Wednesday, October 17, 2018

This Mortal Coil and 4AD: Ivo interview, 1986

This Mortal Coil 
Melody Maker, October 4 1986

by Simon Reynolds


There have been many journeys from punk, different versions of what that upheaval meant, different attempts to fulfil the lost promise — journeys that have led as far apart as ZTT, The Redskins, Red Wedge, Big Audio Dynamite, Siouxsie... 4AD's story is one of those journeys. This Mortal Coil is, perhaps, a fullstop.

4AD came into being at the moment post-punk energy was turning away from confronting the outside world and turning inwards into inner space. Oppositional postures, relevance, alignment were being displaced by introspection and self-expression. When punk relinquished its negativity, when it started to want to create and to improve things, that was the moment when the way was open for the return of progressive rock. And the story of 4AD is a good handle on how, in the name of a spirit of punk (change, diversity, individualism), all the things punk outlawed have been allowed to return — virtuosity, production values, conceptualism, sophistication and strings. For good or ill, who can say?

So I'm talking to Ivo, founder of 4AD, about his pet project, This Mortal Coil, about 4AD's place in the scheme of things. He's tall, thin, in his thirties, and kitted in loose-fitting black.

 "I started 4AD with Peter Kent in 1979, when we were working for Beggars Banquet, on the retail side of things. From Beggars' point of view it was to be a sort of spawning ground to nurture groups that would eventually move onto Beggars Banquet. Within a year it was taking shape and I realised I wanted to create something quite different. So 4AD became a separate company."

Was punk an impetus? 

"Look at it this way. In 1976, I was working in a Beggars record shop. I'd been working in record shops for four years, all I was really interested in was music. Suddenly all these independent records emerged and it became very, very exciting to work in a record shop. What I really enjoyed, though, was the second wave of punk in 1979, y'know what Wire developed into, Joy Division..."

Some say this was the real coming of punk — the real concerted attempt to set up an alternative means of musical production and distribution, the real serious drive to dismantle rock's constricting frameworks. 

"The very fact that I realised it was possible to release records by yourself shows what an exciting time it was. For the first two years of the Eighties, virtually anything could get released. This degenerated into self-indulgence, of course, but that was the price for real gains. To this day, I think there's a larger proportion of people in the indie scene who are motivated by more than financial concerns."


If 4AD groups have anything in common is it perhaps a belief that aesthetic concerns suffice in themselves? From Bauhaus through The Birthday Party to The Cocteau Twins, they've all been interested in dramatising their inner life rather than documenting social reality or participating in political rhetoric.

"There's no manifesto there... it's more a reflection of my musical tastes. I suppose if there's one thing that binds us all together at 4AD, it's the belief that music can be very important within certain moments of your life. I take music very seriously."



But 4AD groups have a different notion of where the importance lies, what effect the power of music can have, than, say, musicians as various as The Redskins or Test Dept. or Costello — all of who have some idea of agitation, of making specific statements for the here and now. The artists on 4AD tend to deal with more existential questions, eternal verities.

"I'd be surprised if I encountered an artist that inspired me who was very specific. I like the idea that the records we release aren't just for the moment, but will sound valuable in 10 years. And I think the groups on 4AD share this aim."

So it's fair to say that 4AD doesn't have much to do with pop, with its rapid turnover and planned obsolescence?

"We don't have much to do with it in those terms, it's true although, when we do interact with that world, as with Colourbox or The Cocteaus, we're prepared to take on the challenge of having hits."



The obverse of your intention to produce work that will endure is your rather studious interest in the lost rock classic and how to restore it.

"I find it a fascinating concept to take a song by, say, an American songwriter of the early Seventies or late Sixties and get three people who've never met into a studio and make it live again. And then place that song next to another cover version from a wholly disparate source or next to a piece of ambient music.

"I was so pleased that six months after the first This Mortal Coil LP, all of the covered songs were available again as either UK releases or US imports... the third Big Star LP, the Tim Buckley retrospective..."

The crits have come down like a ton of bricks on Filigree And Shadow, the second long player from This Mortal Coil. A litany of familiar charges have run out — indulgence, muso-ship, a prissy attention to nuance and detail, a suffocating sense of care stifling the whole affair. Trouble is, this sort of dismissal — this music attends too conscientiously to the form of epic feeling, tries too hard, is hollow — has become a standard device, used against the likes of Prefab Sprout for the heinous crime of lavishing too much TLC on their music. It's very easy to assert. You could use it against David Sylvian or Raymonde or Dead Can Dance, just as easily.

Filigree And Shadow is a flawed sprawl, something of a folly, but one that contains a number of moments I've come to cherish. Speaking to Steve Sutherland last year, Ivo characterised his project as being about "the beauty of despair". The cruelest thing I could say is that most of this record achieves the level of prettiness. What tends to forestall the sublime is the scarcity of edges or gaps or spasms in the sound. The music doesn't sound troubled, just unnaturally still. No sound is crisply enunciated, everything is smudged to a soft focus blur.



