Sunday, April 15, 2012

To rock, to roll, to sing the muse

Here is the poem that Donovan read at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, on Saturday night in Cleveland. He said it "came to me" when he learned that he had "finally" been inducted (although he has used at least part of it before).

From my wandering days on lonely sands
When I sang my song to the moon and stars
To the world's great stage
Honored am I to sing my song to a million fans.
Always my wish to be of service
To ease emotion deep in the heart.
Always your poet, a shaman am I
To leaders or to the realm within
But I was branded for my beauty, yet protected by my art
Many plundered me for booty, but only one did steal my heart
How she keeps it in her casket still remains a mystery
Like the moonrise in a sunset, like the silence of the sea
I thank you for this bright green laurel resting now upon my brow
I thank you, goddess, and thank you, muses
And I thank my fellow artists all.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Talking 2011 on WFUV


As part of my critic rotation duties on the WFUV Music Review — after doing it every week for a few years, I now alternate with Anthony DeCurtis and Josh Baron — I went on the air the other day to talk about three of my favorites from 2011: Tinariwen’s “Tassili,” Laura Marling’s “A Creature I Don’t Know,” and James Blake’s self-titled debut.

As always, I had fun with Claudia, but unfortunately they (she?) edited out all her wisecracks to get the thing down to the five allotted minutes. I could have blabbed on for so much longer.

You can listen to it here, and subscribe to the Music Review here.

Some recent reviews: Band of Bees, Cass McCombs, Jayhawks, Beirut, Glen Campbell.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Who I buried in 2011


Monday, December 19, 2011

My best of 2011

Top 10:

1. Cass McCombs, Wit’s End (Domino)Photobucket
2. James Blake (A&M/Atlas)
3. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant)
4. Tune-Yards, Whokill (4AD)
5. Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know (Domino)
6. Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)
7. Tinariwen, Tassili (Anti-)
8. Low, C’Mon (Sub Pop)
9. Beirut, The Rip Tide (Pompeii)
10. Matthew Herbert, One Pig (Accidental)

Also good (in alphabetical order):

Adele, 21 (XL/Columbia)
Keren Ann, 101 (Blue Note)
Antlers, Burst Apart (Frenchkiss)
Alison Krauss & Union Station, Paper Airplane (Rounder)
Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (Sensibility)
Jolie Holland and the Grand Chandeliers, Pint of Blood (Anti-)
Jeffrey Lewis, A Turn in the Dream-Songs (Rough Trade)
Nick Lowe, The Old Magic (Yep Roc)
My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO)
Lou Reed and Metallica, Lulu (Warner Bros.)
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (4AD)
Washed Out, Within and Without (Sub Pop)
Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)
Yuck (Fat Possum)

Friday, October 7, 2011

You're still someone if Steve Jobs never called you at 3 a.m.


I was just sitting at home late one night, counting my money, when the phone rang. "It's Steve. That column you wrote was a piece of crap. Here are my ideas for the next iPod, iPad, manned space station and cure for AIDS. I am telling you all of this because this is what I do. I'm Steve Jobs, and I reveal myself in mysterious ways, especially when I confide in you. Now here is my plan for conquering Hollywood."

That never happened to me, of course. Like millions of others, my closest contact with Steve Jobs was in watching Apple's carefully choreographed video feeds, and through reading his endearingly curt, deus ex machina messages to customers on ("Yep." "Nope.")

But in all the coverage of Jobs's death — a couple pieces of which I have been responsible for — you get the sense that everybody else in business or journalism had some kind of special lifeline to the great man, randomly accessed but always deeply meaningful. Writers of all kinds recalled Jobs phoning at odd hours with specific reactions to their pieces, underscoring the significance of their work. TV personalities dangled meaningless connections. Business leaders beamed about the abuse and cajoling they regularly got from him; like groupies recounting their encounters years later, they always eagerly gave in.

