January 2012 - Hello! Thank you for visiting this site... a rather rag-tag batch of writing and rambling.
I'm hoping to use this “Public Noise” site for some random expression and freak-outs. It will also collect short articles and reviews I've written for the LEO city paper, Magnet & other publications. Thank you to all the folks who agreed to be interviewed over the last few years - and the editors that have given me a chance to contribute. All the best – JN

PS: I've been in a cancer treatment program since August 2009 and my wife and I have shared some of that story at this address: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/jasonnoble/


Monday, May 7, 2007

LOVELESS - Continuum 33/3 Review

Published March 2007
LEO Weekly

By Jason Noble

(Editor’s Note: Periodically, LEO will run reviews of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books that dissect classic and influential albums.)

Reading a “making of” story about one of your favorite albums can be a frightening prospect. What if all the magic is replaced with a bunch of dry-sounding facts, technical problems and reports of who was arguing? Money problems, break-ups — they make great gossip but can wreck the imagined world listeners create for albums.

Thankfully, in his new book on My Bloody Valentine’s classic album Loveless, author Mike McGonigal maintains a smart balance of investigation, a fan’s appreciation and wry critique. McGonigal is the editor of the much-loved indie magazine/fanzine YETI, and his perspective is largely based on punk rock and outsider art music. He engages himself in a mix of gushing praise for Loveless and skeptical self-awareness (including the hilarious caveat, “Really … it’s too easy for this album to turn you into a pretentious twat. Be very careful!”).

The actual album, released on Nov. 4, 1991, is one of the decade’s defining works. It’s considered a masterpiece and was endlessly debated and attacked. McGonigal narrates the sound of Loveless pretty well, and if you’ve heard the album, you might agree that’s a big feat.

He describes the opening song “Only Shallow” as “powered by what sounds like a broken air-raid siren for the hook; it’s like getting hit in the head with a lead pillow,” and another as “the sonic equivalent of one of those later-period Gerhard Richter paintings, from when he was building up gorgeous layers of paint then removing them by sanding them down.”

Loveless combines experimental white noise, samples, beautiful melodies and what seems like an ocean of guitars (and really messed up sort-of whale sounds). People in the ’90s asked, “Where could this have come from?”

There were influences, sure, but MBV sounded like no other band in the world. This created an air of mystery around the group, and the myths grew steadily for 15 years.

Had Loveless really cost a half-million dollars and bankrupted the small English label that signed them? Did they record everything in a giant drug haze? Are there hidden mathematical theorems in the waves of sound? Why can no living soul understand the lyrics?

Almost all of these questions were targeted at Kevin Shields, the primary songwriter and resident visionary of the band. Shields is still a cult hero, guitar innovator and fabled perfectionist, releasing very little music to the public. McGonigal makes sure to let readers know how much the rest of the band was part of the whole story of Loveless, but Shields played almost every instrument and dedicated more than two years to the album.

With an array of current interviews, McGonigal recreates the recording process and gives insight into the emotional difficulties, tests of will and stubbornness that helped push it forward. The success, massive influence and hype of Loveless drove My Bloody Valentine into an even more obsessive follow-up album session that lasted, well, forever.

To date, they’ve released no other records, resolving to keep working on something new and never officially disbanding.

McGonigal has the open mind and musical history to place My Bloody Valentine in a timeline of pop music innovators and sound artists. He gives us a reference list with Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Sonic Youth, Psychic TV and more, but knows where and when to let MBV speak for itself.

McGonigal smartly opens the whole book with a blistering white noise improvisation he witnessed at a My Bloody Valentine show in 1992. Within the ear-shattering feedback and drone/thrash/freak-out literally driving people out of the room, McGonigal describes a melody, first distant, then fully realized, floating above the blasting music.

Later on, he has a chance to ask Shields about the song and discovers that this happened to many people at MBV concerts. Audiences heard ghost-like melodies above the noise on countless nights. However, the band didn’t play anything different. It was one simple part, played for more than 10 minutes. Somehow the audience slipped off into some weird dream and made their own music in their heads, physically submitting to the sound.

The final effect of reading this short but potent biography isn’t added clarity of how the band made Loveless, but more of how the record feels. What a fitting notion for a band that could never be explained.


Contact the writer
at leo@leoweekly.com

Jason Czaja Interview 2006

Mission control, ready for launch

Published in the LEO Weekly July 2006

•Jason Czaja,
audio supervisor, Actors Theatre of Louisville

Jason Czaja, 30, has one of those jobs so interesting, challenging and multi-faceted that a brief write-up can’t do it justice. That said, I did recently talk to him about his official job description — “audio supervisor” for Actors Theatre of Louisville. That means he works with any and all aspects of sound and music as it pertains to live theater.
Jason Czaja
Actors produces about 20 plays per season (six to eight during The Humana Festival of New Plays), and each is totally different. The theater sound systems of 2006 are largely computer-based and incredibly complex, and require a mystical dual mindset, he says, of “total-mathy-technician” and “intuitive-understanding-artist,” an awareness of the subtleties of the music and sound design as they score scenes onstage.

Add managing a staff … heading up film and video projects … wrangling the archives of decades of previous shows ... recording sessions for new music and voice elements in plays … handling all those cool headsets and other things the technical staff planted all around the stage uses to communicate (snippets like “fly the tombstones for Act Three of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in and get Dracula’s blood pack ready!”) … and you start to get an idea.

Czaja has headed the sound department for the last five years, and I’ve been lucky to watch him and his amazing crew at work. If you can picture a S.W.A.T. team dedicated to fixing audio problems, hanging from rafters on ropes, flashlights in their teeth and soldering irons and tools ready for any issue that arises (but they all have, like, TOOL T-shirts on), well, that’s sort of close. —Jason Noble

IN SUPPORT OF IDEAS: The Grawemeyer Awards

The Grawemeyer Awards bring the brightest lights to Louisville
By Jason Noble

Published in the LEO Weekly July 2006

A few weeks ago, before one word was written for this LEO music issue, a group of staff writers and freelancers got together for pizza and an “idea session.” Ideas, those elusive, beautiful, challenging beasts that drive us to stay up all night looking for missing words, the right paint color, the best way to ask a question.

As we compiled notes, riffed on the subjects of technology and success, content over fashion and mutant versus human, we came to a democratic-ish solution about what we might include in this annual music issue. The most difficult (and rewarding) part was when we asked ourselves how to be more diverse, more inclusive and more original in our approach. It’s one thing to ask the question, certainly, but how do you really support the bold thinkers and innovators? How do you bring a world of ideas to Louisville? How do we assess (and reassess) our own expectations, and then open them up?

New ideas
For the last 21 years, the Grawemeyer Awards, in collaboration with the University of Louisville and the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, have offered something truly remarkable to our city. The story of their invention is a testament to the vitality of Louisville, and a call for all of us to keep growing and keep working on the future.

Charles Grawemeyer, a 1934 alumnus of the University of Louisville Speed Scientific School, found success as the CEO of Reliance Universal, Inc. and Plastic Parts, Inc. After making a modest fortune, he retired in 1977 and continued to excel as an investor. His thoughts turned to philanthropy and the honoring of ideas.

Grawemeyer (or “Charlie” as he preferred) wanted to celebrate the world’s most diverse and unique thinkers with an award that contained profound financial support for their work. He also wanted to give thanks to the University of Louisville and the Presbyterian Seminary, places that had been essential to his education during the Great Depression.

New sounds
In 1983, Grawemeyer met with Dr. Jerry Ball, then dean of the U of L Music School, to discuss his dream.
They decided that the first discipline to be honored would be classical music composition. Incorporating elements from the Nobel Prize selection and other large grants, Mr. Grawemeyer and his foundation ultimately chose a more democratic process of judging the winners. They created a panel from three sources: the University of Louisville faculty, an international jury of music professionals and a group of non-professional music fans and listeners. The piece of new music would be no more than five years old, and the score and recording would be judged anonymously. The notion that a composer’s fame or notoriety would not influence the judges — only the music would do that — was vital to the process remaining as open as possible.

In 1985, the first award was presented to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski for his “Symphony #3.”
Soon after, awards were created for Religion, World Order (Politics), Education and Psychology. Each year, the boldest work in these disciplines was honored. The winners would visit Louisville and teach, share and explore.

The musical composition awards received international acclaim and became a major center for new classical writing. The list of winners over the last two decades is an awe-inspiring collection of musicians from around the world: Pierre Boulez (France), Tan Dun (China), John Adams (United States), Krzysztof Penderecki (Poland), Joan Tower (United States) and György Ligeti (Hungary), to name a few. For many classical music enthusiasts, these artists are shining lights in 20th and 21st century work — always pushing past the boundaries of the art form. They include conductors, film composers, Grammy winners and teachers, all seeking new forms of expression.

New directions
At $200,000, the Grawemeyer Award in Music is currently the world’s largest financial prize for new work, and it brings a sense of hope to literally thousands of new artists and composers. The 2006 recipient, György Kurtág, is a wonderful example of the kind of talent this award can support. Born in Hungary in 1932, he has traveled the world, acting as composer-in-residence of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Konzerthaus, as a student in Paris of such luminaries as Messiaen and Milhaud, and as a teacher. The piece for which he was honored, “Concertante Op. 24,” is a work full of mystery and power, of questions and vibrant, athletic musicality. Kurtág created solos for violinist Hiromi Kikuchi and violist Ken Hakii in the piece, furthering a mission of collaboration and dialogue between artists.

