"Indie Rock" vs. Jam Bands: The Animal Collective Dilemma

This is a follow up on my last post, where, having just seen them live, I pointed out what I considered a crucial flaw in the recent Grateful Dead/Animal Collective analogy that the members of the group themselves have alluded to several times in interviews recently.

First of all, this brings to mind an hilarious incident from several years ago. I was at a large outdoor Todd P event, which was held down on the tip of Roosevelt Island (which remains my favorite place in the universe. The whole of Roosevelt Island, really, but especially the tip). Many bands were performing acoustically, including a number of people who are now quite famous (Ezra, the singer from Vampire Weekend, for instance, was there, with really long hair, playing saxophone with Aa. Matt & Kim played that addictive hit of theirs before it had really blown up).

But this is beside the point.

I overheard a person who has become something of an Avant/Indie icon in years since talking with Todd P. This person was like: "Dude, why is that guy wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt? We (meaning the Todd P movement, or whatever) are so not about that. That is so not about this." At this point, it was my distinct misforture to chime in with something like "Well, actually, he's probably wearing it because one of their keyboard players committed suicide the other day; I wouldn't take it too ideologically, in light of recent events."

Todd P and this person met this suggestion with indifference (or so I thought) because, while it was correct, it in no way altered the true sentiment that had been expressed: this movement, this barbecue, this "type of DiY Brooklyn thing" was philosophically opposed to all things Jam Band, all things hedonistic; this thing wasn't like the failed utopianisms of the 1960s, this thing was different, an extension of punk that was utterly horrified by the banal "trustafarian" jam band/Phish culture of the late 90s. This was way more serious, way less commercial, way closer to the world of Art than the world of the stoned rich kids. This was about doing it yourself and not selling out.

But of course it wasn't then, and isn't now, simply because it can't be; that very rejection of utopianism in the name of an allegedly more refined, purer dedication to art is itself a utopian gesture. Of course the Brooklyn scene had (has?) in it elements that would never fly in a jam band context, namely dissonance and disruptive, analytical song structures, etc, but that is quite academic. Differences aside, a potentially monstrous child, a "terrible beauty," is born...

Let's examine why this is potentially problematic.

Brooklyn is high on organization, not at all into spontaneous jamming unless it is REALLY out jamming (which is actually composed), or is done in a knowing and/or correctly positioned way.

Brooklyn is about songs, not about improvisation. Brooklyn is about Mahler, not Miles Davis (I disown this statement--ed.). Jamming is out, and concise, exact, infinitely repeatable songs are in. (Woods, who I didn't know in January, wildly disprove this. They are incredible...--ed.)

But this is breaking down. The biggest bands these days, groups like Deerhunter (who I linked to above), for instance, have embraced an element of 'seemingly improvised' guitar fuzz soloing into their songs. This, a few years ago, would have been frowned upon, but as the Indie---->Mainstream transformation continues (this thesis is flawed for many reasons. No more disclaiming edits.--ed.), such gestures towards "classic rock" are more accepted by audiences and 'tastemakers' alike.

This brings us back to Animal Collective. Their shows do share things with those of the Grateful Dead. They also share certain audience members with the (about to return to save us all) Phish scene. For instance, the other night there was a kid dancing frantically in front of me the whole night. He was a small, weaselly looking guy with two earrings who clearly had been to his share of Phish shows (as have I, full disclosure). All he lacked was that glazed over look of stoned/mushroomed insanity and a pair of glow-sticks.

And this was "not what this was about" a few years ago. I saw Animal Collective in a small space back in 2005, and it wasn't like this, it was much more the "stand perfectly still, don't move, that's not what WE do" crowd one is accustomed to encountering at Brooklyn shows.

No more. The move to the mainstream, the jamminess/raviness of the music, draws in the crowds, and the Brooklyn Fascists can't do anything to stop it. And, ironically, they need those people, now more than ever.

These artists, in the fat economic times of 2006, must have believed that if things ever really got tight, they could always bail out, get a corporate job based on their degree from Vassar or whatever, and everything would be okay.

But that ship has sailed. No one is hiring. If you are an avant musician/home depot employee, that is your lot for the foreseeable future, and you are glad for it.

