DAEDELUS: ALL OF MUSIC IS A FAILURE
Daedelus is a perfect Victorian gentleman who makes beautiful records about wars no one cares about and the virtues of handmade clothing. 2011 marks ten years of his recording, celebrated now with the release of his latest Bespoke on Ninja Tune, as well as a third Magical Properties tour, and shows at SXSW and Coachella. This is truly his year, as it should be. He speaks now from Susina Bakery about this world’s many failings and the oncoming alien battle we’re all going to face. This interview by Lainna Fader.
You said Bespoke is a ‘term employed to mean an item custom-made to measure.’ Do you miss when the craftsperson hadn’t been replaced by the assembly line?
Absolutely! Entirely. Conceptually, and in every possible way, I agree. Certainly our lives are easier now. Can you imagine living in a city where there’s only one person who makes shoes? And there’s only so many sizes of shoes, and if you’re not that size of shoe, you gotta make your own. Or if you don’t like the style? Too bad! But it really is for the haves and have-nots. If you have money or influence or power you can get things you want and if you don’t you’re stuck. At the same time, things were made to be purposeful. It’s absurd that we use these devices— cars, phones, and whatnot—that aren’t really made for us. They’re made for some version of us—some estimate of us—but when it comes down to it they don’t really fit. I’m left-handed, so I feel it all the time. Just trying to use a butter knife somewhere and realizing, ‘This is a right-handed butter knife!’ It’s very uncomfortable. And there’s only like 20% of us, so of course they don’t take us into consideration—much less the unique snowflake of yourself. I know—okay, there’s the cliché of being doomed by technology, our children will have some other understanding of technology, and we’re doomed to never being hip to it. Which is fine. But it isn’t even made for them. It’s made for some weird perfect person that doesn’t even exist.
What one-of-a-kind hand-made object do you own and love most in your life?
A lot of the suits that I have. It’s funny— this record is about clothes. And one of the reason it’s about clothes is because there are so few things in my life that are handmade. Well, the caveat to that is my wife is very crafty, and she makes me things all the time. Things I don’t share with the world as much as coats. Coats are easy. Coats I wear out— some of these coats date way back—70 or 100 years—but they’re not super easy to wear on stage cause they fall apart. But the fact that I know someone put their spit and vinegar into it makes it mean a lot. My wife’s stuff is the same way—she’s made me things that’ve blown me away. Certain Valentine’s Days or anniversaries—I’m just astounded. I love it, but it’s tough to stand up to it! I can write her a song but I’m not very crafty.
How would your music be different if it was made by hundreds of Dickensian child laborers in a beat mill in the north of England?
Perfect! It’d probably be awesome—child laborers tend to do wonderful things. Put a hundred kids in a room and an amazing song comes out. It’d probably be just as playful, but maybe a little more downtrodden than my music. My music is a little more optimistic. I imagine I’d get more sad songs. But you know, tiny hands do great work.
Nobody said that now we’re the children of hip-hop the way a lot of British bands were the children of rhythm and blues. What do you think the metaphorical children of Daedelus would be like?
So if people were so inclined to do something influenced by what we’re doing? It’s a messy group of us, isn’t it? There’s a lot of continuity to the L.A. sound—a lot of similar mindedness. Something about hip-hop, for instance—we’re bred on commercial airwaves. We have radio—Power 106, The Beat, K Day—it’s really easy to have a really focused lens. Each year, throughout the ‘90s, you can point at three or four songs—the big songs in each year. The big meaningful group-thought songs and names. We don’t have that anymore. Sure, there’s radio, but it’s really so spread out. Internet kind of provides an interesting juxtaposition. I think all the children these days are going to be really schizophrenic. People who are into music and birthed from this … it isn’t going to be three of four bands that really form a person anymore. I’ve already seen it. People go through stylistic changes. Baths is the perfect example, making kind of abstract noise, kind of techno, went to a beat concert—
And it changed everything for him?
