Rising: Kölsch

Rising: Kölsch

Rising: Kölsch

The folks behind Cologne, Germany’s Kompakt label have always privileged civic pride, so it’s no surprise that they’re fans of Kölsch, a specialty beer endemic to the region that comes with its own culture and rituals. Crisp and light-bodied, Kölsch is typically served in small glasses to ensure that it stays cold to the last drop, and waiters keep rolling them out on a round tray called a kranz, or “wreath,” until patrons specifically ask them to stop. (Once you start drinking Kölsch, it’s very easy to put away quite a lot of it.) So it’s kind of a no-brainer that Kompakt would want to sign a guy that’s actually named Kölsch—Rune Reilly Kölsch, to be precise—who’s fond of bright colors, bold strokes, and cross-pollinating under- and over-ground dance sounds.

A self-described lifelong outsider, the 37-year-old producer grew up splitting his time between anarchic Copenhagen hippie communes (which were sometimes infiltrated with junkies), his grandparents’ posh neighborhood in Germany (where he was looked down upon due to his long hair and leather jacket), and France (where he couldn’t speak the language). He went to his first rave in the early 1990s—“I danced so much I couldn’t walk for two days,” he remembers—and started producing hip-hop and house tracks soon thereafter. “I started DJing, and people just didn’t understand what was going on,” he says, talking about his musical beginnings. “I would play techno records in my school, and other kids were like, ‘What the hell is this shit?’ They all wanted to hear Oasis.”

But eventually, he managed to connect with his audience on a remarkably large scale when a loop-based experiment of his called “Calabria” turned into a worldwide hit thanks to a bit of luck and some clever A&R. Originally released under the alias Rune, the hypnotic 2003 single was first mashed up with a Crystal Waters vocal by sax-loving Italo-dance cornball Alex Gaudino, and that version became a Top 10 hit in several European countries; the track’s cheesecake video has racked up more than 25 million YouTube views. But that wasn’t the end of it: In 2007, Kölsch gave the song a reggaeton-flavored update with new vocals, and that revamp, “Calabria 2007”, went to #46 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Club Songs chart. That video—again, with ample butt-cheek bared—has amassed nearly 32 million views, with 12 million more for a remix featuring one-hit rapper Mims.

All of which makes Kölsch something of an outlier on Kompakt—as well as the only artist on the label to ever have collaborated with mega DJ Steve Aoki. But Kölsch first came to label co-founder Michael Mayer’s attention based on his productions as Ink & Needle, a semi-anonymous project with a clipped, minimalist bent that betrayed little hint of his more widescreen leanings. And Kölsch’s dual identity makes him all the more perfect for an imprint that has often made a point of attempting to bridge the worlds of pop and techno, mainstream and underground, camp and whatever the opposite of camp is. 

And Kölsch’s debut album for Kompakt, last year’s 1977, proved almost uncannily aligned with the label’s sound and vision, from the organ trance and breakbeats of “Oma”, to the pizzicato string synths of “Silberpfeil”, to the obligatory schaffel number, “Wasserschutz”. It all comes together in “All That Matters”, which isn’t afraid to go for full-on sentimentalism, all chimes and falsetto warble; the track sounds like an idealized version of what Coldplay were going for with parts of their latest album, Ghost Stories, and Kölsch has since given that record’s biggest hit, the Avicii-produced “A Sky Full of Stars”, a gloriously extended remix that improves upon the original in every conceivable way. 

Earlier this summer, Kölsch released a new single as part of Kompakt’s Speicher series, which finds him getting refreshingly weird. “Papageno” begins with three and a half minutes of drunken oscillations over a kick drum that bounces like a reflexologist’s rubber hammer before turning into something like Bruce Hornsby covering Arthur Russell. Like most of Kölsch’s tracks, it’s relatively long at nearly eight minutes, and takes its sweet time getting going. It’s not made for the quick, hook-heavy mixing of the EDM world; it’s meant to be teased in and left to play at full length, plunging you deep into its off-kilter world. 

Pitchfork: How did your track “Papageno” come about? It’s such a strange song.

Kölsch: Papageno is actually from the opera The Magic Flute, he’s the joker. When I was 7, we went to see The Magic Flute in Germany, and, as a kid, I didn’t want to go to an opera. But I sat there, pretty well behaved, and this Papageno character comes out and he’s running around, and it dawned on me in that exact moment that the whole higher establishment of the German upper-middle class were staring at me—and not at the actual stage—because I was this little hippie kid, and they did not approve of me being a part of their society. That was a big moment in my life, to understand that I was not like these people. So the song is about that frustration, married to these bittersweet vocals: “It feels good to be falling apart.” 

Pitchfork: Where did you grow up?

K: My mum’s German, and dad’s Irish, and they met each other in Christiania, which is a hippie freak town in Copenhagen; it’s sort of a sovereign state. When you live there, instead of paying rent to the landowners, you pay it to the community. It’s this anarchistic idea. It’s quite an interesting place. It used to be a squatters’ town in the sense that a lot of hippies broke in and made it into what it is today. They’ve just been there so long that the government can’t really kick them out, even though they’ve tried quite a few times. 

I stayed there until I was about 7. At that time, a lot of junkies were moving in, and we left because my parents didn’t think that it was a fitting environment for a 7-year-old. We moved to this collective, which was also fantastic. It was this huge house with a huge garden, and we were these hippie kids running around, having a great time. I’ve always lived in Copenhagen, but I used to go to Germany every summer with my mum and stay there for the school holiday, alternating between that and going to France with my dad and his new wife.

Pitchfork: It sounds like an idyllic childhood.

K: It was very confusing, to be honest. And at times very lonely, because the friends I had in Denmark weren’t in Germany or France. I invented my own world, which translates through 1977. Those songs are about these weird ideas and concepts I had on my mind at the time. That album marks first time I’ve let myself dig into myself. I’ve always done these conceptual things, but I’ve never let myself actually write music that relates to my own life in a real way. 

Pitchfork: As you began producing and DJing in the ‘90s, what was the Danish electronic music scene like? 

K: The scene was ultra-small, like 200 people, and I thought it was something very precious. I would play these crazy parties at squatters’ houses with strobe lights and holes in the ground. It was kind of dangerous. But then, in ’96, I went to [electronic music festival] Love Parade in Germany, and it dawned on me how big this was. I thought it was really underground, but then I saw a million people in the streets going nuts to the same music I was into. It was such a revelation to me.

Pitchfork: The dance music scene has been so globalized for so long, it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t. 

K: It was such an interesting time back then, because it was so mysterious. I remember that when I really liked a track, I had to listen to the DJ that I heard play the track before and hope that he would play it again, because I had no clue what it was or where to get it. Plus, I didn’t have the money to buy any records anyway! Now, you can Shazam something and know exactly what it is. That has its benefits, but back then, it was so magical. It was so different and so alien to what commercial music was. It was such an extension of my body—there was a time when I was borderline religious about techno music.

Pitchfork: More than many electronic artists, you manage to straddle the mainstream and the underground. How do you manage that?

K: It’s all about how much you let yourself experiment. The reason I started doing Kölsch is because the commercial end of things became very limited. I really enjoy the challenge of making a radio record, and it’s super interesting to limit yourself to the 3:33 mark, and verse/chorus, and so forth. I’ve been doing that for many years and I enjoy that, because it is really difficult. But at the same time, I just wanted to let go and do something different. I needed to have that extra output. Five years ago, it wasn’t so segregated, and you’d be able to play more underground tunes in a more commercial set. Now, everything has to fit into this mold, especially with EDM—everybody’s playing the same 15 tracks.

Pitchfork: Were you surprised by the worldwide success of “Calabria” and its subsequent remixes in the 2000s?

K: What’s so funny is that “Calabria” was originally an underground record. That first thing that came out in 2003 was basically inspired by Jeff Mills’ “The Bells”. I wanted to see how far could I go with just one loop: When does it get boring? In a sense, it was never intended as a hit record. It was just, “Let’s see how far can I get by letting this melody do what it does.”

Pitchfork: Considering the longevity of the track, I would assume it must have bought you a certain amount of time and freedom, as well.

K: That’s exactly the point. That’s why I got back into making more experimental tracks, because I don’t really have to think too much about paying the rent in the same way as everyone that hasn’t had the fortune of having a big record like that.

Pitchfork: Do you still get decent royalties from that song?

K: Of course, yeah. It’s become what my old manager would call a wedding song—an evergreen thing that you put on at a wedding and everybody jumps up and goes for it.

5-10-15-20: Richard Russell

5-10-15-20: Richard Russell

5-10-15-20: Richard Russell

Photo by Leon Chew

5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. In this edition, we spoke with 43-year-old Richard Russell. As the head of London’s hugely influential XL Recordings, Russell has released music by the Prodigy, Vampire Weekend, Adele, Dizzee Rascal, M.I.A., Radiohead, and more across the last 25 years, as chronicled in the new compilation, Pay Close Attention. He’s also maintained an identity as an artist and producer for much of his career, making rave records in the 1990s and, more recently, working with Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack, and Damon Albarn. And though he runs one of the most renowned independent labels on Earth, he still finds time for his first love, DJing, including a recent mix for the BBC’s Benji B.

My family was Orthodox Jewish, and we lived in a London suburb called Edgware, which was about 50 percent Jewish. These communities with extremely strong religious and cultural identities tend to be a bit insular and cut-off, and Edgware was the kind of a place where people live their whole lives. But I found that world stifling—I didn’t want my life to be defined by a particular culture that I inherited from my parents. I had a stable upbringing and I’m appreciative of that, but music offered a potential way to escape from a background that I wasn’t going to be comfortable in. 

My parents were second-generation immigrants, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My dad sold insurance and my mom was a primary school teacher. And though I couldn’t see this at the time—because I thought of him as this conservative authority figure—my dad was a bit rebellious for the world he was existing in. Part of his rebellion was listening to things like Ian Dury’s New Boots and Panties!!, which he had on cassette. It’s really profane music, quite rude in a lot of places. Listening to that album in later years, I noticed there’s a song on it called “My Old Man”, which is Ian Dury’s song about his dad. It’s very genuine and heartfelt, and it squared a circle for me. 

A few years ago, my dad and I went to see this play about Ian Dury called Hit Me!—and there cannot be a play in history that has more profanity in it than this play. It’s only got two characters: Ian Dury and his bodyguard, Spider. There’s one point when Dury says to Spider, “If you entered a cunt competition, you’d come second.” And Spider says, “Why?” And Dury says, “Because you’re such a cunt.” Going with your dad to that sort of thing can be awkward, but I felt surprisingly comfortable watching it with him. He really loved the play.

When I was 10, my room was a shrine to Adam Ant. British pop music was very exciting in the early ‘80s, and Adam Ant had this bizarre mishmash of cultural references that he’d stolen and put together—African drums, Native American visuals, along with a very strong pirate fixation—and it was unbelievably exciting to me. If you grew up in a conservative background, seeing Adam Ant on “Top of the Pops” was pretty mind-blowing. It was like, “What the fuck is going on here? This is far from where I am.” It was like seeing someone from outer space. 

The song of his that I really loved was called “Ant Rap”. He actually is rapping on it, and it came out in ’81, so, weirdly, it was one of the first rap records to get made in the UK. There’s been lots of ups and downs when it comes to British rap music, but before legitimate rap records got made here, you had pop artists making rap records, and not doing it badly. 

I remember going off about Adam Ant to two of my older cousins, and one of them mentioned they’d seen him in concert. I was like, “What do you mean? You were in the same room he was in? How did that happen?” They explained to me that anyone can go to a gig and that you just have to pay for a ticket. That was absolutely a moment of realization for me—that these were real human beings. Up to that point, it was total fantasy. Later, I’d come to another realization: That you could actually make music yourself, too. 

I was also really into the Jam. I was familiar with them when I was so young because all of their singles were going to the top of the pop charts in the UK, which I now realize was so amazing and inspiring. [Frontman] Paul Weller was getting out a message that had a lot of integrity to a lot of people. The last one of these singles was called “Beat Surrender”, and at that point they were totally at the top of their game and probably the biggest band in Britain. But Weller decided he had enough of it. He didn’t want to do the Jam anymore. So they went to #1 and then they stopped. It’s quite contrary to how things tend to be done in music these days.

People are far too committed to the idea of success now, and there’s not enough subversion. The audience can sniff out when people’s motivations become questionable and when it’s become more like a business endeavor. I don’t consider myself a businessman. I’ve always tried to be artistic in how we do things at XL. Some people who are known as artists do appear to be more like businessmen, though.

“Beat Surrender” has this lyric that stuck with me: “As it was in the beginning/ So shall it be in the end/ Bullshit is bullshit/ It just goes by different names.” I’ve thought of that recently, because you get people saying that things in music are bad right now because of Facebook, or Twitter, or EDM, or whatever. But it’s the same as it was 30 years ago. Weller was saying that there’s always a lot of bullshit around, but there’s still a certain way of achieving things with no compromise or dilution. That’s quite a useful and instructive thing.

