Author Archives: Will Robin

Music critic, musicology graduate student, and occasional saxophonist; @seatedovation

A Long Time Coming

Nonkeen

“We always met and played together without knowing exactly the purpose of what we would like to make out of it… It was just for the sake of playing together.”—Frederic Gmeiner

Two boys meet in elementary school, and discover a mutual love for tinkering with electronics. They play with old hi-fi equipment and tape recorders designed for children, and end up creating a radio program that documents the sounds and activities of their schoolmates. A third boy joins the pair, visiting from a city that—though only a three-hour drive away—represents an entirely different world. The trio remains close through their teenage years, transitioning from the recorded medium to playing together in a band. They reunite as adults and, despite the fact that they have found different career paths—with one of them skyrocketing to fame as a composer and producer—they continue making music. They meet regularly for jam sessions in humble rehearsal spaces, and occasionally leave a tape recorder running. Evoking that childhood fascination with technology, they occasionally upload the results to a computer and continue messing with it, overdubbing, processing. Perhaps unexpectedly, after years of playing together and remaining close friends, an album has emerged.

This is the story of Nonkeen, whose debut full-length, The Gambler, is out today on R&S. Nonkeen comprises Frederic Gmeiner, Sebastian Singwald, and Nils Frahm—the best-known member of the trio, a well-regarded composer and producer. They grew up in Cold War-era Germany of the 1980s: Gmeiner and Frahm were colleagues in a suburb of Hamburg in the West, and Singwald visited them on an exchange program from East Berlin in 1989. Even as Frahm’s musical career took off later in life, the old band kept meeting and playing. And now, after twenty-seven years of friendship and performing together outside the limelight, their side project is taking center stage.

Nonkeen

“This is also quite interesting, now, for us—what’s going to happen,” said Gmeiner in a recent Skype interview. Gmeiner and Singwald spoke to me from Berlin, where Nonkeen will perform at the arts space Radialsystem in April for two shows, which are already sold out. “We’ve stepped out from the hobby basement into the public, which is also really great and nice,” Gmeiner added, but noted that originally there was “not really a plan for what we were doing.” There might be something jarring about having a long-standing band with friends that, when it finally moves from the basement to the concert hall, already has massive platform due to the popularity of one of its members. But Gmeiner wasn’t terribly worried. “Until now it didn’t change so much,” he said with a laugh. “The only thing that changed is that we now have to talk about it.”

Neither Singwald nor Gmeiner could recall exactly what kind of music they made in those early, primary school years—“Nobody knows anymore so clearly, what we were interested in and working on at the age of seven,” Singwald told me—but their collaborations felt right. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the trio began meeting more regularly and formed a band as teenagers, which performed during the summers at a fairground owned by Singwald’s uncle. After a catastrophic incident—a nearby carousel malfunctioned and two of its passengers flew onto the stage, crashing into the band’s instruments—the group splintered. But they reconvened in Berlin in their twenties, and began making music once more.

Nonkeen

“We always had a rehearsal room together from that time on,” Gmeiner said. “Rehearsal spaces changed all the time, quite often—because sometimes we had to move out in the notice of a month. It was often very improvised stuff.” With Singwald on bass, Frahm on Rhodes and piano, and Gmeiner on drums, the band resembled, as Gmeiner called it, “a quite typical jazz trio.” They were informed by the 1970s fusion and prog of groups like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Soft Machine, evident on the spaced-out bliss of Gambler tracks such as “re: turn!” “We always met and played together without knowing exactly the purpose of what we would like to make out of it,” Gmeiner recalled. “It was just for the sake of playing together.”

Sometimes, Frahm would turn on a tape recorder—the shabbiness of the spaces where they assembled meant they weren’t willing to shell out for more expensive gear—and capture the sonic environment. Much later, the trio would go back and listen to the music in Frahm’s studio, picking favorite passages, saving them to a computer, and adding effects. They would often hear things that sounded entirely unfamiliar, either because they forgot about their improvisations or because they made mistakes with the recording equipment and accidentally shifted the pitch of the machine. “It was more like discovering or digging in an archive, with some distance also over the years, which made it very intuitive,” Gmeiner said. That spontaneity is audible in the beautifully meditative rumbles of the track “capstan,” which forms a prelude to the minimalist, looping groove of “chasing god through palmyra.” Only about one percent of the tapes they made actually ended up in the studio to be edited. Treating them like field recordings, rather than as drafts for an album, led to a more collaborative approach. “No one could really claim that someone wrote a song, or someone would throw in an idea and say ‘Hey, that sounds already quite nice but let’s try to have it more like that,’” Gmeiner added. “Because we couldn’t redo it: we had to work with the stuff that was on tape.” But the music gradually jelled into a record: The Gambler.

Singwald compared rehearsals to a kind of glue that held the friendship together; what kept them returning to these informal spaces was less the promise of a developed album, and more the desire to immerse themselves in each others’ creativity. And, perhaps, nostalgia for those early years of tinkering in the final days of a divided Germany. “We are well aware, also, that it’s for us most important to keep that up somehow—this freedom—and not to plan too many things,” Gmeiner said. “Because for us, it’s a lot about energy when making music together. This intensiveness, and being in the moment. It shouldn’t sound too spiritual, but it’s more this way of making music where you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, but you carefully have to listen to each other and basically be in the moment, and keep the thing going.”

Striking Out on His Own

Gabriel Kahane

“Having had that corporate experience, I just really wanted to go as far in the other direction as possible.”—Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane’s first album wasn’t released in 2008. Well, it was, but not really. “I was so young and naïve,” Kahane recalled recently over tea on a frigid day earlier this month. The tiny record label that the composer and singer-songwriter had signed with had set a street date for September 15, but inexplicably didn’t print any actual albums for five months. “For all intents and purposes, that record didn’t come out at all,” he recalled.

This time around, Kahane is taking matters into his own hands. On February 5 he will release The Fiction Issue, his fifth full-length album, for purchase on Bandcamp. When we met at a coffee shop in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, he had just wrapped up a phone call with a fellow singer-songwriter, whom he had advised to avoid working with labels if possible. Kahane has learned a number of lessons about the industry since that first traumatic experience eight years ago, and is attempting to apply them all to this next phase in his career.

Gabriel Kahane

Though self-releasing is increasingly the norm these days, it’s a striking move for The Fiction Issue. For one thing, Kahane is backed here by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider who, despite their hip reputation and youthful vigor, are well-established denizens of the highly institutionalized classical music ecosystem, spending much of their time playing in the company of Yo-Yo Ma. And trekking out on his own is even more unusual for Kahane right now, given this record was, in fact, originally to be distributed by Sony Masterworks.

