Twenty Fifteen

Rhythmically enforced physicality of love

Radical Openness: Goat Interview

Swedish band Goat

“Oh I don’t know, we call ourselves all, like different things all the time,” the hesitant voice tells me from the other end of a struggling international phone-line. I’ve asked my anonymous interviewee how I should refer to him in the present article, a question seemingly catching him off-guard. What I had thought would be a passing formality before our conversation really began becomes a sticking-point, a stifling atmosphere of awkwardness quickly emerging. “But you can call me…” He trails off to silence.

With the sole exception of Christian Johansson, who gave a handful of interviews in the band’s infancy, the identities of Goat’s members have remained veiled in mystery ever since they emerged into the public consciousness two years ago. Although, to refer to them as “members” is probably overly prescriptive. Supposedly hailing from a commune in the remote north of Sweden, Goat functions more as a continuum of ideas and musical activity than a strictly delimited group: a fluid collective of individuals coalescing – albeit temporarily, perhaps fleetingly – around a shared sensibility, a shared music.

“It doesn’t really have a beginning and an end, maybe, you know,” my interviewee tells me later, once our ungainly conversation has begun to flow more easily. His fractured English is spoken fitfully, the musicality of the Swedish accent straining against an unforgiving foreign tongue, his economical clauses strung together with heavy silences and verbal tics. “But it’s more of a way of… A view of the world maybe, a view of music, or of cultures, that everything belongs to everyone, you know? To be influenced from, or to enjoy all cultures, all music, everything. And Goat is mainly somehow a tradition, a tradition of how to live, maybe, how to view things, how to look at things. And that probably doesn’t have a beginning or an end.” Within Goat’s internal logic, the concepts of identity, of authorship and ownership, become irrelevant – if not totally meaningless – as the individual is subsumed and dispersed within the collective.

“You can call me…” Again, he pauses. Floundering, he eventually asks: “I don’t know, what did Rachel say?” By this point, only a minute or so into our conversation, we’d both chosen to ignore my catastrophic blunder of addressing him by his real name, which had been relayed to me by my PR contact Rachel prior to the phone call. (“Hi, is that X?” was my ham-fisted opener. “No… It’s not X,” suspicion palpable, I’d clearly miscalculated, “but is this, er, is this from a paper?”) His name now an open secret, the only option was to plow on in earnest. “Well, she told me to ask you,” I replied with pained and insufficient jocularity. Another pause.

It’s hard not to be reminded of Rudi van der Saniel, a minor but particularly well-rendered character from the surrealist comedy series the Mighty Boosh, during our conversation. Played by Julian Barrett, Rudi is a jazz-fusion guitarist and High Priest of the Order of Psychedelic Monks, seeking to attain spiritual nirvana via his mastery of the phaser pedal and soaring, axe-hero solos. And when, at their first meeting, Noel Fielding’s Vince enquires as to Rudi’s identity, he responds: “I go by many names,” before a long silence. “Well, what are they, then?” Vince eventually prompts. “Some call me Shatoon, bringer of corn. Others call me Mickey Nine, the dream weaver. Some call me Photoshop. Others call me Trenoon, the boiler.” The list goes on, culminating in the final pseudonym: “Others call me R-r-r-rubbady Pubbady.”

Of course, Rudi’s character acts as a metonym for the utopian pretentions of late-60s psychedelia, allowing the hipper-than-thou duo of Fielding and Barrett to poke gentle fun at its naïveté, jibing – albeit fondly, one suspects – at its contrived mystique. Throughout his appearances in the series, Rudi’s commitment to the dictum of the Order of Psychedelic Monks – his unerring belief in the power of music to offer blissful loss of self – is continually made quaint by his self-consciousness, his numerous cognitive dissonances, and the unavoidable absurdity of his appearance. In the aforementioned episode, Barrett appears particularly ridiculous: his head and arms poke through a carnival cutout done up to make him look like a disproportioned Jimi Hendrix, in his hands a miniature Fender strat.

And whilst Goat are less explicit in their guiding principles than the politically charged music of the Woodstock era, the group’s unashamed adherence to an almost mystical sense of universalism places their music within the same category of art striving, perhaps naively, to tear down barriers between people – be they personal, political, spiritual. “There is only one true meaning of life and that is to be a positive force in the constant creation of evolution,” states a heavily-reverbed voice during their sophomore record ‘Commune’, released last month on Rocket Recordings. And the group’s intrigue is only amplified by their strictly guarded anonymity: the seductive pull of the unknown emanates from their music, itself wide-eyed and intangible in its eclecticism.

