October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 15, 2007
A Google search for Portland’s Blitzen Trapper and the word “schizophrenic” will result in a library of alt-weekly reviews of the new Sub Pop signees’ buzz-worthy, self-released album Wild Mountain Nation. Waiting for their show at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle, I discussed with Trapper’s Marty Marquis, Brian Adrian Koch, and Eric Manteer the idea of schizophrenic music, the spiritual frequencies of music, and Lacan’s mirror stage in a digital world.
The Other Journal (TOJ): I don’t know how to talk about pathology with Blitzen Trapper other than to say that your music is often called schizophrenic.
Marty Marquis (MM): Yeah… and schizophrenia is a pretty wide-open psychopathology.
TOJ: I think most people use it just to talk about multiple personalities, but that’s not all that it means.
MM: No, schizophrenia is more about building significance into things that most people don’t think are significant. Or hallucinating, or being under some kind of delusion. I think it’s mostly about putting things together in unusual ways, and maybe that’s what people mean when they say “schizophrenic.” I think with Blitzen Trapper music, people tend to mean that it hops genres. It’s true, I suppose, but I don’t know when genre came to be such an important thing in the world of music. Blitzen Trapper records aren’t any more schizophrenic, if you want to use that term, than anything by the Beatles or Buffalo Springfield. Typical pop acts in the golden age of rock and roll did whatever the hell they wanted to do and nobody complained that much. Maybe critics did. Have you read criticism from the ’60s?
TOJ: A little bit. One of my faves is Lester Bangs’ review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
MM: I just read that. It was interesting.
TOJ: He takes a pathological twist. He talks about vocal ticks, kind of like tourettes. It has nothing to do with genre to me.
MM: I wonder if people accused Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of being a genre-hopping album, which it certainly was. But if it was such a big deal or if people were looking at the music more…
TOJ: Think about Neil Young. With one album he’ll go from folk to rock.
MM: Yeah. That’s American music. In America, there are all kinds of different people and cultural influences mixed together.
TOJ: That reminds me of Levon Helm’s description of rock and roll in The Last Waltz. But I think all of the genre talk is just a sign of the market. People need categorization. They have shorter attention spans.
MM: I was just reading the Chuck Klosterman book Fargo Rock City. I don’t know if he was quoting somebody or if this was his own idea, but he made some comment to the effect of “at least with heavy metal or hair metal in the ’80s, doing one thing perfectly was better than doing a lot of different things well or even very well.” I think that’s the case with music or any cultural commodity. If you’re a specialist and you do one thing you can really get it down, but in the end it’s just one thing. I guess we’re kind of more generalist than we are specialists.
TOJ: I think using schizophrenic as a descriptor is more just a pretentious journalist tool.
[drummer Brian Adrian Koch walks in]
TOJ: We’re talking about Blitzen Trapper being schizophrenic.
Brian Adrian Koch (BAK): What’s the definition of schizophrenic?
TOJ: I think that most people use it for genre-hopping, but Marty gave a broader definition.
MM: Making connections between things that most normal people don’t make and seeing a different, maybe delusional, reality because of the connections you make between events and things you hear.
TOJ: The other way people have described schizophrenia to me is having a sort of darkness over everything and not knowing what’s real. Even in that way there are some pretty dark parts of Blitzen Trapper records even though they generally feel good. I think of the song “Hot Tip/Tough Club.”
MM: Yeah, that’s kind of a dark song. Even something like “Sci-Fi Kid” has kind of a dark…
TOJ: Apocalyptic feel to it.
MM: Yeah, for sure.
TOJ: I’ve read interviews about that song and this comes back to the music having different significances and connections. On the first listen, or maybe even 25th listen, to Blitzen Trapper songs, there isn’t such deep meaning. I think about “Sci-Fi Kid” as a great pop song at first. Maybe you can explain what it’s about.
BAK: It seems like what your talking about is how in a lot of lyrics that Eric [Early] writes, the connections are pulled out and you provide them yourself in the same way that when people hear the genre-hopping of the schizo side of things in our music, there’s a lot of ambiguity in the way that there’s not, lyrically (at least to some people), a discernable through-line for each song or even for the whole record. But I like that ambiguity; I think that it’s good. I think that art in general is a screen on which you project yourself and music that’s less pedantic allows you to do that. The lyrics function in the same way that the music does. It’s not that the song will be rendered great because the lyrics add up to this totality of meaning. They have a flow, and there’s almost a texture, or physicality, to the words themselves and how they work with the music. But they certainly are vexing lyrics.
TOJ: That’s what makes it the best kind of pop music. There are verses and choruses and a narrative to the songs, but in what is actually popular pop, there is no ambiguity to it.
BAK: It’s sort of a strange inversion where the meaning seems clear but it’s less important.
TOJ: My friend once described indie rock as “music from pop culture but with a twist.” And I think the twist is that it’s pop music but it’s not…
MM: Not obvious.
TOJ: Yeah. If you produced Blitzen Trapper songs in the right way and made the lyrics obvious, they could be radio smashes or Eric could be writing songs for Britney Spears.
MM: Yeah, but then you have to get in bed with this monster that controls all that kind of stuff. That’s the other part of it. Who knows if the monster is what forces hits to be that way or if indie writers and indie fans are elitists? ‘Cause it is kind of elitist. You have to be on the internet and read everybody’s blogs all the time to keep up with what’s going on, and if you really want to be literate with music these days you have to spend time researching different bands and sampling their MySpace pages or whatever.
TOJ: It kind of pares out the weaker fans.
MM: But that’s the thing. There’s a sense in which indie music, at least right now, is for a very small subset of music lovers in general. We’ve been having this conversation on tour a little bit—about how different people experience music. Brian’s girlfriend is a good example of somebody who loves music and is totally into it, but she approaches it and consumes it in a totally different way then we do. And I think the vast majority of people are more like her.
BAK: I think that is the difference. We’re consumers, but we’re also producers of music, and so we’re approaching it from both sides of the brain. I don’t think that we’ve eradicated our ability to enjoy music on a purely emotional or physical instinctual level, but I think we tend to overthink things. I notice in her a really joyful uninhibited approach to music in which it has nothing to do with the knowledge that’s connected to what it is. It’s just the experience of the music, which I think comes back to the question: is our music schizophrenic? To me what’s kind of ludicrous is the idea that by an overabundance of words you can somehow explain what music is. It’s just meant to be listened to. What’s the meaning of a dress? What does a dress mean? It just is. A good piece of artwork just is. You’re either in awe of it while you experience it or your’re not. Then the words come afterwards like a rearview mirror. I think that’s why we don’t really mind when people call us this or they call us that because they project what they like onto what they hear in our music, which is good. That’s how it should be.
TOJ: That comes back to music literacy. When I begin to understand certain music, it’s not as amazing to me. That’s why my tastes have been pushed out to things that are hard to understand.
BAK: You want to listen to music that puts a veil between you and the wizard.
BAK: Because you’re a music addict. Eventually you start listening to—
BAK: Or Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica, because it challenges you.
MM: It’s like Mark Twain says about the river. When you start out on it as a boy you’re totally in wonder at it and it’s this massive powerful thing and your whole experience of it is filled with mystery. As you spend your life on the river and learn how to navigate it, you know what every little thing means. You know if an eddy over here has got a lot of suction or not, and you know if there’s going to be a snag at this point. And so it destroys the mystery and awe, but at the same time, you know the river. You know it completely.
TOJ: It’s like relationships. After two people have been married for thirty years, they may not be in awe of the other, but it’s rewarding in knowing each other better than themselves.
MM: Can I say something about the dress comment? Even though I don’t think the lyrics necessarily need to mean anything, with all sorts of cultural artifacts that we have, they all mean something in the sense that they are embedded in a certain context. I don’t know what a dress means because I don’t study all the esoterica associated with the fashion industry. There’s a great monologue in The Devil Wears Prada movie where Meryl Streep is haranguing her new secretary on the fact that she’s color illiterate and she doesn’t understand that the sweater she’s wearing is the product of this connection and these designers making these choices at different influential fall shows and that she prints these things in her magazine. So for someone like her, she looks at this sweater and it means something. It means this complex web. But unless you’re one of the illuminati in whatever little subfield you’re getting into then, yes, nothing means anything. A weird indie rock song is not going to mean anything to somebody who is just used to consuming music on the radio on the basis of whether or not they can move their ass to it.
TOJ: On that note, we had a conversation about certain music having certain spirits. One of the things that you and I have most in common is Neil Young. I can’t ever get enough of him.
MM: Yeah it’s weird. I told you about this dream I had a long time ago where a friend of mine was revealing the spiritual frequencies of different types of music. He said Led Zeppelin would tune you in to the frequency of devils or demons. And Neil Young will tune you in to the frequency of angels. Shortly after that, I started using Neil Young in freaky situations to kind of generate a force field or something. I used to housesit at this haunted house down in Georgia. There have been a lot of people who died in it and who have been born. Who knows what haunted means? People have died in the backyard of that place. Somebody crashed an airplane in the backyard and it killed both passengers. Another guy flipped his riding lawnmower and killed himself. Anyway, in the haunted house situation, Neil Young is great friend to have. Just bring your boom box and blare some Neil. I never had problems falling asleep or got fucked with by succubae or anything like that.
TOJ: Have you found that to be true about Zeppelin?
MM: [laughs] Zeppelin is a weird beast. I listen to Zeppelin still. It’s not like Im scared of getting tuned into demons but yeah, I think that Jimmy Page visualized what was going on in terms of himself conjuring demonic forces, and I think you can hear it in the music and if you’re inclined to flip “Stairway to Heaven” around and listen to it backwards you can hear some weird shit, and I don’t think he planted it there. I just think its a side effect of things he was thinking about and was really into. But it’s beautiful; you gotta listen to Zeppelin if you’re a musician. [Laughs] Wait, are you tricking me into presenting as a schizophrenic?
BAK: A big part of the whole conversation is having to define schizophrenia. So many words like “genius” get bandied about all the time. Da Vinci was a genius. Ok. Then you see a song-writer who has a pop song out and the word “genius” is thrown into every other paragraph. And the next indie film director that puts out a movie that people like is a genius. If everyone’s a genius maybe we’re not all as smart as we think we are.
TOJ: I have people in my life who are schizophrenic, and I just see them as being open to things that were not. I don’t buy that it’s simply a chemical imbalance or a disorder.
BAK: Well, that’s what I’m saying. What do we mean by it? Do we mean the actual condition of schizophrenia as doctors diagnose it, or is it the same as “genius,” like when I say, “Oh man, that was a genius thing you did?” Is it “Oh gosh, he’s totally schizo” because you perceive behavior in somebody that you don’t understand? But you’re not a doctor. You know what I mean?
TOJ: No, I’m not a doctor. Does anybody in Blitzen Trapper have a psychology degree?
BAK: No, and nobody’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia either. But maybe there are a lot of qualities in schizophrenia that we have.
TOJ: That’s what I’m saying, that it’s a sprectrum probably. Just like sexuality or tons of things. Everybody’s a little bit gay and everybody’s probably a little bit schizophrenic too.
MM: We’re used to making these distinctions and drawing lines on the map.
TOJ: Like genres.
BAK: We’re talking about schizophrenia, and we’re all acknowledging that this interview is going to be cut, pasted and pieced together. Even if it’s minimally edited it’s a little bit further down the rabbit hole, unless you’re sitting in this room. It’s weird that we understand that and willingly forget—suspend our disbelief—about all the things that we don’t hear in an interview, not just this one but interviews in general. We know that they’re not continuous, that they’re subject to editing.
TOJ: That can extend to journalism in the bigger sense. When we watch CNN or Fox News, there are bigger things going on there than what’s being reported.
BAK: Right, but even in the way that it’s constructed. For an example, we did a spot in New York on a radio show and when talking about songs we liked, all we had to do is say (it’s basically digital technology that allows it) this is a song I want to hear, and then this is the next song I want to hear, and this is the next song for this reason and so on. And then later they cut it up and insert the songs as though we really were talking and hanging out in the studio for an hour, but we didn’t experience any of the songs and weren’t there for more than ten minutes. But later on it’s constructed into this hour long reality.
TOJ: I’ll probably do that too.
MM: Right, and that’s the world we live in.
BAK: That’s matter, of course. That’s a very, very basic thing. That kind of editing and presentation is understood. It’s like in plays and theater; realism is not reality, it’s definitely a convention. It’s realism, but it’s still very much a façade.
MM: I think our bodies do the same thing with our senses. Our senses edit out various parts of reality, and put them together in a way that is useful and makes sense.
TOJ: I wonder if that is a modern thing, or if the same thing happened 200 years ago.
BAK: It’s probably just the Lacan mirror stage—the idea that a certain point in time while we’re still vulnerable as infants, we construct a total image of ourselves based on our reflection in the mirror. Then we attach ourselves externally to this thing, and then that experience and identifying those two things as the same thing sets up this sort of dual expectation through one’s life that colors the experience of everything you go through. And it’s this lack of being able to experience the totality that you see compared to the fragmentation and vulnerability that you experience in your body. And of course if this is true, the same thing would be happening no matter what our technological landscape is. It would just alter its detail.
[guitarist Eric Manteer walks in]
MM: Are you saying the media is a mirror?
BAK: You were saying that we take with our senses and that we filter one thing out and another thing is what becomes what’s really happening to us. That’s the same thing as realism in theater, this idea that we have that a unified reality is to our minds a construct, and it’s a construct based on a variety of signals, and it’s going to be different for you than it is for me. That same principal would be going on regardless of what technology we use, whether it’s a car or a CD player or a film or newspaper, whatever.
MM: The constituent disparate parts of this reality are too mind-boggling.
BAK: It’s like with conspiracy theorists or even in our discussions, we tend to gravitate towards conspiracies because it provides a pleasing synthesis and unity to something that’s so far beyond our ability to grasp and integrate, and I’m sure it remains the same for those we would even consider to be in on the conspiracy.
TOJ: So that’s why it’s easier to believe the Pentagon was blown up with missiles than by terrorists flying a plane into the building.
BAK: But even beyond that, just conspiracies in general are a way of saying that things I could never possibly wrap my mind around are controlled by this unified system. There is something in control of every aspect of the government. There is something that unifies all these things that could never possibly be unified. But it operates in our mind.
Eric Manteer (EM): Also, talking about information distribution, even if there was one sort of conspiracy happening, maybe somebody got it right. There’s this conspiracy theory that explains how the whole incident went down. Every detail is covered. Then there’s all this counter information that is going to sit out there forever so you can never actually come to some point of truth or understanding about it. Because as much as one person may be right, other people are going to give counter evidence to make it questionable. So you’re left in this limbo of doubt.
MM: Unless you edit out parts of the information.
BAK: And construct a unified whole for yourself, which is why I think that it’s more important to cling to the conspiracy theory than it is to open yourself up to the universe and say there’s no way I can understand these things.
TOJ: Wouldn’t you say Blitzen Trapper records are of the opposite mentality of things? At a very practical level, it seems like there’s not a lot of copying and pasting and editing out peripheral information.
MM: I think those parts of the record are in there to trick you. I mean it is a real cultural record of something that happened, but just like anything else, there is a lot of editing. Even if you’re just using a 4-track recorder you can still punch things in and out.
EM: You can EQ them and make them sweeter.
MM: You create this reality that doesn’t have a whole lot of correspondence to what was happening in the studio at the time.
TOJ: What’s the difference between manipulating the information in a good way and manipulating it in a bad way?
EM: It depends what you mean by bad and good.
TOJ: I just see the constructing of something that’s not that real as being deceitful.
BAK: I don’t really look at it as deceitful.
MM: It’s just the way it is. I think if you try to hide the fact that there is a real world out there beyond this thing in whatever way—use pitch correction, noise reduction, do whatever—it’s kind of beside the point, but to me that would be bad, those kind of aesthetic choices.
TOJ: A matter of bad tastes or bad morals?
BAK: [Laughs] It’s morally evil.
EM: The difference is between factual news-type events versus making a record. Those aesthetic choices are not moral choices.
BAK: [whispers] Or are they?
EM: [Laughs] I guess it depends
BAK: Personally, I think that using pitch correction on a voice falls on the same side of the fence as bombing Iraq.
It’s a big pasture on that side of the fence but…
EM: How are you gonna do your hot dance moves if you don’t have a little bit of the square wave going on? It’s one way or another.
John Totten is an editor for The Other Journal. He has a master of arts in counseling psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.