Ten years after from their last major record, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, we trace Big Boi and Andre 3000's path from Southern vanguards to the most universally beloved rappers in the world with a career-spanning essay followed by separate pieces on each of their six albums.
Weird Storms in the Wrong Season
By Jeff Weiss
Before there was love below, there were boos. The two dope boys in a Cadillac had made a left turn and wound up in the middle of a civil war at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theater on a soggy August night in 1995. Brawls erupted in the audience. Tensions were hair-trigger. When OutKast shocked the Source Awards audience by winning Best New Rap Group, it was like being fed to the firing squad.
The first shots took the form of words. Earlier that evening, Suge Knight—6-foot-3, 330 pounds, Blood-red button-up shirt—glowered at the audience like a hellbound offensive lineman: “If any artists out there want to be artists and stay a star… and don’t want to worry about the executive producer… all in the videos… all on the records... dancing.” Knight let that last word linger, a personal grenade hurled at Puff Daddy. “Come to Death Row!”
Snoop Dogg escalated the confrontation to the entire seaboard: “The East Coast don’t got no love for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and Death Row?” he sneered, marine-blue bandanna tied around his neck, brandishing a club at the hostile New York crowd—a murder trial already awaiting him back home. “Well… let it be known!”
OutKast was collateral damage. It didn’t matter that Puffy directed the video for their debut single, “Players Ball”, or that they’d previously opened up for Biggie. The New York crowd only acknowledged Bad Boys and boom-bap. Mobb Deep. Boot Camp Clik. Nas. Wu-Tang or protect your neck. They looked at the southern players like country cousins eating chitlins and smoking stress. What good is a '77 Seville when you’re riding the subway?
This mentality missed Atlanta's Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton. Their red clay funk emerged from the Dungeon—the nickname for the basement studio owned by Rico Wade, one third of their production squad, Organized Noize. They’d come up on Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, A Tribe Called Quest, and Rakim, just like everyone else in the room. They’d break danced and bought Ron G mixtapes at the 5 Points Flea Market. Their realness was beyond reproach.
The heckling that night transcended personal disrespect; it implicitly attacked the drawl, slang, and soul food of the culture that spawned them. As Andre threatened on the duo's platinum-selling 1994 debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik: “Talk bad about the A-Town and I’ll bust you in your fucking mouth.” Barely 20 years old, Dre had yet to adopt the “3000.” He’d recently gone sober, vegetarian, and grown dreads, swapping his Braves jersey for a polyester turban. Standing before a crowd in Karl Kani, Phat Farm, and Versace, OutKast looked and felt alien. The meaning of the group’s name had come to life in front of the howling mob. Andre silenced them with six words: “The South got something to say.”
OutKast understood that the most profound answers are often implied. Rappers unable to exit their own orbit might have directly addressed the incident at the Source Awards. OutKast located it within a deeper pattern of dislocation. They were able to internalize the last century of black musical visionaries including Son House, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Prince. But they also completely lack precedent. They take you from Atlanta to Atlantis and back in the same stanza.
Their identity as outsiders gave them perspective, their empathy allowed them to connect, and their wisdom offered the ability to see through bullshit. They could write a song about “floating face down in the mainstream” on a certified platinum album. We routinely celebrate the contradictions of artists as a badge of complexity, but OutKast was the rarity able to reconcile commerce, human decency, and purity of vision. There are no cynical radio grabs. No guest appearances from that season’s hot rapper. Every musical decision is organic.
The name illustrated their approach. Earlier aliases included 2 Shades Deep and the Misfits—the latter nixed after a teenaged discovery of Glenn Danzig. Both were literal outcasts as new students in the 10th grade at Tri Cities High. Andre skateboarded, wore floral print shirts, and rode BMX bikes. He grew up across the street from the projects, where they watched fights out of the window for fun.
Big Boi soaked up a country influence during his early years in Savannah. In high school, he maintained a 3.68 grade point average and a secret Kate Bush obsession. Most of their classmates bumped bass music. When they auditioned for Rico Wade, they freestyled for eight minutes over the instrumental to Tribe’s “Scenario”.
During an era when artists were expected to choose sides, OutKast opted out of false binaries. They’re haunted by flashbacks of injustice while rolling in Eldorados through East Point. But they realize that it’s more honest to confront your past than run away from it. The slang, finger waves, and Mo-Joe’s chicken wings were in their DNA. So were UGK, 8Ball & MJG, and the Rap-A-Lot artists who first gave a voice to the South. Not to mention the entire Dungeon Family, whose influence on OutKast is unrivaled.
Southernplayalisticadalicmusik was the coming of age story of two baby-faced hustlers puffing and pimping in Adidas and Khakis. Organized Noize’s greasy Muscle Shoals funk, 808 booty-bass drums, and grimy East Coast SP-1200 slaps wrote the template for every dirty south rap album with aspirations of being soulful.
When OutKast called themselves “ATLiens,” it was a partial rupture. They set themselves apart from their city and species—weird storms in the wrong season. But they also identify with the soil and struggle. They are black men in the South, where Confederate ghosts and rebel flags are constant shadows. As they lament on Southernplayalistic’s “Git Up, Get Out”, no one’s running for office but “crackers.” Yet the song’s message is deceptively traditional: Quit smoking your life away, pay attention to your parents, rely only on yourself.
ATLiens was the act of levitation. Every time you look in the sky, they’re back in the Dungeon, staring at ceiling fans searching for inspiration. When you search for them in the Dungeon, they’re at the mall getting harassed by hyena-like fanboys. They dip from outer space to honor everyone from their Atlanta bass predecessors to Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. After all, everyone liked Kraftwerk.
The last song on 1996’s ATLiens is called “13th Floor/Growing Old”. It’s a hymnal, a sermon against avarice and sin, a confessional, a declaration of black solidarity and southern pride—a meditation on the transience of existence. It’s a psalm for those still searching: church music that’s been secularized, cosmic dub, gospel music given an extraterrestrial groove. Then the scratches hit you: “Ninety-six gonna be that year.” This is hip-hop.
Most rap albums are rooted in some mixture of the present and the past. ATLiens hovers over both—with one eye wired to the future. It explores catacomb thoughts at 3 a.m.: mortality, exclusion, spirituality, consequences, and the desire to transcend. It’s mournful and ethereal, but still street. It expanded what rappers could talk about and how it could sound. If OutKast were going to take the pulpit, they needed a church to preach in.
First they were pimps. Then they were aliens or genies. Then no one knew what to call them. The Aquemini liner notes capture Andre adorned in a platinum glamour wig, bumblebee yellow jersey, and sunglasses that ostensibly inspired "Adventure Time". Another shot makes him look like the man in the yellow hat from Curious George leading the Grambling Marching Band.
All doubts were crushed on the album’s first raps. Snapping on those who get the “wrong impression of expression,” Andre shuts up whispers about whether he’s on drugs or gay. Rap had seen afro-futurist eccentrics before, but since hard-core hit in ’94, no one but Kool Keith had dressed so flamboyantly. (And even Keith disguised himself as Dr. Octagon or Black Elvis.)
Andre had reached that rarefied level of “I don't give a fuck” that Kanye West has frantically sought since his first Givenchy kilt. His clothes weren’t a bug-out costume or artistic pose; they felt as creatively surreal as the music. No one on earth or Alpha Centauri could have convincingly pulled them off. Ask Fonzworth Bentley.
The penultimate song on Aquemini is a nearly nine-minute underwater spiritual called “Liberation”. Guests include Cee-Lo, Erykah Badu, and Dungeon Family high priest Big Rube. Like the album itself, it is many things at once. It’s a psychic liberation from genre, expectations, and lingering shreds of convention. It is a manifesto of self-determination, free expression, and a requiem for the enslaved. It is funk. It is soul. It is hip-hop. It is gospel. It is swamp jazz, the blues, and remnants of oral tradition. Voodoo. It’s OutKast, astrologically intertwined and fully emancipated.
Consensus generally favors Andre over Big Boi. This is a fatal misunderstanding of their partnership. If Andre steered more than half the journey on the first two records, Big Boi caught up by Aquemini. His flow is as liquid and low to the ground as a busted fire hydrant. Several hooks, including “Rosa Parks”, belong to him. If Andre is the interstellar satellite, Big Boi is the spy on the streets. The wildest indulgences have checks and balances. You need Big Boi to have Andre. The poet and the player was the tagline; the truth is that you never knew who was who.
Aquemini is a declaration of total freedom without taking your toes out of the soil. Nearly every member of the Dungeon Family contributes memorably, but OutKast assumed more creative control than ever before. Andre started making beats, playing Kalimba, and recruiting gifted session musicians from around Atlanta. (The hoedown harmonica sizzle on “Rosa Parks” belongs to his step-dad, the Reverend Robert Hodo.) George Clinton appears on a song that sounds like it was written for a Terry Gilliam adaptation of Brave New World.
It’s a capsule of a time, place, and movement, but never feels dated. No hip-hop album before or since blended such rich musicality with artful narrative. When Andre opens “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2)” with a storm warning, the beat and vocal effects batter like a hurricane. “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” sounds as sentimental and drunk as the narrator engulfed in Old E, who never made it to the disco door. Samples are sparse. It’s not old music being re-interpreted; it’s old ideas being reincarnated.
During the late 90s, rap typically gravitated towards either austerity or excess. Aquemini matched neither category. “Skew it on the Bar-B” is as lean as an ostrich. “Nathaniel” is a 70-second rap dialed-in from jail—just long enough to acknowledge those still waiting to be set free. Half the songs snake past five minutes. No single cracked the Top 40, yet the album went double platinum.
Released on the same day—September 29, 1998—as albums from Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest, and Black Star, OutKast earned the highest praise. The Source instantly canonized Aquemini with the first perfect score ever given to a Southern rap act. That fact might feel like a footnote 15 years later, but at the time, it was a coronation. (I’ll never forget a guy on my high school basketball team in Los Angeles buying the magazine and screaming outside the gym like a town crier: “OUTKAST GOT FIVE MICS IN THE SOURCE!!!!”) They opened the door for the entire region. If you listen to OutKast’s last words on Aquemini, you'll hear a familiar phrase: “The South got something to say.”
Stankonia. The studio name seems like an afro-futurist Xanadu. Between their third and fourth albums, OutKast acquired and re-blessed Bobby Brown’s “Bosstown” in downtown Atlanta. The former house of “Humpin' Around” became hip-hop’s Electric Ladyland, Paisley Park, or Abbey Road—a place where merely invoking the name inspires psychedelic shades and astral sounds.
You’d think that starting your album with the chanted hook, “burn muthafucka, burn American dream,” would do little to endear you to the American record buying public. Political rap had been commercial kryptonite since Ice Cube first met Smokey. But Stankonia transformed OutKast from Southern vanguards into the most universally beloved rappers in the world. They crossed over from "MTV Jams" to triple-platinum "TRL" staples. They won two Grammys. They became the token group worshipped by people who hated hip-hop “except for...”
OutKast mastered the art of sending mixed messages. They tell you that hip-hop is more than just guns and alcohol—but admit that it’s that too. Buried beneath the sweet contrition of #1 single “Ms. Jackson” is the sad disintegration of love and a child caught in the crossfire. Stankonia might initially channel Public Enemy, but it quickly shifts into “So Fresh, So Clean”, a blue tuxedo-soul ode to gator belts, patty melts, and Monte Carlos. Official remixes followed from Fatboy Slim and Snoop Dogg. Andre even shouted out his love of drum and bass in interviews. The evidence is “B.O.B.”, the only song murderous enough to one-up England’s the Prodigy and appeal to fans of Prodigy from Queensbridge.
The back-and-forth between hip-hop and dance music had existed since Chic’s “Good Times” became “Rapper’s Delight”, but during the early 00s, the genre was in a particularly insular zone. A generation emerged with few musical reference points outside of rap. When Stankonia won the Best Rap Album Grammy in 2002, it beat out Ja Rule, Eve, and Ludacris (and, to be fair, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint). The victory was a reminder of how far out the groove could extend.
The civil war had shifted from East vs. West to underground vs. commercial. OutKast might have shared the subterranean allergy towards pop concessions, but they rejected ideology or false purity. You can make a great rap album using only four tracks; OutKast were using all 88 and knew the difference. Andre described it best when he said, "We’re in the age of keeping it real, but we’re trying to keep it surreal."
But even surrealism needs the occasional contrast. OutKast clocked substantial hours in outer space, but still made time to check back in on the block. Despite the rainbow funk jams and Purple One falsetto, the album also introduced Killer Mike and explained why you should never let gold diggers order strawberry lemonade and popcorn shrimp at the Cheesecake Factory. There are skits about prenuptial agreements. “Toilet Tisha” loosely resembles Prince re-imagining “Brenda’s Got a Baby”.
In hindsight, you can see the beginning of the creative rifts. The pair traveled separately. Many of Andre’s beats started with him riffing on an acoustic guitar at home. And judging by the amount of abstraction and aqueous funk jams, you can generally figure out what is a Big Boi idea and what is an Andre 3000 one. Stankonia is OutKast at their most experimental, meandering, and free. It is rap’s White Album. No idea is too bizarre. Each song could spark its own sub-genre—if you even knew where to begin.
Samuel L. Jackson introduced OutKast as “the music of inclusion” at the 2004 Grammys, but Big Boi and Andre didn’t perform together. Instead, Big Boi crooned his #1 single “The Way You Move” backed by Earth, Wind & Fire as part of a funk tribute, and Andre closed out the show with his own #1 single, “Hey Ya”. He wore a fringed neon green jumpsuit, green headband, silver boots, and displayed copious nipple. There were back-up dancers, explosions, a marching band, and massive rapture. No boos occurred until the next day, when Native American activists publicly demanded an apology from Andre and CBS for perpetuating stereotypes. Jimi Hendrix’s estate let the homage slide. After all, the proper context was evident.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below took home three Grammy’s that night. During their winner’s speech for Album of the Year, Andre interrupted himself to tell the crowd that Stankonia wasn’t their first album. “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” he said, repeating it twice to let it sink in.
Nine years had elapsed since the Source Awards. Biggie and 2Pac had become rap’s martyred saints. Suge Knight was incarcerated. Snoop Dogg had signed and left the South’s No Limit Records and his biggest hit that year was “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, with a beat courtesy of Virginia’s Neptunes. Bad Boy generally amounted to Puffy commanding “da band” to fetch him cheesecake. While New York’s biggest star, 50 Cent, was propelled by Dr. Dre’s production and a sing-song flow lifted from Southern rap.
OutKast had not only become the most successful rap group of all-time, they were the biggest band on Earth. The Love Below/Speakerboxxx sold 11 million copies and swept almost every critic’s poll. There are people who think the Beatles are too sappy. Prince is too weird. Radiohead is too icy. James Brown wore everything a little too tight. But everyone agrees on OutKast. At their peak, the duo’s popularity rivaled income tax refunds, cute puppies, and free samples.
The last official OutKast album was 2006’s Idlewild, which doubled as a soundtrack to the much-delayed film of the same name. There are experiments with blues, vaudeville, marching bands, and Lil Wayne—who had eclipsed the mostly inactive group as the Southern standard-bearer. The album essentially amounts to a bonus track tacked onto the end of their union.
You can spot their influence across contemporary music: Kendrick Lamar, Cee-Lo, Curren$y, B.o.B., Big K.R.I.T., Janelle Monáe, even Tyler, the Creator. Andre defined the idea of the eccentric genius for a generation. Yet OutKast is inimitable. There is no blueprint or trail of crumbs. You listen to their records and wonder how they did it. It’s like visiting the pyramids and concluding that they had to be the handiwork of aliens.
Roughly twice a year, Andre or Big Boi gives an interview that journalists and fans tout as evidence of a future OutKast album. The rumors are inevitably and quickly crushed. Andre remains free to star in shaving-cream campaigns and vent on the occasional guest verse. Big Boi releases solo albums and tours the country, the janissary to their memory, still spitting Southern player raps over saxophone funk.
But even though they haven’t made music in a decade, they didn’t break up. They still represent what they stood for. There is no acrimony or sad cash-in reunion tours. We remember them the way we remember those who died at their peak: permanently immortal, practically perfect. They had managed to say it all.
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik didn't necessarily invent Southern rap or the Atlanta sound. It did define an early strain of it, though, which is accomplishment enough for a debut held down by a couple of teenagers who'd just met two years before. That's with the benefit of hindsight; it's a little hard to hear OutKast's first record with fresh ears, knowing what came afterwards. But note that Southernplayalistic is a freshman effort where even the skits are worth preserving, and try to remember the last time anybody was this good at anything when they hadn't even hit their 20s yet.
This is a record where three largely unknown quantities had yet to be proven: OutKast themselves, the Organized Noize production team, and Atlanta as a hip-hop scene with a recognizably unique identity. That last goal—to diversify the influence of the Miami-derived bass scene and create a wider picture of Southern culture beyond what Arrested Development and Kris Kross were doing—put the musicians in a position that, on record, feels easy to meet. Big Boi and Andre 3000 let their drawls ride out, already having mastered the early phases of their respective styles using immaculately-timed beat-counterpoint flows and abrupt, electric mid-verse runs of rapidfire syllables. Meanwhile, the production took the 808 kicks and blips of bass music and made them the base of a dense, heavy, live-band sound that drew off the traditions of 70s soul; it resonated as familiar to heads who recognized those same waypoints from Dr. Dre's G-funk or RZA's Hi/Stax-chopping minimalism but brought it closer to the source in both means and soil.
Most of all, this album is an introductory lyrical snapshot of an Atlanta viewed with skepticism or curiosity, where you're welcomed to the city and its black way of life by an airplane captain who makes a point of noting that they still fly the Confederate battle flag over the Georgia Dome. The title track is ripe with tangible details: soul food metaphors, Big Boi's neighborhood references to East Point and College Park's “hemp-smoke style,” and the repeated invocations of Atlanta as a blue-skied, sun-baked home to nothing but pimps. But those defining home-turf representations are coupled with something more complicated.
From the get-go, OutKast were caught in a coming-of-age narrative, where they acted the parts of always-strapped hustlers on one hand and young men striving to be better people on the other. It wasn't an uncommon dichotomy in hip-hop, but the tone they used—anxious, frustrated, confused, staring down the future—had rarely felt so unburdened by ego. Andre's rep as the less player-leaning lyricist would grow later on, but even here ambivalence runs through his threats; when he talks shop with a Beretta on “Ain't No Thang”—“one is in the air and one is the chamber, y'all ask me what the fuck I'm doin, I'm releasin' anger”—he sounds more like someone backed into a corner than an instigator. And Big Boi's hustler credentials are driven by someone who feels like he's always been out of options, where a line like “born and raised as a pimp” on “Claimin' True” echoes as much as fate as a point of pride; as he vents against the “D-E-V-I-L” on “D.E.E.P.” there's echoes of a militant hidden beneath the player. When OutKast have crews to represent, they appear as similarly afflicted allies: Goodie Mob make their first album appearance on Southernplayalistic, and their presence feels as much like a chorus of consciences as a group of cohorts. Cee-Lo and Big Gipp's verses on “Git Up, Get Out” are powerful performances in themselves, but they also make that struggle to survive feel bigger than just a handful of individuals.
When ATLiens came out in 1996, everything had changed for Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton. Southernplayalisticadillacmusik had turned them from aspiring-rapper kids on the verge of being let down softly by their mentor Rico Wade to actual rappers, ones who had done things like fly with Puff Daddy on a private plane to Howard University to open for Biggie Smalls. The hip-hop media began to cautiously examine and approve of them: In a lead review in the The Source, Rob Marriott bemoaned "the all-out assfest that has become southern hip-hop's defining image" before positioning OutKast as "the antidote" and awarding Southernplayalistic four-and-a-half mics. It was complicated, reductive praise, but it was praise nonetheless, and it shifted the conversation around them. They were ambassadors now—or mascots, depending on how glumly you looked at it.
And on ATLiens, they sounded pretty glum. The album's theme might have been space travel, from the opening "Greetings, Earthlings" to the sci-fi comic in the CD booklet, written by Big Rube. But there is nothing weightless about ATLiens, the moodiest OutKast record. The dominant emotion is white-knuckled and careful, like they were managing an actual NASA launch and had to exert every effort to make sure they weren't incinerated. "Softly, as if I play piano in the dark/ I learn to channel my anger, not to embark," Dre raps on the title track, his voice pinched. "My face is balled up 'cause I ain't in a happy mood," he spits on "Two Dope Boyz". You can hear a contained panic simmering in the lyrics, a determination to escape their surroundings laced with a growing fear that all escape pods have been deployed.
ATLiens is a classic OutKast album, but it's also a bit of a little brother in their story, perhaps because of its doleful countenance. There is almost no uncomplicated fun to be had, and Dre and Big Boi were growing almost comically stern in their boasts: Dre compares his flow to "cod liver oil" on "Wheelz of Steel", while Big Boi calls himself "the lyrical cleansing nuisance" on "Millennium". On "Two Dope Boyz", Big Boi is at pains to clarify that he only rhymes "to prove a point." OutKast would go on to be anguished, soulful, sad, enraged; ATLiens is maybe the only time they sounded this angsty.
If the lyrics tensed, the music exhaled, calmly pointing to new directions. The album opens with chamber pop, jazz flute, and a quote from “Summer in the City” on “You May Die”; Organized Noize produced 10 of the album’s 15 tracks, but ATLiens also marks the point when OutKast became producers. The farsighted Andre had taken the small pile of cash they'd amassed from "Player's Ball" and bought himself a state-of-the-art home studio—an MPC3000, an ASR-10 synthesizer, a Tascam mixing board, and a drum machine. Buying gear doesn't magically make you a producer, of course, but Andre and Antwan sat down thoughtfully at this new equipment and turned out, among other things, "Elevators (Me & You)", their biggest hit yet and one of the most indelible beats in hip-hop history.
With that one quietly unearthly song, they expanded the possibilities for themselves in a way that can only be accomplished with pure sound. Andre assembled the track and Big Boi wrote the hook, and the result hit on a mixture of glowing and exultant, friendly and coolly mysterious. It is a feeling you can't imagine living without once you've experienced it, one that preserves its power played on earbuds walking in the snow or booming out of a car in a summer parking lot. Their other productions on the album moved in different directions: The rippling, textured "E.T.", which features no drums and moves more like a piece of musique concrete than southern hip-hop; “Wheelz of Steel”, which channeled Wu-Tang gloom, cut-up with furious scratching from Organized Noize’s Mr. DJ; the gnarled funk of the title track. But "Elevators" is the album's heart and nerve center. Rappers still turn to the track when they need to tap into that inscrutable feeling, one that hasn't been duplicated or even approximated by anyone since. It was the clearest indication on ATLiens that Antwan and Andre were bound to reach orbit. On their next record, they did.
By 1998, OutKast had two platinum selling-records and a decent amount of critical adulation, but still struggled to get what most artists crave most: respect. Listeners who were drawn to the street stories of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik pushed away the science fictions of ATLiens, and Andre 3000—once reliably thuggish in a baseball jersey and jeans—experimented with bowties and white linen, an offense more damning in a conservative and often homophobic rap community than any lyric he could’ve dreamed of. “You have to be a strong nigga to take that ridicule,” he told The Source that year.
By the time Aquemini came out, OutKast had explored the temporary promises of materialism and the supposedly more lasting ones of spirituality. Each new answer turned out to be as weak and corruptible as the last. “When you rap and say anything kinda conscious, all the conscious people approach you,” Dre told Creative Loafing in 2010. “After ATLiens I got it all, from books on sex to [metaphysics] and religion. But you also find some of the fakest people with dreads pouring oil on you.”
Disillusionment pushed them to extremes. The harshest moments on Aquemini are more unforgiving than anything they’d recorded before: On “Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 1”, Big Boi doesn’t have time to fuck a girl he meets in the mall because he has to pick up his daughter, so he settles for a blowjob in the parking lot, and—in a voice that stinks of both pride and disgust—rewards the girl with “a Lil’ Will CD and a fuckin’ poster.”
By contrast, its softer moments offer real-world redemption more cathartic and understanding than the distant promises of ATLiens. A verse after Big Boi jizzes in the mall parking lot, we see Dre standing next to a girl on the corner, staring at the stars and talking about what they want to be when they grow up. The girl thinks for a minute, and in the album’s single most startling line, turns to Dre and says “alive.” We later learn it didn’t quite work out that way, but the point has been made: After imagining the paradise of other planets, OutKast had returned to a hard world in which keeping a pulse might be the best you could hope for.
Even Aquemini’s most spirited songs—“Rosa Parks” and “Skew It on the Bar-B”—sound like the combative work of underdogs hungry to be given their fair shake. “Rosa Parks” especially, with its hollering, harmonica-driven bridge, is both the album’s most radio-ready song and its most defiantly regional—not just southern, but country, a mode completely underrepresented in mainstream rap at the time. (Accents don’t get hidden, either: “Tell” becomes tale, “wanna” becomes woanna, and “damn” makes its distinctive metamorphosis into dayum.) When Raekwon shows up on “Skew It”, it’s practically a diplomatic mission: Without him, as he remembers it, the record would’ve never made it to New York.
This goes the album's music, too, which tends toward gospel and southern soul over pure funk or jazz, which favors live-band sounds without making the purist’s mistake of shunning synthetic ones, which is rural in its DNA but refined in execution. Funkadelic is usually cited as a major influence, but the comparison is more useful on Stankonia than Aquemini. Even Funkadelic’s laid-back tracks feel like they’re teetering at the edge of a nightmare. Aquemini—anchored by Preston Crump’s mellow, sustained basslines and the swing-friendly drum tracks of Mr. DJ and Organized Noize—sounds sober and observant, its slow pace less a product of disorganization than of supreme confidence.
Aquemini isn’t fun. Colorful, yes; searching, yes; angry, yes; enchanted by the same phony healers and child-support-dodging deadbeats that it saves its most bitter criticism for, yes—but not fun. It tells me something I want to hear about people: That they make their first mistakes by accident and their second because of a flaw in their design; that their tendency to say one thing and mean another is what makes their life a life instead of an algorithm; and that accepting them ultimately isn’t an act of resignation but compassion.
When Dre and Big Boi made it, they were only 23: Young enough to hope, but old enough to know that hope can sour into cynicism just as easily as it can become love. Or, as Dre puts it on Aquemini’s title track: “Faith is what you make it/ That’s the hardest shit since MC Ren”—testimony from someone at the juncture of looking for answers and realizing that there might not be any.
OutKast was always a project about balance. That player and the poet dichotomy was not an exact one when draped directly on the two humans in the group, but it served as a nice shorthand for their collective yin-and-yang dynamic. They wore as many oxymorons as Dre does ascots today: conscious gangstas, retro futurists, pop experimentalists. Stankonia pulls at all of these threads harder than anything they had done previously. It's not the best of their four proper albums by any stretch of the imagination—it might actually be the worst and it's certainly the least consistent—but it's the one that does the most.
Look at the singles alone: "B.O.B.", a violent display of spazzed-out rapping-ass rapping, which cracks the 150 BPM mark (probably qualifying it as the fastest rap hit of all time) and eventually turns into a gospel hymn; "Ms. Jackson", which perfectly condenses the most complicated of human relationships into a four-and-a-half-minute pop song. Then there's "So Fresh So Clean", a reset button back to the Curtis Mayfield pimp funk of their debut. Future/present/past. They bobbed and weaved quickly around this timeline, moving from P-Funk psychedelic guitar solos to trunk punishing 808 kicks and back again. The ideas were ricocheting off one another so quickly that it's hard to even notice when they fail. (We now know that this semi-controlled chaos was partially the side-effect of a break-up already happening in slow motion, but goddamn it was a glorious first step towards implosion.)
