Category Archives: Hearing

I guess I like ‘Podcasts’ Now

I had avoided Podcasts for many years after they surfaced because of what they were called. Words derived from commercial products just seem gross to me. They’re lazy.

Maybe I also just didn’t enjoy listening to people yap, instead preferring all the music that became so limitlessly available around 2008.

But, times change. For the past few months, I’ve been listening to several ….Podcasts…. (the term still makes me cringe) and gathering information, insight, and entertainment.


Here’s a roundup of what’s been in my queue:

Longform has been great to hear writers talk about their craft. It’s an interview show that spends an hour or more asking good writers great questions. So far, I’ve heard Josh Dean, Malcom Gladwell, and Carol Loomis.

Listening to Josh Dean sent me careening down the David Foster Wallace rabbit hole, since some of his stories were edited by Dean for the New York Times Magazine. After reading DFW’s piece about Wimbledon, I fell into watching Federer videos on YouTube – listening to a writer talk for an hour can lead the mind to all kinds of places. Dean’s story also made me think about how NYC-centric magazine writing is, how being ‘in’ the industry is critical.

What clicked for me while listening to Malcom Gladwell was his perspective of his work being “optimistic,” and how he doesn’t believe in ‘gotcha’ journalism, and how if someone says something you think they wouldn’t say again, you shouldn’t quote them on it. His sense of ethics is curious when thinking about how popular his work is – being nice makes for repeat customers, I guess. He said something about how you can only make so many negative statements before you turn your reader against you.

Carol Loomis had a very interesting story – she’s one of Warren Buffet’s best friends, and had a 60+ year career writing for Fortune Magazine. Her longevity in the industry is monumental, and when she started, being a female writer covering finance was taboo. There’s much to be learned from her approach to owning a subject and sticking to a beat.


The Candid Frame is similar to Longform, but focuses on photographers. Almost an identical format. I’ve listened to two episodes so far, neither were people I’d previously heard of.

The first was Matt Sweeney, who spoke about photographs he took of Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s. His story was as much about his own life as the work he’s done, and how the photographs were an artifact of his lifestyle.

The next I listened to was Jenna Close, a photographer who started with alternative energy and launched a successful industrial photography business. She spoke about the importance of business and domain knowledge, and gave examples of ‘sticktuitiveness.’ In general, I found The Candid Frame seems to go deeper into the history of its subjects than Longform, or maybe encourages more ‘origin’ storytelling.


The Tim Ferris Podcast is one that I decided to listen to after hearing Tim Ferris give an interview on Longform. Ferris is a writer I’m familiar with, and I’ve written about his book, the 4 Hour Workweek. The book was OK, but not as good as his Podcasts. He does a great job reaching into different areas of interest for what he calls ‘top performers,’ and he grills them to uncover the habits that lead to their accomplishments. His guests are typically famous in their own right, and so far I’ve listened to Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Jon Favreau (director of the Iron Man movies, actor), Tara Brach (PhD, author, and popular meditation teacher), Jane McGonigal (author, speaker, and expert on Games).

Kevin Kelly was somewhat bland, since the episode I listened to was him answering reader questions and not engaging with Ferris. He briefly spoke about how important ‘AI’ will be in the future, without going into detail. Artificial Intelligence is a really broad subject, and he didn’t specify exactly which part of it he was talking about. Kelly did make a suggestion to ‘read 10 books a year’ and how doing so would transform anyone’s life, so I can appreciate that.

Jon Favreau’s interview was wonderful, and spanned everything from how he finds ways to relate to people who don’t work in the movie business, to what his life was like before he started writing scripts. He talked about how trying out an office job revealed how little time people get to pursue their real interests, and how he was moved to get away from that. His comments on why he enjoys cooking were interesting – because it’s such a universal thing, and his world is so different from most people’s, he’s found it’s a great common bond to share with others.

Tara Brach and Jane McGonigal were both great interviews. Brach’s thoughts on mindfulness, especially the two-step process of recognizing a feeling, then ‘inviting it to tea,’ were interesting. She also stressed the importance of unplugging from time to time, something everyone should really try to practice more often. McGonigal’s citation of studies on how gaming is beneficial were good – particularly that visually intense games can decrease cravings for things, because the brain stays ‘distracted’ by them. McGonigal talked about her new book ‘Superbetter’ which has an accompanying iPhone app that’s worth checking out.


