Artist Versus Entrepreneur: Who Gets What?

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AKA SOME ARTISTS CAN’T PROMOTE THEIR WORK

Last year, I was struck by two wildly different links I came across on the same day.

Link 1:

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Via US noise-rock band Oxbow’s Facebook profile I was directed to an opinion piece by writer (and former musician) Alina Simone. Titled ‘The End of Quiet Music’ this was a nicely rendered argument for re-considering contemporary music as Art. Simone illustrates this with anecdotal evidence from her own music career: whilst making music, Simone always felt uncomfortable promoting it. After some dalliances with the new ‘realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business’ she packed music in and became a writer of essays and novels.

As Simone sums it up, we need to consider people like her:

“We’ve placed the entire onus of changing-with-the-times on musicians, but why can’t the educational, cultural and governmental institutions that support the arts adapt as well, extending the same opportunities to those whose music provides the soundtrack to our lives? If they don’t, Darwinism will probably ensure that only the musical entrepreneurs survive.”

It’s a good argument.

There are a tonne of reasons why contemporary music should be thought of as part of the arts:

(1) Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Some people are terrible entrepreneurs and the world would be better off if they did something else. A significant number of musicians fit this profile. Wouldn’t you rather hear less from some desperate band?

(2) There are concrete barriers and market failures that confront some musicians. It can cost an Australian band $10,000 to $20,000 more than an American band to tour America, due to geography and visa restrictions.

(3) And the big one: It’s already happening in places like Australia. It’s here. Contemporary music is treated like part of the arts here. To a much lesser degree, yes, but it does gets funded by the same people who fund poetry and painting.

Here is a list of bands who have received Australia Council for the Arts funding in the last year or so:

Ball Park Music  $20,000

Dead Letter Circus $15,000

The Smith Street Band $13,240 / $13,000

Adalita $15,400

San Cisco $20,000

Sarah Blasko $20,000

Art Vs Science $20,000

Augie March $20,000

More than half of these acts are affiliated with major labels.

The music ‘industry’ is already partially under umbrella of the arts in Australia.

(Look for yourself)

In Australia, contemporary music is art. All we’re really arguing about (if we’re arguing at all) is about capitalising that ‘a’ in ‘Art’ like it always is in opera and experimental music.

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Link 2:

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The second piece I saw last year (I wrote some of this ages ago) reached me through Buzzsonic. It was this flashy piece by Billboard Magazine on The Weeknd: How The Weeknd Went From Internet Mystery to Billboard 200 No. 2 by Reggie Ugwu.

On the surface, this piece tells a VERY different story to Simone’s. This article is about how a musician made it ‘big’ by doing virtually nothing:

 What does it mean for an artist to succeed on his/her own terms in 2013? The Weeknd — the 23-year-old, famously elusive R&B singer born Abel Tesfaye — sold 95,000 copies of his major label debut album “Kiss Land” last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan — enough for a debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in a neck-and-neck race with country music star Keith Urban. “Kiss Land” trailed Urban’s “Fuse” for the number one spot by less than 3,000 albums. But unlike Urban, Tesfaye had no charting singles, or penetration at radio, and conceded to only one press interview — with Complex magazine in July — in support of the project.

In short, Tesfaye made music and let the internet and buzz do the heavy lifting. When he’d cemented in what he was doing (via free mixtapes) he went with Republic and they promoted ‘Kissland’ via ‘word of mouth, online and street-level marketing and a string of cinematic music videos.’ They didn’t throw endless amounts of cash at it. The artist didn’t take to social media every waking moment. Every individual step looks pretty savvy to me.

It’s all been built to scale up fairly organically, based on whether it should.

(That last word seems important)

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THE MIDDLE GROUND…IF THERE IS ANY?

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So where’s the middle ground between these two pieces?

It looks pretty clear to me:

The consumer market.

 You can’t mess with this formula: Sell people what they want to buy.

This is often a difficult proposition for musicians because – in short – their product line is somewhat fixed. Most musicians can only sing, play, perform, write and entertain in a few specific ways. Most musicians can only make a fixed number and type of product. If you play guitar, you can’t release an album of violin jams, for example.

(Same goes for many other creative people, including writers. I couldn’t write romance fiction if my life depended on it. My idea of romance is this: my girlfriend and I eat pizza together, fully clothed, in a well lit room.)

This is not a problem Tresfaye has because people want music he makes. He doesn’t need to change anything up at the moment. He’s riding over ground opened up by EDM’s rise and rise, helped along by Drake. He has, despite this, maintained a cache of mystery. So he’s got everything on his side at the right time.

When has this ever not worked?

So here’s my problem: If I had to choose which one of these two artists (Alina Simone or Abel Tresfaye) is making ‘Art’, I’m going with The Weeknd.

I just am. Simone’s work is not art because she couldn’t promote it.

I don’t think the relationship between art and entrepreneurship is linear at all.

‘Entreprenurship’ is not about being a pest on social media. That’s a mistake proponents for and against make repeatedly. Tesfaye has been far more entrepreneurial than most, while keeping a fairly low profile.

‘Art’ is not about being an extrovert either. There are probably more photos of Alina online than Tresfaye.

Entreprenurship, innovation, creativity, all those buzzwords are all about the same thing when it comes to music or any other creative endeavour: it’s the art of telling your audience a new story about why they might like your stuff…

And then getting lucky with the rest of it aka having the right product-fit for the right moment.

It’s a brutal fucking business. Really crushing. But if you can tell the right story at the right time, the game is yours no matter how you choose to play it.

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Venues and the City

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This was originally written for the show catalogue for RMIT University’s ‘Music, Melbourne + Me‘ exhibition, so excuse the  Victorian focus. And look, this is pretty openly celebratory. But please note, the ability to see the good here is tempered by having seen so much worse, so often. You have to give Melbourne credit for its venues. You have to. I still can’t get over how nice staff are to musicians in licensed venues here. In Brisbane (and many other cities) musicians are treated fairly poorly:

‘Here’s your two drink tickets for the sold out show. Oh and you have to vacate backstage after you play.’ 

‘You want to do what? Leave your gear somewhere?’ 

‘The bar staff can’t hear at the bar, you need to turn down.’

What Melbourne does right is the little things. The first time I played here, the bar manager came around the bar when I walked in, had a conversation with me about my amplifier and then took me through to the gear store. Most of the people who work in venues in Melbourne play in bands and instead of this being some horror show version of how that went with record stores, the system works. People treat you how they want to be treated.  

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THE CITY’S HAND MIRROR: MELBOURNE AND MUSIC VENUES

By Ian Rogers (RMIT, Music Industry)

Interview quotations from Simon Fenner (former rock manager)

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ON MUSIC VENUES AS CULTURAL SPACE

Simon Fenner: (A good venue is a) venue that the people feel safe in and that has transport and they can get to and from and delivers what they want, delivers the experience they want and that experience (has) changed over the decades.  It’s become far more complex an experience than they demand now than they did back in the ‘60s and ’70s.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), French scholar Michel de Certeau set out to study the ‘ordinary,’ less visible elements of popular culture, namely what we might once have called ‘passive’ consumption. In placing his focus squarely on everyday life – especially on small acts of enjoyment and interaction that seem frivolous on the surface – Certeau was searching for resistance. He felt that people did not just idly let their lives happen to them. He had a hunch that small moments of victory and empowerment were taken from within in all this ordinary unassuming behaviour and in The Practice of Everyday Life he paused to consider how this works.

         I’m reminded of Certeau every time I think about music venues, especially two of his key terms: strategies and tactics. Certeau theorised strategies as the domain of the ‘proper,’ they are the directed uses and depictions and discourses that ostracise or externalise alternatives. Strategies give us the way things should be. Meanwhile tactics are the ‘calculus which cannot count on a “proper” to back them up, the ‘tactic belongs to the other’ (xix). Tactics are what we can get away with. They’re often sneaky, as Certeau mentions at one point: it’s like using the work phone for a personal call or stealing a beer from another band’s drinks rider. Tactics can look like obedience (like a work call or a drink from your band’s rider) but they’re far from it. And while it’s difficult to conceive of us battling the status quo as we stand – drink in hand – at a live music venue, we’re not as passive as we appear. We’re not just one of the crowd or a demographic of consumers.  We’re a little bit freer than that and a good music venue recognises and encourages this. The best music venues tacitly allow us to misbehave a little, or a lot. Good venues privilege the tactical. They are not prescriptive spaces. They encourage a very mild form of transgression from everyday life. While they accommodate a ritual (the live show) it’s an open-ended one: we all know what will probably happen (strategy) but we’re there because anything might occur (tactics).

         In this way, Certeau’s tactics interact with space. In Certeau’s worldview, the tactics actually create the space. When you really think about it, a space’s meaning – any space or place – is entirely wrapped up in how we all minutely but acutely misuse it, how we as people tend to personalise almost everything around us. An office desk is a piece of shaped lumber until you put your family photos and coffee stains on it. In terms of music venues, the ones held closest to our hearts are those in which we feel at home. These are the rooms we know best: think of the eccentricities of The Empress where ‘backstage’ is a hole cut into the stage or The Corner with its single column set dead centre in front of the stage. These venues know a lot about us as well: they know our bands or our friend’s band, the staff know our names or our music or our friends or our habits. Pause for a second to consider how much a room such as Pony, The Tote or Yah Yahs might know about you and consider how these spaces – these largely unfurnished rooms – have played such a large role in your autobiography. You and everyone you’ve seen or met there filled that space, made the venue what it is in your memories. Would any of us who love live music really be who we are today without these grubby rooms and what they accommodate and encourage?

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VENUES AND THE CITY

Simon Fenner: The venues that remained operating the longest in this town continually would be places like Billboard in the city, the Metro Theatre which is now called The Palace in the city.  A range of what we all call beer barns out in the suburbs, places like The Village Green, the International Hotel, the Tarmac Hotel, a number of venues.  I mean, I believe there’s something like 800 venues that have operated in this town from the ‘60s to now.  Of the 800, approximately 300 of them are still operating but not all of them are continuous and not all of them were important.  We are known – Melbourne is known throughout the world –  as having the most number of venues per capita of any city.  Now, that was true for a long time.  I don’t know whether it is still true today but I suspect it is, if you look at the weekly papers and the street press.

If music venues tell us a lot about ourselves, what does the constant and plentiful supply of these spaces say about Melbourne as a city? Quite a lot, I imagine. Certeau would agree. He had by 1984, let his thinking travel out to considering the city as well as the people in it. Certeau once visited the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre and looked down on New York City, noting that this was a place that never ‘learned the art of growing old’ (91). It was, to him, a place that invented and reinvented itself daily. This is all cities. They’re like the venues and spaces I spoke of earlier. They’re all empty shells, abstract sculptures and abandoned buildings/streets/parks without us filling them up with our lives. It is the transit of people through and around and to cities and venues that make them one thing and not another.

         Yet a city this invested in live music suggests something about the people who live here. We need these places and it goes well beyond the important and valid economic support they provide the city and it goes well past state marketing, branding and tourism as well. This network of venues is a circuit board for a huge part of Melbourne’s cultural identity. As the city sprawls further and further in every direction and as it reshuffles itself between a hundred different things (cosmopolitan metropolis, modern innovator, cultured curator and sports lover) there is that constant hum of live bands playing in a pub somewhere just down the road. Any night of the week, in any type of weather, it’s always there as a reassuring presence and a way for us to reflect on who we are and what Melbourne is about. In the hustle and bustle of a place so big and full, these music venues are Melbourne’s hand mirror, providing a rare and personal glimpse of what the city means to a great many people.

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REFERENCES

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. California: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

I’ve Never Known The Morning: ‘Dolewave’ as Reaction

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INTRODUCTION TO THE INTRODUCTION

This is a fairly meagre attempt to add my own POV to two recent pieces on what some critics and listeners (and detractors) are calling ‘dolewave’. To my ears, it’s Australian guitar pop music, that avoids any sense of power- or punk-. I wrote this on Sunday morning after reading Shaun Prescott’s piece on Crawlspace and having a bit of a chat to him on Twitter. Max Easton posted his own follow-up not long after. Together, they’re entirely good enough. Between them, they’d make a good popular music study group: Shaun’s sense of ideology and social stratification (cultural studies, sociology) meets Max’s careful eye for what my colleagues would call ‘spatial concerns’. Both are equally important: power and place make the world go round.

What struck me about both accounts was the absence of aesthetic politics and taste. Flying Nun style jangle pop is not exactly working class music. (That’s metal.) Why did these bands choose this sound? And why now? Why is there any similarity between them at all in 2014? 

My answer to this feels flimsy, at best.

But it’s all that would come to me when I wrote it. 

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INTRODUCTION

Shaun Prescott published a provocative piece over the weekend on dolewave, that loose collection of Australian pop bands that he expertly describes as being ‘beautiful and poignant in an aggressively sad way’. The vibe of these bands is the eternal share-house, forever stuck at that moment when you say to yourself, ‘Enough of this shit’ but can’t scratch together the bond for your own place. For many of us, this carries right through into our 30s where, ‘Why can’t I afford a house when I work full-time?’ takes over.

