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21/11/14 & 7/12/2014
Dalton on Dalton: A Mutual FAQ

Music: Performance, Britishness and Middle Distance

William Dalton 1: So, let’s start by talking generally about music and your relationship to it.
William Dalton 2: That’s a complex one! I love music and I spend a lot of time listening to and researching music; I really intellectualise it. I like the whole system of albums, songs and genres - it’s much more structured and approachable than fine art, which has no system. Plus, music has always been at the forefront of cool, no matter what type of cool it was. I guess it’s just a cool art medium?

WD1: But surely these things change, and one day music may not be as ‘cool’ as it is now? We are living only 60 years after the start of what we now know as ‘cool music’.
WD2: That’s true, and different media and ways of making art go in and out of vogue in long phases. It’s interesting that there are things like theatre and opera that aren’t considered ‘cool’ right now. Perhaps I should investigate them more than music, considering my obsession with things that are generally considered in bad taste. But both include this element of theatricality that doesn’t attract me - a lot of people make art that focuses on the theatrical, farcical or melodramatic, but it doesn’t really interest me.

WD1: But isn’t music theatrical in its performative element?
WD2: Yes, in some ways. And some types of music over others: metal, for instance, and prog rock are much more theatrical than ambient musics. There’s this focus on the performance, and on the experience, the drama, of performing. I love performing and I would like to do more with that (especially in relation to my music) but for me there’s a distance between the theatrical and the performative. Theatricality is much more overt, and includes many different elements. Performance is just performance, interesting enough in itself.

WD1: So what of music that is not performative?
WD2: All music is performative to some extent, because like most other art we see it not as a solid thing but as a result of its processes (the act of creation is creation, in a sense). More so with music, because we are so au fait with the notion of instruments, bands, concerts etc. Music has always been about doing, action, which makes the idea of listening to it back on a record very unusual, because we’re detached from what made the music. We are usually ignorant of the processes in this respect, and instead concentrate on the final track, but it’s all strange. It’s all about what Christopher Small’s book said: that we have lost this idea of music as a performance, and instead it’s become an object - we don’t do enough musicking.

WD1: But surely we have to accommodate for the distribution and recording of music, without which no one would make music in the modern world.
WD2: Yes, and that’s the dilemma: that if you go to see a concert, the performance the band give is always secondary to what you’ve heard on record. It never really lives up to your expectations, and it’s never how you remember it exactly (it can’t be!). As Cass McCombs said in an interview once, there are three versions of a song: the live version, the recorded version, and the true version that is etherial and untouchable. But I’m really interested in the idea of music on a record, because then you form your own relationship to it. The artist isn’t around to prove you wrong and show you his version, or present something transient and undefinable, something that - if performed - seems like mere entertainment. A record is art, something solid and relatable. I guess it’s like watching an artist paint a painting, but then take it away as soon as it’s finished. You develop a relationship to the work and its creator, sure, but it’s not a long-term one.

cover for Jandek's 1989 album The Living End
WD1: Most musicians think only of performing, and the record as a document of that. Your explanations seem to promote doing it the other way round.
WD2: Yes… and I think that’s a very un-musiciany trait of mine, and probably why I’ll never be a proper musician. That’s an attitude of fine art, this idea of creating something that will last for a long time, possibly beyond you, something that will change hands or be revisitable, something within a market and an academic discourse. Whereas musicking is primal, raw, and very physical. It’s like a big group dance, I guess; a true performance that is ignorant of its end result or its transience. Alex Katz once said music was all about recording the ‘immediate present’.

WD1: So, if musicking is ignorant and raw, does that mean it’s a type of naïve art?
WD2: In a way it is. Perhaps the core idea of it is; discourse between a group of people, with no consideration of others. But it’s not quite as pure as, say, primitivist tribal music. The constructs and culture of music have complicated things - musicking must be done with some thought given to genre, even subconsciously. People find others who desire to make the same sort of music as them, and they perform together. Also, there is some attention given to branding and recording, which is a product of the market of rock ’n’ roll. These days it seems most kids who start bands try to start up a SoundCloud or Bandcamp as soon as possible to create something physical and visible. There’s no joy in musicking any more because culture demands something digestible. Even distribution of music in an unusual way is better than squeezing your art through every possible (virtual) opening. The outsider musician Jandek set up his own PO box, Corwood Industries, and you had to write to it with a list of what you wanted and some money to receive the records.

WD1: That’s a very materialistic way of looking at music, though. It’s almost the opposite of musicking because Jandek never performed live (until recently).
WD2: Yes and that’s what fascinates me about it, because it’s music presented as this very tangible art. It’s also about the allure of the artist and it has this very well constructed veil of mystery that is the key to any good marketing campaign. The question wasn’t, ‘why is this Jandek making this weird music,’ it was, ‘why is this Jandek pressing and distributing this weird music?’. That’s what made it interesting; that unlike some suburban kids’ bands that are content to jam and have fun, Jandek sought an audience. Does that make him a true outsider? Or did he just realise he had a possible source of income? Or was he trying to replicate records he had listened to, admiring the process of making a physical record? I think he was more self-aware than we give him credit for. After all, isn’t Corwood Industries part of a large record label now?

cover for Middle Distance
WD1: Yes, it was part of a large record label for many of those years people thought Jandek was a self-run weirdo. So, on the notion of self-run weirdos, let’s move onto your music. Where would you say your music fits in with this musicking vs. physical music debate?
WD2: My music is very physical. I really wish I could ditch the Bandcamp page, ditch the Facebook page, and just press everything I make onto vinyl and send it off into the blue like Jandek did. But that’s just not the way things work any more, and I’m all for accessibility; even at the sacrifice of mystery, which seems to be very much a large part of music in the past. There was always this ambiguous source where the music came from; liner notes were all you had to go by. There was little information on where a band was from, when they’d made the music, or what sort of scene they were from. That’s what I’d like my music to be, but it’s difficult. My music, in any case, is ‘physical’, or rather material, because it only exists as recordings, there’s no live performances.

WD1: Would you like to perform your music live?
WD2: Yes, I’d love to, but there are so many new factors that come into the concept of a band or of a song when you perform it live. Bear in mind that all my music is made slowly by me, on my own, overlaying tracks. As a result I don’t think the songs sound very ‘live’, which is a problem. My aim is to make a song in my bedroom that sounds like a band is on stage performing it to you, because of the different parts and the general feel of it. I want my music to sound like a specific venue, a space, a time. That’s part of the reason why I like recorded music over live performances; songs tend to change every time they are performed. They have an essence (that third form Cass McCombs was talking about) but they mould to fit the space they are performed in, and sometimes the spaces work and sometimes they don’t. Whereas with bedroom recording the whole thing is imbued in bedroom-ness, which is both a style and a cloak. It’s an easy way out - lo-fi has become a sound, but it’s really just a disguise for lack of a skill or budget.

Ariel Pink - 'Foul Play' from Thrash and Burn, 1998
WD1: So do you think it’s wrong to make something intentionally lo-fi? Surely you should always try to make something the best it can be, and if you make it deliberately lo-fi, especially when you’re working in your bedroom, there’s a strange duplicity that causes tension: between the lo-fi results of your budget and the lo-fi you artificially create.
WD2: Well I think it’s best to try to make songs sound as good as possible, but to a certain extent. Sometimes you just have to realise what you’ve got and work with it. At the start of the summer that’s really what I was going for - this Not Not Fun sounding thing, ‘tape music’. Really fuzzed out, warped, hissy, ambient, the sort of thing that would be good to listen to high. It’s what works incredibly well on a tape recorder, and it’s a point you can just align yourself with, so at least your music doesn’t initially seem ‘bad’. You can do the same with ballady acoustic guitar songs, like Springsteen’s Nebraska - the sparseness and intimacy of tape recording lends itself to such styles. So yes, I worked a lot on ‘tape music’ because it’s where you start as a 21st century tape cassette bedroom musician. There’s not much history in tape music but there are still some important shaping influences. When I first bought my 4-track [recorder] I listened to what I call the holy trinity of tape music: the father, R. Stevie Moore; the son, Ariel Pink (specifically Thrash and Burn); and the ghost, James Ferraro (as well as the 2009/10 hypnagogic pop trend, eg. Rangers and Ducktails). These are people who used tape for convenience but made use of the format by making it as tapey as it can be. It’s like that Matisse quote, ‘make painting do something only painting can do,’ and so make the tape do something only the tape can do. Don’t be embarrassed about it, use it to your advantage! I think the same goes for you, as the musician. I had so many crises in making Middle Distance about my skill and whether I was ‘musiciany’ enough, but then I realised I should just make what only I could make.

WD1: That takes us nicely onto the products of your summer, the two albums Middle Distance and Songs for Here and Now. We’ll cover the latter in another FAQ, but for now, what was the concept behind Middle Distance?
WD2: Well it was my first album to have no concept, really - previous efforts like Dusk at Castle Farm were all planned out beforehand. I don’t think they suffered from that, but I think that making ‘random’ tracks and then finding structure in them is a better way of working. The music on Middle Distance began as these tape music ideas but then spiralled into full songs and genre experiments. When I was living in halls I had all these stupid ideas for songs that were, John Cage-like, instructions.

self-portrait taken at the start of the summer, 2014
WD1: So in that case, is the song more performative?
WD2: Yes, really it is. So recording it wouldn’t do it justice because it’s a performance piece, an action that needs to be carried out. Whereas recorded songs are more finite, more tangible. These songs were really nothing without that performance element, they were just nice ideas - a riff repeated over the sound of a vacuum cleaner; a jazz song with a man tapdancing for percussion; a song with two guitars playing, one in D and one in Dm. As soon as I got home for the summer all those ideas that had once seemed promising in the throes of art school avant-garde suddenly seemed empty. They needed some sentiment at their centre, and that’s when I decided to go for it, and make ‘proper’ songs. I also developed an interest in outsider music.

WD1: Outsiderdom is very big in all your work; this idea of striving to be pure and contextless, unaffected by anything. Just like your versions of famous paintings, in which you exploit your lack of painting skill to become an accidental naïve artist. But does the same work for music? If you made music badly, is that laughable but poignant in the same way?
WD2: No, sadly it isn’t. But perhaps that’s the good thing about music - that it’s always got to be accessible, on some level. Or, it doesn’t have to be, but it sure helps, and there’s no shame in it. No one would make totally accessible art on purpose, but with music it’s OK to have a verse-chorus structure. Outsider music isn’t quite as listenable, but in rare circumstances it can work for those flaws. The Shaggs, for instance, who couldn’t play in time or in tune, are surprisingly listenable. Jandek not so much, unless you’re in that mood. So my experiments with making outsider music were pretty fruitless, because I was trying to make something that sounded like I was making it for myself, but also something that I wouldn’t mind putting on my next record. Are bedroom musicians really outsiders? Traditionally, no - bedroom musicians of the sort I am interested actively try to replicate the music they like, they are steeped in context. Just look at Ariel Pink’s music, or Beck’s early lo-fi albums; they skip from genre to genre, taste to taste. It’s music made by the listeners, not the producers. Bedroom musicians just listen and regurgitate, and every now and then you find one who regurgitates in an interesting way.

'No Change' from Middle Distance, 2014
WD1: So did you ever successfully make outsider music?
WD2: Not really, but there are still a few remnants of that time (early summer) on the final records. What I class my ‘outsider music’ are the genre-less songs, ones like ‘No Change’. They were usually written, hungover, the morning after a night of drinking away my problems. ‘I Can’t See’ came from that sort of context, but ‘No Change’ is the most outsidery piece I made; it was the result of a very strange time. I recorded the entire thing in my tiny bathroom, kneeling in the shower for the vocals, which are strange things in themselves. The whole structure and purpose of the song is as much a mystery to me now as it was then. And it turned out to be better as a performance than a finite song: no version of it I’ve made since sounds as pure as that original, when I was possessed with the desire to make it just so. But the reality is that it’s impossible to make true outsider music, because no matter how much can help it, you always overhear or listen to music, so it influences you.

WD1: And you’re an avid music fan, so making something without influence is ridiculous.
WD2: Exactly. I think - though I’m not sure how much I believe it - everything you listen to influences what you make. There are subconscious references in all the music you make from what has caught your subconsciousness’ attention. I think this is most apparent in vocals, where you’ll end up sounding like a specific person or using people’s inflections. Playing instruments, you’re bound to chords and ways of playing lifted from music you hear; it’s very obvious. Singing is a very innate, impulsive thing, you have your words and you speak them in your voice, but involuntarily in the voices of all the people you like. Or you could go one step further and let the lyrics sing themselves, talk off the top of your head (like Bradford Cox from Deerhunter is known to do). Once again, it’s abut tapping into the unconscious.

'A Drive Home' from Middle Distance, 2014
WD1: Would you say your singing on Middle Distance has influences you’ve only noticed after?
WD2: What’s unusual about it is that there aren’t many influences I can see, I don’t think I’m developed enough yet. Some of the songs just seem to be the weirdest thing, and the way I sing isn’t very ‘singerly’ - like on ‘A Drive Home’, it can be quite unsettling. I’m not sure if I like that. But then I’ll sing a demo and try to sound like Ty Segall, and - no shit - it sounds wrong.

WD1: Musically, what are the influences you can see in Middle Distance? What was the musical moodboard for the album?
WD2: It’s quite diverse, but a theme of Britishness began to emerge midway through the summer, a country/folk feel, quite acoustic, with obvious nods to tape music. I listened to a lot of the Kinks (Arthur more than Village Green Preservation Society), as well as Led Zeppelin’s IV. There was a lot of 60s music going on, and I think it’s apparent in the album, as well as the other demos I made at the time - Nuggets, the Seeds, the Doors, Love, and Creedence. Creedence played a big part actually, and I think there’s a lot there that maybe I haven’t seen yet. I played the album to a friend and he said it sounded like ‘weird country music’… I’ve never really associated my music with country or folk, but there’s definitely an element of that. Especially if you consider British country music, which just reminds me of Morris dancing and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. I think I’m a bit too suburban for that, but maybe tracks like ‘A Drive Home’ or ‘Western No. 2’ are suburban country music? And aside from these big themes, there are more subtle musical nods on the album; a bit on ‘Fair’ where the bassline sounds like Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’, the jazz chords on ‘Ocean Song’, the claps at the end of ‘Western No. 2’ were borrowed from MGMT’s ‘Congratulations’... But those weren’t the big influences.

music video for 'Western 2' (demo), 2014
WD1: Why Britishness? Was it some kind of ode to the British Invasion?
WD2: No, not explicitly. Though there are definitely references: the 60s-sounding coda to ‘Fair’, ‘Garden City’, that line on ‘Gooseberry Pie’ that mentions ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. For me the interest in Britishness came from this desire to make something that was decidedly average, middle-of-the-road, mild. Or at least something that initially seems like that, but has a lot under its surface. It’s this whole ‘backwards punk’ thing again; making something boring as a fuck-you to the audience. But with music, I feel it should still be accessible. So it ended up sounding like country music! Though I’m still not sure why I actually made the whole album around mild Britishness, it seems pointless, like it negates itself. All the elements are there if you look for it; tracks like ‘Fair’ and ‘Garden City’ were very much made to that purpose. The lyrics of ‘Fair’ are about gardening! And ‘Garden City’, listening back, just goes on that little bit too long… it’s like it’s trying to be languid but it knows it’s not interesting enough to be able to pull it off. And then to top it all off there’s a plain audio clip in the middle of the whole album of a busker playing the accordion while English people walk by.

WD1: Yes, what was the intention with that track, ‘Busker’?
WD2: I’ve always been interested in using ‘found sound’ and ambient sound in my music - it’s that John Cage-iness that I can’t shake. On my digitally produced music it was always more integrated, such as the sound at the start of ‘Wednesday Morning’ or the static on Dusk at Castle Farm. But it’s much harder to just drop in recordings when working at a tape deck, so I had to be a bit less subtle. The busker recording - taken in Exeter - seemed so strong on its own I had to include it as one piece. I think that’s a much better way of doing things, rather than being sly. It just says, ‘I am the instrumental track on this album. I have a purpose,’ rather than just fading a song out into some random ambience. The only other field recording on the album is that clip of drunk kids on the train on ‘Garden City’, which forms the middle part of the song (and is inspired by Tame Impala’s ‘Keep on Lying’). But though there aren’t so many dropped-in recordings like that, the album is still very diverse in its types of sounds. There’s that silly bit on ‘Fair’ where I read out the weather forecast, for instance, which might have been good with a recording of a weatherman but seems funnier and more performative if it’s just me.

'Leisure Centre' from Scamps, 2014
WD1: There are certainly a lot of points on the album that seem disconcertingly funny - ‘Leafy Greens’, for instance, or the whole act of saying goodbye to the listener on ‘Outro’. Was this meant to be a funny album?
WD2: No. I’m all for humour in art, but music - because I want it to be accessible and commercial (to some degree) - needs to be very careful around humour. I have little time for ‘funny songs’ or ‘funny musicians’ - people like Tim Minchin or the Lonely Island. Funny music becomes gimmicky music becomes music for a special occasion becomes bad music. But humour is always a part of what I do, so it definitely finds its way in. I’ll allow it a bit, because I’m not good enough or sincere enough to take myself completely seriously - it would be a mistake to do so. But I think there has to be a line, and an awareness of how funny you’re being. This is not to say I always find the line: many people have asked me whether Scamps is meant to be funny, worried that they don’t get it because they think it’s serious (and so, bad). I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be wholly funny or not… of course, it wasn’t totally serious, a song like ‘Leisure Centre’ could never be, but I don’t want people to write it off because it was funny.

WD1: Returning to Middle Distance, what do you think is the distinction between instrumentals like ‘Busker’ and the more ‘whole’ songs with lyrics?
WD2: I feel like the songs with lyrics are those that are more progressed - they were made later on in the summer. ‘Fair’ was the last song I made, actually, and ‘Wanna Know Why’ was the second-to-last. There is a distinction between the three stages of my music evident in the album. There’s the early avant-garde and ambient stuff like ‘Busker’ and ‘On The Beach’ (probably the closest thing to tape music on the album). Then there’s that awkward middle section of quasi-outsider music, ‘A Drive Home’ and ‘No Change’. And then there’s my favourites, the latest stuff, when I’ve learnt from all the previous stages and making the strongest tracks, ‘Fair’, ‘Garden City’ and ‘Wanna Know Why’. But I think the album sits very well as a record of those three stages, as a record of my ‘summer of music’, where all I did was listen to and make music. I feel like it’s all over the place, a record of a transitional time when I worked obsessively to move my skills from the innocent nothingness of P.G.R. to doing real ‘songwriting’. It’s definitely a strange one; listening to it since, I still don’t know what I make of it. I like it because I put so much work into it and there are some good moments, but as a whole it seems awkward.

WD1: Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of your enforced middle-ness and your new ambitions for your music. You’re writing your best songs but you’re crushing them under this desire to be average and middle-of-the-road, literally stuck in the middle of your confidence and your angst...
WD2: Yes, and that’s not a nice thing to witness, is it? Struggle’s nice when it’s relatable and presented in a commercial format, but there’s a little too much internalised angst going on across Middle Distance. I feel like there’s a pretence in it, a holding back - ‘A Drive Home’ doesn’t sound like an outsider made it, it sounds like someone who could make something better is pinning himself into this awkward role. That’s why it sounds creepy. It’s not natural. And hopefully in my next record I can find that place where I belong, so I can relax, and make truly confident music.

self-portrait taken at the end of the summer for the cover of Songs For Here and Now
WD1: I think confidence is definitely an issue in Middle Distance. There’s an over-reliance on the instruments and the vocals never seem to want to be anything more than they disappointingly are. Like on ‘Homecoming’, a strange track of loud feedback booms, the refrain is almost inaudible. The listener strains to hear it, making the song a painful experience. If anything, you seem happiest on ‘Leafy Greens’.
WD2: Yeah, where I’m taking the piss! There’s definitely an issue with sincerity, and the pretence of sincerity and balladry. There’s an expectation from singers to be honest and sing from the heart in this universal language. I feel like I’m just not built for that mode of expression, and so in trying to fit to it, I am lowering myself, quenching myself. ‘A Drive Home’ is the sound of someone talking in a language someone else has told him is right. I need to find my own language, my own parameters. I’m scared that I just don’t have the right personality to be a singer or lyricist, and it’s true I’m not conventional! But this summer taught me that it’s not about whether you’re right for something or not; you should just do it, make it, and the more ‘wrong’ for it you are, the more interesting the results. But of course this clashes with the idea of commercial/accessible/easily-listened-to music… and deep down I want to be accessible!

WD1: You want someone to put on an Erno album and just sink into it, let it become the background?
WD2: Yes, and for that I need to find my confident voice, because the lack of confidence and the angst of the backwards punk is jarring, it draws too much attention to the music! It isn’t really a question of skill, because in the 70s punk taught us that you don’t need to know how to play an instrument, you just need to put your heart into it. You just need to speak through the instrument without worries or confidence issues. That’s pure expression, I suppose, and that’s why I like music.

WD1: So, briefly, what’s next?
WD2: Make more music! Get better and better! Find my voice. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to live at my 4-track like I did this summer, but hopefully I’ll keep improving. At the moment, in halls again and without the use of my bedroom ‘studio’, I’ve been writing a lot of ballady acoustic guitar songs, intimate, melodic things. I’ve been listening to The Shins, Scott Walker, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Robbie Williams. We’ll see where it goes.

WD1: Maybe even a live performance…
WD2: Maybe even that! I don’t want to hide behind records for as long as Jandek, that’s for sure.

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