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Monday, 30 January 2012

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Distribution

Much as Walter Benjamin's seminal Marxist text explored the radical changes that were being exerted on the value of creative practice in the advent of mechanical reproduction, developments in technology in our time can undeniably be seen to imply similar paradigm - shifts with our own relationship to art, music and film. When last week, the FBI and other legal bodies coordinated a global policing effect to shut down MegaUpload and enacted the arrest of its bizarre proprietor Kim Dotcom, the reason was read out as being simple and straightforward enough to accept uncritically: Despite high profile endorsements from the likes of Will.I.Am, Kanye West, P Diddy, Alicia Keys and such, the site was responsible for allowing numerous infringements of copyright and had done little by way of removing these copyrighted works. But it would be reticent of audiences to simply accept this logic at face value and renege on the promise of new technology. Constant reevaluation of a society's structures and values are healthy standards in a modern democracy, and our society should not shy away from raising the difficult, perhaps even earth-shattering questions.




Arguably, these days of litigation and ignorantly one-sided file-sharing condemnation and praise have been coming for the past decade: A frivolous, decadent utopia for some, a nightmarish 'end of days' for others, a generation of 'entitled' P2P users, and an entire industry clamouring for continued relevance and profit margins. What, in light of digital distribution and an increasingly transient notion of 'album as product', does it mean to be a recording artist in 2012? Equally, how can audiences best express their love, respect and gratitude for creative works? How does digital reproduction and distribution affect our perception of what an artistic product might be? 

The problem with the industry.

It has long been argued that record publishing companies do little to serve their artists' interests, only following the capitalist model of 'selling units'. Little interest is afforded by the larger labels to an artist's longevity or even integrity, yet these things seem of huge importance to an artist's fanbase. A record label's primary concern is the monetary return on their initial investment (or ‘advance’), but an artist's main passion throughout any negotiations is the quality of the music they can produce and their ability to keep making it. That is, of course, if they even get signed - with such low returns on investments, record labels are much less inclined to take risks on emerging talent, instead pumping their funds into either established or more malleable artists, whom they can fast-track to the spotlight through a process of characterisation and branding (cough, Lana Del... Oh, I can't be bothered). All the while, record sales are decreasing year on year, and the price point for audience consumption of these creative works, albums and such, remains at the same, fixed rate.

How is the record industry responding to these trends, declining record sales, their diminishing necessity? By changing the way they write record contracts. In traditional agreements- labels recouped their investment through record sales, leaving band’s earnings to be made from touring, merchandise and sponsorship. Now, 360-degree deals are the norm. Warner won’t sign anyone now unless it’s this kind of a deal- a package which is more akin to a management deal, whereby the label will take a cut from any future sponsorship, seeding, franchising, use of material, touring and merchandise. And while this may remove the need for an ‘immediate hit’, in real terms it means that bands will earn even less, and have less control over their image, presentation and rights. Labels traditionally made money from the process in which they were involved – namely recording and distributing records. Is it coincidence that now that recorded music sales are significantly declining, they change their business model? What gives them the right to impede on touring, merchandise, sponsorship or the use of music in films or adverts? How does this benefit either the artist or the audience?

Arguably a more successful model for the record industry to consider would be to focus on the quality of the product they deliver in the first place. For while it's telling that CD sales are dropping significantly, and no doubt digital has had an impact here- vinyl sales have risen steadily. The inherent audio quality to this format renders the slightly higher price point more acceptable, as does the generally beautiful artwork that can adorn such large format boxes. Indeed, notions of 'special edition' and such are becoming more dominant in the marketplace, and frequently albums will come packaged with small tokens of appreciation, or further means beyond the recorded work by which the artist expresses themselves. I think of the Montreal label Constellation, home to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and a host of other DIY ethic bands- whose 12 inch LPs are some of the most lovingly constructed objects I own. Hand printed, designed by friends of the label- there is a crucial emphasis on personality and quality, an ethos that defines the labels work, and ferments a sense of fondness and loyalty between the label and their audience. Crucially, they put out good product, so an audience can respect that and trust it.

A social contract.

In the wake of the Napster trials at the beginning of the last decade, there was arguably a moment for radical change in the relationships between audience and artist. Though instead of a significant paradigm-shift, record companies met with copyright agencies, and the biggest winner to emerge from this short lived era of entrepreneurial optimism was Apple. The iTunes store has singlehandedly catapulted Apple to the position of capitalist royalty, entitling the company 50p from every £1 you spend there. That, to a company which has had no part in the creative or production process, and doesn't even have to offset the outlay for actual, physical record shops in your town centres. Not even the former behemoths in this trade, the HMVs and Virgin Megastores, took a cut that large. Spotify is often touted as a more ethical means to access copyrighted music, without grand expenditure on the audience's part, and only suffering the ignominy of being advertised at every 15 minutes during your favourite concept album. But, when the ethical arguments against downloading copyrighted material from sources like MegaUpload rest on the artist's lack of reimbursement, how do these services compare, in terms of ethics and value? In truth, they're pretty shameful.

Services like Spotify and the iTunes store can be seen as cynical, but ultimately successful attempts to revive the status quo for a digital age. Further models where companies that have nothing to do with the creation of music can get rich off the back of that very creativity, and seemingly, audiences globally are perfectly happy about this arrangement. In a statement released this week, the Vice President of the RIAA, Joshua P Freidlander, stated

The evidence strongly suggests that the shutdown of illegal sites helps create a thriving and diverse digital marketplace. It encourages users to go to legitimate sites, and enables great new services to be launched - like Spotify, which launched in the US last year and quickly signed up millions of new users. It's always reassuring when the data we see in the market reflects what we thought was just common sense."

But whilst taking down a site like MegaUpload can be seen broadly as a straightforward protection of copyright issue, how is the alternative any more ethical or common sense? It was in light of these issues that Hackney-based rapper Akira The Don began tweeting his Spotify revenue for the last few months. Akira was formerly signed to major label Interscope before being dropped after only a year- and has since carved out a solid niche for himself through home production, a constantly updated website and a series of dynamic mixtapes and albums that, alongside his self-designed merchandise, afford him a living. In October, his songs were listened to on Spotify 643 times, for which he earned £14.42- and only because he is the rights holder. Artists with record deals would receive but a fraction of this. Is that to be considered a fair recompense, in comparison with previously controlled models of record sales and physical distribution? I don't know. It is up to us, as a society, to decide how much we value creative works, and in this instance, a musician's ability to survive from making music.

The commodification of music.

The recording studio enacted the most significant change on music, taking it from being a folk tradition, experienced when performed live to commodifying it and enabling audiences to hold in their hand the music, to play whenever they pleased. Perhaps the new technologies of digital distribution, instead of being used to reify and prop-up an already unfair business model, could be used to imply and force change on it- to bring about a more ethical relationship between artist and audience, and dramatically change our notions of 'art as commodity'.

The industry cites 'millions lost' as a critique of illegal filesharing on the presumption that those are films or albums that people would have bought anyway- whereas recent studies have shown that people who download music illegally are likely to spend over 50% more on music annually than those who claim not to. But to take this argument even further, into somewhat zany philosophical territory: why should someone's experience of and access to culture (music, film etc) be restricted by their economic circumstances? Society decides that albums and such are to be perceived as seminal, as artefacts of quality, that they can enrich your life through knowledge and experience- and yet to have access to these enriching works, you need to fork out a fixed cost, equal across all of society's social classes. I am perhaps playing a small advocacy on Lucifer's behalf, here- but on it's broadest level, I believe there is some merit, some beauty even, in this idea- that access to culture should be, by very necessity, free. However, this idea does not recognise the musician's aspirations to pay their rent, or indeed any cost incurred through production. We live in a world where everyone involved in production: musicians, tour managers, engineers - need to make a living.

Let us then explore this notion of music as valid commodity. MegaUpload and the like offered a flawed service, in that there was no relationship whatsoever between music consumed by the audience and reimbursement to the artists. Similarly, existing record contract models offer little more by way of ethics and direct connection between audience and musician. I would like to ask the question as to whether it can ever be moral or ethical to set a fixed price on a creative work, to question whether music, film or art can ever be valid commodities.

On the one hand, the post-structuralists among us would argue that the importance and value of any work is defined by the audience member. Whether you consider a particular album better than another one, and how you can express that value monetarily. You might consider an artists' latest record their finest, a towering achievement and the masterful realisation of their career- I might regard it as derivative, soulless and tired. And yet we've both forked out the same £11. How then to overcome this disparity? I can recall the model that Radiohead employed when distributing In Rainbows, the famed 'pay what you want' tactic that resulted in the band earning far more than they ever would have from a traditional record label release. Arguably this was only possible thanks to the band's pre-established success, a large and committed fanbase that was built up while the band was on a standard record contract. In any case, this account of the creative work's value is derived only from it's interpretive or aesthetic value to a listener- and does not factor in any of the production cost incurred by the band or the record label's advance. Studio time, session musicians, audio engineers, mastering and cost of instruments are valid costs that artists incur through production, and like with any other industry product, are included in the cost of the final product.

