SARA: Driving NE on CA5 around 4pm on a Saturday, we're heading from San Diego toward a burnt, sand-colored suburb an hour North of LA to test complete strangers in a band spookily named Stevenson Ranch Davidians. Singing along with Jonathan Richman "When you get out of the hospital...”; it feels just like another road trip, the kind Lilah and I have taken countless times on some kind of vision quest or other. There was the trip from New York City to the Massachusetts countryside to set up a video installation for Lilah's then-boss, Tony Ousler, at the opening of MASS MOCA. We listened to Butthole Surfers while tracking down watering holes along the way to relieve us from the east coast swamp heat. Or driving from San Diego to Ojai to scatter our mothers' ashes across those sacred hills, we fell in love with Beatrice Wood and fed grass to a wild zebra, while Chan Marshall of Cat Power mewed softly in the background.
Here we are again, lit with intention at the promise of new adventure. But, this time is different. Unlike our previous meanderings, we are now on a hunt. Our prey is a worthy adversary never before captured by the inquisitive gaze of scientific investigation. Our moving target crouches in tall grasses, easily camouflaged. In order to coax it out from its hiding place, we must surrender to its demands; take on its context. Go Native! As we continue driving out into uncharted territory, we realize that this is what we have chosen to do with our time. Create and expand a field of research where there is no prior methodology on which to rely, or code of conduct to guide our behavior. This road trip has become a thrilling and enlightening adventure.
What Am I Doing Here?
Lying back on a sea of cream colored pillows in a naproom in Oslo, Norway with Resonance co-owner and new-found friend Katerina, I’m reflecting on this question. For the past ten years, I’ve worked on discovering and expanding the field of napping research. With my scientific studies and pop culture book on the topic, you could say I put the nap on the map. People used to have some pretty strong opinions about napping, usually along the lines of: it’s only something you did if you were a lazy slob or infirm. Our methodologically air-tight studies published in
demonstrated that you could get the same increases in memory for a nap as a night of sleep. These scientific results forced people to reconsider their opinions and take a new look at the little nap they thought they knew. Since the publication of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life”, napping has seen a renaissance in the business world. These days most spas offer naprooms, such as the one I find myself in now, enjoying a rejuvenating rest from a Scandinavian HR conference where I am speaking about napping in the workplace.
Lying here I realize that this strange new project Lilah and I have taken on, to investigate the band as species, has many similarities to the nap at the turn of the century, the 21st century that is. In 2006, Forbes declared, Sleep is the new Sex. That being the case, Music is the new Sleep. It’s universal, and, though difficult to prove without getting into some serious ethical dilemmas, human culture would die without it. For something so important, it’s shocking how little we know about the way music is made. This is because the music-makers are shrouded in opinion. Everyone thinks they know what bands are because everyone is either in one or knows one. The truth is there is no truth because science has never taken a critical look at this subculture. There is no database that allows us to draw meaningful conclusions about musicians or musical genres. Science has never thought to develop a metric to test all our crazy hypotheses about drummers, bassists, or lead guitarist. Not until now. That’s what I’m doing here.
What is BANDTHROPOLOGY
Music is the core element of human identity, says Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and author of two best-selling books about music. He argues that, much like language, we are evolutionarily programmed to understand ourselves and solve conflicts through music. The essential nature of music throughout our lifespan can be seen in how we create theme songs to the most important milestones of our lives, i.e. the music we listened to with our first love, the breakup song we had on replay after our first love split the scene, the song that played in the gym when we won our first wrestling tournament, the first song that opened the door to classical music, the first rap or speed metal band we really "got", the ridiculous fact that our kids are now fluent in Beatles lyrics just like we were at their age. We solidify memories based on the music that we listened to during that time, such as the songs on the radio during the summer after high school graduation. With music, we paint pictures to illustrate more vividly than words the scariness of entering a dark house with the strike of a grating string section from "Psycho". Driving into a small back-woods town where the confederate flag still sails, we hear the creepy dance of Dueling Banjos from "Deliverance". Drifting out to the deep waters away from shore, we mock up a dorsal fin with our hand and swim towards our friend, pulling the reed across a bass, sloooow - fast, just like we heard it in "Jaws". These are the songs we live by. They create the contextual cues for our memory banks and prism through which we identify ourselves.
