Among a series of interviews completed during the recent Pitchfork Festival, Daily Swarm correspondent Jack Forman spoke with Colin Newman, the visionary frontman of the wildly influential English post-punk act, Wire. In Chicago’s Union Park, Forman and Newman discussed the triumph of Wire’s latest album Change Becomes Us, the band playing at Pitchfork, Newman’s current projects, and his advice for the next era of musicians, among other topics…
The Daily Swarm: So what can you tell me about Wire’s new album, Change Becomes Us?
Colin Newman: The album is a concept. At the end of the ’70s, when we dissolved, we had an album of just runoff material recorded. We always knew it was there to dip into at some point; we’ve referenced it a bit in our history, too. We’ve really been doing mostly touring after the last album, especially now that we’ve got [recent guitarist] Matt Simms. But we thought let’s take on a challenge, let’s tour a bit, and then we booked studio time to make the record. We figured, we’d see how it came out, and then it came out rather well.
The Daily Swarm: What do you think the listeners will take from it?
Colin Newman: The response has been amazing. I think that what happened was that the few people who heard it first thought that it was a very strong record. For the people who did not really know the background, they kind of just take it as a new album.
The Daily Swarm: Are you working on any solo work?
Colin Newman: My wife [Malka Spigel, of Minimal Compact notoriety] made an album last year, which has had critical success; I am just finishing up her upcoming EP at the moment. I also have a band called Githead, and we’ve recorded an album, but not yet released it. That’s going to be my main task this year.
The Daily Swarm: So what’s it like to come here and play Pitchfork Fest in Chicago?
Colin Newman: It’s great – we always try to make Chicago a tour stop, and this is actually the last stop on our tour. We have a history with Chicago. And Pitchfork, in the main, has really liked us.
The Daily Swarm: What should we expect from your show at Pitchfork?
Colin Newman: Awesomness. (Laughs) We’ve distilled the set down to the things we think are our best and what we really want to play. People may expect us to just be playing ’70s stuff, which we won’t, but we’ll do some of it.
The Daily Swarm: Are you looking to stay and watch any acts here?
Colin Newman: We are only here for the day, but we want to make sure we see Björk. I’ve never seen her, and I think we’re all excited for her.
The Daily Swarm: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring musicians or those entering the business?
Colin Newman: I think they should do what they can to understand the market that they are entering. If you can figure out how to self-release, you will really get ahead. The main thing is to have enough work and spend enough time with it as your profession to make it happen. You don’t get to be good by just doing it as a hobby.
As the season of summer music festivals steadily continues, the Pitchfork Music Festival looms imminent, with an increased profile like never before. Its 2013 edition begins tomorrow, July 19th, in Chicago’s Union Park; while only in its ninth year, Pitchfork Fest’s diverse, up-to-the-minute booking choices have made it a real alternative contender to the more veteran likes of Coachella and Lollapalooza. Over three days, a sprawling lineup – including Björk, Belle & Sebastian, R. Kelly, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, Solange, Yo La Tengo, The Breeders, TNGHT, Rustie, and many more – is slotted to perform; that list evokes a year’s worth of Pitchfork’s reviews section put into a blender – relaying, in concert form, the current state of new music, and revealing much DNA from its influential parent website in the process. The Daily Swarm spoke with Chris Kaskie, President of Pitchfork Media, to get his insights on the upcoming festival, its global expansion and future, the fest’s relationship to Pitchfork’s core ethos, and the current state of the musical union.
The Daily Swarm: Was there a new approach this year in planning Pitchfork Music Festival?
Chris Kaskie: Every year is kind of unique, in a sense. It’s a fun process to see what the year will look like, but there was no different approach to really changing how we do it. We focus more on making the festival unique, in relation to the numerous others. We work really hard to make it fun for the artists who play, and the fans that come to have the best time, all while not getting gouged on ticket prices. We go to truly celebrate the music.
The Daily Swarm: Can you elaborate a bit on the lineup for this year?
Chris Kaskie: We don’t really look at who’s coming through, or what is trending. We pay more attention to new and emerging music, as Pitchfork really tries to do everyday; our heavy focus is always on that. We also don’t tend to have too much crossover from previous years – we try to make each festival different in its own way. We may have some artists playing a larger slot, when in earlier years, they may have played a smaller slot. Ultimately, we want the festival to have a cohesive build from top to bottom.
The Daily Swarm: What led to branching out and starting the festival in Paris as well?
Chris Kaskie: We were always comfortable with what we had here in Chicago. The core ethos and ideal inside of the Pitchfork festival was always to cater to a worldwide and diverse audience, though. 65% of our audience is North American, which leaves us trying to reach the other 35% internationally. Pitchfork is a different kind of festival. We didn’t want to mirror Chicago exactly, but we still wanted to keep our original ethos in tact
The Daily Swarm: Will Chicago always be the festival’s home?
Chris Kaskie: As the festival grows, we think about new ideas, such as Paris. We do envision other locations, but it is hard to think about replicating exactly what we do in Chicago. However, I don’t see why we wouldn’t explore doing more festivals in a national capacity.
The Daily Swarm: How do you feel about music in 2013?
Chris Kaskie: So far, it’s been an amazing year for music – both with what people were expecting, with also many great surprises! Artists like Neutral Milk Hotel have decided to tour again, and others have done the same. People get the nostalgic style, but also are focusing on what’s new.
