The Wire 251, January 2005
IRONY IN THE SOUL
"Technically the first bands I was in were when I was 12 or 13. Speedking was the second or third band I was in, in New York. Before that I was in a band called Pony which was on Homestead which was terrible. Speedking was from Pony, it was the same bass player and drummer (I was the drummer). We just switched guitar players and changed the name, and kind of changed a little about what we were doing but not much. The first show that Pony played, the guy from Homestead offered us a deal. We didn't know anything about it, but a friend of ours was in this band called Dungbeetle and he was like, 'If someone asks you to put out a record, put out a record.' We signed which was terrible. Having somebody say, 'Hey, I'll put out your record' after basically your whole life dreaming about it is pretty exciting, but I learned a lot about the independent record business. And that it's often not any better than the major label record business, except that you can usually find the guy who's screwing you."
Is that where your animosity towards the indie scene comes from?
"It comes from that time. When I first saw the video to 'Teenage Riot', I was like, 'This is amazing.' It was my first taste of a real American punk rock thing, like these guys get in a van, they're all friends and drive around the country. This was very different than The Cure from Mars, they fly in on spaceships to the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia. So it was my first big punk rock moment, like 'You can do this'. I'd been in bands, but in my mind it was always like, 'If you can be like these other people, maybe you can fool people into letting you do this.' I was really excited about being in a band, and being able to go on tour - that was what I had always dreamed about - it was like me and a couple of kids that I knew that listened to this weird music. We didn't think that The Violent Femmes and Big Black would possibly disagree with one another, or that The Cure and The Minutemen wouldn't get along. It just didn't make a difference to us. These were just records at the Record Exchange.
"When we went on tour in Pony I'd be in houses where we played in some punk rock club and you'd meet another band and they'd stink or they'd be fine and you'd like them or they'd be jerks, whatever - it was fine. Then I started to be the person that I am - 'Fuck bars, fuck clubs. I'm going to have a venue myself and charge like three bucks.' I had an apartment above the Pyramid Club with a bunch of other people. It was 2500 square feet, it was huge. Imagine if I had it now. I'd put on shows. I put on a show by this band from Louisville and it was their first show in New York, so it was a big deal. They were really sweet.
"On our first tour we went to Louisville and I got this really bad feeling from these kids who were 'part of the scene' and we weren't 'part of the scene'. I was suddenly back in high school, like 'What's wrong with me? What's wrong with us?' I just continued to feel that, for year after year, being in bands. Whatever game was supposed to be played - I think you're supposed to pretend that you're poor, which I always found really offensive because they were all middle class kids just like me. There's a difference between being broke and being poor. You're broke, it's your choice, you're a college kid. We didn't really do that. And then you were supposed to pretend that you were really irrational and that was a way of saying that you were artistic. Forced eccentricity isn't art. And then we would only make friends with bands that were really hateful, like the Jesus Lizard or Laughing Hyenas, which were these terrifying bands. So we'd be this little pop band cast out of Pixies and Pavement touring with these bands that were like the end of the world. We just grew to love them and to like them so much more and we became angrier and angrier. The rest of the indie scene was moping and looking at the floor and didn't like anyone blowing up their spot. It just drove me insane.
"So. There was this hipster 'zine that had a review of my band's record that was just super vicious, which was fine. But he had been super nice to us before we had read it, then he did the review. Then in the same issue, there was this story of his band on tour where he stayed at this house in Louisville which we stayed at during the same period. He had written us out. It was all this blasé 90s rock writing, but he had omitted that we were there during that period. So he was lying and painting this picture of cool. I realised that he was only doing this to make people think that he was cool. It was a lie. It really repulsed me.
"We became a really hateful band after that and that's when we became friends with all the hateful bands. We were just rude and mean and really aggressive. It just felt really transparent to me. When we'd hang out with the Laughing Hyenas, who are supposed to be really mean and evil, they'd be like, 'Oh wow, you really got to watch what you eat on tour. You guys are so young. What you gotta do is go to the grocery store and get a cooler and get some real vegetables because you're just gonna eat fast food and you're gonna get sick.' I'm like, 'I love these people.' It just cemented things I had felt while growing up but had let myself soften on about nice people. That, coupled with all these fucking frauds. Like when indie rock blew up and it went from all these weird people in bands which is what I grew up with - I was the normal guy, the rational guy and I liked that, surrounded by all these weirdos which was great and I'd fit in with that. It was a bunch of misfits, and I was a misfit but in a different way.
"Then it was suddenly a bunch of jocks and dudes, who threw beer cans at me as a kid and called me a fag, are now in a band. I totally stopped making music for years and that was my animosity toward the indie scene. Not much of a secret I guess. There's stuff I love about it, don't get me wrong. It's just a few people. I just don't like scenes, it's just like high school - there's cool kids and not cool kids. The way you determine what a cool kid is you look around and see how everybody else feels.
"I grew up with a real inferiority complex, believing that everyone else mattered a lot more than I did. I'd go to a studio, this is an engineer, he knows what he's talking about. I'd go to school, this is a professor, he knows what he's talking about. I had that beaten out of me. I wanted to believe that. I wanted people to know more than me. They just didn't. They were idiots. They couldn't think. I found people just had really poor thinking skills.
"I went to record Pony's first thing in a studio. We were playing and it just didn't feel good, we weren't playing well. We needed to be in the same room. The engineer went crazy. This went on and on, and I was like, 'This sucks' and we walked out. I built a studio. I called Steve Albini. I got his number and called him. I'd never spoken to him before. I was like, 'I'm building a studio.' 'Well, I can't record you. You're on Homestead and I vowed never to work for them. But Bob [Weston] will do it.'
"They helped me design the studio and I never looked back. They were real reasonable, real empowering. They were like, 'Look, you just put the mic in front of it and set the gain until it's correct. You just follow the rules.' I never did that very well. But I was like, 'I'll follow the rules and I'll see what happens.' If you're creative, you'll be creative once you know the rules really well. That was how I learned stuff."
What's your relationship with Tim like?
"We just kind of balance each other. I'm more of an engineer - I mix, record and play instruments. Tim is a programmer - he's been working with computers since Atari 1040s and [Akai] S900s. I was like an indie rock engineer where I learned from Steve Albini and Bob Weston how to mike things. When we started working together we really liked it because we couldn't have been more different. This big American dude and Tim's this small English guy with glasses. It's a comedy routine. We have totally different ways of talking, of interacting with people, but we really gel together.
"We like a lot of the same things and we can communicate. I can talk about music with him in a way that I can't with anyone else. Like I can talk about the emotional content of the instruments, like where drums have a certain arrogance that's really naive. He knows exactly what I'm talking about. 'In "Cosmic Dancer" there's these macho, arrogant drums but they're slowed down so the aggression is gone.' We can have this dialogue about what music really means to us and it works really well. I'm a little more structured. I go for energy and strength and individual sounds. Tim is a lot more experimental. He goes for newness and randomness and chaos and flow. Left to my own devices, my things are a bit rigid; left to Tim's own devices, his things are a bit wandering. We kind of get rid of each other's weaknesses and keep each other's strengths.
"There's a very small place where we both agree - that's The DFA - and it's usually about being fooled. We're both pretty intense filters. Tim and I are both self-destructive. Which is bad, but it's also good. You know Mo' Wax got big and he was like [adopts freaked out voice], 'OK' and just walked away, you know what I mean [laughing]. And I just quit making music for a while. So both of us have this built-in self-destruct ejector seat. We adjust away from scenes. In interviews or emails I try to be as transparent as I can so it's not like, 'Here's the new cool'. That's something that I try to avoid. The funny thing is, when I most publicly tried to deal with that issue was what made me the coolest. 'Losing My Edge' made me really cool which I think is the funniest, most absurd thing ever. Doesn't anybody get it? Alright, nobody gets it. That's what interviews are for."
