With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I am a huge fan of Yeezus-era Kanye West, and I wish he would continue in that vein, though it seems like he’s making a pretty significant departure. A lot of people I talk to have quite a negative response when I tell them how much I love Kanye, and I think that’s completely unfair for a number of reasons. But that’s another story. Put “Face on Breast,” from Tilt, and “Send It Up,” from Yeezus, side by side. It’s that same air of doom, and an eerily similar aural make-up. Just put in a synth where the distorted guitar was on “Face on Breast.” Maybe I’m losing it. To me, “Send It Up” is like a club version of “Face on Breast.” Minimal, evil, playful.
I need this severity of mood, whatever the mood is. A lot of time, the only place I can find it is rap. And to boot, the rappers and DJs are generally the prolific ones in this new world of internet music. I’m still into the album model of releasing music, but going forward I see no reason not to approach my “art-rock” with an eye to this spontaneity and severity. That’s what feels original to me. I’m enjoying being alive in 2015 and watching the Internet be a thing. I’m mostly fine with it, despite the obvious problems it has posed for musicians.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I don’t jam. I sit down and I compose. Maybe it’s to my detriment, but for now, that’s the way it is. I meet musicians and sometimes they ask me to jam but I have to tell them I don’t jam.
It’s ironic that Britt is a trained free jazz and improvised music drummer. Or maybe it’s not ironic. Maybe it’s exactly what makes my precious little towers work.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
An important thing here is that I don’t write on a guitar. There are a lot of great guitar bands, but guitar chords sound full. They take up space. If I use a guitar to write a song I’m playing little countermelody lines or bass lines, not chords. I suppose I do favour space above all. I try to create the very best space for the voice to live. The voice is my priority.
What's your perspective on the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema, for example – and for you and your work, how does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
I grew up dead set on being an actor. I was trained mostly in stage acting, but I also had some instruction in acting for the camera. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not up on cinema, but I love watching great actors and I love the way that a movie, or even a scene within a movie, can have such a strong sense of attitude. And that’s driven many elements of a movie—the writing, the visual design, the sound—but I love the way a good, confident actor can live in that attitude, command it, direct it.
My music is very character-based that way, and not necessarily in the sense of “I’m playing someone other than myself”—rather, I am myself but living an experience that may be different than my own, that may be entirely surreal, or entirely too real, and my attitude is pervasive. Maybe it grinds against the attitude of the environment; maybe the environment works with me.
With my songs, if people feel the attitude—whether or not they can articulate it—and connect it to the lyrics, I feel like I have been successful.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Well, I’ll just talk about one part of this—in music specifically, I think we need to raise a collective middle finger and reject Dave Grohl and the many other geezers in his mould who insist on reminding everyone of their supposed Rock God Superiority with this holier-than-thou anti-computer dogma. At best, it’s embarrassing and reveals just how out of touch they are to think that it’s somehow more musical to play power chords on a guitar than to spin an entirely new song out of a sample. At worst, it’s a great big white dick saying that if you’re not forging on in the rock idiom then your music is less real, less valid. And that is a deeply exclusionary assertion.
By the way, The Classical performs live with a backing track. Onstage you’ll see me with the mic, Britt on drums, and a laptop playing the backing track. I can’t tell you how many people have turned their noses up at us because it’s space-bar-and-go, even despite the fact that Britt has no click track, let alone in-ear monitors, yet is able to dominate the live performance. The setup originated out of convenience and because we haven’t spent much time looking for other band members, but I feel like it’s consistent with my actorly stance. You’re going to see my attitude; you’re not going to see the rock signifier of GUITAR. I guess that makes some people uncomfortable. Those people should reckon with their discomfort. It’s good for you.
Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
It’s different for different sorts of music. When I go to a club or a DJ show I’m there to dance, and by dancing I’m taking an active part. I went to the most incredible music and art event in Oakland recently—mostly DJs, rappers and a couple R&B-sort of groups—and there was such positivity. Such cool music, and yet it was so comfortable. It really felt like listening and moving together, and not just in the sense that we were all in the same physical place. So it’s interesting to me to think about the role of the listener in that sort of situation. We’re listening to the artists but we’re there for each other, too. That’s embarrassingly sentimental, but it’s exactly how it felt.
My music as yet doesn’t quite have that function, though maybe in the future I’ll make music that has that function. I generally expect the listener/viewer to have a critical experience with our music—meaning, they could turn a critical eye to the music, or to me, or hopefully to music in general and the world in general, and of course to themselves. But it doesn’t have to be some lofty thing. The point I’m trying to make is that Diptych and the accompanying live performance is more about reckoning with your own discomfort than it is about looking beyond that discomfort for a night.
I certainly need both experiences.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
Well, there’s a lot of mystery there. Markus Popp, one of the founders of Oval, has a great Twitter, and he recently tweeted, “In the final analysis, music is nothing but sound-over time. The rest is marketing.” And that’s true. But I don’t hugely resent the idea that a musician should consider their public self. Once again, this is part of my actor-attitude approach to music. I am a person making music. There’s no such thing as the music speaking for itself; there’s no avoiding the fact that I’m a person. Again, it’s the old guard of white rockers who have been allowed to claim that they “reject” the whole idea of creating an image and of “letting the music speak for itself.” When you’re a white man you can settle into that place, if you choose. You can sit back while the press mythologizes you. If you’re not, then you don’t get to let the music speak for itself. History shows they’re going to pick you apart and try to take you down however they can, so you might as well come right out of the gate with a strong assertion of self.
Regarding the PR companies—I mean, it’s a crapshoot whether or not your music is going to get heard by a lot of people. It might hit the right way at the right time, or it might not. All I can say is, I know from personal experience that it’s massively time-consuming and disheartening for an artist to seek their own promotion and coverage. If I find out about an artist I love as a result of their having hired a PR company, what’s wrong with that? If an artist I find vapid gets somewhere because of a PR company, then I probably just need to close the tab and go back to working on my own music.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I have some very clear visions as well as some obscure, out of reach impressions of where I want to go next. The only person I even broach them with is Britt. The next record is going to be far more direct, and I intend to work with someone who can help me design the most immediate sounds. I don’t want to have to settle for an approximation of the atmosphere. Many of the sounds on my last album Diptych were created by layering a couple midi sounds on top of each other to create something close to the sound I wanted. Next time, we’re going to make some choices.
Check out The Classcial on Bandcamp theclassical.bandcamp.com