Monday, December 20, 2010

Super-late Hopscotch recap

Last September, the Independent Weekly held its first annual music festival in Raleigh, Hopscotch. I was one of the writers they sent out with a weekend-pass to document the Festival, ostensibly for a post-fest wrap in the paper that didn't wind up happening. I found my write-up, which I'd forgotten about, going through some old files recently, and figured I'd post it here for POSTERITY since there's little chance, at this point, that I'll be able to monetize a months-old festival review (please forgive the cynical mention of monetization; these are dark and inimical days for a freelancer). At Hopscotch, I mostly avoided the big tickets to scope out the margins, as is my wont. This was my experience:

What’s your “Hopscotch tally?” Here’s mine: 150 miles driven (i.e. 3 Durham-Raleigh round trips), 40 blocks walked, 30 conversations about how exciting this was for the Triangle engaged in, 10 pedi-cab rides declined, 7 performances witnessed, 5 venues visited, 2 hours spent getting lost on the outskirts of Raleigh, 1 panel moderated, 1 random slap on the ass from a passing college-bro outside the Pour House, 1 instance of late-night vomiting, and fewer beers than that last figure suggests. And I squeezed it all into the first two days, as I missed the final night to cover Prairie Home Companion’s “Summer Love” tour in Cary, which just as culturally jarring a transition as it sounds.

My first stop was the Five Star Restaurant to see Deakin from Animal Collective. As soon as I entered, a young woman approached me and said words I couldn’t hear over the throbbing music while proffering something I reached for reflexively, until I saw that it was flavored vitamin water and recoiled as if she were holding a snake. A hot one, made of poo. I got a beer instead and began to search for Deakin, who was nowhere to be seen. A crowd of young people faced a brick-and-mirrored corner that seemed empty. Had Deakin actually gone through the looking glass?

But no, when you got closer, there he was, in a tie-dyed t-shirt, with long, limp, center-parted hair, playing open guitar chords that came out of the speakers as glasses-rattling sheets of bass, backed by a drummer and keyboardist. If Panda Bear is for opiates, Deakin is definitely for psychedelics, juxtaposing pyrotechnic miasmas with heavy slabs of rhythm. Whenever a beat dropped, the kids in front snapped out of their euphoric stupors on cue and began to dance in the Deakin-appropriate style, which resembles a mellow seizure, with lots of “no no no” head-shaking. On the way out I was really thirsty and snagged a flavored vitamin water to drink on the walk to Kings, which was cold and refreshing and didn’t taste like poo at all, although I wouldn’t recommend mixing it with beer (#late-night vomiting).

The new Kings  is nondescript from the street: a white brick façade with only the clustered hipsters outside and some soaring guitar notes from within betraying its function. Inside, I was pleased to discover how much it felt like the old Kings, where I fondly remember rocking out to the Chestpains and Sharon Jones (although not, sadly, on the same night), if it were crossbred with the mazy tiers of Ringside: lots of poured concrete, lurid murals, arcade cabinets, and artifacts from the old location such as the crown-shaped beer shelf. Locrian played as I entered, which was quite a tonal shift from Deakin: dark, sparse, and precise, rather than day-glo, caterpillar-thick, and sloshing. The room was thinly populated—this wasn’t Hopscotch’s trendiest bill—but Locrian sounded awesome and I wished I’d left Five Star a bit earlier as to hear more than two songs. Then Cloudland Canyon took the stage. The tall, skinny drummer pulled off his sleeveless black Liturgy t-shirt and carved up the band’s towering mass of VU-style reverb into lucid planes. They were powerful and proficient, although I didn’t take much away from it besides “loud.”

On Friday afternoon, I moderated the “Black Mountain College: Legacy and Inspiration” panel at the Raleigh City Museum. My friends Ken Rumble, Megan Stein, and Chris Vitiello staged a happening that included breaking glass, blending drinks, power tools, slowed-down records, thrown dice, and much more layered minutiae. It worked great, imbuing banal actions with a heroically repetitive aura. Another friend, Chris Tonelli, gave an illuminating talk on the Black Mountain poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, and read from Williams’ humorous, profane work as well as from his own. And Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman gave a marvelous reading from Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, replete with multiple voices and lusty sound effects, before reading a poem of his own that updated a portion of Ezra Pound’s Cantos to address the touring musician’s life. Then I went home to work and nap. I overslept and sadly missed Ryan Gustafson’s set at the Pour House, but Ryan deserves special mention for being (as far as I know) the only musician to play all three nights of Hopscotch (with Max Indian on Thursday and the Light Pines on Saturday).

Arriving at the Pour House in time for Sharon Van Etten, I expected a quiet, intimate vibe. Boy, was I wrong. The venue was packed to the rafters with predominantly undergrad-aged patrons, and in the back, Van Etten’s loud, brassy rock numbers could barely compete with the crowd noise. The ballads didn’t stand a chance. I worked my way to the front by stealth and guile, and it was better, but there were still people standing ten feet from the stage with their backs turned, deep in conversation. I’m not one to expect a reverent hush at shows, and admittedly, I was often “that guy” at age 22. But this was pretty shameful. “This next song is very special to me,” Van Etten said over the catcalls and chatter, as she launched into a beautiful, dragging torch song for harmonium. She handled it gracefully, though you could see the hurt in her eyes when they flickered over the crowd. Outside the Pour House is where the aforementioned ass-slapping incident occurred: that’s what the vibe was like there, weird and crass and aggressive. It was the only time all weekend I felt less-than-proud of the Triangle.

On the street outside, it seemed as if all of Chapel Hill and Durham were in Raleigh. With apologies to Bowerbirds, I needed a break from the Pour House, and went next door to Tir Na Nog with a posse that included Josh Moore, Hometapes' Jon Polk, and a Juan Huevos raging on Amped gum and rocking a ripped white tee like Lou Ferrigno. The War on Drugs was just getting started, and the vibe was just as excitable as at the Pour House, but much friendlier and more music-focused. War on Drugs is a band I’ve slept on but won’t anymore—their deep bass lines, Technicolor shredding, and Herculean drummer were a thrill. I thought it was kind of like Tom Petty crossed with Wavves, although the latter was mainly due to the singer’s psychedelic baseball cap.

