Growing up in Bhutan, guitarist Tashi Dorji absorbed any and all music available. With limited access to Western music or media, his musical education came in the form of bootleg classic rock and hair-metal cassettes from India. Upon moving to Asheville, North Carolina as a foreign exchange student, Dorji discovered local DIY punk rock. Punk's immediacy and disregard for technical concerns put the possibility of performing squarely in focus. During this same period, Dorji encountered the music of John Zorn's Naked City, piquing an interest in free jazz and improvisation. This budding interest cemented after a subsequent move to Portland, Maine, where attending free improv shows at outsider hot spot Strange Maine inspired Dorji to make his debut as a performer. Over the last seven years, Dorji has recorded a myriad of solo tapes and LPs for various experimental-minded imprints, including this year's LP Expecting, a collaboration with Shane Parish of Ahleuchatistas.

Dorji's improvisations capture the sound of a guitarist possessing the technical chops of the metal he adored in his adolescence, filtered through the amorphous realm of the "out" music he later discovered. The prevalence of non-western tonalities and tunings displays the subliminal influence of Bhutan's monastic music in the development of Dorji's musical language. While Derek Bailey is a common comparison (and indeed an inspiration), Dorji's music never relies solely on the aurally obtuse. Instead, hints of melody and guttural noise blur together as waves of haunting lyrical lines endlessly tumble over atonal textures.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Tashi Dorji in advance of his performance at KDHX's Magnolia Cafe on Tuesday, August 9. We discussed his musical upbringing, formative experiences with punk and free jazz, and his many upcoming collaborative projects.

AC: When most guitarists, or instrumentalists of any kind, first learn their instrument, they don't instantly jump into extended techniques or experimenting with atonal textures. What kind of music were you hoping to learn when you first started playing, how old were you when you first started playing, and when was the first time that these more experimental sounds or techniques first clicked for you, either as a listener or a player?

TD: When I first started playing guitar – I'm from Bhutan, I grew up there, my family lives there – I think it was middle school, probably around fourteen. I learned a few chords, I saw some friends and other kids playing music. A few people played guitar around. I was fascinated so I started hanging out and learning some chords and some songs and finally bought a nylon string guitar from this Swiss ex-pat who was our neighbor. I think I just wanted to learn songs. The first I learned was "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young or the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" or something like that. I just wanted to learn. After that I just played whatever I could from whatever I could get ahold of in Bhutan.

AC: So basically just learning whatever was available?

TD: Yeah, whatever we thought was cool and we could get our hands on. Classic rock, mostly metal. Any kind of metal, from Metallica to hair metal [laughs].

AC: Was that the first guitar-based music that you were listening to?

TD: Well, we didn't have CD players. We didn't have TV, not because we couldn't afford it or anything like that, but because most people didn't have TVs back then. My parents ended up getting television and a VHS in 1996 or '97, but that was later. So visually and aurally, my access to music was very limited. A lot of bootleg cassettes. The ones we got had funny titles from India. "Soft Rock Collection" would be Tesla and Europe and Warrant.

AC: On the soft rock collection?

TD: Soft rock, yeah [laughs]. "Easy Listening Rock" or something. I kind of learned anything that kids were playing or knew how to play, classic rock, metal, hair metal. The Eagles were very popular back then, so I heard a lot of "Hotel California." I got into Nirvana when they came out and I think that changed the way I was playing. Bleach was angrier, dirtier, darker. I thought it was kind of wild music compared to the glamor and machismo of the kind of rock 'n' roll I'd been listening to with long solos and lyrics that were less strange and complex.

AC: It feels more accessible in terms of being able to play than something like hair metal.

TD: Yeah [laughs]. No crazy solos running up and down arpeggios.

AC: Was there any music outside of just what was available that you were seeking out or that you were wishing to hear at this time when you were just starting?

TD: I just didn't know anything but what people had. There was a lot of exchanging cassettes. It was pretty cool in a way. Just trading cassettes, mix tapes. A lot of the people I knew were playing were also playing older rock 'n' roll. The Beatles were huge. I remember Elvis and Chuck Berry were really big. I remember learning a lot of Chuck Berry licks and a lot of Beatles when I first started playing – also the Doors. The Doors were super popular.

AC: Were your parents into music? Did they play music in the house?

TD: Yeah, my cousin is actually a really famous Bhutanese folk singer and my mom is a storyteller and traditional flutist. My dad was a really good singer. So it was kind of around. My mom's father was a very important monk, a teacher. I think my mom says I got it from him. He was a lute player and developed a very influential style of traditional Bhutanese music.

