Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo: "Join Me on My Avalanche" on SoundCloud.
"Cinematic" is a tag that Explosions in the Sky have been saddled with throughout their nearly 15-year career. The descriptor is at once fitting and ironic, since it's been nine long years since they added epic reverb (and drama) to the 2004 high-school football flick Friday Night Lights. "After that movie, everyone was telling us, 'You’re going to be turning down offers left and right,'" drummer Chris Hrasky remembers during a phone conversation in late July. "We didn't get a single offer-- no one knew what they were talking about."
The project is a bit of a homecoming for all three parties, too: Wingo's known Green since the third grade and previously scored five of his projects (and will do so again for his forthcoming Nicolas Cage-starring film Joe), while Green gave Explosions their first music-licensing credit, for 2003's All the Real Girls. "They sent me a CD and a little note saying, 'Hey, we like your movies, we’ve made some music,'” he remembers. "I fell in love with them right away."
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche; photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Prince Avalanche is a movie about tragedies-- both big and small-- that centers around strict stickler Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend's libidinous younger brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch), as they weather personal crises while working on a roadside cleanup crew following a devastating string of wildfires that ravaged the central Texas countryside. The lovingly languid film only features four speaking roles, and its most present character never says a word: Texas' Bastrop State Park, which was heavily affected by a 2011 blaze, the most destructive of its kind in the state's history. The eerie, gorgeous location served as primary inspiration for the film, which came together after a well-placed suggestion from Hrasky, who lives in Austin, just 40 minutes from the Bastrop fires.
"We were watching the Super Bowl, and Chris was telling me about how he went out there to walk his dogs, and how amazing it was," Green says. Once the director explored the park's scorched remains for himself, he was instantly struck. "It's haunting and beautiful. There’s a real magical quality to the rebirth of a park-- you start to see these little seedlings, vivid colors, emerging on the monochromatic forest floor. There’s a beauty to resilience, to rebirth."
And while Explosions in the Sky took nearly a decade between their last two film projects, fans won't have to wait that long to hear the band's music in the multiplex again: In addition to providing the score for Peter Berg's forthcoming Navy SEAL-focused film Lone Survivor, they're in talks with Green to reunite for the director's in-the-works Manglehorn, too. Read on for our phone conversation with Hrasky and Wingo, along with an in-person chat with Green, all condensed and edited below.
Pitchfork: What are some of your favorite all-time film scores?
David Gordon Green: I have so many! The first film score I loved was Superman. I was five, I had the record. It made me want to fly. Less than a week ago, I was wearing the cape that my mother made me when I saw Superman-- I was trying to get my kids to wear it, but they wouldn't, so I wore it. [laughs]
When I really got into film scores, I was very into Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder-- I could sing you every note of the 1492: Conquest of Paradise soundtrack. I liked Danny Elfman's work on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Elfman also did the soundtrack for a movie called Hot to Trot about a talking horse that was really good. Superman started it all, though.
Chris Hrasky: I was so into John Williams as a kid. My older brother turned me on to rock music later on, but film scores were what I first paid attention to. I love Cliff Martinez's score for [Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake of Solaris], and I know Wingo loves it, too.
David Wingo: Yeah, that one's up there. The first time I really thought about film music was the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack. I was 15 when it came out, I got it on cassette. It was the first time I bought a soundtrack. I still listen to Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Days of Heaven, and I'll listen to it forever.
Pitchfork: David and David, you've worked together on a few films now. What is it that makes your artistic partnership worth returning to?
DW: We communicate well, which is half the battle, because it’s hard to talk about music. The only times I haven’t gotten to work with David was when he's done bigger studio films-- I don't have the clout. [laughs] All the Real Girls is probably my favorite film of his, but I feel like Prince Avalanche is the most personal-- it completely reflects his sensibilities as a human. He made this film so quickly that it seemed like it came straight from his brain and his heart.
DGG: Wingo’s always spoken the language of music in the same way that I speak through film. We read each other’s minds because we know what we like, and we can be 100% honest with each other because we’ve got 30 years of friendship to back it up. Sometimes it's brutal honesty, sometimes it's joyous honesty. Either way, we don’t have to have any pleasantries or passive aggression. We can just cut to the chase.
Pitchfork: As Texans, working on a film so closely tied to a site of relative tragedy as Bastrop State Park must have resonated with you guys.
DGG: You can almost feel the mystical quality of what used to be there-- what used to be thriving, what used to be in bloom, the homes that were built. You just walk on these foundations and rubble and ash, and it’s all gone.
CH: We were on tour when the fire happened. When I talked to my wife, she would say, “There’s smoke in the city,” because Bastrop’s 40 miles from [Austin]. Afterwards, I went out there to go drive around and see this horrible thing-- I know that sounds crazy. It was definitely devastating. It was a very surreal situation to happen so close to Austin.
You drive through these subdivisions and see a whole neighborhood that's just completely destroyed, all these houses burned down to the foundation. There’d always be one house that the fire completely missed, though, which is so weird. Imagine if everyone you knew in your neighborhood had their house completely destroyed except your own. You'd just be standing in a weird, post-apocalyptic wasteland.
David Gordon Green on the set of Prince Avalanche; photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Pitchfork: Other than the boombox that Alvin and Lance carry around with them, you guys were basically soundtracking the silence that surrounds nature. Was that challenging?
CH: When we read the script and visited the set, it was very clear that this film was not going to require big, reverbed guitars and bombastic drums. It required a very different feel for us, which we were excited about. We’re a little tired of "our" sound ourselves, so this was a nice way to do new stuff that we hadn’t done before with a guideline to direct us, instead of pulling new ideas out of thin air.
When we’ve done film work, writing goes so much quicker because we have the emotional map in front of us-- we just have to find something to accentuate. Most of the time, when we’re writing a record, we're just sitting in a room and sighing, “What are we doing here?”
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche; photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Pitchfork: In the film, Alvin and Lance are doing menial work that some wouldn't consider all that much fun. Have you had any dismal part-time jobs?
DGG: I used to spend most of my summers laying insulation in attics-- I was a little guy so I could get up there and roll out whatever you needed. I also worked at a syringe manufacturing company, where I would seal the plastic bags around syringes. I had another job where I dumped doorknobs in acid-- they were made of chrome that had been bronzed, and if there was a flaw in the bronze, they would give them to me and I’d dunk them.
I actually think those were the best jobs, though, because they were meditative. I could get in the zone and come up with stories. Your imagination goes wild. The most difficult job I had was a clown in a children’s hospital. That was very rough emotionally, because you’re supposed to be funny in very upsetting situations. It’s pretty tough to push that smile through, even when it’s painted on your face.
The Wrens-- Charles Bissell, Kevin Whelan, Greg Whelan, and Jerry MacDonald-- in Germany on May 1, 1995; all photos courtesy of the Wrens.
The Wrens-- now three white-collar corporate guys and one stay-at-home dad from New Jersey-- might well be the exception to every rule you thought you knew about carving out a career in music. They never landed the big opening slot for a platinum act or even spent much time out on the road at all. Instead, they spent their time recording and stashing away hundreds of demos the world would never hear. While they did eventually get offered a big, seven-figure record contract-- the one that conventional wisdom says an aspiring band would be crazy not to sign-- they walked away from it. And to cap it all off, the Wrens went on to have their greatest success after refusing the offer, with an album released by a micro-indie that no longer exists, when all the band members were well into their 30s.
Really, nothing about the Wrens’ 24-year career makes sense on paper. And yet, here we are, a decade removed from their last album, 2003's The Meadowlands, and people just… keep… waiting. So as we patiently stand by for the group's new album-- which the band is currently working on, slowly but surely-- we wanted to give them an opportunity to share their bizarre, roller-coaster tale thus far. We began our journey with them in March 2012 and have been talking with them ever since, both on the phone and in person, tracking their new material and revisiting the past. Theirs is a story of recklessness, perseverance, dumb luck, and mostly, how tight personal ties can keep even the most absurd of boyhood dreams alive-- well past what anyone would have thought possible.
The Wrens at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom in 2003
The archetypal band begins as a friendship and blossoms into a creative partnership; the Wrens were born out of necessity.
It was August of 1989, and one of Kevin Whelan’s homemade demo tapes had impressed the booker for Randolph, New Jersey club Obsessions, who needed an opener for a UK new wave band called the Fixx. Whelan finally had his big break. Now all he needed was a proper band to perform the songs. And some cash.
Whelan quickly drafted in his brother Greg and phoned up a guy by the name of Charles Bissell, who he had met briefly at a house party a year and a half before. The fledgling band was expected to not only open for the Fixx, but, according to Whelan, act as the show's de-facto promoters: “They were like, ‘I need you guys to sell 1500 tickets at $15 a pop.’ I think we sold 27 tickets."
"So the week before the show, I was begging people if I could borrow money to pay this bill so I could open for this band," he continues. "Like assholes, we were thinking you play one show opening for the fucking Fixx-- who were already on the way down-- and that was going to make us famous or something.”
As it turned out, the band needn’t have worried. The Fixx cancelled, elevating the Whelans and Bissell to the top of the bill, and making the empty venue theirs and theirs alone. Their big break would have to wait.
The Wrens cycled through countless stylistic changes and as many as a dozen band names over the next two years. Whelan claims that although the band had several original songs in their sets, it was the covers of songs from groups like INXS or the Cure that always drew the most enthusiastic audience response. He recalls one particularly sad show in May 1990 when they played outdoors in a bandshell in the pouring rain for a handful of soaked concertgoers. “Mad World” by Tears for Fears was the hit of the night.
The most significant thing to happen in this two-year period was the addition of drummer Jerry MacDonald. “I called up a girlfriend from 8th grade and asked if her boyfriend wanted to be in a band," recalls Whelan. "He was going to play drums at Busch Gardens, so we saved him from playing in a costume to a bunch of tourists.”
"One time, Jerry and Charles got crazy and wrote this letter to all the VPs at all the major labels and [addressed them as] ‘Finest Anus.’ No one signed us, believe it or not."
— Kevin Whelan
Kevin Whelan and Charles Bissell at a Chicago show in 2006
Whelan claims the real creative turning point for the band came in 1991, when they decided to purchase a house together in Secaucus. Living together under one roof allowed them to more easily share music and exchange ideas. Collectively, they began to gravitate to American indie rock. “We started to listen to more music like Husker Dü, Dinosaur Jr.-- all the big stuff from the pre-grunge era,” says Whelan. “We also discovered the Pixies, and that had a huge impact on us. We couldn’t scream as cool as [Frank Black] could, but we liked that weird stop-start sound.”
While their sound had finally begun to coalesce, the band still had no clue how they were going to get a proper record released. They started to play regularly in New York City in an attempt to draw more industry attention, but the response split the difference between apathy and outright hostility. Whelan collected a fat stack of rejection letters, which, for his own amusement, he liked to use as props during the show. “We used to burn them onstage, that was our little gimmick," he says. "This one A&R guy was in the audience, and he watched us burn one and said we were the worst thing in the industry and that we were never going to make it.”
Whelan, Bissell, and MacDonald took particular enjoyment in pranking the very people in a position to sign them. Whelan was interning for Arista Records and decided it might be fun to appropriate their official letterhead for his band to fire off all manner of ill-conceived communications. “We would send letters to all the major labels with this letterhead because we thought that would get us recognized," he remembers. "We used to steal Whitney Houston’s press kits and then block out all that stuff and use the Arista cover letter and say, ‘Hi, my name is John, writing from Arista, you’ve gotta check out this band.’ One time, Jerry and Charles got crazy and wrote this letter to all the VPs at all the major labels and [addressed them as] ‘Finest Anus.’ No one signed us, believe it or not.” The band finally stopped the charade after one peeved executive tracked them down and threatened to sue.
Fortunately for Whelan, Camille Sciara had had no previous contact from him or any other member of the band when she first heard their demo in 1993. Sciara handled A&R for Grass Records, a small new label bankrolled by the head of indie distributor Dutch East India Trading and Homestead Records founder, Barry Tenenbaum. Her biggest find to that point was the Toadies, which had essentially launched the label after they were scooped up by Interscope for $25,000.
As luck would have it for the Wrens, on one particular day in ’93, the computers at Sciara's office went down. “I couldn't work, so I listened to some [demos]," she says, "and the first record I pull out was this really cool looking one-- I guess they handmade their own 7" cover.” Sciara was even more impressed by the demo itself. “The more I played it, the more people were coming into the room. Everyone was saying, ‘This is really good.’ I went up to Barry and said, ‘Put together another contract because these guys are for real.’”
Whelan couldn’t quite believe it, suspecting perhaps he himself was on the receiving end of a prank. “Here’s us faxing all these lies and craziness, and then we get this woman calling us, saying she's going to fax a contract. We’re like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ She’s like, ‘No, the first guarantee is $2,500 and the second guarantee is $5,000.’ I remember us all sitting in the kitchen [wondering], ‘Do we sign? Should we hold out for some of these big labels?’ I have a photo of the very first check we got, because it was a huge band decision.”
Compared to the interminable delays that would eventually become synonymous with the Wrens, Sciara’s wait for what would become the band's 1994 debut album Silver was practically non-existent. But to her, it still felt like an eternity. They were the fourth band signed to Grass, but the catalog number for Silver was 10 upon its actual release. One might think the lengthy period between signing and album completion meant the band was busy meticulously scrutinizing every sonic detail, but mostly it seems that the Wrens would follow a lengthy period of idleness with short, concentrated bursts of productivity. Bissell admits that the band mixed the bulk of Silver in “one 19-hour stress-- in engineering parlance, they call [that] a bad idea.”
Watch the video for Silver's "Adanoi":
Though the label was happy with the completed record, Bissell wishes he’d held onto it a while longer. “When we first got the CD, I remember Greg playing it and me lying in bed across the hallway in my room weeping bitterly listening to that thing-- mostly from a sonic standpoint.” Greg Whelan, however, takes a more pragmatic view, offering that the record “was a good representation of where we were at that time, musically. There were a lot of throwaway songs on Silver, we will admit, and some of the lyrics made no sense, but it was more [about] how it sounded than what it actually meant.”
Listening back now, he has a fair point. Silver may not hold up all the way through, but as a snapshot of a band in progress, songs like “From His Lips” and “Napiers” have a certain unfussy, amateur charm. One can hear the unmistakable influence of the Pixies, albeit none of the grander gestures that would characterize their work on The Meadowlands. Mostly, Silver stands as an above-average if largely undistinguished indie rock entry circa 1994.
Fittingly, sales weren’t exactly brisk. Though it didn’t fall well below the label’s then-modest expectations, Sciara believes it could have done better if Dutch East India’s distribution footprint hadn’t been as spotty and the advertising budget was more substantial. Still, she and others at the label were especially encouraged by the positive press in the wake of Silver’s release and expected that the band would be well-positioned for a breakthrough on the follow-up.
Kevin Whelan and Charles Bissell in 2006
One man who apparently agreed with that rosy assessment was Alan Meltzer. The enterprising, multi-millionaire founder of distribution company CD One Stop decided to purchase Grass Records in 1996, allegedly due to his belief that the Wrens were destined for stardom. Sciara recalls Meltzer giving the band around $30,000 to record what would become 1996's Secaucus. But the label changed in other ways with the influx of cash. Meltzer also beefed up the staff, hiring industry veterans to handle publicity, radio, and tour support. Joel Mark, who was the Wrens’ booker and in another Grass band called Nectarine, remembers some significant growing pains. “At that point, the label changed from being a two-person indie to an attempt at a bigger label. All these [new] people had worked at major labels and they had different ideas of what you needed to do to break a record, which might have been the way to break a mainstream pop or rock record, but an indie-leaning rock [record] like Secaucus? It was just a mess.”
Secaucus ended up being a casualty of the label’s identity crisis. While the album itself boasted much-improved songwriting and production, it was still, at its core, and indie record-- full of inside jokes (see “Indie 500”) and jaunty, ragged guitars. To bridge the gap between what the record actually was and what they hoped it could sell, the label commissioned radio mixes of the singles, but according to Kevin Whelan, the move only drove a further wedge between the Wrens and Grass. “[Meltzer] wanted to make us somebody we weren’t,” he says.
The dissonance extended to other marketing areas as well. Whelan recalls seeing their pictures plastered in Sam Goody and “all types of not-cool shit. They were trying to sell [Secaucus] off like it was some slick thing.” Joel Mark, for his part, found it increasingly difficult to book the band tour dates due to what he perceived to be unreasonable demands on the part of the label and their promotion team. “They had us try to book the band into these radio markets, but unfortunately, they weren’t [getting spins] in radio markets that had clubs where the band could play. It was really goofy. I remember them screaming at me to get them a gig in McAllen, Texas.”
Watch the video for Secaucus' "Surprise, Honeycomb":
The album performed significantly better than Silver-- Sciara remembers around 25,000 copies sold-- though it clearly was not the smashing success Meltzer had been aiming for. Oddly, the soft revenue and the band’s disagreements with the label’s overall sales strategy hadn’t seemed to dim Meltzer’s enthusiasm and belief that the Wrens could become something much bigger. He offered them a seven-figure contract early on in the album cycle and continued to press them to sign. “He wanted to make us rock stars,” says Greg Whelan. “We told him, ‘Well, we don’t think that’s going to happen. We’re not that kind of band, so you may be missing the boat.’ It was a weird time.”
It all came to a head at a tour stop in Texas. The band had continued to rebuff Meltzer’s advances, saying they would sit down and discuss the contract offer once they returned from touring. But on a call from this particular stop, Greg Whelan made the mistake of asking Meltzer if he would cover their next month’s rent. “I guess that was the tipping point. [He said, ] ‘No, you guys have to sign the contract now, or nothing more.’ And we were like, ‘Alright, nothing more then.’” The band finished up their dates and returned home without a label.
The Wrens’ departure from Grass not only represented a critical turning point for the band, but also for the label. Meltzer’s relationship with Sciara began to sour and publicity director Rey Roldan recalls Meltzer’s decision to remake the label from the ground up. “His entire goal was to clean house and totally get rid of all of Camille’s bands. We went from almost 90 bands to almost 30 in a few weeks time. And the bands he wanted Camille to start signing weren't what her ear is all about. That’s when I actually got out of the company.” Sciara was eventually one of 24 people laid off in a restructuring.
To provide the clean break from the past, Meltzer renamed the label Wind-Up Records, which would go on to sign some of the biggest-selling-- if artistically dubious-- mainstream rock acts of the late 90s and early 00s, including Creed and Evanescence.
“We said, ‘Fuck it! We’re not going to be the next cool band. We’re a bunch of old guys from Jersey.’ And once we got into that mind frame, everything seemed to work out great.”
— Greg Whelan
For most bands, that would be the end of the story, but the Wrens still held out hope for a continuance thanks to unexpected interest from yet another label. Their introduction to Interscope came through the bassist of the Toadies, who told them about Steve Ralbovsky, an A&R guy who signed Dismemberment Plan to the label in 1998. (Years later, after moving to RCA, Ralbovsky would sign a scruffy New York City band called the Strokes.)
Ralbovsky heard potential in the Wrens based on Secaucus and asked them to start demoing material. Kevin Whelan remembers being excited and eager, writing around 30 songs. “And he’s like, ‘I’m not hearing a hit-- you’ve got to write more songs.’ We were getting a little desperate.” The experience took a particular toll on Bissell, who, in one of the last demo playback sessions, brought Ralbovsky “This Boy Is Exhausted”-- a none-too-subtle hint that he was reaching the end of his tether. Greg Whelan accompanied Bissell to the playback, and though he isn’t quite sure what Ralbovsky made of the songs, he’s pretty sure they earned a new fan in Ralbovsky’s assistant.
“We’re sitting in the office cranking it out on the speakers and she kept looking at me and giving me this crazy smirk," he remembers. "Once we got out of the office, her and I were talking and she was like ‘Is that song about him?’ She immediately picked up on it.”
Shortly afterward, Ralbovsky leveled with the band and told them that he would not be taking them on at Interscope. Even all these years later, it’s clear that the memory still stings for Kevin Whelan. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m sorry guys. I love what you do and I think you guys have talent, but you just don’t write hits.’ At that point, the dream died.”
For Whelan, his brother, and MacDonald, that meant setting themselves on a path for full-time corporate jobs that could support a family. Both Whelans eventually found themselves working for the same multinational pharmaceutical manufacturer, Kevin in corporate communications and policy, and Greg in negotiations for clinical trials. MacDonald decided to pursue a career as an investment manager. Bissell opted to become a stay-at-home Dad. “He’s still freeloading to this day,” jokes Greg Whelan.
Amazingly, despite the Wrens’ fundamentally changed circumstance, no one even considered calling time on the band. Even MacDonald, who was commuting six hours a day for his job in New York City, continued to play an active role. “It wasn’t an option to leave because we are kind of the mafia-- no one is allowed to leave. The band decides if you leave. Kevin and I wrote the lyrics [for TheMeadowlands' "The House That Guilt Built"]: ‘It’s been a long time since you heard from me/ Got a wife and kids that I never see.’ But Kevin was like, ‘You’ve got to sing this because this is your story.’ It was, but it’s kind of about the Wrens as well.”
Though personally painful to both he and his brother, Greg Whelan credits the whole ordeal with Interscope with helping the band give up on the idea of having a conventional music career and freeing them to remake the Wrens on their own terms. “We said, ‘Fuck it! We’re not going to be the next cool band. We’re a bunch of old guys from Jersey. We’ll just put out records on our own time and if people like it, they like it.’ Once we got into that mind frame where we just didn’t care anymore, everything seemed to work out great. We still have that attitude today.”
Alternate The Meadowlands artwork
Across the country in San Francisco, the band’s longtime friend and fan, Cory Brown, was patiently waiting. He had made it clear to the Wrens that he would be interested in putting out their next record, whenever it was ready. Brown first discovered the band in the mid-90s as a buyer at a record store near UCLA called Penny Lane. Attracted by the “4AD-knockoff” cover art, he purchased a copy of Silver from the used bin for $6.29 and wound up listening to it for two weeks straight. "So I added it to stock and proceeded to sell two dozen copies based on word of mouth alone," he remembers. Brown met the band after one of their West Coast shows and continued to stay in touch over the years, including after he moved to San Francisco in 1995 and started his own record label, Absolutely Kosher.
“I wouldn't hear from them for months, and then I'd be like, ‘Hey guys, just checking in to see what’s cooking. Haven’t heard from you in a while.’ At some point, I was like an old girlfriend, but I was just incredibly excited that they gave me the opportunity to work on the new record.”
Perhaps contrary to Brown’s belief at the time, the Wrens were working diligently on the album; though each member had different responsibilities and priorities in the aftermath of the Interscope debacle, three of the four Wrens still chose to live together to facilitate the making of the record. According to Greg Whelan, the band worked on The Meadowlands, in some form or fashion, every single day. The album might’ve even been out sooner if not for one inebriated evening when the band collectively decided to destroy the masters on a whim.
“We just said, ‘Let’s go out and get drunk, invite our friends over, and erase the tapes in the middle of the party.’” Afterwards, the Wrens simply rummaged around until they found “a copy of a copy,” and made even more edits. “That’s what [The Meadowlands] is-- some fucked up assortment of weird tapes.”
Brown finally received the album in its entirety in 2003, seven years after the release of Secaucus. Because the Wrens had been out of the public eye for so long, Brown and the band decided to put out a special edition of the album in advance of its official release to build anticipation and word-of-mouth. The special edition compact disc was silk screened, hand-numbered, and limited to 1,000 copies via mail order. “Steam started to pick up really quickly because of KEXP, Pitchfork, and The New York Times. By the week we released it commercially, September 9, 2003, we had sold [all] 1,000 copies just based on their existing fanbase, and this crazy thing started to snowball.”
The definition of success was considerably different at Absolutely Kosher than it had been at Grass under Meltzer. For Brown and his nascent label, 5,000 copies would have been “a big deal.” The early returns for The Meadowlands were surprisingly strong, but most surprising was how sales continued to build even after the label’s initial push. Brown couldn’t even convince the distributors to carry enough. Caroline distribution kept increasing their orders well into 2004. Brown believes the album topped out around 45,000 copies worldwide, making it “by far the best-selling record I’ve ever released-- twice as much as the next best-seller [on Absolutely Kosher].” It also became the best-selling album in the Wrens’ catalog, a welcome shock to a bunch of "old guys from Jersey."
“We all couldn’t believe the reaction once we started seeing the reviews out there,” says MacDonald. “More astonishing is when we started playing live and how many people gave a shit even a year into it. Two years into it we were getting even bigger, playing multiple nights at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, multiple nights at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. We got to record at Abbey Road and BBC Radio. We were living the dream in our mid-30s.”
While the band may have been taken aback by the strong reaction, longtime fans were probably equally shocked by The Meadowlands itself. There is scant evidence in either Silver or Secaucus that the Wrens were capable of creating a record as thrillingly triumphant and hauntingly elegiac. Unlike the slapdash Silver, The Meadowlands is a startlingly mature, cohesive work-- and years later, it still holds up the entire way through. Kevin Whelan recalls members of Arcade Fire mentioning to him how The Meadowlands influenced their work on 2004's Funeral, and it’s easy to hear echoes of “Hopeless” in the epic sweep of a song like “Rebellion (Lies)” once you’re actually listening for them.
Alternate The Meadowlands artwork
Walking into the living room of Kevin Whelan’s suburban home in Teaneck, New Jersey, in late September of last year, there is no sign of his life as a recording artist: no memorabilia lining the walls, no lyric books strewn about. It’s decorated like a typical suburban abode-- with as much edge as a Pottery Barn catalog.
The only hint of his double life comes as we ascend the stairs to the second floor, where a large bundle of wires can be seen snaking their way down to the living room area, around the kitchen refrigerator, and through the door that leads to the basement. These wires connect their basement recording studio to the upstairs control room (a repurposed bedroom), where the Wrens have all convened for the first time in several weeks to do some live tracking for the record they have been working on for, well, a very, very long time.
Having all four Wrens together at Whelan’s house is a rare event nowadays. MacDonald is seemingly the most difficult to corral given his two-hour-plus drive door-to-door. (He also has family obligations on top of his demanding day job, which makes Wrens time harder to carve out than ever.) So today, the Wrens are prioritizing drum parts.
For the first half hour or so, it’s mostly Bissell at the computer, futzing around with files, presumably figuring out what he wants to work on and drop in where. Then MacDonald is sent down to the basement. Bissell pumps the pre-recorded track into MacDonald’s headphones and encourages him to improvise, using his cell phone as a walkie talkie. They do a number of sequential takes, with MacDonald making his way back up at 15-minute intervals to review the playbacks with the rest of the band.
Spend any time at all with the Wrens while they record and it quickly becomes apparent that there is nothing even remotely normal about their process. For starters, very few bands of their stature record entirely in their own home, and fewer still have one member reviewing clinical trial clearance paperwork between takes. In addition, although they are working steadily throughout their four hours together, the yield is shockingly minimal. At the end of the day’s session, they have, maybe, two minutes worth of drums. This is the kind of band that says, “let’s try one more thing” ten times in a row.
One might expect heated arguments to erupt or tempers to flare in this molasses-slow environment, but there is never a cross word over the four hours. The truth is the Wrens-- the band originally born of necessity-- are now friends, first and foremost, and the music, at times, almost seems like an excuse to hang out and enjoy each other’s company as opposed to the reason they come together.
Which is not to say that they don’t care about the music. They do. But they care in a way that's fundamentally different than the Wrens of two decades ago, or even of other bands looking to their art for sustenance. If being in a “normal” band is like a marriage, one might say the Wrens are like the divorced couple who remain lifelong friends.
Sciara believes that the unique dynamic at play during the recording process can be chalked up to the dramatically lowered stakes, which began circa The Meadowlands and continue to this day. “Disagreements [should] come up, like, ‘No, no, no, it’s got to sound like this,’ but it never happens with these guys. It’s almost like the Stepford band-- they just get along. But if they had to do it in the way that most bands had to do it, it would be different. It just doesn’t impact their lives that much, it's just for fun.” Indeed, when I ask the three members of the band who work day jobs if they would even want to quit if they were able to do the Wrens full-time and maintain their current lifestyles, none seem to have much interest.
Back to the subject of this long-gestating album: It does indeed exist, though in exactly what form is up for debate. A year ago, the Wrens played back two songs to feature on the album, one titled “Leaves” and another with the working title “The Whole Thing, the Whole Thing, the Whole Thing”, and insisted that they only had a couple of parts left to record for the album prior to mixing. Twelve months later, they’re just about to start mixing; once you understand how the Wrens function, you know that hearing an album is 90% done gives no meaningful indication of how long the remaining 10% will take to complete.
So while it still may be hard to say exactly when the album will see the light of day, all four Wrens insist that it will be released. For now, they are simply grateful to be in the spot they’re in after all these years-- to be living proof that there’s more than one way to “make it.” Says Greg Whelan: “A lot of people our age come to shows and bring their kids. They relate to us because they used to be in bands but then they quit. We're like their weird hero in that respect, which is flattering. We're really proud of that.”
Arctic Monkeys: "Stop the World I Wanna Get Off With You" on SoundCloud.
When it comes to the Arctic Monkeys matching their astronomical UK success over in the States, bandleader Alex Turner is choking. Literally. While speaking on the subject in the lobby of New York's Bowery Hotel last month, the singer mistakenly inhales an almond-- and is momentarily vexed. "Almonds can fuck off," he says with a grin, catching his breath as he knocks back a swig of his drink to wash down the troublesome nut. "I'm developing an aversion to them, so fucking dry."
In fact, about a decade after forming in the early 2000s, the Sheffield natives just achieved their highest-ever American chart position with their fifth album, AM, bowing at #6 on this week's tally. It's a fitting turn of events since the band is now living in Los Angeles, which shows: Sitting across from me, both Turner and drummer Matt Helders are displaying the kind of tans that are unfathomable to most Brits. And their glossy, off-the-rack style is reminiscent of a faded 1960s garage-rock album sleeve, the teddy-boy fashion choices an apt reflection of the slithery desert rock featured on AM. The look is as much of an admirable pose as when the boys grew their hair out and fired up the smoke machine during the tour for 2009's stoner-rock move Humbug, a record that was seen as a detour upon its release, but now plays as the first step towards the band's current creative mood. Talking about that album now, Turner says: "That's when we really started to get interesting."