Yeah, and he’s already flowing away from it. It’s good. It’s the natural progression of things. It is harder to rally the troops when there’s no banner to raise.
What hardships and challenges do you think musicians who come after you will never know? What successes will they never know either?
The machinery of their demise is going to be largely dismantled. You have everyone on a pretty even shake, whatever they can summon, be it nepotism or actual talent or whatever it is. The machinery that they build—the commercial machinery, the payola, the ancient systems of how music is disseminated—are all gone. We’re moving back to a patronage system like in classical music. If you have a thousand to ten thousand fans, you can pretty much make a life at this, depending on what range they want to spend on you and how many concerts they want to go to. We’re living in a world with billions of people and they’re pretty much up for grabs. People in the farthest reaches of the Internet. There’ll be fans of this odd music. I’ve experienced this very generously myself. I played a show in Malaysia and met my number one fan out there. It’s awesome. So they’re not going to know that failing of the system, which is a good thing and a bad thing.
Do you think not knowing about the failing of the system would make them more fearless?
At first. I think there will be a more people making music who aren’t professional musicians. Which is cool. It’s already that everyone’s in a band anyway, and it’s a lot less daunting than art or something where you need to have a truly unique idea. With music you can put your slight variation on a well-trodden path and it can be something significant. Can you imagine the terror—I think about it for kids who are just getting interested in music. There’s no safety net, there’s nothing. Even just getting notoriety. I was the beneficiary of a lot of weird moments in time. Like Myspace. I was featured on that page once and it got me hundreds of thousands of listeners in single days. Not to say that means anything now, but it did then, for a brief moment. I got a feature on YouTube early on. But does it mean anything currently? Not necessary. But if you can imagine like a kid now, you don’t get features on Facebook or Soundcloud.
What’s the best they can hope for?
I think people—if they live a little harder— have a lot of fun. But making a career out of it? You have to be really savvy, make a lot of connections, and be doing something really significant that stands out and alone. That’s terrifying. Do something significant that has depth and meaning and it resonates. I think that purity means something. The whole pop system really rewarded whatever was kind of like slight changes to a formula. Maybe a slightly different color hair. Brunettes. Blondes. Then it all just kind of fades away. But it’s for the best. Music as we knew it was only thirty or forty years old—a modern invention. It’s like communism—or democracy. A failed system.
We asked the Monks about the biggest revelations they’ve had in their lives and they said, ‘The idea of being in love is a revelation because you become more than just yourself.’ Is that why love is so valuable? Because it’s the only way for people to get outside themselves?
On the one hand, I’d totally agree. I just love the swooping romanticism of it. I disagree as well because I don’t think we can ever transcend ourselves. Wow, that sounded spiritual. I mean traveling, sure, but not really outside of yourself. I think that love is a form of—I don’t think it’s a chemical imbalance but—it’s a form of concentration, of going outside of yourself. It’s a form of being just simply because you can quiet yourself. Ourselves are so overly important, and we make such a big deal out of things. It’s very temporal, our lives. If you can make a significant impact in someone’s life, much less a lot of people’s lives, it’s a form of love. It’s a form of gift. If you can really be in a concentrated love affair, it takes up all your attention. It’s like you’re still there, but you’re gone. Not to sound stalker-ish. Ha ha ha!
Strangeloop is into the idea of searching for the divine through technology. What’s something that you’re searching for?
There’s a wonderful thing about jazz—or about live music—where you can quiet yourself in the same kind of way as love and really reach a lot of people and you can be in such a crazy moment where you’re kind of bringing something down, like lightning or rain. It’s like a very natural force. It’s quite like magic. You can have a moment where you’re not brainwashing people nor are you yourself exactly there. You’re conducting something. You’re being a grounding force for something very powerful when it really works. As much as I love technology—it aids me in every single way, and honestly if the AC went out I’d be pretty low on work since I don’t have any other skills—if it did go down—it is also literally just a tool. The meme of it, the metaphor of it, is what quickly connects us. It’s our organs, externalized. So if you can just find that other organ, that sensory organ, you get that telepathy thing going and it’s crazy what you can do. I really like that stuff.
You’ve said you’re into civility marred by acts of terrible violence. Why?
So many ways that it expresses itself. The modicum of decorum. The idea that we co-exist with all these people all the time and we impact them in all kinds of horrible ways we can’t figure out all the time. A single gesture, a single snipe, a single bad comment on YouTube … and suddenly someone’s life can travel terribly out of control. Butterfly effect. But not like the movie. Totally unlike the movie! We’re always impacting people. It’s a crazy game of pinball. In the real world, what I’ve seen, simply being part of the military industrial complex of America is a headtrip and a half. If you travel even a small bit you see how much our culture invades other places. We invented cool basically. Certainly other countries have ideas about fashion and things but it was always something about the high class and the low class. Every once in a while someone from the lower class might impact the upper echelons. America somehow invented the idea of rock ‘n’ roll cool—this idea of heroin chic. It’s the craziest, most terrible device that’s ever been propagated. This hipster meme that’s been circulating around the world—not necessary from America but it’s all the same. Different ideas but in the same sellable box—it’s terrifying! And people are living and dying over this stuff! We should all be farmers raising our own livestock.
You’ve said that electronic music should have heavier subject matter than parties and drunkenness—why? What makes you think it’s important to pursue heavier topics?
I love having a good night and sometimes a good night means—wherever you’re at on the intoxication scale—you need to be open. Willing, able, whatever it is. I’m a participant. I’m not gonna call any names cuz I’m part of the issue but if you allow yourself to dream a little bigger and imagine the audience is more than just a bunch of liquor sponsors … If you think of them as something that has more capacity for emotional depth they’ll surprise you as well as fulfill you. I’ve been very surprised. I don’t mean to be emo, but some of my records that I want to be about darker places. That’s what we deal with. We’re dealing with stories to a certain degree. If we don’t try, it’s a failure of music. A lot of music I really love—like jazz, for instance. Charles Mingus was a big influence on my younger musical years. None of the songs are about anything I can sympathize with—they’re about race, the 1950s, the 1960s, struggle—but it’s something you can immediately relate to because the music is so powerful. But I have no conditioning to put myself in that place. Same thing goes with all the film scores that I love from the ‘50s and ‘60s—John Berry, Michel LeGrand—these movies are about assassinations and intrigue and I get swept up like anybody does. I really want my records to do that but I think they’ve always been failures.
Why do you think your records have been failures?
In that way that electronic music is maybe a failure, or maybe all of music is a failure. I feel sometimes—it’s very easy to think that it’s all hoodwinking yourself into thinking that it all has meaning. You meet a few people occasionally who do seem to be really moved. But I’ve poured so much weird minutiae into my records—so many odd storylines. I feel like I’m so obvious that I don’t want to speak on it because it’s practically screaming off the songs and I don’t think anyone really gets it or understands it. I think that failure is a gift though. At least I hope so. I’m certainly betting a lot of my life around it.
What’s the hardest part about finishing an album for you now?
The powers of ten thing kind of happens a lot. All aspects of finishing or making a song are the same as finishing a record. The beginning of it is really hard, the end of it is always really hard. Knowing when it’s done is really hard. There comes a certain point with music and especially with records that you have to surrender it to somebody. You give it to the label, you have to give it to an artist to do the cover, you give it to a video artist. Your perfect little sphere of influence—your bespoke piece—your creation—gets hemmed and altered by somebody else and sometimes it feels like they’re ruining the cut of it, the feel of it. It’s intrusive. It’s violent. And yet at the same time it produces the children, the thing, the actual product, the sum of something more than yourself, and that’s what makes it powerful. I can only wonder what it must be like for bands, where somebody has this beautiful melody in their head and then it gets crazy altered—ruined—by someone else in the end. As an instrumentalist, you must understand, you can play as part of an ensemble sometimes or you can be solo, but music gets changed by area. Or when your hands are tired, or your throat doesn’t let loose the notes properly. There’s something real to that—something terrifying. You always have to surrender yourself.
