by DJ El Toro
Last week, on two different occasions, I was faced with questions that seem relatively simple on the surface, yet made my head hurt when I tried to answer. Luckily, some other folks picked up the slack for me.
The first query was a classic, one I stumble over like a baby deer every time it’s raised. Upon learning I was a DJ, someone asked what kind of music I play. My brain shut down. Saying “everything” seems glib, like all music is weighted equally, and the latest American Idol is as important as James Brown or David Bowie. Nor do I care to rattle off a laundry list of genres and sub-genres, because I can think of specimens I love and loathe in just about every one: Dubstep, speed metal, bluegrass, opera.
Days later, I stumbled across the following quote in an interview, and it made me feel much better about my continued inability to answer the question “What do you play?” Here’s David Thomas of Pere Ubu, excerpted from Simon Reynolds‘ new tome Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews (“The Essential Companion to Rip It Up“), apropos of applying the term “avant-garage” to describe Pere Ubu.
This thing of pigeonholing and calling things by generic names is in rock terms a fairly recent event. In our formative years nobody did that, which is why nobody thought it was weird that Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees. The last time I saw The Stooges, they were opening for Slade. This notion of the latest trend was always a fabrication of the English punk movement. When our parents or friends would ask what kind of music we played, we’d say, ‘We’re kind of underground.’ Which meant only that we couldn’t play shows and nobody would come see us. But we always saw ourselves in the mainstream of rock music.
That answer reminds me of another great quote, from one of my all-time favorite composers, Kurt Weill: “I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.” Next time someone asks what I play, I think I’ll just shrug and say “good music.”
The other question that left me flummoxed was equally familiar. At a show over the weekend, a colleague asked what records I’d heard lately that blew me away. That’s a tough one, too. I hear music daily that is noteworthy. And even some things I consider remarkable, like that last TV on the Radio album, Neko Case’s latest, or For All I Care by forward-thinking jazz combo the Bad Plus. But very rarely does a new record make me stop in my tracks, the way most of the selections on my 15 Records That Changed My Life list did back in the day. And in the new issue of MOJO, Brian Eno — responding to the question whether he still feels compelled to innovate or not — helped me understand why:
What happens when a new medium comes along like rock music, particularly studio-based recording — for a few years there are just so many things to do. Suddenly there is a whole new territory to open up, thousands of things to try, so it’s very easy to innovate. You have to really fight to not innovate.
It happens in every medium for a short period at the beginning: all sorts of things that no one has seen or heard before, and then a quite lengthy digestive process, which is what we’re in now, where people are looking back on all the stuff that’s been done and looking at it differently and re-evaluating and saying, “This way of doing things, and this way… what happens if you combine them? What survives out of that combination?”
Well that’s a relief. It’s not me, it’s the tide of history. Brian Eno said so. And thanks to Brian and David, I can now go resume grappling with others questions in my life. Like “How long has this been in the refrigerator?” and “What brings out the beast in men?” You know, important stuff.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.