This column originally ran February 2016. We’re reposting it in time for Valentine’s Day.
Music, Movies & Moods is a monthly free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet.
One of my favorite scenes in film history takes place in Rick’s Café Américain. Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa requests the saloon’s piano player, Sam, at her table. “It’s been a long time,” she tells him. “Yes, ma’am,” he says cautiously, trying to stare straight ahead at his sheet music. “A lot of water under the bridge.” After asking about Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and getting little response from his musical confidant, she eases into a coaxing smile: “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake … Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”
As a music writer, it’s difficult not to love the moment that follows. Sitting in a soft glow, Ilsa’s glance lowers in recognition of those first notes. Eyes moist and lips slowly parting, it’s clear that she’s suddenly someplace far away from inescapable Casablanca, a river of fond and painful memories from a lifetime ago flowing through her mind as Sam plinks and sings. Songs have that power to transport us – to unpack the heart’s forgotten or neglected cargo and, in doing so, take us back to places we thought ourselves unlikely to ever revisit. Rick may forbid Sam from playing “As Time Goes By” at the café, but he and Ilsa will always share that song, no matter how many gin joints they walk into or planes out of town they climb aboard. After all, it’s their song.
Last fall, after rewatching Casablanca, I took a walk with my fiancée through my Chicago neighborhood, a light fog fittingly lingering over the sidewalks after an evening rain. “What’s our ‘As Time Goes By’?” I asked, sinking into an over-the-top, nasally Bogey, like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. She looked at me confused; she’d never seen Casablanca. “Our song,” I clarified. “What’s our song?” We paused in front of a small family bakery for a moment before she said, “I think it’s that Alanis Morissette one, right?” She hummed it to me, just like Ilsa does for Sam – nothing. We had to look it up online when we got back to my apartment: “Head Over Feet.” “Why is that our song?” I asked. Neither of us knew.
Of course, if you have to ask what your song is, you don’t have one – not a real song anyway. Not an “As Time Goes By”. And it’s not as though you can agree upon one and apply it retroactively. Again, not if you want to be like Rick and Ilsa. It needs to be something you hear early on – maybe while on one of those first few dates – a song you played again and again and fell in love with as you fell in love. Not having a song of our own bothered me. More than a decade of memories together, but no melodic cue, no musical time capsule, no chance to ever whisper, “Listen, they’re playing our song” and whisk each other away to a dance floor we’d never be near anyway because neither of us dances. How does a music critic find his Ilsa but not his “As Time Goes By”?
The answer is depressingly simple. As alike as we are, as in love as we’ve been, we absolutely loathe each other’s music. We’re a pop-culture Oscar and Felix.
A decade ago, if you asked me to tell you about myself, you were liable to leave my company with your arms straining beneath a stack of books pinned under your chin, a few records tucked beneath each arm, and a list of films to check out in your pocket. Like so many men (and maybe women) my age, I spent a great deal of my dating days as an indirect disciple of Rob Gordon’s relationship philosophy from High Fidelity: “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow; it’s the fucking truth.” And that made sense to me then. A relationship wasn’t just about two people coming together; it was about re-alphabetizing and merging complementary record collections, two like-minded movie libraries filling each other’s gaps, and finding someone else’s margin notes after reaching for a novel from a much larger bookcase. That’s how I pictured it — the Paris we’d always have.
Looking back, maybe Rob offers a useful motto for pop-culture junkies seeking compatibility. Then again, maybe it’s more a buffer — a way to put yourself out there without as much risk. She didn’t reject me; she rejected my record collection … bitch. Either way, early dates with me, including those with my fiancée, were all about informal vetting, especially on movie nights. She lacked the endurance for the Back to the Future trilogy date, gave me suspicious looks throughout The Rocky Horror Picture Show (fair enough), and I didn’t even bother making her cringe through Stop Making Sense. Crucial pop-culture boxes kept going unchecked, but a relationship began all the same. Still, it was clear early on that we like none of the same things, especially when it comes to music.
We started from the same place — listened to and were spoon-fed the same alt-rock radio growing up — but diverged drastically from there. Me into an obsession with singer-songwriters and just about every ’80s DIY band titling the chapters of Our Band Could Be Your Life. She into a world of J-Rock, visual kei, and bands where all the males wear guyliner. I analyze lyrics; she tries to block them out altogether. I’m the guy who wears the band’s t-shirt to the show; I don’t think she even owns a t-shirt. A few weeks ago, we split an Uber late at night, and “Wonderwall” came on the radio. We both sang along to it — me doing my most obnoxious, drunken Liam sneer and her translating to Japanese on the fly. It was like two kids hearing “Jingle Bells” and singing two different dirty playground versions.
We’ve tried over the years to merge our disparate musical worlds. She politely sat through a Bob Dylan show. I sat in the parents’ balcony at an Escape the Fate concert, at least a decade older than any non-parent there. When traveling through Chicago on business several summers ago, I bought day passes to Lollapalooza, so she could see X Japan play one of their first US shows ever; we only stayed for that one set. And on more than one occasion, she’s endured a romantic gesture being undercut by the sensual sounds of Tom Waits growling like Cookie Monster in the background. I’m not proud of that one.
We bought tickets to see Muse at the United Center last month. It’s one of her favorite bands, and she had never seen them live before. She wore a dress, equal parts Gothic Lolita and Hot Topic school girl punk, and contacts that changed her eyes from darkest brown to sea green. I wore jeans, a plaid button-down, and a patchwork beard that made me look like a poor man’s lumberjack. The concert began: band members ran the length of the arena, seizure-inducing visuals burst non-stop, and even a drone (fashioned from one of those remote-control blimps you see at sporting events) floated overhead. By any measure, it’s the last type of concert I’d want to be stuck at.
But something happened early on in the set. I looked over at my usually reserved fiancée, mouthing every lyric, pumping her fist, and even breaking out the air drums during a couple of songs. She’s a woman run ragged by both the stresses of being a doctor and having a traditional Indian family who can’t understand why she’s marrying a man who is neither Indian nor a doctor — or at least a lawyer if she wanted to slum it. As I watched her escape into that music, I thought about our future. There would be more Muse shows like this one and many nights where she’d chase a Pixar movie with one of her cold-case murder programs. But, in fairness, there would also be more of those Back to the Future marathons and probably even a Stop Making Sense date. For some, love may be about sitting next to someone who loves the same music and movies; for us, it’s just about sitting next to each other, no matter what might be playing. Besides, as I’m learning, when you sit next to Ilsa, the music doesn’t matter all that much.
Maybe one day we’ll find ourselves in a café in 1940’s French Morocco — me in a white jacket and black bow tie, her with artificial green eyes and a punk rock dress — and the piano player will ask if we have a request. I’ll just say, “Play it, Sam.” And should he play an Alanis Morissette song that I don’t even remember, that will do well enough. It won’t be Rick and Ilsa’s Paris, but it’ll be all ours.
In other words, here’s looking at you, kid. She still hasn’t seen Casablanca, but I think she’ll understand.
Festivals are changing. When Coachella released their lineup on January 2nd — their earliest release to date — the news was met with a collective yawn. In fact, an “I’m Underwhelmed” thread in the festival’s sub-Reddit received nearly as many up-votes as the lineup announcement itself. And naturally, other major lineup announcements that followed didn’t fare much better.
As industry gatekeepers like LiveNation and AEG continue to snatch up one major festival after another, the once-thrilling concept of traveling far and wide for these experiences is becoming more and more passé. After all, why should anyone trek across the country to see a flock of performers they can likely catch closer to home?
The solution for festival goers is simple: think smaller.
Boutique festivals are becoming increasingly thrilling amid today’s vapid festival climate. By providing a thoughtful alternative, they’ve begun to satisfy a seasoned music vet’s desire for something extraordinary and something risky. While their long-term future is always uncertain, their commitment to a singular identity is key to their success.
Photo by Jaime Fernández
Desert Daze, for instance, has carved themselves out a niche in the festival sphere by cultivating an experience around the Joshua Tree’s trip-inducing visual aesthetic. Each turn is host to a new burning-man-esque art exhibition, and the festival’s signature programming gives life to the location’s supernatural aura — though, not without its share of struggles.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to have a unique lineup,” says Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone. “Look, I’m in a band, too, so I get it. It’s almost impossible to make money as a touring musician. I get where agents are coming from. I get the mad dash for cash. But, it does make it increasingly difficult to have a unique lineup when you’re in Southern California.”
Like many festivals of its size, Desert Daze jostles with a number of larger festivals in close proximity for big gets. Pirrone competes with So-Cal-based, Goldenvoice-produced festivals Coachella, FYF Festival and Arroyo Seco for bookings. “I have real envy for festivals that are in a market where they’re the only festival,” he says. “You’re not always going to get the dream lineup together because there’s so much competition. You basically have to have a lot of backup plans.”
As Prionne suggests, artists have become increasingly reliant on major festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. Agents are in a rat race to secure their clients the best possible billings at the most possible festivals.
Adding fuel to the fire, festivals are, now more than ever, willing to offer up the same headliners as their competition in order to move units. Multifest deals mean talent is often contracted for a cheaper booking price to play a string of festivals. Remember Chance the Rapper’s whopping 11 appearances at American music festivals in 2017? This year’s festival darling? Eminem. These instances aren’t simply coincidence but, rather, the deliberate efforts of production companies working the best deals possible.
Photo by Jaime Fernández
From a business perspective, such programming is sound logic. Music festivals are high-risk ventures, and things can turn south quickly. Sasquatch Festival, for instance, had its attendance drop by 50 percent in 2016. That same year, Bonnaroo’s attendance dipped by a reported 45 percent compared to its peak in 2011. It makes sense that those with a controlling stake would want to play it safe.
Other fests like Pemberton, Karoondi, Summerset, and Mysteryland have met similar fates in recent years, and, especially considering the bad taste the Fyre Festival left in the mouths of investors, independent festivals often disappear faster than they emerge. An Austin staple, Sound on Sound Festival (formerly Fun Fun Fun) was cancelled this year, with organizers citing “several recent roadblocks outside of [their] control.”
Such failures have caused companies like Live Nation and AEG, as well as investors, to constrict their business models. With the signature touchstones of festival culture falling out of existence, promoters have begun to think twice about experimental bookings in their top lines. The result? Different permutations of the same product.
As we’ve seen this year with Eminem, The Killers, and Jack White fronting a plethora of festival bills, promoters are more than wary about who they offer as headliners. As they become larger and competition threatens to cripple them, festivals have undergone a loss of identity: no longer can one guess a festival by its headliners alone.
Photo by Jaime Fernández
Organizers are flailing to find a solution to the festival problem. But if industry executives continue to treat our cultural gatherings like dollar-churning machines, little room is left for innovation, and we’ll likely continue to see more of the same. Still, boutique festivals like Desert Daze stick to their mission, despite the overwhelming threat of saturation bumping them out of the market.
“In an oversaturated world, we still somehow found a little nook,” Pirrone says. Last year, he hosted the likes of Spiritualized, Velvet Underground founder John Cale, doom metal trio Sleep, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s only festival performance supporting their collaborative album, and the king of punk himself, Iggy Pop, who headlined the festival.
Such programming feels urgent, even unmissable, and for hardcore music fans, the lineup demands attendance in cult-like fashion. This is an itch that boutique festivals have begun to scratch, however, satisfying the avant-garde live niche once occupied by Coachella — and Desert Daze is hardly alone.
Elsewhere, a number of boutique festivals have disrupted the status quo with engaging interactive exhibits. Houston’s Day For Night does exactly that, fostering a rare curatorial experience that weaves visual and sensory exhibits into the festival’s programming. For 2017’s installment, art curator Alex Czetwertynski showcased more 15 large-scale visual installations and hundreds of hours worth of digital programming.
Photo by David Brendan Hall
“Festivals themselves are done,” says Day for Night founder Omar Afra, who believes that curation is pertinent to the attendee’s experience. “We’re on the precipice of seeing this model become antiquated, right? [Even though] many festivals are still working within a festival construct, it’s the experience that’s changing, and that’s where the focus is. You can’t say, ‘We’re an art and music festival’ if we put a giant dragonfly in the middle of our stages and say, ‘Look, it’s art.’ When you say you’re an art festival, you have to fucking mean it and put the love and the time behind it, because people can tell the difference.”
Day for Night’s emphasis on visuals is a huge diversion from traditional festival model. Dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into visual production is a tremendous risk yet few exhibit the level of curatorial excellence that Day for Night touts each year. Whether it’s showcasing the mathematical glitch-work from Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda or the “attack of epilepsy” from light pioneer Matthew Pioneer, the festival proves that thematic identities can work as a festival model.
