CONFIRMATION BIAS #5: Ruy De Magalhães-Ortegano (Lawn, Rui Gabriel)

One of my favorite guitar records from last year is Johnny by the New Orleans trio Lawn. Together with Mac Folger, Ruy DeMagalhães-Ortegano is half of Lawn’s should-be “classic songwriting duo” that’s as much Strummer/Jones (or maybe Reed/Cale) as it is Lennon/McCartney. Anything you read on the internet about Lawn will surely say that Mac’s songs are “melodic” or “jangly” while Ruy’s are “angular” or “wirey”—fair enough, but what I find so compelling about Johnny is the way the 9 excellent songs blend together 4 decades’[1] worth of guitar music with a relaxed and unpretentious touch. They’ve got real swag, but they’ve also got humility, and my uptight, geographically generalizing Yankee ears can’t help but attribute that combination to the influence of the band’s home along the Gulf Coast.

You’d frankly have to be lobotomized not to find a visit to New Orleans exciting or intriguing on some level, but I’ve always found it to be kind of a bizarre place to actually play a show. Everything about the city—the architecture; the food; the nightlife; the dense, electric air in the streets; the quietly fantastic scene—reliably marks it out in my mind as one of the real “events” of any tour, and yet at the same time, the richness of the cultural tradition there is so present, so baked into every wall, that any noise you could make feels like a drop of invisible ink in a bucket of indigo. To be fair, this is obviously true of a small indie rock band playing almost anywhere in the country, but it hits you particularly hard in the Crescent City.

In that way, I imagine that living and working in New Orleans—if you weren’t getting fucked up all the time—might nurture in a person a sense of perspective that can be a little uncommon in a music world that has only become more myopic in the Instagram age. My chat with Ruy certainly confirmed that theory. We touch on the utility of comparison, the future of the album in the streaming era, and the importance of writing in a way that stays sensitive to precarities that aren’t necessarily your own.

illustration by Tim Howe

I think Johnny is a really special record. One of the qualities that draws me to it again and again is the way y’all weave together disparate strands of guitar music with a real laid-back ease. I saw a write-up for the record—on a particular high-visibility music blog that shall remain unnamed—that compared Lawn to a whole stable of current bands on what I’ll call the “publicist indie” circuit before saying, straight up, “or, you know, fill in all the older bands that inspired those current greats.” I thought this was incredibly lazy in addition to being sort of unfair to you guys. I’ve described Johnny to friends as Lemonheads doing post-punk, an admittedly inelegant simplification that doesn’t really do the record justice; point being, at no moment during the 35-minute runtime do I get the sense that you or Mac spend a lot of time listening to buzz bands. Am I off base here? What’s the most annoying “RIYL” that Lawn has gotten?

This is a funny question to ask; I was in bands a bit before Mac, but, for the most part, we were kind of late in the game since most of our friends had been in bands that received press coverage in some capacity. As someone who played in half-assed bands without any clear sense of direction or focus, I used to strive for that sort of validation, publication notwithstanding. Johnny is the first thing I’ve done that has been written about in such a conventional manner and I am grateful in many ways more than I am jaded. 

That said, the three of us did read that write-up and took its value with a grain of salt. Not because the write-up itself was bad or lazy, but because that sort of point-and-shoot comparison was expected. Mac and I are extremely self-aware when it comes to the divergence in songwriting and feel like a lot of the purpose gets lost in the notion that my songs sound like this and his sound like that. We wrote that album together with the intention of highlighting how organic our collaboration is, even within the division of ideas. How I play bass, how Mac plays guitar, or even how Hunter plays drums doesn’t necessarily change altogether depending on who’s singing. Granted, I gravitate towards my core as much as he leans on his, but we listen to the same music, write about similar things, and are concerned with the same issues. Ideas are just that, and our songs never take full form until we’ve all had our say. I didn’t dislike the review at all. If anything, I’m very happy about it because I want people to listen to our music, especially if they think it fits their taste. But we’ve gotten messages and write-ups from smaller blogs who kind of got what we were trying to do, albeit acknowledging that if I sing I am 100% going to yell. That made me feel extremely grateful and eager to explore some other places that I am otherwise scared to go to. 

On the “RIYL” note, I get its value and appeal. I’ve found some music now close to my heart that was recommended to me because I enjoyed something else. But the narrative that you will most definitely like, say, The Jam because you listen to The Clash is somewhat silly, if not asinine. For the sake of optimism, I like to believe that people are more unpredictable than streaming algorithms/tastemakers think they are.  

I hear you—any amount of press is definitely something to be grateful for, and it’s possible to maintain that gratitude while also acknowledging that some of the conventions for writing about music are totally bizarre. The whole “RIYL” thing is a perfect case in point: I feel like more often than not I’m not really moved by stuff that is recommended to me specifically for its similarities to something I love, but if someone else finds my music because some blog says it sounds like their favorite band, that’s awesome. 

The emphasis on the wide range of styles between the two of you must be especially frustrating considering how seamlessly the album is knit together. That natural marriage of styles works in part because you and Mac seem to share certain thematic concerns, as you say—and I want to get to that—but it also doesn’t hurt that the album is so well sequenced. Was it hard to get those songs to flow from one to another in a way that feels so intentional? Is sequencing something you think about much, either with your own music or with records you like? 

Yeah. I mean, I feel like you and I, 3 to 5 year age difference aside, belong to the subgroup of millennials that got their music from places like Last.fm, sites that made their bread and butter from basic RIYL algorithms. I did find some amazing music through that primitive sense of “if you like Pavement you might like GBV” or whatever, but now I like to take my time and really think about what it is that I like about anything. 

The marriage between Mac and I’s songwriting is definitely solidified by the fact that we both grew up in very insular socioeconomic bubbles and our rebellious phases were welcomed by our parents as part of growing up. I can’t speak for Mac, but this was a frustrating part of sheer, post-graduate life for me; whenever I become upset at anything remotely personal I catapult into self-depreciation and overanalysis. There’s always a lingering cloud whispering “why are you mad? You never really struggled. You got here just fine”. In that sense, Mac is way better at writing about his insecurities from his own perspective, whereas I often choose scenarios and characters to convey something that bothers me within. We are aware of this, and the sequencing of the record was definitely intentional in that sense. It isn’t a concept record, but we needed to find a way to reconcile Mac’s introspectiveness with my lack thereof. And we wanted to do this in a way that made sense, both thematically and sonically.

Sequencing is incredibly important to me, especially now. There is something to be said about an album that just makes sense, track by track. This is something that I think about constantly when I look back into the music that made me want to write. Again, I can’t speak for my bandmates, but the flow of an album is probably as important to me as the content itself. I was never one to listen to playlists much since I typically obsessed with one or two records at a time, and these usually follow a pattern of organization that I really want to achieve for my own music.

Oddly enough I was having this exact conversation with a friend the other day—the whole playlist phenomenon has always felt alien to me because my entire life I’ve really only listened to albums. Unless I’m at a party or someone else has the aux in the van, I’m putting a record on at track 1 and listening the whole way through. I don’t know if it’s because that’s how my parents listen to music or if the 40-45 minute album is just a form with which I bonded strongly in adolescence or what, but that’s how I’ve always been. I sometimes wonder if the playlist economy is going to turn sequencing into a lost art.

I gravitate towards albums so strongly, in fact, that I think with my own music I pushed myself to release a full-length before I was completely ready. With your solo stuff, though, you’ve been taking a much more patient approach, releasing a string of singles throughout last year (all of which I love, by the way). What drew you towards that blueprint? Has it been feeling good so far?

I did a lot of drugs my first year of college and flunked out pretty badly. My dad was living in Billings, MT at the time and made me move with him to attend MSUB to straighten me out. In retrospect, this was the right thing to do, but I didn’t see it like that at the time. I ended up isolating myself from everyone and not really making any friends. I spent that year endlessly browsing music forums and constantly downloading music 24/7. I think that’s why I listen to albums as opposed to songs; I used to have a lot of time to kill. 

I don’t know if playlisting is necessarily the demise of sequencing. If anything, streaming platforms – albeit problematic and devoid of economic integrity – kind of give you the option to consume music in this weirdly traditional way; you can hang around the house and put a Todd Rundgren record in the background like you would if you were listening to vinyl. Similarly, I think playlisting has always existed in some form, especially when I was a teen. iTunes let you download a song for a dollar, and the iPod Shuffle was basically a physical conduit for playlisting. Most people listen to music how they would on the radio, single by single. I don’t think this is a bad thing per se, but I do think that the allure of an album tends to get lost if you’re only listening to the singles. 

It means a lot that you dig the songs. I had this vision of releasing this huge concept album about Valerie Solanas (the person who tried to kill Warhol) with the thematic unity revolving around mental health. It was sort of my attempt to write a record like 69 Love Songs or 41 Songs in 47 Minutes. I recorded some songs at home by myself and also did some with my buddy Nick (The Convenience/Video Age) at my old practice space. I ended up becoming really anxious during the mixing process to the point I ended up shelving so much music and moving onto other projects to the point the whole concept didn’t make much sense anymore. When the pandemic hit, I found myself with all of this free time while also dealing with an unfortunate bout of creative block. I realized I had recorded 30+ songs that accrued in a hard drive for a couple of years. I started just mixing/messing with them. It occurred to me that I could just put them out one by one regardless of flow. I started doing that while also not focusing on anything else until after the previous song was released. It’s truly liberating, akin to getting errands done.

our subject, presumably basking in the liberation of getting errands done

Glad to hear I’m not the only one who shelves overly ambitious recording projects due to anxiety… Anyway, that Valerie Solanas concept is a really interesting idea; I’d love to hear some more of the songs that were meant to be a part of that record someday. It strikes me as a natural direction for some of the thematic preoccupations I hear in your songwriting. To my ears, both your Lawn songs and your solo tracks often seem to touch on insecurity and precarity—not just personal and psychological, but economic and social. From what you were saying before, it sounds like at least as far as economic precarity is concerned, the struggles you write about aren’t always your own, strictly speaking. What draws you back to those themes? Is social or cultural critique something you value in the music that inspires and influences you? Do you feel compelled to write about those things because of factors other than influence? 

It takes a certain amount of shamelessness (in a good way) to write lyrics from a deeply personal perspective. Mac excels at this because he embraces the most introspective parts of pop music, which tend to be catchier and more memorable. For some dumbfounding reason, I consciously rejected so-called “pop sensibilities” in high school, so all I really got were the noisy, disgusting parts of rock music. I was the pompous kid who would say shit like “The Beatles are overrated; listen to White Light/White Heat instead”. Once I got over those preconceived notions about “good vs bad” music, I was left with a knot in my throat whenever I tried to branch out and write, say, a happy or sad song. Sure, I am the biggest Wings fan there is at the moment, but if you told me to sit down and write a song like “The Lovely Linda”, I’d hand you a bag of nonsense. This is not to say that The Beatles didn’t explore some far-out lyrical themes, but rather that I still have a hard time writing something solid, simple, and concrete. 

Back when we did the first record, Mac and I spent some time toying with the idea of nostalgia as toxic and overbearing, albeit coming from different places; he saw looking at the past for comfort as an extension of his own anxieties and insecurities – which he conveyed in a beautiful, melodic way – whether I viewed it as a failure to grow up and look within your own hypocrisy. The year prior to writing a bunch of those songs, I spent a lot of time listening to The Kinks’ Arthur, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. All of those albums are extraordinary examples of using wordplay, settings, and allegories to convey personal emotions about a particular topic or event. They offered me a blueprint of some kind that taught me how to intertwine personal issues with our opinions about the world around us. 

As most other Venezuelans my existence itself is very political. But unlike most immigrants from places akin to where I’m from, I’ve never encountered the struggles ingrained in those connotations; I grew up quite privileged, with a dad who has always been able to provide, and with the opportunity to move to New Orleans and establish myself within a group of people that enjoyed the same choices as I did. I’ve never gone hungry or cold, and the racism I’ve endured is minimal compared to what BIPOC and Hispanic folx go through daily. For that reason, those socioeconomic intricacies are interesting and of great value to me because they serve as a path for me to critique black-and-white thinking as much as it allows for self-examination. Mac once told me that my songs are essentially me angrily arguing with myself. That’s pretty accurate. I am not an inherently angry person, but I can be very confrontational if my own fragilities are exposed. 

I love Mac’s description of your songs, and in some ways, I think that’s pretty universal. Not everyone’s internal arguments are angry, but I think the best songwriting always comes from the writer’s attempt to reconcile contradictions within themselves or contradictions between themselves and the world around them. That probably sounds like bargain-bin Hegel or something, I guess another way to put it might be to say that my favorite songs always feel like they’re going somewhere or moving towards something. These days I don’t necessarily go in for hyper-narrative songwriting as hard as I did back during, say, my heavy Springsteen (or Costello!) phase, but I still want songs to feel like they have a through-line; I want to see some growth. Your songs do that really well! 

