On first encounter, Craig Schuftan seems like your typical uni nerd. Witty, opinionated, articulate; eats, sleeps, shits in the library; talks a lot? You know the type.
However, unlike those annoying outspoken students who thrive on strangers overhearing their highly ‘intellectual’ conversations, (particularly on public transport), Craig Schuftan, actually has the goods to back it up. He knows stuff. Stuff that gets us thinking and talking, and if recalled accurately, gives us more than enough ammo at dinner parties to blow everyone out of the water. His knowledge of popular culture is encyclopedic in its comprehensiveness; biblical in its density; enabling him to pen two books, which both illuminate moments in history and in music, and seamlessly join disparate events and symphonies of sound; all in an attempt to explain where we are now, and how far we’ve come. To the conclusion, that actually, we haven’t come that far at all.
According to Schuftan, the origins of Rock and Roll can be traced back 200 years to the Romantic Movement.
Could emos be the 21st century’s answer to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? They both seem to be concurrently a product of their society, and somehow also outside it. Schuftan dapples in questions like this, in his book “Hey Nietzche, Leave Them Kids Alone!” It’s an intriguing, yet highly accessible read, and anyone who thinks they know anything about music, should really pick it up.
You may come to realize, that if ever, there was a master of ‘Connecting the dots’, then Craig Schuftan would be your man.
Schuftan graduated from Sydney’s National Art School in 1997, and has been presenting ‘The Culture Club’, a history of modern art and ideas, on Triple J’s morning program since 2001. He has a fascination with the 80s, and isn’t afraid to admit it. He was even asked to curate a room in the Powerhouse Museum exhibition of The 80s are Back, which opened mid December last year, and is still on now.
When I spoke to Schuftan, the interview went for just under one hour. I was told to keep it down to around 15 minutes. The man, does love to talk, but we’re equally as willing to listen. He managed to bring out MY inner uni nerd, which, lately, I seem to repress in favor of being ‘cool’. Well, guess what, it’s actually trendy to know stuff.
I encourage you to read on, Google what you don’t know, and if you haven’t already learnt quite enough to keep you satisfied, follow him on Twitter. There’s never a dull moment. Twitter, my friends just got ALOT smarter. (I hope you’re reading this Courtney Love).
So Craig, why the fascination with the 80s?
I guess my fascination comes from two different directions. I am a child of the 80s, and of course all of the music you hear when you’re young, affects you later as you get older. I was actually asked to DJ at a friend’s party, and the theme was “Bicentennial Year”, which was 1988, and to be honest, when he told me that I could only play songs from 1988, I thought, ‘oh no’, because, I mean, 1988, from a music- nerd point of view, is not really regarded as an amazing year. So I started worrying what I was going to do. Then I went through compilation CDs of stuff here at Triple J, looking what was on the radio then, and I quickly discovered that I loved everything; in a really unconditional way; even things that on paper I would have thought were bad, carried this kind of emotional charge.
So I’m fascinated for those reasons, but I guess that connects to the other reason, which has to do with history. Because I’m obsessed with music history and how it works, and when the style or sound of a certain decade comes back, there are opportunities for people to write it off as just an exercise in nostalgia; or worse, as an exercise in exploitation. There is that idea that record companies and marketing companies are selling us something that’s easy to like because it’s old, it taps into people’s sense of the familiar or the nostalgic; meanwhile, real culture and real art is going down the tubes. I do think that some of that does go on, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think revivals like this, and revivals in general, certainly in the case of the 80s revival, are driven by artists and they’re driven for really good reasons.
So you had an important role to play in curating the 80s are Back Exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Tell us a bit about the processes you went through with that.
Well, I’d never curated anything before, but quite early on in the project and getting to know the people who work there, I was given a tour of the basement of the museum and that was amazing. It is exactly how you would imagine it. It’s like this cool walk through history, with all this stuff piled up in stacks and jammed into cupboards and onto shelves, all very carefully of course, labeled and everything; but still, it’s quite overwhelming when you go down there and see it all. I had a really funny feeling, it was a new world for me, but it was also very familiar in the sense that I’ve spent a lot of time here at Triple J going through the archives.
It’s kind of an obsession of mine, to get piles of tapes that lie around in the corridors, or the huge collection of vinyl that the ABC has, and when I look through those things, I’m browsing, partially because I’m interested in history, but I find it’s not very long until I start pulling things out and finding things from the same era and thinking about how they would sound if you put them next to things you are listening to today. The process of making radio is a process of putting things together, of taking sounds and words and using those things to tell stories. And in my case, those stories relate back to history; and it occurred to me walking through the Powerhouse, that the process there is similar. I had a lot to learn about curating these objects, but there was a part of it which was really familiar to me, that desire to tell people history, to take things out of the vault and share them with people, to tell a story.
Was there a moment when you realised the 80s revival had started?
