Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bark Psychosis interview / Hex review

At The Quietus there's a very in-depth piece about Bark Psychosis and Hex by Wyndham Wallace. Which reminded me that for some reason I've never put any of my pieces or reviews of the band up here. Here's a 1990 interview for Melody Maker plus my Mojo review of Hex that semi-popular wisdom maintains is where the term "post-rock" originated. Actually, the term dates back long before I used it for the very particular purpose that it's subsequently stuck with (indeed the earliest instance I've come across is 1967). Nor was Hex/Mojo the first time I used it in fact - I believe it was in this 1993 feature on Insides. 

Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

  The story of Bark Psychosis (light-sculptors, luminists, and best new starsailors of 1990) begins some seven years ago.  Graham Sutton (gtr, vox) and John Ling (vox, bass) met at a East London public school. They quickly became telepathically close friends. Already estranged from the mainstream of school life (both of them had won scholarships and came from non-public school backgrounds), love of music took them even further out on a limb.

   John: "We just had this general attitude of wanting to do our
own thing.  We were into creativity."

Eventually they revolted against the plans others had made for them (being streamed for Oxbridge) and jacked it all in after one term in the sixth form.  After a few years of odds-and-sods work and nomadism, they found a home from home amongst the squatter community in Leyton. John and Graham had been making music since their school days, but Bark Psychosis only took shape early in 1989, when they linked up with drummer Mark Simnett. The trio spent an entire year rehearsing in a room underneath a church in Stratford.

Out of this chrysalis/crypt, Bark Psychosis emerged as a
perfectly-formed, dazzling butterfly in the spring of this year. No growing up in public, no stumbling first efforts: instead, "All Different Things", the most auspicious, impeccable debut since A.R.Kane's "When Your Sad".
Of their early days as a dissonant, post-hardcore outfit influenced by Big Black/Swans/Sonic Youth, all that abides is their misleading name. Like a lot of people involved in the noise aesthetic, Bark Psychosis ran aground on a perennial impasse: how to take it further.

    Graham: "It was like hitting your head against a brick wall.
Noise became a dead end."

    And like a lot of people, Bark Psychosis saw a way out this
deadening end, in the rediscovery of silence and space, songcraft
and subtlety. Over the last two years, they've disconnected
themselves from the noise aesthetic, and swooned instead to the
'devastating serenity' of The Blue Nile, Talk Talk's "Spirit Of
Eden", Hugo Largo, Julee Cruise.  They've swum in the iridescent
oceans of Miles Davis and Can. These new inputs are beginning to
reveal themselves on their new single "I Know" b/w "Nothing Feels". If not as immediately ravishing as "All Different Things", it's just as beatifically cocooning.

Quite rightly, Bark Psychosis are disillusioned by the stultifying homogeneity of the post-1988 consensus, the predictability of the equation: "perfect pop" meets "wall of noise" = Number Three in the Indie Charts.
Graham: "We went to the Reading Festival, and didn't feel part of it all. That kind of scuzzy raucousness gets so boring. Don't you think our music is more of a shock to the system than Ride? They're the New Kids On The Block of the indie scene."

    John: "People should experiment more at gigs. People just want to please other people, they're fulfilling the ritual expectactions. More selfishness is in order."
Bark Psychosis aren't afraid to stray from the beaten path of
"entertainment", to wander - even if that sometimes means they
meander into self-indulgence. One minute, they're a seething blur
of luminosity (Napalm Death meets "Interstellar Overdrive"); the
next they're troubadors strumming starchild lullabies.

     Their creative process is similar to early A.R. Kane: they improvise a gaseous cloud of turbulence, which deliquesces and then crystallises into a beautiful shape.

    "Things just click, " says John. "The moods and the meanings
create themselves. We don't set out with a particular emotion, and decide to vent it through a song. We couldn't go through our recorded output and tell you what each song is 'about'. The words take shape from sounds. Certain words feel sensual in the mouth, seem right.  I find it really difficult, this whole business of 'what does it mean?'. Whenever I read interviews, and I find out what the singer was really 'saying', it crucifies the song
completely. We prefer to let people read whatever they want into
it, cos that's another layer of creativity at work.  They're involved in making the song."

If any one thing characterise the Bark Psychosis approach, it's that the mood and the lyrics are devotional.  "This time is yours", goes "I Know", an offering on the altar of love.  The lyric "All Different Things" consists of the repeated plaint: "much rather be". It's a petition to some higher, nameless power, not to to rectify wrongs, or redress grievances, but to be restored to a state of grace. It's intransitive (no noun, no object) because it expresses a yearning with no specific objectives or objections, no precise objects of desire; an ache of incompleteness that stems from the agony of being an individual, severed from the maternal embrace of all creation.
"There's quite a lot of spirituality in what we do," agrees John. "I think music is a very mystic experience anyway. You're listening to something and you just get a feeling that you can't account for in words."

   Graham: "But I don't think enough people are into music for its own sake. They're into it for the circumstantial elements, the scene, the ego-boost. We hate that cult of personality thing, that idea of people being role models. Even when it's being a non-role model, like you should be like J. Mascis or Thurston Moore."

Why is there still this regressive hankering for heroes?

John: "I think it's cos people are so uptight about their own creativity, they project it onto other people. They want other people to be creative on their behalf."

    Then again, aren't some people blessed with greater gifts?

