ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE: SIFT PLANKTON ALL DAY
dave van patten
Beneath the world of major-label releases and independent label releases and DIY releases and really anything that can be called a “release” with any sense that people might be able to get a copy of the album for themselves are the tens of thousands of private-press records that came bubbling up across the U.S.A. once record-pressing plants discovered that a lot of people liked the idea that “you, too, can make a record!” And so Enjoy The Experience is a chronicle of that you-too spirit and the music that followed—a cheerfully literary tour through the world of people who made records so real that collectors like Paul Major had no choice but to call them “real people records.” Editor Johan Kugelberg speaks now about can-do spirit and high-falutin’ philosophy. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Let’s pretend we’re doing advanced mathematics. Why don’t we define some terms here? What’s the difference between a private press record and like a conventionally independent record—a band who puts out their record on their own label?
One of the things that you need to remember about private press records—sometimes they’re called vanity pressings, in comparison to vanity book publishing. The records gathered in Enjoy The Experience are not privately produced as a political or aesthetic act like the DIY 45s or punk records or even sort of some like communal hippie counter-culture records. This is much more of just sort of a rudimentary everyday life American can-do spirit. In the late 50s with the advent of the LP, independent pressing plants started offering out a custom pressing service. In the same way as vanity publishing custom book printing services advertised in magazines, you could find ads in the back of National Geographic or The National Enquirer: ‘YOU TOO CAN BE A RECORDING STAR.’ You send in your master tape and your cover design or choose from one of a number of generic cover designs and then depending on how much you pay you’ll get a hundred copies back or two hundred or five hundred or a thousand—needless to say that’s usually where the problem starts because distributing a record is not as easy as making it. And making a record is pretty damn hard. So it’s one thing that is really important to stress for the young ones is how much strenuous obnoxious effort it took to press up your own records. It’s so way beyond uploading your song on YouTube.
Is isolation fundamental to this? Are these records by people who aren’t connected to a distribution network or some established music scene—people united only in a common desire to make a damn record?
It’s a really potent and heady drive towards self-expression. And it’s a drive towards self-expression that we have to give and love and our admiration because it was really cumbersome. Going from performing at your local lounge or bar and grill or local church to having the idea like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to put an album out! I’m going to sell at my performances and I’m going to send it around to my local newspaper and maybe I’ll get like a high-falutin’ record deal!’ That’s America ingenuity at its best.
I like how you’ve attached this to something sort of like hidden within the American spirit.
I’m a huge Fredrick Jackson Turner fan and his books on the American frontier spirit. The books he wrote just after the land grab sorta ended are unbelievable—I’m a first generation immigrant, and I obviously love the USA more than any other country in the world, but the understanding of the frontier spirit is something that comes to the non-American gradually. And the frontier spirit is obviously intimately attached to this drive for all of these wild and wooly eccentric people to produce these wild and wooly eccentric records.
So these are all pioneers to you?
I don’t think they intended to be obscure or an outsider. It is all about a really glorious attempt at communication. I tend to like my art almost categorically like non-slick and un-polished and provided with what Paul Major calls the ‘real people’ element. That you get some sense of everyday people creating art. I gravitate towards those kinds of restaurants, or those painters or those authors or architects or what have you. One thing that’s so cool—once you look at 1,000 private press sleeves or you hear 200 different lounge bands attempting to play ‘MacArthur Park’ is that it becomes this really beautiful American vernacular. And that’s when I keep comparing it to your regional crazy quilts or your regional pies or regional hamburgers or regional styles of folk art paintings or whatever it is.
This is very much a folk form of art, then.
Yes. No doubt it is. And it is also something that feels so truthsome and something that feels, dare I say, cozy—in a life where a lot of us spent a lot more time on the screen we do in meatspace. And I think a book like Enjoy The Experience can actually help drag a lot of us back into meatspace.
And this was definitely a really physical experience for these people. They had to do this themselves. Get the big box back. Sell them out of the trunk of their car. Then somebody finds it in the yard sale or the back of the antiques store. All these things took place as hand-to-hand contact.
And also once they received their 500 copies from the Century Records Pressing Plant, then some of them must have stood there and gone like, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do? I’ll give one to my Uncle Al, and one to my sister, and one to Aunt Martha and maybe I can sell some at my local Elks Lodge …’ That means that some of these records aren’t rare. They’re scarce.
What’s the distinction?
It’s the monetary replenishment, and their reputations as these sort of of icons of rarity in blogland or internetchatsiteland. Certainly there are records in the vanity pressing private press items that go for hundreds of dollars and sometimes even thousands of dollars, but that’s not the point with this book. This book isn’t a record collector book, even though it is supposed to be fun for record collectors. It is more a book showing the great beauty of American diaspora. And I know that sounds really high-falutin’, but I genuinely mean that. One thing that Michael Daley points out is that music serves us. It’s not us serving music. So that means the enjoyment of records and of collecting and the enjoyment of digging … the moment that becomes a spectator sport it naturally becomes something that is of the spectacle. And I happen to know from a really good source that when we die, God and his pals are not going to hold up scorecards over how cool our record collections were. What we are going to remember is friends and family and loved ones and big life experiences. And the music and the collecting supports that because collecting is really fun. And listening to music is totally awesome, but it’s not a spectator sport. And one thing that I will turn to over and over, like a proper old guy, is that there is really a holy war between connoisseurs and enthusiasts—like Obi Wan battling it out with Darth Vader, in that the connoisseur actually demands one-upmanship and spectators and ‘I have the rarest’ and ‘I have the most expensive.’ Where the enthusiasts and geniuses like Gregg Turkington and Paul Major want to distribute this knowledge and make other people as excited as they are.
There’s this line in the book where you say, ‘It’s frightening to think of a world where people get really into vanity pressings and private pressings.’ I think that’s an interesting statement because if that’s ever gonna happen, this book is a step towards that.
I would be pretty pumped—I mean delighted if like a bunch of twentysomethings in stove pipe hats started canvassing their local stage for private press records because that means that this narrative continues to communicate in the means of other great American folk art narratives. Homer Simpson was right when he said, ‘Money can be exchanged for goods and services,’ and that’s actually no big deal.
I think about that concept every day.
Some of these records are going to be unbelievably expensive. And some of them aren’t. But the whole sort of psychedelic fatso scene actually derives their pleasure from a limited palate. You’re supposed to have fuzz tone or krautrock rhythm or weird moog synth or a funky drum break or whatever it is, but once you get past that and start connecting with the human element of these vanity pressing sounds it really changes the way you hear music in the terms of Steve Reich or the Velvet Underground or Back From the Grave Volume I. It’s just another great democratic American art experience.
Is there like an ascending pyramid to record appreciation nirvana? Where you start with the Beatles or take steps and it’s sort of scary or rewarding and as you get farther and farther up you find something that might be sort of challenging at a first listen—but offers a sort of a purity that’s nowhere else.
That’s a tricky one because then one wonders if it’s just the titillation of the jaded palate. And that I think is something that is dangerous. I would like to flip it and that I think I mentioned in the Shaggs piece. When you really start falling in love with vanity pressings and private press records, it’s more like how you feel—I don’t know if you have kids— but it’s more of the way you feel when you see children’s drawings. When they color outside the lines. And they would have like really crude but endearing amazing figures and you connect to it viscerally in a really strong way. Another example I used in the book is this clip on YouTube that has 15 million hits of these two white kids from the Midwest who have prepared this grand cha cha cha routine for their wedding entrance. They perform this completely nutso dance to Chris Brown R&B swill. And they infuse this useless Chris Brown track with so much emotional goodwill that if I hear that damn song in a deli, my eyes will well up with pavlovian teariness. But then I’ll go back to what Michael Daley, my co-editor, said—then you actually get that profound sense that music always serves communication between people. And the cool thing with vanity pressings is that we are never going to meet these people but we get a really cozy sense of who they are, and what they were, and that they lived and that they expressed themselves. And I sure as fuck don’t get that from Joni Mitchell records and Neil Young records. Or any of the artists who try to sell me on their inherent and sincere honesty. It’s like going to one of the new dumb sincerity restaurants that’s pretending to be a like an old-school burger joint. They’re never that good, and the old-school burger joints are always amazing.
Wasn’t it Picasso who said he was always trying to get back to the way he created as a child? Because he had forgotten it; it had been overwritten by education and life experience and technique, and he was trying to peel that back and return to that initial unfiltered state of expression.
It’s possible. It’s also how a lot of older artists get rather lugubrious and one wonders if that has something to do with a sense of having left that creative innocence. I can think of that when I think of my past in skateboarding or punk rock. On the other hand I can think of the last time I was on a skateboard which was when I quit about fourteen years ago. I had a really terrible wipeout in Battery Park in the evening. That was the end of it. I slammed so bad. I sort of staggered home, covered in blood, messed up. I opened the door and my wife starts crying because she’s thinking I had gotten mugged and really hurt. Then I tell her that I have fallen off my skateboard and she turns around and just goes back to bed without helping me wipe up the blood or pick out the gravel from my palm. But my point is that you can’t step into the same river twice. I remember how much fun it was to carve a pool on my skateboard or how much fun it was to stage dive or play Flipper covers in a bad punk band, but life is more than that. Obviously when you surround yourself with these vanity pressings that people just poured themselves into, you get this really powerful sense of the innocence of everyday expression and that might also sound really pompous, but I don’t care. I think it’s true.
So much of this is a pre-virtual phenomenon. Another way to put it is … now that we have the internet, have we hit peak freak? Were the glory days of the private press over in ’92 like the book says?
One thing that the great Gibson has pointed out is that there will be and there already are people who are connoisseurs and curators of YouTube uploads. I’m waiting for the people who actually have the cojones to filter through 40,000 random techno 12”s to find out what is good so that I don’t have to do it. I really want to stress this. The 1,200 records that are in Enjoy The Experience—I don’t think they were a tenth of a tenth of a percent of the records that were produced. One of the comparisons I always make… somebody who has been involved with Jamaican music for a long time told me how many different ska 45s were issued. The answer almost killed me. About 140,000 different titles were issued. Over the ska era, from roughly 1958 to 1969. Dozens a day. And then you think about how many companies cranked out these custom records. And how big America is. And how many people played music. So I think there’s an endless supply. A couple buddies of mine who tour—one who is a comedian and one who is a musician—wherever they go in America, they hit the flea markets and thrift stores and the remaining used record stores. It is so not played out. The internet hasn’t even scratched the surface of what is out there to find in the United States of America.
I find that very rejuvenating. I hate the idea of a post-digital record wasteland. Everything has been plucked.
Absolutely categorically, not. There’s no way on earth. But I think that there is really fucked-up stuff happening right now. I talk about it in the book on the independent record story edited by Emma Pettit called Old Rare New. It’s a really good book put out by Black Dog in the U.K. In that one I talk about indigestion and constipation and flatulence in music consumption. Because if you become a Weird New America expert by listening to the first five seconds of 4,000 tracks, that’s not going to take you anywhere. And if you go straight to weird without any context for it, that means that the weird is going to be your normal, and you are not actually experiencing a full course of music before you develop an aesthetic. And if you fill hard drive after hard drive with every Stooges outtake and every Mission of Burma it’s not gonna be a movable feast. It’s just gonna be a cultural indigestion. That means that the clouds you surround yourself with are not going to be clouds of cultural inclusiveness—it’s gonna be obsessive compulsive flatulence. I think that the web really cheapens and diminishes the art experience for us and we gotta be really goddamned careful with this. But also the flip side of that is that I’m actually really hopeful—I think that everything around us indicates that we are living through the age of transitional technology and that what we have right now is unformed and unfinished and sucky. Look at the amount of screens we have in our life right now.
To me it’s seems like the burden of professional editorship has been pushed back to the consumer to the listener. Now you get a hundred things and you have to edit which is the one you like best, which is not for you but still good, and I think it fatigues people out and that used to be a job to process things.
If one steps back from it, it gets really complex. I don’t know how far you want to go into this but I think it’s a real problem that most of the cultural content-providing jobs in the United States never became unionized. And the union has become so sorely dismantled as a source of empowerment in the United States. And that makes this internet age generation of writers forced to a) almost give their shit away for free and b) it removes the editorial stance. And the removal of the editorial stance is really really problematic because it makes for more snark and less intelligence and less thorough work. And that in a way actually illuminates the difference between vanity pressings and people actually loading up their weird music on YouTube because the cumbersome process of manufacturing your own record is the filter that makes many of these records endearing. That it was such a pain in the ass and expense and difficult to get them out. And the reason that so little of YouTube is completely amazing is that it is so easy to put it up there and that it is so easy to use your GarageBand plug-in on your Mac and all.
So the original slog from the lady at the Holiday Inn Lounge with the vision to find this ad, make her tape, master her tape, send it in, get her stuff, get it in the trunk of her car, sell it every Saturday night for $5 or drinks or whatever … that whole stretch of difficulty in getting to that worthwhile expression has now been pushed back on to the YouTube viewer—who is now the person who has to spend an equal amount of difficulty digging through all this stuff just to find one good thing.
I think that’s a pretty good riff. You should develop that one. I teach and lecture at a few different universities; it’s part of what I do. It’s usually grad students. I love grad students because they’re no longer interested in beer bongs and frat parties. They are just interested in becoming as sharp-brained as possible and they’re always questioning everything I say and calling me on my bullshit. I love grad students. One of the things we talk about rather often is what has happened to the curator and curatorial elegance in the screen age. And in a weird way one can hope that this will become part of the evolution of great writers and great thinkers in the 21st century, is that they will beef up their curatorial skills and become gateways to cultural experiences or like that thing that I mention in the interview with Paul is that like whatever those whales are called who just sift plankton all day to find nourishment. We all just gotta sift plankton all day.