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.
South by Southwest in Austin is over. Miami Music Week/Winter Music Conference is over. Sprrrrraaaaaqng breaaaaak isn’t forever! With these back-to-back music industry events now done, what’s the shakeout? To that end, Ducker had a post-mortem discussion with DJ/producer and Fool’s Gold Records co-owner Nick Catchdubs, his friend and former co-worker at The Fader, to find out the benefits and drawbacks of this year’s escapades.
Eric Ducker: What was the first year that Fool’s Gold started doing things at South by Southwest and in Miami?
Nick Catchdubs: We started the label in 2007, and our first Austin and Miami showcases were that following spring, in 2008.
ED: How big were your events?
NC: We’ve always believed in the underplay — pack a smaller room with big artists (and surprise guests) for maximum freakout. So for that first Austin show, we had Chromeo live, A-Trak, Kid Sister, Flosstradamus, a then-hardly-known Kid Cudi, and more. And in Miami, we had guests like Boys Noize, MSTRKRFT, Surkin and others. That’s still the model for how we program events now.
ED: How big was your involvement this year?
NC: Every year gets bigger. We’ve been throwing multiple events on multiple nights rather than just looking for a bigger box to stuff people into. It’s been cool because each party can have its own personality.
ED: When did you start working with corporations to get support for your events? Was that pretty immediate?
NC: We’ve always tried to keep Fool’s Gold parties free wherever possible, and that kind of thing needs underwriters. We’ve enlisted sponsors from the very beginning.
ED: Were they coming to you, or were you coming to them?
NC: It’s a mix of both. We’re always actively looking for sponsorship partners, and vice versa.
ED: What do you get out of doing these events at SXSW and in Miami?
NC: Fool’s Gold does a lot of things, but we’re a record label first and foremost. And our music and our artists really come to life in a performance/party setting: these showcase are little encapsulations of what we’re about — the Fool’s Gold vibe made real. One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that these events in Austin and Miami aren’t traditional music festivals; they’re trade shows. It’s kind of crazy when I see guys from bands (who have managers, labels and booking agents, mind you, though that’s another story…) get on their high horse and complain about the “commercialization” of things like SXSW. It’s meant to be commercial! You have to view these things like Comic-Con CES or something. Our party or our showcase is like our tradeshow booth. We don’t specifically go down there like, “Hey, let’s make some deals.” You can’t really quantify the monetary value. But the subtext is that you’re putting your business on display.
ED: What you’re saying is a form of reiteration of what a lot of people tell me, which is that these events are about raising awareness for – and I know this can sound callous – your products and your brand. But the fact is, your label is a business.
NC: Exactly. And with any business/brand, you can be clever about how you sell your product, or you can be tacky. “Marketing” isn’t inherently a bad thing. I get that people get bummed out by the sheer bombardment and noise of walking down 6th St. in Austin, for instance, but that’s part of the event. The “It’s about the music, mannnn” stance doesn’t really apply. If you want to take part in SXSW, you have to know what you’re in for.
ED: Are there actual tangible benefits to participating in these events?
NC: Definitely. For the most part, the audiences at our parties are primarily “the kids.” It’s fans who dance and crowd surf and rap the lyrics out loud and stay ’til 5 in the morning. THAT is tangible! We put the events together for them. The sort of “industry” value is secondary to that; it’s the kind of thing you see later on — putting a recap video together and showing it to brands, like, “This is what you’re in for.” (That’s a lot of air quotes.) Aside from the events themselves, it’s just nice to have everyone in one place — friends, peers, fellow biz folks. You can catch up and hang out in real life, see what everyone is up to, get new ideas, get excited. Winter sucks, and these trips are always a reminder that summer is on deck. It’s great for me as a label owner, as well as an artist. I always come back re-energized and happy to get to work.
ED: Do you make money? Do you lose money?
NC: We work to set up enough sponsorships to cover our expenses (which can get pretty intense when you are flying out and housing artists for two weeks at a time). Sometimes you end up a little over, sometimes a little under. As the years go on, events get easier to put together and budgeting gets tighter, and you figure out how things can get more profitable. But these aren’t designed as a revenue stream necessarily. It’s more about having a successful and fun event that people will remember and talk about.
ED: Right, but by your estimation you’ve probably had “successful” events, which will lead to more positive things down the line. Some people do things in Austin and Miami and, whether it’s there fault or not, nothing really comes out of it either while they’re there, or in the following months.
NC: Definitely. If you’re going to throw events like this, they can’t just live on the night of the show. You’ve got to spread the word, make recaps (or live stream), get the most out of it.
ED: Which has proven more important to your label, Austin or Miami?
NC: I would say they’re equally important. We’re just as active in the electronic/dance world as we are outside of it.
ED: I’m curious about the effects for your artists. Have any of your acts been scooped or approached by other labels after doing events for you (a practice which I understand was fairly common in the 1990s)? Do they get new managers, booking agents, and so on?
NC: I don’t think it’s necessarily a byproduct of any individual show. People’s careers are based on momentum. Nobody comes into these things as a total unknown. Even the young artists playing our showcases — we heard of them beforehand, we signed them and put them on the showcase! What happens is, people see an artist they heard loose chatter about and say, “This guy is for real.” Or alternately, “I don’t get it, what’s the fuss about?”
ED: I understand it’s cumulative, but do you think their specific involvement at SXSW or in Miami has resulted in something changing in their career? I don’t necessarily believe that’s the point of these events these days, but I’m curious if you’ve seen it happen.
NC: I don’t think it happens solely because of a performance at these events, no. There is a kind of coronation that can happen — we saw it with Danny Brown taking over SXSW last year. People got to see in person why this guy is so special, and he went from being a critical favorite to a superstar. But that was the culmination of everything we’d been working up to, not just showing up in Austin and exploding.
ED: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier: that these things can be fun, and that’s really why people – both artists and people in the crowd – attend. Is that a smart reason to spend a bunch money in an industry when people aren’t making as much as they used to?
NC: That’s why the people really spending money on events aren’t music companies. It’s multinational corporations. And it’s all a marketing expense.
ED: Do you try to get your acts on those events, or do you try to keep them on the specific events the label is involved with?
NC: If we’re dealing with corporations, for the most part it’s to sponsor our events, as opposed to pitching artists to perform at theirs; in general we don’t get too involved in artists’ individual bookings. If the label is paying to fly people out, obviously we want our event to take priority.
ED: Do you think there should be more press coverage of what happens in Miami?
NC: There should be more press coverage of parties in general. It still seems like reportage is based around the old model of bouncing around and seeing acts play their official showcase slots: “I’ve gotta get to The Sideburn at 7:30 to see Wolf Ass!”
ED: Why do you think that form of coverage is outdated?
NC: For a DJ-focused label, you need to post up for the night and just party with us. It’s not traditional “band” performances that you can mix and match, for the most part.
ED: Do you think the hop-around style of coverage is more for directed to the reader (Look how much different stuff I was able to take in on one night!) or to the editor (Look how much work I was doing! It was worth your money to send me here!)?
NC: Probably a little of both, though neither really lends itself to much in-depth thought or context. “It’s a blur! There’s so much going on!” Okay, so what else?
ED: Based on what happened this year, are you going to change your approach to Austin and Miami next year?
NC: Not significantly. When it comes to throwing parties, we’re good at what we do. Each year we just try to run a tighter ship. Being more organized and having more advance planning on the logistical side gives us more time to work on the programming/surprises, which is more fun anyway.
ED: What are your overall takes on Austin and Miami this year?
NC: On a creative/social level, a few things stood out. “EDM” does not translate in Austin, outside of Daft Punk billboards. There were a lot of great DJ-centric events, but it didn’t really seem like a topic of conversation amongst the larger music community there. I was surprised that for all the media attention paid to American dance music as of late, it didn’t seem like much of a going concern to “band” people (as far as my unscientific sampling of opinion and chatter goes). In Miami, there was a great diversity of events — different labels all having their own showcases, and so on. But as healthy as that side is, it felt like a degree of self-segregation: the weirdos had their own parties, the mainstream guys had theirs. Outside of the Fool’s Gold events, I didn’t see too much mixing. I’m not sure what either of those means from a business perspective, but they are just some things I noticed.
ED: Ultimately, which is more fun, Austin or Miami?
NC: It changes every year. In general I have more fun in Miami because you can have meetings at the pool.
A Rational Conversation: Wax Poetic's Brian DiGenti Filters Justin Timberlake Through the Controversial Legacy of Blue-Eyed Soul...
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.
Justin Timberlake’s new album The 20/20 Experience sees him incorporating even more classic soul elements into his sound. It has earned him plenty of comparisons to contemporary soul-devoted white men Robin Thicke and Mayer Hawthorne, because, you know, horns. But where does Timberlake fit into the decades old tradition of blue-eyed soul? Ducker discussed this topic with Brian DiGenti, the co-founder and editor of Wax Poetics, the magazine whose new 54th issue features articles on classic blue-eyed soul artists including Daryl Hall, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and Bobby Caldwell.
Eric Ducker: Can you give me a brief overview of the term “blue-eyed soul”?
Brian DiGenti: While writing the Preface to Issue 54, I researched it and found that a famous Philly DJ coined the term in 1964 to describe The Righteous Brothers, who he had a hand in blowing up nationally. It appears that Billboard magazine first mentioned the term in October 1965, and soon other media outlets started using it. Billboard has a great article from October 1965 where they interviewed radio jocks and general managers about it. Most said it was just white artists that had a “soul feeling,” and they often pointed to rock groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as more obvious groups like the Righteous Brothers. If you look at The Beatles and The Stones as an example, you have to trace the birth of modern white rock & roll to black rock & roll, which was really just an offshoot of early R&B. Both bands started out playing covers by black American artists and that soul music heavily influenced the original music they did.
ED: Yeah, that’s the thing about just applying the term to merely “soulful” artists. Since basically the majority of modern American music is derived from some form of black music, does it just become a situation where white artists whose recordings could potentially “pass” as being by black artists get called blue-eyed soul?
BD: Yes, that’s it exactly. One thing Billboard pointed out was that radio DJs truly thought The Righteous Brothers were black (they were spinning 45s and not picture cover LPs). It became just another way to market music. The really interesting thing was that by 1965, black music crossed over to the pop charts on occasion, but this was the first time white music was being played on black radio.
ED: The labels were actively courting black audiences for their white acts?
BD: Yes, I think that’s correct. They realized they could make more money, plain and simple.
ED: So how did that work into the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when artists had to have more of a visual presence through album covers, TV appearances, magazines profiles, music videos, and everything that’s become associated with being a recording artist?
BD: Probably the best example of this is Bobby Caldwell. To this day, there are a lot of people who still think he’s black; I certainly did when I first picked up his debut LP in the dollar bins 15 years ago. The label, along with Bobby himself, decided to keep his image off his debut LP. It was Bobby who created the famous silhouette we see on the cover. Bobby told us in Issue 54 that when he toured to support the album, as an opening act for Natalie Cole, the audiences were shocked to see that he was white. But they finally came to accept him as a blue-eyed soul artist. In the end, if you love the voice, it doesn’t matter. But his first album was certainly marketed to trick audiences. Can you imagine if they had tried to do that with Amy Winehouse?
ED: With Bobby Caldwell, was the thinking that he was “too black” for white audiences, so the only option was black audiences (which probably at the time was the right audience to pursue anyway, considering his music)?
BD: I think they probably had that idea, especially since Henry Stone’s musical empire was built on black artists and black audiences. And their big act at the time, KC & the Sunshine Band, found crossover success, but they kept KC (who was white) out of the spotlight too.
ED: Do you think any labels or white artists still try to trick black audiences?
BD: It certainly happens incidentally, but I think any label or artist would be ill advised to do it on purpose.
ED: In the new issue of Wax Poetics you cover several blue-eyed soul acts—including Daryl Hall, Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, Bobby Caldwell, Laura Nyro—but this tradition has taken various forms in recent years with guys like Robin Thicke, Mayer Hawthorne, and even Jamie Lidell, among others. How do you think these modern artists’ approach and reception has been different?
BD: It’s interesting to see how things have evolved. In the 1950s, you had a ton of white doo-wop groups, as that was really the main musical genre on the radio. In the 1960s, you had some obvious post-doo-wop groups that fit the bill, like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and some rock-oriented groups like The Rascals. Then in the 1970s, you had a few guys like Caldwell and Robert Palmer who really were labeled as blue-eyed soul, and then you had guys who were just so soulful that the music they made always had soul: Van Morrison, Jim Morrison, David Bowie at times, Tim Buckley, Eric Burdon, Steve Winwood… But then you had a huge genre of music that I personally consider to be blue-eyed soul, but it was just pop rock at the time. It was basically everything you would hear on FM radio: Ambrosia, Player, some America, Seals & Croft, Steely Dan, Alan Parsons… They all have certain tracks that stand out. But it was just considered pop music. So if you look at how black music is the most influential thing for American modern music, you would think that by this time we would all just have come to accept that a lot of white singers have grown up with black music and have that soul in their voice, in their swagger, and it’s often quite natural and not contrived. Artists like Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse (and our artist Kendra Morris), I don’t consider them “blue-eyed soul.” But this label is definitely being brought back by the media and record companies in order to market the music. So it’s either that we’ve come full circle or we haven’t really learned anything.
ED: Marketed to whom? Do you they think black audiences will be more accepting of them if they have that blue-eyed soul tag? Or is it that certain parts of a white audiences will be interested in something with the blue-eyed soul designation because it seems like more “authentic” music, but less threatening than soul music by actual black people?
BD: I remember watching American Idol last season when Jimmy Iovine acknowledged that there was a comeback for blue-eyed soul happening. It really lit a light bulb in my mind, because here is a (white) guy who has worked with some of the most influential black artists of our generation, and he’s using this term on national TV. I do think the labels realize how powerful black music is now and how white audiences are the biggest purchasers of it at times, so maybe you’re right and they think it’s just a way to make these artists seem more cool. I think it worked with Timberlake, who was at one point considered pretty uncool—boy bands weren’t cool. But now pretty much everyone respects the guy, not to mention his new album is solid.
ED: Yeah, the new Justin Timberlake album is a big reason I wanted to talk to you about this. When “Suit & Tie” came out, the immediate reaction for a lot of people was: “He’s ripping off Robin Thicke.” And then when more stuff was released, some people began making Mayer Hawthorne comparisons. But to me, it just seems like him going explicitly deeper into the blue-eyed soul element that’s always been lurking in his career. I mean, he was even doing the 1990s R&B vocal group thing in The Mickey Mouse Club.
BD: I don’t think you can front on JT. He’s the real deal. He’s from Memphis, Tennessee. It’s definitely in his blood, so to speak. It’s hard not to be influenced by black music in that city. It’s one of the most important—if not the most important—places for the development of soul music. He’s always had the voice. When I listen to the new record, I don’t necessarily hear blue-eyed soul, because that term is often associated with a more throwback style. And the new album is “future soul,” and that’s all about the production style, which is basically Timbaland. If you look historically at music, soul – and blues, and R&B – was born out of hardship; it was always considered that you had to have this hardship in your life, deep in your soul, to sing like that. But if you look at modern music, we live in a different time. There is hardship everywhere: everyone has some sort of pain and troubles—small and large—but is that what creates a “soulful voice”? For me, it’s the ability to touch the soul, to make a grown man cry. I don’t think JT has made me cry yet, but, still, he’s a soulful dude, and based on the Mickey Mouse Club clip, it was in him from a very young age. It’s hard to fake that for years and trick everyone.
ED: That’s an interesting word you’ve been using: trick. Have there been white artists that have tried to trick people into thinking they were blue-eyed soul, but actually weren’t soulful?
