Conducting e-mail interviews – in effect a set of questions that then get answered in turn – can be a tough business. It’s difficult to tell whether you have the right tone in the questions, and of course it is also easy to be misconstrued. But then, just once in a while, you get measured, intelligent responses with no end of discussion points that come from it.
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Talking to Alex Reed of seeming always provides the latter. He teaches and studies music in his day-job, has written books about music, and his own musical output is as measured and as detail-rich as his writing, so it is no real surprise that talking to him about his own music has gone off on various tangents that told me far more than just “I’ve got a new album out”.
Which is a great thing. Here at amodelofcontrol.com, I will only conduct interviews with artists if I have questions I want to ask, and I feel that these are interesting questions that could provoke responses. I don’t have a standard template of questions (there is nothing worse than reading that kind of interview, and frankly the artist’s heart must sink when they see the same old questions), and how much I ask very much depends on what we’re talking about.
As a side-note, all interviews I’ve conducted for amodelofcontrol.com are now online again in this section (there are thirty-four of them in total) – some have been missing for a little while as I was rebuilding the site (the end of that is nearly in sight!).
In addition, I’m excited to have an exclusive new track from the album featured. The video for If I Were You is below.
Alex had a lot to say, so without further ado, let’s pick up the thread.
amodelofcontrol.com: It’s been three years since we spoke around the release of Madness & Extinction (with the Worldburners EP since too). How have things been, as you approach the release of SOL: A Self-Banishment Ritual?
Alex: Growing. Madness & Extinction felt like an initial statement of purpose personally, politically, aesthetically. It was a starting point that raises the question what next—and in a sense much bigger than one-album-following-another. Making SOL felt like developing a plan of action, and the album reflects that, I think. The first three songs are a prescription: first, here’s the problem; second, here’s the solution; third, this won’t be easy, but let’s go.
amodelofcontrol.com: One quote from the previous interview sprung to mind on hearing the new single Stranger.
“Also, the second LP is already mostly written. Expect a strong soul and calypso influence. Yes, we’re serious.”
You weren’t kidding. What’s the story behind that song, and who is S∆MMUS, who guests on it?
Alex: Stranger was written in three pushes. A lot of the verse and bridge lyrics came from another song I wrote and discarded called Evolve Faster, which had totally different music—sort of an upbeat 1965 Motown stomp. Then I had this dream where I was playing a new song in a smoky ballroom, and it was really aesthetically convincing. I woke up, went to my piano, and its melody was still fresh in my head — that was the verse melody for Stranger. After playing with it for a day or two, it started to work once I put the Evolve Faster lyrics to it.
The first three songs are a prescription: first, here’s the problem; second, here’s the solution; third, this won’t be easy, but let’s go.
I should say, by the way, that I write a lot of songs in dreams. The words and melody to the opening verse of Decorate Your Scars came entirely from a dream on my birthday a few years back. On the new album, If I Were You came from a dream too, where John Balance of Coil sang it to me. I can’t say for sure whether that was just my brain doing its thing or a mystical experience with the dead, but it sure felt important, like magic.
Anyhow, once I had the basis for Stranger, the chorus came quickly. Sometimes I hash out ideas with lots of drafts and revisions, and sometimes they just appear, and the chorus just happened. Instantly I knew it was right. It sounded modern and classic at the same time, and it said what I wanted it to say.
So I emailed S∆MMUS to see if she was interested in singing on it, and I’m so grateful that she said yes. S∆MMUS is Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, who is certainly more famous than I am. She’s got a very good album out that made some waves on the Billboard R&B charts and on Pitchfork. Her work deals on the one hand with videogames and a lot of geek culture stuff, so her rapping sometimes gets called nerdcore. But that’s not a really accurate label, ‘cause on the other hand she writes pretty seriously about issues of mental health, race, and straddling cultural lines. For a long while she lived in Ithaca, my hometown, where I’d seen her do a few shows, and I thought she’d be great on the song — which she is.