But there are moments. Caroline Seaman's singing on the cover of 'Alone' (by Graham Lewis and Colin Newman of Wire) is practically the only time this music sounds fraught, worked up. I like the rereading of Talking Heads' 'Drugs' as a kind of catatonic disco — a trip gone bad. And I like Richenel's eerily treated vocal on 'Firebrothers' — a track I warm to even more when Ivo informs me that it comes off the final Quicksilver Messenger Service album. What a strange group to resuscitate. What a strange mission.



Maybe that's why the record sounds so strangely static, so grave, so still. It's an archive. Ivo is very learned. Had you heard of Tom Rapp or his group Pearls Before Swine ('The Jeweller')? Of Gary Ogan, whose one record on Elektra provided the pleasant 'I Want To Live'? Only marginally less obscure are 'Strength Of Strings' (off a mid-Seventies solo album by ex-Byrd Gene Clark) and 'My Father', a Judy Collins' composition so-help-me, but first heard by Ivo in the form of a wonderful version by Nina Simone. And there's a couple of songs, 'Morning Glory' and 'I Must Have Been Blind', by the godlike Tim Buckley.

"I told you — it comes from working in a record shop for so long."



Out of despair with contemporary pop, with the possibility that it can contain any kind of extremity, a mood of retrospection has grown. Some kind of hip consensus of veneration has solidified around a chain of lost rock visionaries — Tim Buckley, Alex Chilton, Scott Walker, Gram Parsons, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine... These singer-songwriters have been marshalled into an alternative rock pantheon of greats. It's a little cosy, this consensus, a little snobbish and a little epigonic (the attitude of an age that considers itself less distinguished than previous eras). But it contains some truth: these people did dare more, weren't at one with themselves, weren't self-sufficient. So, Ivo, do you still go along with "the beauty of despair" description?

"That was a flippant comment... but, yes, I do feel the strongest feeling from music that comes from desperation. I think it's about intense feeling, and whether it's an intense high or an intense low doesn't matter. It doesn't hurt to embrace any extreme of feeling, rather than just carry on in some limbo."

With today's pop you never come across a passion or pain overwhelming enough to put anyone's self in jeopardy. Once pop could contain such an extremism, through melodrama...

"I don't know about that — I doubt if that kind of extremity of feeling has existed within pop, except for the odd Walker Brothers' hit."

Scott Walker: now there's someone who'd fit into your scheme of things.

"He would have fitted nicely into this record... if he'd said 'yes'. We approached his manager, mainly on account of that wonderful LP on Virgin that no one bought."



What do you do, Ivo?

"I'm not a musician, I'm not a engineer, all I can do is get an original piece of material and at least one person who can do part of the arrangement and tell them what I want. The beauty is that, at the end of the day, I am the artist. We have an awful lot of stuff on tape and so much gets thrown away. And that's where the creativity lies. Loads of sounds get compressed together."

Is the This Mortal Coil concept — wayward eclecticism, flexible line-up, quality, anonymity — a brave tampering with the stiff conventions of the rock group, a distant fruit of the punk commotion? Or is it a piece of mere studio dilettantism, the feyest betrayal of punk impatience?

Like 4AD music in general, there is shallow grandeur, there is mere decoration, but there are also one or two moments of rapture. 


Friday, October 12, 2018

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
directors' cut, Village Voice, 2017

by Simon Reynolds


Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s wondrous new album The Kid was hatched in a sound-garden  attached to her home in Glendale, CA.  A compact chamber that appears to be a converted garage, the studio is crammed with vintage analogue synthesizers. There’s a Prophet 5 and a Eurorack, but the pride of place goes to a Buchla, the modular synth that first sparked her passion for electronic sounds.

Alongside technology, the room teems with vegetation. Smith has often talked about how her creative process requires the presence of “a plant nearby”. Look closer, though, and the tendrils of ivy strewn everywhere turn out to be plastic. So are the plants in little hanging pots.” I’ve tried to put real plants in here,” sighs Smith. “I even tried pretending I have this ‘pet plant’ that goes everywhere with me and I’d bring it in here from outside. But plants just don’t like it in here.”  Her other artistic prerequisite, natural light, is also poorly supplied by the near- windowless space. So Smith came up with ersatz solutions: fairy lights pulse through a translucent sheet tacked to the ceiling, while foot-level bulbs flicker, creating an effect like light reflecting off water. 

