Childhood Cacophony

Originally posted at Edward Copeland on Film, 05/26/2010.

I was 4, and visiting The Dalles, Oregon, during the first Christmas I can consciously remember. My uncle, who had a satellite dish and a 21 inch TV, had bought this VCR for his family, one of those Ford Granada-sized top loading behemoths that were a sign that one had made it in this world. And along with the VCR, he had obtained a copy of a movie I hadn’t yet heard about. A movie called Star Wars.

I was 4. I didn’t understand half of what was flying off the 21 inch screen. I was 3 feet in front of it, close enough to be lost in the scan lines. I don’t remember much, but I remember that I was remembering everything. I was committing it all to memory. It was weird, realizing I was recording these memories as they happened; half toddler/half computer, clad in corduroy and orange, staring at walking carpets and drowning in the wonderful combination of strings and drums and wrenches on guy-wires and gargoyle scuba tanks, the beautiful cacophony spilling from 3 inch speakers on either side of that 21 inch TV.

I remember the hamburger ship. I remember the one-eyed garbage monster. I remember the X ships blowing up the O base and the football player teasing the hell out of the blond dude in the bathrobe. I remember the giant dog with the diagonal belt yelling in time with the drums and the trumpets as they all won Olympic medals for blowing up big gray basketballs. I remember that, and the view out the window.

I was 4, and just behind this strange, beautiful mish-mash of visuals was a window, and the porch light nearby illuminated every single fat snowflake descending from the clouds. And to my 4 year old mind, watching this movie with a hamburger ship speeding through Mylar tunnels in something called “hyperspace,” the snow wasn’t falling; The house was flying. And as the Falcon blasted toward Yavin, I fully believed my uncle’s house was ascending towards the cosmos, the Christmas lights bouncing off the white walls, softened by the shaggy brown carpet I was laying on, blending with the light through the window, melting into the sounds and images vibrating off the TV.

It is my birthday. I am 7 years old. It is December and I’ve spent the last month and a half circling Star Wars toys in the Sears catalogue. Return of the Jedi has been out for about a year and a half, and I still haven’t seen it. I’ve checked out the read-along book from the Marion County bookmobile whenever it is available. I’ve deprived so many kids of their visits to that galaxy far, far away. I read along and I listen along, at least once every day. I color over the read-along book. I fall asleep with the cassette playing on my Fisher-Price tape-deck. The film has just moved to the Star Cinema in Stayton, Ore., December 1984. It is a surprise birthday present from my parents, after constant nagging to do things like tape making-of specials off Channel 6, and buy me action figures they couldn’t afford. December 16th rolls around. My dad shows me the movie listings in the newspaper. My eyes zero in on the Star Wars logo. I look up at him, unblinking, unbelieving. He smiles back.

I’m in the car. I’m in the theater. I’m cracking up my parents because months and months of falling asleep to the read-along has me humming themes as they spill out of the speakers. Tiny hands conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from thousands of miles away, years in the future. I’m saying the lines a second before the actors can recite them. I’m a 7 year old affecting a shit British accent and stepping on Ian McDiarmid’s dialogue. “So be it…Jedi.”

This is the first time I’ve ever been inside a movie theater, and it is everything all at once and I love it.

We’re going home. Amazingly, the AM station segues from some lite rock into, of all things, the Star Wars theme. Snow is blowing across the windshield. It looks like hyperspace. I fall asleep in the backseat, John Williams in my ears. And that’s why, whenever it snows outside, I put in the soundtrack. The one that comes in the plain black cover with the plain white letters that say Star Wars on it. I let Williams play full blast. And I imagine my car is chasing after my Uncle’s house. And if I catch that house, inside there is a 4 year old in corduroy and orange, resting his head on his hands, elbows dug into a shaggy carpet, awakening to the concept of imagination, and realizing the majesty in it.

The visuals of my childhood may look like Jim Henson. But the audio? It’s all John Williams.

