Codebreaker: Text based punch in the face

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

There are few musicians that I've had the pleasure of talking to that can hold a conversation as well as one Drew Daniel. One half of IDM twiddlers Matmos and the sole evil genius behind the Soft Pink Truth, Daniel talked about hardcore punk rock and yummy noises with me like we were just two dudes at the local gay bar. Despite the alluring prospect of simply shooting the shit with a genuinely nice guy, I stuck to my guns and fired out some interview questions about the Soft Pink Truth's new record Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth? and the upbringing that inspired it.

Interviewed December 17th, 2004

[Originally for]

Codebreaker: How's your holiday season going?
Drew Daniel: Well, it's been crammed with stuff. I'm giving at Stanford tomorrow on the Merchant of Venice, so there's been a lot of preparation for that on the academic front. Musically, there's a blizzard of possible shows for Matmos and Soft Pink Truth and it's kind of about find a way to make it graceful and make us not lose our day jobs. There's some cool stuff coming; I'm gonna play the Terms Media Festival in Berlin and at Mutech at Montreal and Sonar at Barcelona with the Soft Pink Truth. Matmos is doing quite a lot too. We're going to play that ATP fest, the one that Slint is curating and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, yadda yadda. So there's a lot going on.

CB: So you're going to be rather jetset for a while.
DD: Yeah, it's weird; we kind of thought now that Martin was going back to work at the Art Institute and I was just trying to write the dissertation, we weren't going to get caught up in the Bjork tour monster. Everything would get, well, frankly dull. [laughs] But it doesn't seem to have worked out that way.

CB: What are fans of the Soft Pink Truth like, especially with the new record coming out?
DD: The one's that I met tend to be sort of fashiony, gay boys with asymmetrical haircuts that are very, very thin; or, kind of cool, shouty girls. I just had a bra thrown at me the lost Soft Pink Truth show, which I thought was awesome. I think the risk with something so faggy is that it becomes... like a gay male thing, which I certainly didn't want. I like it better when clubs and parties are mixed up gender-wise. It seems like the ladies like the Soft Pink Truth too -- the feeling is mutual. I don't know; I think it's divided between people that maybe are the sort of IDM, nerd, Matmos contingent that have distain for dance music but dabble because of the Matmos connection, I think that's one set of people. The other set are people that have no interest in Matmos but just want to get down. I'm glad that the Soft Pink Truth can work for two pretty different and maybe mutually not-comprehending sets of people.

CB: I was going to ask if the Matmos crowd is more cerebral, stuffy...
DD: I guess it's more that what you go to a Matmos show for more is hopefully to see a process and multiple structures getting taken on and then thrown away. Whereas, for dance music to be functional you need a kick drum, you need a snare, you need a high hat, you need some clarity. They're pretty different. That said, we did a European tour where I opened as Soft Pink Truth for Matmos, and it was usually better if I did that after Matmos. I was sort of the sorbet.

CB: As long as we're talking about touring and fans, what was touring with Bjork like?
DD: Great fun! I got to open for Bjork as the Soft Pink Truth on the last tour we did, the Greatest Hits tour, which were in these giant arenas. It was kind of ridiculous; you have all these Italian, bourgeois people reading the newspaper in the sunshine in a Roman amphitheater while I'm on stage playing R. Kelly cut-ups -- it feels sort of silly. There's actually a set of spiky-necklace, goth kids that like Bjork, so I started to end my sets with this collage of black metal and I would scream in a metal kind of voice. I guess I was reduced to pandering in my set.

CB: On this new Soft Pink Truth record [Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth?], you got away from making straight house music and clearly there was a reason for that. Were you bored with making straightforward house stuff?
DD: I think the joke there is any reference to straight house music... [laughs] I guess there was really a feeling that there's a certain kind of stuttery, cut-up vocals plus kick drum plus squeechy bass line thing that unified Do You Party? If I just made another record that was that recipe, it wouldn't really be new in any way, and it might actually be a conservative thing to do; it would be just like branding. Here's another repetition. I felt the need to try something else. I made the Crass cover out of perverse whimsy, really -- I just felt like doing it. I had always loved Vicky Bennett's speaking voice, and I thought she'd be an excellent narrator of the Crass lyrics. Crass has some songs where an English woman's voice just recites a poem. So it was sort of something that Crass themselves had already done, and in that way it didn't feel to me like more electroclash boredom. You know, where the dispassionate recitation is just an index of "Oh, I'm so bored, I don't care." To me, it seems closer to narration, documentary approach to language. Since Crass had already done it, it seemed like it would make sense.

