October 2011

Mairead Case


An Interview with Daphne Carr

Daphne Carr and I met on GirlGroup, the listserv for women music writers that she started with Perfect Sound Foreverís Jason Gross. Itís a great, welcoming space to talk shop or learn about the industry, to encourage or argue. There, Iíve been grateful for everything from pro tips to peanut butter noodle tips (for the weeks when checks came late) to healthy chop-busting whenever my writing drifted into jellybean dreamland.

And I was so glad to meet Daphne. Sheís a powerhouse solo -- a writer, a musician, an oral historian, an academic, series editor for Da Capoís Best Music Writing series -- also a whipsmart, true blue advocate and collaborator. I donít want to go back to high school, but if I did Iíd want it to be with her so we could make mixtapes and hang out in parking lots and try to save the world.

This spring, Daphne published Pretty Hate Machine, the seventy-eighth title in Continuumís popular 33 1/3 series -- short, dense books, each one about a specific music album. All 33 1/3s hover somewhere about 40,000 words, but outside of that thereís no set technic. There are treatises, perzines, manifestos. A personal favorite is John Darnielleís Master of Reality, which is also a boyís journal.

Pretty Hate Machine is a book about a lot -- for one, Trent Reznor the only long-term member of Nine Inch Nails. Itís about Pretty Hate Machine, NINís first album, and what it says about the world at that time. Itís the story of lower-middle-class white men in the Rust Belt (Daphne grew up there too), of industry and information, Hot Topic and the trenchcoat mafia, fans and truths.

The book is in four parts -- cityscapes, oral histories, the album itself, and cultural theory -- all given equal light and weight. Deliciously nerdily, Daphne aligns the oral history sections sonically, and encourages the reader to listen to PHM while reading them. ďThe space between your hearing, their hearing, and my hearing is how we will get into a conversation (or argument) that is part of the point of this book,Ē she writes. ďIf the conversation makes us all cringe a bit, so much the better.Ē

Pretty Hate Machine streeted as both the standard, slim and coolly-colored Continuum volume and a limited edition, designed in black, silver, slate, and silk by Davin Kuntze of Woodside Press. In late September 2011 -- hopscotched between weddings, dust storms, and the brand-new school year -- Daphne and I got to email back and forth about her book.

So there's this clothing store on my street in Chicago, and at night, in back, they turn on a light and leave it on. The lightís blue and green and red, and it rotates around and confettis the trees outside -- so it's pretty, and I guess it's sort of a security device too.

One night I was walking a friend home and he fell in love with it, wanted to buy one, and I said "Well, find a Hot Topic!" I was half-joking, half-serious, then realized he'd never heard of the place.

Then I started thinking about why I ever shopped there, when I was a kid (not all that often, but I did work at the bookstore by the mall) -- it was to genderfuck, not for patches or vinyl or anything. I could go there and buy androgynous clothes and makeup and nobody thought I was a freak. They just thought I was buying gloves.

Lots of city folks haven't heard of Hot Topic. It's strictly a suburban thing, a mall thing. I don't think there are many or perhaps even any stand-alone stores. It exists exactly to fill the niche for newly articulated punks, goths, and genderfuck kids like yourself, and the generally or inarticulately rebellious, where there isn't a mom and pop outlet.

When I was researching for Pretty Hate Machine I spent a lot of time in Hot Topics, trying to figure out if teenagers even cared about Nine Inch Nails anymore, and I ended up buying a lot of black jeans. Maybe I was a bit of a store stalker. Now I stop into every one I pass and check out the layout, the band t-shirt selection, the vinyl. I don't buy much in there. I don't actually wear band shirts. I'm a misanthrope so I don't want to invite conversations with strangers.

Is the layout pretty much the same, or do they switch stuff up?

Hot Topics are pretty different from store to store, both in layout and in merchandise. It was only during the book that I went to dozens around the same time, so I can't be sure how much that corresponds to their quick shift in product. One of the games I always played was to ask for the gig listing book when I went in there. The stores aren't allowed to post band flyers, but they can put them in this trapper keeper thing: usually it's just Pollstar listings but sometimes there are great DIY/basement/church/VFW gig announcements in there.

And that Hot Topicís using the Twilight franchise to keep itself afloat, what do you think that signifies -- counterculturally, nationally? Because when I bought those clothes it was about giving myself permission to try different things, and to advertise that I was. Twilightís the opposite. Itís about denial, abstinence. It frightens me.

My philosophy is that whenever there are vampires, queer things are afoot, so the Mormon-tastic Twilight doesn't scare me at the point of consumption or use in everyday life. It only annoys me as a cultural product. I mean, it's obvious that the orthodox Christian stranglehold on the discourse of teen sexuality is ignorant and amoral, but the thing that scared me most in reading about emergent/orthodox/evangelical Christianity was how successful they are at packaging guilt, shame, and hate as "rebellion" against the so-called secular society. As far as counter-cultural Christianity goes, when Jesus freaks became Jesus asshole hardcore kids, things got worse for America. And now there are Jesus indie rockers, and have to be Jesus hipsters, right? Talk about holier than thou.

