by carl wilson

Hands in His Pockets

jimgut.jpg

Continuing today's trend of expanding on things mentioned on Chromewaves: I didn't know till Zoilus reader (and ex(?)-Hidden Camera) Justin Stayshyn told me that Jim Guthrie had written a jingle for a Capital One credit-card commercial called Hands in My Pockets, which has become a bit of a cult item. Jim, you may or may not know, is the immensely charming singer-songwriter of Three Gut releases such as Morning Noon Night and Now More Than Ever (and of late a member of Islands with two former Unicorns). He recently put the full-length version of the jingle on his website - it's pretty hilarious, with the infectious chorus and then totally throwaway verses (with a tune that somehow reminds me of the Mr. Clean jingle): "Downstream triple cream/ Surgical team, a love supreme/ All the things Ive seen/ All in a dream/ Hands in my pockets/ Birds sing, jet stream/ Laser beam, I know the queen/ All in a dream, walking around/ Hands in my pocket." Subterranean credit-bankruptcy blues.

I don't think musicians can be condemned for taking advantage of this means of making a living, but I'm so much more in favour of artists doing tunes specifically for commercials than of folks selling their "real" songs to ads, which risks ruining them forever. (Not that they often get to pick these days.) One of my favourite "albums" of 2005, in fact, is a compilation CD that Douglas Wolk sent me (based on his Pop Conference presentation in Seattle last year) of everyone from Ray Charles to Joe Tex to The Who doing Coke ads. What gouda cheeze! Now, I may prefer artists to vet the ethics of companies they work for, but unless you're collaborating with, say, arms merchants (who don't tend to have ads, much less poppy jingles in ads), everybody has to draw their own lines on that matter.

But there has been one unfortunate bit of political fallout in Jim's case: Apparently protesters have begun singing the tagline, "Hands in my pockets, hands in my pockets, hands in my pockets," at Liberal campaign events, with reference to Liberal cash-funnelling schemes - and, no doubt, as a tax complaint. I hope for Jim's sake that doesn't become a big election trend. I expect he'd hate to think he helped the Conservatives get elected. It'd be a Toronto-scene version of the Reagan-era Born in the USA debacle. Don't worry, Jim, we know you can't help writing such catchy hooks.

You can read my two-year-old interview with Jim, if you like.

SCENE

Mope rocker toys with, get this, hope

CARL WILSON
16 January 2003
The Globe and Mail

Jim Guthrie's star may be rising in the field mockingly known as "mope rock," where lank-haired guitar boys make bedroom tapes, mumbling tunefully about how everyone hates them, especially girls. But his personal notion of his music is unexpectedly upbeat.

We're chatting by phone about his new, sophomore solo album, Morning Noon Night. "It's not like I feel I have the pulse of anything new and current with this record," says Guthrie. "It's just me ripping pages out of a sonic diary that I've been writing over the past three years. They all sound different but they all have kind of the same kind of emotional place, which is, um - hope."

Seemingly startled at the thought, he immediately backtracks: "Well, hope through despair, I guess. Who even knows . . ." But the more I listen to his elusive music, the more I think he got it right the first time.

Like his partner Aaron Riches in the acclaimed Toronto folk-rock big-band, Royal City, Guthrie writes many songs that could be summed up in the category "When Bad Things Happen Within Good People." With titles such as Evil Thoughts, Trouble and Days I Need Off, he chronicles cranked-up nights of insomniac nerves, wasted afternoons that float past on cannabis waves, romantic rendezvous where both parties are tongue-tied and paralyzed, and darker depravities and doubts left unnamed.

Yet something glitters underneath that should be a more frequent force in art, but often just ain't - the sense that it all ends up fine, because he can sing a song about it. When Guthrie mopes, "I'm no good at making the first move," next he has to smile: "But I guess I did, by telling you/ And leaning in."

His biography explains some of his faith in the power of saying so. Raised in an older suburb of Guelph, Ont., where he was "left to his own devices" and got his first inspiration "from any kind of crappy recording," he was surprised when he moved into the centre of town in his late teens to find a critical mass of kindred attitudes. He got a show on the university radio station, where he'd play cassettes people recorded at home and brought to the station, often on the day of the show.