The Daily Swarm: Do you have any predictions for this year?
Chris Kaskie: It’s hard to say at this point, but if I had to say anything, it would be that I’ve noticed an increase in – and acceptance of – experimentation. There really has been more of a level playing field for artists developing: we see artists who were always niche-oriented now reaching larger audiences, which is largely thanks to the Internet. People want to keep discovering music on their own, which is exciting because people can really do it easily. The previous generation still exists, but there’s also exciting experimentation happening. I would’ve never guessed we would see Kanye West take on the release of his record in such an underplayed, yet amazing, delivery with a really new-world approach. People were really excited how he did it, and the album was well received, too.
The Daily Swarm: I’ve read that you’ve referred to Pitchfork as “that friend who loves good music.” Has there been an outlining process of how you select your music?
Chris Kaskie: The whole idea is founded on trust from the readers. We have a desire to be trusted and to create quality content that is both unique and interesting. If you go on Spotify, there are millions of songs, while if you go into the Spotify Pitchfork app, you can see a slightly condensed version of what you may be interested in, or find your way to other great music. There are more options than ever to experience music: this is when Pitchfork becomes a place where people can sort everything, or see what we think of. Some may only come to the site three times per year, and others quite regularly. If we can help facilitate listening in a natural way that is not invasive to any way people experience it, we have done our job correctly.
The Daily Swarm: Do you see a greater strength in new and social media?
Chris Kaskie: The power of having thousands of people interacting with you is truly great – I am always amazed with the following people generate with apps like Instagram and Vine. I’m still trying to grasp the concept as a whole, to be honest!
The Daily Swarm: Is there any piece of advice you would give to aspiring musicians or music-business professionals?
Chris Kaskie: To be honest, that’s a tough question to answer. Everyone does their own thing differently. In terms of entering into the field, I feel like creativity resonates best with everyone. You should always develop an identity that exists in your work and really allow people to publicly access what you do, but there is really no “one way.” I am always amazed at what I see that trends at certain times; being creative and experimenting are the main parallels. You should look to make a difference rather than just looking for a job, or making music that latches onto something else.
The Daily Swarm: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work with Pitchfork?
Chris Kaskie: It really comes down to all of the amazing people you get to work with, who all share the same passions you do for music and everything else we do. We have a festival that is sustainable, and people look forward to it. There really isn’t one thing to point to, though. When we get recognized, we enjoy the affirmation from doing what we love. As the audience grows, you get to see more excited people. I don’t think there are many festivals where you see a band that isn’t necessarily a mainstream act that gets to play for a huge audience and have a great time. All of our work is on the Internet, but there’s something really rewarding about seeing it in front of you at the festival. That “leveling of the playing field” has been really the overarching thing that we are proud of. People think about the music and enjoy it, and everyone deserves the same chance to be heard.
The Daily Swarm: Getting back to the festival, do you think this year’s lineup culminates what is trending currently in music?
Chris Kaskie: We don’t ever walk in to make sure we can check the boxes of what is “trending”; it’s way more natural to us, where we like having artists that are doing interesting things. Having Björk, Belle & Sebastian, and R. Kelly as headliners, we go from genre to genre: I was talking with someone the other day who said they were upset that TNGHT and R. Kelly had overlapping sets, or how Rustie and Belle & Sebastian overlapped. That blew my mind – in what world would I have ever imagined that kind of a crossover? It’s amazing to us. If people are bummed when they can’t see a great DJ due to a conflict with another act, that means we’ve done our job the right way in giving them what they want.
The Daily Swarm: Is there something that you can think of that people can expect this year, compared to other years?
Chris Kaskie: I don’t think there’s really one thing. Every year, having done this for ninth years now, we change the things that are very mundane, such as more ATMs onsite or things like that. You want to just have one less thing for folks to worry about and just have a great time. Everything we do is making sure it’s comprehensively good, while adding value to the event. There are always complicated decisions, but the music is what it’s all about.
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
On June 25, Wale released his third major label album The Gifted. It debuted at the top of the Billboard chart – a first for Wale, and displacing Kanye West’s much more hyped Yeezus to boot. Though Wale will undoubtedly cede the number one spot to Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, two different takes on Wale and The Gifted emerged in the press leading up to its release date and the days following it. In one, Wale came on the hip-hop scene about five years ago with unexpected moves – like rapping over “D.A.N.C.E.” by Justice, creating the Seinfeld inspired Mixtape About Nothing and working with Mark Ronson before he was at his most Mark Ronson-ish – that seemed initially exciting; in intervening years, however, he’s clutched for crossover acceptance by collaborating with artists like Lady Gaga and aligning himself with big business rappers like Rick Ross, squandering the talent he originally showed, culminating in this middling album.
Meanwhile, the other take posits Wale as finally getting the attention and rewards that he is due after years of hard work and experimentation, and that the success of his 2011 song “Lotus Flower Bomb” only predicted greater heights this time around, especially with a new album that’s guided by the sound of classic soul and features production from both legendary vets like Just Blaze and fuego _upstarts like Travis Scott. To explore these two perspectives on the Maybach Music Group member, Ducker got in touch with Timmhotep Aku, the editor-in-chief of TheBoombox.com, formerly of AOL and now a Townsquare Media property. Aku also serves as editor-at-large of Mass Appeal, and contributes to Complex.com, XXL and Jay-Z’s Life+Times website.
