This two part feature was originally published by The Silent Ballet in 2008. Interview conducted in San Francisco in the fall of 2007.
Joseph Sannicandro hosts a discussion on politics, technology, and activism through music with From Monument To Masses, finding out why they love Mandy Moore and pick fights with Metallica.
On Tuesday, March 10th, From Monument to Masses’ long-awaited new record, On Little Known Frequencies, will finally be released, and from the opening bars of “checksum,” it does not disappoint. Founded in the Bay area in late 2000, From Monument to Masses soon signed with the label Dim Mak, releasing a self-titled album in 2002. But it was with the next year’s The Impossible Leap In One Hundred Simple Steps that they discovered their signature sound. 2005’s remix album, Schools of Thought Contend, featured only two new tracks, including the crowd favorite “Deafening.” That album, with its variety of remixes and styles, inspired the band to branch out their sound even further on their long awaited follow-up, incorporating concepts inspired by other artists. FMTM – who are now bi-coastal, with drummer Francis Choung in New York, and bassist Sergio Robledo-Maderazo and guitarist Matthew Solberg in the Bay area – have continued to progress by utilizing new technologies to expand their sound, while writing, recording, and performing.
Over the last year, I have spoken with the three members of FMTM about using new technologies to make, play, and distribute music, the process of writing and recording their latest record, and the ethics and politics of file-sharing. Known for their political message – primarily conveyed by their choice of sample material – I thought it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on activism, music, how technology is changing the industry, and how that relates to their politics. Since our first interview, the guys got together with engineer and co-producer Matt Bayles [Minus the Bear, Isis, Botch, Pearl Jam, Mastodon, Blood Brothers, Russian Circles] in San Francisco’s favorite indie studio, Tiny Telephone and have produced a fantastic new record, On Little Known Frequencies.
“In a perfect world you could just make music, but we have day jobs,”
Writing and Recording OLKF
Fans of the band may wonder why it took over three years for the group to go from “Deafening” to their latest single, “Beyond God and Elvis.” Matthew explains that they “generally work slowly.” Their tendency has been to write longer songs, though on the latest record, they have since been consciously attempting to write shorter songs as well, while still resisting the verse-chorus-bridge song structures of conventional pop music. Francis remarks that “being bicoastal now doesn’t exactly help the situation,” though he is quick to note that it has inadvertently made them more efficient. They have tended to write out of long periods of workshopping tracks live and on laptop, which has allowed them to branch out, particularly with Francis three thousand miles way. They “can’t just get together and hammer out a song,” as Matthew puts it. But this has opened new doors, as they can work on ideas individually, workshop them online, and develop and compose using the computer. Matthew expands on this point, saying:
“Francis being on the other side of the country has brought Sergio and I closer together as collaborative writers in the drafting phase. We just riff off of one another more adeptly than we used to – and using Garageband has enabled us to save all of our ideas before they vanish. Then Francis has really had time and space to explore layering in new sounds via Reason, plus he has plenty of time to practice beats before committing them to a song. Basically, the distance between us has created the writing environment we’ve all ideally been looking for over the years (in some ways) and it’s been really excellent. Writing and recording this album has been a really interesting creative time – it just kind of gestated for a couple years, then… well, I don’t want to go any further with that neonatal metaphor. Essentially it happened really fast and in new surprising ways – we’re incredibly happy with it, but we learned some important lessons too. Looking forward to the next album already.”
Francis stresses that FMTM has grown as a live band as a result of incorporating new technologies as well. By incorporating the laptop into their live show, there is nothing they can’t reproduce live, which has allowed them the freedom to branch off even further in the studio. The band therefore enjoys trying out new ideas, as three years ago they never integrated any electronics live. “Our ambition for what we wanted to do, it led us to the laptop and luckily the technology was available for us to do what we wanted to do. It opened up a whole new world to us,” says Matthew. He continues, “I love the laptop because it makes playing so much less stressful. When we don’t have to try and synchronize a drum machine a guitar loop and an iPod sample and try and synchronize [that shit] while we’re like, ya know, trying to play our regular instruments and hold the song down. Now we have a laptop that can synchronize that for us. It makes playing live so much more enjoyable, for me.” The band points out that the laptop has not made them flawless, and they always fear laptop breakdowns, overheating, vibrations, etc, but for the most part, the laptop has allowed them to do what they want to do, and create the fullest sound possible.