The question then, is whether music (or indeed film) has an acquired value borne of its production cost, or an inherent value in and of itself by means of it being a creative, artistic work. Or indeed, does cost and artistic value have nothing to do, at all, with what the copyright owner deigns fit to charge for a product? The economics of whether the thing would sell, whether a successful career would materialise, are the price-setters' own concern: supply and demand, always. If we as audiences decide that reimbursing production costs is a valid and ethical thing to aspire to, then can the cost of an album or single not therefore be seen as a kind of faux-compensation? Here again, the model can be explored and alternatives reached. UK rock band Mansun recorded their last album release through crowdfunding the production costs- a tactic that, as with Radiohead, could only be realised through a pre-established fanbase. Conversely, this method can often bring humorous results- as with the 2011 online crowdfunding campaign that targeted disaffected Weezer fans, resulting in a giant whip-round to pay the band $10 million to split up.

Reimaginings.

What is most interesting about the MegaUpload arrests, is not that a filesharing website has been taken offline- but the announcements by Kim DotCom prior to his arrest. In December, Mr DotCom outlined that his company would be launching a music download service to rival iTunes, but where artists would receive 90% of earnings. MegaBox had beta listed partners in 7Digital, Gracenote, Rovi and Amazon, had fully designed software, and apparently had been tested on over a million users. So far so good, you hear- another entrance into a very saturated market of online digital distributors- but where DotCom's service altered radically from the pack was that the service itself was, to its users, entirely free. "We have a solution called the Megakey that will allow artists to earn income from users who download music for free," Dotcom explained. "We will pay artists even for free downloads.” Quite how this is possible has not been fully explained, but for the presumption that Megakey enabled a targeted advertising system that therein paid for the artists' revenue.

Whilst the conspiracy theorists might look at the timing of the arrests in light of these venture announcements, it is also worth stating that; as Megakey had “exclusive deals with artists who are eager to depart from outdated business models”, then it was an essentially legal service. The same cannot justifiably be argued for MegaUpload. Like Radiohead's 'pay what you want', does the success of Megabox rely on a pre-established audience created by Megaupload?

Perhaps we'll never find out. What is interesting about this development though, is that it represents a drastic re-imagining of the relationship between artist and audience- using digital technologies to distribute content in a way that cuts out exploitative record companies and to an extent, retailers. And whilst this offers no insight to the argument of how music as a commodity should be valued- individually set or with fixed price, art as meaningful commodity or production cost solely, it does seem to represent a more justifiable means for an artist to be reimbursed and rewarded by their audience than either illegally downloading music gratis or accessing it via Spotify and the iTunes store.

The economist and later music theorist Jacques Attali offers, in his seminal text Noise, four stages of music as it has existed and could exist. The age of mechanical reproduction is cited in his third stage, the epoch we find ourselves in though perhaps leaving: Repetition.

This is characterised by the emergence of sound recording technology at the end of the 19th century. Prior to this moment, music was experienced only live and as a spectacle. Under the mode of repetition, music becomes an object and its experience turns private. The initial intended use of recording- the preservation of performances- rapidly vanishes, so that "the live performance is only successful as a simulacrum of the record". Attali's fourth stage, Composition, is characterised by a return to the immediacy of music in its former stages and is brought about through the cultural crisis of overproduction and over-repetition. Furthermore, it is through democratising advances in technology that we are allowed to see beyond the 'top down' approach to discovering music, and the alienating nature of making it. Home studios enable artists to record professional quality music at a fraction of the cost of studio time, and software like Ableton and Reason empower even the most untrained to become musicians. In Attali's fourth stage, music is created by individuals and communities for immediate use- art which attempts to create and address a community, without mediation between artist and audience- such a dichotomy would be consigned to Repetition.

Empowerment.

The vision of a society of free access to and creation of culture is an undeniably utopian one, and one not without it's drawbacks with regard to the cost incurred by those involved in production. But here, I'm reminded of the American comic Doug Stanhope, and his routine about employment. For while we all have to get by and pay the rent, shouldn't a civilised society be aspiring for more, and not less, unemployment? He waxes about robots performing all the necessary tasks and such, somewhat self depreciatingly- but the idea holds weight. There is much campaigning for a 'living wage', which can be described as an above-adequate amount of money given to every citizen of a society in order to sustain their existence. And still this would leave room for capitalist endeavour, if you wanted to sell your records, repair shoes or drive taxis, of course you could- but this notion of a society where noone has to work is attractive. The alternative to work here is but creation of culture itself, free from the compromises of having to be paid, or indeed having to pay for it.

This conversation is by no means over, despite the willingness of governments to set in place global digital copyright accords. The onus is on societies, that is you and I and everyone we know, to engage in debate about how we value our own creativity as well as that of others in an age of digital distribution and production. The injustices and disparity of wealth seen under 21st century capitalism are not things that the music industry has been immune from, indeed companies have profited extraordinarily from a business model that exploits artists and audiences alike. New technologies offer an opportunity to reimagine our world, our relationship to artists and audiences, and the potential of our own creativities. Whether such potential will be realised, is entirely up to us. 

This article appeared in the405 

Monday, 24 October 2011

Sandro Perri - Impossible Spaces album review


Throughout the myriad works of Toronto-based musician Sandro Perri, the exploration of melodics have been a constant. This new album, Impossible Spaces, picks up on the minimalism of his solo debut- but frequently has more in common with Perri's 2005 release, the 28 minute electro cover of Arthur Russell's 'Kiss Me Again'. And while initial listens may find you put off by some melodic imprecision, multiple spins reveal Impossible Spaces to be an album rich with composition and nuance, one that draws from Perri's dance-past as much as his avant-folk leanings. The result is a smashed palette of an album, one that zips and collects as it does so.


After a four year composition and recording process, Impossible Spaces is by far Sandro Perri's most technically accomplished work. Whereas previous albums under the Glissandro70 or Polmo Polpo monickers have been interesting, rounded wholes- their aesthetics (the reinvention of disco and a meditation on drawn-out melody respectively) seem smaller than the statements laid out here. This is an album that is musically and thematically broad, contradictory, abundant with varying voices and styles that over the records seven tracks find a unifying sense of itself. The album title hints at something conflicted and a call/response structure to many of the song duos and transitions between play off the sense of dichotomy very well. Album opener 'Changes' exemplifies this dualistic structure, its first half comprising ambling song, the second relenting to dance-prog noodlings that build and build. The album is sequenced wonderfully, as demonstrated by the pained and awkward musings of 'How Will I?' - the kind of track that Flaming Lips might have used to end an album, here used to round off the first epoch before moving into the beautiful simplicity of 'Futuractive Kid Part 1'.


That's a phrase I keep coming back to, for while the composition is rich with detail- the instrumentation and recording is just sublime in its simplicity. A limited scope of three or four base instruments are accentuated by the subtlest and most precise of studio effects. Impossible Spaces sounds low-fi and high-tech all at once, and beneath the albums semantics there are some stunning pieces of musicianship here. There's a lot to take in, a broad scope for styles across the record's 38 minutes- fans of Hot Chip and Nick Drake's Bryter Layter may find a lot to enjoy distinctly here, but those are but approximations. Impossible Spaces is the sound of an artist making his most crucial statement yet. For those who have followed Perri from his days inaugering Constellation, this album feels like the artist stepping beyond his own back catalogue. For newcomers, this marks an ideal point of entry, but there's a wealth of recordings that have led the artist to this very accomplished moment.


8/10

First published in the405

Esmerine (live at Electrowerkz) live review

Esmerine would play their first London gig at Electrowerkz, an idiosyncratic venue renowned for its goth nights and clubbing. Given their hiatus, it was perhaps a wonder that the band were here at all- but Esmerine enjoyed the breath of new life in 2011 when expanding from a duo to a five piece. Here, perhaps suitably, the material found an appropriate embellishment in the fuller ensemble. The tour came on the back of a new record, the excellent and indeed surprising La Lechuza- an album which became a personal favourite this year. Drawing from chamber music as much as ballad and folk, the record moved Esmerine's sound beyond the 'post rock lite' and into a more rounded whole. Lyric and vocal contributions (including a performance from the late Lhasa De Sela, for whom the record is dedicated) tinged La Lechuza with bittersweet, knowing memories, a sense of time and place and loss. If the record is sad, then it is also profoundly beautiful.

