“It’s a sign of love, deep respect, and in some places, awe,” Greg Dulli says of the choices he made in curating the latest edition of the famed All Tomorrow’s Parties’ I’ll Be Your Mirror concert festival series, taking place this weekend in New York City. The event commences today, Friday, September 21st, with Dulli’s picks spread over the entire three days of music: starting with acclaimed headliner Frank Ocean tonight, the roster moves to a full day Saturday spanning Dulli’s close collaborators Mark Lanegan and Scrawl alongside the likes of José González, topped off by performances by Dulli’s reunited soul-rocking gods The Afghan Whigs and a night-closing set by The Roots, then climaxes with N’awlins visionaries Quintron and Miss Pussycat on Sunday.
It’s destined to be a thrilling genre rollercoaster of a ride, one that lines up topographically with the intoxicating journey through the sounds inhabiting Dulli’s catalog. From his groundbreaking work fusing heavy rock with R&B in the Afghan Whigs to the electronica-laced storm of The Twilight Singers through The Gutter Twins, his darkly spiritual collaboration with Mark Lanegan, the artists playing I’ll Be Your Mirror provide a most rare peek into the sonic personality of its curator. Here, Dulli breaks down the thoughts and passion behind his dream-team roster.
“Frank Ocean is a master of melody. He’s a great storyteller, and an incredibly unique songwriter and performer with a beautiful voice. ‘Strawberry Swing’ was the one that first got me circling the boat; after that, like everyone else, I eagerly awaited what he did next. He’s going for something.”
“I’m a big fan. I first heard The Roots while the Whigs were still in existence the first time around. I remember checking out Illadelph Halflife in the late ‘90s and thinking they were pretty cool. Then they popped onto my scene when they did that jam with Cody ChesnuTT, ‘The Seed’: I love that song, but ‘Don’t Say Nuthin’’ off The Tipping Point is amazing. That concept album made me curious, and was one big reason I wanted them to play: I wanted to see what they would do.”
“José González is one of those guys who has such a hypnotic thing going on. He’s got a very calm yet emotional voice, and I love his guitar playing; l loved the intimacy of how he presented things as if he were in room singing to you. He is just a deep river. His cover of “Heartbeats” by The Knife made an impression: as someone who likes to cover things, I loved José‘s approach to covers so much I decided to cover him. It’s clear I like ‘Down the Line’; it’s no mystery. But ‘Crosses’ is the jam – it blew my mind.”
“Really what can you say about Mark Lanegan except that he’s one of the great singers of all time? Who else sounds like Mark Lanegan? There are touchstones on the way, but in my opinion he stands alone as a completely unique creation, who is still as good as ever. I really see him evolving; I don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s an exciting thing to see.”
“There have been many an intimate evening spent with the music of Dirty Three, and various other things: they always provide a poignant and emotional soundtrack to a day, a night, a drive. I think Warren Ellis is a phenomenal showman – he’s got charisma to burn. [Sub Pop Executive Vice President] Megan Jasper turned me on to them in the ‘90s. I heard the first stuff they did for Touch and Go, but Horse Stories and Ocean Songs is when I got in. I particularly love their version of that song ‘I Remember A Time When Once He Used to Love Me.’”
“A girl I know last year gave me a copy of Burst Apart, right when I was going back to Ohio for Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. I listened to that record nonstop: that and the Drake record were the only things I listened to for a week in Ohio, and it felt like I was in a movie. I loved the entire record, but I really gravitated to that song, ‘Corsicana’: the words are great, as is the instrumentation. It’s a sublime moment of music – a perfect song, which is hard to find.”
JEFF The Brotherhood:
“They remind me of Dazed and Confused, and the parking lot parties we had when I was a kid. Great sense of humor, good songs, and the new record is excellent; I’m totally psyched to check them out.”
“I saw The Dirtbombs play around the time when Ultraglide In Black came out; that was the first record I’d heard from them. ‘Chains of Love’ and ‘Underdog’ were the mindblowers for me – both cover songs, ‘Underdog’ being a Sly and the Family Stone song that I didn’t know that well. On that album, they do Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic – it’s pretty wild.”
“Scrawl I saw the first time they played Cincinnati, at the University of Cincinnati, when I’d already dropped out of school: they were fucking badass, man! I mean, Marcy Mays’ voice… She gave eternal life to one of my favorite songs that I ever wrote.”
“There’s a lot of history between us. Marcy grew up in West Virginia near where a lot of my family lived, so we had that regional thing in common. We used to tour together – [Scrawl bass player] Sue Harshe even filled in for John Curley a couple times when he was injured. Then the Whigs started covering them a lot, especially the song ‘Green Beer.’ Scrawl did a great cover of ‘Stranglehold’ by Ted Nugent, and ‘Cold Hearted’ by Paula Abdul, which is amazing, and then this bluegrass classic, ‘Rocky Top’ – in a nutshell, there’s Scrawl for you. They also did really beautiful ballads. One of my favorite songs by them is called ‘Charles.’ It’s basically the answer song to ‘Beth’ by KISS: they even have a line, ‘Me and the girls are playing, and we just can’t get it right.’ Scrawl is just a really fucking smart, moving, super badass rock and roll band. I haven’t seen them in years, and it’s going to be wild.”
“When I first heard Emeralds, I thought it was a German group – and then I found out it’s these young kids from Cleveland! I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Does It Look Like I’m Here? was my entrée point, and beyond that, Mark McGuire’s solo record Living With Myself; those two records ran side by side with me for a while. You don’t have to sing to make people feel, and that’s true all the way from Master Musicians of Jajouka to Miles Davis to Emeralds. Mark McGuire and I have become friends and even collaborated recently; he’s absolutely one of funniest people I’ve met in recent times.”
