Michael Azerrad on ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’
May 19, 2011 | by Dawn Chan
Published in 2001, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life featured the story of thirteen seminal indie bands from 1981–1991. Since then, his accounts of the decade’s underground do-it-yourself punk ethos has inspired a generation of music geeks, connoisseurs, and professionals—many of whom have gone on to found or play in various contemporary indie bands of note. On Sunday, a ten-year anniversary show at the Bowery Ballroom will unite fourteen such bands—from the Dirty Projectors to Titus Andronicus—each covering songs by one of the groups he documented. I recently sat down with Azerrad, an old friend and former bandmate, to talk about his book’s ongoing role in the music being made today.
Just the other day, I was reading your book in a cafe, and a waiter who saw it immediately came up wanting to talk. You describe underground indie fans back in the eighties wearing the SST record-label T-shirt, or sporting a Black Flag tattoo. In a sense, to certain people, your book’s now as powerful an identifier, even ten years after being published. What’s going on with that?
To have read that book means that you’ve been exposed to a certain philosophy, and odds are you agree with some of it. It spells out an ethos inherited from those eighties underground indie bands—opting out of the corporate machinery, keeping money inside the community, thinking for yourself, doing it yourself. You can apply those ideas to lots of things besides music—that's why the book is called Our Band Could Be Your Life.
This same waiter paused to ask if I was reading your book for class. What’s it like to know that Our Band Could Be Your Life is now thought of as required classroom reading?
I had a very classical education, so part of me is very dubious: You’re reading my book in a class? You should be reading about the Revolutionary War, or studying Plato! But I suppose the story is part of cultural history. The mandate to think for yourself, and to do it yourself, and to live responsibly—that’s a thread woven deep in our culture. I asked Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi) if he’d ever read Walden. He didn’t know anything about it, but philosophically he’s a Thoreau descendant to the core.
Obviously times have changed since your book first came out. Has that affected how young musicians now read it?
Since then, the term indie has become almost meaningless. People in the musical community wrestle with the concept endlessly. But if you read the book, you’ll find out what it really means to be indie. A lot of musicians tell me that they tried to have a career in indie music, got discouraged by how difficult it is, and then read the book and realized how much harder it was back then. They say, “If they could get through that, then I can get through this.” So it’s an inspirational book, like Norman Vincent Peale! But really, things really are much easier now. There’s a whole network of clubs, and it’s easier to record and distribute music. There’s a whole apparatus for indie bands now, but back in the eighties it was just getting built. The early people really took it on the chin.
It’s like the David Bowie quote you often like to bring up—
“It’s not who does it first, it’s who does it second.”
In thinking about lineages, how are the bands performing on Sunday descendants of the bands profiled in your book?
The most lasting significance of the eighties American indie scene might have been the way these bands conducted their careers. The point wasn’t to play loud and fast; the point was to make the music they wanted to make, without compromise, to find and cultivate an audience for it, and to live within their means so they could continue to do exactly what they wanted to do and not be beholden to anyone but themselves. That's really what the best indie bands today are emulating.
Also, much of what the bands in this book did was to make very unconventional music that attracted unconventional people—or maybe even showed conventional people a different mode of thinking. Not necessarily because of anything in the lyrics, but just because of how challenging and unorthodox the music was.
I think a lot of indie bands now are similarly elevating and challenging people’s minds, just by the nature of the music they make. The Dirty Projectors are a great example, or Animal Collective. I really believe in the power of music—and I mean literally the power of musical tones—to rearrange the way you can think.
Your book mentions that the members of Fugazi had an earlier project called Rites of Spring, which recalls the riot—the literal physical violence—inspired by the musical tones of Stravinsky’s composition.
And that sort of power can be used for good or ill. Fugazi’s drummer would sometimes do a roll around the drums, and not end with a cymbal crash but with the little ting! of a ship’s bell he’d carry around. And you thought, Wow, every drum roll doesn’t have to end with a crash. Which is not a huge thing in itself, but as a metaphor, rather powerful: defy expectations, think creatively, be alert.
The bands in Sunday’s lineup write songs that are so different from those described in your book. To me, at least, this second generation’s music seems much more “academic.” They’re making incredibly complex music-theory decisions; they’re making songs that the academy can embrace.
I think the whole idea of punk and indie music was not to sound loud and bludgeoning and aggressive, but to go wherever your muse led you, and to develop some kind of emotional and physical infrastructure that would allow you to do that. By emotional infrastructure, I mean that you had to feel free enough to make this music. It wasn’t necessarily about someone with a distorted guitar and two or three chords. During the Reagan era, people were so complacent. That’s why Sonic Youth called their album Daydream Nation. At the time, we needed some angry bands to hop up and down, and go, No, no!
Interesting. So anger was rebellious back then, but not as much now?
Even with the smiley-face era of the sixties, the Age of Aquarius and so forth, Vietnam was going on, and racial inequities were widespread. So you had groups like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges screaming and making really ugly music because someone had to point out that things were not in fact hunky-dory. That was rebellious—most people did not want to hear that. But over the past decade something has flipped, and mainstream society has become ugly and angry, and simplistic. Underground culture’s therefore taking the opposite tack, almost by definition. There is an academic, pointy-headed aspect to the music of some of these bands, and I think that’s good because we live in stupid, angry times and something has to stand in opposition to that, just like those older bands stood in opposition to complacency. Stupid, angry people are the tail that’s wagging the dog right now. So the most rebellious thing you can do these days is to be smart and peaceful.
Your book details an “us-versus-them” mentality in the eighties underground scene which really doesn’t seem to exist anywhere nearly as much in contemporary indie bands. Does that mean these recent bands aren’t quite the heirs one would hope for? Have they sold out?
The line’s definitely blurred. Now you have this little Brooklyn indie band called Matt and Kim, or Neon Indian, who have recorded for Green Label Sound, which was Mountain Dew’s label. Mountain Dew is awful stuff. Or Spoon’s music, selling Jaguars. I guess part of it is pragmatic: “Well, we’re not selling records so we have to get our music heard, and to get some money to make more music, we have to license this song for a car commercial.” I’d really like to see the economics of that because it seems like a lot of indie bands do quite well on the road selling concert tickets. I wonder how much they really need the money. Back in the day, in ’91 or so, I tried to interview Fugazi for Rolling Stone, which the band felt stood for everything they detested about corporate infiltration of music. They said, “We’ll do the interview if you give us a million dollars of cash in a suitcase.” Which was their way of saying no.
Well, did you ask your editor at least?
I did mention their second offer to my editor, which was that they’d do an interview if that issue would not have any cigarette or alcohol advertising. My editor just laughed.
What inspired these bands to dovetail music-making with the resolution to live responsibly?
Well, I think for a band like Fugazi, Washington, D.C. is a government town, and—believe it or not—a lot of people in public service, particularly the ones who are not elected, truly are good people who want to serve their fellow human beings. And the good people in Fugazi were the product of that culture. So I think there is a little bit of a regional, cultural element at work, though obviously that’s not to say that Washington, D.C. consistently places a premium on ethical behavior. But the only way the eighties indie community could flourish was if everyone behaved reputably, so ethical conduct became extremely important, almost fetishized. There’s a Bob Dylan line that goes, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” It was kind of like that.
And is that something that’s missing now, ethical behavior in bands?
Certainly the concept of selling out has been dramatically relaxed. But I’d continue with the outlaw analogy—the early years of indie were like the Wild West, with a similar potential for lawlessness. Nowadays pretty much everything has been formalized and there’s less room for sleaze. That ethical impulse has shifted from internal policing to more external concerns, like doing benefit shows and recordings, or running tour vans on cooking oil, supporting political candidates, stuff like that.
For this Sunday’s show, how did you determine which bands would cover which songs?
I could tell which bands had been influenced by bands in the book; Wye Oak are clearly Dinosaur Jr. fans, Patrick from Titus Andronicus has obviously sung along to a Replacements song or two. Dirty Projectors playing Black Flag was a no brainer, since they reinterpreted Black Flag’s first album, Damaged, on their album Rise Above. Steve Marion from Delicate Steve once told me about how they often listen to the Minutemen’s classic Double Nickels on the Dime in their tour van, so that was an easy call. Some of the other pairings were more surprising: Big Black will be played by St. Vincent. I’d sent her a list of bands that were still up for grabs, and she replied that she wanted to do Big Black, which just had everyone cackling at how brilliant that is. Big Black’s Steve Albini was kind of an apoplectic nerd whose music more than flirted with misogyny. So to have an incredibly elegant, whip-smart woman singing his music—it’s genius.
I love all the bands on the bill. And most of them have mentioned, in print, being influenced by the book. I had a Google alert set so that I found out when it was cited online—which is partly how I knew to invite the bands that I did. Merrill Garbus, of tUnE-YaRdS, had actually stopped making music at one point because she was so discouraged, when someone said, “You should read this book.” So she read Our Band Could Be Your Life and was inspired to start up again.
You know, I didn’t anticipate the book inspiring anybody. I just thought it would be interesting to read, or fun. But for ten years it’s been really rare that I go out to a show without someone walking up to me and saying something about Our Band Could Be Your Life. I can’t put into words how fantastic that is. Or one of the most moving things people tell me is that my other book, Come As You Are—the book I wrote about Nirvana—was the first book they’d ever read cover to cover. It turned them on to reading books. I’d never expected that response. When people tell me that, I always say, “Great, now read something good—like Proust!”
Dawn Chan writes about music for The Daily and is the assistant editor of Artforum.com.