Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Dub Club

Brooklyn Gets Serious About Comedy

The Story Collider

"Get Lucky"

The Wedding Singer

Masters of Puppets

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kid Creole interview

Back in the heat of the New York summer (remember when it was hot out? Me neither), I spoke via Skype with August Darnell, a/k/a Kid Creole. I worried that the distance of thousands of miles might create a real distance in the dialogue as well, but the moment Darnell opened his mouth, I was put at ease. This might've been the easiest interview ever. Darnell is a raconteur without parallel. My prompts were few and I just let the man rap.

When were you last in New York City?

It’s at least ten years since I lived there, but I was just there two months ago. Got grandchildren there. I can’t tell you how many I have. You can’t print that. I still love the city. The best part of it is that I can get out of it in a week. I live in Sweden now, far from the maddening crowds. I’m loving it. The album was cut here in my home studio. I’m in south Sweden now.

How do you deal with the Scandinavian darkness?

You don’t deal with it. You hibernate or get out of town. We tour and don’t get stuck in the snowstorms.

Why’d you leave in the first place?

I got fed up with NYC! I was fed up with traffic. I cracked one day when I had to go to my dentist ten blocks away and it took two hours to get crosstown. And I said, I don’t need this. I’m getting out of here. I lived in England, Denmark, Stockholm and now I’m here in southern Sweden.

You have the same inspirations there?

Hell no. Without New York, there’d never have been Savannah Band or Kid Creole. NYC was everything. I love the city for what it gave me but when you reach a certain part of your life and you find you want life to be easier, rather than an everyday struggle. There’s no town that could give me the power that NYC gave me. My favorite line from my songs was “Going Places”: “When you leave New York, you go nowhere.” I’m a New Yorker for sure.

What's the biggest change you notice now?

The biggest change is Times Square. There’s nothing like Times Square. My brother and I used to just go down there for the thrill, because 42nd Street was dangerous. On every other corner was a prostitute, a bordello, a porn cinema, and people on every corner hustling. It’s so clean they should just rename it. Big business has taken over Times Square. I thought the greatness of Times Square was it was the Theater District and its rich patrons pouring out to the street and they’d mingle with the lowest dregs of society known to mankind. I used to get a thrill out of that. The danger, the edge of it is gone. Prices have gone up, but you still don’t get more for your money. You still have traffic jams, cabbies trying to kill you, but it’s still the greatest city in the world.

In the summer, I always think of you, because everyone wears fedoras.

I noticed the fedora was making a comeback there. It was amazing. You don’t have that in London, Paris, and you don’t have it here. It’s great. Fashion is still great in Manhattan. There’s a pulse in the city. I think Brennan mixing in Brooklyn an album recorded in a forest in Sweden made a juxtaposition. The juxtaposition between my forest here in Sweden and Brennan Green’s urban jungle in Brooklyn is poetry in motion.

Why did you make an album after all this time?

It was not my idea. Strut had the idea. They wanted to put me together with Andrew Butler of Hercules and Love Affair. I Googled him and went okay, he’s definitely influenced by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole, so I thought the combination would work. I knew he was popular in the underground dance clubs, just like we were. I trusted it. 
The original plan was to write 50/50, but it didn’t turn out to be as simple as that. Our schedules conflicted and we were never together in the same part of the world. We were never together in the same room. I’ve never met the guy! I only saw him on Skype chats. We were never in the same room, which is uncivilized and ridiculous and that’s modern society for you. He sent his songs to me, I sent mine to him. A hundred and ninety-eight emails later, we’d be saying: “Can you change the bassline on the third bar of the fifteenth section of the fourth verse and can you mute the triangle on the third verse…” It became ridiculous. All the things we were doing we could’ve done in one room. That’s when technology works against you.
It took too long to do the album. If we had been old-fashioned about it, it would’ve been out two and a half years ago! To be honest with you, I got frustrated with it but I’m sure glad I did. I love the results. I’d never do it this way again though.

Speaking of Andys, did you ever hear Coati Mundi's album?

I listened to it in the car and it was spectacular. Andy came a long way and I love him and his humor. He was the zaniest character I know. I miss having a comic foil onstage. Sometimes the shows get too serious. I’m singing “Mister Softee” and the audience is taking it seriously?! He was like a Marx Brother. 

You have a song on the new album that unpacks what happened with the Savannah Band.

Tommy Mottola said to me: “Savannah Band had the potential to be one of the largest bands in America back in the 70s.” It was like Rome, we fell from within. The Savannah Band self-imploded. Our sibling rivalry destroyed it. My brother and I couldn’t take it to the next level. We were huge and had a hit record, wrote well together, and we had a great songstress, a chanteuse Cory Day. We had everything going for us. We destroyed ourselves. I wrote “Stony and Corey” as tribute to my brother and the songbird, they were the two most influential people in my life in terms of being a music personality.

How does it feel to be sampled like you are?

Being sampled was a great feeling, man. M.I.A. and Ghostface? And then Cee-Lo covered “Hard Times," too. I get my royalties and I’m flattered. Artists get annoyed by samples and downloads. To me though, it’s flattering when a new artist comes along and utilizes your music so that new listeners can discover the original.

What do you listen to now?

I have my old favorites more than explore new things. I have children and they always keep me abreast.  What I also miss is that you never have to leave the island of Manhattan, you just travel your block and the islands come to you. The music of every nation can be found there. 

I like Rihanna right about now but my favorite is still Beyonce. She’s a goddess. She’s up there with the likes of Diana Ross, Tina Turner, those larger than life female vocalists. Beyonce is a goddess. I love her stuff.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kid Creole

Today in the Village Voice is my feature on the return of Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Such a pleasure to chat with the man (my full transcript will appear before long) and revisit his body of work. Watching some of these videos --with these two posted by former sidekick Coati Mundi-- makes me pine to see the group in their prime:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

“It was a strange year that year and it is a strange year this year. The blue of the sky looks rather black to the eye.”

In a friend's water closet reading stack sits a book by William Cooper. I don't believe I have seen that name since 1991, the year that punk rock broke, when I religiously read Flipside Magazine. That newsprint rag not only told me about folks like Beck, Unwound, Fitz of Depression releasing seven inches, but --if memory serves-- it used to run Cooper's missives as well as those of someone named Jolly Roger. The latter's monthly columns went beyond the joys of The Anarchist's Cookbook (which was always behind the counter at the bookstore, next to Madonna's Sex) explained how to create new identities for yourself, how to make your marijuana seeds sprout, as well as how to make homemade napalm (it involved dissolving styrofoam peanuts in gasoline). I may have made half-assed attempts at all three in high school.

Cooper's most famous book (or at least, the one that would one day wind up as toilet reading) is Behold a Pale Horse, a hodge-podge of UFO sightings, government cover-up memos, and secret society cabals running the world and installing a New World Order. Thumbing it some two decades after its publication date, I was struck by a line that went: "The numbers 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 39 have special meaning to the Illuminati." For a book published in 1991, it's easy to have a few of those numbers stick now. Wondering just what such a figure might make of this "post-9/11" world we now inhabit, I instead learned that Cooper was shot dead by sheriffs in November of 2001. Squirting some homemade napalm on the fire, Cooper purportedly hinted in a radio show from June 2001 that an attack on the US would be blamed on some disgraced Saudi prince.

I wonder why it feels relevant to even mention this here. Perhaps its that underground thoughts go hand in hand with underground music. Perhaps paranoia and punk were always entwined for me, like The Anarchist's Cookbook and Madonna on that same shelf. Perhaps it's because I'm with this book hundreds of miles from Ground Zero (along with New York's 9/11 double issue) and for the first time in ten years, I won't be in New York City on this day. And I won't call it by those two numerals. It's always September to me.

And so I am trying to re-remember what it was like, newly arrived to New York, to wake up in the city on that September day, to climb up on my roof and watch the two towers burning, smoke billowing into that immaculate blue sky. Trying to remember who I was then, when I woke up extremely hungover, when my roommate knocked on my bedroom door and told me to wake up "to witness history," it was hard to fathom the events of that day. I remember that September 10th was an extremely late night for me and my friends, one where we stayed out until the wee hours of morning, inhaling and imbibing the substances necessary to remain up until that darkest hour of morning. Sleep that night was tumultuous and fraught. I was restless in a way I had never been in my life. I thrashed through the sheets and just barely fell to sleep before that knock came.

A few things remain in my mind upon waking up: First was a news item from the week previous was about an ultralight plane had been flown towards the Statue of Liberty. So when I thought of a plane striking the Tower, a harmless little fly of a craft is what came to mind. The other is that just a few weeks prior, the city had detonated the two water towers that loomed over the Williamsburg skyline, erasing them from the sky in a matter of seconds. So I stood on my rooftop and saw those two buildings, their concrete pluming into the sky up above.

Technically, I never went inside the World Trade Center in my first months of living in New York City. But I did go into its basement. A temp agency scheduled an interview for me at WTC 1 and so I went downtown one July morning, where I was soon ushered into the basement of that building. I had been without work for three months and my funds were depleted. I needed a job desperately. I was fucking broke. And yet...

Before I left Texas, I worked in a government building, one which also housed federal judges. They constantly received credible death threats. One had to go through metal detectors to even enter the building. The windows were so darkly tinted that I never knew the sun was shining until I left at the end of the workday. Being in Austin, but a few hundred miles from where the Oklahoma City bombings had taken place, that pall remained over the place. How could it not? I wasn't just working a job out of college (so as to save up for a move to NYC), I was working at a place that was a target. And I swore to myself when I moved that I would never work in a target again.

So sitting in the basement of the World Trade Center, hungry and broke, I threw the interview. Walking down the hallway after, my guide not only pointed out where the bathroom was but also where the bombs had detonated back in 1993, pointing out both in a casual way that was nauseating. How could you carry on with your work knowing that someone had tried to destroy the place? I left as quick as I could and never returned their phone calls. I remained willfully unemployed. My family and my roommates thought I was crazy to not take that job.

It would be another month before I had a real job and years before my present occupation, writing about music. In reading some of the remembrances of that day, like those by Hua and Mark, I wonder what I might have listened to on that day. Such sounds escape me now. Instead, I recall carrying out mundane tasks like doing my laundry and buying an extra can of Goya beans and two gallons of drinking water, all under two strips of black smoke. 

Somewhere on the web, I recently found a list of my top albums of 2001. I wonder at who that person was who listed and listened to such albums. Of greatest relevance for that time was of course the unreleased Wilco album, with its lyrics about tall buildings shaking and voices escaping, not to mention the paranoia-inducing samples from the "number" stations. I wonder what Bill Cooper would have had to say about The Conet Project

But the only sound I still remember came at night. It was not music. We all convened, friends and strangers and neighbors, on the Williamsburg waterfront to commiserate and hug one another, to down whisky straight from the bottle and stare at the sirens silent and shining across the black water of the East River. Ambulances were in a line like an unclasped ruby necklace, flaring their incandescent red lights and snaking up and down the FDR in a long procession, both north and south. I don't recall their wails reaching me. Instead, I remember the heartbeat of hand drums all around me, somehow giving meter to the black night.

Ten years later, a quote I affixed to that record list remains the most resonant, more than any of those albums. It came from a Gertrude Stein book I was reading at the time and it worked as well at that moment in time as it does now, ten years and a lifetime ago: 

"It was a strange year that year and it is a strange year this year. The blue of the sky looks rather black to the eye."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

school's back

Nothing says welcome back to school like this series of photos from an Iggy and the Stooges gig at a high school, circa 1970.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Yoga Records interview

The last of my New Age interviews (finally) and one of the most insightful. Douglas Mcgowan is the force behind Yoga Records and a spate of reissues that have appeared through Drag City and Important Records, to name but a few. You shouldn't miss albums he's brought back into the world, such as Matthew Young's Traveler's Advisory, the self-titled Ted Lucas album, or the supremely twisted soundworld of Dwarr. Yoga also just reissued the stellar third Bobb Trimble album and I've recently learned that the first Dwarr album is due soon as well. But Douglas's forte remains New Age music and beyond just appreciating the music, Douglas grasps its wider socioeconomic implications as well, tying its rise to the re-election of Reagan in 1984 and understanding its current renaissance as part of cassette culture.

I was trading records and one collector broke out a record by Jon Bernoff and Marcus Allen called Breathe. It has the cheesiest cover I’ve ever seen and I thought they were putting me on. The idea of putting a frame around this music and saying it had validity as a genre was as weird to me as it is for just about any person on the street. Seeing someone else excited about it, who I respected, put it in a different light. It brought my attention to the fact that there’s all this sort of music that is psychedelic if only you are willing to look past the label.

For myself, New Age comes with some much baggage on it.

New Age is a thoroughly discredited term. Part of why I like the term is because of how much it bothers people. It’s reclaiming it. for me, calling it ambient or downtempo or all these other things that you hear people try to call it is sort of disingenuous. It’s repackaging something. I like it in its original state. It was at its zenith when it was called New Age and there wasn’t anything else that anyone called it in the years between 1975 and 1985.

Is the fact that this stuff was for the most part outside of major labels and doing private pressings of their music part of what appealed to you?

