Assessing Their Performance: The Burnside Project Legacy
Burnside Project had audience members screaming their quirky electropop lyrics back at them one moment and shrugging the next. Here, Burnside Project's rise and fall is documented, culminating in a free download of their unreleased private masterpiece.
The way Richard Jankovich remembers it, the high point was pretty stellar:
"There was a moment in time where things were looking really good for the band," he tells PopMatters, self-deprecating, wistful, and candid. "It was 2004, [sophomore album The Networks, the Circuits, the Streams, the Harmonies] was out for a year, 'Cue the Pulse to Begin' was a theme song for a big TV show, and we got signed to Sony in Japan, and we toured Japan and played sold out shows in Tokyo. So there was all this momentum, you know? I think if you talk to any band that has a legacy, or has been around for awhile, they'll tell you that there's that moment, where every decision you're making is under a microscope, because you're on the precipice, and things are going to go really really well, or fizzle out."
"In our case," he adds, "you can guess where it went."
He says that last bit with a laugh, but in truth, Burnside Project were a unique creation whose short history belies their one-hit-wonder status. "Through the '90s, I always had alternative rock bands", recalls Jankovich, "but when I got to New York, I wanted to do something different. I intentionally, like very crassly, got into electronic music. I didn't really like it, but I was like 'What's drum-n-bass? What's trip-hop? What's big beat?' I remember the mission statement for Burnside Project, in like 1999, when I was conceptualizing it: 'What would it sound like if Pavement was remixed by Fatboy Slim?'"
He laughs, before continuing that line of thought: "Now today, that's no big deal, like, who cares? But back then, that was a really interesting and new concept, like, indie bands did not get remixed. [laughs] So what would an original project sound like that way? But guitar was always at the center. We were always a guitar band that just didn't have a drummer or a bass player. We'd play guitar over what is essentially an electronic rhythm section."
Ahead of their time? Hard to say, but when you get down to it, what Jankovich, Gerald Hammill, and Paul Searing managed to accomplish was greater than the sum of its parts, and after their little-heard 2000 debut, The Networks--with its lyrics referencing the alienation of technology and Philip Seymour Hoffman--started generating CMJ-level buzz, eventually leading "Cue the Pulse to Begin", the band's readymade indie-dance single, to become not only a chart success in Japan, but also the theme song to the US version of Queer as Folk. Press notices started stacking up, and the band seemed to going places, culminating in that Tokyo performance.
"We got the total rock star treatment," Jankovich, now 45, recalls. "We were picked up by limos from the airport, I walked on as an interview guest on MTV Japan, and we sold out Tokyo, our first and only time playing there we sold it out, a room full of Japanese people singing along to my songs -- that was the high point! There is no doubt about it: that was the apex of my musical career. I've never done anything that's achieved that level of response from the world."
Since then, however, the group had a bit of a rocky history, recording a follow-up album called Syntax & Semantics that, despite throwing everything they had into it, they ultimately shelved. Only recently did the band, in conjunction with Bar None Records, decide to finally unleash it onto the world, and are doing so now, exclusively on PopMatters for a limited time.
So why the decade-plus wait? "We spent a lot of time making these songs for the Syntax record," Jankovich recalls, "and ... musically, it might be the most artistic experimental, musical record I've ever been involved with, in terms of experimenting and pushing boundaries and trying new things. At the same time, we weren't sure how it fit in our discography, coming off of the relative success of Networks. So we never had the confidence, I would say, to put it out into the world. We kept shelving it, because we weren't totally convinced of its merits, the label wasn't totally convinced of its merits. It was our attempt of making a grand statement, we made it, and then we sat back and said 'Gee, what have we done? Is this the right thing to do?' Then we went back in the studio and wrote [eventual follow-up album The Finest Example Is You], thinking this was a solid pop record. Not a terribly groundbreaking record, but it was pop record, written specifically to be a pop record. It's an OK record -- but I'm really critical of myself. It's not as interesting as Syntax in my opinion, but it was a good record to come out.
"I had been living, at that point, in New York," Jankovich continues. "I was originally from the Midwest, and I had been living in New York at this point for ten or 11 years, and I kind of burned out on it. When Finest Example came out, and it [didn't] really take us to the next level as we were kind of expecting, then there was less of a reason for me to hang out in New York. So I decided to move to the West Coast. Paul and Gerald and I (I know Burnside gets often tagged as me and my project, and it definitely started that way, but by 2005-2006, Paul Gerald and I were pulling equal weight creatively) every couple of years we'd come back to [Syntax] and talk about it and be like 'This is some good stuff!' and some of it we'd revise and revise until it was to the point where it wasn't even the original. Then a year ago, it came up again, and it was like '... let's just get this out.' Like, we all felt really good about those songs, and it felt like it'd be a nice nail in the coffin, if you will, for Burnside. [laughs]"
Indeed, Syntax and Semantics moves away from the "lost soul in a technological world" tales that pepper The Networks and instead focus on subjects that are a bit more aggressive, inclusive, and even a bit political, all while expanding on their sound in big ways, like how on "Sync Spinning", an easy highlight from the album, the beats-and-guitars aesthetic slowly unveils a sawing, sighing string section that give the band's music an emotional anchor that some would argue was missing from Finest Example.
"I think in Syntax, 'Sync Spinning' is [...] our most organic piece of music. There's a lot of it on Syntax. There's a lot of 'real instruments' for lack of a better term. Even a lot of the electronic stuff, a lot of that is actually 'real.' One of the instruments we use in that record is this old 1984 Casio keyboard, called the CB101, and we played it live and ran it through an amplifier and mic'd it, because we wanted to balanced this clinical, electronic production with humanity, with flaws. You hear a lot of that in the song 'We Are Not Heroes', which has a lot of these synth leads that are played on that. I don't know how much you know about music production, but these days it's really easy to play a line through MIDI and quantize it so it's perfect. Like, we specifically did not do that with a lot of those things to give it that humanity."
So for something that the band had pined over for so long, why release it as a free download for two weeks? "That was a mutual decision," Jankovich explains. "We just want people to hear it at this point. The band: we're done. We have no plans, and this is a piece of music that we all feel good about. It was the label's idea to give it away for two weeks, but I think the idea was: that would just allow more people to hear it. I know most people are gonna stream it for Spotify for free anyways, so the free download is just to bring a little bit of attention to this record. But I'm not at all concerned about the devaluation of it, at this point. Ten years I probably would've said 'What?' [laughs] But today music's free. But I did that with the Mon Draggor record -- it's still up there for free if anyone wants it."
[Don't forget to check our feature where the band goes over what went into the making of Syntax, track by track.]
Yes, following his remix work and guest-filled debut album under the guise of Pocket, Jankovich once again took a stab into the unknown by unleashing Mon Draggor, a double-disc set of pop songs that he put out online for anyone who wants it and even ended up landing on PopMatters' own Best Pop Albums of 2015 ranking. Therefore, releasing Burnside Project's final adieu is a fitting way to close out his band's legacy.
"I will go on record and say that Syntax was and is a very mature record," Richard notes. "I do think, lyrically, it was very inspired by cinema, and you'll kind of see that in the track-by-track descriptions. Each song, I'm like 'Oh yeah, this I wrote after a weekend of watching Requiem for a Dream over and over again.' I was feeling a pinch of the cinema at the time: we had a strange relationship with cinema, finding our songs with movies, and in 2003 there was this new award given out to bands called the Shortlist Awards? It was only there for a few years, and we got nominated for a Shortlist Award, and the person who nominated us was Cameron Crowe, who is my favorite film director. People would often refer to our music as cinematic -- not in an Explosions in the Sky kind of way, but there was something there. So Syntax was a very (for us) high-art record. It's the closest we ever got to high-art."
And now its yours, dear reader. Enjoy.