Letís talk about how you built the book -- it's this fantastic look at industrial and industry, how real people used NIN's work as a way to frame and detail their desires, their questions. And I admire how it's about you too -- as a kid, a writer, a tastemaker -- but never indulgently so. How did you decide to structure it?

I decided to structure the book as a series of oral histories that tell the stories of songs as a kind of writing prompt. I see the 33 1/3 series as that: pick a good formula for 40,000 words, and use that space well. I really see the book as four parts, and don't think it has to be read sequentially. There are city chapters, fan oral histories, a pretty straightforward recount of the coming up of PHM, and two chapters of cultural theory. Maybe the structure came from the fact that I'm in grad school and no one in that environment reads books all the way through, or because I edit the Best Music Writing series, which is often more a pick and mix read for people. I wanted the book's chapters to contradict and overlap. I wanted readers to draw their own lines between things.

I decided on oral history because I am a feminist, journalist, and anthropologist, and as such I've made my life's work to find ways to use people's stories to try to challenge conventional historical narratives. The lyrics of NIN to me are centrally about finding dignity amid a sense of powerlessness, and oral history is method specifically developed to facilitate that kind of work.

Do you have a favorite lyric, or one you think exemplifies that point particularly well?

I mean, the exemplary lyric is ďHead Like A Hole'sĒ "I'd rather die than give you control," which is a fight song, a song of resistance. But for me the lyric that sums up the album, and maybe the book, is "I want so much to believe."

Did you think about how other 33 1/3s worked, or did you just dive in?

I had to pitch the book to Continuum so I read a bunch of them. You'll be unsurprised to know that it was the unconventional structures that I liked and modeled my book on: [Michaelangelo] Matos's glorious first person writing, [Douglas] Wolk's link of James Brown's fervor to the Cuban missile crisis, Kim Cooper's excellent use of oral history, Drew Daniel's masterful read of Throbbing Gristle, and Carl Wilson's meta-discussion on writing and taste via Celion Dion. I guess I tried to steal from them all, like Stravinsky.

And what about Ellen Willis? You quote and footnote her a lot. Was that something you set out to do, or did things just keep dovetailing because you were working on her anthology around the same time that you were writing PHM?

I quoted Ellen Willis's remarks about the pleasure of consumption in the chapter about Hot Topic because I think it's the height of sexism to point to shopping as merely a frivolous, unimportant activity, woman's recreation. For most, it's labor.

I'm reading Simon Reynoldsís book Retromania, where he goes on an on about record collecting as a form of manic curatorial desire, but then he talks about clothing as if its aesthetics, meanings, uses, and history are vapid.

Why are records more important than a gown? Both are mass-produced products designed by someone with the spirit of invention and a commercial audience in mind. For me, via Ellen, it's obvious: everyone consumes, the question is how and why, not if it's good or bad.

Of course you include some of this narrative in the book itself, but what were you like when you were listening to NIN for the first time? What did you wear and eat and do? And the part where you tell your boss at Chick-a-slinging that you were against supporting anti-choice Christian charities -- was that something you learned from your family, or on your own?

Oh no, my terrible Chic-a-sling pun lives a second life! My first NIN memories were from Cleveland alternative rock radio, 107.9 the end, and it was mixed together with all the other dark things I was doing like reading Lovecraft and Nietzsche, playing the Elgar cello concerto and brooding around in thrifted gloom. I was (and still am) an orchestra nerd, and I never quite got guitar bands, but Nine Inch Nails made sense to me. It was well-made pop music, and it was dark. It was obvious future music to me.

As for quitting the chicken shack, I was an atheist long before I was a NIN fan, and I foolishly took the job at a Christian chain because one of my dear friends worked there. One can only loathe a faux pious Christian boss while stuck in the back listening to "Waterfalls" on the radio while de-fatting fillets and squeezing lemons so long. My mom knew all about my epiphany since I refused to be part of the public school religion classes, which she taught at my house (while I was probably listening to NIN).

What else were you listening to at the time? Did NIN resonate, or did it just really stand out as something new and future?

The other thing that came to me that changed my life was Tricky's Maxinquaye. I read that he'd sampled the Smashing Pumpkins, so I bought the album. It was so left field for me, his stoned-wise voice, the trip hop beats, trippy production. I'd never heard anything like it. It set me on a quest for avant pop, and, inadvertently, into drum and bass.

