My Wit, With You, Isn't What It Always Is:
I'd like to think that when artists get to the higher reaches of their craft, they start to put more preparation into their work. For example, a six year old will think 'I'll paint a house' and then dip their fingers into the finger paint and then draw a box with a chimney and an upside-down smile for a door. A sixteen year old will think 'I'll paint MY house' and maybe take pictures from the back and from the front and maybe even sit on top of the roof while they draw it, just to make sure they get the accurate view. Here, since the sixteen year old has probably taken an art class or two, they have some knowledge of the craft; perspective, dimensions, shadowing, etc... And now they will rely not only on their tangible research (the pictures) but intangible experiences, maybe remembering the house from the neighbor's front yard from childhood. When they go to paint it, perhaps with something a step up from finger paint, they won't just be moving their brush with their hands, but with all of these things combined, or at least some part of them.
A twenty-six year old will think 'I'll paint William Faulkner's house!' so now, they don't just take their pile of pictures and their memories, they'll maybe read some biographies, to get an idea of what it was like to actually be IN the house, they'll maybe read some of his fiction, to see how he, as an artist, treats houses, getting insight from a different medium. Maybe they'll rent a room for the night in the house and see what its like to dream between his sheets. Of course, they'll also consider what other visual artists work this house wants to look like (and if this isn't done in their minds, it is done in the minds of their onlookers when their brains are trying to tune their visual field to 'what is this supposed to look like?'). When they attempt the physical painting, they'll put much more into it than their sixteen year old self (our hypothetical artist thankfully having remained a scholarly artist,) painting with (maybe) the sum of all their previous inspirations and techniques, they'll consider which kind of paint to use, probably stretch their own canvas, so on and so forth. Consequently, the end result will look a lot more 'artistic'. The painter will think 'art' when working on it, and their friends will think 'art' when looking at it at the opening. Success!
When I was 10 years old, I pressed the record button on my mom's boombox and sang a song called 'The Duck Got Wet When He Crossed the Ocean' with my brother drumming along on a practice pad. Things were very basic then, we had the words that were more space-fillers than they were poetry, we had the practice pad which was more student tool than instrument and we had the boombox which was, and remains, the cheapest thing you could put audio to. When we got older we started thinking about the music, when I was 14, my friend Alex played us Smashing Pumpkins and U2 songs before we recorded our 'albums', talking about the chasm that existed between their sound and ours, their sounds and ours, trying in vain to replicate something about their sound (thankfully we failed), using this time a microphone and speaker, beginner drum set and guitar and amp, though we still slummed it with the boombox. Like the kid with two art classes, we understood basic things like 'chorus' and 'drum part', but didn't really put much thought into that besides our physical involvement with the process (ha ha Billy Corgan).
When I was 22 years old I recorded an album named Cavalier. Describing what the jump was like from Doomsday Parade's 1997 album "Attack of the 50 Foot Ducks" to James Rabbit's 2005 album "Cavalier" would be like - to return to our hypothetical artist - trying to catalogue every milliliter of vodka she had consumed beneath the bleachers during PE in high school, every time the backspace key was pressed during the writing of her college admission letter, every confused/denial step in morning walks fleeing one night stands, every fucked up answer in interviews because of a secret pregnancy one tough Autumn, all of her "important", "formative" experiences between then and now. But that would be unrealistic, and besides can be explained in interviews published in pamphlets given away at the show (oh, there's a light on in that third floor window because she got knocked up in 2003!), so we won't go there. Besides, that's what the cryptic entries on websites are for. So -back to James Rabbit- we can only explain it in terms of how we've changed musically.
At the physical level, our instruments were nicer and we had learned them (since Doomsday Parade). Through our schooling/musical training we were familiar with terms like 'Ostinato', 'Key Signature', and 'Tremolo', which stuck in the back of our minds as we played each note of each instrument's part. We practiced beforehand, or at least explained to each other beforehand what would happen, and our theories about why it was that way and not another way. We had a much nicer set-up for recording, using multiple microphones of different kinds, a computer multi-tracking program, a plug-in interface, and a pre-amp device. But the important part was the, lets call it 'research'. Never mind all of the things that, in my mind, justified the creation of and execution of and meaning of lyrics or drum parts or liner notes: all of that becomes trivia. In preparing for Cavalier, I consciously selected things that I wanted to have the experience of, either reading, looking at, or listening to in hopes for getting something from there, putting it through the juicer, removing the pulp and keeping only the good stuff.
In my mind, Cavalier sounded like Scritti Politti's "Songs To Remember" so I tried to listen to as much of that album's precedents and offshoots as possible. I listened to some older reggae and Motown CDs, earlier Scritti Politti material, The Homosexuals, Desperate Bicycles, bands that were connected in attitude and timeset to Scritti Politti, I sought out the collections and compilations and listened and digested. I listened over and over to Dexy's Midnight Runners, as they have the same subversive tone as I was going for, I listened to Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, because they had the kind of arrangements that I was going for, etc... And whether or not the album turned out sounding like these bands, whether or not you would say 'hey, track six of your album sounds like track eight of the OMD album!', this is the new era of our situation, as I write albums not only with pencil, piano and paper, but with stacks of compact disks, and novels, and poetry collections, and art books. Because when I recorded Cavalier, I didn't want to make "More Songs To Remember" (although what a great title!), I wanted to make an album that you would mention in the same sentence, as two members of the same lineage, not a pair of twins with a clearly defined alpha and beta.
So now it feels like I'm buying CDs and books just for the academia of them, not so much to enjoy as to synthesize; To listen to and think 'what could I take out of this that other people would enjoy?', not 'what chord progression of theirs could I steal?', but 'what third thing can I snatch out from the thin space between this and what I have in mind?'. So let's pretend I'm at the record store, thinking of what CD I should get; 'Van Der Graaf Generator would be less pleasant to listen to, but it will be a more rewarding time when all the pieces fall together.' And then I walk over to the Rock/Pop section and think 'The Unicorns would be a sunnier listen, but if feels like if I listen to this I'll make music that's more expected of somebody with a certain type of haircut and glasses frames' but then back to the Experimental section, 'hmmm, there's less of a chance of someone buying the Popol Vuh soundtracks... I could get these any old time.' I'd like to think I'm progressing in my art, but to everyone else, I'm just looking creepy for an hour at a time at Streetlight Records.
It gets more complicated as I think of myself wanting to make music that people like, but then returning home from the record store to run through the living room into the room I'm staying in, hiding from my friends and listening to the new acquisition in headphones, there's this contradiction in purpose: if I want to ultimately make people happy, if I want to be a people person, playing to sold out arenas and posing in pop idol magazines why am I in here listening to Gary Glitter on headphones while everybody else in the house is watching Peewee's Big Adventure?
But fuck all this hiding and fuck all this complaining and fuck everything. I am in love with the idea of creating and I'm in love with the idea that my craft may someday qualify as art. I think we are a success even if we are a total and complete failure; I don't care if Continental or Cavalier sell a single copy- the point is I've got a thousand more in me. As long as I am able to put my hands to something musical, there will be albums.