Do you recall which grade it was that you were first given the opportunity to use pens in school instead of pencils? I don’t remember which year it was for me, exactly, but I have a faint memory of it being a huge leap forward; it was as if those in charge had said “If you choose to do so, you’re now at an age where you’re free to leave a permanent mark on the world.”
I’ve never had the best form with my pen, and much of my life has been marred by periods where an eraser would have come in handy. But looking back, the periods which were dominated by unfortunate smudges and unintelligible chaos have ended up being the most important which I’ve lived through to this point.
My pen has been permanent in many ways I wish it wasn’t though, leaving marks on people’s lives in a disastrous manner, often causing an unthinkable amount of distress and harm. Occasionally time is able to fade or blur the remnant of the mark made, but without the ability to erase the mistake it is never able to completely disappear. I’m afraid that of all the victims however, my pen has done myself the most harm; a realization that I’m faced with every day.
At the same time you have to remember those initial directions: You have been given the freedom to take your pen and leave your mark on the world as you see fit. While the mark of a pen may be permanent, the story you write with it is never finished until you say so. The mark you made yesterday may in no way reflect the same intent or mindset as the mark you make today. And that’s okay. As frustrating, disappointing, and sometimes crushing as it is to live with the mistake made with your last stroke, you have to keep in mind that as long as you have the ability to wield a pen and the freedom to do so, it is up to you to decide what impact your next stroke has on the world.
If only pens came with instructions.
Thomas Dolby might best be introduced by TED, where the musician is acknowledged for “blinding us with science,” before mention is made of his propensity to have “always blurred the lines between composition and invention.” Since first assuming his place as one of the pioneering stars of MTV in the early ’80s, Dolby, born Thomas Robertson, has led — and this is to put it lightly — an unconventional life. Playing an integral role in the development of synthesizer-based pop music throughout the decade, Dolby found fame through singles such as “Hyperactive!” and “She Blinded Me with Science,” two tracks which Dolby is eager to dismiss as being his “best.” Just how hot was Dolby in the ’80s, you ask? Well, he acted as the keyboard player for Def Leppard during the band’s Pyromania sessions — suffice it to say, the sky seemed the limit.
Fast forward to 1993 where Dolby established Headspace, a tech company which has since changed its name to Beatnik that specializes in mobile phone audio. As Dolby would explain, the company’s technology has shipped on over 3.5 billion mobile phones since 1999. Despite such success still fully gaining momentum, Dolby stepped down from his role as CEO in the company in 2002, moving on to a variety of other small(er) projects including RetroFolio, a ringtone content provider. But when all was said and done Dolby still figured himself “a musician through and through” and slowly creeped back into the area he remains most passionate about: music. Through the process of returning to his first love Dolby assumed the position of musical director for the TED conference in 2001, a position he still holds. In this interview Dolby explains his role in TEDx, a project which will feature the likes of William Orbit, David Toop, Louis Lortie, and Imogen Heap when it takes place November 6 in Aldeburgh, his new release, A Map of the Floating City, and what still drives his creativity after some three decades of performing.
TED’s blog lists you as their “musical director” — what does that position entail and what is your role in TEDx?
Thomas Dolby: I help choose the “talent” — i.e., the musicians we have come and play a set between speakers at TED. We pick musicians that will blend well with the TED community, as all performers there mingle with the audience over the course of the four days. We pick music that will work well as a kind of palate cleanser. There’s such a barrage of great ideas coming at you, you need a second to let it all sink in. So we put a lovely Scottish folk singer on stage, or a brilliant Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso, and the audience just goes “aaahh!” I also usually have a house band that plays a little mood-setting overture at the start of each session. A few of these you can see on TED, or on my YouTube channel.
What was the crux of your decision to refocus yourself on music this past decade and what has kept you inspired after three decades of performing?
I’d been away from music for too long. Because of my relative success in Silicon Valley I was focused on my company Beatnik, on lecturing and talking about technology, and I had no time to think about music. But I was a bit like a fish out of water, because at the end of the day I am a musician through and through. So when I found a suitable moment to step back from Beatnik, I moved back to the UK and concentrated on writing and recording new songs. I think my time away means I can approach it in a very fresh and un-jaded way. Plus, I feel no need now to wow people with electronics and grooves. There’s so much of that going on now, whereas when I started I felt like a pioneer. Instead I focus on what’s unique in my songwriting and storytelling ability, which these days is a much more rarified possession.
Do you find yourself inspired by other musicians, or do influences bleed into your music from other aspects of life?
Yes, I have a few heroes that constantly inspire me, mostly with their music and sometimes with their personalities, the way they conduct themselves. I look at Peter Gabriel, how he has elevated his music in spite of not rushing it, and how well he uses the talent he has to get to the core of something that matters to people. Or Brian Eno, who is the Leonardo Da Vinci of modern music — Leonardo invented the helicopter and painted the Mona Lisa, while Eno invented ambient music but still helped a series of rock acts reach the very zenith of their careers. Or Björk, who sounds to me like a creature from another planet bravely trying to come to terms with our alien atmosphere here on Earth.
If, miraculously, you had the ability as a teenager to look into the future and hear A Map of the Floating City, what do you think your reaction would have been?
I was always in awe of artists who made no compromises, cut no corners in making beautiful records that stood alone. That’s what I’ve tried to become in this the second chapter of my musical career. In many cases my heroes were consigned to being consigned to being viewed as cultish, marginal, uncommercial. But now that the music industry has collapsed, the world is an open book and we can dream again. I think I would have recognized in AMotFC the values I held dear as a teenager. But I probably would have thought “who’s that old fat bald guy making those beautiful sounds?”
Regina Spektor is noted as a contributor to “Evil Twin Brother” on the album, playing the role of an “East European waitress” in the song — while immensely gifted as a singer and classically trained pianist, her music has never led me to instinctively view her as a technological innovator. The same goes for Mark Knopfler. How do you approach these sort of collaborations and do you expect a certain willingness to experiment on the part of your collaborators?
