Ros Coleman is a festival producer and member of the band ‘Death of Death of Discotheque’.
Their debut album ‘Count My Face’ was released on orange vinyl they foolishly forwent food to pay for. It looks nice, also loud. It has only seven songs on it because they do not believe in overstaying their welcome. One of their songs is called ‘square! ham! factory!’ which they have represented pictorially on the sleeve but if they are honest it looks a bit like it says square! fish! crown!. It’s too late now, they’re printed!
Hobbies and Interests : Noise, Toys and Existentialism
I’m reading a book called ‘Your Brain On Music’ by Daniel Levitin. It’s partially because I was really annoyed not to make it to a lecture at the Royal Institute in London the other week on Locating Consciousness. It’s somewhat because my interest in neuroscience is resurfacing. It’s a bit to do with reading a book on Existentialism recently by Gary Cox: “How To Be An Existentialist. Or, “How To Get Real, Get A Grip and Get On With It.” It’s mostly because I bought it for Tom for Xmas and it’s been sitting there looking at me for a while, and tinkering with my synapses.
I mention it because I am going to, over an installation of several, perhaps many columnesque interviews such as this one, pursue an investigation into why music is so damned addictive.
“Do you wanna go up to the studio?”
“We can go up to the studio if you like, but if you’re comfortable here it doesn’t matter, it’s just for the photo.”
The reason behind the title is also multifarious. Damn These Vampires is a song by The Mountain Goats, a favourite band of mine. You should You-tube it. Or maybe you should buy it. It being that You-tubing it will not get them paid.
As an ex-compulsive downloader of music, I was a leech with a hard and fast habit. I used to download music that wouldn’t see any musicians get paid, whilst al of the time harping on about how broken the music industry is, how downloads were freedom, how the live music event was the only thing worth paying for and how the album was obsolete as a form of music compilation. I was young, I was daft.
These days I buy records. Or at least, Tom buys them and I get to play them. These days I miss music more than I interact with it, and I still play in a band, but I don’t spend days at a time downloading at a rate of a million mp3s per minute. This column is an attempt to get some of that back, some devotional music listening and interaction into my life, beyond gigs and band practice. Hence reading the above book.
The book told me some screwy fact that in the West, we spend more money on music than we do on legal or illegal drugs.
I’m interested in the way in which we put musicians on pedestals, for us to worship, and that some of us listen to music, even while thinking ‘I could never do that’. Interesting in the wake of the story below, as taken verbatim from the introduction of the book I am reading about a shy Anthropologist called Jim conducting fieldwork in a small nation called Lesotho, surrounded by South Africa:
‘There, studying and interacting with local villagers, Jim patiently earned their trust until one day he was asked to join in one of their songs. So, typically, when asked to sing with these Sotho villagers, Jim said in a soft voice ‘I don’t sing,’ and it was true: We had been in high school band together and although he was an excellent oboe player, he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. The villagers found his objection puzzling and inexplicable. The Sotho consider singing an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, young and old, men and women, not an activity reserved for a few.
Our culture, and indeed our very language, makes a distinction between a class of expert performers – the Arthur Rubinsteins, Ella Fitzgeralds, Paul McCartneys – and the rest of us. The rest of us pay money to hear the experts entertain us.’
Finally, I genuinely do think that the music business is still a blood sucker. And I think that part of our thirst for it, and our lack of disposable income are exacerbating the problem. And for a beautiful visualisation of the problem see here : ‘How much do music artists earn on line?’
And I wonder if our recent proliferations of digital connectivity will eventually make music more everyday and available for everyone to have a go at, rather than being the pursuit only of the genius and the misunderstood.
For my first interview, I have chosen Jay Barsby. I play in a band with him, we are called ‘Death of Death of Discotheque’ and we like skulls. Our album is printed on orange vinyl and Jay did the album artwork for it. Jay is also a solo artist – calling himself various names from ‘The Inevitable Asterisk’ to ‘Bin Bag Dracula’ and he makes intelligent electronica with enticing beats. He makes a lot of his own kit and sells it at an aptly named skate shop called Drugstore. Pedals, noiseboxes, oscillators, sequencers, photovoltaic cell based light theremins, WOO!boards and noisemaking skulls. I’ll probably develop the format of this column/interview as I go, but for now, it goes like this:
Ok so Jay Barsby, could you explain to me a little about your process.
“As in POPOP?”
