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Rare and wonderful footage of Brian Eno in the 1970s, soundtracked by “King’s Lead Hat” and interspersed with paintings by Russell Mills from the book More Dark than Shark. It’s a commercial, of sorts, that originally aired on British TV, for the 1986 compilation More Blank than Frank:

I found this hilarious graph on the back of one of my Muzak LPs, titled Muzak: Music of the ’80s:

Check it out! It’s linear!

Matmos.

I just found this on an old hard drive–an article I wrote about Matmos, five years ago, for Res magazine. I haven’t looked at this piece since 2006; it made me chuckle when I read it. I wish I still had the photos that went with the story in the magazine, but for now this’ll do. Hope you like it.

MATMOS

by Geeta Dayal

[Originally published in Res, May 2006]

“We knew we wanted to collaborate with snails, but snails aren’t the loudest thing ever,” explains Drew Daniel, half of the San Francisco band Matmos. “Unless you wanted to step on them, and that’s not cool!”

Snails aren’t a particularly out-there choice of sonic inspiration for Daniel and his partner Martin Schmidt, who have been making music since 1997 under the Matmos moniker. Their 2001 opus A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, for instance, sampled the gruesome whooshing sounds of liposuction surgery, hearing aids, rat cages, human skulls, and crayfish nerve tissue.

Matmos’ fifth full-length album, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, is a collection of loving sonic portraits of various figures admired by the duo—a motley assortment of people, including the legendary disco DJ Larry Levan, the wily philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who inspired the title of the record), the Germs singer Darby Crash, and the mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith, who just so happened to be an avid collector of snails. The album is accompanied by a lavish booklet of portraits especially commissioned for the record, by various luminaries including the comic book artist Daniel Clowes.

“In each case, it was about the individual–trying to find some object for sound source ideas that seemed to really say something about that person, but also yielded something musically compelling,” explains Daniel. “I know that on paper, what we’re trying to do can sound like we’re trying to be perverse, we’re trying to get the shock reaction. . . in each case, there’s a reason why the sound resonated with the subject of the song.” Continue reading

I’ve been digging up lots of old electronic music fanzines from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Five years ago, I wrote on this blog about Synapse. Here’s a beautiful cover of another zine I’ve been reading recently, from the Basque region of Spain in the mid-1980s.

I’ve been slammed with finishing revisions on entries I wrote for the upcoming edition of The Grove Dictionary of Music, the mammoth and legendary dictionary published by Oxford. I wrote several entries for it–including the definitions of genres like house, electro, and techno. The word “dubstep” is now in the dictionary for the first time, I’m happy to say. I also wrote definitions for a few synthesizers, such as the Roland TB-303 and the TR-808, which will now be in the instruments section for the very first time. The hardest part for me was writing the massive 3,000-word essay on “electronic dance music,” which comprises the past 30+ years of history, and encompasses dozens of genres. (I completely scrapped the entry that was there.) Where do you start and where do you end? What do you include and what do you leave out? Writing definitions isn’t easy, especially when they’re meant to be the definitive ones, and the pay is not great. But it is my hope that by doing this, I can help in some small way to expand the literacy out there about electronic music.

Martin Rushent: A Tribute to the League Unlimited Orchestra

When I heard that Martin Rushent died a few days ago, I was crushed. I never met him. But I spent a happy year of my life, about eight years ago, working for my good friend Simon Reynolds as the research assistant on Rip it Up and Start Again. One of the less glamorous aspects of my job was transcribing interviews. Simon had interviewed nearly 150 people for his book–a superhuman effort–and recorded all or most of the interviews onto cassette tape. Simon transcribed most of the interviews; I probably transcribed one-fifth of them. I don’t remember now. I do remember that one of the tapes I had to transcribe was his interview with Martin Rushent. (The interview appears in full in Totally Wired, the wonderful companion book to Rip it Up–I highly recommend both books.)

I was completely transfixed by Simon’s interview with Martin Rushent. This guy was inspiring. I would listen to the tape over and over–as you often have to do while transcribing–memorizing what was on it. Rushent, speaking about the making of the 1982 League Unlimited Orchestra Love and Dancing LP, taught me an incredible amount about the recording studio, and about music production. That interview was part of the reason why I decided to write a book on Eno, some years later.

If you had to ask me what one of the most relentlessly avant-garde records was in my collection, I would tell you it was the League Unlimited Orchestra Love and Dancing LP. Sure, I’ve got the classic French musique-concrète recordings, the Stockhausen albums, the mammoth ten-disc Steve Reich box set, and too much other stuff to count. Talk to hipsters about the Human League and they’ll namecheck “Being Boiled” and the artier early stuff (much of it collected in The Golden Hour of the Future reissue), before Martyn Ware left for Heaven 17. Dare–the over-the-top pop record, the one that hit #1 in America–gets less critical love. If you look back to the 1982 Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll, Dare (a “B-“, according to Robert Christgau) ranked as the 26th best album of the year–a tie with Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Dare, the album so unstoppable that “Don’t You Want Me” was the last track on the second side of the LP. We all remember the brutal anecdote about Lester Bangs dying of an overdose while Dare played on the hi-fi, the needle hitting that last groove and spinning inexorably to oblivion. Go to any record store in the US and you’ll see piles of used copies of the Dare LP for two bucks, white and pristine. The silent synth-pop killer of rock and roll, deadly as a cocktail of Valium and Darvon.

