Monday, January 28, 2013

The Guardian, December 28th 1989

by Simon Reynolds

For many, the Eighties was the decade when pop finally grew up. Demographically, the decade saw the twilight of the Teen Age, with the rise of the 24-35 age group as the music industry's principal market. But the decade also saw a concerted and conscious effort on the part of a new breed of pop artists to distance themselves from rock'n'roll's original driving impulses: irresponsibility, narcissism, a spendthrift attitude to time and self. The luminaries of the new 'progressive pop' were determined that something good should finally come out of pop.

This Eighties pop meritocracy (Sting, Eurythmics, Tears For Fears, George Michael, U2) was determined not to repeat the glaring abuses of the pre-1976 rock aristocracy. From punk, they had learned the importance of control, learned how to say "no" : to manipulative record companies and managers, to the ruinous lure of drugs. In the Eighties, pop was no longer an arena for dissolute playboys, for the shooting star who burned out after a brief burst of glory. Eighties pop
stars planned their careers, invested their earnings prudently, spread their assets by branching out into production or other media. Above all, they paced themselves, aimed for longevity.

And like other successful capitalists, eventually they looked to legitimise their ascendancy, with acts of altruism and philanthropy. Live Aid signalled the triumph of this new consciousness (idealism married to pragmatism). In its wake trailed a seemingly interminable procession of less spectacular charity iniatives, dwindling down to this year's unsuccessful Spirit Of The Forest record in aid of the Amazonian jungle (which sold only 4,000 copies).

For the more daring, the new selflessness took the form of political alignment: benefit concerts (for the striking Miners, Mandela, AIDS research), or Red Wedge. The latter was an attempt to forge a Socialist pop culture, where certain consumer choices were deemed to have a natural fit with certain political values. Paul Weller of the Style Council typified this mentality. He looked back to the early Seventies protest soul of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye as a model for his agit-pop, and was widely imitated by the likes of The Christians, Blow Monkeys, and Simply Red. In the Eighties, soul became the voice of the new spirit of care and concern.

But behind this spirit of passionate compassion lay something rather less noble: a shame about pop, about being involved in something so "obviously" trivial. What resulted was a pop adult-erated by the Left's longstanding ulterior attitude to culture and pleasure (as something of only instrumental value).

But the Eighties also saw a massive reaction against the new conscientious consensus, in the form of pop that refused to be ashamed of itself, that was happy to be a glorious waste of energy. There was rap, with its grandiose, groundless pride, its egocentric universe, its sadistic relationship to its own audience. There was hardcore *, a genre that descended from the side of punk bound up with outrage, delinquency and nihilist despair, rather than the more positive side (which blossomed in Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge). Hardcore groups like Sonic Youth, Swans, Big Black and Butthole Surfers were driven by a morbid fascination for the worst in human nature, the worst that can
happen (bizarre accidents, psychosis, perversion, acts of monstrous cruelty). The appeal of this vicarious, voyeuristic aesthetic is rooted in what the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls the psychedelic "powers of horror": being confronted with the unthinkable is mindblowing.

As well as the brutalism of rap and harcore, there were other pop subcultures that were simply careless, un-concerned. These were musics specifically designed to erase anxiety and transport the listener out of the real world (of everyday worry and political commitment). There was the "acieed" scene. Acid house's hypnotic, repetitive electro-pulse, its lack of conventional narrative and lyrical focus, empties the listener's consciousness like a mantra. Acid tracks are endless trips into polymorphous pleasure (one acieed slogan is "where now lasts longer"). An acid rave is a kind of communal isolation tank, hermetically sealed from reality.

Very similar in effect, if not in sound, is what's been called "oceanic" or "nirvana" rock: the blissed-out dreampop of the likes of Cocteau Twins and A.R. Kane. These groups' hazy, radiant guitar sound and lullaby vocals invite reveries of halcyon childhood innocence. Like acid house, the oceanic sound is wombing. Oceanic rock appeals to subconscious memories of the maternal heaven-on-eart' that enfolds the suckled infant. It stirs up nostalgia for this time before time, where the child lives in a beatific 'forever now', free of anxiety.

This is the big difference between uncaring/care-free pop and mainstream mature pop. Care-less pop lives in the present tense (whether blissful or threatened). Care-worn pop is creased with anxiety: about the future, and about a pop past whose legacy it feels it must live up to (Live Aid was an attempt to realise Woodstock's dream of a benignly united youth, while Red Wedge harked back to Seventies soul and Rock Against Racism). This explains why the most musically progressive music of the Eighties (rap, acid, hardcore) has been the most emotionally regressive, and why the most politically progressive manifestations of mainstream pop have been invariably couched in such retrogressive and retrospective music. If nothing else, the Eighties have proved once again that the Devil has all the best riffs.

* - what I called 'hardcore' here would be more accurately designated post-hardcore -- i.e. 1980s American underground rock, noise etc

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

label profile / cover story, The Wire, May 2011

by Simon Reynolds

There's a crossroads in Eagle Rock that's like a microcosm of Los Angeles. On one corner, a billboard for the Matthew McConaughey movie The Lincoln Lawyer faces off against a billboard for José Huizar, a city councilor seeking reelection.  On the opposite side of the street, an acupuncturist's and a nail salon contrast with the Eagle Rock Baptist Church. Right there, all at one intersection, you have: Hollywood, the coming Latino majority, the Asian-American influence, the beauty industry, and the little known fact that the suburban sprawl of greater L.A. has more in common with America's red-state heartland than you'd think.  

But there's something else at this crossroads.  Invisible from the street, representing  L.A.'s  thriving musical underground, there's Not Not Fun, the record label whose seven-year-old discography reads like a who's who of  DIY culture in the 2000s: Ducktails,  Sun Araw, Matrix Metals, Yellow Swans, Charalambides, Rangers, Dolphins Into the Future, Magic  Markers...  Go round the back of a building, climb the metal exterior staircase, and you'll find the apartment that doubles as HQ and home for  Britt and Amanda Brown, the husband-and-wife team who founded NNF in 2004 and who have played, together and separately, in several of the label's key groups, including Pocahaunted, Robedoor, and LA Vampires. 

The couple's living room is a charming clutter of thrift-store finds, tchotchkes, and sundry cool old stuff.  A vintage manual typewriter squats on the coffee table. A Seventies-relic turntable called the Realistic Clarinette 40 clings to one wall. The opposing wall is taken up by a mural of an autumn forest, the sort of décor you might find in a time-warp restaurant in Bavaria.  Through the room's wide windows you can see some real-deal pictureseque: the mountain ridge that gives Eagle Rock its name.  There's vinyl everywhere you look, and on the wall hangs a wooden cabinet crammed with cassettes.  

Tapes is how Not Not Fun started out.  The Browns originally met when Britt was working at the Hollywood celebrity-oriented glossy FLAUNT and Amanda was his intern. After she'd left but they'd kept on dating, Amanda suggested they start NNF, a flashback to her early teens as a riot grrl making zines and releasing cassette compilations via her label Cotton Crown.  Britt and Amanda also formed a band, Weirdo/Begeirdo, who promptly appeared on NNF001:  the cassette sampler Have An Uptight Party.  The next few releases came from other groups on the sampler, like My Sexual Dad. Then the couple started to put out tapes, vinyl and CD-Rs by bands they saw playing at LA's famous punk venue The Smell or the Neon Hate You micro-festivals  organized by Brian Miller (whose own primitivist ensemble Foot Village were NNF009 with "World Fantasy"). "We saw so many amazing bands in a short space of time," recalls Britt. "I just didn't know there were kids on our level trying things so sideways.  We rode that high for several years."

In the label's early days, when its releases came in editions anywhere between 32 and 300, NNF's hallmark was its cute 'n 'clever handcrafted packaging. This was mainly Amanda's department: not only had she done a minor in sculpting at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, but she has "tiny little hands, perfect for assembling factory style."  The couple would come home from their full-time jobs, then spend entire evenings putting together the artwork for their latest limited edition.  "We'd rent some movies and set up," recalls Britt. "Go late into the night."

Darting into another room, Britt returns with an armful of their favourite handiwork.  Like the compilation Boo Yeah: A Halloween Retrospooktive, which comes with a Frankenstein-shaped hand-drawn comic inside and a Trick-or-Treat style Tootsie Roll attached.  And like Free Beasts, a 2006 comp of bands with "animal-involved names--believe it or not, not so easy to come by back then!"  Each cassette is partially hooded by a "creature-head" with mismatched buttons for eyes and fangs whose tips are colored blood-red.  These miniature saber-tooth tigers look like they might have been repurposed from thrift-store cuddly toys but were actually hand-sewn by Amanda and two friends. "It was so much about how wild we could be with this aesthetic," says Amanda of NNF's drive to re-enchant the commodity. "That's the true connection that we have to the music: we spent so much time with those objects."

