Tuesday, August 09, 2005

how to run a four-minute mile: being a black singer/songwriter in an indie band.

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here's an article i found a few moments ago. from a publication in san fransisco, i believe. insightful article about being black and indie. and although they don't like tv on the radio (peter gabriel comaparisons again? fuck off!), it was an interesting read. before the article, here is a run-down of the bands mentioned in the article. i'll save myself some space and not mention fresh cherries from yakima this time.

tv on the radio-sounds like: kid a-era radiohead fronted by the male version of nina simone. brief summary: indie-rock media collectively has an orgasm over the band's 2003 debut release, young liars ep. do YOU have the balls to record an acapella cover of "mr. grieves" by pixies? didn't think so. the ep was regarded as an instant classic. by the time the full-length came out, the same outlets of media were disappointed at the outcome of the album. that's what you get for building them up. besides, their album was still my third-favorite release of 2004.

bloc party-sounds like: gang of four in a blender with radiohead, early blur, sonic youth, and johnny marr's left hand. brief summary: after having like 23958235 drummers, matt tong was hired, and the band started recording songs. good choice, as tong is the most technically-proficient drummer in modern rock music. kele, the lead singer, sent their demo tape to franz ferdinand. got invited to play with them, and magazines couldn't stop writing about it. released some singles and ep's that touched on their potential, and then, released the best album of 2005, mark my words (sorry, sufjan, you came close).

the dears- sounds like: what would happen if morrissey fronted broken social scene. brief summary: taken as a joke by most of his canadian peers, murray lightburn recorded the best album of his lengthy career, 2003's no cities left. since then, he's been dubbed "the black morrissey", and has even opened for the real morrissey.

now, without further adieu, here's the article:

Which segues sweetly to my latest preoccupation, about the latest influx of indie rock bands represented by black frontmen, like Bloc Party, the Dears, and TV on the Radio. Why is that so extraordinary? Because we're so used to seeing almost completely white crowds at rock shows here – and in almost every other city in the country? Why did Asian kids come out for the recent New Order concert at Henry J. Kaiser and not for, say, the Lovemakers? Why are the black women shaking their asses and balancing their feet on the armrests of the Oakland Arena to R. Kelley and not to, oh, Train? The days of segregation are officially over, yet all too many folks stay in their places and never notice the monoculture all around them. Too busy staring at the pretty lights, methinks.

They're also in denial about the reality all around them. I'm one of the many who admire Bloc Party's punchy and ambitious Silent Alarm (Vice), but damned if you can get vocalist-songwriter Kele Okereke to talk about the subject. The band are quite happy to discuss "singing about a sense of unease, a sense of powerlessness, being aware of things being wrong, but not quite knowing what to do about it," according to bassist Gordon Moakes. But don't you dare shake that race stick at Okereke, or any of them for that matter, as I did with card-carrying Party member Matt Tong. "That's the one question that Kele never likes to answer!" the Chinese Brit drummer groaned. "He gets that quite a lot. But where he grew up, it was natural for him to do this, really. People are always surprised when they see him fronting a [rock] band, to be honest with you, but it says something really about other people more than the band."

Tell that to music writer Kandia Crazy Horse, who wrote the 2004 tome Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock 'n' Roll and describes herself as "a youngish black female who loves redneck rock (from the Allman Brothers to Nashville Pussy), fey charmers (Rufus Wainwright), and exceedingly loud guitars wherever they may be found." E-mailing from the east, she pinpointed some of the hurdles that Bloc Party, the Bellrays, and other bands that include "black artists that step out of the 'urban/R&B/pop/dancehall' mode" face: "In the musical realm, this gets translated into white label execs and radio determining that X artist's sound is 'not black enough,' which famously happened to Living Colour, solely because they've got lingering, erroneous ideas of what blackness is and are never introspective or aware enough to see the irony and lie in their arrogant assumption that it's these execs' divine right to frame the black aesthetic. The other chief hurdle for bands such as TV on the Radio who might be interested in garnering a black audience for their iconoclastic work is that the mythical black mass ... has largely bought into notions that rock 'n' roll is 'a white thing,' that certain sounds have irrevocably been co-opted by the Man, and that engaging in certain cultural practices diminishes one's Nubian stock.