It’s such a double-edged frame of mind:

Why can’t I get what I want?

Why do I want what I want?

Age old stuff.

And what I like about some of these bands is that they marry this feeling to some of the  more blissful moments extracted from the mess: it doesn’t cost a lot to have a picnic in the park or to record at home. There’s more to life as well as less.

Anyway, what I found interesting in Shaun’s piece was mainly my own baggage, my own history. This is what his writing stirred up.

Let me tell this to you, if you like?

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MURMURS OF DISSENT IN AUSTRALIAN GUITAR POP LAST DECADE

I spent about half my 20s around indie-rock bands that sounded like beefed up versions of the current bands pinned ‘dolewave’. This is circa 2002-2008. These bands I’m talking about were kinda sloppy but kinda brilliant pop/rock bands that combined a Flying Nun sensibility/accent with whatever else they could get their hands on: post-punk, select bits of Sonic Youth, classic rock, the poppier end of 80s hardcore, Pavement, Guided By Voices, lo-fi, you name it.

Specifically I’m thinking of bands like The Bites (and later Hand Hell), New Estate, Dollar Bar, The Zebras and a constellation of others that more or less came and went in the blink of an eye. I’d  put this era of Screamfeeder in there as well. The production/songwriting on the last couple of Screamfeeder releases are right out of this playbook.

recoverypress3-295x300None of these bands had much to do with localised iterations of hardcore or punk or noise in the cities they came from. It just wasn’t that moment. It has none of these roots. This stuff comes out of urban pop scenes.

And musically, this isn’t the pre-history of dolewave. I wouldn’t tar those bands now with an association to this stuff (for reasons described below) but there is a common sensibility at work. These are all bands that are interested in pop structures and suburban Australia and not really knowing what to do next.

To me, they absolutely fit the themes Shaun writes about, if not the clique. These were bands that rejected:

“…the neo-liberal, self-improvement, mortage-till-death, make-a-buck-or-die, protect-at-all-costs impulses which are more real now, in established workaday Australian life…”

They played melodic songs with choruses, to 30 people a couple of weekends a month.

In short, it felt the same.

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EXCEPT…

…all of those bands from last decade were potently uncool at the time.

Some had a following but they were about as far out of vogue as the mind could wander.

I’m glad they were uncool because it was a weird time.

Early 21st century Australia fucking sucked:

Howard was at the height of his powers and seemed unstoppable. He had the best part of a decade left to run.

Alongside which, dance rhythms finally stormed the walls of Indie™ and what should have been a jubilant moment went sour pretty quickly. All of a sudden we had a hundred dance-rock bands propped up by Vice magazine and the return of club nights. In short the tone of the time was: it’s fucking midnight in Australia (politically, socially) so let’s parti!

Rock’s great response: nu-rock. ‘Get Born’ by Jet was released in 2003. Can you imagine playing ‘Bad Decisions’ onstage in an era where people took Jet seriously?

And compounding all this: another cyclical backlash against political correctness. It was particularly brutal this time round. This specific couple of years were probably the most homophobic, munted, patently fuckedheaded moment in Australian music I’ll ever live through. (I hope.) Say what you like about the culture of cheap for-clicks outrage operating at present but it’s 100% better than this era I’m talking about.

So things are going greeeeeaaaat and we have a hundred bands that sound like a danceable dude-bro version of The Cure and a few rawk throw-backs balancing the till.

And in the middle of this?

Kirsty Stegwazi singing about the gentrification of Fitzroy, dumb rich kids and this tale of temp-work laid out over a beautifully pop second verse:

And when you vote me/

From your three-girl/

Dog-eat-dog suburban right-wing Axis-of-evil/

Worst kind of reality I’ve ever been in/

Ask me if there’s room for you and your friends in my life boat/

And I’ll tell you sweat-heart/

I don’t think so.

In Brisbane, Tim Stewart was just as ticked off:

I’ve never known the morning to not give up the night/

There must be ways, we haven’t discussed/

To stop going crazy from doing what we must/

Had a falling out with love and a falling in with lust/

A falling out of favour with the folks on the hill/

(You’re) behaving like a child with your hands in the till/

That was the temperature we were all feeling.

Howard and the passé state of guitar music in Australia.

These bands I loved were playing on a scorched earth. But it was provocative enough to make us all really angry. The enemies were pretty clear. The main one had a name. We could pin the whole monty on him.

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UNTIL LABOUR SAVES THE DAY

To me this is the space before dolewave and it bears little stylistic relation to what came next.

Imagine being a teenager listening to years of shitty coke party rock or angry indie-pop and then, when the dawn finally breaks, you get Kevin Rudd (incompetent and a prat) and then Julia Gillard (incompetent and a homophobe), all soundtracked by the dying embers of shit like Sneaky Sound System, Jet’s second album and that half-inflated silverchair reunion.

That’s the germinating political setting of ‘dolewave’ to me.

Dolewave, to me at least, feels exactly like Labour’s legacy, not Howard’s.

I can take or leave many of the bands labelled dolewave but I totally respect all of them for their blanket rejection of this recent past.

For none of what happened in those last years of Howard prepared anyone for what came next. All our pop songs of rejection and home-spun valorisation didn’t mean a thing when the ‘distant future’ proved such a bummer.

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Postscript: One day I was walking down the street and ran into a guy I knew who had just returned home to Brisbane from a long stint in Melbourne. I asked him why he moved back and he said, ‘Melbourne’s a great place for a good time and the worst place ever for a bad one.’ And it’s true: it’s hard to get too down on yourself in the clear skies of a Brisbane ‘winter’ plus you never expect much at the height of summer either. 

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The ‘Open Source Acclaim’ of Death Grips: Narratives of access, career and promotion in contemporary music journalism.

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(This post is adapted – very slightly – from a paper I gave at this year’s International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference in Brisbane, Australia. As I was speaking to a diverse academic audience, I set-up the paper with a lot of biographic information at the front here so if you’re familiar with the work of DG, you can probably skip this.

BACKSTORY: THE RISE OF DEATH GRIPS 

Both ends of my candle

Countin’ paces

Never stop chasin’ each other’s faces

I’m the mask that separates them

I’ve been interested in the American experimental hip-hop band Death Grips for what feels like a long time but it’s actually been about three years. Three years feels like a lifetime in music criticism. The band emerged in 2011 with a self-released mix-tape titled Exmilitary, something that travelled far and wide online, finding all sorts of places to reside, namely MP3 blogs and more prominently, Grindcore Karaoke, the online label of Jay Randall (Agoraphobic Nosebleed). The links between Grindcore Karaoke and the band appeared clear: in addition to hip-hop, Exmilitary had strong ties to (and samples taken from) aggressive rock, punk and art music and as such it felt like a natural fit for GK’s emphasis on the borderlands of noise, grindcore and punk, whereby the tinny drum machines of Death Grips sat directly alongside the spluttering electronically programmed blast beats of electro-grind.

