Ian F. Svenonius
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group is the new book authored by one Ian F. Svenonius, a true countercultural provocateur of the American indie underground. Svenonius rose out of the fabled Washington, D.C. punk scene with his group Nation of Ulysses (you can see him having an illuminating chat with D.C. punk godfather Ian MacKaye here). However, that ensemble, along with Svenonius’ other band efforts like The Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain & the Gang, always proved difficult to pigeonhole, designed to challenge orthodoxy, musical and otherwise. Indeed, throughout his notoriety, Svenonius has proven an evangelist for truly alternative views that reflect punk/indie’s roots linking dada, Situationism, and the D.I.Y. 'zine diaspora.
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, recently put out by the great independent publisher Akashic Books founded by Svenonius’ fellow D.C.-bred peer Johnny Temple of Girls Against Boys, is actually Svenonius’ second tome, following his iconoclastic first book The Psychic Soviet published in 2006 by the legendary indie imprint Drag City. In Supernatural Strategies…, Svenonius applies his maverick thinking cap to elucidating the essence of the pop narcotic, with typically incendiary, absurdist, and incisive results. While we are loathe to quote press releases here at The Daily Swarm, we couldn’t deny how succinctly this passage summed up Svenonius’ recent literary effort: “The book outlines the significance of group names, live concerts, vans, sex, drugs, band photos, records, record labels, recording studios, and all the other bugaboos which serially feature in group life. It explains the future relevance of groups and the strategies that groups can use to successfully understand and embody their destinies, historic roles, and responsibilities. It is a must-read for anyone who is alive in the early portion of the new century.”
To bring attention and investigation to Svenonius’ distinct point of view, we present here this exclusive excerpt from Supernatural Strategies… – the chapter simply entitled “Drugs.” Please note: the opinions expressed here are exclusively that of Svenonius – and perhaps a bunch of other people who aren’t dumbasses with blinders on…
Because the only story that Americans are supposed to find fascinating is drug use, groups are often pressured to ingest copious amounts of substances that are arbitrarily illegal. This, or so the hope goes, will weave a legend. Meanwhile, so-called “drugs” are credited with much of human creativity over the past millennium—particularly during the rock ’n’ roll period. This creates all kinds of problems with publishing, which is one of the group’s primary sources of income. Don’t let drugs get the credit that is due to you.
Still, drugs are central to the identity of many groups since they are contraband and therefore secret, strange, macho, and highly personal. They’re a natural fit for the modern group, which wants to be a kind of private club or cult of the anointed. If you choose to be a drug group, some things to consider are which drugs will be in vogue during your ascent and what kind of music will be appropriate to serve as the soundtrack to their usage.
Predicting drug trends could be an enormous asset for a group, akin to a stockbroker knowing how to play the market effectively. If one can be associated with the resurgence or popularization of a particular drug—as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were with the marijuana vogue of the early 1990s, or as the Grateful Dead was with LSD—hits needn’t be produced and the music can become a tertiary concern.
The ascendency of a particular narcotic as the “it” drug of one or more subcultures shouldn’t be difficult to guess if one maintains an awareness of geopolitical trends. Since the availability of narcotics in the USA is controlled by the government and its allies in organized crime, covert military actions and assassinations provide a clue as to which part of the world the substances will be coming from. With the war in Southeast Asia as a catalyst, a feature of the late ’60s and early ’70s was the enormous volume of heroin flooding US streets, imported by the CIA in conjunction with the Indochina-connected Corsican underworld, a.k.a. “The French Connection.” Heroin from the Golden Triangle (Laos, Burma, Thailand) was transported care of the CIA’s own airline (Air America). It was also sometimes couriered on regular army planes, hidden in the bodies of dead GIs. Most heroin was sold directly to GIs during their time in Vietnam, but the surplus made it stateside, with devastating effects. “Smack” quickly spread into the mainstream US pop and rock music genres.
Cocaine enjoyed enormous popularity in the ’70s and early ’80s in conjunction with the war against the Sandinistas and the CIA sponsorship of South American juntas in Argentina and Chile. The coca plant supplied “the company” with liquid cash for teaching torture techniques to South American police state bogeymen against labor leaders, artists, Communists, foreign exchange students, and whoever else they arbitrarily fingered. Stateside, the white powder’s proliferation helped shape the music, lifestyle, and loose morality of the disco years.
The cocaine high is sociable, sexual, and anti-intellectual, but can lead to paranoia, megalomania, insanity, worship of material luxury, and garish costumery. Cocaine enjoyed a resplendent comeback in the ’00s due to “Plan Colombia,” the US’s intervention on the side of the right-wing government in that country’s coke-fueled civil war. Cocaine’s resurgence led to the sellout vacuity of early twenty-first-century “indie rock,” and the aesthetic of braggadocio, vulgarity, and amorality typified by that generation’s rap stars.
Occasionally a new drug is introduced with great success, like the CIA’s own LSD revolution, which transformed the ’60s anti-war movement into a schizophrenic, mystified fuzzball, as well as the same organization’s crack innovation, which rehabilitated the wealthy’s use of cocaine by creating a poorer, tawdrier cousin. Crack’s proliferation amongst the lower classes provided the pretext for a money-making “War on Drugs” which enabled a highly profitable prison-building boom and a new level of police repression against the impoverished. Now, however, the fad for pharmaceuticals has bumped the predictable drug cycle out of whack. The old drugs are largely unnecessary since doctors aggressively and legally dope any stubborn, interesting, or unusual person into passive conformity. This has been a crisis for the architects of the Afghanistan War (2001–), which was contrived in an attempt to corner the heroin market.
Sometimes, innovation can create drugs on a grassroots level. Project Pat’s famous “sizzurp” is one example of a homemade drug. The Ramones championing airplane glue is another; and Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” the smoking of banana peels, is a third. These brave souls were unwilling to submit to the CIA-Mafia’s prescription for dependency and created their own mind-altering agents.
The drug your group takes will represent an aesthetic decision rather than a penchant for the drug itself. Groups’ identities are often closely linked to various drugs, and the group with no ideas or personality can often enlist a drug to give it one. Heroin begets a doomed, devil-may-care, street-poet personality for the group, and the lifestyle precipitated by addiction to it will give them an instantaneous, easily defined image. Cocaine groups are typically “gonzo” expositions of sweat, enthusiasm, and hyperbole. Marijuana groups are droning, somewhat introverted, unintelligible paranoids. Alcohol is by far the prevalent addiction for groups since the rock industry is a junior tentacle of the alcohol industry. Groups, along with flat-screen TVs, video poker, and disc-jocks, are most often utilized to distract and placate bar patrons.
Record production is a kind of drug-making. Record collectors are addicts and the narcotic effect of pop music is widely recognized. The different sorts of music and various formats are different types of drugs with very different effects. Rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s was proliferated via 45 rpm records, which were cheap and disposable, and gave the listener a euphoric high for a few moments, followed by an urge for something which was exactly the same and yet novel, different. The rush from a 45 was analogous to the feeling produced by crack cocaine. Due to the compulsive desire for more and more, the 45 era was a golden age of music in terms of sheer volume of good songs and dynamic groups (just as the crack era was a golden age for government-encouraged addiction), but the records were required to be extraordinarily concise. Each song was expected to deliver either a novel noise or a sensual thrill within a few seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Otherwise the base-head listener would be scrambling for a new platter.
The 45 was largely abandoned when it was replaced with actual cocaine, massively proliferated in the ’70s. Or perhaps the explanation is vice versa: cocaine was used by addicts as a stand-in drug when the industry abandoned the 45 format.
LPs or “long-playing “records, were more akin to a marijuana high. Double albums were heroin.
Meditative, at fifteen minutes a side, long-playing records were for “deep” listening. The sides could careen up and down in mood and create drama and narrative. The most successful LPs were ones like Hot Buttered Soul or James Brown: Live at the Apollo, records which transported the listener to an unusual scenario. Double albums (such as Ummagumma, Freak Out!, and Blonde on Blonde) promised total immersion and were in vogue in the late ’60s, coinciding with the height of heroin chic. CDs and iPods are from the pharmaceutical era of mandatory drug use. They swirl, swish, and splatter in the periphery, creating an atmosphere but never demanding or requiring focused attention.
While drugs used to be about “taking a trip,” “expanding horizons,” “destroying the ego,” or “exploring consciousness,” modern drugs (AdderallTM, Xanax©, Klonopin®) are about making “wrong” things—such as supposed personality disorders—“right.” They are correctives, designed to help the user conform to normative social behavior and work modes by ironing out hard-to-take behavior. Accordingly, modern groups are loath to have personality, being formalistically obsessed with copying the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Ramones, the Stooges, or some other group. Inspired by the pharmaceutical drugs, they want to be “right” in their decisions, correct in the way they sound, like something an influential Internet magazine has said was important. This is why they slavishly ape institutionalized forms.
Capitalism’s business models and economy are based on addiction. New models of automobiles, new styles in clothes, new sounds, new films, up-to-date telephones, “refurbished” kitchens, and so on. Drugs are just one more aspect of enforced compulsion and dependency on consumer goods. Groups are attempting to create a taste for their sound, which becomes a habit—an addiction of a sort. Designing a popular sound is akin to designing a drug. A “hit” record is feeding a compulsion for a particular, magical sound. For the listener—once hooked—no other sound will do. Follow-up hits by hit-makers are often sound-alikes, designed to scratch the itch begat by the artist’s last monster disc. James Brown’s string of similar “popcorn” songs (“Mother Popcorn,” “Lowdown Popcorn,” “Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn,” etc.) are just some of the countless examples of songs which addressed an audience’s fiendish desire for a very distinct aural sensation.