"My generation is indeed one that's learned to stop worrying and embrace our inner metalhead, who can swing with the exalted cultural ambassador of our dreams Jimi and AC/DC...," she explained. "That's not to say there's not a good deal of unacknowledged racism in Indie-land, that those rarefied spaces ain't inhospitable to folk of color (even if the hardcore metal scene is worse) – having resided in Manhattan for 15 years, I am well aware of the extent to which I have been the sole intimate black friend of myriad young, hip, liberal, well-meaning white people who would never think to scan the crowd at a club like Mercury Lounge and remark on the lack of diversity." And Crazy Horse admits she doesn't even like TV on the Radio!

I'm right there with her – sheesh, how Peter Gabriel can you get? But one band I can get behind are the Dears. And true to form and talking on a cellie before his band's recent performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show, singer-songwriter Murray Lightburn was just as dramatically frank, with that certain salty Quebecois quirkiness, as any African Canadian inspired by U2 and Isaac Hayes and capable of producing last year's great-leap-forward debut, No Cities Left (Spinart), that cache of truly soulful indie rock catnip. "Just got here and it's surreal, dude," Lightburn rambled. "I'm on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Kodak Theater, and there's so many freaks. It's like the Twilight Zone, and there's Rod Serling's fucking star in front of me."
He chose rock rather than funk or soul as his poison because "there was something about the rawness of rock music that I liked," he offered, adding that No Cities Left was inspired by Motown, '60s and '70s orchestral pop and soul music, and heavier rock like Led Zeppelin. "I like to rock out. I sometimes like really heavy metal, but I can still go out and make a fucking R&B or soul record. I just don't feel like I need to be culturally brainwashed, play basketball, drink malt liquor, and listen to hip-hop. I can be whatever I want to be. There's a lot of black kids out there that at this point might be pressured to be that kind of black kid, and hopefully I'm here to say, be whatever you want to be. Give a shit."

Life in indie rock, though, can be trying, he confessed. "It's all about the honkies. It's all about honkies getting or having college degrees, and it's pretty much dominated by that and run by that, and that's the people that are mostly writing about it in hardcore indie rock publications, and that's not where we live generally," he said wearily. "Do you know how many rich kids we've been on tour with? I don't have a problem with rich kids at all. They just think they're owed something, and they don't know what it's like to work for something, and the Dears have scraped and scraped for everything we've had. It just makes us stronger in a way, though sometimes I can't deal with it."

There was that time when another band bellied up to the chow line at the venue and snottily said, "I can't possibly eat that." "It wasn't the greatest food," Lightburn recalled, "but there were days I went three days without eating a fucking meal. I didn't even have bottles to return to the store – I'd literally sit in my apartment and starve, and hearing this guy say that because he's some rich West Side New York punk, it's like, you need a severe beating right now. There are people who don't even have shitty cream sauce to deal with. Fuck you."
He looked up at a giant TV screen. "Boy, Paris Hilton is hideous."

now, for my thoughts:

my sentiments exactly. i really can't stand it when someone tries to be the barometer of someone else's blackness. worry about yourself, because i'm going to worry about me. i never played basketball, i loathe baggy clothes, and i prefer listening to paul banks (lead singer of interpol) versus listening to lloyd banks (50 cent's "weed carrier", as a certain very entertaining blogger would say). take away my ghetto pass. i haven't used it in years. just don't ask me, "what does it feel like to be black in an indie band?" it feels like i need a sandwich, just like every other guy with a guitar that has to ask for a place to sleep after shows. i wonder what that would feel like. i'll find out one of these days.

rap is boring. don't get me wrong, i love rap. however, in the past two years, the only rap album worth picking up that didn't have either ghostface killah or mf doom's name on it was the grey album. mainstream rap is an endless cliche. the suits at those corporate record labels would rather us talk about killing and selling drugs and calling our women bitches than say something that's actually relavant to the uprising of intellegent black youth. kanye west, as much as i loathe his pretentiousness, gets bleeped for saying "and a white man get paid off of all of that" on "all falls down". i ain't trying to act holier than thou, fuck it. i went to jacob with twenty-five thou. sorry. i had to add that line. in another instance of the corporate dollar being mightier than the african-american mouth, styles (jadakiss' right-hand man in seminal 90's rap group, the lox) writes what i believe is undoubtedly the best song of his entire career, "i'm black" (best line? "i'm black, and even though my skin's kinda light, it means my ancestors were raped by somebody white." please don't get mad, caucasians. i love you all, but it's probably true) gets shelved, but his 2002 weed-anthem "good times" was the biggest hit of that calendar year. with the current rise of "crunk" "chopped and screwed", and various other forms of southern-rap bollocks (although t.i. is the second coming of jay-z, and outkast is the second-best hip-hop group of all time), corporate rap is inexhaustibly and frustratingly uninteresting. hip-hop music has pretty much become black people performing in blackface. tupac would be turning over in his grave. since december 2003, i've only bought three rap albums that did not bear mf doom's likeness. the only one i'm not dissapointed with is death is certain by royce the 5'9". (best line? "my wife don't like my album. it's way too dark for women, she says it sounds like i hold grudges. she'd rather listen to joe budden." ouch).

on the other hand, 2004 was my favorite year as far as indie music was concerned. not because there were a surplus of good albums being released, but because i spent most of the entire year catching up from my years of not listening to alternative music (in seventh grade, i lived in billy corgan's world), and what i've been missing is some of the best music i've ever heard.

you know how i was saying murray lightburn of the dears was being dubbed "the black morrissey"? a few people that i've let listen to the demo versions of my songs have been alluding to me as "the black conor oberst". now, anyone who knows me personally can pretty much tell that i don't particularly take this as a compliment, because i refer to conor oberst as "the white kanye west". although oberst is a decidedly better songwriter than west, and at one time, i really liked kanye west (see the release date of the college dropout, "kanye west is my favorite rapper", circa march 2004-- yeah, i liked him a lot, which is a little more than i can say for oberst, who really never was my favorite anything, although he's a talented lyricist), if there was a "pretentious bullshit meter" in popular music, they would be the equivalent of a terror alert: level red. come on, friends, why can't i be like "the black ben gibbard" or something? sure, he's a little whiny, but he's really eloquent and melodious. i mean, the postal service is, by far, my least favorite side-project in the history of music (not as bad as the transplants, but bullshit on that high a level doesn't even count as music. it's the audio-equivalent of garbage), but still.
i mean, i like to make my aspirations clear, but "the black conor oberst"? there's no way i can be that pretentious.

pretentious is defined as: "claiming or demanding a position of distinction or merit, especially when unjustified." i've never said anything that i couldn't back up. i've always stated what i wanted to be. for goodness sakes, there is a scripted skit in fevers and mirrors where the "dj" acclaims him as "brilliant". i've never once said i was brilliant, let alone prompted anyone else to say that about me. to be honest with you, i think i'm a talented lyricist, but that's only because i've been writing ever since i was seven years old. i never said anything about being a genius, or even a great songwriter. promising, perhaps, but not great by any means. therefore, the "black conor oberst" thing is slightly flattering (because dude is a good songwriter), but not wholly accurate.

the quickest way to get me into bed is to call me the "black jeff mangum". i'll immediately call you out for being completely full of shit, but i'll be amused by your flattery, and proceed to take off my shirt. he's uncomparable, by the way. he's quite possibly the most singular artist in the history of music. not singular in the respect that his style has never been copied, but singular in the thought that noone could ever be weird or brilliant enough to warrant comparison. i think that's a level every artist would like to aspire to: uncomparably brilliant. aspirations don't make you pretentious.

it would be so much better to be "douglas martin". to have some indie kid listen to a fresh cherries from yakima record, and aspire to be "the next douglas martin" or even "the white douglas martin". it's early, excuse me for dreaming.

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"i was walking with a ghost..." hi, haters.
(written portion of this blog originally posted here: http://blog.myspace.com/douglasmartin)


Blogger largehearted boy said...

Have you heard "The Only Black Guy At the Indie Rock Show" by the Cocker Spaniels:


Very good stuff...

5:36 PM  

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