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Producer Chris Zane on the Sick and Twisted Walkmen

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Chris Zane

Behind some of this year’s best records — The Walkmen’s Lisbon, Les Savy Fav’s Root For Ruin, Holy Ghost’s Static on the Wire — is a young producer named Chris Zane. These are vastly different records too, with their own charm and not much in the way of a heavy producer footprint. Zane seems to prefer getting out of the way, which was one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to him for the first in what I hope are many more entries in Riff City’s series about New York Record Producers.

We know a lot about how we feel when we hear a song like, for example, the Walkmen’s “Angela Surf City,” and we have a sense of where the song sits in the fan-fictional entity known as the Canon. But we don’t know much about how the sound itself works to achieve that feeling. I’m hoping to sit down with producers and have them explain specific decisions they made, and specific gestures they were going for, when putting together specific records. I’ll try to keep this from getting too wonky. The goal is to give us more things to love.

Zane works out of Gigantic Studios in Tribeca, which for a while was the in-house studio wing of the I-think-defunct-for-now Gigantic Records. “It’s one of the best studios in New York that nobody knows about,” he told me last week in his control room. (The room apparently used to be part of Philip Glass’s studio, or at least where he kept a piano.) Classic outboard pieces line Zane’s racks, and above his Neve console is a piece of paper hanging sideways from a piece of string. Written on it is the word SUBTLE — circled, and crossed out.

He was born in upstate New York, and learned mixing and recording up in Boston, where he was a studio assistant at Supersonic in Cambridge. “I was always that guy in junior high and high school who had like eight-tracks and recorded — no,” he stopped himself. “Just kidding. I never touched a microphone in my life, ever, until I was 21.”

We talked about a number of records Zane has worked on recently, but his notes on working with the Walkmen are most fascinating, in no small part because Lisbon is such a mysterious record: somehow both ferocious and subdued.

Riff City: Let’s talk about Lisbon. Was this recorded live [as opposed to tracking isolated instruments]?

Chris Zane: They record everything live. The Walkmen do everything every other band thinks they want to do or talks about wanting to do, except they really do it. The caveat to that is, no other band actually wants to do all that. They think they want to do it, they think they want to record to tape, they think they want to do it live, but they don’t. The Walkmen are sick and twisted.

They play everything at once in the same room, except Ham [Hamilton Leithauser] sings in a vocal booth. But live. All at the same time. When the tape was done then the song was done, unless we wanted to add a tambourine or something. And half the time, somebody would play that while they were playing their organ, or something else.

These dudes know who they are, they know what they sound like. I just wanted to make it sound better. I didn’t find out until we were doing You & Me, but their first record hadn’t even been mastered. They mixed it to cassette tape and sent it to the duplication plant.

RC: Tell me more about the guitar tone. You hear that guitar and you know within seconds it’s The Walkmen.

CZ: It’s Paul Maroon’s same amp, this particular amp that he uses — I don’t mean particular model, I mean particular like That One, His — set in a very certain way. He’s tuned into it in a way that you would almost think someone’s lying about. That somebody’s like, “No, it’s not quite right yet” and you’re like, “What is this kid talking about, this shit all sounds the same.” But it really doesn’t sound the same. And he really does know what he’s doing when he sits there and makes these tiny little adjustments to treble and bass and volume and [spring] reverb. They add up in a big way, whether because it inspires him to dig into the guitar differently, or whatever, but it really does have a big effect.

While it might be frustrating how into their vintage shit they are, you end up walking away feeling like you just got schooled by your grandfather who showed you that with like a oil can and a wrench he can fix his ’57 Chevy and it’s still going to outperform your 2009 Corolla. It’s just craftsmanship that doesn’t exist anymore. Paul’s amp and his guitars that he uses — they’re just awesome. They just sound awesome.

When we did You & Me, Paul plays this Rickenbacker, this special Rickenbacker that’s very rare. He’s gone through two of them. They’re hard to find and really overpriced. I said to him, this is the guitar I’ve been searching for my entire life. It has the sound I’ve wanted to hear forever. But it’s like five figures. They did two nights at Bowery Ballroom for a record release for You & Me. After the soundcheck of the first night–second night maybe?–Hamilton stepped on that guitar and broke it. That was August 2008. It’s been in the shop since. It turned into this huge running joke of this guy who’s been fixing this guitar for literally over two years now. Supposedly it’s almost done now. That guitar was magic.

RC: You let the tone of the instruments themselves do the heavy lifting, it sounds like. Not much post-processing or tricks with the mixing.

CZ: It’s the sound. That’s where it always starts. Anybody who tells you that the Walkmen sound is because I stayed in the studio all night and turned knobs… It all starts with two things, sorry producers to blow the whistle: the song, and who’s playing the thing. That’s it.

That said, the way I try to present those sounds to people can play a big role. There isn’t that much direct miking or presentation as you would think. For example, the mic that’s on the guitar on the Walkmen stuff we’ve done is quite far from the amp, maybe two to three feet away, and not even pointed at it. And it’s a ribbon mic. It’s only loosely picking it up. That’s blended into this bigger picture. 75% of the sound of Lisbon is two mics that I just have out in the room trying to capture as much as everybody as possible, really compressed. That’s where most everything is coming from. But it’s about how you blend the other elements into that that makes it sound the way that it does. The layers of reverb on Ham’s vocals, they pull it all together.

RC: The drums on their records are always very roomy, pushed back far in the mix.

CZ: Most of what you’re hearing is from these room mics or overheads. One of the first things I asked the Walkmen was, why are your drums so roomy? How did you stumble into that aesthetic? They told me it was because they were never good enough to record the drums close themselves. It’s suggested by some that it’s the hardest part of recording. It became part of their aesthetic so much that I was doing it. It just sounded right to me. They just don’t love the sound of a close drum. But because it’s played by Matt [Barrick] with such ferociousness, it has that kind of contrast — kind of small, kind of far away, but you get the sense that someone is pummeling the shit out of it.

RC: The horns on the last song, “Lisbon,” have a weird way of just billowing out — no attack.

CZ: That song is one of my favorites. There’s tape effect on almost everyhting. At the beginning of recording, Paul was on this Elvis, Sun shit. So he came in here and was like, “I want to try something new. I’m not going to put any reverb on my amp.” And Ham was like, “Yeah, I don’t want that much on my voice. We’re gonna use slapback.” We started experimenting with some stuff, Space Echo, and I was like: Well, the way Sun did it was they used another tape machine, and used that as the delay. You changed the verispeed to set the tempo. And Paul and Ham were like, “Yeah! Let’s do that!” Typical band. “It sounds… mythical! Let’s do it!” But for some reason it just worked on this song.

