Sunday, March 18, 2012

All The Good Musicians Are Fucking Dead

While practicing with my latest music project the other day, we had some friends over who also practice at the same storage facility. One of them remarked that our sound reminded him a lot of a band called Brainiac. I told him I had never heard of them, but I'd check them out. The next day I embarked on the legally dubious task of finding their music through file-sharing, which is pretty much the only way to get ahold of it. This is because all of Brainiac's albums are out of print, which makes sense. They're a forgotten indie band from the 90's who broke up while working on their major-label debut. Also, their lead singer/songwriter/guitarist is fucking dead.

The gentleman at the keyboard is Tim Thomas, and he was way ahead of his time. While everyone was trying to sound like Nirvana, he was creating absolutely fucking chaotic rock and roll that sounded like robots having sex with smart punk rock bands. Like I said, way ahead of his time. You see, Brainiac is an example of what I like to call a Rosetta Stone band. Once you discover one of these bands, you can decipher where a lot of other bands got their inspiration and method from. Here are some bands who owe some definite tribute to Brainiac: At The Drive-In, Blood Brothers, The Locust, The Faint, Liars, and pretty much all the mid-to-late 2000s dance punk bands.

Let's take a quick trip back to 1994. Kurt Cobain died in 1994. Well, he shot himself in the face with a shotgun. At the time, everyone wondered what that meant for rock music, or scrambled to solidify Nirvana and Cobain's place in the pantheon of rock and roll. I did neither of these, since I was only 14. I mostly watched MTV non-stop while they played Nirvana's Unplugged on a 24-hour loop, broken up by periodic MTV News updates from the vigil/media circus that ensued in Seattle.

Brainiac released their second album "Bonsai Superstar" in 1994. It is amazing. I listened to it for the first time 3 days ago and could NOT BELIEVE this came out a year after "In Utero." The guitar playing is absolutely incredible and spastic, the rhythm section heaves and sways like it's about to puke, the vocals on almost every song have some kind of weird effect on them (or multiple ones), and the last track is just fucking synth noises and feedback turned into a haunting dirge (way before everybody would praise Radiohead for doing this kind of thing on "Kid A"). For all the controversy raised about how un-commercial and noisy Nirvana's "In Utero" was, "Bonsai Superstar" makes it sound like a New Kids on the Block record.

Fast forward three years to 1997: Kurt Cobain is in the ground, and the whole alternative revolution is not far behind. Spice Girls mania has gripped the country. Ska is popular for some reason. Creed's "My Own Prison" comes out of nowhere to usurp the allegiance of the lost, stupid, dangerous hordes of rock fans that Nirvana's rise and subsequent demise created. Commercial radio has not stopped shitting out Spice Girl clones and Nirvana-lite since 1997. Go listen to your local rock and/or pop station and tell me I'm wrong. There's no way Cobain could have envisioned the trajectory from Nirvana to Nickelback, just as Thomas could never have predicted that his music would inspire the artists in the exact opposite spectrum of indie rock music, but it's an interesting development.

Let's get back to how 1997 was going for Tim Thomas and Brainiac. They had just released an amazing EP called "Electro-Shock for President" that ditched guitars and live instrumentation for a completely synth-driven environment. They got signed to Interscope Records and started pre-production on their 4th studio album. And then, on May 23, 1997, Tim Thomas was killed in a car accident. Nobody questioned what this meant for rock music, or rushed to solidify Brainiac or Thomas' place in the pantheon of rock and roll.

I'd be remiss if I didn't remark on Cobain's suicide vis a vis Thomas' death, because I immediately thought about the connection when I first learned about the fate of Tim Thomas. I will say this, though. In hindsight, it did seem like Nirvana didn't have much gas left in the tank and had reached a ceiling with "In Utero." Cobain's death was unfortunate, but also cemented his legacy by not ruining it with what probably would have been two or three subpar Nirvana albums. By contrast, when you look at the artistic progression Brainiac achieved in 3 years, Tim Thomas's death is an absolute fucking TRAGEDY. Who knows what that fourth album would have sounded like.