Still, I cut out early, because my unilateral soul-mate Richard Buckner was playing back at the Pour House, which was utterly transformed: the room was now half-full with people who were there not to be seen and hook up with friends, but to—gasp!—hear Richard Buckner. It was 1 a.m. by the time he went on, playing an acoustic set with his uniquely chunky and barbed guitar playing. At this point, I was pretty tired, and leaned against the wall with other battle-weary but ardent Buckner fans, letting his voice wash over me. By 1:30 I was slightly swaying  on my feet, and I said my goodbyes and made for the door. But on the stairs, I heard the opening notes of “Town,” one of my very favorites. With a resigned smile, I turned around and went back in to hear one more song.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Past Simple #9

Got some new poems from Wolf Intervals in the latest issue of Past Simple, alongside friends like Amy King, kate pringle, Marcus Slease, Joe Donahue, and lots of cool translations of Polish poetry.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mac McCaughan Q&A

In July, I interviewed Mac McCaughan (of Superchunk and Merge Records) for a small item in GO, the in-flight magazine of AirTran. The edited version of the interview was published in the magazine's October issue and is available on their website here. (For the record, one quote of mine--"There was a point when Chapel Hill rock almost seemed like a genre unto itself. Years later, Cursive would sing, ‘Chapel Hill around the early ’90s’ in a song about their influences."--was erroneously attributed to Mac in the magazine.) Mac and I chatted for about an hour, only a few minutes of which could be represented in the magazine. So with the kind permission of GO and Merge Records, I'm reproducing the entire unedited interview transcript here.

Mac McCaughan Q&A

by Brian Howe

conducted at the Merge office in Durham on July 14, 2010

BH: The big indie rock boom really took off in the 90s, but there was plenty of independent music in the Triangle before that. Can you talk about what it was like here in the 80s when indie rock was still underground and developing its infrastructure?

Mac McCaughan: When I was in junior high and high school in the early 80s, we would listen to the radio stations that are still around here, the college stations, WXYC and WXDU, to hear what was new. We found out about a lot of exciting stuff just from that. Schoolkids Records was in Chapel Hill and in Raleigh as well. Coming out of the 70s and listening to classic rock, for me and a lot of my friends, anything else was kind of the alternative. In other words, we were into hardcore bands; their shows were all ages and there was a good scene around here for that. But at the same time, listening to WXYC, there could be a DJ playing Corrosion of Conformity and then Let’s Active and then the dBs, so for us it was all good. We wanted to hear and see all of that. There were definitely different scenes, but for us it was all exciting because it was all different than anything we’d ever heard. In some ways, having those bands that were great, and also that made an impact would know from reading Rolling Stone or something that Let’s Active was getting reviewed and think “Wow, they’re from NC!” Or you could read a scene report from Raleigh in Maximum Rock and Roll, talking about new labels and Bloodmobile or whatever. It gave people around here some kind of pride in the ability of these small cities to produce a lot of great music, and made it seem normal. “Of course there’s a great scene here, of course there’s bands.” I think it resulted in a lot of people starting bands. It was just a normal thing to do. You could be a hardcore band and play to a really packed room at an all ages matinee in Durham or Raleigh. In Chapel Hill, there was a place called the Turning Point that was a garage that had everything taken out of it: an art space, barefoot kids running around. There’s where Reservoir is now.

Sounds like you’re saying that categories were less well-defined.

Yeah, kinda, and I think that it’s not such a big place, so that everyone knew each other, regardless of what kind of music they were doing. If it was an alternative to what was on the radio, it was part of this other thing. And plus we’re in a pretty good spot for touring bands to come through. The Cat’s Cradle, the Brewery, a couple places in Durham that would open and close including Under the Street in Durham, the Fallout Shelter in Raleigh was pretty important too. When an independent band at the beginning of what you’re describing as the 90s indie scene, bands on Homestead for instance, like Volcano Suns....bands I was in and that my friends were in would all be scrambling to try and open for them. It seemed more available then, that if you were a local band you could be the opener for someone coming through. This band called the Pressure Boys, a ska band that we loved going to see in high school—because they were kind of the biggest band in the area and had put out a couple records on their own label, they would get the opening slot for all the big bands that would come through. I saw Pressure Boys open for Billy Idol, Duran Duran at the Greensboro Coliseum, Missing Persons, Bow Wow Wow....any big alternative band coming through.

They were kind of like the kings of the scene at the time, right?

Yeah, there was a lot of ska and hardcore and just like pop, but the 80s, new wave version—like the X-Teens from Durham. There were people putting out records here, there was a label called Dolphin that Tommy Keene had records on, and they put out some comps of local bands called, I believe, Mondo Montage. So there was always a lot going on, just maybe on a smaller scale. You never really felt like it was connected to the mainstream.

My impression of that time is that it was more of a Wild West kind of feel.

Yeah, and that’s what was a little bit wacky about the early 90s: Being a local band at one point felt like a good thing if you were in the scene, but you kind of felt like to everybody else—more casual music fans—if you said you were in a local band they’d be like, “Well, I just go to see touring bands come through town.” So if you got to play in front of people it was because you were opening for someone else. Local music was less respected by the general populace, but in the early 90s when local bands started being written about in national media, that changed. Then people thought “Oh, now this seems real to me because it’s being validated by an article in Spin or Entertainment Weekly.”

And it’s a category then, not just a geographical location—it’s a “thing”, local rock or college rock.

And those magazines identifying that we have a scene here in NC, I certainly think that really helped local bands get bigger crowds, especially with college students coming from elsewhere and thinking, “I’ve read about the Cat’s Cradle, I’ve read Sonic Youth talking about it in the Village Voice or whatever. I’ve read about Superchunk or Archers of Loaf.” It went from being something more like playing for your friends to something that other people noticed.

There was a point when Chapel Hill rock almost seemed like a genre unto itself. It became well-defined enough that years later Cursive could sing “Chapel Hill around the early 90s” in a song about their influences. And Superchunk was in the mix in those days.

I was in some bands that put out a box set of seven-inches, the Evil I Do Not to Nod I Live box set. This was pre-Merge, really, just a bunch of bands that existed for a few years put out this singles box and then everyone broke up. But it taught us how to make records. When those bands broke up, that’s when Chunk started, and we started Merge pretty soon after that, but just doing seven inches and tapes and stuff.

What kinds of desires were driving Chunk in those days?

I think it was just to make records and play shows. The driving stuff behind anything we were doing then came out of being fans of other bands, and records we’d been listening to since 1980 or whenever, and wanting to do something similar ourselves. The idea was to have fun playing shows and hopefully put out some singles, that was the concept.

Was there any sense of there being something brewing you wanted to get involved in?

Not really, we thought of it as an extension of what had already been happening with bands I was in before, like Slush Puppies and WWAX. Laura and I played together with some of those same people in bands that would form to play a party, maybe record a tape, and break up. We weren’t looking for anything beyond that, except that those other bands had been kind of unstable, and there was an idea of, “Let’s have a band that plays more than a few shows.” Slush Puppies and WWAX never did any touring, but we’d go play D.C. or Charlotte and that was always fun. But the idea of doing it in a real way, even though Laura was here and I was still at Columbia in NYC....there was definitely a feeling of those other bands seeming more like a hobby, and wanting it be a little more real with this band, even though we never thought it would be a job or anything like that.

Was the impetus for Merge similar at all, wanting to make something more official?