By then, everything’s happening: girls are happening, hip-hop is happening. There’s a wealth of tunes that are incredibly evocative of the period for me, but “Eric B. Is President” is the one I’d pull out. Rakim‘s voice still has a massive impact on me. It still sounds completely fresh. “I came in the door, I said it before”—those words were such an incredible statement of intent, but the way he delivered them was so low-key that it didn’t sound like he was trying. 

In terms of what music was getting made in the ’80s, when I was a teenager, I don’t see how you couldn’t have had your mind blown by hip-hop. It was rock’n’roll starting all over again. I was feeling the same thing a lot of people were feeling, and that connection quickly became obsessional. I’m always meeting fellow ’80s b-boy types, it’s like being a part of the Masons or something.

Even though I was growing up in a Jewish suburb of London, I know I felt that music and what was being said. I didn’t need to hear those records that many times to memorize every word. That connection happens to different people in different places all over the world mainly because of the authenticity of it—when something’s authentic, you don’t have to have had the same experience as the person saying it to relate to it. You just do. I’ve looked for that honesty and rawness in music ever since, because with that comes originality.

Around this time, I was starting to go to Groove Records in Soho and buying one import 12″ single or album at a time: Public Enemy, Paid in Full, LL Cool J’s Radio. The roots of what my life would become were being laid down then, because that shop was owned by Tim Palmer, who started the City Beat label, out of which XL was born. Def Jam, as a label, was incredibly important—just seeing that logo. Record labels were quite noticeable on all those early hip-hop records: Cold Chillin’, Wild Pitch, Tuff City, Next Plateau, Tommy Boy. The quality control of those labels was very good at that time, because there weren’t that many people making hip-hop records. They were run by people who were trying to make money, but there was a real power to those small independent labels in this era, before they started to be bought up by the majors.

The UK had its own breakdancing scene that was very vibrant, and I was a terrible—but committed—breakdancer. My friend and I actually won a competition when I was 12, but it wasn’t a very big competition. We won one copy of Street Sounds Electro 2, a UK-made hip-hop compilation, and I ended up with it. That must’ve been so mean, but I had to have that record. My friend was actually a better dancer than me, too. But he never complained about it. He’s still a good friend. These days, it doesn’t take much persuasion to get me to show off a move—but it wasn’t that impressive then, and it’s a lot less impressive now.

“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash was an important record for me too, and I listened to it on my dad’s hi-fi over and over and over. At one point, my dad came in and said, “What’s a sacroiliac?” And I was like, “What? I don’t know.” And he said, “The guy on the record just said, ‘I can’t turn around, I broke my sacroiliac.'” I felt slightly embarrassed that I couldn’t explain what that was to him, but I really got something from that—every word counts, and you’ve got to listen. Hip-hop wasn’t something my parents massively understood, but it wasn’t that much of a leap from Ian Dury either, in terms of something intensely lyrical and somewhat profane. It didn’t bother them that I listened to rap music or that I had a mixed bunch of friends—what bothered them was how I was obsessed with it to the exclusion of all other things.

I didn’t go to college or anything. I had my first actual DJ gig when I was 16, and I started earning money from it a year later. But at 15 I was still learning and practicing. We basically lived between a freeway on one side and a neighbor who was completely deaf on the other, so my parents would let me play music as loud as I wanted. I learned proper hip-hop DJing, with two copies of a record, in my bedroom. I spent many thousands of hours doing that at enormous volume. 

Going into music and earning a living from that was really unfathomable to my parents—it was as if I told them I was going to fly around on the ceiling. My mum now says that when I started bringing home money from DJing, she thought I was selling drugs, because she thought that was more plausible. I mean, I couldn’t believe when I started to get paid to DJ either. I thought it was just extraordinary. I loved doing it so much. Every musician must have that moment when someone starts paying you—it’s just out of this world. 

The tune I picked for this time was on Shut Up and Dance, which was this rave label from East London, and it’s called “The Green Man”. The song is named after a really rough pub in the East End, which is now a really trendy pub, of course. Shut Up and Dance had this pirate rawness to it, this breakbeat sound that got all of us b-boys into rave music. They also had a punk ethic. Their compilation was called Fuck Off and Die, and they embodied the spirit of what was possible at that time.

I had run away to New York and worked in Vinyl Mania, which was an incredible record shop in Greenwich Village. I was really on my own, a fish out of water, but it was working because I was a bit closer to the music. After coming back to London, I was making rave and hip-hop stuff, and I took some demos to XL to try and get signed, and [XL co-founder] Nick [Halkes] said, “You should come and play these to me when they’re finished.” And I remember thinking, “They are finished!” But I never left XL because I liked the vibe. It was in a basement in Wandsworth; I always liked basements for some reason. There were only two people there, and I just used to hang out and make tea. It felt like that was something you could do. They’d give me records and test pressings, and I’d take them around to other DJs.

XL was very much a home for frustrated b-boys. It was hard to get that far with British hip-hop—no one could sell anything. So people started speeding up breakbeats, adding samples and synth sounds, and not necessarily bothering to rap. And suddenly, people were more interested in what we were doing. We kind of ended up making rave records and being a rave label rather than being on a mission to do that, but maybe there’s an accidental coolness in that. I felt a little bit reluctant about it all at first, but then you saw the impact of it: We were transitioning into something much more original.

While I started working at XL, I carried on being an artist and put out records on a label called Tribal Bass. I’ve always thought of producing, DJing, and doing label things as equally important, and it was only when XL became a bit bigger and more grown up that I started doing label things more. For a time, making music faded for me, which was good for the label, but not that great for me, personally.

I’ve always been a huge Beatles fan. George Harrison is a bit obscured between the towering talents of Lennon and McCartney, but All Things Must Pass is probably the best solo Beatles record. It’s very meditative and healing and unbelievably spiritual. Particularly on “Beware of Darkness”, he’s talking about using spirituality as way out of pain. It made a massive impact on me. I felt like I knew what I was doing as a teenager and then, in my 20s, I gradually lost direction. So that was a time of trying to work out who I was and where I’d come from. More reflective music became interesting to me, and I found real solace in that record. My mid-to-late 20s were a transitional time, as they are for a lot of men; women become more self-aware a lot earlier than men. It’s when you stop being young and start being something else. Some people come to that very early on. Some people come to it very late. Some people never come to it.

XL was a small label, and then we had this worldwide success with the Prodigy, who are incredible artists who have always done things their own way and totally provided the blueprint for everything we’ve done on the label. It was an incredible experience, but there was a considerable hangover from it for everyone involved—it was like I needed a George Harrison record to listen to after coming back from an MTV Awards after party in fucking Milan at Donatella Versace’s house, where Bono was hanging out. That’s never been a world that’s interesting to me. Being exposed to it briefly was a reminder that you have to be deeply into the music, and that’s what counts. 

If you look at what else was going on at XL in the mid-to-late ’90s, we didn’t quite find our way again until the end of that decade, which was around the time I turned 30. The ’90s were weird anyway—in British music, you had Oasis and the Spice Girls. It was the height of the CD era. The major labels were very powerful. It wasn’t really our time. 

Hearing “Tears Dry on Their Own” made me realize there was something very powerful and emotive in Amy Winehouse’s voice. She also came from this Jewish North West London background, and there was so much pain in her voice. I didn’t know her, but I was extremely upset by what happened to her, such a disastrous thing to happen to someone her age. Obviously, it’s a waste of life rather than a waste of talent, but she had a lot more things to say. She had the potential to be one of the absolute greats. Back to Black is up there with Lauryn Hill, Joni Mitchell, or Carole King—one of the greatest-ever female statement records.

There’s this thread of amazing British female soul singers who are influenced by America. Adele is the modern embodiment of that, and it probably started with Dusty Springfield and Sade, who has been an unbelievably important artist—no one else has a career like Sade. With all these records, it’s about the voice. The sound mainly needs to get out of the way. You’re there to hear that person and feel that connection. With the records I have produced in the last few years—Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe, Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots—the voice is loud because that’s the point. You definitely don’t want the production to get in the way, because then you’re not doing the job properly. A lot of music now is overproduced, maybe because the vocalists aren’t special enough. I’m a bit of a minimalist.

I’m also a believer that the word “demo” has become very misused in music, because a lot of the records that we love the most, historically, could be called demos in modern terms; the idea of a demo comes from an era when singers didn’t write their own songs, so the songwriter would demonstrate what the song would sound to the singer. When we started the recording studio at XL, it was quite small and basic, and people used to call it a “demo studio.” But I was like, “No, it’s not a demo studio. It’s a recording studio. I don’t care how small it is. We’re going to make records in it—not records that are half-done, where we have to go somewhere expensive to finish it. That’s not how great records get made anyway.” If the performance of the song is good enough, that rawness can be just what you need.

In some ways I’m idealistic because I believe things that are truly original and executed well can reach a big audience. But the traps are easy to fall in. It can be hard for indie labels to be ambitious enough, because they might not have the resources. And major labels can be a bit too ambitious. It’s about trying to strive for a balance where you can have a sensitivity to the music but also feel like: If there’s a door to be kicked in, we’re going to kick it in.

Burial makes this evocative music that is like the sound of empty clubs. And that sound is really meaningful to me. I like being in a club the day after—when it’s all still sort of reverberating and it smells a bit funny. There is something very magical about that, and the way he’s captured it in his music is just brilliant. He’s been very influenced by older pirate radio sounds, and I love all those sounds: reggae, rave, jungle, drum’n’bass, garage, grime. Burial is capturing that feel, but with this melancholy dustiness. I think Burial’s music will be enormously appreciated 30 years from now—not that he’s unappreciated now, but I suspect that it will last a lot longer than some of the things that are in the mainstream at the moment.

We’re talking about my 30s now, but age doesn’t mean anything when it comes to music. There’s a spirit, and there’s no question that people can lose the spirit, but some people never have the spirit in the first place. And some people can gain the spirit as they get older. Some people come armed with it; I mean, Dizzee Rascal made “I Luv U” when he was 16. When I heard that, I was like, “Wow, a lot of experiences have gone into this bit of music.”

If you’re able to talk about emotional things in a way that means something, no matter what age you are, that’s going to be really powerful. I’m better at being older than I was at being younger. I now appreciate how much of a gift it is to love music and make a living out of it. And the more appreciative you are of it, the more you tend to enjoy what you’re doing. Whereas when I was younger, everything was incredibly fast-paced, and I wouldn’t really reflect. But now I can be more helpful to people because I can listen better.

This is also around the time I started working with Gil on I’m New Here. He was quite a fountain of wisdom then, even though he didn’t live his life in a way that everyone thought was particularly sensible. Maybe he knew he wouldn’t be around forever at that point and he had a lot to impart. Every word was profound. He definitely was touching to be around. And you had to be very, very straight and direct with him. If anyone was not being completely honest, he would know about it in a millisecond. He demanded that people were truthful, and there was unbelievable integrity in that.

I met Jai Paul at XL on my 40th birthday, funnily enough. He had stuff out on MySpace, and everyone thought the same thing when they heard it—you didn’t need to be a genius. It’s just unbelievable from the first note. So original. He was shocked that we got in touch so early, and he said he’d been a big fan of three acts on XL: the Prodigy, M.I.A., and Basement Jaxx. He is clearly a wizard in doing something that could only be done by him. He makes it sound quite effortless, but, as another producer put it to me recently: How does he do that? There’s so much charm to the music, and it’s so melodic, as well as sounding like pirate radio. That’s not easy to do.

He hasn’t put an album out, but what he has put out has had an enormous impact on people—”Jasmine” has had more impact than most people’s whole albums. He’s an artist who’s doing something totally different to anyone else and hasn’t seen fit to release material in the traditional way that the music business is used to. It doesn’t really bother me that much. People should enjoy what is there. 

I don’t know what he’ll do next. I just want someone of his unbelievable caliber to keep making stuff, and, hopefully, we’ll hear it. The fact that people want to hear it so much in this incredibly overcrowded world of music is a testament to how special it is. I mean, we released very good one-off records early on in the days of XL, and he’s beyond a one-off—he’s already properly put out two things

XL doesn’t put out many records at this point, and that is the key—it means people at the label are focused on what they are doing. I feel like it will continue to be like that. Meanwhile, artists can get themselves heard quite easily now, so if you don’t want to waste your time waiting around for XL or anyone else, you can just get on with it.

There’s always some factor making things easier or harder when it comes to running a label, but in the end, you just don’t know what’s going to have an impact. You don’t know what you’re going to hear from day-to-day. You don’t know what you’re going to be listening to next year. You don’t know what someone’s going to make. It’s exciting. I try and look at it all as a fan, which keeps things uncomplicated. There’s no shortage of great music to listen to all the time, but I’m not necessarily trawling for stuff at this point. The good things find their way.

