'Live' Music Is Killing Live Music
Posted on Friday, 10 May 2013 | No Comments
Well, you've got to hand it to The Knife - that habitual has been well and truly shaken. With their new album having induced both delight and confusion in their fan base, their tour in support of it has so far provoked...well, anger, mostly. With numerous hostile reports having flooded in from their current Europen tour, which hit The Roundhouse in London this week (alongside, it should be noted, some very positive notices as well) from punters left feeling ripped-off by the experience, it's thrust the question of what music fans want and can reasonably expect from a live show back to the forefront: given that we're told so often that live is the future and the saviour of the music world we know, it's a pretty important question to boot.
In the case of The Knife, the main sticking point seems to be exactly how 'live' their show really is. It's certainly an ambitious production: show openers have included Deep Aerobics from Tarek Halaby, Dance-oke from feminist collective ÖFA-KOLLEKTIVET and, for their upcoming Stockholm dates, a huge steel drum band called Cool Pans, their merch table has been selling a range of feminist, queer, intersectional and alternative volumes that have inspired the group, and they've amassed their own dance group to help bring their music to life. All of which have the potential to be fantastic ideas that blow open the way electronic music is performed live...only The Knife have managed to fall at the first hurdle.
As report after report has landed on online space, it's become increasingly clear that whatever the performance The Knife are touring around Europe is, it certainly isn't live music. All the music has been noted as coming entirely from backing tracks identitcal to the records, and there's been much speculation as to whether any of Karin Dreijer Andersson's vocals are live either. Whole songs have gone by without anyone on stage at all, or with all members of the 'band' engaging on what many commentators have found to be distinctly under-baked and poorly choreographed dance moves.
Electronic music has often had something of an issue moving into a live format: it's music often designed for DJ performances, clubs or home listening, with no notion of future live performance within the creative process as it would for rock, folk, jazz or other broad genres. Some have managed to embrace it with full-band performances (be it Caribou, The Field, or - interestingly enough - Karin Dreijer Andersson's live band for her Fever Ray project), others have shunned it where possible (Burial and Boards of Canada standing out as two notable refuseniks), while others have sought to create the biggest possible light show to distract from the fact that all they're doing is turning up and pressing play (as Deadmau5 has admitted). It's not exactly fair to judge music by a rockist metric when it's coming from a different place, made from different sources, and often with very different motives.
But does this mean we should actually put up with the press-play-and-go format? Within underground circles, there's far too many ambient, noise and electronic artists happy to just sit behind their laptop and check their emails while Ableton runs through their pre-designated set - and without expection, no matter the qualities of their music on record, acts that do this always end up as incredibly boring and unsatisfying live acts. Hell, even Forest Swords, who's added a live bassist and visuals to liven up his show, manages to turn his immersive soundscapes into a dreary mess when it comes to the live show. Sure, not everyone can or should be trying to be a Les Savy Fav or something, but the widespread curse of the live act that does nothing live is a major blot on the live circuit. If there's no added dimension to the music or special engagement over than you've paid four quid for a can of warm lager, then the audience should return the contempt of the non-performer in kind.
It's for this reason that the apparent mis-fire of the new Knife show is such a disappointment. There's evidently been a lot of thought and effort placed into putting together something that went beyond the usual turn up and play configuration, but it's just as apparent that when you've promoted your show by saying that "We, The Knife, will be performing live. We will be there, on stage, all seven of us, sometimes all ten of us, or even more"...well, dancing along to a playback isn't going to cut it. And going by the amount of 'Pam's People' and 'student production' jibes being thrown around on Twitter, the rest of the production had major problems regardless. High ideals are great, but when you're falling at the first hirdle, it's hard to applaud too much.
Yet the forward-thinking attitude that the band presumably went into the show with is something we could do with more of. I've posted before about festival fatigue and the shrinking number of major live draws, and with their latest mega-bucks American tour failing to sell out, even bands as big as The Rolling Stones are having problems. There's clearly a need for forward-thinking acts of any genre with the desire to provide innovative performances or at least go beyond the standard route of here's the new album, here's the hits, now buy a shirt on your way out. On a local level, I'd happily point to the superb Half Memory event with Richard Dawson and Warm Digits as an innovative concept, while even within more typical rock formats it's possible to provide something unique, My Bloody Valentine's most recent tour showcased a band whose live sound still defies comparison. But between over-hyped buzz bands without the chops or catalogue (remember that time The Darkness headlined Reading, Leeds and T in the Park on just one short album?), jaded oldies pumping out the same set they've done for three decades for exploitative prices, pointless laptop acts and press play EDM dullards, and out-and-out fiascos like this current tour from The Knife, it's obvious some shift has to occur. If live music really is the last great bastion of the industry, we're all going to have to try harder.