Wu-Tang Clan’s $5m F*ck You to Fans

The Wu-Tang Clan are releasing an album which will be limited to a single physical copy. The album will be ‘toured around museums and galleries’ (as a playback not as live performance) before the single copy is sold in a lavish box. Apparently they’ve already been offered $5m for it. Clan member RZA explains the reason thusly:

“The main theme is music being accepted and respected as art and being treated as such. If something is rare, it’s rare. You cannot get another.”

I’ve quietly despaired of the effect digital consumption appears to be having on people’s relationship with music (though that’s a blog for another day). I love physical formats, and I want people to value music more than the current ‘get every song ever recorded free with your new mobile phone contract’ approach encourages them to. But this is not the way to achieve that.

picture of blank CD

A rare artwork

Firstly, it’s elitist. Sometimes a commercially released recording is not the intended context for hearing a piece of music. ‘Sound installations’ paired with visual artworks in a gallery would be one example. Orchestral classical music or opera would be another.

You can get a reasonable approximation of a classical piece from a decent recording, but most classical music was written before there was a prospect of hearing it on two speakers, alone, in your home. It was written to be experienced in a large, acoustically appropriate venue, alongside lots of other people, probably with a glass of wine in your hand.

That costs money. First you have to build and maintain a concert hall. Then you have to pay potentially hundreds of instrumentalists, some of whom will have taken decades of their lives to learn their craft. I could go on… the point is you end up with a concert which costs £lots to put on, and has expensive tickets as a result – tickets which only wealthy people would have been able to afford.

Being able to attend such concerts was therefore a mark of status. The unwashed masses would sit outside with washboards and bits of string ad-libbing whimsical folk songs about maidens falling over in the mud and accidentally showing their bums. The quaffing classes would sip sherry and talk loudly over Mozart or whatever.

picture of dublin philharmonic orchestra

The Wu-Tang Clan perform live

The point is that neither of these situations is actually a comment on the ‘value’ of the music itself, or the ‘respect’ it deserves. Some kinds of musical performance inherently cost more to put on, and some people won’t be able to afford to attend those concerts. So it goes. Pop music isn’t some kind of poor cousin to classical just because it’s cheaper to make. Playing a pop recording in a gallery is an odd attempt to equate it with more supposedly respectable forms of music (even if I concede it might make for a more focussed listen than ‘iPod on the bus’).

Secondly, scarcity doesn’t in itself confer value on something. People might spend millions at auction on a Picasso because they want to own an original, but they won’t spend the same on a painting by me, just because there was only one copy (although if they would they should get in touch).

Imagine, if you will, that there was a way to duplicate a Picasso so that no expert alive could tell which was the copy and which was the original. It’s not unreasonable to assume that people would be less willing to pay as much for either – given that they would never know whether they were getting the ‘real’ one touched by Picasso’s fair mits or not.

With any recorded music there is no ‘real’ copy. A collector might pay a stack for the original master tapes of a famous album, but once it’s booming out of the speakers she’s not hearing anything different than you or I.

The mistake Wu-Tang have made is to measure the ‘respect’ Serious Art apparently receives – and which pop music apparently doesn’t – solely in monetary terms, conflating ‘value’ with ‘price’. In response they are artificially imposing an elitist financial constraint on listening to their new record. Politically speaking, this makes me do sick in my mouth (you may feel differently).

I haven’t heard ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ (clearly) and probably never will, so it’ll be for the people who hear it to decide whether the ‘art’ contained within stands up to being presented in a gallery. I’ve no problem with Wu-Tang or anyone else creating music to be heard in a particular space. Recorded music designed for a particular context can be exciting and innovative – like, for example, the Flaming Lips’ parking lot/boombox experiments.

If there were no copies of this album whatsoever then that would be fine. By making a copy, the person who owns it can listen to it wherever they want – undermining the idea that it needs to be heard in a particular setting. If you’re making one copy you might as well make more.

It’s not been stated whether the person purchasing the album will also own the rights to the music – I’m guessing not. But even if they don’t there’s nothing to stop them ripping it and sharing it. Once something is leaked it stays leaked.

And I think this is what really bugs me. I don’t know Wu-Tang’s music very well, but I know they’re a band who inspire real loyalty in their fans. Many of those fans will now never be able to hear this music (legally) in any setting – either because they don’t live near a gallery or because they don’t have $5m. Yet the only reason Wu-Tang are in a position to make a single copy of an album and sell it for millions is because so many ordinary, non-millionaire fans have paid what they can afford for their records, concerts, and merchandise over the years. This is something of a fuck you to those fans.

I have a similar problem with any kind of artificially limited release which stops you being able to hear a particular recording – things like Record Store Day special releases (though I must emphasise that I love independent record shops!).

I don’t have a problem with people doing lavish physical editions which are limited and expensive – as long as Joe Schmoe can get hold of the actual music to listen to for a reasonable price. Many of the people who obtain RSD special editions whack them on eBay immediately, selling them at an inflated price (and at no benefit to independent record shops whatsoever).

And I guess that’s the point Wu-Tang are clumsily trying to make. What is an album worth?

picture of a pile of money

What music is all about

When you’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money making a record for others to enjoy (presumably), their unwillingness to pay for it can be disheartening. Albums generally cost less now than they did when I was a teenager making the bus trip into Bolton once a week to buy them. Back then £9.99 was an amazing bargain. These days you can generally get a new album on CD from an online retailer for £8 or less (if you don’t mind subsidising tax avoidance and unethical employment practices).

Trying to sell a handmade CD copy of an independently pressed album for £10 at a gig can feel ambitious bordering on self-defeating*. But that’s not because you desperately need a tenner, it’s because you want someone to like it enough to commit. You want the validation of someone saying ‘I like this music enough to spend ten pounds for the ability to hear it again, whenever I want, for the rest of my life’.

