Hot On The Heels of Love
Drew Daniel Explores a Disappointing Album From a Band He Adored
In addition to his duties as an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins University's department of English, Drew Daniel is one half of the pioneering electronic music duo Matmos, alongside partner M.C. Schmidt. Recently, he's also contributed to Continuum's 33 1/3 series, a line of small books devoted to classic albums. Daniel's entry, on legendary industrial act Throbbing Gristle's 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats, is unique within a series focused on well-regarded rock records; Throbbing Gristle's infamous slogan "Entertainment Through Pain" tersely captures the continuing anti-commercial appeal of a band that explored extremes of both sound and subject matter. (Serial murder, pornography, pedophilia, magic, and the Holocaust all provided fodder for TG's art.) Even more perversely, Daniel chose an album by a cult band that's often judged the weakest by that same cult, mostly for what he describes as this consummate noise group's "ambivalent" forays into disco and other pop genres. This week he discusses the book at Red Emma's, as well as DJ'ing a "Throbbing Gristle happy hour" beforehand at Liam's Pint-Size Pub, he says, in order to "liquor people up a little bit and get the questions a bit more bilious." Daniel recently took some time out to discuss his reasons for choosing to write about the album at length, how the book fits into the 33 1/3 series, and Throbbing Gristle's "strange relationship to genre."
City Paper: Was it just living with the band as a fan for so many years that made you choose this record? Had you always wanted to write something long about Throbbing Gristle?
Drew Daniel: I think that the challenge of writing about an album that doesn't really live up to the standards of what a unified, organic, well-rounded album ought to be, that seemed like a fun thing to write about--to write about an album that's difficult and debatable, rather than an unimpeachably great work of art. I don't think it's interesting to kick around whether or not Ray Davies is a good songwriter. Of course he's a good songwriter. So the fact that it was kind of devious also made it worth doing.
CP: One thing I thought was different about your book from others I've read in the series is that you didn't bother with the capsule 20-page history of the band. Which always seemed kind of redundant, because if someone's buying a book about one album, you'd think they already know that sort of basic info.
DD: I felt there was enough to talk about just inside this album that I had to make some tough choices [about what to cut] . . . The one thing that was a little bit of a tough decision was whether or not to include that opening personal passage about myself as a teenage fan loving Throbbing Gristle because of their first record, Second Annual Report, and really being disappointed by 20 Jazz Funk Greats at first. That was my way of situating why this was an unusual record for them to have made, the risk they took in doing it, and I didn't feel like I could do that without setting it up against their other stuff. Because 20 Jazz Funk Greats really was a record I didn't "get" at first. Most of the books in the series kind of start with this glowing adolescent imprinting, where people feel as if this particular record really speaks to them, and I had kind of a contrary experience of loving the band and thinking this record was very weak, very inconsistent, and must be some kind of piss take, that it's designed not to be taken seriously. And I kind of liked the task of having to incorporate revulsion into the worship.
CP: Which seems to fit the topic.
DD: This series can be misunderstood as this very conservative exercise in consolidating a--let's go ahead and call it "rockist" canon of great, authentic art with a capital "A." And that's kind of why I wanted to write about 20 Jazz Funk Greats, because it seems like the album is quite sarcastic about the idea of greatness, about what it takes to make it into the history books. When you read the series you realize how different all of these books are to each other, and so I don't really feel like [the series] is that conservative in its effect. But if you--
CP: If you look at the page at the front of each book running down the list of all the titles in the series--
DD: Yeah, that's a canon. That's a syllabus.
CP: In that first chapter, where you're talking about the revelatory moment you had with Throbbing Gristle as a teenager, you describe the band as being about "anti-pleasure" and that "the pain is the point." So is it possible for a casual listener to find surface pleasures, or are they one of those bands where you have to immerse yourself in the history and the aesthetic?
DD: I've been wondering about that, actually--is enjoying TG such an "all or nothing" proposition? What about someone with no awareness of the band's backstory or the alleged glamour of transgressive doings, what do they get out of the records, just as sound? I think the records have held up beautifully and really do stand on their own two feet. I would say live is a better way to experience Throbbing Gristle if you know nothing about them, because they're so loud and the bass is so immersive that I think you get it no matter what your baggage is. On record, they've always sounded kind of weedy and kind of thin. And some people are charmed by that, and some people are repulsed by it. But I don't think it's different from, say, what early Dead C or Sebadoh records sounded like in terms of the shitty fidelity being something that for some people is alluring and mysterious and emotional. And for other people it's just like, "Yeah, this sounds like shit."
CP: Toward the end of the book you were talking about "failure" and how TG sort of made an art out of failure.
DD: I think because of their relationship to genre, they always seem like a little bit of a letdown. Even their harsh noise sometimes has a strange, ambient, New Age-y quality to it. When they try to be rock 'n' roll, they don't "rock" exactly. When they try to be disco, there's something faintly clammy about it. And it may just sound like I'm making a virtue of necessity, like they meant to do that.
CP: But do you think they meant to do that?
DD: I do. I mean, if you have a slogan like "We Guarantee Disappointment," there is a point in failing to fully inhabit a genre that is critical and intentional. It may be that's my projection onto them. Maybe they were trying and just didn't get there. Thank God they didn't, because their strangely diluted attempts at jazz-funk and disco and lounge are more compelling than people who exactly hit the sweet spot of those genres. They're the start of a whole approach to genre that's parasitic and ironic, but also kind of moving in weird ways. It's a tricky thing to praise, because it sounds like I'm saying pastiche will save us all. And I don't think that's true. I think a successful pastiche is what you get when you listen to advertising music. It's what advertisers call "truck rock," rock music used to sell trucks. And it rocks: good loud drums, and really compressed, crunchy guitar riffs. It's a pastiche, but it absolutely hits the target. I think the softness or weakness or vagueness of the TG approach is a refusal to hit the target, and therefore is not pastiche and is something else, something more interesting.
CP: Do you want to do more "pop" writing?
DD: I would love to write a book about Barbarella. There is that British Film Institute series that's maybe the film equivalent of what 33 1/3 is to music. I don't know a lot about the series, but I read Joshua Clover's book about The Matrix. It's fantastic. So that is one of my pipe dreams; maybe I should pitch a Barbarella book.
CP: Is it just a matter of finding the time?
DD: It's difficult because, given the Hopkins position, I'm expected to be publishing Renaissance literary criticism. That's really the main event for me, which means music-related writing in general has to take second or even third position. But yeah, having written this book, I definitely want to write more. I had so much fun writing a book. It's great. Everyone should try to do it.
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