This week, I expose the ugly side of online interactions with musicians, using recent case studies from Scottish indie pop trio CHVRCHES and their fellow countrymen Frightened Rabbit. But it's not all doom and gloom...or is it? We also have a glossy new single out from dexterous alternative rockers Mutemath, and remember stoner rock veterans Kyuss' 1994 riff-fest Welcome To Sky Valley.
- The video for the CHVRCHES song 'Leave A Trace' can be found on Youtube here . Footage of CHVRCHES' Lauren Mayberry discussing the backlash to this video on Channel 4 News can be found here.
- Frightened Rabbit's response to an abusive troll can be found on their Facebook page here.
- Mutemath's 2015 single 'Monument' can be downloaded from iTunes here.
- Kyuss' 1994 album Welcome To Sky Valley can be downloaded from iTunes here.
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Hello and welcome everyone to the eighth episode of Musicology With The Eagle. I am your host The Eagle, and I'm glad to say that we've made it this far: seven episodes of insight and discovery, and this one still to come. And it's not just discovery for you listeners out there. We make sure to do as much background research as time allows so that you guys get the full, immersive experience of a particular artist or issue. I think this week's news segment is one that many of us could unfortunately relate to - even if we aren't big-name musicians. So let's get started.
For the past few weeks, two Scottish artists have found themselves in the news for having to withstand a torrent of abuse on their online social media accounts. The artists in question are the indie-synthpop trio of CHRVCHES, and the rugged indie-rock band known as Frightened Rabbit. Let's look at their case first, which has a more tangible, maybe even happy ending.
According to a testimony by lead singer and songwriter Scott Hutchinson on the band's Facebook page, he was made aware of a series of bizarre, somewhat laughable insults that had started popping up on the band’s Twitter page by one disgruntled user. Now these weren’t your standard ‘don't like your latest record, it sucks, you must go back to the sound of your first two albums’ sort of comments you might receive as an artist. Hey, you can't please everyone. They were unprovoked and hurtful, and were clearly the product of someone who had nothing better to do other than to send a string of silly, childish tweets criticizing the band’s weight and hairiness.
Instead of responding to the troll, Frightened Rabbit took one of the unintentionally-hilarious lines and got their friends at a local design agency to design a shirt adorned with the phrase. So the ‘Furry Brick-Built Men Club’ was born, and the band sold a limited run of the shirts to their fans, with all the proceeds donated to a UK anti-bullying charity called ‘Ditch The Label’. How’s that for turning the tables on the trolls?
But not every situation could be capitalised on like theirs, and not everyone has been skin as thick – metaphorically speaking – as Scott Hutchinson. Nor has everyone got the privilege of being a male in today's society. The CHRVCHES case shines a light on a much darker part of the underbelly of online interactions, where misogyny and violent, sexually-abusive comments are a daily occurrence for their lead singer Lauren Mayberry. The trio has spoken out during recent interviews in the run-up to their second album Every Open Eye about struggles they've had to endure marketing themselves with the sense of equality. One of the two male members of the group, Martin Doherty, said in a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper that:
“We could've sold 200,000 more albums if we had hidden Ian and I from view, and put Lauren on the cover of every magazine. But there’s a hundred of those acts, and that stuff just goes away.”
Since their first rise to prominence in 2013, the admittedly-beautiful Mayberry has been on the receiving end of unwanted propositions, ranging from the mildly-charming and innocent, to full-on rape and death threats. She's been unafraid of calling out the scum, penning an op-ed article for The Guardian back in 2013 on the topic, and posting a screenshot of one of the offending messages - quoting further horrifying ones.