I discovered Nirvana at the perfect time in my life, when things like rock bands or movies can seriously influence the type of person you want to become and emulate. Kurt Cobain wrote the music that made me want to pick up a guitar and start making music in the first place. I suppose I'm discovering Brainiac at an equally important juncture in my life as an adult. Tim Thomas is the kind of forgotten genius who inspires me to push my music into the dark, weird places I want to explore, without apology or hesitation. I mean, we're all going to die, so fuck it. I'd rather leave behind the body of work that leaves people wondering what the hell I would have done next.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

“it’s weird when you find out people you went to high school with are fucking”

Computers are either the greatest thing ever invented or the worst. I haven’t decided yet. The ability to have instant access to certain people from thousands of miles away (or years ago) can be downright heartbreaking.

All of a sudden I’m staring at the screen and trying to figure out why we can’t hear each other. It’s the perfect allegory for how we met and how the whole thing unfolded. The phone lines got crossed. Timing was off. I don’t want to get into it here.

And when we talk it’s so easy. I remember these things like they happened yesterday, I swear. Or like they haven’t even happened yet and they’re going to happen and I can’t wait for them to happen even though I’m not going to like most of it, but I know you at least understand that I meant to write this sentence exactly the way it turned out.

Now I’m thinking HOLY SHIT THAT WAS SO LONG AGO, and wondering what I have to show for my life since then. Mental pictures of cities and faces, the smells (sorry) and sounds of Not Here. There is a line in a Miniature Tigers song that hit me like a freight train the first time I heard it, and it says:

“My body was an empty shell / with only tour stories to tell.”

But not as hard as when you told me:

“I think the whole time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you happy.”

The same sentiment, in different words.

Well, how about this. I was happy tonight. I was happy in the parking garage. I’m extremely happy for you, and I realize it’s my turn to start living in the not here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The 99%

I once had a cold that lasted a year. I didn't notice it so much by the third month. What bothered me were the sweats. I had to sleep with the fan on and woke up with the same raw throat every morning, from sucking the dirty air of that apartment all night. We lived on top of a car lot, and changed the locks so the man downstairs who lived in the "office" would not have access to our restroom.

I dropped out of classes and tried to get a job at a fast food place a few blocks away. The money I had saved would do for a few months of rent. Sometimes my girlfriend would bring us food from the restaurant she worked at as a hostess, a burger and fries, or chicken strips and fries, something and fries. I'd bring home boxes of Rice Krispies Treats from the Student Union. It was kind of like food.

Being poor is romantic when you're in your early 20s. It's tiring by your late 20s, and intolerable by your early 30s. It's all in the circumstances. I have always been poor by choice, which is pretty insulting on the whole, considering most people have no say in the matter.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Everything is Genius, Everything is Terrible

Okay, this is going to take some participation and some independent thought on your part (two things you are usually not confronted with when cruising the internet) but I think we can do this, together.

First, watch this video by teen android Rebecca Black:

Now, watch this video posted by online music critic The Needle Drop:

Now that you’ve seen/experienced both, I want you to seriously think about which version you think is “better,” or which one communicates with you, or whatever you think music is supposed to do for you.

If you decided not to watch either one in its entirety, but listened to enough to get the gist of it, you are on the right track. Ultimately, they are both equally meaningless until YOU receive the noises and your brain assembles these noises into concepts that you either like or hate (or feel complete indifference towards). To me, they represent polar extremes of what music means to its consumers. Interpretation is everything.

The smarmy comments on the slowed down version reveal something about how a certain subset of music listeners values music, which is to say they like music that they can project their own thoughts and feelings into. These people want to feel like they are part of an experience created by noises generated by a person they will probably never meet, so interpretation is a key element of music listening to them. Hence, they will find a deeper meaning or experience in a slowed down version of a song they would normally classify as “horrible.”

On the other hand, the tweeny boppers leaving positive comments on the Rebecca Black video are experiencing it on a purely visceral level: the beat is good, the lyrics speak to them, the voice is perfectly tuned, the singer is cute, and there’s a non-threatening rapper/eunuch character who does a drive-by rap (yet never enters Rebecca’s uber-white neighborhood party life). They like it for what it is, and if they don’t like it, it will probably be for some of the same reasons other people like it (beat, lyrics, whatever).

