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The Science of Sounds

Posted on May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

I interviewed Adam Yauch only once, in the spring of 2005. The topic was the Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a jubilant, sample-stitched masterpiece that’s just as engaging and enriching today as it was nearly a quarter-century ago. SPIN had just picked Paul’s to be included on one of its semi-annual greatest-albums lists, and Yauch agreed to give me a few minutes over the phone. As I recall, Yauch was forthright and pleasant, and though I can’t find my audio of our talk, I remember him chuckling a few times in that great, gruff voice of his.

Yauch died last Friday. The interview passage below–which I’ve streamlined and tightened a bit–doesn’t touch upon the many creative and philanthropic accomplishments he packed into his 47 years; it’s just a quick little making-of story. But I used maybe five percent of our conversation for the actual published story, and it seemed like a waste having it forever trapped on a hard drive. Plus, I’ve been playing Paul’s a lot these past few days, and re-reading this made me smile and play it some more:

ADAM YAUCH: Early on, when we first started working with the Dust Brothers, we had just intended to do a couple of songs. We thought that maybe we would work with different producers, and we weren’t really sure who we wanted to work with on the whole thing. We just happened to be in L.A. doing something else, and Mike and I stopped by our friend Matt Dike’s house. Matt was starting Delicious Vinyl, and he played us the instrumentals of what ended up being “Shake Your Rump” and “Car Thief.” But he said he and his friend were intending to make instrumentals, and throw them out as club tracks. And we said, “Oh, could we rhyme on this stuff?” And he said, “Yeah, you can rhyme, maybe on a stripped-down version. We could take some of the music out.” And we said, “Let’s just rhyme over the music the way its built–the guitars and the basslines.” So we went in and made these demos with them. Utimately we made the whole album with them.

Adam and Mike and I rented a house together that was up in the Hills. It was a classic Hollywood-type spot: It had a big view of the Valley, a big swimming pool, and a room with a window that looked into the living room. I don’t think we had a full party going on all the time, because we were pretty focused on writing the record. So it was kind of cool–the three of us being out there together and being able to write lyrics all the time. A lot of times, we’d go out to clubs. Sometimes we’d play baseball or basketball, and there was a softball field out there.

We wrote [lyrics] individually, but while hanging out together. Often we’d write like that: We’d have instrumentals that we’d listen to, and while we were listening to it, we’d all sit there with our own pad of paper and write a bunch of lyrics. And then we’d read stuff to each other. Maybe someone would have an idea for a specific hook, and we’d try to figure out what kind of lyrics we’d have for that hook, and then we’d throw all of the lyrics into the pot for that. For “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” we’d work together to come up with an order, and then we’d figure out how to break ‘em up—“You do this line, I’ll do that line, and we’ll do this line together.” So a lot of times on Paul’s Boutique, the lines that we’re saying are not necessarily the rhymes we’ve written. More of than not, they’re really mixed up. On later albums, we tended just to write our own lines: “You go for two bars, I’ll go for four bars.” Everybody hit their own section.

I don’t know how much of the plan [for Paul’s] was, “We need to do something different.” We just kind of instinctually tried to do something that wasn’t done, or was different from what was out there. Most people at that time were rhyming over stripped-down beats. So it seemed like an interesting way to go against the grain of what was going on, and the way that the different samples were hooked up together was a little more [complex] than most of what was going on at the time. During the course of making Paul’s Boutique, [Public Enemy’s] It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back came out, and that had a lot of layered sampling on it. [De La Soul’s] 3 Feet High and Rising had a lot of layered sampling. We had kind of already started into it before that stuff came out.

I don’t remember worrying about [the sampling clearances] too much. I think we were all like, “We’ll just worry about it later.” Like, “We’re using it in a creative way. We’re just using a bar.” We weren’t taking someone’s whole song; we were just taking little pieces of somebody’s song. So it felt like more like it was collaging. [The legal response] wasn’t too bad for that particular album. People hadn’t really gotten insane about sampling. I don’t think you’d be able to make that particular record nowadays, just because so many people are looking to make a fortune off of samples that you wouldn’t be able to do it.

At the time we were finishing up Paul’s Boutique, I thought it was amazing. Licensed to Ill had sold five million records or something, so I just thought, “This record is ten times better. It’ll probably sell ten times more.” I was getting ready for this insane onslaught of success, and I was ducking and holding my head on my hands for the explosion. And then it went “poof.” Right after it came out, I remember being in a diner in the Valley, and some kid come up to me and said, “Man, what’s up with that new album? Why can’t you guys do more stuff like Licensed to Ill?”

The response wasn’t frustrating so much as it was surprising, because I felt like Licensed to Ill was kinda corny in a way to me. But Capitol Records imploded right around the time that record came out. It was one of the many times where they just fired everyone from the president on down, right as the record was coming out. The three of us went to meet the new president of Capitol and said to him, “We spent a long time on this record, and really like it, and we want to promote it and go on tour and make this thing happen. And the guy from Capitol saying “Look, I don’t have time for this. The new Donny Osmond album is coming out. Go work on a new album.” We were like “What? No!” He laid down the law.

We never toured for Paul’s Boutique, because our manager at the time didn’t want us to tour without a hit single. But when we went on tour in ’92 for Check Your Head, people started saying [Paul’s] was their favorite record.

[And here are just three reasons why: “Shake Your Rump,” “Hey Ladies,” and “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun”]

 
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TV Party

Posted on Apr 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

Forgot to put this up last week, but here’s a quick piece for New York magazine on comedian Chris Gethard’s endearingly weirdo late-night public-access show. If you haven’t watched the program yet, I’d recommend going through the archives, starting with this particularly painful excerpt. It might not be the future of TV, but it’s the future of…something.

 
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All Caps When You Spell the Man’s Name

Posted on Feb 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

I profiled flame-throwing music-biz blogger Bob Lefsetz in the new issue of Wired.

 
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The Top 25 of Everything (2011 Edition)

Posted on Dec 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

Off the top of my head, in no particular order:

1) The Interrupters
2) Ben Cook, power Read more…

 
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I Haven’t Written Like That Since Grade School

Posted on Nov 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

I have a piece about David Fincher–director of such films as Se7en, Fight Club and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo–in the new issue of Wired.

 
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Tagging Out

Posted on Sep 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

I spent much of the summer reporting this oral history on the Upright Citizens Brigade for New York magazine. I will now spend much of the fall recovering from reporting this oral history on the Upright Citizens Brigade for New York magazine.

 
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Side Effects Include Verbal Dysphasia and Octopus Loss

Posted on Sep 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

If you get that headline, you’re clearly a fan of NBC’s Community. My Wired profile of Dan Harmon, the show’s brilliant-slash-tortured creator, is up here.

 
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TV Recap: “Vice Capades” S1 E1

Posted on Sep 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

The big networks aren’t the only ones rolling out new shows this week: The upstart comedy network Yux!–best known for endless reruns of cult ’70s Brit-coms like A Snifter of Randy and Tootelage–ventures into original-programming with Vice Capades. It’s the story of three ice-hockey mascots who accidentally shred $1 million worth of liquid oxycondone through a Zamboni, thrilling the newly stoned players, but greatly irking the local Oxy-addled gypsy community, who place a curse on the trio that will turn them mute and keep them imprisoned in their uniforms forever.

Alas, despite that intriguing set-up, Vice Capades quickly descends into standard-issue (and rather confusing) sitcom fare. The pilot finds the mascots attempting to woo their sexy new neighbor (Jennifer Tilly), but most of the scenes consist of them making the same oblique wing-flap gesticulations over and over again, while Tilly coos listlessly in the background (complicating matters is the producers’ decision not to give any of the mascots names, and to cast actors with the exact same height and physicality). Episode two, I’m afraid, doesn’t get any better or clearer: I think it’s about Tilly trying to borrow a cup of sugar, but it might also be about her trying to steal birdfeed. Yux! gets points for effort, but Vice Capades will likely leave audiences cold.

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TV Recap: “Game of Chans” S1 E1

Posted on Sep 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

First off: Sorry for all the TV-related radio silence. I spent the last month catching up on new fall shows, and most of my recaps were embargoed. But I’m back, and I’ve got early word on one of the most anticipated new programs of the year: Game of Chans, the famously troubled space-drama-turned-sitcom-turned antiquities-appraisal-show-turned-reality-series from big-screen action producer Brent Bondi (Death of a Bullet, Shiv School).

Originally Game of Chance, the story of two moon-stranded lottery winners, the show went over budget before filming could begin. It was subsequently scaled down and reworked as Game of Chants, a comedy about a pair of bickering mantra sommeliers. But when test audiences deemed Chants too ohm-hum, Bondi re-edited the footage into Gayme of Chance, which followed a caravan of bi-curious art dealers as they traversed the 18th-century West, looking for second-hand bargains. Mid-way through production, though, Bondi then died of a cocaine-deprivation coronary, forcing producers to pour $5 million of last-ditch CGI into what would become Game of Chans, about two siblings, Sen and Jen Chan, who silently play boardgames in an office-park atrium. It would be hard to review the pilot–which runs at a brisk four minutes long–without giving away some big spoilers. But Chansis taut and tightly plotted, and the opening two-minute credit sequence is a surreal hoot. Sen and Jan may not make it to the moon, Chans is nonetheless shooting for the stars.

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TV Recap: “Disstopia” S1 E1

Posted on Aug 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

Mike Bennigan is an outcast blanket artisan with two loves in his life: 1) his dog, Fuckity; and 2) insult comedy. An aspiring stand-up in a gray Oregon coastal town, Mike is a true blue meanie, lobbing vulgar insults at everyone from the mailman to the local clergy to even the harbor inspector (whom he wincingly dubs “the sea word”). But when a mistranslated fruit-basket note sent from the Kremlin to the Pentagon triggers a nuclear holocaust, the entire earth’s population is wiped out—save for Mike and his pooch, who were protected by Mike’s flannel-insulated fallout shelter. But now that he’s alone, who will he mock?

This is the set-up for Disstopia, a wrenching, flashback-fueled story of one man’s existential crisis. As first, he wanders from town to town, barking putdowns at burnt shrubs and decimated swingsets. But then Mike Bennigan realizes there’s only to realize one person left to insult: Mike Bennigan. So he starts arguing with himself, all the while thinking back to the incidents that made him the way he is—the father who told him flannel was “a sissy man’s silk,” the kids who bullied him over his missing right hand. As Bennigan, Ray Brink adds layers to his character, carrying on entire conversations with himself, often with the use of fake mustaches and a monocle. But Disstopia‘s real star is the calming, sage-like Fuckity, whose exposure to nuclear rays has given him the power to fart compliments. With his help, Mike slowly rebuilds society—and his own self-esteem.

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