Absolutely. It’s one of the very first completely amateur-driven genres. It’s one of the first modern private pressing phenomenas in music. It was almost entirely a private-press phenomenon. That makes it really interesting from a sociological perspective and from looking at the history of the business of it. It was a genre founded by entrepreneurs and guys who were looking at Stephen Halpern’s success and trying to emulate it. It was never a creation of major labels. The major labels came in and ruined it. It’s not as simple as that, but by the time the majors arrived on the scene the best work had already been done.

What was the tipping point of it?

I think Steven Halpern founded the business of New Age music and Windham Hill perfected it. it basically became commercialized and digitized around the same time and it flowed perfectly into Reagan’s remaking of America, where something that started as a counter-cultural hippie movement was completely co-opted. Why it all happened at the same time, you can’t point to one particular thing. But people were looking at the massive sales that Windham Hill was doing and how easy it was to do and wanting to have a piece of that action. 

It’s not dissimilar to people calling themselves “screenwriters.” It’s people chasing after an easy and massive payday. It’s a thing for amateurs that amateurs convince themselves that they can do. Sometimes they’re right. It also just attracts an element of people going: “I’d like to make music and I’d like to make money doing it. I can put a fishing weight on a synthesizer and modulate the pitch for twenty minutes and I’ve got Side A.” That was incredibly attractive to a lot of guys who were coming at this with less than pure musical motives. It was a genre that attracted amateurs.

Which is its best and worst quality.

It was definitely a double-edged sword. The amateur element is what makes all the best releases so charming because they are often handmade and have the beginner’s touch in a good way. Then you have subsequent waves of imitators. Each wave was less concentrated and powerful. The earliest people like Paul Horn and Steven Halpern were true originals and it’s easy to forget that because when you look back at it now, it seems like such simple music. they did invent the ideas of what they were doing. JD Emmanuel is a good example of a second wave of people refining it. after that, it’s just diminishing returns.

What was the impetus behind Yoga Records?

I chose the name Yoga because I wanted something simple to the point of absurdity, like Apple Computers. You wouldn’t be able to forget it. I wanted it to have a meaningless quality. A lot of people hear that word and feel a sense of revulsion. Just this year is the year where it’s reaching critical mass and convince myself that there is a market and that it won’t be out of context like the way the Dwarr project would be. It was met with indifference. It was too far out of context. I’ve been waiting five years for people to get more into it.

What do you think is responsible for this shift back to respectability?

I think the reason it’s booming in popularity is because it’s good (laughs). The good stuff is good. All things being equal, I think it’s more fun to enjoy something that is frowned upon. There’s a rebelliousness to embracing something that has been discarded and deemed worthless by the culture at large. You could see the same thing happening in the mid-90s with lounge music. everybody knew lounge music was stupid save for well, Martin Denny and Esquivel, these guys were great artists, they were timeless. The act of sifting through that stuff and figuring out what’s valuable about it helps the people who are really engaged as listeners become a part of the story of the music. They get to say: “We were early adopters” and that’s always fun.

The other part of it is we are in such deep need of chilling out these days. Popular culture doesn’t leave you with any room for meditation or space. There’s nothing slow about popular culture. There’s nothing reflective or even humble about popular culture. There’s no pause in anything. Especially for people who are 16 years old, who literally have never known the world before cell phones or internet, it’s something entirely new. That revolutionary thought that something so simple that runs counter to the speed and intensity of popular culture can have value and utility in their lives. It’s something that actually helps you come down and ground yourself. It’s like an antidote. Sitting and quietly listening to a New Age record is the opposite of checking your Facebook every two minutes. It’s as far from that kind of mentality as you can get. People are excited by that.

It has a mental effect like that for me.

There’s not really any room for irony to operate within New Age music. I think it appeals to people who have very evolved sense of irony for whom something where irony can’t exist is a good thing. I think also there’s the matter of the imagery, styling, and packaging and all of the handmade elements of it are super attractive to people. In a weird way, it’s a precursor to the way indie music is packaged now. The creativity of record covers today echoes the creativity of the visionary art of old New Age packages. When people see the cover of Breathe, it’s like…yeah, these are all of my favorite pastel colors!

Does the cassette culture play into this as well?