But before we get into it, a quick note: Throughout the conversation, Ducker and Aku use the terms like “tastemaker media” and “urban media” – phrases that they both know are very problematic. (Seriously you won’t believe how many times they use scare quotes.) However, for clarity, and to hopefully get some perspective on the issues at hand, they still use them anyway. Cool?
Eric Ducker: I want to talk with you about Wale. Regardless of our personal opinions of his new album, The Gifted, I’ve noticed what seems to be two divergent takes on the album. The overriding narrative in the “tastemaker media” suggests that Wale was once a promising rapper who has become both corny and craven in his attempts to become commercially successful, and now puts out increasingly bad albums; for the “urban media” and the people who came up through these outlets, the narrative largely indicates that this is the moment when Wale has fully overcome previous failures with a good album – finally receiving the commercial success he deserves. Would you say that’s accurate?
Timmhotep Aku: Wale is an example of the difference between Internet tastemaker/“influencer” opinion and the reality of having a strong fan base. Other people who fall into that category are guys like Macklemore and Mac Miller: it’s not “cool” to like them in the chin-stroking, hypebeasting world of Internet criticism, but it doesn’t matter because they still do numbers. “Urban,” or black, media embraces Wale not because it’s less discerning, but because its rules are different than those of the “cool” outlets of the world.
ED: What do you mean by the rules being different?
TA: This is super reductive and reads a little like a Def Comedy Jam, “White people do it like this, and black people do it like this“ routine, but urban media likes artists that make songs that are popular. The critical cool world, meanwhile, likes its stuff with a bit more artistic pretense.
ED: Do you think Wale has abandoned trying to make music with artistic pretense?
TA: I think he’s abandoned trying to pander to Pitchfork and critics of that ilk in favor of trying to make big hit records that the black college circuit that kept his career alive loves. This is not to say I’m a fan of Wale’s music; he’s got stuff I like, and stuff I hate, too.
ED: I’m not trying to make you the spokesmen for all black people, and I know we’re very much dealing in generalizations here. Still, I feel like there’s this idea among many critics, particularly white ones, that Wale is the goofball in the Maybach Music Group, and that he’s totally outmatched in terms of popularity and relevance by his peers. Does the black music-listening community largely not hold this opinion?
TA: Yeah, I’m not qualified to speak for black media on the whole, especially because it’s not some monolithic thing. I will say that I think people look at MMG as MMG, not like, “Why’s this Wale guy here?”
ED: Which I’ve actually heard many white critics say.
TA: Those divisions are artificial to all those but the “tastemaker” media you mentioned. The tastemaker crowd has a bone to pick with Wale for a number of reasons:
1. They think he’s not good. That’s the most honest, least unfairly subjective reason.
2. He’s switched his style up a couple of times. That set is quick to scream “fake” or “panderer” when they deem an artist disingenuous in his choices, unless that artist is pandering to them (see: Kanye).
3. Wale’s earned a rep for being a dick. Some of the folks who write about him have had bad interactions with him that fuel their dislike.
4. It’s fun to hate on Wale. Shit is like a meme. (Shit was actually a meme when Cudi dissed him.) Plus Wale will get all defensive and tweet back if you dis him on Twitter. That’s some validation for you.
ED: So, it would seem smart for Wale to no longer court that world. It’s not a good match for him.
TA: Exactly. He might give a fuck on some level, but then he looks at his bank account and chart position and goes back to writing hot spoken-word 16s. In turn, his critics tweet and blog furiously with disdain.
ED: It seems like a lot of the current writers and editors at tastemaker outlets grew up on regional rap, or that’s what they’re into, which wasn’t the case at all about a decade ago. That type of hip-hop seems to be what they focus on now (aside from Kanye). Do you think it has hurt Wale in their eyes because he didn’t come up through one of those worlds? He’s from Washington D.C. and sometimes incorporates elements of go-go – like on his early buzz track, “Dig Dug” (Shake It)” – but there isn’t something easy to identify him with, like trap or drill.
TA: I think it does hurt him. Regional rap is en vogue for critics these days. There’s no D.C. sound or a definitive production style. Plus if you’re the least bit cerebral, you’re scrutinized much more. Wale’s stuff isn’t as visceral as, say, Fat Trel’s, and it’s definitely smarter than a Chief Keef or Migos, so than means he gets picked apart a lot more.
ED: Like if you’re trying to operate intellectually on a level that many critics believe that they’re at, they’re more likely to see it as a challenge?
TA: I don’t know if it’s that personal. Maybe it is, but it’s like there are different standards for rappers. If rappers are simple, violent, materialistic and generally inarticulate, critics will scrutinize them less. They have more of a license to ill.
ED: Going back to what you said earlier about how Wale didn’t come from a D.C. sound or a definitive production style and how that didn’t make him seem cool, it also could have hurt him in the beginning with more mainstream listeners and outlets. He didn’t have an understandable identity. It wasn’t until he linked up with MMG that people were like, “Okay, I know who this guy is.”
TA: Yeah, like a lot of artists, he spent some time finding himself. You can say he’s guilty of not having a well-defined identity.
ED: Do you still think that’s true?
TA: Nah. I think Wale’s identity today encompasses all of his past identities to varying degrees.
ED: You’ve covered why you think one community has a problem with Wale, but why do you think the other community has embraced him despite what you seem to think are his musical shortcomings?