The couple stress how haphazard and "blind" those halcyon early days were: NNF had no aesthetic agenda.  Imperceptibly, the label evolved from a fun sideline to their jobs into their actual livelihood.  "Now it feels like there's never been anything else in our lives," says Amanda. Most weeks they work six or seven days, toiling into the small hours.  The discography has passed the  #230 mark and the pressing runs are much larger nowadays: typically 1000, but reaching 2000 with "hits" like the LA Vampires/Zola Jesus collaboration or Peaking Lights's 936.  

Inevitably, success has pushed NNF out of their artisanal comfort zone and into manufacturing. Now and then they'll still silkscreen a tape or 7-inch, like Dylan Ettinger's forthcoming "Lion of Judas".  The shift was painful, says Amanda. "It was hard to let go of being the maker. Now it's more that we'll order 1000 records and drive to the record plant and pick up the boxes. And there they are, ready, perfect, shrinkwrapped."

Vinyl is still analogue, though. Tougher still was the decision to sell digitally, through eMusic/Revolver/Boomkat.   MP3s are anathema to NNF. "We don't listen to any digital music, we don’t own iPods" says Amanda. "When things started to turn toward everything-digital, that was such a struggle for us.  We try not to be Luddites  but we are a bit like, 'I can't believe you don't want to hold this thing in your hand! What's wrong with you?!'" 'But Britt says that they believe in the music too much to keep it limited-edition. "I feel it's our duty to make it available. If we did an edition-of-fifty tape and it sold out in two hours, that's frustrating to me because clearly the demand is there.  And if I was a fan of the band, I'd be like, 'do you actually want me to just listen to it as a shared MP3s on the internet?'"

That last comment points to the way that underground music today, from post-noise to post-dubstep, enjoys a peculiar double existence.  There's premium tier of involvement (that finite elect who have and hold the music as tape or vinyl) and then there's this whole other realm of dematerialized dissemination (illegal shares through message boards, through blogs uploading to file-hosting services).  So a record has a primary audience and then an unquantifiably larger audience, who check the music out once or twice, listening most likely in a fairly disengaged, distracted manner. This is partly a side effect of the music coming to them free: if you haven't paid, you're far less likely to pay full attention.  But it's exacerbated by digimusic's user-friendly  "conveniences", which invite you to break the flow of immersive listening. 

Do Not Not Fun feel like they are part of the resistance,  by pulling people back inside analogue time?  "I would say we're part of the resistance to things that almost don't exist," says Amanda.  "It feels like the music doesn't exist.  To some people, I know, this doesn't lessen the quality of it. But it actually does to me.  We all have certain ages of our life where we stop growing. And there are certain tenets I had aged 14 that I still have now I'm 29.  I remember how hard it was to get stuff. There was this one PJ Harvey import CD and I'm still getting chills at the thought of how difficult it was to acquire. I know it's not 1994 anymore -and in so many ways, thank God-- but I  want people to feel that kind of exultation with owning the music, seeing the artwork and holding the thing."

But as much as NNF push back against digi-culture, their operation is completely enmeshed with the Net.  There's a Southern California aspect to the label: the back catalogue teems with local outfits, like Magic Lantern, Sun Araw and Abe Vigoda, who belong to same L.A. ferment that produced the Ariel Pink/Geneva Jacuzzi/Nite Jewel cluster or, at a more NME/Pitchfork level, groups like Warpaint and No Age.  But increasingly NNF is becoming postgeographical: the roster is studded with acts from Japan, Australia, Denmark, France, Canada, New Zealand, Estonia and Britain.   "Half of our sales are international," says Britt. "We fill out a lot of customs forms! We're down at Eagle Rock post office three times a week, mailing out packages to places like Copenhagen. It's actually people from other countries that seem most enthusiastic. And that's always been the case:  some of the first people to reach out to us were just internet trawlers from France and England who somehow found the website."

But perhaps the contradiction of being digi-phobes dependent on the Net isn't a contradiction so much as a productive tension. Or even a strategy.  NNF resist some aspects of digiculture but embrace others: the liberating lines of communication opened up by high-bandwidth networks, which enable the aggregation of dispersed fans into a viable market, and, more importantly,  connect them with artistic like-minds. 

Many of the label's newer signings agree. "I think the internet is helpful in finding your extended family, essentially," says Isla Craig, vocalist of the Toronto-based AquaGoth trio The Deeep.  Dylan Ettinger, creator of last year's splendid swan-song for hypnagogia New Age Outlaws: The Director's Cut, says "The place I live now--Bloomington, Indiana--doesn't have the best scene for what I do.  So the Internet is absolutely essential to what I do and what NNF does." He tells me he's about to play the NNF showcase at SXSW in Austin, Texas, "alongside bands from Japan, Australia and France." 

The French artist in question, High Wolf--real name, Max--talks about how the Net has destroyed one idea of "community" ("the oppressive one of neighbourhood, social background, religion") but allows for the building of "a new community just from your taste or interests." This parochialism of sensibility is "not based on place." But this global dispersal means that the modern musician goes places: "I can travel to Tokyo or LA and sleep on people's floors in maybe seven different houses."

But even as NNF and their artists take advantage of the Net's deterritorialising potentials,  in other contexts they retrench around analogue modes: their format fetishism represents  recalcitrance  in the face of the brittle, partially-attentive listening virtually imposed by digitized music.  "In French the word is contrainte, I don't know the English," says Max. "Oh, it's 'constraint'? Ha! With digital, you can skip within a track from the first minute to the last minute. With analogue, there is a constraint, but it is liberating." This concept--freedom through submission,  bliss as surrender--is deeply mystical (and perfect for the nouveau cosmique rock made by High Wolf on albums like Ascension). But more important, the concept is also deeply musical: rapture as being rapt, detained against your will.


The day after chatting with Max in an East L.A. café, I go see him and three other NNF artists play a show that's at once deep underground and high in the sky. It's at Landslide, an open-air, hillside venue in Lincoln Heights, an area that like its neighbours Highland Park and Eagle Rock is becoming a trendy place to live for musicians and bohemian types.  Landslide isn't really a proper venue but an idyllic, if rather steep expanse of grassy meadow and woodland in back of a house.  Panting, the musicians lug equipment up the hill and assemble the PA on what used to be a skateboarding ramp and is now a makeshift stage.  Stars twinkle overhead but the firmament is eclipsed by the light-show panorama of downtown LA in the valley below: skyscrapers and glittering freeways familiar from  countless helicopter scenes in movies.

Robedoor,  Britt's band, kick things off:  tentatively at first but rising to an impressively primal rampage, with drummer Geddes Gengras stripped to the waist.  Brisbane's Blank Realm play psych-tinged postpunk midway between Blue Orchids and Flying Nun. After a DJ interlude of Celestial Vibrations-style new age, Goblin-esque horror soundtracks, and slap-bass-happy fusion, High Wolf take the stage.  

Although guitars and effects pedals dominate, Max's sound is surprisingly clean and clear for a NNF band.  But then the day before Max had declared his total lack of interest in "sounding lo-fi or like The Skaters". Prior to High Wolf, he'd worked with sampling and Raster-Noton style abstract electronics. The four sides of High Wolf's quadrangle of sound could be Spiritualized, Steve Hillage, Shpongle... and Sun Araw.   Tonight, because Max spends so much time crouched over various machines, triggering tabla loops and intoning vocals through FX boxes, the lead guitar comes courtesy of a lanky young man with buttercup-yellow locks called Barrett Avner, a recent recruit to Sun Araw.

Listening to space rock with nothing but air between your head and the stars above is a lovely way to spend the night.   But as midnight approaches I'm also feeling puzzled.  This is about as underground as an event can get, but it doesn't feel underground.  A woman wanders around with a bucket to collect $5 donations, reminding me of Spiral Tribe doing the same thing at illegal open-air "teknivals" like Castlemorton. But the vibe couldn't be more different.  There's no atmosphere of danger, wildness, or even--despite the trippy music-- drugginess.  This is just some well-educated young (and not-so-young) people standing on a hill listening to loud music. Blank Realm even got some funding from the Australian government to mount their US tour.  There's little sense that something illicit or threatening is taking place. Maybe that's why the police, dropping round in response to a neighbour's complaint, leave without incident, noting "that it's early yet" and politely suggesting "keep an eye on the volume levels".  

Three days earlier I had asked the Browns what they thought "underground" meant nowadays.  I'd been struck by a comment of Amanda's in a Pocahaunted interview: that they were "blissfully unaware" of "everything popular".

In 80s America, post-hardcore noiseniks and indie groups alike felt almost physically oppressed by  mainstream pop. The self-same synth textures, drum sounds and  production hallmarks that yer hypnagogic popsters are now  resurrecting, felt in those days like an insult, an assault.

Today, underground musicians just seem have a mildly amused indifference towards chartpop. There's no sense of enmity. "Oh yes, the mainstream just runs right alongside us," Amanda agrees.  She and Britt laugh about how so many of the underground musicians they know--"the weirdest person making the most out-there sounds"--listen to Beyonce and Kanye.   "Justin Bieber: I don't own his records but I don't have an issue with his existence."

So what defines "underground" then, if not opposition to the commercial overground? "It's more to do with an operational procedure," says Britt.  "Booking your own shows, playing somewhat non-traditional venues.  You're 'underground' if you're putting out your own records, or if whoever is putting out your records is not that much above you."  It's not about avoiding professionalism (NNF obviously take immense care over what they do) but about not having too many levels of intermediation between yourself and the listener: agents, managers, levels of business hierarchy. "We get emails that are like 'have you any idea how I can contact  Amanda Brown?'," laughs Amanda."And I'm emailing back, 'Hi! It's me!"

"Underground", in 2011, means creating an atmosphere of cultural intimacy. So the most apt comparison for where do-it-yourself music is today might be ETSY, the online market for handmade and vintage items. Not only is the economic structure similar--small entrepreneurs selling their wares at fairs or through specialist boutiques but doing most of their business online--but the aesthetic sensibility overlaps. There's the same vintage materials and formats (T-Shirts with pictures of old-fashioned typewriters, notepads that repurpose the covers of 1970s textbooks), the same penchant for slow, unwieldy production methods, even similar iconography (lots of ETSY stationery features animals and birds, particularly owls!).  But what this analogy leads onto is the unsettling thought  that underground music-making is becoming a niche market, a form of hip(ster) consumerism that slots right next to distressed furniture,  micro-brew beer, artisanal cheese, and vintage clothing.  No longer art as an intervention in the battlefield of culture, but art as "décor for life."

Asked if they can delineate the sensibility of their generation, Britt and Amanda's thoughts converge with my own doubts.  "I consider it to be post-creation," offers Amanda. "Pastiche. We're all now just pulling and pulling and pulling.  Someone like Prince was thinking of people in the past, but it didn't feel as funneled and as specific.  We're a bit derivative, unfortunately, and it's not to our detriment always-- but we are direct descendants and there are all these lineages. It's an interesting time for music because people aren't trying to create anything brand new."  She points to NNF act Umberto: "He's making music that sounds like Goblin, which you'll have heard if you've watched old Argento movies. But he's one of the few people making that kind of music today. So that is the choice you make: you go for who is stepping a little bit outside of the box--the box being the demos we get sent everyday. But you can't say, "Umberto, he's so original'.  Originality is not a thing anymore".

Britt compares the way today's bands operate to crate-digging. "It's like, 'I've just stumbled across a thing that nobody else has referenced yet".  Citing Zola Jesus's Nika Danilova, Amanda elaborates: "The people who stand out are those who use famous people as an influence that nobody else is using.   So when Nika was like, 'I'm going to make sort-of-Goth, everyone was like 'We forgot about Goth! We forgot Siouxsie was cool!'  But Nika's not trying to reinvent the wheel."

One side effect of this chase for fresher things to rediscover, and from the sheer abundance of past music people are exposed to these days is that artists aren't attached to specific styles so intensely.  "It used to be that people would bond at a formative age with a style, and then keep going with it, evolving of course, but staying pretty constant," says Britt. "Now people are more like 'I have my witch house band over here, that plays by certain rules, but I also like still playing beach pop .  Everyone's got a million projects."

High Wolf exemplifies this syndrome: Max also operates the "weird hip hop, no samples, all played" project Black Zone Myth Chant, the "doom-and-dark" project Annapurna Illusion, the "abstract techno project" Kunlun, plus several collaborative projects.  Max has even done a "split" LP (for the label Group Tightener) divided between two of his alter-egos, High Wolf and Annapurna Illusion.  Then there's Daniel Martin-McCormick, who plays in the Thrill Jockey band Mi Ami but records for NNF as Sex Worker and Ital.

All this multipolar activity means that it makes sense to see the music put out by labels such as Not Not Fun and Olde English Spelling Bee as not so much separate genres (hypnagogic, witch house, drone, nu-Goth et al) as a single macrogenre.   Artists move back and forth within an ever-expanding post-historical (and increasingly post-geographical) field of resources. Sometimes they combine elements from different archival seams (Italodisco, horror soundtracks, screw, Cold Wave, Afrobeat, etc) and sometimes they'll focus on a specific period style.  Which is why overtly retro genres like garage punk and psych are tolerated in this realm, despite their done-to-death staleness compared with fresher recombinant strains.

I love so much of the music coming out of these Zones of Alteration but one thing that disconcerts me is its relative lack of an expressive element. There are exceptions: Oneohtrix's Returnal contains deeply personal emotional resonances, while the two records by Sex Worker serve a similar function of catharsis following a bad romance.  But generally you don't get much sense that the music comes from the artist's life beyond music.

"Everyone's more inspired by a style, and the desire to be creative," agrees Britt. "It doesn't mean there isn't emotion in the process, but nobody sits down with a guitar thinking 'I'm going to write about this thing that just happened to me'. It's more, 'I'm going to get up and do this every day, whether I'm feeling remotely inspired or have anything at all to say'.  There's a discipline to that and high art has come from it.  But it does feel a little divorced. That's why a lot of contemporary styles can have a sheen of irony, because there's not a ton of people really fervently standing behind what they do.  There's no Fugazis anymore." Amanda, for her part, says that "when I make music, I'm only interested in thematics. I think, "What do I want to present? I'm trying to make a certain statement. And that takes it out of emotionality and more into a cerebral place. 'Meaningful' becomes more of an adjective than 'soulful'. "

When music is only rarely about releasing inner emotional pressure ("I have very little angst!" says Amanda) and nor is it formed in reaction to its political/social environment ("we're pretty educated, we're middle class, we don’t have much to complain about"), then the model for the modern musician becomes the conceptual artist. Or even the critic. That's what strikes me about the new breed: they think like critics. They navigate the history of music using a kind of combinatorial logic (Goth + dub = LA Vampires/Zola Jesus). They frame projects with over-arching concepts or clearly designated reference points: Chains was "Pocahaunted does Tom Tom Club". Like certain critics, they're genremaniacs, constantly coining new terms for their sound, sometimes just for a single release: "tribal soul" was Pocahaunted's buzzphrase for 2008's Mirror Mics , while 2009's Passages was "dark raga".


As those Pocahaunted examples suggest, Amanda Brown herself is a supreme exponent of  "concept music". She often stresses that she's "not a musician" but an "audio artist". Or she'll talk about being a writer. That's what she studied at college. And her debut novel Drain You is set for 2012 publication on mainstream-as-they-come HarperCollins. 

Pocahaunted was at once primal and conceptual. "We were trying to be raw," Amanda says of the group's beginnings, when it was just her and Bethany Cosentino (now of Best Coast). "The Earth's period is how we described it.  The planet's menstrual cycles! We weren't even trying to make a specific kind of music, like 'let's make drone!' It was literally,  'what can we play? What instruments do we have? ' Bethany and I agreed that we didn't have any words to speak at the time, so we just used 'vocables'. That's our term for these lilting sounds we'd make with our mouths.  So our sound was us strumming through as many pedals as we could hook up and putting as much reverb and delay as we could on the voices. We took an old keyboard stand, attached mikes to each side, and sat facing each other. And we'd sing based on each other's facial expressions and the shape of our mouths."

The name's play on Pocahontas, the daughter of an Algonquian Indian chieftain, suited the group's tribal vibe. Amanda says her original dream was "twelve women doing vocables and having a choral effect. But it ended up just being a sisterhood between Bethany and me.  We did feel like a little tribe." Other inspirations came from the course on ritual and primitive religion that Cosentino took at Pasadena City Community College, which influenced albums like Peyote Road.  In true conceptualist fashion, that album's "Heroic Doses" came from reading about ayahuasca, not actually tripping on the potent hallucinogenic potion.

Pocahaunted's early recordings can be hard going, the gnashing and wailing recalling a riot grrl take on PiL's "Theme".  The group really started to find its stride when dub entered the picture on Island Diamonds, grounding the improvised vocalese in bass-heavy hypno-grooves.  That 2008 release was the last recording before Consentino left.  Pocahaunted continued for a while as a five-piece, a decision Brown now seems to regret. Then she launched LA Vampires as the vehicle for her deepening passion for dub. If Pocahaunted resembled the spirit, if not quite the sound of The Slits, then LA Vampires recalls what Ari did next:  the On U supergroup New Age Steppers.  Except that Amanda is the Adrian Sherwood figure and instead of a fluctuating collective, LA Vampires works through serial monogamy: successive one-off partnerships with kindred artists.

"Every day I wake up and ask myself  'How I can be more like Bjork?'," laughs Amanda. "'How can I be the most ecstatic, eclectic artist? Every one of Bjork's records is different and that's partly because she's always working with new people. LA Vampires is me trying to deconstruct the Solo Artist. I want to take the 'solo' out of it!" Amanda says she loves being "seen through the eyes of my fellow musicians" but wants to shed "the baggage of being committed to a band".