“You can’t imitate other people, and you can’t imitate yourself,” says Afra. “That’s probably the worst thing you could do!” The question, though, is whether or not emerging festivals will continue to pave their own paths, or will they fall prey to industry homogenization.
Photo by David Brendan Hall
The idea of discovering new and emerging artists is another avenue for festival organizers to explore, though also not without its share of risks. Austin’s own South by Southwest pioneered the concept in 1987, and since then, several other music conferences have followed. Driven by proprietary algorithms, Emerge’s Rehan Choudhry wants to provide a forward-thinking curatorial conference featuring the highest tier of next generation talent.
“We’re looking to create an entirely new category of experience.” Choudhry eagerly tells us. “There are a lot of traditional festivals out there. The first thing we want to do is avoid having to chase the same talent based on touring availability, and who’s decided to do festivals this year like everybody else is.”
Emerge’s programming features a plethora of artists that haven’t quite reached mainstream recognition. The concept behind the festival is geared towards showcasing names that music listeners and promoters will more readily recognize and adopt 18 to 24 months from now. “We’re very forward thinking and that’s for our musicians, our speakers, partners etc.” says Choudhry. “What I like about it is that it promotes discovery.”
But discovery comes at a cost. “It’s definitely more difficult to do,” Choudhry admits. “[It’s] more difficult to sell tickets like that. More difficult for the attendee to be able to sift through it.” This is opposed to the typical contextualization of festival lineups, where wide-eyed readers are lured in by massive stars at in large-scale fonts.
Such an experience sheds light on festivalgoers’ contextualization of lineup announcements in terms of font size. Coachella largely pioneered this process with their one-of-a-kind poster: a cultural statement about the current state of music that now largely determines the future asking price for tour musicians. The massive text is eye catching and does well to sell thousands of tickets in less than a few hours.
“The [usual festival] hierarchy allows for a very simple decision-making process,” says Choudhry. “You look at the top line and ultimately you’re making your decision based on location timeframe and the top three lines. Is this something you want to invest in or not?”
Scanning the font hierarchy on Coachella’s lineup is simple: gawk at the big names and move on from there. But what happens when a festival gets rid of font hierarchy altogether and focuses on crafting their experience around discovery? Choudhry discusses the potential pitfalls related to programming a festival like Emerge.
“Here are a bunch of names I may or may not recognize” he says, citing the synthesis between algorithmic data and human curatorial-judgement as the basis for a new festival-conference hybrid. “That’s all part of the process, but it all starts with, ‘How are you selecting the artists?’ What we did was, we put together a 25-person curator committee.” By involving executives from talent agencies and music industry insiders, including those from Spotify, Choudhry argues, “We have the upper echelon of talent to perform.”
Whether it’s SXSW or Emerge, those attending a music conference are traditonally seeking out something more than the flavor of the week, and when the emphasis is placed on discovery rather than hype, it opens the floodgates to programming that was previously thought to be reserved for local music venues and dive bars. Festivals like Emerge are hoping that seasoned festivalgoers are willing to pay for that full experience.
Even so, the festival experience will always be defined by the lens of perception. As David Byrne points out in his 2012 book, How Music Works, context — read: the creative production behind a festival — shapes our experience of the music itself. “Music resonates in so many parts of the brain that we can’t conceive of it being an isolated thing” he says. “It’s whom you were with, how old you were, and what was happening that day.”
Perhaps this explains why some festivals have started to put so much emphasis on the cohesive community fostered by their events. One such festival is Eaux Claires Festival in Wisconsin, which is curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner. “Each iteration of Eaux Claires has been a unique journey, unlike the festival that preceded it” says Michael Brown, Creative Director for the festival.
Photo by Lior Phillips
Doing away with festival lineup hierarchy is one thing, but what happens when a curatorial festival gets rid of a lineup announcement altogether, focusing solely on their interactive community? “This year is no different,” Brown says, “as we’re currently participating in one of the most radical concepts in the music festival industry: presenting a festival with no marketed lineup.”
The decision not to market the festival’s lineup is an interesting, albeit risky, concept to say the least, but it’s an opportunity for artists and fans to all exist on the same plane. Again, most festival organizers would call it business suicide, but Brown is confident that Eaux Claires’ unique, immersive experience alone will continue to advance the festival.
“We’re pushing Eaux Claires in this direction because we want our audience and our artists to live together in the moment and willingly participate in something special” he says. “We want, for one weekend in the year, that folks stop being concerned with the popularized ‘fashion’ of music and be more concerned with its creative pursuits.”
Photo by Lior Phillips
The dynamic festival is nestled in the serene, wooded community of Eaux Claires, where Vernon grew up, and it’s a fitting backdrop for the festival’s programming. Vernon, Dessner, and Brown have set out to evoke a sense of spiritual belonging throughout the festival.
“We want people to put value on life experience and living in the moment,” says Brown. “We want people, if just for one weekend, to willingly be a part of a community that openly embraces artistic failure as much as it embraces artistic success.”
By placing more emphasis on the experience itself than the names on the bill, Eaux Claires flies in the face of standard festival business strategy over the last two decades, but it’s that purpose that brings a whole new meaning for the music festival model. Such a model might be more successful than previously thought, too, seeing how The Wausau Daily Herald reports that Eaux Claires attendance surpassed 20,000 in 2017.
Photo by Graham Tolbert
It’s clear that the festival industry is due for an overhaul, but it’s uncertain how such a shift will manifest throughout our nation’s cultural gatherings. As the focal points of music festivals shift towards more thematically programmed, extracurricular, and immersive experiences, the general public’s contextualization of festivals will shift dramatically. After all, music festivals are one of the biggest cultural touchstones of the 21st century.
As Choudhry explains, “In the last five years, we’ve seen the festival industry consolidate at an incredible rate, with two to three major players buying up independent events across the country. Each time this happens, you also see the pipeline of innovation constrict dramatically. The reason? Innovation typically takes place in smaller, more nimble organizations.”
Whether it’s immersive technology and virtual reality exhibitionism, expansive visual art installations, a unique set and setting, or an off-kilter programming scheme, the emergence of a new class of festivals is imminent. So long as music fans are vocal and innovators continue to test their luck with new and exciting festival models, fans will always have something to look forward to come lineup season.
As far as sophomore album’s go, The Velvet Undergound’s White Light/White Heat is extraordinary, both for its unapologetic abandonment of the mournful moods established by their debut and for its dissonance, which replaced the measured doses of pop art-minded bliss (inspired by Andy Warhol and contributed by vocalist Nico) with a total overdose of arty audacity and even aggression in their absence.
On its 50th anniversary, the record holds up as an outrageously unique collection of weird ideas and organically driven psychedelic soundscapes. It elevated the instrumental, mental, and sexual tension that encapsulates what the Velvets were all about and allowed for its individual players to act out sonically. Singer/guitarist Lou Reed, bassist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Maureen Tucker were all clearly challenging themselves, their listeners, and each other on this one, and the result feels like precursory punk rock, especially listened to today in the context of all that came after it.
In an interview with David Fricke for Mojo, marking the record’s 45th anniversary re-issue, guitarist Sterling Morrison explained, “Maybe our frustrations led the way … But we were already pretty much into it. We had good amps, good distortion devices. We were the first American band to have an endorsement deal with Vox.” The album, he contended, “was just us using the Vox amps and playing them emphatically.”
But White Light/White Heat was a lot more than an excuse for the band to tune out and amp up; it was an opportunity to redefine who they were, to defiantly lay to record what it was they were doing onstage at the time, thus making it their most representative raw and true recording, a six-song snapshot of the late-’60s New York avant-garde music and party scene. Fueled by escapist environments, their boho brethren, the harsh realities of NY urban life, and probably some pretty good drugs, the band captured attention with their dark and dramatic aesthetic and complex sound. Their association with art scene hip kids notwithstanding, their live performances lacked pretention (even when they were over-the-top poetic) and often ended in instrumental freak-outs.
While White Light was an entirely different cup of Sunday morning tea (excessively spiked, best listened to after a long night that probably never ended), it does maintain moments of Warholian hedonism. Andy suggested the black cover, after all. Also, the catchy, chorus-driven title track that opens the record kind of recalls the exuberance of the debut’s more upbeat moments and might be one of the strongest numbers of their entire catalog. David Bowie sure liked it, even giving it renewed appreciation when he put it out as a single in conjunction with the opening of the Ziggy Stardust concert film (recorded in the ’70s, but released in the ’80s). By contrast, the 17-minute psych-tinged climax, “Sister Ray”, might start out straightforward but veers off wildly. It’s a tempestuous tale of drag queens, sailors, orgies, shooting up, and murder backdropped by Cale and Reed’s rhythmic clash of chords and effects. Recorded in one take, it was apparently so assaultive live, according to Reed, that the engineer walked out before it was laid down.
In between these memorable bookends, there’s the bizarre narrative of “The Gift”, featuring an academic-sounding Cale spinning an ill-fated tale of young love over a snarling guitar jam (best heard on headphones as it was recorded so the vocal is heard on one speaker and the music on another); “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, a sardonic yet sweet ditty about a transsexual’s lobotomy; “Here She Comes Now”, the album’s most simplistic number, which sounds like a holdover from the Nico era and provides a break from the visceral blasts that surround it; and the garage-y goodness of “I Heard Her Call My Name”, a feedback-laden, schizophrenic Stooges kinda jam.
Dusting off the original ’68 album, side one features the varied tempos and staggering vocals of the first four songs while side two is a notably more frenzied experience, punctuating the mottled radiance of the collection with a rousing climax. That’s probably the most authentic way to enjoy White Light/White Heat, but the “Super Deluxe” 2013 version (available on most streaming services) has some extras (live versions, mono versions, and bonus tracks) that add dimension to VU’s evolution, especially that of Cale and Reed. Their often contentious relationship reached a breaking point after this record, but both continued to capture beauty in chaos when creating and producing music separately for years to come. It may not be their most celebrated recording, but its uncompromising spirit never dimmed for Cale (who’s played these songs at VU-inspired shows in Paris and the UK the past couple years) or for Reed, who was a rock ‘n’ roll rebel right up until his light finally burned out for good.
Anyone who knew Warren Zevon prior to 1978, the year his breakthrough third album, Excitable Boy, was released, could tell that he was bound to put out a record like it. The record, Zevon’s lone unqualified public smash, most famously featured a headless Thompson gunner and a werewolf with a taste for chow mein. Some of these eccentric creations can be chalked up to late nights afloat in alcohol: Zevon’s good friend Billy Bob Thornton describes “Werewolves of London” as being written on “a sea of vodka” in the VH1 documentary on the making of Zevon’s final album, 2003’s The Wind. But Zevon’s taste for the macabre predated Excitable Boy. One choice quotation, featured in the oral biography of Zevon compiled by his first wife, Crystal, entitled I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, serves as an early sign of where he would go as a songwriter. After hearing the news of JFK’s assassination over his high school loudspeakers, Zevon looked to his friends and said in a JFK accent, “Jackie, I’ve got this real bad pain in my head.” The headless ghost mercenaries, werewolves, and criminals of Excitable Boy sprung forth from that quip.
Excitable Boy remains the primary gateway into Zevon’s music for new listeners, due primarily to “Werewolves of London”, a charming novelty song that wouldn’t rank among his 20 best tunes. Sure, it’s got a catchy chord progression, and the deliciously dark line “Little old lady got mutilated late last night” might be the best use of consonance in a pop song ever put to tape. Zevon, however, was much more than death’s jester. At his very best, he contends with the greats in the singer-songwriter mold, a fact acknowledged by the wide range of tributes to him after his passing in 2003, with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and Bob Dylan playing his songs in their live shows. For all of the genius in Excitable Boy, the album also distorts the rich trove of songs in Zevon’s discography. It’s an understandable place to begin one’s experience with him, but in many ways it’s also the wrong one.
To this day, Zevon is primarily regarded as a cult songwriter who had one major hit (“Werewolves of London”) and a couple of still-popular tunes (“Lawyers, Guns, and Money”, “Keep Me in Your Heart”). The uninitiated might look at the tracklist of Excitable Boy and conclude from its stack of classics that it represents a unique distillation of Zevon’s style. But for every “Werewolves of London”, there’s an oddity like “Nighttime in the Switching Yard”, a catchy but insubstantial disco number that achieved what Daft Punk’s 2013 act of retroism Random Access Memories attempted nearly four decades later. The cynicism of “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” remains quintessential Zevon, but its bookend at the beginning of the album is the peppy “Johnny Strikes Up the Band”, which might as well be a Billy Joel song.
Excitable Boy isn’t the only Zevon album to contain its share of oddball moments. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980) has the goofy “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado”. My Ride’s Here features an earnest but silly Dave Letterman cameo on the hockey tune “Hit Somebody!”. But Excitable Boy contains the sharpest contrasts between peak and weird Zevon. “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” opens up the album pleasantly but inoffensively and is then followed by the black comedy of the dazzling “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”. The tender “Accidentally Like a Martyr” joins “Hasten Down the Wind” and “Empty-Handed Heart” in the surprisingly deep list of sentimental Zevon songs, yet it rather abruptly segues into the throwaway disco of “Nighttime in the Switching Yard”. Like Zevon himself, Excitable Boy has a tempestuous personality, veering from brilliance to material that is more a product of its time than it is of Zevon’s creativity.
Still, Zevon’s fluff songs have their merits. He called “Werewolves of London” a “dumb song for smart people,” a fair label given that most novelty songs don’t contain such a profundity of cultural references. The surreal image of a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s may be the product of an endless fount of vodka, but it’s nonetheless brilliant and endlessly quotable in its own right. Still, the ups and downs of Excitable Boy are a marked departure from the near-flawless Warren Zevon two years before it. The self-titled album may lack the sensational subject matter of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” or the comic novelty of “Werewolves of London”, but it has to its credit the baroque piano figure in opener “The French Inhaler” and the masterful “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”, arguably Zevon’s crowning achievement in songwriting. Excitable Boy’s successor, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, has its own bumpy moments, but it also showcases Zevon’s desire to merge his singer-songwriter style with the classical composition he grew up studying.
As is the case with many artists, the biggest public appreciation of Zevon’s career did not coincide with his strongest material. His final three albums, which scholar George Plasketes groups together with the title “Deteriorata” in his monograph Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles, culminated in the release of The Wind and his passing and finally led to a long overdue critical re-evaluation of his work. (In my humble opinion, too many people continue to sleep on 1991’s Mr. Bad Example, a top-five Zevon effort.) But still today, the entry point into Zevon’s career is “Werewolves of London”, which will cause misleading expectations for anyone looking to get into his body of work. Zevon may have written the best dumb song for smart people, but his smart songs are where his greatest treasures lie.
If any song on Excitable Boy functions as a microcosm of Zevon’s brilliance, it’s the title track, which superficially sounds more like a genre experiment like “Nighttime at the Switching Yard” than a Zevon essential. He utilizes a sprightly piano chord progression that’s accented by doo-wop female backup singers, who echo the main refrain of the song: “‘Excitable boy,’ they all said,” he sings, to which the singers assent, “Excitable boy!” At a quick 2:43, “Excitable Boy” would be a trifle in the hands of a lesser lyricist, but Zevon uses the upbeat music as a bleak juxtaposition with his lyrics, which remain one of the best depictions of how male psychosis is facilitated by a permissive, patriarchal society.
The song begins, like so many Zevon songs do, with a strange character study. “Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said/ Then he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said,” he sings. The boy then comes to harm others, biting “an usherette’s leg in the dark” at a movie theatre. Up to this point in the song, however, the boy appears to be an unruly kid in need of some guidance and discipline, not a criminal. A saxophone then joins the female vocalists as the track seems to segue into a jubilant instrumental section, only then to have Zevon take the song in the darkest possible direction. A boy who just seemed odd then becomes pure evil: “He took little Suzie to the junior prom/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said/ Then he raped her and killed her, then he took her home/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said.” In this turn, Zevon’s song can come across as rape apologia, taking the suffering of a young girl and using it for blackly comedic effect. But the true terror of the song culminates not in the description of the excitable boy’s heinous act, but in the continued repetition of the refrain: “‘Excitable boy,’ they all said.” Nothing is said about the “they” on “Excitable Boy”: is it the boy’s family? His teachers? His community?
Zevon chooses a nameless, faceless “they” because society as a whole enables the excitable boy. By utilizing a harsh contrast between the cheery music and the grave lyrical matter, he highlights the ways in which society not just allows but even facilitates “excitable” behavior. Had those in the boy’s life done something other than mutter, “Boys will be boys” after he bit the usherette, Little Suzie – to say nothing of all the other women in the boy’s life – they could have avoided becoming victims of the violent misogyny in which the boy and those who enabled him participate. In the final stanza of the song, the music quiets down just a bit as Zevon narrates: “After 10 long years, they let him out of the home/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said/ Then he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said / Well, he’s just an excitable boy.” The extremity of that action could connote mental illness, but as disturbing as the excitable boy’s actions are, Zevon’s attention centers on the “they” who let him out of the first place, the “they” who can’t see that “excitable” euphemizes the boy’s atrocities and the wider cultural standards of masculinity in which he participates.
Listening to “Excitable Boy” in 2018, Zevon’s diagnosis of toxic masculinity feels all the more relevant. The unrelenting dark humor of the song disqualifies it from being crowned a #MeToo anthem, but that very humor is what makes it an effective depiction of how a patriarchal culture attempts to bury its worst criminal excesses. Zevon himself was a participant in that culture; one of the important revelations of the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead oral biography is the extensive detailing of his abusive and aggressive personality during the years in which his alcoholism went largely unchecked. He was far from a blameless criticism of masculinity. Some of Zevon’s wrongs documented in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead are serious, and even those closest to him don’t try to write him a free pass. In that way, “Excitable Boy” distills not just the injustices of patriarchy more broadly, but also certain dynamics in Zevon’s own life that he spent the latter half of it rectifying. “In the songwriting business,” Zevon told Jody Denberg, “There isn’t a section for fiction and nonfiction. It’s all mixed together.”
The major-chord piano music and uptempo quality of “Excitable Boy” make it somewhat natural that “Werewolves of London” follows it, but lyrically “Werewolves” is a sharp deviation from the cultural commentary of the track before it. The distinction between “Excitable Boy” and “Werewolves of London” represents a miniaturized version of the Zevon most people experience and the authentic Zevon that to this day continues to receive little attention.
The mish-mash of high and lowbrow on Excitable Boy lives up to a particularly sharp quotation of Zevon’s given to Newsweek in the late ’70s: “Whereas one of my songs may come off sounding like a satire on The Eagles,” Zevon mused, “It may actually be homage to Bartók.” Zevon, of course, found ways to simultaneously achieve ostensibly contradictory directives. “Excitable Boy” itself shows that Zevon’s music isn’t just fodder for Halloween standards (“Werewolves of London”) or elegiac piano numbers (“Accidentally Like a Martyr”). He wrote songs in the vein of the Laurel Canyon music scene in which he participated (“Mohammed’s Radio”), hard rockers (“Jungle Work”), folk tunes (“Backs Turned Looking Down the Path”), and even hymns (“Don’t Let Us Get Sick”). In that way, Excitable Boy does capture something about Zevon’s entire career: like the man itself, it contains multitudes, and at the level of songwriting it spans the forgettable and the undeniable.
Yet, in revisiting Excitable Boy, a crucial question arises: what if Zevon’s commercial breakthrough had happened with a different album? If the album sales were as effusive as the critical praise for Warren Zevon, would he easily be included on shortlists of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters? Had the proto-cyberpunk of 1989’s Transverse City hit it big, would Zevon have primarily been understood as a literary songwriter and chronicler of the impending technological age? Counterfactuals, those ever-slippery things, are difficult to imagine, and we’ll never know what could have been with certainty. But one thing is for sure: if the common cultural entry point for Zevon wasn’t “Werewolves of London”, requiring people to say, “Hey, you know the guy who wrote ‘Werewolves of London’? He actually wrote some really brilliant stuff,” the sophistication of Zevon’s lyricism would be much more likely to get a fair shake from both critics and listeners.
One of Zevon’s greatest lyrical feats is the song “Genius”, a track on My Ride’s Here co-written with his friend Larry Klein. The song sports some truly great comedic lines (notably, a line about Albert Einstein “making out like Charlie Sheen”), but is noteworthy for its final lines, which read like something Zevon would have wanted put on his gravestone: “If only I could get my record clean/ I’d be a genius.” The power of the line derives in large part from the recognition of his past misdeeds, but it also speaks to the experience of encountering his music as a new listener after his death. I, like many, discovered Zevon after hearing “Werewolves of London” on the radio one day, but after hearing the song, I did what I discovered too few people actually do: I delved into the rest of his discography. After making it through The Wind, I told my 13-year-old self, “I have to go see this guy live.” The year was 2005. In attempting to look up shows, I found he had died two years prior.
Part of my discovery is attributable to not having constant access to the internet, to say nothing of my extremely nascent knowledge of how to navigate it. Most of my friends and family only knew Zevon for “Werewolves of London” and some of the other Excitable Boy tunes, so when I listened through his albums I was only taking the music in and not much of his story. (The astounding and comprehensive I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead came out in 2007 to fill in the gaps). But I like to think that another reason why I believed I could go to a Warren Zevon concert in 2005 is that so much of his music, Excitable Boy included, exudes not just a familiarity but a comfort with death, so much so that I tacitly assumed the reaper would let Zevon die on his own terms. To an extent, he did: his goal was to record a definitive album in the final stretch of his terminal diagnosis, and The Wind is exactly that. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Zevon even now feels imminently, brilliantly alive.
Excitable Boy has some of those moments. Yet, when looking to Zevon’s numerous other achievements, particularly those that fell by the critical and commercial wayside, I can’t help but feel that the primacy of Excitable Boy in the cultural memory of Zevon distorts his artistic achievements. After all these years, we’re still trying to understand the record that Zevon wanted to make clean. But even through the prism of Excitable Boy, for all its ingenuity and imperfection, the genius is still there.
Great news, one and all: Right now is the perfect time to get on board with RuPaul’s Drag Race.
There are reasons, and last night’s third season premiere of Drag Race: All Stars is merely one. First, it’s great. Even the show’s most lackluster seasons are great. Second, it’s informative. That’s meant sincerely — Drag Race has always been an excellent place to listen to people talk about everything from rejecting the gender binary to battling depression, from grappling with addiction to surviving homelessness, and from coming out to learning exactly how to contour your nose. Yes, it’s funny and campy and an absolute treasure trove of GIFs, but it’s also honest-to-god more substantive than one might expect when all you know about the show is that there are huge wigs involved.
It’s also stirred up its share of not-great controversies in its day, particularly in the use of transphobic language, though the show has also spotlighted a number of trans* performers. Among them: Peppermint, the season nine runner-up, who spoke eloquently about her experiences, as well as the struggles she and others face, during her run on the show.
As stated above, there are plenty of reasons to watch. I could go on — and I will, below — but there’s one more that’s worth addressing. Drag is punk. Drag is an act of rebellion. Drag is the kind of thing that makes the Ted Cruzes and Mike Pences of the world super mad. Part of what makes reality television so fun is that it’s easy to pick favorites and get irrationally invested in the lives of these real people, or at least in the versions of themselves they play. In watching Drag Race, you celebrate these people and their defiance, and every time a drag queen triumphs, a bigot gets so steamed he slides right out of his loafers. At least, I hope so. A girl can dream.
Getting into anything that’s been around for nine regular seasons, two (and now three) All Stars seasons, and many, many episodes of Untucked (more on that later) can be daunting. So, here’s a quick guide to getting on board! Catch some, or all, of these essential episodes, commit a few recurring segments to memory, and you’ll be good to go. Last night’s premiere is just waiting for you, so get going.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a glorious hybrid of Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and your odd America’s Got Talent or American Idol.
It’s hosted by RuPaul Charles, who’s both the Tim Gunn (out of drag) and the Heidi Klum of the proceedings. RuPaul has been a pop-cultural mainstay for decades, and odds are you know “Mama Ru” from hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” or from one of many film and TV appearances over the years.
She’s joined by a variety of judges, usually Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, Ross Matthews, and a celebrity guest (here, Vanessa Hudgens.) Michelle is the savage one, and she’s usually right. Ross is the funny one, but they’re all funny. Carson is from Queer Eye.
There have been nine seasons of the show. This is the third season of All Stars, which is about what you’d expect. Queens from previous seasons return and compete against each other.
Usually, the queens do a mini-challenge and a main challenge, the latter of which typically involves either costume construction, some sort of performance, or a test of one’s ability to self-market or hustle. The judges choose the best and the worst of the week, critique them, and then RuPaul identifies a winner or winners and a bottom two. In the original series, the bottom two then “lip-sync for their lives,” and Ru tells the loser of the lip-sync to “sashay away.” (The winner is told “shanté, you stay”; both are lyrics from “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.)
All Stars does things differently. Beginning with All Stars 2, the top two queens lip-sync, rather than the bottom two, and the winner then has to choose one of the two losing queens to send home. It creates so much drama and is thus delicious, but for the most part, it’s not mean. The queens can be mean, but here, the strategy is too important to seem needlessly cruel. Do you send home the strongest competitor or the one who performed worse? Do you send home a chaotic presence, knowing it will help calm a fraught atmosphere or keep a messy bitch around, thinking the distraction might mess with others? Do you save a friend, knowing you risk looking like you play favorites? Or do you send that friend home, knowing it might make you an enemy?
Oh, honey, no. Lip Sync Battle is like Drag Race, or rather, is like drag culture. Drag pulls from all corners of pop culture, so lip-syncs aren’t merely about doing one’s best Rihanna. It’s about commanding the stage. Some queens are primarily there to be fierce as hell, and that can be thrilling. Some are funny, and that’s also great. Some, like last season’s winner, Sasha Velour, use them as a jumping-off point to create something weird and wonderful — performance art, with someone else’s voice. More recently, queens can even lip-sync to their own tracks, a thing that happens frequently in this episode. It’s become something of a tradition for Drag Race stars to release a single or two. Some are very bad. Some are great! Most are in the middle somewhere.
Reading, also called throwing shade, is taking an insult and elevating it to high art (i.e., reading someone like a book.) The best reads are exaggerations of truth and are so funny that it’s hard to see them as truly mean. The worst reads aren’t funny and are usually both mean and a little inaccurate. A great read makes a queen seem brilliant. A bad read makes a queen seem petty and small. It’s a fine line. Reading sessions are typically announced with the phrase, “The library is open,” and often involve silly glasses. You know, for reading.
Pro-tip: if a queen is great at reading, they’re probably going to do very well elsewhere. It takes a very quick wit, and that’s a huge key to success on this show. Here are some great examples.
Snatch Game! It’s like Match Game, but filthy and with celebrity impersonations, instead of celebrities. It’s reliably one of the best episodes of every season, because when it’s good, it’s heaven, and when it’s bad, it’s so bad.
Also, there’s a thing about puppets, because everybody loves puppets. Don’t overthink it.
Oh, one last thing: a quick way to get a sense of the history here is to watch Paris Is Burning, the excellent 1990 documentary about New York’s drag, ball, and vogue scene. Drag Race didn’t invent most of this stuff, and by the way, neither did Madonna.
In brief, here’s one highlight from each season. This should make you at least somewhat familiar with most of the competing queens, and more importantly, will give you a crash course in all things Drag Race. You can skip all the Untucked seasons. There are some memorable moments, but they’re really only fun when you watch them with the season proper.
Season one, episode four, “M.A.C./Viva Glam Challenge.” If you can find it, this one is essential. One competitor has a manipulative emotional meltdown, but another’s moving, joyful performance inadvertently shows it to be the charade that it is.
Season two, episode four, “The Snatch Game.” The first-ever Snatch Game features two of the best Snatch Game performances ever. It also shows this season’s Morgan McMichaels at her best and worst.
Season three, episode eight, “Ru Ha Ha.” This one, in turn, features a terrific performance from Shangela, as well as a glimpse of why she rubs some of the other queens the wrong way. It also ends with lip-sync that’s easily in the top five of the show’s history.
Season four, episode nine, “Frock the Vote.” None of these queens are on All Stars, but this is still a highlight of one of the show’s best seasons, asking the top five to run for “Drag President.”
Season five, episode seven, “RuPaul Roast.” Another comedy challenge, ending with a lip-sync that coined a new Drag Race rule: don’t take off your wig, unless [spoiler.]
Season six, episode six, “Oh No She Betta Don’t.” An essential introduction to this season’s Milk, a controversial queen. Better still, this is a rap challenge, which sounds like a nightmare and is nowhere near as bad as you’d think.
Season seven, episode nine, “Divine Inspiration.” Worth it for the runway theme alone, “Ugliest Drag.” This will give you a solid look at both Trixie Mattel and Kennedy Davenport.
Season eight, episode 1, “Keeping it 100!” The 100th episode of the series is appropriately packed. It’s a tiny crash course on all the previous winners — meaning this is a way to see Bebe in action.
Season nine, episode 9, “Your Pilot’s on Fire.” A fun challenge — the queens have to create TV pilots — and a great runway lead up to a truly shocking elimination. Count on it being referenced frequently this season. Season 9 competitor Aja’s been eliminated by this point, but honestly, this one can’t be skipped.
Season nine, episode 14, “Grand Finale.” So I’ll cheat and throw in the finale, which gives you a little taste of Aja but also three great lip-syncs, including what might be the best in the show’s history, from Sasha Velour.
All Stars, season 1, episode 5, “Dynamic Drag Duos.” Honestly, you can skip the first season of All Stars. A bad concept really held it back. Still, watching two great drag queens sob through Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” is worth a look.
All Stars, season 2, episode 5, “Revenge of the Queens.” Honestly, just watch this whole season. It’s basically perfect. If you only watch one, however, choose this one — it should give you a hint of things to come this season.
Be forewarned: There are spoilers galore up ahead.
It was pretty good! There’s some unpleasant cattiness, much of which feels pretty drummed up — for example, there’s no way that anyone involved actually believes that DeLa hasn’t worked since season six, as she’s toured with some of these queens and done multiple stage shows in both Seattle and New York, in addition to, you know, living life and being an artist. For the most part, though, it’s a good showcase for a strong cast, and even those that didn’t do as well in the variety show part of the challenge still grabbed some solid camera time.
The addition of season one winner Bebe Zahara Benet is pretty thrilling. It’s understandable that the other queens might be a little miffed that a season winner is joining the cast of a show specifically for people who didn’t win, but Ru’s point is a great one: The show is so, so much bigger now than when it started, and the prize is much bigger.
Bebe never got the visibility of even the other early winners, because season one is pretty much unviewable — Logo, the original Drag Race network, ran the entire season again in 2013, calling it the “lost season,” but as of this writing, you can’t purchase it on Amazon, iTunes, or even eBay. So she’s a winner, baby, but not one who reaped the benefits that nearly every other winner has enjoyed.
The top two are right on. The bottom two, maybe not — I didn’t love Morgan’s performance, but I liked it at least as much as Milk’s. She’s not the queen I’d have sent home, either, but as season four’s Lashauwn Beyond memorably said, “this is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.” (I told you this show is great.)
MVP: I’m a huge DeLa fan, but what makes a great Drag Race episode is not always a great performance, so I’m going to have to give this one to Trixxie Mattel, who was a fountain of bon mots.
Judging the Judges: One of my favorite things about the celebrity guest judges is how many of them look like they’re in heaven while they’re sitting behind this counter. Ross Matthews gets in the best one-liner of the hour, calling a comeback “two of my favorite things,” but Hudgens is just so delighted to be there, and that’s before she lip-syncs against a pork chop.
Up Next on TV Party: We’re talking about the Grammys, naturally!
Back in December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality. It wasn’t exactly a surprise; many commentators predicted that the commission, comprised of a 3-2 Republican majority, would overturn the hard-fought Title II neutrality rules that were put in place in 2015. The vote went through as expected, and it felt like a devastating blow; the online world had spent the previous weeks breathlessly campaigning against the repeal, touting doomsday visions of the post-neutral net.
Amid the panic of public discourse, it’s important to remember that the fight for neutrality isn’t new, and it’s certainly not over yet. While the stretch leading up to December’s decision saw a ramped-up deluge of conversations on net neutrality, the issue has been forwarded by musicians and music industry personnel for over a decade.
In 2007, the Future of Music Coalition helmed their Rock the Net campaign, which partnered with artists like Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and Ted Leo, to defend net neutrality. (Leo is still advocating loudly today.) Proponents for net neutrality existed before Rock the Net, but the campaign forwarded new concerns. Their opposition was formidable, thanks to the sway and spotlight those artists lent to the issue, but also because the movement evinced a broader, unconsidered truth: a fair and neutral Internet was vital for musicians.
If that maxim is true for the likes of Eddie Vedder, then it’s true for independent labels and the artists they represent. A neutral Internet is a baseline necessity for an already-institutionally disadvantaged musical demographic. The neutral web maintains a structure that, while not unequivocally neutral, per se, affords relatively similar access to major labels and their rosters and independents and their signees.
That’s an oversimplification, but the fact is a neutral Internet means that whether you’re visiting Warner’s website or the online merch store for an obscure tape label, they’ll both load at the same speed. If net neutrality’s Title II protections are repealed, that might not be the case, and the implications of that imbalance could be disastrous for independent labels and the artists they support.
Kevin Erickson is the national organizing director for the Future of Music Coalition. He fears that without net neutrality, the music industry will be slanted more explicitly towards the financial and ideological biases of Internet service providers [ISPs] like Comcast and Verizon, who would become discretionary “gatekeepers” between online content and the public.
“What we want is for digital services to compete to better serve the needs of artists and music listeners,” Erickson says. The governing fear is that, without net neutrality, ISPs could squeeze or accelerate speeds based on financial and ideological preference, meaning music providers would be incentivized to pay ISPs for better speeds while others suffer slow connections. “If digital services are forced instead to compete to better meet the needs of ISPs, the consumers lose out, and the artists lose out in terms of their ability to make their own choices.”
Andrew Sullivan, IT director for Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, thinks the full gravity of net neutrality has suffered from what he calls “bad marketing.” “Net neutrality isn’t exactly a flashy phrase,” he says, noting there are barriers to cognition around what is essentially an issue of equality. “It’s a kind of technological discussion, which I think rules a lot of people out from understanding it.”
Erickson accentuates the problem of obfuscating language. He explains that opponents of neutrality have taken advantage of the confusion by packaging anti-neutrality policy to appear as if it supports it. “You see that from Comcast taking out ads saying that they support ‘the open Internet,’” he says. “The most recent one is [Rep.] Marsha Blackburn’s ‘Open Internet Preservation Act.’ It’s really an anti-net neutrality bill pretending to be a pro-net neutrality bill.”
Given the stakes, clarity on the issue is essential.
The neutral net provides, in some capacities, a “level playing field” between all competitors. Erickson notes that the indiscriminate structure has facilitated crucial connections between artists and communities, especially ones that are underserved by corporate media: “[Independent artists and labels] have been able to build their own channels of communication, and underpinning that [is] the idea that the Internet works the same for everybody.”
At first, that approach served independent labels and bands well. Internet 2.0 platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provided avenues that were accessible and, for a time, free, allowing bands to develop new and open lines of communication with fans. Mike Park, who operates Californian punk label Asian Man Records, notes that the spread of non-traditional routes for dissemination allowed a sense of agency and choice for artists. “You don’t even have to be on a record label,” he says. “I tell bands all the time to just put out their records themselves.”
But that strategy only works if they have the same access to audiences as everyone else. Eventually, these services started monetizing their communications, pricing out less economically advantaged artists. Sullivan considers Facebook an essential tool for music promotion, and he’s tracked the effects of the platform’s change on his label.
“In 2012, we were able to have an audience of, say, 100,000 who liked Sub Pop [on Facebook],” he says. “We would send out a message, and it would reach all of those people. That was what we were accustomed to.” Facebook, then, was neutral; they didn’t restrict what posts people saw, so if Sub Pop made a status update, it would show up in everyone’s News Feed. Now, things are different.
“They made a change that said, ‘We’re going to throttle the amount of people your messages go to. We’re going to make it so if you want to reach more people, you have to pay more,’” Sullivan explains. It was a significant change for Sub Pop’s marketing. “We’d invested a lot in the infrastructure of being able to promote to people on Facebook.” If net neutrality is repealed, Sullivan worries that the same effect will happen across the web. “We’re weakening an already quiet signal.”
Angela Lin, a marketing and project manager with Los Angeles-based independent label Stones Throw, notes that even in the realm of neutrality, advertising on social media is costly, creating a world where “whoever has the deeper pocket” gets seen more. While major labels can afford the added cost, extra advertising and placement fees across various platforms could be the straws that break the indie camel’s back.
“Independent labels thrive on being creative with a shoestring budget,” she explains. Repealing neutrality would be a function of accelerationism. “It could create two worlds on social media: one for big artists, labels, and business, and a dark age for those who can’t keep up.”
Erickson explains that service providers could actively widen that gulf with a spread of preferential deals and paid incentives. He likens it to the effects of payola on radio: “We’ve seen the way that commercial radio, which was once a very vibrant and localized medium that allowed for the flourishing of regional sounds, has moved more towards platforms that elevate the voices that already have a lot of influence, rather than the needs of the community. We’ve seen what payola looks like offline, and it’s not going to be any better online.” He notes that platforms like Spotify, which is already structured to privilege paid content, are emblematic of the possible imbalance that could characterize the entire web.
To demonstrate the dangerous dynamic of paid preferential treatment, Sullivan iterates the circumstances surrounding the deal that Netflix struck with Comcast in early 2014. Upon realizing the amount of traffic that Netflix customers provided, Comcast decided to negotiate to make the online stream platform pay them for access. When Netflix refused, Comcast throttled their Internet speeds until movies and shows were virtually unwatchable. Netflix soon acquiesced, agreeing to pay Comcast. Sullivan sees a not-so-distant parallel with streaming music, in which songs become unlistenable if labels and artists don’t pay ISPs for premium speeds.
The ancillary effects of barriers to access erected in a pay-to-play system manifest in many ways. Park notes that if speeds for his label’s Limited Run webstore are throttled, that could adversely impact sales. “If the store is slow for people to load, that could be a problem,” he says, emphasizing the importance of Internet speed for users. Uploading music to digital vendors is another concern. “What if that takes forever?” Park worries, adding: “It already takes forever to upload that stuff.”
Sullivan observes that attendance at shows could also decline if algorithms prevent web-posted tour dates from showing up on people’s social media. “If you can’t reach the fans in the city to promote your tour, then there might be 15 fewer people there. For a band that’s maybe making $200 a night, that’s a big deal.” The gravity of that is compounded by the substantial role that touring plays in the success of a modern independent band. Park says bluntly, “The only way you can survive is you gotta tour.”
For most independent label owners, these fears are nothing new. Net neutrality is just the latest feature of imbalance in the industry. Joe Steinhardt runs New Jersey’s Don Giovanni records, which he co-founded with Zach Gajewski. Steinhardt, a communications professor at Michigan State University, emphasizes that the idea of a neutral Internet being a “great equalizer” for independent labels is fallacious.
“Even on a neutral Internet, things were never fair for independent labels,” he says. “We couldn’t compete fairly. Since we couldn’t compete fairly on a neutral Internet, I don’t think things are going to actually change that much for independent labels on a non-neutral Internet.”
Steinhardt is still an advocate for a neutral Internet, though: “From a social standpoint, [the repeal] is terrible as far as freedom and culture and increasing dominance of multinational corporations.” But he also points out the sometimes-duplicitous nature of the net neutrality campaign; companies like Facebook and Google have provided vast chunks of funding for pro-neutrality efforts, and Steinhardt sees it as less than benevolent.
“A neutral web benefits companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google,” he explains, “and that’s why those companies are sinking a ton of money [into fighting for it]. [Neutral Internet] means more power to Spotify, more power to Apple, and those are all the companies that have been partnering with major labels to crowd out independent labels the whole time anyway. It’s not David vs. Goliath. It’s Goliath vs. Goliath, and the Davids of the world are gonna get fucked either way.”
Steinhardt is adamant that for concrete institutional change to happen, music consumers have to become active and conspicuous participants in listening and consumption habits, rather than passive recipients.
“Fans have to realize they’re getting the illusion of choice,” he says, stating that streaming platforms, curated by corporations, limit freedom of choice. Statistics highlight that claim; it’s estimated that just three labels control 80% of the American music industry. That fact is doubly concerning given their social and political ambivalence. “Fans have to realize that and stop using this stuff.”
There are more than just financial considerations at play. The ideological implications of an increasingly centralized and homogenous presentation of art are complex and multiplicitous, but it can be squarely claimed that less choice and access would likely undermine artistic freedom and limit voices. This too is rooted in the economic concerns of a repeal; the stark class lines along which the industry is drawn would be further stratified.
Erickson notes that independent labels are crucial in elevating critical, alternative, and countercultural music. Those elements are rarely tailored for or aligned with corporate interest; in fact, they’re often the opposite.
“Both in terms of the diversity of expression that they bring to the marketplace, and the scale at which they operate, the independent label community is so crucial to the health and sustainability of the music industry,” he says. “The content [independent labels] are putting out in the world is less likely to meet the needs of corporate advertisers and what’s likely to be attractive to big corporate partners.”
Despite the spread of threats posed by the potential repeal, Erickson isn’t fretting over worst-case scenarios. He’s confident that Congress, employing the Congressional Review Act, can overturn the FCC’s decision.
“We expected to lose [the FCC] vote,” he says, seeing the issue more as a back-and-forth struggle as opposed to a static decision, positing neutrality as analogous to the industry itself. “There’s something sort of structurally similar between the way that musicians’ careers are oriented to think about the long-game approach and the way that policy change and organizing works. To get to where we are on net neutrality, we had to lose several times before we won … in 2015. And then when you win, the story’s still not over, because you have to fight and defend that win.
“The amount of progress I’ve seen on this issue gives me a lot of hope for our ability to make progress on a whole range of issues that affect musicians and their lives.”
For those looking to participate in the fight for net neutrality, Erickson and Sullivan both suggest calling your representatives in Congress.
“It’s an appropriate time to be doing that. We’re going to have to hold policy makers accountable,” Erickson says. Even now, Democrats are close to forcing a floor vote on the issue. Sullivan says coordinated efforts with Washington’s state government have seen measured success, even though the state’s decisions are still at the mercy of federal rule.
Erickson’s optimism isn’t necessarily shared by independent label employees and artists who, even on a neutral net, face innumerable challenges to stay above water. Of thriving in a future with or without neutrality, Sullivan says simply, “I definitely have hope for survival. Thriving is relative.” Steinhardt remarks that even if the net stays neutral, “[independent labels] are still going to be dealing with all the same problems.”
When prompted on how to help independent labels and artists, Sullivan, Lin, Park, and Steinhardt echo a similar chorus: go see bands when they come to town. “Put in the effort. Go out to shows. Support labels directly. Support the artist offline,” implores Lin. Sullivan adds to the imperative: “When you’re there, buy their record and their shirt. Pay for the music and pay to see the band, because then you’re putting your money where your mouth is.”
When I called John Flansburgh mid-morning a few days after Christmas, he was fresh off a flight from Los Angeles to New York the day before, his cat was ill, and his a.m. jolt of coffee was spilling across his kitchen. “This might be a low-key interview,” he playfully confessed. If anyone could be excused a decaffeinated interview, it would be the guitar-playing John of influential Brooklyn band They Might Be Giants. Flansburgh had spent the last few days loitering in airports between flights and was now staring down the barrel of back-to-back New Year’s Eve shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the US leg of a looming world tour, the release of his outfit’s aptly titled 20th studio album (I Like Fun), and a 2018 re-up on the band’s legendary Dial-a-Song project.
But before I could tell him that a dialed-down John would suffice — after all, I was still in my sickbed from a Christmas in quarantine — Flansburgh burst into a handful of lighthearted gripes about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s recent induction selections, almost as though he was determined to finish a conversation with me that he had been having with someone else. “Why doesn’t the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just stop?” he asked. “It’s almost inconceivable how there’s going to be an all-star jam at the end of the night. It’s The Moody Blues, Dire Straits, and Bon Jovi!” In that moment, I began realizing what the next two hours and change would confirm: there’s no such thing as a “low-key” John Flansburgh. He’s as generous with his time, memory, and enthusiasm as one could ever hope. It’s an energy level that at once makes you understand why he and bandmate John Linnell still have some pogo in their steps all these years later. But it also raises the question about how that seemingly bottomless well of get-up-and-go gets refilled — especially when the damn coffee leaks all over the kitchen.
Maybe it’s because our favorite Particle Men remain as spirited and youthful as ever that we sometimes forget all that They Might Be Giants have done and seen over the course of nearly 40 years together. They were an indie band from Brooklyn before that was a “thing,” became music video pioneers on a pop-infatuated MTV while armed with only guitar, accordion, drum machine, and tape, and have the found common ground between music and technology from the archaic days of Dial-a-Song right up to the slightly less archaic days of dial-up Internet. To speak to Flansburgh, it’s all been a beautiful mess of blood, sweat, and wrong ideas gone right.
Humility with a puddle of coffee. Just how we like it.
You and John already knew each other from growing up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when you moved to Brooklyn in ’81. What drew the two of you to playing together and starting a band?
We literally drove into Brooklyn at the same time to move into the same apartment building. In 1981, for lack of a better term, it was the height of the Fort Apache moment. There was a huge amount of flight out of the outer boroughs of New York. There were a lot of abandoned buildings. We lived on a block in Brooklyn that on paper you’d think would be a beautiful place, but one-third of the buildings were shuttered. It looked like East Berlin after the war. Landlords were routinely burning down apartment buildings to evacuate them and save money. It was that kind of downward spiral of a neighborhood.
I came to New York to finish up art school at Pratt, and John was in a skinny-tie punk band (The Mundanes) ostensibly coming to New York to get signed. The Mundanes were a real band, and They Might Be Giants were … I think anytime you start a band, you have to calibrate yourself against what exists in the world, and it was daunting that John was already a member of a band that had gigs, a PA, a lighting system, and real prospects. What we were doing together just seemed kinda like a lost cause.
They Might Be Giants was really just an extension of our friendship and a creative outlet for the kinds of conversations we would have and the things we were interested in. It came about very organically. There were a lot of conversations and pie-in-the-sky ideas about what a band could be kicking around as we were forming. Everything seemed abstract. We certainly weren’t ever thinking about making a record or having any career to speak of at all. It was always, “What if a band was…” It was always wide-open, abstract thinking.
One of the most beloved parts of They Might Be Giants lore is the legendary Dial-a-Song, which you’re bringing back in 2018. How’d this project originally come to pass?
While all these buildings were getting shuttered, people were leaving town, and subway cars were getting covered in graffiti, all the young people of New York were buying phone machines, which previously had been reserved for actors or people with very itinerant lifestyles. Then these consumer phone recording devices came out, and it immediately reminded me of Dial-a-Prayer in Massachusetts, which was something the Boston Catholic Archdiocese had started so that very observant homebound or ill Catholics wouldn’t miss their daily prayers. So, when I saw these phone machines, I realized that you could record on that device and have individual people call and hear a song. At the time, it just seemed like another bad idea.
Later, John was working as a bike messenger and had broken his wrist, and I was graduating from Pratt. We had to move out of the apartment we had shared together, and I moved into this terrible apartment in Bed-Stuy that was actually run by the pot dealers who lived there, and they were as unenthusiastic to see me at the door with my moving boxes as you could imagine. So, I went off to my job, and when I returned, everything I owned was gone. Oh, actually, the one thing they did not take was my four-track tape recorder because it was too heavy. In fact, if they had taken it, we probably would have never been able to regroup. But those setbacks basically meant we weren’t going to play any shows, though I do think we played a gig at CBGB with John’s hand in a cast. I think that happened.
So, I had to find another apartment, and the whole notion of doing the Dial-a-Song project was to keep the momentum going, which is a really funny idea because I think we were drawing about 35 people at the time. So, we bought a phone machine and just started putting up little posters around the East Village, and people started calling up, and it started becoming its own stand-alone phenomenon.
Early on, callers were able to leave messages. Any memorable ones?
The one that always sticks out in my mind is when a friend we had lived with in Park Slope called up and did this very, very effective impression of Robert Christgau, something like: “Hello, They Might Be Giants. This is Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, and I just want to say that your band stinks, and I’m going to do everything in my power…” And it was extremely deadpan and very, very cold. The first time I listened to it I was pretty positive it was real, and I thought, “Wow, how much evil is there in the world that a rock critic would take time out of his day to call you up, tell you he hated you, and promise to destroy your career.”
Also, at least one woman, and probably more in New York City, took down the seven-digit number and used it as a way to blow off unwanted suitors, so we would get messages like, “Hey, Sarah. We met the other night. I thought it was pretty cool … Wow, pretty weird message, but, hey, give me a call.”
What is it about Dial-a-Song that still kinda tickles you guys? You’re bringing it back in 2018.
In a strange way, everything has sort of changed and then changed back. Through the ’90s and the ’00s, we kept doing Dial-a-Song, even though we were making albums. At a certain point, it sort of seemed like this useless extra thing, and we didn’t want to stop it because people might think we sold out or got lazy. And it kinda fell off, but then as social media has kinda taken over the world, we noticed that things that happen this week are much more important than things that happened this month and certainly more important than things that happened this year.
