Ringo 014: Boombox Pillows

inputs, outputs, and the woozy sound of pedal steel guitar

Hi! I'm Michael Donaldson, and I write about music on 8sided.blog, license and publish music through 8DSync, and make music as Q-Burns Abstract Message. I think about music all of the time. My guess is you do, too.

This is the fourteenth episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, a newsletter loosely about music-making and music-listening and how technology changes the culture around those things.

Each episode of this newsletter has a theme song. This time I’m reaching further back into the vault to reveal an outtake from the Feng Shui days. It’s an unfinished tune with a post-punk feel – chorused + finger-popped bass! – and at least two Juno-106s playing in MIDI-tandem. Have a listen to the short sketch mysteriously titled “Exxxefff” and please enjoy this week’s ramble.

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Man, Jim O'Rourke is incredibly prolific. As a producer, he's worked with the likes of Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Wilco, and Superchunk, which might tempt you to plop him into a particular musical category. However, he's even more prolific as an experimental musician (though he doesn't think he qualifies as a musician). His solo discography is enormous, as is the list of his collaborations with many experimental/improvisational heavy-weights. These days, his Bandcamp-only Steamroom series appears to be his main activity, up to its 47th release as of today's newsletter.

O'Rourke's other main activity might be this interview he gave for the newsletter Tone Glow. It's so long, so dense, so entertaining. And what were you doing in your teenage years? Well, Jim was doing things like bringing Merzbow and Hafler Trio to Chicago and fixing avant-garde guitar god Derek Bailey's refrigerator. 

I love O'Rourke's story of listening to music when he was supposed to be sleeping, lying with his ear on a boombox speaker, the volume set low so his parents couldn’t hear. He'd wake up and would have the grate of the speaker impressed in the skin on the side of his face. A funny thing: the same happened to me. My little boombox had a metal grill, and I would listen secretly and fall asleep with my cheek against it. The next day there were red grill marks on my face. I learned my lesson after a couple of times and stopped lying on the speaker. Jim kept doing it, and his parents ended up sending him to a doctor. He wouldn't fess up to the origin of the red face marks.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the Nurse With Wound list and recommendation rabbit holes. That list was inspired by recommendations included in Frank Zappa's Freak Out! Zappa likewise inspired Jim's adventure in music:

I was listening to a lot of prog-rock and Zappa at the time, too. Zappa also helped because on the inside of Freak Out! there's this list of all the stuff that he was into. And I just went to the library and immediately found out about Stockhausen and Ives and all this stuff.

Recommendations get handed down, music fan to music fan. In that spirit, this Jim O'Rourke interview could end up as this moment's Nurse With Wound/Frank Zappa list. Jim enthusiastically mentions so much weird and obscure music throughout, it's kind of hard to keep up. He connects threads and tells stories to explain his fascination with these figures' music. And then, in the end, there's a list of 25 rare records that 'never got their due,' categorized as 'Jim's Picks.' 

If you think you know a lot about fringe music (raises hand), this piece will put you in your place (lowers head). I hadn't heard of most of these 'picks,' and the ones I've sampled — mostly via covert YouTube uploads as little of this is on streaming platforms — are OUT THERE. Be warned — chances are this stuff isn't to your taste. But regardless, have a skim through the Tone Glow interview. It provided me some creative fuel under lockdown burn-out, both to create and consume. [LINK]

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The interview made me think about inputs and outputs. O'Rourke got a head start on most of us. If you accept Jim's timeline, he was working his way through the ECM Records catalog at age 12. His taste was influenced outside of the mainstream at a young age, amplifying a hunger for more esoteric offerings. There's also the this-then-that-then-this sequence O'Rourke describes. Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was his gateway drug.

Music writer and jazz historian Ted Gioia was interviewed in a recent issue of the Music Journalism Insider newsletter and had this to say about inputs and outputs:

If I have a secret to my craft [it's] that writers need to maximize their high-quality inputs in order to create good output, so I design my day around the inputs. I will devote 2 or 3 hours per day to writing, but around twice that much time in exposing myself to new ideas and new sounds. That's the engine room where it all happens. If I manage the inputs correctly, the output takes care of itself.

I believe that's a good attitude for almost every vocation … whether you're a manager or a teacher or cook or whatever: if you expose yourself to inspiring and educational material, your own work will improve steadily. It's the bosses that don't understand this. They measure you on your output, but they ought to be more concerned about your inputs. Sad to say, you need to take charge of the inputs, and somehow find the time to do it.

Artistic consumption influencing artistic creation. This concept is why many artists are eager to explore art, and why many of us wish we had discovered influential works at an earlier age. It takes time to digest and process the important stuff. Is there a band or artist you would like to have discovered when you were a lot younger? For example, I bet Wire's first few albums would've turned on some additional switches if I heard them in my mid-teens. The art-punkiness of them, the brevity, the textures — this mostly waited to hit me in college, but the impact would have been more significant in those 'formative years.' Right?