Definitely. New Age is a cassette medium. The length of the tapes, the ability to do short runs yourself, the fact that tape doesn’t pick up noise over time, which has a big effect on quiet music. I’m completely for cassette culture. I wish we could have the enthusiasm we have for records about cassettes. Cassettes are much more readily recyclable and to be honest, it’s heresy to say, but cassettes sound better than vinyl when everything is being done right. JD Emmanuel very forcefully told me that. Cassettes were good for the counter-culture. Cassettes kept it alive and they’re the democratic sound medium. You could say the same thing about CDRs, but they’re ugly. Tapes can be re-used.

In these New Age articles that come around of late, I always think of those bullshit ‘comics aren’t just for kids’ stories that accompany graphic novel magazine features. I’d love to see the discussion move past that. New Age isn’t just crap. I’d like to see it move past that really quickly. I’d like to see more new artists get into it. It’s really exciting that people aren’t just looking with nostalgia but that they’re innovating within the form.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Animal Collective New Age interview

The peg for the New Age story stems from a Zamfir sample that Animal Collective used for their Fall Be Kind EP from 2009. Yet their love and appreciation for such New Age fare extends beyond that. The Geologist hepped me to Claire Hammill's ephemeral all-vocal album Voices a few years back and even amid their pop noise scramble, there remains a focus on tone and sustained sound that hints at much deeper listening practices. It was crucial to have their input for the piece and both Brian and Dave Portner obliged:

Brian "The Geologist" Weitz

I came to new age music through drone and ambient records that would be considered more experimental or minimalist than new age. I did a radio show on WKCR in New York that went from 1-5 AM and some nights I would just choose 4 long pieces to play. Things like Alvin Lucier and Charlemagne Palestine were big for me. This was in college and during those years I spent a semester living in the desert in Arizona which had a big effect on my music listening habits.

 My pace of life slowed down a lot from when I lived in New York and it was easier to notice the subtle changes in the natural day, which required a certain amount of patience and willingness to concentrate on small details that unfold over longer periods of time. I wanted the same kind of feeling from records I was listening to. I'm not sure I'd describe the effect this has as relaxing. I suppose it is, but it's more the hypnotic quality of it that I find appealing.

Eventually, I came to hear some private press new age records that weren't all that different from something like Terry Riley and the boundaries started to disappear for me. I think the reason there is a stigma attached to a lot of new age music is because of the personalities associated with it. I don't have a problem with it, but I think there is sort of a naive optimism to the aesthetic. It's the same thing that turns a lot of people away from hippie psych records. I like those too though.

I think the recent popularity is similar to the popularity of a lot of hippie psych folk stuff from a few years ago, but I'm not sure I know why it's happening. Maybe it's a distance thing. Those personalty types typically associated with those music styles aren't as prevalent and people who have a more punk attitude don't have to interact with them and feel the need to push back. In fact these days the people making experimental music that sounds a lot like new age stuff have a more underground punk aesthetic, which maybe makes it easier to swallow.

Dave "Avey Tare" Portner

Where did that Zamfir sample come from?

I came across it because I was getting more into Eastern European music, Bulgarian, Hungarian, etc. that melody on the record stuck out. The flute stuff is really crazy. It was tough to work into a song.
It didn’t dawn on me that people would have the reaction that it was a New Age flute thing. It seemed normal and something that would work.

I know Zamfir’s music because of those infomercials in the 80s.

I didn’t even associate it with that; I just stumbled upon that record.

I think Gang Gang Dance goes for that kind of stuff as well, the cheesier the tone the better.

There’s a side of me that really loves this ambient space-out music. A few of us trade these ambient records every now and then. Like Iasos, just music like that. That record I suggested to you, Syrinx, I think those guys even played with Zamfir. To me, the world treads the line between…you look in the New Age section, the experimental section, similar records fall into either one.

They’re both into suspension and drones.

My love of New Age music comes from me liking drone and minimalist music, things with microtones. But there’s also this side of me that comes from my mom, who listened to a lot of New Age music when I was growing up. We used to go to Miami a lot, and there was this New Age store that had all these tapes. I remember looking at the covers with dolphins on them. I remember my mom bought Deep Breakfast by Ray Lynch. I love that record. That’s the side that’s super cheesy to me, adult contemporary. Yoga videos my mom used to watch with people sitting in front of waterfalls doing yoga poses. I associate it a lot with certain childhood things.

I guess people are getting into it. A lot of it is ‘out there,' if you get into that kind of thing. Ambient music has gotten more popular. People are into the peacefulness and it’s good music for being calm. I listen to that kind of stuff around the house and on tour. I have things on my iPod. Being on tour and listening and playing loud music, I want to listen to something that’s going to calm me down.