…with apologies to Oscar Wilde (not the most serious guy in the world, but what-ehveeeer.)
In my last death-defying rant I talked about the terrifying trend towards twee.
This time I’m giving you the flip side–the road less travelled. Or at least, the one that I have decided upon after some reflection and pain and suffering.
I’ve taken a lot of criticism from you dears fans (we few, we happy few, we band of broth… OK, enough with the high-school Shakespeare already.)
As I was ranting, my ‘base’ has been on me for the past several years about my downward spiral towards ‘pop’. Not that I ever reached the levels of Pomplamoose (that would be far too perky for such a curmudgeon as I.) Still there has been a definite shift towards less complex music and simpler, more immediately recognizable themes.
When I force myself to listen to older records (as I have to now in order to post music to all these frickin’ ‘music sharing sites’) I realise that the most successful stuff I’ve done was the stuff that was the least obviously ‘commercial’. And by ‘successful’ I mean the work that I still find ‘OK’. (As an aside, I used to gauge my work in the following way: every once in a while, I’d be listening to Internet radio whilst doing something else and being very preoccupied. I’d pop out of my concentration for a minute and think to myself, ‘I really like that song that’s playing. I wonder who that guy is?’ And then of course, realise it was just li’l ol’ me. And that would mean it was a truly good song. But before you accuse me of narcissism unbound, recognise that the same thing probably has happened to you or another artist who’s work you enjoy. It happens to lots of very normal people. Really. It’s not just me. Seriously.)
So I’m here today to make my contrition. And as we Catholics know, there are the four faces of contrition: admission (of fault), submission (offering to make amends), commitment (here’s how I intend to do better), and finally the actual asking of pardon.) Since implicit in a true contrition is a plan for the future, consider this post something like a manifesto which I can sum up in one sentence. I promise to be even more fuckin’ serious than I already am.
I confess to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned.
For a while, I have drunk the indie kool-aid that constantly tells one to ‘lighten up’; that people have no need of musicians who are pretentious and take themselves to seriously. (Why. So. Serious? as The Joker would say.) More and more I bought into it and became more and more self-deprecating about what I do and what it takes to do what I do. And then I realised something: professionals don’t that. Doctors don’t do that. Lawyers don’t do that. Very few physicists do that. Seventh degree black belts in karate definitely don’t do that. In short, the most respected people in society take what they do very seriously and they wouldn’t dream of adopting an ‘aw shucks’ persona because ya know something it tarnishes the brand.
When Miles Davis got on stage in the early ’50’s and turned his back on the audience as he played it was the culmination of decades of struggle for respect by jazz musicians who previously had to mug and grin in order to get gigs. He had reached a point where he didn’t have to do that and part of his over the top arrogant schtick was to tell other musicians to respect themselves. It wasn’t enough anymore to have that internal belief. Rather, it was important to tell the world that jazz was a deep art form that demanded respect from the audience. Miles was educating the world to take artists seriously. Just like how barbers in the 15th century started demanding to be called ‘physicians’ and ‘surgeons’. Over the course of several centuries they built a brand identity of awe and respect for what they do that, as much as their education and skill, gives them the authority and the earning power they have.
I realise now that one reason I dug the music that formed me (the progressive rock and fusion musics of the ’70’s) is that these guys were serious. They played great and they wanted people to stop and listen because damn it, what they were doing was just as worthy of that rapt attention as any guy listening to a classical concert. Were they entertainers? Of course! Zawinul admitted over and over that he was consciously trying to make danceable music with Weather Report. Keith Emerson stabbing his Hammond organ with knives was total theatre. But that was like Dogberry in Much Ado and Osric in Hamlet; a bit of comic relief to balance out the load.
Pop Will Eat Itself
I travel in the pop and rock worlds. If you’re say Bela Fleck or Leo Kottke, you avoid the ‘respect’ and ‘seriousness’ issues by virtue of the fact that you’re doing a very elevated form of ‘folk music’. You can be as ‘serious’ as you like with a banjo in your hands. It has a built-in pretentious limiter.
But if you write and sing songs that are done with the requisite Fender bass and Gibson guitar and Ludwig drums and Hammond organ, the current climate frowns upon anything that even smells of pretention. As I’ve written ‘pretentious’ is the one word everyone who hated ‘prog’ spits out to show their contempt.
In short, I’ve realised that if I project that ‘aw shucks’ persona then I’m in trouble. Because I’m trying to get people to take what I do seriously in a climate that doesn’t necessarily wanna do that. Like Miles, we gotta fight for our right to… er… well not ‘party’ but have people pay attention. We gotta build a brand. We gotta get back something we had back in Miles’ day and through the seventies but which is now lost. We have to state clearly this simple idea:
Don’t Try This At Home
It is a good thing to make intelligent and complex vocal popular music that demands your attention. And like Miles did, we will insist that we who make such music are professionals.
You may have a guitar and GarageBand, but you cannot do what we do. Just like you may have a computer, but you aren’t a scientist. And you may have a Subzero freezer, but you’re no Julia Child. And I’m gonna try to convince you that, despite everything the culture tells you (Pomplamoose) music delivered by someone like me who knows what they’re doing really is superior to that made on a laptop in a dorm room.
This worship of the primitive, which has so taken over music seems to have largely bypassed the visual media. I mean, it is still quite possible to be a serious visual and dance artist. I think this is simply because there is a culture that has nurtured that brand because it never had the commercial success of music (until recently no painter could expect royalties anything like what a musician could make from one successful album.) Now that music royalties have languished so dreadfully, most musicians are pretty much in the same boat as painters; but without that infrastructure of museums, grants and patrons that allows one to do serious work and be taken seriously.
…So to speak. 😀 My final word on this (for today) is that I realise how the culture has taken it’s toll on my work. What I do hasn’t been as technically challenging as it might have been in the past few years. I’ve substituted other qualities that I think matter (more mature lyrical themes, one hopes) but the fact that I substituted means to me that I have, to some degree, lost my way.
Over the past couple of years, it’s fair to say I’ve had my share of bad breaks (no pun intended), which I won’t go into here. But it’s given me a real chance to think about why I’ve carried on even though it has at times been physically, personally and financially just excruciating. There has to be a reason I put up with that in order to keep doing what I do. So if it’s gonna be hard, then darn it, I gotta make sure I do the most intense, concentrated and action-packed version of whatever I do. No ‘substitutions’. Rather, it should be more like stuffing an overnight bag with a Steinway D. I gotta cram as much technique and craft and energy into every piece until the disc just can’t take it any more! More is more!
You fans keep asking when I’m gonna be back; if not touring, at least with new material. And the short answer is. Soon. I don’t know all the details yet, but I do know that I have never felt so enthusiastic to get back to work as I do now. And I can tell you that I have never felt more like ‘shredding’ than I do now. My ‘less is more’ period is officially over.
And again, I don’t know exactly what the product is going to look like yet. I’m working on it. But I can tell you that I am going to jam something into yer face by the end of the year. And when I do? I promise you one thing right now as God is my witness.
It’s gonna be intense.