Zero Worship: Making Music About the End of Music
In a culture running out of ideas, the new Young Legionnaire album has something to say— even if it’s just goodbye
“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death” ~Don DeLillo, ‘White Noise’
Do you know what the end of something is like? Have you felt your belief in what’s right growing in concert with a shrinking sense of participation in the power that is around and above you? Are you lost? Have you had enough?
We’re approaching the end of a creative age. After a period during which technology represented the most exciting tool we could imagine in the quest for equality and empowerment, we’re now discovering the opposite: that technology is in fact steadfast in the preservation of the status quo. In fact, it’s technology that may yet come to be the biggest danger to our purest, most altruistic impulses.
In the past, our politicians fulfilled a crucial role: giving a voice to those without one. Technology apparently gives us all a voice, but it turns out there’s no need to listen when everyone has something to say. Compromise, pragmatism, agreement: none of these things are very high on the checklists of those who believe the ability to make their point is the overriding right. What we’re starting to realize now is that nobody benefits more from society’s inability to reach a principled consensus than those without principles, or whose principles are the first to go up for sale. Step forward, Boris Johnson.
And the same is true in the arts, not least in music. When everyone has the ability to participate in the creative discussion, there’s a danger of being led into a spiral of non-conversation with no end, with no right or wrong. In all likelihood, the greatest works by the greatest bands of our times are behind us. For all its fingertipped grasp on what is and has been breathtaking about Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool is an album that tells the story of a band at the end of the curve of its powers, understood best in the context of the past. Can Radiohead now really surpass or improve what they’ve already done?
The real creative endeavor of the near future will no longer be an inceptive one; instead it will be the act of archiving, of sorting through everything that we have already created and making sense of it. The truly great records being made in this era are for now hidden from us, obscured under the frantic self-consuming semaphore of continual renewal, of non-stop outburst and noise. Technology’s greatest legacy will actually be its ability to archive, to order and parse everything that is being said and written and played in this moment, so that in some world of the future its message will finally be discovered. But our civilization’s great books and records won’t be supplanted or improved upon. Not any more.
The new Young Legionnaire record Zero Worship is I daresay one of these records. Great — of course I don’t claim that: but lost — probably. Lost in a sea of noise, of step and misstep, of the continuing yet failing belief in the currency of music as built on a dying idea. So many music papers, blogs and music magazines still peddle an antiquated conceit — that music auteurs are able to tap into the zeitgeist either with a bolt of pure inspired originality, or else the requisite wit, image or turn of phrase to disguise the outright theft of another’s aesthetic as a beguiling act of invention.
Music writing, alongside the very industry of music (fashioned as it continues to be in handshakes between vested interests) — is such an outdated model that writers are still creakingly trying to ‘kingmake’, to second-guess their charges with the aim above all of being right, and not only of being right, but being right first, and for that matter being right first while all around remain demonstrably wrong. And just as the pack catches up and in turn the kingmakers change direction and the rules seem to shift, so the process repeats, only this time in the discussion of yet newer, blander music. The dance continues, and so the power of music to be a force for upheaval is diminished to a puffed-up zero. It turns out we’ve all been pelting towards the finish line of a race that was never a race to begin with.
And so I suppose Zero Worship is from another time — the past, most likely, however much I might like to think it comes from the future. But at least Paul, Dean and I aimed to somehow document this time, this moment. If we achieved nothing else, we did that.
There was a time when music was, and was supposed to be, a mirror held up to life, to culture’s warts and blemishes in real time. It reached at something outside of itself and as a result was a powerful conduit of critique and reflection. It was about something. And in the same way that we’ve hobbled our politicians by believing we’ve transferred power to ourselves by enabling our multiple voices in the discourse — this so-called democratization of the many that ironically reduces power to us all — so have we weakened the ability of art to be a commentary and statement on life. We’ve dissipated its power into something that can be anything, as long as it is somehow personal, an expression above-all of the individual. Forget the power of the collective, of the consensus — we can’t agree on what art should be, since we’re all too busy making it to look around us. Self-empowerment: the great illusion of our times.
The record begins with the long, stuttering throb of ‘Year Zero’, a misfit groove of flipping time-signatures that sets the tone for proceedings. Its premise: the full-stop of ideas we’re living through, a time paralyzed by its inability to offer anything new, but just as allergic to its own aging, its creeping obsolescence. What’s to be achieved in this nullified, halting view of now? “Here is the cause, here is the chance, here is the time,” Paul sings over its back-to-front beat, “if you want it.” As far as I can tell, the chances and possibilities for those with youth and opportunity on their side are more boundless than they’ve ever been, but if that is the case where’s the ambition, the inspiration? It’s as though we’re too distracted by media, by believing in a cartoon version of the forces of evil around us, to reach for anything new. This generation’s revolutionary moment — its very own 1968 or 1977 — could well be lost amongst the digital chirrups of a world updating one alert at a time. An opportunity missed in the existential paralysis of our not-missing-out.
“Around the waist, the fingers reach to hit reset”~‘Year Zero’
The guiding principle of Zero Worship was to make a rock album, and maybe that’s where I was already at odds with the times. These days, I think music is supposed to be more the sound of an intricate inner world than that of musicians playing together in a room. When it is the sound of the noise in a room, it’s supposed to be unhinged and unbridled, a kind of primal chaos. Well, we aimed for that, but we also wanted to make something that would look around itself, not just flail about in unguided rage. We wanted it to be of the discourse, to have something to say. ‘Hail, Hail’ is this notion in microcosm, spelt out across rumbling drums, scrawled in a morse-code of guitar notes at odds with the surrounding chord changes. It’s looking on at a culture of music that’s run out of things to say, that’s dead. The “new generals,” the arbiters of our times, have no axe to grind: they’re propped up lazily on the canon of work that’s already there, funded by trust accounts, and they no longer need to speak the truth. They’re not interested in the truth.
When we first set out to write the record, our aim initially was to simply make something — anything, because our band had become so spread out across timezones, so weaved into other commitments in life’s unforgiving clatter towards distant stations, that we knew our time together would be in short supply. As a result, many of its decisions were impromptu, made on the spur of the moment, conceived once and lobbed at the kiln to be fired. We didn’t have the luxury of being precious or stubborn about songs, about parts — if the idea held weight, if it was powerful in its first instance, it was noted fleetingly and committed to memory. Across three years of these glimpsed, grabbed-at moments spent here and there, we had the makings of a record.
Despite, or maybe because of the scattershot way it was assembled, its themes were evident early on. ‘Balaclava’ was an idea I had when I was still touring four years ago, and its image informed the record: rows of mobilized protesters, organized activists, lined up in the streets “like rockets arrayed.” I saw faces hidden behind balaclavas, and strength in these anonymized numbers: the power of the anti-individual. In masks and hoods a new generation might bring change after all; we just have to band together to achieve it, to force results. ‘Balaclava’ was the image of something I wanted to project across this record — denial, disavowal, but also hope. A collective hope, in a hopeless time.
Because we live in a time of lies. Zeros and lies, of things that are wrong that have become talismans, beacons of belief and lifestyle, and I think it’s time to be a voice against that. A conservative, corporate agenda has edged itself into place in this age of choice and freedom and technology and I think it’s because it’s a safe bet, a clear voice, a ringing bell of certainty in an uncertain, cloudy world. Things that Ayn Rand was espousing sixty years ago: self-entitled, elitist, racist, libertarian mumbo-jumbo; such things are still held in high enough regard that they shape the modern conversation. Ignorance, entitlement and selfishness shouldn’t be personal principles, let alone guidelines for society. The song ‘Disappear’ imagines the true legacy of John Galt from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — a broken man living on top of a broken society, a man utterly guided by a greed that denies the pyramid of cooperation and selflessness and wage-slaving that props him in his own fascistic hubris. Rand was wrong, and there’s never been a better time to say it, what with the dawn of Trump and the narrow, backward-thinking powers of corporatism, nationalism and fundamentalism. That broadcast continues to be a waste of words, “a cancer written on the air.”
Despite the fervor I feel about all of this, I recognize that the rock album is probably a dying art form now, a relic from an era that’s passing, and in many ways this record is a goodbye to those times, a fond farewell. It’s okay, I don’t have the same existential panic about making records that I did in years gone by. For me music is no longer a sport — I’m only interested in making something that’s honest to me, that rejects the ‘pose’. As much as any ambition I had for it, I wanted Zero Worship to be about the way that Paul, Dean and I actually play — the personality that lives in what only we can do. The stop-start arrhythmics of ‘Heart Attack’, the visceral crunch of ‘Sawn-Off Shotgun’ — these are truthful, stubborn expressions of us; but as well as those elements, there’s a beauty that lives at the heart of what we do, and I hope we captured some of that in the sing-song guitars of ‘Simone’, in the slow-burn of ‘There Will Be An Escape Hatch’. It’s supposed to be a human-sounding record, made of human emotions. Of human concerns.
“Just leave the notes behind. Leave them to drift up to the clouds…”~‘There Will Be An Escape Hatch’
In its honesty: there’s where the power of a record should live, not in the tricks — production or otherwise — that you can pull on an audience. I’ve been there, I did that, and it’s not for me anymore. I think the idea is probably an old-fashioned one though, what with the preponderance of ProTools and how tech-friendly, tech-literate most music is now. But I don’t care. So the age of honesty and simplicity and purism is passing: that was my time, it was a great time. I’ll miss it, but everything ends. Everything dies. In the meantime, let’s fight the injustice, the zero of ideas, in whatever way we can.
We can but hope that our own voices — our lone, tiny voices — will come together to make a difference. Our words, the sounds we make, must be released into the air with intent and belief and trust, but we can’t guide or guess where they will go. That’s for the archive to record. That’s for the future to discover.