Interview: Why Anika Offers Hope For the Future Of Music

One of the reasons South By Southwest couldn’t be knocked this year, was that it afforded the rare opportunity to see Anika, whose new album  came out less than six months before the festival.

Anika’s self-titled debut was released in December of last year, and was an occasionally polarizing blend of Post-Punk-era dub rhythms, No Wave detachment, and an assortment of covers that tackle iconic works by the likes of everyone from Skeeter Davis to Bob Dylan to Yoko Ono.  There is an air of unabashed reverence for the old material in this music that survives Anika’s reconfiguration process of another era’s stylistic habits. The result is something that sounds entirely timeless and also strangely new.  Somehow Anika (along with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and his co-conspirators in Beak) took the expressive longevity and political relevance from three radically different years: 1962, 1972, and 1982 and reworked it into one of the most surprisingly potent debuts that has come along in quite some time.

Anika has worked as a political journalist as well as a promoter, which fortunately opens up a different avenue of questioning than what one usually gets to ask an artist.  She spoke to FrontRow during a brief break between legs of a European tour, where she was performing with a live band as opposed to the DJ set.  Subjects tackled include the hazards of all-vinyl DJ sets, media paywalls, “Nokia Folk,” and her visual influences.

FrontRow: I first heard your music via text message; it was a forwarded link to live video of a Marc Jacobs fashion event.  The models were walking out to this unfamiliar music with deep murky production and dub rhythms; which immediately caught my attention because I couldn’t place the decade in which it was released.  It turned into an instant obsession and I put down the phone and just started Googling the lyrics and it was “No One’s There.”

Now, the most exciting thing for me was that this was new music.  It wasn’t yet another vinyl obscurity or something I’d have to find on a rarities blog.  It was new and on a fairly popular label.  But seeing this agitated and paranoid music coupled with the backdrop of the catwalk was an enjoyably jarring experience.  I have only since learned about your political journalism as well as your anti-industry stances, but the second I heard it, I knew something was up.  So I want to start off by asking: Were you were aware that your music had been used in this manner and how do you feel about it?  Do you find it’s a positive setting for your work?  This isn’t to imply that there is anything wrong with the music being used for said purposes, I’m also just wondering if you feel as strongly about related creative industries as you do the music industry.

Anika: No I wasn’t aware that it had been used, in fact, but I don’t see it as an issue, no. I’d like to establish at this point that I am not entirely anti-music industry, I was simply frustrated that there no longer seemed to be a choice. It was a ‘my way or the highway’ scenario where anything outside of the rather narrow limits got thrown to the way side and discarded before it was able to grow and flourish. This was the issue I had with it.  It’s great to have music to relax to, to do the ironing to, but there’s so much more music should and can be used for.  To vent frustration at social issues, politics and so on.  It’s only been in the last fifteen years that this kind of music has been tarred with an undesirable brush.  Hip Hop was the last socially engaged mass-movement that we really got.  It seemed that musicians and actors weren’t so overtly political as in previous years.  People were stepping on eggshells and reluctant to have a view on anything, out of fear of being criticized or something.  I suppose this is why it was important for me to make a record that was quite bold, knowing full well that it might not be received so kindly by all areas of the industry or general public.  It’s definitely a marmite record in that sense.

I think it’s a positive thing if designers in other creative industries are looking outside of using Nokia Folk. There definitely seems to have been a shift in the last six months with regards to political engagement and this is certainly a positive thing.

FrontRow: As I mentioned, you have worked as a political journalist and have also expressed some strong opinions regarding music journalism.  What are the most fundamental differences between the two other than the obvious?  How does the accountability differ between the two in your opinion?

Anika: This is also not strictly true. In fact i admire many music journalists.  There are a large majority, past and present who provide an invaluable service, bringing new music to those unable to scour the blogs or sticky-floored dives themselves to discover new music.

There are of course a handful I do not admire and who I think are too comfortable reading the ‘How to be/write like a music journalist book’ as opposed to sticking their head out the window and checking out bands that the agents in their mailing list didn’t tell them would be the next big band….but this is a tendency you find in many sectors of the media.  It often stems from being paid very little and expected to work very long hours, with the haunting taunts from management: “There’s plenty of people who’d be more than willing to replace you in a second if you don’t ‘want’ to stay late” – welcome to Britain – renowned for doing the most unpaid overtime I believe.

There is in fact a rich tradition of music journalism, but I think it has suffered in the same way journalism across the board has. It would be simple to blame the journalists themselves, which many do but it is in fact the framework in which they work that should be held to question.  With the ever-increasing information platforms, journalists are expected to churn out a whole lot more information than ever before.  The sheer quantity required on a daily basis means that double-checking facts, investigative journalism and questioning primary sources are luxuries often beyond reach.  The result is, sadly, poorer quality journalism.  I was talking to a friend the other day and she was outraged that some newspapers had started charging for their online sites.  I had to explain “well what do you expect?  Journalists to sit at a computer all day, writing stories for fun?”

It goes back to the saying “you get what you pay for” – the less we are willing to pay the more the quality will suffer.

FrontRow: In the interview posted on Stones Throw’s site (conducted with Buddy Society), you summed up the decline of being involved in the behind-the-scenes of the music scene rather tragically:

Having worked as a promoter for the last 2 years, I got sick of no one taking risks. Many times I’d put on some great bands who were a little different and no-one would come. Then the next week I’d put on a boring folk person, who’d been in the press all week and the place would sell out. The agents had stopped taking risks, the labels had stopped taking risks, the gig-going public had stopped taking risks and therefore I, as the promoter, could not afford to either.

Occasionally I will cave to this cycle and feel forced to cover something less-than-exciting or entirely conventional as if by obligation.  A writer I once worked with had a theory that it was always in the best interest of the press to push the accessible because it kept the media in favor with the public as well.  He concluded that’s why even the bigger “indie” sites started pushing all of this easily digestible music; because it makes it easier to secure a position of influence and stay there.  What do you feel is the best way to combat this?  How much do you feel the media helps or hurts?

Anika: I think the media certainly helps in various ways.  There is no sense in biting the hand that feeds.  It is important to have a mainstream in the same way that Hollywood needs its yearly blockbusters in order to support the other hundreds of films produced that year.

There has always been 2 parallel universes: the indie press and the mainstream press.  The problem is, every so often the 2 overlap when indie becomes mainstream.  This seems to have been what has happened recently but we are seeing more underground movements slowly emerging as people begin to become more politically active and question the general status quo (with regards to the separate areas of politics and music).

FrontRow: I understand that you also handled various graphic design aspects in your work as a promoter.  What or whom would you consider to be visual influences on your design work?

Anika: I really enjoy photography, so there was always a strong photographic aspect to my designs.  The most memorable exhibitions of late have been a really extensive Helmut Newton and Alice Springs exhibition in Berlin, the new Ida Kar and Hoppe exhibition at the national portrait gallery, Claire Martin’s award-winning Downtown Eastside shots and Anastasia Taylor Lind’s photos of the women of the PKK Guerrillas, whom I interviewed at university for a feature on female documentary photographers and war (Lee Miller was my inspiration for the project).

FrontRow: Though much has been said about how quickly you tracked the album, was the mixing and post-production equally as fast?  Or were much of the effects and reverb sounds handled during the tracking?

Anika: We definitely tried to retain the rawness of the recordings so production was minimal and by no means airbrushed any of the mistakes.

FrontRow: I caught your actual showcase at South By Southwest, upstairs at Club Malaia.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but the entire set was vinyl.  That seems like quite a hassle; to bring all of those records across the ocean.  How was your South By Southwest experience in general and how did it compare with European music festivals in your opinion?  How did your other DJ sets go and how did the free daytime events compare to your showcase?

Anika: Yes I only use vinyl.  I think it’s more fun.  Sometimes mp3s are too readily available, whereas with vinyl it’s more of an effort to track it down, so buying it is that much more enjoyable.  The problem is, you have to be so careful with vinyl.  I was djing at the Fat Possum showcase and some guy tried to duck behind me to cut across to the other side and in the process knocked a stack of vinyl into the gravel.  It got so scratched up and now my ‘Deux’ vinyl always starts skipping at the end.  The guy didn’t even say sorry.  I think people just don’t realise sometimes.  I really enjoyed the showcase though.  It was one of my favourites in fact.  I was very lucky in that I played at some of the best showcases.  I was DJ-ing before Off! at the Spin party.  I didn’t realise Off! were on after, so I started playing a pansy punk set and then I noticed an ex-Black Flag member making faces behind me, ha!  It was really good to see their set.  I wish I’d had more time to see bands.  It’s such a big place that sometimes getting from one place to the next can take a whole set, so you miss who you wanted to see.

FrontRow: I really enjoyed the DJ set as well: “Warm Leatherette,” “(You Don’t Stop) Wordy Rappinghood,” and Mark Lane were some of the things I remember being played.  Is your view on DJ sets more positive than what goes on in the world of “live music?”  Or is it all the same to you?  What are some records you play that you feel me be underused by other DJ’s?

Anika: I think with regards to DJing, it has changed quite significantly in the last few years.  There’s some really skilled DJs emerging at the moment, many of whom use Serato.  Perhaps some of the spontaneity has been lost but the skill is certainly there.  There’s always been two types: the selectors and the technicians.  I put my hands up in saying that I’m more of a selector.  Don’t expect any turntable magic from me but I can offer good tracks.

FrontRow: Describe your approach to performing live.  What do you feel is essential and what do you purposely avoid?

Anika: We’ve just finished a string of European dates and it was interesting how much the performance varied depending on the venue, atmosphere and audience.  I think it’s good to be adaptable in the same way that a DJ should be. Sometimes the set goes more punk and other times it’s more delicate.  I think it’s important to follow what you feel is more appropriate.  The set is never the same.  Luckily I have a very talented band behind me, who are not fazed by my tendency to change the lyrics or the order of verses.  That’s the point of seeing stuff live.  Otherwise you might as well just listen to the album at home with some really good speakers, if you’re after an exact replication.

FrontRow: It was a privilege to see both you and Yoko Ono perform in the same evening for obvious reasons.  Did you get to see Ono speak or perform?  I was hoping for a duet.

Anika: No! I was so annoyed. I spent so long trying to find the venue that I missed it. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to.  Another time hopefully.  Ono is a most interesting character, who I’d very much like to see live.

FrontRow: I must say, the relief and surprise I felt at knowing that new music was being created on this level was nearly equalled by your honest and truthful criticism of the industry.  All too often, I’ve known individuals who have willingly forsaken their sharp opinions the second any attention was paid to them.  Let’s say theoretically that a revolution, at least aesthetically or philosophically, was necessary to push the music industry along in a more desirable direction.  What would be the first step?

Anika: Well I think the first step is already there.  Some interesting bands are beginning to emerge again and I think the changing political climate will bring with it a demand for politically engaged music and opinionated musicians.  We shall see.

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