No, it was more just, if we’re going to put out our records ourselves, we have to call the label something. And as long as we’re doing that, our friends’ bands don’t have anyone to put out their records, so we should do that too. And it just kind of piggybacked like that. Each time we did a record, we’d make however many, 700 or a 1,000. It would sell out and we’d go on to the next thing. I think that if you have a few releases by a few different bands rather than one or two, then distributors or stores start to give you an identity—it’s this scene instead of this band. We never intended to be an NC label, but that’s who we knew. It would be weird to have started casting around the world looking for records to put out when we’d never put out a record before. And it still felt weird when we started doing that. When we got in touch with the 3Ds to do The Venus Trail, we’d only been a label for a couple years, so it did seem kind of crazy, but at the same time...they had one record on First Warning which had gone out of business—so we were just hoping, maybe they won’t get another deal and will have to let us put out their record! Just kind of lucking into stuff.

Your first Chunk records weren’t on Merge, but on Matador?

We did a couple cassettes of bands I was in, Bricks and WWAX, on Merge, and a single by Metal Pitcher with me and Laura, and the first Chunk single was on Merge. We got signed to Matador after that, but we still put out the “Cool” and “Slack Motherfucker” singles—basically all of our seven-inches were on Merge and the full-lengths were on Matador, just because we didn’t want to lose the connection between Superchunk and the label, so it wasn’t like “Oh, now that we’re on Matador, we don’t have to put out records anymore.”

Was the Matador deal just because they had better resources?

Yeah, when we put out singles we were basically borrowing money from people, sometimes from the bands themselves, to help get it pressed, and then paid them back once we sold them. Just borrowing money release by release, usually making it back and a little on top to fund the next release. But CDs and LPs were just beyond what we could imagine doing. Once it seemed like we could make an album, we couldn’t afford to, so Matador was a way to do that. Merge kept growing to the point where by the time our deal was up with them, we had the distribution and the means to do full-lengths ourselves.

As a label owner and musician, you’ve ridden out two huge shifts in indie music, from underground to mainstream and from physical to digital media. How have you weathered those challenges?

In some ways, we weathered them by not doing anything differently. Obviously now you do things differently in terms of distribution and promotion, but we’ve never changed the basic idea behind the label. In that time when bands were signing to major labels and some were selling lots of records, and seemingly becoming part of the mainstream in that brief period when MTV was really powerful and you could kind of do that, we were not interested in suddenly signing different kinds of bands to sell more records. Certainly there were concerns that our bands would go to major labels, but we just had enough momentum on our own that it was never that interesting to us. We had lunch with people from different labels and stuff, but we were fortunate to be in a position to keep our distance, to watch it happening instead of needing to be involved. If we had been on our third album and still only selling 2,000 records and someone wanted to give us a bunch of money to sign to a major, who knows what we would have done? But we were making money selling records and touring. We were still working day jobs at that point but stuff with the band was going well. The band and label seemed to be growing. We were just established enough to say, “Well, that’s happening over there, but we’re going on this track.” And it helped that we had models to look at of people who were doing the same thing, people like Dischord or Teen Beat or K, as well as newer stuff like Sub Pop or Matador. We weren’t just alone doing this thing. Everyone kind of participated in that to the degree they were comfortable with, Matador and Sub Pop certainly more extensively than us, in terms of involvement with major label world.

In not chasing the boom, you avoided the inevitable bust.

Yeah, and again, most of the bands we work with, they’re not really going-for-the-gold kinds of artists. It’s a self-selecting process in terms of bands we want to work with and bands who want to work with us. Bands we loved in the 80s like Red Kross, they signed to majors and just disappeared. Sonic Youth seems like the exception to the rule.

That kind of answers my next question, about whether your goals have had to shift during the decades. You’ve stayed committed to some simple ideals.

It’s a little conservative in some ways. We put out records we like and don’t spend a ton of money doing stuff that may or may not work out, simply because we can’t afford to, and we operate, the band and label, as music fans. What do I like, what do I want to see in the record store? That’s gotten harder and harder over the years with the whole digital thing, because there is so much going on in the music business that is not interesting to me, but you have to be involved. I’m talking about the way music is sold more than genres or styles. There’s a great new interview with Ted Leo in the Voice where he’s like, “It’s ten dollars, you can’t spend ten dollars? Drink two less beers this week and there’s your album.” But everyone gets online like, “Where can I get it for free?” In some ways you feel like you’re contributing to that mindset when you have to make stuff so cheap online to sell it, it seems kind of insane. It’s not a recession thing, it’s a mentality. At a certain point you just have to stop, because if people would think it through they would realize the records aren’t going to exist if no one’s buying them. I don’t know if that’s going to keep happening until we get to a point where labels and bands just go out of business. It also gets harder when there’s not a physical experience of going to buy a CD or a record. You click on something to buy the album and forget about it. You’re not looking at it, you didn’t have to think that much to get it. At the record store, you’re not going to buy a hundred records for 99 cents, you’re going to choose five, and if more thought goes into it you care more about it and get more attached to it. If it’s a bunch of files on your computer, you forget. I forget about stuff I get on eMusic. Even with the way things are going in terms of the physical/digital split, I hope we manage to retain this idea of going to a record store, where you have to interact with other people and think about what you’re getting and have some connection to the music. I love being able to hear songs before I buy records, I think that’s a great service. My iPod, I don’t love listening to it, but find it highly convenient and bring it on every flight I go on. I’m not against that, but the physical component is just more substantial in multiple ways.

Is Merge doing a lot of things that other labels are doing in terms of non traditional ways to monetize music, like video game and TV placement?

A lot of that is up to the artist. There are certain artists we don’t try to get licensed to anything because they’re just not interested.

What, the next Grand Theft Auto game doesn’t need an East River Pipe song?

Yeah, exactly! And there are bands in the middle who might do it if it’s a show or movie they like, but if it’s like an ad for BP, they’re probably not going to do it. And then there are bands that are like “Yeah, license away, doesn’t effect me, just going to keep doing what I’m doing.” But it certainly helps bands offset the loss of CD sales.

What has made Chapel Hill such a hotbed for indie music?

I think the fact that it was noticed in the first place was just a bit of a cycle playing out—we’ve been to Austin, we’ve been to Seattle, oh, here’s a college town with a lot of bands. The fact that it became a news story was a bit of luck, the wheel going around. We got noticed at a time when we and Polvo and Archers were playing and there was a lot going on. There’s always a lot going, and I think that’s a result of the things we’ve talked about—great radio stations, great venues, multiple universities, record stores. All those things existing in one place naturally creates and environment where people can be inspired by music, make music, and find an audience.

Cost of living too maybe?

