Played an escapade just like you

All it took was some traffic outside of Monterey for me to start second-guessing the trip. One by one, radio stations were cutting out. I clung onto a hippie based out of San Luis Obispo playing The Grateful Dead for awhile, but then I swung around a cliffside and he cut out too.

I wasn’t lonely. Just a bit bored. I’d made this same mistake before, forgetting to bring CD’s or make an offline playlist – misremembering what hours of silence feel like. They kind of eat at you.

I’d just left Santa Cruz – which was insane. Perfect waves – thick ropes, round and symmetrical, sucked kelp right off the ocean floor, but with so many people in the water complaining about all the people in the water, I gunned it for Big Sur.

A park ranger eyed my Hurley t-shirt wearily and said she did have an open site. A guy standing nearby looked shocked – told me I was lucky as hell. He had a potbelly framed by a sweaty baseball tee and a beer in-hand. He seemed friendly with the rangers and mentioned several times he was having a party later if any of us wanted to stop by.

I set up camp and drove down the road to surf before dark. There’s a current at the south end of Sand Dollar that whips you out into the lineup. It saves a lot of paddling but it’s disorienting. Within seconds I was a hundred yards out at sea – umbrellas shrinking into tiny, colorful dots.

The water was shallow and clear as vodka, but the more I looked, the more I disliked seeing the grains of sand beneath me, the peaks and valleys, divots, and caves. I felt my heart pounding in my wetsuit.

When I got back to camp, I met up with George, the guy with the baseball tee who looked shocked about my campsite. He said he had some, “tweaky bud.”

I followed him to a clearing where a fire was roaring. I expected to see others gathered around but there only a few dusty tree stumps. He handed me a beer and we started talking about Big Sur. George was from a town inland and used to come here as a grom for birthday parties, surf trips, or just to get wild.

“Now we got fuckin’ trailers rolling around and kids spilling out,” he said. 

The fire spit and George smiled slyly, the gaps in his teeth shining in the moonlight. He swung a bottle of vodka clutched in his right hand towards the night sky.

“We’re in fucking Disney World, man! We’re in the fucking blue tea cup goin’ round and round.”

He paused, as if lamenting a lost brother.

“But as least we’re in the blue tea cup and not the fucking pink one.”

George’s musings got increasingly more scattered. He asked if the moon ever reminded me of a frog holding onto a tailgate, told a story about a time he’d caught a fish to impress a Hawaiian, stumbled through a shitty joke, spoke dearly about his love of kayaking, and made me promise I’d look up a waitress in Lake Tahoe – his girl.

After a few beers, he was reluctant to see me go. I told him I needed to go write, and thanked him for the good fire. Truthfully, I was starting to wonder. He told me that the guy who was supposed to meet him that night was also named Duncan.

I brought my buck-knife into my sleeping bag just in case George turned out to be a nut, realizing that the weed was probably making me anxious – tweaky. And of course, I woke up the next morning to gorgeous sunlight and the sounds of kids squealing and RV’s beeping, and realized that we were in a fucking theme park – at least there were still a few of us weird enough to visit alone.

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Alberto Balsam

Pushing open the door of the Play It Again Sports in Portland, ME, I’m reminded of being a kid, eyeing the Vapor skates displayed on the rack, weighing a Synergy in my hands.

It’s a grey, New England morning and we’re on our way to visit my brother in Vermont, making a quick pit stop to sharpen our skates, and for me, an opportunity to record a Music That Moves Me Segment at Maine Public Radio.

We try on a pair of red and white gloves with an enlarged thumb to ward off vicious hacks, and then it’s time to head over, so I slip out, nervous to put words to something so wordless.

The studio is just two hundred yards from Play It Again Sports. There’s a good amount of snow on the roads so I clomp my boots out front, and suddenly I’m in the studio, in front of a microphone, watching the audio levels rise and fall.

“Want me to read from here?” I say, holding up a crumpled piece of paper.