It is unsurprising that our intricate dependence on music for seemingly every facet of our lives has produced vast quantities of studies exploring the topic, from the esoteric to the top-forty. Rooted in the anthropological quest of discovering universals in human nature, music allows humans to bridge the gaps that language, territory, and possession continually make wider. We are driven to find new ways of connecting with our fellow humans, near and far, and ourselves through music, be it through the Mbuti Pygmy polyphonic complexity, the double and triple resonate tones of Tuvan Throat Singers, or the mantra chanting of Tibetan Nuns. We do not need to speak the same language to be moved and inspired by these boundary-transcending sounds.
Although we have an endless curiosity for the subject, we have given surprisingly little attention to the species that create the music, besides, of course, the superstar, band-wonders, such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. For the most part, studies of these bands are biographical sketches written as fodder for our alternating trivia or lascivious minds. But, what about the band itself?
Although the habits and style of bands receive doting attention by the popular media, the band’s complex social interactions and individuating roles have never been examined. One thing is certain, the prevalence (and volume) of these musical clans have not been evolutionarily select out of the gene pool. This leads us to conclude that this subset of human society is a topic worthy of scientific investigation. There is something about human kind to be discovered here. In biology, species, one of the basic units of biological classification and a taxonomic rank, is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. BANDTHROPOLOGY investigates and argues for the introduction to the taxonomic rank of species of a subpopulation that has received little attention from traditional biology and the social sciences, but which we feel exhibits all its formal characteristics.
LILAH: Driving NE on CA5 around 4pm on a Saturday, we're heading from San Diego toward a burnt, sand-colored suburb an hour North of LA to test complete strangers in a band spookily named Stevenson Ranch Davidians. I look at Sara and realize that this research, and the practice of driving toward unknown encounters with bands, has just begun.
Blame the hills of Austin, TX. After picking up 75 pounds of promotional material in 2 SXSW gift bags I got on my rental bike and headed up South Congress. Less than ½ way up, I got a flat. Did I mention the heat? I promise you it was hot. I might as well have put the bike in one of the gift bags instead of pushing it up the long hill, through the throngs of bands and their audiences. Huge migrations to and fro. Tribes at a big kin gathering. Banners, t-shirts, sunglasses. Amps, cases, stickers. Simple tools of communication, uniting far flung members of numerous clans.
That’s pretty much how this all started. Out of breath in Austin, and a little delirious, during one huge music festival in Texas.
Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…
"I walked into his bedroom and sat on his bed, " Sara said when we got back into the car, clearly surprised by her actions. We had just completed testing Fkenal, at the drummer’s house. Also his family's house. His parents and older (briefcase holding) brother had come home during the testing process, and we were all slightly startled to run into each other. If you are unfamiliar with the scientific method, parental interruption is uncommon in most labs. No problem. Sara is a Harvard Trained scientist. She can handle data from left field. She knows what she’s doing. And I’m an artist, that’s my alabi. The thing is, this isn't your mother's ethnography; it might be a little of my mother's, but we can't go back to free love and clean drugs, so we'll have to press on with Science and Art, and a little history....
I Left my Wallet in El Segundo
In the early part of the twentieth century, There was a pressing desire to record ways of life that were dying with the virus of colonialism.
Western Ethnographers in the jungle and the bush were trying to get at some kind of essential or elementary form of human institutions and culturally constructed concepts of self. Nowadays, we don't call cultures Primitive, and much of what was once "uncivilized" has been covered by CNN. But the “who are we" question, the Oroboros of inquiry, is always ripe and ready to be asked.
So tribes were on our mind last March in Austin at SxSW. I had played the massive festival the year prior with my dad as Brute Force and Daughter of Force. But this year Sara and I returned with a knowledge only afforded those who do it wrong the first time. This time we stayed with friends; we got bikes, and rode amongst the flocks of band allegiance. It was like my fantasy Epcot Center. The real small world. But much more crowded. And louder. We road up a lot of hills, following our ears, apparently I complained a lot about the heat, and we became acutely aware of the species: BAND. We started re-framing the band as a metaphoric organism, as a holon1, we considered looking at the band body as an avatar for the audience, mulled over the prospect of a taxonomy, and ultimately a full scale investigation of this amorphic, and hyper-present structure. We discussed the idea of field research that we would need to travel around the country to meet, test and observe the widest variety of bands we could find. Small town, big town, young, old, famous, unknown. We envisioned the possibilitites: a database, social networks, field notes, documentary film, art editions, recordings, and reality TV puking and waving in the background. Most importantly, we knew we would draw conclusions that had never been drawn. Illuminate the “we-ness” that unites bands with each other and the people who listen to their music, and say with scientific certainty2 what the average FuckRate™ of a punk rock drummer is.
Look into the deep and the deep looks into you.
If I could right now, I’d show you my foot. The Left one. Over the arch it says “By My Word.” I got this particular tattoo with the intention of standing 'by my word', and seeming clever at the same time. So when Sara and I committed to this research project a nationwide safari amongst the tribes of music, we knew we were committing to a lot work. A lot a lot. Certainly a daunting amount of travel and research. Did I say daunting? I meant amazing. And probably enlightening. And opportunity to ride in the tracks of the great American road trip experience. Maybe fuck-up a car or two....Safety Third3, and see contemporary culture, our personal domestic product, reflected in the thoughts and dreams of American Bands. I also want to be honest with you. We didn't like waiting in lines to see shows. And having grown up with a backstage pass to everything, I missed the comforting feel of a laminate.
Don’t Judge a Taco by its Price
As soon as we got back from Austin we got to work. We live on separate coasts, so we came to worship the god Video Skype, and started teasing apart the distinctions that define the species: BAND. We developed a testing procedure based in several scientific modalities. I sent emails to all my friends in bands asking if they would be willing to be ‘tested’. Sara came to NY and we got out in the field.
We drove around Greenpoint and Williamsburg in torrential rain. With no idea how long each band would take to test, we overbooked and discovered there was an exceptionally high learning curve. Some tests worked, some didn't. Over the next few months, we took a lot of feedback from some thoughtful musicians willing to brainstorm "demos"4 for a few beers. We discovered new distinctions we hadn’t anticipated, and were at times alternatively overwhelmed, over-caffeinated, and completely inspired. When a band called and it meant driving 5hrs back the way we had just came, we did it, thinking about the rarified earth of Mt. Everest, climbing up to get a better look.
We set out to map an unknown terrain. Literally and figuratively. Aware that the mapmaker is always part of the map, we mapped a road trip to the center of the musical universe. With the inkling that all roads lead home we let the bands point the way.
And here, Dear Reader, you have it: the story of that journey, data from our “hard science”5, field notes taken from our participant-observation6, bands you love and bands you’ve never heard of.
I'm not a trained ethnographer, perhaps my greatest strength is that of the storyteller, unfolding a narrative about a heroic study of an unknown beast that is ultimately all about you.
1. From the Greek holos, is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part.
2. Current research regarding the influence of the scientists on the data they were collecting was a major topic of our conversation. One of my favorite fields of research is into the Intention Imprinted Device (n. a simple electronic device to which is imparted (by an experienced meditator) the intent to effect a measurable change in some experimental condition). These devices have been used by William Tiller to explore the relationships between consciousness and matter. Thus the scientist and the subject.
4. There are demos in music and in science. In scientific research, a demo is a perceptual test rather than a question to be answered.
5. Sara doesn't like the term "hard science". For scientists, it is an unscientific term. Keep that in mind if you want to talk about research at the Lab.
6. Participant Observation aims to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, subcultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment.
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