Monthly Archives: October 2012

On Grizzly Bear, on a Sunday morning


I was in on my own last night, which means turning the lights down, eating something I shouldn’t (lamb, or tiramisu, generally) and playing music louder than I would if Emma was home. And sometimes playing stuff I wouldn’t play if she was in – Swans or Talk Talk, perhaps.

Yesterday it meant digging out (literally, our belongings are still largely packed for moving, as they have been since the Olympics) the CD copy of Veckatimest from one of the boxes that our cats think are for them to sit on at the back of the room. I’ve listened to it quite a lot over the last few weeks since I got Shields, but always from an iPod, either via headphones or tiny desktop computer speakers at work or, a couple of times, via the more satisfying Zeppelin iPod dock. But I’ve been gagging to open it up properly on the big hifi again, through the Rega and out of the B&Ws. Because Grizzly Bear strike me as a band who very much care about sound, about depth and impact thereof. Their music has both incredible, microscopic detail and huge, sometimes overwhelming scale: the tiniest, most perfectly-rendered sounds and the grandest, most dramatic dynamic swings both having equal import.

I enjoyed every second of Veckatimest (which my iPad has learnt to spell) last night; I used to think it sagged a little momentum-wise in the middle, but Cheerleader and Ready, Able are now firm favourites as much as Southern Point and Two Weeks and Foreground always were. They’re that kind of band, one where repeat listens are rewarded, where familiarity doesn’t breed boredom but rather revelation.

With only cats, CDs, and a couple of glasses of wine for company, and paying a little more attention to lyrics than I normally do (I even looked at a couple of them in the booklet as I listened), I decided to look Grizzly Bear up on http://www.songmeanings.net to see what people were saying about them: what, for instance, do people think Southern Point is about? This was, of course, a mistake. “Like most songs, this is probably about a relationship.” “[K]nowing that your mind is the creation of all you see, and that all you see is the creation of your mind.” “[T]he pointlessness of Southern existence.” Etcetera, etcetera.

Prosaically, logically, Southern Point is probably about a place, about the island of Veckatimest which the band retreated to in order to write and record some of this album, a place they felt inspired by so much that they named the album after it (much like Yellow House). It is also about a relationship, but not in the predictable boy-loses-girl (or boy-loses-boy) way: it’s about a relationship between people and geography, between yourself and a place, about inner topographies finding solace in outer topographies. About escape.

But actually, Southern Point is about… Well. It’s about the drums, and the guitars, and the voices, and the melodies, and the spiralling momentum, and the beautiful, pointillist notes that open it with nary a whisper of the sublimating psychedelic climaxes to come. A song doesn’t have to mean something in any literally sense. A song is something. I have no idea what the beatific, angelic choir in Cheerleader means, what words they’re singing, what narrative they’re attempting to convey – I just know that it’s beautiful, that it moves me, that combined with those reverberating guitar chords, with that rhythm, with that voice over the top (“I’m shooting them myself / I should’ve made it matter”?) singing that melody, that it does something. I could analyse it, or try to, but I’d run the risk of dismembering what it is that I love. Maybe in my teens I’d have obsessed over the minutiae of the lyrics, piecing together messages and polemics and poetry. Maybe studying Barthes and post-structuralist theory a dozen years ago at university has ruined me for caring about words. Maybe, sometimes, one just doesn’t feel it necessary to try and find meaning from the words on their own when there seems to be so much purpose and emotion and communication and affect embedded in the whole thing.

I’ve still never heard Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear’s ostensible debut album, which is, as I understand it, essentially home-recordings made by Ed Droste. I got into them with Yellow House in 2006, their first album as a band, intrigued by the idea of a band, with instruments and voices, being signed to Warp Records, a label I had deliriously consumed experimental electronic music from for a decade. At first I didn’t quite understand, but slowly the strange, drifting, layered and intricate musical landscapes of Yellow House, redolent of folk, of jazz, of ambient music, began to seem like a strange cousin to what I knew from Warp: like Aphex Twin’s most beatific music, Grizzly Bear’s topographies can feel like they have emerged from dreams, can make you feel like you are caught in that half-state between sleep and waking where you’re not sure if you’re lucid. The way they play, the tempo-shifts, unexpected melodic turns, timbres that feel both ancient and brand new at the same time, reminds me more of jazz or electronic music than it does of indie rock. It doesn’t feel like the “talent gap” between what you strive for and what you can achieve is here. Sometimes the presence of that gap can make for thrilling accidental discoveries, but when a band seems as if they play without it, as if they think without it, that can make for even more exciting turns away from the obvious.

I’ve been thinking about trying to capture in words what it is about Grizzly Bear for some time now, since long before Shields came out. I’m aware that I’m guilty of talking about them a lot, of becoming “that guy who likes Grizzly Bear” and won’t shut up about it, but that there’s little substance to what I might say. I’ve still not managed to see them live (were we not teetering on the edge of house/life turning points, after six months of uncertainty and frustration and expense, I’d have rushed across the UK to see them this week, but plans and travel have been discarded for some time now); I’ve never heard the debut album; I can’t recall what half the songs are called while I’m listening to them, without the sleeve to hand. I just talk a lot. Write a lot.

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Weird dream topographies

I want to write about and share the weird topographies that I experience in dreams, which I think are recurring for me, and see if other people experience something similar.

On the ILX Inception thread a couple of years ago (and more) I wrote the following about how the topographies in the film reflected those in my own dreams:

[Nolan] didn’t try to make the representation of dreams here too weird and far-out; I know that my dreams inhabit weird emotional territory, have weird physics, etcetera, but the settings are pretty mundane, very much secondary in importance to the emotional territory that the dream is creating or inhabiting, and I think Nolan goes for that here to an extent too by not making the dream environments too Burton or Del Toro weird (much as I adore Del Toro).

The shared dream logic and dream design resonated very much with me, especially the limbo level of Di Caprio and Cotillard’s subconscious romance; the receding rows of buildings, the familiar houses behind fences and moved into strange new positions, all seemed like experiences from my own dreams. I tend to fly, or be being chased, or be in familiar but not quite right situations in my own dreams, rather than have outrageous fantastical stuff happen. This captured the dream state for me as well as anything else, and is up with Waking Life as far as that goes (much as I love Waking Life, a lot of it does not remind me of my own dreams, but feels much more like a cinematic representation of what we think of dreams of being, at least visually; narrative or lack thereof is perhaps closer to real dreaming, but the it’s a film just about dreaming as opposed to a plot within a shared dream).

Last night I dreamt that Em and I had a baby (I think we adopted it in the dream: I think it probably represented my irl new nephew, as it was about the same age and was a boy) and we’d left the baby with my parents in the town where I used to live for a couple of days. When we came back and fetched him he could walk and stuff, which was freaky. Anyway, we were driving what was recognisably our car around what was recognisably but not quite the small town I grew up in – there was a flat area of carpark where there isn’t irl, and roads up the hills and forest behind my parents’ house that follow the actual irl roads relatively closely but not quite the same: one of the dream roads is actually where a dirt track I used to ride my bike down as a kid is irl, near as damnit. I feel like these almost-the-same-roads often appear in my dreams, but I’m not sure if this is because they felt familiar last night because they were so close to irl, or because I actually have dreamt them before.

I used to have a couple of recurring topographical dreams as a kid and young teenager: in one I was in what I can only describe as a big junkyard, with a flat passage / causeway / alley through the middle and loads of junk on either side (the junk was always indeterminate / unidentifiable, like it was toys and cars and furniture covered in junkyard-landscape-patterned blankets). I used to walk through the middle and the landscape would move around me. Sometimes it would be disconcerting and sometimes it would be quite comforting: I think it got more comforting the more I had the dream and started to realise that it was OK, I was in a dream, and almost gained some kind of lucid control over the topography.

The other recurring dream topography was the estate I grew up on, which was modelled after Clovelly in North Devon – lots of white house and cobbled bits and pedestrian areas and hidden garage / parking areas tucked away behind houses and flower beds and little patches of grass with trees on. It won awards when it was designed I think. It’s basically a massive retirement home without any staff now though. But I used to dream bits of the estate that didn’t exist, and there were specific houses and walkways that would feature in dreams over and over again. I knew they weren’t real, and this recognition of unrealness would allow me to also recognise I was in a dream, after I’d had dreams in this topography a few times.

These weird dream topographies are almost weirder for not being that weird: my dreams (the ones I remember, anyway) are almost like the anti-Gilliam or anti-Gondry, they don’t telegraph the fact that they’re dreams by being wacky or outlandish. Maybe this is evidence that I’m not very imaginitive!

