Sunday, July 15, 2018

Let's Eat Grandma profile

LET'S EAT GRANDMA
director's cut version, NPR, June 26th 2017

by Simon Reynolds

Let’s Eat Grandma arrived last year as a perfect  package of pop-not-pop oddness.

The back story was intriguing.  From Norfolk, one of the more remote regions of England, came this freakily talented pair of teenage girls whose close-verging-on-telepathic friendship dated back to pre-school, clutching a debut set of sophisticated yet wonderfully askew songs. Every instrument on I, Gemini was played by the duo of Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth themselves.

Let’s Eat Grandma’s image in the break-out video “Deep Six Textbook” – long golden tresses, buttermilk skin, white lace frocks – compounded the idea of  Walton & Hollingworth as virtual twins and as out-of-time figures seemingly plucked right out of Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir’s eerie film about disappeared schoolgirls in Victorian-era Australia).   Songs like “Welcome To The Treehouse,” “Chocolate Sludge Cake” and “Rapunzel” seemingly sealed the child-eye’s viewpoint running through the album, something exacerbated by the homespun feel  of the playing and instrumentation choices like recorder and glockenspiel, which conjured the atmosphere of the elementary school music room.  “Sax in the City,” the most recent video off I, Gemini, regresses even further into the nursery: Walton & Hollingworth are togged out as Edwardian toddlers in pink onesies, bonnets and bibs.

A year on from the release of their acclaimed debut, Let’s Eat Grandma are sporadically touring the album while preparing to make the follow-up. And they’re giving the occasional interview too, like this one, which took place in an Echo Park café shortly before their debut Los Angeles concert. But here’s a funny thing: Walton and Hollingworth appear keen to shed – even shred -  the public perception that’s wrapped itself around them, despite the fact that it’s solidly based on a sound / lyric / image approach that they’ve rather concertedly worked to establish. 

Take that album title, I, Gemini.  The word “gemini” is Latin for twins.  But Walton and Hollingworth now claim the title was always “a joke,” a subtle riposte to those who liked to imagine they operated as a single mind stretched across two bodies.  Yet onstage and in videos – where so far they’ve always worn identical clothes – they’ve played up the almost-twins image, and it was certainly part of the framing of their advance publicity.  Even their singing voices are uncannily alike, to the point of being virtually indistinguishable. In interview, they regularly answer questions with the same single simultaneous word, creating an eerie unison effect.  Still, Hollingworth stoutly insists that “when we write songs it’s not like we become one personality. We both have very different skill sets and are very much individuals.”

The friendship, which began when they were just four, was forged from the start through creative projects. “It’s our way of processing the world,” says Hollingworth.  They started with a series of increasingly ambitious tree houses, built by themselves, unsupervised. But that’s a subject – one of several – that they’re now reluctant to be drawn on, precisely because reviewers and interviewers have found it so charming in the past. Walton & Hollingworth seem wary of being infantilized (well, except in videos like “Sax in the City”, where they sport pacifiers and crawl hands-and-knees through the city).

After the tree house phase, Jenny and Rosa progressed to making short films, each taking turns handling the camera while the other acted. And then, aged thirteen, after making “loads of films”, they decided to “try something else. So we formed a band”. 

Perhaps the duo’s eagerness to sidestep received ideas of what Let’s Eat Grandma is about is more understandable if you take into account that they are currently repping songs written as long ago as four or five years.  The recording process for I, Gemini started when they were fourteen and it took two years to finish. They had management early on, but no record company at that point: the album was laid down for free in a recording studio at the local college where they now study.  But because they were still in high school back then, Walton & Hollingworth could only access the studio during the summer holidays, which is why it took so long to complete. 

This long, fitful process has led to the mentality gap between I, Gemini and where the duo’s heads are at today. Think of how different you felt about things aged thirteen from how you saw the world aged eighteen (the duo’s current age). Let’s Eat Grandma are keen to surprise everyone with new songs they’re writing that address social issues. “When we were younger we were obviously less clued in on politics – we were writing about what we were experiencing then,” says Walton. They are also forthright feminists, indignant about the sexism they’ve encountered in the music industry. It’s not just a case of being taken less seriously on account of their gender and age, says Hollingworth. “It’s more blatant than that.  When we’ve done festivals, and we haven’t gone with our own engineer, people have said really objectifying things to us. It’s the kind of thing that happens so subtly that you don’t really notice at first.”

Let’s Eat Grandma might have started to put away childish things, but they are still very much teenagers. There’s an incommunicative tendency that any parent will find familiar. Even a hint of  “whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not” intractability. That’s a saying of Arthur Seaton, the bloodyminded working class young factory worker in 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, that later adopted by Arctic Monkeys as the title of their debut album.

One evasive tactic in evidence this evening is “wait until you see the show tonight, that’ll help you understand”.  Yet their performance at the Echo is largely in line with the expectations created by the videos and the album.  The live rendition of “Deep Six Textbook”, for instance, involves a patty-cake handclap routine to generate a percussive pulse.  Then there’s their disconcerting stage moves, like Hollingworth sitting on the floor beneath the keyboards during one number, or the pair lying flat on the stage during the first part of another song, as if hiding from the audience. These stunts are wonderfully suspenseful (you start wondering, ‘are they ever going to get up again?’) but recall nothing so much as children throwing a sulk.  The couple of new songs in their short set sound terrific and do showcase new sonic directions (they feature electric guitar, in the form of Walton’s elegant lead patterns, for the first time). But I couldn’t really discern a new social consciousness.  Even their refusal to play an encore seems characteristic, which is to say, a bit bratty.   

Rewind to early that night and back in the café, after another line of enquiry is parried, I try a different tack. What is the least Let’s-Eat-Grandma-like fact about Let’s Eat Grandma that is actually true? What information about them would most thoroughly blow their image and blow the minds of their compact but devoted following of fans and critics? Like, are they secretly into sports cars? Do they avidly watch Top Gear?

“That’s quite a hard question.... there’s so many things,” says Hollingworth, not very helpfully.

“Everything!” says Walton, less helpfully still.

Finally, they think of one secret truth, or one they’re prepared to share, at any rate.

“Even though we like them...,” offers Hollingworth cautiously. “We’re not really inspired by CocoRosie.... or Kate Bush.... or Bjork... or—“

“Cocteau Twins!” they both say, in that charming, chiming unison way of theirs.

“People just like to compare us to any female performer who’s doing something slightly different,” complains Walton.

Another thing that vexes Let’s Eat Grandma is language – terms like “kooky” or “ethereal” that get applied in a gendered way to any female artist doing something unusual or arty. “If we were a male band,” suggests Hollingworth, “people wouldn’t say ‘kooky’, they’d probably say ‘psychedelic’. Because, in lots of ways, our music is quite psychedelic.”

“Eat Shiitake Mushrooms”, one of the most delightful tunes on the album, might - they hint - be inspired by a mushroom trip. But just try to get them to elaborate.  “Can’t disclose this information,“ says a coyly tight-lipped Hollingworth.

One hallucinatory form of inspiration they do talk about freely is the hypnagogic state between wakefulness and sleep.  “I get lots of inspiration for lyrics from that phase just after I’m gone to bed and I’m very tired and falling asleep,” says Walton. “Lots of images and interesting combinations of words come into my head. When I’m in that state, I can wake myself up a bit and write things down or record them, then I slip back into the state.  I’ll keep doing that over and over for maybe half-an-hour, until I’m just too tired and feel like I really need to fall asleep.”

Hypnagogic imagery is quite different to the mind-movies you get in the rapid-eye-movement phases of deep sleep, which are more, well, dreamy. “You have more control over the images,” says Rosa. “I can think of myself as being somewhere and then I can change things and they become weirder and they start controlling themselves.” She points at the air-conditioning vent hanging off the ceiling, near our table in the upstairs balcony section of the café. “If I was in a [hypnagogic state] now, I could look right up  that pipe. And then as I went up the pipe the dream would start controlling itself.”