I think that’s why I share the suspicion of nostalgia that you say informed the first record. I think nostalgia is often the easy way out of wrestling with those contradictions. It can put you in a very black-and-white, un-self-aware mode—maybe something like “emotional fascism” (supposedly the original title for Armed Forces). (For what it’s worth, I think good songs can use nostalgia to their advantage, pulling the listener in with something that feels comfortable but ultimately involves a bit of discomfort, but that’s probably a conversation for another time.) I became especially suspicious of that nostalgic mode while living in Portland. I started to worry about the connection between nostalgic anti-self-examination and a certain social milieu that’s pretty visible in art scenes there—namely, privileged transplants who are content to just kind of fuck around for a decade or so. I was definitely part of that for a little while and it didn’t feel good, and I think my creative biases have in some ways developed as a reaction against that. From the outside, it’s always seemed to me like New Orleans and Portland might have that in common to a certain extent. Obviously New Orleans has very much its own thing going on musically and culturally—and I definitely don’t want to stress an analogy between one of the country’s whitest cities and one of its least white—but at the very least, I’ve definitely known people who have moved there to just party. Do you think there’s any truth to that comparison? How do you think the city has bled into your creative life?

I agree with that. I often become attracted to art that is contradictory in spirit solely because it seems very human. There is something to be said about stream of consciousness-heavy writing since it does come from a subconscious state of acknowledgement. I’ve always thought that anyone’s strength lies in writing about the things known personally, and those will come out whether one tries to or not. Humans are dustbins of random knowledge that seep through in unpredictable ways. To master that idea in the process of creating something intangible is quite beautiful. I know this may sound like a chock-full of rambles, but this is how I’ve been trying to perceive people around me. Of course, if anyone engages in racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, elitist, xenophobic, and otherwise hateful rhetoric, that baseline gets thrown out the window. Otherwise, I think it’s fair to assume that most people are trying to make sense of their internal dialogue.

I also have to remind myself that nostalgia is not necessarily a medium for self-sabotage. There is an absolute, romantic way to look at the past to solidify the kind of personal growth you want to achieve. But like most things that feel great, it is incredibly difficult to draw that line. I think the problem with a lot of people my age and older is that we eventually become envious of times in our lives that are long gone to the point we isolate the things that were good and mute everything else. I have a very traditional set of responsibilities now. Errands can sometimes become overwhelming to the point I daydream about the nights when I was getting blackout drunk at a bar until 4:30am with seven other 20 year-olds. This is an inherently bad coping mechanism that I’m still working really hard to abandon. Not only for the sake of my mental health, but also because it can be insensitive to your surroundings; New Orleans, in all of its cultural glory, is a very poor city ravished by the legacy of Jim Crow and years of environmental negligence. To write about certain past experiences here – getting drunk at bars in gentrified neighborhoods, missing college house shows, fucking around, etc – is to ignore how privileged I am to have enjoyed myself at the expense of a place established as a slave port. Now, I’m not saying that it is always wrong to focus on the good times, but how would I dare to write a song about how awesome life is here knowing that my experiences don’t mirror those of most locals –  people who bike through potholes to get to work, where they have to clock 75h a week or else they might face eviction. It just doesn’t feel right.

I really don’t know much about Portland other than its inception is well-rooted in white flight. But from an outside perspective, I definitely see some parallels between our respective scenes: they revolve around young, mostly middle-upper class college kids who play in each others’ bands and are ambivalent about moving back home after the fun’s over. In that sense, I agree that there is a lot of truth to the comparison you’ve made since we both thrived in very specific socioeconomic bubbles. How the city has bled into the way I write songs is emblematic of the emotional maturity I still need to attain, however. In a way, I like that I force myself into a position to evaluate my coming-of-age years against the backdrop of a southern city. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, through that mindset, I am striving for a level of validation and authenticity that I don’t really deserve. New Orleans doesn’t owe me anything, but I would still like to claim it as my home even though I haven’t lived all that much. And I still miss going to a bar with an empty head, without any responsibilities other than to keep my phone charged and clean my room, eventually.

[1] You know which 4.

CONFIRMATION BIAS #4: Caitlin Garets (Flexing, Dumb Luck, Bitter Half Booking)

In June of 2018, the band then known as Cool American embarked on what at the time felt like a highly experimental West Coast tour routing, the goal of which was to play everywhere conceivably worth playing between Portland and San Diego that I hadn’t already.[1] I met Caitlin on the first day of that tour[2] because she’d booked us an incredible first show in Corvallis, Oregon that set the tone for the whole trip, an (astoundingly) almost totally stress-free two weeks during which our band’s combination mantra and inside joke became “no bad shows”—in retrospect perhaps a nod to the fact that when my bandmates had seen my first draft of the tour routing, they hadn’t figured that would be the case.

I really don’t want to sound like some 19th century ethnographer astounded to find civilization among the bush people—Lord knows there’s enough subtle and even in some cases unintentional condescension tossed around when musicians from bigger scenes talk about smaller ones—so I’ll just say that by that point in my life, I’d played to (sometimes not even) the other bands in the Stocktons and Chicos of the world often enough to know that a good show booked by nice people within spitting distance of I5 between Portland and the Bay area was nothing to scoff at. I’ve been back to Corvallis as often as possible ever since. Thanks to Caitlin and her partner Indiana, who book shows together as Bitter Half Booking, I’ve gotten a bit of a feel for the dedication it takes to foster a vibrant scene in a smaller city where, as Caitlin notes in our chat, many people stick around for just a few years while they attend school. 

“Intentional” is the kind of self-help buzzword that gets applied to everything from a meticulously detailed five-year plan to the otherwise chaotic lifestyle of someone who’s finally figured out how to regularly water their houseplant, but I think it really is the best way to describe Caitlin’s approach both to booking and to the music she makes—especially in the hardcore/post punk outfit Flexing. Both strike me as the work of someone who’s pretty familiar with a particular kind of high stakes: the kind where if you don’t set the example, there aren’t necessarily many people around you who’ll pick up the slack.

Illustration, as always, by the one and only Tim Howe

Flexing is clearly something of a departure from the sound of the other band I’ve seen you play with, Dumb Luck, and I’m curious about what led you in that direction (one y’all pull off very well, by the way). Did you feel compelled first and foremost to make music that was more explicitly political? Or were you drawn initially towards the heavier sound, and the lyrical content followed from there naturally? Do you even make a distinction between the two?

Thank you! Before Dumb Luck I was in a fast punk band called Angries for a long time, so it’s been fun with Flexing to return to a more aggressive style. We started out with the intention of making weird, dark punk—I book a lot of shows, and there weren’t really any aggressive DIY bands in Corvallis at the time, so finding local support for touring hardcore and punk bands had gotten really difficult. Our goal was to fill that gap. Originally we thought we would do more of an angular, post-punk thing, but our songwriting style is pretty freeform and collaborative and the songs we were writing just didn’t turn out that way. Ultimately, I’m glad they didn’t, because it’s given us a lot of space to mine different influences and try different things. That’s something I’ve especially appreciated about playing in this band, that everyone is so willing to experiment and change things over the course of the songwriting process. We don’t have a main songwriter, so someone will bring in an idea and we’ll spend a long time taking it apart and putting it back together until it’s mutated into something totally new.

As for the lyrics, I have always gravitated towards writing about politics, and Flexing started within, like, a month of the 2016 election so it became a way for me to process my feelings about what was happening. There was also a pretty immediate upswing in white supremacist activity in and around Corvallis, so speaking out and claiming space felt even more important. I do think that if we had gone in more of a weirdo post-punk direction that I would have ended up writing more abstract lyrics that were less explicitly political, so yeah, the heaviness and political expression are definitely intertwined for me. There’s a catharsis in it.

I didn’t realize Flexing’s start came so close to that election! I remember how frightening it was to see the far-right undercurrent in Oregon emboldened after that. I think people who haven’t lived in the PNW tend to view it as a very progressive place, at least ostensibly, but as you know, it’s really not that way outside of the cities. And at least in my experience, college towns all over the country can often have a progressive sheen that turns out to be pretty hollow. All the hippy cafes and head shops turn out to be little more than a peeling coat of paint covering up some pretty conservative cultural values held by many of the people who live there—more libertine than liberal, at the very least. To be fair, I haven’t spent enough time in Corvallis to know if that description applies, but I’m curious how you view the place your work (both making music and throwing shows) occupies within your immediate surroundings. It sounds like there’s some element of opposition there, but of course anyone who books as many shows as you becomes something of a local cheerleader. How do you think of it?

I have a love/hate relationship with Corvallis. The DIY scene is great and I’m really proud of some of the stuff we’ve pulled off in such a small town, but it’s definitely not as progressive here as some people would like to believe. People in Corvallis really don’t like being made to feel uncomfortable and are very invested in seeing “both sides” of political issues, which is a problem when one side is literally facism. A few years ago there was this whole thing where a member of the university’s student government was outed as a neo-Nazi, and one of our local papers gave him a front page interview. I guess they were assuming that people would read it and be horrified by his beliefs, which like, sure, but there’s so many ways to write that story that don’t involve essentially handing him a megaphone. The university let him run for re-election on a platform that was basically just the fourteen words (printed in the student paper alongside the other candidates’ platforms) and he got something like 300 votes. It was deeply troubling to watch all these local institutions bend over backwards to accommodate white supremacy like that was the only option. Things that dramatic don’t happen here often, but that situation kind of sums up the basic problem of Corvallis for me—the idea that tolerance is always the ideal we should be striving for, when in reality there are some things that should never be tolerated. 

Fostering creative spaces in opposition to that attitude is really important to me, and that’s something I try to do with my bands and the shows I book. To me, shows aren’t just about going to see some bands play, they’re an opportunity to create an alternative environment where marginalized and underrepresented voices are centered and celebrated. That’s why I try to be intentional about the bands I book and one of the reasons I don’t say yes to every single show request. I see myself more as a curator than a promoter. 

That’s a great way to put it. The phrase “DIY promoter”—one that gets tossed around quite a bit—has always grated on me a little. It’s not exactly a contradiction in terms, but it’s not a natural fit, either. The line between intentionality and openness can sometimes be difficult to toe when you’re booking a show, in my experience. People in your position who are willing to say no often get accused of “gatekeeping” (another word that frankly I’d be happy to never hear again). Obviously it’s possible to be needlessly exclusionary, but the idea that everyone has a right to everyone else’s time and attention seems totally bizarre. Do you worry much about how to strike that balance?

Yeah, my partner Indiana and I are two of the most visible people throwing shows in Corvallis and we have gotten a lot of flak from local music bros for being too exclusionary. It’s frustrating because we spent several years doing scene-building work—hosting community meetups, tabling at different events, networking with other art and music groups—all with the intention of making the scene as accessible and inclusive as possible. Which, based on the feedback we’ve gotten, I think we did! I’m really proud of how much the scene has grown since 2015 because it took a lot of work. When we’re booking local support, though, we try to keep it limited to bands made up of people who participate in the community. Since the barriers to entry are so low, I feel like that’s not unnecessarily restrictive, and I think that prioritizing community involvement in that way is something that separates DIY from mainstream music scenes. I’ll be the first to admit that personal taste is a big part of how I decide which shows to take on, but I’ve also booked plenty of bands that aren’t as much my thing just because the people are nice and they go to shows sometimes. 

Another thing that has caused some friction with the Corvallis music scene at large is the fact that we prioritize punk/indie/”alternative” bands made up of women, people of color, and queer people. Most other people booking shows around town don’t have any sort of set criteria for which bands they decide to do shows for (as far as I know), but most other people are either getting paid to book for a venue or don’t do shows as regularly so it’s easier to say yes to everyone who asks. Before the pandemic, I was getting multiple show requests every week and there’s just no way to do all of it. So no matter what, someone is getting turned down, and my main goal in booking shows is to provide a safe, accessible platform for the creative expression of marginalized voices. That’s not to say I don’t do shows for straight white cis men, because I do and that’s inevitable, but I try to never have them make up the entire bill. I feel like that’s the least I can do as someone who has a say in which bands are given a platform—make an effort to bring in some diversity and to elevate bands that might not get the same attention at a traditional venue.

So to answer your question, I’m not super worried about whether or not someone thinks I’m too gatekeep-y because you can’t please everyone. I’m not the only one throwing shows in Corvallis, so if I say no, the band can go elsewhere and still find an audience. Maybe it would be different if booking shows was my job, but this is all a labor of love for me and I put a considerable amount of effort into every show I book. I don’t think that anyone is entitled to that work just because they want it, especially if they aren’t willing to do the bare minimum and participate in the scene in some way.

It’s interesting to read you contrasting the approach you and Indiana take towards booking with that of people who do it for money, as a paid booker for a bar or whatever. I often feel like people are so accustomed to the transactional nature of pretty much everything in their lives that when they find themselves in a situation that isn’t governed by those rules, they don’t know how to behave. They feel entitled to other people’s time and attention on some level, because in nearly every other arena of contemporary life, they basically are entitled to it—assuming the price is right. They end up bringing this strangely warped version of the mentality that “the customer is always right” to a non-commercial creative space in ways that feel much more gross than they even realize.

Bitter Half’s DoDIY entry seems to address this on some level: in addition to bros and bigots, you list “bands who see DIY as a market to tap into” as a category you’re not willing to book. The underground has obviously had a potent self-mythology of anti-commercialism for a long time, and for just about as long, there have been people trying to use the cultural power of those myths to make money. Do you feel like you can tell the difference when someone hits you up for a show?