Update: Iceage

Update: Iceage

Update: Iceage

Talking about his band’s desire to expand its sound beyond the roiling hardcore that initially gained them international attention, Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt told Pitchfork last year: “We’re not there yet—and I don’t know if we’re going to get there—but ideally, Iceage should not only cover the emotions that come with a clenched fist, but everything that comes with living our lives.” And while their Matador debut, 2013’s You’re Nothing, offered more shades of humanity than their austere 2011 album New Brigade, the quartet’s forthcoming third LP, Plowing Into the Field of Love, truly broadens their scope in surprising—and affecting—new directions.

This openness is clear from the rambling, country-tinged first single “The Lord’s Favorite” through to the horn-accented drama of tracks including “Forever” and “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”, with reference points like the Gun Club, the Pogues, and Nick Cave coming to mind. It never feels like a stretch, though: When strings, pianos, and those horns enter the picture, they sound purposeful. “We’ve always wanted to make music like this, it just took a while to get there,” says Rønnenfelt over the phone recently. “We have less fears when it comes to taking on whatever we want now.” Yet despite the more expansive, even bouncy instrumentation, Rønnenfelt’s delivery is still as pained as the lyrics he writes—he sings about violence and destruction in a beautiful way. 

Pitchfork: In the video for “The Lord’s Favorite”, you look straight into the camera and have a bit of swagger. The vocals are upfront, which is different from past work. Do you see this new album as more of a pop record?

Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: No, I think it’s still a rock record. You could say that we played the whole “lead singer” aspect up a little bit—that there’s more of a narrative and a protagonist—and part of me wants to be a pop star. But it just made sense to do the video like that since the song is so overly self-confident. It’s about megalomania and love.

Pitchfork: Is the protagonist in the lyrics you or was it created for the record? 

EBR: It’s all me, but I’m molding and crafting myself into this character. There’s a lot going on in my life and I made choices about which subjects to dramatize and how to dramatize them. There’s a great deal of romanticizing the more difficult aspects of my life.

Pitchfork: The lyrics are more understandable, and there’s real power to lines like, “I keep pissing against the moon,” or “bit into flesh much like my own.” It helps to be able to hear exactly what you’re saying. 

EBR: That was our intention. I put more work into the lyrics this time around and I’m a more experienced writer. I’m not trying to hide anything. Also, I’m just better at English now. 

Pitchfork: How does the cover art tie into the rest of the album?

EBR: Well, we were originally going to make a painting, so we spent all our money on a bunch of materials and started working on it. We got a bunch of feathers and gold leaf and colored them in black paint so you could see the texture. But during the second day of painting, it became more and more apparent that it was just a piece of crap that was totally unusable for a record cover. We spent one more day painting, but it just got worse and worse. Then Kristian Emdal, who did the last album cover, took a photo of it—we had a faint hope that it might look good in a photo—but it looked even worse. And it was really close to our deadline. We were panicked. We had one day to figure out a record cover and had no ideas.

We tried brainstorming, and the only idea was “high-heeled shoes.” So we went and got a high-heeled shoe from the lady that lives upstairs. What else? That palm tree looks nice. OK. So we had a high-heeled shoe and a palm tree, which was not really anything, so the next question was, of course, “Who’s gonna wear the high-heeled shoe?” We looked around [bassist] Jakob [Tvilling Pless] parents’ living room and saw that his little brother was sitting on the floor playing with his toys. We all looked at him and asked, “Hey, would you mind posing for a photo in this shoe?” Of course, there’s an irony to having the title Plowing Into the Field of Love next to a kid in a high-heeled shoe, but that’s not really what it’s about. I think it’s a nice wrapping for this record. It doesn’t have any big symbolism. 

Pitchfork: The title track opens with an acoustic guitar and ends with these huge horns and vocals, and the chorus could inspire people to hold up lighters. It strikes me as the biggest song you’ve written. How did it come about?

EBR: I think it’s a good song, though I had my doubts when writing the chorus, because it’s almost like an Oasis chorus. The first draft of the lyrics were written in two weeks I spent in Berlin this January, and the song is a very nice summary of the days I spent there. 

Pitchfork: This is an ambitious record, but there’s still a lot of anxiety and darkness in the lyrics. 

EBR: Some people have mistaken this record for being more positive or lighthearted, but opening up the songs actually just enhances the yearning and the anxiety. We’ve never really been a band that’s stated anything. We’re only raising questions.

Update: The Vaselines

Update: The Vaselines

Update: The Vaselines

Photos by Niall Webster

Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee don’t seem to sweat timing much, or at all. When they were recording their first album as the Vaselines, Dum Dum, they were a couple; when it came out in 1989, they had already broken up, and the band was over. Then, when Kurt Cobain covered them three times—with Incesticide’s “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun”, and “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” from Unplugged—they took advantage, somewhat. Kelly’s post-Vaselines band Captain America toured briefly with Nirvana when Nevermind was changing the tides of popular music and also levied the superstar’s attention into a major-label deal. 

But the Vaselines are not a band about opportunity; they are a band about serendipity. McKee and Kelly only get together when they feel like it. So they waited until 2010 to record a follow-up to their debut LP—and they called it Sex With an X. They’re back again, only a few years later this time, for no greater reason than it seemed like fun. They have a congenital allergy to planning things too far ahead or taking things too seriously, which has served them and their off-the-cuff legacy well. 

The new album, V for Vaselines, dips back into the well of sweet, smutty innocence that has kept Kelly, 49, and McKee, 48, feeling youthful. When I talk to them on the phone, they rib each other constantly, and McKee laughs her head off the entire time. They still feel like an open secret, somehow.

Pitchfork: How often do you guys see each other outside of the band now?

Frances McKee: [laughs] As little as possible. 

Eugene Kelly: Only when a lawyer’s allowed it. 

Pitchfork: How far apart do you live from each other?

FM: Not far enough. [laughs]

EK: I think 10 minutes on a bike, isn’t it?

FM: Well, if I’m cycling, it’s about 15 minutes.

Pitchfork: You guys have known each other for so long now. Do you write about your own history, or is it so ancient now that you don’t rehash it?

EK: I don’t think any of the songs refer to anything in our past, in that way. There’s history, but it’s a different kind: We try to write about things or people we know. 

FM: That was a long time ago, and I think Eugene’s had at least one good woman since me, but I’ve had thousands of men, so it could apply to any of them! I’ve had to do a lot of dumping in my time.

Pitchfork: That’s quite a pull quote. Thank you.

FM: Oh my goodness. Don’t tell my children!

Pitchfork: This is going to be on the Internet. 

EK: I think Frances sometimes forgets we’re not just having a conversation.

Pitchfork: Eugene, do you have kids? 

 EK: No, never. I have a very hard time looking after myself, really. I have no pets and I have no plants. Nothing I can’t walk away from in five minutes. 

Pitchfork: Frances, does Eugene ever see your kids? Is he like their cool uncle?

FM: Yeah, my children do call him Old Uncle Eugene. He even made my little girl cry.

EK: It wasn’t me. You made her cry! 

Pitchfork: I’ve heard that a Ramones cover band helped inspire V for Vaselines. How did that happen? 

EK: I was at a birthday party in a place in Glasgow called The Old Hairdressers, a loft-type place that’s quite New York-like. And the Ramones tribute band had people from different bands that had done this just for fun, and it made me really re-appreciate the Ramones’ music again. I hadn’t listened to them for ages, and every song was amazing. I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to write really short, instant pop songs like that again?”

FM: I had my own Ramones moment, and it was a coincidence that we both ended up talking about them. One of my sons was getting really into the Stooges, and the other one was getting into the Ramones, so that music was getting played a lot in my house, and I had this sudden realization of how utterly unbelievably brilliant these songs are. There’s nothing difficult about them at all.

Pitchfork: Was it hard to plug into that simple, primal place again?

EK: We had done that intuitively before, and it’s really hard to go back. The more time you take to write, the more you start adding things and expanding, and before you know it, you’ve written all these four-and-a-half-minute songs and everything is so important, so you can’t drop a part. It’s hard to remember how to scale back. So this was our attempt at writing songs that were as short as possible while making them achieve the most. The longest song on the album is four minutes and that’s the ballad.

Pitchfork: Do you feel that you’re better than you used to be now? 

EK: We know what we’re doing a bit more. Before, it was kind of ramshackle. You can tell as you listen to the old stuff, there are odd things like songs with no chorus, or songs with just the chorus, or the guitar solo comes after the first verse. We didn’t know what we were doing!

Pitchfork: Who inspired the lines “goodbye crazy lady, I’m over you” on “Crazy Lady”?

FM: That was one of the very last lyrics to go on the song, and it actually came the same week that Margaret Thatcher died. But it can mean lots of things as well. 

EK: Lyrically, we’re not really specific. Though, on the first record, I remember there were certain songs where I was thinking about somebody when I sang.

FM: Who were you thinking about? [laughs]

EK: Not you.

FM: I knew you were thinking about someone else!

EK: I was thinking about me. They’re all about me, actually.

FM: I really wanted Eugene to sing that line [on “Goodbye Crazy Lady”] because I really like Lee Hazlewood and we had to channel that kind of voice for it. It can be quite serious, and then that comes in and makes it all less serious.

Pitchfork: Speaking of Lee Hazlewood, “Single Spies” has a melancholy, sophisticated vibe that reminded me of him. 

EK: That tune was mine, but the lyrics are always a split between us.

FM: In the main, we’ll pass the lyrics back-and-forth and see what takes hold. I’ll write a chunk and then Eugene marks it with pen and changes them.

EK: I’m mostly just correcting her spelling and grammar.

Pitchfork: What do you do when you’re not playing together in the Vaselines?

FM: What do you do, Eugene?

EK: I just tend to lick the window until Frances comes back to the house. I’m like a puppy dog sitting by the window waiting for Frances. Actually, I do some solo stuff. I’ve written a couple songs for theatre shows in the past couple years. And Frances does her solo stuff, and she supported Neutral Milk Hotel recently at the Barrowland in Glasgow.

FM: I’ve been teaching yoga for about 20 years as well. Way before it was cool! I taught yoga to a field full of people at ATP, and it was really fun teaching yoga to people that had been up all night doing drugs. 

Pitchfork: Were you there, Eugene? Did you take the class? 

EK: I wouldn’t go that far. I showed up. I had to support Frances. 

FM: He did well. He wanted to do naked yoga, but I said no.

Cover Story: Strange Visitor: A Conversation With Aphex Twin

Cover Story: Strange Visitor: A Conversation With Aphex Twin

Cover Story: Strange Visitor: A Conversation With Aphex Twin

“Nice bit of porn!” Richard D. James says as he hoists a duffel bag off the floor, extracts a boxy black machine, and lays it on the table next to his empty juice glass. “That is a good piece of fucking equipment.” I wish I could tell you more about the gear in question, but honestly, his mini-tutorial flies by in a blur, because, well: Aphex Twin is sitting in front of me, showing off his fucking drum machine.

James has never been known as a terribly forthcoming talker. For years, what few interviews he gave, he conducted only by email—and those could be almost painfully curt. In one from 2011, for example, a reporter from Spain’s biggest newspaper asked him about his relationship with his public. “I hate them.” What does he look for when he composes? “Nothing.” How does he know when a song is finished? “When I’m sick of making it.” 

Even when he was in the habit of giving face-to-face interviews, back in the 1990s, he could often barely contain his apparent disdain for those asking the questions, or the very concept of journalism itself. Hence the extensive Aphex Twin mythos that developed out of his wild and essentially unverifiable claims: that he lived in a bank vault, drove a tank, shared the name of his dead brother, was sitting on a trove of a thousand unreleased songs. Over time, he grew into electronic music’s very own misanthropic version of Paul Bunyan.

More importantly, the last Aphex Twin album, Drukqs, came out 13 years ago, putting an end to a prodigious decade-long run. It’s not that he stopped making music since. In 2005, he released 11 EPs of gritty acid techno via his Analord series. A pair of 2007 releases by an artist named the Tuss, on James’ own Rephlex label, were generally acknowledged to be his work. And he has continued to perform, including a string of live appearances in 2011 and 2012, along with a DJ set under his AFX alias at this year’s Glastonbury. But as the years went on with no new proper Aphex Twin album, it became easy to wonder if Drukqs would turn out to be his last. Perhaps he preferred taunting his fans with all those alleged unreleased songs to actually releasing music.

But this year, all those guessing games went out the window. First, James’ legendary “lost” Caustic Window album finally found its way to the public via an ingenious crowd-funding campaign, apparently with his blessing. And then, almost as though all that hubbub had roused him from his slumber, Aphex Twin’s long hiatus came to an end. A chartreuse blimp emblazoned with his logo was spotted floating over London; then came a tweet from his long-dormant Twitter account leading to an album title, Syro, and a tracklisting unleashed via the deep web. Finally, in late August, his longtime label Warp announced the album’s release date: September 23. The next day, I find myself on an early-morning flight to London to meet up with James at a hotel near Charing Cross.

