Happy birthday Trevor Dunn who celebrates his 48th birthday today.
To celebrate we have gathered a selection of interviews with the bassist.
For Trevor Dunn making music is all about pleasing himself and it's a philosophy that has yielded a long and progressive career. Understanding that an artist can't please everyone, Dunn is contented to be his own audience, having faith that someone out there will enjoy the music he makes. It's worked out well so far. Dunn has played with Tom Waits, John Zorn and is a key member in pioneering bands like Mr Bungle and Fantomas, most recently taking the bass reigns with Tomahawk. With a penchant for genre blending, Dunn never lets this element of his career define him and is comfortable playing it straight. Metal, jazz or classical, it's all just music to Dunn and he'll do with it what he pleases.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
My first memories of 'writing' music are of constructing some sort of dramatic narrative on a neighbor's upright piano probably around the age of eight. I also recall messing around on my older brother's guitar with the top three strings in first position, which I now recognize as a simple way to connect triads with pivot tones. I was also writing lyrics to songs that didn't exist while in grammar school.
Much of all of this probably had a lot to do with being inspired by my brother and the influence of Kiss records that he would bring home in the late '70s. A few years later, after starting electric bass and immediately getting into a band, thanks to my teacher hooking me up with a guitar player student whose brother was a drummer, I began writing actual songs. My passions at that point included Blondie, Cheap Trick, Van Halen, college radio and the Dr. Demento show.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
Seeing Kiss at the Cow Palace in 1979 and X at Mojo's in 1980, hearing Jaco Pastorius for the first time. Mingus' Ah Um, Miles Davis' Nefertiti, Slayer's Reign In Blood, Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring. Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs For A Mad King. Seeing The Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1988, playing with jazz drummers, seeing Tim Berne's Fractured Fairytales on Night Music.
Aside from those outside moments I also consider that being unbiased about genres at a young age led me to incisive moments like making a connection between disparate musics. For instance, realizing that harmonic changes in classical music could be utilized in death metal. In other words, realizing at an early age that what I enjoy in music has nothing to do with genre.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
Learning software and trying to become efficient at being my own recording engineer while maintaining my technique on contrabass. Also, balancing being a musician with being a composer, which are two completely different mindsets that both require a lot of time and energy.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
The first thing that comes to mind is the ensemble; the orchestration. I do have scraps of material lying around which were written without an instrument in mind. I have no idea where these will end up. But when it comes to tackling a specific piece, I have to know what I'm writing for. From there I begin to think conceptually; where the piece is going to go and how it's going to get there, what shape it is going to take. All very structural but non-musical ideas.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I don't necessarily. Another term for improvising is 'spontaneous composition'. Harnessing or 're-writing' improvisation can be a major part of composition, if not all of it. Improvising happens quickly and haphazardly whereas composing is a slow, drawn out, analytical process. Both are coming from the same muse although the former may be more emotionally based.
Improvising often has to do with searching, where composing is more about finding. In the past I have composed improvisations as roadmaps and direction to aim for within an improvisation, as well as placed improvisation within a composition. And I have separated the two completely. I don't follow any strict rule about how these two forms should co-exist.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Being someone who plays both acoustic and amplified music I am constantly aware of the challenges of acoustics, rental gear and the changing environments in which I play. One of the worst feelings, which I experience all too often, is not being able to convey a musical idea due to poor acoustics, an inept sound engineer or flawed or unfamiliar equipment.
When it comes to composition, the piece initially exists in the vacuum of the mind, the perfect environment, which of course does not exist in reality. So, sound and space can water down the composition making the relationship between these three things dysfunctional. Recordings, on the other hand, though possibly clear and idealistic, are not necessarily representative of reality either. Ultimately I think it is rare, if not impossible, for a composition to be heard by an audience in the way it was conceived in someone's brain.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
I don't think it's important for the processes to be understood at all. In fact, it is desirable that they are not even perceptible. Music should be enjoyed on a purely musical level. No program, popularity, or system should be a factor in whether one finds something good and interesting or not, at least not the only factor. There is certainly good music that comes from no process.
To make a process transparent is to turn the music into an exercise. Exercises are great for analysis, education, and progress, but don't necessarily make for a good listening experience. Ideas are another story. If a musical idea is not clear then it is lost on the listener and might as well not exist at all.
The question of 'why?' never needs to be answered in music or rather, good music should never beg that question. But if an idea, especially a new one, is clear then the question of 'what?' will be a means to discovery. An audience should be able to hear ideas but whatever goes beyond that is out of the composer's hands.
The shape of inspiration
In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
There is no way to know how much. Of course all decisions, creative or not, are in someway affected by the culture they reside within. The lifestyle one is born into or organically migrates toward is going to have some bearing, regardless of how small, on an individual's creative process. And for the second part of this question, the differences in, say, Eastern and Western music and the training that the ears of those cultures are subject to are well documented.
The relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema most importantly - has become increasingly important. How do you see this relationship yourself and in how far, do you feel, does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
As a fan of films and film music, and as someone who writes film music, the relationship is a close one. I would also say that I am still a student of this relationship in that I am continuously trying to understand its balance and find cohesion. I believe that all art forms are really just different shapes of the same thing, the same muse or passion.
There is melody, counterpoint, harmony and rhythm in painting, for example check out Paul Klee. Our senses are merely tools for understanding and how we mentally interpret and utilize that understanding is subjective. Music, and art in general, is just stimulus begging response.
There seem to be two fundamental tendencies in music today: On the one hand, a move towards complete virtualisation, where tracks and albums are merely released as digital files. And, on the other, an even closer union between music, artwork, packaging and physical presentation. Where do you stand between these poles?
I still think about music in the same way I always have. When it comes to creating music it's about getting the ideas out of my head, onto paper or into sound files and then finding an audience. As a listener, I still partake in every medium as I always have. I have a cassette player in my car, I travel with an iPod and I still purchase used vinyl and listen to it on a turntable at home.
Packaging and presentation go under the larger heading of 'marketing' which will always evolve with the times. Of course, I grew up in the '70s & '80s and I am nostalgic for artwork, liner notes with production information and album covers, but I am from an old-fashioned, endangered audience. There is not a lot I can or should do about that. The tendencies of the industry, market, production etc, are there for a reason.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I don't know if I agree with this statement. My 'role' as an artist is to be an artist, whatever that term means to me. And whatever change I am subject to, by the outside world or by my own inner growth, will manifest not as a goal but as personal direction leading to somewhere that, I would guess, has no end.
How an artist chooses to present his task is subjective. To each his own. The way I try to meet my own personal goals is to become a better artist, a better musician, and to continue to learn and absorb. In other words, my role is my own business. If what I create makes someone think, then that is great. What they think about and what they do with those thoughts is not my responsibility, it is theirs.
Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it?
There is too much music. I can't keep up, especially not as a listener. But I get to what I can and in that I have to sift through the crap to get to what is good, which is something we've always had to do as listeners. I don't think the abundance devalues the music because there are still plenty of artists doing quality work.
Technology has certainly aided unknown, obscure artists, but it's also allowed more crap to be more readily available. The upshot of this is that it forces us to be more discerning more quickly. How we deal with the overload of information depends on our individual capacity. Personally, I can say that there are probably ten records that I value greatly and that I continue to return to year after year.
An audience of one
How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences?
I would say that they can't. Difficult music will always have a limited, sometimes 'cult' following. That said, it's important to think about artists such as Björk who are using elements of pop music together with very creative, forward-thinking ideas. But aside from the unusual phrasing, novel orchestration and unpredictable forms in her music, there are still the elements of 'pop', including singable melodies, beats and drama. In order to appeal to the masses one has to appeal to an immediacy; something graspable that can be enjoyed without a lot of effort. That is not a judgement. I certainly enjoy that kind of music. But I can't expect too much from too many people.
Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the artist to win over an audience. But listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
As I've alluded to earlier, the artist's job is not contingent upon the audience. Igor Stravinsky said it very well, 'The listener reacts and becomes a partner in the game, initiated by the creator. Nothing less, nothing more. The fact that the partner is free to accept or to refuse participation in the game does not automatically invest him with the authority of a judge.'
As a composer my aim is to win over myself. If I'm not happy or interested in my own music, if I don't want to hear it, then what is the point? I will never be able to win over everyone. There will always be those who loathe what I create or are apathetic towards it. The sooner an artist accepts that fact the better off he will be. But I am also a listener. I am also an audience member. And my role as such is to seek out and embrace what I enjoy and deal with it in my own personal way, whether that means to study it, use it to alter my mood, or simply enjoy it.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
I honestly have no idea how it works. I've put money into promotion that generated no results, and I've seen large turns-outs based solely on word of mouth. It takes the effort of the passionate audience member to seek out his desires. It takes a certain type of hunger.
Marketing and advertising work the same way they always have; by repetitively force-feeding the public until familiarity is unmistakable and a sense of worth is lost without being a part of what is popular. It works on all levels and has nothing to do with talent or quality. I continue to keep my ears open for inspiration. I read trade magazines and weekly listings and I actively seek out music, film and literature that will push me forward regardless of what is trendy or not. The public's perception of everything is altered by the simple fact that they are the public and not an individual.
Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.
Two of my favorite bands in Brooklyn are Little Women and Buke & Gase.
Trevor Dunn may be the new guy in Tomahawk, but his long history with the post-rock super groups eclectic fron tman Mike Patton is certainly enough to make him feel right at home. Led by ex-Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison and rounded out by former Helmet drummer John Stanier, Tomahawk has welcomed Dunn as an official member.
Dunn will tour with Tomahawk to celebrate the release of the strikingly brilliant new record Oddfellows. A potent mix of punk, jazz, surf, pop, rock, and a dash of the un-categorizable, it’s my favorite record of 2013 so far and should certainly appeal to the fans of the aforementioned rock staples. Dunn is no stranger to genre bending as his impressive resume boasts a decade alongside experimental jazz guru John Zorn as well as his own successful projects Trio-Convulsant and Mad Love. Dunn took time during a recent three night stint with the Nels Cline Singers before embarking on the current Tomahawk tour to speak with TVD.
Do you have a favorite moment of touring past to present that resonates with you, or that a story that keeps popping up?
Probably my favorite was during one of the last Mr. Bungle tours in the States. We were playing in Myrtle Beach on this horrible tour package tour called Snow Core. We were opening up for System of a Down and Incubus and we were completely out-of-place. We were sort of the grandpas of the tour so we started really messing with the audiences. We dressed up like the Village People and acted super gay which really pissed off the metal kids.
That night in particular we got into an impromptu jam and started vamping on this disco riff in the middle of a song. Patton started giving a fellatio demonstration with the microphone and the crowd was livid. Kids were crowdsurfing over the barrier and giving us the finger. I thought I was going to get my ass kicked that night.
Out of all the music you have ever produced in your career, where is the most unusual place that you have heard your music?
It rarely happens that I hear any of my music anywhere. I do remember being in a disco in Melbourne, Australia with a friend at this multi tiered venue. There was a Goth level and a metal level, where we were on the metal level. They were playing Korn or something and then of course they started playing Mr. Bungle at some point. Some people seem to think it’s funny when they see someone from a band and think, oh, I’m going to play their music. In actuality, that’s the last thing that they want to hear. As soon as I hear it I go into that headspace of where I was at that moment and what was going on. There’s a lot of weight and history with that so it’s never really a fun experience for me.
Have you ever had a “Spinal Tap” moment on tour? Is that a common thing?
I love that movie but sometimes its hits a little too close to home. There are certain things that happened all the time, I have to say. I don’t if I can think of anything specifically, but “Hello Cleveland” is sort of a mantra now because it’s just all too common.
The new Tomahawk Record is out now on vinyl—are you big fan of vinyl and if so, are there any prized possessions in your collection?
I still buy vinyl, mostly used. I don’t really buy new vinyl so much. If I am going to buy something new, I usually buy it on CD. I am not really a download guy, I do it a little bit but I am pretty old-fashioned when it comes to that.
I have probably 2,500 records or something which isn’t a huge amount. In terms of prize stuff, there are certain things that I still find amazing. There is a Miles Davis record called Seven Steps to Heaven which is two recording sessions and basically two different bands. That record sounds really good on vinyl and that’s one thing that comes to mind. I tend to buy more obscure stuff – that’s why I get used vinyl. I buy 20th century classical stuff on vinyl and CD but it kind of depends really.
Do you have a favorite lyric from Patton, maybe something that you just heard and thought “what the hell?”
Yeah, I mean basically the new Tomahawk stuff …there is a song with the lyric, “What’s that the thing on your lip? You got some shit hanging off your lip.” It’s also the context of it, Mike really knows how to phrase words.
I read somewhere that you and Mike have known each other for quite some time – like twenty years or something?
More like thirty.
Oh wow, how did you first meet and do you remember the first conversation you guys had?
I don’t remember exactly the first conversation we had but we met in junior high school when we were probably about 14 or 15. He was hanging out with the jocks playing basketball and I was hanging out with nerds talking about Dungeons and Dragons and stuff like that. We found a comradery in music and we started trading records. Back then we would bring vinyl to school and trade records all the time. One guy would borrow your records for a while and of course tape it then give it back so. That’s where it all started.
I read somewhere that you’re a Cheap Trick fan? They are one of my favorite all-time favorites. I think In Color and the self-titled are two of the most brilliantly simple rock and roll records ever.
Yeah, I would agree with you, I think Live at Budokan was the first record that I ever bought myself. My older brother had a lot of influence on me, but that is one band that I discovered myself so I was a little bit possessive about them. I loved all those records.
I think I got the self-titled one a little bit later but I still listen to that one all the time. I think the bass sound is amazing when Tom Peterson gets to those eight and twelve string basses. I didn’t even realize until later that’s what I was hearing. Robin Zander’s voice is tremendous and the lyrics are really weird. It’s really straight ahead stuff, but there’s definitely something off about it. I don’t know what it is exactly, certain harmonic progressions or certain melodic choices, but I find really interesting. I’ve always dug that band.
I read that you were on a short list of bass players and got the call to do this tour. Were you surprised the first time you heard the new record regarding how straightforward it was as supposed to the previous records?
Not totally, I mean Duane might have given me a heads up about it or something but you know I really like those early Tomahawk records especially the first two. Actually, I don’t really know Anonymous very well, although I think we might play something from it so I have to learn it. But yeah, I really like Duane’s writing, his sense of harmony, and his style of guitar playing. So the idea of peppiness, if you want to call it that, I never really considered. To me it still has that kind of Duane signature and flavor to it.
HM Magazine | August 1991 | Jeremy Sheaffe
MR. BUNGLE: STILL VIRGINS!
Bass plucker for avant garde weirdos Mr. Bungle, Trevor Roy Dunn, disturbs Jeremy Sheaffe's morning with tales of pornography and masturbation. Surprisingly, though, there's not a word about Mike Patton.
The northern part of California has always been the breeding ground for weird shit. The renowned intersection of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco was epicentre of the 60s flower-power revolution that was led by Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. Similarly, where would Metallica, Exodus, Death Angel et al be without the 'Bay Area'? And even more recent than the thrash upswing has been the emergence of what can only be called 'weird shit' -- Faith No More, Primus and Mordred are all from Northern California. Trevor Roy Dunn is the bass player with a band who also come from this neck of the wood and also play 'weird shit'. This band is called Mr. Bungle and features not only Trevor but Scummy on guitar, Heifetz on drums, Bar on tenor sax, Theobald Brooks Lengyel on alto and bari intonation and Vlad Drac on vocals (he's the guy in Mr. B who's also in one of those other 'weird shit' band, OK). And as he is on the end of the phone, it seems that Trevor is the ideal person to ask just why this area produces all these ground-breaking bands? "Who knows -- there's a pulp mill out here and we get a lot of toxic emission in the air, so I think that's got something to do with it. Also, it is the heartburn capital of the nation. We consume more Rolaids than anyone else."
So it's the chemicals that would explain it all is it? "Yeah, that and the fact that in Eureka we have the highest rate of domestic violence in America. So it's that and all the chemicals, for sure."
Eureka is a town approximately 500 kilometres north of San Francisco that has been home for the last five years to Mr. Bungle. And Trevor reckons that it's Eureka's fault that the world now has Mr. Bungle. The press release that accompanies Mr. Bungle's self-titled debut describes Eureka as a place "in the middle of the bovine area."
"There's tons of bovine up here, they just walk through town and stuff. But Eureka, it's kinda in the middle of this big, giant forest and I live right in the middle of it."
In Australia, most of us music lovers will know that someone slightly famous is in Mr. Bungle (and everyone wants to know where his loyalties lie), and that their last demo, OU818, was a highly sought after piece of noise. In fact, late last year it was quite often a name dropped by those searching for the upper echelons of coolness. But there is much, much more to this band than just a famous singer; their record is really Zappa (which is L.A. speak for 'out there', or so I'm told) and it is also really rude. If you take the opening lines to "Squeeze Me Macaroni" as an example of this schoolboy rudeness ("I wanna lock Betty Crocker in the kitchen/ and knock her up during supper/Clutter up her butter gutter") you know your mum's gonna love the rest. But what, please Trevor, is the background to Mr. Bungle?
"We started out with all the bovines, and we just used to practice out in this big field, fulla cow shit. This was back in 1985 and we were playing death metal when it was a real big thing up here. Metallica and Slayer had just come out, and it was a new thing, a new sound. We started playing so fast that we had to stop, we couldn't play it any more. We played faster and faster until we couldn't play as fast as we wanted to. So we had to slam on the brakes."
From little things, big things grow -- was this when things started going weird? Trevor, who doesn't really think he's *that* weird, says, "Probably. I don't know. It would depend on your standards. I guess we think we are pretty normal, but I really don't know what other people think."
What about the Mr. Bungle character, is he the same guy from the Pee Wee Herman shows? "That's where we found him," Trevor agrees, "but I guess it is a name that appears in many other places. There's this old porn movie that uses a Mr. Bungle character. And I believe that in England there is a bear on TV called Mr. Bungle."
At the mention of Pee Wee Herman and pornography, I just had to ask how Trevor felt when he heard the news of Pee Wee's arrest for exposing himself?
"I was kinda disappointed actually, that he got caught. I could see it in his face, as soon as he started doing his stand-up stuff, I knew that was the kind of person he was." I find it curious that Trevor recognized Pee Wee as a master of the noble art of self-gratification and that there is a line in "Girls of Porn" that goes, "It's time to masturbate/ I've got my Hustler and I don't need nuthin' else". It appears that these boys like touchin' themselves. Why? "Sex is obviously dead, with the AIDS epidemic," Trevor states with a small hint of humor. "Soon people are gonna have to start vacuuming their carpets cos, instead of sex, people are gonna start dry humping -- y'know, having sex with their clothes on. And the only way to practice dry humping is by rubbing yourself up on your carpet."
Does AIDS actually affect people's lives deeply enough to make them choose to be celibate? "I'm sure everybody is conscious of it ... except for some people. But I know I'll never fuck again."
So how long have you been celibate, Trevor?
"All my life."
Still a virgin, then?
"The whole band is."
And you think that masturbation is the future?
"It's the only way to stay safe and healthy. Everyone's gonna start retreating to their homes and locking themselves indoors all day, that's kind of what I do, never leave. Everything I need is right here in the refrigerator or on the television."
Up to this point there has been little or no discussion of the actual music that makes up Mr. Bungle. Trevor, please explain to those who haven't actually heard the band what kind of music you play.
"I'm at a loss for words. I would usually tend to describe some kind of inanimate object or food, something out in a field. That is much easier to describe than some kind of music. Like I would rather describe a shrub or something out in the woods. That's the only way I can describe our music."
Confused? Yeah, me too. What about live then? Surely that must give some clues to the music.
"We're actually pretty terrible live, we put on a terrible live show. We spend too much time pretending that we are at a carnival and sometimes forget that we have instruments with us. We wear our Halloween masks."
But doesn't that somewhat detract from the music, as if all these costumes and theatrics are putting the music in second place?
Trevor disagrees. "I think it adds something, really. I mean people get pissed off when we won't take off our masks, but that is only because we are too ashamed to show our faces."
What, are you ashamed of yourselves personally, or just what you are doing?
"Both actually, being on stage is a form of self-flagellation."
I suppose I must ask the obvious type rock n' roll questions, y'know are you gonna tour, blah blah blah?
"Well, I hope that we can do a short tour of the States in December and January. But something like coming to Australia, yeah I'd love that. In fact I've written a song about a platypus, which is my favorite animal. They're so fucked up, they're a bird, and a beaver, and they lay eggs .. They're so messed up.
"Do you see many platypus in Australia?" Trevor inquires.
Oh yeah. Everyday when I walk to work I've gotta avoid them, and kangaroos and koalas. You know, Trevor, just like everyone in the States drinks Budweiser and drives a pick-up truck ...
The Talkhouse | 21.01.2015
Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Fantômas) Talks Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special
I don’t see any point in writing about this record. It is what it is. It is perfect. Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special is a perfectly formed, well-crafted, unimaginative piece of crap.
Now, I’m not gonna make any friends by publishing such a statement. It’s likely I just put myself on some kind of studio musician blacklist. My phone will continue to not ring off the hook for me to play on some chart-topping summer dance jams.
It’s very clear that Mark Ronson knows what he’s talking/writing/playing about. He has done his homework. He can put together a band. He’s got big ears and that is why he is a good producer. With the flick of a toggle or push of a fader he can, I assume, conjure Prince, George Clinton, the Beatles and/or James Brown, and that is a talent for sure. To quote the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen: “What I call a musical person is someone who can imitate any sound that he hears, with his voice, directly, without thinking about hitting the right pitch, but just doing it. Great musicians always start off as great imitators.”
But the very next thing that Stockhausen says is the part that continually seems to be forgotten: “Afterwards, building on the talent of imitation, comes the talent to transform what you hear. Many don’t reach that far, but those who attain the ability to transform, incorporate and identify sounds, they are the better musicians.”
Uptown Special is the kind of music that actually pisses me off, and I can’t keep my mouth shut about it. In 1990, along with my band Mr. Bungle, I wrote a song called “Love Is a Fist,” which, among other innuendos, contended that “there’s no effort to what’s in.” What was “in” was, of course, pop music that I felt at the time no one was working very hard to make interesting. Barely 22 years old, I was already jaded, and tired of love songs. Now, the love song will never die because everyone on the planet could write their own story. As it should be. So why repeat someone else’s idea?
In 1998, I wrote a song called “Retrovertigo,” a word combining retrogression with a sense of nausea. I was disgusted by the price of used clothing. I was horrified that people dressed up in fedoras and double-breasted jackets to listen to jazz and drink Manhattans in the late ’90s. There is nothing wrong with adults using whatever escapism they stumble across to direct themselves into bliss. But let’s be real.
It’s now 2015, and I’m still tired of hearing “artists” cut and paste their favorite retro styles. Stevie Wonder took music that he was into and transformed it. Amy Winehouse, famously produced by Ronson, was a great singer with a captivating, charismatic voice who could sort of co-write decent songs that were presented in a cookie-cutter formula mirroring Motown, Stax, the Crystals, Phil Spector and the like. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” featuring Pharrell Williams, is a blatant rip-off/mash-up of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic. Do the math. All of the evidence is clear and definitive and somehow not even disputed. You can trace copied chord progressions and melody fragments, for crying out loud, not to mention beats. And no one cares. That’s the way the public likes it. It’s the fast food of music: Familiar, immediately gratifying and predictable. Billions and billions served. (See Jim Gaffigan’s bit on McDonald’s for the full reference.) It’s the most safe music there is, free from the horrors of the real world. I can only buy it for about a half a verse before I feel like vomiting.
If you feel like digging through the fertile lexicon of references that is Uptown Special, let’s start by comparing Ronson’s “Feel Right,” featuring the rapper Mystikal, to James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (1970). Ronson uses a nearly identical drum beat and guitar riff and then, moving to the bridge, borrows the song’s ever-effective IV chord. From there, listen to the Gap Band’s “Early in the Morning” (1982), which is based on a simple two-chord, two-bar lick. Ronson appropriates it for the verse of “I Can’t Lose,” with a taste of Chaka Khan on lead vocals and Sister Sledge on backups. “Uptown Funk,” Ronson’s collaboration with Bruno Mars and the album’s lead single, alludes to so many original Parliament-Funkadelic songs that you could spend a year collecting elements that were already being passed around in the ’70s and early ’80s. But that’s not all — “Uptown Funk” also conjures the synth patches of Prince’s Controversy (1981), horn arrangements worthy of Tower of Power’s “Get Yo’ Feet Back on the Ground,” and the way the male voice doubles the Moog bass line in Zapp’s “I Can Make You Dance,” not to mention Mars’ vocal allusions to Lenny Williams. I understand this is a language. The same evaluations could be made in any genre of music, which is why we have “genres,” but isn’t that also why we have museums and record collections? Isn’t that why we can still hear Mozart at Carnegie Hall or Duke Ellington at Lincoln Center? Who has borrowed from T. Rex or David Bowie this week? Where’s the transformation? Where are you taking us aside from the “good old days”?
The problem is that all of these “influences” have been rationalized and picked apart to the point that all of the magic is gone. There is no magic in this Mark Ronson record. There is no darkness, save for a couple of moments courtesy of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. If the only reason for this kind of music to be created today is to get me to party all night and spend my money, then I want no part. This is music written by people with money, for people with money. The rest will download it for free and play it in the background, none the wiser to the fact that everything on it has already been done in a much deeper, pressing and more ambitious way. I want to throw this record in the trash and pull out my Parliament and Sly Stone records, then put them away and look for something current and original that will inspire me today and give me hope that we aren’t running out of ideas. Does such a thing exist?
Let’s not argue about art vs. entertainment. They are clearly two different concepts, both of which I admire and appreciate. Let’s argue about why records like this even exist. Let’s argue about the culture of fear and apathy, the lack of truly inspiring innovators. My solution? Do something good with your money and talent. Do something weird. Change people’s perceptions, change their minds. Show them something they hadn’t thought of instead of pandering to convention. Sit for a while with something that you initially are not attracted to. Break habits. Invent a word. Try a different tuning. Make a pop song that doesn’t sound like other pop songs.
Sorry, but I can’t stop quoting Stockhausen: “It is very important that the breakthroughs in our time go beyond all the limits that we have accepted up to now. People usually think that the arts should only entertain, but that is not the role of the arts at all. The role of the arts is to explore the inner space of man; to find out how much and how intensely he can vibrate, through sound, through what he hears, whichever it is. They are a means by which to expand his inner universe.”
Sad thing is, he said that in 1971.