TA: Because he embraced them. Think about what he did when his first record flopped. He was on the historically black college and university scene heavy. He went where the love is, and that audience embraced him in return.
ED: But why do you think the love was there in the first place? Are you saying that just because they are an audience that is ignored or sometimes taken for granted, if an artist specifically courts them and tries to appeal to them, they will accept him?
TA: I’m not saying that. I think the simple reason the urban audience embraced him is because he made songs people liked. They were not polarizing or necessarily challenging or anything. “Lotus Flower Bomb” is a song with a great melody that’s for women, featuring Miguel; that’s pretty much one of the few formulas for a hit. Plus Wale’s never been portrayed as a weirdo. He’s just the regular dude with dreads that likes women, weed and sneakers. You know someone like him, so he’s relatable.
ED: Do you think the urban music outlets have mainly been positive towards The Gifted because they know many of their readers like him and don’t want to upset them, or are they honestly responding to it musically? The classic soul-influence approach is a pretty surefire way to at least get many critics into a positive outlook going into something.
TA: I just think they genuinely don’t have the same hang-ups as tastemaker media.
ED: Do you think anything from The Gifted is going to do as well “Lotus Flower Bomb”?
TA: It’s hard to tell. “Gullible” might hit, “Tired of Dreaming,” too.
ED: Do you think there’s an opportunity for career longevity in the approach Wale has taken?
TA: Yes. He has a track record of resilience, and his current formula is one that keeps artists relevant. I’m not saying I’m gonna love what he does, but Wale ain’t going nowhere for at least a couple of years.
ED: The thing about courting the tastemaker media, and probably why Wale has been smart to leave them alone now, is that eventually they want to make new tastes or show that their taste has evolved. And a lot of times that means that artists with the potential to mature are discarded – sometimes rightfully, and sometimes not.
TA: Yup. I’m of the mind that artists should court audiences, not necessarily critics.
Barry (The Baker) Auguste
This animated clip was created for Julien Temple’s documentary on Joe Strummer, The Future Is Unwritten, with drawings by Esperanza Romero, music by The 101’ers, and voiceovers by Joe & Esperanza at Maida Hill, W.9.
Do you like roller coasters? Of course you do. Then you’re in for a thrilling ride via Richard Dudanski’s spanking new autobiography, Squat City Rocks: protopunk and beyond – a musical memoir from the margins. In this rip-roaring confessional , Dudanksi fully explores his musical journey through the glory days leading up to and in the thick of the punk revolution, during which he pounded the drum skins with the likes of The Raincoats, Public Image Ltd., The Soul Vendors, Basement 5, and many other cutting-edge bands of the day.
Significantly, Dudanksi’s entrée into that world stemmed from his place as “Snakehips,” the primary drummer for the 101’ers – the pre-punk pub rock outfit where Joe Strummer first honed his frontman skills, and whose untimely demise coincided with Strummer forming the more au courant Clash. Squat City Rocks lovingly details the author’s 28-year camaraderie with Joe Strummer, who proved a close friend throughout his life. Dudanski’s memories of the ups-and-downs of their friendship make for captivating reading, as Richard observed sides of Joe that few others were witness to. In fact, he probably knew Joe better than the majority of his friends, and observed firsthand the evolution of a self-conscious, untested Woody Mellor into the forceful and dynamic “Joe Strummer” that I would get to know later with The Clash.
Richard’s life hasn’t proved so smoothly unproblematic – far from it! Instead, it was filled with dramatic adventures that fueled his playing and shaped his politics; as he admits early on in Squat City Rocks, he was “always looking for something else,” a theme that would recur throughout his life. Richard charted his own course, rarely deviating from his path to follow fashion or trends – along the way alternating between remarkable musical highlights and the depths of despair. As such, Squat City Rocks reads like A Clockwork Orange meets Steptoe and Son. Replete with stories of 'biker-boy’ revelry, police raids, electrical fires, stolen equipment and hair-raising escapades, it also serves as a fascinating examination of a squatter’s survival options back in England’s dismal early 1970s, with it’s dire housing shortages, trade union agitation, and general economic strife (although as Richard pointed out to me, things are far worse today in many ways, making his memories that much more significant.) He explains in detail the squatting community that existed in the ruins of West London, portraying an almost gang-like existence as they went from squat to squat – breaking in, occupying the premises, and making themselves at home. The poverty they chose makes for riveting reading, as they existed without hot water or electricity, drank tea from jam jars, and were forced to scavenge for fruit and vegetables lying discarded in the street after the local market closed. Squat City Rocks proves not only a testament to the determination to succeed of those willfully forgoing the basics of life: it also serves as a sobering glimpse of how a sizeable section of the U.K.'s population back in the ’70s existed day to day. Despite the bleakness of the landscape, Richard manages to find something like grace in all the violence and hardship, in no small part to his self-assured, incandescent prose.
