2013 Review: Julia Holter ‘Maxim’s I’

Released: August

Written by: Julia Holter

Produced by: Julia Holter and Cole M Greif-Neill

Highest UK Chart Position: n/a

This track caught me by surprise and I keep coming back to it. I hadn’t heard of Julia Holter until this summer, when her Loud City Song album appeared on my ‘radar’. It’s her third album in as many years, and its stand out track, the cryptically titled ‘Maxim’s I’, sounds like The Korgis being covered by Liz Fraser. According to Pitchfork (who afford the album an 8.6 review), the song is inspired by a scene in the Vincente Minnelli film ‘Gigi’: Holter wanted to tap into the “creepy” atmosphere of the film’s bar scenes. Holter told the website that the album is “about someone trying to find love and truth in a superficial society”. Creepiness pervades the entire record, which on occasion almost strays into horror soundtrack territory; I’m thinking of the unsettling breathy voice which introduces ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ in particular. At other times (‘This Is A True Heart’) it contains echoes of the trippy work of Washed Out or Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (Holter’s co-producer Cole M. Greif-Neill is a former member of the latter). Loud City Song is an odd, eclectic album; the songs shift and lurch about in unexpected ways, but the results are rarely boring. ‘Maxim’s I’ is the point where it all comes together and makes perfect sense.

2013 Review: Annie ‘Back Together’

Released: August

Written by: Annie Strand and Richard X

Produced by: Richard X

Album: A & R EP

Highest UK Chart Position: did not chart

The first material from Annie since 2009’s Don’t Stop album was the surprise single ‘Tubestops and Lonely Hearts‘, which was released in the spring of 2013. It featured a video that was so low-budget it looked like it had been cobbled together during an episode of Blue Peter. By the the time ‘Back Together’ was released it became apparent that actually the entire ‘look’ of this Annie campaign harked back to the late 80s/early 90s vogue for cheapo dance-pop videos that cost 10p to make. The A & R EP sleeve looked like those you’d expect to find houseing Italo house singles from 1990. And the official video for ‘Back Together’ parodied The ITV Chart Show’s dance charts, in a quite wonderful way. The heavy-handed computer graphics are present, as are the rather unreliable ‘fact’ boxes. (There seems to be a small but dedicated coterie of Chart Show aficionados out there in – if the mocked up editions of the Chart Show available on Vimeo and YouTube are anything to go by, it is clear that I am not alone in missing a Saturday morning update on the week in pop.)

Throughout the A & R EP Annie and her long-time associate Richard X summoned the spirit of the summer of 1990, and the kind of dance-pop that was in vogue just before the ‘electrobleep’ fad (remember the eponymous singles from Tricky Disco and LFO that summer?) and the later full-on rave Eu-4-ia of 1991 took hold. Annie’s songs are as sweet-sad as ever, and on ‘Invisible’ there is a debut appearance from Mannie: a sort of inversion of Prince’s ‘Camille’ character, being Annie’s slowed down to masculine drawl. ‘Ralph Macchio’ is a doomed but touching serenade to the erstwhile Karate Kid actor, and ‘Hold On’ and ‘Mixed Emotions’ channel the melancholic sound of Saint Etienne and Pet Shop Boys when they were at their best. Annie is not renowned for being prolific but she promised that the A & R EP was the first in a series. The phrase “don’t hold your breath” springs to mind, but it is perhaps their meticulous attention to detail that make Annie and Richard X such a formidable team. One way or another, the A & R EP was worth waiting for.


Nile Rodgers interview

This week Daft Punk have been ‘teasing’ some of their new album Random Access Memories online. Nile Rodgers is one of the high profile collaborators on the album. He is the subject of a BBC Four documentary tomorrow night (i.e. March 29th) at 9pm, so I thought I’d post up an interview I did with Nile in 2009. This was done before his cancer diagnosis; he has blogged about that subject on his Planet C blog and in his autobiography. I’ve also done a Chic/Nile Rodgers related Spotify playlist. Of course I have (see below).