Monastic music was very prevalent where I grew up. I'm sure that those tones and notes have been involuntarily internalized in a way. Monastic music happens pretty much everywhere. People have rituals at their houses and ceremonies all the time. The sounds of monks playing big horns and hand drums and cymbals. I didn't think of it musically until one day I remember I was listening to Metallica, I think ...And Justice For All, and my mom came in my room and said, "Why are you listening to this? You should just go monastery. They play the same thing." I still remember that so clearly.

AC: Did you ever directly play traditional music or was that just more around you?

TD: No, I never did. That's a very different realm. You have to study under a specific teacher as a monk. A "layman" will not just play monastic music. You have to know the scriptures and the rituals and perform them according to that discipline. But there is traditional folk music, ballads and lute, but to me it's always been the music of my ancestral past and I've never consciously brought it into my playing.

AC: Was guitar your first instrument?

TD: Yeah, the one and only. When I came to the U.S. I learned how to play old time banjo and fiddle. I also learned how to play a little bit of saxophone, but I'm self-taught.

AC: Talking about limitations in terms of what music was available in Bhutan, upon moving to the U.S. and having greater access to finding out about music and almost having everything at your fingertips, what were the first artists, albums or music in general that you sought out?

TD: I think the first thing that blew my mind was hearing punk music. I went to a small college here. I became friends with some of the kids. I was really into metal and just shredding. My freshman year I would sit on the porch and play guitar. Kids were like, "Oh, you should hang out with this punk kid, he's an amazing guitar player and drummer." So I guess I started hanging out with all these punk kids. They had band practices in their room and they had all these 7-inches of local bands from Richmond. Punk rock was the first platform that opened me up to the world of underground music and DIY. Kids started taking me to shows in town in Asheville. I didn't know what to think. It was crazy: a bunch of grumpy looking kids with leather jackets drinking beer and slamming and dancing. I was an international student too, so I didn't really get it all at first. I remember sticking out being all nicely dressed and at a punk show.

AC: So this was something completely new.

TD: Yeah, so new. I mean, sound-wise I could hear it. I listened to Metallica and Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, but to hear it in a way that was all sloppy and DIY, no solos, just really fast power chords. "Whoa!" That was my initial reaction.

AC: Did you play in any punk bands?

TD: I did. I wasn't seriously in any bands for very long. I got into more "technical" stuff in one band that lasted a year or something. We just played at the college and maybe a couple of shows. It was super layered and arranged stuff. It was fun. It was around the time that I first heard John Zorn. I heard Dillinger Escape Plan and Mr. Bungle. "How do they play like that? I want to play like that!" But also, I was hearing a lot of crust bands like His Hero Is Gone and Tragedy and stuff like that.

AC: What was your first exposure to experimental music or things similar to what you're doing now? Was that all in the states?

TD: Yeah, it was all here in Asheville. One of my very close friends from college, Patrick, he listened to punk stuff back when he was in middle school, so he was very advanced as far as "eclectic" music. I clearly remember he had a bunch of Tzadik CDs that he had brought: Naked City, Masada, one collection that was "new Japanese noise." That was the first time I had heard anything crazy like that. But I had heard bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion, bands that were more experimental, but not anything that was radical like Naked City. I think that Naked City was almost my first introduction to free jazz and everything else. That opened me up to listen to a lot of free jazz. Hearing Zorn's band play and knowing that they were influenced by Ornette Coleman and players like that just opened me up. I had wanted to play crazy improvised stuff, but I just wasn't sure what it all meant. There was immediacy and urgency in all these new sound but it took me a while before I started playing my own music. I think I was overwhelmed. I was in a band here and there, just a small project, where we would try things like that, but I didn't understand why or what the intentions and duration of this music meant. It took a while. It wasn't until 2006 or 2007 when I moved to Maine. There's a small record store/bookstore/venue called Strange Maine. It's right downtown in Portland, Maine. When I was in Maine I didn't know anybody, so I used to go there and check out free shows. They had an amazing array of avant-garde, outsider music. I was listening to a lot of Marc Ribot around that time. What changed everything was when I heard Derek Bailey's Standards album. I found that at a record store in a sales bin. It was a five dollar CD. I had heard of his name from somebody who had told me that I should listen to that if I was interested in free jazz guitar players. Listening to Bailey literally changed everything. Just one single record.

AC: That's really cool. That's a really good entry point to Derek Bailey. It's probably his most "lyrical" album if you could say that?