The producer smiles, as if anticipating the question. “Why don’t you just talk to us.”

Just For Kicks – An Interview with Perry Gershkow

Once in awhile, a perfectly good surf film gets ruined by a shit soundtrack. Fortunately, Perry Gershkow, a San Francisco based filmmaker, has eerily similar music taste to The Aftmth, and his recent film, Just For Kicks, features artists like Future Islands, Ruby Haunt, and Avid Dancer.

I’m always curious, do the visuals come first? Or does a specific sound inspire a director’s eye? We were lucky enough to ask Gershkow a few questions about how he struck such a harmonious chord.

Watch Just For Kicks here.

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For a project like Just For Kicks, what’s your process for selecting music?

Without the right music, surf films would be boring to watch, even to the surfer’s eye. For each section of every surf film, it’s important to find the mood you want to go with.  When you figure out what sort of mood you want your audience to be in while watching this section, then that’s where you can start finding music. With so much music out there, I wanted something that would create emotion as well as something that would get people excited.

You chose two Ruby Haunt songs. When did you first hear them? Why do you think their music works so well here?

Luckily, my buddy Victor Pakpour is in the band Ruby Haunt. He’s also a fellow filmmaker and a damn good one. His music possesses an emotion that I really think works for the parts I’ve been putting together, especially for this film.  I used some of their music in my last film, and people really enjoyed it. They came out with some new tracks this past year so I immediately was drawn to using their music again.

How do you discover new music?

Discovering new music is definitely a tricky hobby.  There are so many different kinds of music out in the world that it can be tough to narrow it down to something I can use for my films.  For me, I have a certain sound that I go for.  Being in the industry for a while, I’ve been able to make friends with people in really good bands.  For instance, two of the songs in the film are from a good friend Sara Damert, who scored these two songs for the film.  She has a very unique voice, which I think is crucial to have for originality.

Hak Baker – Conundrum

I have a ritual. Divulging it may help countenance the way we interact with music on the enormous, inescapable digital platforms—Spotify, in this case—or it may just add more noise to the whirlpooling soundscape of the internet. Like the book and film industries, most new music (singles, LPs, EPs) is officially released on Fridays. Spotify capitalizes on this through its prominently-placed New Music Friday playlist. It’s an effective if scattershot showcase of the newest big-label, big-artist songs accompanied by a slew of algorithmically selected tracks based on your listener profile. But I’m skeptical of algorithms. And I still like the relatively safe spaces of albums; whereas a playlist categorically defined by the newness of the seven-day drop cycle, computer learning software be damned, hop scotches too much from genre and tempo on play-through.

Maybe, I’ll admit, I even like the skeuomorphic renders that scrolling through the cover art of the new albums and singles presents. The tiles offer a glimpse into the personality behind each project; their arraignment a concession to how much the labels pay Spotify for top-of-the-list preference. So, I stay up on Thursday evenings and wait for the New Releases tab to update. (More often than not, this doesn’t happen at the stroke of 12:01 am, but hours later during the morning rush hours.) Regardless, sometimes, in this digital crate digging exercise, I find something worth pilfering for my own playlists. At other moments, I scratch my head and hate-judge whoever thought the new Mount Kimbie album was deserving to rest on the ocean floor of this sea of sound.

If you’ve never before clicked the Browse tab then this all might sound like quaint idiosyncratic behavior. But if you do and you have feelings about how music is presented to and consumed via Spotify, then you would be surprised to know that even at my most untrusting of Spotify’s transparent attempt at personalized playlists such as New Music Friday, worthwhile music can be had on the Discover tab (even if you only go there out of laziness or accident or pretension: “How misguided are these recommends going to be?”) as well. But a rose by any other name is still a rose.

This is how I came across the work of Hak Baker.