To call Chic a disco band would be a disservice akin to calling the Beatles “a Merseybeat band” or calling Kraftwerk “that novelty group – you know, Germans, did that funny song about driving down the autobahn”. If Chic had never existed it’s impossible to imagine what modern pop would sound like. Their sound has influenced Daft Punk, house music, LCD Soundsystem and Kylie’s disco-pop; the records they had a hand in as writers and producers have been covered by Robert Wyatt (At Last I Am Free) and The Fall (Lost In Music). Even eternal indiebloke Johnny Marr named his son Nile after Chic’s legendary rhythm guitarist Nile Rodgers: producer to Bowie and Madonna, and the man I’m here to interview today.

Chic played Electric Picnic last year, a performance that Rodgers describes as “outrageously unbelievable and incredible. We could have just let the rhythm section play and the audience would have sung along and done the rest for us.” Having smash hit singles is no longer the driving force of what Rodgers calls The Chic Organization, but a similar quest for excellence informs everything he does. “It’s almost like performing in your living room for relatives”, he tells me, “the only way I can do work is to try and give it my all every time – almost like an athlete. That’s also how I treat writing songs and the possibilities of riffs and chords. I’ve just worked on Bryan Ferry’s record – doing 30 songs in a few days, and that’s how I approached that. Every time you hit that stage you’ve got to be prepared to give the best show you possibly can. I see that as my job”.
Surprisingly, Rodgers only had six top ten hits in the UK as a member of Chic, but had many more as a producer for Sister Sledge, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and many more, not many people can claim to have influenced modern pop to extent Nile Rodgers has done. He never stood still for long enough to really appreciate the success those records delivered. “I know what the sales figures are, but we never got the chance to live it as it was happening. It only took a matter of weeks to record each record – it took six weeks to make the entire Like A Virgin album with Madonna and Bowie’s Let’s Dance took seventeen days. By the time a record came out it was like ‘oh right, that record we made a while back. Onto the next one!’”

With an apparently endless list of production duties to his credit it must have been difficult to maintain the quality control, and it transpires the only way out of this trap is to leave notions of being a super-producer behind. “I’m always thinking of the person I’m working with. At that time they’re the most important person in the world. I remember working with Sister Sledge – we thought they were so important, and we just gave them our all. And if you look at that record We Are Family, pound for pound it was probably the single best record we ever made.” It’s a surprise the equally great follow-up Love Somebody Today is hardly remembered at all. Did it suffer from the disco backlash? Rodgers has no doubt about it: “I’m positive that’s what it was due to. In fact when I think about my career, the highlight was Good Times going to number one while the entire American music industry hated us. I mean we were persona non grata because of the whole “disco sucks” thing. Good Times came out in the summer of ‘79 during that whole disco melee – which looked to me like book burning.”

During the summer of 1979, DJ Steve Dahl organized something called “Disco Demolition Night” in a football stadium in Chicago. Thousands of people wearing t-shirts adorned with the legend “Disco Sucks” turned up to throw things like The Trampp’s Disco Inferno onto, well, a disco inferno. Wasn’t that all a bit dubiously racist and homophobic? “It was incredible. I have a pretty good sense of humour and I used to wear ‘disco sucks’ buttons too, but I didn’t realise that they were tapping into this undercurrent of visceral racial hate. The DJ who organized it was just pissed off because the radio station he worked for fired him when they changed their format. He was associated with rock and roll, and disco was so popular they felt if they dumped him they would seem like a credible radio station. It was a bad managerial decision and he protested – but what he didn’t know was he was tapping into that whole undercurrent of racism, homophobia, and all that other stuff. That was the negative by-product of what was, basically, a joke.”