Yeah, doesn’t seem like it’s a cheap as it was, nothing is. It’s funny because when I finished college and came back here, people were like, “You want to be in bands, why not stay in New York?” To me that was like the hardest place to be in a band. I remember literally taking an amp and a guitar on the subway to a rented practice space where you pay however much per hour and you’re in there for two hours exactly, just like the least fun way to make music to me. It only made sense to come down here where you can do whatever, set up in your living room.

Do you identify any high or low points in scene over the years?

There’s certainly been specific concerts that people talk about; there was a concert trying to raise money for Harvey Gant to defeat Jesse Helms, in which he was unsuccessful. But it was called The Vanish Benefit Concert and it was at the old Durham Bulls ballpark, it was us and Polvo and Eugene Chadbourne. This was probably 1996. It was all these bands playing in this old ballpark, a much bigger event than we would normally play on our own. Another highlight for us was the Barack Obama benefit we played with Arcade Fire. When you’re only doing two or three shows a year, that’s the kind of show you want to go for.

The halcyon early-90s days when everyone was getting signed or about to: Reality or myth? I feel like that’s been blown out of proportion over the years.

I definitely feel like it’s been blown out of proportion, although it’s true that when you see the kinds of bands that were getting signed to major labels you think man, people were going crazy.

What are your favorite local venues?

The Cat’s Cradle is historical and has been in a few different locations, when you walk in it just kind of seems like a rock club but everyone who works there is great, the bands they book are excellent. It always helps to see a band in a place where they enjoy playing, and bands look forward to coming through town to play there and just to be in Chapel Hill. Local 506 has been there for a long time too; it’s a great, more intimate space. And in Durham there’s the Pinhook, though I’ve only been there as a bar, I haven’t seen bands there yet, but that’s really good. And Kings in Raleigh is reopening in a new space any moment now, which is really exciting, because it was a great spot before. Steve from Polvo is one of the owners of that.

Local bands to watch?

Love Language, obviously, is on Merge, and the Rosebuds are working on a new record right now. There’s a new band called Mount Moriah that’s really cool, which is Heather McEntire from Bellafea, I heard some stuff they recorded with Brian Paulsen that sounds amazing. There’s a new Hammer No More the Fingers record floating around that’s also very good. The new Lost in the Trees record is great too.

As indie music as a whole becomes more global, what is the value of the local?

It’s a balance, right? In all areas of life, people are seeing the value and importance of local economies. In some ways globalization has failed, economically, for most people while enriching some. So in music, half the records I buy are reissues of African music from the 60s and 70s, stuff I never would’ve been able to find earlier. I love the availability of that in terms of being connected to stuff all over the world. At the same time, for us, the business is based on real relationships with other people. The best way to do that, obviously, is to see and interact with people in your community. The group of bands that exists in an area help support each other, record stores, bars, and venues, it’s all connected. I think it’s great to make long distance connections as well, there are bands on Merge from all over the world. But in terms of being in a band and a citizen in a community, it’s important to have a local group of people that is doing something—d maybe their own thing, but connected to other people doing their own thing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Horse Less #8

The scale-tipping new issue (127 pp.!) of the Horse Less Press journal is out now, and includes three poems from my manuscript WOLF INTERVALS. You can download a pdf here. After reading through it once, there were too many poems I liked to list them all, but I especially sparked on the work by by Graeme Bezanson and Kirsten Jorgenson.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Feltbattery article

One of my favorite local sound artists, Feltbattery, has a new album coming out on Migration Media that does for bees what It Had Wings did for birds. I can't believe that the conceptual payload of "the birds & the bees" is landing upon me only as I type these words. Too bad I didn't think of it before writing an article about Behold a Golden Throng for Shuffle Magazine, which nevertheless manages to offer a look behind the scenes of Ben Trueblood's rich and fascinating process.

Shuffle's out now in two mini-issues:
Part I:
Part II:

Feltbattery's in no. 2. (N.B.--The album's release has been delayed until this winter.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Videos in Drunken Boat

Two videos by Ashley and I, ELLA FINDS HER VOICE and BALLET (feat. CAConrad), are included in the latest issue of Drunken Boat. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Black Mountain Archives

A note from Ashley Yandle of the North Carolina State Archives, following up on the Black Mountain College panel I moderated at Hopscotch:

The Black Mountain College records are at the North Carolina State Archives, a couple of blocks away from the Raleigh City Museum.

Our website

Our blog

The list of BMC collections we have

Some BMC photos on our Flickr account

And a series of BMC publications that we've scanned and put online

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Thread Goes Live!

Yesterday I mentioned a "new blog launch." Today, I'm happy to report that The Thread has gone online. The Thread is the new blog of the Duke Performances series, which I'll be editing. Add us to your bookmarks and check in daily for insightful think-pieces by terrific writers, not to mention streaming and downloadable media pertaining to our artists.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Craziest Weekend Ever

Hopscotch in Raleigh! Prairie Home Companion in Cary! A new blog launch (more on that soon)! If I survive this weekend, this weekend is going to rule. To top it all off, I'm moderating one of the afternoon panels at Hopscotch, which you might want to check out for some chin-stroking action before you start pouring beer over your own head at Fucked Up's show. It's at the Raleigh City Museum on Friday afternoon, from 4-6 pm. Press release:

FRIDAY, SEPT. 10 (Free/ 4–6 p.m.)
Black Mountain College: Legacy and Inspiration
Andrew Whiteman writes, sings and plays guitar in the Canadian bands Broken Social Scene and Apostle of Hustle. Not long after Broken Social Scene confirmed their co-headlining Hopscotch set, Whiteman approached festival organizers about an event that would honor Black Mountain College, the influential interdisciplinary school that opened in western North Carolina in 1933. Whiteman will read his own poetry, as well as that of several Black Mountain acolytes, and discuss the school’s importance with a panel of local poets.

The speakers include Toronto’s ANDREW WHITEMAN, a Broken Social Scene staple who will read from his forthcoming book, Tourism; Durham’s KEN RUMBLE, an installation artist, musician and the author of Key Bridge (Carolina Wren Press, 2007); Durham’s MEG STEIN, an installation artist and musician working and playing in the 715 Washington art collective, along with Rumble; Durham’s CHRIS VITIELLO, a poet and artist and the author of Irresponsibility (Ahsahta Press, 2008); and Raleigh’s CHRIS TONELLI, a professor at N.C. State University, the author of four chapbooks and the founder of the So and So Series. Pitchfork Media Critic and Paste Senior Contributing Editor BRIAN HOWE, an accomplished poet himself, will moderate the discussion. Rumble, Stein and Vitiello will also present a performance inspired by the Black Mountain College happenings of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg at the start of the event.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 11 (Free/ 4–6 p.m.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Here's a video that Ashley and I made for the Mad Bunkers Review's mash-up issue. The text is a mash of work by Marc Lowe and Davis Schneiderman.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Found Text: On Body Image

