With a bit of a spring in my step, I disembarked from the aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport.
As far as luggage goes, I traveled lightly, carrying only the essentials. I’d say the most important of these would be my favorite cardigan sweater, but I also carried with me – in the figurative sense – my hopes and positive expectations for the future.
Los Angeles is known as a mecca for excessive lifestyles and its many celebrities contribute to this reputation. For that reason, I had some concerns over whether or not I’d be able to adapt myself to the local culture.
I hailed a taxi outside the airport and while we were driving it struck me. “I am actually here!”
Having seen so much of the city in the movies and on television, I have to admit it was surreal to be a first-time visitor.
It became even more exciting when I looked out the passenger side window and saw the world-renown Hollywood sign sitting atop the hills.
I became overwhelmed with the sights. For a small-town girl like me, seeing everyone dressed in fancy clothes, it appeared that everyone I saw could indeed have been a celebrity.
The culture shock was suddenly too much and my stomach began folding over with anxiety.
I suddenly felt a longing for home and second-guessed the whole trip. The weight of my decision was weighing heavily upon me.
Amidst these uneasy feelings, the driver serendipitously turned on the radio. Relief swept over me as I heard the radio playing a song by one of my favorite artists, Jay-Z.
I found myself instantly dancing in the taxi! As I was waving my hands around in celebration with the music, the nervous anxiety I had simply vanished into the air.
I was moving my head as if to say “yes!” and shaking my hips. It was a positive experience after all. A true American celebration.
Later that evening, I took another taxi to a night club.
When I stepped out of the car, I noticed that the people there were looking at me with curiosity. I presume they were wondering why I was wearing cowboy boots. That was certainly a dead giveaway that I wasn’t one of the locals!
The club experience would have been much easier had I been surrounded by my best friends – we have a great group of girls back home – but this time I was on my own. I was deep in music and unfamiliar people who were markedly different than what I had grown accustomed to in Nashville.
For instance, in contrast to the variety of footwear one would see at that the parties I usually go to, most of the ladies this night were wearing high-heeled shoes. Apparently, no one had taken the time to inform me that this is a locally popular style before I headed out for the evening.
Again, I felt that sinking feeling in my stomach, coupled with a yearning for home.
However, just as before, music came to my rescue. The person picking out the records unpredictably played one of my most-loved tracks by Britney Spears. My hands, head and hips once more moved to the music.
When the song was over, I considered leaving for a third time – just taking a plane home and ending the entire journey for good.
But just as it has happened so many times before, music intervened and my spirits were lifted to the point where I decided to stick it out.
My hands, my head, my hips – they all become one with the music in an American celebration.
Saturday night I spent having some fun in the recording studio with my friends Iida Hellström (The Sorted) and Erik Welén (Torpedo, Tiger Lou).
We were working on a recording of an old song by Iida’s band, based on a reworking of it I recently put together. Erik can be seen playing a bass borrowed from one of my favorite Swedish bands Hello Saferide.
Our project doesn’t have name or even a plan, but it was fun to be in the studio again and to make some music.
Some of my favorite things from all sides of the western world. Iida from Trollhättan, Bulleit from Lawrenceburg, Coca-Cola from Atlanta, triangular vintage picnic cups designed by Sigvard Bernadotte and international music collaboration in my beloved Stockholm.
In April of 2009, I wrote an article for Snuggling about how excited I was to see Nina Persson’s band A Camp play in Stockholm that spring. In that article, I said:
Growing up in Kentucky made it virtually impossible to see a Swedish band like the Cardigans. They just aren’t one of those bands that plays 50-date tours in the United States, so Louisville was never on the short list of American cities they visited. To the best of my knowledge, Chicago is the closest they ever came to my hometown, which is about five hours away.
I remember back in 1999, after touring in Europe, I spent some time in Sweden and stayed with my friend Julia in Stockholm. At that time, the Cardigans were in America when I was in Sweden and they were going to be playing in Sweden shortly after I returned to America. A near miss, sadly, because that was around the time of their amazing Gran Turismo album.
