September 29, 2011
One of my favorite indie bands from back in the days before the term “indie rock” was co-opted by the mainstream, is still the Sea and Cake. They have maintained a gorgeous, spacious sound, defined by an airy approach to mellow rock that is not afraid to indulge in odd left turns in rhythms and song structures. Key to their sound, is the breathy, almost unintelligible voice of lead singer/guitarist Sam Prekop, which more often than not lays on an expressionistic dimension to the already interesting proceedings. The band’s brief, but acclaimed recent release, Moonlight Butterfly (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase the vinyl on Amazon), stays true to its unique sound.
The Sea and Cake recently recorded a session for Daytrotter, worth sharing (click the exclusive Daytrotter illustration of the band by Johnnie Cluney above to jump over for the stream/download). The session ends with the “The Argument,” the song that introduced me to the band with a wallop. I heard it on the University of Miami’s radio station WVUM, on 90.5 FM, sometime in 1997. I have a vivid memory of that day. I was doing some office drudgery at a food distribution company that has since gone under (it was run by a pack of royal fuck-ups, so I will protect their legacy by not noting the company name). It wafted from the clock radio on my desk like a breath of fresh air, and I was hooked on the Sea and Cake ever since, buying up all their albums and following each release religiously, even though the band’s edge has softened over the years.
In the Daytrotter session, “the Argument” does sound a bit too rushed for my taste, and I miss the meandering battle between John McEntire’s drums and what sounds like a synthesized flute during the opening, but the other songs pay great tribute to the original versions, which come from their more recent albums, including two cuts from Moonlight Butterfly. It’s a great testament to the recording conditions Daytrotter offers visiting artists and to the live sound of the Sea and Cake. Speaking of, the band will kick off a US and Canada tour shortly, but, as usual, no dates in South Florida (they will only go as far south as North Carolina). You can see the tour dates, which start in early November, by clicking here.
September 27, 2011
Last week, Kino on Video announced the release of the Danish war documentary Armadillo (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) in the US. I reviewed it during its theatrical run earlier this year:
With Armadillo, filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen dives deep into the personalities of a handful of Danish volunteer soldiers who are assigned to an outpost near a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. From a filmmaking standpoint, the tension is palpable and human throughout. As a lesson in today’s current events, it remains relevant, as the Western allies continue to maintain a presence after the take-down of Osama Bin Laden, back in early May.
Armadillo truly demonstrates— in a visceral, real way— the cultural difficulties of entering a country to help people that are often hard to distinguish from the enemy. It also does an amazing job at capturing the influence of war on young minds. It’s theme is probably demonstrated best with this image of a wounded, once gung-ho soldier, which was actually used for the cover of the overseas release:
Rarely can a fictional movie capture the shock of the “real,” in the Lacanian sense, with a picture alone. Aramdillo is more than a movie: it’s an experience.
September 23, 2011
So Deerhoof, that anti-est of pop bands from California are not stopping in your city during their tour? They are offering a free download of their live album 99% Upset Feeling. Recorded during their current tour, it is 11 tracks long and only about 33 minutes long (typical compact but potent angular rock from the group). Dates so far are:
23 Cincinnati, OH Know Theatre (Midpoint Music Festival)
24 Champaign, IL Polyvinyl’s 15th Anniversary Party at Pygmalion (Braid, Xiu Xiu, and many more)
25 Chicago, IL Bottom Lounge (Trin Tran, The Cloak Ox)
26 St. Louis, MO Luminary Center for the Arts (Sleepy Kitty)
28 Ithaca, NY The Haunt (Keir Neurings, Powerdove)
29 Cambridge, MA Middle East (The Toughcats, Fat Worm of Error)
01 Washington, DC 9:30 Club (Benjy Ferree)
02 Asbury Park, NJ ATP Asbury Park Convention Hall & Paramount Theatre (w/ Portishead, Mogwai, Battles, Earth, and more) <– Ugh! Super jealous of anyone he can see that show!
Anyway, finally here’s the link to the free album (you can also choose to stream it, if you prefer):
It should be fun to hear, but not as fun as watching (we here in Miami have yet to get a visit). The band is truly in genre all its own. I wrote a special review for them earlier this year: Deerhoof vs. Evil: a Technicolor listening experience on pink vinyl.
September 12, 2011
Though it was David Bowie‘s first starring role in a feature film, Nicolas Roeg‘s 1976 movie the Man Who Fell to Earth is far from a star vehicle, and much more a movie firmly in place with the ambiguity of narrative immersed in the striking visuals of the Roeg canon. Of course, Bowie’s performance as an extraterrestrial on film inspired no-brainer comparisons to his alien rocker character on stage: Ziggy Stardust, a musical persona he had only just retired in 1973. Also, Bowie’s fey manner, inhumanely skinny frame, pale skin and shock of orange hair suited the movie so well the man himself seemed a special effect. Even now, on its 35th anniversary, as the film finally makes the rounds in its original director’s cut at US art houses with a newly restored 35mm print or HD theatrical projection via Rialto Pictures, Bowie stands out among the other iconic seventies-era players in the film (Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Candy Clark). It’s fitting his character, unlike the others, never ages in the film. It suits the film that the iconic Bowie has grown more immortal with age, continuing to influence generations of musicians. For Bowie fans, it is easy to watch the movie just to watch the man in action at the peak of his creativity. On the commentary track of the now out-of-print Criterion disc, Bowie noted that he began recording bits of his influential experimental pop albums Station to Station and Low while acting in this movie, assuming Roeg wanted him to score the film, too. Instead, John Phillips offers a widely varied score from atmospheric to funky, but still always dated and firmly stuck in the age of the mid-seventies.
