Pirate sympathisers



It’s 2010. The original Napster file-sharing scandal began a decade ago, and while that site got shut down quicker than a rave outside a police station, the illegal download battle continues to rage, simply changing location each time someone official-looking turns up waving legal papers. In the intervening decade, musicians and record labels have tried every trick in the book to get fans to continue paying for music, largely in vain. Everyone has an opinion on it, from Metallica’s big fuck you to anyone who nicked their albums, to Radiohead’s honesty box.

Here’s a new one though: “Our best anti-piracy device is to give a lot of our music away for free.” It’s the idea of college student and electronica nerd Nick Weiss. The logic is impeccable, although as a strategy it does seem worryingly akin to legalising heroin, only to announce that arrests for dealing heroin have miraculously plummeted overnight.

Weiss presents his tactic as part of a broader conversation about whether he and his college buddy Logan Takahashi regret naming their musical project Teengirl Fantasy. Over a digitally distorted Skype line from Oberlin College, Ohio, where they are both in the final years of their degree (Logan studies electronic music; Nick film), they explain why it’s not the most forgiving of monikers.

“We were hanging out on the porch of one of the co-ops, talking about boy bands for some reason, and our friend Vivian suggested a good boy band name would be Teengirl Fantasy,” begins Logan, a rueful tone cutting through his voice. “And at the time,” Nick interrupts, “we thought it was the most genius thing we’d ever heard, but it was also, like, 3am, and we were also, like, sitting on a swing,” he says, adding the last detail as if it’s the final piece in the puzzle. “And now, when we have to tell customs people at an airport or something what our band name is, we get this bizarre look, like ‘what are you really doing?’”

“But the thing is,” Weiss continues, “it came up with a lot of porn on Google…”

“…except we’re now the top hit on Google,” points out Takahashi, still rueful.

“…and people are afraid to search for us,” Weiss carries on. “And it’s impossible to find our music on Limewire among all the porn. But we have more antipiracy devices than that…”

The music in question is a hazy hybrid of pretty much all dance music from the dawn of disco – their reimagining of Rose Royce’s 1978 classic ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ is breathtaking – to the present day, filtered through cannabis smoke and the attention-deficit brains of two 21-year-old liberal arts students. Yes, you can dance to it – and both Weiss and Takahashi talk enthusiastically about playing live – but in truth the music is more impressionist than hedonist, full of foggy memories of dancefloors rather than the dancefloors themselves. As their debut album, ‘7AM’, progresses, there is a feeling of not exactly being there but being thereabouts, like walking past a music festival dance tent, hearing the throb but also the clatter and clutter of everything else around.

Aggressively DIY – they have refused to use laptops in their live set-up after a terrible experience with one in their first gig, surrounding themselves instead with single-purpose gizmos and small keyboards – their aesthetic is the antithesis of most electronic music: precision is eschewed for texture and feeling, recordings are done live, and songs are written through jamming.

“Something that I think both of us are into is texture,” explains Logan. “I got into electronic music because of texture, and it’s something that both of us are thinking about when we’re writing, how the texture affects that music and soundworld. Usually we’ll write a song pretty quickly and then play it out live, see how it develops and see what things feel right. That’s been our song-writing process, trying to keep it as free as possible. At the beginning, we didn’t establish any stylistic rules or talk about anything. We just did whatever.”

But despite the broadbrush technique, “whatever” actually turns out to be largely indebted to the dubbier end of early 90s house – the Future Sound of London, 808 State, the Orb. Combined with the hazy, windswept production, the overall vibe is vaguely nostalgic. However, Logan isn’t sure: “For me it’s not about feeling nostalgic about a certain time, or being like, ‘oh I wish it was the 90s’. It’s more just being able to pick and choose, and have access to so many different reference points. There’s a difference between re-appropriating things from the past and longing for the past. I don’t know if I personally long for the past, but I definitely think it’s cool to go back and put it together in any way that I want.”

Perhaps a more pertinent reason why Takahashi doesn’t long for that specific past, for old memories of parties in deserted out-of-town industrial estates and woodland clearings in 1989, is because he was barely born then. The memories that he and Weiss are exploring with Teengirl Fantasy are not their own – but that in itself can be useful for avoiding an undue deference to the source. “I think that gives us a bit more licence to experiment,” he explains. “Because we’re more disconnected from it, we have more freedom.”

Nick agrees: “It’s more just about picking up on the sound from older records and the feeling that they give people, and then utilising them as snippets to form a bigger piece. Although we love that material, we’re not afraid of doing something totally bizarre with it, and that’s because we only know about it – we weren’t making this music when the original people were – we have a totally different connection to it because we’re so young.”

There then follows lots of bluster about jazz, the model numbers of specific vintage synths and extolling the virtues of bell tones, until the conversation swings around to talk of the Internet. “I had a fansite on Geocities,” Nick remembers. “I updated it all the time with crazy glittery exploding firework graphics, but now it’s gone. That was a devastating thing. Yahoo was really not cool about closing Geocities, but that’s the future of the Internet, and it’s bleak – the way that Apple and other companies have made it all about paying for content again, killing the free stuff.

“We have a lot in common with all the hackers and pirates out there. Like, we sample plenty of music, don’t clear the rights, don’t really care who knows it, and it just makes for interesting art. I can respect people who don’t really care about ownership on the Internet.”

The inevitable question, then, is do Weiss and Takahashi care if people pay for the Teengirl Fantasty album? There’s a pregnant pause, and the digital crackle of the Skype line appears to grow louder. In a dorm room in Ohio, two college students are torn. Then the pair answer simultaneously, in contradiction. “Yes,” says Logan; “nah”, says Nick. They both laugh.

“Do I want people to buy the album?” asks Nick. “Not especially. I definitely don’t care if people download the album for free. I think that they should want the vinyl because it looks beautiful and it’s cool to have a physical object of something. But I download for free all the time, but I also pay for songs and music by people that I know or by people I respect a lot. I think…,” he pauses. “I dunno.” He trails off, and Logan, this time, doesn’t pipe up.

By Sam Walton

Originally published in issue 22 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. October 2010

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