In September 2009, when word filtered out that slacker-rock legends Pavement were reforming, thousands of bloggers, newspapers and bloggers-for-newspapers took to the Internet to trumpet the news. It was a veritable new-millennial traffic-spike: a source of gossip-mill excitement for generations of indie nerds. Comment threads filled with banter, old Pavement bootlegs were disseminated into the digital diaspora, message-board discussions about possible/probable/hopedfor set lists entailed. The act of getting the band back together was akin to the stone thrown in the pond, and the ripples of digital static washed outwards apace.
Twenty years earlier, when Pavement released their first seven-inch single, there was no press fanfare. There wasn’t even a press release. The five-song set was self-released by a band who, at that time, were a mysterious entity, attributed only to similarly mysterious entities SM and Spiral Stairs. They didn’t have a band photo. No one knew who they were.
That radical change is largely due to Pavement’s escalating profile; after all, that once-anonymous SM fellow, Stephen Malkmus, became a near rock star in the 1990s as the band’s handsome, sarcastic and dead-pan front man. But it’s impossible not to notice how the online realm has completely changed the recognition of music. How the visibility – both figurative and literal – associated with pure sound has, in many ways, superseded a now anachronistic notion: what’s on the record.
‘Early Pavement singles had that feeling [of mystery] about them,’ says Brian Weitz, aka Animal Collective knob-twiddler Geologist, who first hounded down those old Pavement sides as a middle-school music dork in suburban Maryland. ‘We grew up on mystery in the 1990s, listening to bands like the Sun City Girls. It was nice to feel like you didn’t know who these people were or where this music was coming from.’
When Weitz and his high-school friends started making music, they took the ability to work with mystery as a given. Adopting pseudonyms, eschewing interviews, wearing masks in press photos, and seemingly speaking their own language, they self-released three early records before they even settled on the name Animal Collective.
Skip forward a decade and Animal Collective are not only one of the biggest bands in the world; they’ve also been stripped of their mystery. We know their names, their ages, their back stories, their spouses. Hell, the world even knows that Weitz’s wedding took place on 31 October 2009, with guests in full Halloween costumes! What happened to the glories of the unknown?
‘With the Internet you can’t keep a sense of mystery about you unless you work really hard at it,’ Weitz offers. ‘And we were never really trying that hard to keep up this sense of mystery.’
Perhaps no artist is so synonymous with the death of mystery – the stripping away of anonymity, elusiveness and distance – as Jandek. From the late nineteen seventies to the early noughties, a mysterious Texan of unknown identity sent his self-pressed Jandek records – usually two or three a year – out into the world. The music was utterly alien: a kind of improvised, detuned, spectral blues of arrhythmic, creepy ambience. The lack of any biographical information and the artist’s complete refusal to be interviewed or perform in public gave rise to a genuine mythology; something which was chronicled in Chad Freidrichs’ 2003 documentary Jandek On Corwood.
Then, in October 2004, the romance of Jandek the Myth gave way to the banality of Jandek the Man. After twenty-six years and thirtyseven albums, he made a surprise live appearance at a music festival in Glasgow. With the bubble of mystery effectively burst, the biographical details soon followed: we now know that Jandek is sixty-four-year-old securities broker Sterling Richard Smith. He has still never been interviewed, but he’s played dozens of shows, collaborating with a rollcall of hipster/experimental musicians (and, in a ‘hilarious’ video that turned up on YouTube, a pair of tasteless funktastic session hotshots) on stages everywhere from music-biz orgy SXSW to Australia, where he toured this March.
‘It’s so weird that [Jandek] has come out of all that mystery after twenty-five, thirty years, and now it’s just so…mundane,’ laments Efrim Menuck, the founder of fiercely political Québécois collectives Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. ‘What’s so strange to me, as someone who had a relationship with his records, is that he made a conscious decision to out himself. Maybe that’s the last mystery left: exactly why it was he decided to just start playing shows.’
Though it wasn’t quite a Pavement-level page-hits generator, Menuck and his Godspeed cohorts caused all kinds of newsworthy excitement in 2010 when they announced they were playing shows after laying dormant for seven years. Disparaging the inevitable ‘rivers of noise and distraction’ bound to accompany their return, the band sent out an open letter regarding their reunion, in which they decreed they’d be doing no interviews, and spat that ‘the Internet is a petty tyrannical monster’.
Godspeed have long had a contentious relationship with the press, deciding to ‘pick and choose’ who they’ll talk to. Some of this selectivity was due to the band’s nature – ‘it was an exercise in severe democracy, which meant that every single statement that we made, we had to come to some sort of agreement on it between the nine of us,’ says Menuck – but, undeniably, it was also to do with mystery, and their own nostalgia for such. ‘Years ago, when we were younger, the bands we liked weren’t written about in glossy magazines,’ Godspeed guitarist David Bryant told an interviewer for magazine The Wire, in 1998. ‘The only information available was contained on record sleeves and inserts. Every band seemed to have a mystique then.’
Recently, there’s been a host of acts attempting to conjure that same sense of mystique. In 2009, numerous pop acts arose offering only song files, not information; blog-friendly bands like JJ, Summer Camp, and Hurts started out minus a biography. Inevitably, their anonymity was lost; usually handed over when the pressure of keeping it up in an online era proved too much.
