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Saturday, May 17, 2014

"The Concept of Loyalty, Oustide of Personal Relationships, is a Dangerous One..." A Previously Unpublished Interview with Justin Curfman from Autumn 2013

Taken from a previously unpublished interview with Justin Curfman from September, 2013:

Do you have an affinity for 80s music?

Hi there "______". Thank you for having me. Be warned. I am notoriously long-winded...

I have an affinity for probably too many “disciplines”, eras, centuries and decades of music and not enough time to explore and study them all as thoroughly as I would like to. With this unprecedented level of access to virtually the entirety of the human catalog of recorded and written music that all of us with an internet connection, a hard drive, less-than a moment’s worth of patience and a pair of speakers in some form or another, I am unable to see how anyone with at least even a cursory interest in music could not find a minimum of one piece from every decade in our recorded musical history, beginning, of course, with the mass production of Edison’s wax cylinder phonographs in the late 1880s. So, that’s quite a catalog to choose from – a good 130 plus years’ worth, in fact.
Justin Curfman - Salzburg, Austria - 2013
But, we can also go back now even further with just a few keystrokes to give a listen to, say, the oldest known piece of written music, the Hurrian Hymn No. 6 from about 1400 BC or the Seikilos Epitaph (which, I find, to be particularly interesting and beautiful for several reasons) from about 200 BC. It is all available to us now, 24/7. 
But, as far as the 1980s go as a specific decade of exploration (or excavation, in a sense, with regard to what you are doing with your admirable column here, "______", for the more obscure material that most of us growing up in that decade had little or no access to), yes, I would say that I have a certain affinity for quite a lot of music that came to us from the 1980s.

I think that the 1980s presented to the “developed” world a certain set of new, and at least for me, rather interesting neuroses (for what is a “personality”, really, but a certain permutation of various types of neuroses all gathered together into one, biological unit) – a popular paranoia in the face of the Cold War, the real beginning of “cradle to the grave” mass marketing and advertising to über-domesticated children (and adults), while at the same time, stressing the superficial, monetary “worth” of objects, rather than the actual value of, “das ding an sich” (Kant), in order not only for capitalist societies to pull themselves out of the post-Carter recession (using America as a focal point), but also, say, in the case of Thatcher’s Britian, with a general unemployment rate across the UK of about 16+%, as a means to simply keep people’s minds off of just how badly they were being fucked by those, the select (and often criminally incompetent few) who were in control of the coffers – a scenario which has been in “rinse and repeat” mode since about 2003 (or earlier), particularly in the United States, without much popular hindsight, to the present day. It amazes me that today, with our god-like access to information, it seems so difficult (or impossible even) for the masses to simply crack open (or scroll through a FREE eBook) the most basic of history books and just learn something. Anything. But, we live now in this strange world, I feel, of electronic voyeurism combined with hyper-narcissism, as an alternative to this messy thing that we used to call, “reality” – now, a shiny, white pacifier in the shape of an apple... computer. 
   
So, yes. I believe that the 1980s produced this strange conglomeration of neuroses, preceded in the West by similarity probably only by the anxieties of the “labor class” during the Industrial Revolution (if we choose to look to the literature of that era) and this thing that we call “modernism” which was birthed out of the very real threat of military / industrial annihilation and a capital incentive system based upon rewarding only those willing to surrender themselves to homogeny.

It isn’t a coincidence, in my opinion, that so much music from the late 1970s through the mid to late 1980s had more in common with German Expressionism, Existentialism and the European Theatre of the Absurd than with the post-WWII, Dionysian, rockin’ n’ rollin’ approach of the generation of popular musical artists which preceded it; Elvis, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc., etc. There is, I think, a clear distinction – a clear and rather immediate change in the zeitgeist between these generations. Music was, in a sense, I feel, taken out of the concert halls and into the gallery space – a line drawn between “entertainment” and “art”. That is not to say that one is superior to the other. Each has its place and its role, I feel. So, long answer short – yes. I do have an affinity, it seems, for music from the 1980s.

More late 70s post-punk?

I think that late 1970s post-punk tends to have a much more daring, dynamic and less rigid approach when compared to a lot of music from the 1980s that is usually associated with the sub-genre. But, a lot of that comes from the fact that in the mid to late 1970s, the use of MIDI synth technology had not yet become so standardized and prevalent as it would be by about 1983 or so. So, this is why when we listen to what are generally considered “milestone” artists and recordings from that part of the decade, for example, the first three albums from Wire, the first two albums from Public Image Limited (especially in the case of “Metal Box”), Joy Division’s entire catalog, Siouxsie & the Banshee’s, “The Scream” and even into “no wave” work of, let’s say, James Chance & the Contortions there is this nice, crispy, organic, incredibly human and almost wholly “imperfect” quality found in the recordings and in the performances of the artists themselves on record that I find very refreshing, still, 30+ years after their release. This was the beginning of the end of human error. Electronic quantizing, MIDI triggers, etc. were not yet standard studio tools.

