tylus’ recent 50 Greatest Rock Drummers feature, besides being the best thing published on the web this year, was important because it irritated one of the reviewer dialogue’s most tumescent pustules: technique. We don’t talk much about it except maybe sometimes quarter-seriously as camp-yuck fodder. There are plenty of reasons for this, and as usual the internet offers a tempting scapegoat. But if (as critic Robert Christgau argues) we’re in a “prog moment” that has lionized the likes of math-rock nerds Battles and jam-band-cum-indie-trendsetters My Morning Jacket, we must think up a better explanation or we’ll risk missing an opportunity to examine the way technique, as practiced in the minutest ways, affects the way we feel and understand music.
Maybe the popularity of artists like Joanna Newsom and Marnie Stern reflects an implicit reappraisal of the role of technique in indie music. OK, so? Insofar as any reconsideration of artistic priorities goes unexamined, it’s no reconsideration at all. We may be seeing more and more “technical” indie bands whose tunes flaunt their high level of skill, but our thinking lags behind. This article is an attempt to close that gap by drawing a distinction between “having technique” and being “technical.” In lieu of this distinction, which we have all but lost, it’s pretty hard to talk about technique in any but the most superficial terms. My aim is to reinstall technique in the critical discourse, if nothing else because I'm curious what this recent spate of technique-positive bands is all about.
Not for nothing has indie rock historically rejected ostentatious displays of technique. Languishing in a system that only seemed to get better at exploiting them as time wore on, bands in the late ‘70s were compelled to distinguish themselves—meaningfully and coherently—from the mainstream. Spearheaded by Twin/Tone (founded 1977), SST (1978), and Rough Trade (also '78), a countersystem more or less congealed. Participants may have differed politically, spiritually, and geographically, but they all shared the desire to register un-success musically. If you listen to every Billboard number one album from mid-1973 to the turn of the decade, in succession, you hear maybe ten flubbed notes. And of those ten maybe nine come from Dylan’s Desire. Stuff you also don’t hear much of in the most successful pop music of this period: shyness, self-effacement, vulnerability (the real thing), uncertainty, uncool, un-success. If you’re a musician in 1977 and you ask yourself what un-success sounds like, it doesn’t sound polished, it doesn’t sound rehearsed, and it doesn’t sound affluent. It might not even sound good. So it can’t sound technically eloquent.
Is this disposition still tenable? The oppositions that catalyzed indie’s late ‘70s coalescence have more or less broken down since then. Very little music today, indie or not, derives its meaning from its opposition to the mainstream. It can’t, because there is no more “The Mainstream”; the monolith has splintered into several smaller and distinct mainstreams, a stage in the endless boutiquing of the arts. Whereas privation and legitimacy used to correlate in the indie listener’s mind’s ear, the record industry’s recent struggles, coupled with a democratizing of promotional technology courtesy of the internet, has cooled antagonism toward the industry.
It’s still popular (and totally reasonable) to hate the RIAA cartel for making arrogant symbolic gestures, like suing twelve year-olds. But I think there’s less of an imperative to reflect that anger in music. The more desperate the industry’s legal efforts have become, the more musicians have been able to feel like they’ve regained some modicum of control over the means of production. That crucial shift has in turn loosened mainstream pop’s grasp on certain aesthetic signifiers. Polish, brightness, and clarity, as conveyed in recording quality and performance and content, no longer belong to the mainstream. If an album like Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand—which fed great pop songs to sloppy musicians and recorded the result on trash equipment—is not inconceivable today, it will be very soon, and will remain that way until the record industry figures out how to remonopolize pop music. Meantime, I’d expect to see more bands with unabashedly “commercial” aesthetics—such as Tigercity—curry favor with “non-commercial” audiences.