TD: Yeah, it is. A lot of his older stuff is completely radical. It is not easy to digest. "What is going on?!" I heard Standards and then Ballads after that. "Wow, what is this guy doing?" 

AC: What bridged the gap from finally starting to improvise to playing in public? And what made you want to improvise solo when you started?

TD: Because I saw some of these people play at that small venue, all of these guitar players. Off and on, I would see them perform. I remember after I got that Derek Bailey album I looked him up online and watched a bunch of live performances. I thought, "Wow, this is so cool. It's possible to do a completely singular style of music and improvise it without any composition." I had always enjoyed playing without any structure. There was another influence actually, way before this. In Bhutan, I heard Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's album A Meeting By the River. It's incredibly beautiful. It's Indian modified sitar, like a drone guitar. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is an important teacher and he made this modified guitar and did this hour long improvised session with Ry Cooder. This guy who used to work at a radio station in Bhutan, he was very progressive minded as far as music goes, kind of a wild man, he gave me a cassette of this album and told me, "These guys are making things up and playing together." They're playing in an opening tuning. I remember tuning my guitar into an opening tuning and figuring out later that I could just play in this weird modal guitar style. That really helped me be okay with doing that stuff. It was such a singular style – sitar-style guitar and guitar – but there just wasn't really a chance for me to find someone to play stuff like that with yet.

AC: How does your approach or your headspace differ between playing solo and improvising in a group setting?

TD: I have a band with my friend Thom Nguyen called Manas. We do improvised guitar and drums. I'm mostly playing off him and we're both playing off each other and it's more aggressive. I really want to play improvised music so I can get closer to what those sax players like Albert Ayler played and feel that sense of cathartic achievement of beautiful noise and rhythm and melody. That's the difference. With solo, it's pretty singular and I have very little room to play off of someone else. With a duo setting it's more rhythmic. That's the most prominent signifier: it gets really rhythmic and it's louder.

AC: Do you mostly collaborate with drummers?

TD: So far, yes. I started playing with the Danish saxophone player Mette Rasmussen who plays with Chris Corsano a lot. I played with her in Stockholm last year. I had never played with a sax player before. She's pretty amazing. We were in Stockholm around the same time. I was touring with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and my tour ended there with them. She was there too and she was playing a festival. We just met up and played a smaller show somewhere in Stockholm. We met up again and we made a plan to record and tour Canada because she can come to Canada easily. We played last month at a festival in Montreal as a duo. I was also touring with my friend Tyler Damon, a percussionist. We have an LP coming out in a month or so on Family Vineyard. It's a great label. We were doing a duo tour from here to Canada and when we met up with Bette we did a duo show at the festival and then we did a trio. That was the first time I'd played in a trio in a more free improvised setting. I've played mostly with percussionists. I played a show with Greg Fox and Shahzad Ismaily. He was playing the bass. That was very different. He was one of the most lyrical bass players I'd ever met. I would have to be very restrained to hear him do all of this musical stuff. "Okay, I can't just noise over that." [laughs]

AC: I wanted to talk to you about recording. When you're recording solo, are you thinking in terms of the record as a whole or are you thinking of just making a document of each improvisation and going from there? How do you decide which improvisations to use when you listen back to everything?

TD: I think that really depends on where I'm recording and what kind of context that I'm doing it in. Sometimes I have an idea for the record as a whole but it always changes once you are recording. I just recorded for VDSQ for that new LP that came out [VDSQ Solo Acoustic Vol. 13]. It was just one session that was an hour. I had a lot of ideas, but I wanted to do a record where I have a lot of melodic moments and really short pieces. I think that was the form that I went in with, and it came out exactly as I had expected in a way.

When I play it's always different. It does its own thing. When I improvise and it's in a longer form I can cut it off and make it into songs. Most of the time I record [a piece] as a track. In practice, there's really no restriction. I just go in and do it and that's it.

AC: So really just dependent on how much time you have.

TD: How much time or how much money I have [laughs]. "Okay, I'll go in for an hour and then I'm out." So I get it done [laughs].

AC: What releases and collaborations do you planned for the future?