I think that a good way to explain this shift in technology and the sort of predictable sterilization a lot of music that came with it within such a short period of time can be seen in a fairly recent example that I can take from my own current listening experience. I’ll take Tubeway Army’s “Replicas” album. Those are real drums – Gary Numan’s uncle’s drums, as a matter of fact. They are cyclic, yes, but not glued to a machine. And despite Numan’s best efforts, the album is still quite human and “flawed” in several of the very very best ways, I think – not unlike, to me at least, some of the best early to mid 20th century jazz albums! And this was 1979. Now, jump ahead to 1983 with Numan’s “Warriors”… it sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? This over-purveyance of technology due to novelty, expediency or whatever you might want to call it, in my opinion, sucked the life out of a lot of incredibly talented artists during that “transition”. But, it was probably a necessary step in order to discover where the line between what is essentially a tool (or an audio paintbrush, if you will) and a piece of musical art should be found.

A modern example of this is with “auto-tune” vocal processing, where almost every single popular radio hit is so saturated with this vocal “correction” and over-correction software tool, that a “vocalist” these days is really nothing more than a hyper-sexualized version of Robby the Robot with a few corporate sponsorships from soft-drink companies, cell-phone contractors, cosmetic firms and clothing manufacturers backing him or her.
So, you might say that I do tend toward more of the mid to late-1970s up to about the mid-1980s stuff. For me, it just has a lot more life in it. That’s not to say that I dismiss a lot of the incredibly cold, cold, cold and emotionless electronic material that came out of the mid to late-1980s, especially in central Europe. I find much of that to be fascinating as well, but, I suppose, on more of a cerebral level.

Who are your favorite acts from that era and why?

My favorite acts from that era? I have a lot of acts that I enjoy and listen to often, but I have to say that the act that came out of that era that I tend to go back to more often than any other for inspiration and for an admittedly rarely-found sense awe for me these days would have to be Einstürzende Neubauten. I find their work from 1980 to 1985 to be exceptional, with their fourth album, “Zeichnungen des Patienten O. T”(1983) being my favorite among their entire 33-year catalog – with “Halber Mensch” (1985) being a close second. With these two albums, the group, in my opinion, successfully dissected and dismantled pop music and brought it into the avant-garde and performance art arena with an intellectual (though thoroughly non-academic) punk-rock mentality and came out the other end with something not only new, but textural and ugly in the most beautiful way, where so many other bands before (and after them) tried and failed many, many times under this (often juvenile, in my opinion) umbrella of this thing that many people like to call “industrial” music.

So many bands seem to fall in love with John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen La Monte Young and Steve Reich by about their third or fourth album and decide to venture out into the world of atonality, only to fail miserably – more often than not, coming back to us with a one and a half hour LP of mostly uninspired noodling, missing the point of experimentation and minimalism, for the most part – Lou Reed’s, “Metal Machine Music” being probably the most notorious album of the bunch.

But, Einstürzende Neubauten circumvented that whole process and got straight to the point and pulled it off miles above anyone associated with them, if you ask me.

There are very few artists whose entire catalog I enjoy. But there are a lot of artists from that era that produced some, in my opinion, incredible albums that I revisit often.

Some of the better known ones that I can sort of name off of the top of my head right now that I find myself giving repeat listens to are:

·         Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Juju” (1981) - For me, some of Budgie’s best percussion work on record.

·         Public Image Limited: “Metal Box” (1979) – Keith Levene’s guitar tone on those aluminum Veleno guitars is just awful in the most wonderful way.

·         James Chance & the Contortions: “Buy” (1979) – Frantic defined.

·         Echo & the Bunnymen: “Heaven Up Here” (1981) – For me, none of their other albums even compare to this one.

·         Cocteau Twins: “Garlands” (1982) – Some of the iciest bass work that I know of. Will Heggie left the group after this album’s release, but thankfully went on to play bass for Scottish “dream-pop” band, Lowlife, where he put his chops to good use again, in my opinion, particularly on the album, “Diminuendo” (1987).

·         Tones on Tail: “Pop” (1984) – In my opinion, this is the single best piece of work by anyone associated with the whole Bauhaus / Love & Rockets tribe. I wish that there was more.

·         Colin Newman: “A-Z” (1980) – The debut solo album from Wire front-man. This album, for me, picks up where Wire’s: “154” left off (my favorite Wire Album). It is worth the admission price, to me, for “Alone” alone.

·         Dead Can Dance (1984) – For me, this is the group’s best album, by far.

·         And Also the Trees (1984) – What an opening. For me, their most cohesive album.

·         Virgin Prunes: “… If I Die, I Die” (1982) – Campy, pretentious (probably) and brilliant, I think.

·         Modern English: “Mesh & Lace” (1981) – If they had never written “that song”, we might have gotten a lot more material out of them similar to this. Wonderful, sprawling stuff.

·         Talk Talk: “Spirit of Eden” (1988) – Only for the patient and few, admittedly, but well worth it.

·         Miranda Sex Garden: “Fairytales of Slavery” (1994) – I know that I am cheating here with this one, but I think that if this album were released ten years earlier, it would have received the attention, I think, that it deserves. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing for the rest of the group’s catalog, but this one (with some obvious help from Einstürzende Neubauten’s, Alexander Hacke taking on a producer role), from a percussion standpoint, most especially, I think is worth your time.I should stop here. I could probably go on forever.

In general, what role did music play in your youth?

I think that I had a strange relationship with music in my youth. My grandmother, in her youth, was an amateur country-western singer / songwriter / guitarist and performed often at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville with Andy Griffith, of all people. And my father was something of a blues guitar enthusiast. So, music was ever-present during my youth, but I only felt comfortable listening to music privately. For me, and it continues to this day, not only is writing music a very private matter, but even listening to music is a very private matter. I don’t enjoy listening to music with other people around. It brings about this incredible intrusive feeling that I cannot explain. And I do not enjoy being around other people while THEY are listening to music. It brings about this feeling to me that I can only equate with being caught on the toilet with your pants down around your ankles by your great-grandfather, or worse – your neighbor’s underage child(ren).However, this feeling does not exist with me during Feeding Fingers performances or rehearsals with my band. In that environment, music for me is very natural – like a conversation with your best friend. But, in my youth, music for me, from a listening standpoint, was always something of a meditation aide – I would say so primarily. It still is.

How has that changed over the years?

Having now written, released and performed quite a lot of music over the past several years, I would say that my relationship to music has definitely changed a bit, in that I do not have a chance to listen to nearly as much music as I would like to (or probably should), simply because so much of my time is now devoted not only to writing and rehearsing new material, but also because even more of my time is tied up in the “other”, uglier administrative side music that most people tend to avoid talking about – that being things like tour booking, promotion, licensing, etc., etc. But, my recent work-around solution to that is to simply compartmentalize my time into quarters throughout the year. I spend one-quarter of the year touring, one-quarter recording, one-quarter conceptualizing and one-quarter writing. Although, admittedly, writing is a never-ending process.

Do you hear it differently now?

I must say that after having worked so long as well on the sound engineering side of things (since age 15) that I have lost a lot of the enthusiasm that I used to have for listening to newer music. I know most of the recording tricks, so it is difficult for me to take an artist seriously when I hear something that I know for a fact was lifted off of some piece of pre-fabricated looping / sequencing software and being pushed off onto us as the next “big thing”. Also, after having played several live shows with contemporary groups with rather large followings and seeing that their act is, in reality, little more than a cleverly lit karaoke performance, being sold off to an unknowing public as a “live performance”, the whole business sort of puts a bad taste in my mouth from time to time. But, I have learned to ignore it and move on. I know that I may not sound like it from time to time, but I am a rather optimistic fellow.

Have your affections or loyalties shifted?

I believe that the very concept of “loyalty” outside of the realm of personal relationships is in and of itself, generally speaking, a very dangerous and masochistic one. “Loyalty” is what, I think, tends to hold us back from development. There are people, for example, that hold loyalty to political and philosophical systems to this day, that I have personally seen and spoken with in several countries not far from where I am standing now, that have been proven failures for several generations, but they hold on to that tribal association for a sense of security and familiarity, even though it is bad for them – a fear of advancement. So, I hold loyalties only to certain friends, certain family members and to my cat. But, I can say that my tastes have probably shifted throughout the years, in that I am more open to taking other people’s suggestions for new artists to listen to and I find myself more able to take a piece of music which I may not particularly enjoy on the whole, but I am able to appreciate and take from it maybe a part here and a part there and learn something from it and maybe, with any luck, be able to apply it in some form or fashion to a piece of Feeding Fingers music.  

Are you a consumer of music?

Yes, but not nearly as much as I used to be. My consumption of music really came to a dying crawl in 2009, most especially after my relocation to Germany from the United States. I had to learn a new language and integrate myself into a new culture. So, most of my time from 2009 just until this year was spent on integrating myself into this new environment and becoming functional. However, shortly before and during the recording of our latest album, “The Occupant” in Salzburg, Austria, my musical consumption saw a bit of an upswing. I found myself giving some more recent artists a listen, like Purity Ring, Esben & the Witch and Fever Ray, for example. But, I also found myself revisiting a lot of music that I haven’t really listened to since my late teens / early 20s, like Throbbing Gristle, Talking Heads, Kate Bush and Sonic Youth, for example, and finding a new appreciation for a lot of it here a little later in life. I have also been taking in quite a lot of early to mid-20th century jazz and eastern European avant-garde music. So, yes. I am finally now listening a bit more to other artists now that I have a functional command of the German language.   

How has your perspective changed now that you've been on the inside of it?

Since 2005, whatever preconceptions that I might have had of the “music business” and the cults of personality that surround it and its “rock-stars” have totally vanished. I have had food stolen from me by musicians that make $10,000 per gig! I have been stranded in hotels in the middle of nowhere by shady promoters in foreign countries. And I feel all the wiser for it. There is really no such thing, in my opinion, as a “bad” experience. It is all up to what you do with it. But, with that being said, I have also met some of the best people in my life during this whole period of my life. People that I have made close connections with and have built some strong loyalties with as well. All of the best and closest friends, no matter where in the world that they are, that I have to this day are those that I have met since starting this group.