Zach Phillips :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Zach Phillips’ OSR Tapes is probably among the most admired contemporary labels you’ve never heard of. Defining Phillips’ style in one paragraph is as hard as summarizing the history of the dozens of pseudonyms he has composed under. Blanche Blanche Blanche, Fievel is Glauque, Perfect Angels, Lilith Outcome, Grendel’s Mother, Martyr Group, Better Psychics, CE Schneider Topical, Jepeto Solutions… Philips is in more bands than most musicians are in thank you notes. However, these projects seem to carry a psycho-aesthetics of blankness and fragmentation, a commitment to both bizarre avant-garde art and folk easy-listening that seeks to find the spiritual center of those unexpected turn of phrases that are capable of suddenly breaking our minds and hearts.

For this interview, we spoke briefly prior to sending him some written questions with notes taken during our conversation. Topics included Phillips’ institutional experiments with labels, his relation to South American music, his poetry and friends in New York, his imagination of harmony, Agamben’s messianism, the psychoanalysis of the voice, and the possibility of teaching me piano lessons. | r moraes

Aquarium Drunkard: I went to a concert of yours a couple months ago and there were, like, eight people on the stage, all very concentrated on their music sheets. Even though it was a very weird, improvisational kind of music, it also felt super technical, sometimes even tense. It was a surreal situation, almost like a sketch, that reminded me of Frank Zappa. How do you balance formalism and intuition, when you’re playing and composing? How do you reconcile the use of scores and a big band with the associative aesthetics of your music?

Zach Phillips: The reader who is dissuaded by the quasi-technical nature of what I’m about to confess is encouraged to skip this answer, but I’m going to try to give it to you straight up. I try to show up for writing. If I write at all, I write quickly, usually finishing a song in under an hour. I typically plod around the keyboard until a fragment of singing spontaneously develops that strikes me as attitudinally correct, formally beautiful, non-habitual, surprising, etc. Then I loosely apply a “melody first” system very similar to the one I teach most of my students. This system involves “holding” multiple melodic fragments “open” as potential paths and tentatively locking onto nodes (i.e. notes that feel particularly important in a rhythmic or scalar sense) in those melodic fragments, then exploring the many, many ways those nodes can be harmonized with a chord concept or group of notes connected by a more tenuously defined harmonic idea.

Let’s say I go with a chord concept that opens new doors harmonically, i.e. one that diverges from any prominent possible scale that might aptly interpret the melodic fragment; I might then inflict substitutions or impose other abstractions on that chord concept to render it unrecognizable, whether the abstractions are in keeping with “functional” harmonic thinking or not. Whatever happens, I wind up with a voicing for the moment, rhythmically unified or dispersed, and often one that is significantly alienated from the chord concept(s) that yielded it. I write this voicing down “in the raw” as a collection of note names. So this is what my personal charts typically look like: long chains of stacks with no chord concept and no melodic notation. One advantage of these chains of note-stacks is that it’s easier to track the movement of the constituent voices of each voicing than on staff, which ends up being helpful later for thinking about arrangement and is anyway fun to sing or play through line-by-line or dyad-by-dyad. Anyway, no matter how harmonically “simple” or “complex” the results end up being, almost all of my music is filtered through processes like these: ones that involve privileging spontaneously vocalized melody, exploring possible harmonizations of chosen melodic nodes, alienating or abstracting the resulting chord concepts using functional or associative or intuitive logics, and finally committing to a voicing accompanying that particular melodic moment. I rinse and repeat until the harmonic and melodic “skeleton” of the song seems to have written itself while I’ve meanwhile had my eye on the ball of all these vanishing concerns.