TD: I recorded with Mette Rasmussen. We have tons of recordings and once we get everything edited I'm sure it'll be out on LP or some form and some label will hopefully put it out. I have a split coming out on this label called Unrock out of Krefeld, Germany. I went to Krefeld and recorded live and it's going to be a split with a violinist, a very prolific musician named Eyvind Kang. He's on everyone's record. He plays with Sunn O))), John Zorn, Masada, and he plays a lot with Bill Frisell. He's a heavy hitter. I'm really shocked that they even asked me to play with him. It's going to be a 7-inch and a full LP split. I have a duo record with Tyler Damon coming out on Family Vineyard sometime. I'm recording with this artist from the UK. She's American. Her name is Ashley Paul. She's a sax player and a guitar player and she sings. She's pretty incredible. We're going to record sometime soon for a couple of days. Also, I might record with this percussionist, Ben Bennett. He has a very different style. He doesn't use a full kit. He only uses a snare drum and a lot of other things, like a hand drum. It's very outsider, very "out" stuff. I plan to record with Greg Fox sometime soon, hopefully when I get time. There are many. I talked to Chris Corsano about playing with him. A lot of drummers. Hopefully it will change once things move, shift. I also recorded with Michael Zerang and C Spencer Yeh. We recorded a year ago in Baltimore. We played the same festival and recorded. I'm sure once we get it all done, it will be out on LP or some form.

AC: So there's a lot of stuff to look forward to.

TD: There's a lot of stuff, yeah. I'm probably going to put less solo LPs and focus on more collaborative stuff.

AC: From when you first started playing to now, how have you seen your playing evolve and where do you think you're going?

TD: That's a hard question. When I first started, I was confident. I think that's an important factor in playing improvisational music and the duration aspects of it, how long you can play, that kind of stuff. I've realized recently that I can play longer, improvise longer without feeling like I should stop or that I'm sounding bad. The gaze of the audience is not hindering me or keeping me from being able to use my full potentiality in creating something that people would like or that is going to be "worth the time." I think that's something that has become more evolved. Playing wise, I'm starting to navigate the guitar more aggressively and try to figure out different sounds. Playing with a sax player opens up this whole other way of playing, a more radical approach to improvising. I think I've been starting to play more "punk." It's going into this cyclical thing where I'm going back to what I first heard and I'm trying to incorporate that into everything I do.

KDHX's team of Volunteer Photographers had a busy month in July. With a flood of concerts and festivals hitting the region, our team scattered far and wide to cover a variety of events for your viewing pleasure.

Photos by Bruce Bramoweth, Jack Adams, Dustin Winter, Jason Cluts, Monica Mileur, Tim Farmer, Colin Suchland, Cory Miller, and Nora Jehle.


 

George Clinton at Fair St. Louis 7/4/16
George Clinton
Fair St. Louis 7/4/16
by Bruce Bramoweth
  Femi Kuti & The Positive Force (with Mathias and The Pirates) at The Ready Room 7/9/16

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force
The Ready Room 7/9/16
by Monica Mileur

Slide the City in Dogtown 7/9/16

Slide the City
Dogtown 7/9/16
by Cory Miller

  The English Beat at the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill 7/10/16

The English Beat
Blueberry Hill 7/10/16
by Tim Farmer

Wayne Hancock (with The Loot Rock Gang) at Off Broadway 7/14/16

Wayne Hancock
Off Broadway 7/14/16
by Monica Mileur

  Lavender Country (with Janewave) at Off Broadway 7/15/16

Lavender Country
Off Broadway 7/15/16
by Tim Farmer

Heart and Cheap Trick at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/16/16

Heart and Cheap Trick
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/16/16
by Jack Adams

  White Lung (with Plague Vendor, Bruiser Queen) at the Firebird 7/16/16

White Lung
Firebird 7/16/16
by Jason Cluts

Disturbed at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/17/16

Disturbed
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/17/16
by Jack Adams

  The Cactus Blossoms (with Jack Grelle) at Off Broadway 7/17/16

The Cactus Blossoms
Off Broadway 7/17/16
by Monica Mileur

The Wombats (with Coast Modern) at The Ready Room 7/18/16

The Wombats
The Ready Room 7/18/16
by Dustin Winter

  Whitney (with Michael Rault) at Off Broadway 7/18/16

Whitney
Off Broadway 7/18/16
by Nora Jehle

Kaleo (with The Wind and the Wave) at the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill 7/19/16

Kaleo
Blueberry Hill 7/19/16
by Colin Suchland

  Coldplay at Scottrade Center 7/21/16

Coldplay
Scottrade Center 7/21/16
by Dustin Winter

Goo Goo Dolls at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/24/16

Goo Goo Dolls
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/24/16
by Jack Adams

  Van’s Warped Tour ’16 at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/27/16

Van's Warped Tour 2016
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre 7/27/16
by Cory Miller and Dustin Winter

VibesSTL: The Grand Arts Event at 2720 Cherokee 7/30/16

VibesSTL: The Grand Arts Event
2720 Cherokee 7/30/16
by Cory Miller

  Temporal Cities 2nd Annual Blanket Fort Festival (with Bombara and Obviously Offbeat) at Benton Park 7/30/16

Temporal Cities 2nd Annual Blanket Fort Festival
Benton Park 7/30/16
by Karl Beck

 

 

 

There is a haunting presence to Laura Gibson's music--something otherworldly that lurks in a too-near distance. A profound sense of the past inhabits her sound, but it finds a way to elude easy capture. Her sonic genealogy is one of ghosts playing at the margins of apprehension, as though they delight in luring would-be comparers down inconclusive paths. The dark, jazzy lilt of Gibson's voice and the rich instrumentation of her albums are not unfamiliar, and yet her music has a kind of atemporal quality. It is immediately and persistently subtle. It is also as close to beautiful as one can admit without blushing.

Gibson's most recent album, Empire Builder (Barsuk Records, 2016), articulates a deep sense of longing that is offset by ambiguity and uncertainty. The title track recounts a cross-country trip that conveyed her from her native Portland, Oregon, to New York, where she would begin an MFA program in Creative Writing at Hunter College. Liminal and irresolute, the song's sentiment oscillates as though the hills and valleys in the window: "Oh, forget I said love / but also don't forget I said love // We are not alone / and we are more alone than we've ever been / So hurry up and lose me / hurry up and find me again." Upon arriving in New York, the thrill of a new creative life was besieged by unexpected challenges, including a broken foot and a deadly gas explosion in her apartment building, which destroyed almost everything she owned. The resulting songs resonate with grace and force; Gibson was kind enough to share her insight into their evolution, as well as the influence of fiction on her songwriting, in advance of her upcoming performance in St. Louis on June 28.

David B. Olsen: As one learns more about how Empire Builder came to be, your move from Portland to New York is inescapably significant. There's an sense of displacement, of loss, of pain--whether it's emotional or physical--and even a kind of literal devastation, which was tragic given the loss of life involved, but also tragic in another way for you: the loss of your instruments, your lyrics. I think it's no surprise that the record feels at once vulnerable and resilient.

Laura Gibson: The decision to study fiction in New York was really hard to make. I'm so comfortable in Portland, but I felt I needed to stretch beyond my comfort zone and achieve some space. I kind of rediscovered songwriting as a way to process that moment. I was so raw, personally, when I wrote these songs and a lot of the vocals were recorded just a week or two after the fire. I'd originally planned to go to the studio but then tried to cancel the time. John Askew, who engineered the record, encouraged me to come in and just hang out with the songs, with no pressure to make anything. I ended up recording vocals for six of the songs, and I can hear in my voice how raw I was. I had no ability to perform at all, so the vocal takes feel very plainspoken in a way. Lyrically, I was also a bit braver on this record--partially due to maturity, perhaps, but also because of the circumstances that required it.

DBO: Independently of the events that the album recounts, or which led to its creation, Empire Builder also feels very much within the trajectory of your music over the course of several albums. I wonder how you see this record as a part of something to which you'd already been building.

LG: The best way to approach any project is as one from which you can learn. I approached my previous record, La Grande, with no bounds going into it; I just started with everything that I could, so that I could discover what worked. This time around, I had my ideas more in place and more confidence in my arrangements. I wanted to work with a smaller palette for Empire Builder. I wanted no other chamber instruments except strings, and particularly high strings--violin and viola. I wanted more electric guitar. Even if it sounds varied, there are actually not that many instruments. There's a point when there are twenty violin tracks, for example, but they're all the same violin.

DBO: You mentioned the rawness of the vocal takes, occurring so recently after, or within, such a challenging and uncertain moment in your life. Have the songs grown or developed over time as you've performed them live?

LG: I'm kind of always changing songs, actually. I'll forever be fidgeting with words after the song has been recorded. I feel like they are still kind of living in a way; I can change them--sometimes intentionally, sometimes by mistake. I can forget what I sang on the record, because I've sang it so many different ways since then. When I recorded a lot of Empire Builder, it was so raw and I really hadn't practiced singing them; it just kind of came out. Now I can be a little more controlled and grow into my voice as I tour with the songs. It's nice to be able to learn different ways to sing them.

DBO: I imagine with fiction it's somewhat different, too, in that the words become fixed in place upon their publication, or at least one imagines fewer opportunities to alter them after the fact. Has your formal attention to writing fiction inflected your songwriting in any way, given the different means by which the words reach their audience?