Incredibly, the president of Atlantic Records was so keen to work with Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards that he offered them his entire roster of acts to pick from. I ask why they chose to work with the relatively unknown soul act Sister Sledge. “We had known a little bit about them because they had a record we liked called Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me but we didn’t really know who they were. When we sat down with the president of the record company we tried to handle ourselves like we were real record producers. We went into his office and effectively interviewed him! We wanted to know what his vision was and he offered us artists like the Rolling Stones and Bette Midler. I always mention those because they were the names we remember that made us go “wow!” But we thought if we made a hit record with them no-one would know who we were, we’d just be faceless producers. We wanted to have an opportunity to show what we could do. I mean, what are we gonna tell Mick Jagger: “oh we’re gonna write every song on the next Rolling Stones record”? That’s not gonna fly!” It’s tempting to imagine what a Chic-produced Rolling Stones album would sound like. “It would have been great!” asserts Rodgers, “but at that point in our careers it wouldn’t have done for us what the Sister Sledge record did. We were able to use pop and fashion iconography and apply it to them. They probably hadn’t even heard of Gucci or Fiorrucci and so on because they were very religious girls from Philadelphia – and we decided to play Pygmalion and we created a version of them which we believed was relevant for the times.”
After the success of Chic you could be forgiven for thinking Nile Rodgers was given carte-blanche to do whatever work he wanted with anybody even tangentially connected with pop. Work with The B-52s, The Dan Reed Network and even bonkers performance artist Laurie Anderson stretched into the 90s; an incredibly eclectic bunch, I’m sure you’ll agree. How on earth did Rodgers decide who to work with? “99% of the artists I’ve worked with have all come about by happenstance or a chance meeting. Duran Duran were the opening act for Blondie, and we fell in love with each other. INXS were opening for Hall & Oates, who I was working with at the time. Actually I got Hall & Oates to sing back-up on the INXS single Original Sin, a lot of people don’t realise that. The only artist I can remember pursuing was Peter Gabriel. Everyone else I met in a night club or you know, walking down the street.” So now you know, aspiring musicians of Dublin. Hang about the stage door of Tripod towards the end of May and seize your chance.

A track from an unreleased collaboration with Johnny Mathis (I Love My Lady, recorded in 1981) surfaced recently on the internet. Time to shed some light on this obscure aspect of the Chic back-catalogue. Spill the beans, Nile. “Ah, that brings back some of the greatest memories of my life – too many to mention. One thing I can say is that out of all the people I’ve ever worked with in (world-famous studio) The Power Station, no-one ever caused the tumult that Johnny Mathis caused – and I’m talking David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Madonna – the only one who people asked for their autograph was Johnny Mathis – he was that magical. The record we made together was really brilliant and I don’t usually brag about my products. If I were to produce it again though, I’d probably try to make it a little less Chic-centric and a little more Johnny Mathis-centric. We could probably have done for him what we did for Diana Ross but because he was so iconic we felt like pushing the envelope like we did with Diana and I think we probably pushed the envelope a little too far this time. We felt we’d let him down and let ourselves down, which is sad, but it is a great record.”

Is it true that Diana Ross didn’t know what the phrase “I’m Coming Out” referred to? “She knew what it was about, but we denied it! Heheheh! She asked us ‘isn’t that what gay people say when they come out of the closet?’ We said ‘I don’t know! How we would we know what gay people say – we’re just record producers and songwriters.’ We didn’t want to make the same mistake we made with Sister Sledge. Even though that record was a hit, there was a little bit of friction between us because they didn’t know what we were talking about – they didn’t like that we’d write a song like He’s The Greatest Dancer and make them sing the line ‘my creme de la creme, please take me home’ like they were loose women, when really they were ‘good girls’. Up to this point (Diana, 1980) we’d never produced anyone from outside our own label. So we decided we needed to know everything about her life and then chose the bits we found interesting which could go along with the current culture. But it still had to be something that Diana could pre-approve. The album is like a documentary about the life of Diana Ross as we saw it. It’s highly subjective.” It’s also a highly brilliant record and one of the best things recorded under the Chic Organization banner.