These ‘Mystery Wars’ are something that Weitz has observed as a mere fan of the dubstep scene in the UK. ‘Zomby won’t show his face and tries to remain anonymous, and he gets worried about even performing live because of it,’ he reveals. ‘And Burial tried to remain anonymous but he ended up just outing himself because, with the Internet, his anonymity just became this huge thing. When you have to work really hard at it, it ceases to become this fun, interesting thing. And, unless you’re really desperate to remain anonymous, it’s more work than fun to create that mystique now.’
These days, the tendency errs towards not a lack of information but too much. Speaking to New Yorker songstress/fretboard-flayer St. Vincent – aka twenty-seven-year-old, Oklahoma-born Annie Clark – it’s strange to hear her say the only ‘goal’ she has, in doing interviews, is to not ‘give too much away’ with her own music and ‘try to maintain at least an element of mystery’.
When pressed, Clark admits that her hope is sheer folly. Where, she acknowledges, performers from past eras could use distance to create ‘a distinction between private and public personae’, now the insatiable appetite of the digital realm has created a climate of never-ending disclosure. ‘There’s this weird compulsion to be constantly reporting on yourself,’ Clark claims. ‘I started Twittering, and I wrote a couple of things that were almost personal, and I started feeling really weird about it. It seemed self-aggrandising. I felt too … creepy about it. I don’t begrudge other people doing it, but technology: creepy!’
In the Twitter era, it’s hard for those who grew up in the technological Stone Age of the twentieth century not to be creeped out by the baggage saddled to new music. Not just the requisite biography, press photographs and sales points that come with a release, but the mass of opinions that swamp even the most obscure of solitary mp3s. The days of discovering a record, and not knowing anyone else who’s heard it, are long dead. Now it’s close to impossible to (as that great idealist, George Michael, once dreamed) listen without prejudice; to dislodge the hearing of songs from the hot air of hearsay clouding such sound.
This goes hand in hand with the changing nature of the listening experience. Roughly a billion sentimental middle-aged rock critics have authored odes to the Death of The Album (often, ironically, on blogs), and we’re all well aware of how any LP is merely an assortment of compressed-audio files batched together. But, beyond the record’s new role as a resource for iPod fodder, few seem as concerned by the sheer surfeit of (pseudo-) albums.
When seen in all its excess, the current state of music consumption starts to resemble a utopian future-world turned dystopian nightmare. Sure, more amazing music is being made now than ever before – the sheer volume of great new bands arriving every day is mind-blowing – and, even better, anyone with an Internet connection can get any album ever made for free. But when do you ever get to listen to the more than fifty days of music you already have in iTunes?
Taken simultaneously, these developments in the appreciation of music (increasing discourse, decreasing listening) have created an ugly new cult. ‘I meet people now who have so much to say to me about what I do, and then, through talking to them, I’ll realise they’ve never really listened to my music, [and] their opinions are strictly based on things they’ve read about me on the Internet,’ says Dayve Hawk, the American electronic artist whose array of productions, under the names Memory Tapes, Memory Cassette, and Weird Tapes, set the blogosphere abuzz in 2009.
‘It’s such a strange culture that exists now, where people will speak authoritatively on things they’ve never heard,’ Hawk continues. ‘Or, if people have “heard” a new song it means that they’ve scanned through it on a streaming player. They didn’t even listen to the whole song! They just skipped ahead, skipped ahead, just moved the bar along.’
Hawk embodies many of the music/mystery conflicts of the new day. At twenty-eight, he is old enough to ‘remember buying records by bands that you just genuinely didn’t know anything about, so you didn’t filter that into the music, you just liked the music’. And, after an uncomfortable stint fronting pop combo Hail Social, Hawk bunkered down in his home studio in the pinewoods of New Jersey, sending out his melancholy electro music via a blog, with no explanatory anecdotes or background info.
Though Hawk is attracted to the idea of ‘genuine anonymity’, he wasn’t trying to create an air of mystery; instead he wanted the music to speak for itself. Bizarrely, that move backfired. ‘I found by trying not to have special attention paid to me I ended up just drawing more attention to myself,’ he says. ‘At first, I just put the music out there, and didn’t make anything of myself. But then people got so curious about me that they ended up paying more attention to that than the music.’
To rid himself of that ‘unwelcome distraction’, Hawk outed himself, had press photos taken and started doing interviews, where he spoke candidly about his private life as a stay-at-home dad. It was only by creating a public persona that Hawk could once again relax and concentrate on the music; only through stripping the mystery of his identity away could he make his identity a non-issue.
It was this paradox of the digital epoch that in 2009 gave birth to Internet phenomenon Iamamiwhoami. The series of anonymously issued, expensive music videos (dismissed by Alison Goldfrapp, once rumoured to be behind them, as ‘those girl-licking-a-tree videos’) were at once an attempt to wrest viral videos away from marketeers, and a brazen form of marketing unto themselves. Though the Iamamiwhoami mystery unfolded with expertly plotted, carefully choreographed clues that – as in some serial-killer movie or whodunit fiction – took the ruse to a form of high art, it wasn’t hard to notice that The Game came replete with iPhone applications and Amazon downloads.
In that, the Iamamiwhoami circus – an elaborate experiment in ‘playing’ the Internet as if it was an instrument – came to almost perfectly symbolise the state of music circa 2010. That music is now as much about YouTube profiles, blog conjecture and furtive attempts at beating ‘leaks’ as anything else. And that, strangely, in order to create a sense of mystery, you have to be as visible as possible.