in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, February 26, 2007

(HE)HE= DJ ² [mixmastermatching]

DJs play other people’s music. This shouldn’t come as a shock to most of you. If it does, here it is again: DJs play other people’s music. More recently, DJs have been playing smaller and smaller parts of other people’s music, with some people like Magda or Richie Hawtin making whole albums out of techno’s greatest ‘hits’. You just take Baby Ford’s kick, Zip’s snare, Wink’s hat, combine, and repeat. Voila! Nothing’s more up-to-date, more hip, and (let’s face it) more minimal than that, right?

But what if we went the other way? I mean, maybe it’s time we thought about presenting combinations of far larger chunks of another artist’s music? What I’m suggesting is: why don’t we start mixing mixes?

Think about your favourite mix CDs. Think about their sublime moments, where the mix is no longer about getting from A to B but suddenly creates something more magical than the parts themselves. Or maybe there’s a sequence of five really killer selections you love that you could pinch from an otherwise average live set you downloaded.

Now, imagine if you then took the best fifteen minutes from twelve of your favourite recorded mixes and sequenced them: you’d have a three hour set that would re-present both the tracks in their already magical inter-relationship with each other and create an additional flow between all of them. Provided your own mixing was up to the task, we could be witnessing the birth of a heretofore unheard of way of making music, one that could potentially condense a collective total of hundreds of years of collection and selection into one performance.

No doubt this has already been done in an oblique fashion by novice bedroom DJs, armed with nothing more than two CD-Js and a pile of mix comps. But it’s hardly anything a self-respecting DJ would openly do. I mean, there are all those horrible rumours about lazy superstar DJ having ‘piss discs’ – CDs with two or three pre-mixed tracks on ‘em, long enough for said jock to lay a cable or lift a line in the bogs. But you can hardly imagine a big-name DJ openly playing another DJ’s mix, can you?

But why the hell not, really? If Stevie Ray Vaughn can play Hendrix’ ‘Little Wing’, why can’t Sasha play his favourite Digweeeds? With the CD-J revolution almost complete, and with our already bulging archive of mixed sets, maybe it’s time we prised open the mix-matching closet and ‘outed’ this ‘art that will not speak its name’. I can see you’re hesitant, Mr DJ. I mean, ‘mixing’ is your art, right? And mixing mixes, well, what if his mix is longer than yours? Maybe we’re crossing more than channels here. Hmm. If you’re hesitant… what are you trying to hide?

But c’mon now –with the exception of turntablism, mixing has always been about presenting a piece of music as it relates to two others, and removing the lowlights so you only play the highlights of each. But with mix-matching (or metamixing) it would be the mixes themselves that we’d be showing off – you’d just be highlighting the highlights. It’s just the same process of collection and selection, taken to the next degree. Conceptually, it’s no different. You’re just playing other people playing other people’s records, kind of ‘DJ ²’. If the idea of this makes you feel slightly queasy, is that because it’s wrong, un-natural, or because there’s something a bit subversive about the whole thing? It seems unthinkable, but really, it’s a logical step. I doubt there’s a DJ in the world humble enough to give it a go. But go on, I challenge you to be the first. Then imagine trying to explain it: a DJ ² is a person who plays other people playing other people’s records.

Originally published in Inpress, February '07
© Peter Chambers 2007

Monday, February 19, 2007

There’s no wave like show rave

I saw an interesting thing the other day. Somebody had taken a pen to a Paul Stanley tour poster and re-drawn his Kiss makeup. You know, I had to admit, it looked better – compared to the three untampered posters next to it, Paul looked somehow more himself. More relaxed. Less… artificial, if you can believe it. As if the person, by ‘colouring him in’, had put his clothes back on.

Seeing ‘nude’ Stanley got me thinking – the anonymous scribbler was obviously really bothered by the Kiss man’s raw lips, enough to take not just a black, but also a white pen down the street and carefully, lovingly return him to his ‘original’ state.

Image is a funny old thing that way. This whole ‘New Rave’ thing is a good example. It’s a stupid term, I’ll give you that. Of all the groups associated with the NME-flogged tag, only Trash Fashion make music that’s ravey in the slightest. And even if they’re not a Nathan Barley-esque pisstake, they still are, if you know what I mean. Don’t believe me? Log on and check out the ‘Rave Dog’ quicktime video on Channel 4’s website. Trash Fashion are keepin’ it foolish.

