Friday, February 16, 2007
SPOTLIGHT: Joe Satriani's an asshole (a fierce debate with Columbus instrumental group BRAINBOW)
I have been a lover of music since I was a small child. It's my favorite thing. I had a small plastic vinyl single of Elton John's "Rocket Man" that I played constantly when I was in kindergarten - until my brother accidentally broke it in a fight. Since then I was drawn to both the words and the voice of music. I like the stories they tell or the way they sing their lyrics. I always figured that when you took the words away, it's nothing but music without meaning. I have never really understood instrumental music as much as I should. I can appreciate it as a form of art - I know the difference between good and bad instrumental music. But I probably will never go out and purposefully buy a CD by an instrumental band. But is that fair?
To get to the bottom of my feelings of angst toward instrumental music, I have taken it upon my duty to have a ferocious debate to the death, with none other than Columbus' premier instrumental band, BRAINBOW. Do they have the bawls to take on People with Animal Heads??
Yes. Actually, they responded back within minutes and were polite and more than happy to take the challenge. I think the word "fun" was even mentioned. Maybe I picked the wrong band...
PEOPLE WITH ANIMAL HEADS:
First off, one thing that has always kept me away from instrumental bands is that they always go two ways. The first are the bands that have so much shit going on you don't know where to look. Like Mr. Bungle on acid. Then the other ones move so slow that you can leave the room, go pee, drink a beer, go to White Castle, go poop, come back and they finally hit the second chord. So which extreme group side would you place yourselves in and why, Brainbow? Then defend that choice!
Guitarist Will Fugman explained, "I know what you mean, sort of. I haven't been able to get into Mr. Bungle since, well, I'm sure there was acid or a county fair involved.... so I don't really relate what we do in anywhere near that direction. On the other end, a band we get compared to a lot is Godspeed You Black Emperor. I can see some of that. But I don't think we approach writing music in the way they probably write music... and we're probably nowhere near as bummed out as they are. Sure, we don't have a singer; we don't write in a traditional pop song structure, our songs are long. I guess we're more to the point, for sure. We write like we're writing a song, not a soundtrack. We have our lulls and peaks, sometimes there's a lot of building and overlapping, though they move along faster than a lot of those types of instrumental bands do.
He continues, "We listen to all kinds of stuff, but what I think is great about playing instrumental music, is that you're relying solely on the melodies and harmonies, the sounds, the rhythm, to convey some kind of feeling, to make it work. And while you do the same thing with vocals, without them, it remains kind of open ended; it's not specifically about anything to the listener. I wouldn't say that we're against trying it, but one of the things that really ruins music for me, more often than not, is a bunch of stupid lyrics over some amazing melody. I'm just glad that no one in our band is responsible for making people listen to stories about our girlfriends or our opinions on world events."
PEOPLE WITH ANIMAL HEADS:
I think what I appreciated the most in your response was how you noted that stupid lyrics can ruin an amazing melody. I know this only too well. I've seen Neil Diamond make this same shuddering mistake many times. Perhaps John Denver as well. Especially Jim Morrison. I must also note the hilarity in which you expressed how a lot of music seems based on similar themes. Sadly, a lot do run the same sorry lyrical paths you stress. I commend your response.
So, that leads me to point out that by listening only to melody, you are leaving the song (in your words) open ended. That also leaves the reason for writing the song open ended. Which leaves me to point out, that for every instrumental song there is some guitar dude behind it saying, "This song musically represents the moment I emerged from the womb (slluuuuuurppp)(bong hit)."
Now how is anyone supposed to relate to that, unless they have already been told the reason of the song and/or they were smoking the same hashish? To me that all sounds like a bunch of hippie mumbo jumbo. Also, how can you even name an instrumental song? By merely giving it a name you have opened the door for IMPLIED LYRICS - which is possibly worse than actual lyrics.
Is instrumental music essentially unstructured hippie music? Defend!!
Member Chris Worth was not as amused by the debate as Will was. He meant business.
"Dude, it's not that deep. Nobody wants to sing, so we don't do it. I think it's a mistake to say that anything is 'implied.' It's not. It's on the surface - there's no secret story to the music, it's just what you're hearing. If it reminds you of something, great, but that's not necessarily intentional. What it means to me is probably different than what it means to any other guy in the band, and different than what it's going to mean to someone else who's listening. As for categorization, I don't particularly see a need to try and genre things. There's instrumental jazz and vocal jazz, and instrumental classical, and vocal classical, and instrumental rock, and… you get it. For what it's worth, if someone asks I usually just say I'm in a rock band. But I don't really like playing shows with bands that sound like us. I want variety."
