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By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo courtesy of FOX
You may or may not know that the famous Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, Futurama and our own Life in Hell comic strip, is also a former music critic, for the L.A. Reader circa early ’80s. Groening is a lifelong, well-versed music fan who’s been only somewhat involved in the choice of musical guests on The Simpsons (the show has featured Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins and numerous others), but not to the extent that Middle America gets scared off by too much obscure weirdness. That’s right, Groening’s a supereclectic whose real cup of tea you might call music from the fringes.
For all his high-profile and considerable Hollywood heft, Groening is an amiable and shockingly down-to-earth guy who remains enthusiastically fanboyish about the sounds he likes. In addition to having guest-edited the just-out Best Music Writing 2003 (Da Capo Press), he recently took on the job as curator of All Tomorrow’s Parties, the progressive mixed-bag music festival. You may recall that after L.A.’s first installment of the festival at UCLA two years ago — a critical success but a logistical nightmare — a second edition was planned for last June under Groening’s creative stewardship, but the whole thing collapsed in disarray, owing officially to poor ticket sales. Groening, however, has dusted himself off and is back with a reorganized ATP, to be held on the Queen Maryin Long Beach on November 8 and 9.
What follows is two guys who like music a lot, shooting the breeze about what gets them buzzing:
L.A. WEEKLY: So, Matt, tell us about it. What’re you into?
MATT GROENING: I like a little bit of everything. I like to find out what grows around the edges of every kind of music — I like the most odd country music, like Speedy West the country guitarist; in contemporary jazz and in rock & roll, I like the people who are pushing the boundaries.
My enthusiasm for oddball rock & roll comes from the mainstream pop of the 1960s, when each new album by the major groups was an extension of the boundaries of pop music, from the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. And even with all this swirl of inventiveness that was going on in the late ’60s, there were a few groups that were even going further than everybody else — Frank Zappa in particular, and Captain Beefheart. In 1969, I heard [Beefheart’s] Trout Mask Replica for the first time, and it just blew me away. There was a connection between delta blues and avant-garde jazz.
Yeah, it was really exciting, because it was like the birth of something new.
I was in high school and I remember my pal said, “If this is how good pop music is in 1969, just think what it’s gonna be like in 1984!” [Laughs.] We didn’t realize that that era was a real high point for a certain kind of avant-garde rock & roll.
Anyway, Beefheart’s Magic Band has reunited for ATP; they played at the last ATP in England, and they recorded an album here in California; I got to sit in on some of the recording sessions for it, and it’s great. It’s Drumbo [a.k.a. John French], [guitarist] Gary Lucas, [bassist] Mark Boston [“Rockette Morton”] and [guitarist] Denny Walley.Drumbo was my favorite Beefheart drummer; I remember seeing him play at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, when Beefheart had gotten the Magic Band back together in 1977.
I saw that show. Yeah, unbelievable. The first time I saw ’em was in ’70 or ’71, and it had Bill Harkleroad [a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo] and Drumbo, at the Paramount Theater, in the front row. It was also sort of the height of the hippie counterculture, and even that audience by hippie standards were complete weirdos!
How did you come to be the curator of ATP?
I gave a talk at UCLA a couple of years ago, and I hit it off with David Sefton, at the time UCLA’s new director of performing arts, and we talked about music. He had worked with Barry Hogan, who is the original promoter of ATP in England, and they both loved the idea of reuniting the Magic Band — except for Captain Beefheart, because he’s not available, he’s retired and not interested. And that’s how it started. The name “All Tomorrow’s Parties” — well, we’ve got Sonic Youth playing this year, and they had curated the festival here in L.A. last year, and I was trying to honor the tone of what they had started. My idea was a kind of through line from the Velvet Underground — because the festival is named after one of their songs — to Sonic Youth. And we’re being fairly consistent with that.
How much does this year’s lineup reflect your personal taste?
Well, the original lineup had to change, because unfortunately UCLA — the sponsor for the event — dropped out due to budget problems. The festival didn’t get advertised, and it got just lost. In a way, it’s better, because I like the new location — at the Queen Mary! It’s just an odd place to do it. The musicians I’m most excited about are Sonic Youth, who have recorded the best version of the Simpsons theme ever; of course the Magic Band, Black Heart Procession and the Minutemen.
You must have had to do some compromising to get the kind of lineup you wanted for this ATP. Did you work from a big wish list?
It’s all about when a band is touring and available and all this kind of stuff. And then Barry Hogan has a “no assholes” policy; he’s had enough experience with certain people in this business. And I thought, “That sounds reasonable to me.” [Laughs.] And the bands at our ATP pass the test.
So you chose Sonic Youth to play at your ATP. You’re a longtime fan, right?
One of the things about Sonic Youth is that every performance I’ve seen, every record I’ve heard, is always something different. I don’t know exactly what it is that I find so compelling about the drones of their music, but I do. I think it’s taking basic rock & roll and making it intellectually tolerable. Most rock & roll I find rhythmically boring. Pop music usually sounds like the audio equivalent of CGI, or computer-generated graphics; it just feels like there’s no depth, and it’s just so repetitious. The human ear can unconsciously detect the redundancy of the same sound repeated again and again, which is tedious. Also the fact that so much music sounds like someone pressed a button. What if there’s a power failure?