The 26-minute work took Kurtág seven years to create, and was premiered in September 2003 by the Danish Radio Orchestra. When he traveled to Louisville this spring, he presented a master class discussing the project to the U of L Music School. Kurtág and his wife Marta then celebrated the visit with a performance of a four-hand piano music.

New missions
The Grawemeyer Award is one of the world’s greatest resources for classical music, yet it frequently goes without the praise and the support it deserves. Local coverage is minimal, and people under 25 don’t seem to know it exists.

As we encounter difficult news about the funding for our beloved Louisville Orchestra and the arts in general, see new music series cut from the program budgets and a shrinking audience for classical music concerts in general, we should ask ourselves what role we can play. How do we keep this an energetic part of our culture here? Are we willing to go out and experience music that we may not “get” at first sitting?

Often considered difficult and inscrutable, new orchestra writing also gives us a thread, from the 18th century to the present, that can be immensely satisfying and emotionally rich. At its most basic level, new classical work reminds us that there is a place for totally noncommercial music, a place for exploration of what the composer György Ligeti called “adventures.”

As an ongoing celebration of new ideas and innovation, the Grawemeyer Awards reminds us what is possible. In its many facets, it asks us to look, consider and push ourselves. It’s a call for us to find and create something from our dreams, not only in our hometown, but reaching out to the world, eager for a new kind of dialogue.


The writer wishes to thank Rose Isetti for her contributions. Contact him at leobeat@leoweekly.com

Forced Restart - Music Article July 2006

Forced restart (How and why Big Technology decided to get personal)
By Jason Noble

From the LEO Weekly Music Issue 2006

Moving into a new century has proven awkward and sometimes surreal for the music world (or, if you prefer the more pejorative term, the “music industry”). For all of the incredible advancements in digital sound quality and Internet availability (anyone remember 8-bit samplers or the first time someone said, “Omigod ... CDs ... there’s no HISS!”), the business of selling, creating, delivering and manufacturing music has changed so quickly that no one, really, has any clear answers about what the future holds.

Many big music business institutions, which traditionally would have every reason in the world to support new music technology, have presented themselves as computer-fearing Luddites with zero grasp of public perception. The Recording Industry Association of America, in perhaps the most glaring example, has unwittingly pursued one of the largest bad-press campaigns in music history, aggressively suing families for downloading copyright-controlled music. As the world’s largest manufacturer of recorded music, the RIAA has much to lose. But with more than 15,000 lawsuits (without clear evidence in some cases), RIAA has come off as feeble, misguided, defensive and afraid. When any huge conglomerate starts subpoenaing 83-year-old grandmothers like Gertrude Walton, accused of “peer-to-peer” file-swapping, it’s hard to have any sympathy at all.

Another more recent bad-press winner is Sony BMG Music Entertainment (one of the “Big Four” major labels — more on that later). Sony secretly included copyright protection software on CDs that caused the recall of millions of units last fall. The result was numerous public apologies from the media giant for, among other more Orwellian notions, serious pain for the artists, record stores, record distributors, mailpeople, accountants and even some innocent consumers who just wanted to rock out to Neil Diamond’s latest album.

The copyright protection programs hidden on the store-bought Sony BMG CDs installed themselves onto consumers’ computers, causing drive failures and virus susceptibility. Internet security expert Dan Kaminsky, during his Jan. 13 lecture at the SHMOOCON “hacker” conference in Washington, D.C., reported that Sony’s signature digital-rights management software had infiltrated 500,000 networks, including the U.S. military and other government offices. It got so bad that many businesses, educational facilities and government agencies banned the titles from workplace computers.

As the major label conglomerates perpetuate a feeling of mild hysteria, why wouldn’t the public become angry, or at least worn out? The reality is that despite the hype surrounding the “bad news” cases about technology, there are countless ways it has increased the power of music and access to all kinds of people.
It’s such a large subject that there are weighty scholarly papers being delivered about the threat of downloading. Also, numerous Web sites promote a liberation of recorded music from its pure capitalistic base, and many others currently debate this subject with intelligence and open minds.

The art of personalization — is there one?
The debate over media relates most specifically to the industrialized world, or those people who have a fair amount of leisure, security and access to expensive things like computers and DVD players. But the demographic of music listeners is changing drastically, from age to nationality, as technology redefines how people receive information.

Digital media has opened the landscape for sharing music and other art forms beyond any format change in human history. As we watch a new media with echoes of egalitarianism for its access points — and with increasing economy and quality — we also see a reduction, an introversion taking deep hold over the final “user.” The more access to technology we have, the more it offers us a private theater of the senses, impermeable and cut off from our surroundings.

Try to imagine what music meant to someone in the 14th century, when it would’ve been unthinkable to have daily access to pristine recordings and reproductions. Music would have been a public event, a religious rite, a work ritual, a dance. Go back a little farther and, at its root, music was one of the primary tools of communication. Music would be the sound of your life, from Indonesian Gamelan orchestras to Indian ragas detailing the time of day, to church bells to ... on and on.

Now imagine today’s world, not so removed from the need to communicate and dance and have ritual, but increasingly using music as an escape from such things. People carry thousands of songs in iPods, Rios, laptops and the like. The culture of the headphone — the private world in a public space, directly traceable to Sony’s introduction of the Walkman in 1979 — has moved far beyond your old cassette player or favorite radio station. This is the concept of massive choice. Total autonomy.

It applies most drastically to the cell phone, the universal “don’t bother me” media tool. If you have an endless phone conversation going, you don’t really have to interact with anyone (as a record store employee, I’ve seen an unbelievable number of customers who check out without ever saying a word to me, and in fact hardly acknowledge my existence). Add the ability to download your favorite music to the same device, to make music your personal ringtone, and you can customize all of the moments in your day so your soundtrack is applied to any situation.

The randomness of daily life — the accidentally perfect song that comes on the radio, the music of waiting rooms, the sound of conversations in buses — is slowly fading out. The idea that more choice reduces our interaction with the world is a compelling point of discussion for me. Why would we shut ourselves away? Why are we so interested in self-programming?

The simple, singular fact of who supplies the content, the actual music, makes the idea of ultimate, unending choice somewhat fallacious.

The flipside is that the personalization of music, then — as furthered by new, portable and accessible technology — reinforces the power that consumer choice really has over how music is perceived, sold and created. As evidenced by the corporate music world’s legal battles and attempts to control how music is shared, the “big” industry expects to be the primary supplier. Essentially, it doesn’t want things to change at all.

Closing up shop, part one
Consider the mass of record label closings, buyouts and mergers in the last 15 years. In the 1980s and ’90s, hugely successful companies joined with other multinational companies until there were only six or seven giant labels. Hundreds of labels were bought up, partially controlled by major labels or run out of town. By 2004, the music world had reached an all-time low of four major labels: Sony BMG, Universal, EMI and Warner Bros. In 2005, Nielsen Soundscan reported that more than 80 percent of the world’s recorded music was supplied by the Big Four.

This may seem rather innocuous, a natural fact of life in a world of big business: Smaller companies can’t compete — the mom and pop groceries, bookstores, record shops and video huts close up in the face of overwhelming competition. With that in mind, one must also consider the fact of the matter: The entertainment market is “programmed” by a very small group of incredibly wealthy and influential people. What does that mean for quality and content?

Granted, there are intelligent, thoughtful people in the mix at these mega-corporations, but the sheer number of people choosing what is released, what makes it into the world, is profoundly reduced.
In a June 1999 article in Berklee Today Magazine, Peter Spellman, director of career development at the Berklee College of Music, discussed the acquisition of Polygram Records by Seagram’s, which later absorbed Polygram into Universal Music Group.

Spellman noted: “The shifting of tectonic plates caused by giant mergers inevitably results in upheaval and dislocation. Record companies A&M and Geffen have been folded into Interscope Records, a successful former indie operation in its own right, responsible for the rap stars Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur, among others. Mercury and Motown (down from over 200 employees to seven) have virtually ceased to exist with any former autonomy gone. Numerous smaller labels are also on the chopping block on both coasts. When all is said and done, Seagram’s will issue pinks slips to over 3,000 employees worldwide (including many middle managers and a number of executives) and let go of 300 artists by the end of this year.”

Bands that sold hundreds of thousands of albums were dropped and attentions were shifted to the most popular, commercially safe groups. To that already scary-sounding climate, add the routine backroom deals, the price gouging and the monopolizing of distribution pursued by the big entertainment companies, and the potion starts to turn to poison.

Oh, the humanity
What do the RIAA and the Big Four have in common? Huge influence, wealth and a desire to hold onto customers at any cost. This is not, at base level, an unrealistic goal. They’ve been so large for so long that they can’t quite adapt to the speed at which technology changes the public’s interests and tastes.
And after all of the dire material contained herein, it’s only fitting that the ray of light comes from Big Technology in service of the little guys. The way digital technology has opened up all facets of the music world is astonishing — although obviously not without a larger price.

On the positive side, there is a new era of affordability in producing music in virtually any space with a modest amount of high-quality equipment (no, the computers still can’t write the songs or make them good). In a scant 10 years, the speed of computer processors has rocketed forward, making a 24-track (or more) computer-based studio within a creative person’s reach. With that, digital recordings become more and more lifelike — more human and warm, more like analog recordings. The downside to this change is that many classic recording studios and time-tested analog recording processes are suffering financially, even disappearing.

The place for the actual musicians, producers and engineers is often lost in treatises such as this. But with all the outrageous change and growth in the music world today, it still comes down to something fairly simple: Got any good ideas? Something to say? Passion? Discipline?
On a related note, one powerful part of this story is the humble, trendy, ferocious and unbelievably dedicated world of independent record labels.

From “The Future of Music” by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard: “Major record labels are often too large and ponderous to be in a position to discover and nurture great musicians during the early phases of their careers. Independents worldwide have been and will continue to be the lifeblood of the music industry.”

The homegrown label is a major player in the last 50 years of music, although more people probably don’t realize that than do. Many artists — far before the current controversies — wanted to own and distribute their own music. Or they wanted to partner with driven people who cared about the content, the subculture and the message. From Black Flag’s SST and Ian MacKaye’s Dischord to the Chess and Sun record labels in the ’50s, these record company-and-band relationships defy the notion of “business first,” and by extension, monoculture (although Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips did see the writing on the wall and sell Elvis’s contract to RCA for a nice sum, which he reinvested in the company. A similar thing happened with Nirvana and Seattle’s Sub Pop label in the early ’90s). With the continued pressure to maintain their most powerful commodities (big-selling artists), the majors let real musicians with amazing careers slip out of their hands.

The pleasant (albeit unintended) result has been a huge array of styles, genres and artists with respectable sales, working with the indies. Not only punk and experimental artists, either: classical, jazz, dance, hip-hop, alt country and world music, to name a few. A central concept is this: Independent labels, unburdened by huge staffs and ties to giants like Seagram’s or Vivendi, are more equipped to quickly adapt to media as it advances.

Closing up shop, part two
The final primary players in this world are record stores, for they stand to lose the most — and quickly — if technology moves the music audience toward an entirely technological medium for listening. My heart tells me that humans still love a good record store like a good bookstore: The thrill of accidental discovery, the freaky smells and actual human contact. It’s painfully true, however: Many of the most beloved record stores in America have closed their doors.

To wit, from a January 2006 L.A. Weekly article by Tanveer Badal: “It would be an understatement to say that independent record stores are struggling. The numbers are staggering. Nationwide, 1,500 record stores — many independent — have shut down in the past three years, with more to follow suit in the first quarter of 2006, according to Almighty Institute of Music Retail (AIMR), an L.A.-based market-research group. To put it in more brutal terms: 10 years ago, there were 5,000 record stores; today there are about 2,800. Meanwhile, the iPod revolution is a fait accompli: Nielsen SoundScan reports 332.7 million digital downloads last year — and that’s only counting legal downloads. That’s an increase of 148 percent from a year ago.”

The power of music downloading — the liberation of content and the ease of use — has propelled Apple’s iTunes software to the forefront of this debate. iTunes reached the one billion mark this year. Really: One billion songs have been downloaded from its service at 99 cents each. Last year, iTunes supplanted Tower Records as the nation’s seventh-biggest music retail outlet. And iTunes promotes a weird kind of egalitarianism: There is no distinction made about label — major or indie, big-budget or small, hype or hype-less. Sure, there are ads and tie-ins — no different than any store. Except for the intention that you — and no one else — can choose what you like.

Our turn to think
Does the average consumer have to balance every one of these factors when he or she chooses art and entertainment? Can we see the tangible benefits to smaller, savvier record labels? Can we be inspired by the creative freedom and affordability offered to musicians now? Do we see the massive media conglomerates losing touch and losing their audiences?

If you want to be ready for the future, though, it’s worth your time to decide who you want to support. Before this decade comes to a close, you might be surprised how much personal influence you could have on who survives and stays in business — right from your living room or desktop.


Jason Noble is a veteran Louisville musician, comic book guy, record store clerk and general friend to swamp monsters, bigfoots and blood-suckers.


Good Days, indeed: A conversation with Ben Jones, Owner of Better Days Records, West
by Jason Noble

Ben Jones has been a major part of keeping the music community thriving in Louisville for more than 20 years. He’s owned record stores in several communities and has always encouraged new music being created locally. He was central to Louisville’s alternative music period of almost two decades ago, releasing albums by and compilations of indie bands, supporting small labels and offering one of the area’s most diverse record selections at Better Days, the iconic stores that he operated in the Highlands and the West End. He closed his Bardstown Road operations but still owns and operates Better Days West, specializing in R&B and soul music.

LEO: While working on this article I saw a lot of people who are benefiting from having their bands online and self-distributing their music. But I also saw the downside, which I think is troubling, like smaller record stores closing. It seems technology has both a real positive and negative effect on people who have been doing music a long time — recording studios, independent record labels and record stores are all feeling an impact. I was wondering about your take on this.
Ben Jones: I had to learn, with any change, if you want to stay in business — whether it be the music industry or any business — you’ve got to learn how to adapt. That’s where the record industry has lost some of its appeal — worrying about the change in technology instead of embracing the change for all of us. It’s never gonna stay the same. It’s like, when I helped you guys out (the interviewer’s former band, Rodan, did a record with Jones’ Better Days Records) with what we called “the breakthrough of alternative” — now that’s turned into an “alternative method.” By closing my [other] stores — I knew I had to downsize — it was almost like the “new alternative”: I’ll go to a community where I’ll be the store that sells almost (solely) one genre. But technology will allow the new rap, the new R&B, the new gospel, the new soul artists to record at their home, you know, the same way alternative music was made.

LEO: Some of the rap, hip-hop and crossover R&B artists and producers, I think they’ve figured out a way to embrace technology, especially in the recording studio. If you look at the advancements of how music is recorded, the biggest producers by far ...
BJ: … are rap people. See, they learned how to embrace it by using the regular old “survival method”: less is more. Technology has taught us to need less — less space, less musicians — but you can make more. [The music industry has] always taken advantage of the little guy who didn’t have money to produce his albums, who didn’t have money to go on the road. I’m telling you — it’s the same thing when I used to sell Green Day years ago, talking to those guys personally. I was one of the few stores that had Green Day, in stock at Better Days, on record, getting it from Billie Joe Armstrong. It was the grassroots approach, a change in attitude that we knew was gonna happen — if we kept playing it, kept selling, kept saying “yes” to their game. We knew the larger stores weren’t gonna carry it, we knew the difference between mainstream and alternative, the large guy and the small guy. I used to talk to Ian MacKaye from Fugazi regularly. Ian used to come into my store all the time. The guys from Victory Records — they would come into the store and ask what was the “new wave.”

LEO: It’s funny — rap music gets bad press all the time, but it’s probably pushed the ideas of engineering and producing farther than anything in the last 20 years. You have all these independent producers, many of them self-taught, running their own studios.
BJ: We’ve learned how to do something without someone giving us “their way.” Now, there’s millions of ways to do the same thing, and that scares those who want to control it. We’re talking about millions of labels — we’re actually talking millions! We created that kind of thing in Louisville years ago. We had that right attitude — “let’s pick places for people to go, listen to our music, we’ll create our own genre, but it’s not the only genre!” We did it just like Athens or other parts of the country.
I still consider myself an independent record store because I’m still accepting consignments. I believe in first-time artists. I believe in somebody sending me something to listen to, and then selling 20 pieces of it. I think that’s good in this industry! The big guys just want to sell it.

Contact the writer at leobeat@leoweekly.com


Heroes for Uncertain Times
By Jason Noble

Published in the LEO WEEKLY - February 15, 2006

A brief introduction to four decades of creativity and innovation can be tricky. Simply said, Denny O’Neil is one of the most influential writers in the history of comic books.

Working with both Marvel and DC Comics since 1965, he has redefined the possibilities of the medium while bringing an unprecedented depth and humanity to beloved characters such as Wonder Woman, Superman, Iron Man and Justice League of America. Working with legendary artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, and editor Julius Schwartz, O’Neil helped resurrect a struggling Batman from 1960s camp and brought us a definitive version of the character.

Years later he would become the Batman titles’ principle editor. In 1970, O’Neil introduced, for the first time, social realism and politics into the commercial comics medium with his powerful work in “Green Lantern/Green Arrow,” and foreshadowed the “mature” graphic novels of today.

O’Neil has taught writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and produced the “DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics.” He has published short stories and journalism, screenplays and best-selling novels. His most recent work was a book adaptation of the film “Batman Begins.” The film’s central villain is Ra’s Al Ghul — a character created by O’Neil — who voices frightening concerns about crime and ecology.

As a lifelong comic fan, I was quite intimidated by the thought of interviewing O’Neil. But his charm, humility and generosity made it an amazing experience.


JASON NOBLE: The first question that I have deals with comics as they survived the controversies of the 1950s.

DENNY O’NEIL: Well, prior to the crash of the ’50s, yeah ... A lot of comics sold between 1938 and 1954 — but then they went into a 10-year eclipse. For a lot of reasons. The one that comic fans like to give is that Frederic Wertham book, “The Seduction of the Innocent” and the Kefauver committee, which was investigating and blaming comics for juvenile delinquency. A lot of church groups and editorialists sort of hopped on the bandwagon, but I think it had as much to do with changing retail patterns after World War II. People my age bought comic books at little mom and pop shops in the Midwest where I grew up — they were called confectionaries.
Two things happened — they went out of business in wholesale lots after the war because the malls and supermarkets and things like that came along, and the ones that survived found they could use the display space that they had used for comics more profitably — paperback books, for example, which were new at the time and had a higher profit margin.

So a lot of things conspired to put comics in really bad shape for about 10 years — I think there were 40 comic book publishers in New York City at one time. By the mid-’50s it was down to fewer than a dozen.

JN: In some of the comics history written by Les Daniels, he discusses the fear of comic publishers to put anything lurid or too adult in their books.

DO: Well, they got kinda denatured because the comics code was not the easiest thing in the world to interpret. My feeling’s always been, “Tell me what the rules are and I won’t break them,” but you gotta tell me what the rules are! And it can’t change from month to month. But I think more than that it was self-censorship because comic book editors have always been in a dead heat with deadlines. If they finished a job, and the comics code sent it back and it had to be redone, it could put you in a deep hole.
One of the ironies of the field is that those early comic books guys were semeioticists — they were inventing a language, they were doing remarkable stuff, but a lot of them seemed to be ashamed of it.

JN: Sure.

DO: Even when I came in, the guys would not identify themselves as working in comics — it’s almost as if they believed what Wertham and the various editorialists said. When the Kefauver committee did its thing, Bill Gaines (owner of EC Comics) wanted to fight, to get psychologists and psychiatrists that would offer counter-testimony, and the other publishers just caved in — mea culpa, mea culpa, “Yeah, we’re bad, we’re sinners, we’re gonna get better,” and they formed the comics code.
(Laughs) It’s hard to feel sorry for Bill Gaines — he just put all of his eggs in a basket called “MAD” and died a happy millionaire!

JN: Just thinking about the people that would create, essentially, a whole language, a whole style of storytelling in this country, that some of them would not consider it art — or literature. (But) the way it’s viewed now, it’s almost this hallowed time period.

DO: Almost uncomfortably so. I lectured at M.I.T. a couple of years ago and I’m thinking, “This is the most prestigious educational institution in the country and here I am talking about comic books ... because they are studying comic books!” Yeah, I worry about that having a possible bad effect on the creativity, but there’s no point in worrying about it because one way or another I can’t do anything about it.
For me, one of the great charms in comics when I started was they weren’t supposed to be good! “Good” was not in anyone’s vocabulary — they were just supposed to be done on time, and I could handle that. I wasn’t at all sure I could ever do “good,” but “Thursday”? Yeah, that I could do!

JN: In the ’50s, it’s interesting that you have comics being considered such a counterculture or something immoral, and just before that you’re seeing comics be incredibly supportive of the government. Batman is selling war bonds!

DO: Oh, DC Comics were always squeaky clean. The company’s predecessors did some spicy stuff with the pulps, but I don’t think there was any time when the comics weren’t super-patriotic, to a point that today we might find embarrassing and, certainly, adhering to the moral standards of the time. Wertham’s name is anathema to the comics people. I don’t think he was a bad guy — if you look at his history he did a lot of good things. I think he had an enormous blind spot when it came to American popular culture, and if you don’t like something you tend to find reasons why it’s immoral or evil instead of saying, “Yeah, this isn’t to my taste.”


JN: I guess this connects to where the next generation of creators — Dick Giordano, you — all these people coming from Charlton (and Marvel) come in. DC’s office was very conservative, white shirt, black tie, neat, proper.

DO: Oh, yeah, Steve Skeates and I were the first writers to go up there not wearing business attire. We were once told, “The mailroom is in the back.” They didn’t think we had any business being in the editorial department! When I came into the comic book business, both Marvel and DC were in those respects ultra-conservative. I came in as Stan Lee’s assistant, and I had to buy a suit — it was one of the first things I did in New York, went to Macy’s, bought a suit, ’cause I had to be dressed like that!
I kidded Stan about it later at a time when I had an assistant who didn’t always wear a shirt to work in the summer, and Stan insisted that, although I worked in a back room and nobody saw me that, y’know, I had to wear a tie. Again, that was the way things were at the time. If you look at the movies of the period, fathers are wearing neckties to family dinner — my father did that — part of it was just the mores and part was, again, that need to be respectable.

JN: There’s a curious side to any of the comics controversy for me because my mother taught public school for more than 30 years.

DO: Oh, really? What grade?

JN: She taught first, third and sixth.

DO: Wow, my wife teaches first (laughter).

JN: My mother knew that if I started to get into to comics, it would actually lead to all this other enjoyment of reading and — without any prompting — I would sit for hours and hours going over the same issues. She never thought it was prurient or too violent.

DO: Yeah, the teachers I talk to now say it’s the bright kids who are into comics generally.

The cliché from our generation and the one immediately following was that it’s literature for the illiterate — it’s for dumb kids, and the reality is quite different. When I first went to L.A. to write a television show, I was told to soft-peddle my comic book connection — emphasize the science fiction short stories that I’d published. And now, my son who makes movies says it certainly doesn’t hurt him to be known as the son of a comic book guy. It would be the first thing you mention now if you went out there trying to look for work.


JN: I’m curious about your thoughts of seeing comics in films.

DO: I’m told that now they are bidding on comic books that aren’t published yet. I think all the major DC and Marvel characters are optioned or they’re in pre-production. I know they are already at work on the next BATMAN movie. Because it was obvious from the first day it opened that it was going to be a big hit, and it deserved to be.
It’s interesting, because the guys that are doing it now grew up reading comics and they understand the form — they understand what superheroes are about. I think, for example, that first WONDER WOMAN television thing that starred Lynda Carter — whoever did that just didn’t know about superheroes, just didn’t get it.

I thought Sam Raimi was a great choice to direct SPIDERMAN — because if you look at his early work it has a very pulp, comic book sensibility. They don’t condescend to the material. Some of the BATMAN movies maybe did a little bit. But no more.

JN: There’s a story about Sam Raimi on his early films being so amazed that he could get to make a film that he would wear a tie and a shirt on the set!

DO: (laughter)

JN: So he’s bringing back the DC and Marvel model. David Goyer (screenwriter for BATMAN BEGINS and BLADE) said in an interview that he felt that a lot of his basic ideas of morality came from reading comics — that something really clear was communicated to him as a kid. I think that the recent BATMAN film reflects your writing and Frank Miller’s (creator of the classic series THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, BATMAN: YEAR ONE and SIN CITY) most heavily of any of the films.

DO: I’ve seen Frank recently, but I haven’t really spoken to him in about 10 years. I would suspect he and I are pretty far apart politically now.

JN: Oh, really?

DO: I’m not sure. I imagine he is a good bit to the right of me, but I don’t really know that that’s true. I mean — I thought “Sin City” was one of the most interesting movies of the year.

JN: Definitely — and it made a lot of the people that I’ve talked to about it, y’know, question what it was really saying. The fantasy element, the power of the storytelling is so overwhelming — but what is it saying about how people treat each other?

DO: Well, I think Frank’s view of humanity is very dark. I said on a DVD interview once — which was badly edited that sounded like I was insulting Frank but I wasn’t at all — that he doesn’t like heroes. And then they cut away from that and didn’t get the rest of the statement. But he has a dark view of humanity and he certainly doesn’t like the old-fashioned “rah-rah” all-purpose good guy sort of heroes.

JN: Sure ...

DO: And that’s not my view, but it’s perfectly legitimate. I mean — he plays Batman considerably different than I do but he’s not wrong. He’s just interpreting differently.


JN: I have a note here written in sharpie that says “OPTIMISM.” I think a really key difference between some of the current writers — many of which I really respect and love their work but most of the societies that are represented are breaking down, almost entirely. The thing that I’ve noticed through so many of your books is that there’s an essential belief in a sort of courage.

DO: Well, a lot of the young guys — I got an e-mail from somebody who wanted me to confirm that, “I had been lied to by the suits” — and, as a matter of fact I didn’t think I had been. But — when I was a young newspaper reporter I loved stories like that. Because I was angry — and — a lot of young men are angry because you’ve just found out that life isn’t fair. And boy, does it piss you off. I came to a point of saying, “Yeah, OK, life isn’t fair, and?...” We still have to go on — so what is that about? Of course life isn’t fair — of course the universe is hostile and indifferent — but — basically — so what? That’s nothing to base a life or a vision on — you accept that and you go on from there.

JN: In writing something like a heroic character — a person who stands up for something, they have to believe in something to be credible. In your writing, heroes are not only presented as being very courageous but they also have trials and issues that are extremely personal. It’s not just this, “I’m gonna push the earth back on its axis.” It’s like, how can I keep sane? How can I be humane still?

