Conspiring with Greatest Hits
» We're not advocating violence, but....
We sat down to chat with Brooklyn's Greatest Hits, masters of the schizophrenic dancepop pastiche, about music, conspiracy theories, and Occupy Wall Street.
You guys just recorded your first full-length over the summer.
Tyler Thacker: It's our first LP that will be printed on vinyl and properly distributed by a label. I mean, there have been DIY records that we've made, but this is the first one made consciously for a demographic, and sort of keeping in mind the grander scheme, as opposed to a collection of songs or something. So yeah, this is our official debut album.
And it has a much poppier feel, right?
TT: I think we've sort of painted ourselves into a corner a little bit by talking about pop, because pop is just by its nature popular music, and that could mean a lot of things to different people. We've been experimenting with different genres of pop music and sort of dance music. A lot of our friends or people that we're sort of contemporaries with are talking about their music in terms of pop, their current endeavors, and I think we're definitely trying to be more palatable. Our goal is to make something that's inviting to someone that isn't necessarily your eccentric music listener, something that's inviting to other people.
I think, more so than a lot of bands now, you guys are very conscious of presenting yourselves. You talk about a lot of theoretical things in interviews: you talk about the concept of 'the medium is the message' and dada and fluxus.
Zak Mering: I think, naturally, we're from a more experimental or not-pop background, so to be doing a record that we're calling pop is a novel thing for us.
TT: We're definitely taking the time and putting in a lot of effort. We're going the extra mile. We could have put this record out fourfold already, and we're being very meticulous. It's a concept record. It's a chance for us to get spread out, and be re-directional and try to take our time with this.
Do you still use the same method, the 'Frankensteining' method of putting old songs together that you've spoken of, or have you modified it in any way?
TT: It's always modified, but everything that we do is patchwork out of ideas that we already have or that already exist. So it's collage-like to the end. We're not a traditional band, which had made it difficult and exciting to do live performance. It's a whole other model.
I read that one of you performed over Skype? What was that like?
ZM: It was our cyberpunk set. That's what we refer to it as. And basically it had to do with me not being allowed into London for not having a document that said how much money I had in my bank account.
Did being completely divorced from the audience affect your performance at all?
TT: To make it clear, their was no detachment, emotional or physical, on my (Tyler) behalf or the audience. Of course Zak was frustrated to have been denied entry into the UK, but in no way did it effect his performance, and conversely, neither did it keep the audience or myself from feeling like he wasn't there. In fact, despite my screaming, breaking things and usual antics, I did notice people more frequently watching the computer screen placed at the front of the stage. I think this speaks most highly to the increasing proximity of reality to virtual reality. In many ways, it was our best show this summer.
How do you record? Is it really collaborative or do you work independently of each other on stuff you've pre-recorded?
TT: It changes. We pride ourselves on constantly pushing ourselves into foreign territory. We both are very private people and have a respect of recording set-up, so a lot of the foundation of the music comes from different places. The more directionally collaborative stuff, like in the same room, is more in post-production. I think that really sets the pacing of how we accomplish what we do. Plus, we're really used to interacting on a virtual level. That's how we've become such amazing friends.
ZM: Vol. 1 Greatst Hits, the first thing we did together, was done when Tyler was in Los Angeles and I was in New York, and it came from demos I'd send, and Tyler would work on the songs and send them back. There was a lot of back-and-forth like that, so I think that was what initiated the Greatest Hits project, and we'd continue doing that. So you could say we do both work independently and together. Maybe more so than being in the same room all the time. It's not really necessary.
TT: The whole point of Greatest Hits initially was to have something that was kind of cryptic and ego-less, and a lot of artistic endeavors into pop music and foreign territory, or certain things in rock and roll, is really a breaking down of media and taking yourself out of the equation.
A lot of your videos seem nearly like hyper-reflections of pop culture, like your "Girls on the Beach" video --
TT: It's funny, that was such a one-off summer fun thing, and we did that when winter starts to hit in New York. We'd just gotten back from Europe in the summer, and we had a whole new fan base that has to see something like that in such a different light than we do. Also with a different kind of gravity. It was really just a fun little project, like to have something out there while we're meticulously working on the new record. So it's fantastic that something so crass would be out there.
So crass! Is that all footage from real '90s stuff?
ZM: Yeah! Natalie Rogers was responsible for that. She's a great video artist.
She's done a few things for you before, right?
TT: Yeah, she's been getting into a bunch of video stuff for the past recent years, and the stuff has been great. I think that we make a point of watching what's out there, whatever, artists that we like or don't like, we make a business of watching, and I think this whole found object video thing is going to catch on in a little bit, and I kind of don't want to pursue it that much longer. "Girls on the Beach", the most exciting thing about that is how close it comes to being rated R. There's really some graphic heavy petting.
Can we talk about "L Train Girl"? That's probably your most well-known song so far. Did you write it as a means of memorizing the stops?
ZM: Yeah, very much so, and I never really expected it to be a Greatest Hits song that we would pursue, but Tyler was like, 'Oh, we should make this a Greatest Hits song and make it a single on the record, something that we would spend time on.'
TT: "L Train Girl" was intended as an immediate follow up to our initial release, "Danse Pop" in NY, and I think it kind of leaked out of Zak's subconscious at demo stage. As we matured the song, it increasingly became less about directions to where we lived, and more of an opportunity to play with social politics in regard to a specific ilk of neighborhood that Zak and I are all too familiar with living in. You could essentially say it's a song about three parties: one of course being a Manhattanite taking the L Train into Brooklyn to be entertained by it's burgeoning bohemia. Two, being the bohemia that rejects this kind of "infiltration" to their alternative lifestyle, and three the typically black, Mexican, or in this case Puerto Rican communities that have been living there longer than anyone, who are finding their rents and local food prices going up do to parties 1 and 2. It's also a song about picking up on girls I guess. The video was shot by Zak in the subway and starred Ruby Aldridge as the "L Train Girl". Michael Cera was coincidentally in the elevator as we were filming the video, visiting Kieran Culkin in Ruby's building where she lives. Therefore his cameo was inevitably contrived.
When you were recording in France, you had to really cut down on recording implements, right?
ZM: Yeah. I had my laptop and I still had demos on it, but mostly it was Tyler working on producing. He's more like a producer. I usually originate songs and he more like polishes them, produces them, gets them to the fidelity we want to see.
How did that affect the recording process?
TT: It helped set a pacing for a new batch of recordings I hadn't anticipated. It's one largely based out of virtual experience, full immersion and acceptance into the void of contemporary technologies. It is both cold, and decidedly listenable and intended to be danced to or played at a club, or bumped on your system on your way to the club. Having limitations is where innovation comes from.
Zak, you were involved with a "Pretty Boy Swag" cover recently, right?
ZM: I've returned to my gangsta rap roots in the past 6 months. I started a solo project called Mak Zering. That Pretty Boy Swag cover is off of an album I did called "Murder Dog Mixtape." I did that in April and it's like my gangsta persona, me returning to my high school roots, but with the knowledge I have and the training over the years, trying to apply that to my hip hop roots. Which is also a project I'm working on now. My new mixtape, "Hu$tle Man Mixtape", which I'm working on now—
Hu$tle Man and Murder Dog, those are very good names for mixtapes.
ZM: Yes, thank you. The difference between my new mixtape and the one I already did is that the first one is very aggressive, really into Young Jeezy, stuff like that, and my new one has got more of a Drake feel. I'm using autotune now and singing. Half the songs are R&B covers and the other half are gangsta rap.
So it's all original rap songs?
TT: With the exception of two tracks, the whole Mak Zering project is original material. Mostly produced by Mak himself. Hip Hop is largely based on referencial idioms, or figures of speech that have secondary meanings that are different from the literal meanings. "Make it Rain" is an example of that. The exploitation of these idioms are basically what Mak is trying to accomplish with his project. With the usage of Dumb-downed lyrics that take a stab at contemporary urban culture, Mak's tracks are neither genuine, nor theatre. Somewhere in between. Hip hop, these days, is very syncopated on a subconscious grid that connects themes, production techniques and dances together with recycled material that came before it. An urban pol of language and style is drawn upon for the creation of new terms and concepts. This is what has fueled the Mak Zering project. Mak Zering's "Hu$tle Man Mixtape" will be finished in the next month, having a more R&B auto tuned feel compared to the "Murder Dog Mixtape" which was more "street". Should we talk about politics?
TT: I always shied away from talking about politics, but I've been thinking about Occupy Wall Street. I'm not going down there; I haven't seen it, but I really want to see it, and, seeing as how fragmented the movement is, I think it exactly exemplifies the movement of being just a generalized frustration for people that aren't supposed to be the ones that figure stuff out. Of course they're confused. But shit is wrong, just by sheer numbers alone. Things are definitely wrong in the world. I had a fascinating conversation the other night with someone I really respect intellectually, and all we could talk about was, first of all, what would possibly end the protest? Nothing. There's no demands. It's just people protesting. So it's gonna be a tragic slow trickling away of people.
ZM: It's vague in a sense, because everyone has their own things they're fighting for.
TT: I mean, the message has been heard. The media, press, all that stuff, the consciousness spreading throughout the world, that's the ultimate message, you know? So I guess that's the goal. But how it's going to materially end? Nothing's gonna change. I err on the side of violent protest. I think people should learn how to make bombs, blow things up – not hurt anyone, but make a violent scene. That's what the Leather Underground did, and it didn't really accomplish all that much, but, like, it did accomplish stuff at the time. I think, if you're gonna leave your house and you're gonna make sacrifices against your own health and security, that people should actually consider slightly more aggressive forms of protest. And I'm not totally set in my ways on that, but I've had some conversations with people I really respect and they all agree on some level.
(NOTE: this interview took place before the police forcefully dispersed the Occupy camp in New York and elsewhere.)