Your lyrics are often abstract and verbally dense. Are there limits to how far you’re willing to take that?
To me, it seems more realistic to my thought process when things feel a little scattered in the lyrics. Being disjointed is not that abstract of a thing when I think about how my brain works – I feel like it’s almost more realistic. That’s how my brain works. I have a mission for the day, and I try and complete it, but my brain kind of pinballs around. I think it’s more abstract, in a way, to go out of your way to put all that into some order.
I have an interview with the mighty Squarepusher, jazz bassist and musical programming geek par excellence [PDF], in issue #89 of the wonderful audio production magazine Tape Op.
Do you feel that you program like a musician or play like a programmer?
People will talk about “playing with feeling,” but what someone might describe as “feeling” is a particular kind of idiom to me. There are guidelines, and the people who do it most convincingly would probably brush away any kind of suggestion that they’re following guidelines. For a while I was trying to extract that – I was trying to play like a robot, with no feeling whatsoever; to extract all conventional idioms and make it sound totally mechanical, like a sequencer. One of the first things I did in order to achieve that was [record at half-speed and then speed it up], because it completely interferes with human fallibility regarding timing. The whole thing just goes unnaturally tight. That was governed by the influence of programming on my playing, but it’s not the only example. My album Hard Normal Daddy was an example of the process going the other way, trying to program like a player.
Tape Op is awesome, so if you do not already have a free subscription, please sign up immediately. Squarepusher is also awesome, of course; if you have no idea why I’m so excited about this, start with the material I collected in the cheat sheet addendum.
My NYC field recording project Cast In Concrete found a kindred spirit in Mark Johnson of Playing For Change, who travels the world facilitating collaborations between otherwise disconnected buskers and street musicians. He was kind enough to share with me some of the insights he has picked up over the years.
“It occurred to me that the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio, not in the studio. And what New York City can teach you is that the best music and great art, it’s just everywhere. People always say to me, ‘How do you find all these musicians?’ And the truth is, by showing up. Great music is everywhere, so those people that show up are the ones that get to find it.”
Moments before the clock runs out on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, here’s an introspective and retrospective piece for the Voice about one of my coping devices at the time. If you like it, you might also proceed on to the companion interview with a somewhat confused rock star.
The most violent guitars turn up on a song about suppressing the urge to retaliate and trusting in cosmic retribution. This, of course, was not the way the 9/11 aftermath played out.
A nice break from the monotony of concert previews — kind of a holy-shit moment for me here, interviewing the drummer from Radiohead.
Does your new solo album need a record label even though Radiohead doesn’t simply because the band had spent so many years as a primary project for a major label first?
It hadn’t really crossed my mind, to be honest with you. I certainly wasn’t thinking about it on that political a level. I just wanted the music to be released in a way that I felt happy with. There wasn’t any great intellectualization behind the process, really. And in some ways, the same could be said about how we released In Rainbows — it was just something which, at the gut level, felt very exciting.
The proper thing to do here is probably to point you toward that solo project, but I’d wager that you’d prefer to spend your time with the band proper. So here’s “Idioteque,” a song on which Phil doesn’t actually perform since he was famously tossed out in favor of a drum machine on that album, except that the music video apparently used an alternate version which does feature live drums, and thus is much closer to the arrangement they use in concert. Eh, whatever.
Many rock bands have moved toward incorporating electronic sounds over the past decade or so. Do you think that has left listeners more open to your music?
Yeah, definitely. When I started out ten years ago, people thought about electronic music and they instantly thought about quite extreme ends of it. Synthesizers and drum machines, lots of digital processing. Nowadays, everything is mixed together a lot more, and people don’t even know what they’re listening to.
I’m part of a really cool Yearbook project over at eMusic — they asked ten writers to submit essays about musical trends during one year from the last decade in an attempt to sum it all up. We were basically given carte blanche with regard to possible angles and approaches, so what resulted is an intriguingly varied set of reflections on and refractions of the last ten years, both musical and otherwise.
For example, my piece zeroes in on retro R&B and soul label Daptone Records, which put out some of its strongest in-house records thus far in 2007 while simultaneously helping coax out chart-topping releases from Amy Winehouse and Jay-Z. (This was actually the second time I’ve had a chance to shoot the breeze with Daptone head Gabe Roth, the first being the technically-oriented interview [PDF] I did for Tape Op that year inquiring about his production techniques.)