We'd gathered in the dark second chamber and were sat cross legged on the floor before Esmerine walked through us from the venue's rear and took their instruments. There was no 'backstage' area to speak of, and it was lovely to meet the group before the gig, hustled by the merch stall. I've long been of the belief that a band should never employ roadies, that in doing so you kiss goodbye to any punk rock sense of authenticity, and there was a similarly unpretentious atmosphere here. Between songs, cellist Beckie Foon (also of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, formerly of A Silver Mt Zion) would speak to us without a microphone, and in truth the stage setting seemed more of a formality than a theatrical necessity.

Esmerine played for just under an hour, a set comprised of numbers taken mostly from La Lechuza but the group pleasingly paid dues to their strong back catalogue too. Indeed, their debut album If Only A Sweet Surrender To The Nights To Come Be True was represented well, the stunning drawn out beauty of 'There Were No Footprints In The Dust Behind Them' given an early recital in the billing. But it was the material from La Lechuza that resonated strongest, in particular the absolutely joyous 'Trampolin'. A jangly ditty; centred around harmonised marimba and harp notes and underpinned by rising, trembling cello chords- 'Trampolin' is by far the most uplifting moment on La Lechuza and it lost none of its power in the live setting. Elsewhere, harpist Sarah Page gave an excellent sung performance on the Lhasa De Sela cover 'Fish On Land'.

Throughout the concert, Esmerine seemed perfectly enthused to be here touring, and delighted with the warm responses their performances would elicit from the crowd. Smiles abounded, and although the stage was small and the band hustled in between each other- there remained a closeness between the musicians that was evident in the reflected expressions between them onstage. For such meditative music, Esmerine made for a charming spectacle as a band. This visual impact was accentuated by the work of visual artist Clea Minaker, who resided side stage broadcasting live graphics and images on the rear stage canopy. These deserve a special mention, as they were performed live and with good grace. An overhead projector made for a canvas as Minaker blew leaves and feathers across the light, or patchwork translucents- all making for a beautiful real-time animation that would adorn the music. A live reaction to it, then- painted in colour and mood, occasionally awkward but endearing throughout and a lovely element to accompany the band on tour.

Esmerine left once, but quickly returned- an unending torrent of applause humbling the band into performing two encore pieces. A sense of humour and eccentricity pervaded their stories throughout, Sarah and Beckie frequently introducing the lengthy chamber pieces as 'pop songs'- but it was the concert closer that perhaps played the biggest double-bluff of the night. Entitled 'Glock Rock', it was perhaps exactly that- an otherwise out-of-character foray into high-tempo glockenspiel action, ramped to eleven and accompanied by some frenetic drumming. If you've never heard glockenspiels used as rock instruments before then you're missing out. This was Esmerine's first UK tour, and for many in the crowd it marked an opportunity to see a beloved band- this much was clear from the response and by the number of people who hung around afterward to converse with the group, who were clearly taken aback by the warmth in the crowd.

First published in the405

Esmerine / Beckie Foon interview


Esmerine played their first European tour recently, performing material from their acclaimed third album La Lechuza. The 405 was afforded the opportunity to speak with founding member Beckie Foon and we jumped at the chance. As a member of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Set Fire To Flames and A Silver Mt Zion- Beckie Foon has been at the centre of some of my favourite music and has consistently upheld a recording and publication ethic that puts localism and creativity above profit making and careerism. It was a real pleasure to sit with her and have this conversation before Esmerine played at the Electrowerkz venue in London.

Amir Adhamy/the 405: Evening Beckie. It's lovely to meet with you.

Beckie Foon: You too. Hope you enjoy the show tonight!

405: I'm looking forward to it a great deal. Esmerine has gone from being a duo to now incorporating many members. How has that evolution been?

BF: Bruce and I were very interested in exploring the world of melodic percussion and cello when we started, especially based with our groups, our punk rock groups and also because we were in loud bands. And so it was nice to think about stripping it down and really thinking collaboratively about using these wooden beautiful instruments that we might not have got to fully explore their potential in our loud rock bands, so initially it was borne out of that- we wanted to try something different. And so that's kind of how Esmerine was born. For this album, well- we were never actually planning on recording a third record. Not that we 'weren't planning' a third record, we just hadn't thought through it, or were too busy with everything else going on in our lives- even though we'd always stayed vaguely active, doing performances in Montreal.

405: And jamming yourselves, as well?

BF: Yeah. But we would actually do a lot of shows in Montreal, we just never took Esmerine on tour before. It was all Silver Mt Zion or Godspeed, the other commitments. So what happened was that we'd started playing live with Lhasa De Sela, she'd asked us to open up for her as a duo in Montreal. So we did that show, and we met her band and we all really connected. And from there, Bruce and I became more and more interested in the some of the instrumentation that she had in her band, drums and harp for example. We all got on, so we just started playing together. We played a show and Lhasa sang with us- it became this very natural evolution. It's a little difficult for Bruce, I mean- we still play duo shows- because for us, it's kindof this whole new world to have harp and drums and these extra musicians, because certainly on record, Bruce has always overdubbed the marimba and drums, playing them both. So now we can have all of those parts live.

405: It's interesting to hear that you still play duo shows. When I think of how A Silver Mt Zion has grown and grown over the years, I wonder if it would be nice to take that back to a three-piece, and play some shows as the first album had been recorded.

BF: Yeah, I totally agree.

405: I guess you have that with different incarnations of bands though, right. And Mt Zion isn't your thing anymore! Have the extra members here influenced or changed the way you write songs?

BF: Yeah, it's definitely more of a band thing now, we're more collaborative. It can be a bit more complicated at times writing music with more people, or easier when things evolve naturally. There's different people, more minds, more energy and opinion to deal with.

405: How did this album come about then? You mentioned that it wasn't planned, but not not planned either.

BF: There were some Esmerime songs that we'd reworked together, after a show in Montreal we played as a four piece. And as we reworked the songs, Sarah and Andrew also had some ideas, sketches of songs, that they brought to us, and we incorporated those into the set. And then when Lhasa passed away, we wanted to write a special lullaby for her as she'd brought us all together- so the entire composition really came about very organically.

405: You really breathed new life into the band with the album.

BF: Yeah, and it's fun to do that, shake it up and grow as musicians and people.

405: So your first two records, put out on Resonant and Madrona respectively...

BF: Yeah, Madrona was the label Bruce and I started.

405: I think I bought the Aurora vinyl direct from the Madrona mail order. How did working again with Constellation come about?

BF: I guess we have a long term history with Constellation. We gave them the record and they were amazed by it. Bruce and I had retired Madrona! We were very happy to work with Constellation.

405: It's led to collaborations with label artists like Colin Stetson (http://vimeo.com/29119122)

BF: Yeah, that was from our opening show in Montreal. And Clea Minaker, who did the projections, will be with us tonight.

405: How does this LP compare to the first two?

BF: This record has a completely different meaning behind it, due to where we are with our lives and the history we have together, and so there's a different element in it. There's a lot of symbolism in it for us, and musically where we are now is so different to where we were five or ten years ago. We're older, we have kids. We've grown as artists and as human beings. The first two Esmerine records are still very close to my heart though.

405: It's nice when you get to a stage and think, well they could only have made this record with a certain level of experience and maturity, at a certain point in their career.

BF: Yeah, I agree- it's a very strange thing, but also quite a beautiful feeling.

405: How does it feel to be part of such a now-noted and successful community of musicians?

BF: I learn a lot from the musicians around me and am very happy to be a part of this community. I've had the pleasure of playing music around the world, and that's something I can never take for granted.

405: What does the future hold for you as a group, or indeed as an individual?

BF: For Esmerine, this is our first European tour and we were excited about trying this out. I also don't play in Silver Mt Zion anymore and I'm excited to see where this goes, and I'm also working on a solo record built from looped cello and singing. I've just finished that record. It's totally different to everything I've done so far, it has electronic percussion! That maybe should be out, hopefully in the Spring, but we'll see.

405: I have to ask, will we ever see another Set Fire To Flames record?

BF: (laughs) Who knows, man. We worked on a soundtrack for a short animation film, and that was the last thing we did. I would love to, but there's 13 people in that group!

405: And I imagine you all have to be in a similar, very particular mindset while recording.

BF: Exactly! But thats how Bruce and I met, and how Esmerine came about initially.

405: Thankyou so much for your time, Beckie.

Evangelista - In Animal Tongue album review


Some people live and breathe their music, as if they could be recast against any environment, any colouring particulars- the only constant their necessity for compelling music's making. Carla Bozulich is one such artist, her career having spanned 3 decades now and reincarnated in upwards of seven bands. Whilst her back catalogue is as diverse as it is long (dig out some Ethyl Meatplow if you can find it), it was pleasing to see her picked up by Montreal-based label Constellation in 2005. After flirting with success after covering Willie Nelson's Red Header Stranger in it's entirely, Bozulich largely fell off the radar until, quite out of the blue, she announced her new project on an entirely new label. Better known for it's work with the city's then-blossoming avant-garde scene, 2005 saw Constellation move beyond both its city wall and the genres it had pioneered. Carla, from Los Angeles, represented a canny move: In Animal Tongue is her fifth album for the label, her fourth under the Evangelista banner that has allowed yet another artistic and critical reinvention, as well as offering Bozulich a creative renewal.