BD: Yes. Of course. I won’t name names, but soul and hip-hop are musical styles, so there are countless white artists who just want to make music in the genre they grew up loving. And I can’t hate on them for it. Some of it is pretty decent, if not utterly authentic. It’s obviously more apparent in hip-hop, where most of the country grew up listening to it, and so many white kids just want to rap. But they fake the slang, they fake the dialect, they fake the accent. Do they have to? No. There’s a few white rappers who have been fairly successful rapping in such a way that no one would ever falsely guess they were black. And maybe “soul” isn’t a true musical style, but that’s a larger debate.
ED: Going back to Justin Timberlake, he seems to have gone in a more “soulful” direction as his career has progressed. Who are other artists that have moved in that direction as their career has developed, rather than approaching it from that perspective as they start out? David Bowie comes to mind, though making explicitly soul albums is something he has dipped in and out of.
BD: One guy who is not well known, who is in Issue 54, is Ned Doheny. He hung out with Jackson Browne and David Geffen and that whole Southern California singer-songwriter folk scene, and his first album was just that. Then he met Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band: they hit it off and wrote a couple funky songs together. Then Doheny embraced this new style and recorded two funky records with Steve Cropper producing and Tower of Power playing horns. He found success in Japan and England, as they dug that style at the time more than the U.S. Tim Buckley certainly did it. His first albums were a mix of folk, jazz and psychedelia, but his last few albums were definitely more funky soul stuff. There’s some great stuff on those albums; not many people check for them. Bryan Ferry became more soulful as time went on, moving from “art rock” to a hybrid disco/electro new wave concoction that pretty much influenced all of English new wave, which had some pretty soulful stuff come out of the scene. Eric Burdon, is another example. The Animals were great, pretty soulful, but, man, those War records he did are something special.
ED: Is there a gender divide in the blue-eyed soul label? I usually think about male artists being called that, but then there’s Amy Winehouse who you mentioned earlier, but also people like Adele and Jessie Ware, and back to Dusty Springfield.
BD: It’s funny, I normally think of female singers as part of this nowadays, like Adele, Joss Stone, Duffy, Alice Russell… But in the past, it seems like it was male-dominated, except for Dusty, Janis Joplin and then Teena Marie. Often a white male using falsetto will generate the blue-eyed soul tag.
ED: I guess it’s a labeling thing. I don’t hear the actual term “blue-eyed soul” connected to those contemporary female artists.
BD: True. I think Joss has had it thrown at her the most. But there are newer artists now like Allen Stone, then of course Mayer Hawthorne, so I think it’s probably pretty equal-sided these days, gender-wise.
ED: Have there ever been artists who have actively rejected the blue-eyed soul label? I read so many interviews with artists who are like, “We’re not [insert subgenre]” or “[Insert subgenre] doesn’t even really exist, it was just made up by the media who are trying to package us.” I’m not sure how someone would rebel against being called blue-eyed soul except by saying things in interviews about how “soul has no color.” It would be funny if someone consciously tried to make a less soulful album.
BD: They definitely push back against the term, but then they freely explain that they grew up listening to Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. But no one likes to be labeled. I personally don’t mind the label, and I like to throw other soulful artists in the mix, song by song, but it really doesn’t mean anything. Like, Feist is very soulful, and her song “One Evening” is amazing and sounds like late-’70s FM radio/blue-eyed soul – but no one is calling her “blue-eyed soul.” Stephen Stills was always very soulful, but he was never considered blue-eyed soul. So in the end, the term is meaningless. It’s all about feeling.
Unmediated: Steve Albini and Tim Midyett on the Legacy of Indie Rock's Most Criminally Unsung Band, Silkworm...
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 get them to have a conversation via the magic of social media. True to the title, this communication 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.
To that end, we’ve brought together Steve Albini and Tim Midyett to discuss the enduring legacy of indie rock’s most unsung outfit, Silkworm. These are primary sources, people. Midyett was Silkworm’s bassist, original member, co-songwriter, and one of the band’s primary vocalists; he currently plays baritone guitar in the great band Bottomless Pit with former Silkworm guitarist Andy Cohen, and also invented a spectacular meat rub which you can purchase here. The esteemed, outspoken Albini, meanwhile, has served as the guitarist/vocalist in groundbreaking bands like Shellac and Big Black and is renowned as a recording engineer for the varied likes of The Stooges, Jesus Lizard, Pixies, Neurosis, Breeders, Pussy Galore, Nirvana, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and oodles more; he’s also worked on nearly every record Silkworm has ever made, and has been a close friend of the band and it’s members throughout its existence.
What makes Silkworm a timely topic is the recent release of a feature-length documentary on the band, Couldn’t You Wait?, titled after one of the band’s signature songs. For just a sawbuck, you can watch it here, and you should, as it is not just one of the best rock documentaries ever in current memory, but one of the most honest portraits of what it means to exist inside a rock and roll band. Indeed, while Couldn’t You Wait? rewards aficionados, it compares to acclaimed music docs like Searching For Sugar Man and Anvil: The Story of Anvil in that you don’t have to be a fan of the musicians that are the subjects to be moved by its narrative. That’s because the story of Silkworm is both a prototypical rock-band fable and utterly unique in its capacity for heartbreak, insight, and epiphany. It’s also a singular portrait of the peaks and valleys of the ’90s indie-rock bubble as seen through the experience of Silkworm and their circle. And oh yeah, the music is freakin’ awesome.
A labor of love directed with precision and heart by filmmaker Seth Pomeroy, Couldn’t You Wait? features incisive interviews with the likes of Silkworm’s musician peers like Albini, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Steve Malkmus of Pavement, as well as Matador Records honcho Gerard Cosloy, but it is the tapestry of found footage and archival material that provides the film’s golden moments. Those images and sounds Pomeroy has uncovered tell the story of an absolutely individual band within the indie pantheon – and one whose music has endured far better than many of the hyped indie outfits of the era that spawned Silkworm. That’s because while on the surface, Silkworm seems like an utterly typical guitar-bass-drums rock band, but upon investigation reveals itself to be a stranger, more compelling beast indeed. Silkworm was formed during 1987 in the not-quite-music-metropolis of Missoula, Montana around the nucleus of founding members Midyett, Cohen, and guitarist/singer/songwriter Joel RL Phelps. It was only after Silkworm moved to Seattle in grunge-drunk 1992, and Phelps left two years later, that the classic lineup of Midyett, Cohen, and drummer Michael Dahlquist took shape. This iteration of Silkworm cemented the group’s appeal – startling, unpredictable dynamics that only have parallel in, say, the hangdog grooves of Crazy Horse, combined with challenging song structures informed by post-punk and Amerindie iconoclasts, and idiosyncratic singing and songwriting full of evocative storytelling from each member. “They all played their instruments in a similar way, and I don’t know of any other bands that really played all three instruments with that similar type of attack,” Jeff Tweedy explains in the film. “I’ve always loved bands like that: a group of guys [who] get together and kind of bond in some sort of unified vision that nobody else would even care to share with them, except for these three guys.”
The saga that followed proved one of rock’s most tragic and odd trajectories – the tale of a band that, if there was any justice, should’ve been a household name, but whose utterly sad demise proves without question that justice is in short shrift in our often shitty world. In 1996, Silkworm released its career high mark, its stone-classic third album Firewater on burgeoning indie imprint Matador, which, despite its epochal quality, didn’t achieve the recognition or sales of, say, labelmates and touring pals Pavement. Silkworm would move to Chicago and go on to put out five more albums on labels like Touch & Go, each one great, right down to the band’s very last LP release, It’ll Be Cool, which featured songs like the bittersweet anthem “Don’t Look Back” which proved as spectacular as anything in the band’s catalog. What happened next, however, is unthinkable – one of the great tragedies to ever hit the music underground: in 2005, Dahlquist was killed by a deranged female driver while driving in a Chicago suburb with two musician friends and co-workers, Douglas Meis and John Glick, who also did not survive.