The horns for the Walkmen always start in the same way which is, lo and behold, stick them in the room. We decide which days we want horns, and we do all the horn songs that day. So the band’s out there playing, we file all the horn players into that same room, maybe I put one or two mics near them but for the most part it’s just being recorded, the drum mics are recording the horns, the guitar mics are recording the horns. They’re just in the room. And then we’ll start adding horns on top of that. We did two more takes of horns, isolated, blended them in. We also had Paul hack his way through playing some viola and trumpet in his house in Philly, and then bring me those files. It will generally sound god-awful and terrible and unusual, but for whatever reason, when we put it in, it just sounds better, and when we take it out, it sounds lesser. So there’s a little bit of Paul trumpet in there. And then there’s just some particular plate reverb and Space Echo on them that, when it’s all together, has this way of growing and subtracting and growing and subtracting. It sounds a little fucked up but also kind of pretty. That’s what it was meant to do.

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Dipset’s Return and the Tyranny of Promise

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

This past Friday the Diplomats, a group of Harlem-from rappers who had their heyday in the mid-00s before submitting to a kind of quiet entropy, announced their plans for a reunion concert. Cam’Ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey-Zekey appeared together on Hot 97′s Angie Martinez Show, and explained their return with classic Dipset tautologic. “Just for you to see us here together, obviously it was nothing that we couldn’t all put to the side and get over, cause if not, we wouldn’t be here today,” Juelz said. Money, they insist, is not the reason they’re back. Cam and Jones’ “Toast,” which disses Kanye West over his own “Runaway” beat, got its fair share of radio play this past weekend; I may or may not have just watched the “We Fly High” video on Youtube. The concert happens November 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Will you be there?

I moved to New York in 2004, right around when Cam’Ron’s Purple Haze came out. You either thought this album was a joke or a game-changer, and for better or worse, my first friends in the city were people who thought the latter. An entire social life was built out of visiting downtown “mix huts,” collecting Diplomat mixtapes like they were Pokemon, hoping for a new Cam couplet as you fought your way through eighty minutes of poorly mixed audio, radio interview snippets, and the hack emcees Cam kept in the wings: J.R. Writer, Hell Rell, Juelz Santana, Max B, 40 Cal, Un Kasa, et al. (Patience like this reached its zenith as we all sat through the “movie” Killa Season in its entirety.)

There was something fun — that’s really it, just fun — about rooting for the little guys. We charted the progress of J.R. Writer, found that one good Hell Rell song. 40 Cal got his due. I was editing the tracks section of Pitchfork.com, a music recommendation Web site, and this was where we shared our findings in meticulously unkempt, highly allusive, usually bad prose. Over time I admit my ears became attuned to the quality of “promise” more than they should have — not listening to the song itself but dreaming of the new, improved next song the rapper would put together afterward.

Not that I am apologizing for my clique, or for *my* clique, for our enthusiasm. We covered a lot of different kinds of music in the section; I know we missed a lot too. People — listeners, musicians, critics — complained about the crack-rap myopia. But it was what it was. Since then Pitchfork Tracks has transformed into Forkcast, though instead of mostly bad young mixtape rappers, the section celebrates limp lo-fi rock and a mostly bad young synthesizer music known as chillwave. Altered Zones, Pitchfork’s new sister site, is a playground for exactly the kind of “fun” in listening to eager musicians slowly figure out what they’re about. The writing, if we’re being generous, is a performance of the sound. Five years ago, under similar fire, I’m sure I used that same exact sentence as my defense. Fun stuff but not for everybody.

 
We hear a lot about listeners wanting new blood, young blood, etc., but I suspect (and just know in certain cases) that new musicians have started to play into that idea too: putting half-baked, half-finished tracks into inboxes, trying out every which fictitious sounding micro-genre, hoping something falls “in the zone,” so to speak.
 

All’s to say, I wonder what hand I had in Dipset’s first death. Surely not much of one, but overexposure was part of the problem, “crown their cradle” as a Spin editor once put it, right into my review of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut. Maybe if he had more time to themselves, away from the microscope, Hell Rell could have delivered on the promise of “Hell Is Home (Rukmix).” In retrospect, probably not, but I do think our ridiculously high expectations for Dipset — and subsequent impatience with Dipset for not meeting those expectations in a timely manner — had something to do with something. J.R. Writer was a tough sell for anyone whose mouth wasn’t already up to the Dipset fire hydrant.

But this isn’t about “my hand in Dipset’s death,” or even really “Dipset’s death,” so much as it is about whether delight in “watching young musicians figure out what they’re about” has eroded rock critics’ ability to assess the overall goodness of new music qua music. Riff City favorite Wavves are a solid recent example: an act celebrated mostly for being slightly less shitty than when they first started.

We hear a lot about listeners wanting new blood, young blood, etc., but I suspect (and just know in certain cases) that new musicians have started to play into that idea too: putting half-baked, half-finished tracks into inboxes, trying out every which fictitious sounding micro-genre, hoping something falls “in the zone,” so to speak. If it works, they get some time to figure out what they’re actually doing, a sense of critical investment (“Seaashellzz’s new track makes good on the promise of…”), at the very least an opening slot at Death By Audio. They make music the internet critics recommend, precisely because it’s the kind of music the internet critics recommend. And you were angry at us for what again?

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How Kanye West’s Online Triumphs Have Eclipsed Kanye West

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Kanye West in his latest online trailor, "Runaway."

If there’s a reason I haven’t written about Kanye West and his recent online triumphs, maybe it’s the feeling that, in the process, I’d somehow be getting played. These triumphs, after all, are in the field of Getting People To Talk About Kanye West. Week after week, he has maintained the spectacle of himself: an eminently retweetable Twitter feed; the blog-baiting novelty collaborations with international pop star Justin Bieber and mere internet pop star Bon Iver too; his well-timed apology to Taylor Swift; the revelation, presumably with his silent nod, that West keeps a blue-blooded Yale undergrad in his inner circle, Cassius Clay, who provides him with fashion tips — news which hit just in time for Fashion Week.

Maybe there are people working with him on these kinds of stunts, but I get the sense that Kanye is generating the lot of these ideas. I imagine he likes being in control of every aspect of the production, the medium being the message and so on. Online he is a wise fool, first playing into people’s perceptions of “Kanye West,” then off those very perceptions, sending himself up, pulling back his own veil, bringing back the caps lock. Despite many attempts, Kanye West is incapable of being parodied, largely because Kanye West has already figured out a way to be a parody of Kanye West. He can and will and has sublimated all bad press about “Kanye West” into plot points for a much larger storyline that we don’t know about. Got Played?

So let’s talk about “GOOD Fridays.” Punning off his label name and, maybe, a certain controversial Rolling Stone cover, West will deliver a new free track on his Web site every Friday until Christmas. Sometimes West tweets about the tracks leading up to the big day. He also hints at the collaborators weeks in advance, which means West scores both anticipatory blog coverage — theories about what the track might possibly sound like I mean Bon Iver? Will this be anything but a disaster? and so on — and Official Blogger Takes when the internet finally hears the tracks, decides whether they “lived up” to the hype that the bloggers themselves helped create, etc. Keep in mind also that these tracks are released on Fridays, the end of the news cycle, so if it’s a dud, no stench will linger. The song will have already done its ‘work’ for West before it was released anyway, and goes gently into the weekend. Come Sunday, West will rise again.

