Groening talks outsider music and party planning with a fellow gearhead
You may or may not know that the famous Matt
Groening, creator of The Simpsons, Futurama and the Life in Hell comic strip, is also a former music critic, for
the L.A. Reader circa early
'80s. Groening is a lifelong, well-versed music fan who's been only
somewhat involved in the choice of musical guests on The Simpsons (the show has featured Michael Jackson, Mick
Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, the Red
Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins and numerous others), but not to
the extent that Middle America gets scared off by too much obscure
weirdness. That's right, Groening's a supereclectic whose real cup of tea
you might call music from the fringes.
For all his high-profile and
considerable Hollywood heft, Groening is an amiable and shockingly
down-to-earth guy who remains enthusiastically fanboyish about the sounds
he likes. In addition to having guest-edited Best Music Writing 2003 (Da Capo Press), he recently took on the job as
curator of All Tomorrow's Parties, the progressive mixed-bag music
festival. You may recall that after L.A.'s first installment of the
festival at UCLA two years ago 行 a critical success but a logistical
nightmare 行 a second edition was planned for last June under Groening's
creative stewardship, but the whole thing collapsed in disarray, owing
officially to poor ticket sales. Groening, however, has dusted himself off and is back with a reorganized ATP, to be
held on the Queen Mary in Long
Beach on November 8 and 9.
What follows is two
guys who like music a lot, shooting the breeze about what gets them
JOHN PAYNE: So, Matt, tell us about it. What're you into?
MATT GROENING: I like a little bit of everything. I like to
find out what grows around the edges of every kind of music 行 I like the
most odd country music, like Speedy West the country guitarist; in
contemporary jazz and in rock & roll, I like the people who are pushing
My enthusiasm for
oddball rock & roll comes from the mainstream pop of the 1960s, when
each new album by the major groups was an extension of the boundaries of
pop music, from the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones and
Jimi Hendrix. And even with all this swirl of inventiveness that was going
on in the late '60s, there were a few groups that were even going further than
everybody else 行 Frank Zappa in particular, and Captain Beefheart. In 1969,
I heard [Beefheart's] Trout Mask Replica for the first time, and it just blew me away.
There was a connection between delta blues and avant-garde jazz.
Yeah, it was really
exciting, because it was like the birth of something new.
I was in high school
and I remember my pal said, "If this is how good pop music is in 1969, just
think what it's gonna be like in 1984!" [Laughs] We didn't realize that that era was a real high
point for a certain kind of avant-garde rock & roll.
Magic Band has reunited for ATP; they played at the last ATP in England,
and they recorded an album here in California; I got to sit in on some of
the recording sessions for it, and it's great. It's Drumbo [a.k.a. John
French], [guitarist] Gary Lucas, [bassist] Mark Boston ["Rockette Morton"]
and [guitarist] Denny Walley.
Drumbo was my
favorite Beefheart drummer; I remember seeing him play at the Golden Bear
in Huntington Beach, when Beefheart had gotten the Magic Band back together
I saw that show. Yeah,
unbelievable. The first time I saw 'em was in '70 or '71, and it had Bill
Harkleroad [a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo] and Drumbo, at the Paramount Theater,
in the front row. It was also sort of the height of the hippie
counterculture, and even that audience by hippie standards were complete
How did you come to
be the curator of ATP?
I gave a talk at UCLA a
couple of years ago, and I hit it off with David Sefton, UCLA's director of
performing arts, and we talked about music. He had worked with Barry Hogan,
who is the original promoter of ATP in England, and they both loved the
idea of reuniting the Magic Band 行 except for Captain Beefheart, because
he's not available, he's retired and not interested. And that's how it
started. The name "All Tomorrow's Parties" 行 well, we've got Sonic Youth
playing this year, and they had curated the festival here in L.A. last
year, and I was trying to honor the tone of what they had started. My idea
was a kind of through line from the Velvet Underground 行 because the
festival is named after one of their songs 行 to Sonic Youth. And we're
being fairly consistent with that.
How much does this
year's lineup reflect your personal taste?
Well, the original
lineup had to change, because unfortunately UCLA 行 the sponsor for the
event 行 dropped out due to budget problems. The festival didn't get
advertised, and it got just lost. In a way, it's better, because I like the
new location 行 at the Queen Mary!
It's just an odd place to do it. The musicians I'm most excited about are
Sonic Youth, who have recorded the best version of the Simpsons theme ever; of course the Magic Band, Black Heart
Procession and the Minutemen.
You must have had to
do some compromising to get the kind of lineup you wanted for this ATP. Did
you work from a big wish list?
It's all about when a
band is touring and available and all this kind of stuff. And then Barry
Hogan has a "no assholes" policy; he's had enough experience with certain
people in this business. And I thought, "That sounds reasonable to me." [Laughs] And the bands at our ATP pass the test.
So you chose Sonic
Youth to play at your ATP. You're a longtime fan, right?
One of the things about
Sonic Youth is that every performance I've seen, every record I've heard,
is always something different. I don't know exactly what it is that I find
so compelling about the drones of their music, but I do. I think it's
taking basic rock & roll and making it intellectually tolerable. Most
rock & roll I find rhythmically boring. Pop music usually sounds like
the audio equivalent of CGI, or computer-generated graphics; it just feels
like there's no depth, and it's just so repetitious. The human ear can
unconsciously detect the redundancy of the same sound repeated again and
again, which is tedious. Also the fact that so much music sounds like
someone pressed a button. What if there's a power failure?
substitute a bad tension for a good one; we like the tension of players'
human fallibility; it draws us in. The tension inherent in programmed
rhythms comes from knowing that the beats won't vary, and that we'll get
Among my favorite music
in the world is Balinese gamelan music, and it sounds like a polyrhythmic
freight train. I went to Bali a few years ago to hear it.
What's it like to
hear one of those gamelan orchestras live? I bet it makes your neck hairs
stand on end.
It takes on a
completely different feeling when you're there, and it's vibrating against
you. And you hear the birds, and dogs barking. I wouldn't use drugs and
listen to this stuff. [Laughs]
I hear it as composition.
Back to Sonic Youth:
I like the fact that by having them guest on The Simpsons, you've
introduced John Q. Average in Madrid, Kentucky, to concepts like overtones
and alternate tunings and dissonance and noise and all that unorthodox-type
Fox Network loves it
when we have people like Aerosmith or Britney Spears, musicians they've
heard of. They were less than enthusiastic about the Ramones or Sonic
Youth, and, surprisingly, Spinal Tap.
Their music must've
been too intellectual. For The Simpsons, you're basically hands-off on the
music, then, right?
Pretty much. This year
I finally was able to get Brave Combo, the Texas polka band. The
Simpsons from the beginning [at
Groening's insistence] has been fully orchestrated; we've resisted cutting
the orchestra down in size and using synthesizers. The original composer of
the theme was Danny Elfman, and our longtime composer is Alf Clausen. He's
How do you keep up
with new music? Do people send you stuff? Do you go to record stores?
I go to record stores
all the time; Deanna [MacLellan, Groening's producer] is my conduit to the
youth of today. [Laughs] So at
ATP, we've got Deerhoof on the bill; they're amazing. And we've got Jackie
O. Motherfucker. Actually, from their name alone I said, "Ah."
I notice that you're
steering clear of the hip-hop/DJ stuff at ATP. Is that by personal taste?
I like that stuff too,
but 行 listen, I could empty the room in seconds with the music I play. [Laughs] I didn't fit in any Romanian brass bands.
There's a whole Japanese avant-garde scene that is really progressive 行 Boredoms, the Melt Banana...
Having Terry Riley
and [contemporary classical bassist] Stefano Scodanibbio at this event is a
great juxtaposition with the rock-oriented acts.
Terry Riley made
himself available. Obviously he's an icon. My personal favorite
singer-songwriter is Daniel Johnston, and he's on the bill. He's an
emotionally fragile guy whose songs are utterly without any of the kind of
phoniness that I hear in a lot of pop music. Definitely from the heart, and
heartbreaking at the same time. It's nice to see somebody who would easily
get lost in the shuffle being able to sustain himself and have a career. My
all-time favorite stuff is the cassettes that he used to sell himself, but
his more recent records I like as well. I think he's a great composer.
Lately people call
what he does "outsider music." Well, they still call musicians like that
freaks or weirdos, whereas these weirdos often have an unusual kind of
I agree. I think it has
to do with feeling passion. And also, there's something about knowing that
what you're listening to will never be the soundtrack for an automobile
commercial...Although I heard a Nike commercial using an old Lee "Scratch"
Perry track. It was mind-boggling.
You also have Cat Power on the bill. Are you a fan?
Yes. There's a kind of
outsider thing there.
Yeah, you listen to
her records, and she's this incredibly skilled composer and arranger. And
then when she performs live she's got a kind of shtick of not being able to
hold it together.
Devendra Banhart is on the bill, and he's another one like that...I
gotta mention Wild Man Fisher. An Evening With Wild Man Fisher, the first album, the one that Frank Zappa
produced, is a classic of that kind of thing, that outsider music. And I
like his other albums as well. Rhino Handmade put out a collection that
included the duet he did with Rosemary Clooney.
I can't say I've
ever sat down and listened to a whole Wild Man Fisher album. That's
[Laughs] There's some great stuff. I introduced Wild Man
to Daniel Johnston backstage at the Key Club. Wild Man was afraid...
Matt, you are indeed
a music fan who obviously knows whereof he speaks. And you've just guest-edited
Best Music Writing 2003. Do you read a lot of music writing?
There's such a huge
array of amazing things going on in all different genres, but nobody's
listening to all of it. To keep up with what I consider to be interesting
music, I read The Wire and Folk
Roots, and there's no crossover
[into pop dross] in them. I read Mojo and Uncut. And
Aquarius Records in San Francisco has an amazing Web site with some of the
most entertaining record reviews. And there's WFMU in New Jersey [the last
freeform station in the country] 行 I like the idea that people are
programming truly eclectic music.
I feel sorry for music
critics because of the dismal state of the current pop scene in general. I
mean, this stuff [the ATP lineup] is great, but it's not being played on
the radio. We're inundated with pseudo-hipness, and if I had to write about
the big bands, I'd quit. But there's still great music out there, if you
search for it.