Yesterday—which coincidentally was the 10-year anniversary of Speakerboxxx / The Love Below—I finally checked out Bullseye with Jesse Thorn via his interview with Big Boi. It’s a great discussion of Outkast’s work and backstory, and it legitimately sounded like Big Boi enjoyed himself on the show.
About halfway through the segment, Jesse Thorn said two words about his first time hearing “Bombs Over Baghdad” that perfectly encapsulated my initial experiences with the group:
One of my college roomates used to play Outkast constantly, and this particular track was completely enthralling to me. “Bombs Over Baghdad,” with those hard drum & bass breaks and squelchy synths, reminded me more of Squarepusher than of any hip-hop records I owned. More than anything, I was taken by the notion that Outkast made a thoroughly strange album that was also hooky and unembarrassed of its commercial aspirations. In hindsight, I now recognize that many of my favorite records—The Downward Spiral and The Soft Bulletin are two others that come to mind—walk that tightrope skillfully.
Take a moment to respond. I’m just curious.
1. I’ve never been a huge fan of Rush, however I always get really excited when they get played on a radio station I’m listening to. This happened to me over the weekend with “Limelight.” I shouted “YEAH!” out loud while driving in my car; my girlfriend looked at me cross-eyed.
2. Getty Lee is one of the best, and most underrated bass guitarists, ever. He has a wonderful sense of melody, and is one of the few bassists whose playing is instantly recognizable. There was a brief period when I was fourteen, where I was obsessed with those overdriven walking basslines on Moving Pictures. Years later, the bass guitar parts I wrote while in my first band, The Modern Temper, were heavily influenced by Lee’s style.
3. In high school my friends and I joked about starting a Rush cover band called Yeti Lee—we were going to dress in white gorilla costumes, and play Rush covers in the style of the Boredoms. True story.
This is the reverse side of my 3x5-inch note card list from a previous post. I used to separate out the ambient/industrial/noise artists from the pop bands because Reckless and a now-closed record store called 2nd Hand Tunes had a separate category for “Experimental” music. It’s a simple organizational conceit, but here it also reinforces the idea that I saw experimental music existing in a musical universe that was wholly separate from pop.
Once again, an top-10, all-time-favorite record is on this list: Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. It’s strange to remember that there was a time before I owned and loved this album.
I found this in a box I was unpacking after moving into my girlfriend’s place: when I was a teenager, I used to carry around these lists written on 3x5-inch note cards in my wallet. The girl I dated in high school would get annoyed at how long I would spend at Reckless Records trying to remember what I was looking for, and this was my solution (I suspect that this would take the fun out of it for crate-digging enthusiasts, though I’ve always been a creature of order.)
I made several of these over the course of five or so years between 1998 and 2003; this one must have been from college, maybe 1999, which I only know because I hadn’t discovered Poster Children until my freshman year. Surprisingly, I don’t think there’s anything on this list that I wouldn’t still listen to today—even 12-Bar Blues, which is an excellent record, despite the fact that Weiland is such an easy target.
It also makes me a bit wistful over this particular period in my life, where the discovery of new music was moving at a feverish pace for me. Or, to put it another way, it’s strange to think of the time when I was searching for, but had not yet heard, albums like The Fawn or Songs For A Blue Guitar, knowing in hindsight how important that they would be for me.
Here’s the finished set of shelves that my girlfriend and I built over the weekend, with my CD collection now on display (For a quick game of “I Spy,” you can see some favorite albums hanging out—The Cure’s Disintegration, S/T by Jawbox, How Memory Works by Joan of Arc, to name three).
This weekend, Michelle and I got rid of my 850-capacity CD shelf, and built a new set of shelves along the wall of our living room. Here’s my collection hanging out on our dining room table.
I’ve been listening to this song repeatedly today as a reference for the first song on the new record, which I’m working on this week.
In an alternate universe, “Why Not Smile,” is the opening track of REM’s Up, and it’s a wonderful way to set things in motion. I love the way that the track unfolds slowly, building in layers over the course of a quick 3 minutes.
Many diehard REM fans loathe this album; I think it’s flawed in some serious ways, but the good tracks are stunners. I also created my own sequence for this record, which is really the only way I listen to it:
01. Why Not Smile
05. The Apologist
06. The Sad Professor
07. Walk Unafraid
09. Falls to Climb
10. At My Most Beautiful
No, really, try this sequence. It’s great.
Inspired by similar lists made by Scott Tennant and Mark Richardson, I thought I’d create my own best of from the last 5.5 years.
I’m actually a bit surprised at myself over how many of these tracks are non-singles; (or maybe I should be surprised that more of these songs weren’t released as stand-alones). A few of these are also concretely linked to specific places and times:
- The School of Language and Week That Was singles, as well as Sea & Cake’s “Weekend,” were three that I had on repeat right around the time that we started City States—you could call them inspirational.
- I listened to “Out Go The Lights” in my car about two dozen times during week after my dad died (which I was drawn to because of its overall notions of loss, and because it was a band we both enjoyed together, not because of any darkness=death metaphors that can be extracted from the lyrics).
- "Holcene" was a song I remember specifically having to turn off at work—I heard it for the first time while contracting at a fantastic studio downtown called GravityTank, and the song’s lonely guitar intro was so affecting that I found myself getting misty-eyed while sitting at my desk.
And perhaps it’s just a current fascination, but “Art of Almost” is the easy winner for me. Full-disclosure: it’s a strong reference point for the opening track on the album I’m making. But in addition to the inspiration I’m taking from it as a musician, I’m also generally fascinated with way that the song seems to occur in movements, the way that instruments seem to bubble up, take command, then eventually drop out over time. Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy the shared language that emerges between the traditional and electronic instruments, as if the divide between the “real” and “synthetic” is arbitrary or imagined (this is a continuing preoccupation for me as both a musician and as a listener). For me, “Almost” feels very rooted in the here and now, yet also otherworldly and strange, like looking at the planet from 100,000 feet.
Selections are in rough order of ranking (a one-song-per-band rule is mostly followed, save for the arguable Field Music / Week That Was / School of Language overlap):
Wilco - Art of Almost
Portishead - Machine Gun
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!
Eno / Byrne - Strange Overtones
Low - Murderer
Bon Iver - Holcene
Bobby Womack - Please Forgive My Heart
LCD Soundsystem - All I Want
The Week That Was - The Airport Line
Spoon - Out Go The Lights
Meursault - Crank Resolutions
Radiohead - Separator
School of Language - Rockist Part 1
Walkmen - Heaven
Deerhunter - The Missing
St. Vincent - Marrow
Field Music - Precious Plans
The National - Sorrow
Hot Chip - Slush
Antlers - I Don’t Want Love
Serengeti - PMDD
Matthew Dear - Deserter
Wild Beasts - Invisible
Grizzly Bear - Sun In Your Eyes
Dirty Projectors - Impregnable Question
Destroyer - Blue Eyes
Swans - A Piece of the Sky
Santigold - L.E.S. Artistes
Bear In Heaven - Lovesick Teenagers
Björk - Crystalline
No Age - Things I Did When I Was Dead
Kanye West - On Sight
Merzbow & Richard Pinhas - Tokyo Electric Guerilla
Akron / Family - Sometimes I
Tame Impala - Be Above It
PVT - Shiver
Mannequin Men - Flyin’ Blind
Radian - Git Cut Noise
Blur - Under the Westway
Here We Go Magic - How Do I Know
Mountains - Choral
Tune Yards - Bizness
Sea & Cake - Weekend
Magnetic Fields - Too Drunk To Dream
Vampire Weekend - A-Punk
13 & God - Old Age
Coldplay - Chinese Sleep Chant
Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook
Animal Collective - My Girls
James Blake - Limit To Your Love
Just before moving in with my girlfriend at the end of last month, I put the finishing touches on a song that’s very important to me. “To Remember” is song about my father’s guitar, which is to say that it’s also about my father, and about the relationship that I had with him. I’m not ready to share the song just yet, however since it’s themes are so integral to the work that I’ve been doing, I thought that it might be healthy for me to open up about how and why I wrote it.
Some backstory: about a year ago, my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 58. As one might expect, the last 14 months have been fairly confusing and at times really difficult, but as always I relied on music as a way to help me through the rough days. And given the fact that I was already knee-deep into the album I have been making when he died, the writing process very quickly absorbed many of my feelings about his passing.
What makes my particular method of healing all the more complicated is the fact that music was always the central device that connected me with my father. Admittedly, my relationship with my dad was not exceptionally close, but music drew us together in ways that helped us understand one another.
When I was a teenager, my father gave me his guitar—a cream-colored 1962 Fender Jaguar with a tortoise shell pick guard, which had belonged to my dad since he was 14. As a boy I’d only seen it on the handful of occasions when he took it out from under his bed, its classic look and sound fascinating to my young mind. By the time I was old enough to play it, Kurt Cobain had further extended the model’s mythology by playing right-handed Jaguars upside down (as a lefty, I do the same thing).
At the time, I’m not sure that I could have claimed total ownership over the instrument—my brother and I had effectively acquired it on a semi-permanent loan—however I felt an increasingly strong sense of confidence over the music I made with that guitar. I have a vivid memory of writing one of my first songs with the Jaguar: I must have been fifteen, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom next to a washing machine-shaped amplifier, laboring over a riff that mimicked Jawbox’s “Chinese Fork Tie.” I can still play that melody today. It’s not bad.
After graduating college I was lucky to bring the Jaguar with me to Chicago. Given the fact that I was almost entirely broke, the physical possessions I could call mine were few and far between, save for a rapidly expanding CD collection, and my two guitars. As time passed, I continued to write songs on it—”Negative Space”, an early song by a band I once played in called the Modern Temper, was crafted with the instrument.
Most of my early years were spent at a considerable distance from my father—in hindsight, I think that he might have struggled with how to relate to my sensitive disposition; perhaps he just didn’t have a lot of patience for kids and teenagers—but by the time I had grown into adulthood, things had become easier for the two of us. Our conversations, once awkward, had turned affectionate and cheerful. In our semi regular-yet-brief phone calls, he often told me how proud he was of me—how much he liked the new song I just released to the public, or how cool he thought it was that my music had been played on a radio station he once listened to when he had lived in Chicago. On the rare occasion that he visited, my dad would set up his laptop on my apartment’s coffee table and pick out CDs from my shelf until he had stacks of them waiting to be burned to his computer drive. Ever the classic rock fan, he and I found plenty of common ground in revivalist groups like The Walkmen, The White Stripes, and Spoon.
A couple of years ago, my father asked for his Jaguar back. As his career had lightened up a bit and responsibilities softened, my dad had slowly felt the desire to re-introduce his teenage fascination with the electric guitar into his life. I gladly returned it to him, and in response he continued to provide me with updates on the latest Rolling Stones song he was learning, or how he had finally honed in on the best sounding flat-wound strings.
The last time I was alone with my dad was on the day after Christmas, 2011. I had intended to sneak away for an hour while visiting my parents’ house to work on a song, and about 10 minutes later, my dad had quietly shuffled upstairs to see what I was up to. With a gentle knock at the spare room’s door, he asked if he could listen in.
Sitting down in a chair adjacent to me, my father lifted his Jaguar off of its stand and placed it in his lap, and asked me to replay the guitar riff I had been rehearsing before he had arrived. I obliged, running through a simple finger-picked phrase made of descending chords while he watched intently. We talked for a while, discussing the Gastr Del Sol and Wilco albums which had influenced my most recent batch of songs, and about how he had always tried, unsuccessfully, to master the finger-picking style I was using. I don’t exactly recall how that encounter had ended, but I remember feeling both surprised and glad that he had joined me in a moment that I expected to be a solitary one.
There are plenty of ways to remember people after they’re gone: through the stories we tell, the objects we hold dear to us, through our behaviors, interests, and values. I remember my father most vividly through the songs he used listen to: the family vacations set to Paul Simon’s “Graceland”; the blaring, repeated plays of “Money For Nothing” that filled our garage on nights and weekends; hearing John Fogerty’s “Old Man Down The Road” as we drove in my dad’s wood-paneled station wagon through small-town Illinois.
The love of music that my dad helped instill in me is so deeply a part of who I am that I simply can’t imagine what my life would be like without it. And in that sense, the songs that I write—even the ones that aren’t about him—are about him. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the time that we had together than to share with the world the thing that made us closer.
Last week I spent almost an entire day listening to YouTube interviews with James Murphy while I worked. Most of the discussions with him that I’ve found so far have been great, but they’ve also been somewhat similar in their talking points—the bungled Seinfeld writing opportunity, the correspondence with Steve Albini, the origin story and left-field success of “Losing My Edge.” But there’s a particular subject sitting at the heart of this interview which really drew me in:
James Murphy’s willingness to explore his own failure is perhaps the quality I find most fascinating about him. It’s a running theme in the songs he writes as LCD Soundsystem (which is sometimes overshadowed by the decidedly non-mopey music he pairs with his lyrics) but I also find it wonderful that he talks about his struggles so honestly during interviews. To wit: this 9-minute segment takes up nearly half of its runtime discussing the utter mess of Murphy’s early adult life prior to the co-founding of DFA.
I’m not trying to suggest that Murphy’s candidness should be read as a simple “keep trying and eventually you will succeed” ethos. Instead, I think that the the honest approach that he has in exploring his anxieties, and his ability to do so in such a public way, is refreshing.
Also, the face he makes at 5:27, mimicking his friends’ initial reactions to “Losing My Edge” is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Right now I’m finishing up the arrangement on a track that leans heavily on “Champagne Year” as reference. I love the odd balancing act that this song pulls off between it’s ambient intro and the more ballad-like tendencies that emerge later on. It’s a favorite of mine from Annie Clark’s catalog (and that says a lot.)
This week, for both personal and professional reasons, has been a doozy.
For starters, I’m moving! By Saturday afternoon I will officially be a resident of my girlfriend’s condo—a first for me with regard to co-habitation—and by all accounts a great decision considering that the woman I call my significant other is wonderful. HOWEVER: for the last few months, while counting down the days on my lease I have been using my old apartment almost exclusively as a studio. Imagine me standing in a 12x15 kitchen, alone, facing a set of white laminate cabinets while singing into a condenser mic—that’s what Saturdays have looked like for me since mid-June.
It’s been great having the freedom to take my time in the recording process—this is the first full-length LP I’ve ever made, and I want to do it right—but all along I knew that there was a clock ticking somewhere overhead. So now the alarm is about to go off—and though I wish I could say that recording is all wrapped up, it’s not.
We’re close, though, and that’s great, but I’m going to have to find a new rhythm for myself now that I’m losing my “studio.” That’s a little nerve-wracking. Anyone have a large, reverberant kitchen they’d like to loan to me on nights and weekends?
We also have a show tonight at Beat Kitchen (doors at 8:30, $8), which has added to the craziness of this week, but I’m excited to be playing the venue again. It’s been about a year since we’ve been at Beat Kitchen. Too long, if you ask me.
Okay, time for a quick run before heading to work.
Spent the last half of my work day listening to Einstürzende Neubauten today. They were one of my favorite bands throughout high school and college, and I still love them.
Wüste was a little too subtle for my taste back then, but it’s a favorite of mine in their catalog now. Subtle, mysterious, and beautiful.
Hey there, welcome, and thanks for reading. We’re finally on Tumblr! It’s about time.
I’ve actually thought about starting a Tumblr blog for a while, but to be honest, writing/recording has been such a demanding task that I’ve put it off until now. Better late than never, perhaps.
More than anything, I hope to use this as a central place to talk about the making of the record that we’re in the middle of finishing—specifically about process, influence, themes, timing—and I hope to post on a few-times-per-week basis until our debut is out in the world. But I’ll probably also spend a lot of time discussing a variety of other things are important to me, some of which will inevitably involve food, design, Chicago, and the music I’m listening to.
Until then: thanks in advance for reading, tell your friends, and feel free to send me a message if you’re so inclined. All the best,
Joel / City States