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Drew Daniel: In Praise of Vagueness

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cover image Drew Daniel, Oxford-educated English professor and member of Matmos and Soft Pink Truth recently contributed to Continuum's excellent 33 1/3 series with a slim volume memorializing and analyzing Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats. Drew took time out of his crazy schedule to talk to me about the book, the legacy of TG, the notion of a "rock canon," and the virtues of vagueness and multiplicity.

 

Jonathan Dean: How did you get the opportunity to write a book in this series?  And did the editors of the series balk at your choice of album?  It does seem a bit out of place: Throbbing Gristle don't seem like the "classic album" type of band.  When we think about TG, we tend to think about the whole phenomenon rather than specific albums.  Did this make the book a harder sell?  Did it make it harder to write?

Drew Daniel: David Barker posted an open call for proposals on the blog associated with the series, and I knew that this was the album I wanted to pitch to him. Of course it felt like a longshot, yet it also made a perverse kind of sense: this album presents itself as a collection of "Greats" so it's already unpacking—and mocking—the idea of greatness and canonization in its title. More importantly, as an album that veers wildly across genre lines I think 20 Jazz Funk Greats challenges a lot of what tends to be celebrated about so-called "classic albums": unity, focus, clarity, singleness of purpose. I wanted to have the chance to write in defense of recalcitrance and vagueness and difficulty and multiplicity as positive things. I'm grateful that he took a chance on  me. We will see how the book does and then we'll know just how tough a sell it will be. Writing about TG was difficult for me in that I had to undo some of my own adolescent instinctive familiarity with the music and try to hear it free of habits and associations, if that is possible. Describing improvised music is especially tricky and can lead to really bad writing if you're not careful.

cover imageJD: What about this notion of canonization?  The 33 1/3 series—aside from some left-field choices like Celine Dion and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole—seems to fall very much in line with a received rock music canon. This canon tends to push a very narrow, safe and Anglocentric version of pop music history.  Is a 33 1/3 book about TG an attempt to "culture jam," or do you think the rock canon will eventually include TG as one of its own?

DD: The narrower focus of the original set of books for the series is perhaps a function of who pitched book proposals, seasoned with some self-fulfilling stuff about people conservatively guessing what bands would plausibly find an audience large enough to merit a book. As the series got a reliable audience it fanned out (so to speak). I proposed TG as something that would expand the scope of the series as a whole by heading in a freaky direction, but the series was already in the process of getting less rock oriented and more diverse (but books on Sly Stone, A Tribe Called Quest, and James Brown do connect with popular music in an undeniable way, unlike TG ). I doubt my book would have been accepted if they really were all that uptight about rock, but perhaps by framing my pitch as an argument with punk values it built a bridge for non-TG fanatics. I'm not David Barker and he will have his own response, but I'm guessing that it's always down to the proposal and what each writer brings to the project. If you're complaining about a dearth of exploratory writing about music that falls outside the rock canon, I honestly don't see Continuum (the publisher) as part of the problem here but as part of the solution. I'm currently digging Brandon Labelle's new book Background Noise on sound art and really loved Hegarty's Noise/Music: A History and they're both published by Continuum and they're about pretty niche areas so . . .  I don't think it's fair to point the canonically "rockist" finger too easily. I think it's up to people who love weird music to write about it ambitiously and I am starry-eyed enough to believe that any editor worth their salary would jump at something that wasn't just standard issue Baby Boomer refried rock journalism or a standard issue sociological account of pop music by way of demographic accounts of its audience.

cover imageJD: You address this a bit in the book, but again I feel the need to ask: Why choose 20 Jazz Funk Greats?  Isn't this a perverse choice? Wouldn't Second Annual Report, D.o.A. or Heathen Earth have made for a much more representative example, especially since TG are not likely to warrant another entry in the 33 1/3 series? I don't know anyone who considers this "the classic TG album." It always seemed more notable for its satirical sleeve art than anything else.

DD: Perverse choices are my specialty. As a TG freak I could of course imagine writing a book about each of the albums, and I would especially love to write at length about the criminally under-recognized Journey Through a Body LP. But in the case of the other albums, there are specific reasons why I didn't think a 33 1/3 treatment would work. So much of Second Annual Report consists of live recordings; as a potential author one feels cut off from the moment of impact and immediately at a disadvantage. But because Second Annual Report is so definitive of the TG aesthetic and so important to everything else that follows in its wake, I decided to smuggle a mini-analysis into my opening chapter; its sludgy darkness works as a necessary "foil" for the pop moves of 20 Jazz Funk Greats. In the case of D.o.A., I felt that the context of the Cosey-Gen breakup was so strongly related to that album and had been depicted so carefully and thoroughly in the Wreckers of Civilization book that a 33 1/3 text about D.o.A. would risk either being redundant or being reductive. I suppose TG fans are pretty unanimous about feeling that the peaks of D.o.A. are the highpoints of the band, but for me as a statement about what an album can be, 20 Jazz Funk Greats is so brave and weird and singular that it was obviously going to be the biggest challenge to interpret and would (hopefully) lead to a more interesting book.

JD: Given that you applaud TG's challenge to the traditional notion of the album, why would it be a problem that the Mute Records reissue of 20 Jazz Funk Greats tacks on a few live versions of "Discipline?" Isn't the age of reshuffled special editions with bonus tracks, iTunes single-track downloads, illegal downloading, homemade bootleg mix CDs, mashups and amateur mixology actually attacking the conservative notion of the album as homogenous whole?

DD: Here you have caught me being insufficiently modern. The rabid, historically-correct TG fan in me prefers TG's 1970s attack on the idea of the solid album to Mute Records' 1990s attack on TG's 1970s attack on the idea of the solidity of the album. I can see the inconsistency between what I claim to love and how I love it. I guess I am simply guilty of an irrational (and perhaps hopeless) attachment to "The Real Thing" here, even if this particular "Real Thing" is trying to pull "Real Thing"-ness apart. On a conceptual level I can see that that's a cool expression of the idea, but on a personal level it reminds me of the colorized version of Night of the Living Dead or the redone scenes in Star Wars in which supposedly "better" effects were put in later. It's annoying to the prissy completist in me.

JD: What would you say to someone like Kirk DeGiorgio, who was played "Hot on the Heels of Love" by a writer for The Wire as part of their Invisible Jukebox feature, and declared that he didn't understand the fascination with TG's music, because it is "very easy to make," primitively simple and not worthy of comment by "real" musicians? DeGiorgio is being a pompous asshole, but he does have a point. I've fucked around with some modded guitar pedals and old drum machines and approximated TG sounds.  The circuit schematic for the Gristle-izer can be found online.  How much of what we find intriguing about TG depends upon their visual strategies, the self-perpetuated air of controversy and menace, and not on the music?

DD: I can totally understand DeGiorgio's reaction if it's about instrumental technique. Judged by jazz or classical conservatory standards, in which the expectation of "mastery of one's instrument" is a given, I can see people just rejecting TG outright and immediately as crude and primitive. Not to speak for them, but I kind of doubt that the band would lose much sleep over such reactions. Their goals lay elsewhere. I think the genius of TG emerges when you compare their work to many of their second-wave imitators and see that, yeah, other people can assemble similar gear and achieve surface similarities in their textures, but there's an enduring strangeness to TG's work, an ability to remain in dialogue with the present, that the imitators sorely lack. TG's poetics- the way they blow hot and cold, their weirdly inclusive blend of "the sordid and the sentimental," to cite Jean-Pierre Turmel-- aren't so easy to replicate.

JD: Hasn't vagueness and multiplicity become the de rigeur cultural mode in recent years?  Most of the stuff that critics and music blogs are fawning over these days is highly eclectic, bizarre groups characterized by hybridity and indeterminacy: Animal Collective, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Sunn 0))), etc.  Does this mean that TG were ahead of the curve with their ironic and difficult response to the new cultural logic?  Does it mean that what seemed dangerous and alienating in the 1979 seems quaint and ordinary now?