Published in: on 01/10/2012 at 1:21 am  Comments Off on Childhood Cacophony  
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The Fatboy Roberts Interview: Funky New Magic in Great Old Movie Scores

An interview by Scott E. Weinberg. Originally posted at Cinematical.com. Reposted here partially to indulge my own ego, and partially because AOL/Huffington Post were giant dicks to Cinematical, and I’d rather people read the interview here than give them hits.

Normally I approach “fan-made” remixes (be they audio, textual, or visual) with a grain of salt, a little charity, and a general sense of disinterest. But it took me less than ten minutes of Fatboy Roberts‘ recent release — Geek: Remixed III — before I realized how impressive this stuff was. My first exposure to his music was via the excellent Portland cartoonist / film critic / bon vivant Mike Russell. My reaction? “I love this Mario Bros. track because it’s not ironic.”

Mr. Roberts was truly enjoying the goofy little Mario ditty, and he wanted to make it sound a little, well, funkier. But then he approached movie music masters like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Jerry Goldsmith with the same amount of respect; Fatboy’s additions actively complement the already-excellent music that we know and love. This is not an over-caffeinated kid who is blaring noises over the ‘Jaws’ theme, but a sincere movie-lover who also has a real gift for bad-ass beats.

So I told the guy we should chat. And we did.

Harsh critics call this stuff plagiarism. Loyal fans call it a new angle on some great music. What’s your take?

It’s a nostalgia bath, really. Auditory comfort food. At least, that’s how I always looked at it. Both from the perspective of the stuff I’m sampling and the way I’m interpreting it: I’m taking the music of my nerdy formative years, and combining it with the sort of hip-hop production they stopped doing right around 1997, right before sample laws got really harsh and people started making beats that sounded like they were learning on a Casio made out of Tupperware. I can see the plagiarism argument: I’m essentially taking some genius from John Williams / Jerry Goldsmith / Danny Elfman, taking a razor blade to it and then throwing a sack of breakbeats at it. It’s not entirely original. But “originality” and “pop music” don’t necessarily go hand in hand anyway. Ask Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters what they think about Led Zeppelin’s existence, you’d probably get a different answer than the one Robert Plant would give you.

Every track (from all three albums) contains a theme from a film, a TV show, or a video game. Why is popular culture more fun to sample from than the more traditional DJ resources?

I started doing it because I was a nerd, and I thought there were hidden nuggets of unrecognized funk in some of these movie scores, and especially in the TV themes, and as I was learning how to make beats in the mid-’90s, I realized that you can’t just keep going to the same James Brown/Zapp samples. (That said, I think there’s a Zapp/JB/Parliament sample on every Geek: Remixed album.) And honestly, it was fun to play back a tape for my friends, have them nod their heads, and then spring the sample on ’em like “Oh yeah, you were just dancing to the theme from Barney Miller.” “WHAAAAA?” “Yeah, and then for my next trick, you’re going to start wilding out to Unicron’s Theme from Transformers: The Movie” “SHUT UP.”

When you hear a musical score you admire, do you start remixing it in your head right away, or does it take a while before you love something enough to “monkey” with it?

It typically takes a while. I think I make note of the moments when a cue feels like it can be flipped and re-arranged to fit a more typical song structure, but they don’t really make themselves apparent to me until I sit down and start deconstructing the cues into their component parts: 4-bar string rhythm here, big orchestral hit there, melody, bass line. From there, I can start stacking parts of cues like funky Lego blocks, adding and subtracting things until I get something nice and chunky sounding to play with.

For example, the ‘Doctor Who‘ remix I did on the third album; I knew it’d been remixed before, to wide acclaim, both by the KLF and by Orbital. But I didn’t know until I sat down for a couple hours separating out the bass and the melodies that my version was gonna end up sounding like someone stuck the TARDIS on 20″ rims and gave it hydraulics. Same thing happened with the Cobra Theme from ‘GI JOE: The Movie.’ But sometimes, like with “Why So Serious” from ‘The Dark Knight‘ – I know exactly how it’s gonna work on first listen.

Music or movies: you have to choose one. What do you do?