Look in the Dictionary and the opposite of “synthetic” is “of natural origin”. All plastic and wires, synthesizers seem about as far as you can get from the organic.  But Smith has a different view, preferring to see synths as just as Gaia-given as a redwood or a pond full of terrapins.   Using a machine like the Buchla, she’s always felt “like I’m getting this rare opportunity to sculpt electricity”. And electricity, she points out, is a natural phenomenon, from the messages flickering through our nervous systems to the lightning sparked by the colliding of clouds. Waxing a little mystical, Smith enthuses about the way her synths run on alternating current: “With A/C, there already is that breathing feeling – you feel that there’s life in there.”  She returns to this idea when specifically exalting the Buchla’s operational mode, which lets the user “set up all these environments for unpredictability and movement... It makes things have a lot of life.”

Surrounded by living things is how Smith grew up. She was raised on Orcas, one of the San Juan islands in the Puget Sound.  The place sounds like an ecotopian idyll. Thanks to the rainy Pacific North West climate there’s moss everywhere and the place teems with livestock and wild critters. Every year the main village of Eastsound elects an animal as Mayor. The current officeholder is an actual orca, a killer whale called Granny. Usually it’s a dog, like a blind golden retriever who previously held the position.  That all sounds a teensy bit hippie, but that word makes Smith frown slightly. She prefers to characterize the  inhabitants of Orcas as “people with a deep appreciation for Nature.”

Her music as much a form of cultivation as an intervention in culture, Smith is rather like a hybrid blend of the two main professions on Orcas: agrarians and artists.  “I grew up working on a farm. I also worked at a raw goat dairy. And there were always horses around.  Living in LA is the first time I’ve not had that thing of there being a connection at all times to a living thing.“ As a young adult, Smith became involved in homesteading, a hardcore form of do-it-yourself in which you hand-make everything  you  need in life.  “I was learning how to hunt and how to tan the hides. Learning how to store my food for the winter.” Smith even went as far trying to make her own pencils.  “You get a stick and melt lead and pour it down – it’s so time-consuming!” Smith also abandoned money, relying instead on barter. “I would go to the doctor and say ‘I’ll give you this round of cheese I’ve made in exchange for a check-up”, she recalls. “The work/trade thing worked for a whole year. And that’s one of my happiest memories, that time – I was learning so many new things I just felt overwhelmed with joy. I was in love with that existence”. 

The homesteading phase coincided precisely with the period when she was introduced by an Orcas neighbor to the Buchla.  That opened up a different kind of do-it-yourself  - electronic daubs and sound-molding – which bore fruit with early Bandcamp releases like Cows Will Eat The Weeds and Useful Trees. As the titles indicate,  these were direct responses to her surroundings, what she could see out of her windows.  Then came Tides, Euclid and last year’s EARS, by which point she was getting some serious critical acclaim.  Partly picking up on the prompts of titles like “Wetlands”, “Rare Things Grow” and “Existence in the Unfurling” and partly responding to the succulent panoply of her textures, the reviews  have tended to be be profuse with imagery of flora and foliage. Even if you’re unaware of her backstory, by themselves Smith’s sounds suggest real-world analogues such as bird-song, bubbling springs, undergrowth rustling with small creatures.  

In interviews, Smith has talked about how she has no interest in making the kind of forbiddingly abstract electronic music that fills the mind’s eye with images of cold inhospitable regions of outer space.  Her music is terrestrial; these electronics are fully Earthed.  So instead of stark  angularity, Smith emulates Nature’s undulating ornamentalism,  its baroque splendor of curlicues and folds.  “It’s what just  comes out,” she says, attributing it partly to a near-synesthetic sensitivity to sound. “Music and sounds can change your whole mood, your environment, the atmosphere in your house – I feel very sensitive to that and I want to make music that makes someone else’s environment feel alive and enjoyable to be in.”

Along with the lush fecundity and spongey intricacy of natural ecosystems like marshlands, Smith’s music can also make the listener imagine a children’s play environment: an inflatable bouncy castle, or a kindergarten flooded with iridescent bubble-bath foam. These two tendencies – the enchantment of all things that flourish and that frolic - converge on The Kid. It’s a concept album that tracks an individual life across four stages from birth to death. On the vinyl version, each phase corresponds to one side of the double LP. There’s a faintly New Age aura to the project. Profuse with “I”’s, many of the titles resembles  affirmations or  promises-to-self  (“I Am Curious, I Care” , “I Will Make Room For You”, “ I Am Learning”)  while others suggest abundance-consciousness or present-mindedness (“Who I Am And Why I Am Where I Am”). Actually, says Smith, the titles are meant to be read downwards, “like a poem”.  And as well as a celebration of life in general, the album is a celebration of a particular, and particularly dear, life now lost.

“Through growing up farming and being close to the life cycle,” explains Smith, an awareness of life and mortality “has always been on my mind.  But when I lost this person, it was a big slap of that, and it kind of burst with this really intense urgency in me to not waste a moment. Since then there’s been  a constant reorganizing and figuring out of what I want to do with my time. Every night I try and reflect on how I spent the day – how much on things I enjoy and how much on obligations and commitments.” The overall message of The Kid – communicated as much by the inventive buoyancy of the music as by the words, which are mostly indistinct on account of Smith’s love of processing her own vocals to sound like a multitude – is the importance of never losing your spirit of play, the child spark within. “The biggest thing I learned from all of this is realizing that I want to play – that’s a really big part of who I am, and it was also a real big part of the person I lost. So I really wanted to just encapsulate that playful energy and put it in other people’s environments, if they want it.”

As well as the up-close brush with mortality and transience, another influence on The Kid was reading the composer Henry Cowell’s 1930 book New Musical Resources, which tracks the history of human hearing in terms of our evolving ability to cope with dissonance.  “It’s kind of mildly boring,” laughs Smith, “because it was written such a long time ago in this somewhat clinical style. But the content is fascinating and it really turned my wheels in terms of thinking about where are we at now, in terms of the evolution of our hearing. We’re totally fine now with atonality, there isn’t really a shocking interval anymore of the kind that once caused riots in audiences, like with Stravinsky.”

Thinking about what the new cutting edge might be in terms of what  would be viscerally upsetting to the average listener, Smith decided it might involve simultaneity and stereophony: the audio equivalent of Bowie’s alien character in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who is so advanced he can watch a dozen TV channels at the same time.  “One of my favorite things  to play with when I’m in a group of people is listening to multiple conversations at once and really trying to hold onto each one.  So on The Kid I’m really playing with the left and right channels. Because so many people listen to music on headphones now.  I had to keep rewriting the music so many times in the beginning because it just sounded annoying!”

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has zero interest in annoying the listener, of course, or otherwise subjecting them to an extreme and testing experience. The term “avant-garde” came from the military originally and still retains an aura of ruthlessness, envisioning artistic innovation in terms of ambushes on middlebrow sensibility and daring maneuvers that outflank bourgeois complacency.  Smith’s approach could not be more different. She uses the phrase “comfort and novelty” to describe the inspiration she gleaned from her discovery of minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich: the way their rippling patterns gently propel the listener ever forward,  as opposed to the terrifying leaps into the abstract unknown proposed by other forms of experimental music. 


Smith’s project in fact is all about naturalising the unfamiliar (electronic sounds) while also bending the known a little out of shape.  Another fresh development with The Kid is that where she has in the past made synths sound “organic”, much of the new record involves her taking so-called natural instruments like bassoon and cello and making them sound like synths. One focus of these experiments was the trumpet, a sound she’s always found grating. Smith decided to conquer that aversion, which required making the trumpet sound unlike itself:  softening its stabbing attack, muting its vaguely military, bugel-like peal. “There was a lot of blending. Sending it through the synth and breaking up the harmonics to slightly delay them, so that the trumpet sound has a softer onset.” Smith adds, “Whatever I’m frightened of or I’m bad at, I love stepping closer to that to see what’s there.”

Adamski

Adamski

The ObserverSeptember  231990
by Simon Reynolds


Chaos is a word with special resonance for Adam Tinley, better known as Adamski. He even named his canine companion Dis after Discordia, the goddess of chaos.
"Music and madness" entered Adam's life when, as a precocious nine-year-old, he was freaked out by the spectacle of the Sex Pistols playing 'Pretty Vacant' on Top Of The Pops. By the time he was 11, he had his own "kiddy punk band", the Stupid Babies.
Throughout the ’80s, Adam nurtured an admiration for the former Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren, with his scams and subterfuges, and his slogan "cash from chaos". By 1986, Adam had formed Diskord Datkord, a Dadaist pop group, whose live performances frequently ended with the band performing entirely naked.
"Johnny Slut was ultra-camp and manic, a cross between Cilla Black and Robocop," recalls Adam. "My brother's role was sampling bits of what we were singing and hurling it back at us. The rest of the music was on tape. Our show was an extravaganza of visual and aural chaos. Most of our gigs culminated with the promoter pulling the plug, and us trashing the venue as a reprisal."
Chaos continues to be the guiding principle behind Adam's bewildering career trajectory. Last year, Adam was in demand on the rave scene as a live performer of acid house, which is usually a studio-based genre, and quickly garnered the tag of "keyboard wizard", a term which Adam himself finds nauseating.
But after the chart success of his instrumental single 'N-R-G' and the album Live and Direct, Adam confounded his image as a "Nineties Rick Wakeman", by releasing 'Killer'. A brilliant slice of futuristic blues, 'Killer' occupied the Number One spot for a month, thanks in no small measure to the harrowing, deep soul vocals of Adam's friend and collaborator Seal.
Now Adamski has confounded expectations again, by following the "heavy" statement of 'Killer', with the whimsical, deliberately throwaway 'The Space Jungle', a house track over which Adam sings Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up' in a reedy tenor, and which is currently in the Top 10. 'The Space Jungle' is further evidence of Adam's desire to confuse. "I don't use formulas, and I do change every time I come up with a record," says Adam. "There's no method or masterplan."
But there is one element of continuity in Adam's career: his technophile attitude. He's constantly exhilarated by "all the great new machines for making music the Japanese come up with", while his videos are littered with sci-fi imagery.
The video for 'Killer' presented Adam as a Nineties alchemist. "When I was messing about with all the test tubes and buttons it was meant to look like I'd somehow made Seal's head." Like Betty Boo and S'Express, Adam takes a camp delight in off-beam ideas from previous eras of what the future would be like. The video for 'The Space Jungle' imagines an Elvis look-alike contest in outer space.
Adam also identifies with Saint-Exupery's hero the Little Prince and his castaway existence on a tiny asteroid. Adam's fragile, little-boy-lost demeanour (reminiscent of early Gary Numan), is probably the reason why he's the first teenybopper pin-up to emerge from the rave scene.
Not that Adam's exactly happy about this state of affairs.
"When I used to play raves, I never appeared onstage with lights, I was more like a DJ. When the album came out, it didn't even have my picture on it." But now certain, seminal acid-house producers like Frankie Bones have singled out Adamski as an opportunist, someone who used the rave scene as a stepping stone. Adam is adamant that the accusation is unfair.
"I started playing on the scene simply because I was going to raves a lot. I wanted to contribute something. It's true that I've always wanted to be a pop star, but I also just chanced to get into the scene, like a lot of others. A lot of pop stars have emerged from it."