Of greatest interest are Richard’s vibrant memories of the trials and tribulations of getting the 101’ers up and running as a working band. His crude reminiscences of “stuffing mattresses in windows for sound-proofing,” using “broomsticks for mic stands,” and “trundling the drum kit and amps in an old pram” provide vivid examples of the band’s hubristic attempts to succeed despite meager means. His insights into Woody Mellor’s gradual development from an novice rhythm guitarist into Joe Strummer, bandleader, are priceless: with unbridled enthusiasm, he describes the topsy-turvy earliest days of the 101 All Stars, the impromptu “Squat-Bops,” and the spit-and-sawdust pubs and clubs the band played in, complete with “burst blisters and bloodied knuckles.” Anger never sounded so righteous, nor so proudly optimistic, as when Joe spat out the words to his earliest songs. As Richard notes, “It was extremely high-octane rock’n'roll that hurtled along at a speed and intensity that would leave most 'Teds’ aghast at our sacrilegious versions”; he then contrasts those passionate “helter-skelter R&B nights” with their daytime nightmare of dangling, rain-soaked electricity cables, dodging holes in floorboards, and frequent break-ins and fights with intruders. Capturing the hardships and pressures, Richard paints a picture of an indissoluble troupe of derelict outlaws.
Over a two-year hand-to-mouth existence, the 101’ers performed virtually non-stop in the rowdy pubs and clubs of the mid-'70s – running the gamut from the St. Moritz in seedy Soho to the new age, pre-Spinal Tap Stonehenge Festival in Wiltshire and pretty much everything in-between. “Music was so very important to everyone then,” Richard writes of that era in Squat City Rocks. “It took the place of religion!” But just when the 101’ers gambit started paying off, the band ran smack-bang into punk rock in the form of The Sex Pistols. Instead of propelling them to the heights they so richly deserved, the arrival of Rotten, McLaren, & co. spelled the end of the band instantly. This was justice as rough as they slept, especially considering they had spent the best part of two years espousing a do-it-yourself revolution in cultural consumption that rejected top-down, centralized authority and conventional tradition. As current Uncut editor/then Melody Maker editor Allan Jones shrewdly observed at the time, “They broke every rule in the book and represented the advance raiding party on the rock establishment.”
The aftermath of Joe Strummer’s departure from the 101’ers and the immediate fallout proves absorbing, as the tale has never been told quite so intimately before. Following the agonizing dissolution of the band, the squat fell apart, with each of the occupants going their own way. Eventually, Richard picked himself up and continued his musical voyage, recounting the extraordinary unforeseen twists and turns of the British music industry, and his skirmishes with some of the most famous bands from the post-punk years. Eventually he became the drummer for Public Image, recording the band’s classic album Metal Box with PiL’s John Lydon, Keith Levene, and Jah Wobble – a collective he found “brimming with possibilities.” But once again, as things were looking up, the venture simply collapsed, and he left in a flurry of mutual accusations and reproaches.
Richard Dudanski drumming with the Soul Vendors at The Tabernacle. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Romero).
Gradually, with the perspective of time, Richard’s relationship with Joe Strummer was reconciled and their friendship renewed. Reunited, they formed the Soul Vendors: along with old pals Derek Goddard from The Raincoats and Mole from the 101’ers, they rang in each New Year with pulsating R’n'B, ska, and 101’ers originals. Out of that, the old 101’ers tapes and recordings were pieced together for the explosive album Elgin Avenue Breakdown on their own label, and the musical circle of that seminal band was finally complete.
At the heart of the book is the crucial lead-up period before punk detonated onto an unsuspecting public. The wind of change was in the air, and everyone in the various London scenes seemed to instinctively feel that something momentous was germinating. It was a pivotal point in English pop history – the explosion of The Sex Pistols onto popular culture and the birth of punk rock. Nothing would ever be the same: Richard provides a blow-by-blow account of these events from his own perspective, the process inevitably revealing lives that were connected as much by dignity and courage as by thoughtlessness and deceit. He lays out the undeniable uncertainties of the situation with skill, explaining his own personal dilemma of pursuing a career playing music whilst maintaining his own dignity. His pangs of conscience come off as intense and moving; after rejecting the commercial path of pop music and fame, the disordering questions within his trenchant voice prove plainly evident. But as Richard learned the hard way, integrity doesn’t pay the rent.
Despite Richard’s candid self-examination of his own personality traits and inner struggles, reconciling his immense talent with the various detours of his life proves clearly difficult. Squat City Rocks is the opposite of the victory lap one might expect from such an accomplished musician who was there at the right time, at the right place. As he admits in the prose, “It is probably true to say that if I had climbed down from my high-horse on more than one occasion I would have had a much greater success .” Here, Richard drops the veil, ultimately revealing a tragic tale of cruel fate and unfulfilled destiny which puts forth two unanswerable question that leave one’s head spinning. If the 101’ers had not disbanded there would’ve been no Clash with Joe Strummer; if The Clash had not chosen Joe Strummer as a prospective singer, then perhaps the 101’ers would’ve maybe gotten their due and evolved into one of the great rock and roll bands that Joe’s charisma and commitment promised.
Squat City Rocks doesn’t necessarily yield any neat lessons; instead its terse, factual entries peel back the skin to expose the bloody sinew beneath a rough-and-ready garage band. As a narrative, Squat City Rocks proves highly readable and accessible, even if at times the tone feels rather too brusque – Richard’s sentences simply too incisive, his observations too astute (then again, that was the prevailing attitude in those days.) But while the stakes swing, Richard never lets go of the reader’s attention.
