November 16th, 2009


My noughties 2: The Heliogabalus of Orchard Street

To get totally into the themes on my 2000-recorded, 2001-released Folktronic album I should really be an urban ethnomusicologist with a robot assistant like the one you hear in my hour-long audio documentary Fakeways: Manhattan Folk, made just before the album and still the best piece of scene-setting for it. This Alan Lomax figure would probably have to start with the basic facts: Folktronic is an album made by a 40 year-old Scottish musician who moved to New York in March 2000. He records the album at 38 Orchard Street, at the Chinatown end of the Lower East Side. He's been in New York just a couple of months when he starts, but already he's absorbing a lot of the local zeitgeist, and particularly the idea that America is a nation with plastic roots where you can be whatever you want to be -- as long as it isn't authentic. He lives with his Japanese girlfriend.

Books and people influence this record. The people are new New York friends like Steve Lafreniere, a journalist who interviews me for Index magazine, the singer Stephin Merritt, or the multimedia designer (and friend of Fischerspooner) John-Robert Howell. As for the books, just as the prog-medieval direction of the Kahimi record I'd made in 1999 (most of which is glommed onto the end of Folktronic) was influenced by Paul Stump's book The Music's All That Matters, the "Fake Americana" material that comprises two thirds of Folktronic is influenced by Nicholas Dawidoff's book In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. But a much more important source is a copy of German sexologist Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis I buy at the New Museum bookshop.

In a website thought published in April 2000 I have "a great idea": "Why not make an album of folk songs about sexual fetishes, set to synthesisers? Folk songs are usually about mining disasters or clipper mutinies, but why shouldn't they be about archaic hysterical sex fetishes too? The songs should have a childish gaiety, be light and celebratory... They would play with the associations of the words Folk, Fake and Fuck. The Folk (ballads, reels, laments, shanties, forebitters) would be Fake Folk, of course, played on early monophonic synthesisers. But the Fuck would also be Fake Fuck, because that's what fetish is. It's an evasion of the 'real thing', which is fucking. It's a fake fuck... A world in which the authentic was not prioritised over the fake, and 'healthy' fucking had no precedence over fetish, would be a rather splendid one, it seems to me."

And so I set to home-recording, alone in my tiny apartment, and often naked. In proposing inauthenticity as America's authenticity, I was making Manhattan -- a city of Jews, gays, Chinese and the art world -- the centre of all authentic inauthenticity, and in proposing deviance as the most universal sexuality I was merging Alan Lomax with Alfred Kinsey. Steve Lafreniere -- who heard most of these songs before anyone else did, and was in a sense their ideal listener -- started referring to me as "the Heliogabalus of Orchard Street". Other people influenced the album: Gavin Brown, whose art gallery in the Meatpacking District featured Jeremy Deller-like garage sales and a great scenester bar called Passerby. Spencer Sweeney's distortion-noise band Actress, which I heard at Passerby, blasting over the speakers. A conceptual folk band called Centuries, who came in from Statten Island to play weird gigs in tribute to Bruce Haack and Klaus Nomi. The records of Raymond Scott, which I'd buy from Other Music or Kim's. The bizarre school operas of Ford Wright. The scene around Fischerspooner, Bobby Conn, Ukrainian and Polish folk rituals in the East Village and Williamsburg. Thrift stores and painted Easter eggs.

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Folktronic is available on CD from this page and in the US via iTunes. John-Robert Howell's Flash console featuring some of the tracks is online here.