Graham: "I think everybody's gifted in some way, but a lot of people mistakenly think that their gift is music. Whereas it might be art or something. A lot of people have a gift at birth but it's stamped out of them."
You've talked about "doing your own thing", "self-expression",
"originality". But your kind of group more often tends to downplay the role of the individual artist. There's that idea of the music coming from "outside", "the beyond", and the artist merely being the medium.
John: "Some of the stuff I've been reading is linked to that idea. A lot of the work in contemporary physics suggests that what we do creatively as individuals is just part of an ongoing creative process that started 15 billion years ago. It's just inherent in the universe."
So God speaks through your plectrum.

"If you want to call the process 'God', then, yeah - God speaks
through everybody. It's really powerful, but if creativity gets
frustrated or perverted, it comes out in nasty ways, like people
struggling to invent more effective ways of killing each other.
Perhaps if the person who invented nerve gases had been given a
guitar or a nice lump of clay..."

There would have been some really nice pots, rather than the
possibility of genocide. But pray continue...

Graham: "There's this new branch of quantum physics called 'quantum stickiness'. Particles interact all the time, and leave these residues on each other. So when the moon shines on you, photons from the moon surface actually enter your eye and change your chemical structure. You become a moon person."

I'm sure the physics of music must work like that. Certain frequencies have a soul-cleansing effect, others leave your insides perturbed. I'm sure Bark Psychosis records help to restore the pH balance of your psyche. Bark Psychosis as the Aqua Libra of indie rock?

John: "It might work like that, but you could never explain the process. And that's great, because for the first time in three hundred years of science, scientists are admitting they can't explain anything. Post-Newtonian science saw the world as a machine that you could understand if you dissected it and broke it down to its fundamental particles. Now scientists are realising that things don't work like that. It's all a lot more mysterious. I mean, quantum physicists have discovered that there are these particles that just come into existence for no reason, totally random and originless."
Bark Psychosis are definitely part of a climate of sensibility, a shift towards recognising the fact of indeterminacy and undecidablity, towards affirming mystery.  It's nothing to do with New Age, though. New Age self-realisation propoganda tells people that the power lies with them, they can change their lives totally by overhauling their attitude.
"It's a fraud," opines Graham. "This idea that enlightenment is something you pay 55 quid and go on a course to get."

Whereas, if you're serious about satori, you should go live on a mountaintop for forty years.

"Maybe. But you can also have mystical experiences with other people, in your everyday life, at gigs. I had a mystical experience at the laundrette this afternoon. I was just mesmerised by the washing machine. Sometimes you mind just gets triggered to a certain level. It can be music, or films, or love, that does it for you."
I'm tempted to declare that all bands should be like Bark Psychosis: that paradoxical combination of being clued up but not premeditated, eloquent but not dogmatic, timely and timeless; that delicate balance of craft and chaos. But if all bands were like Bark Psychosis, they wouldn't be the shining, saving grace that they indisputably are.

director's cut, Mojo, March 1994

by Simon Reynolds

    These days, alternative = antiquated. Almost all alternative rockers pay
homage to a bygone golden age (although they disagree about which vintage
genre is the one that counts), and almost all of them repudiate the
technology underpinning today's state-of-art pop.  White rock seems to have
ceded the idea of "the future" to rap (black musicians have always been
quicker to exploit the latest hi-tech) or to rave (dance has its own innate
technophiliac logic).

     Actually, there are a handful of futurists who eke out a precarious
existence on the fringes of the British indie scene.  Some of these bands
are techno-conscious and/or dub-wise (Seefeel, Insides, Disco Inferno, Ice);
some forge links between trance-rock and the drone-theory of John Cage, La
Monte Young, Terry Riley et al (Stereolab, Pram, Main); others are just
wonderfully and wilfully self-indulgent (Papa Sprain, Bark Psychosis). Call
them avant-rock or art-pop, but they're all children of Eno, in that they
use the studio to create a "fictional acoustic space", rather than simulate
the experience of a live band.  Increasingly, their music is based not
around riffs and choruses, but layers and loops (these days, executed with
samplers and sequencers as opposed to tape and scissors); this 'rock' is
always on the verge of deliquescing into pure ambience.

If Eno is the spiritual godfather of this boffin-in-the-sound-
laboratory approach, the immediate ancestors for today's avant-rock bands
are A.R. Kane and My Bloody Valentine, late '80s neo-psychedelic pioneers.
Bark Psychosis build on the jazzy, improvisational leanings of A.R. Kane.
Like many of their avant-rock kin, Bark Psychosis veer between minimalism
and maximalism, between the impulse to strip it down and the urge to pile it
on.  Like Can or early '70s Miles Davis, they often combine minimal hypno-
grooves with a hyper-eclectic barrage of weird textures, unusual influences
and jarring time signatures.  Bark Psychosis' big thing is dynamics: their
songs shift from breathless hush to ear-bruising loudness, as in the
whisper-to-a-scree of their gorgeous 1990 debut "All Different Things".
They're maximalists, too, in that they're willing and able to take their
time: 1992's "Scum" single was 20 minutes of dramatic lunges and lulls,
while the three songs on Side Two of 'Hex' each clock in around nine

The heart of Bark Psychosis is the interplay between Graham Sutton's
Durutti Column-like guitar-filigree and John Ling's heart-murmur bass.  But
recently, the band have moved towards lush, intricate arrangements and
jazzy, heavy-on-the-hi-hat drumming  (they even played at Ronnie Scott's
last year).  And so "Hex", their long-awaited debut, is as ambitious as rock
oughta be in its fourth decade, but occasionally errs on the side of
over-ripe, slightly gauche 'sophistication'. 