Let’s Eat Grandma’s fascination for dream worlds is very psychedelic-Sixties. But it’s also harks back to the surrealism, to psychoanalysis in both its Freudian and Jungian schools, and to all manner of religious and mystical belief systems going back to antiquity that have set great store in the oracular truths revealed in our night visions. What it’s not, this interest in dreams, is contemporary in any sense. We live in an era that has lost all interest in dreams as an artistic or spiritual resource, as a deeper truth of the self or of the collective unconscious.  As a teenager growing up in the Seventies, when books decoding the symbolism of dreams were popular, I kept an incredibly detailed dream diary. But nowadays “dream” generally refers to secular ambitions of fame and glory: the sort of dreams where if you keep on believin’ they’ll come true, or if you work your butt off they’ll be achieved. Instead of dreamed otherworlds we have the virtual realities of games and CGI. So when Rosa talks about writing her dreams down in her diary “as soon as I get up” or exalts the dream life as “free entertainment when you’re sleeping”, it’s a sign that the duo are probably not typical of their own generation. 

Let’s Eat Grandma’s music often has an oneiric aura. The twinkly upper-octave piano trills at the start of “Rapunzel” have the quality of a cinematic dissolve, or the kind of vaseline-on-the-lens effect that lends  gauzy enchantment to a movie.  Sometimes the songs appear to evolve according to dream logic, starting somewhere and ending up somewhere completely unexpected, as with the multi-part suites of “Sleep Song” and “Welcome to the Treehouse Part 1 and 2”, or the listener-ambushing eruption of the rap section midway through “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” (albeit rap as if performed  by a eight-year-old with a mouthful of dulce de leche).

When I ask Let’s Eat Grandma if they enjoy playing tricks on listeners like that, they predictably downplay. “It wasn’t so much ‘Ooh we’re going to surprise people with a rap bit here’ as ‘this bit needs a rap’,” says Walton, the MC in question on this song. True children of the post-internet, listen-to-everything generation, Let’s Eat Grandma have in the past described what they do as “experimental sludge pop” or “psychedelic sludge.”  Well, that’s how I took those descriptions anyway: tags for a messily smushed-together splodge of flavours, like the cup of a kid at a frozen yoghurt joint who’s gone a little crazy with the toppings. Actually, sludge - they say, in unison again – refers to “drone notes”, their love of extended-notes that create a smeary, woozy feeling in the music.

Asking Let’s Eat Grandma about specific bands that possibly have an affinity with what they do – if not an outright inspirational connection – isn’t a productive pursuit.  Most of the groups that tend to get mentioned in reviews as reference points or influences  - like Kevin Ayers, Caravan, Virginia Astley - are ones they say they’ve never heard or even heard of.  “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s fully got it right yet,” says Walton, sounding neither pleased nor displeased.

So what is the most misguided, off-base thing that a professional pundit has ever said about Let’s Eat Grandma?

“The worst one,” says Walton, wrinkling her nose with annoyance, “was someone who said ‘I think there’s a few very clever adults behind this’. That just made me sooooooooooo cross.” 

Let’s Eat Grandma bitterly resent this reverse-ageism, finding even praise of the “oooh, look how prodigiously and precociously talented they are!” type to be “a bit backhanded, like it’s surprising,” complains Hollingworth. “People find us quite confusing, that we’re two girls and we bond over being creative,” she adds. “Like teenage girls are just supposed to go shopping together or something! But I think there’s loads of girls like us out there.”


[version as published at the end]


LET'S EAT GRANDMA
I, Gemini
The Wire, June 2016

by Simon Reynolds

Nationality feels like an impermissible topic to bring up when writing about the appeal of music.  Like something that’s vaguely discredited, or at least outmoded:  left behind for good (in both senses) in our post-geographical, distance-shrinking world.  Celebrating hybridity, intermixture and impurity is always going to seem more progressive than fetishising the essential, the unchanging, the parochial.  Yet national character continues to have a potent attraction.  Englishness of a particular musty sort seeps from every pore of eMMplekz’s dankly addictive Rook to TN34. And Englishness of a brightly enchanted kind forms a fragrant haze around I, Gemini , the debut album from Let’s Eat Grandma.

This teenage duo could hardly be more English, from their names – Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton—to their singing voices, which have the crumbly texture of Wensleydale, reminding me at various points of Sophie from The Detectorists, Cassie in Skins, and Lola from the kids’s animation series Charlie and Lola. The only time they break the spell of quintessential Englishness is their name – they should really be called Let’s Eat Granny.

Musically, too, they summon to mind a bunch of frightfully English things:  Danielle Dax, Matching Mole, Pram, Kate Bush.  Not that they ever really sound much like any of these. But the ballpark –  or should I say, cricket pitch – is the same: quirky, homespun, a little precious, child-like in a way that teeters close to twee but never crosses the line.  

Let’s Eat Grandma play up their Englishness and their tender years with the way they present in photo sessions and in the video for the single “Deep Six Textbook”. With their lace frocks, long golden tresses, and milky complexions, they come across a bit like modern-day equivalents of the miscreants behind the Cottingley Fairies photographs – girl-cousins who let their imaginations get away with them and fooled half the world. On “Deep Six Textbook,” Jenny and Rosa sing as classroom daydreamers who’d rather be communing with the starfish and the ocean than stuck indoors being trained for productive adulthood: “we live our lives in the textbook... I feel like standing on the desk and screaming ‘I DON’T CARE!’”.   Listening to their motley sound-palette, you often picture a school music room full of battered instruments: recorder, ukulele, electric organ, xylophone, triangle, rough-toned violin, the stray components of a drum kit, a long outmoded synth.  
Song titles like “Chimpanzees in Canopies” and “Welcome To The Treehouse” evoke Nature Studies projects, school trips to the zoo, and back garden fun ’n’ games.

But the innocence doesn’t feel forced. At sixteen and seventeen, Hollingworth and Walton are barely out of childhood.  More like sisters than the friends-since-age-four they are, their voices appear to have grown alike through prolonged proximity, like plants entwining together in a neglected garden. Gemini is the Latin for twins and the album title I, Gemini seems to speak of a near-telepathic bond: a single mind shared across two bodies.

One of the emerging clichés of today’s brainy music-making (and music-reviewing) is “world-building”. Everybody’s at it: constructing sprawling concept albums that are the audio setting for Game of   Thrones- scale sagas or epic near-future dystopias. I, Gemini sounds like a world, yes, but not one consciously assembled, just the byproduct of a private space of pure imagination that flourished between constant companions. Think Heavenly Creatures, without the upsetting ending. 

Sometimes the organic quality of I, Gemini feels a little off the cuff.  “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” coalesces haphazardly at first, like a primary school music class converging around a tune, while “Sax in the City” sounds like a one-man band with its ukulele, toy cymbal, and honking horn. But the thrown-togetherness is deceptive:  there’s a consummate attentiveness to texture, structure, and, most vividly, space in evidence.  “Deep Six Textbook” sounds like a song heard with a seashell cupped to your ear. Its muzzy washes of Caravan-keyboard and stoic tick-tock beat set deep in the distance have me casting back to late Eighties recordings by A.R. Kane and Cocteau Twins for an equivalent sense of intimate emptiness. 

Norwich, the girls’ hometown, is a bustling city in a county that’s largely rural, full of flat expanses, and often considered a bit of a backwater.  Like an audio illustration for Raymond Williams’s English culture study The Country and The City, the album shuttles back and forth on a branch line that stretches from Virginia Astley to Lady Sovereign.  Just when you think they’re all about winsome pastoralism, Let’s Eat Grandma will starting rapping – sounding, on “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms”, like Cranes’s baby-voiced Alison Shaw reborn as a grime MC from E3.  Whether sung or spat, Hollingworth & Walton’s slack enunciation belies their out-of-time, Picnic At Hanging Rock image:  this is actually a rather modern style of singing, something you hear across the spectrum from Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding to AlunaGeorge and James Blake.  But Let’s Eat Grandma push it further, smudging  fricatives and bilabials, making syllables fold and kink sideways,  half-swallowing their vowels or swilling them around the palate. It’s like they’re delectating in their own voice-stuff, and who could blame them?  

