Q&A: Gabriel Kahane On Distracted Listening, Internet Addiction, And The Golden Age Of Pop That Was 2003


This week in the Voice I profiled the Brooklyn composer-songwriter-singer-multiinstrumentalist Gabriel Kahane, whose new album Where Are The Arms (Second Story Sound) is being celebrated at Littlefield next Wednesday. A couple of days before our chat, he posted a provocative rant on Spotify and how musical saturation might result in a depreciation in listening quality to his blog; you may not be shocked to learn that topic is often at the forefront of my mind as I sort through my various digital-music collections. It’s not surprising that this topic is one Kahane feels passionately about, either, since his intricately crafted music invites a closer listen. Below, we discuss online music and the current pop moment, with a couple of tangents on World of Warcraft addiction, the demise of the record store, and the idea of patronage as it applies to pop music thrown in.

Can you explain the process of the commission to me? I come from a more rock background, where the idea of a sponsor is sort of looked down upon, although less so now than it was 15 years ago.

It’s strange. I think that that schism is funny. I just read the Patti Smith book. When you look back on that era, no one would have ever second-guessed a visual artist having a patron. I actually think that the schism has to do with a time when technique in pop music was really scorned. I don’t think that’s really the case anymore. You’ve seen artists evolve from a position of really fetishizing amateurism and then moving to a place of really embracing things that are extraordinarily demanding from a physical, technical level.

But as far as the commissioning process is concerned: It works really differently in classical music and in theater. In classical music, if you’ve got a commission, the piece is going to get performed. They’re commissioning it so that there’s something to play. The economic risk is so much greater for theater than it is for a one-off—they’re going to do it 30 or 40 times, five to six weeks of rehearsal. With this piece, they committed to producing it after we had provided them maybe four drafts. Even by musical theater standards we had a really quick process. We started doing research in the summer of 2008, started writing in the winter of 2009, and it’s now 2011. Spring Awakening was like seven or eight years from the first meeting to [production], but they took their time for a reason. It’s a very tricky medium, and musicals have so many cooks in the kitchen.

I do think it’s an interesting quandary, that I feel like the subtext of rock musicians back in the day looking down on the patron has more to do with a browiness, as in high-brow/low-brow, than it does with just someone supporting the work.

I guess you see patronage on a more grassroots and atomized level with Kickstarter. Every project has their “If you give us $5000 we’ll play a show at your house!”

Kickstarter and the breakdown of major labels and the fact that labels don’t sign the Nationals and Vampire Weekends of the world and they totally would have 10 or 15 years ago.

What else have you been working on?

Today, Seth [Bockley] and I started working on a new piece. We’re doing this residency in Dumbo, and ten days ago we began a residency to work on a piece about Alcoholics Anonymous, which we were fascinated by. And we were moving back in forth between working on the two pieces, and then of course in the midst of that, getting ready for the record to come out, and some other concert music commissions. There’s a big orchestral thing I’m writing for the spring for three orchestras and me. It’s sort of song-cycle-y thing that I’m going to sing and play. And I’m going to go to the MacDowell Colony in November for a month after I finish the tour.

How many projects do you generally work on at once?

Hopefully not more than one a day, though the last two weeks… It’s funny, the first step of AA is “We realize that we have become powerless to alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable.” And I’m feeling like a true workaholic right now, my life is unmanageable. But it’s exciting. The only thing that is not exciting is being spread too thin, where the quality of work suffers. And I think that that’s the challenge. In general, it’s been possible for me to, say, spend two really focused weeks on February House, and then go to MacDowell for a month and work on a concert piece. Because I’m not really a good multitasker and I’m pretty ADD, if I can just have the same agenda for a week or two or three, as opposed to, like, “These hours I’m doing this”… There’s some people who I know who, they’re just so unbelievably fast that they can switch back and forth, and I just am not good enough at doing that.

It’s hard. Especially with all of the other distractions that are just part of the day.

Like Twitter?

Like Twitter, yes. I liked the thing that you wrote about Spotify on your blog. People get very defensive when you insinuate that technology might be affecting them more than they think. Especially when it comes to music, because people take music very personally.