The opener, "The Loom", for instance, lays it on thick--sombre strings, trickles of piano, languid, possibly fretless bass--and seems to be aiming for the baroque grandeur of Scott Walker's "Climate Of Hunter", or Bark Psychosis' personal faves, the Talk Talk of "Spirit Of Eden". "A Street Scene" also doesn't quite gel, with its fussy funk-jazz riff, lugubrious Miles horns and distressed guitar, but gets better when the song clears into a limpid expanse, redolent of the neo-jazz chamber music of the ECM label (motto: 'the most beautiful sound next to silence').  The core of "Absent Friend" is Sutton's brain-piercingly poignant, crystal-guitar motif, which seems to be chipped from the same precious ore as New Order's "Ceremony"; all the other elements--the
harmonica, the drunken bumble bee of a fuzzed-up bass solo, the Mark E.
Smith voice-through-megaphone bit--seem a bit superfluous.
As its blighted title suggests, the dominant mood of "Hex" is blue. The
album is shadowed by feelings of anomie and dread familiar to anyone who's
lived in London in the last few years. "Big Shot" has a similar
late-night-rain-and-neon scenario to The Blue Nile ("it's 3AM, don't know
where I'm going, just drive somewhere, fast"), but is far more sinister.
This is funk noir, with a baleful, dub-churning bass surging through a dense
fog of ambient vapour.

Like a lot of their avant-rock siblings, Bark Psychosis really come
into their own when they abandon the Song (and Sutton's slightly earnest
vocals) and stretch out to explore pure texture.  And so it's on Side Two--a
sort of triptych or song-cycle--that Bark Psychosis really start to fulfil
their huge potential. "Fingerspit" continues the urban angst theme ("every
night/streets leave their mark on my skin....I can't find anyway out"); a
broken, dejected guitar figure alternates with avalanche-chords, then the
track devolves into a desolate soundscape, all crevasses of silence and
jagged promontories of dissonance.

 "Eyes & Smiles" strays close to ECM territory again: its twinkling Aurora Borealis guitar, lambent synths, mournful sax, and Mark Simnett's determination to employ every inch of his drum kit, all uncannily recall Jan Garbarek's "Paths, Prints" album.  Like "Fingerspit", the song dwindles into pure ambience, an event-less horizon of tingling, tremulous synths.  

Best comes last, with "Pendulum Man", possibly Bark Psychosis' most accomplished foray yet. A glistening lattice of open-tuned chords, plangent harmonics and mistily reverbed piano chords, the track is a lagoon of serenity to rival David Sylvian's instrumentals on "Gone Too Earth".
The rise of ambient-tinged rock (and ambient techno) is a response to,
or retreat from, our increasingly strife-wracked, deteriorating social
fabric. Soundscape gardeners like Bark Psychosis, Seefeel et al make the
aural equivalent of the bower of bliss, a haven from an intolerable reality.
But if the socio-economic outlook still reads "NO FUTURE", the future of
rock is looking more buoyant than it has for a while, thanks to Bark
Psychosis and their 'post-rock' ilk.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Ariel Pink

Field Day Festivals website

24th May 2011

by Simon Reynolds

“I know I’ve left my mark already,” says Ariel Pink. “I know when somebody’s heard my music. I can hear it in their music.”
The Los Angeles musician, whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg, is talking about the dozen or more Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums he released in the 2000s and how their merger of exquisitely melodic pop with reverb-hazy lo-fi  spawned an entire genre, chillwave.  Its dreamy legion includes genuine talents like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi, along with lesser outfits beyond counting.
Ariel confesses he doesn’t really like any of his chill-dren but says that it’s nonetheless been “fascinating to watch the ripples, left by having made an impression, make their way around the world a few times.” He adds that it’s “a million times more pervasive” for Animal Collective, the Pitchfork-universe gods who gave him his first big break  when they rereleased early ultra-limited edition Haunted Graffiti cassettes and CD-Rs  such as The Doldrums and Worn Copy as proper CDs via their label Paw Tracks.  “To a much lesser degree, it’s happened with me. But you know, I’m really just grateful that anybody cares at all five years after the fact.”  That’s a reference to his virtual disappearance from the scene for several years following the final Paw Tracks rerelease House Arrest in 2006. “I felt like I had my fifteen minutes of fame. It came and went and I didn’t deserve a second chance.”

While the chillwave swarm hatched in his absence, Ariel was undergoing a difficult transition: from a one-man band making albums in his living room to a proper rock group recording in a studio under the guidance of a producer, and from a do-it-yourself underground icon-hood in the intimate milieu of small labels run by his friends to having a  contract with a major-league record label, 4AD (part of the independent-label conglomerate Beggars Banquet).   The result was last year’s triumphant Before Today, widely rated as one of 2010′s best albums.  In January this year Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti even appeared on mainstream TV in America, performing Before Today’s stand-out track “Round and Round” on the NBC chat show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
It’s been a long, strange journey for a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who started out making records at art school in Los Angeles during the late Nineties. “I was just doing music the whole time I was there, using it as essentially my concept art. At my opening exhibition, I sold The Doldrums–I had a kiosk and I sold burned CDs. I was extremely rebellious as far as the art department was concerned. An affront to them.”

Growing up in affluent Beverley Hills, Ariel had been encouraged to become a visual artist. “From the age of three I was an extremely skilled craftsman. Since a little kid, my parents were like ‘Oh my God, you’re like a Picasso’.  They thought I was going to go into graphic design or something. That skill got me into art school, but I wasn’t interested in art per se. And art school turned me off it completely.   Artists are some of the most sociopathic people.  That world is just rife with creeps. And the way that the art market developed, it killed off any room for anything other than conceptual art. It all became about “is it art, or is it not art: that is the question”. And if you don’t engage in that question, then you’re not really going to have a career.  Which is just bullshit to me. I always thought good art was like record covers. Put a name on any kind of image and make a great record cover: that’s good art to me.”
In those long before Before Today days, Ariel worked in isolation, laying down all the instrumental parts of his music onto a 8-track mixer in his apartment and, amazingly, simulating drums using mouth-noises.  What resulted seemed to be a semi-conscious attempt to recreate the primal scene of the child falling in love with pop for the first time with an ear cupped to an imperfectly-tuned transistor. This illusion was created partly by Ariel’s artfully lo-fi production, out of focus and streaked by sudden leakages of colour-saturated noise, and partly by his stylistic disjointedness, the way incongruous melodies sometimes seemed to jut into a song like interference from another station’s signal. Ariel describes his music as “retro-licious”.
There’s definitely an element of pastiche: an obsessive fan-scholar who worked for a long period as a clerk in a record store, he has the rock formalist’s love of songcraft and period production styles. One minute he’s channeling Hall & Oates, the next it’s Blue Oyster Cult, or Men Without Hats, or The Police circa Synchronicity…   But in his early music, Pink’s retro-pastiche tendencies were offset by a psychedelic urge to shatter form with kaleidoscopic chaos. So alongside gorgeous tunes like “For Kate I Wait” and “Strange Fires”, there’s eerie ambient lagoons like “Foilly Foibles/Gold”, a cornucopia of distressed and irradiated texture-tones.  Somewhere between these poles lie epic multi-part songs like “Trepanated Earth” or shimmering, rolling dreamscapes like “The Ballad of Bobby Pyn.”

