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 Album, The Current Local Blog, and Tropics of Meta.
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: 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?
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: 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.)?
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.
|Photograph by Joe Gall courtesy of Tesco Vee|
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: It’s of course notoriously difficult to define Punk and well-nigh impossible to do so in terms of some shared musical sound—even within a small time frame and regional scene like early L.A. punk you still get bands with radically divergent sounds (e.g., The Go-Gos playing shows with The Germs and Fear). The closest things I can think of that seem to unite the punk movement across time and place would be some attitude of rebellion and a strong DIY sensibility. Given that you’ve been part of the larger “Punk Rock” movement since the late 70s both musically (as founding member of the seminal band The Meatmen and later Dutch Hercules and Hate Police) as well as culturally (by helping shape, disseminate, and ensure the survival of such music as co-founder of Touch and Go Records), has anything struck you as being particularly essential to the notion of Punk Rock?
AFB: The Meatmen are known for their less than wholesome songs, many of which adopt in a tongue-in-cheek manner various offensive viewpoints, from the radically politically conservative and super-macho (“True Grit”, “French People Suck”) to the ultra homophobic, xenophobic, racist, and downright misanthropic (“Tooling for Anus”, “Camel Jockeys Suck”, “Blow Me Jah”, “Cripple Children Suck”). How often do you find fans embracing the offensive superficial message rather than the satirical content underneath? Do you notice a difference in this respect from your American fanbase to that overseas?
AFB: Do you find the line between adopting hate-speech so as to satirize it and good ol’ fashion hate speech anything more than just the line between satirical success and satirical failure (e.g., a line I take to have been crossed in the case of El Duce of The Mentors)?
AFB: The Meatmen and yourself in particular are also know for your live performances and stage antics. Do you think that to truly appreciate your music, one must see it performed live or is the live show just something extra for the fans of the music? Do you think that Punk Rock perhaps more so than other subgenres of Rock Music places greater value on the live performance as opposed to the studio track?
AFB: Perhaps my all time favorite cover song has to be The Meatmen cover of “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths (I even philosophized about it here). You’ve done several covers over the course of your career (e.g., “Razamanaz” by Nazareth, “Dance to the Music” by Sly & The Family Stone, “What’s This Shit Called Love” by The Pagans, “Crazy Horses” by The Osmonds). What is it about a song for you that makes it worth covering?
For more information on the man, the myth, the legend Tesco Vee, as well as The Meatmen’s new album Savage Sagas, go to Tescovee.com
Curtis Gannon (b. 1974) completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Houston, and then received an MFA in Painting at San Diego State University. Using American action comics as source material, Gannon creates collages, sculptures and installations that reference the Pop language of the medium and its influence as a universal form of visual communication. Gannon’s works have recently been exhibited at Blaffer Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Williams Tower, and Lawndale Art Center. Gannon lives and works in League City, TX.
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: The world of fine-art was introduced to comics most notably in the 1950s and early 1960s when Pop artists seeking to challenge traditional notions of fine art began appropriating the panel images from comics: e.g., Warhol’s Saturday’s Popeye (1960) and Superman (1961) as well as Lichstenstein’s Image Duplicator(1963) from Uncanny X-Men and Takka Takka (1962), Bratatat! (1963), Whaam!(1963) from All American Men of War. Of course, this was done in such a way that inevitably divorced the appropriated (and often de-paneled) images from the narrative they were supposed to serve. Your work, however, shifts the focus away from what at times can be a condescending fine-art fascination with comic imagery along with the often crude narratives it serves and instead draws attention to the very structure of comics itself—i.e., not its pictorial or narrative content but its formal content.
|Curtis Gannon, Cosmos: The Copernicus/Miller Correlation (2013)
Paper Installation 12 x 6ft diameter (dimensions variable)
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Of course, from the fact that comic imagery and now comic form should be counted amongst the legitimate subjects for works of fine art it doesn’t follow that comics themselves should be similarly counted amongst the legitimate works of fine art. As an artist who uses comics and comic imagery to create artworks about comics but not themselves comics, where do you stand on the fine-art status of comics (or on the commercial-art/fine-art distinction in general)?
Comics were not initially created as art, but to be inexpensive entertainment, readily consumable and disposable. In a similar way, many objects in museum collections today were originally created to educate, document, or entertain as objects of beauty.
|Curtis Gannon, Closure Construction #5 (2012)
Plexiglass 32 x 41.5 x 2in
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Do you think comics can be appreciated as fine-art while still being appreciated as comics?
|Curtis Gannon, Closure Grid: Locas Big City (2012)
Collage 32 x 66 inches
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What if anything do you think would likely have to change for comics to gain admission to the world of fine-art?
|Curtis Gannon, Page Mosaic: Pangea (2011)
Collage 84 x 96 inches
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What sort of reactions from the fine-art community have there been to your work with respect to comics as its material and subject matter?
|Curtis Gannon, Plot Weave #23 (2012)
Collage 15.75 x 15.75 x 1.75in
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Some folks within the comics community see Lichtenstein in a rather unfavorable light, namely as a fine-art carpetbagger guilty of flagrant theft who enjoyed wealth and fame as a result while the comic artists from whom he stole were largely consigned to obscurity and poverty. Do you see your own work as a species of appropriation and if so to what extent if any do you think appropriation of a comic’s page structure (panelation, guttering, etc.)—rather than it’s pictorial elements—susceptible to similar charges of fine-art carpetbaggery?
|Curtis Gannon, Association Grid #27 (2013)
Collage 20.25 x 12.25 x 1.5in
In this more complex way, I want my work to be a homage to their accomplishments by representing these comics in new ways; hoping to attract non-typical audiences to re-evaluate the original sources. The comics I adopt are not inert documents of the past, but are viable works that are the spring board for new ideas and discoveries. When I give talks about the work, I find myself spending much of my time referencing the original sources and why they are important.
I understand why the comic book community frowns upon artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol. The images they appropriated for a small part of their careers helped to make these artists famous without specific reference to the original creators. But a major point is often over looked by these critics. The work of these and other Pop artists made major strides in establishing comics as a legitimate artistic medium to academia and society as a whole. They helped to raise comics out of the perceived mire of mass media “low culture” to a unique and important form of literature as well as art in their own right.
Curtis Gannon is represented by THE MISSION Chicago | Houston (www.themissionprojects.com) For more information contact Sarah Busch, Director | Houston: (713) 874-1182.
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Presumably mathematics as well as its philosophy requires creativity, but before that creativity can be usefully employed one must have already mastered a rather imposing set of technical skills. Do you find that LEGO sculpture is much the same?
|Model of Minnesota State Capital Building by Roy T. Cook
photo courtesy of Amanda J
|Model of St. Paul Cathedral (St. Paul, Minnesota) by Roy T. Cook
Photo courtesy of Amanda J
|Untitled by artist Nathan Sawaja
photo courtesy of brickartist.com
|Halle Berry mosaic by Roy T. Cook|
KYLE KILLEN: I have no issue with nitpickers. Any and all issues are up for debate as far as I’m concerned, and while sometimes criticisms point out things we chose to ignore, they also occasionally point out things we simply missed. Awake was a beast to keep track of, and then in the process or editing down to the 42 minutes you have available for actual story content in an hour of television we necessarily excised things that might have made particular aspects of the story clearer or more logical. One would hope that with more time we’d have gotten better about judging what would fit from the start and avoided leaving important bits on the cutting room floor. Regardless, when one notices something that bothers or takes them out of the flow of the story I can’t really say that they should simply ignore it or that it’s somehow not legitimate.
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: When major motion pictures such as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises are ridiculed for their glaring plot holes, inconsistencies, and wholesale violations of commonsense, with whom do you think the preponderance of blame most likely to rest (e.g., the director, producers, writers, actors, or audiences themselves)?
KYLE KILLEN: Plot holes usually come down to one of two things – either the issue is not considered important enough to the story or the thrust of the story to bear addressing, or it was addressed at some point but had to be cut out for some reason (time, cost, etc). The larger issue I think is why it sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t. Once you’ve spotted a glaring inconsistency such that you can’t engage with the work anymore, it becomes hard to fathom how someone else could either miss that issue, or see it and not have a similar reaction. But the fact that a number of the titles you reference as being ridiculed for these inconsistencies or plot holes were actually spectacular box office successes indicates that while these issues greatly bothered some, they did nothing to deter the audience at large. Blame seems like a strong word, but essentially, feature films are designed to provide entertainment to turn a profit, so it’s unlikely those putting their financial resources at risk would do so if the audience had demonstrated that bulletproof logic was something they factored into their viewing decisions. When something bothers an audience, it tends to go away – for example the failures of a number of films set around the Iraq war made it difficult to find money to make more of those projects. The returns on summer features indicates that plot holes and faulty logic have approximately zero impact on the audience at large and their enjoyment of blockbuster films. Which is not to say an illogical film can’t flop (see: Battleship) but merely to say that logic tends not to be the deciding factor.
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: How do you think the relationship between the script and film compares to other broadly similar relationships such as plays to theatrical performances, scores to musical performances, architectural blueprints to physical structures?
KYLE KILLEN: Measuring audiences and understanding their viewing habits has become increasingly tricky and while I wholeheartedly agree that the metrics we once relied on are becoming increasingly meaningless, I’m not sure we know what the next answer is. Twitter and other social networks seem to have tapped a digital well of information about what we’re actually watching, but it’s noisier and self selecting data. I think before we can really figure out how to count people we have to figure out what watching a show even means anymore. The broadcast model is based on the idea that you’re selling an advertising delivery mechanism and if technology means people aren’t watching the ads, then they’re not watching the ads. Pretending it’s otherwise is simply whistling in the dark. Netflix and premium cable outlets like HBO demonstrate that end users will pay directly for programming which leaves advertisers out of it, and I think you’ll see variations on that model expand. Ironically, things like twitter are simultaneously becoming the new way to count viewers, while being one of the only new technologies to drive people to watch television in a more TRADITIONAL manner. When a show like Breaking Bad achieves cultural ubiquity such that one cannot hide from news and reactions to every episode, the idea of storing it on the DVR for five days becomes less appealing. Social discussion creates a need to watch things as soon as they’re released in order to be in on the conversation. The question is, does anyone think the people eager to tweet about a show the minute it’s over aren’t savvy enough to start it twenty minutes late and skip the commercials?
|Mind Games (Premieres Feb. 25th on ABC)|
As for taking more risks, yes and no. Yes, when you have little to lose, as NBC did in the case of Hannibal, you’ll take some swings. And as networks become more narrowly defined and their audiences more specific they can certainly afford to try things that might not have the traditionally required big tent element. But the larger issue is the sustainability of any of todays broadcast and cable models. Always on, on demand content delivery is where we’re going and Netflix demonstrates that it’s lunacy to pretend you need to pay 50 dollars a month for a basic cable TV package to then have the right to subscribe to your favorite HBO shows. But as more distribution drifts toward the ala cart, direct to consumer model, outlets that don’t have shows that appeal to consumers now will wither and die. And many of the successes of the recent decades have come from outlets like AMC that existed and were already being paid for by consumers before they decided to develop content that would appeal to larger audiences. Whether that somewhat socialist bubble of basic cable was actually key to the providing the opportunity that AMC eventually availed themselves of is up for debate. I don’t know what TV will look like after the current structure breaks down. But I do think we’re going to find out.
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Aesthetics for Birds recently featured an interview with poet and critic David Orr, author of Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Much of David’s work as a critic aims at demystifying poetry for a modern audience. Of course, philosophical enquiry can be said likewise to aim at the demystification of its subject matter. Given your status as a philosopher-poet (a designation perhaps few other than yourself can genuinely pull off without seeming for all the world a Class-A poseur), in what ways have you found philosophy to help or to hinder the study, practice, or appreciation of poetry (whether in general or more specifically in terms of your own work)?
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.
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.