In the press surrounding the album's release, Big and (especially) Dre frequently made a point to mention that they had been explicitly avoiding listening to rap music while making the record, but they were clearly reacting to it. Specifically, to the many micro scenes throughout the South that were finally bubbling over into the mainstream after years of local marination. In the mid-90s the nationally visible Southern rappers—OutKast, Geto Boys, UGK, Eightball & MJG—were all products of different cultures, different cities, and different aesthetics, but they had also grown to share certain commonalities. These were acts who tangibly prioritized things like musicality, spirituality, and introspectiveness.
By the turn of the century, the national image of the Southern rapper and the expectations of Southern rappers had begun to morph significantly (check those tongue-in-cheek Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique skits on Aquemini). Labels like New Orleans' No Limit and Cash Money, and Memphis' Hypnotize Minds had regional roots as deep as OutKast's but now they were crossing over nationally with records that were sonically and socially more abrasive than what the Dungeon Family was selling. The beats got thinner, the ideas more blunt.
Stankonia saw OutKast actively pushing back against that tide while simultaneously dipping their toes in the pool. Advance versions of the record, leaked in the golden age of Napster, featured a slightly different mix of "Gangsta Shit", in which a backward-masked voice saying "We have your troops…" was quite audible. At the time, many interpreted this as their formal shot at the reign of the military-minded New Orleans camps—and, presumably, this is why it was buried to the point of inaudibility in the official mix. It wasn't a diss though. Like everything OutKast does, it was complicated: a playful challenge to their successors with that old harder than hard approach.
They warp the emerging image and sounds of the modern down-south d-boy elsewhere on the record: "Call Before I Come" is like Trick Daddy's "Nann" reimagined via Shuggie Otis, complete with an assist from Three 6 Mafia's Gangsta Boo, "Snappin' & Trappin'" echoes the aggression of Memphis, and the Chopped & Screwed coda of "Stank Love" was likely the first time many national listeners would have encountered the Texan style. Even the quasi drum'n'bass madness of "B.O.B." has its roots in the the earliest of "ignorant" Southern rap crossovers—Big Boi has claimed that the aims of the record were to modernize the pace and energy of Miami bass. (Andre's suggested that it was inspired mostly by contemporary rave hopping and the club drugs contained within.)
This is all part of the reason OutKast were able to sustain their credibility even as they got weirder and went pop at the same damn time—they never consciously presented their work as "the other." It was always "we do what you do, but we do it differently." Even in their strangest moments, they never positioned themselves above the trap, just perpendicular to it.
Every OutKast album title had been a portmanteau, a clashing of words symbolizing a clash of worlds and the volatile union between Andre 3000 and Big Boi. So the backslash in Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a little pause that spoke volumes, a silent acknowledgment that this was not an OutKast album even though you were being convinced otherwise. The two were barely on speaking terms artistically, but their quasi-solo albums were bound together, both metaphysically and physically. Any discussion of one would include a tacit appraisal of the other, the unspoken competition inherent in any rap duo given an actual playing field. But on a more crass level, you couldn’t choose between Speakerboxxx and The Love Below in a record store. You were buying an OutKast double album or you were buying nothing.
And a lot of people bought Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, both metaphysically and physically: It sat atop the 2003 Pazz & Jop critic’s poll and has sold over 11 million copies. Hard as it is to believe, OutKast had not achieved their commercial nor critical pinnacle with the universally beloved Stankonia. But while “B.O.B.” was a comprehensive survey of genre, “Hey Ya!” hit every demographic imaginable and was richly rewarded—it wasn’t pop, rock, R&B, black, white, young or old, it was one of the last truly universal songs of the iPod era and the reason Gnarls Barkley exist.
Still, it shouldn’t have taken us ten years of hindsight and a cruel dearth of Andre 3000 output to recognize the sheer absurdity of the excitement surrounding an album whose main draw was Andre 3000 not rapping. For all of its supposed adventurousness, The Love Below is not only baldly derivative, but derivative of one source. It’s Andre’s souvenir from Prince Fantasy Camp.
Carnality is seen as a manifestation of spirituality on The Love Below, a rebuke of Andre’s previous assessment from ATLien’s “Babylon”: “They call it horny because it’s devilish.” The Love Below is more or less a concept album about God granting Andre the perfect woman, a reward for being an altogether stand-up dude, except for that one time in Japan (“and head don’t count… aw, I knew you’d understand”). His pitch shifted vocals don’t even bother to distinguish themselves from those of Prince alter ego Camille, and he slops them all over synthesized funk, clumsy jazz, airy “The Cross”-style flanged guitars, and endless canned vamps. And, most crucially, like many latter-day Prince albums, it’s about 95% singing and 5% rapping… and Dre’s singing is about as good as Prince’s rapping. For that reason alone, “Where Are My Panties?” is the second-best song here because it’s actually a skit. And besides “Hey Ya!”, the skits are about the only thing that still holds up on a record that’s lovable but barely listenable most of the time.
All of which makes it a shame that Speakerboxxx was never able to stand on its own. Big Boi’s two subsequent solo albums are of vastly different artistic merit, but suffered the same fate: the endless meddling of label reps and song doctors couldn’t prevent 2010's Sir Lucious Leftfoot and 2012's Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors from suffering immediate chart deaths right on the table. Would all of that been necessary had Big Boi capitalized on OutKast’s commercial momentum and a still-healthy record industry in 2003? Or would Speakerboxxx have fared only slightly better than, say, Killer Mike’s Monster or Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance?
Speakberboxxx is not perfect, but as a mass appeal hip-hop record, it’s pretty much flawless. Though overshadowed by “Hey Ya!”, is there any doubt “The Way You Move” would’ve been a hit had it been credited to Big Boi rather than OutKast? How could anyone listen to the Afro-electro funk/quiet storm fusion of “Ghetto Musick” compared to Andre’s Lovesexy envy and say Big Boi was the unadventurous one? How could you forget the last great Goodie Mob song ever? How could a song featuring Big Boi, Killer Mike, and Jay-Z get released in 2003 and still be overlooked?
Somehow, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below still benefits from its unique structure—it’s the rare double album that simply cannot be stripped for parts into a cohesive single disc. And while it represents an ionized version of OutKast, the essence remains. You get one of the strongest hip-hop records of the decade and one of the most talented rappers ever going on the sort of non-rap tangent that results in career suicide about 99% of the time. Separated, they may have been hits, but hold the double-CD in your hand and remember: Holy shit, this batshit thing sold 11 million copies and rock critics loved it more than the White Stripes. Granted, the success of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below may owe itself to people who may never buy another hip-hop record. But it was a success all the same, proof there’s no wrong way to do the right thing.
Perhaps it’s a sign that I need to broaden my social circle, but here’s a list of movies I’ve been able to discuss in depth with my colleagues over the past seven years: Cash Money's Baller Blockin’, Master P's I’m Bout It, Redman and Method Man's How High, Roc-A-Fella's Paper Soldiers and State Property, Three 6 Mafia's Choices: The Movie, and the absolute motherlode, Cam'ron's Killa Season. Yet I might not have a single friend who has seen, or will ever see, Idlewild.
This seems impossible. Unlike the aforementioned, Idlewild is a real Hollywood production and has numerous advantages over your typical vanity movie: It features actors with legitimate acting experience, including Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Beyond that, because OutKast is one of the most popular and beloved musical acts of all time, their movie had a real budget and was released to actual theaters; you didn’t necessarily need to be an OutKast fan to see Idlewild, just someone looking for a way to kill a Friday night. Moreover, it has a plot that’s something other than rappers playing barely fictionalized versions of themselves: Idlewild is exactly like Purple Rain, except OutKast invent rap in a Depression-era speakeasy, and one of them is named Rooster. (I can’t remember which one, though.)
But even if Idlewild the album revealed little about Idlewild the movie, it proved to be a total spoiler, because the actual plot of the film was secondary to the meta-context of making the film: After years of trying to will their dream project into existence, OutKast finally got the greenlight… after they had all but stopped working together. Would Idlewild result in Andre 3000 and Big Boi being OutKast again? Anyone expecting a Hollywood ending could look at the dead center of Idlewild’s tracklist: “Hollywood Divorce”.
The connotation of bitter acrimony from that track is actually somewhat misleading: Idlewild moves with the finality and begrudging purpose of someone cleaning out their old apartment just enough to receive that security deposit. In spite of the strangely thrilling prospect of revisiting the one OutKast album unsullied by over analysis and radio airplay, Idlewild is a punishing listen—or at least karmic payback for the duo’s godlike run of the previous decade. Twenty-five tracks clock in at 77 minutes and yet both of those numbers seem like laughable lowball estimates. For those skeptical of the film, the soundtrack was their worst fears confirmed: a record full of ideas that were clearly sat upon for years and then rushed out with Andre 3000 and Big Boi working with separate agendas but without any of the gleeful experimentation that marked their solo albums.
If someone gushes to you that Idlewild is OutKast’s “weirdest” album, they are likely obsessed and impressed with their own contrarian thinking. Though the experience of listening to Idlewild is certainly weird—it’s still tough to ascertain how OutKast could release a movie and an album in 2006 that completely vanished without making a mark on pop culture in any way whatsoever. You may have forgotten the hungrier guest artists whose performances respected the fact that this is still an OutKast album. Namely, an untamed Killer Mike, an unheralded Janelle Monáe, and Lil Wayne in his Best Rapper Alive mania. But it’s more bizarre to hear OutKast so uninterested in itself, so utterly lacking in invention, so joyless.
There’s as much stylistic breadth on Idlewild as on previous records, but here it’s of the iPod variety: no integration, no Organized Noize, just costumery. At the very least, Andre’s solo excursions are sourced from a wider range than they were on The Love Below, but they're just as derivative: Cab Calloway on “Mighty ‘O’”, “Higher Ground” on “Idlewild Blues”. Idlewild literally ends on “A Bad Note”, eight minutes of migraine inducing “Maggot Brain” mimicry that may have been intended as a joke but felt like a final insult; this is the thanks we get.
For OutKast traditionalists who felt like the praise accorded to The Love Below was a backhanded slight to Big Boi, Idlewild provided some schadenfreude—justice was served, but not in any way that proved meaningful. Big Boi was likely starting to craft Sir Lucious Leftfoot already and while his technical skills are still sharp, he at least had the foresight not to squander his best material here. Instead, on songs like “N2U” and “Peaches”, the libido feels lecherous. Women are either treated as burdens or trophies on these songs and, perhaps to align with the 1930s blues aesthetic of the film, all of them are up to no good. Andre 3000 likewise lets real life trample upon this supposed fantasy construct and brings none of his flower-child levity—he attacks welfare recipients, music critics, Hollywood execs, and basically everyone who questions why he’d do anything other than the one thing he’s better at than anyone else drawing breath on planet Earth: rapping.
As the final excruciating seconds tick off from “A Bad Note”, there’s a comfort in how little OutKast left to the imagination; Idlewild is not generating its legend from never being followed up. In fact, the existence of a track like 2008’s completely inexplicable “Royal Flush”—which had Dre and Big Boi rapping astoundingly well on the same beat—only serves to show just how easily OutKast could reunite and how good they could be. It also shows how easy it is for them to say no.
There’s a band called SMD—which I can only imagine stood for "Suck My Dick"—and the 7" was called King of Drunk. I purchased it after seeing an ad in Maximum Rocknroll with a skeleton drinking beer and pissing into a toilet that said “send $3 cash to this address.” The record came six months later, and included a note apologizing for how late it was.
I don’t have any tattoos, but I used to have a recurring nightmare about getting tattoos against my will. In one of them, I got a leg tattoo of Shamu breaching out of the ocean, Free Willy-style, while thinking, “This is so stupid.”
The kind where a vague bureaucratic evil sends me back to high school because I never took health class. It’s just this Kafkaesque maze and I end up being this 27-year-old dude in health class with all these 17-year-olds and I’m like, “Why am I here? I’ve graduated college.”
Favorite Music Video
The Replacements' "Bastards of Young". There are too many videos right now that put too much of a precedent on being entertaining, especially within the milieu of the internet; the music video has such a short shelf life now. I watched this Miley Cyrus video this morning, and the imagery was all shock-based. It had very little depth. Whereas the “Bastards of Young” video has so much depth to it: The imagery’s so simple, but also multi-dimensional, which is all you can ask from great art. It doesn’t need to solicit you so aggressively.
The default Samsung flip-phone ring. I did [have a smartphone], but I didn’t like how it affected my behavior. I don’t feel the need to be constantly connected to things, and I didn’t feel like it was adding to my life.
Best Birthday I Ever Had
Maybe the last one. I had chips, salsa, and beer, which is my death-row meal. I ate acid and played a show at the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge in Austin and saw a bunch of old friends.
If you asked me when I was a kid I would’ve said Fruity Pebbles, but these days it’s muesli.
Maybe to another dimension, where aliens live. The truth is out there.
It’s a toss up between snake, cat, or bird—so maybe some sort of flying snake that sleeps a lot. I’ve been on a few psychedelic voyages that lead me to believe I’m a reptilian kind of guy.
Best Acid Trip
Recently, I had a epiphanic moment when I was on this Mexican playground that would be considered extremely dangerous and antiquated in America, but was perfect for Mexico. Maybe it because I was on acid, but the slides seemed like they were 50 feet high. I was on a rudimentary, chain-linked swingset, and I was going for the whole seeing-over-the-top-bar thing and I had this magical childlike feeling that recurs in adult life, but as life goes on, it occurs less and less often.
Favorite "Simpsons" Episode
“Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” is an all-time favorite. There are so many great musical references in that episode, like when Barney starts dating a Yoko-type figure and they do an experimental song where he’s just burping.
Thanksgiving is an important holiday because it encourages a certain quality in American society that isn’t encouraged that much: gratitude. Reflecting on what you have is important. And Thanksgiving hasn’t been too corrupted with marketing and the encouragement to spend money the way Christmas has.
I recently did “Like a Hurricane” by Neil Young, but I forgot there’s like 10 minutes of guitar solos in that song. That’s one of those moments where you think you know a song and then you step up to do it on karaoke and it’s like, “Oh yeah.” You have to tough it out.
Era of History I Wish I Lived In
Maybe a city like Paris, or Vienna, or Berlin, from like 1900 to 1925: Being able to witness the debut of the Rite of Spring or Strauss’s Salome, or hang out with Kandinsky or Picasso and drink absinthe. That’s the art and music-history nerd coming out in me.
It’s on my turntable now: Bob Desper’s New Sounds. He was a blind songwriter in the late 60s/early 70s who wrote these beautiful, melancholic folk songs. It’s not too dissimilar to Neil Young, or Bonnie "Prince" Billy, or Silver Jews. All home recording. All very sad.
I’ve really only seen a few films that I consider to be great. I’ve seen a lot of great movies, if you want to make the distinction there. I saw a documentary called The Source Family about a religious cult in the 70s that formed out of a vegan health food restaurant in L.A. that was pretty interesting. A lot of attractive, young, wide-eyed teenagers that fall under the influence of this yogi Father Yod. It’s all the stories that you hear about cults: free love and multiple lives and a semi-predatory father-like cult leader. But they had a psychedelic band, too, where Father Yod was the vocalist and drummer. The trippy part is that they would perform at high schools in the L.A. area for recruitment. I’m not sure how they were able to do that.
Last Great Book I Read
The last book I finished was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, which I enjoyed a lot. I read three Philip K. Dick books on tour, my favorite being VALIS. Right now, I’m reading a pretty great book called The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross about 20th century classical music.
My Morning Routine
It involves coffee, promises I can’t keep, and felines.
Last Great Concert I Saw
Metallica at Roskilde in Denmark. Everybody got a solo except James.
Bazillion Points celebrated its fifth anniversary this year, which seemed like another reason to sit down and talk with Christe about what it takes, in the digital age, to put out a 700+ page book about a Norwegian black metal zine, and to make it work.
Ian Christe; photo by Jimmy Hubbard
Pitchfork: How did you decide to start Bazillion Points?
Ian Christe: It was a rebellion. I’d been through the big book publishing process twice myself as an author with [the 2004 heavy metal history] Sound of the Beastand then with my Van Halen book. I had a background in DIY music, so the big publishers were so frustrating to deal with. Five years after Sound of the Beast came out that frustration welled up into feeling like I had a good grip on what needed to be done to make a book work, so I contacted Daniel Ekeroth about putting out Swedish Death Metal in the States. He'd printed less than 2,000 of that book himself, and it cost 80 Euros to get it here. I knew that wasn't working. There were a lot of people that would want to read it, and books like that don't have to be incredibly limited, precious things. That's was it in the beginning, just like: “Damn, everybody's doing it all wrong. I can do this.” And it pretty much worked out through a really lucky succession getting in touch with exactly the right people at the right time.
Being in New York, a lot of people I knew were top-notch copy editors or photo retouchers, so I had a good community around me that knew how to do the specialized stuff. All I had to figure out was getting the word out. It's not even so much about publicity, it's more just letting people know that things are available, because books aren't a flash in the pan thing. It's more like: "It took 20 years for this book to be done and now it'll be on a shelf for 20 years until the right person finds it." The thing that was much harder than I expected was figuring out what to do with 20 tons of books. That led to a lot of trying to move freight with a pallet jack—literally trying to shove a one-ton cube of books into a tiny space. The positive side about dealing with the logistics of moving books around is that it's better than a gym!
Pitchfork: So you've become pretty buff by this point.
IC: Huge! So strong.
Pitchfork: When you first started did you have other small music-associated presses that inspired you, or were you looking more at record labels?
IC: I had more experience with record labels, but when I saw Black Flag in 1986, Henry Rollins was selling the very first 2.13.61 pamphlets, so that idea of a literary tie into outsider music definitely planted the seed.
Also, I played drums in a band with Soft Skull Press founder Sander Hicks called Poem Rocket, and all of those guys worked at the same Kinko's—Sander was abusing late-night copier access to make these little books by Lee Ranaldo and whoever else he could round up. I mean, I was abusing the same copiers to make 7" covers for Grouse Mountain Skyride.
Pitchfork: Bazillion Points has been around for five years now, has it been hard to make a press work in this very digital environment? People aren’t used to paying for things.
IC: I think it's worked because all of our books are filling a gaping need. There was nothing really thorough about Midwestern hardcore—then all of a sudden there’s this 576-page book about the entire revolution of hardcore from a Midwestern perspective and the rise of Detroit and Negative Approach in Touch and Go. It's definitely been hard, but I think that we're doing it right, so it's not brutal.
The hardest thing has been keeping everything in print, it's a whole new level of logistics—how to store things is becoming more and more of a puzzle. We have our own local warehouse, and the distributors keep a lot of the books in their big warehouse, along with probably over 50% of all independent presses—they're all stored in the same warehouse in Jackson, Tennessee. The hardest thing is dealing with massive, expensive reprints. It wasn't a problem when we had eight books, but now that we have 15, we reprint the book and it takes years for all of them to be sold. Everything happens so slowly, it's a whole different time frame.
"It's important to over-deliver on the quality of the books as far as depth and content. It's not worth it to cut out 50 pages just because it would be a little bit cheaper."
Pitchfork: As far as distribution goes, do a lot of the book sales happen online or are people finding them in book shops and records stores?
IC: It's a mix of everything. We deal directly with as many music stores as we can, and that's definitely been hard in the last few years. But the newer ones that open up are less set in their ways and more flexible and also are coming up in an era where metal has been big for several years now, especially among actual record buyers. I feel like our books are right at the core of what a record store is, and every record store that sells a copy of Metalion should stock up on hundreds of black metal releases because whoever bought that book is going to be back tracking all that stuff down. That was especially true with our prog metal book, Mean Deviation, because it included 1,000 pretty obscure, wacky bands, and not even their best-known records sometimes. But we're dealing with the rise of Amazon just like all bookstores and all record stores and all publishers.
Pitchfork: In the past few years metal has definitely crossed over a bit more, do you think the fact that more people are listening to more “underground” stuff now than a decade ago helps what you do?
IC: I don't know, because my book Sound of the Beast came out 10 years ago and HarperCollins didn't really expect too much. It took me three or four years to get it done. When we first signed up, "The Osbournes" was on TV and they were stoked about that. Then that was gone by the time my book was done, and they were like, "Wait a minute! Where's the endless comedy about the stumbling rockstar? This is about a bunch of bands and music. What is this?" But that book did really well and I think it's because it was needed. Sound of the Beast was just an attempt to capture as much as possible and make sense of it. Now, there's more of a glut. When we first started, we would routinely be the top 10 metal books on Amazon just because there was nothing else. There's a lot of cash-in stuff coming out now—they always mention the backstage antics.
Pitchfork: There are common themes in what you’ve put out, but there’s also variety. For instance, your new book is the photo journal Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 by Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt. How does that figure into everything for you?
IC: A lot of these things have an innate connection. I had been riding that metal wave since 1980 with things getting more complex and heavier and darker. Around the time the photos in that book were shot, Morbid Angel's "Thy Kingdom Come" single came out, along with Mayhem's Deathcrush EP and the first Napalm Death album—there was a huge explosion and everybody in that wave started listening to the Stooges and MC5 and Blue Cheer, and taking a pause and looking at different dimensions of rockin'. [laughs]
Right as I got into that stuff, the first Mudhoney 7” came out and I saw them in Chicago. It was super sludgy. You know, the bass player came from the Melvins, but it tied into old rock. A couple of years later, Nicke Andersson jumped out of Entombed and started Hellacopters. There's a little bit of logic there connecting Sub Pop and metal. Supposedly, Nirvana was engineered to be a cross between R.E.M. and Celtic Frost. I'm still trying to find the perfect Nirvana song that's an example of that, but you do hear a lot of their songs start with an extremely emotional death grunts... [imitates guitar]
Pitchfork: It also ties in with Tesco Vee’s Touch And Go...
IC: Sub Pop and Touch and Go are two powerhouse indie labels that began as fanzines, so there's a huge written component, too. It's not like they had to go back and write a label history. Tesco had been doing the zine for three years before the label ever started, so the underpinnings of Touch and Go are all spelled out in the first 20 issues of Touch and Go, and the same with Sub Pop, even more so because Bruce Pavitt had been publishing zines and he was doing a monthly column in The Seattle Rocket.
Bruce Pavitt was so intent on being indie and regional that he was really into the tribal identity of the Seattle sound; he was so pro-indie that if X or Devo put out a new record in 1980 he wouldn't even cover it because it was a major-label release. Those kinds of politics. I don't think anyone was on that in a major way until 10 or 15 years later. Then all of a sudden the records start coming out and you see how they have a strong regional identities and there was a look—the look of Sub Pop the label was already tested out in the zine.
Pitchfork: When I was younger I would get anything on Touch and Go or Dischord. I trusted the labels and their vision. Sub Pop was like that for a time. Is this something you aspire to with the press?
IC: Yeah. And Touch and Go had it over several eras: with hardcore and then with post-hardcore when all of a sudden it was Laughing Hyenas and Urge Overkill and Killdozer. It's different with books because these things are way more work and way more focused and personalized than a record. But as far as black metal and death metal goes, the trio of Only Death Is Real, Swedish Death Metal, and Metalion is pretty much untouchable for really understanding of how those movements were formed, who did it, where, the circumstances, the repercussions. We Got Power!'s funny: It's hardcore punk, but with almost no discussion of music. It's all about the people and the settings and the social circumstances. And Touch and Go is almost purely music and attitude and humor. I feel like we already have some zones of total expertise and total authority.
Pitchfork: You mention Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries, which collected highlights of the long-running Norwegian metal zine Slayer Mag. How did that come about? Black metal zines aren’t usually looking for that kind of exposure.
IC: I approached [Slayer Mag editor] Jon [Kristiansen] about that, and it definitely took some convincing. Although it was an obvious thing, especially since Slayer # 10 was the most complete text about the Norway happenings of '92, '93 [including a rash of church burnings, the suicide of Mayhem singer Per Yngve Ohlin, aka Dead, and the murder of Mayhem's Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth by Burzum's Varg Vikernes]. Everything that's in the interviews is basically the entire story, but in way more detail with way more personal perspective than any of the books or documentaries that were thrown together years later.
Overall, though, that scene's super interesting for what it says about black metal, but also for European metal in the early days, when he was just an innocent kid, and then at the end when he's a grizzled veteran after seeing Sodom 40 times. Getting him to do it was tough. His close friend Tara kind of babysat him through the process—she took all the abuse, like, "Goddammit I don't wanna talk about this!" Many packs of cigarettes and 30 cassette tapes later, they had talked it all out and that was the basis for the book's diary portion. It was very weird to have all of this material pass through my hands like letters from Dead and original Mayhem artifacts.
Pitchfork: I could imagine him agreeing to do the book because it’s a primary document that tells the story more accurately than the books by people who weren’t there.
IC: It's very personal and difficult, because when you look around at all of his stories, most of the people he knew as a kid discovering metal and having happiness in his life for the first time aren't around anymore. So it's majorly dark, and with the help of the book, actually, he came out on the other end, which is pretty amazing. Though the book that has the highest body count is definitely We Got Power!. It was very sobering to realize how fast and wild the first wave of L.A. hardcore punks lived. Like, wow. That's some destruction.
IC: Yeah, and she had a lot of great details and ideas. It was all tied together in a very concise and tight way, but that was the book that I worked the most on as an editor, just asking questions and helping her organize things. In the end, it's the perfect mix of theory and personal observation and anecdote.
Like the Metalion book or Only Death Is Real, it's an authoritative story by somebody—a black woman who's been into metal for a very long time and walked a road that nobody else really walked. I don't want to say you can't question her, but it's good for you to listen to that. She didn't start a genre-defining band, but she sure as hell knows what it's like to be a black woman at a show. All metal is so mature at this point that people are very comfortable in their understanding of what happens at shows and who other metalheads are and how to relate to other metal people. But it shakes things up to understand that here's somebody who's been going to shows for 20 years and some kid will take one look at and literally say, "What are you doing here?" She is part of this. She's not an outsider to the metal world. She's just got a very different experience than a lot of people.
"The youngest metal kids are less impressed by tradition, so you get metal that encompasses everything. It's not a defining kind of lifestyle and look."
Pitchfork: Do you have a dream book?
IC: I've already worked on at least a dozen dream books. I'm definitely not starving for something, like, "Agh, if only!" It's the opposite. At the moment, I'm right in that sweet spot. The dream book is always the next book, and that's how it's been for five years now.
Pitchfork: Do you see Bazillion Points as lasting another five years?
IC: Yeah. It's important to over-deliver on the quality of the books as far as depth and content. It's not worth it to cut out 50 pages just because it would be a little bit cheaper. And I know that if any of these books go out of print, they'll instantly become super valuable and super rare. To a certain extent that's unavoidable for periods of time, but I'd like to see everything stay in print as long as people are still willing to read them because it took a lot of work on my part, and the authors put in so much compiling everything. But yeah, I will definitely be here in five more years. How dare you ask! [laughs]
Pitchfork: You're keeping up with metal, doing the radio show, writing about metal. As someone who's doing a lot of historical work, what's your take on today's metal scene?
IC: Daniel Ekeroth was just here from Sweden and we went tubing on the Delaware River and discussed this: Basically, it seems to me like everything is super saturated right now and we ran through all of the unfinished business. Like, thrash metal didn't really get a chance to develop before it was killed off by death metal, but it got its chance in the last five years and has run itself through. That's been true of a lot of different varieties and flavors of metal. Now, the youngest metal kids are less impressed by tradition, so you get metal that encompasses everything. It's not a defining kind of lifestyle and look—if you go back five or 10 years ago, there were so many 20-year-olds way into Pentagram and Saint Vitus, or even just on the mainstream level going to Ozzfest and seeing Slayer and Black Sabbath every year. But that kind of respect for the lineage is just dwindling just because things change. It was an amazing streak for us grizzled old folk to be able to have anybody under the age of 900 to turn to us and say, "What was it like seeing Saxon?" [laughs]
But, at the same time, there are so many bands doing the opposite of what I'm saying, like these super focused, super intense bands from Southeast Asia. This is where metal is just catching on now, where you can see Metallica and Iron Maiden for the first time. That's like a wildfire in a totally pretty much untapped terrain. So that's more exciting than seeing a bunch of young American bands that seem like they bought one thing from every store in the mall and they're making a record out of it.