As well as numerous photographs, the book also includes thirty very perceptive illustrations by his wife Esperanza, many of which were drawn at the time, representing a hand-drawn record of Richards’s journey. As all of these elements fuse together, Squat City Rocks becomes a tantalizing glimpse back at those heady days of our musical past from someone who lived it from the bottom up. Anyone who is a Clash aficionado, a 101’ers fan, or has an inherent interest in those riotous, uncontrollable days of the 1970s when music could influence politics and lifestyle will find Squat City Rocks undeniably essential, and surprisingly trenchant. Indeed, if the future is created from the ruins of the past, then Richard’s musical memoir will surely stir the imagination of tomorrow.
As one of the band’s beloved roadies, The Baker served as a key insider from The Clash’s 1976 beginnings until the classic lineup’s demise in 1983; as such, he’s eminently qualified to suss out the real deal behind the myths, legends, and rumors – after all, he was there.
Photo of Joe Strummer and Richard Dudanski deep in discussion courtesy of Julian Yewdall.
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Grammy award-winning producer Rick Rubin’s name is once again popping up all over the place. This time, it’s due to him producing Black Sabbath’s new reunion album 13, executive producing Kanye West’s Yeezus and laying on a couch with his eyes closed in the commercial for Jay-Z’s forthcoming Magna Carta Holy Grail. Initially famed for his genre-tilting contributions to hip-hop and metal in the 1980s, Rubin earned his music-legend cred via his prescient work at Def Jam and American Recordings (two labels he founded), the career resurrection of Johnny Cash, the cannon rock bandification of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the mainstreaming of Sir Mix-A-Lot, his genre-defining productions for the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, and LL Cool J, and the role he played in the career-crowning of the Dixie Chicks – and admittedly that’s merely a partial list of his earth-moving cultural moments.
As his career has progressed, Rubin’s managed to cultivate the aura of modern music’s ultimate guru. He also served as the co-president of Columbia Records from 2007 to 2012, and unfortunately, during that time he was not able to save the music industry. Understandably, when he’s involved with a project, the interest in it gets amplified. But parsing his recent output, realistically how excited should listeners be about Rick Rubin involvement in new music these days? To that end, Ducker recently dissected Rubin’s contemporary discography and the resulting chatter around him with Alan Light, the former editor-in-chief of both Vibe and SPIN who is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Light is also the author of the recently acclaimed book The Holy of the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah’, The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys, and serves as Director of Programming for the television concert series Live from the Artists Den, whose sixth season premieres next week on PBS.
Eric Ducker: In 2013, when you hear that Rick Rubin is producing or somehow involved in an album, how excited are you about that prospect?
Alan Light: I am still excited by the idea of Rick producing an album, but my first question is always, “How far along are they, and is it really going to happen?” There have been several projects I’ve been interested in where the artists just couldn’t stay committed to what it means to work with Rick.
ED: Because they didn’t really understand what the whole Rick Rubin trip entails?
AL: Yeah, exactly. Being produced by Rick Rubin certainly means something different than what it means from any other producer. The sense I get – and I have not actually been in the studio watching, so this is just how artists talk about it – is that his work is much more conceptual, much more focused on working as hard as possible on the songwriting and the ideas, rather than what he’s going to get by spinning the knobs or clicking the mouse or whatever. I think Rick brings a different idea of “producing,” and it is very dependent on what the artist is willing and able to bring to it and give to it; not everyone is really truly up for that.
ED: So, for example, when you heard that there was a new Black Sabbath album about to come out that was produced by Rick Rubin, was that something you were excited to hear?
AL: Yes, as much as I would care about a new Sabbath album at this point – though I do think there’s also the list of Rick’s heroes that he wants to work with, who maybe receive a different approach from him. He got decent enough records out of AC/DC and ZZ Top, though it’s true that maybe he can’t or won’t push them in the same way that he will with artists more of his generation. There was that fantastic quote from one of the Crosby, Stills, & Nash guys, though, when they pulled out of their sessions with Rick because they said, 'Don’t tell us what to do’. With those, you just have to wonder if anybody did any due diligence, or if they just liked the idea of having his name attached.
ED: Those legacy rock band albums he does are strange, because I do question what the motivation is behind them on both sides. I imagine Rick Rubin admires and respects these bands, but I don’t know if he believes he has something new to bring out of them, or if he just sees himself as the medium to get them to spend time with each other in the studio, since they are probably sick of or can’t stand each other. I also imagine those jobs pay very well, which is probably reason enough to do them. As for the bands, it seems like a very old-school way of operating: “Let’s make a new record so we have an excuse to go on tour, and maybe rock radio will play one of our new songs to get some promotion, and during the show we’ll play some of those new songs and a lot of people will get a soda at that point.”
AL: All of that is probably true enough, though I’ll also give the bands at least some benefit of the doubt that they thought, “Hey, the guy worked with Johnny Cash and won the Dixie Chicks all those Grammys, so maybe he can get us some new respect.” I would be very interested to watch the dynamic at those sessions – who is deferring to whom and what the expectations are. I can’t imagine that Rick would be as demanding of someone like Sabbath as he is of a younger band or even of, like, the Chili Peppers. I do think some of those albums are just him living out his fantasies, and that’s fair enough. It would be nice to think that every project goes on with the idea of making The Greatest Record of All Time, or at least the best of a career, but if he’s just – as you say – a mechanism to actually get the music made for some of these older dudes, or if at some point you feel like you’ve gotten as much as you’re going to get, I think that’s okay, too. I don’t think that your last point, though, about old-school strategizing is in any way exclusive or unique to working with Rick. At least choosing him shows some sense of ambition, however compromised it may be.