But the video for their latest single ‘Leave A Trace’ caused another tide of downright abusive feedback to wash over the band. In the video, Mayberry is featured more prominently than before, wearing sultry yet not overly-flirtatious attire. Apparently wet hair, lipstick and a mini-skirt makes one a slut, and the response was unsurprisingly depressingly. But she isn't backing down without a fight. Mayberry made an appearance on Channel Four News with Cathy Newman to discuss the backlash, and said that while CHRVCHES attract hateful comments from trolls because they're in the public eye, I quote:
“This happens to women all the time anyway, and I hate the idea that young girls who follow our band deal with stuff like that. I don't want them to feel isolated; I don't want them to feel like it is just happening to them, because it happens everywhere. Somebody tweeted me the other day ‘If you can't learn to deal with this sort of stuff, stick a gun in your mouth before the record even comes out. I have one and I will give it to you’. Personally, that's horrifying. If somebody put that through your door, you would go to the police with that.”
One of the common responses I've seen to her very public response and activism is one that you might have yourself: why don't you just ignore it, ‘don't feed the trolls’, etc.? Aside from the obvious victim-blaming, it also doesn't address the desire many musicians have to interact with their fans. CHRVCHES are a rarity amongst modern-day artists of their stature, who faithfully regulate and respond to comments on their own social media accounts, and don't just hire a manager to do it for them. I count myself as a lucky one who received a personal response from Lauren back in 2013, in the wake of her first Guardian article. It was unexpected, heartfelt, and detailed - even going as far to say that they hope to see me if they ever get to tour my home country. See how that can stick with a fan? I also had the same experience with Johnny Marr - guitarist of the now-defunct Smiths - regarding a recent haircut of mine, but it was a lot briefer.
As mentioned in previous episodes, musicians have a platform which they can use to make a difference; which they can use to unite people and shape the cultural conversation. Instead of sitting back and accepting the abuse like a good girl, Lauren is making a stand, and her fellow countryman Scott Hutchinson agrees, saying in an interview for Gigwise:
“It’s people trying to exert some power, and like Lauren I thought it was time to take the obvious power that we have and use it with a mass of people who are going to get behind us. That's the heartening thing that's been so wonderful. We’ve turned it into something positive, and I'm sure the troll will look back at it in ten years’ time and think ‘What an idiot I was, but that’s amusing’”.
Fortunately, many bullies mature and realise the follies of their past – but maybe we have further to go for sexist trolls. Either way, managing one's persona online is a venture fraught with problems, and it seems that anonymity is a double-edged sword: great if you’re too shy to contribute to a community in real life, but open to abuse if left unchecked. The only practical solution is to remain anonymous as an artist, which is easier said than done in today's image-obsessed climate. But some musicians have done it with varying levels of success and intensity.
The first one that comes to mind is Daft Punk. The French DJ duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have long been associated with their futuristic, robotic helmets and metallic gloves. But their current look only emerged from their second album, 2001's Discovery, onwards. Before that, the duo wore a variety of masks and helmets due to their shyness and fear of publicity. But they’ve later said that they donned the robot outfits to show the merging of the characteristics of humans and machines; that the adventurous android music could be Human After All.
Secondly, we have Slipknot. Now the masked metal monsters from Des Moines, Iowa, were originally inspired to wear their trademark disturbing masks by a clown mask percussionist Shawn Crahan would often bring to rehearsals. The nine-piece group then decided to take the concept further by wearing matching jumpsuits during performances, and assigning themselves numbered alias. Although this was intended as a commentary on the commercialism of the music business, Slipknot attributes the use of masks as a way to divert attention away from themselves as people, and on to the music.
Moving on to hip hop, we have the alternative rapper MF DOOM - real name Daniel Dumile - who is known for his gladiator helmet which he wears during his performances, similar to that of Marvel Comics supervillain Doctor Doom. But the initial reason he started the masked persona was borne from tragedy. In the early Nineties, his group KMD were dropped from the record label, and his younger brother - who was his bandmate - was struck and killed by a car. He retreated from the New York hip hop scene for years, emerging in his masked form to build confidence and keep a mysterious aura. DOOM seemed to enjoy the anonymity, where he could walk the streets freely - even in a venue where he would later that night perform in - without being recognised.