Overtones is a column that examines how certain sounds linger in our minds and lives.
"You picked a heck of a subject because most people, they don’t know. They don’t understand. It’s very rare for someone to even think like that."
This is what Philly Soul composer Thom Bell tells me when I reached him on his home phone in 2011 to talk about his string arrangements for soul songs. I had spent some time tracking him down, circling through old managers who didn't represent him anymore and old friends who had stopped passing his number along. He hadn't worked in any meaningful capacity in years; he was comfortably a legend, carrying around a suitcase full of sterling, immortal credits—co-writing and producing "La-La (Means I Love You)" by the Delfonics and the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New" to name just two—that would be powerful currency until the day he died.
Nonetheless, he answered his phone on the third ring and chatted with me for two hours. My need was not necessarily journalistic. I was calling because I had a problem—an aesthetic one, but it felt pressingly real to me: I needed to connect all the music I'd ever loved back to itself. I thought Thom Bell might be able to help me out.
This is a lifelong, helpless weakness of mine. I've always yearned to be told that everything I love is related, even if I haven't figured out quite how yet. My personal musical interests, meanwhile, insist on the opposite. We are just the lint you've accrued in life, they say. Classical? Childhood violin lessons. Rap? Growing up in a mid-90s suburb. Punk and indie rock? See previous answer. But I've never been able to leave it there. If all of this stuff is going to occupy my mind, it has to join up somehow.
So why Bell? He intrigued me because he was essentially castoff, a refugee, from American classical music. He was the head of a loose coterie of hippies, hipsters, and misfits operating at the fringes of 1970s soul; people like Larry Gold, a cello prodigy who dropped out of the Curtis Institute to play in The Sound of Philadelphia orchestra when he was a teenager. Or Bunny Sigler, a spectacularly eccentric R&B tenor and sometime opera singer who referred to himself as the Great Siglieri. Bell, meanwhile, was a discouraged former pianist who gave up the classical repertoire when he learned inserting your own harmonies into the masterworks was frowned upon.
These people shared a love of classical music that they didn't quite know what to do with, a feeling I will always relate to. They had stumbled into this peculiar world—charged with private ecstasies and riddled with forbidding behavioral codes—and then stumbled out, bewildered, grand sounds glowing in their heads and a pressing need to find somewhere to put them. They proceeded to feed Wagnerian brass and Samuel Barber strings (or their own crude approximations of them) directly into the pop-cultural mega-processor. Their sound is leaked into the groundwater now.
"I didn’t want to re-voice chords in my head—adding sevenths, ninths, elevenths—but the music made me do it," Bell tells me. "And once I started hearing those things, I told my mother, 'I’m awfully sorry, but I can’t just can’t do any more of this [classical] music.' That stuff started getting on my nerves—the chord progressions, the whole tonality was always the same. When you play Prelude In C-Sharp minor, it’s Prelude in C-Sharp minor. If you vary one note, then people say, 'Oh, he wasn’t so hot.' People don’t expect you to be contemplating changing things."
So Bell brought this classical training, as rudimentary as it was, into pop music. He had nowhere else to put it. "We were all muddling through," he says, of the sessions that bore out majestic songs like 'La-La (Means I Love You)'. "We were all nothing together. I just happened to be the leader of the nothings. I used four violins, one viola, and one cello for years. That’s all I could afford."
His pitiful budget, combined with his partial, on-the-fly understanding of the art of orchestration, which he absorbed via library books and constant quizzing of his musicians, produced an inimitable sound. All great art has at least one grievous accident beneath it, the grit that produces the pearl, and Bell's arrangements were nothing if not a series of them.
"The very first time I wrote music out for my strings, I wrote a figure and put above it: 'pluck,'" Bell remembers. "And the musicians said to me, 'Hey Bell; what’s this ‘pluck’ business? What are you talking about, man?' I was like, 'You know, [mimes plucking strings with fingers].' They just looked at me and said, 'You mean pizzicato!' They still send me Christmas cards teasing me about that. Oh, and in the beginning of 'La-La (Means I Love You),' when they have the tremolo parts—I wrote that as ‘shake.’ All of a sudden these four guys just started shaking in their chairs. I said, 'What are you guys doing!?' 'You said ‘shake!'"
Partly because of these knowledge gaps, Bell's harmonic language remains like nobody else's. I sat down with a composer friend at a keyboard to try and suss out the chord changes in the song "You Make Me Feel Brand New", and as he plowed through it, he kept sitting back, chuckling. The parts could never have been written by a "proper" student of orchestration, but the song feels literally transformative as a result, never quite in one key or another. It is in a permanent state of arrival—every harmonic turn feels like the epiphany that the song has been building towards. It is clear that Bell regards it as his masterpiece.
"That’s the only song in the world that kicked my backside," he admits. "I kept trying to force this melody to do something and it just would not do it. And I walked around with it in my brain, and I wrote it and rewrote it—and it was nothing but one note! It was one chord. One lousy chord. I rewrote that fucker in my mind for about a week."
Bell confesses to some savant-like tendencies. "I’m like three or four different people working on the same song," he says. "Sometimes these people sit down and talk to each other beforehand, sometimes they don’t pay any attention to each other. After I've written out the arrangements, I would sit down at the podium to conduct it and just think, 'Who wrote this?'"
He continues, "Every melody I ever wrote, I worked hard on. And once I deliver it, that’s it. There’s nothing else I can do. I had one rule: You cannot change that melody. You don’t know why it’s right, but you know it is. You take a pencil and you put it in the pencil sharpener and you sharpen it and sharpen it and sharpen it—once it reaches its point, it’s done. Once it gets to where it’s supposed to be, that’s where it’s supposed to be. After that, it breaks."
When I ask Bell why he struggled with "You Make Me Feel Brand New" in particular, he waxes lyrical. "When you make a person feel brand new—and you’re talking about the inner fiber of a person’s being—that is a very sacred, dark, private spot that not many people touch and that no one sees. When you are in love with somebody, when you’re making love with somebody, you’re riding the ether with them. That’s the closest of love you’re ever going to feel. So the music itself has to indicate that same feeling. You look at the lyrics 'you make me feel brand new,' and whatever goes with that has to be strong, boy. It cannot be weak anywhere. It has to be like the girder going up a 100-story building. And when you take that away and listen to the melody, it has to be just as strong. That’s what I was trying to do."
Soaking in these stories, I felt something settle in, with a click. Most days, my love for classical music feels like a phantom limb pain, an impulse with no receptors. Hearing Bell talk, I felt an almost-physical sense of relief. Classical to soul to rap: It remains a series of imposingly wide leaps. But listening to Bell talk about, say, working out the voicing possibilities of the French horn from a library book for "Ready or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide From Love)"—a song sampled for Missy Elliott's "Sock It 2 Me!" and Three 6 Mafia's "Who Run It!"andquoted by the Fugees—I felt the gaps narrow. Classical music fans and rap fans may regard each other with mutual mistrust and blank incomprehension, but the music, slippery and promiscuous, knows better.
The first encounter I had with the BPM-busting Chicago style known as footwork straight from the source came watching DJ Spinn & DJ Rashad play at an All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Minehead, England, near the end of 2011. Even after absorbing the context of entry-level compilations and numerous live mixes in the run-up, wheeling around a dancefloor in a faded family holiday camp at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning to the strains of DJ Manny's Lil Wayne-sampling "All I Do Is (Smoke Trees)" provided a unique and novel thrill. Everything from still-smoldering club smashes to at least three Watch the Throne cuts and even a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack got sucked into Spinn and Rashad's overheating, chaotic, inescapably gleeful mélange, delivered at breakneck speed. Everyone who had investigated the scene stayed right until lights up, grins etched across their faces; but then, there were only 30 of us, tops. The flame was burning ever brighter, but footwork was still just a lit fuse—a niche concern even some time after 2011's introductory comp Bangs & Works, Vol.1 had attracted a few curious outsiders.
Skip forward two years and the tinderbox has blown. Footwork no longer represents a frenzied curio, but rather a valid facet of the wider conversation that has come to espouse something cerebral in addition to its rep as pure dancefloor fire, using a considerably broader sonic palette and plumbing greater emotional depths. Case in point: DJ Rashad's masterful new album for Hyperdub, Double Cup, which Pitchfork's Larry Fitzmaurice called "the strongest footwork-related LP since the genre was introduced to a wider audience" in his recent Best New Music review.
Though the producer recently suffered a fractured hip and bruised ribs in a car accident, he's currently back on the road supporting fellow Chicago act Chance the Rapper across America. Speaking after a lengthy rehearsal—his set features blindingly quick footwork dancers—it's hard to ascribe any emotion to the man apart from gracious, infectious joy. On one hand, the showstopping, suspended freefall of Double Cup single "I Don't Give a Fuck" seemingly couldn't be less representative, standing in stark contrast with his bubbly personality and bleating laugh. Taken from a different angle, however, the title makes sense given Rashad's methodical, grounded approach: The calm at the eye of an ever-expanding storm.
Pitchfork: How have you found the reaction to Double Cup so far?
Rashad Harden: Bro, I'm stunned, flattered, blessed. I never thought it would take off the way it has. I figured it would be nice, but not like this.
Pitchfork: Your Teklife camp has had numerous releases this decade, but it feels as if there was a swell of anticipation that help it crack through.
RH: I was nervous at first, because I told people it wouldn't be a typical Teklife album—I went the other way from the hyper, aggressive shit we normally do. It plays more toward other things I love: jungle, acid house. So for it to go down well, I'm just amazed. I didn't think people would get in tune with it. I got a couple of hate mails, nothing too bad: "Why didn't you just stick to the regular footwork shit?" But this is just something that needed to be done.
Pitchfork: Do you think you're going to have difficulties getting samples cleared now you guys have a bigger profile?
RH: Uh, yeah. [laughs] Definitely. But for Double Cup, for example, only four songs out of 14 had samples. And I'm working on more original stuff now that the eyes are on me.
Pitchfork: You worked with a lot of like-minded artists on Double Cup, but do you ever want to challenge yourself with a record that's purely your work?
RH: Yes. I mean, I've done that on some of my older records. But the whole idea of Double Cup was to collab with everybody I can, from Teklife and all my friends—whoever was available before I had to turn the record in: Manny, Earl, Taso, Spinn. I feel collaboration plays a big part, it's like a learning experience.
Pitchfork: I've seen some wild videos of you out in Russia—people going insane in this very European, stomp-and-fistpump way. What was it like the first time you experienced a completely different crowd reaction to your music, especially after such a long time exposed to the dance battles back in Chicago?
RH: I went to Russia for the first time in April and didn't know what to expect. I didn't really think people knew, but they went fucking mental. [laughs] They knew all the songs, it was crazy man! In St. Petersburg, they got a couple footwork dancers, can you believe that?
Pitchfork: Sometimes I go to a club in London and hear footwork music played, and people are there sweating it out, trying their hardest to keep up. Obviously they're failing miserably—but the spirit's there.
RH: As long as they get the vibe and everything's cool, that's our goal right now. They can learn the footwork later.
Pitchfork: Given that it's been a pretty intense year, do you find your allegiance to Chicago strengthening as you travel the world, or do you feel a disconnect?
RH: It's my home. I pay my dues to Chicago and everybody knows what I'm doing. When I'm gone I got people like Boylan, Gantman, Earl, Manny, Taso, and everybody else holding it down. The music's still being played, and they know we're out here trying to spread it even harder. When I'm home, it's a big party!
Pitchfork: How do you reckon your next record's going to sound like; Double Cup definitely balanced the light and the dark.
RH: Right now, we're working DJ Spinn's album for Hyperdub. It's going to be a little bit of everything, too—we'll stick to the footwork formula but we've got other shit as well. The response to Double Cup has let us know we can do different things and have people support and love it as well.
Pitchfork: How has it been working with Hyperdub?
RH: Hyperdub is great. I love what they do. I was a fan of [label head and producer] Kode9 and everybody before I had even heard an offer, so to be a part of what they're doing is an honor. I want to collab with any and everybody: Scratcha, Cooly G, Laurel Halo. We all on the same team. I'm always down to work with homies on the team and I should have some stuff coming out in '14 with these guys.
Pitchfork: Right, one more: Out of all the places you've been on tour this year, where can you get the best kush?
RH: Well, it ain't Amsterdam! [laughs]Germany got the good shit, London too, Copenhagen, Sweden. Pretty much everywhere. Wait, nah: Paris don't have no good shit, just rocks of horseshit hash. Croatia didn't have no weed either. But I'm not offended if they don't have any, but, yeah… I'd prefer it. [laughs]
Guest List features artists filling us in on some of their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with UK electronic producer Matthew Barnes, who makes elegantly dark music as Forest Swords. His latest album, Engravings, was named Best New Music earlier this year.
My Morning Routine
I know it’s one of the most important meals of the day, but breakfast really bothers me. I wake up around six and don’t generally eat until mid-morning. I’m not one to waste the day. I get really frustrated by my friends who sleep until one in the afternoon.
The First Record I Bought Myself
The New Kids on the Block cassette with “Hangin’ Tough” on it
The Best Thing I Purchased This Year
A portrait of myself—that sounds so egotistical, doesn’t it? It was done as part of this project in Chicago where kids and adults with learning disabilities or mental problems create art all day. You can buy their work, or you can sit down for a portrait session with them. I was blown away by all this incredible work being made. This guy Fernando there made this Mexican-influenced artwork; he did a portrait of me that only cost $15.
Actually, I've been thinking of getting a "No More Drama" tattoo. It's a really good motto to live by, it's so no-bullshit. It's nothing pretentious. I'm a graphic designer, too, so the font would be a hard choice. Maybe Baskerville. Zero-drama font.
Tina Fey is an idol of mine. And Scarlett Johansson is really underrated. My favorite at the moment is Ashley Walters, who's a British actor. He used to be a rapper in a group called So Solid Crew, but he's found his calling in acting. There's a series called "Top Boy" on at the moment where he plays the head of a drug gang in London, and he's totally compelling.
I’m quite solitary in the way that I work, so it’s a good way to be forced to engage with people. It’s like speed-dating every night.
Worst Part of Being on Tour
The waiting. People who don’t tour don’t understand how much waiting goes on—whether its waiting to get picked up, waiting to travel somewhere, waiting to pack up your stuff. It’s one big waiting game.
Missy Elliott. She doesn't seem human to me. I would love to give her a beat.
Patrice O’Neal, who passed away recently. He was so powerful and he had no filter. There’s a British stand-up called Stewart Lee who I really like, too—while he is performing stand-up he deconstructs it and he breaks the whole thing apart and makes you question why you're laughing at certain things.
This is the voice of Bill Callahan. In person, it’s higher than it is on record, somewhere between the chesty baritone of his recent work and the reedy plea of his youth. In September, I met with the 47-year-old singer-songwriter in the living room of an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and talked to him about his childhood: He grew up in Maryland and England, his parents both worked for the National Security Agency, he lived in the suburbs. "High school was terrible for me, like it is for all people, I guess. I was just not happy," he tells me. But then something about the sentence that followed stuck out. As a kid, I was just a kid. It sounds like a line from a Bill Callahan song. Is he saying "Let’s leave that alone," because there is something deeper he doesn’t want to discuss, or is it that there is really nothing there? Does it matter?
People who conduct and read interviews with Bill Callahan know that they can be challenging. He's been known to comport himself as if he doesn’t want to be there, and he doesn’t necessarily havemuch to say. Sometimes it’s comical. His perceived reticence can mirror his work as a whole: As a writer, Callahan is a minimalist. He strips down verbiage until mostly silence remains, and when you’re doing interviews, silence is your enemy. “Some people write a thank you note for a gift and it’s three pages long, and some people write a thank you note and it’s five sentences—that's me," he says. "I like to pare away words because I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.” Minimalist writing pairs with minimalist talking which leads to a minimalist Q&A, which can be the worst kind.
On this day, though, Callahan is friendly and seems happy to talk. But I wouldn’t describe him as open, exactly. He answers the door in a red plaid shirt and jeans. We exchange pleasantries as he heads to the kitchen to work a French press, and then his publicist buzzes up from the street, enters, and asks if he needs anything. The publicist suggests a smoothie for later, and Callahan agrees, asking for something with greens. The building is a classic New York tenement, but the apartment itself, which belongs to a friend, is tidy and well kept. There are a few CDs in a rack on the wall, some art books piled up here and there, an old air conditioner humming away in a window framed by green curtains.
As Callahan answers questions slowly and carefully, I think about how his public persona connects to his work. Bill Callahan the person has always been glimpsed through a veil. Early on, when he was making noisy lo-fi blasts as Smog, it was the pseudo-anonymity that came with working under another name and under the radar. If no one knew much about him in those years, it’s because, relatively speaking, virtually no one had heard the music. Little by little, as he achieved a certain amount of indie-level fame, the man began to show himself, but only so much information ever entered the frame.
You got the sense that the ratio between what was revealed and what was held back was quite small. This brings up questions about the relationship between the maker and the made, how the knowledge of the songwriter changes how the songs are heard, how songs can be an interface with the artist, and how the work can stand alone. As Callahan pauses to take a sip of coffee, I think about sharing, about wanting to be known. We put pieces of ourselves out in the world in part because we’re lonely. We want to be asked about our lives, we want people to care. And when they show no signs of doing so, we tell them what we’re about anyway. But Callahan seems to inhabit another space. He wants to make music and he wants to play it for people, but he doesn’t seem to care if strangers get to know the "real" him.
We talk about the internet. "It’s irresistible. It’s a drug almost," he says. "I try to use it constructively." But he doesn’t like reading about himself. "I was late to the internet. I didn’t really understand what it was. I didn’t know what an email was. Then I was like, 'Whoa, let me see if I’m on this thing.' I read stuff [about myself]. It was a terrible, terrible experience. Positive or negative, it still feels awful. I just told myself that I was going to stop. I didn’t think that I'd able to, but I did. Every day I don’t Google my name there’s another beautiful day."
Callahan’s power as a songwriter comes from observation. He finds things that don’t initially seem notable and then puts them under a microscope until we see something new. By imbuing simple objects with symbolic power and laying them out clearly, he can create an image or a feeling that seems closer to the person hearing it. One of my favorite Callahan songs, "Driving", from the 2003 album Supper, is one that bridges the crude, one-line goofs of the early days with the more arranged and better produced music of his later years. Its only line is: "And the rain washes the price off of our windshield."
Callahan layers his voice so that the refrain sounds like a shackled crew of ghosts moaning from the afterworld, and he sings those words incredibly slowly, letting each syllable tell a story, surrounding the image with guitar and banjo and brushed drums and sound effects including exploding bottle rockets. But that one line is the thing. And when you hear Callahan sing it, you can see that car with the soaped-on price pulling out of the lot, and the water dissolving the numbers, drop-by-drop. From the tone, you gather that the price is not terribly high, and the driver is not terribly excited about the world seeing what he can afford when it comes to buying a pre-owned vehicle. That's a lot for one line. But then again, that’s me filling in the blanks.
"I still feel very hopeful after I finish a song, like I’m going to save the world—that feeling dissipates as soon as people hear it and that doesn’t happen."
Callahan’s work to date exists in three stages. There is the noisy experimental period—which contains his darkest, most gothic (and funniest) work—from 1990’s Sewn to the Sky through 1996’s The Doctor Came at Dawn. (The pre-Sewn period, when Callahan published a zine and put out his earliest tapes, is a past he doesn’t care to mention.) There was little on these records that could be described as songs; there were experimental collages, mixing guitar feedback, voices, found sounds, loops. “It was like a monkey throwing its shit on the walls," he says of that time now. "It was a tactile period, so I was really into the textures of sounds and the way the microphone would distort something. That fascinated me."
But behind the static and the name was an aesthetic sensibility. There was humor, found in titles like "Bad Ideas for Country Songs" and "High School Freak". But it was almost impossible to imagine the person behind it all, and Forgotten Foundation's cover painting and buried voice offered few clues. By 1993’s Julius Caesar, Callahan was edging toward something that could be called a Songwriter. It's a lo-fi album with delusions of grandeur; there are string sections and a loop of a Rolling Stones song, and all that was further refined on 1995’s Wild Love, which contains "Bathysphere", one of his most enduring songs. "I think the heart is still the same," he says of this early material. "I still feel very hopeful after I finish a song, like I'm going to save the world or something—that feeling dissipates as soon as people hear it and that doesn’t happen."
The second phase of his career starts with 1997’s Red Apple Falls, the first of his albums I heard and the first of two Smog records he recorded with Jim O’Rourke. There is no comparison as far as sound quality between the O’Rourke pair and the formative releases. The producer favored dry, simple recordings that captured the sounds of instruments in a room, and this stripped-down approach gave Callahan’s music new possibilities in terms of space. It’s an approach to recording that has continued, and to my ear O’Rourke helped clarify the mode in which Callahan sounds best on record. Callahan doesn’t quite agree with this assessment, but he does credit O’Rourke’s enthusiasm. "He was the first engineer that gave a shit about my music," he says. "I started out recording at home by myself and then I was randomly going to studios with people I knew nothing about. So having someone sitting behind the glass actually saying 'Wow, that was good!' Instead of just, 'What’s next?' was a big thing."
Beginning with the more memorable and constructed songs on Wild Love, continuing through The Doctor Came at Dawn, and fully realized on Red Apple Falls, we finally got a sense of some of Callahan’s primary concerns as a songwriter: This was bleak music, often darkly funny, about love, sex, and alienation. "All Your Women Things" finds a man contemplating the items left behind by a departed lover and creepily making a "spread-eagle dolly out of your frilly things." On Red Apple Falls, "Ex-Con" begins with a wink—"Whenever I get dressed up/ I feel like an ex-con trying to make good"—and ends with a couplet that made some sense in 1997 but makes 10 times more now, when so much of life is lived behind computers: "When I’m alone in my room I feel like such a part of the community/ But out in the street, I feel like a robot by the river."
People used to wonder if Callahan’s knowledge about how lovers torture each other came first-hand (speculation fueled, in part, because he had girlfriends with their own amount of fame in the independent music world—the late Cynthia Dall, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, and Joanna Newsom). We’ve all heard from songwriters who go out of their way to tell us they are not writing autobiography, but even the most elusive of these have some desire to be known. You don’t stand in front of hundreds or thousands of people to perform unless you like to be looked at and listened to.
Callahan’s relative blankness and elusiveness serve him well, keeping our knowledge of him as a person apart from the work. But it's easy to forget that he’s not exceptionally private. There are singer-songwriters who reveal much less. He’s taken many photographs. He participated in Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film, and there has been a book of photographs documenting his life in Austin called The Life and Times of William Callahan. He does interviews to help the word get out because he knows that’s how the game works and he’s been playing it for a very long time, but he seems to believe, somewhere deep down, that his personality and the details of his life are inessential to the enjoyment of music.
"I love life more than I ever have, and I've stopped caring about things that don't matter. I think we were designed to die happy."
After Red Apple Falls and 1999's Knock Knock, Smog was well established as a project, and Callahan stayed busy in the first half of the last decade, releasing three albums in three years. But by the time of 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, his masterpiece, some things had changed. Making music under the banner of a band name began to seem less appealing. "The word 'Smog' meant nothing to me—just like symbols on a slot machine, like a cherry or a horseshoe. I realized that’s what I was broadcasting, that’s the face I was giving to people." Starting with 2007's Woke on a Whaleheart, he began releasing music under his own name. And though he sees all of his work as existing on a continuum, he acknowledges that more people started to take notice. Which doesn’t mean that the music was any more or less "him" than what came before.
As a performer, and in terms of record sales, Callahan has experienced more popularity in the last few years than during any other time in his life. And if you follow the press around an album cycle, you can see the same questions being asked, and the answers give little nudges to a song’s meaning. His new record Dream River, for example, can be understood as a concept album, as a narrator slips into a dream at the start and returns to reality at the end. Callahan accepts the role of the unconscious as a source for creativity, and he trusts it to take him to places that are meaningful.
"A lot of it is subconscious coincidence," he says. "I think about certain themes in my life and focus on them. That’s what makes a record hold together, because there might be some aspect of a sound or of human nature that I’m thinking about a lot." He trusts in his ability as an editor to take the raw material that bubbles up and shape it into something that feels true to his idea and is also coherent to his audience. He can tell just from singing something when it doesn’t ring true, and the discomfort that settles in when he sings such words gives him a palpable feeling of nausea. For Dream River, he says, "The theme was love, which is not the most original topic for a song, but it’s the only thing that matters."
This is a shift. For much of his career, the primary preoccupation of Callahan’s work was death. See "Permanent Smile" from 2000’s Dongs of Sevotion. There, death was something earned, a fate that led to the smile of the skull as a twisted, eternal state of bliss. Now, he’s a little self-conscious about how much of his work focused on it. "[Death] is something that I try to avoid in songs and in life, but it’s hard," he says. "It’s just the big joke at the end of existence. I feel like I’ve covered that enough."
Callahan is engaged to marry Hanly Banks, the director of his tour film and the photographer behind his new round of beatific press photos. Things are great for him. “I love life more than I ever have, and I’m comfortable," he says. "I’ve stopped caring about things that don’t matter. I think we were designed to die happy." But Dream River is far from a "happy" album. True, there is "Small Plane", a beautiful ode to simple togetherness and easy bliss that only hints at dissolution ("I always went wrong in the same place, where the river splits to the sea/ That couldn’t possibly be you and me").
"I do think it’s kind of the essence of the record," he says of the track. "I dreamed the images and then woke up and wrote it down in five minutes." But much of Dream River is about loneliness. The songs are sparsely populated, with almost no one in them. One character drinks alone, another spends a long summer painting boats in a marina. Unlike Callahan himself at this moment, it’s never comfortable.
We’re wrapping up in that Lower East Side living room, and I ask Callahan about "Teenage Spaceship", one of my favorite songs of his, and one of my favorite songs period. His answer is long, drawn from a distant memory that is still vivid. And if you know this song, and you imagine what it might mean, you can see in his answer how the process could work, how the most routine moments can be held up to the light and transformed. It's one of the quietest and most subtle songs in his catalog, consisting mostly of three slowly plucked guitar notes and wisps of drone, and it tells a story from the perspective of a young spacecraft flying around a neighborhood at night. "People thought my windows were stars," goes the refrain.
"I was living with my parents in their basement in Maryland and I used to have bad sleeping habits, and I wouldn’t really get going until midnight. That was when I started my day. So I’d go for a walk around midnight every night. I’d go for an hour, hour and a half, and I probably saw another person only once. Everyone’s in bed, everyone’s in their house. It’s just you and the stars and moon and an abandoned sleeping town. But I was very awake, contrary to everything else that I could see around me. So I was very much like an alien being—that’s probably where there spaceship thing came from— walking through a strange land that was going through something very different. They’re all sleeping, and I’m awake."
A walk at night. It’s the kind of ritual we’ve all engaged in, nothing to it, the fact that it was his life is incidental because we’ve all been there. But Callahan found a way to get to its core and extract some kind of existential meaning from it. As a kid, I was just a kid.