Though the perfect coifs and duds suggest rock'n'roll invincibility, the Arctics' impeccable sense of self-deprecation is still there. It's a trait that excellently plagues AM's romantic aggressors, as well as the band itself: Throughout our conversation, both members gamely fight rock-star fatigue to crack wise, have a few laughs, and exude a certain level of sheepishness-- right down to admitting that, yes, they still regret the name.
"I would’ve called the new record Arctic Monkeys if we weren’t called the Arctic Monkeys-- it’s such a terrible name," Turner says with a laugh. "I was sitting next to this girl on the plane the other day, a Latin orator. She was like, 'What’s the band called?' It was really hard to tell her. They're two words that really fucking shouldn’t be together."
Pitchfork: AM closer "I Wanna Be Yours" features lyrics written by British punk poet John Cooper Clarke. How do you relate to him as an artist?
Alex Turner: You don’t even wanna hear the lyrics I was writing before I got into him-- aimless nonsense. I used to work at this bar in Sheffield where bands would play seven nights a week in a 500-person capacity room; one night would be the unsigned bands, another night would be a Thin Lizzy tribute band. The Fall played one night, and Clarke opened for them. I was pouring pints and he walks on-- wearing little blue spectacles and his hair everywhere-- and pulls out a plastic bag with paper and starts reciting “Chickentown”. It blew me mind. I was still pouring the pints, Guinness spilling everywhere. It was a ray-of-light moment.
I met him later that night. This was when we had just started, before we knew what kind of band we were gonna be. A lot of people have an idea of the music they wanna make and then they go make it, but we started the band to have something to do and then figured all that stuff out-- and arguably, we still are. But when I told Clarke our band name, he was one of the only people who was like, “Oh, that’s such a great name. It’s a picture of trauma."
Pitchfork: Moreso than any other Arctic Monkeys album, AM seems to be especially focused on women.
AT: It’s all about the girls; I just can’t bring meself to write about the mountains yet. I’m still banging on about the same shit I was in the beginning, I suppose, but perhaps I’m directing it differently now. Same story, different director.
AT: Because his tune's about getting drunk and calling his old bird? I'm sure Drake and I aren't the only people to have done that, though.
Pitchfork: Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, who co-produced Humbug, sings some backups on AM-- what would you say is the biggest thing you've learned from him over the years.
AT: Utilizing the dramatic pause was the thing that Queens of the Stone Age taught us the most about. If I could play guitar like Josh, I fucking would, but I don’t know how he gets where he goes. His mind works backwards, I can’t play shit like that.
Pitchfork: When Arctic Monkeys started, the tag "indie" was thrown around a lot, which is funny considering the level of popularity you guys have reached.
AT: Someone said to me, "You’re the indie band that rappers and metal bands like." I think there's a bit of truth to that. I don’t know if "indie band" is how any band should think about themselves, though. For this record, I didn’t even think of us as a band at all-- we became much more. Sometimes I don’t want to be in the confines of what a band seems to provide.
Pitchfork: In terms of popularity, it seems like rock music is experiencing a lull in popular culture, especially in the U.S.
AT: You're absolutely right. At the end of the 90s, every band in our neighborhood was 35 or older, so we just listened to Roots Manuva and Dr. Dre. Lately, it feels similar. There aren’t that many bands I’m that excited about at the moment. We’re here, though! [laughs]
Pitchfork: What's the biggest lie either of you have told someone to get out of being recognized?
Matt Helders: We were somewhere in France, and a barman asked what we did. I told him we were travelling around Europe testing swimming pools in the world's best hotels. Thankfully, they didn’t have a pool in the hotel the barman was working at. He was like, “We’re hoping to get a pool out here soon.”
Pitchfork: What's the best hotel swimming pool you've been to?
MH: There was one in Argentina that had a giant crown in the middle of it, for some reason. It was a giant crown fountain.
Over Willis Earl Beal's shoulder, there is a man with a bike getting ready to smoke a cigarette. A scruffy middle-aged stranger goes up to the man and excitedly says, "Looks like you need a light!" He strikes a match, ignites the cigarette, and then extinguishes the flame by plopping it into his mouth, like a dime-store carny. I point the little episode out to Beal, who's seen the act before. "I even tried to extinguish a cigar with my tongue a couple of times, and I’ve done it!" says Beal, who introduces himself on this damp August morning while puffing a $10 stogie. "It hurts a little bit, but not as bad as you think."
This nondescript square on Manhattan's Upper East Side is close to Beal's apartment, and it's where the 29-year-old singer/songwriter/artist/actor/writer sits in the morning, drinks coffee, and watches people walk by: homeless people, rich people, moms, drunks, oddballs. He talks to some of them, like an old Italian war vet named Johnny. He once bought a half-pint of gin for another veteran in a wheelchair and took him to the hospital where his girlfriend works nearby. She wasn't thrilled by this act of impromptu heroism, though: "She said, 'I gave you $50 and you spend it on alcohol and then wheel this man in? What am I supposed to do? It’s not even my ward!'"
While that may sound harsh, it's probably not. Beal is a dreamer, and though his fantastical tendencies have provided him with lifetimes worth of unbelievable stories-- like the one where he was almost caught naked by cops in a New Mexico desert, or when recent tour mate Cat Power gave him a pentagram bracelet after locking him into a room with her after a gig in Amsterdam-- he can sometimes get caught up in his own myth-making. Like when, at age 19, he joined the military "because it coincided with my aspirations to become Batman-- seriously." The misguided Army stint led to stress, which led to stomach spasms, which led to his eventual release. Since then, he drifted between jobs in his native Chicago and Albuquerque before-- thanks to a series of unlikely breaks-- his super-lo-fi songs ended up in the ears of Hot Charity founder Jamie-James Medina, who signed him to a five-album deal.
So while Beal's imagination can lead to crazy ideas, it can also lead to ideas crazy enough to actually work. Today, he's sitting in a stiff metal chair talking to a reporter, but there is still a part of him who wants to be the mysterious man on the other side of the square who eats fire. "I feel like a jerk because these guys are here, and I’m posing," he says, surveying the scene.
The stocky singer is wearing a Bob Dylan t-shirt and a lime-green Dr. John trucker hat, and he's about to head to practice with his new band as they get ready to tour behind Beal's second album, Nobody knows. Whereas his debut, Acousmatic Sorcery, was marked by its intimate, home-recorded sound and Beal's straight-from-the-gut singing, he's not interested in simply being, as he puts it, "an honest, sincere, soul-singing black man from Chicago."
"I'm fighting that everyman character with this new album," he continues. "I don’t mind being artificial sometimes, because I like veiling myself. I mean, I’m not honest or sincere: I am self-centered and narcissistic. I just want to be this entity." So while Nobody knows. shows off a more polished sound, it also has Beal delving into darker places in his own psyche, singing disjointed tales of violence and disintegration. And talking with Beal, his deep contradictions become clear: He wants to be somebody and nobody, real and unreal, big and small, old and new. He wants to be the master of his destiny while simply drifting along.
"My delusion outweighs my talent by far and it always will, because if it doesn’t, then there’s no point in living."
Pitchfork: What neighborhood in Chicago did you grow up in?
Willis Earl Beal: Englewood. It’s the worst area of Chicago. Kanye West is from around there. In fact, we shopped at the same movie store, which was full of foreign films and shit like that. Actually, his late bill is still in front of the store. I think it's for $27. The owner keeps it up there. Chief Keef’s from Engelwood, too. But that’s not to say I came from the streets or anything-- most of the time I was on my grandmother’s back porch. I was kept in a constant state of amniotic fluid. The reason why the lyrics on Acousmatic Sorcery are the way they are is because I was not in touch with reality. Growing up, I was being shielded without my knowing it, because even all the way up to the age of 15, I made these paper basketball men and played with them, like action figures.
Pitchfork: What kind of music were you into at that age?
WEB: Music didn’t really occur to me. Michael Jordan and Batman were my favorite two entities then. Michael Jackson was there, but I didn’t really get into Bob Dylan, for instance, until I was in my 20s. The record I heard of his that got me interested in singing was Knocked Out Loaded, which is what many people consider to be his worst record. But I was attached to it. And I heard Tom Waits in this kinky shop on Belmont Street in Chicago. Considering the way I was raised, they were such obscure voices, but their music saved my life-- I didn’t know who I was before I heard Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
Not to say that I became this music enthusiast. In fact, I hated all people involved in music. Every time I see a guitar I get nauseated; if I see somebody with cigarette pants and long hair, or some Afrocentric dude who plays the guitar, it’s just like, "Fuck you guys." But with Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, it was this Americana-grandfather thing that I related to, because my grandfather was a cool fucking guy. He went on roadtrips, wore aviator shades, had an afro, smoked cigarettes. He drove an IROC Camaro with one hand. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits reminded me of my grandfather.
WEB: And then they put it as a big headline. I hate that! I was only saying that I like the man’s music. The people who don’t even know me get mad and say, “Oh, you’re not Tom Waits.” I’m like, “Are you an idiot?” Obviously I’m not.
Pitchfork: To me, a statement like that shows ambition-- it's more interesting than someone saying, "I'll never be as good as Tom Waits." Why not try?
WEB: People need to understand that that was a statement made by a person who survives on one thing alone: delusion. My delusion outweighs my talent by far and it always will, because if it doesn’t, then there’s no point in living.
In a way, the whole music industry is just catering to the inherent esteem issues all these artists have-- it lays it all out on the line and baits the artist, like a light baits a mosquito. And you go right into it. With every comment on the internet, you go up, you go down, and it’s a big shitshow full of uneducated people. I’m not necessarily saying that about blogs or the people who write blogs-- blogs can be great and they can be bad-- but I will say that about people who look to internet to decide what kind of person they are.
Pitchfork: At this point, though, using the internet to your advantage as a musician is like an artform in itself.
WEB: It’s a part of the art, but the art has become bastardized and compromised. Originality is no longer a factor. Nothing’s a surprise anymore. Everything is this distorted mishmash of pop culture that pulls from this era and that era and is just thrown at the wall. These people have no clue what anything really means. There are guys out there getting a million hits for a video; the largest amount of hits I’ve gotten is 75,000. Now, these other guys get hits because they act like they’re not playing the game, but they are. And there’s a lot behind that shit. I've seen comments about me: “Oh, he’s manufactured.” I’m manufactured in that I manufactured my own self in my mind, but my talent and philosophy is rudimentary. Everything about me is pretty much as it is. Other people aren’t what they appear to be. It’s something that I’m never gonna really be a real part of, and ultimately I’m gonna get thrown out with the garbage, you know?
Pitchfork: I've actually never seen anyone describe you as "manufactured."
WEB: I search hard. [laughs] And I find it. And it bothers me.
WEB: I love Lana Del Rey! It's weird because I read something that said, “Oh, Willis Earl Beal and Lana Del Rey are the antithesis of each other.” When in fact, she was what I wanted to sound like. I come from a musical background of liking people like Cat Power-- alternative acts-- and Lana Del Rey was something I hadn’t really seen before: a modern-day chanteuse, with orchestral music and hip-hop kind of singing. That shit’s great. Lullabies. It’s ethereal. For me, it was a no-brainer that I would eventually cover a Lana Del Rey song.
WEB: I’m a goddamn wizard. [laughs] She just called me one night. I swear to God. I remember she sounded like an eight-year-old black girl on the telephone. Her voice is twangy. I’m like, "This is really her! This is amazing." She said the reason why she reached out to me is because she just saw me online and thought I was cool, and she was that affected by me.
Soon after that, she invited me out to the California desert to watch the filming of her "Cherokee" video. I actually shot some scenes thinking I was gonna be in the video, but they were cut. Cat Power was directing it-- she was beautiful, but really nervous about everything. And I was so strung out by that experience: There were all these artists in the video, and they were all from Brooklyn, and they were all wearing sunglasses and talking about their Instagrams and shit. At one point, I ended up being stranded in the middle of the desert in an RV and had to drive 40 miles back into town, pissed off. I was so fed up that I walked two hours out into the desert. When you're out there, you start to feel like your whole consciousness is filling up everywhere: in the past, the present, the future. Everything you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, or the victories you’ve had, go away. You think to yourself: "Why would I turn around?" But then logic starts to set in: I headed back because the first live thing I encountered in the desert were a bunch of flies, and the flies wouldn’t stop flying around me. I ran all the way back.
Pitchfork: It sounds like somewhat of a disillusioning experience.
WEB: Yeah, it was, and it let me know what Cat Power had been in my life. When I lived in Albuquerque, I put pictures of her all over my wall-- I had a shrine dedicated to all the people I admired, with myself right in the center. I would burn candles, light incense, voodoo-type shit. And believe. Because nothing else was happening in my life. I thought Cat Power was some sort of enchantress and, if I met her, everything was going to change. But she was not that. She was more like the beacon, a lighthouse to guide ships in through the darkness.
Cat Power is right out of Kerouac, she’s like Neal Cassady. Everybody looks at her like she’s so fragile, but she’s fucking impenetrable. And you look in her eyes and you know: no artifice. Knowing her has been an inspiration. She deserves what she’s got, but I think that people are starting to not look to her anymore. You got this new breed of hipster chicks and hipster men that don’t understand anything about sacrifice. They didn’t lay it on the line. People like Cat Power, Tom Waits, they are the last of the beats, the real true philosophers.
Pitchfork: Do you still have a shrine like that?
WEB: The shrine to all those people is gone. Now, the person on the shrine is myself. I listen to my own music constantly. I made a whole other record already. I look at myself on the internet constantly, so much so that I actually physically hate my face. It’s like I’ve become apart from myself. I can’t even live up to myself. I listen to Nobody knows. where the falsetto goes all the way up and think, "What an amazing singer. I wish I could do that." Every time you listen to Nobody knows. it’s gonna tell you the same thing. But me? I deteriorate. I might tell you something one day and then something else another day. You fold in on yourself and that’s why this whole artistry thing is the devil. It’s evil. I hope I don’t succumb to it.
Pitchfork: You sing about a lot of unseemly characters on this record, people who are violent or even sexually abusive.
WEB: Yeah, that’s all me. Well, it’s internal-- I never actually sexually attacked anybody. But I’m a writer, too, and I was always trying to figure out a way to recreate the experience of being this Albert Camus, Stranger-like solitary protagonist character without incriminating myself in any way, like, “Oh, what a perv!” I want to reach out to anybody out there who may have been riding on the train one time when things in their life were completely falling apart and saw a girl’s legs in a skirt and it’s the last bit of goodness that you can see. She just has this expression on her face, like she’s part of everything that’s pure. She’s five feet away but she might as well be a million miles away. You have these thoughts and you might try to look. And sometimes you might try to get off the train with her. And then you go, “Alright, this is next-level shit. I better get back on the train."
With this album, I want to communicate desperation in the purest sense. There’s also a manifesto that’s going to come with it called “I am nothing, nothing is everything.” It talks about how the record focuses on the self-- the personal human struggle-- and about how commercialism and the internet take us away from ourselves. They tell us to be ourselves and then they say, “This product is going to help you become yourself.” But the truth is, all products-- mine included-- will take you away from yourself. You can listen to this music and think its pretty cool-- or not-- but the only thing that’s going to save your soul is going somewhere alone and staying in that place for a while. Do something for yourself. I can’t do anything. I lost all my jobs. This is the only fight I can fight. And it’s going considerably well, if you think about where I started out. But it’s not going well in the context of popular artists.
Pitchfork: Do you compare yourself to bigger pop acts?
WEB: I feel like I’m the weird freshman in high school again, and I don’t meet the standard of what the young kids are bopping their heads to. The assertive black man in me says, "I don’t give a fuck about that," but my sad artist says, [sighs] "I’m sad, please..."
Sometimes certain individuals are so enormously popular, and I’m like, "Does everyone just want to be numb?" It's all about that constant, steady beat-- but there are certain artists who I believe can knock people off that beat: King Krule's record is one of the best things I’ve ever heard in my life. Also: Cat Power, Leon Redbone, Vincent Gallo. Scott Walker is a fucking genius. But these are not people who are crossing generations. Are the young kids talking about Scott Walker? Not really.
Pitchfork: Compared to Acousmatic Sorcery, this new album is more sonically refined. Do you feel like your music will keep going in that direction?
WEB: No. When I saw Kanye West’s "Saturday Night Live" performance [of "New Slaves"], I knew right then and there what I had to do. I looked at all the anti-establishment shit he was saying, and how aggressively he was saying it, and I thought, “OK, he’s going to go up and hit ‘em high, I gotta hit ‘em low.” My next record won't be as conformed.
Pitchfork: You mentioned that video store in Chicago where Kanye used to go, was there one film that you saw growing up that made a big impact on you?
WEB: I first saw Dead Man in high school, and it changed everything. That’s the reason for this [points to the Nobody face tattoo-- below-- on his right arm], because in Dead Man there’s a character called Nobody. That movie was like a memory to me-- I would get things that occurred in that movie confused with my actual life.
Pitchfork: What's the genesis of that Nobody symbol?
WEB: It occurred to me one night at my grandmother’s house. The eyes are an inversion of X’d out eyes-- the man is enlightened. His teeth are clenched. It’s not a smiley face. It’s right before he dies. It plays into my philosophy where everybody gets enlightened before they die.
I got the tattoo while living in Albuquerque. I went down the street to donate plasma because I didn’t have any money. I got $25 and I was gonna to the Indian buffet, but then there was this tattoo parlor on the way, and it just occurred to me, like, "Well, shit, get that thing tattooed on your arm." It cost 22 bucks. And then I went to McDonald’s and got a double cheeseburger with the remaining money. I got that tattoo when I was poor, so to see it on the record and being projected outward… it represents all of these ideas that are slowly forming.
Pitchfork: You wear a t-shirt with the symbol onstage-- it's your t-shirt but it's not like a typical advertisement. Your name isn't on it.
WEB: That’s why I love it-- it’s anti-advertisement. It’s like, "OK, I’m on the stage. Oh, you think I’m awesome? I’m nobody, so go home. [laughs] Look at yourself in the goddamn mirror. Pay attention to your own damn voice." That’s a conflicting message, because I’m supposed to be trying to make money.
Pitchfork: It's also a contradiction because you don't blend in onstage, you're extremely animated and intense while performing.
WEB: The only way for me to give a good performance is to make myself extremely uncomfortable-- and it just so happens that being on stage makes me extremely uncomfortable. That’s why I have my bottle of Jack Daniel’s there, because it becomes this conversation: "I really hate this; I hate myself for being here; I don’t understand why I'm here; I know you don’t like me, so why don’t you just leave? You’re not leaving. OK. I’ll just keep singing and get crazier and crazier and then maybe you’ll be repulsed." [laughs]
Everything that I do is limitation and complete intuition. I’m a human being. I’m not a musician. I’m not an entertainer. I don’t know anything! That’s also where it comes from. I’m for the artifice, in a way. I’m for the projection of a symbol, but there’s no one behind that. This has been said in just about every bullshit biopic, [mocking voice] “I don’t know where the songs come from.” But it’s the truth! I don’t actually play instruments. I use instruments with my hands to create this monotonous little riff. I don’t care if a guy plays five instruments at the same time-- that guy’s gotta look in the mirror and he’s gonna die. I want to be a soul. I want to be a person. I’m expressing something. It’s not about music. I could care two fucks about music. I want to help people to not feel alone, like I feel and have felt for so long. Everybody’s just trying their best. I guess I’m like an anti-star.
Pitchfork: Does the symbol represent your own struggle with the egoism that comes along with being an artist?
WEB: Yeah. That’s why I see myself in Kanye West, because if you listen to him or see those damn rants, he's just laying it all out there. And people are like, “Fuck you, you fake-ass punk.” But he's giving it to you! He’s not only giving you realness, but he’s giving you fucking good-ass music, and you still hate him? Fuck those people.
I could see myself like that, but I don't want to end up like that. I want to give people real music, real lyrics, and then leave. I want to be like Adele-- get up there and then go have a baby. "Fuck you, bitches, I’m having a baby." [laughs] That’s where I’m at. I don’t know what people want. I have delusions of grandeur, but I’m not sitting here talking to you and thinking that I’m the goddamn President. I want to know everything, but I just can’t.
Pitchfork: Do you look at music as something you'll be doing for a long time?
WEB: I dip in and dip out of things. Actually, my ideal life would be to have an evergreen tree farm and, every December, I'd load them up and just stand out on the street and sell Christmas trees. I also want to have this not-for-profit organization where I'm basically like a therapist, except I have no qualifications to give you any advice. And I'm wearing a mask, so you can’t attach anything to me-- become attracted to me, or hate me, or whatever. People could speak freely. It would be a place for people on the fringes of society to come and talk about whatever it is they wanna talk about without having to pay for it and without feeling like there’s someone looking down on them.
Pitchfork: You want to hear other people’s stories.
Pitchfork: Right now, you're stuck telling your own.
I was living in the Bellingham area, in northwest Washington. Most of my family lives there. Or they did. Most of them are dead.
My family environment wasn't great, but that's just how it was. I knew it was fun at my grandma's and it wasn't fun at home. My parents divorced a little bit after this time—I don't want to talk about it too deeply, but I realized I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing at that age. But there wasn't anything I could do about it. I was a kid.
I liked music a lot. I loved the Doobie Brothers pretty hard—[sings] "oh black water, keep on rollin'." I would always listen to them while looking at this book about an animal carnival—it was like the soundtrack to all these hippos and giraffes going down the Mississippi River on a steamboat. It was like I made myself a little video of good times with the Doobies.
My dad had lots of good rock'n'roll records and he played a lot of Heart, which was really awesome. I still worship Heart. At my grandma's house it was old country music, which I liked too, and she liked musicals a lot. We watched a lot of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies. At that time, I didn't think there were different eras of style or clothing—I thought all those [old movies] were happening at the same time I was living, and they were just in different cities. I thought all that stuff was totally contemporary.
After my parents divorced, I would spend half the year with my dad and half the year with my mom and my stepdad, who's an archaeologist, so we moved all over the place for archeology. I've moved around throughout my whole life.
At 10, I just loved FM radio: I listened to KMJK Magic FM because I was living on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, and they played the Pretenders, the Clash, 10cc, Blondie.
And then MTV started, and I got pretty obsessed with it. Back in the early days, any genre could get airplay because they needed videos. I took it for granted, but there was a time when you didn't have to be a supermodel and have to have plastic surgery and all this other crap to be on TV, and that was really fucking awesome. But certain things would cross my mind while watching MTV, like: There are no ladies playing instruments. I didn't fully understand the frustration of it at that point, though.
Around 15 I realized that music on the radio wasn't good anymore—I knew that I was being fed something that I didn't want to eat. With something like Huey Lewis and the News, I knew what the next word was going to be at age 15. The rhyming game was bullshit. I wanted something to challenge me. I didn't want to be able to rhyme "blue" with "you" anymore. It had been done. It was like nursery rhymes, man! Give me something awesome! No offense to Huey Lewis.
As a 15-year-old kid, I wanted to listen to Einstürzende Neubauten—of course, you're obsessed with things like death and scraping fetuses off the wheel and stuff like that. [laughs] But then I also really loved melody, too.
Right before this time, I moved to Seattle, and there was a really great radio station there called KJET, which would play Young Fresh Fellows, Ramones, Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon. And then there was this dance station that would change over to Middle Eastern music some nights after midnight, and that was fucking fascinating.
"At one point, I dyed my hair black and shaved zebra stripes into it. It was a pretty good look, actually."
In school, I wasn't really loud and I didn't do bad shit, but I just didn't have any parents, so sometimes it would overwhelm me. But then I would get straight A's for two semesters. It was up and down. I'm sure I was depressed, not having a proper family structure or any guidance whatsoever. I lived with my dad at that point, and then in the summers I would live with my mom. But my parents went to work, came home, and then they were fucking wasted.
Going through that is character-building, but it also gives you a shit ton of anxiety that's really difficult to be responsible for later in life—you fucking pay for it later. It's not a "I blame my parents" thing—that's a hard job and everybody has to do it. But you can't just have all these live wires and let them spark all over the place. You have to reign that shit in.
Around this time, I liked putting on makeup and trying to think of new fashionable things to do with myself—that's pretty much the life of a teenager. At one point, I dyed my hair black and shaved zebra stripes into it. It was a pretty good look, actually. There's only one photo of me from that age—literally, just one. That's how little interest my family had in me. [laughs] I never showed up to any yearbook photos either. I didn't like my picture taken. I still don't.
I was into everything, but my first big love—and they're still pretty much my favorite band—was the Flat Duo Jets. I was in junior college for art history, playing drums in bands, and working at UPS in Tacoma, Washington. I was super fucking broke, but working hard in school. I was trying to make up for dropping out of high school. That's when I found my first burst of "you've got to get your shit together." I did. Then I got into Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver.
Being in Vancouver was a really excellent experience. Americans laugh at me about this, but when I moved to Canada, I didn't realize how much it meant to be the minority. Not racially, obviously, but just as a citizen. It became really obvious how different Canadians are in general. I learned to be a gentler person from Canadians—not in a pussy way, though. Just like: "It'd be a lot smarter if you didn't have a fucking meltdown about that."
Musically, Vancouver was so fantastic. It's a Canadian thing—the population is really small compared to the size of the country, so if you're in a band long enough and you tour enough, you get to know most of the other musicians, and most of the musicians in Canada play in three bands because of the necessity. [laughs] It was a fantastic exercise in cooperation and just helping each other out, which I really appreciate. I never understood the theory of moving to New York or L.A. to make it—if you want to be noticed as a drop of water, why would you move to the ocean?
When I went on tour with Cub, filling in for their drummer, we opened for the Muffs, and that was probably the biggest deal of my life. I was like, "Yup, this is what I want to do." I still didn't think it was something that I could do or would do, though. I didn't think it was my job. I just felt like I had won some kind of lottery.
"I learned to be a gentler person from Canadians— not in a pussy way, though."
Right around that time, I started writing some songs, and there were a few lady musicians in Vancouver. I was like, "Fuck, we can do this." That's also when I learned not to be threatened by other women in music. I had always been a little jealous, but that's when I realized being jealous isn't necessarily a bad thing: It just means you want to be doing what they're doing. It's not their fault you're not doing it. It's your fault! It's like, "Go make friends with that person and tell them they're awesome and mean it and help each other." Once I fully I embraced that, I felt like a complete human being. I started my own band at the same time the New Pornographers started. We all came up together and we're still together.
After I was done with school in '98, I had to move back to Seattle because my visa was up in Canada. I found the last affordable work-live space in Seattle and then, of course, SafeCo Field happened and my roommate and I had to move. So I just said, "Fuck this! This doesn't look anything like my town." People who didn't have connections to the Northwest started coming for dot-coms and Microsoft, which was a drag. And everybody complains about the rain, but it's like, "Why the fuck did you move here?" The rain is a really beautiful thing about this place—shut the fuck up about it! You're just here to rape and pillage. Fuck. Off.
But visiting Portland now makes up for how I felt about Seattle, because people there are into what's cool about the area, rather than moving in with some money-making scheme and then tearing a bunch of shit down. So much good stuff in downtown Seattle is just gone. I saw the same thing happen to Vancouver—now it's just all glass and metal buildings, and everyone says, "Vancouver's so beautiful!" But they tore down all the good buildings! It's beautiful, but where are the human spaces?
I moved to Chicago when I was 30, and I was listening to the Handsome Family a lot. I wasn't finding an embracing music scene in Seattle, and Chicago had a community feeling that reminded me of Canada. I had a job animating shadows for animated commercials—like the Trix Rabbit—which was awesome. I colored things in on a computer and did pencil tests. I was doing the manual labor of the animation. I'm proud to have done it. That's the last day job I ever had.
I didn't think I was a musician until I was about 32, probably—it's such a sacred thing to me that I didn't feel worthy of calling myself that. But then I realized I didn't have any day jobs because I had to quit them all because I was on tour all the time. When tax time came, I thought, "I'm paying taxes as a musician, so I think I can call myself one."
When you're self-employed, you long for a day job, because there's no time off and you don't get to go home and leave your job at work. It can be oppressive, and around this time, that was a huge learning curve for me. I had to ditch some things and become comfortable with being away from home more. It's like: Is this what I want to do with my life? Because if you want to be really good, you have to go on the road all the time and practice really hard. I'm not saying I'm there at all, mind you, but I was figuring out if I wanted that then. It took years to figure that out.
I got a turntable in 2005 and I listened to my record collection a shit ton. I got into digging for things and I got really into Bulgarian music. I really liked the crazy harmonies. I love Trio Bulgarka—their harmonies are fucking insane and beautiful and amazing. And the songs are really heartbreaking, even though I don't understand a word of Bulgarian.
Physically, I can't tour and be up and be yelling and partying and drinking beer and then driving somewhere and then not really sleeping now. I wasn't any more destructive than anyone else in my 20s, I liked to get drunk on the weekends or whatever. I just thought that was the thing to do. Then I thought about it and was like, "I feel like shit. Why am I doing this?" I realized I really cherished having a clear head all the time.
I try to treat my voice nicely now, too. I've finally come to grips with the fact that I'm never gonna have vibrato—it's just not a natural thing for me, and that's OK. I'm trying to develop my low end a bit more. I love it when women have really strong low end, like Cat Power.
I don't listen to the radio that much anymore, but there's an old country station where I live in Vermont that I love. I don't even know the call letters, but it's great. I drive so much when I'm home that I listen to books on tape all the time.
I didn't like music at all around 2010. I was depressed and I couldn't listen to it. It was an irritant. Not because it wasn't good, but because of where my mind was. But I figured out that I could listen to ragtime music and Charles Mingus, so those were my go-tos. Ragtime was really reassuring, just like, "Keep going, everything's gonna be OK." Ragtime sounds like hives of bees, like, "We're working. We gotcha." Productivity! Happiness! The trailing off of a good time down the hall. That sounded very comforting.
James Hinton, the Providence-based producer known as the Range, is a fan of pitcher Greg Maddux, who—despite being built like an accountant—was one of the finest ballplayers of his generation. "I liked how he was this normal guy that didn't have much velocity, but with small changes in his grip, he could totally change the ball's trajectory," says Hinton. He's explaining a track called "Greg Maddux Change Up" from April's cassette-only Seneca EP for Brighton, England, label Donky Pitch. "It was a nice homage to [Maddux]—that track has a lot of little micro changes that are sort of imperceptible."
The 25-year-old should know something about how small changes can yield surprising motion. His just-released debut album for Donky Pitch, Nonfiction, grips well-worn source material—grime and hip-hop vocals, twinkling pianos, hurried breakbeats—in odd and fascinating ways. Lush and downtempo, his music nevertheless accelerates in and out of melodic ideas. Odd vocal cadences—such as on the beguiling "Metal Swing"—fall into step with gimpy breakbeats and lilting piano figures. The lines between the club, the gym, and doing the dishes are pleasantly blurred.