But the movie stands the test of time as something other than a platform for Bowie-ogling*. This movie is also a distinctly Roegian work. Bowie himself decided to work on this movie based on the Roeg films Walkabout and Performance (which featured a rocker Bowie admired: Mick Jagger [again, see commentary track]). Bowie even admitted to never having read the script before agreeing to act in the movie (ibid).
Often compared to Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), the original 1963 Walter Tevis novel the film is based on, the Man Who Fell to Earth offers a moral tale about power and corruption. In the movie, Bowie plays an alien who lands on Earth in search of a means to restore water on his dying planet. He assumes the alias Thomas Jerome Newton, a British businessman with a briefcase full of patents that should make him the money necessary to fund a private space program that will somehow save his planet. However, he does not figure in the eccentricities of Earthlings— with their liquor and sex— and things get tough for Tommy fast. It’s a straight up enough story that almost comes across as a simple fable. But Roeg takes it to a whole other level, seeming to deconstruct the source material, converting the story into a purely cinematic experience.
Gone are key dramatic sequences that connects the downward spiral of the alien. When Thomas meets Mary Lou (Clark), the hotel maid that becomes his companion on Earth, she rescues him from the odd gravitational effects of an elevator. Distraught, Mary Lou carries the incapacitated Thomas to his room. After he vomits up some clear ectoplasmic goo and she wipes his bloody nose, she seems relieved to have not killed a hotel guest. Who would figure these two would end up together? Well, the following scene, both are hanging out in the room. She is dressed for a night out, drunk and pushing liquor on Thomas, who refuses, happy with only water and Aspirin. In the next scene, they are living together and she’s bringing him “that white wine you like.” Up to that point, the film went out of its way to point out Thomas did not drink, but then, all of a sudden he is drinking.
The movie is filled with convoluted narrative compromises like that. As Thomas establishes his corporation World Enterprises, at the start of the film, Roeg also parallels the story of Dr. Bryce (Torn), a university chemistry professor in the habit of sleeping with freshman female students who also seems to be a consumer of World Enterprises’ products (including a camera with self-developing film). Just as his superior at the university seems ready to fire him, he quits. Next thing you know, Bryce is working on a fuel project for World Enterprises, snooping out Thomas as something else than human. Again, as explained here, it all seems simple enough, but Roeg seems to obscure the flow with quick cuts, camera sweeps and zooms, punctuated by sudden bursts of blaring music. It’s as if he is purposely trying to distract the audience away from the story, and insisting they simply watch the movie.
There are many instances of odd visuals and sonics that serve as transitions. An early one occurs when Thomas seals the deal with patent lawyer Oliver Fransworth (Henry) to start a company. Thomas looks out into the night sky where a crooked line of dots expand and burst into fireworks but all one can hear is what sounds like the quiet swell of soft music that sounds like the calls of humpback whales. Later, as things begin looking grim for the drunken, corrupted Thomas, there is an image of him in alien form tumbling in space in what looks to have been formed from sputtering time-lapse imagery to the grim sound of Gustav Holst ‘s famous orchestra of “the Planets.” If you blink, you might miss the moment, as it lasts but a few seconds. Complicating matters is that it appears in the movie just as Thomas and Bryce sit in the desert outside some dilapidated house where Thomas seems have taken residence (why or how long he has been there is never explicated), in what seems a quiet moment. The orchestra swells, and thoughts seem to turn to Thomas’ dying family. Then comes the tumble and fade into an frantic scene of reporters crowding Thomas in a head-to-toe body suit, as he walks to the space ship that should carry him home. Over the din, is the chatter of news reports, talking about Thomas, World Enterprises, Farnsworth. Roeg cross cuts to Fransworth seeming to pay-off an hysterical Mary Lou to let go of the man. “I don’t want your money, I want Tommy!” she screams. It’s one intense, penetration after another into the narrative. You barely notice that Thomas is actually being kidnapped.
When World Enterprises ultimately collapses, reasons are never explained, but terrible things follow, and Thomas ultimately becomes a science experiment and finds himself stuck on Earth. But understanding how things happen in the movie seem of little importance to Roeg. He still manages to squeeze emotion from these proceedings with stirring abstract imagery. There is one death scene that offers pure cinematic poetry of music, editing, lighting and sound. The routine and wordless reflection to the loved ones Thomas has left on his dying planet appear in the film for only a few moments at a time, like some alternate reality squeezing into the cracks of Thomas’ life on Earth. Roeg is creating a film flowing of memories, exploiting the power of the medium to maximal effect while subverting expectations of narrative, bringing to mind the style of Jean-Luc Godard, if maybe he had taken speed.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is indeed so striking visually, it (and other Roeg films) inspired one of Big Audio Dynamite’s early hits. As Mick Jones, BAD’s frontman, and former Clash singer/guitarist, sings on the 1985 single “E=MC2: “Space guy fell from the sky/Scartched my head and wondered why.” The video even featured many clips of Roeg’s movies:
Back in that era of cinema history, science-fiction offered an invitation to filmmakers to not only explore other worlds and make technology, it also meant you could do what you want with the basic tools of cinema. Released the year before Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’ Star Wars, Roeg’s film came at the end of the sci-fi film as intellectual genre/abstract cinema pieces, a revolution famously pioneered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With Spielberg’s human and relatable touch, Close Encounters brought sci-fi down-to-earth while Lucas made no secret of the Flash Gordon serial influence on his movie, which opened the floodgates for the return of simplified popcorn sci-fi, including such dreck as Roger Corman’s Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars.
