You make rock music and the songs are long and it was recorded a certain way — there is an expectation that you would be like, well, no one is making qualms about the Katy Perry song that is about nothing.
C: Her songs are about things! “Come on let your colors burst!” I think it is about believing in yourself.
A: There was also that her collaboration with Kanye, “E.T.”
Maybe I am wrong. I was trying to think of other songs about nothing but most of those songs are about things, those new Kanye songs…
C: They’re all about how he is an egomaniac and really lonely.
They’re about how he is still not satisfied, even though he is awesome. But there was no unifying message in songs like that. Do you think that people care anymore? About “unifying messages” or some kind of personal sentiment? It seems we are in a phase where people aren’t really into sentimental things, there aren’t huge hits like Counting Crows’s “Last December” so much anymore.
C: Such a jam! I think people can’t tell what is real and what is fake. I do think people don’t seem to care anymore. I don’t think anyone cares about band names.
Yeah, and there’s no more liner notes - less than 500 people looking at the liner notes per record probably. It just feels like there’s a lot of music that is now capable of reaching the larger audience that is the idea of an expression of something without really saying anything, or without knowing what they’re saying. Like a Coldplay song. Or a Bon Iver song. Or, non-musically, like a politician.
P: I really like Bon Iver’s new record. I think it is astonishing. I think he trying to relate specific emotions. What is transfixing about that recent record is that the emotions are really complicated? That music really captures certain emotions that are empty in a way that is remarkable.
C: Matt, are you saying Coldplay and Bon Iver both do a sort of contentless, message free thing? Is that really that different than “Take My Breath Away” or 80s ballads about longing?
I think that “Take My Breath Away” has already been sung. Those words, in order. I think there was some level where Chris Martin is trying to write new words that are vague enough. I’m also not making any judgements whether this is a good or a bad thing, just that it’s interesting.
P: These lyrics are pretty limited: Think about the number of songs that really drive the way you listen to it. In “Take My Breath Away” you get a good hook and the rest of it recedes into the background.
I heard this Police song on the radio yesterday. I was like woah, this song sucks except for the hook — there were no good transitions, it’s just a kind of boring verse and then it changes to the chorus.
P: When the hook is so good you just need a break because you cannot do the hook over and over again. On another side, some of Dylan’s songs created lots of words that you would remember - in order for Bob Dylan and even a lot of hip hop to work at all, you have to simplify the beat and simplify the number of sounds that are happening.
C: It becomes more about the words.
P: Matt, this is something you’ve done in Skeletons. Paul Simon is a reference. For you, it’s important to get poetry out there. That’s reflected in the way you produce your records. The vocals tend to be really dry.
I think people can’t tell what is real and what is fake. I do think people don’t seem to care anymore. I don’t think anyone cares about band names.
Ha! I kinda hate the dryness right now. We are trying to find some new effects for vocals. I feel tired of words at the moment actually. I don’t want to just string things together but I’m finding it hard somehow, to know what it is I want to care enough about, vocally, for public consumption.
C: It’s a struggle on either side. There’s one song on the Starring record for which I worked really hard to create lyrics that are evocative of enticing things, with biblical references, sex, and sacrifice. But the way it comes out live, with delay on the vocals, you can’t hear the words. So live people think to themselves “I bet those lyrics are really deep or interesting!”
That was what everyone said about My Bloody Valentine. They thought, well, how much more meaningful it must be when you finally understand more of the lyrics.
P: But sometimes not knowing the meaning is better. That’s something we’re dealing with in Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang. We never knew what Janka was singing about because he was singing in a foreign tongue—Temne or Sierra Leonean Krio. Then we got the translations, and we found out that Janka sings about really complex, weird things. In the end, though, people can hear these songs as they want. They can be summer jams, but if they want that level of narrative underneath, they can look at the songs and start to understand the poetry. I wouldn’t make an argument that you can’t understand the music without lyrics. Your relationship with them is optional.
That’s what is great about the Starring record. There is this beautiful dadaist poetry. I love that idea. It’s like Beckett writing in French so that he wouldn’t have any personality.
A: Right, take “aphonia” for example. Clara’s vocals are such important events in the song — the heavy, unison texture dissipates and the asymmetrical riff simply stops in its tracks to make space for the vocal — and the lyrics are like Freud’s case studies run through a blender. Clara is a really serious Freud scholar and she is really good at drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis, but obscuring her references by alluding to various characters and their pathologies in a really impersonal, almost machinic way, as Freud himself tries (and often fails) to do.