So I did the Crass one first, then it became more like raiding the chocolate box; I couldn't stop this nostalgia trip -- it got out of hand. There are millions of songs that I wanted to do, there're loads that could have gone on there, but I think it'd be pretty torturous if it was an hour long. You don't want to do karaoke. There're some punk bands that I really love, but if I tried to do them, I would just be doing a bad, hammy celebrity imitation. If I tried to sing like Glenn Danzig of The Misfits...

CB: It'd be pretty sweet, that's for sure.
DD: It'd be fun, but I don't there's enough distance there. I think maybe I love The Misfits too much. I had to put some sort of limit on it. It seemed interesting if I combined songs I knew very well combined with something else that would give it some distance. That's kind of why the England versus America axis is there. I know American hardcore pretty well, and English punk rock I didn't really listen to as much when I was growing up. They seemed like good foils for each other, because the English material is so much more knowing and self-conscious. The American stuff is more pure and thuggish and stupid. They go good together.

CB: Do you still listen to contemporary hardcore and punk rock?
DD: Yeah; I went to a Wrangler Brutes show not very long ago. I'll go to shows like that. I don't want to say that, "Good Charlotte have won, punk rock is dead" -- I think that's a cliche and lazy. I also think that extreme live music has to mutate in order to stay critical. I think that's why the kids go nuts to Lightning Bolt and Wolf Eyes -- the formal structures have drifted, but the grit factor remains in place. I guess what I have more sympathy for personally is that there was a lot of political baggage and awkward demands that punk rock and hardcore had in that era; I think that's what's been lost in the shuffle. That's why a lot of stuff that gets called dance punk is so obnoxious to me, because it doesn't really place any demands. It's a lifestyle choice -- it's no different than tasteful, minimal house music, in that sense -- it furnishes a boutique. Whereas if you think, "Jesus was a cock-sucking Jew" -- that's a problem. That demands, "Well, where do I stand in relation to that a statement like that," or like using the word faggot. That's not something we can be neutral about. I guess this is sooooo fucking cliche of me to say, but in a way I think that's why hip-hop is still threatening to parents and educators, and why it's still the privileged locus of authenticity discourse now in our culture. Precisely because its language, it's something that you have to wield for a reason. It's not neutral; it positions you when you use it. Like, Eminem won't use the "n" word for a reason. I think for all those reasons, that's what attracted me to resurrecting punk and hardcore but these specific songs.

CB: I can see what you're saying, especially with a band like the Angry Samoans.
DD: It feels weird to be queer and sing this song, and it feels really good. I guess there's an ambivalence in these songs too, I don't want to deny that. It's using the word faggot, but it's also "We love you." It is kind of internally confused and that's what makes it exciting.

CB: That seems to be a big theme in hardcore scenes these days; it seems like there's this confused homosexuality under all of it.
DD: Especially with reviews of these bands, where the singers of these bands are really skinny or really pretty -- they'll totally bring that up. The singers for the Blood Brothers are like fucking Kate Moss, and it's weird. I always felt that, especially in Louisville; when I was a kid I was friends with the guys in Endpoint and they were the heavy-weight straight edge band of Louisville. And yeah, I think Rob Pennington was a total pin-up. Hunky, athletic boys sweating and rubbing against each other, it's like, hey, what's not to like?

CB: What was it like for you growing up gay and part of the Louisville hardcore scene?
DD: The weird thing was that there was this real live culture that you could take part in, you weren't just consuming. When you go to a show, the audience would be 10 or 12 people but they were all in bands too. Everybody was doing something, whether it was a magazine, making the flyers, or writing music. It also involved history, and that was because I didn't get into it until, I don't know, '85, '86. There was a feeling that there had been this incredible thing in the late 70s, early 80s and that we were late to the party and we had to do some research to get at it. I remember paying $40 dollars, which was a huge amount at the age of 16, to get a German pressing of Earth A.D. because it had a full color version of the cover. This scholarly, collector side to it -- which was in part about what time it was and where we were, because it was in Kentucky, it wasn't New York or L.A.; it wasn't a cosmopolitan area where it was a given that The Ramones were real people and that they lived just down the street. It was all a little bit like superheroes. I was totally fucking stunned when Black Flag came to our town; they played a 21 up show and I couldn't get in. Same with the Die Kreuzen -- I couldn't get in so I hung out behind the club and listened through the wall.