It’s wonderful to see the return of films like this one and World on a Wire (which I reviewed here: Fassbinder’s prophetic 1973 sci-fi work ‘World on a Wire’ finally sees theatrical release) to cinema houses. For the Man Who Fell to Earth‘s 35th anniversary, a restored 35mm print has been struck of the 139-minute director’s cut. I had an opportunity to preview the digital transfer of that print ahead of its release at the Miami Beach Cinematheque over the weekend. It’s not too far removed from the Criterion blu-ray in quality, but the cinematic presentation cannot be beat. In the projection of the film, my litmus test was to see how badly the orange of the opening titles bled into the image, but the picture was clean and crisp.
You can even easily overlook the grain contrast of the archival images of a rocket separating in space versus the shots filmed of it “crashing” to earth. There is nothing to gripe about with this film, technically, and is dynamism image-wise is never compromised by this new image. Even the shadows are painstakingly clean. The datedness of the film is wiped away to allow the image to breath in full effect on the screen. For a movie that indeed exploits the cinematic medium as brilliantly as this, one has to see it in the theater, and the pay off is immense. I’ll leave you with Rialto’s new trailer for the film:
And for fun, here’s how the movie was first sold to American audiences in a trailer suitably featuring no dialogue from the film (As the voice-over [by William Shatner no less!] puts it at this trailer’s opening, “This is one of the most unusual films you will ever see”):
The Man Who Fell to Earth will premiere in South Florida in newly restored high-definition digital projection, Friday night (Sept. 16), at 8:50 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It will play through Wednesday night (Sept. 21), at 8:50 p.m. each night. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check The Man Who Fell to Earth’s website for its screening schedule.
*Some Bowie fans will be happy to know that, yes, this the famous, original cut that features Bowie frolicking in bed with Clark in all his natural glory, a scene which the original US distributor decided to cut from the first version when it debuted in the US.
September 10, 2011
More than 10 years after setting the pop world on fire with his solo debut, Proxima Estación: Esperanza, Manu Chao has finally given Miami a long overdue live performance, thanks to the Rhythm Foundation. The wait did not matter. At 50 years old, this man still gives the same energy to the crowd as his early days. As noted on Independent Ethos earlier this year (Manu Chao to make Miami debut in Sept.) this show arrived with high expectations. They were met.
The Bayside Amphitheater (currently known as the Klipsch Amphitheater) was filled from the seats, over the lawn and on back to the food stands. It was an amazing feat to fill up such a space when your last original full-length album (La Radiolina) came out four years prior. Despite receiving mixed reviews (mostly in comparison only to his earlier albums, as his music offers a unique blend of punk, island and Latin music). I found, at least found it fine and uncompromising. He has maintained that kinetic, high-speed world-music spirit since his solo debut, 1998’s Clandestino, after leaving his successful and pioneering Paris-based Latin pop-punk band Mano Negra behind.
With only a trio of musicians behind him (guitarist Madjid Fahem, bassist Jean Michel Gambit and drummer Phillipe Tebou [also former Mano Negra]), Chao was still able to do his music justice, last night at the open-air theater in downtown Miami. Often known for having as many as 15 musicians on stage, Chao’s new quartet, named La Ventura (after a song by Mano Negra), powered through the singer/guitarist’s career of well-regarded tunes. Gambit, a bruiser of a Frenchman with tattoos running the course of his arms, but with a large, soft belly, triggered samples with one hand and offered a range of his weird popping sounds with his voice that even a signature “meow” during “L’Hiver Est Là” (Check my video out below), as he kept a steady rhythm and often lead the crowd in clapping along to the music.
Fahem brought the dexterous bounce in the song’s signature guitar lines, bolstered by Tebou’s athletic drumming, whose style reminded me of the Police’s Steward Copeland. One can’t help but thing of the police in their heyday, bouncing on stage in their pop-punk manner, as La Ventura did the same at many points throughout their show. They also both share the unmistakable influence of reggae. Compounding the British ska/punk influence in Manu Chao’s music, is his voice and delivery, which sounds like good old nasally Joe Strummer in the Clash.
All are fine, fun influences that certainly can pull in a vast crowd, and they did, but Manu Chao is far from derivative and more a lover of music that blends in a mix of cultures, offering the perfect soundtrack for a the city of Miami. But also the crowd wanted to dance, and their songs never offered a shortage of energy. Just as soon as you thought they were exploring their slower side, Tebou would lead the track into double-time, beating out the rhythm like a machine gunner. Here are three tracks, which occurred early in the show, that I recorded back-to-back-to-back and captures the unrelenting energy of the group:
In fact, I believe this band were on a quest to wear everyone out. However, Miami proved long pressed for a Manu Chao appearance and they three back as much energy as he gave. Beyond the pit never running out of water to spray into the air, and even the appearance of a giant inflatable killer whale to join in the fray, one audience member executed the most perfect invasion of a performance I had ever seen in my 20+ years of attending rock shows. This young woman stormed the stage to first plant a kiss on Chao’s mouth as he sang, then startled the bassist by popping up on his right side for a hug. Finally, security woke up and began chasing her, as she scurried to the guitarist to practically jump on his back. Dodging the grabbing hands of another security guard, who only snatched air, she was able to partially remove the headphones from the drummer and kiss him on the right cheek. Security finally pulled her away to take her out via the back stage, but she slithered out of their grasp to sprint and leap right off the stage, landing back in the pit from whence she emerged. The stunned and humiliated bouncer stared into the sea of raving fans for a couple of minutes and soon left… probably to go back to sleep. Of course, throughout the stunt, the band powered through without seeming to miss a note (if anyone finds a video of it, let me know, and I’ll share it here!).
