Create, Destroy, Repeat:
Deconstruction and Participatory Fan Culture With The Avalanches’ Since I Left You
The electronic group The Avalanches’ landmark debut album, Since I Left You (2000), is a remarkable artifact of remix and sample culture. Their music combines a hip-hop and electronic dance music feel with a playful mentality for deconstruction. The album, composed as a pastiche of an estimated 3,500 individual samples, acts as something of a tribute to collective ownership and post-structural thought (Pytlik). The album, composed of many parts from already–recorded and distributed music, is part of a folk cultural system of consumption, deconstruction and production that involves the collective participation of many people.
Take, for example, the lead title track: here. This song is composed from seven main samples which form the backbone of the song, taking samples and loops of varying length from such diverse artists as The Main Attraction, Tony Mottola, Rose Royce, The Duprees, Lamont Dozier, and Klaus Wunderlich, not to mention a host of other small snippets of sound sampled from sources that are not mentioned in the album’s liner notes (“Since I Left You”). These samples were obtained by taking snippets of sound from vinyl records, rearranging them, mixing and modulating them and creating layers of sound using the recorded samples through the use of digital samplers and audio sequencers. This technology allows them to deconstruct these songs and rearrange and recontextualize them, combining them with other recorded material and putting them into a hip-hop/electronic context alongside big house beats. Their playful deconstruction along with this advanced audio processing technology and editing expertise allows them to have as much freedom in creating sounds and moods from already–recorded material as a band writing, playing and recording their own music.
Henry Jenkins asserts that “in a folk culture, there is no clear division between producers and consumers” (Jenkins). Since I Left You is a wonderful example of folk culture in action. The members of the group are themselves consumers, purchasing a large amount of vinyl records and listening to them in depth, but their purpose is not simply to consume and be entertained. Instead, they turn around and use this material as an aural palette to create their own work, which in turn becomes available for consumption, and itself can be deconstructed and used for production.
In a fan-intiated effort, there are several videos on YouTube that take the songs from Since I Left You that turn around and deconstruct them. Most prominently on YouTube are a series of videos created by user Rickydown. In this video, Rickydown breaks down the aforementioned “Since I Left You.” In the video, Rickydown presents a picture of Since I Left You‘s album cover along with his/her own title for the part of the song that he is recontextualizing. Following this is the original song that The Avalanches cut their sample from along with a picture of the cover of the album that the song is from. This is an interesting deconstruction of The Avalanches’ songs, which are themselves composed of deconstructed and recontextualized pieces of other songs. Here, The Avalanches find themselves as the targets of the very sample and remix culture that their musical project was born from.
Rickydown’s collection of nine such videos which cover the entirety of Since I Left You are an example of participatory fan culture. Rickydown creates and shares these videos out of his/her love for The Avalanches’ music, in order to foster a greater appreciation of the works. Being a part of this culture, and being something of a remix/sample artist him or herself, Rickydown gets further enjoyment from the music by breaking down the songs from the whole into its different parts, much in the same way that The Avalanches exhibited their love of music by diving through stacks of records, deconstructing them and rebuilding them in their own way. Rickydown claims a sort of ownership over the material and reattributes it to the original artist that created the sounds that this album was built off of. Again, this is similar to The Avalanches’ action of taking ownership of the samples they cut and creating an album from them.
Rickydown, however, is not alone in this effort. Many YouTube users help in locating the sources of the samples in the album. In several videos, Rickydown explicitly asks for help from the YouTube community in identifying or confirming a specific sample. In the comments section on the pages containing Rickydown’s videos, other users make comments saying if they found other sample sources for the song, or requesting a specific sound or loop to be located by more savvy users. This demonstrates that there are groups of people who not only enjoy deconstructing these videos, perhaps interested in the techniques used in the creation of the albums in a technical sense, but there are non-technical listeners who are merely curious. Far from thievery on the part of The Avalanches or these YouTube users, these activities demonstrate an interest in seeking out music that has essentially been lost from mainstream culture, or perhaps was never really part of it. Here we see folk culture in action, as the appreciation for the source material that makes up the album is extended to fans who are willing to make the effort to look for the videos and lists that reveal the source material that the album utilizes.