I have a lot of affection for that culture. I think it saved me from being another self-hating queer kid. But it also kept me in the closet because I thought "Oh, fags like Erasure, and I hate Erasure, so I must not really be a fag because I like listening to Black Flag." There were a band in Louisville called the End Tables and their singer was queer and everyone knew it, so there had been kind of a role model that the two weren't mutually exclusive. A lot of the knucklehead straight edge people were very pro-Reagan and very right wing. I had a lot of friends that were skinheads that listened to Skrewdriver, there parents were bikers, and they were more or less country people. They had a pretty unreconstructed racist view point which they didn't think at all was contradictory with being punk rock. That's what's really interesting: it is all up for grabs. If you read Maximum Rock N' Roll you get this idea that it's this liberal think tank, but the reality is that all these emotions and politics can surge around inside it.

CB: A lot of times people that make dance music aren't actually out there on the dance floor. Are you still out there dancing?
DD: Yeah, every once in a while. I have to cop to being a nerd and being home and structuring dance music than going out there and enjoying it. There's always been clubs that I've really liked; I'm just fucking picky about good dance music. There was this that just shut down in San Francisco called Macho that just shut down that was fucking awesome. I would go to that every month for sure because I knew it was going to be a good time and a good crowd. When I was in New York there were a couple places that I would go to; but in general it's just too risky because there's too much middlebrow, schlocky, watered-down crap. A lot of dance floor culture is deeply conservative, and it's really driven by pandering to what they think the crowd wants. There's a lot of fear of trying anything off message. It's like politics -- going toward the center, that mythical animal. Whereas if you show up with confidence and willingness to let people scratch their heads for five seconds as you do something new, they might actually leave at the end of the night and say "That was awesome."

CB: Do you ever get to dj?
DD: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes it's totally fun and sometimes I totally suck. I've been fucking terrible; the two are just not the same. I tend to favor a lot of booty-oriented stuff, like I just went to Baltimore and bought a whole bunch of Baltimore breaks 12 inches that are really amazing. They all sound like they were made in about 10 minutes. One loop, one kick drum, a little pattern, and then boom, let's go, let's see how much we can get out of it. I love that shit. There's a great band from Miami called The Puppies that's booty bass sung by 10 year old boys. It's like booty bass for kids, so they'll do B.I.N.G.O. and Old MacDonald, but it's booty bass. It's fucking hilarious -- that stuff's awesome.

CB: So do you dj in the sense of like, progressive house where you do blends and such or are you more of a human jukebox?
DD: Hell no! I'm more like a college radio DJ. Because of Matmos I might be more willing to pile stuff on top of other things, but it's not in a flawless, German maneuver -- it's pretty antagonistic. Martin and I were djing and we played Crass "Reality Asylum" on top of Titonton Duvante, so we had this really chugging, squelchy, acid house, drum machine, 7/7 stuff with Eve Libertine on top delivering the Crass message. It's kind of a double-decker situation rather than a mix.

CB: Does Martin ever come with you to these things?
DD: Oh Martin is way more of a bar-hound than I am. The irony is that he isn't into house music, he doesn't like the idea of the Soft Pink Truth very much. He didn't go to my last shows at DMX because he's sort of protesting the band. I have too much on my plate between my fucking PHD and Matmos to bother with a third thing; I really shouldn't be doing this. But no, Martin's like a total rager. He goes out every Friday night and gets fucking trashed. We're very different people; I think that's what keeps us going. It's been like 12 years now and difference is a big part of it.

CB: Congratulations!
DD: Yeah, it's cool.

CB: So then the Soft Pink Truth interferes with Matmos?
DD: It does, just that there's only 24 hours in the day. Today I could work on a Matmos song, but I've told a friend in Paris that I want him to do a remix so I've got to give him the parts to do the remix, so that's an hour that goes to the Soft Pink Truth that doesn't go to Matmos. I have to be careful not to overdo it. In my mind, in the context of dance music, I think I put on a pretty cool show. I definitely think Matmos is a more artful... I'm sort of like junk food as the Soft Pink Truth; I wouldn't want somebody to listen to only that sort of thing all day -- there's more to life.

