EMP music conference

April 15, 2005

This is not rock and roll.

This is the other annoying extreme of the music biz today. On one hand, you’ve got the lowest-common denominator record industry idiot fodder, the stuff they play at the mall and the gym and on MTV. That’s the center, and it’s rotten.

Unfortunately, the periphery is occupied by a lot of hyper-pretentious po-mo scenester criticism in which the writers and talkers and ruminators take precedence over the music. In this world, popularity equals suckiness–unless the artist was intending to be ironic in the first place, in which case their popularity is a great inside joke. Here, it’s more important to namecheck a band’s influences than to know what a whole note is or how to tune a drum kit. What the lead singer wore is more important than the words she sang, or whether she sang in tune, or, if not, why not.


Crossfader and The Dears

April 6, 2005

This is the coolest digital media thingie that Microsoft’s done in a long time. It’s only in beta right now, and the content is pretty sparse, but I talked to Eric Schmidt, who’s helping drive Crossfader, and he convinced me that it’s a serious long-term project, not just a one-off marketing blip that will disappear.

Quick background: Microsoft’s looking for a way to promote Windows as a platform for professional audio production. (This market’s generally dominated by the Mac–I can’t tell you how many times people have said “get a Mac” when I tell them I’m thinking of getting into home audio production.) So Microsoft decided to ask digital music producers and enthusiasts what they actually want. Answer: an online forum to share tips and tricks, plus relevant editorial content from DJ-oriented magazines like URB and BPM (no link), and educational resources from places like Berklee. Editorial and outreach is being overseen by Darek Mazzone, who hosts a great world music show on Seattle college radio station KEXP. Of course a lot of the content will be focused on Microsoft platforms (Windows, .NET) and the partners who build pro audio software and hardware on those platforms, but overall this is a nice change of pace from the usual centralized marketing blitz that Microsoft puts out. Sometimes the 800-pound gorilla surprises me with its nimbleness.

Speaking of 800-pound gorillas, I saw one of the worst bands in the world last night. Imagine a bad version of Bachman Turner Overdrive with a bit more AC/DC guitar (although their three guitarists couldn’t touch what Angus accomplished with one) and the worst Oasis-type moon-june-tune lyrics. Yet, they’re on a major label and have a really nice tour bus outside and are getting people to pay $15 for entry. Here’s how this must have happened: some A&R guy heard The Strokes and White Stripes in about 2001, read that The Hives (from Sweden) were the next big thing, and signed these guys, who also play rock and roll and are also from Sweden! This exemplifies the safe, follower-wannabe type acts that the record industry loves, and maybe they know what they’re talking about: there were about 40 people who seemed really, really into them. (Or maybe there’s way too much cocaine in Seattle.) But what an obvious, disposable, flash-in-the-pan, no-talent excuse for music. Almost every single band I saw last week–all indie or unsigned, and mostly local–were just as rehearsed and tight, and far more creative and and talented than these drones. And the record industry wonders why it’s in trouble?

So the reason I was sitting (standing) through this crap? A friend insisted that I join him to see band before them, The Dears. Amazing band, and almost indescribable. Imagine three typical alt rock guys (guitar, bass drums), two robotic looking women playing keyboards and other instruments (one of whom has beautiful heroin eyes and plays the flute), all flanking a sexually ambiguous black lead singer/guitarist/producer with a black neckerchief. All I know is that they’re from Montreal, which has spawned some incredible music in recent years, as well as some of the best beer outside the Pacific Northwest and Belgium. (Must be something in the water or the radio waves…I have to visit some time and find out.)

So they start with a 15-minute post-rock noise jam that sounds like a blend of Tortoise and Kinski. Then they start playing songs, with influences that run the gamut from glam rock to early 80s cheese pop (I kept thinking of Erasure) to goth (Siouxsie and Love & Rockets) to Morrissey to emo to Prince. One of the weirdest and most creative bands I’ve ever seen. (I heard part of their latest album, though, and it didn’t quite translate…a little too much cheese, not enough rock.)

They just recently got signed to a major after three independent albums, so perhaps there’s hope for creative music.

Venue was El Corazon, formerly known as Graceland, formerly RCKCNDY back in the auld Seattle rawk daze. Still a loud, poor-sounding dive with insufficient numbers of bartenders who accidentally-on-purpose overcharge for drinks (run a tab at your own risk) and stupid house rules that they don’t warn you about (this was an all ages show…but they don’t tell you not to bring drinks into the band area until AFTER you’ve bought them…nice). In other words, new name, same old bullshit.

Seven Nights Out: So What?

April 5, 2005

In going out to hear live music in small venues for seven nights in a row, I learned a few things that I hope to apply to the bands I play with. (Full disclosure: a lot of individuals in a lot of the bands I saw last week play with me or used to play with me or play with people who play with me…you get the idea…lots of people playing with each other…that’s rock and roll!)

