We sat down with Kerry Alexander, Tony the Scribe, and Ness Nite for a long-winded discussion about music, sexism, craft, influence, and authenticity. Here is the full transcript of the 75 minute conversation.
TRANSCRIPTION: CECILIA JOHNSON // PHOTOS: EMMET KOWLER
EDITED BY EMMET KOWLER AND CECILIA JOHNSON
Cecilia Johnson: Are there any ways that you've felt sexism impacting your life as a music professional?
Ness Nite: I haven't been doing music that long, so most of my experience is online. The thing that sticks out to me the absolute most is it's always men who contact me, on Facebook Messenger or DM on Twitter or whatever, or e-mail or anything remotely professional, like "I like your music. We should work." It's like, "Just show me what you're doing. And if I just so happen to not like it, I might not want to work with you.” It's almost the same as guys who jump in your DMs for asking you out or telling you you're cute, 'cause if you decline, then it's like, "Well, I didn't think you were that tight anyway." I've gotten shit like that — just hard feelings. Regardless of being a woman or it being about being a woman, as an artist, you're not required to work with other people. If you're in it for the art's sake, then why would you even [. . .] I think it's dumb that you have to feel guilty for not wanting to do art with someone.
Kerry Alexander: It certainly goes along with this old dominance of men in production. Even with a huge pop star who has a lot of power and influence, there's a tendency for people to think of them more like a puppet. [Like] there's a man behind the scenes. I think that's at the heart of this Kesha/Dr. Luke thing — can she exist without his influence?
But yeah, you made me think of when our album came out. Lots of people asked what music influenced you, and I was just like, "Lots of stuff. Michelle Branch. Avril Lavigne." When I started saying them in interviews and reading it back, I had a feeling like, "Are those not the kind of artists I'm supposed to be saying influenced me?" Maybe I should be saying someone more underground.
When I was ten years old, Michelle Branch's "Everywhere" was everything to me. She was one of the first pop stars who — her guitar was such a part of her image. She sold the fact that she wrote her own songs and played her guitar. She didn't know what she would do without her guitar. I was like, "What? I don't know what I would do without my guitar." That sort of goes along with the idea of a guilty pleasure, which I don't believe in.
I think this came up on Facebook a long time ago. A bunch of my friends had this debate because people were all upset that Miley Cyrus had covered a Nirvana song. They were like, "Oh, Miley Cyrus. Oh my god, she's defacing Nirvana." And it's like, "What? She probably likes Nirvana." [laughs]
Emmet Kowler: The whole point of grunge is that they defaced punk.
KA: It was something I hadn't really thought about, but people didn't think that someone like Miley Cyrus was supposed to be a fan of this male band that was very influential for a lot of people. You're not supposed to like someone in a "different" realm. And it's interesting to me how the whole thing of being an artist, from the very start: it's like, "Who influenced you?" And you'd better say someone cool.
I also think that people have a problem with artists who are predominantly liked by women. Like boy bands.
Tony the Scribe: A culture of authenticity is a really, really big thing for women to access. Particularly within rap, right? Because rap is still such a boys' game, for the most part. We have really incredible female artists, but they're limited to particular archetypes a lot of the time. And we had a huge, amazing crowd of really strong women in the '90s and early 2000s, and then we just went through a complete drought.
The interesting thing with hip-hop — I've seen a lot of dudes talk to either female rappers or female heads and be like, "Oh, you wouldn't want to know about this deep cut or this album. You don't listen to Tupac like that." It's assumed that [. . .] they can't be in it for the love or depth of understanding of the culture in the same way that men are.
CJ: Kerry, you were talking about pop stars' influence, and I thought that was really cool. Do you see any pop stars using their influence in ways you admire? What would you do with influence like that?
KA: It's something I think about a lot. I really struggle with using social media as a platform to make a statement. I like using social media to be like, "Here's what I'm eating right now," or, "Here's my feet at this park." [laughs] But in some ways, you think, "If I had a platform, what would I say? Could I make a difference?"