Lou Reed, John Cale, Andy Warhol

Lou Reed and John Cale, Songs for Drella live in Brooklyn 

The Observer, 22nd April 1990

by Simon Reynolds

A frisson of excitement traversed the rock world last year when it was announced that Lou Reed and John Cale were working together for the first time since their days with Velvet Underground in the Sixties. Since then, Reed has gone on to refine the Velvets' New York street romanticism in an acclaimed solo career and Cale, a Welsh-born academy-trained musician, to production and composition.
What reunited these different characters after 20 years of musical estrangement was the idea of writing an elegy for Andy Warhol, their former mentor and friend. The result is Songs For Drella, a suite of 15 songs, which the two performed for four nights last December at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Luckily, Channel 4 had the presence of mind to jet over to New York to film it.
Shot without an audience, but accompanied by Jerome Serlin's sombre back-projections of Warhol and his acolytes, Songs For Drella will be broadcast on Friday, while WEA Records has just released the album. With Reed on guitar, Cale on piano and violin, and both on vocals, the songs chart Warhol's life.
'Smalltown' is about his Pittsburgh background ("When you're growing up in a small town/You say no one famous ever came from here"). 'Images' and 'Style It Takes' describe Warhol's Sixties heyday as manager of the Factory, patron of the arts, and collector of bohemians and freaks, while 'It Wasn't Me' sees Warhol refusing to take the rap for the premature death of some of his creatures, like Edie Sedgwick.
Most of the songs are voiced in the first person singular, and attempt to see events through Warhol's eyes. Others are deeply personal expressions of Reed's feelings about the man/myth. 'I Believe', for instance, concerns Valerie Solanas's attempt to assassinate Warhol and sees Reed howling for retribution ("being sick is no excuse/I would have pulled the switch on her myself"). And the closing 'Hello It's Me' is both a poignant adieu to Warhol, and an expression of regret for not having talked while they could. It ends with an acknowledgement of unresolved bitterness: "There are resentments that can be never unmade... Your Diaries are not a worthy epitaph."
Songs For Drella, says Reed, is an attempt to create a fitting epitaph. "Andy was an extraordinary individual. After he died there was a spate of very negative, gossipy articles about him. The idea on this project was to do him justice. Andy was wonderful to get ideas from. Average ideas are always readily available, but extraordinary ideas you can only get from someone like Andy Warhol. John and I saw this as an opportunity to try to let people know about the real Warhol."
'Drella' was a nickname (a cross between Dracula and Cinderella) that Warhol himself disliked. But Reed is quick to quash the idea that there's anything double-edged in their use of the name. "It was a name that everyone in his intimate circle used and was purely affectionate."
The most moving song, 'A Dream', is an imaginary Warhol soliloquy that wryly incorporates reproaches against both Cale and Reed for giving him the cold shoulder during his twilight years: "I hate Lou, I really do... He won't even hire us for his videos... He got married and didn't invite me." Musically, the song sees Cale and Reed rekindling the magic of their turbulent partnership in Velvet Underground. Does Reed have any plans to work with Cale again soon?
"Every 20 years," smiles Lou Reed, then adds: "Please write down that 'he smiled'."

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

six songs related to Rip It Up and Start Again

originally written for Largehearted Boy website, 2006

1/ Sex Pistols, “Bodies” (Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977)

Well, without punk, there’d be no postpunk, right? And it was the Sex Pistols (specifically this song and “Anarchy in the UK”) that first snagged me off whatever path I was on aged fourteen and into the world of taking-music-too-seriously. Mainly, because I’d never heard anything that sounded so deadly serious before. Not so much anti-abortion as a protest against life, “Bodies” is a song that reminds you that a big part of punk’s appeal was its pure wanton evil--destruction for destruction’s sake. Almost orchestral in its grandeur (those huge backing vocal chants), “Bodies” sounds appalling and glorious. In Rip It Up and Start Again, part of my rhetorical pitch is challenging punk’s inflated historical status and bigging up “the aftermath”. This involved criticizing punk rock as a backward step, a return to basic rock’n’roll. Which is true for much of it, but the best punk was actually the distillation of rock into something that hadn’t, actually, been heard before. You go back a few years before Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex, and really there’s nothing that has that monolithic blam-blam-blam-blam feel, even the heaviest metal or hardest-pounding Stooges had more swing to it. Still, there was a sense in which, once punk had staged this reductionist process, it couldn’t be taken anywhere, it could only be repeated with diminishing returns. Hence postpunk’s drive to expand and experiment.

2/ Public Image Ltd, “Death Disco” (single, 1979)

A protest against death: John Lydon singing (although that word seems inaccurate and inadequate for the harrowing noise unleashed here) about watching the light go out in his mother eyes. As much as the sound of the single, which made the Top 20 in Britain, what was life-changing for many, me included, was the matter/anti-matter collision of “death” and “disco” in the title. Disco, subverted by content too heavy and dark for the brightly lit celebration of the dancefloor; “death” (rock’s seriousness, its grappling with “the human condition”) subverted by disco’s hedonism and levity. Ian Dury & The Blockheads--another of my favorites back then--did something similar, albeit in a more accessible and conventionally musical way: “My Old Man” (on New Boots and Panties) was a poignant reminiscence of Dury’s own dead dad over taut funk, while “Dance of the Screamers” (from Do It Yourself) turned disco into primal scream therapy for the interpersonally challenged.

3/ Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” (Remain In Light, 1980)

I got PiL’s Metal Box for Christmas 1979, and Remain In Light for Xmas the following year. I remember spending Christmas morning lying on the carpet in our living room as close to the speakers as I could get, lost in its jungle of glittering texture-rhythm. “Seen and Not Seen,” the least groove-oriented track, is actually my favorite song on the record, though. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, it’s one that bears a really heavy Eno imprint in terms of its near-ambient atmosphere, the way the synths glint and waver like heat-haze rising over a sun-baked highway. It’s similar to the “4th World” music Eno was making around this time with Jon Hassell. I love the lyric--the story of a man who learns how to change his facial appearance by gradual exercise of will, only to realise that he’s made a terrible mistake halfway through the metamorphosis--and the hesitant cadences of Byrne’s spoken delivery. People typically have a fairly limited idea of what postpunk was about--angular, stark, punk-funk, angsty--but there was a whole other side to the music that was ethereal, dreamy-drifty, and gorgeously textured, and “Seen and Not Seen” is an exquisite example. I wanted to get the track for the Rip It Up compilation, which is coming out this spring and showcases the atmospheric, blissy-eerie side of postpunk, but we couldn’t get the rights.

4/ Scritti Politti, “PAs” (from 4 A Sides EP, 1979)

There was just something really mysterious and intriguing about Scritti Politti. Somehow I’d got wind of the idea of them as this fabulously uncompromising outfit skulking in the margins of the UK postpunk scene and operating at some outer limit of politics-in-pop. I guess that was their reputation, their image, their glamour in a way, and it made them both attractive and vaguely intimidating, like a challenge that you ought to put yourself through. And then when I actually heard Scritti for the first time--it would have been “Bibbly-O-Tek,” also from 4 A Sides, on John Peel’s radio show--I was struck both by how unusual it was (the fractured song-structures, the odd chord-changes) but also how instantly beguiling the song was (the sweetness of Green’s voice, the sheer melodic beauty--which came, I realized many years later, from his childhood love of the Beatles). There was a loveliness that I completely had not expected. And when I got 4 A Sides, and the two other early EPs, I gradually became convinced Green was a pop genius. All this was well before he’d made his big turnabout and decided to go “pop” with “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”. I was such a fan that I nearly wrote him a letter telling him that he should just forget all the Scritti ideology about avoiding musical conventions and just go for it, that pop stardom was his destiny. It was “PAs,” this fantastic funk groove with a gorgeously insinuating and serpentile melody, that really sold me on this idea. This would have been the summer of 1980, when Green actually was holed up in a Welsh cottage ruminating over his musical future. But as much as it was great when he did go pop, first with the lover’s rock reggae of “Sweetest Girl” and then with the electrofunk hits like “Wood Beez,” “Absolute” and “Perfect Way”, part of me wishes he stuck with his original band and just kept on making things like “PAs” for ever.

