Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Silent film, Oulipian lyrics, and keeping it all together.
New York Live Arts presents
By any standard, the music made by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang (as Damon & Naomi) has achieved a remarkably high level of consistency. From their 1992 debut More Sad Hits to this year’s Fortune, the duo has tapped into a beatific sense of melancholy, constantly finding new expressions and refinements of their sound. Throw in the work they did as two-thirds of Galaxie 500, and that winning streak extends even further back in time. The duo has also maintained Exact Change, a small press dedicated to surreal and experimental literature; they’ve also been running their own record label, 20|20|20, for the last ten years.
Both Krukowski and Yang also work in creative disciplines outside of music. Krukowski released several volumes of prose poetry and has written astutely about the current state of the music industry for the likes of Pitchfork. And Yang’s distinctive photography led her to work in film. She recently directed a series of music videos as well as the short film for which Fortune acts as a soundtrack.
I sat beside the two in a crowded Tribeca coffee shop, eager to learn more about the origins of this new album and their expansive creative ventures.
Tobias Carroll For this new album, did the film or the songs come first? Or did they come in tandem with one another?
Naomi Yang The film really came first. The genesis was that we were playing a show in Italy at an old theatre. They said to us, “We have a projector and we’re actually a movie theatre. Do you have anything you want to project while you do your show?” We didn’t bring anything because usually we’re just in a “rock club” or whatever, but I had been doing music videos recently and it got me thinking.
After sound check, we walked outside and there was a flea market in the square with all these DVDs. We found this old silent film we had never seen before, a Paul Muni film about a wax museum. From the pictures on the cover, it looked cool. So, we went back and told them we wanted to try it. And it worked. It was really fun to play with, and it was kind of a John Cage/Merce Cunningham intersection of music and picture, the way that there’s dance and music. It wasn’t scored for one thing. It was sort of happenstance—this beautiful accident.
I thought I should make us a film or video track that we could run with our live show. So, I came home with that idea and started working with a friend of mine, Norman von Holtzendorff. We started working together, and a year and a half later, lo and behold, it turned into its own world, its own thing. All of the sudden, it was like: rather than just put this up behind whatever live show we’re doing, whatever set list we have at the moment, let’s write a soundtrack for it.
TC That first time in Italy, when you were playing with the silent film behind you, were you aware of what was happening?
NY No, it was behind us. We were kind of glancing at it, but we weren’t coordinating with it or trying to make it mesh. But that’s what I was saying about it being this kind of John Cage/Merce Cunningham thing. These accidents were happening.
DK Yeah, if you put two things against each other, the viewer is going to make connections. So, we weren’t trying to make those connections. We were just drawn to a certain type of film.
NY Right. This silent film, this melodrama.
DK We could tell from the cover, and we were delighted to see that it was silent, black and white that had been tinted. You know they used to show films through tinted glass?
NY Every scene was a different color. Nighttime was blue; daylight was orange.
DK Also, it happened to be a film that takes place in a waxworks, and it switches era because it tells several stories in different periods and places—based on this wax museum. You know how films progress at a certain pace? It might be slow, but then have these certain radical shifts with the changes in time and place? That was good because it felt like these shifts were happening according to their own logic in the picture, then there were shifts happening according to the pace of our own music, and they would collide or not. The audience is sort of free to shift from one to the other.
What I remember noticing was the audience’s gaze moving from us to the screen and back. There are only two of us on stage, and we don’t do a lot of prancing around, as anyone who has ever watched us knows. I sometimes wonder: Are we really giving enough, visually, to the audience? I think Naomi is visual splendor enough for anybody, but, at the same time, we just didn’t have a very visual show. It was nice to give people more senses to absorb at the same time.
When I listen to records it matters where I am, and how I’m listening influences how I absorb it. I don’t try to shut off the world when I listen to music. I also don’t listen in the street for that reason, because there you usually have a purpose, which I find is too distracting. But it does matter to me if I’m in a room that I feel a certain way in, or if it is a certain time of day. You know, like Ragas are to be played at certain hours of the day.