I would argue that both versions of the song are completely vapid. The original is disposable teen pop with no heart, but the slowed down version is equally disposable crap that listeners transplant their own feeling into. Both are excellent examples of art hijacked by technology.

A lot of the reaction to this video I’ve seen online is along the line of: “Is this a joke?” But I really don’t think it is, or should be considered one. Irony can only be expanded so far until it becomes authenticity, and I think this is what evades the type of person who dismisses Rebecca Black’s “Friday” but says the slowed-down version is “musique I’ll die 2” (sic). They’re part of an era where everything is enjoyed on an ironic level, which means anything enjoyed on a genuine level somehow lacks credibility. The person who has a mullet hairstyle and goes to Wal-Mart thinking it looks good is not inferior or superior to the hipster ironically wearing one for his trash-metal side-project (well, maybe a little superior). Viewed objectively, they are identical until we attach context and interpretation. If you ironically listen to “Friday” twenty times on your computer, you’re still listening to it twenty times. You don’t get that part of your life back. Even though you do not really “like” it, you are contributing to Rebecca Black’s singing career.

And here the distinction needs to be made. Rebecca Black made a song (kinda) and a video, and you watched it on Youtube. Who is winning here?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grow up.

I don't know what it is about today. I had more fun killing pixelated strangers (strangling pixelated killers would have done more for society, but since when has society done anything for me?) than scuttling through reality today. There's a thin veneer of plastic over my senses, and I can't pinpoint what makes it return with such regularity. Maybe it's because nothing tastes like it did when I was out on tour. You can bring the Cheerwine home, but it doesn't taste the same.

I will be graduating college soon and I dread having to decide what comes next. I have two excellent options in front of me: pursuing music or grad school. Both of them shield me from the "get a job, settle down" path for a few more years, but how long can I keep that up? I am not in college for monetary reasons; I'm in it for the education. For the challenge. The same could be said about music.

The sad fact is the world does not exist to make me a better person. Nor do I exist to make the world better, so we're even. The current social-economic structure we live in dictates that my brain and soul have to die in order for me to continue my adulthood outside of the fields of education or music. How fucked up is that? Who wants to live like that?

Apparently, we all do. I say that not because I'm being facetious or arrogant, but it's true. Living is all we have, so of course we will put up with a lot of shit to hold somebody close to our bodies, or laugh with a friend, or just sit outside and feel the world hit our faces. I want to be able to say I would rather die than live that buttoned-down life, but I have tried that before, and it was a stupid thing. Every amazing thing in my life since that day is proof that I am willing to continue mortgaging increasingly large portions of my happiness for the chance at smaller, more concentrated ones. It just hurts when you're making the payments. The rent is too damn high.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You Have 9 Mutual Friends

Some nights I just want to kill some goddamn time. It doesn't matter what it is that kills it, really. I go through periods of wanting to hang out with people, but I'm obviously not getting up and doing anything about it, so it can't be THAT important to me.

This is why Facebook is so amazingly suited to my personality. Without ever leaving the comfort of my room, I can "interact" with my "friends" and feel connected. I don't see anything wrong with this. It's what I've always wanted. Everything is on my terms. I choose the music, the time, whether or not to wear pants, etc. When I'm done, I don't have to say goodbye to anyone. But it doesn't just work in my favor. We all win.

People that are annoying or boring in real life become interesting, because you're not pre-occupied with the horrible REALNESS they confront you with. I'm not talking about the kind of "real" that makes people seem grounded or honest, but the kind of "real" that makes people want to read cheap paperbacks with dragons on the cover. These are people I can already imagine as bored 40-something parents even though they're 19; they get to be vital participants in the Facebook party, too. It also works well with people who may come across as dynamic in real life (although these people fall into the "annoying" category more often than not), because they're reduced to a small square photo and a few words on a screen. It levels the playing field. We all occupy the same meaningless space in the ether, just zeros and ones.

While walking around campus today, I noticed how hard it would be to approach a random person if I ever DID feel like talking to someone new. Almost everybody has some form of MP3 player these days, and if they're not chugging along to music, they're walking and talking on their cell phones or texting. We all get to immerse ourselves in our own stupid lives, which may or may not be the greatest tragedy of personal technology.

Facebook is now the best way to meet someone. You aren't imposing on their personal bubble by going up and interrupting their music/conversation/social networking. It's a different path to their personality. You're casting your stone into their self-absorbed creation of themselves via Facebook. You're becoming another agent in their active self-worship. And because of that, they share their thoughts and downtown bar photos with you, and you get to "know" this person's construct of themselves. When you think about it, this is way deeper than the usual first date material. It's akin to asking a girl how she defines herself vis a vis how other people perceive her socially constructed identity while waiting for bad Italian food at the Olive Garden.

I'm guilty of playing the Facebook game as much as the next person. I see people at shows, or they see me, and we could talk but we don't. Fast forward a few hours, and there it is:

You Have 1 New Friend Request

I add him/her and maybe post something on their wall, "Like" a comment or two, and if we ever see each other in real life again, we usually CONTINUE to pass up opportunities for face-to-face communication. In the context of a real meeting between two new friends, the subsequent cold shoulder would almost certainly come across as an insult. But not with Facebook. Facebook lets me accumulate friends while shrinking the circle of real people I want to talk to for more than 30 seconds. And these people never get to know anything about me that I don't offer them.

This is amazing! Why wasn't this around when I was in high school? I wasted so much time conversing with someone who'd lent me a pencil the week before or sat next to me on a bus because of this need to fill the silence. To think I actually once tapped a girl on the shoulder to ask her what her name was. Those days are over, my friends. We live in the greatest age for the antisocial, the golden era of the misanthrope. So let's kill time together, alone.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


I love love love listening to AM talk radio. Today, Rush Limbaugh was talking about the "depravity" facing America, and how it can all be traced back to removing God from our lives. He also blames it on people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, people who seek fame without contributing anything to society (as opposed to other sons and daughters of rich people who seek money without contributing anything to society, he seems to be fine with that). I would counter that people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian haven't contributed to the decline of the role of God in America as much as they have usurped and filled the void left by the absence of everyone's favorite bearded killer of millions of children a day. We don't need weekly mass to keep the proles in line anymore, we have the Daily Ten.

But the absolute BEST part of his tirade of opinions (talk radio hates facts and numbers, donchaknow) was his argument against global warning. Why doesn't Rush Limbaugh believe in global warming? Because he believes in God. Basically his argument is that if God is all powerful, and humans are insignificant, then there's no way they could destroy an entire planet. And, that's it. That was his argument, before he went on to insult intellectuals and Time magazine. It's good to know we don't have to worry about nuclear weapons anymore. Why should we care if North Korea or Russia or Iraq have nuclear weapons when we know GOD WILL JUST MAGICALLY SAVE US BECAUSE HE LOVES AMERICA?

The whole God argument always boils down to something like this: there must be something more out there. Something bigger than us. A higher power. This comes from the human tendency to believe that we are the highest, most advanced form of life. That's it, game over, sorry ocean life. Humans are the perfect manifestation of the entire universe's existence. Therefore, something must have been responsible for creating such amazing creatures as humans, who kill each other for pieces of paper they attribute conceptual value to. That's where God comes in. We created an all-powerful being to take the credit for creating the greatest, all-powerful force of life on planet Earth. If there's no structured cosmogony, then maybe humans are just another link in the chain.

I desperately hope there's something better out there. Humans are terrible pieces of carbon. I hope we all die out and dinosaurs emerge from the ooze again and find ways to turn our ground up carcasses into fuel for Hummers and private jets for dinosaur movie stars. I hope aliens attack and Will Smith dies instantly in his mansion instead of letting a poor white trash man fly into the center of the alien mothership. There has to be something better out there than me, you, Rush Limbaugh, Paris Hilton, God, money, and talk radio.