Mark Fisher—the noted blogger known as K-Punk and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?—picks up where his essay on James Blake left off, this time deconstructing the Drake dilemma.
So here we are again: life at rainbow’s end. Everything that can be bought, available practically immediately, 24/7: women, food, cars, you name it, you click on it. Every hotel suite can be prepared to your specifications. The only things that are different are the shower controls. It’s all top quality, although naturally you can get down and dirty with the fast food options if you want to, and often (why not?) you do.
Got everything, I got everything… I cannot complain, I cannot
(You sure about that, Drake?)
I don’t even know how much I really made, I forgot, it’s a lot…
Fuck that, never mind what I got
OK, then, let’s get the obvious question out of the way first. if you’ve got everything, why are you so sad?
Surely it can’t be as simple and sentimental as that hoary old chestnut: money can’t buy you love? Come on, is this really where rap was destined to end up: with the rapper as some romcom character, all the braggadocio and super-conspicuous consumption just so much bluster to conceal the boy-lack that the redeemer-woman will make good in the final reel? That old story, again? “Next time we fuck, I don’t want to fuck, I want to make love… I want to trust.” Drake can’t quite believe this routine, can’t quite make us believe it. He knows perfectly well that this sensitive stuff can play as one more pick-up-artist’s ruse… He’s spent so long deceiving and then revealing his deceptions that he’s no longer sure when he’s trying to play us or speak openly, or what the difference is. Crying real tears with one eye, while winking over the latest conquest’s shoulder to the camera with the other. He’d convinced us he was different, but that was a trick, and one that others have caught on to. There’s nothing very brave or unique about talking about your feelings now that “niggas talk more than bitches do.” Is this more honesty, or just an acknowledgement that he needs a new USP?
I got 99 problems, getting rich ain’t one
Listening to Nothing Was the Same, I’m reminded of Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Apatow’s film is defined by a series of hesitations and avoidances. First of all, it seems as if it is going to be a film about a jaded but rich and successful comedian, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), who learns the value of life when he’s diagnosed with a serious illness; then it seems to be about a man who accepts the value of love and family. Yet each time the film seems to move towards these standard generic resolutions, Apatow pulls back. Simmons’ hedonic nihilism re-asserts himself; the threat of death can’t break the bad habits of a lifetime; the love he lost long ago was actually better off lost. He’s not happy being himself but he doesn’t want to be anyone else. Far from relieving this existential dilemma, fabulous wealth means that he has nowhere at all to hide from it.
Nothing Was the Same is characterized by the same ambivalence—a longing to be a new person who can love and trust (with a woman, naturally, charged as the agent of this transformation) together with a recognition that he will never change, that he’ll always be drinking, smoking, fucking, that he’s far from perfect, but neither is anyone else, right? He never really took off the gangsta-minstrel drag for good; instead, he keeps casting it aside, inspecting it, distancing himself from it, before wearing it again. He can’t help himself (or so he keeps telling us). But this oscillation is valuable for what it tells us about rap’s embattled masculinity in general. Drake confirms that the street-strutting bad boy “just looking for head in a comfortable bed,” is the other face of the desperately alone little boy lost crying to his mommy substitute. The boasting brute is always on the run from the helpless infant inside, but, for that very reason, the emotionally broken-down male isn’t an alternative to all the ego-armor posturing, so much as it is its enabling condition. Women are to be publicly disdained, treated as currency in a homosocial bragging economy; in private they are asked to make these wounded men whole again. Is there a track that has exposed the real nature of the male-to-female love song better than Take Care‘s “Marvin’s Room”? The conceit—a drunk Drake leaving a phone message to a long lost love he treated badly but now thinks he wants back—leaves us in no doubt that he was speaking to himself via a fantasized female Other.
