Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Bad Bands Revolution, part one

Now that we’re back in Toronto, and distracted enough from the Torontopia files that dominated the early days of this blog, it’s time to turn to the Bad Bands Revolution. For some reason, these two concepts continually get confused, even though most people have never heard of the latter (never mind the former). Much of the criticism that appeared following the publication of my Torontopia article in Exclaim seemed to think that the very idea of Torontopia was merely an excuse for the wilful amateurism of the Bad Bands Revolution.

(See Chromewaves and Zoilus for some of this discussion--which, if I'm not mistaken, prompted a larger avalanche of comments than I've ever seen on either of these worthy and popular sites.)

Not true at all, but so what if it is? As Toronto becomes more and more internationally identifiable as a hotspot for music, most of those acts fall into some kind of preconceived norm of what “acceptable indie music” should be—and surely there’s plenty of room outside of that construct. What if someone’s artistic goal is—god forbid—not to strive for a classic album that vies for the Polaris or an international record deal? What if someone wants to try something new, with new people, and it goes away after a few gigs? What if it evolves into something else?

Some explanation: Bad Bands Revolution is a CD out on the non-label Jennifer Lopez Knife (CD-Rs only, good luck trying to find a website), run by Matt and Kat Collins: he is also Ninja High School, she leads Pyramid Culture and used to be in Barcelona Pavilion and Republic of Safety. Kat wrote the manifesto in question, which doubled as liner notes for the album. Considering how limited the CD’s release has been, the entire concept has been extremely controversial—at least in the echo chamber that is the stillepost community. And the CD release show they held during Canadian Music Week back in March was threatened to be shut down by audience members—both audience plants, and the genuinely bewildered and infuriated who nonetheless stayed in the same free venue for three hours only to anger themselves more.

What was likely to be a minor debate among the city’s scenesters has surfaced in mainstream articles in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and in a short radio piece I did for CBC Radio 3, which basically outlined the concept without going into much depth. The interviews appearing here were conducted for that piece.

The concept of self-identifying as a Bad Band negates those built-in expectations on the part of critics and audiences, and builds a more creative atmosphere. Of course, it also inspires some indisputably masturbatory exercises that quite honestly should never leave the bedroom. But what is art unless these risks are taken? Great art is always equally about failure as it is about success. And perfect art always leaves me wanting more: more of a glimpse into the process, more of a plank walk, more elements of danger.

The Bad Bands Revolution CD is shockingly listenable. Much of it reminds me of the ephemeral weirdness I would record onto cassette from listening to Brave New Waves and Night Lines in the 80s; speaking of the latter, many of the freaks that David Wisdom cultivated to write songs and material for the show would definitely be kindred spirits to the Bad Bands crowd. Eve Rice and Maurice Pooby, where are you?

I began my Bad Bands conversation with Kat Collins, the same day we discussed Torontopia. I started out by getting her to read the manifesto into a microphone for the radio piece.

Kat Collins
July 21, 2006
Back patio of a bar near Bloor/Ossington, Toronto

The manifesto:
Bad Bands are united by a bond – the bond isn’t in the tools they use to make their music or in the type of music they create, and it certainly isn’t in the degree of skill or effort they put into their work or in the degree of seriousness with which they do it. Bad Bands are united by a common desire to build around themselves a new type of creative atmosphere within an already thriving music scene in Toronto.

Bad Bands believe in replacing independence with interindependence, and creating a scene which welcomes musical failure as well as musical success, because it thrives on experimentation and risk. We await the future and recognize the past, but in our work we reject both as the false idols of cultural mediocrity.

Bad Bands don’t believe there should be an incubation period before creative ideas are brought into the public realm, to be performed, discussed or critiqued. We believe in DOING IT NOW, not in waiting until you’re “ready”.

Bad Bands aren't bad bands, nor are they good bands – they’re bands whose ideas about music are too radical for the mainstream independent music scene to accept as serious. Our goals aren’t to create a lasting legacy of well-crafted pop songs and hit albums that will establish Toronto as a respected cultural hub. Our goal is to build a revolutionary army which will establish Toronto as the centre of a coming coup d'├ętat on the arts establishment – both corporate and independent – in order to awaken the sleeping monster from its smug apathy.

(laughs heartily) That is hilarious to read now. I’ve certainly never read it aloud before. I’d forgotten how strongly I worded it! The idea of writing a manifesto at all was intended to be funny, to poke fun at the fact that people were taking us seriously for the wrong reasons, taking us seriously as though we were actually sort of ruin their idea of fun by doing this other thing. The manifesto does seem like a funny way to address that. But I’d forgotten how immersed in the language of manifestos I got when I wrote it. Those are strong words!

When did you write it?
I wrote the Bad Bands Manifesto at the beginning of March, in anticipation of the CD release. We wanted something in the liner notes that was more than just the band descriptions. It was stuff we had talked about before, but never fully articulated.

When did the idea of “bad bands” begin? And how does it relate to your CDR label Jennifer Lopez Knife [run with her husband and Ninja High School founder Matt Collins]?
Jennifer Lopez knife started as an idea a couple of years ago. It was mostly just an idea for a while. We had plans for what kind of music we wanted to release, and we wanted to be the annoying little brother of Blocks. A similar ethos, similar ideas of how we wanted to make music and the kind of relationships we’d have with the artists, but we wanted to release stuff that wouldn’t be put out otherwise at all, either because it was terrible or hard to listen to for other reasons, or strange one-off projects like the Christmas album, or Matt put out a short, small run of Weird Al covers. Those kind of things that would be neat. We wanted to put out records by the bands we thought were really interesting and creative, but were never going to be taken seriously. It was born out of that idea originally, but we didn’t articulate any kind of label philosophy—at least to the public— until the Bad Bands compilation. Then it blew up into a big thing.

Were you surprised at all that it’s generated so much discussion? Last time I checked, there were 27 pages of it on Stillepost.
I didn’t expect people to have such strong opinions about it, one way or another. I was expecting a bit of debate and discussion, but people were really divided and really took it seriously, and the arguments were extensive, to say the least.

Can you recap some of those arguments?
At first, there was a group of bands that had participated in making the CD who were really excited about it. The initial negative reaction that we got was from people who thought it was bad and not worth bothering with. It was the reaction we expected of, ‘Oh, who cares, and why is anyone paying any attention to this.’
Then there was this second wave of criticism where people took our words and the words of the manifesto very much at face value and started reacting in a way that I wasn’t expecting at all. They basically were implying by creating this type of CD and by stating it the way that we did, that we were in some way trying to suggest that other types of making music were actually not valuable and stupid and not worth it, and that people who play their instruments well, people who care about crafting music carefully and thoughtfully are in fact wasting their time and that we have a better idea than them.
That was never our intention. I was surprised that was the reaction. A lot of people took it very personally, an attack on their idea of what music is. I don’t think we envisioned that people would take it as a personal attack. I can certainly see how the language of the manifesto sounds, that we’re implying that we’re right and everyone else is wrong.
It was strange to hear those kinds of criticisms. It spiralled into a conversation where people seemed to feel attacked by the bad bands revolution, what they saw as the bad bands clique, and reacted by defending their ideas about music, which was interesting to read. I had a lot of interesting conversations with people about that. But also by suggesting that maybe we should stop doing what we were doing because… I’m not even sure.

It seems to be to come from a notion that it challenges someone’s set of beliefs. This is an obviously extreme parallel, but if you challenge someone’s belief in God, suddenly they get very defensive if someone attacks this thing they’ve understood as a truth their entire life. Whether you like the music of “bad bands” or not, opposing it with such vitriol has this strong anti-art underpinning, anti-creativity, telling people to just shut up.
There’s a huge difference between saying ‘I don’t like this thing and I’m probably not going to listen to it because it’s not what I’m interested in,” and saying that it’s bad and not worth doing, or that it shouldn’t be done because of how terrible it is. It’s a strange, and extremely dogmatic statement. That’s what I wasn’t expecting. I expected a lot of people not to like it, to come to the show and leave during the first band, but I didn’t expect people to stay until the very last band to tell us every half hour that we should turn it off.

A lot of the discussion I heard didn’t seem to be based on actually being at that show or hearing the compilation. It was an entirely aesthetic discussion. So could you describe to me exactly what happened that night? By the way, that was the night before I moved back to Toronto.
And it was a whole new world! (laughs) We had booked the show at the Boat, and the Boat was then incorporated into CMW as one of their venues. Trevor, who was really interested in having the bad bands showcase at the Boat, arranged it with them in some way that we would be the Saturday showcase. I think we ultimately filled in the artists’ agreement that they have, and we got passes, which I don’t think any of us used, because we forgot we were getting them. The whole thing seemed like a joke.

It’s certainly the exact opposite of everything else that usually happens that week. I heard that admission was free, and that weasels and media were going to be charged admission.
Our original plan was that the show would be free. If CMW sent volunteers to try and charge at the door, that we would kick them out and tell our door person to refuse them entry because we were at capacity, and then we would charge people with wristbands and the media, and everyone else would get in for free. That seemed the best revolutionary stance for that show. Antagonize as many people as possible.

How was the attendance?
A lot of people did show up. I don’t think we were at capacity, but there were probably 100 people there. A lot of them were friends and friends of the bands and people I expected to see. A lot of them were people from the music scene that I didn’t expect to see, because it didn’t seem like their kind of thing. Then there were random people who walked in because it was a CMW show and they wanted to check out the bands. There were a few walkouts, a few people stormed out after having been there for a while. But the vast majority of people stayed until the very end of the show.
There was a lot of really interesting conversation that I overheard just walking around inside the bar, between people who were there and knew what was going on… and people who just walked in off the street. It was very much that type of thing.
The people who were trying to defend the bad bands idea had to actually defend our right to continue the show, essentially, to these people who thought that someone in charge ought to have shut it down by now, because it was outrageous.

What would shutting it down prove? Why wouldn’t they just leave?
Exactly—it was a free show, and you’re not being held captive. People’s outrage was really surprising, because it was entirely voluntary. There were people who stayed for that entire show who later joined that thread to complain about it, but spent three hours listening to this music. I don’t understand why they bothered. Is outrage so attractive that you want to build it up by making yourself angrier and angrier by listening to something that you don’t enjoy? I generally leave shows if I don’t like what I’m listening to.

It’s hard to imagine what they were expecting when it’s called Bad Bands Revolution.
It’s called bad bands. If people take the words of the manifesto so literally, it’s surprising that they don’t take the title literally, and assume that it will be bad. I think the compilation is not that. There are a few bands who are being bad at playing their instruments and sounding poorly recorded and being not professional in any sense of the word, and then there are some bands who take that seriously and do sound bad in a conventional sense. A lot of the bands are actually extremely interesting and have interesting musical ideas and are not recorded badly, and the songwriting is interesting.
As a compilation, a CD that you might throw on and listen to, I think it’s excellent and the songs actually hold up. It’s more of an approach to making music and to what binds bands to each other more than the music itself. There are a lot of very, very different sounding bands on the compilation that musically have very little to do with each other.
But I think the bands that volunteered or contacted us about being on the compilation, didn’t need to have the idea explained to them. They got what we were saying with the bad bands concept right away, and felt that they were already part of that.

You use the term ‘interindependence’ in the manifesto. What does this mean?
We had been talking about how the music scene in Toronto, that using the word independent is very much the wrong word to use. None of us function independently. Most of us have a huge network of support, whether it’s friends or people we collaborate with to make music or people who help us put out records or help us record or put on shows. Independent in relation to a larger corporate structure—sure. But independent in terms of our community is really not the case.
But I kind of feel like interdependent isn’t the right word either. We do depend on each other, but interindependence implies some combination of the two. It’s an interdependent community in the sense that we all depend on each other for support of various kinds, but that ultimately as individual artists we can ideally retain a level of independence in our work and ideas.
The idea was to have a very free and open kind of approach to making music where, in fact these kinds of discussions about who should stop doing what shouldn’t even be an issue. Of course bands make different kinds of music that the people involved don’t necessarily even listen to or enjoy. But they’re able to work together because they see the value in helping the kind of grassroots community, when it comes to the arts.
It’s not a matter of liking all the other bands or making music that sounds like all the other bands. It’s understanding that as an individual artist or an independent group, you can have an interdependent community without feeling boxed into any kind of product.

The whole manifesto is very carpe diem. ‘Don’t worry about precedents in the past, don’t worry about building for the future.’ What’s the difference between this and improv musicians, who have a set of parameters and conjure something out of thin air. Is it because these bands play with a pop format that makes it different to both those scenes?
I think it’s very similar to improv music. Originally our doing-it-now ideas grew out of the panel discussions at the Wavelength anniversary, which brought up a lot of disagreement about the legacy that this incarnation of the music scene in Toronto was going to be leaving, and whether these kinds of projects were too fleeting to be taken seriously, because they weren’t going to stand the test of time.
We thought about that and came to the conclusion that the legacy we were much more interested in leaving—more so than awesome records that sell well—was a legacy of this type of approach to creativity. If, in ten years no one remembers this compilation, but people feel like it’s a given that you can make this music and start these bands and experiment and argue with people about it—if that kind of freedom and approach to making music, which is inclusive and doesn’t divide audiences from performers—that’s much more the kind of legacy I’d be interested in leaving. In that sense, it is very much about the present moment and creating things that don’t necessarily become artifacts, but they change the atmosphere of the place.