The Internet is the most profound drug and one which has become an enormous influence on music. Internet addiction isn’t just socially tolerated—it is aggressively encouraged. It leads one to a state of constant distraction, the desire for incessant stimulation, and an unquestioning trust in and worship of the authority of a monolithic “web.” For these addicts, all answers to all questions are found from a single source—the “Wikipedia.” This monolith is a dreadful public work, which—like an ethereal version of the Egyptian pyramids—is labored on incessantly by uncompensated, fanatical zombies. The Internet drug drives its fiends to create more and more of their addicting substance—the Internet itself. They construct new web pages, “links,” and what they call “content,” all of which make their “webmasters” and other debauched Internet overlords wealthy beyond comprehension.
Groups who stop taking drugs replace them with coffee addiction or other obsessive behavior, which they flaunt in a macho display they call a “work ethic.” This is a guilty impulse borne of the desire to “make up for lost time.” Drugs are time-consuming and once one is not taking them, it becomes apparent to the former user how many years were used up with what is essentially an expensive version of sleeping late.
However, group members who are encumbered with a guilt complex for their “bad behavior” needn’t fret. Without a drug habit, a fast-moving rock memoir is nearly impossible to write. Both for the teetotaler and for the substance abuser, drug addiction is the socially prescribed outlaw lifestyle. Hollywood makes glamorous films about it and its victims regale each other with stories of their wild years’ heroism in closed meetings. As opposed to bestiality, shoplifting, wife swapping, political activism, or grand theft auto, drugs represent a malignant social behavior that is institutionalized, validated, and actually beloved by our society. Ever since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, addiction has become the neat packaging of mankind’s struggle with temptation, betrayal, genetic programming, mortality, and sin—something everyone “gets” and relates to. Drugs also touch on social obsessions such as class, morality, and race. Meanwhile, Americans in particular love a redemption story. In fact, as evangelical Christians—either latent or actual—they demand one and they won’t trust you if you aren’t so equipped.
A group history of drug abuse is a tool to achieve this kind of comforting narrative arc. It’s retold again and again in documentaries and fictional stories. Addiction to drugs is America’s official vice and the pat explanation for so many “broken” lives. Those who have dead-end existences without a handy “habit” aren’t victims. They’re just lazy losers, degenerates, and possibly mentally ill. They certainly aren’t sexy. The addict is different. The drug user, with his or her officially designated “bad” and “outlaw” life choices, is the “sin-eater” who absorbs governmental inadequacy, social neglect, dead-end job markets, domestic abuse, horrible schooling, and existential angst, as well as the wrongdoings of their societal peers.
In a sense, mourning drug use and the wasted talent or broken families thus begotten is just hand- wringing over mortality itself. The drug user’s explicit pissing away of her time is a salve to the nonaddict’s conscience and also an erotic reminder of impending doom.
Unmediated: Alan Light and Sylvie Simmons Converse on the Unlikely Yet Enduring Iconhood of Leonard Cohen...
Unmediated is a new feature here at The Daily Swarm where we take two fascinating eminences in the music world who share something in common, and then force them to communicate via the magic of social media. True to the title, this conversation is unmediated by the presence of a journalistic moderator, and is allowed to veer unmoored into topics however esoteric, disparate, and over extensive as the subjects care to be.
For the inaugural column, we’ve chosen two figures bound together by destiny – both acclaimed authors who have chosen the same unique and individual subject, and approached him with distinctly different strategies. Sylvie Simmons is one of the U.K.'s most cherished voices in music writing, from her sprawling, intensive features in MOJO to books like the first-ever book on Mötley Crüe (sorry, Neil) to her gripping biography of Serge Gainsbourg. Nothing previous in Simmons’ career, however, prepared for the masterwork she published in late 2012. Now based in San Francisco, Simmons spent many years crafting I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen – one of the most trenchant music biographies you’ll ever read. In it, Simmons details the rise, fall, and rise of one of rock’s most enduringly iconic songwriters, scissoring through his infamous mythologies with incredible research and insights.
Strangely, in the same year as Simmons put out her tome, Alan Light, a revered veteran of American music journalism, put out his own take on the Leonard Cohen legend – but from a decidedly different tack. In The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, Light drew upon critical and investigative skills he’d honed during his stints as the top editor of Vibe and SPIN and an illustrious stint at Rolling Stone to explore the impact of just one song: Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In this idiosyncratically specific exegesis, Light draws out compellingly what transformed this once-unheralded song into perhaps the most ubiquitous standard of recent times, from Cohen’s original to versions alternately rendered by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Bon Jovi, and seemingly every contestant on singing-competition shows. In the process, it becomes an essential view into not just Cohen’s composition, but the various forces of culture, pop and otherwise, that rocketed this song into the collective consciousness in slow motion.
Taken together, these two books become indispensably complementary; reading both of them one after the other, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve finally pieced together the elusive soul of Leonard Cohen’s unlikely ascent into posterity. So, naturally, we wanted to see what happened when we put these authorities together in unloosed conversation via Facebook’s chat function. The oh-so-lightly edited results follow:
Sylvie Simmons: Hello from rainy San Francisco. It’s been weeks since I saw you at that event at Housing Works that you hosted. I was just thinking of that the other day, and Suzanne Vega’s story about Leonard’s hypnotism skills.
Alan Light: Yes, that was a good story – that, and the way that he was able to conjure women in bikinis while reading to her poolside in L.A.
Sylvie Simmons: Just by the sound of his voice, they rose from their sunbeds like Lazarus and walked towards him
Alan Light: It’s always funny for me to hear the “Leonard-as-Lothario” stories since, as you know, my dad was a classmate of Leonard’s in college at McGill University, so I always have that feeling of “Oh, come on – I know what a Jewish Montrealer of that age is really like.”
Sylvie Simmons: Aha. So, as a public service to women who write Leonard Cohen biographies and therefore get to spend time in Montreal, are you going to reveal what that is?
Alan Light: Well, I love my father very much, but it’s hard to envision him in the tormented, Hamlet-like persona we have sometimes heard from Leonard Cohen. The great thing is that my dad is kind of obsessed with his summer camp experience, and the one thing he always wanted to know was which camp Leonard went to – which you answered in your book. In a footnote, you also included that Leonard actually went to my dad’s camp one summer and was bored stiff there!
Sylvie Simmons: The summer camp stories were a delight to me, too. Leonard actually enjoyed summer camp – it was his best friend Mort Rosengarten who found it boring, and still, all these decades on, seemed to resent that Leonard’s mother let him go to a more adventurous camp. These things are very exotic for someone from England, where summer camp was where you went with your parents, not to get away from them.
Alan Light: I loved reading that kind of stuff in your book. You think of Dylan’s quote to the effect of, if you’re really a poet, a poet isn’t someone who takes out the garbage, or goes to the grocery store, or whatever his words were. Still, it’s good to see the regular side of Cohen’s experiences – economically privileged though they were – before the words and music took over. When you’re with Leonard, are you aware of his different personae (the lady killer, the tortured poet), or do you think we have a confused sense of all that?
Sylvie Simmons: Something that kept coming up during the year I spent researching my book was the word “mask.” Just before he went on his first-ever tour, he asked Mort, who was a sculptor, to make him a mask to wear onstage – a mask of himself. Lots going on there… When you’re with him offstage, the person you see is pretty much as you’ll have seen him onstage during these last two tours. He wears a suit, he’s gracious and generous, and there’s a twinkle in his eye. He’ll even dance for you. Have met him over the years as a journalist? Did you meet with him at all for your book?
Alan Light: I have only met Leonard briefly once, and spoken to him on the phone once – nothing extensive. I assumed that he wouldn’t talk to me for my book, but I wanted to get his blessing and support – which, via his manager, he quickly gave. In the end, I didn’t really think it was that crucial that I speak to him. Given the aura around “Hallelujah” at this point, even if he told me “I thought of that line while brushing my teeth,” how would it really add to the legacy? It seems like his stories about writing “Hallelujah” kind of settled into a few set pieces – how long it took, how tortured he was; that seems to be what he has to say. As to the afterlife popularity/phenomenon of the song, my sense is that he’s kind of bemused by it, and really looks at it as something that doesn’t have much to do with him. Does that seem right to you?
Sylvie Simmons: Absolutely. He said doesn’t like talking about individual songs in any depth, anyway; it messes with the magic. I’d interviewed Leonard on the phone in the past – he’s one of those artists that gives good phone – and finally met him in London in 2001, when he was promoting Ten New Songs, his first album since coming down from the mountain. The interview ended up continuing over three days and with a couple of follow-up emails (you know those long MOJO pieces!). It was in one of them he told me his hero was Muhammad Ali – takes a lickin’, keeps on tickin’.
Alan Light: Ah, for the days of the three-day interviews The more I thought about it, the more I felt that even if he was someone who actually did interviews, I would still understand if he didn’t want to talk about this. But it was such a fun story to tell – yes, fun, and never fully turned into the torture of, y’know, writing a book – because it wasn’t really a creation story at all. I felt that it was a book that didn’t have to go on to the “Making Of/Classic Album” shelf because the story really is what happened 10, 15, 20 years later.
Sylvie Simmons: It’s a wonderful story. When I was writing my book and got to the part on “Hallelujah,” I realized that the story of the song had a life of its own – I found I was writing page upon page about it. I had to cut it down, but it’s still a lengthy passage. I was so pleased when our mutual agent told us you were writing a whole book about it.
Alan Light: Ha! And of course, when I got your book, I breathlessly went to the index to see how much of the “Hallelujah” story you got into. I was curious, though – given that, as I mentioned, it seems like when Leonard has spoken about the song, he kind of falls into similar stories, was it a challenge to get him to break from familiar patterns and accounts? Or because he speaks so infrequently, did it feel like he was telling you things that were fresh?