I think what people really liked about "Losing My Edge" was that you were willing make yourself part of the joke, that it wasn't ironic?
"Or it's ironic in the actual meaning of 'ironic', not the pose, not the cartoon televised version of irony. 'Irony' is a dirty word now, but it's actually very good... I'm not saying I don't care. I do, I care a lot. This is my life. It's not a 'whatever'. This is all I've done. I've never done anything else. I worked at a computer company for a minute. I tried to go to college. Neither one of them worked. This is what I've done since I was a kid, so I care a lot about it. I've put my life into it. I'm fully aware that it's my life. I don't have parents - they're gone. I don't get another life. I'm 34 years old and this is it. My entire youth is gone and dedicated to this, so I care enormously. I meet lots of people who don't realise that this is their only life. I just don't think a lot of people are aware that they've committed. You've got to know what you've committed. I'm just painfully aware of that. It doesn't mean that it's not hilarious and embarrassing [laughs] and humiliating."
Does Tim have any input on LCD stuff?
"We keep out of each other's solo stuff to a certain degree. The goal is for us to make things that make us comfortable. My layer of judgment could really cripple him and his layer of judgment could really cripple me. That which makes us good producers would just freeze us as artists which is what typically happens with people like the two of us. We work with other people who are fearlessly making bad music and kind of talking their way into careers. We're the ones who know that that's the good guy. We promised we wouldn't do that and sit back and grumble and eat our biscuits and complain about the state of music. We have to do something. We have to leave each other alone. Tim definitiely helps me. Tim's always there whether he's there or not in a lot of ways. He helps me on songs or when I get stuck, but he can't be down there the whole time or I would just freeze up. I wouldn't be doing vocals with him there. I don't do vocals with anyone there."
What's your working process for LCD songs like? Is it music first, then lyrics or vice versa?
"It's always music first, but there's always a lyrical hook. I write everything in my head. That takes a long time. I'll just have it in my head. As soon as I pick up an instrument, as soon as I play anything, it erases everything in my head and takes over. So if I have a certain feeling of the way the bass is, as soon as I pick it up and play the bassline it immediately overwhelms the smell essentially - it's like setting off a stink bomb. I try to get things as formed in my head as I can. My wife makes fun of me all the time when I try to explain to people how to write songs. I'm like, 'Just try to come up with it in your head.' She's like, 'People can't do that.' Because I'm like listening to it in my head: 'Is that a tambourine in there? Yeah, I think it is a tambourine. Guitar, is that close-miked?' I try to chase the sounds around my head. Once I start recording, it changes completely because everything gets erased, but hopefully I've got enough of a shape in my head.
"I don't write the vocals until the day they're recorded, ever, because I feel like it would make them false. I know that sounds really weird, like live I just make them up every night with the exception of certain songs, like 'Losing My Edge' I have to memorise because it's just too oddly structured. All the songs that are verse-chorus-verse-chorus they have some important lines, but for the most part I keep them open to make them relevant to whatever's going on. When it comes to the time to record them, I just try to shape them into something that works. I'm realising to a certain degree that I'm going to have to start memorising them if the band gets bigger because I think people don't understand that - they go to shows and they want to sing along but the guy's changing everything. I guess I don't have to, but I try to take seriously my duty and not be like, 'Hey man, this is what I do.' Which is kind of hard because the band was designed to be a band that people didn't like.
