Interview: Al Larsen – Some Velvet Sidewalk

Some Velvet SidewalkOver the last few years I have credited many things as changing my life, even in other articles about music. From the first time I heard the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and the Velvet Underground; to seeing the works of Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, and Jackson Polluck; to my life long relationship with film: media has shaped my life. But it was one show at the end of 1996 that helped me see magic in such an intensely powerful way that only the intensity of a first crush, or first kiss, can rival. Time seemed to stand still as Al Larsen and gang passed the end of one year into the other. After playing several new songs, and a classic near and dear to my heart (Mousetrap), Some Velvet Sidewalk stopped and in Al’s usual off kilter way simply asked, “Is it 97 yet.” The do it yourself blue print in Olympia may have been written by Calvin Johnson, but it was through SVS that I saw the magic of it. Glitter was spilled on the old theater’s floor and the chaotic blend of stage presence and presence of mind came to me in a way that no other band has been able to ever give me. At a time of great cynicism and debate over what was real, my new favorite band sang about a.p.p.l.e.’s and played ferociously edgy songs with pop hooks like, “You be the cat and I’ll be the mouse!” Years later (nearly six now!) whenever someone asks me what Olympia was like when I was younger I always say magical.

This interview is comprised of email and vocal conversations between Al Larsen and Timothy Radar.

Al Larsen. I remember that show. I had this little sermon-type thing prepared in which I was going to talk about the riot girl idea and how it started (at least in my sermon) with a couple of young gals working at Little Richard’s restaurant on 5th and insisting that there be more to the world. Anyway my sermon got derailed when I said “up north” and pointed East (I was pointing toward the freeway entrance – duh) and people started correcting me and then I just canned it.

Timothy Radar. Music has always seemed to be one of the most direct forms of communication because it works on a lyrical and auditory level. Music has the ability to speak to someone in more then one way. Recently I read John Berger’s The Shape Of A Pocket, which talks about a pocket of resistance being anytime two or more people come together in agreement. It seems that with music and live shows especially you have the artist, the audience, and the music coming together in a pocket. Despite, or even because of, what is going on in the outside world.

Al Larsen. The communication of music takes place on a really abstract level. There can be less abstract political elements to it – the lyrics of Jean Smith or Woody Guthrie or Gary Floyd for example. If you’re performing live you’re only partly dealing with music, that is, organized sound vibrations, more importantly you’re dealing with time and space like a theater or dance performance or political rally or sporting event.

Timothy Radar. Is this different then other art forms? Or is there some kind of intersection?

Al Larsen. There’s this thing I read and it made a lot of sense. There are different levels of fluidity and stability in our world with… Things like fashion, pop music, the arts being among the most fluid and least stable, and say government being toward the other end, and nature and geography being toward the most stable. I read this in The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart (Stuart?) Brand; which is an interesting book, but also somewhat annoying. The fashion world attempts a sea-change every season. Fashion or pop music is very good at exploring lots and lots of possibilities – some are dead-ends (plastic pants?) some make more sense. Ideas can get safely tried out in the non-critical world of fashion, pop music, pop culture etc., the viable ideas can then be integrated into the next rung up the hierarchy of stability…. I don’t know, the next rung might be the general world of commerce. The idea in the book being that YOU DON’T WANT rapid change at the higher levels (a new government every season?) you want those things to be relatively stable and to change more slowly.

Timothy Radar. With S.V.S. you went from very small to very large during the life span of the band, now you seem to be operating on a very small scale again.

Al Larsen. When I started doing fanzines and music and whatnot, my friends and I made photocopied fanzines and self-released cassettes of our music. At that time CDs and computers were both very exotic and I never imagined I would ever have much truck with either. We wanted to make phonograph “vinyl” records, of course. The important thing, looking back, is that we didn’t let the “unavailability” of record pressing stop us from sharing and distributing our music. At one time I was given the opportunity to record at the Music Source with Steve Fisk and put out an lp that was somewhat advertised and sent to reviewers and radio stations and all that – an ambitiously-promoted indie release. Now I’m back to self-releasing and I was looking at it as a continuum of taking whatever opportunity there is to keep making music, artwork.

Timothy Radar. There is a great of talk in “modern academia” about emergent systems, but these talks usually end up talking about mass communication, the internet, software, ect. It seems to me that d.i.y. music and culture could be a system of emergence. For the longest time there is this idea that one great artist, or set of artists are so tapped into the world that through them they end up “telling the world”. I think shifts in art and social movements just happen because of the climate of the area, they are happenstance. They need an impetus to come about, but they will pretty much out of necessity. The original punks didn’t come up with something totally unique and spread the word from one point to another, a common idea and trend was manifesting world wide, and communication helped expedite the process.

Al Larsen. In underground music culture there came this time when hundred or maybe thousands of individuals were recording in their homes or wherever, creating their music either by themselves or with loose groups of helpers. Several years later this idea is coming to the surface in the larger culture. People should see themselves not as long-term employees of an organization, but rather as independent agents thrown together into teams for the completion of projects. So, this idea of the PROJECT taking precendence over the ORGANIZATION was explored first in a sandbox sort of way in underground popular culture. Which isn’t to say that the four-trackers invented this idea, but I suppose they were responding to some of the same sorts of forces – technological, economic, cultural, hmm… spiritual? – that drove the business world there,

Timothy Radar. Steven Johnson wrote this book on emergence called, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software where he compaired the inner workings and advances of ants to that of humanity. In an interview he boiled down his argument on emergence by talking about ants and a decentralized consciousness. Despite the fact that we talk about queen ants, the ant colony doesn’t actually have a leader in any traditional sense. This decentralized system relies on random encounters between the ants. The colony solves all its global problems through micro, local interactions. The movement from those low-level interactions to the higher level intelligence is a system of emergence. It seems to me that this is exactly the same how we live in the post-industrial society.

Al Larsen.We are told this story and tell each other this story about the great transcendent artist who changes perception. I can think of a couple of really clear cases in our shared music culture where this is the story but not the reality … the great artist was a product of a community, what made them great was that they succesfully took the insights of the community to the larger world. Examples from our shared musical culture being for instance Fugazi who when they came out it seemed like such a revelation – eight-beats, loud/quiet, a dub approach to punk, a layered vocal. When I started to see that Fugazi were a product of Rain, the Bad Brains, Happy Go Licky/Rites of Spring it really changed this perception for me. They created their style within a community of people exploring these ideas. Same with Beat Happening with the antecedent being Supreme Cool Beings (and others). Something hits the larger world and when it resonates — Fugazi, White Stripes, the perception is – OK this is what the idea is, but instead it’s one subset of a mass of connected ideas and approaches that are being explored by that community.

Timothy Radar. Then that community is a pocket of resistance.

This interview was conducted over a period of time with Al Larsen of the Olympia band Some Velvet Sidewalk. You can see his amazing works of music and art at wwww.propertyistheft.com.

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