Many of these connections were surely real. Jobs did of course have a habit of calling some key journalists, like Walt Mossberg. But make no mistake: there are very, very few Walt Mossbergs out there. It reminds me of something my esteemed former colleague Bernard Holland once wrote about the many spurious claims of familiarity after the death of Glenn Gould, another famously private and irascible personality:

In death, Gould came to life. Music business operatives appeared suddenly and in hordes, claiming hitherto unnoticed intimacy with the great man and eager to share their experiences in articles, interviews and books. It was amazing how many had known Gould so well, spent so many hours exchanging deep thoughts during marathon middle-of-the-night phone calls to area code 416.

So take those stories of late-night calls from Jobs with a grain of salt.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A conversation with Brian Eno

I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Eno about his new album, “Drums Between the Bells.” He’s one of the gods that I can now cross off the list, and he was a completely kind, charming athlete of brilliance. I was terrified that I would wind up coming across like Chris Farley, but I think I did OK.

It’s always frustrating, though, how few of those kind, charming, brilliant words actually make it into a newspaper article, so here is a more thorough transcription. This is still not complete; it was just too long. But I think you get the idea.

How did “Drums Between the Bells” and your collaboration with Rick Holland come together?

I started working with words against music, rather than songs, quite a few years ago. Even in the ’70s I did a few early things where I was using spoken word rather than sung word. I became more interested in that direction as time went on. And I think it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to look toward alternatives to conventional song structures. So if you think of “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” that was a sort of an alternative to ordinary songwriting in that it deliberately used voices that weren’t ever intended to be part of that song. So that collage thing was one of the ways I thought of getting away from ordinary songwriting.

You may be thinking, “Why did he want to get away from ordinary song structures?” Well, the reason was because I was thoroughly bored with them. The whole history of pop music had rested on the first person singular, with occasional intrusions of the second person singular: [singing] “I am this, I think this, and you do this, and you are this...” I was so bored with the idea of the whole song being based around some individual’s narrative. So I started working on ways to try to get rid of the idea that the voice in the song was the voice of the song — that was the center of the meaning of the song It’s a little bit like when people started melting figures into landscapes, so that you stop looking at a picture of a person against a background and started looking at a picture of a whole field of things, which happened to include a person.

I experimented many times with the idea of seeing what happens if you stick a spoken voice against a piece of music. And now, because it’s 2011, I was able to do a little bit more than that. I could choose exactly where the words fell and I could move them around and stretch them a little bit or change their pitch, or do all sorts of other things with them. So what I wanted to end up with was something that occupied a slightly different part of the spectrum between speech and song. So it wasn’t just speech and wasn’t just song, but it was some new hybrid in between.

Why Rick?

About eight or nine years ago I was thinking about this project, and in fact I had written quite a few poems of my own and tried this approach with them. I liked the approach but I wasn’t that keen on the poems, so I thought, “I need a poet!” I went to this event one evening, and there was this young man, Rick Holland, reading a couple of his poems, and they struck me as just the right kind of poems. They were short, which is important because I didn’t want the language to dominate the scene; I didn’t want a continual, wall-to-wall voice going though. And I wanted poems that were fairly unspecific in their language. Again, I didn’t want the whole thing to necessarily center around the voice any more than I’ve ever wanted it to do in anything else.

Some of the voices on the album reminded me of the robotic voices on GPS machines, where it’s often a female voice, which is often considered friendlier, giving help to a person using it. Did any of that enter into your mind, the character of the voices or what a voice type would imply about the kind of person?

One of the things that I kept listening to, and I’m always been fascinated by, are those automated announcements you get at railway stations. [Robotic voice:] “The — 5-4-3 train — from — platform 5 — is ...” Where it’s obviously all electronically collaged together from different recordings that weren’t made consecutively. And I think, “Ooh, that’s really nice. That’s a new way of voices sounding.” So I was quite consciously artificializing some of the recordings, and in fact almost the only instruction I gave the readers was, “Can you read it more slowly? Can you separate the words more?” Because I wanted it to feel that each word was individually pasted in, even though most of these poems were actually read consecutively.

Did you imagine it sounding strange or emotionally disconcerting to hear a voice like that?

I think what it does is it separates the voice from the kinds of emotions you might normally associate with it, so it becomes more emotionally ambiguous; it means there’s more interpretive space given the listener. Obviously, since it’s a voice we respond to it, just as any circle with two small circles and a curve inside it is going to look like face. We don’t have to have much information as listeners to make us interested in what a voice is doing and saying; we already are interested, just like we’re interested in faces. So I think what I was doing was playing on the fact that people have an inclination and a taste toward voices, and toward trying to interpret what they do, and seeing how far I could stretch them from being normal voices and still...

Sorry, I’m trying to switch a light on as I’m talking...

So can I ask you how many Brian Enos it takes to screw in a light bulb?

[Laughs.] In this case I only have one, and he’s failing... There, I’ve done it now. I’ve succeeded, so the answer is one.

Getting back to traditional versus nontraditional songwriting, did you even think of the words here as being lyrics that you set to music, or as a different kind of material?

I don’t think of them as being set to music. I like to think about them the same way as I like to think about film music, when I’m occasionally asked to do it, which is as a separate and parallel reality. I can’t bear Hollywood film music, because it seems to me it does the most pedestrian and obvious thing: it locates a single emotion in the film and then does its best to exaggerate that. It’s exactly the opposite of what I want from film music. I want film music to expand the film, to make it broader and vaguer in terms of its emotional implications. I don’t want to be told when someone’s crying that they’re sad, by some twit playing strings in the background, which is always the Hollywood resort. [American accent:] “Oh, this is a sad scene, let’s make him really sad.” And I think, “Don’t be so stupid!”

A lot of music is called experimental even if the audience already knows what it’s going to be like, and there is no actual experiment happening, for instance in idioms like free jazz or noisy electronica. Do you have to fight against doing something that is “experimental,” versus doing something where you don’t know what’s going to happen?

I don’t feel it’s a fight. I sort of take that as my brief that I’m always so thrilled when I find myself somewhere I haven’t been before. In my normal life I’m a very unadventurous person. I take the same walk every day and I eat in the same restaurants, and often eat exactly the same things in the same restaurants. I don’t adventure much except when I’m in the studio, and then I only want to adventure. I cannot bear doing something again, or thinking that I’m doing something again. Of course, like anybody I repeat myself endlessly, but I don’t know that I’m doing it, usually. [Laughs.] So when I’m in the studio what I really want to do is to find myself somewhere that I don’t recognize, and then try to see what’s there and what I can do and how I can get back, and whether I can successfully turn it into a useful experience of some kind. And I guess all of that is what is called experimental music, really.

I think of it as cowboys and farmers. Like in “Oklahoma!": “Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” So I think of cowboys as people who go out and look for new territory; prospectors, perhaps that’s the word I should use. And they use the territory for a little bit and then they move on to find new ones. Then there are other people, who have an equally important role to play — who for the sake of this metaphor are called farmers — who exploit the territory and look after it and nurture it and get slightly better results each year, and so on. So that’s another kind of temperament: craftsmanlike. I’m not really of that temperament. I like the thrill of putting two things together that nobody ever thought of putting together before. Or like a chef who uses some daring new combination of ingredients, black currants and sausages or something. That’s my thrill.

Is that in any way a reaction to your work as a producer, working with other people in a studio, where you might have to do the same thing over and over again, trying to get to a very specific result?

I don’t do that kind of producing. I don’t sit in the studio watching every overdub. I’m just not interested. I’m no good at that, actually. That’s a different kind of skill. What I do is, I walk in every so often and I listen and I say, “That piece fails in the middle. This piece is very exciting but it’s hasn’t realized its potential. This only has one good idea, and it’s that little flick in the drums at this point, and we should just start a new piece from that.” I tend to not talk on the detail level so much, but just have the benefit of not having been there during the nuts and bolts of the process. So I can walk in without any sentimentality and say, “I don’t think the guitar is working,” even though the guitar took two and a half weeks to record.

On the album, a lot of the lyrics — for lack of a better word there — kind of sound like artistic manifestos: “Pour it out in new ways,” “Invent new colors that fly,” that sort of thing. Was that the intention, instructions or a pep talk for artists? “Do something new”?

That’s a very good idea but it wasn’t the intention. No, I think that’s just in the nature of Rick’s poems. Something I’ve realized lately, to my shock, actually, is that I am an optimist, in that I think humans are really almost infinitely capable of self-change and self-modification, and that we really can build the future that we want if we’re smart about it.

I used to be much more pessimistic than I am in the way that most of us are quite pessimistic, civilizationally, don’t you think? Most people think, “Things are getting really bad, and it’s getting worse, and things are never going to be as good as they were X years ago.” So lately I’ve started to think that that is a bad civilizational habit that we’ve inherited. And it goes back a long way, right back to the Greeks. There were people saying exactly the same thing: things can only get worse, it’s going to get really bad, the whole place is falling apart. So I’ve stopped believing that, and I’ve started to think, “No, actually, the whole place is not falling apart. The whole place is consolidating, and getting better and better.”

I’ve been particularly influenced in this by few friends, Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis, both from the Long Now Foundation. Also by a couple British writers: Matt Ridley, who wrote a book called “The Rational Optimist,” half of which I think is a brilliant book, the other half I don’t quite agree with. [Laughs.] Matt’s point is that cultures have always been pessimistic because it’s very easy to extrapolate the bad news, as Thomas Malthus did, saying, “Oh look, population is rising exponentially but agricultural production isn’t increasing exponentially.” So, crisis looming, as Malthus thought. But what Malthus didn’t see was that there were going to be a series of agricultural revolutions. And of course he couldn’t see that; those were creative breakthroughs that nobody was in a position to anticipate. So the reason we have this cultural pessimism is because we tend to extend these trends into the future and think, “Oh dear, that looks bad.” But we don’t offset them with the possibility of the incredible creative power that the collective mind that we’re becoming has.

Matt Ridley used this term “collective mind,” and in fact that’s what we’re becoming bit by bit. We’re all becoming increasingly helpless as individuals. You and I — well, unless you’re quite a different man than I imagine you are — you and I would be dead within days if we had to fend entirely for ourselves. We’re part of this huge, rich network of human intelligence that keeps us all alive. In fact Matt Ridley has a beautiful illustration of this at the beginning of his book: he has a stone-age hand axe and a computer mouse. The point he makes is very simply that the hand axe was made by one person, but the computer mouse was made by millions of people. It’s impossible to know how many people were involved in the making of it, because the oil that made the plastic had to be discovered and mined and refined, and then turned into plastic, and then that had to be molded and shaped; somebody had to invent the computers, and so on. Every single object we use — this phone I’m holding now — is the result of this huge collective intelligence that we’re evolving.

A English writer called David Deutsch, he’s a physicist, has a new book called “The Beginning of Infinity,” and he has written chapter called “Optimism,” and it is so completely thrilling for me. I keep going back and reading it again, because suddenly I think, “Oh my gosh, the human race could not only save itself and save the planet, but really there’s no limit to what we can do.”

Anyway, all of this is a long diversion in answer to your question about were we writing a manifesto. I think Rick, like me, is an optimist. He has a kind view of humans. He thinks that we’re not doing a bad job, and we could do a better one, and we will do a better one. And so I think that that sort of suffuses what both of us does. There’s a sort of optimism in what we’re doing. Christ, that was the longest and most roundabout answer to your question, I’m sorry.

No, you just gave me about three books to read, so I appreciate it!

The collective hive mind idea, is that what you’re thinking about when you mention Spotify, and the fact that digital music lets us churn through decades and decades of music like we never have before?

Yes. The only problem with phrase “the hive mind” is that it gives you the impression of interchangeable units, of cells that are really quite irrelevant to each other, that don’t matter. But in fact what humans are doing is really a very different sort of experiment. This collective mind is actually filled with specialists, people who increasingly are becoming good at unique things, in the sense that you’re a specialist writer, I’m a specialist musician. Probably nobody’s going to replace me exactly. I don’t mean I’m irreplaceable. [Laughs.] But nobody else is going to do exactly what I do and nobody else is going to do exactly what you do. So it’s not really a hive in the sense of being filled with Orwellian drones. It’s a different kind of hive. It’s a hive full of singular intelligences.

I read something very interesting recently, which is that in last 40,000 years the human brain has deceased in size by about 10 percent. I think that’s because we’re all becoming better specialists, and we don’t need to be generalists in the same way. You don’t have to know how to find meat or to cook bread or to plant this or to chop that. You don’t have to know that because you know other people who know how to do it. What you have to know is what you do, and you have to be good at that. So I think we’re actually turning into a different kind of creature, and I rather like the creatures we are becoming.
Ancient futurism: Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, Thurston Moore, Al Green, Lou Reed, Questlove, M.I.A.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Questlove on Clyde Stubblefield

I interviewed Clyde Stubblefield, who was one of James Brown’s key drummers from 1965 to 1971. He played on “Cold Sweat,” which needs no introduction, and “Funky Drummer,” perhaps the most sampled beat ever.

It was an honor to talk to Clyde. It was also an honor to talk to Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove of the Roots. We all know how great a drummer Ahmir is, and most probably also know that he’s a scholar and a very thoughtful guy about music. But I was still surprised by how insightful and eloquent he could be just speaking off the top of his head. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. But his interview was too good to leave at two short quotes.

So here’s our full conversation, minus some shop talk at the end when he referred me to Alan Leeds, who was Brown’s tour director at the time and is a primary historian on all things James Brown. (With Quest’s help I did reach Alan, who was awesome. He has one of the more incredible behind-the-scenes careers in music: after Brown, he worked as the tour manager for Funkadelic, then for Prince for most of the 1980s, and later for D’Angelo.)

One thing that did surprise me about Quest, though, was that he talked a little like Mr. Micawber

Ahmir: In short, there have been faster, and there have been stronger, but Clyde Stubblefield has a marksman’s left hand unlike any drummer in the 20th century. The thing that defines him, that sets him apart from other drummers, are his grace notes, which are sort of like the condiments of what spices up the main focus. The main focus of music is always the 2 and the 4, especially with the snare drum. And what lets you build your personality is how you dance around that 2 and the 4. The technical level of dynamics of his left hand, his ability to flam a 32nd note very silently, but a 16th note very loud and commanding. It takes a very, very specific marksman, in their Navy SEAL precision, to execute it perfectly. In short, it is he who defined funk music, more than anything.

Me: Was Clyde James Brown’s best drummer of all?, Better than Jabo, Bernard Purdie, etc.?

I’ve learned that to use good and bad, or to use best and worst, is not apropos. I believe that Clyde was the most effective drummer that James Brown has ever utilized. Jabo was his most powerful drummer, but Clyde was the most effective.

James Brown used all his musicians as percussion players; it’s just that the other nine musicians were melodic players. They basically played a loop. Very rarely would a James Brown song go to linear thoughts, where you didn’t know what was coming next. It’s a four-bar loop every time, very disciplined, very tight. Clyde’s whole gift is that he was able to incorporate everyone’s role in it. The main kick and main snare are kind of like the traffic cop, but the hi-hat could emulate what the guitar was doing. His snare work really emulated Jimmy Nolen, and a lot of their rhythms were very precise 16th and 32nd notes.

I felt as though Clyde was the most effective in completing the puzzle. His grace notes, his softest notes, defined a generation. It’s like the kind of ketchup you use, the things that surround the burger, as opposed to the burger itself.

Did Clyde have more influence as a drummer, on actual James Brown records, or as a sample?

More influence as a sample, hands down. Clyde’s influence is more unique than his actual work for James Brown.

It’s kind of weird, but I think his work with James Brown is too potent. As a DJ, I rarely play “Funky Drummer.” I rarely play “Soul Power.” But probably the record of choice, that has just enough sugar for the medicine to go down for most DJ’s, is the live version of “Give It Up or Turnit A Loose.” That’s a b-boy anthem, for most dancers. That song right there can be handled in a single dosage in a club. It’s like a jalapeño: you don’t want to just eat up the whole jalapeño, you want to cut it up and use it to spice your foods. And no, I won’t just use food metaphors here!

What about other popular samples, like the “Amen break”?

“Amen” and “Apache” were also very influential, and they had an influence in Europe, on jungle, drum ’n’ bass. But for the true experts of drum ’n’ bass, the “Soul Pride” break is hands down the go-to break. And that has really inspired a movement of great dance music: drum ’n’ bass, not to mention Baltimore house music. Baltimore house is still a subgenre; it might not be the next big thing that people predicted three or four years ago. But it’s still a phenomenon.

“Funky Drummer” has done miracles for hip-hop. It’s the traffic cop. The greatest hip-hop album of all time, “It Take a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” by Public Enemy — it’s all over that record. And that was intimidating to me. On Tuesday we’re doing “Fight the Power” with me and Clyde on drums, and Chuck D. That song is basically “Soul Pride” on steroids.

Does that mean that Clyde’s whole influence through the “Funky Drummer” sample distorts who he was as a musician? Since people weren’t really hearing the whole picture of who he was, just hearing a five-second break?

He’s like the ghost in the machine. When you talk about the most perfect beat, it’s not even that “Funky Drummer” wins in a technical aspect. But in an artistic aspect, it’s hands down the most perfect beat you can loop — it’s very lyrical, very melodic, very rhythmic. It’s perfect. It’s magical. Everyone I know as a producer, that’s gotten their start hip-hop production, they all have their story about the first time they heard “Funky Drummer.”

When I first heard “Funky Drummer,” I had James Brown’s “In the Jungle Groove” album. I gave it to my father as a Christmas gift. I knew he liked James Brown. I had that album for like four months. I don’t know why or how we let it sit for so long without investigating it. Maybe it’s because “Funky Drummer” was the only single during James Brown’s hit period, of roughly 1965 to 1975, when he had something like 70 top 10 hits, it was the only single that never reached the top 10.* Ironically, it was also one of Clyde’s last sessions with the James Brown Orchestra before Bootsy and his team came in.**

On Tuesday we are getting him to sit in with us. But any time I’ve seen Clyde footage of him playing somewhere, I’ve always been chagrined they have him on a new drum set that’s horribly tuned, so it sounds nothing like Clyde from the 1960s. So this time I am personally bringing out my 40-year-old Yamaha kit for him.

* Not quite, but you get the idea. Between 1965 and 1975, James Brown had 65 songs in the R&B top 40, and 44 of them reached the top 10. (“Funky Drummer” reached No. 20.) On the pop charts for the same period, Brown had 37 top 40 hits, 6 in the top 10.

** In March 1970, most of Brown’s band mutinied, demanding better treatment and pay. Brown fired them and put together an almost entirely new group, including the young Bootsy and Catfish Collins; that new band became known as the JB’s.

Clyde’s history is a little confusing at this point. According to Alan Leeds, Clyde was not present during the 1970 mutiny; he had left in December 1969, and he returned in June 1970 for a stay of about six months. (Note that Clyde played on “Get Up, Get Into It and Stay Involved,” recorded in November 1970.) Leeds says that Clyde next left again in late 1970: the band was going to Africa and Clyde had a problem with his paperwork. He returned for a short period in late 1971, and then left for good.