Finally, we have two artists who have flirted with an anonymous persona - either starting out, or well in to their career. The first one is The Weeknd. Looking at current attention and public performances from the alternative R&B singer - including his 2015 album Beauty Behind The Madness - it's easy to forget the way he entered the music scene in 2011, with three mysterious mixtapes and an identity initially kept shrouded in secrecy. No one knew who or what The Weeknd was, and it made his dark, sultry music all the more enticing. It was a smart career move too.
Secondly - to a lesser extent - we have Sia. Now the public has been aware of the singer-songwriter’s identity throughout a career, but when she reached worldwide recognition as a singer in 2009, she chose to obscure her face and give almost ‘non-performances’ - either facing away from audiences, or hiding it behind oversized platinum-blonde wigs. The anti-social behaviour had its purpose though, as like many of the artists mentioned before, a need for privacy and control over her public image was top of the list.
All this talk of anonymity is a little weird. Up until the Middle Ages, all music was considered anonymous - and in folk music, much of it still is. We initially view a lot of music as anonymous unless we are told who the artist or performer is. How different would we see and hear things if there was no image attached to it.
For our next segment, we have a new release from one of my favourite artists around, Mutemath. The alternative rockers have the first single out from their upcoming fourth album Vitals, and it's called ‘Monument’. This is welcome news for fans like myself, because it has been four years since their last album, 2011’s Odd Soul. In the interim, the band has been writing a lot of material; lead singer Paul Meany said in a response to a fan question on Twitter that “I can tell you that we've written more songs for this record than in the past three combined”. Which is quite a staggering amount.
During the making of Odd Soul, Mutemath’s founding guitarist Greg Hill left the band. So many of the album’s guitar parts were written and performed by the other band members, who are all incredibly-talented multi-instrumentalists. This is not surprising if you’ve managed to catch even just one live performance of theirs in the past decade. The band are known for their dazzling creativity and musicianship, and pride themselves on their unique live performances. Whether it's on stage in an arena, or in front of a late-night TV audience, you can be guaranteed that Mutemath will switch things up with an instrumental remix or interlude, or have Paul Meany do handstands on his Rhodes piano. The creativity isn't just confined to the live show or studio; Mutemath love to explore complex music video ideas, and even won a Grammy Award for the video of the song ‘Typical’ – which sees them perform the song backwards, sort of like Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’, except more wacky.
With all this in mind, it must’ve been quite imposing for Tod Gummerman - the new guitarist that they’ve brought into the fold. But fortunately the guys made a decision to take their time in making the next record and experience life a bit. In an interview with Fuse TV at this year's Lollapalooza Festival, Paul Meany and drummer Darren King spoke of the album as definitely being a departure from their previous work, switching up the formula and palette of sounds to experiment with. Switching things up is written in Mutemath’s musical DNA, and their fusion of rock and electronica was seen most vividly on their first two albums, 2006’s self-titled debut and 2009’s Armistice. 2011’s Odd Soul was the first major departure - capturing a more soulful, delicate and crunchy blues stomp.
So I approached ‘Monument’ with both trepidation and excitement, and my first thoughts were how relatively simple and straightforward it was. Where were the crazy Keith Moon-esque drum fills from Darren King? The random flights of fancy that we've come to expect? Well the song has a poppy, EDM-accented thrill to it, underpinned by a glossy sample which might or might not be of their own instruments. The subtler approach still reveals a very layered rewarding soundscape, and the music builds and builds to a triumphant finish. Paul confirmed this method of song writing when he said that “we tried to get away with as little as possible, which was a process of growth for us”.
In the making of Vitals, Mutemath have wanted to try out new songs on the road well before the album's released this coming October. Thus the studio version of ‘Monument’ slots in nicely with other new material that is popped up online, including the songs ‘Stratosphere’, ‘Lighters Up’ and ‘Used To’. Make sure to check those out if you needing a Mutemath fix before then.
This week's retrospective is straight from the heart of the Palm Desert music scene in the USA. We’re having a look at stoner rock - or metal - pioneers Kyuss, and their third album, 1994’s Welcome To Sky Valley.
Kyuss were probably the biggest representatives of the Palm Desert scene in the early 1990’s. This was a small desert community on the west coast of the United States, consisting of jam bands who imbibed the heavy legacy of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and other monolithic proto-metal bands, spitting out scorching, psychedelic hard rock in the process. The musical climate matched the hardness of the desert, and most gigs were played at outdoor ‘generator’ parties - which as the name implies, relied on generators to keep the party going far from any bar or club. Kyuss were known for their trademark down-tuned guitars, uniquely played through bass guitar amplifiers to create replace a very bass-heavy sound. Coupled with this was a rumbling rhythm section, all doom-laden and fuzzed-out in the desert heat.
Kyuss’ legacy is almost a heavy metal equivalent of The Velvet Underground’s: widely acknowledged by their peers, spawned other successful careers, but enjoyed little success of their own in their brief existence. They are often seen as an interesting precursor to Queens Of The Stone Age, formed after Kyuss’ demise in mid-Nineties. Kyuss’ guitarist Josh Homme built on his former band's dark and heavy sonic template, adding a more robotic element to riff production with lockstep rhythms and varied vocals. Kyuss’ final studio output was a split album with Queens Of The Stone Age in 1997, and interestingly enough - at one point at the beginning of the Queens’ existence - the band consisted entirely of ex-Kyuss members.
Another link between the two bands has been a revolving line-up and collaborative approach. Even as a Kyuss fan researching this piece, I had to double-check which line-up was in effect during Welcome To Sky Valley, because it changed so much since their early days. However only Josh Homme and singer John Garcia had remained in the group since their time as Katzenjammer and Sons Of Kyuss from 1987 to 1991, before shortening their name to just Kyuss. Thus we have long-haired left-handed bassist Scott Reeder and drummer Alfredo Hernandez rounding out the rhythm section this time round. Now Kyuss initially struggled to capture their deafening live sound, and their 1991 debut Wretch showed promise, but left one wanting more from the bottom end. Fortunately, Chris Goss of hard-rockers Masters Of Reality knew how the band functioned, and helped produce their classic 1992 album Blues For The Red Sun.
Welcome To Sky Valley is an excellent, more-focused follow-up, showcasing an impressive creative range. Originally, the album was released on CD with just three tracks - or suites - of songs. The intention was for listeners to experience it as a full album, but Josh Homme later stated that “we just wanted it to be like hell to play on a CD player”. The version I have is just a standard album of 11 individual tracks, but if I had to pin down my favourite suite, I'd say I enjoyed the third one the most for its consistency.
Some of my highlights include album-opener ‘Gardenia’ - one of the band's best-known songs, with its huge molten-lava riff that flows through your ear cavities, burning everything inside. The heat is kept up on ‘100 Degrees’ and ‘Conan Troutman’, which are full of fast-paced, thunderous thrashing. But ‘Demon Cleaner’ is a mellower affair; a bluesy boogie, reminiscent of later Queens Of The Stone Age tracks. Prog-rock-influenced ‘Odyssey’ sums up the band in just 4 minutes and 19 seconds: cryptic, psychedelic, and ferocious.
Unfortunately it went downhill from here for Kyuss, with their final standalone album …And The Circus Leaves Town saying all it needs to say in its title. There have been frequent attempts to reunite over the years and in 2010, Garcia and two previous members Brant Bjork and Nick Oliveri decided to tour under the name Kyuss Lives! – exclamation mark. In 2012, Homme and Reeder filed a lawsuit against them for trademark infringement and consumer fraud, effectively winning the case. Even a name change to Vista Chino couldn't keep that iteration of the band together, and now it’s best to remember Kyuss as it was in their heavy heyday: never to be replicated again.
Well we've reached the end of yet another episode. Thank you very much for tuning in, and don't be shy to leave a comment if you have something to say. Let's keep the edutainment going, both ways. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.