Musician Ivan Anderson interviewed by Christy Mag Uidhir
Ivan Anderson is a guitarist and copyeditor living in New York City. He graduated from Brown University. Ivan plays lead guitar in SWEET FIX, a neon, futuristic, cyber rock band in NYC. Their first full-length album, Golden Age, was produced by Geoff Stanfield (Sun Kil Moon, Firehorse, Black Lab). Members of SWEET FIX are endorsed by Godlyke Distributing, Jo Lyon Underfashion, and ZU Shoes.
A standard view within the philosophy of music is that one of the primary distinctions to be made between classical music and rock music is that of live versus recorded. That is, in the case of classical music, the proper object of aesthetic appreciation is the live performance, as opposed to that of the studio performance (studio track) in the case of rock music. How do you (and SWEET FIX) see the divide between your songs as recorded in the studio and as played live in concert?
This is something we talk about at length every time we record. If we start doing really cool stuff with overdubs, will it be a problem if we can’t recreate it live? We discuss it, and then we always go for the really cool overdubs, for reasons that are about to become clear.
As for which version of the song is the real version—or which version is the proper object of aesthetic appreciation, the live rendition or the recording—we’ve decided to treat them as separate things, with different goals and different things that we care about.
The cool thing about doing an album is that you have a chance to make an indestructible record of how the song goes. So, my view is that you should do whatever it takes to make it sound awesome forever. If that means 100 overdubs, or whatever, just do it.
The cool thing about a live performance (especially a rock band doing its thing) is that you’re on stage and there’s lights on you and there’s just this live vibe that everyone knows and loves. So, use that. None of that is happening when people listen to records—but live, you have a chance to add all that sweat and everything to the songs, finally.
So we try to let the record be as awesome as it can be without worrying about how we’re going to play it live—we’ll just find a way. Like if the song is good, there must be a way. Also, it’s not like there’s anything on the records that we can’t play in real life because we totally cheated and used Auto-Tune the whole time—I’m not always a first-take wonder, but whatever you hear on a SWEET FIX record is really SWEET FIX.
That said, if there’s something on the record that I can only recreate live if I stand perfectly still and hold my breath, then I’m not going to try to recreate it note-for-note. I’ll play something else, and it should be OK because it will inherit some of the energy of being live.
Also, the other thing is that I hate the idea of using recorded backing tracks live, and we don’t do that, but that’s a longer conversation.
To summarize, basically I’m trying to min/max the advantages of playing live and recording, in the Dungeons & Dragons sense of min/maxing.
Relatedly, until about 10 years ago, most rock musicians toured in support of the album; however, with the advent of iTunes, Spotify, and a recording industry frustratingly unwilling to adapt to market changes and consumer expectations, rock musicians increasingly must rely on touring to provide the vast bulk of income. Do you think this might affect the way in which you write songs? Or more generally, how you see the role of the live performance within contemporary rock music?
The way the recording industry has changed has not really affected how I write songs or how I see the role of live performance. I guess I’m ignoring changing consumer expectations at my own peril here—but my ideas about how to write a cool song and put on a good show don’t really have to do with Spotify or whatever else. It just has to do with the kind of music that rules my life, which is also the kind of music I’m trying to create, which is catchy, hot-blooded rock music that’s recorded with serious TLC and performed with lasers shooting out of our eyes. Maybe there’s a way to be savvy and figure out a version of that specifically for iTunes, but I have no idea what that means, and if that’s what I’m supposed to do then I’m doomed. Early on, our manager said something to us like, “Do your goddamn best to write cool songs and put on the best show around and the rest will fall into place,” and I thought that was cool advice. Fingers crossed, though.
At the height of the video era, bands/musicians producing mediocre-to-terrible music (or music beyond the pale of contemporary pop tastes) might nevertheless enjoy massive success on the back of a slick music video (or just one that showcased the band’s good looks). With the influence of the music video now in sharp decline, it’s not uncommon to have very little idea as to what the band behind the song you’re listening might look like—and those wishing to know such things usually must themselves make some effort to find out. As such, one might think visuals are now comparatively less important in contemporary rock music. Do you find this to be true? To what extent do you think SWEET FIX is a visual band? To what extent do you think visual elements play a role in helping define the SWEET FIX image (e.g., album covers, the band’s overall look, individual personal style of its members, the visual aspects of live performances, etc.). Do you think SWEET FIX’s synth-pop new-wave meets neo-glam rock sound comes with certain visual inheritances?
Even with the decline of MTV-style music videos, things like YouTube and Facebook still force bands to figure out how they want to look on the Internet. So I think visuals are as important as they ever were, or more important. By the time anyone ever clicks “Play,” they’re already seen your banner image or your profile picture or your whatever. That’s just the world we live in now.
As for SWEET FIX in particular, we’re pretty into it. We’ve taken it on: flyers, logos, clothes—we spend a lot of time trying to make everything look the way SWEET FIX sounds. It’s not always easy, and sometimes the process of trying to discuss it in greater detail just ruins everything. “What are the key images that we want people to associate with us?” There’s no coming back from that. It can derail everything.
Maybe clothes are the best example: it took a long time for the five of us to be able to wear clothes on stage that looked like (1) we all belonged in a band together and (2) we weren’t trying really hard to look that way. Maybe some bands nail this on day one, but for us it took a while.
Without a doubt, though, we care about the visual stuff, even when it’s hard and talking about it only makes it worse. We still care. For me, a big part of this was being a kid and looking at the booklets that came with CDs. I would do this for hours, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in particular blew my mind. It still blows my mind. The two booklets, and the artwork and the fonts—the whole thing was perfect. It was a world you could enter, and that’s what I loved about it.
So, overall, we want to create a world. When you look at SWEET FIX stuff while listening to our songs, we want it to feel like you’re on planet SWEET FIX. Take the last song on Golden Age, which is called “Golden Age.” Part of the idea was that the whole record is an elevator ride, and when you get to the last song the doors open and you’re standing in the world of the cover art.
Then the other thing is that after we finished the record, we hired Tim Jacobus, the artist who did all the cover art for R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, to do a portrait of us in his classic Goosebumps style. In the history of SWEET FIX visual everything, this has to be the coolest thing that ever happened. He created this giant robot for us, and in the portrait we’re standing in front of it like it’s a Goosebumps cover or whatever: The Legend of SWEET FIX, who knows. He nailed it. When you listen to the first note of “Showtime”—the machine-puke thing—somehow, that note is taking place in Jacobus’s robot.
Then, finally, when it comes to the live performance, I believe this is the one place where we don’t overthink it. We go out there and do it, and that’s us. Over the years, we’ve spent countless hours watching videos of ourselves and disagreeing about what’s cool and giving each other these shitty little notes, and all of that was really important, no doubt. But then, you know, the lights go down and you sort of have to forget everything—just go out there and be real.
SWEET FIX has no covers on any studio work and you’ve mentioned in conversation that you oppose playing covers live. Could you say a bit more about your reasons for this? I, for one, would love to hear you guys play a kick-ass updated version of Gary Glitter’s “Sidewalk Sinner.” Why must you deny me?
First, I have to say that my own feelings about this have changed over the years, and they will no doubt continue to change. Also, the members of SWEET FIX disagree about when and why a cover song is cool, and it’s an ongoing conversation. So, I can only speak for myself here.
And it’s worth noting that we have played covers at various times, going back through the entire history of the band. Lately we haven’t been doing them, maybe/probably because I have been strongly opposed. But my opposition has more to do with practical matters about our live gigs: if we add a cover, then we have to come to an agreement about which original song in the standard set we’re going to lose, and that, in itself, is going to be a whole long conversation. You just have no idea how long that conversation will take. Then, in most cases, making a cover sound the way we want it to winds up being almost as much work as writing a new song from scratch. And my attitude is, Let’s write a new song from scratch instead. Also, I kinda feel like if we need a cover to grab people, like if our material just isn’t doing it, then adding a cover to the set is solving the wrong problem.
Those are my views. I don’t have major problems with covers like on a philosophical level. We recently did a long-ish set at the Jersey shore, and we played a Stereophonics cover and it was cool. I’m glad we did it.
As for your specific suggestion about Gary Glitter, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s probably a great idea, but so many people have been telling me what song to cover for so long that every time I hear a suggestion I instantly hate it.
For more information on SWEET FIX, go to www.sweetfixmusic.com.