I guess I just felt that I was really trying to make a really simple point, and it was just too long to be on Twitter, so I started writing and I wrote too much. But all I was trying to say is that, which was the first thing I said—people have always pirated music to a certain extent, and it’s been a part of how we get to know other music, but it’s the ease that leads people to have music collections that are too big. My music collection is too big. On the one hand, I will acknowledge that I am being a reactionary in this scenario, and that the world is going to keep moving in this direction. But I went back to the Walter Benjamin essay “Unpacking My Library.” I have a cousin who I think is a total genius, he’s a DJ, and he recently moved with his girlfriend from LA to New York, and he was telling me when he moved—he had the most incredible library, he had a classic liberal arts school library, he had really read every book—and before he moved to New York he sold all of his books. All of them. And when he told me that, I was so shocked. And then I realized that, yes, there is also this way in which we do fetishize our books and our records, and there is kind of a commodification even of the library or the record collection.

But setting aside that reading of it, the more that I think about it, the more I get into the devil’s advocate position, identifying yourself by a set of tastes—”here are my books,” “this is what my intellectual values are”—there’s a certain superficial aspect to that on one end. But, I don’t know, I see both sides of it. People making the argument that our experience of music is not diluted by the surfeit of it—I just don’t understand. The fact that there’s music on in this bar, it’s just not special. It’s not as special as it was. And fortunately people still go to concerts and recognize that that’s something special. I think I have a tendency to initially be a reactionary to movements and I come around to them, and maybe I’ll come around to believing that Spotify is great.

It’s been interesting, working on this AA piece. I’ve sort of known for a while that I border on being an internet addict. In the sense that, if I don’t have my “first drink,” meaning if I don’t check email in the morning and I just do my creative work, I’m fine. I’ll be fine for the day. And at a certain point I start craving it. But if I say, “Oh, I’ll just check once,” then it’s like, click click click click. This led me and Seth to do some research about World of Warcraft and we discovered that there are support groups for people who have quit World of Warcraft. There are entire websites dedicated to testimonials of people who have quit World of Warcraft. We ended up writing a song that was based on someone’s testimonial of how they ended up losing their job and their wife left them because they were playing 16 hours a day. They would play from 2 p.m. to 4 a.m., and then they would get up at noon. And the only time that they didn’t keep that schedule was when the servers once a week had to be shut down at 2 a.m., so they would go to bed a little bit earlier one night a week. So totally insane.

You have Twitter, which you use as both a promotional thing and just as talking, and obviously you distribute your music online. It’s this whole swirl of, “How do I divide my work from my life?” and “Do I really need this constant stimulation?” and so much of it too is “What am I missing?”

The thing that I always try to remind myself, at least for me, where I am in my career, there is nothing that is so important that if I wait 24 hours to deal with it, it won’t still be there. If it’s really important, someone will call me on the phone. I don’t live by that, but I try to. The Twitter thing is funny to me because I’m so self-conscious about doing anything, other than retweeting, that is self-promotion. But it’s this conundrum of, if you’re trying to build a following, you need people to know about what you’re doing. But on the other hand, Twitter has become obviously a much more successful medium for comics than for musicians. For a reason—it is an aphoristic medium. I can’t believe I’m talking about this.

It’s fine.

It’s just depressing that we live in a world where we’re talking about this aphoristic medium. It goes back actually to the download thing—and, yes, there’s always this danger of romanticizing the “good old days” and “the golden age”—but the idea of content, of constantly refreshing, and the endorphin-rush of new content… In reading about internet addiction, you learn that it’s like a selective high. If you check your email, you don’t know that you’re going to get high because you might not get an email, which makes it even more insidious. I guess it’s like gambling. Internet addiction and gambling are similar in a way. You don’t know whether or not you’re going to get the result that you want.

Do you generally compose your songs on a particular instrument, or does it vary?

It varies. The big difference with this record is that I was trying to get away from being the piano man, I guess. So I had been playing more guitar and banjo and was writing songs away from the piano. Then also for the first time on this record, I think there were one or two songs where I did the normal rock thing which was writing by recording. Which is something that I’d never really done.

Do you usually compose?

Or just write them in my head. There’s definitely a tradition of writing really repetitive songs and then using a 4-track or an 8-track or a hard drive and ProTools to make things more interesting. As someone who started writing songs from the piano, I think part of the reason my songs ended up being more complicated is I only have the piano to create interest and not other textures. I guess maybe as an exercise for myself, I was like, “What happens if I write pop music on a computer and it’s boring and repetitive and then I start adding other textures?” I’m glad that I did that because it taught me to work in a different way. Of course those are the songs that it’s really hard to play solo because they depend on the introduction of colors and textures. But I feel like it put my writing into a better place. I haven’t been writing a lot of songs for myself, meaning like singer-songwriter, in a while, which has been frustrating. But I always go to the piano or the guitar, or very seldom the banjo. Actually in the AA piece, I’m doing everything on the laptop. It’s very much about electronic sounds and things that are really repetitive, playing along with the idea of AA being this ritualistic thing where you keep saying the same things over and over again, and trying to connect that idea of ritual to the idea of electronics and minimalism and things that repeat.

What program on the laptop do you use?

I use Logic. I’m a total amateur.

How many instruments do you play?

I play the piano. I do not consider myself a banjo player, but about three years ago I did the first two productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, first in Williamstown and then in LA. When we were in LA I said to Michael Friedman, “I think there should be a banjo in this show.” He’s like, “Do you play banjo?” I was like, “No.” We found a banjo in the prop closet in LA, so I just started teaching myself. But I’m serious about the piano. I don’t feel like I have an excuse to try to learn other instruments because I’m still not happy with how I play the piano. Also my dad is a really incredible pianist. We have a lovely relationship and now a collaborative relationship. We’ve worked together and we’re going to work together next year. His piano playing is so glorious I always feel like there’s more to learn in that sense.

In your free time, what else have you been listening to?

Sharon van Etten just moved to my neighborhood. I had heard her sing a show four years ago for twelve people and bought her homemade demo. I remember I was listening to the first cut and being so totally floored. Today when we were on a break, I put on a demo, and I was like, this girl… that was really good. I haven’t gotten excited about a record in a long time. I miss going to the record store.

I do too. I get so sad when I walk to work and I see the MLB Fan Cave at 4th and Broadway because I used to go to that Tower Records and I would spend hours…

Yeah, I had the same thing with the one in Boston when I was a freshman in college. For Where are the Arms, we just went all-out with the package. We decided to make something for the people who want something nice to hold onto. It was interesting—spending a lot of time with design made me want to go and get back into making nice things that you can hold, in a world that is increasingly ephemeral and mercurial and so on and so forth.

I used to go around record stores… I would free associate. “This reminds me that I want this record too.” That’s something I really miss. I guess it’s sort of replicable online with search engines. But you don’t see the records that are bracketing the Afghan Whigs CDs in the shelves.

Also you’re deprived of a certain serendipity of what will happen between the time that you go from that aisle to that aisle. And the loss of that time or even that time to think. The search engine really compresses and dilutes the process of making connections, I suppose. Google’s going to hate us. They’re not going to be pleased. They’re going to fuck with our algorithms. They’re going to bury us.

How many musicians are you touring with?

It’s like rock quartet—it’s me, a guitar player, a bass player and a drummer. And me doing my various things. Then, in most of the major cities we’re picking up a string quartet. So we’ll have a string quartet in New York, Vancouver, LA, Portland I think. It’s hard because I feel like the record, unlike my first one, relies a lot on the orchestrations to tell parts of the story of it. So, even though it’s not super economical, it was important to me to convey it with some of those colors.

I love the tension that some of the string parts bring in to some of the songs.

A lot of that is I feel like I’ve learned a lot about arranging from Rob [Moose], who is such a wonderful violinist and an amazing arranger. For “Charming Disease,” I had written the arrangements and brought it to the studio. I think he and I had to get on planes the next morning. From 10 at night until 1 in the morning, we finessed it. And he played everything on it. It’s him multitracked 20 times.

Is he going to be playing with you in New York?

No, because he’s in this other band. This weird obscure band that I guess they’re doing OK [Bon Iver]. I was really, really happy for them when I went to the show at Prospect Park and they were just having such a glorious time. Did you hear either of the Sufjan shows? At the Beacon? In November? The Age of Adz tour. That for me was a transcendent concert. He really took up the mantle of being a rock star.

Do you like touring?

I do. I haven’t done enough of it to hate it. I think there comes a point where no one really likes it anymore. Because I have this other life as a composer sitting at home, it always feels like a welcome relief to leave and go on tour. But… I just got really distracted by this song, I don’t know what it is.

It’s Robyn [“Call Your Girlfriend”]. It’s from her new record.

I was just introduced to “Konichiwa Bitches.” It’s incredible.

I saw her open for Katy Perry a couple of weeks ago. It was just her and two guys on drums and synth pads and she had this curtained-off part of the arena stage. And she was just a dynamo, running around and dancing and punching the air. It’s tough for opening bands at arena shows, especially with rabid Katy Perry fans dressed like Katy Perry.

What even is the deal with Katy Perry? I live right on the border of Ditmas Park and Kensington in what borders on a very traditional Orthodox Jewish community. So the Dunkin’ Donuts is an Orthodox Dunkin’ Donuts. There are no bacon-egg… There’s this weird cognitive dissonance where you walk in and there are these lines of orthodox men in black coats, and then Katy Perry is playing, and I’m like, “What the fuck is going on?”

Was it The Matrix who wrote “Complicated”? As someone who cares about songwriting values, that is a perfect pop song. I mean, if you will accept that the lyric is preposterous, but from a musical standpoint, to me, it is really musically satisfying. What about “Since U Been Gone”? That is a perfect pop song. And there was a time, whenever it was, seven years ago, when there was great fucking pop music. Then everyone gets their, pardon the expression, panties in a bunch over the fact that Lady Gaga writes her own songs. There are no songs there. 2003 was such a great year for pop music. Justin Timberlake, Outkast, Kelly Clarkson. That was a golden age.

You very effectively straddle the worlds of pop and classical. What happens when you hear fans of one type of music just slagging off the other?

Something that’s very formative to me is my dad is one of the most respected pianists and conductors in the country, but he grew up playing in rock bands. He’s an unusual figure in the world of classical music at that level, in that he takes the Duke Ellington attitude, which is, “There’s good music, and the other kind.” When I was growing up, the record that was on the most was Graceland. Then it would turn that off and he would go play Brahms’ second piano concerto. It’s, “Is there substance there?” Is there emotional substance, is there spiritual substance? Is it thoughtful? Except for the brief interlude where I was listening to House of Pain and Cypress Hill, there was never a schism vis-a-vis of genre in my house. The first records I bought were really shitty early ’90s rap records, although The Chronic is a good record, right?

Oh yes.

That’s something where I don’t think my dad and I ever saw eye-to-eye. But when I started listening to Pearl Jam, my dad was like, “Oh, I can get into this. I don’t hate this.” I think, because I run in a circle that largely comprises people who run in both worlds.

Are you familiar with yMusic? Rob [Moose] and CJ [Camerieri] both have played with orchestras and both have played with Sufjan, The National, Bon Iver, Rufus Wainwright. The violist, Nadia Sirota, plays with Thomas [Bartlett] and plays with Nico [Muhly] and plays furious downtown chamber music and she’s going to be playing with me for the record release show. Alex Sopp, flute player, plays for the New York Philharmonic, plays with Sufjan. And so, those are my people, and we all love all music. I guess I get it more when I go into the classical world, where people are just listening to pop music. But I think that, for whatever reason, the situations that I’m brought into classically, maybe people feel safe with me because they know I’m of both worlds. I’ve certainly had some exchanges usually in the other direction, of pop music people being dismissive of new music or being dismissive of classical music and not the other way around.

I don’t know. I just want people to go home and get a glass of scotch and sit down and listen to a record.

That is the best way to listen to music, too, is just to let it sink in.

I feel like the time that I listen to new records is when I cook, because I really love to cook, and it’s the only time where I can actually multitask. Because I can’t listen to music and write and email. It’s too distracting for me.