LG: There is definitely some crossover between my songwriting and my fiction. Already as a result of the fiction program, I've tended to be more specific in the objects and scenes that I use in my lyrics. When I first started writing fiction, I often wanted to be abstract in ways that would pay off in songwriting but don't necessarily pay off on the page. On this record, I also really wanted to ground the abstract ideas that I was wrestling with in very solid things--the peeling of a clementine or mistaking the singing of birds for a cell phone ringing.

DBO: That moment in Empire Builder when you hear a birdsong as a ringtone is particularly evocative, I think, because it attests to the ways in which we unwittingly refashion the world according to our own immediate needs. Or how perception bends to the wills of desire, loss, or longing.

LG: When you're waiting for a call, when you're waiting for confirmation from a person, almost anything can sound like a cell phone. It's such a new kind of anxiety, which I was happy to incorporate into a song. Ten years ago, even, that may not have made sense in the same way.

DBO: Does your music reflect contemporaneity in any other ways? Or, how do you imagine your music in a very real now?

LG: This time around, I felt more aware of being in the moment, particularly my moment. When I look back to my first record, it is very much about imagining myself in another time, era, or place--both lyrically and sonically. I love all sorts of old sounds and all sorts of futuristic sounds, but I am also very interested in the world right now--interacting with that world and writing about those interactions. Empire Builder feels like my most present record; there is less dreaming up worlds in order to explore the things that I'm going through and instead more observation of my own world in which those things really exist.

DBO: At the end of the song "Louis," you admit that "The only song I know to write is 'Look at Me, Look at Me, Look at Me.'" This seems like a truly honest and humble moment--being present, but asserting a very fundamental need to be seen. And yet it is framed as though that impulse somehow inflects the work of creative expression more generally.

LG: The first time I ever played that song, the audience laughed at that line. I think they were surprised by it, and not sure what to do with that sort of statement. I like the surprise of this line, because I have moments when it all comes down to the question: is this all just to be seen, or to have attention paid to me? And if so, is that okay? Is that valid? Does every song just kind of come down to me shouting "I'm a person!"? A lot of the record explores what it means to be an artist, and in so many ways, one of the best ways that I am able to love is to make songs or make writing. But at the same time, the making of those things often conflicts with spending time with the people whom I love. And then there's not knowing whether writing these songs actually, like, "counts" toward that love.

DBO: Do you ever feel that you have to reconcile the desire to read with need to write? Or reconcile the desire to listen to music with the compulsion to perform or to play something yourself? I often find myself choosing to consume rather than produce or to catch up on something rather than bring something new into the world. Given that your own creative output now extends into both music and fiction, I guess I wonder how you find the time.

LG: I go back and forth between feeling the pure enjoyment of things and feeling like they are somehow connected to what I'm doing. The best thing, though, is to read or to listen to something and be completely lost in it, forgetting that you ever intend to do that yourself. It is such a gift when you can read something and it takes you out. When it is pure pleasure or pure beauty, or delight. When I'm reading, I want to forget that I want to be a writer, and when I'm listening, to forget that I have any intentions of making my own music.

Laura Gibson will perform at The Old Rock House with David Bazan on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

 

KDHX listeners have a parochial stake in the revulsion noted by that eternally youthful rock critic, Lester Bangs, in his review of a 1971 performance by A&M recording artists, The Carpenters: “Something about the band and audience both at this just gave me the creeps. Mom and Dad come and learn to Dig the Kids’ Music.” Bangs’ shrill “something,” which might be the uncanniness of commercialism, seems to stand his hair on end. Those revulsed at predigested helpings of commercial music may have a hard time liking Eric Weisbard’s book on radio formats, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2014), and not just for its message. A scrupulously narrative presenter of research, Weisbard does not much weigh the importance of the loads and loads of reading he’s done. Just so, the book’s readers will mostly be scholars. That said, by turning his scholarship toward narrative, Weisbard makes an argument free-form radio listeners will find important, even if they are likely to be put off by the idea that there’s anything democratic about parents turning around and persuading “the Kids” to dig what’s on the pop charts.

