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Pattern Recognition Vol. 3: The Fantasy behind Veiled Musicians

In this edition of his monthly column for EB, Adam Harper—the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making—ponders musicians’ mysteriousness and its effect on listening. 

Illustration by Inka Gerbert.

No, Burial is not Four Tet. But thanks to an article published on a satirical magazine site recently, thousands of people seem to have gotten the idea that he is. Though many of them will have identified it as a hoax, the theory is likely to live on as an urban legend mistaken for truth by people who neglected to do the research.

I wonder how many of them knew that Burial’s identity—the face and name of Will Bevan—was voluntarily posted on MySpace in 2008. Even those who did know seemed to accept the magical thinking provided by a ‘Burial is Four Tet’ Tumblr account, which was precisely what Equalizer was probably making fun of. It’s as if a face and a name wasn’t enough to explain some of the most critically acclaimed electronic music of the past decade, and connecting it to Four Tet’s longer, more conventional career and releases did the trick. Dan Hancox, one of only two people to have interviewed Bevan as Burial, explained everything succinctly for the Guardian, quoting Bevan’s reasons for remaining outside the limelight: “I can’t step up, I want to be in the dark at the back of a club… it keeps my tunes closer to me and other people. I love that with old jungle and garage tunes, when you didn’t know anything about them, and nothing was between you and the tunes. I liked the mystery; it was more scary and sexy.” He was absolutely right.

Burial might be one of the most famously ‘anonymous’ musicians (‘reclusive’ might be the better term) of recent times, but he’s by no means the only one. Unlike Burial, the producer Zomby actually is officially anonymous and faceless, but he’s far from reclusive, giving interviews regularly and maintaining an active Twitter account. Reclusive artists are often considered shy or modest, and Zomby isn’t—in fact it’s easy to forget that the public don’t know his name. But has his music and career been affected—boosted, even—by his anonymity? There has long been something attractive, tantalising and romantic about an anonymous artist, especially one who chooses to be.

Until the Middle Ages, all the biggest tunes were anonymous, and in folk music many of them still are. But once names started getting attached to music, they inevitably became a part of the music and its appreciation. If not, why put (as many Victorian families did) a bust of Beethoven or Mozart on the household piano if it was only the musical sounds that mattered? Why put up posters of cherished bands, especially when they’re not holding or playing their instruments? Why read the biographies or autobiographies of musicians—by far the most successful type of book about music? Musicians are aestheticized, probably because music is mostly a non-visual and often untexted medium, and usually the interaction with the figure of the musician and the interaction with the music cannot be psychologically separated. Arguably, in fact, there are some cases when the figure of the musician(s) and what they mean outweighs the aestheticization of the specific sonic details they create. It would be wrong and maybe even ignorant to point any particular fingers here, since I can’t claim to speak for the listening experiences of others, though it might not be too controversial to say that commercial pop and pop music talent shows sometimes approach this territory. But wrong also because music and musician are so closely entwined that it would be very difficult to say definitively anyway, and because it’s seen as offensive to suggest that someone enjoys the musician more than the music, or that an artist is more packaging than sounds. I wouldn’t say this was a bad thing, I don’t think I’d even say it was an unmusical thing. Music is primarily artistic, social and performative; sounds are just a component of that.

Oddly enough, if you take away or drastically reduce the information given about the figure of the musician today, this aestheticization effect increases exponentially, creating the sort of paradoxes that psychoanalytical theory would pounce on. The more anonymity or reclusiveness ostensibly makes music “just about the music,” the more the obsession with the figure of the musician grows, especially at the socialized level of the music press. Anonymous or reclusive musicians are often held up as a heroic antithesis of commercial pop culture and its supposed excessive pre-occupation with image and the lives of its musicians, but the reception of such musicians equally often betrays a fascination with mystery that might begin to outweigh the aestheticization of the musical sounds in the same way pop culture is supposed to do. Unless this leads to outright hypocrisy, this is, again, no crime. Sometimes anonymous or reclusive music gets the imagination working in very positive ways.

Take away the name, the face and the life story, and a big, mysterious hole appears, an empty space that people can fill up with their fantasies. But often they don’t realize that that’s what they’re doing—they think they’re discovering something real. Especially when the music is unusual, the impression forms that the veiled reality that generated it must be warped, extreme and fantastical, and yet real, and this is a thrilling discovery. It’s the essence of romanticism. Were the musician not so veiled, however, reality is nearly always just banal. The ‘truth’ that Burial was Four Tet all along is more fantastical, and thus to many more satisfying, than the notion that Burial might just be someone who you don’t know and who’s most likely pretty normal.