The way he recounts it, you can tell it was his own golden age. "I felt like I was giving a voice to the voiceless: 'We'll put on shows, and we'll make our own songs for our friends and we'll have Jim play them on the radio.' . . . We were kind of pushing one another too. It was like a daily blessing. It was just ongoing, and you just did it -- it was like, we all ate, we all slept, and we all made 'home rock.' It wasn't like you were working on a big album. It was just: 'Here it is.' "

That Guelph scene yielded an extraordinary number of talented songwriters, and it inculcated excellent habits: being creative with whatever comes to hand ("if I only have a chair and an empty beer case, then that can be the drum kit"); working without rules; writing when the mood hits, morning noon or night, and editing later; and treating everything as a beginning, not an end. "If you have the feeling, then the tape will hear that, no matter what."

In his home recordings now, which he overdubs with other musicians later on, Guthrie says he's "always trying to chase the initial inspired moment. I usually end up working with my first take or two - even if I realize I could have made the song a lot better. You have to write eight really bad songs to write one really good one. Any time that I think I've failed as a composer, I think: 'There's always another song.' "

That process eventually lead to a "proper" album, 1999's A Thousand Songs, which also launched the Three-Gut record label - the name was a schoolyard taunt, reversing the syllables of his surname. The record was embraced and the label, with bands like Royal City, Cuff the Duke and the Constantines, went on to become one of the biggest forces in Toronto indie music.

Rather against the spotlight-shy singer's will, success eventually brought him to the Ontario capital -- a move described allegorically on Morning Noon Night in a wonderful, jump-bluesy tune based on the Brothers Grimm fable about minstrel farm animals, the Bremen Town Musicians: "Don't be a chicken," Guthrie encourages other kids from the sticks, "turn musician."

"In the original story," mind you, "they end up in a shack just outside town, playing all night, and never actually make it to the city. That's probably more like where I'm at, in my heart."

Still, as he hits his late 20s, it's a shack with an ever-improving view. Royal City, like friends the Hidden Cameras, just got a distribution deal with legendary British label Rough Trade that should lead to European touring. But Guthrie laughs: "Back when I was 18, if I'd read all this press we've been getting, I would think we've gotta be making a million dollars a year. But we're all still using our wits to get through the day."

One of his wittier stratagems has been to use an obscure program for the Sony Playstation as a primary instrument -- many of his songs are, retro-futuristically, composed and arranged on a kids' video game. The layering of its fake-orchestral bleeps within his very intimate songs (which recall U.S. mope icon Elliott "Miss Misery" Smith) creates an expansively paradoxical emotional palette.

"I know the feeling I want is a lot huger than just my little guitar and my voice, and this is a cheap alternative to a computer," Guthrie says. "A lot of the sounds are really awful - it's a really stiff set of rules to work with - but maybe that's part of its charm. I've learned to bend the rules. It just kind of proves how exciting it is to live in 2003. It seems so remarkable to me. In no other time would you be able to make this kind of music with a toy."

You couldn't ask for a more profoundly uncool optimism. And Guthrie isn't even overly wedded to his homespun ways. For upcoming shows (including South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., this spring) he's struggling to translate the Playstation sound to his new live band, with violin and cello, including Royal City, Rockets Red Glare and Hidden Cameras players. And with a government grant in hand, he's also about to make his first full-fledged studio album, due out by November.

"You just become wiser about the whole myth that surrounds rock and popular music in general. I feel like it's my job to steal a bit of the myth and magic back."

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 04 at 6:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (21)

 

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Posted by TGurCtKNjZ on January 24, 2006 5:31 PM

 

 

I think zoilus-readers ought to plot to do exactly that!
The next Geoff Berner show (Jan 20) perhaps?! Ariel Pink at the Boat??

Posted by spitz on January 9, 2006 10:57 AM

 

 

As far what an artist can or should do to make a buck, I'd like to see someone try this in an indie-rock context:

http://www.rockpaperscissors.biz/index.cfm/fuseaction/current.alt_press_release/project_id/202/alt_release/122.cfm


In the Toronto stop of this tour, the King had a lineup of 4 or 5 people at all times waiting to press a fiver or more to his forehead - and he played for four hours! Certain magnanamous individuals dropped a twenty on each member of the 18-strong band. Talk about PWYC.

