Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sonic Youth, portal bands, and the album as a portrait of the artist as consumer

Guardian blog, Tuesday 7 April 2009

by Simon Reynolds

In the early 1980s NME featured a column called Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer. Every week a musician listed their favourite records, books, films and TV, maybe an artist or two, sometimes clothes or food. Typically, there'd be a mixture of eternal talismans and fleeting fancies. Now magazines are littered with charticles, lists and celeb-related space-filler of every kind, but back then it was a striking and original move: Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer revealed the star as a fan, the creator as a punter.

At its most interesting, the result was a splayed-out map to a singer or group's aesthetic. So when the Birthday Party's Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard did one, their checklist – which included Wise Blood, Johnny Cash, Night of the Hunter, Lee Hazelwood, Morticia Adams – was a perfect cross-section of southern gothic and trash Americana that helped explain the group's transition from their early style (Rimbaud/Baudelaire meets Ubu/Beefheart) to the pulpy guignol of Junkyard and the Bad Seed and Mutiny! EPs.

Certainly there had been a few artists in rock prior to this who'd gone further than idle interview chat about influences, performers whose music came attached with a sort of invisible reading and movie-watching list: Bowie, obviously, with songs about Andy Warhol and extremist performance artist Chris Burden; Roxy Music, to a slightly less overt degree. This became more of a fixture during the intensely bookish post-punk era (which makes sense, given that so many of them were fans of Bowie, Bryan and Brian). Recently, some of our more erudite bloggers have deployed the notion of the "portal" to describe the way a certain type of band (The Smiths, Manic Street Preachers) directed their fans to rich sources of brain-food, a whole universe of inspiration and ideas beyond music. Post-punk was rife with figures like Howard Devoto or Mark E Smith whose lyrics or interviews might turn you on to Dostoevsky or Wyndham Lewis. Being a Throbbing Gristle fan was like enrolling in a university course of cultural extremism. In a different corner of the post-punk world, Paul Weller placed clues for Jam fans with All Mod Cons' inner-sleeve tableau of mod fetishes; he'd return to this idea of mod as hyper-discerning consumerism with the cover of the Style Council's Our Favourite Shop.

Perhaps any really interesting band has a map of taste buried within their music for the obsessive fan to dig out. But what started to happen in the early 80s – exactly around the time NME was doing Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer – was that the taste map became a lot more explicit and exposed. The aesthetic co-ordinates not only rose to the surface of the group's output, but in some sense functioned as an integral part of the music itself.

With the Smiths this came through not just in the myriad allusions in the lyrics (many sampled verbatim from films, plays, novels) but also the systematic iconography of the record-sleeve images chosen by Morrissey. After leaving the Birthday Party, Nick Cave began signposting those deep south Americana influences in earnest across his early solo work, covering Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" and wrapping The Firstborn is Dead in Folkways-style ethnographic sleevenotes. Then he literalised the artist as consumer notion with Kicking Against the Pricks, his 1986 covers album, which laid out a smorgasbord of all the things from which he and the Bad Seeds drew artistic nourishment: blues, country, and the epic balladry of Gene Pitney and Glenn Campbell, a style he described as "entertainment music, although some might call it corn". Cave was announcing his evolution from shaman to showman, from Dionysian exhibitionist to storyteller and character actor. The impact of this trajectory on his impressionable fan-flock is one thing that comes through in the series of documentaries made by artist duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard to accompany each of Mute Records's deluxe Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds reissues, which launch on 27 April with the four-album stretch from From Her to Eternity to Your Funeral … My Trial.

But what actually reminded me of the Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer column was the new album by another veteran of the same 80s noise/sickness scene that Nick Cave passed through: Sonic Youth. The Eternal is their first release for Matador after leaving Geffen and the major-label sector. According to the press release, virtually every song contains a nod towards an artist admired by Sonic Youth. So Sacred Trickster doubles as a salute to artist Yves Klein and the band Noise Nomads. Anti-Orgasm was inspired by Uschi Obermeier, a German counterculture icon who first lived in Amon Düül's Munich commune, then joined Berlin's supremely nonconformist Kommune 1. Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso) is based on the Beat poet's metaphor for life on Earth, while Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn is named after an alter ego used by Darby Crash, suicidal frontman of Los Angeles punk legends the Germs. (Now I know what my favourite Ariel Pink tune, The Ballad of Bobby Pyn refers to). Other songs contain sonic echoes of or riff-citations from the Dead C, Neu!, Kevin Ayers, Sonic's Rendezvous Band and the Wipers. Even the artwork is homage: it's a painting by the late John Fahey.

So The Eternal is literally a self-portrait of the artists as consumers. With a few exceptions, each song is a byproduct of Sonic Youth's culture-vulture virtuosity at locating choice morsels of carrion left behind by vintage vanguards and bygone extremists. This has always been an aspect of Sonic Youth, from Death Valley '69 (inspired by the Manson Family and the moment the 60s trip turned heavy) through the Ciccone Youth side project with its conceptual-karaoke takes on Madonna and Robert Palmer songs offset by the hipster esotericism of Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu! (this was back when knowing about Neu! wasn't virtually middlebrow like it is today, as the records were still out of print). I know people for whom Sonic Youth functioned absolutely as a portal band, an entry point for them into an underground wonderworld of dissident noisemaking and neo-beat bohemia stretching across several decades.

There are plenty of other bands who do this kind of heavily referential work (Stereolab and Saint Etienne spring to mind) but listening to The Eternal, I suddenly started thinking about how it was an odd place from which to write songs. At least, looking at it from the standpoint of seeing songs as the expression of personal experience. It's not the only standpoint, it's quite an old-fashioned one, but it does happen to be the approach and mindset of just about all the artistic, literary and musical icons Sonic Youth are honoring on The Eternal. You can't really imagine Gregory Corso or Darby Crash operating like that. Their art would be a lot more expressionistic and cathartic and torn from the soul. No doubt Sonic Youth have arrayed these touchstones before their audience because they find them imperishably inspirational (perhaps that's why it's called The Eternal?). And, for sure, it's perfectly possible to be profoundly moved by works of art in other mediums than the one you work on. But moved to write a song about it? (One tune on The Eternal, Calming the Snake, is apparently Kim Gordon "musing on visions of Death in painting".) It all seems oddly meta, to have more in common with the kind of thing that goes on in the art world. Like the re-enactments done by people such as … well, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (whose works include the restaging of a legendary fan-bootlegged 1978 Cramps concert at a mental asylum). Or like the artist Phil Collins with the Smiths songs/karaoke video installation the World Won't Listen, which is just about to get its UK debut at The Tramway in Glasgow.

Then again, Sonic Youth emerged from a New York scene where the music underground and the avant-garde art world were intimately entwined: Kim Gordon did some writing for Artforum, and they've often featured work by cutting-edge artists on their sleeves. Various members of Sonic Youth would be among the first to have the phrase "curated by" placed in front of their names when they did things like release a series of limited-edition singles or select the lineup for a music festival. In this light, writing a song about Uschi Obermeier is no different from Gerhard Richter doing his paintings of the Baader-Meinhof gang. (Indeed, Richter's famous Candles paintings were used on Daydream Nation's cover). Listening to Anti-Orgasm, though, I did wonder what the story of a late 60s Berlin kommune that didn't believe in the nuclear family could possibly mean to a happily married, middle-aged couple whose daughter Coco is a couple of years from considering which universities to apply to. (Sonic Youth itself, whose core lineup has been stable for 24 years, is like a successful marriage.) It does seem like a curious act of radical retro-chic.