The Evangelista band, comprising bassist Tara Barnes (formerly of the excellent thrash-nihilist Duchesses) and sound-artist Dominic Cramp, was itself borne of the road. Having released her debut for the label, also titled Evangelista, a touring band was formed. Herein, Barnes and Bozulich set upon a creative unity that would last to today and bear its increasing influence on the music. Gone are the dream-set, ominous samples that would mark her Constellation debut with an unruly tension- throughout this band's existence, their has almost been an insistence on it resonating exactly as such: a band. People in a room, playing instruments through amplifiers.

On album opener 'Artificial Lamb', you can hear the crackle of guitar leads and electricity. Clean recordings and few (if any) overdubs- the track's timid instrumentation gently imposes itself whilst Bozulich moans with desperation- it's final lines delivered with a cracked, aching high pitch. Its a telling introduction to what is a very restrained and at times sombre album. 'Black Jesus' barely awakens, the vocal delivery passes off like a spoken word against which the music, the repeated riff, picked from a sea of reverb. On the title track, as the track reaches a climactic moment with chorus and thumped drums, repeated calls of “she sung in animal tongue” are delivered at once with pride and sadness.

This is not an album for mornings or shining July days, and it is appropriate that Constellation has chosen to release the album in the midst of Autumn. Everything here sounds live, and is cast against the kind of very loud silence that is only present in the very late hours at night. Frequently performative, sung seemingly ad-lib- there's a creeping feeling that pervades In Animal Tongue, only increasing as the record reaches the nostalgia-psychosis of 'Tunnel to the Stars' and the schizophrenia of closing number 'Hatching'. There's an inexplicable beauty to the maddening frequencies and drumming that abounds here, and this is how I feel about the entire record. It is deeply focused, recorded and performed with care- but it sounds like it was recorded in the wood cabin from Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. This album is certainly not for everyone, but unlike that film- In Animal Tongue is, you get the impression, entirely for real, serious and committed to the notion of extraordinary listening spaces. That's enough, for me. Whilst it might not have the strike out value of Hello Voyager (which was, let's face it, largely a pop album)- In Animal Tongue is a profoundly interesting album that I'll treasure in my collection. It's weirded me out frequently and significantly enough to merit the 7 stars I'm giving it, though newcomers to Carla Bozulich might want to start elsewhere.

First published in the405

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Hysterical album review

It's hard to know where to begin with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's third album. The conventional narrative up until now reads that the band sprung out of internet fame, a DIY aesthetic almost synonymous with their debut- and seemingly everyone was an overnight fan. The jangly, retro-infused, charming and defiant songs of their eponymous start united the entire indie scene in appraisal, much in the same way a Tumblr-borne artist like The Weeknd aims for now. But in 2005, weren't we all that bit more naïve? The band seemingly second-guessed the audience backlash with their follow up record, the 'difficult second album' monicker being more appropriate of an audience expectation than the band's composition. Some Loud Thunder was to some, unlistenable- but this reviewer found it to be a rewarding album of hidden depths and studio trickery. Yeah, that bass was consistently fuzzing, the drums were awkwardly panned and as far as I can tell, the vinyl and CD have different versions of the title track- but can't some mistakes be deliberate? That it came wrapped in so many interviews, vocalist Alex Ounsworth telling half-believable yarns that he never listened to music produced after 1980, that vinyl was his mantra- the album might have made you work for it, infinitely more than their debut (a record which dared you not to like it)- but it was overwhelmingly composed, its confusing studio mix clearly deliberate.

If Some Loud Thunder led some of their fanbase up the garden path, then Hysterical could be considered an even more disturbing WTF moment. From the moment it starts spinning, you are made aware of something different here. Namely, it sounds fantastic. Not in a compelling, interesting, sucks you in and can't get it out of your head way, but rather in studio sound. Everything is well mixed, well recorded- this is the sound of the professional recording industry, of money and 'maximising' technique behind each note- it could be a Kings of Leon record for chrissakes. This is all down to the hiring of St Vincent producer John Congleton- but frankly it comes across in an instant like a disavowal of everything the band have stood for. So their first record was marked by whimsey and charm, and the second was criticised for being too esoteric and bloody minded- but to my mind, the manner in which to respond to such criticisms is not by becoming the most arena-rock sounding, mainstream version of yourselves that you can be. It's like they're negating all that made them unique in the first place, and in doing so- you're left wondering whether you only ever liked them for their quirkiness, or whether the songs held true.

Fortunately, I firmly believe in the latter. I only have to remember old numbers like 'Tidal Wave of Young Blood' and 'Yankee Go Home' and I'm smiling giddily. Even the stronger moments from this record, like 'Ketamine and Ecstasy' or 'The Witness' Dull Surprise' find themselves drowned out in a sea of mediocrity. It's as if the album's sonic mastery undoes the possibility of anything truly becoming memorable here. It all bleeds together, and the band sound as if they're going through the motions. And I realise that it's unfair to review an album by comparing it to previous works, that an album should be reviewed on its own strengths and weaknesses- but Hysterical sounds so 'post' its preceding works, so conscious of the (unfair) criticisms that followed Some Loud Thunder, that it rarely has opportunity to exist in its own space.

For me, the biggest question is why we ended up here. Clap Your Hands took a five year hiatus, a soul-searching mission, and this album was preceded with the inevitable PR that the band had discovered themselves, found their sound, etc. But if this is the sound of the band being true to themselves, then the album makes it abundantly clear what a dull and disappointing prospect that is.

4/10

First published in the405

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Standon Calling: review

FRIDAY

2011 marked Standon Calling's seventh year of public operation and the three day event promised much by way of bands and festive silliness. Friday morning: after we took one of the festival's easily-arranged taxis from our London flat, a trip that lasted no more than an hour, we arrived in blistering heat around lunchtime and began in good spirits: expedient tent-circle establishment and the drinking of an inaugural ale. Line ups consulted, fancy dress at the ready, the 405 had arrived in style and in this fashion intended to continue.

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Friday's line up began mid-way through the afternoon- I have a soft spot for the half-day bills that coax you into the spirit of the weekend. And it began for us in the Twisted Licks tent, Standon's smaller tented venue, with Dananananaykroyd's mid afternoon billing. The impetuous Glasgow six-piece were tearing through an energetic set when we happened upon them, a large crowd bouncing enthusiastically in sync with the band's over the top performance style. Power pop at it's finest, this reviewer will admit to not being the group's most ardent devotee- but still, despite even my inherent cynicism, it was hard not to be convinced. Firstly, Dananananaykroyd have such a good time on stage. If they don't, then they're fantastic actors. It all looks like a dream come true for them, but if youthful innocence is their calling card- then ignore their musicianship at your peril. Whilst Calum Gunn and John Baillie Jr marauded the stage, leaping from amplifiers, stage diving, and scissor-kicking as if educated at Richard Linklater's School of Rock- the band on stage carved out a tight as you like punk-rock. Ended each performance with a congratulatory, ironic chorus of “We did it! We did it all together! Yessssssssssssssssssss!” (the way we all did when we were kids, the glee at 'whatever' being accomplished)- the band were enjoyable, ridiculous, professional, and absolutely hilarious.

Errors performed on the Main Stage, and their electronic post-rock grooves found a home in that field. An encore was denied, which seemed a shame as the gig improved exponentially as it went on. A slow start picked up pace as the crowd caught wind of what Errors were about, and danced in approval. Glitchy synth stabs and a cutting bass gave emphasis to the exemplary work that drummer James Hamilton was doing underneath; a frenetic, beaming, dervish of energy throughout, I've rarely seem drummers hit drums with such vigour. Simon Ward's intersong banter is a particular memory: dry awkwardness came with each reminder of “We're Errors”- not only getting funnier each time- but goodness that man could read a shopping list with that accent and I would listen intently.

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London's Chrome Hoof next, the large avant-garde ensemble having descended on Standon Calling with tweets earlier that week warning of a space monster in the festival vicinity. Musically, the band no know limits- an eclectic mix of funk, space rock, doom, hip-hop- all conveyed with trademark complexity. But that's somewhat misleading, for like Mr Bungle at their best, all Chrome Hoof's disparate elements add up to a compelling, easily enjoyable sound. Clad in metallic robes head to toe, the band's members would come and go throughout the set as their revolving line up accommodated different songs and styles. A heady futuristic performance in the vein of Janelle Monae or perhaps more fittingly, Grace Jones- the gig was in need of a centrepiece moment, an event of theatricality to mirror their cosmic songwriting- and this came midway through, as the prophecised space monster invaded the stage, threatened everyone and was decapitated by a backing singer. We caught the (rather soggy) brain after it had been ripped from the monster's head and flung to the crowd.