Gangsta’s hyperbolically-staged fantasies of omnipotence were always nouveau-riche giveaways, which, like the bling, sang out that these working-class black Americans had not yet achieved the easy way in the world, the casual confidence that are the birthrights of those born to wealth and power. The (gold) chains have always clanked as loudly as Jacob Marley‘s that the struggle to escape servitude has run aground, and that untold riches for a very few were the compensation for the many languishing in inertia, poverty, incarceration. Is “Started from the Bottom”—which we all laughed at: no you didn’t, Drake!—Drake’s commentary on all this? Hear it as an act of imagination, Drake putting himself in the sneakers of those who had to struggle from the depths like he never had to, rather than as some forged autobiography, and it makes more sense. But listen to the sheer weariness that weighs down the track: the heavy tristesse that starts the moment after you’ve reached the top of the tower, as the realization sinks in that there’s no replacing the thrill of the chase. Drake was always expected to be a success, so he was deprived even of that brief moment of satisfaction before the ennui and the paranoia set in. Reaching the top was standard, the least he could expect.
Nothing Was the Same is tangled up in all the confusions of a generation of men faced with contradictory imperatives—the post-feminist awareness that treating women like shit isn’t cool, together with the Burroughsian bombardment of always-available pornography. There’s no point moralizing here, either for Drake or us. Drake’s at his weakest when he half-heartedly attempts some kitschy Hallmark card affirmation of lurve; he’s at his most painfully revelatory when he admits that these impasses, these binds, are just too much for him. He can’t escape these knots because the knots are what he is. His bewilderment about what a man is supposed to be now is the very hallmark of a contemporary heterosexual masculinity that realizes that the patriarchal game is up, but which is too hooked on the pleasures and privileges to relinquish them yet (just one more click on the porn, then I’ll be Mr. Sensitive forever).
On Nothing Was the Same, Drake often sounds like Tony Montana in Scarface: fucking, eating, snorting, is that all there is? But the tone here couldn’t be more different from Pacino’s eighties cocaine histrionics. A glacial fatalism runs beneath everything here, and Drake matters because he makes contact—maybe better than anyone else—with the sense of hopelessness that quietly subsists beneath all the twerking and tweeting, all the twitter and the chatter of 21st century culture. Hear this in the gorgeous electro-downer haze that saturates the album and establishes its tone much more than any of the beats. Yet there’s something beyond the fatalism, too. You can hear it in Drake’s signature move—the transition from rap to singing, the slipping down from ego-assertion into a sensual purring, the relaxing into a lasciviousness that has nothing to do with the localized libido and dumb automatisms of phallic sexuality. Down here, there is a glorious release from the pressures of identity. Rave-like, pitched-up vocals are suspended on placid currents of synth. Voices stop being human, become avatars from a space where subjectivity has been left behind like a bad dream. On the opener, “Tuscan Leather”, Whitney Houston’s ghost is summoned from the hotel bathroom, mutated into some butterfly-fragile chirruping creature singing inside a specimen jar. I’m frequently reminded of nothing so much as the refracted architectures and water sprites of Balam Acab’s Wander/Wonder. When you dive into these electro-oceanic depths, Nothing Was the Same ceases to be a fascinating symptom of all the blockages of the present, and becomes a longing for something new, something strange and lovely. ~
Drake’s Nothing Was the Same is out now on Cash Money/Universal. Mark Fisher’s new book Ghosts of My Life is published later this December via Zer0 Books.
Wojtek Rusin is one of those cosmopolitan artists who pursues his dreams as an émigrée, reaping artistic inspiration from the transient nature of such an existence. Originally from Poland, he currently resides in Bristol, UK after stints in Barcelona and Germany. Under his moniker Katapulto, Wojtek has produced a diverse array of music ranging from conceptual pieces to camp, experimental endeavors reminiscent of Felix Kubin, only to arrive at catchy synth-based songs. After a brilliant conceptual tape for Sangoplasmo where he used recordings in several languages about animals, Rusin returns with his latest album Bad Tourist—named so because “it could be a title of a theatre play”—out now on AMDISCS. We caught up with him to talk about subversion, angry markets and the power of high-definition.
Bad Tourist brings to mind some of those good, hit-loaded synthpop albums from the eighties in the vein of Depeche Mode, etc.
