The Beauty Of Uglinessby Chad Liam Polley / Images by Paris Brummer / 08.11.2011
Human beings are exquisitely ugly; robots are sleek, efficient and well-designed (or human beings attempt to make them so). As digital-copies are to CDs are to Vinyls are to Tapes, the humanism in each seems proportional to each tier of this limited spectrum in the obvious left-to-right manner. Gee, well: Human beings are naturally warmer, filled with vibrancy and error and blood and the arrogance of sentience – enough arrogance to try too hard with limited capacities, with limited ability. Machines are, well, colder, flatter, duller – they do it right every time with plasticky obviousness; unless programmed otherwise.
It’s a vicious fight I have with many a music-lover. You see, music is subjective as all fuck. We all know this. We all should. It’s the very reason explicit (or covert) taste occurs. I don’t mean this in the manner, obviously, of good and bad taste. Just taste. Whilst many times many of the friends I know – who are all good-looking, well-dressed and have exquisite taste in music, obviously – share a similar general taste to me, our specific tastes vary quite vastly. There is a large pantheon of music out there – yes, godly – which can be recognised by its various devotees and disciples by its very essence, the very nature of it, the way it oozes out at us and gives us the krills. This is why, in the words of Nitsuh Abebe (a marvellous musical maven with a bevy of knowledge)’s column on ye olde Pitchfork, yes, This is Why We Fight.
I had a little fight at an Ampersand gig. Someone mentioned how bored they were; how Ampersand should’ve stuck to his bedroom, never left it. I got faux-angry, but meant the anger. Yes, he is bedroom. Why can’t we join him there? Why can’t we feel privileged that the Vampire Cohen has brought his scary little self-deprecatory private life a wee bit closer to us? I wave off the negativity and focus in on the vampire.
The show is empty. Wafty and open. Devoid. Hidden behind a mic swallowed by balloons, looking off-kilter juxtaposed – so not birthday party, but angry enough; his caustic hardlined failed-heroin-chic-lessness chimes in with jubilantly vicious pensively-drenched chords, chords with a lined naturally over-driven edge. It’s ugly. It’s treble-y. If Vampire 9000 exists then Warren is Vampire 96kbps.
Spider-web-thin drawls clamber out of the shadows of his eyes: morning walks and summer flings long since lost, cigarettes burnt to the hilt, nicotine stains; Warren admits, coyly, that his lyrical content is influenced by dissonance but seems ashamed of this, not wanting to sound morose or whiney. The 90s angst is oh so clear; self-deprecation and irony, a self-acknowledged humour at his lame and ridiculous existence and social interactions which seems to fly over most people’s heads, it seems.
Shame, more fuel for the fire.
Dissonance affects us all to some degree, lost and vacant thoughts, half-forgotten memories darkened by a distortion of the past. Warren sees the dark humour in this.
Elliot Smith, the dark angel of Portland, rings out, calling Ampersand, who answers, respectfully – as a devotee, an acolyte. A disciple, distorting his mater’s Bible by rewriting it with stabby shambolic chords.
Smith is a master of championing the delight in the darkness, the delight in finding the bright corners where no one has looked, the humour in ugliness. Ostensibly, the man stabbed himself twice in the chest to put an end to his pretty-ugly little life, latching tenterhooks in suicidals and sensitives everywhere; the picking and choicing of phrases in Ampersand’s picky-melodies links up somewhat with Elliot’s; but there’s that affected lispy-drawl to contend with which pulls the obvious difference between the two. That, and the ugly faux-grunginess of crunched out hard slammed chords. Warren reaches in to the swampy depths to find his vocals, straining and choking on dirty water, whilst smirking, eager to let out the little bit of darklight he might’ve captured, with a knowing smirk; Nosferatu uncloaked – a vampiric lack of invisibilities. He balances his head on his guitar, crooked and bent, so, as if by osmosis, it will transfer something into his grubby clutches: “Not sorry never said that / Not Sorry, Not Sorry / I’m haunted by it…”.
As I glance around, the fringes gather together on the fringes. The 3% of people brave enough to endure this ugliness have clumped together for safety, swaying slightly, nodding, expecting, receiving this low-kilter low-brow unrefined bandwidth as Ampersand crunches out softly darkspun webs of discord whilst regaling tales of dirt-drenched blackmail. The dischords strike so hard into hearts in stabs & notions some leave, can’t absorb it; fuck them if they can’t deal with Vampiric Pain.
After Ampersand limps off the stage, the poor wounded minotaur, the broken lo-fi soldier, people sigh and exhale. It has been difficult. Warren just lights up a cigarette and gets sleazy and 90s.