There’s a few more Podcasts I’ve listened to that I recommend exploring:
Lexicon Valley: two guys talking about language. Topics include everything from the origin of the word ‘seer-sucker’, to the pitfalls of translating Russian literature, and the American female’s tendency to adopt a ‘vocal fry’ in speech.
The Moth: live storytelling on a stage. Dramatic recounting of stuff like being interviewed by Martha Stewart, being a member of the ‘Blue Man Group,’ and being a chaplain in the Forest Service. Kind of like TED talks, but without all the politics and pretension of ‘saving the world.’
Planet Money: Probably the most popular Podcast around. Produced by NPR, explores all the ways money interacts with and influences the world. Recent episodes question why people don’t work less than they did a hundred years ago, where the people of Greece are hiding their money, and whether or not robots will ever be able to fold our laundry.
HBR Ideacast: Harvard Business Review’s brief interviews with business leaders. A recent episode with the CEO of Evernote was fascinating, but some guests are dreadfully lacking ‘listenability.’
Talking Code: Software development topics. Presented in an interview format, and with just enough explanation to make it consumable for people who don’t work in the industry.

Interview with Jack Baker, Drummer of Bonobo

Since the April 2013 release of the album ‘The North Borders,’ the electronic music group Bonobo has gained immense popularity by performing more than 175 concerts in 30 countries around the world, delighting over 2 million fans from Milwaukee and Moscow, to Istanbul and England.

Along with a core group of live instrumentalists, Jack Baker made heads nod all along the way with his incredible drumming and percussions. I reached out to Jack, who was very kind to answer a few questions for the first interview I’ve ever posted on ‘Brian Writing.’

The truly wonderful North Borders – Live album was just released. Do you have any favorite moments or tracks on it? Did you know an album was in the works as you were performing on the tour? 

Cirrus is my favourite tune on the album, mostly because we start the live set with it.  The adrenaline kicks in when I hear the opening bell parts and you know the show is about to start.  Every time I hear it now it puts me right back in that place.

Simon works a lot when we are on the road, he sits in the back with his headphones on making tracks.  Simon is either touring, DJing or making music in his studio so we know when there is an album in the pipeline. He tours then writes, tours then writes and has done for a while now.  Some albums take longer than others but the North Borders was fairly quick to put together so there wasn’t a huge gap between finishing the Black Sands tour and starting the North Borders one.

When did you get involved in the Bonobo project? How long have you been drumming and touring? 

I’ve been playing with Simon ever since the live band got put together in 2004.  I’ve had many other projects that I play with, one being a soul singer called Alice Russell.  I produce and write music for a number of different artists including Yungun aka Essa and a fiery vocalist called Lea Lea and had my own projects out in the past under the name The Jack Baker Trio.  I’ve been drumming since a kid and playing with many different bands but the touring didn’t start until leaving university in 2003.  My father was a drummer so I just followed in his footsteps.

Jack Baker on his kit

What’s your daily routine like when you’re not on the road? Do you wake up and start working before your first cup of coffee, or does it take a while to sit down and get to it?

I’m a worrier not a warrior! The second I wake up I’m working till the second I’m sleeping.  I’m always thinking of new projects or ways of making money, hustling to get gigs or a recording session.  I’ve got my own recording studio and I work from that a lot. I share the studio with a couple of the guys from the Bonobo band so we’re often in there having a laugh and making strange music (mostly going for long tea breaks and getting nothing done!).

To make a living in music in England is hard and you have to work at it. Shows will only bring in so much money and unless you are playing ever night of the year you are going to struggle. You have to think of other ways of making money, fingers in pies!

How amazing is it to travel as much as you do?  Which places or experiences stand out?

I got into music partly because I wanted to travel.  I’m one of those guys that likes to keep moving, it get itchy feet if I stay in one place for too long (I’m guessing you know the itchy feet saying in America? I don’t actually get itchy feet!!).

I’ve been so lucky to travel around the world a number of times and see what I have seen.  It opens your eyes to how other people live and how they make (and listen) to music.

People always ask if we actually see much of the countries we go to and I think we experience more than if we were a tourist.  We get taken to the best restaurants, see the tourist sights before sound check, hangout with promoters for dinner and learn about the city, party with the locals in the best bars and clubs in each city, I would never do this if I was just a tourist!