Yes, as a maker of noiseboxes, pedals, as solo performer outfit ‘The Inevitable Asterisk’ or ‘Bin Bag Dracula’, as in maybe playing in a band – but with a work focus – you know, when you say “Ok I’m going to go home now and do some work, can you just outline a little bit about that.
“Oh, ok. I suppose it’s a necessity to feel creative, or to have achieved, er.. creation!”
And do you separate that from your previous practice as a visual artist?
“I think it stems from that – when you come from a visual arts background… And the art world and the music world, they carry a lot of similarities… Giving up on visual art as a possible career meant spending more time on being in a band. And when you give yourself that focus you get that whole (affects New York accent) “it’s gotta be the one, it’s gotta be the time!” kind of attitude but we all know that it’s actually always possible to make it… so being in a band there were always sounds or things that I wanted to achieve, but I couldn’t find or I couldn’t afford the synth or the machine that would give me what I was after so I started to build. And I started again, keeping it all very simple, right back at the year dot of trying to understand how something works… And not being from a conventional music background, say not playing guitar or the tuba or piano it then became a creative platform and became more about noise, but noise as part of a set of music to go alongside guitars, pianos, trumpets whatever – that then becomes your creative output. So when I go home saying I’m going to do some work, I’m either writing my own stuff or working on a pedal – and then not having that musical background, it becomes much more for me about ‘unmaking’? This is something that I pursued when I was still pursuing my artistic practice.
“It’s like, maybe a guitarist wants to sound like Jimi Hendrix – I’m trying to sound like maybe what he is right now – six feet under the ground in a pile of bones.”
And has this pursuit of the electronic, of the valve decision circuitry all this stuff I don’t understand… Has this gotten you closer to where you’ve wanted to be musically, than in these bands?
“It’s opened up a lot of doors, I suppose the devil makes work for idle hands. It’s like, when you’re in a band, you have the nerves, an explosion of energy and then the comedown where you just want to do it again – it helps to be immersed in something, it helps take the edge off that, because you don’t have to wait seven days until you can make noise again, it’s just as soon as you get home that you’ll be able to twiddle knobs – that’s what it’s about – twiddling knobs.”
And do you count your creation of music as a separate to your listening and appreciation of music?
“I think like with anything it’s a level of understanding – as an artist whether visual or music based – a different level of education or distance is there. I mean – as an artist, when you go to a gallery and you look at a painting and say ‘that’s shit’, it’s because you have a level of understanding as a painter – you understand the mechanics of it. I think with music you can listen to stuff…
“I always remember a day on my art foundation course, 1999 or whatever it was. And I remember suddenly ‘getting’ composition, and there must have been about 40 of us getting the bus home all just staring out the window in silence, because the day had come where you won’t look at anything in the same way again. And it’s innocence, how you look at the world with that innocence, and you do understand, but you can lose it overnight and all of a sudden, you start noticing ‘oh that looks good’ or ‘oh look that would make a nice photo’ and you can’t explain why it looks good. I mean scientists have tried to explain composition. Da Vinci tried to explain composition and it’s this hidden beauty that we find in things and I suppose the same thing comes to music.My listening side of music is broken down into two categories – there’s the type of music that I want to make and it’s part of a learning process, a sharing process, but also it’s comforting, because you know that there are other people out there who want to make that sort of music too… But then there’s music that you listen to and say not just that this person here is making techno, but that this person here is making really interesting techno, or really interesting house music or someone out there who’s still obsessing about an analogue drum machine and messing about with it… But then the other side of music listening is just the music that you listen to. I think there’s always that separation. And it’s the same with art. I can appreciate a Titian painting and tell you why that Titian works, but I am never going to be an oil painter. You can have the respect and appreciation, and it’s the same with music – I can respect a lot of punk music, because I understand its visceral nature, but I’m never going to make punk music.”
Ok, so I am going to ask you some of the standardish questions that I’ll ask other music types. Let’s see how we fare.
What makes a musician?
<<<< Long silence >>>>
Ok fair play, that was pretty damn equivocal. Bear with me, you’re my first interviewee. Do you want to elaborate on that at all or…?
“I guess I can. The long/short version of just that is I suppose… er… and there doesn’t necessarily have to be an audience there so er… because you can quite happily sit in your room and ‘do your thing’…”
mmhmm, so do you think anybody can be a musician?
Ok, so. When did you first notice music?