  1. My hands are always cold.
  2. My eyes routinely switch between green and blue. I have photos to prove it as well.
  3. I'm slender and I have a curvy figure, that's weird for a guy right?
  4. I don't tan or burn. I can be out in the sun every day for six weeks without sunscreen and nothing will happen. I'm very pale.
  5. My wrist is less than 6 inches around.
  6. My toes face outward. And I'm a ginger.
  7. I can wiggle my ears. I also have a huge tongue and can lick my elbow.
  8. I have blood red patches of skin on parts of my body and a pitch-black part on my arm. The rest of my skin seems to remain tan, even without being in the sun.
  9. One of my toenails is extremely thick and hard to cut.
  10. My pinkies bend inward.
  11. I have the most feministic body a man can get.
  12. My arms feel almost no pain and what pain they do feel fades very quickly. The rest of me hurts just fine.
  13. I can put my hand behind my ribcage. It's not like I'm underfed, I just have a super high metabolism.
  14. I apparently have abnormally large nostrils. Or at least that’s what one of my friends keeps telling me.
  15. I produce a lot of salt crystals in my sweat, when it hardens in my pores it makes needle shapes. Thus every time I sweat I feel million tiny needles stabbing my skin. It's fucking annoying, especially since I'm the unlucky bastard to inherit that from my parents.
  16. My pancreas doesn't work anymore. Meaning I have Diabetes.
  17. I've got balls of steel.
  18. I also have a big, butterfly-shaped burnmark on my left palm that grows hair.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reading Nietzsche on my 31st birthday

Reading section 31 of Beyond Good and Evil on my 31st birthday....
trans. Marianne Cowan


When one is young one accords honor or contempt without the art of the nuance which constitutes the best profit to be had from life. And, as is quite just, one must do heavy penance for having attacked people and things with "yes" and "no," as it were. Everything is arranged in such a fashion that the worst of all tastes, the taste for the absolute, is cruelly teased and abused until finally man learns to incorporate some art into his feelings and to prefer, if necessary, to experiment with artificiality, like the real virtuosos of life. The anger and reverence that characterize youth seem not to rest until they can discharge themselves against them. The very essence of youth is falsification and deception. Then later, when the young soul, tortured by nothing but disappointments, finally turns on itself in suspicion (still hot and wild, even while suspicious and conscience-stricken)--how angry it is now at itself, how impatiently it rends itself, how it takes revenge for its long self-deception as though it had been a voluntary blindness! In this transition period one punishes oneself by mistrusting one's own feelings; one tortures one's enthusiasms by doubt; one goes so far as to consider one's good conscience a danger, one thinks of it as a self-obfuscation and a tiring of a more refined candor. But above all, one takes sides--basically and in principle--against "youth."--A decade later one comprehends that that stage too was--youth!

Friday, July 16, 2010


Apparently, about half of the music I listen to is drugs.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Jayson Greene on Earworms

My Pitchfork colleague Jayson Greene just published a fascinating think piece on the concept of the "earworm" in New Music Box, the American Music Center's web magazine. I get quoted. Read it here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Capri Sun Also Rises

1. The shiny pouch makes you feel like an astronaut but always features something "summery" and "bitchin" like people in dark glasses rollerblading or windsurfing on a juicy wave of fruit. So you get the best of both worlds--space and fruit.

2. The little yellow straw is glued to the front of the pouch and breaks right off with a satisfying cartilaginous snap, like you're snapping some really fresh celery in half or something, with a sensation of "dryness" presaging the sensations of "wetness" to come.

3. You don't have to peel the plastic off of the straw; you simply pull it at each end and it breaks in two with another satisfying cartilaginous snap. What other popular, nostalgic beverage provides not one but two satisfying cartilaginous snaps in a row? Try producing a satisfying cartilaginous snap with a can of Tang crystals; you're screwed.

4. The straw is pointy on one end which makes it seem a little dangerous and you puncture a little round membrane or hymen in the pouch with it, which plays nicely off the preceding snaps, as a sort of fleshy thunk.

5. The beverage itself is thin and watery and seems kind of beside the point. 25% less sugar! But than what? An actual grape? A rollerblade? A giant sack of sugar?

6. As you take the last drink the pouch goes flat and airless in your hand, like you've sucked the last drops of lifeblood from some kind of metal turtle and left behind a necrotic shell. But much less nasty than that. And actually a metal turtle shell wouldn't compress, would it. This just goes to prove my old theory that there is no natural analogue for a flattened Capri Sun pouch.

7. If you press the straw to the inside of your upper lip while sucking all the air out of the empty pouch, it will suction-cup itself there and you can dangle it and swing it around from your lip, which as far as I'm concerned is a totally unique node in the sensorium.

8. When you're done dangling you can blow up the pouch again and it makes a rich crinkly sound. Once it's re-inflated it feels like something that should float off into the sky or at least bob ambivalently above the ground, like a leaking helium balloon. But I've only seen that happen one time.

9. When the pouch is inflated it looks like it's full of Capri Sun again, and you can ask your mom if she would like a drink, although she will be smart enough to recognize this sudden generosity as a trick and that will surprise you--you had not realized that she was smart.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wax Wroth Reading Series #3 audio

Tony Tost breaks it down

On Saturday, July 10, at the third installment of my Wax Wroth Reading Series, we bid farewell to our dear friend and favorite poet Tony Tost, as he and his family prepare to leave North Carolina for the Pacific Northwest. I've known Tony for something like 8 years now, and as I said in my introduction, he has been not only a huge influence for me, but an indispensable supporter, and he'll take my gratitude with him wherever he goes.

Tony is working on a book about Johnny Cash's American Recordings for Continuum Press' 33 1/3 series, and those who attended the reading at 715 Washington on this sweltering July night were treated to a long sneak preview of what I think will be the best entry in the series yet. The good news is that I recorded the whole thing. The bad news is that the oscillating fan periodically blows on the recording device and causes obvious problems. So please forgive the patches of poor quality, and enjoy a taste of Tony's breathtaking insights on Cash's mythic stature:

But wait! There's more.

Tony Tost and the So-Long-Tony-Tost Improv Band

After the reading, a few brave stragglers stayed on to send Tony off in style with a free-improv jam session. A few mp3s document the sweaty, melancholic clangor below. The players are Tony, Brian, Ashley, Chris, Julie, Alex, and the oscillating fan that kept blowing on the damned recorder because I was careless about that. I've taken the liberty of titling the whole thing "TUNING IS FOR SUCKERS TONIGHT":

Stay tuned for info on the next Wax Wroth reading, which will feature Tanya Olson and Julie Greenberg! 

Saturday, June 26, 2010




Starring TONY TOST

Saturday, July 10, 8 p.m.

715 Washington in Durham (just off the intersection of Washington and Trinity, very close to the old baseball field)


Please join us to fete and savor the Durham-based poet and writer Tony Tost before he leaves us for the Pacific Northwest.