What exactly is The Chic Organization now? “The Chic Organization is what it always has been – a wrapper or a picture frame that Bernard and I came up with for our ideas. I’ve decided that from now on I’m devoting the rest of my life to producing what I call The Chic Organization Box Set. Recently I found thousands of lost tapes, things we worked on but were never finished, out-takes done as a joke but which are fantastic and I’d forgotten about all of them. They will be released for the rest of life as I discover them.” Bernard Edwards died in 1996 and took the secrets of his inimitable bass sound with him – how did Chic go about finding someone to fill his place? It must have been entirely impossible. “Anyone who wants to play bass with me has two tests – they have to play Everybody Dance and Dance Dance Dance – if they can do something on those songs that makes me feel good, that’s it.”

So much for pop’s past, what does Rodgers think of pop now? “The most innovative music now is pop – which is funny because thirty years ago pop was the vital proving ground for music that had come from the underground. I mean I look at a Lady Gaga video and in the old days that would have been something underground. ”What do you think of when I say the word ‘Madonna’? “Drive, determination and dedication – more than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked some pretty determined people, but no-one to match her.” Do you ever feel the urge to compete for chart space with Gaga, Beyonce and Rihanna? “That’s not the fuel that drives my interest. Performing is what drives me now. When The Chic Organization disbanded for those years I recorded a massive amount of stuff – there were things that sounded like hits but I never put them out. I also did soundtrack work where the film came out and bombed so the music never got republished. There’s a ton of that stuff. Every tour from now on will be called The Box Set Tour and every record I release from now on will be part of The Box Set. I’d love to see outtakes from The 39 Steps or something. This will be like that. Plus I’m doing video game soundtracks.” Think playing video games usually involves drawing the curtains for eight hours? Turns out they can oil the creative wheels, so to speak. “When Chic started out we did most of our recording during the graveyard shift from midnight until six or seven am,” Nile says, “and Bernard and I would go to video arcades to clear our grey matter pallets – you felt refreshed after doing that.”

(The original version of this interview appeared in Totally Dublin magazine, summer 2009. ‘Nile Rodgers: The Hitmaker’ is on BBC Four tonight (Friday March 29th) at 9pm.)

Memorable tunes are a capitalist conspiracy.

I feel like I’m tilting at a windmill here, but here goes…

 Firstly, I must apologise because what follows is a rant. Secondly, I must declare that I think The Knife are one of the most interesting and infuriating pop groups of the last ten years. They can be funny, caustic, clever; and, on the other hand, they can be boring beyond belief. Reading about their forthcoming Shaking The Habitual album in The Guardian a few thoughts occurred to me about The Knife and the sort of political-cultural world they create for theirselves.
 Lots of great pop groups create their own worlds; you know the ones. Pet Shop Boys, Kraftwerk, Goldfrapp, Lady Gaga, even Sugababes – they all work in a way that has its own internal logic, they are brilliant at creating and managing expectations, they fuss over cover art and titles, their fans do the same on forums, blogs and comments sections. There are certain things which push the boundaries of what these bands can do within the limitations of their ‘world’ and on occasion they venture too close to the margin (Pet Shop Boys provoked some opprobrium for making a guitar album – 2002′s Release -, and some Sugababes fans gave up on the group because they started releasing things that weren’t close enough to the spirit of original Sugababes – Get Sexy, for example). The Knife are one of those sorts of bands and we sort of love them for it. Their new album is in many ways bang on message in terms of what a Knife album should be like. The Guardian article describes the album’s lyrics as “[taking] aim at imperialist governments, phoney cultural constructs and families both royal and nuclear” (which is all perfectly admirable), and uses terms like “startling”, “bizarre”, “inventive”, “ominous drone”, “poetic” and “gauche”. Gauche is a good word to describe these clumsy self-proclaimed leftists. But something about The Knife’s way of working irritates the fuck out of me. A notion raised in today’s Guardian piece that the duo’s latest work may be too much for people reminded me of something that nags me.

