minutes long-- don’t obey rules in the way other songs do. They don’t evolve so much as they double back on themselves, retracing lines and melodies for minutes at a time. Listening to them is like watching a black-and-white image become steadily flooded with color: The architecture of the music is there from the first second, but the songs become clearer and more vivid as they go on.
At 15, Astral Weeks was a catalog of feelings I was too afraid to have; at 30, it’s a catalog of feelings I can’t ever have again.
I can understand what I didn’t like about the album when I was younger, but in retrospect, Astral Weeks has a meditative, almost autistic intensity that I’ve always loved in music. It’s the same quality I hear in newer albums like The Money Store by Death Grips or Impersonator by Majical Cloudz, or why I prefer Yeezus to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: They’re obsessively narrow statements that fuel the myth of the artist as someone who is not well-rounded, who is not capable of seeing all points of view or transcending the confines of their own perspective-- basically, the myth of the artist as someone who has yet to transform from a child into an adult.
Audiences can appreciate this myth because they’ve probably experienced flashes of romantic single-mindedness, too. But it’s also that life-- in its variety and responsibilities-- doesn’t give us much room to be single-minded, and so we need to step sideways into the parallel universe of art, where we’re allowed to feel those narrow teenage feelings for as long as the album lasts.
In drafting this column, I wrote paragraph after paragraph about all the albums that Morrison released after Astral Weeks; about the resplendent “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” from Veedon Fleece; about Morrison’s transition from the loose sounds of Astral Weeks into the tight, full-band R&B of Moondance; about how by the 1974 live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, even the digressions of “Cyprus Avenue”, a pillar of Astral Weeks, had turned into a coordinated rave-up that Morrison used to end his concerts-- a song about the freedom and confusion of adolescence performed with the control of a showman.
I wrote about the 1980s, too; about how Morrison continued to record great, despicably uncool albums like 1982’s Beautiful Vision-- albums that seem unconcerned with appealing to anyone besides Van Morrison. I wrote about how part of the fun of getting into an artist like Van Morrison-- or Stevie Wonder, or Prince, or anyone who seems like an open-and-shut case until you find out they had a reggae phase, or are actually still alive-- isn’t just listening to the masterpiece, but the thirty-something albums that came after it, most of which have no reputation at all.
But I kept coming back to Astral Weeks.
To say a record came out in 1968 is a matter of historical fact, but the reality is that records come out whenever people hear them first. Having been born in 1982, the year 1968 is an abstraction to me. At best, I can read a book about it, or talk about it with my parents. But in the context of my own experience, Astral Weeks was released around 1998, along with Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”, Brighten the Corners by Pavement, Brahms’ fourth symphony, and a mixtape from my friend Meghan Kennedy, plastered in butterfly stickers and filled end-to-end with funk songs I still don’t know the names of.
Because I’m someone who sometimes gets paid to write about music, people like to ask me what I’m listening to now. I know they want to hear about new music, but what I really want to tell them is that it’s always the music that I’ve been listening to for the longest time, regardless of whether I like it or not, that seems newest to me. I want to tell them that Astral Weeks makes a lot more sense to me in the context of an album like Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs or the seemingly infinite loops of a Todd Terje track than anything from 1968. I want to tell them that at 15, the album was a catalog of feelings I was too afraid to have; at 30, it’s a catalog of feelings I can’t ever have again.
It is December 2012 and I’m walking through light winter rain down 17th St. between 6th and 7th Ave. in Manhattan, listening to Astral Weeks on my headphones. Good-looking people shiver together on the sidewalk outside a corner restaurant. I used to live here. When I was a kid, the corner restaurant was a cheaper corner restaurant, and the brick apartment building next door was a parking lot. The day I made it to the end of the block on my bike without training wheels, the lot attendants called out my name, clapping, “Miguelito, Miguelito.”
“Cyprus Avenue” comes on. In it, Van Morrison is 14 years old and in love. His girl comes down the lane on white horses with rainbow ribbons in her hair, attended by a harpsichord player who seems incapable of staying on beat. When he finally slides into step with the rest of the band, my neck hair prickles with excitement: It is the sound of someone finding their way back to where they belong.
I get a call from the friend who introduced me to Astral Weeks 15 years earlier. He wants to know if I want to celebrate his cousin's 24th birthday. We will go to city parties and do drugs and stay up all night. “Why not?” I tell him. We used to spend every weekend at each others' houses; now we only see each other about twice a year. Two or three hours later I am standing in the corner of a crowded loft while someone in skinny jeans and a parka screams in my face about howFrench Montana is the future of rap. I am sweating, I am laughing, I am thinking of a lyric from “Sweet Thing”: “I will never grow so old again.”
As we head into the fall of what has been a very good year for music, we wanted to take a moment to gather together information about some of the upcoming releases we and our readers are looking forward to. This list starts with records coming out a week from today. We'll be back with regular reviews on Tuesday.
Darkside Darkside [Other People] TBA
Earlier this year, Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington returned as Darkside-- their last release was their 2011 EP. This time, they took Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and reworked it until it was nearly unrecognizable-- throwing glitches into the middle of Chilly Gonzalez’ piano on “Within” and turning Pharrell into a sluggish, deep-voiced Eeyore on “Get Lucky”. They called it Daftside’s Random Access Memories Memories. The duo are returning this fall with a proper album, and although they haven’t titled it or given it a release date, they’ve already shared the entire thing with a New York audience. They’ve also released the album’s slow-burning (video-based pun intended) first 11 minutes online. --Evan Minsker
The Weeknd Kiss Land [Republic Records/XO] Sept. 10
Toronto's Abel Tesfaye spent the first leg of his career carefully cultivating a brand centered around anonymity and shadowy, well-constructed R&B songs about depressive late-night debauchery. After three self-released mixtapes, Kiss Land marks his next step. The record, which is out on September 10 through major label Republic, includes a feature from his buddy Drake and a Pharrell remix, along with "Belong to the World", the song with a controversial beat that sounds uncannily similar to Portishead's "Machinegun". --Carrie Battan
Janelle Monáe The Electric Lady [Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy] Sept. 10
Janelle Monáe’s entire discography has been pinned on a sci-fi narrative. On The Metropolis Suite, she appeared on the cover (and in the songs) as an android, and in The ArchAndroid, she turned that same character into an android messiah. On The Electric Lady, she’s still dealing in science fiction, like on her end-of-days pop song “Dance Apocalyptic”. But at the end of the Paisley Park-hued funk single “Q.U.E.E.N.” (with Erykah Badu), she seems to step away from allegory and rap about real world problems. Album concept aside, it’s guaranteed to be a soulful affair, with guest spots from Badu, Miguel, Prince, Big Boi, Cee-Lo Green, Solange, and Esperanza Spalding. --Evan Minsker
Until recently, there was little information out there about the british R&B songstress known enigmatically as FKA twigs. Previously known simply as “Twigs”, the artist moved from rural England to London when she was 17, keeping a low profile until 2012’s EP 1 landed her on the cover of i-D magazine, who in reference to her illusive persona called FKA twigs “the girl that even Google can’t gander”. The 4-track EP 2, out September 9 via Young Turks, is the next step in FKA Twigs’ shadowy legacy of intimate but roiling trip-hop. EP 2 features production from Yeezuscollaborator Arca, and it’s lead single “Water Me” has been endorsed by fellow indie femmes from Grimes to Haim and has incited distant allusions to the xx and Mezzanine-era Massive Attack-- impressive comparisons for an artist whose real name is still unknown. --Molly Beauchemin
In 2010, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden teamed with Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom to make Congratulations, a weirdo opus that backed away from their more immediately catchy material from 2008. They’re not backing away from their weirder inclinations on their new album, which was recorded as a duo at Dave Fridmann's Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York. “Alien Days” opens with otherworldly synths, and “Your Life Is a Lie” pairs a jovial melody with dismal and paranoid lyrics. When they performed on Letterman, they wore psychedelic outfits and played an enormous cowbell emblazoned with the words “BE AWARE”. As they told Rolling Stone, “We’re not trying to make music that everyone understands the first time they hear it.” --Evan Minsker
Earlier this year, Bill Callahan spent some time recording in a place called Cacophony, Texas-- which sounds like a poetic, drolly funny detail straight out of one of his songs. The result is Dream River, which follows his excellent 2011 album Apocalypse and has been described as “easily the most sensual and soulful of Callahan’s career.” Fans know roughly what to expect from Dream River since Callahan’s terse, stentorian sound is well-established at this point, but with the release of the album’s lead single “Javelin Unlanding” he threw a curveball, releasing a “dub version” called “Expanding Dub”. A film about Callahan’s last tour, Apocalypse: A Tour Documentary, was also recently released. --Lindsay Zoladaz
Carcass Surgical Steel [Nuclear Blast] Sept. 17
Carcass, the pioneering grindcore and death metal band from Liverpool, haven’t put out an album since 1996’s Swansong, released just around the time they called it quits. (Co-founder Bill Steer also played on Napalm Death’s 1987 debut Scum.) Although Carcass initially resurfaced in 2007, Surgical Steel is the first new material they’ve shared. “I’ve jokingly christened some parts ‘Trad Blast’ and some ‘Death Sleaze,’” Jeff Walker, the bassist and vocalist, told Decibel last year. “Don’t think for a minute this is just some nostalgic throwback album.” Steel, recorded with no label backing, will see release through Nuclear Blast Records, and features a new drummer, 24-year-old Dan Wilding, of British death metal band Trigger the Bloodshed. Wilding replaced Ken Owen, who was unable to return due to health issues, but contributed vocals to the LP. --Jenn Pelly
“For most of my adult life, I’ve identified with the person I was when I was a teenager,” Holy Ghost!’s Nick Milhiser told Pitchfork earlier this summer. "Now, I have very little in common with that person… for the first time I felt closer to old age than to my 15-year-old self.” That sort of tension-- getting older, growing suspicious of evolving new scenes-- fills DFA disco vets Holy Ghost!’s new one, Dynamics, a record they teased with the fun-loving “Dumb Disco Ideas”. Though they’re still having fun, Dynamics is also darker, more thoughtful and more personal. If it proves to be headier release, they'll surely save room for some cowbell. --Corban Goble
Drake Nothing Was the Same [OVO Sound/Young Money/Cash Money/Republic] Sept. 24
Mazzy Star Seasons Of Your Day [Rhymes of An Hour Records] Sept. 24
After 15 years of silence, it seemed probable that 90s dream pop luminaries Mazzy Star would never return. Like their early contemporaries, Galaxie 500, the members of Mazzy Star had moved to other projects-- singer Hope Sandoval released a 2009 LP with her band, the Warm Inventions-- while the group’s legacy took its own mythical course. Sandoval’s voice was immortalized on their classic single “Fade Into You”, and its influence has recently been crystal clear (Widowspeak’s Molly Hamilton is a fine example). So news of Mazzy Star’s return, in 2011, was surprising. It began with a single, “Common Burn”, which captured their quiet, familiar grace as if no time had passed at all. The new album, which features the late Bert Jansch and My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig, follows 1996’s Among My Swan, and will be released by the band’s own label, Rhymes of an Hour. --Jenn Pelly
Chvrches The Bones of What You Believe [Glassnote] Sept. 24
Luaren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty, the Glasgow trio who call themselves Chvrches, made a splash this year with a handful of skittering electro-pop singles that recalled the Knife and Purity Ring. They'll try to translate the success of singles like "The Mother We Share" to a full-length debut called The Bones of What You Believe, out on September 23 in the UK via Virgin/Goodby Records and September 24 in North America via Glassnote. --Carrie Battan
Nirvana In Utero [20th Anniversary Reissue] [Universal] Sept. 24
Much like 2011's Nevermind reissue, Nirvana's camp is going all in with the 20th anniversary reissue of In Utero this year-- the "super deluxe edition" collects 70 tracks over the course of three CDs and a DVD, not to mention reproductions of Cobain's handwritten lyrics, Albini's four-page note to the band before the session, and liner notes by a recurring Nirvana opener, comedian Bob Goldthwait. The DVD, featuring 1993's "Live & Loud" concert at Seattle's Pier 84, will also include footage from their European tour and an extended version of the "Heart-Shaped Box" video. Along with B-sides and demos comes a "2013 album mix" of In Utero in full-- whatever that means-- and an unearthed instrumental called "Forgotten Tune". --Jenn Pelly
So what if Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience series was the result of a mad dash to fulfill contractual obligations? It’s produced a lot of memorable music so far, from the love song suite “Mirrors” to the new wedding reception staple “Suit & Tie” to the gurgling pop soundscape “Tunnel Vision”. Though JT might be, err, a little overexposed at the moment, 20/20 Experience, Part 2 teaser “Take Back the Night” showed us that there’s more fun, bouncy music in store from one of our generation’s most reliable arbiters. (The “Take Back the Night” rollout in total might have done more damage than good, but, here’s hoping the new music will make us want to forcefully turn the page on that saga). Timberlake allegedly recorded Part 2 in just 20 days, a brisk pace that he suggested led to “hyper-focus.” So, here's to hoping for some fire-born pop magic before the entire Experience is in hindsight. --Corban Goble
The L.A. sister-trio known as Haim (pronounced Hi-um) became darlings of the summer festival circuit through softly-rollicking, hook-heavy guitar pop with a peppy R&B sensibility. The first female group to win BBC’s influential “Sound Of” award for 2013, last year’s Forever EP garnered several Fleetwood Mac comparisons for Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim as they headlined sold-out shows across Europe and the U.S.-- including a triumphant performance on Glastonbury’s Main Stage, which added momentum to the feverish hype behind the Cali sisters’ upcoming debut. For Days Are Gone, Haim teams with heavy-hitting producers Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Solange) and James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence + Machine). --Molly Beauchemin
Axel Wilner, the man behind the Field, has a distinct M.O. and a sensibility-- he makes liquid, tactile minimalism, uncannily physical and groove-centered even while remaining, technically “ambient.” From Here We Go Sublime, Looping State of Mind-- his album titles spell out his intentions for each album with the exactitude of someone with a masterly grasp of their aesthetic. Wilner has indicated the album will be “hardware only, no computers.” --Jayson Greene
Danny Brown’s XXX might have had the sturdiest legs of any rap independently released rap album of the past three years; it came out in 2011, and since then, he’s been on a relentless, never-ending meet-and-greet, playing every festival imaginable, popping up for scenery-obliterating guest verses on records from A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train” to Ab-Soul’s “Terrorist Threat”, and sharing his crude, surprising, hilarious thoughts with anyone who sticks a microphone in his face. His upcoming OLD is riding a massive crest of Danny Brown hype, and the advance music, including “Kush Coma” with A$AP and “ODB,” finds him at the same frenzied peak he’s somehow been maintaining for years now. The guest list reflects the many friendships Danny’s made over the past few years: Rustie, Schoolboy Q, Kitty, Ab-Soul, Purity Ring, Charli XCX, Mr. MFN Exquire, and Oh No have all been confirmed. As for content, Danny told Pitchfork last winter “If people are just looking for dick-sucking jokes, there isn't too many of them." --Jayson Greene
Daniel Lopatin’s progress as a producer, under the guise of Oneohtrix Point Never, has been particularly brisk as of late, moving from his earliest synth-based drones to the liquid psychedelia of Returnal grainy, sampled-based work on last year’s Replica. His upcoming R Plus Seven, if the cool Windows-Vista blue of “Problem Areas” is an indication, might be revisiting some of the faded-edges analog poignancy of his earliest work. Anyone with even a cursory interest in Lopatin should head over to his benevolent mothership of a website, which is just an excellent place to spend time. --Jayson Greene
Pusha-T’s long-gestating solo album under Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint has shown some mild strains of “development hell” syndrome; My Name Is My Name was slated for July 16 before Yeezus and Magna Carta laid waste to the summer rap schedule. (Not even Drake survived.)
Now it’s due out this fall, and although the album hasn’t registered a radio single yet, Pusha has the benefit of Kanye’s continued co-sign, his production, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hungry-rapper intensity. “I now write with impact in mind. Impact always wins. It's the difference between [Jay Z's] Reasonable Doubt raps and Hard Knock Life raps,” he told Pitchfork last October. On songs like “Numbers on the Board” and “Who I Am,” he raps like he’s ready to bite off heads.
Oh, and did we mention this is the album with a Joaquin Phoenix beat on it? This album has a beat by Joaquin Phoenix, actor. “I want it to be the intro on my album,” he told VIBE. He also added “There is no production in the world better than this album.” --Jayson Greene
Electro-pop artist Glasser (real name Cameron Mesirow) first turned heads with her 2010 debut Ring, which tethered humming, new-agey soundscapes to skyward-bound pop choruses. When it came time to record her follow up, Interiors, she relocated from California to New York and, naturally, started thinking more about confined spaces. Citing her new city’s towering architecture as an inspiration, Mesirow teamed up with producer Van Rivers (who’s worked with Fever Ray and Blonde Redhead) to make a record that she’s described as being “much more sharply personal than its predecessor.” And true to its architectural inclinations, she’s put a lot of thought into the album’s visuals. The cover, artwork and videos—including the warped, metallic clip for first single“Shape”— are all a collaboration between Glasser and artist Jonathan Turner. --Lindsay Zoladz
Tim Hecker Virgins [Kranky] Oct. 14
Tim Hecker is often considered a “drone” or “ambient” artist, two styles rarely known for kicking ass. But the cover of 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972was helpful in illustrating that this stuff isn’t for wimps-- at his best, Hecker’s music hits with the impact of a damn piano being dropped off a five-story building. Hecker does it big and Virgins is his attempt to achieve sonic domination in the manner of Ravedeath and its equally powerful predecessor Harmony in Ultraviolet while removing the distortion and static that defined those albums. “Lead single” “Virginal II” corroborates Hecker’s promise of this live-recorded LP being more percussive and acoustic than his previous work and the Virgins birth took place in three cities that are perhaps the foremost producers of musical catharsis-- Seattle, Montreal and Reykjavik. --Ian Cohen
The Dismemberment Plan were ahead of their time - musically omnivorous, overeducated, underemployed and prone to oversharing in the spirit of establishing an intimate connection with their audience. Their unimpeachable 1999 classic Emergency & I (as well as the “B.O.B.”-influenced “Dismemberment Plan Get Rich” single) sped up the conversation between indie rock, pop, hip-hop and R&B and gave a lot of 20-something somethings close to an instruction manual for living or at least a shoulder to cry on. Meanwhile, frontman Travis Morrison was a poptimist blogger before we knew what that word meant and his lyrics were meant for Twitter, prone to express knee-buckling and heartbreaking truths and silly jokes about high and lowbrow culture within seconds. Their last official release was also prescient-- 2004’s A People’s History of the Dismemberment Plan let their fans remix their songs. But D-Plan hasn’t released an album since 2001’s grown-up and smoothed-out Change and after a rapturously received reunion tour in 2011, they return with Uncanney Valley-- Morrison told us earlier this year that the ingratiating, uptight demeanor and vice-tight musicianship have given way to“an openness...that’s a real achievement for us.”--Ian Cohen
New York twee-pop duo Cults’ first record was celebrated for it’s catchy sing-along vibes and integrated, textured sampling. The followup to Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin’s 2011 debut purports to be a slightly grittier affair called Static, a self-proclaimed “breakup album” out 10/15 via Columbia. The teaser features album tracks “We’ve Got It” and “So Far” interspersed with moments of static fuzz; other than that, Static’s sole pre-release has been “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”. Working with longtime producer Shane Stoneback and Ben Allen (who’s worked with Animal Collective, Washed Out, and Youth Lagoon,) the band speaks eloquently of the inspiration behind their forthcoming sophomore release: “There’s a feeling our generation has. The feeling there’s always something better around the corner, that everyone is born to be a star. The feeling that life is waiting for you, and yet it’s not happening. All of that is static.” --Molly Beauchemin
Given that Chicago’s footwork scene has started to rise to national prominence, Chi scene vet DJ Rashad has watched the stakes raise a little thanks to the expanded audience. However, if everything’s as good as Rashad’s new “I Don’t Give a Fuck”-- the first single from his new Double Cup-- Rashad’s got nothing to worry about, as the song exists as a temple of the frenetic pulses and ominous musical textures that Rashad has mastered. Double Cup is heavy and dark, indebted to techno, trap and drum and bass, the end result coming out as something in its own universe. --Corban Goble
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan UZU [Suicide Squeeze] Oct. 29
Led by vocalist Ruby Kato Attwood and drummer Alaska B, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan are five face-painted musicians who have dubbed their sound Noh-wave-- a nod to no wave and the Japanese musical theater tradition. Their songs blur lines between prog, metal, sludge, and opera. More importantly, on both their 2011 album YT//ST and on UZU, they pack their songs with an elaborate mythology that draws from many sources. In their recent “Update” interview, the band talked about how while the songs are inspired by their lives, they also reference the goddess Mazu, the 16th century Chinese text Journey to the West, and the Buddhist concept of waves of consciousness. In “One”, they weave together Mohawk voices, hard rock guitars, and aggressive allegorical lyrics: “Ever wonder what it's like to die in America?/ Hungry dog holds the master's hand.” UZU is a concept album, and it’s sure to be one with several layers. --Evan Minsker
The days of Trufflegate and 2010's ill-received album /\/\/\Y/\ seem like a lifetime ago for M.I.A., who's been coasting along on the success of her smash "Bad Girls" for a couple of years now. She'll have a chance to start fresh with her new album Matangi, which she claimed was delayed by Interscope because it was "too positive." The record will arrive on November 5-- if she doesn't leak it first-- and will include previously heard songs like "Bring the Noize", "Come Walk With Me", and more. --Carrie Battan
At the Atlanta headquarters of Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Arts Society, a giant turkey has been roasting slowly for hours, and cups of something called Wondapunch are being passed around. From the front, the place looks like any other home in the surrounding suburban McMansion development, which is otherwise populated by middle-aged and elderly professional types. But inside, Monáe and her team of collaborators have worked to cultivate a hidden artistic oasis.
The living room is carpeted with grass and adorned with a long bench swinging on ropes from the ceiling. In one bathroom is an issue of Vogue with Michelle Obama on the cover-- Monáe performed at one of the President’s fundraisers last year-- and the hot tub on the deck out back is overflowing with iridescent blue bubbles and topped with a sprinkling of flower petals. There's an area filled with single-person-sized teepees for people to crawl into and just... think. The house is decked out for creative purposes in a highly studied way, as if someone has been reading up on Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota, or Jack White’s Third Man Headquarters in Nashville. Monáe has another home to herself in the Atlanta area, but she sleeps, eats, and breathes Wondaland when she's in work mode.
And in play mode, too. The entire place has been soundproofed for nights like tonight, when the music goes above what the neighbors would consider a polite volume. Monáe and her crew-- which includes the production duo Deep Cotton, aka Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning, designated “experience architect” Azza Gallab, and a number of others-- have invited a few dozen friends to preview songs from her sophomore album, The Electric Lady. And they want to get everyone dancing.
Over the past several months, the team has been workshopping the album to get a sense of how the human body might respond to it. At one point, they brought early versions of tracks to Atlanta’s fabled strip clubs to see what the women there could dance to-- a somewhat surprising move considering Monáe's android-obsessed subject matter is light years away from the champagne room. Even during her kinetic live performances, there's still an air of controlled chaos to the proceedings, never a pivot out of place. But with The Electric Lady, she's aiming to move from a cerebral place-- Monáe is often found deep inside her own head-- to a more physical one.
The goal is achieved, at least for the night. These are Monáe’s friends, of course, so they’re a bit biased, but everyone here is gyrating and twirling and shimmying and twisting and strutting so elastically that even limber onlookers could feel like awkward lumps by comparison. Even Monáe’s demure-by-day personal assistant has found her own spotlight on the dancefloor. The scene looks like it could go on forever, but eventually the playlist ends and people start to disperse, bellies full and limbs loose. Monáe has a giant turkey leg dangling from her mouth. She's pleased.
The following afternoon, the 27-year-old is back to work, rehearsing for a performance of “Q.U.E.E.N.”, her Electric Lady duet with Erykah Badu, at this year's BET Awards. She has to cram because her appearance on the show was booked at the last minute, only after Prince himself phoned BET President of Programming Stephen Hill directly and demanded Monáe be added to the lineup. Hill placed her as the closing act. Prince, who makes a rare guest appearance on the new album, has been a supporter since Monáe's debut Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP in 2007: After her first show in L.A., he circled the venue in his car and asked her to hop in when she came outside. Monáe is someone who inspires this kind of loyalty from fellow artists. Especially fellow secret-headquarters types: In June, Star Wars mastermind George Lucas flew Monáe out to his Skywalker Ranch in California to give an intimate performance on the property.
But even with untouchable power players in her corner, Monáe's position in the music industry at the moment is a curious one. On one hand, she’s got Prince making the case that she should be on stage at the biggest annual televised celebration of black music. On the other hand, she kind of needs Prince to make the case that she should be on stage at the biggest annual televised celebration of black music. It is sometimes easier to like the idea of her-- a whirling, twirling, fantastical funk robot in a tux, a firecracker of a live performer, a young woman who runs her own tight creative ship-- than it is to forge a natural connection with her music and persona. With The Electric Lady, she has a chance to change that.
Before the rehearsals, Monáe and company are sitting around with iPads in Wondaland's basement recording studio, reeling off a whirlwind of tasks. (Someone has what looks like a Gmail account pulled up on a large computer monitor, but there’s a "W" where the "G" should be. The team uses WondaMail.) Most of the effort is currently going into the editing of a minute-and-a half promotional teaser for The Electric Lady. They fiddle with the length of the clip in increments of seconds.
“It’s too long! Don’t give all that away, they need to wait until the album,” Monáe protests, in reference to a new track being used in the background of the teaser, which pictures her perched on a couch, explaining the concept of the new album: “The Electric Lady was inspired by paintings. Every night I would perform, I would paint on a canvas while I would sing... this image of a female body, a silhouette, every single night.” The soliloquy sounds familiar-- the night before, she’d stood in the middle of the party and addressed her friends with the same speech, but with an extra little nugget of information. “I came up with the title in therapy, actually,” she blurted out, seemingly by accident.
Therapy, she tells me, has become an important part of her life since the release of her debut album, 2010's The ArchAndroid. “It was like I had a computer virus in my brain and it needed to be fixed," she says.
“I didn’t like the idea of therapy at first,” she continues. “In the black community, nobody goes to therapy. You go to your pastor or you go to the Bible. There’s a stigma.” Monáe, who grew up in a devout Christian family, still says grace before meals. “But I think God blesses us with brains to find medicine, to find cures, and I don’t believe in not using that. Therapists are there to listen.” She also talks about grappling with a split from a boyfriend in between albums, offering a rare revelation about her love life (she’s been known to tell interviewers that she dates cyborgs). "I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything," she says, "and I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.”
Sometimes the struggle to regulate her own controlling impulses can wind up breeding different sorts of controlling impulses. At the teaser meeting, and at other points during our time together, she's constantly walking that line. After a long deliberation over the length of the video, the crew decides to split the difference. “Let’s move on,” Monáe concedes. She’s perched quietly in the corner, slouched over her white iPhone 5 with furrowed brows, appearing distracted but piping up decisively at key moments to offer the final word on the topics at hand.
Later on, Chuck and Nate lead me into a small guest room to screen a rough cut of the video for the slyly doomsaying single “Dance Apocalyptic”, which finds Monáe shedding her standard tuxedo getup for an all-white ensemble and loose hair. There are a couple of stray wine glasses in the room, and the bed is unmade. Monáe, they confess, might be upset if she knew I was in here-- she wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see the mess.
Monáe’s inner disciplinarian is a voice that’s propelled her forward since the earliest stages of her career. She grew up in working-class Kansas City with her mother, stepfather, and sister. The family lived check-to-check on a janitor’s wage, but her mother provided her with fierce emotional support. “She would buy me talent show outfits,” Monáe says. “And when I didn’t win, she would get up like Kanye and be mad, like, ‘My baby shoulda won!’ She’s very proud.” Monáe addresses her mother directly on the Electric Lady cut “Ghetto Woman”, a confessional electro-funk tune that speaks to the image of working-class black women in American culture: “Carry on, ghetto woman, even when the news portrays you less than you could be.”
After high school, Monáe worked alongside her mother as a maid to save up enough money to attend conservatory in New York City before relocating to Atlanta. There, she mapped out a unique grassroots plan to infiltrate the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the hub that unites four of the country’s biggest and most storied black colleges. She wasn’t enrolled in classes at the time, but she figured that she could earn traction in the music industry by developing a fanbase among the students. It was a shrewd act of forethought-- AUC is an important component of the music industry in Atlanta, one of the few cities in America where a thriving local scene feeds directly into the pulsing jugular of mainstream recognition.
When Monáe returns to the AUC grounds in late June, it breathes with the eerie quiet of summer vacation, save the sounds of new trap-rap darlings Migos’ “Hannah Montana” rattling out of the boombox of a lone student on a bench. She walks past buildings where she performed as part of her “dorm lounge tours,” back when she sang with just an acoustic guitar. “I wasn't into inorganic things in music,” she explains. “I didn’t like what R&B was and I didn’t like what I heard on the radio.” She still takes issue with mainstream R&B, but her own music made a sharp turn when she crossed paths with like-minded artists Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, who were attending Morehouse College at the time. “There was something about them having these big ideas,” Monáe says. “I’d never met black people who were so serious and so creative, people who wanted to start a revolution and redefine music.”
Monáe seems categorically drawn to these kinds of Big Thinkers. Everyone involved in Wondaland is a student of high concepts, of capital letters: Art, Music, Science, Ideas. During our time together, she mentions fashion godhead Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she’s personally bonded over a shared love of the black-and-white tuxedo. She and her producers talk at length about futurist Ray Kurzweil’s theory of technological singularity and make reference to a recent visit to the David Bowie exhibit at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. When Monáe had her first meeting with her label Atlantic Records’ marketing team, she handed out copies of The Big Moo, Seth Godin’s collection of essays espousing wisdom on marketing. She talks about Steve Jobs and Apple’s branding strategies. She likes the word “visionaries.” It's all very wide-eyed and rooted in her relationship with Chuck and Nate, who helped her ramp up her sound while sticking to her creative scruples.
In turn, the producing pair were entranced by Monáe’s sphinxlike on-campus reputation and her laser-sharp focus on her art. “She did one show where she told everyone to drop out of school,” remembers Nate, shaking his head and grinning. “She was like, ‘Y’all might not even need to be in school! You’re wasting your parents’ money. You need to go out and find what makes you passionate!'” Though she wasn't even technically a student, she "ran the school," according to Chuck. Walking alongside the petite Monáe-- not more than 5’2" and wearing a black-and-white checkered blazer, fitted black slacks, suspenders, patent-leather flats, and Prada sunglasses-- it’s not hard to imagine her days as an elusive and eccentric character on campus.
At the time, she was working a job at Office Depot, where she’d routinely use the store’s computers to update her Myspace page and correspond with fans-- a move that would eventually lead to her firing. But the song she wrote in the wake of her exit from the store, “Letting Go”, would make its way to the ears of Big Boi, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to a friendship and artistic kinship with OutKast, the rap duo that helped inspire Monáe’s move to Atlanta. Soon after, Diddy would hear Monáe’s “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” on Myspace and use the Big Boi connection to reach out to her about a deal with his own Bad Boy Records. His motivation? “He was like, 'I’m at the point in my career where I want to be known for putting out something creative,’” Monáe recalls.
It might sound like a dream scenario for a young artist trying to gain a foothold, but Monáe met Diddy’s interest with skepticism. “I didn’t trust labels,” she says. “I thought they’d immediately try to change my image, change my style, make me relax my hair.” So she first put him on the phone with her lawyer and then suggested he set aside a taping of his reality show “Making of the Band” to fly down to Atlanta for a release party for her Metropolis EP. He obliged, providing Monáe with satisfactory paperwork, and the wheels began to turn toward an “artistic partnership”-- not a traditional deal-- between Wondaland and Bad Boy. The major stipulations were that Monáe and her collective would retain full control over their music and brand. “Diddy is very afraid to mess it up,” Monáe says. “And he should be.”
Monáe’s rep as a tuxedo-rocking, cyborg-loving, retro-futuristic bundle of funk and fantasy is a big calling card-- one that she’s worked very hard at bringing to life. She manages her image rigorously. Throughout our time together, I often feel like she’s speaking to me from a script, reflexively keeping emotional distance between us. She is, after all, known for penning her musical sci-fi tales from the perspective of an android alter-ego named Cindi Mayweather. “I’m an alien from outer space,” she sings on “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”. “I’m a cybergirl without a face, a heart, or a mind.” But she grows animated and sincere when we talk about how she developed her look and why she refuses to stray from it.
Assembled during her time at AUC, her styling is partly in homage to her parents, whose work required uniforms. “I thought, ‘What would I think if I saw somebody wearing this?’” she says. “I would think they were sick as hell.” She hates the pictures floating around the internet that were taken before she honed her getup and gets emotionally and physically riled up just thinking about it. “Get rid of all those photos,” she says. “I don’t like the clutter, I don’t like the colors.” Her liveliness lightens the mood; Monáe's interpersonal wall begins to break down when we talk about how the wall was built.
The Monáe concept is also an outlet for the perfectionism she’s been battling against. “I think I have OCD,” she says, sitting in Atlantic's midtown Manhattan offices in July. “I really don’t like that and I’m working on the balance of knowing that some things are just beyond your control and you’ve got to be in the moment and roll with the punches.” The Electric Lady has her channeling an array of demons, both big and small, in a more explicit way.
There's still the veneer created by her alter-egos, the costumes, the theatrical interludes, but she’s a bit softer and more exposed. She’s almost unrecognizable on “Primetime”, a bare ballad she recorded with Miguel, or on “What an Experience”, the album’s swooning closer. She cites both Miguel and Solange Knowles, who also appears on the record, as artists who are working to bring R&B to new places, too.It’s surprising to even hear her use the term R&B, given the ways she’s characterized the genre in past conversations. “Somewhere along the way, R&B got lost-- gatekeepers have recycled sounds and not kept up, musicianship has declined,” she says. “I really did want to make one of the greatest R&B albums of this year, but I want to innovate as well.”
Still, The Electric Lady reflects the growing pains of an artist trying to reconcile a handful of goals. The final version is more than twice as long as what was played back at the Wondaland party, and some of it can feel dogged by an excessively ornamental air. Monáe can sound chilly even when singing her most emotionally bare lyrics.
The album's confusion is heightened considering the sense that it is Monáe’s boldest bid for pop superstardom to date. “Last time [with The ArchAndroid], I was really focused on the performance, and I didn’t want to do radio,” she says. “This time, I said, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.’ I believe in these songs even if they don’t make it on the radio, but why not try?” When we meet at Atlantic, she's mapping out a month-long promotional radio tour that'll have her paying visits to local stations in the hopes that “Q.U.E.E.N.” will land on the airwaves. (As of press time, none of the three tracks released from The Electric Lady have cracked Billboard's Hot 100.)
So while her ambitions are intact, Monáe is loathe to admit that she’ll do anything to sacrifice an ounce of her vision to attain them. “We’re focused on getting great music on the radio,” she explains, and again I can almost sense her referring back to her inner script. But she also knows, subconsciously, that good things happen when she’s forced to put the script away. She recalls her tumultuous recent performance at Essence Festival in New Orleans, where she had a minor sinus infection and lost her voice two hours before going on stage. “I was so proud of myself, because the old me would have been over it,” she says. “The audience got the most raw Janelle Monáe ever, because they saw me adapting.”
Nicolas Jaar would like you to forget what you know about Nicolas Jaar. The Chilean-American producer has cut an impressive figure in the dance community over the last few years, from 2011's beguiling debut Space Is Only Noise, to his increasingly well-regarded live performances that bridge the gap between his erudite, off-kilter creations and more traditionally body-moving fare. Not to mention the diverse, intriguing releases from other artists that came out on his own Clown & Sunset label. At the age of 23, Jaar's built the kind of CV that most post-collegiate twenty-somethings would kill for, but as we sling back a few Budweisers last month at the chic Brooklyn eatery River Styx, he's less interested in past glories, more invested in new beginnings.
"I feel the need to start clean," he says intently, decked in a comfortable-looking grey long-sleeve shirt. "It's been a year since I graduated college, and I feel like starting some shit in this crazy city." The first step: closing the doors on Clown & Sunset, a birthday present Jaar received when he was 19. "When I started it, I didn't know what the hell a label was," Jaar admits. "It took a lot of my time-- I was stupid, naive, immature, and not sure of what I was doing. I didn't know what I was getting into. I only knew that I didn't want to release my music through other people."
Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington are Darkside; photo by Tim Jones
Ironically, that's literally what Jaar will be doing in the future with his new imprint and subscription service, Other People, a business venture that also involves NYC dance denizen and DFA affiliate Justin Miller. The label's name is a not-too-subtle suggestion that, for the moment, Jaar's looking to recede from the spotlight for a bit. "Clown & Sunset had this vibe that was very connected to me, and I didn't like that at all. It became affiliated with a sound"-- specifically, the spacey, molasses-slow minimalism showcased on Space Is Only Noise-- "that I'm not even connected to now. I'm not interested in Other People representing my 'sound' at all, because I don't have that specific sound anymore."
If Jaar has been indeed exploring new territory as a solo artist, he's keeping mum on it for the time being: during our hour-long chat, he states plainly that he's not interested in speaking about his proper follow-up to Space Is Only Noise, which is tentatively set for release sometime in 2014. And that's understandable, because he's got other things to focus on now that Other People has properly launched. There's the just-released label compilation, Trust, a move that's reminiscent of Clown & Sunset's fascinating 2011 comp Inés-- but as Jaar stresses, he's not aiming to repeat the past, as the compilation represents "an eclectic mix of things that work and, to a certain extent, things that don't", an extension of living in Manhattan, where he moved a year ago after graduating from Providence's liberal-arts enclave Brown University. "I'm excited about broadness-- and if you live in New York, how could you not be excited about that? That's what New York is."
Also on the way: a release from High Water, the project of saxophonist and frequent collaborator Will Epstein-- and then, there's Psychic, the debut LP from Darkside, Jaar's project with guitarist Dave Harrington, due October 8 in conjunction with Matador. The duo's second release this year (following Random Access Memories Memories, a curious attempt to remix the entirety of Daft Punk's latest LP as Daftside), Psychic is an immersion into the beat-driven, psychedelic sounds explored on Darkside's self-titled 2011 EP, drawing as much from Pink Floyd's refracted glow as it does from the rhythmic mechanics of traditional dance music. "Surprising myself helps me be creative," Jaar says while addressing Psychic's earthly thump, citing legendary krautrock collective Can and techno producer Richie Hawtin as opposite-pole influences. "I said to myself, 'I'm just going to go and make a fucking rock-and-roll record because it fits right now where I am.' It was a huge motivation."
Darkside started taking shape as a project after the release of Space Is Only Noise, when Jaar and Epstein started putting together a full band for Jaar's live show. "I said to Will, 'Who's the best musician you know at Brown?' He said, 'Dave, he plays bass.' I said, 'Tell him to bring a guitar instead.'" Jaar and Harrington hit it off and formed a creative partnership that led to the oblong drones and glowing tones of Psychic. "Dave has experimental tastes, whereas my taste is more mainstream. We fit like a little puzzle. You can hear how we complete each other."
Psychic was recorded over the course of two years, split between time at Jaar's New York City home, Harrington's parents' barn upstate, and a temporary space in Paris that they stayed during downtime between tours; given the sporadic studio sessions, sustaining the album's front-to-back, constantly evolving vibe was a creative challenge during the recording process. "We wanted this record to feel experiential rather than musical, so we'd be going back into large chunks of the album saying, 'No, we need an organ really low in the mix here so we feel like it's still a world.' It's music, but it's also this little crystal orb that's full of these feelings that are crazy, and painful, and maybe ecstatic."
In conversation, Jaar is warm and gregarious, speaking with the excitement of someone fresh out of college but with a careful, organized sense of self that belies his own age. As we gab about Frankie Knuckles mixes and the speaker setup at Williamsburg club Output ("The best sound system in the East Coast, bro"), he's thoughtful and open-- but when I ask him if there's any personal experiences that informed Psychic's two-tone swarm, he demurs, then laughs nervously to himself. "The project's called Darkside for a reason."
Pitchfork: You've experienced a fair amount of success at a young age. Are there any lessons you've taken away thus far when it comes to your career?
Nicolas Jaar: For the first five years of making music, I did it because I had fun. When it started to get real, I was like, "Now if I put out something else and it's not as good as what I did before, people will start thinking I suck." You start thinking about that-- and I hate thinking about things. I hate thinking about what I'm doing. I wish I didn't think about it at all. I really feel like I came out of the water when I graduated from college, because I wasn't really aware of what was going on. If certain people tried to take advantage of me or whatever, I never really realized it until I got out of school. I don't want to talk about it too much, because there's no place for it, really, but I had a year of being traumatized by not being aware of things. You go from having fun doing something to having it become your life without you realizing it. It can be weird and dark, but every single time I have a dark thought that makes me think dark about that, I tell myself, "Stop, you're stupid. This is great."
Pitchfork: Early in your career, you were frequently compared to Ricardo Villalobos, another artist who's worked heavily in the field of minimal techno.
NJ: That comparison doesn't make any sense whatsoever. I love Ricardo, but I'm not even close to attaining his level of technique, which is what I admired of him. It's funny, because when people would ask me in interviews why I make electronic music, I'd be like, "Because I love Ricardo Villalobos!" His music was the only fucking thing I knew, and I heard it as psychedelic music, not electronic music.
When I used to take the subway to go to school as a teenager, I'd listen to Ricardo Villalobos' Thé Au Harem D'Archimède and Trentemøller's The Last Resort. With Ricardo, I was always like, "Where are you going with this?" But the amount of confidence he has is amazing. The Trentemøller record, on the other hand, was always so easy on the ears, like candy. I always wanted to make Trentemøller's sound a little more experimental, and Ricardo's sound a little more melodic. That might sound weird, because they were both contemporaries at the time-- but I was young, and that's the best vocabulary for your ideas when you're young.
Pitchfork: How often do you go out and see new music?
NJ: When I'm not in New York, it depends on where I'm playing and who's playing before me-- but when I'm here, I go out once a week for sure, twice a week if I have time. Half the time it's people I work with saying, "Nico, let's go see this artist that we're interested in," but sometimes I just want to have fun too. Ten years ago, Manhattan was clearly the place to be for dance music, but now Brooklyn's obviously the place to go dance. The location of the scene is a little more vague-- but everything about dance music is getting more vague these days.
Pitchfork: What was your first introduction to dance music?
NJ: In 2004, I was in a photographer's studio for some stupid reason, and I heard Tiga's DJ-Kicks mix. I was like "What the hell is this? This is amazing." I downloaded it and listened to it over and over again. I was obsessed with those tracks-- not knowing what dance music meant, not even thinking about how dance music was confusing to me, just loving it. To this day, I think it's a really fucking cool mix.
Part of why I was drawn to making dance music was convenience. It was the type of music I could make without a band, and I wasn't interested in collaborating with anyone-- "What kind of music can I make by myself without any vocals?" It was confusing and difficult in the beginning, but now I love it. It gives me a lot of freedom.
Pitchfork: What did your parents listen to when you were younger?
NJ: My parents had pretty good taste in music. They listened to Beck in the 1990s, so I loved Odelay when I was 10. Later on, me and Will, who I've known since I was eight years old, obsessed over the grooves of Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete. This was around the same time that Beirut made a splash. There was something in the air that made Gypsy and African horns exciting.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was constantly with my headphones, just making music all the time. People were calling me a "musician", and I found that so weird. For me, a musician was some dude playing Bob Marley covers or Green Day power chords on guitar, which I didn't feel like I connected to at all. I don't remember explaining that I was making electronic music to anyone, but I don't remember anyone being curious about it, either. These days, you tell a 16-year-old, "I'm producing," they get it. In 2005, they didn't get it.
Pitchfork: What's the hardest thing about touring?
NJ: I remember being booed in Italy for playing [2010 single] "A Time For Us"-- I was 19 years old, it was my third show on the tour, and I was playing for 20 people in a 500-person-capacity club. Afterwards, the promoter was like, "Nico, you're part of a revolution." I was like, "No. Don't book me in a place that doesn't make sense for me. I don't care if you think it's cool." It hurts to get booed, especially when you're getting booed by 20 people and 500 more people are smoking outside because you suck so much.
Sometimes, I get in a mindset where I don't like my own music. I hate yourself and my music because I'm doing it every day. I feel like a clown. It's such a stupid way of thinking, though, but every time I'm on tour, I have two or three shows that are like that. Then I say to myself, "Snap out of it. You're so lucky to be even able to do this. Get out of it." And then I get out of it. It's a feeling that happens less and less, and I've learned to not really feel. Now I feel very lucky constantly.
You are not wrong to have your doubts about Cassette Store Day. Though there are no proper cassette stores to speak of, there will be events in New York, Chicago, London, Fullerton, Portland, Stockholm and other cities to celebrate the forsaken magnetic medium. It all goes down September 7, which is this Saturday, almost exactly 50 years after the format was invented. I run a label that sells cassettes, am co-hosting the New York event, and understand why you might think this is the biggest trolling of the music world since chillwave. But cassettes-- the whole cassette thing-- are not bullshit. I feel compelled to tell you why.
My reasons for coming around on cassettes are entirely personal, vaguely mathematical, probably nonsensical. The grad students among you will be disappointed to find no discussion of a “living, breathing medium that deteriorates with every play.” Digital has the cassette beat on portability, sharability, durability, ease of recording, etc. Vinyl-- looking past the conspicuous consumption aspect, or the fact that record plant people are largely unreliable assholes-- whups the lowly cassette on nearly all things sonic, speaking personally. The ritual alongside vinyl, of sitting down for the sole purpose of listening to a record, that’s a special thing too.
But there’s no format more human than the cassette. No format wears our stain better. I have not encountered a technology for recorded music whose physics are better suited for fostering the kind of deep and personal relationships people can have to music, and with each other through music. This sounds like nostalgia-- or like a hipster Mitch Albom-- but I don’t think it is. I’m talking about new music, on cassettes, in 2013. No audio format keeps me more focused on listening to the thing itself, without the distraction of having a web browser right in front of me, without the baggage of an ersatz music news cycle, the context upon context, the games of the industry. Music released on cassettes doesn’t feel desperate or needy or Possibly Important. It tends not to be concerned about The Conversation. It resists other people’s meaning. That’s what I like about the cassette. It whittles down our interactions with music to something bare and essential: Two people, sometimes more, trying to feel slightly less alone.
Two stories. I started writing record reviews in 2002. I was in college, I loved new music. Writing about new music was a way to get records before anyone else did. Easy enough. In hindsight, I underestimated how much the simple act of writing about music would rewire my brain and alter my relationship with it. I listened differently than before. The euphemism was “I was listening smartly.” But all that meant was I listened for good sentences. I read music like a text, but wasn’t exactly hearing it anymore. Deliberately misunderstanding something often made the writing better, and I did that a lot too. I abstracted music into ideas about music. Slowly the latter became more important to me than the music itself. I also became an incorrigible asshole, but that’s for a different piece. I never hated music, and I only loved writing about it. But I came to resent how I was listening.
Second story. At the tail end of all that, I started making music again. There was something liberating about how immediate and elemental the whole thing was. No context. Pure id. A rock band when nobody cared about rock bands. We played shows in costumes. Our friends were exceedingly kind. Then people started caring about rock bands. A slew of totally well-meaning people wanted to take us to “the next level” and “build a team” and so on. It was exciting, because for a moment it seemed like this might be a Real Thing. We went on tours with great bands, made our records, played amazing shows. From all angles, things were going super well. But I also felt anxious pretty much all the time. Everything seemed to matter, down to the shoes we wore on stage. I became intimately aware of all the ugly industry machinations that-- I’d rather not shit where I eat. If music had once been a writing exercise, now it was a hunger game, with strategies that changed by the hour and a never-ending supply of supposedly make-or-break moments that might–might–one day land us a mid-afternoon slot at some gobots music festival. The entire setup of the music industry-- from the gross amount of power publicists had, to the convenient myth that musicians need to tour tour tour, next level next level next level-- seemed to benefit everyone except the people making the music. I only saw the wires now. I felt myself becoming cynical.
Cassettes are my detox. A way for me to sidestep everything about music that isn’t music. To get back to the very basic propositions of why I make and listen to music in the first place.
I like the community of labels. It’s small, humble, not exactly well organized. You meet people in a stumbling, haphazard way, which is refreshing in the age of the targeted ad. Steve at Moon Glyph. Tom at Mirror Universe. Emily at Love Lion. Opal Tapes, Trilogy Tapes, Leaving Records. I usually have not heard of the artists, who usually do not have publicists “working” the record. I often buy five or six tapes at a time, whatever releases are available. Sometimes they come right away, other times they take three weeks and two of the cassettes don’t have music on them. I listen to cassettes on a small Sony boombox (with Mega Bass), usually when I do the dishes or get ready in the morning. The music feels like a secret between friends.