Personally, I thought Exmilitary was interesting more than good. Others were more taken by it. When one writer for Forbes Magazine came to assemble his 2011 list of ‘Best Free Albums’, Death Grips came in about halfway at #5, edging out The Weeknd, Fugazi-Wu-Tang Clan mash-up Wugazi and Crosses, a side-project of Chino Moreno of nu-metal titans Deftones. The record also earned good reviews in The Guardian, Pitchfork and NME.

From 2011, the band’s trajectory trended in one direction: up. Less than a year after their debut, they would be signed to the Sony-funded Epic Records (home to Avril Lavigne, Fiona Apple, Michael Jackson’s catalogue). The band announced two albums for 2012 and in April, Epic released the first of these called The Money Store. To promote the album, a 30-date international tour was booked. It was due to start in May but…

After 11 years of being on the road, (drummer/producer Zach) Hill knew there wasn’t always something at the end of the touring rainbow, after playing “the same circuit of the same things of the same this of the same that.” Rolling with the future meant finishing the second record…They gave the world no more notice than…

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They didn’t tell anyone they were bailing on 30 shows, least of all their booking agent, manager, record label, or publicist. (Quote taken from this piece from Spin.)

Further to which, the band essentially opted out the album’s promotional cycle completely. They did a small, select handful of interviews that year, most of which went online well after the The Money Store had passed. All this did not go down well at Epic or in any other part of the music industries associated with the band, except the press: all of the intermediaries around Death Grips were effected and the band’s audience were deeply unimpressed, almost comically so for a band so readily adopting the punk mode.

Yet Death Grips followed through: they spent the next four months of 2012 locked away in their Sacramento apartment finishing their third album No Love Deep Web. When they returned to LA and Epic in a bid to have their third album released, they were met with a far less-than-enthusiastic response. They persisted, hounding the executives of their own label for a release date and got no where. The label refused to schedule the album until, ‘sometime in 2013’. Frustrated and feeling the moment passing, the band leaked No Love Deep Web on October 1st and it looked like this:

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There’s some peen under the black box.

This provoked an unusual response from Epic:

Epic Records is a music first company that breaks new artists. That is our mission and our mandate. Unfortunately, when marketing and publicity stunts trump the actual music, we must remind ourselves of our core values. To that end, effective immediately, we are working to dissolve our relationship with Death Grips.

The band have remained active since: they started their own label, signed it over to another major-label funded subsidiary Harvest. Finally, in August of this year, they were set to play a small number of shows and festival appearances. When audiences packed into Chicago’s Bottom Lounge for the first of these dates, they were met with an AV projection, of a suicide note while a mix tape of the band’s music played. This was the entire show. The Bottom Lounge’s venue staff were repeatedly told the band were delayed but it was later revealed they were not even in the state.

THE SPECIFIC AND THE EXTRAORDINARY IN THE STORY OF DEATH GRIPS 

As one can imagine, online music portals like Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound and whomever else desired the traffic loved all of this. This all made the news pages regularly, tediously even: Pitchfork reported the tweets, the tour cancellations, the album leak, then Epic’s response to the leak and so on. On just that one website – the most influential music site by a long margin – there have been over 50 stories about Death Grips since February 2012. Stereogum has run 29 stories since the start of 2012, not bad for a site that has no actual access to the band. In one of these stories, a Stereogum writer referred to Death Grips’ success as ‘open source acclaim.’ This was a quip, of course, as much is the daily grind of music reporting tends to be but it got me thinking. The scenario of Death Grips looks open, and it’s designed to look this way but is this really true? This band’s constant provocation rings out as equal parts punk resistance and traffic optimising online promotion but does that mean it’s accessible, hackable, adaptable? I started looking for the specific and extraordinary in the story of Death Grips.

NOT YOUR STANDARD DEAL

Firstly, the recording deal the band signed with Epic was extraordinary in a few regards. The band’s way into the label was via L.A. Reid’s then-executive vice president of marketing Angelica Cob-Baehler:

“It took about six seconds,” she says. “I was just sucked in. What I saw was a band that had the ability to capture violent, raw aggression in a way I hadn’t seen this decade. I couldn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was scared of them! I couldn’t resist the feeling of just wanting to be a part of it.” (Quote, again, taken from this piece from Spin.)

What Cob-Baehler watched, in this quote here, was this video:

It has almost 2 million views, despite the fact that it looks like it was shot on a phone. What’s interesting to note at all points thereafter – even when the label is dismissing the band – is the adherence to the act’s cultural currency. This fairly potent cache they have, of bristling rawness, of a mix between the gritty, almost Ol Dirty Bastard-esque blather of MC Ride and the brashly experimental and hardcore referencing sounds underneath, all of this appears preserved under the band’s recording deal. The deal they signed seems very far indeed from the all-encompassing, all-controlling and encroaching contract work Matt Stahl has analysed recently. To the contrary, Epic seems to make no attempt whatsoever to tame Death Grips for the broader commercial market. At no point, does Epic appear ready or willing or even interested in pushing Death Grips to cross-over more broadly. When the band fails to live up to expectations, recall the wording the label used in their denouncement: they spin the story as a means to promote their ‘core values’ of authentic music, while Death Grips’ spin is pure punk-rock brattiness.

Everyone wins.

NO NEWS IS NEWS: DEATH GRIPS AND THE DIGITAL ENCLOSURE

My second point of exception with Death Grip’s open source acclaim is their self-management, namely the direction they have taken their band. Over time, the band’s sense of DIY self-determination has started to look more and more perilous, both bane and boon. For example, if they were, in fact, in total control as the touring stunts aimed to demonstrate, then they were also the origin of all this tactical promotion. Today, the band has really started to look like it’s own version Malcolm McClaren. From there it’s hard not to think of Greil Marcus and Debord and the spectacle. Here was Death Grips and the online music media and digital technology producing the ‘reality’ of Death Grips. While so heavily invested in the culture of online technology, the band’s music – it’s core – seems to slide to the margins. The more attention the band got in 2012-2013, the less emphasis was placed on its sound. It’s frightening how few of those 50 news pieces on Pitchfork centred on Death Grips as musicians or creators of sound-based art or music or songs. This has become almost pure media spectacle now. When a band is celebrated for not performing live what is there? The music media is celebrating an absence, a ‘mysterious’ lack of personal presence, as if the fact that anything can and does lies outside the digital enclosure is suddenly a curious and novel idea. Suddenly, no news has almost become newsworthy, by merit of the fact it jumps the track of daily updates and feeds.