I don’t think technology has anything to do with it. Certain musicians just have a natural affinity and we know we speak the same language, regardless of current trends or fashionability. Regina is a blistering talent and simply a sweet human being, while Mark Knopfler is one of the greatest guitarists that ever lived, and certainly the most appropriate to help me tell the story of “17 Hills.” I am glad they saw it the same way!
Do you think you’ll return to the format of the music video in the future, or pair music with video as you move forward?
Well put it this way. The most viewed clip on my YouTube channel, by a factor of about 10:1, is the clip of my cat peeing on the toilet. This makes life very simple. I can use that as the video for each of my new songs, and even put him on the record covers to sell more copies, and pay him in Friskies.
As technology continues to evolve exponentially, how has your ability to create been affected or enriched by new tech developments (in recent years), and what innovations do you see taking place in the near future?
It starts with the software on my laptop which is many times more powerful than the professional recording studio where I paid hundreds of pounds an hour to make my first album. Then there’s the distribution, the ability to upload a clip and have it heard by millions of fans almost instantaneously — read the reviews in the morning and then re-write the second verse and put a new version up alongside the first, if the mood takes me, or not.
A few years back a fellow blogger commented on the future of mobile digital music and how it was quite possible for phones to become the single most important peripheral in terms of music consumption. This would seem to go hand in hand with some of the ideas behind Beatnik. Now looking in from outside on the everyday activities of the company — and that entire sector of the industry to some degree — what do you see as the future of portable music?
I’ve always felt that the phone was a remote control for your life. You should be able to hear a song wherever, whoever you are, like a giant jukebox. Or, if you’re too lazy, listen to someone else’s playlist: a tastemaker you trust, or just let an algorithm pick for you. Music is becoming a commodity, and utility like water — you don’t stop to worry about the cost of filling a glass of water from your tap when you’re thirsty, and at the end of the month you’re happy to pay the utility bill as it’s part of your life. Where the song resides should cease to be important. You’ll just punch a few keys and within seconds you’re hearing it.
Beatnik, actually, had no idea behind it. I wanted to affect music at a core level, and for many years (in the early to mid ’90s) we did that by making some highly innovative musical experiences that had no business model behind them at all. We were able to sustain a company like that for as long as the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com boom lasted. When the bubble burst, we were left with one single line of business that had teeth: mobile phones. So we gambled everything on that one idea, like betting all your chips on red 37, and seeing it the ball drop in the hole. Since 1999 over 3.5 billion mobile phones have shipped with our technology in, making Beatnik arguably the most popular synthesizer of all time! For a synthesist like me, that feels pretty good.
What is there left that you hope to accomplish with your career? Call it a musical bucket list of sorts…
Oh, there’s plenty. For a start I’m not happy that I’m best known for songs that I don’t rate as my best. It pains me that “Science” and “Hyperactive!” were huge hits, but “Screen Kiss” and “I Love You Goodbye” were overlooked. That was a bi-product of the way the industry worked back then. The industry has evaporated now, and it’s a whole new ballgame, so we can dream again. I dream that a song like “Oceanea” will one day be as popular as my hits of the ’80s.
Do you ever find yourself looking back, or are you constantly attempting to look forward?
I look back, but I never pine for the olden days. I feel my best work is still ahead of me, and I have the ability to equal or even surpass some of the musical heroes I was in love with as a youngster. And I feel that the possibility of making great music is a huge gift to humanity, and for those of us lucky enough to have it within our grasp, we have little choice but to pursue that dream to the ends of the earth.
The 46th installment of I Used to Love H.E.R., a series in which artists/bloggers/writers discuss their most essential or favorite hip-hop albums and songs...
Maestro Fresh Wes "Let Your Backbone Slide"
I don’t remember where or when I first heard it, I just remember that "Let Your Backbone Slide" has practically always been a part of my life. From what Wikipedia tells me the song was pretty popular state side as well as in Canada, but living north of the border for the majority of my life I can tell you that it stands as one of the few non-Tragically Hip songs that I can think of to be celebrated on such a level. Think "Funky Cold Medina" x "Wild Thing" in terms of its chances of being played at a party.
Coolio "Fantastic Voyage"
Coolio came along at a time when I had practically zero interest in hip hop – for the most part I practically only listened to dance music; there were some exceptions like the Spin Doctors, Counting Crows & Aerosmith, but nine times out of 10 that’s what was in the cassette player. I was somewhere around 10 or 11 years old when "Fantastic Voyage" came along and at the time it was the playful (and sexy) music video which complemented the funky bounce of the song that really hooked me; something that was repeated on a similar level (sans sexy) with Coolio’s equally enjoyable "1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New)" in 1995. I remember that I kept this tape in the drawer of my desk rather than putting it on the self with my other music for fear that I’d somehow get in trouble if one of my parents saw the parental advisory sticker on the cover. Not that they were particularly interested in browsing through my music collection, but when you’re 10 and you have something that has a sticker on it explicitly warning parents about its contents, the item carries with it some sense of danger. Regardless of what kind of fame-whore, Juggalo wannabe Coolio’s evolved into, if it weren’t for tracks like Fantastic Voyage I would likely have never gained a similar ear for like-sounding rhymes and beats.