Someone out there is clearly willing to pay $5m for a Wu-Tang clan album. Would that same person would pay $5m for it if every other oik could get the same music for $10? If not, the added value of that sole copy is in the exclusivity, not the music. That’s the opposite of what Wu-Tang claim to be trying to do. Or are they somehow saying this new record will give $4,999,990 worth of additional pleasure to its owner than any of their other albums? Do they really just want the validation of one wealthy idiot rather than the millions who already love their music?

Wu-Tang’s futile, reactionary, self-indulgent, illiterate, insecure gesture looks to me like another death rattle of an industry we don’t need anymore.

 


 

*Funnily enough, last year I calculated what I would have to charge for a single copy of ‘Dinas Powys’ in order to recoup what I had spent on it. This included the cost of every instrument I used (even ones I’d owned for years and therefore hadn’t bought specially), the computer I recorded it on, speakers to mix it on and so forth, as well as paying myself minimum wage for time I estimated I’d spent recording and mixing, and ‘session fees’ for the guest musicians. It came to just over £10,000.

I had planned to list a ‘special edition’ version for sale on Bandcamp at the exact price I’d calculated, just to make a small point about the (financial) ‘value’ of the work. The plan was scuppered as Bandcamp have a limit on what you can charge for a single item, but the point remains… 


Further reading:

Wu-Tang aren’t the first act to do this. Jean Michel Jarre made the same facetious point before the internet made the statement redundant. I’d also heard, until I checked just now, that noise artist Merzbow had made an album only available by buying a car which had the CD glued into the stereo. Turns out that isn’t true but there’s the story anyway. The Residents’ second album was entitled ‘Not Available’ and was intended never to be released, however they shit out and ended up doing so in response to label pressure.

Advertisements

10 ‘Important’ Albums

There’s some sort of meme thing going round about ‘10 important albums’ which I’m choosing to interpret as ‘the 10 albums which I think have had the greatest influence on the music I make (or aspire to make)’.

It’s interesting, writing this, how whilst these albums are ‘significant’ to me, they’re not all my ‘favourite albums’. Some of them I don’t listen to much, and some I view as flawed masterpieces.

IMG_4680

In some kind of vaguely chronological order of impact on me, they are these:

Pulp – His N Hers

This was the first album I had on CD. Bought after Common People changed my life, but before Different Class had come out. Common People, of course, remains the consummate pop song. It is the song by which all others are judged. But as we’re talking albums ‘His N Hers’ made more of a mark on me by virtue of being the first set of Cocker songs I absorbed in full. The subject matter – whether it was working class lifestyles, outsiders who feel they can criticise working class lifestyles, the broken innards of relationships, love and lust – always had a serious commentary made palatable and warm by the wit and affection in the writing. There are no goodies and baddies in Pulp songs, just believably flawed human beings. And damn good tunes. As I’ve continued on my ‘musical journey’ I can revisit this album and hear all those influences from Cool Bands that, as a n00b, just blended into magical otherworldly pop. I felt for the first time like music could be ‘meaningful’.

Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

I’m not sure this is actually the best B&S album (it’s this or Tigermilk), but again it was the first one I got. It’s the combination of wonderfully unfolding melodies and those very relatable but at the same time utterly obscure lyrics that made me love it. With hindsight I think a lot of it went over my head at the time, I don’t know what I thought the S&M in ‘She was into S&M and Bible studies/not everyone’s cup of tea’ stood for, but I sure didn’t know.

B&S were and still are a large ensemble with every instrument doing something memorable and adding to the song in a way that some bands with only a couple of instruments sometimes fail to do. And yet you could learn to strum your way through these songs in your bedroom and they sounded just as great. Another thing that endeared it to me was the utter anonymity of the band. No pictures, no biographical information (at the time). It felt important to me for a band to be able to make music this excellent without it being about ‘them’.

Aphex Twin – Richard D James album

I don’t think there’s an album on this list which I have continued to listen to over the years as much as this one. Even Pulp get played less often. This is the perfect balance between RDJ’s ability to construct wonderful melodies and mix them with cutting edge production. It was his last album before ‘Drukqs’, where at times he pushed his production a little too far into giddy ridiculousness. For showing that electronic music could be ‘musical’ this album is unparalleled. When one of the preview tracks for ‘Drukqs’ was a solo piano piece, you could absolutely tell that it was the work of the same man through the melody alone. For all the blatter and scrape of Aphex’s drum programming, it’s always been the composition that gives his work the edge. And it’s this record – along with ‘Come to Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ – that first sparked my interest in electronic music.

Godspeed You Black Emperor! – f#a#oo

Quite simply one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful records ever made. One which make a mockery of the other ‘post-rock’ bands around at the time by showing them up as personality free geeks fiddling with toys (or so my teenaged self thought, my adult self is a little kinder in retrospect). Mogwai might have ranted about people selling out, but they would then name a song ‘Kappa’ for money on an album that – side by side with this one (I bought them both on the same day) – suddenly sounded like bland pish. Godspeed were toiling away, (like B&S) in anonymity, somehow imbuing their work with devastating critiques of capitalism and how it breaks people, not with lyrics but with found fragments of the words of others. So again a record I love as much for the idealogy around it as for the actual sounds in the grooves. Vinyl copies came with a  penny crushed by the trains that ran (then but now no longer) behind the squat/studio where it was recorded. A tangible physical link between the ‘fan’ and the real world location this music was made. Utterly perfect and intense.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

I’ve often said that if I were to go on Mastermind, The Velvet Undergound would be my specialist subject. This album sits where it does almost peripherally to my deep engagement, as an impressionable youngster, with the individual philosophies and sensibilities of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucket, Nico, and Andy Warhol, and how they combined in this banana-fronted package. How the avant garde gently but unmistakeably informs ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ and ‘Venus in Furs’… Lou Reed’s commitment to making pop lyrics something clever and non-banal… and the seismic impact they had on most of the western pop music I’ve loved that came after. Listen closely to ‘Common People’ and there it is – a John Cale-style droning viola throughout the track!

