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

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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twerps

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.

(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…

DG

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.

Amanda Palmer, Music Criticism and Sour Grapes

AKA HAD A BIT OF A MOMENT ON TWITTER YESTERDAY AFTERNOON 

If you haven’t seen the Amanda Palmer TED speech I’m talking about, it’s here.

Sometimes Twitter really is the best medium for getting an idea across. So I’m not going to elaborate much on it here.

What I would add – now, after the fact / rage-blackout – is that I don’t necessarily dislike Amanda Palmer. Sure, there’s parts of what she does I find ethically questionable and parts I find unfortunate (I’m not a fan of her music) but the level of communication at work here can’t really be disputed. She speaks to her audience and to the TED audience better than most music critics speak to people who like music. Ask a friend. Use Google. Think about it. End of debate.

She’s visible, she has a message she’s selling and she’s willing to go for the weapons-grade schmaltz as required. She’s more narcissistic than most critics at the moment, more self-confident (at least in a public capacity, where it counts). And she has backing and resources, both reputational and capital, and at this point, Amanda Palmer is – without question – the most celebrated music commentator in the world.

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Prestige and Professionalisation at the Margins of the Journalistic Field: The Case of Music Writers

AKA SOME MORE INTERESTING RESEARCH WRITING FROM MY DESK JOB

Amateur_MediaA recent publication by Routledge caught my eye the other day as I scanned the shelves in the library. Inside, I was surprised to find a chapter on music writing in Australia. Put together by two other Melbourne academics: one of the book’s co-editors Ramon Lobato and occasional Mess & Noise contributor (and PhD candidate) Lawson Fletcher. Much like my entry on Clinton Walker’s piece in the Quarterly Essay, and for much the same reasons, I thought I might ‘pick the eyes’ out of this piece and post them up here.

The chapter mainly concerns itself with the state of music writing (i.e. criticism, reportage and opinion) in Australia. Drawing on interviews conducted with Australian music writers about their work. The chapter asks, ‘Why does music writing operate and read as it does in places like Australia?‘ and, ‘What do these people get out of this?’ Good questions that really benefit here by way of academia’s cautious, level-headed approach to reporting research findings.

So, a bit light on razzle-dazzle but pitch-perfect in places, I liked it and will no doubt be suggesting it to my students.

Here’s my notes:

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Why I Still Review Albums

AKA IF YOU WANT TO TAP DANCE, GET ON THE TITANIC

The music critic should not use first person pronouns.

The music critic should always describe the music accurately.

The music critic should keep it brief and entertaining and informative and fair.

The critic should arbitrate taste, be bold.

The music critic should always know they’re being indulged by his/her reader and thus should be referential, respectful.

These are the consensus opinions, no matter how contradictory.

This is the truth: there shouldn’t even be music critics any more so all those rules are wrong.

It was supposed to stop.

To me, it’s not enough to doubt or debate the meaning of music criticism in 2012. Questioning it is just wistful and naive; the ridiculous hypothetical that technology will reverse itself, that tides will turn, that the whole world will be sucked inside out again. It’s all garbage logic. Delusional. The music writer needs to understand that a ‘good’ critical review – that follows all the rules – is now nothing more than the Lorem Ipsum sitting between the album cover and the track/album stream in a well-tooled advertisement. In terms of its older traditional functions, music criticism is dead, dead, dead.

At present, critical music writing is seldom any better than the copy that came with the Tame Impala’s one sheet:

Be Above It applies a cleansing pressure hose to the brain, and Endors Toi plunges you into a deep sleep of ripping guitar riff dreams. Music To Walk Home By is as it says on the tin, announcing its arrival at the front gate with the kind of ceremonious, shredding guitar riff that makes home seem like a good place to be. Keep On Lying intentionally drifts in and out as if in the middle of a wandering jam at the end of the earth, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards is as close as Tame Impala will ever come to a top down cruising anthem, albeit one from a cracked reality and soaked in a deep, solo melancholy. Elephant doesn’t hide it’s rollicking, outerspace glam strut, while Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control arguably boils the essence of Lonerism into a dense, ecstatic brew of utopian proportions.”

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