12.4.12

Santigold

I spoke to Santi White AKA Santigold for The Quietus – the interview is now up, here. (You can read it here below as well.) For someone who's working with the best people out there in indie/urban/you name it, she was incredibly sweet and straightforward and humble, really. I love her new album, and the videos that she's released so far for Big Mouth and Disparate Youth, although my favourite track is Riots Gone.




















When Santogold AKA Santigold AKA Santi White’s then self-titled debut, hit the shelves in 2008 with its memorable glitter-barf cover art and unexpected references, it was lauded for its genre-defying confidence. Raw, restless and refreshing, it featured appearances and contributions from Bad Brains' Chuck Treece, Clifford Pusey of Steel Pulse, Switch and Diplo, amid many others, and confirmed that White was someone to pay attention to. Singer, writer and producer, she has since collaborated with the Beastie Boys and Pharrell, toured with MIA and Björk, opened for Jay-Z and Kanye West; she guests on Amadou and Mariam’s new album and is currently support for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the US leg of their I’m With You tour. To say she is prolific and connected feels like an understatement. And yet, in spite of this regal roster of heavyweight collaborators, her sound retains an enticing roughness – mirrored in the visual world that accompanies it – and her attitude, a welcome simplicity.
For all her guest appearances and joint productions, White has taken four years, almost to the day, to bring out the follow-up to Santogold. Master Of My Make-Believe, due out on April 23 in the UK, has been heralded by singles 'Big Mouth' and 'Disparate Youth', the videos for which exemplify her DIY, art-punk aesthetic. Where the first, directed by Cody Critcheloe of SSION, is all Keith Haring/Dasha Shishkin-style hand-drawing, crude digital animation and cutout choreography, the latter – co-directed by White herself and Sam Fleischner – is a faded-out island voyage into mysterious jungle territory. Santigold disembarks a speedboat – in matching floral trews and lace-up heels and a Lady-Di-meets-Don Draper netted black hat – to hike through the undergrowth with a gang of small boys. It is reminiscent of the clip Spoek Mathambo released last year for his darkwave township cover of Joy Division’s 'She's Lost Control', minus the demented gothic undertones. The comparison is a useful one – beyond the obvious visual echoes in imagery between the two videos, bodies ritualistically daubed in white, dancers in trance with eyes turned disturbingly inwards – given Santigold’s eccentric, simultaneous borrowings from new wave, reggae, afro-beat, electro and punk. And all this in a singular, intuitive fashion, with a lot of quiet feeling. Repeated listening to Master Of My Make-Believe leaves you with a sense of almost sadness – faraway monotone vocals, beats to dance to but also to march or simply to walk to, time suspended in bleached-out textured colour, the madness and the mayhem briefly paused.
On the eve of this new release, I sat down with White in Marlyebone to talk about creative constraints, working with Karen O and how close she feels to the Cure.



How did making this album compare to your first album?
It was exciting and difficult. Probably, like on any second album, it was harder. The first album was hard too, but there are different constraints. I had expectations on this one. I thought I knew what it was going to be like, who I was going to work with. I thought I knew my process – and I didn’t. Everything was different. I set out to work with the same people, but it was a totally different vibe, it wasn’t really happening in the same way. And it wasn’t until I accepted that it was a new thing and that I had to approach it in a new way, that it started coming together.