While I’ve been singing these melodies, by the way, I’ve been noticing my attraction to certain phonemes that seem to be “in harmony” with the melodic situation. Some words fill themselves in wholesale and finishing the lyricization often presents itself as a kind of semantic puzzle. My process for choosing words involves similar procedures of substitution and abstraction; here the term “chord concept” could be plausibly replaced by “affect” or “message.” I try not to consciously bring anything with me to the writing — no preconceived ideas whatsoever, no burning affect, no particularizable “inspiration” — and I try not to unconsciously leave anything behind — no thought unthought-through. So those are the rough parameters of my particular game. I’m not interested in proselytizing, but I have noticed that it’s taught me a great deal and yielded a lot of music that continues to interest me. Going through similar processes with my friend Ma Clément in Fievel Is Glauque more recently has helped me to see that I’ve always been doing this sort of thing, for example with Sarah Smith in Blanche Blanche Blanche. I’m surprised it isn’t apparently a more common sort of practice (maybe, in fact, it is secretly extremely common?) because it’s very fun, very unpredictable and very fulfilling.

This is, by the way, all an alibi, no more or less so than anyone else’s stories they tell themselves about how their work comes about. I do think it’s a fairly accurate alibi, but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? There is a prevalent idea according to which the progenitor of whatever artwork has no more of an authoritative say in its interpretation or understanding of its genesis than a critic or hypothetically “neutral” audience. Personally, I don’t think these straw men’s alibis will hold up in a court of love as well as mine or those of my co-conspirators, but in any case that court will never be in session, and we all know there is only relative justice in this muddled-up, mixed-up, shook-up world.

Anyway, when I want to communicate how a given song works to other musicians, I can’t really give them the above-mentioned, largely unreadable “chains of stacks” sheets (I’ve tried and no dice). So I reinterpret the stacks as chord concepts, often entirely forgetting the abstracted original chord concepts that yielded the final voicings in the first place, and I wind up with a conventional lead-sheet format without melodic notation disclosed (although when an important node of the over-melody notably diverges from the scalar implications of the chord concepts, sometimes I include it in an extra parenthetical, i.e. F#+9[mel:13]).

So these are the charts people are reading. Some people say my music is complex and some probably regard it as “kid stuff.” These things are relative, of course, and at the end of the day harmonic complexity is just another quality that can hopefully be rendered with simplicity and grace, one to be navigated deftly and with subtlety; neither particularly interests me in and of themselves. Whatever the result, these processes serve my central goal, which is to seek and preserve concatenations of surprise. I may change, but for now this is what interests me: by turns, a painful, joyous, confounding, and/or extremely natural and easygoing enterprise. There are things I’d love to change about my music, but I try to honor the identity of what emerges through these processes and I’d rather plant more trees than prune my forest bare. And for whom would I do that, anyway? My superego already has enough real estate… Buy now, our loss is your gain!

AD: Another point is how you relate to people in order to create institutional experiments too. Labels like OSR Tapes and La Loi, the concerts you organize, the people you connect to… There is an artistic agency in this sort of administration of music, in terms of framing and circulation, which is also as experimental as the music you compose, right?

Zach Phillips: Unless an entity like a label discloses particular values and operates in accordance with those values, any label is just a business. Businesses are primarily differentiated from one another by scale and style (“brand”). I’m not very interested in all that and it can be dangerous and distracting. Like RZA says at the beginning of that “Labels” song from Liquid Swords, if you don’t read the label, you might get poisoned.

In keeping with the reciprocal ambivalence proper to the binaries we all use dialectically for our psychic development, OSR was borne of a need to advance and consummate an aspirational community at a time in my life when I was confused about how to feel I belonged to a community. When I realized I was running a business — and gambling with the livelihoods of real people I admired and loved — instead of just throwing all my pennies into a wishing well, I panicked and closed up shop.

These days, I feel very connected to a great number of people engaged in parallel activities and I’m extremely grateful for that. Precisely because I feel that connection more and more, I need less and less to consummate it and give it objective form. You can’t fit a rhizome into a salon, and life is for the living. When you get right down to it, don’t you wanna live the moments again and again and again and again?

AD: What is your relation to South American music? I know you curated this huge collection of Uruguayan songs, and Brazilian music plays a big part in your influences too (and you have become, yourself, a sort of cult figure in some Brazilian scenes). Plus, there has been a whole trend of appropriating South American and Caribbean music in the indie world recently. How do you relate to all of that?