ED: Yes, that’s true. What I was really referring to is the general tactic of the band choosing a producer who’s shown that they are capable of working with an act of the group’s stature, but still is an interesting enough of a choice that there is something intriguing about it from a marketing/press angle. There are many producers who could fit in that category, but they all vary in their approach, and Rubin seems like a very unique individual within this category.
AL: I do wonder what those bands expect from him. Maybe because they predate the days of “beatmaking” producers, they actually understand his approach fine, though it’s why the CSN thing was so fascinating. If they don’t want a producer to “tell them what to do,” what is it they want? And then I know of other groups who got partway into his process and just felt like that was as much as they could handle. Which I’m sure was the right call for some of them, and you can’t expect every pairing to work out, but as a fan of his work, I do wish they stuck with it and saw whether he could really break them through to something else. I spent a lot of time with the Dixie Chicks after their album with Rick, and it was sure interesting to hear them talk about how hard he drove them on their songwriting. And they were the biggest female group of all time!
ED: What are your expectations when you get something from an artist or a group who maybe has a few previous releases under their belts and now have done a full album with Rubin? I’m thinking the Avett Brothers, the Gossip or Gogol Bordello, or that song he did with Lana Del Rey.
AL: My hope is that he will bring to a group the things he emphasizes – focus and clarity, structure and story. Not to be super-dippy, but that they will find the best that they have in them and get as close to that as they can. That’s what Rick has done with the best of his projects. All of the examples you mention were mixed – the Lana song worked out pretty well, the others all were fine if not necessarily “next level” triumphs. It’s an audacious goal to set, and not everything is going to get there. And no disrespect to the Gossip or Gogol Bordello, but maybe the best they have isn’t all the way up there with the greats. I’m always interested in what it is that Rick sees in these kind of acts, why he chooses one over another. The basic thing I always come back to with Rick is this: he is the guy, the one person, who took rap performances and made them into songs, gave them a chorus and a hook and a shape, rather than just rhyming until the MC stopped. And the ability to see that, to see past limitations and ask basic conceptual questions, seems to be at the heart of his stronger efforts.
ED: Speaking to your first point, the acts that he chose to work with often seemed like weird choices to me. They’re groups that seem stuck at the 6pm slot on the second or third stage at the festival. And with Rick Rubin’s history, you want to believe he still has that great A&R ear, that there is some greater potential there. So those albums don’t deliver in that my expectations have been raised because of Rubin’s involvement, but maybe they shouldn’t have been high in the first place. I should look at those albums like I do at a new Weezer or Red Hot Chili Peppers album – they will be what they are.
AL: I don’t think it’s fair to saddle him with the pressure that every record is supposed to be a classic. The Def Jam glory days were at that standard, but a guy’s gotta work. And I think Rick has always been drawn to rebel spirits — back in the day it was the Geto Boys and Slayer and Andrew Dice Clay, so now maybe Beth Ditto and Eugene Hutz give him some of that confrontational buzz. Remember that Rick’s entertainment ideal was always pro wrestling – I can see that Ditto has some of that attitude to give.
ED: I don’t want every record to be a classic, I just want a record that’s going to stick with me past two listens. The fact is that he doesn’t have to make these types of records, but it’s good that he is engaging with young artists. So I’ve been trying to figure out if he’s making bad choices, or if, as you said earlier, some acts aren’t up to the challenge.
AL: At that point, you’re placing bets. These are all bands that have shown some potential, some level of accomplishment, and will he be able to bring them up to something greater? Will anyone? I had high hopes for what he might do with the Band Perry, but that didn’t work out. I’m now very curious about Jennifer Nettles’ solo record. Lana was an interesting call; I wonder if more will come of that. Maybe his A&R sense isn’t as plugged in as it was for a long time, maybe it’s just harder to find open space now, maybe he’s just choosing to work with people he likes sometimes and seeing where it leads – and if it isn’t great, is it better to bail out or finish something and move on?
ED: I don’t think there’s that much to discuss about his work with acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weezer, though you might feel otherwise, but the final side of the rectangle is his current hip-hop stuff.
AL: Chili Peppers to me are the embodiment of the idea that with Rick, you get back what you put in. What a wildly mixed bag of stuff, but I think the hits are worth the misses. So now, the Kanye West record. Whatever you think of it, and lord knows I’m still sorting through my feelings and will be for a while, it sure seems like a brilliant move to turn to Rick to make sense out of a project in chaos, and that one way or another, he helped whip it into something that makes some kind of sense. Based on that Wall Street Journal interview that Rick did, he served as some kind of coach/cheerleader/creative director, but it does kind of remind me of The Beatles sequencing all of “The White Album” in one 24-hour session, managing somehow under the wire to render a wildly disparate and messy bunch of music into something cohesive. I guess Kanye says that he thought of Rick because of the music’s minimalism, but really it was a very smart conceptual (as opposed to sonic) choice. Five vocals recorded in two hours? Is that genius or laziness? Both/all? Whatever gets you to the right result…
ED: I’ve been listening to a lot of Rick Rubin’s 21st century music. “99 Problems” was his “return to hip-hop,” and it still really is an astonishingly good song, but he hasn’t done much more new hip-hop until now, and what there has been hasn’t been good. His song “Stop Fuckin Wit Me” with Lil Jon is pretty garbage; he did the song “Classic” for Nike with Kanye, Nas and KRS-One that is unremarkable and has basically been erased by the DJ Premier remix; he was supposed to do something with T.I. but I don’t think that ever came out. I wonder if the way he works just doesn’t compute with how most rap is made these days. Like you, I’m still working out Yeezus. There’s already this legend building about Rubin’s participation in it, but I think over time there be lots of conflicting accounts of how essential or overstated his involvement was to the final version. As we’ve been doing this, Pitchfork published a piece about the making of Yeezus with interviews from lots of the producers and engineers and Justin Vernon, and Rick Rubin is hardly mentioned.
