Monday, October 24, 2005

I could dress in black and read Camus

Chickfactor: Are you a participant in the goth scene of New York?
Merritt: So much so that I wrote the book on it.

I can imagine Merritt delivering that line with a sly smirk, but indeed, Merritt is a goth at heart. In a Chickfactor interview with Claudia Gonson, when asked if Merritt and she were new wavers together back when they were teens, Gonson responded, "Yeah, we were goths." Browse through Merritt's songbook and you'll find lots of over-the-top, depressing lyrics with plentiful references to suicide, vampires, and death. And, he has an entire band, the Gothic Archies, devoted to mixing gloom and doom with bubblegum pop. Their official site states: What makes this band different from The Magnetic Fields is that any glimmer of hope is absolutely extinguished.

When assembling the goth canon, several bands quickly come to mind: Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, the Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, and the quintessential goth band, Bauhaus. Formed in 1978, Bauhaus made a sinister, sometimes terrifying kind of post-punk rock, marked with Peter Murphy's harrowing vocals, Daniel Ash's fuzzed-out, dagger-sharp guitar licks, and the nimble yet menacing rhythm section of David J on bass and Kevin Haskins on drums. The band's appearance (black clothes, make-up) and record artwork (for example, grainy stills from silent films) helped define the goth aesthetic, but their own music was influenced by glam/art rockers like T. Rex, David Bowie, and Brian Eno.

"Bela Lugosi's Dead" is the mother of all goth songs, clocking in at nearly ten minutes, with a bassline so simple it's brilliant, creepy guitar noodlings, and Murphy unnervingly chanting "UNDEAD UNDEAD UNDEAD!" It's a song that the Magnetic Fields performed as a encore at an Atlanta show in 1997. "Dark Entries" was one of the earliest singles on 4AD Records (actually, it was called "Axis Records" at the time), a label that was home to other bands beloved by goths, like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and the Birthday Party. Back one evening in 1998 while on tour in the Pacific Northwest, Merritt commented that instead of performing that night, he'd rather be attending the Bauhaus reunion show that was happening that night in that same town. Well, Bauhaus are back on tour, so pull out your deteriorating Bauhaus shirt, Stephin.

Bauhaus - "Bela Lugosi's Dead"
Bauhaus - "Dark Entries"

Monday, October 17, 2005

Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?

Experimental composer John Cage was a controversial figure who studied under Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg during the first half of the 20th century and invented some of the boldest artistic approaches in modern music. He favored using modified instruments, such as his "prepared piano," which was a grand piano with small objects (nuts and bolts, screws, bits of rubber, spoons, etc.) wedged in between its strings. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, Cage often used indeterminate techniques for his works, for example using the outcome of a coin toss to shape a piece.

Cage's most notorious piece has to be 4'33", which is a piece where the performer plays no notes at all, and all of the ambient noises in the performance space constitute the work. One event in Cage's life that influenced the creation of this piece was his visit to an anechoic chamber, which is a special soundproof room. Rather than hearing complete silence, Cage heard a high sound and a low sound; the sound engineer present told Cage that the high sound was the sound of his body's nervous system and the low sound was his blood pumping through his circulatory system. Cage's conclusion was that total silence was an impossibility, as long as he was alive.

4'33" is Merritt's 1951 entry on the list, and track eleven on Merge Records' reissue of The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees, being four minutes and thirty-three seconds of digital silence, is an homage to this piece. The Magnetic Fields also performed it as an encore, related by Claudia Gonson and Chris Ewen in this article in The Independent:

"It's like when The Magnetic Fields performed 69 Love Songs at the Lincoln Center over two nights," adds Christopher Ewen, Merritt's partner and the third Future Bible Hero, "and at the end of the second night, the audience wanted an encore!" With no more songs in their armoury, the group opted for a performance of "4'33"", John Cage's celebrated silent piece.

"The applause after the 69th song was hyperactive and crazy," recalls Gonson, "but then you sit for four minutes and 33 seconds, and afterwards the applause is really mellow and relaxed - John Cage would have loved watching what happens to an audience after it: they're a little disappointed."

(I'm being nit-picky here, but actually the 4'33" encore was at their Somerville show in late 2000, not their Lincoln Center show.)

One of Cage's pieces for the prepared piano is the eerie "Sonata XIV," performed here by Maro Ajemian and recorded in 1950 under Cage's direction, and it was included on the Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones compilation, beloved by Merritt. The second track this week is a short excerpt from Radio Music, a work which requires each performer to tune a radio to various frequencies, and the result is what just happens to be on the various stations at the time. Finally, we have a performance of 4'33" by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (a full video, with commentary, is available here.)

(SPOILER ALERT! In case you are wondering about the audience laughter around the 2:00 point and are unable to view the video, it's when the conductor, between the first and second movements, pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his forehead.)

Maro Ajemian - "Sonata XIV"
John Cage - "Radio Music" (excerpt)
BBC Symphony Orchestra - "4'33""

Monday, October 10, 2005

Pineapples, guavas, mangos, Martin Denny playing tangos

If you've ever wondered about Merritt's obsession with Hawaii, which brought us "My Blue Hawaii," "Oahu," and "Volcana!", I can think of two sources for it. First, Merritt lived in Hawaii while growing up - one of the many places in which he lived during his childhood. Second, he has a deep appreciation for exotica and its master, Martin Denny, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 93. Denny's trademark sound was an amalgam of distinct musical styles, playful and elegant, in an easy-listening package; in this interview, he discusses the development of his sound in the 50s:

"Well, the way that started was that part of my training was how to make a small group sound larger than it really was. So I would use a lot of different percussive effects, and then I started collecting instruments from the South Seas and from the Orient, also from Latin America. The music became a quasi-mix of music from the South Pacific, the Orient and South America. We were always experimenting, and trying out new ideas. Of course, that's when we added the birdcalls on 'Quiet Village.'"

This article about Future Bible Heroes clears up the story about the band's formation, which happened when Merritt and Chris Ewen "...were drawn together by their appreciation of exotica by masters like Martin Denny, members of the electronic vanguard such as Enoch Light, and musical masterminds such as Lindsey Buckingham."

Like Denny, Merritt has a fondness for collecting musical instruments (see the 69 Love Songs instrument list for evidence of this), which is mentioned by Claudia Gonson in this article for Sound on Sound:

"Stephin has really been involved in collecting and using exotic and interesting and weird instruments," explains Claudia. "Chris, too, has not only collected cool instruments, but become sort of a connoisseur of '50s and '60s technology from the earliest days of electronic production. So when you hear the beginning of a song like 'Doris Daytheearthstoodstill', which is like a looped bubble, basically, you think about Enoch Light, or Martin Denny and the earliest stages of making music with electronic things, and there's a kind of integrity. There's a real artistry to it."

"Quiet Village" was composed by Les Baxter, another huge figure in the exotica scene, but Martin Denny's version (complete with birdcalls and frog sounds) was the one that made it into a hit. Regarding the frog sounds, as the story goes, when Denny's band played in Hawaii in 1956 at the Shell Bar, which featured an amphibiously-populated pond near the stage, frogs would croak along with the music. The band thought that these flourishes matched well with their sound, so they incorporated the croaking sounds (recreated using a guiro) into their songs. The first version is from Denny's debut album for Liberty Records, entitled Exotica and released in 1957. The second version is from the 1969 album Exotic Moog, and although it was released under the Martin Denny name, Denny doesn't actually play on it. Still, it's a great version, blending electronics with exotica in a way that I think Merritt and Ewen would approve.

Martin Denny - "Quiet Village" (1957)
Martin Denny - "Quiet Village" (1969)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

There's only cliché to get across this feeling

Going from punk to off-kilter lo-fi bedroom pop, Chris Knox has had a career that's impossible to overlook when discussing New Zealand's musical history. Starting off in the late 70s Kiwi bands the Enemy and Toy Love, Knox and Alec Bathgate then teamed up for the duo Tall Dwarfs, one of the most beloved bands on the Flying Nun roster. The geographical separation of the two has put time constraints on their collaborations, despite the band being the most prominent project for each of them. Knox has recorded quite a catalog of solo work and also creates animated movies, draws cartoons, and writes columns. Merritt fans will recognize him as being the vocalist for the 6ths track, "When I'm Out of Town," and he was cited by Merritt as being one of the "best contemporary lyricists in English" in Chickfactor #12.

Chris Knox's "Not Given Lightly" was Merritt's favorite recording of 1989, and it's an intimate and completely charming song, written as a love token for Knox's wife. In 2001, members of the APRA named the track as being New Zealand's ninth best song of all time, and it's available on the album Seizure (FYI, Knox sometimes suffers from epileptic fits), which is a good starting place for diving into Knox's solo material. There's a bit of uniformity within the solo Knox catalog, with a typical song being built up from a rhythm loop, a rhythm guitar riff, and maybe an Omnichord (a sort of electronic autoharp). Knox has an odd, sometimes naughty sense of humor, yet he also has numbers that are totally heart-wrenchingly sincere, sometimes to the point of discomfort (take for example "Young Female Caucasian," during which Knox actually weeps.)

Some tracks by Tall Dwarfs are compatible with the Chris Knox solo formula, but Bathgate and Knox feed off each other's weirdness and often go into stranger (yet listenable) territory. They are unafraid of the grotesque (speaking of which, their self-portraits are the most unflattering likenesses ever), in terms of both lyrics and sounds, and have a low-tech recording style that lends much to the Tall Dwarfs listening experience. Merritt has expressed his admiration for Tall Dwarfs, in particular the album Hello Cruel World, a compilation of the duo's first four EPs from the early 80s. From the opening twin guitar chords of "Nothing's Going to Happen" (which would be re-recorded for a grand Phil Spector homage called Wall of Dwarfs), you know you're onto something amazing. Hello Cruel World, which includes this week's second selection, is a great entry point, and you can't go wrong with 3 EPs and the Dogma EP (bundled with Fork Songs), too.

Chris Knox - "Not Given Lightly"
Tall Dwarfs - "Crush!"

(sorry for the late post, folks!)