I Don’t Support Record Store Day, And You Shouldn’t Either


So far, 2016 has been a pretty distressing year for music fans. While many were still reeling from Lemmy Kilmister’s departure to the great gig in the sky, the passing of rock n’ roll sovereign David Bowie only seemed to heartlessly tear open a still-fresh wound in the music-loving community. While not as globally-devastating as the passing of some of rock’s greatest monarchs, the Bristol community received another shock with the closure of one of the city’s most enduring record shops, Head. Having worked at Head up until its closure, seeing it cave in to the multitudes of threats that record stores face in the modern day is just so disheartening, and it makes you question how long until they die out altogether.

Head started out its life in the Galleries in the ‘90s as a Virgin store, later becoming a Zavvi retailer, and finally re-opening independently as Head. Head is joining the waves of independent record stores closing down across the South West, such as Bath’s Raves From The Grave, which shut down in June of last year. There are a multitude of reasons behind the much-loved store’s closure, but the most prominent is merely a sign of the times. Independent entertainment retailers face even more competition now than ever before with the advent of online streaming, downloading, and piracy. While great leaps in technology have considerably improved our media culture for consumers, it’s sending independent businesses to the chopping block. As of 2014, digital revenue streams grew by 6.9 per cent to make as much money as their physical counterparts, and the numbers will do nothing but increase as the market continues to expand.

While streaming and downloading have knocked a major dent in physical record sales, retailers like HMV and Amazon can still sit comfortably atop their thrones as the UK’s leading music vendors. Corporate bigwigs are unaffected while independent businesses are left in a perpetual drought of sales, and some attempts at boosting record spendage in the indie market appear to have gone awry. Record Store Day, an annual event initially created as a call-to-arms of supporting independent music stores, has been criticised for “betraying” its original intent, and effectively doing more harm than good. Bristol’s own Howling Owl record label delivered a savage open letter which berated RSD for being “co-opted by major labels” and harming independent ones. The limited-edition releases manufactured for the event also have a much larger buying-in price from dealers, and have to be bought at “firm sale”, meaning they cannot be returned. Essentially, the event is a pure gamble for independent stores, and unfortunately Head was dealt a bad hand. Piles of unsold limited-release RSD stock gathered dust behind the counter in the months that followed last year’s event in April. Even a Black Friday sale couldn’t move half of the leftover records which Record Store Day distributors promise that fans will clamor for on release.

Record stores and entertainment retailers have a far different place in consumer culture these days. You no longer need to reserve a copy, queue up and purchase the new Adele album on release day. Everything’s completely at your fingertips online, which leads consumers to question why they’d go to the extra effort of buying a physical CD or DVD? Their existence is almost ephemeral. While record stores as a business aren’t as prevalent as in previous decades, they still act as a watering hole for like-minded music fans from all walks of life. When moving to the area a few years ago, I remember all the feelings of apprehension and anxiety that come with moving to a new city melting away upon discovering Head. It wasn’t just a record store to me. Record shops aren’t just a place where you grab the new Taylor Swift; they’re a social hub, a place of pilgrimage that represents and solidifies a sense of community in music much like the rich sonic heritage that Bristol has nurtured for years and years. Head has been one of the most rewarding, fascinating jobs I’ve ever had because of all the colourful, vibrant characters I’ve served and worked with during my time there. You can take away just as much happiness from a bright-eyed kid buying the new Adele CD than you can with a silver-haired veteran bolstering his Lou Reed collection. Therefore, my plea is simple, and one that is shared by music fans the world over: support your local record store. Not just on RSD. Not just when HMV’s out of stock. Put your money into an independent instead. When you put money into a local business, your money isn’t going toward a corporate suit’s new BMW, you’re giving back to the community. It’s a humbling feeling knowing that your money’s going towards someone’s lunch, gas bills, vet treatments for their cat, and ballet shoes for their daughter. The record store is a key social element of music culture, and we can’t allow it to die out.

There is some hope, however. While digital sales of individual albums are declining as fast as their physical counterparts in favour of streaming subscriptions, vinyl sales continue to soar, with UK sales growing by 56 per cent in the first half of 2015 alone. Though vinyl may retain the affections of dedicated music lovers, some good things must come to an end. Though it comes from a place of sadness, all the sympathies we’ve received from customers, as well as all the sincere anecdotes about how much they loved coming into the shop, are enough heartfelt evidence to show that local record stores can make a difference in the community. At the time of writing, our manager Griff, who’s worked with the store since the Virgin days, plans to have Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells to soundtrack the shop’s final closure. Though I initially thought Tom Waits’ Closing Time, or Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time” would be the obvious choices, some of you music boffins out there might recognise Oldfield’s 1973 classic as the first record to be released on a Virgin label. So it’s nice to see that, at the very least, we’re not ending on a finale, but a new beginning.



Airs & The Cherry Wave React To 2015 Records, Plus Stream!

Autumn hit pretty late this year. There’s a massive oak tree that looms over my window whose colours appeared to rust almost overnight. Nature’s playing some winded game of catch-up with us right now, and it’s only just hit me how little time we have left in the year. Panto starts shortly at the theatre where I work. Scarves are working their way back into my wardrobe. Us Louder Than War staff are working on our year-end lists, a ritual which I always reluctantly partake in.

Some of my favourite records to listen to at this time of year are those with thick textures and layering. Ones that evoke the same sensations as the feeling of a cozy jumper or a warm mug of tea seated on a windowsill. While San Francisco’s Airs and Glasgow’s The Cherry Wave may be settled at completely different sides of the world, what unites them is their own brands of warm, fuzzy shoegaze, ideal for this time of the year. Both sides of their new split record sport loud, enveloping layers of melodic noise; captivating, and sometimes punishing, it’s perfect, addictive listening for watching your own leaves turn to brown.

