Todd is Still God
As an older artist, you have embraced technology some others have stayed away from it. Is there a point where technology does a disservice to the music?
Music is at the service of mankind, not the other way around. Often we speak of music as being something in and of itself that you have to strive to achieve but it is, in reality, just another reflection of where we’re at. And if we’re in a world of technologies, than that’s just where we’re at and we have no choice but to let it be incorporated into what we do. The thing that’s probably the downside of the incorporation of technology is when people try get out of some part of the essential work you have to do to make something worthwhile. And in that sense, it’s just as much of a technology for some guy from Orlando to have a formula for putting boy bands together that involves them being somewhere between this height and that height and having voices that are somewhere between a castrati and a teenage boy, or something like that. And the songs resemble a certain exact thing. And so that’s probably more corrosive to music than any particular technology is, is the assumption that you can just flick a switch and have music come pouring out some how and that applies no matter what technology you may be using.
“Time Heals” was the second video ever played on MTV.
So I’ve heard, I didn’t have cable at the time. [hearty laugh]
Did you think at the time music videos would have the impact they have?
I always imagined that there would have been as much variety as there is in music. That it wouldn’t have just become a promotional thing for pop records. And, as it turn out, historically you have to say, as a so called art form, it didn’t really survive that well because now MTV doesn’t even play videos any more. Everything has become reality television and other sorts of documentation sorts of things. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I know there was a certain point in which videos became pro forma, you know? Strobe lights, explosions and half-naked women. And that seemed to be all that was necessary. It was your option whether you wanted to do anything more than that. I always thought it would become a way to visualize all kinds of music. And the first experiments I did with so called music videos or putting music and video together, all involved things that were much more abstract. For instance, I did a couple of tunes off Tomita’s Snowflakes are Dancing, which is an electronic treatment of Debussy’s music. But it just had this weird, sort of evocative thing about it and I did a lot of experiment in visualizations to that. So when I first got into video, it had nothing to with promoting a band. It was almost like trying to duplicate a drug experience. Trying to create imagery that went along. It’s what they call synaesthesia. You hear certain music and you see a certain color or something like that; the connection between various kinds of sensory input.
You’ve said that you always play music that’s visually inspired.
To an extent. At this point, I think that I don’t as much or as consistently incorporate a visual element. But I know there are certain points in time and certain specific projects that I’ve done, that were almost, they couldn’t have been done without it. For instance, the production on Sklylarking, XTC’s album, was specifically based on a whole set of visualizations that the music was then supposed to describe. I actually collected books and other materials, pictures of an English garden, for the opening song of the record. How do we reinforce this image musically? And for myself, I probably don’t get as specific but there are certain instances, even on the new album, where I try and take people on a very brief little train ride. [laughter]. The conductor tries to wake up a day dreaming passenger. That’s obviously a visualization about a real thing. Then again, that can be too limiting of a factor because so much of human experience is ephemeral. It’s all about what we think about things, not what they actually are.
Much of the music we cover could be considered to be visually inspired. Had the term been around back then, would you have called Utopia a jamband?
Well, we were. Certainly in the beginning when we had six or seven members in the band, we would do shows that would be four hours plus because there was so much jamming going and because we had so many good players that could do that. And we were younger, we had unlimited energy. [laughter] Now you’re back hurts if you stand up for four hours. I still have a soft spot for that era. I still like to go see King Crimson do all of their guitar intricacies and other sorts of things who only musicians who are at the top of their game do. And I am actually sort of on a campaign at this point to get musicians to take advantage of the fact that the traditional music industry is kind of on its knees now and go out and take back a lot of things that have been lost. In particular, the collective reputation of musicians as performers. When you think musician, you think dance lessons. I’d like to see a big, healthy jamband thing going on as well as other kinds of music. I’m just as happy that there’s a band like Outkast out there whose just trying to have fun in a world where everything is just so damned mannered all the time.
I think it is a good sign that an album that is so adventurous and occasionally out there is being received so well by the mainstream. I think it’s a smaller glimmer of hope.
Well, I’ve heard people describe it as purposefully “tinny.” [laughter] Redolent of a sound when either production hadn’t gotten come along to the point it has where you can make the assumption that almost everybody who owns a sound system owns a subwoofer now. So now you start mixing a lot down in these sub frequencies. Whereas as before, in the days of vinyl records, you put too much bass on a disc, it starts skipping all over the place.
You’ve always been technologically progressive. You began offering subscriptions for people to download or buy your material from your Patronet service. With that in mind, what’s your take on the current music business and its practices?
I had the advantage of seeing a lot of this stuff coming that not all the other musicians did, they weren’t privy to all the pieces of the puzzle. Certainly the music industry in its obstinate ignorance had the same information idea and, as a matter of fact, I brought them a lot of that information and they just refused to even consider it. That is as much of an indictment as anything else, the fact their only recourse now seems to be to sue their own customers. When they had available to them, the same information that’s available to everybody else, and they just refused to either look at it or implement it. It’s like frickin’ Condoleezza Rice. Since I saw this coming and since I also had knowledge of things like the Internet and what the possibilities were, I could do some preemptive preparation for what has now has come to pass in the music industry which is predictions of imminent collapse. I don’t see it as a bad thing. It’s probably, partly, because the Internet exists, but might have happened anyway. I think even before the Internet, people started to think that music isn’t the principal, cultural mean anymore. It was in the ‘60s and ‘70s when we were growing up and it specifically represented the counter culture and you versus the old guard, and stuff like that. Then it just became too commonplace, too eager to please sometimes. Certainly too big in the sense that all of what used to be hundreds of independent labels and a few majors all conglomerated into five and now I believe four giant companies that have all kinds of holdings not related to music. In some cases, they’re completely conflicted, like Sony. Sony makes Mp3 players and they make records that get ripped off and put into Mp3 players. [slight chuckle] And they have to make decisions about which one they want to fight for and for them, they’re making far more money on the Mp3 players than they are on the music. For musicians, the whole idea at this point is: First of all, remind yourself what it is you’re supposed to be doing, and that is performing music. That’s why you call yourself a musician. If you want to be a pop star, be a pop star. We have plenty of those. [laughter] But if you want to be a musician… it’s like a baker bakes, a bricklayer lays bricks and a musician plays music. And too many musicians have it in their head they’re trying to hit some kind of goldmine with a record and then go home and collect royalty checks. The greatest musicians are still out there playing like B.B. King 300 days a year. That’s what defines him. Not any particular record that he’s made. And that’s what should basically define any musician, is their ability to just get up and do it. As long as you can do that, you’ll make a living just like every other working stiff. What makes musicians think they’re so special that they should get money for not working? Yeah, it can be hard sometimes. Yeah sometimes you have to go to work sick or when you don’t feel like it, just like everybody else does. But it is, as much as it’s a glamorous lifestyle, it is your job. And so regardless of what happens in the record industry, you got to be like Phish, you know? [laughter] Make your own records and leave them on the merchandising table.
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