To be honest, I had my doubts that an interview would transpire at all—or at least, a traditional sort of interview. Given the surveillance trickery involved in the album’s campaign—visitors to a Syro website were shown a virtual profile of their own computer—maybe I’d be speaking into a one-way mirror. Maybe he would interview me. Maybe, if I was really lucky, I’d get to go up in that blimp. But no: As I’m ushered to the rear of the hotel dining room and sit down at a cluttered table, there he is—ponytailed, bearded, looking pretty much exactly as you’d expect—pulling his drum machine out of a duffel bag and rhapsodizing about the benefits of analog sound.

There is one twist to it all: His wife, Anastasia, is also at the table, sketching both of us as we talk. My impromptu portrait comes out horrifyingly wooly, but it’s definitely me; James looks even more like himself, though his lips are odd, like two white worms. (“Look at my lips!” he laughs, when he sees his wife’s finished work, pursing them in imitation.)

But what might be most mind-boggling is how relaxed James turns out to be—how friendly, copacetic, almost jolly. This is not the cantankerous Aphex Twin of the monosyllabic answers and intentional provocations. Instead, here’s a 43-year-old guy you could easily imagine sharing a beer with at a hotel bar—slightly neurotic, a little mischievous, mildly self-deprecating, sure, but generally pretty down-to-earth. He speaks openly about the new album, which features tracks recorded across the last seven years, and cheerfully indulges my questions about his listening habits, ‘90s rave culture, and what he’s got in store for the future. He even talks about his kids.

Pitchfork: How do you pronounce Syro? 

Richard D. James: “Sigh-ro.” It’s just a made-up word my kid came up with. I don’t know what it means, and he doesn’t know what it means, either. But it means something. And it sounds cool. That’s it, basically. [laughs] It’s really funny, because if you make up words, then people project their own meanings onto it, which I find interesting. I looked at a forum last night, and there was already about 10 pages of people doing acronyms of Syro: “Sell Your Rotten Ovaries,” or something. [laughs]

Pitchfork: What does the release of this album mean to you?

RDJ: End of a chapter. It’s like, “OK, fuck that lot off.” Now I can now concentrate on some new stuff. And you can’t quite do that unless you’ve released something. I mean, you can, but you can’t properly. Because I’ve been making music and releasing it for so long, I’ve got that production-line thing in my brain: I can’t do anything new until the last one’s out. 

Also, if you’re making things at home, there is no structure—no end, no beginning. So releasing stuff is a really nice way to have dividers in between what you do, and giving yourself a kick up the ass and saying, “OK, that’s the end of that period.” Otherwise, it’d be really hard to catalog it. But my filing system’s really crap because I can never decide whether to sort things by studio, or year, or where I lived. So with an album, at least it’s been set in stone and backed up 100,000 times, or however many copies you sell. Hopefully five million backups!

Pitchfork: What made you decide that either the tracks were done or you were ready finally to put an album out? What was the catalyst?

RDJ: It’s because I finished making a studio in Scotland that I’d been building for about three years. It took so long. I had this engineer helping me wire all the patch bays together, and he was doing it for about three months, every day, and then he realized he was doing it all wrong and had to start again. That was pretty brutal. So it’s kind of like, “OK, I’ve done that now, it’s the end of an era.”

But then I realized I actually like making studios more than making music, because I like the possibilities of what you can do. I make these setups that will achieve some sort of purpose, so the way I’ve wired it together becomes the track in itself.

Pitchfork: Is rearranging the studio part of your compositional process?

RDJ: It’s constant. When I look at commercial studios, I think, “Oh, they’re all so nice and tidy,” but it’s because they don’t actually write music in them. They’re just for producing stuff that’s already been written. Whereas if you’re writing stuff in studios, it’s always changing, and you’re always swapping equipment around. I just really wish I could bloody keep the same setup for more than about five minutes, because then I would actually get good at that setup. But I just get bored and swap things out. Fucking ridiculous. 

If it takes you three years to set up a studio, and you’ve made one track with that setup, then the logical thing to do is not change anything and just do another one using the same set of sounds. Which I’ve done, and it’s always really good because it’s all ready to go. But I just can’t keep it the same. I’ve always got to change something. All the tracks I’ve done in the last five years were made in like six different studios. It gets a bit complicated. 

Pitchfork: Yet Syro holds together well. As a listener, I wouldn’t think these were songs that had been made in different years and different studios.  

RDJ: I suppose that’s good in one way. In another, I’d like them all to be totally different, because I’ve got all these different setups, so it should be really different. So it’s probably good for [the album], but it actually makes me think I’m pretty shit. 

Pitchfork: Most of the track titles seem to reference classic hardware, like the Korg Mini Pops and the Sequentix Cirklon. Are those the machines you used on the songs? 

RDJ: Pretty much. I actually made an equipment list that’s in [the limited-edition box set version of the album]. I’ve never done one of those before, so the fans will be like, “What? Really? Fuck me sideways!” I am so insane for equipment, so that story needs to be told. And the list is fucking massive. It is so stupid. It was really hard to do—I gave up about 10 times. I thought I would be able to remember what every bit of equipment was for each track, but I totally couldn’t. I was like, “What is that fucking synth?” So I didn’t put every single thing down, but I tried my best until I started going mad. 

I used to be a bit secretive and didn’t want people to know what I was using, or get too fixated and waste their money buying equipment, because it’s not about what equipment you have, it’s what you do with it.

Syro equipment list:

Pitchfork: One interesting thing about the record is how every song keeps morphing—I don’t think there are two bars that are identical in any track. It’s like an organism.

RDJ: It can be quite impenetrable for most people, because you can’t latch on to something. It sounds quite random at first. I’m a quite erratic person: From setups to actually when I’m doing a track, it’s just turning and switching and changing all the time. But there is a method. People just have to take time to work it out.

Pitchfork: What was the thinking behind spitting back users’ own computer information on the Syro website?

RDJ: It came from wanting to show the audience rather than me at gigs, because I don’t want them to see me. I wanted to do gigs where you’ve just got mirrors on the stage, and then you light the crowd so they look at the stage and all they can see is themselves. It’s just like, “There you go, it’s you, you cunts.” [laughs] But they couldn’t do the thing with mirrors, so the compromise was filming the audience and doing face-mapping, so the audience is just looking at themselves, basically. These sites were just a continuation of that—you’re looking at it and going, “Oh, that’s my computer.” 

Pitchfork: Were you in the Aphex Twin blimp that flew over London last month?

RDJ: No, but it would have been good, wouldn’t it? Get a zeppelin and ride underneath it, DJing. Maybe next time. 

“Forget all the equipment, forget the music, at the end of the day it’s just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That’s what’s everyone’s essentially after.”

Pitchfork: There seems to be a lot of your own voice on this album.

RDJ: Yes, it’s mine, my two kids, my wife, my mum and dad are on there in places. It’s all chucked in the mix. 

Pitchfork: I can’t understand a word of it, but I like that it’s in there.

RDJ: That’s usually the intention. That’s another way of withholding some details for yourself. Because you don’t know what someone’s saying, whereas I do. Not that I would expect anyone to care, but it’s a way of keeping your privacy.

Pitchfork: I actually put one phrase into software and reversed it, because I thought that it had been reversed, but that just made it sound… more reversed.

RDJ: I was doing that. My wife’s Russian, and it always sounds backwards when they talk. “Nyuzz-nyuzz-nyuzz.” But if you reverse that, it sounds even weirder. 

Pitchfork: I noticed the title of the last song on the album, the solo piano one, is “Anastasia” spelled backwards. 

RDJ: Yeah, it’s written for my wife. When I first did that, I did this installation-y art thing at the Barbican with a remote orchestra. [The song] was made on my Disklavier [controlled piano], which was swung from the roof at that gig, and there was this massive Doppler effect. It is pretty mental. There’s a bad cameraphone version of it on YouTube, but in the flesh it’s amazing. To listen to this piano swinging, you almost see all the notes stretching out, so it’ll hit you at different times. I never knew if it was going to work, and everyone was like, “What the fuck is he swinging a piano for?” But when we actually got it going, we were just like, “fucking hell.” It was so extreme. My friends were like, “Are the strings stretching?” The pitch deviation is that big, it sounds like the actual frame is contorting. Maybe it is, I don’t know!

Pitchfork: In most of your music, there’s a lot of interest in detuned sounds and these very shivery, in-between sorts of harmonies. Do you remember when you first discovered those sounds?

RDJ: I don’t know when I did, but I’ve always liked these weird scales and tunings. I’ve been using my own scales for quite a long time now, since Selected Ambient Works Volume II. It’s got some scales I made myself, where I just make my own tuning and compose from that. I’ve got a weird balance problem as a human being, like I’m dizzy, and it’s something to do with that. I’ll fall over sometimes, just walk into walls. There’s something wrong with my brain, it doesn’t work properly! I can hear the same pitch in both ears, whereas for most people, if you listen to one pitch in one ear, it’s slightly different in the other. That’s how your brain works out direction. But mine’s really close. I don’t know what it is, something internal.

Pitchfork: Maybe that’s your problem—your pitch is too perfect.

RDJ: Maybe. But it always sounds more right to me when it’s detuned. When it’s right in tune, it’s like there’s something slightly off. But at the end of the day, it’s all about frequencies and what they do to you. That’s the real core. Forget all the equipment, forget the music, it’s just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That’s what’s everyone’s essentially after. 

“My 5-year-old’s made loads of totally insane music on his computer, and I’m just like, ‘What the fuck is that?
What have I done to him?'”

Pitchfork: Would it be fair to say that you’re a sound artist as much as musician?

RDJ: Yeah. It is all about sound, but people forget that. They think, “Oh, I want to hear a nice tune.” But what you’re actually saying is you want to hear the combination of frequencies that make you feel a certain way. And more excitingly, it’s about finding out the new ones. A lot of composers before me have been on this mission to change the world by getting off equal temperament, and I’m definitely one of those. 

You’re brainwashed in the West with equal temperament, so it’s quite hard for people who like following rules to get outside of that and see what you can do. But for me it’s easy because I don’t work like that. I work intuitively. I actually prefer it if I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. If you’ve got an equal temperament piano keyboard, then you know what you’re going to get if you play certain chords. But I actually like it if you don’t know where the notes are, because then you do it intuitively. You’re working out a new language, basically. New rules. And when you get new rules that work, you’re changing the physiology of your brain. And then your brain has to reconfigure itself in order to deal with it. 

So if you hear a C-major chord with an equal temperament, you’ve heard it a million times before and your brain accepts it. But if you hear a chord that you’ve never heard before, you’re like, “huh.” And your brain has to change shape to accept it. And once it’s changed shape, then you have changed as a person, in a tiny way. And if you have a whole combination of all these different frequencies, you’re basically reconfiguring your brain. And then you’ve changed as a person, and you can go and do something else. It’s a constant change. It could sound pretty cosmic and hippie, but that is exactly what’s going on. 

Pitchfork: Do you feel like you’ve changed?

RDJ: Yeah, you change all the time. Everything changes you. We’re different people since we sat down here, aren’t we. And it’s all really subtle. You hear a horrible track and it changes you in a really horrible way. But I think things that are shit don’t actually change you that much, apart from just getting on your nerves. That’s the whole point—you’ve heard it all before. But when it’s something different, it actually will change you. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s the whole point.

Pitchfork: How has being a father changed you? 

RDJ: You can’t even begin to go into it. It’s totally weird. They’re like computer-programmed versions—clones—of yourself. They’re making music now. My 5-year-old’s made loads of totally insane music on his computer, and I’m just like, “What the fuck is that? What have I done to him?” He’s using Renoise. I didn’t tell him how to use it, he just downloaded a crack off Pirate Bay. Age 5! He set up a Bandcamp, and he’s published some tracks on there. I’ve since showed him how to record his voice and stuff like that. I just can’t believe that’s what’s happening. 

It’s in his DNA. The way they treat computers is just mindboggling to me. He’s got quite an expensive Mac, and he just carries it around like [waves book in the air]. It’s like part of his body, swinging off his arm. It’s so weird. That’s kind of what I was always dreaming about, in a way. Like a cyborg. We’re almost there, aren’t we. Halfway there.

Pitchfork: Does having kids change your approach to music at all?

RDJ: Well, I made some music with them, actually. I played two tracks we made to the Warp people, and they said it sounded like a combination of Mark Fell and Holly Herndon. I’m trying to work out more ways to involve my children, because the way I do stuff is so anti-kid, it’s really boring. It’s not fun. It is to me, but not to them, because they don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m just sitting there doing nothing as far as they’re concerned. But sometimes I’ll be working on a sound for ages, and I’ll say to my kid, “Sorry if it’s too loud, I’ll put my headphones on in a minute.” And he’s like, “No, I really like it. I came in to listen to you doing that.” And he just turned 6. It was like, “Really? Fuckin’ hell.” He actually likes his dad working on one sound for four days. I think he finds it relaxing.

Next: Richard D. James on his own musical holy grail, why he prefers to remain anonymous, and what he’s planning to do next.

Pitchfork: In the ’90s, your music existed in a kind of dialectical relationship with rave culture. Do you miss that?

RDJ: Yeah, I do, actually. For years, I could listen to jungle and nick things from them, but they didn’t know I existed. It was a separate world. But that world doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all merged into this global Internet world. It’s a real shame. I really don’t like that. But that’s just globalization. It’s got good sides as well. But scenes aren’t allowed to develop on their own anymore. Everyone knows about everything. 

The holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever. Or, even better, from lots of different planets. And the closest we got to that was before the Internet, when people didn’t know of each other’s existence. Now, that doesn’t really happen. 

I used to love jungle. I still think it’s the ultimate genre, really, because the people making it weren’t musicians. The best artists are people who don’t consider themselves artists, and the people who do are usually the most pretentious and annoying. [laughs] They’ve got their priorities wrong. They’re just doing it to be artists rather than because they want to do it. And a lot of jungle people were actually car mechanics and painter-and-decorator types, like, pretty hardcore blokes. I wouldn’t want to get into a fight with them. I know a few people who were like that, and I don’t think that really exists any more. Maybe those sort of non-musician types do some dubstep stuff, or grime. But it didn’t exist in jungle for long. There was only a couple of years where people didn’t know what they were doing, and you got all these samples that are just totally not related in pitch. I really hunt down those records. They’ve got this ridiculous mishmash of things that totally don’t go with each other at all. Obviously, after they’ve done it for a couple of years they learn how to make chords and stuff, and it’s not so interesting now. 

Pitchfork: How did you feel about the recent success of the Kickstarter campaign to distribute your previously unreleased Caustic Window album from 1994?

RDJ: It was just really touching, the whole thing. Because I try to distance myself from my fans, but something like that is just so nice. And when they reached the goal on Kickstarter and it kept going up—people just wanted to give it money, even though they didn’t need to do it, because they’re just going to get a download from someone. It’s like, “Oh wow, humanity is nice after all.” But it’s totally weird, just thinking that people like your stuff that much.

Pitchfork: Why had you not released it in the first place?

RDJ: Just got forgotten about, basically. Just got shelved. I wanted to change one track and never got around to it. I just thought people would be like, “Yeah, it’s all right, kind of average.” But fans were just so happy to get it, fucking hell. I’ve got thousands more like that at home. I should release all that stuff as well. That’s the thing, I did a lot of tracks for quite a few years before I released Ambient Works, so there’s this whole other persona people don’t even know about, and probably wouldn’t even recognize. 

Pitchfork: It’s funny, because I’ve read so many interviews with you where you’ve talked about this enormous archive of unreleased material, and I always thought you were being cryptic, coy, or self-aggrandizing. But hearing you explain it now, I suddenly believe you.

RDJ: “It’s probably true!” Yeah. Well, when it comes to my stuff, things totally go missing: I still lose them and erase them by mistake.

Syro cover:

Pitchfork: You’ve said that you prefer to keep some of your music to yourself. Is it nerve-wracking to be sending it out into the world again? 

RDJ: No. Basically, if I start doing something new, the reason for doing it is because I haven’t heard anyone else do it. That’s usually the main inspiration. So if I started doing something new today, and it’s the first experiment, I get excited because I haven’t heard anything like that before. But if I released that on the Internet tomorrow, then it would totally put me off continuing that experiment, because people would hear it and copy it, and it wouldn’t be new anymore. I’ll take something to its logical progression on my own, and then when I’m done with it, it’s like, “OK, chuck that out there.”

But I don’t think these [Syro] tracks are particularly innovative. Maybe in really subtle ways they are, for me, but there’s nothing there that I need to explore more, so it’s not going to put me off releasing anything. It just totally makes me want to not do anything else in that particular style. 

Pitchfork: Is that why you’ve used so many different aliases over the years?

RDJ: Actually no—I’ve just done that for a laugh. And I might keep doing it, just keep being anonymous and doing different names. 

Pitchfork: Since the last Aphex Twin album 13 years ago, have there been other things you put out that we don’t know about?

RDJ: Maybe, maybe not! [laughs] I might keep doing that as well, because it’s more interesting for me to stick things out anonymously. You get more of an honest reaction to what you’ve done. There’s no expectation in what people say. But that changes from culture to culture. In America, it’s quite admirable if someone’s done well or been successful at whatever it is. Whereas in Britain, they’re not. They only like it when you’re the underdog. As soon as you get famous, they’re like, “He thinks he’s fucking God, that guy.” So in Britain, it’s good for me to be anonymous, because they just think it’s a nobody. “Who is this guy?” 

“It’s more interesting for me to stick things out anonymously—
you get more of an honest reaction to what you’ve done.”

Pitchfork: You seem to perform more often than you put out records. Is there a reason for that?

RDJ: Well, the last load of gigs I just did it for money, basically. I really didn’t—I did enjoy it, but the good gigs are always the smaller gigs. The few I’ve done recently, just for fun, totally anonymously, were so much better than a normal gig: The soundsystem’s usually shit, but it’s really nice when nobody knows who you are. I did this normal gig at Glastonbury that was really good, and then I did one the next day, and only one or two people knew I was doing it. There was 10 people in a little bar in Glastonbury, dancing, when I got there. I DJ’d for about five hours, and by the end, it was just totally rammed. They slowly got attracted in. That was so much more fun. 

Pitchfork: What were you playing at that smaller gig?

RDJ: Loads of different stuff, like weird disco or cosmic funk—stuff I would never play at an Aphex gig. That’s like proper DJing, because when I’m DJing at a bigger gig, it’s not really DJing. You’re not like working the floor, and people are going to get into it whatever you play. 

Pitchfork: But you’ve never been one to “work the floor,” exactly.

RDJ: Well, at bigger gigs, I sort of know what people are doing, and I do react to them, but not in the same way as if nobody knows who you are. Because then you have to. You can’t rely on the fact that people know you. At Glastonbury, when they all knew I was DJing, everyone was cheering even though they’d never heard some of the tracks I was playing before. Then I played the same tracks in this other place, and people are like, “What’s so good about that?” They don’t know what it is. You get the benefit of the doubt if people know who you are. 

Pitchfork: What’s living in Scotland like? How long have you been up there?

RDJ: About 8 years. It’s just brilliant, living in the middle of nowhere, a small community. People are slowly getting to know that I live there, and that’s not so good, but they don’t really care if you’re famous or semi-famous or whatever. It’s only interesting when you’re from somewhere else, like America or Japan. The further away the more interesting it is.

Pitchfork: Do you get recognized much?

RDJ: Occasionally, yeah, which is a bit annoying, but it’s usually at gigs or festivals or music shops. I got recognized in this vegan café the other day when I was with my kids, and they got so excited. There were these people at the same table as me, and they sat right there. Normally you can kind of run away, but we were stuck in this really close situation. And this guy was looking at me, like, “Oh, are you so-and-so?” I was like, “yeah.” We were waiting for our food before we could go, and I was just like, “oh, fucking hell!” And my son was like, “Yeah! I’ve seen somebody recognize you!” He was really happy.

“If you’ve got a stick hitting a drum and you’re programming it on a computer, it’s more interesting than a sample playing back—
it’s something in the air, that’s the magical ingredient.”

Pitchfork: Have you been working on any other new music as of late?

RDJ: I’ve been doing loads of electro-mechanical stuff with drum robots and things like that. I’ve got four MIDI pipe organs and a Disklavier controlled piano and computer-controlled percussion. I’ve done loads of stuff with those, and none of that’s on [Syro], that’s all for other projects. That other material is maybe even better than—well, I prefer it to this album, but I don’t think it’s as accessible. But it’s more unique. Maybe these [Syro] tracks are more pleasurable to listen to, but it’s not that new for me. Maybe the composition’s changed, but there’s no next-level beats on there. I’ve kept it like that on purpose. All the other stuff, which is kind of uncategorizable, is waiting to be fitted into another folder somewhere.

Pitchfork: Are you actually building these electro-mechanical instruments yourself? 

RDJ: No, I’m usually buying them or giving people instructions how to make them, and they go and do it. I’m not any good at doing stuff like that, or wouldn’t want to, anyway. There was some crazy dude on eBay selling these MIDI pipe organs for people to have in their living rooms. They sound fucking brutal! Soon as I turned it on, I played some Christmas carol, and it totally sounded like—fuck knows—some Ligeti piece. I mean, the amount of time you’d have to spend getting it to sound nice would be ridiculous, but it sounds good to me straightaway, because it was all sort of bashed in. 

Pitchfork: Is that like the stuff Squarepusher was working on with his recent Music for Robots album?

RDJ: Well, when he released that, I was like, “Oh, fuck, I’ve been doing that for ages.” But mine’s totally different to what he did. And I was reading about one of the Autechre guys, and someone had said to him, “Have you done anything with MIDI robots?” and he was like, “Every cunt’s doing that now.” [laughs] But it’s definitely a super interesting thing to do. Maybe people are doing it to be cool or whatever, but to me it’s what you want; if you’re controlling real instruments, it’s better than a synth. You’ve got more to start with straightaway, so it’s easier to work with. The practicalities are more difficult, but if you’ve got a stick hitting a drum and you’re programming it on a computer, it’s so much more interesting than a sample playing back, though it ends up kind of sounding like samples anyway. But it’s real, it’s something in the air, that’s the magical ingredient—when something moves through the air, it’s automatically going to sound more interesting. You can do that with samples, too. They call it re-amping, where you take sounds, stick them out through a speaker or guitar cabinet, and record it again. Then it’s been in the real world and put back into the computer. It’s a nice thing to do.

Guest Lists: J Mascis

Guest Lists: J Mascis

Guest Lists: J Mascis

Photo by Justin Lapriore

Guest List features artists filling us in on their favorite things, along with other random bits. This time, we spoke with Dinosaur Jr. leader and overall guitar-rock icon J Mascis, whose latest solo album, Tied to a Star, is out now on Sub Pop. We recommend reading this with Mascis’ famously laconic speaking voice and beyond-bone-dry sense of humor in mind

Favorite TV Shows

I like “Legit”, “Louie”, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, and “Seinfeld”. There’s that one “Seinfeld” episode about bringing your own maple syrup to diners in New York. I actually used to do that, but I was paranoid and would hide it in a Ziploc bag. It was kind of messy. Some people have a real fear of maple syrup being all sticky in their hair and stuff—I can deal with it, but I have some friends who are mortified. Anyway, I never got caught at the diners; I was pretty sly. People were always like, “Why are you even hiding that? Why would they care?” But then I saw that “Seinfeld” where Jerry does get caught and thought, “That’s what I’m scared of.”

Most Useful YouTube Tutorial

I watched one about how to fix a speaker where the cone thing in the middle was pushed in. The guy took a vacuum cleaner and popped it out. So I tried that, and it didn’t work as well as it did on YouTube, but it worked. Some rotten kid pushed it in—it wasn’t my 6-year-old son, but he was there when it happened, so I don’t know his involvement, exactly.

Favorite Thing About Being a Dad

Just hanging out, seeing what he says. I’m always surprised by what comes out of his mouth. My friend was saying that my son seems like a little midget and not really a kid—he comes up with a lot of wisecracks. He probably gets that from me. 

Dream Tattoo

I don’t have any tattoos but I’ve thought about getting Ernie, from Bert and Ernie, on my earlobe. He made a big impression on me as a kid. And I have pretty big earlobes.

 Strangest Display of Fan Affection

Sometimes people show me Dinosaur Jr. tattoos, and that always freaks me out. One guy had one on his forearm, and it looked like he’d just gotten out of prison.

Best Movie I’ve Seen Recently

I’m not a huge movie buff, but I recently had a bit part in one called The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg. I played a janitor and had a few lines but I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I don’t know what made it in. In the movie, Jesse Eisenberg is playing himself and this other double of himself, so you don’t know which one is doing what. And in the scene I was in, I didn’t know which one he was, and then I was like, “Oh, it’s you. How’s it going?” But it was actually the other one, or something.

My Morning Routine

If I’m at home, I might make some buckwheat mush and ride my bike. There’s a bike path, so I’ll go to Whole Foods, which is a five-mile ride, or to this cafe, which is 10 miles round-trip.

Best Celebrity Encounter

I got a picture with Dave Chappelle (below) when I ran into him in front of the Soho Grand in New York. He seemed a little surprised by me and my brother-in-law. Maybe we were too excited to see him. He looked really buff at the time, I don’t know if he’s still working out. 

Photo by Philipp Virus

Favorite Record Stores

I like Vicious Sloth, which is in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. It’s expensive, but they have everything. Locally, there’s Mystery Train that’s close by [in Amherst, Massachusetts], and Feeding Tube is in the next town. There’s a lot of serious record nerds around here. When I go to a store now, I’ll look around on the wall and see if there’s anything interesting, or if there’s an old records bin, or a punk section. I’m pretty impatient these days—I’ll assess the store quickly and either walk out or keep looking around.

What I’m Reading Right Now

No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, an oral history about City Gardens, which was a club in Trenton, New Jersey in the ’80s and ’90s. Jon Stewart was a bartender there. I played there a few times. It includes stories about Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Bauhaus—there’s one about skinheads wanting to kill Keith Morris

Dream Collaborators

Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Fred “Sonic” Smith, and Sid Vicious

Favorite New Artist 

Steve Gunn

Favorite Podcast

“WTF” with Marc Maron. I was actually on that one, too.

Bad Habit

Hitting bad golf shots. I started playing golf with my mom when I was like 5. I won some tournament when I was 9 and then I decided to retire. I didn’t really play again until I was 23. It’s pretty frustrating. I think I’m getting worse now.

Favorite Karaoke Song

“Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty, though I haven’t really done karaoke since the ’90s.

Dream Merch Table Item

Maybe skis would be cool, though they would be really hard to sell at a show.  

Animal I Would Want to Be

I like manatees. They seem pretty mellow.  

Update: Foxygen

Update: Foxygen

Update: Foxygen

Foxygen: Jonathan Rado and Sam France. Photos by Cara Robbins.

Since the success of their brilliantly shaggy debut album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, Foxygen have gained a reputation as a band teetering on the brink of collapse. First, there was a SXSW set last year that saw frontman Sam France confronting a crowd member—exact quote: “Come on the fucking stage and talk to me about it, you fucking coward”—and then storming off. Then, they canceled a tour. And last summer, rumors of turmoil between France and co-founder Jonathan Rado popped up.

All of which might make you think the sessions for their forthcoming second record …And Star Power would be rife with conflict and at least a few fistfights. But that would not be the case. In fact, the only moment of contentiousness they can recall involved a five-minute argument about the quality of a certain drum take and a thrown lighter—not exactly “Behind the Music” material. “As far as me and Sam working together as Foxygen, that was never a question,” says Rado. France agrees, calling any and all breakup rumors “utter bullshit.” 

So while their internal drama may not reach Beatles or Fleetwood Mac levels, …And Star Power still finds the band checking-off another slew of classic-rock tropes. Make a bloated double album? Done. Give it a concept that’s not entirely clear? Sure. Adopt multiple alter egos? Absolutely. Enlist special guests? Indeed, including members of the Flaming Lips, Of Montreal, White Fence, and Bleached. Still, the duo insist they are doing more than simply regurgitating what came before them. “People think we’re really stuck in the past, but we don’t really think of all this stuff as tributes to old classic rock and shit,” says France. “Our philosophy is a little more liquid and modern than that.”  

Pitchfork: There are a lot of guests on this album, but did you write songs with other artists in mind who you couldn’t get?

Jonathan Rado: We wanted the L.A. producer guru Kim Fowley on it, but it didn’t work out.

Sam France: Stevie Nicks didn’t work out either.

JR: We tried to get Stevie. Early on, I wanted to get Paul McCartney to play drums on a song, but it didn’t work out with Paul.

SF: Our management did reach out, though.

JR: They just got an email back that said something like, “Paul doesn’t guest star.” As it is, Star Power is like the budget version of the album that it could’ve been if Paul McCartney and Stevie Nicks were on it. 

… And Star Power cover:

Pitchfork: The liner notes list each side’s theme, and side one is called “Star Power, Side One, Part One: The Hits; What’s the Hook?”

JR: [laughs] Yeah, that’s the side of the album that I think casual Foxygen listeners will really like. “What’s the hook?” is like the album’s motto—while we were recording, we wrote that on the wall of the studio, and it was overlooking us the whole time. It doesn’t necessarily mean “catchy chorus,” but more like, “Why are people going to want to listen to this song?”

Pitchfork: How fleshed out is the Star Power universe? Do you have personas for the band, or is it more of a loose concept? 

SF: It’s a looser concept—it’s just exaggerated ideas of me and Rado.

JR: Our live band right now is kind of like Star Power, so if there was a band that was Star Power, it would currently be Foxygen.

Pitchfork: You credit a Skip Spence song in the liner notes—is it important for you guys to give credit where it’s due as far as borrowing from other artists?

SF: Particularly in that case, yes. It’s from a bonus track on Oar by Skip Spence, which is kind of obscure, so I definitely wanted to credit him. But other than that, I don’t think we’ve ever given too much credit. Our songs have always just been this changing amalgamation of things.

JR: Sometimes you realize you do it after the fact. Not that every Foxygen song is ripped off from other songs, but there were a few moments where it’s like, “oops”. But if you’re not realizing it, you’re warping it into something else that’s not that person’s song anymore. 

Pitchfork: Well, for example, when you made “On Blue Mountain”, from the first album, were you aware that the chorus sounds like Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds”?

JR: No.

SF: There was a point where I was like, “Yo, this is ‘Suspicious Minds.’” But we weren’t really thinking about it. 

JR: We don’t ever go, “Oh, we’re going to steal this part.” We’ll write something and be like, “Oh, maybe that’s something else.” But we still wrote it and it still came from an organic place.

Show No Mercy: Brooks Headley: Punk Pastry Chef

Show No Mercy: Brooks Headley: Punk Pastry Chef

Show No Mercy: Brooks Headley: Punk Pastry Chef

Photos by Samantha Marble

Admittedly, I don’t know too much about cooking. But I do know a decent bit about music, and Brooks Headley has drummed in more than a few notable—even seminal—punk and hardcore bands over the years, including Universal Order of Armageddon, Born Against, the (Young) Pioneers, Oldest, Skull Kontrol, and Wrangler Brutes. I wanted to interview him, though, because he’s also the Executive Pastry Chef at Del Posto, New York City’s only four-star Italian restaurant. It’s not often that people can reach the top of two very different games, but last year Headley won the James Beard Award—basically the Oscar for chefs—and his first cookbook, Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts, is out on October 21 via W.W. Norton.

And while the 42-year-old is now a celebrated chef at a very fancy restaurant (as well as a veggie burger innovator), he still makes punk and heavy music from time to time. He participated in the UOA reunions, he plays in C.R.A.S.H. with Dean Spunt of No Age, Cundo Bermudez of Wrangler Brutes, and Mika Miko’s Michelle Suarez, and he’s also in Music Blues with another food man, Harvey Milk bassist Stephen Tanner, who’s the chef at the Commodore in Brooklyn.

I visited Headley at Del Posto one afternoon to discuss his cooking, his book, and how he’s been able to continually navigate between the worlds of music and food.

Pitchfork: How did food play a part in your former life as a touring musician? 

Brooks Headley: Most bands are obsessed with food on tour because you don’t have a home base, so it’s all about what you’re going to eat or where you’re going to eat it. Every band I was in was vegan or vegetarian, too, so the struggle of finding stuff was half the fun—sometimes the food aspects of being on tour were more fun than the actual shows. 

For the first couple Born Against tours, we actually took a milkcrate with a frying pan, some olive oil, salt, and spices, because a lot of the time we wouldn’t eat out. We would play the show and go back to people’s houses and cook, or just go to the grocery store, because none of us drank or partied or hung out. The whole fun of doing the tour was driving for 700 miles, playing for 15 minutes, and going back to some kid’s parents’ house and making spaghetti. Food controlled a lot of the stuff we did. 

Pitchfork: When did you realize you were good at cooking and that it was something that could pay the bills?

BH: I always cooked a lot and watched cooking shows like “Great Chefs” on PBS, or really early Food Network shows. Food television is really fuckin’ terrible now, but back then there was cool shit. “Great Chefs” had these weird French chefs with fuckin’ weird facial hair making this super weird French food. So I would watch stuff like that, but I never once thought that I would actually cook food for a job because I’d only ever done it for fun. 

After graduating from college with a pretty worthless English degree, I was living in D.C. and I didn’t have anything to do, so I got a job in an office—and I just hated it. I ended up complaining about it enough that my girlfriend at the time found an ad in City Paper that said, “Pastry Assistant Wanted.” So, for some reason—maybe it was to spite her for trying to tell me what to do—I made up a fake résumé and cover letter and faxed it over. Maybe that was my English degree working—I was able to write them a decent letter to get my foot in the door even though I had no fucking idea what it was all about. It ended up being a job at the best Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C. at the time.

I worked for Laurie Alleman, who was the pastry chef at Galileo when I started. She brought me on as cheap labor and, after a couple weeks, she figured out that I was really into it—but also that I had no experience. But cooking in this really nice kitchen at this really nice restaurant for months and months and months didn’t even feel like a job. I would bake bread in the morning and bring it in to her to critique, and all the other cooks would look at me like, “Ah, you’re such a dick! Why do you like this so much?” I instantly loved it.

It’s funny because even from that point, which was 1999, to now, I’ve only ever worked in fancy high-end places. For me, it’s all about the uniform: a hat, the starch white shirt. A lot of times if I go some place and it’s a dude in a baseball hat and shorts I’m like, “Argh.” It’s like if you go record with Steve Albini, he puts on an Electrical Audio jumpsuit before he starts working; if you’re at work, you have to be in uniform.

Pitchfork: As far as doing pastries specifically, was that something you had an interest in before you took that first job?

BH: No! I had zero interest in dessert. That was just the job I applied for. And at the time, I was vegetarian, so I wouldn’t have wanted to work the line and break down ducks or cook with meat because I would’ve found that repulsive. With desserts, you’re making stuff that doesn’t exist, but you’re using a bunch of the same stuff. You can take butter and flour and eggs and sugar and make 50 different things. It’s about making something out of nothing: manipulating fruit or vegetables to turn them into something else is extremely gratifying. It’s like mowing the lawn when you’re a little kid—you would finish and it looks perfect. If you wanted to put it in musical terms, it’s like four people going into a practice space and then coming out with a finished song where the sum is greater than the parts.

Pitchfork: Did you have to prove yourself when you started at Del Posto?

BH: Yeah. It was difficult to find a staff. I have an amazing staff now, but for a long time, no one wanted to work here because if you go to school for making desserts, there’s a lot of specific techniques that I don’t do because I’m not physically capable of doing it or I have no interest in doing it. That’s why it’s funny that I ended up in such an opulent restaurant. But [executive chef] Mark Ladner, [and owners] Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali are making their version of Italian food in New York City in this day and age. They never really wanted technical, structural, architectural food—which is good because I can’t do that anyway! 

I know chefs that did everything the right way: did their internship as a teenager and then went to culinary school and worked their way up from peeling potatoes to being a chef across 15 years. And I’m not discounting that. But I never planned to do that because, when I was 15, I just wanted to be in a band that sounded like Joy Division. I had no foresight to know that, 25 years later, I would be cooking food at a restaurant in New York City.

Pitchfork: Recently, there seems to be more crossover between food and music, whether it’s black metal cuisine or a Radiohead-themed tasting menu. What’s your take on this trend?

Brooks Headley: A lot of it seems manufactured. When I started professionally cooking in a restaurant, it was the late 90s and I never once dared to talk about the fact that I had been in a band—or was actually in a band—as the years have gone along. So it seems a little strange that it’s accepted now, so much so that the theme for the James Beard Awards this year is “music and food.” They’ve asked everyone to do a dish for the gala based on their favorite musical city. Even five years ago, people would have just been like, “That’s sort of stupid.” 

Personally, I find a lot of connections [between food and music], because it’s so ingrained in who I am, but I try to not make it a focus. Because it’s such a personal thing for me, I don’t even really like listening to music while I’m cooking, even if I’m at home. I like to get in the zone of the sounds of cooking—the way certain oil crackles, or just a knife hitting a cutting board. It’s like Einstürzende Neubauten.

I also just tap incessantly and involuntarily on everything in the kitchen. I have certain “fuck I’m stressed” songs that get released through my fingers when the restaurant is really busy: the theme song to the first Police Academy movie“Prescott (Homecut)” by Breadwinner“Love Und Romance” by the Slits, and definitely “Ether Rag” by Man Is the Bastard. If I was to ever play “Ether Rag” for my sous chef Kim she would be like, “So that’s the fucking song!”

Pitchfork: Fancy Desserts is not not a typical cookbook—there are flyers, a foreword by Steve Albini, an essay from Ian Svenonius. The first photo we see is one of you holding a cake with the Misfits skeleton on it. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted the book to take this form?

BH: The book came about very organically. The final group that worked on it included [designer] Tamara Shopsin, [photographer] Jason Fulford, [editor] Chris Cechin, and myself. It was very much a collaborative effort. We all sort of hated each other at certain points but came together to make it work, just like being in a shitty punk band. Or at least most of the  bands I’ve been in. My current band C.R.A.S.H. is the exception, we all really like each other. 

Pitchfork: In his foreword, Albini writes:  “They say all arts aspire to music, but that’s a con. Music wishes it was food… No song, no painting can  come close to a perfect meal with friends… It is the only art without which we die.”

BH: In the liner notes of the Reachout International Records cassette comp (The End of Music) As We Know It, Albini refers to Jad Fair of Half Japanese as “god, and therefore infallible.” When I read that in 1988 in my mom’s basement in Towson, Maryland, I knew that if I ever wrote a cookbook I was going to get Albini to do the foreword.