But these pet projects would not go very far and would not have much cultural impact were it not for the social networking system that the internet provides. In the case of the videos created by Rickydown, YouTube.com provided a convenient virtual location where many fans, who are already a part of this large social media network, could easily find each other and the projects that were already started. These different people could certainly have started individual projects on their personal computers, digging up the bands’ albums that The Avalanches mentioned in their liner notes as having sampled and locating the sample sources, but YouTube allowed them to jump in to a project already in place and pool their knowledge to advance the project and at the same time ensure that it would reach a larger audience, through YouTube, than it would had these individuals just struck out on their own.
In a digital world, everything becomes democratized. The production qualities of readily available software, as well having access to a large library of music and sound, allow artists and fans to easily manipulate other materials. And the dissemination potential of the internet ensures that everything gets shared even faster than it was created. Early analog processes of sampling and creating sound collage were time- and labor-intensive, involving technical expertise and unwieldy, expensive equipment, and the results were not nearly as polished as digital works are. With the internet and digital tools, people have access to much more source material to manipulate, can more easily craft new works from them, and can quickly and easily share their work to be recycled again by others. Digital technology essentially democratizes the entire process, making sampling an artistic process for anyone and everyone instead of a privileged few who have the technical know-how and the financial backing and access to a recording studio and equipment to do so. Digital technology is contemporary folk culture’s greatest weapon against a constricting structure of laws protecting and elongating copyright and intellectual property (Keller).
It is digital technology that makes a folk cultural piece like Since I Left You possible. In a digital world, the lines between author and reader, producer and consumer, become blurred. Digital technologies afford people the ability to engage with texts in entirely new ways. Namely, by means of producing new texts. Sample and remix culture has formed around the idea that cultural texts that are produced and distributed are not at the end of the creation process. With the freedoms afforded by a digital, networked culture, consumers enter a conversation with the text in a more active way than they were able to previously. No longer does engagement with a text simply mean having a deep discussion about what a text is saying, doing, or what it means. Engagement with a text means getting involved with the creation of more texts, creating a dialogue between artist and consumer, with the consumer becoming an artist in his own right. Rickydown’s videos help to exemplify, through fan participation, the pastiche nature of The Avalanches’ music and reconnect it with its musical roots, but The Avalanches do a pretty good job of telling that story themselves.
As Lauri Väkevä asserts in his essay “Garage Band or Garageband®? Remixing Musical Features:”
As digital technology has brought the mixing practices to everybody’s reach and offered a global distribution and exchange network for new mixes, we can truly speak of musical works as emergent communal processes. In these processes what was originally ‘a mix’ becomes material for new creative ways of projecting oneself in artistic-technological space. This shifts the aesthetic focus from products to processes, from individual expression to communication (61).
The Avalanches’ use of various other musical works in order to create their own album is a wonderful example of this “shift from products to processes.” They use the other songs as a launching point for their own project, deconstructing and recontextualizing other songs as an elongation of the creative process involved in the cultural consumption of these texts. The Avalanches are just as much consumer-participators as Rickydown and other Youtube deconstructionists are.
In the video for The Avalanches’ single “Frontier Psychiatrist,” seen here, different actors portray the different samples that the group used to compose the song. “Frontier Psychiatrist” is made up mainly of a drum loop and horn and string samples. These form the musical basis over which the other elements play. These other elements are vocal samples from Wayne & Shuster, John Waters, Flip Wilson, and the films Polyester and The ‘Burbs (Avalanches). Originally, these vocal snippets were parts of completely different compositions. They were part of comedy routines, or movies, and they made up the dialogue that carried the narrative along. Many of the samples were taken from radio shows or comedy routines, which are completely dependent on dialogue to tell their narrative. What “Frontier Psychiatrist” does is take these elements out of their original contexts and juxtaposes them with one another to create an entirely new narrative. “Frontier Psychiatrist” uses this juxtaposition in a humorous way, and the narrative isn’t very clear, though. The song starts with a woman’s conversation with a man. The woman’s son, Dexter, is being expelled from school and declared criminally insane. There are then cuts of different psychiatric talk, mainly about a person being insane or “crazy in the coconut,” this person ostensibly being Dexter. The narrative is filled with non-sequiturs as well, with other voices declaring that they’re going to kill someone else, somebody is making false teeth, people are complaining about midgets, cowboys and indians, there’s a “man with the golden eyeball,” someone else wants to hear a tune, one man promises to buy his girlfriend a violin, and there is a horse somewhere in the picture that won’t stop whinnying. The whole thing ends with a conversation between a woman and a young girl, seemingly in a classroom setting, talking about things other than people that “talk.” Everything is very juxtaposed and cut together in such a way that creates an effect of confusion in a narrative sense, but uses this confusion for musical as well as humorous effect.