There have been six “GOOD Friday” tracks so far; all of them are, in fact, pretty good. Lower expectations (the implication, truth or not, is that West only has a week), excellent equipment (one glance at Kanye’s racks and we’d realize he’s not just buying YSL suits), friends who themselves could use a promotional push, and of course West himself, who even if he lacked songwriting ability he could compensate with Kanye-ness — all these conditions mean that we’re not going to get anything that ever sounds bad, and likely will be better than most rap songs released this year anyway. The songs vary in mood and mode too, from the aggressive boast of “Monster” to the neo-soul number “Lord Lord Lord,” showcasing the variety Kanye’s abilities in the process.

 
It bums me out that music is so devalued at this point that Kanye West — one of the greats — is giving away his entire album a track at a time here because albums are basically just ‘promotional materials’ for ‘artist brands.’
 

Point being, the full-time job of being the celebrity personality “Kanye West” has not impeded his full-time job of being the forward-thinking hip-hop producer Kanye West. A humility is implicit here: West remains open to new ideas and new ways to do things, he works his ass off, he constantly wants to improve himself in every regard, from shoe selection to Twitter swag to the lyrics and vocal performances of his newest songs. There are apparently these short films he’s working on too. No joke.

As for my other foot dropping? It bums me out that even the most significant mountain-moving type pop artists like Kanye West have to be “good at Twitter” in order to put a dent in the zeitgeist. That his music — very little music anymore, not even the best stuff — can’t do the kind of heavy lifting that movies and video games and television can without this extra-song-and-dance. It bums me out that Kanye West, who is Kanye West, has 1.2 million Twitter followers, while Ashton Kutcher, who is Ashton Kutcher, has 5.9. It bums me out that music is so devalued at this point that Kanye West — one of the greats — is giving away his entire album a track at a time here because albums are basically just “promotional materials” for “artist brands.” It bums me out because I like albums, not artists — so also it bums me out that Kanye West, who knows how good these songs are (he tells us so), week after week raises the expectations of what “free new music” sounds like, glossing over the fact that it took a lot of major label money and quality studios for Kanye to develop this sound. Rome is burning, so…  It bums me out that he’s contributing to the speed with which we are willingly consuming “free new music,” which is to say all new music, which rarely gets more than a second or third listen because there’s always some new Great Kanye West track to get to. It bums me out that Kanye West, in order to be “Kanye West,” is devaluing Kanye West’s Music.

You’d be right to ask what else he can do. It’s a tough spot. “Nowadays rappers, they like bloggers,” is what Swizz Beatz says on “Lord Lord Lord,” which came out this past Saturday. The line would be more accurate if all bloggers started from the position of being top-notch writers and were now forced to blog to stay relevant. But even still, the idea of “keeping a pulse” on the internet is a real thing both rappers and bloggers worry about. Slowly the work itself becomes secondary, less ambitious; slowly people become “really proud of their tweets.” Is it really too risky at this point to just check out for a year? It might be. You can’t die, otherwise we will do nothing in memory of you.

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On Pitchfork’s Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s

So these are the best tracks of the 90s. Something's missing.
By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 8th, 2010
Pavement

Pavement, champions

All last week, the music recommendation website Pitchfork.com rolled out their “Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s” feature. My guess is things haven’t changed much since I last contributed to one of their lists, which means there were a series of rounds in which reviewers suggested possible tracks, then the top editors whittled down the list to about 1000 or so nominees, and those were the ones the reviewers voted on in the end. The list cuts across genres and has a definitive feel, but by the very non-definitive nature of lists, it functions mostly as a conversation-starter, traffic generator, that kind of thing. The top ten, of course, would be more or less predictable, as it always is: “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, “Are You Gonna Go My Way” by Lenny Kravitz, and so on. But I spent Monday through Thursday clicking through the list, looking for songs I hadn’t heard before or simply had forgotten.

But then I must have hit refresh on my browser hundreds of times Friday morning, waiting for the site to correct one blatant error: no Kravitz in the Top Ten? I could name at least 200 songs that “Are You Gonna Go My Way” was better than; somehow all 200 of those songs were on this list though. To be honest, when I clicked “Next” to go from the Top 20-11 to the Top 10 that morning, I half-expected Pitchfork to have made room for various live cuts of the song too, to say nothing of the original demo, which has more of a lo-fi/”indie” feel to it. Instead “Are You Gonna Go My Way” appeared in no form whatsoever on this list.

It has been a confusing few days. Over the weekend I spent a lot of time thinking about the matter, discussing it with friends in the music recommendation industry, trying to understand how this might have happened. Was “Are You Gonna Go My Way” just too obvious? I can see reviewers on the staff board saying something to that extent. Everyone already knows how “Are You Gonna Go My Way” is the best song/”track” of the 90s. Why put out another boring old list with Lenny Kravitz at the top of the list like he always is? (He’s not always or really ever on the top of any list, but my sense is that most “Best X of the 90s” type situations deliberately leave off Kravitz for this reason. It’s simply unfair for the other artists to be compared to a stone-cold classic.)

Another hypothesis is this: Maybe people don’t know that “Are You Gonna Go My Way” came out in 1993. I imagine this is a problem with most timeless rock and roll masterpieces. What year did it come out? It’s always very unclear, what with the track being timeless. So it seems entirely plausible that it didn’t even occur to the editors and contributors that this song was even eligible.

I admit I didn’t like “AYGGMW” the first time I heard it. Electric guitars, awesome singing, epic solos–same old, same old. This is just what we’ve come to expect from Lenny. But then I saw the music video. Lenny Kravitz is wearing platform shoes and something like a hybrid jumpsuit/expensive woman’s dress. He is in an enormous circular room filled with people, and refuses to play his guitar until the producers lower down a flashing ring-shaped chandelier that he probably picked out on his own. The chick from the Lenny Kravitz video is playing drums. Near the end of the video someone jumps from the second-floor balcony and lands on the ground at the exact moment it’s time for the guitars to come back in. And turn this planet back to one! Now the song was making a lot more sense to me. That said, I can see how Pitchfork might have been worried about giving it top honors. You’ll notice that not a single artist on the list wore platform shoes in his music video. It might have reflected poorly on the site.

What would my list look like? Probably a lot like yours. Here are the top five tracks of the 1990s:

5. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way (Live On Top Of The Pops)

4. Robbie Williams and Tom Jones – Are You Gonna Go My Way (Lenny Kravitz cover)

3. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way? (Live at the MTV Awards 1993, featuring John Paul Jones)

2. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way (Studio Version)

tied with:

2. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way? (Live On TV 3Sat)

(Note: This is more of a bluesy take. The slower tempo lets Lenny sell that chorus: “Are you gonna go my way?!” It seems like he really doesn’t know whether or not you will this time, whereas in the original cut the chorus feel is more “You’re probably gonna go my way.”)

