A Brand New Era—Michael Azerrad's Championing of Dirty Projectors and Future Visions
Jul 10, 2012 Web Exclusive
Michael Azerrad first infiltrated the public's consciousness during the '80s while he was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he wrote features and reviews regularly for the better part of five years. The stakes were raised for Azerrrad with his superb bio of Nirvana, Come as You Are, released in 1993 prior to the band's polarizing and then controversial album In Utero. The book assumed an unexpectedly tragic relevance in the annals of rock bios after Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994, but is still a superb read, and many of the tapes Azerrad culled for the book are chronicled on AJ Schnack's 2006 film About a Son, which couples the pairs' conversations with stark, impressionistic imagery of sights endemic to Cobain's life, which unravelled like sepia snapshots of Seattle, Olympia, and Aberdeen.
Azerrad's freelanced for myriad publications over the years, including Spin and Rolling Stone, but his crowning achievement is the truly epochal Our Band Could Be Your Life, something of a holy grail for '80s indie rock fans with its candid portrayals of the likes of seminal acts Beat Happening, Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Mudhoney, and countless others.
The book's taken on a broad socio-economic relevance over the years, as it documents with wide-eyed clarity what it was like to be in a band in the throes of the Reagan years. It's taught in college curriculums, cited by numerous bands as a key inspiration in their formation, and ultimately is a flat-out great book.
Azerrad recently edited See a Little Light: A Trail of Rage and Melody, which is an autobiography of the life of Bob Mould, the truly brilliant frontman of Hüsker Dü and Sugar, who's also gone on to have a fruitful solo career. Mould's story is told with refreshing candor and pathos, never deigning to cheap self-aggrandizement. It's essentially the story of a deeply flawed and supremely gifted musician, and a great read at that.
Under the Radar caught up with Azerrad to discuss Dirty Projectors, one of his self-proclaimed favorite bands of the moment, to coincide with our winter cover story interview with Dave Longstreth. Unfortunately, none of Azerrad's quotes made the piece due to space constraints, but Longstreth discussed at length what a great friend Azerrad was and how inspiring the book Our Band Could Be Your Life was to him, and how playing the book's 10th anniversary show at the Bowery Ballroom inspired a song on the band's new record, Swing Lo Magellan. You can read the full interview by ordering the print issue here, but for now enjoy this illuminating interview with Azerrad, in which he discusses his relationship with Dirty Projectors, Our Band Could Be Your Life, See a Little Light, bands he's been digging of late, and some future plans he hasn't revealed elsewhere.
John Everhart: I was curious as to why you invited the band [Dirty Projectors] to play the Our Band Could Be Your Life anniversary show. Their sound's dramatically different from many of the bands covered in the book, but I see a certain kinship, particularly with the Rise Above interpretation of Damaged. Dave [Longstreth] told me he strongly identified with the ethos of Beat Happening, and professed to being an R.E.M. fan (even though they weren't discussed directly in the book). Do you see connections?
Michael Azerrad: That was the whole point: to include bands that didn't sound like the bands in the book. It was to show how inspiring those bands were, not how influential they were, if you get my distinction. The bands in Our Band Could Be Your Life showed the way for musicians to work so that they can do exactly what they want to do, find an audience for it, and have a sustainable career. At the time, that was a fairly revolutionary concept for rock music. For a unique and challenging band like Dirty Projectors, I could see that being a very clear blueprint—not for how to sound, but how to be. The point of Our Band Could Be Your Life is that you can make any sound you want, which is exactly what Dirty Projectors do, so inviting them to play the tribute show made all the sense in the world. Beat Happening sounds nothing like Dirty Projectors, but they exemplified and championed that kind of freedom, which is probably just one reason why Dave so strongly identifies with them. If you know anything about the DPs album Rise Above, you know that Dave is obviously a Black Flag fan, and so I got a brainstorm: have Dirty Projectors play straightforward versions of the Black Flag songs that they interpreted on Rise Above. And they totally got it. When Dave, Brian McOmber, and Nat Baldwin from DPs played those songs at the Our Band concert, it was like a freight train was barreling through the room. It was so freakin' intense—my heart was pounding in my chest. That turned out to be Brian's last live performance with Dirty Projectors, which is kind of beautiful given that Brian is such a huge fan of hardcore.
Can you discuss that show and their role in it? I know Brian played drums with a few bands over the course of the night, and while I wasn't there, it sounds like it was a wonderful experience for all involved.
That show, the entire evening, was magical. All the bands enjoyed meeting and hearing each other and everyone realized that a community was forming, and that was incredibly exciting. I know this was happening because I watched everyone become Facebook friends in the weeks after the show. Dirty Projectors is one of the flagship bands of that community—a lot of musicians know each other through that band, one way or another. Everyone who needed a drummer wanted Brian McOmber to play with them. He's just a fantastic musician and it was kind of his night—not only did he play with the Dirty Projectors guys, but he also drummed for St. Vincent for that legendary Big Black set, which was an artistic epiphany for Annie [Clark], and for the Nirvana encores, with Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack from Wye Oak on guitar and bass, and Merrill from tUnE-yArDs, Dan Deacon with Arone Dyer from Buke & Gase, and Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus each singing a song. And Brian was just staggeringly awesome every time. Nat Baldwin also played with St. Vincent, and was just as brutal as Brian. Dirty Projectors' role in that show was huge if only because they had introduced me to the music of several bands on the bill—Callers, tUnE-yArDs, Delicate Steve, and Buke and Gase.They were also the first band to agree to play and that really helped draw everyone else.
What initially struck you about the band? They're certainly one of the more unique bands of the past decade, and not an easy first listen, yet they have an astonishingly large following. Is that a surprise to you?
The first thing that struck me about Dirty Projectors was that they presented a challenge that it was rewarding to rise to. I picked up most of the influences—Bulgarian choirs, Stravinsky, African guitar pop, etc.—but Dirty Projectors recombined them in unexpected ways, and I just really enjoyed rejiggering my expectations of what music could sound like and how it could make me feel. It's truly progressive music. Other, even more interesting things about the music struck me later. In a way, it's not too surprising to me that Dirty Projectors are as popular as they are. For all the cynical things one could rightly say about the music business, the best bands do find an audience. And thanks to the Internet, many people's taste in music has broadened and become more sophisticated, so Dirty Projectors came along at exactly the right moment.
Following Bitte Orca, how do you feel about Swing Lo Magellan? Bitte is one of my favorite albums of the past five years, and it seems as though they're just beginning to hit their stride. It's too early for me to completely form an opinion on Swing Lo, but early on I feel as though it may be commensurate, if not better, than Bitte. Do you feel similarly?
It's apples and oranges for me between the two albums. They're so different. Bitte Orca is a fireworks display, more of an ensemble record, and Swing Lo Magellan is down to earth and more personal in every way. While Bitte Orca is the sound of a band hitting its stride, Swing Lo Magellan is the sound of a songwriter hitting his stride. I think one of the practical reasons the new one is so successful is because Dave was savvy enough to avoid a classic pitfall: all too often, bands with a successful record don't have sufficient time to make a worthy follow-up, but he made sure to have a good, long, focused stretch to get in touch with what he wanted to to say and write strong new material. Also, the band is well seasoned by now, they know how to play together really well, and Dave is an even better producer/engineer/mixer than ever. So all the ingredients were there.
I believe I read somewhere last year that they're your favorite band. In an era when no one seems to have favorite bands, what is it about their sound that makes them so special to you?
Well, I have a lot of favorite bands but Dirty Projectors has a special place in that constellation. For a few years in the early aughts, I was starting to lose touch with newer bands. I just didn't care for the neo-post-punk thing at all—it was just disappointingly derivative. But then I discovered Dirty Projectors and they opened me up to a whole new vein of bands, and I'm still delightedly exploring it. Dirty Projectors gave me a new lease on musical life, and I'll always be grateful. I love music that embodies not just the present moment, but also what's just around the bend. Dirty Projectors' music has that visionary quality. I don't think they consciously try to do that—you just can't do it on purpose, it has to come from having acute sensitivity and intuition, and the rare ability to take the things you feel and translate them into music with relative accuracy. Typically for DPs, Swing Lo Magellan captures something in the air, something that we're all feeling, or about to feel. It's economical and straightforward and sincere, and those are desperately needed qualities right now, in our cultural moment. In their own ways, I bet a lot of bands are going to follow suit in the coming years.
I was curious as to whether you realize the magnitude of Our Band Could be Your Life on modern indie bands. Matt Whipple from the band Cymbals Eat Guitars actually read it as a part of the curriculum in one of his college courses, and said it was one of the most influential book of his college career, not just for its music content, but for its socio-political content, reflecting in an almost first hand manner what the Reagan years were like. Has it hit you that your book is, dare I say, a seminal entry in the canon of rock literature?
I don't know if I have anything to say about that other than it's really the bands in the book that have that magnitude and influence, not the book itself. But I will say that I'm very moved when somebody walks up to me at a show and tells me that Our Band Could Be Your Life inspired them in some way. And it's inspired people in a lot of different ways, not just music. I often get asked if that ever gets old. Trust me, it will never get old.
I also wanted to ask you what it was like collaborating with a legend in Bob Mould on See a Little Light. I'd assume you go way back with Bob, but were there moments of contention, or did you find it to generally be a fairly amicable collaborative process? And given your reverence for Bob, was it difficult for you to perhaps challenge him when he'd written something you wanted revised, or was he generally open? And given the level of success of Our Band Could be Your Life and Come as You Are, it seems as though See a Little Light has been a quiet, perhaps slow burn sort of book. Given the upcoming litany of Sugar reissues, do you hold out hope that it perhaps helps to shed some light on such a seminal songwriter's idiosyncratic career?
I actually don't go particularly way back with Bob. We met when I interviewed him for Our Band Could Be Your Life in 1999. No, it wasn't too difficult to challenge Bob—and by challenge, I don't mean contradict, I mean ask him to rise to a challenge. Which, to his great credit, he did every time, and then some. Bob is a very bright, talented and deeply diligent man, one of those people who will do well at whatever he puts his mind to. So he literally wrote that book; all I did was walk him through the process. It was an intense collaboration because Bob is an intense guy. I loved it. Oh yeah, See a Little Light sheds a lot of very bright light on the writing, recording and performance of the Sugar music, and to Bob's great credit, not all of that light is forgiving. There's a lot of crazy shit in there, and a lot of it has little to do with music. The thing is, See a Little Light isn't just a music book. It's a human being book. It's about the crucial importance of being comfortable in your own skin, how hard it can be to get there, and how wonderful it is when you do. That's a huge message, and I'm confident it will endure.
Given the fact that you've written three great books, and a bunch of fine freelance material, what do you have lined up for the future? Any projects imminent or in the nascent stages of planning?
I'm the editor of the Talkhouse website, which will feature notable musicians writing about current music. It launches in the fall. I'm very excited about it—a lot of musicians are incredibly astute and articulate observers of music. It's a point of view that could stand to be a lot louder amid the explosion of music writing. After so many years of doing this, I've gotten to know a lot of musicians and I've already lined up a ton of really amazing people to contribute to the site. It's going to be pretty awesome.
And since I respect your taste in music immensely, what have been some of your favorite records of the year thus far? And do you have any that are highly anticipated? Delicate Steve is one you turned me on to, and the lack of interest in his records confounds me. I certainly hope his newest does well. Any others you can maybe suggest to our readers?
Oh, don't worry about Delicate Steve—their upcoming record Positive Force is really strong, and they're doing some really smart, interesting things to promote it. Some other things that have come out this year that I really like:
Here We Go Magic - A Different Ship
Death Grips - The Money Store
Santigold - Master of My Make-Believe
Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
Yellow Ostrich - Strange Land
Georgia Ann Muldrow - Seeds
Lower Dens - Nootropics
Guardian Alien - See the World Given to a One Love Entity
Flock of Dimes - (Soundcloud page)
Mouse on Mars - Parastrophic
Thanks for your time Michael!
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