The video, on the other hand, creates a definite narrative, although the narrative that is in the song is still a bit confusing. The narrative told is not a denotated one, depicting a straight story or narrative. Instead, the narrative that is told in the video is about the song itself, and furthermore, about the actual creation of the song. The video contains actors portraying the different sample sources and playing them out when the song gets to the sample that those actors represent. There are cowboys, psychiatrists, a horse, a ghostly chorus, a german horn section complete with liederhosen, a skeleton with a golden eyeball, violinists, pretty much anything that is referred to in the vocal samples that the song is comprised of. The sounds become images, which tell the story of how the sounds came to be put together, creating a circle of wedded media forms (Jordan).
The different actors in these individual scenes that the camera cuts to imaginatively recreate the scene that was connotated by the vocal sample. So there are scenes being depicted such as two psychiatrists having a debate about whether a problem is psychosomatic or if therapy is needed, there is a standoff between two cowboys, and a classroom setting with a teacher, a young girl, and a giant parrot, among others. These scenes refer back to the original sources of the samples that these vocals were taken from. What the camera’s movement does is create a sense of unity, showing all the different parts moving and speaking in time with the music, and also show the disparity between the different sources, since the different characters look like they are pulled from different stories entirely (which, of course, they are).
The music video, with its stylistic and technological combination of audio and visual elements, essentially creates a transmedia narrative of how this song was created. The audio track of the song that we are hearing is the product that The Avalanches created, and the different scenes and characters represent the original sources, products or texts that were created by other people. The actors are dressed up and act in a certain way that is representative of their source. Taken individually, these different characters seemingly have nothing to do with one another, and the video gets its humor by showing the disjointedness of the characters. What the video’s narrative, along with the song playing throughout, does is unify all these different parts, each character jumping in and playing out their own little part in time with the music, visually depicting the source of the sample (in a Barthesian connotative manner) at the same time we are hearing it as it was recontextualized, signifying the creation of the song as it was actually done. This ragtag bunch forms an orchestra of uprooted characters, stories and dialogues that, amazingly, are all tied together in this song. This essentially tells the narrative of the creation of the song itself. The Avalanches took these different parts from different source materials and cut, pasted, mixed and modulated them to create their work.
Evident throughout this entire narrative is the idea of play, of interactivity with different texts.
When the giant record rolls out onto the stage towards the end of the video, it is representing several different things. First, it is representing a material object. The vinyl record is first and foremost a product to be purchased and then listened to by the consumer. Its second representation is that of a cultural text or product. The vinyl record contains music, which is itself a manifestation of culture, tradition and art. Its third representation is that of the source. When The Avalanches went about obtaining the samples that they were to use to create Since I Left You, they ripped the samples from vinyl records. It seems, from the diversity of their sample library, that instead of picking through crates of records for choice records, they simply purchased an entire record store. The creation of songs like “Frontier Psychiatrist” shows that The Avalanches were not interested in records for only the purpose of listening, which is what they are intended for. The Avalanches sought out these materials with the specific purpose of deconstructing them and recontextualizing them into a musical creation of their own. Väkevä writes:
In the 1970s it might have been appropriate to think of popular music’s artistry culminating in such albums as Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (1975), authorized mixes that stand as types to their tokens, the copies made of these mixes (Gracyk, 1996, p. 21). However, one may ask whether this really helps us to understand today’s networked popular music culture that seems to be more and more influenced by freewheeling exchange and copying of musical parts, assembling an extensive ‘plagiarism mosaic’ based on continuous remixing (Lethem, 2008, p. 25) (60).
