Tag Archives: Lungfish

Origin Story

I came across this odd post entitled “The Origin of Emo” on an unusually blank WordPress blog (though the thing appears to be written by a Thom Lloyd, which is the gmail address at the bottom of the article). It’s the only post, and it’s written in a pseudo-term-paper light, with citations that don’t really say much of anything or connote to any one article/book/etc (though some of the names provided can be linked up via a quick search). It’s all very odd.

What’s even odder is Lloyd’s thesis statement on the origin of emo, which he sort of drops in at the end:

Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate did not start the emo genre.

Eh? Lloyd continues to throw out vague, inconsistencies, many of which I can agree with (genres are a culmination of the sounds that have influenced the bands), and some that are rife for contradiction. Namely the last point:

With all of these factors in place a band and or a label had to start the wheels in motion forming the emo genre.

Huh? Didn’t he just say Rites of Spring did not start emo? And Dischord doesn’t count because emo didn’t rise solely out of it?

This happens to be an ongoing problem with people seeking a solid definition for emo: the fact that the genre/sound exists as a fluid and evolving concept that many individuals ignore simply because of the condescending nature of the term makes it damn hard to tack a pin in it and call it a done day.

But, those irrelevancies aside. Rites are duly credited for starting emo: that’s where the term as a definition for a musical sound came from. Period. Not Husker Du, who Lloyd credits as an important factor. The fact is, Zen Arcade came out after Rites were a fully formed band with an entire pedigree of songs (1984 to be exact). Rites were listening to all sorts of hardcore (nothing I’ve read remotely mentions Husker Du though), and sought to challenge the trends within their own community by embracing a poppier sound. They took from many a British popper: The Buzzcocks are most credited as an influence there. But nothing about Husker Du.

And Lloyd’s idea of indie rock fusing the gap between Rites and Sunny Day is… well, a bit much. Lloyd also calls into play grunge as an important influence on emo and bridging these two bands: hardly. As far as grunge goes, the only role that played was its skyrocketing popularity behind Nirvana led to sale numbers that helped Sub Pop move out of the red zone and avoid bankruptcy so that they could go on and sign SDRE: grunge’s influence on emo is really relevant in a business capacity. Emo was a complete change from grunge, which is why Sunny Day startled so many people in Seattle: it was different. They were different. They took from hardcore, took from bands like Rites, Fugazi, Lungfish, Shudder To Think, and many of the DC bands that Lloyd overlooked. Yes, as Lloyd mentions, there are too many bands to name, and many of them he overlooked when trying to tie these two distinct bands (ROS + SDRE together). Since when do you need to fill in a time blank in terms of bands that came about that were important and led to another important band of the same sound anyway? How many of the new shitgaze (or whatever you want to call them) bands actually took other sounds and used them in their own songwriting? It’s always possible, and often an excellent appeal to change. But I can’t see Vivian Girls having taken lots of notes on IDM when they wrote their fuzzy, 60s surf garage rock sound. (It’s possible, but after the interview where they dissed bands that use a dancey drum beat, I doubt it.)

But there are plenty of bands that “filled in those years.” Just on Dischord there were a bunch (again, Embrace, Happy Go Licky, One Last Wish, Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, Lungfish, Shudder To Think, Jawbox etc etc). And then there’s Jawbreaker’s take on the sound from DC. And then there’s Drive Like Jehu’s take on the DC sound and it’s impact on the San Diego scene: that whole arty-hardcore-meets-DC-emocore is indebted to the DC scene. Gravity Records, Heroin, Antioch Arrow, etc etc. And all of this in the years between 1984 (Rites of Spring) and 1994 (release of Diary).

That’s a lot of time, and many of these bands aren’t remembered because, in terms of folklore or the progression of a genre, only a few – those considered to be important for one reason or another – are consistently remembered and repeated to the next person, and the next person, and so on and so forth. That is an evolution of a genre, not some influential indie band that has nothing to do with these groups: no offense to The Pixies or Sonic Youth, but those bands hardly share anything with the first wave of emo. And because genres evolve, and many within different spheres and cultures (aka underground or mainstream), it may sound different at different points along the way. So, of course emo sounds different than it did before: it’s not static. Some things grew, other bands made their individual changes, and other bands made changes on other bands’ changes. Though the definition is rather fluid, a general line is fairly recognizable (one that doesn’t exactly include Sonic Youth, who were more no wave affiliated and who’s experimentation is mostly left out of many an “emo” act, or The Pixies, who tend to have a fairly basic pop sound that, as it’s well known, is more a grunge influence than an emo one) and observable.

