“We’re nine years old!” sparkled Eric Weisbard, Experience Music Project Pop Conference organizer, one time Spin and Village Voice editor, author of the excellent Guns N’Roses edition of the 33 1/3 series, and now American Studies teacher at the University of Alabama, to cheers.
Weisbard seemed excited to get things under way this Thursday night, April 15, 2010 (in a year that was a title of a classic science fiction movie’s sequel). To kick off the commencement of this year’s theme of “The Pop Machine: Music & Technology.” The opening night initial round table discussion featured Ann Powers, his partner in both life and Pop Con, doing an effulgent job interviewing production wizards/musicians/songwriters Nile Rogers, Joe Henry, and Janelle Manae.
His introductory advice was spot on: “Check out a panel with a topic you might be unfamiliar with.” And I relay that in agreement to both first time Pop Conference attendees and those who annually come to see the more entertaining presenters who read their work every year or almost every year, people like Tim Quirk, Douglas Wolk, Michaelangelo Matos, Jody Rosen, and Powers herself. At the convivial opening reception, new people I met like Kitty, who writes a Duran Duran blog, seemed intrigued by Barry Shank’s presentation this morning, “The Violence of Publicity in the Age of Surveillance.” You know, like many other PC dark horses of years past, that that one is going to be surprisingly informative and challenging.
That said, I will probably see as many of my favorites as I can. Because those names listed above are superb writers and presenters, and I know it won’t be a waste of time. Whatever you choose will most likely be illuminating and possibly more entertaining than you ever would have guessed. Guys like Rolling Stone’s Jody Rosen or Rhapsody’s Tim Quirk, are just damned sexy at the funny and fierce with the facts. And that’s the action.
But -- Weisbard is right. Hearing Wendy Fonarow, “the Professor of Indie,” tell her “elaborate cycle of drummer jokes” a couple of years back was really enjoyable, but it also abruptly turned me on to some pretty life-changing ideas about indie music community (that are also found in her excellent book “Empire of Dirt”). A paper about drum jokes? I was in bands, I’ve heard most of them. But then -- unexpected intellectual elevation.
Two words about the Pop Conference: Dive in.
So how were the “waters” last night, then, at opening commencement? Probably my favorite one ever, due to Chic musician and David Bowie et al producer Nile Rodgers being so exuberant, stylish performer and conceptual artist/musician Janelle Monae being so open and enthusiastic, and avant-roots pioneer Joe Henry being kind of a salty prick.
This assortment of supreme talent seemed a little random at first, but the conversation all came together marvelously.
“We were trying to make a hit!” Rodgers says about the “yowza, yowza, yowza” disco madness of his first recorded collaboration with Bernard Edwards, a B-side for a New York Board of Tourism jingle and what gave them a record contract. Powers played the track on the wonderful Sky Church sound system, the first of many multi-media accompaniments of the discussion.
“Dance, Dance, Dance” was the schemata for what the duo would do with Chic -- blending the spontaneous experimentation of a guy who “dropped acid when he was 13 and was a hippy” and who “wanted to be Hendrix on steroids” (Rodgers) with an R&B pro, a long time bass man -- working out a weird concept about glamor in a trashed economy (hence the Rudy Vallee organic “sample,” the 30s phrase spoken through a little megaphone bought at a nearby gift shop). Not aiming for accessibility, but keeping it fresh and creative -- basing the song on the depression-era dance moves in contemporaneous movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
The sweet-spirited, very young looking and sharply dressed Rodgers would later tell amazing stories like walking into a New York club with Billy Idol, the two of them high, and Idol spotting a newly clean and sober David Bowie sitting in a corner drinking an orange juice, and Idol spewing vomit everywhere from what they’d ingested. (“English guys are different!” Rodgers mused.) Bowie would come to record “Let’s Dance” with Rodgers, the latter blowing the jazz music-loving Bowie away by having “a room full of black people and Puerto Ricans attacking that record,” making what the British legend considered “real rock and roll.” He described his intense relationship with the late Edwards as a “violent, loving relationship” and that he wants to release tapes of them recording together, with all the creative dynamic tension apparent behind their work for Chic (and Madonna, and many others).