On the Congotronics v. Rockers, there was this pressure on some of us to write words to songs that we were doing - we had no translator and didn’t know what the Congolese were singing but the organizers were saying it doesn’t really matter, just sing something. We did this whole tour and I ended up writing about the music. I wish I spoke some language that no one else would understand so I could have sung and no one would have understood the meaning but instead I had to write something that was coherent as the English part of this song. After playing it for a couple weeks, we were eating dinner with the guys from Kasai All stars talking about this song called Calemagne and it was about this uncle whose nephew wants his inheritance and doesn’t get it - and there was another song I was singing a part on where at the end of the tour in Tokyo we found out was about this girl who had sex before she was married and so her father found out and wouldn’t let her get married. She became an old maid.
C: Heavy stuff!
So we were singing “What if I stayed the same?” [singing] It created a weird thing where we felt early-80s-bad about singing on top of this African music. Thinking about the criticism of Graceland. It felt a little like we were committing cultural appropriation, despite sharing the stage. Maybe they felt the same way! But we were reaching a way bigger audience than Kasai All Starts had reached yet, so having people singing English could help their music become hugely popular. Whenever the bands from New York were doing High Life, there was that band from Chicago with two African dudes and two dudes from Chicago, Extra Gold. They went around touring playing smaller gigs, or the only gigs they could get were World Music gigs. They got put into a different realm than the all-white indie rock bands who appropriate High Life to much success. I wonder that about Janka. Janka is enough in the “Indie Rock” scene right now that he seems to be staying there and not ghettoized in the world music scene.
P: One question you can ask about the music you are making, is what is it meant to “do” or “say” to people. Starring plays in DIY clubs with other loud bands. I don’t know how much we have to say to these people. We are creating an event and we are participating but there isn’t a large amount of complex translation happening. We are there and we all catch a couple songs of one band’s or maybe we all buy each other’s merchandise. With an African singer, what’s there to be communicated? Music is not a universal language.
Money is the universal language. The guys in Konono taught me “mbongo de boso” which is Lingala for “Money First.” They love playing music but they are not at the gig to hang out with other musicians. It is a job.
P: After two years with Janka, he has assimilated himself with the way we do things. We have to get a job and do music and find time to tour and balance that with the rest of your life.
With Starring, you guys are good performers, I seen you be pretty crazy, maybe you could take that to the next level and really put yourself out there as these mega performers.
P: We’ve kind of decided to do the opposite: We’re going for a more restrained approach to live performance lately. It helps me play a lot better.
A: Yeah, our live shows used to be wild.
C: We’re still refining the new live set, we did a tour with Bobby Conn to try out the new material and put it into this more restrained thing - we tried to make it more of an evening length type show that begins and ends with concentrated quiet jams. But it definitely gets loud and has an arc. We’re refining it, making it more of a show.
When you try too hard to keep it an intense thing, then you can’t get it to calm down and feel right, or you don’t get attentive listening. Then every show can feel like a letdown since you’re not reaching the ecstatic, transcendental high.
A: You can channel a lot of intensity with stoic, statue-like vibes. It’s important to keep in mind that there are other ways of rendering intensity. Someone once compared me to a Sphinx during a Starring show, a comparison which I have really taken to heart: Still, riddle-like, confusing, and majestic.
P: The show at the Empty Bottle was great - you were great, Amy. We’re doing this tour with Guardian Alien in August. They all go nuts and we will bring our vibe. We’re co-headlining and we’ll have to create a show together. We’ll let it develop, but we’re sharing an aesthetic message. My mom always thinks of every show as a competition!
I feel that way for every show. Every show is a disappointment and I feel like we sucked and got defeated by the other bands. There are those fantastic occasional shows where we win, at least in our minds for that moment.
P: Sometimes that happens!
I’ve been trying really hard to be more focused and to contain my energy, focus in on the words, but there are times when I can’t help it and move my body. And then I see video and get embarrassed because it looks like I’m either a boring stiff or doing some awkward nerd movement that just comes natural to me. I wonder if I should come up with more rock star posturing.
P: You could practice in front of the mirror.
C: It has a lot to do with the audience. Playing an introverted set to an inattentive room to 20 people chatting and a couple watching isn’t fun, but when you have a really big crowd with people focusing, it feels good.
P: If the vibe is quiet, just the right turn of phrase between songs or something can get the crowd going — there’s not a lot you can do you just have to let the vibe be the vibe. You can switch up the set or something.
But that usually doesn’t actually work: It doesn’t always change the event. We just played this show at BAM. Our crowd left after 10 minutes because Atlas Sound started playing in another room. It was an embarrassing moment, like I came to school with no clothes on.
P: That’s just part of how the bill was structured: Tickets were expensive because the headliners had a lot of power in terms of the draw.
C: Dude, this has been a soul-searching interview, Matt! I’m sure we’ll solve all these problems when we’re making our next record together.
Yeah, once I stop embarrassing myself in public! [laughter]
P: We’ll have to stop doing that first.
A: Speak for yourself, Peachy.