"I'm very comfortable in that. The band itself is like this deer in the headlights, no one knows what they're doing. We were like the opening band which was fun because nobody expected it to be a band. After 'Losing My Edge', at the time it was an electro-y world and I was just supposed to show up with a CD and an outfit or something and we showed up with a band, and a good band. I came from the era of Jesus Lizard and stuff. That was a good band. My band was a good band. We didn't write interesting songs, but we were a good band. You had to sound good, play well, so we showed up with a good band and dumbfounded everyone which I loved. That's the kind of thing that makes me really happy. Once people like us, I can't be cavalier because people care and you have to address that in some way. It doesn't mean you have to capitulate entirely, but I don't like macho ego games when it comes to music. To just be like, 'I just do what I do', is an ego game. It's never been what I'm about and I'm uncomfortable with that, so I have to find a way to address that."
You say that LCD was designed to fail, but you also often talk about having ambition and bands without ambition suck.
"It wasn't like I wanted to fail, but it was designed for the environment that we were in. We were going to open for The Rapture, that was what we did. When I first did the band and came up with the name, I was never going to differentiate between doing DJ sets and band sets. You were going to book it and it was going to be what it was going to be. If it was a rock club, I was going to show up and DJ; if it was a dance club, I'm going to show up with a band. I like that. It's antagonistic, but it's not negative. I want people to like us, but I don't want to squeeze through the door, it's not interesting. I enjoy the period of trying to widen the door rather than just get through it. If I go forward without something that's important to me, I just don't trust any of it.
"I think now, of course DFA can be attacked, but it can't really hurt me. It can hurt my feelings and I can be sad, but I can't be weakened because I'm very clear on why we do what we do and why we've done it. If people want to pull out the support of us being hip, the backlash has been coming. We expected backlash from the first good review of 'House Of Jealous Lovers', so we've just sat around waiting for it. We've never relied on our status as cool people. Tomorrow I could get my last call to do a DJ gig in Europe and never get called again.
"The ambition to be successful is a different set of goals. I grew up in basically a small farm town. If it wasn't for the Princeton Record Exchange, I might as well have grown up in the fuckin' armpit of the world. The Record Exchange saved my life. FM radio saved my life. Locally programmed FM radio just doesn't exist anymore, which makes kids easy targets for really shitty marketing, like Good Charlotte. It's like a department store with a punk section. It's made underground independent music the grumpy mom and pop store across the street where they just glare at you if you walk into the mall.
"Everybody relax. This is America, if you're a mom and pop store you have to adapt and provide something that's genuinely different or you're going to die. I didn't make the rules, but that's the price. I do complain about radio and the way it is, and there are a couple of issues with the media - I think they're changing the laws which I think is unfair, they're allowing more monopolies. That's changing the game and I will complain about that because that's illegal from what I understand. But essentially I have to be like, 'This is the deal' and I have to try to do my thing to make it better..."
Speedking was incredibly intense, do you think LCD's lyrics are where that intensity gets expressed now?
"When we play live, we're really loud. We're actually louder than Speedking which I thought was impossible because Speedking was really loud live. I like that bodily feeling. Everything was set to not hurt your ears, just to be really ovewhelming. I think this band is the same live, but with a different energy. I've found different musical spaces for that energy. I found disco which is a totally different type of intensity. There are certain things that I think are identical. I was a very rhythmic and tonal player. I liked drones, I liked things that you felt viscerally in your body. I always liked rhythm - I was always a better right handed player than a left handed player. I feel like the same things happen, just different soundscapes. The things that really changed me were Can and Liquid Liquid which had all this intensity, but was not aggression...
"I think I've gained a new appreciation of the stuff because I still love heavy shit as much as I ever did. I've never been particularly comfortable with male stuff, stuff that's really macho. I never realised that growing up. I never really put a pin on that. I'd be able to say, 'I like Sabbath, but I don't like Kiss.' There was something about Kiss - it wasn't the pomp, it was the dudeness of it. Don't get me wrong, Sabbath were dudes, they were weird, kind of dorks. Kiss were dorks, but they were trying to come off as dudes. Even Led Zeppelin had less of a dude thing - they were much more like hilarious elves or something. That dude thing always got to me, and a lot of aggressive music, especially in the 90s, got real dudeish. I never really liked that.
