A Young Person’s Guide to Basement Music
Here I present to you a guide to Basement music for the beginner or for the experienced listener who would like to disagree or help to make this work more complete and inclusive (within reason). Either are, of course, welcome to dismiss this as just another attempt to coin an additional, pointless label. Whatever the outcome, my intention is to simply bring more ears to the music itself. All other interpretations restricted, use only as prescribed. May cause bleeding from expectations. Reclusive, anti-social effects have been indicated in double-blind studies but do not necessarily represent a definitive medical condition.
I’ve posted a couple of examples of home-recorded (and mostly home recorded) albums that have risen above expectations in Another Day On Earth and William Doyle’s recent releases. But there’s an entire universe of what I will call (in the service of attaching labels where none are needed) Basement Music, to be sampled, ingested and archived. You’ve probably heard of what many call outsider music (Jandek, Harry Partch, Daniel Johnston, etc), but what I will call “Basement Music” ( not to be confused with the various companies, studios and services calling themselves “basement music…” ) is probably closer to a home-made, DIY, “maker” attempt at approximating something a bit more mainstream, even if only a little. Or at least an attempt to reach actual ears, which isn’t really fair to label as mainstream. That’s just past “not hiding from the world” , really.
Now, Outsider music is almost the same thing. But not quite, as it usually includes artists that employ no attention to home studio techniques and sometimes merely record with a cassette deck in the room with them. This, to me, is not Basement. I would say that for music to fall into this category, it must be created by an artist that is striving for something, with or without success. While a recording of one voice in a room could very well be interesting, it’s not Basement.
I find it still slightly difficult to use the label since so much of the music industry now (that matters) more closely resembles a cottage industry than a major machine. Many bands you would assume live a certain lifestyle or record in famous studios have simply invested in high end equipment and record right where they live, sometimes just beyond squalor. This stuff I will call “Basement” from here on out is a bit of a different animal. It’s neither outsider OR mainstream/indie. It’s that middle ground. Some would say maybe it’s simply the fact that not many have heard of these artists/bands. Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s the fact that these artists will most likely continue what they’re doing, recording and releasing albums and EPs no matter if you listen or not. And there’s something pure about this, to me. Something that’s been missing in music for the last few years. Doing it not necessarily for art’s sake, or for a living. Doing it simply because they must, passionately. This passion means that these artists sometimes work within limitations imposed upon them. These limitations can facilitate new discoveries, techniques and creative arrangements that would not be imposed upon the music in a less limited environment. Everything from fixed incomes and noise laws to limited hours of free time and even physical or mental handicaps can have an unexpected impact on the finished recordings.
In the words of Brian Eno, “‘Regard your limitations as secret strengths. Or as constraints that you can make use of.”
It’s also pure in the true sense of what music has always been. Back before lawyers (whom I do NOT hate as many people do, but rather associate with cowboys and hackers. They can wear a white hat and save your life or they can wear a black hat and destroy all that is good in the universe. But to call them all evil while ignoring a white knight such as Lessig is just ignorance) started hanging around campfires demanding royalties and peddling mandatory representation/protection schemes, music was made to be heard and to be shared, period. No business model was designed around it, no expectations of payment regardless of enjoyment existed beyond a scowl aimed at an empty hat and singing another person’s song or even changing the lyrics was a compliment rather than a rip-off or” lost” revenue. (to be lost, a thing must exist and be found somewhere, IMO)
One very good example of this genre (can we call it that yet, or do two other blogs have to mention it first?) is Starpilot. Starpilot is multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Duane Aberle. He’s recorded several albums of material already and at one time was sharing them all on TPB using bittorrent. I was informed that the torrents were removed because his music was being sold by a foreign site without his permission and without paying him. Of course they would do this no matter what (torrents or no torrents) , but I understand the reaction. He describes his music as “Music to trip the mind and induce psychotropic experiences” but in my opinion that sells it short a bit. Not that there’s a damned thing wrong with doing that and only that, simply and effectively, but there’s a larger promise in his music that does much more than induce pineal excretion and throbbing. He appears to fear no genre/style, takes risks and generally defies your expectations. At once amateurish, then minutes later sounding like an experienced artist with decades under his belt. You can sample quite a few of his tracks at his site starpilot.echoz.com/ . I suggest “Eyeballs In Sparks” as a good starting point.
(I swear the moment I can pay to upgrade this blog to allow for inclusion of mp3 sample tracks, I’ll do so)
There are others who have received various levels of attention in recent years. One of my favorites is Jim Noir (link to his myspace with new demos, new EP coming in weeks!!) whose music has a very innocent, child-like quality. His music features complex arrangements and songs that somehow come across as simplistic and pure. It seems most of his music is recorded at home and the title of his “Tower of Love” album actually refers to the tower computer he records to. Millions of artists record this way, yet this guy has had a lot of world attention in the last couple of years with songs in ads, on TV shows, etc. Another bonus with Noir is that he appears to be associated with hippocamp records, a netlabel that releases music under a Creative Commons license. Let’s hope that’s the path he’s chosen for his new releases. I discovered his music thanks to Criznittle’s Indie Rock Playlists and now he’s easily in my top 5 artists of all time. No file sharey? No findey! At least perhaps not as soon.
Thanks to a very good, funny music video with a lot of attention, a lot of people know who “The Simple Carnival” is. It’s home recorded pop brilliance from Jeff Boller, that’s what it is. The project originally started as a mostly instrumental musical adventure, which is a bit shocking considering how front and center the vocals are in the last couple of releases, reminding me a bit of Harry Nilsson or Brian Wilson. My inclusion of the “DrummerMan Remix” of “Really Really Weird” on one of my monthly playlists (and the best of 2009) is probably an indication of where his music is going now that he’s chosen to start working with others for his next project. DrummerMan took a brilliant little pop song with a cute sci-fi premise and turned it into an arrangement that would make Brian Wilson proud. We have the beautiful harmonies coupled with more abrupt “mm.bah bah bah”‘s, chimes and organs and a big finish where one really was not before. It’s more of a re-arrangement than a re-mix and the first time I heard it I really assumed it must have been a complete re-recording because it was transformative. (interview with Jeff coming soon, he seems like a really great guy on top of it all)
But NO discussion of so-called basement music would be complete without mention and focus on the grand-daddy of them all, Mr R. Stevie Moore! This man is prolific. Nah, that’s an understatement. Here we have a man that is the epitome of what I describe as basement. Always striving, always creating, always risking. Caring about success, but continuing on with passion in spite of success eluding him for decades. He’s written and recorded more songs and albums (as well as some amazing cover versions) than probably any other artist I’ve ever heard. (nearly 2000 songs on over 400 albums!) Those of you who say you love “indie” music? R. Stevie Moore is your opportunity to prove it by going out and finding his music. Pay for it, too, dammit. Indie doesn’t mean anything unless this man is recognized for his independence over the course of his entire career, never slowing down and never giving in. The man truly loves what he’s doing and you can hear it in his recordings.
Some artists even become Basement artists of sorts after becoming fed up with their major (or minor) labels, touring or collaborating. This of course includes the late, great Syd Barrett. But the one I find most interesting is the former Teardrop Explodes front-man, Julian Cope. I first found his music while waiting for an ex’s best friend get ready for a night out. It was a long wait and I was able to get through most of the tracks from his first solo album(? maybe). I wasn’t terribly impressed with it at the time and I think I was more impressed with how absolutely obsessed this friend was with the man. I forgot about the experience altogether until the release of his double album “Peggy Suicide”, which was epic and intimate, new innovation and played-out re-hashes, daring and predictable. But when Peggy Suicide shines, it really shines brightly. It holds up very well considering the period in which it was released. It was a major label release and had all the trappings, but also had a very off-the-cuff, one-take feel from time to time. Less attention was paid to perfection and you could almost sense that someone was losing something in the process. His mind, perhaps? His drive to succeed rather than create? Perhaps both. But I listened, over and over. And when his next release came, his last for a major label(and maybe the cause of his being dropped), Jehovahkill, I had discovered a masterpiece. It was all over the place, yet coherent. Driven but laid back. Post-hippie and pre-indie. It was garage-band-caveman-stomp and 4-track bedroom anger. But with a budget, good engineers and a band that felt like it could play literally anything under the sun. There was real evidence this time of a man either losing his desire to make his label happy or his actual mind. True, third-eye piercing screams can be heard coming from Julian’s voice as he ventures in and out of genres, making them his own. True floored genius. And this was just the beginning. He’s become a fearless creator of everything from kraut-rock, noise, trip-improvable instrumental albums, pop genius, real punk to just great, balls-out rock and fucking roll. He even became a published author and the master of a web site/label that features a great respect and focus on daring new, old and wrongly forgotten music. (and his Address Druidian writing is chock full o wisdom, reviews and just general bad-assness)
Now I know there’s already a term for what I’m describing here (in some cases). The previously mentioned “Outsider” music. And certainly a few here can be described as such without bothering with another term to roll around in your brain. So much of outsider music has been described, discussed and analyzed far better than I could here. Jandek (wiki link) is one of them, some would say the reason for the term itself (if several older outsider artists have not blipped their radar as of yet). Under the Corwood Industries label, he has released 60 albums and lives a very secret life, only being interviewed twice and performing live rarely (about 16-17 times, and referred to as “a representative of Corwood Industries”, with almost no promotion). His style has swung between the traditional to the truly un-listenable. But there are some real gems in there if you’re willing to invest the time and can find (or afford)the material.
What I find most interesting about all of these “Basement” releases is the discovery of talent, if given the right support, that could really rise to the surface at least in an indie/underground sense. They represent the underdog, the fallen and the stricken. They are US, with drive, passion, desire, application and usually raw talent/creativity. They are what we could be, if we were either just a little more insane or a little bit more driven. They are what makes the endless search for new art interesting. They are MILLIONS. You could never run out of this stuff. They set themselves apart from the more obscure outsider artists by occasionally or regularly being very listenable.
There are also artists that I personally feel capture the aesthetic of Basement but are experiencing some form of at least indie success. A few are:
1. Pop Levi: While working in the studio (very good ones, in fact), this artist I feel captures the aesthetic somehow but perhaps does so as a result of working as a multi-instrumentalist and producer, seemingly living in his own universe. Creatively.. perhaps mentally. His former bands are Ladytron (bass) and Super Numeri (founding member). His debut was dandy-riffic and drew comparisons to the glam of Bolan. But his followup, Never Never Love, could sit between the aforementioned and Prince on a categorical end-cap. It’s slick, definitely not home-made in any way and is brimming with what should have been huge radio hits. In fact, it’s obscurity flies in the face of it’s exquisite production value. I consider it a sleeper classic that will gain in reverence over the years. More than specifically Basement, it’s spiritually so, being seemingly and perhaps literally a complete work from a solitary brain.
2. TV on the Radio – This one is less obvious to those who have experienced only the crisp, finished and studio-slick TV on the Radio. They in fact started out as 2 guys and a 4 track. Their first release (OK Calculator) was handed out and left in public places rather than “released” and their original aesthetic could absolutely be called Basement. They are simply an example of what one can do when recognized as unique and given the chance to expand. They have kept a ton of what they started out as and continue to expand in interesting ways that defy the mainstream while planting their feet firmly in the arena of listen-ability and pop sensibility. At any given moment, I could see these guys heading back to those roots for a refresher.
3. of Montreal – Similar to above, but more playful and unpredictable. Just as TOTR could predictably head back to basics, of Montreal I believe continue to do so and WILL continue to do so. of Montreal started as a singular vision from a unique single brain in the form of one Kevin Barnes, who continues to surprise me. Give or take an unfair Outback Steakhouse incident. (oh.. poor poor hipsters and their hatred for their darlings having a meal and paying rent from time to time.. boo hoo.. get rid of your traded links, profuse trackbacks and google adwords and we’ll talk you hypocritical, insignificant, populist twits)
The list really could go on and I could spend a month here adding artists. But I think the few I’ve included here give you an idea how much I prefer insane lunatics solitary creative forces and pairings with a singular, original vision over studied, aggressive, calculated and well-trained ambition in the guise of tortured genius. Nothing personal to any others, in fact the world is in great need of studio musicians for hire so all things tend to work out in the end and everyone can be happy. But collaboration does not have to equal tedium…
Just visit a place like the bustling community of CC-Mixter, where artists make a habit of re-mixing each other, collaborating and mashing each other up to their heart’s content, all with permission granted in advance being required to even take part. This is the exception to the solitary, lone and mysterious basement artist. There, artists collaborate by design and the results can be damned near what you’d hear on college radio or even mainstream radio in less interesting but sonically outstanding cases. Or check out the Crap Art “Album a Day project” . This is a project that dares artists to create an album, from writing to recording and mastering, in 24 hours. (read all the rules in the link) YRMV (your results may vary. The examples I’ve heard so far have been from absolute crap to startling in quality. But as a whole, the project is worth your time as a listener or a participant. I want to see a best-of compilation culled from these albums and may even do it myself. (watch for a torrent) Which brings me to the truly sad part of this article….