In the true spirit of the looming year-end journalists’ tradition, I invited Adam of The Cherry Wave and Chris from Airs for their blind impressions of some of the years’ most hyped records. While you read, please enjoy a stream of the new Airs & The Cherry Wave split. Make sure to purchase it so many times that Chris can afford a flight to the UK so I can fight him personally. Happy autumnal decay, everyone.

Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – This is awkward. I am culturally and critically dumb when it comes to hip-hop. I tried really hard to get into it about ten years ago but I just couldn’t. It’s completely my loss, I accept that. Drake isn’t going to change things either. Not much fun, is it? Some of it sounds like a guy rapping over a sleep hypnosis tape. It’s just boring. Sorry Drake. – Adam

Sleaford Mods – Key Markets – This is the most British thing I’ve ever heard. Sounds like a trashed Shaun Ryder ranting over Garageband loops. I’d probably like this more if I wasn’t a stupid American. – Chris

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor – Apparently this album is heavily influenced by Muddy Waters, The Doors and The Stones. Sounds more like nu metal in a blues scale. Even Twiggy didn’t want to be a part of this trainwreck. Is it Antichrist Superstar? No, but it’s better than Born Villain. – Chris

Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon – This one’s tricky. I really like songcraft. It’s the thing that interests and concerns me most musically. This guy clearly knows which chord can come next. He knows them all. It’s just… some of it sounds like it’s from the soundtrack to Toy Story or Shrek, which is fine, unless your tune lacks the context of actually being in Toy Story or Shrek. Then it’s just a bit of a plodding, pedestrian, 70s singer-songwriter tune. It’s very melodic and everything, I just don’t like its vibes. Seems a bit false and targeted. I’m probably being a bit harsh – he obviously has love for stuff like that, so it’s coming from a genuine place. I’m just not into it. – Adam

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion – Is this the new CHVRCHES album? This is the most vapid garbage I’ve heard in ages. Wikipedia lists like, 50 studios this was recorded at. Did the engineers just get tired of hearing this mess over and over again and pass it off to the next dude? This is the kind of thing they play in malls across suburban America. Thanks a bunch, Canada. – Chris

Deafheaven – New Bermuda – This is fine. Sounds like their last one, all in all. That’s no bad thing of course. Just makes you think that, if you really really nail what you’re trying to do on one album – which is what they did on Sunbather, that’s great – you either need to change dramatically, which is hard, or just call it a day and walk into the sunset. They’ve only got one idea really, but it’s a pretty good one. I’ll let them off this time. They’re amazing live, too. – Adam

Jamie xx – In Colour – I’m like 3 minutes into this album and it sounds like a broken air conditioner. I’m sure this took all of a day to assemble in Fruity Loops. Had to turn it off when baby’s first synth lead kicked in. The xx sucks too. – Chris 

Turnstile – Nonstop Feeling – Now this is a fucking disgrace. Drake got away with it, but ignorance won’t stop me criticising this one. I’ve listened and liked plenty of stuff like this over the years, and this is FUCKING SHIT. What is going on here? It’s godawful. Sounds like a crap Helmet, and they were hardly the best band ever. So so dull, just devoid of anything interesting. I think the early 2000s wants its guitar tone back. Terrible, stop it, leave me alone, forever. Urgh. – Adam

Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl – My living room feels like the coolest coffee shop in town when this album is on. I have no idea what she’s saying but I feel sophisticated as fuck. This one is alright. – Chris

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly – Now this is much better. More ideas in the first song than in the entirety of that Drake album. It’s bright and energetic, but it’s not party hip-hop. Those two things don’t need to go hand in hand. It’s making me want to listen to what he’s saying. Highly quotable too, that’s always a prerequisite of hip-hop I like. The sound of someone who’s clearly on a roll creatively. That’s always nice to hear. – Adam

Airs & The Cherry Wave’s split record is now available to stream. Airs’ Apart is out now. The Cherry Wave’s Avalancher is available to stream and purchase now. 

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Talking With Ghosts: A Séance With Ambersmoke

At the time of writing, Ambersmoke has little-to-no presence on the internet. They barely even glance at social media. Their identity is an esoteric mystery, obscured behind decaying photographs, or eschewed for re-appropriated images of the dearly departed. Instead, the being which we perceive to be “Ambersmoke” is a fragmented, disjointed phantom, whose form, consciousness, and volition are scattered across a boundless wasteland of cassettes, CD-Rs, zines, VHS tapes, and more.

Exploring Ambersmoke’s back catalogue is not an easy feat, even in the all-access age of the internet where an entire artist’s discography can be available with a single keystroke. Their archaic approach to releasing their music, often only available on fragile physical formats, promotes the lost act of discovery in music. Tracking down and exploring each of their limited releases is like brushing away the dust on an old photograph, uncovering repressed memories and feelings that have been locked away for years and years.

Some releases take the hyper-limited characteristic to the fullest degree possible. Some records are only limited to a singular copy, or in some cases, entirely unreleased altogether, leaving the listener with the tangible sense of absence that cascades through Ambersmoke’s music. The tape, CD, or music file you listen to is like a puzzle with missing pieces, and a feigning reminder that everything is impermanent, and will all soon decay.

Ambersmoke remains an elusive character in the pantheon of experimental music, more akin to a ghost than a personality. Little is known about them, other than their base of operations being in the Bay Area of California, the centre to a flourishing hub of like-minded experimentalists. Ambersmoke has never given interviews until now.

Over the years, you’ve been slowly encompassing a wide range of styles into your music. Weird folk music… psychedelia… is Ambersmoke growing into more of a tool for experimentation?

Ambersmoke has always been a tool for experimentation, honestly. The project started as sort of an in-joke between my friends and I and after the joke got old (which didn’t take long at all), I immediately began experimenting with just whatever ideas I had that didn’t fit musically into any other project. Lately I’ve been working on droney “ghost folk” and choral, almost spiritual, drone pieces.

Why choose to keep yourself anonymous?

I don’t really. I just don’t care. Lots of people know who I am, lots of people come up to shows and recognize me from Ambersmoke performances. I don’t try to hide my identity, you can easily find my name in a quick Google search. My name shouldn’t have any effect on the art.

Many of your records are super-limited releases. I feel like that goes beyond for more than just a lack of resources. Is there a statement you wish to make by releasing records in strings of ten, three, sometimes singular copies?

Sometimes it’s a lack of resources. You know, along the lines of “oh, I only have these 4 blank tapes and I want to put this out at my next show cos I have nothing else to sell”. Things like that. Other times it’s just a total pisstake. We (much to the surprise of many, Ambersmoke does have a revolving collective-esque lineup) decided a few weeks ago it’d be funny to put out a new tape every day, each limited to 1. It quickly proved too hard to accomplish, but the first tape ended up really cool so it’ll be released soon. Things like the “hand curiated foliage” in the recent box set happen just because we see things in craft stores, like small jars, and just think “wouldn’t that be ridiculous to package this with something?”. While Ambersmoke is a serious project, we don’t take ourselves very seriously all the time. I certainly don’t.

What kind of emotional spaces does Ambersmoke manifest in?

There’s no real answer to this question I think. Nothing I can easily name. It’s easy to say something like “sadness and despair”, but that’s not the case. It’s hard to explain.


Do you feel closely associated to any nearby “scenes”? California has a rather large noise scene.

Not especially. I’ve been shunned by the majority of the people who have heard my music and at the last show, we played to maybe 3 people. Nobody talks to us, nobody really cares about what we’re doing. I’m not trying to be a part of any scene, I don’t care. We’re embraced by the Arcane Visions Collective up north and the Salope Cassette scene down here in southern California, but I don’t see Ambersmoke as really a part of either family.

Other mediums of art appear to play an increasingly more important role in Ambersmoke. Outline the importance of the non-musical aspects of your art, such as the visual design, performance aspects, physical releases, etc.

Ambersmoke has never really been a “band” or a sort of musical project. While the music is the primary artform, I feel the visual design, the tangible elements and the visual elements of live performances are equally as important. As I said earlier, while Ambersmoke is a very serious project, a lot of what I or we do is tongue in cheek. The artwork for Une femme est une femme is clearly a ripoff of Sacred Bones artwork, for example. It’s meant to be absurd or ridiculous. I’m not trying to rip something off and pretend like nobody notices. It’s the absurdity of it. There’s a lot of that in the packaging of these releases. It gets really over the top sometimes and that’s the point. It helps me convey the duality in the project, the balance of very serious musical works with ridiculous packaging, artwork or (less so these days) song titles.

Iconography from French films, Japanese art, nature and nostalgia is something that you appear to revisit constantly in your art. What is your fascination with these subjects?

I like French films because a few years ago I was really depressed and didn’t want to do anything so I laid in bed spending my time watching the most seemingly pretentious things I could get my hands on. There’s a lot of that in French cinema. The Japanese art stuff comes primarily from my adoration of Suehiro Maruo, which has influenced a substantial portion of my work. The rest of it is just because it works, honestly. I’m a photographer, it’s easy to take photos of flowers. Flowers look nice on a good black & white film. The subject matter itself is nearly irrelevant, it’s the feeling it invokes. I work around feelings, not directly with the subject matter.

Listeners tend to lump your music into the labels of “shoegaze, drone, black metal, post-punk, etc.” Do you reject these labels? Do you feel pigeonholed by listeners or critics?

I feel like nobody has really listened to my music. “Black metal”? “Post-punk”? I think like, did you really even listen to it? There are elements of all those genres you listed in my music, but there’s so much more. I don’t limit myself to one genre. I don’t work like “let me make a song in this genre today”, I write a song and whatever elements work their way in make the song. On the last record there were a lot of sampled house and funk beats under the heavy, doomy drums. Lots of tambourine. It’s not a black metal record, but everyone sure as hell tried to call it that.

That said, do you identify somewhat with the insular, “one-man band” character that appears numerous times in experimental music? Say, Scott Conner of Xasthur, for instance.

I see myself more like a loner Keiji Haino or Anton Newcombe. I like working with others, but I like writing and recording on my own. When performing with others, I prefer to let the musicians make up their own parts. The recorded material is that of a “one-man band”, but when others get involved, Ambersmoke is more of a true psychedelic group.

Do you believe in the supernatural?

Absolutely. The next album is inspired heavily by a few supernatural experiences that happened to us over the last few months. Even before then, the supernatural has had a lot of influence on me.

Are you fascinated by nostalgia?

Oh definitely. It’s a big driving force creatively for me. Ambersmoke lives mostly in the past, emotionally. Nostalgia is a concept that comes up a lot on just about every album.

Is “decay” an important element of your music? If so, please explain the importance of it.

Possibly the most important element. It led me to stop releasing music in digital formats, or at least cut back heavily. It bothered me that digital was essentially eternal and never degraded. I know analog formats are the cool thing right now, but I grew up with tapes. I grew up with VHS. Somewhere along the line, I realized that it was weird that the digital formats I’d become accustomed to never degraded. Not naturally at least. I’ve always been fascinated with analog decay. That’s how I want my music and my art to be experienced. I don’t want it to be eternal.

Do you worry about the future?

I worry about the present.

Wear Your Love Like Heaven is available now. Photography by Cameron Puleo.

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CROSS SECTIONS: The heartbreak and conflict behind Xiu Xiu’s “A Promise”.

cararobbins-xiuxiu-0005The story of A Promise begins in a gay cruising spot in Hanoi. Jamie Stewart, whose eccentric extremes have propelled Californian experimentalists Xiu Xiu through all manner of indie trends over the past decade, found himself on vacation in Vietnam prior to the recording of the band’s 2003 sophomore album. A chance encounter with a young homeless man would lead to one of the most striking, controversial, and ridiculed album sleeves of the past decade.