Posted by dacks on January 8, 2006 6:46 PM

 

 

Justin, I think that was this site's most impressive display of sarcasm ever.

Guy, indie rock may be made by people of middle-class backgrounds, but a lot of (probably most) other popular music isn't, and the comfortable absolutism the rock audience applies often boomerangs to encourage contempt of non-rock musicians who don't see why they shouldn't get paid, and don't have the option of becoming web designers working for NGOs or some such thing. And even those who do have that option would rather spend their time on music, and if so, they're likely to be struggling to get by.

Until you refuse to BUY any products of multinational companies (do you have a credit card?) I wouldn't rush to judge people who do any WORK for them. Most musicians would rather try to make a living making music, and if they all became hobbyists you wouldn't get much of the well-performed, well-orchestrated tunes I know you like, because they wouldn't be honing their skills the same way. The few banker poets out there are really not as great a counterexample as you think - that attempt to have it both way takes it toll. (And aside from Wallace Stevens there weren't many who were so great, and many of the ones who were died young, etc.) Great art takes time.

Also a future in which all pop music is made by non-profit web designers and music teachers sounds like a fucking horribly dreary one. It's like some kind of socialist realist vision where artists are required to work in the fields to prove they're free of decadence. I much prefer my artists sullied and lively and contradictory and impure.

My ideal would really be for more of them to live on arts grants, but that's not the way things are headed. And no matter which model you favour, they all come at a price, literally or figuratively. It's a matter of balance. I hardly think Jim's little credit-card jingle tips the scale.

Posted by zoilus on January 7, 2006 5:11 PM

 

 

Gee, indie rock is music that is mostly made and consumed by heterosexual, caucasian males so perhaps you should judge it by those standards as well.

Guy, I await your campaign to liberate the workers in the Capital One mail room and liberate the Capital One receptionists and cleaning people - since it's clearly their passive acceptance of their bi-weekly blood money and measly benefits that keep the world oppressed. Each and every one of those capitulating cogs deep thoats away our earthly Utopia and if we can only get them to understand their culpability then we shall all be free men.

Posted by Justin on January 7, 2006 11:50 AM

 

 

Carl and Justin,

You both make very good points which I agree with. (though justin id love to discuss with you the term "working musician" because i think its an oxymoron ;-) )

Ill just add this.

If Monsento asked me to do some "consulting" for them id say no.

If Shell Oil asks carl to do a puff piece about how they Help foster Nigerian music he'd probably say no too.

If Stephen harper asked Justin to do some stuff for him i suspect he'd say no as well.

Credit card companies are pretty fucking evil as far as im concerned which is why I commented, maybe other people would rank them lower on the evil scale.

One more point carl (because i love being difficult). This statement you made bothers me: "But more importantly there's something deeply middle-class and privileged about that attitude to the artistic life.".

Some of the best poets of the last century were insurance salesman, or doctors, or librariams. One can argue this is because poets are less lazy and obsessed with being cool than musicians (and of course no one pays them big wads a cash to write a poem for RBC). And carl you know very well indie rock IS music that is made and consumed by the deeply middle class and privileged I thus choose to judge it by those standards.

So there thats what the world needs. less musicians who write commercials for multinational corporations and more musicians who work as music teachers or web designers. This is actually pretty close to what happens anyhow. So? no need to suck capital ones cock to make satan happy.

Posted by guy tanentzapf on January 6, 2006 7:31 PM

 

 

Guy, if I didn't have a job, but was a struggling freelancer and somebody asked me to write copy for an instore magazine, I'd be happy to do it. I'd probably prefer not to have my name attached to it, but either way I'd do it in a second. I did much more soul-destroying work than that when I was in that position. Sometimes I feel like I do more soul-destroying work than that *now*, when I'm editing some political or lifestyle article I find appalling, though luckily I've been able to work myself into a place where that happens much more rarely than in my first few years at The Globe.

On the other hand, if someone wanted to selectively quote from what I might call my "committed" work in an advertorial publication - to for instance, make a mixed review sound like a rave, I'd have much more hesitation. This does happen against one's will, in record company promo etc., but I wouldn't collude in it. (I'd hate to be a film critic, who has this happen to them every goddamn day.)

Which is why I much prefer what Jim's done - just using his skills to make a commercial jingle, the way a talented visual artist might do commercial illustration for cash (why do people find that distinction so much easier to understand?) - to people selling to advertising the songs they offer to an audience as serious emotional experiences. I don't judge a person for doing so, but it's an unhappy turn, I think. (I also wouldn't complain about people putting music to the soundtrack of a movie or even a TV show, where I think it's capable of surviving both contexts, being *expanded* in meaning somewhat - "ah, this is the kind of song you might have in mind when you're in your car on your way to commit a jewel heist!" - rather than diminished - "this is the kind of song that might make you buy a car").

I respect Hicks and his hardline position on "sucking Satan's cock," but first of all it was mostly directed at musicians who were already rich and famous (which I think does look more greedy, though a lot of "famous" people are not in fact rich, especially when signed to exploitive record labels). But more importantly there's something deeply middle-class and privileged about that attitude to the artistic life. We live in a capitalist system and have to survive within it, hopefully without doing anything actually evil - and putting a song to a commercial is very, very low on the scale of wrongs committed for money.

Posted by Zoilus on January 6, 2006 3:16 PM

 

 

Oh please Guy!

So if I musician isn't lucky enough to have rich parents (or a wealthy patron) they need to work in a shitty music store??

Why shouldn't 'working' musicians have the opportunity to use their 'craft' to make some money? Seems to me the problem is distinguishing between 'craft' and 'art' (I thought the difference between the Capitol One jingle and the full length on his site was a clear enough lesson in this but apparently not).

The other problem is a term like 'working musician' and frankly since Jim got an upfront fee and no longer 'owns' the song than he is still just another working grunt.


Posted by Justin on January 6, 2006 1:52 PM

 

 

well, what are music reviews?
music writers' blurbs get used to sell records all the time. don't you think that ever occurs to those writers? i hate contrarian or nasty writing just for the heck of it, but I also wonder when i see pages and pages of fawning reviews in certain magazines. and i really hate the gutlessness of writers who fawn all over a mediocre followup to a great record, cos they missed it last time.

I am of course writing as someone who does this for (barely) a living.

as for jimmy, keep in mind that just because someone has a certain notoriety, or critics love him or her, doesn't mean he/she is making any $. I personally don't understand U.S. indies didn't jump at the chance to sign jim years ago.
I've watched him do music for all the right reasons for over 10 years. and I understand why he did the commercial, tho' my feelings are mixed.

Posted by spitzer on January 6, 2006 1:19 PM

 

 

Carl,

I think its great a good musician is making extra cash and actually managing to express themselves in a fun way in the process. However i tend to agree with Bill Hicks (his amazing rant about George Michael doing a diet coke commercial) on this topic along the lines of "if you are doing ads you are satans little helper/you are off the artistic roll call" etc.). If Britney did a bank ad and sang a smoking tune for it would you be as generous in your assesment?

Lets be consistent here. If you are doing ads you are selling out your soul. Its bad. Stick to your integrity and that shitty job in the record store. Yes maintaining artistic cred takes shitty compromises and sucks ass blah blah blah.

you say: "I don't think musicians can be condemned for taking advantage of this means of making a living, " what if you replace musicians with "music writers" and look at writing promos for boy bands for in-store magazines?

GT

Posted by guy Tanentzapf on January 6, 2006 10:21 AM

 

 

Thank you for posting that.
A friend of mine told me that story a year ago, but this is the first time I've actually ever heard it.
Very catchy.
Where my mother fucking cheese go at?

Posted by OtherCraig,again on January 5, 2006 11:57 PM

 

 

I'm always amused by the fact that some people will frown upon the idea of licesning songs to commercials, but then applaud the fact a band made it onto The OC soundtrack. My own highly subjective standard for commerical licensing is that I'm totally fine with it so long as the song is merely the soundtrack and isn't manipulated by the commercial itself; I don't think I can ever listen to Bassment Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At?" without seeing the Pringles logo sing it to me. (See also: Devo, Swifter)

Anyone remember the Ween/Pizza Hut debacle? Ween were hired to write a jingle about the Hut's new hidden-cheese pizza. Needless to say, the suits weren't impressed with this:
http://firteen.com/articles/ween_pizza/ween-cheese.mp3

Posted by stuber on January 5, 2006 7:21 PM

 

 

>> since most artists would probably feel like explicitly writing a song for a commercial is much more "sell-out" than simply licensing something that already exists,

I'm not a musician, but that seems counter-intuitive to me. If you're writing music for a commercial, you're simply using your skills to make some money, which after all is what all of us have to do (except the independently wealthy, I suppose).

But if you're licensing a song, then something you originally created as a piece of art is now being used to sell consumer goods. That seems much closer to "sellout" to me.

That said, "sellout" is a loaded word, everyone's gotta eat, and it's hardly my place to tell any artist that they're wrong for licensing a song. But I will say that it still saddens me every time.

Posted by DW on January 5, 2006 6:21 PM

 

 

The first time I saw that commercial, I said to the people in the room: "This sounds like something Jim Guthrie would write". So weird that he actually did. I hope he made some good money off that one.

Posted by rmills on January 5, 2006 11:44 AM

 

 

With this tune Jim has managed to invade the minds of the Tom Horton set like no other. While home for xmas I swear this song was more popular than Jingle Bells.
Now I await the inevitable attempt at parody by either Rick Mercer or Air Farce. Hilarity will ensue I'm sure.

J

ps. Yes Carl I'm an ex-Camera. Four years of watching Joel treat people like shit while avoiding proper compensation and willfully ignoring labour laws (to a point that would make even a Capitol One executive either blush with envy or erect with admiration) was just too much for one progressive idealist to bear. Well, at least this progressive idealist.

Posted by Justin on January 5, 2006 10:25 AM

 

 

"I don't think musicians can be condemned for taking advantage of this means of making a living, but I'm so much more in favour of artists doing tunes specifically for commercials than of folks selling their "real" songs to ads, which risks ruining them forever. (Not that they often get to pick these days.)"

Well, more specifically, when a company comes to you and says "We want to use your song 'Hey Why Don't You Buy Yourself Something Nice' in a commercial, the deal is mostly sealed. If they come to you and say, "We'd like you to write a song for a commercial," the postscript, explictly or implicitly, is, "which we may or may not accept." Plus commercials often tend to use the least song-y parts of songs, so your strengths as a pop songwriter are sometimes directly opposed to what you would need to be a good jingle writer.

That said, I think it's an interesting viewpoint, since most artists would probably feel like explicitly writing a song for a commercial is much more "sell-out" than simply licensing something that already exists, just because that's an entirely commercial product, whereas the already-existing song is at least partially art.

Posted by Eppy on January 5, 2006 9:25 AM

 

 

What's this prison pockets thing? I never watched Oz, so maybe I'm out of the loop.

Posted by OtherCraig on January 5, 2006 1:12 AM

 

 

Every time that commercial comes on I wonder if that's some lost Village Green-era Kinks tune that I've somehow previously missed. Thanks for setting me straight.

I agree 100% that I'd rather see artists write original music for commercials (ain't nothing wrong with that) than license existing songs (always a little saddening). But with Le Tigre hawking cellphones, that's a battle that's been pretty much lost.

On a side note, do prison "lackies" REALLY do that hands-in-my-pocket thing? Or is that just on TV melodramas?

Posted by DW on January 5, 2006 12:00 AM

 

 

Damn! I KNEW that was Guthrie. Well good for him, I say. When your label shuts down, you probably have to do whatever to make ends meet, and I'm sure he made a little walking around money. He also had a couple of songs in those ALS PSA's. Anyway, he's awesome, so whatever he has to do to make some scratch is fine with me.

Posted by ICanReadYourMind on January 4, 2006 11:57 PM

 

 

(that's not to say, however, that the similarity was by any means intentional on the part of the artist or the advertiser... just a semi-interesting observation/unfortunate association of otherwise unrelated cultural miscellany)

Posted by Craig on January 4, 2006 11:02 PM

 

 

To suss-out the whole "hands in my pockets" iconography to its (ultimately inevitable?) end-point: whereas it is unfortunate that the song is being appropriated by certain folk for political gain, it's also hard to overlook the visual allusion made by the Capital One commercial (and its accompanying lyric) to that of a hard-time prison inmate and his or her, ahem, 'lackey.'

Posted by Craig on January 4, 2006 10:58 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson