December 21, 2004

how to disgruntle an atomic bomb

Warning: this is ridiculously long, & includes an entire article I wrote a few years ago. My friend Ann and I have been having a discussion of the idea that it's wise to consider any work you've done "the best you could do at the time." Here's what I wrote to her (and please note that this is both provisional and meant to provoke some argument):

This makes me think of three particular musicians I admire and by whom I'm totally frustrated.

The first one's Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. An absolutely great band; Loveless and the You Made Me Realise EP are about as good as music gets. But Shields has been working on his follow-up for more than 13 years now--recording and recording and recording until he nearly bankrupted at least one record company. He supposedly went through a drum 'n' bass period back when drum 'n' bass was a new thing, and then trashed all of that when he took too long working on it and drum 'n' bass got played out. It's not like he's lost his touch--in the late '90s, he went through a period where he needed money and agreed to do some remixes for other artists, and a couple of them were completely amazing too. But those bands were able to pry them out of his hands, because they had their own release dates. Ditto for the songs he did for the "Lost in Translation" soundtrack. Now he's supposedly working on two huge boxed sets... collecting all the pre-'91 MBV stuff plus outtakes & live things. Except I've also heard he hasn't actually started working on them. A year ago, he gave an interview where he said he "plans on releasing a short album as soon as possible." No further word since then. Should he console himself by thinking what he's been doing is the best he can do at the time? No--although it wouldn't be a bad idea for him to occasionally think "further tinkering isn't going to make it any better, so I can stop now." He's enormously talented, still, but he clearly needs an external force to which he's beholden to a) get him to start working and b) get him to stop working--insist that he's done and make him turn over the goods. He's not willing to let go of stuff until it's perfect, and it's never perfect to him--even when, you know, it's done.

The second one is Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices. The problem is only partly that he has, apparently, no sense of quality control, and pumps out half a dozen albums a year of whatever he's got on hand, great, good or awful. (History, and greatest-hits compilers, can take care of that--their actual greatest-hits album isn't the one I would've assembled, but someday somebody will get it right.) The big issue is that he has no sense of creative discipline, either: he suggests that the only work that's got the right energy & spontaneity is the very first draft, and most of his songs sound like sketches for songs, or like the kind of throwaway exercises other people might do to get the juices flowing. This was kind of exciting the first time or two he did it--I still think Bee Thousand is a terrific album (and, notably, it was sequenced by somebody else from a whole lot of raw material)--but after he made Bee Thousand III, IV, V and VI, and started getting other people to send him instrumental pieces over which he could sing what seem like first takes of the first words and melodies that came to mind, it got REALLY painful. I think around 1997 I just started yelling "FINISH THE DAMN SONG" every time I put on a Pollard/GBV album and came across something he clearly had babbled out and then left in, or a song-nubbin that petered out after a verse and a half.

Should he console himself by thinking what he's been doing is the best he can do? No--he's convinced himself that halfassedness is, y'know, his style, and so he tends to pronounce his songs finished the moment he hits the stop button for the first time, even as he coasts on the times he's actually applied himself to going over a song for more than a few minutes, developing it, cutting bad lines and replacing them with good ones, doing repeated takes until the band gets it basically right, etc. It's inconvenient, so he doesn't do it much, and he's got a following who will buy anything he releases in the hopes of finding a few gold flakes. But the black muck they're embedded in doesn't tend to show up much in, say, his live shows.

The third one is Martin Phillipps, from the Chills, who I think has been sabotaging himself for years. He just sent out a newsletter to his fans in which, as he's been doing for ages, he goes on and on about the records he's going to make--or rather the records he's intending to write and then record--and also the new techniques he's planning to try for writing the songs on the records he's going to make. (You can see where this is heading.) He also apologizes for having made headlines for shoplifting some groceries a couple of weeks ago, and for the fact that the EP they just put out this fall, after quite a few years' silence, has "few truly A Grade Chills moments." Here's an article I wrote about the band a couple of years ago (in the Chicago Reader)--


Chills fans have had to put up with almost 20 years of excuses. If only Martin Phillipps had been able to keep a band together, instead of going through 14 configurations in the group's first 12 years. If only the mix of their first album, 1988's delicate Brave Words, hadn't sounded so odd. If only drummer Martyn Bull hadn't died of leukemia just as things were starting to take off. If only their major-label records had been better promoted. If only visa trouble hadn't forced Phillipps to make Sunburnt with a pickup band. If only two of his tape recorders hadn't malfunctioned at the same time a few years later, plunging him into deep depression and addiction to "opiates" (his word); if only he hadn't gotten hepatitis from the aforesaid addiction; if only if only if only.

The real problem is that Phillipps, a remarkably talented songwriter, has gradually come to believe that he's an important songwriter. When he formed the Chills in 1980, his home town of Dunedin, New Zealand, was in the middle of an unlikely music boom, and he became one of its brightest lights. Phillipps' songs were grounded in the sweet, chiming concision of '60s pop. He was a melodist and a romantic, un-macho and self-aware, sometimes almost prayerful: "I'd like to say how I love you/But it's all been said in other songs/And if I try to say it new, then I'll say it wrong," he sang in "Night of Chill Blue."

Between 1982 and 1989, the local label Flying Nun released a handful of Chills singles, an EP, and Brave Words--not much to show for nine years. In the liner notes to the band's new three-disc retrospective, Secret Box, Phillipps notes that "there would have been two (maybe three) albums prior to Brave Words if things had worked out better." Then he suggests their track listings.

Phillipps seems to be a perpetually dissatisfied perfectionist, but his prolific creativity used to offset it--the Chills played many more songs than they ever got around to recording, and he claims to have written hundreds more. But he wanted Chills records to be important records, projects with a streamlined purpose, and a lot of the songs didn't fit any particular bill. The sound of Submarine Bells, the band's 1990 major-label debut and first seriously funded recording, was the sound of Phillipps realizing his old ambitions: a moonlit midwinter dip in the Beach Boys' ocean. The subsequent Soft Bomb was the sound of him tripping over his new ones: the line in the sand was the painful "Song for Randy Newman Etc.," in which he laments the difficulty of being a serious songwriter and compares himself to "men like Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake." That soggy, pretentious ballad couldn't withstand the comparisons, and neither would anything he'd release after it.

The Chills followed Soft Bomb with an American tour, and when stardom didn't beckon, they broke up. True to form, they debuted a new instrumental at their final show--half a world away from home, in New York City. Three years later, Phillipps assembled a new version of the band, rechristening it Martin Phillipps & the Chills--a bad sign. The aforementioned Sunburnt was recorded in England shortly thereafter, and lineups 15-18 struggled along through the mid-90s; in 1999 Phillipps assembled yet another bunch of newbies as lineup 19 in late 1999. All of his new songs were infected with a sense of self-importance. There was talk of reconvening the early Chills to record some of the unreleased songs from the old days, but it was just talk. Then Phillipps released Sketch Book: Volume One, a collection of his home demos. "Many of these tunes, and the hundreds more filed away, will definitely see official release as soon as my next home studio is fully operational," he promised in the liner notes. He now claims that he has over 800 ideas and riffs and such, and he's just trying to organize them on his computer so that they can turn into completed songs. But Phillipps has noted elsewhere that "Pink Frost," one of his best and best-known songs, was written in a single evening, and there's a lesson there.

Phillipps released Secret Box himself; it's available on his Web site, It's three and a half hours of unreleased or scarce Chills recordings, and on some level, it's an admission of failure--he seems to have realized at last that his grand plans for these compositions are never going to come through. But he can't quite let go: "This could have been beautiful if developed (and it still could be)," he notes of a 19-year-old instrumental. 1987's "Party in My Heart" is "to be re-attempted some day." "Drug Magicians," from 1989, "is on the short list of songs I really feel deserves a new recording... I think of this as a demo version." And so on.

Fortunately, Phillipps was proud enough of what he and the Chills did accomplish that he was willing to suppress his perfectionism and release Secret Box. The BBC radio sessions that occupy half of the second disc are decent but generally "unreleased" only in the sense that they're slightly different arrangements of familiar material; the B sides and wanna-B sides of the third disc document the band's '87-era peak and slow decline. But the first disc and a third are the real deal, featuring 30 lost songs drawn from raw, roaring live tapes and sequenced for aesthetics rather than chronology. The earliest is a cover of Jody Reynolds's rockabilly hit "Endless Sleep" recorded the day before their first gig; the latest are four from an October 1985 show.

Though the recordings are messy, they're more lively than the sculptured fastidiousness of studio versions. "Jellyhead" and "Smile From a Dead Dead Face" work up so much momentum the band seems downright disappointed when they stop; "And When You're There" features one of the Chills' most resonant melodies; on the theological complaint "Frozen Fountain" Phillipps screams so hard his voice gives out halfway through. There are some throwaways (like "Steinlager," a rocking request for somebody to hand a bottle up to the stage) but they're wonderful throwaways: in fact, the less Phillipps tries to do something significant, the more his natural inventiveness and passion comes through. With their garbage-can beats and blazing organ, the live Chills sound like a garage band, not a sensitive songwriter project.

It's too bad that releasing Secret Box hasn't allowed Phillips to move on or inspired him to return to the values of his early songwriting. Every album he's made from Submarine Bells onward has had the initials S.B., including the yet-to-be-realized but thoroughly preannounced Silver Bullets and Shadow Ballads; now he's making noises about remixing Brave Words and calling it Spoken Bravely. But at least now the sad task of fantasizing about the Chills records that might've been has been passed on to the listeners.


So. Is Martin P. doing the best he can do? Should he take comfort in that? No, I think that's actually the excuse he indulges in for his total inability to get his shit together--you know, stuff went wrong, it's not his fault. Yes, all kinds of obstacles have arisen in the Chills' path, some of them not even of Phillipps' own making. Obstacles arise in EVERYBODY's path, and none of his were insurmountable. His problem is mostly that he dodges a lot of the responsibility for his failures, but also significantly in his perpetual disconnect between conception and execution of his ideas. Which leads me to my after-a-few-days manifesto:

It's the duty of people who want to be serious about making stuff, & already have the necessary basic skills, to:

1) Plan projects that are realistically within their abilities (mantra for this stage: "I get to talk it up when it's mostly done, and not before" a.k.a. "don't let your mouth write a check that your ass can't cash");

2) Execute them to completion, assiduously and very carefully, attempting in earnest to respond to all significant and legitimate objections an ideal reader/viewer/listener/whatever might have, and being clear-eyed about the difference between major and minor flaws (mantra for this stage: "Is this boring or lame? How can I fix that?");

3) Finish them when they're almost done, remaining minor flaws or no, and let go of them when they're done (mantra for this stage: "There's more where that came from"); and

4) Assess them as ferociously as possible once they're done, to figure out what their weak points are, and how not to repeat those mistakes in the next project (mantra for this stage: "How could I have done better? How can I make something different and better--not necessarily bigger--than this?").

Kevin Shields and especially Martin Phillipps fail in category 1; Robert Pollard fails in category 2; Phillips and especially Shields fail in category 3; Pollard and occasionally Phillipps fail in category 4.

Of course, implied in this is my preference for ambitious, completed, earnest failures over all things half-assed and all things incomplete. But I think that's a good preference.

Does this make any sense?

Posted by Douglas at December 21, 2004 10:41 PM | TrackBack

Pollard and Shileds are two of my faves; I know where you're comign from on Pollard's lack of creative discipline. If he were his own record company every album he made would be a triple. On the other hand I am a sucker for the short pop gem, that gets in, does its riff, and quits while its ahead. I'm not sure Pollard always gets enough c4redit for the short ones that work (esp. if Ann is of EMP fame who dissed Bee Thousand something fierce in a recent rock anthology).

My comeback would be how many songs can you think of that start with a great riff and then go nowhere. To be really daring, my first pick "Gimme Shelter": the first 1:00 or so of Keith is epochal (blissblogger is right here) but the rest leaves me stone cold unfeelin' not run over by a train at decade's end (sorry Lipstick Traces man). To prove this is not just a generational bitchfest, what about half the Pixies ouevre. My favorite example would be from Doolittle. The great drum breakout followed by "kicka Butt" and psychedelic surf bass riff on "la La Love You" while the rest of track is as stale as a week-old turd on a sidewalk.

My take on Pollard is the whole infantilzation angle; he's not "mature" enough to finish stuff properly. It's telling his only real job as a adult was teaching 4th graders. How many guys who threw a NCAA Divison 1 no-hitter do that d'ya think?

re: Shields after Loveless what next? I mean really. I might have just quit and said o.k. that's what I have to say (even though I've enjoyed "More Light", "Accelerator"; the LiT stuff and the Wire cover). Perhpas he just isn't honest enough with himself about that. Although when I interviewed him back in 1992, he was pretty forthcoming. I thought his comments in the Guardian re: listening to Jonh Peel in Ireland through phase shifts were both telling and useful.

As I ride down to jackson, MS you've given me much to ponder thanks.

Posted by: bulb on December 22, 2004 11:17 AM

For the record, the Chills' "Silver Bullets and Shadow Ballads" is complete and unmastered. My girlfriend spent the summer (winter?) in Dunedin and made it to Martin Phillips birthday party where the unmastered disc was put on.

Number 3 sounds right.

Posted by: MrFiveSeventeen on December 22, 2004 12:02 PM

Not really the point, but reading your manifesto last night actually kind of *reset* my mentality on writing law school applications. Thanks!

Posted by: idlsprincess on December 23, 2004 7:23 AM

I agree with a lot of these on first glance. But do you really think Bob Pollard would get better with I mean, "Hold On Hope" was the nadir of the man's career, sentimental, cloying and two-dimensional. And I would bet that is probably the song that he worked on the hardest in his career. And all that all of this work did was to sand off his individuality. (the same could be said to a lesser degree of all of "Do the Collapse"). So, while his work is infuriating and feels more like a pitch meeting for an album than a bona fide album, I will swear that it's far preferable to the alternative.

Kevin Shields, though, could use a little of Bob Pollard in him, in a sense. He worked at a reasonable clip before "Loveless" and while it wasn't great, it was nice and solid. And "Loveless" took a little while, but it wasn't like he kept us gave us a "Second Coming" length wait. I think "Loveless" was luck, the old truism of 1000 monkey shoegazers with 1000 monkey fuzz pedals making "Hamlet" and I think he knows it and I think it has hamstrung him. exhibit A: "this is your My Bloody Valentine". What he could use from Bob Pollard is his liquor cabinet to lower his inhibitions.

Posted by: JacksonBaranowski on December 26, 2004 8:56 PM

I understand that failing at #1 is frustrating to fans, but I don't think you've really explained very clearly why it's a problem for the creator. Does it have any actual effect on whether or not they end up putting out good work, whether or not it has anything to do with what they've previously announced? For instance, the two post-Kid A Radiohead albums have been preceded by advance notices that had little if anything to do with how the album actually sounded, but that doesn't make them bad albums, and if Beck's new album turns out not to be a party album, I'll be annoyed, but not because he said it would be a party album, just because I'd like a new Beck party album.

I think what you're suggesting is that for certain creative types, the act of disclosing their plans sometimes suffices in their heads for actually carrying them out--that they get enough satisfaction from telling people what they want to do that they don't feel the need to actually do it. Is that a fair read? Do you think it's defensible, and do you think it's applicable to most artists, or just a certain subset? (I.e. "neurotic white guys"?)

Posted by: Eppy on January 8, 2005 11:24 AM
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