Powers had a little problem with setting up Monae’s video with Outkast on the overhead -- “You know me and technology, people!” she charmingly joked, reminding us of the amusing glitches of years past and maybe being a little ironic, given the theme of this year’s Conference -- but when “Tightrope” played, its tight retro-soul groove and twin tone imagery slaughtered. (Again, much props to the EMP for the SC sound system.) “I love James Brown!” Monae said, when asked about its inspiration, and then showed her delight in working with Big Boi and Andre 3000 on her incredible contribution for the movie Idlewild (a sample of which we were treated to as well). Powers asked her about combining nostalgia with new ideas, and Monae responded, “I take what makes me unique and then use it for my superpowers!” (Just so you know, I don’t own either the Tightrope or Idlewild original soundtracks -- which will change on this weekend when I celebrate Record Store Day after that day’s Conference.)
Monae, looking dapper with her avant-bouffant hair and out-of-time retro-futurist suit, described her joy in working with the Wonderland Arts Society, in which play and craftsmanship is wholeheartedly inspired and encouraged. The collective does everything from teach performance skills to encourage graphic novel creation. She said it was mainly to help people feel comfortable with creating.
Joe Henry agreed. “Artists need to liberate themselves from fear,” he said.
Rodgers agreed: “That’s an ethos.”
“You’ve got to write the bad songs to get to the good ones,” Monae confessed and advised.
Henry was cantankerous and boastful, but you would be too if you created timeless American Gothic music in which the usually never-freelance Ornette Coleman contributed some evil improv to (on “Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation,” which was also played for us). Henry had actually initiated the dialogue, in answer to Powers’ excellent question about what piece of technology encouraged the artists’ evolution, by insisting his growth is based on “not playing anything in particular very well.” When he eventually recorded his landmark “Trampoline” album, he’d bought some equipment he initially wrote material on preset mode with, “and never looked back.” Now he just gets things running, and experiments with song structures the whole time, even when working with sophisticated artists like Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett, Brad Mehldau, and others.
The high point for me was when he talked about recording Solomon Burke for label Anti-, and “it was so raw, and he never wanted to listen to the playback. Just give him the bag of money, that’s what mattered.” But when Burke did hear it, he didn’t want it released -- “it wasn’t R&B.” Henry said that was the point.
Henry is working with Aaron Neville right now, with Allen Toussaint playing keyboards. “He thinks it’ll be an album of spirituals,” Henry says about Neville’s intentions. Henry maybe gave us the feeling that wasn’t going to be the only result of it.
Later on, Nile Rodgers excited the crowd with comments about a Jeff Beck longing to record a cover of “Chariots of Fire” (he recommended his guitar hero go back and listen to some soul music, stat), but that was after the power outage. The stage was dark, but Monae and the others kept telling stories for those who could hear and those who tried to, in spite of the temporarily downed system.
I walked out of the Sky Church though, and said goodbye to the majorly awesome Seattle performer Carrie Akre, who is at the EMP now and helping coordinating the museum’s hospitality for the Pop Conference this year. I rolled up a KEXP poster with an illustration of a troubadour who looked like Damien Jurado to take home to my wife, and strolled into the warm spring air with Chris Burlingame of Three Imaginary Girls. He was heading to the Florence and the Machine show down at the Showbox, while I grabbed a cab and headed north.
The driver was named Hassan, a tall man in a dark brown suit, and we talked about the Conference, though I didn’t understand him too well (but I think he understood me, for the most part). He’s lived in America only a short time. He told me has was a musician, too, and played a CD-R of beautiful tribal music he’d made with twelve friends back in Somalia. Then he played me what he can do now, “with just one keyboard.” It was the sounds of whatever glorious music he played in a community tens of thousands of miles away, reduced-transformed-translated by a synthesizer, live percussion turned into little electronic beats, exotic horns replaced by a chime-like smear. It didn’t sound bad, the new stuff was good, and he was excited about it. It was just as jumpy and inspired, but it did sound different. Maybe just a few years and a few thousand miles different, but worth listening to, maybe or maybe not as much as the older music he’d made with friends.
The New Busy think 9 to 5 is a cute idea. Combine multiple calendars with Hotmail. Get busy.