But there are still plenty of people paying to see music. Especially hypnotic music with a physical element. Music you can wig out to, if you catch my drift, music you can use to "get away from it all."

And thus here we are. Animal Collective are more Brooklyn than Brooklyn, yet they flirt with the jam band scene. The circle is closed.

I remember a few years ago (07 I think), my parents asked me to take my younger brother to a Dave Matthews concert at Fenway Park in Boston. I grudgingly accepted, knowing it would be awful, but hoping to find it at least socialogically worthwhile. I could not have been more wrong. The audience was, without a doubt, the preppiest, whitest, absolutely most bourgeois middle-class America of any crowd I have ever seen. It was mind boggling (if not exactly surprising).

And yet, there they were, 25,000 or more of them, filling this stadium, filling the pockets of the band and all associated with it.

I hate to say it, but are we headed in that direction? Has the avant garde truly died at last?

Of course not. But this merging of scenes bears watching.

Armchair sociological speculation aside, Merriweather Post Pavilion is absolutely incredible. Such great bass samples.


Anonymous said...

Loved this post, nostra. Check out this book about the marginalization of the center, or the centrality of the marginal, by an assistant prof I know of. I don't know the title, or the author, but I DO KNOW it's published by Cornell UP, and that it focuses on Thomas Pynchon and Melvin Tolson (of course!). Enjoy.

Todd Patrick said...

I listen to American Beauty all the time, and play it between bands at shows frequently.

The best bands in Brooklyn are USAISAMONSTER, Woods, Blank Dogs, et cetera.

Two of those three jam out regularly, and the other is always changing and leaves a lot of his recorded output to first take rawness.

Reading what you're sayiong about Brooklyn being "high on organization, not at all into spontaneous jamming," I feel Igott tell you: I've never been a fan of chamber pop, electronic or organic. Rote repetition is boring. Few choreographed bands are any good, and the few that are, like Dirty Projectors, only work because the original vision behind the music is so novel and desperately urgent, that it trancends the lack of chance and randomness in the performance.

What is new and unique about the new bands from Brooklyn (and from elsewhere) who are making good, unstatic, vital music these days; is that the randomness and imperfect jam expression elements are being used to express dystopian, not utopian, themes. These are dark times, people should be worried and good music expresses that worry.

Nosferatu said...

Hey, it's Todd P! Nice.

Yes. I hear you completely. It is unfair of me to lump all of Brooklyn experimental musician into the Zs paradigm of extreme chamber popness, and I dig the bands you mention... Nice point about Dirty Projectors too.

Truth be told, this whole series of Animal Collective posts is really more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. I think it is worth thinking about as the scene gets more popular.

Anonymous said...

sometimes i find it truly amazing how stupid intellectuals can be.
i guarantee you the guys from animal collective and the grateful dead would agree on one thing....
you guys just don't fucking get it.
but there's hope.
you're pain will set you free.
later skaters

NYGeog said...

from my latest post on NYGeog:

While on my own I've debated the merits of indie rock vs jam bands, the blog Death-Media has also commented on this topic drawn from Todd P. Roosevelt Island concerts and Animal Collective concerts. Summer is a time of the rare road trip for us New Yorkers. We embrace the chance to load up a car and move at speeds much faster than a subway train into the great greenery and explore rural geographies while shuffling through road trip mixes to help unwind.

Yet, at such times of real release, not the instantaneous sonic and/or olfactory vacation required when jamming into a packed summer subway, it is not the indie music or valued Brooklyn bands that I turn to but classic Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Phish or Tom Petty, classic rock, Wilco, Califone, older Modest Mouse, and the darlings Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes (either def. not from Brooklyn) or anything else that reminds me of the American musical landscape. You can't get into this stuff in 2 minute listens or listen to the last 17 minutes of a Dark Star jam without that first 10 minutes. Perhaps it is just that point why the Brooklyn scene (if it can be classified as a scene, ie hipsterdom, ie indie music - all of which have their merits but combined yield highly image-conscious snootyness towards the jam band scene, of which has also transformed in the years after the Grateful Dead and/or Phish's hiatus's) is more orchestrated into short songs. City dwellers need quick immediate releases from daily inconviences while the rest of the country is capable of absorbing sounds, not from earbuds or designer headphones, from their car stereo over their more relaxing and spacious commute.