Ian Svenonius is here to stay [Boston Phoenix, January 22, 2013]

August 24, 2017


Illustration © 2013 by Brian Taylor for the Boston Phoenix

In his new book, Supernatural Strategies for Making A Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, Ian Svenonius lays out a plan for a neophyte intending to enter the world of competitive rock. “If one makes a rock ‘n’ roll group,” he dutifully explains, “one must eventually make some music. But before that, one must make a photograph of the group.” Svenonius is no stranger to using humor to subvert rock ideologies towards his own post-modern polemics, having fronted seminal DC post-punk units Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up. With this current tome, as with 2006’s penetrating The Psychic Soviet, Svenonius slyly investigates how this “rock and roll” came to have such power over our minds and souls.

In both of your books, you talk a bit about nostalgia and planned obsolescence. It seems like with classic artists, there’s this cognitive dissonance people have: they hate them because they’re so old, but on the other hand they love them because they’re so successful. You know, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Paul McCartney, etc.

That’s interesting. The first generation of rock and roll, there’s still people living from it, there’s always going to be this genuflecting towards the elder statesmen. And it gives people this real sense of security, that the early prophets are still among us. People feel this continuity and old people feel relevant because rock and roll is the prescribed rebellion for this culture. It’s very institutionalized as a rebellion, rock and roll, it’s a really singular phenomenon, with very specific codes for rebellious behavior.

I mean, if you are a rock and roll performer, there’s this constant pressure to create excitement, to create spontaneity all the time.  It’s very weird! And it makes people feel comfortable to see old stars still alive. But at the same time, when the Who played the Superbowl, there’s something so horrible about it. And especially to all these young people who probably don’t know who the Who are.

Well, people always say “No one knows who the Who are”, but when I was a kid, 10, 20, 30 years ago, I didn’t know about music from fifty years ago. But now, kids do know quite a bit– maybe more than they should!

Oh yeah, I agree, they know a lot! And I keep waiting for the moment when rock and roll’s going to turn a corner and go the way of, you know, traditional jazz, where there’s nothing to grasp onto anymore for people. That still hasn’t happened, somehow the marketing still works. Like the Beatles are successfully re-marketed every couple of years, with some new anthology or scrapbook, and it keeps revitalizing their memory. Or maybe it’s more about the way that every generation is beholden to the older form.

I mean, when you watch film, old film, even silent film, it’s still recognizable, because Hollywood is so in love with itself and in thrall to itself and it keeps repeating, and rock and roll is kind of like that. Whereas if you play a blues 78, or some big band tune, that seems so amazingly remote to most people. People can’t find the connection. Whereas yeah, the Who continue to seem modern to people, and I’m not sure why.

In your new book you sort of explain it when you say “Humanity has a difficult relationship with time.” I mean, fifty years, two hundred years, five years, we don’t really know what these spans mean when we listen to music, especially when it has to do with the pull of nostalgia.

Well, rock and roll is supposed to be about newness, a momentary trend. In the beginning of rock and roll, there’s so many songs that are like “Rock and roll is here to stay.” It’s a real adamant sentiment; there aren’t a lot of cha-cha songs that were like “Cha-cha is here to stay”! So rock and roll was at first a thing for very small children, and they had this obstinate idea that “This is now the paradigm.” And it makes sense, because rock and roll is hard to define– and for all of its conventions, the form is so plastic, you can do anything with it. If you go to the rock and roll section of a record store, the records have very little to do with each other, it isn’t really a genre. So you think “Well, what is it?” And the thing you always hear is “It was stolen from black culture.” But rock and roll is so universal, this ritual music, and it’s perfect in the way that cave paintings are. It’s just expression, it’s just expression. And it was introduced through African-American culture in this country, but it’s also this really universal idea, it resonates with people all over the world.

But at the same time, and you talk about this a lot in The Psychic Soviet, rock and roll is in a sense just part of capitalism and planned obsolescence, with the obsession with newness as just a way of making people feel that they need to buy new things all the time, under the guise of a people’s cultural rebellion.

If you’ve read Soviet propaganda about rock and roll, you see that they recognized rock and roll for what it was. I mean, if you read the propaganda about Elvis Presley shaking his hips, you’d think that people hadn’t had sex before, that it was an introduction to sexuality. The claims to rock and roll are so absurd and insane! In a sense, rock and roll introduced a more repressed sexuality.  The Twist is a good example, all the rock and roll dances where people danced apart. Before that, like say in the Jazz age, you’d dance with a bunch of people and couples would close-dance and it was a very sexual thing. With the Twist and these mechanized post-industrial people-acting-as-machines, it’s a real repressed sexuality that rock and roll proposed. It’s funny that the conceit of rock and roll is sexual liberation, but in a certain sense it was the opposite. It’s actually this weird– it’s almost like the boom of strip clubs in the age of AIDS.

Right– you talk in both books about the differing sexual appeal of the Beatles and the Stones, and how the Beatles were almost beyond sexuality. Which makes sense if there was a time that dancing was a gateway to hooking and the shift to rock concerts changed that dynamic to be a room full of people focusing their sexual desire to an unattainable artist on a stage.

I definitely think so; I mean, jazz musicians were sexy and all, but this hysteria as a stand-in for sex was a later concept.  Although that didn’t start with the Beatles: there’s a famous documentary of Paul Anka from ‘61 and the hysteria is exactly like Beatlemania. What’s interesting to me is the way that women wanted to rip these people apart; this idea that these artists were terrified of being caught by their fans because it would mean certain death. That’s a really weird idea! This mass hysteria, repressed sexuality, etc.

It kind of seems as if pop culture hit some kind of oil spigot glut, accidentally, and it went all out of control, and we’ve spent the next fifty or sixty years obsessing over it: “How did this happen?” “How can we make it happen again?”

Right! And the Beatles are a great example because when rock and roll started, it was this thing for hustlers and the mafia and it was pure exploitation. A lot of the early rock and roll moguls were just really young guys, or black or female, and it wasn’t that fifties corporate structure or anything. But with the Beatles, you saw it go corporate, that was the beginning of the end, in a way. And they started filling stadiums and blah blah blah, and there’s this nostalgia for that moment where it began, before it got lame. I mean, even from the beginning there were all these songs about dead stars, basically obsessing about the garden of Eden, when it was “pure”, and the fall. And everyone has their own idea of what the fall was; now you talk to people who think that the nineties were a pure moment.

Right! Irony-free, like that New York Times editorial.

Which New York Times article?

Oh, it was this piece a month or so ago where this writer posited that we are crippled by irony in our modern times, and in the piece she pointed to the 90s as a particularly irony-free decade.

Well, that’s a great example of total revisionism. There are a lot of histories coming out now of musical eras that I remember first-hand, and whenever I read these it just reminds me that history is just so completely plastic, because the accounts are always unrecognizable. I mean, the 90s being irony-free, that’s a great example. I mean, whatever. Punk rock, for example, is idealistic, or so people think; in reality, it was full of smarmy Touch And Go people, that whole perverse contrary mean-spirited thing happening. Anyway, whatever. That’s funny.

But yeah, yeah, but it’s interesting too, a big part of this nostalgia thing is that you can lay it at the feet of the Beatles and the Stones and these people who were talking all the time about their forebears. They were constantly going on about these people, and a big part of it is that if people are dismissing you as fluff, you have to create a context that you come from that feels authentic or legitimate. And for those guys, it was America, and/or black or country people, so they needed to show this genealogy that their music came from. And to their credit, they didn’t have string sections or that sort of thing, the sort of things that would legitimize them to non-rock and roll people, so they had to say “Oh, look, Buddy Holly.”

Or kind of like the way the Rolling Stones trotted out Howlin’ Wolf in their early days.

Right! Exactly.

I mean, when the Stones brought Howlin’ Wolf to play with them on Shindig in ‘65, he wasn’t even really that old or bygone, but they presented him as if he was this far-out old man from another planet.

Yeah, totally. And to their audience, he was just this weirdo guy, so they were placating the connoisseurs and the mods who knew the origins of the music, but they weren’t threatening their own type from their scene. And you know, the way that they changed the music was such that no one wanted to hear the original. And you still mean people who only want to hear the British covers of old blues songs. And there’s a real difference between the two, even when it’s hard to pinpoint. It’s this real value issue.

Ultimately, rock and roll motivated young people to want to start groups. It’s something that you address in your new book, which is ostensibly a guide to forming a group even if it’s really more of a warning or a missive of discouragement in disguise. Now, you and I both kind of know the answer, but why do people form groups?

Well, part of it is people’s powerlessness and alienation, as corny as that might sound. People feel powerless and our society is totally alienating: we have this absurd political system with this symbolic non-vote every four years for some corporate party that’s identical to the other one, and the political system doesn’t address any actual issues. Our official art forms, television and film, are completely insane and have almost no relationship to anything anyone would want to see, just a grotesque spectacle instead. And our entertainment is supposed to just be shopping. So rock and roll groups are a way of having a community or something, and that’s why a big part of the book talks about gangs.

A group is a descendant of the gang, but it’s also a love affair with yourself, a way that you can focus on yourself. People would call it narcissism, but it’s not necessarily that, it’s more of a romantic thing. It’s romantic because it’s an idealization of what the world should look like. And it’s also part of this conceit of Americanism being outside of the mainstream, a rock and roll group is supposed to be this outsider force, and that once again pertains to this whole gang conceit, you know, “We’re outsiders!”