A brief sojourn back to the 2nd stage, where hipster band du jour Washed Out were serenading a packed out tent. Really, the vibe was tangible and the smoke heavy in the air as the band performed a short set plucked from their debut LP- but this reviewer was unconvinced by the elitist attitude of the crowd, and the gig fell a little flat for me. The band never really broke out of a mindset of playing 'at' the crowd, and I can't blame them: half the audience was chattering, smoking, having a banter- or seemingly 'there' just to be seen there. If gigs are a marriage of mindsets between band and audience, then here both parties here failed to turn up. Washed Out played well, but without great enthusiasm for the moment.

Similar disappointments became of Friday's headliner, Battles. I'd been looking forward to this gig especially, given that it was my first opportunity of seeing the group perform as a three piece. They are like a new band, I had heard- and I was open minded, being a lover of their second album Gloss Drop. Opening with the chaotic pop of Sweetie & Shag, the band were clearly enjoying themselves on stage, if the overall effect was a little lost on Standon's gathered masses. One of the difficulties of releasing an album featuring guest vocalists is in the live re-performance: here, Battles enlisted a dual video screen with a custom-filmed projection of each singer performing their lines. This was synced up with the studio-mixed vocal, which was played as an overdub over the live music. Except, it wasn't always in time. Firstly, Sweetie & Shag's precision was lost under a hive of choral synths- there seemed a chasm-sized aural distance between the live music being played and the vocal overhead. Second, at times (as in Gary Numan's post-lyrical My Machines) the vocal overdub just wasn't in sync with the video. I appreciate it's hard.

The 'Will they? Won't they?' over the potential performance of Atlas was answered quickly enough- Tyundai Braxton's iconic vocal lines here re-sung (fittingly) by children. Closing their set with Gloss Drop highlight Futura, it became ever obvious just how compromised the band are by playing as a three piece. And this is no reflection on their ability to make compelling music, but rather in how it was being performed. I have always thought of Battles as a cyborg band- a perfect union between man, instrument and computer. Modulated effects, looped segments- it's hard to tell at moments what is being played live, and what is being manipulated. But whilst this has always been the case, Battles have arguably made the spectacle more interesting in the past. Here, it was obvious that riffs were being pre-recorded well in advance, only to be tapped into being played when needed. Very little, besides the synth stabs that perforated the band's riffs, and the compelling spectacle that is drummer John Stanier, was live. And this is no criticism, I have no gripe with this methodology (nor overdubbing guest vocalists)- but rather it's an acknowledgement of how much harder Battles have to work during a gig as a three piece.

I enjoyed their hour-long main set. It was difficult to follow in places but frequently inspiring- both musically and as a performance. Atlas won the undecideds over, Futura had done it for me. But when Battles returned for an encore, I'm not sure anyone could quite have predicted just how spectacularly it would fail. A ten minute build up comprised of looped and modulated guitar notes, dub synths passing left to right- eventually, cohesion coming out of this- Gloss Drop closer Sundome (by this point, half the crowd had left in search of pastures more enriching). It was an underwhelming outro, better suited perhaps for a crowd of ardent fans than a festival audience.

SATURDAY

Saturday morning at Standon Calling brought firstly a swim in the wonderful on-site pool. The sun was relentless, beautifully so, and a quick dip clearly seemed everyone's activity of choice- the pool was full but well rationed. It became a quite beautiful introduction to the day's events; the invigorating waters casting away any cramp or discomfort from the last night's adventuring.

Then came an unexpected delight whilst moseying back, an enormous guitar cacophony erupting from within the Twisted Licks tent- north London's Teeth Of The Sea inside. I only caught the last 20 minutes of what seemed a momentous performance; the band not letting their early billing get in the way of a towering, deafening rock sound. Strung out, violent and consumed by their noise-making, the band carved an impressive slot that pulled in those queuing for coffees, lulling about their mornings.

I had some coffee myself, and made my way down toward the festival's quieter end- its elysian fields. Here, the lovely vibe out bars one finds tucked away, the kind to serve you a warm chai and goad the night's frenzy with some soft folk, antiquated and proverbial, endlessly sweet, acoustically performed. There now was the draw of sock-wrestling, which I had happened upon the previous year quite by chance. The rules were simple, contestants drawn from the gathered crowd and wearing of two socks- must wrestle each other until a sock is removed, therein the remover being crowned champion over the bout's two sock-oriented legs. Rollicking good fun then, made all the more so by the troupe of enthusiastically dressed participants. For Saturday was Standon Calling's dress-up day, and festival-goers had clearly given in to inspiration for the weekend's Gods and Monsters theme. My comrades in arms that weekend, lovely folk from the London based 'music friendship' charity The Note Well, had indulged it a detached cool- dressed between them as characters from the Kanye West 'Monster' video. I had come robed in Panda God costume (What? Pandas make legitimate deities. Google it already) and was attempting to stay in character where possible, responding only with the grunts and roars I presumed Panda Bears to have.

A walk back up to the festival site proper, and a beautiful wail drew me into the Main Stage fields. There, quite unexpectedly, the festival's largest crowd thus far, bouncing and beaming to the Raghu Dixit Project. A large and ever-changing troupe led by group's namesake, the band had the crowd in their palms of their hands. The sun was bright and warm, flags danced in the crowd- a euphoric state took over. Ostensibly a collective endeavour, Raghu Dixit produced the group's debut album as a means of collating musicians into a cohesive platform for shared expression. Electric guitar thrashed in a manner that recalled Kula Shaker at their best, whilst Dixit's voice was a breathtaking thing. The control uttered over sky-arcing melodies seemed impossible, but Raghu was caught in effortless, joyful release. The gig was a pleasure, and certainly the festival's high point thus far.

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Later that evening and after The 405 had enjoyed a sit-down chat with him, Saul Williams would take to the main stage. Clearly excitement was peaking and a few devotees in the crowd were anticipating the rare opportunity to catch Williams entertain a festival audience. His four piece band in place, he bounded onstage and stood at his mic in silence before launching into a venomous a'capella performance of old-school rhyme Coded Language. Vivid, clear and impassioned Williams catapulted this existentialist rap high into the fields. Its central motif a cry “to lift up the consciousness of the entire fucking world”, sent shivers arcing down my spine. Applause followed, and the band had launched into List Of Demands, its punk rock shimmy provoking mass breakout amongst the crowds. From here, the hour long set came thick and fast- some meandering in the middle borne of the artist's melodically oriented material. But it was relentless throughout, and Saul was a man born to recite from a stage. Second To Think was anguished, overall it was a lively, often awe-inspiring set from an artist with a back catalogue of riches.

By this point in the evening, the crowd looked just ridiculous. A comedy dragon built of many participants, the cast of Monsters Inc, sea creatures, beasties, Michael Jackson, John Terry- at one point Saul took note of the theatrics and taking into account the recent rioting across the country, noted how despite all this, creativity and human imagination has flourished.

I have often thought that Lamb, who headlined the Main Stage on the Saturday, are best suited to a festival audience. This was my third such Lamb gig, the first having been their quite genuinely tear-jerking farewell gig at Glastonbury in 2003 and the latter being a reunion gig at the Leveller's annual Beautiful Days festival in Devon. Here, the band were in a similarly splendid setting. A large crowd had amassed, and I think this is testament to the band's continued following. People seem to have a large amount of affection for their music, borne of the same era and location that saw Massive Attack and Portishead become internationally renowned. Lamb performed tracks from their early, pre-hiatus, albums- and kept newer material to a minimum, humbly introducing each new song as such. Lamb have a new album out, though the group were keen to appease the festival audience with well-known numbers like Gabriel, which seemed to stop even the air. An acoustic performance of a new song was touching, if for it's impromptu recital: the electronics board and Macbooks had given up the ghost temporarily, and so Standon Calling was treated to a perfectly cohesive, entirely unplanned bass and live drums rendition. As headliners, Lamb did not disappoint.

SUNDAY

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Sunday firstly saw the much-anticipated Rockaoke, this year in the Twisted Licks tent. A four piece band, tight as you like, with a songlist as long as your arm and the invitation for onlookers and passers by to rock the mic with a live-ass band behind. It was all good fun, a bombastic version of pub-karaoke favourite Mustang Sally inciting a crowd singalong in the chorus, a good humoured and out of key rendition of Amy Winehouse's Valerie cover, and this reviewer couldn't let the opportunity pass by without hopping onstage for an outing of Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name. A theatrical song, frequently co-opted by anyone with a vaguely dissenting voice, too often used as a 'fuck you Mum and Dad' anthem- it's original meaning borne of the LA riots lost under the weight of dumb audience expectation. Frankly, I can understand why Zach De La Rocha left Rage. Anyway, I dedicated it to “all the muppets who woke up with a new flatscreen TV or pair of Nikes last week”, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Apparently there is video evidence, which I am reluctant to embed anywhere near this article.