That recent transition, from Sony to self-release, is a complex tale of politics and artistry in an age in which the major labels continue to undergo convulsive change. But before delving in, first a bit about the music that Kahane is issuing next week. For the past decade, he has worked comfortably in the rock and classical spheres, alternating between performing in the grandeur of Carnegie Hall and the intimacy of Rockwood Music Hall. He’s written three-minute songs about breakups and fifty-minute orchestral works about the Great Depression. And he’s grouched about journalists who focus too much on genre-hopping and not enough on craft. A few years back, he worked with Brooklyn Rider and singer-songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) for a project at Carnegie, which became The Fiction Issue: a half-hour miniature drama, sung by Kahane and Worden and played by the string quartet. “Pop songs are spiritually related to short stories, as far as narrative economy is concerned,” he told me. This work is more like a two-character play (or, as the title alludes, a compilation of stories in the manner of The New Yorker’s annual magazine edition).

“If the main path of my creative life is as a songwriter, I feel like this is a slightly divergent, but not unrelated, body of work that expresses, in greater detail, certain aspects of what I do,” Kahane said of the new release. Come On All You Ghosts, the other vocal work on the record, sets three poems written by Matthew Zapruder that alternate affectingly between the transcendent and the ordinary. To fill out the full-length, Kahane composed Bradbury Studies, a craggily lyrical quartet that expands, in the manner of a nineteenth-century fantasia, on one of the best songs of his previous album, The Ambassador.

Gabriel Kahane

The Ambassador is at the center of the Sony Masterworks drama, and the past several years of Kahane’s musical life. When we met, he expressed deep gratitude to Sony for signing him and taking on a far-fetched pitch: a concept album focused on the city of Los Angeles, with each song telling the story of a specific building. “The fact that I was given the insane amount of money that I was given—in 2013, with no history of record sales—to make a carte blanche album, where the label didn’t hear it before going to mastering, is extraordinary,” he told me. But if the initial creative investment was strong, everything that came afterward was mired in difficulty. Fractures between art and commerce emerged, and Kahane found himself drowning in bureaucratic legalese as he tried to complete the record. “This is happening at a lot of big labels, where the business affairs people have a kind of stranglehold on the A&R people,” he said.

With its author’s strong profile in the orchestral world and his friends in indie rock—Sufjan Stevens played on Kahane’s first album—The Ambassador had the potential to land strongly in the classical and rock press. But Sony wasn’t able to garner the attention of major critics or market the album persuasively; it slipped by entirely unnoticed by Pitchfork. Sales were low but steady, mostly from word-of-mouth rather than the robust advertising campaign that one would expect from a major label. “The thing that was particularly frustrating was that they didn’t ultimately have the courage of their convictions when it came to sticking behind the record, even though it was slow out of the gate,” Kahane said. At the heart of the album is Empire Liquor Mart, a haunting account of the life and death of Latasha Harlins, an African-American girl shot in the days leading up to the Los Angeles riots. In a year of Black Lives Matter, it felt like the song could have landed as a significant part of the cultural conversation, but it was instead mostly overlooked.

And though there were a number of subsequent opportunities for album sales to reignite—The Ambassador was transformed into a live theatrical show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and received a strongly positive front-page review from the New York Times—Sony had already lost interest. “With something that was somewhat commercially viable, The Ambassador, their lack of commitment to that made it all the more clear that if I put out the Brooklyn Rider album with them, it would just be dead in the water,” Kahane said. He asked to be released from his contract and bought back the full rights to The Fiction Issue, and struck out on his own. “Having had that corporate experience, I just really wanted to go as far in the other direction as possible,” he explained.

Kahane isn’t bitter, and is appreciative of the risks that institutions have taken on his behalf. But he also has a much clearer sense of what can and cannot be achieved by the industry. “If I were talking to a young artist, I would say, in as much as it doesn’t make you tear your hair out from dealing with lots of logistical nonsense, do as much by yourself as you can,” he said. “Because it’s also really valuable to learn: learning how to book a tour, how to self-release an album, how to write a press release, so on and so forth. In the same way that if you work in any industry, and you work your way up from being the coffee boy to being the CEO, it will have been valuable that you did all of those tasks along the way. It’s humbling and grounding to walk to the post office and put twenty vinyl records in the mail.”

Brooklyn Rider by Sarah SmallBrooklyn Rider, photo by Sarah Small

For The Fiction Issue, Kahane is eager to navigate the experience unfettered by bureaucracy; he will briefly tour the album with Brooklyn Rider over the next week, aided somewhat by the institutional clout of a major string quartet. But his fan base is small enough that anyone who buys a physical copy of the album will receive a handwritten thank-you note. “I’m as grateful as the amount of time it takes me to write that note, that people are still willing to pay for music,” he said, “and perpetuate an industry that needs to exist, in some form, in order for us to persevere.”

A Joyful, Percussive Noise

So Percussion by Janette Beckmanphoto by Janette Beckman

“Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music.” — John Cage

Sometime in the 1930s, John Cage had an intriguing conversation with experimental animator Oskar Fischinger. “He spoke to me about what he called the spirit inherent in materials and he claimed that a sound made from wood had a different spirit than one made from glass,” the composer later recalled. Inspired, Cage decided to test the theory. He gathered a few friends and tried drumming on tables and chairs, pots and pans. Not quite satisfied, they visited a junkyard and collected brake drums, pipes, steel rings, and blocks of wood. These excursions roughly solidified the instrumentation for Cage’s 1935 Quartet, a subtle etude in rhythm.

They also birthed the percussion quartet as an ensemble, now a mainstay of the new-music world. Perhaps the most spirited representative of this configuration is Sō Percussion. Cage wasn’t the originator of the percussion ensemble—credit is owed to maverick forefather Edgard Varèse, whose Ionisation brought bass drums, bongos, anvils, sirens, and a whip together onto the concert hall stage in 1931—but Cage is the spiritual mentor of the modern percussion setup, and one whose vision oversees Sō’s relentlessly expansive musicality. The group’s latest enterprise is Drumkit Quartets, an album of works by Glenn Kotche (better known for his presence as the drummer in Wilco), out February 26 on Cantaloupe.