Hinton won't say much about his sample sources, which he often rips from YouTube. Obfuscation, however, is not the point. Nonfiction is sober, uncluttered music; the producer leaves most of his vocal samples untreated, his pianos clean and robust. Nothing is twisted or misshapen, and there is no reframed nostalgia lurking. Hinton's appetite for sound matches that of his peers at Donky Pitch, which has been pushing an infectious blend of bright, buzzy electronic music that has emerged from dubstep's ashes—a sound recently collected on the free compilation We Didn't Think We'd Make It This Far Vol. 1. Their future-is-now boldness has developed in parallel with artists like Rustie and TNGHT, drawing from UK club music, pop, and American hip-hop in equal measure.
When I talk to Hinton in late September, he's about to leave for a short European tour, during which he says he'll mix Baltimore club music and drum & bass into his own compositions. It will be his first visit to the home of so many of his inspirations, as well as his first time meeting the label that has been instrumental in his young career.
Pitchfork: When did you start making music?
James Hinton: I started playing drums when I was around seven or eight, and then I just got a little kit machine and started recording on a drum loop. I was making really big, fast, synthesizer, almost-Sigur Rós music with epic drums early on. When I got to college and started DJing out a bit, I made more dance music.
Pitchfork: Why do you think you ended up doing that instead of joining, say, a Led Zeppelin cover band?
JH: One of my friends showed me Baltimore club in 2006, and I really liked [breakbeats]. I had been a fan of Squarepusher, too, and those two things combined started getting me interested in rhythm. Since I was a drummer, I was more interested in the patterns that were going on in that stuff than what was going on in the rock stuff at the time.
Pitchfork: Did you grow up in Providence?
JH: I'm from Pennsylvania and I graduated from Brown in 2010, so I've been hanging around here since then.
Pitchfork: Nicolas Jaar also went to Brown around then, did you know him?
JH: Yeah! We're pretty good friends. He helped me pick out the songs for my first album.
Pitchfork: How do you go about choosing your vocal samples?
JH: It's really more of a feel thing. I'm on YouTube all the time, so I'll go down that dark path where you search any sort of R&B song and end up watching cover versions and all that stuff—I like finding that spur-of-the-moment energy of somebody sitting in their bedroom that you miss in the studio. Then I'll pull it off there and manipulate it.
Pitchfork: One thing I really like about the album is that I can't quite figure out what to do with it—it's good for hanging out on the porch or going for a run. In what context do you think people will hear your music?
JH: It's really, really important to me that people can like it anywhere. Obviously, I make music alone in my room, so it's important that people are able to embrace it there, but some songs that build more are better played in the club, whereas a lot of the intricacy and work that I put in is better heard on headphones.
Pitchfork: What's the meaning behind the name the Range?
JH: I studied some math in school, so it's always been a part of my life. I like the idea that it can be multiple things—it could be Bruce Hornsby's backing band, or it could be math, or it could be that you're making lots of different music.
If you’re truly blessed, you might one day love a piece of music as purely as Snoop Dogg loves “Hit the Pavement”, the first song he recorded with multi-instrumentalist/producer/walking Holy Mothership Dâmon Riddick, aka Dâm-Funk. As a dozen or so people file into L.A.'s Conway Studios for an impromptu listening party for the duo's self-titled EP as 7 Days of Funk—due out December 10 on Stones Throw—the track is playing at a punishing volume. In fact, it's not even the whole song, just the hook. Across 10 minutes, it repeats at least 100 times without a single protest, or even an acknowledgment that this endless rewind might be abnormal. Snoop’s pantomiming every one of his lyrics like it’s a video shoot, even though it’s just for a handful of associates with iPhones.
Granted, the hip-hop legend—who's going by Snoopzilla for this project—is a professional and knows there’s a performative aspect to even the most casual event, but this is clearly a passion project for both parties. No matter how many joints get passed during 7 Days of Funk's half-hour runtime, the strongest shit couldn’t convince these two that an independently-released EP is going to make them rich or get them moreradio play than, say, "Drop It Like It's Hot". Especially when, as Dâm points out, “It's a funk record. We'll say it's hip-hop, too, but we made a funk record.”
Make no mistake, this was a listening party befitting a funk record—West Coast O.G. producer Battlecat mans the mixing console, and about 15 minutes in, four very tall (and barely dressed) women drop by to give Snoop a hug and promptly head to the recording room on other side of the glass. (Very few people seem to know who they are, exactly.) Studio interns and crew members alike help themselves to fried catfish and shrimp while getting a glimpse at platinum plaques—Billy Idol's Charmed Life, Guns N' Roses' The Spaghetti Incident?—that remind you of the since-fizzled artists who would typically frequent this studio when Snoop was getting his start in the music industry in the early 1990s. (The napkin dispenser is also emblazoned with the front of GN'R's regrettable covers album.)
The complimentary coconut vodka and rosé is served in styrofoam cups with Snoop’s face on them, and Dâm can't help but acknowledge that he’s working with a superstarwho just so happened to be born in the same year as him, 1971. “He really made an impact on me and the circle of people who I grew up with,” explains Dâm. “We finally heard somebody who was like us—not like LL, not like Eric B. & Rakim—someone who had the same speech, the same walk, the same style.”
While Dâm hasn’t slowed down one bit, having emptied his archives on 2010's Adolescent Funk and teamed up with respected funk figure Steve Arrington on this year’s Higher, his 2009 opus Toeachizown still hasn’t gotten a proper follow-up. 7 Days of Funk was prioritized over his upcoming LP, but he says it'll drop next year, and that he’ll once again be working with Ariel Pink after guesting on the weirdo-pop guru's 2012 album Mature Themes. "People can ride to it, they can bang to it, they can roll down the street to it," says Dâm, talking about an upcoming Pink collaboration, "but it's still atmospheric, and Ariel fell right in.”
With 7 Days of Funk finally mastered, Snoop and Dâm aligned their schedules last Friday afternoon to talk about their uncanny musical connection, what hip-hop owes to funk, and the deeper meaning behind Snoop's latest moniker.
"I don't give a fuck about radio, never have. We focus on the emotion. It ain't about selling, it's about a feeling." — Snoop Dogg
Pitchfork: Snoop, you're credited on this album as Snoopzilla rather than Snoop Dogg, does that indicate a different creative approach?
Snoop Dogg: When I'm recording as Snoopzilla, I'm basically an offspring of Bootsy [Collins]. We're keeping that spirit alive with that tone, that delivery, that R&B/funk singing, like Rick James and Steve Arrington. And on this EP, I was on some relationship shit: being tired of the one that I'm with and trying to be with the one that I'm with—shit where I'm questioning the one that I love. I'm not even talking about nobody personally. Is it music? Is it my wife? I'm questioning something! I don't even know what the fuck it is. As time goes by, I get a clearer vision on why I'm saying what I said, because some of these songs are really affecting me right now emotionally. They were just songs I did out of the spirit of having fun, but when I write shit, it comes to motherfucking life.
Dâm-Funk: It's the force. We plugged into it. He wrote what I was going through. I didn't even have to tell him! Even my lady was like, "Man, does he know you're the same type of cat?" I was like, "Yeah, I think he knows."
Pitchfork: Do you feel like the funk influences on this record no longer have a place in contemporary hip-hop?
SD: Hip-hop draws a lot from funk, but it never gives credit to funk, so a lot of these youngsters don't understand it because it's never been broken down for them. It's our duty to make some shit like this and let them know that's where they get their shit from.
Pitchfork: Do either of you have kids?
DF: I don't.
SD: Yeah, I got kids: 19, 16, and 14.
Pitchfork: What are they listening to right now?
SD: My daughter is listening to all that white shit like—what's her name?—Taylor Swift, and all that other bullshit. My oldest son is a hippie, so he's listening to Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. He's real deep into this music. He's cut from another cloth. My young son is into that rap shit, that hip “right now” shit.
Pitchfork: Do you ever try to educate them on funk?
SD: They've been hearing that shit their whole life. They've heard R&B, slow music. I don't play hip-hop because I make hip-hop, so to me it's boring to play it. I play it when I'm DJing or trying to get ready for a show, but for the most part, my stereo session has always been funk and R&B, because that's basically who I am.
DF: The G's that we knew—everybody that was before us—were the hardest ones and the most respected, but they listened to the kind of music we listen to. They wasn't really listening to a lot of hip-hop. I'm being careful not to discredit anything about hip-hop because we both grew up to Eric B. & Rakim and all that—bumpin' it in the Suzuki Samurais, the Nissan trucks. We was there. But the music template that existed with G's has always been stuff like the Isley Brothers, Blue Magic, and Stylistics, where it's lyrics and live musicians. There’s nothing weak or not-hard about that kind of music. It's about emotion and the way that the chorus makes you feel inside. That's what me and Snoop have a lot in common on.
Pitchfork: There’s elements of pop-funk in recent hits like “Blurred Lines” or “Get Lucky”—do you think 7 Days of Funk is more timely for radio right now?
DF: It wasn't a consideration with me.
SD: Yeah, I don't give a fuck about radio, never have. My radio is the streets. If niggas are driving down the street playing it and it's banging in the club, that beats the radio for me because the radio is so fraudulent. It follows what's going on as opposed to leading. Back when we came on, the radio used to break records and be the first one to play shit. Now, they listen to what's hot in Atlanta and then they make it hot wherever they at. That's a known fact. They go national with that shit. That is what it is and that's why we don't focus on radio. We focus on the emotion. It ain't about selling, it's about a feeling.
Photo by Eric Coleman
Pitchfork: Snoop, what about Dâm's beats stands out to you compared to other West Coast producers you’ve worked with like Battlecat or even Dr. Dre?
SD: Dâm's music gives me more of a R&B connection to work off of. His music made me feel like I could come up front and let me do a real R&B lead vocal thing.
Pitchfork: And Dâm, how do you tailor your beats for Snoop?
DF: I just think of the artist I'm with: I pay attention to their movements and how they are. I never try to conjure up anything on purpose. The vibe is there.
SD: That's real shit though. He made the beats in his house—in his room—and I recorded in my apartment, in a muthafuckin' closet right next to a bathroom. I could pee from the mic.
Pitchfork: How long did it take for you guys to put a song together?
DF: The energy was so explosive with “Hit The Pavement”—he came to the pad at 10 p.m. and we were done at midnight. He killed it. His work ethic is stupid, man. I've never seen anything like it. I was New York, in A1 [Record Shop] just listening to some records, and Snoop calls, like, "Hey man, you need to check this out, check your email." Four hours later I’m at the club, and he's like, "Hey man, check these out, two more done." He was just smashing them. When you're inspired by something, that's how you do it.
Pitchfork: When the two of you are working on an atypical project like this, whose opinion do you rely on to know if you’re going in the right direction?
SD: I test this shit when I'm DJing to get a real honest opinion. When they come on, people ain't gonna lie. If that shit jam, they gonna come to the booth and be like, "What the fuck is that?" That's the best natural reaction.
DF: When Battlecat rose up and turned around and said "I get it now!” that meant a lot.
Pitchfork: Were there any disagreements with people during the recording?
SD: The only time we had an issue was when it got to how we wanted this record to sound: We didn't want it to sound too clean. We didn't mind going back in and mixing it, but we didn't want too many additives and preservatives, because the shit was naturally smoky from the get-go. Me and Dâm cooked our shit. We got enough seasoning between the two of us.
Pitchfork: A huge part of the P-Funk experience was the live show, so do you see 7 Days of Funk as a touring act?
SD: Definitely. I already got a band in mind to get down with Dâm and go hard out there. Dâm was always a one-man band, and now we'll surround him with some bad motherfuckers who can get his back. It'll allow him to be able to do keytar and talkbox and turntables without juggling; when I see him, I'm like, "How does this nigga do all this by himself."
DF: It's definitely humbling for people to want to be involved. Even Tyler, the Creator wanted to get down on [the EP], but we just ran out of time.
At one point during our conversation in Manhattan’s Greenwich Hotel yesterday, Maya Arulpragasam refers to herself as a musician in the past tense, beginning a thought with, “When I was a musician...” Maybe it’s just a slip of the tongue, but it’s also a jolt of reality—in between discussions of uncompromised artistic vision and the importance of Julian Assange, a bit of weariness and self-reflection seeps into her speech. As she prepares to release her fourth full-length, Matangi, on November 5, M.I.A. gives off the impression that she no longer sees music as a viable channel for her political firebranding.
“I’ve been like, ‘Shit, I’m doing nothing new,’” she says. “Everything in my life that I stood for and said and wrote about has been explored before.” It's a bit difficult to compute this been-there attitude—partly because, at 38, M.I.A. still looks astonishingly youthful, and not like someone who's been an excitingly unwieldy force in the music industry for nearly a decade. Wearing bright-green camo corduroys and an oversized neon-orange jacket that would not be out of place in 2004’s “Galang” video, she fidgets like a teen, scribbling her name in pen on an opened raw sugar packet and then licking its contents off her fingers.
And while her political-activist streak might be waning in her music, her taste for insubordination remains: She can still look painfully cool as she files her middle fingernail atop a gravity-defying BMW in the "Bad Girls" video, and then start a shitstorm by throwing up that same finger during the biggest television broadcast of the year. Not only does her clamorous new music boast a rebel spirit that refuses to cow to mass-market allure, she’s still unafraid to go ahead and leak it to the world behind her label Interscope’s back. Accuse M.I.A. of many things, but complacency is not among them.
She describes Matangi, titled after her birth name and the Hindu goddess of music, as a more “spiritual” album. We spoke about why it may very well be her last.
"I’m still working out my opinions—it’s always a question mark. I leave loads of space open, and people don’t like that."
M.I.A.: When I first came out, I was a film student and my mom sewed clothes. I was already doing a million things then, whatever it took to survive. If I had to braid someone’s hair to get one pound for my lunch money, that’s what I did. But I did it in the most creative way possible, and I never pigeonholed myself—the only reason you’d want to pigeonhole is to monetize your business and, as a person, I don’t see the importance of doing that. My music took off above the rest of those things: You can just make a song, put it on a CD, and get it out to all these people. If you’re braiding hair, you can only do one person at a time.
Pitchfork: Kanye West recently said some interesting things about the immediacy of music versus fashion—silk is too expensive, etc.
M.I.A.: I was saying that 10 years ago. I had £100 and a lot of time and I didn’t have to go anywhere. At that time, I was shooting a documentary, but it was too expensive to edit. I was borrowing a friend’s computer because I didn’t have my own. I was making art, but I didn’t know how to show my paintings to 15-year-olds in the hood. I hate the idea of street art. With music, I just needed my brain and my voice, which didn’t cost anything. It was the perfect thing to do. I was like, “Wow, I can make something for a teenager in Kazakhstan.”
M.I.A.: Well, I’m still working out my opinions—it’s always a question mark. There’s loads of space that I leave open, and people don’t like that. My statements aren’t incomplete, they’re just in-progress. It’s a debate and a discussion. Maybe it’s also the difference between men and women. But I still appreciate Kanye for saying some of the shit he says, because it's still him trying to recognize a problem and open up a discussion.
Pitchfork: You fielded a lot of shit during the album cycle for /\/\/\Y/\. Do you feel like you’re out to prove yourself this time around?
M.I.A.: No. This album is something that needed to happen for my own sake. I haven’t had a plan—initially, I thought I was going to make one record, and that was it. And then I had a three-album deal with XL and I didn’t think past it. That was going to be it for music for me. I couldn’t play the game; I was really bad at it. I didn’t want it enough.
/\/\/\Y/\ was a journey, not a destination or closure. When I look back at that album, I see it as a constant battle of: This is beautiful and this is shit. It was just confusion about how the chips were going to land, because it was made at a time when a whole bunch of chips got thrown in the air. Some people loved /\/\/\Y/\, other people hated it. There was good and bad in it. M.I.A. fans are going to get disgusting shit and they’re going to get cool shit and they have to determine what’s what. It’s tough love.
But then I made the mixtape, Vicki Leekx. When I make things, it’s really instant. I went into the studio and it was finished in 48 hours. No one was around, no producers, no anything. You don’t need anyone’s help. You don’t have to suck dick. You don’t have to do nothing. And when I’m in the zone, that’s how fast I can make shit happen. I felt good.
"'Paper Planes' was an accident. It wasn’t a song we made for the masses."
Pitchfork: You've said that Interscope thought Matangi was “too positive” initially. What does that mean?
M.I.A.: I don’t know what that means. Maybe they said that because it didn’t sound like EDM or dubstep. But after that, I handed them the same version of the album. I added intros and outros, but the songs were pretty much the same.
Pitchfork: Does Interscope hold out hope that you’re the kind of artist who’s going to make more “Paper Planes”?
M.I.A.: When I came here 10 years ago, the first thing Interscope did was offer me the chance to work with Timbaland and Missy, to cross me over. They still offer me that. But this is what I am. “Paper Planes” was an accident. It wasn’t a song we made for the masses. It took two years to get popular, and there were many fights about censoring the gunshot sounds.
Pitchfork: At this point, do you think of Matangi as the album that’s going to cap off your music career?
M.I.A.: I don’t know if its a closure, but it’s a destination for now. And it’s somewhere to chill a little bit. I discovered the story of [my namesake] Matangi, and I thought it was a good way to round-up the first three albums.
The first 10 years of my life, I lived as Matangi. When I came to England in ‘86, my first week of school was terrible because I would put my hand up to answer things, and no one would choose me because they couldn’t say my name. My auntie came from Europe to visit us, and she was like, “Just call yourself something else.” She’d just come from skiing, and her ski instructor’s name was Maya, which is a really cool name.
Matangi is the Hindu goddess of music. Matangi’s dad was called Matanga, and he was an untouchable—an outcast who was the first guy to achieve enlightenment without becoming a member of the elitist group in Hinduism. As a gift, he was given Matangi. It’s interesting, because I named my first album after my dad because I wanted to find him. My second album was named after my mom because I felt like I learned all my creative talents I learned from her. All the survival stuff, too. And then the next album is /\/\/\Y/\, which is not my real name. It’s fake. And the concept of /\/\/\Y/\ was sorting the truth from the lies.
Pitchfork: In between /\/\/\Y/\ and Matangi, how did you cross paths with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange?
M.I.A.: If you make a mixtape called Vicki Leekx, I guess you manifest it. He found me because he wanted me to write some music for [his TV show "World of Tomorrow"], so I did. Looking back on it, our connection was really simple: He’s somebody who’s vying for freedom of speech and freedom of press, for truth. These are catch phrases, but they’re also important concepts in all of my work. It’s rare to see people who put themselves on the line like that.
Pitchfork: Did you name the mixtape Vicki Leekx with the expectation that you’d attract his attention?
M.I.A.: No. I was coming from a really personal space. When people were saying, “Oh my god, she’s fucking crazy,” after the last album, it wasn’t important because I was still focused on all these people who died in Sri Lanka. There were still people in the camps, the government was still doing what they were doing. WikiLeaks were the first people on the planet—out of everyone with the best fucking technology and media and Twitter and all this shit—who released something that validated what I said.
WikiLeaks said, "Yes, [the war crimes in Sri Lanka] did happen, here’s a fucking cable that says all of these governments in the world knew about it. Here’s one from fucking [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon." It was nice to have an agency that put out a very useful piece of information. For that, they completely have my support no matter what happens. It helped the very, very, very small people on the planet.
WikiLeaks didn’t get paid for it. They didn’t sell advertising space, they didn’t do any of that shit. They just put something out there that made me feel happy. For that, I’m really grateful. And they did a lot with those cables that helped feed into Callum Macrae’s documentary [Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields] and it opened up a whole bunch of different avenues.
"If you’re not compromising your shit, you don’t have a lot of money. It’s not science. It’s basic information."
M.I.A.: It’s happening, but it’s just doing its own thing. It was never the idea to make a documentary as a vehicle to push the record or anything like that. It’s just a film, and if it takes 10 years to make, it takes 10 years to make. [Director] Steve [Loveridge] fired himself from the documentary, but he’s back on it. It’s been frustrating.
It’s a weird film, and it’s not easy to cut together. It’s not like I have a camera following me around, documenting my fucking dressing room. I’ve documented a lot of things myself as a filmmaker. If you want a rockumentary, that’s in there. Then there’s a political angle, which is the documentary I wanted to shoot on Sri Lanka. Then there’s footage I shot when my brother came out of prison when he was like 16. And footage of this crazy mess with my personal life. They’re all interesting things you’re not going to get from a Beyoncé documentary. It’s just so complicated. I can’t even get my head around that.
Pitchfork: You mentioned that you were going to take it to Kickstarter.
M.I.A.: The fans have been really supportive, but I haven’t been able to do the Kickstarter thing because I’ve been told that it would cause me so much shit in the press. Which I take as a threat. My fans are not going to give me shit. My fans want the Kickstarter.
And it’s not like I’m a scroungy artist who sells everything, anyway. To make the film pure and uncompromised, I want to get the fans’ help. If you’re not compromising your shit, you don’t have a lot of money. It’s not science. It’s basic information. I think it [a Kickstarter] would show a positive side of how the whole digital era works, and the relationship between the fans and an artist. But I want to be a man about it before I go to my fans.
Photo by Erik Sanchez
Pitchfork: What’s the status of the lawsuit the NFL filed against you for flipping the bird at the Super Bowl?
M.I.A.: It’s [the NFL’s] turn [to make a move.] They started the case, but they employed a judge illegally, so they have to find someone else. I’m happy this came at the same time as all the Miley Cyrus stuff. It’s started this whole debate about female sexuality. I didn’t like that Miley made fun of Sinéad O’Connor, but that’s youth, isn’t it? Everyone has that moment where they just rebel.
Pitchfork: What do you think about contemporary music these days?
M.I.A.: I don’t know what I think about it.
Pitchfork: You must keep up with it at least a little bit—the new album makes some references to Drake, you sample the Weeknd, and there are some very contemporary electronic music touches on the production end.
M.I.A.: I don’t pay attention to what’s happening now. My references are beyond the industry. The music industry was invented, like, 100 years ago. I’m talking about the goddess Matangi, who invented music 5,000 years ago. She was the only thing that inspired me.
And I didn’t feel inspired to write an album that was really about something. Kala, for example, was really of the time. It was post-globalization, and I was around the planet documenting all these things. I would go into a random place in Africa or a favela in Brazil and be like [sad Valley-girl voice] “Oh my godddddd, these people are sufferingggggg.”
I spent time following the whole Sri Lanka thing. No one from the UN did shit. Nothing changed anything. It’s still the number one destination for holidays. You’re never going to beat that. Even Tamil businesses have to get on with this new government in order to make the opportunities arise for those kids coming out of camps who don’t have education or employment. There’s no hard right and wrong. So I could have written an album about banks, or I could have written a more spiritual album.
Mas Ysa is Thomas Arsenault. He was born in Montreal, spent his formative years at a Brazilian high school, "irkingly" studied poetry at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, faked flute proficiency to get into Ohio's Oberlin College (where he befriended members of Teengirl Fantasy and Blondes), and spent time living in San Francisco with composer Warner Jepson. Eventually, he ended up rooming with experimental electronic artist Laurel Halo in an apartment with a built-in recording studio connected to DIY spaces Glasslands, 285 Kent, and Death by Audio in Brooklyn. As a sound guy, engineer, and artist, he made connections that led to his signing with Downtown Records, plus some gigs opening for acts like Deerhunter and Purity Ring.
He enthusiastically tells me the story about his most recent relocation—his landlord and the police pounded on his apartment door in Brooklyn, swiftly evicted him, and hesitantly let him come back the next day to box up his stuff while security watched. He threw it all in a U-Haul, started driving, and spent the night at a bed-and-breakfast before impulsively renting a house in Lake Hill, New York, 20 minutes north of Woodstock.
Since March, he’s been secluded Upstate, adding to an enormous backlog of material. Though he’s been on his creative grind for years, he's also still at the beginning of his career. The only thing he’s shared with the public thus far is “Why”—a song he put on SoundCloud "kind of to remind my friends that I exist and haven't just been in Woodstock doing nothing."
In Brooklyn, he used to work through the night in his windowless studio. Now, windows in his space reveal the forest and the sun. While we’re on the phone, he’s hanging out on his screened-in front porch by a wood-burning stove, and talking about his new 50-something hippie friends, his near run-ins with David Bowie at the grocery store, and his numerous bear problems. “A bear's been in my house,” he says. “The door was open and the spice cabinet was ripped down—the kitchen was trashed. And bears smell. They're like musky dogs.”
Arsenault started making music as a 15-year-old in São Paulo, surrounded by DJ culture and unenforced drinking age laws. With some turntables and a sampler, he started experimenting with sound. His listening patterns transitioned from techno to Aphex Twin and Dan Snaith’s recordings as Manitoba. “Manitoba is electronic and rigid, but it also sounds like wood—there's air in it," he says, "which is something hard techno lacks.” Later, when he returned to North America for college, his world was opened by Neutral Milk Hotel and Modest Mouse—“music made by young people in America that was really provocative and emotive.”
It’s easy to hear those formative influences in “Why”. There’s a singer/songwriter element, as Arsenault’s voice quivers through emotional lines addressing love. Then there’s the thick low-end, and some twinkling, atmospheric sounds. These days, he’s mainly listening to the work of his friends, plus John Prine, and Van Morrison’s 1980 album Common One.
When addressing his future plans—an EP later this year, an album next year—the constantly on-the-move artist hints that his current residence in Lake Hill might be temporary, too. “I'm going to see how winter feels up here,” he says.
Pitchfork: How is living Upstate different than being in Brooklyn?
Thomas Arsenault: There are all these older artists and weird people—my best friend up here is like 55. If you go to a bar and watch a hockey game, there's people to talk to and eventually have over for dinner or whatever. My life's been good here. It's seen much more daylight and been much more sober. Living in a place with no light and near four venues where you drink for free is fun, but I'm not 22 anymore.
[Being in Lake Hill] actually makes going into New York City a little overwhelming. I don't know if I'll be able to live there again. The city keeps you awake, but here you can go to work early because you didn't go to bed so late.
Pitchfork: Do you identify more as Brazilian, American, or Canadian?
TA: Well, I feel Canadian when I'm on the ice around a bunch of you Americans and I'm knockin' you down—I played hockey in Queens when I was in New York. I would go from my little terrible loft to a rink in Queens and I have always been on a team. It's a familial thing. My manager says as soon as I start talking about hockey, my Canadian accent comes out.
TA: My rig is a TR-909, an early techno drum machine, and a Kurzweil K2000—an old rack-mount synth that weighs 40 pounds. It's terrible to lug around, but at the same time, they're not expensive, so if it breaks, I can get another one. My rig looks complicated when you're looking at it from the audience, but it really comes down to two synths, one drum machine, and a vocal chain.
Pitchfork: What will your next release look like?
TA: I guess it's an EP, but I won't call it an EP. It's just kind of that scale, and it'll be priced accordingly, but the whole thing is about getting something out now. To be moving. There's a couple ballads on it. There's another banger and some ambient stuff. The stuff I'm performing live will be the bulk of the full-length. I'm finishing up some mixes now.
I've been really squeamish about releasing my music. I've been around and showing people my music forever, but keeping it very private. Then I played a birthday party for my friend at [Brooklyn venue] Zebulon. I was approached at the end of it by my now manager, who came up to me and said, "I usually hate seeing a guy with tabletop electronics and a microphone, but that was really nice. Do you want to work together?"
Pitchfork: Any other major plans?
TA: I want to make back patches. My grandfather's a deacon and my mother's a really Roman Catholic Ecuadorian—growing up, I wasn't allowed to wear the Metallica t-shirt with the guy in the electric chair or anything. In fourth grade, I wore a Looney Tunes shirt that had them all dressed up like rockers. So I've always loved guys in leather jackets or jean jackets with back patches. I don't wear either of those, but I want to make back patches for that purpose.
Ever since he died, 10 years ago today, people have been clamoring to tell Elliott Smith's story for him: writers, poets, fellow musicians, his religiously devoted fans—anyone who felt the subliminal undertow of his songs. The urge is understandable. Smith’s music, with its forensic attention to mood, dredges some of our murkiest emotions to the surface and coaxes unnameable sensations into focus. When an artist has this gift, they stir powerful needs.
Since the moment Smith began making solo recordings, beginning with the whispered, hyper-intimate 1994 collection Roman Candle, he has inspired fervent reactions. His story is dotted with followers, people who instinctively grasped the appeal of his music and felt themselves helplessly conscripted to his cause. They became storytellers for Elliott’s genius and originality, champions for someone allergic to championing himself.
What follows is not an oral history of his life, but of his music; specifically, his solo career. The lines between life and music are tangled, of course, in ways that aren’t neatly prizable, and darker stories eventually creep into the frame at the edges. But the arc traced here begins with the emergence of That Voice: the flowering of his talent, the development of the intimate, inscrutable folk-pop he would mine for the rest of his career. That discovery dovetails with the dissolution of his first band, the loud-rocking Heatmiser. In some ways the development of the former triggered the latter. The story told here begins at this hinge point, as Smith begins exploring the possibilities of his fiercely intimate four-track solo recordings that would pull him away from Heatmiser and, eventually, into the national spotlight.
For those who knew him personally, the task of speaking for Elliott Smith wavers between privilege and burden. Many of the 18 people who spoke to me—bandmates, producers, managers, friends—emerged hesitantly, stepping gingerly over their own profound misgivings, issuing grave caveats. They’d been burned before, they warned me. They swore they’d never speak again. The story of their self-imposed silence, and their individual choices to break it or hold it, runs in powerful counterpoint to Smith’s own story. Some of the singer's closest associates have simply declined to go on record: Having been prodded multiple times, they have understandably snapped shut. Some are speaking now for the first time. The combination of profound ambivalence and fierce conviction in their voices, as they opened themselves up, was chastening.
In 1984, Elliott Smith—born Steven Paul Smith—moves to Portland from Duncanville, Texas, to live with his father, Gary Smith, and Gary’s wife Marta Greenwald. There, at Lincoln High School, he meets Tony Lash, future drummer of Heatmiser, and forms his first band, Stranger Than Fiction. Upon graduating, he goes off to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he meets Neil Gust and forms an early version of Heatmiser. (It is around this time that Steven Paul Smith begins going by “Elliott.”) When he returns to Portland after graduation, Gust, Smith, Lash, and bassist Brandt Peterson form the final version of that band.
