February 25th, 2015

Letter from the Editor

Tom Clemons, Frank, and the Found

| | $ |


Those of us who are so involved in manufacturing the sorts of weirdness showcased in the award-winning film Frank are prone to be a little over-sensitive that others are chuckling darkly in corners at our futile efforts. We are the sensitive children others beat with mounds of dung. We are the ones who wore the dung-shirts for the sake of something greater than just coins of refined dung, but for the sake greater dung god in the sky sort of thing. Even while screaming this omniscient dung being does not exist. What is Frank?


Frank is a comedy that laughs at and with the musical argonauts—i.e. the fictitious band Soropfbs, and its lead singer/guru, Frank. We witness the strange man in the giant fiberglass head recording himself hopping in a field, and we witness his final falling apart. We are laughing at his confusion when faced with modern social media networks, and watch the audience within the film being chided for laughing at all the amusing footage the carrot-topped lead has been posting on the web this whole time. Which. Isn’t this exactly what we’ve been doing this whole time? As in, laughing at these musical iconoclasts? Am I thinking too much?


Of course, Soropfbs are not really that iconoclastic as Stephen Rennick, who composed the score for Frank, has himself acknowledged. A little bit like a New Wave Captain Beefheart cover band with a little Daniel Johnston’s prose-y lyric stylings and outsider artist insane asylum status, and at least one Zapa-esque digression. Not to mention, Frank Sidebottom, the actual inspiration for the film.


Every time I watch footage of Frank Sidebottom, I always immediately think of the Residents. These days, when I think about what music is becoming in this age of the interweb, and then ponder back to the Residents and their Theory of Obscurity, or Frank Sidebottom and his Max Fleischer-inspired fiberglass head, these artists, that once seemed so intentionally and idiosyncratically obtuse, begin to appear more prophetic. We are living in an anonymous age, in which quality music of all variety lives in a kind of field of obscurity, a sea of unknown eyes and ears manufacturing endless hours of downloadable product on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Of a daunting saturation of home movies and maverick videos on Youtube. It is the age of the anonymous creating public, and most of what we create are funny cat gifs. Which brings us to Tom Clemons.



Resident P-town-ian and member of The Daggers, Tom Clemons was introduced to me by Boston producer PJ Goodwin because I was looking for someone to create videos for our most recent album, No Place to Die, and specifically because of his ability to discover obscure found footage and edit, rework, and generally-speaking manipulate it, so that it fits with his various techno drones, new wave creations, and on-going pop audio eruptions, utilizing the ideology of Duchamp and Grandmaster Flash along the way. The songs play off their video counterparts to expert effect, as if one were commenting on the other. From the Little Rascals to home movie backward antics to the above off-the-radar Korean [?] sci-fi film, the clips chosen give these songs a second more nuanced life.


These’re brilliant little films—striking and haunting at best. In one sense, it could be seen as an online version of the shows I have been to where found footage is projected over the band, but the difference is that this footage is both more clearly manipulated by the artist and more wedded to the music, making it seem somehow simultaneously more and less valid as a practice. If you think about it through the lens of Duchamp, it’s a brilliant bit of appropriation, but if you think about it through the lens of Grandmaster Flash, it’s kind of like sampling an entire song.


I tend to think of the films as selected scraps of the cultural maelstrom being commented on by Clemons with his dark almost apocalyptic in-some-cases music. The films create a triangular configuration between pop lyrics, ominous arrangement and the often schizophrenic-seeming, lyrically terrifying, or plain distopian imagery. Between the three, the sensation is of being brought into a dark and alluring internal vision. I am reminded of the film around which the book, Infinite Jest, revolves, the one that the characters cannot look away from because it is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen, which also may be a vision of Lady Death or maybe I read it wrong. How I remember it any case. But when it comes to Tom Clemons, there is this same sense of beauty and the tragedy of decay intermingled in all these films.


Even when it comes to the alluring, For the Night, which presents different dances, with the dance slowed to a painstaking snail’s crawl at different moments. When viewed in conjunction with the dark new wave song it accompanies, it seems like a commentary on the tragic beauty of our efforts to slow the dance of death through the casual couplings the song is ostensibly about. Or perhaps something grander. Like artistic exploration or a search for the divine. The footage of each of these different dancers showcased throughout the song seem to symbolize different approaches to the round-about dancing of our days into the never-ending night.



But like I said before, the whole reason why I found Tom Clemons in the first place is because we here at Mutable are working so hard just to get people to realize that our internet product exists and is available for free download. We are in the process of turning our entire library free. Something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago when we started, but these days in the saturated wild west of the internet it seems that we’re all free to be you and me anonymously, and are freely trading and stealing and sharing and borrowing content from each other with the glee of a coke-powered cheerleading squad. Maybe if I download a pirated version of a movie, I might get a warning from my internet provider, and there is the notorious case of the BU student who has been taken to the courts by the music industry for something like hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in damages and still has not settled his case, but your everyday user feels no compunction to pay for the content we share, rip, and stream. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that the act of treating the internet by the same proprietary standards as the walking-around world feels unnatural to most of us for the simple fact that it feels like the internet is inside my head.


Allow me to explain. The Chinese word for mind is naohai, literally “brain-sea”, and the Chinese word for computer is, diannao, or “electric brain”, and if we think along these lines—which I believe we naturally and intuitively do—the internet is kind of like a sea of electric brains or a collective mind. It does not have the substance of the physical world, and taking from one part of it to put it in another seems as arbitrary as moving a piece of information from the right side of my brain to the left side would seem an inconsequential feat, although also very possibly physically impossible? But I digress.