Sylvie Simmons: I know what you mean. Which is why, before I interviewed Leonard for the book, I interviewed more than a hundred other people, from every strand of his life – his rabbis and fellow monks, musicians and producers, editors, lovers, etc. – and did the usual due diligence in checking their stories. At the very end, armed with all this information, I had not just a good idea of his life, but of what it was specifically that I needed from my conversations with him. I remember these occasions where I’d be sitting with him in his kitchen, Leonard at the stove cooking rustling up something or other to eat (he seemed determined not to let his biographer die of starvation on his watch) where I’d feel like Detective Simmons: “What were you doing on the night of April 1st 1968?” And when he’d come up with a reply, I’d be like, “Now, now, I have evidence you were in Studio B at Columbia, recording a song that was then titled “Come On, Marianne,” and so on So it was a very different experience from a journalist interview with him, where your requirements are somewhat different.
Alan Light: I absolutely get that – I mean, the guy is 78 years old and has been a public figure since the early ’60s (or, per my dad, at least a semi-public figure since his days as a folksinger and president of his fraternity in college ). It’s understandable if he has ways that he recalls his history. It reminds me of how I approached my work on Gregg Allman’s memoir last year: the more targeted and specific I could come to a session, the better the results. One really amazing thing about talking to all these different people who sang “Hallelujah” was how much thought every single one of them had given their performance. You expect a certain level from Bono or Rufus Wainwright or whoever, but even the “American Idol”/“X Factor” singers had strong ideas about the song that they were eager to discuss; it really felt like not one person approached it blithely or casually.
Sylvie Simmons: That’s really interesting, that no one at all approached Leonard’s song casually. That’s something that extends beyond his work and into the person. I noticed that several people I’d speak to, who’d worked closely or spent time with Leonard for long periods, would adopt a tone of voice and a certain phraseology when talking about him.
Alan Light: It was really striking, actually. As you say, those around him certainly take him and his work very seriously, but I really did find that everyone who tackled the song, no matter what the context, had a strong sense that they were diving into waters that were deep and significant. Adam Sandler notwithstanding. So, did you do all your own fact checking on that kind of precision date/studio/etc. stuff? One great thing we did with the Gregg Allman book was to hire the very lovely guy who runs the Allman Brothers fanzine to look over all of that stuff; that way, we could really finesse it into accuracy without having to tear it all up at the very end.
Sylvie Simmons: I did most of the research and fact-checking myself, but – and something similar happened when I wrote my book on Serge Gainsbourg – along the way you acquire a kind of unofficial team of experts who offer their services.
Alan Light: It’s admirable of you. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to it since I started my career as a fact checker, but keeping the dates and details straight of however many dozen versions of “Hallelujah” I had to deal with, there’s no way could I have gotten it right without some assistance. So, I have to ask, since everyone asks me: Why do you think that of all the great Leonard songs, “Hallelujah” is the one that connected the way that it has?
Sylvie Simmons: Ah, see, it’s much easier when you write a comprehensive biography. They just ask you, “Why Leonard Cohen?” And the follow-up question, post-Petraeus, is “Did you…?” After I hit reply with this, I’ll answer your “Hallelujah” question as briefly as I can manage on a rainy afternoon…
Alan Light: “Post-Petraeus”: nice reference!
Sylvie Simmons: So, what made “Hallelujah” work? The one-word chorus certainly helped, particularly when that word automatically promotes an instant and often deep response in a great many people. For many, it’s an all-purpose ecumenical hymn, yet one with so many interpretations.
Alan Light: Fair enough. My two quick answers: that chorus and its sense of powerful but non-specific spirituality obviously feed a great hunger in people’s lives. And then there’s the great strength in Leonard’s writing that no one ever talks about: melody. That irresistible and elemental combination of notes connects with listeners well before the complicated imagery of the verses. It’s so easy to get hung up on words when you’re talking about this guy, but melody is how everyone first responds to any song. You will appreciate that the solo instrumental version by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro was the “Hallelujah” I probably returned to most often, if only to clear my head and remember what was most important here…
Sylvie Simmons: Ah, Jake – the man who has ruined it for us mortals who also play ukulele. The Jeff Buckley version was always my favorite; I’ve upset a few Leonard Cohen fans by saying that I prefer his version to the original. Buckley understood the strength of the melody. He sang it like he was in cathedral. Anyways, you’re right that music critics tend to focus more on Leonard’s words than on his melodies – being in the word business, that’s one of the hazards; also Leonard having been a published poet before he moved into music, his words do invite closer-than-average attention. It was interesting, in talking to Leonard, that he seemed to feel there was no difference between word and song. When he first read Lorca’s poetry at age fifteen, for example, what went through his mind was the music of the synagogue. Of course I did talk about his melodies in the biography, and that space in the melodies that seems to give other singers permission to sing them.
Alan Light: Of course you did, because you know what matters.
Sylvie Simmons: I forgot to mention that one of the great unexpected delights of writing this book was discovering that Leonard, as a child, had been a ukulele player. Over to you for the last word on the greatest unexpected delight from writing your book.
Alan Light: Oh, you must have exploded when you heard that he played your instrument! As for the greatest pleasure, without question it was talking to the real people, the civilians, who have used “Hallelujah” in weddings/funerals/religious services – who have turned to this song at the most critical and memorable moments in their lives. It’s easy for the likes of you and me to get cynical and feel like music doesn’t mean what it used to – that it’s gotten so commodified and isn’t really important anymore. But then you hear what this one song really means to people and how they needed it at these times, and you remember that music still does something that nothing else in our culture can do: when you need a feeling, a certain emotion for a certain event, a song can deliver things that nothing else can. It’s really and truly gratifying to see that, after all the years we have put into thinking and talking and worrying and rejoicing about this nonsense.
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
It’s a new year, which means there’s plenty of new rap stuff to think about and fight about. Plus there’s still some old stuff that we should try to resolve, or at least make less bad. To help figure out what lens to should use when trying to understand hip-hop in 2013, Ducker talked to Jayson Rodriguez, a former Vibe assistant music editor and senior writer at MTV News who recently left his job as executive editor at XXL. Rodriguez currently co-hosts an online radio show with Shaheem Reid on pncradio.fm called The BQE and continues to write for multiple publications.
Eric Ducker: I’m fully aware this is a huge question, but what should we be thinking about in regards to hip-hop in the coming year?
Jayson Rodriguez: I’m excited for what seems to be, for young artists, a return to prominence in album creation. That includes Kendrick Lamar’s recent debut, Meek Mill’s debut, A$AP Rocky’s forthcoming debut, and what we’ll get from Joey Bada$$ and J.Cole, among other guys. As the business diversifies and radio sort of exists as the last kingmaker, it feels like the idea of artistic merit is rising. Without a traditional single, there’s this infrastructure and support in place where a modicum of artist freedom can be rewarded, and as fans, consumers and documenters of the culture we’re rewarded with great projects. That’s opposed to a hot mixtape and a so-so album, that old standby formula.
ED: You think artists and labels will see an artistic and financial merit to a cohesive album?
JR: I think labels will exhibit enough patience if they feel they have the right artist, and said artist and team have a vision. As far as artists, it’s interesting to see who is making these albums in hip-hop that have been embraced lately: there’s Nas, Kanye Wes, and Jay-Z as elder statesmen, and then you have the young guys. Things are so unpredictable these days: there are artists with massive radio hits who can’t sell albums out of the discount bin, and then there are vets who know who they are – where what’s left to prove is only to themselves and their legacy. And, for the young guys, there’s, finally, been a distinct separation from the rulers of the 1990s: this wave of MCs doesn’t have the standard blueprint of album, clothing line, rims, bad movie, and so on, as a (mis) guide to presumed greatness. So, instead, they’re venturing into this new world and developing on their own, which affords them some opportunities to make money doing shows; by the time they get an album deal, they’re thinking artistically and not financially. So says the guy from the outside looking in, and is trying to get a sense of what’s going on.
ED: Are there any cities whose rap scenes you are particularly interested in seeing how they develop in 2013?
JR: It’s very clichéd for me to say this, particularly as an East Coast-based writer living in New York, but New York. Guys like Jay, Nas, and Biggie cast such enormous shadows that acts from the Big Apple are just getting out from underneath them. We can debate whether it’s Fabolous’ own fault in not achieving that type of success, for instance, but he has all the tools to be a much bigger star. But with the new class – A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Azealia Banks, Bodega Bamz, and Flatbush Zombies, plus Danny Brown and Angel Haze by proxy – there hasn’t been this much original talent in New York in years. I’m curious to see if they galvanize or not.
ED: That’s the thing, right? The artists you listed are talented, and being in close proximity to the majority of the “industry” it can seem like they are poised for much bigger things. Then it becomes a question if the rest of the country – and the world – can connect with them.
JR: Yeah, totally. I wonder sometimes, too, if by being so close to these buildings that house the labels, if that makes New York artists work less intensely than the guy/girl that has to build a buzz in their town or city and hope that it travels to a label person. Should a label be your goal, you know? And New York has a history of killer groups not playing nice. G-Unit, Dipset, all these Brooklyn rappers – there should have been more collabos. That embrace and willingness to cross the aisle to work with the other side seems to have made Atlanta the dominant force in hip-hop, where there’s fewer top-tier talents but a lot of acceptable and willing talent.
ED: Do you think that openness on A$AP Rocky’s part, in terms of his range of collaborations and using the sounds of other regions, is calculated on his and the label’s part, or is that what he’s really into? And is that what will potentially help him succeed on the level he’s about to enter?
JR:I don’t think it’s calculated. I think writers, the loudest folks on Twitter, and so on have this idea that everything is so dictated by the label. I just spent quite some time with Rocky recently for a Billboard piece coming out next Friday, and it was clear that’s just him. I told him how much I liked “1 Train” and he asked me why, in a very curious capacity. And, aside from being over 30 and loving classic New York hip-hop, which that record hews to, I just like how inclusive he was on that; that struck a tone with me. And he was taken aback – like, he’d never really thought about it. He sincerely just wanted a posse cut and to rock with some people he liked. Now, he also ranges further with Skrillex and Florence Welch, but that’s partly generational. What was our MTV experience of waiting to see that rap video come on is now much more controlled and contained as an iTunes playlist. Having said that, for Rocky’s ambitions, it’s absolutely going to help him – although his album is far more traditional than what we all probably thought he was gonna put out.
