Cannonballs and seagulls

It’s funny how preparing a record makes you reflect on your musical identity.

When I was a teenager, I was clearly torn between the United Kingdom and the United States, between Blur and Nirvana, between Elastica and the Breeders…etc. I thought the Brits wrote killer songs but the Americans sounded better. Still makes sense for me today.

I’m listening to a lot of Breeders lately. I always loved this band, and I remember watching the Cannonball music video over and over again when the single came out. This song is such a miracle. You can tell when you listen to the entire record that this track is different from all the others. The sound is prodigious.

At the time, I already had started playing guitar. I was 11 or 12 and when my parents bought me a shitty classical guitar for Christmas. I learned a few chords and started recording songs. But I was not into acoustic things that much and I started dreaming of electric sounding guitars, of cables, distortions and amps.

Next to my my school, there was a little shop where they gave music lessons. In the shop window there was an acoustic guitar. Everytime I got out of school I would walk by the shop and stare at the guitar. It was a Seagull electro-acoustic, and it looked so beautiful compared to mine.
One day, encouraged by a friend, I entered the shop and asked if the guitar was for sale. The guy told me it was his guitar he placed in the front window so people would understand they gave music lessons but it wasn’t for sale. I asked if he was totally sure, and then he said maybe he could sell it to me.

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So that’s basically how I got my first real guitar : love at first sight. It was only a while after that I realized Kim Deal had exactly the same Seagull in the Cannonball music video, and I felt so bloody proud. Quickly after I  bought an awful 10W Park amplifier, and that’s basically how I experienced my first overdrive. The acoustic guitar was plugged into the amp and I would play alternative versions of smells like teen spirits, endlessly, until my parents told be to shut it down.
The funny thing is I learned years later that one of the reason why Cannonball sounds so special is that Kim Deal plugged her Seagull guitar in an amp in order to get this very specific distorted sound. I swear I didn’t know. But great minds think alike, right?

Anyway, I still play that guitar, and I never understood why this brand was not more popular. They are pretty cheap and sound awesome.

And the Breeders rock big time. I will never get tired of this band.

The Magic Blur

I left Blur a while ago, when I finished reading Alex James book « A bit of a Blur ». The band had exploded right in the middle of Think Tank’s recording sessions and it looked really gloomy. Damon and Graham’s relationship was such a struggle it seemed obvious fixing it would be the only key to any further Blur material.

When they reappeared in 2009 for a bunch of concerts I was wary. I thought their reunion looked genuine but I couldn’t understand why they would show off on such big stages. What was the purpose?  Although the media were getting all crazy about their comeback and the Hyde Park gigs, given the particular context, the band didn’t really made a fuss about it.
Damon kept telling the press he was not sure it would be followed by anything, and he implied the gigs were a desperate and unique attempt to work things out. It could as well be the end of it all. Of course, that was quite a tease. Everybody would want to go to the shows !
But yes, Graham and Damon finally had a chat after all these years, and felt like they could give it a try.
When you’re in a band, playing can sort a bunch of issues between egos. The thing is, those guys are not in a band, they are in Blur. One can easily understand how tricky it may be.

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As most european kids of my generation, britpop was my scene. In the nineties, it was the musical movement I adored. Blur, Elastica, or Sleeper were my favorites and they strongly influenced me. I watched MTV all day long and often went on holidays in London, Wales, or near Dublin to practice my english. I would usually spend all my pocket money in records, english music magazines or fish and chips.
Therefore, those bands were like older brothers and sisters. I watched them giving interviews, performing, and I followed their releases. They were part of my life. For some reason I thought I had a lot to learn from them and their songs, but I never really adopted a fan attitude. They were just doing the job I dreamed of, so I watched them tirelessly, trying to understand how it all worked.

Blur’s comeback was something I feared. But on the other hand, I knew the guys were smart enough, and wouldn’t reappear unless they had something valuable to share.
When the first pictures of the band working on new songs popped up on the internet I was surprised by how simple it all looked. All band members in the same room, small studio, in a total DIY atmosphere. The 30 minutes documentary that was released a few days after the release says just that : they needed to hide somewhere, jam, and it would eventually lead to a fine record. Graham obviously took the lead, and I believe that helped putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

The result is a great Blur record. It’s funny how the esthetics of it all -the cover, the chinese signs and artwork, and the songs themselves- contrast with the behind the scenes atmosphere. Mostly made of shitty iPad Videos of four guys working in a crappy studio… well, that’s not fancy at all ! Maybe fans were expecting something else, but it speaks for itself. All band members seem to be enjoying themselves and that’s all we needed to know.

I don’t want to write about the record itself. I am not a music critic. But I do like it and I think it’s a wonderful Blur record. It’s typical : great songwriting, nonchalant basslines and catchy guitar riffs with an elegant sound. Typical doesn’t mean it’s just another Blur record. It’s truly different, and there is a melancoly and solemnity about it that makes it really moving. Maybe it’s not the best record they’ve ever made, but it’s probably the most endearing one.
I feel my big brothers finally made up and it’s somehow heartwarming.

After ‘The Magic Whip’ finished spinning on my turntable, I was happy and wanted to hug those four guys and thank them for making pop music so bloody exciting.