The first LA Vampires release wasn't a proper collaboration, however, but a split LP with NNF's Psychic Reality, a/k/a Leyna Noel.  After falling in love with dub--"the most charming musical experience of my life"--Amanda started working with a drum machine and samples. Because she "can't play any stringed instruments", she enlisted Britt and another musician in the NNF camp, Bobb Bruno, to supply basslines on some tracks.  Although she enthuses about dub's sensuality, describing its languid drum-and-bass riddims as "like playing a woman's body", the split LP's version of dub is gnarly with red-zone distortion.   "I can't do anything clinical.  I don't make any music with a computer. I just have a dumb, clanky Alesis drum machine."

The name LA Vampires is partly inspired by all the second-division hypnagogics "vampiring" off South California imagery (palm trees, etc) and also by the fact that, although she grew up near Malibu, "I've been to the beach about five times. When I do go, I look like a vampire, in jeans and boots!".  But the Gothic name suits the second of the three Vampires projects to date: her alliance with raven-haired ice queen Zola Jesus. Here Amanda plays Sly & Robbie to Zola's Grace Jones.  The triumph of this LP, which peaks with the stunning "Eulogy", is that it takes a genre whose every last sonic potential had seemed extracted and goes somewhere new with it.  Amanda's take on dub couldn't be further from dubstep or Basic Channel.  "I know--what shall we call it?," she giggles, adding "I'm trying so hard to get recognized in The Wire as dub!  It's like, how can I physically break through the barrier between the Avant-Rock and Dub sections?"

Next came a swerve: So Unreal, a collaboration with Matrix Metals's Sam Meringue. "I don't know how it comes across when I say this, but I am deeply invested in sex and sexiness.  So I told him, 'want these songs to be sexy, Sam!'. When he sent me the beats they were perfect but really bouncy. So I slowed them down. By the end it was where I wanted it to be-- beyond lo-fidelity, un-fidelity."  

So Unreal is tough to tag: its haze-glazed mid-tempo discofunk sometimes stirs up balmy Eighties memories, like Compass Point or the ZE-influenced Thomas Leer of 4 Movements.  With lyric-shards like "is it the champagne talking?" bubbling up on songs like "Berlin Baby", you can imagine it as a "slow jams" album for couples looking to get in the mood. "Sade is a huge reference point," says Amanda. "I don't have 1/25th of her voice but the way she is able to impart a very specific sensuality is a big influence. I still think I have my own personal 'Sweetest Taboo' in me!"

Future LA Vampires projects include another Zola Jesus platter, records with Cliva Tanaka and with Maria Minerva (an Estonian "songstress" who recently debuted on NNF with the marvelously woozy Tallinn At Dawn) plus possible alliances with The Deeep and Ital. "Even something as slight as buying a new record can change my course. There's a lot of wind ruffling. I'm flimsy that way.  Impressionable. I like to change so that things stay... zesty!"


Unlikely as it may seem given the label's roots in no-fi noise 'n' drone, "lush" and "groovy" seem to be NNF's watchwords for 2011.  Hence 100 % SILK, the dance-oriented side-label that Amanda has launched. Along with its evocation of luxury, "silk" echoes Chicago house pioneer Steve "Silk" Hurley, while the imprint's generic-look sleeves hark back to disco's luxe aesthetics. "I'm a huge fan of dance music but I'm very specific: 70s dance and 90s dance," says Amanda. Explaining that she doesn't like Eighties robotic-ness or Noughties  glitchy-ness, she enthuses about trip hop and "downtempo groove. Stuff people think of as Muzak nowadays. Portishead!"  Indeed NNF has its very own Beth Gibbons in the form of Weyes Blood's Natalie Mering, whose voice, gushes Amanda, "is  just stellar."

The idea for 100% Silk was triggered when Daniel Martin-McCormick presented Amanda with a tape of disco jams in early 2010.  There's a dance element to his other groups: the postpunky Mi Ami play "body music" while Sex Worker sometimes recalls the defective disco made late in their career by Throbbing Gristle.  But in parallel with these outlets, McCormick has been trying his hand at full-on club tracks for five years now, "cutting and pasting homemade drum sounds, samples and other shit into something like techno."

Silk 001 is McCormick's debut EP as Ital.  The project name nods to Italodisco and demonstrates how large swathes of dance history--Chicago radio deejay sets from the mid-Eighties,  Baldelli's Cosmic mixes, Detroit and Balearic obscurities, all of which are readily available on the  internet-- have joined the archival reservoir siphoned by the Post-Everything Generation.  Sun Araw's Cameron Stallones, for instance, regularly spins acid house, "sunrise mixes" and "3 AM eternities" as part of the East LA deejay collective Where's Yr Child.

Ital is pretty banging, beats-wise, but the three other 100% Silk EPs to date are stronger on texture, melody and atmosphere: this is a skewed, "outside" take on dance, rather than the functionalist real-deal.  A collaboration between members of Rene Hell, Driphouse and Nimby, Cuticle offer hypnagogic house; Maria Minerva's "Little Lonely" is delightfully quirky electro-bop;  The Deeep's "Muddy Track" clanks and warbles like a strange but gorgeous alliance between Loefah and Clannad.

The Deeep are a prime example of how NNF is diversifying way beyond its original domain and taking on music with high production values.  "They're not lo-fi , which is interesting," says Britt. "It's about this cleaner, more beat-based thing, with insane vocals over it." Isla Craig's voice "just hurts you," says Amanda. "If she went in a different direction she could be Natalie Merchant--coffee house music."

Alongside Craig, The Deeep comprise beat-maker/atmosphere-weaver Wolfgang Nessel and recent recruit Victoria Cheong, an installation artist who's steering the group's evolution into a multimedia performance unit. Along with Nessel's love of moody dubstep such as Dbridge and Shackleton, the other vibe dripping off Life Light, the group's  debut for NNF, is Goth-Lite. That's my affectionate nickname for the 4AD of Cocteau Twins and Les Voix Mystere de Bulgare.  When Craig talks of being "really interested in early vocal music, church music and world music", it's clear she's the long-lost daughter of Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard.  The analogue-bubble-bath synth-burbles and bobbing, suspended feel of tracks like "Meadow Dusk", "The Dream" and "The Ballad of the Abyssal Plain" conjure up mermaid vibes, recalling the sub-aqua utopias of A.R. Kane and Hugo Largo.  According to Nessel, the extra "e" in the name comes from "working our way through the Attenborough Blue Planet series. 'The Deep' episode blows minds."

Like Amanda, The Deeep love trip hop and Sade.  Like Maria Minerva, they're proof not just of Mr and Mrs Brown's determination for NNF to keep moving stylistically, but also of Amanda's commitment to having a strong female presence on the roster. "Yesssss! I would love to have more.  I get very viciously angry if I check our release schedule and it looks like we're not going to have a woman for a while.  I'm like, 'what is this? Let's go out and find some women!'"

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Frieze, December 1995

By Simon Reynolds

'Britpop'--just in case you've been in a coma for the
last year--is the music papers' buzzterm for an alleged
rejuvenation of the charts, with the likes of Oasis, Blur,
Elastica, Pulp and Supergrass displacing American
grunge/faceless rave/super-annuated AOR in the higher reaches
of the Hit Parade. 'Britpop' has become a rallying cry, an
excuse for chests to swell with patriotic pride. It's even
made the tabloids and the News At Ten. Back in August a
cabbie told me he'd only ever bought four records in his
entire life, then--unprompted--brought up Blur and Oasis.
Even he'd heard about their big battle over whose single
would enter the charts at Number One.

So everybody--industry, media, 'the kids'--is frothing
with excitement about Britpop. Why? The music biz, which
was having trouble building long-selling careers off the back
of dance music and had lost ground to the post-rave indie
labels, is thrilled because the Britpopsters are guitar-based
bands who willingly constrain themselves within the 3-minute
pop single format and radio-friendly, trebley production.
The music press is buzzing 'cos Britpop's aesthetic base--
the mid-Sixties, filtered through its late '70s echo, New
Wave--had hitherto been strictly an indie style, and thus the
inkies' province. At the same time, the bands are overtly
anti-experimental and pre-psychedelic; they combine playsafe
1966-meets-1978 aesthetics with an almost doctrinal ethos of
ambition and stardom-at-all-costs. Because the bands it
discovers now hit the charts, the music press' prestige and morale
has been boosted; for the first time in years, people turn to the inkies as
tipsheets! Moreover, Britpopsters behave like stars, make
an effort to give good face and good copy, and this makes the
journos' job easier. And 'the kids'? Even the youngest
surely sense, on some subliminal level, that the sound of
Britpop harks back to the days when Britannia ruled the pop
waves, while the attitude evokes an era when being young was
a real cool time. The glory-lust of Oasis' "Champagne Supernova",
the insouciance of Supergrass' "Alright", seem mighty
appealing, even as they fly flagrantly in the face of the
socio-economic facts.