This meld of savory-sweet singing, moreish melody, glistening texture, strange space and surprises galore makes I, Gemini the best pop-not-pop album since Micachu & the Shapes’s Jewellery. (Without ever resembling it at all).  And as with that album, Gemini is backloaded: each new song better than the one that precedes. Things really take off as we pass the half-way mark. “Rapunzel” is their “Wuthering Heights”:  romanticism so gauchely gushing only 17 year olds can get away with it. The song starts with an upper-octave piano cycle that spins an atmosphere of twinkly magic, like the moment in Le Grand Meaulnes when the protagonist stumbles on the lost chateau in the forest. Then it gathers to a pounding pitch of tempestuous grandeur, with a storyline about a 7-year-old runaway from domestic discord suddenly stricken with the realization “I’m not having fun in this fairy tale”.  “Sleep Song” likewise starts gently with wheezy harmonium and plangent crinkles of guitar, then the lullaby bends to the sinister with a babble of increasingly clashing voices, before spiraling into a sort of soaring plummet of night-terror.  A song in two parts, “Welcome To The Treehouse” is their “Cloudbusting”: the angelic screech of the vocals is the sound of hearts exploding, but who can tell whether they’re bursting with joy or dread.


The star sign Gemini  (mine, as it happens) has among its strengths imagination, quickness, and adaptability; among  its weaknesses, impulsiveness, flightiness, and  indecision. That all just sounds like the checklist for adolescence.   I Gemini ‘s allure for me as an aging expatriate is not just the reassuring idea that Englishness abides, but that adolescence is much the same as it ever was.  The trappings have changed – Instagram and Snapchat, rather than scrapbooks and pen pals – but the fundamental things apply:  boredom, longing, restlessness, wonder, lust, spite, curiosity, confusion.  “Oh yeah life goes on / Long after the thrill of livin’ has gone”, warned that least-English of all singers Johnny Cougar, before advising: “Hold onto sixteen as long as you can/Changes come around real soon make us women and men”.  If you can’t find still and grasp tight within yourself those sensations of unformed possibility, then second-best is to grab them vicariously, through music that’s as thrillingly alive and ardently awake as this.  


LET'S EAT GRANDMA PROFILE FOR NPR AS PUBLISHED

From Norfolk, one of the more remote regions of England, came this preternaturally talented pair of teenage girls, Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth. Their close, verging-on-telepathic friendship dated back to pre-school, and they emerged from pre-pubescence clutching a debut set of sophisticated, wonderfully askew songs. Those recordings – collected on I, Gemini – had the duo playing every instrument themselves.

Growing Up

A year on from the release of that acclaimed debut, Let's Eat Grandma is still sporadically touring behind it. But here's a funny thing: Walton and Hollingworth now appear keen to shed — even shred — the public perception that's wrapped itself around them, despite the fact that it's based on an aesthetic approach to the project that they've rather concertedly worked to establish.

Most teenagers hope to look as adult and sophisticated as possible. They're keen to grow up in a hurry. But the way Let's Eat Grandma has presented itself up to this point, in live performance and in promo videos, is the complete opposite. The pair's image in their break-out video "Deep Six Textbook" — long golden tresses, buttermilk skin, white lace frocks — casts Walton and Hollingworth as virtual twins and as out-of-time figures seemingly plucked right out of Picnic At Hanging Rock, Peter Weir's eerie film about disappeared schoolgirls in Victorian-era Australia. Songs like "Welcome To The Treehouse," "Chocolate Sludge Cake" and "Rapunzel" seemed to cement the child-eyed viewpoint running through the album, exacerbated by the homespun feel of the playing and instrumentation choices like recorder and glockenspiel, which conjured the atmosphere of the elementary school music room. "Sax in the City," the most recent video off I, Gemini, regresses even further, into the nursery, with Walton & Hollingworth togged out as Edwardian toddlers in pink onesies, bonnets and bibs.


Their friendship began when they were just 4, forged from the start through creative projects. "It's our way of processing the world," said Hollingworth. They started with a series of increasingly ambitious treehouses, built by themselves, unsupervised. It's a subject – one of several – that they're now reluctant to be drawn on, precisely because reviewers and interviewers have found it so charming in the past. Walton and Hollingworth seem wary of being infantilized — except in videos like "Sax in the City," where they sport pacifiers and crawl hands-and-knees through the city.

After that treehouse phase Jenny and Rosa progressed to making short films, taking turns handling the camera while the other acted. Then, aged thirteen, after making "loads of films," they decided to "try something else. So we formed a band."

Only In Dreams

Let's Eat Grandma's music often has a dream-like aura to it; twinkly, upper-octave piano trills at the start of "Rapunzel" have the quality of a cinematic dissolve, or the kind of vaseline-on-the-lens effect that lends gauzy enchantment to a movie. Some songs appear to evolve according to dream logic, ending somewhere completely unexpected, as with the multi-part suites of "Sleep Song" and the two-part "Welcome to the Treehouse," or the listener-ambushing eruption of the rap section midway through "Eat Shiitake Mushrooms."

As it happens, dreaming is where the duo derive much of their inspiration. "I get lots of inspiration for lyrics from that phase just after I'm gone to bed and I'm very tired and falling asleep," says Rosa Walton, referring to a stage in the onset of sleep called 'hypnagogic'. We chatted in an Echo Park café shortly before Let's Eat Grandma were to perform their debut Los Angeles concert. "Lots of images and interesting combinations of words come into my head," continued Rosa. "When I'm in that state, I can wake myself up a bit and write things down or record them, then I slip back into the state. I'll keep doing that over and over for maybe half-an-hour, until I'm just too tired and feel like I really need to fall asleep."

Hypnagogic imagery is actually different to the mind-movies you get in the rapid-eye-movement phases of deep sleep, which are more, well, dreamy. "You have more control over the images," Rosa said. "I can think of myself as being somewhere and then I can change things and they become weirder and they start controlling themselves." She pointed at the air-conditioning vent hanging off the ceiling, near our table in the upstairs balcony section of the café. "If I was in a [hypnagogic state] now, I could look right up that pipe. And then as I went up the pipe the dream would start controlling itself."

The pair's fascination for dream worlds is very psychedelic-'60s. But it also harks back to surrealism, to psychoanalysis in both its Freudian and Jungian schools and to all manner of religious and mystical belief systems going back to antiquity that have set great store in the oracular truths revealed in our night visions. What it's not, this interest in dreams, is contemporary in any sense. We live in an era that has lost all interest in dreams as an artistic or spiritual resource, as a deeper truth of the self or of the collective unconscious. As a teenager growing up in the '70s, when books decoding the symbolism of dreams were popular, I kept an incredibly detailed dream diary. But nowadays "dream" generally refers to secular ambitions of fame and glory, the sort of dreams where, if you just keep on believin', they'll come true, or if you work your butt off they'll be achieved. Instead of dreamed otherworlds we have digital, the virtual realities of games and CGI. So when Rosa talks about writing her dreams down in her diary "as soon as I get up," or exalts the dream life as "free entertainment when you're sleeping", it's a sign that the duo are probably not typical of their own generation.

Evolution! Evolution?

Perhaps the duo's eagerness to sidestep received ideas of what Let's Eat Grandma is about is more understandable if you take into account that they are still repping songs written four or five long – especially relative to their chronology — years ago. The recording process for I, Gemini started when they were fourteen and took two years to finish. Because they were still in high school back then, Walton & Hollingworth could only access the free studio at their local music college during the summer holidays, which is why it took so long to complete.

This long, fitful process led to an inevitable mentality gap between I, Gemini and where the duo's heads are at today. Just think for a moment how different you felt about things aged thirteen from how you saw the world aged eighteen (the pair's current age).

Let's Eat Grandma are keen to surprise everyone with the new songs they're writing, which they say center on social and political issues. "When we were younger we were obviously less clued in on politics – we were writing about what we were experiencing then," says Walton. They are also forthright feminists, indignant about the sexism they've encountered in the music industry. It's not just a case of being taken less seriously on account of their gender and age, says Hollingworth. "It's more blatant than that. When we've done festivals, and we haven't gone with our own engineer, people have said really objectifying things to us. It's the kind of thing that happens so subtly that you don't really notice at first."

Let's Eat Grandma might have started to put away childish things, but they are still very much teenagers. There's an incommunicative tendency that any parent will find familiar — even a hint of "whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not" intractability.