How did you learn to let go?
I did—in my young musical life, as a classical musician—everything in the service of the music. Always trying to serve the music. Maybe at some point it’s so egotistically muting—it’s so difficult to find a voice in that thing because you’re so in service of the song which is beautiful but a lot of the songs you play in that world are a hundred, two hundred years old, and they almost speak the language that we are digesting, talking. Eventually in that music you find a freedom that is comforting and beautiful. I don’t know. Have you tried playing any music?
I played piano when I was a kid. I really didn’t like the style of the teacher, and begged my parents to let me quit. I guess I hated it so much I blocked it from my memory how to play anything at all and now of course I really regret it. I’d like to learn again.
It never ends, of course.
I went to high school with a lot of musicians, so I’m kind of thinking I should learn how to play music rather than just write about it.
Well, those people—they all went through a period of time—at least from the way I know them—where there was a lot of confusion morally, musically, and then finding something that clicks with them. Sometimes it’s worth being a little confused and abandoned. It makes for good fertile soil to till. Were you in a music academy?
I was a history nerd. I got really excited about your last record because it’s a soundtrack to the Boxer Rebellion. That’s so cool!
Nobody cares, though.
Why doesn’t anyone care about the Boxer Rebellion?
Not to go back to old stories, but people don’t know that there was a modern war fought with magic. It’s so crazy. Why isn’t anybody talking about this?
What war is the most creatively inspiring?
In a lot of ways, the Crusades—terrible as they were. They were fought for the stupidest reasons. But they are incredibly interesting in terms of the intrigue, the deception, the chaos. You have these great empires that kind of didn’t necessarily compute. They were founded on very different principles but they existed in the same time period and were all mixing and mashing. Huge fluxes in culture. It’s the terrible thing where war does breed a lot of invention, a lot of cultural exchange. The oncoming alien battle that we’re going to have—either in movie form or real-form, hopefully—it’ll be terrible but imagine all the great things we’ll be able to create. As a child of history, you must know that the slinky comes from war, same thing with silly putty. These great things that have affected so many lives just … falls down stairs for them.
What inspires you most that doesn’t come from within you or within music?
In the context of this record, it’s really fashion. It’s funny because the record doesn’t really talk about fashion. It talks about the have and have-nots and some sadnesses and some joys but it doesn’t really talk about fashion. But fashion is a mute muse. You wear it and it says so many strong things without saying anything unless you wear terrible words across you or you’ve gone that direction and are wearing Abercrombie & Fitch and shouldn’t be saying anything at all. I’m not trying to insult anyone. It’s amazing how it has become an individual idea. These mass produced items made in these countries’ bright tiny hands—China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam especially—we have this crazy dialogue going on of really instantaneous ideas—design, how many units should be made, how cheap, how to propagate it around the world. Kids are wearing what’s in one country is a political statement, but they’re just wearing it because it seems right. These thing are swirling around so fast, and the smallest things can set off—it’s like ikebana but everyone’s wearing it. Everyone’s wearing flower arrangements. It’s crazy. When you take it really seriously, and see what people are saying in these coded languages, it’s extremely impactful. It’s extremely similar to music—music says so many things without actually saying it, if you want to listen.
What’s the most ornate hat you own?
I have a topper that is my go-to but it’s a little unfortunate—I love it very much and it’s old so I don’t feel as bad—but it’s beaver skin. Beaver fur—resistant against water, hooray!
It’s weird to wear animals but beside that it’s just a beautiful piece. Everyone’s heads were really small back in the day—everyone was small and had tiny heads because they were so malnourished. I found it in Canada were everyone was beefier—lumberjacks, maybe— but it’s old. It’s very old and I still wear it on occasion. Very rarely to shows. It’s delicate.
When you played bass at comedy nights at Largo, what three notes worked best to save a flopping punchline?
Well, the truth of the matter is that if you have a flopping punchline, you have a flailing stand-up comedian and you can see the fear set in as soon as it starts to fall flat. The real good comics just hide it completely and move on to the next profession—the comedians who are mid-range tear into the audience and get angry and do a little routine to get it back. The real inexperienced ones rip into anything around them with flailing arms and sometimes that flak came our way. It’s surprising, the people who died a lot were professionals. Or comedians who weren’t standups. Like that gentleman from ‘Kids in the Hall,’ the gay fellow….he had a legendarily terrible time. And that guy from ‘Seinfield’—Larry David—it was terrible. Terrible comedian. No jokes were funny at all. Jokes from a different time. Largo’s more alternative comedy and people like Zach Galifinakis and Patton Oswalt would kill—they’d slay. Nice people, too. Paul F. Tompkins—so wonderful. Maria Bamford—super good as well, never had any issue. You could tell the people who were really stand-up comedians and knew their craft and people who just wrote jokes. A big difference. The three notes that would save them would be me, the guitarist, or the drummer— the Mashnotes, basically. I looked like Abraham Lincoln at the time. I had a crazy beard that may have been a bit Lincoln-ish so I’d get that a lot. The guitarist looked like Buddy Holly but miniaturized. Scrawny dude. Ben, the drummer and guitarist was a bit of a larger guy and had a teddy bear demeanor and comedians can be very cruel to save themselves.
Did they ever turn on you?
Oh yes, very much so. It’s okay though—it was part of the gig. It was an amazing gift to get on be on stage and see how these people operate. Such a different world. Largo is such a special place. This was a spell ago. I was playing there twelve years ago? Crazy.
You’ve said in an interview that your proudest moment was when an 8-year old sent you a letter telling you how he had played ‘A Mashnote’ over and over again on a roadtrip, driving his dad nuts. What is most rewarding about warping the minds of children with your art?
I think I mentioned the misfit child thing earlier and how I think I felt a little out of touch in high school and how that was a gift but I also so desperately wished that at any moment when I was younger I had someone that A) would tell me that everything was going to be all right and B) make my weird sound and find my own voice. I was very confused for a very long time about sound—how it was made—and I didn’t feel any strong mentorship for a long time until dublab came around and I felt a lot of freedom there to create. All the ‘90s, I was so alone and so lost and I loved certain sounds but I was so marginalized. The rave community had no mentors.
If you had one, how would it have changed the course of your musical development?
It would’ve absolutely—I had great teachers but in terms of actual mentorship, in terms of moving forward—I’ve taken a long path, and I like that. I feel like I’m only able to still be around because of that long path. But if I had known at an early age that maybe to just be myself and make my weird sounds and that would’ve been okay. And even to have just had someone, good or bad, be critical. I’ve met so many young music makers who are so advanced at such a young age—Shlohmo, Baths—these enormously talented young kids. Flying Lotus. I met him at a young age and he was honest and great and it just made sense to see him shine like he is. I think it would have changed a lot but it’s so hard to know. Maybe I would have quit a long time ago. Having to live up to something is a terrible curse.
What kept you from quitting?
I had nothing else. There was nothing else. Now I have my wife—that’s something. But there’s nothing else. I’m not prepared for any other career. Maybe I could be somewhat useful as a janitorial something, a manual laborer. But I’m terribly fixated on this thing, and it’s all I have. It’s important to have a battle.
DAEDELUS WITH TOKIMONSTA AND SHLOHMO ON SAT., APR. 23, ON THE MAGICAL PROPERTIES TOUR 3 AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. 2ND ST., POMONA. DAEDELUS’ BESPOKE IS OUT NOW ON NINJATUNE. VISIT DAEDELUS AT DAEDELUSMUSIC.COM