Pitchfork: The book’s more of a memoir than a lot of memoirs I’ve read. You get such a good sense of you has a person, and with each recipe we find out more about you. Did you intend for it to also be an autobiography?

BH: I just wrote what I know. I also really wanted to tell the whole story, not just the “I AM SO AWESOME I AM A GENIUS CHEF NO ONE HAS EVER DONE THIS BEFORE” vibe you get from 95 percent of cookbooks written by chefs. That’s why I included failures, thieveries, embarrassments, and fuck ups. I also wanted to make sure to give proper credit to all the folks that work for me and with me. Restaurant cooking is a collaborative affair.

Pitchfork: I liked this insight from you in the book: “A large part of the joy of cooking is witnessing the perfection of nature.” What do you mean by that? 

BH: It’s my mission as a cook to source the best possible shit and then not fuck it up. That’s Italian, man. The less I have to do, the more I am stoked. When holding a perfect peach or tomato in your hands at the greenmarket—maybe there’s still dirt on it and it has a bruise because it is so fragile and has never been inside a fridge—you tremble and get all nervous and think, “What can I do to respect this thing and present it to a hungry stranger?” That’s working in a restaurant. That’s hospitality. I want every plate of food I send out to scream to the guests: “Holy shit, this is so fucking delicious, you gotta try this.”

Pitchfork: In your section on ingredients, you say that “the economic and social impact on source producers of chocolate is usually pretty devastating.” Can you talk about this side of cooking—cooking responsibly?

BH: I believe that you cannot have listened to Fugazi’s “Burning Too” thousands of times and not source responsible chocolate and vegetables, and shop at places like The Strand and Kitchen Arts and Letters. I’m just doing what Ian and Guy told me to do.

Pitchfork: How did you decide on the recipes for the book?

BH: It’s all stuff I make at work, or at past work venues. The recipes in Fancy Desserts are not that important, honestly, even though it is a cookbook. Though they are all totally do-able. Georgia [Hubley] from Yo La Tengo saw an advance copy and she called it “infinitely entertaining, which is great because I have no intention of trying to prepare any desserts.” That made me very happy. I have many favorite cookbooks that I find totally inspirational but have never cooked from.

Pitchfork: In the introduction, there’s a mention of that fact that fans of the music you made may never go to a place like Del Posto. What’s it been like navigating both worlds, between an essay about a tour with Universal Order of Armageddon followed by a piece on olive oil?

BH: I’ve only ever worked in fancy restaurants, and, for the most part, high-end restaurants are where you get to learn cooking techniques that don’t exist elsewhere. But restaurants like Del Posto are inaccessible to the majority of the population, which, of course, totally sucks. On the other hand, Del Posto is cool because we have a $39 lunch that is the exact same food as dinner, so if you were to come in and just drink NYC tap water—which is totally delicious, I personally never touch bottled or filtered water in NYC—your bill is $39 plus tax. Which makes it accessible to normal people—though, if you talk to someone like Stephen Tanner, he’ll tell you $39 for lunch is highway robbery. He’s a fucking genius, so what do I know? 

Pitchfork: In the book, the pairing of the red wine plums recipe and the cover of the Melvin’s Bullhead is great. Do you often make those kinds of connections in your head while cooking?

BH: Bullhead is one of my absolute favorite records, and the cover just had to get photographed for the book. Fancy Desserts is absolutely inspired by a Melvins aesthetic. I saw King Buzzo play acoustic shows in July, and it blew my mind. Even without live drums it was terrifyingly heavy. And he told the funniest jokes in between songs. It was almost a religious experience. Plus, duh, there’s fruit on the cover, and in the recipe.

Pitchfork: Will people who don’t like the Melvins get your cooking? 

BH: Doesn’t everyone on the planet love the Melvins?

Update: Mr Twin Sister

Update: Mr Twin Sister

Update: Mr Twin Sister

Mr Twin Sister, from left: Udbhav Gupta, Bryan Ujueta, Andrea Estella, Eric Cardona, and Gabe D’Amico. Photos by Erez Avissar.

Within minutes of meeting up with Mr Twin Sister, the Long Island-bred pop quintet formerly known as Twin Sister, I have some sparkles on my fingertips. It’s past 9 p.m. on a damp August night—the kind where you do not want to leave the house—in the isolated upper-reaches of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The band is gathered at keyboardist Udbhav Gupta’s apartment, and bassist Gabe D’Amico and purple-haired frontwoman Andrea Estella are lounging on a sofa, painting glitter onto their nails.

Mr Twin Sister is that rare musical democracy that has actually worked despite being effectively leaderless. Since their first EP in 2008, all five members have voiced creative ideas through their songs, which have transformed from hushed dreamscapes into dynamic dancefloor creations. But this collective process has not come easy—especially after a harrowing 2013 that included an MS diagnosis for Estella; parting ways with their label, indie powerhouse Domino, which signed them for 2011’s In Heaven; and, most devastating, a mid-tour car crash in Tallahassee that totalled their van and put them all in the hospital. D’Amico suffered worst, breaking both legs and a wrist: “I remember being in the hospital bed all drugged up and realizing, ‘Oh my God, any of us could be dead.’”

Following the crash, the band had no choice but to push their second album back, affording them more time to perfect the music, tracklist, and lyrics they had already spent two years agonizing over. Mr Twin Sister, which is out September 23 via their own newly-established Twin Group label and their manager Hunter Giles’ imprint Infinite Best, was recorded between Gupta’s tiny bedroom, Philadelphia’s Miner Street Recordings, as well as Brooklyn’s Gravesend Recordings, where they tracked string arrangements and vocals by members of Ava Luna. The record is meticulous—guitarist/singer Eric Cardona adds sax hints, Gupta provides intricate depth with his modular synths—and sounds “less cartoony,” they say, than In Heaven, which the band now considers more of a learning experience in studio experimentation than a proper debut. 

Until now, the band’s greatest achievement was the wide-eyed stunner “I Want a House”, an American Dream narrative you could imagine soundtracking the final scene in a picket-fenced romantic drama. But the new record’s black-and-white beats are culled from the gritty side of 3 a.m. club culture, miles away from suburbia. The group has always come off as relatively androgynous—it can be difficult to discern whether Estella or Cardona is singing—and this blurring of gender lines is taken to a new extreme on Mr Twin Sister. “I am a woman/ But inside I’m a man/ And I want to be as gay as I can,” Estella sings over the sparkling disco thump of lead single “Out of the Dark”. And later, on the eerie, Cardona-penned “Twelve Angels”, the troubled protagonist is dressed in drag. Nearly every track explores identity in some way: “Is there even a real me, or am I just a series of nights?” Estella sings on the shadowy slow-burner “Blush”, which was written by Gupta.

The band’s five members are now scattered across Brooklyn and Queens, and their departure from Domino means they are back to working day jobs: Gupta is a programmer, D’Amico works for an eyewear company, Cardona and drummer Bryan Ujueta work at restaurants, and Estella is self-employed, making jewelry, clothing, and paintings that she sells online (“But I’m looking for work if anyone wants to hire me,” she notes). D’Amico refers to the inner-workings of the band as “non-linear,” and the same could be said of our winding interview, in which they playfully rag on each other when they’re not completing one another’s sentences.

Estella offers comic relief, making crude jokes in a dramatic Lawng Island accent and broadcasting her excitement about next year’s Comic-Con, where she plans to dress as the anime character Cardcaptor Sakura. Gupta is the oldest and most level-headed, displaying a family member’s philosophy degree in his room. D’Amico and Ujueta talk a lot; Cardona is shy. Despite the day jobs, they are happy to spend less time on the promotional matters that a label like Domino requires, and more time focusing on music at their own pace. In fact, another record is likely to be finished this year—a batch of songs that have been in process in tandem with Mr Twin Sister, but are “brighter” and more “energetic.”

“We aren’t finished with this era, but we need to get it out of our system,” Gupta says. “The two records are coming apart—like twins.”

Pitchfork: Do you remember anything about your tour van accident last year?

Andrea Estella: I remember feeling super vulnerable. There were two ambulances, and they put me and [Ava Luna member] Becca in one, and the boys went in the other. I felt like an animal and went into survival mode. I was like, “These guys are going to take the women and rape us.” Becca got morphine, and I was like, “No! I want to stay awake.” I was plotting to kill this guy. I was like, “I’m going to go for that needle and I’m going to stab you.” [mimics hyperventilating] I took a Vine so there would be something out there after these guys murdered us and threw us in the woods.

We would have all been OK if we had seat belts on—but we didn’t, so we went flying. 

Eric Cardona: We had a divider between us and the equipment, which saved our lives. 

AE: We didn’t have one for the longest time, and if we didn’t put one in, we could have just been underneath a bunch of amps. The gear completely smashed the partition, and it could have taken a head off. It didn’t actually sink in until later how lucky we are that none of us died. I still have issues being in any vehicle, even just a short ride.

Pitchfork: To what extent did that accident impact the band?

Gabe D’Amico: It strengthened us in a way. At the same time, it reminded us that anytime you’re on the road, you’re taking your friends’ lives in your hands.

Bryan Ujueta: It was shitty, but it was exciting in the sense that we all kept talking about music shortly after. It wasn’t the end of us.

“We’re the opposite of the band where the front-guy doles out the responsibilities to the hired guns—people fetishize the lone genius, but our strongest suit is definitely our chemistry as five people.”

Pitchfork: After being a home-recorded group and then doing an album on a bigger indie label and now circling back to self-releasing, what did you learn about being a band?

GD: Being on a label felt like fulfilling a high school idea of what it meant to be a musician. It was a very conventional idea of “taking the next step.” But now we’re embracing the idea of not being linear. We realized that cycle—”Put out an album! Promote the album! Go back to the studio! “—didn’t work for us. We’ve gone back to the way we were when we started making music together, sprawling outwards in all directions. Sometimes fans or writers try to paint a story of a band going from Point A to Point B and becoming something, but our trajectory doesn’t feel as straightforward. We’re sorting things out at our own pace.

We have so many friends who have signed to labels, and it’s worked out great. But it only works for certain personality types. We decided to go for it because it meant we didn’t have to go back to our jobs. We got to take an advance and think about music all the time. But as it turns out, we had it right when we started making music together, because it was a much more casual exchange of ideas. We’re a five-person band, and it can get really complicated. It takes a lot of experimenting to figure out how to finish something. Every song on this album had a different formula. We’re the polar opposite of the band where there’s the front-guy who doles out the responsibilities to the hired guns. People fetishize the lone genius, but our strongest suit is definitely our chemistry as five people. When it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it takes us twice as long to finish the song.

Pitchfork: What is it about your personalities that didn’t work with the contemporary indie label system?

AE: It was probably the touring. I was an angry person. On the road, I wasn’t making any visual art, I wasn’t really making any music. It dried me up. I like to be at home.

GD: We weren’t ready for the opportunity that was handed to us. And Domino thought we were going to maybe be immediately more successful than we turned out to be. 

AE: The album wasn’t trendy enough.

BU: We’re not a hot shelf item. We almost did the opposite of what we knew they wanted from us. We were sick of hearing “dreamy, reverb, chillwave,” and we were like, “We want it to be upbeat and bright and have no reverb.” We were reacting.

GD: We’re psycho, detail-oriented people—it took us two years to make a six-song EP, and then we made our debut album in four months. It was our first time in a studio, and the first time we were working with anybody other than the five of us, so it sounds like an experiment. Which is fine, but it was on somebody else’s dime. So when it didn’t sell that well, we had to talk about the next step. And they were like, “OK, maybe we should renegotiate your contract, because we were wrong about what kind of band you are.” It was an amicable parting. 

The thing with Domino was just a product of things happening at certain moments. We were figuring out who we were, and then we got tossed this opportunity. I don’t think any of us had any concrete expectations. It was like, “Let’s see what happens!” And that’s what happened. And we moved on. When I think of our trajectory as a band, I feel like that was a detour from who we are, and now we’ve continued. The album we’re working on now has more to do—ideologically and creatively—with what we were making before In Heaven. It’s not to say we disown that album, but this new one really feels like the next thing that we want to say.

Udbhav Gupta: Our label thing is unfairly colored by the record we made there. We all thought we could make something better. It doesn’t really have that much to do with being on a record label, or doing it ourselves, or whatever. It’s not like, “Well, I really like life better without Domino!” as much as it’s, “I like these songs better.” Now, all the money we make on tour goes into our recording fund. Our band exists only to make more records. 

Pitchfork: Did you feel disillusioned at any point with the Domino situation?

UG: It’s definitely disillusioning! But you grow up and you get over it and you’re like, “This is not what’s important. What’s important is that we make shit together.”

GD: Thinking that the band was going to do anything other than give us a venue to collaborate with each other was a fleeting moment that came and went. There was a very brief, naïve window of time where we were like, “Is this our job?” And then, very quickly, it was like, “No, it’s something more than that.”

BU: When we put out the first picture of us for the new record, I felt proud that it was the same five people as the first photo you’d ever seen of us, instead of some rotating cast.

Pitchfork: The new music is more based in electronics—it’s sharper, more dynamic, more intense. What did you change?

GD: We’ve learned how to play to our strengths—whether its our chemistry, or the way we are more interested in groove than technical skill. We’re not accomplished musicians, necessarily. We’re just accomplished musical communicators with each other.

AE: For me, it was karaoke. It really opens you up. Especially living in Flushing, Queens. 

Pitchfork: What’s your go-to karaoke song?

AE: I love Alanis [Morissette]. It feels really good to sound like an idiot and let loose.

EC: I sung “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” this afternoon in karaoke.

AE: When we first started recording [in 2008], I did vocals in my ex-boyfriend’s basement on Long Island, and I had Dev lock himself in another room. I was like, “Don’t look at me!” And on In Heaven, I was so timid, doing vocal lessons and all of this shit—I was like, “Who am I?” But when we did vocals for this record, I had way more confidence.

BU: Andrea had a bottle of champagne.

Pitchfork: The record has a real club feel, and “Twelve Angels” is like dark industrial techno. Do you still find yourself discovering new styles of music?

UG: When you’re a teenager, you hear something for the first time and think, “Oh my god, I didn’t know you could make music like this—how does this happen?” But then you feel dead-ends approaching with listening habits: “How am I going to find this new thing that’s going to blow my mind?” But these days, it’s so easy to find some hyper-localized thread of music that happened 15 years ago—you can burrow into this crazy thing. Bryan comes up to me with labels from early ’90s Belgium, but we can live that magic like it’s happening right now.

EC: We chase those little teenage rushes—and I was shocked to find that there were so many more around the corner as I got older.

BU: Something I respect a lot about this band is that everyone is really interested in maturing and continuing their investigation of art in the world. I’m excited to be an old man in a band.

AE: I’m getting really good wrinkles in all the right places.

Pitchfork: The central line Andrea sings on “Out of the Dark” is impossible to miss: “I’m a woman/ But inside I’m a man/ And I want to be as gay as I can.” It reminded me of that Grace Jones song, “Walking in the Rain”.

GD: “Feeling like a woman/ Looking like a man”—Grace Jones is a gigantic touchstone. Her playful approach to gender is connected to aesthetics and fashion, but not in a shallow way.

BU: It’s this evolving force—you’re one type of person one day, and another type of person another day, and you don’t have to call it anything.

UG: It’s about empathy.

AE: I’m just like that. I think of myself as a very girly man. I’m a tomboy. I’ve always just hung out with the boys. I’ve had a lot of boyfriends who are now gay. Until maybe two years ago, I’ve only had friends who are boys, and I’ve just started making girl-friends. I never had that. I was always super awkward—kind of like a dude, making jokes that were too pervy, and people would be like, “Who are you?” 

“Good pop music lets you draw connections, but it’s not exclusive.”

Pitchfork: The album clearly talks about gender and sexuality, and has this dark, nighttime aesthetic. When I listened closer, I started thinking the name change from Twin Sister to Mr Twin Sister might carry a trans narrative.

BU: It wasn’t something we intentionally planned from the beginning, like a Hollywood movie. But as it rolled out, it made sense. I was frustrated—people were like, “Why the fuck would you change your name?” They thought it was a gimmick. And I was like, “You think we renamed ourselves Mr Twin Sister to get more popular?! You think that’s going to sell records? Are you crazy?” 

GD: We left the gender ideas at a simmering point on the album. I don’t think any of us feel like we have license to talk about it in an authoritative way. The place it holds on the album is left open to interpretation for a reason. We’re not trying to ride some hot-button talking point. It’s just subject matter that interests some of our songwriters. It’s not like, “This is our sexual-politics album!” That’s for other people to project onto it. Good pop music lets you draw connections, but it’s not exclusive.

Pitchfork: A song near the end of the album, “Twelve Angels”, was inspired by the Long Island town Medford, and it makes that place sound pretty seedy.

EC: There’s a seedy road there, Route 112. I was spending a lot of time working about a mile-and-a-half away and I would be driving up and down that road at night. There’s nowhere for young people to go and socialize that isn’t super seedy-looking there. I was getting ready to move out of that town, I felt so not a part of that place. 

AE: When I started hanging out with Eric and Bryan, my mom wouldn’t drive through Medford because it was so trashy. There have been murders there lately—a girl was found in the woods.  

GD: It’s like a strip with 20 car dealerships and parking lots—you could imagine some dark shit going on.

AE: Eric directed this short [in Medford] for the song, and my uncle came along because it was scary. It was late at night, and Eric was in full drag. It’s a scary neighborhood. 

BU: Walking around at night on Long Island doesn’t feel good.

UG: It’s not meant for walking.

AE: It’s all driving.

BU: Someone pulls up near you and their window’s tinted. Someone yells from far away and you can’t tell if they’re following you. You’re at the gas station and the attendant’s a dick.

UG: It’s also amazing for all those reasons—the magic isolation. Wringing anything from that place is a miracle, and people do it all the time.

5-10-15-20: Karen O

5-10-15-20: Karen O

5-10-15-20: Karen O

Photo by Barney Clay

5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. In this latest edition, we spoke with 35-year-old Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, whose debut solo album Crush Songs is out now.

I was listening to Thriller and Alvin and the Chipmunks, but Michael had a bigger impact on me than the Chipmunks. I don’t remember much from back then, but I do remember really taking to MJ. His childlike side didn’t seem to have a filter, so kids could really connect with his imagination and presentation. There was something both sexual and asexual about Michael and, at 5, I was a little sexed-up. Kids at that age are all id. Their primitive minds have a grasp on sexuality that it doesn’t really understand, and Michael is the perfect icon for someone to relate to in that sense—all his crotch grabs and pelvic movements. It was sexy, but also not sexual at all. I remember getting really excited about the panels lighting up underneath his feet in the “Billie Jean” video, it was like magic. His sparkly gloves left a deep impression on me—when we started the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I would always wear a glove on my right hand as my nod to Michael.

My older brother was really into military stuff—he played Dungeons and Dragons, and read up on the Civil War and Vietnam—and he had just seen Platoon. He picked up the soundtrack, and I listened to it religiously. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” was on there, so I’d cluck my head around like a chicken, belting out, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!/ Find out what it means to me!” Very sassy and empowering. 

“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane was on the soundtrack, too. At that time, in the late ‘80s, all the radio had in terms of female vocalists was Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, so “White Rabbit” sounded really foreign, like Grace Slick was speaking in tongues. She was talking about a drug experience, but it just sounded like she was singing about Alice in Wonderland to me. I listened to that and accessed my inner freak. It opened the door to dissidence and rebellion inside my little soul and let me know that there was an option other than settling in with the popular kids at school. At that time in your life, you’re still pretty liberated, and you’re not as repressed as you are when you’re a teenager. But everything’s still pretty wholesome, so to hear something that’s tainted with a darker undercurrent is awesome.

Fifteen was rough. I was struggling because I was all over the map—a lot of people are at that age. I went to a private school, and I didn’t relate to the kids there. I just didn’t have a lot in common with them. I’m half Korean, half Polish, and they were largely affluent white kids—sporty, wholesome. I had some trouble fitting in, or at least feeling comfortable in my own skin. So I started hanging out with my childhood friend, who I was friends with since I was 2. She lived in a different town and went to public school, and her friends were much less judgmental. They were working-class kids with no social hierarchy—rough and tough, easygoing, probably like most kids in America. A lot of them were in little punk bands, and one of them was called Corned Beef and Cabbage, and we used to see them play at the local VFW.

But then a funny thing happened: They started smoking weed, and all of a sudden they were much less interested in punk and hardcore. They started listening to Phish and the Grateful Dead, and we would all hang out in this one guy’s basement, smoke weed, and listen to music. So I entered my Grateful Dead phase. Even though I was listening to a bunch of different things around that time, 15 was probably defined by becoming a Deadhead. I was thinking about them the other day, like, “Man, their music is, largely, not so great.” But some of it is pretty good. I really like “Brokedown Palace”, from American Beauty.

Going to Dead shows was a pivotal experience—it’s so much more than going to a show. It’s like a happening. For someone like me, who had a hard time blending in, it was heaven to put on a long skirt, braid my hair, show up to a Dead show, and just blend in with everybody else.

Jerry [Garcia] died, and I was disillusioned with the whole poser hippie scene. I was in NYU’s film program and I was getting into the mod revival of the mid-‘90s. I was really boy crazy up until I got married [laughs], so I was late to the game in discovering PJ Harvey, because she wasn’t a guy that I was crushing on, basically. But her 4-Track Demos record made an impression on me. I remember listening to it and being like, “Whoa.” She’s in her bedroom tearing open her insides, and her legs are wide open. I felt so voyeuristic listening to that record, more so than anything I’d ever listened to up until that point. It felt like I was up to no good, and it was an awesome feeling. Her stuff was unbridled, feral, really sexual. I listened to that record and thought, “Wow, just think of what you can do if you access those parts of you as an artist.” It’s a testament to what happens if you don’t pretty it up and just make something that people want to hear. In many ways, it inevitably led me to release Crush Songs. It’s such a different animal, but it’s very voyeuristic as well.

[Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner] and I started making music in 2000, and we’d had a writing session the night before 9/11. There was this biblical storm that night, and the next day was beautiful. I’d stayed over at Nick’s Williamsburg loft because we’d been working late—he had a really huge room and I slept on a mattress there. He went to work that morning, and I woke up probably around 11, maybe even later than that. Everyone in the living room was watching the first tower go down on TV. I went on the roof and you could see the smoke coming from across the river. It felt like World War III was happening. 

At the time, I was living in the East Village, on Avenue A, and for weeks after there was this dense fog and smoke from the burning buildings and smoldering materials. We would walk around on the streets, there were hardly any cars. It felt apocalyptic. There was this blanket of grief, because so many people died, and so many people knew people that died, or knew people that knew people that died. It pulled the rug out completely. It also felt like such a tragedy for New York City, which is such a great melting pot for the cultures of the world, so for that to happen was a huge blow. It was the beginning of a different, less secure time.

I was living in New Jersey with Angus Andrew from Liars. We’d moved out there to escape the city. We were both touring at that time and were sick of returning to a rundown loft between tours, so we moved to Jersey, which was probably a terrible idea in hindsight. At that time, Liars were my favorite band. They had put out They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top shortly before Fever to Tell, and I consider that to be a seminal record—a perfect post-punk revival album with ESG samples, crazy, hooky chants, and jagged guitar. It was really inventive.

In 2004, [Liars’ Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill] split ways with half the band and began to make They Were Wrong So We Drowned in the New Jersey house we were living in. That record was the equivalent of Bob Dylan going from folk to electric. It was almost like sacrilege, because the last record was really big in New York—people just loved that sound, and they turned their back on it. That was a huge deal for me. I was like, “You can do that?” It was such a crazy move. It was ballsy, but they weren’t even trying to be ballsy. 

They Were Wrong sounds like the soundtrack to some Dario Argento movie: creepy, eerie, horror-film music. It taught me a valuable career lesson, that change is important and good, and you don’t need to feel the pressure to make the same record twice. When you’re in your early twenties, though, the idea of totally turning something on its back doesn’t come naturally. Especially if you have success with a sound you already have, there’s an expectation for you to continue the success of that sound, because it sets you up for the rest of your career.

My life fucking totally revolved around It’s Blitz! There was just no room for anything else that year. It was a really big record for us, personally, in our careers. We were living, breathing, drinking, and shitting that record. At the time, I was really questioning whether or not we had another one in us. I was getting a little neurotic, like, “Are we too old to be doing this?” A lot of bands don’t have more than a seven-year lifespan, so it felt like we’d run our course, like we didn’t have any music left that was worth sharing. 

We took pride in being a New York band—in a sense, we never really minded being pegged as that—but once It’s Blitz! came out, it cracked us open to the world in a different way. It’s our most accessible record. I remember not knowing who was in the audience at shows anymore—that’s when you know you’ve hit the next level. The whole thing about hitting 30 is that the people listening to your music get older as well. It’s a different crowd. We have a really symbiotic relationship with our audience, so starting that over and getting to know our audience again was really awesome. 

I’ve always dug the Velvet Underground and was always aware of them and their influence, but it wasn’t until my thirties that I fell in love with Lou Reed. There’s a song on the The Blue Mask called “Waves of Fear”—ugh, I fucking love that song so much. When I talk about Lou Reed and his music and everything he’s done, I pull my hair out because I’m so blown away and relate so much to it. If The Velvet Underground & Nico was like Elvis’ Sun Sessions, then The Blue Mask would be later-period Elvis singing in Vegas with those huge orchestrations. On “Waves of Fear”, Lou Reed’s lived a lot of life and felt a lot of pain, and life is still scary as shit—there’s still that existential dread. And that’s what I find at 35 now. Life doesn’t get any less scary, and who else is going to sing a song about how scary life is in your adult years than Lou Reed? Artists that are valuable are putting out things we all feel but don’t think to express necessarily, and Reed went to places that people don’t normally go.