**

Despite his thin output, I knew Baker’s lullabying tune “Conundrum” was perfect for a playlist I continue to invest stupid amounts of energy on and whose architecture is built around the idea “What else would you listen to if you loved Frank Ocean and hip-hop?” “Conundrum,” an unsentimental look at life in East London, is just voice and acoustic guitar. A simple formula that has worked well-enough for the Amy Winehouses and Chris Martins of the world. The lyrics have depth and surprising diction while the guitar playing is reminiscent of third-week-of-YouTube-music-lessons skill. Baker’s voice is, however, palpable, clarifying, almost sad.

**

I bring my belief in fortuitous circumstances to my playlists. By the Sunday after the most recent new music releases, I had managed to add, including “Conundrum,” seven new tracks. The day had started off slowly as I tried to slough off the dull feeling that hung around me following the previous night’s tennis and dancing and a number of pulls from a bottle of Jameson that was also seven in number if not more. Actually, I was supplementing my taking-life-into-account state of affairs with a reckoning of Neil Young. Apparently, the old man’s catalog is now on Spotify and I was searching for a specific live album a friend had played for me on his record player on another, whiskey-soaked Saturday. It’s there, I’m sure, but I needed to get outside at least once today. (The ways in which I wasn’t being productive were staggering: The articles I needed to write, the emails waiting to escape the “drafts” folder wasn’t getting any slimmer, and I began this post in a devil may care manner. Wasting time, right here, right now.) So, at no later than 10 pm, I made my way to a slice joint on the other side of the highway that deals in half-cuts upon request. An easy 15-minute walk from my Brooklyn neighborhood.

**

It’s worth mentioning that this pizza shop is heavy-metal themed and when I got there, early Black Sabbath was playing loudly and two drunk on life (also beer) patrons were debating which of the pizza-punned t-shirts to get. Each black tee features a screen-printed front in the style of classic metal album covers and they’re all great. Because superstition is leashed to low expectations, I couldn’t grin any more dumbly or widely at my fortune. This would be the third time I ordered half-slices and got full ones instead. Rarely do I place much stock in my propensity to not speak loudly, but there I was, walking home the winner of a twofer. Superstition, too, harbors an appreciation of luck no matter its scale. The playlist switched to shuffle and what could be described as an unfair sequence of 5 songs played back to back. It was as unfair as the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Dodgers, though that simile may not hold as the majority of these artists were British.

**

“Conundrum” kicked it off and, while I was toting my pizza beneath an underpass, Rex Orange County’s “Paradise” began afterward. Belonging to the hangover genre of songs, it makes a good case for not drinking beer to get drunk just because everyone else is which felt particularly relatable right then. From Rex’s first album, which is emblematic of the best efforts of bedroom producers, “Paradise” is mostly deep bass notes and an unstellar drum machine behind which synthesizer keys fade in and out. Then, after the song’s abrupt ending, was the comparatively expertly-produced “Laidback” by Rat Boy. In this case, the upbeat song finds the British youth expressing a love for someone whom he can’t directly express that to emphatically. So, just as the song title heavily features in the refrain, Rat Boy needs to occupy the premier emotional state and posture of Western millennials: chill. Who isn’t chill as much as she’s cavalier is Jessie Reyez. This song, a would-be bold choice for karaoke, is called “Fuck It” and Jessie’s attitude wavers between a spoken-poetry aspect to a roll call of “Fuck It”s. The track came to my attention via another sort of algorithm: Daniel Caesar’s Instagram Story. He was riding in an Uber as it played on the radio if I remember correctly, again underscoring my hunch that many things are possibly better in Canada. The next and final song was the most clever cover of 2016: Sunni Colon’s interpretation of “Black Hole Sun,” the anthemic Soundgarden song that is likewise the best about heroine since “Beast of Burden.” Colon’s airy track reworks the chorus of the grunge-era hit to a dance floor juke. That is, dancing in the way that “F.U.B.U.” by Solange is a dance track—they both share a bass and bump that engenders creative movement.

**

On a street corner near my apartment, three books were left atop a garbage can for recyclables. (It’s all very Brooklyn, I know.) The books seemed relatively clean and I took two titles: A short story collection by the late Denis Johnson and a large history of Lewis and Clark by Stephen Ambrose. Balancing this all and jiggering my keys into the doors I needed to pass through to get home, I had my hands full.