[Music-industry legend] David Katznelson played me Vetiver for the first time in Hawaii. We listened to two things that entire trip over and over: Vetiver’s To Find Me Gone and ‘Running on Empty’ by Jackson Browne – not the album Running on Empty, but the song. At one point, we played ‘Running on Empty’ seventeen times in a row; it was one of those things ”
“Anyways, I liked To Find Me Gone so much, it led me to Vetiver’s first record, where I discovered the song ‘Belles.’ ‘Belles’ kind of hit me in the solar plexus – it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I covered that, too, with Mark Lanegan in The Gutter Twins.”
“Really, one of the greatest rock and roll bands I’ve ever seen. I saw them first when The Twilight Singers got asked to do a little run with Afterhours in Italy. They were fans of mine, and invited me to do five dates; we got along real well and they asked to produce their next record, so I moved to Italy and we wrote a bunch of songs together. I ended up living in Milan for ten months, and doing sixty shows with them. I consider myself a member of the band, and they do, too. [Afterhours leader] Manuel Agnelli is one of my closest, dearest friends, and one of the most talented people I know. Afterhours’ last record, Padania, is like Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart smashed together with John Lennon’s songs from The White Album. I’ve never heard anything like it: they always fully reinvent themselves with every album. A really brave band.”
“Somebody sent me ‘The World (Is Going Up In Flames),’ and it had this James Brown, Bobby Womack passion to it. The Menahan Street Band, The Budos Band, Dap-Kings – all of those people play music as it was played in the ‘60s and ‘70s; I’m into that, and Charles Bradley has lived the life, clearly. You hear it in his voice, and see it in his show. I’ve seen him twice, and it’s sheer joy: he’s humbled and overjoyed at what he gets to share with the audience. The guy drips sincerity, is a soulful motherfucker, and a great performer. Fantastic.”
“Joseph Arthur is a beautiful human being, and he really is a genius. I’ve known Joe ten, twelve years now – we met through [frequent collaborator] Mike Napolitano. I’d heard Come to Where I’m From, which has ‘In the Sun’ on it, and when we met, I liked Joe right away. He’s a real renaissance man: he’s a poet, a painter, and he can write you a song in front of your eyes from scratch. I’ll be in the car with Joe, and he’ll start making up a song, and by the next traffic light you’re already singing along with the chorus.”
“He’s an amazing songwriter. I love that song ‘Slide Away’ he did with The Lonely Astronauts: his falsetto reminds me of Mick Jagger during the Black and Blue era – stuff like ‘Memory Motel’ and ‘Fool to Cry.’ I also love a sad song he did called ‘Take Me Home’ – but Joe has a billion good songs. My favorite recent song of his is called ‘Where’s My Van?’: he got his tour van impounded, which made the news, so when he was looking for it, he did a song called ‘Where Is My Van?’ It’s funny, but it’s also a good song.”
Quintron and Miss Pussycat:
“Quintron, there’s nobody like him. He’s not so much from New Orleans as he is from another solar system; he got off the Arkestra at some point and put both feet behind it! He builds his own instruments, has a great light show, and could do a one man show if he didn’t have his lovely wife Miss Pussycat doing backup vocals, puppet shows, and bringing audience members onstage. I’ve never seen Quintron put on anything less than mindblowing performance. One song of his I just love from the fucking title alone: ‘The Boss Wants To Party With You.’”
Off and on, he’s been here, probably twenty years/Off and on, he’s been here, guess he’ll never go home/I guess it’s the comfortable chair/And company – you can’t buy company…
– Shellac, “Billiard Player Song”
“When we realized we’d been a band for twenty years, it was genuinely surprising to us,” Steve Albini recently explained of the latest milestone achieved by his band Shellac, which found itself celebrating its porcelain anniversary in 2012. “We thought, ‘Let’s do something.’” Indeed, Albini and his Shellac cohorts – bassist/vocalist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer – have been such steadfast heroes of underground rock music for so long, they’ve practically become part of the woodwork. But such vitality cannot be taken for granted: in their two-decades, Shellac has fulfilled and maintained the moral, ethic, and sonic gold standard of what independent, counterculture, experimental music can be.
To commemorate the occasion, Shellac are performing a trio of shows this week – Friday, August 24th; Saturday, August 25th; and Sunday, August 26th – at Lincoln Hall in their Chicago hometown alongside the stellar likes of Dead Rider, Tar, Nina Nastassia, Scrawl, Shannon Wright, and Pinebender. The festivities continue on Saturday, September 1st, where Shellac will grace the stage of Minneapolis’ famed venue First Avenue alongside special-guest peers like Bellini and Stnnng. These events provide buildup to Shellac’s curation of the All Tomorrow’s Parties Nightmare Before Christmas festival this coming November in the U.K., featuring post-punk legends like Wire and Mission of Burma alongside Neurosis, The Ex, Red Fang, and Helen Money.
Of course, all the fuss centers around the fact that Shellac is, if not the greatest lone remaining rock band of integrity, then they are one of the few leading the charge, pretty much as its members have been since entering the Amerindie conscious during the ‘80s in their previous musical incarnations. Albini, of course, began as the prime mover behind U.S. post-punk iconoclasts Big Black and Rapeman, as well as serving as recording engineer for everyone spanning Jesus Lizard, Low, Labradford, Jon Spencer, Pixies, some band called Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Page and, er, Plant, and so on. Bob Weston found notoriety as a member of Boston’s Volcano Suns, and went on to engineer seminal works from bands such as Chavez and Sebadoh; Todd Trainer, meanwhile, released compelling solo work as Brick Layer Cake in addition to stints in important Midwestern punk-era mavericks Breaking Circus and Rifle Sport.
Together as Shellac, however, Albini, Trainer, and Weston became something bigger than their individual parts and previous reputations. In a way, Shellac became a unique and unlikely beacon and pillar of the underground rock community, a kind of ethical lightning rod uniting various crosscurrents – an unyielding anti-corporate/major-label, pro-indie stance; a staunch commitment to analog recording; a provocative forum for political and other discourse that often proves contrarian, offensive, and enlightening simultaneously; and a shining, dynamic role model for D.I.Y. approaches.