House Of Pain feat. Guru "Fed Up (remix)"
When I was in grade school I was on a competitive hockey team; I think I played for three or four seasons until my family had to move and I ended up quitting (I thought we moved for financial reasons … which we did, downsizing in many aspects of our life … so I told my parents I just didn’t want to play anymore. Years later this came up in discussion and apparently we weren’t hurting to the point where I had to quit. A shame in hindsight). One of the best memories I have was the team dynamic that was shared for a couple of seasons. While players moved up and down divisions based on their skill level, for at least two of those years I played with the same core group of kids. Never underestimate the power of winning to bring people together. Our warm-up music was made up of a selection dance music tapes … which in retrospect is absolutely ridiculous when you think about it … then again, acts like 2 Unlimited offered some pretty ill jock-jams back in the day. One of the favorites that came out of this was House of Pain’s "Jump Around"; or at least the edited version that we had on our K-Tel Dance Mix ’93 tapes. A few years later I was becoming increasingly interested in music and finding out what else was out there. The local library had a scattered selection of CDs to browse through so I typically ended up just snatching a dozen or so at a time, regardless of whether or not I knew what they were, and taking them home for a listen. On one trip I picked up House of Pain’s last album, 1996′s Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again. Granted, most all of it went right over my head and to this day I couldn’t tell you what the record sounds like … with one exception, that is. The remix of "Fed Up" really hit a spot with me then, and remains one of my favorite House of Pain tracks to this day (though in all honesty, the list of my favorite House of Pain songs isn’t a lengthy one). The song was also my introduction to Guru.
Beastie Boys "Root Down (live at Tibetan Freedom Concert)"
In 1997 I wasn’t old enough to gain a knowledgeable understanding of what exactly was going on in Tibet, or why musicians were lobbying for Tibet to be free (whatever that meant), but I was old enough to recognize that the lineup on the three-disc Free Tibet collection was sick enough to pony up the cash for. In retrospect there are far more bands on the 36-track mix that I’m interested in now than I was then … for those who aren’t familiar I’d recommend checking it out as the lineup offers a great cross section of musicians from that period. Despite the laundry list of fantastic musicians on the comp., back in ’97 I ended up spending quite a lot of time with Beasties & "Root Down." The version might not be too different from the original, but the variation caught enough of my ear that it led me to spend a lot more time with the group. For a number of years "Intergalactic" was practically my favorite song, and strange enough, I might not have been so attracted to it had I never stood in a music store wondering what the hell Tibet was.
Funkmaster Flex & Wu-Tang Clan "Lay Your Hammer Down"
When I was in high school things weren’t really working for me: I didn’t particularly care about my grades, sports failed to hold my interest and the relationships I had with other kids were becoming increasingly superficial. I had heard about a program you could go into to work rather than take classes (essentially I’d go to school half the year, work the other half), and given my options I took that route. I went to work as a cook and for a couple years I met some ridiculous characters. That said, I was turned onto some great music along the way. Punk, rap & rave were key practically every day in the kitchen (oh, and James Brown… a lot of James Brown), and it was during this phase that I really latched on to Wu-Tang; I was familiar with the group before, but hadn’t really ever listened to any solo albums to that point. For the next couple years I remember Method Man being my favorite MC & Ol’ Dirty Bastard remains to this day one of the all-time greats in my book. While songs like "Triumph" and "Protect Ya Neck" are some of the best around and "Bring The Pain" was my favorite at the time, it was tracks like this Funkmaster collaboration that led me to dig a little deeper into the archives.
[This article first appeared on So Much Silence.]
Music Monday Q&A
1. How long has Culture Bully been operating?
1,970 days as of August 23 2010.
2. What makes Culture Bully different from other websites?
It's the only site to be a) called "Culture Bully," and b) be 100% fully endorsed by me: Chris DeLine. I'd like to make it clear that I, in no way, stand behind the sub-par Culture Bully Español knock-off.. But if you're looking for an actual example of competitive edge... I can't think of another site that recently featured new music videos by Scissor Sisters, Behemoth, RZA and Joanna Newsom in the same day. So I've got that goin' for me.
3. Do you think Culture Bully has a specific musical niche?
(See: Behemoth & Scissor Sisters.) I was genuinely mulling this over about a week ago. To some degree I know the site alienates a lot of people because it's all over the place—too all over the place, even. But I'd rather go that route than try to pick a single genre, or sub-genre, and focus solely on that. It just doesn't seem like it'd be as much fun. I mean, at this moment there's stuff on the main page focusing on everything from heavy metal to hip-hop... Actually, come to think of it, there's a common denominator there: tight jeans. Maybe the site does have a niche and I just never realized it.
4. What albums are you looking forward to coming out?
Grinderman, Robyn, Kanye West... but there's an impossible amount of music to listen to that's released every day, so it's not like I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for anything to reach my ears. Each day offers a new surprise in that regard.
5. How does Culture Bully support independent music and what’s important about doing so?
I'm probably not the best guy to stand up and wave the indie-music flag, and I'm not even sure that I know what it means to truly support independent music. Is there a sticker, like the "I Voted" stickers you get during elections, that says "I support indie music?" Just like major labels, much independent music is so ridiculously god-awful to the point that I don't think I could wear the sticker in good conscious, if there was one. I had a friend in university who liked bands along the lines of Seether and Nickelback and whatnot, and when I would push him to qualify why exactly he likes that stuff when the options are limitless of what you can listen to he gave me a response along the lines of, "If it sounds good to me, I like it." To some degree I've grown in a similar direction. Ten years ago I wouldn't be caught dead listening to pop music, and the vast majority of rap made no sense to me. (Sidebar: not Wu-Tang though, them shits was tight even when I was in junior high, son.) But once you open your ears and let down your guard a little bit, life becomes more enjoyable; same holds true for music. I don't have much interest in ignoring major label music or specifically focusing on independent music just for the sake of doing so: if it sounds good to me, I like it. That said, if it ever comes to the point where Culture Bully is rocking some Seether on the reg, I would sincerely hope someone smacks me around with a tube sock full of batteries until I come to my senses.
6. Do you think online publications are taking precedence over print magazine? What kind of effect do you think that has on bands?
I guess the only way to know for sure would be to look at circulation statistics or earnings statements of the individual publishers to know if they're getting their asses handed to them financially. If they are, then I suppose you could draw the conclusion that the online world has taken over. Until then, though, I'd have to say no: I mean, until Pitchfork can move a couple hundred thousand issues of a print magazine every month, it's still just a website. There's still a market for print, and there will be one for the foreseeable future, but yeah, the shift toward digital publishing is eating up more and more of the pie as each year passes. There are certainly exceptions, but I still don't think the online world takes precedent quite yet. If your band gets a feature printed in some zine like NME, I'm still thinking that it means a whole lot more than getting a blog post on Stereogum (for example).
As far as bands are concerned, as the music blogosphere/world of online music publications continues to expand there becomes more opportunities to be featured somewhere on the Internet. Honestly, I love the idea that there are thousands and thousands of music blogs—so many that the idea of actually figuring out a ballpark figure is staggering—but the flip side is that there are thousands and thousands of music blogs. It becomes a blur after a while and unless you really connect with some site in particular as a reader—whether you like a blog's style, content, or are simply a fan of their niche—chances are that vast majority of everything that's out there is going to be overlooked anyways. So in the end, I'm not sure that it means that there are any more honest opportunities for bands now that there's a balance between print and online than there was when print dominated. It just means that the way bands have to market themselves is changing... but that's an entirely separate discussion for another time.
7. What blogs/magazines do you read other than your own?
Honestly, I pay more attention to Twitter and digg-ish aggregators than individual sites for the most part. But, as far as music sites are concerned, I check out arm's length-list that's featured on my links page fairly regularly. I've been enjoying more dance/electronic sites as of the late, for whatever that's worth. Non-music: Mashable, Cracked... Like I said though, on the whole I just go where the Internet leads me. It's a trying mistress at times, but one that typically treats me right in the end.
8. What has been your most definitive moment since you started Culture Bully?
This interview... or the time I got a cease and desist order from Axl Rose's lawyers... or both. It's hard to say.
9. If you could interview any musician/band (dead or alive) who would it be?
The thing about interviews is that they're pretty much forced conversations between strangers. I don't know that you can expect too much from anyone you haven't really met before, especially considering the typical amount of time it takes to simply crack the ice with someone. The more you think about it, the more awkward the idea seems. That said...
Dead: I would like to hang out with Jimi Hendrix for a while. I think I could've learned a few things about partying from that cat.
Alive: I think Neil Young would have a few words that would help me gain some insight into life. The man's smart, and having lived through what he has, I can't imagine him not having a few amazing revelations just waiting to roll off his tongue. And if all else fails, we could just talk about hockey... though I honestly wouldn't mind just hanging out in awkward silence with the guy; seems like that'd make for a pretty great story to tell someone else's grandchildren.
10. If you could be in any band (of all time), who would you rock with?
I've never really wanted to be in a band. Sure, daydreams here and there, but I've never really wanted it. I'd much rather tour with a team of skateboarders, the Harlem Globetrotters, or even the Jackass crew. Actually, especially the Jackass guys: they're kind of like a band when you think about it. And I know Chris Pontius can actually jam a little bit. In the event someone has the power to make this happen holler at me, seriously—I'd jump at the chance to intern for their website or something. I'm pretty flexible and have already moved three times across two countries this year, so I have no qualms with picking up shop at a moment's notice. Please America, help show the rest of the world that dreams can come true!
[This article was originally published by Green Light Go.]
Recently, I spoke with Chris DeLine, who is a writer and author of the music blog Culture Bully. In this interview, Chris shares his perspective on a number of big ideas, ranging from late-bloomers to the Hold Steady to the ten-thousand hour rule to the work of economist David Galenson, and back again.
In recent years, as the media hype cycle has accelerated, so too, has the creativity time-line for artists collapsed. Put differently, the Internet has amplified the speed of word of mouth and music publications have interlocked themselves in never-ending competition to see who can champion an aspiring artist first.
With a seemingly endless supply of new artists to advocate for, publications no longer need to worry as much about the merits of the subsequent albums by artists who have since lost their buzz. In tandem, the acceleration of the hype cycle, the amount of space between, or “downtime” rather, that an artist can afford to take between releasing new creative works has shrunk, based not on the discretion of the artist but of the demands set forth by the changes in society.
The range of expectations that the audience puts forth have changed. Together these two trends, among others, have reshaped the demands that surround the artistic endeavors and created the great paradox of our times—that not only do albums lose momentum faster due to the velocity of the cycle, but artists now have even less time to produce new works. This has the potential to force artists to push out work, often times, causing them to follow-up before they’re ready.
In what ways have these societal and technological shifts reshaped the careers of artists and forged a path through the media landscape that requires a new breed of entrepreneurial and digitally fluent artists?
Chris DeLine: In terms of technological changes affecting musicians there have been a lot. They haven't just begun with the advent of music on the internet though, but instead, I think this is just another step in a long line of changes. Radio brought new ways for audiences to experience music, and expanded the number of acts that any given consumer was exposed to; television added to this, music television did the same, and I guess you could throw in things like tape trading and people burning CDs for one another. The internet—specifically, at least in my own experience, things like IRC, Napster, AudioGalaxy, (the original) MP3.com, and Soulseek—added to the next huge step in the time-line (some call it the hockey-stick effect, where a figure begins to grow exponentially...), suddenly allowing millions of people instant access to an endless supply of music from an endless supply of musicians they'd never heard of.
I don't know that technology over time has made it easier or harder to get noticed because I don't know that there were (per capita, at least) any fewer bands 50 years ago than there are today. That said, it's easier to gain access to bands now and it might just appear like there are more bands struggling for the same piece of pie now because it's easier for bands to reach out to listeners. The flip side is that now there are all these musicians that have started up IN the age of the internet who appear to believe that they need instant gratification: if there isn't instant buzz online about them, somehow that has some bearing on whether or not they're good, or enjoying themselves, or like the process of performing and creating, or whatever. As best I can tell, this is only blown further out of proportion because over the past decade thousands and thousands of blogs/online zines/whatever-you'd-prefer-calling-them have started up, offering up free music; legal or otherwise. And as the shift continued you then have people who might have once used outlets like Napster in the late-'90s who are now turning to these sites to find music. The whole thing seems like a three-headed beast that is feeding off of itself: There has been an increase in the number of bands who are looking for online exposure, there has been an increase in the number of outlets that are looking to offer online exposure, and (I assume) there has been an increase in the number of internet users who are looking online for new music. Like you said, the “downtime” between releases has shrunk for many due to an endless queue of bands waiting in the wings to be heard next and a slew of websites and readers eagerly waiting to jump on board for whatever the next big thing might be.