Although Before Today tidied up the loose ends and stripped away much of the trademark echo-haze, it was the logical extension of what Ariel started with those early albums.  “I like to do things that I like, and  what I like is something that I don’t hear, ” he says, talking about contemporary radio. “I see it as preserving something that has died. Something that’s going extinct.  And just saying, ‘no!’  That’s all it is for me, as a music lover. ” But while occasional songs on Before Today remind you of particular artists–Fleetwood Mac on “Can’t Hear My Eyes”, Public Image Ltd with “Revolution’s A Lie”–mostly the echoes are less specific. His music is a puree of jumbled up eras, reflecting the fact that Ariel, who was born in 1978, belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless  shuffle-mode of VH1  and classic rock radio, and, more recently, iPod and YouTube. “We have no concept of time,” he says.
His generation increasingly has no concept of space either, their curiosity about and hunger for fresh musical stimuli bypassing geographical borders and cultural boundaries.  One of the most beguiling tracks on Before Today is the fusion-flavored instrumental “Reminiscences”. It is effectively a cover, or perhaps an interpretation, of “Liben Sitarochew”, an  Ethiopian “golden oldie” sung by pop singers Yeshimebet Dubale and Kenede Mengesha. According to Ariel, the most famous song-form in Ethiopoia is tizita, “the song of nostalgia and remembrances”. Hence the title “Reminiscences”.
Although the Ethiopiques series of compilations of Sixties and Seventies Ethiopian/Eritrean rhythm-and-blues and funk has been a long-time favourite with hipsters and critics, Ariel’s particular passion is for the underground pop  made during the Derg dictatorship of the 1980s.  He explains that Los Angeles is, “the perfect hub” for this stuff because it has “a little Ethiopia.  Go to the Mercato area and you can buy the cassette tapes that were dubbed by the musicians themselves during the time records were illegalized in Ethiopia.”  Many of these musicians are the same ones you can hear on Ethiopiques, “but by the Eighties they’d become recording artists rather than a live thing. They were forced to do these recordings in the middle of the night, and they’d dub the tapes and disseminate them. By the Eighties and into the early Nineties it’s become this futuristic kind of funk, spacy and totally evocative, with really jazzed out, echoed-out trumpets and Simmons electronic drums.  It’s the most glorious era of music that hasn’t even had its own blog yet. Although there is a lot of stuff on YouTube, because these singers did videos that would get shown on ETV, which was almost like a public access show.”  You can also find these “oldies” onDiretube, the Ethiopian equivalent to YouTube.
Ariel first encountered Derg-era Ethio-pop through the cosmopolitan mix of Los Angeles rather than online. But the way it has crept into his palette of influences to nestle alongside Sixties psych, Seventies soft-rock, and Eighties New Wave, parallels the way that the post-Internet generation are growing up in a world-of-sound as post-geographical as it is post-historical.  YouTube in particular, and the Internet in general, is a kind of archive-universe that keeps expanding as more and more culture-stuff gets stuffed into it: imagery and information, audio and video, that arrives from every corner of the globe and every crevice of our past, and increasingly from the pasts of all those foreign cultures as well.
Hence the profusion of blogs like Anywhere Else But Here Today… , Brain GorengHoly WarblesSea Never Dry , Ghost Capital, and many, many more.  Then there’s all the labels that are increasingly becoming crate-diggers san frontieres : Finders Keepers, Cherrystones, Secret Stash, Soundway Records, Strut, Honest Jon’s, Stone’s Throw, Dust-To-Digital, et al.  These blogs and labels are chasing down every imaginable kind of retro-exotica, from ethnological field recordings, to pop and showbiz (every nation has its domestic equivalent to schmaltz, schlager, variety) to hip sounds (South African disco & house! Indonesian hard rock! Angolan funk! Hawaian psychedelia!), in many cases sourced direct from the original cassettes or well-worn vinyl.  “I’ve been on a different musical kick lately,” says Ariel, after talking at length about Ethiopian pop. “I’ve been so into the Communist stuff. All the Russian pop stuff.”
What saves Ariel’s music from just being record collection rock, mere music-about-music, is the real-life emotion that bursts through in his best songs, from the tremulous yearning of “Strange Skies” to the loneliness of “Life In L.A.”  There’s darkness too, an almost exultantly bleak view of the world-that comes out in songs like “Trepanated Earth” (“the human race is a pile of dogshit”,  he spits at the start) and  “Revolution’s A Lie”, which was originally titled “Evolution’s A Lie”.  “It’s designed to collapse, it’s all going to shit”, he says, on the subject of Human Civilisation, adding with a laugh, “And that’s for the good.”
And what about music? Does it have any future?  Ariel’s music, so often praised by fans and critical admirers in terms of “ghost transmissions from a long-lost radio utopia” and similar metaphors, does seem dependent on mining the memory-seam of Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties rock.  But just like the West’s oil addiction, surely Western pop’s addiction to its own past will ultimately causes all these veins of inspiration to collapse, run dry? Whither next for fresh (re)sources of retrolicious-ness?
“The Nineties will never come back,” Ariel insists. “Grunge is not coming back.” He makes a vomiting, gagging sound to evoke the decade, then elaborates: “There was a total negative space, in music and quality, between Nirvana and The Strokes.  When the Strokes came around, I couldn’t believe it, I was like, ‘dude, I have a fucking chance: they’re playing guitars!”
Firmly convinced that there’s “nothing revivable” or worth excavating from the Nineties, Ariel believes that music will “stay around the 70s and 80s, kind of going back and forth, probably forever.”  But he also envisages “recording becoming completely obsolete in the next five or six years and live performance becoming the only future for a band or musical act of any kind. People’s attention spans are going to shrink to such a degree that the live performance thing is going to be the most socially viable thing.  It’ll be more about the social act of going to the show. It could be innovative music, or just party music, but it’ll happen in a live setting.  And maybe that’s a good thing, a natural out growth of a post-materialist society. It shouldn’t be about products.”  He says that in Ethiopia, “there are no stars. You’re just a musician–nothing too extraordinary.”
But doesn’t Ariel want to be star? He seems to have a healthy ego. “I’m an attention hog,” he admits. “I’d like to be president if possible. Way down the road. Maybe four years. I’d try a whole bunch of things. Then I wouldn’t even go to jail if they don’t work out.”

Los Angeles Times, June 6th 2010
by Simon Reynolds

Ariel Pink seems quintessentially L.A. He's lived virtually his entire life in Los Angeles and can't imagine living anywhere else. He's written songs with titles like "Beverly Kills" and "Life in L.A.," and echoes of the city's musical past reverberate across his albums, from the Byrds and Love to Fleetwood Mac and the Germs' Darby Crash.
Yet the frontman-leader of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti says that, compared with the cult love he gets elsewhere, "I'm nothing in L.A. It's been at the same level for the last 10 years."
Maybe that's why Pink, who lives in Highland Park, is talking up his new record "Before Today" as his "East Coast album." He describes the cover as "Ramones-ish": It's a painting of Pink and band mates leaning against what could be a flophouse or derelict burlesque theater in a rundown outer borough of New York.
In Manhattan the day before playing a May 4 concert, Pink is strolling along a post-industrial landmark in the formerly seedy meatpacking district: the High Line, a disused railroad viaduct recently converted into a long, narrow above-ground park. A small, hunched figure who gives off a vague aura of spiritual malnourishment, he's wearing a gray-hooded jacket, an orange-and-blue-striped shirt with a torn neckline, and clogs.
Pink, whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg, is physically hungry too. He forgot breakfast, so the next destination is a Thai fast-food joint in nearby Chelsea Market. Gobbling noodles, he discusses the strange twists and turns of his career. Its unusual trajectory mirrors the paradoxical qualities of his music and the contradictions of his personality, where fragility and neediness battle it out with self-grandeur and control-freakishness. At one point during the making of "Before Today," in fact, he quit his own band.
All this comes through in the music's combination of the swagger and epic drama of classic radio rock with the passive-aggressive vulnerability and petulance of bands like the Cure (Pink's favorite as a Goth-loving teenager). Like many of his indie-rock peers, Pink has worked as a record-store clerk and there's an aspect to his songs that is pure pastiche. But cutting through the stylization and the arch vocals is the ache of real pain and longing, the sting of a spite and cynicism that has roots in a troubled childhood.
Pink's signature sound — the collision of exquisitely melodic song craft influenced by '80s mainstream pop with the loose ends and reverb-haze of lo-fi indie — has been forged widely in the last several years. He's the godfather of the blog-buzz propelled genre known as chillwave, whose dreamy legion includes Neon Indian, Tory y Moi, Tape Deck Mountain, Washed Out, and dozens more. "I know I've left my mark already," Pink says, proudly. "I know when somebody's heard my music. I can hear it in their music."
Then he admits he doesn't really like any of the bands he's influenced, apart from a few that involve his friends and associates, including L.A.-based Nite Jewel (Ramona Gonzalez, the wife of his former guitarist Cole Marsden Greif-Neill).
Depending on how you calculate, "Before Today" is Pink's ninth album or his 24th. The Haunted Graffiti discography is a chaotic sprawl of ultra-limited-edition cassette, CD-R and vinyl releases, confused further by rereleases and reconfigurations of earlier material. But Pink insists that "Before Today" is "the first album." Not only is it his debut for a big-deal label (4AD), it's "the first record I've made with any kind of thought or consciousness that I have an audience." He and his band will begin a national tour at the Echoplex in Echo Park on July 9.
Pink's cult stature arrived quickly mid-decade when he was discovered by Animal Collective, which rereleased "The Doldrums," followed by "Worn Copy" and "House Arrest," on its fledgling label Paw Tracks. But not only were these rereleases of records Pink had put out a few years earlier on tiny labels operated by friends but the actual material had been recorded as far back as the late '90s. Until now, virtually everything he has released was created before November 2004.
What's he been doing these last five years then? Eking out a living by touring and releasing limited-editions collations of the old material, he says, while "trying to get a record deal. I didn't want to make any new music until I got paid for it."
Everything Pink made before "Before Today" was done solo. He operated as a one-man band, laying down all the instrumental parts onto an 8-track mixer in his apartment and, amazingly, simulating drums using mouth-noises, human beat-box style. "Before Today" represents a total reversal of this modus operandi: Pink worked with a proper band, in a professional recording studio, under the direction of a producer.
The transition was "fraught with complications from Day 1," he says. Bassist Tim Koh, longest-serving member of the group and Pink's friend since he put out "Worn Copy" on his own micro-label Rhystop, sounds fatigued as he describes the "really long process. We went through tons of people. Ariel quit, and I quit at one point. And Cole our guitarist quit but never came back. It got a little … difficult."
Pink describes it as "a learning experience." What he learned, though, wasn't how to get along with others but that "ultimately I do have absolute control. I had to basically take control of my band. Stop calling it a band.... I got very good at telling people what to do, essentially."
All that tension and unpleasantness has paid off handsomely. "Before Today" strips away a lot of the echo-laden wooze that swathed Pink's earlier music. What emerges, glistening and majestic like a yacht through fog, often sounds like chart material. The only catch is that these would be radio smashes in 1986, or 1978, or whichever year that a particular song refers to stylistically. You can't imagine anything on the record making a dent on today's radioscape.
The title "Before Today" speaks to Pink's alienation from contemporary music. "Oh, they're all retro-licious, man," he quips of his songs. "My music is pure retro." "Before Today" is the logical extension of what Pink began with "The Doldrums" and "Worn Copy," where tracks such as "Among Dreams" and "Trepanated Earth" felt like ghost transmissions from a long-lost radio utopia. "I see it as preserving something that has died. Something that's going extinct. And just saying, 'no!' That's all it is for me, as a music lover. I like to do things that I like. And what I like is something that I don't hear."
What's odd about Ariel Pink is that the lo-fi, mumbly-vocal DIY tradition that his early music belonged to was originally vehemently opposed to the slick, big-budget AOR and '80s rock 'n' soul that he's so inspired by. Hall & Oates are a perennial touchstone, while on "Before Today" you can hear Blue Oyster Cult circa "Don't Fear the Reaper" in "Butt-house Blondies" and the Police circa "Every Breath You Take" in "Round and Round."
More often, though, the echoes are less specific, his music like a puree of jumbled-up eras. Born in 1978, Pink belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless shuffle-mode of VH1 and classic rock radio and more recently iPod and YouTube. "We have no concept of time," he says, talking of how some people in his generation "who like '60s music, they live there forever."
With so much contemporary music, its primary emotion is directed toward other, earlier music. Pink is a scholar of the history of rock production, and his music occasionally succumbs to formalist whimsy. But his best songs are fueled by real-life emotion: the tremulous yearning of "Strange Skies," the romantic uncertainty of "Round and Round." There's darkness too, an almost exultantly bleak view of the world.
Pink's parents divorced when he was 2. There was child therapy and a difficult transition from a Jewish private school to a public junior high in Beverly Hills. His response to being "made fun of a lot, [because] I was very small" was to get into death metal. "You could say I was the equivalent of a Columbine kid, except this was before Columbine."
Being sent to Mexico for a while "cheered me up a bit" and he upgraded from death metal to Goth. In the late '90s, he attended CalArts, where he was "extremely rebellious, an affront to the art department." At the end-of-semester exhibition in 1999, Ariel's contribution was a kiosk at which he sold burned CD-Rs of "The Doldrums." "I was using music as my concept art. I was just doing music the whole time I was there."
Turbulence continued well into the 2000s, with a chaotic domestic situation and a lifestyle whose flavor is caught in the "House Arrest" anthem "Getting High in the Morning." Then, just as his career took off with the rerelease of "The Doldrums," a beloved sister suffered a terrible car crash, leaving her in a permanent vegetative state.
Perhaps because he has two sisters and because of his parents' divorce, Pink seems to identify with womankind. He has an androgynous quality reminiscent of glam icon Marc Bolan and plays with gender in his songs. Throughout the interview he threads his fingers through his long, fine hair in a nervous, girlish way. In the video for the killer tune "For Kate I Wait" from "The Doldrums," he wears a dress.
And "Before Today's" "Menopause Man" is a transgender anthem whose lyrics beseech "make me maternal, fertile woman" and vow "I'm changing today/ I'm a lady from today." Pink says, "I feel like I'm neither a girl nor a boy. I don't feel like a man. I look in the mirror sometimes and think, 'Wow, you're a beautiful woman.'" He smiles wryly and adds, "Of course, it's very male to think like that."

Monday, July 21, 2014

ANANDA PROJECT—Release (Nite Grooves)
Spin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

In rock, you get local heroes, bands that are big in their town or region. In dance, you get the opposite. Take Ananda Project's Chris Brann: a god for house hipsters across the globe for his mid-Nineties releases as Wamdue Kids, but I bet he can walk round his hometown Atlanta, Georgia, without a nod.

A slightly pat reference point for Release: Everything But the Girl's Temperamental. "Breaking Down", with its jazzy-guitar flecks and forlorn vocals (courtesy of Heather Johnson, one of five guest singers) even sounds a bit like EBTG. But Brann's coming from the other direction: he's a trackmaster getting songful, rather than singer/songwriters getting their groove on. Release has the pump of club-oriented house, the kind of voluptuously thick kick drums that become a cocooning environmental pulse when heard through a massive sound system. But it also has the intimacy of music for home and headphones. And there can't be many house artists who put a quote from Edith Sitwell in the CD booklet.

"Cascades of Colour" is the stand-out. The plangent gravity of the melody, redolent of Harold Budd & Brian Eno's ambient albums, conjures deliciously mixed emotions---blue joy, sweet sorrow. Gaelle Adisson's multitracked vocals form a counterpoint lattice that sets your nape-hairs tingling. Close behind "Cascades" is the title track, with its "let your spirit free" invocations and pensive piano chords that suddenly roll backwards on themselves, psychedelic guitar-style, to form a seamless, timewarping Moebius Strip.

Throughout the album, there's a blurry, miasmic quality to Brann's production, the aural equivalent of Vaseline-on-the-lens. The way Brann arranges his drums spatially is like landscape gardening, making you gaze into the distance. On the vocoderized ballad "Expand Your Mind", snares crack like thunder on the mix's horizon, while hi-hats bustle right in your face. The wispy drum'n'bass excursion "Bahia" suggests an affinity with softcore junglists like LTJ Bukem and PFM, a common quest for aquaboogie wonderlands.

As with the Good Looking guys, New Age alarm bells occasionally ring: lots of liquidly chirruping birdsong, a Stevie Nicks-esque lyric about a "daughter of the moon" on the otherwise gorgeous "Falling For You". Mind you, in these despiritualized, money-mad times, maybe we need some of that. The opulence of Brann's sound doesn't connote aspirational "audio couture" (a slogan coined by Moving Shadow just at the point the label, and the drum'n'bass scene, started to undergo gentrification) but what New Agers call "abundance consciousness"--in plain, old-timer's English, counting your blessings. Release is the kind of record that reminds you to feel grateful to be alive.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Blank Regeneration: Luke Haines, New York in the '70s


New York in the ‘70s

Cherry Red 
director's cut, The Wire, May 2014

by Simon Reynolds

Pushed by music magazines and rock documentary makers, “the place to be” is a perennially alluring notion. The conviction that a single city – London, San Francisco, Manchester, Seattle, Berlin—is currently pop culture’s energy center, a vortex fermenting  new sounds and styles that will bubble up from the underground to transform the mainstream, draws the ambitious, the curious, and a legion of misfits chafing at the constraints of their suburban or small-town home.  Retro culture adds a layer of elegiac wistfulness to this “anywhere but here” impulse, instilling the belief that that there was “the time to be” too, that born-too-late sense of being one of History’s provincials, stranded faraway in time from the action.  

On New York in the ‘70s Luke Haines seems at once seduced by and sceptical toward this idea that certain towns at certain times buzzed with extraordinary energy.  A mildly provocative figure on the periphery of the U.K. pop/rock mainstream for two decades now, Haines was the driving force behind The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder, and, since 2001, he’s been a prolific solo artist. New York is actually his tenth solo album. It also closes out a diverting if opaque-in-intent trilogy that began with 2011’s 9 and a half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling From the 1970s and continued with last year’s Rock and Roll Animals.

Haines’s meta-musician tendencies were apparent from the start:  The Auteurs’s 1993 debut LP was titled New Wave, featured songs with titles like “American Guitars”, and was framed by its author as a celebration of quintessentially English “wryness and dryness” (think Kinks) in defiance of then dominant grunge aesthetics.  More recently, “The Heritage Rock Revolution”, from 2006’s Off My Rocker At the Art School Bop, mocked the reenactments of past glories served up by rock’s nostalgia industry. “It’s a middle-aged rampage/NOW!” Haines sang, wittily inverting the chorus of The Sweet’s glam-anthem “Teenage Rampage”.   Whether tacking against the tide of the contemporary scene or playing games with history, Haines’s music always seems to be commenting on other music.