In this edition of the Out Door, we delve into the fascinating journey of artist and musician Lonnie Holley, visit the time-bending world of “extra-longform” releases, and get James Plotkin’s personal take on ten records selected from the hundreds that he’s worked and played on. But first, we explore Lou Reed’s experimentalism through the lens of two albums that bracketed his career. (Remember to follow us on Twitter and Tumblr for all types of experimental music news and information).
I: Lou Reed: Exploring Inner Spaces
“I first composed this music for myself...to play in the background of life…” — Lou Reed, in his press notes for Hudson River Wind Meditations
“[I] made it so I had something to listen to.” — Lou Reed, in the liner notes to Metal Machine Music
Lou Reed was an experimental musician. That may seem too obvious to mention, but it’s easy to forget how experimentation permeated every part of his career, not just the overtly avant-garde moments. It goes all the way back to his mid-60’s days as a staff writer at the song factory Pickwick Records. John Cale and Tony Conrad were chosen to join Reed’s backing band, and when Reed showed them how to play his semi-hit “The Ostrich”, they were amazed to watch him tune all of his strings to the same note–the very technique they were using in the more overtly-experimental setting of the Theater of Eternal Music.
Reed’s experiments continued for five decades, from his clear innovations in the Velvet Underground (check out this legendary tape of his guitar amp to hear his ideas at their purest), through myriad post-VU excursions as a glam maven, a rapper, a gear head, a scooter endorser, a Tai Chi devotee, and many other guises that baffled even his most diehard followers. It’s no stretch to say every step along the way was an experiment, a caution-less response to any “what if?” that popped into his head. As writer Alan Licht put it, “He wasn’t balancing “The Murder Mystery” with “Afterhours”, Transformer with Berlin, or Metal Machine Music with Coney Island Baby, because they don’t balance out. He was exploring imbalance as a master plan.”
It’s ironic, then, that his two most experimental solo albums balance each other perfectly. In fact, they are practically mirror images of each other. Metal Machine Music came out in 1975 on major label RCA to much fanfare and controversy. Provoked by Reed’s aggressive liner notes, many saw the album as “fuck you” prank to anyone expecting a new album of songs. Its 64 minutes of confrontational guitar feedback are irritatingly hyperactive, sparking and chipping and stabbing at your ears, and spending much time in the tinny high end of the sonic spectrum. When Metal Machine Music is on, it’s pretty hard to concentrate on anything else.
By contrast, 2007’s Hudson River Wind Meditations was made explicitly for concentrating on something else–for “exploring inner spaces,” as Reed put it. He originally created its long, hypnotic drones just for himself, to accompany his solitary Tai Chi and meditation practices. But when he brought it to his Tai Chi class, colleagues asked to borrow it, so he decided to release it as an album. And he did so without much publicity, via a small label specializing in New Age-style products. As he told Pitchfork’s Amanda Petrusich, “I don't want rock people thinking that there are rock'n'roll songs here, like they did with Metal Machine Music. It's for someone who wants it and knows what it is.”
That last sentence echoes Reed’s description of MMM: “It's for a certain time and place of mind...Most of you won't like this and I don't blame you at all. It's not meant for you.” The similarity in sentiment is not coincidental. As different as their presentation and reception were, MMM and HRWM actually have a lot in common. It’s right there on the surface: two albums made of four wordless tracks lasting a little over an hour, both with the kind of literal, matter-of-fact titles that Reed rarely used in his solo work. Below the surface lie even stronger connections. Both albums see Reed exploring sound purely as sound, without the encumbrances of literal messages or conventional musical structures.
That’s not the only way to experiment with music, as Reed proved through many other projects. But it may be the purest way, and perhaps that’s why both records still sound unique given their positions in the history of noise and drone. MMM may not have been the first noise record, but it came out before many noise legends had even begun making music. Yet none of that ensuing work has diluted the undated impact of MMM, which is still a jarring and probing mass of unpredictability. On the opposite end, Hudson River Wind Meditations came after so many decades of innovations in drone and ambient music that it would seem almost impossible for Reed to add anything new to that canon. Yet I can’t think of another record that sounds exactly like it. Its repetitive waves are suprisingly personal, like sonic representations of the electrical activity in Reed’s brain.
In fact, I think MMM and HRWM were Lou Reed’s most personal records, if only because they were what he wanted to listen to himself. Of course, he probably wanted to hear his other albums too, but they were more about communication with an audience and all the expectations and filters that come with that. MMM and HRWM were private music, made for an internal conversation. It’s easy to imagine Lou creating MMM in a kind of raging trance, letting it blow his mind before he blew everyone else’s. And it’s even easier to imagine him meditating to HRWM– his last solo album, recorded six years before his passing–since he explicitly said that’s why he made it. As his wife Laurie Anderson described in her amazing elegy for Reed, he was doing Tai Chi up until his last breath. I wonder if he was also still hearing in his head the sounds that inspired him to create HRWM.
When Lester Bangs calledMMM“The Greateest Album Ever Made”, he offered lots of rambling explanations, but one got to the heart of its personal nature: “MMM is Lou's soul. If there is one thing he would like to see buried in a time capsule, this is it.” Reed might scoff at my sentimentalism, but now that he’s gone, I like to imagine he’s got access to that capsule, and it has both Metal Machine Music and Hudson River Wind Meditations in it, and he’s still listening. —Marc Masters
Next: The long journey of artist and musician Lonnie Holley
II: Don’t supposed to be dying yet: The journey of Lonnie Holley
Photos by Matt Arnett or Souls Grown Deep
At the age of 63, Lonnie Holley is finally a rock star—at least for the moment. On a Thursday afternoon, he and his longtime friend, advocate and de facto tour manager Matt Arnett have stopped at the Community Grounds Café, a coffee shop in South Atlanta that doubles as a community center. They’re seeking some quiet in the mile and a half between their respective homes, and this, Arnett says, is a good place to find it.
But earlier in the day, Creative Loafing, the alternative weekly newspaper in Atlanta, published a story not so much about Holley as about the ethics and eccentricities of collecting art and promoting artists such as Holley—outsider, vernacular, self-taught, folk artists, whose place is typically outside of major museums and collections.
Holley’s picture was in the paper, at least, his eyes upturned toward rows of fluorescent lights, a hodgepodge of curious beads and talismans dangling from his neck. “I like ‘American artist,’” he told the reporter when asked for a sufficient epithet. “All the other terms, I wore them like a man wearing suits.”
Outside of Community Grounds, people suddenly want his autograph. He signs a few newsprint photos as Arnett holds the phone. Holley laughs, jokes and obliges. He eventually gets on the line. It’s time to share his very unlikely story—and, he hopes, a little bit of theirs, too.
For more than three decades, Lonnie Holley’s celebrity has slowly risen within visual art circles for his surprising if seemingly outlandish sensibility. Holley creates large-scale narrative collages and miniscule statements from humanity’s assorted flotsam and jetsam—abandoned tires and strands of wire, shattered street signs and shards of glass, abandoned automobiles and the ribbons of award-winners.
A recreation of his art-loaded, two-acre homestead sat near a gate of Atlanta’s Summer Olympics in 1996, an official exhibition at the world’s most auspicious sporting event. The White House and the Smithsonian have exhibited his art, too, and his career has taken him across the country to workshops, installations and classrooms. He’s dug out debris from the muck of the Rio Grande and made prints in the Pacific Northwest.
For Holley, it’s an extension of the basket weaving and quilting endemic to the rural, and largely African-American, communities that shape his lineage. This is the art of subsisting, and he’s only attempting to tell a tale by turning nothing back into something.
“Art, to me, is something more than you try to make a living off of,” he says. “Art, to me, is as important as any other thing that gives life, that you grow with. Take that paper bag and fold it up right. Paint it. Take that brick before you throw it away. Design it. Have a yard sale with all the bricks that you painted, and see if somebody done bought one of your bricks. That’s what I want to leave behind.”
That same approach is central to Holley’s music, too, recordings that were long squandered in the obscurity of his own archives, even as his status as an artist sprouted. Holley has recorded his own songs since at least the early ’90s. His half-spoken, half-sung meditations offer his collected experiences and observations, his visions for the future and of the past, all eased out or shouted over a hum of cheap keyboards and karaoke-machine rhythms.
“Going back to the ’90s, Lonnie would hop in the car, and he’d always have a cassette tape. He’d put it into my tape deck, and I’d say, ‘What is this?’” remembers Arnett. “‘Oh, I made this.’”
But Arnett didn’t know what to do with these strange songs. For more than a decade, he’d watched his father—the controversial art collector, patron and outside-the-academy scholar Bill Arnett—use millions of dollars of savings and personal loans to fund several African-American visual artists in the South, including Holley and another Alabama native, Thornton Dial. He eventually published two encyclopedic volumes detailing their works and ideas. Typically, he’s raised the hackles of the established art community by insisting that this sometimes-unwieldy work belongs in museums. But Matt wasn’t sure how to make the same plea on behalf of Holley’s music.
“I didn’t know what to call it. It didn’t fit into any of the categories. If you went to Tower Records, there just wasn’t a place for what Lonnie did,” Arnett admits, a hint of regret in his voice nearly two decades later. “It wasn’t blues, jazz, folk music, popular music. I didn’t know what to do with it.”
But in early 2010, just after his 60th birthday, Holley played an invite-only concert in Arnett’s home, an old cuboid grocery store that he’s converted into living quarters and an intimate performance space. Lance Ledbetter, founder of the archival Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital, attended. He’d agreed to lend Arnett a hulking portable organ for the evening. He knew of Holley’s sculptures and the Arnett’s work in the field, but it was the first time Ledbetter met or heard Holley.
“He started playing and singing, and before I got to the couch, I stopped in my tracks. His voice, the way he played, his lyrics: It was something I’d never heard before,” remembers Ledbetter. “It was worlds connecting, too—the krautrock world connecting with a cappella work songs from the American South.”
The moment would change Ledbetter’s label. Best known for releasing scrupulous box sets of rare sounds from the least-exposed corners of the recorded world, Dust-to-Digital had never worked with a new artist. That’s exactly what Holley was, his age notwithstanding.
But the moment also changed Holley’s life: During the last two years, he’s released a pair of mesmerizing records through Dust-to-Digital, 2012’s somewhat somber Just Before Music and the new Keeping a Record of It. They’ve catapulted him into new realms of critical success and put him on the road with indie rock favorites such as Deerhunter and Bill Callahan. His father and his grandfather went to Europe to fight in wars. He’s going for a different kind of tour.
“I don’t know how they’re going to appreciate my work over there, but I’m willing to go,” Holley says. “I’m not in the military, not in their way, but I’m in America’s military in my way. They say I’m an outsider. I’m outside of a lot of things.”
Both records are prismatic, with Holley contemplating consumerism and cruelty, slavery and survival over arrangements that seem at once simple and surreal. Each of Holley’s stories and songs are gentle but genuinely concerned sermons, delivered from a pulpit flooded with neon air. On stage and in the studio, he improvises all of his lyrics, depending only on some themes jotted down or plucked from the stories he’s lived or learned during the last six decades.
“Make-believe is not necessary any longer,” says Holley. “We need the truth told to us. We need our parents to sit down and tell us the truth about their life.”
In conversation as in song, Holley speaks in great cataracts of hyperlinks, bounding from subject to subject with a discursive zeal. His voice is low and capped by a tip of rasp; it starts and stops, speeds and slows powered by the connections his mind makes. After he mentions make-believe, for instance, he talks rapidly about Humpty Dumpty, which leads him to obesity, which leads him to modern health problems and the need to be candid with people about their genetics. “Your grandmamma was big-boned,” he opines.
“From babies all the way up, they need to start learning the truth,” he says, veering quickly and without warning back to his thesis. “You’ve got to deal with this right here. I’m trying to sing about the truth—that’s all.”
The truth of Holley’s life is remarkable, marked by anguish, torment and, more recently, unexpected transcendence: He was born the seventh of his mother’s 27 children. She had an additional five miscarriages, a fact that he says made him immediately gracious. “Mom gave birth to a boy with a brain. What I do is all about my brains and my experience.”
That attitude has remained with him. In essence, it’s helped him survive.
Holley didn’t stay with his mom long, and a serpentine tale took him far away from their home in Birmingham, Ala. A woman offered to breastfeed Lonnie to help his child-rearing mother, but she never returned the boy. Instead, says Holley, she took him on tour with the circus and sold him for a bottle of whiskey, and he lived with his new owners, the McElroys, for eight years, or until he was 12. Sneaking into the drive-in movie theater through drainage ditches and pipes, he saw sci-fi films, hearing sounds later reflected by his own music.
During that period, he survived being hit by a car that drug him for nearly three blocks and left him unconscious for more than three months. “They suppose to pull the fuse on me,” he says during Keeping a Record of It, describing the experience to the famed quilters (and “vernacular artists,” as it were) of Gee’s Bend, Ala. He’d joined Matt Arnett on a trip meant to document the working women.“But Lonnie wasn’t to die.”
When he was 12, Holley tried to return to his mother. The attempt pushed him firmly toward misery. He ran away and got caught on the lam. He was sent to a juvenile detention center and, once again, was apprehended trying to escape after wrecking a stolen getaway car on a rainy night. He was summarily shipped to Mount Meigs, Alabama, home to The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, one of the most notorious correctional facilities in the Jim Crow South. Criminologist and former detention center director Denny Abbott describes 15-year-old inmates working as the prison’s sole doctor, even attempting to stitch the wounds of other inmates.
“Many former inmates spoke of filth everywhere at Mount Meigs—in the dorms, the bathrooms, the mess hall. Others described constant hunger or food that was spoiled and insect-infested,” Abbott writes in They Had No Voice,his book about the school’s deplorable conditions and how Alabama defended them. “One said the children became so desperate they picked corn out of cow manure in the fields and ate it.”
Holley vividly remembers those harsh conditions. The kids were forced to pick sacks of cotton—50 pounds by noon, 50 pounds by dinner. More an adventurer than a laborer before he arrived at Mount Meigs, he didn’t know his way around a field, much less how to pick 100 pounds of cotton in one workday. He mostly never met his 100-pound quota and was almost always beaten for the failure. So yet again, he tried to escape, getting as far as nearby Tuskegee. After eating a can of sardines and falling asleep satisfied, he awoke to the feeling of being yelled at by a white man and subsequently beaten. For the next year, The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children became his personal hell.
“They tied me to a cedar tree—my arms around the tree, my legs around the mourning bench, where the boys would go and get their whoopings,” Holley says of his return. “Mr. E.B. Holloway told Mr. Glover to hit me 150 licks. He beat me and busted my thighs open and the back of my legs open. They swoll up and just burst open. When he got to 150 licks, he hit me in the back of the head and burst it open—three licks upside my head in 48 hours. I had to sit on that rock pile for a year—day and night, rain, snow, sleet, or hail. I had to sit there because I was an example.”
His rations comprised a square of bread and a cup of water for each meal. He subsisted on conditions that he says he’s rarely heard mentioned for slaves, even in the South and then only a century removed from the end of the Civil War.
“That was devastating for me. I could have easily been dead. Each one of those slugs could have killed me,” he says. “I didn’t know why all this stuff had to happen to me. But I am so lucky that my brain is still working.”
When Holley eventually left Mount Meigs under the care of his grandmother, Hixie Canady, he returned to Birmingham. The trauma of his teenage absence was apparent. He entered periods of deep depression and flirted with suicide. He drank and worked odd jobs, digging graves with his grandmother and working as a short-order cook. He moved to Ohio for two months to pick tomatoes. In 1979, a niece and nephew were killed in a house fire, and he finally tried to kill himself.
But as he’s prone to say, it wasn’t his time. He carved tributes to the girls into a sort of sandstone left over from steel production, creating tombstones that came to be recognized as his first pieces of art. (Even now, Holley is sometimes referred to as “The Sandman.”) Holley had found his calling—to tell the stories of his life and the departed with his art.
“My singing is all about my brains and my experiences,” he says, reflecting what he’s said about his sculptures and collages, too. “I don’t just get up onstage just to be making someone jump up and down. It’s all about brains and my brain being able to go through that trauma. I’m trying to bring them the reality of life.”
During the next decade, Holley amassed a veritable art compound, building pieces from whatever he could find and using each element with a specific plot point or referential meaning in mind. In 1986, Holley, himself a father of 15, lived near the airport in Birmingham, Ala., surrounded by two acres of art he’d built from bric-a-brac. As Bill Arnett wrote in his book Souls Grown Deep, he initially mistook the landscape for a junkyard. Holley lived there for another 10 years, and the Arnetts became frequent, fascinated visitors.
“Up to that point, my Dad had traveled the whole world, going everywhere to see art and the art environments and major museum and culture site one should go to,” remembers Matt Arnett, Lonnie’s confidant and frequent traveling companion. “But when he saw Lonnie’s environment, it was one of those life moments where Dad realized that everything he’d been doing had purpose—to prepare him for coming into Lonnie’s environment. From that moment forward, my dad become his patron.”
When Lonnie Bradley Holley was a kid in Alabama, no one would let him play the piano at church. Like his grandmother and mother before him, he’d been baptized as an African Methodist Episcopalian, but the perennial and proud outsider, he never quite fit in. These days, he doesn’t attend service very often in Atlanta, though he will occasionally stop in at services while he’s on the road.
But his frustration with religion, or with its inability to truly satisfy all of God’s children, is a thematic refrain of his art, visual or otherwise. During “From the Other Side of the Pulpit,” the 14-minute opus of Keeping a Record of It, he surveys a series of pragmatic difficulties—not enough money, not enough food, not enough time. In a moment of tempered indignation, Holley casts those woes at the feet of the preachers and mocks the man with an education but without actual answers. “Sometimes the prayers ain’t right,” he growls. “Sometimes they take all night.”
“If it’s the church that would have stopped me,” he reckons, back on the phone, “I would have been stopped a long time ago. But I’m on the opposite side of the pulpit. People have told me, ‘Lonnie, you’re not going to go very far.’ But it’s not going to stop me from going.”
Indeed, during September, Holley was touring through the Pacific Northwest with Deerhunter. Alongside Black Lips guitarist Cole Alexander, the band’s frontman, Bradford Cox, has backed Holley several times, sometimes under the name Ghetto Cross. That’s Cox adding the springy dub beat to “From the Other Side of the Pulpit,” and the prickly, impressionistic guitar line. Alexander added bass. All three broke sticks, banged rocks and pounded on dog cages and cowbells to create the anti-sermon's rhythmic tumult.
During a day off, Arnett took Holley to the Portland studio of Richard Swift, the songwriter, producer and occasional Shin. They recorded five songs in a day; later next year, they’ll reconvene for extended sessions that Swift hopes to turn into several albums. Holley says he’s comfortable with Swift; after all, he finally let him play the piano.
When Holley sat at the keys in early September, five decades removed from the forbidding church of his youth, Swift’s tape was rolling. During the 13-minute wonder they captured, “Beyond Rivers,” his playing is intuitive and fluid, building into tight tufts that then dissipate behind his vibrato like steam. His voice is more confident and assured than on either of his albums, a Pentecostal conviction suddenly supplanting his observational detachment. “Many brains,” he sings, dipping into a soul croon, “done come forth from human bodies.” That line fits like a credo for all of Holley’s work. This moment is an actual arrival for it.
“After he did the piano song, he wept in my studio for three or four minutes. ‘I never, ever, ever, ever got to play piano,’ he said. He was just some weird kid, and the local church would never let him play the piano, any music,” remembers Swift. “He was thanking me for letting him play my piano. No, Lonnie, thank you.”
People tend to gush about Holley and his music. Swift calls watching him in the studio “the most spiritual thing I’ve ever encountered, of the earth but not connected to it.” Ledbetter says he is “very deeply connected, very deeply in the moment.” In an October profile of Holley for NPR, former Village Voice critic RJ Smith wrote, “He truly is his own invention.” The rhetoric tends to recall the ardent advocacy of the Arnetts on behalf of artists such as Holley and Thornton Dial—a cri de coeur meant to serve as a bona fide for something different, validation for something outside the realm of accepted experience.
And there is a truly alien aspect to Holley’s music, which engenders a disconnect between the past and present through its mere existence: Holley’s voice feels old, his wisdom earned and real. But the sounds and structures his songs embrace seem somehow futuristic, devoid of a need for steady chord progressions, dramatic resolution, or the momentum of verses and choruses. “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants,” the opening track on his second album, seems at first to be the most traditional number on either of his records. There’s a refrain, or what at least sounds like one: “In my mind/I’ve got the design,” Holley sings twice, approaching a point of R&B gusto. But Holley never revisits the line, instead allowing the parts to blur into a drift, a fever dream of images and impressions.
This is the first song Holley ever recorded in a studio, back when he accompanied Arnett to Gee’s Band, Ala., to capture the sounds and sights of the town’s quilters. The tune is a birthday present for Queen Elizabeth, a vision that imagines humans taking a holiday in space, figuring out their politics and returning with some ideas about stopping wars and “heal[-ing] the air” and “fix[-ing] the water, too.” In a way, that’s what music and all art have been about for Holley—a way not only to bear improbable hardship but to heal, too, to become something more than circumstances might’ve otherwise allowed.
“I had tried to drink it away. I tried to kill the emotions and feelings that kept growing up bigger and bigger and exposing themselves inside me in so many ways. I couldn’t hold back the tears. Now,” he says, “you can see how I climb above the pain.” —Grayson Currin
Next: A short guide to extra-longform music
III: Infinite Listening: A short guide to extra-longform music
Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet; photo by Yuko Zama
About a year ago I wrote in the Out Door about the format of the double album–how it allows artists to stretch their work, and forces listeners to stretch their thinking about time as a factor in experiencing art. One thing I found fascinating about double albums, especially by experimental or improvisational artists, was how hard it is to memorize something that long–and thus each listen will likely be unique.
Lately I’ve heard some recent releases that aren’t just hard to memorize–they’re a challenge to experience completely in one sitting. (Full disclosure: I haven’t listened to every second of these, which together constitute 34 hours of music spread across 33 discs). There’s a bit of a tradition here, from LaMonte Young’s 5-disc, 5-hour piano piece The Well-Tuned Pianoto the massive performances fused together on John Coltrane’sLive In Japan to Half Japanse’s shambling triple-LP debut ½ Gentlemen/Not Beasts. Think of these expansive, time-devouring works as “extra-longform.” They take as much time as they want to say everything they want, regardless of how many LPs or CDs it takes to contain it all.
Technically these can also be called box sets, but that term usually implies a compilation of recordings that once existed separately. In the cases below (with one exception), the artists made new recordings designed to live as one giant entity. Perhaps the music was conceived that way from the start, or perhaps it grew huge somewhere in the creative process. However they ended up there, all of these artists have made something that’s not just challenging musically, it’s challenging physically and mentally. It’s a different kind of difficult listening, but one that rewards the time invested.
JANDEK – The Song of Morgan (Corwood) Given the wide range of releases, performances, formats, and instruments in Jandek’s four-decade career, his release of a 9-CD box is not really a shock (nor is its bargain-styled $32 price from Corwood). But it would be tough for anyone to guess that his longest release ever would consist of nothing but piano. Even more surprising is how gentle and even pretty it sounds. There are very few moments of dissonance or chaos within these nine uninterrupted tracks. But there are lots of recognizable moments, where Jandek’s way of creating patterns while avoiding them results in passages that make time seem to stand still.
That effect gets multiplied by the fact that there are 8 and ½ hours of such anti-pattern patterns here, a duration that will make even the most patient listener question time’s passage. But oddly, the gentility of the playing makes the record often seem to fly by, and it's easy to concentrate elsewehere when it’s playing. Perhaps that’s the most challenging thing about The Song of Morgan: on the surface, it’s not that challenging at all. So to reach its depths –and as far as I can tell, there’s depth in every disc–you have to do the focusing. Jandek’s not gonna do it for you.
WILLIAM PARKER – Wood Flute Songs (Aum Fidelity) Bassist, composer, and bandleader William Parker views his music as part of something he calls “the tone world.” His description of that realm in the liner notes to Wood Flute Songs is so eloquent and poetic it would be wrong to summarize it here, but suffice to say that, according to Parker, “Historically, this box set is an extended view into the tone world.” The history Parker refers to is that of his core quartet, with drummer Hamid Drake, saxophonist Rob Brown, and trumpeter Lewis Barnes. The group formed around 2000, and while Parker initially wanted them to never repeat, eventually they developed a repertoire of songs to expand and evolve.
Wood Flute Songs presents those songs across 8 CDs of live recordings made between 2006 and 2012. It’s a study of time both in the literal, long-form sense, and in the context of an ensemble constantly pushing itself forward. It’s fascinating to hear them attack the same compositions in different ways; “Wood Flute Song”, for example, appears in versions as short as six minutes and as long as 21. The quartet itself expands and evolves too, incoporating guests along the way. For me the most thrilling addition is the appearance of violinist Billy Bang, whose passioned playing was a great match for Parker's firepower.
The compendium nature of Wood Flute Songs might encourage the listener to dip in and dip out, but I’ve found that listening for long stretches makes the music feel more momentous. Whatever Parker has tapped into in his tone world, he’s figured out a way to transmit it to listeners, and Wood Flute Songs might be the ultimate expression of that translation.
NATURAL SNOW BUILDINGS - Daughter of Darkness (BaDaBing) French duo Natural Snow Buildings, who I profiled in the Out Door earlier this year, are veterans of extra-longform. Their aptly-titled 2008 release I Dream of Drone took up 5 CDr’s, and last year BaDaBing reissued another 2008 monster, the 3-disc, 3-hour Night Coercion into the Company of Witches. I can’t say for sure, but I think Daughter of Darkness is their lengthiest set yet–BaDaBing’s new reissue of the 2009 cassette version comprises 6 CDs and 7.5 hours of sound.
Natural Snow Buildings: "Daughter of Darkness" (excerpts) on SoundCloud.
NSB’s extra-long albums also tend to feature extra-long songs. There are only 18 tracks on Daughter of Darkness, and one-third of them last longer than a half hour. Which means dipping in and out is not really the best way to experience this seemingly limitless music. In turn, there’s really no way to defend their music against the charge that it’s indulgent–but it’s indulgent with a purpose. There are questions to be answered and epiphanies to be discovered in music this expansive–music that seems wholly about the journey rather than destination. Put it this way: when I listened to the 42-minute “The Invisibles,” it didn’t take me long to stop worrying about what time it was, and start wishing I never had to know.
GRAHAM LAMBKIN & JASON LESCALLEET - Photographs (Erstwhile) At first glance, Photographs doesn’t look like an extra-longform set, as it contains only two CDs. Look closely, though, and you’ll notice the words “disc three” and “disc four” on each disc, respectively. That’s because they’re part of a Lambkin/Lescalleet collaborative series that includes 2008’s The Breadwinner and 2010’s Air Supply. So this set doesn’t just expand time musically, it stretches across time to unite a consistently fascinating partnership. (Time is apparently an obsession with the pair: look even closer and you’ll see the tracks on disc three all have the same lengths in the same order as the tracks on The Breadwinner, and disc four matches Air Supply in the same way).
But even though Photographs by itself is shorter than the other sets discussed here, and I’ve already had a few years to absorb some of it, I find Lambkin and Lescalleet’s work the hardest to wrap my head around. In short, their work combines concrete field recordings and abstract music, but that doesn’t nearly capture how they put it all together or the effect that it has. Somehow everything the pair does makes me think and rethink what each move might mean. At times they turn a casual conversation into intense drama, while at others a heavy drone or whirring peal can sound as commonplace as footsteps on a sidewalk.