I'm not entirely sure what being “digitally fluent” means anymore, but there are still some traditional paths which have tremendous weight in terms of the prolonged success of any musician. Practicing, for instance, and performing live—both are key for many acts, not only in terms of maintaining interest in themselves for more than an instant, but actually getting better and expanding their real-life fan base. To paraphrase what someone far smarter than me once said, there's a difference between being famous and internet famous. I think more musicians need to keep that in mind before spamming tens of thousands of MySpace accounts to try to gain some new ears. That is, unless if they don't aspire to reach any remote level of “success” outside of the interweblogosphere... Actually, if they're still under the belief that MySpace friends are where it's at, I'm not sure there's much hope for them anyways.
CNN.com featured a story the other day titled "Before I get old: Success for late-blooming bands." In it, reporter Mark Morgenstein writes about the even more counterintuitive situation where three bands—The National, the Hold Steady and Spoon—“have each hit their highest positions ever on the Billboard 200 album chart with albums released in the past few months.” The interesting part is what they all have in common: they’re members are all in their thirties; have been playing together since the nineties; and until now, none of them had much commercial success with their music.
As the music and record industries evolve and as does the nature of the Internet itself, it doesn’t seem inconceivable that the media hype cycle will only get more pronounced and the creatively time-line for artists will continue to shrink. Do you think we’re moving towards a future where a story like that of these three bands can happen again? Or, have we pushed ourselves, both as and industry and a society, to the instantaneous direction of “NOW!” to the point where anomalies like this aren’t as likely?
Chris DeLine: I don't think so, I mean I can't see it not happening: experienced acts rising to prominence. That said, it's not like 2010 was the year that these three bands suddenly gained their respective fan bases, or started selling out shows, or sold a few records... It's just the year that they sold the most records. Is it because there weren't journalists and bloggers writing about how awesome these bands were five years ago? Not really... I mean, while not as influential then as the site is now, Pitchfork planted both Spoon and the Hold Steady in the top 50 albums of 2005; the same year the site slapped a 7.9 tag on the National's Alligator. In five years I imagine we'll have some band who are pretty tight right now come through in a big way.
What’s also significant about these three bands is that they had been playing together for about ten years before they had any commercial success with their music. “And what’s ten years?” Malcolm Gladwell questions in his book Outliers. “Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” In it, Gladwell does a short case study of the Beetles and concludes that they were in fact the beneficiaries of a special opportunity in the Hamburg strip clubs.
Do you think that, in the ten years that The National, the Hold Steady and Spoon have been playing together, that they have been the beneficiaries of any hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allowed them to work hard and create great music at time when many artists were unable to continue their careers?
Chris DeLine: This is likely going to chop any credibility I might have left to shreds, but I really don't listen to these bands often enough to offer up the best insight. That said I'm not sure that they had any more or less opportunities than any other bands along the way; plain and simple: they're good at what they do and they work really hard. The Hold Steady has a tremendous fan base that dates back to the days of Lifter Puller, and while that might not have initially helped propel them to stardom, it did help make sure that they weren't starting from square one. Once they outgrew the Twin Cities, they took their expanding presence to New York and over the course of the following years built their fan base up ever further to a point where in 2010 they're setting a personal record for first week album sales. A few years back the National were playing some hole-in-the-wall bars and now I can't imagine the band not selling out everywhere they go, regardless of whether it's 1,000 capacity venues in Omaha or 6,000 seat venues in New York City. The same goes for Spoon. I don't think that they're outliers in the sense that they've had some extraordinary luck—though a little luck along the way never hurts—but I think that they've worked really hard to not only become really good at what they do, but also make sure that they've gotten enough face-time with audiences along the way to leave an impact on them. Without either of those factors they wouldn't be where they are today.
Another interesting angle to this news story is the word “late-bloomer.” Both Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink have written quite extensively about this subject. From the perspective of Gladwell, we “sometimes think of [late-bloomers] as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts.” He thinks we assume “the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure.” Yet, what the arguments made by economist David Galenson suggest is something different—“that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.”
Based on what you know about the careers of The National, the Hold Steady and Spoon, do you think they follow the archetype of the “late-bloomer?” Or, was Morgenstein wrong to pin them as that?
Chris DeLine: Well, just going by what the article implies term to mean I can't see how they're full-on late-bloomers; it's not like they created huge musical turds until this year, they're just being greeted with the most commercial success this year, is all. I like the example you sent me where Pink referred to Jackson Pollock's piece “The Key,” which he created at age 34—in the article the painting is literally called “a piece of crap”—and how in the same article he defines Pollock's work some seven years later as “spectacular.” So if the “late-bloomer” is someone who works diligently to realize their potential while stumbling many times along the way, I'm not sure it fits here. I'm not even sure that each of these bands' last albums are their best, which only adds additional evidence against them falling under the “late-bloomer” label.
“On the road to great achievement,” Gladwell writes, “the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.” In Ripped, Jordan Kurland, manger of Death Cab for Cutie and Feist, said, “Now, you run into this phenomenon with people propping things up that shouldn’t be propped up quite so soon… It is a society of instant gratification now, and bands are built up and torn down before they’ve had a chance to create a body of work that represents who they are or what they can do.”
Have we as an industry and the publications that cover it progressed in a way that shuns late-bloomers and rewards only the new prodigies? Have music publications prematurely judged and and thwarted the careers?
Chris DeLine: You betcha! But to some degree I think that's always been true... I'm going to go back to that Jackson Pollock reference again, just to keep things consistent. From the Wired article:
“Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age... Of course, not every unaccomplished 65-year-old is some undiscovered experimental innovator.”
I like that suggestion a lot because it's two-fold. (I'm only using this band as an example because of their public labeling as a “blog band.”) Sure, an band like the Black Kids might be “late-bloomers,” and sure they might still possible create a monster-hit so earth-shattering that it would become so culturally and commercially omnipresent that it puts today's most important songs to shame, but a lot of people who were once behind them, or even once "liked" one of their songs, have already either forgotten about them or written off the group. Then again, maybe they only had a few good songs in them to start with and are simply an average band. Who's to say? If Jackson Pollock had given up due to his mediocrity or lack of determination, he would have likely been long-since forgotten, and his presence would have never been felt. But how many others did give up who were brilliant, or how about if Pollock had peaked with mediocrity... there are a lot of ways these scenarios can and have played out, and certainly too many for me to think that the entire burden of shunning “late-bloomers” and rewarding “prodigies” in this context should rest on the shoulders of music publications.
In David Galenson’s study Old Masters and Young Geniuses, he writes “Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.” To me, this point relates to the careers of many artists like Prince, who took five albums before he came out with Purple Rain, or Fleetwood Mac who took ten albums before they came out with Rumors. Judged by today’s terms, they would’ve been complete failures. Then, in contrast, you have artists like Panic At The Disco who hadn’t even played a show together live before they got signed.
What happens in a day and age where artists lack the financial means and the time-line to produce the kind of creative music that proceeds through trial and error and necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition? Has our culture shifted in a way that no longer provides the environment for an experimental artist to grow and be nurtured?
Chris DeLine: Well, “complete failure” is a bit harsh, it's not like Prince or Fleetwood Mac weren't “names” before those releases, but we can save that for another discussion. Gladwell's “Late Bloomers” article bluntly says that without strong financial and emotional support many would have never made it to the trial and error stage, let alone been able to work through that stage to find whatever brilliance is lurking within them. While this likely dates back far, far further into the past, his examples date back to the 1800s, and I don't know that it's really shifted as much as it's been magnified, just as the internet has magnified the number of musicians out there trying to get their nut. I don't think that I'd say that our culture has shifted away from nurturing artistic growth on the whole though, maybe just here and there, in bits and pieces. Take funding away from “the arts” in schools or cities, and you stop nurturing “artists.” That's just one instance that hacks a little piece away from the larger picture, but it's one of many factors that contribute to the shift you alluded to. People are still talking about this issue which means that it's still got to have some relevance, so if you're asking me, I think that there's still a ton of support for artists out there. But maybe things aren't as simple as they used to appear to be.
[This article was first published by Hypebot.]
Published June 29, 2010
When we last heard from the Roots, the group had released what was then-deemed their last album, Rising Down. The themes on the record often pointed to dark clouds — examining the bleakness of the times — and leading the way was the album’s first single “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction).” If you’re looking for angry, “75 Bars” is it. In less than a year’s time however, the group unveiled the first single from what would become How I Got Over, performing the record’s title track early on in their residency on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the surface, MC Black Thought’s lyrics are still focused on the bleak, the song examines our culture’s shift towards a police state as well as society’s increasingly cutthroat nature, but the foundation of the track is built on the positivity repeated in the hook, “Out in the streets, where I grew up/First thing they teach us: not to give a fuck/That type of thinking can get you nowhere/Someone has to care.” This trend is repeated throughout the record, but while How I Got Over struggles lyrically with politics, religion, and society’s shortcomings, the message is clear: Hope is not lost.
The angelic chorus provided by a trio of female vocalists from the Dirty Projectors—Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle—leads the record, shaping a wordless harmony over the subtle beat provided by the band. Picture yourself at a house party with the music flowing throughout the crowd and everyone’s having a good time. Then “A Piece of Light” comes on; had it not been made apparent that the song was in fact from the Roots, it would be hard to imagine anyone making the connection—think acid jazz with a hint of funk. It’s not long before the Roots step from behind the curtain and unveil themselves, the spotlight returning to the main players as “Walk Alone” rises from the speakers. Truck North and P.O.R.N. serve up the track’s first two verses, focusing on the trials of the solitary citizen, and Black Thought chimes in for the third, eventually likening the journey to that of a lone soldier, lost in the unknown: “A kamikaze in the danger zone far from home.” But like “How I Got Over,” the refrain once again sheds some light on the situation, urging the strength from within to reign supreme, “You know I walk alone, always been on my own, ever since the day I was born/So I don’t mind walking alone.”
The understated keys of “Walk Alone” flow seamlessly into the Jim James-led “Dear God 2.0,” a reinterpretation of Monsters of Folk‘s second single from the indie-rock super-group’s 2009 debut. “Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image/And why is livin’ life such a fight to the finish,” asks Black Thought, continuing, “For this high percentage, when the sky’s the limit/A second is a minute, every hour’s infinite.” Concluding with a sense of clarity that there’s an endless possibility for good after flowing through bar after bar of lyrics aimed at economic, environmental and apathetic peril, the song does well in continuing the process of finding the good amongst life’s most damning issues.
By the time “Radio Daze” gets its turn to shine the band is in full effect, ?uestlove leading the group with a weighty beat as the hook continually lurks in the background while Blu and P.O.R.N. flow over the top. Little Brother’s Phonte joins in on “Now or Never,” the song highlighting the need to change for the better regardless of whether or not the world around us is changing for the worse. Similar to the hook that runs throughout “How I Got Over,” “Now or Never” repeats, “Everything’s changing around me and I want to change too/It’s one thing I know, it ain’t cool bein’ no fool/I feel different today, I don’t know what else to say/But I’m gonna get my shit together, it’s now or never.” “DillaTUDE: The Flight of Titus” rounds out the first half of the record as the laid back interlude creates a chilled vibe that cleanses the palate in preparation for what is yet to come.