1. Jamiroquai – Virtual Insanity

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On Katy Perry’s "Teenage Dream"

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Katy Perry

This thing is the number one song on iTunes, number three on Billboard, and number one in the overpriced Korean grocery market in my neighborhood. Katy Perry, who sings, is on the cover of Rolling Stone, wearing what I guess is a bra and looking like a bustier version of the 1960s. She makes headlines in my world for wacky hair pieces she wore or didn’t wear, for off-hand comments she made on Twitter, for banal (and for that matter all the more unusual) developments in her love life with the actor Russell Brand.

Other people care about Katy Perry right now, or at least the concept of Katy Perry, the promise of a Pop Star We Can All Get Behind. In that way, “Teenage Dream” is not unlike the last pregnant woman in the movie Children Of Men. She is, maybe, if things work out, our common cause. The World Cup is over! We’re now counting on Katy Perry, heart-shaped face of the music industry, to deliver us something to enjoy alongside people who are vastly different from ourselves.

“Teenage Dream,” like most pop numbers, is built to be immediately pleasurable. It is a focused dose of proven tropes and themes and sounds, mutated just enough so that, with any luck, the general public is not bored or distracted by the recognition of those tropes. With any luck, the recognition is pleasurable, too: The deployment of a specific sound or rhythm carries a kind of comfort for the listener. If it starts this way, or if it has this beat, the song will probably win me over. People hear the opening guitar riff of “Teenage Dream,” connected it with Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” and the double recognition — they liked that guitar riff, and they liked that they liked that guitar riff — goes a long way for just two bars of music. Perry hasn’t even started singing.

I worry I am among the population of people who suffer from a kind of pop music anhedonia — an inability to experience the intended pleasure of perfect, precise pop songs like “Teenage Dream.” One might argue it’s my job to at least try. So this is my thought-by-thought attempt to understand and overcome all inhibitions, to see how many steps removed from the sound itself it takes me to find something to like about the most popular song in America. In order:

1. Not feeling this. Didn’t like the Kelly Clarkson song that started this way either.

2. My friends all like this, and probably liked the Kelly Clarkson song. Whatever, it’s an intro. I can imagine the possibility of other people liking such a thing as a held-back beat/guitar downstroke opening. History has proven this move a winner. See also: The Strokes’ “Last Nite.”

3. The same people who wrote the Kelly Clarkson song (“Since U Been Gone”) are the same people who wrote this one. Dr. Luke and Max Martin. Can I blame the producers for cannibalizing themselves, sticking to what works? This is what all major pop producers do — develop a signature bag of tricks. The up-the-scale synth riff on “California Gurls” that Luke, Martin, and Benny Blanco used for Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” just a few months ago. The “Eurogate” supersaw fruity loop that Tricky Stewart uses for “Circle The Drain” and “Who Am I Living For?” — both songs on this very album. Choruses coming in around :53 or :54 on almost half the songs. Confer romantic comedies, detective novels, everything.

4. I don’t like the song, but admire the process of making it. I admire the subtle changes to tropes that make people like pop songs. I admire the way, for instance, that the main guitar riff is mixed here: wide stereo panning, two monophonic lines played together as opposed to one guitar playing two notes at once, lots of attack a/k/a “string action.” Similar line to “Since U Been Gone” but played and produced very differently.

 
Isn’t this the same thing as saying I admire the song for being an advertisement for Katy Perry? And isn’t the build-out of this idea something more frightening and propagandistic, the way Stockhausen worried about martial beats, the way Adorno worried about Tin Pan Alley, the way a government can manipulate via culture?
 

5. Is this another way of saying I am appreciating a kind of manipulation? Am I in the control room now, talking about what “people” will like about the song, or why “people” won’t like the song unless X or Y happens? What makes these people different from “me” exactly?

6. Maybe “people” don’t “see” the structures of the songs. Consider the production team who call themselves The Matrix. They create the web of numbers that comprise what we believe to be the seamless, unconstructed “reality” of the song we are hearing.

7. But my friends, my critic-friends, they see the structures. Critics are not unaware of the tropes. And my favorite critics like this song. They are not being manipulated, but they also experience an immediate pleasure. First and foremost they like Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” not Dr. Luke and Max Martin’s precise machine. Or they are willfully being manipulated.

8. How can they like this song? Katy Perry’s voice is a cipher. All delivery and character in the vocal track is lost through an extreme, unflattering compression, as if the producers were trying to reduce her voice to the melody’s notes on the staff paper. It is rote execution. Anybody could be singing this song.

9. It is impossible, at least right here right now, to think of Kate Perry’s “Teenage Dream” without conflating it with the knowledge of who Kate Perry “is.” Her voice is a cipher precisely so that “people” will fill it up with what they know about Perry courtesy the media and Perry PR. This is the Katy Perry who is singing “Teenage Dream.” Problem solved.

10. Taking stock here. I don’t like this song, but do appreciate the work and process that went into making it. I don’t like Katy Perry’s voice, which has no character, but I do like this “voice is a deliberate cipher” type idea I have developed. I admire the overall cultural product that is “Katy Perry,” a complex of music and persona.

11. Isn’t this the same thing as saying I admire the song for being an advertisement for Katy Perry? And isn’t the build-out of this idea something more frightening and propagandistic, the way Stockhausen worried about martial beats, the way Adorno worried about Tin Pan Alley, the way a government can manipulate via culture?

12. Ann Powers at the LA Times thinks it’s Katy Perry’s “brutally effective advertisement for a self” — worth three out of four stars.

13. Is there anything more patronizing a critic can do than reward an artist for her “brutally effective advertisement”?

14. Pop music is what people like and listen to. Even as a recreational rock critic, I have an obligation to report on this kind of music, which exists to sell both itself and the artist’s greater brand, and to find some entry point into it. If I want to eat, I have to find a way to make this music interesting to me.

15. So now I am not in the realm of liking the song; or the construction of the song; or the thought process behind the construction of the song; or the way in which the song mediates between the artist and the general public; or my understanding of any of these topics, since actually they depress the hell out of me.

To be clear, now I am in the realm of appreciating other people’s appreciations of the song. This is where I start to get behind Katy Perry: e.g. Ryan Dombal’s excellent piece in the Voice, about the construction of celebrity, about the negative approach involved in carving out one’s niche in the world of celebrity: I’m not “this,” I’m not “that,” I’m not “the other,” until slowly she became what she was, i.e. a “human being.”

16. This is a song about inhibitions melting away, feeling (if only for a few minutes) like a teenager, acting irrationally, which is to say following the heart as it’s commonly called, not the brain. “Teenage Dream” not “Teenage Reality,” etc. I guess I take a small amount of pleasure in the irony of my failure.

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Lost in The Suburbs: How We Failed Arcade Fire

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

I don’t read much rock criticism except the stuff my friends write, but for whatever reason I was curious to see reviews of The Suburbs, the new album by Montreal indie rock band Arcade Fire. If I’m being upfront, this album impresses the hell out of me. I wanted to see what paid professionals thought of the album’s bigger curve balls: the extra ninth beat in the verses of “Modern Man”; the Suicide-like moves on post-punk number “Month Of May,” complete with tape delay and Vega yelp and disoriented drum sounds; in general, how Win Butler has become a better vocalist with every album, less reliant on the affected vibrato of Funeral, less ‘on’ the mic too. The album is full of specific decisions, off-kilter reference points, subtle gestures in the production, all in service of one question: How can I, the musician, make this melody sound familiar but surprising? What do I need to scoff up a bit to make this thing work?