“He said to ring him any time, and if he’s free he’ll talk,” I was told, somewhat ominously, earlier that week after a long period of attempting to pin the group down for an interview. But just as Rudi’s ambitions and cultivated aura are undermined by his unavoidable silliness, my conversation with this member of Goat is coloured by similar juxtapositions of the lofty and the amateurish. When I finally made contact with my elusive interlocutor I found a modest family man attempting to contain his marauding three year-old in the background. “Do you have kids?” he asks me later over the noise of what sounds like a full-scale riot in the background. “You can never do something, you always have to interrupt something. But it’s great, but you have to be… especially when they’re” – emphasising each syllable – “three years old.”

And these traces of the quotidian – the messy, the unguarded – at the centre of Goat’s elaborate game of smoke-and-mirrors lends a sense of charming artlessness to my interviewee’s responses, keeping his occasional ambiguity from becoming tiresome schtick. It’s not until the end of our hour-long conversation that I finally press him again on his chosen pseudonym. “Just call me… just call me…” pausing, and then, almost apologetically: “Just call me Goatman.” He stops again before adding, “Probably people have used that before but it’s all I can think of now.” Goat’s enigma is clumsy, ill-formed, and, above all, human.

//

“Well, it’s like ‘World Music’ – like with the first album – [which] begins with the same melody and it ends with the same melody actually. And we did the same thing with this one but in another way. It’s just a nice way to make it circular, you know.” Goat’s latest record ‘Commune’ is bookended by a hushed bell-like sonority – the sound of a Buddhist prayer bowl, Goatman informs me. A subtle gesture, but one which lends gravity, a sense of obscured significance, to the unkempt music within: the repeated tone forms a frame that draws the album’s disparate sound-worlds together in tentative and partial synthesis. “It ends with the beginning somehow,” Goatman elaborates, “and it gives a good wholeness to the album, I think. It’s mainly a musical thing, it’s no other thing really. It’s a musical thing to make it whole, like a piece of art, you know, it sticks together all around. That’s the main reason.”

And the desire to create a musical experience of tangible, yet fleeting, unity was embedded into the group’s approach throughout the process of writing and recording ‘Commune’. “We worked more with the wholeness from the beginning,” Goatman tells me. “With ‘World Music’ we worked with the wholeness afterwards, somehow, to make it as an album. Now we could do it more from the beginning which was a little different. And ‘World Music’ was maybe more spontaneously recorded, this time we recorded it – we’re better with the studio now as well – so we recorded it more as an album: we knew it was going to be an album.”

Goat’s debut album ‘World Music’ was released in 2012 after Rocket Recordings stumbled upon the group’s music online. “We recorded two songs – I think it was ‘Goathead’ and ‘The Sun and The Moon’ it was called – and those songs were… a friend of us, I don’t know if they’re a friend of me really, but some friend, some friend’s friend or something” – as he often does throughout our discussion, Goatman briefly tangles himself in a moment of self-revision and contradiction before continuing – “made a video for those songs, two videos, one for each song. And they put them on YouTube, I think, and Rocket found them, I think it was like that.”

As our conversation returns to ‘Commune’, Goatman offers a second motivation – aside from the purely musical reasons he initially noted – for his group’s desire to cultivate a unified musical experience. “And it’s also because, you know, our music sometimes – it’s a spiritual thing, all music is a spiritual thing. It somehow fits, I think. It, it fits the context of the album, I think.” As his explanation becomes increasingly fragmented, his sentences disintegrating into unfinished clauses, he laughs: “I don’t know how to explain it in English.”

It’s about expressing a completeness that is nevertheless coloured – even defined – by difference, I suggest. Something larger, more elaborate arises from the multiplicity of constituent parts. “Yeah, exactly. That’s what I think both of those albums do. Because they start and they end in the same way, and the song structure – we’re very, you know, this is the thing that we’re very careful about, or we put a lot of thought and feeling into getting the sequencing of the albums to be good, so it’s not just a collection of songs, it’s a wholeness that is bigger than the pieces in a way. That’s the, that’s the main reason of it in a way – to get a bigger spiritual experience from listening to the wholeness of the album rather than picking songs out.”

Drawing on everything from Afrobeat to druggy psychedelia, from funk to Middle Eastern sonorities, both of Goat’s albums vibrate with internal energy, invigorated by dissonances and contrasts, but also fleeting moments of harmony, between the multitude of genres and traditions that comprise the collage. As such, Goat describe their music, defined as it is by such an eclectic approach to recombination and juxtaposition, using the somewhat loaded term ‘world music’ – which was also, of course, the faintly provocative title of their debut album. When I broach the topic of the label’s undesirable associations, at least in British English, of post-colonial Western consumerism, Goatman concurs, saying: “I don’t know how it’s used exactly in Britain but in Sweden the term is used to…” At this point he pauses, laughing: “my son is trying to speak English…” He continues: “The term is, here, has been used to put together all music that is non-Western, non-European, non-American music. And you put all those different musics together and you call it ‘world music’. You know, if you look at a record shop, and you look at ‘world music’ and you find music from every country that are not nearby. And that is, I wouldn’t say it’s racist, but it’s, it’s really… stupid, in a way. You know what I mean? Yeah, it’s not racist, but it’s ignorant, in a way.

“And so, we also feel that, like, genres are pretty, pretty – I mean, sometimes you need to call things stuff – but it’s pretty old-fashioned also, you know? Because things are mixed up now, things are mixed up all the time and are getting mixed up more and more and more. The world is getting more global and connected with each other. All music exists in all music, so the genres we talk about today are so silly sometimes. And so we call our music ‘world music’ because it belongs to the world and it comes from the world, as simple as that really. You know, it comes from the world and it belongs to all parts of it. That’s how we want to use the word.”

Goat’s use of the term, then, is an intentional attempt at reclamation: an attempt to imagine a way of listening in which music from a culture foreign to one’s own is not heard simply as an exoticism – a remote other – but rather as part of its own nuanced and complex history of aesthetic practice. “I hope so,” Goatman agrees. “And I hope people can, not through us, but I hope people can discover or can change their opinion about music from other places, and not call everything ‘world music’, which does have negative associations over here as well. Music is music, wherever it comes from. Let’s call everything ‘world music’, you know. In a way, everything should be called ‘world music’ but you shouldn’t just call music from non-Western places ‘world music’.”

Given their sensitivity to the myriad complexities surrounding our consumption of music from around the world, it’d surely be a simplification to label Goat’s music – and, in particular, its use of African and Middle Eastern sounds – as an example of crude, or politically suspect, cultural appropriation. Yet, the fact that this charge is not uncommon in discussions of their music is more likely due to the subtlety of the distinction – between Goat’s ideal of ‘world music’ and the more common meaning of the term – than the shallowness of their listeners. As The Guardian’s Michael Hann wrote in his review of ‘Commune’: “After all, the notion of a bunch of Swedes taking African-styled guitar melodies and welding them on to droning psychedelia could easily be taken for cultural appropriation. But then Goat, with their masked players on stage, are reliant upon appropriation for their exotic sense of otherness, which is key to their appeal.”

Hann’s equivocal stance is understandable: Goat’s cultural tourism may well have pure motivations, but their music is nevertheless in continual danger of being consumed almost as a contemporary form of blackface, at least at the extreme end of the scale. Even within the context of our broader discussion of his conception of the term ‘world music’, I still feel a twinge of discomfort at the occasional turn of phrase emerging from Goatman’s otherwise impeccably considered explanations. (Perhaps most strikingly: “if you feel something appeals to you, use it: it’s yours.”) And if these instances are merely attributable to our not-inconsiderable language barrier, then perhaps that only reinforces this point: communication is never free from the spectre of miscommunication, especially within the semantic haze of musical meaning. And, in that sense, Goat’s game is a risky one.

In any case, Goat’s vision of an idealised ‘world music’ can be seen to lend a political edge, an urgency and force, to their otherwise abstract songwriting. Is Goat’s music intended to evoke such an image of a utopian society, one in which differences are woven together into a complex, yet harmonic, whole? “Well if you think like that or if other people think that, it’s fine,” Goatman responds. “But it’s nothing that we have planned or strived for. It’s just what we wanted to do and what sounded right. It’s not like we have a political agenda that we want to bring forward or anything like that, it’s just – I can understand that people feel like that – but it’s not planned.

“It’s just that we listen to a lot of music and if you don’t control your creativity in a certain direction, it comes out the way it comes out,” he continues. “And this is the way it comes out. But we don’t try to create something really – it just happens when we, when we put down a lot of jamming into songs.” Goatman goes on the elaborate on the group’s recording process: “It’s just the people who are involved at the time – it could be two people, it could be ten people actually. It’s, you know, if someone brings a friend to the recording session and it’s like ‘if you want to do something then you can do something’. But also, the people who can operate the studio: they are the bunch of people who mostly are involved. But it doesn’t – some people can be there and the other people are free to do whatever they like. So not all people are featured on all songs.”

