How to Answer "Who Are Your Influences?" Correctly

Modest Mouse at London's Calling Festival, July 2015
Modest Mouse at London's Calling Festival, July 2015
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“Who are your influences?” gets asked of artists constantly. Right at this very moment, a blogger is pressing for details on how exactly Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors shaped a short-film director’s latest experimental drama. A mixed-media artist is explaining how exactly she attempted to re-create passages from East of Eden in her upcoming gallery opening. A singer-songwriter is being asked by the editor of a DIY zine about her obsession with Joni Mitchell B-sides. Finding out what artists an artist likes is the fastest way to let potential fans know if they’ll be into it to. For example, if I were to come across an artist described as “Beach Boys by way of Weezer,” I’m clicking “Buy” on iTunes before I finish reading the sentence.

Of course, it’s a different thing to evoke legendary sounds from your predecessors using words than it is to live up to the music. So how does one go from announcing “I like X artist” to getting an audience to say, “This reminds me of X artist”? Synthesizing a myriad of cool influences into cool, influenced music is a tall order for up-and-coming musicians, so how is it done?

Step one, and the least exciting answer, is time and practice. Time and practice is what accounts for how Weird Al’s band went from merely approximating the sound (while notably adding an accordion) of their lampooned songs to crafting pitch-perfect facsimiles in just about every conceivable genre. But this only covers half of what it takes to use influence well.

Once an influence can be accurately re-created, it can begin to be digested. This allows the process to start all over with a new batch of influential artists, which in turn creates a vast library of musical techniques and tricks to pull from. As curator of this library, the musician has the responsibility not only to pull the right tricks for the right musical moments, but to pick interesting ones.

Since all but the very first days of music’s creation, all music is iterative. Even the most progressive artists start with the context of what has come before. This often comes in the form of taking something that is known to work and incorporating experimental elements.

In rarer cases, the form of music itself can be exploited, such as in avant garde composer John Cage’s most notorious piece, 4’33”. The composition exemplifies Cage’s belief that any sound can be music by instructing the performers to remain silent for its duration, leaving the audience’s weight-shifting, awkward coughs and confused whispers to be the true content of the performance. Cage uses the context of a traditional concert environment and turns the audience into the instrument. However, 4’33” is unfortunately more well known as a radical performance-art piece than anything that can be recaptured by future artists.

The marriage of iteration and innovation is perhaps best exemplified by the formation of hip-hop. Like rock and roll did with electric guitars before it, hip-hop capitalized on the underused, existing technology of stereo mixers and adjustable-speed turntables. Like rock and roll did with existing chords and backbeats, hip-hop built up a sound using actual recordings. Like rock and roll did with crooning, sexy singers, hip-hop brought a lyrical focus on the unique viewpoint of its MCs in the form of rhythmic spoken-word rhymes.

While being influenced, the true goal is walking the line between paying tribute to what came before and bringing something new to the table.

“Great artists steal” is a famously misunderstood adage. Variations on this quote have been attributed to artists in a wide variety of fields such as Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. In poet T.S. Eliot’s version, from his collection of literary criticism The Sacred Wood, he clarifies that “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Rather than simply dropping this age-old aphorism and leaving it as a cop-out for why his latest single sounds exactly like the Pixies’ “Bone Machine,” he encourages poets (and I’ll go right ahead and make the leap to artists in general) to make something new from the old.

Weezer and Modest Mouse are two bands who wouldn’t hesitate to call the previously mentioned Pixies an influence. And despite obvious similarities between certain songs, they make for notable examples of Eliot’s suggestion in action. Though the alt-rock legends may have substantially influenced early tracks by the bands, Weezer’s signature shiny, catchy pop-rock and Modest Mouse’s weirdo art-punk now have their defining characteristics planted far from the Pixies tree.

Parents often want the apple to fall near the proverbial tree. Often with influences, farther is better.

At least you can say they did something different.

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