THE ART MUSEUMS: NAKED IN FRONT OF A POLAROID
The Art Museums’ core song-writing duo, Josh Alper and Glenn Donaldson, recorded some songs in Donaldson’s bedroom that gained the enthusiastic attention of Woodsist, who released their first LP, Rough Frame. Unleashed upon the public with the band’s characteristic modesty, Rough Frame managed to please a number of online tastemakers by combining a passionate love for the rather specific genre of “Television Personalities-esque” music with more swinging aspects of pop culture. This interview by Tom Child.
What is the oldest instrument that you own that you still use?
Josh Alper (guitar/vocals): I definitely have a Casio around from the Lowdown era. It hasn’t made it onto any of the Art Museums recordings yet, though it certainly could given what we do. The Casio has been one of those great proletariat enablers, especially since they show up in thrift stores nowadays.
What other instruments enable the proletariat? Is it like how the Fall said the kazoo is the people’s instrument?
With Casio keyboards specifically—and obviously eBay is changing stuff like this—you can find them in a thrift store. They’re accessible and they’re not too expensive. I suppose any instrument you can come by cheaply and readily fits that bill. I think a guitar can be that, but you know you can get a guitar for $100 or you could pay $2000 for a Rickenbacker. I can’t really profess to know what the Fall meant by that, but I think anything you can readily pick up and make a ruckus on!
I know you work at the university library— are the other librarians leery of your debauched lo-fi home recording lifestyle?
There’s definitely an OCD mentality and that can work very well with vocational library stuff but it also veers into being a fan and really following a style of music or a sound—really going deep into a certain genre. It may not really translate per se into the regular world. Just last week I started talking to the guy who is the Grateful Dead archivist here; he’s an academic and a big fan at the same time and that’s an interesting cross-section. I remember that when I was a student there, there was a random puddle on the fourth floor that was very disturbing.
Has that been cleaned up by now or was it memorialized with a plaque?
No, it’s gone. But it was in the section of books about political history.
You’ve said that when you were a teenager and feeling lost in the world, the Television Personalities spoke to you. How did Dan Treacy save you from a life of prestige and profit?
[Laughs] I want to send that to him in a Facebook message! ‘How did Dan Treacy save me from a life of prestige and profit?’ Well, it was that video for ‘Salvador Dali’s Garden Party.’ It was just so fantastic and hip and so much cooler than trying to get into Stanford, you know? I mean, this was a happening! It made me curious. I mean, was there a garden party? Did he have that? And then you look at Dali, and he was a hipster—he was hanging out with Warhol; he did have happenings. Dan was celebrating people living an artful lifestyle and doing it in a social manner. And the video had Dan in it and he had this almost fey affect, the way he looks in it. He was sitting a little funny and he just looks a little off as far as the standard male goes. But he looks great. I saw this and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t think I could necessarily be this person, but I understand that here is somebody who’s not afraid to show it and also has this talent.’ It wasn’t like it was in your face. It was a video on MTV—a perfectly natural context. Some of those videos were pretty adventurous but this one had an edge. Dan brings in all these different cultural touchstones, whether it’s someone like Salvador Dali or the Mods or ‘Ready Steady Go!’ or covering a song by the Creation or basically writing songs that rip your heart out. Like in ‘The Boy in the Paisley Shirt,’ he says something like, ‘The girls all dressed like Cathy McGowan/wearing makeup by Mary Quant.’ I heard that and thought, ‘Who’s Cathy McGowan? Who’s Mary Quant?’ And then you start looking into those things and it’s almost more like this cultural anthropology was more fascinating than being a lawyer. He provided cultural touchstones that weren’t necessarily as accessible where I grew up but were much more appealing and intriguing and inspiring. The biggest thing I’ve gained? Well, I feel pretty standard compared to a lot of people I know but it’s almost like a cliché to play music now, isn’t it? I mean, Jesus, look at all these hipsters in the city! How many people are in bands and how many people act like they’re in bands? I mean, I’m guilty of it sometimes myself. But Dan Treacy is gifted with melody. He’s always been able to create seemingly a neat pop song but done with such an inventive spirit and melody. There’s so much pop in the world and there has been and it’s almost nauseating in a sense because it can just wash over you and you wouldn’t even notice it. For some reason, his style—and I give a nod to Ray Davies, though I think Ray Davies is maybe even on a level unto himself for sure—it’s interesting because I would like to hear more from Dan Treacy’s mouth about that time in his life. There’s a cleverness. It’s not just an aesthetic.
How exactly does someone like Dan Treacy do this? What is the crucial difference between disposable pop and timeless pop?
Oh God! That’s funny. The first part of that question? I don’t know. It’s almost like it’s just in the wrist. Take a song like, ‘The Boy in the Paisley Shirt.’ You could see that title on a record and you could think, ‘Oh, this is going to be ridiculous.’ But he’s got a subtlety to it. And it’s not subtle at all—that’s the thing. But he’s able to paint a scene so well. I’m using that song specifically because with a title like that it could be such a disposable pop song but at the same time, if you listen to it, it paints this whole ‘Ready Steady Go!’ scene—this mod dance-floor thing. It’s about this person trying to get noticed by another person, which is kind of a classic unrequited love kind of thing but it builds on that context, which I find to be very pleasing. Not only does he paint the scene but he infuses it with a bit of a story or a drama to it. There’s a haunted quality to it, instead of it just being like Austin Powers, you know what I mean? There’s something more Kinks-ish about it where you can feel the characters out a little bit. I think he’s really good at touching on the emotional edge of things, even if it’s got a self-aware quality. When I’m writing, I think about that, too. Sometimes you think you’re doing something like that but ultimately it doesn’t quite translate.
How did you release a Dan Treacy record on your label? Wasn’t he on a prison ship for a while?
I’ve never been of the mind that I was going to do a label to build up some sort of cultural force in the world, but I liked the idea of being a patron to this person who just completely influenced my thing, I guess. That was the magic of the internet and the dubious magic of him turning up. And I say dubious only because he turned up in prison! It was really a modern experience in the sense that I was part of this Yahoo! Television Personalities newsgroup and it went through various moments of activity before he turned up. … I can’t remember what year it was—maybe 2003? 2004? This message came across that Dan had turned up. I mean, this was fucking mind-blowing. You cannot imagine what it was like because I had just lost my mind to his songs for years on end at that point. … Anyway, this message on the board came out and they gave the address of this floating prison boat. I mean, who knows? It didn’t say why or how or how long he was going to be in there. This person was just like, ‘Here, here’s the address. Write to him and send him your wishes.’ So I undressed and posed naked in front of a Polaroid … no, I’m kidding! I just got a piece of paper and recounted the moment I first heard his band and I felt the way I wanted to tell him was to appeal to his aesthetic in a way. It was like there was some fellow traveler, somebody who was celebrating this whole thing that was maybe so much better than becoming a lawyer or a doctor, which may be the typical pressure of Palo Alto childhood.
Is that the only release you’ve done?
I guess the name for it is ‘boutique’ label. I called it Good Village Recordings because of the idea that it’s inhabited by people who may not be able to actually create a functioning village but theoretically did. They’d be there. Strange bedfellows though. Maybe that’s a better name for it.
If you did have a village, what kind of civic duty would you assign to Dan Treacy?
Who is the next lost hero you’d want to do a record for?
Jeff Manson. He’s a visionary artist and songwriter and I think that pretty much says it all. An inspired human. That wasn’t too hard to come up with because I really would love to put something out by him. He’s certainly not long-lost though. He knows where he is. I hope Jeff isn’t put off by that. He probably won’t even read it. But I’ll give him a call and let him know I used his name in this context. He and I were talking about it when I had money laying around for a while. He did an album called Solid Gone and I really liked those songs. I thought that would be a rad thing to release but he’s kind of moved beyond that now with his new band, the Windy-Gap. I feel like somebody will put something out but it’s very easy to rely on that and then nobody does!
THE ART MUSEUMS’ ROUGH FRAME IS OUT NOW ON WOODSIST. VISIT THE ART MUSEUMS AT MYSPACE. COM/THEARTMUSEUMS.