Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Unpop

'Pop music should be popular. If it's not, there's something wrong.' Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys, being slightly boring.

So what is 'unpop', then, Professor?
Unpop is unpopular pop. It's pop which is happily reconciled to the idea that it can survive and even flourish as an essentially unpopular art form, like painting after the invention of photography. It's what happens when CD sales slip so low that vinyl and back catalogue sales overtake new album releases, and even the most popular contemporary artists have to consider themselves 'unpopular' compared with their peers from the past. It's pop which has taken note of its irrelevance to the majority, and taken the opportunity to go boldly boho. To go, in fact, magnificently mad.

I see. Doesn't that mean it's music made by jazzers, loonies and losers?
The only losers are artists who try to reach a pop mainstream that simply doesn't exist any more. Being unpop is actually a way of being blissfully happy as an artist.

If you're cosmopolitan, eclectic, intelligent, you're likely to be unpop. Your appeal is limited to people like yourself. Which means your fans are cosmopolitan, eclectic, intelligent too. They resemble friends rather than consumers. This is very good news if you want to have anything to do with them. And you will, believe me. The internet will bring you and your audience closer than ever.

Well, I can certainly see that that might be an advantage. A better class of groupie, I guess. What else is good about having severely curtailed sales?
If you don't have much of a stomach for career rollercoasters, you'll be relieved to know that the unpop artist often cannot measure the difference between his hits and his misses. I honestly couldn't tell you whether any given Momus album was, in sales terms, a hit or a miss. All I know is that I can still make them.

So the important thing is not winning, but surviving?
Yes, if you enjoy what you do, you'll do it anyway. You'll want to keep doing it for its own sake. But you may still win in some areas. For instance, you might win in the posterity stakes.

When you're unpop, you're leftfield. And increasingly the history of pop is a history of leftfield figures. Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, Jad Fair, Frank Zappa, Daniel Johnston, Bruce Haack, Nick Drake... they all have a tendency to become more relevant over time. And as they get more relevant, they get more central in histories of pop, which are in effect histories of the transformation of unpop into pop.

Describe a day in the life of an unpop artist.

The unpop artist spends the day wandering carefree as a child through the heat of New York City, two Japanese girls on his arm. Japanese girls are his reward because the Japanese love everything unpopular. They have the most unpopular popular culture in the world. They know the importance of the unpopular.

The unpop star and his girls go to the epicentre of unpop, Other Music, where unpop star buys 'Kitsch Shaman' by a Japanese pseudo-ethnic madman called Yximalloo. (More on him further down!) This is a record made in 1982. It's cool because nobody bought it back then, and even cooler because it's almost completely unavailable even now. It's pretty uncategorisable, except that it sort of reminds you of Jad Fair (one of Yximalloo's collaborators), The Residents, and ethnic music.

The unpop star sounds happy. But isn't he an elitist?
Rem Koolhaas in Index magazine, September / October 2000:

Jen: That must be why you make people nervous. You take in everything. People feel that.

Rem: I can't ever be oblivious. I wrote a sentence today: "The tyranny of the oblivious..." My whole life has been about envying the tyranny of the oblivious. And feeling the vulnerability of the... recorder.

Jen: Of the what?

Rem: Of those who record.

The tyranny of the oblivious... the vulnerability of the recorder? How does that answer my question about elitism?
We live in a world clouded by the fallacy that what is popular must also be palatable, and even universal. Hence the inescapability of a certain kind of minority pop (and I include Oasis and The Spice Girls in that definition, because the majority of human beings are utterly indifferent to them) in public places, and hence the assumption by reviews editors that their completely inconsequential recordings should be given review space, and a certain conversational conformity which deems it necessary for intelligent people to have an opinion about these artists, if only as 'social phenomena'.

It would be nice to remain oblivious to these phenomena, but the recorder, the person Dostoyevsky would have called the 'sensitive man of our time', cannot. For him, music can never be in the background. It can never be ignored. And so he is tortured by his inability to be oblivious to its presence. He is also unable to be oblivious to the glaring faults and inadequacies of the music seemingly endorsed by the masses.