Certain kinds of music sound good on cassette. The public perception is that tape is “warm” and “fat," but not all tape is equal, and recording to 2” tape on an old Studer is very different from playing a cassette in a car stereo. In the cassette heyday, people weren’t exactly seeking out cassette releases for their sonic character. Mastering engineers did everything they possibly could to ‘beat’ the cassette, to make the music sound pretty damn close to the original recording despite the ways tape stock can roll off the highs, stuff the low-mids, and hiss above 1khz.
I do all my dubbing on old Sony high-speed duplicators, right in my apartment, and I make my masters on an old Tascam 112. I don’t do a lot of tricks to maintain the high-end frequency response; I like how the music rolls off after 12-15khz, sometimes sooner, and can suddenly feel distant and bottom heavy. The drum hits are sanded down, the metals less aggressive. It’s a subtle effect. Regardless of encoding that music with Dolby Noise Reduction, I still find that I have to push the mixes a bit to stay above the tape noise. And maybe this is what people are responding to when they say tapes are warm and fat – the sound of music just a little bit more compressed than it should be, as the tape struggles to fit all that information in 1/16 of an inch. This isn’t great for atmospheric indie rock. But it’s great for punk, noise, hard techno, rap-- any kind of music that benefits from sounding loud and unruly and uncontainable.
There’s also a metaphysical aspect of cassette releases: The way they affect the musician’s performances during recording. I tell my friends I’ll record their music and we’ll put it out on cassette, and it changes the entire energy of the session. There’s less pressure. It’s less of an event than a vinyl release. It’s “just” a cassette, which is liberating. It lets the id back in the room. There’s a feeling of impunity. It’s not going to cost anyone too much money. Everybody goes for broke.
Speaking of vinyl, which is an expensive gamble for a small label, I like that cassettes are inexpensive. I buy them in bulk from National Audio Company in Missouri for around 50 cents each, and jewel cases are about 22 cents each. Usually I end up doing my own artwork and labels. Runs of 50 or 100 are small by any standard, but if you want to do everything, they take more time than you might think. I don’t like the word “cheap” here, but I like the situation that not having to worry about money puts me in. It’s just a cassette. I don’t feel bad about giving them away to people. Most people I don’t expect them to even listen; I doubt they have cassette players. But I’m interested in those 10 or 15 people who end up trying. Those 10 or 15 people are more interesting to me than Soundcloud plays.
The sonics of cassettes, the low price, the performances they inspire, the inevitably rinky-dink machines people end up playing them on-- all this amounts to its own kind of musical performance with its own set of expectations. People don’t expect perfection from cassettes. They don’t expect transparency, or the feeling of being in the room with the band. They might even expect a little bit of distance. I think a lot about Daft Punk’s “Revolution 909” in that regard. The music is low-passed for the first minute or so-- the thumping and rumbling and undefined sound of standing outside whichever dance club is playing the song inside. The high frequencies are missing, and it creates a longing. That’s an extreme example of my point. But psychologically, if you are inundated with clean and clear and sparkly full spectrum digital music all the time, there’s something beguiling about music that’s happening on the other side of the door. You want to go inside. You never can.
Notice I’ve said nothing about having nostalgia for the physical object, or the experience of listening to music on a Walkman, or some Stockholm Syndrome-like “appreciation” for tape hiss. This has nothing to do with making mixtapes either. Emotionally, syntactically, or otherwise, I never had any issue with the “mix CD.” But mixtapes are another extreme version of what I mean by cassettes bearing our stain well. When you make a cassette from scratch-- the music, the dubbing, the labels, the art, the liners, even the casing-- these little human imperfections accumulate in a way that makes the music mean something different. I can’t think of a format that allows for this kind of thing.
I don’t think we’re in the middle of any long-lasting revival here. It’s a lot of work to put out music on cassettes, and to play music on cassettes. For obvious reasons, we value speed and ease and efficiency in our technology, and require a good qualitative reason for deviating. People value the extremes, and cassettes are not extreme. They are about people: 30, 50, 100 or so. Who are they? Why do they want this? How did they find me? I don’t psychoanalyze. But I like to think that people who adore cassettes are at least partly like me: Enormous fans of new music, overwhelmed by the speed and context and game of it all. People who want a community, not a social network. People who want the music, not the meaning. Cassette people, I like to think, want romance and fantasy. A person in a room, making music, putting it in cassette-shaped bottles for no other reason than these cassette-shaped bottles tend to find the people who need their music the most. Total romance and fantasy, all of this, I admit it. But music could use more of both.
Nick Sylvester co-runs GODMODE, a music company in Brooklyn.
"Cassettes are currently the simplest and most artistically pure way of sharing sound," wrote journalist Neil Strauss inCassette Mythos, a cult classic of an anthology on homemade tape culture. The book, published in 1990, traced the roots of the medium in experimental and outsider music, emphasizing the format's accessibility. One would only need blank tapes, cassette decks, envelopes, and stamps to particpate in what Strauss then called "a perfect environment for an underground to develop."
Flash forward 23 years and not so much has changed. In the underground, the sentiment still rings true. Cassettes continue on as a medium of choice among noise artists, punks, and fringe experimentalists. The roots of the cassette world subvert a need for the greater music industry, and often rule out the necessity for any monetary exchange in music at all. Trading is a longstanding element to tape culture. Tape labels and roving mini tape distros remain at the heart of what makes underground cassette culture cohesive, alive, and exciting.
But the recent past has seen higher-profile bands take newfound interest in tapes, as the roster for today's "Cassette Store Day" proves. Much like the annual Record Store Day tradition, this day is a loosely-organized international effort, with shops around the world hosting events and various labels issuing limited edition tapes. Some of these tapes are coming from massive bands like Flaming Lips, Animal Collective, and Haim, but the event was conceptualized by three labels in the UK functioning on much smaller scales-- Sexbeat, Kissability, and Supplex.
"It's a celebration for people who already love cassettes," says organizer Jen Long, a BBC radio DJ who runs Kissability. One of her partners thought up CSD in April. "He was like, 'I had this stupid idea this weekend," Long said, "and I was like, Yeah, that sounds really funny." The idea was to set up "a day we could spend hanging out, drinking some cans of beer, and selling some tapes," a fun, small-scale affair for UK labels at the Rough Trade store in London. It took on a different life after Bella Union proposed the Flaming Lips tape. Soon the organizers saw potential for bigger labels to get involved and reached out. "It's gotten a bit mental," Long admits with a laugh.
A second goal of Cassette Store Day, Long explains, is to raise awareness that cassettes are still a viable format with sizable audiences that take tape labels seriously. "It's about giving labels more of a platform and a little more authority," she said. "Tape labels are real labels. You are putting out releases with download codes and on iTunes. It's still a legitimate label."
The intention is no doubt admirable, but does raise some questions-- what makes a label "serious" or "real"? Does a day of consumption "legitimize" the cassette medium? Is the amateur nature of cassettes part of their charm? Moreover, do cassettes need to be taken seriously by anyone other than the audiences they naturally attract? We explored these topics and lots more with nine tape labels tied to underground, experimental, and DIY culture-- many with overlapping rosters-- discussing this event and also taking part in the celebration by highlighting an even more expansive view of cassette culture than CSD offers.
"There are a lot of mistakes to be made, and Ascetic House will exist until we make them all," said Jes Aurelius, guitarist in desert-punk group Destruction Unit and prolific contributor to this experimental Tempe, Ariz.,-based artists circle. Active about five years, Ascetic House has released philosophical pamphlets (many penned by Aurelius while living alone in a shed), psychedelic chapbooks, and around 50 cassettes. The tapes have featured Tempe artists, including Marshstepper, the provocative performance art group, while also tying together some of the most exciting segments of contemporary D.I.Y. music culture throughout America and beyond-- New York noise act Foreplay's Vicarious and bluesy Boston post-punk act Ukiah Drag's Jazz Mama Is Cryin' are recommended.
According to the Ascetic House website, cassettes from Iceage and Lust for Youth are in the works, as are zines from Pharmakon and Nü Sensae singer Andrea Lukic, while an art zine from Carson Cox of Merchandise was released earlier this year. Ascetic House's own visual aesthetic of occultish elegance and repurposed biblical imagery has also been rather crucial to its appeal. "Without mystery, there is little room for imagination, and imagination is the only thing saving free minds in an age where most are trying to kill them off,” Aurelius said, and continued to quote the French poet Stephane Mallarmé: "Everything that is sacred and that wishes to remain so must envelope itself in mystery."
Tapes came to dominate Ascetic House's growing discography because they have the quickest turnaround time and are cheapest to produce. According to Aurelius, an Ascetic House tape is generally available within a day or two of being recorded. Despite the group's growing focus on tapes, Aurelis says he has "no real desire to be part of a 'cassette culture.'" "While the format is important to some extent, it's probably the least important aspect of the release in my mind," he said. That's an unsurprising statement considering Aurelius' seemingly anti-capitalist worldview; earlier this year, Ascetic House established a Prisoner Outreach Program wherein they'll send any cassette release to any incarcerated person in the U.S. for free. "The only artists making money are con-artists, and while we may have some shark blood in us, we are definitely not making any money," Aurelius said. "In fact, I'd say the slowest and most painful suicide is committing to life as an artist."
Burger Records [Fullerton, Calif.]
Burger Records began in 2007 when Lee Rickard and Sean Bohrman, based in Fullerton, Calif., couldn't find a label to release their power pop band, Thee Makeout Party. "On tour in Kansas, we were in front of a beer store sitting in the van and I thought, we should release cassettes for more records that aren't out on tape, Nobunny and the Go and the Traditional Fools," Bohrman said. "I immediately got on the computer and started emailing people."
Since that defintive moment, Burger's tiny idea has grown into one of the biggest cassette-making operations in the world-- over 500 affiliated bands and 622 tapes from scrappy indie pop and garage rock to limited editions of classic albums by the likes of Television Personalities and Velvet Underground. The first hundred releases included Hunx and His Punx, Shannon and the Clams, Black Lips, and Ty Segall, bands that have helped define something of a garage rock "Burger" sound despite the label's broad, nonstop approach.
Put in the order Sunday, pick it up Thursday night; this has been Burger's routine for three years now. Through trial and error, they grew to their current position of releasing three to five tapes per week. "Sometimes more," Bohrman said. "This week we released nine. The guy who duplicates our stuff in Pasadena is like our fifth Beatle." Throughout our interview, Bohrman mentions several times that his favorite label is Gnar Tapes in Portland, Ore.
Along with working closely with labels like Slumberland, Captured Tracks, and Hardly Art to issue cassette versions of LPs, Burger also owns a shop in Pasadena, where they sell hundreds of their own releases and other used tapes and vinyl. When I visited in May, the shop-- located in the middle of a suburban strip mall-- felt legitimately like stepping back into the 90s. As I walked through the back of the store towards the bathroom, I climbed past a group of teenagers sitting around in the back watching VHS tapes and helping with mail orders, walls collaged by Burger posters, a cat wandering about.
All money generated by the label goes straight back in. Bohrman says he and his business partner "live meagerly, shower when we can, live on our couches, work all the time." Despite the hours-- Borhman sleeps everyday from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m.-- he's ecstatically positive about Burger. “Doing this is the high point of every single one of my days," he said. "I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished with limited means. Every time I go to bed, I cant wait to wake up and start working again."
Before New York noise artist Pharmakonreleased her recent LP, one of her only available releases was a tape of power electronics from Chondritic Sound, an L.A. label that's existed for over 10 years. Run by Greh Holger, who plays in Pure Ground and Believer/Law and works at the shop Vacation Vinyl, the label releases experimental electronic, bleak minimal wave, industrial, and nihilist synth pop-- all of which sounds like it's been cranked through a droning noise filter. Holger, an encyclopedia of tape knowledge, cites contemporary labels like Hospital and Hanson as influential, in addition to classics like Nekrophile, Slaughter Productions, and LOKI Foundation. His personal tape collection comprises about 2,500 titles.
"I'd like to think the releases are timeless," said Holger, who also handles artwork for each tape. "As fresh now as they will be in 20 years." Despite the label's sinister sonic aesthetic, Holger comes off as optimistic in our email correspondences. "Everyday is a high point," Holger writes. "Seeing [tapes] assembled and all lined up is always a source of joy." He previously ran the label out of his former home in Detroit, where he lived until 2010.
Tapes are not fragile like records or CDs, Holger explains, but even when they're damaged or saturated they sound cool. ("Leave one on the floor of your car for a month next to a record or CD and see which one is still listenable at the end," he said.) You can also give them "a second life" by recording over something that sounds bad. "People tend to complain about the sound quality and inconvenience of cassettes as if everything needs to be streaming in HD these days," Holger said. "Not everything should have a download code or website devoted to it. People are too dependent on their conveniences."
Hooker Vision, which releases ambient, droning electronic music, was founded in 2008 by musician Grant Evans; he was soon joined by his wife Rachel, who records as Motion Sickness of Time Travel. (They've also released music on Digitalis and Spectrum Spools.) Hooker Vision's focus lies in "personal/private music" with a diaristic approach. "These are special releases, usually created by individuals in their homes, assembled and released from our home, and hopefully enjoyed by a listener in his or her home," Grant said. "They're fleeting glimpes into the private lives of the artist." Grant and Rachel assemble collage art for each tape in hopes of conjuring a human, homemade feel.
Grant prefers tapes for their tactility, portability, durability, and hiss, and says Hooker Vision was inspired by labels like Peasant Magik and Hanson. "I'm not sure if I consider all tapes to be art objects," he said. "They function as living relics." Foremost, tapes are about practicality for Hooker Vision-- cheap with ability to playback over 60 minutes per side. Grant recently launched a new label, VAALD, to focus on darker sound, like "the more traditional noise labels that got us into tape music in the first place," he said. He also recommends the labels Housecraft, Diatom Bath, and Tranquility Tapes.
Given Hooker Vision's small-scale approach, I'm unsurpised to learn that Grant is critical of the bigger Cassette Store Day offerings. "I thought it was a joke at first. Maybe it really is," he said. "As more people become interested in cassette culture, a lot of the things that originally got us interested are being lost. I don’t see the point in releasing At the Drive-In and Flaming Lips cassettes today other than as a desperate marketing ploy... The labels doing the best work are still the ones lurking just under the mainstream’s radar."
Night-People, which has existed since 2004, is one of the best tape labels in the world-- ask anyone. With nearly 200 tapes and a singular silkscreened aesthetic, founder Shawn Reed's many releases have included early tapes by EMA, Dirty Beaches, and Peaking Lights, and tons of lesser-known treasures; this year, he released tapes from members of Merchandise and a 12" LP by the band. The label began as Reed was winding down a graduate art school program and exhibiting throughout the gallery world. He saw Night-People as a way to fuse his interests in visual art and underground music (he'd been a member of Raccoo-oo-oon and now plays in Wet Hair) and has worked on the label full-time since 2007. While Reed was motivated by labels like American Tapes, he primarily credits the power of mixtapes. "There were times I had tapes given to me, or I passed on tapes, and lives were changed," Reed said.
Starting as a cassette-oriented label fit Reed's financial means and D.I.Y. spirit-- ingrained growing up in small-town, rural Iowa, where it was necessary to imagine and create your own grassroots music culture. Reed and comrades came from working-class backgrounds. "I wanted to live prolific, see the world, make art, make music, really feel all of it, chase the spirit and ride the road no matter where it lead," Reed said. "We wanted bigger horizons, and we had to invent them. The spirit of Night-People came from that."
Early on, Reed drew influence from late 70s/early 80s British D.I.Y. (he mentions Crass), but today his biggest inspiration is the history of reggae and its surrounding culture, which he compares to the tape world. "The production style was pieced together in a loose but amazing way, making records with such limited means," Reed said. "The immediacy of recording, then cutting a lathe to play that night to see if the song would hit or not-- that's beautiful. That is the kind of thing that inspires me to keep going and push it."
That cassettes should be considered complete art objects is obvious to Reed. "If you look at the Night-People discography in tapes, which is almost 200 releases, it looks like one cohesive art piece," he said. He doesn't relate to the idea or aesthetic of digital music and says the speed of contemporary culture is beyond his comprehension. "Culture is so hyper, the experience and process of music is speeding up, and it's hard to fully see where you stand in culture on a bigger level right now," he said. "Obviously, being focused on records, tapes, and handmade visuals, I'm ignoring almost all of it. I just flip the record, keep the dubbers going, sit at my light table working on artwork, and do my thing."
