2014: A Year’s Worth of Memories, Pt. 3
by Steven Spoerl
A million and half thank you’s are due to everyone who’s contributed pieces to this ongoing series so far: Michelle Zauner, Sam Clark, Tess Duncan, Caroline Rayner, Cynthia Ann Schemmer, Eva Grace Hendricks, Dave Benton, Michael Caridi, Shari Heck, David Anthony, Quinn Moreland, Gabriela June Tully Claymore, Jesse Amesmith, Katie Capri, Jeff Bolt, and everyone who contributed a piece to this round. Hats off to Jesse Frick, Stephen Tringali, Oliver Kalb, David Glickman, and Loren Diblasi for all of the wonderful pieces included below. As always, it’s the most surreal, sincere honor to be able to be providing all of this wonderful writing a home. Enough from me, on to what’s really important: part 3 of 2014: A Year’s Worth of Memories.
Hands down my favorite musical moments of the year happened in Austin and Brooklyn, the locations of our unofficial SXSW and CMJ parties, respectively. When you run or work at a label, most interactions with bands, fans, media, and peers are all done virtually. But all bets are off once we’re on the same turf. There is no better feeling after spending 6+ months on a record release or planning a showcase than to see people ENJOYING what you helped to create.
Presenting a show at a festival like SXSW or CMJ is a massive undertaking, a huge pain in the ass of an undertaking. Finding sponsors to help cover venue rentals and bar tabs, scheduling 12+ bands’ time slots around their 15+ other shows, politely screaming in sync with everyone else’s promoting of their own shows, not to mention doing all of this in your spare time outside of your day job- it’s exhausting.
But then I think back to the evening of March 13, 2014- Monster Rally’s Ted Feighan is doing his fucking awesome thing on the second of two stages at our Liberation SXSW party with Gold Robot, Small Plates, and Inflated Records. For a few moments, everyone in the crowd throws their grievances and inhibitions out the window and starts dancing. It no longer matters what website you write for or who you manage or “ugh, I can’t believe that guy who refuses to reply to my emails is here!” For once, everyone remembers why we hustle, why we sacrifice, why we believe and soak it in.
Fast forward to October 24, 2014. I’m standing in the back of The Silent Barn, a community space that I have the utmost respect and undying love for. The Silent Barn is what arts communities around the world should be. It also currently houses some of my favorite Muppet people as well as Gravesend Studios, a recording space that every band in NYC needs to check out. But I digress. Through various ebbs and flows, Jeanette of Miscreant Zine & Records and I team up and with the help of Nina at Silent Barn decide to shoot for a 12-hour party because 6-hour parties are for chumps.
The line-up came together like buttah. We managed to squeeze in 19 of our favorite musical people and everyone played a full set! Jeanette and Liz put together a phenomenal issue of The Miscreant special for the party with submissions from all of the performers. My dad and stepmom flew in from Miami to come to the party. Friends from all over swung by throughout the day to say hi, drink wine, get haircuts, and just enjoy being with one another. We underestimated the schedule so the 12-hour party turned into a 14-hour party but that didn’t faze us- we were still dancing like mad at almost 4am with Moon Bounce closing out the night. It was a beautiful thing.
Now, looking forward to 2015, a new year filled with new records and new parties to organize and I think to myself, I am one lucky son of a gun. Thanks to everyone who made this year so special- much love to you all.
-Jessi Frick (Father/Daughter Records)
This past year, I was fortunate enough to work on several music videos for artists that I truly respect as either the cinematographer (Roomrunner, Chastity Belt, Speedy Ortiz) or the director (Connections, Big Ups).
Many may already know the struggles of making independent music videos- they don’t pay much (or anything at all); the budgets are incredibly small but the expectations are high; and they would mostly be impossible to produce if it were not for the devoted and passionate filmmakers who make them.
The second music video I worked on this year- Chastity Belt’s “Black Sail”- stands out as the most intense, most gratifying memory of 2014. My friend Maegan Houang had pitched the band a sprawling western/horror concept and asked me to be the cinematographer on the video. The treatment was spectacular and Maegan is one of the most talented directors I know. Of course I wanted to be involved.
We prepared for the video over the coming months but the sheer scale of it did not really hit me until I arrived in Yucca Valley the day before the shoot. There, sitting on the side of the road, was an enormous tractor-trailer towing a full-size Conestoga wagon. Beside it were period-correct barrels, broken chairs, rifles- everything a production designer might have on a production with a real budget. I had no idea how Maegan had pulled this together but I assumed she had done it through pure tenacity.
Getting the wagon to the location was an entirely different issue. Between it and the filming location was a long and winding sand path, some small hills, and even more sand and bushes. The tractor-trailer obviously couldn’t take the wagon any farther, so we hitched it to a 4×4 that slowly towed the wagon through the terrain. All the while, we had to turn the wagon’s wheels by hand and guide it along.
I fell asleep that night curled up in a sleeping bag in the back of my car (remember, this was a low budget music video). My ears were ringing. I knew this meant that my stress level was at an all-time high. I felt an enormous pressure to make this video look better than anything I had ever shot before. The potential for everything to fall perfectly into place on the first day of the shoot could not have been greater. And that’s exactly why I had nightmares of the entire production going up in flames.
Thankfully, this did not happen. We had all prepared well. I had an excellent crew (1st assistant camera Vito Huizar, key grip Nate Thomson, and many others). And the weather was kind to us.
After the video premiered online in late August of 2014, Stereogum featured it on their 5 Best Videos Of The Week list. It was accepted into the Los Angeles Music Video Festival and won the Audience Award. Reflecting back on the project, I could not be more proud of my contribution.
-Stephen Tringali (Director/Cinematographer)
Some Thoughts About The Epoch and My Year
When I think back on my year, I first think of my friends and how proud I am of them for everything they’ve accomplished in just a few months. Though 2014 is the first year that our collective The Epoch has really come into the fore in New York City, the truth is that each of us in the collective has been working on our separate projects for almost four years now. Instead of writing about my favorite moment or album of this year, I want to share some thoughts about our collective’s history and the significance this year played in re-forming my ideas about being a part of a music scene.
Henry Crawford, who now plays under the moniker Small Wonder, used to play in a loud rock band called The Mighty Handful. Their shows were spectacles, in a variety of ways. Jack Greenleaf, often instead of playing an instrument, would throw confetti at the audience and run back and forth around the stage like those two extra members of Arcade Fire. Henry and Jack Ferencz, the co-frontman, would flail and convulse violently. An inaudible violin and the occasional appearance of brass players were sort of a ploy to assure the audience of the intelligence and ambitiousness of the band. There were tons of things that were over the top and nearly lame about The Mighty Handful but they were also a beautiful band to see. All of them were around sixteen years old and were so earnestly excited about their band that, even when they sounded terrible, their energy infected everyone in the room. They were willing to fall on their face and seem ridiculous and it made them able to achieve higher heights than the more “mature” pre-chill-wave bands that they were playing shows with in 2008.
Eventually the members of the Mighty Handful broke up and went to college in different cities. Those of us who remained friends formed separate solo projects, most of us adopting a lighter touch and quieter sound. In 2011, we began calling our group of musician friends “The Epoch,” and started to use the word ‘collective’ to describe the group dynamic we’d already had for a number of years. Though all of the old members of the Mighty Handful are now embarrassed by their high school super-group, the Mighty Handful’s lofty ambition and high-stakes rocking-out hasn’t really left us– I think that in some ways our collective’s slogan “The Epoch is Now” is basically a reflection of the same bravado that guided the Mighty Handful to rock out so hard. We’ve just re-contextualized their boyish energy into a somber stoicism that appears more humble but is basically just a less teenage way of demonstrating that we’re super serious about the music we’re making.
In January of this year, Henry released an album called Wendy, a downtrodden and elegant record that’s hugely dynamic and sonically intricate. It’s a really demanding album that took Henry about three years to write and a year to record, the product of long periods of hunkering down with Jack Greenleaf, who produced and arranged the record. Wendy got the attention of a number of blogs and was basically the first Epoch project that got some notice in the “blogosphere.” It was the first of a slew of Epoch projects that came out in the first part of this year. In April, I released my second album as Bellows, Blue Breath, which I began writing working on in late 2011 and continued to write, record and revise for almost three years. In May, Jack Greenleaf released his second album as Sharpless, a painstaking record called The One I Wanted To Be. All three of these albums made minor blips in the NYC indie blog circuit. They circulated moderately well around mid-level blogs and ended up getting tape and vinyl releases on small indie labels. The attention was hugely important to us and we talked about it almost obsessively in the spring and summer. Then, as is the way of the Internet, people stopped talking about the albums and moved onto other things.
It was then that we started to freak out. Had Wendy gotten enough attention? Had people understood Blue Breath? Was some information about J-Pop necessary to see what Jack was going for with Sharpless? Reading these questions back to myself, they look totally ridiculous. It’s tough to admit the amount of emotional stress each of us went through over the inevitable decay of our blog cycle, but it’s totally true and worth discussing.
At sixteen, the allure of rockstardom can be deeply entangled in the way you develop as a young artist. Most teenage bands emulate the songwriters that speak to them the most. I know in my high school music scene, we had sound-a-likes of Joy Division, Modest Mouse, and The Replacements, to name a few. It’s not that we were plagiarizing— it was more like practicing a foreign language: translating other peoples’ words can be the easiest way to figure out how to speak by yourself.
I’ve found that songwriting is a performance, not just in the obvious sense, but also because it involves constantly and aggressively reimagining your personality. Obviously no one is as dark and brooding as their songs suggest (or as bubbly and outgoing, as the case may be), but the songs they sing depict a darker aspect of their everyday self that isn’t readily available to anyone other than close friends. Performing a “character” when you sing a song you wrote isn’t as glam or gaudy an act as it might sound- I think a lot of artists and singers like to show a more serious side of themselves, possibly because they think it’ll be more easily believed or swallowed by their audience, or maybe because it feels good to exorcise hidden parts of yourself that you don’t get to express in everyday life. The character can be so close to the real person that it’s very hard to distinguish them- sometimes it might not even be a noticeable difference, but I’ve found that there’s always a distance between the person a song tells you about and the person who you meet after a show.
I’ve only recently been able to notice a difference between the voice I use when I write Bellows songs and the person I am in public. The union of these two distinct personalities is interesting to me and is something I’ve been trying to explore in my music lately (the song “Cease to Be”, the last track on my album Blue Breath is about this idea. I describe a close friend of mine looking at herself in the mirror and seeing a complete person, a sort of net-zero of self-image and reflected self: “You look at her once and you know completely/she is the way that you thought she’d be/something like clarity that I seek out/to look in the mirror and cease to be”).
It’s increasingly clear to me, however, that the character a songwriter presents to the public very quickly becomes a product. Songwriters who become popular very quickly lose access to the private, personal characters they invent once they begin the process of signing off time and effort to companies with the ability to turn their art into money. I’m not really a kook or conspiracy theorist about the music industry, but I do think that it can be a problem when music is sold as a seemingly “authentic” experience of confessional, hyper-real access to a singer’s private life. We have a culture in our indie rock world that puts these “characters” songwriters invent on a very high pedestal. I’ve heard that Elliott Smith, the prototype of the depressed, drug-addicted songwriter on whom so many songwriters base their unstable and reckless behavior, was nothing like the person his songs made him out to be. By the end of his career, it’s obvious that he was deeply disturbed by how commodified his depression and addiction were- he was becoming rich off of his own pain- and was expected to stay in pain forever in order to keep the checks coming.
Obviously I’m not famous by any means, so my doubts about the industry around DIY and indie music communities are mostly speculative. But as I see more of my friends move into low and mid-levels of popularity, I see them stricken with the same questions. Do you want a company to require you to tour six months out of the year? Was that the reason you made your first record? Do you want your time off touring to be sequestered to the task of writing something that matches (or hopefully exceeds) your last record? Even when that last record took you three years to write? And by whose standards can you even judge the worth of your music if not your own? The further distanced you are from the process of actually making your art, the more difficult it is answer these questions. When I was most distressed about whether my album was doing well in the blog world, I was least connected to the actual music I had made. I would walk my dog around my neighborhood listening to the album on repeat, but may as well have been listening to nothing. My anxiety made it impossible to hear what I had done, because I was so intent on hearing it from everybody’s ears but my own.
It seems to me that the only way to survive as a person trying to take things seriously in this unforgiving music world is to create your own fulfillment. If the act of writing songs itself is no longer satisfying to you, you’ve already failed yourself. There’s no possibility of failing or succeeding in the wider world of indie music because you’ve categorically denied yourself the ability to experience real joy or satisfaction. Everything is hollow because you’ve projected an image yourself that’s so far removed from the person you are in private that you don’t even have access to that person anymore.
At the risk of sounding corny, I’m going to end this with three sort of self-important/self-flagellating reminders I’ve been trying to drill into my own brain:
- Access yourself. Write songs because you want to. Not for an album. Not for a blog or record label. Because, again, you want to and because you have to believe that something pure guided you to be so psyched about making music when you were sixteen and there wasn’t anybody coming to your shows.
- The private act of making music is the only thing that matters- the stuff that’s created behind closed doors when nobody’s commenting and there’s nobody else to hear and appreciate it but you.
3. There’s no Album of the Year.
-Oliver Kalb (Bellows)
Upon Seeing Majical Cloudz at Fun Fun Fun Fest
I saw Majical Cloudz for the first time five days after my aunt had died. We were close, and devastating doesn’t even begin to cover what I felt when I received the phone call from my mom that she had passed away. I spent that whole day stumbling around Austin feeling hollow, bursting into tears when I started to talk or think about her. I didn’t want to do anything at all in the days that followed but I made it out for the show, in large part to help celebrate a friend’s birthday. “Childhood’s End” had already made its way onto my iPod, but Impersonator hadn’t come out yet, and for the most part I was entering the show knowing little of what to expect; just a few overheard stories about their sets being powerful. The duo took the stage nonchalantly and, over the course of the show, latched onto something inside of me. The songs were simple, sparse, but carried a weight to them, a sense of importance that could not be shaken. I left their show thinking how desperately I wanted- no- needed to experience their music again.
I grabbed a copy of Impersonator as soon as I possibly could; I listened to that album practically every day of 2013, internalizing every song, every lyric. “Childhood’s End” became about my emotional state, the romanticism of “Silver Rings” became a source of small comfort. I couldn’t listen to “Bugs Don’t Buzz” for long stretches of time; the way it way it talked so point-blank about death was something I couldn’t always handle. My favorite track, though, was the last one, “Notebook”, a song about comforting a loved one in a hospital while confronting one’s own mortality. I lost count of the nights where I would stay up to three in the morning, listening to that song, wanting to scream the line “I don’t want to turn to the Bible yet”. This is the album- and the band- that got me through a terrible time in my life.
And so after more than a year, I finally got to see them perform again. I skipped out on seeing Dinosaur Jr to get the best spot possible and waited patiently. Matt Otto and Devon Walsh soon took the stage, just as casually as they did last time, and began to play. A complete hush quickly fell over the audience (something I’ve only witnessed at Majical Cloudz shows) and the opening lines of “This is Magic” came out of the speakers. The next song was “Notebook”, which Welsh dedicated to me after I yelped for joy. I was wanted to tell him everything that song meant to me, but all I could do was sing along. I would have been content with this show, re-experiencing the quiet intensity that I witnessed before, now being a little more aware of what I was experiencing. Instead though, for the fourth song Welsh stepped into the crowd and started performing from there. The dynamic changed instantly, as the audience began to move to the music, singing and even shouting along to the lyrics.
Suddenly, this wasn’t about me experiencing music that meant something to me; it was about the audience collectively experiencing these songs together. We swayed when Welshed asked us to, crouched down for another song. People swarmed around Welsh, wanting to be as close to him as possible, to sing every word along with him. Everyone hung on every moment; even the new songs were mesmerizing (one with the line “I’ll be your friend ‘till I’m buried in the ground” in particular left a dull pain in my chest). In between every song I would turn and look at the people around me. Everyone wore the same small smile, one crafted from the sense of knowing that the people next to you were experiencing, in their own way, the same brilliant catharsis as you. The band ended the show with “Bugs Don’t Buzz”, with the song’s ominous piano lines sounding even more foreboding at such a high volume. And yet as the lyrics came in, as Welsh and the crowd sang about love crumbling in the face of death, there was no dread in the air. Because these songs weren’t about the end, they were about living a life, despite knowing the end was there. Experiencing that feeling, surrounded by strangers all experiencing similar feelings, was amazing. Welsh and Otto managed to make the tent they were performing in, at a massive music festival, seem like the most intimate spot in the world.
They were performing again later that night, but I didn’t go; I couldn’t experience something like that twice.
-David Glickman (The Daily Texan)
Navigating Adulthood in 2014 (via Lyric)
Being a grown up is hard. You don’t realize how hard until adulthood slaps you in the face. I suffered several of these brutal attacks in 2014, my 25th year of existence. Quarter-life crisis? That’s a thing, I guess. This year, I was bruised and battered like never before, sometimes at my own hand. But while many of life’s punches left their mark- and in some cases, the pain still stings- I survived, and that’s probably worth something. Isn’t it?
“How easily we forget in order to live.” – Priests, “Design Within Reach”
For the purposes of this essay, let’s go with a resounding, “Yes!” But when you’re 25, every day feels like a question. Am I doing the right thing? Am I going to be happy? Is this person I’m spending time with going to make me happy? Should I even bother letting him try?
Of course, 2014 wasn’t all doom and gloom, although it’s always easier to harp on the darker moments. This year brought several triumphs, both personal and professional, and an abundance of good times with good people. As usual, music functioned at the epicenter: going to shows, hearing new records, meeting musicians I admire, and even making my own music (however poorly) for the first time.
All in all, nothing new. And yet, in the overall scheme of things, 2014 has been noticeably different. I’ve always allowed music to soundtrack the important, and also not-so important, moments of my life: every change, every milestone, and every achievement. Still, this year, it was uncanny how my favorite songs and albums seemed to align with whatever was happening, as it was happening, in my life. Suddenly, lyrics rang true like never before; melodies haunted my brain for hours on end; I worried that musicians I had never even met might be invading my dreams, engineering them without my knowledge or consent.
“Do I bother to define myself beyond what they allow? Have I already forgotten how?” – Parquet Courts, “Black & White”
If nothing else, 2014 was eventful. My first trip to SXSW was an endless blaze of bands, booze, and (literal) body surfing. Death By Audio closed, taking a tiny piece of my soul along with it. I (probably) saw Guy Picciotto on the subway. I was hired, I was fired. I started a band. I fell in love. Now I’ve reached the end, and to be quite frank, I’m fucking exhausted. So where do we go from here?
“I often get the feeling I don’t have any sensation/ It isn’t much of a feeling.” – Viet Cong, “Unconscious Melody”
I guess we rewind, right back to the beginning. Some people are just inherently good at life. I’ve never considered myself one of them. Raised by a badass single mom from Brooklyn, I’ve always believed that my strong will is mainly what’s gotten me this far; that, plus my affinity for foul language (you can’t trust anyone whose parents never taught them to curse). I’ve never shied away from anything, really, but I’ve still never been jazzed by the idea of taking on the “Real World.” In 2014, I was thrust straight into its clutches, mostly against my will.
We all know that writing– like any creative endeavor– simply isn’t lucrative. There’s no set career path to follow, and especially with music writing, there aren’t any rules. After graduating college with a butt-load of student debt and not much else, I quickly realized that the occupation of “writer” was mostly reserved for the fictional realm of movies and television. In order to survive, I would need a job to support my ambitions.
Just before turning 25, I was hired at my first real job, and before the year was through, I was let go. At the time, the thought of returning to a life of freelancing- mainly, a life of financial uncertainty- was utterly terrifying. Then, I had a breakthrough: hadn’t writing been really, really good to me this year? Sometimes, it’s easy to feel like you haven’t accomplished anything at all, because being a writer means second-guessing your every move, whether it be the placement of a comma or a meaningful life decision. Most of the time, that isn’t the case at all. Usually, you’re far better off than you think.
“As it breaks, the summer will wake/ But the winter will wash what’s left of the taste.” – Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
This past spring, I was lucky to find a home at Impose and I’m so thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had because of it. Last year, when I was working mostly for no pay at small, local blogs, becoming a staff writer at my favorite site was nothing short of a Les Mis-style impossible dream. Now, as the year comes to a close, I’m taking on new assignments from new outlets and collaborating with like-minded people like never before (and have the free time to do so). By no means is it easy, but for the first time in my life, I feel like a real-life music writer. I’m not so numb with terror anymore. In fact, it feels pretty good.
“Finally I know what love is/ It’s the feeling that you’re being pulled apart by horses.” – Flagland, “Superlove”
Alas, we’ve finally reached the fun stuff. At 25, after years of fancying myself an emotionless humanoid shell, I discovered that I, too, am susceptible to feelings. If you prick me, I do bleed, and unfortunately that blood is the same color as every other broken-hearted girl in Brooklyn. It was a hard realization, but once the damage had been done, there was no turning back. Fuck!
It’s okay, though. I mean, it’s not okay- getting dicked around by someone is never okay, and allowing it to happen more than once is even less okay- but still, there’s something to be gained in losing at love. Knowing that the struggle is, indeed, all too real. Knowing that you gave it your all. Knowing that you’ve said all there is to say, even when saying it hurts more than you ever thought possible. Knowing that time really does make everything better, and that good friends (and alcohol) definitely help speed up the process.
“I wish someone would swallow me.” – Krill, “Turd”
Are you not supposed to write so candidly about these things? I don’t know, because like I said, in writing there are no rules. This year, I’ve interviewed some of my favorite bands on the planet and struggled with this very concept. Objectivity in music journalism is something I’ve never been able to fully wrap my head around. How can music writing be objective when music itself is anything but? If a song or a record or a band is able to move you, and in turn you’re able to share with others how you’ve been moved, isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that why you do it?
I’ve always imagined myself an outsider. That’s why working so closely with music has always appealed to me. Music makes it okay to feel whatever you want, because as long as someone else feels the same, you’re not alone. This is how bonds are formed; they’re most definitely the truest bonds I’ve ever experienced. Obviously, it’s best that some lines don’t become blurred- I’ve learned that lesson the hard way, a couple times over now- but isn’t the messier stuff always the best stuff? At least sometimes?
“We’re all the fucking same.” – Ought, “Today More Than Any Other Day”
Early this year, I sat down for an interview with my friend Joe, whose band Big Ups released one of my favorite records of 2014. Something he said during our talk really stuck with me, and has stuck with me ever since. Regarding his band’s debut, Eighteen Hours of Static, he said, “the record asks a lot of questions, because I don’t know what the answers are.” We were discussing what it’s like to be our age, and to see the things we see every day, and to feel the things we feel all the time. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the answers, and even at 25, I still don’t. I also don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Maybe don’t listen to anything I say. Maybe I’m drinking white wine straight from the bottle right now, and maybe my judgment is a bit clouded (hint: it is). Regardless, I can’t shake the feeling that everything will be okay in 2015, or maybe even better than okay. This year presented itself with a lot of problems, but starting now, I plan to live each day with the blind faith that they’ll soon be solved. Is that what being grown up means? 2014 wasn’t the year I grew up, exactly, but it was the year I started to get there.
-Loren DiBlasi (Impose, DIY)