In The Psychic Soviet, you have a chapter that gets into the imperialist nature of the rock and roll band, that you are not a real band unless you have a vehicle and all this equipment and you assault the country with your music. Over various campaigns you conquer this state and that state, and it’s hard to actually feel like you exist, as a band, unless you do that. Where did that come from, what’s that all about?

Well, I read this book called The Violent Gang by Lewis Yablonski, it’s this sociological book from 1959 and it has lots of great interviews with gang leaders who are fourteen year old guys talking about rumbles and whatnot. They talk about their campaigns and wars against rival groups, and it’s just great because it’s so reminiscent of bands and this sort-of fantasist world view that groups have, which is no matter how insignificant your group is, or unpopular, there’s always someone writing in from Germany saying that you’re the greatest. You know, the groups, the whole thing, they all need each other to a certain extent. By saying “unpopular”, I’m not trying to be dismissive; there are a lot of great unpopular things, and most popular things are terrible. So when I say that, I’m not being cynical or mean, but it’s just a fact. And part of the rock and roll idea is “Oh, the Velvet Underground.” You know, they are the thing that keeps everybody going, because nobody knew that they were so great, but they were so great.

Well, that, and the idea that you can be a band, and exist, and no one likes it or appreciates it, but that twenty years later you could become somehow influential.

Right– the Stooges are also a great example of this as well.

Yes; and importantly, for a band of a certain mindset, that the goal isn’t instant adoration but this elusive becoming-influential-decades-later that you can’t intentionally make happen.

The problem with the whole Velvet Underground or Stooges myth is that they were actually heavily promoted industry bands. By that point, where those bands were at, you are already in the very corporate phase of rock and roll music. All of those bands were very connected, they had the New York machine working for them. And one thing you have to remember about groups is that the marketing for them is the myth of the outsider, you know? Like every Velvet Underground fan still thinks that they’re an outsider because they like this band, this band that has probably sold tens of millions of records. How “outsider” is that, really? They’re of the establishment but they profit from this mystique.

You talk, in your book, of groups having ideologies; people, in order to buy into a band, need to buy into an ideology, whether said ideology comes from the group itself or if someone makes one up for them. How important is this ideology to people’s appreciation of music?

Well, I dunno. The ideology for groups right now seems to be about being wealthy or something; being carefree and cool. But it always changes. For a group to be successful right now, it seems that there has to be this kind of– I dunno, every phase in rock and roll seems very much motivated from outside. Like the folk movement in the late 50s, it was all about Harry Smith, he puts out his anthology and it has an enormous influence of popularizing folk music and archaeology of folk songs, gives them a reach and magic hipster element beyond what Alan Lomax did prior. And then the Nuggets thing for punk, and the Velvet Underground reissues in the 80s for college rock. And books too, a book can come out and completely change me. Like the book Please Kill Me had an enormous effect on the way people thought about rock and underground rock; that book was huge.

What do you think the change was with Please Kill Me?

Well, now every band sounds like the Ramones, and no bands sounded like the Ramones before that book came out. In a way, I think the book is really so great, but it has a very specific worldview, a very specific value system, an ideology that it proposes. It’s basically latently conservative, this whole “partying” thing. It’s very conservative, in a sense.

Do you think popular musical movements are always going to have this drastic swing between music that is considered “radical” and that which is “conservative”? Especially the way that so much music is sort-of secretly conservative, conservative in a coded way. I mean, someone like Iggy Pop, or the Ramones, as being part of a conservative musical movement, because they were so “shocking”!

Well, if you read someone like Dan Graham— in the punk era, he wrote about the Ramones as if they were this cunning deconstruction of conservative values. But they’re just a bubblegum band, and he’s mistaking their intent as this real arty thing. It’s interesting. It’s kind of– I mean– I guess– I’m sorry, can you ask your question again?

Well, I guess what I’m really asking is is there something inherently conservative about sticking around for a really long time playing music, turning your music into a brand, something easily recognizable and identifiable. Is that “conservative”?

Well, I don’t know, because I think that the whole idea of rock and roll as being this youth thing– from the time I was a child, all I ever heard about the Rolling Stones, my whole life, is how old they are. And it’s like give them a break! Because we let Miles Davis get old, we let Howlin’ Wolf get old and play music.  It’s kind of absurd, especially because when you do see old people play music, they’re usually pretty good, they’ve learned something over the years. I mean, if you see Al Green play, he has such mastery and presence. I’m sure when he was young and lithe there was something else going on, but he’s great. And I don’t think it’s conservative to keep playing music into your old age, actually I think it’s a rebellious action because society has such disdain for it. So in a contrary sense, people are so disdainful toward– our country only respects success, or I should say they only respect success based on monetary or chart success. If you try to tell your family that you’re an artist or a poet, it’s pathetic.  After your 26 or so, I mean.

I do think that rock and roll might be inherently conservative, though. Because it’s based on a lot of ideas of– it’s so stuck up it’s ass, I guess. It’s hardly revolutionary, I think. It’s stuck up it’s ass in the sense that it’s constantly referring to itself, and every permutation is– if it’s not about some new gizmo, like jungle music or some new drum machine, it’s usually based on getting conservative. It’s a lot like religion, where the new movement is always “Let’s get more strict!” “Let’s bring it back to basics!”

That’s so true. People always love back to basics. It always makes people so happy. “Oh, I hear AC/DC’s next album is going to be ‘back to basics,’ thank fucking god!” And you think “Oh, that sounds rad!” But in a sense, is getting what you want, or promising people what they want, a conservative thing?

Well, I think that this is what it really is: what it really comes down to is the initial idea of rock and roll, the thing that people are always looking for, that they’re nostalgic for, is this kind of ur-expression. When you see Jonathan Richman throw his guitar or whatever, that’s the kind moment that everyone is looking for, as corny as it sounds. That’s what people want, that spontaneity or that sense of spontaneity even if it’s been done a thousand times. That’s what people find so thrilling. Whenever people say “back to basics” they don’t mean “back to the original thing”, they mean back to primitivism. The cave painting thing, like when people discovered it in America it was so powerful. I think it is this exploding American culture, or really capitalist culture, all over the world. And it has its nefarious uses but at it’s root it’s really universal, and the reason it’s so freeing is that before rock and roll, there was a thousand years of honing the craft and showing off sophistication, and then rock and roll happened.

But who know, maybe that’s not it and maybe it’s just really all repressed sex. I mean, people can’t stand the idea of parents or grandparents having had sex before, everyone wants to think that they actually discovered sex. It’s painful for people to think about historical sex. Rock and roll is just another way of people convincing themselves that they discovered sex, when in fact it’s this really repressed pantomime. Now, sex is also so codified and regimented, and everyone’s got their sex identity that’s so incredibly strict. It’s this thing we’re going through right now, it’s bizarre.

In your book, you write “When the young attain some agedness, their favorite group from their youth is a nostalgic memory central to their identity, and considered with a kind of irrational devotion, like Catholicism to a Catholic.” This description of rock as an “irrational devotion” seems apt; a lot of 70s rock, for example, expressed rock as a past movement that they were adhering to, like Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”.

Oh right, it was all nostalgia for the 50s. And 70s glam was doing this incredibly camp– and that was what punk was, when punk arose it was just another version of this glam thing but because back then things were more apt to name things… I mean, punk was the last movement that could be named, right? Except maybe hip hop. But you can’t really call anything anything anymore, mostly because Americans hate pretense and are so hung up. I mean, like Americans don’t really have nicknames, or at least white Americans. Why is that? I think they’re just fucking hung up, nothing can have a name because it’s like “Oh, that’s goofy.” It’s incredibly repressed, and then you end up with these stupid terms like “indie rock”. It’s this all encompassing term that represents like thirty years of music…

Hah! Speaking of repressed musical movements.

Absolutely. Well, it’s afraid of expression, there’s no expression in indie rock, it’s all obfuscation. It’s really cowardly music. Now, we have to define our terms because a lot of what would be called “indie rock” I really like; I mean, I have an idea what it is, but you know. Anyway, there’s definitely a lot of underground music, it’s like wow, this has no gumption, there’s no personality.

I have a section in the book on drugs, on how people can define musical periods through drugs and there’s this pharmaceutical era where drugs are a corrective. And in a sense, a lot of what’s called indie rock is this whole “Oh, this is correct” thing, like “Oh, they got it right!” Like indie rock was correcting prior wrongs. Whenever you’re too adherent to some form, it’s the personality that’s missing. Like nobody thinks about John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers as having personality because, um, he just loves the blues. Right? It’s like a lot of bands now, you listen to them and it’s like “Oh, you just love My Bloody Valentine.” There’s no personality to liking My Bloody Valentine.

People nowadays seem to get that personality fix from celebrity chefs instead of rock stars.

Right– I mean, chefs that you know of are supposed to be drug-addled, supposed to be macho, or control freaks, all the stuff people think of when they describe “genius”. It’s the way that the Internet has cheapened everything– the only thing that you can’t cheapen with the Internet is a meal, because you can’t actually eat the Internet. And also people have been made so stupid by industrial consumer society that nobody knows how to fucking cook, and they don’t really want to know how to cook, they just want to watch somebody else cook, it’s like watching a magician or something. That’s very similar to the creation of the rock star: really, anybody can sing, but this guy is the special person.