And oh yeah, along the way, Shellac may have become the greatest, most unsung rock band ever. [Author’s full disclosure: I am not totally impartial in this area, admittedly. Steve and I have been friends for many years, even before he recorded one of my former bands, which may have been the first music he engineered outside his own.] What has kept Shellac vital for twenty years as an ongoing concern is the fact that they make some of the most consistently uncompromised rock music currently in existence. Starting in 1993, Shellac started releasing music, including four superlative, challenging studio albums – At Action Park (1994), Terraform (1998), 1000 Hurts (2000), and Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007) – along with nearly twice as many singles and one-off, obscure projects. Shellac has also grown into one of the most excellent live bands as well – in a way, despite the studio expertise of those involved, the concert experience might be where Shellac is best experienced.
Big Black in hindsight has proven one of the most innovative outfits of the ‘80s indie/punk underground – brutal, innovative, and challenging, and wildly influential, from its unexpected use of drum-machine electronics to its savage, unrelenting lyricism. But while Shellac has proven just as powerful as anything by Big Black, its attack is more fluid and nuanced, its subject matter more literary and evocative: an effort like “Billiard Player Song” merges the reflective tragedy of an Arthur Miller play with the crushing minimalism of Raymond Carver, while “The End of Radio” has become an expanding omnibus in concert – a ranging, experimental elegy for a lost medium that seems to continue to grow and evolve in size and sadness in performance as history moves to erase its titular focus.
Above all, what’s most exciting is Shellac remains a crucial ongoing endeavor, not a nostalgic one: a new album appears to be on the semi-immediate horizon (songs from which, debuted on a tour earlier this year, display a surprising ZZ Top-meets-Judas Priest influence, proving there is nowhere this trio cannot go). In advance of the 20th anniversary shows, Steve Albini took the time to parse and reflect on some of the most memorable moments from Shellac’s now indelible, always surprising history.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first germination of Shellac as a band?
Steve Albini: I have to go way back. Todd and I have known each other since 1982, when he joined Rifle Sport. [Editor’s Note: Trainer apparently actually joined Rifle Sport in 1984.] Rifle Sport was like a kindred Minneapolis band to Chicago bands like Naked Raygun; I met Todd at a Big Black show in Minneapolis, and we became friends and stayed in touch.
Rapeman had been, in a lot of ways, Rey Washam’s project; really, it was Rey’s band as much as it was mine. Rey was a big force: he set the tone of how we conducted ourselves, our rehearsals, the shape of the music, the kind of things we wanted to pursue. After Rapeman broke up, Pete Conway, who had been in Rifle Sport started putting out solo records as “Flour.” On a couple of tours supporting those records, I played bass and Todd played drums in Flour’s backing band, which was called “Rock Spies of Love”: we wore black slacks with white shirts and black ties that were left untied, like we were professionals who had just gotten off of work.
Anyways, the “Rock Spies of Love” tours were the first times Todd and I played together, and we enjoyed hanging out. In breaks during the prep weekend before the second Flour tour – well, I don’t know if you would call it “jamming,” but we kept playing and goofing off. A year later, around ‘91, we started to discuss and toy with the idea in the interim of putting a band together. There was no philosophy underpinning to Shellac’s formation: we discussed what we did and didn’t like about the bands we’d been in before, but honestly we didn’t have a strong direction – the sum total of my thinking was, “Oh, it would be cool to play music with Todd.”
Todd is an interesting thinker, and his musical sense is unique and clever, and I was really excited to work with him; I also loved Todd’s solo work under the name Brick Layer Cake. When Todd joined Rifle Sport, that band had a body of material, and established songwriting modes. He was a great drummer in that setting, but I could tell he could do things other drummers had trouble with because his music in Brick Layer Cake hinted at a wide vocabulary. Todd has incredible style, by the way: every piece of clothing he owns is black or silver, and he has many awesome shoes – a chick’s worth of shoes.
The Daily Swarm: How did Shellac come to find its first (and then second, and permanent) bass player?
Steve Albini: At first, Shellac was going to be just the two of us, Todd and I, but it didn’t seem that satisfying – we needed a third guy. I didn’t want to play guitar as much, and there was nothing else to fill the gap; it seemed hollow. I also can’t sing and play naturally; it’s a lot of effort.
I’ve always liked [former Naked Raygun bassist] Camilo Gonzalez – he’s a great bass player, and we always got along. We did a few rehearsals with him, and Camilo plays on one song on the first Shellac single [“The Rambler Song,” above], but we had trouble working up new material together. I don’t know if it was because of shyness, or if he was more used to a format in Naked Raygun where people brought in more finished songs, but that’s not how Shellac functions. If we were going to add a member, the idea was they had to be the third leg of a tripod. We required a more intrusive approach – a guy who was more like “Let’s do it this way,” rather than “How does that go?”
I’d known Bob Weston from doing the last proper Volcano Suns record, Career In Rock. We were friendly, and he was also a recording engineer, and we really hit it off in the studio – he’s a nice guy. We actually first met at Clark Johnson’s house in Evanston, while Bob was crashing there. Clark was in Squirrel Bait and Bastro, and he lived in this co-op house while he was a student at Northwestern University. That house actually was where Rapeman played its first show: we played in the basement.
Bob and I started corresponding a bit, talking on the phone. When Volcano Suns played their last-ever show at [storied Chicago ‘90s-era music venue] Lounge Ax, each member had their own individual bottle of Jägermeister, with a personal steward pouring Jäger into their mouths upon request; I was Bob’s Jägermeister steward. At that show, [Jesus Lizard frontman] David Yow was heckling mercilessly. At one point, David started crumpling fliers into balls and flinging them at the band; then he started setting them on fire. One of these flaming paper balls actually caught the stage on fire; Bob was playing bass over this puddle of burning carpeting! David realized he had to do the responsible thing and take care of this, so he went to the side of the stage, climbed up, and did a belly flop on the fire to put it out.
Bob and I had become friends, and started talking about him helping me out as a technical engineer with the studio I was setting up. I was in the process of moving the control room from my house’s back bedroom to the attic, and he was going to help me organize that. He came to Chicago just as the thing with Camilo wasn’t working out. That’s not a patch on Camilo – he was just better in [legendary Chicago punk outfits] Silver Abuse and Toothpaste.
Bob, Todd, and I started rehearsing – either at my place, or Bob and I would travel to Minneapolis; we also started doing some recording for what would become the first two Shellac singles. We found Bob was more willing to expose himself: he had a direct expression of his creative impulse, versus just wanting to play for its own sake. We now had the tripod we’d imagined: all three of us were an integral part – necessary and important, as opposed to one guy being the leader of the other guys being backing musicians.
Some bands have a key member who’s really driving things – I think of Wilco and Jeff Tweedy, or Minor Threat and Ian Mackaye; without that dude, it’s not the band. For Shellac, though, it’s true of all three members. It’s like AC/DC: despite the lead singer and guitar player getting all the attention in that band, it’s not AC/DC without Phil Rudd or Malcolm Young, whereas Weezer can replace their bass player and nobody notices. Shellac is only viable when it’s the three of us: Todd is the base of the pyramid, and Bob and I are holding the sides up.
The Daily Swarm: What were Shellac’s first live shows?
Steve Albini: The first Shellac show took place at a neighborhood bar called Augenblick, where a friend of ours named Kristina Bozic bartended; Kristina also ran a metal-fabrication shop where she made decorative machined housewares and jewelry, and made the metal cases for our amplifiers. At Augenblick, we just showed up and played, and didn’t tell anybody; we did that a couple weekends running. The first time it was perfect – only four people were there: Christina and three random patrons. By the last time, though, people had cottoned on, and there was kind of a crowd. We played all the stuff from the first couple singles, and some of the first album. From the beginning, we never used set lists; we’d just kind of discuss what we should play and then do it.
Eventually, Todd felt like we should play a proper club. During the payola era, there would be these budget radio concerts, like “93 cents from 93X” or something, shit like that. Basically, radio stations would promote concerts with a conga line of the newest signings from labels – pay-to-play shitbox shows featuring bands no one cared about. It was a way for new major-label bands to have some stake with the stations.
So, Todd found one of these radio-station-promoted buyout gigs at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. He asked Steve McClellan, who managed First Avenue and 7th Street Entry at the time, “Do you mind if Shellac opens this show?” Steve said, “It’s going to be a shithouse – you’ll hate it.” And we were like, “Yeah, that’s perfect.”
The two hideous bands we were opening for were Candlebox and Greta. That’s right: the first official Shellac show was opening for Candlebox – and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. Each band had a tour bus, tour manager, stage manager, and at least one roadie; there were more roadies than there were audience members for this shit show. These bands had endless flight cases of brand new equipment, and racks of blinking lights; they were clearly priming them for arenas, but they were playing 7th Street Entry, which has a stage the size of my sofa. David Grubbs [of Gastr Del Sol/Squirrel Bait fame] was there: I called him and said “We’re opening for Candlebox, come see us.” I introduced him to the audience from the stage – except there was no audience to point him out to.
The Daily Swarm: Shellac has occasionally indulged in themed concert experiences. What was your first baseball-themed show?
Steve Albini: We did Pine Tar .406 [a reference to Ted Williams’ legendary 1941 batting average] during the strike summer of ‘94. It featured Shellac, Tar, Six Finger Satellite, and MX-80 Sound on the bill. We all admired each other, but the main thing was to do more than just a band setting up at a venue and clocking in.
I don’t know why we did it, but baseball was on everyone’s mind: they were talking about contracting the Twins and the Expos! We all wore baseball uniforms, and got a box of baseballs to sell at the merch tables. Between bands, we played stuff like Tommy Lasorda chewing somebody out; someone had recorded this spicy exchange on a broadcast feed. We sang the National Anthem, but unfortunately we couldn’t get pennants made in time…
There was a community of like-minded bands, but this show wasn’t a good example of that; we all were into each other, though, and knew each other and wanted to help each other. MX-80 had been integral to the Bloomington, Indiana experimental-music scene, then moved to San Francisco, where they were a linchpin of the scene that included their more well-known contemporaries like Chrome, Tuxedomoon, and The Residents. MX-80, however, quietly kept going; they’d been a band for twenty years at that point, and never played in Chicago other than maybe one bar show in 1975 or something. We thought, “Fuck it, let’s get them out here.”
It was all totally implausible to do, but we cleared enough to pay the bands and not lose money. The people who ran the Logan Square Auditorium, though, were total assholes, right up until the day of the show. They wanted to sell booze without a concessions license. We’d already sold 1,200 tickets: if they’d done that, the police would’ve been called, the show would’ve been shut down, and there’d have been an angry mob outside.
The Daily Swarm: Tell me about the first (and only) show Shellac performed as a Sex Pistols tribute band…
Steve Albini: There was a Halloween tradition in Chicago where bands would cover other bands – like Dis- did a whole evening of Gary Numan’s music. So we thought it would be fun to do a show as the Sex Pistols.
The Daily Swarm: What did you think the first time you realized Shellac would be celebrating its 20th anniversary together?
Steve Albini: I realized that I’m old! [laughs] One thing about celebrating your 20th anniversary: it’s easier to talk people into doing stuff. We’d asked Neurosis to play a couple of the All Tomorrow’s Parties events we’ve curated, and they couldn’t do it. Now that it’s our 20th anniversary, they’re playing. Somehow, it worked out this time…
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.
In recent years the all-caps/no vowels band name has become a familiar stylistic choice (see: MSTRKRFT, SBTRKT, DWNTWN, MGMT…). Amanda Warner of the duo MNDR (pronounced “mander”) was early to this party. Ducker spoke with Warner – whose new album Feed Me Diamonds is out this week – about being one of the first of the modern acts to use the all-cap/no vowels format, and how artists’ feelings change towards their chosen names over the years.
Eric Ducker: How did you come up with the name MNDR?
Amanda Warner: It was 2005–2006 in Oakland, California. I was very active in putting on DIY shows. I lived at punk space called Grandma’s House in West Oakland. I had a band called Triangle, a noise collective called 0th, and played in other bands. I started to miss playing techno and playing live, so I started a solo “neo-IDM” project called MNDR. It is a play on my name. I thought it worked well as a producer/DJ/live/solo/artist name.
ED: Was anyone else using that all-caps/no vowels format at the time?
AW: Maybe some obscure techno artists, but no, not that I know of.
ED: Why did you decide to spell it that way? Did you like how it looked stylistically? Was it reference to an era?
AW: The spelling and design was a direct reference to the artwork of early Detroit techno (aka Juan Atkins, Carl Craig), early Chicago house, and how that stylistically inspired German techno and design.
ED: Do you think people caught that was what you were doing?
AW: Some people put it together via my blog, and from listening to the music I put out then through what it is now. I actually had some pushback early on, when the project was seeing some pop music success. “Music business” people thought it was too industrial looking, and I was all, “But I love industrial music.” I guess it was a compliment to me, and people who liked the music didn’t seem to mind.
ED: When did you start notice lots other acts using that same format?
AW: I really didn’t notice it until The New York Times connected MDNA to MNDR, which was “swear word” awesome! Before that I didn’t really think that my ideas were finite. There is always some undercurrent of mass unconscious consciousness. It sort of shows that we are all connected and influenced in some way, whether that’s positive or negative. Ideas are free, you just keep coming up with them.
ED: That’s the thing – is everyone pulling from the same influences/references you are, or are they influenced by the artists like you who were influenced by those things, or do they just think it looks cool? I think the tendency is to think people are ripping people off to get “on trend.” But that may not be the case.
AW: In 2005–2006, I was involved with very outsider and club culture. Things started bubbling up from those outlying movements – it seems to take awhile, at least for those cultural movements that aren’t web based – and, voilà, no one uses vowels any more. I was early to creatively come up and re-reference the influences I was drawing from, but honestly, it wasn’t that calculated. I really just wanted something that was like my name, easy to remember, and looked like what I was making.
ED: Seven years later, do you still like the name you chose?
AW: I do, actually, although some people call me “Mandar,” which was my early nickname and how people originally spoke about the project. For MNDR as a pop project, I love that it is all consonants. It takes away social stereotypes and leaves a sort of “fill in the blank” feeling for the sound and visual of the project. It let’s me create my own world, which is ideally what MNDR set out to do.
ED: What do you mean by “social stereotypes”?
AW: I guess gender stereotypes in pop music. Uh oh, is this going to liberal arts college?
AW: Is that sexy? Just kidding. Foucault? Post-modernism? Maybe I should just talk about partying more and fucking shit up?
ED: I do like that you are a pop singer with this kind of android name.
AW: Thank you. I like it too! For realz. It gets so normal, to answer to just letters. And that makes everything rad.
ED: Not to get all liberal arts about it, but if there’s this idea out there that pop artists and pop songs are manufactured, why not fuck with it and make your name sound like a model number?
AW: Exactly. And that idea is a reality. I am truly psyched that MNDR and all that is MNDR – on record, live, and on video – is about creating art.
ED: Have you ever wanted to do a song with another all caps/no vowels act just so you push it farther, like MSTRMNDRKRFT?
AW: I want to push no vowels to the absolute limits, MNSBDTRDKTR. MNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDRMNDRMDNAMDNDMARMNDR. Look at that for fux sake. That’s “MDNA” and “MNDR” combined, so one vowel . Maybe I could be the Lady Duke of Pop and MNDA and LDYGG can fight it out for the queen. Do you think Lady Gaga and GWAR should go on tour? I am obsessed with this BTW.
ED: Lady GaGWAR?
AW: Yes. It is something I talk about and people make me pics. It’s awesome! Lady GaGWAR. Like, no shots or irony. I am dead serious – it would be awesome! Just think of the demographics.
ED: It would be a really good, terrifying crossover: nightmares on both sides.
AW: That would be edgy. I love that word, “edgy.”
ED: What about artists who pronounce their all-caps/no vowels names like acronyms, like MGMT. That’s confusing.
AW: That’s a cool name, but I never know whether to say “management” or “M-G-M-T.” So edgy.
ED: If you don’t put in the periods in, like M.I.A., no one knows. Those dudes went to liberal arts school, they should know better.
AW: What about those bands that make their names un-Googleable? They are my favorites. Sometimes I realize that I am not in the indigo generation, because I never would have thought about that.
ED: Do you think that band “fun.” put the period at the end of their name to help the Google searches or because of copyright issues? Or is it just their edgy move?
AW: Honestly, Google. Calculated edgy. I like watching them win.
ED: What about naming your group The Internet? Was that a smart move or not smart?
AW: Too post-modern, like wink wink nudge nudge.
ED: Edgy or not edgy?
AW: Definitely not edgy. Calling your band FaceFriends? Nah, that sux too. I started to get into naming people’s DJ projects after huge big room DJs, like, “You should call yourself Tiësto.”
ED: Have you ever named a project, and then three years later been like, “What the fuck was I thinking?”
AW: Hell, yes. I named one solo project “Cavebitch.” Awful. So not edgy. It was during some weird no-wave retread time. Super sucked.
ED: What do you do at that point? Do you kill the project? Do you try to rename it?
