So I’ve been listening to this Fuck Buttons album, Street Horrrsing, now and again of late. Music with this kind of “experimental” vibe has been kind of the rage lately in indie-rock circles – Stereogum named Fuck Buttons a “band to watch,” and even Pitchfork gave it a pretty complimentary review, and I’ve been spotting a lot of positive things being written about bands with a similar angle. And I think that’s pretty cool, because I generally like this kind of music.

But actually, my feelings are a bit mixed about this trend, and about this particular album and others like it that have come out lately. For starters, as a veteran music fan from the early-90s “alternative” boom, who now bemusedly observes the current bearded “indie” craze, I worry about concepts like “experimental” and “outsider” getting similarly co-opted and watered down by the record business. But then again, we’re in the midst of a rather exciting time when the old record business power structure is breaking down. Probably that’s part of what’s making the success of records like this, such as it is, possible. We’re at this delightfully weird transitional state where it seems like anything goes.

Really, I enjoy Street Horrrsing – it’s the kind of thing I’ve been a fan of for a long time, and it makes for pretty engaging listening at least a few times. But even as tastemakers of indie rock hail it as genius, for me there’s something that just feels disposable about it. In fact, I’ll come out here and admit that I pirate-downloaded it, and now after a few listens I just can’t see myself spending actual money on it and am likely to end up deleting it. My long years of experience as an “experimental” musician makes me suspect that there’s a lot less going on in, or going into, Street Horrrsing and albums like it, than others seem to realize.

What it is is, there was a time, and given the right collaborators that time may very well still be upon us, when I would knock out an album like this in an afternoon. And usually it would just sit on a tape and gather dust and no one would ever hear of it.

I think I realized somewhere along the line that part of what a typical “experimental” artist does is to bullshit (how big a part is up to artist, I suppose). Make something that people think is totally genius simply because it defies conventions and is different from what folks are used to, but that, apart from being weird, doesn’t really have to be very well thought-out or even particularly good. I find that surprisingly easy to do, and I’m frequently surprised at the enthusiasm with which such product is received. And so what often seems to happen in “experimental” music is, you figure out how to get maximum reaction with minimum work.

One of my old bands, Passage Of Deformed Man Supermarket, comes to mind. I still get people telling me how great our first self-released album, No. 1 (.zip, 101 Mb) is. The musicians performing on that recording are myself, Tom Vanderwall (now known as Magnets For Teeth), and one Phil Sterk, who is now best known as the pedal-steel player in an NYC-based indie rock band called Phonograph.

But really, Passage Of Deformed Man Supermarket was a bit of a con job. I mean, it was a lot of fun, and we definitely had a huge creative energy doing it, and I even still listen to the stuff we recorded. But we didn’t really put a whole lot of thought or effort into it. Basically, Tom and I wanted to make crazy noise to fuck with people. And I think we knew how easy it would be, especially since Tom invented a lot of his own instruments so we knew people would look at our gear and go “whoa.” No. 1 literally was recorded in an afternoon – okay, it might have been two afternoons – by three guys who happened to get together in an attic, having never played together before and having nothing written or prepared in advance. What happened was, Tom and I arranged a Passage Of Deformed Man Supermarket rehearsal (the band was originally just us two), and Tom had accidentally scheduled a rehearsal of Ton-Ton, a similar project he was doing with Phil, the same day. So the three of us decided to just play anyway. We ran everything through one mixing board, ran that into a digital recorder, and just started making up shit. There was some editing later, but not much – what you hear on No. 1 is about 80% of the afternoon-or-two’s worth of recordings it was culled from. And from then on, Passage Of Deformed Man Supermarket was usually those three persons.

And we pulled off the same trick again and again. Having barely spoken to each other in months (and even after Tom had moved out of town and just happened to be back in CF visiting his family), we would book a show at The Reverb, set up our strange equipment, and just start making up shit. And people’s jaws would hit the floor.

Maybe we really are just that good of musicians. I mean, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making it up as you go. In fact, I submit that anyone who can’t improvise effectively, be it of the free-form blank-page variety or the kind where you take an existing song and twist it into a new off-the-cuff version, without boring people to death in the process, isn’t all that much of a musician. That goes for most so-called “jam bands,” most of whom actually kind of suck at jamming unless you the audience member are sufficiently baked off your ass.

What structure many of the musical passages on Street Horrrsing have seems to be built on progressions of three or four chords played on a synth, around which various other noises get to float. In each instance, how much actual thought do you suppose went into choosing those three or four chords? Do you suppose that they actually bothered trying any of those pieces with different sets of chords to see what particular sequence of three or four chords worked best for what they were really trying to convey? I’ll put up even money that in most cases, the chord progression was chosen more or less randomly during the recording session once they got a loop going.

Do I maybe just expect too much from “experimental” music? Laying aside for the moment the fact that just about every garage band these days, however conventionally rockist, seems to want to call themselves “experimental,” criticism of experimental music is pretty easy to dismiss. Oh, you didn’t like it? Well, it’s just experimental, not every experiment works. But I’ve long been a fan of the music of Edgard Varese, and when people called his music “experimental,” he said something to the effect of, “I don’t make experimental music. I do the experiments first, then I write the music.”

Or maybe I’m just so amazingly talented that stuff like this comes super easy to me, but I don’t realize that how special I am in that regard. I don’t like to speculate about that kind of possibility too much.

Ultimately, I feel that while a record like Street Horrrsing advances the state of the art, is does so fleetingly; I don’t think it’s an album that people will still be talking about in a year or two. But the attention and critical acclaim this kind of thing gets of late indicates to me that a significant piece of the music-consuming populace is thirsting for something innovative, something they haven’t heard before. Sometimes they get something like Battles; other times they get a kind of cargo-cult version.

Or maybe I’m totally missing the point. The kind of “hey, anyone could do this” reaction I have to Street Horrrsing is, after all, allegedly what a big part of the appeal of early punk was.

If you like stuff like Fuck Buttons though, then I say good on you, for two reasons: first, I like it too; and second, if you like that, then just keep in touch with me and I can make sure you never get bored for want of new stuff to listen to. Maybe I could make a living selling it as a subscription service.

Update: fixed the download link for “No. 1.” Go on, check it out.

Charlie Schiz

Charlie Schiz
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. I've been weird all my life. It's my time to shine.

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