When Jonathan Segel joined us for episode #115, I had hoped to get him talking about the experience of music and the life of a professional musician à la this rant on his blog. As it turned out, there was just too much Schopenhauer to get through for much of that to happen, so I proposed a more free-form, supplemental discussion. Plans for our talk soon grew to include Wes (so it’d be a more official PEL thing and not just me swooning over my idols) and also Camper van Beethoven bassist (and solo artist in his own right, as well as graphic designer and writer) Victor Krummenacher.
If you didn’t know, Camper van Beethoven was a band popular on college campuses in the 80s (with one really big hit), performing a mix of styles: basically punk rock musicians playing gypsy, ska, and other ethnic stuff with a good dose of psychedelia and humor. As the 80s progressed, their style got (arguably) more streamlined and distinctive, and they recorded two albums on a major label, with MTV play and all that. They then broke up in 1990, with several splinter bands and solo projects, most of which have continued even as the band (four of them, anyway) reformed about a decade ago and are now actively touring and recording again, which is very nice for all of us. They’re a good model for smart people making music, with wide-ranging interests and fully developed, unique playing styles.
So Wes, I, Victor, and Jonathan conversed on 5/25/15 for more than two hours. Since this is essentially a bonus episode, meaning we didn’t pause in our regular recording schedule, we’re going to release it in one part (probably somewhat extended for the Citizens to include more of the less philosophical musician shop talk) on Monday 6/29.
We did not have a text; however, we had some email back and forth, and I identified some topics and links that we all should check out for inspiration. So now I invite you to follow in our footsteps so you can make the most out of the conversation:
1. Writing in genres. In Jonathan’s blog screed, he bashes devotion to genre, and “Americana” in particular (he brought up Sweden’s popular and gorgeous-sounding First Aid Kit as an example), as peculiar in the manner of historical reenactment or LARPing. Yet Victor’s solo work veers more and more into blues/roots/etc, and he seems to find that plenty expressive. What’s with that?
2. Experiment vs. expression. Jonathan has a good amount of interest in the avant garde, as expressed in many of his more free-form, improvisational works like this collaboration with Fred Frith and Joelle Leandre. (Victor is no stranger to progressive rock, as his work with Monks of Doom attests, and both Jonathan and Victor played with Eugene Chadbourne.) The objection to writing in a genre is that it’s not really authentic; that to be original, to really express your unique self, requires creating a new vocabulary, not recycling clichés or trotting out museum pieces. Some examples we bring up in this discussion of such experimental, hard-to-listen-to rock music are Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.
On the other side, I personally have found that if I reach too far outside of traditional tonality, then it doesn’t really resonate with me: it’s not really expressing my true self, i.e., what actually makes me feel, which given that I’m just an ordinary person with simple desires is by necessity really going to be embarrassingly cliché. Avant garde art is “pretentious” in that it’s a pretense, like using big words that you don’t really understand. It doesn’t connect with audiences, and if you’re honest with yourself, it doesn’t connect with you either. With these two opposing views in mind, how should we as artists navigate this dilemma? A lot of our discussion about this revolved around pop vs. experimental, and, contra Kant, the beauty of imperfection, which the Japanese call wabi-sabi.
3. Writing lyrics. “Authenticity” would also seem to require that all lyrics be confessional, but most songwriters grow out of that stage and write at least some of their songs by creating a character for the song’s narrator, maybe channeling the experiences of others or inventing them whole cloth or some combination of these. Some writers write seemingly for the sounds of the words, e.g., Syd Barrett as described in this video discussion/presentation by Robyn Hitchcock (which we freely refer to in the discussion, so you should watch it):
Watch on YouTube.
So, what lyrical strategies seem to work best, and are any of them barriers to “authenticity”? We briefly discuss authenticity, political lyrics, and irony via the most recent Cracker release. You might want to look at my previous blog post on authenticity and genre, and this one on irony in music.
The overarching theme here is why do we feel the need to do this thing called songwriting? Playing music feels good, we understand that, but why not just play cover songs? Why do we feel the need to create, and not just once, but as a lifestyle, as a life’s purpose? The cliché says that artists create because they have to, but that’s oversimplified to the point of being actually false. Many artists choose to retire at some point, and whatever is driving this “need” is arguably present in everyone, not just artists, though maybe most of us are too smacked down by the daily grind to actively feel any such longing.
This topic has a lot of personal resonance to me, as at one point and recurrently I’ve considered songwriting my calling (listen here), and yet have usually seen it as pretty hopeless as a career option, and with good reason. These idols of mine certainly don’t make enough from their music to call it a living, despite Camper van Beethoven being notorious for pioneering the vision of an indie band that needs no corporate largesse for its life-blood (and Camper van lead singer David Lowery is now actually a prominent spokesman for artist rights and getting paid for music on the Internet; he even testified before Congress about it, and listen via hyperlink under point 3 above to his other band Cracker). The feeling that art is worth the whole of one’s energies is a strange temptress for many of us. Is this just escapism, or the expression of the most authentic form of humanity?
Despite my attempt to keep this discussion about the creator (since all of our previous discussions of aesthetics have focused on the audience, on what it is to experience beauty or the sublime or understand a work), it inevitably bled to the audience, for the simple reason that the creator is the immediate audience of what he or she creates. From the other side, the experience of an audience member is in part an identification with the artist; the audience itself becomes a secondary or vicarious creator.
There will be an Aftershow for discussion on Sunday 7/12 at 3pm Eastern, noon Pacific. I’m hoping that musicians and music fans will show up to continue this kind of discussion of songwriting techniques and rationale, which is the kind of thing that I could talk about all fricking day. Reserve your spot by signing up for the Not School group here, and/or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also always looking for musicians to help me remotely with parts for the songs that end every PEL episode, so please reach out to me!
Listen to many of my tunes at marklint.com. About 40 minutes into the discussion, when I refer to the simultaneous youthful experimental vs. simpler songs that transformed my outlook, the two recordings in question are “Green Song” and “Waygo,” both from the summer of ’92.