"If you grew up thinking that the stage/arena show is what live music is supposed to be, it’s jarring to be confronted with a band playing two feet in front of you, running into you, spitting in your face, hitting you with their instruments."
For the past several months I’ve been writing about virtual space and how meaning is created in that sort of medium. One of the core principles of space is that your actions partially define its meaning and vice versa. For that reason I think a good capstone to this work would be a discussion of the dynamic of meaning creation through space in a setting that’s familiar for many: your own house.
There’s a great TED talk given by David Byrne on the relationship between architecture and music venues ("David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve", TED, June 2010). The way people would engage and listen to music has an intrinsic relationship with the space they’re in. It wasn’t until 1872 that the concept of not being drunk and jabbering while someone was playing music became popular. This was mostly because of the changing design of opera houses such as Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus or Carnegie Hall. A quiet audience means that you can have more nuanced and complex music that will actually be heard, the singer does not have to scream. This dynamic exists with technology as well. A small club, before the advent of microphones, meant that you had to play loud and heavy music to be heard. Once the microphone was invented, crooning and much quieter songs became an option. Music in a giant arena typically has to take the form of a ballad to be coherently understood by the audience. An Ipod, on the other hand, allows for extremely nuanced and complicated music but has to always be at a certain volume, or you’ll make the listener go deaf. Since so much of music is defined by the space that it is being performed in, Byrne comments, “The passion is always there, but the vessel is what is created first.”
LLoyd Phillips and the Oil Skins
One of the venues that Byrne neglects to mention is the house show. If you’re unfamiliar with this stretch of subculture, a lot of punk bands and their folk-punk offshoots will hit the road and play at their friends' houses. They get enough gas money and food to get to the next house and play just one more show. It’s one of the most intimate musical experiences that I’ve ever had, and I highly recommend it. I did an e-mail interview with Lloyd Phillips, who has gone on three house show tours and recently printed his first record, to hear his take on why he opts for this kind of performance. You can check out his latest album Lloyd Phillips and the Oil Skins: Old Violence here or find him plucking somewhere in Portland. He explained about house shows, “Our generation is awed by music played right in front of their face. People who don’t grow up as punk rockers or the like, who don’t spend their days as a kid in stinky little clubs shoulder to shoulder with stinky people, don’t know what to do with live music most of the time . . . If you grew up thinking that the stage/arena show is what live music is supposed to be, it’s jarring to be confronted with a band playing two feet in front of you, running into you, spitting in your face, hitting you with their instruments. That’s unintentional most of the time, just the band letting loose and you getting caught up in it. It makes people uncomfortable because they know music as the sound that comes from their iPods or from the big stage, and they know musicians as famous people that they’ll never get to talk to.”
The intimacy that Phillips is talking about is an amazing combination of proximity to the work and the strangeness of being in someone’s house while all of this is going on. It’s hard to describe how surreal it feels to watch someone perform an awesome song in your house, then walk over to your fridge and take out a beer. What the house show scene captures is the way that there is a growing culture of music that revolves around space instead of genre. Phillips’ recent album isn’t necessarily meant to appeal to a huge audience. It’s a very intimate, personal record created with a core group of musicians who all met in Nashville. Phillips explains, “My friends are all over that record. Molly co-wrote a couple of the songs and sings on it, her fiancé, Steve, produced and engineered it, our friend Cameron played drums and bass on it, Roger and Andy from the HWGB play on it, a whole mess of other Nashville people sang backing vocals. My friend, Smith, made the five-string banjo that I play on the record. We recorded it in Molly and Steve's house, and my old teacher, George Singleton, wrote the liner notes. The records were pressed at United Record Pressing, a quick trip from where I was living in Nashville then. My friend Andy made a lino cut for the jacket, and we hand pressed every single one of them. Because of that, no two record jackets look the same. The ink dried on clotheslines in my backyard. Andy and I sat on floor of my living room and hand-stuffed each jacket with the record, liner notes, and download tickets.”
Yet the record isn’t about excluding people either, you just have to go hear it live and have your own memories about each song. Once the music is that close with Lloyd singing right next to you, the album takes on a personal context as it does for every other person who has participated with it. Phillips has a lot of insane stories about his tours. He remembers, “I played a house show once where a kid got up to the mic next to me and just screamed in it during every song. It was awesome. My string band became experimental all of a sudden. Our drummer also cut his hand open on a rusty tambourine, our guitar player passed out under a tree, there was a guy who could ride a unicycle, breath fire, and juggle. People were moshing to fiddle tunes. Folks talk about writing songs, making records and going on tour like they’re all separate enterprises. They aren't for me. ”
To really appreciate why this intimate space and close music is so engaging, it helps to examine a misguided attempt at it. If you’ve ever seen The Carolina Chocolate Drops perform in a theater rather than an open space, there is a potential awkwardness that depends on the audience. The music is meant to be enjoyed drunk, dancing and preferably while people move about at a great party. I’ve seen the Chocolate Drops several times live, and they always encourage the audience to get up and dance. If you’re lucky, everyone will start doing just that, and it’ll be an amazing night. On some occasions though, you’ve just got a bunch of people staring at the musicians as they sit up on stage trying to put on a house show in a theater.
In an interview with the A.V. Club, William Gibson, author of Spook Country and Zero History, talked about the culture of finding meaning in old practices (Zack Handlen, "William Gibson", A.V. Club, 7 September 2010). He points out that the younger generations search for something different than nostalgia. He comments, “I find it interesting to see people—mostly people who are younger than I am—going to considerable trouble to try to reproduce things from an era that was far more physical, from a less virtual day. That fascinates me, because it seems to be symbolic of something going on in the culture itself, and I also have a sort of innate admiration for the stubbornness it requires to actually make those things physically. It’s become incredibly difficult. In North America, we’ve largely forgotten how to do it. There’s something going on there. I hope it’s not this nostalgia, because nostalgia, I invariably mistrust. It has too many downsides. But a yearning for things that somehow are real things.“
The Can Kickers
What you see in the house scene is the idea that the space of performance itself can be a means for communicating with an audience. That it can connect with listeners and create meaning in music through means that have fallen out of use. The space itself is reasserted as a way of connecting for both artist and audience. Phillips sums it up nicely, “Play in their living rooms. Talk to them. Tell them stories. Listen to their stories. Get drunk with them. Cry together. Send them Christmas cards. Fuck their friends. Give their dogs some of your sandwich. Let them sleep in your house if theyʼre in town. Show them that youʼre flesh and blood and just as hungry for something real as they are. Show the kids that you arenʼt afraid to bleed for them, to really let loose, and theyʼll recognize you immediately.”