The album? It sounds like a Sonic Youth record. There'll always be fluctuations within their trademark style – softer to harder, songs-y to noise-y – but their course is essentially settled. (I don't see them doing a John Cale and putting out an R&B/G-funk influenced album). For this Daydream Nation lover, slipping back into this sound – the halo of haze churned up by the riff-pummel of Antenna – is cosy, like putting on a worn pair of slippers. But I can't say I felt anything, exactly, from the songs.


Mark Fisher's K-punk post following up on this piece and upping the anti-SY ante

My Blissblog post picking up from Mark's post

Another fiery salvo from the Man like Kpunk

And another post from me with links to further contributions to the curator-as-creator debate, including Aaron at Airport Through the Trees's own caustic anti-SY critique 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ciccone Youth

Ciccone Youth

The Whitey Album (Blast First)

Melody Maker, 14 January 1989

By Simon Reynolds 

Next to the brittle plangency and luminous, labyrinthine depths of Daydream Nation, the first (and last?) Ciccone Youth album is an irrelevance.
The delays surrounding its release have stranded The Whitey Album in an unhappy mid-region between the timely and the timeless. All its bearings (hip hop, Madonna, Robert Palmer's 'Addicted To Love') are decidedly passé, the year before last year's things. And where Daydream Nation is a workThe Whitey Album is a ragbag of tired japes, off-the-cuff ideas that must have seemed bright at the time, plus some interesting if somewhat aimless experimental excursions.
Of course, Sonic Youth have always had a throwaway side to their collective personality, have always had the potential to lapse into half-assed pastiche, a la Pussy Galore, and perhaps we should be grateful that they invented an alter-ego in order to safely vent all this buffoonery without marring the immaculate trajectory of the Sonic Youth oeuvre.
If The Whitey Album is a receptacle for a group's wayward impulses and off-moments, then its most miserable items of waste (of their talent and our time) are the ones I can only describe as conceptual jokes. '(silence)', for instance, is a sped-up version of John Cage's original "4 '33" – that's to say, a couple of minutes of silence. 'Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!' also describes itself succintly – it's a tape of Kin Gordon and someone called Suzanne discussing the merits and demerits of managing Dinosaur Jr, then ringing up J. Mascis only to find he's out. It's precisely the kind of found recording that Krautrock groups like Faust, Can and Neu! liked to include in their psychedelic collages – hence the irony of having Neu! droning away in the background.
'Addicted To Love', like 'Into The Groove', is Sonic Youth invading a superstar's psyche Take Two, a gesture whose irreverence has palled somewhat in the wake of Age Of Chance, Laibach, Pussy Galore et al. In this case, Kim Gordon goes into a make-your-own-record booth to lay down her wan vocal over an extremely lame session band's version of Robert Palmer's chauvinist anthem. Droll.
The Whitey Album isn't irredeemable. The soiling sheets of noise draped over Madonna's 'Into The Groove' are still a delight. And there are at least three tracks to dwell on and dwell inside. 'G-Force' has Kim murmuring non-sequiturs and shards of banal conversation in the midst of unhinged drones and infinitely receding resonances. 'Platoon II' seems to be recorded in an underground silo; it's an ambient dubscape, stressed and fatigued metal sounds striated and stretched out to form a wombing vastness. 'Macbeth' has a predatory beat and sounds of metal chafing against metal. These tracks look forward to the ambient innovations of parts of Daydream Nation, and back to the experiments of groups like Faust and Can in the early Seventies.
The Whitey Album is a for-fans-only affair, but if it's purged Sonic Youth of silliness, then it's served a purpose. And it highlights the rival definitions of post-modernism that Sonic Youth find themselves torn between. On the one hand, post-modernism, according to Transvision Vamp/Pussy Galore – pastiche, plagiarism, irony, the idea that there's nothing left to do in pop but play around with cliches. On the other hand, post-modernism as the chaos of a culture falling apart at the seams. Put The Whitey Album next to Daydream Nation and it's apparent how small and obsolete mischief seems next to mental breakdown.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Blue Orchids - two compilations, a decade apart

A View From the City
(Playtime Records)
Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Blue Orchids were an anomaly. They were hallucinogen-fuelled at a time when drugs were extremely unfashionable (the early Eighties days of healthy New Pop, when Martin Fry, Adam Ant etc denounced intoxication as hippy decadence). Fall refugees Martin Bramah and Una Baines quickly propelled the wired garage sound of The Fall towards unabashedly psychedelic territory. Their sound lay somewhere on the continuum that connects the brain-fried minimalism of Question Mark and The Mysterians, The Seeds, Thirteen Floor Elevators, to Tom Verlaine, Meat Puppets, and Happy Mondays's early mantra-rock.

This long-overdue compilation gathers their singles and the outstanding songs from The Greatest Hit LP and "Agents Of Change" EP. Blue Orchids happened upon a sound - tumultuous drums, thick gluey bass rumbles, eerie swirlround keyboards and kiss-the-sky guitar - that was ramshackle but visionary. Lyrically, Bramah and Baines were nakedly mystical. "Sun Connection" celebrated the heroic torpor of dole culture, a life without rules (except "the law of dissipation"); it advocated opting out of the struggle up the "money mountain". "A Year With No Head" anticipated the "zen apathy", indolence-as-route-to-enlightenment, anti-stance of Happy Mondays' "Lazy-Itis" and Dinosaur Jr's "Bug": "threw my name in the bin/ate the fruit of surrender, surrender to no-one". "Release" proposed a life of passive fealty to the majesty of Mother Nature: "let's touch the flesh of the breeze/And feel release." 

Best of all remain the colossal, head-sundering tidal deluge of "Low Profile", and "Dumb Magician". The latter's lyrics say more about The Blue Orchids' than anything I can muster. "We move so fast today, nothing stands in our way/We're free to act, and forced to pay/See behind the scenes/The strings attached to all things/'This gets me that'/Try so hard to get your foot in the door/Get what you ask for and nothing more/The only way out is up, the only way out is up". The mystic blaze of keyboard and guitar escalates towards a heaven-ravishing climax, quite possibly the most transcendental music of the early Eighties. 

Blue Orchids were ahead of their time, out on a limb, timeless. Tune in, turn on, drop UP.

Uncut, 2002
by Simon Reynolds

One of the great lost groups of the post-punk era, The Blue Orchids were formed in 1979 by two refugees from the Fall, guitarist/singer Martin Bramagh and organist Una Baines.  Acid-doused and brazenly mystical, the Orchids’ hypno-swirl of discordant guitar and incense-and-belladonna keyboards couldn’t have been more at odds with the early Eighties. Misfits they certainly were, but The Blue Orchids were far from hopeless failures:  indeed their 1982 debut for Rough Trade The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) topped the independent charts.