The more you learn about the actual context of music that appears attractively exceptional, the less exceptional it might become. This might not be very romantic, but it, too, can be a good thing—it might be better to make peace with reality as it is, rather than as our opportunistic fantasies might twist it to be. Because sometimes the reality is not banal, or not just banal, but something uglier and more challenging than we wanted it to be—maybe even because it’s banal. For example, fascination with reclusive or otherwise distanced musicians has often rested on the subject of mental illness, either lightly or more intensely, probably on the part of people who have never experienced a breakdown, extreme social anxiety, a psychotic episode or a period in a psychiatric ward, or been close to someone who has.

The most famous reclusive (and anonymous) band in underground music is The Residents, who have been working since the late ’60s without revealing their names—only appearing on stage wearing tuxedos, top hats and eyeball masks. But since the costumes and music of The Residents heavily imply an intention to be Dada, subversive, and thus contrived, the feeling that they represent a tantalizingly concealed romantic reality is considerably weaker. The world of The Residents is offered to you and their inscrutability is a part of that game. You don’t eavesdrop on The Residents in order to discover some weird, Lynchian reality. For that there is—or was—Jandek.


The sleeve for Jandek’s 1989 album The Living End

Jandek’s cult following overlaps with that of The Residents, but is probably larger. Since 1978, Jandek has been releasing LPs of avant-garde and probably mostly improvised folk and rock, recorded in more or less lo-fi style. He reached the height of his underground fame in the second half of the 1980s. Corwood Industries, the record label releasing Jandek’s records, has traditionally maintained a notional separation between Jandek and the label, with communications often being attributed to ‘a representative from Corwood’— it has long seemed probable, however, that Jandek and Corwood are ultimately a one-man team. Jandek’s albums all have the same minimal design—a casual-looking photo on the front often depicting a person now assumed to be Jandek, with track titles listed simply on the back. To the indie music community of the ’80s, the music was thoroughly unusual— not just atonal but regularly detuned, with a spooky voice and enigmatic lyrics. As the years went by, Jandek would incorporate other singers and instrumentalists, their first names given in the relevant track titles.

Despite the repeated insistence that Jandek was obscure and highly challenging to listen to, he was definitely one of the more celebrated and prominent musicians in the American underground music press. These were the days before Google: though it was often said that Jandek was anonymous, his name had been given as Sterling Smith in the very first review of his music in a 1980 issue of Op magazine, though Corwood maintained anonymity subsequently. And it was often said that Jandek never gave interviews, but he gave a relatively forthcoming one to Spin magazine in 1985 (again, the curtain subsequently fell). It was often emphasized that Jandek and his music were extremely uncommercial, but Jandek placed advertisements in a number of underground music magazines in the 1980s (they were as minimal as the albums’ packaging—simply a notice reading, “Jandek on Corwood,” and giving a PO Box address in Houston, Texas).

The most telling aspects of Jandek’s initial reception, however, were the assumptions that were made about what sort of a person he was and how and why the music was made. The most common and most intense was that Jandek’s music was cathartic, that it represented a seriously troubled person—it was often implied, sometimes stated explicitly, that he was mentally ill. Some writers reported the ongoing rumor that, “he’s a manic-depressive who does the records as therapy under his doctor’s supervision,” and there are even hints made that Jandek was likely to commit suicide. The association of dissonance with states of extreme emotional distress goes back to Hollywood thrillers of the 1950s and ’60s, back to composers like Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century, Richard Wagner in the mid-19th century, and to Gesualdo in the turn of the 17th century. The suggestion that the emotion in Jandek’s music was merely performed or inferred rather than ‘real’ was barely made.

There was also the overlapping assumption that Jandek was naive, a “hopeless amateur”, some sort of idiot savant, that he was a social or artistic outsider, that his music was significantly unintentional. Jandek told Spin that he was a “machinist”, and this got caught up with the assumption that Jandek was working class or rural poor—a machinist working, for example, in the same record plant that pressed his music. Most of the time, all these assumptions converged. One critic, for example, began a feature on Jandek by setting the scene as he imagined it: “a bare, dusty room in Texas. A man sits hunched over a microphone, guitar in hand, gushing forth unresolvable [sic] demons from the darkest recesses of his soul. No time for second takes, no time to correct the mistakes or mix over the rough edges. A cheap tape player records every moan and pluck of the strings for posterity.” Every one of these sentences contains several assumptions.

It fascinated many of those who listened to and wrote about Jandek that all this was really happening, and they were witnessing it. But was it? The reality looks less shocking and fantastical today. In 1999, a reporter for Texas Monthly, Katy Vine, tracked down a man who was almost certainly Jandek, finding his house “in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods.” He “looked like a late-thirties version of the youth on the record covers,” wore “beautiful cufflinks,” took Vine to an “upscale bar,” and was an “affluent-looking, well-groomed man,” “like a well-travelled businessman” and someone with a “white-collar career.” Shortly afterwards, it emerged that there was a Sterling Smith Corporation in Houston with the same telephone number as Corwood Industries—it was an investment securities specialist. In short, Jandek was very different from what he’d been assumed to be, and in fact not at all far from the sorts of lifestyles that indie music vehemently opposed, and often used Jandek to oppose. “Machinist” was probably metaphorical.

