dmersonhess on 06/09/2011 at 01:00PM
This interview comes the latest issue of the fantastic, free fanzine Mi Abuela Es Jazzista, where it appears as translated by MAEJ director, Luis Angel Martinez, along with interviews with a couple other artists also represented on the FMA: María y José and Brooklyn's-own Balún. To read the entire issue (in Spanish), go to the MAEJ blog or flip through it in-browser at Issu... You can find CC-licensed downloads from Good Old Neon here on the FMA, where Katya of Oddio Overplay has already blogged about them, and on ccmixter, where they’ve made stems from their two albums available to remixers...
Radiant City begins with the eerie “Just Like You Said It Was,” a crackly, blues-y invitation into an album that reaches in every imaginable stylistic direction–and returns with killer results. “Republic” builds slowly on a pensive synth intro until it finally explodes into what sounds like a krautrock band fronted by Brian Wilson. “Flopsweat on Hangul Day” mates melodic bass with unpredictable, ear-tickling beats. A bouncy arpeggiator buoys Mike Smith’s hushed vocals on the lovely indietronic pop of “Duet.” A bit later, on “Outside The Walls,” Jeff Lee sings and shouts with Akron-esque New-Wave urgency. “Post Whatever” is a band manifesto filtered through Paul Barman-style rap, and the boys dive into Beatles-y territory with two fantastic songs that tell the tragic story of The Math Champs–who may or may not be their alter egos. Yep, Good Old Neon’s second record, Radiant City, is a tough one to pin down–and that’s part of what makes it so great.
Good Old Neon makes process-based music. A music of ideas and experiments–songs that share the same approach to approaches: each song is based on a number of “rules.” It’s all very meta and totally embedded in the title of “At The Lab We Work And Play,” a stand-out track from their first album, 2008’s This Is The News. Good Old Neon grew out of the ashes of indie six-piece Up Up Down Down, who recorded and released “The Abunai, Baby! EP” (2005) and “Laika (The Space Race)” (2006) from their home base of Mie-ken, Japan, and eventually made their discography available via the Internet Archive with a Creative Commons Attribution- Non-Commercial- ShareAlike license. When Mike moved back to England, and Jeff to California, the two kept in touch and eventually began the collaboration we now know as the trans-continental electronic pop duo, Good Old Neon. I caught up with the band over email toward the end of 2010 to talk about the release of Radiant City, rules-based songwriting, their recording process, long distance collaboration and CC music in general...
Click "READ MORE" for the interview...
How did you guys meet?
MIKE: My first proper memory is at a chintzy coffee shop outside the train station in Tsu, Mie prefecture’s capital. A couple hundred ex-pats were in the city for a teacher conference, and if I remember correctly Jeff had asked around if anyone wanted to be in a band, or perhaps got one of the conference organisers to mention that there’d be a gathering of prospectives at the end of the day’s business. We got really lucky; there were five of us, all of whom played or could play pretty much the right combination of instruments to get a band off the ground, and we all shared roughly the same musical tastes. I think there’s a strong chance the whole thing would have collapsed right there and then if nine people had turned up, or a dead-keen ska trombonist had been part of the gang. I think we probably saw each other and chatted before the coffee shop, sometime over the course of the conference, but my memory of that is pretty foggy. I remember Jeff saying much later that, when he first saw me, he thought I was some kind of pretentious pretty-boy or something. I did have a pretty good beard at the time. . .
JEFF: The origin story in my head seems to involve the following: meeting Mike at a soccer game, talking about whether The Darkness was actually ironic or not, and then cajoling him to join the band when he didn’t respond to my join-the-band spam campaign. But rather than drag this into a convoluted Rashomon thing, let me simply insist that Mike was beardless when I first met him, and not specifcally pretentious, although I do remember thinking he was a pretty-boy.
Does having been in a band together in Japan make it easier for you to work together long distance?
JEFF: Yeah, although I think that basically goes without saying. It’s more like GON would never have happened if Mike and I hadn’t already known how to make music together. It’s an intrinsically difficult thing to establish musical relationships with other people. There’s always a stretch of time early on where it feels very awkward to share your ideas with other people, which is probably why a lot of bands start off playing covers.
MIKE: Yes, and I’d add that the ‘taste’ part of the musical relationship is as important as the ‘ability’ side of things—spending lots of time with the other person discussing music and choosing what to cover in the physical band meant that there was a lot of trust going into the project, that we wouldn’t have a radically different conception of the kind of music we wanted to make.
Do you find collaborating while living in different countries challenging? Could you talk a little about your songwriting process?
MIKE: Well, we start each album by coming up with a bunch of rules that the songs have to follow. When we have enough rules – thirty or so this time around – we have a conversation where we divvy those up into what we think are workable batches, so a song typically has three preconditions that we try to stick to when we’re writing or recording it. These rules aren’t hugely technical or reliant on musical theory; they tend to be about style, samples that have to be included, instrumentation or atmosphere. On the challenges side, I don’t think that it’s too much more challenging than doing it together in the same place. I don’t think either of us is the kind of musician who jams ideas out—when we were in a physical band together the time we spent in a practice studio was spent rehearsing material. We’d write the various parts back in our flats, and present them to the group. Each of the songs on Radiant City has one of us pretty much at the helm, with the other adding parts or suggesting changes. We had plans to work more collaboratively on songs this time around, so each track was more of a true combination of our work, but that didn’t go as well as we had hoped. That’s for the next batch, in whatever form that might take.
JEFF: There was way more collaboration on RC than on TiTN, and this was a result of both having more time to work and being more conscientious about it. But I agree that it feels like it didn’t really reach the platonic collaborative ideal, whatever that may be. Maybe the ideal would be something like, I dunno, one of us having a fleshed-out idea, and the other picking up on it and taking it in a radically different but mutually-approved direction. Thinking back, I believe “Outside the Walls” was really the one song where there was something like a 50/50 contribution from each of us, structure- and arrangement-wise. Otherwise we were kind of mostly editors and close-readers of each other’s work. Even that process is fraught when conducted over a distance–when you’re in the same room with someone, you can say “Well I think that’s shitty” and it can be shrugged off as soon as the moment passes, but on the internet there are no passing comments. It’s not so much the voicing of opinions as it is proof-reading, which I would say is probably at least as distressing and neurotic for the proof-reader as it is for the proof-read. I’ve yet to really come to grips with how the collaboration works, exactly. At the simplest level, I think having a bandmate, situated however distantly, is what motivates me to go from talking about making music to sitting down and actually making it. But it has to be way more than that, right? Despite everything I said above, there’s a weird alchemy that makes GON sound like GON. Unless you followed the recording process closely, you couldn’t really tell which one of us wrote which song.
How do you exchange files and what music-making software do you use?
JEFF: We used Amazon S3 to share data. It’s basically high-bandwidth FTP, with a few notable inconveniences, e.g. the PC clients all suck, and you can’t do much data manipulation on the server side. But it’s cheap. . . we were paying what, something like two or three bucks a month for multiple gigs of storage space? I actually thought about putting our repository under a source control system like SVN, which is what you use for big software projects where you need to keep lots of people up to date, but I don’t think that works very well when the bulk of your data is composed of WAV files. For TiTN, Mike was on a Mac, and I was on a PC, and we kind of winged it. But when we started on RC we made a concerted effort to stick with the same platforms and the same software. DAWs and the big samplers/sequencers are mostly multi-platform, but plugins definitely aren’t, which makes it hard to share entire projects across the PC/Mac divide. Most of the composition occurred in Reason, which has a pretty high sound quality bar for most basic things. And I guess its MIDI sequencer is the best one I’ve ever used, although I still think it sucks. But we always talk about Reason as the “gilded cage”: really cool for things that come in the box, but either impossible or really dfficult to extend beyond that. Right before we started on RC, we actually talked about trying a different program, like Ableton Live, but you tend to go with what you know. And we ?gured out how to use ReWire on individual instruments, so we could actually pipe the audio for isolated tracks through VSTs. Though I’ll admit that I’ve still got kind of a wandering eye. I like Reason quite a bit, but somehow programs like that are never quite satisfying. As for DAWs, I think there’s no way we weren’t going to use REAPER. I have huge amounts of respect for Justin Frankel of Cockos/Nullsoft fame, for his engineering philosophy and the attention he pays to his user base, and anyway it continues to astonish me how much better REAPER is than all the big corporate software. It’s literally the only DAW that does the basics in a sensible and competent way. The routing and driver support both work properly, and it doesn’t crash or dropout every other session. This stuff wouldn’t have mattered quite as much on TiTN, but RC had a lot more real-instrument recording, which put a lot of burden on the DAW. Here’s the un-sexy software secret behind RC, though: I don’t think the collaboration would have worked out nearly as cleanly without Google Wave, which we used to keep running conversations on all our different projects. It looks like they’re putting the axe on Wave, maybe because the implementation was wacky and unstable, and I think not many people really got what it was for. When it first came out it was being marketed as some kind of browser-based chat softfare, which ironically is just about the worst thing you could use it for. But we saw it as a message board with some whiz-bang dynamic features that make it feel like Gmail or the Google RSS reader. You could do nifty little things, like attach files mid-post and append responses to individual sentences. So if Mike ever wanted to write a list of nine or ten things he liked or disliked about my song, I could attach a customized boldface retort to each point, and we could do this all in the same window without reloading the page.
MIKE: Echoing Jeff’s love for REAPER and [Google] Wave here. Given that REAPER has an unfettered evaluation version, every single person working in audio ought to at least give it a month. [REAPER is available for OS X, Windows, and even Linux—as of the date of this publication the latest version of Reaper (3.75) runs well in Ubuntu under WINE 1.2.2. –ed.]
What’s the appeal of rules-based musicmaking to GON? [for more about GON's rules-based approach, be sure to read Katya's previously mentioned blog entry about their first album.]
MIKE: The rules aren’t there as intellectual exercises – we’re not a super-technical theory-driven, jazzy prog band or anything – but rather to give us a framework for inspiration. I don’t know if Jeff feels the same way, but I’ve got a pretty solid fear of the blank page, so having a starting point, a sample or a mood that means I can hunt for a good patch for a synth makes it much easier to get down to songwriting.
JEFF: Absolutely, this whole “rules” business was adopted for the first album because we were on a strict schedule and didn’t have time for any blank-page staring. I admit there’s a preemptive psychological trick built into it too, as if we could assuage our guilt for writing a crappy song by blaming the rules for being too restrictive. The logic of that never really plays itself out, but it’s what you tell yourself just so you can stop worrying about being talentless and unskilled and bad at music and just move forward with it. And the actual musical upshot is that the songs come out way more interesting and experimental.
What rules did you use this time around?
JEFF: There are probably too many to list here, but let me list a few of the ones that we didn’t end up using. At least a couple of these are due to our crazy friends, who suggested them before work on Radiant City began:
1. It’s How They Envisioned It, You Know: Track is mixed in mono.
2. F*ck It, I’ll Do It Live: Each person involved with the recording must “perform” all of his/her parts in a single take. Due to geographical concerns, separate performers’ takes may be overdubbed.
3. Totally Krossed Out: Each participant starts a song at the start of the project. After two weeks, each participant assumes composition responsibilities of the other’s song. Repeat exchange every two weeks until the album is finished.
4. Almost Certain Failure: Cover a Beatles song.
5. Torture, Motherf*cker: That’s right, it’s a skit. Could also be in the form of a Godspeed You! [Black Emperor] “We don’t go to Coney Island any more” or Explosions’ [in the Sky] “What is this great evil?” monologue. Can be a sample or a fresh recording.
6. Write a 3-voice fugue.
7. What Would You Do If I Sang In A Kohl’s: Write a song that is strictly a capella (which may include melodies, harmonies, beatboxing, shouting, or any other vocalizations) recorded in the following fashion: each vocal line must be sung/performed in a public location (park, subway, Subway?) from more than 15 feet away from the microphone so that it’s washed in the ambient noise of the location. All GON members must contribute at least 1 vocal track recorded in this fashion. (amendment to the distance restriction: it may be variable based on the volume of the vocal part. GON must use their best judgment to adhere to the spirit of the rule.)
MIKE: Let me just say that I still veer between being relieved and saddened that we didn’t do the skit.
What’s the significance of your band name?
MIKE: Naming a band is always a fun exercise. It can feel quite pressured too; even though some amazing bands have truly awful names (Pixies? Spoon?) you still want your band to have an awesome name. We started with a long list that included horrendous sexual puns, some high-quality profanity, other even more clunky literary allusions, and the band name “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” We’re both big fans of David Foster Wallace’s writing (although I think we both favour his non-fiction) and while I wouldn’t want to go overboard with post-hoc analyses of just how well the name fits, a lot of our songs circle a sense of the post-millennial self-awareness and fear of isolation that appears in a lot of his work. Good Old Neon is also a great little phrase, even if you’ve never heard of DFW. It’s easy to remember and has a pleasing euphonic character—I don’t think we could have come up with anything better. Plus it’s short, easy to search for, and the Myspace and domain name were available. . .
JEFF: I’m really glad Mike mentioned “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan;” I was going to do it if he didn’t. My other favorite untenable proposition was “Drugs Smoker.”
Radiant City sounds a lot more thematic than This Is The News. Could you call it a concept album?
JEFF: I guess if you were really an aesthetic stickler about it, I think there’s no longer much justi?cation for the album as a form, unless your particular group of songs actually adheres to a consistent theme, which is what we think of traditionally as a “concept album.” Mike and I have talked about doing songs rather than albums in the future, mostly as a way to avoid six-month album grinds, but also partly due to this issue of theme, which demands more attention and care than most bands give to it. That said, there was no Sgt. Pepper-like conceit going into the RC sessions. We knew we wanted to use more acoustic instruments, and for my part, I didn’t want to write mopey songs about the Failures of the Privileged Young Jeff Lee, which is my default songwriting setting. Although wait, I guess “Math Champs” has that element, doesn’t it? I think it is easier to draw a line that connects the songs together from a lyrical standpoint, and that probably comes as a natural consequence of writing all the songs within the same two-month period. And we chose the song names after all of them were done, so there’s a bit of retroactive theme-ifying going on there. But if there’s a musical theme in there, it has to be the result of a happy accident. We sent each other some mixtapes a couple weeks before we started writing, as a way to brainstorm, but in my opinion RC ended up sounding nothing like that stuff.
MIKE: I’d just like to add that the death of the album seems to be one of those pronouncements that keeps appearing, like the “Comic books - no longer just for kids!” article that appears in the books section of your local broadsheet every six months. It’s probably just because I’m used to the format, but I think that “a bit less than an hour” is a good volume of music - long enough to establish a mood, get the listener properly lost inside it, play with them a little and then give a satisfying conclusion—all over the course of a commute. Perhaps there’ll be a tipping point in the next couple of years and singles-minded big bands will stop producing albums. But yeah, it’ll be a while before I feel ready for another six-month grind, so moving to a song-by-song construction seems like a logical step, especially since it’ll force us to work towards the collaborative platonic ideal that Jeff mentioned above.
How did your approach to writing and recording the new album differ from how you made This Is The News?
MIKE: We had a lot more time for the second album. The first was done as part of a month-long competition (the RPM Challenge to be exact) whereas we gave ourselves three months for this one. Otherwise, I think that the approach to writing was not dissimilar. Jeff has covered the technical issues above, but the biggest change for me was the ability to properly record audio this time around. All my songs on the first album were loop-based with soft synth—recording guitar, acoustic drums and having effects definitely changed the way I would arranged and constructed songs. This was also the first album to feature my lyrics and vocals. Jeff and I had a trade on that one—I’d sing as long as he rapped. Mutually Assured Destruction. I recorded some scratch la’s and ah’s and sent them to Jeff – more as evidence of a good-faith effort on my part to do the challenge than as something musically viable – but either he liked them or got used to them enough that the song felt weird to him once they were taken out, so most of those appear on the album. Plus Jeff’s rapping is brilliant. That vocal performance [on “Post Whatever”] is crammed full of lovely moments.
JEFF: The thing is, we even did all the mixing for TiTN within that month, whereas for RC the mixing/mastering process dragged on for an additional three months after the writing and recording were done. So it really was a pretty luxurious amount of time. I somehow remember being constantly stressed-out about it anyway. I think we had originally discussed making RC much more tuneful, which I think shows in the final result. But it was also supposed to be a dance record, which does not bode well for our ability to make dance music.
Tell us about the stunning cover art for Radiant City. Was it made specifically for the album? Who made it?
JEFF: The album art was made by Jason Halaby, a friend of mine who works as an architect. Originally, I had this idea of a square image that could be reducible to an icon when miniaturized or viewed from far away, and I did a couple of crude little sketches for Jason, one of which was a cartoon-y ocean landscape. So he did a few mock-ups, and his ocean sample actually came very close to what I thought I was imagining. That might be me taking too much credit for the concept. So then Mike and I ran him through an absurd series of requests—“I want like a, what’s the word, lurid Post-Impressionist purple!” and “The moon should be round, but not perfectly round!.”
MIKE: All hail Halaby. That image is just so wonderful.
You’ve released two albums under Creative Commons licenses. What’s the appeal of CC to you, and why did you choose to do so?
MIKE: I think it just makes a lot of sense to us. I wouldn’t say that either of us is a demagogue on the “Information Want To Be Free!” bandwagon, but we’ve known right from the beginning that we wanted all of GON’s music to be freely available, and to be a part of the ‘musical/artistic conversation.’ That’s to say: we want people to remix our songs, to use them as soundtracks to their YouTube movies. . . I’ll appeal to Jeff on this one, as I’m sure he has his own take on it. My line—I want people to enjoy, share and play with our music. We’re going to be putting up stems from our tracks onto a remix site soon [See http://ccmixter.org/people/goodoldneon –ed.], and I’m really hoping that at some point in the future I’ll be listening to a random Internet radio station and I hear a song that has the guitar from “Arrange. . . ,” or one of Jeff’s vocals, or the synth from “Duet” or whatever appearing in it, buried deep in the right channel. That would be awesome.
JEFF: If I have any kind of future as a musician, I hope I can continue to give my music away for free. I’ll admit to harboring slightly demagogic ideas on the subject. On a material level, I do think there’s a certain absurdity to charging money for music when it is both simple to create and distribute, and I believe this is something that the audience today is starting to grasp, and something that future generations of listeners will understand on an ontological or instinctive level. On the other hand, we may have hit a sustainable equilibrium point where people have decided that iTunes or its ilk are convenient enough and cheap enough to forgo the slight hassle and risk of torrenting music. I think that’s the music publishing industry’s big insight of the Aughts: the priceable commodity is no longer physical media, but the collating, filtering, and convenience—the concierge work, basically. And on the ideal level, I don’t think CC is all that radical, since, after all, it still functions via a copyright and licensing system that asserts our ownership of the music in some shape or form. The music-as-free information principle would be more like the public domain, which for various reasons I’m not quite ready to jump into. I still want to be credited for the stuff I’ve done, and I want some say as to the contexts in which our music can be used. I’m not speaking for Mike here, but it’d be fair to point out another thing, too: I’m just insecure enough to think that putting any monetary price on the music I make would be more than what anyone would be willing to pay. So that’s part of the thinking, even if it’s just a small part. That makes me a little afraid that my attitude would change if we were wildly popular, but so far we’ve succeeded in keeping the sycophants, groupies, and other would-be hangers-on at bay.
What’s your favorite musical discovery of late? This could be a new release or something that’s just “new to you.”
JEFF: I am a big fan of the new Deerhunter album [Halcyon Digest, 4AD, 2010 –ed.]. I think they found a really great way to frame elements of nostalgic pop styles in an interesting way, which is my musical MO if I ever had one. That’s something I listen to while feeling envious of what they were able to achieve, on kind of an abstract level. I also finally got my hands on a Yo La Tengo compilation [probably Prisoners Of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs: 1985–2003, Matador, 2003 –ed.], which was a little like when I first started listening to Talking Heads. . . in 2004. A sort of “what exactly was I doing this whole time”? moment. But far and away my favorite things to listen to at the moment are Hall & Oates singles, and especially the song “Total Control” by The Motels.
MIKE: I’ve been really enjoying Everything Everything, and the 30 Gallon Tank EP from Spoon. I have one job where I’m allowed to listen to music (such freedom!) and I also like to browse through the Free Music Archive and Metafilter Music. One of the things that gives me the strongest yen to make music is bouncing back and forth between bedroom rough-cuts, imaginatively produced CC-music and ultra-slick major label productions. There’s something interesting about each type, and seeing the gaps in one versus the other is energising.