Beyond the simple sheer thrill of their ramshackle neo-psychedelia, The Blue Orchids tapped into something:  currents of disaffection and withdrawal that would later surface, substantially transformed, as crusty  and rave. Without ever proselytizing, Bramah and Baines essentially proposed a quiet refusal of  the new “climb the money mountain” ambition culture of Thatcher/Reagan.  “Dumb Magician” is a devastating critique of  the dis-enchanted worldview that comes with pursuing wordly success: “try so hard to get your foot in the door/get what you ask for and nothing more…. The dumb magician/Sees behind the scenes/The strings attached to all things/’This gets me that’", before offering the defiant call-to-transcendence: "The only way out is UP”. “A Year With No Head” is either about 12 months wasted in a futile attempt to lead a conventional life, or 12 months spent wasted, as in being off yer tits (I’ve never quite figured it out). And “Low Profile” is their turn-on/tune-in/drop-out anthem (“no compromise in the name of truth/keep a low profile/serene inspiration”), the inexorable rumble of the rhythm driving a gold-dust-rush of sound as exhilirating as  Felt’s similarly-vainglory-themed “Primitive Painters.”

What’s essentially rehearsed on The Greatest Hit is the Nineties slacker ethos: defeatism as dissidence, a subsistence-level bohemia eked out beneath society’s radar and acknowledging no rules bar “the law of dissipation” (as they put it “Bad Education”). But The Blue Orchids don’t have that Gen X curse of irony. Bramah and Baines’s lyrics teem with pagan poetry and ache with  naked pantheist devotion: “get down on your knees/just touch the flesh of the breeze/and feel release”, “with hearts that burst when we salute heaven”,” “ate the fruit of surrender/surrender to no one”.  They even based a song around a Yeats poem, one of just two tracks from The Greatest Hit not included here.

“Visions of splendour, two left feet” goes “Sun Connection”, one of the group’s most awe-struck and awe-inspiring songs. The lyric perfectly captures the group’s uncanny merger of  sublime and clumsy. Blue Orchids started raw with the burst-levee roar of the singles “Disney Boys” b/w “The Flood” and “Work” b/w “The House That Faded Out” (the latter particularly stunning with its odd stabbing rhythm and jigsaw-like disjointed feel). The Greatest Hit is consummate, perfectly poised between primitivism and polish. Tracks from the EP Agents of Change--where the Orchids wore their inspirations on their sleeve-notes with the confession: “this extended player has been completed under extraneous influences working upon the psyche”--err slightly towards state-of-graceful mellow (the piano-rolling “Release” is enjoyably reminiscent of The Stranglers’s “Don’t Bring Harry”) but remain beatific beauties.

At once anachronistic and ahead of their time, The Blue Orchids flash back to the  keyboard-driven garage-punk of The Seeds and ? And the Mysterians, and flash forward to the acid-rock resurgence of Loop and Spacemen 3. There’s even a faint glimpse of a near-future Manchester: the drug-hazy “lazy-itis” of Happy Mondays.  Pulling together almost all of the group’s output, A Darker Bloom gives you a chance to discover a remarkable, if sadly compact, body of work. If only they’d released as many records as The Fall…. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Charlatans

The Charlatans

Spin, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

In the U.K., the last few years have seen the original sequence of '60s rock replayed – in reverse. Nineteen eighty-eight was the year of 1969 – the year the hippie dream turned sour (Altamont, Manson).
Groups like Spacemen 3, Loop, and M Bloody Valentine resurrected a version of psychedelia that was more about the chaos of schizophrenia than a jolly day trip from reality. But in 1989, the U.K. pop scene backtracked to 1967, with the Manchester wave of groups leading the retreat to flower power's Day-Glo euphoria. The Stone Roses name-checked the Beatles, Hendrix, and Pink Floyd; the Inspiral Carpets exhumed the tin-pot organ and nasal harmonies of psychedelia's first flush of callow enthusiasm. In 1988, the watchword was ‘heavy’, in the last two years, it's been ‘good vibes’. Psychic and social disintegration has given way to mellow communion, as proclaimed by anthems like Primal Scream's ‘Come Together’ and the Stone Roses' ‘One Love’.
Some observers have compared the Manchester upheaval to the trajectory of mod music in the '60s. In both cases, British groups took lessons in rhythm from the black American dance music of the moment. "Detroit and Chicago have been to us, and other current groups, what Memphis and Chicago were to the Stones and the other white R&B groups of the '60s," claims Tim Burgess, lead singer of the Charlatans. "The acid-house boom was the first time I got excited about music that was happening in my lifetime."
The Charlatans hail from the midlands of the U.K. (a nondescript, industrial region south of Manchester). They originally formed at the instigation of keyboard player Rob Collins, who wanted to base a band around his Hammond organ. Martin Blunt (bass), Jon Baker (guitar), and Jon Brookes (drums) were recruited from sundry mod and psychedelic bands in the locality. The group's rise began when they supported the Stone Roses on tour. From the Roses, the Charlatans cribbed two essential factors for U.K. pop success. First, a loose-limbed, syncopated dance beat (ultimately derived from James Brown's ‘Funky Drummer’) Second, a desirable, charismatic front man, exuding laid-back arrogance. They spotted the lippy – that's to say, luscious and loudmouthed – Tim Burgess fronting his own group, the Electric Crayons, and wasted no time in nabbing him.
The result was the weird hodgepodge of period detail and 1990 pop currency that is the Charlatans – crisp rare groove rhythms, folk-edelic ‘60s harmonies, the sepia-tinted swell of the Hammond organ, and guitar that veers from flecked funk to flanged psychedelia. The Charlatans' LP, Some Friendly, ranges from lightweight Talking Heads-style albino funk like ‘The Only One I Know’ to glowering mood pieces like the frustratingly implosive ‘Then’ and groggy, druggy bouts of acid-rock experimentation like ‘Opportunity’, ‘1O9 Pt 2’ and ‘Sproston Green’. Like so much indie/college rock, it can't help but be music about other music, telling you more about the extent and excellence of a band's record collection than anything ‘out there’.
The Charlatans fail to shrug off the burden of their multiple precedents more often than they succeed (the exception being the aforementioned druggier songs like ‘Opportunity’), but like the Stone Roses they have been seized upon by a generation that's either too young to know or too desperate to care about what deja vu means.
When Tim Burgess's face made it onto the cover of The Face last year, it was an uncanny echo of a decade-earlier Face cover featuring the luscious, pouting Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen. Nothing could have more clearly signaled the sea change in UK pop consciousness than this flashback to the days when the mop-top-and-black-clothes look was in. For most of the '80s, the Face had celebrated ‘style culture’ – a semi-mythical metropolitan scene, based around nightclubs and brasseries. Rock was decreed ‘dead’, and Face disciples danced on its grave to the beat of the latest U.S.-import 12-inch. But by 1990, style culture's bubble had burst (thanks to the anti-elitist rave scene and the insurgent indie rock/dance crossover). TheFace was forced to revert to what it had been in its early days: a rock magazine featuring the kind of pallid, spotty indie kids it would have previously barred entrance to for not looking sufficiently cool.
Burgess comes from Northwich, a small town equidistant from Liverpool and Manchester. "I've always believed that the northwest of England has produced better groups than the rest of the U.K. They have more time to develop, whereas London bands get hounded so quickly by the press. The early-'80s Liverpool scene is kind of a parallel with the Manchester thing now. Back then bands like Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen got lumped together; now it's the Roses, the Mondays, the Charlatans. I don't understand why, because all the bands are really different.
"We're not a total life-style package like the Mondays or the Farm," says Burgess, "with clothes and drugs and soccer and a whole attitude. We're obsessed with taking music further. We don't have the attitude of other groups who say, 'Well, we're not playing a gig that night 'cause a big soccer match is on TV.' I've never been into sports anyway."