“L’Hiver Est Là” was the encore song and audience members were singing along as they filed out of the amphitheater after something like four or five encores, which included the finale of that song at least twice. At the end, Chao told the unmoving crowd: “Y ahora que, Miami? Que vas a hacer, Miami?” (translation: What now, Miami? What you gonna do?). The crowd never budged after every “ending”– even those standing at the far end of the field. Chao even came out when the house lights came up to meet those lingering at the front of the stage.
The night was always electric with energy. At the start of the show, rain meekly drizzled down, but Mother Nature failed to dampen the proceedings. Mr. Pauer stirred up the crowd for Chao. He’s a local guy from Venezuela, but has received global attention for his pioneering work in the world of Latin electronica. His warm-up mash-up mix featuring Latin pop songs mixed with classic rock and ethnic dance beats flowed from his mixer and laptop with infectious ease. People wanted to jump around and dance, and they were geared up by the time Chao appeared with his trio of backing musicians. At that point, the rain gave up, and it was on with an unrelenting live show that carried on for nearly two hours.
Manu Chao offered a great start for what will be a packed month of live shows in South Florida featuring stellar acts (September offering some good concerts in SoFla). In the meantime, La Ventura’s tour continues with a few more dates to go:
09/11 – Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade Music Park
09/13 – Chicago, IL @ Congress Theater
09/16 – Austin, TX @ Stubbs
09/18 – Austin, TX @ Austin City Limits
The other day, I shared an interview compiled from a series of emails exchanged with the UK-based poet Rick Holland, who most recently worked on a collaborative album with rock’s most famous intellectual, Brian Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2]). Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon) saw release by Warp Records back in July. I had been exchanging emails with Holland since late June, as he considered several questions I had about his collaborative work with Eno.
He took his time, and I offered it to him. He wrote out my questions and journaled answers in hand-written notebooks before writing me back with thoughtful answers. But he also sent me back some spontaneous emails with thoughts on further questions. Though this certainly allowed for much editing of thoughts, I think it appropriately reflected the craft of what he and Eno did together. After all, Drums Between the Bells, with its electonic-based music and deliberately read poetry (sometimes presented in a haze of another layer of electronics), is anything but a jam record. The Eno/Holland collaboration is a thoughtful work, and grows with age and listening investment.
When I began my undergrad art studies in the early nineties, I took a mix of Eno’s instrumental music on a portable cassette player to art galleries and parks. Who better to offer musical accompaniment to art? His music can range from subtle drones to hyperkinectic layers of poly-rhythmic dissonance. It also defined a new genre of music in the mid-seventies that Eno himself coined: ambient. What better composer to offer a musical track to a poet who crafts artistic prose that can both observe the world on its existential face and cut into the fabric of perceptions? My favorite track on Drums, must be “Pour It Out,” adapted from Holland’s poem “New York” from his Story the Flowers book (It’s all there):
But then the album as a whole offers its own dynamic journey through a variety of prose and musicality (In the interview below, Holland notes the complete process of writing, recording and producing this album took eight years). Throughout our correspondence, Holland offered some dense insight into the process of crafting Drums Between the Bells, and also provided an illuminating look into the mind of a poet well-suited to work with someone as intellectual as Brian Eno. Before I continue with this interview, which you will find concluded below, I feel it’s important to contextualize the significance of a new, original, Eno-composed album featuring words.
Eno has been recording solo albums since 1973. He broke out of England’s post-prog scene of glitter and feathers glam rock, after leaving Roxy Music. All the while, he made a career of coming to terms with the role of words in music. Eno famously considers the function of words within songs as just another instrument rather than a literary narrative with a message, as the implications behind the latter throw in a huge monkey-wrench into the ideas of composition for him.
Citing from Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, the Eno-centric website More Dark Than Shark, quoted Eno as having said, “[Lyrics] always impose something that is so unmysterious compared to the sound of the music [that] they debase the music for me, in most cases.” That was back in 1985. I thought surely his attitude towards lyrics had changed by the time he recorded his first solo vocal album in 25 years, 2005’s Another Day on Earth (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It seems it has. In an interview with Sound on Sound (a music magazine for the studio engineer) promoting that album, Eno said of his return to music with vocals: “The simple answer is that five or six years ago I noticed that I was starting to sing again and enjoying it. Also, since I stopped doing vocal albums and worked on the landscape side of music, certain technological developments have happened that give you the possibility to shape your voice, and that reawakened my interest.”
This technological idea of obscuring the voice of the singer was key for Eno, in that it seems to separate identifying the singer with the words he is singing. “One of the reasons I stopped making vocal records was because I was fed up with the identification that’s always made between the voice on the record and the composer, as if this person singing was some sort of extension of my personality,” he continued in the 2005 interview. “But I don’t care about my personality being the content of the thing. I always liked the idea of seeing what I was doing the way a playwright might think of a play or a novelist might think of a book.” So chalk up Eno’s growing distaste for lyrics to the influence of mostly “illiterate” music journalists and fans he must have encountered during his many years as a rocker.
To the ears of this writer, Eno’s attitude to lyrics produced some amazingly surreal and pure prose in his early years, but the later years of his lyrics never seemed to stand out as some of his more remarkable works, as it all must have worn thin on him by then. Now here comes the 32-year-old Holland, invited by the 63-year-old Eno to provide him with some of the most refreshing words in many years for Eno to work with. The result, which suitably features an array of guest vocalists who have nothing to do with the rock world– as noted in the first part of this interview series– certainly has brought my attention back to words entangled in Eno’s music. In the end, Drums Between the Bells offers something even more interesting than Eno’s most recent work with a better known songwriter and long-time collaborator, David Byrne, for the pleasant, albeit predictable, 2008 album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
With that context in place, on with the interview with Holland, who, in this part of the feature, offers his ruminations on the best place to listen to Drums Between the Bells, the music of words and even an evaluation Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973′s Here Come the Warm Jets (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) and 1974′s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon)…
Hans Morgenstern: Can I just say that I read this article (Clash Music’s Aug. 7 interview with Holland), and the fact that Brian says Drums Between the Bells is a good album to “wash up to” was funny to me because that was the first way I heard it (whilst taking a shower). So where’s the best place to hear the album in your opinion?
Rick Holland: In a state of stillness akin to lucid dreaming where surface concerns are replaced by free and contemplative activity that is not self-conscious. In the absence of this elusive brain state, washing up sounds a pretty strong contender. I have most enjoyed listening while driving on a long journey; though the best time for achieving this brain state seems to be in the middle of the night listening to incidental sounds mashing up – I like to use the sounds as triggers to imagine whatever comes into my mind. A flow is achievable in this state that is very much reduced when ‘recording’ art from imagination to medium. Getting near to that state is probably ‘the best place’ to listen to this album, where judging brain is dampened and imagining brain is electric, and as free to move as electric as long as the circuit is in place and not interrupted.
As I noted in an earlier post on Drums Between the Bells (Brian Eno reveals full streams of 3 tracks from new album), I was attracted to this Eno record because he seems to finally be dealing with lyrics on a deeper level than usual. Has he told you why he was interested in putting your words to music?
Strangely enough we have never had that conversation, we just got to work. I did learn through the process that ‘lyrics’ served a greater master: ‘sound’ in world Eno, but also that he was not closed to them as carriers of their own potential, but that he was overjoyed for the ‘meaning’ to become tied in with different axes of sound and atmosphere, and be loosely and ambiguously tied to the more conventional systems of language.
The whole album could have been done differently; it spanned eight years or so, and at any particular juncture in that time I would have had strong ideas about what could have been done differently. There were techniques available in the last three weeks of work that were not available in the first seven years, and early tracks with components that were lost forever in archival glitches and were rebuilt. There were times when I wanted only to feature the voice, and other times I wanted the voice obliterated into signals bearing no obvious resemblance to speech. At various points we would try versions of each of our visions, and make a piece that really and truly was not the end product of either of those visions. I would make the whole album differently if we started again tomorrow, and so would Brian. From ‘Drums Between The Bells’, all of the experiments have been successes in my eyes, but all of them have also suggested future alternatives. People who listen to the record will have strong ideas of what can be done differently too. That is one of the album’s great strengths; it moves in between territories, music, words, sound, that are familiar and then alien and many points in between. That aspect of it I wouldn’t change at all.
Do you have any rhythm or music in mind when your poems come out of you?
The words themselves dictate the rhythm, set it running like a free drum part, but I would say I have an instinctive relationship to music and rhythm in my writing more than a trained one. To steal directly from something I heard Rakim say in a documentary the other night, ‘I was trying to rhyme like John Coltrane played the sax’. Fundamental rhythms and music have moved me since I can remember, and these are definitely built in to my writing without ever feeling the need to adhere strictly to traditional ‘poetic’ forms and meter.
From what source do you find most inspiration comes from when composing?
The world playing out in front of me. If pushed to identify a trigger, I would say pattern formation followed closely by sound. ‘Artificially’ speaking, music and especially live performance fills my gut with a kind of adrenalised need to express something.
Have you read reviews of the album? What do you think of the reception? Do you think music critics are “getting” it?
I went on a journey with the criticisms of the album. I ignored common wisdom that says ‘do not read reviews’ and actually ended up being encouraged to read them and respond in a ‘blog conversation’ with Brian (which itself headed off piste straight away). Like everything, some are good and some are bad, but of the critics who were able to put time and investment into listening and avoid the understandable traps of rushing out copy, I think the reception was fair. For a reviewer wanting to be transported without challenge, ‘Drums Between The Bells’ may seem an unnecessary challenge of disparate ideas and sounds. And it is completely reasonable to expect music to be a portal to elsewhere that doesn’t need to be ‘got’. If a reviewer came to the album with no expectations and a little time to think, they almost unanimously found things that resonated strongly in the experience. There are of course plenty of comments, good and bad, that are wide of a mark that I would recognize, and a few that have made me want to contact the writer and vent some spleen, but life is short.
I would say that our need as a society to quickly package anything is indicative of a wider approach to the world that has serious pitfalls, but I am not so self-important to think that someone ‘not getting’ this album is significantly important to the wider good of humanity. I wish people would stop harping on so much about ‘Art’, ‘Poet’, ‘genre’ and other blanding agents, but it is for each person to decide how he or she perceives what is really only a collection of sounds and relationships, like any music. Brian and I came up with some categories for songs when putting the running order together, they were ‘think’, ‘look’, ‘feel’ and ‘soul,’ I think, or similar with several crossovers.
I’m very curious of what you think of Eno’s early forays into lyrics, which he himself has called nonsense, but I feel have an unabashed surreal quality.