Pavement – Brighten the Corners

In my mind I play the guitar like Stephen Malkmus, but only in my mind. I struggle to pick a favourite Pavement album but tend to plump for this one (I may be the only person who thinks ‘Terror Twilight’ is a contender). ‘Angular’ and ‘slack’ get used a lot to describe Pavement – probably because they’re really good words for them. It isn’t Malkmus’ flash that makes him great it’s how those guitar parts don’t start or end where you expect, and don’t take the obvious route in between… and yet (it always come back to this) it’s a pop record. It’s a record that wants you to enjoy it. Light hearted and upbeat, sounding for all the world like ‘just some guys in a band having fun’. Effortless but unique – a mid-point between Weezer and Captain Beefheart.

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

In my mind I play the guitar like Nick Drake, but only in my mind. ‘Pink Moon’ is my favourite because it dispenses with all the strings and the faint hint of schmaltz that contributors occasionally brought to his first two records. Much is made of his depression around this time but the honest reality is that Drake would never live long enough to develop much character as a lyricist – even the posthumously released ‘Black Eyed Dog’ used a well-worn metaphor to talk about his depression, though it was undoubtedly real. As a singer he was pleasant but hardly intense. Oh but his guitar playing! Is that really only one guitar on ‘Road’? Apparently so. The record was done as live takes, with only the briefest of piano overdubs on the title track. The endless, intricate, tumbling finger picking seems to cram more music than is possible into six strings. Every time I pick up an acoustic guitar this is what I’m aiming for (and maybe a bit of Jim O’Rourke too).

Radiohead – Kid A

I don’t get why people don’t like Radiohead, honestly I don’t. Words like ‘miserable’ and ‘pretentious’ get used by the same people who then enjoy Fellini or David Lynch films. Music shouldn’t be criticised for having ambitions beyond the box marked ‘fun’ – aspiring to poetry and compositional complexity on a par with modern classical music had been part of what Radiohead did ever since ‘The Bends’. But it was Kid A where they really took a risk and changed the game.

Musically… well it begins and ends with ‘Idioteque’ for me. Remember how I loved the Velvet Underground for combining the avant-garde with pop music? Here Radiohead made a huge, high profile step towards doing that with the cutting edge electronica of Warp records and the like. It’s probably only the third or fourth best Radiohead album, but this is the one that made the impact on me. I’m also inclined to think that it was this record that led to the interest in electronica in the decade plus since. It rescued synths from their association with eighties cheese/commercial dance and made them something serious young white men like myself could take an interest in. I’d already started digging into Aphex Twin when this came out, but afterwards it unlocked Autechre, Boards of Canada, Four Tet, and everything after….

As for ‘peripheral stuff’, you might not have liked the strident politicking of Thom Yorke at the time, well I did. I think that listening to what he was saying, and reading the books he plugged around the time this record came out made me a better person. Started me on a path to caring about social justice which now drives my non-musical career and continues to inform the things I write songs about. Is it somehow gauche to be induced to care by admiration for a musician? Perhaps it is, but that’s the young man’s curse to be as impressionable as a warm blob of wax. Importantly, Yorke’s statements in interviews were always blunt and pointed, but his lyrics explored the same themes using abstraction and metaphor – meaning that, whilst the music may still have come across as pretentious – it never came across as clunky or strident in the way that ‘protest singers’ can.

So maybe I’d have picked up a synthesiser and written about politics without this record, maybe others would too, but as it turned out Radiohead did it for me. Other than Pulp, Radiohead are probably the single biggest influence on me, musically and otherwise….

The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat

Occasionally jarring, but unwavering in its commitment to epic songs with unexpected left turns. What struck me most about this was the ‘song suite’ style. How something like ‘Mason City’ can discard the entire structure and melody halfway through and still feel coherent. Are they the first band to do this? Nope, but they were the one who did it for me. I think you can hear the influence of this all over my stuff for some years after it came out. The big, bright synthesisers and very clean, dry sound also contributed to a lot to how I like things to sound. I much prefer records where the notes are clear and arranged neatly than those that, in my opinion, cop out by burying everything in whoosh and atmosphere. Reverb plugins are cheap.

The Fiery Furnaces are a hard band to be moved by. Their over-reliance on ridiculous lyrical structures, archaic words, and compositional left turns can – in the wrong moments – irritate even a big fan like me. Matthew Friedberger has shown himself more than capable of making some irredeemably unlistenable solo material, whilst his sister Eleanor has gone on to make much more accessible pop records. Here, and for a couple of records after, their sensibilities seemed to strike just the right balance. Individual songs that take as long to get into as some albums mean this isn’t a record I’ve really come back to since playing it to death in 2004, but for showing me how a song can really surprise you this had a big impact.

Field Music – Plumb

Have I stopped being influenced by records? I don’t think so. It was a tough call between this and Neutral Milk Hotel, but honestly other than a melody or two I can’t say I’ve been influenced by them – their work is almost intimidatingly intense and perfect in a way I can’t envisage ever matching. Field Music then… officially the most recent act to graduate to my own personal Rock N Roll Hall of Fame as ‘one of my favourite bands’…

People had been telling me they heard Field Music in my stuff for a while before I listened to them. I tried ‘Measure’ but it was too much music to take in at the time (especially when bought from a cheap download website) and I didn’t listen much. Dipping my toe into the shorter, tighter ‘Plumb’ a year or two later unlocked the rest of their discography. The opening trilogy perfects the sort of multi-part songs that I’ve loved ever since the Fiery Furnaces, but does so more concisely and less jarringly. ‘Plumb’ is an album that works best listened to in one go, and for a while it fit handily into the length of my commute meaning endless repeated listens. The meticulousness of every element from the composition to the recording appeals to the ‘reverb is bad’ side of me. The earworm melodies deliver lyrics which are a humane, accessible critique of life in modern Britain, even as they float over intricate arrangements and the occasional complex rhythm that, even now I can’t quite pin down and fix in my mind. Whatever I do next, you will hear Field Music in there.

Post-script

Anyone missing? Well having written this away from home I came home to grab the CD’s for the picture and realised I’d overlooked Talking Heads, David Bowie, and Broadcast. Pretty fundamental omissions but perhaps the fact I didn’t think of them means this is more honest. The albums above are perhaps more ‘formative’? (though Bowie should be in there really…)

Perhaps I should also have written about Garbage, another formative band I was obsessed with. And the first band I went to see live. I could have written about Napoleon IIIrd whose work has definitely influenced my own, but I was too embarrassed because he’s my friend. Four Tet nearly made the list, as did Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Possibly the Super Furry Animals, Mansun, Low, Slint, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem… Bjork’s ‘Homogenic’ gave me a big push in an electronic direction – but probably just in the same way Radiohead did. Bonnie Prince Billy’s ‘I see a darkness’ is maybe in eleventh place.

And really any one of the largely identical mid to late nineties not-quite-successful indie bands I bought endless singles by could be picked as a reference point for the simple joy of a guitar and a tune. Fierce Panda’s double 7” compilation ‘Screecher Comforts’ would be a representative example – Symposium, Snug, Midget, and Inter all on one record.

Music’s great, isn’t it?

Be in my video!

Would you like to be in a music video for my next single? Great! 

05

Then please do this:

  1. Think of an interesting fact about the world, the sort of thing that makes you go ‘oh that’s cool’ and feel a bit better about being alive.
  2. Try and express it briefly – think tweet sized.
  3. Write it on a big piece of paper so it’s nice and legible.
  4. Film yourself holding this aloft – say for a minimum of 30 seconds. You must be in shot.
  5. Send the footage to me

If you can do it in some kind of interesting location then all the better. Try and adopt a facial expression which reflects how you feel about your fact.

Please don’t make up your fact.

Technical stuff:

  • Please film it LANDSCAPE not portrait
  • Please use a pretty generic video format, something I won’t struggle to import into iMovie -.m4a .avi .mov are all fine
  • Please upload it to some kind of filesharing site like dropbox
  • e-mail it to andy@andrewpaulregan.co.uk

DEADLINE: 11th November

Any questions let me know. I waffle a lot so I’ve tried to keep this simple.

On Completism or “Why Phil Elv(e)rum must have seen me coming…”

I’m a sucker for a man with a big discography. As with so many things in life, a man’s discography should be judged, not by its size, but by what he does with it. But just as thrill-seekers will offer no better reason for scaling Everest etc. than ‘because it’s there’ I too find the gravity of a mountainous discography pulls me in.

And of course if you know Phil Elverum’s (née Elvrum) work, you’ll doubtless have anticipated that I’m heading for some clever pun on ‘Mount Eerie’ – for indeed Elverum has spent most of the last decade writing cryptic albums about the intriguingly named mountain which he grew up next to, and the world around it.

A teensy bit of history, Phil Elvrum (as was) started a one-man-plus-guests band called The Microphones in 1996 and did the usual 90’s American alt.rock thing of releasing lots of limited 7”’s, tapes and detritus alongside ‘proper’ albums… before hitting his critical peak with an album called ‘The Glow pt.2’ which I heard recently for the first time, prompting me to excitedly tell the other members of Local Sports Team ‘I think it might be as good as ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ (not a claim I make lightly).

Next he did an artistic backflip, releasing an LP called ‘Mount Eerie’ which had an 18 minute long first track which was mostly drum solo, and which charted some inscrutable narrative about birth, life, death, the universe and everything. He then changed the name of his band from The Microphones to Mount Eerie, changed his surname (in liner notes at least) from ‘Elvrum’ to ‘Elverum’ and has been releasing gorgeous abstract folk/black metal hybrid albums ever since, always centred on the mysteries of nature and the fleetingness of life.

Mount Eerie released two albums last year called ‘Clear Moon’ and ‘Ocean Roar’ which were recorded at the same time and though released separately are clearly two halves of a conceptual whole. In fact it would be truer to say that they’re just the latest parts of one long album which Elverum’s been working on ever since ‘Mount Eerie’ the LP. Most records have a ‘part 2’ of a song which appeared on a previous record. Certain phrases ‘the lights of town’ ‘through the trees’ recur in numerous songs. The sense throughout the body of work that he’s always grasping at something which eludes him is tangible.

Sonically the Microphones and Mount Eerie are quite distinct. Both are usually centered around acoustic guitars, but The Microphones then play with recording technology to deconstruct the songs. The use of panning is quite integral to some Microphones ‘riffs’ in a way I’ve never come across elsewhere, tape manipulation plays a role, as does destructive use of EQ’ing and distortion. Some of the earliest Microphones songs have fun lyrics about recording technology, such as ‘Feedback (Life, Love, Loop)’ which is about microphones and speakers ‘singing to each other’. Nice.

There’s a sense of playfulness and spontaneity to it, often the guitars are out of tune, a little out of time, it’s clear he prioritises ‘feel’ over perfection. He also uses a trick once or twice that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, which is starting a propulsive punky backing, then gradually fading it down low and using it as the bed for a slow acoustic track. Damn him. I still want credit for thinking of it ‘first’ if I ever use it.

The last track on ‘The Glow Pt.2’ mostly consists of a single ‘bong’ sound – which has already reared its head throughout the album – repeating for about seven minutes, whilst snatches of the album reprise themselves almost inaudibly underneath. The ‘Mount Eerie’ LP which followed it then begins with the exact same sound, gradually mutating into a rhythm track for the opening song. I’m sold. Where do I sign up?

IMG_2412

Mount Eerie the band, outside some of the earlier recordings which just seem like slightly duller versions of The Microphones, by contrast is more polished. It really hits its stride with a 10” vinyl EP called ‘Mount Eerie pt’s 6 & 7’ (housed in a 112 photo book pictured above – don’t get me started on the care he takes with packaging, we’ll be here all day) which really started to nail this ‘Black Wooden’ (i.e. black metal using wooden instruments) genre Elverum’s trying to invent. You could mention shoegaze and Loveless and be in vaguely the right territory. My knowledge of black metal is, and is likely to remain, very limited but you can see the wall of dense sound approach in some tracks. Conceptually it works with the whole ‘Mount Eerie’/raw elemental nature idea – what better evokes the roar of the sea or the grandiosity of a mountain than a searing wall of distorted guitar? Can’t do that with a groovebox!