DD: It depends on where you're standing. Vagueness and multiplicity are celebrated-to-death by academics and grad students that are into critical theory but in the commercial world in which films and music and novels are promoted as financially risky mass produced objects that are supposed to be sold for money, I have a hard time imagining a promo sticker that says "This summer's vaguest song!" (Though I'd like to put that on our new album for Matador now.) If you're asking if I can connect some dots between the vagueness that I like in TG and some techniques or stances in the above-mentioned bands, er, I could do that but not in order to claim some superiority of older bands over younger bands. I mean, early TG shows were notorious for heavy bowel-destroying low end and so are Sunn 0))), but that doesn't mean that Sunn 0))) are ripping off TG, nor does it make either party "vague." In terms of their aesthetics, I don't find Sunn 0))) "vague" at all, they seem totally focused and totally in control of what they are doing. Critical adulation for Animal Collective is probably based on their strong melodic gift for catchy vocal hooks, though their live penchant for live processing and looping of vocal lines with delays can obviously be compared with TG tactics on songs like "Spirits Flying" and "Convincing People." I think the tentative fuzzy wandering between improv and jamming and noodling and songform in No Neck Blues Band and Sunburned Hand of the Man is at a very abstract level comparable to TG circa After Cease to Exist, but only if you ignore the folk and rock solo-ing trappings of NNCK and SHOTM and I wouldn't expect that those bands regard themselves as indebted to TG in any way. I think TG were ahead of the curve about lots of things, but then I also want to resist arguing for their importance based on the way they may or may not have predicted the work of other people. I think their art is valuable in itself. Is their art "ordinary" now? Not to me.

JD: Have you considered that TG's enduring strangeness is perhaps an effect of their unique combination of imagery, controversy-baiting and cryptic manifesto-like public statements, with music as perhaps the least important element in the mix? I've played TG, Coil and Psychic TV for many of my friends and fellow music geeks over the years, and I've been astounded at how many times they so easily scoffed and dismissed music that I had found to have powerful resonances bordering on the mystical or psychedelic in effect.  Heard with certain ears, the music is often quite shoddy, the vocals overwrought or grating, the self-consciously "dark" and "dangerous" poses positively risible. Is there something about Drew Daniel, Jonathan Dean and everyone else who loves this music that is just temperamentally different?  Why do we hear things that others don't hear?

DD: My first reaction is to think that that's part of the esotericism of the work, that it's about a "total package" of references and interlocking linkages between a big field of ideas and pathways (literature, criminology, religion, history, technology) that you tend to have to be already immersed in before you really appreciate it. It reminds me of that book about H.P. Lovecraft that Michel Houllebecq wrote, that it's an art "for fanatics only" that never worries about explaining itself to outsiders or trying to convince or please the uninitiated. But then there must be something in one's initial exposure that draws you in and makes certain people, people like us, become fanatical. As I explain that encounter in the book, my first time listening to TG was an immediately overpowering physical experience of pain, a headache so strong I never made it to side two of the LP that day. The idea that art could do that was a revelation and I was changed by that moment of listening.

JD: I noticed that you chose to remain silent about the post-TG projects of Gen, Sleazy, Chris & Cosey—as well as the TG reunion—until the final pages of the book.  For me, one of the most interesting things about 20 Jazz Funk Greats is how it seems to hint at things to come in the post-TG projects: Coil, Psychic TV, Chris & Cosey.

DD: You're absolutely right that the centrifugal flinging outwards into experiments with all sorts of genres in 20 Jazz Funk Greats predicts the subsequent creativity of all four members, and that you can richly connect this album to what follows it. That said, I tried to approach writing this book by reading a lot of other books in the series and thinking about what did and didn't work for me as a reader, and the thing that bothered me a great deal in some of the other books was when an author would seem to be straining for some kind of comparative "relevance" by asserting some causal link between their chosen album and subsequent music. I especially didn't want to say "you should care about this record because it wound up influencing Famous Person X or led down the line to Style Y". I really wanted to make a case for what the record communicated on its own terms and to show why that was valuable in and of itself, without needing to "borrow ahead" or construct some kind of legacy. I do that a bit in the last chapter but I wanted that kept to a minimum. There was simply too much within the album itself that interested me, and I had to make some tough choices about space in the manuscript.

JD: If you got the chance to write another 33 1/3 book, which album would you choose?  If you had to choose a Psychic TV, Coil, and a Chris & Cosey record for inclusion, which would you choose?

cover imageDD: There are so many albums that I would love to write about at length: on this hungover Sunday morning I would happily propose Pierre Henry Variations for a Door and Sigh, The Misfits Legacy of Brutality, Van Dyke Parks Song Cycle, Robbie Basho The Seal of the Blue Lotus, Royal House Can You Party?, G*Park Seismogramm, the list goes on. For Chris & Cosey Trance, for Coil Love's Secret Domain, and for Psychic TV Dreams Less Sweet.

JD: You use the word "industrial" in the book, but always, it seems, in quotation marks. A lot of artists resent this label. Do you feel that this term, as a description of a sound, genre or a particular cultural movement, has any currency at all anymore?

DD: It stuck for a reason. It's clever and immediate and yet also, like any musical genre name, usefully vague: suggestive of a process and a historical period and an ambience. Hats off to Monte Cazzazza! I suppose now it's like all other genre names: gathering together things with a family resemblance, splitting things along generational faultlines into the pioneers and the followers. The dance-ification of "industrial" circa Wax-Trax! Records, Front 242, and the subsequent Nine Inch Nails mass-culture visibility obviously made the term far looser in reference, but it must be said that those people also kept it in circulation. It's too easy to just titter about that stuff from the power electronics snob ghetto, though it is tempting. To me when I imagine what "industrial" music ought to sound like I just think instantly of Esplendor Geometrico. Their RRR side on the Bruitiste double LP perfectly expresses the core idea: grinding, harsh, mechanical factory rhythms making a sound that is powerful, alienating, inhuman, and relentless. By contrast with all the subsequent history and the horse-race speculation and hype it leads to, TG themselves were always a little too mercurial, always in motion, always becoming something else. You can't pin them down and that's their greatest strength. They gave birth to something but they themselves evolved beyond it. Musical trends fade and subcultures that won't evolve just stiffen into self-parody. Tragedy returns as farce: Laibach's theatrical savvy begets Rammstein as the Blue Man Group for goths. Luckily, noise culture is alive and well, preserving a good deal of what makes Second Annual Report a great record while sidestepping calcified industrial clichés. If I am supposed to choose between people whose new work re-animates strands of TG's DNA, I'll take Wolf Eyes over VNV Nation any day. Luckily, given that TG themselves are alive and creative, I don't have to make any such choice.

JD: Where does the influence of TG come in with your work in Matmos and as the Soft Pink Truth?


DD: I think there are influences all over the place but I'm reluctant to say too much here because I don't want to flatter myself. It's probably no accident that the person who wrote about an all-over-the-place-genre-wise album like 20 Jazz Funk Greats would also create an all-over-the-place-genre-wise album like The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of A Beast. Music consumers now want reliable mood-delivery systems: a rock album that rocks from start to finish, a dance album that bumps from start to finish, a noise album that skronks from start to finish. This notion of the album as the homogenous whole is inherently conservative and safe; to attack such reliability is to attack the listener as a consumer and ask more of them. As I try to briefly confess in the book, I absorbed so many of TG's slogans and interviews at an impressionable young age that many of "my" ideas about how to be a musician, how to assemble an album, how to think about information acting on the listener to affect their experience are kind of directly adapted from the TG/Coil/Psychic TV/Chris & Cosey lineage. Amateurism, "perverse" content, esoteric referentiality, Burroughs-ian cut-ups, improvisation and song-structure overlapping each other, an eagerness to backlash against previous work, all of these habits and stances are (hopefully) present in Matmos and for me they come from TG. But I'm only half of Matmos and Martin's relationship is different. I guess in terms of foundational importance you could say that Cluster is to Martin what TG is to Drew With the Soft Pink Truth I'd say it's less direct, my reference point there is mostly the experience of being a go go dancer in gay bars, working through a certain shame and embarrassment about the way that house music and queerness seem kind of stuck with each other.

JD: The work you and Martin have produced as Matmos has been embraced by the gatekeepers of high culture and academic music in a way that I don't think TG has.  Gen and Cosey's background is in gallery performance art, but TG seemed to break in a significant way with the pretensions of the art world.  What is it about Matmos that is palatable in a way that TG is not?

DD: I'm the last person to adequately explain our own weird ability to sneak Matmos into high-culture music world contexts. As a mostly self-taught and musically illiterate ignoramus, the idea that I've played in ensembles with Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet and that we've performed in opera houses and the Salle Olivier Messiaen in Paris and Lincoln Center in Manhattan is, still, a totally bizarre fluke. I love a lot of the music that the classical academy nurtured, and I'm personally so distant from it in my own working musical life that I am unaffected by its own bugbears of conservatism or anachronism. As a professional academic myself the word "academic" isn't a dirty word for me, though I am aware of the limitations and cant that prevail. As for our ability to swim in those waters, I don't take it for granted, and I'm not into speculating at length about it (but here I go). I would hazard that it has to do with the overlap between our conceptual approach and the legacy of movements like musique-concrete, which was formulated quite consciously in relation to academic high culture in postwar France. In full disclosure mode, I would have to guess that our past history with Bjork also helps generate curatorial interest, in that it builds a bridge between our work and popular culture (at least on paper). Plus, on a purely craft level we kind of absorbed certain structural habits from the experience of being in her band that make our work now feel (a little) more like "real music." Though not enough to convince an oldguard opera critic like Bernard Holland, who trashed us pretty massively in the New York Times. So we're accepted in some places and not in others.

Is TG's content typically more abrasive, harsh or demanding than Matmos? Yeah, but keep in mind that we started out at time in the early '90s when attempts on the noise underground to be "even more brutal" than early TG were a dime a dozen. To successfully show up as transgressive nowadays takes different tactics, and for us it's not our primary purpose anyway: our music is (hopefully) silly and funky as often as it is gross or creepy. The real difference has a lot to do with the kind of process-oriented position that we tend to start from. To be kind of reductive and obvious about it, our work as Matmos exploits a deliberate disparity between abject raw materials and formally "poppy" musical results. As I'm guessing you are already aware, we have made music out of human fat, skulls, blood, semen, my own flesh burning, the sounds of people fucking in public, the sound of a wild rat trapped in a cage and screaming. In presenting these contents in a (hopefully) attractive package and a tuneful, toe-tapping rhythmic form, we're trying to have things both ways: hard and soft, creepy and friendly. To me this ambiguity in our work is something copped from TG, and in a stretch perhaps directly from the cover of 20 Jazz (the band are smiling and well dressed on the site of suicide). On a discursive level and on a direct sonic level, you are dribbling uncomfortable material into people's eyes and ears, but it's been transformed and manipulated into a smooth surface. If we just left the raw recordings untransformed, that would be fine, that's a cool strategy too, but it's not our way of doing things. We like to make songs that have both raw and cooked elements inside them.

JD: You talk about experiencing embarrassment over the association of house music with queerness. The members of TG appear to have no embarrassment about the emerging forms of dance music. There is a sense in which "Hot On the Heels of Love" isn't ironic at all (and only seems so in the context of TG), and is a genuine attempt to craft a Giorgio Moroder-style track. Certainly PTV and Coil went on to have very fruitful conversations with house music.  Is this "embarrassment" an internalizing American culture's homophobic distaste for disco, because of your background as a fan of hardcore?  Punk and house music as two ends of a certain binary construction involving masculinity and sexuality?