TC I’m reminded of how I used to be able to read when listening to an iPod on the subway. Now, I can’t quite keep the two in sync.
DK I’ve actually never been able to read while listening to music. I couldn’t listen while doing homework as a kid, and I still can’t. It’s not that I necessarily focus totally on it all of the time, of course, but I just do other things, or I zone out. It’s a different type of task. There’s a different way people listen to music now because of portability and headphones, and people who listen at work just shut out other sounds in the office. We’re in a café right now, and almost every other table is not speaking—they’re listening to headphones. That’s a whole other thing, that sort of relation to music.
TC You’ve now been running your own record label for a decade or so?
DK Exactly ten years.
TC Has that also affected the way you perceive how people take in, listen to, and experience music?
DK I think unfortunately not, because we’re no better business people than we were ten years ago!
DK We’ve done precious little analysis. We don’t track our buyers. It’s the most we can do to maintain an email list of interested people. So, I’d say no—though it does, actually, because we get orders directly, and we see the fluctuations of the formats in demand. That, interestingly, has not gone in one direction; it’s been back and forth. To our surprise, we’re selling CDs again. We weren’t even going to press the CD of this new one, but the company that we go through for pressing and distribution, Revolver, said we should. People seem to want it again. I have no insight to offer, except insight into our own poor business practices.
NY Running the label? I don’t think there was any way in which it affected doing this album. Since we’ve done our last record, I’ve started doing music videos for other bands, and that ability, that interest, made me think it was possible to do something for us. I don’t think I would have just decided to do this if I hadn’t already been thinking in sort of a film and video language. It’s been this wonderful lightning bolt of realization for me over the last two years, seeing how much I enjoy making music videos, working in collaboration with other musicians, and adding my visual interpretation to their own vision of their song.
TC I remember seeing the Molly Drake video that you had done. Is that sort of an outgrowth of the photography?
NY Absolutely. All of the sudden, my camera came with video capability. But I had done a tour diary—I guess it was about fifteen years ago—with a mini-DV camera. Damon gave it to me, and I thought: What am I going to do with this? I’d never done any filmmaking. The photographs move!
DK (laughter) Magic.
NY My father had been a landscape photographer, and I just grew up around still-photography, cameras, and a dark room. I love film, but it was nothing I had ever done myself, or even something I had ever thought about doing. So, there was this crazy night fifteen years ago, when I thought: It’s like photography, but it’s time-based, the way music is time-based. I did that tour diary, then I didn’t really do anything again. I didn’t feel like I had scripts that I wanted to make into films and, even though I love the medium, I didn’t have an idea of what way I would pursue it. Then all of the sudden my still-camera started having video capability and I literally thought: Music videos are kind of like music and film mixed together. It was so dumb, but I had to realize it for myself. I started saying to friends who were musicians, “Hey, I want to try and make a music video for one of your songs?” I started doing it, and now people who are not my friends are letting me do it, too. (laughter) I feel like it’s been a real gift to be an artist and discover, at this advanced age, a whole other medium that I get to learn about and be excited about—something I never thought I would do.
DK What Naomi means by “learn about and be excited about” is that she’s a real nerd about the things she loves. She loves reading the technical stuff; she loves the lighting. I can’t understand her half of the time because they’re very, very technical things, which I think is great. That’s part of her skill set, really. She’s always approached everything in that way. We watch a lot of films for pleasure, but suddenly Naomi’s directing or watching according to different cinematographers and different set designers.
NY I love manuals.
DK She reads manuals start to finish. Bedside reading.
NY Whenever we get a new device or something, I love reading the manual or the software book on something. Damon never does it.
DK I’m in charge of our recording studio, and that’s a permanent frustration to Naomi—it’s a friction in our relationship that I have never read the manual to our software for recording. Although when I get in trouble, actually, she finds the answer for me.
