September 30, 2008
Caribou's The One
Caribou's "She's The One," featuring Jeremy Greenspan of last year's shoulda-been Polaris winners, Junior Boys.
Congrats to Caribou (Dundas, Ont-born, UK-resident Dan Snaith), the winner at last night's gala in Toronto of the $20K Polaris Music Prize for the best Canadian album of 2007-08. It was the result I was expecting, although when Holy Fuck played their blissgasmic closing set in the night's performances, I briefly hoped they'd snatch it. But the HF disc (LP) isn't the equal of their live show, so da judges made the call.
Polaris capo Steve Jordan movingly dedicated the night's proceedings to the memory of Calgary record-shop owner, Mike Pleau of Megatunes, who sadly died this weekend at 54. While it's easy to overlook now as they're displaced by digital, Steve used the occasion to remind the crowd of how big a supporting role the retail stores have played in nurturing music culture across Canada, thanks to dedicated proprietors and staff like Pleau.
And if anyone has a transcript of Black Mountain's kickass acceptance speech, post it in the comments please!
September 29, 2008
Can I Get an Ame ... Er, I Mean a 'Hail Satan'?
Scratch and Win
Last call is today for voting in the $5,000 ECHO prize for best Canadian song : I make my case for Veda Hille's "Lucklucky" here, passionately, but with fellow nominees Wintersleep, The Weakerthans, So-Called and Sandro Perri, whoever wins will deserve it.
Various folks all over the 'netses are handicapping the Polaris Prize today. You can listen to the ceremonies (with live performances by most of the nominees) on CBC Radio 3 tonight starting at 8 pm EST and I'll catch you tomorrow for the post-game
September 28, 2008
Suck the Canada!
(A Call for More Hilarious Propaganda)
With all due respect to the Department of Culture folks (whose swing-riding-target plan is a great idea too), the video below shows how artists can intervene in politics, including arts funding, without seeming like whiners: Pool talents and make something smarter, funnier and more irreverent, pointed, charming and entertaining than anything professional politicos can dream up. The production values don't have to be as slick as this. Just for background: The musician in this video is Michel Rivard of the popular Quebec band Beau Dommage, and the song he sings is a classic hit of theirs, "La complainte du phoque en Alaska" (The Alaskan Seal's Lament). (How apropos for the age of Palin.)
While a bit of the humour here is cliched and inaccurate about the cultural problem in Ottawa (it's not that they can't understand French or recognize Quebec celebrities: the current Minister of Heritage is a francophone from Quebec), it will play to the intended audience, and symbolically it yokes the censorship and arts-abroad issues and nails the ideological deafness of the Conservatives. Encore! Encore! (Kids in the Hall and their younger heirs, call home - we needs yr skillz.)
September 27, 2008
The Polaris Paradox: Exclusive Inclusivity
My colleague Robert Everett-Green's Globe and Mail essay today on what kinds of acts are and aren't likely to win this or any year's $20,000 Polaris Prize would have raised more of a stir if it had appeared on the front of the Review section on Monday, the day of the gala, rather than deep inside the Saturday edition. So let's give it a swirl.
Robert's main point is that the Polaris bias leans against pop-chart music and non-rock genres. I feel sure independent hip-hop will have its day - at least one such album's been nominated each year, and I wouldn't be super-shocked if jury-room talk led to Shad winning this year (though I doubt it). But jazz, R&B, notational music, dance, contemporary country (as opposed to rootsy/artsy country-folk) and other genres? Not hardly. It's partly Canadian demographics - no matter how much the country's changing, there are still many more musicians here who make rock and singer-songwriter albums, and so both by volume and through cultural reinforcement, odds are there will be more good ones in those genres.
Music-critic culture mirrors that reality, but also exaggerates it, because critical writing about popular music is more of a tradition in those genres. You can expect that to shift over the coming decades - but I'm not sure by how much.
Robert cites the UK's Mercury Prize as evidence that this problem is endemic, but the Mercury's record of rewarding excellence in pop and non-rock is much stronger, especially on its short lists - because it's engineered that way (despite Britain likewise generating more rock/folk/etc music than other kinds). A Mercury jury is a small group with diverse specialties, and they make their lists not through big rounds of votes but by drawn-out group discussion - like an extended mix of the Polaris finals' "Grand Jury" or, say, a typical book-prize jury.
The Polaris is in its politely Canadian way much more democratic. Hundreds of people are involved. Which is great in itself, but means that critics who favour jazz or gospel or R&B or even pop are outweighed. Voters in the majority may conscientiously check out the non-rock recommendations but it's unlikely to be where their passion is and where the consensus ends up. Thus: In being very inclusive of working critics and other "taste-makers" across Canada, the Polaris paradoxically becomes somewhat exclusive musically.
The Polaris organizers have a tough choice: Do they go way beyond "tweaking" the jury pool, and deliberately rig it to be much more musically balanced, which would require it to be a lot smaller, but could have the virtue of really considering contenders outside the habitual boundaries? Or do they shrug and accept that the Polaris is gonna represent roughly where Canadian critical consensus tends to lie, hoping that (partly maybe thru the reflection the prize generates), that said consensus gradually will evolve into something more ecumenical and flexible?
The Polaris folks aren't the only ones ever to face this dilemma: Robert Christgau has talked about the way that for many years he and his fellow editors tried to recruit more hip-hop writers and other non-rockistas to vote in the annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll. But despite their enticements, not many of the rap-and-etc. critics (and fewer and fewer jazz writers, for that matter), ever cared to take part. It didn't seem that relevant to them - and the result was that P&J became even less relevant to them and less true to the general state of American music. It was a referendum on what music was most important to a certain slice of the music-listening public, useful to those who broadly shared their biases and not so much to everybody else.
Then again, the Village Voice - let alone the Polaris Prize - didn't create the demographic and cultural divisions that sculpt tastes. How far should they go in order to correct for them - at the price, perhaps, of excluding a lot of competent jurists who really care about something like P&J or the Polaris?
My bias is that I'd like the Polaris to be a compelling, dramatic event; like a lot of stuff in Canada it's at risk of getting dull. And personally if the solution meant I didn't always get to vote - because if there's one group that must be over-represented in the pool, it's straight white male print journalists from Toronto - I'd say "fine." But the issue isn't weakness of acumen or intent among the current jury and organizers. As usual, it's a bigger social imbalance.
Footnote: It's unfortunate semantically that Robert uses "college radio" to describe the nominees. It rings like "sophomoric," which is unfair to the musicians (they're bland as a group, perhaps, but not individually). And college radio could probably disappear tomorrow and the Polaris wouldn't change. College charts serve as handy statistical backup for Robert's point only because the people who run stations (and compile those charts) are generally a younger subset of the sorts of liberal-arts-educated people who are likely to end up as music critics later in life. Most college stations play a far broader range of music, thanks to their myriad specialty shows - but fewer of those specialty DJs get into the list-making, meta-critical tasks, probably because it's not where the social/cultural capital lies for them. (They often do a lot of promo and organization of live shows/club nights.) If the Polaris shortlist looks like anybody's playlist, in fact, it's CBC Radio 3's, and that station parallels the combination of institutional embeddedness and liberal-arts taste ("classroom" taste, as Frank Kogan has put it) that knits together the majority of people eligible to vote for the Polaris.
Anyway, looking forward to seeing some of you at Monday's gala. (Shh, don't tell Stephen Harper.)
September 24, 2008
Reading, Required or Not
Louis Menand's essay on Lionel Trilling's life and work in this week's New Yorker is a great pleasure, a circumnavigation 'round the great liberal critic through his neuroses to his fiction to his shifting relation to "Hebraism" to his disappointments to the fine balance act of his prose and of course to his politics (late-life neocon, or no?). Apparently Trilling had as many modes of feeling guilty as the Hold Steady has ways of describing driving round getting drunk on a Saturday night - or more, including his guilt about having once said Jack Kerouac could not write a great novel given his accessory role in the David Kammerer murder (!): a silly claim, sure, but I was surprised Trilling gained enough respect for Kerouac to bother regretting it. As always with Menand (cf. The Metaphysical Club) it's not so much the storytelling as the afterglow - a great appreciator of sentences, Menand always tries to return the favour:
For books, including the Great ones, are social products "all the way down." They do not come from some place outside the system, and they do not represent an independent alternative to the way things are. They are among the things that are, even when they belong to what Trilling called "the adversary culture" - even when they reject conventional ways of thinking and behaving. The adversarial is part of the system; it helps to hold the other parts in place. Responsible liberal people feel better adjusted for having an appreciation of art and ideas that are contemptuous of the values of responsible liberal people. It helps the world seem round.
(Menand is off though in his claim that taste disputes no longer come with moral stakes - it didn't end in the Sixties, Louis. And I don't just mean those Sixties-by-other means, the "Culture Wars." Sure, no one sane today feels so invested in pitting Theodore Dreiser against Henry James, but that is mainly due to - even aside from revisionist views of both writers, from their long-deadness, from et cetera - the conflict many people who read anything remotely like Dreiser or James assume they have with people who play Halo. It's a false opposition in many ways but still. And then what about clashes in gaming culture between shooters and role-players and Sims-fans, let alone music-fan disputes? Menand may be too generationally removed to credit that these too come with underlying philosophical conflicts, however much they go unarticulated - they lack only their Trillings.)
Meanwhile, for fun and catch-up, there's Canuckistan's Michael Barclay's thorough and thoughtful multipart punter's guide, continuing to Friday, to the nominated albums for the Polaris Prize, which will be awarded Monday, complete with handicapping and shoulda-beens. (He kindly cites yesterday's Zoilus post while touting Veda Hille's longlisted but not shortlisted This Riot Life.)
I'd second most of his calls even though we often get there by different ear-ways. (I'd be less generous with some nominees). Have any bets? I'm guessing a Caribou-Weakerthans split, with a possible election-season run up the yardline by Holy Fuck. Though I don't have much more than an idle interest.
Vote Veda (and Welcome, Anders!):
Grab Your Coat and Your Popular Music ...
With less than a week left in voting for the $5,000 SOCAN Echo Prize for Canadian songwriting, I'd better get around to fulfilling my promise to make my case for why, of the superfine roster of nominated tunes, Veda Hille's "Lucklucky" deserves your (daily) vote between now and the Sept 29, 4:59 pm deadline.
"Lucklucky" is only the overture, in many ways, to one of the year's very best albums, a suite of songs about finding one's faith in the basic livability of life challenged by the cruel undertow of random fate and mortality, and looking within the lexicons of religion, of nature, of culture and psychology and more for some ways not just to survive but to flourish, to turn onions into tears and tears into water and water into wine. It shares some of these themes with other nominated songs: As Bertolt Brecht, one of Hille's heroes, wrote, "In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing... about the dark times. "
But this song goes further than any of the others in its appeal to the depths of resources we have to meet those doubts and darknesses: The very randomness of human life, it tells us, as its various elements keep swirling around one another, is its blessing - the way that our minds relentlessly organize absurdity into sense might be ridiculous, but the way life sorts itself into a narrative (whether true or fiction, i.e., ultra-true) is a precarious and fragile grace. "There is the place you know/ There is the place you don't know/ Curtain number 1, curtain number 1 (you are blind, blind, blind)/ This is where I did this, this is where I did that/ It took 30 years to draw this map." The theme of geography, of Vancouver, the place that matters only because it is the place you happen to have lived your life, has been prominent in Hille's recent music. And yet, is it the territory or the representation that counts? "Now do you see/ the city or the map of the city?/ The city or your life in the city?" The real, the desert of the real and the oasis.
So far, fairly standard contemporary psychogeographic, poetic and art-rock sets of ambiguities. But what happens next, in this relentless what-happens-next machine of a song, is that an anthem unexpectedly, balls-out (if Veda will forgive me the phallogocentric turn of phrase) springs from the introspection, as if out of a psychic break, a satori, an epiphany: "You need the air! You need the freedom! You need to pit yourself against the hardship of the world!" Horns, choral voices, booming drums, hints of the church-music influences to come later on this record but also echoes of 1967 Centennial Canada anthems, Bobby Gimby's revenge - not nation but land, urban plan, trees that you piss against (another less cultural way of making maps) and paths you beat as a cause worth fighting (even yourself) for - thunder-perfect-green-mind.
"This is where we are! Are you ready? What was, what is, and what shall be! City of destiny (you are blind blind blind), city of destiny... Grab your coat and your popular music - we're takin' it to the streets!"
So here's a woman who's been quoting the likes of Carl Sandburg and Brecht in recent albums, suddenly citing the Doobie Brothers. Just as in her side project with (surely pseudonymous?) singer Patsy Klein, The Fits (which can't really be understood except live), which mental-rolodex-flips-and-somersaults through homespun medleys of novelty tunes, children's songs, Broadway numbers and other throwaway sparks of cultural lightning, "Lucklucky" revels in its church-of-subgenius way in echoes of other texts and tunes, with not just a "nothing human is alien to me" catholicism of spirit but a sense that without the alien, without absorbing into its flesh all that is opposite itself, this song and its singer can't survive. This is where we are, loving the alien, amen.
You head toward destiny, still blind, blind, blind. But just keep heading. The inanimate landscape you never bothered to love is somehow animate, animate perhaps in dialectic, busily loving you for your passage through it, remaking itself in your imag even perhaps as you make too heavy a tread, the scars self-conscious beasts leave behind. In the end if you're searching for yourself, looking within is barely a scratch on looking around.
It's not a matter of whether or not we're lucky to be alive, but the revelation that without being alive, that question would be senseless. And so to be alive is to be a creature of luck, a fluke, a fate-being. We're born luck-y, as we're born bloody and smelly and rhythmic and loud.
It's a prayer, it's a path, it's a joke, it's a victory march, it's the most Canadian (Northrop Frye School) song I've heard all year and yet the most worldly, it's an ecological anthem, it's change you can believe in and it's a mathematical constant. It's a summation of all that's come before in Hille's music and a preparation for the songs that follow it on This Riot Life, which take that question of the magic of everyday life and knock it every which way for proof and a vitality damn few artists ever uncover. It comforts as it confronts, and I find myself singing it under my breath in moments of distress at least a few days a week. You may find something similar happening, but it will be dissimilar because it will happen in your city, on your map of the city (even if that city is in the same location as mine).
And finally, since after all this is the kissing-babies time of year, with the estranged-twin election campaigns going on in Canada and in that country not so many miles from Vancouver, Hille's already won because today (Tuesday), she celebrated the arrival of her first child, Anders, with her husband Justin (of Vancouver rhythm'n'indie band No Kids, incidentally) and stepdaughter Saoirse - a healthy six-and-a-half-pound addition to the mass of this riot life, born on the birthdays of both Bruce Springsteen and John Coltrane (!), crashing in blind, squawling and o so lucky.
So think of that $5,000 as a baby bonus, and go cast your vote for a song that votes for you right back - a small act of mutual, crazy, improbable but necessary faith.
September 19, 2008
Inside Extermination Music Night
Zoilus amanuensis Chris Randle ran an interview with the organizers of Toronto fabled surreptitious-music-series Extermination Music Night in Eye weekly last month, but it was much truncated. This weekend, on the occasion of the latest in the EMN series (Sat at midnight; see the gig guide), we thought we'd run the full shebang. (Man, that's the dirtiest word.)
Chris: What inspired you to start doing the series?
Dan: I'd gone to these Wasteland events put on by Jubal Brown in the late 90s, that were done in factories...I started going to those when I was 17 or 18 and that had a pretty profound effect on me. Initially for me it was more of an aesthetic thing than a conceptual thing - maybe I thought about the conceptual aspects a bit later after the fact ...
Matt: I was living in Calgary for a while when I got out of school and I'd been interested in just going and looking at buildings like that, I did the same when I came here. I'd heard about the Wasteland parties that Jubal had done and I'd probably heard or read in magazines about people doing shows with generators...During certain years in Toronto people started putting on shows at alternate spaces so it kind of led off of that - why not do something where you rent the generator and then do it in an abandoned space?
[... continues ...]
What's the process for scouting out new locations? I know some of them are already used by skaters or rave kids...do you only use those established venues, or go looking for new ones?
Matt: We try to go and look for new ones. Dan does a lot of driving around looking at places. The thing is, most of the places that we've used are documented on the [urban] infiltration sites and stuff, just because they end up being the most reliable in a lot of ways.
Dan: Yeah. The last one I found out about from an urban exploration photoblog. A couple of friends had told us about the second one in the Buns Master factory. Our friend Ian had gone to a rave there a year previous or something. But yeah, mostly we'll find something on the internet and go check it out.
Matt: We sometimes come across places that we see and aren't sure if they're possible. There was one that...actually, that was the last one. I'd seen that site a while back and a friend had told me that...I don't know what it was, an assembly plant? And a friend of mine lives near there, he'd shown me that a couple years ago...I mentioned it to Dan but at that time it seemed really impossible. And it turned out to show up on one of those infiltration blogs. Then you realized "oh, okay, you can get in there."
Dan: They didn't have the location specified but they'd taken a photo from the tenth floor. And then I emailed Matt...
I know it's not a uniform thing, but what has the reaction from the cops been like? I remember there was one where they found you guys and then let it happen...
Matt: Yeah, there was one cop that came - we had just finished setting up when we could see their shadows wandering around the building. They opened up the door and they didn't come in, but they talked to Dan and asked us if we were allowed to be there. There was some hemming and hawing and then they said "In a word, no...You'll probably get a noise complaint, but good luck to you," and they left. It varies a lot depending on who it is.
Like, the last one, the cops were probably a bit more pissed off than they've been - although that's hard to say. They react depending on the situation. There's one that we did under the Lansdowne bridge and there was a fire lit under there, people chopping wood, and when they looked down on that and saw that it was on the train tracks they weren't too happy. But there've been other guys who almost... you look at them and you think they're kind of into it.
The last one was kind of insane - I don't know if you were out there for most of it but there was a Cockney bobby for some reason...
Dan: He came up to the eighth floor. He was pissed off. He was so pissed. Or he was acting pissed.
Yeah, they kept being like, "we're gonna let out the dogs..."
Matt: Did you see a dog?
I think they had - there was an ominous van, but...
Dan: Steve Kado's theory was that it was an mp3 dog. Just dog sounds.
Matt: I want to hear confirmation that somebody saw a dog. I heard a lot about hearing dogs, but nobody can claim to have seen a dog.
There were some pretty hilarious threats, like the whole "art party" thing ...
Matt: Yeah, that was pretty good. I enjoyed that.
It seems that they don't really care about it overall, though. They're not assigning a task force to it or anything.
Dan: No. Yeah, I guess ever since the rave scene died it's not really much of a concern.
Matt: And that could change on a dime, right? Any time these go off, we're just so happy because you know how those things can change. If something bad were to happen - if somebody were to do something stupid and hurt themselves or whatever...You know that they would make it Priority One. Stamp out illegal art parties!
Dan: There was one [urban-explorer] guy who died, a photographer. ... There wasn't much follow-up after that.
Matt: Yeah, I was worried. When I read about that happening just before the last one I thought, oh, this is going to make it into public consciousness and they're going to be all over this.
I think that sort of adds a sense of occasion, though, because not only is it something that only happens once in a site-specific sense, but it could also all end if some politician tries to crack down on it.
Dan: Yeah. I don't see how they'd be able to crack down on it, really. If they decided to charge us or something...
Matt: I think if they got really belligerent about it and were able to find out who was organizing it they would just slam those people really hard... Slamming them with the largest fines that they could. Not to say that I think this will happen.
There's that danger there, I guess. I think that's part of the appeal.
Matt: I'm sure that people either enjoy the sites or the architecture or just being in these places that they would never see ... the music, whatever goes on, the occasion of it, but on a fundamental level it's like when you're younger and the older kids come to your door and want to play a game of Fugitive or Manhunt or whatever... You're running around after dark with these kids ten years older than you -
It's play, not work...
Matt: I don't think that people really feel any fear going to this, but there's a certain level of -
Dan: There's a charge.
Dan: Just by the fact that there's no bureaucracy or mediating thing between the space and the event.
You're not actually risking your life, it's just this adrenaline -
Matt: I think - the analogy with the younger and older kids, and you know that it's a game but if they capture you they're gonna at least give you a really bad snakebite... it's the same with the cops. You could get a fine, they're going to be really nasty to you or whatever... It's that small amount of fear that gives it the charge.
Dan: Certainly for me, within the narrative of the series the authority factor doesn't figure in that prominently for me. For me it's not reactionary against the way music is normally performed, it's just an operation outside of that.
So it's not an oppositional thing.
Dan: No. That's not the intention, I don't understand how it could be read as that. The police don't factor into the narrative for me at all. Although, it's undeniable that when you put that many people in a space within that context, there will be a certain atmosphere that self-produces as a result of being unsanctioned.
Do you guys worry about it becoming too popular, just for logistical reasons? I know there was that one - not the last one, the one before - with 500 people or whatever...
Matt: I guess I would worry about it if it came to the point where this wasn't possible for some reason, but otherwise I don't give a shit about that. I'm not into saying "oh, this person should be here and this person shouldn't," or any of that shit. I don't care if 500 people show up or not, myself, other than that I want the thing to happen.
Dan: Fundamentally I don't care, but I have to admit that that one felt like it was too many people. Or not even too many people, but - I don't want to say the wrong type of people, but there were a lot of people there who didn't seem to get it, like it was just another party. I don't know.
Matt: I think that that's true, but at the same time I think if you say 50 people came simply because it was a party, and even 40 of them left just thinking "cool party!", there were probably at least ten people who were like, "weird," who were like, "What is this about?" It's their choice how to interpret it, and maybe most of them will interpret it as just "party," but it's worth it if ten people come away thinking "oh, there's something interesting here." Maybe it does something to somebody.
Dan: Yeah, for sure. I think you have to consider relational aesthetics, how the audience is interacting with one another in the space. I don't know, I don't really give a shit.
Are you guys experimenting with the formula at all? I know that one had the record sale, and at this last one there was the art on each floor...Do you have any idea what you're going to do with that in the future?
Dan: This summer - excluding the one that's coming up, because there isn't much of an art component to that - with the first two, [we were] definitely ushering in another phase...EMN 3.0?
Dan: But yeah, that was done to create a more total environment, and to more palpably recontextualize the space rather than just set up music...
Matt: In a lot of ways, it doesn't matter that that last one was busted. It still happened, it was there for a couple hours, and a lot of people still got to see interesting things for a short time. But it's a shame in a way, because that one I really felt was the place to be very different. It really was going to be mostly about those performance artists on those ten floors for the majority of the night - most of the music, or at least half of it, was going to happen on the roof, almost like... "Celebration" is too much, but I looked forward to it as being "everything else happened, now go look at this view up on the roof."
I was looking forward to the fact that it was based so much on the artwork, and it would be nice to do another one like that. This thing started off as being a lot about music, but people have come to it for other reasons. I think there's a lot of room to do interesting things because of that.
Dan: Yeah. I mean, definitely the original motivation for me was presenting music in a context that wasn't a bar - and actually, that last one, I have to say that I think the police presence kind of figured into the narrative
It was pretty awesome how you guys kept playing up there -
Dan: Even though I said that this isn't a reactionary thing, that felt really reactionary and overtly anti-authoritarian, maybe even in a corny way? I thought it was great.
Matt: We can't really take credit for that. The band was up there and they came to me as everyone was getting busted downstairs and were like, "what should we do? Should we play?" The thought of them playing at that point hadn't even occurred to me, I just assumed that it would all wind down, people would get ushered out. I wasn't really thinking about what we should do next, more responding to what's going to happen next. And then I was just like, "yeah, why not?" And they went ahead and did it.
Matt: I would love if somebody had footage of what was going on down on the ground with the cops at that time, because what I've heard from people is that there was a real reaction from them at that moment. Definitely not from the standpoint of "fuck you, cops," but I'd like to see the reaction on their face. I heard that it was just surprise. They were like, "Are you kidding me? The band is actually starting up with all these cop cars down here?"
One of the cops actually knew one of the people at the show.
Dan: I heard about that.
Dan: Yeah, there was a girl in a gold-lame bathing suit and she was like, "Karen!?" And the cop was like, "Kimberly!?"
Matt: Seriously. Really. That was that woman cop?
Dan: The woman cop, yeah.
There was this hilarious mix of reactions. I was just there with my hands up thinking it would be kind of gangster if Sandro Perri got a Polaris nomination and arrested in the same month.
Matt: What happened after these two recognized each other?
They were, y'know, hugging and stuff, at this crime scene...
Matt: That right there is the reason that this should get busted from time to time. That needs to happen on some level, you know? A cop should see - "oh, a friend of mine is here?" It's not criminal activity.
Was it conscious on your part to have the series be so widespread geographically? You've done one in the east end, you've done stuff right up on the beach or on Leslie Spit...
Matt: Totally. Yeah. I think the moment that really took hold was when Dan suggested doing one at the Guild Inn in Scarborough, and at first my initial reaction was, "Oh, that's too far, no one will go." And then I was like, "yeah, of course they'll go!" You can do these anywhere. I've been driving around a bit, and it may not even be possible - I just don't know if anything's available - but I'd really love to do one in Mimico or something like that, go in the other direction.
Dan: Yeah, for sure. Mississauga?
Matt: Yeah, yeah. And I'd love to go back and do one in Scarborough. Secretly, I'd love to do the Guild Inn. I think that - being very different from the other locations was also -
- with the columns?
Matt: Yeah. I'm kind of obsessed. I think it would be very interesting.
A lot of writers now talk about how the notion of a local scene is dead, because of the internet, or whatever, and I think EMN is a good response to that. It's like you're representing the totality of the city, rather than just a few bars and a few streets downtown...
Dan: I don't think Extermination Night would be as interesting in a city like Detroit, because abandoned buildings are par for the course there. Whereas here, it's like stepping out of - not necessarily a comfort zone, but stepping outside of the norm a bit, as far as the venue is concerned, and also as far as the location of the venue is concerned. Because of course the trip to the location is important. And also, just on a purely practical note, most of the locations that we can use happen to be outside of town.
Matt: We should be doing this interview in that abandoned house around the corner.
Dan: I think it would be really funny to do an Extermination Night in the alley behind Sneaky Dee's.
Dan: You should think about that. Put that on the backburner.
Matt: For some reason I've been interested in doing one that's, like, outdoors but walled in. It's not an original idea, I've seen pictures of shows that happened in spaces like that, but there's something really interesting about it. I wish we could find a place that's between some abandoned buildings, where you're not in the building, but in these - a maze, or an alleyway. That'd be really awesome. Especially if it was daytime.
It's almost as if it changes the way you think about the landscape. If you go to a bunch of these, when you're walking along you might start thinking "hey, this would be a good place for a show," instead of "hey, this is a weird, creepy abandoned building."
Dan: Yeah. Yeah, that's great. I mean, that's what I always think about when I look at these. My interest in ruins is primarily event-based. And that ties into the fact that it's unsanctioned. You can use this space, you just have to do it. You just have to do it! That's it.
Matt: By the same token, I'm interested in a more traditional sense - tradition in that, yeah, there's a history, a subculture of people who do this infiltration. I'm happy to hear if somebody goes to one of these things and is like, "I never even thought of looking at these buildings," and even if they're not looking at these spaces as "an event can go there," that there's an appreciation. I'd be happy to hear that people are like, "Yeah, one weekend I didn't have anything to do so some friends of mine, we thought about these events and just wanted to go look at some of these buildings." That's cool too.
In a normal show the centre of the attention is obviously the band and you're sort of spreading that around. ... You emphasize the building and even the audience more than usual.
Matt: I think as time goes on that becomes more pronounced. I really believe that a lot of people who come to this - as time goes on they come back for reasons other than a band playing there. They're just really interested in seeing these sites.
Dan: I'd say the emphasis is more towards the space than the people because...so many local shows I find that the emphasis is on the people rather than the band....Increasingly I find that shows in regular venues are more of a social call.
Matt: There's been some pretty brutal examples of that recently. To a level that I've never seen in Toronto before, to the point where there's an alleyway full of 200 people and inside where the band is actually playing there's 10.
Are you talking about that Cinecycle show?
Matt: Yeah. I've never been more upset by a show, actually. I was really - I don't mean to be negative or a nanny or anything, but I was really disappointed in us. As a city. At that show.
Do you just look at local bands, or -
Matt: No, we think about out-of-town stuff all the time, we just haven't had much luck with it. Primarily because ... given all the ways that this can fail - not fail, it never fails. Given all the ways that this can go wrong, it's hard for people to get up the gumption... They're really putting themselves out on the line by even participating in something like that.
It sounds like a story some serial killer would lure people in with.
Matt: We can't offer money or any sort of guarantee about anything, that they'll even get to play. And so understandably, touring bands or people from outside the city, it's kinda hard to do. I mean, the most we've been able to muster is bringing in a band from Guelph at this point
Dan: I was talking to this guy in Buffalo...Who's the big minimalist violin player? He named the Velvet Underground?
Dan: Yeah, I was talking to Tony Conrad. I actually talked to him on the phone and he was into the idea, and then I never heard back from him.
Matt: I've talked to some bands from out west in the States and some bands from Texas, friends of mine, and sent a lot of information about this thing and people are very excited about it, but it's just a matter of, does the actual date line up with them being on tour and halfway across their country? It's hard if you're trying to find someone close to where we are who's also willing to do this at a specific time.
Dan: We've definitely thought about people who are relatively close-by, like Wolf Eyes or even New York bands.
Dan: That's pretty comprehensive.
Matt: A lot better than the CBC interview.
What'd they interview you guys for?
Matt: The Leslie Spit one.
Dan: The whole event sounded very quaint..."You know, we're just listening to some music on the beach here, whatever..."
Matt: And we sounded at the same time like pretentious hosers. I don't know how you managed to sound like a hoser.
Maybe they edited it down, so every third sentence you'd be like "So as Debord says..."
Dan: Kinda. I didn't quote anybody. Oh, there was one quote...there's an article in Spacing coming out, and I quoted Zizek. This was the quote. The quote was this. Let me tell you what the quote was. A true act...a true act, uh...creates the, um...oh, fuck.
Matt: What, did you bring the book along? Was it an email interview?
Dan: It wasn't an email interview! It was an interview in person...The quote is something like "a true act creates the conditions for its own possibility." There it is.
RIP, RIP, RIP
Also a reminder to T.O. readers of David Wallace that there's a silent memorial tonight in Trinity-Bellwoods at 9.
Charice is a Word I Use to Describe...
Thanks to Jon Caramanica's insightful Celine Dion concert review in The Times the other day, I learned that Celine appeared with a 16-year-old Filipino singer, Charice Pempengco, "who came to her attention through an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show," one of several Charice (as she's known back home) has done on U.S. teevee (the Ellen show, too), complete with weepy family drama. Celine's very popular with Filipino audiences, so it's a savvy hookup, typical of her global-audience-connecting strategies, but I'm sure it was also an immediate identification with a fellow unnatural-pipes-bearing teen star and singing-contest winner from a relatively unrecognized part of the world. (Along with Celine's devotion to the cult of Oprah and its in turn to her.)
I'm most struck by Charice's version of Mama, a wrenching sentimental song (what else with that title?) about migrant work - a major issue for Filipino children whose mothers go off to raise other people's children overseas. There are heartbreakers like, " 'I'll be home in three years time': / Mama it seems like forever/ You've been gone since I was 5," although the one that really gets me is, "They say you were a good teacher/ In the same school where I can't survive" - a whole novel of details compacted into two lines, never elaborated in the rest of the song.
The tune was originally by Smokey Mountain, an early-'90s group that was an unusual hybrid of protest music and boy-band pop - named for Manila's infamous Smoky Mountain waste-landfill-cum-shantytown, and costumed to fit the part. Knowing nothing at all about Filipino music (except what Tom Waits has tried to tell me), I'm not sure how common that sort of blend is there, but it's certainly not one I've stumbled across elsewhere ... kind of Up With People with a twist of Down With Global Capital.
September 16, 2008
Defragging the D-Mag
A curious twist in the Loudnessiad: A Guitar Hero alternate mix of the new Metallica album Death Magnetic (widely agreed to be seriously overcompressed, which if we still used magnetic tape would make its title rich in... is there a term for unintentional appropriateness?) provides the transition point from the fan remix to the fan remaster.
September 15, 2008
When the Jest Becomes Infinite,
It's Not Funny Any More
David Foster Wallace: Leave a light burning.
I've been spending much of the day, after spending a lot of yesterday simply knocked out by it, looking around at quotes and articles and YouTube videos and other tributes to and reminiscences about David Foster Wallace, whose suicide this weekend was a shock and devastating and disappointing even though he was a writer who was always frank about the struggle against succumbing to enormous sadness and despair (and art's role on both sides of that struggle), someone whose work addressed depression and addiction so incisively but also compulsively. They are being compiled here, on the longtime fan site "the howling fantods," named after the catchphrase in Wallace's masterpiece Infinite Jest for extreme agitation. (A term that has a longer history than I'd realized.) It seems apt, given what a deep kinship and admiration and envy and inspiration DFW kindled in other writers, that what came to mind when I heard the news was a line from an unpublished story by an old friend: "He died of an attack of suicide."
As a fiction writer, Wallace seemed to me to be perhaps the only one in North America who both understood what the project needed to be in his time, and had the full unquestionable capability of doing it, although there did seem to be some self-stalling and sidelining going on in the past decade. It speaks profoundly of the sociality and intimacy and seriousness of his work that when I heard the news my first feeling, and others have told me they felt the same, was to wish I had known him and had been able to do something to help - even though it's immediately obvious that he probably had no shortage of people around who cared, and that often when an attack of suicide comes on no amount of door-bolting and torch-waving by the villagers can drive the monster off. But the first feeling was that empathy for the loneliness he must have been feeling, because his understanding of human loneliness was so obvious in his writing, with all his willingness or rather determination to use all his erudition and verbal firepower to acknowledge and face the sentimental and the banal, which in the avant-pomo-whatever tradition that spawned him is of course the forbidden zone. (It's just hit me that his influence on my own book was bigger than I consciously realized.) The second feeling, of course, was of the great loss to literature and to culture, of all the potential that will go unfulfilled.
Partly because his death coincided with a not-so-great weekend for me on that banal-human-sentiments, stuff-of-life level, I really am too smacked to say much more, but I'll end with a quotation I've always remembered from a 1996 Salon interview by Laura Miller, whose appreciation of Wallace today was one of the most resonant I read.
"It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."
David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008
September 11, 2008
Max Tundra: Music to Pass Out
with Meringue in Your Hair By
This seems to be "quote week" (or should that just be "week") here on Zoilus, but I couldn't resist this uproarious testimony from f.o.z. Owen Pallett to a musician previously all but unknown to me. (Yes, it's a press release.) Followed by Max Tundra testifying for his chosen instrument, an antique that once was the darling of the world. Followed by one of the songs from Tundra's upcoming, third album Parallax Error Beheads You so we can all assess how full of it Owen is, or what it is he is full of.