ED: Going back a little, are there any other cities you are interested in?
JR: I would also be inclined to say Chicago, but that wouldn’t be for the music. I just find that to be a unique story: how the music is the soundtrack to what’s going on there, the debates we have about the artists coming from that scene, and the merits of what they do.
ED: Do you think all those artists signed last year are going to get albums out in 2013?
JR: I don’t think so. I’m hoping it’s not the latest line in a movement that gets trumpeted but fizzled out, like Houston, hyphy, and so on. Keef obviously got a head start, but Lil Reese and Lil Durk will have a hard time wading through his backlash. The difference could be No ID, but, as other new artists emerge, there’ll be some filtering where some of these guys will be dropped, unfortunately. And the ones with whatever is judged to be staying power will, stay.
ED: I know this conversation was my idea, but is it kind of ridiculous to prognosticate for a genre that has, thankfully, been so unpredictable? Not even the other Chicago teenagers who loved Chief Keef probably would have predicted last January that he was going to be one of the biggest stories in hip-hop in 2012. Do the turns of hip-hop culture still have the capacity to surprise you? And the rest of us?
JR: I was thinking about that a lot after you reached out to me. This time of the year is always interesting, because end of the year and the beginning of the year is list mania, where you’ll inevitably see “the artist to watch out for in 2013” posts. On one hand, they’re very predictable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that Joey Bada$$ and Casey Veggies will most likely be XXL Freshmen. (I don’t know who’s on the list, as I left XXL before those conversations began.). But on the flipside, if an editor or content director were to really empower someone to do a story like that and dig deep and list people under the radar, how many people would actually care? Because they don’t know who those artists are yet. Still, regardless of which way you go on a story like that, inevitably there’s the Drake or A$AP Rocky or Chief Keef who no one was making predictions about, and then they come along and blew everyone out of the water. That is still amazing to me. And, yes, I still am surprised in that respect. And as a guy who is somewhat of a vet, or developing into one, I find it invigorating that someone that we’re not talking about is going to be who everyone will be talking about this time next year.
ED: This is a little insider-y, but how would you like to see the way hip-hop is covered change?
JR: I’d like for some outlets to not try to be so big tent and instead try to specialize more in what they cover. In the past, if I had five bucks, I had to choose which magazine I was going to buy, and there were distinct differences in the publications. But with the rise of dotcom, XXL may cover Frank Ocean, which, in the past, would have been strictly the domain of Vibe, for instance. For me, I have my two or three favorite sites or blogs, and then I just check out my RSS feed, which is just a smattering of the same content with the same headlines. There are so many stories in hip-hop that are neglected or are made negligible for the sake of trying to be first in a race, but what is the reward at the finish line?
ED: Do you think outlets are spreading themselves too thin and are not pegging themselves as the experts in anything?
JR: I do think outlets are spreading themselves too thin. Ideally, you’d say, “I wanna hire a kid that can either write, shoot and produce, or someone that knows Southern rap and indie rap.” But that’s become increasingly more difficult. It’s the era of specialization. Why would I go to site X for a cursory read of an artist when site Y will have something more in-depth? And for site X, I get the strategy behind trying to serve everyone, but a look the comments section will tell you that may not be what your audience is looking for either.
ED: Where do you come down on the “cultural tourism” question?
JR: I said this on Twitter last week, but in hip-hop, we’ve outsourced album reviews and critiques to mainstream and “hipster” outlets. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this idea of “cultural tourism,” and I think Dave Bry was valiant and even-handed in his piece in The New Republic. It bothers me that the “us” or “we” that is urban or hip-hop media haven’t done anything to address our weakened voice. Some of the mags don’t run reviews anymore and/or have this dreary game plan where they pay for print contributions but expect online writing to be done voluntarily by freelancers. You don’t get some of the better or more respected or experienced or brighter (just pick one) voices to critique material that way. More editors should learn about budgets and budgeting. Or, to you, the young kid that wants to get on, instead of trying to do what these popular blogs are already doing, you should try to fill an underserved area and go for yours. Long answer short – tourists are welcomed; indigenous people, Manhattan is worth more than you think.
ED: What do you mean by “fill underserved areas”? Do you mean, writing thoughtful reviews for “urban media” outlets? And I’m assuming that when you refer to “the young kid,” you mean someone who has “grown up in the culture of hip-hop,” as B. Dot put it in The New York Times podcast.
JR: By filing an underserved area, my thought was: if I’m 21 and have finished college and want to cover hip-hop, if I’m thinking about starting a blog, while it may be easy in terms of execution, there’s already a Nah Right, 2DopeBoyz, Rap Radar, and so on. But there isn’t a credible space online for thoughtful reviews or critiques that come from an urban standpoint, for example, from a young kid who has grown up in the culture of hip-hop, which may or may not mean he’s black or Latino, but his purview is that of hip-hop primarily.
ED: I’m taking us into some sticky stuff, but don’t you think most writers who are accused of cultural tourism have their own justification of how they did, in fact, grow up in the culture of hip-hop – though other people may disagree when looking at them in terms of their race, where they are from, their socioeconomic background, who they are writing for, what else they have written about and so on?
JR: I agree that, in the tourism accusation, there’s a dismissive current of one’s socioeconomic background that’s intended to demean someone as not qualified to rate this music; that, to some, is much more than music. But I also enjoy hearing a writer’s take on music just for the surface level of it being music, and not specifying all the cultural implications of what this music means, because it comes from this artist, who represents this region, and so on. I do also think some “tourists,” if we label them that for the sake of this discussion, also tend to go too far when contextualizing simple shit as avant-garde when, in fact, it’s just some simple shit.
There seems to me to be some resentment as well – this feeling of, “How are you gonna tell me about my music?” And it’s heightened lately because there’s just no balance. Where do the non-tourists go to write critically about a project where there’s a sizable audience to make an indent on a conversation about any given album? An executive I spoke with earlier today raved about the reviews Rolling Stone and Pitchfork gave a particular rap album, but made no mention of what the rap media thought of it. And maybe that’s because rap reviews have been whittled down to “5 mics” or an “XXL” or “XL” rating, instead of worrying about the prose. The solution doesn’t lie in blocking “tourists” – again I use the quotes for the sake of the conversation, but rather in raising the volume on what this side has to say. So it’s not: Pitchfork calls it “masterful,” the Times says it’s “a remarkable achievement of audio acrobatics,” and The Source gives it four “mics.”
Hip-hop coverage in hip-hop outlets has also been in this stasis where it’s all about the minutiae. What happened last night? Who was on stage? Who is on the album? Trees, trees, trees, while the forest is ignored. The counter is to say either, “But that’s what the people want,” or “Let’s try building an audience around forest gazers.” I had a former intern of mine tell me I sound cranky lately on Twitter; I hope I don’t come across that way. There’s never been more talent, risk taking, and diversity in hip-hop than recently, from the creation standpoint. The way it’s documented should reflect that beyond posts and short video clips.
ED: What artists, disregarding hype or industry anticipation, would you like to hear significant output from in the next twelve months?
JR: I view music a lot from the storyline standpoint, what it means and how it affects the genre, not solely in a vacuum as a critic sometimes. And I say that for better or worse. With the pace of new music and yearly projects, the third album is the new sophomore curse hurdle, so I’m curious to see what Drake does, how his album will sound, sonically and thematically, where he goes. What’s his narrative? Eminem had this comeback of sorts, where instead of the jokey single, he’s kind of this rap power ballad fella. I’m curious how that goes now that he’s back and there are no long layoffs, since he’s a regular working rapper again. I’m becoming a bigger Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown fan by the day – there’s just a couple of acts that not only know who they are but have taught their listeners to know who they are. And despite Q not having, say, the talent of Kendrick, there’s a more fully-formed identity there; it feels like he also understands that, too, which may make him give his music a coherence. I want to see what Pusha T is going to do. I think he has tendency to hew too careful to the idea of who he is, and so every song is this OH SHIT, PUSHA CAN SPIT! JUST LISTEN TO THAT. HE WENT IN! We already know that. I’m ready to digest what the Kanye partnership will create.
ED: Can you give me one totally unexpected prediction?
JR: Do I have the balls to publicly say Kanye’s gonna drop a dud?
ED: Is that what you think?
JR: I’m concerned. The G.O.O.D. Music album was all over the place, from the music to the rollout. And this Kardashian thing, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the best inspiration – although I hesitate to teeter on personal criticism when it comes to artists and their decisions. Having a baby is amazing, right? So, who am I to criticize?
ED: Have you been onboard with everything else Kanye’s done, music-wise, in the past?
JR: I have. If you’re willing to accept 808s And Heartbreaks as a great piece of work, then you’ll know his first five-album run is nothing short of remarkable. Then there are those who think it’s a sore thumb standout in an otherwise impressive catalog. Outside of Eminem, though, there’s not really another guy in hip-hop whose personal narrative shapes his material and discography in the way that Kanye’s does. How can he be great while dating Kim?
ED: If I told you in the beginning of 2010 that the new Kanye album would be recorded in Hawaii, the lead single would have a King Crimson sample, and one of the songs would feature Fergie and Elton John, would you have been excited?
JR: Kanye’s landed in rarefied air, though, where we trust him, musically, and we wonder what statement he’s going to make. Post the Taylor Swift/VMA incident, everyone wanted to know if he would address it, and he did, which is what makes him so great. He has this rock-star approach to his music, even though he has a diva-ish approach to stardom.
ED: I’m excited for him to bring Yeti rap to the forefront. But I was born in the Himalayas, so I grew up in that culture.
JR: And I’m equally excited to be the tourist to write about it.
