No Final Interpretation

Rick Roderick / 100 Gecs / Inter Arma

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In April I went through an unpleasant depressive episode. The spark came from something fairly mundane and inconsequential. At the beginning of the year I had planned to go into the studio to track drums for my next record. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the fact that I would not be able to enter a recording studio for the foreseeable future barely registered with me. There were, and are, bigger things to be concerned about. 

In my haste to make practical sense of the new world, to appreciate the gravity of the situation and respond appropriately, I neglected to feel, on a bone deep level, how profoundly sad this all was. But when one day I looked up and noticed that I would’ve been two days deep into the session, the shocking distance between the world I had expected to occupy and the one I was stuck in became clear. At that moment the needless waste of life, the gross incompetence, and sheer number of people left stranded snapped into focus, and the powerlessness I felt in the face of this locked me in place.

I will not describe the episode except to say that I am glad that it is over.

What got me out was just as arbitrary as what set it off. On the recommendation of my friend Emmet Penny (who’s piece about dumpster aesthetics I’m going to reference later on, so you might as well get the hyperlink open now) I watched Rick Roderick’s lecture series about 20th century philosophy. The whole series is worth watching, but the section on Derrida had a particularly strong effect on me. I had always found Derrida’s writing to be completely impenetrable, the kind of work people cite to sound smart but whose practical application was limited to the circle jerk of academia. To be fair, being obtuse was sort of Derrida’s point, considering how focused he was on the messiness of language.

Roderick tackles that messiness head on and without watering down Derrida’s ideas explains their significance in a clear and accessible way. In doing so, Roderick dismantles a common attack levied against postmodern thinkers: that they advocate for total relativity, where any reading and interpretation of a text is as good as any other. As Roderick explains it, Derrida’s point was actually far more specific. Rather, there is no final interpretation of a text. The work of interpretation and philosophical examination cannot end and must go on indefinitely.

If there can be no final interpretation, then there will always be new interpretations. Life will continue.

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I recently listened to two albums that are primarily acts of interpretation. First there is 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues by 100 gecs, a remix album of their debut 1000 Gecs. Second there is Garbers Days Revisited, an album of covers performed by Inter Arma. Both of these albums feel like throwbacks, not only because they contain reworkings of older songs, but for their format. The very idea of releasing a remix or cover album in 2020 is an anachronism.

Just so we’re all up to speed, let’s define some terms. A remix album is a collection of tracks by an artist who has handed the raw files of their recordings to another artist to rearrange and interpret as they see fit. A cover album is a collection of older songs that an artist has chosen from the catalog of other musicians and re-recorded in their own style. 

Both covers and remixes have a long history in recorded music, but albums composed solely of these recordings rarely get the attention or acclaim directed at collections of original material. 

There are a few reasons for this. A rockist emerging from a time machine would say that original material is more “real” because the performer wrote it themselves and that remixes and covers will always be less important. A more nuanced critique of the remix album in particular could stem from the dance music community where remixes are more commonly found on singles and EPs, and which looks at the album format in general as a concession to rock and pop standards. Finally, a materialist (or Progmatist) explanation for the shoddy reputation of these forms in modern music stems from the 90s and 00s, when remix and cover albums were hastily put together to capitalize on an artist’s success or to eat up contract requirements, and then sold at the outrageously high prices brought on by the CD boom.

What changed between then and now? The internet and the proliferation of home recording technology, usual suspects in the new millennium. Listeners no longer needed to wait for official remixes to be delivered from on high. The tools for them to create their own remixes and distribute them had never been more accessible. Leveling the playing field in this way also accelerated the growth of entire remix genres. Sites like Soundcloud and YouTube became hubs for music fans finding new ways to twist their favorite songs in new directions, speeding them up, slowing them down, moving their pitch up and down the scale, reimagining them as the product of a different decade, and combining songs at absurd rates.

Because a lot of these remixers are young, there is also an irreverent streak to a lot of Internet remix music. Modern mashups for instance are filled with inside jokes, samples that have been fashioned into memes, and a juvenile glee from smashing together tracks with widely different social contexts. The tastelessness or tonal confusion is quite often the point of the whole thing.

This sort of thing is not unique to the present, of course. See also: the recession hedonism of Girl Talk, the angel and devil hanging over every young geek in the form of Weird Al and Mike Patton, Frank Zappa’s insufferable smartass take on genre tropes, etc. And as you can tell from the last two examples, this aesthetic mode and attitude makes its way into original compositions too.

Which brings us to the gecs.

100 gecs, a band that people love to have opinions about, are Lauren Les and Dylan Brady. Les and Brady essentially write their music through the process of remixing each other’s work. 100 gecs is the product of file sharing; one member will send the other a musical idea, the receiver will remix and add to it and send it back. The process continues until the song is done. This is a format built for “yes, and”ing, where one intentionally ridiculous choice encourages another musical punchline in return. 100 gecs pack a lot of musical information into their songs, flitting from one arrangement to the next with the speed of a Vine edit. 

It isn’t just the form of 100 gecs’ music that gets people so riled up, their choice of content is just as provocative. As Emmet Penney put it “They’ve hoovered up myspace music, ska, nightcore, autotune…. The odds and ends of our culture datamoshed into a hyper mosaic.” When I said that 100 gecs is the product of file sharing, I wasn’t just describing their creative method. Their debut 1000 gecs sounds like someone scrapped the resin of LimeWire into a bowl and smoked it. 

Despite being associated with the ascendant Gen Z, 100 gecs’ sonic ingredients should be immediately legible to anyone that moved from Kazaa to Mediafire to streaming (or, as Sasha Geffen recently pointed out on Twitter, listened to the radio during the extremely weird early 00s). Only their deep-fried-meme take on emo rap is a direct product of the late 2010s, and even this just repurposes popular rock sounds from the early 00s. So even though the duo treat their influences with snotty irreverence, a web-addled 30-something might find 1000 gecs nostalgic.

1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues only heightens this sense of familiarity. By calling on a fleet of bubblegum bass producers, Soundcloud rappers, and Warped Tour luminaries to reinterpret their songs, 100 gecs have disentangled their sound into its composite influences. In this way, the album recalls Linkin Park’s remix record Reanimation, which allowed the nü-metal act to draw a direct connection between their music and the backpack rappers and turntablists whose music they had translated for the JNCO jeans set. Tree of Clues has a similar demystifying effect on its source material. Hearing 100 gecs tunes recast as Euro trance, or as long lost Fall Out Boy & Chiodos show stoppers pulls the duo out of the bleachers of musical history and places them on the field.

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Though it’s about as far from 100 gecs as you could get, Garbers Days Revisited also links Inter Arma to history. Named in reference both to the band’s practice space and Metallica’s cover EP Garage Days Revisited, the album shows us what music interests Inter Arma when they goof off.

It’s worth noting that Inter Arma share some of 100 gecs’ genre agnosticism, albeit located entirely within the church of heavy metal. For those who like to spend time splitting hairs between sub-genres, Inter Arma’s music presented a challenge of categorization. Are they a death metal band that borrows from doom metal or a doom metal band that borrowed from death metal, should we just lump them in with prog and be done with it, etc. Like I said, splitting hairs.

This latest collection is a victory lap for Sulphur English, the band’s most widely celebrated record yet. Part of the reason that Sulphur English caught on with a wider metal audience, at least as I see it, is that it made categorization debates besides the point. The tools were less interesting than what they were being used to do, which is build a lazy river ride on the Styx. The decisions to bear down with full roaring intensity or pull back into psychedelia or rhythmic noodling all felt deliberate, suggesting an arc or a burrowing into the record’s heart. It is a nightmare worthy of a victory lap, a real extreme metal achievement.

Garbers Days Revisited is by comparison a low stakes affair. The band have made it clear on their Twitter that no one should read too much significance into their choice of material. There’s no statement being made here other than “we think these songs are good,” but with all due respect to the band, even that reveals something interesting about their taste to their audience. 

Alongside tracks from natural choices for an extreme metal band like Venom and Cro-Mags, are covers of classic rock radio fare like Neil Young, Prince, and Tom Petty. The less said about the Prince cover, a drunken trudge through “Purple Rain,” the better. The other two show us Inter Arma as translators. In their version of “Southern Man,” we get to hear how they hear the song, what parts of it are essential, which parts can be adjusted to make it fit their style, and so on. As they bring the song closer to their sound, they also reveal which parts of their own songs might owe a debt to the influence of Young, Petty, etc. 

This illumination works both ways, showing us sides of the original tune that we may not have noticed otherwise. Even if you don’t necessarily like what Inter Arma have turned up in their version, I find the process historically useful. These little strands of interconnectivity provide context and give us bookmarks in music history. At each turn we can get a quick glimpse of how a song evolved through the years, and at least some understanding of the years in question.

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These connections cannot be unheard either, only ignored or avoided. Moreover, I’ve found that after hearing a particularly spirited reinterpretation, my ears are retrained to hear new possibilities in familiar songs. Like a film leaving an impression on your view of the world upon leaving the theater. The song has changed, and has shown the path to future changes.

The musician has also changed. Learning a song means internalizing it, even if only on the level of muscle memory. Once it’s in you, you never know what parts of the song will show up one day in your own writing.

Neither song nor singer is immutable. We are not cursed to remain the same forever. So long as there is someone else to pick up the tune.