I was wondering about your working process. What are the triggers for your tracks?
In general, I really write to bass and drums. That’s the main thing that drives me – it’s all about the rhythmic delivery. It has to have a drive. I’ll never, ever write to an acoustic guitar – it just has no vibe for me. It can be the shittiest sounding thing – banging pots and pans together, totally fucking up the sounds, distorting everything – but if it sounds cool then I’ll get a good idea. If it’s really clean, I just can’t write anything to it. But it’s different for every song. 'Riots Gone' was special. I wrote that in Jamaica, sitting at a piano, which I’d never done in my life. I sat there and played that little progression – I don’t really play piano – and sang this melody and recorded it in Garageband. Then I took this drum loop that Switch had given me and it matched perfectly. So I walked into the other room where Switch and the others were – I was really embarrassed, because it was like a ballad. So I was kind of covering my face, saying “I made this song, you guys”, and they were like “That’s awesome!” So that was fun. For 'Disparate Youth', Ricky Blaze sent me a track, and it was mostly done. I just had to arrange it – adding the guitar and a few other things – but the bulk of the track was there and again I just sang the melody in one go. Same thing with 'Fame'. “This Isn’t Our Paradise”, I think I wrote with Nick Zinner. He came into the studio and we wrote like eight ideas in one week, that was so much fun. For that song the lyrics came really fast too, but for a lot of the songs, they took more time. On 'God From The Machine', Ricky Blaze gave me the beat and then I wrote the chorus, but then I went in with Greg Kursten and we totally took it somewhere else.

How do you navigate being a producer and writing your own stuff?
Everybody always asks me what music I listen to but sometimes I don’t listen to a lot of music, because I can’t turn off this mechanism in my head that breaks down sounds. Especially coming out of making a record, you’re constantly listening to that reverb, those drums … Sometimes you’ll like get in a car, and someone will ask if you want the radio on and you’ll be like, “No, please, just silence." For me, the process of making music involves channeling a certain part of my subconscious. I’ll close my eyes and see or hear things and I have to be quiet enough to let it come all the way through. These ideas seem to come out of nowhere. With 'GO!' for example, I was with Q-Tip and he was going through all these records, playing samples, and then I just thought “Punk rock drums. Karen O.” I mean, [the idea came] from nothing. So I got a friend to come in and play, and I told the engineer “Can you just distort the drums so it sounds totally fucked up”, and he was like “OK but I don’t think…”, he did it but he wasn’t convinced … but I was like “That’s it!” And then I was like “Karen, you wanna get in on it?”, and she was like “Alright …” I wasn’t sure she’d like it. But it worked. So it’s all feeling …

You’ve worked with so many people – which collaborations or joint productions have surprised you most?
When I did 'Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win' with the Beastie Boys and then they came out with that video that Spike Jonze did, I was blown away. I mean, the song was one thing. But then to see it turned into a visual thing. I got to be a doll, an action figure, and then I’m stabbing a shark? And now I’m waterskiing, with a gold Santi ring ? It doesn’t get much better than that.

Are you involved in every part of your production?
So much so, from the choreography to the show to the props to my album cover – I just co-directed the video for 'Disparate Youth as well… Ask anyone who works with me, I’m really hands on. Because it’s all the same thing to me – it all comes from the same place. The art does not stop with the music. And anyway, if I just had to do music all the time I’d be bored. I close my eyes and I see it. “We need a horse on stage, and lassos…” and my team, at this point they get me; we’ve got a rhythm, we’ve developed a sense of mutual trust and it becomes a big fun thing. It’s like, you can charge full speed for the ball because you know that if you miss there’s someone right behind you. As a team you can do it.

So you are always completely in control – you have a very precise idea of what you want?
Oh God, yeah. I’m the most anal person ever. In the writing process, it’s all about feeling. But then when you’re mixing, it’s about the tiniest detail, it’s under a microscope and you’re listening to sounds in a way that you should never have to listen to music. Seriously, when I’m done mixing and mastering and the record is off to the pressing, I never want to hear those songs again. Luckily performing live is totally different. That’s when it’s about the physicality and the energy, you’ve got the energy of the audience. It becomes like a communal playground in the song. And it’s different every night. It never feels stale.

How do you approach taking an album on the road? 
I like it to sound like the record. I don’t like jam sessions at all. I don’t like anything that sounds jammed out. I like really tight, straightforward stuff. Obviously there are certain things that have to change. A lot of time I get my voice to sound a certain way by singing something three different ways and then stacking the vocals. And that’s not really possible live. So on stage you’ve gotta play around with how you’re going to present things without losing their essence. On 'Lights Out', I can’t sing it soft on stage like I do on the record, because it doesn’t sound good. You want the energy.

Your approach to vocals is really specific, in both the delivery and the mix. Which vocalists are you influenced by?
Well, the way I mix my vocals is more rock than pop. I like them to to sit right in between the bass and the drums, level-wise – I want them to feel part of the music. In terms of influence, I love people with really powerful voices – HR from Bad Brains, Nina Simone … My delivery style is really rhythmic but also has this monotone-ness to it that I think comes from listening to Devo or Gary Numan, a lot of new wave. I’ve always loved the Cure. Old Cure, like Jumping Someone Else’s Train, I was hugely influenced by that stuff. But then I love Morrissey too – the rolling melodies. It’s a wide range.

Master of My Make Believe is out on Downtown/Atlantic Records on April 23. Santigold plays Heaven, London on April 26

3.4.12

Low

Ahead of their show tonight at the Royal Festival Hall, I spoke with Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk for The Quietus. It was definitely the highlight of my interviewing days so far … I'm posting the interview here below and you can also read a list of Sparhawk's favourite albums here. Go see them tonight. I think there still a few tickets left.
















“Steady as a train, sharp as a razor.” When I think about Low and the place this band has held in my heart for so long, it’s June Carter’s description of Johnny Cash’s sound in Walk The Line that seems the most apt – something undaunted and undiluted, run through with high-wire tension and untamed depths. Guitarist Alan Sparhawk formed the band in 1993 with his wife Mimi Parker on drums and John Nichols on bass. While the latter's role was filled by a succession of bassists before current band member Steve Garrington joined in 2008, their sound has displayed a constancy that defies the shifting ways of the world as we know it. And though this solid core has remained firmly in place, Low’s ongoing development has found them shifting and experimenting with each of their nine albums. From their 1994 debut I Could Live In Hope to their latest opus C'mon, released in 2011, they have continued to explore the chasms of possibility that Sparhawk and Parker’s two voices are able to open when singing together, in uncanny harmony. Sparhawk is a restless creative mind, exploring his musical curiosity across a range of compilation contributions, solo work and multiple side projects. His main musical outlet outside of Low is Retribution Gospel Choir, the driving, poppy, dub-influenced trio he formed in 2008 with Garrington and Eric Pollard on drums. Parker seems more elusive, but the power of her quiet presence on stage, as in person, is grounding, like bedrock. And it is their combined vocal power – along with their minimal instrumentation, where every single note, every drum stroke, counts – that sets the band apart. I’ve seen them silence a drunken London venue by simply standing side by side, in unaccompanied song. There’s nothing timid or delicate here. Rather, Low show a fierce and uncompromising dedication to what music can do at its most pared down. Ahead of their Royal Festival Hall appearance tonight and Retribution Gospel Choir gigs in Sheffield and London thereafter, the Quietus caught up with Sparhawk and Parker in Kings Cross to talk about longevity, listening and playing really loud.


You've been around for nearly 20 years, but your sound is still fresh and urgent. Where does that sense of urgency come from?

Alan Sparhawk: Every time we sit down and try to write a song, we still feel like complete beginners. It’s a combination of not being real trained musicians and doing something that’s more off than normal. There’s still stuff we don’t know, and I think that’s the key. You see a lot of ageing bands, people who used to be famous and now are just going along, some start embarrassing themselves and there’s this big fear, “When am I going to cross that line?” You can’t completely go back to the naïveté of when you first started, obviously, but for some reason we’ve been lucky enough to keep a certain sense of it.
Mimi Parker: When I write a new song, even to this day, I’m surprised that I had another one in me…
AS: ... Yeah, that something works out, that we end up with something we can stand. It’s a weird thing to do something for such a long time. And you constantly ask yourself, are you listening to the people who are listening to you, or are you just listening to yourself? Too much introspection can make bad art, and so can complacency.
MP: With a hit song, some artists feel like they need to keep creating something in that vein, because that works.
AS: Yeah, even if you’re going contrary to it, you’re still basing your career on it in some way, and you’re never really free from it. We’ve never really had any hits. We still get on stage with nothing. With nothing to lean on. And maybe that’s kept us on our toes.


I remember seeing you at Shepherd’s Bush Empire once and being astonished at how quiet that venue could get. You did an a cappella song and at that moment it seemed to me that this wasn’t music being performed so much as music you take part in, like the music I’ve grown up with in churches my whole life. Music that requires more listening than it does making sound. It seemed to me that the way you make music has a lot to do with listening.
AS: By the very nature of minimalist music, when you're doing so little sometimes on stage you really become one with the very few things going on. If you draw an audience in with something quiet, then the mind is going to focus in on one or two things, and those two things are going to become loud and brilliant.
You referred to church. Maybe that's also where it comes from. Church is a group of people in a space sharing a moment that has a certain frequency, or whatever you want to call it, going on – something musical, something spiritual, however you define it. There are these indescribable things that can happen with music. It happens in loud and intense concerts too, but perhaps it's just more recognisable when it's quiet. When we started the band, we knew most people weren’t going to want to listen to this, or have the patience for this, but that there’d be a few people who would resonate with it the way that we do. And from show one, there were two people crying and the rest of the people were leaving. It can be a very intense thing and a lot of people aren't ready for that.
Personally when those moments happen, when someone does resonate with what we’re doing in that way, that's everything to me. That's the whole reason. Everything else about music can be explained away, but those moments are worth living and dying for.


Your lyrics are like enigmatic snapshots – really pared down, but with the ability to take you places. They remind me of Raymond Carver.
AS: When we first started, I remember it being a kind of inside joke that we'd have these five or six-minute long songs with only like four lines. It came from the minimalism. I'm a pretty hard editor of myself, I would rather not tell the whole story than overstay my welcome as the narrator, so to speak. I like the gesture of words, it suits my abilities.
MP: I really admire songwriters who can tell a story and go into detail and it all rhymes, but I have never been able to do that. My songs are more fragmented, which probably closer to how I think.
AS: Yeah, moments, a hint of a memory. Even Bob Dylan with all his words, it's really only hitting these sparks and edges of imagery. Even his ballads are fragmented. That's the nice thing with lyrics – you can get away with so much.
MP: The music can sometimes fill out the missing words.


I read an interview with Amadou and Mariam recently, where they started talking about their faith – they are Sufi muslims. And suddenly their lyrics took on this great depth that I’d felt there – their music became rounder, fuller. Does your faith inform the way you write?
AS: Well it informs the way everyone writes. Of course it does. It’s part of how you see the world, and who you are, where you came from, where you’re going. It’s the foundation of anybody who creates anything. Creation is an effort to be eternal, to live for ever. So I think everybody is influenced by that. Our religion puts a certain language to those things and sometimes it comes out in our lyrics, and I’ve always been pretty happy for it to come out in its own natural way. I didn’t have to think about it. It works well. The things that religion deals with are the same things that we deal with every day, the whole process of trying to create something is the same as wanting to live forever. It’s engaging the moment, and the past and the future have everything to do with that. Different language is used, depending on who you talk to, but I think anybody who creates something recognises that and is influenced by it on some level.


Where did Retribution Gospel Choir come from?
AS: In Duluth, where we live, there is a small music community, and you kind of get to know everybody and play with them. Retribution Gospel Choir just came out of knowing this drummer Eric Pollard. When we started playing together, there was immediately this energy – something about the way he plays and the risks he takes sort of works really well with the way I play guitar, it opens up this door. When we started there was a lot of improvising.


Did you have an idea of the sound that you wanted?
AS: No, it was just the sound of these three guys playing together. I know it brought different things out of each of us. It was a new freedom. A fill-in show came up so we just did it and it felt pretty good, so we did another one and then just kept going. We wrote a few songs, did a record fairly hastily and that got us on the road and it took off.


Is improvisation part of the way you work generally?
AS: Not in Low – we have the capability but somehow we never went there. From early on we were really controlled, the song structures were really tight. Plus, what are we going to do, you know? A big long blues solo? Low has had some more amorphous songs, like 'Do You Know How To Waltz?' from The Curtain Hits The Cast [1996] – a sound thing that would just grow and grow and grow. And we still have a few songs that are different every time we play them. But diving into completely free sound is more the way RGC went.


Maybe that’s where a lot of the energy comes from?
AS: Yeah, I think there’s some of that. I’ve always been into improvisation. In Duluth, people get together and do stuff a lot. But when it came to Low I guess we figured we shouldn’t move it around too much. It’s a different energy. And volume.
MP: Alan really wants to play loud.
AS: I mean, yeah, every guy who plays music wants to play loud! But I try not to think about these different things too much. I’m not being a different person, but you step into the room and it’s a different energy and it goes a different way. For the new RGC release, The Revolution EP, we wanted to make these super-clean, no-fat pop songs – I love a good pop song.


6.2.12

Advanced style

Tavi posted this trailer on Saturday and she's absolutely right. Something to make you smile every time you watch it.…

3.2.12

Miscellany for today

Recent things I've obsessed over include:
















Lygia Pape, Livro do Tempo (Book of Time) 1961-63 Installation view, Magnetized Space, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2011. © Projeto Lygia Pape and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Lygia Pape – her Livro do tempo, her Trio do embalo maluco … if you've not seen the Serpentine show, you really ought to. It closes February 19. I often wonder if artistic experimentation can ever be what it was in the first decades of this century. Video works, installations, happenings from the 60s still now have an awesome – and I use that word literally – quality to them, an aliveness, a rawness, a sense of fearless discovery that feels unattainable now. Seeing Lynda Benglis's work first in a Le Consortium catalogue, and then at the New Museum last year was mad exciting. More so than any other shows I'd seen for a long time. I really hate nostalgia, that cramped, stifling feeling of being stuck or wanting to be, so it isn't out of some longing for things to be as they were that I say this, but rather out of sheer astonishment that these works still retain this power over me. That it is still possible for them to astonish, to excite – to make me imagine I'm experiencing a similar curious searching and trying out while looking at these works as the artists did when they made them.


Lynda Benglis, Blatt, 1969. © Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2009. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Benglis is here next week for the opening of her first solo show in London at Thomas Dane, on February 9. Something else not to miss. And then there's Yayoi Kusama at the Tate. A basic google image search for Kusama is enough to send you spinning. The dots are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, a portal into this most intense of worlds.

  























Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room - Phalli's Field (Floor Show) (1965)

Relentess, undaunted, open, unfazed by trend or money or the lack of it. Benglis was born in 1941. Kusama is in her 80s. And both are still making work that is fiercer and more out there than any student shows I've seen in ages. Like Patti Smith on stage, or Tina in 1971, or Björk. Here: 

Dasha Shishkin

Speaking with Dasha Shishkin for this month's Nylon was one of the greatest pleasures I had before Christmas. She was courteous and gracious and really funny. And it just made me want to dive headfirst into her work and follow her mad-crazy protagonists. We spoke about calendars and stickers and the thrill of marking important dates in some way, things to look forward to and to work toward. The piece is in print. But you can read it here too. And make sure to see her show, if you're in Ohio, at the DAC from March 3



















Some Things Just Got to be True, 2011, mixed media on mylar, 228.6 x 320 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Zach Feuer Gallery, NY