The Charlatans

Melody Maker, 22 December 1990

by Simon Reynolds 

1990 could well go down in the rock almanac as the year The Charlatans stole the initiative from The Stone Rose. While the figureheads of the Manc explosion spent the year paralysed by the expectations of critics and audience alike, The Charlatans materialised out of nowhere (the West Midlands) to usurp the Roses' rightful place as chartbusting purveyors of Sixties psychedelia with a 1990 funk undercarriage.
The Charlatans are the photogenic option in the post-Manc jamboree: Tim Burgess' enigmatic, androgynous allure makes him the material for classic teenybop obsession, in a way that the laddish likes of Shaun Ryder and Peter Hooton never could be. And where The Stone Roses have been stalled by the obligation to articulate Manchester's ‘new vibe’, The Charlatans are free to be vague, to suggest more than they reveal.
After the Top 20 hits ‘The Only One I Know’ and ‘Then’, the critical/commercial success of their debut album Some Friendly, and the first signs of future mega status in America, The Charlatans now look like the ones-most-likely to prosper after the Manc hype runs out of steam.
Here, Tim Burgess reflects on a glorious year.
It's not a movement, it's more like an atmosphere. Any idea of it being a movement was created as an afterthought, usually by journalists. But I think it's true that in 1989, a whole load of fresh attitudes started to come through. The independent scene used to have this traditional indie attitude, which was that if you were successful, that meant you weren't really indie. But the Charlatans have never been afraid to call ourselves pop. At the same time, our attitude is independent. We're not puppets, there's no one dictating anything to us. We've always despised that kind of thing.
Northwich, his hometown
It's 18 miles south of Manchester, and 20 miles away from Liverpool. So I've had the most brilliant musical upbringing. I've always believed that the North-West has produced better groups. They have more time to develop. London groups get hounded so quickly by the press, the music business is right on your doorstep if you're a London group. There's quite a few parallels between the Manchester thing and the Liverpool scene in the early Eighties. Back then, Teardrop Explodes and Echo And The Bunnymen got classed together, and nowadays it's the Roses, the Mondays, the Inspirals, The Charlatans, who get lumped together. But all the groups were really different from each other.
Being a sex symbol
I never, ever thought of myself like that. But I won't argue with it, so long as it's not used to trivialise the music. Before I was in a group, I was never considered to be particularly good looking. For about three years, I was going out five nights a week, but I never had a girlfriend. I can't complain about being regarded as a sex symbol. It won't affect my ego, because I've always had a big ego! At the same time, I'm pretty realistic. All the people in this band are among the most sorted out people I know.
Fame, Destiny, life in a small town
Being a teenager in a smallish town, it always seemed so tragic to be so far from the cities, where all the excitement was. But I always knew I'd be doing something extraordinary one day. For years, I was dying to be doing what I'm doing now. Everything apart from being in a group just seemed so trivial. It was either that, or wanting to be a pilot or a footballer or a writer.
The indie/dance crossover
We definitely have a kind of black feel in our rhythms. I suppose that's why everyone compares what's happened in the last two years to the Stones and the mod groups. They were influenced by the black dance music coming across from the Memphis and Chicago. And our sort of band has been influenced by the House rhythms coming over from Detroit and Chicago. House was the first time I got excited by a music that had happened in my lifetime. See, I just missed out on punk. So the rave scene was the first musical revolution of my 22 summers!
The Hammond organ
When we started out, we realised that there had never been a brilliant group whose sound was based around the Hammond organ. And we wanted to be the first. I don't know what it is about that sound, it just gets me really excited. There's something really perverse about that instrument. It sounds sort of orgasmic. It really turns me on!
The songs
‘You're Not Very Well’: I suppose it's a bit like out ‘Get Off My Cloud’. It's our response to the people who try to scrutinise you for having a good time, and analyse everything to death. It was originally gonna be called ‘Sick In The Head’, but we decided to go for the understatement. We're too clever to say, "F*** off!"
‘Flower’: It's a death threat aimed at someone who's been disrupting my past. I don't harbour grudges generally, but there's three that I won't forget. ‘Sproston Green’: It's about a place in Northwich, where I had my first sexual encounter. I was 14 or 15, and there was this girl who used to make me do things to her. She was much older than me. So I guess you could say that I was seduced at an early age.
Androgyny Versus ‘The New Laddishness’
If we adopted a laddish image because that's what's fashionable, it'd be contrived. We're not like that. We're just into music. Whereas with Happy Mondays and The Farm, they're about a whole lifestyle package: the football, the clothes, the drugs. Music is our supreme obsession. We don't have that attitude of other groups, where they'll say that they won't play a gig on a particular night because there's a match on telly, or they won't rehearse on Sunday because they're playing five-a-side. We've no interest in anything apart from music. We're obsessed with taking the music further. I've never been interested in sport. I've very little time for football.
I don't like to open myself up totally. After all, it's not as though I know the people who interview me. Sometimes I'll leave the room after half an hour, when I know the interviewer wants five hours of open heart surgery. Always leave them wanting more, that's my attitude.
With the lyrics, I like to leave things oblique. Like the title Some Friendly: I kept it deliberately vague so as to give people a chance to think. And they do, they read so many different things into it. With a lot of lines, I don't know where they came from, or what they mean. There's parts of the brain that we don't know anything about. I use intuition and dream imagery and random things. And I like to use images and allusions that I know only mean something to me. Listeners seem to make more out of stuff like that, rather than if you spell everything out. It's the only way I know how to think or speak or be. I don't like to analyse, it ruins everything. For instance, if you were married to someone for two years, you could probably write a really accurate assessment of that person. But for me, it's the guess-work that's interesting, that early stage when you can't figure someone out.
The songs are a mixture of fact and fantasy. Sometimes they're about imaginary relationships, or they're wishful thinking, things I dream of happening. That's far more exciting than some dreary factual account of my life. Who wants to know if I've had sex and what it was like? It's miles better if I'd never had sex and wrote about what I imagined it was like!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Butthole Surfers interview 1990

Melody Maker, 8th December 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Butthole Surfers have re-emerged only to suffer the indignity of being topical. With uncanny punctuality, their cover of ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ coincides with the current Donovan revival (an upshot almost as bizarre as the rehabilitation of The Carpenters earlier this year).

"Isn’t it horrible?" says Gibby Haynes, on the phone from Texas. "We had no idea that Donovan had suddenly become hip. See, we’ve been playing that song live for years and years."
The original ‘Hurdy Gurdy’ was weird enough in its own right, and the Buttholes have only marginally increased its queasiness by putting a stomach-turning wobble in Gibby’s vocal. Still, it’s strangely appropriate that the Buttholes should be the Happy Mondays’ accomplices in rehabilitating the twee troubadour of flower power. There’s a case for saying that the Mondays are the nearest the UK has to a group like Butthole Surfers. Both groups have trailblazed the return to frying your brain with hallucinogens. And both groups’ ‘art’ consists of a torrential outpour of plagiarized and pastiched fragments of pop history, media flotsam and jetsam: a regurgitation of all the cultural garbage that’s been shoved down their throats.

"I don’t know too much about Happy Mondays or the Manchester thing," says Gibby. "We played there once and they hated us. Kathleen stood on her head for three songs. The promoter said we couldn’t come back."
In fact, the Buttholes have been disconnected from the state of pop over two years. Since 1988’s Hairway To Steven they’ve been lying low in Texas. Gibby has been absorbed by his obsession with video technology and computer graphics, one byproduct of which has been the perverse, rubberised images on the cover of last year’s Widowermaker EP, and the garbled, gurning faces on the cover of the new single.

‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ (the song refers to a folkloric figure from ye olde rural England) hinted that the forthcoming Buttholes album might be the full flowering of the penchant for pastoralism displayed on Hairway. In fact, it’s a grab bag, the Buttholes indulging all their disparate whims, and too often aiming to titillate rather than disorientate. 

On the plus side, ‘Barking Dogs’ and ‘Blind Man’ reprise the gastric/cosmic turbulence of ‘22 Going On 23’ and ‘Jimmy’, with guitarist Paul Leary scaling his usual Faustian heights. On the whole, though, there’s far too much emphasis on pastiche. ‘No, I’m An Iron Man’ pointlessly parodies The Jesus And Mary Chain, ‘Golden Showers’ is Southern fried boogie in the style of ZZ tap or Foghat ("A cool band, they were the model for Spinal Tap") and ‘Lonesome Bulldog (Parts 1-4)’ spoofs "the kind of MOR C&W you’d buy at a truckstop cassette stand, like Red Sovine."

Is there no form of cultural effluent that you can’t wrest some amusement from?
"I do appreciate just about anything," admits Gibby. "I don’t go as far as those people who have videotapes of their favourite TV commercials. I don’t go looking for weird shit, but it seems like it comes for me. There’s always stuff that never seems to cease to amaze and amuse. Like, for instance, I’m out in our front yard now, and I’m looking at where deer graze at night. In fact, I’m looking at a pile of deer droppings. And recently there’s been these incidents where stray deer have been attacking people. It’s the rutting season and they’re kind of aggressive. Three building workers were attacked by some stags. Then there was a 65-year-old man who was collecting bottle tops from the roadside and a deer gored him. Another story I read in the local paper was about this dog that got hit by a car. His owners buried him. A couple of days later the dog dug himself out. He’d been in a coma. So the stories crop up continually. The lyrics are almost 100 per cent derived from this kind of material."


ONE BENEFICIAL RESULT of the Buttholes’ two year furlough is the long-awaited fruition of Gibby and bassist Jeff Pinkus’ sideline project, The Jackofficers. The LP Digital Dump is a surprisingly convincing (but, naturally, thoroughly off-kilter) foray into dance music).
"It’s Tex-house", explains Gibby. "It’s kinda like Acid House if you’d never heard the music, but were inspired by the term. I’m not particularly into dance music. I used to be into disco when I was in high school, but I’m not up on the current dance scene. It’s taking off over here. Every town has a couple of clubs full of kids with weird haircuts dancing to industrial music. But there’s nothing like the UK’s rave scene over here. It’s a shame, I’ve always wanted to go to one of those huge dance parties out in the country. But somehow I can’t see a weird social revolution basing itself around synthesiser music. The way I’d like to go is further into psychedelic atmospheric and ambience. I’ve been into space music for a long while."

"The album is basically a load of jacking off," continues Jeff. "The working method was to sit in my bedroom playing with samplers, and most of all, make sure I changed my weed as often as possible. If I smoke too much of one kind, I get immune to the effect. So we’d rig up the technology to get weird effects and then take it to the studio. There’s no end to the games you can play with technology.
"Jackofficers is a pretty mindless project. It’s kind of training in getting new effects. I’m not especially into dance music. I was really surprised at how easy it is to make a dance track. I call it ‘bong-House’ because I listen to it when I’m doing bong hits. Hold on a second, I just want to turn the video on – there’s a documentary about this guy called Richard Speck who killed eight nurses."

Gibby and Jeff are speaking to me from the porch of the domicile they share with their two dogs. "It was the dog’s birthday yesterday," adds Jeff, apropos of nothing. "We barbecued him some filet mignons."
How do the neighbours react to the strange goings on and aberrant sounds emanating chez Butthole?
"Well, the nearest neighbour is 10 acres away and, when I met him, the first thing he said was, ‘Hi, I’m James, I’m into rebirthing and psycho-massage.’ The other neighbours are these people who own a 1,000-acre ranch which they inherited from the guy who invented the coat-hanger. So we don’t get too much trouble from the neighbours."
What kind of stuff have you been playing on the family stereo recently?
Gibby: "I’m listening to quite a lot of heavy metal these days. It seems like metal’s got so fast, it’s slowed down. If you play it at a low volume, it’s like ambient music, like a chorus of buzz-saws."
Jeff: "I like MC 900 Ft Jesus and Eric B & Rakim. I like the heavy low-end bass. The low end is my thing, that’s what I always look to aggravate in the Buttholes’ sound. Who care about guitars, y’know? I’m always looking for new ways to make the low end more gruelling."
And what does the future hold in store? "That’s half the fun, sitting around the family bong and spacin’ out on ideas, and then forgetting them. I can see a big ole roadrunner in that cloud – it’s bad-ass! We don’t want to take Jackofficers on tour, but we would like to have a Jackofficers party, with a huge sound system, and elephants and chickens and monkeys with skateboards. Shit like that. It would be real nice to have two bad-ass titty dancers from New England onstage with us!"

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Big Audio Dynamite and Schoolly D live 1986