AL: I agree that there is no arguing with “99 Problems,” but I don’t think his heart has especially been in any other hip-hop projects since that. And this contribution to Yeezus doesn’t really seem to have much to do with it being hip-hop, but more that it was a noisy jigsaw puzzle to solve. I do believe that Rick’s role was significant: it’s entirely consistent with his strengths. But I imagine you’re right, and that hip-hop today doesn’t really line up with his process or philosophy. When he did that record with Kid Rock – who I like, and was curious to see what happened – I think Rick got some good work out of him, but Kid Rock also felt like Rick kind of took all the fun out of it. To return to where we started, I understand that lack of mentions in the Pitchfork story because I don’t think what he would have done would have been “producing” as that is currently defined, especially in hip-hop.
ED: It’s funny, I forgot to mention Rubin’s one song on Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and his four for Adele’s 21, which has been the best selling record for the past two years. But when you think about those albums, you don’t really think of Rubin’s songs. The one for Timberlake, though, does kind of predict the traditional soul direction he took on The 20/20 Experience. Those are huge pop records, but they’re not what I associate him with.
AL: I forgot about Timberlake, too, but when I spoke to Adele, she very much downplayed Rick’s contribution to her album. Which maybe is true, but as you say, they don’t get any huger, and if he was part of what got them there, that still counts. Was it Jerry Wexler who said that sometimes the guy who delivers the sandwiches is more important to a session than the producer is?
ED: I know it’s purely speculative, but what do you think Rubin’s role will be on Jay-Z’s new album? I imagine “vibes” would best sum it up. I kind of get the feeling he’s there just so Jay-Z can say he assembled this Mt. Rushmore of hip-hop producers.
AL: It’s probably true that Rick will be there as guru/house visionary more than hands-on-the-board production, but don’t forget that, as you noted, he did get “99 Problems” out of Jay before (plus made that awesome cameo in the video). Obviously there’s at least some mutual respect there, so hopefully it means something more than just checkbook production and prestige.
ED: You could argue that much of what Rubin’s been trading on since he stopped mainly doing hip-hop and metal in the 1980s/early 1990s is his work with Johnny Cash, but did you hear that WTF podcast that Marc Maron did with Jakob Dylan? Rubin produced a solo album of Dylan’s a few years ago, which was very stripped down, and Dylan seemed pretty disappointed with it. He basically said that Rubin didn’t understand who he was as an artist (with some subtext that Rubin wanted Dylan to be his father in the early 1960s), and then went on to say that Rubin had missed the mark with his similarly-stripped down stuff for Neil Diamond, too, and that even the Johnny Cash stuff was kind of disingenuous and that making him do Soundgarden covers was corny. How do you feel about those type of records that have kind of become Rubin’s bread and butter?
AL: I guess this gets back to my Kid Rock comment above. It does seem that Rick looks at singer/songwriters as being “serious,” and he does sometimes tend to flatten the mood. He clearly wanted to focus Kid Rock into a Great American Country Rock Songwriter, and it certainly wasn’t a failed project, but it also kind of missed the idea that the goofy shit is part of what Kid Rock is about. It’s not only what his fans want, but also what he himself likes. Similarly, the ambition with Neil Diamond was clear, but to take show biz melodrama away from Neil Diamond did seem to miss the point a bit. The most common criticism of the Johnny Cash records is that Cash had many facets – he could be funny, he could be sentimental, he could be everything – and the American Recordings series concentrated only on Cash as a dark, badass, proto-punk. I love those records, but it is a fair assessment and a telling thing about what Rick’s preferences/priorities are. The Dixie Chicks, interestingly, seem like a significant exception to this: that record actually expanded their range and was a really effective and surprising emotionally.
ED: We’ve picked apart his recent discography, but to backtrack a bit, what are your favorite modern productions of Rubin’s? What’s some stuff he has done that’s really impressed you and that you think is the best showcase of him as a producer right now?
AL: Not that I’d really looked at a calendar before, but it does take a little bit of going back to find stuff that really holds up as great. He had a very strong run around 2006, and then it’s been pretty spotty since then. It also depends on where you come down on the Metallica record he did – I’m not really enough of an aficionado to comment on the controversial compression of that mix. Linkin Park seems like it’s been a successful collaboration, but I’m not a big fan. There’s that Lana song, some of the Kid Rock tracks, Adele (though, as noted, she doesn’t seem to think much of his work with her), a killer single from ZZ Top called “Gotsta Get Paid,” but it’s not exactly a Hall of Fame list for the last few years. But if you told me that he was going in with a certain sort of act that needs a re-focus on their sound and their strategy – Bruce Springsteen? My Morning Jacket? The Roots? – I’d still really want to hear what they came up with.