I can remember every single time I've heard a song that really effected me. I can remember what I was wearing, I can remember where I was, how I felt, how I behaved differently the next day.
I remember the first time I heard Unwound, high as a kite in the Freer's basement at 15; I never played guitar the same afterward, I never lost my awe of dissonance. I remember the first time I heard “Rabbit In Your Headlights” in the car with Scott and Patty on the way to a show in East Lansing; the first time I heard the “All Is Full of Love” remix (the one that was in the Cunningham video) in Masson's car in the parking lot of the practice space in Redford where Thoughts of Ionesco rehearsed. Brace playing me Palace Brothers at 16, Brace playing me “At Action Park” at 17. I remember the first time I heard Blonde Redhead on the way home from seeing American Beauty with Josh in Royal Oak. I know people are way, way, way too cool these days to acknowledge it now—no one wants to be outed as a romantic now that there's no readily available subculture to hide within which both celebrates this and defends itself with a superiority complex anymore—but driving home in his little black pickup hearing Fake Can Be Just As Good for the first time while still totally shellshocked will always be a defining, overwhelming aesthetic experience for me. People can talk shit about the scene with the plastic bag blowing around in the alley; I know how bad your vulnerability must hurt, but fuck you, it was beautiful—your cynicism is an embarrassment. Actually, your cynicism is embarrassment; I have no sympathy for you. This world could be more beautiful. You're not helping anyone. Stop being so cool; you're ruining the planet.
Anyway, I'm being this specific because I'm expressing gratitude for the education I received from the people around me. I have hundreds of these memories; it's actually hard to think about all of them—if I died and my life flashed before my eyes this is what it would be, these moments, these songs. I guess that's actually not that bad. So I'm just going to pick these three moments that I know for a fact brought me to this very specific point where I made this very particular album and for whatever reason am being given this opportunity to speak my mind publicly which I may never ever have again so: three moments, three songs, one necessary inclusion because Jesus Christ, White Chalk.
Portishead, “Scorn” (Glory Box Remix)
My first experience with Portishead was probably seeing the “Sour Times” video on MTV when I was 12 or 13. It didn't really make much of an impression on me. There's no question it was revolutionary for pop at the time, but that 60s spy-movie motif was definitely something I'd heard before, regardless of its new context. Later I heard “Wandering Star” on the radio (on Liz Copeland's show on Detroit Public Radio to be exact) and that made a huge impression. It was just so perfect and simple and dark. I'm not even sure if I knew it was Portishead but I could not stop thinking about it. I described it to this guy I played music with who was a lot older and had tons of music and he was like “I know what that was—if you think that's good, you're gonna love this” and he put this on. He had this big grin on while he watched me listen, he could totally tell he was ruining me forever. Those sounds, the atmosphere, the atonality sometimes winning, sometimes losing the fight with the vocal melody, that strange, slinky, pervasive blackness, that hilariously and utterly perverted scratch solo… I mean what the fuck. It was immediate—what I thought I knew about music seemed suddenly like a whole lot'a nothin' (which it was and still is), and I was dumbstruck in love with the possibility of this strangeness and eeriness and that love has never faded.
Slowdive, “Souvlaki Space Station”
The first time I heard Slowdive I was a freshman in high school and was staying the night at my friend Zach's mom's house. I remember I was laying on the couch next to the window in the dark looking at the ceiling, just falling asleep listening to whatever he'd put in the changer (remember six CD changers?) and this song came on. It was another one of those moments—I was utterly mesmerized. Zach's older brother was in a space-rock band and those guys were the first to expose me to stuff like Ride and Swervedriver and Catherine Wheel, bands I love but whose guitars sounded like guitars. Hearing Slowdive, it felt like it was from another universe, if only just a slightly more elegant one. The structure was still there but it was abstracted—the fullness of those textures and the articulate layering created this high opacity and the whole song seeming to shift in and out of focus, the whole melody about to fly off the bassline altogether by the centrifugal force of its circularity; it was just unbelievably beautiful, had so much depth, I wanted to be saturated in it. A band like My Bloody Valentine might seem a more obvious example of non-guitar-sounding-guitar work, but they're so out there that there's almost nothing you can learn. It's impenetrable; a totally foreign language. Nobody knows what the fuck is going on there, not even Kevin Shields I bet. With Slowdive I felt like I actually could see in, how the guitars were part of this a larger melodic arrangement, and how it was the arrangement that ultimately created that sense of massive beauty and harmonic density. I bought my first shitty delay pedal at a pawn shop a week later and the first thing I did was try to figure out the opening line of this song. I'm still trying to figure out that song.
PJ Harvey, White Chalk (entire album)
Mother of god, I'm not even going to try to go into this. It just has to be here.
Scott Walker, “Manhattan”
When I was 17 I had this manager named Gordon at the pizza place where I was working—he was probably in his mid 40s, kind of a strange guy, an ex-punk rocker who lived alone somewhere in Detroit. He was funny. Super sensitive though; we found him stress-crying in the walk-in freezer one time after the door fell off the oven and that was just it for him that day. Anyway, I remember we struck up a conversation about music once and he concluded that I knew absolutely nothing about music and desperately needed help so he came in with a stack of CDs the next day and one of them was Tilt. I went home that night, put that in the Discman, listened to half of “Farmer in the City”, abruptly turned it off, looked at it for a couple minutes considering whether to throw it out the window or burn it or break it in half or what—I didn't know what to do. It was xenophobia at its most totally primal—I could not abide. But for whatever reason, I never gave up, maybe spite, being challenged so totally. But 15 years later I feel very differently, we've had a long relationship now. I return to it over and over again, “Manhattan” in particular—something about its structure, that first downward slide of the bass under “Here you are…”, how those melodic elements suddenly appear, resolve, then evaporate back into the weird percussive surrealist-vacuum again—it's one of my greatest inspirations. Which is not to say I will ever attempt anything like it. No one should. No one. But I consider it to be a piece of music that completely expanded my thinking about creativity in general, not just music and how to make it, but how much bravery and depth it can contain. It's an example of what unbelievable beauty can be achieved when you acknowledge that because of what it has the potential to be, what music really deserves to have invested in it. Which, if it's honesty, or a totality, in many cases means people may not like it right away, if at all, because it can end up so other, so totally “someone-else” that it then requires the work it takes to relate to an actual person. But I think in the end, unless you're really really good at writing songs about how much fucking fun partying is, as a musician you're gonna face a choice about honesty, and to me this music is ultimately reassuring that being naked only means being vulnerable if you're afraid to be seen.
Or if it's super cold out. Then you're in trouble.