In your interview with Chris Estey for KEXP, you say that PHM is extremely queer. Itís funky, sexy, has good beats. But when the album first came out, folks thought Reznor was a sellout because he didnít use very much hard guitar. And today, because of all that came on its heels in the early '90s, people forget that in 1989 PHM was this sparkling dark new thing.

What do you think mightíve happened if (to boil it all down, which of course you canít actually do) grunge hadnít come along? If kids hadnít started moshing? I mean, I lived in Seattle then, and I remember the summer when my friends went from the dancefloor to the pit, started coming home with elbow bruises.

Well, the question is really about the U.S., because guitar bands (except metal) don't translate outside of this country on exactly the same level. And the question is sort of about the relationship between race and genre. That recent Spin cover on Skrillex is funny, because Charles Aaron's intro mentions the first time the mag announced electronica was supposedly taking over the country. 1996. That's after the Downward Spiral, in the midst of Nothing Records, the song "The Perfect Drug."

I was way into drum and bass at the time and I thought Trent's attempt was so embarrassing. But he was trying to connect his earlier experience with industrial to the UK dance music scenes, which he admired so obviously. But he wasn't connected to it -- he was well in the world of alternative rock and white electronic production (Alan Moulder) by that time. Meanwhile hip hop was busy being the funky, sexy electronic music of the US. Perhaps itís no coincidence that Timbaland loves T. Rez? I'd love to see those two make tracks together.

The melodic vocals make PHM kin to both white new-wave and black pop, but as youíve said itís not post-racial by any means. Is there any way it couldíve gotten closer to that though?

I don't really think there's such a thing as post-racial as long as we still listen with ideas about how different bodies have sounded and should sound. What I meant is that Reznor wasn't confined by the aesthetic strictures of industrial, codes that could be read as "white" given that they'd come from predominantly white male performances. The bent notes, melisma, breath, and bass slaps are all signifiers of black pop, which he uses very musically throughout.

But I think that the mid to late '80s were a great time for this kind of experimentation. I mean, just listen to Public Enemy's production from that time. It's full of things that are not coded "black" sound. They brought it in. Likewise, Reznor and others (Anthony Kiedis?) brought elements of "black sound" into predominantly white genres like punk and industrial.

Right, so what is the book you think needs to be written after this one? If there was a PHM Two, what would it be about? Broken? Industry? Race? Sex and god?

I want someone to write a book about Nine Inch Nails from The Fragile to the present. That's a†book I'd really like to read. Recovery, leaving the music industry, running a profitable band/brand, and being middle aged, all with artistic integrity.

So whatís your next project?

My next projects: Pop She Wrote, an anthology of the works of Ann Powers, my dissertation on Czech popular music circulation 1968-2011, the Sounds of the City bookfair at IASPM-US/EMP, and hopefully a book to go along with the amazing documentary film Punk In Africa, which will be out in the US next spring.

The theme that unites my work is an exploration of the space after collapse, either slow or spectacular. Only the dissertation is a writing project. I've come to realize that one of my favorite things to do is curate/facilitate/literary crate dig. I struggle to write, but I somewhat strangely love negotiating reprint rights. I have another book idea, touching from the last chapter of the NIN book. It's very Remember the '90s, that's all I want to say about it now.

You wrote PHM in New York and Ohio, right?

I lived in Ohio while I did the research for the book, and†I worked in the garage, mostly because it was summer and that allowed me to put the door almost all up when it was hot as hell, and to use the internet since we didn't have wireless. That way I could post up all kinds of papers and images without worries and stay up very late, as per my goth tendencies. In NYC it was at my desk in my living room in Inwood.

And there was an amazing museum where you were in Youngstown OH, right?

The Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor has great archives and really good exhibits. I try to go there, and to the Butler Museum of American Art, every time I'm home. While doing work at the Labor Museum I watched a lot of video oral history. I am really into video documentation, but I don't know that I could ever use that medium myself. It's hard enough to get people to speak candidly when there is an audio recorder in the space, let alone a camcorder.

I was pretty ignorant about the history of labor in the city when I went in. It was really not discussed at all in my family, except to say that when there were strikes, my grandfather got blindly drunk. And he died of lung cancer when I was little. He gave his whole life to the mill. A lot of men and women were like that in Youngstown, in one way or another, but I only learned how to ask about it by going through those archives, reading the old newspapers, seeing the video of the hearth.

In the bookís introduction, you mention how much the film The Deer Hunter affected you while writing PHM, too: how important it is to tell the stories that need to be told, how drama can help even when it makes things more traumatic at first. Is there a scene in that film that especially sticks out to you?

The scene that most sticks in my mind is the wedding scene because every wedding I've ever gone to in Ohio is just like that, to this day. The dancing, the smoke, the drinking, and the dark talk at the bar. I have these vivid memories of major family decisions being made, rifts being formed or wounds healed at these epic all-night affairs. That, to me, is what a community is all about. Also, the cookie table: a fine Rust Belt tradition!

