Wednesday, March 23, 2011

You Can Dance If You Want To

So, right, Duran Duran played SXSW this year,
and oh the nostalgia that burned like a quicksilver fever
through certain demographics that used to wear legwarmers.

Was there swooning?
Was there squealing?
Good bleeding Christ.

For me, though: Whatevs.

Partly because my memories (and appreciation of New Wave in general)
were tweaked by the sweeter knowledge that Men Without Hats
were also playing the festival, in preparation for their upcoming tour.

Men Without Hats!

I mean, "Safety Dance," right?
I mean, "Antarctica."

(And I don't mean much else, because Men Without Hats
are a bit too poppy for me after that, a bit too ... cute, maybe?
Or: The songs lack a certain something
that I'd rather they not lack? Yeah, clear as mud.)

(But: Oh, those two songs!)

I wound up not seeing them anyway ~ with or without hats.
Because I don't really do live music, almost spitefully,
unless it's part of a theatrical show or the players are friends of mine.

Hey, we all have our things.

But I jumped ~ literally sprang from my chair, anyway
as I'm sure R. Hernandez or A. Schroeder will corroborate ~
at the chance to interview MWH's creative epicenter Ivan Doroschuk.

And so I did interview him, via phone
~ an actual landline, goddam ~
before he & the newest bandmembers arrived in Austin.

And the Chronicle published an even more truncated version
of the already truncated version of the transcript I'd made
of our brief but pleasant conversation.

But never mind that.

Here's the ~ longer and (I reckon) better ~ version of the interview:

Brenner: Disregarding any idea of nostalgia, and even what a fucking terrific song “Safety Dance” is, what’s it like having created such a powerful cultural touchstone?

Doroschuk: I’m constantly amazed at what goes on with that song. My all-time favorite was the Beavis & Butt-Head thing. Check that one out, it’s really funny. The punchline was something like, “This guy keeps saying he can dance, but he can’t dance.”

[Maybe at this point Brenner attempted to mimic the Butt-Head laugh,
which attempt may have been met with polite silence.]

Brenner: So, uh ... why did you choose to set the song’s video where you did, with the Morris dancing and the maypole and all?

Doroschuk: Well, we were originally signed to an English label called Statik Records, and they had bands like The Slits and The Chameleons UK, bands like that. It was a really small label, and their people put the video together. It was Tim Pope who did that, who also did most of the Cure videos. 

Brenner: If you don’t mind me talking about all your old songs, which are the ones I know … although, actually, what about the new ones? Are they available anywhere yet?

Doroschuk:  No, we haven’t released anything yet. We’re going to be trying out new stuff on the tour. That’s the beauty of the industry today: You don’t even have to put together a whole CD. If you have a good song, you can put it out there, and people are used to it. It’s a lot more immediate, these days. It must be really fun to be a new band today, to be somebody just starting off? There’s just so much out there, so many possibilities, so many possible connections.

Brenner: Has the Internet helped your music sales in general?

Doroschuk: Oh yeah, I think it’s helped everything. I’ve discovered so much music myself, that I would’ve never known about. Even music from my generation – I’m constantly discovering bands from the Seventies that were just awesome bands but they went by unnoticed. The Internet’s an awesome, awesome tool for everybody, y’know?

Brenner: If one of the new songs really connects with an audience and it’s one that you guys like, too, is there a possibility you’d make a video for it?

Doroschuk: Oh, I’m sure.

Brenner: What can you tell me about “Treblinka,” which I’d guess is the darkest-sounding song you’ve written?

Doroschuk: I don’t think that was officially released. That was off a demo tape that never really saw the light of day.

Brenner: I heard it on The Silver Collection?

Doroschuk: Yeah, that’s an unofficial kind of thing. That whole album was put out by, ah, I had nothing to do with that, basically.

Brenner: Ha, how things can get away from you – Jesus!

Doroschuk: Yeah, I have a very unscrupulous ex-manager.

Brenner: Thank god for the “ex” part.  And, ah, hey, do you ~
do you read Metafilter online?

Doroschuk: Metafilter, yup.

Brenner: Because I followed a link from there last night, and wound up looking at these absolutely gorgeous photos of Antarctica, all these ice caves and stuff. And I was wondering what inspired you to write your song that references that place … ?

Doroschuk: Just the whole new wave movement, with the cold wave stuff, y’know? There was this sort of icy, robotic feel to the whole scene. That was basically the inspiration for it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


"We're living in science fiction," people like to say.

They wave a hand at the array of laptop computers crowding shaky tables in a downtown coffeehouse; they nod toward a passing citizen with some telephonish gizmo clamped along an ear's fungiform cartilage; their fingers stroke the sides of a tomato genetically modified with the DNA of distant jellyfish; their LASIK-enhanced eyes track, in the night sky, the glimmer of a private spaceship plying its tourist trade against the vault, the vault, the vault of heaven.

"The future's already here," people like to say.

Because we've been prepared for it for so many years. Because its coming has been heralded throughout our cultures since homo sapiens learned to bind time and gaze beyond the moment. And the times change, and with that change have always come new visions of the future. Only now, the problem is, our vigorous science and technologies have begun to advance at such a pace that what we're creating for ourselves is close to matching the most popular predictions of our recent history.

Oh shit: We're catching up.

This makes further extrapolation more difficult, for one thing. Who can properly conjure a tomorrow that innovation might render obsolete before the light, perhaps bioluminescent, can dawn on that new day? Who can focus a sense of wonder on a realm that relentless industry has shattered into a fractal clusterfuck of shifting possibilities? Also, isn't everything going to hell around us? Aren't we headed, after all, for some final disaster ~ military, environmental, planetary, celestial ~ that our machines and ingenuity can't save us from and which makes the idea of any future highly unlikely at best? What the hell do we do with a situation like this?

We go, as the Firesign Theatre asserted in another context, forward into the past.

Deep into the past: To a simpler, more elegant time before ubiquitous electricity and the internal combustion engine warped a wider vulgarity into the tapestries of our lives. To a time before, especially, plastic. Victorian, in a word. But ~ and here's the neat trick ~ in harking back (in fiction, in visual art, in fashion and other modes of expression), we bring our favorite modern technologies with us.

Ladies and gentlemen, madames et messrs, inhabitants of this brave new world ~ welcome to steampunk.

Gentleman-tinkerers of the late nineteenth century inventing clockwork-driven automatons that would put Honda's Asimo to shame; analytical engines, the bastard brainchildren of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, performing computation beyond human reckoning; the more personal bits of today's polyvinyl-chloride technology now reconfigured in brass and wood and leather. Nothing virtual here: It's all hardware: Machine culture you can pry apart and modify with elbow grease and scientific know-how. And, dash it all, don't those frock coats and goggles look simply smashing!

The writer K. W. Jeter suggested the term steampunk back in 1987, as a label for the sort of narrative created in his 1979 novel Morlock Night ~ a sort of twisted sequel to H. G. Wells' The Time Machine ~ and in the fiction of Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and others. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel The Difference Engine brought the nascent sub-genre to a higher resolution and a much wider audience. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which debuted in 1999 and which please don't confuse with the abomination later desecrating neighborhood cinemas) gathered the creations of steampunk inspirators ~ the aforementioned Wells, Jules Verne, et al. ~ into one magnificent and vividly depicted amalgam of romance and adventure. Katsuhiro Otomo's 2004 feature-length anime Steamboy fueled the engines of cultural saturation with swashbuckling period details and astonishing visuals. And now here's the New York Times, the Old Gray Lady with the New Digital Gown, covering the burgeoning steampunk style of DIY fashion and industrial design undertaken by the fiction's more talented acolytes. And, hell, that was back in 2008.

If the future's already here and what may follow it is fraught with anxiety, of course we're retreating to the past. If the present seems uncertain and tawdry when compared with some abandoned Golden Age our forebears knew, why not take our favorite toys and go (if only metaphorically, via speculative fiction or material trappings) home again?

The steampunk abode in which we'll abide won't be bedecked by the likes of Ethan Allen or Karim Rashid but by ourselves, more likely, with a little tutelage from Sean Slattery or Richard Nagy; and it'll boast a library of books like Jay Lake's Mainspring and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and that themed anthology from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; and we'll listen, while lounging in our taffeta gowns and riveted trousers and fingerless gloves, to Rasputina and the Decemberists and Abney Park and, oh, probably anything featuring a homemade theremin.