Even at the height of indie sloven, high technique never totally disappeared from underground rock music. Positive assertions of technical eloquence have thrived in sub-subcultures off the central axis. In a way, we can thank sloppy indie rock for this: At the risk of insinuating a Russian nesting doll theory of styles, I’ll say that indie’s many supertechnical subgenres (math rock, post-rock, hipster metal, even emo) are, at least in part, re-reactions—critiques of indie’s original critique of the mainstream. Don Caballero’s insistence on clarity, precision, and muscle, for instance, had at least as much to do with indie’s laidback niceness as it did with Stone Temple Pilots, um, Stone Temple Pilots-ness. By 1993, the year Don Caballero dropped its first record, indie had fully developed as an institution, and its albums ran the same old gauntlet from amp to ear, just with less armor than the mainstream.
The enemy of your enemy is only your friend until he becomes your enemy, too. Strategic allies initially, indie sub-subcultures had by the mid-‘90s developed distinct aesthetic programs, and technique was a central point of divergence. As a consumer, a producer, and a would-be mediator between the two, I don’t feel like that divergence has been adequately addressed. Critics have clung to the old binary, eliding meaningful distinctions in order to preserve the sanctity of indie über alles. Sub-appellations like “math rock” are either pejorative or taken for granted as such. (Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay summarized the problems with Don Cab’s ill-fated 2006 reunion album thusly: “Long story short, this is Don Caballero’s first math-rock album.”) An anti-technique disposition continues to manifest itself in criticism, despite unmistakable signs of a reappraisal of technique by indie musicians, and the emergence of less chops-averse audiences.
Maybe critics back down from technique because they feel like they’re getting in over their heads. That would make total sense, considering (1) not all rock critics have suffered formal technical training, and (2) those who have can be dicks about it. Hence the intimidation, and hence (maybe) the anti-chop prejudice into which it’s sometimes displaced. Totally logical. And yet somewhat odd: Insecurity over lack of direct personal experience rarely impedes rock critics’ claims to authority. How many of us have ever written a four-part harmony? How many have tried to produce a dozen songs worth of lyrics at a go? How many have played more than one instrument? Many, many, and many, yes, but hardly all. Now find me ten reviews that don’t venture to make some sort of authoritative comment on melody, lyrics, or instrumentation. Rigorous, institutionalized, academic knowledge just isn’t a prerequisite for writing rock criticism. Never has been. The history of rock criticism, from Meltzer and Bangs down through the present, would look entirely different (and probably less awesome) otherwise.
Lacking a coherent verbal apparatus for dealing with technique, critics are predisposed to elide the issue. A lot of times reviewers mistake a band’s feel for production affect, or overemphasize production or “studio treatment” in accounting for a band’s sound. I understand their skepticism: Computers can do anything these days. But it’s precisely because recording technology has made it more difficult to tell when tightness is a product of adroit playing and when it’s simulated by quantizing (e.g.) that critics must force the issue of technique. And in order to reopen technique for discussion, we must start by reflecting on what the word means. We must reclaim technique from the technical.
I divide expressions of technique into two camps: demonstrative and non-demonstrative. The former is much easier to recognize, because it’s technique applied primarily toward the revelation of itself. Long, unscripted guitar solos, mind-scrambling compound time signatures, any execution of an excessively challenging part: These are examples of demonstrative technique. If a rock musician is considered to have “chops,” chances are he’s expressed demonstrative technique in some form or another. Non-demonstrative technique covers just about everything else. There’s non-demonstrative technique at work in every song, ever.
A sloppy performance of some middle schooler’s three-chord ABAB sketch won’t express a lot of technique, but it will express technique, as will any performance that serves the pretension of form or even just intends the sounds it produces. Most of what we consider to be great performances feature at least some demonstrative technique, but few—few in rock anyway—feature only that. Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” solo at Woodstock, for instance, is more than just the testimony of one of the most technically gifted rock guitarists; it’s also an attempt to make a statement about the significance of a moment, an effort to rise to an impossibly huge platform. Not only can technique be marshaled to perform larger-than-music feats, sometimes it’s required.
It’s true that there are myriad proper-named varieties of technique, such as classical music’s Alexander Technique, whose subscribers’ playing may look somewhat different from the playing of musicians from other schools of thought. I like to think of these variations as strategies, the mastering of which increases one’s technical capital. Thinking of technique as a kind of capital, a quantity to be accumulated (with practice) or lost (without it), avoids making reductive or uninformed value judgments on specific technical strategies. As I propose conceiving it, there’s no such thing as “bad” technique, only ineffective strategies (ineffective insofar as they inhibit the execution of sweet ideas). Thus we can dispense entirely with the misnomer “bad technique,” which, besides drawing a useless and misleading distinction between kinds of good musicians, basically has no relevance whatsoever to rock music. It is not my concern whether or not Wilco’s Glen Kotche holds his drumsticks “properly.” It is my concern to show how Kotche’s and other players’ technical decisions, down to the minutest level, enable bands to (or prevent them from) executing their ideas.
I will now attempt to show how Kotche’s and other players’ technical decisions, down to the minutest level, enable bands to (or prevent them from) executing their ideas.
Evidence Glen Kotche’s minute technical decisions absolutely enable Wilco to execute its ideas: “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” It’s 11 minutes long and, not coincidentally, one of the band’s most controversial songs. Utter dearth of controversial songs in contemporary pop music and what that says notwithstanding, the song accomplishes (part of) what it sets out to do: it enjoys eleven minutes, perhaps even makes those eleven minutes enjoyable. Millions if not billions of musicians every day are recorded enjoying equal or greater spans of musical time, and their efforts usually contribute nothing to human survival. But “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” seems less like a document of musicians enjoying themselves than one of musicians enjoying—and honoring and internalizing and flouting pop music’s conventions regarding—time. No way it’d deliver that complex sensation without Kotche’s timekeeping. He’s metronomic, yet never rigid, and his hits find the sweet spot, downstroke after downstroke. That’s a start. That’s the jetstream that lets the song glide top-shelf-smooth for the first four minutes.
The next seven would be vain but for what happens at 3:58—when Kotche drops one of the most insane backbeats ever laid to tape, a days-saved Kashi shit of a blast, the kind of sound you hear and you know that someone, somewhere, has just felt his head explode. The dynamic shift heard here matters, yes, but not as much as the vastly subtler rhythmic shift emanating from Kotche’s backbeat. What he does is, he increases the weight of gravity in the song’s atmosphere tenfold simply by falling a microsecond behind the beat, while adding the faintest wisp of ghost note just before it. This creates the impression of all the song’s sound being sucked into his snare drum.
A pop audience can be expected to receive any 11-minute offering with a fair amount of skepticism, so I understand why some would label “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” indulgent and eschew accordingly. There’s effrontery here, no doubt. But not carelessness. In most cases, the staging of musical tension need not be such a longwinded drama; here it makes sense because Wilco demonstrate such precise—quasi-molecular—control over the degree of that tension. The subtle push-and-pull of feel could only play out over a long timespan. The longer and more repetitive a song, the amplitude of gesture needed to cause a BIG change grows smaller and smaller. The elegance with which Wilco enact this inverted logic would be lost on someone who looks for technique only in the overtly technical.
Technique is absolutely indispensable insofar as certain musical ideas require a minimum level of technique to execute properly. I think of Grizzly Bear, whose Yellow House, for all its exquisite songwriting and enigmatic textures, wouldn’t be the same album without the band’s outrageous (non-demonstrative) chops. If we agree to subsume dynamics in technique, we see how songwriting acquires new dimensions (or not) through its technical expression. Mark Richardson (Pitchfork) and Derek Miller (Stylus) were both right to big-up Yellow House’s impassioned dynamics in their glowing reviews, but neither broached the technique question. I don’t see how it’s possible to hear that album and not marvel at its pretty audacious difficulty. A song like “On a Neck, On a Spit,” which peregrinates so many different feels, managing somehow to be fragile and forceful at once, would fall apart in lesser hands; this needs to be addressed. Pursue the tricky off-beat rave-up starting around the 4:00 mark through Christopher Bear’s torrential drum fills and begin to appreciate the high-wire act Yellow House commits to and absolutely nails.
All of which is not to peg Grizzly Bear as a “technical” band—Dragonforce they ain’t, even if the band names kind of identify. But it does seem like music criticism that avoids technique in its discussion is akin to relativity without calculus. The void’s smaller, but it’s similarly shaped. And technique’s nowhere near as hard to understand as calculus. If a band isn’t as technically accomplished as Grizzly Bear, whose exquisite (non-demonstrative) chops don’t become apparent on first spin and that’s part of the point, said technically-inferior band must not be allowed to think they can hold their own in GB’s company. If the dialogue evades questions of technique altogether unless a band posits itself as explicitly technical, there’s a risk of perpetuating an uninformed bias that, by circumscribing comprehension, circumscribes enjoyment.
“Technical” is a stylistic term, and necessarily temporal; technique is timeless. It supposes no end in and of itself, and it can’t be faked. Thus you have bands whose technique goes to work for them over time, preventing their sound from dating quicker than it would otherwise. Because no fraud emerges, the playing never diminishes. I’d argue that Smashing Pumpkins are such a band. Unlike a lot of the Chicago guys, I’ve never been a huge fan of Smashing Pumpkins or any band that treats its fans like shit. But Siamese Dream does challenge one of my longest-standing uninformed assumptions, which is that drug addicts haven’t got skills. As my friend Jake said to me during one recent spin, “There are parts on this album that I actually cannot play.” Which besides being the most sincere thing Jake’s said in months, deserves a mention because there just aren’t that many rock tabs that would elude the grasp of a well-trained musician.
In his day, Billy fucking Corgan ranked Numero Uno among freakishly tall lead shreadmen who occasionally looked to be wearing a body-sized condom. His parts, in addition to frying faces (“Cherub Rock”), challenged assumptions of how loud, how FX-laden one can get without sacrificing feel or flow. Jimmy Chamberlin’s skills, meanwhile, nabbed him #24 on Stylus’s 50 Greatest Rock Drummers list. After seeing him pilot an awkwardly reconstituted Smashing Pumpkins at last August’s Virgin Festival in Baltimore, I wouldn’t complain if he had landed higher. Chamberlin’s more or less the archetypal rock drummer: unflinchingly solid, with a style that combines demonstrative and non-demonstrative elements. He as much as anyone typifies the über-syncopated, grooveless style of drumming so inexplicably popular during the grunge years, and yet he never makes you wish there were fewer beats. Whereas even Pearl Jam’s formidable stable of studio-built drummers couldn’t prevent the band’s big hits from sounding somewhat ham-fisted (“Evenflow”), Chamberlin landed every punch. Together, the Billy-Jimmy battery, like a building founded on steel piles vis-à-vis one employing moldy wood, helped equip Siamese Dream to withstand the test of time better than comparable records from the period.
Just as music could use more competitive voices like James Murphy—who will actually punch you in the face if you think your band can upstage LCD Soundsystem’s brick-busting live show—criticism needs more writers who are willing to knuckle up to technique. What’s at stake? Only the values of non-mainstream pop music (hot potato!) and a shot at better, fuller appreciation of the cool tunes we likes. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to recognize when a band can play, only an ear for the small moment and the patience to investigate.
Popular music routinely produces great bands whose collective grasp of technique falls short of expert. Exactly: What makes it work for them, while other groups (my example: Interpol) depend for life on their technical ingenuity? The low-tech masterpieces of immortals like the Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan are no argument for why technique is trivial; if anything, they only encourage shoptalk because they stand as exceptions among exceptions. Any inept technician who winds up in anyone’s canon is always a great musician. You don’t wind up a great musician by ignoring your rudiments unless you’re some kind of genius who can rig up a whole anti-technique technique around your gaps. And critics don’t nurture great musicians by setting technique low on the agenda, or omitting it altogether.
By: Sam Ubl
Published on: 2007-10-15