Places that stand out is Japan for its madness, America for its natural beauty, Australia for is beach life, Easten Europe for is exciting harshness and the warmth of its people, Europe for its culture and food, England for its architecture. Everywhere is amazing!

What are you in to lately? TV, music, websites…  

You can’t go wrong with Gospel Drummers on Youtube.. Those cats are crazy! I’m also watching Treme and Homeland, series 4 (I have no idea whats going on with Homelands, but its cool!). The music I’m listening to is, Badbadnotgood, Jaga Jazzist, James Blake (on repeat!), Flume, A$ap Rocky, Clap! Clap! Gilles Peterson podcasts and a load of Hip Hop, Jazz and Ragga.  I like music that makes me wanna shake my head or close my eyes and listen.

Do you ever have creative impulses that push you to things other than drumming? How do you stay focused on your craft?

At the moment it’s all music music music, it’s my hobby and my career.  The music that I play changes all the time and thats enough to keep me busy.  However I do have a dream to sail round the UK one day and I have just passed my level one yachting certificate. I’m not sure I trust myself in charge of a boat but it would be awesome to do.

Is the internet making it easier or harder than it used to be to earn a living as a musician? 

I think the internet can only be a good thing.  You can’t live without it, it is the music industry, and it’s every other industry too, you can’t operate without it.   Other than the actual act of playing the drums, everything else is now done online.

I’m just starting an online recording sessions website called The Online Players and it will act as a portal for people to get the best musicians in London to record on their tracks.  Many of the best musicians are always touring so this website will  reach them when they have some spare time and get them in the studio.

I think before the internet you had to work hard for your income, now you can make money whilst drinking a gin and tonic from the comfort of your own home!

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? 

Getting on some terrible Russian planes!!! Also giving up my day job and being a musician full time, that was scary but lucky I had a great boss at the time and he was amazingly supportive and believing that I should do music for my career.

When’s the next tour?

How long is a piece of string?  You never know what’s around the corner, it could all go quiet tomorrow, who knows.  There is a lot of waiting involved but I’m hoping that the next Bonobo album won’t take too long and we can all get back on that dusty road.


Jack spacing out at Coachella music festival


two Sundays in Sydney

Sunday, Sept. 22

Calexico, the American alt-rock band, performed at the Sydney Opera House. Like most tourists in the city for the first time, I might have been content to watch someone scrub the stage with a mop just to get a glimpse of the inside of one of the world’s most fascinating structures. Thankfully, Calexico, a band I enjoy very much, brought their drums and guitars and saved the janitorial staff from the task of entertaining me.

Last year, I was introduced to Calexico’s funky blend of rock and traditional Mexican folk music by their performance on the Austin City Limits TV series. At the Opera House, they sounded great, and were enhanced by the building’s superior acoustical design. What surprised me, from my seat in the furthest row back from the stage, was how sedated the crowd was. When I’ve seen videos of Calexico performing elsewhere, it’s clear the crowd is enjoying the hell out of themselves with loads of dancing and clapping.

In the Opera House, I gasped at seeing people actually dozing in their seats, getting up and leaving in the middle of the show, and generally giving a lackluster response to the excellent performance the band was offering. The only logic I can apply to this disappointment is that many in the audience had purchased tickets just because they wanted to be inside the venue, without any knowledge or interest in the band themselves. (I hate to generalize, but some of the snoozers looked as if they came from non-rock-music-listening places. Or perhaps they had all run the marathon that morning – but so did I, and I managed to stay awake.)

As beautiful as the Opera House is, and as precise and lovely as its acoustics are, it might not be the best place for a rock band to set up. The seats are bolted to the floor. No one is dancing. It probably happens to everyone who plays there, and it might be more noticeable in the very back row. But for someone who thinks of concert-going as others might consider church, it was bizarre to witness.

Calexico, Sydney Opera House, 9/22/13

Calexico, Sydney Opera House, 9/22/13

Sunday, Sept. 29

Who knew that the Enmore Theater could ask for twice the gate price that the Sydney Opera House could? I certainly didn’t, but by the end of the night, I had no complaints. The Enmore has the appearance of (and could well be) an old converted movie house, snugly positioned in the hip Newtown suburb of Sydney. If I had to guess, I’d say that this place was showing Chaplin movies to a packed house in the 1920’s.

