Friday, February 15, 2008

How Did They Hear What I Was Dreaming?

The art I am most entranced by is the art I feel was stolen from my dreams. There's no ostensible pattern to this. Mulholland Drive, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Max Ernst, early Cocteau Twins, the first Devo album, Tubeway Army's Replicas, certain Industrial music videos, Jacob's Ladder, The Royal Tannebaums, My Bloody Valentine, Brian Eno's 70's work, The Go Team, and Cliff Martinez' Solaris soundtrack all strike very deep chords in me that I can't quantify, nor am I entirely sure I want to. As tempting as it is to puzzle out exactly why this material triggers something so profound within me, I'm also afraid over-analysis will break the spell.

But I do wonder why people will feel the same subconscious tug from certain songs or films. Why do people use the term "dream pop" to refer to bands like Lush or the Cocteau Twins? We surely don't all have the same dreams, and not all dream pop bands use a lot of echo or reverb to achieve their effects. And I don't know about you but I don't remember a lot of echoes in my dreams. My dreams always seem like reality. If they didn't, they would have no power at all.

One band that has really dug deep into my Dreaming Mind was the Anglo-French outfit Stereolab. They've been almost too prolific in past years, but three albums in particular, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night have burrowed themselves deeply into my brain. All three records are completely different in style, approach and execution but all three sounded like I'd heard them forever the minute I first gave them a spin.

The above video for 'Jenny Ondioline' isn't much, a pretty standard, low-budget indie rock job, but the song is like music I heard a million years ago. Stereolab's use of repetition and drone is usually cited as the source for their magic, but they can pull off the same effect without it. I'm not sure the band themselves could explain what they are doing, and it must be said their magic is pretty hit or miss. They most certainly have an idea of where they want to take their music, but the magic is something that visits upon them when the conditions are right. It's this way with all art, to be sure.

This video, however, is something special indeed. Taken from their masterpiece, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (my pick for best album of the 90s), the clip here for ' The Noise of Carpet' is something Man Ray or Luis Bunuel or David Lynch themselves would be proud of. There's a greater lesson here, too.

The fact is that all alternative or underground art can be traced directly back to the Dada and Surrealism movements of the 1920, where the formal restrictions on art were obliterated forever. The most interesting aspects of the Punk movement- the graphics, the clothing, the confrontationalism- are ripped straight out of the Dada movement. Most of the pivotal figures in Punk and its offshoots came from an art school background, especially from a time when art schools used to actually teach something to their students.

In many ways, Continental Europe exhausted itself culturally with the wars of the 20th Century and the Anglophone countries took the lead the 40s. But outside of a few pockets of resistance in London or Manhattan or California (or accidents of circumstance like 60s and 70s Marvel Comics), American culture in particular has always been driven almost entirely by base commercial interests.

But my gut tells me the old European gods are stirring once again, and bands like Stereolab have kept their flames burning with their Francopop and Krautrock obsessions. The Dada and Surrealist movements were dedicated to an European reverence for the Dreaming Mind, something that is largely anathema to Puritan America.

One thing we aren't told in civics class is that all of those brave pilgrims were merely useful idiots- and shock troops - for powerful commercial interests like the Massachusetts Bay Company. And you can see the legacy of this every day in America. But as I've written before, pop culture needs the Dreamers to replenish its cache and the crisis the record and movie industries are experiencing is a sure sign that too much water has been taken from the old wells.

All of Art is - or should be- Dream made manifest. And as I've said before and will repeat many more times in the future,the utter bankruptcy of our current culture is a sure sign we aren't dreaming as a people. My hope is that artists will begin to really test the possibilities of all the amazing technology and will avoid the temptations of celebrity that have destroyed so many talented souls. If you look at artists like Stereolab or David Lynch- who devote themselves completely to the Dreaming Mind- you can't help but notice their perseverance while contemporaries of theirs who went for the big payday crashed and burned.


  1. Now you're freaking me out. I posted earlier about King Kong and Kirby's '2001' - and now you cite the three Stereolab albums I still listen to often (especially since the difference a decade makes has been so much on my mind lately). Although never a big 'dreampop' fan, the opening chords of 'Tone Burst' sent a weird shiver of recognition down my spine when I first heard it. Made the mistake of hunting for that something 'similar' where I could get THAT feeling - but there's only one Stereolab (seen 'em more times than any other band). Talk about synchronicity...

    As for the lack of reverence for dreamtime in US culture - what about film noir? Between 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Touch of Evil' was an incredibly rich period of Hollywood. The most haunting images in US cinema can be found in those movies (like Shelly Winters under the fishing boat in 'Night of the Hunter'). The pulp a lot of it was based on was packed with collective nightmares and dreams. The 'hauntology' of a lot of pre-Elvis popular music ('old weird America') has been sending me into a twilight zone these days too. But I suppose the acceleration of technology and the obsession with the constructed 'youth market' has rapidly extinguished the weirder edges of American popular culture (compare Kirby with the photoshopped hackery that Marvel does nowadays).

    Anyhow, great blog!

  2. I think your film noir reference is instructive- it was actually in France where those films were celebrated. They were not huge hits here.

    Could you give us all a link to your Kirby piece?

  3. PS The thing about the early music fascinates me because a lot of that stuff was either live or field recordings and you really got that sense of space. I think that effect was behind the invention of reverb.

    That's the reason the first u2 album hit me so hard as well.

  4. I commented on your blog about a week ago about the impact that Kirby's '2001' had on my young mind, and being initiated to cinema with 'King Kong' the same year.

    I don't have a blog (yet)

  5. p.s. Good point about noir finding most success in Europe (and most of its directors fleeing Nazism).

    Mind you, the more 'adult' 70s 'new Hollywood' types pretty much used noir as a template, and a lot of better directors now (Coens, Nolan, Lynch etc.) are heavily informed by it...