Random Access Pocket: Can Daft Punk Find the Pocket?
Tom Hawking’s recent drubbing of Daft Punk’s new “Random Access Memories” LP in Flavorwire (“Why Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ Won’t Save Electronic Music”: Flavorwire) enjoys the distinction of having ignited a small fire under the rears of some millennial, electronic music fans. That said, my response is less about Daft Punk, and least of all about Hawking’s harangue. Call it a non-writer’s excuse (my excuse) to vent about the proliferation of the “Indie-Electro Pop” landscape.
Having recently gotten sucked into a corner of the EDM vortex myself, I found Hawking’s piece admittedly provocative. To start, I violated one of my most sacrosanct conventions: I read the review prior to listening to “Random Access Memory.” Mea culpe. Meae culpae’ing aside, I feel any “artwork” that elicits such a visceral kneejerk response from critics – whether it be visual, auditory, etc. – is at least doing something. So I figured I had to go listen to the new Daft Punk.
Hawking’s vitriol nudged me to revisit and articulate a recurring, yet formative theory I’d cobbled together last year about the current state of “Indie-Electro Pop” and “EDM” – well, more accurately, a rant inflicted on poor friends. At the risk of gross generalization, I’d say that these “indie EDM” genres (even though they sell out large stadiums now) have predominantly “lost the pocket,” to appropriate the jazz slang. How is “the pocket” empirically exposed to the non-musician / music-aficionado? Well, first off, it’s not such an “empirical” thing, rather an electric, magical feel generated by musicians interlocking on the deepest of levels (please refer to “Pocket Philosophy” by Tyra Neftzger in All About Jazz: http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=17487#.Uaa3AJV5jWF).
Having first “felt the pocket” in a college band and then later having a rigorous jazz ensemble director attempt to technically deconstruct it, I came to one major conclusion: the pocket (for me, at least) not only pertains primarily to the rhythm of a tune, but more to the metaphysical, nuanced feeling generated by the synergy of the rhythm players themselves (bass and drums at the core, yet often including guitar, and keys as well). Some electronic producers or DJs attempt to approach this by syncopating their beats. Either way, call it a magical “groove within a groove,” or a “meta-groove” for the semiotic nerds in the house.
I had subsequently become obsessed with seeking this “rhythmic pocket” – both as a musical aspiration in my own playing and as something I sought as a listener. I realized it was something achieved by the best live performers, those who enjoy a seemingly telepathic connection through the art of actually listening & responding to one another in a completely unconscious way. This is not to say that the pocket does not exist in electronic music; look no further than the groundbreaking, progressive proto-EDM beats of Amon Tobin of the Chemical Brothers (although they’re often electronically sampling O.P.P. – other people’s pockets). For instance, one fundamental, technical facet of the pocket concerns the most nuanced of rhythmic-interpretation within a given 4/4 time signature: suppose the drummer is consistently hitting the “one” (first beat of a measure) precisely on top of the beat like a metronome, while the bassist is interpreting the “one” a millisecond behind the beat. Swing music would not exist – nor be “swung” – without this rhythmic device. This nearly imperceptible rhythmic-hiccup can generate the most intoxicating tension and is typically deployed by any competent band, even on the most intuitive of levels. Shifting of the pocket within a tune sometimes occurs when the most competent players consciously switch up roles regarding who is counting before, on top, or behind the beat. A classic example in popular music: Miles Davis inaugurated the super-cool, often phrasing his horn licks behind the beat, just like Daft Punk or the Chemical Brothers inaugurated the “Superstar DJ” by producing their keen, electronic sound. Once the pocket is established, it is inevitably perceived by the entire band, therefore feeding the audience, an excitement which then returns back into the band itself.
Call it a meta-pocket feedback loop. This is the rhythmic stuff of magic.
So back to my primary complaint: i.e. my not feeling the pocket, or “magic” in so much of the contemporary indie roundup I otherwise enjoy. While admitting a certain predilection for the zeitgeist sound typified by groups like Phantogram, MGMT, Washed Out, Justice, Cut Copy, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem, Sh*t Robot, RAC (Remix Artist Collective), Purity Ring, M83, and of course the Daft Punk party hits of the last decade, I leave most tracks feeling malnourished or unsatisfied; as if I’ve been seduced by an entity who at most wishes to deliver their beats in the most rhythmically deadpan way possible – dare I say “soulless”.
One way I think about this zeitgeist’s place in music is by trying to identify the moment when Indie-Pop and EDM’s timely arrival caused such music to explode. I would consider it a counter-movement, or antidote to the funky, gratuitous, and live instrumental “noodling” that came to typify and ultimately bore the “jam band” followers. But at least a lot of the improvised music from the “jam band” period was humanistic and full of life – it had “pocket.”
I perceive Daft Punk’s new album as an obvious attempt to reintroduce the pocket to the masses. Of course it’s sad that it takes contemporary pop artists such as Daft Punk to merely recycle / regurgitate previous trends in music, a practice which can unfortunately be compared to those of the fashion industry. You’ve been around for a little while when you start noticing your favorite shirts from college or even highschool hanging on racks in “vintage” stores, or music from your childhood being sampled by the latest “EDM” DJ superstars.
The “best moments” of Random Access Memories (of which there are too few) can never hold a candle to the more nuanced, harmonically advanced pockets of say Herbie Hancock classics from the 70s or 80s, such as “Secrets” or “Mr. Hands” (or a plethora of other more innovative talent from both past and present). However, I must mildly applaud these mainstream DJs (golf clap style) for a humble attempt to sew the pocket back into the pants of popular music. Those more ambitious music fans are likely aware of the relatively big underground DJ scene in most cities that has been consciously ignoring EDM in favor of soulful beats (such as Scottie B, DJ Scribe, etc).