It’ll go something like this: at 8 p.m., Tony will give a nice roomy reading—his last before leaving the Triangle! 

Then we’ll have an informal musical jam session led by your bandleader, Tony Tost—participation is open to all but of course not required. Feel free to bring acoustic instruments and noisemakers!

Tony has been a good friend to a lot of us and an important voice for poetry in Durham and beyond—not to mention just a really fine poet. Hope you take this chance to see him off in style!

Admission is free and open to the public, though donations will be accepted for Tony and his family as they prepare to move cross-country. Please contact Wax Wroth organizer Brian Howe with any related inquires.


TONY TOST’s first book, Invisible Bride, was selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the 2003 Walt Whitman Award. It was followed by the 2005 chapbook, World Jelly (Effing Press) and the 2007 book Complex Sleep (University of Iowa Press). He was a co-founding editor of Octopus Magazine, and the founding editor of Fascicle. Tost is currently writing a book on Johnny Cash’s first American Recordings album for Continuum Press’ 33 1/3 series, and completing a dissertation on technology, myth and 20th century poetics at Duke University. He blogs at

Friday, June 18, 2010

Show Report: Grouper, McEntire & Miller

Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller have, I think, a pretty special dynamic together. At their performance at  Nightlight last night, opening for Grouper, their distinct individual styles were intact yet wholly integrated. McEntire played brooding barre chords that were clutching and stormy in stasis, elastic and sparky when they slid up and down the neck. Her strumming felt tidal, all swell and decay; the rhythm at times almost vanishing into little pools of prickly, half-muted notes. Riffs dragged across the floor like tangles of wire hangers. It strikes you that despite her beautiful voice, McEntire does just as much singing with her guitar. The words blur out; the moan prevails. Simultaneously, Jenks Miller played a very different kind of guitar. His parts were highly structural complements to McEntire's impressionistic coils of fog. He played hypnotically repeating arpeggios and quietly flashy scale runs, and his finger-picking produced a rich, clear tone. It was classical guitar minus the virtuoso complex, feeling instead for the intuitive line of the song, like a hook trawling through miles of dark water. I am so stoned right now.

You know that feeling, when you start to describe an amazing dream you had to someone, and it dawns on you as you're talking that nothing describable really happened? That's what it feels like trying to describe a show by Portland's Liz Harris, a.k.a. Grouper. She sat on a white chair, in a corridor of projected light--white reflections quivering on a black sea--holding a guitar that she touched once in awhile. Otherwise, she leaned down over her consoles and spun haunted cathedral sounds as heard through several walls out of thin air. Voices came and went; sometimes her mouth was open and sometimes it wasn't. The music felt like it was always on the verge of remembering something. It took over everything. All the architecture of "performance" was in place, but it felt more like being something than watching something. Every vector in the space contained mysterious information. That saturated point when total presence and total absence become the same. A full-spectrum ambient takeover. No one made a sound. Someone spying through the skylight would have seen a dark room full of people slumped in chairs with their eyes closed and mouths slack, like a mass suicide. The walls breathed. The room filled up with water. When the lights came on I felt like a kid who'd just been rescued from the bottom of a swimming pool. A little brain damaged. Good morning, good night.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Elbow

Today I woke up to find an elbow sticking in my face. It was just a normal elbow at the end of a bent arm, kind of rounded, kind of knobby, with a slight white dryness to the skin. It actually squashed my lips a little bit. Pulling back my head, I cupped my hand around the elbow and crankily pushed it away, preparing to confront whoever was sticking their damn elbow in my face while I was trying to sleep. But no one was there. So I got out of bed and made coffee, sitting down at my desk. There was a flicker in my peripheral vision and I looked to the left just in time to see the elbow sailing at my face again. It zoomed in quickly and then stopped short inches away, swaying slowly, in lazily precise figure-eights, like some kind of probe. I could almost count the little hairs on it. I shoved it aside roughly and turned back to my computer, intent on finally getting some work done. I typed for a few minutes before I felt the soft pressure of something moving up my thigh, and looked down just as the elbow rocketed up under my chin, pausing just as its tip pressed into the soft flesh there. I grabbed it with both hands and hurled it away. But after a minute or so, it floated up right between my eyes again, as if it had been hiding in my lap. It started to come back more quickly after that, from every angle, as if I'd pissed it off; sneaking around my body and squinting right into my face like a creature that was both nearsighted and indefatigably curious, pink and tuberous, something from underground. Now when I shove it away, it reappears almost instantly. Even as I push it to my right, I feel a presence falling over my left cheek, and the elbow slides right back into the center of my vision. I can see fragments of the room in the corners of my eyes, but the elbow shifts with my gaze so I can’t see over or around it to find out whose body it’s attached to, although I have the vague impression of a body behind the elbow somewhere, a mass of flesh and attention. I'm just learning to live with it.

Now, I have to mention, this isn’t an allegory for some existential condition or the conventional assault upon individual agency, like that Russian number about the nose, although I can definitely see how it could appear that way. I’m using this first-person, “it really happened!” rhetorical strategy because it’s convenient and legible, and there is some pleasure to be had in watching systems elaborate themselves to their logical conclusions. But you really shouldn’t read anything into it. This is just a rather dry description of a reality in which an elbow imposes itself upon one’s face, and does not leave. It only seems metaphorical and strange because I’m writing myself into it, rather than just being there, where the notion of a ball of fire pulsing down from the sky, vanishing and returning without fail, might seem as allegorically potent and strange and contrived as the simple reality of an elbow floating in one’s face. That would please me. But this isn’t about that either. These systems are pretty random and don’t mean anything except what they contain. When this notion came to me--"wouldn't it be strange if that were my reality, an elbow always floating into my face"-- at first I kept trying to see something behind it, like what does this idea about the elbow mean? When I should have just kept my eye on the elbow, like the entire scenario was telling me to do. I'm just saying it's funny, how far out of my way I'll go to make things that are obvious seem mysterious, things that are ineluctable seem diabolical, things that are physical seem metaphysical. And yet I still worry whose face my elbow might be in.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wax Wroth reading videos: Salerno, Tonelli, Fletcher, Leon

I'm back from Atlanta, which was such a quick trip that it feels like a dream in retrospect, a stream of disconnected images. In one, I'm standing at the edge of a coffee shop counter reading from Wolf Intervals; in another, I'm trying on some Nike hightops with ill gold details at a secondhand store in Little Five Points as Pearl Jam's "Nothing Man" mournfully blares over the P.A. I came back home with those hightops and a book brought to me by James Sanders. Big thanks to Casey McKinney and Laura Carter for their hospitality.

After a few days of playing catch-up (and battling a particularly tenacious piece of malware that sneaked onto my machine), I've finally gotten around to uploading the videos from the last Wax Wroth reading, which you'll find below. Apologies for the truncated clips; we forgot to bring a fresh tape and had to be thrifty with it. Stay tuned for details on the next Wax Wroth reading, which will feature the inimitable Tony Tost!