As for soul music and stuff like that, yes, I really like a lot of vintage records and a good deal of new stuff too. I’ve specifically delved into it over the last few years. There is so, so much African diaspora music both in real cultural circulation and in the DNA of all western pop. To block it out categorically — which I think troublingly happens a lot at several levels in “dark” music circles—is musical ignorance and willfully stunting oneself. At best.
I could say a lot more about this, and actually I have — there’s a full chapter on these ideas in my book Assimilate.
amodelofcontrol.com: Madness & Extinction had a very clear concept, to me, anyway – about how humanity would deal with the end of the world on a personal level. Does the new album have such a concept, or is it looser this time?
Alex: I don’t really try to write concepts as such—the records reflect what’s on my mind, and I assemble the songs into something that winds up resembling coherence. There’s a line in Doomsayer, the opening track of SOL, that mentions “the one thing I can’t seem to shut up about”, and that’s sort of how it is: I can get pretty singleminded. But for me, making an album is reinventing the universe every time, so it’s a winding process. I wrote sixty songs for SOL and used thirteen that happened to work pretty well both individually and together. It’s a terribly inefficient workflow.
Like you said, Madness & Extinction has a lot of apocalypse thematics to it, and I was careful to portray the end of everything as neither something to avoid nor some cheap excuse to rebuild the world as a libertarian Mad Max fanfiction. A big part of my message is that it’s not about you; it’s not about me; it’s not about us.
In the last few years there’s been some productive public talk about the posthuman, the post-anthropocene, and a lot of big questions: What’s the ultimate payoff of continued human existence? Why are we breeding? Is that even ethical? Does our life come at the cost of other species? Is the thing we call meaningfulness all it’s cracked up to be? Are we just a product of our history and context? How else might the entire Earth project have gone if we’d done things differently at some juncture way, way back? What sort of individual and collective identity would we have to invent in order to get any perspective on these ideas or free movement within them?
The personal and the political are the same thing, and so SOL is what it’s like to manifest a new personal spirit within a posthuman politics. I don’t know how other people will hear the record, but for me, it’s about getting over oneself, which seems like step one for any real improvement in the world.
amodelofcontrol.com: Surprises abound, actually, on the album as a whole. Zookeeper‘s guitar riff and strings sound like it was beamed in direct from Nile Rodgers and Chic, and Japanese noise legend Merzbow collaborates on the epic, multi-part At The Road’s End (I’m presuming on the scorched-earth closeout?), and neither of these things were things I’d expect here. Did you have an overarching concept here musically, or was it to simply push your boundaries as far as they’d stretch?
Alex: Both. I do work with musical concepts. I enjoy making unlikely juxtapositions work aesthetically. And so oftentimes I’ll put the headiest ideas in the simplest songs — like Stranger and Knowledge.
Specifically on SOL, I was interested in soul music: the album’s title refers to that, among many other things. I wanted to hear what it would sound like to make a record that was gothic – sure – but also politically aware and progressive. In a good 1970s funk record, there’s moodiness, a sense of space, a looseness of the body, a whole set of choreographic possibilities that are missing, for example, from EBM — which is fine, as EBM has other goals. But what happens when we juxtapose industrial and dire and superhuman themes with soul music? In some cases I stumbled onto some clear aesthetics: psychedelia is all over songs on SOL like The Unspeaking, and likewise it’s a key overlap in the Venn diagram between the likes of P-Funk and Bauhaus.
But in other cases, the juxtapositions don’t resolve, and they just stare you in the face saying, “Here’s a gospel choir. Now here’s a harsh noise wall. Deal with it.” Going back to getting over ourselves, I think that if we can deal with a song like At The Road’s End, then maybe we can get better at handling difference and dissonance in our real lives and our communities.
When we get too comfortable and certain about ourselves, we often wind up enforcing our values in ways that all too often get insidious. Change is useful: living with the same “self” for your whole life really sounds tedious to me.
