You’re so Venn

Bands are musical Venn diagrams: each member has their own tastes in music, and the music the band makes is located where those individual tastes overlap (in most cases, anyway: it’s different if the dynamic is more like Oasis, where one strong personality basically bosses everybody else about).

That means bands tend to be fairly consistent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – for example if one of Chvrches wanted to do a death metal song or Angus Young decided to embrace jazz-funk, you’d hope the others would veto it – but it does narrow your musical horizons a little bit.

If you’re making music, is that a good thing?

I haven’t played in a band for a long time – ten years or so, I think, maybe more – but of course I’ve continued to write and record music with my brother and partner in musical crimes, David. And because there’s just two of us, and because we often write separately, and because we don’t have the issue of wondering how we’d play something live, we don’t have the consensus or compromise that you’d get in a larger group. The songs we’re working on at the moment include straight-ahead rock, grinding EDM, very delicate acoustic stuff, shimmery pop and at least one track that sounds like Donna Summer.

The thing is, though, while that’s an accurate reflection of the kinds of music we like, it isn’t a reflection of individual bands we like: each of them does a fairly specific thing. For example, Faith No More will do the odd bit of mexicana or a Commodores cover, but 99% of what they do is what you’d expect Faith No More to do. Eels are so consistent they often record the same song with different words. Chvrches aren’t going to start doing ska.

The only bands I can think of that don’t stick to a single recognisable sound or genre, who’ll flit from genre to genre without a care, are parodists. And that worries me, because I don’t really want to be part of a club that includes Weird Al Yankovic and the crap songs on comedy sketch shows. I’m not using arpeggiators and drum machines because I want to parody dance music, or big guitars because I’m taking the piss out of metal bands; I’m doing these things because they’re what the songs demand. The Donna Summer-esque song needs that Moroder chug. The shimmery pop needs those synths. The declaration of intent needs to sound like an invading army. And so on.

And yet I feel that I’m doing something wrong.

Am I?

6 thoughts on “You’re so Venn”

  1. Simple answer nope.

    So long as its not a total rip off of something recognisable, like dropping in the riff from ‘smells like teen spirit’ or the bass line from ‘under pressure’, you’re fine. If it works for the song/track do it.

    Secret to rock’n’roll, copy badly

  2. Is this not why band members do solo projects? Once you acquire a fanbase you are pretty much stuck in a rut of what the fans expect. Sometimes bands change direction and do something totally different but more often than not they get slated for it. We discussed similar the other night when talking about the relevance of U2. It’s a bit at the extreme end but now U2 are essentially a U2 tribute band with actual U2 members. Nobody wants them to do anything different and there is mild enthusiasm for new songs – as long as they sound like U2 songs. Mumford and sons just went from pop hillbilly to a bit like coldplay and lots of people hate them for it. It’s really rare for bands to change direction and survive. Certain solo artists get away with it (Bowie, for example) but it’s not normal. When band members want to do something else they either go it alone or do the “side project” thing. We’re different as not enough people care either way.

  3. KT Tunstall did three albums of basically the same thing, then disbanded the band specifically so she wouldn’t end up doing it again. Then made Tiger Suit, which was brilliant. Then made whatever the next one was, which was maudlin acoustic stuff — not my bag. Thing is, although I didn’t like that last album, I still loved the fact that she made it. I love that we really have no idea what her next album will sound like. So she’s demonstrated that you can get your fanbase to follow you in unexpected directions — if you have the right fanbase.

    BT does it. You never know what his next album is going to be like, except that it will contain state-of-the-art electronic stuttering effects. But those effects could appear in ambient stuff (If The Stars Are Eternal) or stadium rock (These Hopeful Machines). Not many people have a fanbase as loyal and as willing to experiment as his, though. Electronic music is odd: you’ve got the people who like weird stuff, who are looking to be surprised by hearing a totally new thing, which will probably sell about five copies; and then you’ve got the mainstream fans of the usually dreadful club stuff, who are unbelievably conservative (“I’m not listening to that shit! It’s hardcore trance house. I only like hardcore trance dub house.”) BT somehow manages to straddle both teams.

    Of course, The Beatles managed it too, but usual Beatle caveats apply: unique historical moment blah blah blah.

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