Something that’s definitely happened in the last couple of years is that when independent music has proved to be very commercially successful, that there then becomes this notion that anything you’re doing is towards that same goal. That becomes the new model for people working independently, as if it’s everybody’s goal to headline a huge show on Olympic Island with all your friends as supporting acts—which I happen to think is a great goal to have, but that’s not necessarily everyone’s aesthetic. Lots of people don’t have the ultimate goal of appealing to as many people as possible, which still seems to be a radical idea to some.
[cell phone rings.] So sorry, I thought I turned off my ringer. Ah, I’ve lost my train of thought.

A lot of the bands on this compilation have never played a live show. One of them we don’t even know who they are. They just emailed us, and I’ve never seen their name on any kind of poster or bill. Maybe they don’t want to play in front of people. But there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no reason not to encourage different types of goals when it comes to creative expression. One of the traps we fell into with the whole manifesto and everything is that we stated a slightly different goal than the commercial success goal that a lot of people hold. I think we made people feel like we were attacking their goals. A lot of people took it personally, not so much because they hate the music, but because we were telling them that their goals with what they want to achieve with their music were false, and not worth pursuing. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It would be sad if that was everyone’s goal. There is certain kinds of music that even if that was your goal, you couldn’t possibly attain it because it just doesn’t work in that context, that venue. It would be a shame for those kinds of musical ideas not to be expressed just because they don’t fit into that kind of structure.

The irony here is that the elephant in the room that is Toronto, is Broken Social Scene. When I think of what that band was when it started, what the concept was, was: new songs every night, a workshop in progress, who’s in the band—who knows? Once they actually became successful, people came to shows expecting to hear songs from the record, which they never intended to do when the record first came out. The band changed to meet people’s expectations, and yet it was borne from this idea of always being in the moment with whoever’s around you. That continues to a lesser degree, somewhat. But it’s interesting to see that happen on a macro level and become one of the city’s biggest success stories.
Yeah, it’s totally a curious thing. It’s the kind of thing that a lot of people are actually afraid of, that they will have to compromise their ideas if they attain a certain kind of success. I don’t think we’re necessarily anti-commercial success with Bad Bands. I mean, if the Bad Bands compilation somehow sold a million copies, I would find that hilarious. I wouldn’t object to that! But it’s the idea that you have to change what you’re doing or what you’re interested in or have to compromise your artistic integrity or however you want to phrase it—in order to have that kind of success, that’s unappealing, for obvious reasons. I think that a lot of people who do strive for that kind of success, take this sort of approach to music as essentially that whatever they do is compromised because that is their inherent goal. That’s where a lot of the arguments start.

How does your band, Pyramid Culture, fit into this?
Pyramid Culture is an interesting thing. We have songs, we practice, we’re not professionally trained singers so we don’t always hit the right notes in tune. But we’re actually actively working on improving our singing. We’re not interested in being sloppy.
We work hard on writing our beats and we take our subject matter very seriously. Our songs started out being about weird scientific anomalies and occasionally more serious scientific issues and discoveries. We’ve moved into the realm of scientific and ecological issues that are pressing in the present day that people might not know about. We have a new song about salmon poaching in Siberia. It’s scary—wild salmon could be extinct in 30 years if they don’t shut down what’s going on there. We feel strongly about that kind of stuff. We enjoy putting it into these cutesy, poppy sounding songs.
In relation to the bad bands scene or movement, it was very interesting to see people in those discussion threads defending Pyramid Culture as not being a bad band. Defending us on our behalf, not that we necessarily asked. They could see that either the subject matter or the approach we take was serious to us, so they didn’t want us to be lumped in with these other crazies. That was curious to hear. I agree that we’re not trying to be bad in a technical sense, but we very much subscribe to these kinds of ideas.
I think there are a lot of examples of bands who are on the CD or just in general who are supporters and friends and whatnot who came out of this approach, this little scene that inadvertently exploded into the public sphere, who very much make beautiful music that is extremely complex and interesting and well-rehearsed. Pyramid Culture is somewhere in between. We’re not pros, we don’t have the training or the background to do what we’re doing exceptionally well, but we take it very seriously.
Because of the way the songs sound, we often don’t get taken seriously. It seems like it must be a joke to sing about these things in a cheerful, poppy way with this very video-game-sounding electronic music in the background, and we wear matching outfits and we look like it’s gotta be a schtick.

Which it is, in many ways.
It absolutely is schticky, but we’re often met with not so much criticism as confusion.


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