Monday, April 25, 2011

Nothing From Nothing

Deep in the dunes of time, when the first caveman bashed two sticks together in a rhythmic fashion, music was born. When a second caveman bashed two sticks together in a rhythmic fashion, I imagine his tribesmen scoffed derisively, "Eh, that's fine, Grom, but it's just a rehash of Grog's stick-noise, innit?"

Complaining that music has become derivative is as old as music itself - and why not? To one extent or another, all music concedes the influence of its antecedents. But new frontiers of frustration over secondhand sounds have unfolded, thanks to the omnivorous archive of the internet and what Tony Herrington calls "pop culture’s own acquiescence to the illusion of neo-liberal ‘end of history’ propaganda." The latest entry in the derivation debate comes thanks to Simon Reynolds' less-than-flattering profile of L.A.-based content-generators Not Not Fun. There's a lot to unpack in NNF's cherry-picked pastiche, and so several different conversations have developed. Marc Hogan, Mike Barthel, and Eric Harvey have all toyed with the idea of "underground music" as consumer niche (with Harvey in particular refusing the very notion that music can exist external to capitalism). Herrington's blog posts for The Wire have dissected NNF's libidinal affectations. Elsewhere, The Impostume's Carl has pulled back to the broader question of aesthetic mutability, which to me is where the rubber meets the road:
The problem with hybridization of this kind (ie affirmative hybridization: this cool thing plus this cool thing equals new cool thing) is that it misunderstands much of the original hybridizing impulse which was to “correct” the racist or sexist or regressive elements of traditional rock and its representations...
In characterizing progressive hybridization as "corrective," Carl rightly recognizes that musical evolution - like biological evolution - is fundamentally subtractive. Even when music was embellished structurally or timbrally, the motivation was to liberate the art from some hindrance or reactionary element.

Following centuries of parochial tunings plagued by wolves, the establishment of "well temperament" excised tonal anarchy & miscommunication from European music, providing a universal language for composition & performance. Only later, when this system became ossified dogma, did composers begin ridding themselves of its restrictions. And yet in the 1970s, some experimental composers, such as Krzystof Penderecki and Cornelius Cardew, abandoned the avant-garde, suggesting that it "gave one an illusion of universalism" which, as such, could arguably serve imperialism.

Over the twentieth century, music has repeated this adoption-then-abandonment of pedantry in ever-accelerating cycles, yet each oscillation has been an effort to shed the perceived misapplications of the previous generation of music. Bebop, an elitist reaction against the populist sloth of big band, was in turn countered by more meditative & minimalist styles like cool & modal. Meanwhile, rock spent the first thirty years of its life vacillating wildly between extremes of simplicity (e.g. rhythm 'n' blues, punk à la Ramones) and ostentation (e.g. acid rock, progressive rock).

Since the early '80s, the central conversation within anti-authoritarian styles of music (in contradistinction to Pop) has been about "authenticity": is punk better defined stylistically or by D.I.Y. business practices? Has an artist "sold out," regardless of how unconventional their music is, once they sign to a major label? Are music videos an extension or a perversion of an artist's expression? What's real hip-hop? Underlying all of these questions is the subtractive impulse: artistic purity has less to do with aesthetic specifics than with erasing the corruptions inflicted by the culture industry. This is why a debut album is so often considered a given artist's pinnacle, or why so many musicians speak of getting back to a genre's "roots": their sense is that the time elapsed between inception and present has served only to distort or deteriorate.

The subtractive impulse is immaterial because it is just that - an impulse, a motive, an intent. However, the physical means of composing, performing, and reproducing music have multiplied over the years because technology is almost (but not quite) exclusively additive. The toolbox only gets bigger; implements are never discarded, only updated & improved. One generation plows a dirt road across hostile & uncharted terrain; the next speeds effortlessly along an asphalt-paved highway.