From one paid professional, I learned about The Suburbs’ “impressively fervent majesty.” Another paid professional wrote: “In their dictionary, ‘suburbs’ is nowhere near ‘subtlety’.” A paid professional at a music recommendation website got a few toes wet, reporting that in “We Come To Wait,” “staccato, minor-key piano chords evoke anxiety.” What I learned from the reviews, which were mostly very positive, was that The Suburbs recalls songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young — probably the similarities in subject matter and Butler’s voice and the acoustic guitar strumming. The album is 16 songs long with an hour runtime, which of course means it is ambitious. The band must be attempting to make a grand statement about suburb life; yet somehow this is also “their most straightforward work to date.”

More than liking this album — and I’m not saying they don’t derive actual physical pleasure from listening — the paid professionals seem to like what the album signifies. The themes and reference points and present-day contexts have lined up like planets in a solar system. The reviews wrote themselves.

 
From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities.
 

There are a few people not digging Arcade Fire, this album, whatever, as much as I or others do. Rob Harvilla at the Voice wishes the band was funnier, which is one way to say he thinks Butler is a corny dude. (I think the chorus of “Rococo” is sardonic and hilarious, on the right side of “humor in music,” but whatever.) On the flip is Bob Christgau, who likes The Suburbs fine but misses when Butler was more urgent and explicit about his politics, when we knew who the they were. Either way. There are situations when lyrics are deal-breakers. Even in the most rah-rah reviews of The Suburbs, critics were more than happy to hang dry Butler’s words, as if negativity and specificity in this regard gave weight to their otherwise nebulous praise.

Which is the issue here: The most prominent paid professionals will not give me reasons why they like these songs as compositions, productions, performances — anything other than as signifiers of various contexts that sit well with them. No explanation of mechanics, how the songs surprise in new ways, but delight in the old ones. Maybe that makes me the last boy scout — wanting to talk about these things, to geek out about the different kinds of knots the band had to tie, so to speak. Songs like the Hold Steady’s, where lyrics are heavier in the balance, seem to get these people more quickly out of their tents. Maybe good lyrics are easier to dance about.

Do I want record reviews to read like the Tape-Op messageboards? Not exactly, but here’s where we stand if professional writings about one of the year’s best pop albums indicate anything: Rock criticism as ‘criticism of music’ remains a non-fiction fan-fiction enterprise. It is a flaccid, indecisive farce — neither informed nor informative nor entertaining — when the only thing it can say about the song “Deep Blue” is that it “doesn’t develop its Kasparov vs. IBM metaphor into more than an afterthought.” No mention anywhere of the genius move it was to nick the intro of Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for a song about technological alienation, a song that never makes its way to the beach.

Call it the Context of All Context: From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities. If we’re lucky, we are treated to some new-crit flight of fancy in which the critic shows how the album resonates in the larger world and vice versa, or probably something about gender issues. Or maybe, if we’re really lucky, the critic completely and deliberately misunderstands an artist’s intent in such a way that it doesn’t so much explicate the music as it does give us new context altogether. A stunt review — an acknowledgment of rock criticism’s failure as music criticism — at least has the decency to entertain, though good luck finding someone to pay you for one of those. Cue staccato minor-key chords.

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Gathering of the Journalos: The Lessons of Tila Tequila

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Juggalos

The music festival known as the Gathering of the Juggalos took place in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois this past weekend. You might have heard about this otherwise non-event because Tila Tequila, a celebrity who is famous for being a celebrity, was pelted with rocks, water bottles filled with urine, a bag of chicken tenderloin, and even human feces during her rap performance. Tequila persevered at first but the show was cut short. Security guards escorted her offstage, her face covered in blood, her breasts still exposed from a last-ditch attempt at pacifying the crowd.

The Village Voice‘s Camille Dodero, a fantastic journalist and a friend of mine, was there in person and reported out the whole thing, down to how the attack appears to have been premeditated on Juggalo message boards. “Everybody that comes — they know where they’re going and they know who they’re performing for,” said Violent J, a member of the Insane Clown Posse, at a public forum afterwards. He said he felt bad for Tequila, and wished the Juggalos “wouldn’t throw the shit, man.” In a different situation Shaggy 2 Dope, the other ICP rapper, joked, “I’ll throw my dick at her.” Tequila intends to sue the festival organizers.

The Juggalos are devotees of the Insane Clown Posse, a manic-depressive “horrorcore” rap troupe from Michigan that, like Camus’s Meursault, proudly refers to itself as “the most hated band in the world.” Both the band and the fans are a marginalized slash self-marginalizing populace, which is canny and preemptive. It’s a way to elude criticism from the mainstream, i.e. people who are not Juggalos. The mainstream never understood Juggalos in the first place, which is why there are Juggalos in the second place, and so on.

 
Like any bacchanalia, the Gathering is a psychic exhaust pipe, a break from self-awareness, a last stand on the world’s complete indifference to you. At best this festival, now eleven years in, has the added charm of being the only place and time where Juggalos believe they enjoy complete acceptance.
 

Despite the particulars, the Gathering is your standard outdoor drugs-tits-tents debauchery type deal, with a sidestage repertoire not unlike ones at Woodstocks and Bonnaroos and Phish concerts. I receive a now yearly email from a friend who insists the Gathering is due for a “full-on New Yorker-style” treatment — ”the Juggalos are our country’s last viable subculture” — but I don’t see deeper meaning here. Like any bacchanalia, the Gathering is a psychic exhaust pipe, a break from self-awareness, a last stand on the world’s complete indifference to you. At best this festival, now eleven years in, has the added charm of being the only place and time where Juggalos believe they enjoy complete acceptance. You hear the cheer “Fa-Mi-Ly” a lot at this thing apparently — right up there with “Show Your Tits.”

Insane Clown Posse, whose fans decode their every move and lyric in search of messianic messages and truths to live by, are always the Gathering’s main headliner. Subsidiary bands on ICP’s label Psychopathic Records provide the necessary ramp-up to the big event, and since the third Gathering, festival organizers have invited musical acts and comedians just outside the Juggalo sweet spot to perform, too: forgotten rappers like Coolio, Bushwick Bill, Killah Priest, Ice-T, and Vanilla Ice. Many of them work out fine; others just don’t. At the height of his popularity, the emotive white Southern rapper Bubba Sparxxx was booed off the stage so memorably that there is now an unofficial Bubba Sparxxx Award, given to the artist who just can’t handle the abuse.

The Juggalos turned it into a game, in other words: heckling, booing, throwing things at the guest artists, trying to get them to break. There is an element of role reversal — the bullied are now the bullies — but again, there’s this self-preservational aspect, too. Nobody forced the artist to appear on stage. The artist knew upfront he was about to sit in a snake pit. Why is he surprised he got bit?

