All Things To All People Vol. 14
So, it's been a few weeks since my last entry here, and I apologize for that. Ideally I'd like to post an entry once per week. I have developed a pretty good habit of noting down potential topics when they occur to me so that I have something to write about when I sit down to do so, but lately the problem has been time. As you probably know, I hold down a full time job in addition to running Sorry State and playing in No Love (as well as messing around with a couple of other musical projects). In order to maintain all of these activities my life feels like a perpetual, delicate balancing act. Generally, I wake up around 7:30 or so and get to work on teaching and school-related stuff, then try to be working on Sorry State stuff by noon, which I continue to do until sometime in the evening. Sadly, I don't really get to think about No Love too much outside of our weekly band practice on Sunday nights. However, this past weekend we played two shows with Night Birds, so not only was I in band land for more than 48 straight hours, but there was also tons of work to do leading up to the weekend. We got shirts printed and then we tie-dyed them ourselves, we made other little merch like buttons, and we finalized and duplicated a new tape release for the weekend.
In my old bands I would have probably done most of that myself, but No Love is really good about divvying up responsibility, so the main thing I had to do was finalize the "mix tape" portion of the cassette release. Basically, we have a whole bunch of new songs but 1. we don't have really strong recordings of them and 2. we don't want to totally give them away because we don't want them to feel old when we eventually re-record them properly for a release. So, my solution to that was to do a hip-hop-style mix tape. It's full of sound effects, weird transitions, and other goofiness, and instead of the full songs it's (sometimes lengthy, sometimes short) snippets that give you an idea of what our stuff will be like while being a pretty distinct thing from the actual songs themselves. It bounces around between a couple of different demo and practice tape sessions that we've done and kind of highlights little parts of the songs that I thought were interesting. I didn't put a ton of work into it or anything, but I'm really pleased with the way it came out and I think that it's an interesting listen, particularly if you've seen us live a couple of times over the past year or so. I'm not sure what we'll do with it... right now it's exclusive to the weekend tape, but maybe we'll put it up on the No Love BandCamp site for free at some point.
No Love at the Milestone in Charlotte this past weekend; killer photo by Whitmire Photography
Anyway, this weekend was completely invigorating, by far the best time I've had at shows in a very, very long time. I know not everyone is into Night Birds, but I think they're a great band. I think part of why I like them so much is that their points of reference are largely the same as mine. While I'm older than anyone in the band (except maybe Joe?), I think that all of us found our way to hardcore through a lot of more melodic 90s punk, and while we're all USHC nuts we still retain more than a little fondness for a big hook, whether it comes from the vocal or the guitar (or preferably both at the same time!). Also, given the fact that they have similar backgrounds to me and I've known most of them for quite some time now, they're very easy to hang out with. I wish we'd been able to hang out more, but their long drives to play these shows precluded much of that. Anyway, they're a great band and I'm especially proud that No Love seems to have won their respect by the end of the weekend. I think that all four of them bought our single, and they don't strike me as the type that would make that gesture if they didn't actually like the band.
The corner of my home office
All of this focus on band stuff and actually having fun at shows for a change (something that's been a bit of an issue with me for the past year or two) has prompted me to reflect a little bit on my "punk journey." My main (read: only) form of relaxation is sitting on the couch in my office listening to records really loud, and whenever I lie on my back I see the corner in the photograph above. On the right are the first four releases on Sorry State and on the left are the three 7" releases by my first band, Cross Laws. (There's also a small, framed GISM flyer but I'm not really talking about that right now.) I remember when I framed these it was because I thought they very well might be the only things that I ever actually put out, either as a record label or a musician. Since then I've put out a whole lot of releases and the process has lost a lot of its novelty, both because of familiarity and because the whole process of putting out records in the year 2016 is so fraught. I've been trying to figure out whether my issues with this are a matter of me over-thinking things and focusing on my own (admittedly, anomalous) perspective or if punk has actually changed significantly in the decade or so since I started the label and my first band. So, I guess that's what this post is about.
Sitting and staring at these seven records, it occurred to me the other day that while most people seem to think that records are all about artistic expression, in reality they're at least as much--really, probably more so--about communication. People like to view the artist as having some unnamable thing inside them that has to be released, but the whole point of releasing that thing isn't just the catharsis, it's that an audience needs to receive that message. In order for the record to meaningful, there has to be something significant communicated from the author to the audience. In some cases, that communication happens through the lyrics: say, Crass's political messages, Minor Threat's "personal politics," etc. Sometimes what's communicated isn't a "message" in the sense that we usually use that term, but more of a formal statement. Disclose, for instance, probably didn't see the main point of their band as communicating the anti-war messages that formed the largest part of their lyrics; rather, I think the main thing that they wanted to communicate was that Discharge's music was a kind of archetype, one that can be extended, elaborated on, or even just inhabited in any number of interesting ways. For really significant records, the things that get communicated are often total game-changers, while other records might add to an ongoing conversation in a subtler, more incremental way. This sense of "conversation" is why exploring the contexts of music I love has always been so important to me. While what a piece of music communicates in the here and now is always going to be important (and god knows something like the Stooges' Funhouse can still tell people plenty about how to be a band in the year 2016), I find that my appreciation of music often grows significantly as I understand the musical "conversation" that shaped and birthed the records I love.