Icelandic vocalist Patty Crash joins in for “The Day,” the track finding ?uestlove maintaining the flow with a subtle beat on the snare as Blu and Phonte return to the picture. Throughout the track the duo focuses on appreciating life rather than living in the gutter, “I got to try different things in these trying times/20-10 is different than it was in 9-5/It’s come alive-time, I picked a fine time, so get open off life like a fine wine.” “And I finally understand my right to choose, my preacher-man told me it could always be worse: even a three-legged dog has three good legs to lose,” spouts the song as it comes to an end with Crash raising the tone even higher, “‘Cause today’s gonna be the day’s, gonna be the day’s, gonna be the day.” Working in Joanna Newsom‘s “Book of Right-On” from her 2004 album The Milk-Eyed Mender, “Right On” continues the female-focused chorus from “The Day” while Black Thought presses hard on the need to stand strong, “It’s a cold world, I’m not frontin’ like it isn’t/It’s no time for comin’ up shorter than a midget… It’s precious cargo you gotta be strong to lift it.”
“Doin’ It Again” crashes heavy with a pumping piano while ?uest keeps heads nodding. John Legend takes to the mic during “The Fire” on the song’s chorus, helping drive home the same point that is repeated throughout the record, Black Thought adding, “Something in my eyes say I’m so close to having the prize/I realise I’m supposed to reach for the skies/Never let somebody try to tell you otherwise.” The bubbly “Tunnel Vision” acts as the second brief interlude, priming the field for Peedi Peedi and Truck North to jump in on “Web 20/20.” After taking over the final half of “Right On,” STS makes his second appearance on the album with “Hustla,” the track offering a sharp, unique sample dubbed under pounding, heavily distorted bass. Focusing on making the world a better place for the coming generations, the song is the only on How I Got Over to step into pulsating, amped-up production and away from the sound of the band. While not being the liveliest track on the record, the beat on “Hustla” raises the thought of how truly beautiful the music has been throughout the album. While the band is by no means unnoticeable, the lyrical girth that is showcased on How I Got Over often overshadows the backing beat; but again, it would seem that the year the band has been working together on Late Night has given its members a bond ripe for the recording studio.
It’s difficult to come out of How I Got Over with a sense that the world is a beautiful place. With the exception of the lyric-less introduction and the two interludes, each track touches on the weighty burdens that cramp daily life for the majority, also addressing the difficulty to keep struggling when the results can seem so minimal. But the point is there — almost to the extent of becoming redundant, actually: No matter how troublesome daily life may be, the true battlefield is in the mind. And if you can overcome that, you’re a million miles ahead. It would have been a shame if the Roots had bowed out with Rising Down, not only because the group has been one of the most consistent acts in hip hop for over two decades, but because we wouldn’t have ever had the chance to hear How I Got Over. The record goes a long way in reaffirming the Roots Crew’s “legendary” tag-line, but more importantly it focuses on finding inner strength in a world that can tear the soul right out of you; something we need now more than ever.
In a recent interview with AOL’s Noisecreep, Mike Patton attempted to sum up who Mondo Cane is for, “If you like orchestral music and have a heart in your fucking chest, you will like this record.” In keeping with Patton’s seemingly life-long preoccupation with non-linear career-jumps, Mondo Cane does exactly what many of the vocalist’s other projects have in the past: It requests that the audience place their trust in Patton as he experiments in a direction that few others would even consider following. And for the most part, fans’ trust has been repaid handsomely. In that sense, Mondo Cane is no different.
The project is the result of a decade-long idea which was inspired by Patton’s time spent living in Italy. Engaging in the culture and language — oh, also, his wife is Italian — Patton nurtured an appreciation for the country’s music; not modern music however, but rather pop and folk songs from the 1950s and 60s. As he continued to familiarize himself with the music, Patton began to conceptualize what these same songs would sound like if he were to perform them… with an orchestra. And over the past few years he has done just that, performing numerous times with a band and orchestra while he rips through his Italian lyrics. The release itself finds Patton teamed with a 15-piece band and 40-piece orchestra performing a selection of the very same songs that initially inspired the singer. “My purpose in revisiting these pieces is not to relive the past, not for nostalgia, but more to illustrate through modern and adventurous interpretation exactly how vital and important this music still is.”
Widely considered one of the most representative artists of Italian pop music from the era, a variety of Gino Paoli’s songs are strung together throughout the record. Perhaps the best selection of his is the opening track however, “Il Cielo In Una Stanza.” Popularized by Mina in 1960, where it topped Italian charts and reached the Billboard Hot 100, the song is introduced by a creaking organ that spookily rolls under a playful vocal duet. Early on in the track Patton’s range is tested, though amusingly it’s his animated annunciation of the lyrics which is most striking — the singer often rolling his tongue in perfect synch with the orchestra behind him.
“Che Notte!” follows, with Patton bouncing his menacing vocals off of the rapid trumpet-led accompaniment. A buzzing guitar and steady piano open Fred Bongusto’s “Ore D’Amore,” a song which peaked at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967 when released as “The World We Knew (Over and Over)” by Frank Sinatra. Ennio Morricone’s Danger Diabolik theme “Deep Deep Down” follows, marking one of the recording’s high points for both the musicians and the singer. With the song, and album for that matter, Patton continually balances between the structure, mood, and tone of the original composition and his own blazing translation. In “Deep Deep Down” he enhances the vocal part — something which has never been too difficult for Patton — but later concedes to the band, taking an equal role with the underlying music. The shift back and forth, not simply in this particular song however, is one that exemplifies the artistry found within the musicians’ compelling relationship.
Luigi Tenco’s gentle violin-led “Quello Che Conta” from the 1962 film La Cuccagna follows, slowing the pace of Mondo Cane down considerably while adding a tangible depth to the collection. The Blackmen’s 1967 psychedelic/garage-rock track “Urlo Negro” splashes down quickly after, breaking the gentle surface created by “Quello” with a rumbling drum introduction and Patton’s shrieking vocals. The song is relatively intense compared to the rest of the record and stands as a distinct outlier on the album, but in keeping with the continual shift in pace throughout Mondo Cane its rambunctious velocity sounds amazing.