Zach Phillips: My affinity for various Latin American musics came about naturally and unexpectedly, as affinities do. When I was teenager I became interested in the history and contemporary reality of European and American imperialism, colonialism, et cetera and continued to study that in college. I also resonated with writers like Horacio Quiroga, Felisberto Hernández, Silvina Ocampo, Nicanor Parra, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and so on. Around that time I also got into the usual tropicália suspects among many other musical interests. I’ve never been monomaniacal about one “culture” or “scene” or “sound,” I just feel my way around. Anyway, as far as Latin American musics go, as I read and listened and studied on the piano, my interests broadened and deepened bit by bit.

In 2017, at a time when I happened to be getting deeper into the world of Argentine music connected to Luis Alberto Spinetta and Charly Garcia, my friend Ryan Power sent me an Eduardo Mateo album and I fell in love with that man and his music. At the time, I knew very little about Uruguayan music. So I read, I listened, checked out who Mateo had played with, tracked down their music, fell in love with some of those people and their music as well, studied their music at the piano, and so on. It seemed nice to share some of what drew me in with other people, so I painstakingly made that compilation over the course of a few years. I feel very close to the music on it. Why? Well, when it comes to Mateo or Mariana Ingold or Fernando Cabrera or El Príncipe Gustavo Pena or Estela Magnone or Leo Maslíah or so many others who were active in Montevideo around the same time, it does seem possible to track some common interests: novel uses of harmony in songwriting, devout instrumental study, a polyvalent orientation toward language that alternates between foregrounding semantic sense and the “lalangue” Lacan talked about, and an “active” representational attitude developed via unusual engineering and arrangement techniques, etc… But to paraphrase the psychoanalyst Michael Eigen, when the baby is at the breast, you don’t ask the baby to decide why he likes it.

Colonial logics are still, as we all know, quite active and operable, the United States is still a hegemonic nightmare machine, and so on. Sensitivity to the insidious influence of all that on our music cultures seems worthwhile. I distrust the use of the word “discover,” for example, in connection with the music one has encountered. If anything, I feel “discovered” by my affinities. And I do believe one owes it to one’s affinities to try to appreciate their context and to understand the limits of apprehension of contexts that are not one’s own (and, too, that are). And I do see a great deal of trends in contemporary music that I regard as suspect at best. But I lack a unified politics vis-à-vis “appropriation” on the whole and see it as an inescapable aspect of globalized culture, of course. It comes down to questions of ethos, intention, and effect on a case-by-case basis, I think. No amount of contextualization or self-flagellation can immunize anyone against legitimate criticism from someone who disagrees with the way one has gone about doing whatever. It’s indeed a pity and a shame when people objectivize their affinities and use them as mere signifiers to spice up their style, as jewelry to exoticize or sex up their identity or whatever. But I think the affinities we feel to people and their works across the world and across divisive political contexts can be useful to develop and advance the genuine universalism that may save our world from further destruction.

AD: About your friends… How did your relation to some specific people, like Kurt and Chris Weisman and Ryan Power, influence your music and your general existential attitude?

Zach Phillips: Meeting these people and hearing their work was definitely transformative. At that time (2008-10), I was studying psychiatry and law as a cultural anthropology student, paralegaling for a prisoners’ rights law office and working primarily on “risky” conceptual poetry and tape-collagey noise music. I was writing songs and dabbling in recording them and playing with friends, but I was really a greenhorn. Among a lot of other outstanding musicians I met around that time, I heard what Kurt and Chris and Ruth and Ryan were doing and was seduced by its general beauty and too by the complexity of their attitudes toward themselves and their work. I badly wanted to understand the alchemy they practiced handily. One can’t ever decipher another’s alchemy completely, but one can learn from another’s ethos and adapt the spoils to one’s own ends. These touches were reciprocal, I think, and true influence doesn’t establish a lineage but rather a network.

