You probably have never heard of San Francisco’s Christopher Dexter Greenspan before, and unless you are either a music blogger or a member of the indie-music twitterati, you likely have not heard of his project, oOoOO (pronounced “Oh”). Nevertheless, in the world of emerging music, Greenspan, and the trend that oOoOO stands for, seems to be a fair bit of noise.
Ever since Pitchfork reified the decentralized phenomenon of “drag” or “witch house” it has been virtually an imperative for music writers to have a take on the phenomenon. The predominant narrative seems to be that witch house is a strange and unnecessarily obscure hybrid that invests too much energy in inaccessible, glyphic naming schemes (e.g. †‡†, ///???\\\ or Ritualzzz and Horse MacGyver respectively), is only popular because it is different and that most people who champion it are only hyping a fad.
The music can most adequately be described as a marriage of the gothic coldness of certain new-wave synth tones and the dissociative reprocessing of Houston hip-hop-originated chopped and screwed music, with something of the wonked-fi texture of old Troma soundtracks thrown in for good measure. Greenspan, who was recently named one of the top five new artists for January by Spin magazine, and who is the author of the lengthy quote which leads off the previously alluded to Pitchfork article (“Ghosts in the Machine”), has more or less unwittingly been cast as a figurehead for drag.
Greenspan’s own variety of drag music sees the deconstruction of top-forty pop music into dark lakes of electro-goth gauze. Standout track “Burnout Eyess,” from the recent self-titled EP, practices a certain kind of pop mimicry with lightly auto-tuned vocals coming back distant and reverbed, paired with crunchy, over-resonated bass beats and ghostly filtered keys (imagine listening to a Timbaland track through a foot-thick concrete wall). And oOoOO’s first Disaro CDr features a remix of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” which, while not the first to bring the Promethazine-low of the chopped and screwed oeuvre to the piece, is certainly one of the most accomplished.
Greenspan, whose DJ set will anchor the ? CULT ? 1 YR ANNIVERSARY party January 27 at Berlin, talked to us about his work, and the drag phenomenon in general.
What’s your background? Were you something else before you were a musician? What other bands have you played in?
I’ve been playing music since I was about three or four. I started actually taking lessons at about seven and started forming bands around twelve, so I’ve been doing it a long time. I only just started making electronic music a couple of years ago. It’s pretty new to me. Mostly I played in punk bands when I was a teenager. I never really had my own project until now. I’m kind of a control freak when it comes to my own stuff, so playing with a band and working on my own songs wasn’t really a possibility. I’ve never played in any other band you’ve ever heard of, I’m sure.
How did oOoOO come about? Was drag already on the scene when you started making that music?
No, I don’t think so. Salem was around and I knew about them, but there definitely wasn’t a name for it. Disaro was putting out some really dark electronic stuff, but it was simply “dark electronic stuff.” There was no super-specific micro genre name for it. I was in grad school when I started doing this, just making remixes as something to do between endless bouts of reading. And I ended up kind of being consumed by making music and dropping out.
What were you studying at the time?
I was in an MA program studying literature. I was about to go into a PhD program but decided to decline admission. I was afraid that if I didn’t devote myself to music now, I’d never really do it. Once I was on the academic “path” or whatever there wouldn’t really be time.
I guess that sort of gets to the other part of my previous question. What did you intend on doing with literature, and do you think any of that interest figures into the music that you ended up making?
Part of the problem was that I really enjoyed being a student, but the idea of being an academic seemed horrible, and that’s pretty much what I was going to become. I think the level of concentration I developed in school really helped me to make music the way I do it now. It requires a lot of concentration, sitting at a desk all alone for hours and hours at a stretch. It’s very fascinating for me, but definitely lacks the intensity of say, being in a room with three other people and getting sweaty. I’m very much a person who likes to sit alone in a quiet room for hours at a stretch and concentrate. So making electronic music the way I do is much more like being a student in a library than being some guy in a punk band, and I like it a lot more this way.
I’ve read that oOoOO is occasionally a duo, who have you worked with on it?
My friend Lisa put vocals on like two-thirds of my songs. We were working together for a while, but it was always my project. I wrote everything, but we’re not working together anymore. I’m looking for a new vocalist.
Can I get her full name, just for posterity?
She only ever wanted to go by Lisa, and that’s all she’s ever been referred to as. She’s a very private person who would hate any attention so…
What does your studio look like: what equipment do you have, where is it situated? Does it matter to you, or could you make music anywhere?
I think a lot of people would be amazed by how shitty my setup is. I mean I don’t even own monitors. I just run my laptop through my 1970s Panasonic stereo speakers. I use mostly soft synths now and only have like a MIDI keyboard and an old Roland Juno-60. It’s really basic. I can pretty much record anywhere as long as I have my laptop and a small MIDI keyboard with me.
So there is no ritualistic setting necessary, no particular talismans to inspire you?
Well I can pretty much only make music really late at night. During the day I’m pretty useless. But that’s the only atmospheric stipulation.
You’ve said before that few people have anything to say that interests you. Who are some people that do interest you?
There are actually a lot. I think I was probably in a bad mood if I said that. I’m really inspired by a lot of photographers. And the less I know about their personal lives the more interesting they seem to me. Alison Scarpulla, Lise Sarfati. I really like Sissy Spacek a lot. I just saw Robert Altman’s “3 Women.” I don’t usually like his films but “3 Women” stars Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall. They are both amazing.
I’m looking at Alison Scarpulla’s photos right now. They’re very stark, color-drained, signs of decay juxtaposed with beautiful, if beleaguered female forms. I also notice she did the photo for your latest EP cover. What do you see in her work that motivates you?
There’s something about her photographs, at least for me, that combines elements of the mid-twentieth century with a very contemporary sense of despair. Sort of like the band Broadcast…the way they use strange sounds from the sixties and seventies in way that sounds like the 2000s. I’m not really sure, quite honestly. There’s a strange disembodied sense of physical longing that is fascinating, the body parts that seem detached from the humans they are part of, even faces seem like body parts in her images rather than faces, if that makes sense.
Is oOoOO more or less an extension of your own personality, or are you performing something potentially external to yourself?
It’s definitely an extension of my personality, but maybe a very far-fetched one. It’s a forum for me to take certain elements of personality to an extreme. I’m fascinated by human objectification and I think that’s something I try to achieve sonically, but something that I probably try to avoid in my actual social life. For example, I love voices that sound dead and detached.
I immediately want to think of what Bret Easton Ellis said about writing “American Psycho,” that he wasn’t so much portraying yuppie culture, but rather expressing a darker side of his own subconscious, maybe projected against the backdrop of a culture which he felt was already pretty devoid of values. Do you think that this comparison makes any sense?
Well I’ve actually never read any of his books or seen any of the films based on them, but yeah, there is something really fascinating about the point America is at culturally right now. It’s like the values of absolute materialism are just about to override all previously held “moral values.” It’s at a point right now where there are songs that glorify, say, prostitution, in a way that just totally destroys our previous way of thinking about it because if there is money to be made somewhere, that is the ultimate goal. Making money is far more important than maintaining virtue, but those values from the past are still with us to an extent, so there’s this creepy middle ground where money and those old values meet and there is a lot of uncomfortableness there. And I think there is definitely something very interesting there. For instance, the breakdown between pop and underground culture is part of a similar process that I’d like to think I’m taking part in.
I think that’s a pretty good segue to my big question. In your own words, what is drag or witch house music?
Well, the answer you probably don’t want is: a term made up by music journalists to perpetuate music journalism readership in 2010, and a game of oneupmanship between journalists looking to discover the next development in music. But honestly, that’s what it seems like to me. I don’t really think these new genres are all that different from the dark electronic music that was being made in the eighties that everyone knows and has heard a million times like New Order or Cocteau Twins.
Right, but the difference is that now is now, they have been dredged up from the past and as such carry the creepiness of something brought back from the crypt. Also there is the whole chopped and screwed element, which makes the music sound almost aggressively inebriated.
I suppose so, to a certain extent that’s true. But then, why aren’t Wavves and Best Coast considered something creepy brought back from the crypt? People don’t talk about the proliferation of garage rock in the same way. And yeah, the whole hip-hop, or chopped and screwed thing does add a new element, too. That’s true.
I wanted to ask you about that as well. Why do you think chopped and screwed music has recently become so relevant with, for lack of a better term, hipsters?
It really hasn’t other than in some seriously hip, highly marginalized circles. I think it’s just kind of a coincidence that a very small handful of musicians happened to be into that sound, along with whatever else they were into and all decided to incorporate some of that into their sound. And quite honestly, at least in the US, not to insult anyone else or anything, but I really feel like it’s one of the few truly new or innovative ideas that have come along in the last five years in “indie music.” So people are latching on to it because maybe they’re tired of hearing people play the same guitar-driven songs that sound just like the ones their parents listened to twenty years ago. It’s maybe one of the few truly “hip” things that hipster culture has produced in recent years?
There’s a move towards esotericism and obscurity in, and I’ll use the term in brackets, “drag,” which really shows in the naming schemes, counter-intuitive, misspelled, even glyphic (e.g. ritualzzz or horse macgyver as the two are translated). What do you think that’s all about?
It’s kind of interesting. It’s a way of taking the embrace of Internet culture a step further. When I came up with oOoOO, I had just made a few tunes I wanted to put up on a MySpace page, but hadn’t thought at all about a band name. Pretty much at random, I typed some upper and lower-case O’s into the “band name” field. I never thought anyone would ever want to say it out loud or anything. I just figured a handful of people browsing the Internet might come across the songs, and I’d bet that hardly anyone ever talks about these bands in the presence of other people. Probably they just get mentioned in Internet chat-rooms mostly.
There I have to disagree with you. I have a small coterie of friends where these names get passed around like trading cards. It’s important to some people to know how to even correctly pronounce these things.
Ha-ha, that’s cool, and weird because I don’t really know a lot of people who are interested in this music. I’ve kind of been put at the center of it, yet I feel very much on the outside of it. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there really are lots of people talking about these bands and I just don’t know them. Not that I don’t like them or something. That’s not why it’s weird to be at the center. I just mean because this music doesn’t figure into my offline social life much.
Well, it’s decentralized, and sort of, I feel, become like an insider merit badge in a perverse way by the industry that, as you said, created the whole phenomenon of drag in the first place.
Yeah, again it seems like so much of the talk about this music is more about talking about the music—What does it mean? How do you pronounce these bands?—than an actual appreciation for the music itself. It will be interesting to see what happens to this music in 2011, whether it will grow and new and better “bands” will emerge or if it will just fade away.
To pick up on something you said earlier, you see yourself as part of the breakdown between pop and underground music; do you feed on pop music; are you reflecting/translating/commenting on it in some way?
I’d say eighty percent of what I listen to is radio pop or Top 40 hip-hop, stuff like that. I’ve never really gotten the distinction between commercial music and authentic underground music and so I’d like to imagine that my inability to distinguish between the two does influence my sound and hopefully helps me create something interesting and novel.
Greenspan DJs January 27 at Berlin Nightclub, 954 West Belmont, (773)348-4975.