As difficult as it is to ask a musician, seemingly so, about their influences, they are the badges we wear (covertly or overtly) that inform the music being created. This is useful for us and for them; or useless, if you’re the kind of visceral listener who discards whilst listening and absorbs like a sponge. Some of us want to know. We do, it helps us to project into the past and into the future; as it could help a musician, or hinder them.
Sometimes it’s useful to be thought of as unthinking, a tap. And this, mostly, is how influences influence: sub-consciously. There are the things we are listening to which, without much hindrance and blockages, will shape our current phrasings. There are also things which we have listened to that will never leave our fingertips. A large unnecessary argument of nature vs. nurture could be argued, but it’s best to avoid it. Warren’s past seems well-filled with PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith, Morrisey and Kurdt and the not-so-obvious Big Star hero, Alex Chilton. Warren’s present, as he divulges, is diverted by psych-resurgents Animal Collective (or AnCo, if you want to sound clever), Panda Bear and good doses of reverb-entrenched Deerhunter& Grouper; all of which are seeping into Warren’s most present musical palette.
It seems largely unfair that Ampersand has trudged through the South African music wilderness with such a small and sleight modicum of success; this seems to speak more about the nature of the South African audience and their apparent unwillingness to absorb or appreciate left-field experimentation, which is a shame, really.
On Ampersand’s recordings he fully embraces the joy of working with minimal objects, embracing the warmth of non-studio practices, knowledgably so. Utilising, as a true lo-fi devotee, what is available to him and understanding how to manoeuvre it and suck out all its unapparent potential. His first release, This Is Not A Drill, was picked up, delicately, by underground Cape Town luminary Righard Kapp and released on Kapp’s concretely experimental label Haunted Jaunts. At Warren’s bequestKapp was asked to re-record the tracks but politely refused, to everyone’s benefit, wanting to release it sounding ‘as is’. The recordings are resplendent with crunchy nuance and void of crystalline grace; influenced in a large part by Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, good dashes of shoegaze-vitriol and the fullness of Spector’s trademark Wall-of-Sound – but on a shoestring budget; John Lennon’s obscure home recordings are casually &confidentially mentioned as another influence because, in Warren’s words, he wanted to emulate them: “…it just sounded so warm and authentic versus the final studio produced albums.”This Is Not A Drill certainly isn’t radio-friendly.
Warren is a man after my own heart. Andhe can have it.
One wonders, as a lo-fi, musician how much of an obsessive compulsive perfectionist Ampersand is – this seemingly at odds with the lo-fi aesthetic mindset, but doesn’t necessarily have to be so.
Warren admits that he is never completely happy with anything he does. That the whole lo-fi thing fell into his lap with him loathing the way songs had come out after attempting to record in a studio. But, strangely, the songs he likes the most are the one-take ones, the spur of the moment ones.
When looking at it, there are too many dithering directions, resplendent rocky roads, whorey hilltops and vacant valleysin something as even and patently (and paintedly) obvious as Indie music. One should and cannot forget why the term Indie exists. It refers, ostensibly, to Independent Music. Music independent of the dependence certain artistes felt necessary, the financial (in)dependence granted by a major label who would look after you and tune your guitars and feed you sweets (with all the brown ones picked out) to make you feel special and needed until you were fattened up enough to be pushed – read: shoved – into the pariah fire. Independent music-makers were granted a certain amount of freedom and space in which to craft their crafty music that craftily worms and gorms it’s fragile, juggernaut, psycophantic – or any vast number of adjectival – ways into our hearts. Thusly, my opinion is not fact. It very much isn’t. I can only assure you that I am absolutely and truly right. About everything. Trust me.
So, when I speak about the ruptured, damaged music of an Outsider Musician (yes, it is a term) such as Daniel Johnston with his tortured, visceral, badly-recorded fuzz-warmed plinkyplonkytwiddly little truths recorded onto tape decks in his early youth and how it reflects the true and meaningful nature of human nature and how you’d be a cretin to not understand it (you don’t have to like it) you just have to nod and agree that it is The Truth. That he speaks it. That I do. When I nurture an engendered and gestated adoration for all things scuzzy and lo-fi you have to agree with me that its ugliness is its beauty, that certain songs would not reach the heights, would not contain certain tones and melodies of true beauty, would just sound notgloriouriffic with the ten channel-ten thousand rand producer hacking away at their very essence I would like you to nod, viciously, so that your neck snaps.
This is essential for us to move forward.
*Images © Paris Brummer.