Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pomplamoose, You'll Be Okay

Just created a new Wordpress account this afternoon to leave a comment on Pomplamoose's Nataly Dawn's blog entry, Is Pomplamoose Really Okay?, but ended up writing a novel. Two hours into it, I decided to post this on my own blog as a response, to save all the "tl;dr"-ers the trouble of scrolling. And now I have a shiny new Wordpress profile to fill out... Yeah, I'llgetrightonthat.

First, some links:
Pomplamoose official site
Nataly's blog
Nataly Dawn on YouTube
Jack Conte on YouTube

[Edit before publishing: this entry took me 5 hours to write. I gave up on the iPad, got on my laptop, typed another two hours, accidentally closed the window without saving (why didn't autosave kick in?!), rewrote everything I had written those two lost hours - saving after every other word - one Firefox crash, and a headache.]

Here's a much more fleshed-out, modified version of what I was going to post on Nataly's blog:


Nataly, I don't know if you have the time to read all the comments on your post, but I hope you do. There's some great encouragement and advice given. I echo all who say "Be who you are." Be POMPLAMOOSE. Don't define Pomplamoose from outside pressures; you and Jack (Conte) keep your hands on the wheel, and write that definition, yourselves. (m'kay, think I'm mixing metaphors?). Stay. In.Control. Pomplamoose will evolve, experiment, change over time. It's natural. It's growth. But there's something inherently unique in Pomplamoose, and in yours and Jack's solo work; something that can't be taken away. There are no degrees of uniqueness; you either are or you aren't. And Pomplamoose IS.

 I have never been in a situation like yours to this extent - not even close - but I can think of some great bands and musicians that lost themselves after they became commercialized, and they began to cater to the "mainstream" audience. Their music became a product; something merely bought and sold.

(Here's the part where I go on and on about another group for illustrative purposes. But bear with me. It's relevant, I swear!)

While reading your post, I thought about REM, who recently split up. (I'm a huge fan, and I must preface this by saying that much of this is based on opinion. Mine.)

REM put out some great albums for over 31 years, and kept their unique signature sound (yes, they had "it", too), throughout. Peter Buck described R.E.M. songs as, "Minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish things. That's what everyone thinks and to a certain degree, that's true." They kept their "sound" even while changing up the style for a few albums. Out Of Time has a very "pop" feel. It wasn't the indie-band (my description) style of Murmur and most subsequent albums. Monster was, according to Peter Buck "a 'rock' record, with the rock in quotation marks." I'm going to further describe it with Wikipedia's words, because I thought it was a cool and apt description: "In contrast to the sound of its predecessors, the music of Monster consisted of distorted guitar tones, minimal overdubs, and touches of 1970s glam rock"

By the end of their 31-year career, things were starting to seem watered down and uninspired. Tired. Around the Sun was not Murmur, not Document, not Green, not Automatic for the People. It was just... off. Critic's reviews were so-so, at best. Following this disappointment, the band felt pressured to put out a new album. Much of the pressure was internal. Mike Mills explained, "We needed to prove, not only to our fans and critics, but to ourselves, that we could still make great records." .

Here's my take on what happened with REM. I'm wondering if this is this what you're worried will happen with Pomplamoose, Nataly? It won't. There's no doubt in my mind great opportunities lie ahead for you.

"All things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way." -Michael Stipe

In 1987, the first single off Document, "The One I Love", was topping the charts and on heavy rotation on Top 40 pop radio stations. REM was now an "Alternative" band with a cult following that had caught a mainstream, pop audience's attention. And the crossover began. "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)", "Stand", "Losing My Religion" were hits. REM had gained a whole new fan base. And the pressure was on to put out more hits, catering to a Top 40 pop-hungry audience.

REM found the balance to satisfy both long-time fans, and newer ones. They went on for over 20 more years trying to maintain that balance. Music fads are constantly changing, vocals are now processed through autotune, thus eliminating the need for a singer to even be able to carry a tune. Lyrics are often empty and indistinguishable from one song to the next. The charts are dominated by songs and groups that are carbon copies of each other. These songs are the "products"; the fans, the "consumers". The singers and bands are attractively packaged to ensure the sale. Cha-ching!

REM was not "processed" into something marketable. They were marketable and organic. What you heard in the studio tracks will be different than what you will hear, live. There would be no lip syncing, no autotune. But they had to fight hard to remain relevant in the pop scene; a world where they never really aspired to visit in the first place. It must have been emotionally, mentally and creatively draining. And something was going to give way, eventually.

"We didn't set out for this to be a career. We just knew it was something we wanted to do, and we would stop when we didn't want to do it, anymore." - Michael Stipe

When Warner Bros began to gain more power over the band, REM collectively "didn't want to do it, anymore."

REM was a quirky band. Michael Stipe is not a great singer. He does not have much range, vocally (I think in "Losing My Religion" he sings 4 notes through the entire song.). But it worked. Stipe's dancing was manic, with his arms flailing everywhere, he would mumble lyrics that were often unintelligible and sometimes intentionally nonsensical; I remember hearing that he wrote "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" after a dream, in which all the characters had the initials LB. Stipe, himself, admitted, "You all know there aren't words, per se, to a lot of the early stuff. I can't even remember them.". But... it worked. It was a strange formula, but it set them apart, from the start of their career to the end.

Even when they were at the height of their success, REM played in bars in their adopted home town of Athens, GA under an assumed name. I guess it was their way to escape the craziness of fame, celebrity branding, and to hold on to that "college band" feel and mentality. No screaming mob of crazed fans, because people wouldn't know that the "garage band" they thought they were going to see was actually REM! I have friends who went to UGA and saw a surprise REM performance at bars and clubs in the area. The band members were able to freely walk about town, go to the old pizza place, undisturbed. They were back "home".

My point in that long-winded pseudo-biography of REM is what so many others, including yourself, have said. Don't write because you have to. Don't write for your audience. Write for YOU. If it's not a hit, who cares? Not every song on every EP will be a hit, not every EP be a hit. As long as YOU have the satisfaction of having created something for yourselves, then you're giving a gift to yourselves with each song you've produced. Accept that there will be ups and downs, successes and failures (in others' eyes, maybe, but don't ever be a failure to yourselves). Remember why you started in the first place: the music. The commercials, stuff like that...gravy.

Take a step back when you are able. Stay close to those who really know you, long time friends, family, to keep perspective. Go "home". Play a gig in a small bar under an alias, just to remind yourself of the joy of performing your music without the pressure of audience expectations. Do not feel ever feel you must fit into someone else's mold. You will find that balance. That song inside of you screaming to be released will come out on its own timeline; creativity can't be forced. But that song is YOURS. The fans, including myself, are grateful that you are sharing something so personal.

Keep the quirks, and keep the toy piano. You'll be okay.

Sources for this blog post are Wikipedia, Rolling Stone magazine, and my brain.