It’s probably safe to say that nobody’s South By Southwest experience this year was as comprehensive as that of Paul Ford, an editor at Harper’s and a blogger at the Themorningnews.org.
And here’s the thing – Ford never left New York City. Instead, he downloaded the SXSW 2008 Torrent File, which included single mp3s from 763 of the bands that went to Austin. (Just under half the total acts that appeared there.) And then he listened to every single one of them and wrote a six-word review of and assigned a rating to each one.
Here are a few Houston examples:
The JonBenet’s “Black Lion”: “One admires such remarkably vigorous stupidity.” (Two stars.)
Fatal Flying Guilloteens “Reveal the Rats”: “Should people from Houston sound British?” (One star.)
Chingo Bling’s “Do It”: “Chingo’s shit here is utterly ridiculous.” (Four stars.)
My mind boggled at this towering achievement, as did many others. I had to talk to this guy. – John Nova Lomax
Houstoned Rocks: So your piece is the talk of my little [rock critic] world.
Paul Ford: (Laughs) I, uh, you know, I guess that’s good.
HR: So you didn’t even go to South By?
PF: Not at all. If anything I would have gone to the tech one because I’m a big nerd. I’m not cool enough for the music one, so I just downloaded the file. So obviously you went being down there. How was it?
HR: It was great. I saw one band early and they were so incredibly good I went and saw them two more times.
PF: Who were they?
PF: Hmmm. They didn’t have an mp3. I would have remembered.
HR: Probably so, but their recordings don’t do them justice. I’ve never seen a live show as feral and crazed as theirs. They never use the stage, and they move the drummer during the show, so you have no choice but to get deeply involved.
PF: That’s interesting. Do they sing in Hebrew or English?
HR: You can’t even tell at the show.
PF: That’s great. That’s everything it’s supposed to be. Interesting. That’s right up my alley. That’s cool.
HR: And the singer looks like Doug Henning, the guitarist looks like Dylan circa Newport, and the drummer looks exactly like Borat with a gold dookie chain around his neck.
HR: So what about this piece of yours?
PF: Basically I was asked to review an mp3 or two and I said I had this big idea. The truth is, the A’s – I did it in alphabetical order – and the A’s were pretty bad, and I was about ready to kill myself. And then I started to find one or two songs which completely redeemed everything, and it was like, all right, it’s worth it, like you with Monotonix. You find something like that and you realize it’s a worthy endeavor.
HR: Exactly. What was your process with this thing – like eight hours a day for six days?
PF: I’d be working, take a little break, listen to a couple songs, and then write them directly into iTunes in the comment field. And there were a couple of days where I stayed late. I’d keep plowing through it, I could see how many I had left. And there were a number of nights where I stayed until three or four in the morning, and then I would take it home, and there were two, two-and-half weekends completely given over to it. So altogether it was 48 hours spread over a couple of weeks, and as long as you kept going at it steadily it wasn’t that bad. And not that it was ever suffering – I was listening to music.
HR: Right. So there was never a point like about half way through where you just thought, “Oh my God.”
PF: You know as well as I do when you work on deadline, you’re just like, “Oooh, okay, I better do this.” So I was constantly telling people stuff like “We’ll have dinner next week.” Everybody thought I was an idiot, but it was really fun.
That’s the thing. People have been very nice about this piece, except I did hurt a lot of feelings. But at the same time, it’s like what did I do? I sat in a room and listened to music and wrote five or six words about the songs for a couple of weeks.
And actually I hadn’t been listening to much music the last few years and I really wanted to sort of figure out what’s going on. I’m 33 and all my friends are getting to that point where you go, “You know, I don’t have to be cool anymore. You know what’s good? Randy Newman!”
And I’m that way too – I love Randy Newman. So I just wondered what the kids were doing, and it was very fun to go and figure it out.
HR: So you never had to resort to chemical stimulants?
PF: No, it was like that piece plus anxiety [were all I needed]. Especially the one-star songs, you wanna give ‘em a fair hearing, and you can watch me flame out towards the end there. But you owe it to them.
HR: I once committed myself to a similar ordeal in which I locked myself in a motel room with a jam box and listened to Houston radio for 24 hours straight, changing the station every three minutes.
PF: (Expulsion of air) I would imagine that’s a rough urban market right there.
HR: Yeah, it was and is a shitty radio market. And it was Bush’s second inaugural day, too—
HR: So I had to listen to all this fucking crowing.
PF: I can’t even imagine – 24 hours straight.
HR: Yeah, and I really wanted to linger on good songs, like you did.
PF: That’s the thing, it’s like that cocaine / rat stimulus experiment. You find yourself saying, “I’ll just listen to this song four or five times.” It became really like, “Oooh, I don’t want to let that one go. I’m not ready to move on yet.” Because you knew you had ten or eleven tunes ahead that were just… The problem is nobody’s bad anymore. The production’s all really good. It’s just there’s this overwhelming banality which is just like everything else in culture.
HR: I fear that people don’t really know what real excellence is anymore. Everything’s just pretty good, and that’s good enough.
PF: The tools are there. The one point that kept coming up was that there seems to be all these arrangement skills that have been lost. Because everyone has ProTools or Ableton Live... It got to the point where I could almost hear the difference, where I was like, “That’s ProTools,” or “That’s an Ableton Live mixing session.”
I wrote about it in the piece – the dynamics are gone and no one arranges as much. They just sort of draw a triangle and say, “The drums need to go now.”
What I heard a lot of were vocals and guitars that don’t line up. It’s like, “Do you guys even play in the same room? What are you trying to get at?” That was the slog, hearing that over and over again.
HR: A few years ago, a friend of mine came out with one of the best rock albums I’ve ever heard (Michael Haaga’s Plus and Minus Show), and he is always preaching to me about dynamics too. He really knows how to work toward a slow crescendo.
PF: I love that slow build. It’s the same way you start to learn to appreciate jazz or classical – it’s like okay, there is some stuff going on in here. And it’s like right now, what you here is a bunch of quiet build, then just a screamed chorus. Oh my God.
HR: I noticed in the piece you picked up on this trend of “Oh, we’ll just cover up that patch with some organ.”
PF: Have you noticed that too?
PF: I guess it’s just that the synths have good organs now. And everybody’s just “Aah, we’ll just throw some organ in there—“
HR: The Spackle of the music world.
PF: Yeah-yeah! That’s it, but I don’t remember that as a historical factor, that it was ever like, “Yeah, okay, well we’re getting to the bridge, we’re gonna have to fill this.” But it is now. It’s Spackle. Musical Spackle. That surprised me. Since when has organ been in every single bad rock song?
HR: What about the totemic animal band names? A couple of years ago we were plagued with wolf bands.
PF: Yeah-yeah-yeah! And there aren’t that many this year.
HR: As you wrote, it’s all about bears this year.
PF: Right. Bears, and another thing I noticed was “black.” There are like 30 bands with the word “black” in their name.
HR: Do you think there’s anything to that on a Jungian level?
PF: It is actually kinda fascinating to think about what the spirit animals are.
HR: Or is it just kinda kids reading Pitchfork?
PF: I think it has to be. On a certain level, they just think it sounds cool. It sounds awesome. And that’s just part of the tradition, the great history of rock music. Like Pink Floyd or whatever, it’s just some random influences that some 19-year-old glues together. But still the prevalence of the animals is kinda surprising.