Being asked for sex in return for money by the down-and-out young man, Stewart instead invited him to his hotel room. There, Stewart paid him to take his picture, his only attendant being a rubber baby toy which had been carried around with Stewart on his trip. He stripped, posed with the baby, took his money, and left. This absurd conflict between sex and human relationships, along with Stewart’s guilt towards the experience, served as a stimulus for the harrowing emotional palettes of the band’s formidable A Promise, which would launch Xiu Xiu to the height of indie rock infamy.

Cross Sections is a series which dissects cult albums with the help of their creators. Myself and Stewart pulled into a shimmering vegetarian restaurant on Baldwin St, Bristol to discuss A Promise, relationships, self-abuse, and the heartbreaking vow behind the album’s title. Read and listen along below.

“Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl”

Older fans will recognise this as a song from your previous band, Ten In The Swear Jar. Why choose to rework and open the record with it?

I wish I had a decent theoretical reason for picking that song. It was mostly for practical reasons. Ten In The Swear Jar was a band that nobody had heard of. We self-released one CD that was limited to about five-hundred copies and we never toured. It was a song that Cory McCulloch, who started Xiu Xiu with me… yeah, we both liked it and essentially didn’t want that song to go to waste! I also think the Ten In The Swear Jar version didn’t really suit the feel of the song with how it was arranged. More of a rock feel.

So it feels more at home here?

Oh yeah. I think that the Xiu Xiu version, to my ear, says what I think that song is trying to say.

And what is that song trying to say?

Cory and I used to live in this really terrible house. When we first started off the band we were obscenely broke. We lived in this house that was literally falling apart, not really like a punk house, more of a nerd house in the style of a punk house. Attached to the house was an apartment that was right above my bedroom window, and there was this young girl who lived in an apartment next door. She was gay and was dating an older woman from the neighbourhood, and I think the older woman was married to a man. Their relationship was completely secretive, and they’d sit above my window and be a couple. But they didn’t know I was there.

So, kind of a voyeuristic experience?

Yeah. Most of the lines from the song are things they had said to each other, and it’s an observation of their impossible attempt to have a relationship… their difficult existence. At the time it was very specific, but now to me it’s probably just about difficult existence in a more personal or general way, depending on what year it is, what happens to be going on… does that even make any sense?

“Apistat Commander”

What are the mentions of the Chinese names in the lyrics here?

“Chen” is Yvonne Chen, who was in Xiu Xiu at the time we were writing it, who co-wrote it. At the time we were real close friends, and “Wei” and “Huai” are her brother and sister.

Is the mention of the names used heighten the personal element of the songs?

I frankly don’t remember because this song in particular is more about suicide. [The names] are more there to illustrate what there is to lose from suicide.

Yeah, there’s definitely a sense of uncertainty in the lyrics in regards to suicide. It’s not very pro-suicide.

It’s more just dealing with it as a way of life. Not promoting it as a way out, but just as a way of just… dealing with it. It is an option, and thankfully it’s not something that is as big of a part of my life as it was then. But it was, at the time, a daily concern. Not so much now, thankfully.

How did you create the grating, mechanical sounds on the record?

Back then I think we only had two synths. Two shitty synths, and not shitty in a good way. We had a Yamaha DX21, which I think Cory was the only person in the entire world who could get some decent sounds out of it, and some other garbage synth that I don’t think anyone feels fondness for even now. Then we just ran them through distortion pedals. I think we had three distortion pedals at the time. This is literally the only shit I care about, just distortion pedals! One was a yellow MXR that I left in a parking lot at an airport, one was a crappy RAT. But the one cool one we had was a really cheap Danelectro called the French Toast. Really cheap, maybe around twenty-five dollars, and it had a horrible octave shift in it that couldn’t follow anything so it was mostly just random. I should get my hands on one of those again. That is a piece of garbage that is a wonderful piece of garbage.

“Walnut House”

This song has some of the most bizarre, vivid lyrics on the album, like “they have as many eyes as a pineapple”. But it’s juxtaposed with really grounded, direct phrases like “I am the dumbest bitch on the planet”. Did you aim to create this kind of disorienting dynamic when you were writing it, or was it more natural?

Again I’d love to say there was any theoretical basis behind this song. It’s a song about the nursing home my grandmother was dying in called ‘Walnut House’. It was a very surreal place, essentially a warehouse full of people with dementia whose bodies are falling apart. I think, if I remember correctly, a lot of the imagery was cribbed from books I was reading at the time, or things I’d hear people in the nursing home say.

Is that where the “don’t worry Mom” freakout at the end comes from?

Oh, that actually was some small attempt for me to console my Mom while she was watching her own mother die. As well at the time I was getting into some worrisome sexual activity, none of which she was privy to, but I think she was generally worried about the way I was living my life at the time. So it’s a very incongruous combination of literary references, my grandmother dying, and consoling my Mom.

Very similar subject matter to the This Song Is A Mess But So Am I record where all the songs are about his mother dying of cancer.

Oh yeah. Freddie and I are still very close friends.

“20,000 Deaths For Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths For Jamie Peterson”

I guess the obvious question is to ask who Eidelyn Gonzales and Jamie Peterson are.

This song isn’t really about either of those people. A lot of Xiu Xiu titles don’t necessarily refer to the subject matter of the song. Eidelyn Gonzales was someone who I, for lack of a better description, had a fuck-buddy relationship with, who I treated very, very, very badly, and in no uncertain terms took pretty horrible advantage of her, I think for a couple of years. Jamie Peterson was a percussionist I liked a lot but anyone barely knew. She played in a lot of Bay Area bands, lots of experimental stuff but nothing anyone would’ve heard of. But she’s a really good percussionist. Anyway, Eidelyn, I’m sorry I was such a shithead to you.