AW: Those projects are easy to kill because you’re living in a warehouse with no shoes with a dude named Sagel and his dog Mike. But think of a band that has a name that is a total bummer, like Alien Ant Farm: you just gotta live with that one.
ED: Goo Goo Dolls is a famous one. Those dudes were always talking in interviews about hating their name when they were making songs for dead Nic Cage romance movies.
AW: Remember when it was all about that dude from the Goo Goo Dolls’ hair? He was the Jennifer Aniston of hair for his time. I bet he’s a cool hang.
ED: I’m guessing if you went to dinner with the dude from Goo Goo Dolls, he’d try to impress you with how much he knows about wine. But then the wine would be really good, and you’d have to hand it to him.
AW: Definitely – Goo Goo Dolls guy would totally blow your mind about wine. And then I would talk about the Replacements, and he would look down at the floor with shame.
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.
We’ve hit August, so get ready for the “What was the song of the summer?” articles –which of course serve as follow-ups to May’s “What will be the song of the summer?” articles. But is the idea of the “song of summer” just a concept, or is it something that labels actively try to create? To try to get some answers, Ducker got in touch with producer Benny Blanco who has worked on bonafide summer anthems including Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” and “Payphone,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls” and Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” as well as #1 singles like Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” and Britney Spears’ “Circus.”
Eric Ducker: Writers get worked up about the ideas of, “What’s going to be the song of the summer?” or “What was the song of summer?” I’m curious about whether, on the industry and artist side, if specifically setting out to make “the song of the summer” is something that ever happens.
Benny Blanco: With me, I don’t really think about it. I just make music. There are those times when you make a song and it has those moments where you think, “Wow, this could really work for the summer.” But you never know. I’ll make something that I think sounds like the perfect summer song, but it comes out eight months later.
ED: Do artists or their teams ever come to you specifically asking for a song that will be their big summer jam?
BB: It’s less about a summer single, but it’s more about asking for a big single that will sell lots of copies so the artist can have the right platform. Back in the day, they made records, and whichever song people liked the most was the single. It should be about just making a record, but now it’s a little different.
ED: One thing about summer anthems is that they’re often by people who seemingly come out nowhere. It’s often a new artist with their first single. Do you know why that is?
BB: All the big artists put out their songs at the end of the year. If you’re a new artist, you put a song out in the summer when all the kids are out of school so they can listen to it a million times. It’s definitely the best time to launch an artist’s career. And the end of the year is definitely the worst time.
ED: Katy Perry’s last album had two songs that you worked on – “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” – that basically ruled last summer. So when you’re working on an project like that, are they expecting every song on it to potentially be a huge single, or do they still believe in the idea of album tracks?
BB: Not every song has to be a single, but yeah, it’s definitely a lot more pressure. With “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls,” that was definitely a weird experience. I had just shown up in Los Angeles; I had taken a road trip across the country because I was scared of flying at the time. I was exhausted, and Dr. Luke wanted me to come over to the studio. I arrived, and he was like, “Hey, do you want to make a beat?” I was like, “Nah, I’m alright.” He was like, “C’mon.” And I said, “Let me see the new guitar you got.” And he starts playing it, and we made two beats in, like, 40 minutes. And those two became “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls.”
ED: So there wasn’t even an intent.
BB: When I overthink it, it always sucks. It sounds like you’re trying to make a hit. When you try to make a summer single, you psych yourself out. You say, “That melody isn’t good enough – we have to make the best melody because it’s the super single.”
ED: Do you have much interaction with the labels?
BB: A lot of people do, but I’m not a huge label guy. I’ve never placed a song through a label. I’ll meet an artist and ask them if they want to work on something, or I’ll meet someone at a party and tell them I’m a fan of their work. A lot of times, the A&Rs and the managers, they might not convey things the right way. They might tell you they don’t think their artist would work with you; but when you’re in an actual room with an artist, you can actually give them your ideas. The relationship between an artist and a producer is stronger than some dude in a suit telling them what to do.
ED: In the way that most big pop albums are made now, the artist works with multiple producers. I’ve heard that some producers have it in their contracts that at least one or two of the tracks that come out of those sessions are guaranteed to be on the album or released as a single. Is that true?
BB: I don’t do that sort of thing. Some people get paid before they even go in the studio, but I don’t want to work like that. I don’t want that pressure for everyone. For me it’s more like, let’s make a song — if it’s good, take it; if it’s not, don’t. That’s how I’ve always worked.
ED: From your success with summer hits, did you start getting a lot more, and better-paying, work?
BB: At first, no one wanted to work with me. I didn’t even make pop songs. Luke said I should make a pop song with him, and it started like that. But you’d surprised by how long it takes for people to catch on. It takes a while for everyone to jump on the bandwagon. It’s like they’re standing by the pool and they have their toe in, but they’re like, “Eh, it’s a little cold.” Then they go, “It’s getting a little warmer.” Then on the last day of summer, they’re like, “All right, we’ll get in the pool.”
ED: Of your hits, were you surprised by how big any of them got?
BB: I’m surprised by everything that happens to me every day. All my songs are really polarizing. I remember with “Dynamite,” we tried to give that song to so many people and no one wanted it. People would tell us you can’t say “dynamite” on the radio, that it’s going to remind people of September 11. They dig so deep to deny it. But people never know. I always want to put out something different. If I’m going to put out a single, I want it to really, really, really work or not work at all. That’s the type of music I want to make.
ED: “Tik Tok” must have been a surprise.
BB: Completely. I had no idea. I had some big songs before that, I had a few number ones, but that was massive. And I had no idea. When we made it, I wasn’t thinking that at all. I’ve never seen a song like that. That was crazy.
ED: Do you have any songs that you thought would be bigger but didn’t do what you expected them to do?
BB: I actually do that with other people’s songs. I’ll hear something on the radio and say, “This song is going to be huge,” and then it will stiff. I’ll look at what’s happening in the UK and try to guess what song is going to come over to America, but when they don’t, I’m like, “I don’t get it.” With my own music, I’m so critical. Some people are like, “Oh, it’s a hit.” Not everything you do is going to be a hit. I couldn’t tell you how many things I throw away.
