Category Interview

Music in Finland – Part II

Last week we talked about the current wave of new acts coming from Finland and the burgeoning scene that’s taking place there. Inspired by the attitudes of acts abroad and fueled by a desire for international exposure, today’s Finnish bands are creating fresh and unique sounds. Acts are also adopting the ethos of DIY culture and creating the types of music that they want to make, turning Finland into one of the most exciting countries producing music today.
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Music in Finland – Part I

Finland is a country best known for its heavy-metal and hard rock yet things are changing. The current music scene is buzzing with a new generation of musicians, producers and collectives eager to create great sounds. I spoke with a number of them to discuss this new wave of Finnish music.
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I wanna’ be like Jack Dorsey

Jack Dorsey

Late last night Wired published a wonderful piece on Jack Dorsey, the man behind Twitter and Square. Oft compared to Steve Jobs (but essentially nothing like him), it was cool to see such an in-depth piece on him. He’s such an inspiring guy, I mean, he’s only 35 and look at all that he’s done. Here’s a snippet I loved.

Like Jobs, Dorsey has proclivities that have helped him build something of a cult of personality. Every Friday he indoctrinates new employees with a forced march through the streets of San Francisco, beginning at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the Ferry Building, heading into the canyons of the Financial District, and emerging in the startup haven south of Market Street where Square resides. During the walk, Dorsey outlines what he calls the Four Corners of Square. “It’s something that codifies our ethic,” he says. “I really spent a lot of time on it.” But he is mum on the details of this vaguely Masonic concept. “If I told you, you’d have to work here,” he says with a tight smile.

Dorsey also boasts a Jobs-like obsession with design and detail. In early 2011 he became captivated by the idea of using a wallet metaphor in a Square app. William Henderson, a former Apple operating system specialist who now works as a software engineer at Square, says, “Jack got so excited that he came to work one day with a stack of 10 leather wallets.” For hours, Dorsey and his team deconstructed every detail. He was especially fond of the Hermè8s. (He adores the brand and pronounces its name “air-MEZH,” as if he were raised in a duty-free shop.) The team designed a digital wallet that faithfully replicated its austere majesty, down to the stitching. It even carried a monogram, extracting initials from the user’s registration information and dropping the trailing dot after the second initial, just as Hermè8s does. The credit cards, which fit into their slots at slightly asymmetrical angles, were stamped with holograms that changed color when the screen was tilted.

5 Questions with Blue Sky Black Death

5 Questions with Blue Sky Black Death

Photo by Theo Constantinou

Sometimes I cannot believe how lucky I am. Born in an iconic, rare period of the human evolution. The beginning of the free trade of ideas, data, and art, not purely removed from the analog days.

Contemporary music seems to reflect the problems and beauty of this exigency. For every great musician out there, well, there is someone who can do the same thing digitally. Instruments will never really die (the tactile element cannot be understated/underrated/imitated), but to make music, it’s just not as necessary before. I feel we are blessed with such a wide variety of talents in both the analog and digital world. The extremities of Starslinger and his wild remixies are as relevant to right now as the future funk of Thundercat and, well, just kiss their throne. All are beautiful yet line the different dimensions of the musical spectrum. Are they be that different if they are so similar?

The producers/instrumentalists Blue Sky Black Death ride the same line. Prolific or workaholics, the duo of Kingston and Young God don’t care if it’s analog or digital – the sound is what matters. It ain’t hard to pick apart the smattering of genres. But guitar, bass, samples, APC, MPC, maschine, serato, what have you, are all fair game. The sources are a different story. With Noir, For the Glory, and Lord Of the Fly, their production in the past year is more finely tuned and as divergent as ever before. The question isn’t whether it is hip hop or not, it is whether it HAS to be hip hop or not. So let’s forget all that stuff about categories. Here’s five questions with Blue Sky Black Death.

Alec: When you approach writing music, do you approach songs on an individual basis or in terms of an album?

Blue Sky Black Death: It depends on how focused we are on one single project at the time. Often we’ll be working on several things at once so it makes it more difficult to be like, “let me start working on this and it will definitely be for this album.” As far as our rap productions, we probably work more on an individual basis and then after a beat is a little more fleshed out we’ll say to eachother, “this would be good for so and so.” Whereas when we’re working on our solo instrumental stuff, we will start grouping tracks together that have a cohesive vibe and then when we are closer to completion we are really working on stuff in terms of the album. I think we used to make everything in terms of a specific album, but these days we have our hands in a lot more things, so it’s not as simple.