Death Grips produce work directly aimed at these gaps, between all these processes and not for them. They draw attention by being neither one nor other. Likewise, they sit between punk’s authentic resistance and commercial hip-hop’s brash swagger, between music as communicative centre-piece and brand rallying point, between orderly business and chaotic art and finally, centrally, between promotion as a musician’s chore and as marketing as story-based art-form. Death Grips ride this age-old tension all the way. There’s real power here between the spectacular online and absent off and they are relentless online, releasing song after song, video after video, animated gif after gif but none of this reveals much about their concrete week-to-week existence. They are not the story. They’re telling the story.

THE PAROCHIAL BIAS

Finally, I want to finish up with one final piece of detail. It’s fairly obvious from the outset that what Epic wanted from Death Grips was this cultural power and cache, their ability to command attention. This is the central process by which music is being monetised at present. The album sales are never coming back. The Money Store was anything but. It reportedly sold as little as 4000 copies in its opening week and it is not surprising Epic proved elusive when it came to scheduling the follow-up album. Yet the story of how – exactly – the band approached Epic a second time is really illuminating. For a band steeped in outsider mythos, Death Grips were living anything but: In 2012, after completing No Love Deep Web in Sacremento, the band took the remaining portion of their record advance and set up a base in one of rock’s most mythologised places:

…they were walking down Sunset Boulevard with their bags and passed Chateau Marmont, the famed $435-a-night luxury hotel and/or castle where Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby, Lindsay Lohan got booted for skipping her bill, and Katy Perry and John Mayer currently rendezvous on dates. (And again.)

Despite the band’s Bourdesian strategising, it didn’t work. The leak of No Love Deep Web was made from the hotel, the cover was shot in one of it’s bathrooms. As this era of the band came to an end, it was a failure almost, if not for the rapid succession of news pegs it provided for transmission.

As an Australian music critic, I find this particular anecdote interesting. Is it not a rich metaphor for the band’s career more broadly? The band’s positioning within a certain geographic zone – the U.S., close to L.A. – afforded them significant advantage.The aesthetics of Death Grips are cheap to produce and transferred through a media most of the West have access to. Yet how far did Epic’s gaze travel in this brave new digital world? To Sacremento? To Youtube? And look at the hustle involved in that second-chance Death Grips were chasing. That experience is what most musicians outside of a select few struggle with every day. High quality accessible product can find its way to market despite geographic obstacles but fringe music like Death Grips? It was a miracle it made it to Epic once and even with the aid of Epic’s own capital investment, the band couldn’t get back inside the door. This is the size and shape of the ‘democratised’ and utopic digital media. You are free to do as you please but attention still travels along a circuitry of place and capital that still appears completely dominated by the U.S., even in 2013, even with something as unflinching as Death Grips.

The American music press seems wilfully blind to this. In an age were all sorts of music journalism tropes surrounding gender, race and class are being rigorously dismantled, little is made of the obvious parochial bias. While the online spectacle of constant daily churn and music for everyone – and by everyone – continues, much is obscured as we click through to the next illuminating and distracting moment. We are, each of us, a little like Death Grips. We have a plethora of options that look like an open source of inspiration and transmission but I’m not sure how often we exercise these ideals. Instead, we stare into the digital music media online and suddenly find ourselves compromised, conflicted and occasionally ostratcised by our own so- called revolution, our own marvel of creation. And while I’ve been fairly critical at times about this band, I think they really understand this. I think they feel it. They get it. Because interwoven between so much of what they do and so many of the band’s lyrics is a strain of nihilism. Spin critic Christopher Weingarten wrote of the band being one that “embraced the chaos of the internet.” I agree. But the internet Death Grips have a hold on is no business marketplace or visual pleasure zone, it’s an abyss, a place of cynicism, noise, alienation, surveillance and rampant, unchecked expectation. I think that third album title – No Love, Deep Web - might just describe the thrust of the band far more completely than an insider exposé.

How I Didn’t Write A Book About Helmet

Meantime by Helmet
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In 2012, 33&1/3 Books asked for submissions to their book series on iconic albums and I proposed Helmet’s Meantime. I would have loved to have written Betty (from which ‘Overrated’ is taken) but I went with Meantime instead, figuring it would be a more popular title.

The proposal ended up making it to the ‘long-list’ (a very long list, mind you) for consideration but was subsequently rejected.

I took it well. I stripped myself naked and burned all of my 33&1/3 books in the yard, whilst Meantime blasted from the house at high volume. Just kidding. While I think I never need to see or hear another word about NYC’s early punk era or Oasis or post-punk, I’m genuinely looking forward to Anwyn Crawford’s book on Live Through This and – holy shit − Charles Fairchild on The Grey Album could be amazing.

As for Helmet, that’s a history that may never be written. The band were a bit of a mess (like most bands) but their story is bound up in all manner of bad blood and red tape. It’s pretty grisly. I’m not sure a bio is ever coming. Looking at the band’s work through the lens of a single album like Meantime is probably the most viable way to get it done.

As such, this is what I was proposing. It would be a book about Helmet but it was also a look at how a really innovative rock band fucked itself out of a legacy.

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SAMPLE CHAPTER:

INTRODUCTION: BARTHES, BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD

(Sigh. This chapter title sucks. Sorry.)

HEIt’s 1972, twenty years before the start of this story, French academic Roland Barthes has just published his book Mythologies in English for the first time. In this year, the writing inside Mythologies is at least fifteen years old as Barthes has submitted much of it to French magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles during the 1950s. Yet for English readers, in 1972, Mythologies is a revelation. It is the work of a master thinker, using the very best theoretical tools at his disposal (philosophy, sociology, literary criticism) and applying them to the most benign parts of everyday life: margarine, motor cars, wrestling, holidays, striptease. In these seemingly ordinary things, Roland Barthes finds an almost secret world of meaning. He writes of his impatience with “the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history.” Obviously, this is a man with an intense fascination for how things work.

(Eagle-eyed readers will note that I recycled this paragraph when I used Barthes in a piece on The Smashing Pumpkins for The Lifted Brow. Hey, I wrote it. I can do as I please.)

Of particular interest in Mythologies, half-buried inside a piece about a royal family boat cruise, is this quip that unravels everything. On the entertainment value of watching the French royals slum it for a day at sea, he writes:

“Such a feeling of amusement carries a heavy pathological burden: if one is amused by a contradiction, it is because one supposes its terms to be very far apart.”