I scanned (thanks to Enoweb) through the lyrics for ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ because I haven’t listened to that album, so I thought it would be a good appraisal of the ‘lyrics’ as standalone … the scanning happened quite fast until I hit ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk.’ This was the first thing that caught me as more than words to be sung that had been transcribed. From what I know of Brian, the sounds will most likely have come before the actual words, but in this automation there is still subconscious coupling of sounds with emotions, and emotions with word choices, and word choices with streams of more ‘macro’ patterns of thought.
Rappers freestyle in 16 bar salvos. Through practising and writing more, the rhythms and internal variations within those rhythms develop so much so in the best rappers that they become second nature until they act as a conduit for whatever the consciousness wants to express. I think good lyrics are the same beast and are no less ‘poetry’ because of it; if anything they are more so, as they are perhaps more likely to avoid the pitfalls of over-analysis on the way out.
‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’ on the page could be about any ‘authority’ figure in any walk of life who is more bluff than balls, and it also has interjections from less primary sources of input like modernist poetry (which may have taken that tendency to mix and match from a world of songs and televisions and technology anyway). ‘More fool me, bless my soul’ sounds like a blues phrase co-opted, especially repeated. The ‘perfect masters/thrive on disasters/look so harmless/til they find their way up here’ is pure 16 bar beat riffing when I read it on the page. So, in the interests of science, I listened to the song after reading the lyrics to see what happens to them in the song…
At which point I realised I have heard this song before! No matter, I wrote all the above before realising that. The ‘more fool me, bless my soul’ was unsurprisingly musical, though more Buddy Holly than I was expecting. The lyrics in this song are certainly not nonsense, though that doesn’t mean that they have been set out to work as words on a page (which, in this case, they certainly do. I enjoyed reading them).
I’ll try the same approach with the ‘Whale’ song [“Mother Whale Eyeless”] you mentioned, which I haven’t heard before.
This reads like an appraisal of life in a country even more at the mercy of its media and propagandas than the one we live in now. It reads as highly political and highly poetic. ‘Don’t ever trust those meters’, ‘there is a cloud containing the sea’, ‘parachutes caught on steeples’, these all sound like the product of automatic writing that has been introduced to and bedded into an environment; the environment has been made by constantly observing the world in an imaginative way (‘stirring the air’ I called this in my own early poems about escaping from the claustrophobic world around me). At its start it reminded me of the impression I got from ‘A Day in the Life’ when I listened to it as a kid. ‘Got up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…. somebody spoke and I went into a dream’. It says the details of our politicised lives are as ridiculous as they are pervasive, and that we, as individuals, are in turn angered, powerless and gloriously alienated from those details. Our bonds in life are all constructs ultimately.
Then I listened to the song…
“Mother Whale Eyeless” is a fascinating song, unmistakably Brian in places, I would have to say. That brilliant simple guitar riff after about two minutes, the change and shift with the female chorus vocal. But anyway, the words, the words. The thing is, the morning papers, tea and other details are already shaken to their core by the way they are sung and spiral away from the details I picked up reading the lyrics straight away. It says a lot about the ‘lyrics’ debates that go on, the words on a page are a wholly different animal from the words performed and adorned.
If I had just listened to that song straight away, I would not have listened closely to most of the words, I must admit (though certainly would have picked up more with repeated listens). I would have started in the kitchen, then moved on to the guitar-feeling and then moved into the otherworld of the clipped female chorus and settled on the statement, ‘In another country, with another name/ Maybe things are different, maybe they’re the same’ as a carte blanche for anything that doesn’t make sense to float on unrepentant for being nonsense, because it might make sense under different circumstances, and the next evocation of something more ‘graspable’ may be just around the corner. I’ve always made these kinds of allowances listening to music, ever since I can remember. There is something perfectly sensible about that approach to writing words and to listening to them too. The eyeless whale chuckles at the world’s myths. Nonsense?
If I had to choose between the two experiences, in this case, I would choose reading the words, which is a surprising outcome. ‘Mother Whale Eyeless’ is a poem on the page for me (maybe because I approached it like this first) and the song is an event with some exciting moments but holding less meaning overall for me, at this moment. Perhaps this tells us that anything is ultimately what we make it. Perhaps it also tells us that Brian was writing poetry in spite of himself, and perhaps it also tells us that his instinctively curious approach to the world manifests itself clearly in the groups of words he chooses to fit together, which certainly isn’t a surprising outcome. I mentioned (skilled) rappers earlier so used to their molten bedrock that what they can sprinkle on top of it is almost instinctive. This doesn’t make their output less important or interesting.
Brian understands his vocabularies and their potentials so well that the more cumbersome ‘word’ part I would imagine does not excite him as much as other things: ‘sound’, ‘voice’, ‘space’, ‘colour’ being a few. Doubly so when you consider that he has been making music for several decades and is always keen to explore new possibilities.
* * *
Many thanks to Rick for taking the time to entertain these questions and offering such an enlightening look into the experience that culminated in one of the richest albums 2011 has had to offer! Not to mention indulging me with his honest view of some early iconic Eno glam rock songs that he had never heard to start with.
September 5, 2011
A couple of months ago, I sent poet Rick Holland a link to my post sharing my excitement about the results of his participation with Brian Eno, Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon). He wrote back graciously expressing his appreciation for my “kind words.” He also said he would pass my email on to Warp Records, as I had expressed an interest in an advance listen of the album.* Though that did not happen, I stayed in touch with Holland for a profile piece on “Independent Ethos,” the results of which are now ready for posting in this multi-part interview series.
