Drew Daniel: In Praise of Vagueness

cover image Drew Daniel, Oxford-educated English professor and member of Matmos and Soft Pink Truth recently contributed to Continuum's excellent 33 1/3 series with a slim volume memorializing and analyzing Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats. Drew took time out of his crazy schedule to talk to me about the book, the legacy of TG, the notion of a "rock canon," and the virtues of vagueness and multiplicity.


Jonathan Dean: How did you get the opportunity to write a book in this series?  And did the editors of the series balk at your choice of album?  It does seem a bit out of place: Throbbing Gristle don't seem like the "classic album" type of band.  When we think about TG, we tend to think about the whole phenomenon rather than specific albums.  Did this make the book a harder sell?  Did it make it harder to write?

Drew Daniel: David Barker posted an open call for proposals on the blog associated with the series, and I knew that this was the album I wanted to pitch to him. Of course it felt like a longshot, yet it also made a perverse kind of sense: this album presents itself as a collection of "Greats" so it's already unpacking—and mocking—the idea of greatness and canonization in its title. More importantly, as an album that veers wildly across genre lines I think 20 Jazz Funk Greats challenges a lot of what tends to be celebrated about so-called "classic albums": unity, focus, clarity, singleness of purpose. I wanted to have the chance to write in defense of recalcitrance and vagueness and difficulty and multiplicity as positive things. I'm grateful that he took a chance on  me. We will see how the book does and then we'll know just how tough a sell it will be. Writing about TG was difficult for me in that I had to undo some of my own adolescent instinctive familiarity with the music and try to hear it free of habits and associations, if that is possible. Describing improvised music is especially tricky and can lead to really bad writing if you're not careful.

cover imageJD: What about this notion of canonization?  The 33 1/3 series—aside from some left-field choices like Celine Dion and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole—seems to fall very much in line with a received rock music canon. This canon tends to push a very narrow, safe and Anglocentric version of pop music history.  Is a 33 1/3 book about TG an attempt to "culture jam," or do you think the rock canon will eventually include TG as one of its own?

DD: The narrower focus of the original set of books for the series is perhaps a function of who pitched book proposals, seasoned with some self-fulfilling stuff about people conservatively guessing what bands would plausibly find an audience large enough to merit a book. As the series got a reliable audience it fanned out (so to speak). I proposed TG as something that would expand the scope of the series as a whole by heading in a freaky direction, but the series was already in the process of getting less rock oriented and more diverse (but books on Sly Stone, A Tribe Called Quest, and James Brown do connect with popular music in an undeniable way, unlike TG ). I doubt my book would have been accepted if they really were all that uptight about rock, but perhaps by framing my pitch as an argument with punk values it built a bridge for non-TG fanatics. I'm not David Barker and he will have his own response, but I'm guessing that it's always down to the proposal and what each writer brings to the project. If you're complaining about a dearth of exploratory writing about music that falls outside the rock canon, I honestly don't see Continuum (the publisher) as part of the problem here but as part of the solution. I'm currently digging Brandon Labelle's new book Background Noise on sound art and really loved Hegarty's Noise/Music: A History and they're both published by Continuum and they're about pretty niche areas so . . .  I don't think it's fair to point the canonically "rockist" finger too easily. I think it's up to people who love weird music to write about it ambitiously and I am starry-eyed enough to believe that any editor worth their salary would jump at something that wasn't just standard issue Baby Boomer refried rock journalism or a standard issue sociological account of pop music by way of demographic accounts of its audience.

cover imageJD: You address this a bit in the book, but again I feel the need to ask: Why choose 20 Jazz Funk Greats?  Isn't this a perverse choice? Wouldn't Second Annual Report, D.o.A. or Heathen Earth have made for a much more representative example, especially since TG are not likely to warrant another entry in the 33 1/3 series? I don't know anyone who considers this "the classic TG album." It always seemed more notable for its satirical sleeve art than anything else.

DD: Perverse choices are my specialty. As a TG freak I could of course imagine writing a book about each of the albums, and I would especially love to write at length about the criminally under-recognized Journey Through a Body LP. But in the case of the other albums, there are specific reasons why I didn't think a 33 1/3 treatment would work. So much of Second Annual Report consists of live recordings; as a potential author one feels cut off from the moment of impact and immediately at a disadvantage. But because Second Annual Report is so definitive of the TG aesthetic and so important to everything else that follows in its wake, I decided to smuggle a mini-analysis into my opening chapter; its sludgy darkness works as a necessary "foil" for the pop moves of 20 Jazz Funk Greats. In the case of D.o.A., I felt that the context of the Cosey-Gen breakup was so strongly related to that album and had been depicted so carefully and thoroughly in the Wreckers of Civilization book that a 33 1/3 text about D.o.A. would risk either being redundant or being reductive. I suppose TG fans are pretty unanimous about feeling that the peaks of D.o.A. are the highpoints of the band, but for me as a statement about what an album can be, 20 Jazz Funk Greats is so brave and weird and singular that it was obviously going to be the biggest challenge to interpret and would (hopefully) lead to a more interesting book.

JD: Given that you applaud TG's challenge to the traditional notion of the album, why would it be a problem that the Mute Records reissue of 20 Jazz Funk Greats tacks on a few live versions of "Discipline?" Isn't the age of reshuffled special editions with bonus tracks, iTunes single-track downloads, illegal downloading, homemade bootleg mix CDs, mashups and amateur mixology actually attacking the conservative notion of the album as homogenous whole?

DD: Here you have caught me being insufficiently modern. The rabid, historically-correct TG fan in me prefers TG's 1970s attack on the idea of the solid album to Mute Records' 1990s attack on TG's 1970s attack on the idea of the solidity of the album. I can see the inconsistency between what I claim to love and how I love it. I guess I am simply guilty of an irrational (and perhaps hopeless) attachment to "The Real Thing" here, even if this particular "Real Thing" is trying to pull "Real Thing"-ness apart. On a conceptual level I can see that that's a cool expression of the idea, but on a personal level it reminds me of the colorized version of Night of the Living Dead or the redone scenes in Star Wars in which supposedly "better" effects were put in later. It's annoying to the prissy completist in me.

JD: What would you say to someone like Kirk DeGiorgio, who was played "Hot on the Heels of Love" by a writer for The Wire as part of their Invisible Jukebox feature, and declared that he didn't