The opening band, Alpine, natives of Melbourne, were the soundtrack to several of my road trips this summer, so getting the chance to watch them in their native country as they’re just starting out was the icing on the cake for this show.

Rolling Stone and TIME magazine have both called Alpine a ‘Band to Watch’ within the last six months. The group’s airy vocal harmonies come from Phoebe Baker and Lou James, who complement the fuzzy cloud of perfect bass riffs with some mesmerizing dance moves. I was rocking out and had almost forgotten that FOALS was backstage getting ready to perform.

Several months ago, FOALS gave one of, if not the most, memorable performance I have ever seen in the 15 years I’ve been going to Washington D.C.’s 9:30 (here’s a video clip from the crowd) so I was excited to find out they were playing the Enmore Theater in Sydney while I was visiting.

The FOALS sound ducks in and out of labyrinthine beats and wizardly guitar riffs, and the danceable, screamy rock gets ratcheted up by the lead singer’s affinity for risking dismemberment while leaping from balconies and shoving his way through the audience, guitar strapped all the way.

The set at Enmore was just as intense as what I saw in Washington, with an even larger audience. (Here’s a video clip from the balcony – thanks, Youtube) Again, lead singer Yannis Philippakis abandoned the stage to perform half of the song ‘Two Steps, Twice’ from the crowd, climbing and leaping from the balcony.

Following the show I was lucky enough to find my way to the same bar that FOALS was claiming for the night. After walking into a fake hot dog shop storefront on Wentworth Ave. and passing through a cleverly disguised false door, I made it to the Soda Factory and stayed until the early hours of the morning.

FOALS set list, 9/29/13

FOALS set list, 9/29/13

I had a brief chance to speak to FOALS singer Yannis, and mentioned I had been at the show in D.C.  He was quick to praise 9:30 as one of his favorite clubs and went on to say that the D.C. independent music scene (Fugazi and Dischord Records) had been a big influence on him as a teenager.

It’s hard to emphasize how great it was to be on the other side of the world hearing a guy I just watched jump off a balcony into a throng of screaming fans tell me that he loved the city I came from. Rock on, Yannis.

on Language, and the Careful Appreciation of Rap Music

When I was 9 years old, a rapper named Calvin Broadus from Long Beach, California, released an album called “Doggystyle,” using the stage name Snoop Dogg. Somehow, through the pop-culture distribution channels of the early 1990’s, a cassette tape of that album made its way into the Walkmen of me and my third-grade friends.

We tossed around Nerf footballs and drank juice from paper boxes on the carefully landscaped lawn of our shiny, brand new elementary school while Snoop chanted into our boombox, “for all my niggaz and my bitches and my bitches and my niggaz wave yo motha fuckin hands in the air, and if you don’t give a shit like we don’t give a shit, wave yo motha fuckin’ fingas in the air.

According to my parents, the first word I ever uttered was “moon.” There was something special about the way it sounded, I think – almost being a palindrome, its rhythmic quality, the brightness of the moon itself. Maybe it was also the first poem I ever wrote – just one word.

I ended up learning many more words, at least partially thanks to hearing them on the radio. The rhymes about Glock bustin’, gin sippin’, and panty droppin’ meant very little to our young minds, because as far as I know, none of us had any idea what those phrases actually referred to. But what held our attention, I think, was how gigantic it all sounded – and nothing can capture the imagination of elementary students like the apparent invulnerability of adulthood, especially magnified to the size of Snoop Dogg’s gangsta persona (most grata.)

I wouldn’t say that skin color had any influence on how we consumed this music – ours might have been the first generation to have no preordained conception of racism, it having decayed for long enough not to be passed down from parents or siblings or aunts and uncles who went to segregated schools. The fact that Snoop Dogg was black and talking about crime wasn’t a consideration to the mixed race group of kids standing around a well-maintained playground in the suburbs. All we seemed to care about was how many explicit lyrics we could sneak into our ears before running home for dinner.

Of course, there were controls in place to keep this music out of the hands of us. As an adult I learned all about Nancy Reagan’s crusade and the RIAA and the Parental Advisory warning label, but as a child, none of that ever trickled down far enough to keep Snoop from teaching me what ‘chronic’ was.