It is precisely this “networked popular music culture” that makes such an album as Since I Left You possible. It fosters this idea of sharing materials freely, of borrowing, copying, lending, ripping and sampling. Remix culture is one that is born from digitality. Digital audio hardware and software makes the recording and ripping processes of sample-based music much easier and faster. The same technology makes it possible to take these different parts and make a composition from them. Although this is technically possible with analogue technology, it would not be nearly as fluid, as complex or, to put it simply, as good. More importantly, using analogue technology to create sample-based music would require a great deal of technical and musical expertise. Digital technology, by making the process much easier, opens up the practice to a much larger community, which encourages the sharing mentality that sample and remix culture is based in.
What does this all mean, then? Sampling culture in music is representative of digital culture as a whole. As modern society becomes further and further ingrained in digital culture, and as our use of technology changes the way we think and the ways in which we participate in and process culture, this becomes more relevant. Sampling culture is both the easiest way to make explicit the major forces at work in our culture today and one of the most in-depth. In this examination of a single album, we can see at work government law, major media production, copyright infringement and artistic play, digital tools and media, and participatory fan culture. If convergence culture is indeed becoming the norm, then surely music is on the front lines of the battle between evolving culture and the forces that impede its progress (copyright and intellectual property). With new technology comes cultural change, and if there is no avoiding this, then there is no sense in trying to stop it. Sampling culture advocates active participation over passive, to let everyone with access to these materials step forward and become a contributor. It may be a bit utopian to believe that anyone and everyone can and should participate in creating art, but surely it is advantageous to our society to allow more access and participation than less. If everything is accessible and prone to manipulation, then everything is all up in the air, but that’s the way sample culture likes it, and that’s the way convergence culture is leaning.
Since I Left You is a testament to sample culture, and further, to digital culture as a whole. A text’s story no longer ends when it is first published. Scholars, lovers of books and intellectuals have always looked at books and material pieces of literature as having their own story, telling tales of the creation of the text, its distribution, cultural context, and the various owners that had it before as it changed hands throughout the years. For many, digital culture represents the death of this extended lifespan and the championing of ephemeralism. What The Avalanches, and other remix artists, show is that no text ever truly dies. Even in the digital age, these texts survive, and with more vibrancy than ever before. Texts are given new life as they are recontextualized, transformed, and built upon. Their stories don’t end with their material form; digital culture simply is introducing new ways of continuing their lifespan, through the creation of new texts. Digital culture is not completely ephemeral; it is building upon our culture that is already in place, and more people than ever before are getting involved in the conversation. Sample culture is the post-modern world of popular culture blissfully aware of itself. It is more than stealing or plundering; it is conscious cryptomnesia, and it argues that that is good, that it builds upon culture. In a culture based around the idea of sharing, ideas of individual ownership are thrown out the window, personal claims toward genius and financial success foregone for the advancement of culture and artistic expression.
This album and the various efforts made by fans to actively participate in The Avalanches’ game of production and consumption are really just a few examples of the larger world of sample and remix culture. The combination of a large library of cultural products, access to and expertise in advanced technology, and a social networking system that allows the communication and coordination of a large group of people allows a unique folk culture of people who actively participate in the consumption/production cycle. The fact that albums like Since I Left You exist encourages a system of fan participation where consumers don’t just see cultural products as things to be passively enjoyed but as a source material or a jumping-off point to their own production; cultural products are now things to be borrowed, cut and chopped, remixed, deconstructed and recontextualized. Appreciation now goes further than thinking deeply about a music piece, perhaps smoking a pipe and pontificating on the genius use of unconventional time signatures and unique chord changes. Appreciation now means exploring, taking apart, and building back up again, creating new connections that we did not see when we first listened to the album. It means looking at a piece and thinking “What can I do with this?” We now live in a world where an Xavier Cugat composition can be turned into a certified club banger, and that’s one that I’m glad to be a part of.
“Avalanches, The – Since I Left You.” Discogs.com. March 1, 2011. Web.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Jordan, Ken. “Stop. Hey. What’s That Sound?” Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Ed. Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. 245-264.
Keller, Daphne. “The Musician as Thief: Digital Culture and Copyright Law.” Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Ed. Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. 245-264.
Pytlik, Mark. “The Avalanches.” Sound on Sound. November, 2002. March 1, 2011. Web.
The Avalanches. “Since I Left You. Since I Left You. Modular Recordings, 2000.
Väkevä, Lauri. “Garage Band or Garageband®? Remixing Musical Features.” British Journal of Music Education. 27.1 (2010): 59 – 70.