The Klaxons are another matter. The guys are ostensibly an indie pop band – they just wear clothing that loosely references the rave era, but in a much more coolsie way. Kinda like the grunge equivalent of ‘Kurt Urbane’.

But it’s not like the group have ever made any grand claims. Aside from doing an indie-coolsie cover version of a minor rave classic, the group are doing nothing more than playing with their visual image. It’s dress ups, nothing more, and it has nothing to do with their music. As their bass player explained: "There doesn't seem to be much fun in music at the moment… Rave is something that's bright, attractive to the eye."

So why does it give so many people the howling, screaming shits?

People talk about style over substance. But the case of the Klaxons might mark an interesting point in culture. Maybe what we’re seeing here is not just the total disassociation of style and substance, but their mutual irrelevance. If they were a couple, they wouldn’t have broken up, no. This is more radical. If style/substance were formerly boyfriend and girlfriend, what the Klaxons have done has effectively made it so they no longer even have corresponding genitals. It’s like frogs and trees trying to mate. The bits don’t just ‘not fit’, they don’t want to. Or they’d croak trying.

It’s a step up from what Matisyahu has done. Matisyahu is an Orthodox Jew and a ska singer, but he is genuinely both these things. But if his message makes it thinkable, or even normal, for anyone to be an orthodox Jew and a ska singer, the Klaxons are saying that you can be an indie band and dress ‘rave’ ¬without the two having to mean anything in common, or even having to mean anything at all. This goes with that at Sussan. Next question.

This is pioneering stuff. Give it ten years and we’re gonna start seeing all kinds of kooky chimeras – imagine: thugged out rappers dressed as Alice in Wonderland; country and Western singers dressed as African dictators; shred metal guitarists getting about as frump feminist lesbians.

It still makes people angry, seeing the divorce of sound from vision. But in ten years it will be common sense, and our generation will the ones who appear out of touch when we question our spawn as to why they’re dressed as Nazi punks when they’re off to the opera. Buckle your seatbelts, kids. We’re in for a bumpy ride. I think SLUTTT, writing about the New Rave backlash on someone’s blog, unwittingly summed it up perfectly:






This rant was originally published in Inpress, February '07
© Peter Chambers 2007

Monday, February 12, 2007

Unzipping Access (Me and my Lack)

I spent half of Saturday last week assembling my Träby, my Billy, and my Lack. Yes, after nearly two years in a wilderness of cardboard boxes and tippy piles, I finally sorted the lion's share of my records into beautiful, modular, Scandinavian order. It was a triumph – but it took its toll.

Because having all these ‘things’, to have and to hold, to schlep and to stack, to load into cars and drag out of bars, is a heavy reminder that having possessions also means being possessed. You end up being a slave to your favourite thing. Watch ‘owners’ pick up after their dogs and ask yourself: who’s the bitch?

It’s something I’m still working through. I'm deeply attached to my heavy objects. I also still like the idea of owning things. I like the idea, but I’m totally willing to concede that it’s a folly, and a redundant one at that. In fact, I’m here to offer you some advice, something I wish I’d gotten through my head before I embarked on this cumbersome adventure. The question is this: if you can access the experience, why own the object?

Last year, a good friend of mine stopped buying music, more or less. He just listens to the radio. Given that he’s into classical music, it’s not like he’s gonna miss the flood of ‘new releases’ anyway. But without spending a cent, he manages to have a near continuous stream of music. He’s got a pocket radio, a car radio, a kitchen radio – he’s even got one next to his laptop, tuned to 3MBS. Provided you’ve got access to a radio and AA batteries and you don’t someone else calling the tunes, no problem. You’ve overcome your need for objects. Hurray for you.

But say you’re a control freak, like me. The kind of guy who can’t abide letting another person choose what’s coming next. Until recently, radio just wasn’t an option.

But all that’s been exploded. Fact is, between podcasting, online radio streaming, illegal downloading and filesharing sites like yousendit and sendspace, I’m able to obtain access to almost anything – let’s say 90% of the new releases I want to listen to. Not bad, eh?

Sure, you don’t get to have a cool looking Ikea storage unit full of records, you lose some sound quality, and we really don't know how long our files will last before being corrupted – ask yourself, how many ten year old hard drives still work? How many of your 5.25” floppies still do the do? But, on the flip, you don’t have to buy, transport or store anything, which is better for the environment, easier on your back, and a dream when you need to move anywhere. It means you’re free, right? No vinyl, no CD, no Billy, and no Lack.