TONY LASH [high school friend; drummer, Heatmiser]: In the high school band, I played flute and Elliott played clarinet. He was funny, and we were both kind of nerdy. A friend of mine introduced us because we both liked Rush.
Elliott's songs were ridiculously complicated then. He had so many ideas and he hadn't really developed his arrangement skills, so the songs would start in one place and go through all these sections and then end arbitrarily. But having come from a prog background, it wasn't hard for me to negotiate all the time changes. We recorded our one really ambitious album when I was a senior and he was a junior; we definitely aimed high, even if the results weren't necessarily stellar.
We kept in touch while he was at Hampshire College; I stayed in Portland and went into record production, getting a job at a studio. Every summer we worked on some kind of a project. Then Elliott came back from college and we started playing together again as Heatmiser.
JJ GONSON [manager, Heatmiser; girlfriend]: The first time I saw Heatmiser was in 1993, at X-Ray in Portland. I had this visceral response, which I've only had with a few bands. I was impressed by every single member. Elliott was clearly an uber-talented songwriter, Neil [Gust] was clearly an almost-as-talented songwriter, and they both had terrific singing voices and were really gifted guitar players. The drummer [Tony Lash] was excellent. There was not a slacker in Heatmiser.
Neil and Elliott had very different guitar skills that complemented each other beautifully. In fact, when I met them, I would say that Neil was the more accomplished of the two. But Elliott had a natural aptitude that was unique. He could hear music and make it come out of his fingers in a way that most guitar players can't. He never stumbled. It was like there was a channel that went straight from his brain to his fingers, and that was immediately evident watching him play live. You only see that kind of skill level once in a while, so when you see it, you know it.
TONY LASH: I have a lot of fond memories of that time. Portland still has an extremely vibrant music scene, but there was a bit more of a united, focused community with the bands and the people that came to see music then. La Luna, along with a few other places, was the epicenter of that, the place where the large shows happened. We definitely packed our shows, and people were really into it.
JJ GONSON: A phenomenal thing happened in Portland in the early 90s. At La Luna, someone had this idea to charge one dollar at the door to see three local bands every Monday night. The club capacity was maybe 1,000, and they got to keep the bar, but the bands could sell merchandise and they got 100% of the door. So every Monday night the bands were pretty much guaranteed at least $300—which was huge in 1993—and the shows had Heatmiser, Crackerbash, Pond, Hazel, the Dandy Warhols. It was all local. It sold out every Monday, because nobody had a job, really—this was the early 90s and there was no work. The bands would get their cash and, more importantly, they would have the experience of playing in front of 1,000 people who knew their songs. What you ended up with is these bands that perform really well.
Heatmiser were just a phenomenal, rip-your-head-off-and-shove-it-up-your-ass rock band. I saw them hundreds of times. Elliott was so into it; in every photo I took of them onstage from that time, he's biting his lip. The thing I remember most vividly is that he always had this exact same rocking motion in his body language.
[Both Neil and Elliott] were writing really good songs, but I immediately recognized that Elliott was writing in a way that maybe… appealed to me more personally? When they did that Yellow No. 5 EP, the song "Idler" might have been around when I started to go “whoa, whoa, whoa.” That really quiet, haunting thing. Also, at that point I was already hearing some of Roman Candle. It's just that I wasn't hearing it in the same way. I was hearing it at home.
Roman Candle (1994)
In 1993, Smith moves in with JJ Gonson, at a house on Southeast 29th Avenue and Taylor Street in Portland. In the basement, he begins rehearsing and recording the music that would become his first solo release, Roman Candle.
JJ GONSON: We were all kids, hanging out. There was a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog and sitting around. He and I had a very simpatico sense of humor and found a lot of similar interests in music; we'd just sit around and play together for hours and sing.
For a long time we were “just good friends,” and I remember seeing him leaning against an ex-girlfriend one time and thinking, "Why is that bothering me? That shouldn't be bothering me.” I'd already worked with the band for awhile, and he wrote songs about feeling like he shouldn't be dating me, wanting to, and knowing that it wasn't the right thing to do. Neither of us would deal with it for a long time. And when we finally did, all of our friends were like, "No! That's a really bad idea!" [laughs] Was it a bad idea? I don't know. He was the love of my life in a lot of ways. I'm enormously grateful to have had that emotional experience. I think that everybody should be that in love with somebody, even if it has to come to an end.
At the Taylor Street house, he would sit upstairs playing for hours and hours and hours, working on the songs, and then he'd go downstairs for half an hour and put something down on tape. He didn't spend very much time in the "studio," which was the basement. It was gross down there; he was perched on a stool surrounded by garbage. It wasn't like it was a couch and cappuccinos. I don't even think we had a washing machine. He was welcome to be down there by himself, nobody wanted to be down there.
The whole sound quality of Roman Candle is entirely based on the fact that he's using a low-quality microphone right up against his fingers. He doesn't even have an acoustic pickup—he's playing an acoustic guitar into a microphone.
I had a copy of the finished cassette on me all the time and I was listening to it all the time. I had a lot of friends at Sub Pop and Matador and Cavity Search and all these record labels, and I was hanging out with them because I was promoting [Heatmiser], and I needed these labels to put their bands on tour with my band, but I didn’t burst into Cavity Search Records like, "You have to play this! It's the best thing you've ever heard and you need to release it right now." I was probably just like, "I've got this solo cassette by Elliott." "What? Elliott does solo stuff?" I put it on and their jaws dropped. They released it without changing a thing. That's Roman Candle.
TONY LASH: We mixed Roman Candle in my basement—to the extent that you can mix off of a four-track cassette. It was so different from what Heatmiser was doing. I didn't have a sense right then that it was going to become his big thing. A lot more care was taken with recording his second solo record, but even then it seemed more like an extremely viable side project to me, with Heatmiser as the main focus.
SLIM MOON [founder, Kill Rock Stars]: I didn't know Elliott at all, but we were both playing on this small tour of solo artists going down the West Coast. The first night was in Seattle, and I missed Elliott's set. The second night was at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, and I was blown away by Elliott's set. So I went out to the car to listen to [Roman Candle] rather than staying for the rest of the show.
I was just flabbergasted. It was so incredibly good. And really, really different from anything anybody else was doing. It was soft and gritty at the same time—a really rare combination. The song that blew me away was "Last Call", it's in my top 10 favorite songs to this day. It's the perfect song in terms of lyrics, melody, as a piece of poetry: "You're a crisis/ You're an icicle/ You're a tongueless talker/ You don't care what you say/ You're a jaywalker and you just walk away." Those lines stick with me.
There's this little trick that he does in that song where he drops the tuning at the end. It almost feels like it's two songs edited together, except he would play it live and reach over and just turn the tuning peg as he played. It's not a studio trick. It impressed me that it was all done on a four-track, too, because the cheaper the production is, the less you can hide your flaws. Like, Lars [Ulrich] of Metallica is one of the worst drummers I've ever heard, but they hide it because they spend millions recording. [laughs]
LARRY CRANE [owner, Jackpot! Recording Studio; producer/engineer; archivist for Smith's family]: I’m really supportive of the local music scene and everything, but I’m not always impressed by the quality of other people’s work. [laughs] But when I heard Roman Candle, I thought, "Wow, that’s pretty good for the guy from Heatmiser." Initially, I thought Heatmiser were another crummy, wild guitar band that the grunge era brought up. But I started realizing, “Oh wait, they have songs.”
MARGARET MITTLEMAN [manager]: Slim Moon fell in love with Elliott, and he told me I had to come down and see him. I don't remember what he played. I'm more of a vibe person, and Elliott's demeanor hit me right away, right in the stomach. He was just sitting in a chair in the corner, but he seemed so special in every way.
We talked after that show. My intent was just to help him. He wasn’t interested in a publishing contract or a manager. I was working at BMG Publishing, and one of our goals at the time was to sign things really inexpensively and just offer services. Anyway, he liked us, and he liked that we had done work with Beck, who was a recent artist I had signed. We developed a friendship.
Elliott Smith (1995)
Smith records his self-titled record at friend Leslie Uppinghouse’s house, moving on from Cavity Search to Slim Moon’s Kill Rock Stars label. The album is released on July 25, 1995, accompanied by a larger promotional campaign.
SLIM MOON: We talked about his ideas or hopes for the next step after Roman Candle, and he mentioned that he was interested in being on K Records. I knew [K owner] Calvin [Johnson], so over the next couple of months, I gave him a copy of the record, told him that Elliott was the real deal, and told him to come see him play. I never heard back from Calvin about that. To my knowledge, Elliott never heard from Calvin either. I talked to Elliott a while later and said, "Would it be cool if Kill Rock Stars put out a 7"?"
We never did multi-record deals at Kill Rock Stars back then. We would just do one album, see how it went, and then discuss it again. Before we put out Elliott Smith, I looked at Soundscan, and it showed that half of the sales of Roman Candle had been in Portland, and he was basically unknown everywhere else. I figured that if anyone could be wildly popular in one town, then that could be replicated everywhere, all you have to do is get the word out. But Elliott Smith really didn't sell that well.
Part of that was context: At Kill Rock Stars, everything that we had put out to that point was either a sort-of-loud, guitar-based, technically-interesting indie rock band like Unwound or godheadSilo or Universal Order of Armageddon, or it was associated with the Riot Grrrl scene, like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear. And Elliott was really different. So when we sent this acoustic solo singer-songwriter record out to press and college radio, they just went, "Oh, I don't get what this is supposed to be.” Reviewers wouldn't review it. It just got ignored. I don’t think they listened to it and passed on it, I think it just sat on their desk.
And the other thing was this strong anti-singer-songwriter bias in the early 90s—because indie rock was still coming out of the punk tradition, it was anti-a lot of the things the 70s had been known for, including heartfelt singer-songwriters. So anybody with an acoustic guitar singing under their own name was instantly going to be compared to James Taylor, no matter what they sounded like. People just rolled their eyes, straight off. Maybe there were a couple other people, like Bill Callahan as Smog, and Lou Barlow as Sentridoh, who were doing that, but they were performing under band names. So it was bold of Elliott to perform under his own name.
JJ GONSON: It was embarrassing to be doing acoustic music. Nobody did it. Everybody was rough. There was no pop going on at that time. Elliott and I used to play Peter Paul & Mary, Beatles, and Captain and Tennille covers together in the bedroom with the door closed, hoping nobody could hear us. I will never forget Neil laughing the first time Elliott played him a solo song, the part where his voice goes up on on “No Name #1”. Laughing. It was just shocking.
I can't not acknowledge the fact that we are talking here about Portland, Oregon, in the 90s: This was O.H.—Original Hipster—so you had a lot of deeply ironic listening material like whale songs or Halloween Sound Effects records, or Tito Puente, or some Spanish movie soundtrack. And Portland itself is very rugged—there's a lot of Bad Company. [laughs]
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: I remember one night we did karaoke with [Sleater-Kinney/Quasi's] Janet [Weiss] and [Smith bandmate] Sam [Coomes], and me and Janet did "Ride Captain Ride" together. Elliott might have done Rush.
ROB SCHNAPF [producer, Heatmiser’s Mic City Sons, along with Either/Or, XO, and Figure 8; married to Margaret Mittleman]: He actually did “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by the Scorpions. The look on Elliott’s face when he realized how high Klaus Meine’s voice is on that first note—the the realization of having miscalculated in public with a microphone in your hand—oh, it was good.
JJ GONSON: We were huge Elvis Costello fans, too. I remember sitting with Neil and Elliott in the living room at their house with our heads down listening to Brutal Youth. Amazing record. When Elliott was on tour, I went to see Elvis Costello and he was fucking furious.
He would walk up behind me and put his arms around me and sing [the Carpenters'] "Close to You" to me. At one point when we were falling apart, he made me a beautiful cassette recording of the Cheap Trick song "If You Want My Love". I wish I knew where it was, but I don't.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: When I would tell the other bands I was working with that I was working with Elliott Smith, they’d be like, “Oh, why? That’s weird.” Eventually, of course, they became his biggest fans.
Between 1994 and 1996, Smith tours regularly as a solo artist while remaining the co-frontman of Heatmiser.
SLIM MOON: A couple of the shows we played on that Roman Candle tour in 1994 were really poorly promoted, so we'd goof off, and Elliott would play a lot of Hank Williams and stuff. There was one show that was in a sports bar in Santa Cruz where there was no one there except the regulars, who were really bummed that we were bogarting their dartboard area. And I had really bad gas—I was farting up a storm. Elliott was cracking jokes about the smell in between songs, to the amusement of no one but me.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: Elliott’s first solo tour on the East Coast was painful because he was still becoming comfortable with performing alone—and not just alone, but alone to an empty room. He was nervous about it, and it used to make him… not feel good a lot. He dealt with a lot of stomach issues. So I'd always be the one telling him, “You can do it.” But whether it would be one person or five, somebody inevitably would discover him from that one experience, and the next time he went back, it was easier.
ROB SCHNAPF: He used to play these shows and he wouldn’t finish songs and he would just kind of give up, and Margaret would be like, "Nope, you’re gonna go out there, you’ve gotta finish your songs, go back up the stairs." He'd say, "What if someone’s talking?" And she'd say, "Who cares? You wanna do this, right? Well, this is what you’ve gotta do. You’re gonna be playing this bowling alley in Nebraska next. Good luck."
MARY LOU LORD: [singer/songwriter; tourmate; KRS labelmate]: Slim really liked this kid. We were all together on a bill; me, Slim, and Elliott. I was backstage, just talking to everybody, and Slim said, “Mary Lou, you really need to go out and watch that guy.” I wasn't very interested; I had heard a million acoustic guitar guys, you know? But Slim was like, “No, Mary Lou, you really need to go and watch him.” In other words, “Shut the fuck up and get out there.”
The first thing I noticed was that his guitar was really crappy; I think it might have been the Le Domino he recorded Roman Candle on. I realized he was making that crappy guitar sound really good. By the third song, I had completely lost myself. I was sucked in. I immediately invited him on tour. And he mumbled, in his way, “OK, Mary Lou.”
Watch Smith play "The Biggest Lie" live circa 1995; footage shot by Mary Lou Lord:
SLIM MOON: The biggest bands that Kill Rock Stars ever put out each got their momentum in a different way. Sleater-Kinney's biggest momentum was from the press—that, second to Radiohead, they got more positive press than any other band in America in the 90s. With the Decemberists, it was the public: The indie rock record-buyers, the kids, went crazy for that band, but critics kind of shrugged at the time. When Elliott Smith came out, it was falling on deaf ears. But artists were reacting to it. So there was a Fugazi interview where they mentioned that they'd heard the record and liked it. And then John Doe took Elliott on tour, and Sebadoh took Elliott on tour, and in a Beastie Boys SPIN interview, they mentioned his record.
LOU BARLOW [frontman, Sebadoh]: He opened solo for Sebadoh in ‘96, and it was at a time when no one really knew about him. We were at our peak at that point, and people just talked right through his set. It would make me really angry. I'd be like, "What the hell are you doing talking through his set? It's Elliott Smith! He's great!" I had that feeling like, “Someday you idiots will shut up and listen to him.” I remember telling him, "People won't shut up, it's making me so angry." And he's like, "I like it better this way. It makes me less self-conscious."
STEVEN DROZD [drummer/multi-instrumentalist, the Flaming Lips]: I met Elliott in '96. I was on that Sebadoh tour with Those Bastard Souls. I was very intimidated by him when I first met him. He just seemed like such a fucking serious dude. He was kind of a nobody back then, but he already had something about him. Between him and Lou Barlow, I was pretty struck. I treaded lightly.
REBECCA GATES [singer/guitarist, the Spinanes]: We toured together for [The Spinanes’] Strand in 1996. I would never really sit down and play, except for during soundcheck and shows, but when we showed up anywhere, Elliott would just start playing guitar, whether he was writing, or practicing, or just playing covers. It wasn't like, "Here I am, check me out!" It was just to himself. He was someone who was always thinking about songwriting.
We were a pretty silly crew on tour. One time I was sitting shotgun in the van with my head in a book, and I heard all this snickering behind me. I turned around and [Elliott] had taken electric tape and made an Abe Lincoln beard on his face. And every time I kept turning around, more people had this electric tape facial hair.
MARY LOU LORD: We both applied to South By Southwest around 1995 and we got turned down. So I said, "Elliott, who are those assholes to tell us we can't play?" I had this little busking amp I kept in my car at all times, just in case. So we drove down there and found a little place to play near the Driskill Hotel. I kind of wore the pants on that tour [laughs], and Elliott was like, "I don't know about this, Mary Lou." And I was like, "That's enough outta you. We're going to have our own little showcase out in front of this Kinko's."
We got a bunch of booze and started playing. I wish to god somebody had recorded this, because it was St. Patrick's Day, and Elliott was playing all kinds of Irish songs and Pogues songs. We'd take turns, and we played all night and got happily shit-faced. The people who actually had a showcase at Kill Rock Stars came by; Slim was there. It was one of the best nights of my life.
SLIM MOON: It was particularly great at that time because her and Elliott had been touring together and were really tight. There was always a huge, huge circle of people around them.
MIKE DOUGHTY [frontman, Soul Coughing]: I saw Elliott in New York with the Magnetic Fields on the same bill. No one had heard of either them. It was literally a life-changing show. I was like, "I don't want to do Soul Coughing anymore. I want to do this—when I grow up, I want to be this man." I went out the next day to whatever groovy-people record store was closest and bought Roman Candle and Elliott Smith.
The thing that I always keep in mind is the hiss from the tape on Elliott Smith; those were not sounds that an engineer would be particularly proud of. And there's some lyrics from "Christian Brothers" that I want to put up in neon across the length of Metropolitan Ave. in Brooklyn: "No bad dream fucker's gonna boss me around." I'm getting chills right now just saying that.
I met him shortly after that. We were at [Manhattan venue] Brownie's and we were talking songwriting and records. At the time, he didn't do drugs, and I didn't drink, which kind of limited our hang. But I remember him saying, “Why are there no more drummers that just pound out the two and the four on the snare, like on old Sam Cooke records? Why do drummers have to be complicated?" And you can hear that on his records and in his own drumming. He hit the snare on the two and the four and then hit a ride cymbal every once in a while for emphasis. He didn't need some crazy attention-drawing drum part to make the song a song.
I just wanted to do something with him, and between Either/Or and XO, he came down to my studio. I sat him in front of a binaural head, which is this grey foam sculpture of a human head with two specialized microphones in each ear hole that has this incredibly realistic stereo effect. So we sat down in front of this ludicrous device and he sang two songs, which became other songs later—one was "The record that plays over and over/ There's a kid in the story below" lines from "Bottle Up and Explode!" The other one ended up as "Going Nowhere”. I didn't have anything good to add to them, but I have these a cappella versions. I wish I knew where I put them.
LOU BARLOW: I related to him in a lot of ways because when he was in the zone of performing acoustically, he was just hunched over. I mean, the guy didn't really ever look up. There was none of this, "I'm a performer," you know? Almost no acknowledgement. There was almost an anger that I really related to.
I remember he was soundchecking in Philadelphia at the Theatre of Living Arts. I would always watch his soundchecks, so I was sitting there, and he covered "Thirteen" by Big Star. It just brought me to tears. Music doesn't always bring me to tears; if I hear "Love" by John Lennon at a vulnerable moment it will bring me to tears. His version of "Thirteen" was devastating in that empty theater. I don’t think he even knew I was there.
Watch Smith cover Big Star's "Thirteen" at a Sydney, Australia, show in 1999:
DORIEN GARRY [friend, publicist at Girlie Action Media]: I first met him around 1995, when I was 17 or 18 and working the door at Maxwell’s. It was a Sunday night, and he was on tour with the Softies. Not very many people showed up to the gig. None of those guys had a place to stay, and I lived in kind of a halfway house for musicians in Jersey City at the time, so they stayed there for the night.
Totally coincidentally, within the next six months or so, I got hired at Girlie Action to do publicity and I worked for him. I handled the college fanzine stuff, and we became pretty close during that short span of time. Elliott and I both collected and read fanzines.
In the beginning, that part was actually sort of fun for him, because it was like a game. It took a long time for him to develop a love-hate relationship with the press room. So he would tell me a list of fanzines that he wished some day would interview him, and then we’d see if we could make it happen. That was such a different time in the music industry. There was no internet; fanzines were our internet—and using the post office was our information superhighway, I guess. [laughs]
Because we were friends, he was able to tell me what he was and wasn't comfortable with. The more attention he got, the more troubled he got, and that’s when it got hard. The irony of it was that he was so open and honest with pretty much anybody who crossed his path, so it wasn't unlike him to tell a very personal, private story to a virtual stranger sitting next to him at a bar.
But it would infuriate him when people asked him what his lyrics were about. He really hated having to have an answer for what every character and every story was. Music was a way of channeling thoughts and feelings that were bigger than him into art, and he didn’t feel like he owed every single person an explanation of what everything was about.
I mean, “Needle in the Hay” is obviously about drugs and despair. But I when I got to know him better, I learned that song was more about what was going on in the Pacific Northwest in the small music community in the early 90s and how badly drugs were infiltrating it.
LARRY CRANE: His lyrics are parables and observations. The biggest mistake people make is assuming his songs are all confessional. It's his own life, but it's a lot of allegory. You see recurring characters in his songs.
JJ GONSON: It always surprised me which pictures of mine that he loved. That one of people falling that's on the front of Elliott Smith—he loved that one, and I wouldn't have even noticed it.
REBECCA GATES: When I sang backup vocals on "St. Ides Heaven", he was so focused on how he wanted things to sound. I have a weird way of singing harmonies sometimes and I just remember him remarking on that: "Ah, I wouldn't have gone for that note, but it works great.” Maybe this has shifted now with digital recording, but the one thing that was really special about having those chances to record back then was that it didn't happen all the time. It was this really lovely space that you created.
LOU BARLOW: When I would play Elliott's music in the house, my wife at the time was pissed. She's like, "This sounds like Sebadoh! It sounds like your acoustic stuff!" She was just livid about it. I couldn't really hear it, though; I heard much more of a folk tradition with him, and his music was more elaborate, where my stuff tended to be simpler.
Either/Or, Smith’s final album for Kill Rock Stars, is released on February 25, 1997. Portions of it are recorded at his then-girlfriend Joanna Bolme’s house; at Mary Lou Lord’s home studio; and in the basement of engineer/producer Larry Crane. Smith and Crane, after becoming friends, go onto build and open Jackpot! Recording Studio.
LARRY CRANE: I kind of knew who Elliott was through Joanna [Bolme], because she worked at La Luna. We were throwing some random party, and everyone was sitting around the backyard having a barbecue. Joanna and Elliott were there, and that’s when I first remember showing them my home studio, and Elliott saying, "Oh, I have the same tape deck as you, maybe I could come over here and do some vocals over that." The next thing I know, we were tracking the vocals for “Pictures of Me”. When we recorded that song, I remember turning to him and saying, “Oh, you like the Zombies?"
We both wanted to go in on a studio together. I had this beat-up little Toyota pickup and we’d drive around Portland just looking through “For Rent” signs, listening to Simon & Garfunkel and the Left Banke. When we moved into the Jackpot! [Studio] space and started building it, we had a boombox with CDs and cassettes and we listened to all kinds of stuff: Television, the Saints. The only thing that drove him crazy was my obsession with Petula Clark. It didn’t really dawn on me for quite awhile that we were becoming friends.
We built the place in two weeks. Elliott was actually a professional mudder—he used to run around and do different jobs to do with mudding. And mudding is a pain in the ass. There's really an art to it, you have to be meticulous. I’m terrible at it. It was gonna be my studio, my business, my name, but he was gonna have a pro-rated deal. A lot of the people that helped do all the work—we had a big room, we had to put a wall up, paint, all that stuff—we just gave them recording time; you worked for an hour, you get an hour of recording time. We opened Jackpot! in February, 1997.
Recording sessions were never really long and drawn out with him. Just three or four hours. If it wasn't going the right way, he'd say, "Make a rough mix of it for me, and let's go get a drink." Back then, it felt more like college than work. There was also a lot of silly stuff. One day, he must have seen someone wearing a Big Dog sweatshirt—that brand—and he must have thought it was really funny, because for no reason, he kept going around the studio puffing his chest out and repeating, “I'm a big dog.” He wouldn’t stop until it cracked us up.
Something else funny: A friend dropped off a Casio guitar made out of rubber, and I was supposed to give it to someone but I kept it around. And Elliott loved that thing. He would always strap it on and play, like, Stevie Wonder's “Superstition”. You can actually hear it on "Bled White”; it makes a neener-wheeee sound. He decided he had to bring it to L.A. to show Jon Brion.
DORIEN GARRY: He's been turned into somewhat of an icon, but he was actually a total goofball most of the time. He would prank call me and leave me voicemails. This was before cell phones, so I'd come home and there'd be a message that was him basically doing a whole Jerky Boys skit on the answering machine.
And he had a real thing about clowns—being fascinated and intrigued by clowns, trying not be scared of clowns. It was a constant joke: Clowns are weird. Clowns are cool. Clowns are rad. When I saw that story recently about the scary clown in Northampton who’s been terrorizing people, the first thing I thought was, “Man, I wish Elliott was here for this.”
We watched All That Jazz together once. It was the rare night where I convinced him to stay home with me and not go out. We both loved it. The main character, who's wreaking havoc on this dance community, is wearing this black leather armband. Halfway through the movie, Elliott's like, "I really like that huge bracelet thing." I'm like, "Yeah, it's pretty badass." And then the next day he's like, "Do you know where I can go get a scrap of leather?" So that's basically where the whole leather armband trend of the 90s came from—Elliott seeing All That Jazz.
LARRY CRANE: We recorded a lot of cool stuff just incidentally. Someone would always be milling about, and then he'd just say, "Hey, can you help me track this?" That's actually how "Miss Misery" came about. He laid down the instrumental and then made a cassette of it. And then at some point he came back from out of town and said, “Hey, play us that one song.” And I’m like, “Which one?” But we put it up and he put all the vocals on it that day.
Whenever we did an early version of a song, he would say “I need to send out a probe." So we'd leave a track open just for him to hear and sing along. He would look for the notes that needed harmonies, and then we’d roll the tape and he’d sing them. He was obsessive about stuff like that. When we were tracking vocals for “Pictures of Me", I was amazed how many layers he built up. The music was all on two tracks, and the other six tracks ended up being vocals. I was like, "That's a little excessive!" [laughs]
I’ve seen very few people that are solo multi-instrumentalist artists that can really work that way. It was very much like a Brian Wilson thing where he locked in. He would be playing a song on guitar and then he’d say, “Maybe this would be better on piano.” And in a split-second he walks over and starts playing it on piano.
ROB SCHNAPF: We recorded “Between the Bars”, “Angeles”, and “Say Yes” at [Schnapf and Rothrock’s Humboldt County, California, studio] the Shop. He would record one live take of vocal and guitar together, and then he would just double to it once we got it. It was just absurd. The guitar stuff isn’t even easy. It was ridiculous that he was able to just nail a vocal and guitar performance live, and he was able to double it live again. I mean, it’s not like he’s strumming G, C, D. There’s intricate little fills. It sounds so natural, and so simple—then you try to play it. And sing at the same time. He was just really good. Understated, but really good.
I loved "Angeles". I was excited to be able to record it. We took that one organ note, which he had previously recorded, and looped it. It’s that one pedal tone, and it really felt like… something. I don’t always try to operate on the intellectual level; I like to keep it in the land of feelings and then think about it afterwards if I need to. Recording “Angeles” was a good feeling.
LUKE WOOD [DreamWorks A&R]: The most available example of Elliott's skill as a writer, and his way with metaphor, is probably "Between the Bars". It works on three layers. It's about love, at first, or it seems to be; you could look at it literally, being about going out for a night out at the bars; the imagery could easily be about prison; and, of course, it's potentially about addiction. The clarity and continuity of thought is amazing—he can take a metaphor like that and sing about it for three minutes and never leave.
JJ GONSON: He recorded Either/Or partly at my studio, which was a funny thing because, at that point, we weren't actually speaking to each other. But for months, he was next door to where I worked, so I could hear all these songs being made because my office shared a wall with where he was recording. It was hell. Good songs, though. Really good songs.
MARY LOU LORD: Honestly, I don't even know which songs for Either/Or he recorded at my house. [laughs] We had a room set up at my place, and he basically had a studio in it. Whenever he would come over, he would disappear into it for hours and hours, and we wouldn't disturb him. There were a lot of times where it was like, you know, "Where's Elliott?" And that's what he'd be doing. It was constant. He did that wherever he was; it wasn't just at my house.
JJ GONSON: That was around the time he was breaking away from Heatmiser. It's too bad, he wasn’t actually aware that you could have a conversation with somebody and say, "Look, I want to do some music that isn't Heatmiser, so I want to do this." Instead, he would just shut down and not say anything. So it was all done in this very underhanded way. I don't want to be disparaging of him, but this is just unfortunately how he operated. And then when we split up, I kept trying to juggle his solo career with the band, but I didn't have any communication at that point because he wouldn't let me talk to his manager [Margaret Mittleman]. Or he wouldn't let her talk to me. Or something. And the fact that he and I had broken up and were tearing each other into tiny little pieces emotionally—or at least he was tearing me, I can't speak for him—didn't help.
The way I looked at it: I managed Heatmiser. It was my place as their manager to make sure that they had shows to make money, and that things were scheduled properly, and that the relationship went well with all of our representatives, our label, our booking agent. As he did more and more solo shows, he disconnected from me and from the band. And I know that there were times where Elliott had songs that he wasn't taking to the band because I lived with him.
It was hard for me as their manager because I knew there was something destructive going on, and I made a decision to support him as a musician and respect his wish that I didn't share this information. But I also knew that the band was done, because he wasn't willing to communicate. I couldn't make a rational decision about how best to manage that situation, so I just tried my best to keep things moving forward and get the bills and taxes paid.
Tony [Lash] and I were like: "We just have to keep it friendly, keep moving, get this record done." Because they had signed a contract with Virgin Records and they had obligations to fulfill. They were supposed to be supporting a record, so they booked a tour, and then Elliott bailed, as I recall. We're like, "What?!" This was after he and I had broken up, and he said, "I am prioritizing my solo career over the band." It was pretty shocking to everyone, because the band had worked really hard for a number of years. It could have been both.