Big Audio Dynamite/Schoolly D at Brixton Academy, London

 Melody Maker, 22 November 1986

by Simon Reynolds
HIP HOP is about a strange kind of unity: it's a community that responds to oppression not with a dream of solidarity and equality, but with a sociopathic individualism. A brotherhood bound in ruthless competition with each other. At a hip hop event there's a resonance between audience and performer that comes because the star lives out the fan's megalomaniac fantasies in a theatre of cruelty and triumph.
But tonight Schoolly D faced a different community, a hostile and ignorant audience. That faceless plain of rock fandom, shorthaired hippies, Mick Jones lookalikes nostalgic for the golden days of 1978. Many were wearing trainers, but not for the right reasons. There was no resonance. There was shit sound, far too little volume, and in truth Schoolly D didn't seem to be trying too hard either. The audience were indifferent, desultory even in their throwing of glasses on stage.
A pity, because the record is a quantum leap for hip hop. In the search for higher and harder hits, some have tried to mix hip hop with other substances, like rock or Go Go. Schoolly has opted for a purer, more vicious distillation of the drug. 'P.S.K.' is an avalanche. 'Put Your Filas On' shows D.J. Code Money to be a virtuoso, a poet of scratch.
But Schoolly let the side down badly, failing to tyrannise the audience. He bobbed from one end of the stage to the other, flicking his wrists in little gestures of dismissal, stopping now and then to adopt the new B-Boy posture: arms folded across the chest, supercilious gaze of disdain. Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Nobody here tonight.
I have not been impressed by Big Audio Dynamite hitherto: hip hop and punk united in relations of mutual enfeeblement, I thought. The very idea seemed a bit naff: four outlaw myths for the price of one — the rocker, the B-Boy, the rasta, the cowboy — all merged into a single cartoon swagger. Pile it all on. Basically, though, this is a rock'n'roll band, having as much to do with hip hop as ZZ Top. All that Jones has acquired from hip hop is the idea of theft — he'll rip off anything from 'Summertime Blues' to The Big Country theme to Raw Silk's 'Do It To The Music' to Ennio Morricone.
You know it's not in any sense dynamic rock or dance music, but somehow it works, as a fierce sloppiness, a flurry that sweeps you along in its blur if you're prepared to let it have its way with you. Strummer didn't make an appearance, which is what everyone wanted (even me), but this is The Clash at heart, with some technology and a new cosiness and songs drawn out for seven minutes. But the sentimentality (The Clash's great strength) is well to the fore. Mick Jones, with his pissed grin and slicked back hair and drainpipe physique, is a reactionary figure, but hard to dislike. And songs like 'V Thirteen', with their crestfallen melodies and cissy vocals, are really rather pretty in a mopey sort of way. But then I always thought 'E=MC2' sounded like China Crisis. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Diamanda Galas live 1989

Diamanda Galás at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Melody Maker, 14 January 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Diamanda Galas's AIDS trilogy Masque Of The Red Death draws a mixed bunch to the Queen Elizabeth Hall on New Year's Day — 50 per cent goth/immaculate consumptive types, whose pierced flesh, cryptic jewellery and uniformly black garb makes the theatre attendants' noses' wrinkle in disdain; 50 per cent rather more respectable, arthouse types.
But then Galas operates on the fringes of both the rock left-field and of modern classical music, and her work can be "enjoyed" on two levels — vicarious voyeurism (lookit da spookeee ladeee) and sober appreciation of her Statement.
After a prologue of deliciously hammy, Hammer House/Dr Phibes organ, Galas steps out and lets rip her infamous Munch howl. Her first "piece" is like a Muslim widow's prayer wail, a fathomless abyss of grief. She bucks and writhes as though struggling to unwind, work out and expel via her throat a giant tapeworm of ectoplasm. She cuts between this laser-searing scream and a verminous babble of multiple voices, like a horde of vindictive goblins. Or she sings against backing tapes of her own voice multi-tracked into a choir of wizened Middle Eastern crones.
It's impossibly intense, hideously beautiful, and the air crackles with the static electricity of a thousand heads of hair standing on end. I came at least partially prepared for this, but it's nice to think that some must have come with no expectations or prior experience. Some rape of sensibilities! And indeed, a few chickenshit members of the audience get up and leave. But, after 20 minutes of unmitigated vertigo, the impact dims, for no readily apparent reason. Perhaps because enough is as good as a feast. Perhaps because 20 minutes is long enough to acclimatise to even the most hostile aesthetic environment. Perhaps also because Galas stoops to didacticism, albeit of a rabid, spume-flecked sort.
Delivered, with pointed irony, from a pulpit, Galas' demonic sermon/tirade is sometimes platitudinous ("Don't give up the fight against the order of the homophobe", "all mandatory testing is aimed at containment"), sometimes acute ("big buck penitentiary USA…controllers of slow death…sifters of compassion") but always manageable in comparison to the inchoate, unarticulated grief of her wordless pieces. The same problem afflicts her attempts to inhabit more conventional musical genres, like the good-time R&B groove of 'You Must Be Certain Of The Devil', or the vaudevillian piano numbers that close the performance.
Masque Of The Red Death is most effective when Galas eschews commentary or irony, and simply drops us in it. The work may be intended as a plea for compassion, but it has no truck with the kindliness and good sense of therapeutic and counselling language. Instead Galas almost revels in the intoxicating imagery of exorcism and excoriation, scapegoating and pariah-dom. Perhaps she aims to show us, by induction, how deeply embedded in our souls is the medieval mindset — both the palpitating horror of invasion, corruption and pollution of the wholesome integrity of our own bodies, and the panic-reflex to segregate in order to purify and protect the social body. Whatever, this was at least a partial triumph for the demon diva.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Howie B

cover story for The Wire, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

   Howie B is in New York on a two day mission devoted solely
to buying records. I hook up with him late at night, after
all the used record stores have shut, in a crowded downtown
cafe on St Mark's Place. He's already spent $400, picked up
so much vinyl he had to buy a bag just to carry it, yet he's
planning to cram in several more hours of shopping tomorrow
before his flight back to London. Howie describes it as "pre-
production" for U2's new album, even though he isn't actually
the producer. He's been asked in as a "player", which in his
case really means "programming and playing records" and
generally working up a "vibe" with the official producer,
Flood.  Work starts a week from now.

     Drinking coffee and smoking Marlboro Lights, and
accompanied by Michael Benson--his longtime friend from
Glasgow who's written the stories that go with his
forthcoming solo LP "Music For Babies"--Howie is still
buzzing from the day's research. "I was in all the different
shops, flipping through the albums on headphones, dropping
the needle and thinking 'Fuck, that's a corker, I can take
that and fuck it up'". I've picked up everything from mad,
mad techno to New York musicals to old Herbie Mann stuff to
Latin music".

     What will he do with the 80 +  hours of music he's
already acquired?

    "I'll take anything, it can be as small as a triangle
hit, and I'll spread it across a [sampling] keyboard and turn
it into a tuned piano. Or I'll take a timbale recorded in
1932 on this Latin record and make it into a percussion
pattern, or snatch some vocal and take it four octaves down
until it's like a lion's roar."

     What exactly does Howie B do for a living?  Examine the
small print beneath the manifold projects with which he's
been involved through the last seven years--Soul II Soul's
first two albums,  Tricky's "Ponderosa" and "Abbaon Fat
Tracks", "I Miss You" on Bjork's "Post", the Skylab album, U2
and Eno's "Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1", plus the heap
of tracks he's released via Mo' Wax and his own Pussyfoot
label--and you'll find Howie credited in different ways. Most
of the time he's down as "engineer", sometimes he's credited
as "programmer" too; elsewhere, he's promoted to "co-
producer", and now and then he gets to share the publishing
credit as writer. At what point does engineering bleed into
production? Where do you draw the line between producer and
creator?  These distinctions, admits Howie, are pretty
arbitrary, and largely dependent on the generosity of his
employers.  Money and ego are at stake.