It isn’t surprising that the band would seek out a producer to ensure that their first album of new material in over 5 years sounds just as full, and they could not have done much better than Matt Bayles. Initially, FMTM feared he might be “out of their league,” but they quickly learned that he was a fan of theirs and would love to work with them. Known for his synth playing in Minus the Bear, and for his production and engineering credits ranging from Isis to Russian Circles, Bayles adds his distinctive style to the album as more than just a producer.
“There are moments where the album sounds more “polished” than we’re used to, but that’s not a bad thing. There are moments where the guitars and bass sound a little “Botchy”, and other times when the synth and drums sound a little “Beary”, which is a departure from what we’re used to … but it’s great. As a producer, it makes sense that a bit of himself comes through on the album and I’m all for that. His role for us was that of a collaborator.”
Of the experience, Matthew continues that “even though it was difficult and demanding, I wouldn’t hesitate to work with Matt again on a future album. He’s insanely talented.” They bet that he could make them sound their best, and there is little doubt that OLKF is the bands strongest effort to date.
“Jamming… is not the way this band operates.”
The Art of the Sample
One of the elements that has come to define FMTM’s sound is their creative use of (often political) samples. Technology has made it easier to incorporate the samples into their live set. But laptops have also influenced the band in a less obvious way. When making Schools of Thought Contend, which included only two new tracks and 13 remixes, the band was only indirectly involved in the actual process of creating the remixes. Despite that, the album was “a roundabout way of collaborating with some pretty random folks,” according to Francis. The band agreed that even though some of the results weren’t what they expected, it was cool to push their music in new directions. This experimentation has actually affected the new record. “Really great ideas were put out there that we liked, and we absorbed those ideas. The whole laptop thing was pretty influenced by some of the sounds from SoTC,” Francis claims. This is most evident when one listens to On Little Known Frequencies when compared to The Impossible Leap In One Hundred Simple Steps.
The band knew many of the remixers directly, including their label owner, and the others indirectly through Dim Mak. Such projects can be a good way to build relationships with other bands, they say, as well as to be inspired by a different perspective on their music. But sadly, “as much as you’d like it to be purely artistic and in your control, there’s an element of the business perspective, things that have an impact, or that we never would have thought to put them on their, they add something we wouldn’t have thought of.” Sometimes these sorts of forced parameters can be serendipitous, and SoTC was mostly successful. Sergio draws our attention back to the title. “The album title is relatively important; the format, very important. In terms of art, it is important to have differences.” The title comes from a proverb from communist China. Let a hundred flowers blossom, a hundred schools of thought contend. The band takes this idea to heart in a way we can only wish Mao had.
“When we’re trying to determine what art and culture should be, we’re not going to prescribe it. Put it out there, see what sticks, what comes out.” Sergio’s description is also apt when applied to their general approach towards writing. When asked if the band has samples in mind while writing, Sergio answers that “it varies, but on the main they come in after the fact.” The band prefers to write the music and hear where the songs are going thematically. Once the mood is established they begin to search for appropriate samples. Sergio likens the process to filming and scoring a movie. They see “where the buildup lies, like filming a movie and then figuring out the soundtrack. What the story that is being told is. … the hard part is finding the sample which fits.” Francis adds that the sample “has to work audibly, be the right duration, fit the mood, a lot of factors. Sometimes great samples don’t work.” The band tried writing from samples, such as some of those great samples that didn’t fit, but “it’s much more difficult, we try to let the song find itself,” says Matthew. Perhaps a bit more philosophically, Francis believes that “the music itself has its own narrative, just from the song itself.”
Matthew says flat out that “using samples, not vocalist, was a definite decision made beforehand.” The band made a conscious decision to eschew vocals, although the opening track on OLKF does in fact include some lovely female vocals leading up to the climax of that song, “checksum.” Unlike other (mostly) instrumental artists who may have added vocals to their music, the vocals in “checksum” don’t come across as at all jarring, but somehow work as if just another sample.
Sergio cites influences that may not come as a surprise – DJ Shadow, for instance – as inspiration for using samples in lieu of vocals. From the beginning, the band sought to create a different context. “We pretty much wanted to not feel we had to take a certain orthodox road towards making music, or what it means to make music. What it means is we use samples, types of samples change, from speech, or ambient, or more ambiguity.” Having attended art school in Santa Barbara, Sergio admits that more academic influences, such as John Cage, who influenced ideas of chance and reappropriation into music, were not unknown, but denies that they had any direct influence on the band. But he was intrigued by the idea of using found sound, or of thinking that whatever is out there can be music. Some of these ideas helped make him more aware and lead the way towards “listening to speeches for cadence… moving towards a helicopter, a found sound, [a] landscape.” He firmly states that they are not interested in chance, but rather that “we do want to communicate certain things. We are really particular about things.”
“That’s why we love making t-shirts.”
Downloading and New Modes of Commerce
Though the band has not been sued for their use of uncleared samples, there is an important debate ranging over copyright, fair use, and whether reappropriation is even a valid art form. The debate over sampling in music is almost anachronistic when looked at from another angle and with some historicity, however. The real forces at work reveal themselves to be those who have the power to control cultural output. They are simply seeking to maintain the power that they have enjoyed as the dominant producers and distributors of mass culture. In the early 20th century, (visual) artists began to incorporate and reappropriate images and objects without fear of copyright violations or lawsuits. Was Duchamp sued by the factory that made the urinal? Did Warhol or Rauschenberg or Ernst or Lichtenstein or Richter et al face the same rhetoric of power hurled at early hip hop DJs or today’s ‘pirates?’ The act of “quoting” in the visual arts has generally been protected. (Though take the recent case of Shephard Fairey, famous for his OBEY stickers, who is currently being sued by the AP for transforming one of their photos of President Obama.) New technologies allow for new methods of creation, reproduction, and distribution. What it means to be a work of art has fundemental shifted as a new paradigm is created to replace the old. The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction, so to speak. So, we see remixes, label pressures, the benefits, and detractions, of new technology. As a band with such blatant political messages, from imagery to sample choices, how do these young men feel about the possibility of instant global dissemination of their art, via websites and blogs, and peer-to-peer downloading?
Sergio looks at the positives. “Downloading has helped my record collection, which I think in turn has helped our writing. We checked out stuff we wouldn’t otherwise have checked out.” Sergio muses that in an ideal world, perhaps, music would not be something that had to necessarily have packaging – though he is also quick to point out that we don’t, of course, live in that world. Ultimately, though, he identifies downloading as a positive thing, if only because the masses are granted access to a body of work, a public and shared culture previously available only to the elite, if even to anyone at all (think of all the great records that were and are unavailable, long out of print, that can now be digitally reproduced and disseminated). “The average working person can’t buy everything, can’t check out the latest CD and suggestions [from friends or magazines].” Without downloading, “people are stuck with television and radio.” Of course, not all downloading is harmful, or even infringes on a copyright, as there is much out there that is in the public domain or that is unavailable. One can begin to see how a political philosophy underlies not only the bands message, but also the band in general.
Matthew is pragmatic in his appraisal. “I think the reality of the situation is that there is not a damn thing that anybody can do about it. And what is funny is there’s nothing the record industry can do about it. They can try and find ways to regulate it,” but it is clear that nothing will make the genie go back in the bottle. The paradigm has shifted again, in a way as profound as the emergence of photography was to painting, or the creation of the phonographic record was to vaudeville. Music as a commodity is a relatively new occurrence in fact, as mass produced records were introduced for vocal music only after the creation of decent microphones during the 1920’s. The ground has shifted again, and “… granted bands have to swallow hard when they realize they’re not getting their cut.” Many bands and artists also may realize that the industry has never helped the majority of those who create art anyway. New and relatively cheap technologies have allowed for almost anyone to create and record music, while the internet has created an entirely new network of distributors and consumers. Music ultimately is something free for the world. “That’s why we love making t-shirts.”
Francis enthusiastically agrees, though he is dismayed at the reality that today’s labels may still use sales figures as gauge of how popular a band is, and prioritize accordingly. “But it means bands have to be creative and find new ways to generate revenue,” adds Matthew. Francis is frank when discussing the band’s sales. “The bulk of the revenue that comes from this band comes from sales at shows, which is directly connected to what people hear.” He continues that if downloading music and sharing music helps bring more people to shows, to buy CDs or t-shirts, then that is great. An anecdote Francis relates helps to clarify the band’s position. “We get friend requests on our myspace, and I usually add them all, but I got one… the avatar said stop illegal downloading, and it was a coalition, but a coalition of indie bands – and I … declined.
Sergio maintains that downloading has had the effect of democratizing society further, “in the sense that before it was really in the hands of the labels – I’m talking the conglomerates, who’d pick and choose what people should hear, and they tend to go with what will sell.” This of course led to a certain degree of mediocrity.
“If one label has a Britney Spears, then another has to have a Christina Aguilera, and another has to have a Mandy Moore – who I particularly enjoy, by the way! But it really simplifies music. Now maybe they are really forced to up the ante, to be a little more selective. …I think the example I heard a lot was when Radiohead‘s Kid A leaked and still became a top album, cos it’s fucking good. If something’s good I’ll go out and buy it. I’ve done it if a record is good, if I’ve had it in advance, then I’ve gone out and bought high quality stuff. There are people out there like that.”
As far as selling a physical product, it is important to make it evident that love and care have gone into the creation of the object. “Factor in great design, good art work, packaging, and just giving people more reason to go out and get it, like live DVD footage and other bonuses,” says Francis. “We’ve also been about having really good art work, [and extras] such as landscape-style posters. We’ve had the chance to work with some really good artists.”
Sergio returns to the example of Radiohead, who had at the time just released the free mp3 version of In Rainbows, yet the physical copy hadn’t been created yet. “Recently, the Radiohead thing, In Rainbows – they release it, you choose to pay for it or not, then later release a ‘real world, concrete version’ – and you know what, they’ll sell it.” And they did. And they made a lot of money. “And more recently, Saul Williams and Trent Reznor upped the ante – download for free, or pay 5 bucks for higher quality stuff, and the profits go right to him.” Trent himself tweaked this formula even more, releasing limited runs of expensive albums, and made a good deal of money as well. “I’m not dissing our label, or anything, …but artists don’t historically get their fair share, so many artists have lost rights. If the labels are going to sweat a little in 2008, so be it.”
“The people who are really pissed are the Metallicas, but, you know, what the fuck are you pissed off about?” asks Sergio. Well, I reply, they need to support their lifestyles. Francis concurs. “Need to be able to buy your Basquiat.” Though we all have a laugh at this, the truth of the matter isn’t far off. Technology has always driven history, and continues to do so. A paradigm shift is occurring, and perhaps it will make our 20th century conception of the rock star obsolete. “You know, it’s interesting,” muses Matthew:
“because it’s such a hot issue, but there are some indie bands are livid about illegal downloading, who get up on a high horse about how music should be paid for. Well, what are you going to do about it? Nothing, ya know. Find new modes of commerce.”
And this is what it has been reduced to, modes of commerce, which distract us from the fact that music is art, music is social relationships, music is ritual. “Touring is very productive and very lucrative,” according to Matthew. “The most lucrative thing, for bands and promoters… the more people you get your digital music out to, the more people will come to shows.” This was underscored by the band’s recent tour last fall in Europe and Russia. Sergio, speaking with the bands political stance in mind, suggests that:
“if you can’t make a living playing music, maybe it’s not the issue of downloading, but maybe there is something larger at work. It’s not the time to be blaming the kids who are downloading but the system that makes us sell our souls to make a living.”
I have witnessed such arguments myself, with friends in the music industry – promoters, record store owners, labels and musicians. One thing that is striking is the tremendous number of middlemen who have been created during the late 20th century. I don’t think it will be a shame if most of those (often uncreative) people have to find new industries to work in. But the funny thing is that at the same time, labels and so on have been crying about losing money, tech companies have made tremendous profits selling mp3 players, iPods, blank cds/ dvds, burners, high-speed internet access, and so on. “It’s a larger issue, it’s the market,” says Sergio.
I ask for clarification. How do your politics play into the idea of moving away from music as a commodity, as a spectacle; do these tensions seem resolvable; will these contradictions go away? Do these conflicts, between technology (the tension between the good and bad, the new and old, benefits versus detriments) go away? Or maybe it is these conflicts and tensions that create progress? Can art be a universal experience (again), or is it corrupted by commodification? Says Sergio:
“I wouldn’t go as far as the latter… but regardless of that reality, there are a lot of indie bands, underground hip-hop, that exists outside of that – that HAS to exist outside of that – that is not allowed to exist within it. That’s beautiful. And it still has to operate within that system. And so, I don’t think that in itself has been destroyed, [just] a sort of hampered distribution. But in some ways…audiences listening has been pre-defined, harder to think outside the box.”
Matt stresses that “as a band, we are not so much concerned with the economy, or global economy or capitalism’s effect on music. I mean it’s an interesting side project of it,” but it is not what the band has set out to do. They create music, and do so because they enjoy it.
“I wouldn’t say we’re concerned with the dollar, or the military’s affect on our music, or on Music; we’re concerned with its effect on PEOPLE. And what has happened, over the years, is that you know people have been slaughtered by the millions, nations, people have been cut down, prohibited from striving; different music and cultures have sprung out of that. From years of advanced capitalism is all this technology, all this rock n’ roll, you know, all this hip hop and things we’ve grown up with. I’m not for a second objecting to what it – what capitalism – has done for art. We’re products of our experience and our experience is that music. So now, as we are concerned with creating a message of empowering people, of bringing real change, we aren’t necessarily trying to do that through being in a rock band, but we ARE trying to express that message so we can. This very music that is a product of the United States, a product of the beast, we’re using that, not to subvert it, but as a vehicle. If we thought we could be happy as artists and satisfied at communicating our message by singing pop songs a la Christina Aguilera, we probably would, but this is the music we’re happy making.”
Not to mention the music I’m happy listening to. But Matthew raises an important point. The band makes music, but these three individuals are all very active in REAL ways, ways that have an influence on real people living in our communities. At the end of this article, they’ve shared some organizations they have worked with, though please, find whatever way you can to help your communities.
“There’s gonna be a new form, different than what we remember… the new DIY.”
Monument, the Gathering
Working within conventions can actually make an artist more creative. “Restrictions and confines help to push creativity. You find new ways to subvert confines, or not,” says Francis. Art isn’t formed in a vacuum, and no man is an island, so there is no way to even imagine what art would be if it was free from the confines of “capitalism or imperialism.” Art has always been affected by environment, but “we can still maintain our integrity since no one is ever free of their environment.” Matthew contends that: “the method has nothing to do with keeping art pure. We make the music we need to make as a vehicle for these other ideas which are what’s happening to people, and why are we in the situation we’re in right now.”
To many, it is the experience of seeing music performed live that creates a community. Like many of The Silent Ballet’s readers, myself included, the members of FMTM come from scene in which small shows and communities are essential. But Sergio says “let’s say we were to subtract the live thing, I think it’d still be relevant. I think the cultural touchstone transcends the live setting, regardless of live music setting.” But I would insist, even if only via recorded music, as long as people are listening, and hopefully sharing thoughts, a community is still being sustained; we’ve evolved with technology as well.
Matt, when asked about playing live, says simply “I love it, that’s part of it I cherish,” but is unsure whether it is part of the band’s mission as such. Francis and I see a common thread.
“Well, I dunno, that’s our background too, the punk/hardcore scene. Which definitely was a large influence, the reason why we’re not trying to form a nu-metal band, not trying to sell it to a label, why the distance between the spectator isn’t even greater . That’s always been there we’ve chosen consciously to remain in this realm and this genre of music, and I think this is formed by our experiences when we were younger and emotion and something close of a band, and that culture, relatively at ease… exchanging ideas, you know, seeing simply because there’s that intimacy involved we can … discuss. Come up to us and talk to us…”
There is something political, in the most real sense of people living together, in this attitude, and something many of our readers – also emigrants from the punk/hardcore scene and coming with DIY roots – will be able to relate to. FMTM doesn’t “jet to the next concert, you know what I mean, it’s a factor in why we do the music we play.”
Matt returns to the question of why the band uses samples, which is surprisingly relevant. “To not have a front man, there were some conscious decisions. We wanted to do something that was going to not really detract things from our music. We wanted to do something that created a gathering, not worship one front person.” If today a kid wants to open up his basement in his community, it’s welcomed, but the band doesn’t believe in maintaining some sort of purity. Francis proclaims “it’s not sacrilege to play on anything higher than 6 inches!”
Sergio argues that hip-hop comes from a very similar spirit of DIY. The very medium of hip-hop is political, in that it is responding to realities of access, of class.
“You use whatever the fuck you have. I have my voice, my records – there you do go, you have a band. I have my body, I can dance. As long as that exists, we’re gonna be OK. I have students now who are messing around with Garageband, messing around with whatever, there’s gonna be a new form, different than what we remember… the new DIY.”
Many countries in Europe, as well as Cananda, Australia, and New Zealand, offer government subsidies for the arts, as well as health care and higher education. Not to suggest that things are perfect, but the contrast to working as an artist in the States can be striking. Sergio, who works in education himself, imagines a future in which “maybe one day we won’t have to deal with that shit, sell ourselves, find ourselves dry and bitter.” A future in which “people can focus on art, but not just art. Imagine if people can focus on science, or study philosophy, things that they don’t have time to do now.” It can be stressful, particularly working in community organizations, to see the lack of resources for younger kids today. “It’d be great if they had subsidies, community centers, building studios, that foster the arts. The state is not really heading in that direction.”
The majority of people in the world don’t have the opportunity to do these things because they are too busy providing for themselves and their families. For much of human history, music was an accessible, free way to express oneself. Families, co-workers, or whole communities came together to sing, dance, and play. Though commerce has invaded much of these social spaces in the modern industrial world, the band still sees hope. “Even today, here in the US, there are kids and people, who have a garage or another space,” and they manage to make music because they love it, and they share it with other because they love it. FMTM are one of those bands.
What can we expect from FMTM in the immediate future?
Touring. The world.
(FMTM will be touring the US in the Spring with Dredg and Torche to support their latest record On Little Known Frequencies, and will be returning to Europe this summer, hopefully visiting Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Check out their myspace for the most up-to-date information.)
Getting active in your community (means more than just going to shows…)
FMTM is a band. They make music, and do this because they enjoy it. They have strong political opinions, and use their stage as a podium to share their thoughts, but they do not view the act of making music as a form of activism or political action in itself. They are very active in local groups, and here are some projects they’d like to share with you.
Projects FMTM want you to know about:
The Catalyst Project:
Born from the remains of a political education org Matthew was involved in for a few years called The Challenging White Supremacy Workshop.
An organization Matthew volunteers with, The Bay Area Childcare Collective provides trained, competent, and politicized childcare providers to grassroots organizations and movements composed of and led by immigrant women, low-income women, and women of color with a long-term goal of building a multi-generational movement with parents, women and children at its center. Including La Raza Centro Legal, Day Labor Women’s Collective (http://www.lrcl.org/daylabor/women.asp)
A grass-roots funded anti-war paper based in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Liwanag Kultural Center:
Sergio is a founding board member of Liwanag Kultural Center, a non-profit community center. Read more about Liwanag here: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4176/is_20070326/ai_n18755788
Kalayaan School for Equity:
A program at Liwanag as well as its own grassroots organization that brings together and trains community educators to produce culturally-relevant educational curricula, provide educational workshops and forums to the North San Mateo County community (especially Filipino community), and serve as a publisher to put out educational materials (books, pamphlets, magazines etc.) based on
community-based (participatory) research. There’s an emphasis on social justice issues (eg Immigration, Know Your Rights, Unraveling the Public Education System, Critical Filipino History) as well as capacity building for organizations (eleadership training, organizational development, etc.).
The US chapter of the National Democratic Movement’s alliance of organizations.
The major alliance of the National Democratic Movement of the
Philippines. It serves as a campaign center for organizing
international action and promoting awareness of the issues and
problems of Sergio’s homeland, the Philippines.
STOP THE KILLINGS Benefit Show & CD:
A benefit put together to raise awareness about the recent spate of
politically motivated killings happening in the Philippines. The
current number of people killed is 900+.
Korean Solidarity Committee
Francis has volunteered with this organization offering services to the Korean-American community, including teaching the Korean language.
And some links I’d like to share about sampling and copyrights:
The Silent Ballet would like to thank From Monument To Masses for the interview.
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