So Goat’s aesthetic of ‘world music’ – one which could spark so much theoretical wrangling – is perhaps merely a symptom of the group’s openness to new ideas in the compositional process. I suggest to Goatman, though, that an intangible sense of a political stance – a sense of what is right, of what is worth creating and working towards – can arise naturally from any aesthetic object, however supposedly insular it may be. “Yeah, I guess so, I guess so,” he concedes. “The only thing I would like to point out is that… Ah, here comes my girlfriend, finally. I can concentrate on one thing…” – his son now receiving the undivided attention he’s been clamouring for – “Collectiveness, collectiveness and togetherness is one thing in our minds, you know. But it’s worth pointing out, we don’t have a political agenda or anything like that.”

//

The sense of radical openness – to other people, to other cultures and musics – so integral to Goat’s way of operating can be traced to the shared sensibilities of the broader collective to which the group belongs. For, the name “Goat” refers not to a band but a commune situated in the village of Korpilombolo in the far north of Sweden. “I’m not even from the North, actually,” Goatman tells me. “I’m am not from the original Goat commune, but I’m part of the commune now, I’ve been travelling up there since I was small. My parents knew – I’m from Gothenburg originally – my parents knew people up there, we would travel there and then I’m part of that and the band now. But the band consists of younger people and Goat are a lot more people than that.”

Embroiled in mystery and rumours – largely provoked by the group’s infamous first press release – of voodoo-based religious rituals, Goat’s official backstory is tinted with playful ambiguity and evasion, always withholding far more than it reveals. I suggest to Goatman that, as such, the group – as a concept, as an entity – appears to hover somewhere between reality and fiction: an enigma enmeshed within a chaotic slippage of meaning. “Maybe it is, maybe it is,” he laughs, guarding his answers carefully. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say.” He continues: “Maybe people are really disturbed by it, they can’t put their finger on it. Maybe they don’t know if it’s true, as you said. They don’t know. And maybe they hate it because of that but maybe they like it because of that.

“But It’s not constructed,” he continues. “I understand what you mean. But it was nothing, it was nothing planned. We told about ourselves for Rocket, and they made this press release, which was part” – emphasising – “part of our story. But it was part, it wasn’t the whole picture. I guess because we embraced like spiritualism and religions and all that, you know, it gets probably a bit unreal for people. But it’s nothing we’ve sat down and had a meeting about, you know, how we’re going to do this. It’s just, it was just happening quite spontaneously.” He pauses before arriving at his conclusion: “It’s the music: if you like the music, you like the music. If you don’t, then you don’t.”

Indeed, despite the aura surrounding the group and the story of its origins, the Goat commune is actually made to sound remarkably quotidian and non-mysterious in Goatman’s descriptions. “A commune is just a bunch of people living together, sharing the same beliefs, somehow,” he tells me. “But it’s also, it is the natural way for people to live. All people live together with other people all the time, you know what I mean? And people today need to be aware of that more, I think. People of today need to be aware of that we are all part of different collectives – your family, your friends, your work, your society, your country, your city, your whatever… your village – we’re all part of collectives or communes and the more we recognise that, again, and the more we can personally play a positive role in our communes or collectives. Which is really our purpose. Don’t live for yourself, live together.”

So what does the band’s music share with the music played within the commune? After a pause, Goatman replies: “It’s not the same. It can be whatever but music is pretty free up there. There’s lots of [styles]. Like in the 70s there was prog rock, probably, but – in the 80s I don’t know, actually – but still it’s a lot of instruments, a lot of drums, lots of rhythms, lots of dancing, lots of like pretty natural, natural…” he trails off, searching for the right word. “Natural music. You know what I mean?” laughing, “Natural music is not the right word… it’s a stupid word but… don’t write natural music…” I did, but only because I think the term is probably more precise than Goatman felt: the Goat commune and its music seems oriented around an ideology of authenticity, of music and expression arising organically from unconstrained self- and group-expression, free from pretense or individualism.

“Like, simp… not simple music” – still struggling for the best description – “But people play together, you know, jamming with drums maybe. Or the next day, people jamming with drums and a guitar. It doesn’t really matter. Mostly jamming but they pop up like bands or stuff like that – groups that want to do their own music like we have done. And then some young people from up north moved to Gothenburg and hooked up with me and some other people and… So it’s not just people from here influenced by other music. It can be punk rock or whatever you know. So influences are brought in, it’s the openness for it that is the thing, in a way. You mix whatever you like with whatever you like in the songs and it’s your own expression.”

I mention that there seems to be a subtle, and paradoxically constructive, interaction between tradition – in the commune’s approach to collective musicking – and the erasure of tradition – in the desire to incorporate sounds from elsewhere. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I would say that [the latter] is the musical tradition, basically. That is what the tradition is: to stay open, to travel, to explore, you know. To explore cultures and music and, if you feel something appeals to you, use it: it’s yours. That’s the tradition, maybe, in a way.”

And it’s this goal of forging a purity of musical expression – one which arises from the spontaneous, and egoless, meeting of individuals – that drives Goat’s desire for anonymity. “When we play together wearing masks, wearing something that expresses our sense of the music, we feel more united, we feel more like one, one person,” Goatman tells me. “It’s more easy. It’s more easy to express something when you, when you know that your face is not there, when your identity is not there. It’s just music coming out. It’s easier to let it out, because there are people watching you.”

Elaborating, he continues: “And, yeah, it’s also about the individualism of our time because it’s that individualism that we want to get away from. You know, we’re not individuals, Goat is not consisting of individuals” – he pauses briefly and laughs – “it is of course consisting of individuals but it’s not the way we want to be seen, that’s what I mean.” It’s almost as if the anonymity is a form of secular sacrifice, of the individual to the larger group, I suggest. “Yeah, I agree with it, yeah,” Goatman agrees. “It’s a hard word to use, but at the same time I think it’s pretty correct. That’s what Goat is mainly about: you have to give up something for the greater good of the group, of the collective or the commune or whatever. We give up: it’s for the music in a way.”

Goat’s anonymity, then, is an integral part of the group’s self-concept as a commune, allowing the individual to surrender their ego, their desire for ownership or recognition. “Exactly,” he concurs. But then, in a characteristically self-contradictory move, he adds: “And also, you know, you can’t forget that a show is a show.” His laugh punctuates and halts his train of thought. Refraining from elaboration, Goatman merely leaves the statement to hang briefly between us in all its opacity and knowing ambiguity. After a pause, he adds simply: “That’s also true.”

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Carter Tutti Void at Oslo, London, 15/9/2014

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“Just enjoy like we enjoy. OK?” A strange request, not least because neither Carter, Tutti, nor Void seemed really to be enjoying themselves at all. Dour to a tee, the group’s set at Hackney’s Oslo is an exercise in brutalist functionality: it’s all four-to-the-floor minus the euphoria, barbed guitar noise with all traces of viscerality erased. Enjoy it I did though, especially when they decided to turn it up a notch or two halfway in. Pushed to such extremes of repetition and abstraction, music that’d otherwise be meditative becomes suffocating, intoxicating. Comprised of members of Throbbing Gristle and Factory Floor, the group’s semi-improvised pieces take cues from both: there’s no release, only continuation; there’s no resolution, only the sudden halt of the all-consuming beat.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

The Vacant Lots at Shacklewell Arms, London, 24/9/2014

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Despite one of their co-frontmen conspicuously adopting the surname of Antonin Artaud, The Vacant Lots’ live show is hardly a theatre of cruelty. Instead, the spectral presence of the French playwright feels somewhat contrived to establish the duo’s cultivated aura of coolness. But, of course, the music of the psych revival advocated by labels like Sonic Cathedral has never had any pretense to shock or unsettle with the radically new: The Vacant Lots are concerned with subtly re-tooling well-worn signifiers, bestowing them with relevancy to the contemporary. And if their set at Dalston’s Shacklewell Arms never really ignites, it’s not an indication that they’ve failed realise this goal, even though their Spacemen 3 noise-outs could have done with some more bite. Rather, it’s the vision itself that’s of disappointingly limited scope.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Plowing into the Field of Love, Iceage

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“I’ve always had a sense that I was split in two,” Elias Rønnenfelt declares at the opening of ‘Forever’, foregoing his now-characteristic off-kilter bark for a measured sing-speak. It’s a fitting lyric, at least insofar as Iceage’s third album embodies such a dualism. For, if early records ‘New Brigade’ and ‘You’re Nothing’ embraced the total dissolution of the self in an ecstatic assault of noise, then ‘Plowing into the Field of Love’ finds the group’s utopian/dystopian drive constrained by the imposition structure, arrangement, pastiched genre. Horns and strings play ornament to Rønnenfelt’s anguish, warped bar-room piano adrift amidst airless guitar dischord. But the Copenhagen post-punks have hardly gone all Grizzly Bear on us; ‘Plowing into the Field of Love’ has no pretentions to elevate – whatever that would mean – their form with such elaborations. It’s more that the punk’s dream of an anarchic loss of ego remains just that – an ideal to be strived for but ultimately, and tragically, unattainable. And therein lies the beauty of Iceage’s newly formed approach: this is music split in two, at war with itself, poignantly acknowledging – but by no means resigned to – its inevitable failure. After a few years of providing an exhilarating escapism, Iceage’s bold, knotted music has finally found something to fight against.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Last Ex, Last Ex

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It opens with the ‘Hotel Blues’ and ends with a ‘Hotel Kiss’. And Last Ex’s hotel stands mostly empty – strip-lit and hollow. It’s a lonely place between places, frequented by the rudderless and melancholy haunted by dreams of elsewhere and elsewhen. The instrumental duo’s debut album flits between nostalgia and dream – dream and nightmare – with enigmatic poise. Arpeggiated guitar chords punctuate keyboard haze, shuffling bass lines lapped by jazz-haunted beats. It’s an approach to whole-group melodic harmony that recalls Constellation Records label-mates Do Make Say Think – if only they’d spent more time getting stoned listening to Morricone and Badalamenti than sitting around a campfire. An off-shoot of Timber Timbre, Last Ex’s music began as a soundtrack for a horror film – a project long since abandoned. But the absence of images and narrative cohesion is felt less as a deficiency than an evocative incompleteness at the heart of the music’s semi-ambience. A remote album: veiled in aloofness that can frustrate, shrouded with mystique that can often seduce.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Everything & Nothing: Protomartyr Interview

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“Well at the beginning I mention my friend Dante who’s Filipino. He always has like off-brand electronics; I don’t know where he gets his electronics from.” Joe Casey hunches over at the picnic table that his band and I have squeezed onto for our interview. We’re sitting outside Brixton’s Windmill amidst the chattering overspill of the audience within, the dull thud of drums drifting in and out of perception as we speak. The venue’s iconic rooftop guard-dog watches on a few feet above us, its image adorning our bottles of the house-brand ‘Roof Dog’ beer.

Casey directs his gaze to the side as he draws on a cigarette, his body half-turned as if poised to leave; but the apparent aloofness of his demeanour is belied by the ease and lucidity of his conversation. The singer’s tone is that of low-key sincerity, his responses to my questions more considered and succinct than curt. “So I was thinking like what if one day you turned up with a device that you could just buy like at RadioShack or a cheap electronics store, and it’s something that would just remove want. It’s kind of a science fictiony theme, but [I tried to] make it as realistic as possible.”

We’re discussing the track ‘Want Remover’, a particularly striking track on Protomartyr’s second record ‘Under Color of Official Right’ released earlier this year on Hardly Art. The song’s concept is pervaded by a dystopian air, evoking images of a society controlled by Casey’s fictional device, its individuals acquiescent and apathetic as concepts like progress, change, and freedom fade to little more than half-remembered ideals. So what do you imagine a world with a want remover would look like? I ask. “Kind of like ours,” Casey answers without pause. “I don’t have a smartphone but I see how important they are for people once they have them, and how people are obsessed with devices nowadays. So I think it probably already exists; we just don’t know about it.”

For Casey, then, the contemporary anxiety towards boredom – our overwhelming dread of any time spent without activity, without connection – has led to the development of a new, more deadened way of existence. I relay to the band a remark recently made by the critic Mark Fisher: that the rapid infiltration of digital media into both the public and private spheres has created such a continuous stream of low-level stimuli that the very idea of boredom now seems utopian. “Yeah, I can see that,” Casey nods. But immediately the rest of the group – up to this point content simply to observe – weigh in to disagree, recalling their wi-fi-deprived journey from France earlier in the day. “Well the ferry was especially bad, because I couldn’t read a book or anything, I just had to stare out of the window,” guitarist Greg Ahee says, the conversation now pacing around the table. “I don’t know if it was boredom,” elaborates Alex Leonard, the group’s drummer, “I just felt like we were gonna die. Boredom and terror.” “Yeah: fear. Fear is probably a better word.”

A brief pause of agreement before Ahee says: “But the other side, being like glued to Twitter and Facebook all the time, can be a disease too.” It’s this fraught relationship to digital media – which finds its most potent embodiment in the perverse allure of the infinite scroll of these social networks – that’s explored with such eloquence on ‘Want Remover’. The track’s protagonist begins by almost gleefully embracing the device: “I’m free free free from want / I’m free free from fear”. But as independent agency quickly deteriorates into what seems like maniacal addiction and dependency, the track ends on a forbidding note: “I’m free free free from thought / and I’m free free from action / as it starts to leak / I worry about the carpet”.