You asked if I want to push my boundaries on principle. Yes, I do. That’s important to me. When we get too comfortable and certain about ourselves, we often wind up enforcing our values in ways that all too often get insidious. Change is useful: living with the same “self” for your whole life really sounds tedious to me. Think of how much you’re missing by being just one person. And so I try to make music that models this openness to change. If anything, I realize that it’s too conservative — if I really wanted to double down on formlessness and weird stuff, maybe my records should sound like The Haxan Cloak or the Residents or Schnittke or Sun Ra. I’ve got a Ph.D. in music theory and composition, and yet here I am making pop songs.
amodelofcontrol.com: There is very much a grandiose feel here, too, with massive flourishes and a “big” sound tying a lot of it together (the production makes it sound like you had entire orchestras in the studio at points). You said last time around that you had been looking into “how to convey a really grandiose vision in a three-minute song”, and it seems you’ve nailed that this time. Are you always looking at how you might take things further next time, or do you work differently to that?
Alex: I worked with some very good musicians to achieve the album’s sound. Aaron Fuleki did some good work, and I brought in Daniel Myer of Haujobb, Paul Kendall (who has engineered Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails), a great local Ithaca group called the Fall Creek Brass Band, a wonderful string player named Emilie Benigno, and Sarah Hennies, an avant-garde percussionist whose work is definitely worth checking out. And of course, S∆MMUS and Merzbow.
For all that I push myself to change, I suppose I fall back on routines — “the one thing I can’t seem to shut up about” and all that. So just as I default to writing pop songs, I default to grandiose aesthetics: I understand them and I’m good at them. I think some people read that theatrical or pretentious, but it’s really not a put-on. It’s always been there: I have old tapes of me singing Don Giovanni and Carmen when I was eight. And since these records deal with big ideas, why undersell them? If you’re looking for subtlety on this album, it’s all over the edges, but the record’s core ideas are about vanquishing the self and celebrating the possibilities beyond, and that’s something I want to shout to the world, not whisper.
amodelofcontrol.com: It’s been an uncomfortable realisation time-and-again – at least in the UK and Europe – that the goth/industrial scene can be rather resistant to “outside” influences, like soul, hip-hop and even pop. Do you have any concerns that the scene is rather blinkered in some ways?
Alex: I’m gonna cut to the chase and observe that the genres you mention are more or less black musics. I’m coming from an American perspective, and the history, meanings, and politics of race are different everywhere, so I can’t know what’s going on in everyone’s mind or in every scene, but yes, I obviously have concerns.
If you can differentiate between powernoise and aggrotech, then it’s pretty disingenuous to paint soul and trap music with the same brush. You don’t have to like music that you don’t like, but ask where your aesthetic judgments are coming from and ask what sort of power dynamic they reinforce.
In 2017, we should know better. We should be actively making a better, more open world. Putting on our headphones and pretending it’s still the nineties is not a neutral act: it’s willfully regressive.
There are some hardline racist people out there, sure, but what worries me more are the ways that music scenes incubate passive, subtle, insidious, and systemic racism. When the whole Joe Letz thing blew up a few months ago, the line of defense was, “That blackface wasn’t intended as racist. He is not a racist!” That may or may not be true, but his actions sure contributed to a world in which racist attitudes and actions goes unquestioned and invisible. In 2017, we should know better. We should be actively making a better, more open world. Putting on our headphones and pretending it’s still the nineties is not a neutral act: it’s willfully regressive.
Also, on a purely musical level, I want new and interesting ideas and sounds, and I want artists to feel like they have the freedom to experiment. If clubs and festivals prioritize the music of buzzcut misogynists with drum machines, then is it any surprise when the music stagnates? Is it any surprise when nobody with fresh ideas wants to join the subculture? Is it any surprise when “dark” music scenes get coopted by neo-Nazis — which has happened and has been documented repeatedly in the last decade alone?