You see artists like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift being criticized for not thinking through the way that they are portraying themselves or creating an image around themselves, but in some ways, it's hard because authenticity is the biggest thing for me. And I've struggled with — how do you make a statement about something powerful without it just becoming part of your brand? Without it being like, "Hey, everyone, just so you know, I'm on this side. So hit me with those likes, because I'm saying what the people want to hear."
If you're in a position of power — if Beyoncé says something like, "Black lives matter," a 13-year-old somewhere could be like, "I don't know what that is. Let me look it up," and then they're turned on to or educated about something. But how do you separate promoting yourself from a cause that's not really about you?
TS: I actually think one of the weirdest, most awesome, and messiest versions of that is Macklemore's "White Privilege II." That song is so weird, and an absolute mess in a lot of ways, but he absolutely grapples with that. Like, "How do I talk about this in a way without capitalizing on it?"
EK: Speaking of authenticity: Macklemore. [laughs]
TS: Speaking of authenticity: Macklemore! I actually did believe Macklemore on that. He has, from the beginning of his career, talked about whiteness really explicitly. Now, I think he fucks up a lot, too. I think he can seem really inauthentic in some ways, like Instagramming that picture of him texting Kendrick [Lamar]? That's performative. Which doesn't mean that he's a bad person or an inauthentic dude, but he clearly made a mistake in that particular space.
Earlier, I was thinking about what [Ness] said about dudes hitting you up to work with you, because I think one of the things — and this happens with Macklemore, too — is the music industry is weird. In so few other spheres of life is there such a thin line between personal engagement with people and business.
Friendship is one thing, and working together is another thing, but the fact of the matter is, few of us are pulling in millions of dollars. Most of us are barely making professional money to sustain ourselves or doing something else to make money on top of the music that we're doing. So it is, in large part, a question of how much of this is professional and how much of this is a hobbyist thing. There are a lot of people who straddle that line and don't draw those lines effectively. Especially with women, I have so many women friends in the music industry who never know when a dude is hitting them up, whether they're trying to work with them professionally or whether they're just trying to fuck 'em.
CJ: That seems like a super prevalent double standard.
EK: Or almost a double expectation. When I look at Taylor Swift, I'm like, "Yes, she fucks up a lot." But also, I feel like it's not the greatest idea to write her off in any way. She's so immensely successful; she did it largely by building her own brand with her vision. And if I were a 12-year-old girl, I'm sure I'd be thrilled that Taylor Swift did this thing.
KA: I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and I grew up with a lot of privilege. I grew up going to schools that were very small. So I was not privy to a lot of what was happening outside my tiny, Southern bubble. And when I went to college, I was like, "Oh, shit. Shit is going down out here, you guys." So someone like Taylor Swift — in some ways, I'm like, she just doesn't know. She just doesn't know. Because why would she? She became a pop star at like fifteen. So in some ways, you don't want to cut them slack, per se, because they do have such influence. But I'm sure when it comes down to it, the people around her don't have the same frame of reference as a lot of the world.
Then also, you think about the fact that Justin Timberlake came out with a song called "Take Back The Night," and everyone's like, "You do know this is the name of a campaign for victims of sexual violence?" And he was like, "Whoa, I didn't know that." You're like, "How did this song get through layers and layers of people?"
CJ: All the channels!
KA: We may never know what happened there. And who knows? I'm also big on conspiracy theories, so sometimes I think people do these things on purpose.
I can't really think of a pop star where it's all there. Just because the nature of now is that people don't get away with anything, which in some ways is good. It's like, hey, you have a voice. You have a platform. So we're going to let you know if it's not working for us.
CJ: I always wonder if your job as a musician obligates you to do stuff, but then I'm like, "Kay, be a decent human being. Do the things." But then. . .
TS: I don't know. I think it's tricky because we have this hero-worship thing going on. Our musicians are our idols, for the most part. It's strange, especially, as somebody who has been a fan of music my whole life and then becomes a musician — getting to the other side of that power differential. Just looking around and realizing how weird it is that people interact in that way.