TONY LASH: It was almost mid-tour with Heatmiser when he really wanted to change up the sound of the band. This might've been the genesis of struggles between the two of us, because I was resistant to that, but it was mostly because, as a drummer, I liked playing rock stuff; playing quieter music wasn't really my strong point back then, so I was hesitant. He was immediately frustrated. During that whole time, I remember enjoying playing concerts less, but thinking the music was a lot better.
I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to Either/Or, because he was recording and finishing it just as tensions were highest. I still haven't really listened to that album. We went down to California to shoot a video for "Plainclothes Man" and I drove around with him and he played it for me. I thought it was good, but there was just a lot of tension at that point.
LOU BARLOW: Somehow, we ended up doing the overnight drive from Phoenix to San Diego together in his car when we were touring together. We just talked the whole time, and that was probably the closest I got to him at that point. At that time in Sebadoh, I was like, "I gotta kick the drummer out. This sucks. He's a really good friend." He'd had some issues moving forward from Heatmiser because those were his buds, and going solo was a big change for him. We discussed changing and sometimes leaving your friends behind for the sake of moving forward creatively and artistically. He was a really smart guy.
On the cover of Either/Or, he's standing in front of this mirror, and I was there the night that picture was taken; our tour manager took that picture, and she also took an identical picture of Sebadoh, with the exact same angle. I've gotta find that somewhere.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: When he opened for Mark Eitzel from American Music Club at Brownies in New York in ‘97. He finally got the room to be quiet. That was the big challenge; there was this core audience that would sit up front and be quiet, but at the bar people would be talking and the cash register would be going. There was a Troubadour show where people asked the bar not to ring up anything on the cash register during his set. You could hear a pin drop. That was the first time I remember the vibe being different. People weren't just there to see this next big thing. It was, “I need to see this guy.”
SLIM MOON: One of the side effects of his popularity as a solo artist, which also was a side effect of Heatmiser breaking up, was that Virgin no longer had this attitude like: "It's fine if he does this little solo thing on the side because it's not very important." Now that they thought of his solo career as valuable, he was really unhappy with Virgin, so he wanted to leave and go elsewhere. My own perception was that although it kind of sucks to be stuck in a contract you signed a long time ago, when you're having success, it gives you some leverage. I felt like it was a good problem to have; he may have just felt like it was a problem.
In 1997, Elliott Smith is bought out of his Virgin contract by DreamWorks. He settles into Sunset Studio, on Sunset Boulevard—the studio where Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, Led Zeppelin II and IV, and Beck's Odelay were recorded , among others—with producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock to begin sessions for XO, his DreamWorks debut.
LUKE WOOD: Someone gave me Roman Candle from Cavity Search when it came out. I was just starting to do A&R in the record business, and I remember being in my Volvo 240 in Silverlake, which is every bit the cliche it sounds like, sitting in front of my house playing the songs over and over again. It was the punkest record I had heard in so long. He played it on an acoustic guitar, but the lyrics were so intense, and his voice was so believable. At the time, if I remember correctly, he was listed under his birth name of Steven Smith. I called him up; I was working at Geffen Records at the time, and he was in Heatmiser. He was really sweet and very appreciative, but said, "I'm cool, thank you very much." I didn't speak to him again until maybe 1997. By then, I was pretty much fanatical. Elliott Smith and Either/Or had come out, and both of those were my favorite records of those respective years. So when I went to DreamWorks to start my A&R career, Elliott was foremost on my mind.
LENNY WARONKER [DreamWorks co-CEO]: Tom [Rothrock] and Rob [Schnapf] came to see me when we first started DreamWorks. They played us Elliott Smith, among other things. It was something from Either/Or, I think, and I said, "What the hell is that?" Just the sound of his double-tracked voice and the acoustic guitar was so unique—maybe there was some George Harrison in there, but what he was doing was uniquely his. And they said, "No, that's not available."
It was pretty much predetermined that he was gonna move from Heatmiser, but there was still the Virgin/Capitol part, and Elliott had to sort of do that himself. He had a contractual obligation there, both as Heatmiser and as a solo artist. I had a meeting with Margaret and the President of Capitol Records, Gary Gersh, who was very cool. He didn't want to force somebody to stay with him. He knew how great Elliott was, and did what he could to keep him, but he didn't want to do it over a gun.
Later on, Margaret, Elliott, and I met for lunch. The first 40 minutes of that meeting were really rough because he's so shy and doesn't say much. He had an orchestration book under his arm and I actually pointed to it said, "What do you have there?" That opened the conversation and then it was a good solid hour of talking about music and some of the artists that I had been associated with that really affected him. He was saying, "I'm gonna start thinking about using an orchestra on my record." He was testing my response, I think. So I went into my Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks speech about how interesting it is when you orchestrate and go beyond just rock, and I think that pushed some of his concerns aside. I mentioned the right artists, and he relaxed.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: It definitely started with Lenny. Elliott felt good knowing it was one of the top guys behind him, because it was a big, big jump.
ROB SCHNAPF: Here’s the thing about Either/Or: It could easily have been bigger-sounding. We could have blown it up more, but he wasn’t ready to do it just yet. He was heading that direction, though. Elliott never did anything he didn’t want to do. With XO, we didn’t have any specific conversation about it, but I could tell: He was just ready.
TONY LASH: Maybe he kept things low-key in the beginning as a deliberate way to distinguish his solo material from Heatmiser. I can only speculate, but it seemed like that to me. So, freed from the constraints of Heatmiser, he could incorporate whatever he wanted into his songs.
LENNY WARONKER: He never felt intimidated musically and he was quite open about things in the studio. We didn't stop by often, but when I was there, if I had a thought—even if it was bad—he would listen. It was almost like he was taking notes. I made some reference to the Beach Boys at one point, suggesting the possibility of adding an odd instrument, maybe a woodwind, and rather than either file it away or just go "no," he was intrigued by it.
The harmonies and the vocal parts were so much more predominant on XO, and that gift, along with all the other gifts that he had, was a surprise. It shouldn't have been; you could tell from his earlier records that it was there, but not to that degree. He completely stepped up. I was so taken by what he was doing.
His stuff was always so precise. Most great songwriters are very economic, and he was, outside of Randy Newman... well, I shouldn't say it this way. But he was as good as it gets when you're talking about layers within lyrics. There was so much in it with so few words, and as fragile he sounded, he was in complete command.
ROB SCHNAPF: He was brisk in the studio. Speed was never the focus, but at the end of day one we had “Waltz #1” basically done. We came back the next day and added that big old bass drum to it, and added strings to it after that, but the meat of the song—vocals, everything—was done.
Songs would just come up. Maybe they weren’t necessarily written in the studio, but they'd be written while we’re making the record. It’s hard for me to say exactly what the deal is, but in this case there was a convergence of inspiration and it made something happen. A lot of times, I think he had stuff kicking around for years. His dad had told me they were very similar in that way, because his dad was a painter. He was like, "I work on a painting and then I put it away for 10 years, and all of a sudden I know how to finish it." So he carried bits around.
TONY LASH: There was a song on XO that was probably the best song we did, as Harum Scarum, back in 1989 or 1990. He reworked it for XO, and turned it into "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands". The old song was called "Catholic". That was surprising to me. I think he ended up doing more of that later, pulling out really old ideas and reworking them.
LARRY CRANE: I was there when they did the horns and string overdubs on XO. They brought [string arrangers] Shelly Berg and Tom Halm in to flush out the ideas that Elliott had played out on a keyboard the week before. He gave them the MIDI files and talked to them about what he wanted, and they went and arranged it and played us these synthetic strings, as a mockup. Elliott was silent the whole time. Then we shake hands and say “OK, we’ll see you at the string session in a couple days." The minute we're back in the suite, Elliott turns to me and says, "Oh man, I don't like what he added, but I don't want to offend the guy." And Tom [Rothrock] overheard that and was like, "Wait a minute, what did you say to Larry!?" So we march back there, and Elliott tells them what he doesn't like, and Shelly says, "Yeah, you basically stripped it back to what you gave us in the first place.”
I’m a lot more cavalier, I guess; if it’s a hired-gun arranger, and I have to change or throw away what they're doing, I don’t give a fuck—the only thing that matters is if the artist is happy and the record comes out as good as we can make it. I was blown away that he would even half-think that way. He just didn’t want to ever have an issue or conflict or bum other people out, but by doing that, ironically, he usually bummed people out anyway. He could be really stern with me, and he would be stubborn, within Heatmiser, about what he wanted.
Watch the video for XO's "Baby Britain":
Around this time, Smith contributes the original song “Miss Misery” to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Soon after XO sessions are underway, they are interrupted by the news that the track has been nominated for an Oscar.
GUS VAN SANT [director, Good Will Hunting]: I knew about Heatmiser, and I saw them one time at Pine Street [later changed to La Luna], which was the center of a lot of alternative bands during the 80s. But I didn't really know too much about their music. Mostly I had these these two CDs from my friend Steve Birch, who worked for a lot of bands because he was an artist and designed covers. He’d picked up a bunch of CDs for me from this store called Locals Only around 1994, and Roman Candle was in the pile. Elliott’s music was something I just happened to put on at one point. It reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel. Although, before I met Elliott, someone said, “Don't mention Simon & Garfunkel to him.”
As I do with most films, I try and find some music that you could use throughout, not just a sampling of lots of different artists. And I thought it might be interesting to try that with Elliott. I told the editor, Pietro Scalia, who's now one of the most expensive editors in Hollywood, to try his music and it just worked. As soon as we decided we really did want it for sure, the next step was to ask Elliott whether that was OK. My boyfriend worked with Joanna in a bar, so he got me the number and I just called him up.
LARRY CRANE: I was out running errands or doing something, and I come back around and Elliott goes, “Oh, Gus Van Sant came over and I played him that song we recorded.” And I’m just like, “What! I wasn’t here?!"
JJ GONSON: I remember hearing vaguely about Good Will Hunting, early on. I knew Gus was in town, I think. Elliott and I weren’t speaking much by then. He started dating Joanna and just as I was his world, she was now his world. I certainly didn't hang out with him. We were not friends at that point.
LARRY CRANE: The studio asked if we had anything original and unreleased we could put in there, and we played them "Miss Misery", and they thought it was great. Later, I was in the middle of a session, and I got this phone call like, “This guy’s going to show up to grab the tape.” They put a guy on a plane in L.A., and he flew up, and got in a limo—it wasn’t just a goddamn cab, it was a limo—and pulled up in front of the studio later that same day. He grabs that one reel, jumps in the car, and goes back to the airport to fly back to L.A. What a joke.
Rob Schnapf and Tom [Rothrock] remixed the song down there, and then they basically had to pretend that it had been written for the movie in order to get an Oscar nomination. Elliott couldn't say it was actually tracked before he'd even heard of Good Will Hunting! It doesn’t matter now, you know? [laughs]
SLIM MOON: Either/Or came out in February of '97, and Good Will Hunting came out later that year. But I had put out a lot of expensive records all in one year, and had kind of overdone it, and we were a small operation. It was just three of us in an apartment, and I didn't have any line of credit or anything. I had gotten myself in a situation where I owed the manufacturer of the records a tremendous amount of money, and it was going to be four months before I started to see money trickling in from all of it. I had really screwed up.
So I was in my bedroom at the Las Vegas Hilton, of all places, at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers convention—I wasn't there just gambling away the money that I didn't have [laughs]—when Elliott's publisher called me and said he'd been nominated for an Oscar. That saved our business.
ROB SCHNAPF: I remember going into the studios and doing vocals and piano on “Miss Misery” pretty early in on XO, and all of a sudden he gets nominated for an Oscar and it just changes everything. It became really hard for him because, for one, he’s playing everything, so he never has a break: Elliott plays drums, then plays bass, then plays guitar, then plays piano, then sings. And before that, he would have interviews from like 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. talking to people, international press, all over the place.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: All of a sudden, he had to do interviews for Us and People and all these magazines that wouldn’t have touched him. And they don't care who you are. They just want to talk about this one song. We were trying to focus on recording XO, but my memory of that time is all about just getting him to sit down in the lounge of Sunset Sound to do interviews.
GUS VAN SANT: As soon as the nominations came out, all of us were assigned different campaign duties. Elliott played in a little club in TriBeCa near the Weinstein Company, which was partly organized by the movie promotion. It was just a simple thing, but it wasn't his own thing, so he was all nervous. He didn't really know what to wear, so he just put on some slacks. With his schedule, he didn't have a place to change, so he changed on the subway platform and got reprimanded by a cop.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: We had to go to Capitol Studios and rehearse with the orchestra for the Oscar performance. They were impressed with his knowledge working with an orchestra and writing out his piece. We had a trailer, which was a trip to him. We saw the stage and what the audience was going to look like; there were all the signs on the chairs saying who was going to sit where.
They were trying to figure out how he would come out, how to make him perform. They wanted him to sit on the set of stairs that everyone would walk up to get to the podium, and we tried that. They really wanted him to be the guy who comes out and sits on the stairs. I walked out to [Oscars producer] Gil Cates, kind of shaking and saying, “I’m sorry, that can’t happen. He’s not going to do that.” Elliott wouldn’t say anything, so I had to do all that, which was very stressful.
ROB SCHNAPF: It was scary because they were like, “We want you to play with a rope as a guitar strap.” “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” “Well that’s what we want you to do.” “Well, I don’t want to do that.” “I want you to sit on the steps.” “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” There was this feeling: “Well, we’re the Oscars, who are you?”
LARRY CRANE: The Oscars people came to Margaret and said he’s only going to be playing a verse and a chorus, and Elliott was like, “I don’t want to do it then." Simple as that. So they said they’d just get someone else to play his song: “Here’s Billy Joel!” Or it’s Matt Damon in a top hat.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: The day of the ceremony, me, Rob, Joanna, and Elliott pulled up to where all the limos were pulling up, and I was trying to figure out how to get Elliott down the red carpet, which was chaotic. The four of us started to walk down one side, but Rob and I got pulled away, like, “This is the side you go on.” The photographers were just trying to figure Elliott out. Nobody knew who he was.
GUS VAN SANT: He had a white suit, and it was kind of amazing. As soon as the curtains parted, I saw that the entire stage was decorated as the Titanic. I thought, "Oh, I see." Hollywood was so excited that they had a movie that grossed a billion dollars and they were gonna show it. So Celine Dion had a full orchestra. Elliott had a little bit of an orchestra, too, but it was all very tiny in comparison. They used a lot of fog for the show, presumably because it was the Titanic, and it made me very sick—three hours of that stuff blowing on you and you just get a severe hangover.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: We met Matt Damon and Minnie Driver. Minnie started hanging out with him after that—I think they may have had a little thing for a while. I don’t know if it was anything serious, or if she just got into his music. Then there was the Governors Ball dinner that everybody goes to right after the whole event ends, which was pretty hilarious. We sat with Fay Wray, who was in the original King Kong. Elliott met that guy who played the detective in Jackie Brown, Robert Forster, too.
But the highlight of that event for Elliott was that Celine Dion made him feel comfortable, from backstage to onstage. It really was amazing. She made him really feel at home, like he was one of them.
ROB SCHNAPF: Celine Dion was really awesome to him. She really was.
Watch Smith perform "Miss Misery" at the Oscars in 1998:
LARRY CRANE: I knew it had no chance in hell of winning. I was hoping it would, but come on; it’s up against the song from Titanic. It’s funny, the woman I’m married to now was my friend at the time, and she came and picked me up and we went and watched the Oscars at La Luna. We had so much history with Elliott and Joanna there, and it was awesome because it was queer night at La Luna, so we went and watched it with all these wonderfully raging queens, who were like, “Oh look, there she is, oh my god, she’s beautiful!” whenever someone came onstage.
GUS VAN SANT: The Oregonian wrote a really catty review of the Oscars saying they were boring, and that Elliott's appearance was “grunge lite.” They were just making fun of the whole thing. But through all the sort of showbiz-y stuff associated with the Oscars, he was happy that it was the one thing that his mother could tell her friends her son had done. He was a singer, yes, but now he'd been nominated for an Academy Award. He was really happy.
We mostly went our separate ways after that. I went to a show at the El Rey and, I think because I was a movie guy, I was always looked at like, "What's this guy doing here? Who the fuck does he think he is?" I didn't find a comforting home in his music crowd.
REBECCA GATES: If one of your friends is suddenly performing on the Oscars, there's a sense that something's shifted: a shift in opportunities, a shift in who's paying attention. I just loved that he was hanging out with Celine Dion. He was like, "Hey guys, you get so many weird gifts when you go the Oscars." He felt weird about it; it was a cool thing, but it was a weird thing. There's a part of being good friends where you try to keep things normalized. We just said, "You looked hilarious up on stage. You did a good job, it was excellent."
DORIEN GARRY: He had tremendously low self-esteem, so it was very awkward for him to all of a sudden be revered by so many strangers. Ultimately, I think that was the hardest and most confusing thing for him. He couldn't understand what the big deal was, I guess.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: There was definitely a pace with Elliott, like, “We’ll get there. Can we just take it a step at a time?” It was my job to get everybody on board with that. He eventually did everything he was supposed to do. Most of it he knew he wouldn’t like, but he did it. Lenny and Luke never really complained.
LUKE WOOD: He was extremely reluctant about promotion in general, but it wasn't because he thought he was too good for it, or because he thought it was selling out. It was really because he felt like the music should speak for itself, and everything else was redundant and irrelevant and silly. “Why do I talk about ‘Waltz #2’? Listen to the song!” He really believed what the song meant to you is what it meant.
I think what Elliott wanted out of his situation was the capital afforded from a major label, because there were things he wanted to do creatively. He tried to find the place that had the most patience and would fuck with him the least; he never wanted to feel like he was singing for his supper. I will say, I felt like he did enjoy the shows. He was reluctant occasionally, when the monitors weren't great or something else was off, because he was a perfectionist and that stuff would drive him crazy. But he'd often come back after a show with a smile on his face and say, "That was fun tonight, I really enjoyed it."
STEVEN DROZD: We ended up doing some shows in Sweden together with Elliott playing with his full band around '99. I was in pretty bad shape at that point, but we just really hit it off, and next thing I knew we were getting drunk and playing acoustic guitars on his tour bus, driving through Sweden. As miserable as I was on tour at that time—I was really strung out and I couldn't get anything in Scandinavia, and I was going two or three days without really sleeping—he and I would drink whiskey and play Elton John and Big Star songs at four o'clock in the morning on the tour bus. It was incredible.
He and I did ecstasy on the tour bus one night and we were listening to Elton John's Greatest Hits. His favorite was actually "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", so we played that one a lot. My favorite Elton John song is "Daniel"; my son is named Daniel and he's partly named after my wife's father, but also partly named after that song. So we get to that song and Elliott stops it, and I'm like, "Hey, what are you doing?" He says, "Man, I never liked that fuckin' song. Who is this fuckin' Daniel guy, anyway." I try to tell him it's this character whose brother had been to Vietnam, and how they cut out the last verse because it was too weird, trying to sell him. He wasn't having any of it. "I don't give a shit! Fuck 'Daniel', we're skipping 'Daniel."
Figure 8 (2000)
In 1999, as touring for XO winds down, Smith begins working on what would eventually become its ambitious follow-up, Figure 8.
AUTUMN DE WILDE [photographer, cover art and inserts for Figure 8; director, “Son of Sam” video; author of the 2007 photo book Elliott Smith]: We first met because I knew his manager, Margaret Mittleman. Later, we met on the street in New York and hung out that whole night. Someone had spray painted “freak” in a bunch of places in New York, and he thought it was funny, so the next morning, I took some pictures of him standing in front of the word “freak.” It was a very unofficial beginning. I was in no way pursuing work.
A bunch of time passed and then my manager asked me to submit my portfolio, which was mostly photos of my friends, for Figure 8; I had a photo of Steve Malkmus from being on tour with them, and some photos of Beck, and probably the Eels. Then, at the back of that book was a photo of him, and he realized whose portfolio he was looking at.
One of my first questions was: “Do you want to change anything about how you're portrayed?” He immediately said, "I feel like everybody thinks I just want to sit in little dark rooms and look depressed in my photos. There's never any color or light, but I love color so much." We talked about all the things he loved, like French New Wave. He was a cinephile and he had a great taste in movies.
He also mentioned being sick of his own clothes, so I said, "Since this is accidentally your uniform because you didn’t want to dress up for photos, maybe we should put you in suits, but it should look like someone's suit who has been gambling for days and sleeping in it, the kind of suit that is a man’s uniform, not someone dressing up." I was really inspired by photos of the "Forgotten Man" during the Depression, when men were wearing the last suit that they had at the time, just trying not to starve to death. It's the kind of suit that is worn in the rain and shrinks on the body and becomes a second skin, which is different than someone who willfully dropped out.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that he wore a suit in the "Miss Misery" video or at the Oscars. I was trying to come up with a way for him put on clothes that expressed an idea without feeling, like, “Elliott Smith is changing his image." He wasn’t worried about that, but I was. I didn’t want it to seem like I messed with something that didn't need messing with.
It soon became clear to me that I wasn’t dealing with someone who was worrying about how he looked, but rather someone who was making sure whatever it was we were doing was telling the right story: looking at what all these photos mean; not taking them if they don’t mean anything; making them have the right relationship with this record. That was the beginning of me feeling very lucky to be working with him.
I was warned by Margaret that he probably only wanted to do the photoshoot for a few hours, and that I should try to get as many photos as I could. But we shot for like 12 hours. People always said that he didn’t like having his photo taken, but I think he didn’t like the process as it had been presented to him up until that point. With us, it was a creative process, and he really enjoyed it; it wasn’t just about 400 photos of Elliott Smith.
LUKE WOOD: Elliott was living in my neighborhood in Silverlake at the time, and he demoed some of the Figure 8 songs at my house, because I had a small studio. He'd be there during the day while I was at work, and I would get to come home and hear these things as they came together, and literally look at his sketchpads of lyrics. Figure 8 is a very specific record. Just like XO, it's different lyrically and slightly more esoteric, but he had a real idea of what he wanted to say.
It was such a joy watching the thought he would put into small things as he wrote: Should it be "to" or should it be "at?" Should it be first-person or second-person? Should this be plural or singular? Where should I put the modifier? He would write five different versions of a sentence, only changing the modifier. His music was unbelievably well-thought-out.
AUTUMN DE WILDE: As far as the cover, I was trying to figure out how to bring color in without it feeling manufactured and artificial in his world. I said, “What if you are who you are, but you’re walking in front of something that doesn't match, like when you are having an argument with someone in front of a really colorful mural.” I grew up in L.A., so I had my first kiss with someone I loved in a parking lot of a Denny’s in Hollywood, and that became a symbol of our love. So I went out to take some pictures of locations.
I went to a junior high down the street from the Figure 8 wall—well, now it's the Figure 8 wall; then it was The Sound Solutions wall. I have childhood memories of girls getting beat up in the parking lot of the McDonald's next to it. I took photos of a lot of murals and weird signs from Echo Park to Silverlake and asked him, "What if this was our set?" He loved that idea because it was like seeing something he saw every day and didn’t realize how amazing it was, which is a very Los Angeles thing: When you start narrowing your vision to one thing at a time, you start seeing little gems in the Los Angeles landscape.
ROB SCHNAPF: Figure 8 was recorded all over the place, not all at once. XO got really hard to do because of him playing everything, so for Figure 8 I said, "When you have a batch of songs, let me go record them. We can do it in two-week spurts, that way it’s not this huge, epic burden on you." There was one batch where he did it all, another batch where Sam [Coomes] was more involved playing bass. Then we were in England at Abbey Road, and [drummer] Joey Waronker happened to be in town with R.E.M. and we cut a bunch of songs [with him].
I had never been to Abbey Road before then, and I haven’t been back since. On one hand, it’s just a studio. But then I’m moving the U47 [microphone] around and I'm like, "Wow, it’s got those pop filters just like in the Beatles book… oh, wait." All the same shit is in there. The whole week we were there there was this upright piano that sounded so familiar when you played it. I bugged the assistant and he would never tell me anything, but finally he relented and was like, “Uh, 'Penny Lane.'” And not only is it “Penny Lane”, it’s all those songs where you hear that tack piano—and not only Beatles stuff, like “Martha My Dear”. It’s also Odessey and Oracle and Pink Floyd and tons of others. When I got back home and started listening to records, I’m like, "There’s that piano again." I have a picture of it on my refrigerator.
As it developed, I noticed that Figure 8 was less literal but more impressionistic lyrically and also texturally. There were parts of it that were a little more ethereal. For this record, I wanted to see what he would do with the Boomerang looper, which is a simple thing to make loops. I showed him how to use it and then all of a sudden I had all these little interlude pieces. So while Tom [Rothrock] and I were working on something that required Elliott, he’d be out making those loops, and we’d just use them as segues to get to different things. One turned into a song called “Dancing on the Highway”, which didn't make the record. It’s a really cool song.
AUTUMN DE WILDE: He requested me to direct the "Son of Sam" video. I was shocked and I think DreamWorks was pretty shocked, too. I hadn’t directed a video before. To their credit, they rolled with it. It was inspired by La Jetée and The Red Balloon. I would never try to get rid of the sadness that was connected to his songs, but there is so much more in them—so much great poetry that represented abstract and direct ways of explaining how you feel to someone. Not everything was a diary. Some of it was role-playing, becoming other people and singing from their point of view.
For Elliott and I, the best part of this video was how funny it was trying to get this balloon to behave. If it was windy we were fucked, you know? I later found out that The Red Balloon had this giant puppeteering crane. Luckily, we did a test day. Somewhere, there is a clip of Elliott slapping his arms in dismay and being overwhelmed by the balloon hitting him in the face for like the 70th time. It was on one of those giant stairways in Echo Park that I think was in a Laurel and Hardy film, and he's at the top. He was just looking really pissed off, like he was gonna get in a fight with the balloon, and then laughing, and then angry again. The art director figured out you had to use fishing poles, and you can see it in one shot. At the end of the video, when the balloon dies, we all got really sad—and then we were laughing hysterically at how attached we had gotten to this badly behaved actor.
TONY LASH: I didn't really dive into Figure 8 very deeply. I could feel the emotional remove when I heard it, and I really didn't like that. XO still seemed more emotionally engaged. I remember telling him that I thought "Waltz #1" was my favorite song on XO, and he was like, "Yeah, that's the best one." That was a nice little re-bonding moment. Then the sound of Figure 8 was like: "Here's a bunch of really good chord changes and notes." But it was missing that feeling of him directly engaging.
DORIEN GARRY: That was the period where things got unhealthy for him physically. He had someone on his crew that was a bad influence. Not someone in his band, but someone who was working for him, who was notorious for getting musicians drugs and doing them with them. It was around the same time that the relationship he’d had cut him off from people for a while. I mean, I knew what a lot of that record was written about, and by that point everything felt so over the top and overwhelming that it was a little bit hard for me to just sit back and enjoy the music. Elliott definitely channelled whatever was wrong in his life or upsetting to him into his music like tenfold.
LOU BARLOW: I saw him at a party in L.A., and he was actually a really good croquet player. I learned croquet from Elliott. Anyway, I said something like, "I think I'm drinking too much." And he's like, "Well, can you feel your liver?" "What do you mean?" "When you drink too much, you can feel your liver literally pulsing from your side." I was poking for it, trying to feel it, and he's like, "Can you feel it?" And I'm like, "No! Where is it?" He's showing me where it is and telling me when it gets really bad, it pops out the side. I think it's something his dad had told him. I was like, "Man, I guess I'm really not that hardcore of a drinker—my liver isn't protruding from my chest."
ROB SCHNAPF: When he was on top of his game, none of that was happening. Did he drink? Yes. But when I go back and think about it, it started happening during Figure 8. It was not in the open. He was definitely not sharing it. But in retrospect, it explained some things.
JJ GONSON: He wasn't doing any drugs or really drinking very much when we were together. A big part of what tore us apart was talking about wanting to do drugs. I was like, "I just can't be around that." He didn't want me to tell him what not to do.
DORIEN GARRY: There were a lot of people in Elliott's life during different times. I'm a lucky one in the sense that our friendship managed to stretch across many different phases, whereas a lot of people sort of got cut off or just were not part of it anymore. I maintained a friendship with him until he died. I mean, I live in Los Angeles now, and I'm not a fan of probably 75% of the people that call themselves Elliott's friends from L.A. I know the ones that are for real, who had healthy friendships with him. I'm always a little bit torn about speaking publicly about him—losing a friend like that is one of the most difficult things that's ever happened in my life. But if I don't do it, you know… the people who are eager and willing to talk are usually not the right people.
From the very beginning, we had a sibling relationship. I met him when I was 18, and you don't really understand a lot of things in the world when you're 18. Emotionally, he was the most vulnerable person I'd ever met at that point. We took care of each other during not-so-fun times in our lives. I never cast judgment on him. I had to figure out a way to be concerned when there were moments to be concerned; there was a way to approach him about it, and a way not to. I think he appreciated the fact I was never going to do it the way he didn't want to hear.
Elliott wasn’t a typical alcoholic or drug addict in the sense that they try to keep it secret from people. He was very honest about what was going on. If there's one thing Elliott was not it's a liar. It was hard. I don't know which is worse: being deceived or having it just be all out in the open like that. It was very, very upsetting to know that somebody I cared about so much was doing something so stupid.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: As things got bigger, I probably talked to him less. My job had changed a little bit; I became a parent. I hired a friend who became my point person for Elliott. I would take the big-picture meetings with him, but as far as, like, "Can you deliver this list of interviews he doesn't want to do, please?" I stopped doing that. At the time, it was like “OK, you stress me out, and I’m stressing you out. Let’s have other people talk to each other and get our message across. I’ll deliver it to her, she’ll deliver it to you.” That just became easier, and I didn’t see anything wrong with that.
But somewhere in there, we lost him. I have my reasons and my thoughts of outside influences, where I feel like a parent, like, “Oh, if only they hadn’t met that person.” As if it were that person’s fault. There were a couple of people who I wish we hadn’t had in his circle at the time, in retrospect.
I became blind to a lot of things. I didn’t know, but other people around me knew. The Rolling Stone[-sponsored tour] didn't seem super fun for him, but he seemed fine. He was doing everything he was supposed to do, but it was a corporate sponsor, you know? All these corporate people at the shows. Not Rolling Stone people, corporate people. They were nice, but it was different: It wasn't a fan, it wasn't me, it wasn't Rob. And then he did the European tour. I was supposed to go on a bunch of those dates, but I cancelled. He just was not pleasant, and I didn't want to be around it. I was supposed to go to Japan and I didn’t. I just wanted him to get through all of it. In hindsight, I see what was happening. He came home a mess.
AUTUMN DE WILDE: His behavior was becoming more erratic. He’s not the first person I’ve experienced this with, where drugs overtake the personality after a certain point. That’s when you see that there is nobody who is enough of an individual to be an individual on drugs—even the most original person on earth, which I think he was. Some people hold onto their friends when they’re sick like that, and some people systematically try to destroy their relationships in order to not drag them down with them. I don’t know how much credit I should give him, but I felt like he systematically destroyed his relationship with anyone he really respected and cared about. Whatever was left of him did not want us around while he was totally down there.
He wasn’t really hiding anything, either, in my opinion. So that meant you were either there to condone it or you were not there to condone it. And I was not there to condone it. The people who are there to condone it—and this was a very common event—are disposable to someone like that, and they become enablers because they’re there for what they need.
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: I thought it was time to get off DreamWorks. I met with Anti- [Records] at the time, because I had a good friend there and felt that he could earn money from other outside activities: Remember when the Gap was doing those commercials using musicians in the late 90s? There was interest in Elliott. And this big movie producer, Brad Silberling, was asking him to score a film. I just thought, "There's a million other things you could be doing. You're gonna be fine.”
We had tried once to have an intervention in Chicago, [circa the Either/Or tour]. Oh my god. He hated us. He never let me forget what I did to him. We’d be having a great conversation, and it would just come up again out of nowhere. It totally reminds me of the child in him, or my own kids, how they hold onto one memory of mom and dad fighting at dinner. He never let me forget how betrayed he felt. He did agree to go. I think he felt the love and the concern, but you just don't do that to him. That’s what he was like: “I’m a different person. You could have dealt with it differently.”
I visited him at the rehab place in Pasadena, maybe a month after. He finished up the leg of the tour to New York and then went. It was just weird. It felt like there was a difference between he and I.
Years later, when he started hanging out with Jon Brion wanting to do work with Jon and not Rob is where the lines really got blurred. This would have been around 2001. I just wanted what was best for my husband and for Elliott. By then, he was a different person. Honestly, he wasn’t really nice to me. He came over one day during the Super Bowl—he used to spend every Super Bowl with us—and he looked like Pocahontas. He had long hair, in braids. I just didn’t know him anymore. His girlfriend Valerie [Deerin] came over—that’s another person that should have never been in his life—and he told Rob he wanted to work with Jon Brion.
That was heartbreaking. I didn’t like the delivery; I didn’t like his choice of day, because that was something we’d done together. That was the beginning of the end for me. He came over fucked up with my kids in the house, and I just shut down. I just wanted to protect my husband and my family and myself. And when I quit, that pissed him off. That’s the part that can make me cry. There was no closure. We never got to argue. We never got to hash it out. I was more like, “Just get out of here.” I never was invited to his funeral. His drug abuse had turned him into something he wasn’t when I knew him all these years.
ROB SCHNAPF: When it happened, he was all fucked up. I had already kind of told him I don’t approve: "You want to smoke crack or whatever, that’s your free will, great. I don’t want to be around it. That’s my decision."
DORIEN GARRY: At one point I probably hadn't heard from him for about four or five months—he wasn’t calling back, and it was pretty upsetting. The day after September 11th, I came back into the house to an answering message from him. He didn't sound like himself—I mean, everybody sounded weird after September 11th, but I knew that things were pretty dark for him at that point. But his message was asking if everyone was OK, talking about how he’s taken the train and gotten off at the World Trade Center, how he’d done it over a million times. That meant a lot to me. But then I couldn’t get a hold of him again for a long time. He was in a relationship that cut him off from a lot of people at the time. It was really terrible because I’d known him through some dark times already, but he always, always reached out.
SCOTT BOOKER [manager, Flaming Lips; briefly managed Smith]: [The Flaming Lips] did a few dates in Europe with Elliott around '99, and we all got along really great. After that I got a call from him like, "Hey, would you be interested in being my manager?" I was like, "Of course, who wouldn’t? You’re a genius." I didn’t really know what I was getting into. In our first conversation, he was like, "I want off DreamWorks."
He didn’t want to record for them anymore because he was convinced that they had people following him, that they were breaking into his house, those kinds of things. Which we all know wasn’t true. But I’d be like, “Well, Elliott, I’m not gonna say I don’t believe you, but why don’t we get one of those cameras that you can buy for like five bucks and you take pictures of any car or person that is following you.” And he said, “Well, the cars have blank license plates.” I never said, "I don’t believe you." I tried to be pragmatic and realistic. He even said to me, “Well, it’s probably not really there.”
When the Flaming Lips played a show in L.A. one time, I remember him calling me saying, “DreamWorks are at my house, because my Flaming Lips backstage pass was upside down on the floor." I was like, "Maybe you just dropped it." I was afraid to say those things, but I’d say it casually. And he was like, "No, I remember putting it on my desk.” He’d have a very elaborate reason as to why. It just wasn’t worth arguing with him.
Even though I didn’t think his reasons were sound, I thought I should still let the label know he’s uncomfortable being there and let them have a part of the decision as well. So I went and had a meeting with Lenny Waronker and Luke Wood. I said, "Look, I don’t think this is a good idea for Elliott to not be on DreamWorks, and I know you guys love him, but for whatever reason, he’s uncomfortable with this. What do you guys wanna do?"
Lenny came up with a pretty elegant solution. He was like, "Let’s not say he’s off the label, let’s just let him put this next record out wherever he wants to, as long as it's not another major label." I thought that was very fair of them and I liked that they weren’t going to just drop him. It solved the dilemma of that moment.
I mean, just think about me as the manager going into Lenny Waronker, this legendary, artist-friendly music-industry person I’ve looked up to my whole life, to go in and saying, "I don’t think we should be on DreamWorks"—a label that any band would want to be on. It was just funny. But to some degree, maybe that’s part of the reason why they agreed to it as well, because they’re artist-friendly. They know that it was something bigger than an artist being mad at his record label.
LENNY WARONKER: I know Scott and I don't remember that [meeting]. I do remember that Scott was gonna get involved, which I thought might be nice because I liked him. But I don't remember anything like that.
LUKE WOOD: Elliott was trying to find a place where he could be creative and happy. I think he felt somewhat restricted at a major label: having to do interviews, go on tour, have a commercial record. He didn't like that pressure. I deeply respected him as a musician and a friend. He spent a lot of time at my house. He knew my baby. It was a really difficult period. There's a reason I haven't talked about it for 10 years.
From a Basement on the Hill (2004)
In 2001, Smith begins and ends a series of recording sessions with Jon Brion, which fall apart after Brion confronts him about his drug use and self-destructive behavior. By the fall of that year, he contacts producer David McConnell.
DAVID MCCONNELL [producer; From a Basement on the Hill]: I had XO, which was given to me by a colleague, and I really enjoyed it. Well, half of it was great. Half of it I was like, “Well, great song, but I don’t know if I like the recording or the production." And then my friend Shon Sullivan [from McConnell’s L.A band Goldenboy], was playing with him live, and he invited me out to a show at the Wiltern Theater. I was blown away. It was probably one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. So Shon introduced me to Elliott after the show briefly.
A couple of months after that show, at the end of the Figure 8 tour, he had just started recording with Jon Brion but, for whatever reason, he wasn’t happy with that process, so he split ways with Jon and got in touch with me. When he called me he was actually in Big Bear, up in the mountains, and he was like, “Man, I want to start as soon as possible, can I come down tonight?”
I could tell he was really itching to get into the studio and work with a new producer, someone who was gonna do things a little more experimentally. He wanted somebody who wasn’t so formulaic, who was willing to go down the path of discovery with him, and I guess he heard that maybe I would be that guy.
So I told him we should record in my private studio, because that’s where the more experimental equipment was. I told him he was welcome to stay in the house, too, because we had a guest room. The studio was beautiful; my ex-girlfriend actually owned the property, and it was almost like a compound, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I had named it Satellite Park one day when I was walking around because it felt like I was on the moon or on an observatory somewhere.
When he showed up, it was around 2 a.m., and he was in two cars; his girlfriend [Valerie Deerin] was driving one car and he was driving the other car, and both cars were full of all of his belongings. I mean everything from his apartment. I was thinking he was gonna show up with a suitcase and a backpack and a couple of guitars, but it was like five guitars, a giant keyboard, amps, and then five suitcases of clothes. He had toys, books, you name it. And then he had medication, and various other things.
He also brought all his his two-inch reels that he was working on at Jon’s house. So we drank a couple of beers and I gave him the tour of the place and everything, and then he goes, "OK, there’s a song on here that I recorded by myself at Jon’s place that I want to keep, that I really like. Why don’t you just mix this song for me and I’ll be back in the morning.” Then he left. He was like, "I’ve got some errands to run right now, I’ve got some stuff I gotta do.” Remember, this is 2 a.m.—well no, by now it’s 4 a.m., because we had talked about my philosophy on recording and producing for two hours.
So I put the reel on the machine and I started listening to the song, just by myself. And the first time I heard it, just pushing up the faders so I could hear the different instruments and his voice, I got the chills. It was one of the most haunting, beautiful songs I’d ever heard. It sounded nothing like the music I’d heard him do before. It sounded way more intricate, way more complex.
It reminded me of Rachmaninoff, but with lyrics, with a story. Sitting in there alone, I almost had an out-of-body experience because I knew that I was about to work on one of the best things I’d ever worked on in my life. So I spent the next three or four hours mixing the song, which was called "True Love Is a Rose". It's a shame because that song never ended up on the album. He wanted it to be on the album, it was one of his favorites.
So he finally got back, listened to my mix, loved it, and then he says, "Let’s start recording another song." At this point he probably hasn’t slept in two days.
The next track we worked on was “Shooting Star”. He told me he wanted it to have this psychedelic intensity, to take elements of Hendrix and the Stooges, but create something that couldn’t be compared to anybody else. We slowed down the reel, just slightly, so it would have a euphoric, heavy, psychedelic persona.
“Shooting Star” has three drum sets: We would do one drum take, and then we would double the drums, and then sometimes triple them. If you listen closely on headphones, you’ll hear the snare drums flailing, because there are three kits going on. He and I talked about that; I’d say "Hey, you know, this sounds great, are you comfortable with having the snares slightly out of time?" And he was like, "Man, I love it." He wanted to embrace the human quality of this sound, that was very important for him.
He wanted "Shooting Star" to be the opening track then. "Coast To Coast", the opener on the album that got released, was another one we worked on together. He recorded the drum tracks at Sunset Sounds studio with Steven [Drozd], from the Flaming Lips, and the poet Nelson Gary’s part at the end. He had two drummers playing live at the same time on that, he told me, and he stood in the middle of the room pointing at each drummer to do the changes, like he was doing his own version of conducting.
STEVEN DROZD: I went to Los Angeles to visit my then-ex-girlfriend and now wife: We'd been broken up for a few years and she'd gotten into a serious relationship and then got out of the serious relationship and I was trying to win her back. I contacted Elliott, and he said, "I know of this Suboxone doctor that's helped me greatly"—which is this drug you take to get off opiates—"and I'm doing some recording. Could you come down and play some drums?"
So we just set up the two drum kits and played at the same time. I know that you can be a highly functioning drug addict depending on what drugs you're getting into, but to me, it didn't seem like he was affected at all. He was fucking in charge of the session. People think I played drums all over that record, but it really just ended up being one song.
DAVID MCCONNELL: From that first night, he basically moved in and ended up living there with me for many months. And that’s when we did the bulk of the album. We’d be in my bedroom and he’d sit on the bed and play me songs really late at night. He played "King's Crossing" for me on his guitar one night, although that’s not a song we worked on together.
He brought his guitars, but the funny thing about Elliott is he had five of the same guitar, the Gibson ES-330. I never understood it, exactly. I was like, "OK, that’s great, we can use those, but if you want this bigger guitar sound, I encourage you to check out the guitars that I have." On “Shooting Star”, he fell in love with this old 60s Telecaster I have. Most of the really big guitars you hear on that album are that Telly because this guitar just spits at you.
He was constantly testing me. He always asked me what my favorite albums were, and it was important that they weren’t ones that were super-produced, because his favorite records weren’t slick; they weren’t perfect. Elliott was very adamant not to use Pro Tools because he didn’t want to fix things. That was one of the important things I learned from working with him on that record: The technically-correct performance isn’t beautiful. It's the performance that can’t be replicated ever again.
One of the things that was really fun and worked well was, if we would double a guitar track, we would purposefully de-tune the guitar. So for the first track, we would make it a little bit sharp, and then for the second, we would make it a little bit flat. If you played one by itself it was kind of upsetting, but when they came together, all of a sudden you’d start smiling.
I’d never see anyone use drugs like Elliott before. I knew I couldn’t give him an intervention, because he’d already warned me. I knew that I couldn’t say, "Hey, you have to leave," because if he wasn’t with me, he’d end up somewhere else which could potentially be harmful. I knew that at my place I could at least watch him.
I think I developed an anxiety disorder working with Elliott. He's one of the most complicated people I’ve ever known in my life. Every once in awhile we’d get in an argument, and he’d leave, and we wouldn’t talk for a week. Then he’d call me and say, "This is stupid, let’s go get a beer and talk." That was how the pattern went. The next day he’d be back at my place. But I loved him like a brother. I wasn’t about to turn my back on him.
It got the point when he really needed his own place to finish the record, so I helped him put together his New Monkey studio, and then continued to work with him there. That went on for months and months, and then we kind of lost track. That was basically the last year of his life.
LOU BARLOW: I was seeing him more often around that period, too. He was talking about not doing as many drugs. He had been through a really bad period and the spark was kind of coming back. He was in this really bizarre period where he was dressing like Willie Nelson—he would wear these strange silk pants with embroidery down the side and long, flowing shirts. But then he started to look like Elliott again.
He was accumulating so much gear at that time, too. He was on eBay constantly, managing a slew of auctions. This was for his studio, New Monkey, that he was building in North Hollywood. This guy who was playing drums in the Folk Implosion was also scheming heavily to be in Elliott's band and hanging around Elliott constantly. Every time he'd hang out with him, he'd come back with a different piece of equipment, like, "Yeah, Elliott handed this to me." "What? That's a $750 contraption for Christ's sake!" All of this stuff of Elliott's started accumulating in my practice space. "Wow! Where did you get that bass?" "Oh, Elliott gave it to me last night." "Really? That's a $2,000 bass." He would just be really high and tell the guy, "Yeah, you should take it."
AUTUMN DE WILDE: As a photographer, I made a decision not to document that time period. That’s not the kind of artist I am. I don’t judge someone who does that at all, but that was not what I was there for. After that point, I was there as his friend until I wasn’t welcomed as his friend. I know he loved me a lot, and I loved him a lot, but it’s not the same person. Everybody who was a close friend basically had to say goodbye twice.
JJ GONSON: I talked to him on the phone around '99, and he was a mess. I hadn't spoken with him in a very long time, because I had to say, "I can't be in touch with you anymore." The last thing he said to me was, "I'll write you a letter." Which of course he didn't do.
He burned every bridge that he crossed. He didn't just say, "Look, I need a break." He took a machete, chopped you into tiny little pieces, poured battery acid on it, then added salt and set you on fire. He did this painful, painful ripping himself away from people thing to protect himself. He genuinely believed, I think, that he was doing the right thing for other people. He had convinced himself that the world was better off not having him in it, for other people.
On October 21, 2003, Smith dies in an L.A. hospital at age 34 after suffering two stab wounds to the chest.
ROB SCHNAPF: He had been calling me the week before [his death], and was like, "Hey, I want to play you what I have for my record." I didn’t call him back. I didn’t know if I felt like dealing with it.
When our son was born in 1999, we got a phone call in the hospital room around midnight. It was Elliott. He was like, "Hey, would it be OK to come and hang out?" So he came down and he was there all night. We wandered the hospital, just hanging out. It was really cool that he wanted to come share that special time with us. Sonny was born at eight in the morning; four years later, Elliott dies on [Sonny's] birthday. We were coming back from taking Sonny to see some big IMAX rocketship thing, and I get a phone call from Luke Wood saying, "Hey, have you heard any rumors?" I was like, "No, why?" He said, "I just heard one that wasn’t good."
MARGARET MITTLEMAN: I remember Sonny bopping around the backyard in his spacesuit. We were just having a family day. It was so bizarre because I had felt so removed. Somebody called Rob. I didn’t get the call. That made me feel even worse.
ROB SCHNAPF: It was absolutely devastating. It’s one of those things: You know one day your parents are going to die, and then they die, and it’s still devastating, no matter how much you’re prepared for it. A lot of people said, "Well, you must’ve not been surprised." But I was still fucking surprised.
AUTUMN DE WILDE: He died on my birthday, which has nothing to do with me except it happened to be my birthday. Then every birthday that follows, there’s a period of mourning and a little sadness and I’m thinking, "Am I being really dramatic?" Part of what helps is imagining him laughing at me and just being like, "C’mon, dude. This isn’t a movie about your life where the perfect, crazy dramatic ending is on your birthday."
STEVEN DROZD: We were in Seattle playing the last show of a tour opening for the Chili Peppers, and a very small percentage of the crowd cared about seeing us. We found out that night. It was just awful. I'm gonna start crying just thinking about it now. It was just so brutal. It fucked me up because I went to a bar in Seattle to try to escape, and then everyone in the bar is talking about it. People were visibly upset, crying. It was crazy.
DAVID MCCONNELL: I wasn’t involved in the completion of [From a Basement on the Hill], which was interesting, because Elliott and I had already mixed several songs for the album that were done. After his death, the family took over and brought in some really talented folks, but they hadn’t been around for the process, so they didn’t really know the plans he had for the record. I thought it was odd. I don’t blame them, but I think they probably felt uncomfortable including me in the process because they equated me with that part of his life when he was using and not at his best. Maybe they thought that I was one of the bad guys. I really don’t know, I can’t speak for them. But it was unfortunate because there are many things that are different than what he wanted and planned for on that record.
Here’s something I thought would have been groundbreaking: Two songs—"A Passing Feeling” and “Shooting Star”—were gonna be mixed in mono all the way up until a certain point where they’d break into stereo. We mixed those two songs that way, and there were moments when we cried listening to them. The impact was so profound. Anyway, the family never found those mixes for whatever reason. Also, the fact that it’s missing two of the best songs is too bad. One of them is “True Love Is a Rose” and the other one was called “True Friends / See You in Heaven.” It’s not that I’m bitter about that stuff, I just think the record would have been even more impactful. But I wasn’t going to stick my nose in the family’s business. They had just lost their son and they were grieving. It wasn’t my place to do that.
ROB SCHNAPF: Dave [McConnell] was kind of an asshole. I always tried to be really straight with him. Elliott stopped working with him—I don't know why—and he just felt like he knew exactly what Elliott wanted. Then he talked shit about me in the press without ever talking to me.
Elliott’s sister [Ashley] had all the information and she had been talking to Elliott a lot. She felt like she had a good understanding of where he was going. There was one song, "Abused", that the family didn’t want on the album. Then there was another song called “Suicide Machines” that I thought was just asking for trouble if we included it. We just went through what was completed and worked off a sort of projected track order that Elliott had. There was stuff that wasn’t finished, too. I don’t even remember the names of the songs. I’d heard rumors about all this other material, but we never found it. I never heard it.
I had not worked on a friend’s record who had died before. It was weird to hear him be very alive on those tracks. You would hear him go, “Let’s do this.” You’d hear him take a drag, inhale, blow out. You’d hear the piano stool creak, and you'd think, "He’s alive." It was weird because, with all that stuff, you wouldn’t normally think about it, like how you don’t notice the hum of the refrigerator until the house is absolutely silent and it’s three in the morning.
I was hoping for it to be a cathartic release, knowing at the same time it was never going to be how he planned it, because he wasn’t there. All you could do was try; it was better than silence. It was positive and exciting on one hand, but the thing that bothered me was reading criticism about it that was unfounded. What were the options? Would you prefer to never hear the record?
People were saying of that album, “Oh, I like this version better, I liked the early versions better.” What? There was nothing different. We didn’t do anything. I didn’t record anything. I took what was there and mixed it. So all those things that are unresolved are to be that way. Unresolved.
It’s a cool, beautiful record. He wrote it when he was alive. He didn’t write it when he was dead, he didn’t write it after a suicide, or after a murder, or whatever the fuck happened. When he was writing it, he still wanted to live his life.
DORIEN GARRY: There was a space and a time after he died when I almost forced myself to listen to him a lot at home, alone, trying to process. It was a little bit cathartic. But now it’s the opposite. I can’t even listen to it. I’ve been at a coffee shop a couple of times when it's come on and it’s a hard few minutes to get through. I hope that changes. I trust that it will. I think I’ll go through another wave of grief where I can listen to him and not feel like I miss him.
ROB SCHNAPF: There was a lot of crassness and a lot of disappointing behavior from people who were supposedly his friends. But the interesting thing is: This is how history is written. The ones who were there aren’t always the ones who speak. But if people are going to go back and use this as a reference, then it should be truthful.
He would have had a great career. He would be on his own right now. He’d be like Wilco, he’d be able to do whatever he wants. He wouldn’t need the business. He wouldn’t need it at all.
I don’t really listen to the records. Elliott still makes me sad, to be perfectly honest. I enjoy it in little bits, but I end up in this particular place, so.
JJ GONSON: When I decided I needed to shut off, I really shut him off. I never heard From the Bottom of the Hill, whatever it's called. I don't know his new songs. I really don't even listen to the old stuff.
LOU BARLOW: There was an ATP show at the Queen Mary that he was meant to play, like less than three weeks after he died and his girlfriend [Jennifer Chiba] was like, "We're gonna have a show anyway. It's gonna be a tribute.” She approached me, like, "I want you to sing, because Elliott would've wanted you to sing." So I sang with his band and we did the set that he was meant to do. It was weird. I assumed I was terrible, because no one ever said anything about it, or maybe everybody was just freaked out. It was such a strange time.
AUTUMN DE WILDE: A bunch of us were tricked by journalists at the beginning, that’s why everyone’s pretty prickly about it. That was like an incredible breach of trust, and there was a great silence for a long time, from all of us.
But the loss of any friend takes a long time to heal. And then when you’re sharing that friend with people who didn’t know him—which is totally fine and amazing, because I would like everyone to know who he was, and I wish they could have sat with him—it's even weirder. When you tell people that you feel really sad about your grandma dying, they go, "Oh shit, I’m sorry." But when it’s someone famous, often you don’t say it, because immediately you worry: Does it seem like I’m name-dropping? So on top of trying to heal from losing a friend, you’re trying to manage all the bullshit in your head: What are my reasons for bringing this up right now? Is it to say that I knew him? Am I now that person crying in public so that they can say they knew him? Like, what the fuck?
LUKE WOOD: I have not spoken about Elliott since his death. I spoke to many people the week he passed, but that was about trying to express how gifted he was, trying to articulate my thoughts of him as an artist. I thought it was so important that what people remembered about Elliott was his work and not his death. My catharsis was on my own time.
New Moon (2007)
In 2007, Kill Rock Stars releases the rarities and B-sides compilation New Moon; overseen by Larry Crane, the album features liner notes by, among others, Sean Croghan and Rebecca Gates.
LARRY CRANE: Sam [Coomes] doesn't want to go on the record. Sean [Croghan] and I have been available, but we've been burnt by asshole journalists. With New Moon, I had to make a call that I was going to be available, because it was going to be of value. Maggie Vail dropped me a line when she was working at Kill Rock Stars. I knew that [Elliott’s father] Gary Smith was trying to get ahold of me. Initially, New Moon was going to be a bonus version of Either/Or, like an extra disc from that same era. But they decided that that was not necessary.
I called Gary, and we talked about the latest idea, which was a larger, more comprehensive B-sides and rarities compilation. We discussed what it involved, and I wrote up a little proposal of how much it would cost, what I was going to do. I knew I had to go to L.A. and dig through the vaults where the tapes were stored and do some research. This really opened up the question of, "Shouldn't somebody archive this? We don't know what's on any of these reels until you hear them." And he said, "Would you like to do it?" I didn't expect that to be his response, but I thought, "Well gosh, I guess I could do that."
Luckily, I was able to contact Rob Schnapf, Tony Lash, Neil Gust, even Jon Brion, and all these different people and ask questions, which made a big difference. Initially, it was New Moon and then the archive job, but I wish I could have done it in the opposite order—I wish I could have done as much archiving I could do, and then pull New Moon out of what I found. It wouldn't be that different, but we have better tape transfers now. It would have sounded a little better. And maybe there were a few more songs that could've made it. But that's OK. It's a good record.
I used to go on that horrible Sweet Adeline [fan] forum when New Moon came out, and someone was mad that I put the drum tracking on a song. People had strong feelings because they heard rough mixes of these songs for years on cassette, where things were playing at the wrong speed, and they were giving me heat for offering the right version. [laughs] I just had to approach like, "I'm going to try to mix these similar to how he mixed the record." I wasn't trying to make judgments about if the song was really good or really bad, because they all seem pretty good to me.
AUTUMN DE WILDE: My relationship with that Figure 8 wall now is conflicted. Not because I have any grievances about it, but it was my wall that nobody cared about, you know? But I’m so glad because I love the Serge Gainsbourg wall—I don’t have any painful memories attached to the Serge Gainsbourg wall. So I tend to not get too close or read anything on it. It’s so awesome that people are repainting it, but it’s burned in my head—this mural from childhood—so I can't help but think that they painted it wrong. I don’t mean to sound like an asshole. I just mean they didn’t reproduce it exactly the same, so for me it’s like a weird blip, an awkward thing to look at because my eyes are trying to correct it.
LUKE WOOD: I've been fortunate to work with a lot of great artists in my career, but as a composer and a performer, Elliott was profoundly unique. The way he used harmonic structures. He could sit down to the piano and play Rachmaninoff. He could play almost any instrument. He could go from bluegrass to folk. He would go, literally, from Chopin to picking up the guitar and playing a Minutemen riff. When you have someone that's that deeply gifted and special, you're really just lucky to be in the room.
SCOTT BOOKER: I always said Either/Or is one of my top 10 albums of all time. The sad thing is I can’t listen to it anymore, it’s too hard. I'll put it on and my mind just starts thinking of things that I don’t want to think about while listening to a record I love.
TONY LASH: For better or worse, there's a certain amount of locking Elliott away as I knew him. There are obviously a lot of reasons to be sad about him passing, but one of the things that I found most sad was that the there was a lot of deterioration that happened. For the most part, people always have the capacity to change for the better. He had become distant from my life, and our relationship had fallen by the wayside, but I always felt like he was probably the single most talented musician that I ever worked with. Once we repaired our friendship, I thought there was always the potential we could do something again some day. When he died, that possibility was taken away, along with the possibility that he could find those really wonderful parts about himself again.
JJ GONSON: I didn't talk to anybody for like eight years. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't deal. The edge needed to wear off a little bit, because it was so raw. Elliott and I have mutual friends who talked a lot, right at the beginning. Now they're like, "I'm done, I never want to hear his name again." It's interesting. Recently, it's been kind of nice: People want to know, and I appreciate that as a music lover. Elliott was fantastic. He was a hilariously funny, super-fun person to be with, someone I absolutely adored with every microfiber of my body. It will always be a hard process, but I do feel some reconciliation in other people coming together.
“I’ve always wanted to interrupt the space—more than sounding like anything, my commitment has just been to fuck it up.” Kelela Mizanekristos is nursing a nasty chest cough in an east London coffee shop. Despite her discomfort, her speaking voice is every bit as expressive as the one that leaps out of her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me.
While early features—2012’s “EFX” on Teengirl Fantasy’s Tracer, and “Bank Head”, her collaboration with producer Kingdom (which is included on the tape)—showcased her acrobatic range, Cut 4 Me mines new emotional and musical depths. While writing, she would ask herself: “What would I be most afraid to talk about?” And at every turn, her heart-stoppingly direct lyrics are engaged in a deep push-pull dialogue with the genre-blurring music of Fade to Mind and Night Slugs producers including Jam City, Bok Bok, and Nguzunguzu.
Now based in L.A., Kelela was raised in Rockville, Maryland, the only daughter of Ethiopian parents who had emigrated to the States in the 1970s. “I’ve grown up feeling very American but being constantly othered by people—there’s internalized racism and feeling weird about being second-gen.” It’s a feeling that was crystallized on her first day of middle school, where it seemed like “everybody got a memo that said you’re supposed to sit with your race.”
It was a slap round the face after elementary school, where she ate lunch with “a mixed bunch of friends.” After a year of going around to various tables with her best friend, they decided to make their own table. “We would eat our lunch together by ourselves and people would come to visit, and then after we were done with our food, we would go and hop around. I’ve always had this commitment to not being in one thing.” She draws a parallel with her relationship to music. As a kid she played violin in orchestra, at home she listened to Miriam Makeba and Natalie Cole. Later on, she hung with a metal crowd.
Being an only child, she would spend weekends and holidays with her cousins. In the car on the drive over she would “belt out” the songs from her first cassette, Tracy Chapman’s 1988 self-titled debut. That tape's modest cover, showing Chapman with her hair short and her eyes on the floor, made a big impression, too. "The album cover fucked me up," says Mizanekristos. "After getting images of every other black women thrown at you—pop stars like Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson—you get this. I looked at it forever while listening to the album, continuously trying to wrap my brain around this woman.”
And it was Chapman's “For You” that would become her reference for Cut 4 Me’s extraordinary closer, “Cherry Coffee”, produced by Night Slugs’ Jam City. She leans forward across the table to sing Chapman’s lyrics: "'Safe from the guards of intellect and reason'—that’s the line for me. It's like: 'This isn’t me filtering through my brain, it’s going straight from my chest, out my heart.'”
"The best writing points to something common, but is also nuanced: The moment when somebody is telling you they love you while simultaneously disappointing you."
Pitchfork: On the mixtape, you’re constantly grappling with this challenging music—there’s this dual magnetic attraction and resistance to it. What was the precedent for that for you?
Kelela Mizanekristos: It makes me want to cry actually, because it’s the experience of being outside and inside simultaneously. But at this point, it’s working to my advantage; after growing up inside of a context that you are so familiar with but also feel outside of, you learn to sit on top of it.
Pitchfork: Many of the producers you work with from the Night Slugs and Fade to Mind camps sit between the cerebral and visceral dance music worlds. What attracted you to them?
KM: Their sound resonated with me because it is so think-y, but so going for the body. That very intersection was exactly what I wanted to do with my voice. As soon as [Fade to Mind’s] Prince William came round to my house and gave me those songs, I just remember being like, [makes wild face]. He said, “If you did anything over this stuff, people will die.” I was, “OK, but I don’t even know how.” That was my starting point: I don’t know where I fit in. I think a lot of singers just stop there: They can’t see it so they won’t do it.
[Closes her eyes and starts feeling for the objects on the table]—this is how I’ve been learning. I’ve been going really hard trying to find something else. So their music spoke to me because it is so thought-out, so collage-y, with familiar and unfamiliar textures. When I heard it I cried. I couldn’t believe somebody wanted to do the thing that I’ve been thinking about: Give me runs in King Tut’s tomb, give me an R&B underground vortex, give me the intersections.
Pitchfork: Your songs pinpoint specific emotions, is it all personal experience?
KM: Yeah, some of it has to do with my ex-boyfriend Tosin [Abasi, with whom Kelela recorded a song in 2011] very directly. I’m not afraid to say that. I wanted to talk about parts of a relationship that we don’t usually bring into a pop context. To me, the best writing points to something literal or common, but is also nuanced: The moment when somebody is telling you they love you while simultaneously disappointing you. Everybody’s experienced that.
I also avoided a few templates and asked myself, "How can I talk about heartache without sounding like a damsel or a victim?" I want other girls to sing the song and be like, "That’s exactly it." I don’t want you to feel defeated, like, “Oh boy, why do you do this to me?” We have too many of those songs.
KM: I don’t write lyrics. I hear the track and sing in gibberish over it, then I try and fit words into the phrasing and melody that I already have set. Everything is left to chance.
Pitchfork: But that gibberish is coming from somewhere.
KM: Yeah. And sometimes I say words that are relevant. I know the emotion that it’s evoking and I can sing from that place, even though I’m not saying things. It comes out and I’m like, "Oh, that’s what I’m saying." I’m finding out what I’m saying live.
Pitchfork: You're externalizing the internal—hacking it up.
KM: That’s basically what the mixtape is: me being like [coughs violently].
Reaching 21 years of age is considered a rite of passage for most young people, but for Sky Ferreira, who did so just three months ago, the milestone is little more than a marker of where she's been so far. "I've literally been doing this half my life, since I was a preteen," she exclaims, referring to her well-documented origin story as a major-label casualty-turned-major-label outsider (while still being on a major label). We've just sat down at Brooklyn eatery Cubana Social, and Ferreira is extremely amiable, prone to exaggerated facial expressions and gesticulation; she's in constant motion throughout our conversation. Coming off of a busy day that included a photo shoot in Manhattan, she's decked in a backwards leather cap and oversized buffalo plaid flannel—a baggy slacker in fishnets.
"I was told it was never going to happen because I couldn't meet their standards—but their standards are just terrible," Ferreira sighs, talking about the many industry types she's tangled with since uploading her songs to Myspace at 14. "I didn't have anyone looking out for me, just people that wanted jobs at labels." She says she's made around 400 songs with myriad producers during her time as a Capitol Records artist, most of them left on the cutting room floor. "That was the entire fight: I wasn't going to be what they wanted me to be because I couldn't do what they wanted me to do."
Accordingly, Ferreira half-jokingly describes her debut album, Night Time, My Time, as five years in the making. But the truth is a bit more complicated. The record was largely written and recorded just last month, save for the glistening highlights "24 Hours" and first single "You're Not the One", which date back about a year and a half. "I was in a different headspace when I wrote those songs," she explains. "I had been dating someone for three years, since I was 17, and that person guarded me from everything. I never went out or did anything at all—I modelled, I wrote songs, and then I went home and watched TV. I didn't have a chance to discover myself. I wasn't really living."
The shininess of those two songs stand in stark contrast with the rest of Night Time, a grime-flecked pop record that's more uniform and confident than last year's grab-baggy Ghost EP. Lyrically, the record zeroes in on themes of regret, co-dependency, abuse, and self-reflection. "A lot happened within the last year and a half," Ferreira says, declining to go into specifics. "I had a lot of anger in me."
That mercurial sense of being—somewhere between angst and anguish, between feeling like a victim of your own circumstances and owning your flaws—is reflected in the record's slyly iridescent textures created by Ferreira and her creative collaborators Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Little Boots) and Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Haim). After the trio decided on the album's tone, Ferreira and Raisen "slammed out" the record over several weeks.
Night Time's quick-and-dirty genesis extends to its controversial cover art, which features a topless Ferreira standing in a shower with a drowned look on her face, a beaded streak of condensation separating her from the camera's leering lens. The photo was shot by controversy-baiting French director Gaspar Nóe, who Ferreira met at a party in L.A. earlier this year. "There was a point where I was in Paris every two weeks for about six months, so we'd always meet up and gossip," she says. The unnerving portrait was shot at Paris' Hotel Amour, where Nóe and his girlfriend were staying at the time. And, according to Ferreira, the nudity was a result of practicality rather than salaciousness. "Initially, we thought, 'I'll stand in the shower because the green wall looks cool,'" she explains. "And then it was like, 'Why is she dressed in the shower? This looks fucking weird.'"
The album cover drew mixed responses, especially from Capitol. "They sent photos of me from two years ago and were like, 'Can you use this as the album cover?'" she says. But the singer held her ground: "It's hard enough to be a woman making music at all, but I'm not going to start covering myself up just to seem more credible—I'm going to embrace my sexuality because I have every right to."
Even with the hubbub surrounding the cover, Ferreira's recent arrest for drug possession with boyfriend and DIIV frontman Zachary Cole Smith has proven far greater a distraction leading up to the album's release. "People think it's just another publicity thing, but the timing couldn't have been worse," Ferreira sighs. "I've been working so long towards putting this record out, but the arrest overshadows it. No one pays attention to any of my achievements, but the moment my mug shot ends up on the internet, people actually paid attention."
In the weeks following the arrest and the subsequent fallout, Ferreira found an unexpected shoulder to lean on: Cat Power's Chan Marshall, who met the singer this past summer at a music festival. "She reached out to me the night I got arrested, and I told her what happened. It was nice having some support from someone who obviously I really admire—a woman, too. I don't really have someone to look up to in that sense."
"People take anything I do the wrong way— I tend to bring out the love/hate thing with a lot of people."
Pitchfork: Self-deprecation seems to be a theme that runs through your music.
Sky Ferreira: It's a personal issue of mine, for sure. This record is really honest. In some ways, I was trying to make it universally relatable, but it's obviously about myself. I felt like it needed to be personal—otherwise, it would've sounded like every other pop record.
I wouldn't say I'm a negative person, but I certainly read into things pretty hard. I'm self-destructive in some ways, so with each thing that happens to me, I observe and try to fix my flaws. I'll be like, "What's wrong with me? What's wrong with my life? Let me obsess over it!" I'll be really upset about it. That's why I have to make my music sound airy.
Pitchfork: "Omanko" is one of the more dissonant songs on the album. How did that one come about?
SF: Justin and I were messing around, and we were like, "We like Suicide, let's do a Suicide song for fun." Then we were like, "Wait, it's actually kind of good." So we put it on the record.
Pitchfork: That song takes its title from Japanese slang for female genitalia—are you worried about people thinking that you're just going for shock value?
SF: Oh, I'm sure. People take anything I do the wrong way. [laughs] I tend to bring out the love/hate thing with a lot of people. It's fine. For some reason, a lot of these people who have been following me for so long feel like they know me and own me. Because I'm in public or on the internet, they feel like they have some ownership over me, so they're allowed to do and think whatever they want towards me—and I certainly don't help the situation. I could see how some things I do annoy people. But people don't really know me as a person, so I try not to take it too personally.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like you receive more scrutiny as a woman making music than you would if you were a man?
SF: In some sense. If a guy said the things I say, it would be considered a lot more credible: "He's being a rockstar." For me, they're like, "Oh, she's having a meltdown, it's a publicity stunt." Everything I do is an "image thing"—every band has an image, that's not new. It's been that way for 100 years.
Photo by Grant Singer
Pitchfork: Some have suggested that you shedding your pop-friendly sound for darker, more consciously "indie" sounds was a calculated move.
SF: It's frustrating. I was 14 when I started to make music and I didn't know what I was doing. People change, though. I was learning, and I had to go through a lot. I'm not trying to make people feel bad for me or anything, but it was a process, and I don't regret any of it. The thing is, I could understand people thinking that about me if I tried to brush my past to the corner, but I'm the first one to be like, "Yeah, I made those songs." And they're not bad for what they were—maybe they were bad, but I made them.
I've literally had to go through all my awkward stages in public. I was doing interviews at 16 and I didn't know what I was talking about. I was just joking around. People still bring up things to me that I said five years ago. People want you to stay a certain way because they like you better that way. Then some people don't like that version, so they say, "You're a fake." You're either too ugly or too pretty. Too fat or too skinny. You're on drugs or you're too prude. If you're friendly, you're fake. If you are mean, you're a bitch. I just realized that you can't satisfy everyone.
When it comes to 23-year-old Anthony Naples, the word to keep in mind is "versatility"—few artists manage to convincingly produce both rough-hewn techno and sweetly melodic slow-burners, let alone successfully intertwine those distant aesthetics into nearly every track. The New York-based producer channels the distribution wing of his burgeoning label Proibito through Rubadub, the enormously influential record store at the nexus of Glasgow's riotous dance scene, and helmed the inaugural 12" from the shop's own imprint. It's not a bad start for someone whose first ever track dropped just 18 months ago; released to instant acclaim, "Mad Disrespect" has been lighting up dancefloors ever since—not that Naples would ever admit it.
Unerringly courteous and good-humored, he is also intensely modest, almost to a fault. Following a commanding set in support of Four Tet at London superclub Fabric—which sees the cavernous room fill up within a half hour—I received a text apologizing for any nerves and assuring me that I needn't run the feature if I don't want to. He is, of course, kidding, not that you'd immediately know it.
That performance is the first on the fifth and longest European jaunt he has embarked on yet; before last spring, he had never left the States. Meeting away from any crowds for bagels on a drizzly morning before the show, Anthony speaks about his time working at Captured Tracks, bristles with excitement about his return to Berlin's infamous techno mecca Berghain, and explains the transatlantic difference in cream cheese.
Two days after our chat, he popped up as a special guest on Four Tet's eight-hour radio show alongside the likes of Floating Points, Pearson Sound and Caribou—artists he required a fake ID to watch at New York's Mister Saturday Night parties only a couple of years prior.
Pitchfork: What was your musical intake when you were younger?
Anthony Naples: Well, my mom was really into the electro that was going on in south Florida in the 1990s: stuff like Egyptian Lover and 69 Boyz was always on the radio. "My Boo" was a big one for her. At 15, my friend put me onto Aphex Twin, Ceephax Acid Cru, and Black Dice's Beaches and Canyons—just a few guys hanging in a basement, trading DATA-CDs.
Pitchfork: Was the interest at that point because it was so out there? I used to listen a lot of Venetian Snares when I was 15 purely because the noise was so exciting.
AN: Yeah, exactly, that's what it is. Most people in the States grow up listening to guitar music, but a lot of my friends were into weirdo shit, so we got into this purposefully—like, "If we can't get into a club for another six years, let's check out this hardcore show!" Circumstantially downloading illegal music was not an option by any means when growing up, so I was buying CDs right from the get go, and picking up records pretty young too. I don't have 100,000 songs on my hard drive. I think it's good because I can't go neck to neck with everybody who has the entire Dance Mania catalogue on their iPod.
Pitchfork: What's your setup like at the moment?
AN: Various pieces of hardware—it's mostly sample-based. Every record I've tried to find something new to add to what I have, and what I do.I'm just trying to step it up, both in terms of quality of recording and to make something that withstands these genre tags. I want to break the "outsider house" mold, if only to prove to myself that I can.
Pitchfork: Are you cautious about being put into a box?
AN: Yeah, I'm weary about it. The way people are represented, they sometimes not only embody a genre, but become a genre themselves. Then what do they have to bring to the table, other than a reiteration of this sound that 50 kids in their bedrooms emulated and made 50 times more "fresh," y'know? Especially with dance music, every release is highly scrutinized but you only have 10 or 12 minutes to say your part. It's tricky. But then Joy Orbison or Blawan, for example, have completely ridden themselves of that tag they were given from one or two records. There's no coincidence in that, they've taken control of their situation and do it on their own terms.
Pitchfork: What is it about "outsider house," then?
AN: It doesn't describe anything. The term is garbage. There's nothing outsider about the people making it—is a big square-wave bass going to make it normal again? It's always been funny to me to be lumped in with Huerco S. or something, because we make completely different styles of music. I don't think at least I'm blowing people's minds with experimental ideas—it's not an overtly conceptualized art thing. I know what makes for functional club music, but I can't do it yet. Hopefully soon! [Laughs]
Pitchfork: Do you get uncomfortable under the spotlight?
AN: What I do is really simple: I go to places and I play other people's music off records that I bought in a store, as well as making music for someone else to play or put it on and enjoy. At the end of the day, it's really not about the person who's DJing…well, it is and it isn't. People know to respect the person because of what they've heard, and they're bringing their selection, but it's not about me, and so to be put in the position where it is feels a little weird. But you have to play the game to extent. You need to do different things to keep up the cycle of what people who came before me—who came before all of us—started. Somewhere along the line someone had to put their face into it. I just don't like to get too up in people's faces about it. It's always nice for people to seek you out.
Pitchfork: That being said, how have you processed the increase in attention towards your music?
AN: It's got a little busier, but has developed really organically, and I'm extremely thankful for that. In the long run I'll be much happier things have developed slower—it's been 18 months since "Mad Disrespect" came out, and that's not even a long time. But in the world of electronic music that's a lifetime. It's good to keep a steady pace. As busy as it gets, I always filter out things that don't make sense to the overall goal I have in mind—I have a pretty crystal clear idea of what I'm doing. I've maybe ticked off 5% so far.
Pitchfork: What does that entail long-term?
AN: When you hear about Arthur Russell, no-one's like, "Oh man, he played the sickest. gig. ever." I mean, I'm sure he did, but they talk about his records, and that lasts a long time. DJing has been really rewarding, the travelling especially, but my main concern is to make a certain quality of interesting music. I think a lot of people work in a trajectory where you make some remixes and sell some records with the purpose of getting "up here." I guess I look at it horizontally. It's like a game of racquetball or something—as long as I can do better than the last time I played against myself, to supersede that, then I'm accomplishing the goal.
Listen to a selection of Lou Reed's finest moments from across his entire 50-year career with this playlist.
You can learn a lot about a person—or, rather, the public perception of that person—not by typing their name into Google and hitting Enter, but by not hitting Enter. Because it’s then that Google will autofill the rest of your query in a game of instant word association. Punching in Lou Reed’s name along with any given letter of the alphabet will yield several complementary terms. Some reference career highlights (“Berlin”, “Rock and Roll”, “Velvet Underground”), some yield basic biographical info (“Laurie Anderson,” “New York”), some speak to some of his more curious late-career pursuits (“Edgar Allan Poe,” “Metallica,” “x10i signature edition headphones”), while others blur the line between reputation and rumor: “gay,” “jerk,” “dead.”
That last one originated in 2001, when various international news outlets claimed Reed had died at the age of 57, from a drug overdose (natch). The source was an email that appeared to have been sent out by Reuters, but was quickly proven to be a fake, thereby earning Reed his most popular related search term that starts with the letter H: “hoax.” So when my wife flashed a text in front of my face yesterday afternoon from her brother that simply read “Lou Reed :(” there was good reason to believe it was just the internet being the internet. Then reality quickly set in.
Even in the midst of reports of his fading health, it was still hard to conceive of a world without Lou Reed; he seemed destined to outlive us all. There was little the man hadn’t suffered and survived in his 71 years: the infamous electro-shock therapy treatments his conservative parents subjected him to curb his teenage homosexual inclinations; the critical savaging he and the Velvet Underground received from the late-60s rock establishment; the battles with record labels over commercial accessibility; the legendary drug use that informed some of his most beautiful/tragic/unforgettable songs.
But while his personal life became more settled during his later years—he married long-time partner Laurie Anderson in 2008 and became an intensely devoted student of tai chi—Reed’s public persona as an intractable curmudgeon never waned. Where peers like David Bowie and Iggy Pop have become far more congenial in their dealings with the press during their golden years, Reed was still making headlines for telling journalists to go fuck themselves a good three decades after his myth-making showdowns with Lester Bangs. (I never had the honor/horror of interviewing Reed, however, a colleague once provided me with an indispensible piece of advice to get Lou onside: talk about guitar gear and the quality of the mastering on whatever album he was promoting.)
Lou Reed’s songs were like The New York Times for misfits.
But Reed saw beauty and purity in what seemed like provocation to the general public—the affirming honesty of ugliness. As frontman of the Velvet Underground, he oversaw a then-inconceivable union of regressive rock‘n’roll and avant-garde transgression that, with all due respect to Brian Eno, didn’t just launch 10,000 record collectors’ bands, but 10,000 sub-genres: everything from glam-rock to punk to Krautrock to goth to indie-rock to alt-country to shoegaze to noise can all be traced back to the band’s first four albums, which blew open the possibilities for underground music just as the Beatles did for the over-ground. But the Velvets’ innovations were more than just musical—they redrafted the rules on who could play in a rock band (give the female drummer some), where they could play, what they could play, and even how they were billed. (The Velvet Underground & Nico? Uh, shouldn’t the singer be listed first?)
Likewise, Reed exploded the emotional vocabulary of what a pop song could do, say, or feel. Sure, he was the first songwriter of note to not just explore but celebrate heretofore taboo subjects like S&M and the kind of drugs even hippies stayed away from. But his even greater contribution was the humanity he brought to his portrayal of society’s marginalized souls: the drag queens and junkies, yes, but also those trapped in the straight world and desperate to escape (be it through radio, or infidelity). By simple virtue of beginning a song with what Candy or Stephanie or Lisa says, we were suddenly on empathetic, first-name-basis terms with total strangers. To paraphrase Chuck D’s famous parable about hip-hop and CNN, Reed’s songs were like The New York Times for misfits.
Even as he embarked on a long and prolific solo career that initially saw him flirting with pop stardom, Reed never lost his way with unflinchingly intimate songcraft; it’s the quality that’s always separated the uncharacteristically jazzy “Walk on the Wild Side” from the realm of novelty one-hit wonders. And while his glam-rock peers were singing of ray guns and Mars, Reed was dealing in stories of child neglect and social services. The 70s is when the Lou Reed legend was forever enshrined: the sunglasses-sporting peroxide-blonde androgyne who was variously at war with the press, his record company, and the world. (Not for nothing was a rant-laden 1978 live set titled Take No Prisoners.) It’s the image that cast him as a punk-rock prototype, but one that didn’t take into account his increasing flair for disarmingly elegant and affecting balladry. And once punk actually hit, Reed became more of a contrarian’s contrarian, zagging whenever audiences expected him to zig.
Like fellow iconoclast Neil Young, the 80s weren’t always kind to him, with a string of albums that betray the dated trend-spotting and slick, bass-slapping production to which 60s survivors often succumbed during the era (two words: “Original Wrapper”). And like Young with Freedom, this wayward course would be corrected by a late-decade comeback classic: 1989’s New York, Reed’s most streetwise album in years. Not coincidentally, this back-to-basics effort was Reed’s first album following the death of friend and mentor Andy Warhol, an event that, in retrospect, seemed to spark a renewed conversation between rock and the avant garde in Reed’s work.
First came a more explicit reconnection with this roots in the form of a collaboration with original Velvet Underground member John Cale for the stirring 1990 Warhol tribute set Songs for Drella, and then a reformation of the entire band for a string of European dates in 1993. But while the Velvets’ reunion was brief, Reed’s pursuits over the next two decades represented modernist manifestations of the band’s free-ranging, experimental spirit, whether indulging in 18-minute droning guitar jams, staging grandiose, Poe-inspired rock operas, performing improv-jazz sets with Anderson and John Zorn, or releasing an album of ambient instrumentals to assist his tai chi meditation.(And this to say nothing of Reed’s non-musical activities, from leading seders on the internet, to developing iPhone text enhancers for the squinters among us.)
In light of all Reed had accomplished and endured, it’s both highly ironic and oddly appropriate that his only public address since his surgery last May came in the form of—of all things—a piece of music criticism. Last July, he contributed an album review to The Talkhouse, the music site run by journalist Michael Azerrad that assigns artists to critique records by other artists. Lou’s choice: Yeezus. It’s no mystery why he was drawn to Kanye: both have a history of blunt lyricism, pushing sonic extremities, and being caricaturized by the media. Naturally, Lou loved the record—not for the industrialized aggression and abrasiveness that so many critics have noted, but for its heart.
“I have never thought of music as a challenge,” he wrote. “You always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they’ll think it’s beautiful.” In his review, we hear an ailing avant-guardian absolutely thrilled and reenergized by the prospect of seeing his own misunderstood philosophies reflected in one of the top pop stars of today. Yeezus may not have helped Lou Reed in his weakness, but—for an artist whose influence so often outpaced his album sales—it at least helped him find his proper place.
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 Gareth Campesinos!, frontman for excitable UK indie rockers Los Campesinos!, whose fifth album, No Blues, is out this week on Witchita. The band will play shows in the UK and U.S. this winter as well.
You’re about to be electrocuted after being wrongfully accused of killing former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher...
First off, I would probably take the rap for it, because when I die I will be remembered for nothing, so I might as well be the person who killed Liam Gallagher. And I would play “Country House” by Blur, just to get one last twist of the knife in. As I’m about to be electrocuted I imagine the announcer—maybe Suede's Brett Anderson—would say, “He was a great lover of music, so just before we kill him, here’s one last song.” And the whole assembled crowd would gasp in disgust at how I’m showing no remorse for a British musical icon, and I would smirk. It’s funny, because Blur were the thinking man’s choice between Blur and Oasis at the time, but then they ended up being bigger assholes than Oasis. It’s kind of a shame.
You're a professional wrestler walking out to the ring...
This is something I used to think about a lot. I was a big fan of wrestling so I knew that my entrance theme would be Elastica's “Connection”. I’d stroll out in cutoff jeans and a vest with some good-fitting boots and big socks—the cutoffs wouldn’t be jeans I’d cut off myself, but rather jeans that I bought as shorts, because you wouldn’t want any loose threads when you’re running around that ring. Kind of a pool-boy look. I would show off my incredible body as much as possible.
As far as my persona, I wouldn’t want to have the English gimmick, because they’d have me wearing a crown, and I don’t want to do that. I'd have a bad-boy vibe, a lovable rogue. The federation would intend for people to boo me, but the crowd wouldn't be able to bring themselves to do it.
After buying over $1,000 worth of lottery tickets you finally win $100 on one...
Even though I'm $900 down in total, that euphoria of seeing that win would still exist. Right Said Fred's most famous song would be “I’m Too Sexy”, but they also had this song called “Deeply Dippy”. The first half of it has these lightly-strummed chords—I imagine myself scratching away during this part, not really expecting to win. But then halfway through the horns blare and build up into this amazing song—that's when I'm dancing my way back to the store that I bought the ticket from, and everyone I pass is congratulating me and raising me up on their shoulders. It's genuinely one of my favorite songs. I don’t think I’ve ever won more than £10 on a scratch-off, but that's a fantastic £10 to have in your wallet.
It's four in the morning and you can't fall asleep...
Tim Hecker, particularly Harmony in Ultraviolet. When I was four, my younger sister was just born and my mother had this music that she would play through the night to make her think she was still in the womb. To me, Tim Hecker is a natural progression from that. It's something I can put on in the background and cocoon my way into when I'm trying to sleep.
You're lifting weights at the gym...
There was a month period about three years ago when I joined a gym. It was one of the most confused times of my life, because it didn’t really suit me and I mostly went because I really liked the protein juices they had. The one song I remember constantly being on the TVs in the gym was “Sexy Chick” by David Guetta and Akon. It basically just goes, [sings] “Damn, you’s a sexy chick/ A sexy chick.” That’s the mindset that I personally would need to be in in order to put myself through the torture of exercise. I would defy you to listen to it without seeing rippling muscles in your head.
Your girlfriend broke up with you via Twitter...
There are two ways to take this. There’s the proper sob story version, and one of the best breakup songs in the world is John Maus' “Just Wait Till Next Year”, with the lyrics, “I'll cut off all my fingers just to touch you, you stupid bitch, you mutilate my soul.” Such a brutal, amazing song.
For the slightly less visceral take, there’s this UK cult band that's been together for 25 years called Half Man Half Biscuit, who are dismissed by a lot of people as being a joke band because their lyrics are ridiculously entertaining. They’re a big favorite of mine and have encouraged me to write about what I’d like to write about regardless of how others might perceive it. The things they sing about are ludicrous. There’s a song by them called “RSVP” that tells the story of a guy who is a caterer and ends up catering the wedding of his ex-girlfriend. The end of the song goes: “If what's in the fondue's to die for, it's got nothing to do with the cheese/ And if what's in the punch bowl seems lethal, it's because it's two-thirds antifreeze.” As far as breakup songs, that calm, evil bitterness is the best way to go.
You're on your parents' computer and can only listen to stuff on YouTube...
To me, the last Destroyer record, Kaputt, is completely reminiscent of this Scottish band from the 90s called the Blue Nile, and there's this one performance they do of a song called "Tinseltown in the Rain" on "Jools Holland". It's all weird 80s funk guitars and synth strings and clinky clunky keyboards, and it's absolutely gorgeous.
You're DJing your friend's wedding...
I don't think I've been to a wedding—none of my friends have gotten married yet. I guess we're all of that generation where nobody really gets married until they have to. But if I were to play a song at one, it would be the Waterboys' "The Whole of the Moon". It's a proper fist-pumper and it's not going to isolate any relatives.
You're putting something on the stereo after getting home from a date...
I want to be positive and assume that that date has gone well. Electrik Red are a four-piece female R&B group who put out a record produced by The-Dream, who works the same magic that he’s worked for Rihanna and Beyoncé, but this never took off for some reason. It’s the right sort of record to play in that situation, because it's great pop music, so it’s highly likely that the person you’re back with will like the record and also not know what it is. And if you can show somebody something that they hadn’t known previously but still like, that’s a very attractive quality that makes you think, "Oh, I can enjoy new things with this person." So that is my very overly-thought-out response, which drifts slightly into the insane.
You're picking out songs for your own funeral...
One song I definitely want played is “Three Lions”, which was England's official European Championship song in 1996 and the World Cup song in 1998. It’s properly euphoric and arguably my favorite ever song. I'd also want “Here” by Pavement, because it’s a really beautiful song and obviously very appropriate with its “everything’s ending here” coda.
And I can’t do this interview and not talk about the Beautiful South, because they are like my Beatles. If it wasn’t for Morrissey, I think Beautiful South frontman Paul Heaton would have been Morrissey. I love the Smiths, don’t get me wrong, but I think he’s 10 times the lyricist that Morrissey is. But he’s never been attractive or played the game or been cool or dressed well or anything like that. The Beautiful South are what I’d bring my kids up on.
There’s a track off their first album called “Love Is”, and toward the end it deals with how, when you’re in a band, people think they care about you but in reality you’re just somebody who writes songs and they don’t really care about you as a person. So it goes, “Here’s the invitation to this caring nation/ Twenty-five years from now, will you come to my cremation?” It’s an appropriate sentiment. It’d be a nice send off if I was lowered into the grave or thrown into the sea.
Secondhands is a column that examines music of the past through a modern lens.
In one of the fantasies I have about my own death, I’m lying in a small, wood-paneled room deep in the jungle listening to a song called “Cherchez La Femme” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Fat-leaved plants crowd the window. Sometimes I see birds, sometimes unfamiliar-looking varieties of monkey. They don’t bother me. Nothing bothers me anymore. When the song ends, I reach over to the record player on my nightstand and start it again. It sounds like something grandparents might listen to. Not my grandparents, necessarily, but grandparents in general: Someone who has traded in the angst of their youth for a state of terminal relaxation. Visions of nightclubs and island resorts fill my brain; places where the air smells like liquor and bananas, and the people dance until their legs crumple. I feel like a bubble floating up through a tall glass of champagne. Eventually, I die. That’s it.
None of this is meant to sound morbid; I don’t want to die any sooner than I have to. The reason I imagine the Savannah Band as my soundtrack is that death, like their music, has always seemed like an exotic experience to me: A trip to a place I’ve always imagined, but have never actually gone.
Naturally, “exotic” is a relative term: To a poor person, money might seem exotic; to someone from the barrens of Mongolia, Nickelback might seem exotic. I remember visiting Kenya as a teenager and being fascinated by the bargaining power of a cotton T-shirt with the words "U.S. SOCCER" printed on it. Of course, all I wanted was a little wooden statue of a giraffe.
“Growing up in the Bronx, where money was tight, you watched television,” the Savannah Band’s singer, Cory Daye, told Stereo Review in 1979. “I always leaned toward the musicals.”
Daye’s favorite program was something called “Million Dollar Movie”, which ran on WOR-TV 9 from the mid-1950s to sometime in the 1970s. It was a grab bag of material, some of it classic, some forgotten. The program’s opening credits present New York as a glamorous place where men in tasseled uniforms are always opening limo doors for people in overcoats and furs, where people are mostly rich and even crime could be exciting. When the Savannah Band formed in the mid-70s, New York was on the edge of bankruptcy, and Daye was working as a topless waitress at a bar called Hungry Hilda’s. “Million Dollar Movie” was somewhere she might have liked to visit for a night or two.
The Savannah Band’s songwriters—two brothers named August Darnell and Stony Browder, Jr.—met Daye in high school. Culturally, Browder and Darnell were mutts: mixed-race kids who loved the Beatles born to southern parents in a neighborhood populated by Latinos and Italians. Onstage, they wore zoot suits in homage to the gangsters and big-band leaders of the 1940s. The suits flapped like the sails of small boats. Everyone thought they were ridiculous, especially Browder and Darnell.
Andy Hernandez, their vibraphone player, was invited to join them only after filling out a questionnaire. Topics included his political affiliation, his taste in women, and his feelings on the prospect of wearing tight pants. The test was graded on a scale of 100. (Darnell was a high-school English teacher at the time.) Hernandez scored a 48. In most cases, this would be considered failure.
But in most cases, everything the Savannah Band did would have been considered failure, which is probably how they managed to succeed. In 1976, RCA released their first album. (Darnell wanted to be on RCA because that was Elvis’ label—the same Elvis who by '76 had become a beautiful clown of himself, rocketing toward death on a giant Quaalude.)