Dare is a much weirder record than most of us think. I like it, but I’ve always liked Love and Dancing–Rushent’s reworkings of several of the songs on Dare–far more. I actually heard Love and Dancing before I heard Dare. While I love all of the remixes to pieces, my favorite part is the triptych, of sorts, at the end–“Seconds,” “Open Your Heart,” and “The Sound of the Crowd.” When I first heard “Seconds” as it is on Dare, I was disappointed, thinking it wasn’t nearly as good as the remix. Why wouldn’t Oakey stand back and let the synthesizers sing?

Love and Dancing was a trailblazing effort–a remix album, back before that was even a concept, that eventually went platinum. Rushent wasn’t a DJ; he was a producer. But Rushent, in my mind, is right up there with the pioneering DJs and remixers from the disco era–Tom Moulton, Francis Grasso, Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan–and the hip-hop legends, too, from Kool Herc to Grandmaster Flash. (Rushent was inspired to make Love and Dancing after seeing an early performance of Grandmaster Flash in New York, in fact.) Look at Rushent, bearded and earnest, on the back of the Love and Dancing LP, in stark contrast to the grinning, foppish Oakey. You can totally believe that Rushent was the guy who lived in the studio, studying the arcane manual for the Roland Microcomposer late at night, instead of going out and hitting the dancefloor.

Which is why Rushent’s intuition for the dancefloor is so unbelievable. Here was a guy who knew pop music, inside and out, who knew how to arrange a song that would stick to the brainpan and never let go. He cut his teeth working on Shirley Bassey records; he was an engineer on T. Rex’s Electric Warrior. By the late ’70s, he had turned to punk–working with the Stranglers, among others, and producing some of the most sublime pop songs of all time for the Buzzcocks. By 1981, a collection of ‘demos’ he produced for Pete Shelley–the brilliant proto-synthpop record Homosapien–was released, and he got started with the Human League.

So back to the League Unlimited Orchestra LP. This was an album that clocks in at about 35 minutes long, that contains about 2,600 edits, all done with tape, a custom-made ruler, and a splicer. As Rushent relates in the interview he did with Simon, he couldn’t rewind or fast-forward the master because he was too worried about the tape disintegrating completely. But unlike many of the cut-and-paste tape collages that were en vogue with the experimental set, Love and Dancing doesn’t sound like collage. It sounds completely of a piece, as if music should have always sounded that way–as if these remixes emerged, fully formed, out of nothing. It is perfect pop music.

New feeling.

Another new piece by me: A review of Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, for Bookforum.

The Big Exciting Thing I’m working on right now, which is occupying most of my time, is the proposal for my second book. Making lots of progress, and feeling inspired, which is always good. The proposal is 50 pages long, and extensively researched; it’s like writing a mini-book. I’m being purposefully vague about the subject matter right now except to say that it deals with music, and with art; more on this soon, once the book sells to a publisher.

More stuff coming out: I wrote a big review of the wonderful Stan VanDerBeek retrospective at the List Visual Arts Center for the summer issue of Frieze, which will be out soon. I’m also working on a big review of the Angus MacLise exhibition in New York, also for Frieze. Some things for The Wire and Rhizome are in the works as well. And other interesting things, too, including a big website I’m building, dealing with art and maps.

Over the past eight weeks, I’ve been in New York City, San Francisco (twice), Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Ireland (Dublin, Belfast, and Galway, among other places). In Boston now, and it’s nice to be back.

Max.

A big interview I did with Max Mathews for Frieze, a few weeks before he died. Such a long, incredible, and fascinating life. We talked for almost four hours, and the full transcript is twice as long as this; at some point, I’ll have to publish the full version. I’ll write more about it soon, but right now I’m boarding a plane to the West Coast.

A piece from the past.

I just found this profile I wrote about the artist Carsten Höller, for the (sadly departed) Res magazine in 2006. I’ve typed it out here; hope you enjoy reading it.

ALTERED STATES: Carsten Höller

by Geeta Dayal

Res, Jan/Feb 2006

“SOME OF THEM are called mind-shakers,” Carsten Höller says mysteriously, referring to the objects in his new installation. “Instead of shaking your body, they’ll shake your mind in some way.”

The 45-year-old artist and his crew are building an amusement park inside of a giant exhibition space at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Amusement Park: Unfinished and Amusement Park: Finished, his two upcoming installations at the MASS MoCA, blow up earlier Höller works like Grönalund Tivoli Star and Roller Coaster (2005) and Carousel (1999-2000) to a massive scale. Amusement Park involves typical amusement park rides — bumper cars, a Gravitron — but the lights, music, and movement are drastically shifted in pace and timing. Höller talks excitedly about slowing the rides down to a molasses crawl. “It will be like a negative amusement park,” he says grimly, but with an edge of glee to his voice. “We are taking all the fun away.”

The more Höller talks about Amusement Park, the more it does sound like fun. He speaks with the infectious enthusiasm of a child discovering a new toy. “Everybody has a lot of memories when it comes to amusement parks,” he says. “It works on you on a very strong subconscious childhood level.”

Höller goes off on a tangent about the differences between American and European merry-go-rounds, spending ten minutes discussing the deep historical reasons why European carousels run counter-clockwise and American ones run clockwise. It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s all completely bonkers. He’s debating the inclusion of a rollercoaster in the new show, but it probably won’t happen. “But I’m still hoping for the bumper cars, Twister or Twirl-o-Wheel, a turning platform. . .” Continue reading