Two events that took place over the past eighteen months offered proof as to why sitting down with Crystal Ark magi Gavin Russom and Viva Ruiz to discuss musical matters of lysergic origin, spiritual value, and universal consciousness would bear ample fruit. A June 2011 live show at a Brooklyn disco that featured dancers, video synthesists and a progressive cross-section of NYC DJs was part disco rave, part art happening, and pure creative levitation:
The spectactle created such an impression even Genesis P-Orridge could afterwards be heard gushing at their “hyperdelic” wonder. Then this past September, the pair could be spotted quietly exiting a small Williamsburg screening room after a program featuring audio interviews with psilocybin gurus Terrence McKenna and Ram Dass, the type of event that attracted true pilgrims of alternative journeys, not dabblers. A conversation began to take shape.
The late-October release of Crystal Ark’s great self-titled debut album on DFA, served up a myriad of opportunities for Russom and Ruiz to discuss their ample résumés. He: long-time DFA/LCD Soundsystem wizard, instrument-making time-lord, disco-techno traveler, fine artist of some renown. She: dancer, artist, filmmaker, top-notch motherfucking downtown New York priestess! (Experience fine profiles of their day-jobs here, here, here, and here) Yet the terrestrial press-release nature of their physical stations seemed less engaging than how the pair could wax on the great unsaid in the Big Apple dance-scene’s fundamentals; on the collision of art, spirituality and hallucinogenics; and the true meaning of the 2012 prophecy. Which is what this conversation set out to do. The skeptics are asked to exit now…
The Daily Swarm: You’ve both previously said that New York is a major inspiration for The Crystal Ark. What about New York, besides its musical history, inspires you? In a place as hectic and dirty and urban and bustling as this, where is the spiritual nourishment?
Gavin Russom: For me, when you said that, the first thing that came to mind really strongly is a book by an academic named Joseph Murphy called Santeria: African Spirits in America It particularly talks about New York, focused on Murphy’s experience as an academic and his interest in this spiritual path. There’s a chapter where he talks about the botánicas, which are shops that most New Yorkers or people who live in big cities are familiar with. What starts to frame his idea is that the botánica is like a portal into the jungle –an inner penetration of the jungle into the very urban, cement, manmade world of New York. When I read that, it just clicked something in my mind about what I experience in lots of cities, but that seems to have the volume turned up really high on it in New York: that, in a very modern, finance- and trade-based environment, there’s this other inner penetrating the life here. I feel like music is what he describes the botánica as being. It’s another portal.
The Daily Swarm: Was that something you also experienced living in Berlin, or do creative energies permeate differently there?
Gavin Russom: Definitely; it was just on a differently frequency. But one of the reasons I was drawn to Berlin is that the natural world has a particularly strong presence there.
Viva Ruiz: It’s overgrown – it goes past the boundaries. There’s something un-manicured there, and it feels right that way. The nature’s really creeping – like, we saw a fox in the middle of the city; to me, that’s really shocking. It’s so great that in Berlin the wildness is on the surface; I think it’s partly because people aren’t under surveillance as much as they are in the States.
Gavin: Another big part of my experience in Berlin is that there’s a spiritual energy to it too: I feel spirits around me there in a strong way, and I feel like that in New York. Those two cities are connected to each other. Growing up in Providence, I felt the same thing. It was overgrown, run-down; there was a very strong sense of a past and a present existing at the same time, and there were a lot of ghosts. Growing up in New York, I can’t imagine how you could miss them.
Viva Ruiz: I grew up here in Queens. My experience with the spiritual in New York comes from people’s history being so new. My family is from Ecuador – I’m first generation. There’s a lot of ancestor worship that’s more a part of a lot of Latin American cultures: ghosts and church, it’s such a part of every day life
The Daily Swarm: Like pictures of ancestors on the wall?
Viva Ruiz: Yeah, and talking to them. In New York you have such a huge immigrant population: people live here with their histories, from lands rich with spirit and music and tradition that have more to do with nature than American traditions. These cultures tend to be not just more religious but mystical; they also involve a suspension of disbelief. Believing that there are spirits everywhere, that’s a basic and not a stretch – just how it is. And these cultures are so tied into music and dance: ritual, ceremony, and spirit. I grew up around a lot of Haitian people in Queens, in pockets where you don’t ever have to speak English. I found a lot of that connection to history and physicality in music in house parties we’d have, where everybody comes and everybody dances, the music is really loud, and everybody knows that’s part of life. If you can’t sleep because somebody’s having a party next door, that’s nothing you complain about – that’s just your New York neighborhood. Also for me, growing up very Catholic, being in the ritual of church was important – even though I wouldn’t call myself technically a Catholic anymore. That put in me a real respect and need for ritual, because it connects you to a different place, another realm, and music is a part of it. The best parts of church were the music parts.
Gavin Russom: I agree. My experience growing up was of seeing a lot of religions. In my neighborhood there were – I don’t know, I want to call them Moonies – there were Hari Krishna’s, Muslims, black Muslims, Catholics, Protestants. To come from a middle-class academic background – my father’s side was Episcopal, so he grew up going to church, but he’s an academic, and was a hippie, so he sort of moved away from that – my perspective taught me that “it’s something that people do.” In my family, I feel like the spirituality I grew up with was connected to nature and ancestors, but not in a way that was about community, but about our family. It’s a way that I’ve only now started to think of as spirituality. So religion was something near but distant, but also something that I was interested in.
The Daily Swarm: Viva, you said, “music was the best part of church.” It made me think on the lack of separation between church’n’club in New York house music culture, not just vocally invoking gospel but also the recognition of the dance-floor as a sacred place. This is actually something that many cultures have been acting upon for a long time. Gavin you went to Bahia in Brazil in 2008, and you’ve said it was a strong experience for you, and began informing your music. Besides being a musical hotbed, Bahia is a central mixing point of European, African and indigenous cultures; and one aspect of life where all these elements mix is in the Candomblé ceremonies . Can you talk a little bit about music, the club/performance space, and the rituals around spirituality that you try to bring into that space?
Viva Ruiz: The women that sing with me – Jaiko [Suzuki] and Sokhna [Heathyre Mabin] – they’re both these incredible healer women. Sokhna is a kundalini teacher, an herbalist and a doula who’ll just bust-out in Sanskrit. Jaiko studies kinesiology and had a non-romantic date with the guy who represents Japan in the International Council of Shamen this weekend. We are organically this group of really like-minded folks. The ladies and I are consciously in ritual; the movement that we are doing is intentional. What we’re doing is praying for the space that we’re in, praying for everybody around us, calling ourselves into presence, calling everybody into their bodies, and intentionally playing with that. Letting a joyful thing happen, with a prayer for peace in the world [laughs]. That’s what we’re doing there. Everybody’s a dancer, and we have been in the practice of dancing to connect to spirit our whole lives. That’s the language that we’re using. Whatever it looks like to people, that’s less the point than where we’re coming from.
The Daily Swarm: Gavin, can you talk about that from a musical point of view of The Crystal Ark?
Gavin Russom: The way I compose is extremely intuitive – it’s very much based on channeling, for whatever I feel like wants to move through me musically. It’s pretty much always been the case. For a long time, there was a dichotomy. A large portion of my life has been spent pursuing things that were of intuitive interest to me largely alone, without any realization that other people also pursued them. There has been this thing that I do where I don’t really know what it is, and then there’s music.
Music was this thing everybody else does when they’re learning how to do something. I grew up taking cello lessons: I go there, I learn how to read music, there’s a technique, and so on. Even when I studied composition at Bard for a few years – even though it was “out there” and based on intuition and so post-post-post that it was a lot better if you have no idea what you’re doing than if you do – still, that was “studying music.” Meanwhile, this thing that I do is still just something that I do: exploring some sounds and putting them together in time. The fact that those things have grown together has been my process. It’s only been a recent thing – the last ten years, more so the last five years – to connect those the two.
There was a period of time when I was really struggling with mental health and life – I think that it peaked in 1993 – and its been a slow journey back from there. Things I learned started to inform the things I would do intuitively. Basically I became a lot more comfortable with letting things happen. That’s one part of it.
Also, I frame my creative behavior around the metaphor of sacrifice. For me, making music, performing music, particularly performing music live is basically the experience of ritual sacrifice, but with no victims. An offering. In contemporary society, since we don’t have those rituals, that energy gets acted out in different ways; the prison system, celebrity gossip, tragic celebrity stories – I think that’s where it gets channeled into. Part of the energy of simply using the creative act itself as a simulacrum of offering also channels energy away from a self-destructive cultural tendency. The influential seed of my Brazil trip was seeing music as part of something much larger in so many situations. There wasn’t this idea that music exists on its own. It had a clear function that wasn’t commercial – it was medicinal, and participatory; people there were using their bodies, and that proved very relevant. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum there; it exists in a context, and has a cultural purpose. That made sense to me, because I had trouble understanding how it could be any other way.
If there’s any way that music is different from sound, it’s that in any musical composition there’s a beginning and an end: that delineates a sacred space in time, rather than in a physical space. So, in the compositional act, music opens a space in which some kind of meaning becomes inscribed. That meaning is different based on who you are, what you bring to it, what you want to say, what your true intention is, the particular moment in time, what moves through it that moment, and who the people involved are.
It’s something I try to talk about onstage when we’re performing. Despite the fact that we’re all aware of any number of going-out rituals, the fact of the matter is that what is happening at a show is that a group of people are gathered together at a very specific moment in time that will never be repeated again; and even if the exact circumstances were repeated again, that moment would not be. There’s a great deal of energy there – a very powerful, specific occasion.
Viva Ruiz: It’s challenging as a performer, breaking through the audience-performer thing. I feel like there’s something cool and interesting that we all engage in, creating an experience together – “You are not isolated.” That’s the challenge: being in conversation while we’re doing this thing.
The Daily Swarm: I keep thinking back to the first full live-band, multimedia show you did in New York, at Bed-Stuy’s Sugar Hill Disco in June of 2011, where even though it was a debut, all of that energy you are mentioning was very much in the room.