Technology has been the engine of every major aesthetic shift, every stylistic warp, every timbral weft. The temporal limits of physical formats first dictated, then liberated conventional song structure. Amplification allowed small ensembles of amateur musicians to become icons. Voltage-controlled oscillators and tape-based effects modules produced physically-impossible sounds. Turntables and samplers turned compositions into instruments, folding music Moebius-style back upon itself. Without barely an exception, any time a new noise has been born, it's been midwifed by machine.

But stop to consider the most recent technological developments: have any of them been appropriate to producing sound, or merely reproducing it? The last great leap forward in music production was non-destructive and non-linear editing, and the shine was already off by the 2001 release of N*Sync's "Pop" single. Most new tools for composers & producers are meant only to emulate older analog equipment minus any of their mechanical failings (or character, for that matter) and with greater ease of use. It seems sadly appropriate to me that the best-selling effects units are looping pedals: contemporary musicians seem more than happy to shackle themselves to endless, high-resolution reiterations of the same.

Meanwhile, the technology with the single greatest impact upon music as an art-form, the internet, offers no new means of crafting sound, no new compositional methods. Its sole capabilities are storage and transmission - not unlike handing a megaphone to everyone inside the world's biggest library.

This presents a real problem to those whose primary exposure to music happens online. In ye olden days, even if you were distant from an artist's immediate context, you could infer something about the artist's politics, class, and sociogeography from the medium via which you were exposed to the band. You'd make radically different assumptions about a band profiled in Touch And Go if they'd instead received a write-up in Rolling Stone. An artist getting airplay on Hot 97 occupies a very different frame than anyone being broadcast by WFMU. But the internet fails to offer even this referential silhouette. Between the infinite interchangeability of blogs and the pandemic speed with which hype feeding-frenzies spread, you often only find a artist after they've become ubiquitous and, thus, utterly divorced of context. All that is visible is the aesthetic surface, delicately draped over a void. Artists like NNF's Amanda Brown, who hybridize other artists' eggshell personae, are building their artistic identities like Russian dolls, each layer a pretty mask atop nullity.

As I said at the open, derivation is a necessary factor in making music. But borrowing another artist's ideas, their politics, their motives, their frustrations & passions at least provides the possibility articulating the same inspiration in a different way. Borrowing another artist's style, their pose, their inflections, their gestures isn't making music - it's acting. And only the most gullible & stupid among the audience ever confuse the actor for the character they're playing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ties, Slurs, and Ligatures

Along with appearances by Bono or Thurston Moore, one of the checklist clichés of music documentaries is the breathless pronouncement that "I'd never heard anything like it before." The statement usually comes towards the end of the first act, once all the major players & their backstories have been introduced, and is typically made by someone peripheral or successive to the spotlit artist or scene. It's threadbare hyperbole by now, but bless 'em for having lived in a place or time when it was possible to be genuinely surprised by music.

These days, almost anyone with a music-listening appliance is also sure to have a decent internet connection. There's consequently no excuse to be ignorant: easy access to the full global & historical sweep of music means everyone is now a music nerd. It's merely a question of how much of what kind of nerd you are.

So should there a come a day when filmmakers decide this solipsistically self-documenting culture requires even further exposition, no one will vaguely exalt a song or artist as "unlike anything I'd heard before." Everyone will have their own hand-picked stockpile of ready references & easy similes. Nevermind the ol' Band A = Band B + Band C equation; folks will be busting out algebraic analogies, multiplying influences before subdividing by microgenre.

Of course, the opposite effect could easily result: because the internet allows users to hand-tailor their input, everyone's frame of reference could shrink to a miniscule, self-satisfied speck. Sure, it requires the same minimal effort to drag up a YouTube clip of either some new buzzband or a tried-and-true favourite, but why risk the disappointment that Yuck might kinda be bullshit when I can just listen to "Wings" for the god-knows-nth time? Why struggle to decide if it's morally acceptable to enjoy Odd Future when you can just throw on the Wu-Tang's debut again? The danger of such smug myopia is that there are hordes of nerdier-than-thou jerks (Hi!) ready to school your cul-de-sac ass. Sure, Lostage may be the latest in a long lineage of arena-sized riff merchants, but beware if you're going to "saddle the band with too many overt Page/Plant comparisons." Some snide punk out there will want to know, for real, Led fuckin' Zeppelin is the only goddamned guitar band you can draw a comparison to? What, were you too stoned to take Houses of the Holy off your turntable and investigate Drive Like Jehu, or Universal Order of Armageddon, or, I dunno, any band on Dischord records?

Mercifully, some bands make it easy for lazy critics by wearing their influences so baldly, they don't require multiple citations - it's straight Band A = Band B. (See: Black Lips, Serena Maneesh, The Horrors, etc.) Many Japanese bands actually invite such easy equivalencies. Desperate to broadcast their influences, many musicians borrow a song title for their band name (e.g. Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, Boris) or vice versa (e.g. Number Girl's "Pixie Dü"); the clever ones quote directly but with deliberate misspellings (e.g. Discharming Man).

Often, the most interesting bands work like Rorschach tests for their listeners' musical knowledge: everyone draws different correlations, based on their personal tastes, without anyone necessarily being inaccurate. For example, a band I used to tour-manage earned sprawling comparisons to DJ Shadow, Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, and Can - all fair assessments to my ears. There were, of course, a few folks suggested jaw-droppingly inaccurate agnates (Helmet? Really?) but that's what happens when drunk Alabamans try their hand at cultural criticism.

My current band's been suited with an even baggier patchwork of musical parallels. No one seems quite sure where to situate us. So far, we've done things strictly D.I.Y. without so much as an official website, yet two weeks ago the drummer from Melt Banana said we "totally sound like a major [label] band." Well, yeah, contrasted with Melt Banana, we do totally sound like a major label band, but that's a seriously relative appraisal - like saying the Melvins sound way more commercial than Napalm Death.

Given Japan's malignant self-perception as rock's farm league, it's high praise for a band to be compared to a foreign act. Not only have we only been identified with overseas acts, we frequently receive the highest praise possible: we don't even sound like a Japanese band* at all! I suspect most people are tempted to make this comment because there's a gaijin on guitar and the lyrics are all in English. That we look & sound comparatively "less Japanese" is less a plaudit than a plain statement of fact.

Anyway, below is a mix of the bands we're most frequently stood alongside - which I find hilariously flattering, with the exceptions of Killing Joke (meh) and perennial underachievers Primal Scream. But I admit, we bear the most consistent likeness to Primal Scream, in that all of our songs sound kinda sorta like Primal Scream. Our vocalist loves Bobby and the bassist digs Mani, so we operate around 20% Primal Scream at all times. The similarity to our other soundalikes varies wildly: one song may split the difference between Shellac and the Birthday Party, the next number might sound like Sonic Youth all over.

Perhaps I should make a "soundalike outlier" mix of all the bands we've been compared to only once, just to see how ludicrous a Venn diagram that draws around our sound. Could we in fact be the middle point between Sleep, Seefeel, and Company Flow? I fucking wish.

Ties, Slurs, and Ligatures

1. Shellac - "My Black Ass"
2. Lungfish - "Jonah"
3. My Bloody Valentine - "Slow"
4. Killing Joke - "Seeing Red"
5. The Jesus Lizard - "Monkey Trick"
6. Primal Scream - "Rise"
7. The Birthday Party - "The Dim Locator"
8. Public Image Ltd. - "Death Disco (Swan Lake)"
9. Sonic Youth - "Death Valley '69"

* - Believe me, I don't consider this praise of any sort, let alone a high honour. The endemic insecurity of many Japanese rock musicians is a sorry state. And what does it mean to "not sound Japanese" anyway?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Everything Back To Norbal

The jaunt to Hokkaido was a pleasant vacation from the past month's mild panic & lingering paranoia. I'd visited the northern isle a few years before, so it wasn't totally unfamiliar territory - just different enough to unclutter the brainspace a bit. I gave myself a few extra days before my band's tour kicked off, so I got to enjoy Hokkaido's panoply of vaguely odd pleasures unhindered by driving schedules or sound-checks. A few old favourites were revisited - the Otaru Music Box Museum, Sapporo's Ramen Alley - but the highlights were stumbled-on surprises that, with the exception of bathing macaques, were of a distinctly unoriental nature: Japan's oldest concrete utility pole and the Lucky Pierrot burger chain! With its Edwardian-cum-Old West sideshow decor and demented half-blind mascot, Lucky Pierrot looks like a frighteningly dodgy proposition - a gastronomic Don Quixote. But I'll be damned if those weren't some of the tastiest, tongue-titillating burgers I've ever had, and for half the price of the mediocre, modestly-sized grub you get in Tokyo.

One burger joint I'd conversely advise against patronizing under any circumstances is Sapporo's Crazy Burger, not the least for its dull dentist-clinic decor. Their menu challenges customers with the 恐怖バーガー (literally "terrible burger") which, by the menu description, is only made daunting by a fish paddy and some extra jalapeño peppers. Accepting their culinary dare, I forked over ¥800 (around $10) only to be told they were out of buns and condiments and so was served two thumb-sized cuts of raw fish, and not just any ol' ichthyoid: Surströmming, officially the most foul-tasting food on earth. I discovered this only after having shoved both measly slices into my mouth. The taste was something like a beached whale carcass covered in cat piss. Or maybe sewer-snake braised in battery acid. I'm not sure. The shock to my digestive track was so rude that my whole physiology forbade the very notion of further ingesting anything more solid than air. My appetite had been raped. I'm just vaguely impressed I didn't vomit.

Much of the conversation on tour - as everywhere else - centered around the triple calamity of March 11. In Hokkaido, the effect has been almost entirely abstract. The tsunami that hit its coast was little more than a large wave. Also, the island operates upon a separate power grid; the dimming of neon facades has been out of solidarity as opposed to necessity. The only tangible impact has been the scarcity of certain items - specifically certain cigarette brands & Heineken beer - thanks to interrupted supply lines.

I suppose much the same is true back in Tokyo. Searching for evidence of the disaster, the devil is only found in the details: certain items are still rationed in supermarkets, gas prices are hiked, and commuter train schedules are bedeviled by rolling blackouts in certain suburbs. But then, if every daily trivium is touched by the catastrophe, that's not exactly an unperturbed normality, is it?

A fair number of those expats who fled during the madness of mid-March have quietly returned. The psychosocial schism isn't nearly as dramatic as, say, the Hollywood blacklisted versus the HUAC informers, but there's still some strain between those who stayed put and those who split. My post criticizing the "byejin" or "flyjin" who left the country ripped open an especially ugly fault-line in our immediate social circle. For my part, I've refused to ask anyone to take sides in the argument, but given the communicative embargo my "nemesis" has imposed against me, it unfortunately looks as though mutual friends will have to orchestrate engagements rather shrewdly to keep us apart.

It's interesting that another friend & I, who've been the most vocal in our censure of fleeing foreigners, are also the most explicitly socialist within our clique. Because of our politics, we likely see the disaster as an ideal situation to reconstitute the social framework of Japan. Never before has there been such an opportunity to forge lasting cooperation & compassion between the native population and the expat community. For all the times we've lamented the insular homogeneity of Japan, this is the moment when solidarity amongst Japanese & gaijin can transform the country into a more inclusive, diverse, and fluidly-identified culture. It's to our dismay & detriment that, instead, the hysteria & self-regard of many expats has pitched them in stark, unflattering contrast to the stoic endurance of the Japanese.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Inner Ear Balance

Earth Hour - a token gesture at best - doesn't mean much in a country rolled over by blackouts. Having lost 20% of its capacity, TEPCO is running dangerously near its maximum output and has asked for the public to curtail its electricity consumption. For their part, the Japanese have dutifully & promptly complied: tights belts are the new black. This new trend of collective restraint is the upside of that hive-mind passivity that recently emptied supermarket shelves and often drives type-A expats off their hinge.