DD: Yes, and yes. However, one doesn't decide to experience shame and embarrassment because one has a tidy theoretical rationale for doing so. They are a result of colliding with your environment and feeling your way across its contours and "taboos." My adolescent environment consisted of the hardcore, punk and straight edge culture in Kentucky in the 1980s. I certainly wasn't trying to present my uneasy relationship with house music as self-evident or as something that others ought to feel. The closet is a self-oppressing dynamic: obvious, but nonetheless true. The TG gang got progressively more cozy with the dancefloor as time went on. Certainly the subsequent work of TG's members blossomed into outright dancefloor material at times ("Meet Every Situation Head On", "The Snow", "Obsession," etc.) but within the context of TG, their need to be somehow parasitic upon genre means that each song that shows up as a legible genre exercise is always inflected by some layer of snark and snarl, in the presentation if not in the construction. I can honestly believe that Chris Carter made "Hot on the Heels of Love" as a gesture of sincere homage to Moroder, but when the band as a whole referred to what they did as "Tesco Disco" they were still connecting disco as a signifier to what is naff, cliché, exhausted.

JD: Do you think TG should be understood as a queer group?  I can't think or talk about groups like Matmos and Coil without considering the question of queer identity, but I confess to never having considered TG in this light.  What do you think?


DD: I'd rather quote Bikini Kill and say that they are "worse than queer," insofar as TG, particularly in the way they constantly push towards the borderline of pedophile and murderous implication, tend to abide in a territory of radical open-ended-ness that even the most inclusive queer communities are going to have real problems accepting and endorsing.

JD: Towards the end of your chapter on "Hot on the Heels of Love" you offer a riposte to those that claim disco music is repetitive, and therefore unworthy. You don't so much argue against this point as gesture towards another set of values. There is a sense in which repetition (and habituation) can be seen as the precondition for the new.  Do you find this to be a convincing response to withering critiques of popular music such as Adorno's; can repetition, standardization, interchangeability be seen as something other than the culture industry colonizing our brains?  Can something be defamiliarized and familiar at the same time?

DD: Adorno would hate 20 Jazz Funk Greats and he would be wrong to do so; his critique of pop music and TG's tentative embrace of it on their own terms are each responses to specific historical conditions and their non-alignment reflects that. TG are working in the fallout of punk's failure and their engagement with popular forms reflects a restlessness that feels critically self-aware in ways that probably still wouldn't pass muster for Adorno, but so what? I tend to tread carefully when its time to connect critical theory to music; when done badly it is more alienating than enlightening. To me the TG link to Deleuze would arise in the way that TG's signal-chains resemble Deleuzian "lines of flight", the arcs of becoming in which audio processing and improvisation extend the instrument beyond itself and thus change what the instrument is: no longer "violin" but "violin-becoming-bird" etc. But I don't want to water down theory on behalf of art that speaks eloquently on its own terms. Mostly, I see 20 Jazz Funk Greats making a great case for how to personalize the popular. It's a response to pop music form that is both critical (it's clearly mocking the market-driven oversaturation of generically legible forms) and inclusively celebratory (it's not afraid of, and even courts, failure in its attempt to participate in genres that are perhaps beyond TG's "skillset" at the time). This neither/nor approach means that to many ears it sounds "weak" because it's not real rock music, real funk, real jazz, real disco. I would counter that its odd and hand-made qualities are what make it compelling for me in ways that "Real Music" often isn't.

JD: Finally, do you like the recent work of the reformed TG?  TG have a built-in rejoinder to those who would accuse them of breaking their "Mission Terminated" promise, because they "guarantee disappointment," but what does this latter-day reformation add to the picture of what TG is and was? Is this bound to be an insignificant footnote in the story?

cover imageDD: It's certainly brave of them, and when they are "on" it's fascinating stuff. I got goosebumps when I heard "Rabbit Snare" for the first time, and I felt (how to put it?) vindicated in some of my feelings about what 20 Jazz Funk Greats was doing by the fact that The Endless Not was formally pushing even further outwards in directions already mapped on 20 Jazz, specifically with the lounge piano and love ballad directions. These are still "wrong" for them, hence right. I think the biggest problem for me as a listener with TG in this day and age is that you can't really undo your own familiarity with their past work and that tends to pull individual songs out of the orbit of the band as a going concern and back into the past biography of their separate projects. So one song sounds Coil-ish and another sounds PTV-ish. It's nobody's fault, but it's just a fact about how the disparity functions now. It's not 1979 anymore. But when they truly merge, as on "Rabbit Snare" and "Greasy Spoon", it's still fab and kinky in 2008.

 


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