CB: Is it harder or easier to make straight-forward dance music than it is to make a Matmos song?
DD: I think it's hard to make music in any genre that's worth people's time. That's just true that, yes, it's easier to construct a basic house track because the elements are few. You need a good kick drum, you need a cool-sounding snare, you need a tricky hi-hat pattern and some yummy bass line chords. A watered down crappy version of that can be done in five minutes, whereas even a watered down attempt at an early modern galliard on the viola de gombo takes years of study. [laughs] I definitely don't want to front as if all music is equally hard to do, but I think good music is always hard to make. There's very little correlation between complexity and pleasure. There're a lot of IDM records where people have obviously spent months and months and months nudging thousands of details around each other, but the end result isn't something that touches you or stays with you.

There's that weird thing that can happen -- and I'm don't really know if our music does this, I'm not really talking about Matmos but just talking about luck -- where the elements seem to inform each other in a way that lasts. I heard a quote from a poet that was talking about writing a good poem, saying that "Writing a good poem is like getting hit by lightning. You can't really plan it, you just have to stand out in a field while it's raining and maybe it will hit you." I think a lot of the mistakes that plague bad electronic music are that people get hung up on imitating the vocabularies of others, when maybe what's inspiring about the lightning strike of a good record is that somebody somehow came up with their own vocabulary. That's true in rock or folk or any other genre.

CB: A question that's been knocking around in my mind for a while before this interview regards being a gay artist. Being gay myself, I notice that being gay seems to work its way into everything I do. It seems to do the same with the Soft Pink Truth. The press seems to focus heavily on that sort of thing, like with Scissor Sisters or whatever other groups. What are your thoughts on the balance between being gay informing your music without being all consuming?
DD: You have to balance between standing up and being counted and letting yourself get reduced -- I think that's true. The reception of somebody like Rufus Wainwright, the articles are never about what he has to say about relationships and love, it's always "Here's the voice of gay promiscuity and its raunchy, racy, this that and the other thing..." Especially in the wake of all the gay marriage bans that went through in the last election, I think America is griped by a fantasy of gay existence as this wealthy free for all. There's a lot of anger and resentment and sacrifice involved in making a suburban, heterosexual family work; where Mom and Dad have to give up on a lot of what they want for the sake of their children, and when they see a gay man, a lot of their own unhappiness or resentments with the tradeoff they've made kind of flash out. It's like we're on the receiving end of something that may or may not have anything to do with how we're actually living our lives. It's weird; I feel like it's a pretty awkward time to be a queer in America.

As far as queerness informing what I do, I totally think does. And that's because disco was a music around which a community could coalesce. That's the weird thing about the gay bar: it can be this nasty, roach motel of alcoholics, but it was also this necessary space where people would meet, not just to fuck but to talk about what the hell was going on. I think disco gets this rep that it's all about escapism, it's all about cocaine and pleasure. People don't quite notice the role that it served and how critical some of disco music actually is. When you check out the lyrics of a song like "Lost in Music," they're fucking nihilists, they're pretty unrelenting. I feel like defending disco music, both from its straight appropriation and its miss-readings that it suffers from.

CB: Do you read messageboards like and the I Love Music one?
DD: Sometimes I go to it; I have to control myself or it will swallow up your afternoon. If you get into some weird conflict or -- I don't want to come off as an asshole, and then I'm not free to just be a human being an asshole, I'm "Oh that guy from Matmos was an asshole!" You are on best behavior a little bit, just because... a couple of times people have tried to talk about Matmos and I really don't want to do that, just because it's narcissistic and phony; and because what makes those spaces cool is that there're no thicker cows and people can think whatever they think about something. If there's a musician in there and then everyone else is largely identified more as critic, it can make things awkward.

CB: Why did you choose to put your real name on there, then? Why not choose a pseudonym?
DD: I think I didn't really think much about it. [laughs] Also, frankly, I say more or less what I think, but I wouldn't trash a band I think sucks. Just because I know how much struggle is involved in getting people to pay attention to your art and so I think I have a core of solidarity or sympathy, even for musicians that kind of blow in my opinion. [laughs] We're all in this together.

CB: How does what you see written about you on the message board or the internet effect you or your music?
DD: You have to try not to. When you're making a record you have to try to silence those voices and infuse your ears with what is in the room. It's really... frightening. It's frightening because when your ego's been rewarded for certain kinds of moves and sounds, on an emotional level you want that reward again, so there's going to be a tendency to return to what you got you yummy noises the last time. Or, even worse, you shouldn't lick your finger and try to see which way the wind's blowing and try to surf a trend. There's nothing sadder than trying to sell out and failing. Somehow you have to have blinders on. In a way, there's something terribly selfish about making art -- the belief that your time is best spent alone with this formal question of what goes next to what. You have to cling to a certain amount of that to avoid getting sucked into the world of discourse. You make a record for other people -- it is a message. Once you've made that record it's important to talk to people about it and it's important to listen; but while you're making it you have to almost look away. I don't know, this is all sounding sort of mystical to me... [laughter]

CB: Well I don't know, I think it's better than a message of "Well I make music for myself I don't know what the fuck anyone else is talking about."
DD: It's annoying to me when musicians sound off with this whole "There're two kinds of music: shit that rules and shit that sucks," they're frightened with what language will do. And they have good reason to be on one level, because words don't get at the way that sounds operate sometimes, because they are different mediums. I have full respect for language or I wouldn't be a literary PHD, but the worlds are different. I'm still searching for critical writing that gets at what certain pieces of music are doing. What we're often getting is emotional reports of a subjective feeling that the music gave someone, which are interesting if they're interesting reports, but they're not the thing itself.

CB: Interesting; that puts a whole new spin on the stupid reviews that I write.
DD: [laughs] Well, I write them too. I write for Pitchfork now.

CB: Really?
DD: Yeah! I write for "We Are the World." I sort of cut a deal with them where I would only write about things I like. I'm not going to trash anybody; I'm only going to write about something if I think "Oh wow, that's awesome, I think more people should check this out."

CB: How long have you been doing that?
DD: Mmm, couple of weeks. I'm not O.G. What's interesting about Pitchfork is that it's so many people that aren't from New York or L.A. and I think that bugs some people and it leads to interesting perspectives. Because I grew up in Kentucky and we always had a chip on our shoulder about the big cities, I have a certain underdog identification, even though clearly it's not an underdog at this point. It's becoming more and more high profile, and when things become too influential in a marketplace way, I think that's dangerous.

CB: Any other plans for upcoming Soft Pink Truth stuff coming up?
DD: Yeah, I'm going to have some remixes done of "Confessions." There's a French group that had a really great squelchy acid house series of records in the mid-90s called The Micronauts, and I'm going to have them do a remix of "Confessions." I'm weighing my options whether I'm going to remix some of these songs or do some new covers. I've been playing some new covers at the shows. I just did a cover of Coil's "The Anal Staircase" and dedicated it to Jeff who passed away. I'm not sure whether to put that on the record or not. You don't want to do something that's perceived as exploitive or a sort of cash-in. I did a cover of the Village People's "Macho Man." I did a cover of Etta James "In The Basement," the duet with Sugar Pie Desanto. There's a debate whether I do some more covers. It could be just unfinished business of the tracks that I really wanted to cover but didn't put on the album. There's a Red Kross song called "Notes and Chords Mean Nothing to Me" that I really fucking love, so I might have to just fucking go for it. That'll be a 12 inch on Sounds Like. As far as remix works goes, I remixed the new Roots Manuva single; it's just, just come out. I just uploaded to the Bjork server thing in Iceland of Matmos and Soft Pink Truth remixes of "Where Is the Line." There's a lot of remix and production work that's happening. I'm doing a remix of "Drop the Lime" on Tigerbeat6, I'm doing a remix for Safety Scissors for his new album. I don't like to say it out loud or it makes me kind of depressed. [laughs]

CB: Are you going to be touring at all with Soft Pink Truth?
DD: No, I'm going to play festivals only. I have to be very strategic about Soft Pink Truth live shows, 'cuz Martin will get pissed off if I just disappear. I just did a European mini-tour, I played Amsterdam, Turin, and London; I actually played in Fabric, which is this huge, fucking enormous Rave-a-dome in London. That was really fun, it was with Brooks and Matthew Herbert djing. That was proper, full-on London night out. I didn't get home until 6 a.m.

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