Time passed, the novelty of Snoop wore off, and America provided fresh new infatuations like Green Day, Nintendo 64, Quentin Tarantino, and when we became old enough, girls. Rap continued to fill the airwaves, but I don’t think it ever sounded as big as it did the first time I heard ‘Lodi Dodi.’

As my friends and I moved through the middle grades, and began taking more complicated lessons in things like civics and biology (as opposed to whatever it was we were learning about in the early days) we started having to write more, read more, be able to talk about ‘Pride & Prejudice’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I suppose, for most of us, our vocabulary increased to include words and phrases like ‘a la carte’ (the serving style of pizza at lunch) and ‘polynomial equation’ (something in math class that was annoying) and ‘girlfriend’ (the person whose mom lectured you about the perils of kissing.)

The language of schooling got more complicated, and so did the language in the music. Instead of craving the bombast of SoCal gangsta rap, I started hearing more complex lyrical ideas in the music that found me – who is this long haired man from England, and why is he singing about something called “Glycerine?” Why does an “old mother cry” when “lightning crashes?” Who is “Lump,” and why does she “live alone in a boggy marsh?” Alternative rock music of the mid and late 90’s had a more abstract lyrical quality than what I had heard before from rap – more fantasy, maybe – and my innate interest in all things surreal led me to chase after it.

Rap was still around, and songs like “First of Da Month” easily gripped my interest – I guess the 8th grade makes a young person more aware of calendars. I also found, from groups like the Pharcyde and a Tribe Called Quest, that it was possible for Rap to be emotionally anxious, not unlike how growing up felt.

IT wasn’t until high school, when drinking and drugs among my peer group wasn’t unheard of, that the rap we first listened to years ago started to make sense – ah, so that’s what drinking a 40 oz is like. The older songs earned a kind of nostalgic rekindling, now replete with newly understood meaning. 2Pac’s ghost gave everyone an anti-hero (what every 16 year old needs) who was too dead to challenge our idealistic view of his cause by perpetually making a spectacle of himself, as is the case with most living celebrities.

It was also around that time when poetry started to make sense – Cummings, Kerouac, Ginsberg, those white guys influenced by jazz who existed in the American past and used carefully chosen words to express the nature of their times. I didn’t sense any connection between my appreciation for the two modes – but the old poetry, and the new Rap, weren’t completely divorced from each other.

In the few years before I turned 20, Rap made such an impression by way of it’s ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude that I wanted to permanently pledge allegiance to it. Tattooing a Wu-Tang ‘W’ on my arm seemed like a good idea. For an outcast, (who was devotedly listening to OutKast) it was the easiest way to shun a world I was afraid of entering as an adult, and an attempt to link myself to a culture, that looking back, I didn’t really understand.

I eventually started feeling guilty about the ‘blackness’ of the tattoo, since I’m the protean example of a typical white Suburbanite. Eminem and the Beastie Boys are all great fun, but the undeniable truth is, Rap is predominantly an expression of African-American culture. At the time of getting inked, it seemed okay, but since then I’ve become regretful – not because I’m ashamed to be associated with the group, but because I don’t feel like I’ve ‘earned’ it, not having gone through any of the troubles or lived the life described in those songs (and not wanting to.) I’m in the process, now 10 years later, of having it removed.

Masta Killa and Brian, 2011

Masta Killa and Brian, 2011

When I got serious about college, I started studying language. I read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky. I read Calvino and DeLillo and Didion and Wolfe, I read Byron and Eliot and Emerson and Dickens. I read Angelou, Tolstoy, and Cervantes.

I learned how language is the constructing principle of our reality. It is the master key to all doors, and interacting with it carefully determines the place we hold in society. I also realized that music is just as important to our understanding of the world – after all, the word uni verse, our term for the space in which humanity exists – from the Latin, translates to “one song.”

I figured out that the words we use define our lives. If you learn the vocabulary of finance, you’ll make a lot of money. If you learn the vocabulary of anatomy, you’ll become a doctor. If you learn the vocabulary of surfing, you’ll get a suntan.