I was definitely looking for something like this. Sometimes you have these albums where three four songs are really good and with the rest couldn’t work on their own and are just there to fill up the product. I didn’t want that. I love the early Depeche Mode albums, where every song is a song in its own right. My record somehow refers to the eighties because of the synth sounds, but I guess the production has a modern twist. I didn’t want to go for lo-fi aesthetics. There are also these two songs—“Stories from Beyond the Sun”—where the computer talks about melodramatic stories taken from the tabloids. I also used some nineties loops found on some obscure blogs about obsolete music technology. It’s sometimes inspiring to work with found lyrics and sound.
How did the album come about?
The whole album is a selection of songs that I recorded over the last two years. I had been living in Barcelona, Poland and Bristol during that time. It’s a bit like a diary; impressions of different places and situations. I was definitely going for diversity rather than consistency throughout the whole thing. Every track posed a different challenge.
Have the geographical differences left a mark on the songs?
For example I went to this exhibition about television at the MACBA in Barcelona, and there was this BBC TV series from the seventies called Ways of Seeing. I included some things from it into my lyrics. Right now I’m doing a course on teaching children music and had to go through these online tests. I ended up making a song inspired by this called “Children Protection”. The album is more free form and not as concept-heavy as the Animalia cassette, that had this pseudo-educational vibe and was sonically more about the sound design and creating some kind of fake folk music. On the other hand, on the new record every song has this single, independent character. It tells a story by itself.
Do you approach your music from a conceptual standpoint?
In those two tracks mentioned before I really enjoyed the tension between the found lyrics and muzak-like elevator sounds. The rest are songs with hopefully nice melodies and well-programmed drums. Animalia was a conceptual album, and so is the music I make for theater. The last play involved me amplifying various domestic objects with contact mics and improvising around the lines of the actors. I did quite strange music years ago, the first albums are perhaps unlistenable but I think they’re quite interesting. It’s a way of finding a balance between an intriguing, original sound and putting it in a frame of a pop song. I think the record is quite contemporary with songs, conceptual pieces… It’s a bit eighties and nineties feeling but not in a retro-nostalgic way. It’s natural to quote and refer to the past. What is the contemporary sound anyway? There is this very contemporary sounding artist called Shackleton who is so futuristic that it somehow escapes the past, it’s truly music from another planet. I saw him at a festival recently and was amazed. James Ferraro on the other hand refers to muzak, ringtones, midi kitsch, sound design. Everything is happening at the same time, the references are all there because of the internet—it’s hard to escape. Hype Williams are an interesting example of filtering the last 20 years of electronic, hedonistic rave music through their lo-fi aesthetic.
The aesthetic criteria have changed too…
The lo-fi post punk aesthetic doesn’t work for me anymore. The methods that were relevant in the past with the lo-fi, rough sound have been worn out. Some musicians are going for cleaner, more futuristic sounds in order to make subversive music. It’s also a more natural method for me since I’ve always used computers rather than synths but there are still labels out there which are fascinated and a bit nostalgic about dirty synthesizers and drum machines. I can imagine that by using this stuff you can have a very consistent sound throughout the whole record which is sometimes quite tempting but it’s actually more fascinating and challenging to use the new technologies. Then you are using the same weapons as the mainstream. I’m fascinated by HD, After Effects and sound design. I did a song with a 22-year-old and she thinks the dirty punk thing is very retro. The subversive language has changed and we have to attack with HD rather than some sort of nostalgic noise and feedback.
You work with digital technologies?
Almost everything is computer VSTs. Recently I had a chance to play with a fantastic modular synth that my friend built and it was great, magical, but I didn’t have a clue what do to with it! Somehow I managed to slip into self-referential retro. But some people can use these machines in a very creative way.
What constitutes futurism in music for you nowadays?
We are getting into a phase where the differences are very subtle and the old methods of analysis have changed. You listen to something and have to spend more time to detect some radical novelty. When I was younger and listened to a new record, it was a totally new world, you didn’t recognize the references. In a gig environment I like it when I get lost and don’t know the references, it feels like being 18 again and listening to a tape by Squarepusher and wondering what the hell that is. Thing is, you can’t expect such massive shift in sound like fifteen years ago. I guess everyone is referring somehow to the musical past, it’s about filtering, an art of intelligent quoting, or maybe I’m totally wrong and we’ll be blown away in a few years with some sort of a totally new thing that doesn’t sound like anything else. Is this still possible?