Wrong. Just because you don’t have ‘things’ to worry about looking after anymore, doesn’t mean you’re no-one’s bitch. In fact, my recent house-moving debacle was not just a reminder of how heavy records are, but also how dependent I’ve become on having my precious ‘access’. Four weeks without a high-speed internet connection has been like being barred from the world of work, friendship AND new music, all in one disconnected swoop. No access? No experience. At least you only have to buy an object once, then it’s yours. Unlike ownership, your access can be revoked at any time. Think about it – in this century, something as mindless as a phone company’s inefficiency can be the gatekeeper that comes between you and every experience you’re trying to access. Broadband is the contemporary equivalent of the VIP room in a club, the business lounge in an airport, or the tea room in a colonial gentleman’s club (no dogs or Chinese, thank you).

So this is where we’re at, folks. No sooner was I gloating to myself about having escaped the dismal cycle of acquisition, accumulation and storage than I realised I’ve already become dependent on something far dodgier. Those few weeks on the phone to the telephone customer service people, begging, waiting, cycling to the library or mum and dad’s to get my downloading fix were the grim foretaste of a world where everything depends on having constant, uninterrupted access. After a day without it, I felt the panic and frustration of a ‘VIP’ who’s lost their laminate, or a regular whose face has been suddenly, catastrophically forgotten by the mega Maori who stands between him and his favourite nite spot. It’s enough to make you wanna run home and stroke your faithful object. So I did. I went home, pulled a record out of my Träby, selected a book from my Billy, and stared at my comforting Lack.

This rant was originally published in Inpress, February '07
© Peter Chambers 2007

TDF vs. WT (Thoughtless, Drunk Fuckwit vs. Whingeing Twat)

Three’s a crowd, or so the saying goes. Well then, what’s a band room full of people? Surely not a mob, or an audience. No. If a mob shares the desire to spill the blood of the innocent, and an audience shares the desire to applaud politely, then a crowd, unlike these two more specific groups, shares nothing more than space. And this is precisely the problem.

Home cinema is entirely unproblematic. Provided you have a darkened room with thick walls separating you from your neighbour, you can watch Britney’s mousketeer performances, sing along with Streisand, or pound your parson to snuff porn, in complete peace and comfort.

But go to a gig and things get hairy. The performer hopes she’s got an audience, but in all likelihood, it’s a crowd watching her bray and sway. Look closely at all the people. Watch the guy carrying those three beers through the crowd like a bishop with a communion chalice; listen to the loud slurry next to you talking poon itch and imminent breakups with her nearest and dearest; feel the slide of the person’s shoulder pushing against yours as you wonder, for the fifth time, what is it that makes everyone see you as the easiest route to the bar. Experience all these things, and you can’t help but realise – we’re not all here for the same thing. In fact, we’re here for reasons which are not only entirely different, but mostly incompatible.

Consider the mind-boggling stupidity of drinking beer at gigs. When you drink beer, three things happen.

1) You want to drink more beer
2) You need to piss a lot
3) You get more and more drunk

In any good pub, none of these needs that beer users experience causes conflict. You want another drink? Go to the bar. Wow, amazing. You wanna piss? Go to the toilet. You wanna get sloshed? Repeat steps one and two. No problem. Good, clean, fun. But now, imagine that process, but between you and the bar and you and the toilet, place a tightly packed room full of people, some of whom want to stand still and undisturbed because they’re watching some inscrutable but apparently fascinating spectacle taking place on that raised platform… Raised platform? Yeah, you know, the one you and your mates are leaning against. The one as far as possible from the bar and the toilets. Can you see where this is going? So let me ask you these three questions:

If you want to get pissed, why did you come to the gig?
If you wanted to drink at the gig, why did you stand down the front?
If you’re standing down the front, why are you yelling ‘Do you wanna ‘nother beer?’ to your mate.
If you ‘wanna ‘nother beer’, why don’t you wait until the end of the song until you go and get one?

The answer to all these questions is this: because you’re a thoughtless, drunk fuckwit.
But the fact is, as a crowd, we have to share space. So what are we going to do? The rich person’s ‘audience’ solution (think tennis, think classical music recitals) involves numbered seating, polite applause and a whole bucket full of sssshhh. Fine, but what about raw power? What about rock? Well, then there’s the ‘mob’ scenario. The ‘mob’ scenario involves solving the problem by focussing all energy on one thing – you’ll be so fixed on the imminent denunciation, decapitation or evisceration of the hated object, that (for the moment at least) you’ll forget how much you need to take a leak and grab another pot. But this is expensive, messy and (if you’re the hated object being torn to shreds) cruel and painful.

