Friday · Southgate House
In the world of outsider music, Daniel Johnston might be the outsiderest of them all. His story is so compelling and improbable and astonishing that if it were written down as fiction, it would be dismissed as too outlandish for believability.
Johnston was born in 1961 in California to fundamentalist Christian parents who moved to West Virginia when he was a child. By the late '70s, Johnston had begun recording his naive yet profound Beatles-inspired songs on a cheap mono rig in his parents basement, fashioning artwork for his tapes based on the comic books he loved and giving the tapes to anyone who'd accept them. Johnston's mental instability had been evident in childhood, but going away to college -- first to Abilene Christian, then Kent State -- exacerbated it, blossoming into full-blown manic depression. At Kent, Johnston fell in love with a girl named Laurie who did not return his affection; his unrequited love and her marriage to an undertaker inspired the songs on two of his earliest works, Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain.
In the mid-'80s, Johnston moved to Texas, eventually landing in Austin where he became something of a celebrity as he continued to struggle with his bi-polar illness. Area bands like Glass Eye and the Butthole Surfers covered his songs -- Glass Eye's Kathy McCarty did an album's worth -- and his solo gigs were well attended, despite the erratic quality of Johnston's performances. MTV filmed a segment of Cutting Edge in Austin, and Johnston's fame grew to national proportions, making fans of David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth and The Flaming Lips. Over the years, Johnston has been in and out of mental hospitals while maintaining his oddly amazing career -- contributing songs to the Kids soundtrack, doing a single major label album for Atlantic, painting a mural for an Austin record store that was saved as a historical landmark 11 years later, having a Rock opera conceived around his song "Speeding Motorcycle," becoming the subject of a 2003 star-studded tribute album (The Late Great Daniel Johnston) and 2005 film documentary (The Devil and Daniel Johnston).
Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black once related his first encounter with Johnston in 1985, when the songwriter showed up at the paper's office on a Saturday, making noises in the hallway rather than knocking.
When Black investigated, Johnston handed him a tape, saying it was for him to listen to. Black told him that he would give it to a music writer and that it might get reviewed in the paper. Black returned to work but the noises continued. When he opened the door, Johnston clarified his intention, saying, "I gave you that for you to listen to, not to review." And therein lies the essence of Daniel Johnston's music -- it defies categorization and critique and exists simply to be listened to and loved. (Brian Baker)
ANIMAL COLLECTIVE WITH SIR RICHARD BISHOP AND DJ C. SPENCER YEH
Tuesday · Southgate House
I have satellite radio (I won't say the name, because they have yet to give me a comp lifetime subscription despite my previous fawning over their services) and one of the cooler specialty programs is called "Blog Radio," where each weeknight one of the channels turns over its airwaves to a different music blogger (Gorilla Vs. Bear, My Old Kentucky Blog, etc.). It's a great cross-promotional tool, giving the satellite company some Indie cred and giving the blogs great exposure.
A few weeks ago, one of the bloggers played what seemed like an hour's worth of "Experimental Pop" bands (most of whom I hadn't heard of) that sounded like the group members were raised on a musical diet consisting solely of skipping, warped vinyl copies of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and much of The Beatles' catalog. While the crucial elements of those great artists' inventive brand of Pop are audible, these bands turned everything inside out, concocting something dizzyingly hallucinogenic and wildly magnetic. Their music skews in directions that are never anticipated, the harmonies and melodies shuffling between eccentrically ear-pleasing and rubbery near-chaos. Call it Progressive Pop Esoterica.
Animal Collective -- which was founded by members Avey Tare and Panda Bear in 2000 -- might be the kings of these bands, but their ADD-friendly experimentalism encompasses fractured collaging and other adventurous sound manipulation that defy concrete definition. If those other bands sounded like their Pet Sounds records were warped, AC's music sounds like they shattered the LP on the ground and then pieced it back together with Scotch tape. Perhaps because there is some melody evident, the AC is one of only a few "experimental music" units to crossover, not quite to the mainstream just yet (that is going to be something to behold if it ever happens), but at least to a broader base of Indie music fans, thanks to word of mouth, blog and college/internet radio support. (Members of the group have also released solo efforts -- check out the fantastic new Person Pitch album from Panda Bear to hear a slightly more direct approach to the Explodo-Pop mentioned above.)
The Collective refreshingly brings back some mystique to music; in our overstimulated "Behind the Scenes" culture, it's nice to find a unit whose entire life isn't laid out for the whole world to see. Their promo photos are shadowy, their bios sketchy and they've been known to sport animal masks for their one-of-a-kind live appearances. Their plans for world domination get a boost later this year -- after a teaser EP called People (released by FatCat Records earlier this year), the band is moving further up the label chain for their next release. Their new album is due out on the U.K.'s Domino Records -- home to Franz Ferdinand, Clinic and Junior Boys -- this September. (Mike Breen)
THE TOASTERS WITH THE BRIGGS, THEE ALLIANCE AND THE DEFEX
Tuesday · The Poison Room
When Rob Hingely moved to New York from the UK in 1982, he was horrified to find that his beloved Ska had not made the commercial leap with him. Rather than spend a king's ransom on import records to satisfy his thirst for the Reggae/New Wave hybrid sound, Hingely did the next most costly thing; he formed The Toasters, one of America's first and, after a 25-year career, longest standing Ska bands.
The first iteration of the Toasters came when guitarist/vocalist Hingley assembled the band in 1982 from co-workers at the comic book store he managed. The band's lineup has been in a state of flux ever since, with Hingley the only constant. In order to release the Toasters' inaugural 1983 single, "Beat Up," Hingley also formed Moon Ska Records, in response to major label apathy concerning the genre, ultimately building it into the largest exclusive Ska label in the U.S.
Joe Jackson produced the Toasters first EP, Recriminations, in 1985 and the band's debut full length, Skaboom, followed two years later. With Hingley championing the Ska cause through his band and his label in the '80s and '90s, the genre flourished within the New York scene, spawning dozens of similarly 2-Toned acts, many of which wound up signed to Moon Ska. In 2000, Hingley shuttered Moon Ska, but soon after started a brand new Ska label that he christened Megalith Records and began assembling a new roster of Ska artists, while continuing to pursue a relentless gigging schedule with the Toasters.
After the turn of the century, Hingley and the Toasters have notched a best-of compilation titled In Retrospect and a pair of new studio offerings -- 2002's Enemy of the State and the just-released One Magic Bullet. With one of the most ferociously independent spirits in the music industry, Robert Hingley has transformed The Toasters from a regional genre band with a narrow appeal into a world-class outfit, respected for both its consistency and its longevity. Long may they toast. (BB)