Most of his albums feature one or more instrumental tracks simply entitled ‘(something)’ – as if he created something he couldn’t explain and just included it anyway, hoping someone else could make sense of it. As a result, ‘(something)’ by Mount Eerie will probably soon top my last.fm charts (toppling, I think, a track by Guided by Voices, another band with an epic discography).

All this to say I’m really enjoying his work. And I’m enjoying it all the more precisely because there is such a vast body of it to dip into. I am cursed with an old fashioned affliction – an attention span. I’m willing to comb through nearly twenty years of a guy’s lyrics to see if he mentions ‘the lights of town’ again because that’s part of the fun of being a music fan for me. I narrowly avoided wasting a small fortune in my teenage years on the complete works of egotistical jazzwank bore Frank Zappa, precisely ‘because it was there’ (thankfully one day I had an epiphany ‘this is just awful’ – I think it was about halfway through the third disc of ‘Läther’…).

I’ve always been this way – I think it comes from my first real musical love affair being with Pulp – going into Andy’s Records in Bolton and discovering that they’d had a career as old as me before ‘Common People’ and poring over early albums like ‘Freaks’ and ‘It’ without really caring/noticing that they weren’t anywhere near as good as the records that steered me to them. I think that’s where I got my interest in always wanting to engage with an artist’s entire body of work. The same impulse that had me buy the two Captain Beefheart albums which are universally derided as being utter shit, including by him. I knew they were shit, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy them. I just wanted to understand why they were shit, to see the artistic bridge between his two ‘good’ eras.

Gotta catch 'em all

Gotta catch ’em all

In my own work I also include these little bits of continuity, repeated lines, parts 1 2 3’s, song suites, forward referencing the next album before I’ve finished the current one. My ultimate imagined listener remains the person who’s heard it all – a demographic which is in single figures if it exists at all. It’s why I finally put everything I’ve ever done on Bandcamp in 2011 (something Elverum has also done).

So this overt continuity of theme and sound is something which Elverum could have done specifically to get my hard earned paypal dollars (that and self-releasing and selling direct, which I try and support wherever possible). He saw me coming! Me and my big omnivorous attention span.

How Music Works

I’ve just finished reading this tome, in which David Byrne from Talking Heads effectively whizzes through several areas of music-related theory in an entry level sort of way, using numerous examples from his own career.

IMG_2387

Before I delve deeper I’ll answer a question I’ve been asked about it… is it ‘How Music Works by David Byrne’ or is it more ‘How Music by David Byrne Works’? Well there are times when it’s more the latter. The chapter on performance leans particularly heavily on a largely anecdotal account of how his performances have evolved over time – but then  what else does he have to draw on. A familiarity with Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo output would certainly help, and add a level of enjoyment for fans, but I’d still say this is an interesting read for anyone. There, that’s as close as I’m getting to ‘reviewing’ the book.

I say it’s about ‘music-related’ theory, it’s very much not a book about chords, scales, modes, harmonics or owt like that. Byrne’s central argument is that music arrives out of a specific context – be that social, technological, cultural, financial, or political – and that the old fashioned view of a composer who suddenly gets a gleam in his eye and furiously starts scribbling a score as an act of pure inspiration is a false one.

As an example, he discusses the impact of early recording technology on jazz. The crude ‘reverse-gramophone’/single microphone approach to recording a group would dictate choices about what instruments were used – banjos were used instead of acoustic guitars because they were louder, tubas came through better on the recording than a double bass, etc. Other groups of musicians in geographically separate locations would then hear these recordings and assume that a band with a tuba for a bass was how that music was ‘supposed’ to sound, and would promptly form groups with banjos and tubas.

He also looks at music’s social context. There’s a particularly opinionated section on how nouveau riche people have a habit of casting around for something to spend their money on, and ending up building an opera house (or similar temple to ‘high’ art) at huge subsidy. Why do this – he asks – and not fund subsidised pop concert halls ‘for the people’? In answering he links it to ideas about how the perceived superiority of classical and operatic forms of music are assumed (by the elite) to be good for the ‘soul’ of the common man (hi!) – John Maynard Keynes being a person who held such views – or in less abstract terms for the educational achievements of. In fact there’s no evidence that any one kind of music is better for the developing brains of children, though there’s clear evidence that learning some kind of instrument, and playing some kind of music is very valuable indeed – it doesn’t really matter what it is.

He also goes through how business models affect what music gets made, how radio broadcasting or night club PA systems affect how music sounds, how the amount of music that would fit onto a side of vinyl began to affect the length of compositions etc. All things which are obvious when you think about them – and most of these ideas weren’t new to me, and won’t be to many of you – but which all linked together effectively by Byrne, and are worth thinking about again.

How does context affect what music is made, Deadmau5?

Ultimately the central message is hugely positive. Byrne views music as a social phenomenon to its core, empowering, unifying and a way of communicating things words can’t. I think he’s right.

(Here’s where I stop talking about the book and start talking about me)

I don’t, if I’m honest, generally enjoy going to gigs. Even when I really like a band there’s so much about the live music experience which irritates me. The other people there, the poor sound, not knowing where to look, having to stand up, having to pay too much for beer, watching support bands, the set going on too long etc. Before I started university I’d probably been to about ten gigs ever and just a single music festival (Werchter 99 in Belgium if you were wondering). At university the gigs were largely local bands, and I would go mostly for the social side. There was probably one band in Aberystwyth that I genuinely wanted to hear for musical reasons.

Me trying to ‘play live’

The years 2006-08 were probably my peak gig watching years when I was touring a lot myself and was integrating myself into a new city by meeting friends who also played/went to gigs a lot. So I probably enjoyed those shows more because I had some sort of personal investment in the band doing well, and in them having a good time. More recently I don’t go to shows as much, and my own gigging has slowed down for a number of reasons.

But I buy more records than I ever have (partly just because I can afford to) and my love for music is as all-consuming now as it’s ever been.

Still I find my relationship with it is mostly based on its recorded form. I view a gig as an opportunity to basically evaluate a band and see if I want to listen to them at home. You generally ‘can’t hear the words’ at loud gigs, which is fine – but it means there’s nothing to connect with there. I tend to go to gigs in tiny venues that don’t lend themselves to music which depends on a very precise balance of sounds. Sound-based artists I love (like say Fennesz) don’t play in Cardiff – or anywhere near Cardiff – so I don’t know if I’d enjoy a gig like that or not.

Christian Fennesz playing live

There are bands I’ll go and see where I know the performance will be distinct from the recordings. A Hawk And A Hacksaw spring to mind. I’ll always go and watch them (because they actually bother to play Cardiff!), but I rarely buy their new album. Battles are great live and on record – but I think I appreciate them live so much because they’re such a hybrid of real instrument playing/computer and it sounds like it shouldn’t be possible to reproduce it live, but it is.

For the most part then I’m completely out of step with how the music ‘industry’ is perceived to be going. Records will ultimately, so the thinking goes, become adverts for gigs. They’ll be given free or sold at a loss in order to promote a ‘brand’ (formerly ‘artist’) which makes money from the concert and in other ways – as Byrne says in the book, this may include selling perfume, or lines of clothing. Whereas in the past concerts were viewed as promo for people to buy records, and tours would often lose money.

I’m still here happily buying albums, and deeply engrossed by the album as an authorial medium in itself. Am I saying music has to work in the context of a ten song 45 minute ‘work’? Absolutely not. A single song has just as much value. Only being able to write one or two great songs doesn’t mean you’re a crap band, most bands can’t even write one. But I grew up with albums, and I like the coherence, the ‘whole package’ that they offer.

In my own music I tend to think ‘I’m writing a new album!’. Although this only started with ‘European Monsoon’. Before that I would just think about new songs, and would clump them together in a vaguely pleasing order once I had enough to fill a disc. So Byrne’s right, considerations about format do affect how music is written.

I would also, in the past, think about how I’d be able to perform stuff live. In reality my gigs have never been that ‘live’, because they’re so reliant on pre-recorded material. At one point my songs would be entirely electronic, and only have space for one guitar part, because I wanted to be able to perform them live and have them be similar to the recordings. Then when I started to use a laptop rather than a groovebox it would feel less weird to have an acoustic guitar strumming away in the background and another real one in my hands.

Ultimately I always felt the more I went down that road, the less successful the gigs were. The more I felt I needed to ‘perform’ and engage personally with the audience for them to enjoy it. Performing with a laptop feels less ‘live’ than performing with a sequencer does – even if all you do on the sequencer is press play. Strange. I think I slightly offended a fellow laptop-toting artist once by asserting that I’d ‘never seen a genuinely great gig involving a laptop’ – lots of good gigs, lots where I heard good music, but nothing truly exceptional. A possible exception would be Germlin, where Joe would do nothing but scream and throw himself around whilst 100% pre-recorded music came out of his laptop. No real vocals, no ‘playing an instrument’ – but I think it worked better than most because his actions were such a great embodiment of the music the audience was hearing.

Fundamentally I’m a writer before I’m anything else – a singer, instrumentalist, sound recordist, performer – and I’ve just spent a happy few minutes gazing out of the window trying to decide if I listen to so much stuff in that ‘prolific one man band’ genre because I am such a being, or if I am such a being because I’m drawn to that approach. I remember being fascinated by the early solo Graham Coxon records (yeah, that’s my reference point) where he played every instrument, and finding that really appealing. The idea of that independence – much closer to the idea Byrne dismisses of the solo composer’s inspiration, than to the social ‘influenced by context’ writing of a band.

It’s only been the last 12 months where I’ve been part of Local Sports Team, writing genuinely democratically, and making allowances for other people’s musical strengths and shortcomings (usually I only have to contend with my own!), that I’ve realised how writing can be constrained by ability, context, number of hands. At home if I want five guitar tracks I can have them, in LST we have one guitar so I’ve got to make it count. Still I sort of view LST as something I do more for social reasons, and I save my best lyrics for my own stuff. So why do I value this hermitude?

I wonder if it stems from the role music played for me in childhood? One of the reasons I went to so few gigs was because no one would come with me, not because I didn’t have any friends, but because the friends I had didn’t like the music I liked (for the most part). I always felt a bit of an outsider at school, and amongst the friends I had where I lived (which were totally separate groups) so was I drawn to weird music because I wanted to further define myself as an outsider? And did my passion for the likes of Aphex Twin and Tortoise in fact further drive a wedge between me and the people I grew up with (purely a cultural if not social one)?

To this day I know no one who entirely shares my taste in music. There aren’t many records in my collection that someone else I know doesn’t own, but no one has them all (to be fair I do own hundreds and hundreds of records). No one also seems to like stuff in the same way I do. Not many of my friends would read a book called ‘How Music Works’ for example.

William Wordsworth – what a prick

There’s a fear of knowing too much about music, this ‘we murder to dissect’ idea which both I, and David Byrne in the book, categorically reject. The reason I love music as much now as I ever have is precisely because I keep digging into it. I’ve read about sound mixing, about how synths work, about how music affects your brain, about the social context, never mind the linguistic and theoretical stuff around language I did in my degree (woo!). Every new thing you learn about music affects how you hear the music you love. Music isn’t a magic trick, it’s part of what makes us human. If you suddenly understand a bit more about how X artist made the synth sound on song Y then you love the song more, not less. Or I think so anyway…

I’m not saying I like music in a ‘better way’ than people who, say, just enjoy songs that remind them of fun nights out, or see records as souvenirs of great live shows they’ve seen. There are very few songs where I think I like it because it reminds me of something from my personal life. I think I mostly try and engage with music because of whatever I perceive to be ‘innate’ in it. I’m thinking of something like a Fennesz record which is genuinely moving in its raw state – it’s just a beautiful sound – but then I cherish it more because it’s deeply original (sonically, though not compositionally), and I value the idea that he’s found a new way to make sound beautiful.