To go back to structure -- when I told my mom about your book, the first thing she mentioned was Columbine. She got nervous but then I read parts of your introduction to her: how you both drop and deconstruct the term ďtrench coat mafiaĒ in the first few grafs, how you address the media panic around the tragedy, especially its unfair targeting of Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson. How did that section come about? Did you write it first, or just put it first?

The Columbine section of the book came near the very end of my writing process. I felt like I hadn't adequately contextualized who this group of people were, and I wanted to link the everyday experience of fandom to larger social processes that were going on at the time. None of my interviewees talked directly about Columbine, but they did talk about NIN fandom as a red flag for parents, guidance counselors, and teachers, and some of the drastic consequences of those perceived "warning signs." One day my friend Christina, a NIN fan, told me a story about how she had been interrogated right after Columbine, and it all came together in my mind right there.

When I went back and read the testimony and excerpts from the Columbine murderers' journals, I was pretty shocked about how similar [Dylan] Klebold's frustrations were to those that I experienced and my interviewees experienced, when young. Klebold was the depressed one, the one who followed because his life seemed hopeless. It scared me, but also made the fact that NIN became a successful way to explore and process those feelings much more powerful for me.

Yes! The oral histories in the book are breathtaking. But itís interesting that the only women who really come up are wives, like when Anonymous remembers a show, being there with his lady and everything about that night being right, even the rain.

And of course you address that, how it was a challenge to find active female NIN fans to talk to, how in the end the dude-weight was a coincidence turned into a strategy. But did you have girlfriends who liked NIN too, when you were first getting into the music?

Actually a lot of the guys I interviewed were turned on to NIN by their older sisters, which I think is pretty fascinating. I love to hear stories of people getting turned on to music by older girl cousins or sisters. It's not usually part of the mythology of rock fandom.

I was turned on to pop music by my older cousin Kym, who I completely adored. There's not an '80s power ballad I don't know by heart thanks to her, but more importantly she was a great graphic designer who made her own fan clothing, including a rad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" puffy paint and sequin jacket that I inherited after she graduated. I just thought that was the best: homemade fan clothing is the ultimate form of affection for a band.

Sure I had girlfriends who were into Nine Inch Nails in high school, but probably my best female friend who loved NIN was my college friend and editor Kerri Mason, who is a dance music writer now. She and I had a key conversation at a diner in Hell's Kitchen at the beginning of my research that made the book possible for me: through talking to her I was unafraid to go into the messy, embarrassing, contradictory headspace of teen depression, sexuality, and frustration. A lot of my fellow critics had been giving me shit up to that point, because they thought NIN was the height of uninteresting choices for a 33 1/3. Kerri helped me find the right way to go about this work, and the courage to do it.

Of course, reading the work of Ann Powers on Reznor's work as "nasty art" framed the questions about the relationships between fantasies and politics. Also, a discussion I had with the great Daphne Brooks somewhere in the middle of writing the book made it clear to me that it was important to be writing about '90s and '00s masculinities from a feminist perspective, so I was bolstered in my confidence for the terms of project.

So how did you conduct the actual interviews so they were comfortable and helpful for everyone involved? Were there age and gender barriers, or were there none because everyone related to the band so fully and complicatedly?

Interviewing wasn't that hard really. I just learned how to shut up and let people talk, and how to not be judgmental. Basically, moving from being a critic to being a journalist.

At that point, I had done hundreds of hours of directed interviews for The Wildwoods Oral History Project, which was a project I did in my early 20s. It was a project where I interviewed 70 people from ages 18-93 about their lives on this small resort-oriented barrier island in Southern New Jersey, which involved a lot of very personal discussions about work, family, love, politics, growing older. Doing these interviews was hard work. Doing the NIN interviews was a lot less difficult because I knew all the key points of common reference -- lyrics, videos, band history, general tropes of the work, as well as regional history and experiences -- and the fans were pretty excited to speak with me.

At the end of the book, you say NIN -- Trent, the fans, maybe the message boards too -- is "on hold." What's next, or what could be next? Or is "living happily ever after" how it ends?†

Well, the next thing for him was marriage, fatherhood, winning the film composer Grammy (deservedly too, see Alex Ross) and making a band with his wife. Not bad for a two year stint!


Daphne Carrís website is http://www.funboring.com -- if youíre in New York, take her oral history crash course on October 15th! Details are here.

Mairead Case is a writer, editor, and organizer. Most recently she edited Tim Kinsellaís The Karaoke Singerís Guide to Self-Defense (featherproof books). Her novel, supported by a CAAP grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, will be completed in early 2012, and her comic about Serge Gainsbourg, drawn by David Lasky, is forthcoming in Best American Comics 2011. http://www.maireadcase.tumblr.com