597-Way Tie For Most Eclectic Proposal

What could have been - fake cover for a famously rejected proposal

What could have been - fake cover for a famously rejected proposal

The 33 1/3 blog released the final list of the nearly 600 potential books on a wide variety of albums that Continuum received after the call for open proposals a little while ago.

Needless to say, it’s quite a list. It’s interesting to see what albums people are passionate enough about to fill an entire book, and think about numerous individuals (who most likely don’t know one another) who came together at the same entry period and wrote a proposal about the same record (Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and Slint’s Spiderland got a lot of props).

Perhaps what’s great to see is the number of emo albums that have been proposed. In general, it’s a generous heaping of bands in the large arc of emo’s narrative. There’s Fugazi (who received numerous proposals from their discography), Lungfish, Jawbreaker, Jimmy Eat World, Say Anything, and (of course) Fall Out Boy.

Now, I must admit, I submitted a proposal too. Mine is for The Promise Ring’s 1997 album, Nothing Feels Good.

Nothing Feels Good Album Cover

Nothing Feels Good Album Cover

From the looks of all the proposals, it sure must be tough to choose 20 or so out of hundreds of great ideas. But, I’ve got my fingers crossed for my idea. And it’s not just because I am the one who wrote and worked on the proposal. Rather, I feel it’s record that needs to be discussed, and one that hasn’t had the proper opportunity to be carefully observed and thoughtfully written about in the thorough manner that every 33 1/3 book requires. Nothing Feels Good is still as astounding today as the day it was released (nearly) twelve years ago, and its impact on popular music today is equaled by a handful of other albums. Hell, even the folks at Pitchfork who frequently turn their nose down on emo acts and albums loved The Promise Ring’s sophomore disc. If that doesn’t show some middle ground between mainstream popular music listening (to which TPR has had undeniable influence over and certainly had an appeal towards, despite the indie circuit with which they traveled in) and elitist-leaning tastemaking, I don’t know what does.

Hopefully, the editors of the series will think so as well. And one of the first handful of comments sure gave me some hope:

Anonymous Anonymous said…
I thought pitching a book on the Hold Steady was a long shot, but the fact that there were two other proposals for Separation Sunday puts some of my fears to rest…

I appreciate seeing some of my high school staples getting pitched: 24 hour revenge, clarity, nothing feels good… I can, indeed, still feel the butterflies…

tw

2:21 PM

Good luck to everyone who worked hard to get those proposals in on time, and same to the Continuum folks who no doubt will have a lot of hard thinking to do!

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):

Bastards of Pop

By now most music-loving folk are aware of the pay-what-you-want, online release of Girl Talk’s latest album, Feed The Animals. But this isn’t about that… well, it’s almost not about that. As any other savy internet users are concerned, a trio of folks hailing from the greater Baltimore/DC area new about this all to well. Funny thing is, the title of Girl Talk’s new album is startlingly similar to a certain activity that these three individuals do to fulfill their creative impulses. And darn it if the members of Food For Animals didn’t do something about it. The savvy members of one of the top experimental hip-hop troupes in the country put their imagination to the test and came out with a remix of Feed The Animals that is as hilarious as it is genuinely well-crafted. The inversion of the Girl Talk record cover didn’t hurt either.

Girl Talk\'s Feed The Animals

Food For Animals\' remix

Sure, this may sound like another attempt by an under-appreciated musical act trying to grab some limelight off of the backs of pop sensations. Actually, pop sensations may be the key word to why this isn’t a case of bandwagon-ing popularity. That same realm where Girl Talk has become such a heroic image is one where Food For Animals have gotten their fare and deserved share of praise and following as well; from Spin to Pitchfork, numerous well-regarded places of music criticism have praised FFA for their latest album – Belly.