DO: One of the secrets to writing superhero characterization, especially if you didn’t create the character, is — if this guy were real, what would his hang-ups be? It’s something I learned from Stan Lee very early on — what would he have to be like? Then there is a 5,000-year tradition of heroic fiction in every culture I know about — in ours it goes back to the very early Greeks, and some people take it back further than that to Gilgamesh. What we’re doing are modern renderings of those basic ideas.
A hero is one who serves and protects — who is concerned with something larger and more important than himself. And I don’t have any trouble believing that — and yet, pain and problems and confusion and terror are all part of the package.


JN: There are some key political things that you’re really well known for, as far as being willing to approach subjects that were not dealt with in comics.
In particular, the notion of drug use in comics. There was a story that Stan Lee told in an interview — that he was actually approached by something like the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to make an anti-drug issue of “Spider-Man” — and he made it — and then the comics code said you can’t show people having drugs, having an overdose.

DO: Yeah (laughs), I was there for that meeting.

JN: From what I understand, Marvel said, “We’re gonna run this anyway ’cause we believe in it!”

DO: Yeah, just run it without the code (on the cover).

JN: I was really curious about your editors at the time — how they helped you, especially on “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”— or how they encouraged you to have that freedom.

DO: If you read Julie Schwartz’s autobiography, he pretty much says that what he did was get out of our way — and it was pretty brave of him given the still conservative climate at the time — to let us do those stories. But all he did really was to perform basic editorial services. If I was stuck on a plot problem — just a technical thing — Julie was always really good at solving those for his writers. I felt fairly strongly that as an American writer, I ought to at least sometimes use this venue that I was working in to express things that had real meaning for me, and that comic books as a medium ought to do anything they can do — they ought to try anything they can do.
Now, we were aided by the fact that “Green Lantern” was selling badly ...

JN: Right ...

DO: ... and they really didn’t have anything to lose. We did a lot of interviews and got invited to a lot of places, and eventually the mayor of New York endorsed what we were doing — so — (laughs) by that time it was obviously in the best interest of everybody that we be encouraged and be permitted to go ahead with it. But we were coming off of that period we were talking about earlier where comics almost didn’t dare approach anything that anybody might consider controversial and — suddenly – “voila — wow ... we’re not bound by that anymore.” A slow dawning realization — “we CAN do serious subjects.”
Some of those stories are more successful than others. For me, the most discouraging part about looking at that collected edition that came out a few years ago is how little progress we’ve made. The stories are still — to use the word we used at the time — ”relevant” — pretty much — because we haven’t gotten very far as a society. In fact, in some ways I think we’ve gone backwards. I can’t believe people are still arguing about evolution!

JN: One of the things I really respond to in those (Green Lantern) stories is that it doesn’t seem leveled like you’re saying an exact right or wrong. The character Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick who gets hooked on heroin) has a valid point about why he has arrived there — about his logic behind it. There’s this generosity in how you presented it — there’s so many sides to it — it’s not just like, “Why are you doing drugs, you’re an evil-doer and I don’t care why.”

DO: I knew because of my own life that that issue above all the others is certainly not black and white. I later wrote a Batman story in which he addicts himself to a drug — it was called “Venom,” I think — because he thought it would help him do his job better.
Y’know, no alcoholic I’ve ever known — and I’ve known hundreds — has said, “Well, I think I’m gonna just make a mess of my life! Keep it comin’ bartender!” You do it because it’s gonna help you in some way, gonna take away the pain — gonna make you less clumsy socially — etc. And then one day you wake up and your life is a wreck, so ... I was living in a ghetto at the time, and it’s probably not a secret that I had my own battle with alcohol. So that one came directly from real life.


JN: In preparing for this interview, I was going through a lot of your material and I read the novelization of “Batman Begins.” It brought to mind — and this is kind of a big question — the idea of villains. In particular, Ra’s al Ghul (a violent revolutionary concerned with saving the ecology and humankind). I almost have a hard time classifying him as a villain ...

DO: In my mind, the secret of writing him is: He’s right and Batman’s wrong. He is looking at the large picture. You can quarrel with his methods, but there are a lot of reputable people that say there has to be mass extinction of human beings because we’re polluting the planet and we’re destroying it.

What Ra’s is doing is accelerating that, and by making him 400 years old we can say he has seen the deterioration of the environment. He has a much better grasp of the size of the problems. He has a lot of blind spots — I think he’s a male chauvinist pig, for example — (laughs) as somebody who was born in the 16th century would tend to be. But — he is not the standard black-hearted comic book villain. His ultimate aims are altruistic — and that comes through a little bit in some of the movie dialogue.
One of the reasons I was picked to do that book was because of familiarity with the character. I could fill in some of the back-story.

JN: The character is driven by a goal. It’s not a personal gratification — it’s not wealth, it’s not power. It makes the conflict of the hero and nemesis more meaningful because both of them really do believe that they’re doing something right.

DO: Absolutely. Batman is focused on crime alone — that’s really the only thing he cares about. I think he’s incapable of seeing the bigger picture. I agree with him that mass extinction of humanity — there might be another way (laughs), but I don’t think he’s thinking like that.
He’s just saying, this guy’s breaking the law, this guy’s a menace.

JN: The characters you deal with are far from the space-traveling, purely fantasy regions that a lot of characters in comics live in. I think it’s really interesting that someone can be a hero that has his own obsessive problems. That comes back to a lot of the other character traits you were talking about earlier with personal demons, like being obsessed or too focused on one side of your life.

DO: One of my favorite writers of all time was Alfred Bester. He did a piece about writing for obsessed characters, which I brought into Julie Schwartz and said, “That sounds a lot like Batman, doesn’t it?” (laughs) Julie and I agreed from then on that, yeah, Batman was obsessed. Not to the point where he had no choice, because in my personal equation of hero you have to have free will — you have to have volition. As we interpreted the character, he has made a choice to let this childhood trauma shape his life for a number of reasons.
He can’t think of anything better to do with his life. And, also — it’s kinda cool.


JN: I’m fascinated by Batman in general just because he’s had so many interpretations. People have used him for extremely right-wing agendas, and extremely humane, thoughtful agendas.

DO: I think it’s impossible to make him a real liberal and have there be any consistency to the character at all — which is one of the reasons I invented Leslie Thompkins (a social worker in Gotham City) — to give a voice to the other side.

JN: She’s such an essential component to that character. The closing moment in the “There’s No Hope in Crime Alley” (Detective Comics, issue #457) is that ... there actually is hope in Crime Alley ... she tells him stop viciously beating up the criminal. She says, “You need to stop — you’re taking it too far” — and — he rarely listens to that kind of advice.

DO: She was based on Dorothy Day, who was an enormously impressive, powerful woman who ran an organization called The Catholic Worker.
It was a conscientious objectors organization, and Dorothy was nobody you’d want to fool around with. She was a complete pacifist — “Violence is never justified ever under any circumstances.” She was a best friend to my first mother-in-law, had a fantastic life story. She was a wild bohemian girl who drank Eugene O’Neil under the table and lived in early Greenwich Village, and then became this saint. In fact, she’s up for sainthood! She’s been nominated.

JN: That notion of non-violence is a subject that been debated in comics so much, but maybe not enough.

DO: If you grew up in World War II, you believed that the only way to deal with violence was with more violence. When I went into the military, I was aware of Dorothy Day and Tolstoy and some of the pacifists, but I sort of thought they were fuzzy-headed idealists. If they understood the real situation, they’d see why we had to go out there and “stop those commies.” That’s a lot of what’s going on with Iraq now.

I now think that the only practical way to deal with this is to stop the violence — and find a common humanity — because if you continue the violence the violence will continue. We are growing terrorists every time we bomb a city over in the Middle East. We’re adding to the generation of terrorists. It also, on a personal level, galls me that so many of the right-wingers themselves were draft-dodgers — including the President.

JN: I read a number of editorials where people were saying that if you can create a character — a fictional character that is brave and even mythologically resolved — you can be a character that people believe in. You become this strange kind of war hero while people who actually went and served and have the difficulty of reconciling that — they actually get called “unpatriotic.”

DO: That’s weird. John Wayne was considered to be a great patriot, was an extreme right-wing believer in violence ... HE DIDN’T GO TO WAR. His battles were all fought on the back lot of Republic Pictures. I sometimes think people don’t really know what truth is anymore.
If Jimmy Stewart made right-wing remarks — well — I said, “You’ve earned the right to do it ... 50 bomber missions over enemy territory.” So many of those guys — so many of them in my personal life — it’s like, “Let’s you and him fight.” Most of the people who are militant that I know don’t have any military experience. I was probably the worst sailor in the history of the U.S. Navy, but I really did believe that I had a duty to serve.

JN: Hopefully I’m getting the time frame right, but you were actually in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

DO: Yeah, that’s my little claim to history. I think we were the first ship out there. We didn’t really know what was going on until it was all over — we just knew that we were battle stations 24 hours a day. Our pilots were flying continuously. I was on an aircraft carrier and bringing back thousands of pictures. And then, when it was all past we found out what we had been doing out there.

JN: The idea of being that close to another World War or a nuclear war ... then, at what seemed like the last moment — negotiation actually worked. It was a trade-off of who’s gonna give up what ...

DO: Yeah — basically, “OK, we’ll pull our missiles out of Turkey — you pull yours out of Cuba.”

JN: It seems like if you were to look at it from some distance — that any right-thinking person would say, “That’s a far better solution than what looked imminent.”

