Chopping Timbre


If remixing is a way to unlock the sound from the song, a natural host for it is indie rock, by now as much about sound as writerly intent. Postpunk recording techniques were developed partly for the sake of getting things on tape cheaply, but also as a way of rejecting received ideas about which sounds should be gotten on tape. Since then, the hipster front has only gotten more obsessed with sonic texture, the equipment required for effective remixing has shifted from a big fancy studio to a decent computer and a copy of ProTools, and an awful lot of remix albums have begun turning up in the indie racks.

Powerful software effectively changes what a remix can be, and makes it a lot easier to do interesting remixes that have nothing to do with dance music. Nobody wants Palace to be funkier (Ice’s disastrous attempt on Macro Dub Infection 2 notwithstanding), and Superchunk can’t exactly loop the Knight Rider theme behind themselves the way Busta Rhymes did with “Turn It Up/Fire It Up” and hope for something listenable. With the new remixing tools, though, you can de-compose a song, literally.The composition is incidental; timbre becomes lumber.

Pizzicato Five and Tortoise both released series of remix 12-inches last year that have now come out on CD, as Happy End of You (Matador) and Tortoise Remixed (Thrill Jockey), respectively. Tortoise’s stuff bears remixing better, maybe because they’ve done it before (with Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters a few years ago), or because they treat tracks like Legos: they’re an instrumental band to begin with, and they already sometimes assemble music onscreen before they learn to play it in real time. They’re timbre fiends and historicists, to the point where U.N.K.L.E. quoting Steve Reich’s proto-loop “Come Out” in a remix of “Djed” is almost a little obvious, and their song forms are vague enough that it’s not hard for the mixers to ditch them and come up with something new.

Most of the P5 disc is dodgier, with its remixers caught between urges to version and to disassemble the band’s chirpy little tunes. More often than not, they end up just dropping some beats and calling it a day. (John Oswald’s mix is a deft parody of that approach: he piles simultaneous free-form solos on top of the original until it buckles under their weight.) And both albums have striking but predictable mixes by Markus Popp of Oval. Popp, who’s built the sound of a stuck CD into an aesthetic, is a hardcore timbre purist–the samples he uses are almost never more than tiny biopsies–but he also treats everything he mixes exactly the same way. It’s a triumph of process that’s getting to be a failure of imagination.

The most consistently successful alt-rock remixer started out as a rocker: My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who after all has to do something to put off finishing The Album.In the last six months or so, he’s unleashed a Pastels remix that uses d’n’b beats like distant incense, a ferocious rethink of Primal Scream’s “If They Move Kill ‘Em,” and a transformation of Mogwai’s 16-minute Slint pastiche “Mogwai Fear Satan” into a 16-minute collapse-of-civilization pastiche. This last is the highlight of Mogwai’s Kicking a Dead Pig (Jetset), a two-disc set of name-brand remixes (Third Eye Foundation, µ-Ziq, Alec Empire) whose sound-source is a young Scottish guitar band with a well-developed sense of ensemble dynamics and no idea of when to stop playing. Getting mixed has done wonders for them: they’re not the greatest songwriters, but they do come up with little instrumental figures that sound good isolated and repeated, and they can stand some assistance in the beat department too.

Shields is also indirectly responsible for the most listenable indie-mix album to date. The Swirlies have taken after the MBV sound since they started, and Strictly East Coast Sneaky Flute Music (Taang!) is a fabulous if unlikely collection of remixes by names big and small, interspersed with home-recorded analogue synth doodles, found sounds, and an inept live SS Decontrol cover, and assembled with non-sequiturial panache. In particular, DJ Spooky’s “In Harmony Retrograde Transposition” is the best thing he’s done, five seconds of guitars and drums given the loaves-and-fishes treatment for six minutes; it moves like drum’n’bass and it kisses like rock. (Some of the same mixers–Bob Brass, Number One Dog–turn up on the disappointingly flat Re-Interpreted [Bubble Core], a disc of remixes of the Dylan Group, a vibraphone-and-drums duo including Swirlies drummer Adam Pierce. Mock turtle soup, if you see what I mean.)

The indie mix, with its aim of transformation rather than augmentation, has even started to spawn the meta-mix. See, for instance, the three-disc “Consume” series (on the Japanese label Creativeman Disc) by turntable-guy Otomo Yoshihide’s rock band Ground Zero: Consume Red (built around samples of Korean hojok master Kim Suk Chul), Conflagration (on which remixers including Gastr Del Sol, Violent Onsen Geisha, and Bob Ostertag mess with Consume Red), and Consummation (the results of a competition for home remixers to do their stuff with the first two volumes). By this last, the polarizing drone of the hojok is often triply sampled, and sometimes even recognizable. A new compilation, Chinese Whispers (The Sprawl Imprint), plays a freakier version of this game: Stereolab provides sound files for a remix by Sons of Silence, which in turn is remixed by Ultramarine, then that by Mike Paradinas, and so on through 10 rounds, until Stereolab does the final mix.

But what do the knob twiddlers get out of working with something as retrograde as a band? New toys to play with. People playing instruments make interesting sounds (guitars! guitars are great!), and multiple sounds from the same song tend to be formally related in useful ways. Besides, since remixing is ultimately a derivative art, remixers get the advantage of association with whatever they use as their source. (That can be abused, even in indie circles: watch out for the forthcoming Low remix album owL[Vernon Yard/Caroline], a bunch of decent techno tracks with Low vocal or bass parts grafted on for the sake of cross-promotion.)

What’s still missing, though, is a reversal of the process. It’d be great to hear more musicians who love the pop-song form (for its verbality, its concision, its convenient access to memory) and are comfortable with the wilder possibilities of the mix; who maybe aren’t married to the postmodern dance; who understand that blanketing a song with amen breaks sounds as dumb now as shoehorning it into a house beat did in 1990; who treat exploration of the new electronic sounds as a means rather than an end. That’s started to happen in the mainstream, with things like the last couple of Björk albums and even Brandy & Monica’s Aphex-inflected single “The Boy Is Mine,” but aside from Gastr Del Sol’s semi-successful attempts to integrate Popp and pop into their final album and a few flashes of brilliance from Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Fall, it hasn’t happened much yet down in the rock underground. C’mon, folks. Just try it. We’ll even let you have your guitars back.