Friday, September 30, 2011

Steve Albini talks Hipsters, Mephiskapheles

Steve Albini, the guy who produced In Utero (which I bought the week it was released back in 1993 and still think is one of rock & roll's greatest records), was recently interviewed by The Gothamist. Albini threw some warranted jabs at New Yorkers, setting their bloggers into a frenzy so intense that they've all overlooked the gem that is the conclusion of the interview:

"...What it boils down to is that I’ve maintained a scrupulous cultural ignorance since about 1985 when I realized that what’s going on out there in the regular world means nothing to me...there was a period there, in the ‘90s, when people who were my friends even, started trying to rationalize an appreciation of mainstream pop music. Bullshit like Madonna and that fuckin’ Cher single that was everywhere...

“Believe.” Right. Shit like that, people would pretend that it somehow lessened me as a person that I had no connection with this shit that I despised. Saying that this stuff is culturally significant, that it’s going to influence arts and letters for decades. Well I’m not going to read any of those letters then and I’m certainly not going to watch any of that art. I’m not going to give a shit about that. I don’t care. I don’t care what influence Fonzi has had on music, art, and sculpture. I’m not interested in that music, art, and sculpture. I mean, to use a dated metaphor there. Fonzi. The entertaining thing about that is that it was the beginning of the snake swallowing its tail of retrograde nostalgia that we’ve been wallowing in ever since.

I guess Fonzi has been very influential in a strange way. I think the way that it was influential is that it showed a lot of people that you could make a lot of money making people look and act the way that children think that they did twenty years ago. [Laughter] This is kind of weird. Did you ever see the Woodstock movie?

Do you mean the documentary? Yeah. Okay, well the band Sha Na Na appear in that film. As weird as that sounds. You know Sha Na Na...

The TV show. They had a TV show for children, yeah. That was probably the beginning of the retrograde snake consuming itself that I was discussing. Right?

Woodstock the movie and Sha Na Na being in it. But if you think about it let’s say the period that Sha Na Na were trying to evoke was 1959. When was Woodstock? ‘69 or ‘67. I’m going to Google it right now while I’m on the phone with you so that I can continue this conversation... Alright, 1969. So Sha Na Na seemed stupid and out of place in 1969 when they were evoking nostalgia for an era that was ten years earlier. Now, we’ve got so many layers of nostalgia that we’ve got a nostalgia for the second or third revival of something as nostalgia. I totally expect a fourth wave of ska to roll through at some point.

I think there may already be. My brother actually played in a pretty well known ska band and he claimed that ska is more popular now than it ever has been. Oh, which band was it?

They were called Mephiskapheles. I was going to say please let it be Mephiskapheles. Was he horn?

No, he was a guitar player. That’s a super easy gig. Guitar in a ska band? I mean half the time you can even just shut your amp off.

Please be seated.

The defenders of New York City transplants (all New York transplants themselves, of course) are in a huff looking to slight Albini on this point or that, but I haven't seen any of them target his misstep with the matter of defunct NYC satanic ska band Mephiskapheles. Now, around age 14-15, I had a blank tape ready to go in my radio at all times, ready for whatever might be broadcasted by WAIF. Late one night, this came on:

I caught the second half of The Bumble Bee Tuna Song on that tape, including its nutty a capella outro, then the WAIF hosts struggling to return to Planet Earth. It was nice knowing that I heard the song for the first time along with at least one of the hosts and maybe 500 people scattered around Cincinnati, and I was in love with all of them, and them with me. I ended up seeing Mephiskapheles live twice: at Bogart's in 1996 (opening for The Buzzcocks) and in 1998 headlining at Ripley's (it was an L-shaped bar with two entrances, now the McMillan St. Starbuck's and W. Clifton Chipotle).

Let's get to the point...this band was totally outrageous in a totally different, and much more intelligent way than, say, GWAR. Also, the ska scenesters didn't realize that the band was mocking 3rd wave ska (sort of like The Pietasters) while trouncing nearly all contemporaries in sheer creative and musical prowess. I mean, these guys were damn good musicians who were blowing their 20s playing in a faux-Satanic ska band that wasn't making them money or getting them girls. Then, after putting out two records of mock-Satanism, including a cover of an old canned tuna jingle that has now attracted 200,000 views on youtube, their third and final record, 1999's Might-ay White-ay, was actually satanic. They were a difficult listen to begin with, then they attacked their "real" fans with this:

Frank Zappa would have loved these dudes. I mean, just listen to those mischievous chromatic runs -- it's hard not to imagine a manic Zappa vibraphone in their place. In the hands of the right producer, the highlights from their catalog could have been crafted into neo-Muffin Man.

Speaking of which...the great bit of irony here is that Albini had little if any knowledge of this band (since a wise-ass loves a wise ass, I would have expected him to be an admirer of Mephiskapheles' wise-assery, but the text of the interview indicates that he steam rolled right over his knowledge gap) and insulted their guitar player sight unseen...without knowing that his snarky playing mocked the very sort of vacant playing that plagued the genre.

But honestly they could have used Albini or someone of his ilk in the studio... imagine the character of In Utero applied what you just heard. Might-ay White-ay as-is barely happened due to the preposterous circumstances of this band, but it needed to sound more like the band members themselves were only coaxed into the studio by the slimmest of margins.

That sense of exhaustion and the emotive effect of a drone without there being an identifiable drone is what makes In Utero so special. And chances are the average person complaining about Albini's jabs doesn't consciously recognize this, let alone know that it takes an awful lot of thinking about music, and what it can do in the mind of a receptive listener, to structure an album's worth of songs around that idea.

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