“Scalinatella” has the unenviable position of following the overwhelming “Urlo Negro.” As the meandering folk song fades out the theme to 1965′s L’Uomo Che Non Sapeva Amare hits with a boom, but despite its gigantic sound neither Patton nor the orchestra spin their parts outside of the restraints of the original recording’s structure; then again, Mondo Cane IS a covers album. The galloping “20 KM Al Giorno” lends a variety of solo-moments for the band while Patton croons out the remainder of the recording with “Ti Offro Da Bere” and “Senza Fine.”
As far as needing to have a heart and an appreciation of orchestral music to enjoy Mondo Cane goes, Patton might be a little off. Compared to one of his last projects, the polarizing Peeping Tom release which compiled such guests as Norah Jones, Kool Keith, and Rahzel into an avant-garde aural orgy, Mondo Cane is quite accessible. Not just accessible, actually, but enticing. This credit can’t entirely be given to Patton however; it would be criminal to neglect just how much of the enjoyment from the music comes from the actual musicians. The orchestra and band work together to create a stunning interpretation of each song that gracefully enhances Patton’s glowing vocals. So no, to enjoy Mondo Cane you don’t need an appreciation of orchestral music and a heart in your fucking chest; just a heart and a pair of ears, Mr. Patton. Just a heart and a pair of ears.
How does one separate an artist from their art? Or can it even be done? Some might perceive the art to be a piece indicative of a moment in time, while the artist continues to grow and evolve into a different person as each new day arrives. Such a question, or conflict, arises when approaching the case of Varg Vikernes‘ new Burzum album, Belus: Should the artist and their history impact the perception of their current creative output, or should it be separated from their work entirely?
The notorious story of Varg Vikernes began as he transitioned away from a socialist skinhead faction in favor of the blossiming black metal community in Norway in the late 1980s. He would then release four highly influential albums under the Burzum moniker before befriending Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous) of the legendary band Mayhem. Joining the group in 1992, Vikernes later became associated with a movement (unjustly billed as Satanic in the media) which was highly critical of Western religions and responsible for the burning of several historic churches which dated back as far as the 12th century. Though the stories surrounding the events which followed vary, the result was concrete. Whether it stemmed from a struggle for control in the black metal community or was a measure of self-defense as Vikernes claims, he brutally murdered Aarseth in August of 1993. Convicted the following year, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison, although he failed to serve his entire sentence as he was released in May of 2009 after a judge granted his freedom following a parole hearing. All in all, that’s a lot to chew on.
To reiterate, can one even approach a piece of art — in this case a recording — with the ability to separate it from the artist’s violent history? Or should the separation even exist? Should the man be judged in the present for his past transgressions? Should his art? This brings us to Belus, the seventh full-length Burzum album, which was released earlier this month by Byelobog Productions.
While the theme which runs through his new record most definitely falls within the realm of personal beliefs and ideology, Belus looks to a different source for inspiration than Vikernes did in his younger years.
“Belus is not a religious album or an anti-religious album, nor is it a political one, but an attempt to explore the myths about Belus [an 'ancient European solar deity of light and innocence'] and unveil the oldest roots of our cultural heritage” reads a description on Vikernes’ website. The attempt with the record is to tell the story of “The death of Belus, his sombre journey through the realm of death and his magnificent return.” And through the journey, one track stands out in particular: “Glemselens Elv.”
The title loosely translates to “River of Forgetfulness,” alluding to the Lethe which was one of the five rivers of Hades in Greek mythology — supposedly if you drank from the Lethe you would experience some hardcore amnesia, pretty much forgetting everything. What initially captures the listener with the song isn’t the story however — though a Norwegian speaking audience might be more drawn to the lyrics — but rather the distinct contrast between the sounds in “Glemselens Elv” and the rest of Belus.
The song is stinging wth its rapid wave of guitar, though the initial draw is in its dull, blunt bass line which accents each note as the music transitions throughout the track. At nearly 12 minutes in length, Vikernes’ sheer ability to avoid becoming tedious despite the repetitive nature of the song only goes to further exhibit his impressive artistry.
A crude translation of the lyrics — which are found on Vikernes’ site in Norwegian, German, French, and Italian — offers a tale of a voyage below the surface to Hades where both a feast (which I’m presuming is a temptatious one leading the traveler to drink from the Lethe) and death await. (Maybe my Norwegian friends can shed a little more light on this.) It’s simple mythology — nothing to get too worked up about — but it creates an interesting example which relates to the question at the heart of the matter.
There are many variables when considering the man and his music, but the reality of the situation suggests that Vikernes is not the same person who he was at the time of his infamous imprisonment. In some cases it’s absolutely impossible to separate the two — here being the musician and his music — primarily in those situations where the output directly reflects upon the person who created it. If Vikernes had crafted a piece praising the ideals of neo-Natzism there would be no way to clearly identify a line between the ideals of the person and the song: They are one and the same. Here, Vikernes has created something based on a distant belief, but a belief nonetheless, which is ultimately no different than the Nazi example, or if he had expounded on the beauty of war, or the evils of the Western world. It all follows “belief” which is no different than the path he’s taken throughout his entire career as a musician. It is impossible to create that separation when the art is a direct expression of who the person is who created it. To honestly look at someone or something with open eyes is to see who they are and what they stand for at this exact moment. That doesn’t mean that who they are now doesn’t still reflect who they were, but simply that any judgement should be made within the consideration of their actions or output at this moment.
There’s no way for me to justify what Vikernes has done in the past: he was a brutal human with ideals detrimental to those around him. But the person he seems to have become is different, albeit no less vocal about his beliefs. Then again, he just released an album that would fit in lyrically within the bulk of Led Zeppelin’s mythos-based early material, so his beliefs might still be a little bit out there. Varg Vikernes is his music, and his music continues to be a reflection of who he is, but he at least for now he appears to be a different man than used to be, and like others, should be given the chance to be viewed as such.
[Also, subsequent to all of this, a recent press release states that all proceeds from Belus will go to "benefit Haitian earthquake victims." Although the support is honorable, the whole thing does seem a bit odd to me.]