I think I go movies. But it’s kind of a cheat, since some of the most powerful and compelling moments in film are only achieved because of the score behind them. The first 15 minutes of “Up,” for example. But I think the opportunities for storytelling are richer in film, ultimately. Especially if you throw in television — some of the finest storytelling ever captured on camera has spilled out over the course of 10 episode story arcs on shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica.’

What are some of your favorite film scores and/or composers?

John Williams during his golden period: ’77 – ’85. I know others will say that should probably extend out to around ’92 or ’93. Recently, Bear McCreary’s work on ‘Battlestar’ is just awe-inspiring, and Michael Giacchino is some kind of phenom. Lalo Schifrin and John Barry are two of my bigger inspirations as well. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is probably the best piece of Bond music ever written, and even if the Propellerheads hadn’t perfectly reinterpreted that on their own, I think I’d STILL be too scared to attempt touching it. It took me three albums before I finally decided to try remixing “The Asteroid Field” from ‘The Empire Strikes Back.‘ I mean, I know that I’m not REALLY ruining these songs with these remixes. The originals are still there, and if anything, a crappy remix just makes the original look that much better by comparison. But there are some cues that I just won’t touch. There’s not gonna be some ‘Schindler’s List’ scratch tracks on any Geek: Remixed album.

The majority of your albums consists of music that belongs to other people, so (obviously) you cannot sell them. So all of this is just for the fun of it?

Yeah. I started doing them as a creative outlet for myself when my dreams of being a hip-hop producer were sputtering out and dying in my post-high school years in Salem, OR. So I’d make some beats for my aspiring rapper friends, and then they’d leave, and I’d watch ‘Aliens,’ and then I’d go back over to my set-up, and I’d go “I wonder if I can make an actual percussion section out of just the motion-tracker beep and an Alien hissing?” Just to see if I could do it. You can hear me learning how to structure and arrange on the first album, which was compiled out of about a decade’s worth of squirreling away these nerdy oddities. And it goes back to that whole “You’re never gonna believe what I just turned into a hip-hop instrumental” thing. It’s just fun to watch people reinterpreting / rediscovering the music they had relegated to the background of their memories. As in “You did NOT just make a beat out of Yub-Nub, did you?”

Who are your peers? Any other movie-score-remixers we should know about?

Peers is a strange word for me to use, because I consider what I do VERY basic in comparison to the people who’ve trod the same ground. The Eclectic Method is ridiculously good, on a much higher level than I’ll ever attain, both musically and visually: They don’t just remix songs, they remix the videos those artists produced. From what I understand, Daft Punk’s ‘TRON: Legacy’ score is essentially their film-score remix album that became a legitimate film score. Danger Mouse made The Beatles/Jay Z sound like a film soundtrack, and now he’s like, 21st Century Quincy Jones. Girl Talk doesn’t really do film scores, but it often sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest teen movie never made. DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing,” of course. The first real “Film Score Remix” album I remember being made aware of was “Star Wars Breakbeats” by Supergenius. I heard that after I’d done “Don’t Make Me Destroy You” in 1997 and got MAD, but it’s hard to stay mad when the mixes were so good.

There’s been a lot of examples in regular hip-hop, too: I took my basic idea for “Meatlocker,” my ‘Rocky’ remix from the first album, from a horn loop Brand Nubian used in “Punks Jump Up To Get Beatdown.” I remember wanting that song to go in a completely different direction than where it went when I first heard it, which is a ballsy thing to say considering what a classic it is. Same with “Lothos’ Prom,” which uses a sample of violin as played by Rutger Hauer in the ‘Buffy’ movie. Blockhead, a NY producer, used that sample once, extraordinarily well, and I wanted to take a run at it too. And OCRemix is a site that’s been the hub for all video-game remixing for a very long time now. In fact, part of “Pickin Veggies,” from the 3rd album, is built off a re-imagining of the Mario 2 theme done by a group called Estradasphere. There are some serious minds picking through video game scores for sonic gold over there.