How much of the record was inspired by true events like that, and how much was more of an idealised fantasy?

So far the only constant about Xiu Xiu is that the songs are always about something true.

“Pink City”

How were the less-structured tracks like this composed for the record? This song sounds like someone having a million different mood swings mid-composition.

I was pretty out of my mind at the time so it’s entirely possible that’s what happened! Those were dark days. Very dark days. Yeah, this will just sound melodramatic, but it was without a doubt one of the most difficult and worst times of my life. It was a pretty miserable existence.

You mentioned taking inspiration from literature before. The lyrics here are quite violent and debauched, in the vein of, say, William S. Burroughs or J. G. Ballard.

I’m always really hesitant to be specific about explaining songs because it’s very different to what you’ve described to me, but I don’t want it to be what it’s about to you. Half of that song is about a book about the Balkans War, but the author of the book who was strung-out on heroin at the time of the Balkans War, an American guy. We never play that song live, so it’s kind of removed from my consciousness. We just never got around to it. Again, forgive me for being melodramatic, but [emotions] would never prevent us from playing songs live.

“Sad Redux O-Grapher”

Another old song, right?

We had two different versions of the song. One appeared on a 5 Rue Christine compilation, the label we were on, but I thought we could do a better version of it. But that song is about just liking a boy, and having that boy think you were an idiot. And him not being all that far off base. Again, this was a long time ago, so it’s faded from my memory slightly. There was this boy that I liked, I tried to get him to like me, and he thought I was stupid, and him being right that I was pretty stupid. As one does when they’re in that situation, feeling pretty miserable and hopeless, a fairly typical subject matter for a sad song.

This song fits nicely together with Walnut House. Did you think a lot about the structure of the record before putting it out?

I think that might have just been good luck on our part. We just wrote a bunch of songs, and then once we had ten, we decided we were done. We recorded in the same house as Knife Play, with the same people.

How did the configuration of band members in Xiu Xiu at the time shape the sound of the record?

For the beginning of that record, like I said, Yvonne Chen played on it. Once we started touring, she kind of excused herself since she didn’t want to tour. So it was mostly Lauren Andrews, Cory McCulloch, and myself. Lauren didn’t really write all that much, but she had a really excellent feel. She could play things that were incredible simple, but with a notable brutality and a real sense of space that was superlative. The exact right amount to my ear between notes, and particularly for that record since the songs were so sparse. She really played nicely on that one. The tension and release between playing and not playing. Music nerd things, but she was all quite good at it.

Cory was really instrumental in picking good vocal takes. At the time, the three things he was really fantastic at. One was keyboard parts that were extremely dissonant but also very melodic, and then making really wonderful and really musical feedback, and then serving as producer for the vocals. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone since who could produce vocals that well. We had been friends for a long time before, I haven’t talked to him in several years, but I really trusted him. It made it a lot easier to… open up and be comfortable. I could essentially say anything with him in the room. He knew me well enough to know if I meant it or if I was faking it, and he’d push me to mean it.


Did you want this record to challenge the listener when you composed it?

It’s never something that we would ever do consciously. With this song, or any song, we try to get something out of the listener, without having any business out of what that something is. Again I don’t want to ruin what a song could mean for somebody else with what it means to me.

Do you have that in mind while writing? What a listener can take away from a song subjectively?

Absolutely. For me it’s always about something very, very specific. But it’s not important that that specificity is passed onto someone else. I hope they can appreciate that it’s about something specific, but as well being something personal for the listener. I don’t know if we succeed at it, but that’s what we’re hoping for. But as far as attempting to be challenging, we just create songs that sound good to us, and whether or not that is challenging isn’t up to us.

“Brooklyn Dodgers”

What were the outsider influences for this song in particular?

It was about my brother. My whole family at the time lived in the Bay Area, and fortunately my family now is a little more levelled out. In a state of crisis, to say the least, he decided he didn’t want to live there anymore and moved to New York somewhat unexpectedly. It broke my heart a little bit. I mean I don’t blame him! If I had as much guts as he had I’d have gotten out of there also. But he realised that he needed to get on with his life, rather than get mired in the disaster that was our family at the time.

“Fast Car”

So, the Tracy Chapman cover’s an interesting choice. It expresses lots of the same sentiments as the original songs on the album despite coming from a different era. I remember in our last interview you spoke about having a huge respect for pop musicians.

That song has always amazed me that it actually is a pop song because it’s one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard. It’s just a list of bad things that happen, and then it’s over. There is no happy ending to that song, which at the time, and forever more, is what life is!

I do think it’s quite ironic that the song that epitomises the whole record wasn’t even written for it.

Well, it was a humongous influence on us, obviously! When I was a kid, there was an MTV show called 120 Minutes that used to show “alternative” videos, and interestingly, that Tracy Chapman song was shown on it and was considered, at the time, an alternative, underground song. Probably because the subject matter’s so dark. It somehow became a light rock hit two years later with a very long-lasting life. That’s when I initially came across it, when I was really young.

So you have a strong connection to it for hearing it in your youth?

I think when I was younger I was too young to really understand what it was about. Like, there’d be that, and there’d be a PiL video on after that. It wasn’t until I was an adult and I was driving around when I was stunned by how incredibly bleak it is. We didn’t really think that much about it for the record, we just loved the song and wanted to say “thank you” to it.

“Ian Curtis Wishlist”

“When you tell me everything, I will take it too far”?

The specifics of it are that it was me being very foolish and unrealistic! And knowing I was being foolish and unrealistic, but not being able to stop myself from behaving in that way. It sounds very boring, but there was this girl that I liked, and she was just very polite, and was like, “no thank you, you’re… a mess”. I think at the time it was a realisation of what an incredibly fucking loser I was, and an astounding sense of loneliness and stupidity, but being aware that I was being stupid and lonely. Even then it was only very briefly that I had feelings for this person. It was someone who I made out with one time in a basement, and then just got completely, absurdly unrealistic about. It’s probably more just about feeling like an idiot, rather than just being hopelessly in love with someone specific. But it was a period of extraordinary idiocy, and I think I was at my wits end with how little things were working out. I couldn’t really stand myself, and was certainly not making it easier on myself.

The vocals of the song, again, have a sporadic, improvised feel. Some of the lyrics sound like they were ad-libbed.

As little as I remember about this record, I do remember recording for the vocals for this song pretty clearly. I was teaching pre-school at the time, came home from work, got incredibly drunk very quickly. Sat at my desk, which is odd, since one tends to stand when doing vocals. I put the microphone in front of me, I think I had written the words down on paper in front of me. It was a rather spontaneous idea to do it. Recording vocals is usually a trial for me and I have to work up the courage to do it. I just recorded it in two takes, then a couple of days later I went back, listened to it, then edited the two takes together. There were written lyrics, but I think it was because I was because I was so drunk there was a certain looseness to it.

One thing that’s just occurred to me right now is what that must’ve sounded like to my roommates! It was a very crowded house, and I think I just put on my headphones and made whatever grunting sounds made up that take! Normally I would’ve waited, but the people me and Cory lived with were huge assholes. I’m sure they felt I was an asshole also. It was a very hostile environment. Now that I think about it, I don’t think we made any attempt to curb any amount of noise that we were making. We were extraordinarily inconsiderate. But so were they, about other things. It was a lot of gross guys, kind of hopeless nerd guys, but mean hopeless nerd guys. People just did not give each other a break in any way. They probably just thought the worst of me.

Did your experience in Vietnam directly influence any of the songs on the record?

That happened a couple of years before we made that record. Using that photo wasn’t so much a reference specifically to the events of the record, but more of having the feeling of what was happening at the time. There was a very distinct emotional connection, but not any sort of chronological connection. It seemed like he had a lot of cigarette burns on him. Some kind of rotten abuse somewhere down the line.

Did you get any heat from the album sleeve? Did anyone refuse to stock it or put it out?

Initially we had the little orange square. It was a reference to Todd Solondz, a movie director who I like a lot, and was really obsessed with at the time. He did a movie with a sex scene that no one would show, so he put an orange box over it. So that was an homage to him.

To close, why title the album “A Promise”?

…It always depresses me to answer this question. I don’t mind saying it, but it’s really bleak.

My mother made me promise her not to kill myself. I am here today because of it. So, thanks Mom.

A Promise is available to stream and purchase from Kill Rock Stars. 

This feature was powered by:

Have A Nice Life – “Voids” (2009)

Xasthur / Leviathan – “Split” (2004)

Prince – “1999” (1982)

MIXTAPES: Ripple~Field

Following 2011’s Hypernebula, Ripple~Field’s new record Cyber Pulse Ultra is a conceptual piece inspired by dystopian sci-fi futures of cybernetics, transhumanism, hackers, and made-up swear words. The lyrics read like vivid diary-entries by paranoid fugitives and dreamers atop neon-lit tower blocks. For a record with a clear retro, cyberpunk flavour, the bulk of mastermind Aaron Kelley’s muses are drawn from those associated with technology. He cites videogame composers as a major influence, with games like Deus Ex handling themes of technology and humanity, as well as seminal electronic acts such as Yellow Magic Orchestra, whose optimistic outlook towards technology defined much of the extraordinary sounds that came out of the eighties. For his unique palette of geeky stimuli, I invited Kelley to curate a mixtape of songs that inspired his latest record.

Listen to the full playlist here, or check out the individual tracks below, with commentary from Kelley.

1. “The Synapse” by Alexander Brandon

“The works of Alex & Michiel van den Bos, who did the soundtracks for the first two Deus Ex games (also Unreal/Unreal Tournament, Age of Wonders, and others) were a driving force in getting me to make music from the very beginning.”

2. “Lonely Sunset” by Eve Tokimatsuri

“This song and this whole OVA inspired the vibe and aesthetic for this EP and helped fuel my enthusiasm to finish it.”

3. “Kai-Koh” by Yellow Magic Orchestra

“YMO make me strive to be a better musician and to make music that’s fresh and stand-out from other similar artists. Huge fan and I adore this song.”

4. “I Wish You” by Capsule

“More like … ‘I Wish I Could Make Catchy Dance Music As Well As Yasutaka Nakata, But Damn It, I Try’. His stuff, along with 80’s R&B and dance pop, inspired a chunk of this EP’s sound.”

5. “Ocean Drive” by Miami Nights 1984

“Best outrun electro artist I’ve ever heard next to College. Great melodies and vibes, part of the feel that I tried to reach with CPU.”

6. “Harem” by Matt Uelmen

“Replaying Diablo 2 fairly recently reminded me how much I loved Uelmen’s dark percussive intensity and the sample that he used in this track inspired me to dive into Hindustani Gamak singing styles. That lead to how I approached the last track on the EP.”

7. “Duke’s Travels” by Genesis

“Rutherford and Banks are always on my mind when I’m thinking about interesting, progressive, synth and guitar-heavy music compositions. These guys basically inspired all my instrumental noodling and Collins is one of my favorite pop vocalists.”

8. “My Fuckin’ Valentine” by BUCK-TICK

“BUCK-TICK are one of my favorite bands of all time and their electro period played a big part in the sound on this EP.”

Cyber Pulse Ultra is available now. 

CROSS SECTIONS: Planning For Burial’s “Leaving”, and the inevitable passing of loved ones.

Thom Wasluck’s grandfather knew he was going to die soon. This somber, reluctant recognition of the ephemeral moments in which we live was the inspiration behind the Pennsylvania native’s  solo brand of bleak, guitar-driven drone and noise soundscapes, as well as his acclaimed debut.

