THE ART MUSEUMS: NAKED IN FRONT OF A POLAROID
The Art Museum’s first LP Rough Frame was released with the band’s characteristic modesty yet managed to gain the enthusiastic attention of Woodsist and a number of online tastemakers by combining a passionate love for the rather specific genre of ‘Television Personalities-esque’ music and pop melody in general with an embrace of some of the more delicate aspects of culture. This interview by Tom Child.
Would you describe Art Museums essentially as two friends doing goofy things in the bedroom?
Josh Alper (keyboards): That’s it to a T, for sure. In a celebratory manner.
How long have you been playing music?
Josh Alper: I don’t know. I mean, I played in the high school band, playing trumpet and stuff but as far as playing in bands with peers and doing that whole ‘Let’s start a band!’ kind of thing, I suppose it was some time in the mid-‘90s with varying levels of activity in the interim years. So we’ll call it maybe twelve to fifteen years. There are three years I’m not sure of! Not necessarily as long as some people who have been on the scene for a while. I think there are a lot of kids start bands nowadays. I think there were a lot of kids that started bands when I was just starting too but it seems like even more so nowadays. And it seems almost like being out of the closet when you’re young. It’s more accessible I think, especially with the desktop recording technology. Although as I’m saying that, I realize I’m entirely wrong because in the ’60s there were so many garage bands. You know, every other kid had a band. It probably just goes through cycles and maybe it depends on who you know. If you happen to primarily know people who play music, of course it seems like everyone is doing it but there definitely was a moment where I wasn’t that person.
What is the oldest instrument that you own that you still use? Is there one instrument that has survived all the incarnations of Josh?
Josh Alper: 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. Generally speaking, because Glenn has such a set up in his studio … I mean, he has some great Casios himself. But there’s one that I definitely have that I’ll pull out to either write something on or figure out a melody or something like that. So yeah, the Casio has been one of those great proletariat enablers, especially since they show up in thrift stores nowadays. I think I can say they can allow anyone to make music especially since they’ve become these sort of recycled items now.
I have a couple questions here that I’ve pulled from the Art Museums’ song titles. What have you reflected on in a Paris café?
Josh Alper: Ok, well, that’s one of Glenn’s songs but I think there’s something a bit fruity about what the Art Museums is doing … but celebrating that! It’s kind of tapped into what the Television Personalities were doing with ‘Painting by Numbers’ and the Times has a song called ‘Red With Purple Flashes.’ Ed Ball has a song called ‘Miss London.’ But ‘Paris Café’ … I don’t know how it sounds to everyone but I think right off the bat it’s evocative. A novelty almost. It’s this image of culture and wistful existence as well as a bit of glamour thrown in. Just sort of a nice little setting to play out your grandiosity. I mean, pop music can be such a grandiose genre and we’re just pushing it. A setting like that is perfect fodder for us to indulge, again at the expense of actual good taste.
Well then, what did you reflect on the last time you were at [venerable Santa Cruz coffee shop] Café Pergolesi?
Josh Alper: There’s more of a gritty quality there I think but there’s definitely an outright fashionable statement being made there. More than one. I mean, I find those kinds of things fun. It’s so easy to hate. I mean, people would say, ‘Oh, I can’t stand it there,’ and blah blah blah. But it’s fun! I mean it’s got a nice porch and they serve beer there and they have live shows. I’ve actually gone there to write lyrics a number of times so it’s nice. It’s worked out. And they have art on the wall there too. It’s definitely a youth culture epicenter in Santa Cruz … which makes it valid.
When was the last time you felt out of your league?
Josh Alper: I’m in a constant state of that right now honestly. I don’t want to go so dramatic that I’m saying I’m having a crisis but I would say that going on tour with Woods and being musically active again on any level is entirely creating that situation. That song was written from the heart, for sure. Maybe lyrically it steers off in other directions but it’s flirting with my reality. You look around and there are all these people making albums and some of them are completely mind blowing and it’s just like, ‘Well, where do I fit in? Why should I?’ Maybe not everybody has that questioning. That song was written in the perfect context because the Woodsist guys asked us to write a song for a compilation they were making and Glenn and I were both like, ‘Woah, that label is going off right now. How can we comfortably do this?’ So I had that line lying around and we wrote that one together collaboratively, which was nice as an act of songwriting. I’m trying to feel a little less so, but I probably won’t.
I know you work at the university library—is that the kind of laid-back job that people might expect it to be?
Josh Alper: I can say that library culture is a bit of a roller coaster just in general. I’m sure any sort of company is like this but I think that libraries in particular are made up of a certain kind of people with an underlying disposition and the interactions can be pretty funny. But right now, it’s been pretty crazy because students have been wanting to study at the Science Library but they’ve cut the library hours and it’s been pretty politically charged actually. I’m trying to think of anything else. 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?
Josh Alper: No, it’s gone. But it was in the section of books about political history.
Well, that can get people very agitated. You’ve said that when you were a teenager and feeling lost in the world, the Television Personalities spoke to you. I’m wondering if there’s a teenager out there today who feels lost in the world and he listens to the Art Museums and vibes with that, what kind of message would you hope he gets out of what you are doing?
Josh Alper: I think, just have fun with creating maybe, as idealistic as that sounds. And maybe to improve the way they dress on a daily basis.
Are you all snappy dressers onstage?
Josh Alper: Uh, no. We’d like to claim that hard-edged line but we’re decidedly comfortable.
What kinds of things would you say the Art Museums are categorically opposed to as a band?
Josh Alper: What are we opposed to? Like not in to? Um … I think we’re into everything!
You talk about the Television Personalities having a certain sound that you’re inspired by. How would you describe that sound? Or what other kinds of bands would you put in with that group?
Josh Alper: It’s funny because there’s definitely been a reaction to the sound of our first album as far as people writing about it. I guess I can cover a whole range of things between the actual songwriting style as well as the recording quality as well. It’s sort of a wide ranging thing. For me, the Television Personalities … and I think it’s tied into the Kinks as well … but I think 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 again 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. I can’t expect him to talk about it, but I’d love to hear about that time when he was doing his first label and he was collaborating heavily with a guy name Ed Ball who was in that band at the time and also had his own project called the Times. Ed Ball has put out some reissues of his early albums, some of which Dan is playing on, and given some good liner notes. You just get these glimpses of a very inspired moment for those two. Definitely indulging in a somewhat ‘60s minded pop blender and reinventing that in a sense. There’s a cleverness. It’s not just an aesthetic. There’s something haunting about Dan’s writing for sure and I would say that Ed Ball has some really inspired conceptual ideas that he’s working with in the realm of pop music.
Can you talk about putting out a 7″ for Dan Treacy? Is that the only record that you’ve released on your label?
Josh Alper: 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. You know, someone would shoot some e-mail in there and you could respond or not respond … maybe people talking about recordings of live gigs or someone trying to trade recordings of things … somewhat of a typical fan based newsgroup. 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 can not imagine what it was like because I had just lost my mind to his songs for years on end at that point. I found out about that band by way of MTV in the late ‘80s. I kind of was into it but something bit me around ’93 or ’94 and I was like, ‘What!?’ You know, you have this one album by this band and you’ re into it and you like it but one day, not immediately, but you start thinking, wow, what is this all about? 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. I think his birthday was coming up. I think his birthday is in May or June or something like that. This person was just like, ‘Here, here’s the address. Write to him and send him your wishes.’ And having had a very successful experience in the past sending a letter to someone who I had been inspired by I thought I had to write him. So I undressed and posed naked in front of a Polaroid … no, I’m kidding! But 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. I was in high school and about to get out and the world all around me just seemed completely hard to handle or I could not make sense of myself in the world but I saw this video. There was some vague quality to it and he was singing a song about Salvador Dali’s garden party and it just tapped into this thing that I maybe didn’t even understand completely, but 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. This thing spoke to me so I related the fact that I couldn’t maybe wrap my head around what I saw but I knew I wanted more of it. So I basically sent it out there and maybe two or three months down the line, he e-mailed me back. I can’t remember if I mentioned anything in that letter about wanting to release anything per se. I might have said something like, ‘I don’t know if you plan on doing music ever again or not but if you find yourself doing that and you want someone to release something, count me in.’ Or something like that. Just that I support you and your art. Or that I want to and am trying to at least. It’s kind of a long story from that point on with e-mails going back and forth. I wired him money for recording costs and there have definitely been legends about that interaction. Not that specific interaction but that interaction in this realm, you know? And I knew that going into it. I mean, I wasn’t going to do anything completely off the wall but I figured, ok, I’m willing to throw that to the wind and see what happens. And I think down the line they got it together. I think some of the band mates were definitely helpful. This one guy Mike Stone, who was playing bass, was very helpful in coordinating the actual stuff coming over but Dan communicated all the time. He’d go through disappearing periods but subsequently it’s been interesting because he’s much more present now. He’s got his own Facebook page and everything. But going back to that release, I have nothing but great feelings about it. It was an amazing thing to have been allowed to do. I don’t even know if he’ll ever realize that it was that much of a gift to me for him to do that. Once the recordings were there, it was very easy. The distributor, Revolver, was very helpful in getting it out there. It just seemed all around positive. The band seemed to be happy as far as I gathered from them. There was talk of possibly doing another release down the line so we’ll see. I’m not really pushing it because I see he has stuff coming out on labels. I think he has a new album that’s just been released or something like that, which I have yet to hear incarnate.
Is that the only release you’ve done?
Josh Alper: Well, the first release on that label was actually a split release with Whysp and the Story. In a way, it’s kind of a funny thing because it involved Martin Welham, another musician who was very influential in my life. Maybe that’s my shtick as far as having a label. I guess that’s what it is for everyone maybe, but these are heroes and I don’t know if everyone’s label is involving their heroes per se … maybe colleagues or artists that you like. It’s an entirely self-serving, non-financially viable label. 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?
Josh Alper: Town visionary.
Can you talk a little more about the Times conceptually?
Josh Alper: As far as I know, the Times put out a sort of mod pop album at first and they were somewhat kitschy but pretty solid mod pop songs and then I think he went on to do this three album cycle. I can’t say I’ve swallowed it whole yet but it starts off with an album called This is London and then Hello Europe and then Enjoy the Times. It seems to be this sort of highfalutin idea of this guy … well, I’ve been really focused on the middle album as of late because this one song in particular still inspires me the most … but This is London is this very sort of British thing. I think somebody maybe comes to London from somewhere else in England and it talks about that vibe of London and the alienation but also the upswing of the culture there and somehow there’s this political involvement. It’s all in the songs for sure and he spells it out in some of the liner notes. The first song on Hello Europe is called ‘Dada Europe (I’m So Cut Up About You)’ and it starts out with sound bites, like people being interviewed on the BBC or some radio program and it’s these people making these grand pronouncements about the state of affairs in the world. I actually found Ed Ball on MySpace and I asked him who did those voices because the American president on that album is named John Makepeace. Basically, it ends up with missiles being placed in France and it’s this showdown between the United States and Western Europe and the United States’ reoccurring theme is basically nuclear annihilation. They keep playing that card and of course the name John Makepeace … there’s just a lot of stuff like that written into his narrative and it’s quite amazing and I just don’t know how many critics have given it the time of day. There’s a lot going on there and I think it’s interesting too with the way the world has gone with the Bush administration and the last thing we went through and the way America situated itself in the world … I mean, we probably were like that back in the ‘80s with Reagan as well in a sense but it seemingly rings true. He seemed to have somehow perceived the cultural character very well and served them back to us in the course of these albums.
Was there any kind of intended overarching theme to the Art Museums album?
Josh Alper: Nothing like that. We did not set out recording with anything conceptually in mind, even album wise. I guess I’d say conceptually we had in mind to make some pop music that’s along the lines of the stuff that we’d digested. I think Glenn is more cultured musically than I am. I’m pretty much a musical shut-in. I find what I like and I literally do surround myself in that and I take little tidbits here and there and if something happens to taste really good, I’ll open up to it but Glenn is much more adept at working in a lot of different ideas and influences into his songwriting. In my disturbed state, basically we had these albums that we loved and we thought let’s just try writing some songs that might not fit on those albums exactly but could fit alongside them. I’d written some pop songs on my own in the past but it was always apologetically and this was sort of, ‘Ok, I’m not going to do this apologetically.’ In fact, that was almost a working mantra from Glenn: just think of them as throwaways. And that’s very liberating. It’s wonderful because all of a sudden you just let yourself start writing and you think, wow, this is kind of intriguing and you find yourself, despite yourself, working on these things more than you had any idea that you were going to. Once the idea of the album came along, we kept recording over 2009 and the songs seemed to go with one another decently. Glenn wrote a couple in there as well. I guess there was a bit of a zone that we were resonating in that kind of figures with the Creation records stuff and the Television Personalities and … this is probably the stuff that gets mentioned all the time … but the New Zealand stuff like the Clean and the Chills, specifically. Maybe even the Verlaines and the Go-Betweens. There’s something about that. It’s almost like a naïve but ingenious pop music.
Can you tell me a little about the Art Museums live experience?
Well, we’ve only played one show! We’re on the eve of our second which is a week from tomorrow. But yeah, one show. It’s me and Glenn. We’ve roped Virginia from the Mantles into playing drums. It’s this electro-drums, sort of drum pad kind of thing. And it’s very big of her to want to spend time with us doing that and also being cool with playing this pretty bizarre, sketchy instrument. The other person we roped in is Carly Putnam who is playing bass. She’s a Santa Cruz person right now though I’m not sure for how long. I met her in Santa Cruz about a year ago and she’s playing guitar in another band in town called Green Flash. We got to speaking musically at some point and I also found that she was a fan of a similar direction. It was never really a huge campaign for Glenn and I to play live and maybe this is a tell tale sign of us being the age that we are. We’re not like, ‘We have to prove ourselves and have a band!’ In a sense it’s more like, ‘I don’t know. Should we do this?’ We’re sort of more in that area. But the right people turned up and were interested in helping us out. We basically started practicing toward the tail end of last year. Obviously Virginia has another thriving band for sure but you see this stuff all the time where someone is in one band is also seemingly able to handle the duties of another one here and there. We’re actually going on tour with the Mantles and Woods in June. Woodsist has been a very supportive label. From Glenn’s initial idea to record these songs they’ve been very encouraging … maybe to the detriment of culture! But they seem to believe in us. It’s kind of hard to pass up these opportunities especially when they sound like they’re going to be enjoyable and inspirational too.
ARTHUR PRESENTS THE ART MUSEUMS WITH WOODS, KURT VILE, ABE VIGODA, REAL ESTATE, MANTLES, NODZZZ, SUN ARAW, ALL SAINTS DAY AND THE BATHS ON TUE., JUN. 15, AT THE ECHO AND ECHOPLEX, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 6 PM / $10 / ALL AGES. ATTHEECHO.COM. THE ART MUSEUMS’ ROUGH FRAME IS OUT NOW ON WOODSIST. VISIT THE ART MUSEUMS AT MYSPACE.COM/THEARTMUSEUMS.