"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Where to start when discussing music in 2013? Well, there certainly was 12 months of it! Sometimes amazing, occasionally infuriating, 2013 didn't produce a singular, transcendent, culture-defining album — but maybe that's for the best. Being a music listener now is a fractured experience and there was an overabundance of sounds to pull your brain in different directions.
To look back at the past year and consider what came from it, Ducker hit up Mish Way, the lead singer of the Vancouver-based punk band White Lung that released the single "Blow it South" in October. Way is also a writer whose work has appeared in publications including Vice, The Talkhouse and Self-Titled, and is known for her sometimes startling honesty.
ERIC DUCKER: Thinking about 2013 and music, are you feeling good or feeling not good?
MISH WAY: If we are talking underground, yeah, it's always a good year. If we are talking popular culture ...
You always feel like in underground music good things are coming out and progress is happening?
In a sense. There's a different hunger. And it's my peers. There's so much cool s--- out there that no one knows about or 90% of the population of people who care a slight bit about music will never know anything about. That's how it has always been and that's what rules about music. There is always something new to find. But it has been a good year when I reflect back, though I'm doing that selfish thing where I am thinking about my peers and my own band.
I guess it is about perspective. If you see those around you doing good things, it's a lot easier to disregard the stuff that's problematic.
Oh, I see the stuff that is problematic. What did you think of this year?
There was plenty that kept me interested and plenty of stuff that I either didn't get to hear or didn't get to spend enough time with, but there wasn't much I got obsessed with.
Yeah, I found that all my obsessions were kind of short lived.
Is that a reflection of the music that came out or is that just the nature of how we listen to music these days and the sheer amount that is available to us?
When I'm doing my journalist thing and people are sending me bands to check out, I get so overwhelmed. I don't know how my editors do it. When I would go into the Noisey office in Brooklyn and they would all be on their headphones, nine bazillion tabs open on their computers, music blasting from all angles, TweetDeck on, texting, talking to me, all while posting up new songs, I'm like, "What the f---?!" But that's what our world is now. Why else do you think my band makes songs that are under two minutes long? We know the modern attention span. Kidding.
I listen to music all day every day when I am home. This is going to sound super snobby and elitist, but I try really hard to use my vinyl and my cassette tapes because it forces me to listen through an entire album without clicking away.
Do you listen to music all the time as function of you being a writer, a musician or just a fan of music?
I just really love music. I wake up in the morning and immediately put on music. I have a stereo in my bathroom. It's never not playing.
Going back a little, what do you specifically think are the most exciting things happening in underground music right now? I know that's a very broad term for a very diverse world, but what are the pockets that you think are doing the best stuff?
Lil Ugly Mane is the most interesting musician right now. He is this white kid from Richmond who is a great producer, but he recently made a big stink about this being the end of his rap career. I'm late on him. Also, Kelela. Then there's bands like Destruction Unit and Pharmakon who are basically making noise music popular to a bigger crowd, which is really cool. They are part of that whole Sacred Bones team.
The biggest thing that is happening in underground music right now, and with music in general, is the ability to self-produce. That adds to the congestion and overload out there, but I like to think the cream always rises. Maybe that's ridiculous.
Honestly, I listen to my friend's bands I like and a lot of old stuff. It's hard for me to find current things that I actually really, really like. There's like in the moment, then there is actually liking a band and following that band and caring about and supporting that band.
Right, it's the question of what do you really want to listen to when you're eating lunch by yourself or driving to the pharmacy?
What was your favorite record this year? Which band do you think is doing something important?
There is stuff that came out this year that has stayed with me. Earl Sweatshirt's Doris and the first half of Danny Brown's Old consistently and positively make me catch sad rap feelings. Run the Jewels makes me briefly feel invincible. The Blow's "I Tell Myself Everything" and Gap Dream's "Immediate Life Sentence" are two great bits of songwriting that really capture everyday life experiences. I really liked Monomania and find Deerhunter very dependable even when they change things up, which actually is a huge compliment. I'm into Ciara's songs with Nicki Minaj. Todd Terje's stuff has been great.
I agree with you on Danny Brown. "ODB" is genius. I have listened to that song 900 times. And I hate that Danny Brown is so talented because he's such a little f---er. We have a funny friendship. He's very interesting. Majical Cloudz's Impersonator was very impactful too. It's so vulnerable. I really respect that album. I can't imagine standing up and just singing like that, without the noise. It blows my mind. I tend to really respect stuff that is completely outside of my genre because I'm just like, "Wow. You are doing that? I could never do that."
But of all the live bands I saw this year, I still think Lower was the top. They are the perfect punk band. The music is militant and driving. They have that coldness. Their songs are constantly on the edge of exploding, but they never do, they control it. Everything could fall apart, but it doesn't. It's boyish, innocent and hard. [Adrian Toubro] writes beautiful lyrics. They write catchy melodies, it's totally smart, but it never feels cheesy at all. It's perfect. Plus, when Ady stands up, he does the whole Liam Gallagher thing, except he's not a total prick. He's shy, but he dresses like a Gallagher in 1995 and holds his hands behind his back and bares himself and it's really great to watch. The band is great too. The basslines are smart. When they finally finish their LP it's going to be incredible. I am waiting on that band.
Going back to "your genre," I've been seeing more coverage this year on the movement or growth of female-fronted punk bands, like Perfect Pussy and Priests. First off, do you think that's accurate? And second, when you see those pieces, are you bummed out that you're being lumped in with other acts just because you share the same gender with another lead singer, or do you think that what's more important is for people to know that there are bands out there with women doing things that aren't necessarily expected of them in music?
Women have been making aggressive music forever. It's nothing new. I watched an interview with D'arcy from Smashing Pumpkins from 1991 and she was talking about THIS SAME F---ING ISSUE! That was, like, 20 years ago. It goes back and back. I have accepted that the "woman thing" is never going to end. If people are going to focus on my gender then I'm going to throw it right back in their faces as hard as I can. You want it? Here you go. Overload, motherf---er.
Anyways, I get it. I get why it happens. Yes, it bums me out. I tackled this in two pieces I wrote for Noisey, "I Am Not A 'Rock Chick'" and the piece I wrote on Katy Perry, which caused a huge uproar.
I just got off tour with Antwon and you know what he did every night which I loved? He would say to the audience, "Hi, I'm Antwon. I'm a male rapper." It was so cool. If you have a woman in a band, it's always like, "White Lung, the girl band blah blah blah". Have you ever seen someone write about Merchandise prefacing it with, "The all-male, white rock & roll band Merchandise ..." or "Danny Brown, the male rapper ..."? No, because that would be ridiculous. So why is it OK to keep doing it to women? It's 2013. Jesus Christ.
Yes, I get bummed that I get lumped in with other females sometimes, but I also think it's important for young women to see women playing music and getting in there. I never would have had the stones to play if it weren't for Jennifer Finch and Courtney Love and others. Our femaleness is important in some aspects and can be very powerful. I wouldn't trade it. I like being a woman on stage. I like being the second sex in that sense. I am OK with what that comes with it. I can handle it.
Not everyone treats you that way. Hardcore and punk are the least sexist genres, in my opinion, growing up in that scene.
This brings me to something I'm curious about, but I'm having some trouble phrasing it: Is the way that music is covered in the press an accurate depiction of what is happening in music in real life? There are trend pieces or scene pieces or essays about what's happening in music right now, but as someone who is a musician, who is friends with musicians, who is out touring the world, does it line up?
Give me an example so I have a frame of reference.
Let's say there's a piece about how Chicago footwork DJs are doing crazy things and people are going crazy for them, then someone outside of Chicago books one of those DJs for their first set in a new city and brings them out. Often those sets are sparsely attended and the people who are there don't really get it. That's an example where the chatter doesn't match up with the reality.
Yeah man, that happens all the time. I experience that more in, like, B cities. We play L.A. or NYC and it sells out. But then, you go to El Paso ... That's just what it is to tour now. Unless you are NIN, you aren't selling out every night, and even Trent can't pull 20,000 anymore in a major Canadian city.
The Internet is a world now. We live there and sometimes we forget how to transfer back into real life. You can pump up a scene in a piece of journalism, sure, but that doesn't mean that everyone is going to flock to go see it, because no one has to see anything in real life anymore. You can just watch it on your screen. So you have to work that much harder for real fans. It's a weird time to be in a band.
Plus there is so much stuff out there that there's never going to be some grand consensus on what is "cool" and one scene will never rise like it's the '90s or whatever. That's just not ever going to happen ever again. Never.
Is that good or bad?
I don't know. It's too early to tell. For now, it's just what it is. Do you think it's good or bad?
I'm one of those people who believes that ultimately and over time, the stuff that's considered the greatest is probably the greatest. Bob Marley is the greatest reggae musician we'll ever have. N.W.A. were the greatest rap group in Los Angeles in the late '80s. But the right people — either at labels or on the radio or writers or listeners who are excited about discovering new acts — did things like putting them in front of receptive audiences or hooking them up with the elevating collaborators that helped those people be great.
Now because of instant global exposure, there are people with no context or greater perspective trying to push their agenda of what they think is the greatest or coolest or the worst from any scene or sound or community, and that can muck things up. I don't know if people have more of an agenda now in their listening than they did in the past or if they just have more ways to push that agenda.
That's why I think the power is in the middle, the people in between being "big" and being culturally important. I also think that it all comes so easy today. You don't have to go experience anything. You don't have to dig. You want to know everything about T.S.O.L.? Google it. You didn't have to be there. And that's great, because then kids like Tavi can understand what made Bikini Kill so impactful in 1993. Though then older people get mad, like, "You didn't work for it. You weren't there so you don't really get it." But isn't it better that they found it? That they know? That they have that reference point to fall back on and it helps them discover more and more?
The "you didn't have to work for it" argument is weak and ultimately what's more important is that the new generations are able to find it. What's tough is when people — young or old — whose entire knowledge of something was Wikipedia-ed and Discog-ed last week want to lecture you about what's really up with it.
Exactly! But that's what I'm saying, the digging is different now. 20 years ago you thumbed through records. Today you go through Last FM and scour the blogs. It's all digging. When you love music, you do anything to get more of it.
Yeah, digging is digging. Curiosity is curiosity.
Who was the most overrated artist of the year in your opinion?
I'm going to cop out and say I can't really call artists overrated, but there's plenty of stuff out there that I listen to that people love where I say, "Well, that one's not for me." That includes Death Grips, Boards of Canada and Julia Holter. Tyler, the Creator is also perpetually on that list for me. Chvrches are a serviceable enough listen, but they don't inspire the love within me that they seem to with other people. I'll put Lorde's song "Royals" in this category, too.
What about you?
Miley Cyrus is boring. It's so calculated! Disney star gets a little legal, a video of her smoking salvia is released on YouTube "mysteriously," then she does a cover of a Nirvana song, "Look I'm 'punk,'" then BOOM, here it comes, makeover and she's the world's wildest woman? Who cares? Boring. How many times have we seen this story? Next. I wish people would just stop with all that. Snooze fest. Let her do her thing. I just don't need to read about it all the time.
One of the greatest things this year was Lou Reed reviewing Kanye's new album. That was a stride. So cool. The Talkhouse is genius. That's where music criticism should be at. That's a proper use of access. That's smart. Forget separating critics from the musicians. Let's be both. I love that.
It will make Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop "famous," or more "famous" than they are. I really don't have much to say about either of those artists. They don't do much for me. Those artists are like shopping at Urban Outfitters: I could have everything and nothing from that store and it would make no difference to my life. That's how I feel about them. Nothing against them, it just doesn't matter to me. They aren't important now, nor will they ever be, to my life or how I make and digest music. "I Love It" is a great pop song, but I did the whole driving drunk in my car blasting that song last spring and that's done. The new Britney song will suffice now.
But that's kind of the great thing about the congestion and the breadth of what is out there musically and what matters. There's so much niche! I can live in a world that does not even involve those people, except for when we share a stage at some festival, but that's it. It's fine. They don't have to know me. I don't have to know them. We can all live happily in our little worlds.
But isn't the point of those festivals to be a celebration of the eclectic listener?
That's what I thought the message of Coachella was originally supposed to be: You're hip, you like indie rock and electronica and occasionally black people rapping.
I don't know. I only go to them if I have to play. Festivals scare the s--- out of me. I mean, festivals are great for exposure and people get to do the sample platter thing and discover new bands. I am very grateful for all the festivals my band got to play this year. It helped us out a lot. It was nice of people to give a s---.
As you mentioned earlier, this year you went on tour with the rapper Antwon. By now there's been three decades of punk and rap mixing, and in my head fans of one genre don't have an issue with the other and people are usually open to both, but what was the actual experience like?
There've been a few stories this year of white indie audiences not getting what a black performer was doing or looking down on it, like when the Postal Service had Big Freedia open some shows. I assume most of those people are the minority in terms of their reaction, but maybe I'm naïve.
I knew that this tour would be interesting in certain cities. In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Texas it was packed crowds who got what both of us were doing, and that's just how it goes. But then you go to, like, Phoenix and most of the kids were there to see Antwon, so when we got on stage, it's just a bunch of people starring with their jaws kind of stuck looking at us like we are speaking Farsi. But then, in Portland, I felt as though people were more there for us and didn't get Antwon. In my head the combination of our two acts made sense. Rap and punk are both aggressive, intense live shows that ultimately are about having fun, getting s--- out and going wild, so, you know, I got it.
Who was the best music-related person you started following on Instagram?
I like Tommy Lee's Instagram. He makes these photo collages of him and his girlfriend, but his girlfriend will be like, really small. So, it's Tommy Lee opening the fridge, but his girlfriend is laying curled up in a ball, really tiny in the fridge, the size of an apple. Or it's Tommy Lee holding his girlfriend in the palm of his hand. I don't know what app he's using, I've tried to find out so many times, but it's obvious he's more focused on this than playing the drums.
What artist do you wish you got around to spending more time with this year?
Pharmakon, whose real name is Margaret Chardiet. I still have yet to see her live. We have a bunch of common friends and I very much respect what she does. I'd like to watch her play and pick her brain about some stuff. I've never been a huge noise person, but the album she released this year [Abandon] really pressed on my brain. Chris Hansell told me about her in March and I started to dig up on her, then the album came out and I listened to it a lot while on tour. We're quite different in our approaches, but were cut from a similar cloth, so I'm intrigued.
What are you looking forward to in 2014?
I'm just looking forward to Lower's LP. Hurry up, guys. That, and taking a break from touring so Hether [Fortune, of White Lung and Wax Idols] and I can sit in our apartment and cover Death Church start to finish. I'm looking forward to making new music.