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“Are you sure they’re a band? They really don’t look like a band. They don’t do they?” So prattled Time Out, presumably to itself, in a recent profile of the group. Given the urgency and nuance of a track like ‘Want Remover’ it’s perhaps surprising that Protomartyr’s supposed dearth of chic has been such a common point of conversation around the group. That said, it does chime, somewhat ironically, with that song’s portrait of a culture ever more in thrall to quantity and speed of information over and above quality or depth of experience. And the group’s ‘Under Color of Official Right’ is a record that could be heard to raise a rallying cry against such tendencies. Oscillating between an especially barbed take on The Strokes’ taut melodic fuzz, early Interpol, and The Fall’s ‘Hex’-era low-end clatter, the album rages with unkempt energy as lyrical fragments emerge – abstract and mantra-like – from the airless thrash of post-punk noise. These are songs that embrace ambiguity – of tone, of meaning – at every turn.

On this point, I ask if the Protomartyr’s music is exclusively depressive or despondent. “Not at all,” Ahee parries. “To me it’s like, at least the feeling I get from it – which is again not just taken necessarily just from lyrics or just from music, but how it all feels together for me – it feels like a mix of uplifting, depressing, happy, sad: it’s a mix of different emotions which can’t easily be pinpointed to ‘oh this is just like downtrodden guys that are just completely nihilistic’. It’s frustrating to me when people try to pinpoint these really specific, usually depressing, emotions onto it, or any music, but it doesn’t feel that way to me.”

And in such a rejection of unidimensional meaning, Protomartyr refrain from adopting any explicit political stance in their music, preferring instead the enigmatic, the ambivalent. For most listeners, for instance, there’s a memorable moment of realisation when the apparently rousing anthem ‘Scum! Rise!’ reveals itself, after repeated listens, instead to be a nightmarish tale of a group of children killing their neglectful fathers. “I try to avoid it in the lyrics, any political stance, which I guess in itself is a political stance,” Casey explains. “But I, you know, I try to write from the ground up, the closer [the lyrics] are to reality, or your day to day existence – and I find politics really don’t affect your day to day existence. At least not writing a political song. But if you’re talking about your day to day existence, then you can read into bigger issues, if you want.” This aversion to didacticism or sloganeering is central to Protomartyr’s potency. The group’s music evokes the amorphous feeling – the intangible sense – of broader social, cultural, and political themes via Casey’s, largely noise-obscured, parables of the quotidian and the personal.

“Like we have a song about one of Detroit’s mayors,” Leonard offers, “but that’s still not a politics song, it’s like a little story.” The song, ‘Bad Advice’, takes the figure of Kwame Kilpatrick, onetime mayor of the group’s hometown, as its inspiration; but rather than critiquing directly the widespread corruption that characterised his term, Casey comes at his story obliquely. “In that song, it kinda came out of the idea, I was thinking about like bad dads. I had a good dad, but there are people out there that don’t. Or just how you are corrupted by who you’re raised by. And I felt like in that case, when he was arrested on the news somebody was like, ‘oh Kwame was let down by his dad. His dad like led him astray’. And I was just kinda thinking and that’s an interesting way to talk about that. Being vague enough, that if you didn’t know Kwame Kilpatrick, you could still get from the song that’s it about people getting too big headed and then getting brought down.”

A short passage from Barry Shank’s recent book ‘The Political Force of Musical Beauty’ feels especially relevant to this point. Writing of Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’, Shank notes: “Rock’s political force does not follow from its ability to inform its listeners about the social real. Rather, this power is an effect of rock’s production of musical beauty.” Indeed, when I mention that I’m able to understand only a small percentage of the group’s lyrics, Casey replies simply: “That’s not our purpose.” Music, and art more broadly, does not derive its force from the careful development of theses or theories. Instead, music – even that with words – creates aesthetic experiences that speak non-verbally, communicating abstracted ideas, tones, shades untouchable by language.

Specifically of the anger and violent imagery often erupting out of Protomartyr’s noir soundscapes, Casey tells me: “Well with me, there’s like two different kinds of anger. You can get angry at something specific. Like some of [my lyrics] are comical; like in the song ‘Tarpeian Rock’,” – perhaps his most Mark E Smith-indebted moment – “it’s just some things that pissed me off. But usually when you’re angry, you kinda like lose yourself and you’re not thinking straight when you’re angry. So lyrics or the song shouldn’t be specific, it should just be like the loose idea of anger. It doesn’t really happen specifically.”

After a pause Ahee picks up this train of thought, arriving at what could perhaps be seen as a guiding principle underpinning his group’s approach to songwriting: “Yeah, for me, what music can do that some essay, or some other kind of writing, can’t do, is it can express something that you can’t really express just with words. So I think we all kind of got it that like Joe, alright his lyrics are saying something, but we’re also trying to express something besides just that.” But, that said, maybe the group’s reluctance to offer anything by way of concrete interpretations of their music derives from a less profound motive: “Some of the songs have really stupid meanings,” Casey confides later, half-smiling, “and that’s kinda why I want to keep them a secret. Because if I explain them, someone might be like ‘that song’s about that?!’”