It honestly doesn’t come up that much, but we have gotten emails from bands and agents talking about “the Corvallis market,” which feels a little weird. Those are usually the same people that send EPKs and spammy, form letter-type requests with testimonials and stuff. There’s nothing wrong with being more formal in your show requests, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with sending similar messages to lots of people, but you can usually get a vibe. I don’t think I’ve ever turned anyone down for that reason, though. A lot of the time it comes down to genre—usually the bands working a more professional angle are pretty far removed from the type of music I like to book, so I’ll send them information about other venues and try to hook them up with someone else who would be a better fit. I don’t have a problem with bands trying to hustle and make money, but it’s not my thing and I don’t think that money should be a driving force in a DIY setting. Of course, touring is expensive and I do what I can to encourage as many donations as possible for the touring bands, but in my experience that’s more about making touring sustainable than it is about turning a profit.

Caitlin with the famous Bitter Half donation box. Last time I played in Corvallis, it read “2879/72 miles.”

It’s always pretty funny to hear booking agent lingo like “market” creep into the vocabulary of bands who play house shows. I have nothing against booking agents; one of the bands I play in has one and it’s been great. But even for people who are totally ensconced in that world, it’s like, you pay the booking agent to talk like that so you don’t have to!

That dichotomy between sustainability and profitability that you mention is a great way to think about the underground. Once you start thinking about sustainability, you realize it involves a lot more than putting money in the gas tank, or even in people’s pockets. It means making the experiences feel valuable in an immaterial sense, which for most music fans is actually a pretty low bar, I think; it also means making them feel rejuvenating and renewing, a much higher bar for people who go to a couple shows a week. That’s one reason I’ve always appreciated the thought and effort you and Indiana put into making the shows you book more than just some bands playing in a room. There’s often a physical artifact of some kind associated with Bitter Half shows—I still have the incredible postcard flyer you made for that Cool American show in February 2019!—or a fun concession or treat. What motivates you to make the experience of show-going a little more holistic?

I love doing goofy shit for shows. One of my favorite projects we did was a punch card for shows over the summers of 2018 and 2019. For every show you went to, you got a punch on the card, and if you got five or more punches then you got a prize at the end of the summer. In 2018 the prize was a hand screened patch and in 2019 it was a mixtape of all the bands that played in Corvallis over the summer (packaged to look like a creamsicle, on a popsicle stick because we are truly extra). Attendance at summer shows in a college town can always be hit or miss, so we hoped that it might encourage people to come out more often. Our goal with stuff like that is to get people invested and to make them feel like they’re an important part of the community, because they are! I think a lot of times simply going to shows is overlooked as the most valuable thing you can do for a local scene. Playing in bands and booking shows is great, but what makes DIY powerful is the community behind it. I like doing crafty stuff and I love a good gimmick, so putting in the extra effort to reward people for their participation is fun for me. I also think that it can make things more accessible, in a way—going to shows where you don’t know anyone can be kind of intimidating, but if someone is handing out friendship bracelets or cookies, it becomes a little more welcoming. Being a college town, Corvallis is very transitional, and people are always coming and going. I want to make it as easy as possible for folks to jump in and get the most out of the DIY scene here before they move away. 

Maintaining some positive word of mouth hype is also crucial for a town of our size. We’re constantly fighting against the idea that there’s nothing to do here, and that you have to travel to Portland or Eugene to see any good bands. Getting bands to stop here is also a challenge, because it’s a little town that no one has heard of. We don’t have the luxury of throwing lackluster shows because if a band has a bad or boring experience, they’re never going to come back and they’re going to tell their friends’ bands not to bother stopping here. It’s not like a city where they might give it another shot on their next tour. If we consistently go above and beyond, though, maybe word will get around that there actually is cool stuff going on and we can get more people in attendance and more bands coming through. So while it’s mostly just about having fun and providing a service to the community, there’s also an element of self-preservation to it.

I think word is surely getting around! I feel like most of my friends’ bands on the West Coast know Corvallis is the spot these days, and you certainly seemed to be keeping busy before COVID. Though the pandemic sucked in basically every other way, has it at least felt like a welcome break in that sense? Or are you nervous about being able to pick back up where you left off?

A little bit of both! Before the pandemic I had been saying for months that I wanted to take a break from doing shows, so being forced to take some time off wasn’t a bad thing. Flexing started practicing again recently and it’s been cool to have so much time just to focus on writing. I am nervous about what Corvallis is going to look like after the pandemic, though—we’ve lost three venues so far, and I have no idea what local bands will even exist after this is over. We were already having trouble finding local support for shows and there are several bands I used to book regularly that are defunct or have moved away. But I’m excited to start working on things again, and I think I want to revive some of the community-building activities we did a few years ago. We did a band lottery annually for several years, Band in a Hat, and I’m hoping that we can maybe inspire new people to start bands if we brought that back. I also want to start doing community meetups again. I made a bunch of new friends when we first started doing those in 2015 and I think people are really going to be looking for ways to connect when we’re finally allowed to have gatherings. So I’m nervous but I’m also looking forward to the future.

[1]In addition to a few Oregon shows in towns new to us and a stop in “the biggest little Cool American’s favorite city” Reno—decidedly not new to us—I think we played 8 shows in California. Not exactly Hard Girls 2017 tour, but it still felt like a bold move for our tiny band.

[2]I’d actually played a show with her band Dumb Luck a couple years prior, but embarrassingly, I didn’t really remember much about that night or if I’d actually met her then. It’s total jaded lifer bullshit to say “it all blends together” but I think I’m not alone in that regard, excepting those of us with photographic memories or quick Instagram-follow-button trigger fingers.

CONFIRMATION BIAS #3: Reggie Bender (Dig Nitty)

Early in the pandemic, I often thought about how there were some people for whom life in quarantine was basically impossible for me to imagine, because before the virus they always seemed to be going somewhere or doing something. My friend Reggie was one of those people. On tour, you come across a lot of musicians and promoters who look like the gig life has sucked the will to live out through their ears; people for whom music has become more stick than carrot. That’s why meeting someone like Reggie is a breath of fresh air. She has a combination of qualities—genuinely loving music, genuinely wanting to help people out, and genuinely being down to kick it—that can sometimes feel surprisingly rare in a walk of life where, at least ostensibly, most of what people do is make sound, trade favors, and hang out.

Reggie is the same way behind the kit. her playing emphasizes feel and dynamics, serving the song and leaving plenty of space for her bandmates. There’s no doubt in my mind that personality bleeds into performance, and Reggie’s drumming is the kind that seems informed not only by a natural sense of arrangement and musicality, but by an instinctive grasp on the way bands and music communities interact that reaches well beyond just the notes being played. Of the many band’s she’s played in, I think Dig Nitty is my favorite both for the songs themselves and for the way they’re brought to life by musicians who clearly understand that creating space for those around you is an active endeavor, not a passive one: you can’t just leave room, you have to make room.

So it ought to come as no surprise, then, that Reggie is the first person I’ve interviewed for this series who turned a few questions around on me. 

illustration by Tim Howe (no relation to Gordie)

You can play drums and sing at the same time. I cannot do this, but I’ve seen you do it, and I find it very impressive. Before the virus, you generally seemed to be juggling a million things at once—booking commitments, various bands, working at different venues. Are you a natural multitasker? Do you feel like you thrive in chaos?

Thank you! That’s very kind. I definitely agree that I’m a multitasker, but I don’t know if it always agrees with me. I can definitely over-do it. I like to keep involved with a lot at once, and in many ways (with what you just listed, anyway), it’s all different parts of the same machine. I find that being involved in those different aspects–playing, booking, working–makes it easier to both understand and participate in the rest. As I’m sure you know, a lot of it operates in this synergistic way. I don’t think anyone owes me anything if I book them a show, but I will say that it makes it 10x easier if a band I play in goes through their city, as most people are down to return the favor. I can’t think of any person or band who hasn’t at the very least given me a lead on someone to contact if I’ve asked for help. Also, I will say that in working at venues, there can be a lot of dead time before things get going. If you’re sitting and waiting for people to show up to a gig, why not send a few emails in the meantime? The more reductive answer, though, is that I get bored easily and I need projects to fidget with.

I like the machine metaphor. It really highlights the ways in which what you do is different from most jobs—no assembly line at the gig factory. I also like to have fingers in a lot of pies. I think it’s common for people in our corner of the world to feel that the silver lining to the virus has been the chance to just do less, and while I think that has probably been good for me in some ways, I do sort of miss the feeling of not even having the time to get overwhelmed. Do you feel that way? And is there anything about the pre-pandemic gig life that you don’t miss? 

Right. I don’t miss the all night raves that I would be working, haha. Those were brutal. They’d start at midnight and go until 8 or 10 in the morning. I definitely feel I was partying too much right before everything shut down, as it’s pretty easy to get caught in that loop. When you’re playing shows, drinking/substances are presented to you as part of your pay, because it’s no secret that this isn’t the most lucrative profession. And while I definitely like to have a good time, I think there’s a little part that nags me sometimes that if I’m not participating, then I’m not taking full advantage of my “benefits.”

As far as silver linings go, it’s a little hard not to sound bratty when talking about this. I’ll preface this by saying I have a pretty ideal situation for living through this. I have great roommates, we have a good amount of space at our apartment, so no one feels on top of each other. When it was warmer, it was very easy to go walk to a park or wherever and social distance hang with friends. That being said, I think there’s a bit of a false equation with slowing down meaning you’re less stressed out, but in this case I wouldn’t say I feel any less stressed, seeing as a pandemic is causing some real internal grief for everyone. If anything, the thing that really kills me is that it’s mostly sitting and waiting. Having something to look forward to is pretty crucial for anyone, I guess. I’m a huge extrovert, as anyone who’s ever talked to me for more than 2 seconds can attest. All my favorite things to do involve music, but I’m a side man. I play drums or bass in the bands that I’m in, and I am not the primary songwriter. I think I’ve played drums 3 times in the last year, because it’s really not very interesting on your own, at least for me. I’ve definitely pivoted to trying to write my own songs, but music is rooted in collaboration as far as I’m concerned. Dig Nitty has sent a couple things back and forth to each other, a la Garageband demos. It still feels a little impersonal sometimes sending things back and forth via email. The ability to try things out when everyone is in the same room is a lot more helpful in my opinion.

Despite all the complaining, though, one positive has been having the free time to work on/consume a lot more things. I’ve read more just in this past year than I have in the last five. Movies, TV, even music to some degree. I’m still wishing for the safe return of live music, but it’s nice to really delve into other things. It’ll be something good to keep in mind when things do eventually come back, since it’s easy to get stuck thinking everything begins and ends with our little corner of DIY.

I agree, a little perspective has been good for everyone. Some of that is the chance to remind ourselves what we actually like so much about music—other than the, uh, “benefits.” It sounds like the energy between collaborators in the room is one of the big attractions for you, and I think the Dig Nitty record perfectly demonstrates why. Erin’s songs are great, but it feels like that record wouldn’t be so cohesively all over the place without everyone bouncing ideas off each other. It gives the music a real sense of personality that’s hard to pin down. 

When I was doing a bit of googling earlier, I must have read 4 or 5 write-ups for Dig Nitty that used the word “surf.” The last time I opened up my streaming service of choice to listen to Reverse of Mastery, I noticed someone on the content farm had put one of your songs on some editorial playlist called “Indie and Chill.” Neither category is even that off base (though the playlist’s name is obviously obnoxious and lame) but for some reason, both really got on my nerves. I think I just don’t like how you have to put a name on something in order to sell it. Do you care what people call the stuff you make? 

We all have pretty varied tastes, but when writing, each of us probably have a different pocket we individually reach into more. Erin undoubtedly has the vision, but it’s a band, which to me means that the songs are malleable. There’s varying levels of what she already has in her head before bringing us a song, but even if there’s more of a fully formed idea, there’s still room to play around. And that’s very rewarding for all of us, I would say. Removing the ego makes us more open to each other, and I would argue that weirder, cooler shit can happen vs. when you have one person doing it all. No one makes anything in a vacuum. “Cohesively all over the place” is such a perfect compliment, and you kind of prove your own point. That, to me, does more to encapsulate us than an individual genre might. 

And to be fair, I think we self-describe as surf (amongst other things) in our bio. Most writers were probably going off of that. More often than not I just refer to us as a rock band. Generally I think definitions are helpful, but there’s a level of hyper-specificity that moves down the curve and starts to lose a little meaning. I don’t know if I would say it bothers me, but it doesn’t always seem very productive. Genres have gotten to a level that mirrors that one Ferris Bueller scene, where Cameron is looking at the “A Sunday Afternoon” painting. The closer he looks, the less he sees, etc. Or, in other terms, the sum is greater than the parts. By zoning in on one dot, it really doesn’t do much to encompass the work at large. That being said, does it bother me if I feel that someone misses the mark for us? I mean, if they’re enjoying it, what do I care? It’s more of a cherry on top if someone nails it. I might feel differently if I was the main songwriter, though. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to ask questions or not, so feel free to take this out, but do you feel one way or another with regards to Strange Ranger vs Cool Original?

You’re definitely allowed to ask questions! I think I do feel a little differently about being miscategorized (or just categorized in general) depending on the project, in the sense that with Cool Original it does bother me personally on some level, especially being compared to bands that I don’t like, whereas with Strange Ranger it’s just kind of funny. But it happens way more with Strange Ranger; it’s inevitable to the point of being an inside joke. Part of that is because that band just has way more of a following, and more people hearing you means more people missing the point. But part of it is because we go for something totally different every album—occasionally you get comments that sound like Cameron is looking so closely at the painting that he doesn’t realize someone’s just put a completely different painting in front of him. 

I think the reason people miss the mark in that way often boils down to their expectations, which you can’t entirely control. Some of those expectations are based on what you’ve done in the past—before I was even in the band (and really through no fault of their own) Isaac and Fred kind of dug themselves a hole that has proved a bit difficult to climb out of, is all I’ll say about that. But more often than not those expectations are in part just based on what you look like or where you live or what other bands you play with. Do you feel like any of the bands you’ve played in have had to deal with expectations that surprised you or pissed you off? 

C’mon, play Rot Forever! No one can really win that game. Someone will always like the old stuff better, but if you don’t do anything different, then you’re stagnant. I’ve never really gotten far enough to have someone be upset that a band I’m in sounds different, haha. A lot of the bands I’ve played in I was a) filling in, b) playing in someone’s solo project with prewritten parts, or c) the band didn’t go beyond a couple EPs at most. Reverse of Mastery is the first full-length record I’ve been part of putting out. What I do know is the act of sharing something you made is a vulnerable thing, and the audience isn’t always going to see it through the same lens. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but it can make you feel misunderstood or, even worse, that you didn’t communicate the thing that you meant to say as clearly as you could have. 

I have to be honest, you’ve kind of stumped me on this question about expectations. I almost have the opposite problem. I don’t find there to be many expectations of me at all, really, because I’m irrelevant until proven worthy. Which, of course, becomes the “What’s it like to be a woman in music?” question, and anyone who isn’t a white guy has already been saying all of this. I’ll also add that part of the reason I’m not eager to talk about this is because I don’t think print allows you to get your point across as well when you’re dealing with “No, no, it’s how they said it!” Since, in my personal experience, it isn’t typically outright hostility so much as a generally dismissive/disrespectful attitude. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been more frustrated by expectations from me as a booker. The same people who are initially dismissive of me tend to think I owe them a show, or, even better, that they’re throwing me a bone by asking me to do free work for them. Like… you can have your bone back, lol.

We’re all overworked and underpaid, right? Sometimes I find a disconnect between that mindset and the expectations of what other people can (or should) do for you in the scene. I guess that’s bound to happen when you start blurring the lines between a hobby and work. Do you tend to view your relationship to playing music in a particular way (job, hobby, other, etc)?

Our subject, on what I think might have been the third or fourth time we’d ever hung out?
Photo credit: Fiona Woodman

I guess this is another place where I’m kind of a baby about putting labels on things. At this point in my life, music is just the thing that I do. There are a few other things, some of which I get paid for, but music is the one that I do most. I actively seek out opportunities to get paid for music when it doesn’t feel gross, so it doesn’t really feel like a hobby. But my tolerance level for what I consider “gross” is pretty low, so in that sense it’s not a job either. I’ve always felt extremely ambivalent about the traditional attitudes people have towards work and jobs, and financially I have more or less reaped what I’ve sown in that regard. And you’re right, there are all sorts of people’s misguided expectations you have to navigate as a result of that blurriness—I tend to not totally see eye to eye with either the hobbyists or the careerists, it turns out. 

Speaking of reaping what you sow, what’s the most money you’ve ever lost due to something band-related?

I totally relate. I think there’s an outside perception that picking up jobs in music is always because you feel really passionate about it, or that it maintains some type of purity. The core love of it has to be there, because it isn’t lucrative enough to do it without caring. Am I bartending a band of the week’s show based out of love? Maybe not. I still enjoy it the vast majority of the time, but that isn’t the part that’s driving anyone I’d imagine. But again, I think the variety is what makes it interesting, so it’s hard to clown too much on it. It is funny how the things that lose money almost always tend to be the most fun, though. 

There have been a couple tours that seemed comically cursed, but the financial burden didn’t necessarily fall as heavily on me. I think there’s a degree to which tour feels like a twisted family vacation, so I’m less upset if I’m financially drained after. (That could just be the absence of touring talking.) The first thing that popped into my head, though, was a show that I’m pretty sure I didn’t play, I just booked it. It was the avalanche that wouldn’t stop. A date changed, the show got bumped from the original venue it was meant to be at. When relocating, the house booker at the new spot was not upfront about the house cost. Then, the show got moved to a “late show” which I didn’t feel was appropriate for the type of gig it was. The band was on tour from pretty far away, one of the locals dropped due to some last minute emergency or whatever. I’m sure I looked completely batshit trying to promote this given the amount of changes. The details seemed to change every day, and ultimately I didn’t get enough people there. I think I ended up paying $200 between making up house costs and paying the bands. The whole thing was ridiculous. I can’t even tell the story without it sounding like I’m making up a reason as to why I got home past curfew. I know everyone has bad nights, but I felt so awful for the band. Is there a part that you enjoy more than the rest, or does it all fall under the same umbrella (i.e. touring vs recording)? Is there any egregiously bad night on tour that just sticks in your brain?

The bad shows never really get to me for whatever reason, but I’ve had enough van problems to last a lifetime. The worst was probably when Cool Original blew a transmission in the middle of West Virginia on 4th of July weekend in 2017. Long story short, neither of the like 2 mechanics in town were open because of the holiday, so we ended up having to fly home. We would have been completely fucked if it hadn’t gone down during the couple year window when my parents just happened to be living a couple hours away in Ohio (they usually live in California; long story). My dad had to come pick us up from some highway exit in front of an Applebee’s. And that really only scratches the surface—my financial woes were nothing compared to those of our bass player whose appendix burst the day before, and the whole saga is a much crazier story that briefly threatened to veer in a sort of Green Room direction. But this probably isn’t the place to tell it.

OK, last question. You have a great name. Reggie Bender—how could someone with that name not end up being cool? Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you familiar with the idea of nominative determinism? As far as I can tell it’s mostly a joke, but jokes often have an element of truth to them. Think there’s anything to it?

That’s hilarious. Thanks, Mom! I think it has less to do with an individual making themselves fit a mold and more to do with how it informs someone else’s perception of you, the same way that wearing boat shoes or combat boots might also inspire a preconceived notion about a person. The difference being, of course, that we don’t pick our names at birth. That’s probably part of why people change their names, right? Especially once you get into some of those assumptions, they aren’t always fair or can even be harmful. I guess you might say names are the ultimate label! In the end, people are multifaceted. A name can’t possibly encompass all of that.

On the other hand, my last name is Bender and I have made most of my money from bartending, so do with that what you will.

CONFIRMATION BIAS #2: Mo Troper

It’s no secret that I love Mo Troper’s music. In my view, his first solo record Beloved boasts (among many other things) a basically peerless track 1/track 2 double-whammy. That the rest of his catalog not only doesn’t disappoint, but in fact regularly surpasses the heights of that entrance—both by broadening the sonic palette and casting a wider thematic net—is testament to a songwriter who takes his craft very seriously.

More than anyone else who I consider something of a peer, Mo is the person whose work most regularly motivates me to write. I suspect some people reading might find that an odd sort of compliment. In my experience, people tend to play down competitiveness of any sort in the world of underground rock music (especially those who are themselves fiercely competitive people, even transparently so). You’d think a scene that prides itself on both communal solidarity and a shared mythos of antagonism towards moneyed interests might at least suspect that if we aren’t comfortable measuring ourselves by each other’s yardsticks, the gauge we’re left with might not be of our collective making. That’s probably an argument for another time; let’s just say that there is a difference, in my view, between competitiveness as usually understood, i.e. the drive to succeed at the expense of others, and creative competitiveness, i.e. the drive to make something as good or even better than your friends and peers make. I think the latter kind is crucial to making good art. If I have made anything good, it’s in no small part because of the good things that Mo (and a number of other people I’m lucky enough to call friends) have made. 

The kind of competition I’m talking about clearly shouldn’t entail hard feelings: theoretically there are an infinite number of great songs out there to be written. And even if there weren’t, I want to be challenged, personally and artistically; I want the quality of what I make to challenge others. That feeling can definitely be a little uncomfortable, though. The best way I can preface this interview—one in which I ended up asking very few questions about Mo’s actual music, probably for fear of seeming cloyingly laudatory—is to say that I have never known Mo to shy away from that discomfort, as a person or as an artist. 

Illustration by Tim Howe

You were playing music in Portland, OR long before transplants like me gentrified that city and left it to consume itself, and I can assume you will be long after whatever identity crisis sends me crawling into the welcoming arms of a career as a community college professor (or something similarly undignified). What first prompted you to start a band, and to what extent are you embarrassed by those early motivations? 

Holy shit. Well first of all, I should be honest about the fact that my mom and stepdad were the first generation of Portland transplants, having moved from LA when I was a little kid. Kids aren’t really regionalist unless they’re like hardcore soccer fans but I definitely think my family was judged by other adults. So whenever I feel like publicly moaning about transplants or whatever I have to remind myself of that.

Jordan from Slender Gems, who was born and raised here as far as I know, said something recently about how he “missed poor kids going buck,” referring to the halcyon days of Portland DIY. I grew up resoundingly upper middle class, and my mom didn’t squander her inheritance until I was an adult, so technically I wasn’t one of those kids. But I definitely think within the last seven or so years, the punk scene here has become more moneyed and aseptic and sort of just a satellite to whatever dumb shit is trending nationally. I think Lewis & Clark and Reed students and alumni gained “control” of the scene and excluded artists who were poor and genuinely punk. This isn’t even some screed against “cancel culture”–I just think there was this influx of liberal arts normies who brought their big city enterprising spirit to Portland and took control of the local scene and the local media and put their normie fly paper all over the place. They created an environment that was really pretty revolting to a lot of punks who had been doing their thing here for a long time already. 

So I guess this leads me to your actual question, and my answer is, I wanted to start a band because all of my friends were in bands and my friends were more popular than me. I really think being in a band in Portland in the late ’00s and early ’10s was just the “thing kids did,” like the equivalent of learning to surf in Southern California. The youth culture was just naturally musical and musically literate to an obnoxious extent. It didn’t seem unusual to be a teenager with a couple of Smog records. I’m not embarrassed by my motivations, but I am embarrassed that I made shitty recordings when I was a teenager that are still out there for people to hear.

I’m a little foggy about what exactly “genuine punk” refers to in the 21st century. Maybe if I hadn’t attended the more aseptic of the two institutions of higher learning you just mentioned, or if I hadn’t grown up in a town where everyone’s favorite band was Sublime, I’d be in the know. But I agree that the scene in which you and I were fellow travelers during the late 2010s was growing sterile in a way that felt exclusionary, and there’s no denying how that dumb shit is trending nationally. I think you recently described something along these lines (or at least parallel to them) as “criss-cross applesauce indie” which I thought was hilarious and spot on. But if you’re tired of hearing adolescent emotions and grade school morality plays expressed with inside voices, what can you do about it? Just try to weather the storm? A friend of mine in New York recently told me that people in Brooklyn are “moving back to Manhattan,” for whatever that’s worth…

Regarding “genuine punks,” you’re right, and it’s sort of embarrassing that I’m even hung up on that at my age, and God forbid this conversation becomes about defining punk. It’s also maybe ironic that I’m accusing people of being exclusionary when I used to act in a way some people probably perceived as gatekeeping. I’d like to think it was an inclusive scene, however. Like a Villain would open for Duck. Little Brother, Duck!, and my old band Your Rival, which was like Weezer but even more incel, would play with scary hardcore bands. Everyone played in like 11 bands but none of those bands toured or released records. I think I’m really nostalgic for that period because music still seemed totally divorced from money. That was not the case a few years later. Everyone who makes music feels entitled to a career in music now. I’m not in favor of Spotify stealing royalties from artists or anything, but I sometimes think that is a disingenuous vibe. It really turns your brain to dogshit. 

I think most scene people age out into one of three categories: Lifers, which is a noble path, but a really restrictive one if you ever want to like pay off your student debt or own a car. Or creaky old dipshit pathological sentimentalists who pat themselves on the back for living through “the most” fertile era of DIY music. Or you invest in other scenes that are inhabited by other older adults, like the Mississippi Studios manicured beard pre-med rock scene here. There are a lot of former Portland DIY people who got really into the electronic music scene here. I guess I’m a combination of those first two categories. I want to keep tabs on the DIY scene but nobody wants to be the 30-year-old at a house show. There is really cool stuff happening though. There’s a collective here called Propaganda Kid which is run by this person named Forrest Power. They curate a Portland music Wiki and their bands are really terrific. I don’t think they know or care about anyone’s version of the good old days, thank god.

I agree with a lot of that. Entitlement sucks; careerism is always a bad vibe. Money, or the wide shadow it casts, turns most things to dogshit eventually. But past a certain age, music inevitably has some relationship to money because unfortunately, everything in your life has some relationship to money. Art isn’t supposed to discriminate the way money does—that’s precisely what attracts good people to it. But making music can be more than art, in a sense: it’s also a craft, and devoting the amount of time that craftmanship requires is pretty difficult when you pay the bills through full-time employment of another sort (unless you have an Adderall prescription or are naturally insomniac). As you say, the path of the lifer is noble, but it’s beset on all sides by the inequities of the market and the tyrannies of the debt collectors. Have your own efforts to carve out space for your songs in this fucked up world left you with some sympathy for those who might choose to debase themselves by pursuing a career in music?