Musical Ai

On Nitch, the Instagram page with enough scrolling power to prod you out of bed in the morning, there’s an image of Banksy sitting in a chair, his face cloaked behind an oversized hood and his fingertips welded together as if in prayer.

The caption reads, “I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a super power.”

Sometimes this idea prompts me to hang back. To watch while others spread themselves thin. But when I discovered Spotify and the opportunity to be totally transparent about my listening habits, I leaned in.

Spotify gives me a heightened awareness about people’s connection to music. A track off Bon Iver’s For Emma might signal a rough day. ODESZA’s Divinity Remix hints at a moment of teeth-gnashing action. And when my grandfather, a man dedicated to his vinyl records, joined Spotify, I watched as he suddenly transitioned from Bach, Handel and Arthur Rubinstein to Frank Zappa, revealing a rare glimpse at a subterranean rebellious streak.

Maybe it was naive to overlook that all this public data could be harnessed for something besides interconnectedness. With great data comes great responsibility and recent news is uncovering a growing suspicion about how Spotify may be using that data.

Journalists and bloggers are accusing Spotify of creating songs by “fake artists” to fill in some of their ambient playlists to save money on royalty fees. Several artists stepped forward, others like Deep Watch remain eerily quiet.

Then there’s the potential connection between Echo Nest, Spotify’s data collection hub that tracks user’s listening habits, and the recent hire of Francois Pachet, a revered French professor and machine learning guru.

Bloggers speculate that Spotify is accumulating listening data so that they can use machine learning to create customized music. With millions of hours of listening data, Spotify’s algorithms could pinpoint the chord progressions, rhythms and styles that resonate with users. They could theoretically customize music for a specific moment in time.

The goal is awesome. And for me it would be the end of a long journey after stumbling on the crowdsourcing capacity of Hype Machine. I’ve always fantasized about a sixth sense for what song belongs in the current moment. An algorithm would take out the guess work.

We may not even be that far off. The glowing boards laid out in front of a D.J. and the prevalence of pro tools has introduced a new member of the band – a formula, a computer, or whatever cuts and hems raw tracks.

It’s hard to resist that mathematical precision. By definition technology makes things easier. Venmo means you don’t have to take cash out. Uber Eats means you don’t have to leave your couch to eat sushi. But I’m of the belief that easier doesn’t always mean better in the long term.

Take Dave Grohl for example. As a kid he couldn’t afford a drum set so he’d beat wooden sticks on pillows, hitting the fabric as hard as he could to make an audible sound. That produced a breakneck style that drove Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. No one brings Dave Grohl on to play drums for a soft jazz track – they hire him to shatter snare drums.

My concern with AI generated music is that we will lose the ‘fuck you’ types. The narrative behind the music will become less important as it becomes a more streamlined experience. We will settle into a cyclical feedback loop, thoughtlessly mainlining the musical stream. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Our past would prescribe our future.

But as we get further into AI territory, we may find that our experiences with music aren’t as transactional as listening data suggests. A friend recently told me that he associated Father John Misty’sNancy From Now On” with a second-hand surfboard he’d found in the back room of a well-lit surf shop. When he called the previous owner, the man told him that he’d shaped it for his wife, who was uninterested in the alternative design (it’s round like a pill or a bar of soap). As my friend twirled around the board he noticed a note on the bottom channel. Inscribed in pencil it said, “For Nancy.” The moment was cemented and the board became one with the song.

Algorithms are designed to root out randomness and chance. For an equation to work, you need a closed system. A self driving car can’t function if the roads are forever changing direction. The same would be true for AI generated music. You would need to construct a limit. A known quantity. Random chance would be deadly.

But music needs randomness. It needs chaos. It needs Death Grips. It thrives off leaps and bounds – unpredictable moments of improvisation. And for that, there’s no one better than a human.