I see. One man's meat is another's poison. The pragmatist thinks shoes are just for walking in, while the fetishist considers them fiercely sexual objects.
I think we can build quite a good metaphor around the idea of unpop being fetish in the sexual sense -- a diffusion of excitement into odd materials and objects -- and pop being intercourse, organised around the heterosexual contract and the mating rituals that, eventually, serve merely to replenish suburbs with new flesh, and hence new hormonal, contractual pop, and so on in forever decreasing circles.

But didn't you ever want to make pop? Get on the radio, sell a million records?
Alan McGee, the man who discovered Oasis, then closed his record label at the height of its mainstream success to start Poptones, an internet label of otaku (hobbyist, fetishist) unpop, is walking with me through Zaragossa, north Spain. It's 1988. 'Nick, you could still be making records at the age of forty,' he says. 'In a way the worst thing that could happen to you is having a hit single'.

He's either very wise or very cunning, because soon afterwards, perverse bugger that I am, I record The Hairstyle Of The Devil, my only calculated attempt to become a mainstream pop figure. Luckily (and partly perhaps thanks to Creation's tactical ineptitude) the attempt fails and I go back to making one unpop album a year, forever.

At what exact sales figure does an unpop record turn into a pop record?
Momus to Stephin Merrit in a conversation for Magnet magazine: 'I think this 6ths album is going to be one of those 'Whoosh!' records. I think there's a kind of barrier at 20,000 sales, and records can only break through that barrier if they can tap into some innate conservatism in the public. Most of the music I like sells under 20,000. But I have a feeling the 6ths is going to go 'Whoosh!' just like Magnetic Fields have done.'

Are there artists who produce pop records but consume unpop?
Well, I'm a bit like that myself. My tendencies and my taste are a little skewed at this point in my life. I still create a music which seems to be universalist in its accessibility, in the entertainment values that it embraces, in its desire to be interesting and relevant, to tell stories that 'speak to everyone'. I still put words in music, and I'm aware that I'm very lucky that my first language is English, the language of record and second language by appointment to the whole world. When it comes to consumption, though, it's a different story. The records I buy are far to the left of the ones I make. I don't know what this means, and whether the music I make will come increasingly into kilter with my taste.

Maybe by the time my Folktronic record comes out there will be a backlash against abstraction, and people will welcome its relatively conservative entertainment value. These things go in cycles, both in the world's taste and my own.

What kind of stuff are you listening to these days?
Records that are eccentric in the extreme. I have no time for lazy, stereotypical, tired drum patterns, guitar licks and bass lines. As soon as a genre has a name and identifiable features it tends to feel tired to me. I'm not very much into singing, narrative, or even big dynamic swings from track to track.

I've been using iCast recently, where there are about fifty streams of music playing in virtual internet radio stations. The streams are divided according to genre. What I find I'm doing is jumping about all the time, zapping constantly, which is either a picture of dissatisfaction or a kind of happy, creative intertextuality, I'm not sure which. Anyway, the composite Frankenstein's monster that emerges is made mostly of the streams called Folk Roots, Baroque and Medieval, and Japanese Pop.

Recently I've been enjoying these CDs:

Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns Of Plants (Tzadik)
OOIOO: Green and Gold (Shock City/Trattoria)
Holger Hiller: Wir Bauen Ein Stadt
Captain Beefheart: The Dust Blows Backwards
Oval: Szenariodisc

When I first heard Oval I thought they were just about the most extreme band I'd ever heard, and felt sure their outrageous gimmick -- using only the sound of damaged CDs -- would soon pall. But the more I listen to them the more I realise that they supply the same satisfactions I used to get from Brian Eno's gentle, lyrical ambient record 'On Land'. Artists have to keep going further out to obtain the same results in our souls.

Marcel Duchamp said that he thought a work of art was only a work of art for about ten or twenty years. Then it becomes something else, a repetition, a relic fit only for a museum.

If there's one thing we learn from history, it's that the alternative eventually becomes the mainstream. The salon des refusees eventually becomes the new academy. In unpop, outsider artists keep getting more central all the time. Tomes about them appear, their records are repackaged and rereleased, they're cited by musicians as influences.

What does the future hold for an unpop artist? Surely not fame and fortune, or acknowledgement?
I'm thinking just now about what to do with American Patchwork, my new US label through Darla, which launches in 2001. One tempting option is to hog the whole thing myself. Become the Fernandoa Pessoa of unpop, and operate under 80 pseudonyms, making insane musics in obscure, yet-to-be-invented genres.

The Pessoa of unpop, eh? Well, the best of luck, you selfish lunatic!

I leave you with Other Music's description of -- and sound files from -- the recently-unearthed Japanese outsider artist called Yximalloo. Right now, for me, he's the exemplary unpop musician: a one-man encyclopaedia of richly interesting, deeply eccentric ideas, living proof that you can survive without sales success, a total vindication of the joys of unpop. Here's what Other Music say about him:

He revels in mock-ethnic music and nonsense. Lo-fi, sweet and primitive, he uses ancient drum machines, hand percussion, and electronic droplet noises, sometimes set to melodies gathered from some imaginary South Sea island where the traditional instrument is seemingly an old '80s synth. Handclaps and chanting abound, but Yximalloo has also been painted as a Japanese Half Japanese -- Jad Fair himself has collaborated with Ishimaru and draws the covers for every release here (gorgeous dayglo and glow-in-the-dark covers in iridescent plastic cases). Recording since 1973 (!), he still has but one Yximalloo release in the States, last year's retrospective LP on Old Gold. Most CDs are around 70 minutes and usually contain over 30 tracks. Just listen to a few of the RealAudio samples to get a glimpse into his strange sound-world. [RE]

YXIMALLOO "The Worst of 1981" (Sakura Wrechords, Japan) CD $19.99
RealAudio: Extract 1
RealAudio: Extract 2
Possibly his weirdest: tracks have caterwauling, tiny Japanese melodies, whistling, sawing effects, steel pan, fuzz noise though not all at once. The most Boredoms-esque (early). Only 12 tracks.
Order

YXIMALLOO "Kitsch Shaman" (Sakura Wrechords, Japan) CD $19.99
RealAudio: Extract 1
RealAudio: Extract 2
The goofiest, a wobbly gift of Polynesian melodies mixed with a few Caribbean ones. Vocals on nearly every track, set in swinging, jaunty rhythms. His corrupted version of "the blues" seeps into a few songs, and the songs cohere within the assorted weirdnesses (ululating the volume, slapping noises, wind, chanting). Covers 'Honky Tonk Women" (sic). It's his most lighthearted work, every track is like a game.
Order

YXIMALLOO "The Worst of 1982" (Sakura Wrechords, Japan) CD $19.99
RealAudio: Extract 1
RealAudio: Extract 2
Much more psychedelic in that grinding, rhythmic, rough trancelike way, and has many pretty moments within. Electronics are prominent, amidst long passages of 'tribal' drumming, yet most vocals are fed through robot filters. Evan includes a fake Inuit breathing game (looped?) and lots of rhythmic chaos.
Order

YXIMALLOO "The Worst of 1984" (Sakura Wrechords, Japan) CD $19.99
RealAudio: Extract 1
RealAudio: Extract 2
The hardest to peg, but also the best at showing the artists' range. More covers than usual: Bruce Springsteen, Tchaikovsky (as if performed on an out-of-control carousel), more traditional melodies. One song for sonic disruption and whistling, another for a pummeled acoustic guitar. Amidst more of the chanting with electronics and feedback, there's more pop -- it's warmer, a little more fun.
Order

YXIMALLOO "Techno Shrine Choir" (Sakura Wrechords, Japan) CD $19.99
RealAudio: Extract 1
RealAudio: Extract 2
Recorded in 1984. Clearer than most of his discs, also more solemn. Electronic ruminations as if recorded as background music for nameless temple rituals -- some traditional Japanese instruments and flute, too. A lot of song titles have war themes. Definitely his calmest release. And includes a cover of one of the most famous Japanese songs, 'Kimigayo'.
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YXIMALLOO "The Worst of 1986" (Sakura Wrechords, Japan) CD $19.99
RealAudio: Extract 1
RealAudio: Extract 2
Boppy electronics, a lot using traditional Eastern (Asian) themes: from Indonesian to Chinese and Japanese. A Residents-ish sound with plodding electronics, too -- but probably just because he's using the same kind of synthesizer they did. This release is a little darker; amidst tape-speed experiments there are tolling bells and synth murmurs.
Order

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