February 8th, 2008


Fan mail to the future

"Hi Momus," runs the email from Vampire Weekend, "we're big fans of yours." Now, even I -- a man who sits behind a pophype firescreen six layers deep wearing pophype shades thicker than the bottoms of blackened Coke bottles -- recognize the name Vampire Weekend. Even I know that the preppy, snappy, witty quartet is currently one of the most talked-about bands in the popsphere, dividing opinion on blogs, bulletin boards, and in media outlets from Pitchfork to the Financial Times via futile, class hate-filled tirades in The Village Voice. Vampire Weekend like me. And they're going to be huge. I respond cautiously, telling them my address so they can send me their debut album.

In my own musical career I seem to have just gone along forever at the same level, trapped under some sort of glass ceiling (about 5000 album sales and about 20,000 YouTube views if I'm lucky). Nothing's happened, in the sense that I've never really "broken through", and yet everything's happened, in the sense that I've toured, released records, done press, got played on the radio, penned the odd chart hit, been able to live by music, traveled the world, had adoring fans (some pretty), changed lives, and done all the other things that "successful" musicians do. Just on a much, much tinier scale.

I've done all this long enough for the Vampire Weekend email to be just the latest in a series of tentative contacts from up-and-coming bands destined for much greater success than I'll ever have. Did I tell you about the time Pulp wrote asking me to produce their next album? 1989, baby, just before they broke. I didn't even answer. I listened to the tape they sent. "Death Goes to the Disco" sounded like a steal from OMD's Red Frame White Light overlaid with some whimpering, hysterical vocals reworking the theme from a Jacques Brel song. Don't call us, "Pulp" (or whatever you call yourselves)!

My next big "career mistake" involved a bunch of precious, shy Glaswegians called Belle and Sebastian. They sent a handwritten letter with an early pressing of "Tigermilk" (who knew this vinyl would soon be worth hundreds of dollars?), then, a bit later, asked me to play a festival they were putting together called The Bowlie Weekender. Bowlie turned out to be the Woodstock of Twee, a gathering in holiday bungalows of enormous crowds of kidults, a demographic I could, if I'd gone, have claimed for my own, losing my sinister marginality and my glass ceiling in the process. I'm not quite sure what made me say no. I suppose it just felt like someone else's party. I preferred being a big fish in my own pool to a small fish in someone else's.

Of Montreal was the next indie breakthrough group to approach me. It was 2003, and I'd just moved to Berlin. This fellow called Kevin Barnes wanted to collaborate somehow, sent me lots of unreleased material, and invited me to open for him on his next tour. I listened to the homeburn CDs in their hand-drawn covers and found the music somehow uncomfortably twiddly. The lyrics were sort of interesting, though.

Often, long after the initial, rebuffed contact from these artists, I'd realize that they really had something. I remember seeing Belle and Sebastian at their "seminal" Union Chapel gig in Islington and just feeling a huge glow of talent and charisma radiating from the vicinity of the pulpit. The congregation would rise. Pulp fell into place with "Babies", and when I saw Jarvis throw his paraplegic flamingo moves at the Forum in Kentish Town. My Of Montreal moment came when I watched YouTube videos of the tour I'd refused to join, and saw Kevin's ecstatic covers of Andre 3000, Gnarls Barkley and David Bowie.

I haven't really had my Vampire Weekend moment yet. They've sent me their album, and I've listened to it, and I can hear the basic appeal -- the directness, the economy of means, the well-written lyrics, the happy feel. I get a weird sense that there are possibilities in this music ("Wow, pop can do this!"), and yet the possibilities are all in the past. Taken a bit further, this bit could become Talking Heads, this bit could become The Beat, this bit The Police, and this bit Prefab Sprout. The Afropop guitar thing is done much more progressively, to my mind, by Black Dice's Bjorn Copeland. (Hey, I seem to like the RISD bands better than the Columbia bands! There must be something in the art school water supply.)

My fusty-prog "make it new" imperative clearly isn't shared by the mass market, which likes its music fresh-n-trad, classic, evergreen. The thing which makes me say "Thanks, but no" to a new band may very well be the thing that makes a significant part of the public say "Great, yes!" And at some point -- like Talking Heads connecting up with Eno -- perhaps Vampire Weekend will work with a producer who gives them enough experimental edge to make my penny drop.

Until then, Vampire Weekend will have to join the crowd of hyped, connected and connecting artists -- the Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, the Arctic Monkeys -- I wish no ill upon but filter out in favour of commercial non-starters -- the struggling, doomed, risky artists I love and nobody else seems to. These are the people whose videos I've stuck between the faux-regretful paragraphs on this page, artists who suggest (to me, at least) pop possibilities which lead us forward towards new (and possibly never-arriving) horizons. Avant poppers like MEC, Popo, Gutevolk, Rusty Santos, Ariel Pink, No Shit. Artists like that don't write me -- I write them. Call it fan mail to the future.