To begin with the academicism Top 40 Democracy revises: the “rockist” assumption, represented by Bangs, holds that mainstream radio, because it homogenizes taste, is “undemocratic.” Nonsense, says Weisbard, no more so than a parent homogenizes their child’s tastes. Rockists may hold onto the idea of an “outside” to mainstream radio formatting, but for Weisbard, the marketing concept of an “alternative” or “independent” radio station overlooks how "the rockist rejection of established format categories accrued resale value because its putative anti-materialism asserted privilege.” In other words, Weisbard – former college radio DJ turned American Studies scholar – joins a number of recent “poptimist” intellectuals, including Carl Wilson, John Seabrook, Bob Stanley, by insisting on the social salience of "contemporary hit radio," a.k.a. CHR or pop radio. Weisbard’s argument, encompassing not just radio station programming, but record label marketing, as well as the actual careers of the Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton and Elton John, is that the rivalry among mainstream formats – Top 40, urban contemporary, country, oldies, classic rock, and so on – may come from an effort to understand, and market to, a listenership-edge rooted in the values of community radio. Of course, a simpler way to put this – and one poptimists like Weisbard are usually loathe to accept – is that rock discourse (the ideological apparatus of rockist assumptions) has influenced the music industry by re-orientating it to an anti-mainstream "outside," even if the purpose of that reorientation is commercialization. The poptimist conceit, by contrast, contends that mainstream radio programmers do actually speak on behalf of radio listeners, rather than perpetuate industry interests.

Bob Stanley, keyboardist-composer for the English synth-pop band, Saint Etienne, in his history of pop, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (2013), argues for a dialectical tilt back and forth between the aesthetic apotheosis of "the transatlantic number one and all of the recordings done by all the other little fishes. Stanley’s idea is that the little fishes school themselves in genre while the actual chart-topper rises above a genre's inevitable decline. Given Top 40’s present dominance over its rival mainstreams (country, R&B, adult alternative, Latin, etc.) it will surprise no one that the rockist-turned-poptimist Weisbard assiduously evades genre in order to view the mainstream's outside as cultural history itself, rather than any counter-cultural resistance, rockist or otherwise. Freeform radio, Weisbard notes, usurped MOR, or "middle of the road" programming, at just that late '60s moment when MOR started getting marketed at stations emerging from easy listening formats in order to capture the ears of a new, affluent demographic tuned to the sounds of a cool exoticism.

Weisbard’s most impressively researched chapters (the book was his Berkeley dissertation) consist of a chapter on WMMS, a Cleveland classic rock station that emerged out of MOR  just as our own KSHE-95 did – and another devoted to A&M Records, a label whose profit derived from the MOR format's ability to capitalize on the popularization of otherwise genre-oriented music. A&M’s co-owner, none other than Herb Alpert, for example, took "Whipped Cream, originally an Allen Toussaint jump piano boogie (released as a single by The Stokes in 1965 on the New Orleans label Alon), hooked it up with trumpet runs, Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine’s rhythm lines, and put a sombrero on it. Herb Alpert and His Tijuana Brass got Whipped Cream to #68 on Billboard's all-genre Hot 100 singles chart and #13 on the Middle-Road Singles chart (that very year rechristened Pop-Standard Singles,” what we now call "Adult Contemporary"). By the end of the year, Whipped Cream & Other Delights ranked #1 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart -- a pop of 1965 suburban crocus if ever there was. Hicks from the sticks with two car garages dug the new exotic twist on the easy listening instrumentals which consolidated A&M’s reputation for developing MOR’s format advantage, dulled only slightly in 1967, when Sixties counter-culture went whole-hype at the Pop Festival.

It was at some point after Monterey that St. Louis’ KSHE turned from easy listening to freeform radio, the format we now associate with KDHX. If we follow the history that Weisbard provides, the earliest use of the term is in a memo written by Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) to his staff sometime in 1970. Weisbard’s claim, not entirely persuasive to me, is that the MOR format that inspired Whipped Cream & Other Delights was never intended for Southern Illinois intellectuals working for McDonald-Douglass. MOR, what we now call adult contemporary or AC, was designed for the woman who, as one trade magazine editor told Weisbard, “graduates up from Glamour to More, the now defunct magazine that proclaimed itself for women of style and substance. As the editor put it, A female is expected to squeal for Top 40, recuperate from her first job listening to Hot AC, then turn to MOR/AC when kids and mortgage have left her only open to musical comfort food. This sounds a little patronizing to Weisbard, but he develops its gist, “To listen as a working woman to music whose mood gets your head right: these strategic acts of empathy and self-regulation made pop’s impact nearly universal.” And that, in short, is Weisbard’s plea for a format’s democratic function. “After television,” Herb Alpert had predicted, “the medium had shifted to ‘format radio,’ meaning the continual sound targeting some listeners, rather than varied programming targeting all.” No one ever stroked Ozzy Osbourne for his strategic acts of self-regulation, so when Alpert describes the MOR marketing strategy of a “pop sound,” the poptimist revision requires that we give up our rockist conclusion that such middle-of-the-road taste indicates some kind of false consciousness on the listener's part.