I have limited sympathy for anyone who thinks they are owed anything just because they’ve spent a long time doing it. I respect the craft but you have to devote a certain amount of time to learn how to paint model cars too and it would be insane if I was like, “I just can’t keep doing this until I start making an ER doctor’s salary from it, somehow.” If you love making music then you shouldn’t have to justify it in that way. From 21 to approximately 27 I was working full-time and making music in my free time. Some of that time I was living with my mom, but still, my most productive year musically was 2015, when I was working probably 55 hours a week between the record store, subbing at School of Rock and writing for the Mercury. If I didn’t have people in my life who were so supportive of me then there probably would have been periods in my 20s when I would have had to hang it up temporarily to focus on work, but I think if you really love something you’ll always find time to do it. I am currently going to school full-time, working part-time, I have a yeast infection that makes sitting really uncomfortable, and I just recorded a full album cover of Revolver, and it would be absolutely deranged if I expected that to “pay off” in the literal sense, but it was worth it to me. It’s edifying. I think it’s awesome when people make money from music but the attitude that music is going to suddenly become unsustainable for these people unless they start making a penny per Spotify stream is, in my opinion, comically disingenuous. I think some stuff like touring does get harder to justify but there’s nothing inherently expensive about writing songs. 

[Editor’s Note: Mo sent me this email about half an hour later]

Just to clarify, and this is on the record, the recurring yeast infection is NOT from Maya. I have no idea what it is and I have a doctor’s appointment in a couple of weeks. 

Sent from my iPhone

If you know someone in our scene who expects to earn an ER doctor’s salary, please introduce me. I’d love to interview them for the blog. 

I think people ought to be forgiven for trying to do the thing they enjoy as much as they possibly can, and they ought to be held accountable for being assholes about it. Beyond that, I wonder whether it’s mostly just personal preference. The ethical tradition in DIY is on the balance a great thing, but it has the annoying side effect of imbuing choices that should essentially be treated as questions of taste with this inescapable, exaggerated moral significance. Touring is a great example—no one is obligated to do it any particular way, or even do it at all! Of course, it can be hard to tell preference from principle in the trenches, as touring also illustrates: whatever way you go about it, there are lots of opportunities to rip people off or be ripped off yourself. Your very good Believer tour diary from 2017 leads me to believe there isn’t a huge amount of love lost between you and the road. Do you still feel the same way you did then? Has a year of pandemic life changed anything in that respect? 

I reread those tour diaries for the first time in years after you mentioned them. The last two where I talk about my pelvic floor dysfunction or whatever are kind of wack, but the first one is still mostly how I feel. And I even reference something you said about how musicians write more emails than songs! 

I would say that a little has changed since then. Tender Loving Empire basically wouldn’t sign me unless I got a booking agent and committed to a certain amount of time on the road. We only did a couple of weeks before the rest of the Natural Beauty tour was cancelled due to the pandemic, but if they’re a good and trustworthy person then I am very pro booking agent now. The guarantees mean that I could actually pay out my band members. But yes, for the most part, I really hate the actual process of being on tour and I always feel like a stick in the mud because I just want to take naps whenever we aren’t playing a show. I also usually have to do work from the road. I get really anxious on tour generally and if I didn’t have to do it I wouldn’t. I miss playing music with my friends but I don’t miss touring specifically. There are specific shows that I would have loved to play on this last one that got cancelled–we were going to play with Yeah is What We Have, the Great American Novel and Turtlenecked in New York, for example, which is a wild bill. 

But I think the pandemic has even revealed how touring can be a farce for bands at my level. It was always advertised to me as something you had to do if you wanted to be taken seriously or if you wanted Important People to listen to your music, but that is so clearly bullshit. Lee Corey Oswald were touring like four months out of the year at one point and it didn’t really do anything for them, except make them more cynical. Most of the people who buy and listen to my music are in like Spain and Japan where I’ve never played. There are so many artists who broke out in 2020 despite not being able to tour. I feel like people should still do it if they want but the accepted model is a joke and the point of those tour diaries was to illustrate how it’s another example of the music industry privileging adults who can afford to fuck around. There are plenty of incredible musicians and songwriters who functionally just can’t tour, and it seems massively unfair to me that they get less opportunities or that that’s somehow delegitimizing. Even though I dislike it I feel very grateful that I get to do it, if that makes sense.

Still the man with the microphone

Though I personally like touring, I think you’re more or less right about it. I read a Chris Weisman interview recently where he compared the popular consensus around touring to religious doctrine. I think the analogy works for a lot of the music world: it’s contradictory even by the standards of its own internal logic, but it sure has a lot of apologists. 

I try not to be an apologist for anything, but obviously I like to argue. Anyone reading who’s made it this far will get the sense that you aren’t afraid to talk a little shit, either. Recently I saw someone on Twitter say something like “In songwriting, ‘you’ is the cowards ‘I'” and I thought of you right away. You’re one of my favorite active songwriters and you clearly have no problem writing a diss track. You’re not afraid to skewer yourself either, and I can never decide which of these approaches I think you’re better at (though obviously there’s often an element of both). What do you think—is “I” actually the cowards “you?” 

I actually saw that tweet too and I had no fucking idea what it meant. If you’re addressing yourself in a song then it makes sense to write it in the second person, lest you end up writing something that sounds like Catatonicyouths-style emo. We both know that Elliott Smith was a master of this device. Is there anyone on this planet who thinks Elliott Smith wasn’t referring to himself when he sang “you can do what you want to whenever you want to” in “Ballad of Big Nothing”? That would be such a perverse interpretation. “I” becomes “you” in song world because it’s more artful and fictive, not because you’re trying to hide anything.

In general, I’d say one of my least favorite qualities in songwriting is when honesty gets in the way of artfulness. On that note, I have one last question. In your opinion, is making a good power-pop record more like drawing a perfect circle or bending a square out of shape?

The power pop albums that are perfect circles are like the old guy in chelsea boots, power pop pop pop stuff – really sort of formulaic shit. I think good power pop albums are more like a drunken oblong.

CONFIRMATION BIAS #1: Tristan Jemsek (Dogbreth)

Tristan Jemsek is the principal songwriter and leader of Arizona underground rockers Dogbreth. I don’t remember the first time I met Tristan, but I do remember the first time I heard a Dogbreth song—on tour somewhere in California when someone put “Cups and Wrappers” on in the van. Sometimes a song is so good that it reminds you that you should have higher standards for what makes a “good song.” 

I’d obviously wanted the first interview of this series to be the perfect distillation of everything I hope to accomplish with this project: a display of subversive wit and uncommon insight, a captivating balance of ironic detachment and genuine depth. Real out there, genius stuff—that was the plan. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of posing Tristan a straightforward and serious question about his music right off the bat, and his answer was so thoughtful that I couldn’t bring myself to ask whatever stupid bullshit I’d thought would be funny. This has always been my experience with Tristan both as a person and as a songwriter: unpretentious.

He and I share certain similarities. We’re both the sole consistent members of our respective power-pop adjacent underground rock bands. We both moved thousands of miles away from where those bands began (Tristan has since moved back, I toy with the idea regularly). I did not ask him about any of those things, and anyway, the similarities only go so far: he’s freshly TikTok famous, after all. Instead, we talked about economy of form, creative anxiety, and optimism. 

illustration by Tim Howe

Your songwriting excels at one of my favorite qualities: those moments that feel so instantly classic that it seems crazy they didn’t already exist before you brought them into the world. The chorus of “Cups and Wrappers” and the second verse of “Two Plastic Spools” are two such moments that stick out to me, where the simplicity of the sentiment is precisely what makes it so deep and impactful. Is that something you think about a lot when writing? Do you end up revising and reworking lyrics to accomplish this kind of brevity?

Thank you, yes that’s something I’m very aware of and I’m always chasing that idea and trying to cultivate it. In the past I’ve described it as trying to write the theme song of a specific feeling or moment. Sometimes it happens really fast like in “Cups and Wrappers” – I remember that one felt like it just sort of manifested itself. And I think those songs that come fast are usually the best ones, or at least they’re usually my favorites. They have that sense of timelessness and immediacy because you simply don’t get in their way. The frustrating part of that is you have no control over when you can write them, because the only way that you can is by relinquishing control. You can try to identify the specific circumstance or environment that you’re in when they come to you, and try to recreate that zone to make yourself more open to receiving—like going for a long walk, reading more books, drinking a specific drink or whatever—and that can definitely help take you there, but it’s never a guarantee.

I’m really glad that you hear that quality in “Two Plastic Spools” – because that’s one that took several years for me to finish. It’s one of my favorites now, but it was so frustrating to write. I’d keep working on it and then getting stuck and scrapping it, then digging it back up like a year later and then scrap it again over and over. It kept changing and evolving even as the band started performing it. I’m not even sure what was so hard about it. I think probably because it’s about memories of multiple people in my life during a very special and formative time for me, and l wanted to stay true to all of that without making it so specific that I’m the only one that feels something when I hear it. That can be a real tough line to toe between! 

I love that you said that about the songs that come fast usually being the best; I’ve always felt that way too. I’m glad you powered through with “Two Plastic Spools” though, because ultimately I think you totally nailed that balance of specific personal reflection and relatable immediacy. A lot of your songs have that reflective quality, looking not only inward but also outward in the sense of looking back at your past and the people who have come in and out of your life. They also seem almost completely free of bitterness, which is something I find really admirable (if not necessarily relatable, I have to admit). Is that a conscious decision on your part, or does that happen naturally? I’m not trying to get you to out yourself as secretly miserable and jaded or anything, but I’m curious if you try to focus on expressing a specific mentality in your writing?

I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m miserable and jaded, and if it is, it’s not anymore! Haha, not really. Well maybe just a little. But aren’t we all? Anyway that’s a really interesting question… I think it might have initially started out as a conscious intention, and then it became natural over time. I’m personally not very interested in dudes like me singing bitter songs—for sociopolitical reasons and also just my own personal taste. Even during times when I feel hurt or betrayed I don’t usually find comfort or catharsis in those songs. There are some exceptions to that—I have a go-to Tom Waits song for certain situations—but for the most part those are pretty rare. I think songwriting has become more and more a subconscious practice for me over the past few years. I don’t try to censor myself when I write, or try to filter out certain feelings, I just try and think of them as already existing beneath the surface and my job is to carefully brush away the dirt to reveal them. That might sound like some pretentious bullshit, and it is, but I think it’s mostly true. All that being said, I’ve written my fair share of bitter songs; a lot of them for my old pre-Dogbreth pop-punk bands that you’ll thankfully never hear, but also in more recent times, they just don’t always make the records. Sometimes writing those hurt feelings down is enough for me to process them, and then I don’t usually feel a need to put anyone else through hearing them, or I’ll actually feel guilty for expressing them. Because maybe more than anything, I think I’m prone to blaming myself more than others. And I turn those bitter feelings and frustrations inward. This is something my therapist has helped me to understand recently – I don’t trust myself enough to feel justified in anything.

I don’t think that’s pretentious at all; in fact, I think that metaphor about brushing away the dirt captures it really well. It seems to me that there are all sorts of emotions or feelings present in all of us, some more valuable and some less valuable—or maybe productive is the better word. Our job is to elevate the more valuable and productive ones. Otherwise it isn’t art, it’s just a diary entry. 

I feel the same way about dudes like us singing bitter songs (although I suspect it’s a realization that I came to a little later in life than you did). The way our feelings about what we want to hear and make tend to change over time can make trusting yourself really tricky, especially when it comes to your own creative output. Not trusting your past self makes it more difficult to trust your current self. I’m reminded of one of my favorite of your lyrics, from “Think I’m Funny”—“Sometimes I wonder if I like the things I do / Or if I’m always putting on a show for you.” In the context of the song, this seems to be about a specific personal relationship, but for me, it hits a note that extends to my anxieties about creativity. Do you feel any anxiety around the fact that being in a band with some sort of following makes your evolving taste preferences available for public scrutiny?

No, not really. I think most people outside of Arizona don’t know this about me—but I’ve been a part of close to 90 different bands. I started playing in bands when I was 17 and that’s basically all I did. I didn’t go to school, I always had part-time jobs and wanted to spend as much time away from home as possible. So I spent my late teen years and all of my twenties starting bands, joining in bands, going to shows, booking shows, touring and recording. I’d be in 8+ bands at a time. At this point I’ve been a full member of 61 different bands, a touring member of 8 different bands, and sat in for at least one gig with 25 other bands. I have a list going, haha. And a lot of them were really abrasive and/or weird. Joke bands, costumed concept bands, noise bands, performance art, doom metal, folk punk, surf rock, country, pop punk, free jazz, just whatever my friends and I wanted to do. We were so all over the place, it was a blast. It was a time in downtown Phoenix that was sort of in-between it being abandoned and it being gentrified. Rent was cheap and there were a lot of all-ages art galleries/venues in warehouses that were very kind to us and let us do whatever we wanted. Looking back I have a lot of mixed feelings about the space we took up and the role we played as pre-gentrifiers, but that’s a whole other conversation. To get back to your question – I think because of that background I don’t feel anxious about trying new things, if that’s what you mean. I do feel anxious about whether or not my new stuff is as good or better than my older stuff, but I think that’s a pretty universal worry for songwriters. Trying new approaches actually sort of eases that anxiety for me, because if people don’t like a new song that’s different from what you normally do, it might just mean that you need to work at that approach more or it’s just not a good style for you, and not that you’re getting worse at writing in your older style or you’re repeating yourself and it’s getting tired. If you can somehow get to a place where you accept that you’re a songwriter—that it’s just what you do—and you believe it even during the inevitable dry spells – that can really help you to stop feeling the pressure to make whatever you’re working on next be your masterpiece or your biggest hit. And I think that looseness usually helps you make better work anyway. 