Next up was the afternoon billing for the inspired rap of Katie Tempest, fronting her Sound Of Rum three piece. A warm and affectionate reception was given, and in truth Tempest was a force. An unstoppable flow of wry social observations and delicately phrased rhetorical questioning, her rap skills are breathtaking- perhaps demonstrated best on the number where she decries an old 'open mic' freestyler for wearing all the bling and having no bars to back it up. “It's all about the content, it's not about your image” she barks, knowingly, self-depreciatingly. There's such little bravado about her, so few pretensions. She speaks between songs at once humbly and with confidence, there was little distance between the crowd and the stage. An a'capella poem recited in lieu of the recent social problems across the country, Katie offered a profound and touching perspective that through rap and rhyme became impossible to ignore. Her verses were staggeringly good, her mind dextrose and nimble in a way you wouldn't think possible for someone so young- she's only 24 and Scroobius Pip has called her “annoyingly good”. It's apt, but not annoying- you get the impression that hip-hop, and especially UK hip-hop needs voices like this at the moment- if only to offset the celebratarian faux-bling aspirations of the pop/grime scene- where content has been forgotten and image rules all (if anyone can tell me what Tinie Tempah is rapping 'about', in any one of his songs- I will bestow a worthy prize). Musically, the three piece shirked around electronic patterns and slight guitar riffing, drummer Ferry Lawrenson afforded an impressive solo at the gig's climax. An altogether accomplished unit, Sound of Rum ended the set with a spot of crowd participation. Katie couldn't help herself, “This is so much fun for me” she observed, as half the crowd chanted “Sound of” to the other's “Rum”, and she was spitting verses overhead using the crowd's voice as percussion. Sound of Rum's performance absolutely marked the high point of the festival, without a doubt. The band left to huge applause, and had seemingly made friends of everyone in that field.

And there, sadly- our Standon Calling came to an end. It was a splendid weekend in the sun, one that delivered favourite bands amidst newfound treats. A few of our favourite (and more random) memories then, to round up:

The horse-drawn carriage stage (which much to my surprise, boasted my old friend Lewis from The House Of Trouser on drumming duties). This toured the site all weekend, a troupe of guys and girls doing their finest horse impressions.

The space hopper tent. We indulged this many times over the weekend, going for space hopper races, space hopper wrestling, space hopper hopping competitions.

Great to see so much quality food onsite, add to that the delicious 'back of the van' coffee.

Spying other Pandas, and quickly becoming Panda friends.

The amount of bands that would play their gig and then be seen chilling around the festival, putting up their tents for the weekend. I can think of no greater testament to Standon Calling's loveliness than the willingness of artists to hang out with their fans afterward and not just 'do one' down the M25 to the next gig.

On Sunday, we caught up with friends of Alex Trenchard (the landowner whose birthday party inspired Standon Calling, who is now incarcerated in a well documented case of 'Robin Hood'), who were touring the site inviting everyone to write postcards to the missing birthday boy. This was a lovely gesture. I remember seeing Alex painting onstage last year during Buena Vista Social Club and I think that everyone at the festival holds him in warm regard. Also of note: seeing his parents travel around the site and meet people. Wonderful.

See you next year, Standon Calling!

First published in the405

Saul Williams interview



Of all the artists to play this year's Standon Calling, I was perhaps looking forward to seeing Saul Willliams the most. The enigmatic rapper/poet/actor had toured his fourth album, Volcanic Sunlight, earlier in the year and despite best arrangements, I had lived to regret missing it. Here then was a rare chance to see Saul entertain a festival audience, and it was a pleasure to meet with him earlier that afternoon. Saul Williams has been an outspoken figure, demonstrating a political self-awareness throughout his work across music, poetry and film. Given the context of what had been a tumultuous week in British politics/civic order, to say the very least, this seemed the perfect opportunity to converse at length.



405: Good afternoon Saul. How are you?

SW: I'm good, thank you. Woke up in Paris this morning, now I'm here in this beautiful field.

Glad to hear it. First up, could you talk us through your latest record. Is there a concept to the record, an overarching message?

The goal of the album was to create a record that sounded exactly like the title, Volcanic Sunlight. Besides that, I can't say that there's a common themality except for in my approach to it. And that approach was simple: I didn't feel like writing any songs borne out of anger. And anyone who is familiar with my previous albums will know that, well, anger and I have been pretty tight!

I think of your early work, which was almost driven by that very directed, pointed form of anger.

Yeah, we've had an intimate relationship in the past, a healthy one. But this time, I wanted to do something different.

I wanted to talk about this anger briefly, in reference to previous releases like the Not In My Name EP, or songs like Act 3 Scene 2. This politically motivated anger often found inspiration, if I can call it that, in the policies of the Bush presidency. How do you feel about Obama, and is this record a reflection of your changed attitudes?

How I feel about Obama is how I now feel about politics in general. I'm a bit further down the road now, and I see that for what they are politics, politicians, governments play their part. They do as much as they can do. I don't believe in the idea of martyrs or individuals having more power than the people themselves, I believe politicians are there inherently to reflect us. Obama, symbolically, holds his ground well. Nonetheless, I understand the dissatisfaction from, for example, the left- who often seem like they'd prefer him to be a dictator for the left, for socialist egalitarian policies- in the same way perhaps as some might interpret Bush's actions as him being a dictator for the right. I do think the more sage response would be less of a dictator and more of a balance between the two, but that would be and is very upsetting to the left. And not satisfying to the right either.

Is it a question of whether the end, in this case policy, justifies the means, i.e. totalitarianism?

Partly. It's also a question of time, how much time does it take to pull out of Iraq, for example? Policy takes time. All these bullshit equations we wake up and find ourselves in, no different than you or I born into a family that has a religion, or that has a socio-political background. Man, we're born into that and we're raised to believe it until we come of age and question “Do I have to perpetuate the ideals of my father and mother?” In the same way, I think a president is born into a situation and has to navigate their own growth. Thus, I think the more interesting Obama would be in his second term.

Regardless of policy, I think a lot of people are hoping Sarah Palin runs against him- if only for the broadcast television debates and subsequent YouTube-worthy moments.

Haha, yeah. On the whole, there are so many issues in American politics which sadden me, that surprise me, that stop me and make me take notice. Are we still dealing with that? There's an actual frontrunner in the Republican ticket whose husband thinks you can teach gay people how not to be gay. You know? This is the 21st century, the world over, and we're still just there? It's a fucking shame. And it's for those reasons I say “politics plays its part” because people and ideas are evolving at a quicker rate than politicians can possibly keep up with.


The discourse catches up with itself eventually, as an idea gains in popularity. Perhaps it's ironic then that our so-called leaders do little at a time like this but 'respond'. That's a good link to my next question actually, on the recent UK news. I wanted to ask if you'd seen much of the country's rioting and the Government's subsequent response.

Yes, of course. To me, it's not even a matter of opinion. The facts are there. It's obvious to all that there is this unspoken tension in the younger generations and it's come out like, yeah, what the fuck. Otherwise, if it wasn't there, that wouldn't be the response.

There seems to be a willingness in this country not to acknowledge our shared responsibility towards that underclass, to not understand but rather to now punish and condemn. Many people have been reminded of the Martin Luther King quotes about the riots being the voice of the unheard.

And it is, essentially that. And it remains that. Anyone who says there isn't a class system in England would be foolish. It's evident through history. We all just celebrated a wedding, a national wedding of royal blood.

And we all paid for it, too.

Yeah, exactly. And of course, so there's going to be people who just look at that and think, “Ok, so now what about us? What about these streets?” So yes, voices have to be heard. And if people are slow in moving, slow in responding then more voices will need to be heard, and they will go about it in ways we can't control, using whatever means they have available to them. And sometimes it might seem easier to burn the first car you see in front of you than to get on the phone with your local congressman. Do you guys have congressmen?

MPs. We have MPs. And I think you can email them.

Yeah, right. Email them. Of course you can.

I wanted to ask you about beat poetry and hip-hop in general. How do you see those two disciplines interconnecting, or rather, where does one end and the other begin?