"Wait until you see the show tonight, that'll help you understand," they said. Yet that performance, at the Echo, was largely in line with the established image they were ostensibly in the process of shedding. The live rendition of "Deep Six Textbook," for instance, involved a patty-cake handclap routine to generate a percussive pulse. Then there's their disconcerting stage moves, like Hollingworth sitting on the floor beneath the keyboards during one number, or the pair lying flat on the stage during the first part of another song, as if hiding from the audience. These stunts are wonderfully suspenseful — you start wondering, are they ever going to get up again? — but can recall, too, children throwing a sulk. The couple of new songs played in that short set sounded terrific — and did, indeed, showcase new sonic directions, featuring electric guitar, in the form of Walton's elegant lead patterns, for the first time. It was hard to discern a new social consciousness.

What We Are Not

Back in the café, after another line of enquiry was parried, it was time to try a different tack. What is the least Let's-Eat-Grandma-like fact about Let's Eat Grandma that is actually true? What information about them would most thoroughly blow their image and blow the minds of their compact-but-devoted following of fans and critics? Like, are they secretly into sports cars? Do they avidly watch Top Gear?

"That's quite a hard question... there's so many things," says Hollingworth, not very helpfully.

"Everything!" says Walton, less helpfully still.

Finally, they think of one secret truth, or one they're prepared to share, at any rate.

"Even though we like them...," offers Hollingworth cautiously. "We're not really inspired by CocoRosie.... or Kate Bush.... or Bjork... or—"

"Cocteau Twins!" they both say, in that charming, chiming unison way of theirs.

"People just like to compare us to any female performer who's doing something slightly different," complains Walton.

Asking Let's Eat Grandma about specific bands that possibly do have an affinity with their sound – if not an outright inspirational connection – isn't productive, either. Most of the groups that tend to get mentioned in reviews as reference points or influences — Kevin Ayers, Caravan, Virginia Astley — are ones they say they've never heard or even heard of. "I don't think there's anybody who's fully got it right yet," says Walton, neither pleased nor displeased.

Another thing that vexes Let's Eat Grandma is language – terms like "kooky" or "ethereal" that get applied, in a gendered way, to any female artist doing something unusual or arty. "If we were a male band," suggests Hollingworth, "people wouldn't say 'kooky', they'd probably say 'psychedelic'. Because, in lots of ways, our music is quite psychedelic."

"Eat Shiitake Mushrooms", one of the most delightful tunes on the album, might, they hint, be inspired by a mushroom trip. But just try to get them to elaborate. "Can't disclose this information," says a tight-lipped Hollingworth. That song, which surprisingly erupts midway into a deliciously unexpected rap section, is a wonderful example of Let's Eat Grandma's unconfined approach to genre. True children of the post-Internet, listen-to-everything generation, Walton and Hollingworth have in the past described what they do as "experimental sludge pop" or "psychedelic sludge." Well, that's how I took those descriptions anyway: tags for a smushed-together splodge of flavors, like the dripping cup of a kid at a frozen yogurt joint who's gone a little overboard with the toppings. Actually, sludge — they say in unison, again – refers to "drone notes", their love of extended-notes that create a smeary, woozy feeling in the music.

So – on the subject of critics and their misperceptions — what is the single most misguided, off-base thing that a professional pundit has ever said about Let's Eat Grandma?

"The worst one," says Walton, wrinkling her nose with annoyance, "was someone who said 'I think there's a few very clever adults behind this'. That just made me so cross."

Let's Eat Grandma bitterly resent this reverse-ageism, finding even praise of the "oooh, look how prodigiously and precociously talented they are!" type to be "a bit backhanded, like it's surprising," complains Hollingworth. "People find us quite confusing, that we're two girls and we bond over being creative," she adds. "Like teenage girls are just supposed to go shopping together or something! But I think there's loads of girls like us out there."

Monday, July 9, 2018

Position Normal and the dawn of hauntology

looking back at this 1999 review of Position Normal's Stop Your Nonsense  I can see both the wistful-for-postpunk feelings that led to Rip It Up and Start Again and a preview of hauntology as a critical perspective


POSITION NORMAL
Stop Your Nonsense
SAINT ETIENNE
Places to Visit
Village Voice, 1999

by Simon Reynolds


The bursting of  Britpop bubble's has left the UK's (non-dance)
music scene in the terminal doldrums. A&R's and hacks alike
twiddle their thumbs and wonder why nothing's happening.  One
reason is that Britpop's make-it-big-nothing-else-counts
triumphalism has withered the left-field and virtually obliterated
the concept of independent music. Another is that all the purely
musical intellect around  has entered the dance arena, leaving
rock to  those whose only virtuosity is auto-hype, e.g. Gay Dad,
with their former pop journalist frontman and reheated Suede homo-erotic-rhetoric.


Position Normal's enchanting Stop Your Nonsense (Mind
Horizon) is a flashback to the infinitely more robust UK music
culture of  1979-81---the postpunk ferment which spawned genuinely
independent labels like Rough Trade and Fast, brainy but intensely
musical  bands like Pop Group, This Heat and The Associates, and
the countless one-shot flashes of DIY inspiration  aired nightly
on John Peel's radio show. It was an era when bands still operated
in the modernist conviction that absolute novelty was absolutely
possible.



Even though Nonsense is mostly sample-based,  its homespun
imprecision feels closer to hand-made tape loops than digital
seamlessness; collage-wise, it's somewhere between Nurse With
Wound and De La Soul's debut.  Only Nonsense's stoned-to-say-the-
least aura locates the album in the post-rave Nineties.  Chris
Bailiff, the man behind Position Normal, is as fastidiously
attuned to the timbral colors of sound-in-itself as Aphex Twin or
Wagon Christ.  His favorite production trick is a combination of
reverb and filtering that make sounds glint like they've been
irradiated by a sudden shaft of sunlight pouring into a gloomy
room. 



He EQ's the Lotte Lenya soundalike on "German" until her
voice crumbles into a billowing gold-dust rush, makes a pizzicato
mandolin refrain glisten uncannily in "Jimmy Had Jane,"  and
reverbs the stark  piano chords of "Rabies" so they sound as
poignant as Erik Satie marooned in Keith Hudson's dub-chamber. On 
"Bedside Manners," a lustrous mirage of  echoplexed guitar
backdrops a  surreal medical monologue,  with guest-vocalist
Cushway perfectly capturing the  condescending cadences and smarmy
solicitousness of a English doctor.



In its semi-conscious way, Stop Your Nonsense is an essay
about Englishness and its inevitable evanescence. The album's
dream-drift haze is peopled with spectral traces of all those
eccentric relatives (The Fall, Ivor Cutler, Viv Stanshall, Ian
Dury, John Cooper Clark, Vini Reilly) written out of  the will
when Britpop pruned its family tree down to the straight-and-
narrow lineage:  Beatles>Pistols>Stone Roses>Oasis. 



Never overtly nostalgic, Position Normal's music triggers plangent sensations of
nostalgia,  at least for this expatriate. Perhaps because its
samples are pulled off crackly vinyl platters and reel-to-reel
tape spools foraged from thrift stores and garage sales, Nonsense
evokes the bygone, parochial crapness of Olde England--the quaint,
musty provincialism banished by the New Labour government's
modernising policies and by the twin attrition of
Americanisation/Europeanisation.



 Some of Nonsense's most magical
tracks  aren't really music, but melodious mosaics of  speech
expertly tiled from disparate, sepia-tinted sources.  "Lightbulbs" 
sets a cheeky little rascal against a 1970s hi-fi buff  droning on
about "my main gain fader". On "Hop Sa Sa"  Bailiff  varispeeds a
kiddies' choir singing about monkeys, interjects a middle-aged
man's  quizzical "why not for donkeys?," and then, for a
inexplicably heart-tugging coda, transforms the title's nonsense
phrase into an ostinato hanging in an echoey void.