Cross Sections is a series which offers a track-by-track commentary on the cult records that are surrounded in as much mystique as the artists that created them. In this first instalment, I sat down with Wasluck for an insightful narration of his 2009 sleeper hit, Leaving.

“Wearing Sadness And Regret On Our Faces”

So, what was the writing process for the first track here, was it one of the earlier songs you wrote?

It was the earliest song for the record, or at least the one that made me think “I need to write a record around this one”.

So this is one of the earliest Planning For Burial tracks?

Not even close. I think this was started in late December 2006 but wasn’t started to be recorded until early 2007. I had been writing material under the name Planning For Burial since August 2005 that I’d let my friends listen to or just throw up on Myspace.

What did the earlier versions of this song sound like? Did it change much before being recorded for Leaving?

It wasn’t so much that were earlier versions, the basic foundation of the song from the start is the very same. I just added and subtracted things as I went along. From what I remember there was a slightly longer intro with a reversed guitar part but it didn’t do anything to really add to the song. The basic foundation was recorded in 2007 for this song and I was layering and mixing all the way through early 2009 at various stages.

Do the lyrics take you back to a certain event/person/time in your life?

It’s not clear to me now what was actually the catalyst for the lyrics themselves, but I remember sitting on my bed playing guitar and singing along to it. I think maybe I was disillusioned to a relationship I was in that had lasted for a few years longer after this than it should have.

Is that how a lot of the lyrics on Leaving came about? Just coming to you somewhere out of the ether based on some transient feeling at that time in your life?

Yeah, I would say so. Most of the songs are barely a line or two long that I just liked to repeat. The overall idea of Leaving became wanting the sound of everything to show exactly how I was feeling during that time period, and it wasn’t so much based on the lyrics.

“Memories You’ll Never Feel Again”

The next track I always thought was a weird odd one out in the Planning For Burial catalogue because of the odd waltzing rhythm it has. It sticks out a lot since your songs usually have a really slow, crawling tempo.

This one started how a lot of my songs start, which is walking around this house strumming my shitty acoustic. So I eventually I brought it to the electric and looped it, and would run over and play drums along to it. I like playing in 3/4 a lot but it doesn’t always happen within my music. This song was also finished over the course of a year or two just working on it little by little as time went on. There were parts of other solos for it that were “better”, but the overall performance wasn’t exactly right to the feeling, so I kept deleting and replaying it until I got the performance on the record.

Did you lay the groundwork for a lot of this material just by looping riffs like that?

On this record it was working out parts from loops and then figuring out transitions to next parts. It was mostly so I could play drums along to them and write other parts where I used to do that with a 4-track and need to have a lot of the base figured out so I could record it and then write other parts on top of it. Being able to play along to something I had just wrote on the spot felt a lot more organic, and I could work with stuff for a little before I tried getting it to the point of recording. Though a lot of the other little things and layers that happened throughout time came about the old way just playing a long to what was recorded and figuring it out.

This song’s always reminded me of that one Pg.99 song that’s in 3/4.

Oh, definitely. I think that’s where my love of 3/4 timing comes from.

“Oh Pennsylvania, Your Black Clouds Hang Low”

So what kind of records were you listening to when you were writing “Oh Pennsylvania”?

I’m not really sure. I think the song has the metal stuff, drone and noise elements. I was obviously listening to a lot of doom and more riff based stuff but again i think it came out of me just coming up with the riff and loving to play along to it on drums.

What about the latter half of the song? Did that just come about through usual kind of organic looping and writing?

Yeah, I knew it needed to have different parts so I wrote that separately, then got them to work together before recording it.

What kind of emotions or feelings were you trying to convey with this sound? I mean, obviously, there’s lots of screams and loud guitars so it can’t be very positive.

I think the feelings are more in the extra things going on. The somber plucked parts at the end, the “crying” type lead guitar, the organ chords on top of power chords on the guitar…

So, if the feelings are in the little instrumental details, what does the main “sound” of the song mean to you? like, where did that song come from when you were writing from it, emotionally?

Sometimes you just want to play loud heavy things. Just being young and still feeling some sort of angst and aggression.

“Humming Quietly”

“Humming Quietly”’s main ‘riff’ has a post-punky vibe to it. Like a Peter Hook-style bassline but transposed for a doomy guitar. It sounds like something from Closer.

This was the last song I wrote and recorded for the album, same with looping and then building within the recording program. I finished it only a few days before I sent it off to be mastered. There are earlier versions that are a lot more thinner-sounding. I added some underlying drone for the first half and just did little things to give the song more oomph.

You’ve only recently started playing this live, right?

Yeah, I’ve maybe only played the song live twice still because it’s about figuring out how to get everything to kick in and line up the way I want them too without playing to a pre-recorded song.

Is that a common issue you have with songs from this record? Since they’re a bit more “studio”, rather than the tracks from 2012 to Desideratum which are more suited to play live?

Exactly. These songs were written essentially the same way with use of loops to help me write, but then assembled. I never actually use loops when recording. Everything is played 100% live regardless if the part is repeated a million times

Must’ve been a pain when you were recording the 16 min closer to your last record.

You don’t even know.

“We Left Our Bodies With The Earth”

So what kind of effects were used on “We Left Our Bodies…”? It’s a very guitar-driven track, just straight up fuzzy drones, sort of like Earth 2.

Yeah, mostly fuzz, and a little bit of delay on the lead guitar part. This was actually heavily influenced by Old Man Gloom’s Christmas album

Trying to go for that crunchy Kurt Ballou sound?

It was more about the riff itself. The ending drone section was accidental, things got caught in a longer delay. I keep a lot of “happy accidents” in my songs. This stuff was recorded live, exactly how you hear it just trying for something and seeing what would come out. Obviously there were other layers added on, but there were no click tracks so it had to be done by feeling.

“Being A Teenager And The Awkwardness Of Backseat Sex”

So, “Being A Teenager…” has become a weird fan favourite in your discography, which is kind of strange for an 8 minute drone which is mostly repetition, why do you think that is?

Honestly not sure. I almost didn’t put it on the album. For whatever reason I just didn’t think it was a strong enough song at a time. I know I’m mistaken now. The little ending section was added awhile later. There’s a lot of stuff going on this song that’s super hidden too, there are sections of playing a tape recorder with myself talking saying “is this everything you’ve ever wanted out of life” and rewinding it quick for effect.

Any more little details like that hidden in the record?

The opening sound of “Oh Pennsylvania” and the end is my voice. But I think its easy to get caught up in repetition and let it wash over you and have subtle extra things build up. I have said to a friend in the past the ending is like what I would imagine some acoustic artist from the early 2000s would do if they layered shit and had their crowd singing along. I wasn’t going for that sound, but it’s how it worked it out.

You should start doing that at shows so people can sing along. Anyway, speaking of singing along, anything you want to say about the lyrics?

It was written around the time my girlfriend at the time’s father died. He died super suddenly, and it was more thinking about [how] there isn’t much to life. But the title of the song also plays in too, because I like to do things with double meanings. Instant gratification isn’t always that great.

“Seasons Change So Slowly”

The outro dialogue of this track is probably one of the most harrowing parts of the record. Could you explain the significance of it?

It was honestly something I found on PostSecret years and years ago, but it felt completely right. It reminded me of a story my grandfather told my father and I when he was dying (which this whole situation was what birthed the name “Planning For Burial”) about his brother, and how he had loved this woman he had dated, and he went away to war and came back, and she moved on and he never stopped loving her. That story has always crushed me, and maybe has shaped the way I think about some of the loves of my own life. So when I saw that, it had hit a chord within me and I knew I needed to use it somehow. The lyrics to the song are super simple too: “I think about you enough to know that it’s too much”.

Was there a particular record or producer’s sound that you had as a reference when recording Leaving?

No, not at all. I have said it a million times, my number-one love since I was at least 5 was always music. I had begun collecting music since I was about 10 and I listened to so many different styles that its hard to pinpoint. It’s a culmination of being a lifelong music addict.

So Planning For Burial’s sound has always felt super natural to you? Has its sound changed much since you started recording under that name?

Yeah, I think some of the earlier stuff may have been a little straightforward metal, but I was also working on some of the slower, more layered stuff too. But it was always a progression, even when I was a teenager playing in shitty metal and hardcore bands, I was sitting home by myself using a 4-track, recording weird songs.

“Verse Chorus Verse”

“Dress me in my best suit, I want to look good in my coffin”?

How you want to be remembered when you die.

Would you be proud to be remembered with these recordings when you pass away?

Yeah. It’s one of those records, to me at least, that after being so far removed from it and looking back after time and listening that I’m proud of. Something that could’ve only been recorded naturally and organically, making music for yourself because its just something you do, then getting lucky people caught on to it. I could, and will, never be able to make this record again in my life.

Even without the context of being the last “proper” song on the album, this song has a very final, dirge-like quality to it. Was it inspired by any particular incidents perhaps involving a passing? I mean, so much of the album seems to be inspired by the passage of time.

I was told a very close friend of mine from high school had passed away, and a few years earlier when I moved away to college, her boyfriend was killed in a car crash. The day she died I recorded this. I played it out, and once the real drone of it kicked in I just sat on my basement floor with my headphones on, letting the drone die out, and thought about them and how I’d never see them again. I always swore if I went to a high school reunion-type situation, it would be to see the two of them. People lose touch over time but it doesn’t mean their passings are any less significant.


So, the last track, is it just you on the organ? It feels like there isn’t any overdubs or anything, just a really natural, organic drone.

It was a synth into a few delays, recorded mono. No overdubs, nothing. The only reason it was recorded in mono was because I just set everything up super quick and needed to get it documented somehow.

Was there much of a writing process for this song, considering the immediacy of you wanting to “document” the sound?

Not at all. Maybe played it for a minute or two, stopped and got everything set up quickly, then went in, and then let a longer analog delay capture the ending drift.

Do you see it as more than just an “outro”, and more of an actual composition despite that? Usually intro and outro tracks can be more of an afterthought or a throwaway.

Yeah. Well it wasn’t a throwaway, but when I was listening back to the first sequences of the record it was helping me drift into sleep, And I kinda wanted the final track to take that idea home. So as an outro it felt natural.

Is that a common thing? Do you try to give your music an immersive quality that affects the listener in some way with your material?

I don’t really overthink my music too much. Again, it’s hard to think about Leaving, and what I was really feeling and thinking at the time. I was 22 when I started writing it, and I’m almost a decade removed from that person now. I didn’t have people asking questions about the album for many years after it was even released, so I never really had to think about it too much. It was a labor of love, because I was constantly working on it off and on for years without ever thinking anybody besides a friend or two would actually listen to it.

Leaving was originally released by Enemies List Home Recordings in 2009. It was repressed on 2xLP vinyl by The Flenser in June 2015. Purchase here.

Leaving is available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp.

Wake Up.

For the last couple of months I’ve been writing for Louder Than War. It’s been great. Very few publications allow you to write a feature on sexual exhibitionism in Japanese noise music for your first article. You can find more of the recent work I’ve done for them here.

I recently interviewed one of my favourite people, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, for Drunken Werewolf. The piece is included in the October issue, which should be released in the coming fortnight.

I’ve moved to Bristol. I’ve been in a bad state of mind for a while, but things are looking up, I think. Slowly.

I’ve been writing a lot more for the next Life In Slow Motion record. So far it sounds like the More soundtrack played by Elliott Smith.

My Mum’s been sending me photos of our cat every week. It’s enough to keep going on.