"The street finds it own uses for technology," as William Gibson famously put it, glossing his cyberpunk opus Neuromancer. In the case of steampunk, that street's likely paved with cobblestones and lined by brass-chased gaslamps; and those lamps glimmer in the dark, lighting the way toward a Temple of Exquisite Anachronism where the future's expertly retrofitted with the past and the best of all possible times can provide a bright refuge from the worst of this world's fleeting present.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Nethermind's Taco of Bliss

Here's an appropriate, I think, follow-up to the last (Valentine's Day) post,
from right here in the middle of the start of SXSW Interactive,
the city of Austin flooded with tech geeks & scenesters & celebrities
& media flacks of all kinds.

It's romantic as hell, this true slice of life.
It's about going from online friends to meatspace marriage.
It's pretty damned heartwarming, and I'll assume that anyone who has a heart
likes to have it warmed every now & then ... ?

“Neither of us joined Second Life looking to find love,” says Elle Waters from the home she shares with her husband Charles Callistro in Louisville, Kentucky. “Besides exploring a new virtual space, it was more about, as it is for a lot of people, seeking a connection with people you can have intelligent discourse with.”

And none of those people, during those first months in Linden Lab’s virtual world, was Charles Callistro.

“I was part of the Digital Cultures discussion group in SL,” says Waters. “We’d have these very philosophical conversations, about the impact of the Internet, about the communities that develop online and how they translate to real life.” This was a professional area of interest for the woman who works as Web accessibility coordinator for Humana, exploring issues of better online access for people with disabilities.

“We knew some of the same people in SL,” says Callistro, IT operations manager for a small California company. “We hung out in a couple of crowds that sometimes overlapped, so maybe we said hi to each other at a party or event, but we never really got together.”

“And then we met in real life in 2006,” says Waters.

“There was a Second Life meet-up in San Francisco, where Linden Lab is based,” says Callistro.

“I was involved in running that, and flew out for the weekend, and Charles and I got to know each other there,” says Waters. “And then, back in SL, there was his radio station.”

“I was running Phreak Radio,” says Callistro. “The station was broadcast through SL and the Net in general. And Nether [Nethermind Bliss: Waters’ avatar name] had been DJing for a while, doing private parties, so we brought her on board.”

“We had this ongoing joke of how Phreak Radio was a charmed environment,” says Waters, “with 12 of the 14 DJs eventually becoming couples with each other.”

“And then Elle came back to San Francisco,” says Callistro.

“I was invited by Linden Lab,” says Waters, “as an Influential SL Resident, to take part in discussions about how to improve the in-world experience. So they flew me out to San Francisco. And that was how Charles and I had our first actual date.”

“But I couldn’t attend the discussions – or the party afterward,” says Callistro.

“He was persona non grata at Linden Lab at the time,” explains Waters.
“Taco the troublemaker!”

Callistro [avatar name: Taco Rubio] laughs.

After that, the two went into World of Warcraft, they and some other SL friends, levelling up characters and going on raids and generally socializing in that MMORPG as Second Life devolved into more of a kludgy, virtual shopping mall. And Waters and Callistro dated elsewhere online, hanging out on Skype for hours, watching shows together on Hulu as they chatted. And every three or four months they’d get together offline, sometimes in San Francisco, sometimes in Louisville, sometimes at a halfway point. And – eventually –

“We decided to take the plunge,” says Waters. She couldn’t leave Louisville, having shared custody of a daughter with her ex-husband; so Callistro would be the one to budge; and he turned in his resignation at his job, but the company countered with a telecommuting offer, allowing the IT manager to work from Louisville. FTW, as they say online.

“We got an apartment for Charles a few blocks away, so we weren’t just throwing ourselves together,” says Waters. “I think it’s important to have a transitional period for this sort of thing, especially if there’s a child involved, for people to get used to each other, to the constancy of being in the same space and sharing the everyday life.”

“And that worked great,” says Callistro.

“So a year later, we found a house to move into together,” says Waters,
“and five months after that, we got married.”

And their time online now?

“Well, except for our jobs, not so much anymore,” says Waters. “I go into SL maybe once every couple of months, to attend a friend’s event or whatever, but that’s about it.

“We keep in touch with old friends via Skype,” says Callistro, “and various online forums.”

“We play so many games together as a family – video games, board games – and we have so many other things going on IRL,” says Waters. “My entertainment these days is our daughter, my husband, and our 80-pound puppy. We’re never lacking for amusement, or for intelligent discourse on any number of subjects.” She pauses, and her smile is almost audible over the phone lines.

“That’s what happens," she says, "when you marry your best friend."