Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Band Interview: Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent

This interview originally appeared on the Austinist on March 11, 2008.

Phosphorescent, the woodsy and brutally honest project of Brooklyn-by-way-of-Athens-and-Alabama musician Matthew Houck, used the strength of last year’s Pride to firmly establish itself as an act to be reckoned with. Combining haunting natural effects and skillful understatement, the album presents an intentionally rough-around-the-edges sound that has drawn complimentary comparisons to everyone from Dylan to Oldham. In advance of Phosphorescent’s three SXSW shows, including the Austinist/Gothamist get together on Wednesday, Matthew Houck spoke to us while snowed-in in New York.

So people listen to your music, and they get this idea that you’re some somber mystic, wandering through the forest in a pit of despair.

(laughs) Yeah, I see that.

How does that image compare to who you actually are as a person?

Well, I think music is one thing and life is another. To a certain degree I don’t really care all that much about what picture people might have of me as a person based on my music. They’d have to be kind of idiots to think that, really. No one really thinks you’re a certain way because of a song you sing, but then I might be way wrong about that. Maybe they do think that, and if they do there’s really, you know, I can’t spend too much time worrying about that.

You don’t really see your music as being necessarily your “heart,” but rather a separate product?

It’s not really separate, it’s just a specific part of it. It’s not a whole picture. It’s just a narrow little slice, of what you happened to write down that day, or you happened to sing. It’s not a full picture, and that’s fine. It’s not supposed to be a full picture. If every song you wrote was for the purpose of representing yourself as a complete human being, to the world, the song would be, I hope, more than three or four minutes long.

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Band Interview: Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

This interview appeared on the Austinist on February 29, 2008.

Alright, so Built to Spill is one of the greatest, most influential, and most acclaimed bands of the past fifteen years. There’s really no way around it. And for those of you who are a little late to the love-in, here’s a very small sample of some of the things that have been said about them:

“A band whose talent and proficiency at times seem[s] boundless.” –Pitchfork Media

“Flawless.” –Trigger Magazine

“In short, he’s a talent more people ought to know about.” –Rolling Stone, on Doug Martsch

“Better than getting laid, finding God and winning the lotto combined.” –San Francisco Weekly, just last week when discussing their live performance

So when a band like this comes to Stubb’s, as they do on March 2nd (along with famed Nirvana influences Meat Puppets, as well as Helvetia) you should pay attention. And that’s exactly what we did, to the point that we arranged a conversation with BTS frontman and fearless mastermind, Doug Martsch, a man whose honesty and candor proved as engaging as his music.

Back when Built to Spill first started coming out with albums, getting “big” in quotation marks, the music industry was a lot different, built around radio conglomerates, big time record labels, and word of mouth, but now everything’s downloading and blogging and MySpace. As someone who’s seen both sides of the shift, what do you think of the way the music industry is now compared to how it used to be?

I’ve never paid too much attention to it, but I think it’s cool that people can share music. But to me, these record companies? I don’t feel bad for them at all. They argue that the artists are going to suffer and stuff but I think they’re full of shit. I think they’re just worried about themselves. I don’t think they care about the artists. And the artists will do fine, there are ways to sell your music, and big deal if you don’t sell your music? Who cares if the artists don’t have mansions and shit, you know? Why shouldn’t the artists just make music in their free time and just have regular jobs like anyone else? If you wanna make music you can go tour—there’s no way that they can get into your show for free. These record companies just dominated for so long they’re just scrambling, and I don’t feel bad for them at all.

It was the establishment and now they realize they’re not necessary anymore, so they’re trying to stop it at all costs.

Yeah, and they abused their position. They totally milked people, they milked the public. They charged people way more than they ever needed to for records. You can’t feel bad for them.

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Band Interview: Yoni Wolf of WHY?

This interviewed originally appeared on the Austinist on March 7, 2008.

Lurking in the near, near future is the album Alopecia, the strange, provocative, and incredibly engaging new album from Why?, a Bay Area band that seems to be ticketed for a whole new bunch of notoriety, right quick. While Why? in the past has often incited listeners to, well, invoke the name of the band–mostly because of scattershot verbosity and music that seemed more pieced-together than refined–they’ve pulled all their unbridled talent together into a cohesive and coherent, not to mention very good, whole. And, seeming as they’re going to be tromping all about Austin’s stomping grounds next week for SXSW, we sent out some questions to lead figure and wordsmith Yoni Wolf. You know, just to see what he’s all about.

Alopecia! Your most accessible and genre-confounding record yet, it seems like Why? is poised for a much wider audience. What, to you, makes this album different or more broadly accessible than your earlier work?

Well, I think we got our shit together a bit more this time in most every aspect of process: songwriting, arrangements, pre production, recording, mixing, mastering–the whole shebang. I think we were just somewhat more prepared every step of the way because we’ve been through it all a couple of times now.

You grew up in Cincinnati, but didn’t really find your crowd musically until you moved to San Francisco. Looking back as an adult, what about your Cincinnati experience made you the musician you are today?

I think everything I am today is based on my upbringing somehow, be it Cincinnati, Messianic Judaism, my high school friends, my siblings, my parents…

Okay, here’s academic question #1. In “Song of the Sad Assassin,” you start off by saying “we lifted the body from the water like a gown,” which is a really kick-ass metaphor. How do metaphor and image work for you in your music?

I use metaphors and images like they are gonna go out of style any minute: with frequency and in great abundance. I can’t get enough. Metaphors and images are really great tools.

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Album Review: Women as Lovers by Xiu Xiu

Xiu Xiu are what many would call a success story. After all, they’ve evolved from an experimental, rotating-cast freakshow who appealed only to the outer edge of musical snobs and depressed hipsters, to a full-on, Xiu Xiu Women as Loversfour member, MySpace friendly, blog-writing, book- producing, ceaselessly collaborating, networking whirlwind with legions of fans and the respect of critics. Not only that, but unlike some rise-to-glory stories, Xiu Xiu’s transformation has been nice to see, mostly because founding member Jamie Stewart and able sidekick Caralee McElroy always seemed to be having a lot of fun, connecting well with their fans and managing to maintain their sense of humor and their honesty.

But somewhere along the path to Women as Lovers, Xiu Xiu lost a little bit of their subtlety. Though all the band’s hallmarks—the experimentation, the grab-bag electronics and waves of unconventional percussion, the impassioned vocals complete with über-weirdo lyrics—are still there, something vital is missing. Could it be that fame, success, and comfort corrupted Xiu Xiu’s artistic process? That doesn’t seem to fit the still-odd Stewart and McElroy. But what about those two new permanent band members—could they have caused an unnecessary bloating of the music, as if the band weren’t quite ready to absorb all the new hands in the studio? Quite possibly. Regardless of cause, one of the most endearing aspects of Xiu Xiu—their utter vulnerability—has been replaced with a steady confidence.

This is not to say that Women as Lovers is a bad album. It is actually quite fine, as it has enough strangeness to appeal to those who appreciate strangeness, and enough adorableness to appeal to those who appreciate adorableness. Lead track “I Do What I Want When I Want,” complete with shared vocals, a near-perfect progression, no shortage of surprise, and Ornette Coleman-style saxophone, is a fantastic art-pop song. “No Friend Oh!,” whose title hearkens back to earlier albums, is a joy and experience to hear, a song with just enough head-shaking moments to feel like true-to-life Xiu Xiu. “Black Keyboard,” despite its disturbing lyrics, and “You Are Pregnant You, You Are Dead” are also excellent additions to the band’s catalog.

With all that strength, it’s hard to see what doesn’t feel right about this album. But something definitely isn’t quite right, and there’s a good chance the problem lies with the cover song blaring from the album’s center. “Under Pressure,” the David Bowie standard whose beat was made doubly famous by Vanilla Ice, makes for a well-done and interesting cover, all the way down to the exceptional vocal turn by Angels of Light and ex-Swans frontman Michael Gira. But what happens is that Women as Lovers feels less like a complete album and more like a collection of songs. Other moments in the album, including the irritating “Puff and Bunny,” in which Stewart repeats the words “hot pepper” a painful number of times, also lead to the disconnected feel of the album. And this effect, especially in comparison to their previous albums, is pretty jarring.

So it seems this is what happens when a band has established itself as being really, really good—they release an album that is only merely good, and people are annoyed. But that’s the price to pay for success—you better not display imperfection, because if you do you’ll be called on it. And so it is with Xiu Xiu, one of the most excellent and fascinating bands of the decade, and one that still holds that trophy. Even if the trophy isn’t quite as shiny as it used to be.

Xiu Xiu [Official] [Label] [MySpace] [Download Site]

Album Review: Alegranza by El Guincho

El GuinchoOkay, before we begin, there are some things we must know about El Guincho. First of all, El Guincho is one man, Pablo Díaz-Reixa, and he named his album after the uninhabited island of Alegranza, which is at the northeastern tip of the Canary Islands, which are—of course this is common knowledge—an autonomous domain of Spain located on the west coast of Africa. Díaz-Reixa is from these Canary Islands, and, via Barcelona, he creates swirling and excitable indie pop using loops and samples and an amalgam of musical influences ranging from Benga (Kenyan traditional music) to Bhangra (Indian folk) to any brand of tropicalia that flies well above the head of our good friend Jimmy Buffett.

All of this crazy backstory, and El Guincho still can’t seem to shake comparisons to Panda Bear—the “Spanish Panda Bear,” he’s been called. The Person Pitch parallels, despite the fact that there remains little coverage in English on El Guincho, have been mentioned so thoroughly by now that it’s practically mandated by law that every review gives a nod to the idea, an idea which to its inventor probably seemed pretty clever. But really, outside of the compositional technique and a layered load of repetition, there really isn’t too much tying these two machine-musicians together. El Guincho is an artist all his own, and discussing his music only in the context of someone else is a disservice, especially when one realizes that Alegranza is one of the most unique and fascinating albums to come out in a long time.

El Guincho2So if this isn’t really like Panda Bear (or Os Mutantes, or Beirut, or any of the other ridiculous comparisons people are throwing out there in an effort to quantify the album), what is it like? Well, there’s certainly an element of the circus here, an unabashed fun and playfulness that’s hard to find on most sample-based electronic releases. And that’s probably the most striking aspect of El Guincho—much like his funny-to-say band name, the music here is decidedly light-hearted. This means that all the dour indie fans whose pockets are full of angst and agony will probably check this disc at the door. But it also offers a much-needed dose of positivity and play that too often is absent from the oft-schizophrenic art-music scene.

Ultimately, songs like “Fata Morgana,” which starts softly and eventually rampages into a colorful steel drum salute, “Antillas,” a meditative study in repetitive excess, and “Buenos Matrimonios Ahi Fuera” which cruises along effortlessly with child vocals, are proof that computer-crafted music doesn’t have to be lifeless. Because although surely El Guincho crafts his loops and distorts his samples in a solitary world of meticulous detail and independent thought, his tunes are made for the streets, the clubs, the plazas, the alleyways. And this fact seems perfect: after all, that empty island he named the album after? Alegranza, derived from the Spanish, means “joy.”

[El Guincho’s MySpace]
[Download Site (album is sold out in Europe, and unreleased in America)]
[His blog (which is in Spanish, and is pretty crazy if you use an online translator)]

The Nature of Publication: Poetry in Literary Journals

This thingy here is mostly me thinking aloud (but not really aloud, now) about the nature of poetry publication in literary journals, and how the tendency to publish “one-off” poems rather than poems that are part of a bigger project, as well as the tendency to publish single poems rather than multiple poems by a single poet, is acting to undermine both poets and the journals who love them. Sure, this notion has arisen because of the my own publishing experiences; after all, continuing is the utterly disturbing trend of poems I consider “substandard” or “not-aligned-with-my-greater-projects” being published, while poems I believe are of greater substance wallow in unpublished nothingness. And although I take the blame for most of these occurrences, I think the aforementioned way journals go about filling their poetry-dedicated pages is not to be underestimated as a cause of the problem.

As for poems that are part of a larger sequence or project, I think the easiest explanation is that because the poems that comprise larger projects are, in fact, part of something larger, they are therefore prone to being less capable of standing alone. Yet I believe a more complicated explanation is that the themes of “project poems” tend to be more complex, or drawn out, or contextually-oriented to the project’s bigger picture, whereas the “one-off poems” are usually simple little ditties with a bite-size idea. They are pop songs.

But it’s frustrating nonetheless, because poets focused on publishing a book are more inclined to write albums than singles. But literary reviews really love their singles, and this is due in large part to their nasty propensity of publishing “poems” rather than “poets,” which results in a journal dedicating, say, fifty pages to poetry that features 46 lyric poems by 42 different poets. It’d be much better, in my opinion, if journals aimed to publish a poetic vision rather than just a lyric they happen to enjoy—this way a reader can recognize a poet’s identity, rather than getting maybe thirty lines and a significant likelihood of forgetting the poet’s name. It’s like getting a mix tape: yeah, you love the variety, but you probably aren’t going to constantly check the tracklist to see who you’re listening to.

So how about this: fifty pages, ten poets. Yes, that means everyone’s cover letter inevitably looks a lot less impressive, but there are several obvious benefits to be had, both for the journal and for the writer. First of all—and this seems funny to even say—the writer might actually give a damn when the journal arrives in the mail. And not because he or she would get to drool over more pages of his or her own work, but because it would be more interesting to see what other poets in the journal have to offer; you’d actually have the opportunity to develop a relationship with a companion poet’s work over the course of several poems. You’d also be pretty safe to assume that the editors were looking for cohesion in the issue, so it would help you reflect more thoroughly on your own work and its place in that particular issue, and the journal’s aesthetic as a whole.