Talking about subversion, you did a video for your song Angry Markets, deconstructing sterile stock images. You worked at a design agency so you have personal experience with the world of commercial imagery, right?
This is an aesthetic used in a corporate world. You have groups of photographs arranged under keywords like happy people, where everyone is very young with blue stripy shirts, happy and smiling. This represents a certain economic and political direction, and it’s quite interesting to use this aesthetic in a music video. The lyrics “Angry markets, profit warnings” came from the BBC’s financial news and I found this ultra-capitalist language of the angry markets rather scary. In a way it is a political song. It’s also about truth. When you look at these photographs, are these happy people? Do we believe their smiles? I don’t know who believes in this anymore. They are monsters fabricated by ideology.
But you are also influenced by other media outside of music?
I’m a big fan of Ryan Trecartin who makes these flamboyant films with pitch-shifted voices and stories about internet characters. It’s very futuristic and the sound design is brilliant because he mixes everything in such a nonchalant way. I’m very inspired by visual art. I also love the art of Joe Evans who made a large sculpture for the cover of the album. I want to make more videos, to add different dimensions to my music.
You have lived both in the east and the west of Europe. What is your view of the east/west divide, especially in terms of music?
I moved to Britain in 2004 but I was brought up in Poland and lived in Germany for a bit. With the UK, I certainly moved into a country of a very diverse culture and very advanced capitalism. I’m a bit trapped in a channel of Anglo-American music here. It’s a natural process but you have to be aware of it. When I was living in Poland I was listening to a lot of German music because Germany is Poland’s neighbor with a very strong tradition of electronic music. When I came to England, I realized they haven’t heard about certain things which were well known to me, like the Scape label, Pole, etc. I did a mixtape for a US blog recently, and I looked at my itunes and realized that most of the tracks are featured on every cool blog and how could I surprise anybody with that. I had to dig deeper into my library and find, for instance, German new wave hero Holger Hiller. I’m certainly aware that there are interesting things happening in Central and Eastern Europe and hopefully they will become louder.
Stream Katapulto’s album Bad Tourist in full:
Dan Deacon has been an underground agitator since the early ’00s, when he first broke out of the local music scene in Baltimore. His academic background – he studied at the State University New York’s music conservatory – has endowed his bit-crunched and brash compositions with a sense of purpose and poise. In other words, he’s experimental without being a dick about it.
His eighth album America, aside from being one of his most most sonically naked records he’s ever made, is also a deeply political record which sees Deacon tackling the sort of issues that begin to take hold when you step away from the internet or look up from your phone. He’s even gone so far as to print the lyrics with the record for the first time. It’s an interesting development, and we tracked him down on a flying visit to Berlin to find out what’s behind it. Photo: Shawn Brackbill
Listening to this record, my first response was how beautiful and expansive it is— particularly compared to your earlier records, which felt much more processed.
Most of the music is geography-based. I feel like that’s one of the things that I get the most inspiration from. I’ve done endless road trips in the United States, you go from these city centers that are largely crumbling – many cities in the States are crumbling, old post-industrial, especially on the East Coast where I live. Then you drive out of the cities and you’re instantly in these beautiful wonderlands of earth. I really like that. I don’t drive myself, so when I do travel I look out the window. It’s these two juxtaposed influences: one being the music which is influenced by geography and the other being the lyrics, which are influenced by the other side of things…mainly my role in what I perceive to be a system that I don’t want to be a part of. But there’s no way not to be a part of it.
What do you mean exactly?
Most of technology comes out of comfort and ease; it’s trying to make our lives easier and easier. I think of it like a scale: that the more comfortable I am actually means I am making someone else more uncomfortable. Especially when you see those photos of piles and piles of old computers.
Like the “Intolerable Beauty” series of photographs by Chris Jordan which forces you to confront the amount of electronic waste we create. It’s profoundly distressing.
I can’t complain about fracking and the use of natural gas if I still want my house to be the perfect temperature. I feel like there’s a dialogue between the music and the lyrics. I wanted to retain an optimism. I used to be quite nihilistic and almost wanted humanity to fade into the ether and disappear off the earth.
Do you think the gradual shift from nihilism to hope could also be a product of maturity?
It could be. Probably. A lot of people are nihilists in their twenties…you start to become aware of your role in the system. You want the system to collapse, especially if you’re counter-culture, and most musicians tend to be, well, at least hoping that they’re counterculture. Maybe not. Maybe musicians now want to be the mainstream.
It’s strange how music is apolitical now. It’s reflected within the music press, once a platform for angry left-wing politics. A lot of music press is trying to have the next new thing and essentially that’s quite hollow. If there’s no substance in that then you’re just like the people who write “first!” in the comments.
That’s the nature of capitalism: new, new, new, new. Or Greatest Hits. The music press is conservative: look at their advertising base. People are advertising in those magazines for very specific reasons: because of the demographics that they reach.
You recently brought out a phone app. How does this square with your worldview? Your place in the system?
It doesn’t. I think it fits in with my general aesthetic, though maybe aesthetic is the wrong word. I think the basis of my work tries to revolve around changing contexts, and when I play live I try recontextualize the space as much as possible. I utilize the audience as if they’re another instrument, or another element of the performance so that they’re not just there to watch but to actively participate. However, if you put too much emphasis on the audience, it’s no longer an entertainment they signed up for because they internalize it differently. I like to think people realize they are both an individual and a member of a group: there’s no real division of those things in how we live our lives. We live our lives as individuals but also as members of a society, and that society has common rules and boundaries and codes and conducts. Even counter-culture has those rules. Do you remember when you used to be bored and you used to be able to think? Now you play a game or send an email.
You’ve called the record America – aside from the topographical reasons, you don’t call an album that without betraying a bald sense of ambition.
It’s a big word. I wanted a title that would serve many different emotions. Nobody internalizes that word in the same way. It’s a mixture of love, hate, pride and shame, especially within America. I can only imagine what this word means to Europeans, in the UK or Asia. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard the word. A lot of Americans are obsessed with trying to not associate with being American, and that in itself is American. When Americans think of a stereotypical American they think of someone who is not them. “Oh it’s these Republicans from the South”, “oh it’s these New England liberals” etc. Especially within youth culture. A lot of politicians and corporations are like “this is what America’s about” and most of the time I’m like “no it’s not.” I wanted to contribute to that dialogue: America is also this. But it’s not a patriotic record.
…because Patriotism has certain connotations?
There’s no need for countries. It’s another way of dividing and defining people, creating these differences. Cultures obviously exist; there’s a difference between British culture and German culture. I could move to Paris and live there for 40 years and when I’m 70 I’ll still be an American who lives in Paris.
In the same way you can strive to construct an identity, but that doesn’t always translate to how people process you.
I think identity is a big theme on the record. More like me questioning my role and coming to terms what I’m to do if I’m to better the world. And the only way to better the world is to better myself, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” sort of style!
Again, that’s quite a grand statement.
I’m not trying to contribute to some sort of dialogue when all you’re doing is creating candy. Candy is nice. I ate a piece a moment ago and it was great. At the same time, I can’t thrive on it. There’s so much sugar and insincerity within the indie scene and pop music. I wanted to create something that had an additional element. I want it to be successful in the sense that a group of friends can get together and take bong rips and chill but they can also really listen to it. And maybe it would cause them to ask some questions in their head. I think that’s the most important thing someone can do: get someone to think and to start asking questions.
Mostly Robot isn’t just a band or a so-called supergroup. It’s not that Jeremy Ellis, Jamie Lidell, Tim Exile, Mr Jimmy and DJ Shiftee came together by accident. There’s a sense that this is a whole new method of band making. Native Intruments are the ‘curators’ who brought the musicians together, famous of course for their hard- and software: designed and produced for making state-of-the-art music and helmed by former Viva2 anchorman Mate Galic. We teamed up backstage with the Mostly Robot crew to get the background on this most unusual, self proclaimed ‘boyband from the future’.
EB: How did the relationship with Native come together?
Mostly Robot: Each one of us was approached by Native in different ways. It grew pretty organically – the original idea that we might do something grew from a Native anniversary party that Jeremy Ellis, Tim Exile and DJ Shiftee played in the LA. At the same time Sónar wanted to work together with Native again on a creative level. It wasn’t really a strategic move to cast a band, but as it developed, we wanted to create something unique.
Does this mean that the days of musicians looking for a label or distribution are over? Normally there’s a line between artists who are creating and companies who want to make money.
We would consider this as a kind of curatorship, of unifying talents which couldn’t be unified otherwise. You always have that in art, this idea of the curator, a person who brings different artists together. So we wouldn’t see that in such a harsh light; it’s the show and the end result which have to catch people emotionally.
Of course, the Guggenheim in Berlin is funded by Deutsche Bank, a body very much into making money while, in 2012, many labels are struggling.
The difference between Deutsche Bank giving money to an artist and Native is that Native makes synthesizers and other musical gear. They make a whole lot of things that we can use and we’re proud to have the Native affiliation because we’re all nerdy in our respective fields and Native are at the cutting edge of technology. It’s not a big corporate thing because we’re with the people pushing what we all want to do. We use the gear because we want to and the fact that we can come together like this is a happy bonus.
Looking fifty years into the future, how do you think the music industry will develop? Will there still be big labels supporting musicians? Or will it be corporations trying to support musicians, bringing them together to play festivals and releasing albums because all the oldschool labels fell behind because they didn’t understand the internet.
‘Yes’ is the answer to that. In the past, patronage used to be powerful families: the Medici, say, or else think of all the artists who used to create for their nation’s royal families. Now we’re in a capitalist society, the representation of that power has moved to corporations and that’s normal. What’s more, there’s a sense of creating relationships with people: we’re humans, we want to make connections, and, likewise, companies want to make connections. As individuals we want to look the way we want to look and be received in the way we want to be received, and companies want to do that too. Of course, big companies always want a bite of the subculture.
But what is subculture in 2012?
All I mean is that if you show people on the high street names like the bands playing at this festival (Modeselektor, Junior Boys, Nicolas Jaar or Mostly Robot) and if they don’t know who they are then it’s a subculture we’re dealing with. Red Bull is a great example; people don’t know who professional surfers or skateboarders are, it’s a niche thing, but they’re sponsoring 75 different sports. And they’re supporting a lot of freaking cool shit.
Returning to Mostly Robot, it’s hard to find any tracks on the internet. Is there an album release scheduled and how will that work?
We don’t know is the answer. Ultimately, it’s a pleasure project. There’s a lot of cameras at our gigs, the Native team are putting together videos, however while we’re together it’s about fun. When we all go back to our separate corners and get back on email we’ll talk about serious things. In the meantime we joke a lot, have fun and play the music. There’s no masterplan. We did CDR in Berlin the other night, we played a lot and encouraged people. That’s one thing we’re definitely are: we’re an experiment band.
What can we expect from the live show?
It’s five people onstage and three people running the visuals. Visuals wise, we’re a live band and it was our concept to show that. Every position gets a visual object so you see what you hear. We gave each member a different form or shape that rebuilds his instruments like his pad or his keyboard and these get triggered by the midi notes. We then mix this up with animations that we’ve done in advance because if we just translated the music mathematically it wouldn’t work; music is emotional and a show needs peaks.
How many gigs have you played now?
Sonar, Berlin Festival and this one. CDR wasn’t really a show. We’re jamming, we don’t know what’s going to happen, if it was all click-synced it would be boring for us and the crowd, it needs to have the spirit of the live band. That was the idea, for everyone to jam live and not have a grid where everybody presses play. It’s about getting back to the instruments.
There’s no masterplan, but what about the immediate future? Surely it’s not all spontaneous. You’re playing EB festival, what’s the next step?
As we said, it’s a pleasure project. We will get together when there’s time and talk about it and a plan could emerge, we don’t have a plan not to make a plan. As we do stuff it creates opportunities to do more, one step at a time. We do have some recorded jams … However, that’s the other thing about recording: the one thing about us and recording that’s different is the severe lack of overdubs – that’s the whole point. If we were actually going to go into a studio then we would go into Abbey Road. We would use the pre-amps, plug in and then play it down like it’s 1962. As if we were on a Roy Orbison record. We’re a live band. We exist in real time.
Photos: Attila Masa & Bartalan Soos