Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Philosopher-artist Interview: the Counterfactuals



Philosophers and Musicians “The Counterfactuals” interviewed by Christy Mag Uidhir

The Counterfactuals play an addictive brand of indie jangle-pop, with a signature blend of golden hooks, Americana, and a dose of grit. Their debut album, Minimally Decent People, was released in January 2014, and has been met with acclaim from audiences and critics alike. After hearing one demo, 89.3 FM The Current dubbed the band “must-hear music” and later featured their single “If you go then you go it alone” as their Song of the Day. The Counterfactuals are heading into the studio to record their second album this summer. You can read some of what people have said about the band at The Daily AlbumThe Current Local Blog, and Tropics of Meta.

Andy Flory (bass) teaches course in American music at Carleton College. He has written extensively about American rhythm and blues and is an expert on the music of Motown. His book, I Hear a Symphony: Listening to the Music of Motown, is forthcoming from The University of Michigan Press. Working directly with Universal Records, Andrew has served as consultant for several recent Motown reissues. He is also co-author of the history of rock textbook What’s that Sound (W.W. Norton).

Jason Decker (guitar, sound engineer) is Assistant Professor of philosophy at Carleton College and interested in epistemology, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and just about any philosophical problem worth its salt. He has published papers in journals such as Synthese, Erkentniss, Analysis, Analytic Philosophy, and Philosophy.

Michael Fuerstein (drums, sax) is Assistant Professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College where he works on issues concerning the social distribution and advancement of knowledge, particularly in political and moral contexts. He has also more recently become interested in the moral aspects of contemporary capitalism, and has been involved with a newly formed “Society for Progress” devoted to bringing together business leaders, business scholars, and philosophers. His work has appeared in venues such as Episteme, The Journal of Political Philosophy, and The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.

Daniel Groll (vocals, guitar) is an Assistant Professor in the philosophy department at Carleton College and an Affiliate Faculty Member at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. He works on issues at the intersection of normative ethics, epistemology, and medical ethics and has papers published or forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Analytic Philosophy, Ethics, The Hastings Center Report, Pediatrics, and Philosophy Compass.

Photograph of band members

Many folks are quick to dismiss certain bands as one-hit wonders, lambast certain chart toppers as talentless hacks, or accuse the whole of pop music of being musical pablum. However, crafting a good pop song has always struck me (though I’m hardly an expert) as being an incredibly difficult thing to do (and that someone can do it once let alone multiple times I find to be an impressive feat). To what extent has being in a band and playing/writing your own songs changed your views about pop music in general and current audience tastes therein?

DANIEL: It has definitely affected how I listen to music. It’s done so in two ways, one as a result of writing songs, the other as a result of recording songs.

I wouldn’t say that my tastes have expanded as a result of writing, but there’s no doubt that I appreciate a lot more stuff. I don’t know if I was inclined to dismiss the stuff you hear on the radio as crap before, but I certainly didn’t listen to it the same way I do now. I often explicitly think about how songs are put together now. I tend to have the radio on while I’m driving around. This is largely because we’re blessed in Minnesota to have The Current (which, incidentally, have been really supportive of our music) come over the air, but as often as not I’m listening to the classic rock station from the next town over. Most of what they play is stuff that I literally never listen to other than when they play it. But all the stuff they play is tested: it’s music that people still love listening to 20, 30, 40 years after it was recorded and, more or less without exception, there’s something interesting to listen to. I suppose this is less true of current top-40 stuff, but even there, even when I don’t like it, I find that there’s something there well-worth listening to. It is hard to put stuff together in a way that people find compelling, so I’m disinclined to diss anyone that does it successfully.

But learning what goes into making a decent recording has had a far more profound impact on how I listen to music than writing music has. I went into the process of recording knowing very close to nothing about how it works. Now I know a little (Andy and Jason know a lot. They listen to recordings and talk about frequency ranges). Before recording, I would listen to the music. Now I spend a lot more time listening to the sounds of particular instruments and the mix: How are they getting that guitar sound? Are the drums super upfront or are they back in the mix? Are the vocals doubled? If so, are they closely doubled and on top of each other in the mix? Or are they loosely doubled and panned to opposite sides? Is there a lot of reverb or not so much? Is there delay on the vocals?

In general, I feel like I hear things a lot more in terms of choices than I did before. Recording stuff is a little like putting together a puzzle. You’re asking “What should go where so that it all fits together?” As a result, I find that I’m often asking, “Why is that here?” when I’m listening and I’ve become far more attuned than I was previously to when individual tracks come and go. When Andy joined the band he listened to a demo that Jason and I had done. One of the first things he said to me was something like, “You know, you don’t have to have all the parts going all the time.” A very obvious point…but it was kind of a revelation to me.

Let me give an example: Eleanor Friedberger’s My Mistakes. One way to start would be to just have everyone start in off the top. They don’t do that. First, there’s no bass, just guitar, drums and vocals. But more importantly the mix is thin, it kind of has an AM radio sound to it. It’s hard to hear, but the drummer is playing the same pattern on the bass drum that he’ll play throughout the tune. At :15 we get a variation: the vocals get delay (so the main voice, which is on the left side, is heard as a kind of tight echo on the right side)…but only for two lines. And then the delay is gone (although it comes again for three words (“1956”) at :28). After a few more lines the mix starts to change dramatically: a piano banging away on the I chord is faded-up on the left side and the drum sound starts to get fatter. The bass drums goes from barely audible and quite thin at :28 to increasingly robust over the next 8 seconds or so. And then everyone is in (including a great fuzz bass line…although maybe it’s synth?) for the first time at the chorus at :36. That’s a lot of choices for the first :36 of a song! I don’t think I would have noticed most of that before we recorded. One last (simpler) example: the song “An Ocean Between The Waves” by the War on Drugs has not one, but two, false starts with the drums. It starts with what is pretty obviously a drum machine. And then at 1:26, the drums fatten up. It sounds like the real drums have entered. But then at 1:50, real drums kick in. That’s some pretty awesome patience. I’m not sure I would have noticed that kind of (awesome) choice before.

Along with better ears, we have far more pedals, better amps, and access to way better mics for album number 2, so hopefully we’ll be able to make some cool sounds on the next record.

ANDY: I’m a music professor that teaches courses about pop music, so I spend a lot of time helping students understand the intricacies of songwriting. Playing in a band is really important for my facility with teaching and understanding rock music for a number of reasons. For one, in most pop-oriented music after the mid-1960s, performative and recording elements are integral parts of the composition. Most people don’t think about this. If you look at the “composed” elements of a Radiohead song, for example, they look pretty boring on paper. Through performance practice and recording, however, music by groups becomes more complete.

MIKE: Years ago I was finding my way out of being a jazz saxophonist and tried to write rock songs. I thought I might put together a band and perform them. But I couldn’t write anything that I actually enjoyed playing and listening to. So I have a tremendous appreciation for Dan (who writes all of our songs) and others who are able to do that well. Playing and recording rock drums, which is a new instrument for me, has given me an appreciation of the subtle ways in which drummers can make songs sound great or terrible. I’ve come to realize how little I actually listened to drummers before picking up the instrument, and the many nuances involved in coaxing good sounds out of the kit.

JASON: I’ve been playing in bands and recording music for most of my life (since the age of 12 or so), so it’s hard for me to say how doing so has changed my perspective on pop music. I remember making multitrack music with two boom boxes and a radio shack mic. My friends and I would record a stereo track and then feed it from one tape deck to the other with the next track mixed in using y-cables. We could record as many tracks as we liked. The results were…um….pretty crappy. We learned a lot about working around the limitations of our equipment, though. We had to record the tracks that we didn’t mind sounding muffled first, for example, as bouncing from tape deck to tape deck always involved the loss of high frequencies. We also had to record things like pianos early on, as the playback speed of our tape decks wasn’t precise, and the pitch of the song after a few generations of extra tracks could drift significantly lower or higher than standard tuning. With guitars or vocals, we could compensate for this. But we were no good at fine-tuning pianos.

Making quality (or even listenable) recordings is incredibly difficult as every piece of equipment involved has limitations for which one must compensate. This hasn’t changed in the digital age. We don’t have to worry about tape hiss or warble anymore, but we do have to deal with bogged-down processors creating audible ‘blips’ in the recordings and hot gain levels causing ugly clipping. There’s a lot of music on the radio that does nothing for me, but most of it was performed, recorded, and mixed by incredibly talented and patient people. If it sounds like it belongs on the radio, that’s a feat in itself. If you can hear all the instruments in the song, the kick drum doesn’t sound like lifeless thumping, the vocals never sound obviously too loud or obviously too quiet, solo instruments are cutting through the mix without hurting your ears, etc., then it wasn’t produced by hacks. This all takes some know-how and some good ears.

Likewise for the performances themselves. Not everyone can sing on key, and of those that can, very few have voices that are pleasant or interesting (in a good way) to listen to. Everyone can play the guitar, of course, but, as Aristotle would say, not everyone can consistently play the right notes at the right times with the right tone. I certainly can’t, and it annoys me to no end. I suppose that maybe if I were much better of a performer and producer, I would look down on popular music. But I’m not, so I don’t.

Spotlights shining on a guitar player.

Pop music has never been known for its lyrical complexity. In fact, in most rock/pop songs the lyrics (other than the chorus) take a backseat to the music. When audiences hardly pay any attention to the verse at all let alone to the degree required for any kind of (deep) interpretive activity, its not unreasonable to think pop music a poor outlet for anything other than the most superficial sorts of lyrical expression. Given that the band wears its academic (specifically, philosophical) bona fides on its sleeve, do you find yourselves actively trying to control for this or do you assume your listeners to be of the sort already primed for close attention to the lyrics?

DANIEL: I think given our credentials, and particularly since three of us are philosophy professors, there’s a tendency to think that the lyrics have some meaning that, frankly, they don’t. A few reviewers (and listeners) have found things in the lyrics that aren’t there. Well, so as not to take too strong stand on the place of authorial intention in interpretation, I’ll say they’re not there intentionally! I try to avoid anything explicitly philosophical when I write lyrics, although very very broad ideas that I’m thinking about might make it into a line here and there. There is one exception to this. A song that will be on our next record has a line that prompted a philosophy friend to say after a recent show, “Nice song about compatibilism.” So yeah…this is why I generally try to avoid writing philosophy into the lyrics!

I would just add that I’m not sure that pop music is “a poor outlet for anything other than the most superficial sorts of lyrical expression.” I think it’s easy to think so if you look at lyrics disconnected from the music. Most pop lyrics – and I definitely include my own here – are just embarrassing to read on their own (there are some obvious exceptions). But I think it’s a mistake to then infer that they are equally bad when combined with the music (and that it’s just that we don’t notice them as much when there’s music along with them). Of course, some lyrics are really awful even in the context of the music. They’re just totally asinine. But I don’t think that’s true of lots of lyrics. Combinations of words or phrases that really are asinine, or meaningless, on their own can become quite evocative or powerful with music. And it seems to me that, for that reason, lyrics are not a poor form of poetry (nor is it the case that music with words is somehow lesser as music than music with words). Music with words is sui generis, and so one fails to do justice to it if one separates the words from the music and declares them dumb (or whatever) or one separates the music from the words and declares it simple or boring.

I hasten to add that I think this is true of good lyrics (and music), which probably isn’t the norm in pop music. And I would classify my lyrics as, at best, adequate. I aim for evocative inanity™. I should also add that I basically never listen to lyrics. I’m one of those people who doesn’t know the words to songs I’ve been listening to forever.

ANDY: There are certainly many artists in the history of pop that use lyrical complexity to the detriment of musical sophistication. A lot of people ask about the manner in which “intellectual” thinking pervades our music, both lyrically (because of the philosophers in the band) and musically (because I am a musicologist). In fact, I think we tend to run from this expectation, and try not to seem too cerebral. Musically, there are actually a lot of complicated ideas in our songs, but these aspects are not so apparent to the untrained ear. (Although it is sometimes comical to watch people try to dance to songs that have odd meters!) Dan seems to focus on the music first, and then (often begrudgingly) add lyrics at the last possible moment.

MIKE: Well, I plead guilty: I barely listen to lyrics at all. Though I appreciate Paul Simon and Bob Dylan as much as the next person. I don’t write any of our songs, but I suppose it seems reasonable that some people might expect to hear a bit of philosophical cleverness in the lyrics. I also assume that expectation fades pretty quickly once they give a listen (that’s not intended as an insult to Dan!). Though I think Dan throws in a little reference to free will in one of our newer songs. I hope that doesn’t ruin the next album for anyone. When I was trying to write rock songs, my aspiration was just to put words together that both (a) didn’t induce significant nausea and (b) didn’t sound like total nonsense. I think Dan achieves both of those things quite nicely.

JASON: A couple of months ago, I replied to an email message from a colleague who was looking for faculty members to sign up for a workshop entitled ‘Stats for Poets’. In the email, I expressed my interest in the workshop and then said, “I trust that it’s okay that I secretly despise poetry.” Proving that I am my mother’s child, I accidentally hit ‘Reply All’ and this message went out to all of the faculty at the college.

The only thing that resonates with me about Logical Positivism is their very low view of poetry. The poet is just making interesting sounds; but it’s all just nonsense, Carnap claimed. (But they’re doing better than the metaphysicians, Carnap thought, for at least the poets don’t think they’re making assertions.) Well, this goes a bit too far, but I do think that a fair bit of fancy poetry is a fair bit less ‘deep’ than it’s given credit for. Much of it makes me cringe with its palpable pretentiousness and pseudo-depth. I don’t mind at all when pop music has lyrics that are simple or superficial. I’m in it for the sounds more than the propositional content. When I was first getting into early Elvis Costello records, I kept hearing him referred to as ‘angry’. It didn’t make any sense to me. The music didn’t sound angry. It wasn’t until years later that I actually paid some attention to the lyrics and understood why the songs were considered angry.

Promotional image reading "the counterfactuals: minimally decent people."

With what some might call an over-saturated market, do you find the philosophy connection a way to carve out a niche for the band (as well as avoid reductive-style critical comparisons to other established groups: e.g., The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, etc.)?

DANIEL: Well, the philosophy connection is definitely not enough to avoid reductive critical comparisons to other established groups. I think every review of our album has compared us to The Shins…which we’re not going to complain about!

With a name like The Counterfactuals and an album titled “Minimally Decent People”, it would be totally disingenuous to suggest that we don’t use the philosophy connection. We do. But I think the way we understand it is as follows (well, it’s the way I think about it anyway.): First, I think the group name and album title are just independently good qua band name and album title. It turns out that philosophy is a pretty good source for these things (I want to name our next record “Natural Kinds”). The names tend to induce eye rolls in philosophers, but not in others (I don’t think). Biology is pretty good too. A biologist friend of ours suggested the band name “Charismatic Megafauna”, which is awesome…except that there is already a band named Megafaun.

Second, I think one reason we’re comfortable sort of pointing to the fact that 3/4s of us are philosophy professors is that the music is respectable on its own quite apart from that (I think. I hope!) So the kind of interesting backstory is good for getting people in the door, so to speak, (because you’re right: there are tons of bands out there and the vast majority are totally intersubstitutable) but then the hope is that they just like the music. There’s no doubt we’ve benefited from people’s low expectations. Contra Sarah Stroud’s and Simon Keller’s views about how good friends (rightly) ignore normal epistemic standards when assessing the efforts of friends, we’ve definitely found that our friends came to listen to us expecting something at best tolerable and at worst quite embarrassing…only to be pleasantly surprised.

MIKE: Sure. It’s unavoidable. Though reductive style comparisons are unavoidable too. Even bands that make staggeringly original music (which we do not) are not necessarily that interesting to read about. A cute back story always helps.

ANDY: Connections to these bands are just fine. They are fantastic groups, and it is really flattering that people think of this music when they listen to us. You are correct, however, that philosophy, and academia in general, has been a fantastic marketing device for the band. There are so many good groups active today that people need a quick reason to listen to your music. Music is rarely appreciated solely in terms of sound. Even the bands that you mentioned have many extra-musical elements that help people contextualize their sounds. For us, connections to teaching, a college community, and academic research are great hooks. Hopefully, these connections evaporate slightly as people actually listen, and realize that we are pretty serious about our performances and recordings.

JASON: I haven’t thought much about the market at all. I never expected anyone to listen to our music, except our families and friends. It’s not like we have a huge audience or anything, but the fact that it has expanded beyond our families and friends is absolutely wonderful. People do latch onto the philosophy professor thing, which I think is great. It’s nice to have philosophers occasionally doing things that normal people don’t find strange and obnoxious.

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