So Percussion by Jeff Raglandphoto by Jeff Ragland

One might easily assume that, given their hirsute visages and hip repertoire, Sō is a newcomer to the scene. But it is, at this point, a veteran of the new-music world: the ensemble assembled back at Yale in 1999, where the original four members were students, and dedicated itself to the small but vital body of percussion works from luminaries such as Cage, Steve Reich, and Iannis Xenakis. Its crystalline 2005 recording of Reich’s Drumming, a breakthrough composition in the history of minimalism, placed the ensemble at the forefront of a new generation of virtuosos.

Since 2004, Sō has released eighteen albums, toured nationally and internationally, played gigs everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Big Ears Festival, worked with everyone from Buke & Gase to Gustavo Dudamel, taught at Bard and Princeton, and even founded its own summer institute. Its membership has shifted, though its technique remains intact. Only one of the founding members, Jason Treuting, remains with the group (he is also a composer, and has written his own mind-bending music for Sō). The ensemble has maintained a strong relationship to Cantaloupe Records, the house label of composer-collective Bang on a Can: Sō’s first major commission came courtesy of Bang co-founder David Lang, whose the so-called laws of nature forms the backbone of Sō’s first record. The work attempts to seek meaning from simple and abstract processes; in the final movement, flowerpots and teacups mete out delicate, refined, and somehow intensely poignant rhythmic patterns. 

Sō takes a broad approach to what the percussion medium might offer. Its records are just as often souped-up and amplified as they are daintily acoustic; its collaborators hail as often from the indie world as from the halls of the Ivy League composition department. Perhaps the ensemble’s most notable ongoing relationship is with Baltimore electropop duo Matmos. Matmos unlocks even more timbres for the endless sonic palette of the percussion quartet; on “Needles,” from the 2010 record Treasure State, the strumming of a cactus forms the backdrop for thumping, polyrhythmic electronica.

Still, perhaps the most captivating Sō music is written by the distinguished, university-grade quasi-mavericks with whom they have worked, including Martin Bresnick, Steve Mackey, and Paul Lansky. These albums harness the experimental ethos of the quartet, but also reach compellingly toward classicism; Lansky calls his 2005 Threads a cantata, riffing on the sacred vocal works of Bach. Its final movement, a chorale prelude, offers a carefully crafted shimmer that sounds equally Balinese and Baroque.

And then there’s neither ANVIL nor PULLEY, the trippy, computerized odyssey of another Princetonite, composer Dan Trueman. In the joyful noise of “Feedback,” a gigantic bass drum is transformed into a resonant body, becoming a molasses-like drone that is occasionally battered by percussive blasts. It eventually recedes into the backdrop of a tight, layered groove.

Despite his Wilco claim to fame, the work of Kotche is not all that far from these strange sonic universes. Well before hooking into the indie scene, he studied percussion at the University of Kentucky and played experimental improvisation in Chicago. Having already worked with the Kronos Quartet, Silk Road Ensemble, and Bang on a Can All-Stars, Kotche has also become a Cantaloupe mainstay: in 2014, he released companion albums Adventureland and Fantasy Land, comprising compositions for several ensembles, and recorded Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams’ massive Ilimaq last fall. The Drumkit Quartets mark the next phase in Kotche’s development, as he moves from writing for other instrumental groups but playing drums himself, to writing for other drummers. The album is both deeply strange and deeply rock-inflected, drawing on a range of influences from futurism to haiku.

Browsing Sō’s Bandcamp page, you might not necessarily realize that they are, in real life, four guys who primarily play live concerts that feature a slew of mostly acoustic instruments (albeit unusual ones). You could mistake them for weirdo club DJs, making beats that are a little too tricky to dance to but catchy nonetheless. The music, at times, suggests a coolness possibly at odds with Cage’s absorption of Fischinger’s spiritual vision; a more subtly experimental path is offered by Wandelweiser composer Michael Pisaro in his work with percussionist Greg Stuart. Despite the ensemble’s expansive purview, there is room to grow—for instance, there are few female composers in Sō’s recorded output, although they are currently working with My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden.

So Percussion by Janette Beckmanphoto by Janette Beckman

But there is surely no better use of the many objects found in the aisles of Home Depot than Sō’s repertoire. “Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music,” Cage wrote in his 1937 manifesto, “The Future of Music: Credo.” It is a charge that the quartet has celebrated in earnest.

Tagging the Metropolis

What does it mean to listen to a city? Will Robin dives into a random sampling of recent releases from Baltimore at the end of a year of unrest.

Beach House by Shawn Brackbillphoto by Shawn Brackbill

Baltimore’s Beach House had an impressive 2015, releasing two acclaimed albums on Subpop in the span of only two months. Tranquil, tightly constructed, and full of intriguing contradictions, the August album Depression Cherry featured the mournful, distorted instrumentals of “Beyond Love,” over which Victoria Legrand cooly intones an ecstatic paean to violent lust: ‘I’m gonna tear off all the petals of the rose that’s in your mouth:

And “Elegy to the Void,” from October’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, somehow sounds simultaneously like a fist-pumping anthem and a distant daydream:

In honor of my upcoming visit to Baltimore for a few days in January for what looks to be a vibrant New Music Gathering, I decided to explore the sonic landscape of the city, via the Internet, to see what musical riches beyond the household name of Beach House the city has to offer. The discover feature on the Bandcamp homepage (and in the app) allows fans to filter by city, and also genre, format, and by window of time. Search by “all” and you discover that places are messy, porous entities full of a multitude of musics that sometimes overlap, and sometimes don’t. Among recent releases from Baltimore, you can get just about every kind of sound. There’s Jason Crumer’s eerie process music, off the intriguing experimental label No Rent Records:

The somber, subtle lo-fi of slugqueen:

The fascinating sounds of Nina Pop, a new electronic label run by deeply eclectic producer Schwarz (check out Vice’s take):

And then, released just a few days ago, the radical collages of The Soft Pink Truth, an album of web-based compositions from Drew Daniel, one half of the ever-captivating Matmos:

To hear all of these sounds is to belie any notion of a unified metropolitan soundscape. As a former denizen of North Carolina’s so-called “Triangle”—comprised of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh, and the surrounding area—and attendee of a slice of its richly diverse music scenes, I’m very familiar with the perils of outsiders poking through local artistic wares. (It’s easy enough to distinguish; look for the music critic using the phrase “Raleigh-Durham.”) And as a recent transplant to Brooklyn, I’m already pretty cognizant of what it means to have the name of your home become an international brand for culture, not to mention commerce. So I’d rather not speculate as to what Baltimore might sound like.