Failing either making a mob and an audience of your average Melbourne gig crowd, I suggest something parallel to Leunig’s stink-freeing solution on public transport, where carriages are separated into ‘farting’ and ‘non-farting’. We have separate gigs for under eighteens, we have big-tobacco sponsored outdoor areas for smokers – why not have a thoughtless, drunk fuckwit corral at all our live houses, and a whingeing twat dress circle? You get your drink, I get my gig, and we don’t have to come between each other. But this is all sounding a bit sensible, and maybe I’m forgetting the one, essential thing, the only thing that thoughtless, drunk fuckwits enjoy more than pissing on with each other. And that, of course, is pissing off whingeing twats.

This rant was originally published in Inpress, February '07
© Peter Chambers 2007

Fuck my pigeonhole (animal, vegetable, or mnml?)

‘Pigeonhole’ is the C-word in the ear of the 21st century artist. Worse than any kind of panning, a nasty pigeonholing is what many fear most. The way people screech, anyone would think it’s an act so depraved it would make dogging seem like a pork in the park. You can almost imagine the traumatised children of the creative muse crying tears of rage and condemnation on the day of their final artistic judgement. Lips quivering, eyes swollen and pink from crying, they blubber out their accusation:

‘He…he… pigeonholed me!’

But slow down. Let’s be honest – when it comes to pigeonholing, you bad little kiddies were begging for it. Yes, that’s right. C’mon, you wanted it. Pigeonholing is your secret, dirty, dreaded desire. It’s like the magical appearance of a little boy’s rump at the altar of a monastery. We fear it more than anything for the very fact that we desire it more than anything.

But if (to stretch the sex analogy to tearing point), sexual molestation occurs where someone is unwilling or unable to consent, the crime of pigeonholing occurs at that strange moment when you say what the person wants you to think they are. It’s like saying ‘I’m cool’. If someone asks you if you’re cool and you say you are, you’re not. Simple as that. More than anything, the ‘cool seeker’ wants you to pigeonhole them as ‘cool’, but it must be a silent insertion. Shhh… and in it goes.

Mnml, like electro and indie before it, has inherited the vice. People who make their money from appearances as DJs (playing mnml), producers of music (creating mnml), and remixers (making other animal’s vegetables into their mnml) will not only deny their being mnml, they’ll then proceed to tell you that ‘Sure, mnml is boring, but nobody’s mnml anymore anyway, people are really sick of mnml, I don’t think of myself as mnml, I never was mnml anyway and if people want to think of me as mnml, that’s because they just don’t understand. And besides, mnml is a four-letter word, even in Berlin. And it’s not even a word, it’s just a string of consonants, like ‘rhythm’!’

A word of warning to the would-be pigeonholer – if you want to get ‘all up in that’, if you want this kind of animal to show you their vegetable, then don’t say mnml. It’s like rugby, or the army – for the driving, homoerotic force to work, it has to remain unspoken. Shhh!
And that’s the problem, trying to romance a pigeonholer. The only way to give them the good, hard pigeonholing they want… is to pretend neither of you know what one is.

Originally published in Inpress, September '06

© Peter Chambers 2006

Podless in P-Attle

She might have been a tree huggin’ hippie with tortoise-like nostrils, but Joni Mitchell knew a thing or two. One crusty gem in that nosehole of knowledge was this: ‘you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.’ Ask any amputee and they’ll tell you (unless it was their head that got the chop). I wouldn’t quite call mine a limb, but I can tell you, not having it rrrreally stings. No no, not that thing. I’m talking about my iPod. The one that upped and died on Friday.

I don’t wanna sink my blue tooth into Apple over this one, after all, I caned my iPod for about five hours a day. Admittedly, I only bought the thing two years ago, but given that it’s survived travelling through five continents and been dropped more times than a Pentridge soap cake, I’m fairly philosophical about it. I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s okay… Except for the fact that now I don’t have an iPod. Which sucks, far more than I thought it would. Okay, so maybe the amputation metaphor was a bit overcooked. It’s not that bad. What it’s like is when you cut your thumb or your forefinger, and you realise just how many times you (I dunno) stir the pot, pick the parsnip or finger the villain in a given afternoon.

And I’m not the only one whose pod ate itself on Friday – there was a queue three deep at the Apple retailer, all waiting to be told just how much it costs to resuscitate the pesky things. How much could it cost? Ouch, that much. Man, at least reviving a loved one is covered by insurance. New screen? One seventy five. New hard-drive? Two seventy. New iPod? Not much more than that. Message? Spin’n’bin.

