Several months ago I happened to catch a performance of a band called Video8 at The Annandale. They were tight, edgy, obviously influenced by the sharp end of the 80s and surprising. Surprising in their originality and sound, but also surprising because they were fronted by Maxine Kauter.
I had only recently been enjoying The Maxine Kauter Band’s album Alibech The Hermit – a collection of literate, acoustic-flavoured songs that could not have been more opposed in style to the glassy funk of Video8. Yet the same Maxine Kauter who yearned and purred from within the carved wooden walls of Alibech… was up there before me proclaiming with equal intensity and depth from a very different place, an Orwellian synthetic tube-farm of right-angled rhythms and 80s guitars.
And she got me thinking about genre in music.
How can an artist seem totally and fundamentally committed to more than one genre? And how can their creativity work entirely effectively within both? Or in as many genres as they choose to work in? How can they even like such diametrically opposing stuff, let alone love it?
It is not the pastiche of the teevee ad jingle writer, or the jack-of-all session muso or the numbed human jukebox of the RSL musician – it is original and fully-felt in creation. I’m thinking of Elvis Costello’s brief switch from caustic new wave to the alkaline pop-country of 1981’s Almost Blue, hippie roots-rocker Neil Young’s techno album Trans, and even Igor Stravinsky’s sudden dumping of High Art Modernism in the 1920’s for the cool marble touch of Neo-Classicism.
Thinking further on it, I realised this thing of genre-or-not can reveal something about the approach and mind-set of the creative artist – in music moreso than any other Art form – and that is something I always think is worth the price of admission.
And thinking yet further I realised that it was probably best if I asked hose who knew – three Sydney musicians whom I have long admired for their individuality, genre-defying and plain great music.
As well as Maxine Kauter – who is always good copy – I sent the same six simple questions to jazz saxophonist Richard Maegraith and guitarist Luis Rojas. Richard has long been a leading light of Australian jazz and fronts his unclassifiable band Galaxstare. Luis is a member of the tranvestite-metal band Mechanical Black as well as Shanghai, an experimental group unfettered by genre, style or expectations.
Here are their responses.
1. Why do you think so much music binds to one genre or another?
Maegraith: Humans love to compartmentalise. Genres help us feel safe and secure, and like we’ve got control over it.
Kauter: I think it’s because we need patterns to understand things right away. It’s the way we learn to play music too. Certain ideas are grouped together under particular headings known as genres. I think all of that comes back to narrative and to the way we pass on information. Like why is the Madonna always front-on in Madonna and child picture? Because that’s what tells me what the picture is about. It’s sort of like that with genre. Put a pedal steel on a simple chord progression and everyone will say ‘it’s country’, or ‘alt country’. Why? Because the Madonna is face-on.
Rojas: Two things spring to mind: Instrumentation/equipment and Influence.
A lot of genres are formed as a result of like-minded use of instrumentation, the line up of a band and the instruments played (eg. 4 piece: drums, bass, guitar, vocals) and the influence of past musical groups with similar instrumentation.
Take ‘post-rock’ for example, a non-specific genre that popped up out of nowhere, is basically a rebellion against the stereotypical 4-5 piece rock band sound. Compositions can involve classical and electronic influences performed within the confines of a typical rock band’s instrumentation. Different playing techniques and use of effects further help to differentiate from a typical rock band sound. A lot of these bands have a similar mindset, creating a community with a similar approach to their music and their influence. Influence begets influence until these bands end up painting themselves into a corner or pigeonholing themselves into that specific genre.
From a composer’s point of view, you have a choice of whether to compose for the limitations of an instrument (eg. an acoustic guitar may not be able to perform something written for piano), or the perceived rules of a genre etc.
A composer can begin writing a multi-instrumental piece on piano, for example, however, they would need to understand the various limitations and expressive playing techniques of the instrumentation for which they are composing.
A genre can arrive through a natural and organic process involving the progression from an initial musical idea which is then influenced by the choice of instrumentation and available equipment, as well as with the composer’s knowledge of musical styles and how instrumentation is used to create and execute certain musical ideas.
2. Is the idea of genre important to you and your music?
Maegraith: Not really.
Kauter: Yes, but in the sense of a history. Some ‘genres’ are really pointless. Like ‘indie’. Indie is the shark jumping moment in bending the definition of musical genres. That and ‘world’. In fact world might be worse because it’s also really racist. These genres are not really about music and are unhelpful as designations because other genres actually describe certain musical attributes that people have found a helpful name for grouping them together. ‘Indie’ and ‘world’ are the devils of genre. They’re the product of minds that actually don’t listen. Probably marketing minds. ‘Make it sounds like it didn’t cost a million dollars to make and then we’ll say it’s indie’.
For me the idea of genre is important when it is capable of evoking a history. For example ‘folk’ tells me about a long tradition of travelling musicians who comment on the political situation of the day and societal pressures on the common human, infusing these with their own personal stories so that the listener is reminded that they are part of something. Society exists. There is American, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and on and on. There are lots of sounds in folk, patterns of playing that are particular to regions. All are characterised by the fact that they focus on acoustic instruments and a prominent singer. Lyrics are important. Emotion, story, the listener… all king. It’s democratic, it’s for the people.
In this sense, genre is important to me. I want to exist in that history, it informs me. I don’t have to sound a certain way. The patterns played, the roads travelled etc, they don’t have to be the same. I don’t need to stand in a field with my shoes off to say ‘folk!’ I just need to acknowledge that history and genre by recognising what it is at its essence. But that’s for me, not really for others. It helps me to stay connected to an idea of music that is important and poignant to me. I imagine people feel this way about a lot of different genres of music.
So, actually, the genres we bandy about are wonderful language devices that conjure whole histories comprising musical motifs, patterns, standards, instruments, repeated narratives, certain innovations, particular regions, sounds, political revolutions, great love myths, heroes, heroines, failures and villains. They all manage to be referenced by this one word that shoots out great lightning pulses like neurons into the collective consciousness, lighting up a whole galaxy of meaning and culture. And that can happen with any of these genres.
It’s for this reason that certain ones are really offensive like ‘world music’ because the history it lights up is such a boring one about ‘you’ vs ‘me’. This idea that there is me and all of my nuanced history with the many genres needed to express it and then there is all the other people who make this one kind of music called ‘world’. That’s the kind of story we don’t need to be lighting up. That’s bad logic that only gets worse the more we use it.
Rojas: Audiences use genre in order to make it easier to seek out music they may like according to their individual tastes. I think as a composer, genre can be a hindrance, more than anything. Catering to any particular audience is quite easy to do once you know how, usually rendering the resulting compositions stale and derivative. As a fan of music, I can relate to the need for people to categorise music into easily to digest genres, but when I have my composer’s hat on, that need is superfluous.
I rarely start writing a song with any specific genre in mind. As a song is formed though, it becomes clear which particular musical project I am involved in it would be most suited for. Having said that, I have been able to translate a heavy metal song into a classical piece quite easily, because the compositions do not rely on the limitations or confines of any particular genre or instrumentation, rather their adaptability comes from a strong emphasis on melody and structure
3. Here are 3 genres: what are your brief reactions? – 1. Pop-country, 2. Blues-rock, 3. Hip-hop
Maegraith: Keith Urban, Gary Moore, Lecrae
Kauter: I think immediately of the film The Player by Robert Altman. There’s that great first shot that goes on forever and at one point we listen in on a writer pitching a film to a producer and he is describing a film in which a political candidate has an accident that results in him being able to read minds. The producer says, “So it’s a psychic-political-thriller-comedy… with a heart.”
I also think, “Hyphens are fun”.
Rojas: POP COUNTRY: Pop was my first love. I grew up listening to ABBA, The Village People, Elton John, and The Beatles. I usually apply a pop mentality to everything I write. Pop music to me is catchy, concise and to the point, so just because you’re writing an avant-garde noise piece, doesn’t mean you can’t apply those same elements to it.
Coming from a guy whose standard answer when asked “what kind of music do you like?”, is “I like pretty much everything”, I can honestly say that country music comes very close to the bottom of the list. The amalgamation of something I love with something that I loathe can result in either one improving on the other, or one ruining the other. When ‘pop country’ springs to mind, I would say it is the latter.
BLUES ROCK: I love rock music but I really do have a love/hate relationship with the blues. As much as I appreciate its influence and importance in modern music, it is not the kind of music that inspires me or excites me on a day-to-day basis. Having said that, my guitar playing is for the majority influenced by blues. One of the only scales I know is the blues scale and so any solos that I play end up sounding very blues influenced regardless of genre. Despite my apathy towards blues, it is very much an integral part of how I developed musically and currently unwittingly express myself.
HIP HOP: Growing up through 80s, hip hop was an unavoidable part of my musical shaping. There was a particular movie called Beat Street that introduced me to artists such as Grand Master Flash, Kool Moe Dee, and Afrika Bambaataa, at an early age. Later on, I also found an appreciation for NWA and Public Enemy. A little known fact is that Shanghai sampled a Public Enemy track from ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ on our first EP, ‘Esoterica’. In more modern times, two bands that stick out to me are The Beastie Boys and The Avalanches. The Avalanches’ first EP ‘El Producto’ is one of my favourite hip hop releases of all time, especially with its use of Theremin being a personal highlight.
In more recent times, I appreciate hip hop when it is approached organically. For instance my appreciation of Beastie Boys and Avalanches stems from their incorporation of rock band instrumentation as opposed to relying solely or very heavily on samples, synthesisers and drum machines. It’s the fusing of real world instrumentation with the electronic realm that works best for me in this particular genre.
A lot of recent hip hop does absolutely nothing for me as its stagnated into this pool of sexist, macho, repetitive, derivative, formulaic droll. The only artist of late that has stood out for me is Kendrick Lamar and his second release ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’.
4. Is current music, in general, moving further away from genre constraints or aligning tighter to them?
Maegraith: Both, at the same time, I think. There are what I call ‘archivists’ (people/groups who seek to retain the ‘true’ or ‘original’ genre) in all genres of music. They can be forthright about what is ‘jazz’ or ‘swing’ or the notion that any jazz after bebop was rubbish, or whatever. These archivists appear in most genres. Thankfully, they’re in the minority, but they’re usually pretty vocal about it. These people are keen to keep genre lines tight. At the same time, globalisation has allowed a new kind of genre blurring o occur which is exciting for the most part, I think.
Kauter: Further away. We assign genres to things merely as a way of branding the music in a certain way. Usually we really need to talk about bands or musicians that a particular artist sounds like because the genres have become either very mixed or perverted by people hijacking them as a way of falsely associating certain music with other music. That perversion sort of builds up on itself until genres mean so little there really isn’t much to move away from. That in itself is an interesting thing to think about. The fact that when designations become so important that people feel they need to manipulate their meaning to infer greater importance, eventually those designations come to mean nothing and yet it is still very important. You might say assertions of genre are only as powerful as the agents making them, whether that is musicians, executives, critics or others.
Audiences are never involved in assigning genre. I think that’s significant, especially when it comes to the nonsense end of genre meanings. Only certain agents can assign genre and now they’re saying things like “indie/alternative grunge/dance” and the listeners brain explodes, they have nowhere to put it so they HAVE to listen. It’s genius. Delusions of genre.
Rojas: I would say that the genres themselves are actually expanding. For example, heavy metal – once fairly easy to define – is now awash with a sea of sub-genres. While it’s easier for people to describe themselves as heavy metal fans, a metal-core kid could quite easily detest a founding band of the heavy metal genre, eg. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath fans may also detest the latest djent masterpiece.
The blanket term ‘Heavy Metal’ is a good example of where there are bands that have similar influences aligning under one broad banner, yet move away from each other in terms of sub-genre.
5. Have you ever been pressured to conform to a saleable genre for fame, limos and hoes?
Kauter: As a matter of fact I have. I was once playing at an open mic in a really upbeat afro-cuban bar in King Cross. It was a competition of sorts and my band and I were very much in the wrong place. It was the kind of place that you need to be high on cocaine to enjoy. The entire dance hall was crawling with B and C grade wannabe celebrities (now there’s a genre). After we had played I misplaced my drink and I headed to the artists’ dressing room to find an alternative. Metal featured heavily in in that room and from between a pair of bronze neo-celtic relief sculptures a woman appeared. It was Chan Marshall, aka, Cat Power: the queen of indie/folk. I’ve always really loved her so I was shocked. She said, “I really loved your set”. I looked at my shoes. She bought me a drink and told me that if I could ditch my band and become a lo-fi, ambient, trip hop artist that I could join her on a world-music tour as her support act. She had a lot of samples she’d been working on on her vintage casiotone and I wouldn’t have to write new songs, just set them to tiny drum beats and simple synths. I was quite freaked out.
She showed me her limo and told me she’d found a way to take the carcinogens out of cigarettes. She offered me one and it tasted sort of like the way I remember Malboros tasting when I was about 19 and they were still called Malboros. Of course, those days are over now. Hers were in these blue plastic bags marked “experimental house”. We made it to Japan before I woke up. My musical dream, in which I struggle with selling out and in the end reconcile myself to a life of public fame and personal sacrifice, was over.
Rojas: Not pressured, no. The only pressure in that regard would be any pressure that I put on myself in the past as a naïve young composer to try to fit into the stereotypes that I thought necessary at the time to progress successfully in a musical career. Now with the benefit of hindsight, limos and hoes do not appeal to me, although some fame would be nice.
6. Who are your genre-bustin’ heroes? Why?
Maegraith: There’s the obvious people like Ry Cooder and Bill Frisell but I’m pretty taken by Avishai Cohen and Chris Potter. They both have so many current influences permeating their music but still sound like jazz musicians. I dig that. Sometime world or really blurry genres end up sounding like what a potluck lunch tastes like. Neither this, nor that. And the musical conviction suffers.
Kauter: Hmmm, this is a tough one. Maybe my mother. She left school at 15 as a wayward fun loving, pubescent puberty blues-esque tearaway. At 16 she ran away with her sweetheart to Queensland where the odds were stacked against them and from where they returned 8 months later pregnant, prodigal. She worked as a checkout chick and had three kids by 22, a tough and kind-hearted down-on-her luck mother, fiercely protective of her kids and husband. Young and hopeful she began work for a major insurance company answering phones, ambitious and hard-working in a man’s world. Eventually she became a senior manager and policy writer at that company and was the high flying executive who feels guilty about leaving her kids at home alone after school. She was the perpetually busy career woman whose husband resents her success on some level. She was also a triathlete. Then she was the stay-at-home wife and mother who has seen the light and forsaken her career for the sake of her man and children. Now she is the happy, empty nester and grandma who spends her time working for the church and taking motorcycle trips through rural Australia with her teenage sweetheart.
Rojas: Frank Zappa. He has probably been the biggest influence on me since I first discovered his music, around the very early 90s, just before he passed away. His prolific tendencies alone forced him to explore more musical styles within his lifetime than most composers of any standing. I know that his roots lay in styles such as the blues, pop music and doo-wop, but even as a child, Frank appreciated the avant-garde music concrete just as much, with Edgard Varese and Stravinsky being two of his favourite composers. He not only influenced me as a player – giving me a new found appreciation of the electric guitar – but also as a composer seeking out ways to fuse and reinvent different musical styles in a coherent and palatable way.
John Zorn: Another prolific composer that has had a big effect on my writing, as well as exposing me to new musical ideas, approaches and artists. From his covers of classic film soundtracks, to his intelligent use of musical game pieces, Zorn, and in particular his band Naked City, taught me that genre need not be a limitation on songwriting, and that the only restrictions as a composer or a musician are the ones placed on yourself. Never did I think that an improvisational death metal grind-core band could exist with alto saxophone at its centre, totally devoid of guitar, but Zorn made it work in his band Painkiller, which also featured Mick Harris and Bill Laswell.
Carl Staling: Also a major influence on Zorn, Staling’s infinite smashing of genres and cut-and-paste aesthetic rings through my music in Shanghai. I guess spending all that time watching Warner Brothers cartoons as a kid is paying off now.