What Byrne’s book has reminded me is that I bring a whole lot of that to the table myself. There isn’t anything innate in music, it’s a sound which you hear and then it’s gone. Being able to hear the exact same sound over and over is a very new development, and a slightly artificial one. More than ever before you can analyse a ‘composition’ which consists not just of notes and chords, but of how those notes are played and sung, how they’re arranged, and specific decisions about how things sound. Previously music could only have been an event, a specific moment – not a ‘text’.

Reading ‘How Music Works’ has been refreshing, it’s opened my head up a little, and given me a few more ways to appreciate something I love.

Why John Maus is my awesome

My new year’s resolution is to read and write more about music (feel free to hold me to account for this). So it’s somewhat intimidating to try and make my fresh start with a blog post about John Maus….

Maus is himself an uber-articulate, academically minded gentleman, more often covered by the likes of The Wire adjectivising generously on his art as an immanent critique of pop music itself. Or something. Here he is talking about how he performs live…

…what he describes as the Hysterical Body may look to some like a man punching himself in the face whilst he sings over a backing track, but you can see that he’s very much Thought About It. [Shocking to think any artist would show so little regard for the medium of ‘live’ music *cough* – at least I delete the vocals on my tracks before I sing over them!.]

Clearly we’re dealing with a man who needs no help analysing what he does. Shall I plunge deep into the darkest depths of my long-neglected BA in English to deconstruct his lyrics? Shall I wield my literary scalpel and split signifieds from signifiers in his verse? Okay, let’s pick a lyric at random…

Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Right now / Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
And medical care / for everyone!

Erm….

Okay so I didn’t pick that at random. I picked it because it’s funny. One of two John Maus songs which has made me giggle on public transport during the last few weeks. The other is ‘Don’t Be A Body’ which I’ll let you discover for yourself (see playlist below).

‘Rights For Gays’ is from his 2007 album ‘Love is Real’. Lyrically it is something of a curveball, most of his other songs are less overtly daft – and if you read the Pitchfork review of the album, the writer seems to want to gloss over the song as being faintly embarrassing – bordering on inappropriate. But for me it does encapsulate what I think Maus is doing with most of his other stuff.

If you take it at face value ‘Rights For Gays’ comes across as a somewhat guileless lefty protest song. As if the person who wrote it sincerely wanted to unite the world behind their big positive message but couldn’t quite get the lyrical chops together to come up with anything better than ‘Rights for gays / oh yeah!’. The ‘medical care’ line feels like ‘and while we’re at it, I demand action on this other liberal poster issue’.

The early Maus stuff has a kind of ‘found’ quality to it. Like the ‘outsider music’ work compiled in that ‘Songs in the Key of Z’ book and CD. In particular it reminds me of Wesley Willis, the paranoid schizophrenic electro punk artist who made hundreds of near identical mini-anthems with stream of conscious pop culture heavy lyrics about pretty much whatever he last thought of, releasing them on dozens of short run self released albums.

Outsider music recordings generally feel like they’ve been made by someone who’s ‘missed something’ – some nuance of either the social context of pop music or of the form itself. They often come across as overly earnest, savant-like bursts of creativity, that survive only through the miracle of home recording (see also Jandek – who I’ve written about before, Daniel Johnston etc).

Except that Maus’ music isn’t, it’s made quite knowingly by a smartly dressed, well educated, seemingly fairly well-adjusted, and frankly quite attractive young man from Austin, Minnesota. The lo-fi nature of the music is presumably a logistical thing rather than a committed aesthetic choice, I’m guessing all his stuff is homemade in some way, but it certainly adds to the ‘vibe’. Whether he’s conscious of this I don’t know. As far as I know he’s using his real name, which would generally point away from an attempt to play a character. So who then is this ‘John Maus’ coming out of the speakers? Sure doesn’t seem like the same guy talking in that^ video.

The rest of his work poses the same questions. Even a less ostensibly silly track like ‘Do Your Best’, which immediately precedes ‘Rights for Gays’ on the album, seems to do pretty much the same thing.

Reach out your hand to the one alone
In your city tonight
You gotta do what’s right
In your city tonight

What? Really, John? You want me to go find someone who’s lonely and have a chat with them? Well okay….

This time the track is much doomier, slow chugging basslines and swelling synth pads, vaguely Joy Division-y. There’s no campy trill to his vocals, this is closer to his usual mode. But again the lyrics seem like a clumsy attempt to advocate some lefty cause – let’s all join a befriending service cos our favourite electro pop act tells us to! Or maybe he was just lonely when he wrote it… who knows?

And oh yeah, the music… ‘Electro pop’ pretty much suffices as a description of John Maus. Short of some more neo-classical stylings to the keyboard playing on his earlier stuff (a bit like the Magnetic Fields), and the slightly choral feel his layers of vocals often hint at the music is fairly straight retro electro. Usually a bass guitar chugging over unshowy drum programming, smothered in glistening synths. This isn’t sophisticated sound-designer stuff. The sounds he uses are straight out of your favourite ‘eighties presets’ sample pack, all drenched in unsubtle amounts of reverb.

There’s a seemingly wilful amateurishness to how it all comes together. His early albums have the occasional crackle and mic hiss, which is mostly gone on his ‘breakthrough’ record, 2011’s ‘We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves’. However there’s still a general lack of fidelity which gives it a ‘cheap horror film’ quality. Is this part of the schtick? See above.

We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

Again this adds to the feel of the music as something ‘found’. Like there shouldn’t be a real guy called John Maus wandering round out there. We should be trying to track him down for a retrospective documentary, Searching For Sugar Man style, or Mingering Mike not waiting for him to tour and release a new record.

I’ve got to admit that it’s taken me a while to get to my current status as whatever the Maus equivalent of a Belieber is. On the listening post at Spillers I switched off ‘Streetlight’ about a minute in because the synths sounded naff and the vocals were just utterly lost in the reverb. I still think the synths sound naff and wish I could hear the lyrics better on some songs, but now I love it for the same reason. It also took me nearly twelve months after finally buying ‘We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves’ to finally come to love it (I got it as part of a Bleep albums of the year bundle, if you were wondering).

It’s rare for me to listen to an artist on repeat, never mind one song or album. But last.fm tells me I’ve listened to Maus about 100 times in the last month, and that’s just iPod and laptop listens. He’s sent me back to the days of being a teenage pop fan, playing the same song on one side of a 7” over and over again.

Maus does seem to inspire the same in others. There’s a small, delightfully nutty online community dedicated to him called Mausspace. It wasn’t quite as Capslock House as I was hoping it might be, but there’s similar levels of adulation. If you search you can see a Happy Birthday message to John from his mum in one of the threads, it’s quite sweet.

So what swayed me? What made me a Mausketeer? Well I think it helps that his songs are catchy as fuck, and that even whilst you can sit and write a lovely blog post about the levels of irony in his work there’s still a core of soul in it all. Songs like ‘Bennington’, ‘Big Dumb Man’ and ‘The Fear’ give the impression of being rooted in real experience of demons and lost love, even as they use humour to introduce distance by sleight of hand (a technique I know well).  And ‘Believer’, the last track from ‘…Censors’, has a soaring uplifting quality which isn’t remotely diminished by the fact you can’t really make out a word of what he’s saying. It’s one of two tracks – the other being ‘No Title (Molly)’ – that I wish went on for twice as long as it does.

Ultimately I think it’s those ambiguous lyrical and stylistic hooks that go along with the musical ones. He walks elegantly the tightrope between irony and earnestness, and wrong foots you with occasional moments of ‘hang on, what am I actually listening to here?’. You can’t hear ‘Rights for Gays’ and not do a double take. Maus has made something so convincingly ‘faux outsider’ (I feel a bit sick for coining that expression) that it is actually possible to forget that he’s out there washing his socks, eating bread, and finishing his PhD or whatever, and that believe that you live in a world where the guy in the video doesn’t exist, and ‘John Maus’ is the great lost King of Pop.

I will now scribble his lyrics on my exercise book.

—-

If that’s whetted your appetite, here’s a Spotify Playlist I made of my ten favourite John Maus songs.

Local Sports Team EP “Latvia” + new APR LP

For the last year or so I’ve been playing guitar and singing in a band called Local Sports Team, alongside my regular collaborator David Madoc Roberts – who’s played on a few of my records, in my band, and directed two of my music videos – as well as our friends Tomos Jones (ex-PWL band circa 2008) and Shane Wilson.

We’ve finally got around to recording an EP called ‘Latvia’ which is out to buy tomorrow. If you’re in Cardiff you’ll be able to buy it at a launch gig at Undertone – also tomorrow, or from Spillers as soon as I drop some copies off. People further afield can listen/buy and download it from bandcamp.
http://localsportsteam.bandcamp.com/

LST

Local Sports Team is very much not ‘my new band’, it’s a democratic four way collaboration with all the songs on the EP written from scratch in the practice room, in some cases before I joined. Whilst I have ended up being the main singer and lyricist – at least on the songs we’ve recorded – the words are increasingly based on things we’ve come up with as a band. Reviews have used the word ‘comedy’ but that does tend to conjure up associations of excruciating ‘whack whack oops’ type songs, I prefer ‘light hearted’. The songs are variously about obsessive fandom, undercomplicating things, Facebook, losing yourself in a crowd, and a giant reptile woman attacking Cardiff.

The most in depth review is by Ben Likes Music here:
http://benlikesmusic.com/?p=575

I see Local Sports Team as a band making fun leftfield alternative rock music, serious about doing something of our own, but not in a very serious way. The influences I scribbled down for our press release included Battles, Deerhoof, Pavement, Life Without Buildings, Electrelane, Mogwai, Future of the Left and a few others I’ve forgotten. Reviewers have mentioned Caribou, Yo La Tengo, Jarcrew, and Hirameki Hi-Fi.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on because I think we’re each influenced by music which the other three really quite dislike. Shane is an unashamed, unironic lover of mainstream chart music. David brings lots of metal influences to his drumming. Whereas Tom would happily listen to an endless parade of straightforward punk rock music (think McClusky and the Thermals) for the rest of his life. I’m not going for anything specific with my contributions – I get to ‘play guitar’ a bit more than I do with my own stuff, and I’ve always thought Stephen Malkmus was my biggest guitar playing influence (though I’m clearly not up there in terms of proficiency), whether that comes through or not I don’t know.

So yeah, there’s my take on LST – the others would doubtless see it quite differently. Not bearing sole responsibility for every aspect is a new thing for me. Interested in what you all think.

~

In other news, I’ve finished whatever the audio equivalent of principal photography is on a new solo record, release date tbc.

I’ve come to think of it as a ‘cubist folk’ album, much more relaxed and open than ‘The Signal and the Noise’. The intention this time was to go for sonic coherence throughout, where previously eclecticism has been the order of the day. Mostly based around acoustic guitars but with greater or lesser amounts of computer interventions – reslicing, granular synthesis, arpeggiators etc, and uses of space (field recordings – using acoustically sub-optimal rooms etc). I tried to limit my use of synthesisers, breaking this rule only when that was the only way to get the sound I wanted. Eleanor Tyrrell has once again contributed some beautiful violin playing which also gets chopped up a little, and I’m hoping to add a few guest singers here and there.

Because it was recorded in a single place, and will forever be linked with that place in my mind, I think I’m going to call it ‘Dinas Powys’. I think the slightly arbitrary title reflects the fact that this is just a collection of songs – there was no overarching theme guiding the writing this time, though I think one has emerged organically.

Anyway, that record isn’t out yet… Latvia is. So go listen!