DO: We came real close. And you wonder if a Bush instead of a Kennedy had been in the White House how it would have come out. Kennedy believed in negotiating — and was a smart man. Bush apparently doesn’t.

JN: Right. Well, negotiation and debate is in some ways the most difficult thing to do as a person — especially a person with any kind of authority.

DO: Yeah, because your ego pops up again — it becomes about you not losing face.

JN: I ‘m interested in this kind of mythic treatment of characters.

DO: Mythic heroes have always been warriors. If I believe in anything, it’s evolution and change. And probably that was a good idea 1,000 years ago — warriors were needed, maybe a lot more recently than that — but you get into trouble when you don’t realize it’s a new ball game.


JN: I have a question I’d like to ask before we conclude the interview — although I’d love to talk all day! I really wanted to talk for a moment about the idea of race and ethnicity in comics. You’ve always treated your characters that are not white males with a lot of dignity. That was something Stan Lee (in the introduction to your book on writing) cited as the primary example of your worldview. He noted the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” story where an older African-American man says “You’re helping the purple and the orange and the blue people but ...”

DO: “But what about the black skins?”

JN: Yeah ...

DO: The best picture Neal Adams ever drew — that guy’s face is unbelievable.

JN: It’s beautiful. That was included in a book that I just saw — Fredric Stromberg’s “Visual History of Black Images in Comics,” it was considered a really significant sequence. The idea that in the “Green Lantern” comics — the GL that kids know right now ... is your character, John Stewart (an African-American).

DO: That’s really very pleasing. I had a long talk with Phil Lamar, who does the character’s voice for the animated series. I hadn’t realized John Stewart had superceded both Kyle Rainer and Hal Jordan ... and before him Alan Scott — it’s terrific !

JN: That happened in IRON MAN. It’s just part of the story that Tony Stark has a black colleague that he trusts — that he asks to carry on for him when he can’t continue. There’s a beautiful sequence where James Rhodes — who’s the second Iron Man — sees Tony in the hospital. The first thing he offers, he says, “Do you want this back? I’ll give this back to you ... I can give up this power ...” And the first Iron Man declines. He says, “I’m not ready yet!” I read that issue when I was probably 12 — I bought it at the drugstore and took it home, and it was Iron Man and I was excited. But when I look at it now, I realize there’s this — there’s a feeling of real dialogue and real humanity — and even real friendship instead of this “up ’n’ at ’em” dialogue that a lot of heroes would say to each other ...

DO: Good — thank you — that’s what we tried for.

JN: It’s something I think has a lasting effect on people that are now my age. I think the people that are now doing comics, they read those same books, and they learned a lot about what they could actually express — it’s a real gift. I know that’s like you’re getting an award or something — it’s just, when people talk about your work, it comes up over and over.

DO: (laughs) That’s very nice! Comics are a big subject. As you said — we could talk all day!


The writer thanks Mark Steiner (Great Escape), George Melton (Empire Comics) and Mark Chasteen for their help in preparing for this interview.

SHELLAC Interview August 2006

The guy who invented fire: Shellac’s Steve Albini on horse meat, recording and a new album.
By Jason Noble

Special Thanks to Stephen George for his assistance on this one.

Shellac - Uzeda - Louisville 2006
Published in the LEO WEEKLY (Louisville, KY) August 2006


Steve Albini is the owner of Electrical Audio Recording in Chicago and a talented studio engineer. He’s made many (many) records for huge, influential bands, and many (many) records for hard working never-heard-of-them bands. He plays guitar and sings in the punk group Shellac, who are gearing up to travel the U.S. with the Sicilian band Uzeda for 16 shows starting Aug. 25.

This interview was conducted by phone around 11 p.m. on a Monday evening. Although he had just completed a session that day in Chicago, Steve was generous enough to talk for an hour about making records with friends and eating a horse.

LEO: So, I’m gonna tape this conversation, OK?
Steve Albini: Well, that’s technically illegal.

LEO: Not if you’re our current Administration.
SA: No. It’s still illegal to tape a phone conversation.

LEO: Even if you tell the person?
SA: If I give you express permission that you can tape it.

LEO: May I record this phone call?
SA: (laughs) I’ll tell you later. I like being able to hold something over you.

LEO: The rate that this micro-cassette plays back is either radically slower or faster, so …
SA: So it means that our conversation might be amusing!

LEO: I’d like to talk with you about the Uzeda recording that’s just about to come out. I wanted to ask you about your experience in Senigallia (on the eastern Coast of Italy).
SA: I ate like a fuckin’ king! (laughs)

LEO: Was the desire to record there because it was easier to bring one person there (as opposed to bringing four people to Chicago)?
SA: The studio is run by David Lenci — Uzeda’s old soundman — and because of that they felt immediately comfortable there. I’d met him years before when Uzeda was touring (the U.S.) and we all got along really well. Everyone was friends for a relatively long period of time. It was just a natural thing.

LEO: Sure.
SA: Seriously: I ate more species of mammal than I think I could ever imagine. I had wild boar, rabbits and lamb, and horse … it was incredible. All of it — every stitch of it — incredible.

LEO: Now, I would think that — being on the coast — you would have eaten more “non-mammal” life.
SA: Yeah, there’s an awful lot of fish there, but I can’t eat fish — I have an allergy to, I think, the iodine in fish. I can’t eat any kind of fish but I’ll eat literally any other thing on the planet.

LEO: (laughs) I’ve never known these facts.
SA: I have to tell you, the number one vittle — the number one victual of the entire trip was Bresaola, which is a cured loin. It’s normally made in America (and sometimes in Italy) of beef loin, but the number-one-super-cool-traditional one is made of smoked horse loin. So I had smoked horse loin Bresaola — incredible. The texture was like, if shoe leather was made out of butter, and it tasted like solidified campfire.

(We talk briefly about the traditional Italian Easter meal Cavazzone, which is really delicious and can be made vegetarian, if you wondered. Then we switched to the recording of Uzeda’s new album Stella.)

LEO: I was wondering if you had a more relaxed or a more fun time not being in the middle of the rest of your life. Do you like recording stuff when you get to go off and just concentrate on it?
SA: Um, I don’t normally enjoy going to other studios to record, especially when it’s a really short session with budget pressure, because, more often than not, the shit’s broke … it don’t work. And I have to spend a lot of my energy making it so shit’s not broke anymore. And that shit wears me out.
The time is tight because I have to book myself fairly conservatively — I don’t have any extra days off when I go someplace. So, there’s only so much time and if we can’t get the studio working in the amount of time we have available, then the band doesn’t get a record. And that sucks hard.
But when I show up and I don’t know anything about your studio, you can either spend all day every day teaching me what things do and don’t work or you can put up with me bitching at you about shit not working. (laughs)

LEO: You have to have someone there at every move ...
SA: Even that — that sounds like that would be a solution, but imagine trying to write an English sentence and you had to describe in words how to move the pencil to form every letter to somebody else. It’s just torture.

LEO: So was your experience in Italy unlike that?
SA: In this case, David and his partner are very thorough about the maintenance of their studio — everything in their studio worked great. I didn’t have anything to worry about — it was awesome. But that is an unusual circumstance.

LEO: How long did you guys take to make Stella?
SA: I think we were there for seven or eight days, something like that. But it was more vacation-like than it was recording-session like, because it was idyllic surroundings, and there’s fuckin’ smoked horse on the table (laughs) — and you’re there with the coolest people on earth.

LEO: Y’know, I was thinking about … People create records now that seem inhumanely perfect, but it’s really by the recording process.
SA: Well, there are a couple different aesthetics towards making records. One of them is that all records are pieces of music concrete — you know, they’re made out of the detritus of this session — they’re not meant to represent the band in any direct way, they’re pieces of art that you evaluate against a certain universal standard.

(The talk goes off — no apparent reason — on why so much CGI sucks in movies then returns to record making.)

LEO: In listening to records, I try not to sit there and pick it apart too much.
SA: Part of it — I don’t want to make it into a generational thing, but it’s hard to deny — Uzeda is older than their audience. So they probably have had an experience — which is similar to my experience — with getting a record that is a direct artifact. Where you feel like you’re having a direct relationship with the people that made the record. Like, I feel like I’m listening to this band’s aesthetic — I’m listening to what they think music should sound like, this is what they’re into, you know? I feel like I’m being communicated with in some legitimate way. Whereas a lot people don’t even buy records now, they just listen to these captured songs and sound moments in the abstract. To me, that feels like an incomplete experience. It’s an incomplete experience of the culture of bands. I dunno, I’m talking out of my ass again.

LEO: No, I know what you mean: The feeling like you’re getting a document or something that has captured a moment, as opposed to something that has been created —
SA: That’s just whipped up to “impress you.”

LEO: Recording technology allows so much freedom, but it frequently puts the process of getting it all in this hypothetically-perfect way over performance — the genuine emotion of the experience. Your approach has always been to capture recordings that have, I dunno, “a lot of life in them.”
SA: Well, I make a starting assumption that the band already like their own music and they’re capable of playing it, and that seems like something that doesn’t even warrant saying, but a lot of records are not made with those presumptions, they’re made with the presumption that “by the time this is all over there will be a record made out of it” and somewhere along the way, someone will say “that’s cool” about it. But “exactly why and to serve what end?” isn’t really expressed in a lot of ways.

UZEDA’s fine new album Stella was released Aug. 22 by Touch & Go Records, who celebrates its 25th anniversary in September.

Steve Albini Interview — Part Two

(In the meantime we’ve talked about how technology is changing how music is recorded and distributed. Also, the idea of musicians mutating into media figures, the Internet or something being a culprit, and then ...)

SA: My take on it has been: Technology has allowed a lot of things to happen, and one of the things that it’s allowed is almost every art form to become a computer assisted version. There’s the sort of “meta-fiction” Web page story puzzle thing that happens now — you’ll read stuff online and then you fight your way through these puzzles and mazes. There’s been a bunch of these if you know what I’m talking about.

LEO: A little bit …
SA: And then there are these other kinds of fiction, where there are asides and references, instead of being footnoted or highlighted, they are hot links to other sites, all that kind of stuff. Those things are possible, they’re not necessary, and the same way that kind of hyper-involved meta-fiction that’s available on the Internet hasn’t replaced books, I don’t think it’s necessary to replace traditional performance aspects with computer-assisted performance aspects. And I don’t even think it’s a very interesting idea. It’s such an obvious idea that it doesn’t engage me by thinking about it. I suppose if you’re not involved with making music it seems like a crazy abstraction that will really blow your mind, but in all honesty it’s the kind of thing that suggests itself from the notion that computers exist to record music — suddenly all this other stuff suggests itself and I see no reason to actually pursue this experiment because I grasp it. What can’t be replaced or faked or simulated is the difference between somebody that’s really into what they’re doing and somebody who’s just nudging files around on the computer.
Listening to a band in performance do something that blows their mind and blows your mind is a different experience from a computer simulation of a band blowing my mind. It’s quite easy to assemble a computer program or a computer file that does a credible mimic of The Ramones — you probably couldn’t tell them apart in any sort of empirical fashion — but no one will very be excited to form a band by listening to a program like that, and if you’re actually paying attention, it won’t give you the same effect whatsoever because there’s everything other than the sound that’s incorporated into the music — I mean the sound is part of it, but not all of it.

LEO: Sure ...
SA: And everything but the sound is impossible to capture.

LEO: It’s funny, what things “sound like” — there’s almost no record that can perfectly capture what it is to be in the room and watch people play, because you know you’re participating in it in some way. You’re making a change, either by your lack of interest or by being incredibly into it, and that’s something that makes me a little crazy. I’ve found it difficult — kind of impossible — to capture any “perfect” document of music. So I have to think of it as “this is the version we’re doing on that day” — and we try to do it our best — as long as it has some guts to it. But I like that there’s no “one” version of a song or one perfect version of any performance. You could say that with any of the larger works of classical music where you’ve got maybe 500 recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and you’ll genuinely have some difference in each one. That’s a subtlety that maybe people don’t want to get into all the time, but still ...
SA: Another thing that I find kinda weird with a lot of music that is made according to these “templates” — as long as every thing is in time, as long as everything is in tune, as long as we get to the chorus before thirty seconds have passed ... whatever (laughs). As long as we do all these things, it will be good. As though those programmatic things ever cross anyone’s minds when they’re listening to a record. I’ve never in my life listened to a record and thought, “I would have liked that except that it sped up there.” That’s never, not once, crossed my mind.

LEO: If the emotions of the person — at the moment they did it — made them go in a direction, then you’ve got something that will never be repeated again — you get some sense of urgency. It doesn’t seem like that’s going away. It just takes people realizing some of the difference, or finding a reason to appreciate it. When someone reads this article, they might say, “Uzeda made their record in seven days?” I mean, you may get through some fairly normal things in a week, but you don’t think, “This is going to be some indelible marker.” But for a band that plays all the time, that has commitment like Uzeda or you guys. OK, there are great bands that take a year to make a record, not to diminish that, but —
SA: I would diminish that pretty quickly. If you stack up all the records on the left side of your desk that mean a lot to you, and then move to pile on the right side of your desk those records that took more than a couple of weeks to make, taken from the first pile, it wouldn’t be more than a couple.

LEO: Well, I like a lot of stuff that’s one dude sitting in a dark room making weird sounds, so ... (laughs)
SA: So never mind.

LEO: My taste may be suspect on this one, but I do know what you mean, and especially with records that are in any way about live performance, I think it’s a really terrible thing when it’s the 15th — or the 50th — take.
SA: I mean, applying all these bizarre standards to [records] — they should be played to a metronome — all that kind of stuff, where did that shit come from? When’s the last time somebody went to a show and counted out the beats in the minute to find out if they’d stayed the same tempo for the whole song? It’s like people don’t trust themselves to be able to trust themselves whether they like something or not so they work in a type of subtractive process — “well, if there’s a note that’s out of time, that’s bad, get rid of it; if there’s a note that’s out of tune get rid of it.” And it’s almost like they’re focusing the majority of their energy on things that don’t have any effect, you know? I don’t care if it’s in tune or in time.

LEO: Well, the performances people seem to remember with some kind of excitement, it’s like when someone comes in on a completely fucked up note — you know, when they’re just human about it. You know they’re a great guitar player from other things or you’ve seen them, and then you’re like, “Oh my god, even they mess up.” They got turned around and ate a lyric. There’s one thing on that last Breeders record — there’s this amazing moment where one of the vocal takes gets screwed up, and you just hear Kim Deal say “fuck it” and go on.
SA: Right. Exactly.

LEO: To me, that’s incredibly exciting to listen to.
SA: Isn’t that weird that that would be rare? When a band’s onstage shit like that happens every night. Why on earth is that a rare thing [on a record]? That it would be documented in some way?

LEO: The whole notion of the “museum treatment” of music. To me, it’s more interesting if I can tell it’s human beings — there’s stuff that’s unconscious — I really believe this — if the chorus has been “cut and pasted” — just knowing it happens all the time.
SA: There’s a little experiment I’ve been wanting to try but I haven’t done it yet. I’m pretty sure I’m right. Every record store has a dime bin or a “free” bin — the records no one wants and they can’t sell them. I want to postulate that, if you picked a record at random from that dime bin and put it on, that there would be nothing wrong with it, you know? Every beat would be in time, every note would be in tune — all the songs would be plenty loud.

LEO: (laughs)
SA: You wouldn’t be able to find a thing wrong with it — and that’s how firmly I believe that that shit is immaterial. I think the least successful records on the planet are probably flawless (laughs). When I say successful I mean records that nobody gives a shit about. I’m not saying that they didn’t achieve what they were going for, I’m saying what they were going for was meaningless.

LEO: To some people it might even seem like an audacious thing to think that a record has meaning. They might just think that they’re just fun, or ...
SA: Some people just have a perspective on music that prevents them from thinking of it as anything other than just pure trivial entertainment.

LEO: (laughs) You know, grinding it out year after year with “consistency” doesn’t yield creative freedom to a lot of artists. Most of the people that continue to make music seem to have a lot of interest, where you can tell they are still involved. I just don’t think it can be cranked out under artificial circumstances. I can’t explain why I like a band like Yo La Tengo, except I feel like they still like doing it. You can tell these people care about it still. I constantly look for that trait in music, whatever genre it is, you know? If I feel like the person is communicating something that hasn’t been completely diluted. There’s lots of stuff — maybe I don’t even like it — but you can tell the person is legit about it. You can tell when you see a band, you say “this isn’t my taste at all,” but this person really loves doing it.
OK, so I should ask you: What’s happening with the new Shellac record? You all have finished the record?
SAL: It’s finished, it’s in production, it’s been mastered, it’s got a cover. We’re just waiting for everything to get made and glued together.

LEO: Will it be early next year?
SA: I don’t know. I don’t have any clue until the shit happens for real. If you ask a record company person how long it takes to put a record into production they’ll say “we need five months,” but having done it myself a while ago, I know you can put a record together in a couple of weeks if you need to — it’s just a matter of getting everything coordinated so all the parts end up where they’re supposed to be.

LEO: You guys tend to have a leaning toward the time-intensive packaging especially.
SA: When I think about our records — well, I have a pretty big record collection, I don’t want to be ashamed, I don’t want Uriah Heep to put our record to shame.

LEO: I just got the title for this article ...
SA: It’s like, you could pick up any record that was made in the ’70s and the covers were substantial — they looked good: the printing was good quality, you know. The records were flat, everything about those records that were made when records were all there was, everything about them was taken seriously. I like the idea that when we make a record we’re making it with the same sense of commitment to quality. The record covers aren’t going to be crappy, the record themselves are gonna be made well, we’re gonna spend the extra dollar and go ahead and have the good pressings done. I like thinking that we’re — it’s not just show business, our affection for records. We’re actually committed to them as a format.

LEO: People pay attention to it for sure. I know you guys have never claimed any prophetic insight. I dunno, maybe you would. But now all these record people are like, let’s make all this special extra stuff to get people’s attention since everyone thinks things are so disposable. With you all — it’s so clearly not viewed that way.
SA: I just think people have different uses for music. There are some people for whom music is not that much of, they don’t focus a lot of their attention on it, it’s just an amusement for them, you know? And for those people, I think shit like iPods and stuff are fantastic — it allows them to have music wherever. OK, the sound quality isn’t the best. So what? You know, it allows them to have music in their lives in a way that’s meaningful for them, and I think that’s totally fuckin’ cool. And then there are people like me who have built up kind of a library of music, that music isn’t just sound, it’s a part of your life. You know, going to the record collection and pulling out the record that you want to hear is a lot more satisfying because it’s involving you physically and intellectually, and it brings you back to the moment that you bought that record — there’s a lot involved, which I like as an experience and I think is valuable. I just feel like, for some people records are perfect. And for some people shit like iPods and CDs are perfect, and I’m not passing judgment on that and saying that music should mean more to these people — that it should consume more of their attention — I don’t think that’s the case at all. I just think some people are susceptible to music in a way that makes it really important to them, and for those people I think it’s important to have something that’s durable and substantial.

LEO: It seems to tie into the culture around music. It seems a little more polarized now. I mean, my parents put on a record — that was the format that they had. It’s like, my dad wasn’t super deep into music but he would make a real point that the record player was in really good shape.
SA: Right ...

LEO: Good receiver. He was real technically minded, that side of it, the engineering side. What’s interesting now, the whole culture of record store — people who it’s a big part of their life, that feels more like my culture, unlike the Best Buys or iPod culture, the “I want music whenever I want it however I want it.” Music is a tool, an entertainment.
SA: Our relationship to music is different than someone who listens passively to music. We’re in bands, all our friends are in bands. We see live music a lot. I don’t think there’s any thing on earth that elevates that experience over the “commonplace” use of music for some other people. I think they’re entitled to enjoy that music however they want, but I think not to recognize the difference in the way that they treat music is ignoring the obvious. I think Best Buy, solely because relatively low prices and relatively wide selection, is fantastic. But I don’t choose to shop there and I don’t like the business model of Best Buy. But as a resource for someone living in Bumfuck Egypt? Whose entire exposure to this culture’s gonna be that bin in Best Buy? I’m totally fuckin’ glad it’s there. You know, I grew up in Montana. I happened to grow up in a college town in Montana, which meant that I had a pretty good record store at my disposal. If I had grown up 40 miles away in Montana, I would not have known what the inside of a record store looked like.

LEO: It’s a weird thing, there was a pretty significant controversy in the independent music world recently with indie stores feeling rejected when the bigger indie labels chose to sell to Best Buy, cause smaller stores can’t compete with the prices that Best Buy has. So it’s really complicated. But there’s never gonna be a perfect scenario for people to find music. Maybe that kid that finds it at Best Buy, maybe that’s the only place they have it available, they don’t have a computer or any of that stuff. If they really love music they might turn in to the person that’s gonna be at the small record store. Who knows?

(We talk a little more about the controversy about indie titles being sold at Best Buy, then move into some basic ideas about albums in general)

SA: I like the durability of good records. It’s amazing. It may take 20 years, but good records eventually get noticed. I think that’s fucking cool. As opposed to something just being on a Web page somewhere, and that page stops being hosted, you know, that’s it — done and gone. You know, I like that a record can be sitting under the sofa and then someday the youngest nephew is crawling around under there and he finds it and that wakes someone up to Rasputin’s Stash or something.

LEO: (laughs) Is Rasputin’s Stash the name of a band?
SA: Oh yeah. They were like a party funk band, half-assed psychedelic.

LEO: I was thinking about the idea of things “staying in print” — still existing — that is a whole other culture. It really takes someone that cares about it.
SA: That’s one of the most awesome things about Touch & Go [records], that he’s committed to making his records available for eternity. How great is that?

LEO: It’s really great, almost shockingly rare. I look for records all the time that are out of print — from like 2001, you know? It’s one of the things that I find really rough. I try to talk to people about it when they’re weighing the concepts of how to do their business — who they get involved with, who owns their music — if you just do some basic things to take care of yourself. Things that you and Corey [Rusk, owner of Touch & Go) have always said, with a little bit of being careful and thinking ahead you don’t have to let someone take over all of your work.
SA: Yeah. Let’s say you’re in a band and you’re going to be in a business relationship with record label. What do you have that you can use in that relationship? You have the music and that’s it. There’s no margin in giving up that which makes you viable. There’s no margin in saying “we don’t really need the music, we can do without it, you can have it, just put our records out and give us some money every now and again.”

LEO: Thinking about 10 years ahead — in certain parts of your life that just seems unbelievably far.
SA: So far ahead. There’s no meaningful activity that far off.

LEO: I’m just glad that there were opportunities. Just even a Dischord or Touch & Go existing — just existing to offer you the contrast — cause someone can sell a very modest amount of records, but for 20 years.
SA: That’s the thing. You can sell a million records — you only need to sell them in one year if you spend all the money in one year.

LEO: If there’s a little bit of, I don’t want to say it’s greed, that sounds like an accusation.
SA: It’s a very charged word ...

LEO: Maybe it’s the sense of opportunity and getting swept up in all of it for a young band — do they think, “I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life”; “Didn’t I get into a band expressly to have the freedom to do whatever I want?” … When you find out someone’s willing to stay the course, I mean, 25 years — I’m doubting that.
SA: Very few things in my life are gonna last that long.

LEO: Yeah, when you start something you never know what’s possible, on that 25th anniversary poster [for the Touch & Go show in September] there are over 300 records. It’s just an unbelievable accomplishment. Corey was saying, when he started it he’d eat a pumpkin pie for dinner every night for like six months! Cause they were 10 for $5 at Walgreens.
SA: Yeah, you could get them right after Halloween. They were dirt cheap. Oh, right after Thanksgiving, I’m sorry.

LEO: Yeah, with a freezer full of pumpkin pies, you too can ...
SA: And turkey at 9 cents a pound.

LEO: (laughs) Well, man, I certainly got more than my expected 700 words (make that 5,065 words —Ed.), so I’ll only pick the very best ones. I’ll have to give you extra special props for doing this in the middle of the night.
SA: Don’t sweat it. I finished with work and didn’t have anything better to do.

For More Information:
Electrical Audio: www.electrical.com/index.php
Touch & Go Records: www.tgrec.com/
Uzeda: www.tgrec.com/bands/band.php?id=84
Shellac: www.tgrec.com/bands/band.php?id=22

Contact the writer at LEObeat@LEOweekly.com

MONO Interview - April 2007

Mono fills in the space between the notes
By Jason Noble

Printed in the LEO Weekly (Louisville, KY)
April 18th 2007

Since forming in 2000, the Japanese band Mono has played in Louisville many times and has built a large, devoted audience here. The members travel constantly and have a close connection with their fans, a tough accomplishment since they operate independently of corporate or major record labels.

They also own and operate Human Highway Records in Tokyo, one of Japan’s truly “indie” labels.
Mono’s live shows are impossible to describe and pretty legendary for such a young band. Imagine an instrumental classical composition played with guitars, first tender and beautiful, then make it the loudest, most evil thing you’ve ever heard. Their last album, You Are There, could inspire even the most cynical heart to blistering empathy.

I caught up with guitarist/composer Takaakira Goto (“Taka”) to talk about Mono’s upcoming U.S. tour and the politics of running a record label. He was cool enough to do the phone interview at 1 a.m. Japanese time. (Thanks to Reiko Kudo for the translation.)

LEO: Mono’s music falls into several styles and categories. Does it seem audiences are more patient and more understanding nowadays?
Taka: We feel really fortunate. We’re really happy to see audiences in the indie scene be open to music that’s not “labeled.” It’s been seven years since we started playing together, and every time we come to the United States, we feel more accepted. It’s really amazing to see people listening so … intensely … to instrumental rock music (influenced by classical!). We’re happy to see that reaction.

LEO: Bands I admire trust the audience, trust them to experience something different at a show. They offer something more private — that’s not just for entertainment. It’s just — music that asks the audience to travel with the band, asks the audience to bring more of themselves to it, and build something emotional out of the experience.
Taka: Yeah. That’s the reason why Mono has been touring for a long time. The basic motivation is the audience always gives a lot of energy back to us, and that helps the band write new songs, and then that returns to the audience again. That good kind of chain reaction is really wonderful, and it’s something you can’t find anywhere else. There have been many encounters with the audiences, and without any major support or big promotions, we’ve built up a foundation to share the music. This kind of musical experience — that’s something really special to us. That brings the band back to touring — why the band exists and keeps playing.

LEO: Human Highway is unique for a Japanese label. It’s inspiring to see it growing.
Taka: Thank you. Human Highway is still a very small label, and understanding that, its purpose is to bring people I’ve met in the past (on tour or with other musical experiences) to Japan. It’s like a small family, and the friendship and the musicianship is growing, showing that kind of great relationship to the audience by bringing these bands to Japan and doing some shows. That’s really inspired the fans, and the fans become part of the family as well. The circle of family is getting bigger that way, so it’s a really great feeling. The bands that come to Japan return to the states and hopefully feel they experienced something special.
Human Highway is not able to bring them to a nice hotel with all the accommodations. If they come to Japan, they have to stay at my apartment! But that’s the establishing of the great relationship and musicianship: becoming a family. It’s something I want to keep on doing.