Position Normal's fondness for  "found sound" (the patter 
of Cockney stallholders in a fruit'n'veg market; creaky-voiced
Aunty Betty leaving a phone message for  Doreen)
reminds me of  Saint Etienne's penchant for  punctuating their
early albums with snatches of movie dialogue and cafeteria chat
eavesdropped onto a dictaphone. Like Bailiff,  Saint Etienne are
sampladelic poets whose subject is a lost Englishness. The trio--
singer Sarah Cracknell,  soundboy Pete Wiggs, and Melody Maker
journalist turned Spector wannabe Bob Stanley--started out as part
of  that superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of
Twist, Denim, and pre-megastardom Pulp. Instead of the later
Britpop's loutish laddism, the sensibility was mod-stylist--
proudly English, but cosmopolitan, as open to 1960s French girl-
pop, Nineties Italo-house,  and A.R. Kane's halcyon dub-noise as
it was to Motown and Dusty Springfield.  Trouble was, the trio's
futile fixation on scoring a UK Top Ten hit persuaded them to
gradually iron out all their experimentalist excresences,
including the "found sound" interludes. Reconvening in 1998 after
a four year sabbatical, Saint Etienne got sleeker and slicker
still on Good Humour,  abandoning sampling altogether for  Swedish
session-musicianship and a clean, crisp sound inspired equally by
The Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi's lite-jazz  Charlie Brown music. 

A a pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Etienne's
six-track EP  Places To Visit (SubPop) is an unexpected reversion
to...  everything that was ever any good about them.  "Ivyhouse"
is angel's breath ethereal  like they've not been since Foxbase
Alpha's dubtastic "London Belongs To Me."  Produced by Sean
O'Hagan of avant-MOR outfit The High Llamas,  "52 Pilot" features
sparkling vibes, an elastic heart-string bassline out of "Wichita
Lineman", and radical stereo separation (don't try this one on
headphones). "We're In the City" is cold 'n' bouncy dancepop in
the vein of So Tough's "Clock Milk," with deliciously itchy
percussion.  And "Artieripp" is a tantalizing tone-and-texture
poem as subtly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars. 
      Recorded in four different studios and drawing on diverse
talents like  O'Hagan and avant-gardist-for-hire Jim O'Rourke,
Places shows that Saint Etienne belong among the ranks of the
sound-sculptors. (Their next project is apparently a collaboration
with To Rococo Rot). Saint Etienne are aesthetes who love the Pop
Song not for its expressive power but for the sheerly formal
contours of its loveliness. Hopefully, Places To Visit  will work
like Music For The Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab:
as a rejuvenating sideline, a detour that parodoxically sets them
back on a truer course. 


Another take on Stop Your Nonsense, for Uncut

POSITION NORMAL

Stop Your Nonsense
Mind Horizon Recordings
Uncut, 1999
*****

Sampladelic nutter debuts with the missing link between The Residents' *Commercial Album* and Saint Etienne's *Foxbase Alpha*.




Chris Bailiff, the 27 year old eccentric responsible for *Stop Your Nonsense*, used to perform under the name Bugger Sod. It's a moniker that captures the spirit of amiably insubordinate Anglo-Dada  he's now perpetrating as Position Normal. If you wanted to get pop historically precise, you'd place *Nonsense* at the intersection of three genealogies. There's the bygone John Peel realm of post-punk DIY weirdness 1979-81
---Native Hipsters's "There Goes Concorde Again", Furious Pig, Virgin Prunes. Then there's the more recent lineage of Krautrock-influenced lo-fi that includes Stereolab and Beta Band. And because *Nonsense* is all done with samples (plus some guitar and the occasional "real" vocal), you'd also have to mention  Saint Etienne's eerie "found sound" interludes on their first two albums, Wagon Christ, and Bentley Rhythm Ace (if they abandoned Big Beat boisterousness for ambient chill-out).



      The Bentleys, who scavenge carboot sales for ultra-cheesy vinyl, and Wagon Christ, a sampladelic wizard who specialises in alchemising cheddar into gold,  may be the most apt contemporary parallels. Position Normal's sample sources sound like they've been plucked from charity shops and skips--warped spoken-word albums and crackly E-Z listening platters; faded BetaMax videos,  ancient reel-to-reel tapes, and worn out answer-machine cassettes. Accessing the dusty, disavowed memories purged from a nation's attics and cellars, Bailiff has reanimated all the fusty English quaintness that Blair-ite modernisation and cappucino culture have allegedly banished. Maybe it's just where my head is at right now, but  *Nonsense* triggers sepia-tinted  flashbacks to  *temps perdu*: chalk-dust motes irradiated in the shaft of light streaming from a classroom window; a paper bag of boiled sweets from the row of jars behind the counter; butcher shops with bloody sawdust on the floor.



      *Nonsense* contains too many highlights. "The Blank" rubs clangorous Fall circa "Rowche Rumble" guitars up against quiz-show samples ("what is the blank?"). "Jimmy Had Jane" is like Ian Dury meets The Faust Tapes: a baleful Cockney voice crooning about a sordid sexual encounter perpetrated by a bloke with "pickled egg eyes," offset by the eerie glint of a filtered 'n' reverbed ukelele. "German" is Lotte Lenya marooned in King Tubby's dub chamber. "Bucket Wipe" sounds like the carefree whistling of a Martian postman. "Nostril and Eyes" could be fragments of *Under Milkwood* reassembled into surrealist sound-poetry: "is there any *any*? Rank, dimpled, drooping... Smudge, crust, smell--*tasty* lust." 



 "Rabies" shifts from a helium-addled Frank Sidebottom ditty to shatteringly poignant Satie-esque piano chords drenched in cavernous reverb. "Lightbulbs" and "Hop Sa Sa" expertly crosshatch shards of speech (a chirpy schoolboy praising "a lovely bit of string", a hi-fi buff boasting about "my main gain fader", a kindergarten choir singing a song about monkeys) into melodious mosaics.

      The many samples of children's voices, the cover picture of a little lad utterly absorbed with his Scalectrix, and the title *Stop Your Nonsense* (a cross grown-up telling off an incorrigible brat) all suggest that if Position Normal is "about" anything, it's regression as a refusal of the state of dreamlessness commonly known as "adulthood".  As such, *Nonsense* plugs into that British absurdist comedy tradition of  cracked whimsy and renegade daftness that includes Spike Milligan, Ivor Cutler, and Reeves & Mortimer . Above all,  *Nonsense* has charm--not in its degraded modern sense (Robbie Williams's cheeky-chappy grin) but  "charm" as casting a spell on the listener, charm as enchantment. My favourite record of 1999, so far. 




<

      The Beta Band, Lo-Fidelity Allstars,  Royal Trux>>





^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


prototype version of Voice piece


The bursting of  Britpop bubble's has left the UK's (non-dance) music scene in the terminal doldrums. Last year, when Pulp's This Is Hardcore unexpectedly flopped sales-wise and panicked labels began purging rosters of the sub-Oasis dross they'd paid silly money for, New Musical Express did a cover story on the death throes of the UK music industry. Strangely, they blamed everything under the sun except the Britpress's own collusion in Britpop's coke-addled  triumphalism and dumbing-down of  music discourse. Today, long after the goldrush, A&R's and hacks alike twiddle their thumbs and wait, wait, for something to happen. Some wonder why you never get bands like Roxy Music or The Associates anymore, artpop explosions of glamour, literacy and sonic wizardry. One reason might be that all the purely musical intellect has gone into the dance arena, abandoning  pop to those who have the gift of the gab but not a musical bone in their bodies--like Manic Street Preachers, or this season's great white hype Gay Dad, with their ex-pop journalist frontman and reheated Suede homo-erotic-rhetoric.


In many ways,  Position Normal's Stop Your Nonsense is a flashback to the infinitely more robust UK music culture of  1979-81; the postpunk ferment which produced truly independent labels like Rough Trade and Fast, brainy but intensely musical  bands like The Pop Group and This Heat, plus the countless one-shot flashes of DIY inspiration that were aired on John Peel's radio show. It was a time when eccentricity was encouraged and bands operated with absolute confidence that there were still millions of new things to do; the idea of consciously referring back to the pop past would have been disgusting.  Even though Nonsense is mostly sample-based (plus a bit of guitar and a few 'real' vocals), it has a homespun imprecision that feels more like hand-made tape loops than digital seamlessness; collage-wise, it's somewhere between Nurse With Wound and De La Soul's first album.