PEOPLE WITH ANIMAL HEADS:
So what I'm getting from your response is the basic gist that it's not supposed to be deep, it's just supposed to be rock without words and everyone has their own meaning to every note. So maybe instrumental rock is like tofu? Our intentions give it flavor?
Will explained, "It's funny you bring up the song titles. We've had some of these songs written for a couple years now, and we have yet to permanently name any of them. We have these code names that we use, sometimes there's a couple of different ones for one song, to identify what each one is. I guess part of that has to do with what you're talking about... like what will the name plant into the listener’s mind, if anything, before they've even hit play. In a live setting, it doesn't matter, because we don't tell anyone what the names are, nor do we go into some speech about what we were thinking when we wrote it. So, there's been this sort of doomsday feeling, about when we're going to have an actual object for people to look at, or read, before they put the record on. What the hell are we gonna write on the back cover? Like Chris said, a particular song might reference something completely different for him than it does for me... it would be impossible for us to have the same exact idea about a bunch of notes strung together, no matter how conscious we were about putting them together. And a listener would be even more removed from that. And, really, we don't write a song like a literal narrative... it's not about a wizard that fell in love with a Minotaur, and they travel to the desert to spawn a race of divine psychic descendents (editor's note: But that would be pretty cool). It is, however, a narrative, as far as what these notes do as the song progresses. It travels, and I guess it tells a story, but not one with a subject... does that make any sense?
PEOPLE WITH ANIMAL HEADS:
Very much so.
Fugman continued, "But, that being said, I don't think it's ok to just name your songs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. To me, that's lame... and that sort of says, I'm trying to be arty, but I'm also really lazy or uninspired... and I'm not so confident in just naming the song something completely arbitrary and silly, because that to me is the same thing.
I mean, the five of us are pretty far from trying to make some grand statement with our music... just because we actually put a lot of thought into what we're doing, there's not a real desire to be pretentious about it to a listener. We're not going to reference a bunch of booky stuff, just to add some sort of false sense of researched ideas, or like some sort of savant mystery... see, I can't even make a fake pretentious sentence that means anything cool!!!
As far as the 'genre' of instrumental music goes, I can't really speak for other people's intentions, about naming their songs. I'm sure Joe Satriani really thinks that this one jam is about surfing with an alien, and I'm sure he thinks that everyone who's heard that song feels the same way. But Joe Satriani is an asshole.
PEOPLE WITH ANIMAL HEADS:
You had me at "Joe Satriani is an asshole."
Chris Worth was able to sum up his feeling toward those who misjudge instrumental music.
"People say 'I don't like instrumental music' and what they mean is 'I don't like tortoise' or 'I don't like mogwai,' and they come off sounding kind of ignorant. It's like, ok, good to know you've written off thousands and thousands of years of different cultures' art because you're too lazy to understand something without a chorus hook. That completely sounds pretentious and I don't really mean it to be so. It's just kind of like deciding that you're ONLY going to go see Tim Allen movies because you don't like anything without tools in it. I think we all feel like Will said; if vocals aren't going to add anything, why have them? You know, maybe if Elizabeth Fraser and Robert Plant had a kid then we'd have a singer. I guess I don't draw a big distinction between instrumental stuff and non-instrumental stuff. That's all.
TIME FOR REFLECTION:
Looking back over the debate. I see that the overall defense is the "Fuck off and rock" defense. I'm not sure anyone can argue with that. With Brainbow it is easy. They write actual songs that use layers to build to momentous occasions. There is no lame hippie jam music here. There is no pretentious mumbo jumbo to pretend you understand. I just need to try to look at instrumental music as rock without words. When a person sings they are just creating another melody intended to make you feel something. And I think we can all agree, if you see Joe Satriani on the street, kick him in the balls.
Until then, Brainbow is hard at work on its first CD. So keep an eye out.
Back to the point, who has won the debate and who has been officially murdered? Alas, I suppose I have to be a gracious host, so I offer myself to be murdered.
But I'll bet $20 that Brainbow's practice space is probably littered with bongs.
Perhaps we have a truce?