Words: Dominic Valvona
Music: Khmer Rouge Survivors ‘They Will Kill You, If You Cry’
Released by Glitterbeat Records, August 5th 2016
Book: ‘How Music Dies (Or Lives)’
‘My concern is not cultural authenticity, but emotional truth and uncloying performances. Purity, without baggage!’
Ian Brennan, from How Music Dies (Or Lives)
Despite the multiple Grammy-award nominations and wins, and a reputation for capturing some of the most mesmeric, raw and sublime performances in the most dangerous locations, Ian Brennan is often self-deprecating about his (obvious) talents as a producer. Ian would have us believe he merely turns up and presses the record button; that his ‘field-recordings’ are entirely serendipitous. And in some ways this is part of his underlying philosophy, removing himself from each recording so that the emphasis is wholly on the performance. Preferring to travel (when possible) to the source, each of Ian’s recording sessions is more or less unique, the environment and apparatus set-up to be as unobtrusive and natural as possible. If anything, it’s what Ian doesn’t do that makes him such a sympathetic and in-demand producer.
Loosened and set free from the archetypal studio, Ian’s ad hoc and haphazard mobile stages have included the inside of a Malawi prison, Mali deserts, and the front porches and back rooms of Southeast Asia: one of which was on the direct flight path of the local airport.
A cursory glance at just some of the bands/artists he’s worked with over the years (Merle Haggard, Tinariwen, Green Day, The Vienna Boys Choir) shows how eclectic and rich Ian’s back catalogue is. His most recent project for Glitterbeat Records, a return to Southeast Asia for Ian, is the soon to be released They Will Kill You, If You Cry compilation of rare and emotional-charged songs from a host of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge survivors. Part of the label’s Hidden Musics series, the previous volume (equally as stirring), likewise recorded both the atavistic and recent traumatic echoes of a war-torn country, recording for posterity Vietnam war veterans in Hanoi. They Will Kill You, If You Cry features a vivid signature style essay from Ian; putting the experience into an all-too real horrifying and historical context: “A reported three-million tons of carpet-bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the USA in the 1970s, more than were unleashed on Germany during all of WWII. And still today, Cambodia is laced with more landmines than anywhere else in the world, which results in two or three deaths on average daily, mostly to “peasants in the field”.’
In his quest to record these traumatized voices, Ian finds some astonishing sounding artists, introducing us to some obscure characters, such as the ‘Ray Charles’ of Cambodia, Kong Nai, and his virtually unknown rival on the dwng veng (a long neck guitar) Soun San. All carrying the scars, mentally and physically, each artisan of his and her particular craft transduces the horrors into the most evocative of lamentations.
‘I do not endeavor to make World Music records. I strive to produce candid and new punk and dusty dance records, ones that come sometimes from remote parts of the globe.’
Ian Brennan, from How Music Dies (Or Lives)
As if being a renowned producer of serious repute wasn’t already enough, Ian could also be considered a quality author; so far publishing four digestible tomes on a range of music topics and regularly contributing to a myriad of publications. His latest book of bite-size ruminations, anecdotes and musings, How Music Dies (Or Lives), is an ambitious survey on the state of music, in the 21st century. Peppered with erudite, honest and amusing insights on his own productions, under the heading of the ‘Field Recording Chronicles’, Ian congruously shines a light on countless misconceptions and mysteries; unmasking the mysticism and roles of the artist and producer in the process. He sees no value in the current compartmentalization and continued commodification of music, and dismisses the irrelevant ‘world music’ label: ‘…we have yet to hear music from anywhere but the world.’
From the shadows of the dramatic Transylvanian mountains to recording a monstrous-sized, multiplayer, village xylophone in Malawi, chapters on the most exotic, often dangerous, locations run alongside sections on the plight of the music industry. Expanding into social economics and politics, Ian’s previous work on the emergency psychiatric ward and current work as a violence prevention expert draws parallels and connections throughout the book between the ill effects of capitalism on the deprived areas of his own Oakland, California home and the destinations he’s travelled to in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Hardly what you’d call despairing, yet also far from the rose-tinted view, Ian criticizes as much as he celebrates, the joys of music whilst aiming broadsides at sections of Silicon Valley and the music recording industry.
To be dipped into at will, How Music Dies (Or Lives) – which features a foreword by Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker – is an adroit discourse and guide; a valuable reminder of music and arts true purpose: ‘Art is designed to reveal, not to show us what we already see and know.’
Currently in the UK to promote both the album and book, and to perform with the Hanoi Masters and Transylvanian group Zmei3 at WOMAD, Ian found the time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions. Proving to be open and affable, he discussed recording in Cambodia, the negatives and positives of the digital world, searching for new voices and the dangers of recording in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet.
Dominic Valvona: They Will Kill You, If You Cry, as its title makes clear, is an evocative (impressive) collection, dealing with traumatic experiences. Often addressing previously repressed feelings and memories. How effective do you believe these recordings have been in the healing process?
Ian Brennan: The big Hollywood myth we are all sold is that people are healed by events, not process. The idea that a beam of light will suddenly come down from heaven and we will suddenly see everything crystal clearly is a very seductive one. But the reality is that people are healed by time and consistent effort. Events are a short-term fix. And when traumas are so enormous, there simply isn’t enough time to ever be “all good” again…nor should that really even necessarily be the goal. The healthier goal is progress versus perfection.
DV: Witnessing such horrors, plaintively brought to (sometimes harrowing) life, these recordings must have had quite an affect on you. Did you find the project at any point too daunting? Was there an example in which a particular performance proved too upsetting?
IB: My own mother-in-law is a survivor of three genocides in Rwanda (1957, 1973, and 1994), so I have seen firsthand the way events like that can resonate across lifetimes and generations. We had already done two albums with The Good Ones from Rwanda and witnessed the way they coped creatively with surviving that experience— they ran the opposite direction and write almost nothing but poetic love songs.
DV: As so often, especially with Glitterbeat Records Hidden Musics series and their other projects, these recordings feel like the last chance to capture voices and instruments before they completely disappear. Could you tell us a bit more about some of the obscure instruments, such as the ‘kann’ (bamboo horn), and vocalists?
IB: Mon Hai who plays the Kann on the album is reportedly one of only two people left in the world that plays it. But, he is mentoring his eleven-year-old granddaughter to play it and that is such a hopeful thing. On the Hanoi Masters album we did in Vietnam, we had the good fortune of recording the K’ni, which is a bowed and/or plucked instrument where the string is held between the feet and mouth and the skull acts as the resonator. It sounds instrumental, but a dialect is actually spoken through the string. Both are ancient instruments, but both have almost extraterrestrial and futuristic qualities to them. It is spine chilling in a way.
DV: The contextual introduction that you provided for the project is as vivid as ever, and highly descriptive. Cambodia is, from your notes, a much forgotten and troubled country. The shocking statistics you repeat (from the jaw-dropping amounts of carpet-bombing by the US forces during the Vietnam War to the genocidal tyranny of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge) still feel very much raw and alive, though you say a whole generation, growing up in the aftermath, is collectively blind or ignorant of recent Cambodian history. You must hope this LP opens up a dialogue or at least highlights the issues? You allude that the most challenging problem in Cambodia now is ‘capitalism’. What changes have you witnessed, and do you think it has been a force for ill or good?
IB: For me the scariest aspect is the privatization of public lands; particularly by foreigners. Increasingly the giant superpowers are carving out their own little fiefdoms all over the world, right under everyone’s nose.
China now has its own police force in two Italian cities. These kinds of decisions get made quietly by bureaucrats, yet they have a much more lasting impact and implications than what is usually voted on by the people in democracies.
DV: How difficult was it to record in Cambodia?
IB: We had challenges with heat, rain, and noise from passing boat traffic since we recorded much of the music beside the river. At the end of the album you hear a passenger jet landing right at the every end of the track since Soun San lives spitting distance from the runway in Phnom Penh.
DV: You’re currently in the UK to both perform at WOMAD with the last Hidden Musics compilation stars, the Hanoi Masters, and the Transylvanian group Zmei3, and to promote your fourth book, How Music Dies (Or Lives). You passionately argue throughout the book, scientifically, cerebrally and emotionally about the importance of music. But only a cursory glance at the way it’s treated, commoditized and experienced would suggest the majority isn’t, and that in fact it has become not just monetary but creatively unimportant. Would you agree?
IB: The music industry has conditioned the majority of the population that music exists outside themselves and therefore that it must be sought from some external source. And even at that, only at certain times and designated places (e.g., an amphitheater). Worse yet, this access is customarily only made possible through the exchange of money.
But on a planet of 7-plus billion people isn’t it a bit daft to buy into the myth that any one person is so superlative that we should literally place them on an elevated platform and listen to them intently for decades? Come on, does the world really need another Neil Young or AC/DC album? And has humanity and culture been strengthened one iota by even a single Justin Timberlake or Katy Perry song? I would argue not, on both counts.
DV: I’m personally cynical and distrustful about the intentions and attitudes of Silicon Valley, and hate the mantra term ‘disruptive business model’. Would you say on balance, the online/digital facilitators have had either a positive or negative effect on music?
IB: Like most things, there is a double-edged sword effect. Before diving-in, it is advisable when we try to think ahead about how any action might boomerang and explore the ways in which almost every technology gets repurposed, often in very opposing ways to how it was intended.
Yes, the Internet connects people. But not necessarily the “right” people. Previously, most sociopaths were isolated and spread across the globe randomly. In the past they were even banished from community life entirely. Now they can build virtual communities that fan the flames of their worst impulses and fantasies. Anyone who doesn’t think that centralization is a negative force hasn’t thought it through very deeply. It’s an anti-democratic force. It smacks of fascism.
DV: There have been countless articles on contemporary culture’s reliance on the past, or as the celebrated music writer Simon Reynolds calls it, ‘retromania’, and the death of creativity in the respect of producing something new. Are we still in a transformative state, between saturation, hegemony and the ‘noise’ of ‘plasticity’, waiting to re-emerge the other end with something progressive, or are we doomed to just keep repeating ourselves?
IB: The most original stuff comes from within people. It’s not based on consumption. Craft is based on input. But art arises inexplicably from the most unlikely places— James Brown was raised in a brothel, Michelangelo was orphaned, and so many of the most disarming poets I know are illiterate. And that’s what makes art magical. All the degrees, studies, and training in the world can produce very ho-hum results. Meanwhile, every once in awhile someone emerges unexpectedly and rides or even leads the zeitgeist for a little while.
DV: Surely by now the umbrella term of ‘world music’ is redundant; your own work mostly recording/producing artists and bands from outside the ‘western world’, is constantly tagged with the label. Often seen as exotic, or ‘the other’, do you think ‘world music’ is sometimes romanticized? And treated, still in 2016, as a separate phenomena? Personally despite the belief that current generations brought up in the digital era are more open to different cultures and music, anything from outside the US and Europe struggles to find an audience. Even at festivals they separate these acts from the main, building designated ‘world music stages’.
IB: Yes, we have yet to hear music from anywhere but the world. So the very term designates English language countries as a center and everything else as peripheral in much the same way that mapmakers shrink the size of Africa proportionately and place their own continent smack dab in the middle. The maps I grew up with at in the front of classrooms during the Cold War era, very conspicuously split Russia in two, so that it was literally fractured and ‘marginated’.
The fact is, by design, I work with international artists in non-English languages. But what I strive to make are punk albums and roots music (which is what punk first was— suburban roots anthems).
If people listen past the surface on many of the records, there are some incredibly coarse and avant-garde elements, as well as a few really gritty beats here and there. The bass lines on the first Malawi Mouse Boys album are just nuts in their singularity!
DV: Is it ‘inevitable’ in a globalized world that culture will become more homogeneous? You mention authenticity and cultural-appropriation and both are very much in the news, the latter, usually for the clumsy way it has been handled (I’m thinking of more recent stories where white people with dreadlocks have been called out for appropriating black culture, and the banning of Native Indian headdresses at some American music festivals). Whilst being blissfully ignorant is not an excuse, and perhaps learning more about other cultures is something we all need to do from time to time, is the argument becoming redundant in an ever connected, sharing world?
IB: There’s no conspiracy. What’s inevitable is that capitalism is opportunistic and predatory to any trend and is ravenous for raw materials. Capitalism is amoral. All the system cares is that something sells and is profitable. And since the goal is ever escalating profitability, once a market is dominated and competition is eliminated or neutralized, then the only course is to reduce quality— to gut the interiors. And what’s left are the surfaces. That’s what we get with “artists” sporting Mohawks and tattoos, but singing like Disney child-stars (which a terrifyingly high-percentage of them actually are).
DV: With the current ‘explosive’ climate of fear in the US, and the increasing tensions between the black community and police, your work as a violence prevention expert must fill you with unease and disappointment?
IB: It all comes back to fear. So many are terrified of each other. Yet, statistically the world is a less violent place than it’s ever been. That’s one of the disadvantages of connectedness and globalization. An isolated freak’s actions ricochet around the world so disproportionately. Yet, sadists are an anomaly. They make up less than 1% of the general population. They are the exception, not even remotely close to the norm. Most people want nothing more than peace and love. But they are the lost and forgotten.
DV: Events in both your homeland and around the world are moving so rapidly that us writers and commentators find it nigh impossible to get a grip on the situation. Previous cities, countries relatively unscathed and untroubled, only a year ago, are now finding themselves caught up in the maelstrom of violence. You have travelled to some very dangerous places (including war zones) but is there anywhere in the world currently off-limits for you? Anywhere you’d wish to travel but are unable to?
IB: Americans and those from other western countries are so privileged with freedom of movement. We tend to take it for granted. Most artists I work with are literally landlocked, almost on house arrest within their own country. Every African artist I’ve ever worked with has had his or her visas refused on the first try. It is so unfair and frustrating.
What has always struck me about the countries at war that we’ve visited is how little the visible signs of it are. The majority of people do their best to go about their lives. They have to!
DV: If there’s one thing I find the most refreshing about your book, it’s the lack of technical jargon – the ‘bullshit baffles brains’ and fetishistic approach to musical kit and the studio often poured over, made more important than the actual music itself. You make it sound easy, though from my experiences I know it’s not, and write quite amusingly, if anything, making light and mocking your obvious talents and skills. Do you think self-deprecation and a sense of humour is a useful tool for the producer? Have you any advice for the budding producer?
IB: I think humor can come in handy any where. We “have to laugh to keep from crying” as they say. And humility has become so underrated and even derided in individualistic societies.
I think the most important thing about the creative process is to not worry about authorship, but creation. As long as something beautiful is born into the world, it doesn’t really matter who gets credit. No one remembers (or really even credibly knows) who really wrote “Amazing Grace” or first said, “a stitch in time, saves nine,” or who made the first tortilla or dared to taste the first strawberry. But those individuals or collectives contributed more value to this planet than a tag-team avalanche of reality-show stars and ghostwritten, lip-synching Porn-pop stars, ever will.
DV: Have you ever had to abandon a recording session?
IB: Part of the beauty of outdoor recording is that it is so dynamic— with onlookers, weather, limited daylight, etc. Anything can happen and “going with the flow,” improvisation, and problem solving is key. Also commitment is pushed to the forefront— simply pushing past fear and taking the plunge, for better or worse.
We’ve had a few close calls, but overall we have been very fortunate and only had to pull up stakes prematurely a few times. And, we’ve only returned empty-handed in exceptional occasions. Usually the leap of faith is not only rewarded, but way in excess of what I even imagined or hoped for.
DV: In your opinion, who is currently making the most innovative and exciting music? And are there any untapped sources, locations waiting to be discovered?
IB: For sure it is someone that no one is listening to. And maybe it’s almost more beautiful that way. Certainly, whoever it is, they are making music for its own sake— they are possessed to do it intrinsically and not for any external reward.
DV: Any upcoming projects you could tell us about? Any new discoveries on the horizon?
IB: There simply isn’t enough time to meet all the great artists there are in the world. I just feel so blessed to have experienced such a level of intimacy with so many diverse and empathic individuals in so many different places.
And I sincerely hope that I never stop learning and embracing rather than fleeing from doubt and verifiable “truth.”
The Monolith Cocktail would like to thank Ian Brennan for his time and for providing us with all the images for the interview.