Ironically enough (given that they invented this shithouse way of making things and doing business), my Sony discman is still going strong. Sure, it’s of the non-skipping variety, but the sordid, cumbersome reality of having to do a redun-dance with a case full of discs, an accumulating mound of CD-Rs (the cellophane! the Artlines! the cracked jewel cases! the horror!) and burning through a set of AAs a week repelled me more than spider veins glanced up the spread leg of a fat old school ma’am. You think I’m joking, but seriously, the whole thing was so utterly repellant that I seriously considered stealing the pink iPod mini out of the hand of a tween standing outside the milk bar waiting for Humbert Humbert to arrive with his lollipop.

So instead of that, I’m using my digital recorder. Sure, it sounds fine, but it burns double the batteries of my massive, clunky discman, and it’s fragile. Well, anything’s fragile when you’ve got the co-ordination of a baby elephant.

My digital recorder’s got a flash memory of 1GB, which not so long ago was quite a lot. But after losing 20GB worth of music on shuffle, you realise what a difference a stupid, white object was making in your pathetic life. Which must have been the same reason why the jüzzy, Glenferrie Rd teen in front of me at the Apple shop was on the verge of tears.

Teen: Bin it? But… what am I gonna do? (lip all a-quiver)

Teen’s dad: You’re just gonna have to wait until you can get a new one.

Teen: But, I, I, I can’t…. (machinating) Daddy, can I have a new iPod? (more quivering)

Teen’s dad: No.

Teen: But dad, I can’t, I can’t live without it.

Teen’s dad: Why?!

Teen: I just, I just can’t.

And hate her though I might, I couldn’t help feeling - no, not even sympathy, but even empathy. It was true. I can’t say I understood why she was wearing marl tracksuit pants with her underpants visible over the top, but at the same time, I knew exactly, truly, deeply just how she felt.

Originally published in Inpress, February '07

© Peter Chambers 2007

Why Vinyl Will Survive

You can’t make a rational case for choosing vinyl, and I wouldn’t – there isn’t a single one that’s compelling. Digital is cheaper, less wasteful, more malleable and far more portable. There’s virtually nothing to store, scratch, warp or shatter. Records meanwhile remain cumbersome, fragile and expensive. And yet, in spite of all this, I will continue buying, collecting, playing with and paying for the damned things, for as long as I’m willing and able to. Why?

Well, there are lots of reasons. First of all, it’s because vinyl has life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not such a caner – I don’t think that my records are alive in the way my lover or my dog is. They don’t eat, drink, bark or bone. But, like us, they exist in space and through time – they have their own history, they wear their own scars, they need our care. They have a world.

When you dig for vinyl and you find something you’re looking for, you don’t just uncover the music. There’s a sense of connectedness, both of your desire to the sound and the sound’s embodiment in the object. Who knows the circumstances surrounding the original purchase? Maybe the record got sold because of a drug habit, a death, or a disappointment. Or maybe because of indifference. But in every case the piece you hold in your hands is the silent bearer of a story, a mute witness to whatever and wherever it went. It also carries the signal of its producers, embodying their dreams. I think Danny Wang said it once: second-hand record stores are such sad places. That’s because they’re dream graveyards. At one point, a group of people invested all their time and talent in making it. It was going to make them famous…

At the receiving end, the previous owners of a record invested their best hope in it too. So they chose it, they took it and kept it with them, and it slowly mapped itself into the web of their memories. Or they hated it, and flogged it. I don’t recall every intricacy of what I did last week, but I can tell you almost without fail the circumstances surrounding each record I own, and explain the resonance it has, what it evokes. It’s an object of music and of memory, and to me that gives it the true aura of an artefact, and makes it deserving of respect, reverence. I also love the presence of the music in the scratch. The groove is a perfect visual representation of the metaphor of what the thing is and does, and the music is there in a way that digital formats, even in whatever visual/waveform representations they use, aren’t. Functionally, this makes absolutely no difference. ‘Visual mixing’ of the kind now possible with digital obviously has advantages, but it’s always at a distance. Like talking through glass.