AD: So were the Weismans the reason you got into such different kinds of music, while coming from a small city like Brattleboro? How was your relation to music before getting to know them, what did you like to listen to as a teen? Because I know that you have this very peculiar personal canon, with, like, Annette Peacock, White Noise, Maher Shalal Hash Baz… Were Kurt and Chris fundamental for this curation of a taste you created for yourself, this specific set of artists that both mirror and shape your artistic persona?

Zach Phillips: I have to admit I dislike the notions of “taste,” of “curation,” of “influence,” of “inspiration,” of “expression,” and so on as they’re conventionally used. They have their uses but in general strike me as both excessively specific to this particular cultural moment and willfully ignorant of their historical contingency, so I think they occlude more than they reveal. I’d prefer to set the phenomenological zero point much further back and dispense with these concepts entirely. I have basically just always been a “seeker” and a basic recognition of affinity and repulsion has always been my guide. Often one yields to the other! I remember feeling “irritated” by Chris and Tori’s music the first few times I heard it. 

I feel certain I don’t have an artistic persona. For me, art is heuristic above all else. I’m trying to learn from parts of myself I can’t talk to but that can sometimes talk to or through me. I’m trying to apply what I learn to my thinking and doing in general. I respect masquerade but it doesn’t interest me in relation to art at all; that disinterest very much includes the prevalent masquerade according to which one linearly presents oneself “confessionally” or “naively” as a well-defined, discrete, fully-conscious person who has something very particular to express. At any rate, that’s not how my music works at all.

Have you read that lovely little Agamben book Taste? Here’s a nice quip: “only a knowledge that does not belong either to the subject or the Other but instead is situated in the fracture that divides them can claim to have truly ‘saved the phenomena’” (“saving the phenomena” ostensibly being the central aim of Plato’s vision for philosophy). 

AD: It’s a good quote. Are you a religious person, by any chance?

Zach Phillips: No, but I’m also certainly not an anthropocentric or scientistic person. And like Morrissey, I feel more like “half a person.” Do you have a vacancy for a back-scrubber?

Mystery abounds, to be sure. But in general I see assertions of certain gnosis as unacceptably hubristic, so it’s purely the “negative theology” tendencies of most religions that draw me in.

I’m very okay, by the way, with the schematic distinction between “art” versus “craft.” I don’t think this distinction holds up in a court of love but it does have a certain explanatory value. The former term seems undeniably intimate with the same subject matter governed by religion, both historically and contemporarily: namely, mystery, unknowability, unrepresentability, surrender, prayer, etc. The latter term, craft, is also an important part of what I do and what I love, and could be analogized to the formal, procedural, representational and institutional side of religious doctrine and practice. Craft involves conscious determinations and manipulations of order, proportion, design, etc… I very badly need my ego guy to do the craft part well; without him, representation is impossible. But he doesn’t (and can’t) supply or modify the raw materials, and in my case, despite his occasional objections, he is made subordinate to the needs and inclinations of the art part.

I think a great deal of people who believe themselves to be engaged in “appreciating” art are actually primarily appreciating what could be called mere effects of craft. I think the art business can’t but valorize these effects alone — the necessary fixity of its representation of the art part belies the mobility and instability inherent to that component — and so it is really the effects-of-craft business and always has been. I think a great deal of people making something they call “art” are mostly occluding the art part with a kind of exhaustive hunt for these effects they seek to produce. I think the art part resists valorization, and I think that’s for the best. I also think it’s so wonderfully wily — being above all an instantiation of mysterious, unconscious impetuses — that it weasels its way in where it was never invited and is everywhere to be found from pop radio to billboard advertisements! No one and nothing can escape what art names. There is a strong analogy here to the way a great deal of people engage with religion, and to the undying resistance of the spirit underlying every religion vis-à-vis its institutional and doctrinal trappings.

AD: You read a lot of philosophy, theology, poetry, and you also write yourself: you have a book out through Gauss PDF. How do you see your literature in relation to your music? Do you know upfront when a piece of writing is going to become text and when it will be put into a composition?