Drum machines substitute a bad tension for a good one; we like the tension of players’ human fallibility; it draws us in. The tension inherent in programmed rhythms comes from knowing that the beats won’t vary, and that we’ll get bored.
Among my favorite music in the world is Balinese gamelan music, and it sounds like a polyrhythmic freight train. I went to Bali a few years ago to hear it.
What’s it like to hear one of those gamelan orchestras live? I bet it makes your neck hairs stand on end.
It takes on a completely different feeling when you’re there, and it’s vibrating against you. And you hear the birds, and dogs barking. I wouldn’t use drugs and listen to this stuff. [Laughs.] I hear it as composition.
Back to Sonic Youth: I like the fact that by having them guest on The Simpsons, you’ve introduced John Q. Average in Madrid, Kentucky, to concepts like overtones and alternate tunings and dissonance and noise and all that unorthodox-type stuff.
Fox Network loves it when we have people like Aerosmith or Britney Spears, musicians they’ve heard of. They were less than enthusiastic about the Ramones or Sonic Youth, and, surprisingly, Spinal Tap.
Their music must’ve been too intellectual. For The Simpsons, you’re basically hands-off on the music, then, right?
Pretty much. This year I finally was able to get Brave Combo, the Texas polka band. The Simpsons from the beginning [at Groening’s insistence] has been fully orchestrated; we’ve resisted cutting the orchestra down in size and using synthesizers. The original composer of the theme was Danny Elfman, and our longtime composer is Alf Clausen. He’s fantastic.
How do you keep up with new music? Do people send you stuff? Do you go to record stores?
I go to record stores all the time; Deanna [MacLellan, Groening’s producer] is my conduit to the youth of today. [Laughs.] So at ATP, we’ve got Deerhoof on the bill; they’re amazing. And we’ve got Jackie O. Motherfucker. Actually, from their name alone I said, “Ah.”
I notice that you’re steering clear of the hip-hop/DJ stuff at ATP. Is that by personal taste?
I like that stuff too, but — listen, I could empty the room in seconds with the music I play [Laughs]. I didn’t fit in any Romanian brass bands. There’s a whole Japanese avant-garde scene that is really progressive — Boredoms, the Melt Banana . . .
Terry Riley made himself available. Obviously he’s an icon. My personal favorite singer-songwriter is Daniel Johnston, and he’s on the bill. He’s an emotionally fragile guy whose songs are utterly without any of the kind of phoniness that I hear in a lot of pop music. Definitely from the heart, and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s nice to see somebody who would easily get lost in the shuffle being able to sustain himself and have a career. My all-time favorite stuff is the cassettes that he used to sell himself, but his more recent records I like as well. I think he’s a great composer.
Lately people call what he does “outsider music.” Well, they still call musicians like that freaks or weirdos, whereas these weirdos often have an unusual kind of artistic genius.
I agree. I think it has to do with feeling passion. And also, there’s something about knowing that what you’re listening to will never be the soundtrack for an automobile commercial . . . Although I heard a Nike commercial using an old Lee “Scratch” Perry track. It was mind-boggling.
You also have Cat Power on the bill. Are you a fan?
Yes. There’s a kind of outsider thing there.
Yeah, you listen to her records, and she’s this incredibly skilled composer and arranger. And then when she performs live she’s got a kind of shtick of not being able to hold it together.
Devendra Banhart is on the bill, and he’s another one like that . . . I gotta mention Wild Man Fisher. An Evening With Wild Man Fisher, the first album, the one that Frank Zappa produced, is a classic of that kind of thing, that outsider music. And I like his other albums as well. Rhino Handmade put out a collection that included the duet he did with Rosemary Clooney.
I can’t say I’ve ever sat down and listened to a whole Wild Man Fisher album. That’s hardcore . . .
[Laughs.] There’s some great stuff. I introduced Wild Man to Daniel Johnston backstage at the Key Club. Wild Man was afraid . . .
Matt, you are indeed a music fan who obviously knows whereof he speaks. And you’ve just guest-edited Best Music Writing 2003. Do you read a lot of music writing?
There’s such a huge array of amazing things going on in all different genres, but nobody’s listening to all of it. To keep up with what I consider to be interesting music, I read The Wire and Folk Roots, and there’s no crossover [into pop dross] in them. I read Mojo and Uncut. And Aquarius Records in San Francisco has an amazing Web site with some of the most entertaining record reviews. And there’s WFMU in New Jersey [the last freeform station in the country] — I like the idea that people are programming truly eclectic music.
I feel sorry for music critics because of the dismal state of the current pop scene in general. I mean, this stuff [the ATP lineup] is great, but it’s not being played on the radio. We’re inundated with pseudo-hipness, and if I had to write about the big bands, I’d quit. But there’s still great music out there, if you search for it.