We expect so much of our musicians, because they're the ones that write the soundtracks to our lives. We want them to be perfectly woke on everything, and also creative geniuses, and also willing to sit at the merch booth for five hours and talk to every person, and also really nice and awesome when you meet them at 2:00 in the morning in the grocery store and they're just trying to get some ramen. You know? I think that expectation of people to be more than human is pretty dangerous. Which isn't to say that people shouldn't be aware of social things and use their platforms for good. It's not necessarily an obligation, I don't think. But if you have that platform, you could be doing good with it, and if you're not, that's kind of on you.
CJ: Can you say more about the power differential thing?
TS: Yeah. This is actually one of my favorites to think about and to talk about. I hate power dynamics. They're one of my least favorite things about making music in general. Especially in music scenes, right? I think this also curtails to a lot of the way that women are treated.
You look at Kesha and Dr. Luke. Music is ultimately networking and who has access to what spaces at what times. To get a certain platform upon which a bunch of new people can find you, if you want to be played on The Current, or if you want to have the music critic at the New York Times write a review about you. It's all about who you know. And "who you know" is protected by a huge, weird, nebulous network of different people who have access to different spaces at different moments.
At its best, it means that hanging out with a bunch of music people is just having a bunch of really cool friends who want to help you get to where you're going. At worst, it means that there are a bunch of people who have different levels of power over you as a musician who's trying to succeed. And that can result in a lot of problems. So even if it's not even explicit power — even if it's not a music director at a radio station or somebody's who booking you at a venue — it's working with mentor figures in the industry who are years more experienced than you. Or a producer who's years more experienced than you, which is still a really male-dominated field, like [Ness] said. It at least seems to you, when you come into the industry, that [they have] a lot of power over you.
I think there are a lot of people at that higher level who will abuse that and use that power over people. Kesha's a really good example of that. Dr. Luke basically is like, "I am your god. You came through me to get famous. And now, I get to treat you however I want." And the American legal system is bearing that out. It's ridiculous, but that's one really egregious example of a broader problem we have.
I'm not sure that's not deeply baked into the system on some level. Where people, but especially men, have power over especially women socially, within the music world. And that can lead to a lot of really fucked-up stuff happening.
NN: Can I bring up something that I've noticed with people who really don't need to be acting this way? Like, nobody should be acting this way, but. I've seen so much lately like, "If I get this many likes, I'll put out a song." [all laugh]
And I'm like, "What?" That is the most "suck my dick and I'll put out a song." That's how you want people to interact with you?
CJ: Like, "Bow down, and I'll give you," yeah.
NN: It's so gross to me, and I'll list names, so I'll stop.
CJ: I feel like what both of you were saying speaks to the professionalism/friendship tension. Which, it sucks that there is this tension, because I haven't been in too many other fields of work or the world, but I've never seen anything this bad.
TS: It's not "how bad," either, though, 'cause I get to hang out with a bunch of really cool people.
CJ: Yeah, you're right.
TS: And I know people who I was first interested in them and wanted to be friends with them because they had a similar worldview. And similar feelings and ideas about the world, and I found all that through their music. Then, I became really good friends with them later on, and now, they're some of the most valuable people in my life. That's really tight, too. It just comes with some caveats that I think can be really dangerous if you're not careful about it.
Within intra-industry power dynamics, and also with fans. I've seen tons of examples of artists taking advantage of their fans, and treating fans like shit in a particular way, or using power dynamics in really messed-up ways.
CJ: Ness and Kerry, how do you feel like fans act toward you?
KA: We've opened four bands on tour, and only one of those was female-fronted. Which is fine — everyone in the bands was kind to us, supportive, whatever. But I could sense slight differences in the fan groups on each tour, and again, nothing too negative or harmful, but yeah, there was something about opening for a female-fronted band. You know that the people there are cool with female-fronted bands, and that's what they want to see.
We, honestly, have had very positive interactions with bands. We opened for Hippo Campus, and that one I was nervous about, because they had intense fans. [all laugh] I was like, "I think this girls are just going to hate us," because they're here for — the thing. But in the same way, I think they relate to Hippo Campus because they make music they can relate to and dance to. The guys are really friendly, so I think they're used to hanging out with the guys after the show. They always come say hi. For me, it was the best feeling ever to open for them and have their fans come up to us and give us the time of day, want to say "hi," and be like, "Oh, wow! So cool you're doing this." Like, "You can do this [too]."
That feels nice. And all these girls are so cool. And especially what's cool about that one is just to see the energy among young people, 'cause it's mostly teenagers. They showed up to the show early; they brought their cameras; they were excited. They bought merch. They want to talk to the band. They want to be involved in the music in the whole scene. And I was like, "Oh, my heart." That's what I wanted to be when I was younger, but I lived in a place where there weren't shows happening. It warms my heart to see young girls just wanting to be a part of the music scene, even if they don't make music. They want to go to shows; they want to take pictures; they want to write about it.
We had so many interviews with teenagers. It was awesome.
The only bad interactions I've had — a few times, and Ness, you may note this, middle-aged men will try to kiss you on your face.
NN: Yes. Are You Local?.
CJ: Oh, no.
KA: I think they think it's a fatherly thing, but it's not what you want.
NN: That's disgusting.
KA: [nods] So that's not great. And the biggest gripe I have — again, it only happened a few times. But people like to come up to me after shows — men like to come up to me after shows — and tell me that I should move around more on stage. [laughs] Which, when we opened for Hippo Campus, those guys go big. They're really great at it, and it's fun to watch. So the first night we opened for them, I was like, "Holy moly, I need to do some stretching. I've gotta get back in shape! [all laugh] These kids are so agile!" But after a show, it's just like, "That's not what we do." We try to have fun on stage, but I'm a songwriter. I'm writing songs and the lyrics and whatever. That's what I'm giving to the world.
But yeah, I think some men just don't understand that I don't have anything to compensate for and therefore don't need to go nuts on my guitar. [laughs]
CJ: It sucks that people feel entitled to share opinions and criticize you.
KA: But then again, at several of the Hippo Campus shows — I feel like women are pretty used to people yelling, "You're hot! I want to fuck you!" But that happened to the Hippo Campus guys when we were on tour. As a performer, you're on display. And people don't always respect the fact that you're a person, not just a live jukebox for them. So you know, I've seen both sides.
CJ: At Soundset, I was at Doomtree's set, and the guys behind me were objectifying Dessa to no end. I just wanted to be like, "Shut up." Like, "She gon' be my wife. She's so fine." And I was like, "Oh nooo. You're not cool."
KA: It's tough, because I feel like all musicians know that "the look" is part of the thing. Whether or not it's a "sexy look" or a "weird look" — I'm looking at you, Weird Al. [laughs]
NN: I definitely identify as a woman, but on stage, in my songs, and in the things I wear on stage, I almost try to shield myself from dumb shit. I go out of my way to wear things that are "cool" but not — it's also probably my personal style, too, but I definitely think that subconsciously, there's a [sense of] "I won't get any attention if I wear this cool collared shirt." I'll have a sleeveless collared thing that shows my tattoos, and I'm wear a semi-long skirt and some Tims. Something that's strange but looks cool but isn't what a pop star would wear. It's a part of who I am as a person, too, 'cause I'm not a girly-girl.
CJ: You're your own person.
NN: Back to the men trying to kiss you stuff. Several older guys at the Are You Local? show came up to me to, in their minds, do me a favor by saying something. The body language — tall, older white dudes standing over me patting me on the shoulder, being like, "Oh, your voice is really great, but. . ." This one guy was really drunk, and he was like, "Yeah, you were great, but I think all these people — [Holidae] is what they're mainly looking for." He literally said that to me. And I was like, "Thanks, Mr. I-don't-give-a-fuck-about-your-opinion." [laughs]
I go out of my way when I'm on stage [to say] that I make the beats, because people just assume I don't. Several times, when me and Mike [Frey] play a show, somebody will go up to Mike and be like, "Oh, dude, those beats are so tight." And I'm like, "I made those." Mike mixed them so they sound tight coming out of big speakers and stuff, but I literally sat in my bedroom and made those. On SoundCloud, that's the first thing I changed: "makes the beat/ /writes the words/ /says the words."
So many girls and women want to produce and make beats, and I'm like, "Do it. Please. Come over and I will teach you anything I know about Ableton." There's nothing I want more.
CJ: I want to go to that class.
EK: We need a new version of Holly's sound for girls thing.
CJ: Holly Hansen from Zoo Animal did a thing at 331 Club where she got a bunch of ladies and taught them about how to run a soundboard, and it was amazing and so helpful. We just ordered beer at 11 in the morning at the 331 and learned about sound. I would go to everything in that series, because she's a master. She went through everything: from the technical stuff to how to interact with sound person or what good etiquette is. It was awesome.
TS: One of the things, as I think about it more, . It goes back to the idea that women can't handle technical shit. It goes back to, "Women can't do math! Women can't do science. Women are mushy creative things who can't get their heads wrapped around whatever bullshit." I think that's one of the gaps of why a lot of women don't jump into producing. It's a boys' [club] — I mean, there's infrastructure to that, too, right? If you want to be a good engineer or something like that, you usually have to get an internship with another engineer, and that's a hugely male-dominated field already. Then you have to worry about what kind of space you're entering, and all this stuff. Representation kind of stuff. But people definitely have this idea that women could maybe be singers or songwriters, but there has to be somebody else who's actually doing the technical aspects of producing, which is ludicrous.
CJ: The heavy lifting.
TS: Yeah, totally!
KA: I never seriously tried my hand at engineering or producing. I mean, I used to make GarageBand demos a long time ago, but it's not where my head it at. It seems tedious and not fun. But women are capable of doing it.
I still know that if we're working on a song, I know how I want it to sound. And I know enough about the production side of things that I can —
NN: Get in there?
KA: Yeah, I can direct someone and know that the levels aren't right, or this needs more reverb. Or whatever. Even beyond whether you're trained as a producer.
I was talking to one of my friends who did a lot more production stuff than me. She said the same thing; she does work in LA, and she said she's worked with a lot of people who, when she's like, "Yeah, that needs some compression," he's like, "What are you talking about?"
It's all assumption.
The Wizard-of-Oz Phenomenon
CJ: What is something that you guys appreciate when somebody does? That makes you feel really respected.
KA: When things are going normally. When everyone is just a human in a space. I don't need any special treatment — so many sound guys are really mean, but they're really mean to everyone. It's not because I'm a woman.
When I have a night when I feel like myself and have a good time and talk to fans, and no one tries to kiss my face — that's cool.
NN: I've had a couple guys ask me to make them beats, which I think is actually kind of cool. I never have. [laughs] But I think it's cool. [all laugh]
CJ: I feel like that means they tried to know something about you as an artist. Because to me, one of the main things I think of when I think of you and your work is, "She's a producer. She makes beats, and they're good." I get that.
KA: In the same way, when people come up to me at a show and ask about my pedal board or something. Legitimately asking, "Oh, what do you use?" They're not asking, "Do you know how that pedal works?"
TS: "Who bought you those pedals?! Is there a secret pedal board in the back where some old white dude is doing the things for you?"
CJ: Like The Wizard of Oz!
KA: It's a cliche that a lot of middle-aged men love gear. But I don't mind talking with some middle-aged guy about my gear, if he's talking to me. I love that. I'll talk about my guitar and what year it is. "Oh, is it Japanese?" I don't know, sir! But thank you for asking.
I do struggle with this, though. Because sometimes, I'm like, "I don't care about gear." But then I'm like, "Maybe I should know about it. It's my instrument, and it's good to be educated. I should maybe know how to fix my amp.” But then I'm like, "Do I? Can't I just bring this somewhere?"
TS: I feel like that's also an authenticity thing. I feel that way too, as a dude, but I'm sure it's to a very different extent. "How much do I actually know about this? Do I feel weak when I'm in the studio with a mixing engineer? Oh, that's a toxic masculinity thing. There we go."
But when I'm in the studio with a mixing engineer who's been doing mixing for like ten years, and I don't know how a particular compressor works, or, I still don't know what the fuck a stereo imager does. I can't figure it out. But I feel weird about asking those questions and doing those things, because there's an experience, cock-sure, arrogance technical knowledge thing that is totally a thing behind the scenes in music that I think is really tricky. 'Cause why does it matter if you don't know what kind of guitar you have? It's not your job to know what kind of guitar you have. It's your job to play the goddamn guitar.
KA: At the same time, you want to be good at something, and I feel like maybe I should be a master of my craft. Enough to know how an amp works. Which I only just learned.
CJ: Holly was talking about that stuff, using vocabulary I didn't even know. And I'm like, this is basically my job to talk about these things, so I should probably ask more questions in the world?
KA: Yeah, I like learning. [laughs] But I never want that to be like, "I have to learn this in case a middle-aged man tries to quiz me on it."
CJ: Mmhmm. Am I actually learning it for myself, or am I learning it for somebody else. Yeah.
EK: [to the group] If you have any, where does your training come from? Informal or formal?
TS: Mostly informal.
KA: I took violin and piano lessons when I was younger, so I got a good basis for making music. But I'm pretty much self-taught on guitar.
NN: I played violin for a long time, but I could never actually read music.
EK: That's quite the instrument to play by ear.
NN: I feel like it's an easier one to play by ear, because you literally control every little [move] — you can make whatever sound you want. That's also how I taught myself how to sing. I don't sing normally, whatever that means. I just imitate a violin. I see it more than I sing.
TS: I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, but that's dope as fuck.
NN: I listen to music like textures, not like sound.
EK: You mean like Lorde?
NN: Doesn't she see colors?
NN: It's texture to me. Like, "I need that to be thicker" or gelatinous. [all cheer]
TS: Synesthesia's so rad. I did an entire play one time that was about a bunch of mental ways of being. For a long time, it was like, "That's bullshit. That doesn't actually happen." But then they did a study where they quizzed a bunch of people, like, "What flavor is this car?" Twenty years later, they asked them the same thing. They all had the same answers, because they weren't lying, obviously.
NN: I feel like it should be easy to explain, because I know what I'm thinking. I try to say things to Mike, and he's like, "What the hell are you talking about?" I'm like, "I can see this wall, and there's things poking out." [all laugh]
KA: You're like, "I had to do this myself. Obviously."
TS: [mock-exasperated] Do you want more compressor on there or not? [all laugh]
EK: Do you think that influences why you're so adamant and committed to doing your production yourself?
NN: Probably, 'cause I would listen to other beats and be like, "Nah. . ." I want to be able to control the sounds around me, and I don't know how to communicate it. So I have to do it. Which, it's cool that I manage to do it. I think Mike's getting used to me, though.
TS: Spiky wall.
Next Hottest Shit
KA: Half the battle of sexism in music is just to — one, just be supportive of the women around you. Or anyone who is a minority in the field. And two, just keep making good music. That's the biggest thing for me, personally. If I keep making good art, that speaks for itself.
There are times when I've started to feel like there are only so many spots for women in music, and I have to be the one woman to get there. But there's really room for everyone.
EK: Like there's only room for Beyoncé.
KA: And no one's ever getting that spot.
TS: Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Everybody else: go home.
NN: Subconsciously, my sound tries to counteract power dynamics. When I started making music, I was rapping. I didn't like my voice at all, and I would never sing. And then I wanted singing on my music, so I just started doing it.
I could see how people interact in the rap community, and I didn't want to be jammed into a particular community because of the structure. That made me change my sound a little bit. I'll sing and use synthier sounds instead of sample-heavy sounds. I can fit into electronic and sing, and I make my verses super short, so I do rap, but I'm not a rapper. I sing and produce. . . I made conscious decisions to change what I was doing as I was doing it, because I didn't want to be stuck.
TS: I definitely agree with that. I had a female friend in the industry — a photographer — who was talking about rap shows one time. She was like, "I don't like going to rap shows, because it's just a bunch of dudes trying to prove shit to themselves." I've been doing a lot of thinking about that, and about how shows — especially local rap shows — but musicians in general, we have a lot to prove to ourselves. We make stuff, and we share it, because we believe our voices are important. We want people to engage with it and think about things in different ways.
I think that ties into a lot of stuff dudes (and particularly marginalized dudes of color) have in our culture and in rap. Trying to one-up each other all the time and make the next hottest shit with the next tightest crowd. "You sold out how many shows? I sold out this many shows at this venue. How many SoundCloud plays does your shit have?" That focus on ever more and more can mean a lot of people get thrown under the bus. Particularly women.
Plenty of dude musicians treat women around them just as yet another number or signifier of status. All that hierarchy bullshit — the more we can dismantle that from the ground up, the better it is for everybody. But especially for people who are being marginalized in the current structures.
And it's just wack! It's just wack that everybody walks around playing dumbass Twitter games with each other instead of —
NN: Making stuff.
TS: Yeah, instead of just making art! Doing art!
EK: Be alive, do the thing.
TS: Dude, seriously. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and I was like, there are so many people in the music community who just run around acting a damn fool all the time. When do they make music? [all laugh] I have no idea! There's this kind of person you see at every show you go to, and they're always acting a fool in some kind of way. You're like, when do you create? Do you make stuff?
KA: I think it's a very exciting time to be a musician. So many genres and movements have happened, but Paul McCartney's still alive. It's so crazy to me that rock music, or contemporary music, is still that young. That one of the greatest makers of contemporary music just played a show here the other day.
At the same time, I feel like now, genres are really fluid in a cool way. I think we're going to start to see women and people of color and people in the queer community really stepping up and filling the gaps in these genre holes. I think rock is in a really static place right now, in terms of how mainstream defines it. In the rock category of the Grammys, a woman hasn't won best rock album since 2005, when Evanescence won. In some ways, it speaks to the fact that rock music isn't part of the Top 40 anymore. Top 40 music is pretty much all pop — which has become a genre, as opposed to whatever's popular. There's so much room, since pop is getting narrower and narrower; everything on Top 40 is sort of melting. I think there's this huge space where, hopefully, some sort of musical revolution is going to do something fresh. It is, right? Can you feel it? I really feel it.
TS: I don't listen to a whole lot of rock and roll — I mostly listen to rap and electronic. But alt-J is that for me in some ways. They're such a weird band with so many different, weird influences.
EK: Something I've noticed is — I don't know if a lot of people are familiar with Talking Heads, or how familiar you are — but I feel like I keep seeing Talking Heads influence everywhere these days. Either I couldn't see it before, or it's actually popping up again.
CJ: Like the strangeness of it?
KA: I think I know what you mean.
EK: Just the willingness to embrace the aesthetic. I hear Christine and the Queens. I hear Battles and Wild Flag.
CJ: And Lorde.
EK: Lorde blew up, and she was like, "Bowie changed my life!" And David Bowie is like, "Lorde's the future of music.” But I think that Lorde owes just as much to David Byrne.
I've listened and listened to Stop Making Sense, and it thrills me every time.
KA: We have the influence of David Byrne at the same time as the influence of Ella Fitzgerald. All these different players are just converging. David Byrne plus David Bowie plus Prince plus Aretha Franklin plus the Beatles. All these people are just in the stratosphere. Plus you can stream all of it at any time. The plethora of influence to pull from is crazy right now. No wonder every song in the '50s sounded exactly the same, because it was just them listening to each other.
But now, pop music is becoming the same thing, in the same way that disco came and everybody was like, "Why do these songs sound the same?" And then, know what happened? Punk music happened. And then grunge happened. I think people are having trouble defining music with the genres that we're aware of now, so it's going to be up to musicians now to redefine what those genres are. 'Cause [now] it's basically, like, Top 40 and everything else. I see electronic music, indie music, rap music — all of those are converging in a very cool way.
NN: Allan [Kingdom] got on Flume's album.
CJ: One thing that I was curious about if you guys have tips or suggestions for the media. How can we be better?
KA: That's tricky. I do often blame the media.
CJ: I do, too!
KA: Vaguely, I think music writing is a very difficult field. I sympathize with what you're trying to do. It's hard to take in as much music as is happening right now plus keep up with the demands of an ever-changing internet. You need content; I get that. But certainly, I've gotten my fair share of reviews where I'm like, this person maybe listened to my music? Maybe didn't. And definitely did not proofread this article.
It's like, not only is this pointless for me, because you're not promoting my song. It's also pointless for you, because no one is going to read this unedited review. I just sit there and think, "What are we doing here? Why is this happening?" It's sort of a bigger issue.
