Monday, July 20, 2009

Interview: Hoofin' it with Deerhoof

I love the correlation between music and travel. The two have gone hand in hand since Pan skipped around Arcadia with his flute. The idea of going on tour is one of the most romantic elements of being in a rock band; where scuzzy kids from a garage get thrown into luxury hotels with exotic fruit platters in the brightest lights of the biggest cities. Of course for a lot of bands it never gets there. Four kids in a mini-van tearing across the country, arriving with only enough time to check in, rock out drink up and move on. I interviewed Deerhoof who've been doing that for 15 years now, for this month's issue of indie music mag Subbacultcha all about their travels to distant lands. I also added my video for SPINearth, when they played at the Melkweg in December 08.
With downloading rampant, a proper indie band their money on the road, living from hotel room to mini-van to backstage, but generally wouldn't have it any other way. Deerhoof are that band. Constantly surprised by the amount of Deerhoof fans around the globe, drummer Greg Saunier talks to Subbacultcha about playing in communist countries, bootlegged t-shirts and a peppercorn banned in all 50 states of the US.

Deerhoof seem to be on the road a lot. Is being in a band your reason for traveling or is traveling your reason for being in a band?
I never had the travel bug personally. I know Satomi always has. But either way traveling in a band is not really the same thing as traveling for pleasure. We don't usually have time for sightseeing etc. The part of a city that we always see is the inside of some rock club, and actually these places are not especially different from one another across the globe. But then again we have an excuse to meet people that the average sightseer doesn't have. People come to our concert and they like to talk to us. So in a way our travel experience is much richer.

What is always in your carry-on luggage?
We always try to carry on guitars but we get dirty looks from the attendants a lot. They aren't really carry-on size.

What's the band's favoured mode of transport; mini-van, tour bus, Hitchhiking, personalised Jet, Trans Am?
Well, there is our favoured mode and then there is our usual mode. Favoured mode would be either train, or maybe driving, but taking all side roads and small roads. The rare times we can do this are such beautiful scenic experiences. We are able to take the train some in Japan. And driving from Poland one time we had no choice because the only road was a small road. It was snowing and the countryside and little towns we passed through were stunning.
But usually we are in a rented minivan, and we need to take the main motorways in order to arrive on time.

You recently played Strawberry Festival in China and you found a girl advertising "Bootleg Deerhoof T-shirts" Did you introduce yourselves?
Of course. She was very nice actually. She was a big fan of the band so that was quite a surprise - We didn't know if anyone knew our music there. At the same time, she didn't actually apologize for the shirts. But she did give us some. One design was of "Milk Man", one of our albums, so we got one of those for the original artist who made that image - We knew he would think it was funny,

At the festival you said the Chinese audience seemed new to rock music and they had not yet found their niche as fans - was such naïve openness refreshing?
I think actually it would be condescending to put it that way. I'm not sure that there is any advantage to finding one's niche. That just means that there is more that you don't like. More potential for unhappiness, don't you think? Maybe us over-specialized over-hip subgenre defenders are actually the naive ones.

Tell me about how Chinese food is different to 'Chinese Food' in America?
In the US, Chinese food I've had all tastes pretty similar. Like, if each person in the band orders a different item from the menu, we could still get away with combining them all together. You'd hardly notice. Because basically you either get the "brown sauce" or the "white sauce". For all I know those sauces exist in some region of the enormous of China. But I didn't find anything like that in Beijing. We were treated to a lot of dishes and there is no way you would combine any of them, they tasted so utterly different from each other. And wow, some seriously spicy food. There was this particular peppercorn that apparently has been banned from being imported into the US until recently. I don't remember ever having anything like it. It sort of makes your tongue feel like it is disintegrating.
See full report...
Will you eat anything on tour? Are you confident to immerse yourself and eat what the locals eat?
Well we're impossible because we've got one vegan, two vegetarians and one omnivore. But I always love coming to Europe. (I am writing to you from France). Here, the venue feeds you at every show. Here in France we are treated to the most amazing multi-course meals. All the staff and bands eat all together and everyone says "Bon appetit". We even set up tours to Italy just so we can eat the food. We don't actually have any fans there.

You also just played Moscow and St Petersburg. You mention on your blog you wanted to go via the Trans Siberian Railway, will you return to that some time?
Oh, that would be an adventure. Trouble was it only left twice a week from St Petersburg to Beijing, and the trip was a week long. It didn't leave on the right day for us to be able to make it.

What surprised you about Russia?
That it was real. I always feel that way going to new place that I've always heard about.

How were the crowds there - any different from a normal Deerhoof crowd?
No such thing as a normal Deerhoof crowd! In Russia I would say that people had an emotionless exterior on the train or walking down the street, but man, once the concert was happening they were about as demonstrative as you could imagine. And for every band, all kinds of music, no matter how strange. Lots of interpretive dancing, shouting, smiles.

Do you find it odd to visit these countries that, while growing up in America you had so ingrained into you were bad or Anti-American, poor or dangerous and yet be so welcomed as an American rock n roll band?
Well growing up in America you're brought up to think that EVERY country is anti-American, or at least inferior. I don't find it odd to travel the world, I find it beautiful to have my preconceptions destroyed over and over. It is possible for people to live and organize themselves in all kinds of ways that the American media doesn't want you to know about. In some countries they actually don't want any impoverished class. Or they give themselves health care. Or they don't allow themselves to carry guns.
The fact that we are welcomed is of course a shock, partly because I never expect anyone so far away to know anything about our obscure band. I'm so thankful for the welcome that we get. But I can never figure out if it's a sign of some great universality of our music or just the Americanization of the entire globe.

What does 'home' mean to you?
I was going to say hotel room but actually the place that feels like home to me the most is the stage.

Can you record on the road or get much time to write?
I suppose you could record while touring but we usually take our time and record ourselves, so it's not practical to do that during the rushing around of touring. As for writing, I would guess that every member of the band would give you a different answer. We all write our music in totally different ways. Like John writes on guitar a lot and I hear him noodling around backstage all the time so he might be writing. For me, I often feel like my songs write me rather than the other way around. Ideas just come to me, and they can come whether I'm on tour or not. I just keep my pencil and paper within reach. I have to say though that I don't tend to get as many good ideas on tour. I think it is because the music floating around in my head is just a lot of Deerhoof songs that we are playing every day. They sort of cancel out something new.

I just bought my ticket for Blur in Hyde Park, July 3, and you guys are supporting. Are you guys big Blur fans?
This concert will be my introduction to their music.

Have you played to such a massive crowd as this one will be, and is it daunting knowing they're there for Blur?
Not at all, we love playing to audiences who don't know us. It's a great challenge but kind of free in a way, because no one has any expectations of you. It's when we play a small room of people who really like Deerhoof, now that is really daunting!

Have you got any Paulo Ceolho-styled or Paul Theroux travel inspired words of wisdom?
Who's that?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: Jamie Lidell at Melkweg

Still holding that new theatre smell, Melkweg's Rabo Zaal kick started 5DaysOff this evening with British born Berliner and nu-soul/electro man, Jamie Lidell.
Anyone that knows Jamie only via latest album Jim, or track 'Multiply', that made it onto the Grey's Anatomy soundtrack may have been shocked by the night that followed. Gone was the more evident elements of his soul sound, instead enveloping his electronic and experimental funk sides with a vibrant, hectic and eclectic attitude to his songs. The usual smoothness of 'Figured Me Out' gave way to spazzed-out jazz-funk with baritone sax and 'Little Bit Of Feel Good' turned into a fucked up (compliment) off centre rhythm with bone shaking, clunky percussion. It was around 'Green Light' that Jamie explained himself. The 5DaysOff crew had asked for something special, something unique. With just a couple of days to throw that 'something' together he and his band developed a set to keep people guessing, riding on spontaneity and the odd bit of improvisation. Jamie, not set behind a keyboard as such, but more an entire sound desk or work station manipulating keys, laptop, sampler and live overdubs. However through the changes one constant remained - Jamie's soulful voice, clean and crisp in sweet falsetto, gruff and stylistically strained in the rock. It was both the backbone and the centre piece to the show.

Giving the band a break midway through the set he used that voice instead for beat-boxing. What started as a simple boom-bap beat grew as he manipulated more layered vocal patterns; a bass here, a high note there, a sound-bite from a lyric of his, Once the beat was right he came to the front of the stage and began 'When I Come Back Around' before bringing it back to a two-step deal - hard and sharp.Photobucket

These days phones can so often ruin a show - if not for a poorly timed ring than for constant shitty video capturing that ends up on youtube. Jamie instead decided to embrace the technology. 'Take out your phones', tell me you're not making us use them instead of lighters for a ballad, Jamie? Nope. 'Play your ringtone'. A couple of hundred people hold their phones in the air playing their ringtone. Embarrassed by my stock standard Nokia fare I scrolled quickly through my playlist. How the fuck did Guru Josh get on my phone? As Jamie collected a few phones from the front row and recorded them into his mic I played 'Infinity 2008' even receiving an agreeable nod from a fellow 'fan'. Liz, beside me is playing Kanye's 'Touch The Sky', of course. What came about were chirping crickets under the delicate 'All I Wanna Do'.Photobucket'Wait For Me' was dedicated to Dolly Parton as a rocked up gospel number that rose and fell like a revival tent going town to town. Jamie's dance moves came into their own here. Missing the rhythm of a James Brown good foot but with the enthusiasm of a Muppet and possession of a fat southern preacher the lanky lad jittered and jaunted around the stage.

'Multiply' showed the crowd new his older stuff. The 'My Girl'esque bassline was replaced by a deep doo-wop a capella before Jamie and band lead us all through the glorious chorus, 'I'm so tired of repeating myself, beating myself up, wanna take a trip and multiply, least go under with a smile'.

And if we couldn't be uplifted anymore he played 'Another Day' straight, admittedly with some relief. Such a perfectly crafted song altered could have left the crowd on less of a high note. But the relatively direct version sent a warm glow throughout the crowd. The Motown swing somehow reminds me of watching New York through Sesame Street, of a carefree summer day in Central Park, kids running through sprinklers. As with Multiply, the band dropped out, leaving it to the fans, there may have even been some swaying from the audience. The band lined up and took as couple of bows as a few determined punters tried to build it up one last time but to no avail. As we left the hall and moved down the stairs it seemed everyone was hooked on the hook, singing loud, singing proud; 'Another day, another way, for me to, open up to you' before trying to perfect Jim's wail… One guy hit it. The rest of us were shit.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Article: Amsterdamned - is the party over?

Tell your mates you’re off to Amsterdam, and it’ll no doubt set off a bout of high-fives and pantomime joint-toking (depending on how stupid your mates are). But new laws and regulations are putting the city’s famous tolerance levels under the spotlight. So is the party really over?PhotobucketFrom JMAG

The idea of tolerance has been at the heart of the Dutch well before philosopher Baruch Spinoza preached about it in 17th century Amsterdam. Now in the 21st century, inquisitive travellers and pilgrims of vice seek out the old city's infamous Red Light District of De Wallen (The Walls), synonymous with legal weed and pot-smoking coffeeshops, shroom-tripping and prostitution to experience pragmatism in practice first hand. Whether they indulge or not, tourists can't deny the Dutch line of thinking has built a society that allows a few more freedoms than most other countries, while still maintaining the safety of its peoples.

However, concurrently Amsterdam and The Netherlands are going through periods of change and many fear the nation's unique characteristics are getting bent and stripped towards conservatism, with some brothels and coffeeshops forced to close and the magic mushroom trade outlawed entirely. "Tolerance and freedom do not imply indifference," says Bas Bruijn, press officer for the City of Amsterdam.

At a municipal level, Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen and City Hall believe over the last few years "an imbalance has evolved between the various activities" within the Red Light District. Says Bruijn "low-level economic activities and crime-sensitive sectors have become over-represented. The concentration has attracted criminal elements, and had an adverse effect on the city's living conditions and economic climate."

In response the municipality created Project 1012 in an effort to wipe out the crime and re-establish a balance in the neighbourhood to a mix of "shady and chic"; inviting for businesses, residents and tourists alike, with upmarket bars and boutiques, culture and cuisine alongside brothels and coffee shops.

"By reducing the number of coffee shops and prostitution windows the City takes a firmer control over the sector in order to put an end to unacceptable practices, such as money laundering and women-trafficking," says Bruijn.

The Project documents state "prostitution will be reduced and zoned to two well-organised areas. As such, half of the supply will continue to exist. Approximately 243 of the original 482 windows will remain. One quarter have already been sold to housing corporations over the last year."
PhotobucketBut won't the ladies start working the streets, where prostitution is illegal? "We will closely monitor the consequences of the current plans. A couple of years ago the City closed an extended prostitution area," say Bruijn. "At that time the same question came up. We managed to close this prostitution area without an increase in underground activities."

Mariska Majoor, an ex-prostitute who runs the Prostitute Information Centre in the Red Light District for 15 years disagrees. She says the most recent closures did push a small group to the streets. "When it gets busier in the summertime we can see the effects better". So does she agree the district needs a clean up? "For a part. We see the problems on the street with drugs and girls with pimps behind some of the windows as well. But the government makes it sound worse than it really is. I think that they simply don’t like the Red Light District at all and they use trafficking as an excuse."

The other avenue to cut out the criminal stronghold on the Red Light District is a reduction of up to 50% of its coffee shops to leave 26 in total, that translates to a 17% reduction across all of Amsterdam.

To quote Pulp Fiction's Vincent Vega, "it's legal, but it ain't a hundred percent legal…It breaks down like this." The Dutch Government's drug policy guide cites the USA's Institute of Medicine findings that "there is no persuasive evidence that the pharmacological properties of cannabis can provoke the switch to hard drugs," and thus cannabis is only a 'gateway drug' via its sociological properties. So the aim of the coffeeshop according to the guide is to "keep cannabis separate from hard drugs in order to protect cannabis users from exposure to hard drugs and the criminal elements who traffic in them." Ironically, while the retail is legal, the backdoor wholesale of marijuana to coffeeshops is illegal and is run by organised crime, the same 'criminal elements' controlling the hard drugs.PhotobucketHowever, some within the government want to dam up the illegal revenue streams by flowing the weed via their own channels, much like their canals. During last year's 'cannabis summit', involving 33 Mayors from across the nation discussing issues of drug tourism and smuggling on border towns and the strong link to organised crime, Eindhoven mayor Rob de Gizjel told Dutch newspaper Volkskrant of the need to develop a government-sponsored grow-op.

"Authorities must get a grip on the supply of drugs to coffeeshops. It's time that we experiment with a system of regulated plantations so we can have strict guidelines and controls on the quality and price." Mayor de Gizjel said.

It's not only municipalities that are eager to pass the Dutch laws. The federal government last year made news around the world by snuffing out tobacco-spun joints in coffeeshops, leaving smokers to toke only pure weed indoors or buy mixed pre-rolled joints to take-away. They also decided that "municipalities should develop and implement additional rules regarding the distance (250 meters) of coffeeshops to secondary schools," states Saskia Hommes, spokesperson for the ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. The regulation would mean closure of another 43 coffee shops within Amsterdam by 2011.

And it's not only reefer madness for drug lovers. The most recent national law change saw the sale of magic mushrooms outlawed as of December 1, 2008. Known locally as 'paddos', magic mushies were available for sale at so called 'Smartshops' to customers 18 years and over, on the proviso that the fungi was accompanied by adequate information about use and abuse of the drug, what not to take in conjunction with the shrooms (alcohol), and how to have a safe and enjoyable high. From the government's point of view it kept that buffer between hard drug dealer and user. However, Hommes says that the message wasn't getting to some users.

"Looking at recent incidents concerning the misuse of mushrooms by certain individuals, the Dutch Minister of Health felt he had to ban the sale of mushrooms because the control and information were not preventing foresaid incidents." One such high profile incident was the 2007 death of a French tourist who jumped from a prominent building rooftop while tripping on shrooms, falling to the traffic below. The 17-year-old's parents blamed the Dutch state even though the sale was to her of-age friend and not to the minor herself.

The stores do sell weaker highs like Ayahuasca, similar to a low dose of psilocybin – the alkaloid in shrooms that makes one trip – but the tourists want the real deal. This pushes the market to the streets where dealers don't have the time or responsibility to give tourists the spiel, and closes the gap between soft and hard drugs. Hommes says, however "there are no signals that the trade has gone underground, that people are dealing mushrooms on the streets." It has however left smartshop proprietors to rely on the sale of weaker highs, and worse, paraphernalia of aliens saying 'take me to your dealer'.
PhotobucketNevertheless, while changes take place tolerance remains the keystone to Dutch society and Amsterdam's bright red beacon of De Wallen. The pragmatic lawmakers and politicians believe the system is working. Bruijn urges, "This is not a 'crackdown' on the Red Light District and coffeeshops. It is a realistic approach towards prostitution and soft drugs." So foreign travellers, you needn't worry you'll miss out on the novelty of girls in the windows or puffing legal weed, there might just be fewer but a lot more than you're used to. On top of that, they only last year outlawed bestiality, but the Dutch national animal is the lion so it's probably for the best.