Are you fed up with viral marketing, hype cycles and the 24/7 onslaught of social media? Are you resisting the urge to stop worrying and love the photobomb? Are you of two minds on the hive mind? Then you have a kindred spirit in York Factory Complaint, the Brooklyn duo of Ryan Martin and Michael Berdan. The two underground music stalwarts aren't shy about their frustration with society's trajectory, and their conviction is infectious, even inspirational, on the forthcoming album Lost In The Spectacle, one of 2014's best extreme records.
Equal parts rhythm and noise, the six-part suite was structured around the stages of a consumption-based economy: "Conceived," "Produced," "Loved," "Commodified," "Bought" and "Forgotten." If that sounds too heady, don't worry: The music is as visceral as anything I've heard this year. At the risk of sounding reductive, imagine a dystopian cocktail of Tim Hecker and Perfect Pussy. (Or you can just listen to the premiere of "Loved" on this page.)
Martin, who runs the independent label Dais Records, and Berdan met at a Suicide show 10 years ago, and started York Factory Complaint in 2009. (The unusual moniker references an outbreak at the northern headquarters of Hudson's Bay Company in the 1830s; it turned out to be lead poisoning, but at the time was treated as a "complaint" by its executives.) The band has released several limited-edition cassettes and CD-Rs, but Lost In The Spectacle (out July 15 on Accidental Guest) is by far its most polished album yet.
I exchanged several emails with both Martin and Berdan over the past week to find out what begat this monster of a record. You can read our edited correspondence below.
Otis Hart: Lost In The Spectacle is the name of your new album as York Factory Complaint. Is that the same "Spectacle" French philosopher Guy Debord addresses in his book The Society Of The Spectacle?
Michael Berdan: It is indeed the situationist idea of the Spectacle that we're referencing, yes. Ryan and I both stand in agreement that the Spectacle is a very real social constraint and encompasses the whole of our psychic and spiritual existence. The individual idea no longer exists. The individual feeling disappears the more we allow our computers to socialize us. We believe what we are told to believe, we feel how we are told to feel, we make what we are told to make and we buy what we are told to buy. There is no such thing as a subculture in 2014. Any a------ can manufacture the full illusion of a clandestine identity within 10 minutes on Tumblr.
Now, it's a pointless exercise in futility to rebel against the Spectacle, as it absorbs all that it touches. So what can we do? We can acknowledge it for what it is and stare it dead in the eyes. Through a series of conversations, we decided that we wanted to make something that openly acknowledges the fact that taste and politics are bought and sold and how everything we create is just another cog in the Spectacle. This record is about our collective spiritual death.
Ryan Martin: I think Berdan summed it up pretty well. It's about the concept of people and ideas being lost in the spectacle, which has happened in a very timely, cyclical fashion in New York City for as long as either of us has been active here. It's our observation, and this record is a document of that observation. The brutalist design references in the record packaging further drive that point home. We see people are pacified by their subculture (which was never the point), we see this on a local level, and we have had a very extreme, dramatic reaction to all of it by way of this album (and I guess you can say by the band's existence.)
Hart: For readers not familiar with Guy Debord and The Society of The Spectacle, can you tell us a bit about him/the book, and how you first encountered it?
Berdan: Debord was an influential Marxist vandal/theorist/revolutionary in France and original head of the organization The Situationist International. His most notable work was the book The Society Of The Spectacle, which heavily influenced the art and conversation of late-1960s Paris and was largely blamed for inciting the Paris Uprising. Debord believed that official culture was a "rigged game," that subversive ideas were commodified and sterilized by an unseen force active within the power structure and then sold back to the masses, without the former potency and threat. This unseen force is the Spectacle. The Spectacle also operates to inflate or devalue a product as it sees fit. Take two identical goods and slap a name brand on one of them. The one with the branding will automatically be viewed as better. This works the same way in art and music: It's not how good something is, it's who says it's good.
I first encountered The Society Of The Spectacle in my late teens. I was an intellectually insecure kid (in many ways I still am), and it was a book that kept on getting name-checked by people who I admired. Because I wanted to identify with my peers, I picked it up (which is a function of the Spectacle). The central themes just stuck with me from that point on. Through the years, I've seen it develop and morph at an alarming rate and feel it more and more active in my life. I believe that Guy Debord was right about pretty much everything.
Martin: I first came across this book, then later Debord's other writings, in my late teens/early 20s, when I started questioning my relationship with underground music and culture, and started exploring other avenues to find some answers. Movements like the Situationists gave me a lot to work with and helped me form my own ideas, which I'm still developing and changing many years later.
Hart: Debord wrote The Society Of The Spectacle in 1967, well before cable television and two generations before the Internet even began to democratize the transition from "being" to "having" and ultimately to "appearing," as Debord put it. What about today's manifestation of Debord's thesis inspired this music? Are there specific moments over the past five years that forced your hand, or is it more everyday life on social media?
Berdan: The Spectacle came from the advent of print advertising in the 1920s and became fully realized in the political propaganda campaigns from that point on. As communication develops, so does the Spectacle. We live in a culture of instant access and instant gratification. Our lives are played out through social networking sites, where we celebrate artificial experiences. It's almost more psychologically gratifying to post pictures of your exotic vacation, or of the show that you went to, so that your Internet acquaintances can hit the "Like" button, than it is to have the legitimate experience to begin with. This goes for music, art and thought, as well. The more that people in positions of social power artificially prop something up or put something down, the more the masses will fall in line. It doesn't matter if something is creatively or intellectually of merit. What matters is that the right people say so. This has always been the case, but it happens much faster in this decade than ever before. We are chewed up, swallowed and s--- out.
Martin: It was equal amounts the commodification of underground culture as it was a knee-jerk reaction to what we witnessed happening at breakneck speeds locally. York Factory Complaint is very grounded in our presence in New York City, so when we started and saw absurd things like "witch house" being fabricated, we felt the need to point out that the emperor is still not wearing any clothes. The sad thing is, a lot of people went for it. People have been given a lot of social responsibility when things transitioned during the past 20 years. In our opinion, subculture had a specific responsibility to counterweight that movement toward "appearing," but lately has dismissed that responsibility for poor judgment and empty idolization.
Hart: You both have made or released several shades of underground music over the past 10 years, but you chose the medium of industrial music this time to critique our cycle of commodification. Why did you choose "noise" music to convey this message?
Berdan: I don't think Lost In The Spectacle is much of a departure from our prior work, both in this band and with other projects. The majority of our output is rooted in industrial sensibilities (with the exception of Veins for me, which was a straightforward hardcore punk band, and some of Ryan's musique concrète stuff). If anything, this is probably the most conventionally structured York Factory Complaint release to date. When Monte Cazazza coined the phrase "Industrial Music For Industrial People," he wasn't talking about a medium that should ever be embraced by the masses. By definition, this format is supposed to be ugly and a rejection of musical and artistic mores. However, in 2014, this form of music has reached a level of commercial acceptance that it was probably never supposed to attain. What was meant to be a transgression in decades past has become the norm. A lot of the stuff coming out these days is f------- stellar! I truly believe that this is a wonderful time to be alive and taking in newer, harsher, more daring electronic music, and that this is one of the best times in our history for it. That being said, it is not supposed to be for everyone. What we are largely saying by using industrial music as a medium and spelling it out is that we distrust the motives of any mass audience.
Martin: I think the medium of industrial and/or noise music made the most sense given what was happening to our surroundings at the time of the band's formation, and was the polar opposite of what was popular at that time. We were pushing along York Factory Complaint to voice our unwillingness to conform to current underground music's mediocrity. If you want to rail against a bigger thing like poverty or war, playing in a rock band makes sense, because it's easier for large amounts of people to digest. When you are standing up against a lack of authenticity within subculture, you need to be a bit more unconventional. Industrial/noise music was familiar to both me and Berdan. The more we explored our strengths and weaknesses within those genres, the messages that we wove into the fabric of the band changed. Through that kind of change, we were able to write Lost In The Spectacle.
Hart: Let's get down to the album itself. How did you go about writing it? The six songs seem to fit perfectly together. I have trouble turning it off once I press play.
Martin: The album was written around a live set we performed last spring in Brooklyn. The band just went through some lineup changes and reverted back to me and Berdan (as we originally started). When we were asked to play a venue called the Acheron in Brooklyn, we wrote some new tracks to play out live, which ended up becoming "Produced" and "Forgotten." People's reaction to us writing more rhythm-based songs was overwhelmingly positive. People started to listen to us more carefully. After a few shows, Sean Gray of the Accidental Guest record label asked us to do a record.
Berdan: [The Acheron show] was also the first time Ryan and I had played without accompanying musicians in a number of years, and the whole experience felt like a psychic rebirth. Both "Produced" and "Forgotten" were written and rehearsed prior to recording Lost In The Spectacle, with the remaining tracks being generated completely on the spot during our recording sessions. We tried to use those two songs as emotional and structural templates and took it from there.
Martin: We went into the studio with [engineer] Kris Lapke and experimented quite heavily during the recording process. We would just find a simple sequence or rhythm and write the song around certain timings or vocal patterns, which led us to writing our most accessible and symbolic work.
Hart: If you don't mind, can you demystify the process a little bit? How did you guys generate these sounds? Also, I can't believe you generated "Loved" on the spot. That song just crushes me.
Martin: A lot of it is achieved with heavy effects treatment, and more importantly, where those effects are placed in relation to the others. On this record, I used my Roland SH-09, which is a great synth for doing long, ugly-sounding electronic tones. It's a very dismal-sounding machine that is great for what we do, but I can see why a lot of people never bother with it. It's become my favorite, albeit temperamental, piece of gear in the band. Kris Lapke, who recorded the album, showed me some great feedback tricks with the synth — you can feed one of your outputs back into the synth itself, then feed it back out into another unit that feeds back signals, causing everything to get confused sonically, but you're still able to play some semblance of notes. These techniques, coupled with our use of modular drones, created the weight of a lot of the songs.
When I play guitar with the band, my pedal arrangement starts to have a mind of its own, but I still kick around the same styles as I did years ago. A lot of overdrive in the beginning of the chain causes pandemonium with the rest of the effects, and when I figured out how to harness that chaos, I was able to do tricks with it like inverting the phaser signals, etc.
Berdan: A Roland CR-8000 was our primary drum machine, and I also used an Arturia Minibrute. Many people generally don't like the CR-8000 because of its limited programming capabilities, as well as its weak kick drum and snare. For that reason, one can generally find them easily and for fairly cheap on eBay or Craigslist. The problem with the kick is easily solved with a simple distortion pedal (I use a Rat). The hand-clap schematics are almost the same as the 808, and honestly the sound might even be better than that. Replace the snares with the claps, throw a reverb pedal on there, and the thing becomes nasty. The Minibrute is currently mass-produced, relatively affordable and available from a ton of places. The synths were triggered by the drum machine for a large part of it, and we just let the machines do their work with minimal melodic assistance.
As for vocals, I ran them through a combination of analog delay, digital phaser and distortion. Lapke was f------ invaluable in the recording and editing process. These songs would not have been possible without him. We owe him all of the thanks in the world.
Hart: Rhythm is employed to narcotic effect in a handful of ways on this record, which contrasts nicely with the rest of the craziness. Did you intentionally make music that you could kind of dance to, or were you channeling the conveyor belts of the York Factory?
Martin: Around the time we wrote the first couple songs, we had a very firm discussion about what we were trying to go for. Our past releases were snapshots of the band at a certain moment in time. A lot of [our prior work] was either recorded live at shows or live in our rehearsal space. The band had a natural live confrontational element to it, so that format worked well for us then. But as time moves on, you have to evolve and change in a natural fashion, not to force the hand of change but to go with where your mind is at. Outside of York Factory Complaint, Berdan was doing a lot of rhythm-based dance music and I was doing a lot of work with modular synthesizer. When we regrouped, we brought along our baggage from what we do when we're not working with one another. That's how you evolve. We keep all the raw signature elements that gave our project its identity and brought in things we found along the way in our lives. Berdan developed a relationship with rhythm and patterns, and I developed a relationship with structure and collage. With these things in our heads, we made a conscious effort to make an accessible album, but not do something that would be awkward for the band's identity. I recently read an interview with musician Drew McDowall (formerly of Coil) and he said, "Experimental music doesn't have to be unlistenable or excruciating," and went on to express that it can still stick with people in the same way that pop songs do, just from a different perspective. That's what we did here: We embraced elements of rhythm to make music that was abrasive yet listenable, that might even stick around with some people for a while.
Berdan: Our previous material featured very little in the way of organized structure. In order to break that mold, we needed to employ something to tie our sounds together and provide a frame so that the songs could make sense. I was playing dance-oriented music with my other band at the time (Believer/Law), and the solo material that I had been working on was taking that direction, as well. I decided to scrap my solo stuff and incorporate the beats, bass lines and vocal patterns that I was using for that into what York Factory Complaint was becoming. It was absolutely a conscious decision to make this record hopefully somewhat danceable and therefore more accessible.
Hart: Ryan, you mentioned earlier that artists have a responsibility to their subcultures. What's the relationship between evolving as an artist (as you two have on Lost In The Spectacle) and remaining true to your instincts or community? I'm not saying it's an either/or at all, but I know that artists who do ride the zeitgeist often talk about needing to evolve as an artist, which is often code for changing themselves to suit a potential market.
Martin: I think artists who identify and exploit a certain subculture have a responsibility to it, whether they like it or not. You can explore new ideas without having to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's a fine line you walk with creative development. You can see it with certain visual artists and musicians; you don't want to be known as the artist that just did this one thing for 40 years, but we definitely won't be doing a watered-down indie-rock record ever. By saying we made a more accessible album means we did just that by using common sense and experience regardless of any zeitgeist happening at the moment. You always have to keep moving and evolving as time moves on. That's the doomed fate for overly political music: It gets dated very quickly and ceases being relevant unless you can move past it in a tasteful manner.
Berdan: I feel that for us it's about personal evolution. Becoming more accessible is absolutely fine and not a disloyalty at all, as long as you don't do it for the sole purpose of impressing a larger audience. Our work has to belong to us. If others happen to enjoy what we do, we are grateful and honored. However, it would be a disingenuous if we were to make a record with all of the trimmings just so that it would appeal to more people. The audience has to be secondary.