I met the boy who would become Samuel Bing in a faraway land called High-School-on-Long-Island. Sadists and demons prowled the halls in muscle tees and Z. Cavaricci pants. Samuel Bing was even skinnier than I was. He defended himself with self-mockery, quickness, wiseass artful dodges. I hid out in sullenness. We both wore long black overcoats and scarves and smoked a lot. We pierced our ears and pegged our jeans. It didn’t seem cute or funny at the time. It was a way of taking sides. My loyalties ran towards punk, his towards the finely crafted pop song: Cheap Trick, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Squeeze. We found common ground in Long Island’s now-dead new wave radio station, WLIR, and in the Smiths, Bowie, the Velvet Underground. That was more than enough. Between Morrissey’s lyrics and Lou Reed’s pose, something like salvation seemed possible, if not survival, at least suicide with style.
Eventually, something funny happened. We both grew up and moved to Los Angeles. He kept making music. I became a writer. His old band played at the book party for my first novel. I wrote mythological liner notes for the first album released by his latest project, the band Fol Chen. Not long ago, we met up in a rented house in Joshua Tree, California, where my dog ate his glasses, and we talked a lot, sometimes with a voice recorder on.
Ben Ehrenreich The first Fol Chen album takes on the topic of nostalgia very directly: formally, because it is an album, which is already a nostalgic form, and because it is musically and lyrically engaged with the music you grew up with, listening to WLIR on Long Island. But it never quite lets itself indulge in the kind of nostalgia that it’s grappling with. What was in it for you? What was driving this engagement with the ghosts of pop’s past?
Samuel Bing On one hand, it was the genuine and very unexpected sadness I felt when I discovered that WLIR was off the air. Long Island doesn’t have much to be proud of, and I guess the idea that it was still out there broadcasting was comforting to me in ways I wasn’t conscious of. So it caught me off guard that I felt devastated to the point where I was having dreams about it, and I felt compelled to explore that. At around the same time, I was readingRip it Up by Simon Reynolds, which discusses a lot of the music I first heard via my older brother blasting WLIR all day and night. That book helped me understand that if I wanted to honor all of that very adventurous music, the last thing I should do is make a record that sounds like something from a few decades ago. So I tried to update the music that mattered to me, mainly British post-punk, without actually sounding like it.
BE For a Samuel Bing project, it’s not particularly dark. It’s about as bright as they come.
SB I also wanted to make fun music this time. Even when I used to work composing scores for adult films, sometimes the director would mention that maybe the music was a little dour.
BE (laughing) You were gonna bum out the masturbators.
SB But I wasn’t even trying! Certain things come naturally. So part of the challenge was to not replicate old sounds or styles and also not to make music that was in my comfort zone, not to just make more sad songs.
BE There’s a kind of despairing optimism to it.
SB Yeah, it was exciting to feel free to make unabashedly pop music. Some of the earlier versions of the songs that ended up on the record were very straightforward pop arrangements. Then Julian [Wass] and I began distilling that and keeping the things that were relevant to us and that didn’t feel like formalist clichés. And some of that excitement spilled into the content. The lyrics are another story, because it’s too easy for me to be a drag. In the case of the song, “Cable TV,” I was actually challenged by Melissa Thorne, who was in the band at the time, to write a song about something un-unhappy. Or at least not gloomy.
BE There’s always a tension in your music between pop’s basic sunniness and something more sinister that always seems to catch you. There’s always this conversation between the optimism of the form and your attempts to take it apart, either lyrically or by actually breaking down melodies into noise. How conscious are you of that tension when you’re composing?
SB It’s not self-conscious or thematic. The composing process and the production process are pretty conflated at this point—if you were to play our songs on the guitar or piano they wouldn’t make sense. Our system is to arrange, rearrange and then rearrange again, endlessly, until the record gets sent out for mastering. It’s like remixing the same song seven or eight times. Or like playing telephone, so the final mix has a family resemblance to the original version, but along the way all these good accidents happen. Just as important as the songwriting are the sounds that we use and how we make them. Especially on the second record, we were mostly recording our own samples, reverse-engineering sounds we liked. It wasn’t about purity. We just wanted to make things sound new. If you’re concerned with not having the same Roland Juno sound or vintage drum machine sound as everyone else, the easiest way to avoid that is to make your own stuff. It’s like people who try to make Twinkies at home. It’s impossible to actually make a Twinkie, so the results might be disastrous, but they’ll probably be interesting.
BE In the new album, New December, there’s a shift to a real manic sense of breakdown, which made the album feel pretty perfect for these times. In some regards that means literal ruins, like in “In Ruins,” this great apocalyptic dance track, but also semiologically, like in “The Holograms”: “and now the story lost its allegory so we sing this song.” You seem to take a particular delight in frustrating pop narrative musical expectations, in interrupting melody, invading it with noise, pushing towards really baroque levels of disintegration.
SB Julian and I like the sound of things falling apart. We don’t have discussions about what that means, there’s just something about the sounds of things disintegrating that is very pleasing. And content-wise, there was a sort-of elliptical narrative on that record about a secret code that becomes a verbal virus that ends up eating words and even memory. At the time I was re-discovering Borges’s stories, which are almost exclusively about problems with language and communication, about the loss of words and language.
BE They’re stories that destroy themselves.
SB Yeah. Or they make it unclear who the author is.
BE In all these quite literal ways within the space of the song, but also in terms of performance and the spectacle around your performances, you’ve been working to erase yourself, and even erase to the band. You did it in your residency in the summer of 2010 at the Echo [in Los Angeles], where at one of the five shows you had a thrash metal band play in your place.
SB Yes, I hired a band called Viscera to play our songs and we didn’t play at all that night. They played our songs for us.
BE At another one of those shows you took auditions from audience members to replace yourself as the lead singer.
SB I put an ad on Craigslist saying, “Live Auditions—Fol Chen, signed to Asthmatic Kitty Records, is looking for a new singer.” No specific gender, style or anything, just open to anybody. I didn’t meet any of the auditioners ahead of time, I just sent them songs to learn. The night of the show, the band performed the music, but with strangers who had learned the songs on their own. That was a lot of fun.
BE And you actually took on the guy who did best in these auditions as your potential replacement in the band.
SB Yeah, he has now played several shows in my place. He’s good. His name is Mandla Gobeldale. He joined us for the West Coast leg of our last tour.
BE What’s behind all of these various battles with authorship and with any kind of stable identity behind the band?
SB Part of me finds it weird that it’s been so long since pop-music production was just about four dudes in a room, setting up microphones and recording songs. That still happens, but it’s been a long time since that was the only form, or even the dominant form. It’s mostly about what happens in production and editing. The idea that you spend a year in the studio doing detailed sonic hocus-pocus involving dozens of layers and tracks, then you’re supposed to go on stage and reproduce that live with five people seems absurd to me. There’s no inauthentic way to produce music, but when you make records in such an inorganic way, live performance feels a little dishonest to me.
BE You did something similar in July at the Walker Arts Center with Machine Project: again removing the artist from the art, turning music into this thing that the listener helps to create.
SB We made something called the Composer-Free Song Generator. The first day we were there, we sent museum visitors out with field recorders. Back at the hotel that night, [band member] Sinosa Loa and I compiled the field recordings and chopped them into 30 four-measure loops, all with the same tempo and key. That way, the loops could be stacked up in any combination and still work together as something resembling a song. The next day, visitors to the Walker were given a questionnaire that asked them to choose and assess an artwork at the museum. There were boxes you could check for objective criteria—is the work attached to a wall? Does it make sound? Is it time-based? And there were boxes for subjective criteria: Does the work make you feel angry? Dirty? Each of the thirty check-boxes corresponded to one of the loops that we had made the night before. We were in a back room somewhere, and we would assemble a song based on what they had checked off without any intervention at all.
BE How long would it take you to produce each song?
SB Ten minutes.
BE How many did you make?
SB Forty. Each person got a CD. There was artwork by Emily Joyce for the cover that we already printed and cut out. It was all very elegant. We had a rubber stamp for the CD face that said “Fol Chen &” and had a line for the person’s name, just to make clear that it was a collaboration.
BE Did you still see it as Fol Chen’s music?
SB Well we made the loops. We did not record the sounds. We did chop them up into loops and do editing. But we also did not choose which loops would be used or in what order, so it was definitely a collaboration.
BE And you’ve been working on a mysterious device, which also functions to create music in the absence of a musician.
SB It’s a collaboration with Machine Project and Monome, who invented a revolutionary thing called a Monome button controller. We wanted to make a device that could be used by other songwriters and producers to create their own music—there’s that erasure thing again. So Monome designed a beautiful little tetrahedron called The Tetrafol, and it’s loaded with samples that we produced, although you can load your own in. It has a speaker and an output jack so you can plug it into any recording gear and manipulate samples in real time. You just turn and twist the tetrahedron in space and the sounds are manipulated in both pitch and tempo. If I were to hold it in my hand and move my hand around in three dimensions, a one-of-a-kind sound would be made. If you give it a little shake, it switches to the next sample. We’re only making 100 of them, and again there’ll be this beautiful silkscreen. So it functions as a really beautiful, boutique object that you can set on your table or, if you don’t mind getting it messy and getting fingerprints on it, you can use it to make and record music.
BE It’s like a magic eight-ball.
SB Absolutely. Except your fortune will sound like this: bzzzzzzzcracklecracklebzzzzzzz.
Read part two of this conversation here. In the second installment, they discuss Ehrenreich’s new novel Ether.