Better To Be Different Than Merely Good
I’m currently racing through the British countryside on a fast train en route to Liverpool with my good friends Hermitude and our production manager Luke Snarl. We’re here because Hermitude have been invited to showcase at The Great Escape Festival in Brighton as well as Liverpool Soundcity. There’s also a headline London show and a gig in Berlin plus a stack of meetings for me, their manager.
Yesterday was a blur that started at 3am in Sydney and finished in London after a long haul flight. We prepaid $987 of additional luggage and found out we only needed a third of it when we checked in.
Once on the flight I employed my zen mind control to avoid getting up even once in the 14 fucking hours to Dubai. I was seated in the middle but that doesn’t explain me suspending normality. After a refresh at Dubai airport I preceded to achieve the exact same feat on the 7 ½ hours to London. I’m a robot.
We settled into London with a kebab and realised our imminent departure to Liverpool was in question due to invalid train tickets (wrong name, wrong credit card). We could replace them but it’d cost $600. Fortunately, and just as we almost coughed up over the phone, I took a chance on talking to the train staff at the station. We were in luck and all it cost me was an £8 bunch of roses.
Liverpool! I’d never thought of it as a destination but it’s a beautiful old town and every cabbie lined up a Lime St Station looked like an ageing football hooligan. At this stage the EPL title was in their grasp and I’d counted at least four separate panels at this music conference that were either partly or solely focused on football. One of them basically a rundown of the current season.
The extroverted Liverpudlian accent sprang up from all directions and I love it. The accent has an upward inflection that feels like the curling tone of a question embedded in general conversation: as if stowed away in the wrong sentence. We wander along cobblestone streets and drink pints and lousy coffee. At £2.40 each, the mixed bag of coffees are almost $5 a cup. My
habitual love addiction will bite me over and over on this trip.
The best talk I saw at Soundcity was given by Thurston Moore who made some interesting points about his journey from coming up in the ’80s to dealing with modern technology.
He told the story of Sonic Youth supporting Neil Young in ’91, when Moore gave Young’s manager a Nirvana tape to consider for the final support slot. Nirvana had just released Bleach and had passed on a tape of songs that would eventually become Nevermind. His motivation was partly selfish as Sonic Youth wanted to have some friends on the tour (an instinct proven right when they were booed off stage each night). This live video Neil Young shot on the tour explains a fair bit. The manager knocked Nirvana back in favour of some band only Thurston recalled. As a sidenote, Young’s first choice for the main tour support was Public Enemy. My thoughts jump to Paul Kelly asking me to support him last year – and while it’s not as radical as PE supporting Neil Young – it brought to mind how rarely these ideas happen. I would’ve loved nothing more than to see that Neil Young crowd deal with PE.
Years earlier, in 1983, Paul Smith from Mute picked Sonic Youth up, promising them they could be as big as The Birthday Party. “Back then that may as well have been The Rolling Stones to us, it was massive, but in retrospect it’s comical”. I have no sense of the Birthday Party’s impact beyond connecting the dots backward, but it gives an insight into the buzz that must have surrounded them at the time.
Moore summed up Sonic Youth as a group that underpinned the mainstream rather than competing in it; something that resonated with me. Despite the contempt commonly held for mainstream culture, it’s still where most of us go looking for preeminent artists. On a micro level the public conversation we have around an act like 360 or Illy is far louder than that of, say, Tornts. It means that the former receives far more attention but does it mean that their art is superior? It’s an old discussion but perhaps there can be no Illy without the likes of Tornts providing the foundation that gives the acts on the surface their context. We’re not yet at the stage of US hip hop where the major acts are the pop cultural icons of our time.
In my eyes Sonic Youth have dipped into the mainstream more often than most bands – their rise coincided with a period of time that saw their subversive songwriting as an antidote to what came before. But like the majority of all artists that shoot to global acclaim, it’s a wild but ultimately temporary experience. It may not vanish entirely but more often than not they’re left to forge a career on the fringes of that blinding spotlight. Or just become crap or break up. The latter often due to the tendency to feel like anything less than that early success is a crushing failure.
There are some mainstream artists in Australia that inspire us forward but the majority create polished but conservative music. In a talk the following day, John Cale reflected on the Velvet Underground having been more interested in being different than being good. While simply being different is not a means to an end at least it aspires to something unexplored rather than unintentionally shooting for satisfactory. I worry about my own role in this.
Tomorrow Hermitude play their first showcase.