     The nature of modern music--the popularisation, through
ambient, trip hop and jungle, of music without lyrics or
conventional song structure; the  all-pervading
commonplaceness of the studio-as-instrument aesthetic
pioneered by Eno and the early '70s dub-wizards--has smudged
the border between composition and the technical side,
writing and recording, art and craft.  In such a confused and
contested soundworld, it's easy to see how a figure like
Howie--with no musical training in the conventional sense,
and few instrumental skills--can slip and slide
between different levels in the music hierarchy, while
basically doing the same thing: "creating a vibe".  With so
much of today's crucial music, it's sound-in-itself--the
timbre and penetration of a bass-tone, the sensous feel of a
sample-texture, the gait of a drum-loop--that's the hook, the
sales-point, not the sequence of notes that constitutes 'the
melody'.  Howie B's career is just further proof that we need
to start thinking of the engineer as poet, as weaver-of-
dreams.  Another example: "Timeless", where engineer Rob
Playford shares the publishing credit with Goldie on more
than half the songs, and jungle's faceless abstraction co-
exists uneasily with the record industry's demand for
marketable stars.

     This struggle between stagefront and backroom has been
a latent subtext of pop for decades. I've long thought it
unfair that Jagger/Richards get the credit for "Satisfaction"
when it's Charlie Watts' drum bridge that's the song's killer
hook, and the same goes for whoever came up with the
heartstopping bass part on The Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be
There)".  Howie offers Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" as
another example: "the guy who did the bass on that, Herbie
Flowers, for me that bassline is the 'boom!'"-i.e.  the bit
that blows your mind--"but nobody knows he played that 'line.
I didn't until Brian Eno told me about five months ago."

     Howie's rise to the top has followed an almost quaint
path; he literally started out as a tea-boy, graduated to
tape operator, then assistant engineer, and so on. For three
years, he worked in the film industry "creating atmospheres
to go with visuals", as an assistant to veteran soundtrack
composer Stanley Myers.  Together, they worked on Nic Roeg
films like "Track 29" and "The Witches".  It's ironic that
someone reknowned for working in a field (ambient/trip hop)
that often prompts the hack cliche "a soundtrack for a non-
existent movie", actually started out making sounds for
existent movies.  Completing the circle in a weird sort of
way is the fact that he recently worked on U2 and Brian Eno's
"original soundtracks" for mostly fictitious films, and that
Howie's own album "Music for Babies" is going to be
accompanied by an animated movie.

     *         *         *         *         *         *

In the beginning, Howard Bernstein was a fusion freak.  It's
quite refreshing to meet a musician in his early thirties
whose seminal, life-changing musical experience wasn't seeing
the Sex Pistols live, but a different kind of 1976 gig
altogether: Santana, supported by Earth, Wind and Fire, when
Howie was only 13. As a Jewish boy growing up amidst the
Protestant versus Catholic sectarianism of Glasgow, Howie was
an isolated adolescent who divided his time and passion
between '70s kosmic jazz-fusion and radical pyschoanalysts
and mystical thinkers like RD Laing, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky.
(After school, he actually studied psychology in
Manchester, but quit when he realised that the only thing in
which he was qualifying was "taking drugs and partying").

     Young Howie was into Stanley Clarke, Return To Forever,
Herbie Hancock's "Manchild", even that dismal Santana
offshoot Journey. "Through Santana, I got into Alice
Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and the whole Sri Chimnoy Zen
philosophy side of it. Music became something I could grab
things off, follow as a route." Like fusion-headz old and new
(e.g. the Beastie Boys, the Mo' Wax milieu), Howie tends to
talk about what he does in terms of  vibes ("mad vibes",
"getting a good vibe", "vibing off each other"), of "learning
curves" and "opening up" and "giving". With his spiritual
leanings and vague positivity, it's perhaps no surprise that
he eventually fell in with the hippy-dread scene in London,
becoming friends with Jazzy B and Nellee Hooper, and
eventually supplying them with enough 'dead-time' in the
studio where he worked to enable Soul II Soul to record their
debut album.

     In 1990, Howie and his engineering partner Dobie got a
deal with Island as Nomad Soul. They released one single,
then "spent quarter of a million without realising it-- I
wasn't sitting there with a calculator, y'know--on an album
that mashed up hip hop, soul and jazz, and is still sitting
on a shelf at Fourth and Broadway". The vocalist was Diane
Charlemagne, later to sing on Goldie tracks like "Angel" and
"Inner City Life".  In fact, in '91 Howie actually worked
with Goldie, on music that never saw the light of day, back
when the Metalhead was part of the Hooper/Massive Attack
milieu and hadn't yet flipped out to 'ardkore rave.

     After the crushing blow of Nomad Soul, Howie drifted for
a while. He collaborated with Tricky and with Japanese B-boy
crew Major Force, amongst many others.  The first time most
of us heard his name was in connection with Mo' Wax, for whom
he's done five or so 12 inches as Howie B. Inc and Old
Scottish. Most notable is the Major Force collaboration
"Martian Economics", a wacked-out, Sun Ra-meets-The Orb
affair they knocked up in five hours. "We took it to James
Lavelle and said "what do you think?'. Five weeks later I was
in a club and I heard it, thought "Fuck, what's going on?!"
James'd released it without telling us!"

     Howie then started his own, Mo Wax like label,
Pussyfoot, putting out tracks by himself, sometimes using
the alter-ego Daddylonglegs, and by likeminded friends.  But
perhaps his best work prior to "Music For Babies" was with
Skylab.  A new label called L'Attitude invited him to jam
with Matt Ducasse.  "Matt played me all this stuff, mad loops
and crazy noises.  There was no material as such, just sound,
but it was like a licence for me to go mad. We went into his
attic and started making music, me vibing off what he'd play
me.  I got Tosh and Kudo from Major Force in on four or five
tracks.  I'm very proud of that record, it's a mad album: no
rules, full of peaks and troughs and emotions, and with no
A&R telling us what to do".

     "Ghost Dance", one of the best tracks on "Skylab
#1", is highly reminiscent of the fidgety art-funk rhythms
and chromatic smears of David Byrne & Brian Eno's "My Life In
The Bush of Ghosts". Back in 1981, that album was dissed by
many as an academic, coldblooded affair, an egghead's
appropriation/dessication of black American and African beat-
science; in retrospect, what with its influence on everyone
from Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee to artcore junglists
and ethnodelic trance units like Loop Guru, "Bush
of Ghosts" can be seen to have been uncannily prophetic.

       "That was a very important record to me," admits
Howie. "I was living in Manchester when I first heard it, and
I'd get stoned and sit in between the speakers, out of my
head, and just sit and write to the rhythms. Freeform words.
It opened so many little doors for me."

     Which makes it especially cool for Howie that he's been
accepted into the Eno/U2 fold. The association began back in
February '95, when he was called in to salvage Bono's cover
of 'Hallelujah' for a Leonard Cohen tribute album. Four
months later, he was invited to participate in the
"Passengers" project.

     "It was the maddest, mad, mad time," says Howard,
emphatically. "A mad exchange of ideas. They gave me all this
space and I just went, 'boof'"--another little verbal tic of
his, evoking someone exploding all constraints--"I opened up
totally. It was like walking into a little dream, these great
musicians, all these wicked twenty minute grooves for me to
take and fuck up".