There are lots of others, but we all sort of run into the same “anonymous dude” on the internet. I’ve had mixes of mine assigned to other DJs out there. There’s stuff that’s been put on mix tapes with no attribution, or wrong attribution, but I can’t get mad at that. 1) I’m essentially stealing the music in the first place to remix it, so any claims of ownership I might have are pretty negligible (and arrogant, really) and 2) Half the stuff online is incorrectly named anyway. There are probably lots of people who think if it’s a soundtrack, John Williams wrote it, period. The ‘Alien’ score is John Williams, right? He’s the guy who did the theme to ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Forrest Gump’! That kinda thing.

My remix of “Made You Look” by Nas, with the music from the ‘Kill Bill’ trailer? I’ve seen that credited to at least four different DJs. Same with “The Requiem Overture,” which was my attempt at turning that ‘Two Towers’ trailer music into a coherent orchestral piece. I uploaded that thing to a couple fileshare sites in October or November of 2002, and I think currently about 2/3rds of all Anime supertrailers are using that mix. Also: I apologize to everyone who’s had that cue ruined for them due to its overuse by eager YouTube addicts (and Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’). I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t know.

Can you think of any films that are virtually ruined by a bad score? (I call dibs on ‘Ladyhawke’!)

The most recent example I can think of would be Darabont’s ‘The Mist.’ I love that movie to death, but the moment where the jeep is pulling out of the parking lot, and Dead Can Dance just starts warbling up out of nowhere? I remember thinking “This is some ridiculous Zack Snyder ‘300’ shit right here.” It just did not fit the tone the movie had worked so hard to build. And then the film shrugs off that misstep with THE scene (you know the scene) and then, in the aftermath – the music comes back, and its even WORSE than before. That’s the most vivid example in my mind right now.

What’s the finest compliment you could receive from a recent fan of your albums?

That they want to keep listening to it, that it’s not a one-and-done sort of experience. Of course, the fact they even gave it a shot in the first place is really satisfying to me. I appreciate that people even want to attempt putting this music in their heads. But the best compliment I’ve gotten is from people who tell me that they hear the original versions of the songs, and get thrown off for a moment because they’re waiting for the drums and the bass to kick in.

What would movies be without music?

A hell of a lot more boring and dry. Not to say there aren’t movies out there that aren’t successful keeping the music to a minimum. It took Kurosawa like 70 years before he would let a composer really breathe on his pictures. But so much of what makes movies such a pop-culture drug comes from the music in them. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, I think we, as people, want our life to be scored. Headphones and an iPod can turn a a basic train ride — a boring citywide commute — into a pretty little montage sequence. I know some of my best memories have music attached to them, whether there was music playing at the time or not.

The cliche goes “The Art is in the Artifice.” There’s nothing more artificial than having a pop song start playing in the middle of a key moment of your life — but there’s no way the end of “The Breakfast Club” works without Simple Minds singing in the background, right?

all 3 Geek: Remixed albums available, with sample info and artwork, available at http://geekremixed.com

Published in: on 12/16/2011 at 11:45 am  Comments Off on The Fatboy Roberts Interview: Funky New Magic in Great Old Movie Scores  
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“I think it went under that porch. I don’t think it’s coming back out.”

I used to work at a radio station called KUFO. It was a “heritage” station, which is radio-speak for “It’s been around for a real long time.” It enjoyed a sustained period of success in Portland, and then it faltered, and then it declined. I rode on the back of this confused colossus for 5 years. I had a fair amount of fun doing it. It shed me and my friends a couple years ago. We fell and we landed and we got up and went in different directions. We ended up in better places. We were replaced by fleas and parasites. They bit at the hide of the colossus until the skin broke. Tired, it fell to all fours, crawled under a porch, and this morning, it died.

I’m not happy to see her go. She could be pretty fun in her heyday. I guess the same goes for radio in general. Her death was inevitable, really. It’s probably not too long before the FM band gets sold off like the UHF band was, and AM signals are relegated to emergency broadcasts and traffic-only information stations. Sooner rather than later, the landscape will go dark and gather moss, and the whole thing will be fondly remembered in the amber hues of warm nostalgia.

There’s a bunch of ruddy-faced angry white men standing above her corpse now, yelling about God visiting earthquakes upon the East, shouting about Wisconsin sending messages to an outsider-President. For a city that was once known as “Little Beirut,” that is home to the one of the nation’s few openly gay mayors, that treats visits to its own 5 story tall bookstore in the same way 6 year olds treat visits to Disneyland – this seems an odd choice.