Well, to tell you the truth, I started out as an MC in New York. My relationship to poetry came through rapping primarily, and then through studying theatre. When you're reading a play closely, you dissect the language and of course when you listen to hip-hop, you use a similar form of deconstruction. So many playwrights were rhythmic, in their metre and stanza, line for line. And so, I grew like this: hip-hop and classical theatre. I wrote songs before I wrote poems, but I became known in the public eye through poetry. That gave me the opportunity to make music, which was my first love. Of course my first first love, before all that, was acting, was theatre. In all of these cases I feel like someone who happened upon something, I didn't grow up saying I wanted to be a poet or an actor, I just grew up reading poetry. I quit rapping when I was 16 because I wanted to be the youngest rapper alive- when I got to 16, I was all “Fuck it, it didn't happen”.

When you perform onstage to a crowd, is that an extension of theatrical performance?

Of course.

And how do you, if at all, separate the notions of art and entertainment?

I'm an entertainer. But it's like, I believe, I was entertained when I was growing up, I was heavily entertained by Public Enemy, I was entertained by playwrights like Amiri Baraka, I was entertained by South African playwrights like Athol Fugart. These were things that had serious political weight, but the end-point of Public Enemy was to make you dance. As they say, “Make you jump along, make you dance along to your education”. I never thought I had to be false or commit to a stupid idea to enjoy myself at a party. So when you close your eyes and you dance, and you hear 'Poker Face' or whatever, you could just as easily contextualise that as something profound, something driven and serious, like Rage Against The Machine you know- which is just as entertaining.

That post-structuralist Death Of The Author idea, then.

Yeah, I can totally accept that. Hahah.

Great. Thanks for spending time with us today Saul. Looking forward to your gig later.

Me too. Catch you then.


First published in the405

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Standon Calling: Literary line up announced (news)

Let it not be said that next month's Standon Calling does not cater for the academically minded festival punter. Besides one of the most eclectic and widely-informed line ups to be seen gracing a (probably muddy) field this summer, the festival has just announced the full billing for its Under Cover Literary Lounge.

It's a diverse smorgasbord of raw literary talent, creatively minded thesps and noteworthy personalities: poet and editor Tim Wells, known for his own iambic work as well as collaborations with East London reggae soundsystem Tighten Up- will be performing a spoken word set. Meta-critic James Bridle, who describes himself modestly as a “writer, publisher, editor, coder, designer, consultant, producer and cook” will take his audience on a journey down the recesses of internet fiction, a talk which will touch on Star Trek, Harry Potter and (catering for all tastes) Top Gear. Though probably not how any of us are imagining it.

Acclaimed novelist and comedienne Lana Citron (who infamously undertook her hour-long slot on Antony Gormley's 'One and Other' project by blowing kisses to passers-by from atop the fourth plinth) will surely offer up an entertaining, intellectual and engaging debate around notions of 'kissing'. But perhaps the biggest draw, certainly the act with the biggest star-power, is reformed drug-dealer turned professional talker Howard Marks. Anyone who has read Mr Nice or seen Howard in conversation before will know what to expect, a rollicking anecdotal rediscovering of what now seems a wholly alien past-life (at his peak, Marks was said to be controlling 10% of the world's hashish trade). Audience members will enjoy the chance to engage with Marks on the festival's chosen Gods and Monsters theme, and on the inherent ridiculousness of using a career as a wanted drugs smuggler as a springboard to becoming a public speaker. Alternatively, questions about pressing cannabis resin or rolling L's will also be welcome. Saturday night sees the world-renowned Literary Death Match descend upon Standon's Under Cover tent- a wild and frenetic fight to the very end using only the raw, undeniable power of semiotics. Sunday afternoon will see an irreverent interpretation of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure- performed by Roar Theatre. Festival goers are also promised a cavalcade of board games, giant twister (wink wink) and to close each night, a carnival sound system. Quite plush escapism, I hope you will agree.

Published on the405

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Esmerine - La Lachuza: review


As I write this review, a sudden downpour has begun it's onslaught outside and the sky has turned grey. Esmerine's record has become, effortlessly, one of my favourite albums of recent memory- and the weather seems appropriate. The album is tinged with nostalgia, filled with gentle, sombre moments of reflection that sit well with gazing longingly from one's window. In this moment, the rain makes for a touching accompaniment.
Comprising another fine project from Montreal's avant-garde community, loosely composed around the Godspeed arc of the last decade- La Lachuza represents Esmerine's first record in six years, after a strong debut release on Alien8 and a self-released follow-up. This is the group's first album for Constellation and there's an element of homecoming about this body of work. Dedicated to the memory of renowned Montreal singer Lhasa de Sela, a dear friend of the band, La Lachuza is by turns emotive and powerful, delicately wrought and stunningly beautiful.
Previous Esmerine albums have been wholly instrumental works, focused around the lyrical cello lines of Becky Foon and Bruce Cawdron's marimba and glockenspiel. This is still largely the case, with fine interplay between drawn-out strings and staccato percussion- but La Lachuza has given opportunity for Esmerine to expand to a four-piece outfit, incorporating harp and additional percussion. These elements round Esmerine's sound into a more inviting dynamic, and allow a complexity of rhythm and melody as evidenced on the majestic 'Trampolin', a flurry of hyperactive notes that recalls Sigur Ros' experimental work. Elsewhere, 'Sprouts' employs restrained instrumentation to it's credit- a slow build giving way to frenetic choral moments, rich with colour.
Marking a departure from previous work, Esmerine here involve vocal duties on a few of the album tracks. This seemingly bold move had me worried- their instrumental sound has been evocative enough, and there's always an implication with vocal lines that they lead the song, detracting from the instrumentation beneath. Not so here, as 'Last Waltz'- the first of the album's vocal tracks, demonstrates. Calling on the services of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre member Sarah Page, the track is arced around the ominous refrain “words are waiting to be said”- but the music is balanced throughout. In the spaces between verses, Neufield sings in chords, utelising her voice as another instrument to build sound with. Bathed in reverb, and set against the cello, harp and marimba- the effect is one of simple, longing beauty.
As with so many wonderful records, I have trouble pinning down exactly what this album is. La Lecuza has sounded different and perfectly appropriate in so many moments- at 4am sharp and angular, on a sunlit morning it is revelatory and awakening, and now- as the rain comes down in torrents, it seems nostalgic and affective. In so far as their own canon is concerned, this record must stand as a towering achievement, perhaps their most accomplished album to date. The recording standard is outstanding, the mix complementing the nature of the instruments and allowing space in between them- apparently much of the album was recorded live. I can't recommend this album highly enough- as someone who has followed the group from album one, it has pleased me greatly to hear such a wonderful record, one that exceeded my (already high) expectations so vastly. It is a rare pleasure, from start to finish.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Disappears / The Oscillation - Live at The Borderline, 31/05/11

I'd discovered Chicago's Disappears fairly recently, and as with any recent acquisition to my list of 'new favourite bands', my excitement at seeing the group live was at a peak. On a night when Thurston Moore was entertaining another of my housemates at one of the city's larger venues, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley was lined up to regale a gathered few with his new outfit in the small, utterly charming enclave that is Soho's Borderline club.

We arrived early on and with enough time to witness the opening band, The Oscillation. Hailing from Walthamstow, the four piece shimmied through a humble set of post-punk numbers, tight and restrained as they were. All told, the group held a tight groove and boasted a warm sound. Held together by keyboard drones and a shirking bass, their songs clearly held a power and this seemed to come to a crescendo as their brief set closed up. Indeed, their bandcamp page has provided much in the way of good listens a day after.

And then, to a small but eager crowd, Disappears gathered their equipment and launched headfirst into opening number 'Magics', from their debut LP 'Lux'. Released on the continually brilliant label Kranky, Disappears debut is an unashamedly raw 30 minutes of rock music, the kind you could jam to at 4 am with friends. Here, detail is insignificant- drowned out almost by a wave of chainsaw-esq guitars and pounded drums. On vocals, Brian Case barked in calls and yelps, unrepeatable expressions and croon­s- his voice beautifully obscured with echo and reverb. The overall effect is one of driven imprecision, intoxicated and seductive. Disappears beseech you not to enjoy it. To those friends who I have played their album in recent weeks and who remarked that the band 'aren't doing anything new'- this motion misses the point entirely. If Disappears's music is an indulgence, then so be it- some things can be unpretentious and still artful. And few bands these days seem capable of merely playing for joy, I recall seeing Fang Island some months ago and remarking what a rare opportunity for crowd high fiving it was. Similarly, and perhaps more appropriately, New York's Oneida seem inflicted with the sheer thrill of making sound, loud, rhythmic, crass and punk rock.

In the course of the 40 minutes the band spent on stage with us, Disappears tore through numbers from their two albums with pace and vigour - the songs taking on a real power in the room, as the reverb and feedback from the end of one piece became the beginning of the next track. The band were tight and controlled, allowing the strength of their songs to drive the concert's momentum. And whilst I could reflect on how the band could easily have performed in a larger venue, to more people - it is a treat to witness a group like this playing to a crowd there deliberately. If and when they do revisit these shores, it will be to a larger audience- and they'll probably play in exactly the same manner. Bold, assured, meditative and engrossed in their own music making. It seems completely marvelous to me.

