Monday, July 07, 2008

Modern Music is Rubbish

At the moment I'm listening to a cover of Feist's 1234 by a little electro-duo called Bikini. Their back catalog consists of one 7" single with the A side being the previously mentioned cover and an original song of their own as the B side. This was released perhaps a month or two ago before hitting the interweb music blogs big, making it all the way onto top ten hot tracks. These days when I'm looking for new music is one of my first stops as it's a music blog aggregator. Finding complete mp3s of a song is essential to discovering new acts and determining whether to invest your time and, sometimes, your money in. This is the way modern music is disseminated to the discerning masses.
Before I went to sleep the night before, Miss Information at fotophonic emailed me a snippet of an interview with Doug Marscht of Built to Spill. The interview, conducted by Michael Saba at Paste Magazine is rather short; just a brief catching up with the band and asking Marscht about the Perfect From Now On tour and the upcoming album of theirs. On the whole, the article isn't all that interesting except for that one snippet Miss Info sent me. The question is standard when interviewing such a seminal figure as Marscht who had such a defining influence on music during the 90s and on into the early 00s.

Paste: What’s your take on modern alternative rock, especially because you’ve said before on numerous occasions that you’re not too hot on a lot of it? Is there anything you’ve heard or seen recently that you’re impressed by, or do you just tend to ignore newer music?
Martsch: I mostly just tend to ignore it. Not at all because there’s not good things going on, I don’t know why, I’m just not interested. You know, I’ve answered this question several times, and sometimes I’ll say the same thing, sometimes I’ll make shit up. Not on purpose, but just trying to understand it myself. I think what makes the most sense to me is that part of music is learning about the world, and learning about things, the same way that movies and books and TV and things like that help people learn about the world. When you’re young, you’re a sponge, and you can listen to things and learn a lot about the world. And I feel, myself, that there’s not a whole lot I can learn from some 25-year-old from America. Or the things that I could learn would be pop-cultural. But at the same time, you know, like the Arcade Fire– I thought that first record of theirs was really great. I didn’t learn anything, but it was great music. I never consciously, when I was young, thought I was learning things from music. As I got older, I guess I thought that might be the reason.
I'm of two minds about Marscht's view on modern music. On the one hand, I can understand Marscht's position as he's been recording and playing shows since his Farm Days and Treepeople days going all the way back to the early 1980s. When you have played for that long with so many bands (Built to Spill being the primary band of Marscht's) it's hard to say that you find modern, or rather, contemporary music influential in any significant way. So Marscht's position is eminently justifiable; and at this point I would find it a shame if Marscht were to alter his style to reflect modern music. He has settled on a kind of sound that would suffer greatly if influenced by modern music. Marscht has developed his sound over the years, but to suit the sounds in his head more than the sounds of other bands.
On the other hand, I find Marscht's seeming disdain for modern music disconcerting. It's not so much that Marscht has rejected modern music but his opinion of it as something he can't learn anything from is a touch myopic. Music is pop cultural, as much as any book, movie, blog or TV show is. You can't completely isolate yourself from the world of representation as it is a continuous process that, by merely existing and observing, participate in. New additions to our cultural milieu naturally alter our perceptions of the world-even if only in minor ways. It's a cycle that you continually add to whether artist or not.
Theory aside however, I think Marscht is still missing the point about the question Saba asked. It's not so much asking Marscht if he will alter his sound to reflect modern music but if modern music has an effect on how he perceives his music and production values. This last point is key to the change in modern music and something that Marscht himself points to as an asset in his latest recordings. The use of modern technology to improve the way a new song is produced is as much learning from modern music as altering the style of music you play. Production values have long been a keystone for music since the 60s when recording went from 4-track to 8-track and beyond. Moreover, the rise of rap as the predominate form of music on the radio has led to a change in how bass and drums are featured on any particular track. Rock music from even a decade ago doesn't pay as much attention to those elements as they do now.
Finally, the music styles of today pull as much from the past as they do from outside genres. The melding of electronica with modern rock styles has reshaped song structures, instrumentation and the range of styles a single band can play without appearing to rip off another band. I'll give you that a lot of the music is derivative; either directly from the 60s and 70s or from popular contemporary acts. Despite that, many other bands have begun to take their influences and incorporate them into a sound the band finds pleasing without wearing their influences on their sleeves. Bloc Party is an excellent example of a band that has drawn on song structures found in music from the late 70s and early 80s like Gang of Four, Joy Division, and The Smiths while using instrument styles found in the music of 90s bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead and Blur.
Beyond such highly popular acts as Bloc Party are the garage punk and disco punk bands who appeared on the scene in the early 00s. While they were not the first to take on disco and garage music since the 60s and 70s, the pop sensibilities of some bands like The Strokes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The White Stripes brought them to mainstream attention. That popularity, while quickly disappearing from the mainstream, was continue on Interwibble and its ever-growing collection of music blogs dedicated to hunting down the next great band. Liars, LCD Soundsystem, The Klaxons and several other bands interested in the use of electronic elements in their music were quickly snatched up by the music blogs and spread far and wide. Moreover, the technological advances of more powerful home computers along with recording and production applications on par with those found in expensive studios have allowed bands (a term becoming more loosely applied as the need for the traditional four-person set up has fallen by the wayside) to record and craft their music at home and release the digital recording to the swarms of music blogs. Even the technology available for live music has advanced to such a degree that two-person acts like The Dodos, Fuck Buttons and The Kills are able to play without needing touring musicians.
All of this goes to say that Marscht's opinion that modern music has become more about image than music is an axiom and almost hypocritical. Mainstream music has always focused more on image than music. And the big but non-commerical acts like Bloc Party and Interpol put on shows where the audience is there more out of maintaing their image than to listen to the music. Their still is a group of people who attend shows out of a real desire to listen to the band without concern whether the hip people will show up or not. The Interweb has allowed those true listeners to know when and where to see the bands that speak to them. And those people will learn something about how modern music is played and the potential directions it can take. While I don't think Marscht should suddenly start playing tight riffs backed by a disco beat, I think his opinions on modern music reflect the attitude of someone who doesn't want to learn anything from modern music. And that's fine, especially since Built to Spill continues to put out quality music. But it still is a limited view of things and one that can have a negative impact on those influenced by Marscht and Built to Spill.