When you’re working on a record for years, it’s very weird to come out with an album and then have people say, “Alright, so what’s next for you guys?” But that’s the way of the world. In a way, the Dial-a-Song project is now answering the question of how to keep introducing ourselves to our audience and just having people be able to experience the band in an ongoing way. Not to sound too crunchy granola about it, but one of the things I like is that everyone who was curious about the band got to experience this journey with us.
It must have been both fascinating and daunting trying to break into the NYC music scene in the ’80s. Where did a band with an accordion, drum machine, tape, and big stick fit into that scene?
It was a really intense time in music. Things were moving very quickly in terms of styles of music. It was not that much after math rock and goth and prog rock and that California ’70s cocaine-fueled stuff, so all of that stuff was very much on people’s minds. And, of course, the breakout point of punk rock in ’77. Everyone was just sorting things out after that. When we arrived in New York, it was at the height of No Wave, which is the asterisk on the end of the New York music scene. Unlike the initial punk rock stuff and the New Wave bands that followed, the No Wave movement brought no breakout acts and was sort of universally loathed. It was this very almost performance-based kind of music, very screamy. And that was the future as we were starting. There was something very dystopian about the reality of New York in the early ’80s that is very difficult to explain without photographs.
When we arrived in New York in ’81, I was doing home recordings with a four-track tape recorder that I had, and John was playing on some of those recordings. We did one show in the summer of ’82 outdoors at a Sandinista festival where we played a bunch of songs accompanied by tape as just a duo. John was playing organ; I was playing electric guitar. One person could do the rhythm part and one the melody, and it’s very complete sounding. Drum machines were just emerging technology at that point. Because we worked with a drum machine and pre-recorded tape, everything took a lot of preparation. There’d be a recording of a Moog synthesizer and a drum part that we’d have to be completely in sync with. So, nothing was done on the fly, and there was no way to stop anything. That was our first show. Just putting all of that together was really the beginning of our permanent mode: We need to write more songs. We’ve been needing to write more songs for 35 years, which is a very manic, self-imposed episode. I think we should have a conversation with Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices, though I think he clearly kicks our ass in the He-Man songwriting competition.
We had started playing shows in ’83 about once a month, and the East Village Scene was just taking off. That would ultimately be a much more important part of our career trajectory than, say, CBGB. But CBGB was very much the official gatekeeper of the New York rock scene at that time. It seems so surprisingly democratic, but there was so much demand for bands to play there that they set up this very clear structure for bands to march through to get to a weekend gig. There’d be an audition night, and if you passed that, they’d give you a Monday or Tuesday show, and if you brought in a lot of people, you’d get up to a Thursday or Friday or Saturday show. It took the better part of a year to get from audition night to a Thursday night, and if you didn’t keep on playing, you’d get pushed back.
So, you went from trying to keep the momentum going from your shows with 35 people in the audience to, a couple years later, having “Don’t Let’s Start” become the first music video from an indie band to break into MTV’s regular rotation. What did that moment mean for the band?
It was super fun. New York City is a terrible place to try to get out of. The local scenes in New York explode and implode very, very quickly. We had kind of enjoyed this incredible East Village scene that had really come to a peak in ’85. But there were also a half-dozen or more nightclubs that were doing insane business — hundreds of people from all over the New York area pouring into the East Village to see these crazy nightclubs, with the Pyramid Club being the biggest one. Because there was this huge, local scene, and we were part of it, we were really plugged into it. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
These clubs were very different than previous ones. They only wanted original acts. It was very important that what you were doing was absolutely original. They were very focused on performance art and things that were very sensational. There was a lot of drug-oriented art; there was a lot of transgressive stuff, a lot of transvestite acts, and things that were never going to be able to be televised.
We made our first album kinda fueled by this local phenomenon — this thing happening in New York that had an audience. So, we came to the attention of this very smart and ambitious, young man named Adam Bernstein. He was working at Nickelodeon and wanted to get into video direction. MTV was only a couple years old, but it was already fully dominant on the pop charts. MTV was kind of like a soap opera. It seemed like it was in the shape and style of rock and roll, but it had no sense of humor or proportion. In the same way that nobody ever tells a natural joke in a soap opera, there are more belly laughs in a real emergency room. On MTV, all the established acts were so afraid of looking silly and breaking their very-well-crafted images that it was very leaden and pompous. John and I were as pretentious as anybody about what we were doing, but we didn’t care about our personas or personal images at all. It wasn’t about our faces.
We went out to the New York Pavilion at the now-abandoned World’s Fair site in Queens and made the video with Adam. It was already the second video off the album, and the first had only done okay, so we weren’t thinking that we were going to crush it. The album had come out and been out for a few months, and in many ways, it seemed very possible this video could’ve been the last thing we ever did, which is a really strange idea. It got picked up by MTV, and people responded to it immediately. It was something that went into rotation simply on its own merit. It’s hard to explain how unusual that was in 1987. Nothing went into rotation on its own merit. There was no such thing as just playing something because it was really good. That’s not how radio stations or MTV worked. We had exactly zero money behind us, and yet there it was, getting played on MTV like it was a real video from a real band. And things changed in very short order after that. It turned us into a national act. We could actually tour and play in clubs all around the country. It was scrappy — piling in a van and sleeping on people’s floors — but it pushed us out there. We went from being a very popular local band to being a very unpopular national band.
Flood came out and sold more than a million copies. It’s still a record that people turn to and cherish nearly three decades later. What did it mean for you and John to suddenly connect with that many people through your music?
It changed everything. The success of that record gave us the career that would ultimately sustain us until now. It was a platinum record. There were songs that charted in the UK. The success of Flood was due to having this Saturn V rocket of the Warner Bros. distribution company latched to our backs, and that was no small thing. But we made a record that felt really special in its moment. We weren’t too far ahead of our audience … I felt like it was all good, which is so strange. We had many showdowns with the record company, and when you read interviews with people who have been in a band a long time, they always talk about these things, and I don’t think that people realize how pointlessly self-aggrandizing they can sound. We certainly had those types of odd conversations, but I do have to say that we felt the record company was very much on our side and was trying to figure out how to crack the code at the highest level. They were in the business of making hit records. The only reason you’re on Elektra is to have a hit. So, how to figure out how to have a hit for They Might Be Giants, just as an idea, kinda hurts your head. It’s just not necessarily a natural thing. I wanna say I’m grateful to all those people who worked so hard on that project.
And to be perfectly honest, I felt like our side was winning. It was a very corporate moment in music. This was very pre-grunge. The only trend of the ’80s was that recording artists got prettier and prettier and lamer and lamer. The rock video thing only made it more complicated for regular people to make music and contribute to the pop music scene. When looks didn’t count, successful musicians got pretty darn ugly. The ’70s was a period when you didn’t even know what a lot of people making records looked like. But if you did, you’d find out pretty fast that they looked a lot more earthbound than fashion models.
On the album John Henry, you went with a full band for the first time. How’d that change the game for you two as songwriters and performers?
It was a really big challenge making records that sounded unique with a full band. When we were working with drum machines and samplers, we thought the ideas we had were super original and the tools we were working with were just the tools we were working with. Of course, it was much more in reverse. The tools that we were working with were really unorthodox and made really strange recordings almost automatically. That was something we weren’t really aware of when we were working that way.
When we made recordings with a full band, all of a sudden it sounded kinda like other bands. And that was distressing to me. Again, we were still in this very high-stakes environment with Elektra where they’re trying to figure out how what we’re doing is going to fit in on the radio, and all of a sudden, one of our secret weapons, which was working with this very unusual recording setup, was being directly altered to a much safer sound. I think there are a lot of great songs on John Henry, but the actual process of making it and the sounds on it are … it’s probably the only album we’ve made that actively frustrated me.
Did fans actually boycott or resist the switch from a duo to a full backing band?
There was zero resistance from our live audience to having a live band. The second we went to having a live band, our shows went from seeming like concert presentations, where everyone was sitting down with their fingers on their chins, to full-out, stage-diving, moshing, party celebrations. The energy of our audience’s response just went through the ceiling, and that was actually a change that happened in 1992. We did a world tour as a duo on the Flood album — almost 200 shows — and never got the response we did once we had a full band. Playing live music at insane volumes … it was just nonstop dancing.
I haven’t learned a lot, but I have learned there is a big difference between the front row and the back row. The front row’s perception of what things mean and why things happen in a band can be very, very off, and things just become predetermined as facts. It’s just part of the myth-making of being in a band. The truth is two things happened at the same time when we got a live band: our records sounded kinda safer, and our live show became really fun. And the idea that two things are happening at the same time can be hard sometimes for people to take in. But it was clear to me that we were never going to go back to our previous format after we got with a live band. But we did get back to working with drum machines and samples and work that way to this day.
Could you even go back to the old way of performing at this point?
We actually played one show as a duo in November of 2015, a set circa 1985. And it was really weird. It was fun, but circling back … The thing about playing as a duo was we really firmly planted our feet in that idea. We were committed. We were a duo in the way that AC/DC doesn’t do fade-outs. We were like, “This is who we are: guitar, accordion, bass synth, drum machine. That’s what we do.” It was a totally willful act to thinking there was no shortcoming to that format. And people would come and see our show and wonder if we were for real. The format itself was a huge governor on a lot of people’s experience with the band. Either they thought we were fake or incredibly weak. It just didn’t have any power. But I loved it. I thought it was real.
Whether it be Malcolm in the Middle, The Daily Show, or Tiny Toon Adventures, They Might Be Giants have quietly infiltrated pop culture over the last couple of decades. What’s it been like having become a part of so many people’s daily lives — whether they know it or not?
We were leaving rehearsal at 11 o’clock at night once, and I was in the front lounge with the security guard. He was just changing channels on the television, and it literally went from a rerun of Malcolm in the Middle to The Daily Show to a rerun of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (who’s watching at 11 o’clock at night, I have no idea) to an ad for Dr. Pepper or Dunkin’ Donuts we’d done. It was like, “Click … us, us, us, us,” and part of me thought this was amazing, but I also thought about what it would be like to be, say, a sideman in a Motown band. It’s an extremely invisible thing to do. Nobody knows. In a way, it’s kinda fun. We’re definitely in the culture, but it’s under the cloak of night.
In 2002, you released No!, your first children’s album. And children’s music has sort of been a successful side gig ever since. What drove you to try recording music for children?
We were in a very weird transitional moment. It really was the only time where it was unclear what the future of the band was going to be. We were just really broke. We couldn’t figure out how to make a profit by being on the road, and we thought of this as an experiment. We figured we’d only be making one kids’ record, and we wanted it to be very special. Although we have a reputation for having educational material in our songs, our ambitions were kind of to push more absurd Dr. Seuss impulses. It made it kind of a psychedelic record for kids.
I think it came down to good timing. I was recently watching a Portlandia episode about a children’s rock artist — based on The Wiggles or something. There’s this hipster dad thing that’s a big part of kinder-rock. There are a lot of regional acts, some of them doing really top-quality stuff. It’s like a folk scene. But that idea was just starting when we did No!. And, of course, it’s now blown up into its own component of indie music. And watching that Portlandia episode, I realized this was a world now. You could make fun of this idea, and it’s funny to think back to a time when this was a brand-new idea.
Did writing for children teach you anything about songwriting in general?
It was very important to us that we kept to our personal production standards. When you’re making a kids’ album, if you tell anyone, you get into a lot of conversations about how kids like things like dinosaurs. If you get beyond that, they’ll tell you, “That’s great because it doesn’t even have to be good.” And that made us feel so weird that it turned into a passion project for us to make something of the highest quality. If it’s going to be something that’s part of somebody’s childhood, then it can be something that echoes a long time. Everybody wants their record to be good, but we really invested a lot of energy into it.
The truth is there’s a whole ton of 20-year-olds in the front rows of our shows, and that record was their introduction to us. We’re their guilty pleasure. We’re the act they didn’t give up on. That’s a very flattering place to be. I feel we’re very fortunate to have been able to hold on to an audience.
Instead of just shouting out the city you were playing each night, you wrote a brand-new song inspired by and dedicated to each venue you played on that tour. How’d that unique project come about?
I don’t know why we did the Venue Songs project. I think it was just a very stray conversation in a rehearsal hall where somebody noticed we were doing the same tour we had done a year and a half ago. We were playing all the same places, virtually in the same routing. So, we thought if we cooked up a new song during soundcheck for each venue, it would make the show that much more exciting. So, we set about doing that. Some of them — maybe a half-dozen of them — are actually worth listening to again. The “Mr. Smalls” one might actually be the best one. The Hollywood one is pretty good, too.
The weird thing about the process is that we would cook up the arrangements for the songs onstage and then proceed to go off and have dinner and get ready for the real show, and by the time we were ready to hit the stage again, we would have to play the song at the top of the show because if we didn’t, we’d never remember it. So, right before we went on, we’d listen back to the soundtrack recording a couple times. It just seems like a mistake now. We really gilded the lily by having John Hodgman do all the narrations and making the videos. It was the beginning of the YouTube moment, and it seemed like doing visuals was such a big part of people even hearing stuff. But it’s a very lighthearted thing. I have no idea how much interest it is except to people who went to Richard’s on Richards or Mr. Smalls.
You and John have been making records for three decades as They Might Be Giants. I Like Fun marks the band’s 20th. How has recording changed over the years, or is the process and feeling still the same when you two enter the studio together?
Everything we do as a band is scheduled. I’ve got a calendar of scheduled things in front of me that runs to December 2018. But the weird thing about a calendar is there’s no place that says something like “John and John Writing Songs.” Consequently, we can often be entering the studio extremely well prepared or not so well prepared. One thing that we have gotten better at — and a lot of this is due to doing commercial work — is working quickly. Our confidence level in the recording studio is much, much higher than it was when we started at home all those years ago making demos and taking these very fragile ideas and committing them to tape.
We have a much bigger skill set than when we started, but our ambitions and standards are kinda the same. I’m looking at the 15 songs on this album [I Like Fun] and thinking, “Yeah, this new record’s really solid.” I’m really proud of how it came together. It’s a good combination of very strange songs and just some good pop songs. But I’m probably as nervous as I am proud. The challenge of writing songs … there’s just so much unlimited potential. But I think we’re covering some original territory in songwriting, and I think it’s worthwhile.
Actually, I think this record is a very good calling card for what we do. People ask us what a good starting point is [for getting into They Might Be Giants], and I think this album has a really good range of things. A really healthy, unusually wide set of ideas. And for the kind of band that we are, that’s sort of what you’re looking for. We’re trying to create a universe of our own, and I think this album does a good job of setting out a bunch of different flags.
You’re heading out on a world tour in a couple weeks. What’s life’s wisdom taught you about touring?
The best venues are the places that are some percentage shitty. If you’re playing at the opera house or arts center where everything is nice, it’s just gonna be a bad gig. Playing in a place that’s slightly run down, lived in — those are the places that have the energy. The places that do 200 shows a year. Those are the places you wanna play. Basically, the places that smell a little bad. Those are going to be the good gigs. That’s where the real stuff happens.
Are there any new songs you’re dying to play live?
There’s “I Left My Body”, which is such a simple song, but it’s really fun to play. It’s a very hypnotic, throbby song. It’s just really fun to dig in on. And then there’s “I Like Fun”, this really left-field song that we’re doing with our trumpet player, Curt Ramm, who’s coming out with us. We’ve done a lot of shows with him in New York, but we’ve never been able to afford to take him on tour. Until now, he’s been working with Springsteen. I think it’s probably fair to say that Bruce Springsteen pays a little better than They Might Be Giants. So, we’ve added him to our live lineup, and it’s this incredible amplifier to what we do. There are all these songs in our repertoire that have really big trumpet moments — “Doctor Worm”, “Your Racist Friend”, “Whistling in the Dark” — and one of them is the title track, “I Like Fun”, and it’s very majestic, very unexpected, and having that kind of instrumentation onstage makes it so different than your average, cookie-cutter rock show.
The Sunday Matinee takes a look at a classic or beloved film each weekend. This week, Clint Worthington revisits David Bowie’s debut role two years after his tragic passing.
It’s been two years since David Bowie left us for his home planet, and we haven’t been the same since. Like Thomas Jerome Newton, the protagonist he portrays in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie burst onto the pop-culture stage seemingly out of the wilderness, a challenging and idiosyncratic performer who scratched heads as much as he blew minds. From his chart-topping, experimental albums to his equally ambitious film and TV work, Bowie’s status as a cultural icon was (and remains) inimitable. Right out of the gate, in his debut role in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie capitalized on the androgynous, gender-bending charisma that made him a rock sensation to tell a sensitive, personal story about cultural decline and the alienation of celebrity, one which also serves as a fascinating mirror into his own sense of stardom.
Loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth follows Newton, a traveler from a mysterious alien planet plagued by drought, to the third rock from the sun in search of water. His plan: to become a billionaire tech mogul (think Ziggy Stardust meets Elon Musk) using the patents to various advanced technologies he brings with him, then using that largesse to construct the spaceship necessary to bring Earth’s water back home to his planet.
Along the way, however, Newton is sucked in by the strangeness and materialistic allure that comes with late 1970s American capitalism, which is Roeg’s true concern. Roeg, one of the most vital and experimental filmmakers of the decade, cut his teeth on similarly hallucinogenic pictures like Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, infusing Man with a similar level of surrealism. Linear time is a mere suggestion in Man, jump cuts and time jumps combining with Roeg’s roaming camera and idiosyncratic sound design to disorient the viewer as much as Newton feels disoriented on Earth. The first time we see Bowie’s face, he gapes at us upside down as he lies on a bench outside a small-town store, arming us for the topsy-turvy world we will soon inhabit for two and a half hours.
Far from a conventional sci-fi story, Man sees Roeg turning the strangeness of outer space inward, making Earth feel more like an alien planet than wherever Newton may come from. Roeg’s hallucinatory filmmaking is a vital component to Man’s sense of wonder, from its frenetic cross-cutting between Japanese kabuki and Rip Torn’s lovemaking to its numerous musical and visual dissociations.
At the center of it all is Bowie, his debut performance crackling with the energy of the unrehearsed. (Indeed, Bowie claims he never read the full script and was in the depths of a coke addiction and nervous breakdown during filming. This resulted in him playing a character equally unprepared for the world around him, making those circumstances features rather than bugs.) Pop stars frequently try to transition to acting, often with mixed results, but Bowie’s decision to never stray far from his pop-star persona in his acting roles served him well, especially here.
The youthful androgyny of Bowie in his prime is perfect for the frail, delicate Newton: he barely ever speaks above a whisper, practically a babe in the woods. There’s something alluring about the innocence with which Bowie imbues Newton, something that seems to come from cultural differences as much as planetary ones: “I’m British,” he continually claims in his warm Londoner accent. When standing next to the brusque calculation of characters like Bryce and Bernie Casey’s tech rival, Mr. Peters, Britain may as well be as far away as Neptune.
Bowie’s success in Man owes just as much to his look as it does to his performance, as it was with his pop career. With his angular cheekbones, strawberry-blonde hair, and unconventional sense of fashion (all wide-brimmed hats and silver jackets), you’d be forgiven for thinking Man Who Fell to Earth was just one long Ziggy Stardust music video. Newton’s genderlessness aligns perfectly with the androgynous persona Bowie cultivated in his own pop-punk orbit, being neither male nor female in order to appeal to both. When combined with the small, subtle reveals of his true alien physiology – yellow, reptilian eyes, no genitals or butt crack – Bowie’s uncanniness is compounded to stellar effect.
The combined efforts of Roeg and Bowie amount to more than a charming performance and kaleidoscopic visuals. At its core, Man is a nihilistic screed against the materialism of American culture and the hubris of our technological advancements. Through Newton’s eyes, we see the sheer lunacy Earth has to offer, teased early in the film by an aggressive closeup of a collapsing bounce house in the middle of the small New Mexico town near which Newton first lands. To Newton (and Roeg), Earth culture is positively carnivalesque. It only gets worse from there as Newton’s company, World Enterprises, becomes one of the world’s biggest corporations.
Compare this to the fleeting moments of Newton’s home planet we are given as flashbacks and visions, and Earth seems far stranger. Roeg’s lo-fi sci-fi aesthetic offers up glimpses of Bowie, his wife and two kids wandering the desert covered in what looks like a particularly creative application of cellophane and rubber tubes. There’s a quaintness to these images, showcasing a nuclear family of the sort none of our earthbound characters seem to enjoy. Sure, Newton’s filthy rich on Earth, but should he abandon his mission just because the trains are better on Earth?
These moments of significance extend to Newton’s character as well, his journey offering disquieting parallels to the alienation and commoditization Bowie himself likely felt as one of the world’s most popular figures. Newton’s rise to fame and riches goes by in one of Roeg’s signature time jumps, going from zero to mogul in record time. And yet, Newton remains remote, unapproachable, shaken by even the movement of a herky-jerky hotel elevator. Everyone around him wants something from him and yet is awed by his power, his coterie divided into those who have his best interests at heart (Buck Henry’s kindly patent attorney) and those who don’t (Rip Torn’s calculating, confused scientist).
In the middle of all this is Mary Lou, a devout Christian who warms up to Newton by taking him to church (it’s a delicious irony that Newton’s one moment to sing a church hymn proves him to have a tin ear), then taking him home. Look deeper and you can see the shaky, codependent relationship between the real Bowie and his most ardent fans; Mary Lou is nothing if not an especially successful groupie, someone drawn to Newton’s talent and celebrity. As the years go by, and their on-again, off-again relationship progresses, you can see the drain their commitment has on each other, their needs escalating into dangerous sex play with blank-loaded guns (one of Roeg’s more psychedelic sequences).
The film’s final act is perhaps Roeg’s (and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg’s) darkest punchline to Newton’s well-intentioned but inevitable fall from grace. Nothing that is good can ever last, and just as Newton is about to fly home in his spaceship (amid a mob of press, and even a cameo from the Neil Armstrong), Bryce and Mr. Peters sabotage Newton’s flight, capture him, and kill all his associates. It’s a darkly comic montage of falling barbells and strange moments like Buck Henry apologizing for not breaking the glass two goons try to throw him out of on the first try.
From there, it’s a slow crawl towards ruination for Newton, held prisoner in a palatial hotel room, tortured and mutilated to become more human. For Newton, becoming more human is the real tragedy, which creates some interesting subtextual parallels to mainstream culture’s desire to label and identify Bowie as one thing or another. Meanwhile, Roeg wordlessly allows years, if not decades, to pass for everyone else, occasionally checking in on Bryce and Mary Lou to see them older, saggier, and more despondent. All the while, Newton remains pristine and youthful – a china doll that’s already been broken.
This downbeat ending is par for the course for a lot of speculative fiction, but fits particularly well in Roeg’s brand of sci-fi fable. There’s an otherworldly nihilism to many of Roeg’s works: whether it’s through two abandoned children wandering the outback in Walkabout or Art Garfunkel’s sick obsession in Bad Timing, he doesn’t seem to think we can crawl out of our collective cultural and material funk. After all, Newton doesn’t make it back to his home planet by the end (that’s one thing Poochie has on him), his experiences leaving him a miserable drunk with no hope of saving his family or his people.
The exploitation of Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth feels doubly tragic in the wake of Bowie’s death. In many ways, both Newton and Bowie were too good and pure for this world, especially in the divided and difficult political climes in which we find ourselves. Unlike Bowie, Newton’s accomplishments were pragmatic, clinical; he demonstrably failed in his mission after getting distracted by the hum of the television screen and the sting of alcohol. Bowie, on the other hand, was a figure of constant creative experimentation, juggling chart-topping singles and albums with a robust acting career that celebrated the kind of strangeness the Earthlings of Man Who Fell to Earth simply weren’t ready for. If he were still around in 2018, would he be a balm in such a trying social and political climate? Or would he suffer the same disillusionment as the rest of us?
We can at least be thankful that, unlike Newton, Bowie didn’t spend his waning years in a dissociative lethargy; with the release of Blackstar a mere two days before his death, he was a pioneer until his dying day. It’s moments like these, and the experimental majesty of his work in The Man Who Fell to Earth, that cement Bowie’s legacy as a true original. As one reporter says of Newton’s accomplishments in the film, “There’s no parallel with what [Bowie] has done and what he is now doing.”
If you came to this year’s Coachella announcement hoping for a return of the long-awaited reunions and impossible-to-get surprise acts of the past, you’ll once again leave disappointed. Once festival organizers reconfirmed Beyoncé after her postponement last year, the festival’s traditional biggest question mark already had a definitive answer behind it.
Perhaps not wanting to diminish their long-awaited headliner’s shine, organizers played it safe with the festival’s two other headliners; although Eminem and The Weeknd are both solid draws on their own, they don’t come near to matching the well-deserved fervor for pop music’s reigning master.
So, yes. The top line of the festival is devoid of any true shocks. However, a closer look reveals that America’s preeminent outdoor music festival is still capable of evolution. This year, that means a long-overdue focus on women and a surprising shift away from the dude-heavy guitar rock that helped put the festival on the map.
Queen Bey knows how to make an entrance. A year after her pregnancy postponed her 2017 headlining appearance, Beyoncé finally gets the chance to cap off her Lemonade victory lap on one of the world’s biggest stages. Plus, after Solange’s triumphant headlining set at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, there’s also a little sibling rivalry on the line.
Photo by Philip Cosores
The former Talking Heads frontman hasn’t worked the festival circuit with the regularity of some of his contemporaries, a fact which, when combined with his notoriously infectious live performances and a forthcoming record that marks his first new work in six years, makes this set one to watch. Literally.
Before his 2017 summer tour, French electronic impresario and master of spectacle Jean-Michel Jarre hadn’t played in America since 1986. The exclusivity may be gone, but that may not matter; you don’t become a Guinness World Record holder for world’s largest concert without knowing how to put on a show.
Photo by Ben Kaye
Though this is her fourth Coachella appearance since 2008, Annie Clark’s penchant for Bowie-style reinvention (and blistering showmanship) injects even midday festival sets with a headliner’s urgency. Add that to the fact that she’s currently supporting some of the best material of her career, and you can see why some people would be happy to sub her in as Friday’s headliner.
Buried in the tiny text of Saturday, you’ll find a rare treat: X Japan, the long-running glam metal band that basically defined the genre in their home country. This is their first appearance in America since a triumphant Madison Square Garden show in 2014; come for the speedy licks and theatrical costumes, and stay for the befuddled joy on the faces of people in the crowd who mostly showed up to see Post Malone.
As far as this year’s headliners go, it’s Beyoncé and everyone else. That includes The Weeknd, whose semi-regular festival schedule and listless most recent record (2016’s Starboy) render his the least essential marquee slot. This could all change if a surprise record drops between now and April (or he somehow gets Daft Punk to show up), but for now, this booking’s a miss.
Though he had some well-received UK festival appearances in 2017, Eminem enters 2018 with the LP-shaped albatross of the dreadful Revivaldragging down any potential excitement for this set. Plus, in a year focused on finally booking and celebrating women in music, closing out the festival with the guy who wrote “Kill You” feels a little tone deaf.
Photo by Andy Moran
Man. Remember 2012? Barack Obama was still the President, the Mayan apocalypse was all the rage, and “Tessellate” made alt-J feel like the next truly massive British rock band. Now it’s 2018, and we’ve got Donald Trump, the ever-looming threat of actual nuclear war, and … still alt-J, just worse. I hate the future.
Portugal. the Man
Photo by Philip Cosores
Look. I’m as happy as anyone that the alt-rock lifers from Sarah Palin’s backyard finally achieved breakout radio success with last year’s “Feel It Still”, but I’m also just as happy to admit that it feels like they’ve been lurking on the bill of every festival I’ve been to since 2008, and I just can’t get amped for that anymore.
A Perfect Circle
Finish the Tool record, Maynard, and then you can hang with your friends.
It’s been 10 years since rumors of an imminent appearance at Coachella 2008 kicked off one of the most surprising (and successful) reunions in indie rock history. With a new album on the way, it would’ve been a solid callback to finally see Kevin Shields and company take the stage in Indio.
The long-gestating follow-up to 2013’s Modern Vampires in the City may finally emerge this year, so what better way to reintroduce your band (and resurrect a little guitar rock) than a headlining set at Coachella? We’ll probably find out the answer to that soon, just not in time for the festival.
Photo by David Brendan Hall
Somehow, the Foo Fighters have never headlined Coachella, which seems like more of a statistical anomaly than an actual oversight. This year would’ve been a decent year for that to change; 2017’s Concrete and Gold occasionally sparked with brilliance, and Dave Grohl’s toothy grin beats Eminem’s sulk any day of the week (especially Sunday).
We’ve marked Coachella’s gradual-but-decisive embrace of true pop for years now, and would’ve been pretty thrilled if they’d snagged the genre’s President to go with Queen Bey. For now, the Super Bowl halftime show (and a new record tantalizingly compared to the latest Bon Iver album) will have to suffice.
Just read what we wrote last year twice. It’s all still true.
He headlined the festival himself in 2010 and released one of 2017’s best records in 4:44, but this time around Jay-Z’s most important Coachella collaboration might come as a designated hitter on Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” or “Upgrade U” (though we’d also accept a surprise run-in for “Renegade” with Eminem the following night).
Photo by David Brendan Hall
First, a couple of caveats: Earl Sweatshirt has been laying pretty low since touring with 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and his on-again/off-again feuds with former Odd Future stablemate Tyler, the Creator are well-known. But with Earl’s new album on the way and Tyler in his biggest Coachella slot yet, a quick run-in for “Orange Juice” or something feels like a distinct possibility.
It’s been 10 years since Brian Eno and David Byrne rekindled their collaboration for 2008’s quietly brilliant Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, so it’d be cool to see them take the stage together for “Strange Overtones”. I would also settle for the more likely scenario of Byrne and St. Vincent reviving their brass band and taking down a track from 2012’s Love This Giant.
Migos and Cardi B are already going to be on the grounds anyway, so we’re going to be pretty bummed if somebody doesn’t bring Nicki Minaj out for her middle finger of a verse from “MotorSport”. Besides, in a year when the festival is finally giving bad-ass women their due, it wouldn’t be right to leave Nicki out of the fun.
Come on. I know it won’t happen, and you know it won’t happen … but what if it happened?
Led by Beyoncé, the women of Coachella form the festival’s highest highs this year. With featured sets ranging from established talents like St. Vincent and HAIM to meteoric sensations like Cardi B and SZA to small-font stars such as Japanese Breakfast, Cherry Glazerr, and Alvvays, the schedule is finally starting to reflect the broad cross-section of talent that’s been waiting for its due. However, the lack of any true surprises (and the continued presence of overbooked festival fillers that’s starting to ding even the biggest fests) keeps this year’s Coachella from perfection on paper, at least. Talk to us again in April, and we’ll see if we’re wrong.
There’s a very brief, fleeting moment that takes place between celebrating and reflecting upon the music of a fading year and anticipating the sounds and possibilities of the calendar flip to come. If you blink, you could miss it. So, if you’re scratching your head right about now, odds are you blinked. That’s right. Last year’s best album was … hold on, we’ll think of it. And that song we couldn’t get out of our heads for months … wait, it’ll come to us. That’s a bit hyperbolic, we know, but it’s not entirely untrue either. It’s remarkable how we are able to arbitrarily rope off huge masses of half-processed pop culture in our heads and make way for more to come marching through. Is it fair? Maybe not. Ideally, we’d have a couple months to finish digesting 2017 before we’d have to start consuming all over again. But that’s life, and ready or not, there are dozens more remarkable records on their way. These are the ones we’re most excited to make some room on our plates for.
Why We’re Excited: After an exhaustive tour behind their last album, 2014’s acclaimed Stay Gold, the sisters of First Aid Kit took some much needed time apart to decompress. When Klara and Johanna Söderberg regrouped, they felt stronger as both sisters and a musical duo and then applied this sense of renewal to their fourth full-length, Ruins. The result is a rawer sound and a willingness to expose more of their inner selves than perhaps ever before. Here, the Swedish outfit focuses on a crushing heartbreak and the feeling of absolute purposelessness that follows, assisted by the likes of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Wilco’s Glen Kotche, and elements of Americana and ‘50s-era Everly Brothers balladry. –Lake Schatz
tUnE-yArDs – I can feel you creep into my private life
Release Date: Jan. 19th
Why We’re Excited: Merrill Garbus has kept busy in the four years since 2014’s Nikki Nack: she contributed to albums from Cut Chemist and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, wrote a song for Mavis Staples, and kept on the road — and, as evidenced by early tracks from new album I can feel you creep into my private life, she might have gotten deeper into house music. The officially released tracks have been thrilling, but the live preview of ”Heart Attack” proves there’s far groovier Garbus to come in the near future. –Lior Phillips
Why We’re Excited: In preparation for his ninth (!) studio album, Nils Frahm created his ideal recording studio. Saal 3 is located within the historic Funkhaus building in Berlin and boasts bespoke cabling, a mixing desk, and a self-built pipe organ, among other unique features that have helped the German composer fully realize his vision and properly translate the arrangements inside his head onto record. While Frahm was already operating at a high level on his last few LPs, including 2015’s Solo, All Melody represents an accomplished musician elevated and empowered by a nurturing personal environment. –Lake Schatz
Why We’re Excited: It almost doesn’t make sense to eagerly anticipate a new Ty Segall record, given the maddeningly prolific clip that the seasoned garage guru records at. But his second self-titled effort, released in early 2017, showed Segall’s ability to branch beyond his savage musical instincts into subtler territory. To that end, it’ll be interesting to see if Freedom Goblin represents further growth or a retreat back to garage punk primitiveness. –Ryan Bray
Why We’re Excited: Rhye may have lost one of their two founding members since releasing the Polaris Prize-nominated Woman in 2013, but the R&B outfit have still managed to evolve and become the most complete version of themselves on BLOOD. Much of this growth stems from Rhye’s many, many months spent on the road: Their music now is more inspired than ever by the intimacy and humanity that goes into a live performance. There’s also a noticeable emphasis on the sounds of funk and soul, which goes hand in hand with the LA-based act’s desire for closeness and emotional intoxication. –Lake Schatz
Why We’re Excited: It’s been eight years since we’ve had the emo songwriting of Chris Carrabba to empathize with us while we wallow in our emotional depths, and there’s no better time for a return than 2018. Lead single “We Fight” was a reminder that those of us who feel like loners are still part of a community built on the acceptance of the outcast. Emo has had its ups and downs artistically as well as culturally over the years, but with the recent surge of talented young bands in the genre and a milieu more in need of rallying cries than ever, Dashboard Confessional is well set to return to the vanguard. –Ben Kaye
Why We’re Excited: Following the collaborative album FFS, released in conjunction with the band Sparks in 2013, the boys in Franz Ferdinand are getting back to business. Always Ascending marks the band’s first proper album since 2013 and features production from Philippe Zdar, who has previously worked with the likes of Phoenix and Beastie Boys. The self-titled lead single is heavy on synth and also gives fans their first look at new members Julian Corrie and Dino Bardot, who will help fill the gap left by founding member Nick McCarthy, who departed in 2016. Now 14 years removed from their smash hit “Take Me Out”, Always Ascending offers a chance for Franz Ferdinand to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. –Zack Ruskin
Why We’re Excited: Don’t take the title of Superchunk’s 11th studio album at face value. What a Time to Be Alive, from its moribund-looking cover art to its angry-as-all-fuck title track, appears poised to be the most pointed and overtly political outing of the iconic indie act’s career. In today’s turbulent times, we’ll take all the fiery sonic catharsis we can get. Fortunately for fans, Superchunk haven’t missed their mark yet. –Ryan Bray
Why We’re Excited: Wild Beasts announced their split in September, but the UK indie rockers’ many passionate fans will have one last album to cherish. The culmination of more than a decade and a half together, Last Night My Dreams Came True features 13 live studio recordings of tracks pulled from across the band’s five studio albums. It’s a bittersweet farewell, but a powerful one as evidenced by early sample “The Devil’s Palace”, which inventively combines Limbo, Panto highlight “The Devil’s Crayon” and “Palace” from 2014’s Present Tense. –Lior Phillips
Why We’re Excited: It’s common knowledge that Marissa Paternoster is one of our generation’s greatest guitarists. Through six albums with Screaming Females, she’s also proven to be one of punk’s sharpest voices, a bastion of clarity, and an undeniable force. The band’s seventh album, All at Once, is due out February 23rd on Don Giovanni Records and appears to be nothing less than a monster. Single “Glass House” builds momentum into a pummeling crescendo, claustrophobic and thrilling in the best ways, and if it’s representative of what’s to come, we may be in for the band’s heaviest record yet. –David Sackllah
21st Century PUNX Deconstructors, Trouble Making Agitators, DIY noise insurgents & Manufacturers of Dissident Political Wear.
PUNX.UK was formed by a Manchester anarcho punk collective in 2013 as a webzine sharing info on local gigs and bands.
Originally focusing on creating a DIY gig guide for our city we then expanded to cover the whole of the UK scene in 2014.
Since then we've faithfully tried to promote all the events, blogs, websites and sounds of resistance throughout the country and beyond.
In 2016 we partnered with Sabcat Workers Cooperative to produce dissident political wear providing financial support to the activist causes, benefits, unions, bands, and community groups that we work with.