Anyway, I bring up this whole theory because staring at these seven records has made me realize how much my attitude has changed in the intervening years. When I put out these records I felt like I really and truly had something to add to the conversation. When the label started there was virtually no one putting out the kind of records that I wanted to buy. There were labels like Tankcrimes and Deadalive that were kind of close, but I felt like the world needed to know what a good record was, and I alone had the capability to show them. What I can't figure out is whether that was sheer arrogance or whether I was just lucky enough to recognize that I was connected to something special that was worthy of being communicated. God knows that Direct Control was a great band that people needed to hear, and moreover they deserved to have records that looked as cool as the music contained on them. God knows that the Koro record needed to be widely available in a cheap version that looked and sounded as close to the original as possible. I felt the same way about all of my own bands... we had things that the world needed to know, and the best way to let them know was to put out a record.
These days my attitude has changed considerably. I've uttered the sentence, "does the world really need a No Love record?," more than once at practice. As I see it there are two main reasons that I have this feeling. The first is that I feel like No Love is something of an anomaly, that we don't really have a conversation that we're contributing to. My previous bands--mostly Cross Laws, Logic Problem, and Devour--were all strongly connected to a well-defined community, and it's this community of DIY hardcore that I felt like we were communicating to. No Love doesn't really have a community like that; or maybe I just feel slightly alienated from it. It's difficult to tell. I always feel like we don't fit with the bands we play with. Even though most of our songs (especially our new ones) are really hard and fast, when we play with hardcore bands I feel like we don't fit because we're so melodic. However, despite our focus on melody (particularly vocal melody), when we play with straight up melodic bands I always feel like we're an odd duck too. We're playing with Sheer Mag tomorrow and even though we all love that band I think it'll be weird; indeed, it was slightly weird when we played with them in Richmond last year.
One of the reasons that playing with Night Birds was so exciting is because they're the closest thing we've really had to a band with a similar approach and set of values, even if they don't overlap 100% (and who would want that anyway?). I actually talked to Brian from Night Birds about this a little bit, and he confirmed that they had, in some significant sense, to make their own audience. They've grabbed some people from the retro 80s HC scene, some people from the Fat Wreck-type melodic hardcore scene, and I'm sure plenty of people who don't want to pigeonhole themselves into any particular community. The point is, though, that they couldn't just expect to have a certain audience because they're a USHC band or a d-beat band or whatever, they had to actually convince people what they were and why they should like them. That's a hard thing to do, and it's not something that No Love are really able to invest the time and effort into doing. Fortunately Night Birds have established a path somewhat, but I'm not convinced that it's a path we can easily follow. Further, not having a clear audience or community makes it difficult to figure out precisely what I want to communicate to whoever listens to the record.
An illustration from Swift's "Battle of the Books"
The other big issue is just the sheer volume of records that come out these days. We get dozens--sometimes hundreds--of new releases in stock every week at Sorry State, and we're just a tiny little shop in Raleigh, North Carolina. How does one get to be noticed and actually listened to in a world that is just exploding with content? One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Swift, wrote a kind of parable called "Battle of the Books" that deals with precisely this issue. As printing books got cheaper and more accessible in the early 18th century there was a sudden and sharp increase in the amount of written content available, much the same as what the internet has facilitated in the past several years. In this story the ancient books (i.e. the ones written in ancient Greece and Rome) in the King's Library battle the "modern" books (i.e. those written in the print era). The story is really an allegory about two competing approaches to knowledge. For those who support the ancients, you reach truth and knowledge by a kind of subtractive method. Real knowledge is out there in its purest form, and really what we're trying to work through is the inevitable dissonance between that purity and the way that it's expressed by humans. It's a kind of Platonic theory of knowledge, in other words. For the moderns, knowledge is part of a linear march forward. We're constantly innovating and adding to the world's body of knowledge, and each new piece of writing makes the world's store of knowledge bigger and, consequently, better. For the ancients, more words are just more of a barrier between us and that real, true, wisdom that we should all be striving for.
Maybe the attitude represented by the "ancients" is simply an inevitable effect of getting older, and a kind of nostalgia for simpler times. I often talk with people about how when we were teenagers records meant so much. We only had a few, so we listened to them over and over and learned them inside out. The older you get, the more rarely that happens, and it's hard to figure out precisely why. However, the point of all this is that the question remains for me: will me putting out a record (either as a label or as a band) simply crowd out the other, more worthy records that people should be listening to, or will add to a conversation in some substantial way?