Interview – Jesse Sykes

Jesse Sykes is a singer/songwriter from Seattle, widely known for the beautiful, folk-tinged songs she creates with her band, the Sweet Hereafter, and for ‘The Sinking Belle’, her haunting contribution to Sunn O))) and Boris’s collaborative album, Altar. M3 spoke to Jesse about why copyright still matters, the makings of a good album and why the internet and progress may not necessarily go hand in hand…

Photo Credit: Christine Taylor

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Jesse Sykes – I am a singer -songwriter from Seattle Washington, and I have a band called The Sweet Hereafter with guitarist Phil Wandscher (also known for starting the band Whiskeytown with Ryan Adams.) He and I have been making music together since 2002 and have 4 records and 2 EPs….done lots of touring in the states and Europe -along with an evolving cast of characters. I’ve also worked with the bands Sunn O))) and Boris on an album called “Altar” for which I co-wrote and sang a song with them called “The Sinking Belle”. We have performed “Altar” twice at ATP (once in the UK, and more recently headlined the one in Monticello, N.Y)

What inspired you to start playing music? What is your own musical background?
What inspired me was that I, like so many teenagers, fell in love with rock n’ roll…but it was also a need to have a platform to promote social and emotional consciousness (and that can mean so many things these days I suppose). I was a very intense kid and it was the repressive Reagan era when I first started playing music….so I think back then music made sense as a way to incorporate the artistic side with the internal critical thinking side – and the discontent and rage. My music may not sound angry now, but it comes from a place of desperation and a deep need to connect on an emotional level with people and nature… to me that is political as well as spiritual, because to be emotionally open means you are not alseep at the wheel – you are actively engaged etc. When people become estranged from their own internal worlds is when bad things can happen. Music seemed like a way to keep the channels open on all levels. My backround is pretty varied musically…..grew up on classic rock (mostly 60’s and 70’s) but then got into underground music in the late 80’s when I went off to art school….bands like The Minutemen, The Gun Club, and Throwing Muses sort of got me to see things from a different perspective and veer out of the comfort zone of just classic rock.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
Oh, Vinyl…for the warmth and nuance…the depth of field. I feel like you can get down inside the sound – hear the actual space it exists in. Digital has a vacuum packed feel to me – claustrophobic. I don’t own an iPod, so it’s pretty much CDs or vinyl in my home…. CDs do hurt my ears, but I’ve learned to adjust over the years to the shrillness.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
I think there will always be people that appreciate the album, just as there are people who appreciate novels and great film – they want to be taken somewhere and they want to invest in the experience emotionally – and this takes time and commitment. As I mentioned, I don’t own an iPod, but when I was a kid I always made mixed tapes, so I understand the desire to compile your own personal sound track…. but I also loved listening to whole records. It wasn’t one way or the other. As an artist though, that is sort of my barometer when I listen to other music. A lot of people can write a good song or two, but can they create a whole world that you would want to enter and stay inside of for awhile?  To me that is golden…it is what I crave to be entangled within, and what I try to accomplish with my own music. If there are people out there that really feel records are not worthwhile, my guess is they are the same ilk that also think books are overrated, or they just haven’t figured it out yet – maybe they are young and just haven’t been exposed? It’s complicated to break it down, and I feel bad dissecting people in this way, turning them into human data, but at the same time it’s good to analyze, because clearly record sales are waning and most people do listen to music on iPod shuffle, and don’t necessarily associate a band name to a song they love – it can all seem very abstract now. And sure, the album has been undermined in the sense that iTunes is set up to sell songs over records… I mean kids generally don’t buy albums anymore unless they are indie rock type kids – or metal kids….but they are a small percentage. Here in the college town I presently live, most of the 20 year olds seem to listen to mainstream pop music. The lack of a music sub-culture here, as far as I can tell, suggests that most listen to what’s readily available and may not do much digging. The people I know in my life still listen to albums, but they are older and are also immersed in musical culture, so they don’t really represent the average person. We sell more vinyl at shows then CDs, but again we are a cult band creating music that makes sense to this type of listener. So it really just depends what social enclave someone is part of, and the level of sophistication within it. To summarize, there are the few and far between, the rare gems that have always existed, and always will – that just “get” it. They see the importance of all art in general, they dig deep and seek out music that speaks to them personally despite it’s popularity or ease of access.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
Let me start by saying, I think it’s dangerous when people default into thinking ALL progression is necessary and inevitable… there are so many things we have lost culturally and psychologically that we are going to continue to lose because of the internet/digital age. The way this technological “progress” has crept up on us is insidious and dangerous. It affects all aspects of our lives and so it’s far more disturbing than what is happening in the musical landscape specifically. It’s something we need to be talking about. One gets called a luddite for thinking the way I do… but I didn’t buy into this stuff even when I was a kid. I was always wary of technology, but moreso of the people who get so damn excited about it – the kind of technology that is “smoke and mirrors” in particular… just the same old ideas in different packaging. To me it’s silly and frivolous – and I’m wary of the people with the power (i.e., the big tech companies). I’m wary of the disconnect that can happen internally to us humans, that gadgets and this new addiction to technology can create. This Cornucopian/Social Darwinian ideology that these tech companies (including those at the helm) embody and preach with fundamentalist zeal, makes me ill. “Singularity” is a big one, and the head of Google is one of the biggest supporters of this movement. The whole premise is so extreme and ridiculous in my opinion. Does anyone in their right mind really think it’s a good idea to live forever, or for humans and computers to meld into one inter-dependent life-form? I just think it’s time to start connecting some of these dots. Their propaganda tries to make us think the music industry is evil…but they are bigger and more powerful than all the entertainment companies together….. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next decade a company like Google will be in complete control of it all (music labels too)……..But to answer your question, yes these technologies have caused many record stores to go out of business. Do I find this sad? Yes, simply because I don’t think anyone can disagree that record stores made the neighborhood a more colorful, interesting place. Far more interesting then a computer algorithm telling you what to buy on Amazon. I mean there are still great record stores that are thriving in certain cities, but in the smaller towns in the US they are mostly gone. I live presently in a college town in the midwest, and there are 20,000 students and no record stores to speak of, except for a tiny oldies vinyl/coffee shop. To me that’s pretty crazy. The big cities still have them of course, and I saw a few other people you interviewed speak about Amoeba (in San Fransico and LA)… when one sets foot inside an Amoeba store, you would never think there is anything changing. Do I see the virtue of being able to buy music online with unlimited access to every single band in the universe? In theory, but the reality of it is complicated–it still sucks if we can’t find a balance and fight for our community bookstores and record stores. In his recent book “Free Ride”, Robert Levine says that only 5% of all music on the internet is downloaded. So, this tells me that just because the music is theoretically more available, people still only buy or steal the shit that gets talked and written about – stuff that has a machinery behind it for the most part. So the idealistic notion that the internet is so amazing for discovering music or for getting your music discovered, is really just nonsense according to the numbers… it’s not much different than it ever was….it is still mostly people buying what the Pichforks of the world deem worthy – only now they mostly buy it online or download it illegally. I know there are exceptions, but they are just that – exceptions.

Similarly, do you feel that the abundance of recorded music that is easily available on the internet has led people to place more importance on the live experience as the ‘authentic’ way to hear music?
I don’t know. In some places our audiences have grown, but in others they haven’t changed much. Concert attendance, from what I’ve read, has increased in general, but I think this is mostly due to the big festivals. A lot of bands are touring less, and playing for less money than they used to. I would say that most of the indie bands that I know, and club owners, mostly have been feeling more disappointed than encouraged by live show attendance. So, I don’t know, I think it’s a lot of hype to make it seem like the internet hasn’t hurt the music business as much as it has. The bands many are seeing live are the hyped up bands of the moment, or the few that actually have long term careers that are sustainable, and thrive with or without the hype.

Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
They are insanely relevant, in fact, the idea of getting rid of copyrights is preposterous. I think the vast majority of people who think this is a good idea are not thinking clearly and are buying into the tech industries’ propaganda. As far as I can tell, most of the anti-copyright propaganda comes from Google or organizations that they fund behind the scenes. They are trying desperately, and apparently somewhat successfully to convince everyone copyrights are bad–but, obviously people should be wary of how they’re getting their information, because there’s a clear conflict of interest with Google educating us on the evils of copyrights, as the vast majority of their income is gained from copyright infringement, and one of their biggest expenditures seems to be defending themselves from lawsuits related to these violations. It blows my mind that people do not see this!! It’s complete propaganda these companies are spewing, and it makes me sick. Most songwriters nowadays will justify the lack of record sales with the notion that they can get songs licensed in TV and film. Well, if copyrights get shortened, the indie artists that rely on this type of income will get screwed…. songwriting is a long term investment… a lot of bands remain cult status for many years until they get a financial windfall (ie someone big covers a song, or they get a film spot etc) if at all. A copyright allows one to get rewarded for the lifelong investment and sacrifice they make on the front end years down the line. We must remember…not everyone is Radiohead! Not everyone makes a lot of money…many of us just break even …if we are lucky! I resent how nowadays they act as if the person using the internet is the creator or the “artist”, while the actual artist is just a whiny baby complianing about not making money due to illegal downloading…it’s very bizarre. I’m not sure why more artists aren’t concerned about copyright….I think people are afraid of seeming bitter or angry or admitting to not being more successful…but it’s just a philosophical thing…do you believe you should be compenstated for your work? It gets weird with music cause most of us are willing to do it for free because of the nature of what music represents. We love it, love sharing it -and believe in our visions….but if the system is trying to fuck us (and so manipulatively at that) we shouldn’t be afraid to speak out either. Also as technology advances, these issues will seem small compared to what could be brought to the table in years to come…these are barometers,  and it’s clear we need to pay attention….the day after SOPA/PIPA Google announced it’s privacy policy very quietly, which is pretty creepy if you take the time to look at it. They got everyone in the world behind them and against SOPA/PIPA, yet came off looking like a benign, fluffy, little search engine. No one seems to care that the new privacy policy, which immediately became the industry standard thanks to Google’s influence, gives them access to all the information in your emails, social networking sites, the potential to know where you are almost at all times, and cater the content of search results as they see fit. If the US government had this information about us, people wouldn’t stand for it. Yet they trust it to Google, who has shown time and again that they have no qualms exploiting those they think they can make money from (e.g., selling ads on pirated music videos, etc.).

What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
The main challenge is that unless you are the 1% who just get lucky out of the gates, it’s harder to get to a point were you have sustainability.

Record sales on average have plummeted in the last decade because music’s become free. The problem is really simple–if you’re a professional musician that makes music as their full time job, you need to be able to sell records. Some argue that there are other ways to make money, e.g., live shows and selling merchandise such as t-shirts, posters etc….but touring is expensive, particularly if you have a full band, and to make money touring you need good gigs with big audiences, and you don’t get offered these if you’re not selling records. The irony is that people love music made by full-time professional musicians–as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of downloaded music is made by musicians in this category–so the decline in record sales just means that fewer bands are able to sustain. The middle class of the professional musicians are the ones feeling it the most. Some musicians trying to get established see the internet as an opportunity for exposure, but it doesn’t change the fact that if a band wants to become a sustainable national touring act, do music full time and not have to flip burgers on the side, they will need to sell more than a few thousand records. When a band is young everyone is willing to get in a van and not make a living for awhile because they are looking toward the future, and it’s always hopeful from that vantage point…but as folks get older they need to see some kind of growth, otherwise they will move on individually. My band is older and we started doing this before the internet and cell phoes etc. We didn’t buy into the whole smoke and mirror concept because it wasn’t part of the lexicon when we began – thank god. For us it is cold hard facts and always has been. If we couldn’t afford to go on tour, we would not have been able to eventually…we didn’t need to get rich, but we needed to break even to sustain.  And just to clarify, we toured for a long time and made no money – lost money in fact…but, as I said, eventually people were like…”if I’m going to be gone for a month at a time I need my rent to be covered”…that’s when it gets complicated. Facebook “likes” or Youtube video plays don’t reflect record sales or audience members on either end of the scale… A band’s “popularity” has become independent of the life-blood of record sales that sustain them.

What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
I think there will always be vinyl for the crowd that appreciates it – the collectors, audiophiles etc….I think eventually CDs will be a thing of the past in terms of being manufactured…and it’ll be listened to mostly via streaming…I’m hoping MP3’s can eventually become higher quality so they sound like the vinyl version…I know Steve Jobs was working on this in collaboration with Neil Young. According to Neil Young, Jobs was in disbelief that people actually listened to MP3’s and claims that Jobs only listened to vinyl. So there you have it, the man largely responsible for why you must ask me these questions in the first place, thought we were a bunch of sheep. I think in many ways the future has happened…we are kind of seeing what the future looks like “now”…and it can be thought of as either really good or really bad, I suppose. I think music is fractured and frayed…it doesn’t have the massive, collective power it used to have. Everyone can find their little piece of the pie – and eat it anyway they like. The only thing that keeps me from getting too dark on the subject is that I know music can still change lives. No matter what happens in the future – that will never cease to amaze and inspire me.

Finally, what does the future hold for Jesse Sykes?
…..Another record….some touring….some writing perhaps….trying to figure out how to connect with people through music, given the complexity of the times. It’s a constant challenge. Thanks a lot for being interested in what I have to add on this subject.

For more information about Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, you can visit their official website and Facebook & Twitter pages.

About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

One comment

  1. GHR Leeming

    Reblogged this on Rioch Temporal and commented:
    Extremely insightful interview with Jesse Sykes, who has collaborated with Sunn O))) and Boris. Some strong thoughts on how music and copyrights relate to the internet. Remember that independent artists need our support to continue making the music we love.

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