It’s half past midnight in Hollywood and the smell of greasy hot dogs follows me to my car. A cool mist fogs my glasses, and I nod to the little lady behind a cart covered with aluminum foil, relish, and fried onions. She’s the same old Latina woman behind every hot dog cart in LA, and she nods back grimly. The wet weather is bad for business.
I first saw Jimmy Edgar in 2006 opening for Jamie Lidell at Troubdour. Jamie always puts on a great show and has really come out since the Multiply single got some play. I remember Jimmy Edgar as having the right idea but lacking in execution.
A few days ago a guitarist friend sends a text saying, “All live electronic music! This Thurs at Knitting Factory! I think u like…” Who could it be but Jimmy Edgar again? Great! He must have pulled a Jamie and gotten a band together, instead of the button mashing and Korg-talking of his last performance! Excitement!
But, no. Come Thursday, it was the same old schtick. A guy with floppy hair behind a lot of gear and wicked gangsta beats paying absolutely no attention to the audience. Occasionally he sang, modding his voice to sound the way he wished it did in high school. He didn’t sing complete songs, so the neat and funky vocal riffs were overshadowed by all the pre-recorded nonsense.
Did he notice when people stopped dancing because he let a naked rhythm go on too long? Did he give any thought to structure, harmonic or lyric? Did he have any stage persona at all, other than a vaguely Prince-in-supsenders outfit? No wonder he hasn’t learned anything in last three years! He never looks at his audience!
So! Here’s a list of rules for aspiring live electronic musicians:
Rule 1 – Excessive looping is boring.
It takes forever to get to the good parts, and it messes up your structure. Looping is a supplemental tool to be used tastefully. It is no basis for an entire track by itself, because nobody wants to listen to the same four bars for five minutes without a break. Also: Beat repeaters and knob-twiddling filters only count as a break the first time. By the twenty-seventh use it gets a little old.
Rule 2 – Pre-recorded music is disappointing.
A good live experience is based on establishing a dynamic between the listeners dancing and the artists creating. Music is simple like that. The mind is simple like that. Adding a step where the mind has to interact with music created somewhere else is distracting, and the mind is never fooled. It knows this pre-recorded schlock could have been created for anyone and the only point of coming to the show was to hear it louder. The mind does not feel special after this and leaves to get a beer.
Rule 3 – A computer screen is not your audience.
The day recording went to 96K was a dark day for tape, because, frankly, 96K sounds great. That happened quite a while ago. Which means everybody and their friggin’ dog listens to music at least recorded and augmented electronically. Hip hop and club pop is nothing but electronic music. In 1998, yes, Americans listening to electro and IDM got a warm, fuzzy future window to carry around in their hearts. Now Muse and Infected Mushroom and Kid A exist, and the glitch vibe is a thing of the past. Listening to electronic music no longer makes you special. Bands now possess the ability to supplement their live act with quality sounding electronic instruments, which means the old one-person-behind-hardware-mountains doesn’t work anymore. We used to watch that because we didn’t have a choice if we wanted to hear the stuff live. Not anymore.
Rule 4 – If you can’t sing, don’t.
This goes out to every new artist out there: You are not Pete Townsend. You are not Daft Punk. You aren’t even Cher, probably. Autotune is not a talkbox. It just makes you sound really stupid.
New album rule! You are only allowed one vocoder-like track per album. The rest you have to sing completely un-pitchcorrected or get a real singer to do it for you. Royksopp is getting better at this. It’s only a matter of time until this production fad backfires anyway, and you want to be the first out the box on that one, don’t you? Rimshot.
Rule 5 – Memorability is a good thing.
“Music is Rotted One Note” is a prime example. As an avid Squarepusher fan I am happy to report I love this album. That doesn’t mean I ever listen to it.
There’s a lot of debate on memorability in music, which in my mind makes it the most important. When I recorded the Sex Pistols, John Lydon told me, “Debate! Always debate. Let the Nazi talk!” He also told me, “All good music is folky, mate!” He would point out the melody in any folk song (Not surprisingly, they all have one. Take note, Jimmy.) and then during an instrumental break he would say, “Can you hear it? It’s still there! They aren’t playing it, but it’s still there, and you can’t wait for it to come back in, can you?”
That’s called a hook, which sounds like marketing, which sounds like sell-out, which is bad. So don’t call it a hook. Call it folky. That’s called integrity. All music we owe to folk, because it was memorable. Don’t ignore thousands of years of songwriting because you’re afraid of being called a sell-out. Be at peace with the way the human brain works or stop complaining about your lousy concert turnouts. It isn’t just about you.
On a final note, let me talk about my friend Lee Noble. He used to play bass and pitchbent toys in a Nashville band called A Poet Named Revolver, and they were awesome. They made one great album and broke up, ignoring the interest from labels it sparked. He has a film degree and now lives in Burbank.
He sometimes performs under the name Conger Eel. His set up, which is usually in dim dive bars that serve more Mexican beer than domestic, involves several tape players, a guitar, illegible vocals and noise, noise, noise. His show is always different and the only genre label that might possibly apply is avant garde. His performances are fearless and without expectation and are to be taken seriously and very flippantly simultaneously.
Knowing that Lee exists gives me great comfort. His Conger Eel project won’t make him any money, but he follows all the rules I’ve just laid out. His loops are created on the spot and never last long un-chopped. There’s no computer screen, because he does this all with hacked tape cassettes. Anything pre-recorded is ironic, like an old M.C. Hammer sample found at a thrift store. And he is a good singer.
My friend Alen is a visual artist from Detroit, and he remembers the experience when I took him to see Lee at the Airliner with a vague sense of awe. That counts. Memorable means genuine, and Lee is most definitely that.
It’s half past midnight and the smell of greasy hot dogs follows me to my car. A cooling mist hangs in the air and fogs my glasses. Maybe the crummy weather explains the sparse crowd at Jimmy Edgar’s show.
I wouldn’t bet on it.
Whoa, there’s electronic music in Los Angeles now? :P
Seriously though, if you’re an electronic musician: LEARN TO PLAY. Corollary: STOP EDITING.
Oh you mad cause I’m stylin’ on you.
Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!
I found my way here via Reddit. I really enjoyed this article. I’m just starting to put together my first electronic performance project, so it was great to read over your thoughts.
I’m collaborating with a female-singer/pianist. And I’ll be backing her up with my laptop and pedals, live looping and the hey hey.
words of wisdom. great post.
Unintentionally i see your article on your blog and i think your writting is worth reading
Nice informative blog and also you have made awesome content with useful points.I hope that you don’t mind to comment on website related to your architecture with a link back to your blog. Cheers!
love the article. great points well made.
Yes I agree with your ‘rules’ or at least the spirit of them anyway. Sometimes ‘live’ electronics is like pressing ‘Demo’ on a keyboard. I’m just showing off now but when I do my live electronic set I use vintage analogue kit, no computer, not even a sequencer but big bad backdated beats all the same as welsh ‘folk’ hero M.C. Mabon sings.
loved this post, thanks! great info, funny. a nice piece of writing!
Seriously! this is outdated…. I understand your point, Its great ppl learn to play stuff. but I must say you’re very wrong thinking pre-prerecorded tracks are gonna stop! it’s 2011 for God’s Sake. Everybody is making electronic music, pre recorded tracks, DJing, Laptop watching with occasional audience stare, its inevitable my friend so get with the program and make Music that mixes like u write about so much and what is modern