Viva Ruiz: That was a very special show. My dad had just died days before that, so I was in the zone. We were in “the between place,” for sure. That was the power of music for me: I was so happy to go into rehearsals, I was tripping, but totally sober. We were levitating that night, I feel. [laughs]. It’s remarkable that the people we’re involved with – the two of us, and everybody else that night – were all on the same page.
Gavin Russom: Another part of the spiritual aspect of music is the idea of healing. I think I realized – with a great deal of shock actually, some place in 2005, maybe, between Days of Mars and Black Meteoric Star – that my interest in music started largely as a way to heal myself, but in a very unconscious way. Going into the bedroom and playing around, making some sounds and recording, was a way of healing myself. It may not have been the most effective way, but it was what happened. It was the tools that I had. That became a natural way to approach music making; to an extent, that is still what I need from my musical experience. I think also that coded into the music is some of the information that helps to create some kind of, for lack of a better phrase, productive dynamic in the room. We want to break down that thing between us being onstage and you watching it. There are rules: we are the people performing, and we’re not all going to “jam” – but it isn’t just a spectacle to be passively observed: you’ve got to participate.
Viva Ruiz: You are participating, even when you think you’re not.
Gavin Russom: It’s inherent in the experience.
The Daily Swarm: So the psychedelic, ceremonial group-mind aspects of The Crystal Ark are very much conscious?
Gavin Russom: When I talk about healing, it’s all in the same world. When I was a kid, I tried to figure out how to make music that made me feel like I was on psychedelic drugs, and I feel like I’ve gotten kind of good at it. If there’s any skill that I have, that’s it. And I feel like that sensibility is something that Viva and I share.
The Daily Swarm: Another thing that was really interesting about your Sugar Hill show was the fact that Ghe2o Goth1k was on the bill, which brought together a couple of scenes in New York that are separated by race, class, age and gender.
Viva Ruiz: I can’t remember if Venus [X of Ghe2o Goth1k] and I had worked together by then. I do know that I loved her so much already. I’m a big fan of Venus and $hane and all these kids in New York – new generations coming up right now making these new scenes. I think it’s very natural for us to broach that divide. It’s easy to loop in people that are doing interesting things outside of the usual places. What’s cool about New York right now is I feel like the nightlife and the club scene is opening up, and in places that don’t look like nightclubs, because the cops are everywhere basically [laughter].
The Daily Swarm: Opening up in which way: musically? The audience?
Viva Ruiz: Yeah, and even just location. Everything comes around again: you hear about parties that used to be in lofts. There was a period of time when it was all bottle service, to cater to the elite – that is dead. Who do you know that would go to that right now? There are exciting parties that straddle art and music – artists that are not represented, making stuff and dancing. There is something in the primordial ooze again in New York that’s exciting and undefined. It starts to get defined, and then it breaks apart again. Maybe it’s in the whole spirit of Occupy. And to collaborate with these people is a very natural impulse, to be connected and to be in community with people expressing themselves. Black and Latino youth doing great things out there in music; a lot of young women are taking bold steps right now. Wherever I see that, I am going to shine a light.
Women of color are underrepresented, so any time I get a chance I will call attention to them, because I know what that feels like personally. I started making these Spanish soap-opera videos, and Venus was in one. Something hit a nerve with people in a lot of the feedback that I got. There’s something important about seeing yourself represented in the media, and women and people of color still are so not seen. In 2012! Honey Redmond [aka Honey Dijon], an incredible DJ and a friend of mine, she posted where DJ Magazine listed the top 100 DJs and there’s not even one woman on that list – and, like, two black people. [Ed.: actually one – Carl Cox] So we’re not in a post-racial, feminist world. For scenes like Ghe20 G0th1k, for crews like House of Ladosha, of which I’m a big fan, it’s whoever of us has the opportunity to be listened to, to talk about them. I feel like we’re here making music, but also to make a dent.
Gavin Russom: Yeah, to just change the volume of things. The mix is a little out of balance. At this point, I have to look at it as a continuation of colonialism, because my experience is that there are two New Yorks – and probably many more, but if we’re just talking about nightlife… Maybe it’s because now we’re in this cultural moment where what was largely thought of as a European scene – disco or electronic dance music – is looked at as mainstream entertainment. Yet both of those things came out of a very ecstatic, very diverse, very community-oriented scene in New York, as well as other places. I go out and find that still exists: young people of all kinds, ages, diverse backgrounds, diverse genders, diverse gender roles, expressing themselves in a natural way that is beautiful and contemporary, real, meaningful, spiritual, political. I see that happening, and I experience that. It’s part of my life; it’s part of what I experience. And I see that not just in nightlife, but in daily aspects of life in New York – the way that people live and exist on the street and express themselves. That is happening. At the same time – and it’s largely through my connection to DFA, places I might get booked to DJ, or end up at because somebody I know is playing – I find a scene that, at first, seemed innocent or ignorant of that. Now, I start to think is even a little hostile towards that idea; as a result, that scene is dry, uninteresting, and marginally offensive.
I do think we’re undergoing a massive shift. That’s happening to everybody, to every person, and that’s what’s really beautiful about it. I am very welcoming of that shift, and very joyous to be participating in it. But it changes things and it’s a moment in which change is needed.
The Daily Swarm: Why do you think that is? You already mentioned Occupy. What else is pushing this change along, and where do you see its manifestations?
Viva Ruiz: I think people are poor. The bubble popped – and the people who were under perception that we were a rich society saw otherwise. I live in Williamsburg: all those years after the crash, there were three new condos on my block, then the condos went empty, then there were homeless shelters on certain floors of the condo buildings. The whole thing is bizarre.
Also, I love hip-hop. I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, so my whole right leg is made up of hip-hop [laughs]. But the lyrics always being about money worship and status, and cars – I feel like that perception is being blown up by somebody like Frank Ocean. So for hip-hop to take a turn and branch out that way, for the lyrics to be about something else is an incredible thing, since it’s such a powerful genre of music that everybody listens to. There’s a popping of some perception that wealth is “it” in life, or that New York is made of money.
It’s heartening, especially for those of us who weren’t rolling in money anyway. I remember Justin Bond saying, when the bubble popped, “Aaaaand? We’ve always been struggling. So, now, it’ll get more exciting for us. We know how to live on quarters.” That was a few years ago, and things are opening up. It’s just sad the brainwashing that continues to happen in people, to acquire and acquire and acquire. It’s not a real dream anymore, it’s not the American Dream; it’s a false-hood.
The Daily Swarm: Do you think that the increased realization among the young is part of the so-called 2012 moment? The particular date on a calendar is in front of us, but that social reckoning seems to already be under way.
Gavin Russom: Having followed the idea of 2012 for a while, one of the first things I came across was a late-night radio broadcast around ’97: it was an explanation not from the Mayan tradition, but from the Native American tradition. It describes the process as the tearing away of the illusion and the lie. The illusion is that anyone else can tell you what you need, and the lie is that you are able to judge others as better or worse than yourself. I feel like those are the things that motivate the highly achievement- and motivation-based versions of capitalism. Advertising is based around somebody telling you what you need. That’s how it works. You see something in a magazine, you feel bad about yourself, you think, “If I had this thing, I’d feel batter.” Those things are very different if each person has inside of themselves the ability to determine what they need. It’s a very different kind of world, which I think is emerging through things like Occupy, which is individuals working things out as a collective, and has no larger rubric. I feel like a lot of the things that have allowed or motivated white colonial culture to continue are all falling apart. Those things are no longer working.
Viva Ruiz: It’s a very exciting time to be in New York – to be alive anywhere. We have privileges here, I am very aware, like clean water – for now. I want to be of service. We’re here to be of service in music, however. And we’re having fun.
The Daily Swarm: A few months ago, I saw both of you sneaking out at the end of a screening of Terence McKenna and Ram Dass lectures. So I must ask, have psychedelics contributed to your worldviews and pathways towards a creative space?
Viva Ruiz: I’ve taken my share, but I never got anywhere with that. Mine have always been, literally, accidental experiences in the Amazon with shamen. I have a dear friend whom I met in NYC when she was a visiting punk from Oakland but who had grown up in Ecuador, and eventually ended up going back and making it her home. Her and her brother Jonathon Miller Weisberger fell in love with the Ecuador and the peoples in the Amazon and both pretty naturally became activists, and cultural conservationists. I was invited one time out there for a tribal meeting of the Secoya peoples who use Ayahuasca as a central part of ceremony. The strange thing was that after being offered it in the end they did not have enough for me, but I had a sympathetic vision anyway. The next day, they explained to me that a neighboring tribe has the same rituals without ingesting anything: it’s all ceremony-induced, so I feel like that’s more my path. I feel like those ideas are very much a part of my life, but due to a lot of dream work.
Gavin Russom: I took LSD for the first time when I was 14, by myself. I did not know what it was, and had the experience where the volume was turned up on something that was already there. I certainly was not the same after that; I am not sure the volume ever got turned back down. That said, I have not done that much – I am not a Terrence McKenna-type person. The flipside is that those experiences always came with a lot of terror ,and a feeling that things could slip out of control very easily – that I could lose my mind. And there was a point at which psychedelics stopped doing anything for me. I’ve certainly had more powerful experiences and visions and communications in other ways.
There’s this thing that Ram Dass says: “Psychedelics are useful for certain kinds of people, because it allows them to see what the possibility is.” I remember coming up on a psychedelic mushroom trip one time, a moment when everything was feeling so alive and beautiful and full of patterns, and I heard a very strong voice say, “This is what things are always like, but you never have the time to notice it.” I think that’s true. Over the past five years of my life, I’ve been having the experience of life being more and more like that. I’m more aware of this constant beauty, richness, and intensity of life all the time. I’m always grateful that I had the experience of being slammed when I was a kid, out of nowhere, to have whatever programming you have in your mind shaken up. Take the puzzle and “whoooo” [makes a motion of throwing many pieces up in the air, laughs].
The Daily Swarm: You both espouse a pretty radicalized worldview. How do you reconcile your beliefs with folks on the other side of the divide – the non-believers – some of whom enable your creativity?