“Weirdly I was thinking about this just the other day. Music was always there. I mean, my parents, whilst you might say they weren’t particularly musical, they were full of the music of their time, and pop was everywhere and my mum, I mean, she was into Motown and my dad was like a secret punk… So I suppose it was probably my dad playing punk music that was the first time – the sex pistols, x-ray specs, punk, post-punk, new wave – that was when I first really listened to music. But then I’d happily spend a Sunday jumping around my nan’s house to ‘the birdie song’. It’s not, “There was dancing and music”, and then blues, was the other major one.”
All right. How much money, as an approximate percentage of your outgoings do you reckon you spend on music?
Just put a number on it. If one is bread and ten is a car, how much do you reckon you shove at music.
90%. Cor blimey.
“But that’s – that’s going to gigs, buying music, buying capacitors, that’s everything. That’s everything after food and fags.”
And do you think that is representative of the amount of time you spend on it, thinking about it…
Erm… And does any money come back in.
“Not as much as I would like!”
Ok. How do you know when you’ve made it?
“Fifteen years ago, ten years ago, record sales or … private jets.”
“No, seriously! Ten years ago, rubbish indie bands were being flown around on private jets, and they were rubbish! But they had jets! Now I think… the music industry…it’s an interesting place, and it makes interesting work – now you can say that you’ve made it because a million people have listened to your music online.And you could have no money, but every person you know owns an mp3 of your music. And you could be the latest episode of Skins or the next James Bond, but creatively, I’m far more interested in the idea that the people who are your peers respect your work and you’re there. I remember selling a piece of work to someone whose opinion was up there with… he was just such a knowledge and he bought this piece of work and I found out that it had got hung next to an Ed Ruscha painting in his house, and that was like “Fuck yes I’ve made it” not because of the exhibition I’d had in London, but because his amazing art curator girlfriend had hung the print next to this Ed Ruscha … and it’s the same with music – there’s the financial ‘making it’ and the creative ‘making it’ – that spur that makes you want to go on. You could make millions writing for adverts, but it might not inspire you creatively. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! Getting all socio-political on your ass.”
Ha! Ok. So. Last Question. What’s on the top of your wishlist right now?
“What, musical wishlist?”
“Oh well that’s a hard one! I could give you a massive list of musical geekery, but in the end… Time! That’s all I want, is just Time! You work and work and work and in the end you just want more time, because Life just keeps getting in the way!”
Well. That’s a beautiful note to end on. Let’s go and take a photograph of the studio.
The following day, Jay texts me and says : “Ah retrospect : My dad’s copy of Blondie’s Parallel Lines on tape; probably most of my money goes on debt so that could be music based. And somehow quote Dave Hickey’s Romancing the Looky Loos.”
He’s talking about from the book Air Guitar by Dave Hickey. Essential reading. Here is me obliging, with a note on participants v spectators:
‘spectators invariably align themselves with authority. They have neither the time nor the inclination to make decisions. They just love the winning side— the side with the chic building, the gaudy doctorates, and the star-studded cast. They seek out spectacles whose value is confirmed by the normative blessing of institutions and corporations. In these venues, they derive sanctioned pleasure or virtue from an accredited source, and this makes them feel secure, more a part of things. Participants, on the other hand, do not like this feeling. They lose interest at the moment of accreditation, always assuming there is something better out there, something brighter and more desirable, something more in tune with their own agendas. And they may be wrong, of course. The truth may indeed reside in the vision of full professors and corporate moguls, but true participants persist in not believing this. They continue looking.
Thus, while spectators must be lured, participants just appear, looking for that new thing—the thing they always wanted to see—or the old thing that might be seen anew—and having seen it, they seek to invest that thing with new value. They do this simply by showing up; they do it with their body language and casual conversation, with their written commentary, if they are so inclined, and their disposable income, if it falls to hand. Because participants, unlike spectators, do not covertly hate the things they desire. Participants want their views to prevail, so they lobby for the embodiment of what they lack.
The impact of these participatory investments is tangible across the whole range of cultural production. It is more demonstrable, however, in “live arts” like music, theatre, and art than in industrial arts like publishing, film, and recording. Because in the “live arts,” participatory investment, as it accumulates, increases the monetary value of the product. You increase the value of an artwork just by buying it, if you are a participant. Thus, you will probably pay more for the next work by that artist you buy. You do the same if you recruit all your friends to go listen to a band in a bar. If all your friends show up and have a good time, you will almost certainly pay more at the door the next time the band plays. But that’s the idea: to increase the social value of the things you love…’
To Be Continued …