     Eno and U2 didn't, however, tell him anything about the
"original soundtracks" concept. "All they said was that their
ideas were 'it's a late night album, and it's blue, the color
blue'.  When I got the promo, that was the first time I
realised it was about films." Howie co-produced three tracks,
including the very "Bush of Ghosts"-like "One Minute
Warning", and co-wrote another, "Elvis Ate America".  This
lurching, ultra-minimal slice of swamp-funk, vaguely redolent
of Alan Vega's post-Suicide solo LP's of robotic rockabilly,
was knocked up by Howie in a few hours, the night before the
album's final deadline. Bono had handed him his daft doggerel
(sample lyrics: "Elvis/Ate baconburgers and just kept
getting bigger") a few days earlier.

     How did he find Eno as a co-producer?

"It's just a totally different ball game. It's like when you
think a stone is a stone, and all of sudden it turns into a
butterfly. That's how I'd describe Brian. To be quite honest,
I was shitting it when I first met him." When I ask him later
if there's anyone out there he'd like to work with, Howie
cites Eno as his dream collaborator (alongside Cissy
Houston!!). They've already had a bit of jam session earlier
this year, "just me and him in his little studio in Kilburn,
three hours, no preconceptions.  I turned up with my record
deck and an echoplex." 

Later in the year (see The Wire #139),
Eno would cite Howie's use of this effects unit as typical of
a new preference for lo-tech, antique, task-specific
equipment as opposed to state-of-the-art hi-tech with a bewildering number of options: "Howie B, if he wanted could have all sorts of
digital processing boxes, but
he wants that.  He's focused on it and he's used it with such
taste and skill."

     *         *         *         *         *

And now, bearing the very Eno-esque title "Music for Babies",
here's Howie B's debut album, a concept record about
"the joy of having my little girl, Chilli, who's now a year
and a half old." From the itchy, corrugated riffs of
"Allergy" (inspired by Chilli's milk allergy) to the idyllic
tone-and-timbre poem that is "Here Comes The Tooth", this is
virtuoso sampladelia. But what does the person who inspired
the record make of it?

     "I've played it to her, and there's something going on
there, she's moving to it. Sometimes she goes up and turns it
off, then she turns it back on again."

     If Massive Attack's "Protection", with its accompanying
"Eurochild" exhibition of sculptures, wasn't
proof enough that trip hop is the new art-rock, "Music For
Babies" is a unified package combining text and design, and with
an accompanying film in tow.  "Toshi from Major Force, he's
on the cutting edge of graphics, and he's working with
Michael's stories and two paintings that this Icelandic
artist Hubert Noi has done. And an animator called Run Wrake
is doing a wee film to go with it."

     Swilling back herbal tea straight from the pot to soothe
his sore throat, Benson takes over to explain how his stories
and prose poems became part of "Music For Babies".  "I'd met
this woman who was really fucked up on drugs and yet she'd
written a whole novel. She explained that she'd done it by
writing a page a day.  I started doing the same thing, but
every page was so different I could never make them link up.

 This stuff that comes with the album is a sample from that work-in-progress.  Some
stories are inspired by the shape of particular tracks, so
that the text'll be cut up into different sections, or it'll
be a thin strip of words, like a thin strip of sound.
Sometimes it worked the other way round: Howie'd read a story
and then start a track from that. But lots of them have fuck
all to do with the music!

    "The novel and the fiction market are very much alive,"
he continues, "But at the same time people I know very rarely
phone me up and say 'I've got this wicked novel!'. So for me,
the idea is to stick fiction in places where you don't
usually find it, the sort of places where I get excited. I
love buying records, so that's where I want to put my work."

     *         *         *         *         *         *

Despite his lack of conventional musical training, Howie B is
very much what used to be called a 'muso'. When asked if,
despite his apparently all-gates-open eclecticism, there are
genres of music he just can't see the point of, he
disappoints me by emitting the cliche "Just bad music".  And
like your true muso, he hates categories and labels. One in
particular irks him: you guessed it, tr** h**. Yet when
pressed to describe the Pussyfoot sound in a label profile,
he came up with the phrase "experimental space hop"--which is
just an ungainly synonym for trip hop!  Why does the term
offend him so much?

   "I don't know where it came from," Howie grimaces. "I was
involved in that whole vibe and then all of sudden people
from outside think they can put a phrase on it, explain it.
But for me all that we're doing is making music.  When you
pigeonhole something, as soon as I do something ouside those
walls it becomes a problem for people."

     A lot of people share Howie's annoyance with 'trip hop'.
Some think the music's great but are incensed by the term,
regarding it as racist, a spurious wedge driven between
what's happening in the UK and US rap.  Personally, I think the term's okay. It's a handy signifier for a phenomenon--instrumental,
abstract, midtempo breakbeat music; hip hop without the rap
and without the rage, basically--that if not totally UK-
specific is at least almost totally out-of-step with US hip
hop, where rhymin' skills and charismatic personalities rule.

No, my problem is with the music: too little of it lives up
to the psychedelic evocations of the name, too much of it is
just pot smoker's muzak, or acid-jazz-gone-digital.  Out of
this weed-befuddled, cooler-than-thou mire of mellowness,
three names stand out: DJ Shadow, Wagon Christ, and Howie B.

     For Howie himself, "it's just groove-oriented music. Hip
hop is trance-like as much as house or techno are,  you get
locked onto the groove.  Because there's no vocal in my
music, I have to create a soundscape for people to travel
through.  Maybe I don't pick up the mic' and express myself
through words, but it's still my form of expression. I do see
the tracks as songs, there's feelings and emotions, and it
can be just as frightening as hip hop, or as wicked as hip
hop.  I see it as hip hop, as music, as a collaboration of
ideas.  'Martian Economics', that was like me doing a tune
with Jimmy Smith, even though he wasn't there."

HOWIE B                           
Music For Babies
written for a publication whose name i have forgotten

     "Howie B" sounds like a rapper; "Howard Bernstein" sounds more like a TV executive. In fact, the real Howie is somewhere between B-boy and backroom boy. An engineer and studio whizzkid, Howie's a prime mover in the mostly faceless world of trip hop. Like his pal Tricky, Howie is one of a new breed of musician: he doesn't exactly possess instrumental skills, but he's expert at using sampling computers and the studio mixing-board to transform borrowed beats, licks and atmospheres into gripping grooves.

Howie B is what you might call a scientist of "vibe".  As such, he's an in-demand engineer/producer, working with such luminaries as Soul II Soul, Bjork, Passengers (U2 & Brian Eno), and Tricky himself.  Howie is also the soundscape-shaper in the ambient outfit Skylab, and he's released a heap of solo 12 inches on ultra-cool trip hop label Mo' Wax, and via his own Pussyfoot imprint.

"Music For Babies", his first solo album, showcases Howie's best work outside Skylab. A sort of abstract concept album inspired by the birth of his daughter Chilli, "Babies" is entirely instrumental, but it manages to convey eloquently a spectrum of emotions and moods, from the itchy agitation of "Allergy" to the idyllic anticipation of "Here Comes The Tooth". (For those who miss lyrics, there's always the CD booklet's collection of one-page stories by Howie's chum Michael Benson).  There are tunes here, but this kind of  ambient/trip hop is really about texture and timbre: sounds so succulent and tantalising you want to taste or stroke them.  Tremulous with the wide-eyed wonder of the newborn, glowing with the joy and gratitude of her parents, "Music For Babies" is sheer enchantment.