So, here are a few things I was reminded of:
1. Shut up and play. Stage banter is boring and tiresome unless you’re really good at it.
2. Shut up and play already. Don’t take more than 15 seconds between songs. And if you have to tune, for God’s sake get it done in under 5 seconds or tune silently.
3. Variety. It’s one thing to have a singular sound (easier said than done), but all your songs shouldn’t sound the same (also easier said than done). At the very least, tempos and energy levels should ebb and flow. And the set has to vary, otherwise people will see you twice and think they’ve seen all there is to see. At least 50% of every show should be different from the last show. Occasionaly throw in a song that sounds totally different from your other songs.
4. Choose venues wisely. If your friends come to see you in a crap venue, they won’t remember how great you are, they’ll remember how crap the venue was. Ideally, it’s a small place with a great sound system and reasonably priced drinks without too many other distractions, like sports on the TV.
5. Most people aren’t musicians. Most of the audience is there to drink, get laid, and hear some nice music along the way. They might notice if you’re too loose or sloppy, if you miss an ending, if you’re way out of tune, if your singer sucks or talks too much, if there’s too much space between songs, or if all your songs sound too similar or boring. It’s easy to fret way too much about the details–the gear, the precision on a particular run, whether you’re playing too few or too many notes–and lose track of the overall picture.
6. Rock and roll will never die. Especially in Seattle. There’s an oversupply of really talented musicians in this city–far moreso than I remember in San Francisco in the 1990s. Hopefully, with the impending demise of the big business record industry and decreasing relevance of commercial radio and audiences staying away from huge concerts in droves, the demand for small scale local live music will catch up with the supply.

Seven Nights Out: Friday and Saturday

April 5, 2005

On Friday (April Fools Day…been a few days since I was able to get to this), I saw The Stares, who I know well, and Ida, who are from New York and were new to me.

The Stares play long, slow, pretty songs with piano provided by the lovely and ethereal Angie Benintendi; she harmonizes beautifully with her boyfriend and guitarist, Drew Whittemore. They’re always a pleasure to listen to, but this night they missed their bassist, Don McGreevy–he was on tour playing drums with Bukkake, who I saw on Tuesday. Their new keyboardist did a decent job of covering the bass parts, and Bill Patton chipped in to do some pedal steel magic. But I wish they’d play more new songs. Their set doesn’t vary much.

Ida was a beautiful surprise. A guy and four women, including a genius abstract violist who did lots of quick back-and-forth textural stuff (think Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks–in fact, the singer mentioned that album by name when telling her how to play a particular song). They had a harmonium–a wooden box works like an accordion, only it’s fixed in one place and you blow air through it by opening and closing this panel on the back. The squeak of the hinges actually added to the overall sound, which was textural and languid, with beautiful singing and occasional four-part harmony. Keyboards, bass, drums, several guitars.

The women should take over the band, though. The guy was a good singer, but he kept taking way too long to tune his cheap classical guitar, and his between-song banter was a bit forced–he was trying to be funny but ended up sounding full of himself. Then he was aware of how he sounded, and tried to make fun of it, which made it worse. I’ve seen quite a few emo bands do that self-conscious “isn’t this rock star stuff silly” bit, and it’s annoying as hell. Fake sincerity: then you’ve got it made. Ida’s music was so beautiful on its own, I didn’t really want to know anything else about the band. Shut up and play your guitar.

The venue was the Paradox. It’s attached to a church, and it’s all-ages. No drinking, no smoking. Big concrete space, underheated, with no chairs. Beautiful Japanese lanterns on the ceiling, and nice sound system, but not so comfortable. Wouldn’t go again unless there was a band I just couldn’t live without hearing.

Saturday night was Weary, featuring (yet again) the illustrious Bill Patton on guitar and steel. Mostly downtemp singer-songwriter blues rock. Kevin Aichler has a great voice, like an old man who’s seen it all. But I mean that in a good way. But the highlight was the rhythm section, Dayna Loeffler on bass and Pam Barger on drums, locked in to one another, but comfortably loose and a bit behind the beat. Like the Stones at their best. Perfect drinking music. (I drank too much.)

They opened for The Purrs, who are absolutely so great that I’m stunned that they’re playing an Irish frat pub on a Saturday. They play rock and roll. The singer sounds a bit like Alex Chilton and looks a bit like Alice Cooper (without makeup), and they have a psychedelic sheen on everything they do, but without the fiddling or twiddling or sound effects that it’s so easy to get bogged down in. A little bit glam, but not quite. Sort of like early Verve (before they did the hit singles that everybody heard but sort of sucked) but with less muddle and distortion. I hesitate to compare them to the Dandy Warhols, who are too jokey and hokey, but it’s that kind of sound–modern but rooted in the era when music was both serious and fun, when people believed in loud chimey guitars and interesting song structures and meaningful lyrics. If they lived in New York, they’d be huge. But the “biz” left Seattle in 1994 and hasn’t looked back.

Seven Nights Out: Thursday

April 1, 2005

I’ve been familiar with the music of Joe Doria for about five years now. He’s a masterful Hammond organ player–his bass runs are as complex as anything a dedicated jazz bassist could do, and he does them while throwing out some nice treble chord sprays and runs with his right hand. And such a classic sound: that Hammond vibrato is like the first toe dip into a swimming pool on a warm summer day.

Anyway, he often plays with a guitarist named Ari Zucker, who I’d never seen until last night. Think jazz standards that start to go horribly awry about 2/3ds of the way through, turning into psychedelic washes and dissonant half-step progressions, then eventually veer back to familiar ground, leaving you wondering what the hell you just heard. This kind of music gets a bad rap among some music fans, “jazz for hippies” and so on, but there’s nothing wrong with solid musicianship and creative interpretation. It’ll be around long after the three-chords-and-a-gun bands from New York and Scandanavia and Detroit.

They played at the Sea Monster, which is a really weird place to see music–it’s a long, dark, skinny bar done up in a sort of glowing green, and the band plays right in the middle–there’s nowhere to stand or sit directly in front of them, you have to sit off to either end of the bar. It reminds me of those little streetside bars you see in Asian backpacker haunts. But they give generous pours and play great music on the house system before and between sets (Fela Kuti, Band of Gypsies) so I like it.