NN: I have a very specific request. If you come across any female artist who has an unidentifiable sound, do not compare her to FKA twigs. [laughs] I was talking to Dizzy [Fae] about it, because she's been compared to FKA twigs, too. I'm like, "Okay. We don't sound similar."
TS: Dizzy kind of sounds like FKA twigs, though.
NN: Not the entire sound of her, though. Know what I mean?
NN: Neither of us sound like her, and neither of us sound like each other. You can't just put all unidentifiable things under her.
TS: The one thing about FKA twigs is nobody sounds like her. She's like thirty years ahead of everybody, Stanley Kubrick-stunting on motherfuckers.
KA: Maybe I'm being generous to the media, to me it seems like the media has an old formula, like okay, listen to artists. Think of other artists that sound vaguely like this, and go from there. No one sounds like anyone, deep down.
NN: I almost think avoid comparisons. I don't know, because I don't write about music. But I feel like if you could find a way to describe someone without comparing them to other people. . . this is just how I function. Even outside of music, I don't want to be like anybody else. But I don't want to read that.
KA: I also see the benefit of — in a short review, it's helpful to use "for fans of blank and blank." So on the other hand, I can see that's a helpful tool in a small space to catch people's attention.
CJ: Maybe it's cooler to [write comparisons like] spiky walls.
TS: I have two things. One of them is: humanize artists as much as possible. Artists will try to build their own mythology, too, so that's a tricky thing to do. You hang out with some artist, and they're not going to want to actually show you themselves; I mean, maybe they personally don't do that anyway. A lot of musicians are tied up in their own mythology. But as much as is possible, try to deal with people as life-size rather than massive, mythological things, even if you're a huge fan of them and they're super famous or whatever it is. But that's just me as an anarchist talking.
As another: I think one of the really interesting things that anthropology has started doing as a discipline in, like, the last 20 years is that before a lot of things, they require you to speak really specifically about who you are and what your biases are. Before you get to anything else, just be like, "This is where I'm at. I'm not going to pretend this is subjective, because nothing is subjective, so here's my foundation."
One of my good friends is Paul Thompson from around here. He writes for Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and shit now. And I'm always telling him, the favorite pieces I've read of his, ever, are the ones that are about his own personal relationship with a song or with an album or with an artist. I'm way less interested in hearing that Young Thug is a stylistic flip on Da Drought 2, from Lil Wayne's heyday, and that it's a cool, weird innovation. I'm way more interested in somebody being like, "The first time I ever heard Young Thug was in this particular environment, and it made me feel like this, and it changed my life in this particular, specific way. It made me feel like this Lil Wayne album did ten years ago, when I was running around in high school doing all kinds of stupid shit at 1:00 in the morning. That's why I value this."
I'm way more interested in approaching music criticism from that place than from, "This is journalism." Because it's not really journalism, in a lot of ways. It's criticism.
CJ: This is true. [Emmet] keeps telling me that. And I think it's really good advice. And I think I feel more comfortable talking about my own experience, because then I don't have to pretend like my whole perspective is objective, which is ridiculous.
EK: Authenticity and ownership.
CJ: Authenticity and ownership! Themes.
KA: Also, the musician and music writer relationship has become transactional in, perhaps, a negative way. It's like, can you even release an album without having three singles premiered on three noteworthy blogs? Can you even get on those noteworthy blogs without paying a publicist to get you there, and does that exclude certain people who cannot afford a publicist and can't afford to get to that place?
CJ: It's cooler to tell a story and build a narrative than just be like, "New song!"
KA: It feels like just the way it's done. It goes unquestioned.
TS: I think it's a cachet thing, too. If you can have a really tight premiere from your single or something like that, from that point, every other blogger is more likely to write about your song. And that sucks, but it's also true.
KA: We've certainly benefited from some really cool premieres, and when they happened, it was like, "Sweet! Awesome." But it some ways, it did just feel like something to say happened.
TS: That's all it is. Depending on where it is, you don't get that many more plays off it anyway. So it's just sitting there on a front page somewhere.
CJ: So much stuff to think about! Thank you so much, everyone.
EK: Thanks for coming out.