March 26th, 2005


Must we skewer the twee?

The theme of childishness, friendliness and naivete is in the air just now here in Berlin. This playful, non-threatening, child-influenced sensibility has not only defined the texture of my forthcoming (well, not even composed!) Friendly Album, it's also the hidden structuring principle behind my network of musical alliances, my friendships, even my love life (and no, I'm not yet on trial for that. I'm talking about childlike adults here, not actual children).

On Thursday night I mp3jed a Japanese pop set at Take Me To Tokyo, a Prenzlauer Berg loft party organised by Julia Guther, who hoped to sell enough of her child-depicting T shirts at 16 euros a pop to raise the money for a flight to Tokyo, where she promises to "promote Berlin style in Tokyo with an exhibition and two concerts in an alternative space". Anne Laplantine's new band (with Alex Holmes) The Massive Crew also played: think African high life, dub, Daisy Age rap, mandolins, triangles and a warm, playful, friendly vibe. Julia's band Guther is signed to Morr Music, who released her album of "sweet city folk music", I Know You Know back in 2003. Pitchfork skewered the record, condemning it for being twee, childish, consumer-friendly, coy, passive, and boring. "Their timid vulnerability and doe-eyed sensitivity positively beg for a Louisville Slugger to the jaw," the review concludes, rather unkindly. I do know where that attitude is coming from, though. The "Twee phenomenon" is one that's haunted my whole indie-schmindie career. Many Creation Records fans were also Sarah Records fans, and Sarah was the home of Twee. We Creation artists (notably the Primals) were desperately keen to shake that element off. So Bobby would talk in interviews about a music which would "lift people out of their skins", and I'd say stuff like "I just wish I could get rid of all these graphic designers from Islington... people who deliberately preserve their innocence should be killed." Of course, the twee didn't die in some huge Stalinist purge. They became Belle and Sebastian fans. Instead of getting sent to Siberia, they rallied on internet boards like Tweenet and Sinister. Many made an annual pilgrimage to Bowlie. They're a surprisingly hardy breed.

So will my Friendly Album see me coming full circle, back to the dreaded "twee" values I so roundly condemned in the 80s? In my case, it's Japan-love that's re-instilled respect for naivete. Around 2001, when I started living in Tokyo, Nobukazu Takemura's label Childisc became my favourite source of what I dubbed Cute Formalism. Later, Paris labels Active Suspension and Clapping Music were added. Women dominated the movement: on Childisc Aki Tsuyuko and Hirono Nishiyama, on Active Kumi Okamoto of Konki Duet. In Berlin I found a parallel in Anne Laplantine (she even had the requisite Japanese connection in her alter ego Michiko Kusaki). The thing to remember about Cute Formalism, though, is that the "formalism" part is as important as the "cute" part: there has to be friendliness and experimentation in equal measure for the formula to work. Anne Laplantine introduced me to "difficult" formalists like Ekkehard Ehlers as well as children's records, and her DJ sets mixed Bernard Parmaggiani with out-of-tune school recorder recordings. The connection works fine: when the environment is friendly, you can experiment. When someone thinks you're cute, you can make a big mess and it doesn't matter. And when you make a big mess, you can come up with new stuff.

Well, kiddy-flavoured indietronica, in league with visual art, computer games, Japan, and folk music, continues to march forward. On April 19th Berlin-based label Staubgold will release Childish Music, a compilation by Ekkehard Ehlers which "attempts to define a new genre". The compilation includes tracks by a shocking number of my recent favourite artists: Fan Club Orchestra, Devendra Banhart, Nobukazu Takemura, Orem Ambarchi, Sketch Show, Lawrence (who contributes a track called, splendidly, Falling Down a Dam of Mashed Potatoes), Maher Shalal Hash Baz, F.S. Blumm, Anne Laplantine, Asao Kikuchi, and Lullatone. Yes, almost the entire kidult indietronica avant garde, from Childisc to Daisyworld, from Scratch Pet Land to hippie wizard Devendra (whose mysterious, tentative records were hanging in the air last night at Kokoro Ramen, as delicious as the food).

Although I disagree that this movement is new, and I wish they'd given more credit to participants like Nobukazu Takemura who, it seems to me, not only pioneered the genre but gave it an unbeatable peak in the form of his 2001 album Songbook (never released in the West), I liked the extensive and interesting discussion of the "childish music" theme in the CD brochure: a round-table talk between Ehlers, Harold "Sack" Zeigler and Michael Krebber. Ehlers says "I'm really interested in the idea of naivety, and I have high expectations of it for the future. When listening to New Music and dealing with complex art -- as all four of us do to an extent -- I occasionally find myself yearning for something completely naive, such as Japanese cartoons. That initial naivete that small children have, sometimes you simply crave that because everything seems a lot simpler and the world is much more colourful and beautiful." To which Krebber adds his amen: "Even though I'm no pedophile I think that this is definitely most fun."

The visual artist closest to Cute Formalist Kidult Indietronica is David Shrigley. He's made T shirts for one of the movement's best labels (Tomlab), and the Active Suspension site is currently looking very Shrigleyesque. (The North American equivalent to David Shrigley is Marcel Dzama, who's done the new Beck sleeve.) I highly recommend these David Shrigley Flash animations hosted by the BBC. Sure, there's something twee about Shrigley's work, but it never quite gets comfortable or predictable or reductive. There's always death, grotesquerie... and lovely forms. Check out the drawings that get winched past on his Conveyor Belt, or the fluid way he renders the vases (and penises) in Ornamental. This is the kind of difficult naivete Picasso (the ultimate kidult) referred to when he said "at 15 I painted like Velazquez; it took me 80 years to paint like a child."

Addendum: Mehdi Hercberg wrote to me from Paris to say "I did the Active Suspension site, and also the Clapping Music site. There's plenty in between Velasquez and David Shrigley. Personally, I'm more inspired by someone like Henry Darger or people like Utamaro, Sharaku, Toshi Saeki, or more recently Yuuichi Yokoyama. You can see my drawings on Shobo Shobo, in the "drawings" section."