But was his music naive or ‘outsider’ even so? Probably not very, certainly not entirely. Jandek—or ‘a representative from Corwood Industries’—has been performing live since 2004, often in jams with other musicians improvising under his control. Recently, a trailer for a documentary about Jandek the improviser featured footage of him speaking about it in technical terms. And in the ’80s, one music critic noticed a reference to some Mothers of Invention lyrics (albeit apparently not delivered by Jandek himself), unless the use of the phrase “Caledonia mahogany’s elbows” is a complete coincidence. Indeed, it’s worth noting that if Jandek really is Sterling Smith, he was born in 1944, making him part of the same pioneering generation as Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Charlemagne Palestine, David Lynch, Lou Reed, John Cale, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane, The Residents and The Beatles. He started releasing music later than they did—Jandek was in his mid-30s when he began releasing recordings, and in his 40s at the height of his underground fame. Although he clearly isn’t a complete ‘insider’, it seems likely that he was to some degree acquainted with experimental directions in popular music and aware of what his music sounded like to other people.

Besides, it’s not inconceivable that as a businessman he knew or noticed that he and his recordings had mystique, even that it was a good way to get challenging music attention and sales. Communications from Corwood to music journalists often suggested that their articles would be better without them—one of them knowingly read, “intrigue goes a long way sometimes.” It’s known that Sterling Smith was aware of his reception from the get-go—once his music had begun to register with the underground music community, he may well have understood, wisely, that his music would do better off with them as the output of a mysterious folk singer, “Jandek”, than the hobby of an investments specialist.

Perhaps Jandek is better understood as a figure rather like the early 20th century composer Charles Ives, who was a successful insurance salesman by day and an educated but highly dissonant composer on his own time, and whose music didn’t quite fall into the right context until decades later. But unlike Ives, Smith is for whatever reason reclusive and perhaps rather shy—which is not to say he’s salivatingly haunted. Does any of this undermine Jandek’s music? Of course not. Not unless your appreciation of the music is dependent on his being a hopeless, impoverished outsider or on gossip about his mental health. For a lot of listeners and writers in the 1980s, it at least partially looks like it was.

When the music is unusual, critically acclaimed, or both, whip up some mystery about its maker (intentionally or not) and you have the makings of electric hype and a considerable cult following. But not for much longer: with the growth of straight-to-internet music distribution, anonymity is increasingly the banal rule rather than the exciting exception. Jandek spent considerable cash on pressing his albums to vinyl, and probably didn’t make much profit on them, but nowadays distributing music is as easy as logging in. So, with anonymity practically the norm, it takes some special music and a truly surprising online presence to rekindle the Jandek effect. It happened recently with a Soundcloud account named “pepsi 7up”.

All you get is “pepsi 7up, United States” and a picture of a glass of water being poured (I know it should be 7up, but it doesn’t look like it). This low level of information is not unusual for musicians who are not looking to get work off their profiles, especially the artier ones. But here there’s not even any particular attempt to look interesting, which, as discussed above, can make it highly interesting. There’s also a Facebook account for pepsi 7up with, at the time of writing, a picture of a smiling young man and all of 5 likes. Written in the ‘influences’ box is the legend, “America, Kraftwerk, Pop”.

pepsi 7up seems to have come to the attention of the underground pop community in February 2011, when the account’s track “Over The Rainbow” was posted to the Weird Magic site. Underneath a computer-generated picture by Seychelle Allah of a smiling tribal woman lying in a field of grass with MSN butterflies landing on her (well chosen) was the comment, “music strange enough to alter your reality, taking your mind to places unforeseen… occasionally pieces like this pop up, delivered by life via some soundcloud page with no photo, no bio, no links, no ‘followers’, no other songs to go by. sometimes perhaps it’s better that way. for now, we’re better advised to just close our minds and glide through this gleaming roy g. biv icefield again.” It was an apt description. Over a year later in July 2012, the Fokkawolfe blog posted “Over The Rainbow” again, and I found it soon after when it was posted to Tumblr.

It’s very difficult to describe just how surprising and captivating Pepsi 7up’s “Over The Rainbow” is. You have to listen yourself, and since it’s been taken off the Soundcloud account now, I have uploaded it to YouTube with 7up’s permission. It begins with a sequence of eight regularly spaced pitches played on glockenspiel-like synthesiser—it’s no mere opening phrase, it’s a structural element that seems to function as something that could be translated (badly) as both an orchestral conductor tapping on a music stand for attention and as a television test card. Then the song begins: a choir of synthesized voices, a voice probably designed to be female leading with the fragmentary melody and lyrics, accompanied by a number of male voices, the glockenspiel and another synthesiser. The voices are so startling familiar in some ways and so estranged in others—you can almost feel mouths pronouncing consonants, but the beginning and endings of the sounds and the ways they change over time are not human. The ending is jarringly abrupt, like something ran out.