(The festival pays well, I’m told: a lesser-known New York comedian was supposedly given $5000 for his appearance this year, so you can imagine what the bigger snake-pit acts like Lil Kim or Tom Green pulled.)

For musicians and comedians who believe their art has some kind of transcendental appeal that can reach even the darkest, most compromised corners of humanity, an invite to the Gathering is an interesting dare. I’m reminded of a very important scene in the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, when Pee-Wee is at a private biker bar and knocks over a long row of motorcycles outside. The bikers intend to kill him for this mistake. Before that they grant Pee-Wee one last request. Pee-Wee queues up the jukebox, assembles himself on top of a table, and when the song comes on, he does that goofy dance he does. The bikers’ anger melts away. All is forgiven. They are so moved they even let him borrow one of their motorcycles to continue on his journey. (The song Pee-Wee played was the instrumental rock tune “Tequila,” by one-hit wonder the Champs.)

 
Far from sticking to her guns as an outcast, a reject, Tequila disavowed herself completely, to the point of being a cipher. She rapped, she acted. She modeled, she was your whatever you want. She wanted to be loved in a way that no Juggalo ever wants to be loved.
 

So I can see why Tila Tequila might have thought she had a fighting chance at this thing. Leading up to the Gathering, she was not exactly well loved. When her fiance Casey Johnson died from diabetes complications this past January, the gossip world didn’t take well to Tequila’s stunt-like grieving — twittering constantly, keeping the spotlight on herself at all costs. The petite Singaporean-born 28-year-old is a very modern celebrity, in that her most notable achievement is that she became a celebrity. She peaked with a two-season stint as host of her own reality show, but the world was done being kind with her after that. When she took the Gathering gig, maybe she was in fact “down with the Juggalos,” a camaraderie shared in both feeling hated.

And yet just as clearly, here was a woman who represented the complete opposite path that any self-respectingly self-pitying Juggalo would take. Far from sticking to her guns as an outcast, a reject, Tequila disavowed herself completely, to the point of being a cipher. She rapped, she acted. She modeled, she was your whatever you want. She wanted to be loved in a way that no Juggalo ever wants to be loved. Scorn for her made more sense than for any other Gathering guest act prior. The justification would be twisted (or “twiztid”), but still, Tequila was a Judas figure. How dare she turn her back on the rest of us losers?

Granted, I don’t think any of that was going through the heads of these rock-throwing dread-and-circus hooligans. The ignobile vulgus doesn’t have the best track record, especially when on PCP. And yet every side of this ordeal walks away with exactly what they wanted in the first place. Tequila has undergone a biblical amount of hatred. The fame whore was publicly stoned. This is real pain, and beyond the immediate bump in public interest, she now has something the public might validly point to as a jumpoff for real, transportive artmaking. She has sublimated herself, or at least has made herself seem sympathetic, which is not a bad spot for her. Tequila accepted the Juggalo dare and, with the right producer and ghostwriter and PR blitz, might catch that second wind she needs.

And beyond the taste of blood, the Juggalos enjoy a renewed sense of their misfitry — reveling in the public’s distaste for more or less everything about them. Which strongly ties into the walkaway for the journalists who covered the event, or who are processing it from afar, or who hope next year they can convince an editor that there is a real David Foster Wallace type story to tell here.

Because usually there is no story to tell here, or not one that’s remotely objective. There is a funny story, one that involves recounting the absurd goings-on in a cold and effectively detached manner, letting these people explain themselves, i.e. letting them make fools of themselves. There is the Attempt To Sympathize story for the Gathering, wherein one tries hard to understand Juggalos from their point of view but ultimately can’t because he can never shake the very ‘objective’ reason for wanting to write the piece in the first place, which is strong evidence, even before arriving on site, that the emperor/clown prince wears no clothes. There is the Contrarian Case for this story, building off of Jonah Weiner’s argument that ICP is more self-aware than we give them credit, more deliberately funny, though in the case of the Gathering, I suspect that would involve a complicated crab walk along the mobius strip of new criticism. No observation comes without equal consequence to the observed — but there are exceptions, and Juggalos might be one of them. This subculture is a black hole that, if it is to continue existing, must devour all our attempts at trying to understand it. Including this one.

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Jennifer Egan on Goon Squad, Muddiness and the Acrobatics of Eminem

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Jennifer Egan

Brooklyn author Jennifer Egan had a story called “Ask Me If I Care” in the New Yorker this past March. It’s about, among other things, a group of teenagers making their way through the Bay Area punk scene in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Two of the characters are in a fictional act called the Flaming Dildos, who play a disastrous show-turned-brawl later in the story. Egan has some brilliant asides in here (“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk?”), but that’s something we expect from good fiction. The reason I wanted to talk to her was a feeling I got when reading that story, namely that Egan might be better than every music critic ever at describing both how music is made and what listening to music feels like.

Her new novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, isn’t “rock and roll fiction,” but many of her characters have intense relationships with music and the industry, and one of them, Bennie Salazar, is an aging record executive. Last week, Egan and I talked on the phone about the research she did, the difficulty of working music into fiction, and her own musical history.

Riff City: In the second story, you write, “Bennie is listening for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.” What kind of research did you do to write the character?

Jennifer Egan: I spent a lot of time on the phone with a guy named Chuck Zwicky. He’s a producer/mixer, as I understand it. He had to explain things as basic as the difference between analog and digital. I think I knew intuitively what I was going for, what it was that Bennie was so dissatisfied with. I knew that the industry was having lots of problems with piracy, et cetera, as a result of digitization. But the actual technology I didn’t have enough nuts and bolts to write about.

I did a fair amount of reading as well. One was Jacob Slichter’s book So You Wanna Be A Rock and Rock Star. He’s from Semisonic. It’s the story of what it feels like to be lifted out of obscurity with a mega hit — their song “Closing Time” was ubiquitous — and, in a way, to be dashed down from that height back into a struggling band.

As with most topics that I take on, my research was a combination of interactions with people, really reporting, combined with reading. I feel like the combination works so well. The reporting, the talking to people, and the seeing stuff is what brings it to life. All of the book stuff just supplements it.

RC:  One of the gripes people can have about music writing is when the writer just lists band names as reference points rather than describing the music itself. But you somehow make both approaches work — the lists of bands, the parts when you go in and describe the music.

JE: As far as describing the music, I didn’t have a rule with myself about when to do that. I do most things very instinctively, and often will question them later and need to have an answer to satisfy the question, but won’t come at it from a theoretical standpoint. I think there were periods in “The Gold Cure”, which was probably the most researched story in there — it’s about a record producer at work, so I have to know what I’m talking about — I think there may have been moments when my research showed its face too much. This is a common trap fiction writers fall into. I was eager to display my knowledge and it got a little cross-eyed with detail. It has to be flushed away. The time to describe music it seemd to me was when the quality and the texture mattered a lot to the character whose mind we were in. That’s always the reason to expand on something in fiction.