Only the album's stoned-to-say-the-least, mildly hallucinatory aura gives the game away that this is the late Nineties. Like Beta Band and Wagon Christ, Position Normal's Chris Bailiff exhibits a fetishistic attention to the texture of sound-in-itself that is the hallmark of  post-Aphex/post-Tricky music-making. Bailiff's fave production trick is using a combination of reverb and EQ-tweaking to make sounds glint uncannily likely they've been irradiated by a sudden shaft of sunlight pouring into a gloomy room. He uses it on a music-hall mandolin refrain that's the magic heart of "Jimmy Had Jane" and on the Lotte Lenya soundalike in "German", and again for the second half of "Rabies", whose stark, plangent piano chords sound like a sistraught Erik Satie trapped in a dub-chamber dungeon. "Bedside Manners" features a similarly shimmery mirage of lustrous, echoplexed guitar, over which guest-vocalist Cushway intones a surreal monologue of medical non-sequiturs, perfectly capturing the  condescending cadences and smarmy solicitousness of a English family doctor.

 In a probably semi-unconscious way, Nonsense is a kind of essay on Englishness. Its spectral haze is full of indistinct echoes of all the eccentric relatives--Viv Stanshall, The Fall, Ivor Cutler, Ian Dury, John Cooper Clark--written out of  the will when Britpop's family tree got trimmed down to the straight-and-narrow lineage of  Beatles>Pistols>Stone Roses>Oasis. Never overtly nostalgic, it triggers powerful sensations of nostalgia, at least for this expatriate: a sense of  the bygone, lovable crapness of England, now banished thanks to the New Labour government's modernising policies and the twin pressures of Americanisation and pan-Europeanism. The sepia-tinted, time-worn atmosphere probably has a lot to do with the sample-sources--crackly vinyl pluced from thrift stores and garage sales. Some of my favorites on the album aren't  music as such but expertly tiled mosaics of  sampled speech from utterly unconnected sources. On "Lightbulbs,"  a little rascal cheeks a hi-fi buff  droning on about "main gain faders". On "Hop Sa Sa"  Bailiff  varispeeds a kiddies' choir singing about monkeys, interjects a middle aged man's  quizzical suggestion "why not for donkeys?," and creates an inexplicably poignant coda by turning the songtitle's nonsense phase into an ostinato hanging in an echoey void.

These and Nonsense's other "found sound" assemblages (the patter  of Cockney stallholders in a fruit'n'veg market; Aunty Betty leaving a phone message for Doreen)
remind me of the interludes with which Saint Etienne peppered their first two albums Foxbase Alpha and So Tough--snatches of movie dialogue, cafe and bar chat caught on dictaphone, and so forth. Like Position Normal, but rather more self-consciously, Saint Etienne traffic in sampladelic essays on lost Englishness. They started out as part of a superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of Twist, Denim and the pre-megastardom Pulp. The sensibility was mod-stylist rather than Britpop's lad-boorish --  proudly English but metropolitan and cosmopolitan, equally open to Sixties French femme-pop and Nineties Italo-house, and as enamored of the dub-noise splendor of A.R. Kane as the Motown-beat of Northern Soul. But being morbidly obsessed with scoring a UK Top Ten hit (a doomed fantasy they should have abandoned when their masterpiece "Avenue" stalled on the threshold of  the Top Forty), Saint Etienne gradually smoothed out the experimental lumps (including those found sound interludes) and got increasingly characterless and sleek. Reconvening in 1998 after a four year sabbatical, Pete Wiggs, Bob Stanley and Sarah Cracknell slimmed down further still for Good Humour, which abandoned sampling for Swedish session musicians and a clean, crisp sound inspired equally by The Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi's lite-jazz incidental themes for the Charlie Brown cartoons.

 A pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Et's maxi-EP-or-is-it-a-mini-album  Places To Visit (SubPop) is an unexpected and welcome reversion to... everything that was ever any good about them, basically. Its six tracks were recorded in at least four different studios and draws on such diverse collaborative talents as Sean O'Hagan of avant-EZ outfit High Llamas and post-everything hired gun Jim O'Rourke (who supplies "electronic wizardry"). On "Ivyhouse,"Saint Etienne are dubby and angel's breath ethereal in ways they haven't been since Foxbase Alpha's "London Belongs To Me." The O'Hagan produced "52 Pilot" features sparkling vibes, a elastic-band bassline out of "Wichita Lineman", and radical stereo separation (don't listen to this one on headphones). "We're In the City" is cold'n'bouncy dancepop in the vein of So Tough's "Clock Milk," with deliciously itchy percussion sounds and a neat Kraftwerky interlude. And  "Artieripp" is a tone-and-texture poem as tantalizing and deftly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars; apparently, Saint Etienne are soon to embark on a collaboration with To Rococo Rot. Overall, here's hoping that Places To Visit has served a similar function for Saint Et as Music For The Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab: a sideline project, a rejuvenating chance to stretch out and mess around,  that ends up setting them back on course. For Saint Etienne have always been pop aesthetes -- interested less in songcraft as a means of  emotional expression and more for the  purely formal contours of its loveliness; like their US counterpart Stephen Merritt, they're interested in expressing themselves but in crafting
"pretty objects to treasure for ever."


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Daft Punk interview

Daft Punk interview
New York Times, May 15th 2013

by Simon Reynolds

Thomas Bangalter, half of the influential French dance music act Daft Punk, has a house high in the Hollywood Hills here. He and his partner, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, divide their time between Los Angeles and Paris, where their families live. But for all the duo’s jet-setting lifestyle, there’s little evidence of rock star flash to be seen (well, apart from the Porsche that Mr. de Homem-Christo has parked in the driveway). Built in the symmetrical mid-century modern style called post-and-beam, the bungalow exudes a subtle retro feel, with white carpeting, a cross-section tree trunk coffee table, and a gravel fireplace in the living room. The swimming pool, a small square of radiant Hockney blue, is visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls. 

The home’s décor mirrors the retro-modern aesthetic that runs through all the stages of Daft Punk’s 20 year career. From its first dancefloor smash, “Da Funk,” in 1996 through the synthetic dazzle of the 2001 album “Discovery” to the 2010 score for the remake of “Tron,” the duo’s defining balancing act has been breaking new ground while simultaneously invoking earlier golden ages of club music, like 1970s disco and ‘80s electro-pop. 

Daft Punk expanded the audience for dance music alongside late-‘90s popularizers like the Chemical Brothers, influenced Madonna and Kanye West, and has been in the vanguard of developing the visual side of live dance music performance. Their iconic robot masks and their spectacular Pyramid-shaped stage set at the 2006 Coachella festival inspired the hi-tech showmanship of younger electronic dance music stars like Skrillex. In the eight years since the duo’s last studio album, EDM has become big business, while Daft Punk-like sounds have infiltrated Top 40 radio, popping up in songs by artists as mainstream as Justin Bieber and Ke$ha. 

But after years on the cutting edge, Daft Punk has reversed course with the eagerly anticipated “Random Access Memories,” out on Daft Life/Columbia this week. Spurning the digital audio software that empowers the EDM generation, the album is an analogue flashback to the era of live musicianship, involving a crack squad of session players and contributions from the disco legends Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, as well as indie rockers like Julian Casablancas and the hip-hop star Pharrell Williams. Mr. Rodgers and Pharrell both appear on the album’s first single,  “Get Lucky”, an uncanny replication of Chic’s sparkling disco-funk.

“In some ways it’s like we’re running on a highway going the opposite direction to everybody else,” said Mr Bangalter,  38, sitting on his white carpet while the taciturn Mr. de Homem-Christo, 39, slumped on a sofa.

 It’s a dilemma that confronts many innovators: when the rest of the world catches up with you, where do you go next? In a paradox that informs the entire project, doing something new for Daft Punk involved embracing the methods and mindset of the past. The result is an album that is impressive but backward-looking, drawing on influences from disco to progressive rock to New Wave. Aspiring to the sumptuous production and arrangements of late ‘70s rock and R&B albums, “Random Access Memories” contains many songs that allude to time, transience, memory, and yesterday’s idea of the future. The album title itself is a play on the idea of computer memory (RAM) versus human memory.

The promotional campaign for the album winds the clock back to an era before tweets and album streams.  Daft Punk and its team orchestrated a suspense-building trail of hints about a new project in the form of billboard ads and teaser mini-commercials on TV.  They haven’t completely bypassed the Internet, but their digital promotion has taken an unusual form: a series of well-made video interviews with their collaborators.