Records are also incredibly sensual objects, and this has always been their advantage for mixing. Even with the abilities the new technologies have given us to loop, sample and freely choose key and pitch (which is in every way musically superior as an instrument) there’s no substitute for being able to touch, to play by feel. Serato and Final Scratch have overcome this limitation, but even in ‘the best of both worlds’ there’s more than a little of nowhere and nothing at all. Mp3 doesn’t even exist, at least, not in the way we and our records do. It’s a nothing and it exists nowhere but in blips on our portable nonplaces.
Crucially, choosing a track through drag and drop is utterly different to digging through a box with a very limited selection thoroughly and carefully chosen before leaving home, or so you’d hope. In fact, the irony of having a greater number of choices is that it’s invariably harder to choose, or easier to make do with default choices, which are not real choices at all. A lot of DJs’ selections turn to shit after they start using digital. Somehow - no, because of all those choices, they’re unable to make a single interesting one. This is no coincidence.

There’s no sacrifice involved in collecting digital formats either. Any two-bit chump can download a huge body of work in a matter of days, something that would have required a huge expenditure of time, effort and money on the part of a vinyl collector. When you go and see a veteran play her set, she’s carrying with her whole decades of memories whittled down to some eighty selections. Packing a box requires further sacrifice, further selection, further acts of will, respect and love. You have to think, choose, include, reject. Without these repeated sacrifices, it’s all to easy fall prey to the tyranny of ‘any old thing’. ‘Oh shit, I need a track with drums to mix out of this, um… shit, only sixteen bars to go, oh, okay, this’ll do…’ Click, click, drag, drop. You hope the audience won’t feel the difference, and you fool yourself that you feel anything at all. I wouldn’t argue that this is a necessary outcome of digital, but it’s going to happen far more often.

The same is true of Ableton: paradoxically the program’s incredible power, speed and flexibility means you can churn out an average tune, not even in a matter of hours, but on the fly. ‘You can do anything on Ableton’ and you can, but most people do less and less. They don’t make minimal, they make very little of a lot. In fact, in a turn of events that would shock grandpappy, it’s easier to record a track than to write a song. All too often it shows: lazy drum programming, boring melodies with no tension or development, and a screaming, dithering, swarming shitload of plugin effects to cook the tune in, so we don’t have to listen to the half-baked mess. And how good are you as a musician really, Mr DJ? Can you really perform with the same level of musicality that’s contained within a well-made record, something a talented, dedicated person invested everything in for days, weeks, months? Why not let the record play, if it’s a good one. If it’s not, no wonder you’re bored, no wonder you need to fiddle.

Back to the body – the other quiet crime of indifference that this ‘choice’ contains is the death of another related artform: cover art. One of the things that make records so valuable and beautiful is the incredible creativity that goes into a lot of the covers, even if it’s the artful details of the colours and fonts chosen on the plainest of my EPs, or the ‘mastered by X at the Exchange’ scratched into the run off. No doubt the artisans who manufactured gilt frames for heavy oil paintings mourned the passing of their time, and maybe all systems of artistic representation are not only bound to, but should wither and die. It’s still sad.

Like most ‘technological advancements’, digital isn’t an improvement of what went before, it’s a rationalisation. Never forget that. From a consumer point of view, CD wasn’t ‘better’ than vinyl, and at least until the mid-nineties, a well-pressed record played better through a good component system (again, all put together through individual choices) than most CDs, even with, and probably because of the sound artifacts and sub-audible frequencies in the record. We’re losing them, too. But they’re inaudible, right? Never forget, it was the ‘record’ companies, greedy to reduce distribution costs and fit more units on shelves, who pushed for CD, and we paid more for less. Three times the price for something a third of the size and a fraction of the cost to make. Now they’re reaping the whirlwind, and a big and happy fuck you all.

The technology might end up getting us over barrel too: it isn’t ‘simply better’ – it’s a new entanglement that solves some problems and embroils us in others. I’m late finishing this article. That’s because, not three days ago, my Powerbook, on which I do, well, almost everything, decided to play Hungry Hungry Hard Drives and eat itself for breakfast. Luckily, all my media and documents are backed up – are yours? Don’t think it won’t happen. Houses burn and vinyl will too, but data loss is a completely new kind of risk. If any of you still have the XT you grew up with, go pull it out of the garage, turn it on and see if it still works. Then, take one of the diskettes with all your old games on ‘em and see if you can load them. Captain Comic, Space Quest, all those daggy old things. Remember them? The only story most of mine can tell me now is one that goes from beginning to end in three words: permanent fatal errors. Vinyl dies too, but not all at once. It goes slowly, just like we do. Do yourself a favour, and age gracefully with records. They’re not dead, they’re elderly, and they need your care and respect.

I suppose this whole thing’s based on a bogus choice ‘vinyl or digital’. We don’t have to choose. I’ll eventually buy myself a digital interface and start using it, in conjunction with my records. But don’t expect me to love the interface. That’s a leap I’ll never make. Can you? Do you really ‘love’ your interface? Can you cherish a hard disk? I can only speak for myself and my records, the only musical objects I keep that capture my imagination, just as they capture something of the magic of music in space and time. And that’s something that no data packet can ever do.

This rant was previously published by Resident Advisor here:

© Peter Chambers 2006

From the desktop to the hilltop (via the pill drop)

A few weeks ago I put forward the proposition that clubland has become a drug culture that uses music, instead of a music culture that uses drugs. I’m still not sure if I agree. But the reactions of my nocturnal f(r)iends to the rant has been more interesting than my unresolved doubts: the beer monsters and stay-at-homes mostly agreed, saying (surprise, surprise) that the disco was too late, too hard, too loud, too taxing. The hedonists conceded a point, but felt that I’d overstated things: it isn’t just ‘that’– a party’s all about the people, the venue, the atmosphere. You can’t blame the essence of the problem on a substance, or separate it from the crazy tangle of elements that makes an event – yeah, yeah. But what was really interesting was the number of people who argued a combination of these two points:

a) ‘It didn’t always used to be like that’ [historical]
b) ‘It’s not like that in {Hawtingrad}’ [geographical]

I scanned the dark recesses of my own discotheque memory tapes for confirmation of both assertions, and found that… yes, it had been true. There had been places and times… ahh. I spent days wallowing in a tepid bath of ‘the good old days’ wondering what had happened. Had I become preternaturally middle-aged? A fuddy-duddy in my twenties? Did ‘the suck’ exist outside the disappointments of my sad little sourpuss? Maybe… maybe it’s just me? Maybe it’s where I live.

There’s some truth in it. I’m not old school, so I can’t speak for the spirit of ’89, but I do remember when and where it was possible to go and see Laurent Garnier play for six hours on the best sound system you could imagine to a room full of adoring fans: ah, Tokyo’s old Liquid Room (now defunct). Sure, it cost the equivalent of forty US dollars to get in, but it was the business. But this is rare anywhere, and perhaps only metropolii have the critical mass of both people and objects in circulation to make it happen. In 2006, Tokyo has Unit, Offenbach has Robert Johnson and Berlin has the Panorama Bar – but these places are the exception, rather than the rule. Ah yes, the rule is something else. The Rule is Rex. I have this wonderful, terrible memory of seeing Isolée play at Rex in Paris. Isolée was bringing his set to its crescendo with a speaker-blowing rendition of Face B, and there in the audience was this utter penis and his two mates, shirts off, fanny packs strapped across their fronts. I thought it was fist-pumping. I thought it was praise. Then I thought it was a rave hybrid of the Gallic shrug and big box, little box, bouncy ball. But no, these mofos were heckling the good man. They weren’t losing their shit, they were giving him shit. I don’t speak much French, but it was pretty obvious what this guy was saying:

‘C’mon you pulsating glowstick, pump it up! I paid hard euro for this!’Or perhaps, ‘My pill is kicking in, you German pigdog!’ Or even, ‘Can’t you see my prune is pulsating – play Gehts Nocht!’

Below said ‘ecklers, in a small semi-circle, were the discerning few – smiling that smile, dancing that dance, blowing that smoke and all that jazz. Behind them was everyone else, not really dancing, just kinda nodding along. We could not have been listening to the same music, and yet there we all were...

All over the world (with the exception of the exceptional places mentioned), the same scene seems to be repeated. Is it Abletonitis (maybe the music I like is boring, as some have suggested... gosh, what if mother was right about that too)? Is it the perennial sigh of the ‘misunderstood’ artist casting his pearls before swine? Is it the fact that the nightclub and its needs are fundamentally at odds with the appreciation of, well, music? Maybe Isolée played his next set to an adoring, appreciative crowd the following Saturday somewhere in Hawtingrad, but my experience at Rex was typical of what I saw in Europe outside of the handful of ‘truly great’ clubs.

But it’s not just drugs, or boredom, or booze, although they play their part. The real enemy here appears to be habit. Habit is that strumpet who’s up to her old tricks – forever. The same thing as yesterday, and the day before. Whatever she did, you know that miserable so-and-so’s done it before, and she’ll do it again. Habit can wear a hole in your shoe, build a callous in your most sensitive parts, or make you a bodybuilding champion.