As it happens, I think Britain IS the place to be, pop-
wise; it's just that this state-of-affairs has NOTHING to do
with Britpop. Relatively unheralded by the media, another
generation of Britons are waiving the rules. There's the
post-rock experimentalism of Laika, Pram, Techno-Animal etc;
the trip hop of Tricky, Wagon Christ and the Mo'Wax label;
the 'artcore' jungle of 4 Hero, Dillinja, Droppin' Science,
the Moving Shadow label; the art-tekno weirdness of Aphex
Twin, Bedouin Ascent, et al. All these strands of UK
activity are either offshoots of, or deeply influenced by, club
music and sound-system culture; sonically, they're informed
by the rhythm-science and studio-magick of dub reggae, hip
hop and techno. And all speak eloquently if non-verbally of
the emergence of a new hyrid British identity, a mongrel,
mutational mix of black and white.

Britpop is an evasion of the multiracial, technology-
mediated nature of UK pop culture in the '90s. If it started
a few years ago as a revolt against American grunge (Suede's
fey fusion of glam Bowie and glum Morrissey), now it's
extended itself into the symbolic erasure of Black Britain,
as manifested in jungle and trip hop. For Britpopsters, the
Sixties figure as a 'lost golden age' in a way that's
alarmingly analogous to the mythic stature of the Empire vis-a-vis
football hooligans and the BNP. Even more than the insularity of
Britpop's quintessentially English canon (Kinks, Jam, Small
Faces, Buzzcocks, Beatles, Smiths, Madness), it's the sheer
WHITENESS of its sound that is staggering. Take Elastica,
whose singer Justine Frischmann confessed that she could only
think of one form of black music she liked: ska (the
jerkiest, most New Wavey form of black pop ever!). And take
Blur, whose homage to the U.K's music-hall pop tradition
manages to sever The Kinks from R&B, Madness from ska, and
Ian Dury from the Blockheads' fluency in funk and disco.

Damon Albarn's pseudo-yob accent testifies to a
nostalgia for a lost white ethnicity, one that's fast eroding
under the triple attrition of America, Europe and this
nation's indigenous non-white population. Like his hero
Martin Amis, Albarn fetishises London's vestigial remnants of
authentic white trash as "the last truly English people you
will ever know" (to borrow a lyric from Morrissey, another
feller with a dubious penchant for skinheads and villains).
Mozzer is right, this is a dying breed, already displaced by
a new generation of London youth who speak an alloy of
Cockney/Jamaican patois/B-boy slang, watch American sci-fi
movies, grapple with Japanese computer games, and listen to
sampler-based music like jungle.

It's these kids--the kind you'll find at drum & bass
hang-outs like Speed and AWOL--who are today's mods, not the
sorry-ass mod revivalists at Camden's Blow Up club. Mod
originally meant 'modernist', meant having utterly
contemporary tastes in music, clothes, everything. Today's
junglists, trip-hoppers and techno-heads share their '60s
ancestors obsession with records (the obscurest track, the
freshest import) as opposed to bands; the same orientation
towards Black America and Jamaica; the same anticipation for
the future. Camden is supposed to have brought back the idea
of Swinging London, but for five years now pirate radio has
been making a clandestine cartography of the metropolis,
bringing the scent of enchantment to forsaken places like
Peckham and Dalston, as MC's chant out the listeners' paged-
in "big shouts" and "'nuff respects".

Perhaps even more than race, it's covert class struggle
that underpins the Britpop phenom: the fetishising by mostly
middle class bands and fans of a British working class
culture that's already largely disappeared, is really a means
of evading the real nature of modern prole leisure, which
remains overwhelmingly shaped by rave. Blow Up's avowed
anti-Ecstasy stance symbolises this perfectly. Not only did E
usher in a new and still unfolding era of psychedelic music
based around the drugs/technology interface, but the drug
also permanently altered the mentality of vast tranches of
da youth, blasting away reserve, inhibition, emotional
constipation, everything in the English character that holds
us back. E and rave transformed the UK into one funky
nation, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from Britpop.
From Blur's rickety arrangements to the raunch-less
turgidity of Oasis, Britpop is rhythmically retarded, to say the least.
Partly, it's the result of cultural inbreeding, of a white pop tradition
that's long since distanced itself from the R&B roots that
made the Beatles and Stones dance bands; partly, it's a
deliberate avoidance of anything that smacks of lumpen rave.

Thanks to rave, the most vital sectors of '90's UK
subculture are all about mixing it up: socially, racially,
and musically (DJ cut'n'mix, remixology's deconstructive
assault on the song). Returning to the 3 minute pop tune
that the milkman can whistle, reinvoking a parochial England
with no black people, Britpop has turned its back defiantly
to the future. Here's hoping the future will respond in
kind, and remember Britpop only as an aberrant, anachronistic
fad--like trad jazz, the early '60s student craze that
resurrected the Dixieland sound of 30 years earlier. Perhaps
Oasis will one day seem as inexplicable as Humphrey

Where Blur's The Great Escape and Oasis' What's The
Story) Morning Glory
bask in the setting sun of England's
bygone pop glory, Tricky's Maxinquaye and Goldie's
Timeless gaze into the future. Both Tricky and Goldie are
black British B-boys mindwarped by the drugs/technology
interface; both share a strikingly similar set of
miscegenated influences ranging from art-rock (David Sylvian,
Kate Busy) to ambient (Eno) to the black avant-garde (Public
Enemy, Miles Davis); both made the Top 5 of the Album Chart.
Reflecting what is really going on in Britain in 1995,
Maxinquaye and Timeless offer two versions of a modern
inner city blues. Dark, discomfiting, devoid of the callow
cheer of yer Blurs and yer Supergrasses, yet it's these
records (and, believe me, a horde of other trip hop, jungle
and post-rock releases) that are the real reasons to be
cheerful about British popular music in 1995.
PAUL GILROY, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line
director's cut, the Village Voice, May 2 2000.

by Simon Reynolds

It was Randall Jarrell, I think, who took the entire oevure of Yeats, did the pre-computer age equivalent of a word-search, and discovered the matrix of forty or so favorite (that's to say, over-used) words and tropes that encapsulated the poet's aesthetic. You could do something similar to Against Race, the new book by Paul Gilroy, the black British cultural studies maven and Yale Professor of Sociology and African American studies. On one side, there'd be the list words that make Gilroy frown: purism, essentialism, roots, unanimism, primordialism, homeland. On the other, the words that make Gilroy smile: hybrid, syncretic, cosmopolitan, transcultural, creole, heteroculture, and, especially, diaspora.

Against Race's contentious contention is that even in their "weak" cultural forms ("mild ethnocentrisms," identity politics, discourses of racial pride), the first frowned-upon cluster of words are philosophically on the path that leads to a bunch of even nastier words: ultranationalism, fraternalism, militarism, fascism, ethnic cleansing.

Against Race is going to upset a lot of people. With admirable courage and forthrightness, Gilroy dismisses race as a quasi-biological mystification, a toxic concept that, even when turned around into black-is-beautiful pride or made the basis of resistance, has basically fucked up our thought. Railing against the "cheap pseudo-solidarities" offered by ethnic loyalty on the grounds that they effectively terminate politics (in the sense of coalition, mediation, negotiation, alliance), Gilroy aims to discredit what he calls "race-thinking" or "raciology". He aims to analyse the history of race as a concept in the same way that Michel Foucault interrogated "sexuality" as discourse and discipline. Gilroy traces the way the near-simultaneous birth of "rationality" and "nationality" at the start of the modern era led to pseudo-scientific mergers of superstition and logic such as eugenics and theories of racial decline through miscegenation. Imperialism, Darwinism and the emergence of ecology, and the growing importance of what Gilroy calls (after Foucault) "biopolitics," created the context for ideas of the people or volk as a quasi-biological organism rooted in specific territory. This in turn led to the Nazis's demand for lebensraum and the literalisation of their slogan "blood and soil"--where the soil is soaked in the blood of the original but now exterminated inhabitants of the conquered territory.

What is going to offend a lot of people is the way that Gilroy shows that fascism is not the special genius of the German people, or even the white race. He reveals not just alarming parallels but strange alliances and mutual respect pacts between black separatist groups and white supremacists. The British National Party actually demonstrated in support of a Bermudan Rastafarian who wanted the UK government to fund his "return" to Ghana. That sounds bizarre, but if you listen to the Seventies roots reggae of groups like The Congos and Israel Vibration, you will hear the word "repatriation" being sung with disconcerting yearning and anticipation. Even more startling is the story of how Marcus Garvey met with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 and concluded that they shared similar ideals of purifying and standarizing the race. Gilroy dubs this syndrome "fraternalist mirroring"--blood-brotherhoods who are enemies but who respect each other as honest representatives of their race, and actually even admire each other's brutality. Garvey's United Negro Improvement Assocation anticipated the European fascists with their use of uniform and drill. In 1937, Garvey boasted "we were the first Fascists... Mussolini copied fascism from me. " Long after the defeat of the great dictactors, his son Marcus Garvey Jnr called in 1974 for "African lebensraum" and talked about "African National Socialism." What connects these depressing examples is a fundamental nation-building narrative, argues Gilroy, that goes back to Moses and underpins the careers of Hitler, Farrakhan, and Milosevic to name just a few: the shepherding of a weak, scattered, decadent but "chosen" people, by a messiah-like leader, towards its manifest destiny and/or promised land.

Against all these different manifestations of "ethnic absolutism", with their tendencies towards authoritarianism, militarism, and pageants of primordial kinship, Gilroy marshalls the concept of diaspora. As developed in The Black Atlantic (his book about the cultural traffic connecting West Africa, the Caribbean, the Southern USA and the U.K), diasporic identity has nothing to do with chosen exile or mere migration; Gilroy stresses the crucial dimension added by the forced nature of the dispersal. It might seem odd to valorize such cataclysmic traumas as the scattering of the Jews or slavery, but Gilroy--himself a child of the Black Atlantic--values the end result: a kind of subject-in-process, neither totally assimilated to the new culture nor able to preserve the old folkways. In turn, diasporic peoples unavoidably transform the cultures they pass through; they unsettle as they settle. London, whose popular culture is a mish-mash of Jamaican, Indian and imported Black American music and style, is one example; the entirety of Brazilian culture is another, where the ideal of mesticagem (mixing) was enshrined as state policy only a few decades after slavery was abolished in the late Nineteenth Century.

Unfortunately the weakest parts of Against Race are those concerned with the play of hybridities and essentialisms in modern pop culture. While you've got to admire his guts in dissing current rap as mere "pseudo-rebellion" and appreciate his chutzpah in using Luther "2 Live Crew'" Campbell's professed debt to lecherous Brit comedian Benny Hill as proof that hip hop is not a purely black artform, Gilroy's analyses of contemporary rap and R&B are riddled with strained over-interpretations, non-sequiturs, and arguments that trail off frustratingly. There's also a fogey-ish slant to his repetitious complaints about the video age and its privileging of image over sound, or his misinformed identification of sampling and programmed rhythm with musical de-skilling (no, Paul, it's just a new form of digital-not-manual virtuosity). Despite his nostalgia for the bespectacled seriousness of Curtis Mayfield and the fluent fingers of bassist Marcus Miller, he does acknowledge that it's precisely in the domain of computerized dance music that the praxis of "multiculture" is at its most vital--clubs, raves, pirate radio, are the real Rock Against Racism, he argues. Indeed, rave's implicity anti-fascist bodypolitics can be traced all the back to the secret parties in Nazi Germany where "niggerjew" jazz was played on gramophones rather than by live bands. The sound-not-visuals oriented hybridity of underground dance contrasts with the "specular" orientation of "corporate sponsored multiculture", where imagery of blackness as vitality, health, beauty and physical potency circulate in music videos, sports, fashion, and advertising, and negritude has been transformed "from a badge of insult into an increasingly powerful but still very limited signifier of prestige".

As Gilroy concedes, some of the race-thought eradication he wants to see is already being implemented by globalisation. But he doesn't really take on the quite powerful notion that ideas of local tradition and ethnic identity might be useful resources for resistance, if only in the mechanical sense of a drag or recalcitrant counterweight to capitalism's tendency to dissolve all forms of solidarity and difference. This in turns opens up another set of problems that Gilroy acknowledges but doesn't attempt to resolve: how to avoid the kind of homogenisation caused by globalisation without being insular, Luddite, nativist; how to avoid the weak and banal forms of rootless cosmpolitanism in which "everything becomes... blended into an impossibly even consistency" . The problem is that Nietzche was right: a fierce sense of identity and an us-versus-them worldview creates a certain kind of will, vehemence, and certainty that people find attractive and energizing. Which is why, as the old ethnic, regional and religious tribalisms fade, new ones keep emerging around culture and consumption--new volks like death-metal fans, snowboarders, Abercrombie and Fitch wearers. Maybe, for all Gilroy's hopes, there's actually an innate and almost pre-cultural instinct towards tribalism--look at the way children instinctively form gangs and show hostility towards the non-same. Humanism and tolerance have to be learned, they're part of the civilising process (which is why Nietzche was against civilisation and regarded the "will to stupidity" as an evolutionary advantage). Fascism and ethnocentrism can also draw upon all the irrational romance of the archaic and mythological--the seductive sagas of decline and rebirth, the resurrection of lost imperial powers and the inauguration of new eras. In response, Gilroy imagines abandoning the mythopoeic allure of antiquity and instead relocating utopia in the future: a "heterocultural, postanthropological and cosmopolitan yet-to-come".

In the end, the grand problem at the heart of Against Race is how to reinvent "that perilous pronoun "we" without lapsing into the inclusion/exclusion effect, into us/them psychology with all its consolations and intoxications. Gilroy's answer is to wield a bigger "We" that will hopefully subsume the smaller, squabbling "we's"--a species-level "strategic universalism" that repairs the shattering damage caused by raciology to the notion of the human. Following his hero Franz Fanon, the great anti-colonialist thinker, he wants to renew Europe's humanist project and simultaneously "purge and redeem" the Enlightement of its darkside (imperialism, racism, the coupling of reason and superstition that culminated in the scientific slaughter of the concentration camps). It's a noble but somewhat woolly ideal, and it's ironic that Gilroy takes heart from the way white and black unite to fight malevolent extra-terrrestials in movies like Independence Day and Men In Black, without realising that this is just racism on the cosmic scale, war against monstrous Others that truly are alien.

Weirdly, Against Race feels both overlong and sketchy. Passages of amazing lucidity and original insight alternate with garbled meanders where Gilroy seems perpetually on the verge of actually saying something. He also has an annoying habit of ending sections with long series of questions that propose fruitful areas of further enquiry, which only serves to frustrate the reader by making you think 'well, why didn't you enquire further?' Gilroy's prose demeanour can also be off-putting--a controlled simmer of indignation beneath the cool Sidney Poitier-like surface of elegant professionalism, revealed in odd verbal tics of squeamishness like his use of phrases like "unwholesome ideology" and "unsavory political phenomena" to describe things he disapproves of, like the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers. Other rhetorical gestures have the flavor of the lectern--lots of "I want to ask" or "I want to argue" , constant admonishments not to overlook or pass over too quickly the role of X in Y, calls for vigilance and diligence, soundings of notes of caution. Schoolmarmy tone and what Gilroy himself calls "my own wilfully dislocated argument" aside, Against Race is a brave and compelling book.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Catastrophe... And What Comes After
The Wire magazine, June 2011

By Simon Reynolds

Sometimes, when I consider the immense transformations wrought upon music and fandom by the digital revolution, the word ‘catastrophe’ springs irresistibly to mind.

Oh for sure, there have been numerous upsides. Obscure music made readily obtainable. Esoteric knowledge opened to all. An eruption of quality music writing by non-professionals, much of it too eccentric, or theoretical, or personal, or fragmentary to be tolerated by most magazines. Getting lost in the memory maze of YouTube. New channels of communication and connection, virtual but lively communities of enthused like-minds and stroppy contrarians.

For the moment, though, I want to accentuate the negative. Let’s take a pleasure maimed, if not quite killed off completely. Shopping for secondhand vinyl: I can’t be alone in too often chancing on an intriguing record and then being halted just shy of purchase by the thought: “Hmmm, I can probably find this on the Internet for free... save myself $15... do I really need another record cluttering up the house?” Digiculture has here damaged a multifaceted set of pleasures: the thrill of the hunt, the risk of taking a punt, the tactile delight of ownership.

Curiously, revealingly, my crate-digging lust is shifting to another analogue-era object of desire: the vintage music magazine. Now and then on a blog you’ll come across a download link to a zipped file of scanned pages from an obscure fanzine or periodical, but for the most part these yellowing bundles of ink and paper have yet to undergo the fate of dematerialisation/dissemination that’s befallen almost the entirety of recorded music. Part of the sudden allure of old magazines is, I’m sure, that they retain a scarcity value that records have forfeited (at least in terms of pure sonic information: the physical records obviously retain potent fetish appeal in terms of packaging, the period flavour of the design and the label, etc).

But there is also a more elevated aspect to the attraction. Packed with uncommon knowledge, these vintage magazines provide the kind of information that’s hard to find on the internet owing to the particular way its archiving system is structured. Online, you can uncover a vast amount about an artist in terms of diachronic trajectory (discography, biographical arc). Much harder to reconstruct is the synchronic context: what was going on at the precise moment in time of a record’s release, whether in terms of the genre in which the group operated, the general state of music culture, or the political and social backdrop. A musty, yellowing 1970s copy of NME or Melody Maker, Creem or Let It Rock, is a precious capsule of circumstantial evidence: reviews and features about contemporaneous groups, but also record company adverts and the graphic design and typography, which ooze period vibe. You can’t fully understand the impact of glam rock without a sense of how drab and style-less regular rock groups looked then, of how visually depleted the whole media environment was. Likewise, the stark angular minimalism of post-punk groups and record covers derived its salient edge from juxtaposition with scruffy Old Wave and Stiff-style pub rock. A time-slice of history, stubbornly analogue, the vintage music magazine in some sense resists the decontextualising vortex that is netculture, that endless end of history that never stops churning.