5/ Tenor Saw, “Ring the Alarm”, 1985

I wanted to include something to register the extent to which postpunk depended for its very being on the amazing black music of the late Seventies and early Eighties--funk and disco, reggae and electro. This tune is from just outside the period Rip It Up covers, but, well, I’ve been listening to it a lot this week, and it seems as good an emblem as any for the massive effect Jamaican music had on UK postpunk. I played it yesterday and had one of those moments. It’s a midtempo skank, sweetly sung, but it hit me with the impact of The Stooges; the tension in the rhythm suddenly had this quality of tectonic violence. The line in this song that always slays me, makes my head spin, is “sweet reggae music ‘pon the attack”. If you think about what the song is actually about, it’s grim--the market struggle of sound system against sound system (“ring the alarm, another sound is dying”). It’s pitiless, Hobbesian, and yet there is such exultation in the song, same as in “War in A Babylon” by Max Romeo, another tune I’ve been playing recently.

6/ La Dusseldorf, “Dusseldorf” (La Dusseldorf, 1976)

Not strictly postpunk; indeed this album--the brainchild of Klaus Dinger of Neu!-- was recorded in 1975, making it pre-punk. But I’m including it A/ because I’ve been listening to it incessantly, and B/ David Bowie cited this album, along with Neu 75, as a huge influence on Low, which in turn was a massive LP for the postpunk bands. La Dusseldorf could therefore be seen as the Source in terms of the Neu Europa vibe that swept through so much postpunk, from Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance to The Associates (“White Car in Germany,” etc). There’s this clear-headed atmosphere of nobility and splendor to “Dusseldorf”, panoramic vistas reeling by as you head at speed into a world that’s cleansed and newborn. You get a tiny foretaste too of the glisten and uplift of early U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen, the postpunk breed of bands I call “glory boys” in Rip It Up. In Neu!, Dinger was one of the great rock drummers, he invented the motorik beat, this amazing combination of caveman primitivism and ever-shifting subtlety, a white version of Amiri Baraka’s “changing same.” One of the cool things about La Dusseldorf is that, in what seems like an act of supreme perversity, Dinger handed over the drum kit to his brother Thomas, who then proved to be just as good as Klaus. The latter, meanwhile, took up guitar and almost out-dazzled Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. I think he was trying to prove a point, that he was the real mastermind in Neu! Lyrically, “Dusseldorf” is wonderfully inane, just a chant of the city’s name, a one-word anthem of civic patriotism; sonically it’s 13 minutes of rolling motorik majesty, something I could happily listen to for fives times that length.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Hypnagogic pop and Southern California / James Ferraro interviewed

‘Hypnagogic pop’ and the landscape of Southern California

Frieze, Issue 137 / March 2011

by Simon Reynolds


I’m sitting on the AstroTurf lawn of The Grove, a ‘retroscape’ shopping mall in Los Angeles, listening to 1980s covers band The Copycats deliver immaculate counterfeits of bygone MTV hits. A 19th-century trolley car clanks by, passing the Art Deco movie theatre, and heads towards the Farmer’s Market, a vintage food court with clapboard stalls and hand-painted signs. Wandering over to an ornamental pond, I watch the outsized fish, so shiny they resemble miniature porcelain submarines. As The Copycats launch into ‘Billie Jean’, I suddenly think: this is like living inside a hypnagogic pop song.


Coined by The Wire magazine’s David Keenan in 2009, ‘hypnagogic pop’ is a term for a new generation of American lo-fi musicians who channel the 1980s sounds of mainstream radio rock, New Wave mtv pop, sedative New Age and the peppy synth-driven soundtracks of Hollywood blockbusters. Released as limited-edition cassettes and vinyl but reaching a larger audience through blogs and YouTube videos, hypnagogic pop shimmers with motifs and textures that flash back to the slick hits of artists such as Hall & Oates and Don Henley. The musical and conceptual pioneers of this movement, Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, are both based in LA, as are other rising figures like Sun Araw, LA Vampires and Puro Instinct. Ferraro’s frequent collaborator Spencer Clark lives in another sun-baked Southern California sprawl town, San Diego. Other key hypnagogues such as Matrix Metals and Rangers reside elsewhere but seem SoCal in spirit.


Hypnagogic is the term for a state between being awake and falling asleep, associated by some with hallucinations that are hyper-real rather than surreal. Life in LA – also the title of an Ariel Pink song, as it happens – does lend itself to a kind of ‘wide asleep’ trance, as your gaze falls under the sway of the sheer numbing beauty of the landscape and the weather – the way a certain slant of late afternoon light makes lawns glow eerily. Even the less attractive aspects of this town – strip-mall vistas that seem so desolate in the non-Sun Belt zones of the US – get softened by the bright lit blue skies (another Pink song) and by the peculiar mingling of utterly denatured built-up zones with outright wilderness.


LA is a city where Spectacle (in the Situationist sense) and the Spectacular (in the geological sense) are freakily entwined. As a recently arrived resident, I’m yet to tire of the juxtaposition of, say, an In-N-Out Burger drive-thru against the near-kitsch splendour of the San Gabriel Mountains. ‘Collage reality’ is how Spencer Clark describes the effect, adding that his music is a byproduct of living in ‘a zone that has beaches and mountains and hills as well as skyscrapers […] A lot of my music I see as landscape music.’


Hypnagogic is a 21st-century update of psychedelia. Like its 1960s antecedent, it looks to the West Coast, but its primary focus is LA rather than San Francisco; ’60s anti-urbanism has been supplanted by an ambiguous exaltation of suburbia. Hypnagogic retains the original psychedelia’s fixation on childhood but this lost innocence has been contaminated by pop culture: mtv one-hit wonders and ’80s cartoons replace the Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland references of Jefferson Airplane.

The scrambling of pop time is a culture-wide phenomenon in the West, but it feels unusually strong in LA, where pop radio is dominated by old music: classic rock, New Wave and eclectic stations like Jack fm that mimic a 40-something’s iPod Shuffle. Flicking between stations, there’s a visual analogue to what you hear in the endless interplay of different eras of commercial signage and shop-front d├ęcor. In no other city have I had such an overwhelming sense of the erosion of a cultural timecode, that pulse that once synchronized the sectors of the contemporary scene (fashion, design, music, etc.) and constructed a sense of epoch.


Last year James Ferraro posted a YouTube video to promote his albums Wild World (2009) and Feed Me (2010), but which also served as preview of a full-length movie he’s making (Touch Screen Splatter Punks of Digital Tokyo due to be completed in 2013). The excerpt concatenated low-budget horror (Ferraro as decomposing corpse, TV dinners that come alive) with archival snippets of President Reagan and hand-held footage of Hollywood street scenes: leather-booted vamps from the Valley, businesses like Happy Nails and LA Tanning, gossip mags with ‘plastic surgery shockers’ cover stories. By email, Ferraro told me about his future projects, the most striking of which is a ‘live webcam water birth viewable online with interactive chat functions’. The idea was inspired by witnessing ‘a lady give birth in a Starbucks at The Grove in Hollywood, surrounded by smart phones and digital cameras. So you see this reality will always be a part of my work.’


This reality is hyper-reality. In what may be a deliberately ’80s-retro gesture, Ferraro frequently sounds like he’s channelling Jean Baudrillard, talking of wanting to be ‘simulacra’s paintbrush’. Other ’80s totems spring to mind during his patter: David Cronenberg, when Ferraro talks of getting burned out on Hollywood, recharging his batteries in more earth-toned, bohemian zones of LA like Eagle Rock, then ‘jumping back into the movie screen’; Jeff Koons, for the aesthetic of kitsch sublime running through Ferraro’s work and the inscrutable ingenuousness with which Ferraro delivers his lines. He says he moved to LA to become an action movie star, just like his heroes Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone.


Also part of this iconic cluster is J.G. Ballard: Ferraro echoes the late novelist when he talks of movie stars as modern deities embodying qualities that human beings have admired since the dawn of time. High Rise (1975) and Kingdom Come (2006) spring to mind when you read the sleevenote description of ‘Headlines (Access Hollywood)’ from 2010’s album Last American Hero. The song is about people who get trapped in Costco (a bulk-buy, budget-price hypermarket) and devolve into a mutant tribe whose children, ‘born within the settlement’, grow up with ‘no conception of a world beyond’.

Not that you can really derive this from the track, a frayed instrumental that resembles the blues if its foundational figure wasn’t Robert Johnson but Harold Faltermeyer of ‘Axel F’ and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) fame. Elsewhere in Ferraro’s most SoCal-themed releases – Wild World, On Air (2010), and the brand-new Nightdolls with Hairspray (2011) – he explores a sound that draws on ’80s rock at its most artificial: shrill, garish textures like you might at hear in a guitar shop where some Eddie Van Halen wannabe is trying out too many effects pedals at once.


Like a modern-day Devo, Ferraro never lets on whether he’s reviling or revelling in the decadence and grotesquerie of US culture. The cover of Last American Hero is a glossy photograph of a Best Buy store, described in the sleevenotes as ‘the modern Gomorrah temple’. But Ferraro also enthuses about ‘the primal fantasies and fetishes, hedonistic urges, mouth watering narcissism and dreams manifested into plastic surgery in our digital age Whole Foods candy land’.

Shopping malls, celebutainment, cosmetic surgery, a consumer culture orientated around bipolar rhythms of bulimic bingeing and anorexic/aerobic purging – all this really took off in the ’80s. (And was taken to the extreme in California – for Baudrillard, America’s vanguard, a sort of hyper-America.) Perhaps the secret idea buried inside hypnagogic pop is that the ’80s never ended. That we’re still living there, subject to that decade’s endless end of History, killing time as we wait for something (seismic, subaltern) to rupture the dream.