First published in the405.


Akira The Don - The Life Equation: review

Children of the 80's and 90's, how fondly will you look back on those formative years? Mid-90's, I could be found perched by the radio deck every Sunday evening as the charts wound down the full gamut of that week's pop offerings. That era marked the birth of 'the wholly manufactured' pop act, and the top tens reflected the saccharine tones of these groups mashing it alongside the blooming and yet-to-be Blairised Britpop scene. Indie has always prided itself on authenticity- but even the pop might have seemed more sincere. Were songs less cynical then? If so, could it be a time-specific triumph of now-retro production and an industry still figuring out just how profitable it could be? 2011, and naivety of that era has truly passed. Songs of innocence then, and of experience now.

It's not that I had intended to start the review like this, but some records genuinely throw you. I wasn't expecting this. Akira The Don's second album proper- The Life Equation is a lovingly composed pastiche of such moments, circumnavigating nostalgia for its own sake in lieu of an almost forgotten songwriting form, cast off, disassembled, and herein restored.

Coming off the back of a series of increasingly spectacular rap mixtapes (now up to 25 and all available gratis via his website), lovers of raw loop work and rhythm play may feel underwhelmed by this LP- but whilst it couldn't be described as conventional hip-hop, Akira's rap dexterity is tested thoroughly across this record's 10 tracks. This is a pop album foremost, an record of songs and meaning communicated. The heartbreakingly sincere 'We Won't Be Broke Forever, Baby' orates reassurances to a lover, promises of solace from dark days. Elsewhere, the first song proper 'Video Highway' comes across as the kind of song Blur might have penned if they'd done speed and not coke. It's frenetic- and reminded me of the anime films I used to watch in the 90s when I had days off from school with the flu. High speed chase scenes, bright colours and newsreaders, swirling text, impossible energy without limit- all chaotically transfused within the prism of my fevers. As an album opener, it's relentless - a real slap upside the head.

The sun-clasped 'shake n bake' of 'All The Right Things' follows, the lulled jangle in it's verses taking me right back to Jurassic 5's good moments. The chorus is all horns and jump-ups, Akira calling the world as he sees it: his inimitable worldview a fusion of heady optimism, infectious enthusiasm and all-encompassing bricolage.

The Life Equation can be seen as a fervent call to arms, an existential cold shower- it's introduction calling for greater unity, less emphasis on the individual- and similarly, the spoken word samples that pop up in the epic album version of 'The Life Equation' itself, seek to reaffirm this message. If the album can seem lovingly devoted to notions of quintessentially 80's and 90's British music, then it is also a forward-thinking record of positivity and realised potential. Akira is a noted home-producer, and his series of mixtapes and 'Doncasts' testify that the bedroom recording aesthetic of constant production and meta-creativity is one that seems especially pertinent here. Co-produced by Stephen Hague, famed for his work on Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Peter Gabriel and, somewhat adorably, Mel C- the album bears tints of bygone pop, but the instrumentation choice and use of the studio suggest this is a record that could only have been made 'now'. The Life Equation's Sonic choices could be conceptual, a reading of the text which I'm transplanting through association- at its core, this is an album of some very strong material and a worthy addition to Akira's ever expending musical repertoire.

First published on the405.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Standon Calling 2011: Festival Preview

Besides one of the most exciting line-ups a UK festival can boast this year, Standon Calling is set to unleash all manner of nightmarish visions and epic mythologies upon festivalgoers this summer.

This little gem of a festival, tucked away in Hertfordshire, is one of a growing number of independently run 'boutique' festivals which promise a more authentic, responsible and engaging weekend experience than the corporate festival behemoths which have come to dominate the UK summer circuit- and has fast become one of our favourite occasions on the calendar.

What started inauspiciously with a birthday barbecue between friends some nine years ago quickly became defined by the organisers' desire to hold the best party they could, or so the story goes. A stage appeared, but even when bands of some considerable repute began making the journey to play at the gathering, it hadn’t occurred to organisers that they were putting together anything more significant than a cracking house party. But since 2001, a seismic shift has polarised festival goers between those happy to pay over the odds and engage in the ‘theme park experience’ of the mainstream festivals and that more discerning crowd: people desiring something more engaging and authentic- and Standon Calling has found it's audience and blossomed in the years since.

At no point is the festival spirit compromised by a necessity to advertise, do things by half-measures or pander to corporate demands. As such, a lucid and immersing space is maintained, a place for imagination to run riot and creativity to flourish. And more than catering for a superficially ad-free experience, the ethos runs into the Standon Calling's approach towards the on-site food and bars, which offer a diverse range of quality nourishment sold by people you can have conversations with, through the festival's décor and visual aesthetics, and through each festival's unique fictionalised sub-story and dress-up theme.

Like Bestival and Secret Garden Party, this 5,000 capacity festival- staged entirely in the grounds of a 16th Century manor house (with it's own swimming pool) incorporates all the whimsy of dressing up with an annual theme- and a carnival atmosphere prevails across the weekend. But more than merely requesting it’s willing punters to don a bit of vintage or home-spun costume, Standon Calling’s fantasy world is immersive and fully realised.

We visited the festival last year and were taken aback by it's unique and welcoming atmosphere. This is a site where attention to detail has been paid, where care for your experience has been considered and where anything is likely to happen. Taking the dress-up theme fantastically further than any other festival troupe would, Standon Calling enlists the services of The Heritage Arts Company in entwining a themed narrative throughout the weekend experience. Last year this involved an art theft and murder mystery- a real 'whodunnit' that was elucidated over the weekend with flyers, newspapers and actors immersed in their surroundings. At one point, a 'police officer' enlisted us to join a search party, to report clues back to the local constabulary: a pop-up 1930s police store centred in the festival's faux-vintage high street. This year the chosen theme is Gods and Monsters, a title which invites classicism and fantasy in equal measure. However it unfurls, it seems implausible that a festival manifest such an aesthetic in any less than 'epic' circumstance. And so it seems, from the Garden of Healing to a Zombie Marketplace- Standon Calling is embracing it's theme with vigour: rumours of black magick midnight rituals abound.

And this is without mentioning the extraordinary music that Standon has quickly becoming associated with. An eclecticism pervades the line-up choices, and you're likely to see many bands here that just don't play at other UK festivals. Last year saw Fucked Up, Liars and Pantha Du Prince play one after another, comprising possibly the finest 3 hours of music I experienced in 2010. This season, a similarly impressive collection of high quality independent artists dominates the scheduling. Friday's main stage headline slot goes to art-rock impresarios Battles, who will be touring second album 'Gloss Drop'- whilst the Saturday headline slot belongs to UK festival favourite Spiritualised, in what promises to be a memorable performance. The festival is closed by a headline slot from house-maestros Hercules and Love Affair, whose uplifting, super-hip house stylings will guarantee a warm, enthused end to the festival. Elsewhere, a rare UK date for invigorating NY rap-poet Saul Williams catches the eye and will surely be a highlight. Hackney swing-favourites The Correspondents make an appearance- and are at their best when regaling a festival audience, never failing to win the hearts of their crowds with their jangly remixing of vintage swing numbers, broken and transfused to dubstep and house beats.

It's a line up which surprises as much as it does excite- we came away last year having made many discoveries, plenty of 'new favourite band' moments amidst actually seeing our existing favourite bands. There's a philosophy which carries through all the line-up choices, an aesthetic which binds them. Further, the festival is known for having 'an eye' to catching emerging artists before they break: Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons are both remembered for having played breakthrough gigs in this festival's intimate and inspired environment.

And though we enjoyed so many musical moments at Standon Calling, it is the attention to detail in every other aspect of the festival that won us over and captured our hearts- whether it be the quality of the food (organic throughout, fair trade where possible) or the beautiful and well-thought out décor that adorned the space. We spent the weekend collecting moments: from the immerse art-stalls and narrative that unfolded across the weekend, to the impromptu sock-wrestling that saw priests fight ninjas, pirates fight strong-men. The delightful ladies from The Note Well who provided us with “guerilla” cake, the festival's on-site live-band karaoke, the Australian dude who'd carted his biodegradable toilets around the world, the decadence and noir of the 4am cinema, all the beautiful, happy, smiling, drunk, staggered, interesting, interested, psychic and special people we met along the way and the friends we made of them, oh- the unimaginable luxury of having a swimming pool on site! Standon Calling is a unique and special place, one we are very fond of.

Standon Calling runs from 11th to the 14th of August. Full weekend tickets cost £120.

Full details can be found at: www.standon-calling.com or you can follow the festival's (highly amusing) tweets here: www.twitter.com/standoncallin

First published in The405