No, this is not a case of scraping for some 15 minutes of fame. This isn’t even about fame. This is a great case of that simple keyword… community. The FFA remix is more a work of humorous camaraderie than anything negative or self-serving. For Gregg Gillis and FFA, it is another mark of a shared aesthetic dedicated to the opposite of pop-sanctuary; underground artistry. Their physical hometowns may be separate (Pittsburgh for GT, and Baltimore/DC for FFA), but their ideal one is a special place known as Wham City.

Brooklyn\'s Matt & Kim at Whartscape 2007

Wham City is a collective of artists and musicians who’ve made a hometown in Baltimore. More than that, they’ve made a scene-worthy presence out of Baltimore. Although Wham City is a close-knit crew (headed by electronics wunderkid Dan Deacon) and is not the entire community of Baltimore’s diverse art-punk scene, they have nevertheless become the center and face of the creativity bubbling out of the once-forgotten town. While institutions as high on the music-critiquing food chain as Rolling Stone have come a-calling, it has yet to diminish the creative culmination of the relatively anti-establishment scene. If anything, it’s simply drawn other like-minded individuals to the area and those who have made themselves an important part of building an artistically-challenging community. The connections within the scene are more personal than musically-similar. This year’s Whartscape Festival features, along side Gregg Gillis (playing with his side project Trey Told ‘Em) and Food For Animals, a number of musicians from across the country who are more dedicated to pushing the bounds of music than they are to carving a universal pop niche. There’s The Mae Shi (from LA), Black Dice (NYC), Parts & Labor (Brooklyn), and a ton of local Baltimore acts. What they lack in definite sound they make up for in their shared passion for underground music, ingenuity, and community.

Emo was birthed out of a very similar thesis of community as seen through performance. Music was the cache, but it wasn’t the only distinct quality of those communities. The places friends within the scene would interact and think of as home bases, the venues that bands practiced and played, the ideas that individuals shared and used to challenge one another – not just musically, but in life – were as integral to the scene as the tag placed on the original scene’s existence.

The Revolution Summer scene, the first community to be burdened with the label “emo” was a particular exemplary of the feat of flexibility. Some ideological and musical characteristics were shared, but the common bond over strengthening the community beyond the rigidity that defeated DC’s hardcore scene was stronger than any detrimentally-inclined tag. The acts that followed in the footsteps of the broken-up Revolution Summer acts continued to build on the ideas of community, welcoming other individual-thinkers into their world, and emiting a new crop of bands that did little to conform to any standards. Groups like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Shudder To Think, Jawbox, and a host of others opened up the interpretations of the local “emo” sound to distinctly new possibilities. And others flocked to their community. Bikini Kill, though not emo, left the West Coast for DC, while Dischord welcomed Baltimore’s Lungfish in with open arms (quite a feat considering that Dischord was meant to be a forum for only DC acts).

With the breakthrough of alternative music into the mainstream, the emo acts of DC formed connections with others across America through correspondence, touring, and even producing; Jawbox’s J Robbins was a primary producer of many well-known 2nd wave emo acts. As the ideological, aesthetic, and musical aspects of emo spread around the country, tight bonds were formed by dis-separate acts throughout the Mid West. Those who form the core of 2nd wave emo acts  – The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, etc – were all connected through friendship rather than sharing three chords.

Even today, when emo has lost a lot of its elasticity of definition due to stereotypes, community is as an important aspect as ever. Acts bond through touring (such as playing together on Warped Tour), shared record labels (Vagrant, Fueled By Ramen), a communal upbringing (such as Thursday and numerous other acts who honed their sound in New Jersey basements), and friendship (be it Thursday and My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco). Community is the strongest bond of the most-creative (and often times, successful) emo acts. Those bands looking to take advantage of a currently-popular, commercially-consumed genre tend to bring out the worst in emo. But it’s community that has allowed emo to continue to thrive and survive to this day, and it’s community that will continue to drive some of the most ingenious and forward-thinking musical movements.

Food For Animals – Girl Talk

Baltimore’s Double Dagger at Whartscape 2007: