Perfect Sound Forever

BYRON COLEY


Florence, MA; circa 2003, Yod space bathtub, from unreleased documentary on Magik Markers

Interview by Jason Gross, Part 4


PSF: What are you listening to nowadays?

I try to not listen to reissues but that's what I find myself picking out. There's so much stuff getting reissued, some stuff that I haven't heard for a long time or new or archival stuff. It's just really interesting for me to listen to that stuff 'cause it sort of connects more of the dots in certain ways. I listen to a lot of stuff that we're thinking of putting out so I listen to a lot of tapes of stuff. Some of the stuff that we're talking about doing on this new label is stuff that I've been listening to. There's a Sumner Crane (ex-Mars) album, A Coffinful of Blues, which is him playing National Steel and solo guitar stuff. I get tons of new CD's and I'll just throw on bunches of them. One thing that really drove me crazy lately is how good that new Jandek, Portland Thursday, is and I hadn't gotten promos from him for a long time. And then this one showed up at my house so I thought I'll have to listen to it. And it was GREAT! So now I gotta sort of go back (laughs) and listen to all the other CD's I guess. People are really putting out a lot of interesting stuff anyway even if it's not all great. There are a lot of people are just cranking out stuff. There's way too much to keep up with right now. But I like all the standard American, Finnish and Japanese stuff. There hasn't been that much stuff from New Zealand and Australia lately. And it seems like all the South American stuff that I hear is mostly reissues.

PSF: Do you listen to any records that come out on major labels or do you just have no interest in seeing what they're doing?

Generally, I don't hear very much of it. I've never gotten serviced by any major label. The thing is, if I'm listening to new stuff, generally I'm listening to it with potentially the idea of at least writing about it. If a lot of people are going to write about it, to me it's like... It's not that I'm elitist about it but it's more like 'well, 100 other people are gonna write about it, why do I have to throw two bits in?' So I'm always interested in hearing stuff that maybe nobody else is going to bother with. That to me is more the motivation for listening to stuff or things that people really haven't gotten the right handle on it. I'll do stuff on people who've been around for years, like Michael Hurley or something like that, who's been around forever. But people still haven't really figured him out. So that's more interesting to me.

There a lot of people who just get ignored for whatever reason, 'cause I guess there's just so much stuff. And people get very taken with whatever the flavor of the month is and it's very easy to do.

Some of these bands, oh my God, if you're trying to keep up with... But they left six albums. I'll get some CD and it sounds pretty good and I'll go to their MySpace page and find out, holy shit, this is their eighth album and I've really never heard of them. WOW, it's weird! And they're on interesting small labels and there's no WAY to understand the context of them. How does this record fit into their stuff? I have no idea! So I can't write a useful review of this unless I know. I mean, this could be an exact copy of an earlier record. I get really befuddled by some of that stuff. There's a bunch of new bands where their stuff's interesting but it's like... holy crap, there's so much of it. I don't really like to write about stuff that I don't know anything about.

PSF: That doesn't stop a lot of writers who do that anyway.

That's true. There's more regurgitation of press releases than there ever has been. Also, there are fewer and fewer places to write for all the time. It's always been true though but I think other people who write critical reviews for the most part have a tendency to do hack work. But people are REALLY afraid of being wrong of saying 'this is the greatest record ever' if everybody else says 'it's shit.' So I don't understand. They're afraid to listen to it with their own ears. They don't wanna be the first one out there on anything. And to me, that's...

PSF: Maybe they're more worried about their jobs than taking a stance.

I guess... Some of these things I can't really imagine that they get paid for. What do they make writing a Pitchfork review or something like that? Maybe something but I don't know what that fear is. Maybe fear of not being hip. It just doesn't make any sense to me. You just listen to stuff. I mean, if I go back and look through Forced Exposure reviews, I've got to say that most of the time, I'll still stand by those reviews more or less. There's some that are half-assed or not really thought through.

PSF: What are your thoughts about the downloading debate?

