October 1, 2019

An excerpt from Authenticity is a Feeling

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[What follows is an excerpt from Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART from the chapter concerning The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information:]



There are a few stories we tell (and don’t tell) in The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information that so clearly resonate with my own ongoing struggles with collaboration:

A story about the Fall. About how the Fall had over sixty members, and the reason there were so many is that Mark E. Smith kept firing them. It goes without saying that many former members were less than happy about this situation. Mark E. Smith didn’t write any music and didn’t play an instrument. He only wrote the (generally brilliant) lyrics and spoke/sang them, and also gave commands in the studio and onstage as to how precisely the songs should be played. (In general he wanted them played with greater simplicity and more ferocity.) So members who were no longer with the Fall had written all of their best-known riffs and melodies, and then were later replaced with others who did the same. But Mark E. Smith said they shouldn’t complain, that if past members were all so great then why hadn’t they done anything as great after they left. For Mark E. Smith, himself plus anyone was the Fall. Or as he once notoriously put it: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

I believe, or at least hope, that I’m a much gentler soul than Mark E. Smith was. (Or at least more Canadian. And I’m certain that I drink exponentially less.) But the evidence on the table shows that there are many who have worked with PME-ART in the past who no longer work with us. I certainly didn’t fire them, but perhaps there were some who wanted to continue further than they did. Or maybe, on the other hand, they really, really didn’t. I don’t actually know. Over the years there have not been many conversations along these lines. In one sense, this is simply our roots showing: we are structured like an (experimental) theatre company that works with creator/performers on a project-to-project basis. We invite people to work with us on a specific project and then see how it goes. But most of the work is so highly collaborative that this way of explaining the structure never feels completely right to me. I do gravitate toward the idea of “projects,” artistic endeavours with a beginning, middle, and end (as one can see from the way this book is structured). And, at times, I have also felt that me and anyone (and yer granny on bongos) is PME-ART. But most of the time I realize just how untrue this actually is.

(Perhaps all of this also reflects a decision semi-made all those years ago, after sitting in on the Forced Entertainment rehearsals, when I asked them if we should stick with the same people or open up to new collaborators. But it also seems to be a decision I am continuously making and unmaking. I can’t quite let it rest one way or the other.)

The story we tell in The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information about Pavement has to do with their final concert before they broke up (and also a few years before they once again reformed). The lead singer, Stephen Malkmus, walked onstage wearing handcuffs, holding his cuffed hands high above his head, and said: “If you want to know what it feels like to be in a band, this is what it feels like to be in a band.”

But there are also two stories about Pavement that I’ve never told in the show. The first is about how, after Pavement broke up, I read an interview with Malkmus in which he said that Pavement was basically all him: he wrote all the songs, wrote all the guitar parts, and often had to teach the rest of the band the songs several times before they were able to properly play them. (In their early days Pavement recorded a number of songs that were a bit too obviously influenced by the Fall.) Malkmus has now released a number of solo albums (some with his new band, the Jicks) that, in my humble opinion, are nowhere near as good as anything he made with Pavement. So the other members of Pavement clearly must have been contributing a great deal. (Also, to give Malkmus the benefit of the doubt, that was just one interview, maybe he was having a bad day.)

The second untold Pavement story is more apocryphal. I believe my favourite Pavement record is Wowee Zowee, made while they were still high off their first somewhat mainstream success, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and its single “Cut Your Hair.” Wowee Zowee was their most experimental and adventurous album, pushing in different directions with every track while still holding it all together. It was also a relative flop. And I feel they were overly stung by its reception. After that they were less likely to take risks, more likely to play it safe. Somehow I’ve had analogous experiences with PME- ART. Some of our most adventurous works (Unrehearsed Beauty-Le Génie des autres, HOSPITALITY 3: Individualism Was A Mistake) have also been the hardest to tour. I always need to push myself back toward taking artistic risks again. To remember that Wowee Zowee is still the best Pavement record and the world just needs to catch up.

These stories about Pavement and the Fall are perhaps ways for me to reflect on my different position within the group, within any given PME-ART creation process. How I am both one of the gang and the boss, and I suppose it’s not really possible to be both. And yet that is the struggle of the work. The ethical/artistic struggle that can never entirely be solved. Since, at the same time, I’m never only in charge. Within a PME-ART process it is always possible for me to be outvoted or to change course based on the desires of the group. It’s happened often. How to be transparent about my role within the collaborative dynamic? I often hate the lived experience of collaboration but somehow still so fiercely believe in it, knowing it would be so much better if it was the opposite: if I loved collaboration then I wouldn’t even particularly need to believe in it.

(Marie Claire writes that, yes, within PME-ART the leadership is pretty clear, even though it is subject to discussion. But also, it was only through her learning The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information that she came to understand just how much Claudia and Caroline hold and lead the work with me. For the HOSPITALITY/HOSPITALITÉ series, this has been absolutely true.)

The story about Parenthetical Girls is one we used to tell in the show but for some reason don’t anymore. When I saw the Parenthetical Girls play in Berlin there was one moment that will always stick with me. During a split-second pause in a song (I no longer remember which one) they all smoothly and effortlessly switched instruments. The drummer stepped over his drum kit and slid into the guitar strap that was held open for him, as the guitarist stepped over to the keyboard, the keyboard player was handed the bass, and the bass player sat down behind the drums without missing a beat. Or at least that’s how I remember it. This is also a story about collaboration, about those ecstatic moments when it really works, all the pieces sliding together without a hitch. I wonder how many times they had to rehearse it before it worked, or if it happened that smoothly every night. A moment of grace that can only be achieved through fully working together. (This actually isn’t the kind of thing I usually like in performance. Too virtuosic for my tastes. But in this case it caught me off guard and lodged in my memory accordingly.)

Another story about Parenthetical Girls. In 2016 I had a residency in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. And, while there, I would tell everyone I met that I loved the band. And everyone responded that they knew frontman Zac Pennington, or one of the other members, but no one had ever seen them live or listened to any of their records. (Parenthetical Girls put on a phenomenal live show.) As someone said to me: “Of course I know Zac. He’s really good at karaoke. Is his band any good?” As the French expression goes: you can never be a prophet in your own village.



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