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|April 17-23, 2008
by Dave Kirby
Niggy Tardust speaks
by Erica Grossman
Ghostland Observatory fights off genre categories with frantic apathy
by Dave Kirby
Someone somewhere said that techno was “back” — we read it someplace, we’re sure we did. Of course, that’s the kind of flat-earth platitude that’s essentially meaningless in this day and age, since lots of bands use synth technology (especially some of the shinier jam bands, with whom house shares more in common than either fan base would like to admit). House and trance music never went away in the first place; the Euros have supported this stuff for years, and American audiences (especially the American press) have excruciatingly short attention spans anyway.
So if you see somewhere that Ghostland Observatory is on the vanguard of some synthpop renaissance, be skeptical. You could make the case that the clattery, mechanoid synth drums and end-of-the-world modulator bass lines underpinning this weirdly affecting pair’s gig represent a relatively new, somewhat dire appeal to the always-shaky truce between synthpop and club rock. And, yes, house music informs a lot of what they’re doing, but make no mistake… this is a rock band, or a fragment of one, and plenty of people are starting to pay attention. Last year’s single “Sad Sad City” landed them on Conan and splattered them across the YouTube universe, introducing them to a probably unprepared world.
The duo — singer, sometimes guitarist Aaron Behrens and keyboardist Thomas Turner — are on the road this spring supporting their third long player, Robotique Majestique, and what’s immediately clear, if anyone spends half a lunch period perusing some YouTubes of these two in action, is that their new CD doesn’t adequately convey the GO live experience. Most CDs don’t, but it’s hard to imagine any CD circumscribing Behren’s swinging Apache dreads and roid-ish, Jagger-esque stage choreography, nor Turner’s trademark cape (Tom, Rick Wakeman’s holding on line two…) and stooped gizmo fixation. For his part, Behrens carries the day with a vocal charisma somewhere between Zack de la Rocha and Freddie Mercury, kicking and prancing and belting out these testaments as if punching urgently against the metered discipline of Turner’s synthbeats. And for his part, Turner alternates between noisy chaos, plinky melodies and symphonic grooves, along the way quoting elders like Kraftwerk, Thomas Dolby, New Order, Aphex Twin, Depeche Mode…. and inevitably comes the comparison, Daft Punk.
Mark our words, GO is likely to carry this “American Daft Punk” moniker along with them on tour, from market to market, writer to writer, and while it’s low-hanging fruit (yes, they do share some occasionally garage-y lo-fi aesthetics), we’re just not sure it’s fair to either outfit. Daft Punk comes from a different world, where irony and self-effacement developed as a byproduct of the maturing process, a waste product of meeting and evading expectations and keeping themselves interested in their own production, which has now evolved into a high-tech exercise in identity management and futurism, at least as much as a musical performance. A thing of wonder, aggressively bloodless, the song of the machine.
What you hear in Ghostland Observatory is quite different — a little over-the-top self-indulgence and, despite the bombast and glitter, a couple of guys who are having too much fun to take themselves too seriously, who aren’t forging the path so much as dancing their asses off as they make their way down it, spilling the goodies by the trailside, not sweating the details and still knowing who they are.
That’s a good thing… swinging wildly for the fences makes for cool shadow play and excesses disguised as genius, and that’s precisely the stuff that a lot of great live acts are made of.
The buzz on these cats is pretty tough right now; this show will leave you puzzled or jazzed or annoyed, but almost certainly not indifferent.
On the Bill
Ghostland Observatory will perform with DJ Chordata at 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 19, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.
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Niggy Tardust speaks
If you can’t say the word “nigger,” hip-hop poet Saul Williams has a bone to pick with you
by Erica Grossman
I want to start off by talking about the ‘n-word,’” I said confidently. This was my lead statement during a recent phone interview with poet/artist/rapper/actor/musician/hip-hopper Saul Williams, and I believed it was a strong one. Williams, after all, is a guru of words, a present-day Shakespeare whom aspiring poets and lyricists attempt to emulate. His records and books tend to be on the provocative side, and his latest album is wrought with racially saturated words. He is a man who does not shy away from controversy.
“And what word would that be?” he asked, a smirk seeping through the telephone wire.
Oh, shit. Five seconds into the interview and I’m already digging myself into a hole. Do I say it? Is it OK for me to say it? The world of inane PC banter flew through my head. Instinct commanded that I just roll over this, keep talking and move on, pretend like nothing happened. Fortunately, Williams chuckled and had mercy on me.
Language is in a constant state of evolution. At least that’s what my linguistics professors always taught me. We can cling to dead languages and uses all we want, but there is no way to control the impulsive nature of human communication. Don’t believe that’s true? Confront the word “nigger.”
Through the use of the satirically named character Niggy Tardust, Williams tackles this word on his latest album, The Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, a blended-genre record produced by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. The unmistakable reference to celebrated rocker David Bowie’s 1972 landmark The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars seeks to deconstruct the concept of identity. In the same way that Ziggy Stardust’s exploits and androgyny championed listeners to confront their perceptions of gendered and sexual identity, Niggy Tardust is here to break apart the looming cloud that hovers over America — racial identity. And with that comes a purposeful use of “nigger,” mapped out in everything from title to lyrics to the understanding of this record as a conceptual whole.
“The goal of Niggy Tardust was to show many things, but one was to show the transformative power of art,” said Williams. “How we could take such a hateful word and make such a cute name, how we could take all the pain and hatred and transform it into something that heals.”
Williams likes to play with metaphors, and when talking about Niggy Tardust, he describes “nigger” as a vaccination. The vaccinations we receive to stave off measles or rubella contain within them a strain of the exact thing we hope to avoid. According to Williams, this is also true of “nigger” — you need to inject it into the social system in order to neutralize it, he says. Our society is unhealthy, and we must vaccinate our vocabulary.
But “nigger” is one word that is hard for many folks to swallow. It simultaneously incites hatred and evokes privilege. It has rules about who can use it, when, and in what context. This is not something that escapes Williams.
“I acknowledge that the word ‘nigger’ has a horrible past, and it comes from a hateful history that no one wants to repeat,” he said.
But, according to Williams, this problem is much larger than the word itself.
“When I say the word ‘nigger,’ I mean everybody. You can’t curse the part without damning the whole.
“The word ‘nigger’ is not particular to the African-American experience; it is a part of the American experience, which has now been made a part of the global experience. We all have to work through this,” insisted Williams, “and quarantining language is not necessarily going to be helpful. I believe that the word itself will erase itself with time — I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
Enter the character of Niggy Tardust. Who is he exactly? Williams describes Niggy as “meta-racial,” a hybrid character that is, in a way, beyond race. His encompassing attributes display a more global amalgam. With his voice and music, Niggy takes us through blurred images of social constructs where he saunters across racial and cultural categories with ease.
“For the same reason that the music is difficult to categorize as rock or hip hop or whatever, [Niggy] is saying, ‘Well, I’m no different. I have all of these things flowing in me. I’m as Native American as I am indigenous to Africa as I am European in my mannerisms — all of these things — and at the end of the day, divisiveness is not going to heal us.”
Williams says that Niggy is at least partially inspired by his travels to Brazil as a child. During the country’s annual Carnival festival, Williams took notice of a cultural celebration that transcended racial boundaries.
“[With Carnival], costumes come from this aspect of our culture, and this dance comes from the horrors of slavery, and this language comes from colonization,” he said. “But all of this shit together makes one hell of a celebration, and isn’t it great to be Brazilian? We don’t have that in America, ’cause that certainly ain’t the Fourth of July.”
In his own way, Niggy gives us a peek into our blended American identity. This album may not operate on the same cultural scale as a national fête, but his words are powerful in transforming perceptions.
“We need something that helps us say, ‘It’s OK. Yes, my grandparents owned slaves or my grandparents were slaves, but they were all grandparents and they’re all fuckin’ dead and history is behind us.’
“Niggy of course is dealing with racial identity and just being,” said Williams. “The aspect of being oneself, of realizing that this sort of schizophrenia that modern society, particularly American society, induces on its young by saying, ‘Well, you’re black — you’re supposed to listen to this. You’re white — you’re supposed to dress like this. You’re Asian — you’re supposed to be like this.’ None of that stuff is helpful.”
But for all of Niggy’s idiosyncrasies, he remains unabashedly true to his words.
“The only thing he is not is politically correct,” said Williams. “He doesn’t believe in calling something the ‘n-word,’ or by tiptoeing around stuff or sweeping something under a rug that we’re actually going to get anywhere.”
For Williams, it’s not about hate or sensationalism — it’s about communication. In order to overcome the n-word, we must face nigger. And Niggy is a good starting point.
“Niggy is so fuckin’ lovable, just even by name alone,” said Williams. “What that name induces is exactly what I was going for. We know its origins, and you can’t help but smile and go, ‘Oh my god!’ And then the next thing is, ‘Am I supposed to say it?’
“All of those things are supposed to point out just how schizophrenic our society is,” he said. “Yes, you’re supposed to say it. It’s as much you as it is me.”
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