The one thing I know exists in this world of Basement music that makes me so sad is this DRAW to obscurity. I have collaborated with several really interesting people over the years. (I will not even mention the projects or titles, as this blog and project is NOT about promoting myself, even though I find people who look down upon so-called “self-promotion” to be despicable, contradictory, hypocritical LIARS) One thing they ALL had in common was a near-paranoid delusion that the world, rather than wanting to hear what they created, wanted to STEAL it from them in some fashion. I can think of literally HUNDREDS of recordings I’ve worked on with people over the years that I have no record of. Some because I’ve been bad at archiving things, which I hate about myself to no end, but mostly out of an odd habit on the part of others of HOARDING. In some cases, I’ve recorded albums worth of material, co-writing and recording, that I was only ever given low quality, second or third generation copies of. In one case, the recordings disappeared after the DEATH of the collaborator due to the dis-interest or lack of respect from family members for what he’d done in music rather than his 9-to-5 job(which we all know we’re all so respected and remembered for). And all for what reason? Hard to say, really. Part of it was this odd feeling that nothing was ever truly “finished” (perfectionism), part of it was a feeling that what they had created didn’t stack up to their hero’s material (what ever does?), part of it was a fear of it being stolen and sometimes it was just a blanket distrust of people in general (sometimes, even me). In the end, absolutely none of this made any sense in reality. No-one was waiting outside their home studios, ready to grab their 4-track masters and run off to a mastering studio to slap their names to it. No-one wanted to do anything BUT give their music a chance to be heard. All *I* ever wanted was for someone to enjoy it. Or at the very least, get a chance to. But no. This music is gone now into the ether, never to be found or heard. If you make music, and I don’t care if it’s the crappiest thing in the world in your opinion, whatever you do, don’t just let it collect dust or lose it’s magnetism sitting in a box in a moldy basement. Don’t fear the Internet. Obscurity is only really obscurity after at least ONE person has heard what you’ve created. When no-one has, it’s not even obscurity. It’s just plain selfishness in the worst way possible. Break out those old tapes and I swear to you, the only thing you’ll experience is the thrill of completion and the joy of sharing something you’ve created with people who might just care. Might just want to help your music reach more ears. You probably won’t make a dime. Hell, it might cost you some bandwidth in the end. But when you wake up the next day and find out that even 100 people have given your music a listen, perhaps spread out over the world, you will be transformed. And remembered. THIS article and others are your proof. And maybe, just maybe, what you created will be saved to enough hard drives and Internet archives so that it will remain forever, somewhere. Digital immortality! I know I’m doing MY best to make that happen in more ways than one for a few people now, at least. If you make your music “for yourself” and your desires for your music fall outside the realm of wanting it to be heard, or even if this desire is secondary, please stop making it. Or at the very least, do not remind us in any way that it exists. Chances are, if you’re telling anyone that you’re “doing it for Meeee”, the cat is out of the bag and you’re lying to yourself. If you’re doing it for the money or the fame.. get in line.. but remember that for it to do either of these things, it MUST be HEARD in the first place. Hoarding it isn’t going to make any of these things happen. It’s sad, paranoid delusion. But your competition will be happy to inform you otherwise and pat you on the back for your “vision”.
Get those programs, tape decks and amps fired up*. Music is not something that’s made by an elite few. It’s something YOU make and an elite few get to hear. And if you share it with me, I can at least guarantee a few thousand ears. The last time I checked, there are a few million blogs as well that are dying to hear something, anything new. And listeners? I say spread the word, tell people about this weird crap. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting and unpredictable than most of the drivel that gets played even on Internet radio these days. The bonus is that in many cases, this stuff is free or cheap and when you pay or donate, you really know that your money is going to help that person or band take it to the next level, creatively rather than financially. And who knows, maybe they can stop picking up trash in their off hours.
So stop reading this drivel and get to it already.
My hope is to interview as many of these people as possible (2 in the works/plans now) to gain more insight into the processes, motivations, etc of these very interesting people.
*I LITERALLY am at your disposal if you or anyone you know needs help getting material out into the world in a way that makes it easy, fast and attractive to potential new listeners via bittorrent. At no cost, period, ever. And if you think there’s a catch, a trick, a secret account that withdraws from a secret revenue stream somewhere in fantasyland.. fine. Step aside so I can help someone else. I’ve proven my reputation by now and if you don’t buy it, I’m not wasting a single minute trying to prove otherwise. Let it be learned by word of mouth, eventually, to your ears and your ability to reason. And if helping people spread the word about music I love is being a prick, then slap a condom on me and go fuck yourself. Otherwise, USE ME! It’s serious, but it’s not business. It’s love, pure and simple, no matter how you’re used to it being otherwise. And I know from seeing and communicating with all the other playlist folks out there that I’m not alone. I’m opinionated, but I’m very mellow and dedicated to making the world of music a better place to be for artists and listeners, even in a tiny way.
Some information acquired via Wikipedia (where the word “Notable” is re-defined as loosely and as often as the word “Indie”, no matter how many weasel words you use to justify it intellectually) I love you, Wikipedia, but it’s tough love.
Brian Eno quote from Eric Tamm’s book on Eno –Brian Eno : His Music And The Vertical Color Of Sound (non-affiliate Amazon Link)
Recommended reading on Outsider Music – Songs in the Key of Z – Irwin Chusid Books and CD compliations (he was also the producer of the famous and beautiful Langley Schools Music Project album, which epitomizes the Basement ethic if there is one. True music for the love of music.)
Basement Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/sowrey/2105959692/
Jim Noir image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/brianteutsch/333293438/
R. Stevie Moore image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/supa_pedro/2491547598/
Julian Cope image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/gyrus/2982131921/
Jandek image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/tisue/2497534246/