In writing about Bennie, who feels this urgency about the industry’s decline, and is really on the warpath in a certain way, writing about the experience of his listening to music seemed really important. There was a moment that I struggled with for years of working on this book, when he first starts to listen to the Stop/Go sisters, and he has this ecstatic reaction to just hearing the music happen. Finding the words to describe that moment was really hard. Writing about music must have some of the same problems of writing about wine. The earthy undertones, the barnyard finish or whatever it is. Come on? Can’t you think of something better? But it’s actually hard.  I wanted to capture what the excitement of listening to any music was for Bennie. That was tough. It’s a tall order.

“Hearing the music get made, that was the thing. People and instruments and beaten looking equipment aligning into a single structure of sound, flexible and live.”

That was the sentence that almost killed me. But a sentence that does more for some reason came effortlessly, and that was the feeling of Bennie listening to this music:

“These sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body, whose shivering bursting reply made him dizzy.”

That happened instantaneously. But that other sentence, summing up what it’s like to watch or to listen to a band start to play, that was so hard. I did struggle with this stuff.

RC: One of your chapters is written in Power Point slides, about the history of pauses in rock songs.

JE: That Power Point chapter was extremely hard to do. I cannot overplay the technical difficulties of trying to make that work. There was a point when I had some of it, but I didn’t really have an arc that worked, and I was really running out of time, I had already sold the book. How can I make this thing work? And then my husband put on this new CD he had gotten from a group called Let’s Go Sailing. It’s a song called “Sideways”.  Now there’s no pause in the song. Thematically it is literally no overlap with that chapter. But I listened to that song and I thought, that’s what I’m going for. There was this feeling that I had from the song that made me think that I could make the story work if I could capture that feeling, which I still can’t name.

If I’m walking, it’s really helpful if I’m struggling with something, I’ll just walk and walk and walk. Somehow being in physical motion let’s my mind move a little more freely instead of just turning circles. I copied “Sideways” onto my iPod, I put it on repeat and, I’m not kidding you, for like five hours I walked around Brooklyn listening to that one song. It’s not like I cracked the chapter in that period but it was a critical part of the process.

RC:  You grew up in the Bay Area of course, but walk me through your musical history, the different bands you’ve liked over time.

JE: I went to hear the Dead Kennedys all the time. I remember Jello Biafra vividly. Eye Protection, a guy in my high school was in the band. The Sleepers I knew the producer. Flipper, a friend of mine dated the bassist. I say this as someone who was a complete non-entity in that world. I was invisible. But I did have these connections to it. In a way, I tried to use the bands that felt close to me. There was just sort of an integrity to that. I wanted to invoke them. I wanted to invoke that moment as I remembered it.

 
We’re just flailing around in high school, fighting with our parents, struggling with acne and eating disorders. The music seems to come like a signal from a spaceship to tell us that, from this faraway perspective, it’s all gonna be okay — or to narrate our misery and unease.
 

I was a gigantic Who freak. If I could pick one band that I loved more than any other in my life, it was The Who. I recognized that the Stones had a greater range and had more excellent songs, but there was just no substitute for the way I felt about the Who.

Nothing I’m going to say is going to seem surprising or sharply defining as a point of view. I was pretty much in the mainstream. Except in general my taste is toward a little bit harder stuff. I don’t like things that are really soft. One group my husband and I really bicker on is Belle and Sebastian. I just find them too soft. It’s like a big fluffy pillow that I just get lost in.

RC: What is it about the window between ages 12 and 18, do you think, that makes people so susceptible to music, and why do you think people kind of close themselves off after that?

JE: So much of my experience as a teenager was trying to imagine what sort of life I was going to have. I think I grabbed onto music that helped me answer that question. What the answer was, I could not tell you. What answer did Iggy Pop have for me? But when I listen to those songs, like “Lust for Life” or “The Passenger”, I would think I’m going to grow up and have an interesting life. That’s sort of what it was about.

At that point in our lives we have no personal experience to go on in terms of how we’re going to function out in the world. We’re just flailing around in high school, fighting with our parents, struggling with acne and eating disorders. The music seems to come like a signal from a spaceship to tell us that, from this faraway perspective, it’s all gonna be okay — or to narrate our misery and unease.

I think that once we exit from that particular window and get jobs and start to put down roots, our identity is never hanging in the balance in that way again. Then we’re looking for music often the way people are looking for art to match their couch. Fitting into a structure we’ve already created.

My son, who is nine, is wild for Eminem. When I first listened to Eminem I hated him. I really hated his message. My son would listen to this and storm around with a frown on his face grumbling Eminem lyrics to himself, and I thought, God, can someone just get rid of this guy? He’s ruining our family life.

But then my son said I was not considering his greatness carefully enough. And I started listening to his — really, his acrobatics. I became really interested in him. He’s pretty amazing. His message is limited but his technique is incredible.

RC: I like that your son pushed you on this one.

He’s been reading biographies of Eminem. I still feel it. I know what he’s going through, I remember it so vividly. He said — he lifted up a finger and he said, “Mom, there’s a lot in these books that’s counter to what you think about Eminem.” We now walk down the street with one ear bud in each of our ears, listening to Eminem, holding hands. This is meaningful to him. If it’s meaningful to him, it’s meaningful to me. I guess I’m depriving him of the rebellious experience we all crave, but he seems to really want to share it with me. I’m grateful. There’s this thing that Eminem does with the word “coroner” and “corner” in his song “3AM” that takes my breath away.

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Les Savy Fav’s New LP: Meet Me in the Dollar Bin

An online leak of the Brooklyn band's latest album exposed an unexpected precious side. Thankfully, the forthcoming Root for Ruin does anything but.
By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Les Savy Fav

Two weeks ago the Brooklyn punk rock band  Les Savy Fav saw their fifth studio album Root For Ruin leak online — more than a month before it was due for release. The band reacted quickly, almost too quickly, as if they were counting on a leak all along. A ragged announcement went up on lessavyfav.com entitled I ‘Stole’ Root For Ruin, where freeloaders were encouraged to donate via Paypal as a kind of moral quid pro quo. The band also launched a Twitter ‘ghost’ account called U_Took_My_Music; anyone who had mentioned the leak on Twitter was presumed guilty, or at least complicit, and the ghost ‘haunted’ (harassed) the culprit until he made monetary reparations. Aside from lampooning their own efforts to do something about the leak, in the end there wasn’t much the band could do. Syd Butler, the band’s bassist and the owner of Frenchkiss Records, who put out all LSF releases, bumped the digital release of Root For Ruin from September 13 to August 3, which was yesterday.

Some version of the Album Leak Song And Dance happens every day. It’s on the musician to be “cool” about it: to pretend like, after so much work and money, the leak’s not that big of a deal. To shrug your shoulders, make the right joke, and at the same time try to say something to the extent of “But OK, guys, you got me but seriously, so…” A James Murphy-like  “please don’t share” is preferred over a James Hetfield-like witchhunt for the college students who did — though how amped would you be to find out the old guy from the “Enter Sandman” video just showed up on some kid’s doorstep one morning.