Right, like Eddie Van Halen facing away from the audience when he started out so no one could see how he did it.

Right– I mean, that sort of thing is great theater. I mean, I’m sure lots of people hammered-on before, but that’s great theater. And that’s the thing about rock and roll, in this whole downsizing time, all the old arts, the lively arts, were replaced by rock and roll because they were too expensive. And now, everything’s about slave labor, and you can’t have a theater production because you can’t pay people slave wages. Punk, more than anything, degraded people’s wages in terms of music, because according to its rules, a group drives hundreds of miles to play music for people but they can’t charge more than a few bucks for someone to see them. Rock and roll, really, is the beneficiary of all the cheapness of this society.

Right! I love this book from a few decades ago called Rock and the Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci; it’s a great book, although he’s kind of right wing, at least according to the stuff he says in this book. But in Rock and the Pop Narcotic, he says that rock is a democracy, because it takes the old music machine, and you use electricity to pare it down to just the players. Get rid of the orchestra, get rid of the outside songwriters, get rid of the arrangers and Tin Pan Alley, and it’s just a self-directed self-motivated small group of players in charge of their own destiny. And the older I get, the less true I think of this theory of this being some pure democratic ideal.

You know, as far as democracy, it’s kind of back to the major label system nowadays except instead of major labels it’s publicists. It is like our democracy in a sense because everything is bought, public opinion is purchased. But I don’t know– the idea of a band being a democracy, hmm. I don’t know!

In your book, you don’t seem to think that a band where each member has equal representation is a recipe for success.

Hah! Yeah, that’s true. I mean, honestly, the book is written in such a flippant way…

You have a section of the book where you compare three music documentaries– The Beatles Let It Be, the Stones One Plus One, and Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster— in terms of the way that these films show the intra-band communication. What’s the message in comparing these films, and what does the Metallica film say in terms of how things have progressed to now regarding band communication?

Hah– I dunno, I mean, with that Metallica film I’m just so impressed that they released that thing. You watch it and you wonder whether the band is really deluded about how the film looks, or if they are just really cool in being willing to be so vulnerable. It’s just wild. I don’t know if it’s “cool”, it’s more just wild. But the same way with the Beatles; everyone watches the Let It Be movie and they’re like “Oh, oh, it’s so depressing!” I mean, what’s so depressing about people talking about arranging a song. It’s really weird.

If anyone watching Let It Be had actually recorded a song themselves, they might not think the movie is that depressing.

Exactly! It’s such a weird idea, like is everyone on Prozac? It’s such a weird thing to me, the idea that that movie is some harrowing emotional journey. I mean, anyone who’s been in any kind of relationship at all shouldn’t find Let It Be that weird. But yeah, that Metallica movie, it’s all reality tv, the way they let it all hang out.

But it’s not salacious for it’s own purposes– the film shows how cornered they were at that point. Like the scene where they are being asked to do this lame radio promo, and their manager is like “Yeah, you have to do this, or else these radio stations won’t play you.”

Yeah, totally. Basically, every group that attains that kind of success, then people get into the money thing. Like that Beatles book, You Never Give Me Your Money. I mean, now that people have given the Beatles their love, now they need to rip them apart. It must be this forty year hangover or something. Like that book, or Lennon Remembers; printing this guy’s rants, how weird that that’s what people want from the band.

People love the songs, but people also love the ego clashes, in terms of what they get out of music, or what they get out of artists.

Oh totally. And maybe that’s what Metallica felt was missing. Maybe Some Kind of Monster was this canny thing, like they got together and were like “We don’t have this Mick and Keith soap opera attached to our group; let’s introduce it now.” Or Phil Spector being a psychotic; it’s like a way to inject that kind of drama into this group that– I mean, I’m not a Metallica fan, so I wasn’t aware of their personalities, but now I am! And now, the narrative of the group becomes more poignant.

It’s kind of like watching the Olympics nowadays: before they show the ski jump or whatever, they need to tell you that their mother used to drive them to practice at 3 in the morning, and that they broke their leg last year and because of that this jump right here is really crucial, and suddenly you care when you didn’t before when you were just watching a sporting event.

Right. it’s called mind control.

Having written these books, do you feel like you were personally manipulated by music and its culture? Are these books written to address concerns of why this was so important to you, why it continues to be important to you?

Oh yeah, that’s what the books are about. The new book is addressing potential group members– and I’m not really talking about the great appeal of the group, because everybody knows that, it’s been bashed into your head by cultural programming. So if this is a cult, this is a pre-deprogramming guide.  There’s a lot of hurt feelings in rock and roll, because people really never recover from a group. It’s like drug addiction, you can be saddled with it forever.


Crystal Castles: 2010 interview with Ethan I did for the Boston Phoenix

October 8, 2014


Hey!  Ok, so your new album was recorded all over the world: Canada, Detroit, London, Iceland.  Did this globe-hopping recording style affect the final product at all, in your opinion?

[long pause] I don’t think geography could ever impact our music, because no matter where we are we isolate ourselves.  It’s more about the fact that we were in the all those cities because we were touring, so we decided to leave our apartments behind.  And that meant that the tour is over and there isn’t another tour for two or three weeks, so we’d just stay in the last city of the last show and find some studio or a room where we could lay down keyboards and just record songs by ourselves.


So if the setting is immaterial, does that mean that the mood of the songs, in general, is internally generated?

Yeah– I think it’s just how our band’s always been.  Our songs always have a… bleak feeling, regardless of when we made them, or where.  Even our earliest demos feel really bleak to me


Interesting– do you think that you were going for a bleak feel, even from the beginning?

No– it wasn’t something we were going for, it was just us just being true to ourselves and not caring about anything going on around us, or any expectations that there might be.


Do you see this album as a maturation, at all, in your musical style?

We see it as a natural evolution, because we’re evolving every day.  We don’t really see changes ourselves– as long as we’re true to ourselves, that’s all that matters to us.

Were you trying on this record to break free from the perception of Crystal Castles as being bratty and caustic?

Definitely not–we weren’t trying to change any opinions, because that stuff was always there.  If you look at our 2005 demos we released “Alice Practice” and “Untrust Us”. And the song “Tell Me What To Swallow” was written that year too– and that’s a ballad!  So, maybe the confrontational songs got us a lot of attention, you know?  But I’m guessing, I’m not sure, I’m never sure how people got into us.  We don’t really pay attention to that stuff, there isn’t time to pay attention to that whole hive opinion on the Internet.  Our new album, it does have glitchy stuff- we wrote “Celestica” and then we ruined it with all these glitchy moments.

You mentioned the importance of being true to yourselves– can you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by that, and why that is important to you guys?

Sure– basically, if you try to please anyone, you just can’t be proud of those moments.  You should always be selfish and do exactly what you want to do.  And it shouldn’t matter what anyone thinks, as long as you know that you did it for yourself.  So with our songs, you know, we are always really selfish.  We don’t care if, you know, people like it or not.  All that matters is that we like it and that were saying what we want to say.

Has the band always had this quote-unquote selfish ethos?

Yeah, totally.  I remember starting the band because my previous band, I was in a garage rock band, we were basically a tribute to 1970.  And we were getting popular and we were approached by labels and this label wanted to sign us.  And I was like “This was fun when we were doing it for beer money, but now we’re going to sign a record deal and do this band for the next ten years, and I’m just not proud of this.”  I don’t want to be known for, like, looking back at 1970.  I’d rather experiment with new sounds and start a band that is trying to do something new.  And even if it goes nowhere, I’d still be happy– so I left that band the night before we were going to a meeting to sign a major label deal.  I didn’t care, you know?  And, you know, I had a girlfriend at the time who had this little 1996 desktop PC, and I started using that as a sequencer for Crystal Castles songs.

So how did those initial forays into electronic music result in Crystal Castles?

Well, I was listening to this band called The Sick Lipstick, from Toronto– and I really loved them at the time.  I say “at the time” because they broke up.  And then I met Alice and we were talking about bands and she said she loved Sick Lipstick too, and that was really cool because in like a city of 5 million people there might be 10 people at their shows.  So she said if you like Sick Lipstick, you should check out my band, Fetus Fatale.  And they were playing this place called the Q Bar– its out of business now, but it let 15-year-olds drink, which meant that there would be 40 year old men from the older punk scene preying on them.  So there would be punk people from 15 to 45 there, typically.

 So I walk into this place and Alice is on stage, and all the old punks are telling her to fuck off, and shes spitting beer in their faces and telling them that they’re pussies.  and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, she was so powerful yet she was this tiny teenager, sticking up for herself not giving a shit about the consequences and it didn’t matter to her if someone punched her or whatever.  And her band was performing these songs and I thought her lyrics were so poetic.  Just this insane 15 year old poet onstage.  so I thought whatever she was doing onstage, I needed an audio file of it on top of my recordings.  even if I just had a recording of her, it would work over my tracks because I loved it so much.  So I gave her some instrumentals and I remember that– you know how punks are, her friends were all anti-electronic music, they just listened to Crass and whatnot, and they told her “You can’t sing over this electronic music, and besides that guy was in that Stooges cover band, that guy’s a snake!”