Holland identifies himself as “Rick” as the sender in email correspondence. It’s a nice detail that offers an appropriate gateway to understanding the young man (he’s 32) who wrote the lyrics of “The Real:”
you really seem to see the real
the exact and actual reality
of the real in things you seem to see
And that is only a taste of the mind-bending words Holland explores in “the Real.” The song opens with the crystal clean voice of 22-year-old Elisha Mudly. Like many of the participants on Drums Between the Bells, the “vocalists” are not rock stars (though some of the reading was done by Eno). Mudly is a drama/psychology student and dancer who had worked for Eno “around the studio, sorting stuff etc.,” she told me via Facebook. “Brian and Rick were working on this project and they just asked if I’d like to read something quickly. So, had some tea, read some poetry and then we said goodbye,” she explained (as the interview with Holland continues below, he emphasizes the serendipitous appearance of Mudly in the studio, as a happy coincidence that resulted in the smooth recording of that track).
On “the Real,” Mudly reads with quiet, ethereal purpose as ambient drones swell and recede, like the wash of waves on the sea shore, beneath her voice. Taking the words to a whole other brilliant level, the bed of drones continue as the words are repeated. This time, however, Eno slows down Mudly’s voice a notch and decorates it with a shimmering vocoder effect, repeating the words exactly as before… but not. The implications of the words and Eno’s use of them reveals a brilliant creative connection between the two artists.
Holland’s awareness of the subjective quality of perceptions seemed to reveal an intellect that would indeed find a kinship with the mind of a thinking musician like Eno. In an interview with Michael Engelbrecht on the Germany-based blog, Manafonistas, Holland described a true collaborative relationship with Eno, when he described an instance when he requested a certain “sound” from the music: “I do offer musical ideas and also extremely vague and over-reaching requests: ‘Can you make this part sound more like primordial sludge, Brian?’ That kind of thing. Of course, his answers tend to be, ‘Yes, yes, I can.’”
Holland’s own direction to Eno sounds just like the sort of language Eno would understand well, as abstract as it might sound. Eno is the guy who devised the Oblique Strategies card set with painter Peter Schmidt in the early seventies with similar sorts of directions, if sometimes even more obtuse (Read all about Oblique Strategies).
I wanted to know more about their album, Drums Between the Bells, which has easily grown into one of my favorite Eno albums in many years, and I do consider it among the best albums I have heard this year. Though Holland is certainly in the shadows next to a man often called the pioneer of ambient music and known as the producer of U2’s and Coldplay’s highest regarded albums, Holland’s contributions of words to Drums Between the Bells is key to elevating this work to a higher level. Just as earlier Eno collaborations, like Fourth World Vol. 1 – Possible Musics, would have never been the same without Jon Hassell’s trumpet or Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror without Harold Budd’s piano, Drums would have never floated to its otherworldly quality without the words of Holland (an instrumental-only second disc in the deluxe version of this album provides the bare evidence of this).
I wanted to ask him about working with Eno and how the collaboration worked. The problem was I live in Miami and Holland splits up his time in London and Dorset, England, so long distance would be rough on either of us struggling writers. I had done email interviews in the past (Read one I did with Melt Banana here), so I was wary (Melt Banana, being Japanese noise surrealists provided perfect answers in their own quirky way, but I was really hoping for some deep insight from Holland on working with Eno). When he told me he would write out my questions to respond via notebook and then write them again in an email, I knew I would be in for some interesting, thoughtful responses. So allow me to begin the interview with that: Why would Holland go through such trouble to respond to my questions…
After I explained my own experience with the effect of writing longhand and then re-writing in a computer (the process alone seems akin to writing as many as three drafts before coming up with a finalized piece), Holland wrote back the following:
Definitely of the school of rewriting … I have come full cycle back to notebooks, having started with pieces of paper.
I think writing by hand, poetry or lyric-wise and probably longer pieces or articles too, is the best approach in the early stages. The closest I have come to the same effect electronically is by emailing myself repeatedly. Write ‘poem’, email it to self, redraft on first reading, email it to self, fiddle, email it to self, go to bed, read it and email to self. Continue process to finish or abandonment. This approach allows the same kind of overall approach that doesn’t cripple the piece in self-analysis but does allow small and important changes to feed into the work without too much head-scratching or too many changes at once.
The temptation to edit while you write is too strong on a word processor of any kind, I find. Now, if I have a eureka moment (very rare at a computer anyway) I write it in my notebook if I have it– I usually carry it around everywhere– or on a piece of paper, or increasingly as a ‘draft’ on my mobile phone. The trick is to remember to check the ‘drafts’ or look again at the notebook or transfer the scribble to notebook or computer. If I transfer it early to a computer and do the ’email thing’ then it is likely to get finished. If I don’t, then it may re-emerge as something quite different in the future.
This is what I started my blog [rickholland’s posterous] for as well actually (see you have got me started now) : a live notebook, to air ideas and return to them. Because they are in a public place, it probably means my vanity will make me check back over them more than I would do in a paper notebook. This is no bad thing, as I tweak them online, and consumer behaviour (I think) doesn’t really pay much attention to old blog entries anyway, so the effect really is only that of an evolving notebook. I have conditioned myself to ‘post’ things on there in their imperfect state, which is against our instincts, and sometimes they remain just fine as imperfects… another ‘condition’ is to only post things that I am genuinely working on at the time or am finding interesting and learning about.
I thought that email was a candid response that offered an intimate glimpse into how this young poet works and how seriously he takes the significance of words.