We need habits, no question. Once is never. Repetition is our only defence against gone – you wanna build something, you wanna make something happen? You’re gonna have to do it again. Try building a house, try being a drummer, try making a baby. Maybe life itself is nothing but the transformation of this repetition compulsion into pleasure, and our fear of death is simply a fear of breaking the habit of living.

But the problem with habits is that they brook no breakage – once established, their inertia will outlive common sense, boredom, even the end of the organism itself. Like Matt Dear’s lyric from Dog Days: ‘Tell another story to your body so it makes sense/the reason for this story is to give away your last chance.’ Indeed. And clubs, being what they are, are the final resting place of our deepest habits, the zenith/nadir of our bodily needs who want to step on the good foot and do the bad thing again and again and again. Have a few drinks, and there you are again (sigh), back in your good old, bad old ways. It’s good that we have a space for our habits to prance about, but the problem for creativity is that habit will have its needs met, and nothing else. The drinkers want to keep drinking, the DJ wants to keep playing, and the dickhead hassling Isolée… well, he just wanted to go ‘go off’ in a timely fashion. Electronic music is up against the overwhelming reality that people in nightclubs want nothing less than to have their expectations perfectly met. They’ve paid hard euro, they came to get wasted, and your job is to satisfy their urges. Hey, they work all week, this is their only outlet, have some compassion. Point is, we’re never going to ‘give up’ our habits. That would be preposterous, pointless, even pleasureless. But ‘good habits’ aside, what we need to cultivate, more than anything else, is a sense of the ‘exceptional’.

The Greeks had the Dionysia, the Romans the Bacchanalia, the Haitians have Voodoo rites – if you’d seen the Borat movie you’d know that even evangelical Christians get to freak out and speak in tongues for a few moments every week without guilt. Maybe we can leave the serpents, satyrs and bloodlettings for another barbecue and just take the lesson that all these events dip their lid to a seemingly immutable human need to lose it for a few days without the fear of guilt or recrimination. Maybe we could think through the atmosphere of permissive repression that dominates most nightclubs (where the way of ‘losing it’ is prescribed and enforced by tacit rules and enormous, violent bouncers) toward a real carnival of ‘big fun’.
It seems to me that we’ve inherited a potentially fantastic idea from Jamaica in the form of the sound system. Monsters and misfires aside, from Coxsone Dodd through the Wild Bunch to rave kidz and their rigs, a mobile sound system retains the greatest potential as a spacemaker. Alls you got to have is a kick-ass PA, some great DJs, choose your space imaginatively, make sure you invite the good peepz and stir… instant party. Kids, if you’re listening, consider getting access to a sound system and throwing your own parties. It sure beats bitching about other peoples’… or does it?

Maybe it’s also time to get DJs and producer/performers out of their habit-generated ghetto and start pushing them into places they’re not expected, and likewise, put bands and dramatic performers into marginal spaces. It has to be conceded that, to the uninitiated, groove-based electronic music is too abstract for hook-line-‘n-personality-cult addicted kids weaned on rock and pop. There’s nothing to grab onto, people don’t know how to listen to it, and too often it’s dismissed as merely repetitive drug music or, my favourite, ‘music with no soul’. The flipside of this is that promoters, drugs and ignorance on the part of the majority of listeners has created the indifferent/boosterist dynamic in most nightclubs, which has in turn fostered an atmosphere where a lot of performers who are actually very boring can get away with, and even make a career of, their bland boom-boom. There’s a split point here: on the one hand, artists like Jamie Liddell and Herbert have appreciated and overcome the performance limitations imposed by the rigidity of computer-based music, but on the other, one of the key aims of dance music was to overcome the personality principle of pop in favour of one in which you, me and the mixing desk are all instrumental performers of a music that is only completely composed through the dance itself. Dance music rarely works this well, but it’s one of our finest ideas – it would be a shame to regress back to an earlier ‘stage’ of our musical expression.

I really feel like electronic music has better grasped the power of the new technologies than anyone else. Broadband means that those (still admittedly relatively few, numerically speaking) with access to a laptop and an internet connection can plug into a form of musical expression that they can fully appreciate and share without translation and that, moreover, they can begin to interpret and re-create for themselves. The reverberation of this explosion of new music can be heard everywhere from Sao Paolo to Lagos or Moscow. It mightn’t change the world, but it’s a start. But where does it all reterritorialise? It seems like the weakest link in this whole chain is the sticky, fleshy one: the human. But that’s where we come in… isn’t it?

Originally published by Stylus, here:
© Peter Chambers 2006

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.