This still holds. We remain amused by contradictions to this day. They’re everywhere. This is why reality television is entertaining and tiresome. This is why politicians shake your hand. This is why so many of us look to our music and film heroes for humility, for autographs and kind words and small talk. This stuff is all infinitely entertaining, worth repeating to others, because deep down we assume these people are wildly different from us. The contradiction is everything.

Early_HelmetIt’s 1992, the official starting line, the year Interscope Records releases the second album by New York rock band Helmet. Except that hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t June 1992 yet, that’s still in the future and right now the four members of Helmet aren’t in New York City, they’re in the San Fernando Valley, in a disused beer brewery. Outside the brewery, in the hum and whine of two dozen generators, the air heavy is charged with electrical current and the smell of fuel. A sea of cables snake their way inside, from the generators up to the higher floors of what’s left of the beer factory. Under all this, down on the concrete floor, in complete darkness are four men: three hold guitars, one’s seated at a drum kit. A voice says, ‘Okay, action,’ and that’s when the artificial lightning starts. The first flashes are almost blinding but in the flickering after effects (the smaller strobes), the musicians begin to play along to an audio recording, miming one of their own songs for the benefit of a film crew and absolutely none of this makes any sort of sense at all. Everything here contradicts something else.

Firstly, there’s the sound of what’s being mimed to. This is a song they’re calling Unsung. It starts with a sharp metronomic drum and bass line that feels immediately mechanical, like it’s being operated instead of played. The guitars wind in, one muted and on beat, the other wailing like a siren. It’s a warning. They stop, hammering down on open D chord and then there is a momentary pause. Up until this point, it could almost be another band, it could be thrash metal experimenting with an intro, or post-punk playing at heavy, but it’s not because what happens next is the beginning of everything this book is about.

What Helmet do twenty-eight seconds into Unsung is play the riff that would make them famous. In the future, it is a riff that will change heavy metal. It will go on to popularize a range of fringe ideas (staccato dropped D guitar playing, hip hop affected metal, The Melvins, industrial noise) and, for better or for worse, beat down a path for new hyphenated rock genres like nu-metal and post-hardcore. This riff will excite and inspire people in much the same way as other once abstract guitar ideas have; think of Eddie Van Halen’s finger tapping or Sonic Youth’s ‘treated’ guitars. And while all this lays ahead, none of this is anticipated in this moment. Why? Because the sound blasting around the rubble of this expensive video shoot, under these flashing lights, it doesn’t sound like the future of rock music at all. It doesn’t sound radio-friendly or like music to bang your head to or music produced by a major label recording company. Instead, it’s implausibly brutal, loud beyond volume. It sounds like Angus Young working a drill press. It’ll never sell.

Next in this list of contradictions is how they look when all this is happening. Put simply, all of the musicians in Helmet are dressed like college students. They’re all neat. No one has long hair. No one has a beard. None of these men could ever, ever be mistaken for a Viking or a biker or a druid or a sociopath. Not even Australian guitarist Peter Mengede, decked out entirely in black. He looks more like a stagehand than a bad ass. The other three are wearing shorts and in the months coming, MTV cartoon metal heads Beavis and Butthead will say what we were all thinking.

Butthead: If you saw these guys on the street, ah, huh huh, you’d wouldn’t even know they were cool.

Bevis: Heh heh. They look like normal guys. Heh, heh, heh, like us.

Yet they’re producing this very heavy metal and it’s odd for a multitude of reasons. It’s odd because grunge is everywhere in 1992 and grunge does not have a utilitarian dress code. There’s a very good reason grunge made it to the Paris catwalk: it could be fashioned, it was reproducible. It may have aspired to anti- fashion, to exalting Northwestern working-class ordinariness (flannelette, work boots, long-johns) but compared to Helmet, it was spectacular bricolage through and through. All this is doublely odd because 1980s metal still lingers here in 1992. It’s right there in Bevis’ Metallica t-shirt. Less than three years previous, glam metal still topped the charts. The images of glamorous metal rockers still reside in the collective memory. But here is Helmet, right now, with their barber shop crew cuts that recall neither the permed locks of Poison, nor the unwashed mops of Nirvana.

The last non-compute, the final contradiction happens with the voice. By 1992, Helmet’s singer/guitarist Page Hamilton is already known as someone who screams and barks. He will come to be known for this most of his life and it’s puzzling because right here, in the replaying back of arguably the band’s most famous track, in this abandoned building, his voice is a calm human center-point to the music. There is no glam metal theatrics to his singing and none of grunge’s rage, instead Hamilton sounds completely unflustered by the racket taking place. It’s not a slack delivery (there’s no link to Pavement or J Mascis to be made here) and it’s not a cold delivery (there’s no link to Godflesh or Joy Division either), instead he drags something up from heavy metal’s history. Quite inadvertently this new singing style of his makes an unusual link: while the band around him go to work on heavy metal as an industrial process, as an assembly line of repetition and precise riffs, Page Hamilton sings, quite inadvertently (by all reports), like Ozzy Osbourne from Black Sabbath. So here, double-tracked and prominent in this noise-rock, sit some of heavy metal’s earliest raw materials, completely naive and completely human.

As we’ll see, these contradictions – between the human and the machine, between Hamilton and these other men, between punk and rock, noise and melody, past and progression, sound and presentation, talent and hype − they’re never really be resolved by Helmet. As the band members stand under the strobe lights in the rubble of old industry, how much of this was heard by them and felt by them can’t be known. But months later, when the Unsung film clip airs on MTV and this staged performance in the brewery is intercut with stock footage of steel workers and a locomotive, the viewer can see some of the awkwardness creep in. On the small screen, they don’t look comfortable as they pretend to play. There are smaller, more internal contradictions as well: Why is Peter dressed differently? What’s with the weird shots of them playing on different levels of the building? How exactly is it that Page’s pristinely clean looking red guitar so readily recalls Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen? And like the perfect storm recreated in the clip, there’s some sense of how Helmet will be undone by history in all this.

In a cruel twist, Hamilton’s says as much right at the very beginning. The lyrics are deliberately obtuse in Unsung. But something needed to be said and so while the listener is a mesmerized by this bracing riff, Page steps up to the microphone and sings:

Your contribution left unnoticed son, Association with an image.
Just credit time for showing up again, Attention wandered with it.

And then the lights flash and the camera pans away to empty space, to a huge pile of concrete rubble.

helmet_2012It’s 2012, twenty years after the start of this story and those words of Page’s ring out like some sort of fucked up premonition. Non-linear wordplay can work like that. Things (songs, films, books) left open and empty tend to attract meaning into them, they suck it down like a black hole. We’re like that too. Humans hate the absence of meaning. We’re all terrified by it. So those lyrics now sound out a certain way and make more sense. You can listen to them and think, this is largely what has happened to Helmet in the decades since. Page Hamilton, master guitarist and innovator, rarely makes the greatest guitarist lists in the magazines. He still performs under the name Helmet, still plays the songs of Meantime every other night, but the original members aren’t there. Instead we now live in a time in which Helmet are, more than anything else, cited as a jumping off point for hedonistic nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. Helmet just as often miscast as yet another macho, hardcore influenced metal band from history’s playbook. Twenty years ago, Helmet encapsulated none of this.

So there is a lot at stake here. This is the first book-length examination of Meantime and the band who made it. It is, without any pretense otherwise, an attempt to rescue Helmet from critical obscurity and to reinstate them into what I consider more accurate and relevant musical contexts. There is no better means with which to do this than to look closely at Meantime, their most widely known record, the signature album, their cornerstone. For woven inside such a seemingly blank and robotic album is the very human and very messy story of ordinary people facing off against history.

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‘MEANTIME’ PROPOSED TABLE OF CONTENTS

(APPROXIMATE DATE OF DRAFT COMPLETION: February 1st, 2013)

Introduction: Barthes, Bevis and Butthead

See attached sample on page 11. Estimated word count: 2000 words

Helemt_single

CHAPTER 1: Brisbane, Australia

Synopsis: This short chapter details the journey of original Helmet guitarist Peter Mengede from Brisbane to New York and the details of his meeting Page Hamilton (guitar/vocals) and their co-founding of the band.

Starting Off Point: The chapter opens in Rocking Horse, Brisbane’s longest running record store. During the late nineties, the author (as a twenty-two year old) taps into what appears to be an unending supply of rare Helmet collectables and bootlegs in the store. It’s a great time. Over a period of months I discover all sorts of things: there’s the Unlive 8-5-91 bootleg (featuring Side Hel and Side Met), there’s the demos ‘produced’ by Steve Albini on clear seven inch vinyl, there’s singles and original pressings and memorabilia. I buy it all. The staff notices this. We get talking and I ask the obvious question: ‘Why does a store in Brisbane have all this Helmet stuff?’ They tell me that one of the founding members of the Helmet lives right here in the city and that he’s hocking his collection. He’s friends with the shop owner, apparently. This guy, Peter Mengede, he brings in this stuff and sells it to them and then they sell it on to me. It would take me over a decade to find him.

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)

Estimated word count: 3000 words

(You should all go read this piece by Peter on Guitar Nerd. I cribbed it pretty hard in places.)

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CHAPTER 2: New York, U.S.

Synopsis: This chapter is primarily about Helmet’s pre-Meantime experiences in the experimental New York noise-rock scene, a period that also includes the recording and release of their debut album Strap It On. The more aggressive side of New York’s late 80s/early 90s rock scene (Swans, Live Skull, Unsane, Cows, Amphetamine Reptile Records) is under-documented and I hope to rectify this here, reiterating Helmet’s strong ties back to this particularly uncompromising rock community.

Starting Off Point: Chapter Two opens over New York City, on the observatory of the Empire State Building. This is the type of view of New York that French philosopher Michel de Certeau had in 1984 as he stood, sadly enough, on the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre. He looked down and noted that New York was a city that never ‘learned the art of growing old.’ It was, to him, a place that invents and reinvents itself daily. It was from this constant, sometimes brutal, churn that Helmet emerged. Their sound – so often compared by journalists to the mean streets and oppressive skyscrapers – is more shaped by what Certeau was really getting at as he gazed down from above: the passage of ordinary people along the sidewalks, between the skyscrapers. This is the story of where a band like Helmet came from.

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Tom Hazelmeyer of Amphetamine Reptile Records (Confirmed) Interviews with members of Unsane, Cows and Glenn Branca Orchestra (Unconfirmed)
Field trip to New York, September 2012 (Confirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 7,500 words

(All of that above is probably more suggestive than fact. What I really wanted to do was bring all of that AmRep noise into the book, mainly because there’s very little documentation elsewhere. If I’m completely honest: I have no idea what relationship Helmet had with the bands around them. But this is what you do – sometimes – as a writer/researcher: you follow a gut instinct. And self-interest.)

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CHAPTER 3: Interscope Records, New York

Synopsis: Chapter Three will detail the business dealings behind Helmet’s signing to Interscope Records and the (reported) beginning of Page Hamilton’s legal control of the band. These business machinations are unavoidably linked to Meantime as the band famously received $1,000,000 in advanced album royalties and have since become avatars for the early 90s alternative rock ‘signing boom’.

Starting Off Point: Tom Hazelmeyer sits in his office at Amphetamine Reptile Records and rubs his eyes. It’s not common knowledge but one of the worst things that can happen to a small label is a hit record. Small labels are not set up for hit records: they pass through these micro-businesses like rat poison, clogging up the works, bloating, depleting, stripping out the nerves and cash flow. The phone rings; another call about Helmet. It doesn’t stop. The band made Strap It On, their debut, for about two and a half grand, and right now Tom Hazelmeyer thinks this is easily the most expensive rat poison he has ever bought.

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Tom Hazelmeyer of Amphetamine Reptile Records (Confirmed)
Interview with D.A.M. Management (Unconfirmed)
Interviews with Interscope Records A&R and misc. employees (Unconfirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 5,000 words

(More guess work. I remember reading once that Haze’s phone rang off the hook during this era and it was all about Helmet.)

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CHAPTER 4: Fun City, Manhattan

whartonSynopsis: This chapter is primarily about the writing and recording of Meantime. It is envisaged as a study of how the band, demo engineer Steve Albini, producer Wharton Tiers and mixer Andy Wallace sculpted such an accessible rock sound out of the abrasive din that was early Helmet. The recording also finds the band in ideological transition, from avant-garde musicians to rock celebrities and from punk to metal.

Starting Off Point: Fun City Studios, Manhattan is not the nicest looking place you’ve ever been to. It has low ceilings, there’s exposed concrete on the walls, dirt on the floors. There isn’t a lot of natural light. In the tiny vocal booth, Page Hamilton is standing on his own, with headphones, shouting. Out by the mixing console producer Wharton Tiers is trying to ignore the label guy. The label guy isn’t happy, this is not how major label albums are made. They’re not made in places like this, with equipment like this or by people like this. ‘Page sounded great through a 635 Electrovoice, which is an $80 mic,’ recalls Tiers, years later. ‘The guy from Interscope practically had a shit when he came over, ‘This is your vocal mic?’ Of course he called up a rental company and got four tube mics. We put them up together and tracked with them but in most cases the 635 was the one, it just sounded perfect for his voice.’

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed) Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed) Interview with Wharton Tiers (Semi-Confirmed)
Interview with Steve Albini (Unconfirmed)
Interview with Andy Wallace (Unconfirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 7,500 words

(Are you still reading this? Hey, at least you know some stuff about the micing techniques used on Meantime now. There’s a better story. The myth is that Andy Wallace used some sort of early/manual version of drum replacement on the snare of ‘In The Meantime’  when he came to mix it. It makes sense. I’ve heard the same thing about the kick on Sonic Youth’s ‘Dirty’ which he also mixed. I’ve also read it mentioned that this is one of the reasons Albini was reluctant to let people mix his work during the 90s. Even weirder: on Twitter one day Chris Weingarten cited that exact snare on ‘In The Meantime’ to be one of the best sounding in recorded music.)

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CHAPTER 5: Seven Miles From The Border, Virginia

Synopsis: This chapter is about the commercial promotion and ensuing critical reception of Meantime. The band received a significant marketing push from Interscope Records and as such there is a huge archive of material from this era that documents the band’s emergence into the mainstream. I want to mine this.

Chapter Five is also the story of the band as a globally touring live act, something that leads to both short and long-terms trouble.

Starting Off Point: There was a show in Baltimore and afterwards they decided to push on to a hotel in North Carolina in separate vehicles. In one of the trucks is Helmet’s guitar tech Umbar (aka Evan Bloom), crew member Keith Bornzine and drummer John Stanier. The others (band members, managers, girlfriends) are coming later. It’s late out, dark on the road. Everyone’s tired, really tired. It’s been years of Meantime by now. Umbur sits behind the wheel of the truck and his eyes slowly close and snap open, close and snap open. Close and…the truck slams into a guardrail and flips, sheering open on the bitumen like a can of tuna. By some miracle they all live. Umbar is air-lifted to Richmond. Keith and John are admitted to hospital in North Carolina. The next day, when the rest of the band visit their drummer, John Stanier, drip in arm, sits up and says, ‘The tour’s over.’

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed) Interview with D.A.M. Management (Unconfirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 5,000 words

(Have you worked out the obvious yet? The rest of the band wouldn’t talk to me. I reached out through an intermediary and it was a total no-go. Stanier and bassist Henry Bogdan were both completely disinterested. In fact, while I was putting this together I heard reports that Decibel Magazine had tried to do some sort of piece on Meantime and it stiffed because Bogdan and Stanier wouldn’t talk about it. All that is unsubstantiated but rings true after a brief glimpse behind the curtain.) 

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CHAPTER 6: Los Angeles, America

Synopsis: Page Hamilton doesn’t live in New York these days, he lives in L.A. He still records and tours as a member of Helmet. He maintains almost no contact with the original members of the band. This final chapter of the book is a look at Helmet’s legacy post-Meantime. It is largely the story of Hamilton and how he has affected and been affected by the history of Helmet.

Starting Off Point: I’m admittedly still getting this together. I’m unfamiliar with L.A. I’m used to the sun. Brisbane is sunny. This is something else. It’s flat and bright and there’s palm trees and garbage and smog. It feels mean to say it but the whole city looks like the back of a restaurant to me. This place, this isn’t the late-1980s New York noise scene that Helmet belong in…

Resources:

Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed)
Field trip to Los Angeles, September 2012 (Confirmed)

Estimated word count: 5,000 words

(Who fucking knows what I was thinking here. This reads as pretty unprofessional. I actually think the L.A. iteration of the band is fascinating in its own right now. And jeez, look Page up. His life-story is crazy. The years since Meantime have been wild. This last chapter probably would have been the most interesting. And Page was ready to chat. This is all gut-instinct but I think he’s ready to tell his story a little bit more fully at present.)

The Rest Is Banal Instruction

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AKA THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH ADVICE

Forget good songs. Forget savvy business strategy. Forget the internet and all other media. Forget your training and your practise. Forget anthems and hard wrung passion. Forget your heart. Forget your enemies, lovers and memories. But remember this: what the best music does is deliver us from the mundanity of everyday life. That’s what music is. It’s boundary work. It’s the testing of our limits, always pushing at something. Music that doesn’t push at something doesn’t deliver us from the boring repetition of our lives. Music that doesn’t deliver us from that  pit is just sound. It’s not even noise. It’s no different from the chime of an elevator, only infinitely less useful. It’s garbage.

This avenue to escape ourselves is the sustenance that music can give us. We all need this sustenance and some of us can only find it in music. Everything beyond and around that sustenance is a condiment, that’s all. You can forget all the rest of it and still save a person with music. You can forget all the rest of it and still save yourself.

And that’s it.

The rest is banal instruction.

‘Just do it for the love of it, maaaan.’

‘Just do it because it’s your calling, maaaan.’

‘Never give up, maaaan.’

Fuck all of it.

You don’t need instruction. None of us do. Not if we all keep in mind how and why music works. Not if we always steer ourselves to those unknown places that music opens up. Not if we strive – always, to the point of exhaustion – to find the edges of our lives. And when we’re there we get the one golden reward there is in music: company. And we learn the most comforting lesson there is: you are not alone.

So my advice is to honour this over all of music’s condiments and distractions. As such you don’t need to be a professional or a celebrity to change the world around you. You only need to do as Kurt Vonnegut once suggested, to ‘create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Who would want anything more beautiful out of life than that?

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Originally published in ‘The 360 Deal’ edited by Andrew Dubber. 

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Hybrid Moments in Jared Leto’s ‘Artifact’

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AKA THIS FILM IS STRANGELY AWESOME

There are two distinct scenes in Artifact – a new documentary about US pop band 30 Seconds To Mars – where it feels as though the film could truly become an exposé. This desire to expose is a claim the film makes often. Director and star Jared Leto is repeatedly depicted on camera in a state of intense frustration about the injustices of commercial music. For minutes on end, he argues and cusses into the phone. If one were to edit out these scenes of him on the phone (and, perhaps, the scenes of the band high-fiving), there would not be much left of Artifact to watch.

Yet it is one phone conversation in particular that I found captivating. Leto cruises through LA in an SUV, speaking to his manager Irving Azoff. Not much comes of this brief chat: the band’s label is still suing them (for 30 million dollars, no less), negotiations are still slow and unfruitful, chaos still reigns supreme in the American music business. At the end of this conversation, just as Leto is about to speak, Azoff signs off abruptly. Leto then turns to the camera and says:

‘I was just about to ask him how much that call cost me.’

It is was at this exact point I first started to pay real attention. Here Leto is depicted at rock bottom. He is questioning everything around him, allies and enemies alike. If this moment were channeled through the remainder of the film and allowed to guide its narrative, Artifact would have been an astute and invaluable music documentary, irrelevant of one’s opinion of the band. Unfortunately, this is not to be.

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