At the same time, this collective mind we’re all contributing to like the billion-fold voices in some truly monumental schizophrenic, should not and originally was not about money-making. What began as a brainchild of the Pentagon developed into a means to freely and openly communicate and share information. This ideology is hard-wired into the very fabric of the web to such a degree that it would take a serious reworking of its functionality for it to behave differently, which certain interests are looking into—herein referring to net neutrality and the Great Firewall of China. And while it is true that what started out as bad for the music industry (Napster) has evolved into a world where the things we write and the music we make is no longer valued as a commodity because it has become so easy to acquire without paying, there is still this sense that this explosion of content MUST be good—like maybe we’re mutating the art in the process, and we’ll only discover what’s happened twenty years from now. At least this is how we hope it is here at Mutable.


I once ascribed to the philosophy that the artist should not work for profit or fame, but only for the pure fact of creation itself, which in some sense is reflected in the Residents’ Theory of Obscurity, and over the years this has evolved into a kind of secular mysticism, because when you cut out the audience, all that’s left is some kind of God, which brings us back to that greater dung god in the sky I mentioned before, and certain doublespeak feelings I had as a much younger man—as in, that to fail is to succeed, that a person needs to be blind to see, that seeing is always a kind of falling further and that if you fall far enough, then you’ll fall all the way around the earth and end up at the top of the sky. It’s the kind of magical thinking that can lead to a person dead, or maybe doing some weird stuff, but it is not the sort of thing that leads to profit or fame. It is perhaps possible that the internet is creating an atmosphere in which this type of creative philosophy can flourish just because the traditional careerist will quickly see how pointless it is to try and win the fame game in the rock and roll arena in the Internet Age of 2015.


Do I want to weigh in on proprietary rights and Tom Clemons? No. These are excellent videos and excellent songs, and what’s more, the old-school idea of copyright runs on the assumption that these are products we are trying to sell. We created works of culture and we hope to be compensated for our efforts. But if we are making these products in our efforts to find meaning, then this trumps the commercial stuff because it has a feeling of greater authenticity to the listener, which is why we’re all so enamored of outsider artists. A good part of that is the sense of a lack of artifice. However, a lot of the outsider antics of persons like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis start to sound and look the same. They become genres. Schizo-pop. Ethno-rock. Amateur-slop.


I guess, the question I’m asking is, What are we looking for in the creation and consumption of works of music, film, and other content we find on the internet?



Through sheer saturation, how we understand music is changing. Through the endless efforts of the everyday unknown to express and push his or her content onto the larger consuming public. The consuming populace are becoming saturated, but this is not just a contemporary phenomenon. This is the result of a century of recorded music. Being unable to forget the past, we cannot create a musical present, and the only artists that are still considered worthy of the actual purchasing of their audio creations are those who have become made holy by celebrity. Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber are worshiped through the obedient purchasing of their product, whereas Tom Clemons and Paul Leonard are unknowns who should be honored by the simple fact of our patronage. There’s a sense that an unknown songster is somehow beneath the audience, a sad silly sop plying his trade on the street. One step up from a beggar. Again the image of the holy man.


There’s something else that could be happening. All of this content could become a means for us to communicate with each other. It’s possible that we could create something with the synchronistic allure of the I Ching in all this mud-slinging of content or something with the allure of AI, even if in all actuality it’s a hive of folk-musicians pulling the strings.


The internet is a complex system and all of us who voice some poorly-thought-out joke or are trying to get people to support some outlandish creative exercise, we’re all part of that system. We are feeding into it, but what comes out is the thinking of the mob, and the machinations of the arctic vortex. It is a powerful force, but also a chaotic and uncontrollable one—for example, in public shaming exercises on Twitter—when it could be like AI if it had a systematic and concerted focus, if all these persons across the globe were working to connect and create together, but instead we have a tendency to treat our fellow netizens like targets in a shooting gallery and allow our worst sides to be displayed for the simple reason that we are anonymous in this truly mind-shattering crowd of humanity, while at the same time our every action in this web of information is easily decoded and traced back to us by the invisible organisations we implicitly sanction by our silence, and the marketing firms we grumble about even when we are paying exorbitant prices for the services their clients provide.


Confusion is a great tool for control. Clarity of vision is dangerous, but there are two distinct versions of this old obfuscation routine. One is what I consider the traditional version, the one they play over in China. Put up a big wall and don’t let the other voices in, while maintaining complete control of local media outlets as well as planting your own people in social media forums so as to further the company line while all the while occasionally (and more than occasionally) jailing away in secrecy someone whose only crime is posting a photograph of support to local protesters for example. The other is the one wherein you let everybody talk at once, so you can’t hear a bloody thing. That’s the American method.



There was this feeling in Boston in the 90′s that there’s something pure in anonymity. But really what we were searching for then was a kind of religious austerity. An authentic artistic experience. Something that would ring true because it hadn’t been sullied by commercial interests. That saying very clearly and distinctly fuck you to the idea of success was the only noble course.


What we were looking for and what Frank represents to his band is the same. In a world where much of our understanding of our culture and each other has been shrunk down to the one-sentence meme, the nuances of the world is being squeegee’d out. The glittery objects that obscure the gaping maw of annihilation, and the search for authenticity is the search for genuine human experience, and the more our experience is filtered through a machine, the less authentic it becomes or so the logic goes.


Thing of it is though that experience is experience. Seeing the tree and seeing the tree as a pixilated image on Google is not such a violently different experience. The absurd comedic outsider music parody of Frank Sidebottom that we get filtered through Frank is an authentic experience, as are the many decontextualized twitters in our ever-scrolling feeds. Tom Clemons is an authentic person who is making authentic music and very masterfully utilizing video on the internet so that we can authentically experience his vision with him. I am authentic. You are authentic. The only thing that’s inauthentic is our search for the authentic. Sort of like searching for your nose when it’s been right there on your face all along.