If you learn the vocabulary of Rap, you will…. well, I don’t know. I guess it depends on who you already are, and what it means to you. If you’re talking about Snoop Dogg’s vocabulary, or Wu-Tang’s vocabulary, or T.I.’s vocabulary, then maybe you incorporate those stories of sex, violence and drama into your own life. Maybe you end up cheating on your wife and losing all your money in a divorce. Maybe you end up in a fight at a bar that costs you thousands of dollars in court. Maybe you follow a drugged path of self-destruction.

I don’t like to propose a causal, deterministic relationship between the consumption of entertainment and real-life experience – I’ve always believed people can see as much violent television or watch as many racy movies as they please, and never be any worse off for it. But there’s something about entertaining yourself with language that is heavier than entertaining yourself with something like video games, because language is the means by which you build dreams, aspirations, and expectations of the world you live in.

(As a disclaimer, I do believe that some of the street knowledge embedded in Rap can be empowering to those who are stuck in a situation that requires them to survive at any cost. But I also think it can be unnecessary for someone without their back to the wall.)

All of these fantasies that I heard rappers boast about when I was younger turned into things that would be completely miserable, if they became problems in my own real adult life.

That’s why I began to listen to Rap carefully.

I saw families disrupted by substance abuse, and read enough about crime in the local newspaper (and was blessed enough not to have been directly affected) I realized there isn’t glamour in any of it, only heartache. A television show called the Wire redefined everything I thought I knew about the streets, drugs, and police (the payload of much Rap music.)

In the Wire, it’s clear that there is nothing ‘cool’ about an environment that produces a character like ‘Bubbles,’ a homeless addict whose luck never showed up. There’s nothing ‘gangsta’ about getting shot in the face while walking out of the movie theater with someone’s ex-girlfriend. There’s nothing ‘wealthy’ about having to replace your cell phone every week because your ‘job’ makes you a target for wire tapping (well, I guess we’re all kind of wire-tapped now. But I digress.) There is nothing ‘evil’ about police who want to bring justice to murderers.

There’s nothing easy about the show, and it challenged a youth I spent imagining (and that pop culture spent selling to me ) the idea of ‘thug life’ as the path to luxury.

When I hear rap now, I still feel an elemental connection to the sound of it – the sampled snare and kick, a soft piano tremolo skirting the rhythm, the echoes of a hard consonant on the fourth bar. Instrumentalists who make the music without the words (like DJ Cam, RJD2 and Wax Tailor) get far more play in my stereo than whoever is winning the Grammy for ‘Best New Rap Artist’ this year, or last year, or ever.

The current class of dance-club infused Rap hardly seems related to the genre I used to enjoy. I would say that all rappers are spitting lyrics that are essentially meaningless, but I’m holding out hope that my lack of attention means many are lurking in the shadows, doing something interesting. There is still creativity in the genre that impresses me – the Roots, Shabazz Palaces, and on rare occasions, even Kanye West.

I’ll always feel connected to the sound, and appreciate the cool place that repetition of rhythm can take me to, and maybe every now and then I’ll just want to wave my motha fuckin’ fingas in the air — but when I want poetry, these days, it’s much more gratifying to open (or turn on) a book.

on The North Borders

The recording artist / DJ known as Bonobo released “The North Borders” last week, and made Washington D.C. the first tour stop in support of the album.

The songs came to life on stage, energized by complex layers of live drums, keys, saxophone, clarinet, bass, and a host of other instruments.

The electronic genre, lately dominated by house and ‘dubstep,’ owes a great credit to Bonobo for expanding the possibility of what can be done in a masterfully orchestrated mix of jazz, two-step, big beat, and ambient chillout.

Vocalist Szjerdene contributes to the album on the tracks “Towers” and “Transits,” and is along for the tour. She silenced (and amazed) the crowd with her soft, soulful style and substituted for Andreya Triana on some of the older tracks from ‘Black Sands.’

The North Borders opens with ‘First Fires,’ a brilliant track with an epic atmosphere that captures the apprehensive spirit of a new beginning. The elemental poetry of the tune had me visualizing the first fire ever lit by mankind, and imagining a re-creation of that moment, charged by a modern discovery.

What if humanity found something as important as fire, again? Maybe the North Borders will be the soundtrack to the next technological revolution.

on Love in the Time of… Hatebreed

Often resulting in injuries [4], the collective mood is influenced by the combination of loud, fast
music (130 dB [5], 350 beats per minute), synchronized
with bright, flashing lights, and frequent intoxication [6].
This variety and magnitude of stimuli are atypical of
more moderate settings.

Jesse L. Silverberg, “Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts.”  Cornell University, 2013. 

The week before Valentines Day the top of the Billboard charts featured plenty of easy songs about romance – The Lumineers Ho Hey, Calvin Harris Sweet Nothings, Taylor Swift I Knew You Were Trouble.

And for the first time in their 15 years of touring, the furious tracks by metal rockers Hatebreed crashed into the Billboard top 20.  On a night that some people reserve for Sinatra and soft lighting, the band spent this Valentines Day screaming from a stage in Virginia to a wild crowd.

Whether in Buffalo or Raleigh, Jacksonville or Norfolk, metal music attracts a specific type of black t-shirted, red-blooded American male, content to skip buying roses and pouring wine, and enthused to ball up a fist and take a stagedive.


As retailers push pink hearts and flowers and chocolates, Hatebreed offers an alternative to the rosy-cheeked glow of commercialized passion. In the song “Between Hell and a Heartbeat,” vocalist Jamey Jasta growls:

“One last nail
In the coffin of all your trust
Where there once was love now lives total disgust”

The crowd this February 14th was about 90% single white men under 30, none of whom seemed to find it overly ironic when Jasta said, between thrashing songs: “Happy Valentines Day, if you came here with somebody you love!”

A sparse number of calm and seemingly affectionate couples meekly mixed into the crowd, and they always do at metal shows, Valentines Day or not.

Jesse Silverberg, a graduate student in physics at Cornell, was at a metal concert with his girlfriend when he first made a connection between ‘moshing’ and the behavior of gas molecules.

Silverberg’s observation inspired him to study crowd behavior, and publish a paper titled “Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts.” He hopes to influence architectural design standards: it would be unethical to trap people in a burning building as a test to study behavior in a panic situation; analyzing metalheads in a mosh pit is apparently the next best thing.

Finding a mathematical formula for saving lives in a parade of screaming men taking swings at each other: I guess that’s one version love, in the time of Hatebreed.

to Robyn, on Being ‘Robotboy’

Hey Robyn!

I was just listening to your song, ‘Robotboy,’ and I thought I’d answer all the questions you had. I hope this response relieves some of your worry:

“Where you been?”

I’ve been at work, or at home, or any of the other various places I go. I make a determined effort to find new ground as often as possible, even if it’s just a little thing – a new corner of a room to stand in, a new place to eat tofu, or a new building that would look nice in a photograph. ‘Where’ is an interesting concept. Sometimes I think of ‘here’ as more than just the place I’m sitting, or what city I’m in. Could ‘where’ also be a place I’m thinking of? Is where just the few square feet around my body? Is it everywhere I’m capable of being within a certain amount of minutes?

“Are you lost again?”

Lost isn’t always a bad thing. Many oft-referenced quotes back this up, you know, about wandering and the road less traveled or whatever. There’s actually a book by Rebecca Solnit, called “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” that covers, in detail, the wondrous joy of having not a clue where the fuck you are, or where you’re going. So if you’re asking as a matter of concern, be sure, all is well!

“Will you find your coordinates home?”

Maybe Tomorrow… (Just kidding, that’s a Stereophonics song.) Really, I don’t know. What is home to you? Is home ‘wherever you are?‘ Is it where you’re ‘chillin outside with the people you know?’ Are you going to take me there, tonight? Are you asking me if I’m going to find my way, or are you specifically telling me to come back home? The problem with being a robot is that it takes a lot of data analyzation for us to get to the root of an inquiry. We have to really read into the core of a request to properly respond.

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on Discovering Electronic Dance Music

I think the first really ‘electronic’ record that caught my attention was a remix of Everything but the Girl’s ‘Missing’. It’s really more of a pop song, but the traces of house were enough to send me looking for more.

In the mid-90s, I found a compilation of dance tracks on a CD that I would spin up while playing video games, a digital soundscape to match the virtual experience of driving a pixelated car through an imaginary city.

EDM didn’t feel like my main genre, never one that I could come to instinctively  any time I wanted to hear a tune, but it carved out a space in my stereo that I needed to visit from time to time.

When Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ was featured in the closing scene of the Trainspotting film, I felt like I had discovered something amazing – a transcendent experience, an auditory escape that seemed otherworldly, a purely imaginative space to explore.

Dieselboy’s ‘A Soldier’s Story‘ and Juno Reactor’s ‘Bible of Dreams‘ were random grabs that sunk deep into my rotation, somehow persisting amidst all the angsty punk that made up most of my collection.

I found myself at the end of a day-long concert festival, at 16 years old, completely spent from having seen dozens of bands, now lost in a trance as the Crystal Method blew the figurative roof from RFK stadium, ‘Busy Child‘ syncing tens of thousands into a collective pulse under an open night sky.

Around this time, the genre seemed to be growing in popularity, Fatboy Slim was all over MTV, along with Crystal Method, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and the like. The exposure prompted me to dig deeper and find more complex, fascinating artists who didn’t fall into the mainstream.

The latest explosion of the genre has been Dubstep, which to me, sounds like a digital interpretation of some of the hardcore bands of the late 90s (Strife, Earth Crisis, Sick of It All) – all that energy, reshaped and packaged for an entirely different (less angry) experience.

I did some digital composing of my own when I had some down-time in college, fumbling around with FLStudio and ignoring my guitar. The results were fun, but I never knew what to do with them. How do DJs go from having a few .wav files to throwing parties, anyway?

Over the years EDM has remained in the background for me, not the sound I’m most likely to play on a road trip, but always stashed away just in case. If I look at my listening statistics on, only two EDM acts fall in my Top 20 most-listened over the past several years.

EDM’s smaller, less prominent place in my listening habits could mean I find other genres more consistently in tune with my moods – or it could mean that those small doses carry such a potent experience, that I only need to dip into them once in a while to get my fill.

Maybe the most powerful experiences aren’t also the most common – for life in general, or for deciding what to carry in my headphones.

Another Trip to the Record Store

I made another trip to the local used CD shop, and left with a few bargains. I’m dumb to how the economic machinery of the music business works, and whether store-shopping is better for the musicians than iTunes – regardless, it’s nice to lose track of time while thumbing through the ‘G-H’ section looking for something fresh.

Foals – Antidotes //// This album is full of tight acoustic breakbeats, bright guitar melodies, and the occasional horn blast. Without relying on heavy effects, Foals creates a dreamy soundscape that’s easy to get lost in. My neighbors are going to be hearing this one at 7 a.m. for a while – sorry about that!

Broken Bells //// The brilliance of Danger Mouse was evident when he mashed up the Beatles and Jay-Z for the ‘Grey Album’, and this collaboration with the Shins’ James Mercer explores new territory – angsty pop with lush strings and soft, catchy hooks.

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A Trip to the Record Store

I’ve been getting nostalgic for the feel of plastic discs in my hands, so instead of sitting in my office and distractedly browsing Spotify, I went out to a few used record stores and came home with a bag full of music. Here’s what I copped –

Basement Jaxx – Rooty  ////  The single ‘Always Be There’ showed up on my hard drive some time a few years ago, and catches up to my headphones every now and again. Its such a solid track, I’m going to give the rest of their tunes some overdue rotation. First listen of ‘Rooty’ already has me hooked.

Kasabian – Empire  ////   Kasabian’s self-titled album from 2004 was amazing. I played the hell out of it, and saw them do a great show in Tampa, FL in ’06. The album was so good, I never bothered listening to any follow ups – until now!

Kasabian -Tampa, 2006

Elvis Costello – My Aim is True   ////  I’ve always been skeptical of Costello, because his name is Elvis. I had felt that there should really only be one guy called Elvis in rock music – a completely naive stance, I know. This album is terrific.  ‘Welcome to the Working Week’ and ‘Alison’ are classic hits, and a few sick guitar solos pop up on other tracks for good measure.

The Smiths – Singles  ////  People are quick to rave about how important the Smiths are, but I’ve never followed up and really heard it for myself. I’ve listened to some of Morrissey’s later solo work, and wasn’t thrilled. I’m going to make a concentrated effort to listen to and enjoy this album.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals – This is Somewhere  ////  I pretty much fell hopelessly in love with Grace Potter the first time I saw her. Hearing her sing only made it worse. I’ve streamed this album a few times, but it deserves some space on a shelf.

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