But what the old girl had become in her last year was none too inviting either. The station always had an element of the juvenile to it. A youthful recklessness in its best moments, an ugly crassness at its worst; but when it was good, it accurately reflected the face and the voice of her listeners. At some point in the late 90’s, Portland, a city that had always suffered a slight lack of identity, started fumbling towards one. Unfortunately, KUFO had lost her footing, and couldn’t keep pace as she had before.

The ability to adapt got harder and harder. She became seen as trashy. Nobody could tell who she was talking to anymore. She was affecting accents, posing, getting sloppy drunk in public and acting for all the world like if she opened a window and poked her head out, it wouldn’t be Portland outside. She was doing kegstands at a party made up of generic people, at the orders of generic people, for an image of youth that had long since been abandoned by the young.

The old girl didn’t have to go out like this. There was still some life left in her, sparks and guttering flames of inspiration. I saw it when I was there, briefly. For all the drama and trauma, it was a genuinely fun place to work for a time, before wiser heads started falling into packed boxes full of desk clutter and office accoutrements. There were people in that building who tried to steer her back towards something resembling relevance in the community. But “relevance” and “radio” are not words that are so easily married anymore. The rewards were deemed not worth the effort.

While I was there, I mostly enjoyed myself, and enjoyed the opportunity to reach out to a listenership and connect with them. It was a fun party. I got kicked out unceremoniously, but in retrospect, it was a good time to go. At least I wasn’t there when it ended. I feel bad for those, like Brent and Noah, who were still putting in the work, still showing up for their shifts and doing 3 to 4x the work listed in their job descriptions, to make up for ever-shrinking budgets. They were still clinging strongly to her side when she snuck away from her party and began stumbling for that porch.

I’m not happy to see her go, but I am happy to have been part of her existence, if only for a short time. I was part of an on-air tradition that includes people like Bill Prescott, Tawn Mastery, Al Scott, Tom Turner, Tim Savage, Dan Bozyk, Lisa Wood, Rick Emerson and of course, my Captain, Cort Webber, who stood on the shoulders of this poor, dead colossus for longer than any of us did.

Maybe in a couple years I’ll see some scraggly teenager rocking a washed out T-shirt with some permutation of the logo plastered on it. Sure, they’ll probably be wearing it ironically, but I’ll still smile. I’ve got some good memories attached to that logo.

She had a good run.

Published in: on 03/15/2011 at 3:12 pm  Comments Off on “I think it went under that porch. I don’t think it’s coming back out.”  
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So, About that Whole “Geek Culture Needs to Be Euthanized” Thing…

Originally posted 12/28/2010

The title of this note refers to Patton Oswalt’s piece in Wired Magazine advocating for the death of current Geek Culture/Pop-Culture, so that a new form may rise from its ashes, one whose badge of individuality isn’t so easily photocopied.

That article is here: http://bit.ly/hlPlR7

Oswalt describes the imminent death of Pop-Culture as needful, and details very succinctly how we got to this place. He even tries to redefine what we’ve come to recognize as “geek” with the phrase “American Otaku.” It’s a slick redefinition, and it fits wonderfully.

My problem is this – every point, every detail, seems soaked in classic Old-Grampa cliches. But instead of complaining to kids about walking barefoot in the snow, up Mount Bearscratch, to the 3-walled lean-to where they scratched a stick into a dead animal to do figures and learn the arithmetics, Oswalt is complaining about how the availability of all manner of geeky nooks and crannies of pop-culture have made pursuing your own personal American Otaku lifestyle cheap, and how the art that will come from these Otaku will be as cheap, because nothing worth having ever came easy.

The sentiment at the end of that sentence is often true. But how “cheapened” is the act of becoming a nerd, really? The article ends up making the point that geekiness is the practice of consuming things, using those purchases to define who you are as a person. In essence, you buy things people don’t buy as much, and you like those things more than other people do because of it.  Geeks buy weirder shit, and are more inspired by the things they buy.

The article quickly becomes an argument for rebalancing the consumerist heirarchy, and nothing more than that. It CAN be reduced to “This band was cool before I found out other people liked em,” but that’s unfair to both Oswalt and the article.

What separates Geeks from the more mainstreamed American Otaku, according to Oswalt? The effort geeks put into being geeky. For example – Oswalt didn’t just go to his iPad and download Watchmen in 12 issues. He read Swamp Thing, and so he knew Watchmen was going to be something special, and waited month to month to get those issues. He watched Star Wars on VHS, and didn’t have volume upon volume of Expanded Universe novels to explain to him what happened behind the secenes, between the scenes, and after the credits rolled.

But the Expanded Universe is merchandising. It’s just more product. And going to the comic store every month to pick up a book you want to read isn’t really making an effort. It’s just waiting for product to be released to you so you can consume it. You could make the argument, as a friend of mine did, that out of that geeky fervor, because of the focused interest, demand for the product is created, but MARKETING DEPARTMENTS create demand. Geeks use product to affirm their self-worth.

It would be a different thing if Oswalt paid more attention to the social ineptitude of some nerds, the ostracizing (self-imposed or otherwise) that went along with being classified as a geek in his (and my) day. But that aspect is dismissed really quickly, and largely ignored for the rest of the article. No – what makes being a geek a geek is merely putting effort into choosing which consumer product you are going to build a personality around. This is not a very strong foundation.

If THAT was why he wanted Pop-Culture to die, I’d get that. But instead, it reads as if he wishes death because people aren’t putting that “effort” in anymore. Liking a bunch of nerdy things is more accepted, but instead of looking at this growing phenomenon as something akin to a victory, an affirmation that having interests outside of sports and women is worthwhile, this mainstreaming of American Otaku is dressed as an encroaching threat on geeky individuality – an individuality that is solely defined by Oswalt as a growing collection of blister packaged, bagged-and-boarded product you can buy in monthly installments of your childhood. Based on that definition, trying to rebuild that culture in its original image seems not so heroic an endeavor.

His other, more compelling argument for the death of pop-culture is the mitigation of the American Otaku’s effect on art. If it dies now, we won’t be subjected to easy, cheap artistic endeavors, created by minds who came by their inspiration too easily, thanks to the mainstreaming of geek. And it sounds like a great argument on the face of it. “If pop-culture continues on this path, art will soon become nothing but a moebius strip of remixed mashups, written by wikipedia.” But this romanticizes the art created before the rise of the American Otaku, art created much in the same way, to the same effect, and purchased by classic-era geeks to help create and supplement their nerdy personalities. The only difference is the speed in which these nerderies are metabolized and made into new product for other people to buy.

I get the sense Oswalt is writing from a place in which he considers himself a nerdy Robert Neville, raging against the onslaught of cultural vampires come to drain him of his previous life, so wrapped up in protecting what made him who he is, that he’s missing the evolution that’s happened.  Geek has, (as was inevitable, considering who we’re talking about here) MUTATED. Maybe it’s outgrown the negative label that many had to fashion into a badge or a crown in an act of stubborn reclamation. It’s become something else. Maybe that something else is American Otaku.

It seems as if Oswalt is framing this activation of the X-gene as a bad thing. That it somehow negates all that previous “effort.” But when the simple act of purchasing product becomes a key factor in what defines your personality, the definition of “effort” gets called into question. It ignores real efforts – the attempts to bridge awkward social gaps, the attempts to understand and appreciate different things, the increasing self-education being undertaken by these Otaku to look at things they otherwise wouldn’t have looked at before, had the social stigma of “geek” maintained it’s late 80’s, early 90’s stink.

Evolution is, essentially, burning off the shit you don’t need and strengthening the things which make you better. And if the mainstreaming of geek culture means that all the negatives of being a nerd melt away, and all the joys of indulging your geeky interests are shared more widely – I guess I don’t get why we have to wish such a future dies before it truly enjoys its day in the sun.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 5:57 pm  Comments Off on So, About that Whole “Geek Culture Needs to Be Euthanized” Thing…  
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