I did, though, look to the coverage of Baltimore’s vital alt-weekly, City Paper, to help guide my ears a bit. In June, reporter Baynard Woods wrote about his year of listening to only local music, an idealistic experiment that he found both deeply tiring and deeply rewarding. He mentioned Natural Velvet, a searing act that I’ve found captivating as of late:

Natural Velvet

And City Paper also drew my ears to the lyrical, uncooked country of Zane Campbell, whose fascinating story they wonderfully told last year:

Zane Campbell

Indie artists from Baltimore who reach national acclaim often emphasize a pride of place in what the city offers, a different ethos from cutthroat New York; as Beach House’s Victoria Legrand told Pitchfork, “You don’t have to compare yourself with other people in Baltimore. That’s worth a lot more than ambition.” Animal Collective, perhaps the city’s most famous band, debuted its forthcoming album as a broadcast at Baltimore-Washington International Airport just a couple of weeks ago. But as local musician Jana Hunter crucially pointed out earlier this year in a Pitchfork editorial, the very things that have allowed an indie scene to thrive—cheap rent, a sense of community—are predicated on the ongoing structural inequalities that have continued to displace Baltimore’s majority-black population. “Our liberties come at the cost of theirs,” she writes of the gentrification of the city. Hunter interviews producer and rapper Abdu Ali, who cogently describes the ramifications of these issues; he also spoke to City Paper about moving back to Baltimore earlier this year.

Abdu Ali by Lee Andrew
photo by Lee Andrew

The artistic disconnect between Baltimore’s indie scene, which has received significant national attention, and the city’s musicians of color speaks to larger societal disparities—ones that propelled Baltimore to become synonymous with the name Freddie Gray this year. All of the top headlines on the City Paper website are related to Gray, as the trial of the police officer who killed him is underway; there is an entire “Freddie Gray” vertical on the Baltimore Sun’s homepage, alongside “Breaking”, “Sports,” and “Maryland” news. During and following the spring uprising, in which the mainstream media fixated more often on broken windows than broken bodies, Baltimore artists released music of solidarity. A track from Damond Blue’s album BLESSONZ opens with a British newscaster describing how “the life of so many African-American men continues to be a fight for survival,” and is followed by a plaintive lament—“Oh, Baltimore/Ain’t it hard”—that launches into lucid rap:

Damond Blue

The hard-core act Old Lines issued “Midnight in Baltimore,” a screed that also raised money for the legal defense of protesters arrested in the spring:

And the day that Freddie Gray died, local composer Judah Adashi was in Washington, D.C. for the premiere of his choral work Rise, which tells the story of civil rights from the 1960s to the present day. He released a recording of one of its movements, the haunting “Invocation,” in honor of Gray. It represents an elegy for the struggles of the past, and how they remain less historical than tragically contemporary:

In August, City Paper put together a colloquy of thoughts from local musicians about inequality; it is a fascinating and depressing read, but a vital one for disabusing us of the notion that the politics of music can be disentangled from the politics of race, class, gender, and the city. As I listened to the music of many Baltimore artists, I was struck by producer Matic808’s description of a concert he attended, in which the racial divisions between music audiences were palpable: “We separate ourselves a lot even in situations where we can intermingle and better learn about each other. Be it enjoying each other’s music at a show, or eating with each other at lunch, or sitting together on the bus. We don’t know each other and really don’t care to want to know. I feel once people realize how alike we are, connect, and accept, a lot of bullshit would cease to exist. Unfortunately I think it’s so simple, it’s rocket science: Bottom line is we’re comfortable. Get uncomfortable.”

Creating a Wide Platform

Andrew McIntosh, Populist Records

“I think what we’re shooting for is that things have a strong individual voice, but not necessarily that they fit a particular style” — Andrew McIntosh

Last month I arrived about half an hour early to Roulette, an experimental music venue in Brooklyn, for the New York debut of the Los Angeles-based music collective wild Up. Standing outside the venue was the ensemble’s indefatigable conductor, Christopher Rountree, along with a few of their performers. They were burning sage. A representative from Roulette stepped out and told them to quit it—they didn’t want to give any potential audience members an asthma attack. It was a quintessential, almost-too-clichéd moment where West Coast hippy-dippy clashes with East Coast neuroses. The concert included everything from a delicate piano concerto by composer Andrew McIntosh, to a monstrously noisy work by Nicholas Deyoe in which a bassoonist employs a power drill, to a deft arrangement of a song by the Misfits in which musician Maggie Hasspacher played bass while coolly intoning “I ain’t no goddamned son of a bitch,” a refrain then taken up by the entire orchestra as a warm chorale. Toward the end of the concert, Rountree told the audience about the attempted sage ritual that most of them missed, admitting “We got really admonished for that.” The next day, the New York Times reviewer declared, “On behalf of my fellow New Yorkers, I hope this was the ensemble’s first visit of many.”

wild Up, Populist Records

For those who haven’t had the chance to properly take in the cleansing rituals of wild Up or its colleagues in Los Angeles, the sounds of this loose and creative scene of musicians have been captured by the small label Populist Records. Today, Populist releases the latest emission from its cadre of SoCal composers and performers: Conditional Tension, featuring violinist Andrew Tholl, drummer Corey Fogel, and bassist Devin Hoff. It marks a step forward for the label—this is Populist’s first album of entirely improvised music. It’s also an emblematic example of the label’s wide-ranging artistry—the three improvisers are all members of indie songwriter Julia Holter’s band on her latest album.

With two extended tracks, Conditional Tension captures a thicket of tense free improvisation, murmuring and relentless. There is a sense of searching to the music, a sonic questing that brings together many of the artists on Populist. Each of the label’s albums feels like a complete musical experience, but also an attempt to grasp something beyond the confines of the recorded environment. 

Andrew Tholl
Andrew Tholl

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with Andrew McIntosh—who, with Andrew Tholl, co-manages Populist—in Los Angeles’ Arts District. We sat at a picnic table in the parking lot of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where McIntosh had been preparing for his role in the premiere of the opera Hopscotch, a mind-bogglingly complex production that takes place in cars driving around the city. “It seemed like there was a need for that kind of a platform in L.A.,” McIntosh told me about the origins of Populist. “A lot of the labels in the United States for new music are based in New York, and a lot of infrastructure for recording new music is in New York. It seemed like there was a lot of great stuff going on in L.A., and it didn’t really have a platform.” Since 2012, Populist has issued ten albums of radical music of impressive breadth, and it recently began releasing in vinyl. Listeners can wallow in the quizzical spaciousness of bassist and composer Scott Worthington:

Scott Worthington
Scott Worthington

Or, listeners can be jolted by the taut and in-your-face trombone of Matt Barbier. On a new 10” record, he plays two short works by Nicholas Deyoe and Clint McCallum titled— respectively and appropriately—“Face Splitter” and “Bowel Resection”:

I asked McIntosh about the artistic identity of Populist, and the composer wasn’t quite sure. “It’s a little bit all over the map, it’s still growing and forming,” he noted. The one clearly unifying factor is that the musicians have strong roots in southern California. “Some of the work could fall into kind of an experimental camp, some of it maybe couldn’t. And, yeah: again, it’s still growing,” he added.

What seems to unite the disparate voices on the label is a willingness to engage single-mindedly with music in a multitude of practices: from performing intensely intricate notated music and embracing free improvisation, to investigating performance art and reconceiving classic punk songs. “I think what we’re shooting for is that things have a strong individual voice, but not necessarily that they fit a particular style,” McIntosh said. Though wild Up represents the largest-scale undertaking on Populist’s roster, there are also a number of other quirky ensembles, such as gnarwallaby, which performs new music alongside forgotten classics of the 20th century avant-garde.

gnarwhallaby
gnarwhallaby

And lately I’ve also been captivated by the album “Five Conversations About Two Things,” in which the Inoo/Kallay Duo tear through works for piano and percussion that are at once spaced-out and clashingly dissonant:

Along with a New York debut, another sign of welcome growth among these affiliated California musicians is wild Up’s most recent album, released not on Populist but on the Icelandic label Bedroom Community. The ensemble crowd-funded a visit to Reykjavík to record with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson; aided by the voices of the women’s choir Graduale Nobili—better known for its work on Björk’s Biophilia—wild Up performs the alluring and ethereal music of its percussionist and vocalist Jodie Landau.

“I don’t have a particular agenda about the label. It seems like something that’s worthwhile to do,” McIntosh said. “We keep doing it, even though it’s a lot of work—and doesn’t make any money.” What’s next for Populist? Back in 2010, artist Chris Kallmyer created an installation in the desert near Death Valley in which he salvaged a couple hundred bottles from mining dumps and hung them on a wire fence; McIntosh and Kallmyer then recorded the sound of the bottles shimmering the wind. Kallmyer asked Julia Holter and the experimental group Lucky Dragons to respond to the field recording, and the intriguing result will be out early next year.

Opera is the New Black

You Us We All, Shara Worden

Next Wednesday, Shara Worden’s You Us We All will have its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Though Worden is better known as the leader of the indie band My Brightest Diamond, You Us We All is unequivocally an opera: in collaboration with director and designer Andrew Ondrejcak, Worden has composed arias for a quintet of singers accompanied by an ensemble of seventeenth-century instruments. But supplementing the ageless pedigree of the operatic tradition here is a contemporary gesture that is quite unusual—and perhaps unprecedented—within classical music’s slow-moving recording industry. In advance of the first American performances of You Us We All, today Worden has released the album version of the opera.

Opera is much more often seen before it is heard. An opera house commissions a work, it develops in fits and starts over many years, and it is premiered on a stage. A few years later, if a composer is lucky, a recording might emerge. If a composer is very, very lucky, that recording might lead to future performances. But when You Us We All had its overseas debut in 2013, Worden said in a recent phone interview, “We had three days in Europe when we didn’t have a show, and so we really were like, ‘We’d love to have a recording of this, what should we do?’” Thus, the cast and ensemble gathered in a studio and captured Worden’s music. Releasing an album before the Brooklyn performances of You Us We All is a remarkably sensible move. Why wouldn’t you give potential audiences a hint of how the thing they’re paying for might sound? Opera is not exactly a genre rife with plot twists to potentially spoil.

For most of its four-hundred-year history, opera has existed primarily on the stage. But for the past century, it also has intersected powerfully with recorded media. The first musician of any genre to reach one million record sales was the tenor Enrico Caruso in 1904, singing an aria from Pagliacci. Even if the vast majority of opera recordings released today still feature a dead, European canon, many living composers are echoing Worden in guiding new opera into the world via recordings. Over the past few weeks, I spoke and emailed with several musicians who have released their operas as albums on Bandcamp. They described the practical necessities and artistic benefits of recording contemporary opera, while also acknowledging that to do so conceded essential aspects of their original visions.

The new opera and the newly recorded album actually have something in common in today’s fractured artistic landscape: they both represent fully conceived musical works realized over lengthy periods of development. As labels such as New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community underscore the importance of the album in contemporary classical music, it only makes sense that projects such as Emily Hall’s Folie À Deux—imagined by its composer simultaneously as an opera and a concept album—emerge.

Emily Hall, photo by Terry Magsonphoto by Terry Magson

“I wasn’t really sure what it would mean when I started,” Hall wrote to me. “I just knew it was something I wanted to attempt, an opera/concept album that would be one and the same piece of art.” Commissioned originally by the Mahogany Opera Group, Hall composed for an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists that she viewed as much a band as an operatic cast. As the team workshopped the future staged production, they also crafted a recording. Deftly mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson and released last July on Bedroom Community, Folie À Deux embraces its identity as a recorded text; it’s easy to lose yourself in Hall’s sonic panoramas, oblivious of a broader narrative unfolding.

I wanted to, as much as possible, treat the recording as an art in and of itself,” Worden said of You Us We All. Reverb and delay effects bring out instrumental flourishes that might recede from focus in the theater; the music doesn’t stray far from the immaculate production of My Brightest Diamond. “We really pushed the recording, in that medium, as far as we thought we could take it, and still be true to what the music was,” she added.

In the early twentieth century, most of the population of the United States did not live within major metropolitan areas. Recordings, rather than opera houses, thus were the sole opportunity for many to hear an art form then perceived as vital to cultural uplift. Records quickly became a medium through which opera reached an unprecedented cross section of the American public. As the National Music Monthly wrote in 1917, “Why has this great interest and enthusiasm for opera so suddenly developed? Almost every layman will answer with two words, ‘the phonograph.’ People have heard in their own homes beautiful excerpts from the greatest operas, and have come to know their meaning in connection with the stories of the operas.”

You Us We All, Shara WordenBy 1921, the Victrola Book of the Opera declared: “The opera has at last come into its own in the United States. In former years merely the pasttime of the well-to-do in New York City and vicinity, grand opera is now enjoyed for its own sake by millions of hearers throughout the country.” (Not that Victrola, which sold thousands of opera recordings along with its own phonographs, necessarily stood as an objective source.) As scholar Robert Cannon describes, though, the rise of opera recording led to the concretization of a star system of singers who ceaselessly replicated the standard repertory. Composers, and especially living composers, were not prioritized. Legendary producer John Culshaw battled with the label Decca for years before they allowed him to record Benjamin Britten’s major opera Peter Grimes; he said, “It seemed to me that a larger issue was at stake, for if we were to abandon so relatively conservative a modern composer we should rule out contemporary music altogether.”

Today, the money has dried out of major classical labels, and the sphere of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon is left with a handful of stars, unreliable sales, and continued spiraling into irrelevance. Perhaps, then, the composer of contemporary music theatre can re-emerge. Ted Hearne’s The Source—released last week on New Amsterdam—sounds unlike any other oratorio, blending voices, instruments, and electronics into whirling collages to craft a portrait of Chelsea Manning. “So much of the work that I did in the score deals with shades, counteracting any sort of binary argument: there is no right or wrong, there is no male, there is no female, there is a spectrum,” Hearne said when we met last month in a Brooklyn lunch spot. Creating an album out of The Source heightened the radical music of the original staged production. “The ability to master the recording—in a really sophisticated, detailed way—and create that texture, it’s just much higher when you listen to a recording,” Hearne noted. “Especially on headphones, on nice speakers, there are so many things to hear that are in the score.”

Ted-Hearn-600

Records are also essential for the future life of new opera. If most Americans couldn’t see any opera circa 1915, most Americans still can’t see any new opera circa 2015. You Us We All or The Source might play for a handful of nights in one or two large cities, and then vanish from the stage. I myself have never seen any of these operas in person, but their recordings have profoundly shaped my understanding of contemporary music. Landmark postwar operas, from Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten to John Adams’s Nixon in China, have stayed in the public imagination because they were recorded. When composer Missy Mazzoli was working on her Song From the Uproar in 2011, she told me in a phone interview, “I was thinking, ‘if I let this just evaporate, then that will be so disappointing.’ I know that even in grand operas the recording insures the life of the piece, and pieces that aren’t recorded don’t get performed again and again.” Indeed, the 2012 recording on New Amsterdam provided a vital framework to secure the work’s recent, celebrated run at the L.A. Opera.

Missy Mazzoli

Back in the day, aficionados might settle into an Eames chair, turn on their hi-fi equipment, and follow an opera recording with a libretto or score. Even before the advent of radio, Marcel Proust sat in his living room and listened to the local opera house play Wagner via a telephone broadcast system. Recordings stripped away the physical limitations of the theatre, allowing the listener to fully imagine, say, the comedic world of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. As philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in a 1969 essay, “The music of Figaro is of truly incomparable quality, but every staging of Figaro with powdered ladies and gentlemen, with the page and the white rococo salon, resembles the praline box.” Opera produced in the opera house was trite and precious, unable to properly capture the power of its music; for Adorno, the LP represented a “deus ex machina” that could save the genre by granting its listener complete immersion. Recording, he wrote, “allows for the optimal presentation of the music, enabling it to recapture some of the force and intensity that had been worn threadbare in the opera houses.”

Productions of new opera today, however, stray far from the stale powdered wigs that Adorno described. Perhaps the most unusual—and at the same time, most fitting—recent translation from stage to recording is composer Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities. Based on Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel, Invisible Cities began as an hyper-sensory production: in 2012, the company The Industry mounted the opera’s premiere in Los Angeles’ Union Station, providing audience members with headphones so that they could listen to performers scattered among passersby. Still, the format of that production lent itself quite easily to subsequent recording. As Cerrone wrote to me, “It seemed like a natural extension of the live show. The opera was already being sent into your headphones. You wandered around a space. Why not take that into a larger space and allow any listener to imagine Calvino’s cities?”

Christopher Cerrone

But opera is inherently as much about visual spectacle as aural immersion. When the genre emerged in courts and public theaters in Italy four centuries ago, elaborate stagecraft along with sumptuous singing guaranteed its future. The composers I communicated with acknowledged that albums represent an unfortunate, but necessary, artistic compromise. The future of their music is secured, while the important work of their collaborators—directors, designers—evaporates. “I think there is some meaning that is lost when you’re only listening to the audio,” Worden said of You Us We All. “It’s an integrated work. I think the piece makes a lot more sense when you see it.”

Invisible Cities was envisioned by The Industry’s director, Yuval Sharon, in the kind of extravagant production that is unlikely to see rebirth; Cerrone acknowledged that in recording, “what is lost is that Yuval’s production so beautiful took to life Calvino’s imaginary world. What is gained is an ability to focus on the musical alone as an object.” (Sharon’s latest project, Hopscotch, seems beyond the realm of possibility for audio recording; it takes place in twenty-four cars that drive across L.A. as the opera unfolds.) The direct political implications of the staged version of Hearne’s The Source—in which projections display footage of faces as people watch the horrifying “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks—become more subdued and ambiguous in the oratorio’s sonic document.

Emily Hall, having conceived of Folie À Deux as a hybrid artistic work—poised between album and opera—perceived a fruitful middle path between sight and sound. In practice, each version of Folie reveals alternate paths for the listener. “I think the difference is the album can be listened to as a collection of tracks, or as a story, but watching the staged opera it is impossible to avoid the narrative even though it’s fairly open-ended,” she wrote. Even if opera is a narrative art form, the album allows unanticipated experiences to emerge: “I like the idea that a listener may not have a picture of the story and narrative immediately, but it might slowly form over time. I like that a lot.”

Ain’t No Mellow Cello

Julia Kent by PEPE fotografiaphoto by PEPE fotografia

“I have no idea where I might fit into it: I’m never really sure how to classify myself (or anyone else, really) in terms of genre. It’s fantastic that so many musicians are exploring the expressive possibilities of the cello right now, though.” — Julia Kent

In February 1967, cellist Charlotte Moorman was arrested for indecent exposure. As she was led away from a Manhattan venue by plainclothes police officers, Moorman apparently asked concert promoter Norman Seaman, “What’d I do wrong, Mr. Seaman? I just did what Mr. Paik said!” She had been in the midst of Fluxus composer Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique, which asks its performer to disrobe differently in each movement. As musicologist Benjamin Piekut’s illuminating study Experimentalism Otherwise reveals, in the subsequent trial, Moorman argued that the resultant nudity was an attempt to obey the will of the work’s creator; she was merely an interpreter, faithfully realizing a score.

The fact that Moorman has since been known primarily as “The Topless Cellist,” and not as a groundbreaking artist—she collaborated with Joseph Beuys, John Cage, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among many others—or as an entrepreneurial curator—she organized seminal avant-garde festivals across New York City—might demonstrate the ongoing conservatism that has accompanied the reception of her hallowed instrument. To play the cello without delivering Bach and Brahms is to be immediately branded iconoclastic, with the actual musical results often overlooked. Even though there is a longstanding tradition of treating the cello as not only a classical voice, the mere act of not being Yo-Yo Ma is seen as a transgressive gesture. But to listen past that dichotomy is to reveal a world of cellists pushing boundaries in all directions, audible in a multitude of musicians whose recordings are available on Bandcamp.

One inheritor of Moorman’s radical legacy is cellist and composer Julia Kent, who draws on looping and electronics to fully transform her instrument. “Charlotte Moorman especially was so seminal and so empowering in terms of taking the cello into the world of the avant-garde,” Kent told me recently in an email interview. “For years, I had a copy of that photo of her being arrested on my wall.” On her fifth solo album, out today on The Leaf Label, Kent continues that journey forward; its title, Asperities, is fitting given how she inflects the mellifluous voice of her instrument with gritty severity.

Julia Kent by PEPE fotografiaphoto by PEPE fotografia

For the past year, Kent has collaborated with theater and dance companies, and the new album captures those recent sounds. “It felt as though I was just trying to document music that I’ve been living with for a while,” she said. In the live performances, Kent would improvise with her instrument, looping pedals, and electronics in response to movements or texts: “Making music in that way is so immediate: it’s like a dialogue.”

Moorman’s musical practices were informed by a critique of society—she actually upset Cage by incorporating references to menstruation, contraception, and rape into her realization of one of his major works—and Kent similarly engages with social commentary. “I do think Asperities is enormously influenced by what’s going on in the world right now: how is it possible to make art or make music—or even just live—without acknowledging it?” she asked. “We as human beings seem to have lost all sense of empathy with one another and with the planet we inhabit. I’m finding some consolation and some inspiration in working with artists who are addressing these issues, but that seems to be a thing that is more common in Europe than in America right now, unfortunately.”

Perhaps one metaphor for her engagement with the environment is the sense of a sonic space that emerges on the album. In “The Leopard,” the resonance of the cello and use of electronics provides a palpable sense of layering, in which sounds come from near and far, with lines seemingly both intertwined and disconnected.

Kent’s ability to imagine the cello as part of a vast musical landscape is something she shares with many other major figures who utilize her instrument. A brief sonic listicle, of sorts:

There is the DIY maven Zoë Keating, who earlier this year marshaled her massive online fan base to battle YouTube’s prohibitive artist contract, and who crafts engaging, taut narratives with looping techniques.

Zoe Keating by Chase Jarvisphoto by Chase Jarvis

There is the “singing cellist” Jody Redhage, responsible for New Amsterdam Records’s inaugural 2007 album, who realizes complex compositions in which playing, gasping, speaking, and electronics are all drawn together.

There is Peter Gregson, a composer and performer whose meditative music unravels twitchy little melodies into shimmering chamber work.

Peter Gregson

There is Erik Friedlander, a staple of the downtown scene, who has successfully fought for two decades to integrate his instrument into the jazz world. On his new album of cover tunes by storied bassist (and cellist!) Oscar Pettiford, Friedlander makes clear that not only does the cello belongs in a jazz combo just as much as the saxophone, but that it also adds an essential voice to any improvisation.

There is Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has so closely integrated cello, voice, and electronics that the cumulative texture is impossible to break down into its individual components.

Hildur Guðnadóttir by Rune Kongsrophoto by Rune Kongsro

And there is the late Tom Cora, an experimental legend who worked with everyone from John Zorn to The Ex, and crafted far-reaching fusions of rock, jazz, and improvisation.

Whatever approaches to the instrument that these broad-minded artists might share, though, they are really just a reminder that the cello is a tool available for the pursuit of any musical vision. “There’s a logic behind grouping ‘alternative’ cellists together, but I feel as though we all are making our own music, in the same way that, say, guitar players are,” Kent said. “If there is in fact a continuum, I have no idea where I might fit into it: I’m never really sure how to classify myself (or anyone else, really) in terms of genre. It’s fantastic that so many musicians are exploring the expressive possibilities of the cello right now, though.”

She allies herself more closely with electronic musicians who focus on looping, including William Basinski, Tim Hecker, and Juana Molina. But for Kent, looping is “a technique and not a style”; it allows for a set of practices, but doesn’t tell you how they might sound. “For me, looping is essential to my process: obviously, it’s the only way I can recreate the music live,” she wrote. “But I also find it conceptually interesting. Of course the repetition inherent to looping is a constraint, but it also can create unexpected evolutions and revolutions. And looping, for me, is also a way of approaching music in a nonlinear temporal way: through constant flashback rather than forward movement.”

On “Invitation to the Voyage,” a plucked pizzicato line moves to the background as Kent develops a brooding melody; rich harmonies transform into glassy soundscapes. It has little to do with Yo-Yo, and that’s probably for the best. “In terms of the classical tradition, I assume most of us who are making music on cello came from that background: but I definitely don’t feel as though I, or the music I make, fit into the classical world,” she noted. The boundaries between classical and nonclassical music seem to be thoroughly blurred at this point, though, and that’s probably a good thing. At the end of the day, it’s all expression.”

DIY Hustlers

Alex G, and Car Seat Headrest

“Don’t put anything out that you’re not 100% sold on. Make sure that you’re recording because you enjoy it and because you really want to. Record it because it’s a need for you…” — Alex G

Not all that long ago, Alex Giannascoli and Will Toledo were passing burned CD-Rs of their music around high schools, hoping to capture the attention of a few fellow teens. They graduated to college, and to releasing music on Bandcamp: Toledo uploaded his first album as Car Seat Headrest in 2010, Giannascoli his first song as Alex G in 2011. Fast-forward a few years and, for each musician, a dozen or so albums. In recent months, both have signed with major indie labels. Today, Alex G releases Beach Music as his recording debut on Domino Records; on October 30, Matador Records will release Teens of Style, Car Seat Headrest’s first album for the label.

These represent perhaps the dream trajectory of the indie musician: from bedroom project to prestigious record label (and, incidentally, the dream trajectory for Bandcamp, as both Matador and Domino are now on the site). Domino is the home of Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. Matador is known for everyone from Interpol to Yo La Tengo. And in an ideal iteration of this career arc, Giannascoli and Toledo were noticed not for stunt antics or flooding the world with press releases, but for carefully honing their craft and building dedicated online fan bases. Each delves into the personal and confessional in a distinct musical style—Alex G leans toward the trippy and soft-spoken, Car Seat Headrest is distorted and visceral—but both represent DIY success stories in an ever-shifting industry.

I spoke with the musicians independently over the phone in recent weeks; both were naturally enthused about their new opportunities and in the midst of newly busy press junkets and tours. How does an artist toil away and find that kind of success? And what lessons might these unlikely cases offer for all of the other musicians in the midst of their own careers?

Alex G by Jeff Allen
Alex Giannascoli, photo by Jeff Allen

“It’s been such a slow, steady progression,” Giannascoli said. At the beginning, each new fan represented a small victory. “From the first person it felt really exciting,” he admits. Though he has been recording since age thirteen, Alex G released his first song, the hushed and darkly comic “Sandy,” four years ago as a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I started using Bandcamp and it just caught on. People showed it to their friends and stuff, and I guess from there it just grew.”

“I always knew that I wanted to release music,” Toledo told me. It began in childhood, when he came up with imaginary lists of songs for imaginary albums; as soon as he figured out that he could record music on a computer, he began doing so. The first Car Seat Headrest albums were uploaded song-by-song to Bandcamp, but Toledo realized that he was shortchanging fans who downloaded an album when it was only halfway done—and he decided he wanted to create a fully-polished product before he put it out into the world. Listeners trickled in slowly. “The first several albums, I could count the followers or the downloads on my hands. I’d be lucky to get a dozen,” he said. “The earliest stuff is pretty insular, so yeah, it was definitely a slow rise.” Early Car Seat feels emblematically exploratory, divided between collages of unusual sounds and the more focused energy he draws upon in Teens of Style.

Giannascoli began working with the Brooklyn-based community label Orchid Tapes for distribution of Alex G, but otherwise his process remained largely the same. The label helped attract press, though, and an audience gradually expanded. Perhaps the biggest leap to a new set of ears came when Mat Cothran, frontman of the prominent band Elvis Depressedly, discovered his page and shared it with his large fan base. Last year’s poppish DSU attracted a favorable Pitchfork review, and The Fader called Alex G “the Internet’s secret best songwriter.” Soon, labels began calling, and Domino represented the best option.

Car Seat Headrest found renewed energy when Toledo finished college in Virginia and moved to Seattle, where he found a core group of musicians who could consistently realize the project as a band. “For the past year it’s definitely grown a lot more,” he said. “One of the reasons being that I finally felt like I had enough songs in the discography that worked well live, and I had a lot of time to practice those and iron out the details. And the other thing was finding members who wanted to be in the band.” It was never entirely clear to Toledo—despite booking shows, emailing press, and seeking out new audiences as he continued to release more carefully crafted albums—how to leapfrog from a cult audience to a professional career. “It was kind of hard for me to get a foot in the door because I had no idea how to promote my material or anything, other than what I was already doing, which was just uploading and then emailing it around wherever I could. I didn’t really have any connections, but I always felt that I could get sucked into a larger network,” he said.

Car Seat Headrest by Chona KatsingerWill Toledo, photo by Chona Katsinger

But then Matador founder Chris Lombardi discovered his Bandcamp page following an intern’s tip, and reached out. “What I was hoping would happen, basically, is that enough people would be passing it around that eventually it would be heard by someone who could do something about it,” Toledo said. Maintaining a strong back catalog online helped seal the deal. “I’m very lucky that that did happen; he said that he was just really into the experience of being able to find me and then immediately started digging into the discography and listening to all the old material.”

Despite their new industry prominence, the artists are now releasing records that represent the core of their original missions. Toledo has remained a tinkering perfectionist, the kind of musician who constantly returns to update old material. (His Bandcamp page instructs media to not link to early albums “BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT VERY GOOD.”) Teens of Style is a compilation of older songs that have been re-recorded, re-worked, and occasionally epically expanded. “I kind of meant it to be a window into my music… this is about getting exposure to a whole new audience,” he said. “The best way of doing it was to do a compilation of songs that I thought were strong, and also more accessible than the most accessible stuff that I’ve got.” Songs like “Something Soon” turn exquisitely on a dime from distant, hazy vocals to anthemic post-punk. And while retaining a sweeping scope, the songwriting on Teens of Style has turned away from the more meandering experimentations of his early albums; if it sounds less probing, it also feels more mature.

I asked Giannascoli if widening his audience might change how he thinks about his work; he told me, “I’m sure it’s affecting the direction somehow, but I make a pretty active effort to just try and keep it as true to myself as much as possible, and not think about it.” The biggest musical shift for Beach Music was that Giannascoli capitulated to Domino’s offer to have the album professionally mixed—the first time he has allowed the auteurist Alex G project to leave his creative control. “The max I want to collaborate with someone is just some more mixing like that… when I’m releasing it as Alex G, it’s really hard for me to collaborate with anyone, because it doesn’t feel right if someone else is contributing stuff and it’s using my name.” The album also developed differently due to his new touring schedule, with songs recorded intermittently rather than in a single go. “Don’t take me with you, I’m happy where I am,” he coos in “Salt,” atop a quirky groove—a metaphor as well, perhaps, for his artistic journey.

And though each project has involved a significant amount of hustling, online and off, both artists felt that the key to their indie success lay in building a strong musical catalog. Giannascoli recommended that emerging musicians send their material to as many outlets as possible, even just to get a tiny listing; Elvis Depressedly discovered his music through a blog before helping it reach a wider platform. But he also strongly advised that musicians not drift from their own interests, or self-satisfaction, in pursuit of listeners. He warned, “Don’t put anything out that you’re not 100% sold on. Make sure that you’re recording because you enjoy it and because you really want to. Record it because it’s a need for you—if you want to make good music, I think it has to really be a passion thing and not a ‘I want to sound like these guys’ thing.”

Toledo similarly emphasized the importance of authenticity and quality control: “Just keep doing what you’re doing, just figure out a way to support yourself. Beyond that, focus on improving your craft and making really solid efforts. Even if people aren’t necessarily listening to it right when you release it, if you make something really high in quality, then eventually people are going to catch on and start checking it out. I think you can’t go wrong as long as you’re putting out something that’s really the best you can do.”