To say that I liked the Gran Turismo album would surely be an understatement.
Fully unexpectedly, in the fall of 1998, I happened to get a promotional copy of the album. I hoped it would be good, in the same way you hope anything new will be good. I did not expect that it would be anything like what it was. It changed music for me.
I never imagined that a band like the Cardigans would do that to me. Their previous work, while delicious, had been catchy, sugar-sweet and sometimes even blatantly displayed its influences.
Though inviting, Gran Turismo was stark, sparse and dark in comparison.
Like so many of the records that I now look back and recognize as important, the first time I heard Gran Turismo, it didn’t even sound like music. It didn’t make sense to me. “What is this? What are they doing?”
It was one of those records that I had to listen to over and over to figure out what I was listening to.
That reaction flowed from the music all the way down through the album packaging. I had never seen a CD cover so glossy before. It looked like it was soaked in varnish. The photos were lush but also dark and sparse. Truthfully, most of the booklet was just white space with the tiniest little text. Glossy white space.
Over the years, as a designer and a songwriter, I have stolen as many ideas from that album graphically as I have musically.
The space between the sounds
The most captivating thing about the album, is that there is absolutely no reverb on the record at all.
When drummer Bengt Lageberg hits the snare, there’s no studio echo or resonance. As soon as the drum is hit, the sound is over. The same thing is true of all the other instruments, a quality that is the complete opposite of the way we are accustomed to hearing music on professionally-recorded albums.
The sounds aren’t warm and fuzzy. The band doesn’t sound huge. The highlights and body aren’t artificially excited or compressed. The space between the noises is empty.
Sound engineer Tore Johansson described it in an interview, “It’s a very cold and defined recording, no natural reverb or audio curtains. There’s not a sound element on that disc which wasn’t deliberately put there.”
Earlier this year, I learned that not only would the Cardigans be playing a rare live concert during the summer, but that they would be performing the Gran Turismo album in its entirety. Of course, I had to be there.
The event happened at the Hultsfred Music Festival in June. Hultsfred is a small Swedish town about four hours south of Stockholm. Nearly every summer for more than twenty years the sleepy town has been invaded by noise and debauchery.
The Hultsfred Festival apparently used to be a much bigger deal than it is today. Everyone I know who grew up in Sweden has some adventure story about the festival from years ago.
The first festival was in 1986 and since then bands like Oasis, The Cure, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, Van Morrison, Buzzcocks, Motörhead, Slayer, Ministry, Blur, Björk, Weezer, Morrissey, et cetera, have played there.
In addition to the Cardigans, this year’s festival featured The Cure, Justice, Stone Roses, Eagles of Death Metal, James Blake, Garbage, Noel Gallagher, The XX, M83, and a bunch of other garbage. And Garbage.
Too old for this shit
Since I’m an adult, I decided that I would opt out of the usual music festival amenities – such as setting up a tent and riding there with sweaty teenagers who have no awareness of the sound of their own headphones.
Instead, I bought a ticket to ride first class with Swedish Railways (SJ). This is truly a comfy ride. Just like on an airplane, you can pick your seat in advance. The seats are big with plenty of leg room and the cabin is quiet with free wi-fi. Oh, and did I mention my three-course vegetarian meal?
Upon arriving in Hultsfred and walking through a crowd of commoners who rode in the back of the train (suckers!), I took a bus to my hotel. That’s right, no camping for me. Sleeping outside is for homeless people. I stocked the hotel room with booze and snacks.
I made sure to invite my friend Emma from Malmö who loves music and loves to travel. She met me at the festival with her friend and the three of us shared the hotel room, destroyed the booze and essentially had a great time over the weekend un-healthy-izing ourselves.
By the time the Cardigans took the stage on the second day of the festival, I was ready to shit my pants. I was bouncing off the walls.
There’s really not much for me to say about the show itself. It was absolutely perfect. I don’t have a single complaint.
Last night I bought some nice headphones and for the first time in years, I really felt what the sound of music can do to my insides. (That’s a medical term for a person’s guts and butterfly box.)
Late in 2000, I began shedding my belongings to live in different cities. Along with my belongings went my stereo equipment and speakers. Records soon followed.
When I arrived the following year in Providence, Rhode Island, for a two-year stint, I had a period of trouble finding work. One by one, the used CD store around the corner became the inheritor of my collection.
A Reasonable Approximation
At the time, I had a bubbly, translucent iMac on my desk, so I dumped all my music into it before selling the discs.
As a result, much of the old music I still today have today has been with me in the digital form of bits on hard drives and iPods since then.
All those songs were scanned in at 128 Kbps more than ten years ago. My music collection has been a virtual one.
Sometime in the mid-2000s, back in Louisville, my last pair of nice headphones met their demise when my friend Sarah fell on them. I forgave her, but aparrently I didn’t forget the accident. I didn’t replace them.
So for the past six or seven years, when I haven’t been in a recording studio, I have been listening to music through small speakers and super-portable pocket earphones of the iPod in-ear type.
Recently, after borrowing a few listens on my boss’ AKG headphones, I realized something significant had been missing from everything I had listened to for who-knows how long. I resolved to remedy the situation.
I visited a few stores in Stockholm to test drive a variety of headphones. If you can imagine what super-minimalist Scandinavian furniture stores look like, well, Swedish pro audio boutiques look even more like sets from futuristic movies. They’re clean, white, polished spaces with crisp lighting and little in the way of unnecessary details.
Monday night I finally broke down and went home with some headphones in a bag.
They’re not the world’s most expensive headphones but they weren’t cheap. I spent 1700 kronor on them, about $260.
Most of the stuff in these stores is labeled with price tags that cause hiccups.
Coming to Life
Upon arriving home, I plugged the new headphones into my iPhone just to give them a quick “line check” (that’s music business talk for a quick test to ensure the equipment is working, as opposed to a “sound check” which actually evaluates the quality. Stick around me, you might learn something).
The line check floored me.
A random song was selected by the “shuffle songs” feature on my iPhone, and the Phil Ochs song it picked, recorded more than forty years ago, never sounded so fantastic to me.
I ended up sting in front of my computer for a while trying to listen to something of everything I love, and everything I had loved in the past.
As the songs passed through me in unbelievable clarity, I began to feel alive. The inside of my chest felt like I was 17.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. But if what you’ve got is slowly taken away over a period of years and replaced by a decreasingly accurate version, well, then you don’t really know what you had until you find it again.
Whether it has been Phil Ochs, Nina Persson, Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis, I haven’t really been hearing the true voices of my favorite artists for years. I feel like I’ve only been hearing a general, rounded average of what these great voices sound like. Now I’m actually hearing the grain and the detail again.
In the mid-1990’s, Jason Noble and I were sharing a house at 1207 East Broadway in Louisville. The whole time we lived there, some type of sewage backup – or something – was causing a painfully putrid odor to emanate from inside the mid-century steel cabinets under the kitchen sink.
THE BLUE HOUSE ON THE RIGHT
The house is just a few blocks from where Broadway begins in the Highlands. On summer days it was cooled by a monstrous, hideous, 100+ pound, industrial-strength air conditioner we received as a gift from Hilary Newton’s family. At night, when the windows were opened, the fresh air that came in was accompanied by the sounds of Dem Reggae Bon, or whatever band was on the patio stage at Phoenix Hill Tavern, “conveniently” located about 30 yards from the back door.
This little, blue, shotgun rental house quickly became a factory for creative projects, the side effect of which was laughing until we couldn’t stand up. But by the time we moved in, Jason had already had me in stitches for five or six years.
Jason and I had been in each other’s orbits in the late ’80s, but it wasn’t until early 1990 that we began to actually become friends.
When we started hanging out, he recalled later, “my only claim to fame was a few ’zines, the fact I had once vomited on a typewriter, and a 90-minute rap opus called Snug – thankfully unavailable to all music lovers.”
Snug was the first cassette tape that he and his fellow teenaged, white, suburban rappers produced under the name King G and the J Krew. As a side business for my record label, Slamdek, I ran a cassette duplication service. When the J Krew employed me to make their tapes, it was my first real exposure to working with Jason on a regular basis. It was trial by fire.
I had never really met people like him and Jeff Mueller before. Honestly, they were kind of difficult to tell apart in the early days of knowing them.
Jason and Jeff were the type of kids who adults would describe as “bouncing off the walls.” The proper number of cups of coffee versus the number of times one should bathe seemed to be reversed for them.
The way they joked with each other was so quick that you couldn’t tell if it just wasn’t funny or if you simply weren’t fast enough to get what they were talking about. It took quite a while before my stock thoughts of “what the…?” turned into an embrace of their madness.
Soon enough, Jason was off to art school in Baltimore and my doses of him began arriving in the form of hilarious and elaborately illustrated letters.
It was a comparatively slow, analog world we were living in then. Obviously it was before the future turned communication, art and music into drag-and-drop bits. Telephones were connected to the walls with wires, a mix tape took hours to assemble, and you had to wisely choose your long distance company because calling outside your city was expensive.
It was certainly long before I could type this on a train in Stockholm, Sweden, on a cassette-sized computer that can instantly play every song Jason and I ever recorded, which is also a telephone that’s connected to countless libraries of information, videos, news and commentary on any subject imaginable. At once it seems like a lifetime ago, yet as warm as last week.
Around the time Jason was coming back from college, my sister Greta shared an apartment in Deer Park with Robin Wallace. They had been high school classmates and had recently graduated into making music together in the bands Your Face and, later, Sister Shannon.
Greta and Robin were dating Joey Mudd and Jason Noble respectively. We were all friends in the same small circles. Joey was an alumnus of Cerebellum and soon a part of Crain. Jason was still bouncing off the walls.
It was on one night in this small apartment, packed with too many people, too much enthusiasm and too much caffeine that Joey berated Jason for being “about 110% loud.” This is a quote I’ll never forget when I think of Jason.
Nothing in Jason’s life ever seemed to be done with an ordinary, reasonable level of energy. Jason Noble was always at full tilt in the direction of whatever it was he was doing.
When he drew something he used way too much ink. When he laughed at a picture of a monkey dressed up as a person – like the vintage calendar of them he had hanging on the kitchen wall – he visited every ridiculous detail in the photo. When he basked in the water glass scene from Jurassic Park, his enthusiasm betrayed the fact that he could see the big picture of the entire symphony of choreography that was taking place on screen. When he finally bought a house, it was a “compound.”
Most people know Jason for his music and it was also pushed to 110%.
When he had ideas for an important song, it would become an eleven-minute episodic journey. Most songs annoy or bore me within the first minute, but Jason and his collaborators could build the kind of song that, even if you had heard it a hundred times and you were late for work, you would still sit in your car out in the parking lot to hear it until the end. (Unless, of course, you were working at ear X-tacy – as Jason and I both did for several years – in that case you could put the record on in the store.)
Louisville musicians are infamous for their loud/quiet dynamics and the precision with which they switched between the two volumes. Jason’s bands explored this relentlessly, developing it with an organic personality that humanized it from its mechanical beginnings.
Whether bombastically with Rodan, elegantly with the Rachel’s or subtly with Per Mission – when he was loud you’d wonder how one person could make so much noise and when he was quiet you’d have to strain to hear him. Regardless, Jason’s bands always made the kind of music that you wanted to hug.
By the mid-’90s, when the two of us were looking for a house together, we had actually lived together before. In a house on Bardstown Road, shared with friends and lovers, we were just shouting distance from Zetti’s and the cheese loaf they regularly sold to dirty punk rockers.
However, the new new place we were seeking would grow to be our own 24-hour canvas.
I was excited about the prospect of living with someone who understood that creativity doesn’t follow regular business hours and that working on the same few details of a project for a week is not an absurd way to live. In fact, it’s the only way to live.
Before we found the blue house on Broadway, we looked at a number of other locations. I remember looking at an apartment one cool morning in Old Louisville. When leaving and shaking hands with the real estate agent, Jason said to him, “Okay, then. I just gotta run this by my parole officer and we’ll be in touch.” Exactly what the old guy wanted to hear.
Finding a freestanding house instead of an apartment was also important because it would offer a higher limit on the noise level.
The blue house turned out to be just what we were looking for. The other rental properties we looked at didn’t have the same rustic charm (“shitty disrepair”) of the Broadway house. That was important because it was inevitable that we’d make a mess.
Within weeks of moving in, our new nest was already stretched in a web of sound cables, amplifiers, Tascam multi-track recorders, guitars, beige Macintosh computers, Zip drives and scanners with SCSI interfaces, paper samples, Pantone books, tape, staples, notebooks and Sharpies. Name a mid-’90s tool for the production of music, Super 8 film editing or graphic design and you could probably trip over it in our house.
Seemingly overnight, the first album by Jason’s new band The Shipping News, Save Everything, was being recorded in that house, as was the Generation Rx album by my band, The Metroschifter.
The Broadway house was where Jason painstakingly perfected the ink and paper combinations for the Rachel’s magical album The Sea and the Bells. Revision after revision. That’s when he introduced me to Deepdene, his go-to typeface at the time. I still think of him every time I set words into it.
Jason began work on the first Per Mission record there, while I was interviewing people for K Composite Magazine and a short film about field hockey. A second house, two doors down at 1203, eventually became the home of Initial Records, a workshop in its own right where countless other projects were launched, including a split CD by both of our bands, Metroschifter and Shipping News, and their unique aluminum covers engraved with the band names by Chris Reinstatler. Our little blue house even played a cameo role in a 1999 episode of This American Life.
AND KNITTING AND KNITTING AND KNITTING
I feel like a great deal of the energy and creativity that was born and cultivated in those four rooms was fueled from an unlikely source (no, not the full tank of unleaded that I dispensed into my girlfriend Julie’s diesel Rabbit and then had to siphon out with Jason’s help).
If Jason and I had been sent a bill for each time we viewed or quoted a movie in the house, our tab for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure would have been through the roof. All our house guests were aware that there was no basement at the Alamo, that every night was a night “just like tonight… ten years ago,” and that every movie was “Great so far! Action-packed!”
Did we have any dreams? “Yeah, I’m all alone, rolling a big donut, and this snake wearing a vest…”
That movie infected our lives, our thought processes and humor.
One day while using the restroom in our house, I burst into laughter when I unexpectedly saw some of Jason’s artwork on the toilet paper package.
The package had a typical illustration of an “adorable” baby giggling atop clouds of soft, cottony toilet tissue. Jason had scrawled in Sharpie next to the baby’s face, “I’m so happy I could just shit!”
The whole time all of this fun stuff was happening in the house, that same nasty smell was coming out of the cabinets under the kitchen sink. So after multiple attempts over a number of months to locate the source and to disinfect and deodorize this perpetual spring of stank, Jason and I ultimately determined that the best solution was containment.
Equipped with plastic packing tape, we set forth to hermetically seal the steel cabinets in an attempt to prevent any further unpleasant wafting. Our operation was successful and the scented monster was subdued.
We always feared that we had only applied a temporary solution to a permanent problem and, in fact, perhaps the cabinets could explode at some point. It was always possible that the stench could seep through again. Jason was a huge fan of Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park), so we never forgot his words, “Nature finds a way.”
Perhaps, by the day of this writing, the seal on the cabinets has been cracked. Perhaps the cabinets have even been removed completely. If either of those days has come to pass, a new homeowner or contractor has found more than just an unbearable odor inside. They found a time capsule. A very smelly time capsule.
Before sealing that reek away for someone else, Jason and I wrote a note to the next person who would breathe in its sweet goodness. We scrawled something to the effect of: sorry you had to find this, but this is what we did, and why, and the date, and our signatures. Further, we posed for a Polaroid of the operation which we also sealed inside the steel box for a later day.
Unfortunately, the last time I saw Jason was more than a year ago. I was in Louisville visiting from Sweden where I moved in 2009. We met for coffee in the sunshine of the patio at the Heine Brothers’ on Bardstown Road at Eastern Parkway. It was a crisp, bright, breezy day.
I remember him looking stronger than when I had seen him before. I remember thinking that if it were me in his place, my attitude and demeanor wouldn’t be anywhere near as positive and warm as his. But I imagine that part of Jason is what connected him to the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm, who observed in protest, “Life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territories and crashes through barriers. Painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, well… There it is.”
When you live far away from Louisville, it’s easy to believe that everything in Kentucky will be the same when you come back. It’s easy to think at least that everything will be okay.
The friends you’ve always had will always be there and the important people who make you who you are won’t disappear. You always leave everyone when you leave thinking “you will be safe.” When something dreadful does happen, you truly realize how much you’ve been missing.
Jason helped shape my ideals and my personality. In sadness, when I am tempted to think a part of me is now gone, I’m reminded of how much of myself I owe to my time with him. As long as I am here, his contributions to me will not be gone and my memories of him will be as embraceable as his music is in my ears right now.
Of course, Jason taught me about functional things that I use every day – printer’s plates, electronic pre-press, and techniques for massaging notes and silences into special little places.
But what crushes me the most are the things he showed me just by being himself. Sincerity, humility, generosity, and whatever the opposite of personal ambition is. These are things I really needed to learn. These are things you can learn only by seeing them exhibited by someone you admire and trust.
If you are as talented and recognized as Jason, it could be so easy to believe that you deserve the good fortune and opportunity that comes with that. You could expect it, take it for granted, or use it as a source of pride or validation. I never saw any hint that he entertained any of those things.
He was always excited about the opportunities and accomplishments his bands and projects were able to achieve, and he was gracious, but he seemed disinterested or even amused by recognition. He seemed like he wanted to just keep making music and share as much of that experience as possible with friends.
What’s the point in making wonderful things if you’re not sharing the experience with people you love? What’s the point in doing something serious and intense if you don’t have a common laughter in your heart with your collaborators? What’s the point in doing anything if you don’t push it as far as you possibly can to make it as wonderful and complete, as meaningful and memorable as it can possibly be?
These are some photos from the Debaser Slussen club in Stockholm where I recently saw Andrew W.K. perform his entire first album in order. It was a fantastic show and my face hurt from smiling, thought don’t suspect I’ll win any awards for photography.
One photo shows a sign on the mixing board that indicates the maximum legal concert volume in Sweden. The limit is lower for shows with younger people.
Here is an awesome Sharpie tattoo of a shark that my friend Iida drew on my arm last night.
We were at a show of the band Fucked Up, who I had never heard before. I was surprised, not just because I enjoyed them, but also because they kept my attention through their whole set.
While I was at the bar getting a drink, I took a second to snap a photo of the beer menu for you.
Swedish kronors are about 6 to one US dollar, so as you can see, the cheapest beer is about eight bucks. That’s the “fatöl” (tap beer) Carlsberg, the Danish equivalent of Miller or Bud as far as its ubiquity.
The other beers are all in bottles (“flasköl”) and a good one like Brooklyn Lager is about $10 US.
The show was at the club Debaser Slussen and their prices are pretty much the regular prices around Stockholm, give or take a couple kronors.