A week before the release of their fifteenth LP, Armed Courage, New Zealand's The Dead C unveiled their two-track experimental work to a platform called Pitchfork Advance. Commonly used by artists as a streaming preview tool for fans to hear upcoming records in advance of their releases, Pitchfork Advance operates under a simplicity statute. The forthcoming review by Pitchfork's contributors has generally not yet been posted, and the album is presented in a plain manner, with the album art and its accompanying images (typically other liner pages or additional materials) as the focus.
The Dead C have for over thirty years been provocateurs and tastemakers of the noise and experimental scene; their lineup hasn't mutated once, and their records have been steady through Philadelphia's Siltbreeze and then onto Ba Da Bing in recent years. Armed Courage, which comes out next week through the latter, is two tracks of elemental, aggressive, but throughly deliberate noise that spans over one fifty-minute segment, split in two. When the record was posted to PA, it was accompanied by twelve images of collapsed buildings, explosive fires, military advances, and general civic unrest. Though it's not rare for bands to present their music alongside troubling imagery without context or commentary, such evocative images on the streaming platform felt like a breach of its plaintive model. Why not instead give The Dead C a chance to speak or comment on the imagery alongside the music instead of remaining silent? Why present the images at all if they aren't to be captioned or explained? We reached out to Michael Morley and Bruce Russell, who promptly responded with several interesting comments on the streaming platform, the conflation of images with music and words, and why confronting controversial images is necessary.
Michael Morley: I have complicated feelings about sound and images being presented together. Pitchfork wanted us to make a video for their site, for the entire LP, we are not really that way inclined. We are not a video producing entity. Images of destruction are what they are. They are not about war as such, as some form of declaration must be made for that state to occur, the images in the stream are taken from a variety of places that have endured unimaginable hardship due to civil unrest or natural events. The cover for the new LP has two images taken from 1968, they show conflict—civil conflict—between people of varying degrees of power and authority. The LP Armed Courage is a reflection on our inabilities to comment satisfactorily about conflict. The context is as unreadable as any news item that intends to show events as the “real.” We should all know the extend of the real when presented with the cascade of the hyper-real, how misleading images and text can be. Jean Baudrillard has written extensively on this topic, and it is his arguments concerning images and the truth that are essential if there is doubt about the efficacy of images to represent the real.
I think context is important. As “a band,” The Dead C have used images of civil unrest, illegal warfare, and destruction of civilizations for the better part of 27 years. Most “songs,” when we have dealt with that format, at their simplest renderings deal with the effects of powerful entities exercising unjust power in regulating individual freedom. I have always been intensely interested in abuses of power; as a subject it is fascinating to observe powerful individuals, entities, and countries defend their right to bully, abuse, kill, and destroy the lives of others who do not possess weapons, or have no access to the rule of law, whatever that may mean? It is an attempt to engage with politics as subject. As for images, I am uncomfortable portraying a sense of cultured well-being, blissful ignorance, or overt luxury when producing music. I am not subject to these conditions in my daily life. I am not going to invent something to act as imagery for sound. I experience a distinct feeling of unease when viewing most music as music/video entertainment. I do not want to be part of that. I do not think that we are part of that. We have been excluded from the main thread of popular culture for a reason? It is to be embraced—maybe it comes down to tolerance?
With regard to Egypt and Syria [N.B. We had asked for a comment on this specific violent imagery in the current news cycle], yes it is important to think about the images generated from these places and to read about the conflict and to understand that it is not simple, it is complicated. It is complicated by so many factions and interests that go beyond simplistic readings of the situation. If we only absorb imagery without the written word to offer context then we are no better than the illiterate Europeans who understood Christian thought only through the religious paintings and stained glass windows of the church (as lovely as they are), before the invention of the printing press and the rise in post-Middle Ages European philosophy.
The lack of the word distorts reality. We are rendered dumb.
I love Reza Negarestani's approach to unraveling the intricacies of Western and Eastern approaches to reality, how both sides have consistently not been listening to the words, and have been infected by petroleum-induced demons and sand gods of antiquity that produce madness that exists for millennia. I don't think music can help us comment about conflict better. It can only reflect and consider options and values. Oliver Messiaen's “Quartet for the End of Time” did not stop atrocities after 1945, but it has made us think about the value of tolerance in a world that does not accept tolerance as an option (for those who wish to think). Son House, Belton Sutherland, Billie Holiday, and others are also examples of this sense of reflection in my thinking about tolerance and acceptance of difference.
Bruce Russell: The context [of the images] is within our body of work, which represents 26 years of endeavour, during which we have re-contextualized news photographs with reasonable frequency. I checked out some of the Pitchfork Advance slideshows, and there was a tendency towards pretty pictorialism which was something of a red rag to us. As Michael says, we don’t start from a position of “easy acceptance”—we’re permanently fucked off at the world. Like I said in that Wire cover story, “we’re all about refutation—it’s what we do.”
Secondly, the context is amplified by the social relationships that surround our work. Much of our commentary on “modern reality” (as Michael rightly points out) is implicit, rather than explicit. Furthermore we are acutely aware of our position as “fake Americans”—we participate in American underground culture as a result of our market position, and as a result we do like to point out things that some of your compatriots are wont to overlook, like the “rest of the world” and what happens there. NZ culture is only just “post-colonial,” and as such we are very alive to political issues around post-colonialism, and much of what is happening in Syria today fits in that mold. Not to mention the stinking atmosphere of Zionist provocation, which underpins everything that goes on in the Middle East, and in which the US government is far from innocent.
The other key point is that these are pictures of buildings. Not corpses, not mourners. Every second picture is from my home town, Christchurch. These images picture my reality, the one in which I participated in the making of our new record. They are juxtaposed with Syrian pictures, and the difference is often hard to spot. That’s because whether buildings are destroyed by bombs or earthquakes, they don’t “just fall down.” Some fall, and others do not, and that depends on a complex web of socially constructed facts that determine what is built, and how well it is built. And those realities are same, whatever brings the building down. The results for the poor people inside are determined much earlier by the history of building construction and maintenance. Poor folks die in shitty buildings, like I recently saw scrawled on a Paris postbox—”Toujours misere pour les pauvres.” I was also thinking in particular about The Book of Destruction described by Eyal Weizman in his recent publication The Least of All Possible Evils. The Book of Destruction is a collection of photos of buildings in Gaza which have been demolished by targeted Israeli bombing. They were chosen very carefully for surgical destruction in a pattern of genocidal precision. What’s more, the compilers of the Book have proven that they were destroyed in ways that ensured complete collapse. Unlike a normal war, or a quake, these buildings were deliberately atomized to ensure maximum casualties and delayed rebuilding.
Perhaps I could have inserted inter-title slides that gave more context, as you suggest, but if I had, we wouldn’t be having this exchange, and people like you would not be asking yourselves these questions about people like us. I think we’d like to emphasize our “fake” position in American culture to a new generation, because we would like you to understand what we do, but we’d also like you to do some of the work as well!
Armed Courage releases through Ba Da Bing Records on September 3.