Oh, come on. What am I even saying here? I'm probably jealous of O'Rourke's early audio journeys and his present quiet life in the Japanese woods (that does sound nice). The interview really is lovely and an educational hoot, and — as I've heard very little of the music mentioned — a reminder that it's never too late to explore. There's a lot out there, and, as creative people, the influence of new listening or viewing or reading habits may have a surprising effect on our outputs no matter how young or old we are.

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We’re still feeling reverberations from losing three giants of influence within a couple of weeks. Florian Schneider, Little Richard, and Tony Allen continue to inspire lovely and in-depth retrospectives and memorials. One of my recent favorite pieces is from Sasha Frere-Jones in his SF/J newsletter (recommended!). [LINK]

He writes about Florian and Little Richard:

The idea that one of the two founding members of Kraftwerk and Little Richard died within a week of each other has been acting like a slow dissolve capsule that releases a dementing agent into the already fragile connections of time. If we removed these two forces from popular music, what would be left? [...]

Kraftwerk worked in rhythm as much as Richard, though the similarities barely even begin before they end. It's not just uptight silent German cis buddies versus black Southern pansexual vortex. It's that Richard couldn't find a big big enough for his big and Kraftwerk were as resolutely medium as numbers allow.

And then the NY Times Popcast ties Florian and Tony Allen together in a conversation "about these twin pillars of rhythm, and how they were responding to similar impulses — thousands of miles apart, and with radically different tools at their disposal." [LINK]

I haven't found an essay or podcast connecting Little Richard and Allen to round out this short list, but you get the point. As with Jim's list of noiseniks and extreme jazzbos, threads are elusive, but eventually, connections of influence are seen and appreciated.

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I produced a couple of tracks on Jim White's 2001 album No Such Place. Jim and I holed up in my tiny office space studio in downtown Orlando and bonded over movies, music, and creating mental movies with music. Jim called up his friend Ben Peeler, guitarist in The Mavericks, to come up from Miami for the session. Ben brought a lap steel guitar, hooked it up to a row of effects pedals, and created gorgeous Frippertronics-like soundscapes. You can hear some of this on the song "Bound To Forget."

That started a fascination with the woozy sound of lap steel and pedal steel guitars. I bought a cheap lap steel and played it — cheaply — on Invisible Airline. But I always think back to Ben's layers of lap steel loops and ambiance, always on the lookout for artists doing something similar with the instrument.

This week brought two excellent new releases in this vein. The first comes from Nashville session musician and pedal steel player Luke Schneider. His Altar of Harmony might have a title that's a little too on-the-nose, but the music he's making is extraordinary. These are tracks of meditative drone sheets and the processed singing of pedal steel soaring overhead. It's an outlier of an album for Jack White's Third Man Records, in itself an outlier of a label. The press release is touting this as 'new age music.' Unfortunately, that term's got a lot of baggage, which will turn some away. Or are we reclaiming 'new age,' releasing it from its hippie vibes and the encompassing genre of 'ambient'? It’s a tough sell — looking at Luke’s photo on the Bandcamp page, I don't see 'new age.' So I am categorizing the album under my favored #worktones tag — music that's enjoyable as a stand-alone listen and a nice mood-straightener while immersed in get-stuff-done mode. [LINK]

Mojave 3 — a country-flavored-by-way-of-Neil-Young group formed from the temporary ruins of Slowdive — was the best band I ever saw at a SXSW. In 2000, maybe? Mojave 3 retained some of Slowdive's guitar-spaciness, thanks in part to the contribution of pedal steel guitar player Raymond Richards. But Slowdive's falling-through-an-airlock outer-spaciness was replaced with a shooting-stars-over-the-desert kind of spaciness. Richards carries this quality over to his new solo album, The Lost Art Of Wandering. There are sounds along the lines of what Luke is doing on his record, but The Lost Art Of Wandering ties its sonic stroll closer to familiar territory for the pedal steel. In other words, country music. And it's a melancholy, reflective country, recalling the setting for Daniel Lanois's pedal steel on Apollo - Atmospheres & Soundtracks. It's the sound of missing faraway places, so right now it's about perfect. [LINK]

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A quick item, as I just learned of it: Ryuichi Sakamoto is now releasing new performances and music on YouTube to help soothe those under lockdown. This opening piano piece does the trick:

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I hope you enjoyed this episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. This one’s a bit scattered but isn’t that how we’re all feeling right now? I know, speak for myself. As always, let me know if you have any comments or questions or need someone to write to in this challenging time. I'd love to hear from you. You can learn more about me, what I do, and contact me with your comments here.

If you can think of someone groovy who would like this newsletter, then, by all means, pass it on. And, yes, sharing Ringo on your favorite social media bugaboo is also appreciated. There are some cool moves planned, so I'm into getting the word out. Your help with that means a lot more than you know.

Thank you so much for reading. I hope you’re not as all-over-the-place as I am and are excited for the week ahead. It looks like I’ve got a busy one but I’ve made lots of time for music-making, which is new and fun. Stay safe and I’ll see you next week! 🚀