Interestingly I don’t think I’ve ever dreamt fake topographies of the city I live in now, only ever the town I grew up in. I guess the landscapes of childhood get writ large in the subconscious.

Tell me about your weird dream topographies.

On buying physical music

I love Grizzly Bear; they’re one of those bands where I don’t really understand how they do what they do, where their songs will go, how they compose, conduct, and orchestrate their twists and turns, and this fascinates and beguiles me, because what they do is often beautiful and exciting. I also love Nitsuh Abebe; he’s one of those music writers who just seems so damn clever and correct and reasonable and tasteful that I can’t ever disagree with him, and that he makes me jealous because I’m not as good as him.

Nitsuh has written an awesome piece about Grizzly Bear, their new album, their current tour, and, most pointedly, the fact that, despite being feted, acclaimed critical darlings who have sold hundreds of thousands of records and had two Billboard Top 10 albums, they don’t earn a great deal of money. Not all of the band have health insurance (I’ll avoid ranting about the fact that it’s disgusting that healthcare isn’t free to all in a civilised society for another time); they can’t afford to buy houses, let alone the kind of mansions fetishised on shows like MTV’s Cribs. I imagine that individually they earn less than me; I earn a decent but not exceptional wage for the UK, and my wife earns the same. I feel reasonably privileged that we do. It means we can afford a mortgage and a good standard of living. That Grizzly Bear are famous – OK, not Prince Harry famous, but NY Magazine cover famous – and probably have a lower standard of living than I do is something I find… upsetting? Perhaps. Certainly unusual, and concerning.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted at Grizzly Bear that I would always buy a CD I liked, and that I believe artists should be paid a good living wage for making art that we, as listeners, or fans, or customers, appreciate and use. And love. A CD in the UK costs about £10. You might listen to it 5 times, or 500 times, or 5,000 times. You have it forever. It probably took the musicians involved a year, or two years, to create, one way and another. If my employer, my customers, expected me to do my job for free, I’d be upset.

Grizzly Bear retweeted me, and many, many more people retweeted their retweet. I’ve been on Twitter for years now and have over a thousand followers, and that tweet was the farthest-reaching I’ve ever made. It seemed to resonate.

Nitsuh’s piece inspired this fascinating and important debate between two musicians / writers at Stereogum. It also inspired me to start a thread on ILM asking how much physical music people have bought so far this year. I asked the same thing on Twitter, and asked Laura Snapes (who writes for Pitchfork amongst other places, and has loads of followers) if she’d kindly retweet so I could gather more responses. So far, responses seem to be pretty split between two poles – people have either bought no physical music this year, or they’ve bought an awful lot – several dozen, or even over a hundred CDs or LPs or singles or whatever (in one case, a single which came on a floppy disk). There seems to be little middle ground, few of the mythical “12 albums a year” man (or woman).

I love CDs, and I love supporting artists whose work I love. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again but it seems particularly important to say it quite loudly and frequently right now. I’ve little interest in collecting for the sake of collecting; I love listening to music, and my preferred way of listening to music is on my hi-fi, via a CD. This seems to be the way that most fairly pays the artists whose music I’m listening to.

I’ve bought 27 new releases on CD this year, and 25 ‘back catalogue’ CDs. They’re at the top of this post, in that photo (all except the MBV reissues, for some reason). That’s 52 CDs this year. I even bought the Four Tet album on digital download and on physical CD (having to get it imported from Japan), because I love his music and I wanted it. I’ll occasionally buy individual songs – usually singles and b-sides – on digital download, or a whole EP if I simply can’t get it on CD (Owen Pallett, Antlers). I never think to buy vinyl. It’s not what I grew up making pilgrimages to record shops to buy. I know that part of my affection for CDs is some kind of sentimental, romantic notion, but this is music we’re talking about; if you can’t get sentimental and romantic about it, something is wrong.

Ultimately my concern isn’t that Grizzly Bear can’t afford to buy houses or pay for health insurance. It’s that they, and the likes of Four Tet, and Field Music, and Minotaur Shock, and the Divine Fits guys, and Michael Gira, and Liars, and Flying Lotus, and Junior Boys, and Antlers, and Wild Beasts, and Owen Pallett, and everyone else whose music I love, won’t be able to afford to make ends meet so much that they’ll give up, and stop making music, and go and get day jobs. That would be a tragedy.