Monolith Speaks, Via Pittsburgh

The good news yesterday was that my Pittsburgh Steelers, defending Super Bowl Champions, won 13-10 in overtime despite a horrific fumble. The simultaneously great and bad news was that my Monolith Festival story, in which I speak with Pittsburgh’s Girl Talk and Cumberland’s Cotton Jones, graced the cover of Boulder Weekly. Unfortunately, they went with an image of Boulder’s Gregory Alan Isakov, who plays a short 1pm set at the outset of Monolith tomorrow (and who I didn’t mention in my article), for the cover. So it goes. But I hope you enjoy the article and the festival — look for me there at Red Rocks both days.

Festival Brings Diversity to Red Rocks Again
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly

Pittsburgh, PA’s Girl Talk and Cumberland, MD’s Cotton Jones – two steadily emerging artists who happen to be performing at Red Rocks this weekend during the 3rd annual Monolith Festival – are both intensely informed by their hometowns in ways the average listener might never imagine.

27-year old electronic music star Gregg Gillis was born and raised in Bridgeville, PA – just one suburb over from my hometown – and began to perform and record under the name “Girl Talk” as a bio-engineering student at Case Western University in Cleveland. These days, Gillis performs his sensational mash-ups for packed, crazed audiences all over the world but still lives in Pittsburgh and feels embraced by the artistic community there, even as the population of the classic blue-collar American city shrinks each year.

“Pittsburgh rules,” Gillis says. “The Steelers won the Super Bowl. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup. We’ve have an unstoppable year. There’s always been a healthy art and music scene here. I started to go to local shows around 1996, and I’ve been exposed to a lot of great shit. Back then, I was into Operation Re-Information, the 1985, Don Caballero, and a bunch of others. I was able to start a band where we basically just smashed stuff and threw fireworks at the audience, and people embraced it to a certain degree.”

“Pittsburgh was a great place to grow up musically, and it’s still going strong today with local acts like Grand Buffet, Wiz Khalifa, Centipede E’est, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Modey Lemon, and so on. I’m friends with many of those people, and I play shows with them. Everyone is connected to some degree.”

“Like This,” from Girl Talk’s most recent album Feed The Animals (2008), reveals the kind of attention-deficit-drenched genius perhaps only a music-obsessed kid from the suburbs of a defunct steel town can understand: in just over three minutes, Gillis samples the Beastie Boys, Soul II Soul, L.L. Cool J, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the Carpenters, Metallica, and Rick Derringer, among many others it’d probably take a musical magnifying glass to find. A little earlier in the album — which Illegal Art Records made available online Radiohead-style for a price consumers can name themselves — Gillis juxtaposes the Band, Radiohead and 90’s one-hit wonder Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” It’s extremely entertaining music, but one wonders if Gillis, who doesn’t play any instruments, is ever able to take pleasure in the simple act of listening to a record without getting distracted by picking out what he might be able to co-opt.

“I don’t play anything other than a computer, [so] I’ve never really considered myself a DJ,” Gillis told me. “If I played the drums, I imagine that I would possibly focus on the drums when listening to Led Zeppelin, but that wouldn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy it too. So when I’m listening to pop music, things are always jumping out at me to sample, but it doesn’t take away from the music.”

Conversely, Cumberland indie-folk poppers Cotton Jones are Girl Talk’s virtual antithesis. On a recent iPod-enhanced drive through New Mexico I noticed that Paranoid Cocoon, the band’s first full-length album, fit in seamlessly production-wise with everlasting ‘50s and ‘60s hits by acts like the Flamingoes and Sam Cooke. In a recent conversation with Cotton Jones mastermind Michael Nau, he commented that the band’s ability to make such dreamy, technology-light records is less about direct musical influence than the chosen equipment and the vibe between Nau and fellow Page France-expatriate Whitney McGraw, whose sweet, ghostly vocals color most of Paranoid Cocoon.

“The only semi-conscious step we took to steer things in that [old style] sonic direction was to record our songs on the equipment we had,” Nau said. “I guess you begin with a four track and eventually move on to some other piece of gear that sounds a bit better, until you realize you’re actually most comfortable with all the weird squeaks and fuzzes happening around the songs.”

“As for the vibe between the players, it was just Whitney and I [recording], so as long as one of us weren’t having a bad day, the vibe was good.”

Along with mellow lyrics about flowers in the park and mouths full of stars, acoustic guitar and old-school organ temper the graceful patience of Paranoid Cocoon. The album’s slow-motion ambiance seems to owe as much to Cumberland’s haunting stillness as the Fleet Foxes’ eponymous breakthrough owes its lushness to Washington’s emerald beauty or Girl Talk’s mash-ups owe their spastic creativity to Pittsburgh’ ongoing identity crisis.

“Cumberland is beautiful, with complete, raw character,” according to Nau. “We get bored here – everyone does. You really must have your mind, or a book, or a swimming hole, or whatever, to keep you moving. But it’s truly a great place to stand still with eyes opened. Seriously. We’re most influenced by location — much more so than the music we listen to, films we watch or the books we read.”

On the surface, Cotton Jones appears to melt right into the recent stream of great bands playing throwback, low-fi/high-quality folk-rock, i.e. the Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Blitzen Trapper and the like. But there’s something special about Cotton Jones’ poignant simplicity, and Nau doesn’t know what created this old-fashioned (but hip) movement in modern rock anyway.

“I can’t say what sparked any sort of revolution, [but] I think those bands are great,” he says. “Gosh, the first time I heard the Fleet Foxes, I flipped my stuff, you know? There’s timelessness to voices singing in complete unison. For me, it’s not about the fidelity of the recordings but about the people working together to make them work. “

“I spend the most of my time with the music my friends are making; I love Frontier Ruckus, These United States, etc. Both the flower and the fragrance are attached; there’s true spontaneity in each creation. I know that most of these recordings happened quickly, in a moment of time where friends gathered to together. That’s why their music matters to me, and I’d bet they’d feel the same way.”

Cotton Jones’ East Coast soul should go well with the mystic setting at Red Rocks, but Girl Talk seems glad (and able) to play anywhere there’s a party, although his performances these past few months have been mostly sun-soaked.

“I’ve had a summer full of festivals,” Gillis told me. “It’s definitely different than the club experience, but I don’t think you can compare the two. I grew up playing smaller venues, naturally, so that’s where [Girl Talk] will always be grounded. But I love doing the large outdoor thing. It’s refreshing. I saw Lil’ Wayne this summer in Pittsburgh outdoors, and that was a great outdoor concert experience. He nailed it.”

Gillis also doesn’t mind the difference he’s seen recently in his audience, which was once comprised mostly of electronica-loving scenesters but has lately seen a more mainstream influx of fans due to Girl Talk’s wider-spread success as a mash-up wunderkind. Last summer at the Fox, some concert-goers were surprised to learn that Girl Talk’s sold-out show (which featured scalpers outside) was packed with frat-boys.

“I love the audience expanding,” says Gillis. “As you gain popularity, it’s going to become a more diverse collection of people. I don’t want there to be any rules as to what you’re supposed to look or act like to be at the show. If people are uncomfortable with that, then great.”

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