Right, it goes back to not forcing it, in a way—still working hard, of course, but in the sense of making the writing be part of your regular practice of living, so to speak, which really means making yourself available to receive those moments where good stuff starts coming to you. And conversely, I know that accepting that lifestyle for myself has made my relationship with my past material a whole lot less fraught. That sort of brings us to the juicy stuff that the people really want to know about, which is of course your recent brush with internet fame via TikTok. I take it you weren’t bothered by a sudden influx of recognition for something you made almost a decade ago? (I would be, but the music I was making a decade ago wasn’t nearly as good as the music you were making a decade ago.)

I’d love to hear what you were making a decade ago! (Editor’s note: you wouldn’t.) Yeah I wasn’t bothered at all. Even though that record is at times embarrassing for me, I have a real fondness for it and still enjoy performing several of the songs. And even if that weren’t true, the whole TikTok experience was so bizarre and so incredibly sweet and pure that I can’t imagine a person not enjoying the ride and having fun with it. It makes me glad I never changed the band name like I’ve often thought about doing every couple years or so, because even though most of the attention was centered around that first album, it also brought so many new people to the band in general and the newer stuff has gotten a nice boost as well. 

Yeah, I can say from personal experience that changing the band name (even just half the band name!) is never the best move. And I’m glad to hear you don’t feel pumped and dumped by the fame monster. Actually, you made a point about the whole Tik Tok thing in an interview I read recently that made me feel like a whole lot less of a doomer about the relationship between music and the internet than I usually do (even though in the process of clicking the link I somehow ended up looking at a clickbait article titled “Real-life Limitless Pill Gets Largest Deal In Shark Tank History”). Basically, you seemed to be saying that while so much of music listening these days is passive and dictated by algorithms, something like what happened to you with Tik Tok shows that the internet can still allow people to share in the deeply personal and individual experience of music discovery. To me, reading that was like feeling the sun come out from behind the clouds for a second (not unlike your songs often feel). Do you consider yourself to be generally optimistic about the future of underground and independent art in the digital age?

I definitely try to be, but I have my doomy moments too. I think you can find as much reason to be optimistic—or pessimistic—about the future of independent art under capitalism as ever, it’s just that some dynamics have changed. It may be harder for a mid-level band to make a buck off their music than it was a decade ago for instance, but on the flip side of that it’s so much easier for a tiny band to record and release music, and I think that’s really cool. I find the big streaming services, especially Spotify, to be exploitive and profoundly insulting to artists. What I find exceptionally revolting is the way that they’re trying to change the way artists release music; instructing artists to move away from albums in favor of a steady stream of singles. They just want more and more free content that they can make money off of, and they want to get it faster. And just to be clear—I dig singles and EPs, but I truly love and believe in albums. I’m very appreciative of Bandcamp for all they’ve been doing recently, I think their new program to help bands press their own vinyl is really cool. All that said, I think pushing for higher streaming royalties is important for now, but I don’t think it should be the ultimate goal. I absolutely hate thinking of music as a product. I think we should zoom out and fundamentally transform how we value the music and the arts in this country. I believe the arts should be considered essential and they should have funding. I believe people are essential for that matter and we should just have a universal basic income, but that’s another conversation I guess. I have a good pal in Berlin who has a long-running DIY music project, he gets a goddamn stipend to go on tour every year! There would be so much more beautiful music made if people didn’t have to either a) be good business people, or b) appear profitable to business people. So anyway, yeah I think there’s plenty to celebrate in this new dark age and plenty to criticize. 

our subject, truly a picture of southwestern contentment

I agree, for the most part. The meager pittance Spotify is willing to pay artists per stream is probably the 3rd or 4th worst thing about that company’s business model. Anyone who encourages bands to reorient the way they release music around the preferences of an enormous multinational tech corporation ought to be viewed with extreme skepticism and distrust, in my opinion, and those people are everywhere in the “industry” side of things. But doing what we do was never going to be a lucrative career even before streaming came around. Which brings me to a fun question I’m hoping to ask everyone I talk to via this project: what’s the most amount of money you’ve ever lost due to something band-related?

Yeah I’ve been lucky to have never been ripped off or taken advantage of over the course of doing the band, but with the flexibility that comes from working part-time as a barista, there’s also the reality that it’s just very, very hard to save money. So over the years any sort of unexpected emergency tour expense has just kind of wrecked me for months or even years afterwards. Namely van repairs—that’s definitely where I’ve lost the most money. There was a tour in 2017 where multiple things went wrong with my old van at different times, and I eventually had to borrow money from someone in the band to get the necessary repairs done to get back on the road, which looking back weren’t even that expensive, but I was in such terrible shape financially that I was in debt to that person for quite a while after that. And then our last tour in the Summer of 2019 was cut short because our drummer’s parent’s SUV that we were using’s transmission burned out on that drive on interstate 8 from San Diego to Tucson (a notorious van-killer), we had to cancel the rest of our shows because it was going to take several days to fix it. I came to the funny realization recently that a silver lining of not being able to tour during the pandemic is that it’s left me in the best financial shape of my adult life. 

In one of my all-time most brainless tour routing moves, I once planned to drive that particular stretch of interstate 8 in late July, in a van that had no working air conditioning. Fortunately, we were spared that fate because the van broke down before we even made it to that part of the tour. What I’m saying, I guess, is that I had a very similar realization about live music disappearing. I think a lot of people in bands like ours are eventually going to find themselves in a bizarre situation of having to trade what is actually the relative stability of a global pandemic for the uncertainty of returning to the road. The strangeness of that contrast can really cast your motivations for and expectations about doing music the way we do in a new light. You’ve been doing this for longer than me—I’m curious if you’d want to share any ideas you had going in that you feel differently about more than a decade later?

Dang, that is a tough one! I guess I’m not sure what ideas, if any, I had going in. I mean, I grew up obsessed with music and without many friends, and so when I stumbled upon a world where I could make music and make friends making music, I never thought twice about it—I just dove right in. Didn’t really have any dreams or desires other than to have fun and feel like I was a part of something. That was 2004, when I started playing shows around Phoenix. Two years later I went on my first tour, and I feel like back in those days my idea of absolutely “making it” would have been to do a ‘Pink Couch Session’ or something like that. The thought of making money at music was the furthest thing from my mind. I remember us all feeling so insanely hyped in 2012 when we divided up the band money at the end of a tour and we each walked away with a cool hundred bucks! That was the first time the band ever came out ahead after a tour. Even though we were out for three weeks and we easily spent at least twice that individually on food and whatever else, plus with all the time we took off work we were still technically in the hole. But it felt like we made it! So really it’s been a series of reaching a certain point, and then moving that goal post a little further out. I’ve been doing my best to resist burnout and bitterness in recent years, and what works the best is focusing on gratitude and appreciation, corny as it sounds. Sometimes I get really wrapped up in fomo or jealousy when I see peers or friends have more success, but it helps when I think of my younger self and what he would think of all that I’ve been able to accomplish thus far. I’ll always remember a bit of bathroom graffiti I saw somewhere that said: “We used to dream of the things we’re doing right now.” 

That feels like the perfect note to end on. Thanks, Tristan.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

I’m going to start “interviewing” music people I like and posting the conversations on this page. I put that word in quotes because since I can’t shut the fuck up, the back-and-forth will be a little less one-sided than most interviews with bands you can read online. I hope these will be conversations from which everyone involved can learn something or come to see something from a different angle (including you, dear imagined reader). In other words, I’m hoping they will be the sort of conversations I used to have face-to-face with other artists more regularly before the virus.

One odd personal development over this lost year has been that in some ways, the thing I miss most about going to shows isn’t watching the bands: it’s talking about music and art with other people invested in those worlds. Most people probably haven’t been too surprised by the countless ways the internet has proved to be a poor substitute for the real thing over the past year. But one thing that has been a little surprising to me is how much I’ve felt that loss particularly in the way the ADD panopticon of social media remains totally unconducive to the delicate dance between talking shop and talking shit that can really round out an evening of live music. The whole point of something like Twitter ought to be talking shop and talking shit, but of course in reality it’s actually about promoting your Patreon or your GoFundMe—chalk one up to “lost utopian promise of the internet” I guess. Regardless, one strategy for counteracting an attention-deficient, all-seeing eye seems clear: going long on a blog that nobody reads. (I have my own attention deficiencies, though, so I’ve managed to post something on here like twice in the last year.)

In that spirit, what I would like to do with these interviews is to offer interesting people in my orbit a chance to talk about their work, their scene, and themselves in a venue that is hopefully free from the contrivances that bog down most music journalism—and not just the contrivance of “having readers.” I’m thinking specifically of the deference paid to the “album cycle” as well as the seemingly standard operating assumption that the journalist/writer acts as some expert third party who can mediate the relationship between the artist and the reader (who of course is assumed to be a completely separate entity from “journalist” or “artist”). Why bother with that shit? Nearly everyone who writes about underground music—and I suspect the average person who reads about it—has played in bands at some point. The stakes are personal in a different kind of way than they’re personal for, say, a Sixers fan reading The Ringer, or even for someone who wants a stimulus check reading Politico. I don’t understand why some of the publications that cover underground music seem committed to pretending that’s not the case. They could be asking interesting, uncomfortable questions instead of just being like “so, describe for our readers this thing you call ‘tour’ … I hear there’s lots of fast food involved?”

I want to have fun with this—and anyone who knows me knows I’m always down to talk drive-thrus—but I also want to keep it as real as possible. A little contentious even, if the people I talk to have an axe to grind. So without further ado, I present: Confirmation Bias, an interview series. First one goes up tomorrow, see you then.

crumbs ~ demos, b-sides, and rarities 2015-2019

i started switching all this project’s music to a different digital distro service this month (mind numbing awful experience fwiw) and it sent me down a real nostalgia trip, so i decided to dig into the vaults for bandcamp day this month. went long, in hopes that there would be “something for everyone” as they say. typically listening to my old releases is an extremely embarrassing experience—doubly so for unpolished demos—but for some reason this time around i had a lot of fun with it. this one’s for fans of classic lineups, golden eras, and iphone recordings. hope someone finds something they like in here.

i’m extremely grateful to the people that played on some of these songs, everyone that has been in the band at any point, the people who booked the shows where some of these sounds were recorded, and anyone who’s spent any amount of time with my records.

lots of new music on the way this year if all goes to plan 🙂

on isolation and what comes next

Where do we go from here? That’s not quite the question, I guess, because of course the answer for now is nowhere—not to work, not to restaurants, not on tour, not anywhere with other people. So instead: What comes next?

Anything could be next. Our ears fill with the dissonant hum of wildly divergent, distinct futures opening up before us[1] while the days start to blend together in their sameness. The past 40 days feel like a strange joke, both familiar and foreign. Sure, modern life can feel textureless and gray, but at least there are distractions. Now that many of those distractions are inaccessible, we’re not quite bored: that word doesn’t capture the odd sensation of feeling that history is really, finally happening in front of you, but you have to experience it without leaving the house. You end the day feeling like anything could happen; you begin the next eating breakfast in a different room just for a change of pace. 

Isolation doesn’t necessarily shrink one’s sense of what’s possible, I don’t think. Rather, it expands that sense beyond coherence, temporarily untethering one’s view of the horizon from the enormous forces and minute decisions that shape mundane, routine existence. When your choices are suddenly limited, the variables that shape daily experience so radically restricted, the number of variables that there used to be can seem overwhelming. Finding a place to get dinner used to be the source of real decision anxiety for me; imagine what that might feel like after months of being limited to what’s in my fridge. Sure, I miss my friends, but right now the thought of going to a party makes me feel like my brain is leaking out of my ears.[2] 

Similarly, thinking about the social, political, or economic effects of this strange time can feel a bit like trying to hold water in a sieve. The variables seem infinite; anyone who claims otherwise is being willfully obtuse. Sure, the crisis lays bare the injustice of our healthcare system, the irresponsibility of the financial system, the excesses of the corporate world, and the inability or unwillingness of those in government to face up to powerful interests. But to know something is not necessarily to change it. It’s tempting to imagine that this moment might augur a swelling popular demand for welfare state expansion; that support for universal, free-at-the-point-of-service healthcare and debt forgiveness might become a litmus test for the bare minimum of a progressive political hopeful’s legislative ambition. It’s just as easy to see the country lurching rightward, or at least stubbornly clinging to the status quo, grasping whatever scraps of stability are still reminiscent of former tenuous comforts. How can you reckon with the absurdity of a moment that demands solidarity with the oppressed and mistreated around the world, from postage workers to Palestinians, while also making you covet your parents’ SodaStream?

Most importantly: even if I can’t get it all in view, I’m still lucky to find myself zooming out. Plenty of people don’t have that luxury during the pandemic. Many go their whole lives without this kind of prolonged chance to sit back, take stock, reassess. So much of life is instinctive, at best reactive. Bills are due, you’re burning daylight. Inertia muscles out intent; politically, socially, but also personally and emotionally. My bank account is steadily emptying, but my rent is cheap enough that $1200 Trump bucks buys me some time to think. Have I organized my life in a way that is worthwhile and meaningful, consistent with my values, both sustainable for the time being and nurturing of my hopes for the future? What precisely is the relationship between rethinking society and rethinking my place in it? 

This is the crucial task of the moment, I think: personally crucial for those who are able, and politically necessary for the sake of those who are not. It is and ought to be unsettling, this feeling of holding all possibilities for the future in our hand—on the one hand, a total reimagining of everything that grates against our sense of justice and equity; on the other, a defeated slump backwards into whatever tenuous security the old circumstances might have offered. The world is our oyster, so to speak, except we can’t leave the house long enough to pry open the shell. 

So what can we do in the meantime? What can I do to cultivate that sense of possibility in myself and others—as a musician who can’t tour, as a writer with no audience, as a person temporarily reduced to electronic pulse via group chats and Discord servers and Google Hangouts? I haven’t found an answer yet, and judging from a month’s worth of social media in isolation, it doesn’t seem like too many other people have either. Social distancing seems to have amplified the medium’s natural tendency towards optimism, our best selves imagined for others. Words like “wellness” and “mindfulness” ligner just off-screen in tasteful fonts, their tone at once ironic and sincere, framing vague gestures at communal endeavor in the form of naturally lit pictures of homemade bread, or tournament brackets between bands belonging to obtuse genres like “old school alternative.” Even Twitter seems less dour than usual. At our loneliest, our pleas for attention have a resigned tranquility. We share recipes and memes, and we wait. You can’t fault people for a lack of urgency when they can’t make plans. 

If I manage to incubate a little urgency in the coming months, I doubt it will be from watching or playing music live on Instagram. No shade against those who either begrudgingly or enthusiastically have turned to streaming shows, it’s just not for me. Personally, the balance between performance as an endeavor with inherent value—as a natural and necessary part of music as creative practice—and performance as an endeavor that derives value largely from the money it earns the performer has always been precarious at best. That might sound crazy; isn’t music essentially communal, meant to be shared? Don’t I have to eat? But it’s how I’ve always felt. After all, I’ve made lots of music in my life that I’ve only shown friends, and historically I’ve been more successful feeding myself by pouring drinks or data entry than by playing guitar. At my level, and hopefully at any level, the best part of a good show is always the feeling in the room, not settling up with the promoter. Taking the gig virtual tips that fraught scale to the point that I’m no longer interested.[3] It’s like trying to record guitar DI: for it to feel right, you’ve gotta be moving air around.

Of course, losing interest in something tends to make you wonder why you were interested in the first place. What about it drew you in, genuinely excited you, and what did you merely tolerate? Lots of my particular slice of the music world falls into the latter category, first and foremost being the depressing but understandable insistence of so many of my touring peers to talk about music as their “job” or their “career.” For me, going on tour is largely an effort to spend as little time as possible at something that might be considered my “job.” In fact, as far as I can see, the only reason to conceive of a cancelled tour as “lost labor” is because you need money, and without touring, many musicians’ only hope of getting money is to trigger the sympathy of the more fortunate among us, who often seem to believe that having a “job” is the only dependable sign that one doesn’t deserve to go hungry and die in the street. 

This is not to say that I’m averse to work. I actually work very hard on things, like music, that I think are worthwhile. Unfortunately for my bank account, the things I see as worthwhile are very rarely the things that our society’s conception of work—a combination of late-capitalist market logic and a protestant morality drained of all spiritual content[4]—has deemed valuable (i.e. worthy of compensation). I’d hoped that music might offer me a convenient way out of this dilemma, and I still do. I’ve found I’m willing to tolerate the caustic reduction of creative pursuits to “a job” if doing so allows me to make enough money to spend less time at worse jobs—and there was a brief moment when it seemed like that arrangement might work, at least for a few years. 

The current pandemic has more or less obliterated that possibility, at least in my field of vision. Blinking, rubbing my eyes, other possibilities come in and out of focus. I glimpse ways to organize a life. There are only so many hours in the day; if one wants to do creative things with a significant number of them, it’s hard to imagine doing so without stuffing that creativity into whatever work-shaped box other people recognize as commanding some amount of currency.[5] But as it does with so many other things, this moment gives us a chance to at least rethink the shape and contour of that box. 

Live music is an incredibly stupid business: notoriously exploitative of labor and talent, wasteful beyond imagination, a cesspool of abuse and assault, duct-taped into something resembling a functioning “industry” by the force of its largely unrealized or misdirected potential for human connection, communication, and meaning-making.[6] That is to say, it’s capitalism, but it can be pretty fun if you’re lucky.[7] Some of the people involved are well compensated and comfortable; most of the musicians I know slog through a bunch of bullshit most nights for 30-45 transcendent minutes, followed by the privilege of drinking a few free beers, gratefully hawking some reasonably-priced future landfill scraps to generous audience members, and walking away with maybe a few hundred dollars from the door. On the balance of things, I would have happily done it for years, and still might.[8]

But the possibility of a year or more of dark stages has knocked that balance loose, and right now it feels uncertain if it will ever recover. What emerges once we regain our footing is, if we want it to be, up to everyone who performs, works, facilitates, or listens in venues and non-traditional music spaces around this country and the world. What we choose to rebuild can be very different from what was knocked down, provided—just as in every part of our economy and society—we are not so eager to get back to boom times that we ignore the lessons of the bust.

Existentially, spiritually, rethinking live music should probably be the least of our ambition. My real hope for myself and my peers is a total reimagining of creative work as a lifestyle—its motivation, purpose and effect; its place in a just world; how to sustain and nurture it. Some days it feels unlikely that a successful conclusion to this effort would involve playing at, say, Live Nation-owned venues. Most days it doesn’t feel like an effort that will ever conclude.

There do appear to be avenues opening up, though. Streaming revenue is down, meanwhile fans broke Bandcamp’s website on their revenue share day last month; there are good things about streaming and bad things about Bandcamp, sure, but on the balance this feels like a good sign to me. Additionally, it seems increasingly likely that house shows and other non-traditional, unregulated venues will be the first to come back, if audiences are willing to attend. Hopefully some people will rediscover the radical potential of hosting music in spaces that don’t have to sell Anheuser-Busch products and report earnings to the IRS. Maybe a year off the road will lead some bands to reevaluate whether that 8pm opening slot and well-lit merch table is really worth a $150 guarantee and a 20% venue cut for “soft goods.” The pyramid scheme of buzz-band touring could well take a richly deserved hit. 

I don’t know if any of these things will happen, or if they’ll even seem desirable in a year. I certainly don’t know how to achieve them while protecting the short-term security of people who have staked their livelihoods on a creative economy they likely know on some level is as unjust as any other. But it’s hard to imagine that a few months off won’t provide the opportunity, if not provoke the necessity, of reflecting on injustice, in music and everywhere else. I hope to not waste that time.

***

[1] The capacity of the crisis to encourage and even nurture extreme conclusions was pretty apparent from the beginning. For example, it seems to me that the reason the Imperial College model of the pandemic was so widely cited, despite having a number of questionable assumptions that were apparent to many epidemiologists as soon as it was published, was that its grim predictions inevitably led readers to one of two extreme positions: either halting all labor, shutting down the economy, and effectively holding capital hostage; or, if one found that unacceptable, getting everyone back to work as quickly as possible, essentially embracing eugenics to keep the markets afloat. Though I have no quarrel with holding capital hostage, this is probably a false dichotomy, and it’s telling that models of the pandemic that didn’t encourage such starkly contrasting strategies didn’t command the nearly same bandwidth.

[2] Joking aside, I think there is just as much reason to be concerned about mental health problems once things get “back to normal” as there is to be concerned about those suffering mentally now—that is to say, plenty for both. It seems to me that those with depression and anxiety are likely to react as badly to the expectation to suddenly leave the house again as they may have to their inability to do so previously.

[3] That’s to say nothing of the less immediate but probably more pernicious effect of taking the gig digital, which is moving all “live” music under the purview of streaming services owned by one of three or so enormous tech companies—entities not known for being overly concerned with making sure creative endeavors are adequately compensated.

[4] “Work” as defined by society is meant to fulfill the worker, to give them a sense of purpose without which their life is meaningless. It is also, with the exception of the very lucky among us, meant to A) make enormous profits for other people, B) facilitate the vast corporate bureaucracy meant to obscure who is making this profit, or C) facilitate the shrinking private bureaucracy meant to make it as difficult as possible for those who can’t seem to do one of either A or B to ameliorate their suffering. These two conceptions of work seem inherently contradictory to me.

[5] This is more or less the usual difficulty one encounters trying to stand against the cultural hegemony of market logic. So often being “anti-capitalist” seems to mean defining oneself not in opposition to capitalism but rather as its negative formulation, i.e. reinforcing its logic. Put another way, Marxists seem to frame all sorts of activities—creative, emotional, reproductive, social, the list goes on—as labor, when to do so seems, instinctively at least to me, reductive, incoherent, and even soul-destroying.

[6] It ought to be said that the record industry is all these things but even less fun.

[7] “Lucky” in this context, and so many others, often means “male,” “white,” and/or “able to move in with your parents if something goes wrong.”

[8] The inequities of the music world can be a frustrating and sticky problem, and so I want to be clear about the fact that I would happily and freely continue to participate in the small club touring world, and that I don’t feel hard-done by it. In my probably unpopular opinion, lots of people’s complaints about how “unfair” the touring economy is tend to boil down to something along the lines of “it’s unfair that other bands are more popular than mine.” As a result, many other people justifiably roll their eyes at these exhortations to reform the industry. Ultimately, there will always be only a few popular bands and lots of unpopular bands; this imbalance has nothing to with the forces that concentrate power and wealth in other industries and everything to do with how consensus forms around taste (and with the fact that unfortunately most music is simply not very good). What needs addressing is not this imbalance, but rather whether or not there are avenues to carve out a creative life for yourself if you’re not one of the popular. That life does not need to include playing to hundreds of adoring fans, but it ought to offer security and dignity (as everyone’s life ought to, regardless of their choice in vocation). Ensuring those avenues exist clearly requires a more robust infrastructure for the arts, an infrastructure that, unlike the club circuit, is not driven by profit.

Turning Dust Into Mountains

or, the Composite Loneliness of Being (Radically) Online

The excellent Philly alt-country band Friendship has, among an endless number of brilliantly matter-of-fact lyrics, a line that really sticks out to me whenever I see them play. Easing into the second verse of “Dusky,” their singer Dan casually silences the room: In our house, the sickness is the same as the remedy. It’s one of those lines that could be, and therefore is, about everything. Addiction, love, politics, depression—you play a chord, those words will sing over it.

In my life, one of the more dissonant of those chords is the internet. Like all but my most self-respecting peers, and in that subconsciously ritualistic way that feels almost violently at odds with the skin-and-bones mindfulness of most Friendship songs, I spend way too much time on my phone. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about how that lyric describes the rhythm and contour of looking at Twitter, a technology that will be remembered for, if nothing else, perfecting the concept of the vicious cycle. 

One thing that draws me and, I suspect, many others to Twitter is the feeling that something has gone very wrong in the world. People like me look around us and find that the things we have been told about society by its most established documentarians do not adequately explain its features; in fact, the lessons seem designed to mislead. If we’re lucky, we have a few non-virtual friends who also feel this way. If we’re really lucky, we might be involved in some sort of non-mainstream creative or political culture through which that feeling is acknowledged, appreciated, and cultivated. But at our core, we define ourselves against others. How is it that everyone else isn’t seeing what I’m seeing? It’s a lonely feeling, despite how many people seem to share it. 

Media studies people have something called Reinforcement Theory, the idea that people primarily seek out and respond to information that supports their preexisting beliefs. But you don’t go looking if you don’t suspect there might be something there, that there might be an antidote to this interpretive loneliness. You’d be right: you can find all sorts of people on Twitter pointing out injustices, misdeeds, and falsehoods all around us. Some of these people are hysterical, some are cynical, and some are really onto something. 

They all get made fun of. For every bit of loving satire or justified pushback, you can find plenty of callous punching down. Perhaps most commonly, you’ll find someone reproducing social or political critique with ironic detachment, either because they have no skin in the game or because they recognize it’s rigged regardless. There is a whole genre of meme that deals explicitly with the online ecosystem of non-mainstream ideas, from generalist images like galaxy brain or Charlie from Always Sunny, manic in front of a sticky-note-and-twine-covered cork board, to “Bush did 9/11”-style parodies of specific political heterodoxy. In fact, you could argue that a key point in the life cycle of every meme is the moment it gets repurposed in this context. This is usually its death rattle.

There’s one that particularly annoys me whenever it creeps into my feed, an especially vapid placeholder for the feeling of realizing something it seems like no one else has: Will Ferrell, as the effete fashionista by-way-of the KFC Colonel character from Zoolander, screaming I feel like I’m taking crazy pills! I think the experience of seeing this gif, especially when it’s used in the context of a topic you take seriously, illustrates what I’d call the Composite Loneliness of Being Radically Online.[1]

It’s a complicated and I think usually subliminal feeling, a not-always-linear pattern of, [1] frustration at the thought that you’re the only one who sees what you see, [2] relief at the realization—not new, but always comforting—that there are other people online like you, and [3] mild-to-severe annoyance at the belittling feeling of having your genuine emotions refracted back towards you via a stranger’s stock regurgitation of a totally unmemorable piece of media you’ve seen a hundred times.[2] This usually leads to the paradoxical combination of [4] mild shame at the absurdity of thinking that your perspective was unique enough that you turned to a infinite digital expanse for acknowledgement, and [5] the realization that, since you would never have posted something so corny yourself, the person who did is unlike you in some important way, even if they’re sympathetic to the eccentric opinion being discussed.[3] In other words, you feel a little lonely. You’re back to the beginning of the cycle, frustrated that no one sees the world quite like you do.

