Friday, December 23, 2011

Our demographic and gigs

One of the downsides to being an aging pop star is that generally, your fans get old, too.

Being me, I take advantage of all the best technologies, stay the hell out of the sun, and eat right. so I still look pretty good.

But then I look out at the audience, and realize these are my people...

Anyhow, this is a good example of what some of our gigs are like:

Make sure you press the "snowflake" button.

PS that's not The Pants in the background. I believe it is Built To Spill or maybe  The Arcade Fire.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Truth About Music Videos

From this great new book "I Want My MTV":

STEWART COPELAND, The Police: I grew to understand that videos were mainly about getting our singer's face out there. Because it was so pretty. That's the way it goes. Drummers learn that lesson pretty early in life. Guitarists never quite learn that lesson. Drummers and bass players, we're over it.
So true, so true.

Anyhow, this book is highly recommended. You'll note a shocking lack of stories about Yours Truly within - the product of the continuing industry omerta about Sid Luscious and The Pants, and what they did to us!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Coldplay nails it, creates a perfect pop album

Man, this new Coldplay record is great. I wish I'd made it.

This review explains it all!

"...tugs the heartstrings like it's dragging a sofa upstairs..."

Read this review and understand what I (and hopefully the rest of The Pants) aspire to every minute of every day!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

All Pop Stars Are Fake

It turns out that one of Japan's newest pop stars is a fake.

The lovely and talented Eguchi Aimi of AKB48 does not exist. She's a virtual star, and one cleverly created as a composite of all of her bandmates. This sort of bums me out because I was working on a social media project which was going to have us Tweet virtual dates in real-time while simultaneously working on a special album collab project. But now the secret is out, and the project is off.

Of course she's Japanese. I've written before about Bandroids and Japan's cutting-edge technologies in this area. It would appear the Japanese, like me, realized that robots are too 20th century, and that going computer-generated/virtual makes a lot more sense:
"no hardware". Hardware is complex, messy, and unreliable. Just like the humans you're trying to replace.

Software, on the other hand, is cheap, malleable, and just gets better and better. The pros have been using software instead of recording machines for 20 years. The last 10 years have seen software versions of instruments swallow hardware instruments like a python devouring a gazelle. Listen to most of the records in the top 10 right now: The vocals are edited, tuned, and overdubbed. The drums aren't real drums, or if they were at some point, they've been edited and snapped into a grid, and all "imperfect" hits replaced with better ones. The synths are software. Any old acoustic instruments you hear are almost certainly samples. If you hear electric guitar or bass, assuming it's "real", it's being run through a software amp simulator and not a hardware amp. And so on.

Before you guys go all country/blues/authentic on me and start complaining there's something wrong with this, remember that all pop stars are fake. All of them.

It was ever thus, but let's start with the current round of meatbag pop tarts (there are of course a few exceptional exeptions). They have fake names, "perform" other people's songs, often by lip-syncing to heavily processed backing tracks sung by other pros, while dancing routines a pro choreographer created or stole from someone else, while dressed in clothes someone else picked out and/or designed for them. You can put in Ke$ha's name here, or Katy Perry, or really any pop singer from the 1950s on.

How is this different than a cartoon? Or look at Gorillaz, who are literally cartoons!

Paula Abdul was sued many years ago. Allegedly she didn't really sing the tracks on her breakthrough album, and failed to give the woman who sang the "guide tracks" credit and cash. I have it on good authority that not only was this true, but that Abdul's people wiped the evidence from the masters during the trial.

None of that makes "Straight Up" any less awesome, or any of the hits under these pop brands any less fun, artistic, or great.

I mean, there's no guy named "Coke". The Keebler Elves aren't real. And Willard Scott aside, there has never been a real Ronald McDonald. Those are artificial entities created to sell product. Just like pop stars. And just as advertising evolves beyond using unreliable, fallible humans to sell their ideals, music is catching up as well.

Most of your country stars are about as "authentic" as Country Time Lemonade. Shania Twain is Canadian, and her then-husband producer was also responsible for such authentic records as Def Leppard's "Hysteria", The Cars' "Heartbeat City", and much of Bryan Adams' oeuvre. Most country stars sing hits written by the pro songwriter community, which counted the late great Scotsman Stuart Adamson (of new wave geniuses Big Country) and Diane Warren, a Jewish woman from Van Nuys (who wrote mega hits for Leann Rimes and Trisha Yearwood) amongst their ranks.

Sammy Hagar says he's only been to a few great parties in his life and has been mining those memories for lyrics and attitude ever since.

Ziggy Stardust didn't exist. There's no Sergeant Pepper and no Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mick Jagger wasn't a street-fighting man, he was a business student at the London School of Economics. The Beach Boys weren't surfers, they were from the suburbs.

You can go as far back as you want (Shakespeare's female characters were all Dudes Looking Like Ladies), but you get the point.

Look, it's about perfection and selling illusion (and that's all entertainment is - illusion). The audience doesn't want to see human beings up there (no matter what they say), they want Greek gods and embodiments of ideals.

That's what the audience has been conditioned to expect over the years. It started the minute we put someone on a stage, and as technology has evolved, the illusion has evolved, too. The internet is very nearly the apex, since it's nothing but doctored digital data about everything. Everything is permitted, nothing is real.

It's just like the perfectly airbrushed and completely unrealistic models used in every magazine and in every photograph. Eguchi Aimi is airbrushing taken to its logical conclusion - she's all airbrush.

Here's her band in action. Like it or not, here come tha future:

Here's the "Making of Eguchi Aimi":

Japan, I tip my hat to you. Well played. I can't wait to work with and listen to her children.

I'm just pissed I didn't think of this first. But probably not as pissed as Florian of Kraftwerk!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Louis C.K. on being famous and older

In this surprisingly good Pitchfork interview, Louis C. K. says:
Pitchfork: Right now seems like a particularly up moment in your career. Is there any security in that? 
C.K.: Oh, Christ, no. It's still show business and based on people going, "I like that guy," which can evaporate on a global level in an instant. Through all the years of ups and downs, I've picked up a lot of skills and learned ways to take care of myself. I do feel more security now, but it's because the recent downs have not been as bad; when I fall from where I am now, I won't fall as far. I'll be OK.

That is about as succinct an explanation of show biz and success that I can think of. The most well-adjusted show biz folks are the ones who are able to back off a bit and think about "doing what they want" rather than "everyone needs to like me".

Sometimes that means you take a smaller paycheck, sometimes it means a change in your risk level.

The Pants haven't played a lot this year, but we make each show special.

See you soon!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

If someone had made a picture of me during the years most people are in college, it would have probably looked like this (that's me on the right):

Courtesy Jeph Jacques of the sublime Questionable Content

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bill Withers: Music Industry Casualty

I watched this documentary "Still Bill" over the weekend, all about Bill Withers. Who is Bill Withers, you say?

Bill wrote some of the finest songs ever, including "Ain't No Sunshine", "Use Me", and "Lean On Me". His other big hits include "Grandma's Hands", "Just The Two Of Us", and "Who Is He (And What Is He To You?)". Any one of those gets you into The Master Songwriters' Club for life. Nailing that many gets you a chair with your name on it.

And Bill did all that without knowing, in his words "an F sharp from 9th Street". He also had a hardscrabble upbringing in a coal town in West Virginia. Apparently he stuttered badly until his late 20s.

But when you hear him sing, that voice...that is a timbre that you are just born with. Sid may have a nice voice, but Bill Withers has a beautiful instrument. His phrasing is masterful, instinctual, and just perfect.

His melodic ear is brilliant - his melodies can be melancholy, wistful, and slightly dangerous. His songs are both instantly familiar and yet surprising.

Despite all that, Bill is sort of a forgotten figure in the music business these days, and that's sort of how he wants it. Maybe. He made his last album of new material in 1985, a year after our own debut was recorded.

He says he's been writing this whole time, but not finishing anything. Working in his own studio a little. Scribbling tons of fragments here and there, all the time. But mostly he says he's been goofing off, being a little lazy, enjoying his comforts. Raising his kids.

This happens sometimes. The Muse is fickle, and the fire you have as a young person, desperate to prove yourself, can get stifled, dimmed, or put out by even a modest amount of financial success or emotional validation.

Put another way, many of my L.A. friends have all kinds of intimacy issues. They all wanted or needed to be on stage having hundreds of people professing their love because they couldn't find a single person offstage who would do that. And once a few of them found that bliss in their personal lives, their artistic life was done. 

That don't mean you gotta suffer to create, though. Success in the biz comes through work. That means you pick up your axe and you write, you get out there in front of people and play. Because that is what you do, what you love, and because you need to pay your entourage. You have people depending on you.

One of my music teachers told me never to get a day job. He said "Don't do it. You'll end up with a good job, and you'll get a nice stereo and a nice house and a nice car and then pretty soon you'll get used to all of it and you won't want to give it up. And then you won't be able to focus on your music anymore."

I've seen that take down some folks too. I guess some people stop being hungry after they eat, you know?

I'm not sure if he just lost the spark. I know Bill really didn't like the biz part of the music business. He liked the singing OK, but the rest of it - the record company guys, the recording, the touring - not so much. He was lucky in that he got big enough that he could pick and choose, and had a good enough head on his shoulders to appreciate what he had.

Sometimes that machine just beats your desire out of you, and sometimes even moreso when you're successful. Once you've had a few Bill Withers-size hits, you don't need to take shit from nobody. You don't feel like making a record, you don't have to. And you sure don't have to listen to people who haven't (and never will) have Bill Withers-size hits tell you what to do and how to do it.

But maybe he just didn't want to cheapen his legacy. He's also a perfectionist about his writing, and says he just hasn't been that inspired. He doesn't want to repeat himself either. This, I can respect.

The downside to being a pro entertainer (as opposed to an artiste) is that you have to ship new product constantly. Many of the pros I know see their fanbase like a crop - they tend to them, water and feed them each year, and then harvest some cash by putting out something new. Doesn't matter whether it's "good" or "interesting" or "creative". It's something for the fans to buy. It's breakfast cereal, not timeless art or frozen architecture or whatever great music is.

I mean, hell, I've written a few good songs and part of me wants to just throw my hand up like George Costanza and leave the room. What if my next song isn't as good as "Lifestyle Magazine Lifestyle"? What if my next 30 aren't? I sure don't want to make a record so bad it makes people think less of my good records.

So comfort, hassle, quality control...maybe some combination of those things is why Bill's shop has been closed for so long.

Bill is over 70 now, but you'd barely know it from watching him and listening to him. Tons of energy, sharp as a razor. I aspire to his level of calm, cool, and self-assuredness. I wanna be like him when I grow up.

In the last few years apparently he's gotten interested in working again. Maybe he's realizing he doesn't have too many days left. Maybe he's bored. Anyhow, I hope he does something he's proud of. I can't wait to hear what he does next!

Bill Withers "Ain't No Sunshine"

Bill Withers "Use Me"

Also Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a nice article.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Martin Rushent, 1948-2011

Martin Rushent died over the weekend.

Martin had a knack for taking "outside" music - electronic or punk - and making it not just fit on radio, but making it a smash hit without losing what made it unique.

Rushy engineered for some of the 70s biggest and best acts: T. Rex and Fleetwood Mac are the first ones that come to mind.

You know him best for his groundbreaking work with The Human League: he produced "Dare", their breakthrough album featuring "Don't You Want Me". He also worked with many other important bands of the 80s, including The Stranglers, XTC, and The Go-Gos.

I knew Martin best for the great job he did with Buzzcocks. He produced their legendary and perfect  albums, including the essential "Singles Going Steady", the masterful "Love Bites", and the arty "A Different Kind of Tension". When I first heard these, they were all I listened to for about 3 months.

But the record that really blew me away was Pete Shelley's "Homosapien", which fused electronics to strummy acoustic guitar, rock beats to dance beats, and was able to be poppy like Buzzcocks but sounding unlike anything else.

This sound, this idea...that was all Martin. And that was the record that caught the ear of the Human League. Because they knew Pete Shelley couldn't play synth, and Martin couldn't play what was doing all that? It was a sequencer! And yet it was clearly a pop song and radio-friendly, not like the proto-industrial dirges they'd been writing. And The Human League started wondering what they could do with Martin...

"Don't You Want Me" was a big deal because it had tons of keyboards and a drum machine (all electronic, in fact), but it wasn't some novelty record. It was electronic music but not cartoony space robot music. It was a perfect pop song like any other that just happened to be synthesizer-based.

What few people did know about Martin was that he suffered crippling depression coinciding with (and possibly caused by) some issues with the bands he produced. In his words:
"I ended up a virtually bankrupt single dad with three kids, and had to sell my home and studio to pay off my bills…I didn't know what clinical depression was, but that's what I had. I could barely make a cup of tea and for a year I drifted like a soul lost."
This was a man who felt things. He understood the record business thoroughly. I desperately wanted him to produce The Pants' first album, and we were in discussions about having mix a track on our new record when he passed.

For better or for worse, there is a direct line from Martin's work to today's shiny pop music, including enabling technology to take over without anyone caring or batting an eye. Green Day owes their career to him, as do their totally denatured copycats Blink-182, Sum 41, and just about any other bunch of kids with colored, pointy hair and buzzsaw guitars, or a bunch of blinking lights.

I miss him already. I hope wherever he is, they have a kettle on and fresh tape on the reels.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Allison Moyet on the curse of the hit

The wise and mighty Allison Moyet said this:
"...hits really can be the bane of your life. People don't see that songs are like a diary of where you were at when you were 22, and then you're 23 and think something different and at 24 something different again. It's like you are forever tied to your hits and that's a fucking pain in the arse, because what is appropriate for you musically then isn't appropriate later on."
She's totally right. It's also tough trying to top yourself. Think back to when you were in your late teens and early 20s. Think about how perfect you were, how confident, how energetic, how young...hard to best that 20 years later.

Doesn't mean you shouldn't try, or that you can't do something different.

And now, of course, one of her hits!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Simple Songs and Success

My friend Anu has been writing a lot these days. Good for him. He even name-dropped me in a post trying to drum up some linkbait or SEO or something. No worries. I don't mind - I do this all the time (Justin Bieber naked with lesbians!)

Anyhow. There was that quote from Beethoven. Know what I think? Beethoven is a dope. Making 'a little extra money' is the whole point! Keep It Simple, Sell!

Anu mentioned "simple songs". Yeah, this is the way to roll. When I sit down to write, I'm thinking about a lot. "Emotion recollected in tranquility", for sure, except that I figure if you amp up the situation you get something even more powerful.

But more than that, I'm thinking about how to write something that will sell. BIG. Short list of things it's gotta include:

  • "Don't bore us, get to the chorus" Does it hit the chorus in the first 30 seconds? (It used to be 60 seconds, but the iPod generation has lopped that down. Many hits now START with the chorus)
  • "If you want that bling, you gotta make it ring" Does it have a hook that works as a ringtone? That means a simple monophonic melody that a synth can reproduce or that will play back well over a tiny phone speaker
  • You have to have a danceable beat. Every top 10 song ever has.

There really is a formula, and there really are manuals. I've read 'em all (and given away some of my best ideas to friends who've written them).

There's no percentage in writing complicated songs. You're not Cole Porter, and even if you were, people would rather sing "Night and Day" because it's old and associated with a bunch of other things (and maybe even out of copyright).

Writing simple means you have more time for important things, like interviews, promo, touring, and writing hits for other people.  Don't slave over it, kids. Bang out your ideas and move on.

James Brown had a "one idea, one song" rule. If he (or more likely, someone in his band) came up with a different idea, that was a different song. End of story. James Brown had a lot of hits. You do the math.

When I was a kid in the 80s, I wrote real simple tunes because I didn't know any better. I was just happy to slap any verse against any chorus and call it done.  Then I spent a long time in the wilderness of bridges and vamps and key changes and d-sections and codas and reprises before I came back to the truth: You need a great chorus, and one other part to make people miss the chorus enough to want to hear it again. MAYBE you put in one more bit if you must. 

I like Beethoven as much as the next guy, but when I'm listening to the 1812 overture, I'm thinking "why can't we have the cannon part NOW?" (And how come nobody has sampled that yet?)

New Pants record is coming. I'm working on it. Gotta finish a few more songs. The trick isn't writing them...the trick is the chopping them down to the leanest meanest, essential bits, so they're all hook and no fat. 

See you soon, Pantfans!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bob Geldof: Why Can't It Change?

Everybody knows Sid isn't interested in "political" music. Nobody can dance to it and it won't get you laid. Or rich.

Sid has mad respect for Bob Geldof. His old band, The Boomtown Rats, made some great records. He'll probably be remembered more for Live Aid and Band Aid and the antics of his daughter "Peaches", and also for naming his daughter "Peaches".

But he's a righteous dude with a nice sense of humor and the right priorities. His new album is called "How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell". I can certainly appreciate that - it's what I do!

Read this interview.