Perhaps the greatest effect comes from how despite the fact that the timbres, their orchestration and the structure is so bizarre, the harmonies and snatches of the melody are so warmly familiar. It’s like that hit of happiness you get from recognizing a loved one occurring even though—or maybe because—their skin is shimmering aquamarine and the lower half of their face is barely recognizable. It’s like figuring out you have a crush on a being from another dimension. You would think that the effect of vocal synthesis would be a chilling, mannequin-esque uncanny valley, but here it’s an arrival in heaven.

Here was something fantastical that had been witnessed deep in the new digital wilderness. What’s more, “Over The Rainbow” had been uploaded in two versions, numbered one and three (where was two?), each arranged differently onto different synthesizers. Conventional musicians never do this, not consecutively—it’s just not how you make music. But the Pepsi 7up account suggested that it’s not just doable, but enjoyable. What if providing two versions was not just the result of work in progress, but a confidently made artistic decision?

Other Pepsi 7up tracks had the same mix of sweet simplicity and something baffling. “Demo M4l Phonetic Effects” is a bassline from early ’60s bubblegum pop transforming into a rack of metal objects and forced through some sort of box. It came with the download link of a software patch that seemed to be something to do with synthesizing speech. At the time of writing, Pepsi 7up has a track called “How do I reactivate VOCALOID editor for LOLA?” which is an atonal series of pitches on the trademark synth—in the caption is a detailed technical question hinting that 7up had used Vocaloid vocal synthesis software for “Over The Rainbow”—but Soundcloud is not a message board. Or is it? If it were, every post would require a track. About a month ago, 7up uploaded something completely mystifying again, a blending of two new-agey ethnographic CDs, but it’s not so much the collage-like blend that’s starkly original as the way the sounds fade in and out rapidly, like speeding objects glimpsed through cracks in the pipes they’re travelling through. Most recently, 7up uploaded “Thunderstorm music”, a descriptive piece as if he were scoring music for a film with his signature choppy rhythms, atonality and delicate synths, completely with an unusually long field-recording outro.

There was probably something more to this account than just someone being arty on Soundcloud, and it clearly had something to do with experimenting with some deeper-level synthesis software. It seemed likely that “Over The Rainbow” didn’t quite sound so out of the blue to its maker as it did to us. But so fragmentary and surreal were the leavings on the page that it even crossed my mind that an artificial intelligence of some kind might be wholly or partly behind it, an unpersuasive spambot gone amok like the celebrated Twitter account @horse_ebooks. Perhaps assuming someone is a spambot is the 21st century equivalent of assuming, as in Jandek’s case, that someone has a mental illness.

The truth is, as ever, not so fantastical. After a Soundcloud message went unreplied last summer, I tried again when writing this article, and got a response. “This page is sort of a landing spot for unfinished music,” he says. He works in software and is hoping to go to grad school. He was aware of the reception of his work on Weird Magic and follows the site. In fact, today his Soundcloud account is following several other accounts run by underground music artists, magazines, blogs, particularly those associated closely to vaporwave, so many that it feels probable that he was into the new music underground before the Weird Magic coverage. Pepsi 7up is no idiot savant or dysfunctional cyborg, unwittingly producing nectar for explorers in the wilds of the new online weird. Sure, the output might not have been entirely intended for them every step of the way, but even so. The music seems a mixture of unintentional accident and intentional creativity, I just don’t know what the ratios are—60% software experimenter, 40% avant-garde online musician? 80%, 20%? 30%, 70%? But it doesn’t matter—all music-making is a mixture of accident and intention that develops dynamically in response to an audience. Jandek’s was. For this reason I felt it was an wrong to ask Pepsi 7up to what extent he knew what he was doing. In any case, unless you’re doing so against someone’s wishes, it certainly isn’t somehow wrong to enjoy the by-products of an experimental, accidental or unfinished process. Anyone who has found something beautiful or previously unimaginable in something serendipitous, like when a digital video file has inadvertently become datamoshed, knows this.

Whatever the intention or not, I’m deeply grateful to Pepsi 7up for providing me and many others with one of the most invigorating musical experiences in recent memory. In fact it’s exciting to think that someone working in this area has such technical ability, and I look forward to getting my mind around his next upload. He can stay mysterious, because like Burial and Jandek he’s part of the even more fantastic reality: that fantastic music doesn’t come from fantasy places.~


You can read previous editions of Pattern Recognition here

Published July 09, 2013. Words by Adam Harper.