Photographs is at least a bit easier to decipher than its predecessors, because its theme is clearer. As suggested by the label’s description and the beautiful, snapshot-adorned gatefold (easily the nicest package of the year outside of Peter Kolovos’ Black Colors), this music is about heritage, upbringing, and personal history. You can hear a little of that in the dialogue snippets included, though nothing Lambkin and Lescalleet do is ever so direct as to have a single meaning. All I really know is that their collaboration is one of the most accomplished pairings of the past decade, and Photographs is one of the best albums of 2013.
TOR LUNDVALL - Structures & Solitude (Dais) I’m breaking my own rule by including Structures & Solitude in this list, as it consists mostly of material previously released as four individual albums. That’s partly because I just enjoy Tor Lundvall’s work and would love for more people to hear it. But also, as Lundvall himself puts it, gathering these records together into a unit shows how his enveloping ambient music can “flow like an unfolding story.” (Lundvall’s previous boxed collection was in fact called The Seasons Unfold.)
That’s especially true because, compared to the rest of the artists on this list, Lundvall generally prefers shorter tracks. Only a few of the 74 songs on Structures & Solitude stretch past the four-minute mark. As such, it’s very natural and appropriate to sample these albums in bite-sized chunks. But putting them in a box set, which encourages longer listening, reveals building motifs and morhping ideas. Early on, Lundvall’s music is relatively conventional and almost poppy, in the sense that Julee Cruise’s work with David Lynch is poppy. But as the set moves forward, things get more abstract and darker, as if human elements are falling away and nature is taking over. By the time of the fifth disc, a previously-unreleased set Lundvall dubbed Night Studies, I’ve lost track of the control behind the music, and hear it as sound rather than composition. Perhaps that would happen with a single Lundvall album too, but the way it happens over the course of Structures & Solitude is intoxicating. —Marc Masters
Next: James Plotkin takes us on a tour of some of his best work
IV: Sorting through the stacks: James Plotkin
Photos by Vanessa DeVico
Just after 6 p.m. on a Sunday, James Plotkin has finally stopped working for the weekend. He prefers to limit his work weeks to five days, but a project came in that couldn’t wait and that he couldn’t turn down: remastering Ennio Morricone’s score to the 1966 bad-guy-hunting Western, The Big Gundown.
“I used to say that if I ever got to work on an Ennio Morricone project, I’d quit the next day,” Plotkin says from Philadelphia, laughing. “But I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
Plotkin, of course, didn’t simply stumble into this job. During the last decade, he’s mastered a veritable mountain of albums, twisting knobs and adjusting the knobs to make what bands consider their final product that much better. He’s handled heavy metal and harsh noise, prismatic electronica and pristine fingerpicking.
That range of music he’s finessed parallels the music he’s made during the last quarter-century, too: Plotkin has traded in expansive drone and tumultuous rock, very fast metal and very slow metal, and a multitude of projects that seem to take the task of avoiding easy description as a mission statement.
A sideman and bandleader, a meticulous composer and restless improviser, Plotkin has had his hand in nearly 1,000 releases at this point in his career. We picked 10 of them and asked him to walk us through how they were made and what they meant. Click on each album title to hear a song from that release.
After their first album and a distinct shift in style, Alan Dubin and James Plotkin adopted the acronym O.L.D., for Old Lady Drivers. If you like Mr. Bungle and Godflesh, grindcore and electronics, Lo Flux Tube is essential weirdness, full of incongruent layers and jarring structures. Dubin and Plotkin would later become the mouthpiece and backbone, respectively, of Khanate; this sets a clear precedent for that much different sort of madness.
I hate to use the phrase industrial metal, because that makes me think of a lot of really bad music. But it was a combination of music technology and metal, a couple of guys messing around with a lot of gear and coming up with ideas. We searched for a drummer for at least three years before we decided to go with a drum machine, and once you start programming a drum machine, it pushes the music in a certain direction. It becomes colder and more mechanical. I did my best to program the drums to sound like an actual drummer, but when I listen to those tracks, it sounds horrible. I’ll never be able to listen to a Roland RA drum machine again. The sounds of the drum machine, the stiffness of it all: I’m grossed out by it.
Learning that John Zorn was a fan of the Old Lady Drivers record, I figured it would be a good idea to get him involved in our next recording. He was willing to co-produce the entire record, if I wanted, but he had such a problem with the engineer we were using. They were constantly fighting during the one day John was there, so he didn’t come back. The engineer confided in me and Alan Dubin at the end of the session that he was going deaf in one ear. That was a pretty horrible time to let us know.
After the purchase of a few sampling keyboards, Plotkin began building massive tracks stepwise from layered guitar loops. Some of those songs appear on O.L.D.’s last record, but their more auspicious appearance is on the solo effort The Joy of Disease. Drums float through gauzy webs of slide guitar and refracted tones, while voices burble from the background. Recorded with former Napalm Death drummer and longtime Plotkin collaborator Mick Harris, this material serves as a map of sorts for Plotkin’s sprawling musical interests.
I did that at the same time we were working on the final O.L.D. record, Formula. I always had a four-track or eight-track around, and I’d constantly record—not for any specific project, but I’d just sit down and mess around. I had all this material, but a bunch of tracks seemed way too strange for O.L.D. I wound up using those for The Joy of Disease. The material didn’t fit into anything else.
Most of the projects I’ve been involved with are so far removed from each other that it’s always been obvious what belongs were. But Formula and The Joy of Disease is really the only time I ever ran into that problem. Most of the stuff that I do is done specifically for a project. Atomsmasher and Khanate started at the same time, for instance, but those two bands couldn’t be farther removed from each other. It’s a little bit more challenging to keep things separate with production and mastering, because so many things are going on simultaneously.
Whether by their earlier name of Atomsmasher or their later name of Phantomsmasher, the trio of Plotkin, Municipal Waste drummer Dave Witte and vocalist Paul Richard (or DJ Speedranch) made some of the most truly strange grindcore ever conceived. Like a manic pinball game with no rules, Phantomsmasher zigs, zags, starts, stops, bursts and breaks with juvenile glee. To date, this is unfortunately the final of their two finished albums, though Plotkin does hope to revisit the project if time ever allows.
We wanted to create a fierce grindcore record that had an IDM aesthetic—not anything that was danceable, but I was always a big fan of the chaotic editing that people like Aphex Twin and Autechre incorporated, almost like tape music. I got incredible headaches when I was working on that record. I’d have to loop a five-second section of music, and it would have to play through until I got the edit just right. The first step was cutting up the drums, and then it was all over the place, recording guitars and bass. Paul would send me vocal tracks that we’d process and cut up. Making everything fit together sonically and rhythmically required listening to it so much that I’d get maybe two minutes of music done over an entire day. I’d have to quit and have a splitting headache. The record took six months of constant work. I don’t even have the time to work on one of those records, anymore.
James Plotkin’s career has two themes: assembling or joining interesting groups of collaborators and continually returning to work anew with old friends. Plotkin and drummer Tim Wyskida had played together in and after Khanate, while Plotkin and ISIS leader Aaron Turner had toyed around with drones as Lotus Eaters, alongside Stephen O’Malley. In the trio Jodis, Plotkin’s distorted guitars arch in slow, steady patterns, offering a suitable frame for both shoegaze solemnity and doleful aggression. Think Khanate, cloaked in cotton balls.
After Khanate, I’d worked with Tim a lot. He’s an old friend of mine, and we get along really well. That’s more important to me than people’s musical history or ability. We rented out a space in Hoboken, and we’d play for fun or record. I had some things written on the guitar that were so sparse that I wasn’t sure if they’d work in any capacity. Aaron Turner had mentioned that he wanted to work with vocals more in a non-metal capacity, and that’s one of the main reasons I sent this material to him. When he sent back the initial work, it had completely transformed the recording into something substantial enough to be a band. I was blown away by what he had done.
Conceived and released just as Swans took their leave, Michael Gira’s instrumental ensemble The Body Lovers engendered the same drama and some of the same volume as his longstanding project. But there’s a sense of experimental trial and error here, too, with Gira’s indulgence in abstract textures and unexpected patterns suggesting a mix of Brian Eno, Glenn Branca and sounds plucked from various world music compilations. Plotkin doesn’t remember exactly what he added here, but he does remember the circumstances.
I got a phone call one day from Michael Gira one day, and I didn’t believe it was him. I thought it was a friend just fucking with me. I ended up hanging up on him, and luckily enough, he called back. Why would I be getting a call from Michael Gira? He told me he knew of my work, and he wanted to see how I’d fit in with Swans on their final tour.
That was the first time I was ever really, really nervous going to a session. He wanted me to take liberties with Swans tracks that I was completely uncomfortable taking. I’d asked him if he wanted me to play along to what he was playing or come up with complementary chords, and he said, “Do what you normally do.” That’s making guitar loops and atmospheres.
I was such a huge Swans fan as a teenager that it was a dream come true that I was totally incapable of doing. I couldn’t get my shit together at the rehearsal. When I was packing up my gear, he said he was working on these recordings that became Body Lovers/Body Haters. That was perfect for me because they weren’t established songs that I’d destroy if I did what I wanted to do with them.
Decades ago, Plotkin would run copies of his favorite heavy metal records back through a mixing board and tweak the levels as he saw fit, trying to make albums he loved sound that much better. Then, with his own bands, he’d travel to every mastering session, even if that meant flying to Europe. When Khanate ended, Plotkin started offering cheap mastering services to bands that needed the help. It’s now his full-time job. He knew of the work of Collections of Colonies of Bees and Volcano Choir drummer Jon Mueller before he was asked to master Metals. This record jumpstarted their working relationship.
Jon is easily one of my favorite drummers—if not my favorite drummer—working in music today. Metals is what I had always thought would be a great idea for him. He’s also one of the only people that can apply concept to music and have it make sense and be interesting to me without being pretentious. When you watch him play or listen to him talk, it’s hard not to be in awe. He’s so dedicated and focused on what he does at this point.
When people I know and that I’m a huge fan of trust me enough to have me work on their stuff, it’s a huge bonus. I just got a new album from Conan, called Blood Eagle. Even before I start to think about what it needs, I cranked it up just to get excited that I’m listening to something from a band I love that was recorded less than a week ago. It’s something that never sinks in until much later. When Jon tells me he has something new, I am more excited to get it and listen to it than work on it.
An example of how Plotkin’s day job as a mastering engineer continues to feed into his work as an active musician, Terminal Velocity resulted from the relationship that he and Mueller established. These seven improvisations, which range from side-length sprawls to short summaries of ideas, are sometimes as light as air and sometimes as suffocating as heavy blankets. It ends perfectly with “Microsleep,” an exultant but dense drone that spirals away from earth.
I was looking for an excuse for a vacation or a road trip, and he mentioned he’d be around for a few weeks. We decided we’d do a recording in his basement for a couple of days. I’m always looking for an excuse to pack some recording gear into a car and drive across the country for a few weeks or days, just for the experience.
Jon is an absolutely professional musician, but he can also fly by the seat of his pants. He can let things happen and not obsess over recording conditions. In his basement, we could hear water dripping in a sink across the room. It just became part of the environment. As focused as he is, he is in it for the right reasons—to have fun with it, to enjoy the process, the accidental results you can get from setting up a recording studio in your basement overnight.
Despite his enormous output, Plotkin has made very few collaborations remotely—either by mailing tapes or sending files digitally. Mosquito Dream is one such long-distance effort, and it’s one of the overlooked wonders of his catalogue. Each of these six resplendent guitar environments rise and set like the sun, building from nothing into something and then receding into the twilit distance at the perfect time.
One day, I just got a DAT in the mail from Brent Gutzeit of recordings he had done. I would take the initial recordings he did and process them. I played some guitar, but mostly it’s just remixing his work. It’s just a mail collaboration.
Pretty much the only mail collaborations I’ve ever done, there was absolutely no discussion: Get the tracks. Do whatever you wanted. Have fun with it. I’m not big on concepts in music. The best things happen when you get on with it, and you don’t think about it. The more you think about it, the more pretentious and unnatural it’s going to become.
If you are actually in a room with someone, there’s a certain energy if you’re getting along. I can’t really loosen up enough to do what I need to do if I’m not comfortable in a particular situation. But that doesn’t matter in a mail collaboration: You don’t even have to know who that other person is or what kind of person they are if you’re not face to face with them. But with a mail collaboration, you can sit on tapes as long as you need to and edit yourself to death. But if you’re in a room with someone, that’s your time.
This four-part album is a righteous incubator for Plotkin, who twists his guitar through a web of effects and samplers, and the Norwegian free jazz drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Veering from heavy blues to harsh noise, with dense guitar lines shattered by Nilssen-Love’s heavy and quick hands, Death Rattle is a 47-minute paroxysm of ecstatic improvisation.
In December of 2012, Paal was on tour, and he had one or two days off before he had to fly back to Norway. I rented the studio, and we met there in the morning. We didn’t talk about anything. There was no pre-planning. We set up our stuff and started recording. Paal had no idea what to expect from me. I don’t think he knew much of my music beforehand. He asked Lasse Marhaug what to expect from the session, and Lasse said: “I don’t know. Just expect it to be intense.” That works with what Paal does, obviously, since he’s maybe the most intense drummer in jazz these days.
Improvisation goes from being terrifying to absolutely euphoric. I have a real love-hate relationship with improvisation because I’m a musician who’s either on or off. I’ve done a number of gigs where I’ve had to improvise and made an idiot of myself. Luckily, that day with Paal, I had something to offer.
Capture & Release is the third Khanate record and the last released before the slithering doom metal quartet broke up. One of the most dynamic bands in the history of the form, Khanate was capable of crushing loudness (courtesy of Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley) and terrifying quiet. Alan Dubin, Plotkin’s partner in O.L.D., added lyrics that Plotkin now calls “refined hatred.” Clean Hands Go Foul, Khanate’s posthumous fourth album, was released four years later.
That record is a sore spot for me. The first one was so chaotic and aggressive, and the second one was almost laidback and sparse. I’m not a big fan of going through the motions or repeating myself, and that’s what that record seems like to me. There were a lot of tensions during the recording of Things Viral, so I agreed not to attend writing sessions for Capture & Release while Tim and Steve came up with basic tracks and structures. I learned that if I am not welcome to contribute my ideas to a recording, then I really don’t want to be part of that particular project.
Even the record that we made at the same time, which became Clean Hands Go Foul, I like a lot better than Capture & Release. We had a couple of two-inch tapes for the session that were unused, and we had some studio cash that was left over. We had improvised within songs before, and we’d improvised within rehearsals before for fun. So we took the extra time and extra tape and said, “Let’s fill it up.” I’m glad we did it. It’s a thing that, if more bands tried just for the fun of it, would lead to a lot of interesting records. A lot of bands stick to their formula and stay within their comfort zones. You can probably enjoy the band that you’re in a lot more if you take those kind of risks. —Grayson Currin
The mid-90s saw the release of an incredible number of important hip-hop albums—Rolling on Dubs revisits one of these records each month, around their 20th anniversary, and retraces the past through a contemporary vantage point.
It’s impossible to explain to your mom why you’re listening to a song called “Gimmie That Nutt”. Even the spelling is obscene: two T’s for extra titillation, menacingly trilled in Eazy-E’s rabid woodpecker chirp. Cassettes of It’s on (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa should’ve come packaged with Locs and a brown paper bag.
It probably makes more sense when rolling down Crenshaw in a 6-4 Impala with alpine speakers, lambskin condoms, and assault weapons. But at the gruelingly virginal age of 12, in the fall of 1993, there was only the gnawing terror of my parents giving me “the talk.” The apartment was small. The eight-by-eight den that doubled as my bedroom had a shutter door with no lock. No headphones. I was permanently one decibel away from forced conscription into a discussion about Eazy-E’s Sex Ed: “In some pussy is the place to be/ Always fucking is the life for me.”
What’s worse was that the ex-N.W.A. incubus cackled, "spread them legs open far and wide, fuck this shit just let me put my dick inside” to the melody of the "Green Acres"theme song. It was the Penthouse to 2 Live Crew’s Playboy (“Pop That Pussy”), a siren deceiving my parents to mistake their sullen adolescent’s gangsta rap obsession for a Nick at Niterural sitcom set in the hamlet of Hooterville.
But Eva Gabor couldn’t touch Eric Wright. Eazy-Motherfucking-E was only competing with Dr. Dre, and by late '93, he was losing. You can’t overstate the impact of The Chronic, released the previous December. Its hybrid strain of G-Funk blended an elevated musicality with a hundred years of sawed-off rage. It had Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, and enough raunch for Richard Pryor biters at the barbershop. It incited a before-and-after rupture usually only seen with civil wars, disruptive technologies, or sandaled messiahs.
This was directly after the L.A. riots left blocks of South Central and Compton in rubble and cinders. Dre and Suge Knight’s Death Row applied this same loot-and-burn approach towards their rival’s once-dominant Ruthless Records. For most of '93, MTV operated as a de facto anti-Eazy-E propaganda network. The extended video for The Chronic’s second single, “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” ran almost hourly. It featured an interlude where Dre vaporized the greasy “Sleazy-E” with a semi-automatic that looked like a light saber. The conclusion found the jigging, jheri-curled caricature panhandling beside the Pasadena Freeway with a “Will Rap for Food” sign.
“Eazy wasn’t just upset, he was hurt,” remembers Kokane, the vocalist who had belted funk angel of death hooks for Ruthless since signing with them in 1991 and appears twice on It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa. “It was Eazy’s vision for N.W.A.—he recruited Dre and Cube and helped make them stars, then they made up fake stories about him and abandoned him.”
It’s weird to think of Eazy-E as sensitive, let alone sad or vulnerable. We instinctively think of him as Darth Vader in immolating black—the helmet swapped out for a “Compton” hat with Old English script—letting every West Coast gangsta rapper know that he is their father.
Eazy-E mastered the villain role a decade before DOOM first donned his mask. Before 50 Cent perfected the art of the anti-hero, there was the grim nihilism of Eazy-E, who turned a warning letter from the FBI into multi-platinum sales. No radio play. If Tyler, the Creator is the archetypal contemporary rap troll, he’s following Eazy. One time, he bought a $2,500 ticket for a “Salute the Commander in Chief” White House luncheon with George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, and proceeded to show up ruthlessly stoned in a black leather suit. When questioned about it, he told reporters, ”I just got a kick out of the fact that I could stab the motherfucker with a pen."
The period before It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa marked Eazy’s lowest ebb since 1987, when he parlayed a quarter million dollars of dope money into Ruthless Records. It was also the year that he bailed Dr. Dre, parking ticket scofflaw, out of jail. In exchange, Andre Young assumed in-house production at the fledgling label. Two years later, Straight Outta Compton bushwhacked America. Ruthless wrote the blueprint for a black-owned independent rap label—one later adopted by Death Row, No Limit, and Cash Money. But after Dre and Cube finally ditched Eazy, all he had left was attitude (and points on Dre’s future royalties).
Rather than limp on with MC Ren and DJ Yella, Eazy rekindled his solo career, which had been on sabbatical since 1988’s Eazy-Duz-It. Released five days before The Chronic, the 5150: Home for Tha Sick EP featured ghostwriting from Treach of Naughty By Nature, and a teenaged will.i.am rapping on the holiday jingle “Merry Muthaphukkin’ Xmas”. The Chronic became the gangsta rap Thriller. Ice Cube’s The Predator went double platinum. But Eazy’s record lived up to its infirm title, stalling at #70 on the charts. Six months of scorn followed.
It’s On Dr. Dre (187um Killa) was the cluster bomb exacting brutal revenge. It is Eazy-E as De Niro in Cape Fear, Victor Frankenstein trying to destroy the monster, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female. If N.W.A. was the original Grand Theft Auto, this was San Andreas—the ante of evil was one-upped. It’s almost sociopathic in its deranged menace and cold-blooded assassination. Eazy brands himself “the Devil’s son-in-law.” He does everything but poison Dre’s drugs with Polonium. It’s exactly the sort of thing that you don’t want your 12-year-old listening to, which is exactly why I loved it.
Maybe this seems like crass Richie Incognito hazing in 2013, but it triggered my first revelation that rap wasn’t always reality. When Jay-Z embarrassed Prodigy at Summer Jam with childhood dance recital pictures, the technique came from Eazy-E’s art of war. The scorched-earth tactics of 2Pac and Lil Boosie appropriated Eazy’s carnivorous ferocity.
Eazy anchored his album to the single “Real Muthaphukkin’ G’s”, one of the most savage songs ever recorded—if you slunk to the gates of Hell, you imagine this is what the Cerberus would be bumping, snarling and throwing up his set. Nothing was sacred: back-story, sexuality, inability to gain weight. Groupies flirted back and forth between Death Row and Ruthless, leaking pillow-talk secrets and observations. So Eazy pillories Dre for submitting to Suge Knight’s reign of terror. He taunts him for still being under contract to Ruthless: “'Dre Day’ only meant Eazy’s payday."
Two brothers from Compton’s Nutty Blocc Crips supplied the song's muscle: B.G. Knocc Out and Gangsta Dresta. They feature prominently in the video, depicting a Compton where you can make one wrong turn and run into a man swinging an aluminum Louisville Slugger. Low riders lurch. Pit bulls glare. There is ur-twerking, and shots of Eazy E air-punching in batting gloves. “Sleazy-E,” the caricature from the “Dre Day” video, gets chased by ostensibly every Crip in Compton—arguably the most “meta” moment in '93 hip-hop, aside from De La Soul.
“Dresta wrote the concept, hook, and Eazy’s verses," B.G. Knocc Out tells me last month over Skype. "I wasn’t even originally supposed to be on it.” It’s 4 a.m. Saudi Arabia time, and he’s calling amidst a month-long Hajj pilgrimage.
During a prison stint for attempted murder during the late 90s, B.G. renounced gang life, converted to Islam, and changed his name from Arlandis Hinton to Al Hassan Naqiyy. We speak for over an hour about his changed life, the mysterious circumstances of Eazy’s death, and his brother, who remains incarcerated due to a probation violation. He also breaks down what happened at the 1994 Billboard Awards, which almost turned into a Ruthless Crips vs. Death Row Bloods shootout adjacent to Universal Studios. (Prominent Crip Michael Concepcion helped broker a temporary peace).
“We met Eazy through someone from the Jordan Downs projects,” B.G. continued. “One day he asked us to rap, liked it, and told us that he’d take us to Ruthless. But when he returned, only my brother was there. Eventually, Eazy gave me a shot and I spit out every rhyme I had for an hour straight. They said, ‘Try something else.’ I asked for some weed and what wound up on wax was almost exactly what came out at that moment.”
The production slapped like a sinister mutation of G-Funk. The Source mocked Eazy for mimicking Dre’s “patented” sound, infamously calling him “Colonel Sanders without the special herbs and spices.” But the innovation originally came from Ruthless Records research and design. “Any Last Werdz” featured apocalyptic swing from Kokane and Hutch of Above the Law, whose role in G-Funk’s genesis tends to get overshadowed.
“Dre was great at putting things together, but N.W.A. was a group effort. Eazy helped produce. So did Hutch, Yella, and LA Jay,” Kokane says. “G-Funk was originally a style of music that Above the Law created. I’m not dissing nobody, just speaking facts. Dre took G-Funk and made it his own, but he took all the credit. It was a copy of our sound. He’s a genius, but you can’t erase the history of those who helped you.”
The beat for “Real Muthaphukkin G’s” came from Rhythum D, who had recently jumped from Death Row to Ruthless in search of a bigger production role. Eazy-E instantly rewarded his new loyalties by pulling 10 racks out of his sock. If critics dismissed the record as derivative, the claims are void 20 years later. Pull out a West Coast Rap record from '92-'96 and you’ll inevitably hear the serpentine G-Funk whine and hard hydraulic drums. It’s what it’s supposed to sound like, except tougher.
“I was trying to make hard-knocking hip-hop beats, but ones with bass lines that seemed like they were clowning Dr. Dre,” Rhythum D says from Atlanta, where he relocated two years ago. “I wanted it to be a sinister parody of Dre’s sound.”
It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa separated itself through urgency and absence of restraint. It was bloodsport to protect reputations, careers, and legacy. Eazy-E coming soft was as unthinkable as centering The Godfather around Fredo. Even the all-night session that yielded the “Real Muthaphukkin G’s” beat came in immediate response to “Dre Day”.
“Our go-to-place was Larry Parker’s in Beverly Hills, a 24-hour diner where all the rappers and stars went,” Rhythum D continues. “Late one night, ‘Dre Day’ comes on their big screen for the first time, and it’s banging. Eazy-E had just put out a C-List record that wasn’t up to par, and everyone knew that I was down with Ruthless. So the whole room just looked at me like, ‘Damn nigga, what you gonna do?'”
The South Central-raised producer immediately left Larry Parker’s for the studio, where he made the beat between 3:30 and 7:30 a.m. Decades before chopped and screwed became cliché, Rhythum D slowed and pitched-down the intro vocals to amplify the evil. The scraping sound comes courtesy of an old-fashioned metal washboard. This is another reason why it’s one of the greatest diss songs in rap history: It sounds like it’s spitting in your eye.
It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa became Eazy’s best-selling solo project, double platinum, atop the Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B charts. It’s also the last thing released before he passed away in 1995, due to A.I.D.S-related complications. One of his final acts included a campaign to raise HIV awareness in hip-hop. A penitent Dr. Dre was one of the last visitors to Eazy’s hospital bed. Following his death, a wealth of information emerged about philanthropic deeds that went unpublicized during his lifetime. They probably would’ve been bad for business.
It’s slightly sad listening to “Gimmie That Nutt” today. The same comic hedonism that makes it great sent him to an early grave. But it also gives the song an extra dimension. Even at his most absurd, there was something real about Eazy-E, or at least raw. It didn’t matter whether he actually wrote his songs; he was his songs.
I don’t know whether to attribute it to freak luck, favorable acoustics, or faulty hearing, but my mom never caught me listening to “Gimmie That Nutt”—I was spared from trite “birds and bees” metaphors and having to explain the identity of “Heidi Ho”. After all, Eazy had already taught those lessons. His influence rings eternal in every kid forced into clandestine listening. And I still hope my mom doesn’t read this.
I remember every single note of "Heartbeat, It's a Lovebeat" by Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family. Tony was this little boy and he was so dreamy. He was basically a ripoff of Frankie Lymon, who I loved too. But my absolute favorite record was Donny Osmond's "Sweet and Innocent". He sang a lot of old 1950s songs, which I found myself very attracted to. I used to sit in my room and sing along with them, making up dances for hours and hours. That's how I learned to sing.
The Donny Osmond stuff started with "Donny & Marie", the TV show—I would flip the fuck out watching it. If our parents took us out for dinner when it was on, I would be like, "We have to go!" I would be so mad if I didn't get to see the beginning. I used to write Marie letters all the time. I read one magazine that said, "Marie showed up for her interview and had a bit of a cold," so I went to the store and was like, "Can I buy this card for Marie?" And then I sent her a card. My first concert was the Osmonds, when I was six. I screamed so hard that I had laryngitis. It was the first time I lost my voice.
Both Tony DeFranco and Donny Osmond had these really high-pitched voices, and that's what I wanted to do. But I'm an alto, not a tenor, so I had to train myself. When I listen to [Le Tigre's] "Deceptacon", I don't even recognize my voice because it's typically deeper than that. It sounds so swirly and high on that song—how was I even singing that high? But that's what I've always aspired to. I grew up in an era with things like the Jacksons, of course, so I love pop music and that pop pitch.
Various Artists: Annie (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
I was listening to Helen Reddy a lot and I made up a dance to "I Am Woman" for school—we acted out every part of the song for the talent show. That's probably the better one to say, but at 10 it was undeniably all about the Broadway version of Annie. My dad took me to see the play Annie in D.C., and I really enjoyed it, but I was depressed because it wasn't Andrea McArdle in the lead role. I think it was Sarah Jessica Parker.
I used to sing at home, but I never knew I could sing. The first time I learned I could sing was when I was nine. My best friend wanted to try out for Annie, so she took me to the audition. The teacher was like, "OK, you're next." And I was like, "No, no. I'm just here with my friend." And she was like, "You're next." So I got up and sang "Tomorrow" and I got the part as Annie. My friend was supportive, which was really nice.
In the middle of doing the play, the school realized there were not enough parts for boys, so the music head changed it to Annie-Oliver: They mixed the play Annie with the play Oliver. It was a total mess—a song from Annie, and then a song from Oliver—so it was like, "What is going on in this play?" I hated the boy who played Oliver because I was like, "You took away my thunder!" [laughs]
Doing that play, I learned a big lesson that I've carried ever since. I listened to the soundtrack so much, so I was like, "Oh, I know all the songs." Then, at the talent show, I did "I Don't Need Anything But You", which is sung by Annie and Warbucks. I sang both parts; I would stand in one place, and then stand in the next, and I had two mics. Ms. Matthews, the play teacher, was on the side, moving her lips to the first verse. I was watching her mouth, but she didn't know more than the first verse. So, for the second verse, she started mouthing the first verse again. I started singing the first verse over and over, and then I started crying because I messed up and I ran off stage. I hid backstage and I wouldn't come out to go to class. I was so humiliated in front of the whole school.
Backstage, it was just me and the kid whose job it was to open and close the curtains. He was like, "You should be happy, you were Annie and people like you. I don't have any friends." That was my first big guilt trip. [laughs] I learned that, if you don't practice and get over-confident, you're going to fuck up. After that, I never did things unrehearsed. I was humbled.
The Itals: Give Me Power!
I would tape reggae off college radio stations and try to figure out who wrote the songs I liked. I never really bought records because I had these tapes. Eventually, I got Bob Marley's Legend and other classics.
I had Itals' Give Me Power!, because I saw them live and bought it at the show. But I didn't go to record stores. I didn't feel cool enough. When I was in middle school in Maryland, I lived in the suburbs and just listened to Southern rock like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet. From sixth grade to eighth grade, I lived within one mile of Ian MacKaye, and I had no idea about any of that stuff. I was a couple of years younger than them, but still, I had no clue.
Around 15, I lived in Portland. I didn't know anything about punk, but I went to punk shows with my friends, and we would be the only girls there. The shows were all racist skinheads fighting straight-edge, anti-racist skinheads, and then the long-haired death metal boys came in. There was this tension between groups fighting all the time. So I started going to reggae shows where nobody was beating each other up. My friend Stacey took me to my first reggae show—probably on acid.
I used to run a lot—I was a runner in high school before I became a total stoner—and I started running again when I quit drinking, right when Bikini Kill started. Although I was a bit older than 20, I got It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back on cassette when it first came out [in 1988]. So I used to run on off-days while on tour and listen to that exclusively. It was inspirational to hear something that sounded so good and was so political. [Public Enemy] put themselves out there to say something that hadn't been said before. I wanted to put myself out there because they did.
They were my friends. I listened to The Real Janelle a lot because of the production—it was produced much better than our records had been. There was one song called "And I Live in a Town Where the Boys Amputate Their Hearts" with these really good girl-group backups. The quality of sound was really influential for me. Bikini Kill had been like, "We're DIY! We don't care! We're recording on a shitty four-track!" I listened to Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and was embarrassed because it sounded like garbage. We wrote some pretty good songs on that record, but they were so much better live. We probably could have gotten an advance from a record label and recorded better. I wish we would have known. But we were just like, "We're more DIY than you!" I can't speak for everybody, but that's how I felt. Bratmobile was the first band known as riot grrrl who made a record that sounded really good.
They were a little bit younger than us. I remember they fooled Calvin Johnson, who runs K Records—they were like, "We're in a band called Bratmobile." And he was like, "Oh, you should play this show." And they were like, "Oh fuck, we don't really have a band," so they made up these songs. I saw them open for Tad, who was on Sub Pop and was very loud and aggressive, and people were stage-diving. They got up there, just the two of them, Molly and Allison, and were singing, "You're too cosy in your all boy clubhouse!" I literally heard a guy in the audience say, "Someone should kill them." At that time, Bratmobile was like the most crazy performance art you've ever seen. It was so insane. It was literally child rhymes. And they were so feminine in their presentation. I always felt like our band was much more aggressive. But to be that girly, opening for Tad, it was such a relief.
This was when I actually started shopping for records. I had just met [Beastie Boys'] Mike Diamond two years before, and we started record shopping together. I had lived in Portland for years, and there was this record store there that was this huge warehouse. Nothing was organized and everything was $5 and they had incredible records. I took him there and his mind was totally blown. That's where I bought this live album.
I would talk between songs when Bikini Kill played, and be like, "This song is about guys who think they're more feminist than you, and you start hating them, and they tell you that your feminism is totally wrong," and people would yell "shut up." Isaac Hayes would talk in between songs, too. He did the song "Use Me" and was like, "My brother was dating this girl and she didn't really care about him, she was just coming over to have sex, and I said, 'Look, you gotta get away from her, she's using you.'"
I thought, "How come he deserves this, and I don't feel like I do? Someday, I want to give myself the present of having a full band fill out my songs, and to talk about what each one is about, or tell funny stories." Then I got into a band [Le Tigre] with two people who didn't know how to play any instruments. [laughs] And neither did I.
I got back into [Kim Gordon's band] Free Kitten. They are so fucked up, they sound like they're having fun, and they're feminists. But I feel like nobody ever talks about them as a band, I guess because they hadn't played many shows or toured. Their first record came out when I was like 26, and I was like like, "What the hell!" I didn't know that their song "Teenie Weenie Boppie" was a Serge Gainsbourg cover, so I started listening to a lot of old French stuff, like Bridget Bardot.
I listen to Sentimental Education the most. I didn't discover it when I was 35, but it was something I started listening to over and over then. I was wondering, "What do I want my next band to sound like?" And those questions made me think about being able to write whatever I wanted—not knowing what a song was going to sound like until I started screaming it. Sometimes Kim wouldn't know the lyrics until she started singing. When I was in Bikini Kill, I had stayed at her apartment, and she was listening to an instrumental of some song and writing down lyrics, just listening to it over and over and refining them. I thought, "What a great working process!" I started doing that. When we were on tour with Huggy Bear, we had to record a song called “Demirep”, and I had just been singing random lyrics. We were recording the next day, and I hadn’t nailed them down. So I sat in a coffee shop and did what I thought Kim Gordon would do. [laughs]
I was dealing with a serious illness around this time so I related to his lyrics and to the sadness in his voice. The feeling of having something precious and losing it and maybe never getting it back—of remembering who you used to be and may never be again. I found a friend in these songs, a poet made to feel lonely and isolated by an illness not many understand. I heard the feeling of being a dependent when that is not your true nature or spirit, and the frustration and longing that brings. I was able to see Vic live at Bowery Ballroom before he chose to leave this world and will always cherish the memory. I was jealous he was working with so many great musicians and it inspired me to do the same.
I so admire Grimes. The first time I clicked onto her music, I was like, “Oh my god, what the fuck,” and then I started clicking more links and watching more videos. I really want to see her live. I'm probably around 20 years older than her, and it's cool to have someone so much younger than me who, in a way, I look up to. The fact that she produces her own music and is proud of it is really cool. I'm glad she calls herself a feminist. I remember reading something where she wrote, "Just because I make music doesn’t give you the right to touch me." With Le Tigre, we considered ourselves a feminist punk band, and we really wanted one of those dividers at the record store—that said "Classic Rock" or "Punk" or whatever—to say "Feminist Electronic Punk." It would be like us and Peaches. Now Grimes would be there.
I didn’t read that much about her beforehand. I had a theory that there was probably a lot of negative stuff, and I can't take that. I read some of the worst shit I’ve ever read in my life about Vivian Girls on BrooklynVegan. I clicked on a link because I wanted to see a show, and I made the mistake of reading the comments, and it made me want to cry. It was like the 90s all over again. But people in the 90s had to take out a piece of paper and write you a letter. It's taken me a long time to not take that stuff seriously. I feel like people who are younger than me understand better. When Le Tigre started, people felt like they had to respond if someone said something negative about you online. As a political musician you felt obligated to have a dialogue. Now I realize.
For about six years now, London-via-Berlin label Greco-Roman has constantly exhibited an ear for colorful, beat-driven music with sticky-sweet hooks—the involvement of Hot Chip's Joe Goddard has certainly helped—chalking up early releases from beyond-blog breakouts like Disclosure and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs along the way.
In 2013, the label's well of worthwhile artists has proven especially bottomless, and Marius Lauber, the mastermind behind German dance-pop project Roosevelt, is next in line. Merging dance music's hypnotic psychedelia with pop's streamlined songwriting, the four tracks featured on his recent Elliot EP showcase a big-room sense of introspection rounded out by Lauber's own sweetly melancholic vocals.
While press notes suggest Elliot's winsome title track is about a specific girl in Lauber's life, the singer lets out a laugh of minor frustration when I bring this up over the phone. "It's not like I was trying to tell a story," he says, "I just liked saying her name." Roosevelt's music hews closely to indie-pop's sensitivity, but he's not a lyrics guy in the traditional sense; another EP cut, forthcoming single "Montreal", carries a similarly simple connection with its namesake. "It's probably really nice there," says Lauber, who's only visited the storied Canadian metropolis in his mind. "That's the reason why I make music—to escape."
The 23-year-old lived in the German city of Viersen, a suburb of Cologne, for much of his young life; after trudging through piano lessons as a pre-teen, he picked up the drums when he was 16 and eventually found a small amount of success behind the kit for the rock-oriented band Beat! Beat! Beat!.
Lauber moved to Cologne proper when he was 18 and discovered the pleasures of dance music while sharing a studio space with Kompakt-signed techno-pop duo Coma. "At first, I thought, 'It all sounds like the same song,' like what your mother would say," he laughs, talking about his early experiences listening to dance music. "But it has a hypnotic effect, and there's a sense of storytelling that you'd never get from seeing someone play guitar music." About a year and a half ago, he moved to Berlin to focus more on his music as Roosevelt, which he writes and records on his own. "I don't really feel home there," he states matter-of-factly about his new locale. "It's just too big. If you're from a city like Cologne, you can feel really lost in Berlin."
Demure but conversational, Lauber is a quiet speaker who doesn't make it out to the clubs that often, despite Berlin's notorious nightlife scene. "I'm not really into most of the open air raves—they feel like a techno amusement park," he says. "It's not very inspiring." While saying this, he's struck by a noble sense of self-awareness—a trait that can cut through Roosevelt's bright, bold dance-pop constructions as well. "I wish I wasn't so picky about the stuff the DJ plays. I'm always the guy who complains, and my friends say, 'Hey, just relax.'"
And besides, Lauber has better reasons for not tripping the rave fantastic on a regular basis: He's hard at work on Roosevelt's debut LP, which he's aiming to release some time next year.
Pitchfork: When some of the Roosevelt material started getting passed around, there was very little information about you to go along with it.
Marius Lauber: A lot of bands put most of their energy into promoting themselves, but I needed this project to be focused on the music. On this tour, people have asked me, "Why don't you sell shirts or stickers?" But I was never really that much into the whole self-promotion thing. I just want people to hear my music and like it. I want to avoid annoying them enough so I can make them listen.
Pitchfork: Berlin has always been known as an artistic enclave, do you feel like you're a member of that community there?
ML: There’s no network. You don’t really bump into people very often. The musical scenes there are separate from each other. In Cologne, I shared a studio space with Coma and a rock band; in Berlin, it’s much more separated. I’m sure if you are up to meeting people, it can be amazing, but in Cologne, you just bump into people because it’s so small, which I like.
Pitchfork: Your sound straddles the line between dance and pop, something a lot of artists attempt to do but don't always succeed at.
ML: It's really amazing to not be isolated in one scene. When I started this project, the only limitation I wanted to set was was that it would be dance music, but I would never have thought that I'd exist in both worlds. I like playing clubs because the only feedback you get is when you make people dance. Sometimes, I play a more traditional concert, and they just stand there and applaud at the end. I'm like, "Did they like it?"
But for all the evidence of Rundgren as a hitmaker, there's just as much to show that he has a deserved place among the avant garde, the experimentalists, the weirdos. He was never satisfied with only being a singer/songwriter who produces hits, so while he was charting, he was also messing around in the studio on his own psychedelic albums, and making a name as an adventurous producer for others. Rundgren is the sort of studio wizard who made it a personal challenge to cover Beatles and Beach Boys songs as faithfully as possible. He made an entire album with his voice as the only instrument. For Meat Loaf, he made a convincing revving motorcycle sound using only his guitar. His production for the Tubes in the 80s had him going full robot. He was a pioneer in computer software and music videos. His most recent album, State, was partially recorded using iPads.
He's often called a genius by the people who work with him, but he's also been described as a sarcastic and bull-headed collaborator. (In Paul Myers' great Rundgren biography A Wizard, A True Star, the Band's Robbie Robertson tells a story where the producer was chased and threatened by Levon Helm during the making of 1970's Stage Fright after he made some snide comments about Garth Hudson.)
In 1968, for a jokey bio written as a member of his early group Nazz, Rundgren wrote, "My ambitions, although not specific, are rather involved and would probably appear to most people to be within the realm of fantasy. I guess I'll just wait around and find out." After that, he went solo, started working as a producer, built a studio, and crowded his discography with pop gems, sudden left turns, elaborate studio experiments, and technological innovations. An artist and producer who sang beautifully, could effortlessly write a hit song, and was a sonic explorer; it makes sense why people are still invoking his work. Listen to selected tracks below with this Spotify playlist.
Nazz: "Open My Eyes" (1968)
In the late 60s, Rundgren was in a band called Woody's Truck Stop, which eventually dissolved when his bandmates started subscribing to the acid-dropping Haight-Ashbury movement. As a response, he helped put together a group of Philadelphia musicians that were mostly inspired by British bands like the Who, the Beatles, and the Yardbirds. Though Nazz were never an especially popular outfit, "Open My Eyes" is one of Rundgren's catchiest songs. With its huge riff and phase-shifted psychedelia, the song rightly earned a spot on the legendary Nuggets compilation.
When Rundgren heard the Mael brothers' first demos, he immediately knew he wanted to produce their first album. Then, they called themselves Halfnelson; now they're called Sparks. One of the first tracks Rundgren heard was "Roger", a vibrantly manic song where the central hook is a series of neon-lit arpeggios. "'Roger' was so outside," Rundgren told author Paul Myers. "I thought, 'Nobody's doing this,' which is exactly why I had to do it!" There are tons of details in the mix, like the persistent, tinny percussion that's turned down and shoved to one side. The track's balance constantly tics from the left speaker to the right—it's hard to know where exactly to focus.
Todd Rundgren: "Hello It's Me" (1972)
On his first solo album, 1970's Runt, Rundgren established himself as a piano playing singer/songwriter. But the double LP Something/Anything? started his drift away from pop hits and piano ballads. He was discontent with the idea of being seen purely as a singer/songwriter, and he grew more and more comfortable tracking every vocal and instrument himself. He told Myers that he gained complete focus with Ritalin, which led him to quickly churn out hit songs like "I Saw the Light".
But it was "Hello It's Me", a reworked and fleshed out version of a Nazz song, that made the biggest impact. Rundgren's written a lot of ultra-catchy, relatable pop songs before (and since), but this one was easily his most iconic. It's the kind of thing that shows up on random classic rock compilations. (John Legend called it his favorite song in a Gap commercial.) Rundgren's view of the track is more cynical: "Maybe I could finally get it out of my system, all these songs about some fucking girl who dumped me in high school."
Rundgren took his "Hello It's Me" money and built his own studio called Secret Sound. He also started taking psychedelics. And while he was on peyote and wiring his studio, he began work on A Wizard, A True Star. At this point, he was done with short pop songs, so the result is a trippy, constantly moving album that's as psychedelically detailed as it is (intentionally) creepy—not unlike the Sparks record he had recently helmed. It's glitteringly weird enough to merit the admiration of fellow mind-expanders Tame Impala, yet still features Rundgren's soaring vocals and bursts of pop melody, as on "International Feel", which was prominently featured in Daft Punk's suitably bizarre 2006 art film Electroma.
While Rundgren's ears were starting to lean more toward prog, he was hanging around New York City seeing bands like the Dolls. When he got hired on to produce their debut LP, his job was to match the energy of their live show and showcase their reputation as the city's cartoon version of the Stones. So while he made the guitar solos loud and encouraged David Johansen to deliver over-the-top vocals, Rundgren also injected atmosphere, especially with his Moog synth on "Frankenstein".
Wizard was weird, but Rundgren could go even further out there with Utopia, his prog rock group. And on their first album, Todd Rundgren's Utopia, they went astral. This was not music for people who loved Rundgren's past hits. This was a band that could jam for a good long time. In concert, "The Ikon" would take over an hour to perform. On the album, it clocks in at 30 minutes. It's a true prog odyssey: constantly moving, sometimes cornball, funky, impressive.
Bat Out of Hell is where Rundgren's lifelong love of 19th-century musical dramatists Gilbert and Sullivan came in handy. For Meat Loaf's debut LP, composer and lyricist Jim Steinman wrote a Springsteen-ian rock opera, and Rundgren was brought in to add muscle to the album's awesomely campy melodrama. The opening piano line of the first track evokes ragtime on speed and steroids. Then Rundgren comes in with an enormous, arena-filling, iconic guitar solo. (Apparently, musicians he works with still ask for the "Bat Out of Hell" guitar sound.) And it's a song with emotional peaks and valleys, so Rundgren knows when to keep things delicate (when Meat Loaf sees his heart fly out of his body) and when to turn up the volume (when Meat Loaf burns in the flames of hell).
Art rocking Brits Psychedelic Furs tapped Rundgren to produce Forever Now, looking for the weirdo studio wizard who worked with Patti Smith and the New York Dolls—not the Meat Loaf dude. But it was Rundgren's ear for radio hits that aided them the most. On "Love My Way", the central melody comes courtesy of Rundgren, who played it on marimbas. Frontman Richard Butler delivered his first vocal take in his traditionally sarcastic tone, but Rundgren advised him to sing it straight—it could be a hit. Sure enough, "Love My Way" got them traction in America.
Doing a vocals-only album runs the risk of hollow gimmickry, but A Cappella wasn't some vapid precursor to "The Sing-Off". (Actually, it's more like a substantive precursor to Björk's Medulla.) A lot of Rundgren's early work featured multi-track vocal layering, and A Cappella followed that process to its most extreme conclusion. He used an early sampler to turn his voice into percussive elements and bits of atmosphere. And while the album features more straightforward pop songs, "Blue Orpheus" introduces it by showing just how dense and complex an LP purely comprised of Todd Rundgren vocals can be.
XTC were notoriously controlling when it came to their work. But since they hadn't "made it" in the U.S. by 1986, their label forced them to team up with an American hitmaker. On the provided lists of acceptable producers, Rundgren's name was the only one they considered; XTC saw him as an Anglophile who wouldn't try to over-Americanize their sound. Even though it was a forced collaboration, Rundgren and the band made a good team—Skylarking is an impeccably sequenced LP stuffed with sonic details. Rundgren told the band to find visual representations for each song to help give them more personality. Thus, the twinkling chorus of "The Meeting Place" is complemented by industrial noise, like steam, factory whistles, and clopping hooves, giving the song its own world.
“God created Ol’ Dirty Bastard,” the man himself declares in his signature warble. “His walk, his talk, his movement, his step, his feet, his everything.” This soliloquy is one of the most memorable moments in Rock the Bells, a documentary chronicling the hip-hop festival’s first show in 2004. It’s also Dirty’s only triumphant moment in the film; elsewhere he’s seen in a state of depressingly severe decline. The concert is billed as the first official Wu-Tang Clan reunion in almost a decade, but it almost doesn’t happen because Dirty is too high to make it out of his hotel room. He finally shows up at the last minute, only to spend most of the performance sitting down, uncharacteristically silent and nearly out-of-view. It would be the last time all core members of Wu-Tang performed together. Four months later, on November 13, 2004, ODB was dead.
I’m thinking about Dirty’s Rock the Bells speech nearly 10 years later as I sit in Chris “Broadway” Romero's midtown Manhattan office and watch him make small adjustments to a digital rendering of the dead rapper’s disembodied head. As Romero scans through the frames, Dirty comes to life at jilted half-speed, like a flip book. His eyes bulge, his head cocks from side to side as pixilated braids protrude like antennae, and his mouth opens and shuts, mutely miming the words to “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”.
What we’re looking at is a 3D animation of the infamous “ODB Hologram,” which made its debut at the beginning of September in L.A., as a part of Wu-Tang’s performance at the Rock the Bells 10th anniversary show. Naturally, a YouTube video captured the surreal scene: As the crowd chants ODB’s name, RZA—blurring the line between hip-hop concert and magic show—commands, “If you say it loud enough, I think he might appear.” It works. There’s a sudden, human-shaped flash of blazing blue, and then Dirty’s standing there on stage in jeans and a salmon-colored button-up, launching into “Shame on a Nigga”. One particular YouTube gawker summed up the whole spectrum of reactions: “Creepy but Awesome!!!”
(As resident comments-section scientists have nitpicked in every article about “hologram” rappers in the past year, these performances are technically not holograms but rather “holographic projections.” Romero skirts the issue by preferring the somewhat unwieldy term “original virtual performance.”)
ODB’s "appearance" only lasted about six minutes, but it was the result of nearly six months of toil. Romero—heavy-lidded, usually baseball-capped, and possessing the chill patience of an animator—is prone to working long, late hours for the gaming production company Play Gig-It, which also created avirtual performance by Eazy-E for this year's Rock the Bells. “He’ll just go in there, get in the zone,” another employee warns me in a hushed voice before I first step into Romero's office. “It gets kind of intense.”
The walls of his space are covered with printed-out photos: There’s one of him posing with 50 Cent (Romero, 36, is also the creative director of G-Unit) tacked up alongside a cartoonish digital animation of himself and 2Pac. Amidst the soft, productive chatter of clicks and keystrokes, he makes near-imperceptible tweaks to ODB's face. “It’s a constant process of getting the skin texture right, the pores, the lips. It’s something you can keep working on forever,” he tells me with an exasperated laugh. “How close can you get to what God was trying to do?”
Chris “Broadway” Romero working on a virtual Ol' Dirty Bastard
You are allowed to be freaked out. But chances are you would have been much more freaked out by all of this prior to April 2012, when a hologram 2Pac made a surprise appearance at Coachella. To the media, this was basically Year Zero for “original virtual performances” by deceased musicians.
But the recent cultural fascination with holograms did not begin (or end) with 2Pac. In April 2011, Burberry held ahologram runway show in Beijing, where models vanished into vapor in the middle of the catwalk. A hologram of Ronald Reagan was rumored to make an appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention—and rumored to have been scrapped at the last minute out of fear that it would upstage possible real-life-reanimated-corpse Mitt Romney. A Swedish designer is developing a product called Global Chef, which would let companionless peopleprepare and eat meals with (yes, I swear) hologram projections of their loved ones (“farewell lonely cooking nights!”). As far as living musicians go,Mariah Carey andFeist have both used holographic technology to perform in multiple international cities simultaneously, and a number of K-pop artists like Psy and Girls Generation haveexplored the idea of virtual concerts to reach global audiences at more reasonable costs. But don’t consider the U.S. too behind the curve: Never forget Anderson Cooper’s Election Night 2008 interview with hologram wil.i.am.
Actually, this technology is starting to become so commonplace that the most notable thing about the Rock the Bells holograms is how uncontroversial they were. Reaction to 2Pac’s appearance struck a nerve with people for a number of reasons—partially because it was unannounced, but also because of the still-contentious nature of his celebrity and death. (A video titled “The Illuminiati: The Tupac Hologram Conspiracy” has been viewed over 114,000 times.) Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E’s stories are less contentious by comparison. “With those two artists, it’s more of a love legacy thing," says Romero.
Given the unshakable ordinariness of ODB and Eazy-E’s virtual performances at Rock the Bells (both were billed beneath Kid Cudi), it would seem that hologram culture is at a crossroads. Is this a technological novelty nearing its expiration date, or did 2Pac shouting “WHAT’S UP COACHELLA?” from beyond the grave mark the beginning of a new normal?
Chris Romero’s love of hip-hop and digital art developed in tandem. As a kid growing up close to Washington, D.C., he dreamed of creating animated versions of director Hype Williams videos. His first original 3D character was created as a tribute to his favorite crew: a Wu-Tang robot with the signature W emblazoned on its chest. “I would animate him moving around and swinging his sword to different songs from Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...," he recalls. Discovering Wu-Tang was a personal watershed moment for Romero. "Growing up, I was one of the only Asian kids," he says. "So Wu-Tang was awesome because it fused the cultures and opened a lot of minds to hip-hop."
He studied digital art in college, but his big break—and his first encounter with what he calls "legacy work"—came in his early 20s, when he got the opportunity to create a posthumous animated video for Big Pun. Romero and Pun's Terror Squad partner Fat Joe had lengthy discussions about how to tastefully recreate the late rapper's image and do justice to his memory: "He's gotta wear the leather, he should move like this, he's gotta have TS on his hat, and you gotta have the Bentley." The result is 2001's "How We Roll", which now looks like a hip-hop add-on pack for The Sims. As with most animated videos, there’s an air of magical realism about it: My favorite part is when Pun—looking a little bit like a pixelated Botero—jumps off the balcony of a two-story mansion, does a Matrix-style spin in the air and lands in the pool below with barely a splash. In form and content, “How We Roll” is a snapshot of its time. "There's even a scene where a girl is looking at a color two-way pager," Romero laughs. "At the time, those hadn't even come out yet."
As his career began to take off, Romero's focus shifted to living artists—though their concerns were sometimes eerily similar to his legacy work. “One of the first things [50 Cent] ever said to me is that he wanted to immortalize himself through animation,” he says. Romero continued to think about paying digital tribute to dead artists, though, and at one point he was even in talks to do an animated 2Pac video that eventually fell through. Then Coachella 2012 happened. Though Romero wasn’t a part of the team that worked on the 2Pac hologram, he was thrilled to see everybody else catching up to his vision. "I was finally vindicated to the world," he says. "I was like, 'Let's take this seriously.'"
The ODB and Eazy-E holograms were not so much the work of sorcery or Frankenstein-ian corpse reanimation, but more like the 21st-century version of Lisa Marie playing tribute to her dad by dressing up like an Elvis impersonator.
My eyes popped out of my head Looney Tunes-style at least half a dozen times while reporting this story, but perhaps none more dramatically than when I asked Nick Smith, president and co-founder of the tech company AV Concepts, whether 2Pac was the first person he’d ever digitally resurrected from the dead. “As far as entertainment goes, this is the first deceased artist that we brought back like that publicly,” he says. “But we’ve been doing this for years. We do a lot of things for corporate—private events where the CEO that started the company comes back and talks to the sales team about where things are going today.”
There are two components of a holographic projection: the content and the technology. Smith and his team worked on the latter for the 2Pac, ODB, and Eazy-E performances, and apparently have other secret projects in development. (“I’m sure you’d love to know,” he teases.) On the phone, Smith strikes me as not so much of a Wu-Tang enthusiast as a Bill Nye the Science Guy figure—he's able explain the technology in a way that I (or a brainy child) could understand.