Aesthetic purism turns too easily into racialist purism. It’s all dull, backwards-looking, and systemically violent.
amodelofcontrol.com: That said, there is perhaps an irony that goth/industrial influences have permeated far beyond our scene into all kinds of music – including mainstream pop – in recent years, maybe more than ever. Do you find yourself going “hey, that sounds familiar” when hearing other popular music, or wondering what on earth their producers and writers are listening to?
Alex: Sometimes, sure. When Kanye West’s Yeezus came out a few years ago, parts of it sounded decidedly like WaxTrax!, which maybe makes sense given his Chicago roots. And there are definitely some folks like Run the Jewels and clipping. who consciously use industrial influences in their music.
In pop more broadly, the influences are there but they’re mostly second- and third-order now. Like, you can hear in Justin Bieber’s new stuff that he’s taken up a tropical house vibe, and if you trace that, you can go back through (for instance) La Roux’s second album, which I think was indebted to the tropical-ish sound of seapunk, which existed for a hot second five years ago, as a Tumblr-born aftershock of Witch house — whose roots are definitely industrial and goth. And pop trends in reverb and singing styles come and go all the time, so that if you know to listen for it, you can hear bits of the gothic in Haim, Rihanna, and certainly Lorde, who is fantastic. Like, The Weeknd built a whole song around a sample from Siouxsie and the Banshees.
But many of those musicians probably wouldn’t really draw these lines of influence themselves. Taste is pretty omnivorous today, and I’m not the first to notice that. The mainstream of music has become really interestingly diffuse — it operates quite differently now than it did twenty years ago. Modern producers know when to bring in a little crunch or darkness. Maybe they’ve heard some Foetus or ROME or VNV Nation or whatever, but that’s no bigger a part of the total influence than the Indonesian pop charts. I think that’s a good thing.
amodelofcontrol.com: What are you listening to at the moment?
Alex: Recent stuff I’ve liked includes LUH, IZ, Lykke Li, Blood Orange, Natasha Kmeto, Vår, Pumarosa, Poppy, The Living Gods of Haiti, Gaika, Diane Birch, Jidenna, Lingua Ignota, and Kate Tempest.
I also listen to lots of older stuff. Off the top of my head, I’ve been digging Boscoe, Mandrill, Eddie Hazel, Edwin Starr, Nico, Judee Sill, Hugo Largo, Barry Adamson, The Passage, Laurie Anderson, Keith Hudson, Jobriath, and always Malicorne. I recently caught Midnight Oil live on their reunion tour, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
I still love the Cure and Depeche Mode and whatever, but part of safeguarding oneself against slipping into casually oppressive conservatism is doing the work of resisting nostalgia. A lot of people who voted for Brexit are all still listening to their Beatles records, and it does them no good in understanding the real-world struggles of the younger generations they’re screwing over.
I try to challenge myself all the time with my listening — it helps me to feel much freer when I sit down to make music. I never want to do the same thing twice. There are a bunch of studies that talk about our tastes freezing sometime in our thirties, and I think we’ve all known people who spend their time musically revisiting age 18. If it’s not clear by now, I try hard to do this. I still love the Cure and Depeche Mode and whatever, but part of safeguarding oneself against slipping into casually oppressive conservatism is doing the work of resisting nostalgia. A lot of people who voted for Brexit are all still listening to their Beatles records, and it does them no good in understanding the real-world struggles of the younger generations they’re screwing over.
amodelofcontrol.com: You’ve announced a few live dates to support the new album so far. With a complex sound, are you having to change songs to perform them live?
Alex: You’ll just have to show up and find out. I sure hope to see some of your readers out at the show. In the meantime, pick up the album, and give it a full listen. It’s not like anything you’ve heard. Thanks.
The new album SOL: A Self-Banishment Ritual is out 04-August on Artoffact Records.