Dahlquist’s memory, however, will never be forgotten due to a musical legacy that’s proven timeless and unstoppable, and in time will likely prove as influential as any in the canon. As Albini says in an interview for the film, “Silkworm, as it turns out, were never that popular. That doesn’t mean anything in terms of their value to the culture, other than that it will take longer for more people to hear about their music.” In the conversation below, Albini and Midyett thoroughly and candidly parse the story of Silkworm as only two fellow travelers who were there could.
Tim Midyett: lets do this jam l8r. whenevs today after 2PM my time i know u r working. Oh jesus I can’t do the txt talk any more. Next-door nabes got burgled yesterday! Gone for 1hr, burgled in interim. Sux! Talk/type soon.
Steve Albini: Those are some goddamn efficient burglars. Makes it seem like a real profession. Remember when there were all those police about and we went to speculating on your neighbors and their doings? We invented quite a backstory after dinner.
TM: I am getting an alarm. Turns out everyone in the hood has one. We are the only people who do not. Hey I am home all day tomorrow so let me know if/when you may be able to type.
SA: Dude we are totally doing this already.
The alarm will be a total pain in your ass since you have a barbecue and kitchen and smoke cigars once in a while. Also they have a battery that will make the alarm go off in a real annoying way all the fuck time what is it with batteries.
TM: Oh I get it this is the thing. OK sure.
The alarm is a burglar alarm, not a smoke alarm man. But you are right it will be a pain in the ass. If we get it.
SA: I am in Los Angeles where they gave movies an Oscar party the other day. I notice your movie didn’t win a goddamn thing. On NPR they said to win an Oscar you need to advertize, like as much as 10 million dollars in advertizing. How much did you spend and is that why you won ABSOLUTELY NO OSCARS?
TM: I can’t believe normal and smart people watch the Emmys and the Oscars.
They’re not fun to watch. The music isn’t any good, and very rarely are the movies all that great. Yet normal people watch 'em and talk about it and type on Facebook about it.
Now, the Tonys, that is a fucking show.
I think the Silkworm movie is doing fine. A lot of people bought it the first week, I just found out. Seth can pay back his investors not directly involved in the flick.
SA: Man have I told you how good that movie is? As a fan of a band, it’s the kind of movie I want to see about bands, and as a guy in a band, if somebody did a movie about my band and it was that It would make me like that I bothered to be in a band.
Of course I told you, that was a thing for a larger audience and I’m going to quit doing that.
TM: Yes, and now I will type for the reader as to how gratifying it indeed is.
I admit to thinking a bit in terms of history when making a record, like “this is going to outlive me, so I have to make sure it’s an accurate document.”
I remember my first exposure to Cheap Trick was, well, the first exposure was seeing their name all over this girl’s t-shirt. The typing logo. She had no bra on. I was ten, and that was the moment basically when I flipped from sports to music. I went all into it on my blog and stuff.
But musically, my first exposure to them was All Shook Up, which is, like, one of the worst three or four Cheap Trick albums. Later I heard the first three records, and I realized one, that Cheap Trick was awesome, and two, you really do yourself a disservice if you kinda boot a record every now and then.
So. You know, I try to get that part right.
But the day-to-day details, I mean, I really took almost no pictures while it was happening. I put a couple of tour journals online because they were entertaining to me. But capturing that stuff—which rounded out who we were as people and what we meant to each other—I did none of that.
To have Seth come in and not only dig up the source material but get it completely right—despite never having seen Silkworm and not knowing us as guys at all before he started—just kinda blows my mind.
SA: Man I make records every day, and it’s true, what you do on that one day you’re in the studio will hang around, maybe only on your own conscience, but it will hang around. It’s a pretty heavy thing when you realize you’re holding a band’s legacy in your hands. Like if I fuck up this record then the band will get blamed for it forever.
I wish you and I had this conversation with Rick and Robin before they recorded The Doctor.
You know what I like a lot about Seth’s movie? Seems like there’s no politics in it, but the whole thing is political. You make a real good case that proletarian art—working stiff art—is maybe the best kind of art to do. I mean, you had some benefactors over the years but eventually they pretty much all decided they’d had enough of not turning a profit on you and cut you loose. There’s a point in the film where you all decide that the band is family and you don’t fuck your family for money, and from then on you did your best shit and your comfort level seemed higher.
If people get nothing else from observing Silkworm’s career arc, it should be that people devote themselves to music because the experience of doing it is reward enough. All the pop-culture babble about getting rich and attracting chicks, that’s all a bunch of bullshit. I know ten thousand guys in bands and I’ve literally never heard anybody say he was in it for the money or the women.
Music is maybe the number one thing that counterfeits all conventional labor economics. People don’t just do it for nothing, they work a job to support it like a family.
TM: It is political. I’d never thought of that before.
I don’t have a ton of perspective on it. Silkworm was super insular. Bottomless Pit is really insular now. It’s the only way I know how to do it.
Last year sometime, someone decided Bottomless Pit should play a benefit, which probably wasn’t a great idea.
Silkworm did a couple benefits. We did one semi-famous one for the Washington Wilderness Coalition, as the Crust Brothers, where we played a bunch of Bob Dylan covers and stuff with Steve Malkmus. It got recorded on cassette and put out as a semi-bootleg, and we probably made more money on that all told than we ever made on anything we put out. That one went great all-around.
But the Pit—I mean, I try not to explain the band because then I have to get into a lot of stuff that speaks for itself, but it’s pretty heavy music. Emotionally so, not just musically so. It’s not geared to help people have a good time on a Friday night.
Plus…we make Silkworm look like Maroon 5 when it comes to publicity and stuff. Bottomless Pit has been a band for almost eight years, and this thing is literally the second time I’ve ever even mentioned Bottomless Pit in print. I don’t do interviews about the band, and we are totally fine staying almost completely under the radar.
Anyway, all bad reasons to have us play a benefit. Of course I see that the nice people liked our music a lot and all that, and I liked the cause, which was a gallery for outsider art here in Chicago.
They have some people play and do stuff, then we get up there. And set up tons of gear and all that. I look out at the audience, and it’s just folks who would go to an art gallery, who don’t look so different from us but I can just tell they’re not really…prepped.
I’d never done this before, but I launched into this brief synopsis of who we were, what we’d done, all that, so people wouldn’t be totally taken aback or have no context at all for what they would see before they turned around and left.
And as I was describing everything—the years in exile in Montana, the years in exile in Seattle, the years of touring and sleeping in the van and playing for four people—I realized out loud, man…outsider artists don’t realize they’re outsider artists do they? I never realized…we’re basically making outsider art.
SA: The thing about our end of the culture is that—maybe uniquely or ultimately so in the case of the Pit—it’s not primarily for an audience, it’s for those of us in the band. Each band is a marriage or its own Albania and people outside need a visa and special dispensation to visit, and no matter how intimate an outsider is with the material, they’re not in the band and they’ll never have the experience we have, the thing that makes it important.
TM: Yeah. And Silkworm actually was an unusual expression of that. I don’t know of too many bands who kept doing what the Worm did at that level, consistently, for that long. For better or worse.
Dead Moon, who…I mean, if there was ever an outsider-art rock band, it’s them. There are bands like the Fastbacks and the Walkabouts and Eleventh Dream Day, but their profiles seem a bit higher.
Maybe I’m romanticizing it.
SA: Jesus Dead Moon, what a trip that band was. Just chugging along, year after year, quietly being incredible.
TM: The movie did a great job of conveying the pirate-ship aspect of doing that kind of thing.
The lazy thing to do with bands like us is to focus on the negative effects of not being part of the music industry. The limits on our audience, the need to ration the time we spend on playing and recording music. It’s arguable as to whether that’s a bad thing exactly, but most people assume that you’re in it to get recognized and not have to work for a living.
Being apart from the gen pop music industry has some obvious good effects, in that you avoid compromise and your thing stays the way you want it to be. It’s pretty easy to grasp, and it is common to ride that pony to death, as well.
But maybe the best part of doing things the way we did 'em is that when you find kindred spirits, a bond is forged that goes beyond personalities. It’s based on the whole way you go about doing things in life. Which truly is powerful. Andy and I are brothers. Michael was our brother. I’m still super tight with all the people I met during that time who were on our wavelength, however often I actually run into them.
That’s the hardest thing to describe-the sense of purpose and satisfaction you get from forging your own path, on your own terms, with people you really love and trust. The movie really drove that home in an awesome way.
It didn’t do that as well the first time it was “done.” But Seth realized, I think, without anyone telling him, that he had a better story to tell in there somewhere.
SA: The 90s was such a weird time. There was this boiling, active underground of radical people totally unconcerned with success in business terms, and then briefly there was this dabbling, dilettante-ish presence of the old-school music business that seemed to tip more than a few people’s reference points.
There were a few spotlight examples of people taking them for a ride, I’d put Matador and Sub Pop squarely in that camp, and as a carry-on effect, all the bands to whom they doled out largesse. The Worm benefited from that in a modest way, but I think the net effect it had on the scene was destructive, and it created an atmosphere of artificially-inflated expectation.
I found that the only really infuriating part of that era, that people who were otherwise content as outsiders were being lured (sometimes quite actively recruited) into being part of the crass old-school showbusiness melee. Those people often played it as irony, but the intent was usually transparent.
In addition to good souls tempted foul, for a while there people with a genuine interest in their art were sharing the scenery with grasping, brazen, ambitious sellouts, and their company made me particularly uncomfortable. I can only imagine what it was like in Seattle. Bad I guess?
TM: Seattle had to have been the worst place in the country, in that regard. Fortunately, from 1992 on, we were gone a lot.
A certain amount of reasoning went into everything we did and didn’t do, but really it was 90% instinct. Just gut reactions. We talked to various big labels about doing stuff, and every time, we were just ehhhhhhh…no. I think we sensed that our purchase was in our distinctiveness, and our distinctiveness was tied to our natural working method. And every big label wanted to disrupt that working method to some extent. They certainly didn’t want us to make records with you.
SA: Haha you’d be surprised how common a sentiment that was. When Robbie Fulks got signed his A&R guy said he could do basically whatever he wanted with his record except work with me. I can’t really blame any of those people for their prejudices. They deduced pretty accurately that I wouldn’t respond on their behalf in anything, and I was less than likely to share their aesthetics. All these are legitimate concerns on their part, but they betray the pretty stark difference between us and them. We looked at music and band culture as a continuum of our friends and peers, and they looked at the world in terms of its utility in business and power. I couldn’t bestow any clout, I wasn’t interested in acquiring any, and I didn’t give two fucks about what other people (people not in the band) might think.
TM: Most of the big-label guys talked about being into the songwriting a lot. That was a good clue that they were going to change everything that was unusual about us.
Brian Eno pointed out that even a casual listener can ID various rock recordings in very short order, based on the way they sound. I just was around someone who did this, on a dare, with some super obscure German industrial 12”—he got it based on the quality of the noise floor at the beginning of the track. Try doing that with classical music or jazz—doesn’t really happen, not to the same extent.
A band’s sound is really what it has going for it. The sound is the ultimate manifestation of its approach. The approach guides the writing and stuff, of course, but without their sound, the band can really be made to be anything. Which is what record guys realize, which is why they always want to control that part of the process.
SA: Yeah, and even the tiniest changes can sometimes make something click over from incredible to pure bummer. When I think about the bands that have meant the most to me, the Ramones, the Stooges, Kraftwerk, Suicide, Chrome, the Pop Group, the Wipers, MX-80… I could go on but I won’t, all of them have something built in that’s a little bit insane. Something a professional would probably try to straighten out if only to make things go smoother in life.
And of the people I’ve worked with the most, you guys, Kim [Deal], Nina [Nastasia], almost whoever it is, there’s an element of mania there. Some little bit of nobody-else-could-do-that obsession. I’m convinced that not giving a shit about other people is critical to making anything of value. The moment somebody starts deferring to outside opinions, their output suffers. Their productivity might go up, but what they’re doing loses some of what made it worth listening to.
That’s why I’m loath to suggest anything substantial to a band in the studio. I’d be doing it from an ignorant position. I just got a little walking tour of Capitol Records studios in LA, and Al Schmitt was there, working on some nondescript pop jazz horror. But he can work on that, or an orchestral session or super high-tech modern stuff or an old-school rock band and all of it is fucking flawless. Now I don’t know his tastes, but he has to hate at least some of the horrible music he works on, it’s only natural. What makes him a badass is that he doesn’t try to shoehorn any of that stuff into his own aesthetic, he just makes it come out of the speakers as intended.
He’s had an awesome career and it’s probably partly because he’s never been cited as the hot producer of the moment or anything. He just humps the load. You can hump the load for 50 years or more, but you can only be a skyrocket for a short while.
TM: Rhett Davies was like that. Great engineer. Worked on some of the best records and some terrible records and a lot of in-between. They all sound exactly the way they should.
Sometimes I say that rock and roll ruined my life, and I always say it like it is a joke. Because it didn’t really ruin it. It has enriched it hugely and has given me a leg up on most other people when it comes to cutting down on deathbed regrets. I get to rock, and most people don’t.
But…yes, it is a mania. For me. And it’s a little crippling sometimes, or at least it controls me in some ways.
I had this realization the other day—I like to think I choose things, like I think about what to do, and I choose this thing over that thing based on the pros and cons blah blah.
I realized—I forget what it was—something made me realize I don’t do that at all. It’s all instinct or compulsion or something like that. And very certainly music is like that, there’s just about no conscious thought associated with it. It requires a lack of conscious thought to be really great.
Which is why it is so deeply satisfying, which is why I keep coming back to it, and a band like Silkworm can stay together for seventeen years with a relatively limited audience to show for it. Why it doesn’t matter how many people tune in. It’s really a deeply selfish endeavor, isn’t it?
SA: Right, like I’m sure neither one of us “chose” our wives from a pool of available wife choices. We didn’t do a spreadsheet and make a decision.
TM: Being in a band is very much like being married. Without the sex in my case, but otherwise. I don’t know too many people who choose their partners conceptually who do well on that front….
SA: “Choose their partners conceptually…” You might be talking about wedlock but that sounds like Zwan. Or that thing from TV where they had the Nuge and Scott Ian and dude from whatever hair metal band and Bonham’s kid… I saw like three minutes of that and wanted to drink lye.
TM: Zwan is a perfect example.
SA: If your band isn’t profoundly selfish then you’re doing it wrong, or at least you’re doomed to perceive the thing as a failure sooner or later. I’ve said this before, but playing music is like playing chess or bass fishing or ballroom dancing. Very few people get to call these things a profession, but nearly anyone can do them for their own sake and have their lives be better for it, and I’m certain the people I admire most in music do it primarily because they can’t not do it.
Have I lent you the Stompin’ Tom Connors autobiography? It’s pretty great, along those lines. Dude just wants to stomp and sing and travel Canada, and fuck everything else about it. [Editor’s Note: Stompin’ Tom Connors died five days after this interview was completed.]
TM: Chris Brokaw is the Stompin’ Tom Connors of our circle. I don’t know if I could live his life, but I still envy it on the reg.
SA: Yeah, Brokaw is incredible. Just keeps fuckin’ that chicken. Seems like sooner or later he’s going to have a moment, like get asked to be David Bowie’s musical director or do the score for a Tarantino movie and be one of the go-to guys from then. Be set for life. Like a postmodern GE Smith.
Can I ask you a couple of aesthetic questions? Okay I will.
You know that song The Brain, how it has a pretty strong Cars vibe, if he weren’t dead would you have wanted Orr to sing that or is it better for you to channel Orr? I ask because you had Kelly Hogan sing Young, and you occasionally tapped Michael to sing key parts in songs. Like you’re not precious about it being you singing your song.
TM: I like to sing my own songs, but every now and then, there is something that seems like it should have someone else’s voice on it. I can sing enough like Ben Orr that I would just do it myself. I can’t sing like Kelly, certainly, not even close. I couldn’t sing like Michael. Michael couldn’t sing like anyone but himself, but neither could I sing like him.
SA: I’m going to ask something about Michael here in a second, but I’m working on how to say it.
So… the hinge of the film — and maybe also your life — is when Michael was killed. It’s a small point, but some references to Michael say that he “died,” while in the film, and certainly in other conversation about it everybody says he “was killed.” The distinction obviously being one of action rather than occurrence that matters to people who knew him. I felt a particular and unfamiliar kind of sickness over the manner of his death. Like there was an extra insult to it beyond the suddenness.
I don’t mean to have you relive it, but since you attended some of the legal proceedings and spoke at the trial and everything, were those steps at all beneficial to your well being, or how would you characterize them? What I’m getting at is that I didn’t think I could be in a room while all that was being gone over, and that it would do me no good. I certainly didn’t get the feeling while it was all going on, with you and Heather and Vick and the families, that it was palliative at all.
That’s also not necessarily why you would do it, which is I guess what I’m asking about.
Big topic I know, and feel free not to go into it. I’ve had a hard time talking to most people about it myself.
TM: Oh, I relive it a little bit every day, so no problem.
Michael surely was killed, which…people can describe it however they want. He is dead, and we will never see him again—that’s what matters. But when discussing his actual death, he didn’t “pass away.” It wasn’t a “car accident.” He got killed; many of us would say he was murdered. A court basically said he was murdered. Kind of.
I was relieved that Heather [Whinna, Steve’s wife and the “producer” of Silkworm’s 2000 album Lifestyle and Vickie [Hunter, Tim’s wife and Silkworm’s “den mother”] took it upon themselves to go to all of the court proceedings. We are required to acknowledge the miserable nature of people sometimes. I would have felt obligated to do it if they hadn’t, but they allowed me the luxury of not caring very much about the trial and its results. Dealing with his death and the loss of the band was way more than enough—I wanted to avoid the “extra insult,” as you put it, of having to wade through how he and Doug and John went out.
I got no comfort from any of it. I love this whole concept of closure as it relates to tragedy. Ha ha! Yes, now that the person who killed my friend on purpose has been dealt with in court, I can begin to experience closure. It’s gonna be great. All this misery will be over soon!
SA: I’ve always taken the word “closure” to mean revenge when I hear it on TV. If you listen to the way people use it — generally people unrelated to the incident who are talking about it — you can substitute “revenge” in any sentence using “closure.” Same goes for “justice.” The thing about survivors is that the loss, the void is now part of our identity. It won’t ever close, of course not. I don’t want it to close. If it closes then there’s nothing and the space it defines is a big part of me.
I didn’t suffer the trial, as noted, and honestly I felt guilty about that, like I was being a bad friend to Michael by not standing his ground for him. But the bigger feeling, a kind of overwhelming one, was that I didn’t want to have that person who killed Michael, John and Doug on my mind at all. This woman was going to have a big to-do, society paying her the attention her tantrum was designed to elicit, and even granted that it was about deciding her punishment, it felt like an intrusion, like she had found a way to appear significant.
You may have noticed that over time my level of distaste for a person has developed into a plateau, and never rises to anger, I tend just to never think of such a person again. My “closure” is in not having a worthless piece of shit on my mind, not even for a minute.
I don’t know what it is, but I have essentially no desire for revenge. I get no satisfaction in seeing someone punished and have none of the lust for consequences that drives most public policy. When I see a homeless guy, I never wonder how he got in that situation, pondering whether or not he “deserves” it. I just assume he’s a regular person and that’s where he ended up, and if I have it on me I give him five bucks. When I see a guy getting sent to prison, I never think, “good job, system.” I just think about how rotten a thing is prison, just wasting people and turning them into assholes.
For killing people, yeah, I suppose you should spend some time in jail. I say that because I have no idea what to do instead, and as crimes go, killing people is the top one. So if there’s prison for anybody, okay put killers in there. But for most things fuck no. How is putting somebody else in prison going to restore me in any way? What do I get out of it other than this nonsense about “closure?”
For small stuff it’s obvious. There’s some asshole kid who keeps tagging our building. It creates a lot of work for the Diamond, who maintains the building, and it’s an eyesore. One day a cop came by to take a statement, saying they’d caught the kid tagging our block. My first question was, “they’re not sending him to jail are they?” because I didn’t want to be part of that. It’s not that I wasn’t mad at him, I was and if I’d caught him in the act I’m sure I’d have been a real dick about it, chasing him like an asshole until he got away and I was all out of breath and three blocks away and everything. But that’s about it.
So the trial and punishment thing meant very little to me. Intellectually I suppose it’s important that this woman be made to take responsibility for her behavior, but there was never an inkling of that. She just waved it all away onto her psychology and medicine. Just nonsense. When I heard that she had returned to modeling, and had been hired by a car show it seemed both impossibly insensitive and also absolutely consistent.
TM: People like that are black holes. We know people who got sucked into giving a shit what happened to her. It was kind of the price they had to pay for being noble enough to take up the slack and go to court. I don’t think we should feel bad about it. They would have gone anyway.
But nothing good comes of becoming absorbed in the story of someone that weakly formed.
I can’t imagine something happening to someone as punishment and it making me feel BETTER. Or not happening, and making me feel worse. Impossible. Not allowed to be part of my life.
I’m glad they caught your tagger, though.
SA: Been in the studio with a bunch of old instruments, really weird idiosyncratic stuff. Incredible the lengths people went to for variety before there were computers. Like the very small and specific differences between a clavichord and a spinet and a harpsichord required three full pieces of furniture, for what would be like a quarter of a drop-down menu on one preset now. It seems like a totally legit approach to me. You want a thing, you have that thing. You want another thing, you have to go get another thing. Probably goes a long way toward stopping the capricious eclecticism and cram-it-all-in-ism that seems to be a thing now.
Neil Young basically plays that one guitar. Seems like if you only have the one thing you get real good at it, whatever it is. It’s hard to think of a really exceptional guitarist who doesn’t have one primary instrument and sound. I guess Rick Nielsen is good, but I think of him as an arranger more than a guitarist.
TM: Bass players are a bit more specific than guitarists, usually, I think.
For the last twenty years, I’ve had one main bass: a Travis Bean Wedge I bought for $300 in Kansas City. I’ll have it forever.
I have a few of the Electrical Guitar Company baritone guitars, but the one I play is the prototype, first one ever made. I have to send it to Kevin today for some work, and I’m pretty nervous about it.
Andy has a few guitars, but he is defined by the Stratocaster and the Les Paul gold top with P-90s in it. I think he’d say he is the Strat if he had to pick.
He has a really great Telecaster, but he says Teles in general are tainted by all the slapdick indie pusses who play them nowadays. Whereas hardly anyone plays a Strat, because it is hard to make them sound good, and gold tops are both rare and not that cool.
It’s funny that he even thinks about that kind of thing. Then again, Kevin is making me another baritone, and while I like the Jazzmaster body shape ergonomically, I can’t abide by it due to…all the slapdick indie pusses who play them. So there I go.
SA: Tim, we talk a lot, more than most dudes do to other dudes, so it seems a little odd to type our conversation out but I have enjoyed it. Do you think your daughter (as a signifier of a generation born post-internet) will have any idea how weird it is to type across distance to a person on a computer?
TM: In a few years, the Singularity will be upon us, and we, by which I mean the Great Cosmic I, will have a great laugh at having to interpret things and express oneself and all that.
SA: I remember when Andy was the only guy in either band to own a cellphone, and how incredible it seemed that he could call the venue and get directions while we drove there. Remember when arcade games were all the rage and mini-golf seemed old fashioned? We just went mini-golfing with your daughter the other day, and it was a really modern, black-light rave type jam. Crazy that mini golf is still around. Okay see you soon.
TM: Steve, I hope we are both making records until it is physically impossible for us to do so, perhaps even beyond that. L8R.
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.
The annual South By Southwest Conference starts today, beginning with the Interactive and Film segments. In recent years the Interactive portion has increased its profile, not just for launching technology that’s come to define/ruin our lives, but for hosting parties with live entertainment from increasingly higher and higher profile musicians. Ducker spoke about this development with Tom Windish, a longtime booking agent who is the founder and President of The Windish Agency, which was named Pollstar’s Independent Booking Agency of the Year in 2013 and specializes in working with the type of emerging acts that are SXSW mainstays.
Eric Ducker: Have you seen an increased demand for acts to play events during South By Southwest Interactive this year?
Tom Windish: Demand has increased steadily for the last three years, and yes, demand is higher now for bands to appear at Interactive than ever before.
ED: What do you attribute that to?
TW: A variety of reasons. The world has easier access to hear music than ever before, including people who program events during SXSW Interactive. Beyond that, I would say discovering new music is a very cool thing these days, and tech companies and tech people are intrigued by it. We book a lot of “emerging” artists, new artists who are doing something unique and outstanding. People love hearing about new artists early on, and seeing them get bigger.
ED: Are you mainly booking acts who are staying through to do the usual Music portion of the conference, or are you also bringing in acts for one-off gigs during Interactive?
TW: During Interactive, the budgets for talent are in general higher, which means the likelihood of a one-off is higher. Acts we have playing Interactive this year include K.Flay, a Neon Indian DJ set, Ra Ra Riot, Youngblood Hawke, Alt-J, Girl Talk, Dirty Projectors, Passion Pit, Peace, Free Energy, Surfer Blood, The Joy Formidable, Best Coast, Cloud Nothings, Delorean, Flying Lotus, Guards, Japandroids, the Gaslamp Killer and Matthew Dear.
ED: And how many of them don’t have SXSW Music gigs?
TW: K.Flay, Youngblood Hawk, Girl Talk, Passion Pit, The Joy Formidable, Best Coast, Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer and Matthew Dear.
ED: There are certain connotations with this term that I’m not trying to imply, but is booking a band for a one-off SXSW Interactive show similar to getting them a “corporate gig”?
TW: Well, sure. But it’s not unlike how a college booking or festival booking works either. The fee is sometimes higher than a normal booking, and that extra money is used to offset costs such as flights, hotels and backline. Another similarity between an Interactive gig, corporate gig, and college gig is that these appearances really don’t make a large impact on the number of people that will pay to see the artist in this market at another time. Part of the reason for that is that it’s hard to get in, and in terms of Interactive, much of the regular ticket buying public just don’t go to these events.
ED: What’s the difference in pay between a SXSW Interactive gig and a SXSW Music gig? I’m sure it varies depending on the act, but in terms of percentages?
TW: It’s apples and oranges. Artists are generally paid significantly more for appearances at Interactive than Music. I would be hard pressed to state a specific number or range. Most acts that play Music play at least one show for free, to be honest.
ED: Have you actively started courting Interactive shows for your acts, or is it a situation of waiting to be asked?
TW: Our approach with all of our clients is to be as active as our clients want to be. I have a phrase I like to use called “open to ideas” to define my clients’ availability. Some of them are open to these gigs if the money is good, and some are only open to gigs if the money is really good because the costs of mounting a one-off show are very high (assembling crew from around the world, for instance, can be expensive, along with sorting out visas). An artist that’s not really open to ideas in this area may be in the midst of recording an album, for example. Fundamentally, when an artist is open, we are extremely proactive in seeking out opportunities for them – that’s our job. But if they’re not really looking to play, we are less proactive.
ED: How are the Interactive shows different than the Music shows? Do they feel different?
TW: In broad terms, I would say that Interactive feels quite a bit more serious than Music. Panels, for instance, seem to be taken much more seriously by SXSW attendees during Interactive. And I would say that the networking is more targeted at Interactive than Music. Not that there isn’t much networking at Music, but the networking that happens there seems to be more all over the place to me.
ED: Who is booking these SXSW Interactive shows? Is it people from within the actual company, or are they hiring third-party event promoters you already have relationships with?
TW: They often work with third-party event producers who we have relationships with already. Sometimes one of the producers will be booking several different events for different brands. Other times, the producer is a normal concert promoter, such as C3 Presents, the promoter that runs Stubbs in Austin, the Austin City Limits Festival and Lollapalooza. But other times it is often a non-concert promoter – just a company that produces special events.
ED: I’ve read things before that question whether it makes financial sense for acts to even go for the full run of SXSW Music. Does it make sense for an act to be in one city for more than a week if they come in early for Interactive?
TW: What makes sense for one artist may not make sense for another. There really are no hard and fast rules about how to make things work, and that’s why we need actual people (a manager, an agent and so on) to make judgments and negotiate along every step of an artist’s career. There are cheap ways to find accommodations if you’re savvy, and there are cheap ways to get around, and cheap backline to find, but there are also a plethora of ways to spend an arm and a leg staying in Austin. The bottom line on SXSW is that it’s expensive to stay there: it’s a big expense regardless of how long an artist is down there and it’s only worth the expenditure if you get a lot out of it. I often tell my newer clients that they could spend half as much money as they would at SXSW by moving to New York City and Los Angeles for one to two weeks each and playing as often as possible. That’s another great way for people to notice you, and that’s the point of SXSW. Then again, SXSW can often really be worth the expenditure because so many people in the music business are in Austin for it, and now so many people in the tech and movie business, too.
ED: Have you had clients who played a show during the Interactive and Film portions where it directly resulted in a new revenue source by getting a commercial sync, a soundtrack spot, a scoring job or something like that?
TW: There isn’t a specific example I’m aware of.
ED: But like all of SXSW now, it’s about raising awareness and increasing exposure to new audiences?
TW: SXSW is all about raising awareness of the artist. And with that raised awareness, opportunities across a variety of spectrums including film soundtracks, tech partnerships and general media exposure become more likely.
ED: Over the past few years, SXSW has been very active in enveloping the unofficial shows and parties into official SXSW events. Are these shows during Interactive usually officially sanctioned by SXSW?
TW: Yes, the Interactive shows are more likely to be official. The SXSW organization seems to have a better grip on all of the entities throwing events during Interactive than they do at Music. That’s not to say that they don’t have much control at SXSW Music – they do, but they have a firmer grip on these events at Interactive.
ED: What do you see as the future of these shows? Are more acts going to do them? Are the entities throwing them going to try to book bigger and bigger names to try to outdo the previous year?
TW: If things stay on the same path, there will be more events, and ones that incorporate even larger, higher-paid artists. If the economy declines or the tech bubble bursts again, I’m sure the events will decline as well, but for now we’re planning on Interactive to be a more important part of an artist’s strategy, and we’re being more proactive about it than ever before. I’ve been attending the Music portion of SXSW for more than 20 years, but I only started attending Interactive a few years ago, and then just as a bystander to get the lay of the land. Now I’m definitely more of a participant.
“Don’t call them 'projects’ – that makes me angry,” Geoff Barrow says of his sprawling variety of musical endeavors. “They’re bands – call them bands.“ Yes, Barrow remains one of our most outspoken musical iconoclasts – peep, for example, his controversial thoughts on Amy Winehouse – but he has the genius cred to back up the tough talk. You’ve probably heard of Barrow because he is the beatsmith and co-founder, along with vocalist Beth Gibbons and instrumentalist Adrian Utley, of Bristol, England’s electronic-music mavericks Portishead. That particular aspect often overshadows a c.v. that is one of the more vast, exotic, and eccentric in pop music.
As such, in 2009, Barrow joined bassist Billy Fuller and keyboardist Matt Williams as the drummer in the experimental rock trio BEAK>, who released their eponymous self-titled album that year. Dedicated to improvisation, BEAK> landed about as far from the Portishead sound as could be, evoking krautrock greats like Neu!, Can, and Cluster in their raggedly adventurous wanderings and unhinged energy. BEAK>'s second album, 2012’s >> confirmed this was no mere side, erm, project: a masterpiece of rhythmic propulsion and exploratory action-painting synth textures, it proved as vital as any record Barrow has been involved with. True to BEAK>'s independent spirit and sonics, the group released its records on the Invada label, an imprint Barrow set up in Australia to put out challenging music across genres that sit outside the mainstream – releasing everything from metal to folk to strange shit that proves tough to categorize. Barrow indeed remains a moving target, refusing to be pigeonholed in the variety of activities and associations he finds himself involved in. For one, he’s become renowned as a producer, in particular for his involvement in The Horrors’ amazing 2009 artistic breakthrough Primary Colours. Barrow has also entered the cinematic arena, writing much of the original score and serving as music supervisor for the acclaimed 2010 documentary on notorious British artist Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop.
In addition to the sophomore BEAK> effort, 2012 proved especially fruitful for him. That year he released Drokk: Music inspired by Mega-City One – a brilliantly minimal collection of stark analog electronic soundscapes crafted with partner Ben Salisbury originally intended (and eventually withdrawn) as the soundtrack to the flop sci-fi flop comic adaptation film “Dredd”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dredd. Also in 2012, Barrow went back to his hip-hop roots with Quakers, a collection of raw underground rap beats and rhymes released on the legendary indie label Stones Throw. If he wasn’t busy enough, Barrow recently announced Portishead have not only recently launched a new European tour, the group has also commenced substantial work on their upcoming fourth album. Here, Barrow details the initial inspirations for the varied musical journeys he’s taken on his most unconventional path.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first BEAK> rehearsal like?
Geoff Barrow: There wasn’t one – it was the first BEAK> recording. We just set up and played, and that was the first album. We literally met at the Invada Christmas party, and had a jam at the Invada Acid Test. We had no particular idea behind it: we got back together the next year, put mics in front of the instruments, and pushed record. We thought, “This has been easy!”
The Daily Swarm: When did BEAK> really coalesce into a band?
Geoff Barrow: It was a band from straight away. I come from a musical approach that’s very long winded: with Portishead, I started out taking samples, spending a lot of time crafting things – it’s the opposite of instantaneous music. BEAK> is the complete opposite; it isn’t worth any less, it’s just a different muscle. I wanted to express myself a little, and go back to playing the drums. When you get older, you swamp yourself with vintage gear and talk about mic preamps instead of making music: “Let’s spend £2,000 on an EQ!” I have no interest in that – it has nothing to do with whether something’s a good tune. I love the punk ethic in music: it’s the same thing in punk and hip-hop, being really hardcore and instantaneous. People who listen to Public Enemy understood Megadeth; when I first heard “Rebel Without a Pause,” it was the most punk experience of my life. That’s where Death Grips are now – it’s that thing, innit?
The Daily Swarm: What was the leap between BEAK>'s first and second albums?
Geoff Barrow: About ten more people at gigs! We’re not smashing down any doors in the charts. Every band you want to progress and push things further, and not rest on your laurels. It’s really about a gut feeling: when BEAK> goes into studio, sometimes we’ll write three tunes in a day. If one of them sounds just like something we did ages ago, it’s like, “Let’s not worry about that one.”
The Daily Swarm: When did you first become a fan of krautrock – stuff like Can, Neu!, and the kinds of experimental sounds that paved the way for BEAK>'s adventurous approach?
Geoff Barrow: Thing is, I’m just one member of BEAK>. I’m the drummer, and I don’t write keyboard lines; it’s absolutely a three-way tie when we play together. We try to really listen to each other, and that’s what the band sounds like. You can hear that I like Can in the way I play drums, but I don’t say to the other guys, “Oh, I’m really into Can.” It was similar in Portishead – we didn’t know what it was we were doing; we thought it was our version of hip-hop. What it’s about is when people really search to make music and push out a little bit, and try things not based on blues formats or traditional rounds. But if you push too far out, it ends up as noise: everything becomes all about “Look at how extreme we get?” or “Check out how long this track is!” When it becomes a thing for thing’s sake, that’s when it becomes prog mathematics. Really, it’s about creating an emotional music.
The Daily Swarm: A song like “Yatton” off >> has real hooks underneath the noise, improvisation, and pounding rhythms. When did you first realize this crazy music might actually be catchy?
Geoff Barrow: We’ve grown up with pop sensibilities, pop culture. BEAK> could write a track like the Beach Boys, or Simon and Garfunkel – I’d love to do that. We want to push more vocal stuff on the next record.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first impetus to create and release music outside of the Portishead umbrella?
Geoff Barrow: Basically Drokk and Quakers. Invada’s been going for a long time – ten years this year in the U.K., and even longer in Australia. We feel like we’re doing our own bit in the independent industry: we’ll sell around between 2,000 and 8,000 of each release. You win some, you lose some. One thing we always say is, “If it doesn’t fit anywhere else, it ends up on Invada!”
The Daily Swarm: What was the first time you were asked to score a Judge Dredd movie?
Geoff Barrow: The Drokk album was supposed to be a soundtrack album for the film Dredd. Ben Salisbury and I were working with Dredd writer/producer] Alex Garland, but we had some very specific issues – well, Ben and I were very specific about how we want to do it! When it was clear the film was going in a different direction, we all came to a friendly agreement to part ways with the film. In the end, Mega-City One [the apocalyptic urban-future setting for the Judge Dredd comic series] was what the album was really about. You could say the music turned out to be very Carpenteresque. [Legendary cult film director/composer] John Carpenter was a massive influence, and my memories of Judge Dredd were based on that, so for me not to do a Carpenteresque album for a Dredd movie wouldn’t seem right – it’s the first port of call. I really enjoyed doing this album; we’ll hopefully be doing some Drokk gigs this year.
The Daily Swarm: What did you discover doing film stuff like Exit Through the Gift Shop? Was it different from your other music work?
Geoff Barrow: It’s really the same thing. Doing that was good fun; I loved it. I don’t know why, but it seemed like slightly less pressure. I hope to do a lot more film work in the future. After all, this Glee shit isn’t going to be knocking down the door!
The Daily Swarm: How did Portishead first come together?
Geoff Barrow: Basically over a period of five years. There were lots of different members who haven’t been documented who were in the band. Of course, Portishead ended up as me, Beth, and Adrian; for the first two albums, there was also [studio engineer] Dave McDonald. What really kicked Portishead was a little two-second sample of an Isaac Hayes piano thing [Ike’s Mood I] by Marley Marl in his track “He Cuts So Fresh.”
The Daily Swarm: Outside of your own stuff, when did you first feel like a real producer?
Geoff Barrow: I never felt like one, really. Like all the other people who call themselves producers making records on their laptops, I feel embarrassed. I didn’t do much for The Horrors: basically, all I did on that was say “Do what you think you should, and don’t listen to anybody else. What you’re doing is already right, and I shouldn’t be here.” I pretty much just help set up the mics and pressed record; they’d progressed so hugely and already sounded like themselves, it would’ve been great even if I hadn’t been there at all.
The Daily Swarm: What was your initial impetus in making the Quakers album?
Geoff Barrow: I’m basically a lifelong hip-hop fan. When Invada was starting in Australia, DJ Katalyst and I talked about making a hip-hop record – an exciting hip-hop record; Katalyst was actually the jobbing producer on it. We didn’t want to work with well-known rappers – they have managers and egos. I had done a bit of that with American MCs on major labels, and it was a language I didn’t enjoy. Back when MySpace was a viable music source, we got a couple bottles of wine and went on there and found MCs like Coin Locker Kid before he became an asshole. I’ve always loved Stone’s Throw – the Jaylib album in particular meant a lot to me – so we played Quakers for Chris [aka Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf] and he liked it. Really, the idea was to make a hip-hop album that would kick you in the face every couple minutes.
The Daily Swarm: When did you first discover hip-hop?
Geoff Barrow: I’m a typical English hip-hop white kid from the suburbs, so it would have to be Ultramagnentic MCs or Public Enemy.
The Daily Swarm: You were part of a hip-hop dance crew in your youth. What was your first breakdance move?
Geoff Barrow: I was a popper, not a breaker – I was doing the robot and the electric shock and shit. I still embarrass my kids with it.