But then a band like Les Savy Fav, whom critics call “art-punk” with zero negative connotation, is expected to have something along the lines of a “creative solution” to the situation. “Art-punks” of course want people not just to “do the right thing” but to tell themselves ”I’m doing the right thing,” which is to say they want people to think it’s “cool” or somehow “arty” or even “punk” to “do the right thing,” since everything in this regard lost its meaning outside of quotation marks many years ago.

 
I say they’ve accomplished what they set out to do: make a record that would have been outrageously popular fifteen years ago.
 

As for why this particular leak episode depressed me? Five years ago I saw Les Savy Fav play a secret show at Cake Shop, and at one point frontman Tim Harrington, who is like a bulkier, beardier, screwier Iggy Pop, wrung out his sweaty bandanna into my unsuspecting mouth. I’ve seen this guy climb up twenty feet of loudspeaker in an attempt to dangle from a disco ball, and perform countless other life-threatening stage motions, some which I vaguely recall involving electricity. (I’ve seen Les Savy Fav at least twelve times.) I admit it bums me out that the frontman of indie rock’s major throughline from the early ’90s ‘abrasive yet melodic’ heyday — Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Chavez, etc. — a man who made me drink his sweat, woke up one morning, saw that his album leaked on the internet, and then said to himself, “What we need here is a Creative Solution.”

Root for ruin indeed. Except the album is quite good — maybe their best sounding. Chris Zane, who produced, has given us the best snare drum sound of 2010. Harrington has written his best lyrics yet, a perfect balance between the black humor of early releases and the more deliberately poignant stuff he aimed for on 2007′s Let’s Stay Friends. The guitars are the biggest and weirdest they’ve ever been, and one song has a talkbox part reminiscent of Brainiac, which is Riff City catnip. Judging from what the band told Stereogum in June, I say they’ve accomplished what they set out to do: make a record that would have been outrageously popular fifteen years ago. An indie rock classic upon release even, whose obscurity fifteen years later I would point to as a casualty of the genre forgetting its aggression and embracing this softer, less ‘rock’, more car commercial-friendly side that’s so popular right now.

Nothing would make me happier than for you to prove me wrong and make this band as popular as it deserves to be. But to wit: It’s been a long time since Butler, as Frenchkiss label head, has signed a band as heavy as his own. Can we blame him? In 2010, Second Wave synthpop bands from Cambridge, Massachusetts pay the bills.

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The Mayor of Sound City

When Kikei moved into a Williamsburg rehearsal space, he thought he'd be living music 24/7. Problem is, he was right.
By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Sound City, the rehearsal space where I play music, is an all-hours complex located in North Williamsburg near McCarren Park. Technically it is two conjoined buildings, with over thirty separate rooms and bands of every possible shape and temperament. Matt and Kim used to play here, so did Interpol and, according to the Sound City website, Biohazard. The rooms vary in size, but the walls are thin everywhere. If you share drywall with a metal band, or an industrial noise duo, or both like I do, you’re forced on many nights either to cut practice short, or engage in a kitchen-sink type loudness war on par with the final battle scene in Ernest Goes To Camp. Usually the other bands win.

Kikei

Directly across the hall from my space, and sharing a wall with the same noise duo, lives a 30-year-old man who goes by Kikei. He has no affiliation with Sound City, and his own band, Living Days, rehearses at a different spot. He has lived in the complex by choice since February 2009, and with the management’s blessing since May 2009. ”Eric Clapton locked himself in a room for one year and played guitar, and this was my vision too,” he says.

The Miami native has floppy curly hair and thoughtful glasses. He favors button-down shirts and speaks in well-enunciated sentences with romantic tendencies. He sees bands break up regularly, often before they even get a chance to record. “There are songs from my New York experience I’ll never be able to hear again,” says Kikei. “I can only remember them, or hum them in my mind.”

Kikei goes to sleep around six in the morning, and wakes at around eleven or twelve. Bands rehearse throughout the day, but the building becomes quiet again around 1:30 at night. “When the place is empty, that’s when I play,” he says. “I’ll jam and I’ll go crazy here by myself. I have my good jam every day.” A bathroom outside the Sound City business office on the second floor has a shower head on a wall. Water goes all over the floor, but Kikei has his showers daily.

This past Saturday Kikei invited me into his room. It is a white-walled space with high ceiling painted blue, about 11 feet wide by 14 feet long. A twin mattress sits right on the carpet in the far corner, made up and with a considerable number of pillows on top. The room is clean, with keyboards and guitars along the walls and put away in their cases. There is a lava lamp in a different corner on the ground, and a small black and white Sony monitor that Kikei uses as a night table.

 
When it is just too much, he leaves the building and watches the Hasidic men play baseball across the street.
 

The room’s prominent piece is an enormous painting of an angel. It is about five feet wide by eight feet high, and takes up the entirety of one wall. The angel is naked, with large breasts that she covers up with her hands. Her head is thrown back as if she is being assumed back into the heavens. It was painted by Rado Ivanov, the charismatic Bulgarian artist who founded Sound City. “He never liked this painting,” Kikei says.

Two egg crate patches are glued on the other two walls, but they are useless against the outside sounds. The noise duo, a young This Heat-influenced band called Yvette, have just begun rehearsing. The drums seem to be setting off MIDI triggers, which let loose deep, long tremors that reach all the way out into Sound City’s loading dock. ”There is a horrible sound that they can make,” Kikei said. “It sounds like you’re hitting a hammer mallet against a metallic — no, it sounds like Wolverine slicing through metal.” The band has only released one seven-inch, but Kikei is able to hum their forthcoming discography. ”It feels like death creeping up on you,” he says. When it is just too much, he leaves the building and watches the Hasidic men play baseball across the street.

For the times he has no place to go, Kikei has invented what he calls the White Noise Solution. A vintage Fender amplifier someone left behind when moving out of Sound City is connected to his iPhone, which has a program called White Noise. “I pick the one that says airplane travel,” Kikei says. Suddenly the room fills with the thick sound of a plane engine cutting through the air. Kikei pays $950 a month to live in Sound City.

It can be scary at night, he says. “I was walking outside and I went to go to the bathroom. As I’m outside on the loading dock, I start to see these very big drops on the floor. I think it’s blood. It’s so vibrant, so fresh. I start to see this huge trail of blood on the floor. I’m walking, following this trail. These drops are just getting bigger and bigger. They were thick. They had hills. They were hills of puddles. I get to the bathroom and it’s just blood everywhere. I have the pictures. Want to see them?”

Kikei detaches his iPhone from the amplifier. The photos are of the first-floor bathroom, the one most tenants use. The sink and floor are soaked, even the mirror and toilet seat. The amount of blood is mesmerizing. “That was the first thing that made me feel like maybe I’m not living in the best place,” Kikei says. This September, he hopes to move in with his older brother in West Village.

Photo courtesy of Kikei.

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