TRYING TO PIN DOWN SOME SORT OF VIEWPOINT or philosophy behind UCLA's All Tomorrow's Parties music festival is a bit of a head-scratcher, so you know they've gotta be on to something. An outgrowth of David Sefton's annual concerts at London's Royal Festival Hall, which throw together radically eclectic mobs of musicians, poets and visual artists from the high and low scenes, ATP (after the Velvet Underground song of the same title) will attempt to seduce Los Angeles with that experimental/accessible aesthetic at UCLA March 14 through 17.
In recent festivals, Sefton called upon such progressive luminaries as Chicago's art-rock kings Tortoise to curate. This year, here, as UCLA's new director of performing arts, he's asked rock/art heavies Sonic Youth to do the choosing -- which has resulted in a tangle of mostly adventurous types, ranging from drum & bass prankster Aphex Twin, Japanese noise mutineers Merzbow and Boredoms, and new-jazz scientists Cecil Taylor and Mats Gustaffson, to the more user-friendly Eddie Vedder, indie-rock icon Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, loungy popsters Stereolab, sex rapper Peaches, new wave legends Television and revered pop cultists Big Star. (For complete schedule, see Calendar Concerts listings.) Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore made a special point of including crucial poets such as John Sinclair, Gerard Malanga, Ira Cohen and Lydia Lunch, each linked with the music underground scene over the last 30 years.
Moore explains what the band had in mind.
"We were just asked to put together a wish list, like, 'If you wanted to do a festival with any band you wanted, what would you do?' And I was like, 'That's easy,' and we put down like 3,000 bands. The only sort of guiding factor was, there's a budget, so you're not going to be able to get Dylan and . . . you know. That was okay, there were plenty of bands we really wanted, who we could get. But we had to be conscious about people coming to the thing -- if we booked just unknown underground bands that we liked, I don't think we'd really sell many tickets.
"As it happens, there's a lot of high-profile music that we do indeed like, be it Wilco or Eddie Vedder or Stereolab. Then, you know, Cecil Taylor and things like this are pretty heavy hitters, so that'll encourage a lot of people to spend a hundred bucks for a weekend of music, which, for the amount of bands playing, is a pretty good deal. You know, you'd spend a couple hundred bucks to see Don Rickles at the Sands . . . Actually, we were trying to get Don Rickles."
All Tomorrow's Parties' lineup, as selected by SY, was purely intuitive and highly subjective. It makes me wonder who didn't make the final cut.
"There were some composers that we wanted to present," says Moore, "but the environment at UCLA isn't really set up to present them properly. People like [French musique concrète composer] Luc Ferrari and [electronic orchestral minimalist] Phil Niblock were gonna come out, and a lot of them have music for large ensembles, and I couldn't stick them between Cat Power and Smog -- it's not fair to them. We were hoping to bring out other disciplines -- it would've been great to have Merce Cunningham's dance company do a piece, but again, that's a lot of money to get something like that."
Looking at their choices is sort of like psychoanalyzing your friends by examining their taste buds. Overall the program highlights musicians who approach music as an art form, whose ambitions can't be contained within the traditions of rock or pop. The inclusion of more easily digestible artists like Vedder or Wilco betrays a subtle cross-referencing within the band's eclectic aesthetic -- though Moore prefers a simpler explanation.
"The idea is to have music that may have a lot of success in the mainstream that we generally do like. You ä know, Neil Young -- he's a mainstream artist, we'd love to have presented him, and he was willing to do it, but he was committed to touring with CSN&Y. Eddie's an old friend, and our relationship with him transcends whatever sort of spotlight he might have as far as, like, 'rock celebrity.' We were asked to tour with Pearl Jam for one summer, and Eddie would sit down and play some acoustic solo-guitar music, and it was great, just beautiful songs. We thought it would be a little unwieldy to actually ask Pearl Jam to do something, because they're such a huge band, and they would cater to so many ticket buyers who would only be interested possibly in seeing them and not going to see, y'know, Unwound."
The festival, then, will be an opportunity to see Vedder performing nonPearl Jam songs (with an accordion player and a drummer), which oughtta be enlightening for Pearl Jam fans and non-fans alike, a crossing over of audiences from one music to another that exemplifies Sonic Youth's own un-snobbish attitude. At their best they've demonstrated a fertile feel for how music serious and unserious isn't mutually exclusive.
"We've always crossed over ourselves," says Moore. "[SY collaborator] Jim O'Rourke is a prime example. He recorded Wilco's last record, he's very good friends with them, and the drummer of Wilco is the drummer in his band, and he turned me on to them. I found them very genuine, and interesting musically, and I dug it. They're cool people, and I like what they're doing. Almost everybody playing is somebody we've had interaction with.
"I don't want to underestimate the intelligence of any audience. We've tried to present material that's a bit below the radar of the mainstream, even the underground mainstream, and music that we find interesting, challenging and fun regardless of what its genre is. It could be bubblegum music, or it could be hardcore industrial music -- it doesn't really matter, if it has a genuine, somewhat authentic and creative vibe to it."
Extending that aesthetic just a pinch makes the addition of several poets seem right and logical.
"Both [SY's Lee Ranaldo] and I are involved with the literary community in New York, and I edit a poetry journal, and Lee has published his own poetry journal. That's part of the whole lineage here, with Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, so we felt that we would like to present some literature. I wanted people who had some sort of connection to underground-music history, since there's always been such a relationship there. You know, John Sinclair is formidable, he managed the MC5, he ran one of the first mimeo radical-poetry presses out of Ann Arbor, the Artists' Workshop Press; he's going to read with a free-jazz saxophone player. Gerard Malanga worked with the Velvet Underground, and he's known for that connection, but he's regarded as a very recognized poet, even before his connection with Warhol and subsequently the Velvets. People like Eileen Myles, she's very recognized by, like, the riot grrrl movement. There's Nathaniel Mackey, from the Bay Area, an academic poet who's been writing a series of books on the black-culture experience. These are just really interesting writers, strong and outspoken poets."
The fact that Moore and his bandmates drew from a list of originally thousands confirms my belief in something I've suspected for some time now: that, far from being fallow, as our more cynical media would have you believe, this is rather an era of more provocative and challenging music than ever before. Does Moore feel differently?
"I think there always was and always will be great music, but right now it's become way more factionalized from the mainstream. In the '70s, punk rock started coming up in reaction to the kind of pompous Led Zeppelin hero-rock. But it's so much worse now -- it's not even about battling disco or Studio 54 behavior, it's like battling complete industry control by this kind of Disneyfied music-making process. Like businessmen writing songs for ingénues: It's completely divorced from any kind of creative schedule that a lot of us have. I think there's more total alienation culturally now than there ever was, and it's really amazing what's going on in the underground, and the fact that it's been established that you can actually work and work well in the underground without having to deal with any kind of music-industry business as usual."
AMEN. BY THE WAY, WHAT'S UP WITH Sonic Youth? The group's hard at work mixing their new disc, which will come out in June. The events of September 11 disrupted the recording sessions, as the band's lower-Manhattan studio was damaged and access to it was blocked for two months. The space has now been detoxified, and Sonic Youth are back in action, having learned a thing or three in the process. They'll be premiering new tunes at their ATP appearance.
"Our music has always been somewhat informed by our location," says Moore. "I wouldn't say this one is unlike that. Lyrically, etc., it's not pointed as such, but the songs are big, full-on Sonic Youth rock songs, and maybe less sort of arcane and extrapolated than the last few records were getting into. I don't know why that is. But they're heavy, man."
Sonic Youth plays at UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom, Sunday, March 17.