:Interview: Dr. Alex Reed of Seeming
Dr. Alex Reed of Seeming
Interview conducted by Danesha Artis on October 31, 2017 via Facebook Messenger
It isn’t often one gets a chance to talk music with someone that can be considered a literal font of knowledge. I got the chance to speak with Dr. Alex Reed of Seeming; the author of Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music and music theory professor at Ithaca College. With a resume like this, I had to have a chat with him about his new album Sol: A Self Banishment Ritual, a new EP, and all points in between.
(Note that the interview is in a conversational format for the interviewer and the audience at large.)
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Danesha: Has anyone come up to you during the tour with their theories about the songs on Sol? Also, how was the response to the newer material versus Madness & Extinction?
Alex: Yes! People have a lot of thoughts on the sorts of change, self-annihilation, and transformation that run throughout the album. There’s a lot of talk about “Stranger” and “Knowledge” in particular. I know a lot of listeners have really latched onto potential trans narratives in the album, and have mentioned to me the ways that it’s helping them deal with all that. I’m really humbled and pleased with the ways that the record seems to be helping a lot of people—if not actually to effect change in their world then to see avenues for it. Crowds were really excited about the material during the live shows. In Chicago, people were singing along to the chorus of “Stranger” the first time it came up—they knew the song ahead of time, and it felt like something of an anthem.
As for the older material, I didn’t play too much of it: “The Burial” and “Beautiful for the Last Time,” mostly. Since all this music is still new to a lot of audiences, I don’t know how different the Madness & Extinction songs felt from the Sol ones, but to me there’s a real shift in feel. Away from sledgehammer misery and into something like solutions and possibility.
Danesha: The songs that have resonated with me are “If I Were You,” “The Wildwood,” and “City of the Faceless” from the EP. Those songs, at least to me, have a visceral quality, but also soothing at the same time. Madness & Extinction felt like you were heralding the doom. “Doomsayer” has the feel of a manic preacher saying there are things to worry about, but…there is hope.
Alex: Yeah. Those are some of the most straightforward ones in a lot of ways. The melodies just fell into place. “The Wildwood” has basically the same tune for the verse and chorus, and it was this big sweeping melody that had been in my head for a few days before I figured out what to do with it. “If I Were You” came in a dream, and “City of the Faceless” is basically just playing with a melodic pattern—ninths and sevenths over a chord.
Danesha: Really? Wow. “City of the Faceless” feels almost hymnal when it’s listened to.
Alex: That was kind of the idea. Hence the opening “they build a church” line. Originally it wasn’t in a triplet rhythm—it was like an 808 acid house beat, and I’d envisioned sax on it. I threw out that version though. I leave a lot on the cutting room floor in general.
Danesha: Heh. Almost like sculpting; start with the whole and hew away at it.
Alex: A lot like that, yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about Laurie Anderson’s music lately, and the way that she uses her training as a sculptor—that’s what her degree was in—to hew ideas down to their essence. It’s a big inspiration of mine.
Danesha: I like that. Applied knowledge across different disciplines.
Alex: You mentioned “Doomsayer,” by the way—I’m not sure if the message is that there’s hope for relief from suffering as such. To me it’s more like an assurance that you’re right to perceive the things that brand you otherwise as “crazy.”
Danesha: True. And it also kinda goes with audience perception regarding “Doomsayer.” The whole thing of subjective vs. objective views of art.
Alex: I said in my book Assimilate that industrial music’s diagnosis of reality as hypercontrolling and oppressive at every turn is only calamitous if you’ve been under the assumption that you’re in control of yourself—and that it’s mostly white western cisheteronormative culture that has felt that way.
But there are lots of other perspectives—people have done huge amounts of expressive artistic philosophizing with the knowledge of their subjugation as a foregone conclusion. I mean, that’s central to so much African American music, which is in turn central to more or less all western pop. And so why should industrial music play ignorant and act like black musics—funk, for one—never existed? Especially when the genre supposes itself to be a critique and liberation.
Danesha: I had a question regarding the funk aspects of Knowledge.
Alex: Yes. Funk was the primary influence on this record. And sure; go ahead.
Danesha: It actually kinda ties into what you started touching on. Could you see the using of more funk/hip hop elements in this genre? Probably without proper attribution…but I was curious.
Alex: Yes. And some artists do this pretty well, actually. But obviously you need to approach it thoughtfully, skillfully, with open ears, and for the right reasons. There are folks like clipping, but I’m also thinking of Jeff Bhasker, for instance, who works with Kanye West on the one hand, and is partnered with Lykke Li, who comes pretty close to nü goth territory. There’s a crossover of influence, to be sure. I love boom-bap production, for instance. I’ve been listening to a bunch of Son of Bazerk lately, produced by Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad, back in the early ’90s. And it’s huge, aggressive, and exhilarating. Everything that industrial should be.
Danesha: I guess I have some homework in listening to those guys. I was thinking of that when I was listening to Timbaland’s beats when he worked with Missy Elliott. That stuff can easily be in clubs.
Alex: And yes, Timbaland worked in hip-hop, but also teams up with Björk. Pop has gotten a lot less compartmentalized over time. You don’t want to steal or copy someone, but if you can bring something new to the table, people are pretty open. Hip-hop, for instance, is secure enough in culture that there’s not going to be an uproar over industrial artists citing it as an influence—that ship sailed decades ago.
Danesha: It has a solid history, sure.
Alex: Especially when you consider the alternative, which is to strip the music of blackness altogether—a totally creepy Nazi move.
Danesha: That’s why I was curious about the attribution idea. Musical purity is…a strange and unwelcome beast.
Alex: Yes. Purity is a bullshit concept in basically any implementation. Attribution matters. Citing sources, collaborating, paying musicians. These things matter. Some artists are better about it than others. I remember being a kid and really digging that Pretty Hate Machine cited influences and acts that it sampled, listing Prince and a bunch of artists in the liner notes.
Danesha: Oh man, that tripped me out in the best way.
Alex: Yes. It made me feel like it was okay to be a fan of both The Cure and NWA. And it gave me homework, like “Who are the Screaming Trees UK?”
Danesha: It leads you down different paths you wouldn’t think would intersect.
Alex: Unlikely intersections are where interesting things happen. That was a big part of making Sol. I pushed sounds and ideas together that don’t “normally” go together in hopes of finding something powerful. And I think in a lot of cases it worked. But making that happen takes patience and development. Lots of things didn’t quite work. And so they aren’t on the record.
Danesha: I remember you mentioning a new EP coming up fairly soon, but I’m admittedly in the dark about it.
Alex: We have a brand new EP out, a maxi-single, really, for the last track on Sol, which is called “Talk About Bones.” There are two new versions of the song—one dancefloor remix and an instrumental mix. There are remixes also of “Knowledge” and “Zookeeper,” but the real selling point is probably the new tracks. I recorded a cover of “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen that I think turned out really well. It has always been one of my favorites of his—it has sense of grandeur, yes, but I love its plot of two inextricably entwined beings; the god worshipping its devotee.
Danesha: I was already on board with the remixes, but I can’t wait to hear the cover now.
Alex: Then there are two other new tracks on it—both collaborations. One I made with Wade Alin, who’s most famous for his band Christ Analogue. It’s a lovely synthpop song about heartbreak. The other is a piece I did with Caustic, riffing on their recent single “The Coital Staircase.” It’s as close to erotica as I’m ever likely to get, musically speaking. Polymorphous perversity.
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This is as good of a note to end this interview on. I want to thank Dr. Alex Reed for his time and just dropping a veritable wealth of knowledge for us to enjoy. Please don’t forget to check out Seeming’s albums via Artoffact Records, especially the new EP coming out on November 10th!