About Max Tundra by Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy)
Max and I met in Barcelona in 2005 at Primavera Sound. His slot was at 4 a.m. He put on a mask, wrapped himself up in tape, and played forty minutes of music made mostly using Amiga sample tracker software from the late 1980s. There was virtuosic melodica playing, Pointer Sisters-style singing, and an eight-minute version of "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound Of Music. I was wasted and ended up passing out on a beach in my underwear. When the sun rose, I woke up with dried merengue and sand glued to my hair [er, I think Owen means meringue, the eggy topping, and not merengue, the Dominican dance music, but since he was in Spain and in Spanish they're the same, no harm no [sic] - ed.], and in a daze, I realized that I had just witnessed nothing less than the best music performance of my life.
What sets Max Tundra apart from any other band in the world is his attention to detail. This album is impossibly full of ideas, seeking out every imaginable sound in the world and giving each their own curtain call. When you listen to this album, you'd think that it was made by an eccentric millionaire, with every name-brand pop music producer in the world contributing their own two seconds of material. Upon closer inspection, you'd realize that it's been six years since Mastered By Guy At The Exchange, in that time, Max probably hasn't had a single good night's sleep.
I can't compare this record to any record I've ever heard before. Even Max's previous records are a distant echo. It is dance music, it is discourse, it is teen sex comedy, it is a video game, it is a dance troupe, it is a thirteen course meal with Amontillado. It is shock and awe. Listen and be humbled.
About the Commodore Amiga 500 by Max Tundra
There are no modern-day computers on this record. My PC is strictly for emails and Photoshopping the words Max Tundra into Coldplay line-ups. The main technology behind this and all of my albums has been the Commodore Amiga 500 - bestselling home computer at the time - running a $1 public domain software tracker program. The sounds don't emerge from the Amiga itself however; the machine is used to control various synths, samplers and the like. I look at colums of numbers all day on the screen of a black and white television; these digits relate to pitches, durations and tones. A lot of the noises on my record are real; the cello, bass guitar, drums, piano, trumpet and others are all rehearsed and played by me, but sometimes I will use realistic fake versions of these noises. Each song is recorded in a different way; drumkits are recorded on mono cassette recorders twice, then stuck together on the left and right of a mix; string arrangements are planned and then layered up; each note of an electric guitar is sampled so that it can be sequenced in ways too complicated for my fat fingers to play at full speed. And then I have a cup of tea and sing my heart out.
Max Tundra, "Which Song"
September 10, 2008
Wajdi Mouawad to Stephen Harper:
'Do Not Ignore That Reflection on the Opposite Shore'
So there's a Canadian election going on, too (to my personal irritation). The following "open letter" has appeared many places in French and a few in English, but among anglos it might be mainly theatre people who've read it. It is an unusually powerful evocation of the intimacy of art and politics, in a broader spirit than merely that of "protest," though of course it is that too and for good reason. Playwright-director Wajdi Mouawad is one of the more distinct voices in contemporary Canadian writing.
An open letter to Prime Minister Harper
Monsieur le premier ministre,
We are neighbours. We work across the street from one another. You are Prime Minister of the Parliament of Canada and I, across the way, am a writer, theatre director and Artistic Director of the French Theatre at the National Arts Centre (NAC). So, like you, I am an employee of the state, working for the Federal Government; in other words, we are colleagues.
Let me take advantage of this unique position, as one functionary to another, to chat with you about the elimination of some federal grants in the field of culture, something that your government recently undertook. [... continues ...]
Firstly, it seems that you might benefit by surrounding yourself with counsellors who will be attentive to the symbolic aspects of your Government's actions. I am sure you know this but there is no harm in reminding ourselves that every public action denotes not only what it is but what it symbolises.
For example, a Prime Minister who chooses not attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, claiming his schedule does not permit it, in no way reduces the symbolism which says that his absence might signify something else. This might signify that he wishes to denote that Canada supports the claims of Tibet. Or it might serve as a sign of protest over the way in which Beijing deals with human rights. If the Prime Minister insists that his absence is really just a matter of timing, whether he likes it or not, this will take on symbolic meaning that commits the entire country. The symbolism of a public gesture will always outweigh the technical explanations.
Declaration of War
Last week, your government reaffirmed its manner of governing unilaterally, this time on a domestic issue, in bringing about reductions in granting programs destined for the cultural sector. A mere matter of budgeting, you say, but one which sends shock waves throughout the cultural milieu - rightly or wrongly, as we shall see - for being seen as an expression of your contempt for that sector. The confusion with which your Ministers tried to justify those reductions and their refusal to make public the reports on the eliminated programs, only served to confirm the symbolic significance of that contempt. You have just declared war on the artists.
Now, as one functionary to another, this is the second thing that I wanted to tell you: no government, in showing contempt for artists, has ever been able to survive. Not one. One can, of course, ignore them, corrupt them, seduce them, buy them, censor them, kill them, send them to camps, spy on them, but hold them in contempt, no. That is akin to rupturing the strange pact, made millennia ago, between art and politics.
Art and politics both hate and envy one another; since time immemorial, they detest each other and they are mutually attracted, and it's through this dynamic that many a political idea has been born; it is in this dynamic that sometimes, great works of art see the light of day. Your cultural politics, it must be said, provoke only a profound consternation. Neither hate nor detestation, not envy nor attraction, nothing but numbness before the oppressive vacuum that drives your policies.
This vacuum which lies between you and the artists of Canada, from a symbolic point of view, signifies that your government, for however long it lasts, will not witness either the birth of a political idea or a masterwork, so firm is your apparent belief in the unworthiness of that for which you show contempt. Contempt is a subterranean sentiment, being a mix of unassimilated jealousy and fear towards that which we despise. Such governments have existed, but not lasted because even the most detestable of governments cannot endure if it hasn't the courage to affirm what it actually is.
Why is this?
What are the reasons behind these reductions, which are cut from the same cloth as those made last year on the majority of Canadian embassies, who saw their cultural programming reduced, if not eliminated? The economies that you have made are ridiculously small and the votes you might win with them have already been won. For what reason, then, are you so bent on hurting the artists by denying them some of their tools? What are you seeking to extinguish and to gain?
Your silence and your actions make one fear the worst for, in the end, we are quite struck by the belief that this contempt, made eloquent by your budget cuts, is very real and that you feel nothing but disgust for these people, these artists, who spend their time by wasting it and in spending the good taxpayers money, he who, rather than doing uplifting work, can only toil.
And yet, I still cannot fathom your reasoning. Plenty of politicians, for the past fifty years, have done all they could to depoliticise art, to strip it of its symbolic import. They try the impossible, to untie that knot which binds art to politics. And they almost succeed! Whereas you, in the space of one week, have undone this work of chloroforming, by awakening the cultural milieu, Francophone and Anglophone, and from coast to coast. Even if politically speaking they are marginal and negligible, one must never underestimate intellectuals, never underestimate artists; don't underestimate their ability to do you harm.
A grain of sand is all-powerful
I believe, my dear colleague, that you yourself have just planted the grain of sand that could derail the entire machine of your electoral campaign. Culture is, in fact, nothing but a grain of sand, but therein lays its power, in its silent front. It operates in the dark. That is its legitimate strength.
It is full of people who are incomprehensible but very adept with words. They have voices. They know how to write, to paint, to dance, to sculpt, to sing, and they won't let up on you. Democratically speaking, they seek to annihilate your policies. They will not give up. How could they?
You must understand them: they have not had a clear and common purpose for a very long time, for such a long time that they have no common cause to defend. In one week, by not controlling the symbolic importance of your actions, you have just given them passion, anger, rage.
In the dark
The resistance that will begin today, and to which my letter is added, is but a first manifestation of a movement that you yourself have set in motion: an incalculable number of texts, speeches, acts, assemblies, marches, will now be making themselves heard. They will not be exhausted.
Some of these will, perhaps, following my letter, be weakened but within each word, there will be a spark of rage, re-lit, and it is precisely the addition of these tiny instances of fire that will shape the grain of sand that you will never be able to shake. This will not settle down, the pressure will not be diminished.
Monsieur le premier ministre, we are neighbours. We work across the street from one another. There is nothing but the Cenotaph between our offices, and this is as it should be because politics and art have always mirrored one another, each on its own shore, each seeing itself in the other, separated by that river where life and death are weighed at every moment.
We have many things in common, but an artist, contrary to a politician, has nothing to lose, because he or she does not make laws; and if it is prime ministers who change the world, it's the artist who will show this to the world. So do not attempt, through your policies, to blind us, Monsieur le premier ministre; do not ignore that reflection on the opposite shore, do not plunge us further into the dark. Do not diminish us.
(translation by John van Burek).
September 8, 2008
Dreaming Out Loud: Zorn at Guelph
I didn't flip the word-producing, note-taking, signifyin' Critic Machine chip on in my head during yesterday's astounding double-feature matinee at the Guelph Jazz Festival featuring John Zorn's The Dreamers and Electric Masada. Sometimes all the humming and whirring of the analytic hard drive is just too much static in the ears. But it was truly one of the finest shows I've seen in years, and I think the finest I've ever seen in Guelph's handsome Riverrun auditorium.
The two ensembles had almost the same personnel - Marc Ribot (guitar), Jamie Saft (organs), Joey Baron (drums), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Trevor Dunn (bass) and Kenny Wollenson (percussion) - except that in Electric Masada they were joined by Ikue Mori on electronics, and Wollesen switched over from vibes to drum kit, making it a dual-drummer barrage. And, in Electric Masada, Zorn played his sax more (none of us could recall after if he'd played it at all in The Dreamers) - although he still let it rest much of the time in order to conduct, which he does with great charm and precision. Indeed watching him conduct was one of the great pleasures of the show - slamming down his fists to trigger an improvised-explosive blast of a group sforzando, or tapping the air with his knuckles to bring an abrupt pause, or stretching out a hand and giving a spidery come-on with his fingers to ask a player to give him more of what they were doing (at one point Mori, sitting a few inches from the bandleader, responded by wiggling her own fingers right back along his). But most of all it was just the fluid, unforced power of all these musicians, making this collective music like they were sailing a boat out to sea: As the rhythm section pulled their ropes tight, Ribot's guitar might rise cinemascope-style up into the sun; or when Saft's organ would move from harmonious vamping into a set of anxious amphetamine riffs, Baptista might reach into his seemingly wheelbarrow-sized stock of noisemakers and, say, shake a hula hoop covered in bells and gauze to hint that gentler waves would soon surface over the horizon.
I hadn't heard the recording of The Dreamers that came out this spring, but on the evidence of yesterday's show it's roughly in the mode of Zorn's popular 2001 album The Gift - surf-inflected, Morricone-refracted, post-lounge with beautifully concise head melodies played mostly on the guitar and vibes, never going so far out as to get skronky or violent. But that was what E-Masada was for, of course, and by the end of that second hour-plus, Zorn and his companions had taken us on a musical tour through so many emotional weather regions that it felt thoroughly, classically cathartic, as if we had all vaulted together through a purgative sonic-obstacle course for the soul. The Guelph crowd repaid their efforts with two standing ovations and screams of rapture, and after an encore (a few tunes from the aforementioned Gift), the band seemed to leave the stage feeling very pleased with their day's work, arms slung around one another's shoulders, chatting amiably as they vanished into the wings.
September 5, 2008
Wasilla, Alaska, band Portugal.The Man are no fans of their neighbour turned governor
turned VP-candidate, Sarah Palin. See final item.
I am on the programming committee for this year's Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Our call for papers went out this week: This year's theme is "Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic," a deliberate turn to the saucy after last year's perhaps-a-bit-earnest mix of topics. If you want to talk over ideas, feel free to get in touch - I'll be getting in touch with a few of you.
My fellow Pop Conf. committee member Ann Powers picks up on some points from my Silver Jews article to discuss the generational place of politics in today's music on the L.A. Times music blog. My quick answer to the question of "where's today's Rage Against the Machine/Public Enemy/The Clash/Bob Dylan?" by the way, is that the idea that putting messages in music is an effective means of rallying people politically is out of fashion - so the politics in music is now more about subcultural cluster formations and social networks. But since this is short-attention-span Friday, I won't stop to develop the point.
Local queer zine Fab talked to me for a piece in their new issue that asks: Celine Dion - worst gay icon ever?
I should have said earlier in the week, but voting is now on for the ECHO prize for Canadian songwriting. Go the page and you can listen to all five nominated songs; you can vote once a day up till 4:59 pm on Sept 29.
Another reminder: As part of the Toronto International Film Festival, my friend Margaux Williamson's beautiful documentartry Teenager Hamlet 2006 is screening through Sept 13 at the Katherine Mullherin gallery, 1082 Queen Street West. Previously discussed here, and this week's Eye has more.
Meanwhile, with a Canadian election call hanging over us like a dirty spiderweb about to get all up in our hair, the arts community is getting organized to respond to the Harper government's recent round of disses. Get involved in the well-sorted strategy of the unofficial "Department of Culture" here. More comment sure to follow.
Anyone been attending the Guelph Jazz Festival this week? I'd be happy to hear reports. I was there on Wednesday afternoon to moderate a panel discussion on "Improvising Digital Community" between DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) and Vijay Iyer, which flew by way too quickly to even summarize, though I think it got hottest when it ran into this zone: the role of creative labour (and corporeal labour) in digital culture, and whether there is still an important distinction between the artist's role as consumer and as producer. Vijay put it out: "We are more than our playlists" - Paul agreed, but ambivalently. I'll be going back to Guelph on Sunday for the double-header John Zorn jawn.
Finally, have you read this scorching anti-Sarah Palin screed from her Alaska hometown's leading rock band? Guitarist/vocalist John Gourley of the oddly punctuated Portugal.The Man writes, after a lengthy and touching personal anecdote: "I see the sport hunter, the censor, choice taker, the revelations reader, and the high school cheerleader. It is endlessly embarrassing to watch people fall all over this idea. This is not my Alaska. The Alaska I know." (Via Rock&Rap Confidential.)
September 2, 2008
From a DMZ at the back of the universe
Here is my email interview with David Berman, of/aka The Silver Jews. He was writing (for the first time, he said) from within a moving van, so his answers are uncharacteristically brief, but there's plenty of detail I didn't get in to the Globe profile.
CW: There aren't that many precedents for your position in popular music: A "serious" poet - not a poetaster, not a light-verse guy, not a Rod McKuen or Jewel - who is (or becomes) a similarly respected songwriter. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, a few more-obscure figures. I'm curious how you experience and regard the aesthetic divide between those worlds. And why isn't it crossed more often?
DB: It's definitely not a case of dual citizenship, as the gatekeepers of neither poetry nor rock have tried to claim me as one of their own. I live somewhat uneasily, in a little noticed DMZ at the back of the universe.
I wanted poetry's intensity of language poured into a larger vessel than academia can provide. Perhaps I now need to be pouring into an ever bigger vessel, i.e., a screenplay.
Is literary writing something you continue to do or intend to return to?
The labor is thankless, the rewards are small, and frankly there are many great talents in the language arts. I want to be working in a field where the high marks are low enough as to make real-world historical songwriting victories entirely achievable. I don't see painting or fiction or poetry within miles of its masters. I'm working in a field whose commonly acknowledged greatest practitioners - Dylan, Springsteen, etc. - have so little control over their supposed mastery.
And that small distance between the greatest practitioners and the novice musician is what keeps it folk. In practice though it seems songwriters hide the fact of this, pulling up the ladder behind them. Almost every interview has asked why I included the chords. [Note: The liner notes for Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea include chord charts for every song.] Isn't anybody interested in what it means that almost no one does? Why is it mentioned so often that punk or country is rudimentary, yet there are no simple directions available to the novice?
How have your feelings about live performance changed, and do you think now that it was a mistake not to tour before?
I'm new out here. I'm like an 18-year-old compared to my peers who are jaded and have been touring for years. I enjoy playing the role of the rube in rock. Touring wouldn't have worked when I was younger. I would have done bad things and taken advantage of some of the privileges that I gladly pass up as a 41-year-old.
Those years of isolation also kept me away from the ridiculous kind of "can do no wrong" adoration offered musicians. The poor guys never get a chance to develop writing skills because so little is expected. Everything in rock seems under-imagined from here, riding the asymptote of good enough.
I'd like to ask what the Stephen Bush painting on the cover signifies to you. The image suits the mood of the album instinctively to me but I wonder if there's a thematic reason for the choice - and whether/in what way you were attracted to Bush's continued repetition of that image year by year.
It's as you say, intuitively complimentary. To unpack it all, you have to think about the mock-heroic aspect of what I am doing. And about my countrymen, who are as oblivious to their peril as stuffed animals in a storm.
You've said that this album is you talking to people who were born after 1980. I find that really interesting, as someone nearly your own age. We're no longer the young people. So three questions: (a) What do you think now about the ideas that prevailed among that '90s youth cohort, that "slacker" identity with which you were often identified? (b) What is it that you wanted to say to or address about people in their 20s now, and (c) why them rather than your own generation?
a) The slacker attitude, which is really just the pure product of a seventies childhood, probably hasn't served its historical purpose yet. Soon we may know why slacker 50-year-olds had to be so cynical and independent to fulfill its role. Some generations move history as young people; others, like FDR's, later in life.
My generation doesn't have 'following' skills. The younger generations, growing up in a more enlightened world perhaps, are team thinkers. My belief is that the next twenty years will be the story of what the adults (us) and the young adults (people born after 1980) do to recover from the damage that this exceptionally stupid and selfish generation of Republicans, businessmen and God-botherers has inflicted.
There is no doubt in my mind that the 40-year-old guys out there who think life has passed them by, the slackers who kept slacking while their peers sold out, will have a very active second half of their lives.
Do you feel this album is looking towards a post-George Bush era, or has a relation to the zeitgeist in that sense? It seems to carry some kind of on-the-upswing charge compared to the rawness of Tanglewood Numbers, and I wonder how much that has to do with external social context as much as the personal one. (I won't ask whom you're voting for, but feel free to expound.)
My anger at the 40 million Americans who voted for Bush in 2000 and the 52 who did in '04 has been a terrible poison I've fed myself every day for eight years. I have no doubt about who is to blame for what we have going on here. No politician can tell the truth to the American people. Who is going to tell them that they are the problem?
Does your adoption in recent years (as I understand it) of a more serious Judaism and Talmudic study alter what you are going after in your writing? There's certainly a Talmudic quality to the first song on Lookout Mountain... (or perhaps a meta-Talmudic, Edmond Jabes kind of tone). But then on "San Francisco BC," for instance, you sound just as comfortable as ever in indulging in nonsense and whimsy...
It's profoundly affected the way I write. It's a repository of story and wisdom that really has no bottom to it. It's made me excited as a reader again.
I don't want to ask you to rehash the story of your drug problems, but I am curious why you chose to put the story out so publicly in such detail at the time. It came as a surprise coming from someone who'd seemed quite private. Was there a moral choice involved in that - perhaps a debt being repaid to fans, or a kind of atonement - or was it a more personal need or strategy?
Getting sober is the end of many different privacies. You're exhausted with privacy.
It feels good to talk about hard times when they are over.
It felt like a way to put some space between me and the Drag City m.o. which marks so many of the label's releases: Agressiver Mysteriousing.
People who go through hell like to let it be known that they are available to help another.
And subsequently has it been difficult to see your work all being interpreted now in the light of those events, or do you somehow feel it's appropriate to be subject to those kinds of biographical readings/hearings?
It's not difficult. My problem is people knowing too little about me and what I'm trying for.
Coming Out of the Black Patch
In celebration of the long-awaited first-ever visit of the Silver Jews to Toronto tonight (and Montreal tomorrow), I have a feature today in The Globe and Mail. The more I listen, the more impressed I am with the Jews' new album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea - with the way it bursts out of the previous dingy-basement-window-view perspective of bandleader David Berman (seen above with wife/bassist/backup-singer Cassie and canine companion). It really reaches out into the world - probably not coincidentally given that it's the first album he's made since going on tour for the first time ever (and when he did it he did it all the way: a world tour - the related short documentary, Silver Jew is more than worth an hour of your time). But the shift is also a reflection of breaking out of the kind of insulated self-regard that was part of the '90s-disaffected-dude attitude that Berman raised to a kind of poetic sublime.
Rather than the droll monologue of a very very smart friend, as a lot of his work seemed in the past, LOM LOC feels more like poetic reportage - wondrous scenes he's witnessed that are over before anyone else gets there - but with the bright hope that someday you, his listener-companion, might arrive just in time to see the "chicken-fried pigeon in a Sonny James sauce," the "vocal martyr in the vegan press," the menacing Mr. Games with "a jeweler's hands and a blurry face" and other Snuffleupaguses (Snuffleupagi?) of the Joosian plane.
Later today I'll post a full transcript of my email interview with Berman.