Yeah, I think there was actually. I think there were two moments. One when I didn’t actually realise what it was, but I knew that something was changing. That would’ve been around 2002, and I remember going to a party for Modular Records, and the Presets played, and Cut Copy, and the Avalanches did a DJ set. It’s funny you know, because I don’t remember what the Avalanches played that night, but I know there was a lot of 80s stuff in there, like Paul Simon’s Graceland. And I just remember listening to that and thinking, this is interesting you know, because that Graceland album was huge when I was a kid, and I think that at that time, people didn’t really regard it as being that cool, but it’s talked about a lot now, because of groups like Vampire Weekend. At the time it was thought of a classic hits album, not really something cool that uni kids got into.
I thought that was an interesting thing to do, to pull that out at this particular time to this crowd, but of course everyone was loving it. Pastiche is one of the things the Avalanches did really well, and that made me think about their album, Since I Left You, and there was a moment on that which really blew me away when I first heard it, and that was when they incorporated the baseline from Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ into one of their songs. And that was similar because at the time, Holiday was like a wedding DJ song; a cheesy dance-floor filler, but it wasn’t something that cool DJs had in their record collection, but hearing it in the context of all the other amazing sounds that the Avalanches had put together for that album, made me think about music history in a different way, that there was a little message in there that we may have missed in the 80s. And that comes back to what I was saying before about curating and using sound to tell stories; The Avalanches were great at that, and I think that a lot of the groups who have been part of the 80s revival over the last few years, like Cut Copy, have used their music as a way to take tracings or impressions of artists from history who they really love, and sort of put them together in a fresh way, and that’s one of their achievements with an album like Bright Like Neon Love, in that it rehabilitated with one stroke, a whole bunch of sounds and styles and stylistic moves that had been taboo for a long time but felt really fresh when they brought them back. I think that the 80s revival has really surprised me with how long it’s been going on.
Why do you think it’s gone on so long?
I have a feeling it’s because the 80s was a style-test decade, a decade with a lot of ‘stuff’ in it, a decade where music proliferated into a whole bunch of little genres. For example, pop music split up into a whole lot of sub genres that it hadn’t before.
I suppose it was a decade of excess as well.
Definitely yeah, I mean, one of the things that happened in the 80s was that people discovered credit. People were spending more money on stuff, and there was more stuff to spend money on. I think it’s because there was so much pitched at consumers and people were consuming so much that there is now a lot for people to go and pick over. I’m also talking about artists who are recording today, too young to have had those experiences, and in a way that makes it more exciting. The 80s is this amazing dress-up box with no bottom, you can keep digging and keep finding this incredible stuff, and that’s probably the reason why it’s been going on for so long, and may continue for some time to come.
What I found interesting in your book Hey Nietzsche, Leave those Kids Alone, was that you relate generation Y to “Emo” music.
I think that ‘Emo’ is a complicated subject, and I suppose you could make an argument that what I was hearing was not necessarily what people call ’emo’, but this aside, I wrote “Hey Nietzsche!” at a time when bands like My Chemical Romance, AFI and Panic at the Disco were getting a lot of attention and a lot of people were identifying with their music. I love that music, I found it really quite exciting, and I suppose that’s because ‘Emo’ and the culture around it was criticized so heavily; I mean, it’s still looked down upon by a lot of people in indie rock, and by people of an older generation. I think I started defending it because I saw something really valuable in it, and I saw a lot of connections with music that I have loved all through my life like Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen, and The Cure and Depeche Mode, because they’re all essentially doing similar things, saying unspeakable things about life and civilisation that we aren’t meant to admit to ourselves or one another, i.e. that there might be no meaning to the universe, and the idea that emotions are important, which is weird, because emotionalism is celebrated by things like reality t.v and talk shows, but we’re also told in daily life that it’s not o.k, that you can’t let your life be ruled by your feelings, that you have to knuckle down. Music is able to say those things and speaks to those feelings in a really powerful way, so it’s always going to have an affect on us.
So it interested me in terms of where that idea comes from and how it came into rock music, and I discovered that it has a very interesting tradition that predates rock and roll by hundreds of years. I trace that back to the Romantic movement of the 19th century. The challenge of Emo is that even though it repeats a lot of the philosophical conclusions of Romanticism, it’s different in the sense that it’s being acted out on a scale that the Romantics could never have imagined. In the age of broadcast, and media, and social networking, it’s expanded this idea to extraordinary, extraordinary proportions, and it means that now, especially with a band like My Chemical Romance and a song like ‘Black Parade’, there’s this enormous community made-up of people who feel that what they have in common is that they’re alone and they don’t fit. Which is why I find them so fascinating.
Also on the subject of Romanticism, I’ve read a little Baudrillard lately, who noted three movements of nihilism throughout history. He said that he viewed Romanticism as nihilism in terms of the destruction of appearances, and then in the modernist period, he noted a destruction of the order of meaning, and in contemporary times, he sees a nihilism of transparency. I wanted to know what you thought about it?
Interesting… what does that mean, a “nihilism of transparency”?
That’s exactly what i was trying to figure out!
I’ve read a little bit of Baudrillard and I like a few of the things he says, but to be honest I do find him a little hard to follow at times…
What I was thinking about, in relation to your writing and the connections you make between music of different periods, was what Baudrillard said about the simulacra…
Yes, the simulacra, sure.
You’ve spoken about listening to a band like TZU or Cut Copy and thinking, ‘gee, that sounds 80s,’ but then you look back to the 80s and you can’t pinpoint a moment where a song sounded quite like a TZU song or any other contemporary 80s inspired song. I see that as like a simulacra, which is, according to Baudrillard, a copy without an original. So in that way, our time is associated with transparency; of music with influences that we fail to track down?
Well yeah that is a nice way of putting it.
Do you agree?
I feel like that’s a really nice description of something that I haven’t been able to attach a term to, or a word yet! I definitely have noticed that there is a certain series of audio clues that make people think ’80s’ but actually, when you get down to it, you’re not sure why you’re thinking that. But I believe that’s because artists are much better synthesists than we give them credit for. They pick up on things and on the emotional or nostalgic charge that comes from a certain sound, a synthesizer, or just a mood they’ve created in a studio. I think artists feel satisfied when they’re making a noise that feels comfortable and familiar to them. I do think that the idea of the avant- garde in rock and roll is a little bit overrated, the idea that everything has to be new all the time, otherwise it’s not real art.
I feel that we all seem to carry around with us, this weight of nostalgia, and it seems that if an artist can in some way tap into that, or evoke that, then we tend to listen?
Yeah, I think that’s true. I don’t think nostalgia is talked about enough in relation to rock and roll. I think it’s really important. Artists tend to be romantics of some description, and romantics as type, tend to be fascinated by childhood. Look at someone like Billy Corgan or Tim Burton. A lot of really important artists through history have focused on their childhood. They look at the world they were promised versus the world they grew up in, which is actually a very useful thing for society to have, and I think often, that that’s the motivation behind really great songs. Like Sweet Child of Mine, it’s a beautiful song, and part of what makes it powerful is it’s appeal to childhood. The song actually doesn’t make sense unless you think of it in romantic terms. He’s looking at the face of a girl, and that face immediately transports him back to his childhood, whether it’s the face of his mother or his sister, or whoever. But it is also his childhood where the anger in that second part of the song comes from, that fantastic riff that builds up at the end of the song, that guitar solo. There aren’t that many words, and the second half is pretty much dominated by “where do we go now”, which you could read as a comment on where he is in the world now, and looking back at what was promised to him as a child.
I read in your book that you quoted Schopenhauer when he said that “Art is our most important consolation for the pain of life”, do you agree with him?
Yeah, I think there is a lot in that. I was reading Robert Stein recently who said that that quote isn’t a bad definition of what great art is, or what it can do. Although I love artists like Duchamp too, so I recognize that art doesn’t always have to be this wonderful, tragic, moving kind of thing that Schopenhauer wanted it to be. It can be something that makes you think, or even just puts a smile on your face.
So what excites you? and what terrifies you?
They’re actually pretty close together. What excites me is putting things together. The art of putting things together. If we’re going to talk about what art and music does for us, then part of what it does is that it allows us to see order in chaos. Life is unpredictable and cruel, and even when it’s good, it’s for inexplicable reasons. A lot of people have this feeling that when you look at your life as if it was a movie. And you start to think, well if this was movie then it’s written really badly. It doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t go anywhere. What’s the point in all this? The whole point of going to see a tragic opera or watching a great movie, or listening to ‘Heroes’ by Bowie, or something like that, can give a shape to experience. Which is one of those things that artists are great at. They can pick out the patterns in experience and show them to us. There’s a beautiful line in one of my favorite Bright Eyes songs that if the world could remain like a painting in a frame then I think we’d see the beauty. I’m probably phrasing it very badly, but that’s what he says, that if we could show the world from a certain angle, then what seems like chaos, we could start to see as beautiful. I like art and I think that’s why I like writing and showing it to people and making sense of it.
So are you really just trying to make us ‘see’?
Yeah, I think there are plenty of things to be cynical about, and I think it’s important to be critical of art, but I don’t think there is any sense in being cynical about it. For me, cynicism comes mostly from a lack of understanding. I find that the more I understand something, the more I like it. Even things that I don’t like, become interesting or exciting when I start to understand them. I happen to not like John Butler’s music, but I’m fascinated by the processes that go on in his head. When I actually start to enjoy listening to an artist I don’t like, then that’s magic, you know.
To follow his program, Acceptable in the 80s, go here.