The album seemed aware that disco existed and treated it with the kind of passing curiosity that dogs do when sniffing other dogs. Most of it sounded like some eerie, glamorous iteration of big-band music that had been popular 40 years earlier, when Cab Calloway worked at the Cotton Club and Xavier Cugat conducted orchestras at the Waldorf-Astoria with one hand while reportedly cradling a Chihuahua in another—something that Cory Daye might have seen on “Million Dollar Movie”.
By October of that year, “Cherchez La Femme” was the #1 disco song in the country. The band went on to make three albums in three years, each one less commercially relevant than the last. After they broke up, Darnell started Kid Creole & the Coconuts, a band that extended several of the ideas he’d played with in the Savannah Band into new wave. (Tropical Gangsters is the one to listen to.) For a little while in the 1980s, Darnell said Kid Creole was so famous overseas that he “lived in the NME.” (My purely speculative guess is that Europe couldn’t get over just how “American” he seemed.)
He also served as house producer for Ze, a New York label that put out weird, polyglot records that spanned no wave, dance music, and theatrical lounge-jazz—a quintessentially New York sound once compiled under the banner Mutant Disco. (For a Darnell-only compilation, there’s Going Places: The August Darnell Years 1976-1983, on Strut.) At some point, Cory Daye made a solo album. Her voice sounds beautiful on it, but without Darnell and Browder, she was stranded as just another disco singer. “I was always against disco,” she once said, “but they made me do it.” The cover was an airbrushed picture of her and her cocker spaniel, a small blonde creature named Mr. Limelight. They called it Cory and Me.
Almost 30 years later, a relatively unknown rapper named M.I.A. sampled a Savannah Band song called “Sunshower”. Maya Arulpragasam was born in London but raised in Sri Lanka, where her parents were from. When she was 10, her mother moved her back to England in the midst of a Sri Lankan civil war—one that Maya’s father stayed behind to help fight. She ended up in public housing, then later went to art school in London. Mixed heritage—or the idea that you might be from two seemingly contradictory places at once—isn’t just the subject of her music; it’s what generated her music in the first place. Despite the fact that she had spent most of her formative years in the UK, she had dark skin and a long name, and knew that that’s what people would see first. In a lot of ways, she wasn’t all that different from Browder or Darnell: An artist who played up her foreignness to an audience who would’ve seen her as foreign no matter what she said or did.
At this point I was living in Brooklyn and noticed that most of my favorite local indie bands seemed to circle around some communally held fantasy of a faraway place. Animal Collective was one; Black Dice was another; Excepter—whose live shows were some of the most transformative and least explainable experiences of my young-ish life—was a third. Watching these bands onstage was less like watching musicians and more like watching a séance, or some imaginary tribal ritual. The parallels were probably intentional, and I immediately understood: As someone who lived next to a highway and rode the subway to a job where I sat in climate-controlled air for eight to 10 hours a day only to reward myself with $12 drinks, I too knew the dream of a life that seemed more primitive, pure, and connected to the heart of the matter than the one I was living. Later, when I moved to the Arizona desert, I couldn’t stop listening to Eric B. & Rakim and early LL Cool J. Suddenly, I romanticized the hustle.
That’s the way it is, I think. No matter where we are, we need to be able to imagine that there’s somewhere else. We don’t have to go there, and we probably don’t want to—if we did, we wouldn’t be able to dream about it anymore. By tapping so directly into what a previous generation had considered to be exotic, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band were almost making a joke: The so-called globalization of business and technology makes the world feel smaller all the time, but people in the city will still fantasize about the jungle for the same reasons that there are multiple compilations of Cambodian bands from the 1960s desperately trying to figure out how to play garage rock: We’ll always be more fascinated by the things we aren’t than the things we are.
Which brings me back to this idea about death. It’s possible I’ve been listening to Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City too much—an album borderline-obsessed with death by a band that, ironically, used to get criticized for trying to sound “exotic”—but I keep thinking that death might be the only universally exotic experience there is. That the grass isn't just greener on the other side, but a shade I've never seen before.
A few weeks ago I was sitting around a table in a Japanese-style house in the woods of Redding, Connecticut, playing cards with friends I have known since I was a child. I’d never been to the house before, but something about it felt familiar: the paper screens dividing the rooms, the wood-beamed ceilings, the big windows with black foliage curling around their edges outside.
Tasked with turning on some music, I opened my computer and scrolled around for a minute, then turned on the first Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band album. I was instantly back in my little jungle room. “I’ll grow a tail or two for you,” Cory Daye sang, her voice like a kite loose in the wind. “Spend the rest of my days locked up in a zoo.”
I did a little rumba toward the card table, dreaming of that quiet place on the horizon of my imagination. “It’s your turn,” someone said, so I sat down to take it.
The first song on Perfect Pussy's debut four-track cassette—technically a demo tape—tells a jarring story. "My best friend is back in town/ There's a bad taste in my mouth," sings the Syracuse band's frontwoman and lyricist, Meredith Graves. "Her eyes fell low and heavy with shame and cum/ She must have been desperate; she acted so lonely."
Not that anyone could actually make out those words by simply listening to the song. On it, Graves sounds like she's facing down gale force winds as her unintelligible shouts try to break through headlong bursts of drums and guitars and feedback. While her words are impossible to understand, it's equally impossible to deny that Graves really means them.
This intriguing contradiction also plays out on the group's Bandcamp page, where each of the tracks on their I have lost all desire for feeling EP are cryptically titled by Roman numerals—partially a nod to works of visual art—but also accompanied by written-out lyrics that helpfully translate Graves' every scream. "I'm talking about really intense stuff," says the singer when asked about the EP's titleless first track. "What am I going to call it? 'Song About How My Best Friend Blew My Boyfriend the Day After We Broke Up'?"
The inspiration for the songs on the demo deal with "really awful things most of the time, but they're happy revelations about incendiary events," adds Graves. Accordingly, when she's opening up about her troubles—whether it's falling out with the Syracuse hardcore community or a difficult breakup—she concentrates on what she's learned from those experiences; though it may not seem apparent at first, Graves' message is one of catharsis rather than anger or vengeance. She ends "I" with this: "I am full of light/ I am filled with joy/ I am full of peace/ I had this dream that I forgave my enemies."
Such bold proclamations blare forth over an obliterated soundscape courtesy of Graves' bandmates, who moonlight in grindcore, powerviolence, noise, and indie rock bands: guitarist Ray McAndrew and drummer Garrett Koloski are in the rock band Sswampzz; bassist Greg Ambler is a member of the harcore band SoreXcuse; Shaun Sutkus, who provides synths, has a solo noise project called Pretengineer.
Even in their personal lives, Perfect Pussy prioritize a kind of radical honesty. They regularly meet at diners for "band feelings time," where they offer each other support and an open forum to air out what they're going through. "We're, like, really nice," says Graves. "It's like our calling card: We're the nicest fucking band in punk.” They also may be one of the smartest. A line from "I"—"what love lays bare in me is energy"—was borrowed from French theorist, philosopher, and critic Roland Barthes, and during our conversation, Graves speaks casually and authoritatively about conceptual artists Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman, along with cyberpunk author William Gibson, the Replacements, and countless other creatives from many fields. She once sat on the floor of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art in front of Caravaggio's "The Musicians" and began weeping uncontrollably.
Photo by Samantha Marble
Though Graves grew up singing in a variety of styles including musical theater, opera, jazz, and folk, right before she started Perfect Pussy, the 26-year-old was taking a vacation from music. Her last band, noise-rock trio Shoppers, broke up after the relationship between Graves and drummer Joshua Smith came to an end. "I just took some time to remember how to be myself," says the singer. She spent a year living alone, not socializing or going to shows—just working—and the self-imposed exile reinvigorated her desire to start another band.
Perfect Pussy are currently getting ready to record an album, but Graves is still adjusting to being noticed by the internet. "I am a zit on the world's chin and all of a sudden people that I've never met before are emailing me to be like, 'You are cool,'" she says. "It's so scary! I'm not ready for people to know I exist." But no matter how crazy things get, there will always be band feelings time. "We have a good support system in place, and thankfully it's each other," she says. "Until we start doing lines of coke off of mens' butts and trashing hotel rooms, I think we'll be chill."
"Are you going to call me a cunt? Are you going to tell me I'm ugly? Well, here's my band name—do your worst, motherfucker."
Pitchfork: Were you aiming to be provocative with the band's name?
Meredith Graves: No. Really, it's just a nice thing to say to yourself. If you are born with those parts, you're born into a certain set of circumstances; I just turned 26, and I feel extremely old, and I spend a lot of my life looking at myself and my behavior and my body super critically. I think a lot of women have similar experiences, so after all this time I've spent being harsh on myself, it's validating to finally be ready to turn a corner and say, "I'm perfect and I'm not going to go on thinking that I'm supposed to dislike myself." It doesn't mean I'm absolving myself of critique, it just means I'm not going to waste another fucking 10 minutes of my life not liking my body. It's me being fucking stubborn.
Another good thing about the name is that it heads off assholes right out of the gate. Nobody can look at me and say shit about my appearance or my body, which is all too common for women in music. It's like, "Are you going to call me a cunt? Are you going to tell me I'm ugly? Well, here's my band name—do your worst, motherfucker."
Pitchfork: How did the band actually come together?
MG: They filmed this movie [Adult World] here in Syracuse at the beginning of last year with John Cusack and Emma Roberts. It's a weird sort of low-budget indie film made by this director named Scott [Coffey], who was in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Anyway, he got in touch with me totally randomly and asked me if I wanted to be in this movie. I said, "How do you know who I am?" And he said, "I'm really into music and we were looking up bands in Syracuse because we need a band for this scene." Shoppers had already broken up at that point, and he said, "I really just want you to do it." I said, "Yeah, I'll find some friends and we'll just write a song and be a fake band." I will never turn down an experience if it's something I've never ever done before.
So Garrett, Greg, and I wrote one song and made a fake band for this movie, and we ended up liking playing together so much, so we kept going, casually, for a few months. Then other people heard what was going on and got interested, and Ray and Shaun asked if they could play with us. It took us two years to actually be a band. We just started doing things seriously a few months ago, but we've been playing together on-and-off for about a year and a half.
Pitchfork: Have you seen the movie?
MG: I haven't and I'm not sure I'm going to, but it was fun. It was more about the experience than the result, but most things in my life kind of are.
Photo by Samantha Marble
Pitchfork: You mentioned "band feelings time," where you meet up and discuss what's going on in your lives. Does that idea carry over into your live sets?
MG: Every show is band feelings time. It's really "feelings time" all the time. People care that I'm singing songs about very real things—there's something really interesting to me about having a public conversation about my pain. Every time we do a show, I'm actually saying things about situations in my life that have been either really hurtful or amazing.
Like, I just went through a breakup two months ago, and part of my "vacation" from music was being in a relationship with someone that had nothing to do with the scene around here. He was in a band for a while, but not a hardcore band, and he is one of my favorite people on the planet. We had a really intense relationship for a year and then we separated. It was an amicable breakup. Then I wrote what I believe to be the nicest breakup song that's ever been written about how this man impacted me and the things he taught me about myself and how pure and inherently good an experience it was. When we broke up, everyone said, "I'm sorry it didn't work," and I said, "Fuck you, it worked for a year!" Some people don't get a chance to be in love that much for a year. This guy made me think about myself and think about my life really in an interesting new way.
The lyrics are not shy, so if people on the internet want to talk about this band, it's quickly going to be a public conversation about my experience, and this is wanted. It feels like there was a thesis and a moment where I had to consider exactly what I'm saying because when you want to put something into a song like that, it feels like an enforced closure: I suddenly have to have closure about whatever it is that I'm writing about because I have to go out and do this song when we play. It puts me in check and forces me to say to myself, "Is this really what I want to be saying about my experience? Is this really how I feel about it?" And every time I get up there, I have to be like, "OK, today the answer is yes."
Photo by Lukas Hodge
Pitchfork: Your vocals are somewhat buried in the mix—is that a quality you want to keep in future recordings?
MG: Yes. And it's because I'm extremely shy and I hate my voice. I only know how to sing one way. I'm very new at this. I just get up there and say things. I'm trying to yell. I'm trying to be a punk singer, but this is all I can do with what I've got. I have that weird high squeaky voice and I can't scream. I'm not burying anything. I'm shouting because it feels like this stuff is important and I rarely get an opportunity to yell and to really feel.
When I was a kid I did musical theater, and I grew up performing on stage. Until I was 18 years old, I was doing Broadway-style shows. I was the lead in a lot of shows when I was in high school. I actually used to do competitive opera and vocal jazz; I ended up singing solo jazz at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester when I was 15 years old. I used, like, sing sing. But I've always had a really high, loud voice—I was bad at being in the choir when I was younger because I was louder than everybody.
I can hear the whole history of my background in Pussy. This yelling thing is new to me and it makes me insecure, so the plan is to continue burying it as much as possible. I just want to be part of the band. I don't want to be the band under any circumstances.
Pitchfork: On the cover of the demo, there's a quote that says: "We are dedicated to honoring the sacred in our brothers and sisters," which is the mission statement from St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, New York.
MG: That's where I was born. One of my closest friends is a nurse at St. Joe's, and I was at her house stealing her internet on my super-old, broken laptop—I don't have the internet, I just have a broken iPhone that I can check Facebook on, but I won't respond to emails or anything—and she was talking about work and the mission statement and her participation in a Catholic hospital as a wonderful feminist-oriented nurse. So it just seemed right for what I was trying to say. This is the birth of this band.
An age-old sign of a good rock band: When you can sense each member's persona cracking through despite the fixed foundation of rhythm, words, and guitar. No one is faceless. That holds true of Swearin', the pop-punk wanderers behind one of last year's best debuts. There's drummer Jeff Bolt, 29, a Michigan transplant with a huge French press tattooed onto his leg who notes the point at which our interview hits 4:20 p.m. and calls Superchunk the greatest band of all time. Keith Spencer, 29, is the singer and bassist with obscure taste who handles the band's finances, sings quietly, and conceived of new album Surfing Strange's titular nod to Dennis Wilson. There's Kyle Gilbride, 26, the Silkworm-obsessed guitarist, Martsch-ian singer, and perpetual donner of oversized specs who just quit his bike shop job. And there's Allison Crutchfield, 24, Alabama-bred singer-guitarist, new-school feminist punk hero of P.S. Eliot sorta-fame (with her twin, Katie, aka Waxahatchee) and, for now, ex-coffee barista.
A more democratic songwriting process allows all of these voices to be heard on Surfing Strange, out next week via Wichita/Salinas. Made over an intense six-week period this summer, the record is fun and loose but also heavy and principled, with the band adding mid-tempo rockers and walls of sound to their sonic repertoire.
Swearin' tried to put down roots last year, when Crutchfield, Gilbride, and Spencer moved into a Philadelphia punk house with about five other roommates. They recorded nonstop, and the many artists that released records made at the house since last fall include Waxahatchee, Radiator Hospital, Great Thunder, Bad Energy, Extra Feeler, and Richmond, Virginia's Little Master. Owing to the band's restless nature, though, they left the residence in August, before heading to Europe on tour. "We're moving out of our house," Crutchfield said at the time, "but we're not really sure where we live."
We met up at the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, waterfront to discuss Surfing Strange at the end of the summer, when Swearin' were in town for Salinas' 10th-anniversary show.
"At the heart of things, everybody in the band wants everyone to have their voice heard. That doesn't make it easy but it makes it interesting."
Pitchfork: Surfing Strange is coming out on Salinas again, but were there other labels that could have released it?
Allison Crutchfield: If I'm being honest, at first, seeing there was interest in our band, I was like, "Maybe we should explore our options.” But after we all talked about it, I thought, "no."
Kyle Gilbride: It's almost a no-brainer—do this thing that we feel really good about with our friend [Salinas Records founder Marco Reosti], who is a good guy we've all known for a while and really care about, who has always been cool about doing records with us. It's not music business-y at all, but Marco is responsible—he's a teacher and an adult who is married.
Jeff Bolt: He's done records for four bands I've had: Swearin', Radiator Hospital, Wormburner (which is probably one of the worst selling records he's ever put out), and Hartford Whalers. I would do a record with Marco over anyone, any day. He's always on top of stuff and he's always had the same attitude: "If I don't make the money back, it doesn't matter. If I do, that’s cool."
KG: There's no weird expectation. There's no feeling of, like, "This better be good so we don't disappoint these people." The level we're at, doing a record with someone else...
AC: ... would feel weird, like it was too much.
JB: Also, Marco does no promotion.
AC: Which is great. The less people you bring in, the more control we have over our band, which is what we want.
Pitchfork: Speaking of promotion, Swearin' doesn't have much of an active internet presence, either.
AC: I try not to; it’s stressful. Especially right now, I'm trying hard to just not look at it. I only post on our blog when I'm updating tour dates. It’s weird. I personally have Instagram and Twitter, but as far as band accounts, there are more important things to focus on.
JB: We don't like self-promotion.
KG: I become curious if I see a band that’s really going for it on the web. Like, "Don’t you need to be working on some music, or a tour..."
AC: Or just hang out with your friends...
JB: Those bands are generally not very good.
Pitchfork: How was the songwriting broken up this time? It seems like Kyle and Keith have more songs, whereas Allison sang most of them last time.
AC: Keith sings two songs, Kyle sings four, and I sing like half the songs, which is less than the last record. But it's also more collaborative overall. On the first record, for the most part, I was like, "I wrote these songs and this is how they go." With this one, I was like, "Here's this stripped down demo, let's work on this together." Every song I have on this record is different than how I had originally expected it to be, which is cool.
Pitchfork: Does it feel especially important to keep the songwriting process democratic? The band doesn't feel like it has a specific leader.
AC: Yes, but that's how it's naturally happened.
KG: At the heart of things, everybody wants everyone to have their voice heard. That doesn't make it easy but it makes it interesting.
Pitchfork: Did the fact that it was more collaborative make the music heavier?
KG: In previous bands, I was never in a situation where I felt like the people I was making music with were comfortable doing slow songs: There were maybe some weird DIY ethics, thinking the songs needed to be super-fast. But mid-tempo rockers—what a shitty thing to call it—was something I wanted to explore.
Pitchfork: I enjoyed the reference to Brooklyn's Bedford and Nostrand Avenues on "Dust in the Gold Sack". Why is that intersection meaningful to you?
AC: That song is about friend dynamics, having points in relationships with friends when you're struggling to get each other. The references to Brooklyn are mostly because it was written about a time when I was living there, but it's not about one situation. It's about having a hard time understanding somebody that you really care about.
JB: There's also a part in there about being stuck on the [New Jersey] Turnpike all night.
AC: One time when Swearin' played in Manhattan... it was the worst show ever. We were all tense. The show hadn't gone well and we were not having fun with each other at all. We played this shitty show with a bunch of bands we didn't care about. It felt very political and weird. Then, driving back to Philly, we got into standstill traffic and wound up sitting on the Turnpike for six and a half hours. Basically, the highway melted and we had to sit there until they repaved it and it cooled enough for cars to drive over. It was a low point.
Pitchfork: Is there anything you've been listening to lately that you feel might have seeped onto the new record?
AC: Living in our house in Philly, with all the records that have been made there—the Radiator Hospital record is one of the only things I've listened to since it came out, and my sister's record—that environment has affected me.
KG: There's been some more obscure stuff Keith's turned me onto that has affected my songwriting with the more mellow stuff, like East River Pipe and Red House Painters. Silkworm has really obliterated me over the last few years. They made so many records just because they liked making them and really believed in the music they were making. That's important to me. The only thing that stopped them from being a band was a horrible tragedy that made them have to redefine themselves. The weird thing about Silkworm is they're so masculine, but not macho.
AC: We've been talking about that a lot: Some bands exude this masculinity that I don't relate to. I like Silkworm in theory, but I'm not a huge fan of their music.
Pitchfork: On the self-titled LP, the songs were primarily upbeat, even though the lyrics were often not. On this one, some of the songs are slower and you can sense the more melancholy feelings in them more. Was that intentional?
AC: This record is much more representative of the music we all listen to. Keith's songs are really important and helped us evolve. His songwriting is very theme-driven and subtle. I think that's interesting because often when I write, it's like, "This is what that's about." With Keith, things are linked between songs, and there's so much depth. He doesn't do anything without really thinking about it.
KG: We also just felt more comfortable exploring: mellow songs, heavy songs, something dissonant or weird. We just felt looser, like, "Let's try stuff out." Why not? We're playing music for fun, fuck it. Who do we have to answer to? Let's just play what we want to play.
Guest List features some of our favorite artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with comedian Aziz Ansari, whose latest stand-up special Buried Alive is now streaming on Netflix.
Last Great Film I Saw
12 Years a Slave. It was one of the most brutal, affecting movies I've seen. But I also feel the same way about Mrs. Doubtfire.
Favorite Place to Shop Online
I love going on eBay and typing in random stuff and sorting by "most expensive" and seeing the weirdest shit. Earlier, I typed in Mrs. Doubtfire and there was a thing where a guy found the makeup artist from the movie and got the head mold and a signed picture from Robin Williams. It was at like $20,000. You type in Jurassic Park and it comes up with Ford Explorers that say "Jurassic Park" on them.
The Dumbest Thing I Bought This Year
My Jurassic Park Ford Explorer
Any international airline because they actually treat you like you’ve paid for a service. They even give you pajamas to wear. One time I flew to Abu Dhabi to be part of that short film Kanye did. Everyone from G.O.O.D. Music was there, and Pusha T was on my flight back. I changed into my jammies right away—in life, in general, I like being comfy—and then I saw Push. So I walked by him and was like, “Push, you going to change into your jammies?” And he just goes, “No.”
Which I totally understand. My image is not really getting fucked up by me slipping into some jammies. If anything, you'd expect me to be in jammies. But if Pusha T got into jammies, I would've been shaking my head: "You can't do that man, you're Pusha T! My Name Is My Name? What about that time you were in jammies? Your Jammies Are Your Jammies."
The Best Birthday I’ve Had
I had a birthday party at McDonald’s when I was a little kid, and there’s a picture of me from that day—the suit I'm wearing is so ridiculous! It's this weird red-and-green plaid blazer with gold buttons. It was a baller suit to be wearing to a birthday party in McDonald's.
I’m always 10, 15 minutes late. I feel bad about it, so I don't think I'm a bad person, but when I'm on time for stuff I'm way too proud of myself. I’m like, [bro voice] “Dude, I did it!”
I really like just being in New York, doing stand-up every night, and working on jokes.
Biggest Pet Peeve
I find it super offensive when people roll their eyes. One time this bartender said to me, "Hey, I met you a few months ago and you rolled your eyes and walked away." And I was like, "That definitely wasn't me." She didn't realize that she went up to a different Indian guy and he rolled his eyes because he's probably tired of being mistaken for me.
My Morning Routine
I make espresso and then add sugar while it's hot, so the sugar dissolves in there. Then I add milk to cool it down—that's cool-down phase one. Then I stir it until I feel it's cold. At the very end, I add ice and get it really cold. Normally when you get these cold coffee drinks it gets very watered-down and it's gross, so I take a lot of pride in mine.
Strangest Display of Affection From a Fan
Yesterday this lady comes up to me at the comedy club and goes, "Hey, I love you on 'Parks and Rec'—that episode where you're in the library and you do the song in Spanish was great." And I was like, "OK." I didn't know what she was talking about.
Another time this girl painted a portrait of Soulja Boy standing on a balcony just looking out into Los Angeles for me (left). It was just so random and so great.
The Best Thing I Bought This Year
I finally got one of those big, warm coats. You know a good way to keep warm during these cold winters? Get a huge jacket!
Favorite Music Video
Jagged Edge's "Where the Party At" because it starts with them parachuting into the party.
Stephen Malkmus, Mike Clark, Joanna Bolme, and Jake Morris; photo by Leah Nash
A couple of weeks ago, Stephen Malkmus took his two kids to see a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis concert. His critique: "Macklemore's got good messages, but he does that thing where you have to wait forever for him to come onstage. I thought he'd be more prompt because he's clean and sober and realizes people have things to do in their life. But he makes you wait."
As a 47-year-old indie rock hall of famer, Malkmus' time is valuable. But that doesn't mean that the left-of-the-dial idol is above singing along to Top 40 hits in the family car. Despite offering opinions on current underground acts such as Oneohtrix Point Never ("sounds cool to me") and Matador labelmates Savages ("I like them, I guess… they're kind of old-fashioned") during our recent phone conversation, he's much more willing to discuss today's mainstream phenoms. "I've heard Robin Thicke a million times over—Lorde, too, which I like, but I'm going to get sick of it," he says, shortly before breaking into an impromptu a cappella rendition of Lady Gaga's "Applause" (and then quietly apologizing for the outburst). At one point, he lets out a dramatic yelp. "I almost stepped on my kitty," Malkmus says, referring to his new cat Lucky, who's "named after the Daft Punk song."
Granted, the last few years of his life have involved a bit more than naming pets and listening to Gaga in the car. Shortly after the release of his last record with backing band the Jicks, 2011's Mirror Traffic, Malkmus and his family moved from Portland to Berlin so that his wife, a visual artist, would have an easier time finding work. "There's lots of artists in Berlin, you practically can't help but step on one while you're there," he says. "It's super livable for all lifestyles—it's not just Berghain and partying and doing coke in bathrooms."
Regardless, Malkmus' grown-up lifestyle didn't keep him from taking advantage of Berlin's vibrant club scene, and his experiences almost had a profound effect on his music. "I would have these epiphanies where I was convinced that I wanted to make electronic music—but only when I was trashed," he says. "Later, I'd realize that, even if I could hear the music in my head, I can't naturally recreate it. It's someone else's game."
So Malkmus is still, for the time being, playing his own game, the latest round of which is his new album with the Jicks, the amazingly dubbed Wig Out at Jagbags, due out early next year. When I say the title aloud, Malkmus laughs heartily and then rattles off a list of could-have-been alternatives: New Lifeboat Rules, Morrissey's Trainwrecked Daughter ("too of-the-moment"), New Yoga for Cleavage Hounds, Swingers Blowing Freddie, and Chocolate Euros ("but we would've needed a specific album cover for that one").
Now that the title's settled, there's just the issue of pinning down exactly what a "jagbag" is. "It's a Chicago term—like a jack-off or a blowhard," explains the singer. "A lighthearted aspersion towards somebody, profanity that's been watered down. You can imagine Archie Bunker saying it to Meathead on 'All in the Family': 'Quit being a jagbag!'"
Malkmus and the Jicks convened in a Dutch farmhouse near Amsterdam, self-producing the album alongside Remko Schouten, a sound man who's worked steadily with Malkmus since the Pavement days. It also finds Malkmus working with some new collaborators in ex-Joggers drummer Jake Morris (who fills in for since-departed Jicks member Janet Weiss) and Fran Healy of Britpop survivors Travis, who he calls "the coolest, nicest guy in music." A literal neighbor in Berlin—"he lived 30 feet away"—Healy assisted in recording Malkmus' vocals for the album, and introduced him to a trio of "German dads" that contribute horn parts on a few of Jagbags' sprightlier songs.
The record is his sixth with the Jicks, which means Malkmus has now made more LPs with his current band than he did with Pavement. The good-natured surprise in his voice when I bring this fact up speaks to just how little time he actually spends ruminating on the past. "It all feels like a continuum to me," he says. "The songs just go on, and they've all been made with friends. I'm almost at the point where if I covered Pavement songs with the Jicks, it wouldn't be like I was cheating on Pavement." Still, there are limitations: "We'd never play 'Summer Babe'. That's such a youthful song, so it's not very age-appropriate."
"At the time, the 90s were so much about cynicism and irony, but in some ways it was more idealistic and innocent than mainstream indie trends of today."
Pitchfork: When you write songs now, are you focused more on music or lyrics?
Stephen Malkmus: The most important thing about a song that I write is if I can sing it in a good way—if I can pull off sounding like the band I think I'm in. Lyrics are more placeholders at this point. You hear a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, where Anthony Kiedis is singing, "What I know is I don't know/ I'm just looking for a place to go," and it sounds like placeholder lyrics; you see those lyrics on the karaoke screen and you think that the band maybe thought he would change them at some point, but he just kept them. They're probably like, "Hold on a minute, I worked really hard on this bass part." But that Red Hot Chili Peppers song works and it's a good song because when you're hearing it in your car, you're like, [sings] "I don't know a place to go, ba de ba ba ba ba ba be ba ba."
Pitchfork: Structurally, your albums with the Jicks have alternated between jammy and more concise, but this is your second concise record in a row.
SM: Well, this album's going to be pared down to 40 minutes, and I could see even that length being a chore to listen to for this type of music. If you're going to make jammy music, it has to be background-y to an extreme degree, as if it's not trying to grab your attention. If I wanted to make something jammy now, I'd have to be totally zoned out into a haze, but for this album I made melodies that just get in your head a little more annoyingly, or pleasingly. It's not coffee-shop music, though. I hate that.
Pitchfork: You've lived in Portland for quite a while now. How do you feel about the city at this point, especially in comparison to Berlin?
SM: It's a small town that's gone through some changes since the days of Elliott Smith and Doc Martens—for the better, I would say. I like the Williamsburg-ification of Portland: food trucks, education, creativity. Berlin is totally good for families, though. It's an awesome place to be, and I could have seen myself staying there. All of our things were still back in Portland, though, as well as my band, so we got cold feet about making a full commitment to Berlin.
Experiencing true organic change is not just vaudeville, like Bowie—it's very difficult to manifest. You need a sea change, as Beck would say. You have to hit a rock bottom or a sky-high epiphany, but I don't really run that way. I'm more in the "know thyself" camp.
Pitchfork: How do you feel about 1990s indie culture now that it's far enough in the rearview that it could be treated with reverence, in a museum-like way.
SM: It's human nature to pick over the bones of past eras. Perhaps you can look back and think, "Man, Nirvana was rad. There's no bands like that anymore." At the time it was so much about cynicism and irony, but in some ways it was more idealistic and innocent than mainstream indie trends of today. Of course, there's still peace punks, and Fugazi's influence is still felt. Musically, things are a little cleaner to me now, though—there's more "hey!"s.
There's so many millions of 7" records and albums, too, and I don't see them rising to the top in a unique way. A lot of mainstream indie these days is too many steps removed from rock bands like the Velvet Underground—but that's just our era now.