"Plus, I've done really heavy stuff. There's heavier stuff on the album. There's a song called 'Movement' which is just guitar. This was fun for me because I like doing stuff that to a certain degree people don't realise that you can do them. It's fun for me to go play with bands that are supposed to be really heavy and be heavier than them for like a minute and 14 seconds. Basically being a band of disco fags that they can make fun of and come out and out-heavy them with a band of like [adopts sprightly cheerleader voice] 'Hey guys'... We're like the band in an after-school special that you pull for against the mean guys in black leather jackets. I really feel like we should have one guy with asthma - [adopts dweeby voice] 'Don't turn on the smoke machine'. It's never a male thing, it's never a macho thing. It's just an energy thing that's different. I know how to play rock, I know how to play really heavy and make it sound really heavy. I wanted to do it for a burst of a minute and 14 seconds. I feel like I can find that in a lot of different places now.
"Plus I like happy music. I liked The Violent Femmes at the same time as I liked Big Black and it was just as punk to me. I never found them to be that contrary if that makes any sense. I also grew to love T Rex records and not feel like they were old or wimpy, which when I was in Speedking I would have thought they were old and wimpy. Now I can put myself in that mindset and hear how are they are actually pretty intense, it's just a different set of rules. I don't think that intensity has gone away and come back in the lyrics. So maybe it's not that different. I guess I just didn't know how to carry it off. I still don't, but I think I'm more comfortable with my lack of knowing how to carry it off. I think maybe my personality is more comfortable with lyric writing now. Before, I think, lyrics were something I just didn't understand. I didn't know how to write from a perspective.
"Although there is a really funny Pony song called 'Gimme' which was the first song I wrote on a record. It was basically about how much I hated indie rock crowds. It was based around a call to do a dance, 'Do the indie rock crowd'. The directions were 'Stand around, stand around and fold your arms'. It's worse, but not that different than the lyrics I write now. It was literally like, 'Put me on the guest list because we've been friends for a really long time' and 'We'll act like we enjoyed it/We might even sing along'. I became friends with this kid Justin Chearno who was in Pitchblende and later in Turing Machine. He was like, 'I have to admit something. I know it's not very chic to like Pony, but you guys did this song about the indie rock crowd and I saw you and I was doing it. I was standing there and you sang, "Stand around and fold your arms" like with this "Yea!" and it made me feel so terrible.' I was like, 'Yes!' All I ever wanted to do was make people really self-aware and paranoid."
Did you have anything specific in mind for the new album or is it just a collection of songs?
"I wish I could say that I had something specific on my mind, but it's a collection of songs. I knew I didn't want to put the singles on it because I thought that would be kind of crap. Singles are singles, they were never intended to be part of an album. I wanted to make it album-y, meaning different tracks and different track lengths. I wanted to have a last song. I think there are songs that are more successful than others, songs that are more unusual than others, songs that don't make sense for me to do. The oldest song on the album is 'Disco Infiltrator', and though I like it and had fun doing it, I don't think it's necessarily something I need to do... I don't think my job is to be egotistical and get my Kravitz on. I just wonder sometimes why people make records. I guess sometimes it's just what they do and someone tells them it's time. It's been two years, bills are piling up. [laughs] A terrible reason to do something you dreamed of your whole life. I wonder how many I'll make. There's stuff I want to do, for sure, but it might not be translatable into records. Hopefully, I won't self-destruct entirely."
You seem to love cowbells and handclaps.
"I think they're really happy and they force a space that's really different. Handclapping - I love different spaces for them, small ones, big ones. Part of it's like the soul thing, part of it's disco, part of it's T Rex. It subdues the drums in a weird way. I'm really into Sly Stone and the spaces that he uses like when he does the vocals. He's too close to the mic, so he's really big and the drums are really small. It just fucks with your head space. Handclaps just do that sort of thing really effectively. They take a lot of pressure off of the snare, which I like. I don't like the snare too silly. They make you feel something different I think. I really like The Tom Tom Club, when the percussion comes in kinda wonky, or like Liquid Liquid, or the beginning of that Fall song, God what is it? [Looks on his laptop] Is this like the geekiest thing ever? I wouldn't normally do this, but it's right here. 'City Hobgoblins'."
What was it about The Rapture that grabbed you when you first saw them?
"They played with a band that was more pedantic and much better, or more skilled, than them. I was really exhausted and couldn't be assed and I was like, 'What am I doing here? What am I doing at Brownie's?' I literally yelled that. I used to be more of an asshole. My friend Mike said to me when things started to take off, 'You can't do this anymore.' I'm standing there at the bar flinging beer at people and yelling, 'More great hits' which I used to say all the time. He was like, 'You know you're done doing that. You're not the crazy guy anymore. You're gonna be an asshole.' And I'm like, 'Fuck'. It was totally true. But any rate, I'd be yelling, 'Yeah, I've got that record too' when it sounded like something.
"And then The Rapture came out. It was like someone had a big bag of band and just dumped it all over the stage and they'd all get up and start playing. They had a siren light and like a light on the floor aimed up at them. They played a couple of great songs and I was just riveted. I thought Luke [Jenner] was an incredible frontman, just really mesmerising. And I was like, 'This is what's missing in indie rock - a genuine frontman. This is a good band.' There were some weaknesses about them: they were sloppy as an aesthetic - you want to keep all the energy, but that's an indie rock pose that you don't need. Not that you want them to be pro, but if your aesthetic relies on things being not good too much, it's going to run out. The other thing was there were some 'emo' moments and I was like, 'You're better than that.' When we started talking to them, they seemed like they were in a scene to a certain extent. And I was like, 'Get out of the scene, get out of the scene.' We hung out with them for a long time before making anything. I'm really proud of them. I don't always know if we did the right thing for them, but I really cherish the time working with them - it was really adventurous, really fun."
The Rapture talk about Primal Scream and Happy Mondays and that whole dance-rock thing as a touchstone for them. Does that stuff mean anything to you?
"That came up halfway through the record. It was something that Tim and I never pushed and weren't very interested in. That stuff was meaningless to me. I thought it was shit. At the time that stuff came out, I was like, 'This is crap'. I remember hearing 'Fool's Gold' and thinking it was really likeable and that a lot of college kids would like it, but it was like Vitamin C to me without the weird, crazy Japanese guy. It just never meant anything to me. I was in an American world at that time. I like some of it now looking back at it, but it's not a touchstone for me at all. I think they got kind of interested in that stuff. I think aesthetically a lot of that stuff is really meandering and unclear and all�over the place."
How do you feel about being blamed for the post-punk revival?
"If you look at the output of our label, we're going to land in the post-punk thing because what people associate with post-punk right now is dance music. Post-punk wasn't dance music. It was people who were making music that was no longer just a burst of energy once punk allowed different people into making music. In the New York tradition especially, there was a lot of experimental and visual artists making music. That's what Liquid Liquid was, DNA. These people were artists and one of the forms they used was music. Go watch Downtown 81 and flip through the songlist. How many songs on there can you dance to? Maybe one. Tim and I got involved in dance music because it seemed like a really great place to do something. It was an open playing field right there. We were like, 'Do we need to glut indie rock right now? Leftfield stuff?' No, dance music was like an easy target almost."
"We were a Williamsburg label that lived and worked in Manhattan... If you don't believe your own hype... we're going to be taken down at some point anyway, so it's irrelevant. If you accept 'We're not that', then it's much ado about nothing and it's 'Methinks he doth protest too much'. I don't care. I like post-punk. 'Entertainment' is one of my favourite records, I'm not going to put it away because it could be damaging to my image. I also like Terry Riley a lot, not like a dillettante, this is something I love."
An article based on this interview appeared in The Wire 251, January 2005
© 2005 The Wire.