Bonus: Hell Rell’s “Send Some Shooters” was one of Benny Blanco’s first ‘big’ productions
A Rational Conversation: Matthew Perpetua of Buzzfeed and Fluxblog on the Evolution of MP3 Blogdom...
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.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the Fluxblog, the influential MP3 blog created by Matthew Perpetua. Over the past ten years Fluxblog has distinguished itself not just for being the first site of its kind, but for exposing new talent and for the quality of the writing that accompanies the featured songs. Perpetua recently celebrated a decade of Fluxblog with an event at Housing Works in New York City. He was also just hired to be the first music editor of Buzzfeed. Perpetua and Ducker discussed the history of Fluxblog and how MP3 blogs have evolved over the past 10 years.
Eric Ducker: Going back to the beginning of Fluxblog and the motivation to start it, was it because there was a change in technology that allowed you do something you had always wanted to do, or did you just realize that this was now something you could do?
Matthew Perpetua: The format basically came about because, at the precise moment when it became fairly easy to host MP3s somewhere without hassle, I had a parallel desire to talk about songs, rather than albums or the larger culture of music. I was, at that point in time, some obscure person from message boards and stuff. At most, I was entertaining a small group of friends and acquaintances.
ED: How quickly did you notice that your audience was expanding beyond friends and acquaintances?
MP: Nothing was quick early on. But I would check out my traffic, and it would very gradually pick up – from hundreds to thousands, and up from there. I stopped looking at traffic around 2005 or 2006, though.
ED: When did you start noticing other MP3 blogs?
MP: This is where my memory gets a little hazy, but maybe a year or so after I started doing Fluxblog it became more of a thing. John Seroff is a better person to ask about this; he was doing a site called Tofu Hut and was much more on top of tracking all the new sites that popped up. I do remember Sean Michaels emailing me before he launched Said the Gramophone and asking for advice. He’s still at it: those Gramophone guys are the ones I look at as being the closest to doing the same thing I do, and sticking to it for the long haul.
ED: Did you have a circuit of MP3 blogs you would check out – both for the music, and to make sure you weren’t posting the same stuff as other people?
MP: I never really read other MP3 blogs, honestly. I still don’t. I read a lot of music-oriented Tumblrs and what people do at Pitchfork, stuff like that. I went through a phase when I was worried about posting what other people were posting, but eventually I just stopped caring about that, or caring about being ahead of any kind of curve. The early phases of the site were more about being on top of new things, but I’m “old” now and just focus more on writing, or whatever strikes my fancy. It’s always been sort of a diary of my musical taste, and so it just reflects that, no matter what my focus is on.
ED: I wanted to talk to you about that shift, where the site became less about discovery and more about reflection. Was that something that happened consciously, or just something that evolved?
MP: It was mostly a natural progression, but it was a response to a few things. I stopped caring about breaking anyone or anything, especially because that was so much of the focus of other sites. And within that, PR really was gaming the system and aiding this FIRST mentality, and that just was no fun. I started in a time where this thing just didn’t exist, and it really was just stumbling upon stuff around the world. A lot of the best stuff I dug up early on was just from talking to other people online and having stuff passed to me, or finding stuff in the folders of cool people around the world on Soulseek. It was also a thing of respecting labels and artists, and deciding I was going to stick to writing about things around the time people could actually buy them. Most importantly, I just wanted to get out of some weird arms race and focus on what I realized was the real reason anyone was following my site, which was the writing. If I was constantly just chasing some new thing, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. A lot of the early writing is very vague and “hey, this is cool”; in retrospect, that makes me cringe.
I feel like people abandon a lot of career artists or ignore older records just because they are caught up in this endless cycle of keeping their ear to the ground, and I reject that. That mentality is about the ego of the writer, the institution, the listener, and is very consumerist. It’s anti-art.
ED: Do you remember getting your first email from a publicist trying to get a song on Fluxblog?
MP: Not really, but I remember when major labels started doing it. It was some Secret Machines MP3, and they hit up a bunch of sites at once. I think Music For Robots was the first to go with it.
ED: When you started being approached by publicists, did that feel like a validation of what you were doing, or a potentially corrupting force?
MP: I was always skeptical of it, and kept a distance from it. I did appreciate having people send records and MP3s. It was hard to keep up with all that, but I found so many great things that way, so that was only a good thing.
ED: How did you react when you started seeing magazines, websites of magazines, or digital music publications (jeez, that’s clunky, but you know what I mean) start to cover the artists you had featured – presumably because they had discovered them through Fluxblog?
MP: That was gratifying – not so much because it validated me, but because it meant that stuff I cared about was getting more popular. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve only ever wanted other people to like the stuff I was into. I’ve never had the mentality of “No, it’s mine, you can’t have it.” The guiding principle of doing the site has been about sharing something and hoping other people like it. When I was in junior high, I was dubbing cassettes of Pavement and things like that and desperately hoping other people would like it too. I’ve always been this way.
ED: You didn’t even want a hat tip, or an acknowledgement it came from you?
MP: Nah. Because who is to say that it came from me? I can’t take credit for what any artist is doing. And ultimately it’s very bad for any artist to be closely associated with some blog or website or magazine.
ED: Coming from my perspective, as someone who was working at a magazine during that time, it always felt a little tricky when we ran something bigger on an artist that had been discovered from blogs, and who wasn’t really wrapped up in a label situation yet. I mean, we were discovering music from all kinds of other places – friends, DJs, managers – but it’s not like we would shout them out in a piece. And we definitely wouldn’t acknowledge the publicist who had sent a CD. But at the same time, at least for me personally, I always felt a little guilty. I didn’t want it to seem like we were ripping off the work of people who weren’t being paid for what they were doing. I think that’s partially why you saw so many articles during that era referencing “blog buzz.”