Though these performances might seem cutting-edge, the basic technology—an illusion known asPepper’s Ghost—actually dates back to the mid-19th century. (Its first recorded use was in 1863, when it was used in London during a staged performance of a Charles Dickens ghost story.) The idea behind the illusion is that, depending upon the angle, a pane of glass can be both reflective and transparent. “Think of when you have something lying on the dash of your car,” Nick Smith the Science Guy explains. “The sun comes through the glass, reflects on the object lying on your dash, and if you look through your windshield you’ll see the thing floating in front of you.” That’s basically how these projections work… if the object on your dash happened to be a digital video file of ODB doing “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”; there is a mirror on the stage floor at a precise angle, and a projector shooting onto it from above.
Enter Romero and his team at Play Gig-It. While the projection’s digital assets are informed by photos and videos of the deceased artists, they are not, as some people think, archived footage of the performers, but instead original composites generated from motion-capture shoots. Eazy-E's shoot was overseen by his widow Tomica Wright, and his “hologram” is actually a composite of his three children (all of whom are rappers themselves): Eric Jr. (Lil Eazy-E) acted as the body double, Derrick (E3) provided the voice, and Erin—who bears a particularlystriking resemblance to her father—lip synced Eazy’s lines to provide the facial capture. The audio and motion capture for ODB’s asset, on the other hand, was solely provided by his son Young Dirty Bastard—his dad’s spitting image in name and attitude. All of which means that these particular holograms were not so much the work of sorcery or Frankenstein-ian corpse reanimation (“To create a completely synthetic human being is the most complicated thing that can be done” is something a person actually had to clarify to the Wall Street Journalimmediately after 2Pac’s performance) but more like the 21st-century version of Lisa Marie playing tribute to her dad by dressing up like an Elvis impersonator.
The families’ support and close involvement is what set the ODB and Eazy-E holograms apart, and it’s also the aspect of which Romero is most proud. “There were tears being shed from all the family members,” he says of the L.A. performance. “The crowd was partying and enjoying it, but that was all a bonus compared to the families being affected, that emotional connection.” (“I think it’s amazing,” ODB’s mother Cherry Jones told Rolling Stone prior to the show. “I want to sing with it.”)
All this enthusiasm makes me wonder: Why hip-hop? Is it just a coincidence that the first three celebrities resurrected in this way were rappers? It feels harder to imagine such an unequivocally positive response to, say, a hologram Kurt Cobain joining his living bandmates for their upcoming Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction (remember how heated everyone got when his likeness appeared in Guitar Hero?) The hip-hop community has always been open about celebrating its fallen stars, and in some ways this has made the dead feel more present, closer at hand. What is hologram culture if not the 2013 version of Biggie's posthumous appearance in the "Mo Money Mo Problems" video, or the glowing ghost of Eazy-E (basically a 2D hologram) in Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's "Crossroads"?
Romero's own theory about why hip-hop and holograms have gone hand-in-hand involves the genre's a long tradition of repurposing technology. “Turntables weren’t meant to be scratched on,” he has said. "Records weren’t meant to be sampled. Light posts weren’t meant to be used to supply electricity for park jams.” And, it would seem, a technology developed to allow corporate CEOs to give motivational speeches from the beyond wasn’t created to pay posthumous tribute to a man who sometimes went by the name Dirt McGirt, either.
A digital rendering of Eazy-E
"I'm not sure about the hologram,” TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins said recently, when asked if the rumors were true that she and Chili would tour with a projection of the late Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes. As I've written previously, TLC were digital pioneers; in 2003, they performed at a Z100 concert at Giants Stadium with a huge video screen cued up so that Lopes posthumously “performed” her parts of the group’s songs. The 10th anniversary of Lopes’ death was the same month as 2Pac’s Coachella appearance, and amidst the sudden rush of TLC nostalgia, rumors began to circulate that the surviving members would be doing something similar on their subsequent reunion tour.
But for now, plans for a Left Eye hologram have been tabled. “We talked about that way before 2Pac was at Coachella,” T-Boz said in an interview with the website HipHollywood. “We use big LED screens… and it took us 10 years just to be able to look back [at the screen]. I have to have tunnel vision, because it’s a constant reminder that she’s not there.”
“So when I saw 2Pac… I felt some kinda way,” she continued. “It was so real. I don't know if I could stand next to her like that. The money's not worth what I would go through, pain-wise, so that's a big conversation we're having. Of course technology is advancing, and it looks dope, but I don't know, honestly. We gonna have to see."
Once the novelty wears off, will people actually shell out for tickets to see virtual performances?
Still unsure about my own feelings about this new technology, I decide to see it for myself and make plans to attend Rock the Bells’ Washington, D.C., date at the end of September, which is the first time a projection of this sort is set to appear on the East Coast. During an interview over sushi with the Play Gig-It team the week leading up to the show, word suddenly comes from Rock the Bells organizers Guerilla Union that the scheduled gigs in D.C. and New York have been cancelled. A wave of bemused shock travels around the table. Romero rarely drinks anymore, but within a minute of the initial text message, someone from Play Gig-It has already ordered two bottles of sake.
It is tempting for critics to dismiss the people working on these projections as profiting off the dead, but the hologram business is not exactly a cash cow at this point. The company that made the 2Pac asset, Digital Domain Media Group, filed for bankruptcy just five months after Coachella, thwarting other holographic projects they were rumored to have in the works. It’s later confirmed, too, that Rock the Bells’ East Coast dates were cancelled due to low ticket sales. The holograms are no more to blame for this than the living artists (and maybe neither as much as the festival’s publicity team), but it’s enough to warrant skepticism: Once the novelty wears off, will people actually shell out for tickets to see virtual performances?
But plenty of people remain optimistic about what’s next for hologram culture. In an interview with Billboard last summer, Jeff Jampol, the man who manages Jim Morrison’s estate, sketched a haunting vision of the not-too-distant future: "We're trying to get to a point where 3D characters will walk around. Hopefully, 'Jim Morrison' will be able to walk right up to you, look you in the eye, sing right at you and then turn around and walk away."
Romero is undeterred by the Rock the Bells setback—the inherent riskiness of this sort of project is what drives him. “It’s like walking on the moon for the first time,” he says. “You hope it works. You hope you don’t die in front of a bunch of people. But you just go.” The last time I visit him, a few weeks after the cancellations, I ask him where this technology is headed next. He says he’s been dreaming of holograms that can “react to the crowd.”
My eyes pop out of my head once again. “Seriously? How would that even work?”
“It’ll be programmed by some kind of rule, like which side of the crowd is louder.”
For some reason I can’t really pinpoint, this seems like a bridge too far, but Romero is quick to call my bluff. He points to the phone I’ve been using to record our conversation.
“Can you talk into your phone right now? Say, ‘Hi, Siri.’”
Romero in his space at Play Gig-It
About a week later, I’m in my room trying to figure out my plans for the night. “Look up Enough Said showtimes in Brooklyn,” I say into my phone. (Keeping with one of those digital-age habits that are governed not by reason or efficiency so much as a vague sense of social norms, I still feel embarrassed talking to Siri in public but will sometimes use it when I’m alone.) The disembodied voice of a real person reads some options back to me, and then a friend and I go see the last movie James Gandolfini filmed before he died. As I watch him on the screen—at once a presence and an absence—I’m still trying to sort all of this out. I think about how his family might feel about seeing him up there, if it gives them some kind of closure or if it just prods the wound. I think about 50 Cent's desire to become “immortal” while he’s still alive. But mostly I’m thinking of a guy who changed his name to Big Baby Jesus a few years before he died, and wondering if in some corner of his wild imagination, this is what he had in mind all along.
Ariel Rechtshaid talks about his work in terms usually designated for romantic endeavors. During our conversation at a Brooklyn wine bar in October, the 34-year-old producer repeatedly uses dating metaphors to describe the lines of his résumé. When it comes to intensive long-term projects, like Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City or Haim’s Days Are Gone, he says there was a certain amount of chemistry needed for the collaboration to get off the ground. “You get into a relationship and you commit,” he explains.
But “Thought of You”, the infectiously hand-clappy song he produced for Justin Bieber’s album Believe, on the other hand, felt more like a “one-night stand.” And when I ask if he ever scours the internet for new talent to work with, he quickly shakes his head. “That’s kind of like internet dating," he says. "It’s not my thing.”
Perhaps it’s this romantic outlook—a fixation on genuine human connection—that’s allowed Rechtshaid to achieve his current status as a go-to pop producer of the highest caliber. In the last couple of years he’s left his mark on the industry from the top down and the bottom up, forging unlikely connections between the world of Billboard chart hits and lesser-known indie spheres. He can add restraint and finesse to a song like Usher’s “Climax” as easily as he can help Sky Ferreira record a track with big, sticky hooks.
Rechtshaid’s serendipitous and chameleonic career can be traced back to his high school days. As an L.A. teeanger growing up in a working-class Israeli family, he was into stalwart punk label SST and Oakland hip-hop act Souls of Mischief alike. He dropped out of high school to go on tour with his ska-punk band the Hippos, which was eventually signed to Interscope. From there, he began dabbling in his friends’ projects and eventually produced emo-pop band Plain White T's “Hey There Delilah”, which hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and put Rechtshaid on the radar. “It was a complete accident,” he says.
In the years since, Rechtshaid has been able to achieve an impact without falling back on a signature (and pigeon-holing) sound. Accordingly, the potential collaborators he’s got on his plate in the coming months—including Beck, FKA twigs, Gwen Stefani, Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch—come from every corner of the industry.
"I feel more inspired by challenging an artist than just doing the same thing that I did last time. This is not a quest for celebrity."
Pitchfork: How do you get drawn into new projects?
Ariel Rechtshaid: It’s all pretty homegrown. For instance, I was just in London and met FKA twigs. She seems ambitious, which is always seductive. A lot of people are trying to do the type of music she’s making, but she has this interesting loner vibe where she doesn’t feel like she's part of a clique. There’s a sense that she has to make music. It’s not a vanity project.
After Cass McCombs and I started making records together, I met Laurence Bell, who founded Domino Records. He trusted me, and introduced me to Dev Hynes [of Blood Orange]. Weirdly, I had just had a motorcycle accident on Cass’ bike and I was on a ton of drugs—including morphine—when I first met him. But we ended up making the first Blood Orange record together after that. And somewhere around that time, I met Switch, who introduced me to Diplo. I share a manager with Diplo and A-Trak now.
And then Usher recommended me to [Justin Bieber’s manager] Scooter Braun. It was no skin off their teeth—just another two or three dudes in the studio. It worked out. It hardly ever doesn't work out. There aren't a lot of musical walls that I hit. As long as you're thorough and committed, you can usually work through it and at least complete a song. Whether or not it makes it on the record is a matter of enthusiasm or taste.
Pitchfork: What are artists looking for when they reach out to you?
AR: I've definitely gotten really specific requests: "Oh, we love 'Climax'. Let's get in the studio and do that." My response to that is not very good because I'm never interested in trying to recreate something. The goal is to make something that sounds new and different. If the chemistry between me and the artist is good, then that's half the battle.
Pitchfork: Do you resist developing a signature sound?
AR: I do. I’m more interested in going tit for tat with the artist. I like to find an artist who inspires me and get into their world and challenge them. I feel more inspired doing that than just doing the same thing that I did last time. This is not a quest for celebrity.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like you’re generally making music sound bigger and more polished, or are you adding a softer touch to things?
AR: It varies. When it's someone like Sky [Ferreira], it's more about getting an essence of who she is or what is honest for her and then kind of becoming her band, writing music with her. With an act like Haim, we experimented quite a bit, and some of the stuff we did is pretty far-out and some of it is closer down the center. They’re really interested in pop music and I know that the people around them saw them as that to some degree, but I saw more than that. It's like an overall quality control thing—knowing when it's done, knowing when it's good enough, knowing when to push harder.
Pitchfork: It sounds like this kind of work environment could also foster close social relationships in the industry.
AR: I try not to become friends with musicians, but life happens and dinner happens and going out happens—it becomes interwoven in L.A. Like, I inherited my mom's Toyota Camry and that was my car for a long time, and I've had a lot of funny moments in that car with various people. Usher rode in that car. But then it really turned into a piece of shit. Finally, Rostam [Batmanglij, of Vampire Weekend], who's sort of car-obsessed, was like, "Bro, it's time to upgrade." I wound up at an Audi dealership with Rostam on the other side of the desk with the car salesman, both yelling at me that I can afford this Audi A3 and that I should just get it. I made a rash decision and bought it.
Photos below by Gary Land from Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession
A version of the following appears as the introduction to Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession by Joe Mansfield, due out December 3. (A deluxe version is out this Friday, November 29, as part of Record Store Day.) Beat Box features 214 photos of Mansfield's own extensive drum machine collection, as well as historical info and interviews.
Revenge of the Nerds isn’t the most glamorous way to be remembered if you’re a drum machine. But there you were, a Roland CR-5000, strapped to a Tri-Lam in a yellow rain suit and galoshes. He’s all Devo and fishsticks. You’re but a box with buttons. And he was faking it with cheap sounds that weren’t even yours, faking it next to a choir in white robes making fake handclaps. (Also not yours.) We were witnessing one of the great drum machine hoaxes of all time and didn’t even know it—nor really cared. The sound most remembered from the film was not a CompuRhythm rim shot programmed in a lab in Tokyo. It was a laugh, a hyperventilated bray from a kid named Skolnik.
When Revenge of the Nerds came out in 1984, Joe Mansfield owned zero drum machines and approximately one Pac-Man watch. An agglomerator of vintage beat boxes living in Boston, he now has 150. I assumed him to be some crazy drum machine hoarder, projecting a friend’s memory/my dream concerning a closet stuffed with abandoned 808s in a North Miami studio. I pictured Mansfield’s kitchen table cluttered with beat boxes. Drum machines on the couch and stacked in the hallway. A pile of dirty drum machines in the sink. Drum machines on the washing machine. A few in the bathroom, by the commode. A wooden bowl containing pieces of sound, captured on chips. Instants of hi-hat and tom, mashed into the carpet. All wishful thinking, you might say, ramming your knee into a Rhythm King in the hallway. There is no 808 cowbell programmed into Joe Mansfield’s front door. As it turns out, he scans as a fairly regular guy who just happens to own enough drum machines to choke a house. He keeps them in temperature-controlled mini storage like any other sane person.
A word on our terms: We like saying drum machine. We like the way it looks, its industrial sensibility. A word stuck in its ways, echoheaded with pre-set notions of a past craze. Don’t mind the Watusi button. There will be modifcations. If you need to get freak exotic, a drum machine can be a drum computer. Rhythm machines are not drum machines, but Leon Theremin’s Rhythmicon, developed in the early 1930s under suboptimal, if not Siberian conditions, has earned the right to be called a drum machine. The 303 is more of an acid squelch machine. An MPC sampler is used to “make beats” but isn’t narrow-minded enough to qualify as a drum machine.
In 1991, Joe Mansfield used a sampler and drum machine to produce Ed OG’s “I Got to Have It”, a rap classic. In 2001, he co-founded Traffic Entertainment, a label that specializes in reissuing rap classics, some in luxury formats. In the Traffic offices, you’ll find yellow vinyl wallets covered with Ol’ Dirty Bastard faces. Fat Boys pizza boxes and GZA chess sets. A velvet Rolex shrine for a purple cassette containing songs about glaciers, chambers, and ice cream. This paragraph was written with an Ice Cube Lethal Injection promotional hypodermic ballpoint pen. Regurgitate this information into your Alkaholks promotional barf bag.
At the core of this objectification of hip-hop quietly sits the drum machine. I arrived at Traffic to find 15 of Joe’s clunkers displayed across two examination tables, in all shapes and sizes. I first greeted my old friends, the ones with whom I’d spent most of my adolescence, yet refuse to outgrow. The 808. The DMX. The Linn.
The Roland TR-808 is the only drum machine to have its own Swedish beanbag. It produces the cleanest sound to the dirtiest effect, enjoying its baller status and mythology due to a buddy-system relationship with drop. (Bass is often believed to be some sort of spirit animal of the rear end.) A born failure in Japan, the 808 now receives the most lip service and trunk space (see “blappin’”), gets all the girls (and dudes), comes with its own light show (in house!), and will be starring in its own movie next year. In the meantime, you can order an 808 fridge magnet from Australia.
The DMX has yet to slap my fridge, but I did recently hear it when Kate Hudson did the Roger Rabbit to “Push It” during a shitty in-flight romantic comedy. It’s impossible to imagine that song without the DMX shaker that I always took for a scrub-brush. The DMX has the best handclaps. And Run-DMC. But the Linn has Prince. The Linn is the drum machine that never wanted to sound like a drum machine. Those are real hopefully still live drummers captured in there.
The Casio-VL Tone has the dubious honor of teaching me to play the medieval funeral march from The Shining. (Pure accident—my heart was set on Rush’s “Witch Hun”.) I attempted this with the Waltz pre-set, thinking it’d go well with “Midnight, the Stars and You”, the Al Blowly crooner heard in the film’s ballroom scene. Caretaker to Casio: You’re not a drum machine’s drum machine, even if we thought the Cha Cha button would emit the woodsy creep whisper from Friday the 13th. The Casio only made the list because Mansfield received one for Christmas in 1980 and reportedly drove his mother crazy.
Though it’s hard to take the Casio seriously, others from Mansfield’s collection would draw suspicion if left alone in public transportation hubs. Mike Banks of Detroit’s Underground Resistance remembers his Roland 909 being dismantled by airport customs in Berlin. The DMX was once seized at JFK for impersonating a federal agent. The Schober Dynabeatcould’ve been orderedfrom the STASI OfficeMax, while the Roland CR-8000 emits more of an analogue ER vibe. Some drum machines look austere in mid-century cabinetry. Others come in hardshell language lab cases, speckled gray. Does the Rhythm Jester remember its previous life as an answering machine?
Roland CompuRhythm CR-8000
The Maestro Rhythm’n Sound is named Ralph. The Olson X-100 has a button marked for SURFIN. The Wurlitzer Swingin’ Rhythm has one labeled TEEN. After Mansfield pressed it, TEEN shot across the room. When drum machines get old, they start losing buttons. Their memories erode, at least those programmed with memories. Yet Mansfield’s 808 still has the Strafe beat he programmed upon pulling it out of the box in 1985. First things first: Make “Set It Off”.
The Vox Percussion King could be mistaken for a guitar amp, as if musicians would be more amenable to the idea of a drum machine if it didn’t look like a drum machine. Those front desk buzzers are really foot pedals. What Grandmaster Flash did to the Vox on “Flash to the Beat”—those pig-grunt conniptions—was not part of the original sales floor demonstration. During the finale, the Percussion King seems to run amok, throwing hissy fits of loose change. Many of these devices didn’t actually become drum machines until people started making a fool out of the user’s manual and its square intentions. Play along with your accordion and guitar! A drum machine could be vanquished to a junk shop until discovered to invent an entire genre. Loud but sensitive, they aren’t really social creatures by design, often getting stuck with some late-night hermit, emptying his guts into his gear.
Vox Percussion King
In 1984, drum machines were often heard but rarely seen. Back then there was no object to place with the sound, other than the records themselves. So we took measures. When T La Rock namedropped the Drumulator in a song, it seemed like the invention of a word-happy brain. A figment of speech. (A friend recently found a Drumulator at flea market: “It was mostly dead but still managed a whispy snare through the buggy, short-circuited sound of abandoned efforts toward grounding.”) On MCA and Burzootie’s stone age Def Jam single “Drum Machine”, Adam Yauch rapped about the DMX and using your own personal memory chips. Confusion ensued. Personal chips? Was Burzootie the drum machine? I called up Radio Shack asking if they had any Burzooties in stock. Then I listened to the song again. Did Yauch really just say that we’re supposed to play drum machines until the world is gone? Sounds like a commitment!
On Schoolly D’s “PSK (What Does It Mean?)”, the 909 thundered that the world was long out of here, leaving us in reverb and space dust. Schoolly also helpfully drew up a yellow toadstool spacecraft taking off after it, launching into a galaxy of boozy stars and popping brain cells. The ship, the way out, seemed to be melting.
The first 909 I saw wasn’t real, but a drawing, rendered on the cover of the Just-Ice album Back to the Old School. (Best to acknowledge Darryl Davis, a pioneer drum machine illustrator/truck driver from California who did most of Dr. Dre’s early singles in the 1980s.) Just-Ice’s producer, Mantronik, is pictured on the cover carrying a 909. Where is he going with that thing? Nuts? Absolutely. He once told me he had to return one to Sam Ash—still smoking, I’d like to think. Brings to mind what someone (Fresh Gordon?) told me long ago. Somebody was always blowing up the drum machine back then. We didn’t always know what we were doing.
But we were transported. Back then, the fairly innocuous notion of commuting a drum machine over to your buddy’s seemed like an act of outer space. It never occurred to me that these things ever got out of the house. I remember being floored when Afrika Islam told me he once schlepped an 808 across the Bronx to Bambaataa’s place. In broad daylight. As if people walked around New York lugging drum machines under their arm, like a 12 pack of beer. (Admittedly, I carried Mansfield’s 808 across the Traffic office—not the same effect.) The obvious solution would be the Tensai Rhythm Machine, the first boombox equipped with secret drum programming capabilities and a tape player to prove it all.
The Just-Ice album cover also featured a boombox (named “Buster”) and a gnome named after the Oberheim DMX. As a kid, I had a thing for the DMX sound. I didn’t know what made it, only that some guy from Queens with my first name used the DMX for his last, and that he was cool with Run-DMC. During a middle school assembly, principal Alice “Boing Boom” Litwinchuk made us write our desired nicknames on a piece of paper and circulated it throughout the bleachers. I chose Davy DMX. Kids laughed. I was reminded of Charlie Brown, after Lucy and Violet tricked him into confiding his secret handle. I always wanted to be named Flash. Next panel: two girls rolling on the ground in dresses and scuffy shoes, jeering under boldfaced balloons. FLASH? HA-HA. Did Joseph Saddler get taunted by a nickel psychiatrist when he rewired himself as Grandmaster Flash and wore a purple leather jacket with lightning bolts? Seeing that Davy DMX was taken, I named myself after the local tree-removal service that pulled up in the front yard with a storm trash-eating compactor.
The name did not catch, but the DMX sounds did. I heard them through the pillow while tapping out the beat to “Sucker MC’s” on the mattress, putting delay on a winter school morning in 1984. Being half conscious helped put more distance between my face and the beat, an echo programmed by a remote bloodless hand. Not of my own and in no hurry to wake. There was posturepedic boom in the space-coil continuum. 808 springs eternal! Now you can order a Swedish 808 pillow which, in a down stroke of free mind/ass follow marketing genius, can also serve as a cushion. So you can wake up with an 808 interface on your cheek and reprogram yourself to sound like every respectable rap song in the southern United States. Stay dirty, drum machines in the sink. Five cents please.
With tastes and allegiances so personalized nowadays, it can be tough buying gifts for music fans—no matter how many algorithms tech companies come up with to figure out a person's preferences, there's no exact formula. So with the following list, we tried to include things that could be useful and enjoyable to almost any music lover (who doesn't like weird little magnets that make noise, right?). From novelty stocking stuffers to wildly intricate box sets, here's a handy list that may make your holiday shopping a little less stressful.
It turns out Marky Ramone—drummer in the longest-running "classic" version of the Ramones and the guy who manned the throne for Richard Hell& the Voidoids' Blank Generation along with a number of other seminal NYC punk/rock bands—makes pasta sauce. And it's good! It's one thing if a rock musician puts their name on a food product as a gimmick (see: CRUNK!!!), another if it's vaguely edible (see: CRUNK!!!), something else entirely if it's… one of the better marinara sauces you've tasted. I'm no chef, but the "imported Italian plum tomatoes" aren't peeled or entirely crushed here, so you get an interesting, substantial texture to go with the onions, garlic, black pepper, and oregano. Nothing flashy, but it works very well (like the Ramones?), making it something you can buy for the packaging and a laugh, and then actually enjoy consuming. On the label we're told "Drums not included," but more helpful is a recipe for "Uncle Tookie's Sicilian Eggs" ("drumlicious," supposedly) and a mention that 10% of sales benefit Autism Speaks. —Brandon Stosuy
littleBits is a lifehack-focused electronics company that specializes in teeny-tiny circuits that—thanks to the how-do-they-work power of magnets—can easily be combined for a multitudinous number of small-scale purposes. With the assistance of musical instrument company Korg, littleBits now offers a 12-piece mini-synthesizer kit that allows anybody to get their Kraftwerk on, even if they've never heard the word "analog" before. Sold at almost one-fifth the cost of a typical Korg analog synth, the littleBits synth kit is almost absurdly easy to use straight out of the box—and I say this as someone who tried and failed to put together that Neon Indian mini-synth from a couple of years back (spoiler alert: I eventually broke it).
Knowledgable buyers will marvel at the endless-seeming circuit combinations made possible by what's offered here—there's even a mini-sequencer—while the relatively uninitiated will undoubtedly express invaluable observations such as: "When you turn the thingy this way, it makes a weird sound!" (As an aside to fellow amateurs: The manual makes it very clear that you are not to swallow the circuits whole. If you swallow magnets, they will kill you… don't shoot the messenger.) The accompanying booklet provides easy-to-follow instructions as to the types of synthesizers you can make; it even provides a visual physics lesson on how sound actually works, making it the perfect gift for both children and adults who fell asleep during science class. —Larry Fitzmaurice
"A lot of times when we see these books, or this documentation on certain scenes, or if you go deep into the inner city, there’s always a wonder at the back of one’s mind—is this for the expansion of understanding, or simply exploitation of the environment?" writes Bun B in the foreword of Houston Rap, a new anthology from photographer Peter Beste and writer Lance Scott Walker. In an age when regional history and context is often distilled to nothing more than its most tidily packaged aesthetic, Bun has a right to be skeptical. But Beste's photographs, shot in the Houston rap community over a period of nine years, feel like an antidote to coffee-table dilettantism. The book's beautiful 300 pages incorporate excerpts of Walker's interviews with Houston rap figures, from Willie D to Paul Wall, and members of the surrounding communities—radio hosts, businessmen, directors of children's programs—to add layers of first-hand insight into the birth and evolution of the scene. And then there are the photos themselves: a little boy standing next to DJ Screw's headstone, a pack of Newports and a styrofoam cup, a stark Baptist church, a stripper's wig on the floor of a club—that paint the city in joyous and brutal tones alike. "Theses guys [Beste and Walker] have have held it very close to their hearts," Bun B writes, offering up his blessing. It shows. —Carrie Battan
A wad of crumpled cash is about the last thing that should remind you of the unfiltered, uncompromising DIY pop of a K Records band like Beat Happening or Talulah Gosh… but maybe it could! How wonderful, amid this hyper-consumerist season, to be gifted the humble and esteemed Shield of the K—to see that quaint-but-powerful symbol of anti-materialism at each grab for your debit card. Perhaps it will remind you to spend your $5 on a 7" at the show instead of a can of beer? To fuel the underground instead of your miserable vices?! Psychologic potential aside, these handy accessories are useful for storing essential capitalist documents, with a single snap that holds all of your stuff shut. Fear not, animal lovers, for these wallets are made using PCV-free faux leather; no worries for the sweatshop averse, as they are handmade in Portland by the people at Queen Bee Creations. Available in a whole array of colors, although I am partial to the black one. —Jenn Pelly
Many fans of modern pop know Bob Stanley as one of the principal members of the band Saint Etienne. His group always seemed especially literate when it came to history, bending music's past to fit its own personal and idiosyncratic ends. And indeed, Stanley has enjoyed a second career as a music writer, with bylines in the NME, Guardian, The Face, and Mojo (and also some here at Pitchfork). The massive, 800-page Yeah Yeah Yeah is his attempt at a sweeping history of English-language pop music in the U.S. and UK, running from the early 1950s through the early 1990s. (Why this particular frame? During most of this run, the 7", 45 RPM single was a force in the popular music charts; yes, Stanley loves charts and could be described as a poptimist.)
On one hand, this is a strange book for this particular moment: These days we tend to think about fragmentation and secret histories and untold stories, and Stanley writes deeply on the biggest, broadest trends—what is sometimes called the macroculture—and tells much of the story more or less straight, moving in a linear fashion. But the book's audacity as a huge modern pop chronicle is part of its charm. Most of the chapters function as breezy self-contained essays, tackling one swath of the popular music universe (there are chapters on Dylan, Motown, the Beach Boys, ABBA, the Smiths) and he doesn't necessarily connect each of these discrete units to each other. But over the course of the book, a clear point of view emerges, one that hears the value in one-off oddities and the established rock canon alike. He doesn't claim to be telling the story from any perspective but his own—a 48-year-old music obsessive from England—and even when he's exploring music whose appeal is foreign to him, he has a strong knack for casual insight and wry observation (the chapter on the "American Rock" of the late 1970s and early 80s—Springsteen, Springfield, REO Speedwagon—is particularly entertaining). —Mark Richardson
For those of us who count concert halls as houses of worship, lyric sheets as Bibles, and band T-shirts as sacred vestments, here’s a fabulously holy addition to your mantelpiece shrine: TheSaint Morrissey Prayer Candle! Yes, it’s exactly what it says on the tin: your average grocery store votive candle adorned with a crudely Photoshopped image of Steven Patrick Morrissey dressed up as a traditional Catholic saint. (“There is a light that never goes out!” reads the Etsy description. “Burn at night to make your life less miserable.”) And while this would certainly make a great gift for a Smiths obsessive, it might work even better as a gift for someone who hates Morrissey. Because how funny is that?
Saint Morrissey is just the tip of the iceberg, though. A search for“prayer candle” on Etsy comes up with over 800 results.Danielle Jenkins, the woman behind Saint Morrissey, is alone responsible for votives canonizing David Bowie (as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth), Robert Smith, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness (?!), and various other pop culture figures. A quick scan of other stores yields candles honoring subjects ranging from the expectedly deified (Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain) to the delightfully random (“Weird Al”, Brooke Candy, Lana Del Rey, Garbage’s Shirley Manson). And if you can’t find your worship subject of choice, Jenkins offers customized candles. Saint Johnny Marr, anybody? —Amy Phillips
In the last few years of reissues there have been two parallel trends. On the one hand, big major labels have been putting out career-spanning CD box sets by canonical artists that basically gather a huge amount of music in one place. The appeal of these sets from the label side is obvious: It's one last chance to get everyone to pay money for an artist's catalogue before streaming takes over completely; the profit margins, considering how cheap CDs are to manufacture, can be very high; and there are no rare tapes to chase down and master, no curators to pay. An example of this sort of set from this year is the Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1 box, which collects more than 40 of his full-lengths and retails for around $240. (The fact that the set also includes its complete contents on a USB stick means that it says more about the current limitations of wireless broadband than it does about the career of Bob Dylan.)
At the other end of the spectrum are reissues that are actually geared toward a smaller subset of people who like to own a beautiful edition of a favorite release and actually listen to it. Often, especially recently, these take the form of vinyl/digital reissues, and they are not always by the label that issued the record originally; the big labels get to keep trying to sell the CDs and iTunes downloads, and smaller labels get to package records on LP. Over the past year, the Seattle-based label Light in the Attic has been leading the charge here. It started last December when they put out a 2xLP version of D'Angelo's classic Voodoo (now out of print, sadly), and continued this year with thick, heavy, and great-sounding reissues of Seefeel's Quique, Digable Planets' Blowout Comb(above), and Grateful Dead's One From the Vault. All are beautiful packages that strive to be the definitive version of a classic record.
Our new print publication The Pitchfork Review is the holiday gift that keeps giving, long after the last glass of eggnog has been poured and the new year's resolutions have been broken. The quarterly magazine features new long-form feature stories, photography, illustrations, and other ephemera with selected recent pieces from Pitchfork. The first edition, out December 14, includes an essay by author Simon Reynolds about his personal history with UK music weeklies, an interview with Glenn Danzig, cartoons, photos, and much more. Subscribe here.
In the foggy, tech-addled past of past of the early 2010s, wireless speakers were kind of a pain in the ass to set up if you didn’t have the right bluetooth capacity or were missing a critical functionality. Guess what? Those Luddite years of constant terror are gone, and a ton of relatively plug-and-play wireless speakers have made it to market. While there’s elite options in the mix—top-of-the-line wireless sets from Bose and Sonos can run $400 or $500—Sonos’ Play:1 (above) has a pretty friendly price tag ($199) for its potency. It’s portable, gets loud for its size, and it’s not a catastrophe if you break it. If you’re looking to go even more affordable, there's Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick ($100). If you want to go even cheaper than that, well, there are options there, too. —Corban Goble
Playing cards—not a very exciting gift, and not very musical. These, however, are not your ordinary cards. Feminist Playing Cards are graced with 52 generation-spanning illustrations of feminist music icons as drawn by 14 contemporary feminist artists. We have Nina Simone as the seven of hearts, Patti Smith as the four of spades, Sinéad O'Connor as the ace of clubs, Nico as the Queen of Diamonds—not to mention appearances by Björk, Robyn, Yoko Ono, Joni Mitchell, Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, Joanna Newsom, and many more. The deck's illustrators are women with strong ties to the DIY music and zine worlds who offer the cards a distinct handmade aesthetic. Fans of New Jersey punk label Don Giovanni will recognize the work of Screaming Females singer Marissa Paternoster; her labelmate Lauren Denitzio, of Worriers, also contributed, as did Liz Prince of the always hilarious "Alone Forever" comic.
Produced through a successful Kickstarter campaign from Homoground, a website for music and art by queer and allied artists, the organizers have noted the historical significance of the playing card format—the earliest decks did not feature queens or women, "reflecting the dominating role [men] had in the royal courts." (Even today, card decks don't feature female characters in some cultures.) The whole pack functions like a lesson in music history and a portable gallery of amazing mini-portraits. I don't even remember any card games, but I tacked the whole deck all up to my wall, making for one very inspiring art piece. —Jenn Pelly
The Cassette Revival
There’s been more than enough evidence this year to show that cassettes are a relevant commodity. (Seriously, they got their own holiday and everything.) And all over the world, there are tape decks and Walkmen collecting dust in basements, garages, and storage units, just waiting to be revived. Dig them out, make sure they still work, and hand them to your favorite audiophile with some fresh batteries and a bundle of tapes.
There is something deeply nerdy about the idea of merch, and something very quaint about purchasing a T-shirt printed with an artist's name at a booth after a concert. This year found plenty of artists—rappers in particular—subverting the traditional parameters of merchandising, designing items or partnering with brands to create lines of gear that are hip and wearable or strange and cool (not to mention overpriced). Kanye West teamed up with A.P.C. for cut-off sweatshirts; M.I.A. put her stamp on a line of bold Versace items. Even Drake, perennially challenged in the personal style department, found a way to create some Drake-branded products with edge and flair.
This year also saw a surge in clever lines of fan-made rapper kitsch, made possible by small online distribution platforms. My favorite of this crafty genre of gear are the custom sets of long Nike tube socks printed with contemporary rap iconography—namely, the beloved photo of Cam'ron in his mischievous pink fur and matching flip phone, and Drake in the blue sky of Nothing Was the Same. (You have to do some digging to find them—some knockoffs of the original limited-run Cam socks are currently $35 on eBay and the Drake pair is here.) They're the perfect gift for anyone who wants to wear their internet rap-nerdiness on their ankles—no merch booth required. —Carrie Battan
Jack White’s Third Man Records has previously used their platform to repackage and reissue archival blues LPs on vinyl, but the first volume of The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records puts everything else they’ve done to shame. It’s a collaboration with John Fahey’s Revenant Records and it is gorgeous. In a handcrafted oak cabinet lined with velvet upholstery, they provide a comprehensive history of the Wisconsin chair company-turned-iconic roots label. There’s reading material—a clothbound hardcover art book, a “field guide” with artist portraits and discography, the original advertisements—and of course, tons of music. It comes with six 180-gram LPs pressed on chestnut vinyl, all brandished with gold-leaf labels, and then there’s a USB drive (featuring the label’s insignia) with 800 newly-remastered digital tracks by 172 artists. It’s a dauntingly detailed collection that’ll put you back $400. And remember: This is only the first volume. (Read Grayson Currin's Best New Reissue review of this box set.) —Evan Minsker
Considering the relatively low sound quality of many MP3s and music streaming services, owning a solid pair of headphones is probably more important now than ever. There are the super-stylish brand-name cans vying for your attention—led by Dr. Dre's ubiquitous, bass-heavy Beats—but oftentimes what you pay for in appearance costs you in other areas, like dynamics, isolation, and comfort. Enter West Hollywood-based company LSTN, which nails the sweet spot between aesthetic panache and nuts-and-bolts sonic acuity. Instead of using shiny plastic, the company takes discarded pieces of wood from furniture and flooring companies, smooths them out, shines them up, and repurposes them into their headphones, resulting in a distinct look (as well as acoustic benefits). There are three models—earbud Bowerys for $50, collapsable Fillmores for $100, and the gorgeous metal-and-wood Troubadours (above) for $150—and all of them come through with a sound that's both loud and precise. Plus: The company gives a portion of the profits from every pair of headphones sold to the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which travels around the world to help people with hearing loss. So just as you slowly lose your hearing listening to Deafheaven scream their lungs out on these headphones, someone else on earth will benefit from your purchase. The circle of sound continues. —Ryan Dombal
It’s been a good couple years for documentaries about Detroit artists who found success decades after they ceased to be. Following the Oscar-winning Rodriguez doc Searching for Sugar Man, there’s A Band Called Death, the story of the Hackney brothers, who formed a rock band in the early 1970s, made one great proto-punk LP, and got turned away from major labels and radio DJs because of their name. But like Sugar Man, the documentary’s biggest triumph comes from the story of their newfound success—their debut album …For the Whole World to See was released in 2009 by Drag City, and Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s film is a solid, consistently entertaining work of storytelling. The Hackney family are, in many ways, better documentary subjects than Rodriguez, who seemed hesitant to discuss his music career. By contrast, the Hackneys are animated and willing to discuss their past—even the late David Hackney’s demons. ?uestlove, Alice Cooper, the Gories’ Mick Collins, Henry Rollins, and Kid Rock all appear, discussing the band’s influence. The DVD/Blu-ray release comes packaged with a booklet, a commentary track with the Hackney family, director commentary, deleted scenes, footage of the band playing live at SXSW 2013, and a new music video for “Let the World Turn”. —Evan Minsker
Kendrick Lamar is riding high a year after his brilliant album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and this fall, he joined the rap show of the year: Kanye West’s striking multimedia spectacle, Yeezus. The tour hit New York City recently, with shows at both Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Kanye’s stage set-up is something to behold—masks, rock formations, a character playing Jesus—and Kendrick held it down in the opening slot. Photographer Ari Marcopoulos was there to document the scene around Kendrick backstage on opening night in Brooklyn.
We kick off our Year in Music coverage with the Year in Photos 2013, where we highlight some of the best photography to appear on Pitchfork this year. In addition to live shots from around the globe we had some fantastic portraits of artists and images documenting the scene around events. Thanks to our brilliant team of freelance photographers for a year of memorable images. This year we’re able to present their work in our new Photo Gallery. Check out shots of Daft Punk, Savages, Danny Brown, Janelle Monáe, and lots more.
Listening to Mutual Benefit's gorgeous orchestral-folk debut, Love’s Crushing Diamond, it's pretty easy to get an idea of what bandleader Jordan Lee might be all about. The album is lovingly handcrafted in all senses—it was recorded with friends while criss-crossing the country and initially meant for a small cassette pressing. And the 25-year-old's lyrics suggest a wandering soul, someone trying to connect with his surroundings in the short amount of time he’ll feel comfortable in them. “If I stay in a place too long, I get these weird habits,” Lee admits. “I'll buy the same slice of pizza every day, same drink. I'll take the same walks. I guess I'm not smart enough to figure out how to break that without being in a different place.”
But then again, within the first five minutes of our conversation, the guy’s already on the verge of blowing his tape-hissing, DIY-troubadour image. For one thing, he’s calling from a Boston Starbucks, where he’s spent the past three hours realizing that “there are so many Zooey Deschanel covers of songs that I really like.” He's planning a move away from the relatively homey scenes of Austin and Boston to the expanses of Brooklyn. And to top it off, his band name was sort of inspired by corporate synergy.
“We were all artist types, so we had this professional guy come in every few weeks to tell us how to run a business," says Lee, talking about his days working at an embroidery shop in Austin. "He owned a NASCAR team and spoke really monotone. He would always say things like, ‘You need to have instruments if you want to fly a plane!’ and how, if you want to collaborate with another artist or offer something of value to your customer, there can't be any bullshit—there has to be a mutual benefit.” But, Lee soon clarifies, “I think I was on mushrooms when I came up with that name.”
After Love’s Crushing Diamond was self-released in October, the album gained traction—including a Best New Music review on this site—and has been picked up by Fat Possum imprint Other Music Recording Co., which releases a CD version this week with LPs to follow January 7. When I speak with Lee, he’s just quit his most recent job doing PR for his sister Whitney’s wedding photography company. “I’ve been doing this for so many years that I can't look at pictures of people getting married every single day and not believe in love," he says.
His evolution as a musician had him starting out with a “serious pop-punk band” inspired by the likes of blink-182 and Relient K during high school in Columbus, Ohio before a friend introduced him to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Radiohead. The new influences soon came through in his music at the time, which he describes as "some self-loathing mixed with an existential crisis mixed with wanting to make out with girls.” After graduation, Lee put all of his stuff into two suitcases and went off to Austin, where he holed up with his sister and became an intern at a recording studio, with “no intention of being in a band in any sort of professional way, because almost everyone I knew in a band had never been able to get any measure of success out of it.” So he started recording solo Elliott Smith-style singer-songwriter fare as Mutual Benefit around 2009 and subsequently released a handful of short collections on his Bandcamp page, each one more fleshed-out than the last.
Now that he's come up with a record a lot of people want to hear, Lee's working to retain an overall level of intimacy when it comes to his work. An upcoming run of shows will find him “in people's basements, upstairs at an old church in Baltimore, and at a private college in Connecticut," but he's also hired a booking agent and plotted-out a nationwide tour for early 2014. Still, those bigger gigs will still have an all-in-the-family element—Lee's band will include his sister Whitney on synths and vocals. Not a bad way to pay her back for all the “pity jobs” she gave him in the past.
"The fact that people seem to like these songs is the strangest fucking thing; they're so meaningful to me, and now some dude's going to be kind of grinding on his girlfriend while I play them."
Pitchfork: Did you sense that Love’s Crushing Diamond was a more complete work than your previous releases?
Jordan Lee: It's been a dream of mine to have folk songs with these lush orchestral arrangements since I heard [Nick Drake's] Five Leaves Left in high school, but I couldn't think of a scenario where I could make that happen. The record originally had Casio violins, and it was just through fate that I met up with Jake [Falby], who played violin on it. He's classically trained—he played in an orchestra in Argentina up until Argentina ran out of money and couldn't pay their orchestra anymore. He went from being in a symphony to being in St. Louis with me. I was ready to put the album out on cassette and have it be another small thing, but after he did these beautiful arrangements, I spent another eight months tweaking it so that it was absolutely perfect to me. I figured this was my chance to put out something that was 100% what I wanted it to sound like.
Pitchfork: St. Louis is rarely seen as an artistic enclave, what were you doing in Missouri at the time?
JL: There were some heavy situations in Boston, where I was living, coupled with me quitting my job and not being able to afford to live there anymore. One of my oldest friends had a cushy sales job and an extra room in St. Louis, so I ended up staying with him for about five months, and that's when I recorded the bulk of the record.
Pitchfork: The album itself sounds very positive and hopeful, were you trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy to counter those difficult circumstances?
JL: A lot of people think it's a breakup record, but most of it is not about romantic love at all, but rather family members or close friends. There was this moment in time where people who I was very close to were in very dark periods of their life, so much so that it seemed like they would never pull out of it. I'd never had to deal with that before—seeing someone get lower and lower and lower, whether it's an addiction or a mental disorder. It’s hard to come to terms with that, especially since there isn't closure and because you're so powerless to help them. The only thing I was able to do was to use my medium of music to process these crazy feelings. When it was over, I felt a tangible sense of relief. The fact that people seem to like these songs and that playing them everyday for a while can be my job is the strangest fucking thing; they're just so important and meaningful to me, and now some dude's going to be kind of grinding on his girlfriend while I play them.
Pitchfork: Have any of your preconceptions about the music business changed over the past couple of months?
JL: Well, I've been able to make a part-time living off of music over the past couple of years, being on the road half of the time. I'm used to playing donation-based shows where you pass around a hat in an art gallery or basement or loft; if there are 50 people in a room and everyone pays $5-$20, it’s not a horrible living to do that for 30 days in a row. It’s really fulfilling because you have direct contact with the people that are enjoying your music. I didn't want to get scooped up by a label because I thought I was going to lose autonomy. So some of my perceptions were of music industry people as vultures, but now, in the midst of it, it’s pretty exciting to watch all these professional people send out Google docs and reminders. I can appreciate that everyone's been doing a good job.
Pitchfork: Love’s Crushing Diamond happened to come out in the middle of the government shutdown. Do you feel like this music becomes more resonant in a grim political landscape?
JL: That’s an interesting correlation, but on a conscious level, no. I'm into radical politics, that's a pretty big part of my life. I'm oftentimes afraid to talk about it too much publicly because I feel like I might be misunderstood. For the same reason, I don't like to be too literal in the songs—I’m not telling people not to do their taxes or something. But it's hard to look at systemic poverty and drone strikes and all these things that are so crazy, and then feel good about yourself, or the world. So part of the theme of the record is coming to grips with that and figuring out how to be idealistic and just exist when everything around you is insane.
I was born in Detroit. My mom worked as a teacher’s assistant and my father worked at the post office. I'm the youngest person in my family, but I wasn't too spoiled. We used to have a corner drugstore and a corner record store—you'd go into the drugstore, and then you'd go and get vinyl. I also had a friend who lived across the street. We'd pretend to do the robot, because that was the dance that Michael Jackson did on "Soul Train" when the Jackson 5 performed “Dancing Machine”. It was interesting to see him do the robot thing, because later he came up with the moonwalk, which people thought came from breakdance—but the robot was pretty much a breakdance move before breakdance existed.
The Ohio Players: Honey
This is the age where you start comparing dick sizes and all that shit. I hated school. It was like pulling teeth. Wednesday was pizza day, but the pizza was horrible. I didn't want to do homework, I wanted to watch cartoons. I liked snowball fights at recess, though.
My mom was trying to get me to listen to Mitch Miller, the kind of stuff that was considered wholesome—"Yellow Rose of Texas" and all of that crap—but I never liked country music. Kool & the Gang were doing heavy James Brown funk at the time, but with some jazz in their sound. Earth, Wind & Fire had hit their stride then, too. The first record I ever bought was the Ohio Players' Honey, with "Love Rollercoaster" and "Sweet Sticky Thing" on it. The melodies and harmonies are great. It's jazz-funk, like what Kool & the Gang was doing, but maybe a little better.
I grew up in Detroit with the heroin scene. Crack was becoming very big, too, and drive-bys were popular. It was tough to be 15 and live in Detroit, with all these people are shooting each other. As a young black guy, there’s a possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time where you could either end up being in jail or getting shot. Some of the best music was coming out in the early 80s, though—Art of Noise, everything Trevor Horn was doing, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Kraftwerk's Computer World,"Planet Rock". Egyptian Lover's "Egypt, Egypt" was a massive record in Detroit around that time, too. For 10 years, music was going bezerk.
When you're a whippersnapper, you’re always looking for a problem, but because I went to a religious school, I paid more heed to what was going on around me. I didn't go to a Catholic school, though—it seems like people who go to Catholic schools are interested in getting into as much dirt as they can, because those schools are so restrictive. My family were Lutherans, so the school that I went to was less psychologically restrictive. I listened to what I was told, and my mom was very protective. I wouldn’t walk into an area where there could be a knife fight. For a while, I was preaching that I was never going to have sex before I was married. Then I saw my first pieces of porn and realized that wasn't going to happen. [laughs]
"I was learning how to play guitar because I wanted to be Prince, but when I was able to afford my first synthesizer, I threw all that Prince shit out the window."
My cousin Doug Craig once made a record with Juan Atkins called "Technicolor", but before that, he was playing drums in bands. One time, I rolled with him to Berry Gordy’s mansion where his band was playing an album release party. That was the first time I felt enthralled by live music—partially because it was Gordy Mansion. From what I understand, it had bowling lanes in the basement and a pool house. Seeing this young band there had a bigger impact on me than seeing something like the Rolling Stones at Wembley.
I always wanted to make music. It was always on the forefront of my mind. I was learning how to play guitar because I wanted to be Prince. I played my first gig when I was 15, at a family reunion in Georgia. The first song, I was a hero. The second song, I was a zero. But when I was able to afford my first synthesizer—no one was ever given a synthesizer—I threw all that Prince shit out the window. I wanted to be Kraftwerk.
It was in my DNA that I was going to make music that had quick rhythms and fast cuts. I bought my first synthesizer, a Prophet 600, when I was 18. And when I was 20, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson took me to England. Derrick and I performed as Rhythim Is Rhythim, and that was our first and only time performing together in London. Before we went there, I had met a British woman, so when I got there I hooked up with her for about three months. It was great!
Nineteen eighty-nine was a big time for rave music. There were thousands of people driving to parties in secret fields. What was going on in London wasn't too far off from what was happening with the whole new wave movement in New York. In the UK you had My Bloody Valentine and Orbital's "Chime". That was a huge record. I heard it in a record store. That was the thing, too: You just hung out at record stores to hear music. It was incredible.
I started my own label, Planet E Communications, in 1991 because I got tired of people telling me what I needed to do. I did it myself. Starting a label doesn’t really take a lot. Manufacturing something like blue jeans is a much bigger investment. At that time, there were so many distributors around—if you pressed up 300 to 500 copies of a record, it could sell out real fast. It helped push things forward.
I put out "Throw" in 1994. I played it on acetate at a small club and the floor jumped. That was how it all started. I might’ve played it two or three times that night.
At the time, I was making two or three tracks a day while living in an apartment in Detroit with my girlfriend. Some of my best ideas—"Bug in the Bassbin", "At Les"—I got from living in that apartment. The first person who got "Bug in the Bassbin" was a friend of mine, DJ Dimitri, from Amsterdam—he's probably a bigger legend in Holland than Tiësto. Then I gave it to Kenny Dixon, who confronted me at a club about it. I never thought anybody in Detroit would get it, so it was surprising.
"I never had to rely on substances as a crutch that I had to depend on to be creative."
This was around the time that I started drinking. I started making bones, so I was drinking vodka and champagne slammers. I got pushed in pretty far. But I’m happy that I started drinking at 25 because I was able to get past all the B.S. of underage drinking and being so excited to drink at 21. Also, I made a lot of music that people knew me for before I started drinking, so I never thought I had to be completely off my face just to make a record. I never had to rely on substances as a crutch that I had to depend on to be creative.
As far as drugs are concerned, growing up in Detroit meant that I was one of the few people who saw Scarface and actually got the meaning of the story. If I didn’t, I could’ve been making hip-hop and been a lot richer than I am, so I guess it could’ve worked out better. It could’ve worked out worse, too.
The furthest I've gone is MDMA, which is right on the edge of being legal right now in some places anyway. The first time I ever took MDMA was right after the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, because the whole thing was so stressful. I took half a pill, and my ex-wife was so concerned about whether I was going to have a bad trip or not that she was freaking out. By the end of it, I was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling and laughing my ass off. Another time, I seriously freaked some people out—I tried to keep things going but by the end I was in bed with the covers over my head, laughing and watching "Family Guy".
I co-produced The Detroit Experiment record with all of these jazz legends, which had a big impact on me. Around this time, I also got involved with the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. The initial idea that Derrick May and I came up with was brilliant—but I have to point out that everybody in the Detroit music scene had that same brilliant idea. Derrick brought in [promoter Carol Marvin] and then decided he didn’t like her anymore, but he stuck with her anyway. I let her run with it, and she got a huge ego after the first year. She was somebody who had a bunch of previous failures, then succeeded, and went off the deep end because of it. We couldn’t see eye-to-eye about anything. I received what was considered a dismissal, and of course, she ended up losing the festival. Her last year was 2002 and she hasn’t been involved since. Karma comes to catch you and bites you in the ass. She couldn’t control her ego and tried to make it look like I was the one with the ego.
In my life, there's always been someone trying to manipulate me, whether I like it or not. Ultimately, it's about paying attention to what’s going on—you have some good times, you have some setbacks. People talk about winning, but you can’t always win. I mean, look at Tiger Woods. That’s just the way life is.
I started having kids. Being a father is part of my life, and my obligations to my family take from the time I have in the studio. There’s love in that creativity, too, so you have to learn how to give love in an equal way. Sometimes, my music is my wife, and my wife is my mistress. Sometimes I'm like, "I need a break from my music," so I get home and enjoy the love that I can put into my life.
Around this time, I was just listening to DJ tools and developing my chops in the studio and on the road. I wasn't paying attention to any one piece of music. I was doing a lot of remixing, and we had some success with tracks, like the remix of LCD Soundsystem's "Sound of Silver". I sat in the studio working on that for days. They did a remake of "Throw", that's my favorite song of theirs.
Leon Ware: Musical Massage
I'm getting into this alternative Motown stuff lately. I love when I hear a Motown track that I might’ve forgotten about or that I’ve never heard, and there's synthesizers on it. You very rarely heard synthesizers in Motown records before Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, or Willie Hutch's soundtrack for The Mack. I’m really intrigued by deep, psychedelic soul stuff, like Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and I’m always going back to stuff that Leon Ware was doing. He did an album called Musical Massage with Diana Ross' brother that was originally for Marvin Gaye; it got shelved and it came out years later. That’s a great record to come back to.
I became artistic director of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival again, which was cool. It made sense. It had been 10 years and it was sweet to come back. Anybody who had shit to say about what was going on earlier had to shut the fuck up. Everybody wants to have at least one time in their life where they just make people eat shit. That was one of those times. [laughs] I’m a bigger person than that, though; the biggest thing was that we were able to do a really great event celebrating the music and the artists. It was fantastic.
"Whether it’s financially broke or morally broke, Detroit’s been bankrupt for 30 years."
[Detroit's bankruptcy filing earlier this year] ain’t nothing new. It’s just on the news now. Everybody who’s gone to the city and seen how fucked up the landscape is knows it's broke. There’s a vacant lot where every other house would be in most neighborhoods. Politicians just wanted to put Band-Aids on the sore. It really took [corrupt former Detroit mayor] Kwame Kilpatrick to come in and screw up the whole thing.
Detroit is a strong union city and unions did a lot of great things for their employees over the last 60 or 70 years, but you know what? We just can’t afford to be paying all these pensions and healthcare for people whose lifespans are actually longer now than they were when unions were getting people hooked up, when people would retire at 55 and die at 56. Now people are retiring at 55 and dying at 75, 85, 90 years old. You just can’t afford to pay that stuff out if you’re a corporation or a city. It’s not possible. Detroit's got some serious problems, but before that, Detroit didn’t have enough money and they wouldn’t put enough money into being the type of city that it needed to be. So whether it’s financially broke or morally broke, whatever the fuck it is, Detroit’s been bankrupt for 30 years.