Secondly, the personal relationship between a journal and a poet would be enhanced, because it takes a substantial commitment on both sides to make fifty pages/ten poets happen. It’s a commitment on the part of the journal not only because they are giving up more pages to each poet, but they also are relinquishing the habit of publishing “singles.” It would require a heightened degree of journalistic confidence in a writer’s vision, which would mean that they would be publishing probably at least a couple of a poet’s poems that they are only “iffy” on; but they would do this because those “iffy” poems are part of the vision, and offer the pros and cons of a bigger picture. It would also make an individual poet more likely to support the journal in the future, because publication would be more of an event and less of a “whatever.” As for the poet, the commitment is huge—to give multiple poems to one journal means that those poems are not going to be published elsewhere. It really is putting a lot of eggs in one basket, but the hope is that that basket will actually garner more exposure, because rather than being one easily-skippable page in three different journals, with two of the poems never being accepted for publication, you have five hard-to-ignore pages in one journal.

Of the more than 180 poetry-publishing journals with which I am familiar, no more than ten truly operate in this “poets-rather-than-poems” manner. The most notable of these is probably The Missouri Review, which has a long-standing history of pushing poets to the next level; after all, if you can say that you were published in The Missouri Review, you are saying that you were a featured poet who can offer not only flashes of lyric brilliance, but a consistent strength and unity of vision. But, to be honest, it is difficult to submit to this journal—they ask for 12-20 pages of poetry, and that’s a hell of a lot to put out there, even if they only take five or six pages. And surely, if every journal worked like this, it would be far more difficult to manage simultaneous submissions, as the clerical end of the deal would get to be very challenging. But ultimately, the relationship between journal and poet would be amplified, and the poet would be given more of an opportunity to become stylistically recognizable—especially to the casual journal reader who only has one or maybe two subscriptions (or, more likely, none), rather than forty; and this chance to have breadth revealed must be better than being just another insignificant name on a long list of one-offs.

Album Review: Distortion by The Magnetic Fields

Say you’re drunk. Or, better yet, you just woke up after one of those Mexican Martini nights, so it’s one of those mornings where the sun, you’re sure, is already blazing its blaze just beyond your bedroom window, yet you can only spot a squeak of it through the blinds, and that little bit of light is really all you handle. Anything more would send you into full-on fury, but that special kind of fury where you can’t really do anything, because, truly, you feel like shit.

The Magnetic Fields’ new album, Distortion, seems to have been composed on such a morning. But no, this isn’t a bad thing. If you think about it, some of the purest and most unadulterated moments come when in this most unpleasant of states; after all, reason is out and only absolute animalness and grouchiness and even a bit of self-loathing humor can be had. In music, you could say it’s a place where melodies are simple and indulgently satisfying, while the themes are effortlessly and simultaneously tragic and comic. And Distortion gets right at all of it, right down in its crusty center. True, the entirety of the album is covered in a fog, a thick haze of crunch and—who would’ve guessed it—distortion.

The fact that The Magnetic Fields are legends is and is not beside the point. Their epic 1999 release 69 Love Songs—a triple album magnum opus of range and obsession and theatricality and depression and joy—set the bar pretty high for lead man Stephin Merritt, and he’s struggled a little to get back to that apex. 2004’s i was an all-acoustic affair that felt a little too soft, and besides that we’ve only caught brief glimpses of the band in the twenty-first century, a fact that’s pretty shocking considering the fact that Merritt, with the help of three other occasional lead vocalists, came out with sixty-nine songs in one year. So, to say that Distortion is a return to form wouldn’t be fair, but to say that it’s a very nice album would be.

The album begins with the triumphant and mostly wordless “Three-Way,” a song which in its own conceit stands as a harbinger of the music to come, while tracks such as “Old Fools,” “Please Stop Dancing,” and “Drive On, Driver”—one of several songs ably sung by Shirley Simms—are signature Magnetic Fields songs blanketed in that relentless haze. There are a couple misses here, as “California Girls” (chorus: “I hate California girls”) and “Mr. Mistletoe” are either too over-the-top or too medicated to survive their own confidence. But the album holds together quite well, with or without the uniform distortion.

Truth be told, Stephin Merritt’s work feels a little out of place in 2008, as it doesn’t feature all the bells and whistles of present-day indie. But, surprisingly enough, that’s really refreshing. It’s just music, and honesty, and a damn-bad hangover. And Merritt puts the reason for the hangover, and the haze of the album, in perfect focus with the chorus of “Too Drunk to Dream”: “I’ve got to get too drunk to dream / cuz dreaming only gets me blue / I’ve got to get too drunk to dream / because I only dream of you / I got to get too pissed to miss you / or I’ll never get to sleep / I’ve got to drink wine not to pine for you / and god knows that ain’t cheap.” And so it goes.

More about The Magnetic Fields: Official Website or MySpace

To download this album via Daily Dose, click here.