The other essays are all very much worth your time too, though. I suppose I’ve already done quite enough gushing over eMusic’s editorial crew, but it bears repeating briefly here — these are all writers whose work I’ve been following for years, so I’m delighted to have made the shortlist for this.
- 2000: Slate‘s Hua Hsu on the awkwardness of technological puberty
- 2001: Rolling Stone‘s Melissa Maerz on New York’s rebirth after September 11th
- 2002: The A.V. Club‘s Michaelangelo Matos on the role of DJ’s
- 2003: Magnet Magazine editor Matthew Fritch on the Canadian indie rock invasion
- 2004: Needs-no-introduction Douglas Wolk on geopolitical unrest
- 2005: Living legend Chuck Eddy on the last gasps of major label hard rock
- 2006: Pitchfork‘s Jess Harvell on emo’s maturity or lack thereof
- 2007: Yours truly on old-soul funk as the anti-Radiohead
- 2008: The Village Voice‘s Christopher R. Weingarten on the election as the end of days
- 2009: eMusic editorial director J. Edward Keyes on erasing elitism
Why all the thematic complexity?
It allows us to go to a bunch of different places artistically; there’s just more to experience. Putting out a record without any of that stuff would be short-sighted, like you didn’t put everything you had into it. With each album you get to try it again and get it more cohesive and more thought-out and more psychedelic.
First, although I’ve been published by the Voice a few times before, that was the first article which was long enough to get me into the table of contents. It’s crazy to see my own name next to those of Rob Tannenbaum, Tom Robbins, J. Hoberman, and of course Michael Musto.
Second: predictably, the Anamanaguchi guys and I spent a lot of time discussing synthesizers during the interview, but since that material wasn’t really appropriate for the Voice, I instead sent the tech talk to Create Digital Music, an awesome and remarkably high-traffic niche blog which consistently publishes some of the best coverage of music technology you’ll find anywhere.
Vijith: Do you write using a guitar or a Nintendo?
Pete: The music is pretty melodic, so it’s pretty transferable from instrument to instrument. Anything I write on guitar I can put on the Nintendo, and anything I write on the Nintendo I can usually play on guitar – unless it’s way too fast, which it usually is.
Even speaking strictly as a reader, I really can’t recommend CDM highly enough; publisher Peter Kirn is both a music software programmer and, by day, a professional writer, so the posts are always informed, insightful, and far more literate than most studio trade rags. If your interest in creative technology tends elsewhere, you may want to check out Peter’s other sites instead, including Create Digital Motion, which is aimed at animators and visual artists, and the community-oriented Noisepages.
And now, a couple recent items — both related, in a way, to dramatic changes in pitch — for those brave souls willing to follow me out to my geekiest musical fringes.
From the audio engineer: at Tape Op, “In defense, unsuccessfully, of Autotune,” wherein I ultimately give up and instead go on a Google expedition to find the haunting voice from the competing software‘s demo video.
At PopMatters, a somewhat longer look at sort-of blues guitarist Eli Cook.
“Miss Blues’es Child’s” prodigy was “Don’t Ride My Pony”, a country-jangle solo blues which, halfway through, trots out the revelation that the pony in question is blind. Why, exactly? It doesn’t really advance the storyline or have any bearing on the rest of the song at all, but this is the blues, man, and what could possibly be bluesier than a blind horse? Well, a three legged dog, perhaps, but that’s about it.
Operating in a space so dominated by pitchfork-waving traditionalists, then, Cook deserves a nod of respect for trotting out a surprise of his own on the follow-up to “Miss Blues’es Child.” “ElectricHolyFireWater” channels Alice in Chains as readily as Muddy Waters, blending the century-old blues that Cook is known for with the ‘90s grunge he was raised on. It’s as though the DeLeo Blues Brothers are lamenting Scott Weiland’s hell-bent determination to sink Stone Temple Pilots with his drug habits, or perhaps it was Tom Morello rather than Robert Johnson who made that deal with Satan.
I missed the boat as far as updating this to include the interview with Chapman Stick player Greg Howard which I wrote for KyndMusic, but an email I just got from Big Boss Man Dave gives me a good reason to revisit it: as it turns out, that was their most popular article of the entire summer! We beat out Bonnaroo, the North Mississippi All-Stars (take that, Red Light!) and Victor Wooten, among others.