Historian and Musician Matt Kadane interviewed by Christy Mag Uidhir for AFB
Matt Kadane is a founding member of the bands Bedhead, The New Year, Overseas, and Consonant and played for five years with Silkworm. He is currently chair of the history department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the author, most recently, of The Watchful Clothier (Yale UP, 2013).
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: The way in which most contemporary audiences engage with rock songs suggests that they regard lyrical content as something deeply personal and wholly subjective in its interpretation or alternatively something requiring nothing more than the most superficial of attention. After all, what else might explain why so many wedding DJs un-ironically play Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” or “Every Breath You Take” by The Police and why Wendy’s and Pepsi Cola saw no problem setting adverts respectively to Violent Femme’s “Blister in the Sun” and “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones? Do you think that your songs, insofar as you take them to mean or to be about something, mean or are about what you intended them to mean or to be about? In what ways, if any, might your training and work as a historian influence your position on whether song interpretation more or less concerns audience recovery of the artist’s intentions?
MATT KADANE: I don’t mind variety in interpretation even if I’m the one being interpreted, or misinterpreted, and so long as we’re not talking about major violence being done to intention. I think, although maybe I’m kidding myself, that this is more or less consistent with how I operate as historian. Some misunderstanding of intention can be productive, in all kinds of ways. And it can be more useful, here speaking more as historian, to try to recover social reality by thinking about perception instead of intention. But speaking both as musician and historian I should also say that I think intention is important and worth recovering. At a basic level, what an author or songwriter meant is part of the overall attempt to figure out the life history of a text or song, and it can offer important insights. I also feel gratified when people can hear in a song something I invested in it. What that ultimately counts for, I don’t know. But it’s part of the equation, and being the beneficiary of an interpretation that lines up with my intentions probably contributes to the responsibility I feel I have as historian to take intentions seriously.
AFB: You worked with legendary producer Steve Albini more than once, first on Bedhead’s final album Transaction de Novo and again on The New Year’s debut album Newness Ends (both of which, by the way, are incredible). At what point, and to what extent, do you think music producers deserve authorship credit alongside those traditionally considered a song’s authors?
MK: Steve shuns the title of producer and identifies instead as an engineer, a word that in my experience accurately describes what he does in the studio. He sets up the equipment so bands can try to capture whatever sounds they’ve described to him, he helps to deal with various technical matters, and so on. He does all the stuff an engineer does, and he does it masterfully. But it’s admittedly more complicated than that. Some of the routine technical things he does, his choices for mics and how to place them, the way he designed the rooms in his studio–a lot of things like that have contributed to the “Albini sound,” which people could already identify by the time we started to make records. I remember back then saying–and this was a few years before we first met him–that we wanted our drums and guitars to sound like what we heard on a lot of records he had made. And so we for example started using microphones—shitty version of microphones–that got us close to his sound. I guess it wasn’t his sound alone. We also loved the way those later Talk Talk records sound. But the point is that we had already internalized what we thought of as the Steve Albini sound before we first recorded with him. And when that moment did come, we were sort using Steve as engineer to help us get a sound that he had helped to engineer in a larger artistic sense.
AFB: You and your brother, Bubba Kadane, composed the soundtrack to the documentary film Hell House (2001). Can you briefly describe the compositional process and how you thought it compared to that involved in standard songcraft. Did you find it more or less rewarding?
MK: I liked both writing music for Hell House and the back and forth we had with the director, George Ratliff. I feel compelled say to that we never intended to release that soundtrack as a standalone record. The record label associated with the DVD company that released the movie did that, and if we had our reservations we didn’t say no, although I’m not sure we actually could’ve said no, so maybe we just took the path of least resistance. The details are cloudy. Anyway, had we known that there was a possibility for a soundtrack when we recorded the music for the various scenes of the movie, we would’ve spent much more time creating versions of those songs that could’ve stood up to a pure listening experience–we would’ve stretched out some of the songs, tried to make them more dynamic, whatever. As it is, all of the songs on the record are entirely customized to the scenes in the movie. So I don’t know. I actually have some ambivalence about that soundtrack when it’s separate from the movie. But the movie itself was pure pleasure to work on. And if the right movie came along we’d be into doing something like that again. Did I find it as rewarding as writing songs? It was easier, but I guess not as rewarding. Finishing and feeling good about a song is one of the most rewarding things I can imagine doing.
AFB: To what extent do you think a band’s label (at least in terms the creative or supportive atmosphere that comes along with it) matters aesthetically/artistically? For example, did you find that your own move from what some may describe as the more experimental Trance Syndicate (with Bedhead) to the harder, traditionally punk-oriented Touch and Go Records (with The New Year) had an effect on your work?
MK: I don’t associate much aesthetic coherence with labels today, not like I did with Factory Records or SST or probably a half dozen others. At the same time, when we signed to Trance Syndicate we really didn’t sound like the bands on their roster, although I think our being on there encouraged other bands who vaguely sounded like us to be on there too. I honestly never drew much of a separation between Trance and Touch and Go. The entire time we were on Trance it was distributed by Touch and Go, and Touch and Go sort of felt like the mother ship. We’d hang out there whenever we were in Chicago, and we were constantly in contact with a lot of people up there throughout the production process of the Bedhead records. So when we started The New Year, which happened to be right around the time that Trance, sadly, shut down, Touch and Go was the only label we considered being on. They actually rereleased all the Bedhead records at the same time that we put out Newness Ends. So I guess from 2001 Bedhead was on Touch and Go. Or I should say from 2001 to 2013. As of about a month ago, Bedhead is now on Numero Group, who will be doing a box set of all the Bedhead records plus some extra music and a book on the band.
AFB: Of course, you’d know better than I, but as far as I know, within your published body of musical work there are scant few cover songs—in fact, I can think of only two: a cover of Joy Division’s “Disorder” on Bedhead’s 1994 4 Song CDEP 19:10 and Cher’s “Believe” on the 2000 Bedhead Loved Macha’s Macha Loved Bedhead. Is there a reason for the absence of covers? What is your general attitude toward covering songs by other artists as well as other artists covering your songs (e.g., Adem’s 2008 album Takes includes a cover of “Bedside Table” from Bedhead’s 1996 album Beheaded)? What do you think makes something a “good” or “bad” cover? For instance, while your “Disorder” cover is rather faithful to the Joy Division original, your touch-tone telephone cover of “Believe” departs quite dramatically—not just sonically but both emotively and, pardon the pun, tonally as well—from Cher’s Grammy-winning, best-selling, heavily engineered, dance-pop hit of the late 1990s that helped usher in the Auto-Tune era of pop music. What was it about “Disorder” and “Believe” that lead you to more or less straightforward fidelity for the former but a comparatively radical departure for the latter?
MK: You’re right about us only having released two covers, although Bedhead also recorded the Strangler’s “Golden Brown.” It was meant as a B-side for a European-only single that never came out, and it will actually now see the light of day as part of the box set I mentioned. We also used to play a few covers live. But they never worked with the sort of coherence we tried to give the LPs. The two you mentioned were both on EPs and were mostly there to flesh things out.
MK: What makes a cover good or bad? I don’t know if I have any general ideas. The dude from Devo singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” makes me feel something. Mick Jagger doesn’t. Devo–and as much with the music as with the singing–did a better job of expressing the same idea. They sound more convincingly unsatisfied. But not all songs are built on ideas. Some depend more on sound or treatment or a voice that you exclusively want to sing the words, and maybe those are the ones that it’s hard to better in a cover. And then, I guess, some songs that are perfect in original form have the potential to be interpreted differently. I love the Velvet Underground version of “She’s My Best Friend,” and when I first heard the Wedding Present do the same song, where David Gedge almost whispers the singing, my first thought was that that was (also) exactly how the song should be sung, as if it’s a secret that she, whoever she is, is the singer’s best friend. The Wedding Present in general did great covers. Listen to their version of “Cattle and Cane” for another example. The more I think about this, the more I realize other principles are at work. Some bands or songwriters were sort of made to be covered because what they originally put on tape needed elaboration. I wouldn’t choose to reach for either a Daniel Johnston record or a record of Daniel Johnston covers, but if I had no choice I’d go for the latter.
MK: The Disorder cover. I’d never say our version is better than the original—because it’s not—but it was justified because of a minor idea about how to do something the original didn’t do. If I’m remembering this right, I was playing around with the bass riff on guitar and played the transition to the chorus with a different chord, an inverted third. We thought that sounded good. It felt faithful to the spirit of the baseline in the original, but it also seemed to follow through with the logic of the idea of the bass as unanchored until the guitars and singing come in. So we worked up a more or less faithful cover with this and a few other slight changes.
AFB: Doubling back to the interpretation issue, I’ve always struggled with your “Believe” cover. I can take it as a viciously satirical and sardonic musical stab at the ridiculous over-production of the original; however, in some way I also want to take your having stripped the song down to its barest musical minimum to be principally in service to revealing and highlighting the achingly earnest and forlorn lyrical content. Any chance you might resolve this for me?
MK: “Believe” was Josh McKay’s [late of Macha and, more recently, Abandon the Earth Mission and Deerhunter] suggestion, and at first I wasn’t into it. But we put the lyrics in the past tense, and at that point I felt like we were no longer doing a satirical version of the song. This is giving us too much credit, but I feel like we rescued the song from Cher’s treatment. We also used some auto-tuning, but there can be something kind of haunting about auto-tuning, or I should say that there once could be. That effect is now a lost cause. But back then, nearly 15 years ago, using some auto-tuning made the vocals sound suitably desperate, like a divorced middle-aged dude wearing an outfit made for a twenty-year-old as he sets out on his first attempt in three years to get laid.