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Girls & Bands

I was not convinced I should read Kim Gordon’s memoir. Although I do like Sonic Youth, it was never a band that fascinated me. I respected them a lot, and I bought some of their records, but I was more into Nirvana at the time, it was more pop, more visceral and spoke to me more. I always thought Sonic Youth was a bit too artsy.
Therefore, Kim Gordon was not my reference as THE woman in a band. She looked too strong, and too confident, there was something harsh about her. Maybe she was too American, too girlie. Maybe I was more into girls playing guitar and I despised bass. Maybe she was not enough of a leader. I never really thought about it, but she was not my type and I never identified with her.

When Kim and Thurston’s marriage exploded, and Sonic Youth called it a day, I felt weird. It was rather unexpected. It’s true that those two looked like a myth, it was the perfect rock and roll couple and everyone thought they couldn’t ever separate. They had been through so much already, they were in a rock band together! That had to be the biggest test ever for a relationship! But they failed, after so many years, and like most couples do, in the most pathetic way. There is no exception for rockstars, obviously. Everybody goes by the same rules.
I remember the official statement the band made for the press, it was simple, clear, and straightforward. There was no crazy media fuss about it, which I thought was elegant.
I was not a Sonic Youth fan, but those two meant something to me, and I grew up with them. Sadly, I realized how important they were to me when they separated.

‘Girl in a Band’ sounded like a good hook.
I, too, am a girl in a band after all. And whether Kim Gordon is my type or not, she is so damn cool. So I bought the book.

Autobiographies or memoirs are always interesting when you are in the music world yourself, because most of the artists now in their late 50s or 60s or even older have had unusual lives. My generation is much more formatted and trajectories often look the same. But back in the days, there were real musical movements and all those people were, if not pioneers themselves, part of something huge, something that changed the society, the music, the fashion, the way of life, and the business too. And grunge was probably the last real musical movement along with britpop. I was a teenager when it happened, I remember it all, I was watching MTV, and those bands were everywhere; on television, on the radio, on the mixtapes I made for my friends and we exchanged at school, and in my imagination too. I wanted to be like those guys. I wanted to be a girl in a band.

Kim Gordon’s book looks like an essay to me. It’s extremely insightful. As I was reading along I took a bunch of notes. She reflects about being a woman in general, and in this band in particular, about relationships, in the band, outside the band, in the business, in art, in love, in the family. It’s not a boring collection of chronological events summarizing her life. Of course, it made a lot of sense to me. Some questions I also have, some issues are simply identical because I am a woman, surrounded by guys, and expectations are somehow similar.

I was convinced Kim was a pure New Yorker, but although she was born in Rochester, NY, she was raised in California. The sunny glamorous halo surrounding her probably comes from there. But her intellectual journey really took off in New York around the no-wave movement.
What I really found fascinating is that she never really describes her job as a songwriter’s duty. It’s not about the songs, or the melodies, but mostly about the performance and the idea. For her, music, at least in the beginning, seemed to have been an artistic medium like any other. Making sound was as important as creating pictures, filming, painting, dancing or performing in any way.
It’s definitely not how I came to music, I came to music by the melody, and how it obsessed me, and by rhythmic patterns and how they appealed to me physically. It was not intellectual, at first, but totally instinctive and sensitive.
Although Kim appears as an overly sensitive person, she seemed to have found a shelter in the intellectual aspect of art. When you hide behind an idea, everything seems much easier, because that idea structures what you are doing as much as it shapes your being. It’s fully reassuring. Kim wanted to create, and it was natural for her to move into the art world. Although performing was vital for her, she doesn’t speak precisely about writing and the band’s workflow. Some songs are highlighted, and she tells the story about specific lyrics but you really understand, that despite such a raw and primitive sound, Sonic Youth’s music was guided by a highly sophisticated ambition.

Gordon also speaks as a woman, a wife and a mother, and depicts herself as insecure and fragile. She is not indecent in any way, but still manages to share a lot about herself. It’s a strong book and you sometimes feel she probably had written more than what was kept in the final version. All extracts about Kurt Cobain are amazing, their affinity was moving and it didn’t surprise me. There is something solid about her, probably linked to her social background, that makes her so wonderfully normal.
I believe one needs to have this sort of solidity to succeed in art; normal is necessary. The strength and longevity comes from that. Normal doesn’t mean boring, it’s just a structure. It means you know where you come from, and where you’re heading at, and it supposes you are not building things up randomly. It’s like a grid you can always refer to. It doesn’t protect you from everything, but I think it helps keeping you alive in a world that constantly requires you to open up, and puts a lot of pressure on you.
Kim Gordon did just that. She wasn’t really aware of herself as a rockstar. In the book you understand she somehow figured out what she represented for the kids, but it was never meaningful to her. She always had her feet on the ground. Maybe her marriage didn’t survive that normality, but I tend to believe she did, as a woman. Her career and life looks very consistent to me. She was never a girl in a brand.

Anyway, this book a must-read and Kim Gordon is obviously a smart woman. He reflections are genuinely openhearted and inspiring. It was stimulating in many ways. It’s not a rockstar’s ego-centered autobiography, but a woman’s collection of thoughts and memories. And a very valuable one.

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