But the bandmates, who originally met at school back in 1987, are adamant that nostalgia is not their primary motivation. Nor is there anything “judgemental,” said Mr. Bangalter, about the anti-digital stance that Daft Punk took with the making of the album. But he does repeatedly refer to technology like Pro Tools and AutoTune as having “created a musical landscape that is very uniform.” Instead, both members enthused about the flexibility of the flesh-and-blood musicians they recruited, like the drummer John Robinson, who played on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall."

 “It’s an infinity of nuance, in the shuffles and the grooves,” raved Mr. Bangalter, knocking over his drink in his excitement. “These things are impossible to create with machines.”

Of course, these intangible but essential qualities of feel and vibe exalted by Daft Punk are necessarily inaccessible to most of today’s young music-makers, whose do-it-yourself dance tracks depend on the same sort of computer technology that launched Daft Punk’s career in the Nineties.  A kid in a bedroom with a laptop and software can make records that sound like a million bucks. Making music the way Daft Punk has actually requires a million bucks, or more.

It also takes time. Begun in 2008, then interrupted when Daft Punk worked on the “Tron” score, the album took two and half years to complete. But the challenge of learning how to get results from live musicians rather than compliant machines was an important step for the duo. 

On their two most influential albums, 1997’s “Homework” and 2001’s "Discovery," Daft Punk proved themselves sampling virtuosos. They had a knack for locating the killer riffs secreted within otherwise deservedly obscure songs from the past and, through deft recontextualization and processing, unleashing their incandescent potential. Now with “Random Access Memories,” the goal is to make music that others might one day sample. Mr. Bangalter talks about the thrill of “starting every sound from scratch, creating a sonic world from the ground up.” Indeed there’s just one sample on the album, in the final track “Contact,” a blasting surge of sound that starts with the voice of Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to stand on the Moon’s surface. That, plus the trademark electronic processing on their voices, is the only real continuity with their old methodology. 

Albums by megabands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, with their no-expense-spared attention to detail, served as the model for “Random Access Memories”’s intricately layered production. “The late ‘70s and early ‘80s is the zenith of a certain craftsmanship in sound recording,” said Mr. Bangalter. For Daft Punk there is a subtle but crucial distinction between flawlessness as a goal pursued through human effort and the perfection easily achieved through digital means.  Mr. Bangalter’s complaints  about the standardization and sterility of the computer-created dance-pop that dominates contemporary radio ironically recall the derogatory language directed at disco by many rock fans in the ‘70s, who decried it as soul-less and mechanistic. Random Access Memories is, in part, a celebration of the rarely acknowledged musicality of disco, whose greatest exponents, like Earth Wind & Fire, were nothing if not great players. 

“They wanted the classic Nile, almost like we were doing a record back in the day,” said Mr. Rodgers, the  guitarist of Chic and one of the most in-demand producers of the ‘80s. This time travel sensation was intensified because the sessions took place at Electric Lady studio in New York, where Chic’s first hit “Dance Dance Dance” was recorded.

Daft Punk have always had a strong sense of history. Reverence for their musical ancestors inspired the “Homework” track “Teachers,”a roll-call of house music and techno pioneers. Its equivalent on “Random Access Memories” is “Giorgio By Moroder.”But the collaboration with Mr. Moroder, who pioneered the electronic style of Eurodisco, was not musical. Instead Daft Punk took snippets from two long interviews with the producer and layered them over an epic track incorporating a pastiche of the Moroder sound. The song jumps from his earliest days as a struggling musician to the 1977 recording of the futuristic Donna Summer song “I Feel Love,” whose metronomic rhythm track and pulsating synths spawned genres like ’80s synthpop and ‘90s trance. “One day I’ll type out the whole interview and that’ll be my biography,” said Mr. Moroder. 

Although Daft Punk’s collaborators on “Random Access Memories” include musicians their own age or younger, like Panda Bear (whose real name is Noah Lennox) from Animal Collective , it’s the partnerships forged with elder legends like Mr. Moroder and Mr. Rodgers that are most revealing of the project’s intent. This applies to the seemingly unlikely collaboration with the actor-singer-songwriter Paul Williams, who penned tunes for The Carpenters and the Muppets. Daft Punk have been fans since their early exposure to the 1974 cult movie “Phantom of the Paradise,” Brian De Palma’s rock satire in which Mr. Williams starred as a malevolent svengali. Mr. Bangalter describes it “as our favorite film, the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically. It embodied everything we liked when we were 13— horror, glam, esotericism. ” Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, Mr. Williams noted wryly that the movie was a flop everywhere apart from two cities: “Paris. And Winnipeg.”

On “Random,” Mr. Williams wrote lyrics for the songs “Beyond” and “Touch.” He also sang on “Touch,” a grandiose song-suite that merges prog-rock and pop schlock. Of his first hearing of the finished version of “Touch,” Mr. Williams recalled asking “’Can I see it again?’” and described the whole album as “an intensely visual experience.”

For Daft Punk, Mr Williams seems to represent some kind of pure spirit of entertainment.  It’s this belief in the magic of showbiz  that attracted them to Los Angeles in the first place.  The duo had a presence in the city as far back as 1996, when they met with Spike Jonze to enlist his directorial skills for the video for “Da Funk”. In the mid-2000s they established the company Daft Arts Inc here to develop the visual aspects of their work, including their feature-length film Electroma. 

But the attraction to LA is as much mythic as it is practical.   Gesturing out of the window towards the Hollywood lurking at the foot of the canyon,  Mr Bangalter talks about the “classic dream factory.”  Whether it’s the pulp fictions manufactured by the studio system or  the glitterball wonderworld of disco, for Daft Punk pop culture is all about fantasy, escape and self-transformation.  The idea for the robot masks they wear to protect their anonymity came from superhero comics and movies.  A delicate poise between kitsch and sublime is the hallmark of their greatest songs, from 2001’s “Digital Love” to the new album’s “Fragments of Time”.  Mr de Homem-Christo breaks his silence to talk about the near-mystical power of music. “You get that extraordinary feeling, that otherworldly feeling, of being transported somewhere.  I think we have a little bit of that edge, me and Thomas, these past 20 years. “


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^



fan-made video made out of old Soul Train footage (i'd much rather be listening to the music these kids were dancing to originally than DP & Pharrell's retropastiche wouldn't you?)



directors' cut mix

Daft Punk interview
New York Times 2013
by Simon Reynolds

High in the Hollywood Hills nestles the Los Angeles residence of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter.   He and musical partner Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo divide their time between LA and their hometown Paris.  But for all the duo’s jet-setting lifestyle, there’s little evidence of rock star flash to be seen chez Bangalter (well, apart from the Porsche that Mr de Homem-Christo has parked in the driveway).   Built in the symmetrical mid-century modern style called post-and-beam, the bungalow exudes a subtle retro feel, with white carpeting, a cross-section tree trunk coffee table, and a gravel fireplace in the living room. The swimming pool, a small square of radiant Hockney blue, is visible through the glass walls.

“Retro-modern” is the aesthetic through-line connecting all the stages of Daft Punk’s 20 year career.  From their first dancefloor smash “Da Funk” in 1996 through 2001’s Discovery to their 2010 movie score for the remake of Tron, the duo’s defining balancing act has been breaking new ground while simultaneously invoking earlier golden ages of club music like Seventies disco and Eighties electro-pop. Daft Punk have also been in the vanguard of developing the visual side of dance music live performance.  Their iconic robot masks and Pyramid spectacular at 2006’s Coachella Festival have inspired the hi-tech showmanship of EDM stars Skrillex and deadmau5. But after years on the cutting edge, Daft Punk have reversed course drastically with their new album Random Access Memories. Spurning the digital audio software that empowers the EDM generation, the album is an analogue flashback to the era of live musicianship, involving a crack squad of session players and contributions from disco legends Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder. 

Making music the old fashioned way gobbled up time and money. Random Access Memories was self-financed, explains Mr Bangalter, who is seated on the white carpet while the taciturn Mr de Homem-Christo slumps on a sofa.  Begun in 2008, then interrupted when Daft Punk signed on for the Tron score, the album took two and half years to complete.  But the challenge of learning how to get results from live musicians rather than compliant machines was an important step for the duo.  In a paradox that informs the entire project, doing something new for Daft Punk involved embracing the methods and mindset of the past.  