MP: Yeah, but on my end, I was discovering things from friends, managers, DJs, radio people, writers, publicists, and so on. It’s all the same ecosystem. That’s just how things get around. The most influential people in music, people never really know who they are.
ED: When did you start getting paid writing gigs because of Fluxblog?
MP: That was in 2005. The first thing I was ever paid to write was a review of The Kills’ No Wow for Seattle Weekly. Michaelangelo Matos reached out to me and asked me if I was into doing it. (That’s a great record, by the way! I really love The Kills.) I have never had a good hustle as a freelancer, and to be honest, most of the things I’ve done in my career happened because people reached out to me because I had a good reputation. So thank goodness, right? Because if I didn’t, I simply would have to be in a different line of work, and I’m not really sure what that would be. I’ve had opportunities over the years to go into the music-industry side of things, and that has never, ever appealed to me. I have entertained it, but it just seems like a drag and not the best use of my actual skills. I’d be an awful A&R person, for example. But yeah, every single job I have had since 2004 has been a direct result of doing Fluxblog.
ED: What’s your take on MP3 blogs deciding to become brands, as it were?
MP: That’s cool for them. I never really had the interest or aptitude to do that. I have always seen Fluxblog as this thing where I do what I want on my own terms, and going in that direction is giving all of that up.
ED: How so?
MP: I am friends with Scott Lapatine, and have seen how Stereogum has evolved as he professionalized it. And you know, the first thing that goes is the freedom to write about any song you want, because it has to be cleared and above-board. I had to do that when I wrote a weekly column for the Associated Press: you are hemmed in by labels and PR. That’s fine, but if I did my site that way, the majority of the best stuff I’ve done would have never happened. And then you have to build up traffic, and to do that, you have to bend over backwards to draw readers and game search engines. That would just take me away from just following my whims. I am fine with doing that stuff for jobs with other companies; those are fine compromises in a collaborative or work-for-hire situation. But Fluxblog is like my weird solo album, forever.
ED: Why don’t labels tell you to take down MP3s, even when you’re posting album cuts or stuff that they’re putting up for free download but listeners have to give them their email addresses?
MP: They do sometimes, but it’s pretty rare. The only times I’ve really had take-down notices were when I posted stuff ahead of things being commercially released, which is part of why I just stopped doing that. It just was not worth the hassle, and when those things would happen, I would sour on the artist a little bit.
ED: You said that you don’t really check other MP3 blog sites now, but to what extent do you think they’ve been incorporated into the music publicity system?
MP: A lot, but I think MP3 blogs are kind of a declining thing in general at this point. I think it’s been a little while since it was a real force, and if there’s any power now, it’s entirely in aggregate via Hype Machine.
ED: I agree. It’s also been interesting to see, especially with dance-music blogs, how they’ve almost gone entirely to SoundCloud. I don’t know if that’s because they want to stay on the good side of the labels, or if that’s just how people listen to music now.
MP: I think the technology just changed. Everyone wants things to stream now. MP3s are really old fashioned! I feel very retro for still wanting MP3s on an iPod. Somehow that seems more old fashioned than buying vinyl at this moment.
ED: Going back to the aggregate point you mentioned, and I’ve seen you discuss this before, but in the music blogs realm, there does seem to be a further distancing between posting music and actually commenting on the music.
MP: I mostly read about music on Tumblr blogs now, and there, it’s very heavy on writing: it’s more personal or big picture, more in my wheelhouse. I really like things like One Week One Band. My friend Daniella just did an amazing week of Radiohead posts where it seemed like she was actually finding new ways to talk about the most talked-about band of the past 20 years. Chris Ott did a great week on The Cure, right at the moment when I happened to be like “Hey, what about The Cure?” Joey Pheiffer, a really young guy who works for Tumblr, did a week of posts about Weezer from the perspective of someone who never listened to music before a few years ago, and fell in love with Weezer and that was his entry point; that was so much more interesting to me than someone who has always been a music nerd and is jaded by it. That’s what I look for now – I want to read about connections and impressions that aren’t about critic culture. I will always have a leg in critic culture, and I work in that field, but it’s only one part of the bigger picture of how people relate to music, and to art in a broader sense.
ED: So, you just got this new job at Buzzfeed. Do you think getting it had more to do with what you’ve done on Fluxblog, or with what you did at your last job at Rollingstone.com?
MP: Working at Rolling Stone was a big part of this because, for most of my tenure there, I worked with Doree Shafrir, and she’s the Executive Editor at Buzzfeed now. We had a really good working relationship. After Rolling Stone laid me off, she was one of the first people I told, actually. And that led to Buzzfeed reaching out to me, asking if I had ideas for how to cover music there. I came up with a proposal, and we were all excited about it, so that’s how it came together. But I think Fluxblog factored into it, in the sense that a lot of what I pitched was kinda like taking the philosophy of that site and applying it to what Buzzfeed is already good at. Fluxblog is very purely of the Internet, and so is Buzzfeed, so it flows together really well. It’s very based in having broad tastes and reaching out to a general audience, and embracing the social aspects of how music exists online. A lot of the thrust of Fluxblog over the past few years has actually been in Tumblr, which is obviously a very social platform. The Fluxblog Tumblr is very popular; I’m sure that the vast majority of my current readership only really follows what I do on that platform, and doesn’t actually read the stuff on the proper site unless I “reprint” it on Tumblr.
ED: Does it bum you out that most of your current readership doesn’t follow the mother site?
MP: Not really. It would be more intelligent of me to just have all of it go out over Tumblr, but I don’t feel like dealing with the mess that sort of transition would entail.
ED: Are you ever going to switch from .org to .com?
MP: Probably not. Someone else has that domain, and I’m too lazy to bother to go get it. I have always avoided doing the website stuff myself! The technical stuff, anyway.