Catastrophe is a melodramatic word. The way I mean it is less ‘act of God’ and more ‘act of Economy’. Just like the Industrial Revolution two hundred years earlier, the Digital Revolution had a stampeding quality, herd-like, at once willed and out of control. Industrialisation ripped up old folkways, uprooted populations, ravaged the environment, restructured society. It even installed a new temporality: labour paid by the hour, the seasons irrelevant, the cycles of sunrise and sunset overruled by the requirements of production and profit. Industrialization also brought undeniable boons: cheap consumer goods, the relative freedoms of the anonymous cities.

The digital revolution had a similar pell-mell quality, a feeling of impersonality and inevitability. From the internet to the MP3, the whole caboodle took off because it was technologically possible, and because people just went along with it. Paul Virilio famously argued that every technological innovation is also the invention of a new accident or disaster. The digitization of information and culture had all kinds of unforeseen, wrenching consequences. The compact disc, for instance, seemed to the record industry like a great idea. In the short term there was a boom off the back of back catalogue being issued as overpriced CDs. But somehow nobody in the industry foresaw that turning audio (and later video) into code would make it vastly easier to copy. At first this was old-fashioned piracy (CDs and DVDS being much quicker to copy, with less loss of quality than cassette, vinyl, VHS). Later, it all went haywire with the MP3. That was another invention supported by big entertainment corporations, and a classic case of the industry shooting itself in the foot. The broadband component of the file-sharing cataclysm was more to do with capitalism’s lack of central command: an innovation introduced in one sector of the economy (because essential to the furtherance of the internet) led to devastating consequences for another (the entertainment industry whose audio, video, games, etc got trafficked globally).

‘Tectonic’ rather than ‘catastrophic’ is a calmer, more dispassionate word for what’s happened these past 15 or so years. There has been the media-cultural equivalent of a shifting of the continental plates, causing a new ‘land-mass’ to emerge out of nowhere: the internet, which really is closer to a New World than a new medium. Such a seismic passage from what could be called the Analogue System to the Digital System has inevitably left a host of wreckage in its wake.

The Analogue System – based around vinyl and tapes, print music magazines, terrestrial radio and TV broadcasting– created particular kinds of affects, modes of identification and convergences of social energy. Because it was largely organised around the physical movement of information-containing objects (records, magazines), it had a particular sense of temporality, structured around delay, anticipation and the Event. The Digital System – based around the dematerialized information flows enabled by the MP3, netradio, YouTube, blogs and webzines, et al – has a different sense of ‘culture-time’, one marked by a paradoxical combination of instantaneity and permanence, speed and stasis. Online is all about the this-minute tweet you can’t remember half an hour later and the persistence of the past as a readily accessible archived resource (a YouTube of T Rex from 1972, a 1967 Stan Brakhage reel at UbuWeb, a pirate radio session from 1993 via some old skool rave blog).
Under the Analogue regime, time was tilted forward. In Digiculture, time is lateral, recursive, spongiform, riddled with wormholes. It is characterized by operations like cut and paste, simultaneity (keeping open multiple windows), rewind/fast-forward/pause using mouse and cursor, saving things ‘for later’, fitting cultural or news experiences into your schedule (I won’t watch that major Obama speech as it happens because I can always catch it later on YouTube). One’s control of time is vastly more flexible than under the Analogue regime, but one’s experience of time is vastly more brittle.

The digital landscape emerged gradually and it has certainly generated new ways of experiencing and discovering music. Yet overall it’s hard to avoid concluding that the intensities possible under the Analogue System have been replaced by distraction and a kind of restless ‘circulation for its own sake’. Fanatical identification with an artist, scene or youth tribe has given way to drifting eclecticism and ‘partial allegiance’. The album, as a cohesive artwork whose internal temporality the listener submitted to, has been displaced by the playlist and the mix. Music increasingly functions as a mood modifier or background sound for the multitasking listener.


An Analogue>Digital analogy. Under the Analogue System, culture was a complex but delicately balanced set of channels or pipes through which culture-stuff was pumped. For the most part this was a one-way transmission. Because the pipes were narrow, you had a cultural economy organized around scarcity and delay, which created affects of craving and anticipation. What happened with broadband is that the pipes dramatically increased in size, by a factor of a hundred or a thousand. Moreover, these conduits became traversable in both directions. Everyone could be both a transmitter and a receiver. They could distribute their opinions, publically document their lives or interests, and traffic in music or other cultural data outside the usual channels (the ones that required remuneration of the producers of the culture-stuff).

The repercussions of this jolt to the hydraulics of culture were massive and manifold. When everybody enjoys both instant access and total access, it stokes an insatiability, the delirium that I gesture at in the title of my book Retromania. When music became effectively ‘free’, consumerism was unshackled from all constraints. But because the channels are traversable in both directions, not only did the music consumer’s greed become limitless, so too did generosity. I understand only too well my own, almost literally insane compulsion to acquire more music than I could ever conceivably listen to, to the point where storing and managing it becomes a burden. What I don’t quite understand is the bloggers who hurl (in almost the vomitous sense of the word) vast quantities of sound up on to blogs or message boards, filleting the entire discographies of artists that they seemingly admire and care about. You might call the syndrome ‘oversharing’, except that that the term already has another Web 2.0 meaning: the unguarded, minutiae-oriented self-documentation encouraged by blogging and Facebook-style social networks. In both cases, ‘too much information’ is the appropriate response.

There’s a delirious quality to the archive fever raging across the web, from YouTube to the legion of collective blogs dedicated to particular backwaters of culture or zones of sensibility. It’s like some kind of blind, data-swarming drive, as if we are ants or bees building a vast construction whose ultimate purpose is beyond our ken. Which is perhaps why techno-utopians are so tempted to talk mystically about the noosphere as an emerging macro-intelligence. But another way of seeing it would be as a gigantic data dump, the collective archive as landfill.

Digitech virtually enforces this kind of activity by making it so frickin’ easy to upload and share, but still leaving just enough of a dopamine buzz that these acts signify ‘achievement’ to our brains. That’s the neurological theory of internet addiction as espoused by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Another explanation draws on post-Freudian psychoanalysis. Developed by Jodi Dean in Blog Theory, the core idea is that the compulsive pleasures associated with netculture – down-and-uploading, tweeting, updating, searching – engage us on the level of drive as opposed to desire. Our transit back and forth across the net is not really in pursuit of an object of desire, but for the intransitive sensation of going. More primal and basic than desire, drive is associated with repetition and regression: it’s not the quest for the (impossible) object that will fill lack, but a kind of enactment of loss itself. Dean analyses our participation in digicultural activity in bleak dystopian terms of capture, the ensnaring of human energy. I’m not entirely convinced that desire has nothing to do with it: you go on YouTube or comb the blogs because in the past you’ve found delicious morsels of culture-matter; there’s also a neurotic dimension rooted in the anxiety of missing out on something. But Dean’s theory does account for the addictive, kill-time aspect, the way that you can fall into a trance on the computer and the hours just fly away.

Probably the most disconcerting and provocative idea in Blog Theory is the suggestion that the cultural worth of doing-it-yourself has been voided by its recuperation by digiculture’s interactivity and participatory mechanisms. When pre-formatted platforms such as Blogger and Bandcamp bring once arduous activities (producing a fanzine, self-releasing music) within the reach of anyone who can be halfway bothered, the result is an excess of access and a glut of artistic production. Digiculture is an exact inversion of the Situationist notion of the Spectacle. That concept emerged in reaction to the post-World War Two expansion of the mass media, with its centralized and unidirectional broadcasting. Situationists like Guy Debord critiqued entertainments that enforced passivity and isolation, and called for participatory situations that breached the barrier between art and everyday life. This in turn influenced punk and the subsequent DIY explosion of micro-labels that persists to this day. In this schema, doing-it-yourself was not just about unleashing your personal creativity: regardless of any political content to the art, it was a political act that threw down an egalitarian challenge to the professionalized culture of media and the hierarchy of stardom. The existence of the mass media and the mainstream was what gave DIY its utopian charge: you were ‘answering back’ the monologue of the monoculture.

Digiculture is the Anti-Spectacle: now we’re all doing it for ourselves, incessantly. The passing of the Analogue System makes it possible to see the benefits of the Mono-Mainstream (TV networks, major labels, government-run public broadcasting). This apparatus created mass experiences, mobilizations of energy and desire. But it also brought into being undergrounds, subcultures that grew in the darkness, outside mediation. In time, these would break through into the mainstream, via certain libidinally charged thresholds (in UK terms, the weekly music press, Top Of The Pops, Radio One). They would change pop and be changed by it. It was hard to break through, but if those barricades could be surmounted, things would then get propelled into mainstream consciousness and couldn’t be ignored. This antagonistic symbiosis of underground and overground resulted in a dialectical process of renewal and recuperation that kept music moving.

For my generation – who grew up when the 1960s was very much still a presence in the culture and who then lived through punk, post-punk, hiphop, rave – what you might call our cultural libido (what turned us on, what roused us) is inextricably bound up with these moments of breakthrough. But that entire cultural terrain is disappearing. The netscape means that there is an increased tendency for music to find only the pre-disposed.

The Analogue System was centripetal, its flow-structure innately resisted entropy. Digiculture is centrifugal because it is designed to promote individualization and differentiation at every level. Consensus and convergence become harder to achieve. Scenes fragment into micro-scenes. This atomization can even be detected at the level of the artistic self: auteurs ‘disagree’ with themselves, split up into multiple alter ego and side projects. When creating/documenting/distributing become so easy, the volume of output increases monstrously. Digital is based around encoded information and near-infinite storage; analogue culture involves costly materials. Because, say, taking a digital camera snapshot involves far less existential weight than using film, you’ll take dozens of pictures in rapid succession, then sift through for the best take. In music, the effect of digital technology is not simply that there’s many more musicians putting stuff out there, it's that each individual musician generates so much more, thanks to minimal costs for recording or materials.

This is why the discographical arc of your typical underground musician has gone nuts recently. From Lil B to James Ferraro, Wiley to Sean McCann, unspool an endless stream of mixtapes, limited cassettes, podcasts, web-only remixes. Fandom is no longer organized around anticipation, waiting with baited breath for an album your favourite artist has laboured over for months or years. Being a fan now means keeping up with the non-stop emissions of your cult icon. Some major talents can sustain that level of output without drying up, but for the most part it has led to redundancy and a flattening of the artistic landscape (fewer ‘event releases’ or ‘landmark masterpieces). Such saturation bombing has sparked a kind of retroactive appreciation for the filtering effects and in-built delays of the Analogue System.

The endzone of digital facilitation is people who can’t even give their music away: the mass graves of MySpace. Everybody talking, nobody listening. In the topsy-turvy world of digiculture, the scarcity economy of music has entirely gone... replaced by a scarcity of consumers and spectators. Momus’s celebrated maxim that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 people might have been over-optimistic. You can even imagine some future European Community subsidizing people to be uncreative, mere passive recipients of cultural transmissions.

When everyone is DIY-ing, the act of putting out your own music or magazine loses much of its ethical and political charge; it becomes something you do, a pastime or hobby. Another problem for the concept of ‘underground’ is the curious spatiality of the internet, which creates the illusion that everything is somehow equal, on the same level: the flat plane of webspace. Real and enduring inequities of media power and prominence still exist but they are disguised. The New York Times occupies the same amount of screen space as Not Not Fun’s website. Neither seems any more accessible or less ubiquitous than the other. The dialectic of invisibility/secrecy and visibility/publicity that worked so well during the Analogue Era has been tampered with.


The final and most disorienting effect caused by digitization is the principle concern of Retromania: the phenomenon that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have recently been theorizing in terms of ‘atemporality’. If you’re under the age of 25 and have grown up with a relationship to music based around total access and the erosion of a sense of sounds belonging to a historical sequence, thinking about music in terms of development through time becomes alien and unrecoverable. When music is distributed across the virtual spatiality of the web, styles seem to connect to each other much more through sonic affinity or uncanny trans-temporal echoes (ghosting, prophesy) than through a chronological logic (causal chains, stylistic evolution). You can get peculiar reversals of time’s flow: a later group feels like it has influenced a group from the past, which in turn comes to seem like a pale copy or unrealized prototype.

It's as though the space-time of culture has been flipped on its axis: the place once occupied by the future is now taken by the past. Which is why the orientation of so much music making in the last decade has taken the form of retro-activity (see The Wire 319). In the 60s, during postpunk and mostly recently with the Techno-rave 90s, artists sent out sonic probes into the beyond. Nowadays, they’re no longer astronauts but archaeologists, excavating through layers of debris (the detritus of the analogue, pre-internet era). The exploratory impulse survives, but its accent has shifted from discovery to rediscovery. They’re questing not so much for the unknown as the lost. This is still a utopian impulse, grasping for something beyond the artist’s immediate reach. But if McLuhan and Marcuse were the philosophers of the 60s, then Benjamin and Borges are the avatars of our ‘time out of joint’ era.

It’s not just the fourth dimension that’s affected either. This upending of cultural space-time means that modern musicians are as post-geographical as they are post-historical. Ideas of local scenes and regional sounds dissolve like sugar in water. Issues like appropriation and cultural property become as irrelevant as the distinctions between decades.

Fourth World Music was a theorem devised by Jon Hassell in the early 80s: the mingling/mangling of ancient and modern, ethnic ritual and Western hi-tech, as put into practice on his own albums like Possible Musics and Dream Theory In Malaya, and paralleled by works by Talking Heads, Byrne & Eno, Ryuichi Sakomoto, and Holger Czukay (who could claim to have reached the Fourth World ahead of everyone with 1969's Canaxis, not forgetting Can's 'Ethnological Forgeries' series). Blogger Kid Shirt has been mooting a successor concept, ‘Fifth World Music’, to tag a new strain of neo-geo exoticism and tribal vibes in recent underground music. Beyond the specific sonic coordinates Kid Shirt has in mind, the idea of a Fifth World strikes me as being extremely applicable to the postgeographical/post-historical archive-space that is the Internet, and to the superhybrids emerging from a historically unprecedented situation/predicament where not only virtually everything happening across the world is accessible but where virtually everything that ever happened is at our fingertips.

Despite the atemporality of so much contemporary left-field music (tracks that could have come out in 1991, 1972, or 1983), one way you can sort of tell the time with today’s music is the emergence of a new aesthetic of maximalism. More than just a response to the supersaturation of input and influences, it’s also a result of musicians exploiting the scope for micro-surgical intricacy offered by audio workstations. The new maximalism is not extensive, as it was with Progressive rock and jazz fusion, but intensive: a convolution that doesn’t involve structure (song cycles and side-long album pieces, like houses with too many extensions) but the density of events and layers per bar. Digi-tech encourages the finessing of micro-edits and subtle tweaks; it favours sound design over focus and thrust. If there is an aesthetic that defines our time then it’s one of exquisite clutter and generic indeterminacy. Seen negatively, a sort of dithering; framed positively, an affirmative embrace of everything (what philosophers call ‘plus/and’ rather than ‘either/or’). That these aesthetic characteristics bear some relation to the zeitgeist is indicated by the way they crop up all across the leftfield music spectrum, from TV On The Radio, tUnE-yArDs and Gang Gang Dance to Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke and Nicolas Jaar.  

Gang Gang Dance's new album Eye Contact starts with the words: 'I can hear everything. It's everything time.' Increasingly with the Post-Everything Generation, you get a kind of splayed sensibility, an artistic self that is diffuse and centreless: Hype Williams, Mosca, Pyramid Vritra. When on "The Age of Information" Lil B says, “I’m on computers profusely”, I don’t think so much of the endless ripples of web buzz and tweet fame encircling him, so much as the peroration of Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 essay “The Ecstasy Of Communication”, an unwitting prophecy of networked culture and psychology:“The schizo is... open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion... [defenceless before] the absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things... the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him without obstacle. He can no longer produce the limits of his own being... He is now only a pure screen, a switching centre for all the networks of influence.” The corollary of this ceaseless influx is constant out-flow. Like a rap James Ferraro, Lil B issues an endlessly spewing spoor of creativity, not through limited edition cassettes but mix-tapes that are really unshelled spurts of immaterial data.

A creature of another age, I find it hard to imagine how anything artistically coherent can be created under such overloaded conditions. That said, the Analogue Era ideals of community and resistance achieved through music (as developed in the 1960s) were ailing by the 90s, and digitalization simply put those notions out of their misery, leaving a clear space for music to be repurposed. But most of the artists who’ve come to the fore in recent years retain an experiential memory-sense of what fandom and creativity were like in a cultural economy of scarcity, distance and delay; their sensibility was forged during the 1990s, when the Analogue System had yet to be fully displaced. The next generation, who’ll have never known anything but the internet, music for free, superabundance and atemporality, might well be better equipped to navigate the profusion. Who knows what uses their music will have, the shapes it will take, or the kind of convergences it will bring about? 

For the moment, though, an awful lot of music remains bound up with sign-play. It is meta-music largely dependent on its echoes of past radicalism (Sixties rock, postpunk, 90s rave), or conversely, on its witty, frisson-laced inversions of orthodox notions of what makes music edgy, experimental, important (as with hauntology and Hypnagogia’s attraction to the functional background sounds or glossy commercial pop of yesteryear). But when sound styles finally shed all those ghost-traces of History and achieve a perfect non-referential blankness, the past will cease to be a museum or even an archive, and become simply a set of resources: material to be used without reverence or nostalgia. No longer pointing to the past, music will perhaps be ready to reconnect to the world happening beyond the screen.