Mr Bangalter repeatedly denies there’s anything “judgemental”  about the anti-digital stance  that Daft Punk have taken with Random Access Memories, whose title plays on the idea of computer memory (RAM) versus human memory. But he does repeatedly refer to technology like Pro Tools and AutoTune having “created a musical landscape that is very uniform.”  Conversely, Daft Punk enthuse about the flexibility of the flesh-and-blood musicians they recruited, such as John Robinson, whose drumming pedigree includes Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. “It’s an infinity of nuance, in the shuffles and the grooves,” raves Mr Bangalter, knocking over his drink in his excitement. “These things are impossible to create with machines.”

On their two most influential albums, 1997’s Homework and 2001’s Discovery, which inspired mainstream artists as diverse as Madonna and Kanye West, Daft Punk proved themselves sampling virtuosos. They had a knack for  locating the  killer riffs secreted within otherwise deservedly obscure songs from the past and, through deft recontextualisation and processing,  unleashing their incandescent potential. Now with Random Access Memories, the goal is to make music that others might one day sample.  Mr Bangalter talks about the thrill of “starting every sound from scratch, creating a sonic world from the ground up.” Indeed there’s just one sample on the whole album, in the final track “Contact.” That, plus the trademark electronic processing on their voices, is the only real continuity with their old methodology.

One of Daft Punk’s best-loved songs is “Digital Love”, from Discovery. But Daft Punk appear to have fallen out of love with the digital world. The promotional campaign for the new album winds the clock back to an era before tweets and internet leaks.  The group and its team have masterfully orchestrated  a suspense-building trail of hints in the form of billboard ads and teaser mini-commercials on TV.  “In some ways it’s like we’re running on a highway going the opposite direction to everybody else,” says Mr Bangalter. 

Even Daft Punk’s business strategy could be construed as a throwback. When their contract with Virgin expired several years ago, they could have self-released their own album to their huge fan base via the internet, as Radiohead did with In Rainbows in 2007 and My Bloody Valentine has with m b v earlier this year. But instead the duo signed with Columbia, the most major of major labels, which Mr Bangalter hails as “the first record company, the inventor of the 33 rpm record”.  Comparing the record business in its Seventies and Eighties heyday to Hollywood’s studio system, he sounds wistful for the era of  “sonic blockbusters” like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or “Off The Wall,” albums that everybody heard or at least heard about.  “Pop culture is the monoculture,” he argues.  “Today the only monoculture is brands.” Using the marketing muscle of an entertainment conglomerate like Columbia, which is owned by Sony, Random Access Memories attempts to swim against the historical tide of popular culture’s fragmentation into niche markets and micro-genres.

Albums by megabands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, with their no-expense-spared attention to detail, also served as the model for Random Access Memories’s sumptuous, intricate production.  “The late Seventies and early Eighties is the zenith of a certain craftsmanship in sound recording,” argues Mr Bangalter. For Daft Punk there is a subtle but crucial distinction between flawlessness as a goal pursued through human effort and the perfection easily achieved through digital means.  Ironically, though, Mr Bangalter’s complaints about the standardization and sterility of the computer-created dance-pop that dominates contemporary radio recalls the derogatory language directed at disco by many rock fans in the Seventies, who decried it as soul-less and mechanistic.  Random Access Memories is, in part, a celebration of the rarely acknowledged musicality of disco, whose greatest exponents, like Chic or Earth Wind & Fire, were nothing if not great players.

“They wanted the classic Nile, almost like we were doing a record back in the day,” says Mr Rodgers, Chic’s guitarist and one of the most in-demand producers of the 1980s. “I walked out of my room in the 2013 and I was back in 1979.” This time travel sensation was intensified because the sessions took place at Electric Lady studio in New York, where Chic’s first hit “Dance Dance Dance” was recorded.  The original plan was for Mr Rodgers to lend his trademark sparkling rhythm guitar to just one song, but the sessions were so electric he ended up working on three, including the album’s first single, “Get Lucky”.

Although Daft Punk’s collaborators on Random  Access Memories include musicians their own age or younger, like Noah Lennox from Animal Collective and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, it’s the partnerships forged with elder legends like Mr Rodgers that are most revealing of the project’s intent. This applies to the seemingly unlikely collaboration with actor-singer-songwriter Paul Williams, who penned tunes for The Carpenters and the Muppets and popped up on American TV screens for decades as a sort of celebrity-without-portfolio.  Daft Punk have been fans since their early exposure to the cult movie Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma’s satire of Seventies rock in which Mr Williams starred as a malevolent svengali.  Mr Bangalter describes Phantom “as our favourite film, the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically.   It embodied everything we liked when we were thirteen— horror, glam, esotericism. ” Speaking by telephone from his LA office, Mr Williams describes  Phantom as “a cartoon done with real people” and notes wryly that the movie was a flop everywhere apart from two cities. “Paris. And Winnipeg.”

On Random Access Memories, Mr Williams wrote lyrics for two songs, “Beyond” and “Touch”, and sang on “Touch”.   “I’ve never been more blown away by something,” he says of his first hearing of the finished version of “Touch”, a grandiose song-suite that merges prog-rock and pop shlock.  Mr Williams recalls asking “ ’Can I see it again?’” after his first exposure to the whole album. “It’s an intensely visual experience.”  He praises Daft Punk for the risk they’ve taken by breaking with the sample-based sound that made them rich and famous. “It would have been so easy for them to recreate what they did before. Ride that to another commercial success. But this album feels like an event.”

For Daft Punk, Mr Williams represents some kind of pure spirit of entertainment.  The magic of showbiz is what originally attracted them to Los Angeles.  They’ve had a presence in the city since 1996, when they met with Spike Jonze to enlist his directorial skills for the video for “Da Funk”. In the mid-2000s they established the company Daft Arts Inc in LA to develop the visual aspects of their work, including the Coachella pyramid and their feature-length film Electroma.  “Almost everything we’ve been doing visually has been designed and engineered in this environment,” says Mr Bangalter.  But the attraction to Hollywood is as much mythic as it is practical.  Daft Arts’s location, which they requested be kept secret, is inside a complex of lots and studios whose storied past goes back to the earliest days of the movie industry.  Mr Bangalter discourses knowledgeably about the “classic Hollywood dream factory” that was based in “a few square miles, really just a few blocks.”

Daft Punk have always had a strong sense of history. Reverence for their musical ancestors inspired the Homework  track “Teachers”,  a roll-call of house and techno pioneers.  Its equivalent on Random Access Memories is “Giorgio By Moroder”.  But unlike the tracks with Mr Rodgers, the collaboration with Mr Moroder, who pioneered the electronic style of Eurodisco, was not musical. Instead Daft Punk took snippets from several hours of interview with the producer and layered them over an epic track incorporating a pastiche of the Moroder sound.  “One day I’ll type out the whole interview and that’ll be my biography,” says Mr Moroder, speaking by telephone from his LA home.  

The narrative of “Giorgio by Moroder” jumps from his earliest days as a struggling musician performing in German discotheques to the 1977 recording of “I Feel Love”.  Completing a Donna Summer album that contained songs evoking different periods like the Fifties and Sixties, “I Feel Love” was conceived as “a sound of the future”.  Combining a synth pattern with the machine-like regularity of a click track, Mr Moroder  created a sound that would indeed spawn futuristic genres to come like Eighties synthpop and Nineties trance. But as he recalls on “Giorgio by Moroder”, “I didn’t realise how much the impact would be.”

Daft Punk’s painstaking recreation on “Giorgio by Moroder” of a sound that once represented musical futurism encapsulates the contradictions at the heart of Random Access Memories, an album limned with references to time, transience and memory.  In the Nineties Daft Punk and their comrades in the techno-rave underground were pointing ahead to the digital future. Now, with EDM and Top 40 dancepop dominating the contemporary soundscape, that future has not just arrived, it’s become ubiquitous to the point of banality. So where next for yesterday’s prophets? The way forward is the way back, seems to be the argument of Random Access Memories. But that’s not something that young artists and emerging producers can emulate. Digital technology allows a kid in a bedroom with a laptop and some software to make records that sound like a million bucks. Making music the way Daft Punk have on the brilliant but backward-looking Random Access Memories actually requires a million bucks, or more.  Mr Moroder describes the duo’s strategy as “‘Get the human touch back in.  Make music without loops, played live.”  That may be a solution for Daft Punk, but it’s simply not feasible for the vast majority of music makers.