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

V for Vaselines, The Vaselines

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There’s something vaguely unsettling about the ageing of twee. Or, more precisely: twee’s staunch refusal to age. Since reforming in 2008, the Vaselines have picked up exactly where they left off in the late-80s as if stuck in some surreal not-quite never-never land where naivety and immanence are clung to ever more tenuously. Not that Kurt Cobain’s favourite songwriters have lost it by any stretch: ‘V for Vaselines’ bounds along with sprightly boy-girl harmonies and lyrics awash with inane-yet-charming couplets, even if things have gotten a bit more power-pop than strictly necessary. It’s just that these songs of innocence feel constantly haunted by the experience they anxiously repress, the record’s erasure of dissonance resulting in a simplicity not only tragic and artificial but also a tad bland. That said, glimmers of hidden depths do surface if only fleetingly: “it went wrong too many times / missed cues, forgotten punch-lines” goes the wistful closer. See, if twee agreed to age, things might get a lot more interesting.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Sleigh Bells at Village Underground, London, 2/7/2014

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What on earth can make this sort of unabashed maximalism ok? On Sleigh Bells’ 2010 debut ‘Treats’, irony did: lead singer Alexis Krauss’ bubblegum vocals expressed just enough knowing distance to undercut the music’s machismo. But there are no tongues in cheeks at tonight’s show, Sleigh Bells’ former mischeivousness replaced by exhortations to throw ya hands up and party like this kind of brutalist rock-rap is within the realms of good-taste. Through such unceasing excess, the group’s attempts to provide instant gratification morph into a tragic erasure of the concept of gratification itself: despite its hysterical pretense to the contrary, it’s basically just really boring. And whilst the earlier tracks on the set-list retain some of their off-kilter charm, there’s not much that could make this, for even the most generous definition of “ok”, ok, ok?

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Sparks, Imogen Heap

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Echoes of ‘Vespertine’ in the electro-acoustic backing; vocals close-mic’d, speak-sung: “Hey babe, how’s your day been? No, you first. Oh, what? The delay’s quite bad. Yeah, sorry.” &c. And as if to make an obvious point even more so, the track’s entitled ‘Telemiscommunications’. Not unlike Damon Albarn’s (admittedly better) ‘Everyday Robots’, what might be called the emotional heart of Imogen Heap’s fourth LP ‘Sparks’ engages in a critique whose supposed profundity is somewhat dubious. The villain: technology; the victim: relationships. This all treats the digital medium as an intruder into everyday experience, but isn’t it actually inextricably entwined with — even inseparable from — “real-life”, creating new spaces, new forms, even whilst it erodes those of old? Stopping somewhere short of glitch, Heap’s dramatic (over)production incorporates digitalia as mere exoticism, a signifier of the contemporary kept largely at arm’s length. And the authenticity of the physical — indexed most forcefully by her vocal acrobatics — predictably wins the day. The phone call continues: “Can I call you back? Yeah, everything’s fine. Why, am I? I don’t know why. I probably just need sleep, it’s been a busy week.” Somewhere, at a dinner party in middle England, ‘Telemiscommunications’ is skipped for being a little depressing. I’d just forgo the whole lot and enjoy the sound of cutlery.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Oscillations, Cosines

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Adorning the cover of Cosines’ debut ‘Oscillations’ are the curvilinear forms of the Legendre polynomials, solutions to a set of problems devised by the French mathematician of the same name. Fittingly, the London-based quartet self-define as a “mathematical pop” group; yet, their not-quite-twee indie is a far cry from the pompous complexity of math rock. Throughout ‘Oscillations’ interlocking synth and guitar lines recall Stereolab and ‘Parallel Lines’-era Blondie in equal measure, although not with quite such uncanny force as lead-singer Alice Hubley’s airy vocals. And when motorik beats and guitar scuzz do surface it’s always in the service of the cute rather than the kosmiche.

There’s an endearing amateurishness to ‘Oscillations’ — from the back-of-an-envelope lyrics down to the boxy, lo-fi production — but its blocky melodies and song structures too often creep from the simple into the simplistic. Perhaps those polynomials traced across the album’s cover provide an instructive analogy: presented contextless — solid lines on tasteful brown background — the curves are stripped of their considerable mathematical import, their function merely decorative. Indeed, where math rock’s shallow complexity felt like an orgy of intellectual posturing, Cosines’ meeker “mathematical pop” employs its ostensible subject only as a source of quaint, prettified regularity: in both case the idea of “mathematics”, regrettably, serves little more than contrivance.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

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