I personally suspect the electricity deficit could be addressed merely by shutting down all the damned pachinko parlours. But otherwise, the obvious first sacrifice is Tokyo's famous forest of neon signs. A week ago, my band drove the width of the city coming back from a gig, and from the Edo river through to Shinjuku, Tokyo was a literal shadow of its former self. Friday nights are usually a parade of packed taxis jamming streets lined with sloppy drunks under a technicolour canopy; instead, we sped through a chaioscuro landscape haunted by the odd straggler searching for cabs that were all idling outside dimmed train stations. The hostile loneliness reminded me of the grim, grimy New York immortalized in After Hours or Night On Earth.

(Lest I be accused of bathos, let me refine the above description: Tokyo now looks less like Blade Runner on MDMA and more like... well, just any other city on the planet.)

Having shaken off the initial shock, we're starting to understand the medium- and long-term consequences of the disaster: the global consumer economy has been gut-punched by the disruption of Japanese manufacturing, and imports & exports will be unsteady until the Daiichi plant is solidly entombed in cement. Both of the above have direct consequences for those of us in Japan physically unscathed by the catastrophe: no beer and no new iPhone! The horror... the horror...

But this is where my general pessimism pays off. Should the patina of modern convenience completely peel and flake away, I'm ready. I've been anticipating the day when the lights go out and supermarket shelves are stripped bare since I first saw Mad Max. No tears or rending of garments from me, 'cuz son, it's go-time!

I want to be clear about the cut between pessimism & cynicism. I haven't spent my adult life glumly awaiting Armageddon because it's all fucked anyway - that is the joyless slouch of the cynic. My pessimism sits somewhere between Shöpenhauer's and Nouriel Roubini's: those of us lucky enough to inhabit the best possible part of this worst-possible world ought to enjoy it because it's too good to last forever. Every time I set out across this city, I'm filled with a marvelous hilarity. Should I ever have grandkids, how will possibly describe the lunatic animation of this place to them?

During the drive home with my bandmates last week, we had an amusing epiphany. Our singer had titled two songs - both written last year - "Plutonium" and "Atomic Age", the latter of which contains the couplet "I don't wanna meltdown/But this is really happening." Barely two years into his career as a language-mangling frontman and he's already giving Mark E. Smith a run for his money as rock's preeminent psychic. The drummer immediately demanded the singer start writing some happier goddamned songs before he kills us all.

It's been good to get back to gigging. Aside from restoring a sense of regular purpose, it kills the solitary paranoia of disaster to see friends and swap where-were-you-when stories. Next week, we're off to Hokkaido for a run of shows across Japan's northernmost isle. Nothing like a short vacation from the capitol to clean off the cold sweat & fear-spun cobwebs of the past three weeks.

But now another potential casualty of the disaster could be Japan's live music circuit. Not only have dozens of foreign acts (who bring in the big money) canceled their Japanese tours, but rolling blackouts pose a clear danger to the functional existence of many venues. In the interest of keeping the ecosystem healthy, we're overloading our live schedule. By playing the same city three times in two weeks, sure, we may split our audience for any given show three ways, but better to draw one-third of our audience each to three different venues than pack one club while leaving two others to languish.

This past Monday, I played an improv gig with Uozu, guitarist for hardcore abstractionists (and my favourite band in Japan) Z. This was only our second excursion into quadramplified chaos under the clunky moniker UOZEB, and though it was a hell of a lot of fun, I couldn't hear myself play a damned note all evening. This may have been because we were augmented by a guest drummer & violinist (who ran through more effects pedals than I did). Bedlam at 120 decibels, but all for a good cause: I recorded the show, and as soon as it's mastered, it'll be available as a paid download with all proceeds going towards the Tohoku relief effort. I'll have it all linked up here as soon as possible.

See you on the other side of next week, and meanwhile - stay outta Hong Kong.