The odd thing about New York in the ‘70s is that the period Haines is revisiting—post-Warhol decadence, protopunk, the Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs milieu—is that this was the point at which rock itself took a self-reflexive turn. The New York Dolls were Stones impersonators and girl-group fans who quoted The Shangri-Las and hired their producer Shadow Morton to do their second album;  Patti Smith covered The Who and Them, wrote elegies to Jim Morrison and Hendrix;  Suicide’s Alan Vega channeled Elvis;  The Ramones and The Dictators were virtually scholars of teen delinquent rock.  So what does adding another layer of reflexivity and reference contribute,  when the music in question is already self-consciously tangled up and tangling with rock history?

Listening to New York in the ‘70s, it’s not readily apparent what Haines is trying to say.  Just like that flatly descriptive album title, the songs sit there, blank regenerations of time-honored templates, ranging from precise pastiches of legends like Suicide (“Drone City” duplicates  “Frankie Teardrop” complete with psychotic gulps and gasps)  to generically NYC/1970s-evoking songs in a “Loaded” Velvets/ Lou Reed-solo style.  Not content with giving his ditties titleslike“Alan Vega Says”, “Jim Carroll” , “Dolls Forever”, and “Lou Reed Lou Reed”, Haines often lets his lyrics devolve into a string of citations and famous-first-name allusions: Debbie, DeeDee, Bill (as in Burroughs), and so on.   

Lloyd Cole, another Manhattan-infatuated Brit songwriter, dubbed this lyrical technique “proper noun as metaphor and simile” and claimed to have invented it (Bryan Ferry got there first, surely?).  Cole is a telling comparison, actually: like his immediate predecessors Orange Juice, he translated Reed-isms into an authentically U.K. realm of   bookish bedsit romanticism (girlfriends who drive their mother’s old 2CVs, etc). But on New York Haines does nothing with the source material: takes its nowhere, barely even twists it.

Really, the only tint of difference is tonal: droll, with a hint of smirk. New York in the ‘70s ought to be filed under parody-rock, next to Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoia, the XTC side/psych project Dukes of Stratosphear, and ex-Bonzo Neil Innes’s tunes for The Rutles. As the literary critic Linda Hutcheon observes, parody sanctions what in any other context would be dismissed as derivative and redundant. Laughter (and perhaps also a smidgeon of appreciation for the craft involved in these replicas) excuses what otherwise is merely empty impersonation. 

The mirth on offer here is thin fare, for the most part. Certainly compared with New York’s  immediate predecessor  Rock and Roll Animals, whose Mighty Boosh-like conceit --rock history reimagined as an anthropomorphic children’s fable, starring “Jimmy Pursey, a fox...   Gene Vincent, the cat...  and a badger called Nick Lowe”-- was strong and strange enough to sustain a whole album.  The only time New York strays into a similar zone of surreal whimsy is “Cerne Abbas Man”, in which the 180-foot-high priapic figure cut into Dorset hillside turf aeons ago comes alive and goes to war with the Lower East Side’s junkie poets.   Swinging “his giant glans straight into Manhattan,” the original Rude Man gives Richard Hell the “heebie-jeebies” and jolts “the ghost of Johnny Thunders,” who rasps “don’t point that thing at me, buddy”.  The idea seems to be a battle of primordial mojo between ancient Albion and “mythic motherfuckin’ rock’n’roll,” with the older culture wiping the floor with those young pretenders from the New World. 

The blurb for Post Everything, the second of Haines’s two Britpop memoirs, argues that “if it feels like there's nothing new under the sun, that's because there is nothing new under the sun”.  The same applies to New York in the ‘70s which oddly resembles a project from the early ‘90s, roughly contemporaneous with The Auteurs: Denim, a group created by Lawrence from Felt, in which he swapped his own VU/Dylan/Television fixations for Seventies English glitter pop at its most lumpen and trashy.  New York and 1992’s Back in Denim share the same boxy sonics and vocals that clone Lou Reed’s sing-speak drone.  But not only were Denim’s hooks zippier and lyrics funnier,  Lawrence’s polemic also had real bite at that point in time: songs like “Middle of the Road”  junked hip taste and canonical rock for the uncool thrills of plebeian tat.   What came through too was Lawrence’s love for the music, his delight in rediscovering records by The Glitter Band and Hello.

But it’s never clear what Haines really feels about the proto-punk New York of the Seventies.  (Personally the period after Loaded and before Marquee Moon strikes me as historically significant and importantly transitional, but surprisingly thin in terms of actual musical achievement). My guess is that his younger self’s fascination for the era of Max’s, Mercer Arts Center, etc, and for that whole bohemian quest for some kind of truth or ultimate reality (Patti Smith’s “outside of society/is where I want to be” ) via hard drugs, onstage self-harm, and other extremes, is cancelled out by a middle-aged man’s feeling that  such anti-heroics were misguided and futile. All a bit silly.  Like a man who’s fallen out of love but can’t leave the relationship, Haines sees through the myth but is unable to move on.  So he’ll keep on picking at and picking on rock history; he bickers with it, parrots back what it said in an arch mocking tone.