In an interview on aqnb, Holland noted he has actually known Eno as far back as 10 years ago, when Eno happened on Holland’s debut poetry performance with musical accompaniment. “It was at my first show with the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal College of Art,” Holland said. “The short of it is we did this improvised music and poetry section for it. Brian was there and I met him after.” Holland went on to explain that beyond some experiments with Eno, nothing resulted until only recently, which seemed to begin with something called “Speaker Flowers,” last year. It was Holland’s and Eno’s first “public performance,” which was really an art installation at Marlborough House, during the Brighton Art Festival, in May 2010. Eno was selected as artistic director that year. As the title of the project suggests, the installation included small speakers on stems jutting out of the ground and vases like floral arrangements. From these “speaker flowers” came the hum, whistle and drone of ambient music by Eno to the words of Holland. Someone actually shot part of it on what looks to be cellphone video:
Then came Holland’s first book of poems, Story the Flowers, which contains many of the poems– in slightly varying forms– that were part of “Speaker Flowers” became the words to the tracks on Drums Between the Bells (One can still purchase first edition, signed copies of the book direct from the poet on his website: rjholland.com). Any changes to the poems were subtle, Holland told me. So, with some of the history and context now of the album out of the way, take in a preview of every track on Drums:
… and now the beginning of my email interview with Holland:
Hans Morgenstern: Did Eno give you any parameters when composing the lyrics? Or did he give you any “Guidance”?
Rick Holland: No, he never gave me parameters for composing the lyrics, he either chose what most appealed to him or I suggested what I thought best ‘fitted’ the music he had started. There were occasions in the ‘sung’ material that he flagged difficult words ‘the elemental’ being replaced by ‘nature’s’ (from ‘Breath of Crows’) is an example that springs to mind. When treated as spoken, it was rarer for lexical changes to be needed but the ‘poem’ itself was repositioned in a musical world, and in that world it sometimes needed to change shape, which I was happy to experiment with in a way that a more traditional ‘poet’ may not have been.
Did these lyrics exist unto themselves as poems and the music followed? Did you have any say about the music? Was there anything he did musically with your words you were surprised by?
We worked together in his studio throughout the intensive final weeks and also at most of the sessions that spawned the initial ‘skeletons’ of the tracks over the years. I think we both took some steps away from our comfort zones over these sessions, which is what collaborating relies on, and there was certainly never a sense that he ‘did’ music and I ‘did’ words. Poems and Music were equally likely to change in the process of making, and the making process was an open forum of ideas.
‘The Real’ is perhaps the most recent example of a ‘school’ of song formation whereby Brian would have several pieces on the go and I would provide or write words for the ones that most spoke to me. The first stage in these tracks was to superimpose a vocal over the existing music. Sometimes, a vocal just steers the piece towards its final shape and many musical ideas were provided by the vocalists, not directly, but in the nuances of their readings and more specifically their own ways of forming spoken words.
The components of this one just fell into place with a combination of reshaping an existing ‘poem’ I had been working on, and the beautiful chance arrival at the studio of Elisha Mudley, who really did appear like an angel that day, unannounced, and just in time for us to record. Not all days ran that smoothly!”
It may seem an obvious thing to say, but Brian is interested in a world of
sound. When selecting the reading voices he would almost always choose a female voice, and one that was not a native English speaker; these choices were made because they best served his world of sound. The readers would also not spend time ‘rehearsing’ the readings. Again, the readings- like the readers – were designed not with rigid ideas of poetic performance in mind but rather to produce interesting worlds of sound; and secondarily from words that would hold resonance too once placed in new conditions. These decisions were Brian’s, or rather, the ‘conditions’ were from Brian’s vision.
Male voices that appear on the various recordings (while admittedly not representative of the whole male speaking world) tend to thicken out a bass end, and to accentuate that kind of pulse when treated in a musical sense. Female voices, in the same terms of generalisation, tend to ‘sing’ a treble end, and introduce more variables to the overall music. Where possible I think we tried to achieve music in the voices without reverting to totally digitally rebuilding the voice recordings, we tried to accentuate those musical characteristics that are in voices already rather than craft entirely artificial ones.
Again these conditions were mostly Brian’s and I tended to try to carve my contributions into words that would both serve music and feed back from it. It was a process that required a great deal of dexterity, and a mind open to
allowing ‘meanings’ to flood from one chamber to fill a different one, at the risk of sounding esoteric. Occasionally that involved mourning a good early edit as it disappeared down river to become something else, but without that process the banks of communication through words and music could not be tested for interesting leaks.
‘Voice choice’ therefore involved taking the stress away from ‘what is poetic?’ and ‘what is polished?’ and towards ‘what is voice?’ and ‘what is music?’. Some readers read as though reading an important truth, others as though reading a list, and some read just to get through each syllable and finish. All kinds hold potential.
It should be added that female voices also belong to women, and there is no doubt that a woman vastly improves the atmosphere of a recording studio, and a most welcome change in dynamic from the one that existed between us two
men, with the occasional input of more men, like Nick (Robertson) and Peter (Chilvers).
* * *
This interview continues in Part 2, (Rick Holland Poet/Eno collaborator ruminates on the music of words), where Holland ruminates on the best place to hear the album, the music of words and even evaluates Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973’s Here Come the Warm Jets and 1974’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
*I was able to buy a deluxe edition hardcover, double CD version via DeepDiscount.com, as it sold out on many sites during pre-order (it is now, once again, appearing in many stores).
(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)