Viva Ruiz: What’s useful for me is to take my own medicine and see myself the same as everybody else, because it can be tempting to be righteous, and pretend to be better than people. Everybody’s playing their parts perfectly here. I know that when I play music, when I dance, part of my ritual is to be clear of my intention. It is sharing. I want to play with people, so there’s a celebration aspect. I’m encoding everything I make with some peace propaganda; whether or not people get it overtly is not my business.
Gavin Russom: I take the approach of healing in a very humble way – first off, healing myself. I am the same: a person who has personal, cultural and ancestral scars that need to be healed, and that if they’re not healed, cause me to do strange harmful things to myself and other people. There’s also that idea of openness. It becomes tricky, too, because there’s so many boxes that culture as a whole can put you in, that diminish or belittle what you do; to posit that it’s just some weird thing – as opposed to think it’s something that merits investigation.
But part of what I do is make a living. It’s all a daily practice, to stay within all of those borders, some of which are contradictory, maybe even mutually exclusive. It’s a day-to-day practice to look at myself as the person who is in need of healing and education, to be growing as a person in the world, and then presenting something to other people for their entertainment consideration. Because having a good time and being the conduit for other people having a good time is up there in terms of cultural values for me [laughs]. I don’t want to feed people candy all day long, but it’s a balance of a million different things, which I am trying to do my best to keep in balance.
The Daily Swarm: And so, any conclusions on what happens December 21st, 2012?
Viva Ruiz: I was really into the Greek definition of apocalypse. To uncover…
Gavin Russom: …The lifting of the veil.
Viva Ruiz: Well, if that’s what it means, then it’s accurate. I believe that.
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
As 2012 comes to a close, we look back and try to figure out what to make of this puzzlingly erratic year – one where some awesome stuff happened, and everything was not totally terrible! To help sift the dirt and the gold, Ducker brought in always apt pop-culture opinionator Zach Baron. Baron wrote several great stories this year that provided strong insights into what we should be paying attention to in the music world, including profiles of Ariel Pink, James Murphy and Diplo for The New York Times; compelling features on Fiona Apple and Azealia Banks for SPIN ; trenchant essays on Gil-Scott Heron and Mountain Goats for The Daily; and a surprising trip back to Morocco with French Montana for The FADER. Previously an editor at The Village Voice and a critic and reporter at The Daily, Baron currently serves as “a film critic for the sports and culture website Grantland.
Eric Ducker: Take a moment to step into your personal time machine: going into 2012, what were you excited about musically?
Zach Baron: This is an interesting question because, in retrospect, I suppose I didn’t really see any of the really exciting stuff coming before it arrived. I was not ringing in the New Year saying, “Man, I hope Fiona Apple makes a new record about heartbreak and redemptive sadness.” Looking at my Pazz & Jop ballot last year, you can see inklings of some of it: Future, Meek Mill, A$AP – all things I was waiting for more of. But one of the things I enjoyed about 2012 was how often I was surprised. Maybe that’s just because this is the year I became more of a dilettante music critic than a real one, but there you go.
ED: What do you mean by that?
ZB: A social-media guru just had a shiver go up the back of his neck like, “Somewhere on the planet, a writer just destroyed his brand,” but I’ve had jobs for probably the last six years that required me to listen to and write about music every day, and that was less true this year. I still reviewed a ton of records and wrote a good amount of longer features, but compared to, say, my friend Jon Caramanica, I am barely paying attention.
ED: Going back to your for statement about how often you were surprised, what were the biggest positive surprises for you this year?
ZB: Frank Ocean. You look at that guy a year ago and say, “This is a fascinating artist – it will be really interesting to watch him evolve.” You don’t really expect Channel ORANGE, which seems likely to still be bowling people over anew in 2025. I didn’t anticipate losing it over Fiona Apple, since I didn’t lose it over Fiona Apple the other three times she put out records. I’m a hardcore kid from way back when, and I never really expected music that so clearly comes out of that world – here I’m thinking of Japandroids and the Crutchfield twins, who are behind Swearin’ and Waxahatchee, two bands that made two of my favorite records of the year – to be as vital and part of the conversation in 2012.
ED: So you went all in on Japandroids this year?
ZB: The first time I heard “The House That Heaven Built,” I thought someone was playing a prank on me. It was like, “Here are all the things you like at once!” So yeah, I did. I spent a lot of my teenage years chasing bands like Jawbreaker, who could sort of balance all the angry punk nihilism I thought I was feeling with melody and feeling and heart. Choruses too, probably. Celebration Rock is like the platonic version of that.
ED: What was your opinion of them before Celebration Rock?
ZB: That they were the ersatz version of that stuff. “Young Hearts Spark Fire” is an astonishing song. The rest of that record, not so much. But this is a conversation! A “rational conversation.” This is the time of year where I start to think about narratives, because that is what we do in December, when we enter the list and year-end retrospective salt mines. If you had to put a story on the year – wrap a bunch of disparate and disconnected albums and trends and conversations with a neat little bow – what would that story be?
ED: You’re on to something about artists surpassing expectations in 2012. One of the reasons people got so geeked on Japandroids was because they improved from their last album to this one, and that can feel so rare with bands this days. Baroness got super ambitious and made a double album that explored lots of possibilities within their sound, and it was great. There weren’t a lot of albums that disappointed me. Some people were let down by certain rap albums – Waka Flocka, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz – but I didn’t have high hopes for them. There were plenty of mediocre and unmemorable albums this year, but unless I’m blocking them from my memory or I’ve already deleted them from iTunes, I can’t think of anything that seriously didn’t come close to what I hoped from it.
ZB: Rap, which has been trending in a singles direction for a very long time – which is one of the great things about the genre – kind of reached its apotheosis in 2012. There was Kendrick Lamar, and I was very moved by Future’s album, but there’s almost a gap you can see forming between certain R&B artists; I’m thinking here of Frank Ocean, and Miguel, and Usher, and Bobby Womack, and – hell, put Future in here again as well. They all made really thoughtful and complete “album” albums this year, versus rap artists who had their whole year play out in singles: Chief Keef, 2 Chainz, Pusha T, French Montana, Trinidad James (ahem), and so on. Some of those people put out proper albums this year. But past good kid, m.A.A.d. city, it was a pretty YouTube-y year for rap, even by the genre’s already pretty advanced YouTube standards. That’s anything but a complaint, by the way.
ED: I was giving 2 Chainz’s album another chance earlier this week and started thinking of the parallels (or not) between his song “Ghetto Dreams” with Scarface and John Legend vs. Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. city” which features MC Eiht. I don’t even like MC Eiht’s verse that much – and I love MC Eiht – but “m.A.A.d. city” does such a better job articulating Kendrick’s viewpoint and putting him in context. In theory, “Ghetto Dreams” could have done that, but on top of everything, they threw on that awful adlib at the end of John Legend doing the line from “My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me” that is so ridiculous. That was indicative of 2 Chainz’s whole approach of not even taking seriously the fact he’s making album and asking people to buy it. Earlier on the record dude literally makes a fart noise after a lame punchline about his car needing pampers.
ZB: It’s important not to condemn artists for not doing things they’re not trying to do. I like 2 Chainz because he enlivens the proceedings whenever he shows up: he’s a character, a personality, vivid and specific and often ridiculous, yeah, but also charismatic and funny. He has presence. It seems weird to ask him to take things seriously. That’s pretty much the last thing I’d want from his music.
ED: Then don’t get Scarface on your record, dude.
ZB: And, the “asking people to buy it” is now a bit of a canard, too. Record sales do matter, of course, but increasingly certain major-label releases are as much meant as really expensive business cards as they are consumer products. It’s just to give Jimmy Fallon a square object to hold up, and provide art for the tour poster, not to mention to provide a reason to tour in the first place. It’s not that simple, but expecting cohesion from records that most consumers no longer pay for or listen to as discrete album-units seems like a lot to ask. That’s why the Kendrick thing is maybe so amazing. It’s actually disorienting to drop into the middle of m.A.A.d. city. He insisted on an album at a time where the only real upside to that insistence is artistic, rather than commercial. In fact, an album as dense as his is probably commercially counterproductive – where’s the way in?
ED: The way in is for people to stop pretending that they don’t have 68 minutes in their lifetime to stop and give at least half their attention to an album that may or may not speak to them in some way. I won’t pretend that many records from the past five decades of recorded music aren’t cobbled together or jammed up with filler, but I don’t think we can just give a blanket pass and say that it’s too much to ask of artists to at least try and make something cohesive. If artists have low expectations of what people are willing to devote their time and money to – either through the actual album or through subsequent avenues – they’re more likely to create weak art, and that will hurt them in the long run. Because Kendrick Lamar insisted on focusing on the album format, and many would say he succeeded at it, he’s going to be able to get high-paying gigs at festivals next year if he wants them, he’ll probably be able to get the other members of Black Hippy on some of those festivals. If he chooses to, he’s going to be able to coast on the success of good kid, m.A.A.d. city for two or three more years.
ZB: Ah, but who has those 68 minutes though? Rock & roll was a singles genre before it was an album genre, and so was rap. Sure, Kendrick helped himself making such an impressive album, and as someone who roots for him, I think that’s great. But I’d hesitate to generalize: I wasn’t broken up when, say, Kreayshawn failed to make a listenable record. But I wouldn’t try to take “Gucci Gucci” away from her either – the month that song was everywhere was really fun. I think it’s important to take satisfaction where you can find it.
ED: I heard you on the Hollywood Prospectus podcast and you mentioned that this was a good year for movies, partially because nothing infuriated you. Maybe that’s changed since you saw The Hobbit, but can the same be said for music in 2012? Was there anything that infuriated you?
ZB: There was a time when I was editing The Village Voice‘s music blog and nearly every week I would write a long angry screed about something. Those screeds were genuine. They also were probably the result of what happens when you need to render eight opinions a day, no matter whether or not there are eight things that day that might merit serious thought. And past that, I was probably motivated to some extent by the fact that getting mad constituted, in the perverse logic of the medium, doing my job well: more people looked at the stuff and talked about it. Remove those imperatives, and I find myself generally less rage-filled. This notion of “troll-gaze,” that there is music specifically made to anger Zach Baron or whomever the listener might be, seems ridiculous to me. Lana Del Rey may not be the most talented person, but I seriously doubt that she thinks all that much about upsetting people on Twitter. It’s this weird kind of reverse engineering: “It irritates me, therefore that must have been the creator’s intention.” That doesn’t exactly answer your question, I guess, but the honest answer is, I tend not to get infuriated because I tend not to take things I don’t like personally. But maybe you have an example or something in mind that I’m not thinking of, or that was reprehensible on its own creative terms?
ED: Nothing much in music infuriated me this year. There were things that probably should have. Maybe parts of me have been numbed to awfulness or crassness or craven manipulation and opportunism; perhaps I’ve realized it’s just not that big a deal. I’m not currently in a position where I have many reasons to get upset about “Why are you paying attention to that rather than this”? in terms of either the general population’s tastes, or what my co-workers think we should be covering. I’ve never been one of the furious critics. You do your best to help people realize that there is good stuff out there they might not be aware of, or encourage them to be experimental in their listening, but it’s pretty pointless to get bent out of shape if they don’t listen to what you recommend. I get frustrated when I see artists do things that they probably know are bad ideas or when they ignore their potential; still, I don’t know what’s going on in their head or what responsibilities they have or what they feel they have to do in order to sustain their lives and the people who rely on them. I wish they wouldn’t do it, but as I said, I can always ignore them if they do a bad job and just focus on someone doing something interesting. Lana Del Rey, Riff Raff et al – I listened to that stuff, didn’t find much for me there, and moved along.
ZB: I don’t doubt that Riff Raff or Lana Del Rey want my attention and will do anything to get it. I actually appreciate that. More than ever, music is a 24/7 performance; Riff Raff is really good at that part of it, even if he’s not always good at the music part of it. I adore Kitty Pryde: she is really good at occupying all the spaces at once.
ED: I’ve been thinking about who did a good this year keeping my attention without actually releasing a sizable amount of new music this year. Danny Brown has managed to maintain my interest without putting out a new full-length, and never seemed insufferable. This is generally a rap-music issue. Rockers seem to want to hibernate and stick to the traditional “release an album, tour too much, recover, record, release an album, then repeat” approach.
ZB: It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the stuff I care most about has retained some degree of mystery. Frank Ocean did a really good job being very selective in terms of what he disclosed about himself: it was all on his terms, and those terms were admirable and intelligible, and still left room for a lot of mystery and romance. Ditto for Fiona, who I profiled for SPIN earlier this year. She sat in front of me and spoke for probably two and a half hours straight with no filter about herself and her neuroses and her fears – and yet there is something about her mind that remains unknowable. While she gives away a lot, she does not give away that key that you would need to decrypt what she says. You could throw The Weeknd in here, too. I find myself drawn to the ones I don’t fully know about, and am comforted by the ones who will sort of give me everything – Riff Raff and Kitty Pryde and Heems, formerly of Das Racist, are all people that I would put in that latter category.
ED: I got really excited every time a Cat Power article came out this year. Chan Marshall was basically telling the same story again and again, which understandably happens, about her breakdown around the time of The Greatest and recording the new album; she’d throw in new elaborations here or there, but her asides were amazing. That was more revealing to me, someone who had become so willing to reveal her perspective on how she sees the world – not in her preferences in drum machines, but what she thinks about clouds.
ZB: Yes, you’re right. It wasn’t the signal, though the story behind Sun is totally fascinating – shout out to Giovanni Ribisi and Agyness Deyn – but the noise: the way that she was so emphatically Cat Power without necessarily further explaining what exactly that might mean. If I could wrap “Nothing But Time” around my neck and wear it like a scarf I would, and that fact has very little to do with knowing that she wrote it for Ribisi’s kid.
ED: Want to do a lightning round?
ZB: Of course.
ED: Will A$AP Rocky’s album really come out in January?
ED: Drawing on two artists you profiled this year, what will come out first, Azealia Banks’ album or Major Lazer’s?
ZB: Major Lazer at this point is mostly castoffs from Diplo’s other production work, and he doesn’t exactly have a lot of those, being as in demand as he is, so Banks. Though it will be fascinating to see what happens there. She’s had that February 12, 2013 date for months now, which sort of makes me actually believe it. I know they didn’t want to release it in the fourth quarter, and I get the sense that she’s been working. Whether or not when she walks into Jimmy Iovine’s office and plays him the record, he actually lets her put it out, that’ll be the question.
ED: Whose final album will be the most rewarding: A$AP, Major Lazer, or Azealia Banks?
ZB: I’d love to see Azealia win, though I have no evidence to suggest that she will, beyond her talent. A$AP is probably the one who will be with us for the longest, that’s my guess. By which I mean A$AP Ferg, of course.
ED: Did you see Shut Up & Play the Hits the one night it was in theaters? If so, were people around you crying? And if so, were you one of those people?
ZB: I did not. I saw it in a screening room, and may or may not have teared up briefly.
ED: Do you think the repeated cutting to the overweight young man in the audience who was crying at the actual show was manipulative?
ZB: A lot of that documentary was manipulative: people have a really hard time making documentaries about rock musicians without suggesting everything those musicians do is incredibly important. Shut Up & Play the Hits is certainly no exception to that rule.
ED: James Murphy made is really clear in that movie that he thought him ending that band was important.
ZB: Right, and I agree. But it’s the job of the filmmakers to find another frame for it – one that might work for someone less enamored with LCD Soundsystem than me or James Murphy. I should say that I really liked it. That band was a force and the documentary definitely gives you that sense.
ED: Aside from over-cutting to the crying guy and cutting off “Sound of Silver,” the live performance stuff was great. Not performance stuff, not so great. Enjoyed it. Didn’t cry. Ate Whole Foods sushi in the theater.
ZB: I can’t wait for the oral history of the day we all watched the LCD Soundsystem documentary.
ED: Did Cloud Nothings sustain your interest for twelve months? Did they ever attain it?
ZB: I liked the Cloud Nothings record; “No Future/No Past” is the greatest Slint song Slint never wrote.
ED: When’s the last time you listened to it?
ZB: Well, I’m listening to it right now, but before that, I dunno, June? You are right, whatever spark you get kind of went missing for me with that record.
ED: I’m not trying to insult them and say that the album is disposable – I like that record. It’s just always weird to me that we can be so psyched for something in January, and yet it will feel so old by December. And since we’re in the year-end list season, I’m curious if writers and editors who loved Cloud Nothings’ album in January even have it on their radar now.
ZB: The new thing is always shinier. Oh I forgot the end of this song sounds like Portraits of Past! Speaking of the ghost of hardcore past.
ED: Sorry to call you out on this, but earlier this year I asked you to do a “Rational Conversation” that involved Animal Collective, but you said one of the reasons you couldn’t do it was that you hadn’t even listened to Centipede HZ. Have you listened to it yet?
ZB: Pretty sure I still have yet to hear a note of Centipede HZ.
ED: Do you think there are people who make out to Ariel Pink’s Mature Themes?
ZB: Sure. I profiled him in August, and one of the things I came away thinking was that the “weird” thing he represented had been well and truly normalized- not necessarily by him, but by an online music culture that had found a home for all this stuff that used to be defined by its homelessness. Pitchfork had “Round and Round” as their #1 song of the year in 2010. You think some pair of randy bankers or college librarians didn’t take that to heart?
ED: Did Rick Ross end 2012 in a higher or lower position than when he started the year?
ZB: Lower, but not meaningfully lower – he’d made two amazing records in a row before this one. Speaking of things people forget, Rich Forever came out in January, and that’s as good a rap record as came out all year. He just happened to release it as a mixtape, because Rick Ross can afford to do that, and why not?
ED: Why don’t I find the “Trapped in the Closet” saga hilarious or a sign of R. Kelly’s musical genius? There are plenty of other things he’s done that make me think he is hilarious and a musical genius.
ZB: It’s certainly not a sign of his musical genius – that would be his actual music. There are many reasonably funny video clips on the Internet. “Trapped in the Closet” is like 17 of them in a row, but not much more. It’d be more compelling if everything else R. Kelly did wasn’t also equally, if not more, compelling – with “compelling” in this case being an evasive word that encompasses both sides of the moral spectrum.
ED: Lots of “real New York hip-hop” came out this year, why is everyone into the Roc Marciano album so much?
ZB: “Everyone” is a dangerous thing for me to speak to, probably. Love you, Chris Weingarten!
ED: Okay, let me put it this way: Why do you think many critics particularly gravitated towards Roc Marciano’s album over other “real New York hip-hop” albums?
ZB: Because Roc Marciano is talented? Not sure if it’s more complicated than that. Obviously we, as aging critics, are all going to deal with the fact that at a certain point, music that reminds us of our youth is going to seem like “real hip-hop” in a way that “Love Sosa” may not. Let’s all promise not to do that anytime soon though.
ED: Blue Chips or Rare Chandeliers?
ZB: Probably Blue Chips, but the cover of Rare Chandeliers over everything.
ED: What’s the worst music-related Twitter feed you still follow?
ZB: I’m sure my own is pretty unbearable these days. If only Kristen Stewart had put out an album this year.
ED: What band do you wish hadn’t broken up in 2012?
ZB: Bands don’t break up anymore. They just wait for the money to double.
ED: What album should we have paid more attention to in 2012?
ZB: I am probably the least prescriptive music critic of all time; I generally think people should pay attention to whatever they choose to pay attention to. That said: Sharon Van Etten.
ED: What did you think of Cat Marnell’s performance as a video model in Riff Raff’s “Midnight Sprite”?
ZB: I hope she defeats Anne Hathaway for “Best Supporting Actress” at the Oscars.