One of my favorite things so far about moving to Portland (which is a great city by the way, as much as Travel Kyoto is still all about the tropical Hawaii vibes) is the comparably huge amount of great shows going on constantly, giving me an opportunity to see touring bands I’m a fan of that otherwise I’d never get to in Hawaii. Two of the most notable I’ve seen since moving here are Autre Ne Veut and Sean Nicholas Savage. Not only am I a huge fan of both these artists, but their performances raise certain questions that I’d like to elaborate on here.
Something that feels particularly relevant to me in regards to my own music is the relationship between these artists as solo performers and their live audiences. I saw Autre Ne Veut perform once before, less than a year ago in NYC and it made an enormous impression on me. This was before he had released his new album, and it was just Arthur Ashin standing alone on stage singing to his pre-recorded backing tracks. The small audience seemed by large respectfully indifferent if not perplexed by his act, although being an enthusiastic fan of his debut album I stood close to the stage in rapt amazement.
Comparatively, when I went to see him again here last month, post-Anxiety and the well-deserved hype that accompanied it, the crowd was considerably larger and more responsive. This is not so surprising in and of itself, one can expect as much from a relatively obscure artist gaining a larger level of recognition. However, what made a greater impression on me was the particular way in which this newfound audience seemed to respond to Ashin’s music. Where before people seemed puzzled by his highly emotive act, seeming to question the “sincerity” or lack thereof of his repurposed ’90s R’n’B sound, they now seemed to accept it at face value. I even saw couples serenade each other, mouthing the lyrics to songs like “Play By Play” and “Counting” while lovingly gazing at their partners in a way that didn’t strike me as the least bit ironic.
Why this turnaround? The rising profile of Autre Ne Veut’s music can only account for so much. Obviously, the notable presence of an actual more-or-less “live” band accompanying Ashin on stage has something to do with it as well. Having someone playing live drums and keyboards naturally gives the audience an impression of a “real” concert, more so than a sampler playing pre-recorded beats. Yet I must admit there was something I personally missed about the show in NYC, which I can define as the very same uncertaintly about the artist’s intentions that others may have found confusing or off-putting. Unquestionably, the Portland show sounded great, the band hit all the right emotional notes and it was a powerful performance. But I missed not only the intimacy of the earlier show, but the possibility that it might all just be an art school prank, the distinct hints of unstable weirdness that made me a fan of Autre Ne Vout’s work and other artists on labels like Olde English Spelling Bee to begin with.
I am not bemoaning Ashin for leaving behind his “lo-fi” roots, or asking his work to be more plainly smirking or “ironic” (we’ll always have the likes of Har Mar Superstar for that), but rather I am making a case for instability. Specifically in the relationship between the artist and the audience/listener. I don’t want to simply accept it at “face value” nor do I want to merely “get it” and feel self-congratulatory for my cultivated sense of clever sophistication. I want to feel unsure about the artist’s intentions, confused as to what extent it is meant to be “sincere” or “ironic” or both at the same time.
This brings me to Sean Nicholas Savage, who’s show opening for Doldrums last week provided me with as much to mull over in this regard as Autre Ne Veut’s NYC show last year. I have been a huge fan of Mr. Savage’s since 2011 when he released Trippple Midnight Karma, around the same time I was starting to work on music as Travel Kyoto. I was immediately taken by his music, simultaneously infectious, immaculately well-written in a “classic pop song” sense, silly, fearlessly unafraid of coming across as “precious”, “tacky”, “cheesy” or “campy”, but also oddly, unexpectedly heartfelt and vulnerable. Ultimately the album became my favorite and most-listened-to record of that year (and he released two others that were nearly as good!)
In concert, Savage more than lived up to my expectations. Armed with only a small, dinky ’80s Yamaha keyboard, he played songs from his forthcoming album with the same fearless enthusiasm and kitschy pathos as his albums. The audience (much, much smaller than I would have expected for a Doldrums show!) was warmer and more receptive than what I had experienced in NYC with Autre Ne Veut, but I sensed a similar tint of apprehension in the air. People laughed frequently, appearing to err on the side of “irony” (which Savage seemed to take good-naturedly, happily joking with the audience and playing up his seemingly innate goofiness). However an equal number of people appeared bored and listless, or simply confused at the more heat-rendering moments of his set. “Is this for real?” their faces seemed to be asking, as if that was what mattered.
When I had the opportunity to congratulate him on his set, and tell him what a big fan of Trippple Midnight Karma I was, I was interested and surprised that he said he was re-releasing the album with remastered, “better” sound quality. (As a side note, the group of musicians based around Arbutus Records all seem to be incredibly nice and friendly people, not only Savage but also the guys in Majical Cloudz who I had the pleasure of talking to when they opened the Autre Ne Veut show). I had always thought of the album’s rough (but not abrasively so), unabashedly lo-fi four-track sound as being a component of it’s endearing charms, enhancing the oddness of record’s ambiguously weird/sweet/campy tonal trifecta.
This led me to contemplate the particular function of homemade, “lo-fi” recording techniques in relation to a piece of music’s overall tone and aesthetic, in the work of Sean Nicholas Savage, Autre Ne Veut, my own, and that of many other artists. Is it appealing because it gives the impression of “realness”? Or the exact opposite? Or perhaps both? Is it’s purpose simply cognitive dissonance, muddying the waters of intent both figuratively and literally? I know for myself this is at least partially the case, along with various other factors including sheer necessity and convenience.
Making music as Travel Kyoto, I strive for ambiguity, for the uncertainty I enjoy in the recordings and performances of others (in no small part enhanced by these recent concerts I have written about above). I don’t want the listener to “get it”. There is nothing to get. Or rather, there is no concrete “it”. The music I personally love the most hovers perpetually between sincerity and archness, “meaning it” and deconstructing said meaning. I intend to make pop music, above all for listening to and enjoying, but it is also music “about pop”. Travel Kyoto is not “an ironic lounge act”, I do not wish to “make fun” of anything or “expose” music I genuinely love as “phony” or “tacky”. I use the terms kitsch and camp in only the most affectionate senses.
At the same time, I am not attempting merely revivalist music or slavish imitation, recreating music “from the good old days” before things “went wrong”. Even if I were, I think my music would fall quite short of that. Surely the cheap Casio keyboards I use approximate the sounds of early analog synths only barely adequately at best, and the cassette four-track I record my music on doesn’t come close to the recording fidelity sought by the likes of Martin Denny or Esquivel. A mid-’60s fan of Burt Bacharach would most certainly find my music lacking in the all-around listenability they crave.
There is irony in my music, but not simple comedic irony. Hopefully I am able to convey a sense of pathos and nostalgia, and oddness without striving to be overtly so. I intend my music as an impression, a trace, an imperfect remembrance, hopefully with a sense of uncertainty and vague disassociation. For these reasons, I will probably never “break through” the way a Grimes has or even the way Autre Ne Veut is (although that says who knows, I would have said the same for Ariel Pink). I hope whatever audience I do have never completely “gets” my music, and I hope very much that they enjoy that sensation as much as I enjoy it in the work of others.