The idea that people will be “frightened away” from The Knife’s new album because tracks like the ten minute industrial noise track Fracking Fluid Injection are “too challenging” is itself downright condescending. People will skip the track because it’s a boring prospect (no pun intended). It’s just not an interesting thing to do. “Ooh it is noisy and long and boring and doesn’t have a tune – how unsettling!” Balls. It is a tedious rock cliche. On the other hand, who knows, I haven’t heard the track – maybe it’s brilliant.

Also, I’m sick of this sort of thing:
“The video [for recent single Full Of Fire] …featured cross-dressing cleaners” (Cross-dressing! How surprising! Cleaners! How working class!) “…lesbian bikers” (lesbians! How quirky!) “…and a woman urinating in the street.” A woman doing something a bit rude! My mind is blown. I don’t think I could handle the overloaded attack on my wishy washy lefty liberal sensibilities that this videos contains so I must obviously be a smug, complacent Tory without realising it. Sod anything else I get up to, if I think this video amounts to a load of codswallop I’m obviously an instrument of oppression.*
Do these people (The Knife, or their spokespeople or fans or media commentators) think that “cross-dressers” or “lesbians” or – for fuck’s sake – “cleaners” are gonks or something? That they’re like little mascots? What is their attitude towards these groups? Do they find people from those backgrounds amazingly exotic? Are they trying to address the underrepresentation of such people in visible pop culture? If it’s the latter point, why the insistence on self-consciously pseudo- “challenging” music? Why the emphasis on saying what amounts to “woah, you may not be able to handle this grandad, you might be better off sticking to your mainstream pop culture”.
Another baffling question:who is the driver of this rubbish? Is it The Knife? Is it the media more broadly? Who really holds these views, what is being said, or is it just a puff of hot air? I’m aware I’m angry about something here but unable to pin the problem down, or find anyone responsible. But every time I hear tuneless music or encounter art that uses minorities as props being described as “challenging” or “radical” I think “what a lot of old horseshit”.
I watched Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit Of ’45 last week (and the Knife are socialists apparently). It occurs to me that the architects of the welfare state were greying, middle-aged ex-miners, nurses, trade unionists, hod-carriers and  military service personnel. In other words, they were boring everyday folk. That’s what real revolution actually looks like, its spirit lurks in the quotidian, dreary everyday existence of people who want their rights. It looks amazingly boring, and a lot like the dull world you see outside your window. It does not present you with an image of “lesbian bikers” for your jolly self-righteous entertainment masquerading as radical politics. It is more prosaic than poetic.
If you’re reading this and you’re a cross-dresser or a lesbian, are you not sick to the back teeth of being patronised in this way by the media? Presumably you just want to be able to get on with living your life, you want equality, you want to shake off that stigma of being “other” don’t you? I’d genuinely be interested to hear any views on this.
My message to The Knife would be: whatever about your twenty minute drone pieces on your album, you’re artists and can do what you like, we’ll muse over your intentions and effects later; but you are better when you are being an interesting, engaging pop group. You did that brilliantly on Silent Shout and on Karin’s Fever Ray album. ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ in other words. The KLF were radical, and they understood the importance of reaching a mass audience and clobbering them into submission with sheer genius. So did the Beatles. So did the Clash and Public Enemy and Chic and Manic Street Preachers and Bjork. If you want to be Throbbing Gristle, well great – but we’ve had Throbbing Gristle for over 35 years now and they spawned myriad copyists. We really need a ten minute drone piece about fracking like we need a hole in the ground to extract minerals which leads to potentially disastrous environmental consequences (tortured metaphor ahoy!).
In political terms, it’s a cop out. In pop terms, it’s boring. A lose-lose scenario.
*Sam Richards, the author of the Guardian piece, wryly notes that “It sometimes feels as if The Knife’s feminist theory has an answer for everything. Don’t like their new tune-free tracks? That’s because you’ve been culturally conditioned to enjoy the decadent concept of melody.”

When will the conditions be right to finally leave Facebook?

The time will come to quit Facebook. What will it take for you to take a deep breath and walk away from it forever?

I am such a prolific Facebooker that when I die my gravestone could reasonably contain the epitaph “We’ll never see his ‘Like’ again”. And yet I read of Facebook’s first quarter performance figures – revenue of $1.59bn, according to The Observer today – and feel the urge to join the Communist Party. The No Social Networking Allowed Communist Party.

Facebook has obvious merits. It has meant people get reacquainted in a certain way with people they usually would never see on a day to day basis. Generally, I would say, this has been a good thing. Old school friends, friends abroad, friends of friends, ex work colleagues, ex partners, people who are for want of a better phrase the result of work related “networking” – all of them are just a click away. Facebook has also meant people become almost like ‘brands’. Very ‘postmodern’. But presuming such a thing is desirable, one wonders how we might go about shaking all of this off, not just on an individual level, but as a culture?

I have occasionally left Facebook – partly because when I go into a minor depression I know I don’t want to end up over-sharing, posting all the gory details on a social networking site. I also feel the urge to resist Facebook’s extraordinary commodification of human relationships. It would be nice to flick the finger to this troublesome organisation in the most effective way – by leaving the site. But it still exerts a strange hold.

I love Jim’ll Paint It and recently have seen it as a good reason to log on to Facebook. For a quick laugh. So much internet discourse happens on Facebook I feel I’d be missing out by becoming a conscientious refusenik. I’d miss out on Jim’s paintings of The Thing appearing on an edition of Take Me Out. Trivial rubbish really, but Facebook does that kind of thing well at the moment.

So you want to quit Facebook. I’ve often felt the same way. I’m sure a lot of people do. We have become like members of a religious cult, and we’re just starting to question our participation in the collective madness. To be honest I would say only about 30 of my FB friends read what I write there, the rest have probably unsubscribed from my posts. Quite right too, God knows I’ve unsubscribed from all but about 30 of my FB friends’ feeds. I like to think of it as ‘sending people to the Gulag’. People post utter horseshit; racist, reactionary, sexist wank. And they’re just the liberal ones. But not you, you who is reading this. Oh no. You’re GREAT. The reason I don’t delete such people is I know them to be decent people in real life. And in real life I have face to face arguments with them when we disagree over something. People act differently online. And actually idiocy isn’t the problem, most of the time I unfollow people because they have an interest of hobby I don’t share. Most of them, frankly, are football fans. BO-ring! The unwritten contract is: I don’t read their reactions to the Man United game, and they don’t read my gushing appraisals of pop records.

So I can understand the desire to hop it. But to anyone considering ditching Facebook permanently  I would also say…it’s more complicated than just leaving. I mean to put this sensitively because it’s not as if it is an all or nothing argument. Facebook is currently like a window in on the internet at large, sometimes a rather ugly thing yes, but at least you get to see how people behave online. It’s an access point to the internet for me now. Quite a few of my ‘friends’ are journalists who I either only half-know or are friends of friends. They use Facebook well and they post interesting links and make worthwhile comments. And as I have filtered out the more idiotic ‘friends’ – again, almost certainly not YOU, although you’ll never know will you, eh? – it makes Facebook worthwhile.

The other thing to remember is Facebook won’t last forever. It has probably five years before it is usurped by something else, but it would be naive to think the social networking model is going away soon. If you are an internet user and see the value of being connected with people via the internet, you’re probably going to use social networks in the future. It’s just that at the moment Facebook is top dog. Twitter is arguably more culturally important and enjoyable (although it can also be very annoying).

As i said I left Facebook a few times, but I think it’s better to be in than out…at the moment. I think a tipping point will arrive when it’s just not in any way a useful or enjoyable experience any more and it will go the way of Bebo or MySpace. And I did think reading that article about Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, that she has an absurd amount of wealth, prestige and power for doing such a trivial job. Ok, I say it’s “trivial”, but Facebook has been described as “the biggest network of humans that the world has ever seen” (by Time), although you look at what it’s predicated on – video clips of cats, family photos, ironic pages about nostalgia TV – and you do wonder if the world is entirely sensible.