This cycle probably sounds like more of a shock to the system than it really is. It’s surely not an immediately noticeable feature of the Twitter experience for most people. Rather, it’s the hum in the background as we go about the online routines that otherwise bring us joy: laughing at jokes, keeping up with news and gossip, feeling an otherwise collective outrage towards the day’s most outrageous abuse of power or celebrity. It’s not the illness that kills the quickest or has the most apparent symptoms, but I think it’s a dynamic that has potentially serious psychological and spiritual consequences. It’s how a person who goes online and mostly finds things they agree with can still feel emotionally isolated—laughing at themselves for thinking they’re somehow enlightened, while simultaneously despairing that most people are still in the dark.[4] It’s a map onto which we can trace a clear route from unconventional thought to cognitive dissonance to conspiracist ideation. And I don’t think it’s unique to Twitter.

***

If my media studies hack-job holds any water, it’s fair to say that we turn to the internet precisely because of the scarcity of relatable perspectives presented in the other forms of media, forms more dominated by corporate and establishment voices (at least for now).[5] In no recent moment has this scarcity been more obvious than in the controversy surrounding the Iowa Caucus, blamed on cable news and in the papers of record on garden-variety bureaucratic incompetence, but interpreted by a certain amorphous segment of the left-leaning internet as a conspiracy of some sort. Fair enough: the meltdown involved an opaque delegate counting process involving an apparently malfunctioning app built by a company called (no joke) Shadow, Inc, funded by an umbrella organization called (for real) ACRONYM, who employ a consultant named (still not joking) Robbie Mook—a combination of plot points that would be too on the nose in the script for the next Fast and Furious movie. And the details get shadier from there, albeit less funny.

Plenty of people found this interpretation of events outrageous and insulting. You can’t blame the volunteers, regular Iowans who freely spent their Tuesday night interpreting the inscrutable rules of an outdated political tradition, for bristling at the implication that they were willing pawns in a stolen election. That said, you also can’t blame those who realized that the CEO of ACRONYM was married to a senior Buttigeig staffer—and then watched as Buttigeig declared victory with a shit eating grin, before any official results were released—from wondering if something untoward was going on. At the very least, it seems fair to suspect that the inscrutability of caucus rules is, to borrow a phrase from programming that the Shadow developers might recognize, a feature, not a bug.[6]

When the crime is something as ostensibly offensive to the credo of liberal democracy as miscounted votes, how much does it matter whether the criminal was negligent or intentional? If the system is designed to fail—and the rate at which overseeing failure is rewarded with increasingly cushy consulting and media gigs would indicate that the people doling out those gigs welcome it—then screwing up has the same material outcome as being in on the scam. Accordingly, some left commentators have repeated the point that to argue Iowa was a conspiracy is to make “a distinction without difference,” borrowing (some pedants would say inaccurately) the name of a fallacy in formal logic. The point is well taken, except for the fact of one obvious difference: only one of these interpretations of the events of February 3, 2020 will cause your NPR-listening friends and family members to wonder if you have all your marbles. You have to wonder if the fading of the conspiracy narrative ultimately represented a bunch of self-appointed Sanders surrogates realizing that appearing crazy isn’t the best coalition-building strategy. 

It’s a shame, really; shouldn’t we all be going a little crazy? Maybe it’s a conspiracy, maybe it’s standard issue self-serving bureaucratic incompetence; the truly vexing realization is that you’ll never actually know. Maybe it’s a bunch of people who have so completely internalized the profit motive that they find the phrase “conflict of interest” to be antiquated at best, and incoherent at worst. One thing is for sure: for some people, going online is the best if not only way to meet peers who haven’t internalized a colorful variety pack of the most soul-immolating motivations that our culture rewards. If only that were enough.

***

Iowa was of course the tip of the iceberg, and the counterculture response to it was as much motivated by past suspicions as it will inform future ones. Even a casual observer of the world in the past 50 years finds many reasons to question received wisdom, from seismic scandals like Iran-Contra to the banality of bread prices.[7]

Among the best sources for this questioning I’ve found recently is the writing of David Graeber. In the last few weeks, his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs has provided me with one of the more profound experiences I’ve ever had of hearing a vague suspicion I’ve long held about the world articulated thoroughly and convincingly. The suspicion is this: a huge number of the jobs available in the modern economy serve no purpose other than to further the myth that humans ought to keep their nose to the grindstone for 40 hours a week, and the system that perpetuates this absurdity is allowed to exist because of the benefits it affords certain people, benefits far in excess of the wages that 40 hours of “gainful” employment will ever net the average worker.

The title of Graeber’s book doesn’t refer to jobs like dishwasher or garbage collector, which serve a clear purpose even though they might suck. Rather, Graeber is talking about “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that is not the case.” The book is inspired by a 2013 essay Graeber published in Strike! Magazine, and draws on hundreds of testimonials Graeber received after said essay went viral. He talks to everyone from uneasy corporate consultants to unhappily stranded administrative seat-warmers, by way of a Hollywood “development” person who keeps themselves busy working on never-to-be-aired reality series with names like Too Fat to Fuck. There are many recurring themes—Graeber is an anthropologist, and produces both a rich theory and detailed taxonomy of bullshit employment—but the one that sticks out most is devastatingly simple: these people all seem very unhappy. Moreover, the fact that no one will acknowledge the uselessness of their position is central to their unhappiness.[8]

Bullshit Jobs describes the depression and alienation of the bullshit employee with sympathy and concern. The book also offers a detailed example of how a system can be designed to serve power without technically being a conspiracy. Graeber’s methods involve an obvious selection bias, in that the people who reach out to him tend to be well-meaning victims of a broken work culture. But while his account of the modern workplace is populated mostly with those who wish things were not as they are, the model also implies (and implicates) at least a few of the sort of feckless, self-preserving sycophants who seem to have been responsible for the Iowa Caucus disaster. (Maybe Will Ferrell’s Zoolander character was onto something: Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigre? They’re the same face! Doesn’t anybody notice this?)

Drawing in part from a YouGov survey conducted in the wake of the Strike! essay, Graeber estimates that roughly 37% of jobs in Western economies are bullshit, and 37% of the remaining jobs are support work (cleaning, clerical work, etc) for bullshit industries, meaning that in his eyes over half of all labor falls into what you might call the “bullshit sector.” Nearly all of them suffer from the emotional distress of seeing something clearly about the world that few of those around them seem to recognize. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. 

***

It’s a paranoid land, America, and paranoia runs through our fiction and film. The ‘40s and ‘50s saw a gritty, alienated, art-deco film aesthetic calcify into a genre French critics called film noir, but the strict stylistic categories for stories of suspicion and intrigue seem to have dissolved as, from the 60s on, the movie-watching public found more and more to be suspicious about. Today, neo-noir touches everything from Brick to Batman.[9] I recently watched one from last year that probably won’t go down as a classic of the genre even though it should: David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. The movie follows the classic noir formula—guy goes looking for girl, finds way more than he bargained for. But the viewer gets more than they bargained for as well, namely some quietly tragic moments that are given a bit more time to breath than is perhaps typical of noir’s exaggerated paranoia.

Under the Silver Lake careens dizzyingly through the maze of a just-barely-imaginary LA underground, depicting the banal pleasures and depraved ulterior motives of various suspicious characters with an ironic detachment that nears kitsch. The movie’s feel may be drawn from noir, but it’s eerily familiar to the internet age. Fans of Chinatown and Pynchon will find lots to like; if you’re like me, and recent obsessions with Jeffery Epstein have left you diagnostically eager to suspend disbelief, you’ll love it. Thankfully, the plodding seriousness of some recent failed stabs at this sort of thing (read: True Detective season 2) is nowhere to be found. Instead, the action floats past us at a bouncy pace more reminiscent of comedy or even blockbuster horror. It’s easy to float along with the plot, assuming that the stakes are low until suddenly they’re quite high. 

Our main character Sam isn’t a particularly likeable guy; in fact, he could charitably be described as a sex creep, and much of the film’s effect lies in slowly chipping away at the emotional distance the veiwer instinctively maintains from him. That distance bluntly collapses when Sam comes digitally face to face[10] with the very woman he’s mined the dark recesses of Angelino nightlife in search of. He’s been after a connection, but of course the resulting conversation leaves him brutally, decisively alone. I’ve been looking for you, he says.

Really? You hardly know me.

At this point, Sam knows a lot he didn’t know a few days before. But she’s right; he’ll never know her. The scene captures—devastatingly, at least to me—the feeling of talking to someone who you realize will simply never see the world the way you see it. Any communication of substance, any potential exchange of information, is over before it begins. The cult member who’s patched Sam into the subterranean tomb where his crush is waiting to die (long story) says perhaps the one absolutely true thing we’ve heard in the last two and a half hours: Their chamber was covered in a mountain of concrete. It can’t be opened. There’s no reason to upset that girl. 

You’re left to conclude that, by the cult guy’s logic, there wasn’t much reason for Sam to upset himself, either. But he did, with a compulsive single-mindedness that I think anyone who’s suddenly snapped into the present to find themselves once again taking a shit and scrolling through Twitter might recognize. We go looking for people like us, and on good days, the joy we take from finding them might drown out the sadness of talking to someone buried under a mountain of concrete. I could turn mountains into dust, goes that Friendship song. Where would that leave us?

Of course, most people are a little bit of both: lots we recognize, lots we don’t. We’re all entombed in individual concrete mounds, but the mounds have windows; we can reach out and hold each other’s hands. Some of us have learned to take visitors. 

But there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned coverup to put you on edge in unfamiliar surroundings. You start to make it clear you see the world a certain way, and suddenly your neighbors are painting shut their windows from the inside. Even (or perhaps especially) my own sister pointed out to me the irony that the experience of reading this essay might reproduce for the reader the very same sense of isolation from another’s views that the essay itself discusses. I don’t feel like I have a choice: the last few years seem to have brought with them more and more of the watershed political and cultural moments that you just can’t talk about with some people. Who knows, maybe before I wasn’t looking.

If it’s trite or obvious to point out that the internet age has been marked by the apparent fracturing of shared cultural narratives, then that might help explain why noir seems to have gone out of fashion (Under the Silver Lake bombed, despite the success of Mitchell’s previous outing It Follows). Truth is now stranger than fiction. If we used to sympathize with Jake Gittes’ anger and revulsion, now we’ve adopted the resigned outlook of his partner. Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown. 

There is plenty of art about the frenzied frustration of someone beginning to glimpse the whole corrupt picture. There’s much less that deals with the feeling of resigning oneself to the fact that those you love might be looking at something entirely different. Once the hysteria of realization subsides, it can feel very quiet. That silence makes a nonsense of politics; it belies the supposed interconnectedness that our technocratic overlords will tell you characterizes the internet age. Once you can finally hear yourself think, it’s the last thing you want to be listening to. 

***

[1] I use the word “radical” not necessarily in its left political context but in the simpler, traditional sense of “unorthodox” or “advocating change.”

[2] This comes in part from the cognitive dissonance between using such a mainstream pop culture product to describe a countercultural take on an issue, but I suspect it’s way more than that, since I’d still find this gif annoying if I received it while trying to explain my most normie opinions to my most radical friends.

[3] I will venmo $5 to the first person who plugs this schema into the galaxy brain meme.

[4] I also suspect this dynamic is central to understanding the left’s widely bemoaned tendency to cannibalize itself. Namely, it illustrates yet another way that the most “radical” thought (again, in the sense of heterodox) can lead to a mindset that is actually antithetical to radical organizing: left untouched, this sense of isolation will eat away at the very parts of one’s humanity that make organizing possible, like mold at an unused sponge.

[5] I’m sympathetic to the argument that this founding myth of the internet is largely bullshit and that, as a military R&D project turned private utility, the internet has always been just as dominated by establishment influence as any form of media. A conversation for another time.

[6] In my opinion, the least radical conclusion a thinking person ought to come to from seeing the events of February 3, 2020 unfold is that caucuses are a voter suppression mechanism.

[7] Enter Mayor Pete.

[8] In discussing what he refers to as the “spiritual violence” of bullshit employment, Graeber focuses mostly on how the unproductiveness of these jobs cuts against the essentially human desire to create. But his analysis makes it clear that the gulf between the supposed purpose of one’s job and the reality of purposelessness is a significant undercurrent of the bullshit employee’s sadness.

[9] Screenwriter and producer Larry Gross (Streets of Fire, True Crime) wrote in a 1976 article for Film Comment that neo-noirs were “attempting to switch from a psychological to a sociological analysis.” Many people (including Graeber) might of course wonder if the two can be meaningfully distinguished, and at the very least I think you could reasonably argue that, as modern life provides more avenues for the simultaneous and reciprocal fraying of the social and psychic fabric, a huge swath of otherwise dissimilar films have adopted elements of neo-noir.

[10] I don’t think it’s an accident of narrative that this conversation happens over video chat, refracted through a screen.

update

not a lot going on. demoing new songs and thinking about a new record. hopefully some shows in the spring.

since i can’t seem to use this space to write about my band, i’m going to try to use it to write about other things. will post something i’ve been working on tomorrow hopefully. ❤