Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Blankket

Steve Kado is no stranger to this site, for his outspoken Torontopian theories as well as his role as midwife for Final Fantasy's surprise success.

The founder of the Blocks Recording Club--more about that next week--just put out his second solo EP as The Blankket, his covers project (get it?) which in this case focuses entirely on Bruce Springsteen. Suitably, it's titled Be Your Own Boss. I've been a fan of this idea ever since I first saw him perform it at the Brave New Waves anniversary show in March 2004, though why it's taken him three years to finish four songs is a minor mystery to me. The result, both live and on disc, has baffled both of Toronto's weeklies: here and here.

Springsteen is such a huge and complicated figure to tackle, and of all the recent acts garnering Springsteen comparisons, I think that only Arcade Fire really nail it with "(Antichrist Television Blues)," where Win Butler turns the working class escapist fantasy and gives it an evil twist: there, economic liberation and salvation are directly linked to sexual exploitation and messianic religious fervour.

Kado tackles four Springsteen songs: "Dancing in the Dark" is the sad, self-loathing lament that the lyrics always intended it to be; "Badlands" becomes a jaunty, earnest K Records love song; "Thunder Road" is, well a bit of a shambles; and "I'm on Fire" is a desolate, pulsing drone driven by howling, distorted vocals that appear as if Kado is taking the self-immolating lyrics quite literally... that edgy and dull knife sounds like it's ripping through his skull Pan's Labyrinth-style.

As you can see below, Kado takes this all deadly seriously, as he well should. But for all the talk, Be Your Own Boss is somewhat slight--there's so much more that could be done here. Plus, since I first saw Kado do "Dancing in the Dark" four years ago, both Chad VanGaalen and Ted Leo have also discovered that song's inherent darkness in their live sets.

This interview was conducted for a CBC Radio 3 piece about Blocks, that should be airing shortly, though none of this material is featured there. Some of it will run in the May 10 issue of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, in advance of The Blankket's house show at 130 King St. N on May 18. The Blankket is also performing this weekend in Toronto at the Over the Top festival, Friday May 4 at Sneaky Dee's with Flosstradamus and Yah Mos Def.

If this post leaves you wanting to hear more of Kado's theories, there's a 2006 Wavelength interview here.

Considering my own passion for the subject of Springsteen, I feel like this conversation could have gone on for hours. Luckily, because I was there primarily to get soundbites about Blocks, it didn't. For the sake of my minidisc batteries, I tried to stay out of the cultural theory rants as much as I could--always difficult with Mr. Kado.

Steve Kado
January 31, 2007
locale: Blocks Recording Club office above the Tranzac

In a nutshell, what appeals to you about Springsteen songs?
There’s a sentimental attachment. It’s some of the first music I ever heard in my life. I do actually just like it, in a pretty uncomplicated way. There’s a lot in there that you can access, a lot about it that’s pretty interesting. They’re amazing songs, and they aren’t done the way other songs are done.
Comparing Bruce Springsteen to Neil Diamond, for example, I just like Neil Diamond too—I really enjoy his music, especially his American response to Beatlemania. He occupies an interesting place when everyone really got into British pop music, he did this weird kind of American pop music that wasn’t Beach Boys-y, it was Northeastern as opposed to Californian in orientation, and it co-exists at the same time as the Beatles. It’s very well done, very exciting to listen to. But if you were going to cover Neil Diamond, you don’t have too many angles available to you. You have sincerity or critical sarcasm, and those are the two poses I could see to cover something like “I’m a Believer.” Either you are a believer, or you think it’s stupid that anyone would be a believer. That’s not terribly interesting to me as material to cover. As much as I like it.

“Stepping Stone” has been done a number of times, mostly by punk bands.
But there’s only one angle there: it’s nasty! “You’re a terrible woman.” That’s the point. “You use people.” It’s a great song, but it only has one application. You can be sincere about it; you can’t really be insincere about it. Minor Threat were sincere about it.
With Bruce Springsteen, you don’t have this either/or about being sincere or non-sincere. You have a bunch of emotional categories that you either do or don’t identify with, but at the same time, the songs I especially don’t identify with are these tropes about the automotive and the way freedom is purchased in many of the songs.
Because there are different narrative layers in Bruce Springsteen songs, I don’t think that’s necessarily authorial voice per se so much as it’s him creating these situations, or analyzing the existence of these situations and presenting them for you to consider. Is that just another thing that’s tragic about this situation? That any kind of success or escape is going to have to be mediated by capital? Which ultimately will produce the same effects it creates at the beginning? Inevitably, capital is the crux of the majority of the drama in these songs.
If it’s an interpersonal drama, it’s still a drama that exists because people are in situations that are desperate, and their relationships are created along these lines that are economically predetermined.

“You Can Look But You Better Not Touch.”
Yeah, and “Used Cars.” There are all these songs where the economic has a deep personal meaning, and it’s not just something so simple as, ‘I want money, lots of money.’ That’s been done anyway. The Flying Lizards, who are one of my favourite bands of all time, might even be my second-favourite band of all time, because I think David Cunningham is a genius. The Flying Lizards did an amazing cover of “Money,” but the song itself isn’t the winner with that, it’s the context it’s placed in. It’s on a record where the first song is a Bertolt Brecht cover. All the other things that go on in that Flying Lizards record frame this cover of “Money” that then gives it this whole metacritical…

But most people, including myself, only know that single.
True. It’s a shame. The single is still critical, but the larger critical angle is really subtle, nuanced and interesting. On the single itself, it’s very ‘ha-ha, get it?’ But that joke is the centerpieces of a larger thing. It’s like saying you know what Sartre is about but you only have the ‘hell is other people’ quote hanging around. It’s the good one-liner, but it’s not the (snaps fingers).
I think Bruce Springsteen is really an exemplary songwriter in terms of both personal drama—feeling emotional—but also how he’s framing people’s relationships to capital and the culture industry in his songs. There’s so much in there for people to do. All the Springsteen covers—there’s room to be bad, too, obviously—but there’s so much room to succeed.
He’s writing them for himself to sing, of course, but if you choose to sing them he throws you so many bones, makes a lot of things easy for you, and fun to do. There’s an opportunity for you to sing the song this way, which is completely a part of the way the song is, that will make this feeling happen. Then just by going up by one note, you can make it do this. Those opportunities are all there.
You can see him using them to great effect, when you separate him the writer from him the performer. He takes all these avenues himself, and I can take those avenues too and not have them come out the same way.

To me, so much of his performance is tied into having such an amazing band. Though conversely, no matter how well orchestrated, the songs are just as successful when stripped down to one person. They portray a different aspect of the grand drama in those songs.
I think it’s there to be done. Part of what’s in the songs is that it is able to be done by one person. Ensemble playing, especially on records like Born to Run—or even the first three albums, with songs like “Rosalita”—those songs offer some of the most amazing ensemble playing of the 70s on them. That is one of the things that’s attractive about Bruce Springsteen, is hearing his band slay. At the same time, it’s not what is THE attractive thing about Bruce Springsteen. If you were just in it to hear sax solos, you could be looking elsewhere.
It’s what he brings to them that makes them such an issue. You can tell by how poorly they’ve all fared as solo artists. It’s the material that really stands out above everything else, and the fact that he’s such an able interpreter of his own material makes it all the more amazing, all the more charismatic and exciting. But they are two separate issues.

Why do people not want to believe you’re being sincere?
A lot of people don’t want to believe certain things about Bruce Springsteen. And maybe they have certain ideas about what sort of things I’m interested in or what kind of person I am. They can tell based on how I look and what my concerns are or how I’m dressed, what kind of company I’m keeping and what context these things are happening in. I’m not a steelworker. I’m not some guy from Jersey. They assume that what’s in Springsteen is limited to Bob Seger terrain, but he was better looking and therefore more appealing and that’s why there’s more fuss about Springsteen.
People have certain stereotypes [about me], which are largely correct. ‘Here’s someone who is university educated, has enjoyed a fair amount of privilege in his life, has bizarre academic concerns as opposed to thrillingly visceral Americana Detroit car concerns. What’s this guy doing with this material? He’s obviously mocking it.’
The people who doubt my sincerity are the people who really don’t get it, or the people who are examining what it looks like the project is, rather than how it works. I was on tour recently in the American Midwest and Northeast, and in lots of these places—like in Detroit—the behaviour of capital has been brutal. The collapse of the American manufacturing sector is what’s made Detroit a synonym for ‘terrifying.’ The people there all felt that it was really straightforward. They didn’t feel I was being weird with the Boss. In Detroit specifically, I got a great deal of positive feedback. In other places like Pittsburgh, an old steeltown, in places that are directly a part of these songs, as opposed to Toronto, which never figures at all into Springsteen type stuff. In places that are either like or actually are protagonists in some of these songs, people got it, I think. It was heartening, because I do feel so sincerely about it. I do really care so much about the songs.

Is the Blankket ever going to be more than this?
The Blankket was never meant to just be a covers thing. The covers were easiest. A really good way of figuring stuff out and how you want to do music, is to do a bunch of stuff that already exists. I have an original record that is mostly about Theodore Adorno, that I want to finish by this summer because I plan on touring in Europe. I have to attack that task. I might do another Springsteen record, actually, with only songs from Tunnel of Love. It would be “All That Heaven Will Allow,” “Brilliant Disguise” obviously, and “When You’re Alone.” I got into Tunnel of Love near the end of me finishing this project, and it would have really changed the whole thing had I still been working on it consistently. Maybe it will be a whole separate thing.

It says so much that when that record came out, he had just got married, and the celebrity press spun it as, “Oh, Tunnel of Love! He’s just written this romantic record about his wife! And here’s the first single, ‘Brilliant Disguise!’”
It’s terrifying, eh? He’s so dark on that record. It’s a divorce record to his wife, and if it weren’t for some of those more questionable 80s production choices, it would totally be Nebraska 2. And even better in a way, because it’s so much more personal and the terror is so much more real on lots of those songs. “Brilliant Disguise” is just a horrible patch of sentiment, it’s a terrible realm of doubt to even consider if you’re seeing anyone. It’s all the stuff you don’t want to think about at all. The whole record is like that, except “All That Heaven Will Allow” is a weirdly optimistic song, but the bookends on either side of it, lyrically, are about utter failure.

Can you describe the current state of the Blankket live show?
Ok, well, I cover my head with Vaseline and stick my head in a bag of rice and do mostly Bruce Springsteen songs in my set. That will probably change soon. I just finished a tour where I got really into the rice, but I also feel like I’ve pursued that direction. I want to do interesting performing stuff in general, and regularize it for touring purposes. It’s an interesting process, especially because it’s the kind of thing people do all the time: they rehearse to get things tight before a tour, and I feel like I have other needs. At some point I discovered shop towels and thought, ‘These solve so many of my problems!’ I just transpose what would be normal musician tasks into this surreal Vaseline world.

[Blankket shows in 2006 consisted of Kado inviting the audience to bring radios, which would transmit his backing tacks via an MP3 player, somewhat similar to the Flaming Lips’ earlier experiments with radio performance. Most of the shows were held in unconventional places, like the side of a highway in Brantford.] Are you still working with radios?
I’m not still working with radios because I feel it demanded too much of the audience. I wanted to have this relationship with the audience, but either it wasn’t honestly meaningful for the audience to be backing me, which is fair—they’re making a choice, and there’s more of them. I understand what that means. If it becomes meaningful to them, I’d consider doing it again, because I am very interested in working with that technology. There are some aspects of that, that I left unexplored, which I would explore if radio adoption was high. If people were really stoked, I could have done stuff that would be really, really interesting.

Were you using an iPod transmitter for backing tracks for those shows?
I was using an MP3 player that had two stereo outputs, so basically four channels out of it that I could send, and I was at one point broadcasting two parallel signals from car radio transmitters. They weren’t iPod transmitters, because those are expensive and work in a way that’s no fun to play with. These were very simple, purchased-in-Chinatown things that plug into your lighter in your car. I modified those to take batteries and bought a bunch of kits, radio hobby kits, that have little printed circuit boards, and I built a bunch of those. The radio transmitter thing was a hassle in a lot of respects. I’m not the best electronics guy. My sautering was not the finest. I was doing a house show at Kevin Parnell’s house, and I had to fix the transmitter when I got there. I showed up, plugged in the sautering iron, sautered it, and it sort of worked the whole time. The only person who really liked it was Sandro Perri, who thought it was amazing.
If it’s not working, there’s no shame in moving along. I can’t actually say: “None of you can come in without radios,” when I’m playing shows outside anyway. Part of the goal of playing with radios was that I didn’t want to play in bars; I wanted the freedom to explore areas with people and do fun things in interesting places with a group of people. I can’t really say, “It’s $2 cheaper if you bring a radio,” because I’m not taking money in for it anyway.

And people might spend $10 in batteries to bring their radio.
Potentially, yeah. If I said there was a cover charge for this event, people would decide whether or not they wanted to go, and if they go they’d pay me five bucks. Whereas, they could buy a radio instead, keep the radio afterwards, and see the show. One of the things that interesting to me, but harder for other people, is that radio is a vanishing technology. It’s in a strange liminal space where there’s this interesting technique of wireless broadcasting we’ve developed that we’re all moving away from, but for no reason—because it works! It does the trick!

It’s the original wi-fi!
It’s going to have to come back around to that anyway. But there was this shift to memory-based stuff, where you make all your choices in advance, and then nothing surprising happens, unless you planned to have a surprise somewhere along the line. It’s interesting. What’s going to be really cool about radio is that at some point the radio will be so depreciated, that it can become extremely local again. The CRTC will back off on regulating it because it will just be nothing to people.
At the same time, the technology is very easy to work with on a hobbyist level: you can build a radio quite easily, or radio transmission parts quite easily. I’m also interested to see what happens when peak oil makes it impossible to ship microcomponents around, or making the manufacturing of microcomponents difficult. The main ingredient in radio is coils, which are just wires that you coil and then it has different physical properties—which I find unbelievably weird, that the shape you put something in gives it a new physical property.
There’s so much that’s so amazing and mysterious about radio as a technology, that it’s so attractive to work of. It’s just whether I’m relying on the audience to work on it with me, or whether maybe at some point I just work with radios and present this crazy stuff to an audience, and say: ‘Come into my radio room, and look at all this stuff that’s happening without wires!’

note: Radio art enthusiasts near Toronto should know about the Deep Wireless festival, which kicks off this week and runs the entire month of May.

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