For Weisbard, the Cleveland experience with WMMS shows that the freeform radio’s anti-format was just a transitional phase that emerged from counter-cultural anti-materialism, but as many even then were pointing out, “the anti-commercial insistence [of freeform] concealed far less progressive tendencies, including a severing of rock from contemporary black-music making and female audiences.” The album-oriented rock or AOR format (that’s what became of KSHE) rejected an A&M group like the Carpenters cynically – despite the counterculture bona fides of a song like “Superstar,” redeveloped by Delaney & Bonnie around the time Alpert would have been scouting both groups – and, in Weisbard's view, shortsightedly, given Karen Carpenter’s appeal among gay listenerships. Weisbard’s point is that format radio brings what’s going on in rival demographics to the ears of less intractably rockist listeners. Three years (1972-1975) marks the period separating the emergence, in all his camp flamboyance, of Elton John at the top of the U.S. charts, and rock institution-maker Jon Landau’s glib remark: “Is Elton John something more than a great entertainer? I’m not sure.” Weisbard retorts: “The singer threatened because to appeal across demographic lines he resisted strong signifiers of genre and counterculture.” CHR or Top 40 radio continues in its primary warrant of genre-resistance and universal reach. In the meantime, KDHX and stations like it persist in a genre-connoisseurship that may still mark the anti-materialism of the freeform's anti-commercial format. Could a music lover live without one or the other? I won't try to answer, but what I do know is this: the dominance of CHR means that many radio listeners may go a lifetime without having a chance to choose between them.

 

 

If you're looking to take part in Pride festival this weekend, you'll find many options to choose from in the St. Louis area, including the Tower Grove Pride 2016. This free, low-key, block-party event in celebration of LGBT culture will be held from 12pm to 8pm Saturday, June 25 at Ritz Park, 3147 South Grand, between Juniata and Hartford. 

Located along the St. Louis Pride Parade's former route down South Grand, the fourth annual Tower Grove Pride festival will feature a number of performances throughout the day by local artists from across the St. Louis music scene. There will be plenty of eats and drinks and a number of vendor booths, many of which will feature locally-made handcrafted gifts, including jewelry and candles. 

Local performers this year include Celia Shackattack (guitarist/vocalist host of the Sing-A-Long Dance Party), Duck Brown (ska), C-sharp (rap), Jamie Axton (rock), DJ sets from I Went To A Show, and a number of bands from St. Louis' thriving punk scene. Expect to hear sets by grrl garage-rockers Mirror Mirror, lo-fi jammers Sunday Candy, the elusive duo known as My Bloody Underwear, as well as kitchen-sink punks Tiger Rider and the ever-heavy Skin Tags, both of which performed in last weeks' RFT Music Showcase. RFT Award nominees, the one-of-a-kind, electro-pop outfit Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship is also scheduled (and sure to bring some kind of cardboard cutout of Fabio). 

As opposed to the arena-name headliners downtown, the all St. Louis line-up shows the appeal of Tower Grove Pride, rooted in its local focus, as championed by Autumn Wiggins and Michael Powers, the event's organizers along with Melinda Cooper, tireless front-woman for the Town Cars who put together the line-up and will also be performing at the event, hot off their Atomic Cowboy performance last weekend, also as part of the RFT showcase. Though perhaps not as flashy as some of the other celebrations around the city, Tower Grove Pride is sure to fill Ritz Park the with warmth and welcome of a neighborhood that's become a thriving mix of cultures and personalities, the perfect location for a festival that has intentionally aspired to remain a community-focused, homegrown celebration. 

Past years' festivals have also included a number of activities intended to raise awareness while encouraging active participation and open conversation. This year, the festival includes an art installation "Letters to Orlando" that organizers and members of the community have set up to encourage notes of love and support for victims of the Orlando attack and the area's LGBT community. Everyone is invited to help complete the piece at art-making tables set up around the installation. After Pride weekend, the letters will be sent to Orlando, enabling St. Louisans to contribute to the growing memorial and outpouring of care from around the world. As the festival organizers note in their Facebook post on the installation: 

There is no right or wrong way to personally process national tragedies, and this time has been especially difficult for the LGBT community and it's allies. We can post and share in grief on social media, but sometimes you can't find the words without a pen. For some, it helps to make art. Here is a meaningful space to do just that.

If a relaxing, art and music-filled party is how you see yourself celebrating St. Louis Pride weekend, Tower Grove Pride in Ritz Park is where you'll want to be this Saturday.

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