Dasha Shishkin is a maker of surprising and explosive things. The Russian-born, Brooklyn-based artist weaves a world of sinuous lines, kaleidoscopic colors, and psychedelic imagery. From large-scale wall drawings produced in situ to tiny etchings, her work vacillates between figuration and abstraction.
Since completing her MFA at Columbia in 2006, Shishkin has shown her work extensively and is present in major collections, from MoMA and the Whitney in New York City to the Art Institute of Chicago. Currently preparing her first solo museum show, opening at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati next month, she’s locked into her intuitive, organic working process.
“It becomes like an exquisite corpse game where someone else—the material—is suggesting something to me,” says Shiskin, of the trigger for her new work. Though grounded in figuration, she avoids any idea of narrative: suggestion and open-endedness are key.
The ideas at play in the making of Shishkin's work only become apparent to her once a show is hung. “Whatever is obsessing me is not only on the surface of my mind but also something subconsciously present and bothersome.” Shishkin's work has been compared to that of Matisse, Egon Schiele and Marcel Dzamaartists for whom considerations of form are always intrinsically weighted by intense human emotion. Equally though, her process brings to mind artists including Yayoi Kusama, for whom abstract form itself takes on a life of its own, one seeped in the artist’s inner turbulence. “Often a motif will keep reappearing, say a circle, and it becomes like an obsessive compulsive thing," she says. "It isn’t always a conscious decision to work with certain imagery, but more like something you have to get out of your system.”

1.7.11

Plan B talks to Miranda Sawyer

Just read this interview by Miranda Sawyer with Plan B, done just before his appearance at Glastonbury. What powerful, brutal empathy. 
"I'd never call myself that [a role model], that's for other people to say," he says. "Anyway, if you're a kid with a good life, I'm the worst role model in the world. I drink. I don't have a problem with drugs, apart from hard drugs. I'm no good for you, if you're from a good background. But for kids with bad lives, from bad homes, the fucked-up kids whose parents are alcoholics, who are abused, whose lives are shit, then yeah, I'll bring you up. I'll understand. Listen to my music – I'll help you through. You can rely on me."

20.6.11

Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan



When I was 19 I taught languages at a rich kids' summer camp in the woods in French Belgium, and made an everlasting friend called Dave who gave me a bunch of things to listen to that I treasure to this day: Bedhead,  Latin Playboys, some Hawaiian guitar tracks, and Yo La Tengo. Return to Hot Chicken burned itself into my brain and despite ten thousand listens – far too many to count – a few notes of that album, and that titular song in particular, and everything is ok. For 26 years, Ira, Georgia and more recently James have been doing their thing with a singular lightness of touch, and intensity of focus. They are broad and generous in their sound, capable of building a song – like one might a ship – to take you away forever. I think their music is what I want the inside of my mind to sound like – the space I need, or the air I long for. Nightfalls on Hoboken, Last Days of Disco, Tiny Birds, Green Arrow, Big Day Coming, Decora, Sugarcube, Living in the Country, Pablo and Andrea, And the Glitter Is Gone, their covers of Gentle Hour, of By the Time it Gets Dark, of Nuclear War … as many songs that I sink into and long for them never to end. They hit a groove, they ride a particular beat with an organ or a guitar and it's mesmerising, magical, a sound for sore ears of which you wouldn't want to lose the slightest fragment. And then they throw a curveball, some Kramer-style madness or a witty little video about names and that bursts the bubble and reminds you you're listening to pop music, this is the real world, they are just musicians going about their day. And that is the beauty of it. When I first heard And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out I was so overwhelmed by it, I wrote to thank them. I'm not sure quite why but the best way I could think of at the time to describe how perfectly the album had filled me with joy was to refer to CS Lewis. Ira wrote back on the back of a Slinky postcard – he noted the irony and that made me smile. I spoke with him for The Quietus last month, ahead of their Meltdown session, which to my greatest annoyance I couldn't go to. He said not to worry, they'd make sure to do a second-rate show so I wouldn't miss much.

Oh how I love this band.

You can read the interview here. And you can listen to all my favourite YLT tracks here: