In his round spectacles and colorful scarf, and with his silver Prius cutting through a typically gloomy San Francisco afternoon, Drew Daniel looks like the PhD student he is. It’s also easy to imagine him as half of his band Matmos, the cerebral duo whose compositions are invested with as much conceptual insanity as they are endlessly tweaked samples and noise. But as we zoom around the city (first stop: Klein’s, a “radical lesbian Jewish deli” with sandwiches named after feminist pioneers), Daniel’s cutting humor and keen observations reveal the genesis of his solo project, The Soft Pink Truth.
Truth or Dare
Dared by ally and provocateur Matthew Herbert to create a house 12” for his Soundslike label, Daniel became The Soft Pink Truth in 2001, cranking out Do You Party? followed by Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth? (Tigerbeat 6) last November. At first, despite fearless explorations of the sounds of balloons and surgery with Matmos, Daniel was hesistant to tread in the house realm.
“I don’t know anything about house,” he says. “I’m a real novice or tourist, aside from [the fact that] if you’re a fag…you just kind of get a free ride from going to gay bars, [where they play] a lot of really shitty hi-NRG stuff and sometimes decent house music.” Finding the “spine” of house snares and hi-hats a welcome distraction from the wide-open structures of Matmos, Daniel fused bits of hip-hop and New Wave with a spastic sampling attack to create several singles and a first album. On returning to the alias, however, he found himself a bit stuck. “I did one 12” that had some remixes off Do You Party? and it had one new song that I tried to do in the style of The Soft Pink Truth. I thought, ‘Well, I always have shitloads of ridiculous hip-hop and R&B vocalist samples. I know! I’ll just get even more and chop it up…’ And it kind of fell flat. That’s when I realized if I was going to do another record I’d have to set that aside and look at something else.”
That something else turned out to be Do You Want New Wave…, a covers record that hardly qualifies for that normally pejorative term. Attacking the American and British punk and hardcore that soundtracked his Louisville, KY youth, Daniel brings his ear for musique concrète, gut-level technology feel, and academically tuned mind to a set of songs that, in lesser hands, could sound like quaint artifacts. This being Drew Daniel, the record is no mere homage but a coming to terms with myriad parts of his past. “To go further,” he explains, “you have a sampling/dance music aesthetic versus a kind of engaged ideological theme that’s just completely hostile to its values. When I was into punk rock, I really didn’t like dance music; I associated it with fags who liked Erasure and it was lame and I liked Black Flag, so I couldn’t be a fag, right? It was just part of the closet–part of how kids are, really us and them, polarized.”
Dancing With Desire
Do You Want New Wave…is, in a sense, a psychological coming-out party for Daniel, despite his long-term partnership with Martin Schmidt. [The other half of Matmos, Schmidt joins us fresh from painting a workroom at the San Francisco Art Institute (where both have taught), mostly to hilariously roll his eyes at Daniel’s crazy disco manifestos.] The cover art (by Daniel himself) smashes together the leather-and-chains imagery of hardcore with cloned, tuxedoed men and laser-emitting disco balls into a punk-style collage trainwreck that leaves gay texts and subtexts exposed. Add this to Daniel’s increasingly fabulous stage shows as The Soft Pink Truth (“I almost need a wardrobe girl for all the costume changes now,” he notes) and it’s no wonder he chose to burrow deep into the punk/hardcore back catalog for some of its more lyrically contradictory moments.
That’s not to say there isn’t a whole lot of fun in The Soft Pink Truth. While Daniel doesn’t aspire to make an out-and-out comedy record, it’s hard not to smile when, at the cozy apartment lined with gear, records, and Matmos gig posters he shares with Schmidt, the sampler spits out individual words from everyone from Mel Brooks to Mary J. Blige to anonymous bargain-bin MCs to form the chorus to a remix in progress. But with humor comes the tricky question of camp, one gay artists have always struggled with–witness the high-wire career of John Waters, for example. “I did a Village People cover at a club called Tubesteak Connection,” says Daniel, by way of explanation. “At this point they are like straight camp, like office party camp for the middle class. I talk a good game about liking trashy stuff, but there is still kind of secret tastefulness. Whereas covering Village People is actually dangerous–we’re just so inured to it, it’s not that canon anymore, it’s just been neutralized.”
A better description to his music, says Daniel, would be the wrongly maligned tag of novelty. “[Space age pop pioneers] Perrey & Kingsley get filed as novelty [for] showing what musique concrète can do in a shiny, sparkly way. I’d be honored if we were considered part of that…Humor in music sort of has to sneak up on you–if you’re trying to be funny, it’s pretty deadly. I think of people who use humor in music well, like the Butthole Surfers, and there’s a dark psychedelic thing–humor sort of creeps in the side door. Where something like Frank Zappa often is so aware of its own gag it doesn’t quite have the same sharp punch. I think Faxed Head are one of the funniest bands ever. I mean, a song written from the point of view of someone who cleans rest-stop bathrooms–that works. There has to be some emotional investment.” The emotional investment for Daniel in these songs is obvious, whether it’s wrestling with the ambivalently homophobic and blasphemous Angry Samoans song “Homo-Sexual” or cutting Crass’ “Do They Owe Us A Living?” with a rubbery, ass-swinging bassline.
So Do You, Punk?
One thing that must be made clear, however: While Do You Want New Wave borrows the thump of disco and the songs of punk, don’t call it dance punk. “My feelings about making this record were kind of a reaction to this formula. Dance punk–what does that mean? Punk was significant to me because of its lyrics; that they were saying incredibly offensive and intractable and demanding things. Punk rock wasn’t a style. For me–and this is maybe an American, puritanical reading of it–[punk] meant a certain unwillingness to play the game in relationships, business, or politics. So when you see people in asymmetrical haircuts going chicka-chicka on a guitar but not saying anything you couldn’t put in a Lindsey Lohan song [like] ‘I need your love,’ that offends the doctrinaire side of my reading of it. Which is also selective! Because of course punk rock was never so unified as to have a single position. It was a wide open field. So doing this record was a way of revisiting those contrary ideologies… I didn’t want it to be a cozy rewrite that says punk was always on the good side.”
Instead, Daniel sees The Soft Pink Truth in the tradition of punk collage art, with its careful juxtapositions of the serious and the comic. This is the aesthetic that powered his hilarious high school ‘zine Conqueror Worm and informs all his activities, be it academia, embroidering, or slicing up bits of sound. “There’s a kind of obsessive compulsive pleasure in just sitting and digesting sound, metabolizing it, and collecting these kits. I swear that’s my favorite thing in the world to do–not to finish a piece of music or play it for other people but to start one. I’m endlessly embroidering these onscreen waveforms. At 16, I was cutting up little pieces of Michael Jackson and at 33, I’m cutting up little pieces of Michael Jackson.”