 So I found out that they were having a party, and I showed up at the party and put a CD on– I ejected, you know, the obligatory Crass CD and put mine on and hit play.  And they all were like “Actually this is pretty good, this sounds like the new Joy Division”, and they told Alice “You know, maybe you should do this”.  And Alice was like “I was going to do it either way”.  So I left the CD with her and she wrote the lyrics for five of the songs.  So I booked time in a studio to record those five songs, and the mic check for that song became the track “Alice Practice”.

On the new album, you actually sing one of the songs, a cover of “Not In Love” by an 80s Canadian band called Platinum Blonde.  Where did that song come from, and what’s your connection to it?

It’s just my memory of a great 80’s song, you know?  I just personally love that song and– you know, when you’re a kid, you don’t know where songs come from?  When I was a kid, that song, that video was on TV all the time, in-between Motley Crue and Bon Jovi, so I just thought they were this huge huge band.  And it wasn’t until I got older that I found out that they were this Toronto band that never broke out of Canada.  And the song was so good, that I never forgot about it.  And since the song never left Canada, I thought that I should try it out.

Did you ever try it out with Alice singing?

No, it was always my thing.  She likes the song, she knows it, and I think she’s thinking of maybe singing the chorus live, but it’s definitely my thing, that song.

For the new album, did you have the same kind of process, where you come up with tracks, hand them to her, and she gives them back with vocals and lyrics?

Yeah, it was the same– I had 70 songs for this album, and she’s written parts for 35 of them, so there was a lot to work out.  We felt really strongly about all the songs, so it was pretty hard to scale it down to 14!  There’s a few that I can’t wait to release as b-sides, and we’re working on an EP that may have a few of the extra tracks.

It seems like you guys have a really unusual song-writing process, like a real unspoken thing going on that seems to work for you.

That’s a perfect way to put it, it is unspoken.  When I give her a CD with the songs, she doesn’t know the stories behind each song or why I’m doing what, she just knows that there’s a feeling in the music and she loves it, and when she hands it back to me with whatever she puts on top, I love the songs even more.  And there are some songs that I might have been perfectly happy with as instrumentals, and anything she added to it was unexpected in a good way.

It sounds like there’s a fair amount of trust you guys have to have in order to work that way.

There is– it’s definitely an unspoken trust.


The End?

March 19, 2013

They say that grieving takes place in stages; for me personally, in going through the different stages of coming to accept the loss that is the place that I’ve had the privilege to write for for the past five or six years, it has also given me occasion to pontificate the stages of my interaction with the Boston Phoenix. First, it was as an avid reader, where for years I would pick it up every week and read it cover to cover (even when it cost $1.25!); second, as a musician, hoping to be cool and hip enough to catch the eye of the paper’s tastemakers; and then finally as a contributor, psyched to get to attempt to live up to the paper’s storied legacy.

Writing about music means talking to musicians, and writing for the Phoenix meant that I got to talk to a lot of them; I never really counted but I interviewed several hundred people over my time there, from the first interview I did with Steve Albini (in 2007, when I cornered him for a long conversation after a gig in Verona, Italy) to what became my last interview, from the Phoenix’s final issue with KMFDM frontman Sascha Konietzko.

When I first started, I used to dread interviews– writing for the Phoenix really taught me how to get over my fear and strive to provoke more and more interesting conversations. My goal was always the same, whether I was talking to a grizzled veteran or some over-hyped new kid: to try to get to the essence of the artist in as few strokes as possible. If I was a superfan and read one of my articles, would I find it to be revelatory and sufficiently informed? If not, who am I to be doing this interview?

Anyway, in the wake of the Phoenix’s demise I’ve been going over some of my work for them, and decided that I’d put together a list of some of my favorite interviews I did. These aren’t necessarily the most famous people I talked to, or the most “important”, or anything; just ones that were either really funny, really profound, or both. There are many instances where an interview subject said something to me that I still think about, years later; it’s why I keep doing this whole thing, right? Anyway, not that you asked, but here’s my top 20, in no real order:



Joan Baez, October 2008

I spoke to Baez a few days before the ’08 election, and she put the whole thing in a fascinating perspective. I guess anyone who can say “Obama, he has some of the power that King had” and pronounce “King” with such a familiar air is someone worth listening to.



Robyn Hitchcock, May 2010

I talked to Hitchcock for about an hour and he was probably the smartest guy I’ve ever talked to:

Reality is shaking hands with the impossible, which is what we do every day. Reality is a membrane of the banal spread over the inconceivable: we think that we are getting up every morning and going to work, or we follow these patterns of how we live — when all the while, this extraordinary mechanism is lurching and buckling beneath our feet.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about that quote.



Glenn Danzig, June 2010

Like all of my best interview subjects, Danzig was almost hostile at the start and then revealed himself to be a super nice guy by the middle. His rants in this conversation are absolutely amazing, and he is an amazing mix of hysterical and completely full of himself. I love Danzig.



Ian Svenonius, January 2013

One of my final interviews for The Phoenix was this long long long talk with one of my big idols, Ian Svenonius. He’s my idol not so much because of the music he has made (with Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Weird War, and nowadays with Chain and The Gang) as the ideas he has put out in the world, challenging the central tenets of pop music, it’s creation myth, in a way that is truly bold and unique. Moreover, when he talks about rock music, he knows the ups and downs intimately; talking about his new book, ostensibly a guide for creating a rock band, he had this to say:

I’m not really talking about the great appeal of the group, because everybody knows that, it’s been bashed into your head by cultural programming. So if rock is a cult, this is a pre-deprogramming guide.  There’s a lot of hurt feelings in rock and roll, because people really never recover from a group. It’s like drug addiction, you can be saddled with it forever.

I can’t describe how immensely accurate a description this is, from my experience. Amen.



Jack Donoghue from Salem, July 2010

Some musicians are cool to talk to because they have so much experience, and some are great because they have so amazingly little. When I interviewed Donahue he was about to do a DJ set in Central Square Cambridge; his band was on the verge of releasing their King Night album, but were on the cusp of becoming the universally despised thing to hang the failure of “witch house” on. Donahue was driven to Boston for the DJ gig by his publicist, so my interview, in a loud club, was awkward on top of being weird. But I love that I got to talk to this guy about his strange, strange band. In an alternate universe they’d be as big as Crystal Castles (now there’s an interview experience that didn’t make the top 20…)



Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf, October 2010

A few times during my conversation with the legendary stoner-space-rock pioneer, Wyndorf’s computer would emit a loud ping that was unmistakably the AOL “You’ve Got Mail” sound. It could be, I guess, a symbol that the man was a bit out of touch, a bloated rocker so lost in his own head that he hadn’t noticed that it was the second decade of the twenty-first century; but fuck it, it was really more about how rock and roll had pummeled his mind so heavily in the seventies that he couldn’t do anything but keep sharing that pummeling with an audience, even if they continued to dwindle as the years passed from his late-90s salad days.



M.I.A., October 2010

I assumed when I finally got Maya on the horn that I was going to get like two minutes and then the hook; she was backstage in her dressing room and was supposed to go onstage in a few hours, and her voice was shot. But nope, she wanted to talk, and talk, and talk, and it was rambling and defensive and awesome. This entire conversation is a mad pendulum swing between the opposing poles of being disarmingly honest and being completely and utterly full of shit– my favorite type of musician to talk to.



Sébastien Tellier, March 2009

Talking to Tellier, Eurovision representative for France and electro smooth operator, was like having a conversation with a real-life Pepe Le Pew; this interview was so funny, I don’t know how I made it through the whole thing without bursting out in tears. A sample quote:

I did a gig in New York, and some couple in the audience made love during that song [‘La ritournelle’]. And you know, the goal of a gig is not just to listen to bum-bum-bum-bum, you know? If people make love to my music, perhaps that means that my music can help create babies — which is a wonderful effect, because with music, you can dance, you can cry, anything. When people have sex in front of me during a song, it’s a pleasure — it’s like living in a dream.



Yanni, March 2011

Speaking of Euro lovermen, I also got in on a conference call with the one and only Yanni a few years ago. Like Tellier, he was such a super slick dude, somehow describing his musical process in drippingly sexual terms in a way that suggested that he maybe didn’t even know he was doing it:

I mean, with instrumental music, you can’t lie. You have to know about the love, passion, the emotions that your music is describing. And then you have to be capable of putting those emotions into notes, sounds, rhythms, so that the listener can feel them. You are attempting to transmit emotions, and it’s not an easy task. I just try to tell the truth and be honest about how I feel, about what turns me on.



Kitty Pryde, August 2012

Most musical artists have a deep investment in keeping their career afloat at all costs, which is why it was kind of weird to talk to someone like Kitty Pryde, who when I spoke to her last year seemed nonchalant to the point of almost not caring about whether this whole being a touring and recording musician thing lasted beyond tomorrow. Delusion is a far-reaching disease in music, and it’s a true anomaly to encounter someone with zero delusions about how the whole thing works.



In Solitude’s Pelle Åhman, April 2012

I’ve talked to a lot of dudes in metal bands, and most of them are really nice guys but really boring. It has to do with the fact that metal, as a genre, is seen more as a sport than an art by most, so the bands view songs and shows as things that require stamina and tenacity, which aren’t very interesting things to hear about. “We tried really hard and we’ve been practicing a lot and this new album is our best one”– that sort of thing. But every once in a while, a metal dude is just a complete loon, in the best way– and so it was when I spoke with Pelle Åhman a/k/a Hornper from In Solitude; dude is in his early twenties and way more emo about his art and his sacrifice and his anguish than most metal dudes:

“I have to portray my inner life; I have no other choice. With this metal music, the underlying emotive and spiritual values that power it are so important to me. I don’t know, I have no other choice than to write about it, actually. Otherwise, I dunno. . . . ”

Åhman pauses in thought, before darkly proclaiming, “I would kill myself.”



Gang of Four’s Jon King, January 2011

I thought that I wanted to talk to Andy Gill, since he had been my biggest guitar idol since forever. But once I got on the phone with singer Jon King, I realized that I was in the presence of one of rock’s smartest dudes. Gang of Four are so awesome because they took rock and punk and funk and art and questioned all the central tenets, and only kept the things that they could live with associating with. The result is some of the greatest rock music of all time, and it was beyond fascinating to find out what the process was actually like.



Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, June 2011

When I was a kid and a Dinosaur Jr megafan, I understood J Mascis to be the ultimate impossible interview: catatonic to the point of being completely incommunicable, anything I read about the band centered on how he was basically retarded. When I finally spoke to him all these years later, it was indeed true that he was a tricky interview, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t perfectly lucid, with great insights on what it means to make it in a punk underground when you are louder and weirder than everyone else in the scene. The cliche about J is that he “lets his music do the talking”, but I think he’s perfectly capable of letting his mouth do the talking as well when he feels like it.



John Lydon of PiL/Sex Pistols, September 2012

Sometimes a great interview is when you get to really go back and forth and question a person on their music and their lives– but every once in a while, a great interview is with one of those people who just turns the spigot and points the verbal firehose at your face. So it was when I had the honor of being completely disheveled by Johnny Rotten himself, who is, besides being a whipsmart dude, the best person to explain exactly what is awesome about himself and his music. Every syllable of this interview was golden– I only wish everyone could hear it as well as read it, because the way he said everything is just as mint as what he said.



King Buzzo of the Melvins, May 2011 and September 2012

Any fan of the Melvins knows that Buzzo is a notorious crank– mostly because he has no filter stopping him from naming names or pissing people off. But behind the bluster, he’s also a sensitive musician and artist trying to keep doing what he has been doing for nearly three decades in a tough competitive musical world that is, more and more, a continued slap in the face to any self-respecting musician. Both of these interviews I had with Buzz play out like almost a master class in Rock Band Economics, whilst also expressing the despair at the heart of what it means to be a touring musician.



Simon Reynolds, April 2012

Reynolds is a veteran music journalist, and at the time of this interview, his book Retromania had become a cause celebre amongst those who bought wholesale into his premise that modern music culture is being completely taken over by its own past. It’s an interesting conceit that I somewhat totally disagree with, but when I finally got him on the phone, expecting to duke it out with the master, I was surprised at how non-combative our conversation was. I attribute this to not only Reynolds’ open-mindedness (and willingness to talk for nearly two hours!), but his ability to question even his most tightly held beliefs on the subject. It’s why even when everyone else has written a topic to death, it’s always worth seeing what Reynolds thinks about it, because it’s always going to be idiosyncratic and uniquely thought-out.



Die Antwoord’s Ninja, October 2010

M.I.A.’s team was so pleased with my interview with her (because everyone else hated her then-current album Maya for some reason) that they hooked me up with this phoner with Ninja from South African rap-meme Die Antwoord. He was, unlike his rap persona, amazingly nice and polite, but also completely loopy and batshit insane, and I loved it. “Pop music was, ultimately, the enemy I had to become. I mean, pop music is in control of the whole world, and the retards are winning. Not anymore. Die Antwoord are here.” A-fucking-men.



Richie Havens, December 2008

To write a full-page feature for the Phoenix, I usually needed a 20-30 minute conversation; when I got Richie Havens on the line, I was left at the end of our conversation with nearly two hours of anecdotes and reminisces. It was mind-boggling and awesome– I mean, the man just gets onstage and plays with no setlist or plan, and he talks in a similar manner. Also, he has experienced so much that even the most casual thing can blow the mind– like when he told me that he used to babysit a young David Lee Roth. I wish I still had the complete tape…



An unnamed ghoul from the band Ghost, December 2011

The band Ghost are totally anonymous for some reason, so I literally was connected via the band’s PR with “an unnamed ghoul” who spoke the whole time in the royal “we”. It was trippy, but he was also hyper-intelligent and thoughtful about the care and nuance that go into the juggernaut production that is Ghost. Probably my favorite new rock band of the last decade or so.



Eddie and Nash from Urge Overkill, June 2011

Interviews with artists whose high point is a few years back are usually filled with the band members pretending that the old times were far better than they actually were– but this talk with the U.R.G.E. guys was painfully honest, with both Eddie and Nash fully copping to how low they had sunk post-fame and how the acrimonious breakup of Urge Overkill was as painful for them as it was for the fans of the band. Their reunion, amidst a sea of 90s reunions, was one of the few real bright spots in a crowd of money-grubbing opportunists.


Of Montreal (Boston Phoenix, 9/7/10)

September 14, 2010

DRAMATIS PERSONAE: From the ’90s-era Elephant 6 days to this month’s release of 10th studio album False Priest, Of Montreal have stoked a flamboyant fire in indie rock.

“I’ve always been drawn to a density of ideas,” states Kevin Barnes, plaintively. If you have even a passing familiarity with Barnes and the music he’s made for the past 15-plus years with his glammed-out-chamber-pop Athens (Georgia) ensemble Of Montreal, then you probably retorted to that line with an emphatic “Duh!” If you aren’t familiar with the man, let me spell it out: Barnes’s music is overstuffed with “a density of ideas” the way Picasso’s Cubist paintings occasionally had some cubes in them. It’s all part of how he fills every microsecond of every Of Montreal song with little pieces and parts and zigs and zags, until listening to one becomes a minefield of whizzing thoughts and changes.

Placed in context, Barnes’s kitchen sink fits: as a somewhat latter-day participant in the loose collective of bands and musicmakers known as Elephant 6, Of Montreal were of a kind with fellow over-creators like Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Apples in Stereo. “When I was around all of those guys, in the ’90s,” he explains, “the idea when making an album was, you know, ‘Just fill that CD up with as much material as possible!’ Seventy-two minutes, or whatever the limit is! I was surrounded by all these creative people bounding with all of this stuff, and it seemed a shame if you made an album and it was only 45 minutes.”

Even from the start, though, there was always a crucial distinction between the doe-eyed psych of the rest of Elephant 6 and the restless theatricality of Barnes and Of Montreal. Perhaps it was the way that “Panda Bear” (from 1998’s Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy) and “Jacques Lamure” (from 1999’s The Gay Parade) veer off in a thousand directions, each refracting bright light or dark matter, depending on how hard you listened. Or maybe it was the way Barnes was beginning to inhabit quasi–alter egos in order to discover new methods of expression.

“For a while,” he says, “I had a lot of musical ideas that were all about falsetto singing and sort-of-sexual content. So I kind of used these other characters as a device — but it’s organic, it’s just this thing that sort of happens, a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing. I sort of become this character, and I’m familiar with that character, and I don’t censor it, I don’t have to say, ‘Oh, I can’t say that in a song.’ Instead, it’s like, ‘Oh hell, yeah, okay, I’m gonna do this now.’ It’s really exciting and liberating and empowering in a strange way.”

Most Barnes-ologists would place the moment of his ultimate liberation at the release of the band’s eighth album, 2007’s bizarrely accessible Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Not that the band hadn’t been moving in accessible and revelatory directions, starting with 2004’s darkly playful Satanic Panic in the Attic (try listening to that album and getting the twisted chorus to “Chrissy Kiss the Corpse” out of your head) and going on with 2005’sThe Sunlandic Twins, wherein you might surprise yourself by tapping your toes to songs with titles like “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games).” But Hissing Fauna is where Barnes got personal — and unleashed Georgie Fruit. The album’s success not only put a newfound spotlight on the band, it had pundits scratching their chins at this bizarre persona, who rears his pan-sexual head in the midst of Fauna magnum opus “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal.”

“People somehow think that personas are not genuine,” Barnes explains. “But I don’t agree. I think that there’s nothing you can do that isn’t a part of you, there’s nothing you can do that isn’t genuine.”

Perhaps it was all part of coming to grips with success after years of fighting perceived failure, or at least a lack of acceptance. “My first record, Cherry Peel, was a very personal, and it got slammed across the board by what little press it got. It was like being beat up on the first day of school. The next day, you think, ‘Fuck it, I’m not talking to anybody, I’m gonna keep my head down and wear all black.’ And my way to wear all black was to don a kaleidoscopic trenchcoat — because I think that there is always a part of me that needs to hide in an alternate reality.”

Barnes’s latest retreat into a world of his own creation, the lavish and majestic False Priest (Polyvinyl), shows indications of his fissure with ’60s psychedelia, as the blatant new wave and funk of tracks like album opener “I Feel Ya Strutter” and “Godly Intersex” see him dip his toe in the pool of conventional hitmaking. But don’t be fooled by those indicators — for every tease of “normality,” there is a bizarre dunk in the weird tank like album closer/headscratcher “You Do Mutilate,” a mutant that displays Barnes’s recent infatuation with all things P-Funk.

“Yeah, I feel like we don’t make it easy for people to like us. I think we’re a very polarizing band in that way. A lot of people might have actually liked us if we had seemed less pretentious or less theatrical. Like, you know, if they were stuck on a desert island with the records, they had no references, no concept of what we were about, it might be easier to like them if it was just the songs. I think when some people see the whole thing, the presentation and the way we are — we aren’t the kind of band that just anyone can love.”

OF MONTREAL + JANELLE MONAE | House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St, Boston | September 16 at 7 pm | $25-$35 | 888.693.2583 or hob.com/boston


Of Montreal: Live theatrics no staged act (Boston Phoenix, 9/7/10)

September 14, 2010

Of Montreal came into being in the late ’90s, when so-called alternative music was entering a period of fallow commercial bloat that followed the pop overthrow of 1991 — The Year That Grunge Broke.

“Alternative” was in many ways a reaction to the outlandish extremes of ’80s culture, from the Day-Glo synthetic-ness of new wave to the eyelinered leather tease of hair metal. Like late-’70s punk repudiating disco and prog-rock, early-’90s rock was a roots-return maneuver, and a relatively austere one at that, as a generation of youngsters became interested in music-biz ethics and flannel accouterments. Which of course made the stage spectacle of Of Montreal in particular and the Elephant 6 collective in general seem all the more jarring. Barnes and company have always filled their albums to the brim with insanity — but for many of their fans, it is the band’s live show, flamboyant and bizarre, that’s kept them coming back.

“In the early years especially, the live show had been a real thrown-together hodge-podge,” Barnes points out. “There were a lot of ideas, but they weren’t very refined. It would be like, ‘Okay, these pigs will come out on stage, and then this man with a gas mask will come out and gas them all, and then a cowboy will come and shoot them all’ — but it was all thrown together like a Benny Hill sketch.”

The past tense there suggests that for the False Priest tour, the band are looking to class up their act. “Well, sort of,” Barnes qualifies. “This record is really cinematic, and so while it was being made, I was thinking very visually, and we’ve been brainstorming this production for months. It’s become an intricate process, coming up with visuals and theatricals and dancers for every song.”

Which is still a far cry from the lumberjack dress code that prevailed through so much of ’80s and ’90s indie. (Even if there was a freak-flag strain in there, whether it was the Butthole Surfers’ surgery videos and topless go-go dancer amid drug-fueled mayhem or the playtime carny juvenilia of the latter-day Flaming Lips.) For Barnes, it’s all about finding a way to express “a powerful positive energy. I mean, I’ve been really into Parliament and Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, and I just love the freedom that those artists have. They just sort of stuck their ass out and didn’t care. It’s just about allowing yourself to just be, just celebrating all things in life without being full of insecurity.”


Interview: Steve Albini of Shellac (Boston Phoenix, 9/6/10)

September 14, 2010

Daniel Brockman: Hey Steve!  So it took seven years after 1000 Hurts until you guys released Excellent Italian Greyhound in 2007.  Is there a new album in the works?

Steve Albini: Uh, no– I mean, we’re still basically working at the same pace we always have.  We have some unrecorded songs that we’re probably going to record.  I don’t know how those sessions are going to go and if we’ll have enough to warrant a record.  So basically, the same as always: get together every few weeks and play, and a couple times a year we organize some shows, and every now and again we make a record.

At this point, you guys have been around almost two decades; do you ever listen back to your albums over the years and find them emblematic of the period during which they were recorded?
Hmm.  There’s some strange little performance quirks that creep into the songs over time, and every now and again, like if we review an older lp recording of a song, we’ll be surprised that there’s a thing in there that we usually do that we didn’t do when it was recorded.  Like a song has grown an extra set of balls in the interim.  And I think that that’s actually a good thing because it means that we’re still sort of invigorated by all our songs, the ones that we’re still playing still have the potential to change and retain our interest.
Are those the songs that become kind of the warhorses of your live set?
You know, there are certain songs that we stretch out a lot more when we play them, sometimes.  It’s weird, which particular songs that that is has changed over time.  There was a song called “The Billiard Player Song” that we would play a lot, and it seemed like the middle part of that song, which is quite short on the record, would sometimes become like a significant fraction of the set.  But for some reason, which I can’t explain, we just haven’t felt inclined to play that song at all in the last year, and so other songs have had their little expressionist bits stretched out.  It seems like we have a compulsion to fiddle around with the way we play the songs so that they have at least the potential to maintain our current interests.
You know, there’s something to be said for, like, if a band writes awesome songs and they just knock ‘em out, and they’re 100% reliable in that regard, there’s something to be said for that, in that you were not necessarily expecting a new experience every time you hear Cheap Trick play one of their awesome songs.  You just want to hear them do it and have it be awesome.  And I respect that, but I also don’t think that our music lends itself to that.  I think that our music is much more characterized by the individual performance than by the formal nature of the song, or whatever.  So it seems like we could do a good or bad version of our songs, whereas it seems like Cheap Trick songs are all awesome, and they’re awesome, and they never have a bad show.
Do you feel that fans that come to a Shellac show expecting “the hits” are misunderstanding things?
No, I feel like it’s totally natural if you’re into a band and you’ve listened to their recordings a lot and you want to hear certain things, I totally understand that.  From a fan perspective, I’ve often been the same way.  When I finally got to see the Stooges, for example, there were certain songs that I really wanted to see them play.  So I totally understand that.  But I think that we’ve been around long enough that everybody sort of gets the way that the band operates, which is that as flattered as we are that people have come to see us, we’re basically doing it for ourselves.  We’re basically going to do what we’re inclined to do, and I feel that we’re granted an awful lot of leeway by our audiences.  Every now and again, we run into an environment that’s– well, not necessarily judgmental or hostile, but isn’t down with that program.  But it’s pretty rare for us, it seems like we can get away with murder!
You started off with Big Black in the 80’s, and then moved on to Rapeman before starting Shellac.  And it’s interesting because your bands are always kind of pegged as “confrontational”– do you see it that way?
I feel like there’s been a thread of continuity in that frame of mind, the way that those bands all operated was according to their own internal logic.  To be confrontational implies that you’re taking particular note of the way people are orienting themselves, and you’re charging against that.  And I don’t necessarily feel like those bands did that.  I’m also not too concerned that other people think of stuff that I do and bands that I’m in.  Another way of putting it is that none of those bands made concessions to show business or what might be expected of them.  And I feel that even during the punk and hardcore era, a lot of bands were making those concessions, an awful lot of bands, and of course it got much worse when things got more commercialized in the 90’s.  But I feel like there were a lot of bands that were doing things in one particular way or another based on what expectations were held up for them or some imagined notions of propriety.
It’s interesting that you mention the commerciality of the 90s, because it seems like when you get into the ground rules of Shellac– and you are a band with ground rules– a lot of that seems to have been laid out in the early 90s.  And not just your equipment fetishism, but the ethical rules and such.
Well, we do behave slightly different now than we did then– in the beginning, we were inspired a lot by bands like Fugazi and The Ex and other sort of– I don’t know how to describe it, but other bands who wanted to be accessible to everyone.  We wanted our shows to be a bargain, we wanted the opportunity to play basically anywhere, we wanted everything to be open access to everybody.  And I feel like we’ve held fairly true to that.  The economics of touring have changed really dramatically, and we used to be proud that we could pull shows off for 5 or 6 dollars.  Now, the carrying costs of being on the road and some of the insane costs of putting shows on in certain venues means that the ticket prices have crept up.  That’s one thing in particular that bothers– well, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it bothers me, but one thing in particular that has not gone unnoticed within the band is that it now costs more to see us than it used to.   I have some regret about that.  But we’re still operating the same way in so far as our internal consistency goes.  We’re still just trying to cover costs and be fair to the promoters and the people that help us out, and we still try to keep things small and manageable.  It’s just that when I see how much it costs to see just your average regular band now, it kind of bothers me that things have gotten so expensive.  So there’s that.
When we first started, we didn’t really have a touring methodology, so we tried a bunch of things.  And one of the things we decided on early was– well, we tried playing a couple of festivals and they were horrible experiences, so we said “No festivals, just skip them.”  And then All Tomorrow’s Parties came on and they really had to twist our arm and convince us that it was a totally different experience.  And as it turns out, it is a totally different experience from the way festivals were organized before All Tomorrow’s Parties, and I think that ATP has completely changed the landscape of the larger festivals.  And there are now quite a few very well run curated festivals around the world where the patrons and the fans are treated very well, and the slate of artists are all working in sympathy rather than just being, like, the big pop names and the big hyped names.  And there are festivals around the world that never could have existed without All Tomorrow’s Parties showing that it could be done logistically and profitably.  So that experience kind of changed our experience on festivals, and now we if we’re offered something we have to figure it out, like, “Is this one of those weird corporate kind of things where it’s sponsored by somebody and it’s going to suck, or is it something that’s being done by a community of musicians and it’s going to be awesome?”  So it’s gotten more complicated because we now have to consider things that we originally were comfortable just writing off entirely.
For a Shellac fan, it isn’t easy to see you guys– you aren’t going to just come through town every year, and you don’t put out records very often.  And that kind of has built a mystique– the supply is low, which makes the demand somewhat high.  I think it’s been 8 years since you’ve been to Boston, for example.  Is that just part of the band’s aesthetic?
There are a hundred things that overlap on that.  The most significant one is that everyone in the band has regular jobs and regular lives, which means that our touring options are going to be short-term and small scale.  So we have to figure out, you know, if we have two weeks to tour in the fall, where should that be?  Do we go to Italy and put on 20 lbs?  Do we go through the South, and, uh, suffer the South?  So we have to make very crude choices on what to do with our time, so there are many places on Earth that we don’t get to very often.  We enjoy playing Boston, we always have good shows there, although it’s hard to do a show there.  The Middle East is pretty much the only friendly venue for us– meaning not corporate-controlled and that doesn’t have a bunch of insane curtailment policies in place that prevent you from behaving like a normal band.
So, you know, our options are limited on both ends.  But also, I feel like a lot of bands tour so much that they come to resent it.  And then they’re capable of throwing off perfunctory shows– whereas we tour so little that it’s a total fucking blast for us.  So we’re less inclined to do a throw-off not-give-a-shit show because we know that we have so few shows on our schedule, so we’re trying to make them all count.  So I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being reserved with how much you play.  The thinking is that bands want to play for as many people and as big an audience as possible, and that kind of thinking is used to justify all kinds of boorish behavior and all kinds of pandering.  And I said that I didn’t necessarily better when you lay it on with a ladle and spattered every potential person with your band.  I know from my own existence as a fan that the bands that I have loved the most and the longest were bands that I found on my own, not bands that were sprayed at me.  So I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with doing your thing and letting your natural audience find you.  Whereas for a while, during this commercialization period in the 90s, a lot of bands were just trying to do as many catwalks and Calvin Klein ads and covers of Spin and shit as possible to get people to pay attention to their band.  And I just feel like there are very few bands that can survive that kind of wheat-paste fascist-poster style.
It seems like a lot of bands are like Pinocchio: they feel that if they don’t do enough stuff, they won’t graduate to being a “real band.”  It seems like for you guys, you have day jobs and whatnot so you don’t deal with that.  Does that seem accurate?
You know, we don’t really discuss it that much.  We’ve known each other for so long that a lot of things about our tastes and our personalities are unspoken.  And between us, we all know what things are going to drive the other ones insane.  Like there are small things that get under our skin and they’re as much a part of our band make-up as the way we conduct ourselves in business or the kind of instruments we play.
Like, there was this thing for a while which is still sort of lingering but not as prevalent as it used to be where people, completely unaffiliated with a show, would design, print up, and sell a poster, ostensibly promoting but really just referencing a show that they were completely uninvolved with.  And that poster because a separate commercialization of the event.  And every time that would happen to us, and it happened a few times, one of us would make it known to the dude who had set up outside the gate to sell posters of the gig that that was a parasitic behavior and that that was no different than any other kind of gross commercial culture capitalism.  Trying to find something with its own cachet of popularity, creating something outside with no relation with it and trying to capitalize on it.  Now, we’ve had very good poster artists as friends do posters for our shows.  I’m not opposed to having nice posters at shows, I think it’s very cool that this culture has developed of gig posters, I think it’s an interesting facet of the music scene and band culture.  What I don’t like is people opportunistically grafting themselves into that culture.  That’s the sort of thing that if you asked us, when we formed the band “What is your opinion of show posters?” I don’t think we would have had an opinion of it.
Like, I don’t give a shit if our music appears in some student film or some independent thing or whatever.  It doesn’t offend me or bother me, and I don’t necessarily think that I need to be paid for it or anything.  but if someone asks my permission, suddenly I have to take it seriously, see the movie, see if I want to be associated with it or not.  And now I need to make a decision about it– and most things suck, so most of the time my decision is going to be “no”, right?  But the only reason the guy had us say “no” was because he asked us!  If he had just put the fucking song in his film or skateboard video or whatever, we probably would have never found out about it, nothing bad would have happened to us, and we never would have cared.
It seems like you guys set out in an unspoken way to not participate in a capitalistic band system.  Lots of bands have tried that, but those wishes always butted up against the problem of scale when faced with trying to make things bigger.  Do you think that by your band’s not participating or associating, this is how you’ve been able to keep this Shellac thing not capitalistic?
That’s a total reasonable read on it.  The way that we would probably describe it is that we want to keep all of our relationships on the personal and human level: every single one of them.  The relationship with the audience should be a normal regular human interaction, it shouldn’t be primarily a business transaction.  The people who book shows for us, the venues, the people that work with us, the sound guys, whatever: all of those relationships, to us, are normal regular human relationships that you would have with your friends or your barber or your cousins.
For us, that’s the way we want to conduct ourselves.  It’s not necessarily that it’s anti-capitalist, although it works out that way.  It’s not necessarily that it is pro-community, although it works out that way, and I’m fine with it.  To be really active within the community of musicians requires more effort than I’m willing to bring to bear on my existence.  But I think the very least I can do is be square with everybody, to be honorable.  And a lot of bands conduct themselves that way all the time, it’s just that when the scale gets bigger and the stakes get bigger, a lot of people can find either a rationale for behaving differently, or there are people that they find themselves allied with, either within the business or within the band, who don’t think that it’s within the band’s best interests to behave that way.  So they succumb to some kind of pressure.
We’ve just never been in that position, we’ve always, all of us, agreed that the best way to do things is to treat people like people at every stage.  And all the trappings of the music business, show business that have been applied to the rock band thing, they’re all artificial, they’re all alien.  You know, when bands get together in their early stages and everyone’s helping each other out, sharing equipment, it’s all done very fraternally and no one’s in competition with anybody.  The only reason that that changes is that someone makes a conscious decision to change.  And we just never made that kind of a conscious choice.
By the same token, though, it seems like in the rock and roll world, “Hey, that’s rock and roll” is a catch-all excuse to excuse all sorts of behavior.  A band trashes things, or a band member treats people badly or acts in an outrageously egotistical manner, and it’s like “Hey, that’s rock and roll!”
People would forgive anyone for that– in the black metal world even murder can be forgiven.
Right.  On a personal level, you run into people like that every once in a while, who do bad things and go “Hey, that’s me, that’s the way I am!”  Like you know, they don’t justify the behavior on its own merits, it’s more like “I have chosen to behave like this because I have chosen to behave like this, and everyone else has to deal with it.”  I dunno, I guess I’ve known enough musicians who were nice, normal rational people not to have any presumption that they were going to act like assholes just because they’re musicians or because they’re in bands.  But yeah, you do see people use that as a justification.  And I think it says more about people making that justification than the people who are subject to that sort of behavior.
I think it’s the cultural thing, the cultural box that people put musicians in.
Right, most people have never been in a band, so they don’t know what it’s like.  So if some journalist tells them that if you’re in a band, you’re going to behave like a crazy sex-mad drug freak, well the general public would have no reason not to believe that.  So the lore of the misbehaving musician gets canonized because it’s reported by people who aren’t in bands about experiences that they haven’t actually had or observed and it’s reported to people who have no frame of reference by which to evaluate it, so they buy it.  And every now and again, you find musicians who have grown up in that vacuum of experience, and when they finally migrate into the actual music scene, they presume to behave that way because they believe that that’s the correct method, and they’ve been taught, academically, that that’s the way rock stars should behave.
But people who came up through punk rock did not experience music that way.  They experienced the music primarily as fans and the general cultural perceptions of what bands were like didn’t enter into it, because each band had to create its own method.  And I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it, but I think the fact that the three of us in Shellac had experiences in the actual punk rock era, both seeing bands and knowing bands and being in bands before it had become a caricature, I think it tempers our behavior a lot.  The three of us know that playing a show is mostly about the show, not the party afterward.
You and Bob Weston are both engineers as your day job– do you think part of your world view in terms of this stuff was shaped by that role, i having to babysit rockers at their most vulnerable moments?
A little bit.  But I also feel like, because I’m around bands every day, because they are my normal clientele, I have a pretty realistic perspective on how bands behave.  And it’s pretty rare that bands actually behave like the petulant crybabies that they are often presumed to be.  It happens, once in a great while, but it’s not an everday thing.  The every day thing getting on to the task of making a record, taking it seriously, trying to be careful about their decisions, and trying to do everything they can to make a record that lives up to their expectations.  So all the externalities and extra-musical stuff is vanishingly small as a fraction of the experience of being around bands, in my experience.  But because that’s the part that’s more apparent to a music fan or someone in the general public, the behind-the-scenes stuff is always presumed to be hijinks with groupies and snorting cocaine off of coffee tables and abdomens.  And the amount of that that I’ve seen in the 30 years that I’ve been making records has been a really trivial amount, relative to the amount of actual hard work, dedication and sincere effort in service of art.
Now, maybe in certain circles, it’s a bigger fraction; but again, I attribute a lot of my experiences to having come up in punk rock.  I mean, sure, there was a lot of crazy mayhem and drug abuse and all that kind of stuff; but it wasn’t necessarily associated with being in a band.  It was associated with a lifestyle thing, and the misbehavior of the era.
You have a very recognizable and singular guitar style in Shellac– but your playing and sound have definitely evolved since the early 90’s, with many moments that are not as caustic or as discordant as early Shellac, or Big Black.  Do you ever work on music and think “This riff is cool, or this song is cool, but it won’t work for Shellac”?
Well, I basically don’t work on music except for Shellac.  I’ll fiddle around with things absent-mindedly.  But Shellac is literally my sole creative musical interest.  Between the three of us, we’ve never defined any parameters or anything that we wouldn’t be willing to do.  It’s just that, you know, when we get together to work on stuff, we tend to zero in fairly quickly on things that we agree are worth pursuing.
The direct answer to your question is “No”.  I don’t ever think “I’d like to play this, but it’s not worthwhile for Shellac.”  Basically, if, as a band, we decide that we want to play something, then that qualifies for Shellac. And I’m not interested in playing music apart from Shellac.
When you guys formed, did you have an inkling that it would be that way 17 years later?  Did you think at your first rehearsal “This is it”?
With us, at least, we didn’t set a goal, like “Alright, we’d like to do this” and accomplish it.  What we do is we get started on something and try to come up with a process or a method that we’re comfortable with and that’s satisfying on its own.  And whatever happens, whatever the result of that is, whatever music we end up, whatever shows we play, is satisfying because the way we got there was satisfying.
And that works on every scale.  On the very small scale of “These are my skills as a guitarist and this is what I’ve come up with, so this is what I’m going to play.”  And that works on every level.  And if you asked us when we started playing together “do you still think you’ll be playing in 20 years”, I don’t know what we would have said.  But if you asked us now “Do you think you’ll still be playing in 20 years”, I would say “Well, the odds are yes.”  It’s a much higher probability that we’ll make it to 40 years together, having made it this far, than, in our first couple months of playing together, making it to 15 or 20 years.
So I don’t have any expectation or goal in that regard, but it seems like the way we’re doing things is satisfying to us, and I see no reason to stop.
I remember reading an old interview with you where the interviewer was questioning you on your band’s minimalism, and whether you felt limited by it.  And you said something to the effect that you didn’t feel that you had come anywhere near exhausting the possibilities inherent in the guitar/bass/drums format.  Do you still feel that that is true, for you and Shellac?
I’ve never felt limited by the format of the band, I never felt like there was anything that we couldn’t do.  Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination, but I’m not going to expend any energy trying to find ways to be dissatisfied with my band.  It’s like looking for flaws in your wife: what’s the point?  I’m 100% content, why would I start trying to figure out what would be better otherwise.
I guess that goes against the concept of the unhappy artist, that you are supposed to be unhappy in order to make art of merit.  That being unsatisfied is the fulcrum that makes art happens.
The simplest way to explain how the band operates is that when we get in a room together and start playing, we will start gravitating towards things that we like and don’t like.  And sometimes there will be some discussion, like “Oh, I liked that thing you did earlier when you did that” and then we get feedback within the band.  But I think it’s kind of important that there’s nobody in the band that feels in charge.  Because there’s no one person that has to answer to everything, I think it gives us a little more freedom to do things that might be individually embarrassing.  You know?  Like you don’t necessarily think that anyone else has to take responsibility for it, and you don’t ever feel like you’ve been told to do something.  So you’re not doing anything under protest of any kind.  And I know that there are some bands that there will be a big brouhaha about some decision and then one guy says “Fine, it’s a decision, whatever, I’ll put up with it.”  And we just don’t operate that way.  There’s a consensus about stuff, or we don’t do it.  Sometimes the consensus made can be “Well, in this bit, everybody can do whatever the hell they want, and nobody else should have any opinion about it.”
I guess otherwise, the band’s music results in this inner tumult.  Much great music comes from that, but they are miserable doing it and it doesn’t last long.
Every now and again you see a band and you think “Wow, these guys have a concept for their band, and they’re gonna burn through that concept within a year, and then they’re gonna have to look for a new concept for the next record, you know?”  And when you see that, it seems like such a closed system.  Like “Wow, this is the new Gary Numan, I guess!”
When I was younger I was really into a band that was really threatening onstage, and I remember finally talking to a member of the band and being like “Wow, you guys are so threatening and intimidating onstage” and he said “Oh, that’s because we all hate each other”!
I dunno, man, I couldn’t imagine being in a band where I didn’t enjoy myself every second.  I would just find another band!  It’s not like being in a band is so rewarding financially or culturally or in terms of status or whatever.  Basically the only reason to do it is because it’s awesome.  The only reason to be in a band is because being in a band is great!  You get to hang out with people you like and you get to do creative stuff and play shows and travel.  Being in a band is essentially its own reward, and I can’t fathom it any other way.
I guess for most people in bands that get somewhere, the band becomes a job, and sometimes people work jobs they don’t like.
Yeah, and if I was in a job I didn’t like and I had other job options, I would quit that job and take another one.  And if you’re in a band you don’t like– the number of bands available is unlimited.  You can basically start a new band any time you want.  So, no reason to stay in a shitty band.

Shellac (Boston Phoenix, 8/31/10)

September 14, 2010

NO APOLOGIES “We tour so little that it’s a total fucking blast for us, and we make those shows count,” says Albini (right, with Todd Trainer and Bob Weston).

“It seems, in a sense, like we can get away with murder.” I’m talking on the phone with Steve Albini as he relaxes during a rare respite from his engineering duties at the studio he owns and operates, Chicago’s Electrical Audio, and he’s describing how things operate with Shellac, the band for whom he’s played guitar and sung since the early ’90s. His statement is made in the context of how much leeway the band’s audiences have given them. But the murder that Shellac have gotten away with isn’t confined to the stage — for almost two decades, Albini and company have been showing the world that it is possible to do, as a band, whatever you want to do, entirely on your own terms, and still come out on top.

Of course, it helps that they formed on a wave of underground hype. When Big Black, the controversial punk/industrial hybrid Albini had formed with two friends and a drum machine when he was in college, broke up in 1987, they were at the peak of their popularity. Their farewell disc, Songs About Fucking, remains a pinnacle of post-punk ferocity. Albini’s explanation at the time was that they broke up “to prevent us from overstaying our welcome.” But the truth is that the legend of Big Black ballooned only in their absence — and that legend wasn’t just about the music’s relentless pummeling but also about the irascible and scabrous mind of Albini, as a musician, a pundit, and a recording engineer.

By the early ’90s, Albini had become an in-demand studio engineer (a term he preferred to “producer”), recording high-profile albums for the Pixies, Slint, and the Jesus Lizard while also engineering countless sessions for more-obscure acts. He put Shellac together as an act that would be able to work on the sidelines of his burgeoning day job. That suited the other members just fine: bassist and Waltham native Bob Weston was and is himself a successful engineer, and drummer Todd Trainer managed a warehousing and shipping company in Minneapolis. The band’s plan was simple: play only the shows they wanted to play, put out records only when they felt like it, and divorce themselves from the co-opting of underground culture by major labels and mainstream media.

“The thinking, at the time,” says Albini, “was that bands should want to play for as many people and as big an audience as possible, and that kind of thinking was used to justify all kinds of boorish behavior and pandering. And our thinking was that music culture isn’t necessarily better when you lay it on with a ladle and spatter every potential person with your band. I know from my own existence as a fan that the bands I have loved the most and the longest have been bands I found on my own, not bands that were sprayed at me. So I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with doing your thing and letting your natural audience find you.”

The Shellac plan was genius when you consider the high demand for all things Albini (and that especially after his engineering of Nirvana’s 1994 album In Utero). But it didn’t hurt that the music itself was revelatory: while ’90s guitar rock was drowning in baggy shorts and limp-noodle over-compression, Shellac were providing a no-nonsense treble fest, with crisp, dry recordings of their caustic yet hypnotic blasts. Live, they cut an unusual figure: Albini and Weston both sporting aluminum Travis Bean guitars run through gigantic homemade amplifiers; Trainer hitting the skins with the precision of a gymnast, the power of a rhino, and the mad grin of a lobotomized chimp. The band’s first statement of intent took the form of the 1993 seven-inch releases The Rude Gesture: A Pictorial History and Uranus. Both are essential post-punk platters, combining Trainer’s ungodly thud with the band’s skronky yet sinuous guitar attack, the whole pinned down by Albini’s trademark raspy howl, at times shrieking and wounded, at others a plaintive voice of reason amid the din.

Shellac released their debut album, At Action Park, in 1994, but they’ve since spaced out their releases, causing agonizing waits. It was four years till their follow-up, Terraform, and the gap between 2000’s 1000 Hurts and their most recent album, Excellent Italian Greyhound, was seven years (all on venerable Chicago indie Touch and Go). They tour only sporadically, often playing bizarre locales rather than making grueling cross-country treks. “I feel like a lot of bands tour so much that they come to resent it,” Albini explains. “And then they’re capable of throwing off perfunctory shows — whereas we tour so little that it’s a total fucking blast for us, and we make those shows count. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with being reserved with how much you play.”

In a lot of ways, it’s this reserve that makes the band so intriguing, especially when juxtaposed with the unreserved belligerence of their music. What comes through, whether live or on record, is their sheer exuberance — and the fact that they’re doing it their way. “Look,” Albini concludes, “it’s not as if being in a band is so rewarding financially or culturally or in terms of status. Basically, the only reason to do it is because it’s awesome. Being in a band is essentially its own reward, and I can’t fathom it any other way.”

SHELLAC + HELEN MONEY | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | September 6 at 9 pm | $18 | 617.864.3278 or mideastclub.com