Zach Phillips: Writing for the page strikes me as extremely difficult… One could analogize it to the “infinity of options” one has in digital composing and recording versus multitrack tape recording, for example. Melody and the phonemes that spontaneously glom onto it give language restrictive-but-flexible parameters. What formerly went into my poetry was apparently displaced into my music, incompletely and with certain advantages and drawbacks. But I’m sure I’ll write poetry for the page again some day. Maybe a novel! Imagine. But yeah, as I mentioned at the outset of this interview, I try not to bring anything with me when I write. That would be too much craft for me, too much of the ego guy trying to set up a “win.” I’m trying to get surprised and confused by what I turn out to have said, not to say something surprising or confusing.

Let’s be honest: literature is a bourgeois concept, a way of drawing boundaries between art and not-art, and it’s often imposed on its targets ex post facto. There’s little I could say on the subject that Boris Groys didn’t lay out in On the New or Pierre Bourdieu didn’t do to death. I sense Laura Riding peering down from the clouds thumbing her nose at any further lip service to this wasted discourse. But look at Knut Hamsun, lauded as a pioneer of literary modernism. Well, he didn’t see it that way at all. Inclusion, exclusion: that’s what “literature” is about. I think of the absurd and (to say the least) questionable discourse about “whether rapping is music,” “whether rapping is poetry,” et cetera… Who cares what the market and its attendant organs of rationalization enshrine as art-writing versus what’s abandoned to the un-archives as “plain language” drivel? In my view, language offers itself up to be appreciated for what it is, not for whichever master it supposedly serves. But I’m no ungrateful partisan worm obsessed with institutional critique: I owe the contemporary cult of “literature” eternal thanks for preserving, translating, and re-presenting so much writing that has changed my life. I love language and I love form and I’ll leave it at that.

AD: So you would never get into academia, I guess? Because academia is exactly about fixing fluxes into concepts, solidifying dynamics relations into fossils that can be analyzed up close. That’s another question, really, how do you get by as a musician… I know you give piano lessons (and I was actually thinking of doing some of them soon). But there is a sort of ‘art survivalism’ that I’m interested in and that I would oppose to the cowardice of settling for some stable academic job. Do you think that survivalism is relevant to your art and your outlook on life?

Zach Phillips: Knowing what we do about the world, isn’t it cowardice not to give everything we have to those who need it most, to set aside what gives us pleasure and devote our entire energy to fighting for what’s right, to forgo “private” life in favor of the commons? Looking at it in another way, couldn’t one who (impossibly) accomplishes the former be acting out of another sort of cowardice in turning away from love, family, self-development? Is either extreme actually practicable? It seems to me that one of the principal reasons bad faith reigns supreme in all corners of internet discourse and why extremely possible and communally advantageous political unification is stymied at every turn is that it may be increasingly functionally impossible to impose a pragmatically stable morality on such a complex, overdetermined world. It seems possible that’s always been the case. I sense I will remain confused about these things until the end.

The institutional aspect of academic life does frighten me. But there’s a place for the kind of thinking you describe. Fixing concepts seems just as important as dissolving their fixity. Both are necessary parts of life. 

This year I’ve just been teaching harmony and songwriting and trying to live off of that. It’s been very nice to devote more of my time to music, and I learn a lot from my students. Yes, I want to survive, very much! I feel lucky to be doing what I’m doing and my main ambition is to keep going. 

AD: What about sound art? Have you ever thought of experimenting in museum settings instead of the concert environment or the record-product? Because you occupy a distinct position that is in-between pop and experimental…

Zach Phillips: If museums or other institutions offered me funding or opportunities to present my work, I would certainly take it. But I’m mired enough in logistics as it is and the aforementioned art part of what I do balks at the narrative self-lionization requirements of the application process that appears to be a necessary component of chasing grant money, institutional support and so on. I do often find the attitude of austerity and utmost for-all-posterity hyperseriousness prevalently evinced by these institutions to be at once comic, depressing, and at odds with the spirit of what I do. To put it another way, all of this serious art business actually doesn’t strike me as sufficiently serious about what seems to matter most about these sorts of activities. Nor does the here-today-gone-tomorrow vacuity of the entertainment industry. But opportunities from these questionable quarters are exactly that: chances to put more resources into the work and for unexpected results to develop.

The rinzai zen abbot Bankei advanced a nice concept he called the “unborn” — the notion that one is always-already enlightened, that enlightenment is the innate state of being, only partially occluded by certain kinds of false consciousness — via an analogy relating to sound: “you’re here listening to my supposedly important speech,” he said in so many words, “but all the while you’re peripherally aware of an incredible array of sounds happening all around us: birdsong, a nearby market, and so on. How can you fail to see that this wealth of perception is with you all the time, that your ego is only a frame and that at its edges this frame is already relaxed, so readily connected to what it cannot admit as its own?” Another anecdote I’ll paraphrase goes like this: a monk comes to Bankei and says, “I love sitting in zazen and reciting the sutras. In this I strive for enlightenment.” Bankei says, “That’s great! Just don’t let it distract you from what’s really important.” 

I don’t see the differentiation of sound art from “pop” forms or whatever else to be at all important. We all struggle with the frames we choose, and enjoy them, use them, and at times feel trapped by them. I’ve tried some different forms and approaches and I’ll continue feeling my way around. The notion of “experimentation” involves too many implicit assumptions for me to join with fully. And it does seem to me that too much going by the name of “experimental music” confuses material diversion from a hypostatized notion of the ostensibly “conventional” approaches from which it definitionally distances itself with a genuine search for new ways to access playing, hearing, form, and so on, a search that can be undergone from any perspective and using any methods or forms, however “traditional” they might seem. Whatever one’s alibi, we’re all trying to get to heaven, we’re all already there, we’re all clambering up from hell, and we’re all consigned to it. I find terms like “heuristic,” “parameters,” “strictures,” “tools,” et cetera to be less blurry than those like “experiment,” “creativity,” and so on.

AD: I say ‘pop’ not exactly because of the way it relates to the market but because the music sounds good too. It has an appeal that is apparently superficial, sensual. Sometimes I’ll go to a noise concert and it sounds like shit, you know? There is a conceptual element to that music, of course, which is entirely rational, but I also like things that actually sound good to my ears. Things that might even sound wrong, but are still generative.

Zach Phillips: It seems to me that one modest goal of musicianship might be the appreciation of sound, just as one modest goal of personhood might be the appreciation of other people. Unless you went to these noise shows for purely social reasons, you were probably interested in appreciating the sounds that were made there. Was the music you heard shitty, or did you hear it shittily? I think if we’re honest with ourselves, the possible arguments for either perspective must reach a stalemate. Sometimes a shitty sound is best. It may be that the ideal perspective in any given situation is the one that provides for the richest outcomes.

But here we encounter further mysteries. Harmony (which reciprocally includes melody) does involve apparent physical law. Our harmonic instruments reasonably approximate these physical laws in “shitty” ways that could be termed symbolic (the “major thirds” I play on the piano, for example, are both merely symbolic of a pure interval and actually effective approximations of that interval given my enculturation to the tuning of the piano). Everyone knows the powerful experience of resonance provided by these physical laws. Forms that exploit these laws do exist, and many forms of effective musicianship involve being conversant in these forms. The thought that spontaneously occurs to me now: those pop science articles about how we perceive facial symmetry as beautiful to a point, at which it becomes uncanny, inhuman, unbeautiful. Noise music can answer important needs, like anything else. Many of its practitioners are devoutly tending an intentionally monastic path, abandoning much in the process. Some are preoccupied by the mere effects of craft that I mentioned above. About these, I think of Adam Sandler in Billy Madison indignantly chiding someone for “calling the shit poop,” i.e. taming it with a defensive euphemism, dignifying what is supposedly beyond dignity.

But shit does have dignity. In fact, this “shit” you mentioned is actually an important subject. It’s incumbent on all of us to live with our shit and understand its uses and the centrality of our attitudes toward it. John Berger has a nice essay about it. Lacan’s seminar on anxiety is instructive, too. We all shit and that’s a fact. It comes from somewhere, and it’s going somewhere, too. 

AD: I was always reluctant to learn music theory because I wanted to keep a sort of impressionistic naiveté in relation to some mysterious aspects of what I was listening to. I didn’t want to clarify or to functionally dismember whatever was happening theoretically. How do you relate your attachment to formal music theory to this interest in the mystery, which is also an almost religious sentiment?

Zach Phillips: You’re genuinely multilingual. Has it ever occurred to you that you would be better at expressing yourself if you refused to learn new words? I’m guessing that on the contrary, your study of English vocabulary and grammar has probably expanded and complicated your expressive capacities. English, of course, is a hegemonic, imperial language that, like the piano and twelve-tone equal temperament, is part of a general arc of homogenization and domination sweeping the globe. It strikes me as funny that those who proudly confess their allergy to learning “music theory” — as if there is a univocal music theory — tend to take no issue with the guitar as an instrument, or with the language they use to express that allergy. All of our tools have evil and divine origins. When we study music theory, we’re not just studying ideas but actively deciphering the systems that structure the instruments we want to be use to be “free.” Learning how to do something also means learning how to not do something. When it comes to music, our customs and styles are simultaneously personal, inherited, and structurally prefigured, and they’re as much dimensions of music theory as the functional harmony people learn in conservatory. 

About this rigorous functionalism: look at it one way and it’s an ugly truth. From another vantage, it’s a beautiful lie. The notion that knowledge of music theory can be attained needs to be revised or at least investigated. It’s more that one learns to use it as a hermeneutic to see more paths and hold space for more possible outcomes. As in love, we all have to work with what we’ve got at our disposal in the moment and avoid falling into either automatistic abandon to our compulsions or, by the same token, excessive devotion to conscious, apparently rational ideas and procedures.

AD: That has been somewhat my experience as I delve into theory, yes. I guess I also just didn’t like the music-theory-nerd type and believed we needed a new approach to conceptualizing music as language. Who is your listener, you feel like? Does it matter at all to you? And how do you expect to find this listener? Because in extremely indie environments the nets of circulation are so small that they are almost non-existent.

Zach Phillips: The greatest joy I feel in terms of listenership is when people seem to get something out of learning to play my music with me or without me. More people have heard Fievel Is Glauque than anything else I’ve worked on and that’s been invigorating and confusing. Watching teenagers do TikTok videos to our songs gave me a “posthumous” feeling that is deliciously psychedelic and seems somehow appropriate to my confused relationship with contemporary life. It’s been sometimes painful but ultimately instructive for me to learn that I can’t predict how other people will use this stuff. There are those who fetishize it according to their idea of good objects and those who demean it according to their idea of bad objects. And then there are those who live it with me and those who seem to recognize something in its ethos that I recognize in it, too. That makes me feel loved.

The brutal economics and culture of the music industry and the broader social media industry that is vacuuming up more and more human activity into this homogeneous category we call “content” play a decisive role in who can hear what and how and what they think it “is.” Imagine a highly competitive piñata situation, a few of them suspended high in the trees. Some people arrive wearing body armor, wielding advanced weaponry and peeking from behind their blindfolds, so determined for victory they foam at the mouth like sick animals and beat each other to a pulp to get a chance at the prize. The progeny and toast of aristocrats arrive in limousines and are led on red carpets to stand at the ready as their butlers aim a single delicate blow with their golden canes. Most leave with very little and for all of them this melee seems to come at an incredible cost. Earthly time being what it is, I’m trying to stay close to my soul. So we’ll keep swinging lightly, blindly, just a little here and there: partly out of childlike fantasy, partly out of sensible ambition, partly out of sheer libido, partly out of superstition, and partly out of the gambler’s compulsion. But through it all we will stay together, and take many rests to play in the grass and feel the warm, dark air.

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