Somebody was asking me yesterday whether it was possible to have a rare download. And I started thinking about it and I guess it probably would be, if it's something like a release-quality download by one of those artists that's unauthorized and really police their stuff, like Springsteen. I guess it would theoretically be possible. Obviously, there's nothing in the way of artifact. You have to comodify it in a way, to make it rare.

With the download thing, it really makes it difficult for artists to make money. I like records. To me, an object is really interesting and it's nice that it means that people no longer confuse the object with the music because they ARE different. But in a way, it does make it really difficult for artists to figure out how to do this full time. The model hasn't really evolved yet and there isn't anybody that's really been able to do it. With music, it's so ephemeral. To sing a song, as long as it stays in that form, there's no way to do any value-added packaging. The commoditization of music has always been about having a variety of steps that add value. There's all these things that can boost the cost of it because you could do in a certain way. Short of that, it goes back to being much more of a live medium. The recordings are just less important.

PSF: So you think bands will just have to tour a lot and sell lots of merchandise to get by?

If not, I don't really know how they would. I think that some people, at least from my experience with my own kids, have a slightly better understanding of why you should buy the stuff rather than take it. But I think that they're unusual in terms of that and that most people of that generation view that as being just part of free information that's out there. So if that's the case and if that continues to be the case and there are more people who feel that way, I don't see that there's any other way to make money as a musician except by having merchandise and doing live performances. There might be but I don't know what exactly it is. With music by itself, it's only when you capture it and do something else with it in terms of producing an object that you're able to charge something.

PSF: The publishing industry is having the same problem nowadays and publications are suffering. As a writer, do you find that you have to work more for less money nowadays?

Oh yeah. That's definitely true. The curious thing though is that I think that the quality of information that's floating around has become so questionable.

PSF: In terms of...?

Just in terms of veracity. There's nobody vetting a lot of this stuff. And people are citing this stuff. You couldn't get it published. You can't use it as source material because they're not considered verified, any of this stuff. So there's so much bad information that's thrown around right now. A lot of it is really minor but a lot of these self-styled experts out there who are not really qualified to make the kind of comment that they do, I think it just devalues information.

There's an idea in act utilitarianism philosophy that there's a matrix of truth and as long as people tell the truth, it makes it more likely that other people are going to tell the truth because statements are believable. And that as soon as people start telling incorrect things, it makes everybody start doubting and it makes it likely that they will also spread false information. And I sort of feel that a lot of Internet stuff is like that. People feel like they can say anything. "Oh, that guy said it..." And it diminishes the amount of factual information that's out there. And then it makes everyone question the veracity of anything, no matter how well researched and thought out it is. They just think "ah, this is bullshit anyway." It's one thing if it's an opinion piece and then it's as good as anybody else's but if you're getting into factual stuff, I think it's a good to do some kind of check. And you can't just check it online.

PSF: What do you think the future of publishing might be?

Lili has always really been into the e-paper type of stuff. And I think that people like to hold stuff- I know that I do. I like books and records and I think that some of that has to do with an inherent OCD thing anyway, where I really like to file stuff. (laughs) I feel as though I can create some order in my life by alphabeticizing, so that's a personal neurosis.

I do think that people prefer some kind of physical object related to certain things. There is e-paper stuff that's evolving now that I think that it possibly will be more satisfying for people. So there are subscription ways to deal with that. Whether or not people actually do it, it's hard for me to really know. Again, it's a drive for people feeling that they have an inherent right to access to a lot of information that previous was proprietary and there were ways to make it proprietary. In the Western world right now, enough people have access to computers to unlock a lot of the keys to this.

As to where to go, it's pretty hard to say. If anybody really knew, they would be doing it right now and get rich. But something has to shake out at some point. If it continues to go in a certain direction, it's gonna end up that everybody's gonna have to start creating as an avocation instead of a vocation, which diminishes all of this. There's still people who produce physical art but visual artists will be able to do stuff I guess. If you're not a visual artist, you're gonna be kind of screwed unless there's some kind of mechanism that gets worked out for it. I don't really know what it would be. I understand that people don't wanna pay for something that they can get for free and if they start to feel entitled to it, it...

PSF: ...becomes a cycle?

Yeah. It's understandable. But those people who do that don't really understand the process. But people don't understand a lot of stuff and they still do it. I mean, I don't understand how a computer works really but I use it all the time. I understand it to the degree that I can operate it. But a cell phone? How the fuck does that really work? I don't really know, I don't really care but I could use it. And I think that people feel the same way about a lot of different things. Just because you don't know how it works, doesn't mean that you won't use it!

PSF: After writing for so long, what motivates you to do still write?

That's a good question. (pauses) I'm still really interested in this stuff and I'm interested in where things go and where they fit. To me, there's some kind of unified field theory like I said! (laughs) All this underground stuff sort of fits together. There's a line from Black Mountain to Fort Thunder and it all fills in somehow, in different ways. I'm just really interested in understanding it. And I think that as things get reissued and all this stuff comes out, you get all these kind of different pieces of the puzzle that fit together. So I guess that in a way, that's what keeps me really interested in this. There are some days that I'm more interested in it than others but I think that's pretty standard.

PSF: When you're at a record fair like this, do you feel that you still get something out of it when you're working there?

I do. But it becomes problematic when you work as a dealer. You start looking at them (records) kind of differently.

PSF: How so?

Well, you look at them as commodities. You start thinking "Oh, I could get this and then maybe I could get another ten dollars for it." So it's hard for me to go into that sometimes. I used to go to record stores and book stores for pleasure. It's much harder to do when you're evaluating stuff, like "wow, this is really underpriced. I don't really want that book but I'll buy it because it's underpriced." It's kind of a bad situation to find yourself in, especially if you have boxes of crap lying around. But I've done every FMU record fair so for me, there's a lot of people I only see at these things. It's a cordial atmosphere pretty much. I don't really come looking for records too much. I see stuff that looks really cool and that's nice but in terms of spending money on them, I can't really do too much.

PSF: Do you ever feel like you're too obsessed about music?

It's certainly stood in the way of making any money. It was a characteristically poor career choice to do music writing. But I think you do these things because you just do them. You sort of have to and get in the habit of doing them. And you're like "Oh, another 20 years has gone by!" (laughs) You wake up and think "Man, I could really use a dental plan." You just have to marry well if you're going to do it. Most of these things are not very sustaining financially.

PSF: What are your political views? Do you care about politics at all?

I've been very involved in politics at certain points but I feel that I hate fascists. I'm so anti-authoritarian. I had a really hard time at school just because I couldn't handle that kind of top-down structure. Some of these teachers didn't know shit and it's like "I'm supposed to listen to you just because you're fucking standing up there?" Even now, people say things that are totally wrong and am I supposed to let that slide? I was never very good at that.

So my own politics are just really classic lefty. I get more driven by people that I loathe though, like Bush. And you really start to wonder like "Am I going to get on somebody's list?" Generally speaking, I haven't done much (politicially). I don't really write about politics very much, just because people who are really dicks can make your life problematic. But I've voted every time since I turned 18. I'm just so glad to not have Bush. I think about it almost every day.

PSF: Do you think your kids will be involved in music or writing? I know your daughter was in a band with Coco (Kim/Thurston's daughter) called Lightbulb.

Hud (his son) is taking drum lessons now. He plays guitar and saxophone and piano already. He's 19. He does a radio show at Tulane. "Tulane Black Top"! He loves the Dictators, punk rock. He's into a lot of hip hop stuff like RZA and underground stuff.

My kids were exposed to all kinds of stuff when they were growing up so they've heard everything and focused on different stuff. Addie (his daughter) is really into girl group stuff and Of Montreal type pop stuff and Beatles. She played piano for a long time too, and some violin and she's talking about doing piano again. But the band thing's really not for her. Hud's really into jamming with his friends so whether or not he'll do anything more with that, I don't know. But he'll at least be conversant with the vocabulary of the format. He used to play live gigs with us... We were doing Dredd Foole and the Din gigs, with me and him and Thurston. The three of us had a band called Dapper. We'd only do recordings for tribute albums so we did a Jandek one (Naked in the Afternoon).

PSF: What did you play?

Keyboards I guess. I'd sing also. We did a Beefheart one (Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish) for Norway. A Holy Modal Rounders tribute. Nihilism Spasm Band tribute. So we did recordings for all those and then we played some gigs. We opened for Wolf Eyes. Hud did another gig with John Shaw of the Believers and Dan Ireton (aka Dredd Foole).

PSF: And what about Addie's work?

I think the Lightbulb album's going to come out. But she is not happy with the experience. She really likes pop and she was a little frustrated that they weren't capable of producing music that was a little more polished. So whether or not she will ever do anything with it, I don't know. I would be surprised but it could definitely happen. She's 15 so there's a lot of possibilities there if she wants to. She's not part of a gang that plays music or anything like that. Hud was a little bit more into that with his friends. All that stuff happens in reaction to whatever your peers are up to anyway so we'll see.

PSF: Which records do you love the most?

When it comes to the records I love the most, I almost don't play them anymore because they're carved into my brain. I like Flesheaeters A Minute to Pray, A Second To Die. The first Stooges. The first Velvets. The first Ramones. Those just kind of like no brainers. The first Syd Barrett solo album. Kevin Ayers Shooting at the Moon. Alberty Ayler Spiritual Unity. Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures. Daydream Nation is a record that when I hear that, I'm like "God, this is such a great record!" There are a lot of records that I really like. Records from '83 especially, like Birthday Party, Big Black, Scientists. There are just a lot of records that I love in that period of time.

Thurston and I were going to do this book. I heard an interview with Tracey Nelson on NPR where they asked what she'd been doing and she said "Oh, I wasn't really doing anything in the 80's but there was no good music in the 80's anyway." And so, Thurston and I immediately started working on this book The 10,000 Best Records of the 80's. We were gonna do it like an art book with 100 records on each page and 100 pages. We started working on a list. We were thinking about how long it would actually take to produce this stuff. We decided that maybe it was an idea best left on the drawing board. (laughs)

But there are just a lot of great records. There were ones that I played all the time, like (Quicksilver Messenger Service's) Happy Trails and Notorious Byrd Brothers. (Jefferson Airplane's) Blows Against the Empire. Weird stuff...

You like records for weird things, like when you heard them, what they conjure up in terms of these semiotic connections that you don't even really necessarily understand. But there are songs to me still that if I hear them, I really am transported. Like (Dylan's) "Lay Lady Lay"- that particular song takes me... When that came out, I had a crush on this girl in New Jersey and I would never think of her otherwise, however long ago that was, maybe 1970? But I will always be transported to these nights where they would show movies at this beach. It really takes me there. I find music can be really powerful. It's like remembrance of things past. There are just these weird things that set it off- there can be a scent or something like that. But for me, it's always been records that can transport me to times and places that are long past in a really expected way sometimes.

You forget sometimes how when you're a kid, how many times you would listen to a record. You know, women never forget that. They could still do it. I don't know why but the wiring is different. Lili can play the same record all day long in a way that would drive me crazy the third time through. I'd have to turn it off but she can do that. And I found that similar with other women that I've known, that could really get into the rhythm of the whole thing in a way that I really can't.

But as a kid, you have 20 records so you'd be very familiar with their contents. Sometimes you can have forgotten completely what those records were. And then a certain Moody Blues song can transport me to this dorm room at Choate (prep school) with these guys smoking pot. And thankfully, I'd never hear a Moody Blues song in any context but if I do... Or Cat Stevens songs- as much as I loathe that guy, they have these transportational qualities for me. And I think everybody has a store of those same kind of things. And it's pretty interesting to push peoples' buttons in that way. The fact that they have such emotional resonance. It makes music very powerful.

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