A: In that regard, is the concept of an album important anymore? Do you think it matters more for the musicians than the listener?

BSBD: I’d say that the listener, or at least the young listener, cares less about the concept of an album than he does about his immediate response to a single track he hears on the internet. There are definitely still people that can appreciate the concept of an album, and generally we make our albums with the intent of it having a singular and cohesive vision, but we’d bet that it’s more important for the artist than it is for most fans.

Do most musicians make music for their own sake and the inherent reward of making art, or is it more for positive reinforcement from others-the listener? Like us, I’d bet most artists straddle that line of holding a high standard for our own sake, and keeping the audience in mind as well. I’ve heard some artists claim that their art was made only for themselves, but I think that’s more wishful thinking than anything else. If you have an available audience, then I’d say its almost impossible to separate your ego from the world around you especially if you have fans. Art and music can afford to be a little self indulgent, but hopefully not at the risk of it turning the listener off. No one is only making art for themselves unless they really don’t show it to anyone else and it is solely for their own enjoyment. I’m getting a little off topic, but to bring it back around, I’d say the concept of an album is still very important for most artists and a big portion of listeners, but not necessarily for a successful business and marketing of the album. Albums have never been a commercial necessity, but the feeling of accomplishment we get from making a cohesive album is worth it none the less. An artist can attain commercial viability from a few “hot” singles, but having longevity from a few “hot” singles is another story. I think people will remember albums as a whole, before they remember that one one or two hit wonder. Hopefully.

A: Noir seems to pull not just from different genres but also from different production styles. What instruments do you play? How do you balance live instrumentation and production gear?

BSBD: Guitar, bass, keys, synth, and drums, but not very well. Our whole mission is to create that “perfect” balance of live instrumentation with loops mixed with samples without knowing what is what. We also always like to keep the listening guessing as to what our influences are. We pull from so many different genres and ideas, and that’s what gives our music a unique quality. Because we aren’t emulating a handful of producers. We love all types of music, and we try use our influences to create a tasteful marriage, rather than a hodgepodge of incongruous styles.

A: I like to consider this a golden age to be a bedroom musician. You can order all your gear online, sit in your room, then upload it all. Your listener doesn’t need to leave his bedroom either. Do you consider BSBD a part of this new group or do you find yourself rooted in the world of “classic” hip hop production?

BSBD: On one hand, we’ve been producing separately and together for a long time so you’d think we’d be rooted in the “classic” style, but we still have our studios in our homes, and we still use the computer as the foundation for producing. So I guess we were at the beginning of this new era of bedroom production. We started making music on our computers when it wasn’t that cool, when a lot of hip hop producers would scoff at not using hardware like an MPC, but we were only ever concerned with how the final product sounded not the means of creating.

A: To conclude, what would you tell someone who wants to start a career as a producer?

BSBD: Good advice is hard to give in this new weird era, but I’d say first and foremost, try to come original. That’s the only way you’ll stand apart. Also, build natural relationships with the people you’d like to see yourself be involved with. Don’t go spamming people’s twitter and emails with solicitation. Be mindful of your professionalism, and of course work really hard if producing is what you really want to do.

An Interview With Giant Robot’s Eric Nakamura

An Interview With Giant Robot's Eric Nakamura

An Interview With Giant Robot's Eric Nakamura

An Interview With Giant Robot's Eric Nakamura

Photos by Justin Sullivan

Giant Robot has set the pace for a lot of things. The Little Osaka based store/magazine/gallery has created a huge new world of lifestyle and culture surrounding Japanese popular culture. It can even be said that they are the brand responsible for the surge of interest in Japanese popular culture over the past ten years. The result has not only helped changed how we view the culture but also what is included in the art world and the idea of showing art and selling products.

We spoke with Eric Nakamura, the man behind the Robot, who had some really fantastic things to say about life, work, Los Angeles, and how to be successful in the modern world. He’s a guy who can do everything, from photographing something to literally building a wall, and is very proud of what he does. He’s a super nice guy with an equally as nice aesthetic and approach to what he is doing. Check out our interview with him here.

‘Baby’s In Black’ – An Interview with Author Arne Bellstorf

Baby's In Black by Arne Bellstorf

Baby’s in Black is a stunning graphic-novel written by the German author and graphic artist Arne Bellstorf. Set against the backdrop of The Beatles early gigs in Hamburg, it tells the tragic true-life story of the romance between the young photographer Astrid Kirchherr and the artist and musician Stuart Sutcliffe. Bellstorf’s book is based on a series of conversations he had with Kirchherr, and the story perfectly captures Kirchherr’s blossoming romance amid the exciting subculture of early 1960’s Hamburg.

It is a story which is told with beautiful restraint and tenderness, and it is easily one of the best graphic-novels that I’ve read in a very long time. I was fascinated to learn more about the book and so I asked Bellstorf a few questions.

Astrid and Stuart from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

What are some of the challenges in telling somebody else’s story – particularly one as sensitive as Astrid Kirchherr’s?

Well, it’s a very tragic story, of course, and I normally wouldn’t have wanted to tell a biographical story like that. But after having met Astrid, I recognized that we actually shared a lot and that my approach to tell the story would correspond with her attitude. I was interested in the time, the youth culture in Hamburg and what it was like being young in the early Sixties. Astrid went to the same art school as I did, and I could relate to her life in many ways, despite all the things that were different back then. We both tend to think in pictures, she’s a very visual person, and she basically liked the idea of telling her story in little black and white panels. It was a kind of mutual confidence, I guess. I mean, the character in the book may be still something I invented, and in the end it’s a fictional work. I could only try to capture something of the real Astrid. We talked about what was important to her, aesthetically, and what influenced her – French existentialism, Jean Cocteau, Oscar Wilde, Cool Jazz – and what happened when Rock’n’Roll merged with all these things.

We also spoke about the time she spent with Stuart, the two years until his tragic death, this short but intense relationship, but I wanted to focus on the beginning of it all: Their first encounter, the whole love at first sight thing, the magic physical attraction going on between them. They got engaged after only a month without speaking the same language, and Stuart actually began a new life when he left the Beatles and his family in Liverpool to stay with Astrid in Hamburg. The end of the story is a delicate matter, and we never spoke too much about the time after Stuart’s death. That’s what makes it such an existential tale, it’s absurd ending. You can’t really speak about something that doesn’t make sense. I had to find a way to depict that, and I’m glad that Astrid liked the solution I came up with.

Picture of houses in Hamburg from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

How difficult was it to research? Was it a challenge to recreate 1960’s Hamburg?

Not really. I mean, I wanted to do a book about the Sixties anyway. I live in Hamburg, near Reeperbahn, and most of the places are just right outside my door and I know the area quite well. As far as clothing is concerned, I got a lot of help from Astrid. I also bought a few books with old photographs at second hand bookshops and flea markets, and I got the impression that the Sixties are quite well documented – except for the filthy underground clubs, of course. As for the Kaiserkeller for example I could only rely on what Astrid had told me and the reports that I found in numerous Beatles books.

Panel from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

What inspires you?

When I was drawing I’d often listen to early sixties music, girl groups, R’n’B and all those North-American artists that inspired the Beatles. I find almost everything from the Sixties very inspiring, the music, the design, the movies – and I think that’s why I wanted to do this book, it’s the birthplace (and heyday) of pop culture, and you can’t understand youth culture in Europe without going back to the Fifties and Sixties – be it mass phenomenons or small subcultures. When you look at Astrid, the “exis” and their androgynous look, the black clothes, and their romantic, cool attitude, they seem closely related to movements like new romanticism and goth. So when it comes to inspiration, I like to look back at past decades, there’s so much to explore.

Panel from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

What are you working on at the moment?

I did a lot of commissions recently, working for magazines and newspapers. Then I’m still traveling with Baby’s In Black, the book’s been published in several countries since it’s release in Germany. I do have a few ideas for another book, but the next thing I’ll release is a small collection of one-page comics, hopefully coming out this summer.

Many thanks to Arne for taking the time to answer our questions. Details on where to buy your copy of Baby’s In Black can be found on his website here.

Five Questions with Hugh Howey

Five Questions with Hugh Howey

Five Questions with Hugh Howey

Several weeks ago we posted about Wool, a short story by Hugh Howey. Since the posting – and hopefully due to some of you awesome guys and gals – Wool and its Omnibus edition, containing all five Wool stories, have elevated the formerly proclaimed “cult following” into a bonafide hit. One of Hugh’s favorite novels is Ender’s Game, a novel that, when I read at some tender age, changed my life as well. The intricacy of Ender’s Game is not in its brutal military critique and self-reflective xenophobia, but the turmoil of a boy at war with himself and his gifts. In it, a man/woman’s worst enemy is him/herself and their untapped potential.

In many (sometimes similar) ways, Wool turns on introspection rather than a deus ex machina or the Law of Conservation of Detail. Wool refuses to turn on minutiae. The writing is lean yet expansive. The world is huge in Wool yet it is restrained by its tendrils. Maybe this is a beauty in the renaissance of self publishing. Instead of publishers forcing a novel down your throat, brought together to fit the 40k / 80k / 100k word expectations, short stories and novellas can propagate in this new free market. Hugh Howey seems to have benefitted from this growing marketplace.

Readers worldwide are the real beneficiary. All of a sudden they can choose what stories are worth reading, sharing, or worshipping. The modern book critic can’t keep up with our demands. When Wool gained 200 new reviews in under two months and shot into Amazon top 200 in the Kindle store, I can’t say much more than it’s for the people and by the people.

So I asked Hugh five questions.

Alec: Were you born to write or was it a craft you learned? In that regard, what event made you decide to write for a living?

Hugh Howey: I’ve had some people close to me say that I was born to write. I suspect they mean that I’ve been making things up in my head for way too long, or that it’s healthier if I put my imaginary friends on paper rather than talking to them on the street. I remember writing letters to family members when I was younger and having them say that I should write for a living. But it was a true story of a yacht I was captaining that really sparked the urge. I posted this story on SciForums, a site for people to discuss trends in various fields, and the members went nuts. It was the first hint that I might be able to entertain people with my words.

As for when I decided to write for a living, I didn’t really have the luxury to choose when I would do that. I struggled for years, working second jobs, until I was finally making enough to dare go for it as a solitary profession.

A: When and why did you decide to publish independently?

H: I didn’t. Not at first. My debut novel was published by a small house called NorLights Press. When I saw what was involved with promoting and pushing a few books here and there, I decided to give it a try on my own. Nothing against NorLights, they were awesome, and I still consider one of the founders a dear friend. But so much of book promotion relies on the author, so I thought I would see if I could wear all the hats at once.

I’ve loved the experience. Learning to paginate books, to create cover art, to market and publish everything. It suits my workaholic nature. Plus, I get to set the price, give books away, and see all of my sales data. There are a ton of advantages to publishing independently. I’ve also made a lot more money that I probably could have with a traditional press.

A: Wool is more of a novella than a novel. Which form do you prefer and why?

H: I love them both, but I’m starting to lean toward novellas. 30,000 words feels about right to me. That’s a 120 page book, or thereabouts. With that length, I can get rid of the boring middle bits of a book that often keeps readers from finishing a story. I can manage numerous revisions, cut down on errors, and keep the plots nice and tight. And with e-readers, there’s no need to pad a book to justify print costs. I can charge anywhere from a buck to three for a story, and everyone makes out. I love it.

A: 20 years ago, people were predicting flying cars, hoverboards, and stun guns. What is sci fi in the post millenium? Does it even exist?

H: I think science fiction will show up in the post millenium less in the form of gadgets and more in the guise of philosophical leaps. Both have always existed in science fiction. There has been more ethical explorations in the genre than most readers appreciate. Aliens were just as often treated as equals or superiors as the enemy, often providing lessons about human rights. Women have been given stronger roles in some tellings of the future. Star Trek showed an interracial relationship that was far ahead of its time.

Now that we all have smart phones that are more advanced than Captain Kirk’s communicator, the areas of progress that I see will be more along these lines. And there will be steps toward grand issues like immortality that I believe will take people by surprise. It might not be in our lifetimes, but I think within the next 1,000 years, we will see the aging process solved, or perhaps the digitalization of our memories and thought processes. I wish I could live to see some of the great leaps forward that await us.

A: Do you enjoy reading your own work? Or are you of the mindset that “nothing is ever finished?”

H: Nothing is ever finished. I wish I had the time to go back and revise everything I’ve ever written, because it all becomes rubbish with the passing of time. On the other hand, I do find that I enjoy what I’m writing while I’m writing it. As I make my six or seven passes through a work, I start to think that it isn’t all that horrid. And by the last pass, I find myself impressed that this came out of my noggin. That’s the beauty of the writing and revising process: You end up with a product that’s smarter and better than you are. There’s no way you could produce it in a single sitting, but over a bunch of laborious weeks, you craft a bit of drivel you aren’t upset to call your own.