photo by Valgeir Sigurðsson
The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Will Oldham
by Jay Babcock
This interview was conducted by phone in late summer 2006, as part of a series of conversations I was doing with various folks regarding the history of all-ages, philosophy/ethic of all-ages, the state of play of all-ages, yadda yadda. Shoulda been published long ago but stuff kept going awry and we didn’t get it in the mag. Still, almost four years later, it’s a good, pertinent read. Thanks to Will for his time and patience, and special thanks to a certain friend of Arthur who transcribed this conversation a long time ago.
Will Oldham, as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is traveling and playing shows right now with the Cairo Gang. More info: dragcity.com
Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)
Arthur: Do you prefer to play all-ages shows? Is it a priority for you, or does it even matter?
Will Oldham: It matters and it makes a difference, but it isn’t a ‘priority.’ Does that make sense? Every show is contextualized for what it is—in that way, it’s important. But I guess my skewed stance is that I’ve always approached this work of making music in terms of… I think my main drive is to write and record music, so playing live is always just a weird experiment. So to me, every aspect of playing live is part of that weird experiment, whereas a lot of bands and musicians seem to make records of the music that they make. [For me] it’s the reverse. I think that every time that you play live, it’s like, ‘Whoa! What was that all about?’ It’s great whoever the audience is. You try to find the most fun audience, I guess.
Arthur: I noticed that when you are touring shortly, you’re playing a bunch of record stores…
Yeah, an all record-store tour.
Arthur: One of the weird things, from what I can tell about the performance environment in America, is that one of the few places where people of all ages can see quality music in a live setting now is the record store.
Yeah. “Quality music.” One thing that I had started to think about before we started on this topic was… like, how old are you?
I’m 36, and my sense is that, if you won’t take offense, is that we are out of touch. There are quality shows going on six out of seven nights a week that are all-ages shows, in people’s houses, in public places, and we just don’t know those bands. Because I’ve seen some this year—I’ve seen some every year. And it’s like, Whoa, where’d these kids come from? And these kids came from the same places we came from, and they’re making great music that we don’t have access to, because… It’s the same way that bands that I went to see play 20 years ago, people who were 22, to 36, to 50, they would be saying ‘There’s just no music going on these days. There’s no shows like I remember.’ And meanwhile, I was having the fucking time of my life!Continue reading
originally published in Arthur No. 24 (Oct 02006)
Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part One
by Jay Babcock
After this spring’s ArthurBall, someone posted to our website saying, “Hey, how was Growing? I really wanted to see them, but I’m only 17.” Now, if anyone needs to see Growing—a drone duo who are making a very challenging, contemplative sound right now, not unlike the first Fripp & Eno album—it’s a 17-year-old: talk about raw material for a formative experience. And yet, he—or she—was denied, because ArthurBall was an 18 & over event. Which meant that I was partly to blame.
That wasn’t a happy thing to realize. I’d been 17 once. I still haven’t recovered from my own formative experience back in 1988 when I saw the Mirage/Huevos-era Meat Puppets at Variety Arts Center in L.A. I was a teenaged square amidst 1500 freaks of the universe at a cheap, all-ages gig headlined by true goners: enduring the Kirkwood brothers’ 20-minute encore cover of the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” left a much deeper, richer impression on my tender, gradually opening mind than seeing U2 and the Pretenders at the Coliseum a couple months before. That was a painfully loud, stage-managed spectacle, a queasy mix of overwhelming power, machine precision and mass audience; the pajama-clad Meat Puppets, on the other hand, were… well, they were fun. They operated on a scale that was recognizably human. They seemed genuinely off-the-cuff, in-the-moment, willing to misfire. Their single stage prop, a pair of Playboy bunny ears spontaneously draped on a microphone, resonated with me in some deep, pleasantly weirdifying way. That Meat Puppets show pointed to a way out: a different way of leading one’s life—of embracing your idiosyncrasies and weird visions and interests rather than suppressing them. It was like some beautiful rite of passage, an initiation into art and imagination and other people—a sideways welcoming into a more creative, fertile, vibrant, rich way of being. Years later, I’d find out that, of course, I wasn’t the only one who’d undergone such an experience: almost everyone I know who is involved with music as a performer or enthusiast or whatever can point to some bizarro show that changed their life when they were a teenager, that lit up new paths.
I wonder if that kind of experience is readily available anymore to those who want it. I mean, the Mars Volta are amazing, but you have to pay $65 to see them open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a basketball arena. Growing are cool, but Arthur Ball is 18 & up. And so on. The sad truth is that although exciting music is regularly performed all over L.A.—at backyard barbecues and loft district rent parties, dive bars and supper clubs, nightclubs and art galleries, high school football games and homecoming dances, city parks and Sunday morning church services, street corners and subways, outdoor amphitheaters and baseball stadiums—maybe the only time when a good number of people of all ages can gather together to witness quality music, at an affordable price, with a good sound system, is when an artist plays an in-store set at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. Kudos to Amoeba for providing this basic public service to arts-starved Angeleno teenagers, of course—it’s more than the public schools and mainstream broadcast media do—but surely it’s not a positive indicator of a culture’s health when the best venue for all-ages music is a record store. ‘Dancing in the aisles’ should mean something more than grooving politely in the Used Funk/Soul section as cash registers ring in the distance.
We lose something as a society when we don’t allow our youth to experience music—by which I mean real, living, breathing music, as opposed to commerce-driven pop—in a decent, accessible, affordable, relatively intimate setting where music is given the opportunity to be truly experienced as music. Something has gone wrong here. But what has happened, exactly, to get us to this point? And is it just Los Angeles, or is it nationwide? What can we do about it? What did they do in the past?
I decided it was time to call John Sinclair.
During the 1960s, John Sinclair founded the Detroit Artists Workshop, managed the MC5, headed the anarchist White Panther Party and got thrown in jail for 10 years for giving two joints to an undercover cop. He was freed after serving two years due to the intervention of John Lennon, who wrote a song for him and appeared at a 15,000-plus arena rally to bring attention to Sinclair’s case (check out the “The US vs John Lennon” documentary for more details). He is a renowned poet, scholar, deejay and journalist, and at 64, still a towering presence. We talked about all-ages shows outside a brandname coffeeshop in Culver City over half-finished crossword puzzles.
John Sinclair: Here’s a point I want to make about this right off: This whole ‘age’ thing is a function of the whole white American culture—it isn’t a universal thing. When I was coming up, you had no congress with anyone more than two years older or two years younger than you, unless they were your brother and sister. You had no congress with adults, with anybody but your own age peers. Everything you did was around that; we were alienated from all the others.
Now, I grew up listening to blues and R&B on the radio in the Fifties. I’m not into country music. I avoided it like the plague. I came from a farming community, and I didn’t want no part of that! Once I heard black music on the radio, I wanted to be where those people were. They were having a lot more fun than anybody I knew, and then when I started going to their dances. It was a beautiful thing. They had big shows in Flint, Michigan. Rhythm and blues shows. I saw everyone that came to Flint between 1955 and 1960. I went to these rhythm and blues shows and there’d be 3,000 black people and 20 white kids who were music freaks and liked to dance. The thing that hit me the hardest about these shows was that there were people of all ages there: little kids, grandmas, and most of the crowd was young adults who were older than us. The teenagers like us were only a stratum. There were people in their 60s, people in their 40s, the finest women you’d ever seen in their 20s just dressed to the nines, red dresses and shit. Knock your eyes out. And there’d be little kids running around and it was no big deal. And the people who wanted to have a drink, they had a flask in their pockets. If they wanted to smoke a joint, they had a joint. It was just like going to a different planet. It was so much hipper. And they were also so accepting. It wasn’t like you would be nervous about being there. They’d let you have your fun, you’d dance with the black girls. It was just like being in heaven for me, man. Because where I lived, I hated everything.Continue reading