Krystina Krysiak sings in the Boston powerviolence trio Curmudgeon and plays guitar in the newly-formed but equally excellent hardcore four-piece Bad Idea. A couple of years ago, Krysiak was running a tape label called We Rise, which led her to open a web store. “I needed a way to trade tapes, since most other DIY labels don't have the cash flow to buy merchandise outright,” she said. “So I would get three or four random tapes at a time and decided to open a webstore. Eventually, I phased out the label (although I'll still release tapes by my own bands) and now I just focus on making demos and other cassette releases easily available.”
Scrolling through the Sour Tapes site, you’ll find demos tapes by Boston hardcore bands like Terminal Crisis and Peacebreakers, the hooky-as-fuck debut demo by feminist punks Tomboy, the Almost Alive tape by Milk Music (now sold out), a Dead Broke Rekerds compilation, a tape by Madrid’s Nueva Autoridad Democrática ("ridiculously catchy & energetic," Krysiak writes on her site) and about a dozen others. Krysiak’s interest in tapes has been mostly practical, as the price of pressing records has risen over the past few years: “I found myself in this sort of ‘adult-punk’ world, where I'm done with school, work at a good job and have disposable income, but want to keep it in punk,” she said. “Tapes are relatively easy and if no one gives a shit, you are only out a few hundred dollars at most. They can be super simple & bare bones or very elaborate, but they still (ideally) will be priced in a way that is accessible to everyone. Plus, tapes can be traded and gifted and thrown in your car or backpack without worrying about destroying or ruining them.”
Krysiak points to labels like Not Normal from Chicago and Eat the Life from Kansas City as some of her favorite. “They are both [run by] people who live and breathe punk and maintain an infectious enthusiasm about the tapes they are releasing and the bands they promote, without trying to get rich or jeopardize their ethics,” she said. “I always think of Sour Tapes as a hobby and not a business, which keeps it fun and not focused on money. If anyone goes into DIY music hoping to make bank, they are going to be sorely disappointed.”
Coming from that sort of perspective, an event like Cassette Store Day isn’t really on Krysiak's radar. “Record Store Day, in its most recent form, is disgusting enough,” she said. “Creating a huge consumer demand for items that are completely manufactured to be rare (and thus, absurdly overpriced) and backing up record plants, putting a huge strain on smaller, independent labels who should be the folks who actually benefit from something like RSD. CSD sounds like an even less authentic, heartless version of this concept. No thanks.”
Zach Phillips, of alien synth pop band Blanche Blanche Blanche, began OSR Tapes in 2007 while working and living among the Brattleboro, Vt., freak scene. He's recently relocated to Brooklyn, but the label's discography still emphasizes the wellspring of D.I.Y. activity coming from that small Vermont town-- the hyper-prolific Brattleboro songwriter Chris Weisman has released tapes, as has Ruth Garbus (sister of tUnE-yArDs). OSR has also handled tapes for Howling Hex (Neil Hagerty, ex-Royal Trux), Robert Scott (the Bats, the Clean), and more.
Phillips says he chose the name "OSR" arbitrarily; the acronym only took on the meaning of "Open Session Rock" later on, after a Blanche tape. But that retroactive process relates to the label's inner-workings. "Certain meanings of the songwriting exercise don't make themselves felt until long after the song is written," Phillips said. "The writer puts herself at the mercy of the work. The forces of intuitive guidance spring from the song at hand, as opposed to attempting to create an aesthetic object that feels like a song, or preemptively attempting to force the hand of what the song is 'about'." In other words, they experiment.
Phillips says he loses money on the label. He shared his favorable opinion of Cassette Store Day: "I'm in favor of anything that helps to distract from the prevailing monoliths," he said, "and brings some attention to those too successful for success!"
From a distance, it can be hard to make sense of the prolific underground punk and noise scene in Copenhagen; new bands surface constantly, with minimal web presences (if any), and most of the material appears on limited run cassette and vinyl. Posh Isolation, a label operated in part by 24-year-old Loke Rahbek of Vår, Lust for Youth, and Damien Dubrovnik, has been a focal point. Active around four and a half years, Rahbek and co-founder Christian Stadsgaard began Posh Isolation to release their own music, soon taking on tapes for friends and likeminded peers, as they continue to do today.
The label makes a point of representing Copenhagen-- tapes in editions as low as 22 from Puce Mary, Age Coin, Flesh Spear, Skullflower, Marching Church, and Iceage, among many others. The aesthetic gears toward noise, punk, and power electronics, but there are no imposed restrictions. "Experience has shown that you can get a long way with gut feeling," Rahbek said. Everything is done by hand, from dubbing and stickering tapes to folding the inserts; no one makes money off it aside from the Danish postal system. "It's not some robot in a factory," he said. "That's D.I.Y., and it translates to the release. I think you can feel it. I can."
Once a week, Rahbek and Stadsgaard open their workspace to the public as a shop for Posh Isolation and a strictly curated selection of industrial, sound art, punk, synth, and metal records, plus zines and books. Despite the inclination towards tapes, Rahbek stresses Posh Isolation is guided by ideas-- sounds, images, words-- not a format. "Cassettes as objects I don't find overtly exciting," he said. "They are good for some things and worthless for others."
Posh Isolation gravitates towards tapes because they're cheap, durable, small, and light, but also because the analog format is befitting of the music they release, which is often challening and requires focus. "The music needs an aware listener, it is not easy listening, it is not 'iPod shuffle' music," Rahbek said, explaining that the full experience requires attention to the tiniest details of the release, down to the colors, lyrics, titles, and even the paper the cover is printed on and how it's folded. "When we mainly focus on dirty analogue sounds, it makes sense that it is presented on a 'dirty and analogue' format."
Rahbek recommends other tape labels including Second Sleep (Italy), Järtecknet (Sweden), Broken Flag (UK), Tour de Garde (Canada), and Dokumentarisk Agenda (Copenhagen).
In 2008, Peter Nichols of the weirdo psych-pop band Great Valley moved to Boston on a whim, finding himself amid an unexpectedly vibrant underground, stumbling upon experimental psych bands like Prince Rama and Quilt, plus the entire scene surrounding the collective art space Whitehaus. “It seemed ridiculous to me that there wasn't an avenue for experimental pop of such forwardness to reach an audience beyond its hometown,” Nichols said. “The idea all along has been to create a family of like-minded bands, a sort of round table congress of all the bands too campy to be cool and too experimental to be popular… I met more misfit pop bands when we started touring, and it's gone on like that.”
Though the first Spooky Town release was actually vinyl, a Prince Rama/Great Valley split 12”, Nichols soon turned to tapes instead. “Tapes were really a Noise-music-only thing at the time, and the idea of putting song-based music on cassette was pretty foreign, almost scary,” he said. “We didn't know if people would just throw the tape away or what.”
Over the years, Spookytown, which is now based in Brattleboro, Vt., has released cassettes by the prolific Vermont songwriter Chris Weisman, psych-pop wackos Happy Jawbone Family Band, folk-inflicted dream pop trio Quilt, and others. “Originally I would sit around in front of my stereo and copy each tape one by one, 100 copies, which actually isn't as hard as you think,” Nichols said. “I've had much better luck selling tapes than selling vinyl. Who has $15 to spend on an LP by an unknown band? But anyone will drop $5 to try something new.”
Earlier this year, I ordered a Chris Weisman tape from Spookytown, a beautifully minimal collection of warm psych-folk singing. I’d heard a lot about Weisman’s huge catalog from folks around New England, but had to mail order a cassette to hear for myself. It came with a Xeroxed zine-like Spookytown catalog and a handwritten note.
“I've never heard of Cassette Store Day,” Nichols said. “Sounds like it's kinda missing the point. Another main point of the tape scene is cutting the ‘store’ out. Tapes tend to have more of a direct maker-to-listener quality and that's part of their value. A lot of bands trade almost as many tapes as they sell, barter style. Tapes can be ‘calling-cards’ of the DIY music circuit, and most of the exchange doesn't take place in stores, it happens at shows and face-to-face.”
In an issue dated September 10, 1988, Billboard quietly launched a 30-position chart toward the back of the magazine. Arriving near the end of a decade that had seen left-of-center music called everything from “post-punk” to “new wave” to “indie” to “college rock,” the editors of the music-industry tip sheet went with the most neutral, business-friendly term they could think of: Modern Rock Tracks.
It was an oxymoron-- a chart to track music loved by an audience that didn’t want to be charted. Depending on your point of view, Billboard was either exceedingly late to the party or weirdly prescient. By 1988, college radio had been carving a path through youth culture for about a decade, with CMJ chronicling its “hits” since 1978. Punk and its immediate offshoots had come and gone: The New Romantic-driven “Second British Invasion” of the early 80s was spent as a pop force, and even second-generation punk bands Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Hüsker Dü were already broken up; so were the Smiths. Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press, bible of left-of-the-dial music, had ceased publication four years earlier. MTV had already cycled through one late-night showcase of indie-leaning videos, "The Cutting Edge", and was onto its second, "120 Minutes", which launched in 1986.
On the other hand, as of September 1988, R.E.M. had only just signed to a major label; Nirvana was still weeks away from issuing its first single; and Perry Farrell was merely the twitchy frontman of an L.A. band with a titillating album cover. The first Hot Topic store was a year away from launching. Three years before the first Lollapalooza, and well before anyone on Madison Avenue had latched onto the “a” word-- before a single snide Gen-Xer had thought to ask, “Alternative to what?”-- Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart announced that mass-market alternative culture was open for business.
Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks tally was an oxymoron-- a chart to track music loved by an audience that didn’t want to be charted.
Billboard was so synonymous with pop music, and the pop single in particular, that the very idea of a chart built just to track rock music was a relatively new concept. Obviously, guitar rock had been on its flagship Hot 100 pop chart for decades. But only in 1981 had the magazine begun to separately chart non-singles or “tracks”-- the sorts of deep cuts that would get played on album-oriented rock radio on the FM band. By waiting until '81 to launch its Top Tracks chart-- later renamed Top Rock Tracks and, by the late 80s, Album Rock Tracks-- Billboard missed the 70s heyday of AOR.
Modern Rock Tracks was only Billboard’s second discrete rock chart of any kind and, like Album Rock Tracks, was an all-radio chart designed to track any song receiving spins, whether or not it was issued as a single. The chart covered a specific sliver of the radio dial, the roughly dozen college stations with large audiences, and another 18 “commercial alternative” stations (itself a relatively new category).
If nothing else, a chart like Modern Rock Tracks probably needed to exist to finally accord some music-biz stature to a slew of artists who were rock legends but had rarely graced a Billboard chart. Imagine you’re Lou Reed or John Lydon-- you’ve fronted bands that helped invent whole categories of rock, but you’ve got no million-selling albums to show for it (Lydon’s work in the Sex Pistols took until the 1990s to crawl to platinum). Within a year of the Modern Rock chart launching, Reed had his first No. 1 song, and so did Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. The phrase “No. 1 song” had never appeared in a sentence with these guys’ names (except maybe a sentence about the Sex Pistols getting robbed of one in England).
Indeed, the whole chart felt like a cultural corrective. One look at that first Modern Rock chart in September 1988 will draw a wistful tear from anyone nostalgic for 80s postmodern pop. The sheer variety was remarkable: reggae and rock-steady beats from the likes of Ziggy Marley, UB40, and Ranking Roger; comeback singles from 70s punk veterans Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, and Graham Parker; coffeehouse folk from Tracy Chapman, Toni Childs, and Joan Armatrading, alongside the pop-friendlier boho-folk of 10,000 Maniacs and Edie Brickell; Irish rock from Hothouse Flowers and In Tua Nua, and Aussie rock from INXS, Crowded House, Paul Kelly and Hunters & Collectors. And, dominating the chart, so many gothy, dancey, eyeliner-bedecked UK acts: the Psychedelic Furs, the House of Love, the Primitives, Information Society, the Escape Club, Icicle Works, Shriekback, Big Audio Dynamite, and-- sitting on top like a goth godmother to all-- Siouxsie Sioux, with the Banshees’ “Peek-a-Boo”, Billboard’s first Modern Rock No. 1.
This list of acts doesn’t just prompt nostalgia in Gen-Xers of a certain vintage. It marks the last throes of a vibrant post-new wave music culture. That debut Modern Rock chart offered not only eclectic music but also half-decent racial balance and strong gender balance, including a woman-fronted band at No. 1. In short, the Modern Rock chart’s first week was, arguably, the most interesting in its history. But it wasn’t the last interesting week on the chart, and it definitely wasn’t its cultural peak. That would come later, in the 90s, at the height of Alternative Nation.
The 25-year history of this Billboard chart-- which since 2009 has gone by the name Alternative Songs-- is punctuated by moments of deep relevance and long stretches of near-irrelevance. Even if you are now a hardcore indie-music fan who wouldn’t listen to Jane’s Addiction or Tori Amos even at gunpoint, chances are the bands on this chart were your gateway drugs into non-Top 40 music.
For our walk down Modern Rock Memory Lane, I’ve divided the chart's history into mini-eras, three to six years in length, each with a prevalent cultural theme along with a few Modern/Alternative chart-toppers that are representative of that theme. As a bonus, I’m also including a special list that, um, honors a certain deathless California punk-funk band that has scored at least one No. 1 song in literally every era; rock radio programmers have been using them to fill airtime for decades. Many, many hours of airtime.
1988–1993: The Sun Never Set on the British Empire
Key Modern Rock No. 1s: The Cure, “Fascination Street” (1989, 7 weeks); Kate Bush, “Love and Anger” (1989, 3 weeks); Peter Murphy, “Cuts You Up” (1990, 7 weeks); Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence” (1990, 3 weeks); Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now” (1991, 5 weeks); R.E.M., “Losing My Religion” (1991, 8 weeks); Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, “So You Think You’re in Love” (1991, 5 weeks); Morrissey, “Tomorrow” (1992, 6 weeks); New Order, “Regret” (1993, 6 weeks)
Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1: “Give It Away” (1991, 2 weeks)
If you asked a hipster teen in 1989 or 1990 what their favorite music sounded like, they’d point you toward something Brit-accented, wry, and probably a little mopey. No U.S. chart will ever be more dominated by limeys than the Modern Rock chart was in its first half-decade.
During this five-year period, of the 82 songs that topped Modern Rock, only 24-- less than one-third-- were by American acts. In 1990 and 1991 in particular, Billboard might as well have titled the chart “Hot Anglophile Favorites”; British and Irish acts controlled the chart for 35 weeks the former year, 41 weeks the latter (and in 1990, the chart was led by Australians-- INXS, Midnight Oil, and the Church-- for four more weeks). So great was the Brit hegemony that acts as quirky as Ian McCulloch, XTC, and World Party spent a month each on top.
That’s not to say American acts were completely out of favor, particularly if your band was from Athens, Georgia: R.E.M. racked up four No. 1 hits in this period, the B-52’s three. The Replacements stayed together just long enough into the Modern Rock era to score a sole No. 1 before imploding, and Suzanne Vega landed one before her career began its 90s downturn.
What about the breakthrough of grunge, you’re wondering? Sure enough, in November 1991, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit No. 1. And then it was promptly evicted one week later, by U2’s “Mysterious Ways”. This is actually fairly representative of how slow-moving radio programmers reacted to The Year Punk Broke: unwilling, at first, to mess with the Cure/Depeche/Morrissey axis that defined the format. As late as 1993, Pearl Jam’s iconic grunge anthem “Black” was peaking at No. 20 the same week the chart was topped by a forgettable Jesus Jones song. By the end of that year, however, the pendulum began swinging away from the Brits.
1993–1996: When Alt Became Pop
Key Modern Rock No. 1s: Nirvana, “Heart-Shaped Box” (1993, 3 weeks); The Lemonheads, “Into Your Arms” (1993, 9 weeks); Beck, “Loser” (1994, 5 weeks); Green Day, “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around” (1994–95, 5 and 7 weeks, respectively); the Cranberries, “Zombie” (1994, 6 weeks); Live, “Lightning Crashes” (1995, 9 weeks); Alanis Morrisette, “You Oughta Know” (1995, 5 weeks); Bush, “Glycerine” (1995, 2 weeks); Oasis, “Wonderwall” (1995–96, 10 weeks); Butthole Surfers, “Pepper” (1996, 3 weeks); Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (1996, 6 weeks)
Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1s: “Soul to Squeeze” (1993, 5 weeks); “My Friends” (1995, 4 weeks)
If you lived in New York City in the middle of 1994 and flipped your radio dial to Z100, one of the highest-rated Top 40 stations in the country, you might hear the usual Madonna and Bon Jovi fare… and then the Offspring, Veruca Salt, or Hole. This was what made the mid-1990s in America so surreal: It wasn’t just that alternative music competed effectively with the middle of the road-- it became the road. In 1987, it was possible to make your parents uncomfortable by owning a Butthole Surfers album; in 1996, you could hear that band in drive time.
Modern Rock Tracks was now, in essence, our bastard Top 40; appropriately enough, the chart expanded to 40 positions in 1994. And the music on it was way more home-grown. The shift toward American artists was swift: From 1994 to 1996, only seven British or Irish acts, total, topped Modern Rock, and one-third of these No. 1 songs were by Bush, the most American-sounding of UK acts. Britain’s mope king, Morrissey, did manage to score his final Modern Rock No. 1 in 1994, but only by turning up the guitars. England’s “Britpop” movement came and went, with onlytwo Oasis No. 1s to show for it here, and a No. 2 for Elastica-- no major Blur hits, and no Pulp at all. (Injustice!)
Kurt Cobain, of course, largely sparked this alt-revolution. But what has gone relatively unremarked in the received wisdom on 90s rock is that, on the radio, it was the mid-decade wave of pop-punk and alt-pop bands-- not the other grunge bands-- who benefited most from Nirvana’s breakthrough. Pearl Jam scored a scant two No. 1 hits during alt-rock’s peak (“Daughter” and “Who You Are”, one week each), Soundgarden couldn’t get past No. 2, and even Stone Temple Pilots found their singles stuck behind the likes of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Meanwhile, Green Day and the Offspring broke through with No. 1s in 1994 and spent the next decade and a half as radio staples.
It should be noted that women did quite well during this period: All three of Alanis Morissette’s firstU.S.singles reached No. 1, Juliana Hatfield and Tori Amos scored one apiece, and even Liz Phair managed a Top 10 hit. This is only notable because women artists were about to experience an appalling drought on alternative radio. After Tracy Bonham’s “Mother Mother” departed the penthouse in June 1996, no solo woman would top this chart for more than 17 years; during that period, only three songs by bands with so much as a female singer (Garbage, Hole, and Evanescence) would make it to the No. 1. These stats belie the much-bandied “Lilith Era” timeline-- Sarah McLachlan’s all-female tour wouldn’t kick off until 1997, but by that point the bro-ification of alternative radio was well underway.
Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1: “Scar Tissue” (1999, 16 weeks)
What had made the mid-90s remarkable was how alt-rock redefined what pop music could sound like. By the late 90s, pop struck back-- not just on Top 40 radio, which went scurrying away from alternative toward the loving embrace of teen-pop, but even on rock radio, where so-called alt-rock bands were essentially pop acts in tattooed-and-gelled drag. It was the last time bands like Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind, and Sugar Ray could call themselves “alternative” with a straight face.
This Faux-ternative period wasn’t without its pleasures; if you can resist the charms of White Town or Semisonic, you are a stronger person than I. But with the grunge explosion now more than five years in the rearview, the late 90s marked a long hangover for Modern Rock, a parade of pan-flash bands that could ride one massive radio hit to a platinum album before facing oblivion. In 1998, Marcy Playground set a then-record for longevity on the Modern Rock list with 15-week topper “Sex and Candy”; they enjoyed one short-lived Top 10 followup, and then were kissed off by radio programmers just one album later. The Verve Pipe, Harvey Danger, Eve6-- all gold or platinum-sellers, and all clogging up used-CD bins since 1999.
(The absurdities of this period, when alt-culture voraciously chewed up and spit out bands, were captured by a pair of delightful chronicles that, coincidentally, both came out in 2004 and are well worth your time: Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter’s memoir So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, and the documentary DIG! about never-was bands the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre.)
However fleeting the success of these bands, at root you could still draw tenuous connections between most of their radio hits and the post-new wave culture the Smiths and the Pixies codified. But that wouldn’t last. For hints of where alternative was headed, look to a pair of Modern Rock No. 1s that bookended the late 90s-- hits that now, with hindsight, seem ominous: Sublime’s sun-kissed “What I Got” (late 1996, 3 weeks) and Creed’s messianic “Higher” (1999, 3 weeks). Each of these relatively mellow samples of backward-ballcap rock was a Trojan Horse for the next wave to come.
1999–2002: The Mook Shall Inherit the Earth
Key Modern Rock No. 1s: 3 Doors Down, “Kryptonite” (2000, 11 weeks); Papa Roach, “Last Resort” (2000, 7 weeks); Fuel, “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” (2000–01, 12 weeks); Crazy Town, “Butterfly” (2001, 2 weeks); Staind, “It’s Been Awhile” (2001, 16 weeks); Nickelback, “How You Remind Me” (2001, 13 weeks); Linkin Park, “In the End” (2001, 5 weeks); Puddle of Mudd, “Blurry” (2002, 9 weeks)
Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1s: “Otherside” (2000, 13 weeks); “Californication” (2000, 1 week); “By the Way” (2002, 14 weeks)
Possibly the most loathed period for music of the last half-century, the rap-rock years-- when looked through the prism of the Modern Rock chart’s evolution-- are a logical endpoint to a decade when alt-culture steadily de-wussified itself. Fans of Kurt Cobain have long asserted that he doesn’t deserve blame for the bands that kept his aggression while discarding his sensitivity, but the fact is, just as grunge gave rock radio a handy way to reassert its rebel cred in 1991, so too did Angry White Boy rock give its fans license to break with the past. Or maybe just break Stuff.
This mini-era will forever be synonymous with the dreaded Limp Bizkit, but that’s not entirely fair. (Just mostly fair, because after Woodstock '99, who doesn’t want to blame Fred Durst for things?) The Limpsters scored one lone Modern Rock chart-topper, December 1999’s “Re-Arranged”, which was actually one of the less belligerent rock hits of the period. Their peers in aggro bro-itude, Korn, had an even more modest chart presence-- a handful of Top 10 hits, none peaking higher than 1999’s “Freak on a Leash” (No. 6) or 2002’s “Here to Stay” (No. 4).
So if Korn and Limp weren’t actually omnipresent on the radio at the turn of the century, why did it seem like they were? Because every other band on alt-rock radio was copping bits of their style: Papa Roach and Staind, the self-righteous self-pity; Fuel and Puddle of Mudd, the amelodic grunting; Crazy Town, the paper-thin hip-hop signifiers. (Durst himself actually mentored both Staind and PoM.) Of the lot, L.A.'s Linkin Park distinguished itself by fusing some modest techno flourishes with the self-flagellating lyrics and crunch of rap-rock to emerge with an actual career once the fad passed.
If we can be grateful to rap-rock for anything, it’s that it led to its own corrective, in the form of the garage-rock revival of the early 2000s. Unfortunately, as the nascent blog era’s first major hype, nu-garage proved to be more chatter-generator than radio presence, although the “The” bands did make dents on the Modern Rock chart. The Strokes’ “Last Nite” reached No. 5; the Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” made No. 6; the Vines’ “Get Free” hit No. 7; and the White Stripes, the fad’s most enduring band, only reached No. 12 with “Fell in Love with a Girl”. Jack and Meg would do better (and become more interesting) in the mid-aughts.
2003–2008: The Oligopoly
Key Modern Rock No. 1s: Foo Fighters, “All My Life” (2002–03, 10 weeks); Linkin Park, “Numb” (2003–04, 12 weeks); Incubus, “Megalomaniac” (2004, 6 weeks); Green Day, “American Idiot” (2004, 6 weeks); Foo Fighters, “Best of You” (2005, 7 weeks); Incubus, “Anna Molly” (2006–07, 5 weeks); Linkin Park, “What I’ve Done” (2007, 16 weeks); Foo Fighters, “The Pretender” (2007, 18 weeks); Incubus, “Love Hurts” (2008–09, 3 weeks)
Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1s: “Can’t Stop” (2003, 3 weeks); “Dani California” (2006, 14 weeks); “Tell Me Baby” (2006, 4 weeks); “Snow (Hey Oh)” (2007, 5 weeks)
If I had to pick an absolute nadir for alternative rock as a format, it wouldn’t be the maligned rap-rock years, which for all their obnoxiousness at least offered a goofy sense of misplaced conviction. No, it would be the mid-aughts-- alt-rock’s very own Corporate Rock era. Actually, that analogy is an insult to late-70s rock, because even the age of Styx, Boston, and Journey offered more sonic variety. Dave Grohl is a nice guy, but I’m not sure he’s written anything as enduring as “More Than a Feeling” yet.
Blame the explosion of the iPod and iTunes, which hollowed-out listenership among young men, the very consumers who fled record stores first. Rock radio programmers scrambled to retain the dudes who weren’t permanently attached to white earbuds and could still be counted on to tune in. The result: a Modern Rock penthouse with a lock that, seemingly, only five American bands had the keys for: Foo Fighters, Green Day, Linkin Park, Incubus, and, yes, the Chili Peppers. During the six-year period from 2003 through 2008, this five-band oligopoly controlled the No. 1 spot 152 out of 313 weeks-- a preposterous 49% of the time.
It was the era of the known quantity: Any act providing the right mix of familiarity and “edge” would be rewarded with permanent residence, and dominant songs would lodge at No. 1, or in the Top 10, for months on end. Nine Inch Nails and Weezer, two bands with respected 90s legacies, actually had their biggest Modern Rock successes in this period, with some of their least challenging music-- three No. 1s for Weezer from 2005 to 2008 (including such fan-dividers as “Beverly Hills” and “Pork and Beans”), and four straight for NIN from 2005 to 2007 (including “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”-- you can say that again, Trent).
Relief came only occasionally, from rock’s most palatable, blog-friendly fringes. Jimmy Eat World’s two No. 1s, “The Middle” (2002, 4 weeks) and “Pain” (2004, 1 week), planted a flag for emo before Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco took the movement deeper into pop. Jack White survived the garage fad to become an actual rock star, scoring No. 1s with both the White Stripes (2003’s “Seven Nation Army” and 2007’s “Icky Thump”, 3 weeks each) and the Raconteurs (2006’s “Steady As She Goes”, 1 week). Modest Mouse’s post-indie chart-topper “Float On” (2004, 1 week) still looks like a fluke a decade later, albeit a happy one. And My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” (2006, 7 weeks) offered a welcome infusion of pomp and style the chart sorely needed.
2009–2013: The Return of the New Wave
Key Alternative Songs No. 1s: Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (2009, 3 weeks); Muse, “Uprising” (2009–10, 17 weeks); Phoenix, “1901” (2010, 2 weeks); the Black Keys, “Tighten Up” (2010–11, 10 weeks); Cage the Elephant, “Shake Me Down” (2011, 6 weeks); Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks” (2011, 5 weeks); Gotye featuring Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used to Know” (2012, 12 weeks); fun., “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” (2012, 2 weeks and 3 weeks, respectively); Alex Clare, “Too Close” (2012, 4 weeks); the Neighbourhood, “Sweater Weather” (2013, 11 weeks); Lorde, “Royals” (2013, 4 weeks to date)
Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1: “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” (2011, 4 weeks)
When the history of alt-rock is written, maybe Phoenix’s “1901” should be accorded as much respect as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Though it’s not as great a song, in terms of culture shifts, all Nirvana did at the turn of the 90s was move alternative radio away from some pretty cool British bands toward a bunch of American ones. Phoenix, at the turn of the 2010s, arguably helped save alt-rock radio from itself.
Phoenix’s slow-breaking hit-- it was released in February 2009 but reached No. 1 a full year later-- had the hallmarks of a driving guitar jam. But it was also the new-waviest and, bluntly, girliest song to top the chart Billboard now called Alternative Songs in quite some time. True, Coldplay had already cracked alt-rock’s façade with their florid, poppy “Viva la Vida”, which reached No. 1 two summers earlier (2008, 2 weeks). But Coldplay were by then radio superstars being grandfathered in, and they didn’t do much to shift the chart’s direction. Phoenix were new, an acclaimed indie band (on mega-independent Glassnote Records), and they were French, for crying out loud.
Alternative Songs didn’t change overnight after Phoenix went to No. 1-- plenty of turgid rawk continued to command the list. But the tempo and tone of the songs making the upper reaches began to evolve in an indier, even poppier direction. And some new chart-toppers, like Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man”, were probably better suited to a hoedown than the radio.
By 2011, however, the Alternative chart began doing something it hadn’t done since the 90s: break new acts at Top 40 radio. Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” was the year’s top Alternative hit and a Top Three hit on the Hot 100. In 2012, for the first time ever, Billboard’s No. 1 Hot 100 song of the year and top Alternative song of the year were the same: Gotye’s airy, lovelorn ballad “Somebody That I Used to Know”-- the kind of ornate, mopey record alt-rock radio would have played to death in its late-80s, pre-Nirvana salad days. Back then, only a few Modern Rock hits were shared with Top 40 radio. Now, the Gotye song fit on both ends of the dial, along with fun.’s “Some Nights”, and Alex Clare’s “Too Close”, and Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound”.
The ultimate sign that the Alternative chart has come full circle to the early days of Modern Rock Tracks? A woman is finally No. 1. In August, Lorde’s “Royals” became the first chart-topper by a solo female artist since Tracy Bonham in 1996. It’s still No. 1 this week, appropriately enough, on the 25th anniversary of a chart that launched with Siouxsie Sioux’s record in the top slot. But is “Royals” a great moment for women, or a great moment for an “alternative” culture that long, long ago became middle-of-the-road? Does it even guarantee we won’t have to hear another phoned-in Red Hot Chili Peppers song during drive time? Nah-- but if it means commercial alt-rock radio, or this chart, can resume its place as our bastard Top 40, we'll take it.
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 stars 41-year-old Alex Kapranos, leader of Franz Ferdinand, whose fourth album, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, is out now. Listen along to Kapranos' picks with this Spotify playlist.
My dad used to play in beat groups in the 60s, so I was very privileged at a young age because I knew that music was something that human beings made, rather than something that just came out of the speaker in the corner of the room. It’s not magic, and there’s no great mystery behind it. I would hit the guitar strings, trying to make a sound while my dad held down the chords-- quite an important moment. I knew that the people who make music are just a bunch of human beings getting together with instruments. It was always in my head that I could make music.
My parents had one of those big wooden cabinets with a record player and radio built into it-- they were given it as a wedding present-- and I remember listening to the Beatles' 1962-1966 singles compilation, the Red Album. Pop music, rock music, whatever you want to call it-- it’s never been topped by those singles. They’re absolutely perfect. I've chosen the Red Album over the Blue Album (1967-1970 singles compilation) because even though I love the two different bands they represent-- the mop-tops and the guys peering through the long hair and round spectacles-- when I was five, I loved the guys with the mop-tops.
When you’re around this age, you understand music in a very pure way. You dance to it, you enjoy it, you want to sing along with it. You don’t know what bloody microphones were used, or who John Lennon is and what his politics are. It's all pop. My mother is English and my father is Greek, but I also didn’t see them as being culturally different until I hit my teens. When you’re five, you don’t question the fact that you can’t speak the same language as your grandmother-- that’s just the way it is.
After living in Sunderland, England, we moved to Scotland, where my teacher criticized me because of my English accent; I felt like an outsider because I had an Geordie accent in an Edinburgh classroom. Over the years, I came to understand the centuries of resentment that still existed in a nation that lost a war to its neighbors. There’s no desire for bloodshed, and the resentment is only located within portions of the population, but it’s definitely there.
The album that I adored at that time was Madness' Absolutely. It's the best kids' music ever. There's the vividness and energy, and the fact that they were this incredible gang that had their own way of dressing was very powerful. They felt a little bit dangerous as well. It’s not until you’re 10 that you start listening to music that your parents don’t necessarily agree with. I remember having huge fights with my mother about wearing a pair of Dr. Martens, because that’s what bad boys wore. I was like, “But I want to be a bad boy!” I didn’t want to be the soft kid-- I wanted to be the troublemaker! I didn’t really like fighting, though. I was just cheeky to my teachers. If I thought a teacher was talking shite I would say so, which would always get me into trouble. I wasn’t scared of opening up my gob.
Madness' songs contained great cultural observations of Britain. There were riots in the UK around that time, and a lot of immigrants were persecuted. I remember school desks with "NF" scrawled into them, which stood for the National Front. It was ugly. Even though I blended in because I was European, I knew I was still scrutinized because of my Greek background. What was cool about bands like Madness and the Specials was that they took influences from Jamaica and London and melded them all together. It was a great moment in British cultural history, and it yielded some pretty fucking good tunes that you can jump up and down on the sofa to when you're 10 years old. If a Madness song from that time period comes on now, it still puts me in a good mood.
My friend Andrew Conway and I used to walk to school together, talking about music and going to each others’ houses to play. He got me into Fleetwood Mac, who were hugely unfashionable at the time. It’s weird seeing how they've become this hipster band now. I have a right smile inside when I think back on how hated they were by our contemporaries at school, which is probably why we were so drawn to them. I’ve always been a little bit contrarian.
We were especially into Then Play On, which is earlier Fleetwood Mac, and I loved Peter Green’s voice. All the blues covers were fine, but the songs that he wrote were amazing. I loved “Oh Well” because it was powerful and direct but it didn’t sound like a regular song. It was just this huge long riff. I was like, “It’s not pop music, it’s not rock music-- where does this come from?” I loved how inventive it was. The lyrics fit with the alienation I felt at 15, too: "I can’t help what shape I’m in/ Can't sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin.” That was me at 15. I was wishing that my voice would break so I could sing like Peter Green. [laughs]
“Oh Well” was the first song Andrew and I ever recorded. Andrew had a little Tascam cassette four-track recorder and we did a very wonky version, just the two of us. From that point onwards for a couple of years, we used to go to his room and make a racket. I owe so much to his parents-- they would bring us juice while we were making this bloody awful noise. We probably made about 15 albums worth of material around that time, but we didn’t want to play our music for other people-- it was just for us.
I wanted to study philosophy at Glasgow University, but I didn’t get in because I failed higher maths. So I found myself studying divinity at the University of Aberdeen. I found the subject fascinating and I still do, though I’m not a religious person myself. But even if you’ve rejected God, there’s still a lot you can learn from religion, and you can’t deny the spiritual urges you have within you. But I dropped out after a year because a lot of my fellow students were called to the Presbyterian Ministry in later life, so I had absolutely nothing in common with them.
Around this time, I started getting involved in the DIY punk scene in Glasgow. I was hanging around the 13th Note, where all these bands that went on to become successful played: Mogwai played their first gig in that club, and Stuart Murdoch played some Belle and Sebastian songs for the first time there, too. Another close friend from that time, RM Hubbert, whose album I just produced, introduced me to a lot of different music-- SST and West Coast punk especially-- that had a huge impact on me. The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime made me think about playing the guitar in a totally different way. They made it clear that being in a band could be about something other than being a rock star. Even though their lyrics talked about a life that was unfamiliar to me, the candor in which they talked about it was very recognizable.
Here Come the Warm Jets opened up a lot of ideas for us, because suddenly it wasn’t just about punk rock anymore. That music comes from an era of prog-rock excess, and it possesses the same sonic adventurousness that prog bands were aiming for, but Here Come the Warm Jets is raw. When Eno’s playing the guitar, it sounds like he's playing it with a scrubbing brush.
I also loved how creatively agile Brian Eno was. The way that he would jump from something that feels like a 50s pop song with this wry lyric observing these women who’ve “left their hot points to rust in their kitchenettes.” For somebody who rejected lyrics, he was an amazing lyricist. When I was listening to this record a lot, it was at the tail end of Britpop, and it felt like we'd be surrounded by retrogressive music that looked to the 60s for years. Weirdly, I had to go back to the 70s to find something that was forward-looking. The sound of Here Come the Warm Jets sounded a lot more contemporary than the music that was actually being made in the 90s.
[Franz Ferdinand bassist Bob Hardy] and I worked in a kitchen-- he was a porter, washing the dishes, and I was a dessert chef. I was always waiting for the last couple to finish their meal, and he was waiting for their plates, so we’d be stuck together. We had these great discussions about what music we'd make if we were to form a hypothetical band: what our principles would be, what we'd do stage, what we would want to sing about.
Of course, we played each other the music that we loved, and the record that had the greatest impact on me was Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Bob’s always had a great love for American indie-- he introduced me to a lot of stuff that I probably wouldn’t have been drawn to myself-- and I loved the raw emotion of Jeff Mangum's vocals on that album, along with the acoustic guitars that sound like they’re being ripped through the speakers. Usually, when an acoustic guitar is recorded, the producer or engineer gives it that repellant, sparkly, saccharine sound, but the guitars on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea sound as dirty as the first Buzzcocks EP. I played "Two-Headed Boy" to somebody I was with recently who'd never heard the song before, and she started crying when she heard it. It's an emotionally brutal record.
I didn’t want to choose a record that I was on, but all the records I’ve chosen reflect how I relate to the people around me at the time. That was the first time I had gone into a studio to produce something without actually making any of the music myself, and it was such an enjoyable experience. I became really close to the Jarman brothers, and they’re still really good friends. I love the closeness of that family, the contrary creativity they possess. For me, that band represents the best of what happened in Britain around that time: There was an evolution of music and a certain type of guitar band that came to the fore. Some of that type of music was great, some not so great. But the Cribs were great. Particularly at that moment, they were a very vibrant, exciting band to be around.
The most striking piece of music I've heard recently was a performance of The Rite of Spring at London's Royal Festival Hall. It’s the most moving performance I’ve ever been to.
I went back to Greece in January with my dad for my grandmother's funeral. I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, and I really noticed how much the country is suffering. It’s in a really bad way. I watched Greece change through the 70s and 80s, and noticed how the differences between Athens and the UK slowly disappeared. But when I went back this time, it felt very different again, like it was another place.
I'm extremely un-nostalgic; when I ride my bike, I never look over my shoulder, because if I do, I’ll fall off. That’s exactly how I feel about being in my band. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience of making music with these three guys and I’m still thoroughly enjoying it. If I look over my shoulder too much, I’m gonna fall off. I have no intention of doing so.
The first thing you notice are the headbands. On this Wednesday evening in early June, MGMT are headlining Artpark Amphitheater in the sleepy town of Lewiston, New York, near Niagara Falls. The psych-pop act's self-titled third album has yet to be officially announced at the time of the show, but they still sell out the 10,000-capacity venue and, by the end of the night, roughly 1,000 hopeful attendees will be turned away. Despite the presence of a few stray parents, twentysomething nerds, and lonely guys with ponytails, the crowd is young enough to make even a college freshman question their own mortality. The throng of teens gab and hop while sporting neon sunglasses, half-shirts, full-body catsuits-- and headbands. More headbands than I ever thought I'd see in one place.
These kids are emulating the shaman-chic look MGMT spearheaded with their 2007 major-label debut album, Oracular Spectacular. It's a dippy, acid-burned image that founding members Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have spent many of the last half dozen years trying to shake, delving further and further into a heady-- yet hardly commercial-- musical abyss in the process. For this tour, they've notably stricken their biggest hit to date, Oracular's platinum-selling "Kids", from the setlist-- a move that one underaged concertgoer tells me she's "very upset about," before asking if I could buy her some beers. She's not alone. As I speak to others in the audience, it becomes clear what they're here to hear, and it's not the new stuff. A group of high schoolers admit that they don't even know Congratulations, MGMT's polarizing second album from 2010, even exists.
The band is aware of these expectations, nearly to a fault. "There are still people who secretly hope that we’re going to come out with an album of songs that sound like 'Kids,'" laments Goldwasser, in a tone that suggests the past isn't worth revisiting. VanWyngarden is more diplomatic on the subject. Kind of. "With pretty much every song on this new album, we were like, 'This time we’re gonna write a pop song,'" he explains. "But at this point in our careers, we can’t write a pop song." There's no trace of remorse in his voice. "If we tried, we’d either get bummed out, or we'd change it enough until it was something that we actually liked."
This artist-audience stalemate plays out in real time during the duo's final recording session for the new album, back in March. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden are holed up in Tarbox Road Studios, the upstate New York recording hub owned by Oracular producer Dave Fridmann, who's also known for his work with bong-friendly elites including the Flaming Lips and Tame Impala. After a year's worth of improvisational studio sessions, the 10-track album is, quite literally, 90% done-- the duo are here to record one more song.
Goldwasser's wiry hair, glasses, and grey sweater make him look ready to crunch numbers at a tech startup; VanWyngarden is a bit more dressed for the zoned-out frontman part, donning a tattered Star Trek shirt and a knit cap with a puffin on it. Even beyond their get-ups, they're complementary opposites: Goldwasser's the analytical one, while VanWyngarden's spirit roams free. "Whenever I look over Ben's shoulder, he's always looking at some math equation or something," says touring bassist Matthew Asti. "They get into tiffs because they're so different."
The two make their way to the control room with Fridmann, who triggers a harsh techno pulse while VanWyngarden noodles around on a keyboard. When Goldwasser makes a quick exit, his bandmate jokes, "It seems like we've driven Ben out of the room once again." He's quick to return, though, and starts performing surgery on some gear while Fridmann and VanWyngarden toy around with the heavy techno framework for a while more. A little less than an hour later, Goldwasser decides it's time to speak up.
"At the risk of being a person who doesn't appreciate crazy synth noises," he starts, before suggesting that focusing on the blaring beat might not be the best way to go about writing a proper song. The mood turns tense. VanWyngarden's face looks confused, slightly wounded. "I don't want to add stuff that just makes it sound more like techno music," Goldwasser says, claiming that he'd rather "jam on a guitar" and focus "less on sound design and more on playing something." Then Goldwasser disappears again.
When he's gone, VanWyngarden turns to the console and blasts the techno track again, proceeding to add more textures and effects with a smile on his face. Goldwasser returns with an electric guitar-- "the only one we brought with us"-- and starts fiddling around on it. Then VanWyngarden retreats to the other end of the couch, throws on some headphones, and opens his laptop. I soon hear him excessively chuckling to himself as Goldwasser zeroes in on the guitar-- he's watching surfing videos on YouTube.
Later that night, though, MGMT start to laugh together. "They were struggling for hours, and then suddenly they were both giggling, so I started marking down those moments," Fridmann recalls a few months later. "Once they’re both laughing at the same time, they’re there."
The resulting track, "Astro-Mancy", is an insular collage of downcast vocals and orbiting sonic detritus-- including VanWyngarden's cherished techno thump, chopped up and submerged deep in the mix. Like most of MGMT, it's a million miles from anything resembling a straightforward song, nevermind a hit. It's mysterious, meandering, mesmerizing. And it's exactly what they wanted to create. The same goes for the rest of the album, a cornucopia of offbeat plinks and plunks, a mind-expanding deconstruction of what a pop song can be. There are twisted childrens' sing-alongs, molten sea chanteys, chewed-up space ballads, and one song called "Cool Song No. 2".
Under a certain shadow, MGMT's intangibility suggests a slippery seriousness. Goldwasser says the whole album is about "accepting that the world is totally messed up, and the apocalypse is going to happen whether we want it to or not, and finding something beautiful to live for." But there are those giggly epiphanies, too. The sight-gag-filled video for first single "Your Life Is a Lie"-- with its talking dolphins, Whac-A-Mole, and murdered teddy bears-- is delightfully and shamelessly nutty. "Very few people put themselves on the line and say, 'OK, we’ve done something ridiculous, let’s roll with it,'" says Fridmann of the pair, admiringly.
This freewheeling attitude sounds ideal in the abstract, but in reality, MGMT's current strain of idiosyncratic music doesn't seem to stand much of a chance with the "Kids" kids. Their exploratory, constantly shifting brand of psych is meant for more adventurous music listeners-- a subset that has largely and somewhat unfairly written them off as, in VanWyngarden's words, "druggy, retarded, partying hipsters."
As a certifiably strange band on a major-label roster, MGMT could be seen as spiritual kin to the Flaming Lips. Talking about that band's latest Fridmann-helmed experimental assault, The Terror, Goldwasser says, with a mix of admiration and envy, "It’s nice that they’re able to do whatever they want at this point in their career and not get a lot of shit for it."
He also cites a less obvious influence: Canadian prog titans Rush, who he and VanWyngarden saw in concert last fall after watching a documentary on the band. "They made some embarrassing choices, but they never really cared," Goldwasser says. "They considered it a fluke that they were popular. They were just really into the music they were making, and they were always trying to push the envelope." He goes on to state similar aspirations: "We consider ourselves lucky that we're successful doing what we like doing. At this point, though, we’re not scared of losing anything. It was a fluke that these goofy songs we wrote in college were hits. We never considered the possibility that people would like them."
When it comes to expectations for their own success, MGMT have long operated under a low ceiling. The version of the band that existed while Goldwasser and VanWyngarden attended Connecticut liberal arts enclave Wesleyan in the early 2000s was not exactly a serious concern: The "concert" that led to independent label Cantora releasing their roughshod Time to Pretend EP consisted of the group and several friends sitting on stage in a circle, chopping open a particularly stinky durian fruit and passing it around.
A tour opening for fellow onstage button-pushers of Montreal followed in 2006, a noble achievement for a band with merely a handful of songs and a predilection for taping down individual keyboard notes to produce endless drones live. "It was basically karaoke-- they'd have an iPod plugged directly into the PA," touring drummer Will Berman remembers. "At one point, they had a guitar on stage, but it was hanging from a noose." A second leg of the tour involved ponchos and on-the-spot lyrics to songs that, according to VanWyngarden, sounded like a "combination of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Temple of the Dog. It was almost like we were trying to sabotage ourselves." (The tracks were eventually scrapped.)
The tour ended, and MGMT eventually ceased to exist. Goldwasser moved back home with his parents in upstate New York, while VanWyngarden considered joining of Montreal as a guitarist, going as far as to take promo photos with the band and agree on a full-time salary. He eventually turned the offer down and, against all odds, Columbia came calling on the strength of the Time to Pretend EP. It wasn't an easy yes, though, and MGMT as we know it may not exist if it weren't for some prescient fatherly advice. "Both of our dads were telling us, 'You’d be silly not to take this opportunity,'" VanWyngarden admits. "So we said, 'Here we go, let's see what happens.'"
A potent combo of healthy buzz, zeitgeist-capturing YouTube videos, and (most importantly) a few of the best psych-pop singles of the past decade made Oracular Spectacular a slow-building smash that went on to sell nearly 900,000 copies. The record was also a game-changer for Columbia, who used its success as a blueprint for expanding their stable to include other accessibly offbeat acts such as Cults, Passion Pit, and Chairlift. "MGMT built a bridge for a lot of groups to pass over," says Columbia chairman Rob Stringer. "They were one of the first in this new generation of bands to break the mold."
Things were moving fast, and VanWyngarden and Goldwasser struggled to keep up. "We had to be very gentle with them, because up to that point the band wasn't something they'd put any thought to," Stringer says. "They had to figure it all out." Producer Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember, who manned the boards during Congratulations, is slightly more blunt about the band's rapid ascent: "It was a case of 'be careful what you wish for,' only I don't think they ever wished for this."
A warning sign that the duo may be in over their heads involved a SPIN story from October 2008, which detailed a particularly tipsy night for VanWyngarden that began with a DJ set at a New York Fashion Week party and ended with the singer waking up on a stranger's couch after being thrown out of a homeless shelter.
"I have no regrets about that," VanWyngarden says now, matter-of-factly. "It was my own type of protest against having to DJ this awful rooftop party." He's sitting in the guest house behind his in-construction, two-story home near the beach in Far Rockaway, Queens. A crude drawing of what looks like a deformed version of Garfield hangs above the couch.
Despite VanWyngarden's now-pragmatic attitude about the incident, the article as a whole, which zeroed in on backstage debauchery and rumors of romantic entanglements with actress Kirsten Dunst, left MGMT feeling stung. "I didn't ever want the band to represent a debaucherous lifestyle," Goldwasser says. "That was the angle a lot of people used to describe us, and I hated it."
After touring behind Oracular Spectacular, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser decamped to a Malibu studio at the top of 2009 to work on Congratulations as a full band. "We would do a hundred takes of one keyboard part-- it got stressful," VanWyngarden says. "We were putting pressure on ourselves to get it done quickly, which stifled the creative juices a bit."
It wasn't all hair-pulling, though; while out on the West Coast, VanWyngarden learned how to surf (hence his current near-beachfront residence), and according to Black Bananas frontwoman and Congratulations contributing vocalist Jennifer Herrema, there were a few mushroom-tripping sessions, too. "It was super chill," says Herrema, whose seminal former act, 1990s scum-rock heroes Royal Trux, were a formidable influence on Goldwasser and VanWyngarden during their college days.
Herrema was drawn to MGMT after seeing the "Time to Pretend" video and still keeps in touch with them, recounting a recent hang session where a hallucinogen-fried Goldwasser marveled at the "psychedelic" qualities of maple syrup during a Monte Cristo-filled late-night diner run. "Their music is very different from the norm," she says. "If you have any kind of intuition, you know that what they're doing isn't bullshit."
Indeed, Congratulations cemented MGMT's reputation as musicians' musicians, a band unafraid to explore new territory when faced with the less risky option of sticking with a winning formula. A knotty left-turn of an album that has only grown more fascinating with time, it earned the band some well-reputed fans, from Animal Collective's Panda Bear to Deerhunter's Bradford Cox to Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter, who referred to it as his favorite album of 2010.
Non-musicians, however, weren't as besotted. Upon its release, Congratulations was met with mixed reviews and has sold 220,000 copies-- about 75% less than its predecessor. Even MGMT themselves played a role in feeding the sophomore-slump doomsday machine: in the fall of 2010, VanWyngarden told UK rag The Daily Record that Columbia would be "more involved" and "not give us as much freedom" with their third album. Goldwasser now claims the quotes were meant in jest, and that the duo's sarcasm didn't translate. "No one ever told us how to do press until recently," adds VanWyngarden. "We learned a big lesson."
Over the course of reporting this piece, that lesson became clear: Keep your head down and watch what you say. "They hate reporters," Fridmann tells me. "They're cloistered guys, and they don't let anyone close to them that they don't feel comfortable around." This becomes apparent backstage a few hours before the band's sold-out headlining gig at New Jersey's Wellmont Theater in June, when guitarist James Richardson lets out a harmless fart joke. I don't think twice about the casual small talk, but VanWyngarden sighs deeply. "Do you really want to be talking about farts in this article he's writing?" he says, gesturing in my direction. Richardson withers and immediately asks that his comments be stricken from the record; I push back, citing the ridiculousness of it all. Richardson withers again, and we move on.
Their growing level of suspicion is amusing, frustrating, and understandable, all at once; touring is a draining act, and it can make for heated tempers and bad attitudes. Plus, MGMT have earned an unfortunate reputation as a sub-par live act, so sensitivity abounds. "We wanted to carry on our ridiculous prankster vibe, but we also needed to play actual songs," VanWyngarden says, thinking back to the group's earliest misadventures in live performance. "We tried to take inspiration from the Grateful Dead by improvising over the songs," adds Goldwasser, who describes the band's Oracular Spectacular-era shows as "trial by fire-- some of the early live reviews said that we couldn't even play our own songs."
Five years later, MGMT are stronger, more confident, and much easier on the ears live. The songs actually sound like songs, as even the new album's most complex moments ring through with a muscular clarity. "We've started to build a real fanbase of people who are into the whole body of what we're doing," Goldwasser claims, citing recent performances at colleges. "It's not just a drunken party crowd that wants to get fucked up and have a good time.
Based on the couple of gigs I attend, though, this audience analysis is wishful thinking: The Wellmont crowd is about as young-- though, admittedly, slightly less intoxicated-- than the headbanded upstate New York crowd. If VanWyngarden and Goldwasser continue following their most willfully weird tendencies, their greatest challenge ahead could be retaining an audience whose enthusiasm is most strongly connected to a version of the band that no longer exists. (MGMT have a two-album option left in their deal with Columbia, and label chairman Stringer says that, regardless of MGMT's pending sales performance, there's no plans to release the band from their contract early.)
Backstage at the Wellmont, VanWyngarden and a few band members flip through the venue's guest log while Goldwasser is onstage testing sound levels. After tittering at some of the more famous entries-- St. Vincent and David Byrne, Trent Reznor's How to Destroy Angels project-- they start tossing around ideas as to what to draw for MGMT's contribution. Among the suggestions: a cedar-plank salmon, some kale, "a guy who sort of looks like a frog," a dead mouse, an ant approaching the salmon "to provide a story arc." Wielding the pen, VanWyngarden settles on a plate of sunny-side-up eggs, hash browns, and bacon, with a dead mouse sitting on the edge, as garnish.
He continues working on the drawing right up to, and then after, the band's soundcheck. The page grows more cluttered with incongruous objects-- the frog-man hybrid, a squirrel huffing glue, confetti, a champagne glass, a car with "MGMT" emblazoned on the license plate. He stops briefly, widening his eyes as he surveys his work, and mentions to no one in particular that he's "kind of freaking myself out with this one."
Richardson enters the room, exposing a silver dollar-sized hole in his underwear as he leans over to check out VanWyngarden's drawing. "I think you need to start over," he says, with facetious concern. "Yeah," VanWyngarden replies, his voice trailing off. "It's gotten a little out of control." Then he keeps at it anyway.
Body/Head, the name Kim Gordon and Bill Nace chose for their duo, suggests a separation between mental and physical. “Maybe you could say we are the head and the music is the body,” says Gordon with a laugh. “But it sounds corny when you get literal about it.”
Still, there are lots of dichotomies going on with these two. For one, there’s a literal split between the pair’s guitars: On their debut album Coming Apart, Gordon and Nace’s respective playing is panned so you can only hear one in each stereo channel. Then there’s the schism between those guitars and Gordon’s singing, which sometimes gets buried in the mix as if it’s an instrument, and at other times seems to direct the duo like a conductor.
Body/Head also represents a break from the sound of the band Gordon sang and played bass with for 30 years, Sonic Youth. While Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have since made records close to Sonic Youth territory, Coming Apart is more of a departure. She only plays guitar on the album, and the music is more improvisational and abstract than all but the noisiest Sonic Youth work. But if you’re familiar with any of Gordon’s other myriad pursuits, it should be no surprise that she’s already onto something different. Nor should it shock how well her playing meshes with that of Nace, who’s collaborated with a plethora of great improvisers over the past decade, as well as playing in the groups X.O.4 and Vampire Belt.
Part of the bond between Gordon and Nace comes from a mutual love of cinema. That’s clear in their live show, which is often accompanied by projections from movies by directors like Catherine Breillat. But they’re not film snobs-- when I spoke to them on the phone recently, they had just come out of an afternoon showing of We’re The Millers.
Pitchfork: How did you come up with the name Body/Head?
Kim Gordon: It came out of reading this book about the films of Catherine Breillat, and a lot of issues about sex and control and relationships.
Bill Nace: Not between us. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Are you concerned about expectations of fans of your previous work?
BN: I think that’s more of an interesting question for Kim than for me. [laughs]
KG: That whole thing is just crazy-making. I can’t think about whether I’ll disappoint Sonic Youth fans. It’s not like I want people to be disappointed, but I just can’t control that.
Pitchfork: Do you two discuss music that influences you?
BN: We’re always talking about music, that’s always part of it.
KG: At the beginning we were really into watching YouTube videos of early Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett-- shows where it basically felt like they were playing noise music with people dancing to it. That was amazing to see.
Pitchfork: The songs on Coming Apart are very rhythmic considering there’s no percussion. Is that hard to do without a drummer?
KG: We played with a drummer a little, but we ultimately felt like we liked just the two guitars.
BN: It put into relief what we do as a duo. I don’t think it’s arrhythmic, like a wall of noise. It’s more a kind of pulse, and it's more interesting to have us provide that rather than a drummer.
KG: Maybe we should have a film of a drummer behind us. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Do the film projections behind you affect your playing live?
KG: I don’t really look at them while we’re playing, but having them makes me feel less nervous. The music sometimes sounds very filmic, and the films are always slowed down a lot, so if there’s a narrative, you can’t really tell what it is. With the film Coming Apart that we use a lot, it’s almost like you’re in someone’s living room for the duration of the set.
Pitchfork: Do you both tend to think visually when you’re playing?
BN: Music’s always had an image-based thing for me no matter who I’m playing with. I don’t know if images are specifically in my head, but definitely shapes and colors. I’ll think of it like, "Put a straight line here, put a squiggly line there." If I get to a really good point where I’m not thinking too much, visual and spatial stuff starts to come up.
KG: I see it like I’m playing in a film, but it’s our film.
BN: A home movie.
Pitchfork: So you’re playing along to your own biopic.
BN: Yes! [laughs] We portray ourselves very well.
Pitchfork: Has your music always been improvised?
BN: Yeah, most of it-- which means the shows won’t be reflecting what the record is exactly. Those are approached as two separate things.
Pitchfork: So the songs on Coming Apart can’t be repeated?
BN: No, we could. We just don’t want to.
KG: I don’t know if we could. [laughs] We sometimes repeat song fragments, but then go off into something new. Someone said it reminded them of a John ColtraneMeditations-style thing. There will be a theme and then it will either fall apart or turn into something else.
Pitchfork: Kim, are your lyrics improvised?
KG: Yeah, though there are a few where I had some ideas for lines beforehand, but I don’t necessarily follow them once we’re playing. One exception would be the lyrics on “Murderess”, which Bill wrote and I overdubbed after we had recorded the music.
Pitchfork: You’ve both made improvised music for a long time. Is it hard to come up with new ideas and avoid repeating yourself?
BN: Sure, but to me, it’s all about placement and who you’re playing with. You could have one thing that you think you rely on too much, but with someone else it becomes fresh.
Pitchfork: For improvised music, Coming Apart sounds pretty structured.
KG: There are a few songs where I’m really surprised how well they worked dynamically, especially the long songs near the end. I’m generally not in favor of long songs, but those seem to go through this whole trajectory that stays interesting all the way through. “Last Mistress” and “Actress” seemed much more worked out than they actually were; they’re completely improvised with no overdubs.
Pitchfork: There is a variety song lengths on the album. How do you decide when to stop?
After starting our interview inside of a high-ceilinged cafe in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, Cameron Mesirow suggests moving to the benches outside. The very reasonable, small gesture-- it's a gorgeous August day, the sun coaxing gold from the surrounding brownstones-- is amplified, though, when taking into account the singer-songwriter's second album as Glasser, Interiors, due October 8 via True Panther. Partially inspired by her move from Los Angeles to downtown Manhattan following the release of her 2010 debut LP, Ring, the new record is marked by a heightened sense of spatial awareness that, for Mesirow, can be debilitating.
"When I was 13, I literally fell down in a public place because of anxiety," she explains. "So now, I worry that it’s going to happen again. Sometimes, if I'm in an open space, I have a panic attack and feel like I’m not going to survive, like, 'What if I can’t make it across the street?' and then, 'I’m feeling so weird right now-- what if someone notices that I’m being a total freak?' It's a vicious cycle. When I would feel uneasy and scared that I was going to fall down, I would look up at someone’s window and think about being in there. Even at camp as a kid, I'd always choose the bottom bunk. I want to be contained all the time. A dark hole is my comfort zone."
She recorded Interiors inside of a tiny, windowless studio with her partner and producer Van Rivers, best known for his work with Fever Ray. But rather than a cloistered affair, the album opens up over the course of its 12 sleek tracks, which do away with the tribal jangle of Rings in favor of more streamlined electronic sounds: Near the end of the LP, on the ticking, funky "New Year", a loose sax solo figuratively slides a window open, letting a gust of wind in.
Which brings us back to the bench outside. In a tank top and French sunglasses with circular lenses poking out from the top of the frames, Mesirow looks at ease. Her anxiety in certain spaces comes and goes. "You just have to learn to co-exist with your demons," she says.
Pitchfork: A lot of the songs on Ring dealt with dreams, and the songs on Interiors sound like they're gradually moving out into the open-- it's like your work so far represents this trail outside of your own head.
Cameron Mesirow: Totally. That’s also the arc my personality has taken over my life. My social self and private self are in conflict with one another: I'm someone who cares about making people feel at ease-- maybe because I’m someone who’s not at ease-- and then I make this music about me being uncomfortable. I am truly happy about lots of things, but everybody has this struggle, like, “What does it all mean?” I’m a little Woody Allen-ish about it.
Pitchfork: Interiors sounds a lot more professional and smooth than Ring, which had a more amateurish quality.
CM: Yeah, this one is a lot more sleek, which is important for me as a female artist. With Ring, there was a lot of “aw, she’s new,” you know? I was shocked when people referred to me as "childlike." With women, there is a tendency to want to say either “she's someone who needs to be taken care of” or “she’s a powerhouse.”
Pitchfork: Is it difficult to deal with these perceptions that come along with being a female artist while also feeling free to show vulnerability in your art?
CM: It is, actually. I’ve had lots of thoughts about how to be honest about who I am and not present a damsel in distress, because I really don’t feel that way. I feel like I have issues in my life that I’m handling, and I may not know how to handle all of them right now, but I have confidence that I will figure them out. It’s not about wanting anybody to save me.
Pitchfork: As an artist, you're unafraid to draw attention to yourself with your style, which is often seen as more of a pop trait, though it's becoming more prevalent in the indie world now.
CM: It’s funny, because people who pretend that they’re not trying to draw attention to themselves by being onstage are just kidding themselves. I was really into punk and emo in the 90s, then I was into goth and country-- I tried to get into all of these scenes. But eventually, I got bored watching shows; I don’t really go to shows at all now. I’m not entertained by watching people play with nothing else happening, unless the person is really charismatic or hamming it up. So I wouldn’t want to do a Glasser show unless it was really entertaining. I’m working on that now, actually: I want it to be more of a video or theatrical experience. In the past, I had musicians onstage, and it was like the “Glasser band,” but then I became “Cameron from Glasser,” and that was kind of inaccurate. So I’m not doing that this time. I'm not going to be alone onstage, but it’s going to be more about acting the songs out.
CM: My heroes, yeah, totally. I want colors. Things are pumped up visually on this record, and I’m working with the same artist for everything, Jonathan Turner. With Ring, there wasn’t enough information to explain Glasser aside from the music, which left a shroud of mystery. This time, I hope who I am will make more sense, rather than it being anyone’s guess, which can be dangerous.
I’ve had some really Burning Man-esque interpretations of who I am and what I’m doing. There’s been a ton of times when people wanted to see me as mini Björk or something, so I get loads of video treatments that are like, “You live in a tree house and you’ve got a phone that’s like a snail.” It’s goofy. Also Zola Jesus was really big when I did the last record, so there was a lot of, like, “You’re in a haunted house and you are floating across the floor and you see the feet dragging and your eyes roll back in your head.” I was like, “No.” But it’s not their fault, really, because I didn't make myself clear.
Pitchfork: I was struck by the directness of the songs about relationships on this album. Ring didn't really deal with that too much.
CM: I made a conscious decision not to be a person who’s just singing about love on Ring. But it’s part of my life, especially given that I’m in a relationship with Van Rivers, who made the record with me. We have our own little language with each other, and it just felt wrong not to include it. I was trying to be frank about as much as I could with this album.
Pitchfork: Is it tough being in such a close artistic and personal relationship with someone?
CM: It has its ups and downs for sure. There are certain dynamics that exist outside of the studio that can’t exist in the studio-- it’s like having two relationships. For a while, we even tried to call each other something else when we were in the studio, but that didn’t really take.
Relationships are very phantom-like and sometimes one formula of behavior works and sometimes it doesn’t; Van Rivers and I could make another record in a year and not have it work as well. For me, the record was a special portrait of a time when it worked. I hope it will work again. It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s worth the risk. It doesn’t really feel like anything’s different now that we’ve done it... but it’s not completely done, because the record hasn’t come out yet. We talked a little bit about that, like, "What if it’s trashed?" Maybe we’ll have to go on a long spelunking vacation where we can’t read the reviews.
Guest List features artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with truth-telling Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz, whose second studio album, B.O.A.T.S II: Me Time, is outnow via Def Jam.
Best Recent Purchase
I bought a Maybach 62S a few months ago, that's my biggest thing.
Worst Recent Purchase
My Maybach. That shit cost too much.
Last Thing I Watched on Netflix
I just watched something with my little girl on her iPad. I forget the name of it; it was a cartoon. She was trying to rewind it and couldn't figure out what was going on.
Strangest Display of Affection From a Fan
I've had a fan kiss me on the hand before, which was movie-like to me. But I've had some weird things happen. We posted a video online with a girl saying, "Shake that dick, boy!" It's like three white girls, they was turnt the fuck up. It was pure entertainment. No harm done.
Chicken or Shrimp?
Shrimp! Damn right. Everybody think a nigga want some chicken here. Shit. Give me some shrimp. In my new cookbook #MEALTIME, I got a recipe for shrimp scampi in there, but I think are people gonna like the seafood combination. The book has about 14 recipes to go with the songs, and they have descriptions of things you should do while cooking: take your bracelet off, put your shades on, watch "SportsCenter". It's entertainment at its finest, man.
Last year was memorable since I had just dropped my first solo album and it was doing very well on the charts. I know I stayed up for a couple of days, definitely. Rockstar lifestyle for real. I remember being in a good place and having no worries. That's the main thing.