Friday, May 14, 2010

Creative Loafing plugs my reading this weekend

I used to write for a Creative Loafing paper, and I'm sympathetic to the difficulty of writing these blurbs based on info one can pillage from the Internet. They got the name of one of my chapbooks a little wrong, but they did pretty good! Hope you can come out to see me if you're in the Atlanta area this weekend, I promise to read rude and fun stuff.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reading with Casey McKinney in Atlanta

This Saturday, May 15, I'm going to be reading in Atlanta with my editor at The Fanzine, Casey McKinney. It's at The Hot Spot (749 Moreland Ave., Suite 101A) at 7 p.m.; I've never been there but it sounds hot. Laura Carter put this joint together. Last time I went to Georgia for something poetry-related, this happened.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wax Wroth Reading and Music Series, #2


The Wax Wroth Reading and Music Series, #2:

poetry by Chris Salerno, Chris Tonelli, Jon Leon, Joe Fletcher
electro-acoustic music by Brian and Ashley
organized by Brian Howe (

Sunday, May 9, 8. p.m.

715 Washington in Durham (just off the intersection of Washington and Trinity, very close to the old baseball field)

All four of these rad Raleigh-based poets have new books coming out, and the Chrises are launching their book tour. It’s the second installment of my new reading series, the first of which featured Heather Christle, Joe Donahue, and Josh Moore. It’ll be fun. Nobody is going to read for a drainingly long time. I’ll provide some booze which will vanish almost immediately, so please bring some. Ashley and I will perform a brief musical piece to wind down the night. Contact me for directions or more info. Support local art in a non-commercial  environment. Make merry. Bring yr mom.


CHRIS SALERNO is the author of Whirligig, and a new book, Minimum Heroic, selected by Dara Wier for the 2009 Mississippi Review Poetry Award. His poems can be found in journals such as: Denver Quarterly, Boston Review, Jubilat, American Letters and Commentary, Black Warrior Review, Octopus, and elsewhere. He is co-curator of Raleigh’s So and So Series, and co-editor of So and So Magazine. Currently, he teaches Writing at North Carolina State University. He occasionally blogs at

CHRIS TONELLI founded and co-curates the So and So Series and co-edits  the So and So Magazine. He is the author of four chapbooks, most recently No Theater (Brave Men Press) and For People Who Like Gravity and Other People (Rope-A-Dope Press, forthcoming). His first full-length collection is The Trees Around (Birds, LLC), and new work can be found in upcoming issues of The Laurel Review and Fou. He teaches at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he lives with his wife Allison and their son Miles.

JON LEON is an American poet and vignettist, the author of, most recently, The Hot Tub (mal-o-mar editions, 2009), Hit Wave (Kitchen Press, 2008), and Alexandra (Cosa Nostra Editions, 2008). Additionally, he has released a voluminous set of limited-run artists editions, including: Tract (Dusie Press Kollectiv, 2006), Right Now the Music and the Life Rule (Hathaway, 2006), Drain You (High Street Originals, 2009), Mankind  (Foreign Court Artists Editions, 2009), Kasmir (High Street Books Los Angeles, 2010), and finally The Painting Show (Legacy Pictures, 2010). In 2008, La Camera Verde in Conjunction with The Felix Series in Rome brought out a bilingual edition of his Diphasic Rumors. From 2005-2006 he edited and published the short-run poetry magazine Wherever We Put Our Hats, publishing excerpts from the most lauded poetry books of that year. His poetry and criticism have appeared widely in periodicals such as Fence, The New Review of Literature, Soft Targets, Octopus, LIT, Vanitas, and Art in America.

JOE FLETCHER's chapbook, Sleigh Ride, was published by Factory Hollow Press. Other work can be found in Jubilat, Octopus, Slope, Poetry International, Hoboeye, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere.

Organizer BRIAN HOWE is a Durham-based poet, journalist, performer, and multimedia artist. His arts and entertainment journalism appears regularly in Pitchfork, Paste Magazine, The Independent Weekly, and The Fanzine. He is the author of three chapbooks, and his poems and sound art have appeared in many print and online journals. His video work (with Ashley Howe) has screened at various festivals and showcases, like the Asheville Fringe Festival and the Minor American series. He maintains his multimedia project Glossolalia at, and blogs at

Monday, April 26, 2010

On Joanna Newsom

If you're in the mood to read something long and fraught about Joanna Newsom's long, fraught album, Have One on Me, you're in luck: My article for went up today.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

So and So #38

A couple friends of mine are reading in the So and So series in Raleigh on Saturday night--a fun series!


Michael Carr * Guillermo Parra * Ken Rumble

Saturday * April 24th * 8pm * Morning Times * 10 E. Hargett Street * Raleigh, NC

Michael Carr is the author of the Out Another, Softer White, and Platinum Blonde. Necco Face, a chapbook co-written with Jess Mynes and Aaron Tieger, came out from Editions Louis Wain last year, and a collaborative chapbook with Micah Ballard called Poems from the New Winter Palace is forthcoming from House Press this summer. He lives in Cambridge, MA.
Poet and translator Guillermo Parra is the author of Caracas Notebook (Cy Gist Press, 2006) and Phantasmal Repeats (Petrichord Books, 2009). His poems, essays and translations have been published in 6x6, The Can, Fascicle, Effing, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. He lives in Durham, NC where he writes the blog Venepoetics and is translating the poetry of Juan Sánchez Peláez and José Antonio Ramos Sucre into English.

Ken Rumble is the author of Key Bridge (Carolina Wren Press, 2007) and an installation artist and musician based in Durham, North Carolina. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Coming soon: Raleigh invades Durham

Please save the date of Sunday, May 9, for the second installment of the Wax Wroth poetry and music series. (The first installment featured Heather Christle, Joseph Donahue, and Josh Moore.) The theme of this reading is "Raleigh invades Durham," as it features four Raleigh-based poets: Chris Salerno, Chris Tonelli, Jon Leon, and Joe Fletcher. A special musical guest will be announced soon. The reading begins at 8 p.m., at 715 Washington in Durham, a space familiar to those of you who've attended installations by Ken Rumble and Megan Stein or the Minor/American reading series. Please watch this space for more details, and plan to come help the Chrises celebrate the start of their reading tour!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Virginia Woolf is still contemporary

Woolf's mandate for contemporary criticism (in 1925):

As for the critics whose task it is to pass judgment upon the books of the moment, whose work, let us admit, is difficult, dangerous, and often distasteful, let us ask them to be generous of encouragement, but sparing of those wreaths and coronets which are so apt to get awry, and fade, and make the wearers, in six months' time, look a little ridiculous. Let them take a wider, a less personal view of modern literature, and look indeed upon the writers as if they were engaged upon some vast building, which being built by common effort, the separate workmen may well remain anonymous. Let them slam the door upon the cosy company where sugar is cheap and butter plentiful, give over, for a time at least, the discussion of that fascinating topic--whether Byron married his sister--and, withdrawing, perhaps, a handsbreadth from the table where we sit chattering, say something interesting about literature. Let us buttonhole them as they leave, and recall to their memory that gaunt aristocrat, Lady Hester Stanhope, who kept a milk-white horse in her stable in readiness for the Messiah and was for ever scanning the mountain tops, impatiently but with confidence, for signs of his approach, and ask them to follow her example; scan the horizon; see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April Fools

Brian and Ashley's April Fools Day trick at the most recent installment of the 919 Noise Showcase. Sneaky tidbits!

Sha la la la la la la.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

919 Noise Showcase: April Fool's Edition

This Thursday, April 1, Ashley and I will perform at Nightlight as part of the 919 Noise Showcase. Curated by the inexorable Bryce Clayton Eiman, the monthly showcase features four to five local acts investigating the broad spectrum of noise music. The event begins around 9:30 and should wrap up by midnight. We're sharing the bill with Zeke Graves, Sydney Koke, Khristian Weeks, and Weather Machine. Ashley and I have performed at this showcase once before, although this performance will be nothing like that one--when we do things like this, we always take the opportunity to put together something unique. We're really excited to be performing on a day dedicated to trickery. Hopefully I'll have some video to post after the fact.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Infinite Body to crush Carrboro

Obviously, I'm stoked.


MONDAY 3.29 @ Ethan's House :::::


Infinite Body + Earn = remnants of L.A. harsh noise reforming into hi-def austere morning dew dream fuzz tone floats, blissed cathedrals

America Reads = Carrboro's mod-synth cold psych head

Yohimbe = the thing I love about Yohimbe is that I keep getting older and they stay the same age

bring $$$

904 W Main St Carrboro
right across from Johnny's Sporting Goods

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

2 readings in Raleigh this weekend

Recently, for the third or fourth year in a row, I was a preliminary judge for the Independent Weekly's annual poetry contest. The reading to celebrate the contest is on Friday, March 26, at 7 p.m., in Raleigh's Flanders Gallery. I'll be on hand to read a few poems with the contest winners and the other judges.

And then on Saturday, March 27, my friend kate pringle will read in The So and So series, with Kate Schapira and John Dermot Woods, at Raleigh's Morning Times Cafe.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Boys love toys

the Korg EMX-1 Music Production Station, in all its affordable glory

My new Korg EMX-1 Music Production Studio arrived via UPS on Thursday, which explains my blog silence since then. It has a beautiful metallic blue finish with just a hint of sparkle, and many buttons and knobs and sliders and flashing lights, and a little window at the top so you can admire the shapely valves. Inside, it contains a magical sound world of infinite potential, densely yet obscurely connected, i.e., shaped just like my mind. This sort of device is seductive and a little dangerous for me, because I want to get to the bottom of it right away. I spent about 8 hours on the floor with it on Thursday, and gave myself a terrible headache, while only scratching the surface of its functionality. Totally worth it. 
I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to new technology. I refused to get a cell phone for years after they were de rigeur, relenting only when my housemates refused to pay for a land line anymore. And years later, I'm still using that same old phone, which has no camera or internet connection or quirky apps. It's not that I'm a Luddite or anything. In part, my choice to make a living as a freelance writer, rather than getting a "real job," requires me to be frugal. Furthermore, a lot of new tech strikes me as merely noisy distraction or neurotic time-suck. But there are technological marvels I lust after like everyone else. They tend to be either musical tools or video games--things that entertain and philosophically stimulate me in equal measure. (And they complement each other: When I've melted my brain with musical tools so badly that I can barely even read, video games are there for me.)

I've wanted a sequencer like this for a very long time. For my studio jams as Glossolalia, I've always used various lo-fi freeware, like Audacity and the excellent TrakAx (highly recommended to PC users), and some very cheap software like WavePad. For live stuff, I've often rocked the basic but deathless Boss Dr. Sample for electronic effects. But the Dr. Sample is ill-suited to the kind of composition I'm interested in right now, and I've often wound up using it more like a glorified effects pedal than a sampler.

My dream device, the Akai MPC5000, costs like two thousand dollars, and even the much cheaper Korg Electribe series has been out of my price range until recently. Because--I'll tell you a secret--the EMX-1 (and its sister product, the ESX-1 sampler) have been price-slashed to less than five hundred dollars. With free shipping. And free headphones. I assume Korg is preparing to introduce the new models of these consoles, or to integrate them into a super-console, and is clearing out the warehouse. At any rate, if you've been in the market for an affordable, surprisingly powerful music production station, I can't recommend this device highly enough. 

You know, there was a time, long ago, when I thought electronic music was kind of bullshit. This was not an uncommon position for an indie rocker in the late-nineties. That only lasted for a little while, but even after I came to love electronic music, for a long time I believed that playing a sequencer was fundamentally different from playing a guitar. And of course, it is, in the same way that, say, playing the guitar is fundamentally different than playing the piano. But at this point, I feel as if the only crucial difference is that one requires manual dexterity and one requires conceptual and technological dexterity. And even this is shaky--after all, a live MPC jam does require a lot of agility, and good guitar playing is about so much more than manual dexterity, or else we'd all be listening to Yngwie Malmsteen all the time. 

The guitar and the sequencer are both tools, designed by humans, to vibrate the air in certain ways, producing a limited repertoire of sounds. The interfaces are different, but the effect--the actualization of human imagination and desire--is the same. The rise of the consumer-grade sequencer does mean that we're all using a lot of the same synth sounds, the same oscillators, the same drum patterns. But the dominance of guitar means we're all using the same chords. The unique human stamp that rises from subtle inflections of timbre and rhythm on guitar--that we use to make an ancient C chord our own--finds expression in the endless customization options of the sequencer, the spontaneous twist of a knob turning a stock tone into something emotive and specific. The ghost in the machine is you. 

I'm not even sure who I'm having this argument with, except myself ten years ago. I still hear people say things about how all techno sounds the same, which is how I feel whenever I hear a new rock song with a dude going "baby baby baby" over three direly familiar chords. But it's not like I want to put the guitar out to pasture. I'm certainly not breaking out the sequencer when hanging out by the sea on a camping trip. The contrast just fascinates me. I'm looking at them right now, side by side--my sequencer and my acoustic guitar, both of which are leaned against my piano. They all look so different it's hard to believe they have anything in common. Yet they share a common soul, which is another way of saying "common desire"--the sound coiled inside, latent but tensed, ready to leap out at the lightest caress and become radically specific in the crucible of my imagination, my dreams, my limitations.