NY It’s called an index. Or just Google it. It’s like a secret language, and the answers are hidden somewhere in there. Something mysterious can be made accessible. I’m so happy about that. All the tools became something that I could do myself, on my computer. I didn’t have to hire a crew and raise money.
DK It’s a one-person operation, but it needs to be.
NY I could take the DIY aesthetic that we apply to everything we do, then apply it to making a music video.
DK Yeah, because we record ourselves, too, and I taught myself how in a similar way. Now it’s really like one stop—all in the living room.
TC When did the process of recording yourselves begin?
DK We had our genius, an eccentric producer named Kramer—a pre-Seinfeld Kramer, who a lot of BOMB readers might know. Kramer is a very volatile character. We had a falling out, temporarily, around 1996. It was clear that we shouldn’t be working together at that moment. We had been signed to Sub Pop, and we just didn’t really feel like trying to replace that relationship.
NY We started working with him when we were very young in the music business. He was older and seemed so experienced. We really learned a lot from him musically—how to put together a song…
DK He really mentored us, absolutely.
NY It was a great artistic mentoring relationship, despite a lot of insanity.
DK Yeah, well, he would be the first to admit it. But there’s genius, too, on his part. In any case, we had this brief falling out, and it was clear we shouldn’t work together on the next record. We just thought: Well, do we go to another personality like this? The first ADAT machines had just come out, and ADAT was kind of the first affordable, multi-track, digital format. We took our advance from Sub Pop for our next record and bought a tiny little mixing desk, eight tracks, a couple of microphones, one ADAT machine, and we made our next record alone.
That record is called Playback Singers, and it came out in ’97—it’s actually the only other record we made entirely alone before this one. In between, we continued to record ourselves but started to fold in more collaborations, especially with Ghost from Japan. Between ’97 and now, we’ve developed our music, touring, and a lot of our recording ideas in tandem with other musicians. This time, again, partly through circumstance—our long-time guitarist Michio Kurihara, for family reasons, couldn’t leave Japan—we decided to return to a pure duo format.
We’re all digital now—well, still mixing analog, but it’s twenty-four tracks, and we record to a hard-drive. Thank god the ADAT machines became outdated; it was the worst format ever, though it did allow us to produce ourselves. So, this is a very personal record—the film is very personal, and it has this very public element that Playback Singers didn’t have. That record felt very inward to me when we were doing it. This one was quite the opposite because of the film. Naomi had a story to tell that wasn’t just hers, it was her actor Norman’s as well. The songwriting, too, felt a little outward.
TC I was looking at the interview you had done for Impose a while ago, where you mention that you used a particular technique for coming up with the lyrics for this album. With a lot of your albums, I find the lyrics to be very personal. If you’re taking in this added element, how do you keep things in balance?
NY It was a conundrum. There was the emotional arc and also the loose plot, or narrative arc, of the short film. The film was all edited, and it was time to put down the soundtrack. It was like: Wow, we really want singing to be part of the orchestration for this? But we didn’t want it to just be instrumental because live it’s great to have that as another element. We want to be able to sing. But what are lyrics when there is something representational going on projected the screen? It seems so delicate because you don’t want to say, “Oh, and now you’re doing this,” like a Greek chorus. On the other hand, it felt like it couldn’t be just completely the other way. We had already rejected the idea of letting whatever happens happen. The film had its own strong life, and we wanted the soundtrack to reinforce it, echo it, but not underlie it to the point where now you’re going into a desperate, depressive spiral lying on the floor of your trash room.
How do you walk that line? We came up with the idea of playing the exquisite corpse game as a way to infuse the lyrics with the mood and scene while breaking down our own tendency to be too abstract or too representational.
DK We had melodies and knew the scene, then sat down and played this game with each other. We each wrote a line—
NY —but didn’t show it to the other, then—
DK —folded the paper and left one word showing for the other to begin with. Neither of us was able to follow a straight line through the lyric, which meant our presuppositions about exactly what was going on in the scene couldn’t coalesce. We wanted to be interrupted, but at the same time, have every line infused with the emotion we each felt went with the scene.
NY Then we unfolded it and edited. But we used that as the raw material.
DK It’s beyond raw material. A lot of it just came straight from the game. That’s how we wrote the whole record. I think we did one song a night or something. We didn’t want to do them all in a row.
NY Because then they would start to leak into each other.
DK We wanted to keep them very distinct. There were these constraints, but the whole project has a lot of constraints.
NY I did the film with the assistance of this amazing filmmaker, Nathaniel Dorsky.
DK He’s a great abstract filmmaker from San Francisco. His work is very hard to see because he won’t have it digitized.
NY It’s all real film. He’s been working since the ‘60s, and it’s all in silence. He had some screenings at Harvard. We went to them, and I was just stunned because I was in the middle of trying to edit this, which I knew was my version of a silent movie. Here was Nathaniel Dorsky showing his films in complete silence. I was struck by their beauty. It’s about light, beauty, and incredible editing. They’re breathtaking. I had the opportunity to meet and talk to him. I told him, “I’m working on this thing, and editing, and silence is so hard.” He said, “Well, you know I’m here for a few days. If you want to show me what you’re doing, I’d be happy to take a look.” He was so generous. After seeing about fifteen seconds of my first edit, he was like, “Okay, stop here, what if you did this, this, this, and this. Cut out this, and add a little of this.” Just tiny little changes to that first cut, the first fifteen seconds. It was like day and night.
DK Everything had to fit to the film from that point forward. All of those songs are written to fit, to the split second, of how the film moves—that was a constraint. The lyrical solution made sense to impose further constraints. It was all a sort of Oulipo exercises. It locked together. As soon as we hit that solution, it fit.
I’ll tell you one more crazy constraint. Well, this is not a constraint. This is my own personal in-joke/obsessive madness. It’s eleven tracks, and Naomi marked where she wanted the music to change, so we had eleven changes. The movie is about twenty-eight and a half minutes. I was like: Oh god, is that really an album—eleven tracks, twenty-eight minutes? I ran it through my head and thought: How long is Pink Moon? It’s eleven tracks, twenty-eight and a half minutes. From that point forward, I endeavored to make it identically the same length. When the CD was mastered I asked the mastering engineer to add and subtract some tiny spaces in the blanks to make sure that it’s eleven tracks and exactly, to the tenth of a second, the length of Pink Moon.
NY It’s like one of those Satanic things, like when you play the record backward.
DK It gave me hope that we could make a short album with short songs, because that’s not our usual mode. It was imposed again by the restriction of the visual edit that had been finished. My goal was to make it feel complete as an album. Pink Moon was the icon for me throughout the whole composition. I was just looking it up the other day because I was searching for an email to the mastering engineer, and I found this one with the subject heading “Request Sane and Insane.” (laughter) But he did it, I’m sure he’s heard worse.
NY He’s used to you.
TC We were talking before about the Oulipo and literary constraints. You’ve also published serious literature. Have there been other literary techniques that you wanted to bring into music over the years?
NY An album without E’s in it, for example?
DK (laughter) I don’t think we’ve ever used constraint quite this way, but I’ve certainly used techniques of borrowing and language changes and substitutions—techniques I first learned about from literary sources. I’ve never considered our lyrics poetry for the page, because they’re not. They’re meant to be songs. Some poets feel their poems are like music, but that’s an old cliché I actually don’t buy into at all. I’ve always thought that was ridiculous.
NY I thought that was your distinction. That, in lyric, cliché is very effective.
DK Exactly. And in poetry it’s not at all. Cliché to a poem on a page is just the worst. It kills a poem. My own feeling, in writing, is that you can’t even have a hint of a cliché on the page. In songwriting, cliché is really marvelous and can be leaned on. Great standards often use catch phrases or puns, or just very simple, familiar ideas—familiar turns of phrase. Then you just have to reanimate the cliché where it fits in with the lyric as a whole or the melody. To me, great songwriting often uses that. I love using cliché in our songs. This was a little different in that regard because we used the exquisite corpse game for the lyrics. I daresay it’s our least clichéd record.
NY Really? Because of the specificity of the film?
DK Yeah, and because we couldn’t just lean on some idea like that. We have a song called “Sometimes” and the chorus is “Sometimes the right thing isn’t wrong.” That is such a cliché! I was trying to reanimate it. If you just said it as a witticism in conversation it would be really lame, and as a poem it would be a disaster. As a song, I’m rather proud of that lyric. It fit, and it has the feel of one of those standards that I love, where you’re using ordinary language and ordinary ideas, but just giving it a twist. I don’t think there’s a line on this record that’s like that—that’s quite as lame. (laughter)
NY What about “Forget this amnesia”?
DK Oh, thank you! Yes, you’re right.
NY But, that’s not cliché. No one says that.
DK I bet that came from you giving me the word “Forget” in the exquisite corpse. I’m sure of it.
TC Both of you, beyond music, do photography, videos, and poetry; and you’ve written essays on music. How do you balance all of these different aspects of creative output?
DK Mobile technology has made it easier because, if we go away for a show, or we’re here in New York for a couple of days, we don’t disappear entirely. It used to be that the phone would just ring at the office, and no one would be there to pick it up. So, that helps.
NY They feed off of each other. You learn something from one thing that you bring to another. I think we’re just in the moment, and we work on whatever we’re working on. But sometimes we forget about really important things.
DK It has cost us some serious goofs now and then, but it is just who we are.
NY It’s funny because people in the world today seem to be doing lots of different things in different fields. Twenty-five years ago when we started having a surrealist publishing company and a band—
DK —it was sort of odd.
NY We were in a rock band, and people worried that we were spreading ourselves too thin by having both.
DK Especially in the early ‘90s, when there was a lot of commercial ambition going around, there was—and I think it was said to us at least implicitly, if not explicitly—this feeling of “just how far do you want to take this music thing?” As if we were not committed, like we weren’t feeling it.
NY And for us, too, it did feel a little bit like, “Are we allowed to do this?” Now, people do a lot more things, and it’s not so strange.
DK It’s kind of the default now really. There’s been a generational shift, a technological shift, and an economic shift, too. In the current situation, it’s very hard to be just a musician or, frankly, just a publisher. (laughter) I mean, that’s even worse! Being just a writer, my god! You know it’s so hard. Basically that’s what our life is like—we piece together a career out of these bits and pieces, but it doesn’t seem so dissimilar to what most people are doing right now.
TC Before we started recording, you were talking a little bit about the book you’re working on right now. I’d like to bring that into the conversation.
DK I’m working on a non-fiction book. It was sparked by some articles I wrote for Pitchfork. I’ve written for art magazines, too, but this book project is generated mostly from the writing I’ve done about music technology, about the change we’ve lived through in the music industry. I was actually approached by an agent who suggested I expand the thoughts in these articles. I took the challenge, wrote a proposal, and sold the book. It’s to be published by the New Press. It’s a book that uses the facts—and not terribly obtuse ones—of music technology, things anyone who has been in a band or been in a studio knows, but others may not. I’m using these things to think through changes in our communication patterns with one another both musical and non-musical ways—essentially, using audio, because it’s what I know best, to think about our social relations and how that has been affected by the shift from analog to digital. It’s not an anti-digital book, and it’s not a pro-digital book. It’s just a look at what some of these changes we’ve experienced might mean.
TC What struck me, in your writing for Pitchfork, was how you approached it—not like you’re writing a manifesto, but more like, “Here, let me give you the numbers, the statistics.”
DK I’m so glad to hear you read it that way because that particular Pitchfork piece, which was about our royalties, generated a lot of interest in the general media. I got a lot of really interesting, odd calls from mainstream media places all over the world. They were attracted by the specificity of those numbers—that’s what caught people’s attention. Then almost everybody who interviewed me about it wanted to turn it into an anti-digital stance. It was just a default media reflex: if I had put these numbers out, and they didn’t look very good, it must mean that I’m against it. I didn’t say that in the article, which you’re reading correctly. After a number of those interviews, I had to go back to the article and reread it. It was grossly misread.
In a way, I understand this is how you enter the mainstream media. If you take an unreasonable stance and just push it regardless of the truth, people endlessly want to repeat it. You become a talking head for one side or the other, but if you want to actually look at it in a balanced way, then I don’t think the mainstream media can really hear it. It’s a challenge to bring a more balanced message to a larger audience. That’s a lesson I’ve learned from my ten minutes as a talking head. It taught me how hard it is to make it subtle. One thing I want to do with the book, and I have a really good editor who gets it and is pushing me toward it, is to keep it subtle but not obscure. It’s not meant to be a technology book.
TC Do you have something else in the works as well?
NY I don’t. Maybe something will strike me. I don’t think I’m a very methodical planner artistically in that way. I think once I’m working on something I get really involved with it. I think I just sort of follow my nose. I didn’t set out to make a silent film and soundtrack for it. One thing just led to another.
DK Music videos seem to suit your mood because they each come with their own particular set of circumstances or happenstance colliding with intention. There are these personalities and collaborators you work with, and you have a very specific goal. Then you move onto the next one, which is not determined by the previous but by a new set of situations and accidents. That seems to be a very comfortable place for you.
NY It’s like a constant tight-rope walk, which I kind of love.
DK It’s actually a bit like touring. This is not the usual goal, to make each show an insane adventure. I think a lot of bands—more wisely, in a commercial sense, or for their own sanity—try to make each show as much like the last as possible. We’ve never been in a situation to do that, or pursued a situation like that. We travel and meet each show as it comes. There’s a similar sort of immediacy to figuring out the logistics.
NY It’s not so uncommon.
DK Well, it’s not like a tour bus and carrying your crew with you, for a band at our level.
NY Scrappy bands.
TC On the subject of sameness from one show to the next—about two years ago, the band Low played a show at the Walker, like a twenty-five minute drone piece. And a couple of people went berserk because they didn’t “play the hits.” When asked, the band said, “Well, we have twenty-five minutes to play, and we wanted to do more of a weird noise political thing.”
DK That’s interesting. Speaking from experience, when we were on the rise in our career there was a lot of pressure to make things more predictable because, of course, that’s easier to sell and to market, to know what you’re going to get and to do more of the same, and just do it for more people each time. In some ways, you do undercut yourself anytime you take a left turn.
NY We were telling a friend in Boston that we were working on this movie, and I found it hard to explain. It takes a lot of words! He said, “Okay, you’ve made it even harder to explain what it is you do.” Good commercial move!
TCEven for your long-term fans, you’re coming back with something that’s hard to explain.
NY Oh, we didn’t take that into account. We just wanted to do this.
DK When we first started playing music it was a very unpredictable scene. Nobody was expecting something they’d seen before; it was the opposite. You went out to be surprised, and you had to go to the clubs to see the bands in person because there was no other way to find out what people were doing. It was not a scene that valued playing the hits or representing any kind of style. That was the scene we were attracted to. I don’t think we would have necessarily started a band if it hadn’t been in a moment animated by that kind of spirit. We continue that in our own way. We’re not particularly punk-rock sounding, but it does come out of the aesthetic. I’ve been happy to see a lot of young bands animating that spirit again, right now. It feels very much like it’s back. It’s great. I think it happens in times of economic downturn actually. When we started playing music it was during another economic depression.
NY When there’s nothing to lose.
DK Nothing to lose, and nothing to gain.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and writes frequently about books and music. His short story collection TRANSITORY will be released on Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby