Navigating the Cultural Landscape

Part two of interview with Wellington music legend Disasteradio

by James Robinson

Sometimes it seems that we operate in a cultural environment with few straight answers. Irony has taken over the world, and made developing cultural capital akin to walking over a field of broken glass. When everything is changing all over the place, and not always in a straight line, what happens to the guy who is just trying to get ahead?

In part two of his interview, James Robinson rejoins our hero – Wellington underground electronic musician Disasteradio, aka Luke Rowell – and begins to traverse the dark corners and bumpy waters of 21st Century culture…

Robinson: Was it weird when the A Low Hum thing took off and you were playing alongside guitar bands?

Disasteradio : I was always the oddball on the punk scene. I used to go to shows, my brother was in a band, we’re talking about 1996 through 1998, and that was a really cool time. The drinking age was still 21, kids would show up with six-packs to shows at Thistle Hall and go absolutely nuts dancing. This was at a time when I would have only played one or two shows. It was quite strange to see that transition, from being the guy who plays keyboard and it being kind of weird, to seeing some bands playing keyboards, to every band having hi-tech stuff.

People often refer to you as an ‘Indie’ act. Is that startling?

People think that because there’s an intellectual sub-text, therefore it is not electronica.

‘Indie’, like irony, kind of became this meaningless word.

Led Zeppelin managed to take blues without being compared to the 50s and 60s, why can’t we do that with synth-pop? Why can’t it be an established style? It is partly about marketing, about packaging things together.

People you associate most with, are they musically minded?

The ones who aren’t, they are stylistically minded. I’m in between. I enjoy writing melodies, but I enjoy the referential side of it. I think lately I was actually stronger referentially and stylistically than technically and I’m trying to balance the two out.

It seems a few years ago Irony came back in, and people love that referentialism. Does people taking your music as mockery rather than pastiche annoy you?

I have got quite hung up on this at times, I definitely think I fall into the realms of pastiche rather than irony. Irony is pastiche that isn’t that good.

It is hard to make sense of such an over used term?

There has been this compounding referentialism, it seems like now we’ve grown up on The Simpsons it is just constant references. Part of me loves it, it is chewy, you’ve got to know x to understand y. But I try to dodge that by writing songs that transcend the irony, by being good musically. If you’re too referential you’re too ironic, but if you’re too music you’re stylist. I’m trying to transcend irony by being good.

Things are going to this true post-modernism, but where things are still fun. Things don’t have to be high-brow; you’re nailing the reference, you’re nailing the mood, and you’re still entertaining people.

You get stuck in this fast circle of references, or you can step away and ignore it.

I don’t think about it. I’m more attracted to going towards a melody that will make me laugh. Like early mood records, those kind of riffs that are silly and funny musically in their own right. I’ll use things like that rather than going “this sounds like the theme from Top Gun”.

There is a lot of pointless nostalgia around.

The whole marketing of nostalgia is a bit heartbreaking. Say, a kid’s shirt with “Know Your Roots”, and a Nintendo controller on it. It is like “Okay! But you’re video games are better now”. We can build on a quasi-technological entertainment canon, without having our heads in the sand.

I’ve started to blend things together. I have a new synth-pop song that goes into an orchestral breakdown. On ‘Totally Rad’ there is a 4-bar orchestral bit that sounds like a shitty Playstation sample. I’m going to reuse the idea, and I’m trying to go for an absolute perfect, like Phillip Glass breakdown in the middle of a very, very un-Phillip Glass song. I’m trying to reach out a little wider and make it a bit weirder.

I read in an interview that you were attracted to the idea that something could be fake, but somehow seem more “real” than the real thing.

It is the same subtext as the pastiche. RoboCop was a man and he became a robot, but in a way he became more of a man. My wife will buy a kid’s plastic handbag toy, as opposed to something made my Gucci, because it is perfect and imperfect at the same time.

Is there a disconnect trying write songs for someone who gets the art behind a song and who knows the craft, and someone who just want to listen at a show and have fun?

I think with those sort of ideas it is always, they never come out intentionally. Those sorts of circles never deliberately overlap, and if you put too much effort into trying to cross into each sphere you can over think things. I went to music school, I tried to have conversations about say Pet Sounds or something, and people wouldn’t know. In some circles there’s Beethoven and there’s pop and nothing in between.
The whole music appreciation, record collector side of things is enhanced in New Zealand. Talking to people my age in England, they don’t really know much history, or many old cool English bands. I expect people to have heard of cool English bands I really like. It is one area we really excel in NZ – there are a lot of music geeks. You can tell after a show who really got it. You do a lot of talking about it all… the actual construction of music, what you’ve been trying to do, what has worked, what hasn’t worked.

As time progresses trends of music compound and move in faster and faster circles.

I’m forever wondering what is going to happen. Have we experienced culturally singularity with the internet with the media? We know the background to everything and everything is just there. Obscure music can be shared with anyone. Have all the styles been established? Is it like religion? Is the musical environment just culminations of jazz/blues/rock/art/music/dance and electronica?

Some people will try and argue that nothing has changed. That things draw on the past always. But it feels busier. Things move so fast now.

There’s been no technological revolution in music in the past 10 years. The things that have become established have become established. There’s no motivating factor to find the synthesiser of 2009.

I’m guessing there is going to be some sort of incredibly intellectual movement with digital music. There are a lot of things around like the guy doing the Mona Lisa in MS Paint. It is perfection gone absolutely crazy. I’m guessing a style will come out of this; like a new computer version of jazz, but not crazy jazz, cheesy jazz. It will be something that involves all styles but is kind of digitally perfect.

You have to make yourself listen through a lot of music these days. We’ve got so much at our fingertips.

To try and cut through that is insane. And it is only going to get bigger. It is a conundrum of epic proportion.

So will you keep focusing on the album as your creative outlet?

I think so. I’ve been trying to think of ways to package the album, where it is not just CD and MP3s. I have some cool ideas. I want to get a hobby box, and de-solder an mp3 player, and make controls up, and a headphone jack, and make an album that is a box. A little Disasteradio music box.

CDs seem so boring in a certain context. So tiny and expensive…

I have a promo photo with lipstick on my teeth and I’m in a polyester suit. We printed that up on glossy, 8×10 photo paper and put a download code on the back and sold it for five US dollars at shows. And they went like hot cakes. It is something that people can put on their walls – that they can engage with. And they seemed to respond.

So you’re crossing the wires, bringing the formats together.

And it is not because I’m trying to innovate, I’m just trying to keep it exciting. Viewing the format subjectively, and thinking – “well the CD sucks, and the MP3 kind of rules, but where is it?” and just trying to get good ideas and push them through.

The Internet seemed to lead people to see that CDs weren’t that worth it.

Maybe they’re going to have to levy the internet or levy MP3 players or hard drives and bandwidth. Because the industry as a whole does not make that much money. It will require a lot of smarts and a lot of communication, and a lot of people will just basically lose their jobs.

Hand-in-hand with the MP3 revolution and format dilemmas has come the rise of the internet. How important has that become in building a fan-base?

Facebook has killed MySpace. There’s nothing but spam. Facebook has picked that music thing up. But there was an element of MySpace that was cool because it was shitty. People can check MySpace without signing up or in. The internet audience is so split now. There are a lot of Polish people on last.fm and not so many on MySpace. There are a lot of Americans on Facebook, but heaps of English people on MySpace. It is so localised, and no one can solve that problem.

There was so much talk of how MySpace could just blow you up as a musician. That idealised idea being that the internet had made anything possible.

We’ve watched the internet become a subset of real-life. Facebook has become the mall of the internet, there’s DRM (Digital Rights Management) on everything. Everything has become very much in line with the law and commercialism, and so I think that chance is still there, but it has certainly shifted. It is becoming very confusing as to where to go. You see a lot of websites where you haven’t ever heard of them, but they trade music. They give you an impression of success, a nice design, so you don’t know. There is so much snake oil on there now.

It was supposed to be a democratising revolution where information was going to be treated differently – and you have to wonder if the internet has been a disappointment, in a way

I was talking to Frase (from Frase&Bri) about whether he should delete his Facebook account, about whether it is now this moderated thing, totally non-controversial, where you can’t write anything because someone will get back at you about it. There’s no way to be cool on Facebook, when you’ve got all these businessmen showing you all these ads.

With people are so used to getting things for free, does that feel like a deterrent?

Well, if I found my self on a torrent website, I’d be a bit chuffed. The only solution is to try to be so good that people have to buy it. Because the tools are there to do whatever you want. You have the options – fast, cheap, or good. But so often you can choose only two. You spend a lot of time making the best shit you can, and you hope for the best.

But maybe it will eat itself? You can’t compete with free.

Yeah. Will we get back to a model of bonded aristocratic cultural sponsorship? I’d love a wealthy dowager who grew up listening to Devo and Siouxxsie to come along and get me to soundtrack tea parties.

You’ve been making music for 10 years. Do you know where you are headed?

The only milestone that I have is what I’m making at the moment. It is more often I’m down because I can’t write, than I can’t write because I’m down. A good day will be a minute and a half coming out before breakfast. The satisfaction is in speaking through technology, conveying your own idea of the world. That is what I’m interested in, and it keeps me going. I’ve been writing music for 10 years and there’s some kind of constancy in the world if I can still create.

So you draw your satisfaction from work, rather than…pushing against things ?

I’ll get angry about a certain style that I think doesn’t belong on TV, but at the end of the day that is irrelevant. I go into my attic and I’m in my own world. There’s no industry, there’s no crowd, there’s no vulture. It is just you and a bunch of notes and a computer. And it is a fun place to be.